In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, whilst also trying to be a good father to his autistic young son. Torn between these two families, Arm’s loyalties are truly tested when he is asked to kill for the first time.
“At first glance, Calm with Horses can be seen as a tense crime thriller, which has one footplanted in visceral genre filmmaking. However, the heart of the film is about loyalty, family and fatherhood.” explains Director, Nick Rowland.
It’s the directorial feature debut of Nick Rowland, whose previous work includes Slap, a Bafta-nominated short film, and television episodesof the BBC prime time drama Hard Sun and Amazon’s Ripper Street. Joe Murtagh adapted the script from a short story in Young Skins, an acclaimed collection by Irish writer, Colin Barrett.
“It is a film about how bad relationships dictate thelife of the abused and sedate their self-awareness through fear and habit. I wanted to explore how a community can misunderstand, or eventake advantage of vulnerable people, and show how it’s also possible to turn your back on these abuses. I was fascinated by how the characters are chained together by co-dependence and a selfish love. “Dympna is best friends with Arm because he uses him for his dirty work. Arm wants Ursula and Jackto stay close because it suits him; not because it is good for his son. Paudi hates that Hector may, oneday, fall in love with the widow and run away, leaving him alone. Breaking this cycle is, I guess, inpart what the film is about.”
“During the adaptation process and planning of this film, my focus has been on staying trueto theelements of the source material that make it so unique and rich, while developing and expanding thestory to make it an emotional and cinematic experience for the audience.It has been great to have Colin Barrett’s advice and support throughout the process, and it was a hugehonour to be able to play with the world and characters he created. The challenge has been to retainthe sense of poetry and sensitivity found in the prose, and translate it into the language of film.
The world of Calm with Horses is energetic, eccentric and beautiful as much as it is dark andthreatening. It is a place where violence or laughter could erupt at any moment. I loved how theaudience are propelled forward by the youthful energy and spirit of the central characters. Above all else, I wanted to take the audience on a deeply emotional journey, as we explore this brutal worldthrough the eyes of our deeply vulnerable protagonist, as he grapples with his conscience and desireto do what is best for his son.
At the start of the story, Arm, has been asked to kill for the first time. Simultaneously, he learns tha this ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) wants to take his autistic son to a special school on the otherside of Ireland. Arm finds himself at a crossroads.
“Arm’s main moral dilemma in CALM WITH HORSES is that his loyalties are torn between thesetwo families,” explains Rowland. “Ursula, his ex-girlfriend, tells Arm that she doesn’t want Arm tobe a part of her life anymore, because of his criminality, so he has to decide what sort of man hewants to be and what kind offather he wants to be.”
Plenty of actors read for the role, but Cosmo Jarvis resonated on another level. Despite his nerves, here created an emotional moment from the story while in tears. Dan Emmerson, the film’s producer, describes his audition as vulnerable yet powerful.
“Cosmo was perfect to play Arm. On the page, Arm could be seen as an unsympathetic character. He makes lots of bad choices. He’s violent, and can make selfish decisions, so it was important the audience are intrigued by him and can empathise with him.” adds Rowland, “From the moment Cosmo came into the audition he brought an incredible vulnerability to the role. Despite the flaws in his character you still worry about him and want him to be okay. Without those qualities you may not root for him.”
Jarvis wanted to transform his physique, in order to inhabit the character of Arm, who is an ex-boxer. During the preparation process, he put on around two stone (12.7kg), “I needed to eat a lot and lift a lot of weights and then find out about people who’ve boxedin theamateur leagues. I had to get bigger, but also to keep some of the fatness because Arm’s out-of-shape. It was important that he wasn’t a ripped guy. He should be big and imposing. Bulky, but not in an elegant way.”
The production took the actors to areas such as the seaside town of Kilkee in County Clare, where a key scene was filmed at the edge of a cliff. In Galway, they shot at an equestrian centre in Ballinasloe and a nightclub in Gort.
“I used as much time as I could in Ireland to try and understand the essence of the people from theplace,” says the actor. “Everybody is an individual, but your environment is a big factor, so it wasgood to familiarise myself with the intricacies of how they talk. I hoped it would become secondnature, so once we started shooting those habits would be inside me.”
Five weeks before filming began, Jarvis moved to the west of Ireland to immerse himself in the environment and didn’t come out of accent from then until the moment that the film wrapped. He would sit in fast food restaurants, listening to people at the table behind him, noting their turns of phrase in order to inform his approach toward the character of Arm.
“Throughout all the terrible things that happen, Arm has to figure out what the right thing is to do. What is important in your life? Who is important? It’s a question that is often convoluted and forgotten. We all fake it and it’s a sad, horrible mess. This film speaks to the search for trying to find what is worth living for.” says Cosmo Jarvis.
Rowland hopes people will finish streaming the film feeling thrilled and emotionally moved. Calm with Horses takes place in a dangerous crime world, but Arm’s relationship with his little boy, and his battle in coming to terms with the fact that his son is non-verbal and autistic, is at the heart of the story.
The Irish Film Festival runs from 3 to 12 September, 2021, tickets are available for single films, multi or full season passes.