In Brendan Muldowney’s latest film, Pilgrimage, a group of monks in 13th century Ireland must escort a sacred relic across an Irish landscape fraught with peril.
Paul Farren met up with Brendan and writer Jamie Hannigan in search of moral and spiritual significance.
Please note this interview contains spoilers
Paul Farren: Jamie, if I can start with you as the writer. What was the inspiration for this?
Jamie Hannigan: I wrote up this idea for the old Filmbase/RTÉ short film scheme Lasair. I got shortlisted but didn’t get in. So then I thought I could do it as a movie. I’d been watching a lot of Werner Herzog movies and I was chatting to Conor Barry [producer] about this idea of a bunch of monks dragging something of value to them, but not necessarily of a value – literally a rock. He got interested and told me to write it up. I did. Gave it to Brendan. He gave me feedback on the treatment and that became larger. Then we submitted it to the Irish Film Board, who liked it and agreed to get on board. And then Brendan came on officially to direct a draft or two after that… was it?
Brendan Muldowney: I can’t remember the exact stage. But I remember thinking that, at that early stage, it was too big a job for me to come on. But I know I wanted to be a part.
Jamie: Unofficially, you were in the wings.
Paul: So what was it that held you to the script that you wanted to continue developing? I presume you were hooked from that first draft.
Brendan: I was hooked way before. I remember meeting in the IFI and Jamie pitched it to me and, at that stage, it was a very basic idea of monks dragging something across the country… and I think you mentioned an ambush. It was quite vague – well you probably had more than you were telling me.
Jamie Hannigan: No. It was quite vague!
Brendan: So it’s strange Paul, imagine someone pitched that to you – Right, I have Monks, 13th century, travelling through Ireland, dragging something, and you just imagine mud and trees and then there’s an ambush and there’s action. Obviously, it could have turned out bad, the story mightn’t have had legs… but it was that setting that got me.
After that it was about getting the story right, making sure that was working. My memory is that it was a pleasant enough development process. There was a treatment that was good. We brought it into the Film Board and it went into development. I remember reading the first draft on a train with Conor Barry and I really thought it was brilliant and saying to him “this is the one”. I knew it was was going to be big. At that stage, we’d just made Savage. I knew it was bigger than we were. Our profile wasn’t big enough. But, you know, films take a long time to develop so we just kept going with it.
Paul: Let’s talk about the film and its themes and ideas. To me, there’s definitely very overt political ideas running through it – it’s not just religiously themed. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-religious but it has an opinion. It doesn’t try and push an agenda, it just presents something. And, of course, we’re coming with our own contemporary attitudes. One thing I really liked was the sense of innocence of these Monks, who were suddenly being pulled into a political situation, where there’re lives being lost left, right and centre, because of other people’s agendas. And all down to this holy relic / rock that has got amazing political power.
Brendan: It’s not beating you over the head with it. Everyone can take their own interpretations. And I think we tried to do that – even in the script not just in the making of the film; that these people ascribe meaning to maybe natural events and to the rock. These are major spoilers now but what I really loved was that there was so much carnage created over what could be just a rock. That to me is what I loved about it to be honest. That appeals to me because that is the way I view the world and religion.
Paul: And the script Jamie…
Jamie: In general, with me anyway, it tends to be that you have an idea and you have lots of things float around. You need 5 or 6 ideas that all sort of work and seem interesting. It could be a character, a plot twist, a setting, a theme – at some point these ideas are bubbling around and they come together.
Paul: You shot the film in Ireland and Belgium. How did that work out for matching exteriors?
Brendan: It worked out well. You know there’s a rule that wherever your unit base is, there’s a radius then that you can’t shoot outside of.
Paul: Principle – that rule… you don’t have enough money!
Brendan: Yeh! – not even that though, it’s an agreement with the union so that people don’t have to travel too far.
Jamie: A 50 km radius.
Brendan: Exactly. So, when we found somewhere on the coast where we would shoot – in Leenane on the Mayo-Galway border – you take a radius out of there and our problem was that we only had mountains and coast. We were quite lucky because we did find this big green open area where the Norman camp is, Boycott’s Estate, so we were able to get just enough greenery. But there was no real forest that would suit. So it worked out really well that we had to shoot some of it in Belgium, which is really well known for its forests.
Jamie: In my head writing it, I was thinking of all these locations all around Ireland. That bit would be Killarney. That bit would be West Cork. That would be the Midlands, etc. But getting into the location scout plus this rule meant that Belgium worked out well for us.
Paul: The performances all round were brilliant.You have Diarmuid played by some bloke called Tom Holland. He’s the linchpin of the whole story – we’re kind of sitting on his shoulders looking at the values of everybody else.
Jamie: He’s a blank slate.
Paul: And you’ve got Jon Bernthal, playing The Mute. He’s a really strong presence, an interesting actor. He’s kind of bubbling under the surface for the entire film. We never really get to know his full agenda. But he can look after himself… You had varying types of actors in there. Little bit of method and some not so. Tom wouldn’t be as much a method actor as Jon.
Brendan: Jon may have started off in a somewhat method manner by going silent for a week or so but then he came out of that.
Paul: You couldn’t shut him up!
Brendan: Yeh. That was his joke… “Then they wished I was silent!” It’s interesting because he had learned what he needed to do from that silence and when he needed to he would go back into that place. He had a big influence on everyone. And you say Holland is not coming from a method background but he took it very seriously and they all would get into the scenes and were willing to go to places that me and the AD would think was too dangerous. We were constantly pulling them back from things.
Paul: Which is important, coz you need them for the whole shoot! And Tom did a great stab at the old Irish.
Jamie: He was coming from a shoot from somewhere in Northern Canada. He came 2 weeks in advance, to start prepping for Irish. I wrote his Irish dialogue out phonetically and he had a great dialogue coach working with him in Paedair Cox and later Diarmuid de Faoite, who also plays The Captain.
Paul: Was it a tough sell working in 3 languages?
Brendan: 4 if you take Latin in there as well, alongside French, Irish and English.
Paul: Was there a pressure ever put on to have it in English?
Brendan: Well, some scenes were changed so that there was a certain percentage of English – 70 per cent. I don’t think it ended up as that… but that’s what was asked for. And that was in the script. But with scenes being cut in the edit, I’m not sure of the final percentage.
Paul: And what were the biggest challenges on set.
Brendan: I’ll tell you that horses are really difficult to deal with.
Paul: They’re such premaddonas…
Brendan: Yeh. They don’t do what they are supposed to do. What else… working in the water – very slow. Working with mist.
Paul: I do love that scene though when they are chasing them into the fog.
Brendan: You see, when it’s written as “the fog is so thick that you cannot see”, you need a lot of mist and it’s quite hard, even with big machines.
Paul: Was there any post work done on that?
Brendan: No, we couldn’t afford it. I would have liked it a little thicker.
Paul: What’s it like for you Jamie? You’re the one writing all these things and causing Brendan all these headaches. What’s it like to see it all made into a film.
Jamie: Interesting… I’m thinking in terms of what they were written as and imagined as and then how the crashing realities of production kick in.
Brendan: A lot of small details get lost.
Jamie: Like the lightening-strike scene – originally, that was written as a storm scene, lots of rain, mountains paths, horses and mud… things getting stuck, guys wading through mud. It was very messy.
Brendan: And we were told it can’t be done – no mud! We couldn’t even get the tankers to do rain up the path or, if we could, getting them refilled was just impossible. There’s many examples of things of things like that. It was incredibly sunny that day as well. Anything we did there was grading – all the clouds in the sky, etc., so now we’re suggesting a coming storm rather than being in a storm.
We would have needed a huge budget to execute some of the things that were in the script. Like the bridge breaking and the wheel coming down, or the scene with the archer following them- that was written with quicksand.
Jamie: That was one of those location ideas where I was thinking of places in the Midlands – and like I said we weren’t able to shoot outside that 50 km radius. It was done with lake-land in the end.
Paul: Well, it looks great. Which brings us to the cinematography – Tom Comerford. You were saying before that you did multiple camera for this film.
Brendan: Tom is great. We had 2 cameras for all the action – at the end on the beach and the ambush. It’s obviously better to have control over the shots but it’s about the coverage. I’ve learned in the edit how more important it is to have the coverage than having it perfect. I don’t think in the time we had to shoot everything – 3 days for the ambush – that we would have had enough coverage, without the second piece of footage. There was no other way.
Paul: How much prep goes into those scenes – so that no-one gets killed!
Brendan: A lot. I started months beforehand breaking down each beat in that ambush. I would have taken Jamie’s script and broken it into lines first; so at least I know beats. Then I would have isolated anything that I thought needed special attention, whether it was special effects, visual effects, stunt work, prosthetics, make up and other stuff. It’s a long process. You have to have big round-table meetings with the departments all at the table.
Even beforehand, the preparation and the planning of all this is intense. Also it’s in 2 different countries and the same things happen. Everyone sits round and I’d have broken down any piece of action and we’d discuss it and see who could do what. It was complicated. I would talk to Jamie the whole time as well and would rewrite and number every piece of action.
Jamie: That ambush scene was much bigger in the early stages. That sort of style you want to keep a rhythm going that you’re implying action, you want to tell a story through it. But it was a lot more vague – like ‘the men attack’ ‘blood in the air’. Then that got a little smaller and you were saying we don’t have enough of a budget to show wide scenes like the Braveheart thing where all the guys clash into each other, so lets focus on the small, nasty little details of a guy getting strangled or a guy getting his arm chopped off. There’s something very visceral about that – and with sound effects over that you can feel the story by seeing these smaller gruesome, intimate details.
Paul: And it’s probably closer to the reality. I don’t think they were hanging around in their thousands and kicking each others’ arses back then anyway.
Brendan: And we felt it would be a bit messier – chopping an arm off might take a while rather than it coming clean off.
Paul: And on that image we’ll leave it. Thanks for coming in to talk to us.
Pilgrimage is currently in cinemas