Calm With Horses is the feature-length debut from Nick Rowland, the award-winning directing graduate of the National Film and Television School (NFTS). The Irish thriller is an adaptation of Colin Barrett’s 2014 novella, ‘Calm With Horses’ from his collection of short stories, ‘Young Skins’.
Despite this being his first step into the world of theatrical release, Rowland is no rookie in the world of filmmaking, with his short film work earning him critical acclaim everywhere from Sundance Film Festival to BAFTA. His eclectic and engaging array of short films explore varying genres and narratives — from psychological thriller Out of Sight to coming-of-age drama Slap — the latter earning him a BAFTA nomination in 2015.
After leaving behind a successful motorsport career in rallying, Rowland swapped the driver’s seat for the director’s chair. His journey began at Arts University Bournemouth, with his graduate film Dancing in the Ashes receiving a Royal Television Society Award for ‘Best Student Fiction’. He then went on to study at the National Film and Television School, where he notes he made the decision to create thirty-minute short films. To allow him to develop more of a ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure, a concept ultimately allowing him to build up to a feature-length debut.
We sat down with director Nick Rowland to discuss his rallying success throughout his journey from student to director ahead of the release of Calm With Horses.
What was it like studying at NFTS? “It was amazing, I was there during the Nick Powell years. And on our first day, we had Paul Thomas Anderson come in to talk to us about directing. We had Danny Boyle come by, Rian Johnson — all these amazing heroes there to do workshops with us and teach and it just made the world of film accessible. As if filmmaking was a place you could reach rather than this closed community. And then since I’ve been directing professionally, everything I do on a day to day basis is based on what they taught me there. I know film school is only one route, there’s plenty of others, but for me, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without that. Or I’d just make very bad films…”
What was it like filming your 2015 short film Group B with Richard Madden and Michael Smiley? “It was difficult, we had no budget and everyone worked so hard. Richard Madden had just been Rob Stark at that point and it was just before Cinderella came out. So we were lucky, I mean to have Richard [Madden] and Michael [Smiley] to agree to do a student film and not only that but to be driven around in a rally car that was banned for being too dangerous… well, I’d say who the hell are their agents but actually they are my agents too and they are great!”
“It was very good of them to put faith in us. They were amazing to work with, Richard is just really, really gifted. That’s my favorite bit of filmmaking when you’re working with really good actors and you’re the first person to see that performance.
Sometimes on film sets, obviously you’re concentrating, you’re in this bubble and everyone is in their own little world — but then, what’s amazing is sometimes you’re doing a scene and the whole crew is suddenly focused on the performance in a way you can just feel in the air.”
Who is your filmmaking co-driver?: “Ideally, whoever my lead actor is, it kind of works best when it feels like you’re going through a journey together in a sort of partnership. It definitely felt like that with Cosmo. I’d been working on the script for three and a half years and sometimes it felt like Cosmo knew the character better than I did. Which is the way it should be. Also with Richard Madden and Joe Cole in my short films.”
Your short films are very diverse — was there any theme or vision that you developed through them? What inspired you to create each film? “So I guess, when I was working on my short films, I was still learning and I was trying to discover my voice as a filmmaker. I think part of that was experimenting with different types of films, styles, genres, etc. All of my shorts were during film school. I thought if I made each one quite different and made the subject quite different it would maximise the amount I would learn.
I guess all the styles are different, that was dictated by what the story needs. For example, Group B was about someone being stuck so I tried to make it quite static but it ends with movement and racing — so I was trying to contrast that as much as possible.
I did another short called Out of Sight — it was a psychological horror kind of film. The exercise was to make a film you’d never really think of making, and I’d never thought of making any sort of horror film before. But I actually really enjoyed it and it ended up at Sundance. That was the first big American festival I’d ever been in and suddenly I was there with this horror film and everyone thought I was this massive horror expert. Which I’m obviously not, but I’d love to give it another go.”
What was it like working with Joe Cole on your BAFTA-nominated short Slap, what was your main focus when creating it? “It was very much focused on narrative. It was intended to be a performance-driven piece, which I hope is a consistent thing with all of my work. The performance and finding an emotional sensitivity despite the setting. Maybe it’s a horror setting or whatever, as long as it has an emotional heart. I’d love to become known as an actor’s director. I find it really difficult to ever just watch a film and disconnect from being a filmmaker. The only time that happens is when I see an amazing performance, then I’m totally in another world.”
How are you finding the transition from short film to feature? “So that was helpful, then I moved into directing TV drama for the BBC. And that was great training for getting used to shooting solidly for like a month — whilst tryna hide how terrifying it was to be on set with all these professional people, where you feel completely like you don’t know what you’re doing. I did that for a few years until I got to a point where I was ready to move forward. I’d built all the stepping stones to it, but once you begin you realise you weren’t ready at all. It’s really, really hard to get it done.”
Calm With Horses is a short story from Colin Barratt’s collection Young Skins, what attracted you to the story? “The collection of stories all take place in a fictional town and despite not growing up in Ireland, I felt a connection to the stories, I felt like I knew the people. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up in a small fishing town. I was very moved by the story, it made me cry. It had elements of black comedy and I found Arm’s character very fascinating. He is introduced in the book in a similar way, you see him violently beating up this guy and he’s very cold but then you see him with his young boy and he seems so sympathetic and gentle with him. I guess I just found that contradiction very rich.”
What was it like shooting on location in Ireland? “Astonishingly it was sunny; we were shooting during a heatwave. Everyone was warning us the weather was going to be very tricky and changeable, but we were very lucky. We shot out in the west of Ireland. Thanks to the wrap fund which is a regional funding body and it was difficult as we were in quite remote places. We wanted the film to have a Western feel to it, so we lucked for Western landscapes which took us to Connemara. We shot all our interiors in Galway and then the town was based in Kilkee which was a few hours away and then another unit u in the mountains. There hadn’t been a lot of filming there compared to Dublin so everyone was very welcoming. I had a great time.”
What was it like working with Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar and Cosmo Jarvis — and what drew you to casting them in CWH? “Well, they are three of the best in their game. We had been talking to Barry a long time about playing Dympna and he was excited to do it as he had never played a role quite like it before. He’s really exciting to work with as every take, he surprises you and that’s always really exciting behind the monitor. Cosmo we found through the audition process and he understood the spine of the character more than anyone else. He brought empathy to the character. Despite the character being unsavory in many ways, you still cared for him when Cosmo played him. One of the scenes he performed at his audition made the whole room cry, so it was an obvious casting. And Niamh, she came in and blew us all away and they had great chemistry together. She brought strength and integrity to the role. They were a great combination.”
What are your favourite short films? “Definitely Wasp by Andrea Arnold. I think it’s an amazing short film. It’s so complete and emotional and affecting, the performances are incredible. And then, there’s Volume by Mahalia Belo which is actually another NFTS film, Joe Cole stars in it. It’s great.”
What is your first memory of film? “As a kid, I loved big films, like Terminator, Gladiator, The Matrix, Back to the Future — I think it’s the best trilogy ever. I really hope they don’t remake it.” But, in terms of a key moment, it was Trainspotting that ignited the filmmaking spark for Rowland. He states: “That’s the first time I watched a film and became interested in how it was made. I was suddenly aware of the 10mm lenses and started to wonder about the camera movements and the style. It took me away from just absorbing the story, I found it thrilling to watch the creativity.
If you could emulate any director’s career, who would you pick? “I look up to people like Danny Boyle and Ridley Scott who can jump into any genre and that’s kind of the type of career I’d like to have. I wouldn’t want to make the same film over and over again. Actually, they were filming Christopher Nolan’s new film in Estonia whilst we were doing the sound design for Calm With Horses. They were on set around the corner and I did consider trying to find Christopher Nolan, I knew what hotel he was staying in — I kept walking that way home and hoping I’d bump into him and he’d be like ‘Hey Kid, are you a Director too? Let’s be friends!’
Thank God we didn’t bump into each other.”
As a first-time feature Director, what advice would you give your past-self, having now completed a feature-length film?: “I think it’s really important to focus on your work. I never really thought about anything else other than trying to keep making films and to keep learning and trying to get better. And then hopefully at some point, someone would hire me to do it, I never really worried about networking or anything else, I just tried to be the best I could be at making films. When you first start out, everyone is very keen to point out the statistics of how many people succeed, and I’m sure those statistics have some degree of fact to them but you can’t focus or listen to any of that, you just have to focus on your craft.”
Now that Calm With Horses is about to debut, what comes next for you? “Group B was an important short film for me. That’s what I am hoping to develop next. I’ve kind of known I want to do a rally driving movie. Which is why I wanted to put a car chase in Calm With Horses, as a little audition for whoever’s watching. It’s obviously because I’m from that sport and that world, I have quite a good visceral sense of what that world is like. I think there’s a lot of cinematic opportunity that hasn’t really been tapped into before. Hopefully, that’s the gap in the market I can tap into.”
Having been a rally driver and a film director, what comes next? “I spent six years studying film, so really I could’ve become a doctor or something useful in all this time. But I’d be a chef. I love cooking, my mum’s a cook and sometimes I wonder if I’d have been happier being a chef. But, I’ll save that for when everything goes tits up with my film career. I’m going to go to catering college I think.”
What’s your specialty? “I like cooking seafood and curries. But, my go-to, if I was trying to impress someone — I do make a really good curry.
Where I grew up — my old bedroom overlooked the North Sea, we lived right by the harbour so we’d get all these scallops and lobsters — all very fresh. We’d make Italian seafood dishes. I can send you a recipe.
I find it’s my way of relaxing, so maybe I shouldn’t do it as a career as I can’t drink wine and cry about the day’s work if I’m doing it professionally.”
Calm With Horses is out now on DIGITAL.
Words by Madeleine Finlay-Hudson