Q: Martin, you wrote the four roles for the actors who ultimately played these characters. What was it about Colin, Brendan, Kerry and Barry [Keoghan] that spoke to you so passionately about them to be in this story?
MM: Oh, I love them all as people. They’re the best actors around. They’re very sensitive to sadder, darker material, but are also brilliant at understanding comedy — every single one of them. And they’re all mates as well. I didn’t really know Barry before then, but Colin and Brendan and Kerry go back so far — even before “In Bruges” for the boys, and even before that for Kerry. We did plays together to begin with, like 20 years ago. So I knew they’d be brilliant, and they’d bring everything to it. But I hoped we’d have fun making it, too.
Q: Was the fact that they have real friendships meaningful for a movie about friendship, and did it essentially helped augment the material?
MM: Yeah, I think so. The fact that Colin and Brendan love each other and are playing the opposite of that, or they’re starting off in that place from Colin’s perspective, and going to a darkest other place — it was great to have that being founded on the care and love that they have for each other. That’s all palpable from the very first minute of the film, and I couldn’t have gotten that with two actors who didn’t have the affection and love for each other [that they have].
Q: Brendan, “Banshees” has given you a chance to show a comedic side we haven’t often seen from you. Was this an exciting challenge or were you apprehensive about delving into something a little more darkly comedic?
BG: Well, no. One of my first films was “I Went Down” [dir. Paddy Breathnach, 1997], which didn’t do a whole lot over here, but did pretty well at home. That was pretty much “out there.” A lot of my early stage work was with a group called the Passion Machine and we did an awful lot of stuff in the ’80s where we were touring around and acting the maggot, certainly. No, it’s never been strange for me to go there. In fact, for awhile, I was a little worried that I’d get overly typecast for being either a bouncer or a looper [dangerous crazy person]. Or both. There was a bit of a feeling that with comedic acting, you have to be careful not to get overly [typecast] early on in one’s career so you don’t get branded, because it’s very hard to come back from that. It’s more easy to go the other way. But I was never suspicious of anything. If anything was funny, I was there. It’s just maybe, over the last few years, I haven’t had much opportunity. But Martin’s stuff is always funny. “In Bruges” is hilarious. It speaks to the nature of Martin’s material that we always find that really hilariously funny at the beginning. Then we go into rehearsal and it turns out to be not quite so funny at all.
Q: Martin, what was the inspiration for “Banshees”?
MM: I think the simplicity of telling a story about a breakup, really, and to be truthful and show the pain of that. More than anything, it was just to capture that. To juxtapose that with the Irish civil war, of course, helped us bring in interesting metaphorical angles to it, and to show how a simple falling out can lead to horror — to war — and unforgivable acts. But the initial impulse was to capture the sadness of a breakup.
Q: It’s not just a friendship, it’s a deep love that completely deteriorates, and is actually very sad.
MM: I think Brendan and Colin have talked about that in other interviews. It’s sometimes worse than a romantic breakup because you can work out or work through a romantic one. You can understand why someone might not want to share a romantic life with you. But for a friendship, it’s much harder, much harder for the soul. As Brendan has said, it goes to the core of who you are — your friends. And when you opt out of that, who are you after that? How do you see yourself? That was some interesting things that we explore in this film.
Q: Colin, you work and travel a lot yourself. How do you keep your own friendships healthy?
CF: That’s a great question. I suppose technology helps with that, you know. I’m not a fan of and don’t have any social media. I do of course have a cellphone, so I text and email. I’m not much of a talker on the phone to the consternation of certain people in my life at times, but we can have the odd phone call. We usually text. [There are] friends I have from home, people who’ve meant a lot to me all my life. I have a couple of friends that I’ve known since I was born, literally, from around the corner. And then the majority of my old friends from home in Dublin are people that I’ve been housed with since I was 14 or so. We’re all [at the] center in each other’s lives. And there are people as me and Brendan have spoken about, and it’s the same with Martin, actually. There are friendships that don’t need to be constantly watered, you know? They go and live their lives and do their things and I go do my things. There’s been periods where we haven’t seen each other for 18 months. A bit of communication with the auld text, but as soon as we see each other we take up where we left off. There’s a depth of friendship that I’m lucky enough to have in my life with a few people that hasn’t fallen afoul of distances I’ve traveled and all that. My big concern is, there are friends and family, you just have to check in. Those who mean as much to you as the people who are really close to me in my life understand, to a certain degree, the nature of travel and of distance and focus. They get lost when I go off to work as well. I mightn’t be in communication for the first month as much, and everyone taken up running on the job, and I feel a little bit of comfort in the job because there’s a rhythm and I may open up to communicate again a bit, in a way. There’s no real rule.
Q: Well, they know you’re an artist and with that comes…
CF: Orson Welles talked about friendship, and how he always put friendship before art. Did you ever see it? It’s an amazing thing. He totally articulates it in a talk on film [on Twitter: Orson Welles interviewed by Ted Murrow]. He says art is way down the pecking order. He’s been asked, “Have you ever put friends in films?” “Yes.” “Have you ever put friends in film for the wrong parts?” “Yes.” “Have you ever regretted it?” “Yes.” “Would you do it again?” “Absolutely.” But I think the people that mean a lot to me know that they mean more to me than any of the films or the work that [I do]. I think they do. So if I go missing for awhile working, they know it’s not that I’m putting work in front of the other, it’s just folks know it’s the timing.
Q: Martin, what were the biggest obstacles in getting this film made in terms of logistics, financing, timing, [certainly] during Covid?
MM: I think just in the timing of it, Covid delayed us for probably about a year, all in all.
CF: Covid did us a favor with the weather we ended up getting, in a way.
MM: Completely. I think we were scheduled to film in February or something initially. Imagine that.
CF: It could have been bleak. It was so lovely that the weather was gorgeous while this horrible carcinogenic thing was taking place.
MM: And you remember that summer was idyllic. I’d never had one on the west…
BG: We’d never had 50 days in a row like that.
MM: Somehow I think these things — whatever problems you have trying to get something filmed — usually help somehow. Everything happens for a reason, if it’s like recasting or any kind of delay. It also gave me and production designer Mark Tildesley, the DP Ben Davis and First AD Peter Kohn time, a year beforehand, to plot through the entire schedule to work out: when we wanted to be inside, when we wanted to be outside, when it didn’t matter, what scenes we wanted to arrange for, what scenes we really go out for sunshine, et cetera. Extra time is always good and because of Covid we had that. In terms of financing, it was all great. Searchlight and Film4 came in really early. I’d worked with them both before. I know people usually like hearing tales of woe about getting a film made. No, everything worked out perfectly and we had a great time.
Q: Martin, why did you create a fictional setting for the story of Inisherin? What creative freedoms come with setting this story in a world that doesn’t actually exist?
MM: An original title of this was “The Banshees of Inisherin — which is the third of the Aran Islands and the smallest of them. I looked around there on my own about two or three years ago. It’s a beautiful island, but it doesn’t give us the scope of the landscape of the small old field, let alone the iron fort that’s in some of the shots and that Colin and Barry have a scene on. And there was too much modernity to the place. So I wanted to keep semblance of that name — “Inisherin” is a made-up one but pull out the freedom so we could amalgamate the island that we filmed on, which was Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands. And [there was] Achill Island [County Mayo], which I hadn’t really explored or been to before. But I’d seen a photo of a house on a beach there, which turned out to be the house that became Brendan’s house above that little crescent-shaped beach. Then all of the mountainous side of Achill we amalgamated with Inishmore, too. So it gave us those choices of two locations. But it also meant — in terms of the accuracy of what was happening in the civil war on the mainland, for instance — we didn’t have to be as specific as one might need to. In Inisherin, there could be questions off, “did battles ever rage just across the mainland?”But when it’s fictional, it could technically be anywhere along the west coast. So we didn’t have those issues. Also, in terms of accent, it didn’t have to be a terribly specific Aran Islands accent. It’s all very West coast, but it freed us up in so many ways. I’m so glad we made that choice.
Q: Colin and Brendan, what are your favorite performances of each other’s work in other films, and why?
CF: I haven’t seen anything else that Brendan’s done [laughs]. The work he did as Winston Churchill [“Into the Storm”, 2009] I have to say was astonishing, really. Astonishing. The boldness of a man such as himself with his love and affection and erudition around Irish history and all that, to step up to that boldness and brass as well. Not only the brilliance, the commitment, the passion and the intelligence of the interpretation — he really was extraordinary in that. Oh, and I watched “Mr Mercedes” [2017-2019] — brilliant! It was brilliant! Everything he does, really. I’ve always said about him, he hasn’t got a dishonest bone in his body. There’s no dishonesty in him. I might be a bit shifty in that way, I imagine, but there’s no dishonesty in him as a man and there’s no dishonesty in him as an artist in any sense. Every time he goes to work, it’s an extraordinary experience to watch what he’s doing.
BG: Well, I like all that. I wanted Colin to do something in a film that I was trying to make. That’s where we first met. We met in the Chelsea Hotel a year or two before — I think Domhnall [Gleeson, the son] put me in the hotel because he was in Brooklyn doing Martin’s play — he was doing “The Lieutenant [of Inshore]”, I think. At that time I went over to see him, but I was hoping to get a film made and I met Colin because I was hoping maybe he’d be interested. There was something about — again, I recalled back all the stuff he’s done from Alec [in “Ordinary Decent Criminals”, dir. Thaddeus O’Sullivan, 2000].
It was like watching somebody emerge, and his trajectory was so explosive. Then watching the artist emerge in all his different forms. It was almost a bit like the Harry Potter years when you watch these kids grow up within film, and you could watch this young man emerge. If I were to talk about favorite movies, this one — because I think there’s a place where his craftsmanship has always been there, and his honesty has always been there, and his accessibility to the emotional side of things, just watching him step away more and more. His heart has always been massive and I find that in the last couple of years, the choices that he’s been making, particularly since “In Bruges,” have been always exploratory, terribly brave, and always it’s an artistic journey that he’s on.
Being across from it in this movie was an absolute — we spoke about it before and said our job was to make each other’s lines as difficult as possible to say. I’m not letting somebody visit me whose heart is visibly breaking — I’m trying to tell him there’s no place in my life for him anymore. There was a degree of honesty that we shared across that. As Martin said, because there had been his legacy — you never really see, you don’t actually see at all, us as friends, prior. You don’t see that. It had to come from what was communicated when the sundering was happening. I can still remember every frame, every altercation, and how difficult it was to get these lines out. I think Colin’s kind of artistic journey is spectacular. And oddly enough, trying to pick one film out is weird, because it feels as if the rationale in all the time [is] in terms of just the way life progresses but that the performances are all different. They’re all immensely different. Toehold Yeats story from earlier is different from himself in the material. And it’s a pure pleasure to watch him.
CF: Thanks, B.
Q: Colin, can you talk about how you use your eyebrows as an expressive acting tool?
CF: No, I normally can’t, they do their own thing. I think the Energizer Bunnies at times, they operate exclusive of my intentions, I can tell you that for sure. Apparently the more I’m perturbed, the more active they are.
Q: Martin, how long was the writing process for “Banshees”?
MM: The timing was complicated. There was a version of this probably seven or eight years ago, which was a load of… It just not good enough. I put it completely out of my mind until about three, three and a half years ago now. I reread it, and the first five pages were quite good. Literally, the first five pages would be the exact same as the first five minutes of this film, so going to Brendan’s house and the breakup. Everything else after that is a new story, without plot, basically. The first film had way too much plot, outside characters coming in. This was more about mining the details in those first five pages — mining the breakup.
So then, when I put pen to paper, there was something so freeing about that idea of getting rid of plots, and trying to be truthful to the pain of the breakup, that it wrote itself in three or four weeks. I don’t think before the writing actually, it seems like a waste of time. I think on the page. Of course, you’ve got the background of who you think each of these characters are; that’s there. I think when it goes at its best, you’re literally copying down what people are actually saying, the characters are there. Especially when you’re writing for Colin and Brendan — you can hear their voices, sensitivities, sadnesses and their humor. Literally, when it goes well, you’re just trying to keep up with how quickly they’re talking.
Q: It’s a gift to know the people you’re writing too, that must be an amazing shorthand.
MM: Yeah, Yeah, completely. And certainly with Kerry and Barry, too. Barry I didn’t know, but I’d seen enough of his work, and had met with him a few times, so I had a sense of what his voice would be in this. I think he really blew us away.
Q: You actors have each been honing your craft for many years. What have you learned about acting specifically, in some form, from each other?
BG: There’s a joy working with Colin and I’ll tell you what it does for me. It reaffirms — and it’s been certainly working with Martin’s material and with everybody in this cast, really — there’s a certain way to approach this work that’s collaborative, honest and fearless, and not only about raising the bar, but having that reaffirmed. Colin is a kind of luminosity that “stars” have. There’s nothing I can learn from looking at it other than to see it and love it and say that’s a beautiful thing. In terms of the acting as such, we’re inhabiting, in a way, we understand that there’s an intellectual part of the work that’s crucial to it. There’s an instinctive part, and then there’s the craftsmanship that you need to know — all of these things. I’ve always been collaborative with Colin, and that all just reaffirms what I’ve known for a long, long time now: that’s the only real way to work. It’s not the only way to work for everybody, but I think for us, all of us.
CF: Brendan’s talking about that nature of collaboration, not just the theoretical offering. But it’s a good and healthy, constructive thing to be concerned about your scene partner or the people that you’re working with. It’s like love in words only works for so long, there has to be actions there. So actually to inhabit that and to live in a concern for your scene partners, your fellow actors, and to know that their concerns are yours and your concerns are their concerns, whether they’re spoken in measure or not. You don’t live in a vacuum as a storyteller, doing what we do. You may live by the breath of the actions of the people that are sitting across from Martin when he’s bringing it to life on his own with pen and paper. [Director] Peter Weir was talking the other day. He got the Governors’ award and [an] Achievement award and an Oscar. He was saying, “It was never about my ego. It was never about the actors’ ego. It’s about the script’s ego. It’s about the film’s ego. The script and the film have an ego, and our job is to take care of that, our job is to serve that ego.”
I can tell you that all these lads from Martin, the one who writes the story, to me, that’s the genesis of every film we’ve done together. Brendan and I know our tools — and Kerry and Barry too — we all really believe that it’s in service of the story. We’re not serving our own proclivities, desires or ambitions. Our proclivities, desires and ambitions get to come to the party — they’re invited for sure. We acknowledge that. But we’re serving the story and each other. And in this case, it isn’t as twee as it sounds. You serve yourself when you serve the story. It’s kind of a meeting point of these psychologies that we all share, and to the creative process that makes it such a joy. It makes it so immediate to what it means as well.
Working with Martin and Brendan in preparation for this, we had three weeks’ rehearsal on both projects. I remember “In Bruges” going for three weeks, and in three weeks we were fine. The script had depth to it that it just kept offering up every question we answered, five more questions, or 10 more, would pop up. It was very similar with this as well. You’d just get a familiarity to then go on set and feel like you have the freedom to continue to explore. And when you have that trust that we’ve spoken about, your fellow performer, actor and director — you can go anywhere. You’re not afraid to fail. If you’re not afraid to fail, you’re in good shape. As an actor, I have felt that before, being afraid to fail — and I’ll probably, or at least, possibly, do it again. But if you’re afraid of failure you’re so limited, so limited in what you can do.
Q: There is a powerful moment during one of the confrontations when Colin’s character speaks about the virtues of being a nice guy. In order for him to feel fulfilled, he has to be a bit of a bully. Niceness is not valued in the current social climate. Why can’t nice guys win? Can you talk about why we push back so much against niceness?
MM: Yikes. A lot of this social media language and apparatus isn’t really conducive to niceness. It’s not part of the algorithm. People being nice to each other on that thing, it seems like it’s not interesting. It’s not dangerous enough. It’s an interesting debate in the movie, even the debate about art versus niceness. But I think all three of us agree that it’s an erroneous question. I think we all feel that niceness — for instance, take the movie: the friendlier, the nicer the set, the more freedom everyone has to bring their voices to it, and not be afraid, and, as Colin said, too fail.
On an egotistical set, I don’t think that room is there. I can’t see how it would be fun to be the type of director who’d be barking orders all over the set where it’s all so heightened and egotistical. But there is this whole myth of the director — it’s not a myth, I think the truth — that you have to be alpha and loud. I don’t think any of those things could necessarily be true. Some great films have been made by people who are that way, some by others who are the exact opposite; I don’t think that truth really holds. It’s more fun to do it our way.
BG: It’s an interesting thought about what constitutes niceness. I find Colin — from Colin’s point of view — I think he’s a nice man, broadly. I think he has kindness and generosity in his soul. But he’s very troubled by something else. You can call it artistic creativity or can call it depression — both would be not exclusive of each other. He has a problem with being nice because he feels that it’s an excuse for him to ignore that creative calling, and that in order to follow that, he needs to do something that’s not nice. And how he tries to do it I find very interesting in that he does it quite brutally at the beginning.
However, after that, there are a number of scenes — and we talked a lot about the development of those — where he tries very specifically and in a very nice way to say, he literally says, “I don’t want to hurt you.” Now for somebody in 1923 to say that would have been a bit of a push. But it’s like, how much more can he explain it? And yet it turns out that what he’s doing, because of its nature, has a brutality to it. So what I love about this film is that a nice man gets pushed into extremism where niceness has to be tackled with regard to: is it a cop-out, and is there a better way to do this? We see the devastation it causes. I was nothing every day in Colin’s eyes, I don’t see the fascination — and that’s where the interface is.
I remember after reading “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” I said, “That’s great, but what happens after that? What happens when they have to live with one another?” You know what I’m saying? How far can this bring people? The idea of being nice — like maybe if Pádraic was nice, he’d leave me the f*** alone, you know? I’m being facetious here, but it’s like — there’s a bit of country to the north of here where there’s a huge lack of confrontation and everybody’s extraordinarily nice. It has its limitations. At some point, there has to be a point of contact where you say, “Will you please stop saying we have an issue we need to handle. We need to be a bit of a Barney about this.”
But feeling nice about it can be passive/aggressive. It can be all sorts of things. You’re not being nice to yourself at all, and you’re not being nice necessarily to the people around you because you’re suddenly going into a place of dishonesty. And that’s where you have to take it on board a little bit. So it is a fascinating subject for me. I do believe people should be nice to each other, but I believe being nice to each other constitutes a whole lot of other things other than just pure courtesy. It’s not just etiquette and being “nice” — it has to be really, really nice. I think all of us want to be nice and are happier when things are nice, and when we can be nice. But when it has to be tied to authority, that’s part of what the movie looks at.
Q: Colin, how much time did you have to spend with Jenny in order to feel the bond that you ended up having onscreen?
CF: The bond that ended up on screen might be a result of editorial smoke and mirrors. It was fun. She was very sweet and confused a bit. Film sets can be a very overwhelming place. If you don’t know what you’re doing there, if you haven’t got a purpose there — and I’m not sure Jenny knew we were on a film set, as much as I told her. But she had a support donkey called Rosie. Jenny would get a bit nervous sometimes so they’d bring Rosie in and Jenny would see Rosie and she’d go, “All right” and do the scene. She was adorable, cute as a button. But the best thing about the auld donkey or any of the animals in the film, Minnie, any of the horses, Brendan’s dog — was the same as humans in that they could be the best they can be at times if there’s not too much stage parenting involved.
It can be the best thing with kids, there’s honesty there. You’re at the whims of the honesty of this particularly with animals. The human child lies better, of course, then an animal does, but not as well rehearsed as the grownups. The animals are totally honest. So when Jenny was on the set in the middle of a scene, she’d get in front of it and go. And that’d be the end of it. “Cut! Okay, well, what do we do?” Then the trainer would come in and spend 20 minutes, and for Martin and everyone was — there was no pressure. There was no come-on, get her to do it. She was our first bell right after our announcement — the first star shot through the cinematic stratosphere, one and done as they say. She’s in the pasture now.
I love working with animals. I worked a lot with horses, dogs and what-have-you. First time I’ve worked with a donkey though. But she was great. She really was such a very real and present part of the film, for the landscape, but also for its emotional work. She really is a rescue dog of sorts — rescue influences Pádraic in his own boredom, his own banality, daily. And then she’s the final straw. I lose the sister, a friend, any kind of standing in the community, and then the final straw is — “spoiler alert” here. And that’s it. Really it’s so crushing for Pádraic. And for the audience as well. I mean, she is the one that — you knew Jenny was gone because you love her.
The way she worked, that’s innocence. In a similar way that Barry’s Dominic does. I don’t represent innocence. I’m more than a willing participant in my own downfall, as Brendan says. I even understand and can justify the reasons why I push back and won’t accept his ultimatum or dictum. I won’t leave him alone until I can understand the pain that compelled me to continue to try and reach out. I am a participant in my own downfall. Barry’s character Dominic and Jen are very mu two innocents that really suffer as a result of this kind of very, very contained civil war between me and this fella.
Q: The scene where Colin talks about kindness and living in the moment as well as a legacy. As artists, what is most important to you in leaving a legacy?
CF: You want to do good stuff. We all know wherever you’re going to work, sometimes you’re going to work for entertainment, and the money might be better, or whatever, then you’re going to satisfy your own curiosity. Whatever the reason, you have an understanding, whatever the keynote is, it’s for very entertaining purposes or for some greater intellectual or social provocation. You just want to make something that people don’t waste an hour and a half or two hours of their lives, as simple as that sounds.
If you live as authentically as you can in your life and in your art or whatever it is, then the legacy thing will take care of itself. Your legacy is still through the friendships and people that you’ve met, you’ve touched and all that. Don’t get me wrong, when I saw that “The New World” [dir. Terrence Malick, 2005] was being bought by the Criterion Collection, I did get tickled.
BG: I think living in the moment is its own legacy and it’s its own priority. I do feel that the nature of art — good art for me — is generous.
BG: You’re attempting to make sense of the world, to record beauty or to express a form of beauty, or give the exploration of things that other people mightn’t have seen and put it in front of their eyes. It’s interesting with regard to acting or anything like that, first of all, it’s not therapeutic for me. It’s therapeutic for the audience. That’s the duty. If it becomes therapeutic for the artist — and I could even say, in Colm’s quest, okay, maybe he needs it for himself, it’s mostly therapeutic for him. But for me, artistic endeavor and his trying to finish a tune that would be beautiful and would last through the ages is, I think, his gift to the world and humanity.
Okay, he’s thinking of it in terms of his own legacy. But that’s a legacy that’s built from a conscience: the very things he needs to give back. One of the things Colin said to me when we arrived at my location, at my house, was, “How do you live and create beauty without feeling you need to give something back?” It’s a challenge it’s giving, it’s asking you. I think to feel useful and creative, to not have wasted your time on earth, to have this one chance at life and not to give something of yourself that will last — it’s generous in nature. It’s about sharing some beauty that he’s managed to [strike] out of a rock, and put a human in the world that wasn’t there before. You should, of course, be living in the moment. For him, living in the moment is in that kiln. So I don’t think it’s one against the other.
CF: It’s not either/or.
BG: I don’t think myself either that it justifies any cruelty to those in your general area. I don’t think it gives people the license. But sometimes there does come a difficulty — sometimes there has to be a bit of collateral damage. But you know that something magnificent can be achieved. A lot of the great artists had to face that.
MM: Many of the great writers of the poems I’ve loved were written by people that were dead long before I was born.
BG: Right, and there was collateral damage in terms of some of the people — even us when we’re involved in our work. So your snarky and moody and there is a threat of damage around. It’s a question of how much you live with it. I think when Colm understands the level of damage that he’s actually wrought, and something as beautiful as Pádraic, I do think…
CF: I’m glad to hear you own it at last!
BG: I do think he learns a little too late that maybe civil war is not the way to solve any questions.
Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.
Here’s the trailer of the film.