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“Audiences have long wanted a subtle slow burn of a film that they can go on a journey with” — Prasanna Puwanarajah talks Ballywalter

6 min read
Seana Kerslake and Patrick Kielty in Ballywalter

EMPIRE STREET PRODUCTIONS

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.

Best known for acting roles in Doctor Foster, Line of Duty, and most recently as journalist Martin Bashir in Netflix's The Crown, Prasanna Puwanarajah makes his feature film directorial debut with

The 90-minute film, shot on location in County Down, Northern Ireland, follows aimless twenty-something Eileen whose path collides with the pitiful Shane. What comes next is a reminder of the importance of human connection.

Speaking to FILMHOUNDS, Prasanna reveals what how the film was an eight year labour of love that explored loneliness long before it became fashionable.

Written by Stacey Gregg, Ballywalter is your first feature film as director. Featuring Seana Kerslake and Patrick Kielty, it is set in a sleepy Northern Irish village. Can you tell us what the film means to you? 

It's a film that is fundamentally about a genuinely unexpected connection between two quite startlingly different people. They're from different worlds but both on the same mood curve and in slightly different places. They're alone on that mood curve until they encounter each other in the strange way that they do. One of them is driving a taxi and the other one is taking a weekly stand-up comedy course. It's about how we hide our traumas, our aloneness. It looks at how strange it can be when a person comes along who is accidentally able to unlock that.  

We started making it long before the pandemic and Brexit and all the other issues in our world. The film I think has come into increasing relevance the more we screen it. At showings the audience has been mostly in their twenties, and they are feeling the crush of rising costs. They can relate to the notion of trying a dream that hasn't really worked out. Perhaps they've pulled up some roots to see if they can live a life and just crash landed. Then, all that's left in your rucksack are the roots you've pulled up and they don't quite fit back into old ground. 

Then of course you have those young people's parents and families. I spoke to a volunteer at a film festival in Washington DC. She told me that her relatively grown-up child was sleeping on her sofa. She was googling therapy and didn't know quite what it was, but she was starting to hear about it and wondered if that was what her child needed. She found the film quite profound.  

It's a really interesting 90-minute piece of productivity that seems to resonate in multiple ways to people at very different points in their life. Audiences watch the film and recognise the dark force of aloneness and the glimmers of hope that can shine through.  

The connection between Eileen and Shane is surprising and they seem to need each other more than they let on, especially during their first few interactions. Was that a conscious decision to direct their friendship in such a subtle way? 

Very much so. It's like a kind of internal temperature shift. There's a moment where Shane says he's going to finish his coffee sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean. And you see them together for the first time outside of the car. There's something about that moment that is a very secret clue that a connection is beginning to happen, without it being a film that goes “THEY'RE CONNECTING NOW” in big neon signage. 

By the time you get to the point where you really start to see the blossoming of that deep, deep connection, quite a lot of it has secretly gone into you. You have already detected some of that fabric. There's a certain amount of proving of the dough that happens before their connection becomes more obvious. That fine tuning was absolutely always part of the pacing, growing, and tonal architecture of the film. 

I think audiences want to peer through the slats a little bit and work things out rather than be told what's happening.   

Ballywalter has premiered at film festivals in Ireland and the USA as well as other events in Europe. What has the reaction been like? 

Ballywalter has really found its space. Audiences have long wanted a subtle slow burn of a film that they can go on a journey with. 

It has been nice to see that when the film does finally blossom, that investment of time does pay off for the audience. The film has shown in Ireland and the US and was loved on both sides of the pond which is great. Although American audiences laughed at slightly different things! There is an old and deep connection between Ireland and America that works on so many levels. When we were first thinking about the film, I thought of the Ards Peninsula as a kind of panhandle state like West Texas or Oklahoma.  

Both in Northern Ireland and the US, there's a shared importance of music and religion. Ballywalter's score composer Niall Lawlor is a Dublin busker heavily influenced by not only Irish folk and blues music but by American bluegrass. I wanted to open out what could be a very small movie about two people in a car, to become about two people in a car, on a road, in a landscape, under a sky. I wanted Ballywalter to be about the bigness of the small.  

There is great chemistry between Seana Kerslake and Patrick Kielty. Considering Patrick has no acting experience, what drew you to casting him alongside Seana? 

I first discovered Seana when she starred in A Date for Mad Mary in 2016 (dir. Darren Thornton). She was brilliant in that. She has an incredible “energy of the slay,” she gets the kind of side eye sassiness so well. Seana was in our minds really early on. With Patrick, it was an interesting conversation. From very early on, we were thinking about him for it but obviously he had never acted before. We had to ask ourselves how it would work. Stacey Gregg (Ballywalter writer) suggested I watched Patrick's documentary My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me, where he goes around Northern Ireland meeting families who were bereaved during the Troubles. The focus was on how they contemplate the thought of forgiveness. It's a really beautiful film that asks a huge, profound question. Watching it, I saw this divergence between the Patrick Kielty I thought I knew — the stand-up comedian, TV presenter — and a guy who, in the middle of his life, went and addressed the issues he needed to know more about. It was really interesting seeing a human being going through that kind of process. It was a casting that had nothing to do with acting… his spirit was so in alignment with the character of Shane. 

You have collaborated with screenwriter Stacey Gregg on projects for more than a decade. What is it like working together? 

We were paired together in a workshop by Channel 4 over ten years ago. From there, we got a commission to make a 24-minute film together. So, it was actually other people who thought we would work well together. We are very different people, though, and talk about being the other half of each other's brain. 

I think Stacey has incredible wisdom and her writing is some of the best I've ever seen. The way that she carves characters out of the minimum number of pieces is so skilful. I love the spirit and the wonkiness and the humour and the soul of her writing. After the short film, we really wanted to work together again. Ballywalter is so precious to us as it is a film that sits somewhere between the two of us. 

 

Now that Ballywalter is complete and ready for release, what is next for you? 

The film has been eight years in the making, and nearly two years since it was finished, so I'm looking forward to putting it all in a time capsule and moving on to the next thing. I'm starring in Payback, an ITV crime thriller, alongside Morven Christie and Peter Mullan. That will be on screens in October. Behind the camera, I have co-written and co-executive produced a three-part drama about healthcare professionals during the pandemic. It's called Breathtaking and will air later in the year. 

As for what else is in the pipeline, Ballywalter has been a huge part of my life for a very long time. I feel very connected to it, spiritually and emotionally. I think there needs to be a period of just letting the flywheel spin round while I see what's next.  

 

Ballywalter releases in cinemas on September 22nd 2023.