The BAFTA-nominated lenser reveals “extraordinary” moment between Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan as his favorite scene
Ireland’s Aran Islands have a vast sense of bleakness and loneliness for cinematographer Ben Davis, whether or not two men decide to cut off their friendship (and a few limbs), which make them the perfect backdrop to Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin.
Davis, McDonagh, first assistant director Peter Kohn and production designer Mark Tildesley quarantined together prior to the start of filming, which already provided a sense of isolation. But once they arrived at Achill Island and Inis Mór and were surrounded by nature and the vast ocean separating them from the mainland, that overwhelming “sense of loneliness and melancholy” kicked in. However, Davis said he “absolutely loved it.”
“You’re surrounded by the ocean, but it’s also quite claustrophobic because it’s a quite tight community and everyone knows where everyone is,” Davis said during a recent interview. “I can understand how some people couldn’t wait to get out, but other people would love living that life.”
Davis’ third collaboration with the filmmaker centers on two friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who find themselves at an impasse when Colm no longer wants anything to do with the friendship. A confused Pádraic, with his sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), and the island’s young delinquent Dominic (Barry Keoghan), tries to do everything he can to repair the relationship, even if it’s against Colm’s wishes. When Colm delivers an ultimatum, shocking consequences follow.
The cinematographer, who has worked with McDonagh on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Seven Psychopaths couldn’t pass up another opportunity to collaborate with the Academy Award nominee. Davis “really enjoyed” the script when he first read The Banshees of Inisherin, but joked that he had to give McDonagh a call immediately after because he was slightly worried about him given the dark subject matter.
“Martin’s humor is always there. The dialogue is always incredibly lyrical,” Davis said of the film. “He’s a wonderful writer of dialogue, but there was always a sense of tragedy about it which I loved.”
When filming began, Davis’ goal was to show the islands’ natural elements, but also emulate the isolation and loneliness McDonagh captured in his screenplay.
Davis utilized wide shots to show the vast ocean surrounding the secluded island, and sets were built in particular locations “because they had a certain feeling about them,” he said. The violence seen in the background on the mainland, which signifies the Irish civil war, is used as a metaphor for Pádraic and Colm’s row, but also to show just how far away from others this small community is.
There were deliberate choices involving weather as well. At the beginning of the film, as Pádraic is walking through town on a sunny day, the cinematographer wanted to push warmth and joy through the screen up until the moment Colm tells Pádraic he’s through with him. Even some moments that made it in the final cut were unplanned, such as a bright rainbow that appeared following a rainstorm, and is featured in the beginning of the film, that the crew had to quickly scramble to film before it disappeared.
The main characters in the story also had their own journeys that Davis and Tildesley wanted to showcase visually. Pádraic is content with his life on the island, while Siobhán is ready to move on. Though they are in different stages of their lives, they live together in a cozy cottage that provides refuge for them both. Davis said he wanted audiences to feel the warmth of their home and “their existence to look nice” even when they were dealing with turmoil. By contrast, Dominic’s home was made to look grim and bleak to highlight the abusive life he’s living with his father.
With the pub, where all those on the island gather nightly for a pint or two, Davis wanted it to be “this place where you would come into on a stormy night, you’d shut the door and it would be like, ‘Oh, it’s warm.’”
“We painted the walls these dark greens and (had) black ceilings. I wanted to pull the characters off the walls like in early 17th century Dutch paintings,” he continued. “They’d paint the canvas that they’d laid their images on black and there was a bit of green in it. Then you pull these characters off of that with these little pockets of warmth, and it creates this lovely sense of intimate relationships.”
When asked what Davis’ favorite scene is in the film, he didn’t hesitate to say it was a moment between Siobhán and Dominic when he asks if there’s a chance they could fall in love. Not only was it the last day of photography, which already made it an emotional day, Davis said, but the performances made it even more special.
“You never know what you’re getting with Barry. He comes in and you don’t rehearse, you shoot straight away with Barry,” Davis said. “He came in and did this thing, and I remember finishing it and that night saying to Martin, ‘He was extraordinary in that moment. I mean unbelievable, and so was she.’”
The Banshees of Inisherin, which is currently in select theaters and also streaming on HBO Max, has already started to rack up a number of nominations across several categories from the Critics Choice Association, Golden Globes and Hollywood Critics Association. Davis said “I don’t know about that,” at the prospect of receiving his first Academy Award nomination for the film, but maybe the luck of the Irish will be on his side this award season.