Alone on the hill

Gerard Barrett, director of Pilgrim Hill, discusses ambition, rural lonliness and hanging out with Ben Affleck

Mon, Apr 1, 2013, 01:00

‘Iam not comparing myself with Quentin Tarantino at all, at all,” Gerard Barrett says. “But I saw him talking on Charlie Rose and he said that, by the time he got to 29, he felt he was ready to explode. By the time I got to 21, I thought I had to do a film.”

There are, indeed, few obvious similarities between Pilgrim Hill, Barrett’s first-class debut feature, and the early work of Tarantino. A wrenching portrait of a farmer trying to hold on to his land and livestock, the film features no guns, no car chases and no allusions to Hong Kong action cinema. Quentin grew up just down the freeway from Hollywood. Gerard was raised on the outskirts of Listowel. But, still just 24, the Kerryman, the son of farmers, talks as quickly as QT and demonstrates the same breathtaking confidence.

How on earth did this come to pass? In recent months, his indomitable mother has been digging through the archives in search of any genetic basis for his artistic inclinations.

“My mother is trying to research that,” he explains. “My mother and father are so ordinary. They really didn’t want me to go into film-making. ‘Is there something wrong with you? Are you not well?’”

What did they want him to do?

“I think they flirted with the idea of me being a bloc-layer or a carpenter,” he laughs. “But I made a decision that, by the time I was 22, I would be working in this industry.”

The good news is that Barrett was not in any way delusional. If a better Irish movie than Pilgrim Hill comes our way this year, then we can probably start wittering about a renaissance in domestic film-making. A simple story told in powerful fashion, the picture stars Joe Mullins, a local actor, as a bachelor coping indifferently with financial meltdown and an ailing father in a windswept corner of Kerry. The picture debuted to hysterical ovations at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh and went on to secure a slot at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival in September. A “three-picture deal” with FilmFour has since followed.

Determinedly independent from the start, Barrett elected not to seek production funding from the Film Board and, instead, garnered support locally. (Completion funding from the board did, however, come later.)

“I was looking for freedom,” he says. “I felt I needed to do it myself. I didn’t want expectations or pressure. I think expectations kill projects. I wanted it to be a bolt of lightning. I went into the local credit union and they said: ‘I’ve seen the plays you did in college and I support you. Here’s the money. Go and do it.’”

I don’t imagine credit unions often find themselves financing movies.

“I don’t think people often ask them,” he says. “It wasn’t film funding. It was somebody who saw something in me. It was individual generosity.”

A broad articulate fellow, who peppers every sentence with enthusiastic sub-clauses, Barrett, understandably enough, doesn’t want to dwell too much on Pilgrim Hill ’s scanty budget. Nobody needs to make excuses for the picture. In cautious, layered fashion, the film gets at a story that is rarely told these days: the loneliness of the farmer who gets left behind by life.

“I come from a town on the outskirts of Listowel,” he says. “There are bachelors everywhere. There is this one guy across the road from us – across the field, I should say – and he’s 85 and still drives his tractor to Listowel. I looked into his life, and when he was born, his father left and that was interesting. There was some sort of link there. I have an aunt and an uncle, a bachelor, and they live together. I remember seeing him looking at the floor for minutes on end. I wondered: what’s going on in his head.”

Barrett puts his drive down to growing up with much older brothers. As a kid, he remembers them taking him into town to watch films he “shouldn’t be watching” such as Die Hard 2: Die Harder . He went on to stage plays in the local theatre, study media at the Tralee Institute of Technology and work in local radio. But it sounds as if he had all the emotional equipment to hand before he left school.

“I was a man mentally when I was 14,” he confirms.

Inspired by those local figures, Barrett set out to find an actor to inhabit his film.

“The actor had to be a farmer,” he says. “He had to be a farmer because of the hands. You can’t mistake a farmer’s hands. They’re cut and they’re creased. They’re lived-in. I saw Joe in this play and I saw something there. I knew, by him, that he was a farmer.”

It is, perhaps, not altogether surprising that such a film would go down well in Galway. In the days after the Fleadh screening, women were approaching Joe in the street and crying as they recalled similar stories. The success at Telluride is more impressive still. Keen to show support for his team, the film-maker packed his actor up and set out on a lengthy trip that included a drive from New Mexico to Colorado.

“I also took the parish priest, Pat Moore, who supported me from day one,” he says. “Some people have a teacher behind them. I had a priest. It was amazing. We were premiering at seven o’clock and Argo was premiering right after us. That was the first time anyone saw Argo .”

Barrett produces his iPhone and swipes through photographs of a party, hosted by Ben Affleck, that he and the team attended.

“George Clooney was there. Matt Damon. Alexander Payne is there somewhere.”

Barrett is certainly an impressive chap. And he’s only getting started. As he prepares for the theatrical release of Pilgrim Hill , he is working on an animated series, Newsbag , for Irish production company Brown Bag Films. His next feature, Glassland , has two international stars attached (we can’t quite confirm names yet). Has the man had a chance to live a normal life?

“Of course. Of course. But I’ve been planning this for years. I am just grabbing my chance.”

Don’t bet against him.