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Sunday 4 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
An Cailín Ciúin
# the quiet girl
Behind the scenes of how they filmed the 'gentle, economical' An Cailín Ciúin
Cinematographer Kate McCullough gives us an insight into the making of the Oscar-nominated film.

Aoife Barry reports from LA.

WHEN TAKING A book from page to screen, there is a huge amount to consider. How do you retain the spirit, tone and feel of a novel and translate it visually, without losing the author’s fingerprints – while letting the filmmakers put their own prints on it?

For the team behind An Cailín Ciúin, there must have been many complicated considerations when they took Claire Keegan’s delicate 2010 novella and turned it into feature film. We know now that all of their decisions combined to create something special – a deeply emotional film that was nominated for an Oscar at the 2023 Academy Awards.

But director Colm Bairéad made one major change to the narrative: he made the film in the Irish language rather than English. That came partly for personal reasons, as he grew up speaking Irish, and it added a special layer to an already special story. It meant, too, that An Cailín Ciúin became the first Irish-language film ever nominated for an Oscar. That in turn became a huge moment for Ireland.

The decision also meant that An Cailín Ciúin could be made under the Cine4 scheme, which involved combined funding from TG4, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and Screen Ireland for an Irish-language film.

With a budget far smaller than that of its fellow Irish Oscar nominee, Banshees of Inisherin, An Cailín Ciúin became a landmark moment in Irish cinema. The hopes now are that we will see budgets increase for such films, and that the current wave of Irish-language cinema will continue to blossom. 

But back to the making of An Cailín Ciúin. There are many team members who collaborate on a film. Among them is the cinematographer (or director of photography, the DP), who is the person behind the camera. They have to make, often in collaboration with the director and other team members, decisions like what lenses to use; how to frame certain shots; how characters should be positioned within the frame; the ratio to film in. 

For the everyday viewer, these decisions should be, in one sense, seamless – we’re not all going to be sitting there thinking about why a certain thing looks a certain way (a hat tip to the cinema nerds who live for this sort of stuff, though). And yet we’ve all left a cinema or finished watching a film and felt the power of those decisions and how they highlighted other decisions made on set.

We’ve marvelled at the bright colours in Pedro Almodóvar’s films and how appealing they are in close-up; we’ve enjoyed the way a (sort-of) one-shot film like 1917 takes us on a visual journey; we’ve felt the power of the decision to shoot Terence Malick’s film Days of Heaven during golden hour, and how that meant certain scenes held a certain power.

These might not be things we’re actively thinking, and yet that’s part of what it is to watch a film: to enjoy visual storytelling that is the result of a multitude of intricate decisions. 

Kate McCullough was the Director of Photography on An Cailín Ciúin. From a dairy farm in Gormanston in Co Meath, she studied at the Lodz Film School in Poland and has been behind the camera for films like His and Hers (Ken Wardop), Songs For While I’m Away, The Farthest (both Emer Reynolds), and Famine film Arracht (Tom Sullivan). 

She was also the DP for director Hettie McDonald’s episodes of Normal People. 

We spoke to McCullough about how they approached the cinematography for An Cailín Ciúin, and her thoughts on what the Oscar nomination means for Ireland. 

McCullough herself grew up on a farm not too far from where they filmed, “so it was in a sense a sort of homecoming for me to make this film”, she tells The Journal. The film was set in Co Waterford, but filmed in Co Meath.

‘She was to be centre frame’

PastedImage-15801 Alamy Kate McCullough attending the 35th European Film Awards 2022 at Harpa Conference and Concert Hall last December in Reykjavik Alamy

Work began on the film just after the first Covid lockdown. “We had that lovely hot summer. So we sat out in the garden having long lunches discussing the deceptively simple precision of Claire Keegan’s prose,” recalled McCullough.

Indeed, Keegan’s gift as a writer is to convey emotion without using complicated or lyrical language. Instead, her work is stripped back to the essentials, revealing the narrative in a way that means the emotions within it are deeply felt by the reader. That’s not to say she uses simplistic language, or that her stories are simple, but that she gets to the heart of her story’s emotion in a true and precise way, and this is what the reader connects with.

This approach was something McCullough and the director Bairéad spent time discussing. “We wanted to reflect that in the screen language of the film. The cinematography should be economical, unadorned and almost naive in its sensibility,” explained McCullough. 

As part of the initial work, they tested the narrow aspect ratio of 1:1.37 “and immediately felt confident that it was the right canvas to explore the world of the young Cáit [played by first-time actor Catherine Clinch]“.

Cáit is the main character in Foster, a nine-year-old girl from a poor and troubled background who is sent to live with distant relations one summer. The novella and film follow her experience and so it was important to understand how she would appear on the screen. Each element of what appeared around her would add to the understanding of her viewpoint.

The audience would be following her and watching her interactions with the world, and so how she was framed would be crucial.

She was to be centre frame, we would bring the camera to her height – and yet there was still a world outside the frame that she did not understand.

Both McCullough and Bairéad come from a documentary background and so their “sensibilities align in terms of a strong nose for authenticity”, the DP explained. “If anything felt out of place with this world it would be removed from the frame.”

‘Such a gentle film’

The way the film approaches the character of Cáit and her experiences has really touched viewers – but the skill behind it has also been recognised by those within the industry. McCullough told us that while attending the American Society of Cinematographers Awards in Hollywood recently, “industry professionals were continually coming up to say much they loved this film”.

“And then in the café when we were having breakfast, a Latino kid came over to express how touched he was by the film.”

She says she is “particularly humbled that such a gentle film can capture the hearts of so many around the world”. But its success as an Irish language film also has huge meaning for her on a personal level. 

“I’ve recently been thinking about my Gran, Una Scanlon, whose first and only language was Irish – until she was sent to school in 1922 and told to stand in the corner until she spoke only English,” she said. “How proud she would be right now to see our native tongue up in lights.”

“There a phrase I came across recently that I love: ‘Chuirfeadh sé na smóilíní ag sclimpireacht i do chroí’ which translates as “it would set the baby thrushes dancing in your heart’.

“How wonderful it is that The Quiet Girl is bringing the Irish language to such a huge international platform like the Oscars.”

Budgets and breakthroughs

While it’s great to see lower-budget Irish films like An Cailín Ciúin doing so well internationally, this can lead to questions about whether there’s an expectation on filmmakers to do ‘less with more’.

When asked if this is a concern for her, McCullough said:

“Low budget filmmaking has a place in the industry for new voices/those who are breaking through, and so it does have a value within that context. However, it’s fair to say that as crew members we all made sacrifices to allow this film to be made.

“It was, in a sense, a passion project for all of us. That is definitely not sustainable on a regular basis. For example there was no contingency with this level of budget. At any given moment if one of the cast were to contract COVID that would have been curtains, as the production just wouldn’t have afforded paying everyone to sit and wait the 10 days. It’s just not viable. We were super lucky that we didn’t end up in a situation like this.”

She added that if the weather had forced the shoot to shut down for a day, or if one department had had a substantial technical issue on set, they “would have lost lots of critical scenes”.

“Again, luck was with us, but you just can’t rely on this to carry you through on every production,” said McCullough. 

‘There are still very few female cinematographers’

An Cailín Ciúin 2 Cáit's father in the film, played by Michael Patric.

While the film was beaten by the German film All Quiet On The Western Front at the Oscars, the Irish nomination has been treated as a win by all involved since the very beginning.

All this week in LA, Irish film industry members have been telling The Journal how proud they are that the film got so far, and that the nomination has huge meaning for the filmmakers and Ireland.

There’s massive significance in An Cailín Ciúin being an Irish language film nominated at such prestigious film awards. In turn, its specific approach to telling the story the way it did could inspire other filmmakers in how they depict such stories. That all goes back to the decisions made early on by Bairéad, McCullough, his producer Cleona Ní Chrúalaoi and the wider filmmaking team.

“I like the idea that such a gentle, unassuming film can resonate with such a powerful message,” said McCullough. “I hope it will give confidence to creators that the approach to filmmaking doesn’t necessarily need to be loud and brash, but rather [that] through a gentle authentic rendering of a story, audiences will universally respond.”

McCullough’s career has been on an upward trajectory in recent years, and her work on An Cailín Ciúin has seen her rise to another level of success. This is notable as she’s an Irish DP, but also because she is a woman in a chiefly male-dominated industry. By being a female Irish cinematography awarded for her work, she’s helping to inspire other young women to realise a career behind the camera could be for them. 

“For my work on The Quiet Girl I was was nominated for a Spotlight award at the 37th American Society of Cinematography Awards. It’s worth noting there were 7 ASC categories, 32 nominees, and just four female nominees,” she pointed out. 

“Mandy Walker [DP for Elvis] smashed through the glass ceiling at the American Society of Cinematography Awards, the first woman to win Best Cinematography in a theatrical feature film. That was pretty special, to be there in the room when they announced. There was a huge roar of appreciation.”

Only three women have ever been nominated in the Best Cinematography category at the Oscars. Walker was nominated this year, but the film also lost out to All Quiet On The Western Front – its cinematographer James Friend picked up the award. 

As for her own career, McCullough says that both the Spotlight nomination and the Oscar nomination have “given me a confidence to continue to make brave decisions creatively”.

“And of course many industry people are seeing this film beyond my usual sphere, so it all helps raise the profile of my work. So it is broadening the conversation work-wise and hopefully creates new exciting possibilities of collaboration.”

Regarding the opportunities out there for cinematographers in Ireland, McCullough said there’s been a “huge increase” in the production of TV drama in Ireland since the pandemic. But the gender balance remains off.

“There’s just more demand for VOD entertainment. That definitely gives more opportunity for cinematographers breaking through while maintaining consistent work for more established cinematographers,” she explained.

“There are still very few female cinematographers working in the industry. This needs to change. They need to be supported through this transition.”

On the Irish performance at the Academy Awards, McCullough said it is “phenomenal really that such a wealth of homegrown talent is represented at this year’s Oscars. Let alone that it’s the first year we have a film in our native tongue nominated in the Best International Film category.”

But she added: “I would say we are in a very good place. But we need to keep nourishing talent coming through, new voices and more diversity.”

McCullough’s next project is also a film adaptation of a novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, starring Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton, and based on Rachel Joyce’s 2012 book.

Looking to the future, she hopes that the performance of An Cailín Ciúin “gives a real boost to encourage more people to make films in Irish and that the budgets are increased to allow filmmakers be more ambitious”.

I also hope, for the nation, that it will help people to reflect on their relationship with the Irish language. It is complicated topic.

“For example, I learned Irish for 12 years but never really saw it as a working language, so once I left school I was no longer using it,” she explained. “Now my Irish is quite poor and I’m embarrassed that I can’t speak it at times like these.”

She has been thinking about taking a course in Irish, ”something I hadn’t considered before shooting An Cailín Ciúin”.

Proof that the ripple effect of the film’s success is being felt in many small and large ways. 

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