We talk with the director about his IFTA winning film

Far more Dardenne brothers than Hardy Bucks, Gerard Barrett’s PILGRIM HILL is a tough watch. Charting the loneliness of the long distance farmer, we get to spend a few weeks with quiet man Jimmy Walsh (newcomer Joe Mullins) as he goes about his daily routine of milking the cows, looking after his ailing, unseen father, milking the cows again, and then treating himself to a cup of tea and a biscuit. At first, it would appear that Jimmy is living miles from nowhere, but, as the film progresses, you realise that he’s much closer to it than that. The only light relief is boy-racer neighbour Tommy (Muiris Crowley), but his screeching-tyre bravado tells its own tragic tale. It’s The Last Picture Show meets Glenroe. It’s Sensation without the girlie mags. Or the humour. Or any sense of hope.
Naturally, PILGRIM HILL has proven a hit on the festival circuit, from its trumpeted debut at last year’s Galway International Film Festival – where Sir Donald of Clarke gave it the Irish Times film of the festival gong, and Barrett was named the Rising Star – to rapturous receptions at Telluride, London, Paris, New York, Moscow… Yep, everybody’s talking ‘bout PILGRIM HILL. Even if it is a depressing watch.
Still, it’s a depressing watch that cost a mere €4,500, took just seven days to shoot in Barrett’s native Kerry, and boasts a cast and crew who, with a little clever manoeuvring, could all fit into the cab of a tractor. And a true portrait of loneliness should be depressing, of course. There are no wry, comic observations here, no pompous David Brent proclamations to camera, no hot foreign backpacker looking for shelter from the storm. There’s just isolation. And a dying father. And spilt milk.
For Barrett – who wrote, directed, produced and edited PILGRIM HILL – it has meant signing with top London agency Troika and with Scorsese’s agent at WME in the US. It has also meant that his next three scripts are all hot properties, with some of cinema’s biggest box-office draws all eager to work with the young Irish filmmaker. Barrett is keen to keep their names’ a secret though, until the cameras are ready to roll later this year. The call sheet is impressive.

Debuted at Galway before seducing just about every other major film festival around the globe, more impressively, you recently had your dinner interrupted by a phone call from a major Australian star, pleading to be in your next film. So, has PILGRIM HILL changed your life then?
Gerard Barrett: I think it has. The success of the film has taken me totally by surprise. I finished up college, went into the credit union for the loan, and it just all went from there. My one real goal was to get it into the Galway film festival, and when we had the audition screening for that, people were crying. Luckily, they were crying because they loved it. I didn’t think beyond that screening date in Galway though. Why would I? I had no producers, I had no finance people saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got to get it into this festival, we’ve got to get it into that festival’. It was very much, Galway, and then let’s see what happens. It premiered there, and it was great. Jesus, really great. People really got behind it, The Irish Times and everyone, and it took me totally by surprise. Look, you couldn’t ask for any better.

You’re only just a kid, and your Cinderella story seems a little short of gruelling hard graft. Or maybe you’ve been toiling away in the dark ever since you were 11?
GB: I did spend a couple of years, suffering a little bit…

Glad to hear it.
GB: I did though. I grew up in a house with three older brothers who were all over 10 years older than me. So, I was watching films at 3 or 4 that I really shouldn’t have been watching. I remember watching Double Impact, like, with Jean-Claude Van Damme at four years of age. Christ. I remember badgering my father for us to go and see Michael Collins when it came out. I just had this love for film, and when I decided at 12 or 13 that I wanted to tell stories, I wasn’t sure whether it would be film or not, but I hoped it would be. And it was tough, because I come from a small farming background, growing up in Knockanure, a little village just outside Listowel, and when you decide to go into this sort of stuff, people reckon you must be a bit mental, and a bit weird. And my brothers are all in stable, safe jobs – farmer, prison warden, plumber, electrician – and so I had a lot of trying to convince people that this was what I wanted to do. So, I went to college, put my head down, did a little short film for RTE, did a little short film for myself, and when I hit 21, I felt I was ready to make a feature. Having grown up with brothers who were much older, it matured me beyond my years. And this was a household where, if you wanted something, you knew you had to go out and get it yourself. Not that I always thought this was my destiny; there was plenty of doubt along the way too.

There are a few family relations who aren’t a million miles away from PILGRIM HILL’s sad, lonely farmer Jimmy. How have they reacted to the film? It must feel a little close to the bone, especially coming from one of their own.
GB: Look, the film is a very tough watch, because these lives are a tough watch. A lot of these guys don’t have a third act even. I look at my uncle who’s a farmer, and his life doesn’t have a third act. He’s looking after his farm, and that’s it. There are loads of people I know living that kind of life. The thing is, without any financers involved, I could make the film that I wanted to here. And I had to make the film like this, because this is reality. In rural Ireland, life can be very tough for these people. So, my uncle has seen it, and he finds it very hard to watch. They would rather see something like The Quiet Man, showing a romantic notion of life in the West, but then they go and see the film, and it’s a real slap in the face. I just had to make it as real as possible.

It would have been very easy to be condescending here, to wrangle a few Chaplinesque chuckles from the misery. You instead go down a very black hole here…
GB: Absolutely. It’s important to say though that there are those living this kind of life and having a wonderful time of it. Going to the pub, heading off to football matches, and all that stuff. A lot of those guys don’t have anything holding them back though, whereas Jimmy has his ill father to nurse. We never see the father in the film, but he’s the guy behind the curtain, pulling the strings. In terms of the humour, there isn’t a lot of laughter and light in these people’s lives. Now, some people will find that too miserable, but I made a realistic film. This is what it’s like in rural Ireland.

As the guys in Troika said to you, this kind of Beckett play is going on all over the world. Wet Tuesdays in a remote damp house can really test your character. And sanity. As anyone who lives in Castletownbere will tell you.
GB: You certainly need to be strong to live like that. Truth is, you can make life as tough as you want it to be, and you can make it as fun as you want it to be. When we screened at Telluride, just before Argo, I was amazed at how many people there related to the loneliness theme. It hit a nerve with all kinds of people. We all fear loneliness, of growing old with no one. There are issues there that I worry about too. A lot of Jimmy’s anxieties came from me…

Tender films are a hard sell, and Irish films are an even harder sell. You must have known here you were cruising for a bruising at the box-office then. Did you think about the commercial side of PILGRIM HILL as you made it?
GB: Not at all. I don’t think many people could have made this film, given that I come from deep within that world. I don’t think anyone else could have made the film I made then, but when you’re borrowing €4,500 from the Credit Union, you’re not thinking about multiplexes. That was the beauty of the whole thing – we never had to worry about it. When I got the agent in Los Angeles, he said, ‘Yeah, Gerry, it’s a small film, but it’s a very good small film. And you’ll always find an audience for it’. That stuck with me. I know it’s a hard sell, I know it’s depressing at times, but this is what it’s like for these people.

You still have time to reshoot it in 3D…
GB: Ah, Jaysus, thankfully, it’s too late for that. I was saying to Joe the other night that we could always do a stage musical off the back off this. We’re going to call it The Cows. Simple, classic… The truth is, if you start out making a film with the box-office in mind, you’re not going to make a film that’s true. You’re going to compromise all along the way, and I just couldn’t work that way. I’ll save that for later, when the budget makes me sweat.

So, where to from here?
GB: I was lucky enough to have had Film Four at Galway, and they loved the film, and straight away offered me the chance to do my next three films with them. Which is beautiful; you never think you’re going to get into a room with these people, never mind work with them. I’ve got Glasslands written up, which is ready to roll. I’ve got a project at Paramount too, which I’ve just finished the script for, and there’s another film that I finished the script for in February, and that’s gone out to actors. I should be shooting Glasslands this year, and the second script next year. Oh, and with Brown Bag, I’ve got an animated series, Newsbag, set in an online news office in Dublin that’s run by a megalomaniac in New Zealand, which should be out in September. Sort of IT Crowd meets South Park, with Rupert Murdoch in the background. So, keeping busy, you know…

Words: Paul Byrne

PILGRIM HILL is in Irish cinemas now