It’s easy to forget that after one has overcome any nerves involved in making their debut feature after production’s wrapped, there’s a whole new set that arrives when unveiling the film to the world as Nick Rowland was experiencing when he sat down to talk about “Calm with Horses” only hours before it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
“When you have no experience, you have an idea of how you might do things. But really deep down you have massive imposter syndrome and you just kind of cross your fingers and do as much preparation as you can and just see where you go,” says Rowland. “But you need to try and surround yourself with good actors, a good crew, and a good story and then it’s just see what people think of it.”
If Rowland had anything to be concerned about, he doesn’t let on in the film he actually made, a thriller set in an Irish seaside village that carries a swagger in line with its lead character Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), a former bare-knuckle brawler who falls into the employ of a crime family as their muscle in order to support his own. Time is of the essence since his estranged wife Ursula (Niamh Algar) sees an opportunity to move to Rochester where their autistic son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) can attend a special school and while Arm surely would like to move on with them, he is beholden to running on jobs with his short-fused partner Dympna (Barry Keoghan) and already having little sense of who he is outside the ring, can’t imagine himself living away from the hardscrabble town he grew up in.
Based on an entry in Colin Barrett’s collection of short stories “Young Skins” that stuck with Rowland since college, “Calm with Horses” is similarly impressive in following Arm around as he starts to see the place he’s called home in an entirely new light, coming to question his life – not necessarily the moral implications of his work, but the sustainability of it – and realizing of all the punches he’s taken, he may never recover from the one he never saw coming over time. A graceful world-weary performance from Jarvis pairs well with the frenetic energy coming off of Keoghan and while there’s little doubt the town where Arm and Dympna make their rounds is dying, Rowland livens things up with evocative imagery of how the world has left the place behind, an innovative use of sound to let the audience inside Arm’s thinking, and of course, criminal activities that may ultimately have relatively low stakes but are made to feel as if they have life or death implications – and sometimes they actually do.
Following its world premiere in Toronto, “Calm with Horses” is making its debut across the Atlantic at the London Film Festival and in the midst of a busy fall, Rowland reflected on making his first feature, the challenges of working with kids and car chases and the online quiz that changed the course of his life.
What stuck with you about this story?
It’s based on a short story by Colin Barrett and I was at film school at the time, so this must be 2014 or 2015, and because I was making short films, I was reading just as many short stories as I could just to get the creative juices flowing, and this story really stuck with me. The characters felt really rich, and the tone was interesting, and I was fascinated by this character that was on one side so cold and brutal, but had such a tender relationship with his son and that contrast I thought was fascinating.
I understand actually cracking this character of Arm cinematically was a challenge since it’s most internal. Was there something that broke the dam?
The challenge, especially from the original story is, he was a character that didn’t have a huge amount of agency, and he’s not very good at articulating himself, so we had to use all these other things to make you connect with this story. He doesn’t really want anything, so we had to give him something to be striving for and we developed the idea of his ex-girlfriend Ursula and his son wanting to move away, to kind of give him a reason to start questioning his lifestyle whereas in the original story, the scenes with his son and with Ursula, they’re more vignettes, little glimpses of this other life he used to have, so we tried to raise that and make that more prominent in the film.
What sold you on Cosmo to play him?
On the page, Arm is quite an unsympathetic character. He does very brutal things and he doesn’t have much emotion when he’s doing these things. He makes lots of bad decisions and it’s important that the audience still care for him. Cosmo just really understood the spine of what the character was. and I remember that his first audition, he came in and although he got much bigger for the film, he still naturally has the thick neck and the physicality that was required, but he was so vulnerable. He was shaking like a leaf. So he wasn’t playing Arm like an alpha male. He was playing Arm as someone who is damaged and was being taken advantage of. And at the time, I was very keen to cast an Irish actor because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Obviously Cosmo’s from England, but he understood the character so well and we thought everything else will fit, so with hard work, it will all be fine. And I’ve never worked with someone who’s put so much hard work into a role as Cosmo. He was great.
You mention Ireland, but you come up with this place that’s slightly hard to place either geographically or chronologically. How did you figure out the setting?
In the original script, there are lots of scenes always driving around in their car, or they’d be in living rooms, so when suddenly we got to the West of Ireland and we found this town Kilkee, which is beautiful, honestly, we’d just see, for example, these derelict trains in the middle of a swamp, so we were just like, “That’s so cool. What scene can we put here?” It was just trying to make [things] as cinematic as you can, but in a world where you don’t have a lot of money and you don’t have a lot of time, it’s just how can we make it feel distinctive. And I grew up partly in a small seaside town, so I tried to bring a little bit of my memories from that into the film.
One of the exciting elements of the film is how you get inside a scene – you move around with the camera and really immerse the audience in what the character is going through. How did you want to approach it?
You’re with Arm the whole time, so there’s a very singular point of view to the film, and that rule occasionally gets broken a few times, but mainly we’re way experiencing things as Arm does and that dictated a lot about where we put the camera, or what the style of the scene was. It was always about how is Arm feeling right now? For example, there’s a scene in a nightclub where he drifts out of the conversation a little bit as he’s having this realization, and there was always the emotion driving the camera. Also, [with] the sound design, we tried to make it very subjective and have the music always articulating what’s going on in his head at the moment because he doesn’t talk that much.
An electronic artist called Blanck Mass did the soundtrack and we just had such a great time. This is his first score that he’s done for a film, and we had this idea [where] that whole sequence in the club that’s diegetic sound that’s actually playing in the club, but we also wanted the track to change depending on how Arm was feeling in the scene, so there’s a few moments like that where he sees Ursula in the club, and we created a motif that then carries through and reoccurs at other points in the film. We looked at older movies where you just have a a recurring theme coming the whole time and we would create a theme for all the different characters, or different moments in the story, and then we would bring them in at other times to create an emotional link between that moment and an old moment, or between characters, or an action that a character [does], so we remember the last time we heard that, and we emotionally connect the two scenes together, and we would use the music to highlight where [Arm’s] under pressure, or where he’s in any emotional state, to play with that. That was a lot of fun.
You had a week of rehearsals before shooting. Was there anything you picked up in that time that you could incorporate into the film?
Sometimes it’s fun to not necessarily rehearse the actual scenes of the film, but to improvise scenes where you’re just creating memories for the characters, or establishing the relationship between them. Jack, the five-year-old son [of Arm], is played by an amazing young Irish boy called Kiljan [Morony], and a lot of the rehearsal was about building up his relationship with Cosmo and Niamh [Algar, who plays Ursula], because obviously some scenes are potentially, very sensitive and can be distressing if he was uncomfortable. So it was about allowing them to become a real family in a way, and for them to be comfortable with each other. [Kiljan] wasn’t an actor, so he had to learn that whatever we were doing was safe and [even if] it was make-believe, we were always searching for truth. He was a revelation, and I was so worried. Everyone says working with young kids is really difficult because of the amount of time you have with them and their attention spans, but Kiljan was just an absolute pro. His performance is one of the things I’m most proud about in the film.
You also pull off a pretty crazy car chase. What was it like preparing for that?
We shot that in a day, if you can believe that. I used to be a semi-professional rally driver. Not a particularly good one, but I love motor sport, I love cars and I’d done a short film about rally driving before, so I used some tricks that I’ve learned on that on this. It was all story boarded and we had to be very economical with the shots because we couldn’t afford to keep remounting the camera, so it’s like how can we make this shot work for several different moments in the sequence. It was quite stressful, but I’m really happy with how that turned out. Those scenes are quite fun though to direct because a certain degree is you plan it all beforehand and then it’s just about doing it, and you can’t be in the car with them doing it, so you just have to be on top of it.
How did you wind up behind the camera instead of behind the wheel?
I took my talent as far as I could with the racing and then, growing up I never wanted to be a director. I grew up in a town where there were no arthouse cinemas, so I wasn’t exposed to cinema all that much. I didn’t know what to do with my life and I found this multiple choice quiz online that was was going to tell me what I should do, and I answered some questions and it told me to be a filmmaker. So I thought, “Okay, well I’ll go to film school,” and I went and I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” Because suddenly I was surrounded by all these people that loved cinema and I was like, “Who’s Fellini?” I almost quit straight away. But then I started making films and started really enjoying it, and through making films, I then became really passionate about cinema, so it was a slightly reverse way into it. But at least I didn’t have any baggage on my shoulders of, “I have to do this.” It was more a case of, well I enjoy it and I’ll just see where it takes me. And it’s taken me here.
What’s it like getting to Toronto with your debut feature?
It’s pretty terrifying, but after a long journey, it’s so nice to share it with an audience, and to hopefully see them enjoy it, and to have questions or to debate it. I’m addicted now, so I hopefully I can make another one soon.
“Calm With Horses” will next screen at the London Film Festival on October 7th at the Curzon Mayfair Cinema at 8:45 pm, October 8th at the BFI Southbank at 1 pm and October 13th at 3:30 pm at the Odeon Tottenham Court Court Road.