This short film, directed by Harry Lighton, produced by Sorcha Bacon out of Try Hard Films and worked on by Mill colourist Oisin O’Driscoll and Mill Producer George Reid, recently screened at Sundance and will soon be heading to SXSW.
Hot on the heels of its coveted BAFTA nomination for Best British Short Film, we caught up with Lighton to discover the inspirations behind his beautifully-shot short and how he overcome the challenges of a tight budget and schedule to tell this touching story.
What is Wren Boys about?
On the day after Christmas, a parish priest drives his nephew to prison to visit a beaten-up inmate. It’s the sort of film which rests on the audience going in blind, so that’s all I’ll say. You can watch on Curzon Home, or read on if you don't mind spoilers!
Where did the idea for the film come from?
It started from wanting to write a film about the rapid re-moulding of traditions in Ireland. When I was born, it was still illegal to have same sex relations in Ireland. In 2015, 23 years later, a public referendum showed overwhelming support for equal marriage.
I read a penal reform report asking whether inmates would be able to openly celebrate the referendum result. The answer in male prisons was no. But I wanted to open the door to this possibility by presenting a maverick gay inmate’s marriage being celebrated by the other prisoners.
At the same time, I wanted to temper this optimism. Individuals bite back against the tide of progression. Religion and bigotry don’t need to be bedfellows - tradition can be cruel, but it isn’t by necessity.
I started thinking about other outmoded Irish traditions. On St. Stephen’s Days of old, local boys would be sent out to kill a wren. The community would then gather to bury it, bidding farewell to the past and beckoning in the new year. The tradition continues, but a fake wren has replaced the real bird. It struck me as a good frame for the story of a priest looking at religious tradition critically in the light of a new Ireland, whilst holding on to his personal notion of morality.
What were the technical and creative challenges of the project?
It was a hugely ambitious short on our budget. The major challenges were trying to find a prison on the cheap, and trying to turn the midlands in a sweaty June into Cork on the day after Christmas. Fortunately we chanced upon a county called Rutland - a sort-of shoestring-filmmaker’s Eden - which saved the day.
The idea of shooting the climactic one-take at night on 16mm when you can’t see the monitor definitely gave me the heebie-jeebies pre-shoot. But the ambition galvanised the cast and crew, who were excited by the prospect of trying to nail it.
What was your approach in terms of tone / mood? What ‘look’ were you hoping to achieve?
Mood’s probably the hardest thing to nail in a short. With 11 minutes to play with, we put a huge amount of effort into creating a specific world that felt like it existed outside the frame.
Myself, Sorcha (producer) and Nick Morris (DoP) always wanted to shoot on film. We knew the skin tones would reward honest performances, and the grain would complement our thematic exploration of tradition. Our shooting schedule was incredibly tight, so 16mm allowed us to keep the camera very small and allow for long handheld takes. We wanted to keep an element of rawness in performances which influenced the way we shot, we even went into some critical scenes unrehearsed, which was a big pressure on the camera department but they pulled through perfectly.
On the whole we wanted the film to feel authentic and the film negative offered this straight out of the can. Cutting this with iPhone footage at the film’s climax was our way of harnessing different formats to visually represent old and new butting heads.
Shooting summer-for-winter makes day-for-night seem easy! Fortunately Ireland’s green most of the year. So we avoided seasonal exteriors, and looked to use choice details (heavy use of an Artem in the wren sequence / frosting on wing-mirrors / Christmas decorations) to bed the audience in the season.
Nick worked closely with Oisin O’Driscoll at the Mill London and decided on shooting everything with tungsten stocks, without making any compensations with filters. This kept the image cooler from the off and gave Oisin options for keeping a cooler look in the grade. And our brilliant Production Designer (Alex Toomey) and her team pretty much plastered and re-painted an entire prison to match our cool palette.
How did you first get into filmmaking?
My twin brother ran a club night called Countdown where the music shifted back a decade every hour. Using a pillow for a green-screen, I made a promo for it where a clockwork violin playing pig travelled back through time fiddling away. It was beyond shit. But that gave me the bug.
And then I made a couple of short films, working with increasing budgets and testing out different methods of working. Wren Boys was my third short, working with a team of old collaborators who are pushing in the same direction.
Who are your filmmaking heroes / inspirations?
Lynne Ramsay was the original hero. I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin again last night - I think it’s probably my fave film of the 21st Century! But beyond her, new films by Celine Sciamma, Steve McQueen and Jacques Audiard have me running for the cinema.
How does it feel to be BAFTA-nominated?
Mad. When we were pitching Wren Boys to the London Calling lot, they asked us what we wanted this film to achieve. I said “get nominated for a BAFTA”, sort-of taking the piss, but also sort-of because it was the pipe dream. Recognition means (fingers crossed!) we can keep on making films, and move on to bigger projects. That’s the goal.
Where can we see the film?
Watch the trailer below: