Irish crime family thriller Calm With Horses marks the directorial debut of Nick Rowland. It tells the story of ex-boxer turned mob enforcer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong played by rising star Cosmo Jarvis. Caught between his loyalty to the Devers family and his responsibilities as a father, he is faced with an impossible dilemma that will have life-changing consequences.
At Glasgow Film Festival, I was lucky enough to sit down with the director Nick Rowland to discuss the film…
Calm With Horses is of course adapted from a short story by Colin Barrett. How did you come across the source material?
I first read the collection of short stories when I was still at film school, and I had been writing short film scripts…and they were terrible. I was trying to read people who actually knew how to do short form storytelling better. Young Skins is amazing and Calm With Horses is like the sort of centrepiece of the collection. It was about 70 pages, so it felt like a good-sized story to develop into a taut movie.
What did you like about the story in particular when you first read it?
It was tense and had genre elements that were really interesting, but it also had a lot of heart and emotion. It also has a slightly eccentric sense of humour at times. It was a mix of tones that I thought were quite interesting. Probably the hardest thing about adapting it for a film was finding the language to the story where you could accommodate all those different elements. The book itself focuses more on the crime side of the story. You occasionally get these little vignettes of Arm with his son Jack but there’s no drive behind that side of the story. They’re just a little character beats. That contrast of these little scenes with him and his son versus the crime story happening in the background was what I found really interesting about it. We tried to really expand on the story of the son and his ex-girlfriend Ursula and this idea that they need to get out of the town to give the character a little bit more agency. He’s a tricky character to put on screen because in the book, he didn’t really want anything. If anything, he wants things to just be easy and to stay the same. It’s quite a passive motivation for a character for a film. We wanted to stay true to the character and the source material but just do a few tweaks to make it kind of work a bit better for screen.
We amalgamated some characters and we expanded the Ursula role quite a lot from the book. There’s actually one really big change in particular from the book but it’s better for people just to watch the film first, and then maybe read the book after that. I don’t want to talk about the change too much because it’s such a big part of the film, and it’s the exact opposite of what the book does.
The story takes place in quite a bleak part of the world. How did you go about making the film look great on screen but also to show the squalor of the lives the characters are living?
I think a lot of people categorise Calm With Horses as a social-realist film. We tried to keep the dramatic elements of the town in the way that it’s kind of cut off in isolation and we focused on that. We wanted it to feel more like a Western in a way. We wanted the epic landscapes and for it to be almost like a frontier town under siege from the elements. You’ve got the ocean, you’ve got these huge mountains and that gives it a cinematic epic quality rather than just being too like a kitchen sink setting. I grew up in Banff in Aberdeenshire which is a very small fishing town as well. When I read the short story collection, I was imagining that. I found that I was pushing to shoot in places where we did have the ocean and places which felt isolated to me. Dan (Emmerson) the producer is from London and he was looking at some of these locations by the ocean and thinking they were so idyllic so thought we should’ve gone for something more edgy. To me, the ocean can represent isolation more, and it feels like you’re at the edge of the world.
Arm and Dympna both show extreme signs of toxic masculinity and use nastiness or aggression to mask their feelings. In other films they could seem like quite one-dimensional villains. Was it tricky to give them a deeper complexity on screen?
The way I looked at all of the relationships in the story is that they’re all trapping each other. The film is meant to end with selfless love but up until that point, everyone’s trapped by a selfish sort of love. You have Arm and he loves his son Jack. He wants Jack to stay near him and to stay part of his life for selfish reasons. He’s not really thinking about what’s best for his son. Dympna is in some ways Arm’s best friend, but also manipulates him and gaslights him and steers him away from his son because it’s not useful to him. You also have the two uncles as well and there’s a sense that maybe Hector is trying to break away from his brother, but his brother doesn’t want that. They’re all trying to break that hold by the end of the film, so I hope that the end is emotional and that there’s a slight hopefulness to it.
To answer your question with regards to Arm, the viewer is not really encouraged to like him straight away. Hopefully you warm to him the more you spend time with him as the time goes on.
For a debut film, it’s such an incredible cast. I’ve been watching Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis quite closely for a few years and I’m a big fan of what they’ve done so far. I noticed that Michael Fassbender is an exec producer and was wondering how big a part he had to play in pulling it all together…
He’s been really supportive, and it’s been really nice to have his blessing and his support. He gave advice whenever he felt like it could be helpful. He put his trust in me as a first-time filmmaker, and Joe (Murtagh) as a first-time writer and Dan as well (as a producer). Michael’s really big on trying to work with the next generation of filmmakers and take risks like that. Shaheen Baig was our casting director so she was the one who brought everyone together. She’s cast so many amazing movies especially in this space. She discovered Cosmo originally for Lady Macbeth, and I think a lot of these young actors have a loyalty to her. Obviously having Michael attached to the project helps a lot when you’re an unproven filmmaker. Any stamps of approval you can get are really welcome be it Michael or Film4 or Screen Ireland, Altitude, or Element.
Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan usually play quite intense characters and this film is no different. Were they quite intense on set or could you break through the darkness and have a bit of fun too?
I’m told that other people had fun on the shoot, but I think I was just so stressed. It was pretty relentless and intense, but the atmosphere was really good, and they all got really well. From a directing point of view, it is really interesting because, yeah, they’re both completely brilliant but both of their methods are completely different. It was interesting seeing how they bounced off of each other on set.
The funny thing with working with Cosmo was that he is actually childhood friends with my old housemate at university…so I was aware of Cosmo for the last 12 years, but I knew of him as a musician. I didn’t know he was an actor. My housemate used to show me Cosmo’s music videos so it’s just so bizarre that he’s ended up being the lead in my first film.
He’s a method actor he was always in character and always wearing the character’s clothes and being Arm basically. Sometimes I’d get back at the end of the day’s filming and I’d hear this classical music playing on the grand piano in the hotel. I’d walk through and see Cosmo dressed as Arm, still covered in fake blood, and he’s playing this beautiful music. This guy just oozes creativity.
Also, he grew up in Devon so he’s playing the lead in a very Irish movie with an entirely authentic Irish cast apart from him. Yeah. He’s got to do an Irish accent, but not just any Irish accent. He’s doing a really specific accent that even a lot of Irish people wouldn’t be able to do. The pressure on him I can’t even imagine but he put the work in, and I think it pays off and I hope this film does really good things for him. People seem to really be responding to his performance.
Can you tell me a little about what it was like to work with Niamh Algar? I watched her performance in the Shane Meadows series The Virtues and she was incredible.
She’s destined to be a huge, huge star. She oozes talent. She’s very warm and gets on with everyone, but she’s knows exactly what she wants and she’s incredibly professional and hardworking. She always gets the maximum out of everything and she’s the heartbeat of the film really. From the moment I met her, and she started reading, she knew exactly who this character was. What I thought was really interesting with Niamh’s performance is that she was able to bring a lot of history into the character. Whenever you saw her on screen with Cosmo, you felt what their relationship was like in the past, and she was able to convey a history between the two of them, which wasn’t necessarily on the page. I think that she made some really smart choices with that.
I know that you’ve worked on television a little bit before. What were the biggest differences between directing an episode of TV to taking on the responsibility of a full feature? What challenges did it present?
There are practical differences. The television I’ve done was probably better financed…so you just have things like a steady camera at your disposal whenever you want to, or you can have a crane if you want to, or usually have two cameras running at once. You can get a lot more coverage in all this sort of stuff and I’d slightly gotten used to it. It’s a big difference to go from that to go into something that’s you doing everything from scratch. There’s so many more decisions that have to be made, even just down to very, very simple things like what shirt a character will wear. I thought I was prepared but nothing can really prepare you for how intense it gets. Also, you don’t have money to throw at problems. You have less time you have less resources and it means you have to be really smart with how you get over problems. That was the hardest thing. If you do a short film, you obviously you want it to go well but in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘well, if it doesn’t go well, I can just not show it to anyone!’. The pressure that I was putting on myself is probably the biggest difference. You spend 10 years working towards wanting to make a film so when you finally get there, it’s like ‘Fuck, I really hope I don’t mess it up!’
Are you interested in going back to television or do you have another feature in the pipeline?
I’m just interested in directing good work, really. The lines between TV and film are becoming more blurred, I guess. I think what I really enjoyed about Calm With Horses was being able to express myself more, I guess. I’d be really interested in starting a new show in television but the only thing I’m definitely doing next is writing and directing a film about rally driving. Before I was a filmmaker, I used to compete in rallies and as far as I’m aware, there’s really not many movies about rally driving. It’s such an exciting, cinematic sport and I feel is a little bit untapped at the moment. That’s kind of my next passion project anyway!
In a way, did having a lower budget with Calm With Horses almost help in a way because it might’ve given you less options to choose from and made it a more straightforward experience…
Yeah but you have to be quite creative. It puts limits on the way you can shoot certain scenes because for example…anything with a moving car can take forever to shoot because you have to rig the camera and it takes hours to move…so you have to be really strict. That’s actually one of the scenes that I’m most happy with whereas if I had four or five days to shoot that, would it have made much of a difference? You can waste a lot of time and money by wanting to show off as a filmmaker by wanting to do some cool camera move or whatever, so I always prioritise performance. I prefer to shoot scenes in a simpler way because it allows me to spend more time with the actors or to give the actors more opportunity to explore interesting ways of playing the scene. On a low budget, you can’t compete with a Marvel movie or the next James Bond, but a great performance is a great performance.
Calm With Horses will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 13th March. Check out my review!