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Thursday 19 October 2017

A new generation of Irish men

As his second feature, Glassland, hits Irish cinemas, film maker Gerard Barrett talks about the beauty of bleakness.

Boys on film: Gerard Barrett, left, director of Glassland, a gritty drama set in Dublin, with Jack Reynor who stars in the film
Boys on film: Gerard Barrett, left, director of Glassland, a gritty drama set in Dublin, with Jack Reynor who stars in the film

Aine O'Connor

'You have to remember where you came from, because you have to be able to go back there." Gerard Barrett came from Listowel in Kerry and it's there he'll return, to farm, if this film lark doesn't work out. "And I'll have a great life!" At the moment however the good money wouldn't be on Gerard the Farmer.

In Dublin briefly between the UK premiere in London and a special screening for a friend with MND in Listowel he speaks of his new film almost as a collaboration between himself and star, Jack Reynor. He had written Glassland when they met on the film festival circuit in 2012. They were both representing debut features that were getting them huge praise, Reynor, for What Richard Did and Barrett for his debut Pilgrim Hill. They got the same LA agent the same week, he put them together and Jack agreed to take the lead in Glassland. Transformers 4 got in the way, Reynor got a part he couldn't refuse and asked if Barrett could wait a year. The writer/director readily agreed and feels now that although Reynor's time shooting Transformers 4 delayed the making of Glassland, it ultimately added something to it.

"I think there was only two years between What Richard Did and Glassland, but it's like man and child. It's very hard being away from home for that long at twenty years of age and I think during that year he came back a different person. He was so happy to be home, to be round his mother and his family, that you can feel that in the performance. He wanted to be nowhere else but Ireland."

Glassland, whose title "can mean five or six different things to five or six different people," according to its creator, is about John, a young Dublin taxi-driver who is dealing with his mother's extreme alcoholism. His good friend, played by Will Poulter, is planning on leaving the country. But John feels that he cannot leave his responsibilities behind. Barrett's first choice for the role of the mother was Toni Collette.

It was a choice Jack Reynor was delighted with too. Having seen and admired her work, especially in About A Boy, they partly felt they already knew her. Via Skype they agreed for her to read the script. Barrett explains, "She called me back and said 'If you'll have me I'll have you', and it was all very easy. I think she got to do something she didn't do before which is play a monster." He says he has had no comments at all about her, or Will Poulter's, Irish accents so he takes it as a good sign.

Glassland was born of what Barrett saw when he moved to Dublin to go to college five years ago, "I was 21 and I saw different things going on. Don't get me wrong, there's addiction in rural Ireland, but here because of population being condensed it's very visible. I saw a lot of people dealing with addiction at home and I saw the effect it was taking on them. A lot of them taking on the maternal role and I thought there is something going on."

Shot over just three weeks in January 2014, Glassland is a powerful film. All of the performances are excellent, but Reynor's really does stand out. "I like to portray the vulnerability of men," Barrett explains. "A lot of male actors, not all, would be very... is 'macho' the right word? They are men and they want to be portrayed as men on the screen. Whereas with Jack you can see that he is very, very comfortable around females, purely on an emotional level. Not a lot of men are."

He believes that this is partly generational, that younger men are more "emotionally connected." "My generation see their mothers as their friends." The mothers have changed too. "Yeah, we were trying to explore this as well. They have all the same tastes, in music, movies, probably in food; the generations are a bit closer than they used to be. I think it's getting better and better and better."

The film has been described as "bleak" and it is certainly not an easy watch. I'm a sucker for mammy and son stories, and I ultimately felt it was uplifting, a story full of love and hope. It's not that Barrett bristles at the word "bleak," but he certainly responds to it. "Life is bleak, life is tough. I'm not here to sugar coat cinema. If I wanted to sugar coat things I'd have a bakery. There's beauty in Glassland and it's down to the person watching it to find the beauty, and if all they're seeing is bleakness then there's bleakness in their life."

A lifelong fan of cinema, he has four brothers, all at least ten years older than he is. "I grew up watching what they were watching and it was very much how I could communicate with them because they were all teenagers and I was only a child." However, while he enjoys escapist cinema, he doesn't want to make it. "For me it's all about the point of view of the world. Where you want to take an audience for a period of time. With Pilgrim Hill it was isolation and loneliness in rural Ireland, with Glassland it was isolation and loneliness in urban Ireland, mixed with addiction and the role reversal of parent and child. A kind of a pieta in reverse." (There are little pieces of religious imagery scattered throughout the film.)

"The word 'bleak' I think you can say that about some of the best playwrights in Ireland. Bleak is beautiful to me. Real actors want to do bleak stuff. They have to do the escapism, but from my experience they want to do the so-called bleak stuff. That's what gets them up in the morning." He also feels that bleak can be useful. "Nobody really accepted that there was a problem in rural Ireland with isolation and loneliness. Then I made Pilgrim Hill and I got to go on the Late Late Show and bring it up and next thing I had calls from people up in Mayo that they were putting on buses for isolated farmers to bring them to the pub one night a week."

His next project, based on the best-selling memoir Brain on Fire, is shooting in New York this summer. The project came to him on the strength of reaction to screenings of Glassland. "Out of the blue I got a contact from Charlize Theron and her company going 'We've watched your film in LA, we absolutely love it, there's this book we optioned, here it is, if you want to do it, it's yours.'"

He did. He has adapted it and will begin shooting the story of a young woman dealing with a difficult-to-diagnose condition, with Dakota Fanning, Theron and some as yet undisclosed other big names this summer. He has no sisters. It was a very male house in which he grew up with four older brothers, his father and mother ("and she bosses all of us.") But he is undaunted by exploring the notion of female vulnerability.

"It's the same thing in a sense but a new world in a way. Again it's very much about family falling apart in a very contained environment."

Pilgrim Hill cost about €4,500 to make ("It was all I had."), Glassland €250,000, the budget for Brain on Fire is in the double digit millions, but Barrett feels it won't make a big difference. "It's the same decisions you're making. Money is energy, it gets people off their ass but you can't necessarily put anything more on the screen unless you're doing visual effects. If you have a good story and you know what you're doing you can shoot it on a phone."

At the end, we come back to bleakness. "I really think some people just don't like to see aspects of themselves onscreen. They find it difficult. But I think cinema should have and can have a power that way. I think for a lot of men it might be a kick in the arse, because a lot of men think they're really strong, that they don't have to show love to their mother. But real men care for the women around them."

Glassland is on general release now

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