After nine short films and two features, Irish director Brendan Muldowney has transitioned from art school grad to full-fledged production veteran. His newest film, Pilgrimage, continues themes of searching, doubtful complication in death, secularity and faith that he’s explored throughout his career. Paste sat down with Muldowney after his film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk shop: making a period piece on a shoestring budget and Game of Thrones.
Paste Magazine: I talked to star Jon Bernthal about the vow of silence he took before shooting the film. How was that on set?
Brandan Muldowney: Whatever it takes. He came to me about a week beforehand. The way he put it was, “I’ve got a problem. I’m not sure if I want to be silent for the shoot and prep…or start now.” So, OK. It didn’t shock me. It wasn’t upsetting me; I was practical about it. I said we’d have to talk about character things and stunt work so, I suggest starting with the shoot.
And when they all moved [to location] he shut down and stopped talking and I had a lot of cast to deal with. It wasn’t just Jon. So that was just one more unique moment of the day. Deal with the cast and then with Jon we talked with grunts and pointing and it was fine. We got by. Then after a week or so he decided not to go through with it the whole time.
Paste: You did have a ton of people to wrangle, especially for an indie film. What was it like getting everybody in the period mindset?
Muldowney: We were very lucky that everybody got along and, I don’t know why, but they all decided to be onboard with good attitudes on this crazy thing. When that happens, even with problems, you’re gonna make it work. And there were plenty of other problems. But how did I wrangle them? It’s hard. Because the writer [Jamie Hannigan] made it so everyone has a line in every scene. We just had to go and do it and cross [our] fingers and at the end of the day look and ask, “Do we have it? Do we have the film?” So yeah, if I’d had more time I’d have shot more close-ups, more filmmaking basically. But I knew going in it was going to be a looser style.
Paste: There’s an elegance that comes with going barebones.
Muldowney: Yeah and there’s no point fighting Game of Thrones. They do their thing brilliantly and all we can do is, even if we had more money, make things differently. A little more social realism with a looser camera where you’d otherwise have so much scale and cranes.
Paste: Right, these are just regular people. They don’t really deserve all that.
Muldowney: Even [Baron de Merville, played by Eric Godon] isn’t the main baron.
Paste: What were some of the other problems you ran into?
Muldowney: Money, time. I know my AD did [Game of Thrones episode] “Battle of the Bastards” and he told me they had 30 days to shoot that episode. That’s how long we had to shoot the whole film. So it’s terrible. Let’s see, other problems…the weather and horses. Christ, horses. Horses aren’t actors. They don’t do what they’re told and you also lose production people because they can’t gallop or whatever. Boatwork was difficult.
Paste: Horses I get. Tell me why boats were so hard.
Muldowney: When you’re shooting, I have a video village, I have my monitor, I have my headphones, I have my chair. When you’re out on the water in the middle of waves, you don’t have that. Your wireless monitor isn’t sending it to you, so you don’t know what the hell it looks like, so you end up having to get into the boat with them. And it’s not a proper boat. The water’s splashing over and your hand monitor shorts out. Maneuvering a camera boat, making sure there’s no houses in the back of the shot, getting back into position for new takes—and they were bad boatmen.
My second film [Savage], I had way more time and budget, and it was all following one character. If he wasn’t talking to anyone, you didn’t even need to shoot coverage. Looking back, it was so luxurious. But this one, I really enjoyed it. It was like my first feature. Learning how to move forward. How to make a decision. The problem with that is that it can’t just be a decision, it has to be the right decision. Otherwise you have a shite film because you shot it from the wrong angles or you left bits out. Now I’ve gotten the confidence to go, “I think I’m right, so let’s just do it.”
Paste: And hopefully more than often you are right.
Muldowney: I like difficult films and I like difficult stories, and to tell them you’re not going to have a big budget and you’ll be shooting under time constraints. I don’t know if I’ll ever end up in such a difficult shoot again—with a huge cast, in nature, under the clock, and a period piece as well—everything that I’ve made difficult for myself. It was a sort of happy ignorance. The story was so good that you just say, “I’ll cut extras, I’ll cut time, I’ll make it smaller, I just want to make it.”
Paste: What are you working on next?
Muldowney I’ve got a horror script that’s in development that’s maybe the most commercial thing I’ve ever written. Even art horror nowadays makes money and it makes me happy so many intelligent adults are still going to movies. But this isn’t art house. I love films like the original The Haunting. All atmosphere.