Nick Rowland on Working with Actors, Film School, and his Feature Debut ‘Calm with Horses’

Nick Rowland’s debut feature, Calm with Horses, premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, with a cinematic release set just as lockdown hit. Despite the film’s radically modern switch straight to streaming, its impact has been noticeable, receiving glowing reviews including the praise of Mark Kermode. Having studied Directing at the National Film and Television School in London, Rowland moved from making award-winning short films into television, all the while developing this first feature for its release in March 2020.

The film follows Arm, a man looked up at in fear in a small town sheltered between the mountains and coast of Ireland, where the drug-dealing Devers family rule. Arm has been their trusted enforce, but now they want more of him – they want blood. Alongside the growing expectations of his work, Arm grapples with the possibility of his autistic son— his only anchor in the storm— being taken away across the country to something better than what he can offer.

Based off a short story by Colin Barrett from his collection Young Skins, Rowland found the book his last year at the NFTS. “I just found the characters very endearing”, he tells me when I ask what drew him to the story. “It’s quite a brutal world that these characters inhabit – and quite dark at times – but I found a lot of humanity in it. It’s only a short story, but I cried at the end.” Rather than breaking down the intellectual themes and messages behind the words, the characters are always going to the real heart of any story. “I’m more of an emotionally driven person, so for me it’s just any story where I feel something at the end of it.”

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“The two things I’m always thinking about are tension and emotion”, Rowland mentions. The only reason we go to the cinema is to feel something, he points out. “You do end up with a moral or a point to the story. But it’s always funny how it emerges from the work rather than something I’m actively thinking about.” Over three years of development and encouragement from Colin Barrett to take it in a new direction, the film developed into something more sensitive than expected, and Nick explains “it was really late in the day when I worked out what Calm with Horses was about.” While the criminal aspects are noticeable, it’s the family affairs that became an anchor as the team worked.

“It’s nice working from a short story, working with a skeleton that you can build upon – I imagine it’s much more fun than when you have a 300-page book that you’re trying to condense down.” At first glance, it might seem that having an existing story to transfer to the screen is easier than starting from scratch, but adaptations come with their own set of challenges. “It feels much more like problem solving”, Rowland says. “As you transition from one medium to another there are challenges in how you retain the feel of the book when you can’t rely on prose; how to constantly fix stuff that would get lost in translation.”

The script itself was written by Joseph Murtagh, a fellow graduate from the NFTS and previous collaborator of Rowland’s, having worked on the Student Academy Award-nominated Group B, during their time at film school. When I ask Rowland about their process, he describes it as a continuation of being film students again: “There’s no fear of looking stupid in each other’s eyes. We’re very happy to throw ideas at each other without fear or looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.”

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Once Michael Fassbender and Conor McCaughan’s DMC Films had optioned the story for them, the team then went to Film4. “I’d always dreamed of doing a Film4 film,’ Rowland admits. With that dream soon fulfilled with Film4’s backing, Rowland essentially came out of film school straight into the path of his heroes. “It takes a while to adjust to the idea that you’re part of that, rather than purely something you’re looking up to and aspiring to be”, he explains. “It’s scary, but they’re very supportive as well. A lot of the pressure is self-made pressure.”

I ask about the transition to feature filmmaking, and Rowland pauses: “The big transition is just there’s a lot more pressure… you have to reassure a lot of people who are much more experienced than you that you’re a safe pair of hands.” In the real world of filmmaking, understanding the market, how to sell your story and find your audience becomes a three-dimensional part of the job. “I think at film school you can worry purely about your own artistic expression. Whereas when you’re making a real film it’s about bringing people with you as well.”

“It announces you onto the scene as your debut for better or for worse”, Rowland points out of his debut. The pressure to live up to recent first features like Lady Macbeth, Beast or Saint Maud puts a real highlight on what you want to say about your voice and abilities as a storyteller. “So many great debuts come out every year, and I had no idea if I was going to be good enough or not. That was always a pressure that I was managing in my mind. And I wish I’d spent less time worrying about stuff like that!”

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What is clear is that Rowland also focuses on his actors. “It’s just that the director has so much help in every other department apart from the performance”, Nick explains. “When it comes to performance, it’s just you and the actors.” In the head of the film is Cosmo Jarvis, frankly unrecognisable in the role of the anti-hero thug who is desperately trying to be a caring father. “Arm on the page is such a difficult character to like”, Nick agrees. “It was so important to find an actor like Cosmo that really understood the spine of who the guy was, and he brought a real vulnerability to the role.” With Rowland’s guidance, Jarvis transforms an incredibly flawed man into someone you actually care for.

Across the board, Calm with Horses places care into all its characters, with breakout talents including Barry Keoghan, Ned Dennehy and the startingly moving Niamh Algar, all of whom feel totally well-rounded and realised. “You know how in a Coen Brothers movie there’ll be a character that’s literally in one scene, and will maybe only have one or two lines, but they’re really memorable and just as good as the main cast? We wanted it to feel a bit like that.”

But shooting on a tight 28-day schedule with basic equipment doesn’t come without its challenges; working with five-year-old Kiljan Moroney to play Arm’s non-verbal autistic son Jack was probably one of the bigger ones: ‘”If the performance in Jack didn’t work then the whole movie would just not work”. The film’s heart is, in part, about man who’s been forced into roles other people have decided for him wanting to bond with an autistic child who will not (and cannot) be forced to do what others want of him. The team worked with the National Autistic Society to ensure the film’s truthful representation, as well as incorporating some advice about working with children from Room director Lenny Abrahamson.

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While the film is grounded in its performances, the vividness of the time-warped landscape shows that there’s more at play than pure social realism. “I wanted to create its own little universe that wasn’t about a specific moment in history.” Using design references from the 70s and 80s, the town almost feels left behind from the rest of the world, stuck between the vast Irish hills and the rundown houses. “The mountain range in Connemara was really attractive to me because it’s all bog land. There’s no farming activity, there’s no human footprint. It feels dangerous and it feels empty and wild. In the book it feels very elemental, this town’s been besieged by wind and rain and the sea and mountains.”

When I ask how Rowland got into film he chuckles. “You won’t believe me,” he warns, “but this is a true story. I was working as a tour guide in an aquarium in Scotland for a year. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took an online multiple-choice quiz which told me: A to be a librarian, and B was film production.” That leaves us both laughing. “And I’m very dyslexic, so I thought I can’t be a librarian, so I guess I’ll go to film school.” Nick then enrolled at The Arts University College at Bournemouth before moving on to the NFTS, but almost quit after the first six months. “It felt quite competitive at times. Everyone was trying to prove themselves very hard, and I found that intimidating. Especially because I hadn’t really had ambitions to be a filmmaker.”

What kept him going was the pleasure of working with actors, the knack of connecting with and capturing a performance. “I was worried that I wasn’t confident enough or… I didn’t feel like anyone particularly needed to hear my point of view. I didn’t feel like I had stuff to tell the world or anything like that, I just enjoyed doing it. I guess that’s what I meant earlier – I don’t ever think that I deserve to have my voice heard more than anyone else. It’s just that I enjoy connecting with characters and I do my best with whatever I’m working on. Hopefully, other people will get that cathartic experience as well. I try to keep it as simple as that.”

Calm with Horses is available on VOD now

by Daisy Leigh Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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