An Cailín Ciúin/The Quiet Girl is a new multi-award winning film in the Irish language, starring Catherine Clinch as Cáit, A quiet, neglected girl sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with relatives for the summer. But in this house where there are meant to be no secrets, she discovers one painful truth.
The film is based on Claire Keegan’s novella Foster. Did you know that you wanted to adapt it when you read it?
Yes, even as I was reading it, I hoped that the rights were available. By the end of the story, I was in tears. My wife and producer, Cleona [Ní Chrualaoí], was out in the garden, and I went straight to her and told her she had to read the story; I said it was something special and knew the potential it had. I wasn’t expecting that the rights would be available, to be honest, because it was 2018 when I read it, and it was published in around 2010 and assumed someone else had read this and saw the potential. Amazingly, the rights were still available and, even more amazingly, Claire agreed to give the rights to somebody who had never made a feature film before. I had an immediate gut reaction to the material, and your gut is the thing that you have to follow.
Did you consult with Claire on the script, or did she let you run with it?
It was very much the latter. Claire was very gracious, and in the initial stages I had to present a statement of intent, which is a document where I outlined what I envisaged for the film version of the work. That wasn’t hugely extensive or in-depth. It was a straightforward process in terms of selling the creative approach. After that, Claire was gracious and pretty much said this is yours now, too; you have to make it your own. The funny thing is I still haven’t met her, we’ve only communicated by email. She’s a mysterious character in my life who I greatly admire, and she’s such an incredible writer, one of our best, and I don’t think she is as well-known as she should be.
Catherine Clinch is a remarkable young actor. How did you find her, and how did you know that she was the right fit for Cáit?
We decided not to use a casting director, partly because of funding but also because Cleona and I are Irish speakers. We have the ear for hearing if someone is going to have competency in the language and have a feel for the language. We thought a casting director would need to use us as a sounding board, so we decided to cut the middleman out and do it ourselves. In retrospect, that was naïve of us, but it is our first feature. The Irish in the film is Munster Irish, so we set up open auditions in Waterford, Cork, Kerry, and Clare. We saw hundreds of young people, and it was an amazing process, but we hadn’t found Cáit. The character is in every scene in the film, which is an extraordinary responsibility for a younger actor. We broadened our search to include Gaelscoileanna. COVID hit, so we couldn’t do in-person auditions anymore, so we asked for self-tapes. One day we got a self-tape in from Catherine Clinch. Cleona saw it first and called me straight away. Catherine put so much thought into how she presented herself, she dressed appropriately for the different scenes, and her mum really thought about where they shot them. Catherine is a subtle actor and has extraordinary emotional intelligence. You can’t take your eyes off her face; she draws you in with how expressive she is. We did chemistry reads with other actors, Andrew Bennet and Carrie Crowley, to ensure everyone gelled. The chemistry was instant. Finding Catherine was a little miracle; she was really the only person we feel could have pulled it off to the extent that she did.
As a Dubliner, how did Catherine’s Irish fit in with the Munster cast?
Cáit’s mother is from Waterford, but they don’t live there, so she didn’t need to have perfect Munster Irish. She has inflections of Gaeilge na Rinne, the dialect spoken there. We worked with dialect consultants to help with the inflections, and the dialogue in the script is written in the local dialect, but, as a visitor, Cáit doesn’t have the music of the people from the area and how they might speak.
So then, as a Dubliner and a Gaeilgeoir, did you have to learn Munster Irish?
My Irish is a bit of a mongrel. I went to a gaelscoil and had different teachers with different dialects, so I wrote it in my own Irish and then sat down with the dialect coach from Waterford. That was a beautiful experience because he brought all these other layers to the language and added colour to it that I could never have done. When you’re making an Irish language film, you are very aware of the Irish language community, and you want it to be authentic. I even feel that way in a broader sense about the wider Irish audience. I don’t particularly like the idea of Irish language films existing in this vacuum where everyone is just speaking Irish for no reason. I prefer films that tip their hat to the social reality of the language, which is that it exists in these pockets. That is part of the reason that the film is bilingual. Cáit’s father is an English speaker; that’s where I grew up. I grew up in a household where my mother spoke English, my dad spoke Irish. I like that textural quality.
The character of Seán could be quite a grumpy fella, but Andrew Bennett brings such warmth to him – he is a kindly curmudgeon. Was Seán always meant to be like that, or was that something that Andrew brought to him?
I’m delighted you highlighted that because Andrew is brilliant in the film. It is such an unshowy performance that sometimes he gets a little forgotten about. We knew we needed someone who had softness in their inner core. Andrew is naturally kind and generous, and his relationship with Catherine off-camera was a beautiful thing to witness. How their real relationship developed throughout filming was in tandem with the story and the characters. I think Andrew was aware of that, not pre-planned, but I think he was aware that they were becoming very close, and the relationship blossomed. We had a shortlist of actors, and that warmth was precisely the quality that Andrew has that made us sure that he was right for the role. You could see it in the auditions, he had a natural inclination to take care of Catherine.
Your cinematographer is the wonderful Kate McCullough. What was it like working with her?
It was the most collaborative relationship in the whole film. I had a sense from Kate’s previous work and the little that I knew of her that her sensibility would be in tune with this story and how I wanted to tell it. When I first tried to reach out to her about it, I was delighted to hear that she was delighted because she is a huge fan of Foster, the short story. She had read it, and she was just very excited by the idea of adapting that. We spent a considerable amount of time talking about how we were going to do this and developing an understanding of the aesthetic. We set up Pinterest and sent each other still photography and different things that felt right for the film, and we developed a shorthand over time. When we got to set, we didn’t need to discuss things, we could reference things we had already discussed here; we had done the groundwork. I’m very interested in the question of point of view in film, and this film is very much a first-person narrative. We were trying to mirror Foster, and Foster is written in first person; that’s one of the reasons Foster feels very cinematic, you’re literally in this girl’s shoes the whole time. Our biggest question was, how do we transpose that to the language of film? Kate used the Academy ratio; it’s a narrower frame. It is an interesting way of holding this one character, it gives a first-person approach, but in this case, it’s a first-person narrative about a person who doesn’t understand the world yet. It is also a great frame to situate the audience in this time in our past. Kate was a creative soulmate on the film, and the experience of finding the film before we even made the film is something I will always treasure.
You mentioned working with your wife, Cleona, the film’s producer. What is it like to work together?
It is the engine that’s driven the film from the get-go. We met through work; Cleona was a producer, and I was a director on a TG4 docudrama series back in 2009. We work very well together, and we balance each other. There’s a brilliant shorthand; problems will be addressed and solved on a continual basis because we’re always together. It’s great to be able to get excited about it together. When you’re making your film, it’s so all-consuming. The person closest to you in the world is also part of that journey. Now we get to travel with it and bring the film to new audiences together, making it even more special. It is part of the family album.
What does winning the awards mean?
Making a film is the ultimate collaborative artistic endeavour. The awards acknowledge all of the puzzle pieces from the costume to production, design and cinematography, editing, sound design, and these crucial elements. And none of those elements would matter unless you had the performances there for us to witness and build on. It was a great collaboration, and the awards reflect everyone’s contribution.
What do you want people to take from the film?
Ultimately, it’s a film about love, the kind of love that builds us into who we become; it’s that nurturing love that children need. Having become a father a few years ago, you become acutely aware of the responsibility involved with that and the importance of love; it’s a crucial component to people having ordinary lives. It’s a testament to the notion that love doesn’t necessarily always come from your biological family. Family can be a fluid concept, but love is still the thing we all need.
AN CAILÍN CIÚIN is at cinemas from May 12th
Words – Cara O’Doherty