Interview With PILGRIMAGE Director Brendan Muldowney
We were able to talk to Brendan Muldowney, director of the Irish medieval film Pilgrimage, starring Tom Holland.
Brendan Muldowney‘s latest feature, Pilgrimage, tells the story of a group of Irish monks attempting to make the journey to Rome in order to deliver a sacred relic. Along the way, their loyalties to each other, and to their overall mission, are tested, and the group’s as of yet unrelenting faith falls onto shaky ground for the first time.
We at Film Inquiry loved it, calling the film “A juxtaposition of faith, fear, and everything in between” as well as “remarkably confident”. Our full review can be found here. We spoke to director Brendan Muldowney about his casting decisions, how he tackled the filmmaking process on a larger scale, and why this story was so important for him to tell.
Ryan Morris for Film Inquiry: So Pilgrimage features a much more notable cast than the films you’ve directed before. How did you go about gathering such a stronger group of actors?
Brendan Muldowney: It’s a lot of luck, really. We had a good casting director who put together some books of all the agencies. I looked at the books and just for the Novice, who Tom Holland played, I watched him in a few films and just made my mind up that he’s brilliant, he’s in Spider-Man: Homecoming, obviously. With Jon Bernthal and Richard Armitage, I think Richard was the more recognisable name, but what’s happened is that everyone’s gone on to do bigger and better things since we cast it, it’s just one of those things where everything worked out. Great casting director and a brilliant cast. Very good actors.
Definitely. When was the film shot then? Before Tom went off to make Spider-Man?
Brendan Muldowney: It was shot in 2015. I know that Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland were both shooting their casting tapes during our shoot, so Tom was shooting casting tapes for Spider-Man and Jon was shooting casting tapes for Daredevil.
As well as having a more notable cast, Pilgrimage also represents a much bigger scale increase from your previous films as well. How did you find the leap to a bigger film like this?
Brendan Muldowney: Well, every film has its own problems, its own complications. This film I did find was bigger obviously, we had obviously a relatively small budget for this film, we really should’ve had three times the budget. So how did I find it? I was dealing with horses, four languages, stunt work, action choreography, visual effects, SFX – really it was a huge step up. But you know, I’m a filmmaker, so what I do is I prepare for the process, learn what to do. You’re asking what’s the step up, and it’s just to force yourself to learn more.
With Pilgrimage, I thought you demonstrated a really good understanding of how to craft an action scene, with the woodland battle halfway through the film and especially the climactic fight on the beach. Is action a genre you think you might head down in the future?
Brendan Muldowney: You know, if I was shooting action again I’d really like to not shoot it the way I did this. Our executive producers are XYZ Films and they produced The Raid and The Raid 2, I really like it when someone puts time and attention and care into shooting action. I suppose, yeah, I’d be interested with action to shoot more in clinical style than the loose style that we used on Pilgrimage.
That makes sense. That final action scene is of course fronted by Jon Bernthal’s character, who totally steals the film for me. What were his thoughts on tackling a wordless role?
Brendan Muldowney: Well, it’s interesting. I had a Skype call with him three weeks before the shoot and he said “You know, Brendan, I’ve got a problem. I’m thinking of either going silent from now, or from when I arrive in Ireland, or for the shoot”. I sort of said “That doesn’t bother me at all”. Whatever it takes, I’m quite open to people’s preparation, whatever they do. I said to him “Look, you’ve got to come over and do some training, some stunt training, so maybe the best thing to do is to go silent from the shoot”.
So he went silent from the first week of the shoot and found it very hard, so he started talking again. But he told me, and I’ve heard him say in interviews, that he learned everything he needed to know about his character in that whole week that he was silent. He was silent off screen all the time, twenty four hours a day. I was very impressed with that.
It’s a very intricate, thematically deep script too, from Jamie Hannigan. What was it that drew you into wanting to direct this story?
Brendan Muldowney: I had worked with him on a short, years ago. I was definitely interested in the genre, I liked the idea of action. It wasn’t necessarily that I’m drawn to Medieval or historical films, I just thought this story had never been shown before. In your own country you’re always very aware of its own history, and most of the historical films set in Ireland have dealt with the rising rebellion against the English in 1916 and subsequent events like the troubles in Northern Ireland, but very few films have gone so far back into our history, and to such an interesting area of it. Basically, I just thought it was original.
The film also frequently discusses the relationship between faith and fear, is that something you’ve always been interested by?
Brendan Muldowney: I’ve been very interested in these things for many years. I’ve been very interested in religion, and the big questions. Not just, you know, accepting what we’re told. But also in Ireland we’ve had a long history: as I said earlier, in 1916 we rebelled against England and took back control of our country; in 1922, our first civil war, we became the Republic of Ireland.
There’s been a lot of bad things to happen in Ireland over the years under organised religion, and that becomes very powerful – especially when religion comes with such an amazing pitch, which is “We’ll make you live forever”. It has a lot of control and I’m very interested in that, and I’m very interested in how we start to lose control. And fear is obviously a double-edged side of the coin, which is “If you don’t do it right, you’ll go to Hell”, which is a bizarre thought.
Two types of shot Pilgrimage frequently returns to are shots of stormy skies and low angled tracking shots from the ground. Why were these shots so appealing to you?
Brendan Muldowney: I’m guessing you’re probably talking about the very wide shots of the mountains, covered up by the clouds, and the track shot of the people in the mud – they were actually pickups. Sometimes I had eight people speaking lines in one scene and I had very little time to shoot, and so I wasn’t covering details. I was looking at things like “What stage are we at in the journey”, and the shots of the sky are all just VFX. We actually had a heatwave while we were shooting. It was typical Ireland, the weather didn’t do what we wanted, and so we had to work really hard in post to create the feel of a stormed-up sky.
Yeah, weather is unfortunately something you can’t really control on a film set! Lastly, what’s up next for you after you move on from Pilgrimage?
Brendan Muldowney: Well I can only really talk about what I’m writing at the moment. I’m writing a ghost story, a horror film based on a really successful short I made years ago. I’m doing a dark coming-of-age story too, and another project set in the ’80s in Northern Ireland.
Well we look forward to seeing them! Thanks for speaking with us.
Brendan Muldowney: Thank you very much.
Pilgrimage is available on multiple VOD services now.
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