Irish director Brendan Muldowney has made significant waves in his native country with films like Savage and Love Eternal, but his work’s only recently started making its way over to the United States. His new film, the historical thriller Pilgrimage, which releases today in select theaters and VOD/Digital HD today (August 11), marks a large step forward for the director; its setting in the Middle Ages is a significant departure from his prior work, and offers a glimpse of an Ireland rarely seen in any cinema. It’s a bloody and thrilling romp, full of unexpected violence and gorgeous landscapes.
Pilgrimage stars Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Lost City of Z) as a young monk tasked by the Vatican along with other members of his order to transport a relic of supposed “great power” along the Irish countryside so that it may be picked up and sent to Rome for help in an upcoming Crusade. The Normans, here represented by an evil knight (Richard Armitage, The Hobbit films) and his cohorts, want the power for themselves, and the only person standing in the way between the monks and annihilation is a mute (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street, Netflix’s The Punisher), atoning for some unknown transgression, who may be more capable with a sword than he seems.
Muldowney talked with Vanyaland by phone from his home, discussing how preparation is key to making a great action sequence, how Holland just has an “honest” look about him, and what’s next for the filmmaker.
Nick Johnston: What drew you to this project?
My friend was the writer, and he brought me this script about [a few monks] dragging a relic across Ireland, and that was really what hooked me. What I liked was the time period, which was an original time period for Irish film; I thought the locations were stunning, and he said there would be some action in it, and I went “Great!” That was very exciting. And I loved that it was about Monks, and that there were religious themes in it.
Why do you think religious relics hold such an allure in modern storytelling?[laughs] Well, that’s a new one! It’s interesting, have you noticed some sort of trend?
Not necessarily recently — we’ve got the new big-budget Mummy movie, and classic stuff like the Indiana Jones series looming over everything…
Oh, oh yeah — the Covenant.
Why do you think these things endure?
This is a total guess, but I would say in the same way as the Ring [presumably from The Lord of the Rings], they’re a macguffin, aren’t they? They allow for an important thing to be dragged around, or fodder for villains to chase, and I suppose that they can be magical to us as well. And we play with that in our film. And you know, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it really is magical.
How was it collaborating with [cinematographer] Tom Comerfield on the look of the film? What specific things about his work fit the film?
Well, I figured pretty early on that I wasn’t going to try and compete with Hollywood’s biggest productions or even television, like Game of Thrones or Vikings. My shooting time was so small. My assistant director went on afterwards and did Game of Thrones — “The Battle of the Bastards” — and he had three weeks to shoot that one scene, and I had three days to shoot my ambush scene, and that’s the difference between the scale.
So I realized I wasn’t going to be doing anything with cranes or steadicams or tracks even. But I didn’t come to that conclusion first — it was actually sort of a combined effort. I knew that I couldn’t compete, but I also felt, how do you present that difference to Hollywood, anyway? How do you do it when you have a hundred grand, or through the lens of a social realist? So I did my best by making it handheld, and I think it gives it a grittier feel. It also really helped us move fast. You know, you’re talking about a look with the DP, but I had to shoot some scenes with eight close-ups, because eight people have lines, and you’re trying to do two scenes a day. It’s a lot of terrible pressure, so, in a way, it was move fast and get it done.
We discussed some things, like Werner Herzog’s films and Valhalla Rising, and there were a couple other touchstones that I can’t recall, but I just knew that it was always going to be widescreen, that I was gonna use the landscape, and that was going to mean wider lenses so that we could move and so that the camera maybe could swing from side to side, from a character to a character without having huge focus issues. And that’s how the style built out from there.
That Ambush scene that you mentioned is fantastic — it’s so visceral, like that moment when Bernthal’s cleaves a sword into an ambusher’s head, and the noise that it makes afterwards.
You know, that’s interesting, because — I’ll just tell you briefly — I love a lot of the ambush, but when I look at that shot, I feel that when the sword head the head, that head would have been forced downwards by the blow more, so when I look at it, I go “that’s a director’s mistake.” I should have talked more with the visual effects guys about that movement. I’m sorry, I must be boring you with that, with my old director insecurities. [laughs]
How long did it take to choreograph and stage that scene?
Well, the stunt guys worked for two weeks before we shot — not two weeks solid, but at least every day before, because everyone was doing different things. I worked for at least six months beforehand, going through everything in the script where there was a violent [moment and working from there, be it] in large meetings or small emails or one-on-one meetings, and I would have been talking to visual effects, stunts, make-up, special effects, and maybe practical blood and saying “How do I do this? How do I do a man who’s arm has been nearly chopped off?” And visual effects would offer me something, and I’d realize the cost of that was too expensive, and I’d go “Well, with an amputee, the prosthetics would be a little bit cheaper.”
Then we’d color-code everyone that was involved from costumes — costumes were in blue — and everyone would get these color-coded breakdowns. And when you think about it, there were a lot of them in the ambush and in the end [sequence]. There was really no one else who could do that, so I had to spend six months working on that every day, and of course it’d change, and you’d find problems, but it was a lot of preparation. And really, with relatively no money in comparison, you find yourself in the “triangle” situation. You know, where the points on the triangle are cost, time and quality, and you can only have two. So, I’ve always figured to a lot of preparation.
What qualities about Tom Holland told you’d he’d be right for this kind of role, especially before he blew up as Spider-Man?
Yeah, a lot of them [hadn’t], Jon Bernthal wasn’t the Punisher [yet] either. I was sent a list of actors who were young enough to play the role. You know, there’s a lot of things — a lot of young actors look older, they’re bigger — but mainly, I watched him in The Impossible and in this film called How I Live Now, and watching him I just went, “Oh, yeah.” It’s very hard to explain. I’ve said this a few times, but I’ve always said it wrong, and I’ll try to say it again properly. When I look at him — not only in film, but when I see him in real life or whatever — there’s a truthfulness to him, that I believe what he’s saying and doing. And that’s not even an acting skill, it’s just luck, he has it instinctively. You just believe him. So, in [this role, as] this blank slate and innocent novice, I thought he’d be brilliant and he was. And obviously you’ve seen him as Spider-Man, and he’s a lot more flexible — he can do a lot more. So, I Skyped with him as soon as I could and offered him the role in a heartbeat.
Was it easy convincing an actor like Bernthal to take a role in which he’d be mute for most of the film?[laughs] I think that attracted him [to it]. You know, Jon’s the type of guy who likes a challenge. And, when you think about it, when you don’t have lines that’s even more challenging for an actor. I think that appeals to someone like Jon. He loves to push himself, and it was a physical role. He’s a physical guy, so I figure he looked at and thought “I can do this. This is a character in this, and it can be good.” He went silent for the first week of shooting.
How was that?
Well, it’s like you’d imagine. Well, actually, he did it for the first couple of days before the shoot and for the first week of shooting. And it helped him. Like, did he really need to ask for a glass of water? And he said, by the time he started talking again, that he’d learned what he needed to do for the character by going silent for all that time.
How did this film change on you over the course of production and post-production?
Every film does. That’s just the nature of filmmaking for me. The script was, you know, bigger in ambition and in scale, so during prep, during the three months before, we really cut characters and amalgamated scenes, and during the two weeks right before [we shot] I was cutting lots of stuff, from the scale of extras, to how many horses [we’d need], to how many knights, and so the scale was definitely turned back. Then, with actors, and with the problems that we might have on a day’s shooting, from weather to the horses not cooperating — obviously a ton of problems happen, and the film does change. The coverage you get is different than what you think. All of these changes aren’t necessarily bad; it’s just an evolution of what’s happening. And then in the edit, the same thing happens, and the music’s added. But there’s always a core — a core strength or a core idea or feeling that you had about the film — that generally survives.
What’s next for you?
Well, I have a nice ghost story, based on a short film that we did called The Ten Steps, and I have a dark coming-of-age story and I have — these are all projects I’ve written myself — and I have a political thriller set in the ’80s. But they’re only projects I’ve written myself, and I’d be very open to seeing what my agent brings me, and I’m not against working in television either. So, I don’t have a full answer for that at the moment — I’m quite open — but I’m looking around.
Featured images courtesy of KWPR. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.