BALLYWALTER – Interview with director Prasanna Puwanarajah

With all eyes on Patrick Kielty, as he steps into the Late Late Show, he makes another big debut – his acting debut. Co-starring with Seana Kerslake in the Northern Irish drama Ballywalter, the pair play two people who meet at a tough time, forging a friendship as they drive back and forth from Ballywalter to Belfast. The film is written by the award-winning Stacey Gregg and directed by actor Prasanna Puwanarajah in his directorial feature debut. We spoke with Puwanarajah to find out more about the film.

You have a long history with Ballywalter’s writer, Stacey Gregg. What made you decide that her latest script would be your directorial feature debut?
I met Stacey ten years ago on a new writing strand initiative for Channel 4. The program no longer exists, which is a real shame, but it took people who had directed short films and paired them with those who had written plays or short screenplays. I think we were paired because we both share a post-conflict heritage. Stacey is from Belfast, and my family are Sri Lankan Tamil. The producers felt that it would be an interesting meeting of two very different experiences in terms of the inheritance of conflict. After we made our short, Spoof or Die, we continued to work together. I directed Stacey as a performer in a play and worked with her on her live art project. There was an ongoing conversation about what we might do next regarding screen work, and Ballywalter resulted from that. We had lots of conversations about the type of stories people connect with, and then Stacey went off and wrote Ballywalter about seven years ago. We did some work together on the script and got a producer involved, and by the time we were ready to shoot, it was the pandemic and Brexit.

A first feature comes with enough challenges as it is without adding in COVID and a major political shift. How much did the pandemic and Brexit affect the shoot?
It wasn’t just the pandemic; it was pre-vaccine, so we had all of the considerations around the health and safety of the crew when COVID was very new. We spent so much money on COVID-19 protection and testing, which was the right thing to do, but it significantly affected our budget, which was small. And it wasn’t just physical wellness; it was the fact that people were away from their families at this tough time. It was also Brexit time, and rules around employment changed. It was a really complicated time, but we got there. It’s very nice to talk about the film now because there were so many periods when it felt fundamentally under threat. I’m so proud of everyone. It’s an amazing achievement when you consider the dual constraints of the pandemic and Brexit.

Why did you decide to cast Seana Kerslake?
I saw Seana in A Date for Mad Mary and saw that she has the ability to slay with an eye roll. We did screen tests in Belfast when we were prepping the film, and she is one of those actors where people are drawn to the monitors when you turn the camera on. Something happens, it’s a strange magic and she has it in spades. She was the first person we saw who we thought would get there with this character. Seana has this enormous emotional well to tap into. She works incredibly hard, and she is incredible in the film. She transformed from Tallaght to Northern Ireland and worked so hard at the accent and where the accent places us spiritually.

We all know Patrick Kielty as a comedian and broadcaster, but this is his first acting gig. Did you worry about casting a first timer in such a big role, or did you always know he had it in him to play this character?
A little of both, but mainly I knew he had it in him. There is always a question with any casting; these things are always a leap of faith. I’ve been an actor for 20 years, and I’ve worked with actors as a director as well. There’s a point where you can look into a constellation of markers and signs and wonder if this person will be able to go on this journey. Patrick was at a really interesting time; he was making fascinating documentaries about his personal history and the history of Northern Ireland and how those two things weave together. As a man in the middle of his life, he was beginning to ask some deep questions about the emotional legacy of what you inherit, the damage you inherit, how you heal, and how you forgive. All those things lie in the film in those two characters who were similarly at different stages of their life, navigating a deep well that they’re both in and trying to work out the steps to take to get out. With it being the pandemic, Patrick and I had time to talk about his character, Shane. We just spent days talking about Shane and his journey, life, and history. We also talked about how a feature film set differs from a documentary or TV studio and all of those things.

You had more rehearsal time than usual. How did that come about?
We had two weeks, which is unheard of, and our producer fought for it. I’ve always found it weird that you don’t have much time to rehearse in film because it is an excellent opportunity to get ahead. It meant Seana got time to do accent work, and Patrick was able to spend time acting and seeing how it felt. We did the excavation of the scene; we sifted through and out the architecture of the scenes. We played them a few times and just left enough for Seana and Patrick to add to on the days we shot.

You have a lifetime of acting under your belt, so does your actor side ever interfere with the director or feel jealous when you see the actors in action? 
I have never had any desire to cross over when I am directing. It’s the difference between cooking and eating. The things that draw me to directing art are very different. I like figuring out what a project is trying to be for people. What’s its place in the landscape of the world? It’s so much more focused. For me, it is about who the person is, what they need, what they are doing, who is around them, and what obstacles are getting in the way of what they need. It’s really nice as an actor to relinquish the many concerns of directing and focus on the little things. When I’m directing, I’m very happy to let the actors do their thing and not get jealous.

The Belfast humour is quite particular; did you get it straight away?
No, I got it instantly, and this goes back to the first thing I was saying. There’s something weirdly familiar between that kind of pattern, the electricity of the pattern in Belfast, and the way that humour works in my parent’s language, Tamil. There was something about the humour that I immediately plugged into ten or eleven years ago. I was familiar with and connected with all those rhythms that can be quite deadpan, caustic, funny, freewheeling, rapid and witty.

What would you like audiences to talk away from the film?
I want people to go to the cinema with friends and family and see two people who find a way to connect and don’t necessarily have much in common. For that to be something that reminds us that, however much life may feel like it’s on the skids, there is the possibility of a person around the corner who you don’t really know. Who you may not hold on to in your life but who might be able to turn it around for you.

Interview by Cara O’Doherty

BALLYWALTER is at Irish cinemas from Sept 22nd