Nick Rowland’s first feature is a gritty crime drama set in the West of Ireland. Cosmo Jarvis plays Arm, an ex-boxer caught between family obligations and criminal associations, where he’s ready to dole out beatings at the whim of his best friend, played by Barry Keoghan. We caught up with the director to chat about the film which is released on Netflix in Ireland this month!
The film is based on a short story from Mayo writer Colin Barrett’s novel, Young Skins. What made you decide that Calm with Horse was the story for you to adapt? I remember reading the first pages and I just instantly got hooked into this world. I found Arm (Cosmo Jarvis) to be a fascinating character. The novella starts in a very similar way to the film. Arm is set up as a guy who has a very violent job and he seems to have no feelings or emotions; he just treats what he does like any other job. He could be a plumber or something else completely different and he wouldn’t act any differently. You see him being capable of such violence and then suddenly when you see him with his son, he has this connection and sensitivity with him and that was a curious starting point for character study
Did you decide to adapt the novel or did someone come to you with the idea? I was in my final year in school. I was at the national film school in London, and I was trying to get better at writing short films and I was writing very, very badly for short term scripts. I thought I’d better look at how pros do it. I was buying a lot of the collections and it just so happened that I came across a review of Young Skins. I think it had been out for a while in Ireland, but it just came out that week in the UK. I ordered it straight away and kind of fell in love with it. At the time, Dan Emmerson, who’s the producer on the film was an assistant at Working Title and we’d met a couple of times and we were looking to find a project to do together. He started looking into the rights and found that it was available. When I was casting my graduation film I was casting Richard Madden and Michael Smiley in the roles. Their agent is Conor McCaughan, who runs Troika, the casting agency, and also runs DMC, Michael Fassbender’s production company. I met with him to talk about Richard and Michael and he asked me what I wanted to do next and I mentioned Calm With Horses and it just so happened that he was also trying to get the rights to the story. I ended up joining with DMC and we combined forces to make it and Colm Barrett was good enough to let us adapt the story. He was so supportive which was great because he was the person, I was most nervous about seeing it once it was finished. Colin is such an amazing writer, I wanted him to be happy with it and luckily, he was.
You have two of our finest young actors in the film, Barry Keoghan and Niamh Algar, how does it feel to have them in your first feature? Amazing! We started adapting the story in 2018. From very early on we always wanted Barry to play Dymphna. Everything he does, he’s surprising and interesting and you can’t take your eyes off them. It was the same on set. Every take you’d be surprised. And the performance was so alive and exciting to be part of it. I felt extremely lucky to have Barry. I visited him in Ireland, we had some Guinness. At the time he was training for a boxing movie and he really connected with this story and also felt like it allowed him to explore a different energy from the roles than he had already done. We met Niamh during the casting process and she just completely blew me away. She’s so well prepared. She’s so on point and she’s technically amazing. She’s consistent and brilliant. And the chemistry between Niamh and Cosmo was electric. She brought amazing strength and integrity to her character. And that was important to us. We expanded the character from the short story and made her more of the heartbeat of the film. It was a real joy to have them both.
Cosmos Jarvis isn’t a household name yet, but he will be once this is released. Do you feel like you’ve discovered a new talent? The funny thing with Cosmo is I first heard of him in 2009 because my housemate in university grew up with him in Devon. I was aware of him as a musician and my housemate would often show me these homemade music videos that Cosmo was doing for his songs. And I was just like, who is this guy? He has this incredible physical presence. He can make himself look very imposing. He’s such an artist and so gentle, so different from his character, but he would be in character the whole time. He’s a bit of a method actor. He was always Arm, but sometimes we’d get back to the hotel and they had a piano in the reception area and he’d be playing beautiful classical music, but he’d be dressed and looked like a thug. When you meet him he oozes creativity. Finding him was special because Arm is very difficult on the page. He could be a very difficult character to sympathize with. Cosmo brings so much sensitivity and humanity all the way through the film that you stay with Arm, you want him to be okay. With a character that you know makes questionable choices and doesn’t say that much either, then, it’s a tight rope to play them. He has already blown everyone away and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Is it true that the cast and crew didn’t know that he is English? Yes! We cast Cosmo early on and we moved out to the West, to Galway and Loughrea area to start our pre-production. So, for several weeks before we started filming Cosmo came out because he wanted to get the accent right. He had an amazing dialect coach. It was really important to all of us that the accent was going to be as authentic as possible. The amount of work he put in was insane. He got to the point where all the locals thought he was one of them. He became known around town as one of the local lads and that’s when we realized we’d be okay. Once the film started, he didn’t break his accent once and it was only when we did the final shot that he suddenly started speaking in a Devon accent again and everyone just lost their mind. Most of the crew and cast didn’t realize that he wasn’t Irish. Maybe it’s because he is a musician and he has such an amazing ear. We are blessed because there is nothing as bad as a bad Irish accent.
You have a brilliant car chase sequence in the film. Is that something difficult to do on a small budget film? I believe that you have an interest in racing. So was that something you were very excited to get to play with? Yeah, it was very, it was really difficult because we only had a day to film it. Anything involving moving cars just takes forever because you have to set the road and lock it off and make sure there is no traffic. Every time you reroute the camera it takes a long time. It takes special rigging equipment. We had to be very economical because of the cost and time constraints. We planned it first by storyboarding. It’s a very economical sequence, but because I used to be a semi-professional rally driver, I have a visceral sense of what speed feels like and how to try and capture that. It was something that I felt quite relaxed about. Cosmo would sit in the passenger seat with a fake steering wheel and would mimic the actions of the stunt driver who was driving the car. It was a budget-friendly way to do things but it also works well because it meant they were really going for driving at speed and along these amazing Connemara roads. It’s a nice little sequence.
The West of Ireland is so beautiful, but you managed to make it so moody and dark which mirrors the tone of the film. Were you spoiled for choice with locations that you could use? We looked all over the whole of Ireland and it just felt, in the end, Colin’s writing was so, it was so specific to the West and we wanted to kind of capture that as best we could. We had support from the WRAP fund, which helps finance films made in the West of Ireland. The funding helped us a lot. Some of the locations were very hard to get to but we wanted it to almost feel a bit like a Western, like a frontier town. The locations are stunning. The elements of sea and mountains, the wind, rain and sun all lent themselves to give a fable quality to the film. Piers McGrail, our cinematographer did an amazing job.
How does it feel that your first feature has been so well received at festivals like TIFF? I have to pinch myself. I feel like I’m learning and I’m just relieved that the film makes sense to people let alone this amazing reception we’re getting. So, we’re all thrilled that people are enjoying it and I’m trying to keep my imposter syndrome down and trying to enjoy it. It’s scary, it is the first time you get reviewed and the first-time big audiences are seeing it, the first time you get feedback. It’s been thrilling to see it connect with audiences and I’m just kind of looking forward to the release now. I want the film to do well everywhere, but I would really like to see it do well in Ireland. It would mean so much to us to have a good homecoming and for people to respond well to it. That would be incredible.
What is it that you want audiences to take away from the film? Ultimately, it’s a crime thriller. I want people to feel the tension all the way through. I want people to be biting their nails and at the edge of their seats, but I want people to be surprised by Arm. I want people to have an emotional reaction to his story. I hope people are surprised by the sensitivity of the story and understand why it needs the hard exterior.
Interview by Cara O’Doherty
CALM WITH HORSES is available to watch at home on digital on Volta.ie and all major streaming platforms and can be viewed on Netflix from October 26th