'Calvary': Faith, Fortitude and Independent Filmmaking

'Calvary,' produced on a modest budget even by UK standards, was shot in County Sligo, Ireland on a 29-day schedule.
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British writer/director John Michael McDonagh's 2011 debut feature The Guard starred Brendan Gleeson as a corrupt policeman in remote Ireland and mixed violent drama with black comedy. His follow-up, Calvary, which stars Gleeson as a local priest serving a tiny beachside Irish town of Easkey, offers up its share of dark humor too, although it is essentially quite serious in its themes of faith, sin and redemption.

Father James, who long ago left behind the life of alcoholism that made him a terrible father and husband, must fight to keep his faith against the tide of sin and general awfulness displayed daily by his parishioners, one of whom has threatened the priest's life. Meanwhile, Father James tries to make amends with his depressed daughter (Kelly Reilly) who pays a visit to Easkey between suicide attempts.

Calvary, produced on a modest budget even by UK standards, was shot in County Sligo, Ireland on a 29-day schedule, which would be tight under any circumstances but was particularly so because so much of the story is set outside, where the feel of the town, the countryside and the rocky beach bring an earthy texture to the proceedings.

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Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson on the set of Calvary.

Says McDonagh about his own test of faith: "If the weather had turned against us, if it was raining on the beach when we were shooting the climactic scene, we'd never have finished the movie. I find that type of schedule definitely tends to concentrate the mind."

Cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut for director Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives), shot both of McDonagh's films. He worked with ARRI Alexa cameras (capturing to ProRes 4:4:4:4 on SxS cards) and Cooke S4 lenses as the primary optics along with two Angenieux zooms for the relatively small number of times a zoom was required.

"I use Cooke because I find digital [filmmaking] unforgiving, especially in terms of shadows," Smith says. "Even with very soft lighting, you can get harsh shadows that you'd never get shooting film. So I find Cooke to be the most 'forgiving' lenses." Though he had a "diffusion period" when initially switching to digital image capture, he says he no longer feels that's necessary. "Now I want the lens as 'clean' as possible," he explains.

While the location and the somber themes of the film might suggest muted tones, Calvary is actually awash in rich, saturated colors, especially with some of the night interiors of houses, the church and the local pub. This decision was both McDonagh's and Smith's pre-existing preference: "I tend to maybe even oversaturate things sometimes," Smith admits. "It's what's pleasing to my eye when I'm looking through the viewfinder. I also tend to light in a way that I would call 'moody,' which makes use of pronounced highlights and shadows. When you've got dark tones in a shadow area, they will just become very rich and saturated.

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Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O’Dowd as The Butcher in Calvary.

"I like to light dark interiors through windows where the illumination comes through at an angle and doesn't hit all the walls," the cinematographer elaborates. "I have all my lamps on dimmers so they go more toward orange and like to further adjust the color temperature control on the camera to add to the warm feeling of an interior. If it feels pleasing to my eye, I do it. I know I can bring it back a little bit in the grade." (Generally, this wasn't necessary.)

McDonagh, who initially contacted Smith after seeing his use of rich, intense colors on Refn's Fear X, shares the cinematographer's affinity for bold color choices. In fact, Smith recalls an experience on The Guard where he felt the green color of a certain set might have read just a bit too intense in the dailies and was surprised when he saw during the grade how much brighter the green had become, at McDonagh's direction.

The writer/director admits he is not technically oriented, but adds that from the time he puts the scene on the page, he has some definite ideas about what everything looks like. "With the bar we're sort trying to implying that it's a hell on earth so that explains the red walls everything," he says. "A lot of the costumes are quite stylized too. The green coat that Kelly Reilly wears as she and Brendon Gleeson walk through this green landscape. There is a stylization all the way through."

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Director John Michael McDonagh directing Calvary.

The filmmakers shot virtually everything with two cameras both because of the time constraint and also because it suited the style of the film. "There are a lot of two-handers," McDonagh explains. "It's really kind of an episodic movie with quite a lot of Father James and one other character interacting at a given time. But we didn't want to do what Larry and I call 'television coverage,' that shot/reverse kind of thing. And I don't like establishing shots. It's lazy most of the time. Sometimes you see a movie and we've established where we are--the hero's apartment, say--and it's later so they show us another establishing shot of where he lives. I mean we know where he lives! How stupid are we?"

"When I design shots I don't think I do conventionally," adds Smith. "I don't think you can have a formula. Maybe we do takes with cameras at right angles to each other or we might start with a wide angle and a long lens and then break one of them away during the take to grab other bits. But if you have a situation that might be particularly difficult on an actor, you might want to do more of a standard wide/tight kind of coverage to make sure you get what you need. You have to be flexible."

"Of course, when we burned the church down, we used additional cameras," McDonagh recalls. "You're burning the thing for real so you can only do it once. We had four cameras running at once. I guess that was my Ridley Scott moment," he laughs.



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