Film

‘Wren Boys’ Director Harry Lighton On Remoulding Traditions In Contemporary Ireland

Writer-director Harry Lighton’s BAFTA and BIFA-nominated short film, Wren Boys, is an expectation defying tale of an Irish Catholic Priest who drives his nephew to prison to visit an unpredictable inmate.

Harry joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss his award-winning film and the future.


Q: What led you and John Fitzpatrick to write this Irish tale?

A: A desire to explore the remoulding of traditions in contemporary Ireland. And an ambition to do so through characters who overturned audience presuppositions, but simultaneously felt honest.

Q: What were you looking for when you casted the lead roles?

A: In Father Conor, someone who wore his tussle with a personal sense of morality on his face; someone able to sermonise one moment, and out-banter his nephew the next.

In Seamus and Malky, actors who could carry the duality of violence and tenderness. They needed to be credible in the prison environment, but their sweetness also needed to be credible.

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Q: I always imagine finding the right, authentic-sounding dialogue – and the right delivery of that dialogue – is tough in a film like this. How did you approach that?

A: Initially, through research in the writing the stage. Later, by embracing the strengths of our actors. The skeletons of each scene were very clearly worked out, but I always encouraged the actors to add their own vernacular and avoid repetition from take to take. It creates the muddiness I’m after. Seeing the script on screen makes me squirm.

Q: The look of the film is tremendous. Why did you decide to film on 16mm and what challenges did that bring?

A: Myself, Sorcha Bacon (producer) and Nick Morris (DoP) always wanted to shoot on film. We knew the skin tones would reward honest performances, and the grain would complement our thematic exploration of tradition. Our shooting schedule was incredibly tight, so 16mm allowed us to keep the camera very small and allow for long handheld takes.

We wanted to keep an element of rawness in performances which influenced the way we shot. Going into some critical scenes unrehearsed is a challenge, but it’s also a shot of adrenaline. It energises the cast and crew.

On the whole we wanted the film to feel authentic and the film negative offered this straight out of the can. Cutting this with iPhone footage at the film’s climax was our way of harnessing different formats to visually represent old and new butting heads.

Q: ‘Wren Boys’ has had a lot of success including a BAFTA nomination. How have you enjoyed the success of ‘Wren Boys’ and can you share any notable audience responses you’ve had to the short?

A: I have an instinct whether a film’s worked or not. But seeing it with an audience confirms/changes that. I love watching Wren Boys with audiences. There’s a moment at the end of Wren Boys when they get quite involved. At our Sundance premiere there was this massive collective intake of breath.

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After the screening one random man came up and chewed my ear off, while another stranger hugged me. Getting that kind of reaction to a film where we never tried to be provocative for the sake of it, made all the slog worth it.

The BAFTA nomination was a pipe dream, and the party was epic. But the biggest high definitely came from feeling that audience move with the film.

Q: I believe you are also working on your first feature, which has been commissioned by BBC Films. Can you reveal anything about that yet?

A: A teaser! It’s set in the world of sumo wrestling, it’s being produced by Element Films and BBC Films, and I recently got back from a life-changing research trip to Tokyo. I’m writing it at the moment.

Q: Lastly, can you give us a taste of the type of films you want to make in the future?

A: I would if I could. But I’m pretty short-sighted in that I obsess about one thing at a time. So right now that’s sumo, sumo, sumo. And three years back I don’t think my answer to this question would have involved sumo wrestling.

On the whole, lived-in performances are what excites me as a filmmaker. I can’t see myself moving too far towards the high-concept. But ask me this question in a decade and I might pitch you a tragedy about late Capitalism told from the perspective of a nomadic pound coin. Who knows.

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