Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett’s second film, the sensitive and heartbreaking Glassland — about an almost grown boy, John (Jack Reynor) and the stress he faces when he’s forced to become his parent’s (Toni Collette) parent. At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Barrett discussed how he got interested in the film, how he works with actors, and how he designed the aesthetic for the film.
Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett’s second film, the sensitive and heartbreaking Glassland, premiered at Sundance last year. Jack Reynor stars as the almost grown boy John who is dealing with the daily stress of being forced to become his parent’s (Toni Collette) parent. His mother is an alcoholic and taking care of her is a frequent source of frustration and anger. But you really see the love shared between them even though she’s not able to take care of herself, let alone her son. Most of the film is shot from John’s perspective, capturing the loneliness of taking care of an adult who should be taking care of him — exacerbated by the fact that his best friend (Will Poulter) is about to move away.
I sat down with Barrett talk about how he got interested in the film, how he works with actors, and how he developed the aesthetic for the film.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in making the film and in these particular characters?
Gerard Barrett (GB): I wanted to touch upon a son’s loves for his mother. I wanted to touch upon addiction, because we have a lot of that in Ireland, and I think we’re known for that across the world. I wanted to tell a real story about a real family in crisis, and what Jack Reynor’s character has to put up with to keep the family together.
7R: When you’re shooting inside the house where John lives with his mother, you see a lot of hallways, and confined spaces. The camera is often still. What was the thought process that went into doing that?
GB: I wanted to make the house they live in be very present in the film. It’s trashed. It’s tarnished. It’s rough. It’s battered. It’s lived in. You get the feeling that this house not only houses this family, but probably [housed] families before. It’s quite a beautiful house given how rough it is.
7R: How did you decide how you wanted to cast the film?
GB: I always wanted to bring in an international cast. I knew that they’d have to do Irish accents, so I knew I had to bring in people that had the right tools to do that. Toni Collette is an incredible actress. I’m such a fan. I knew that she could make the Jean character very human. I knew there would be no issue with [the accent].
Same with Will Poulter, who’s a comedian, a West End London boy: he can go and do We Are the Millers effortlessly. He’s doing The Revenant now with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy; he’s one of the three leads. He’s doing a Texas accent. He nailed an Irish accent.
You’re not taking risks with these people. They’re fantastic. They were the people I wanted, and thankfully, I got them.
7R: Did you do any rehearsal beforehand?
GB: No, we just sit down and talk about the whole thing, not do any rehearsal. I just like to be in the moment. Surprising things happen in the moment.
7R: What kind of things do you talk about?
GB: What’s the intention of this scene? What’s the character’s motivation in this scene? We bring our own personal lives and experiences to the whole situation. When you’re working with people like Toni and Jack and Will, you’re dealing with people who elevate your material, so it’s great. They’re people at the top of their game.
7R: The performances in the film are very emotional, but they’re also very contained — especially Jack Reynor’s performance. You can really see him just struggling to keep it all in. What kind of work did you do to get that?
GB: He was always a very restrained character. We always felt he was a guy that bottled it up all the time. At the end of the film, he’s still bottling it up. He’s just going to live on with this. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I thought Jack did that beautifully. I actually think it’s a very powerful performance from Jack, in a sense, because he does not a lot. That was an intention. He holds back. He gives Toni the position to shine in every scene he’s in with her. That’s the kind of actor he is. He’s only 22. We made the film when he was 21, so that just goes to show how mature he is. He’s fabulous.
7R: When I talked to Céline Sciamma at the festival, who did Girlhood, she said that cinema is the only art form where you can actually share someone else’s loneliness. Glassland is really effective at doing that. What are all the different components that go into that: the framing, the sound, etc.?
GB: It’s patience. Don’t be afraid not to have people talking. Don’t be afraid to lock the camera off and give the audience 30 seconds to live with something. Don’t be afraid to not constantly keep giving actors dialogue.
I shot the house in a way [that] I made it look bigger than it was, and that is a way into how I portray loneliness. When John comes into the house, he’s not comfortable in his own home. When he walks in, he’s always looking around. It’s like he’s afraid.
I think it’s a combination of less dialogue, actors that aren’t afraid of silence, and patience. It’s obviously framing — a lot of things. He’s [John, Jack Reynor’s character] shot a lot through doorways, as well, which evokes, for me, that he’s never stable anywhere. He’s always on the move.
7R: What other considerations went into the framing in the film?
GB: I like to mix things up. I go from hand-held, to kind of create a bit of energy, to kind of locked off. I think a locked off shot is so powerful, at times. In the scene, when he [John] drops Will’s character at the airport, and we cut back to him at the kitchen table: it’s just like really hard, like this is his life now. There’s also a lot of shots I use where we’re moving from darkness into his face. He’s in the shot, and there’s always someone lurking over him in those moments.
When I’m shooting, I’m emotionally involved in the whole thing, so I don’t even think [about] what I’m doing half the time. It’s just, you’re in it; you’re feeling it. It’s hard to justify sometimes why you’re doing it.
7R: Can you talk a bit about the sound design in the film? In some of the scenes, the sounds of doors opening and closing and the sound of the car are really loud. But there are also scenes where you cut out all of the sound: it’s completely silent.
GB: That’s another way to evoke loneliness, to build up the actual environment around the character. I like silence. It’s like that scene, in the car, with his brother, where they’re driving around in circles, and the sound goes [out]. It’s just silence. That very much evokes their world: they’re just in their own circle.
You’re trying to find the emotion and make some kind of effective sound design, even with a bit of voiceover. I don’t use music a lot. I don’t. I like to save it for when it’s needed. Even the scene with Toni dancing in the kitchen [to “Tainted Love”], when you cut back to the actual song on the stereo, that kind of stuff is when you’re trying to evoke what the audience is feeling — what you want them to feel.
7R: The lyrics of that song [“Tainted Love”] almost articulated what was going on with John.
GB: In a weird way, it is. It’s articulating that. But it’s also kind of articulating, when you are drinking, you aren’t in control. The music sounds better when you’re drinking. In reality, it’s just shit sound coming from a shit stereo.
7R: The colour palette of the film was also quite grey.
GB: I mean, that’s Ireland in general. It’s a pretty grey country. In John’s bedroom [though], it’s all blue. He’s still a boy. It’s like John’s bedroom was never really painted over [since] he was a little kid.
Toni’s bedroom is quite bright and alive — even her clothes. She does admire herself. She does kind of take care of herself, but internally, she’s falling apart. You’ve got to be careful with too much design in a film like this, because it’s all about the story and the characters. If it’s too many colours, it gets excited. It gets to be too much and takes away from the whole thing.
This is an edited version of an interview originally published on Jan. 31, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival.