A version of this interview with “The Quiet Girl” director Colm Bairéad first ran in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Based on a novella by Claire Keegan, “The Quiet Girl” is the understated story of Cáit, a young girl from a large family who is sent to spend the summer with a couple on a remote farm in an Irish-speaking area. The film is Ireland’s entry in the Oscars Best International Feature Film category, and director Colm Bairéad’s first narrative feature after a career of making documentaries.
Why choose this film for your first narrative feature?
I’ve done a lot of documentaries over the years, but having said that, my first love was always fiction filmmaking. I was always trying to get shorts made and trying to develop features and a TV series at one point. And I’ve always had a deep love of cinema that I inherited from my dad. He began my film education when we got a VCR machine, and he started off showing us early silent cinema. He showed us the early classics of the medium and kind of worked his way through the history of cinema.
And then as I got more experience, I realized working with actors to bring characters to life is like having these different chemical compounds that you put together. It creates this beautiful new thing that you can control to some degree, but there’s a beauty in the lack of control as well. And then, my short films often dealt with with child protagonists. I seemed to have a particular interest in films about childhood. And when I read this story by Claire Keegan, it’s just utterly immersive, and the themes were thematic concerns of my own.
In an immediate sense, I was This young girl as I was reading this work. And I love films that have a definite point of view. I love first-person narratives. I love the set of rules that that imposes on you as a filmmaker because it’s strangely liberating. I knew making this film I’d never need any big wide shots or drone shots. I knew that in the car, the camera would never leave the backseat. That’s kind of the key to why the film works: It inhabits this young girl’s point of view and it never leaves her orbit of her.
And that young girl is, as the title tells us, a quiet girl. Did that dictate a restrained filmmaking style?
Yeah, and it’s also maybe a reflection of my own personality. I knew that the film would embrace silence. There are many different types of silence in the film, and those silences are reflective of Irish society and certain aspects of our past. You have the silence of fear and shame, the silence of grief and then, in a strange way, the silence of love, when language fails us in terms of being completely honest with one another about our feelings.
Given that silence and restraint, is it then a concern to keep the audience engaged?
Maybe I was naive, but I never worried too much about that. I always had faith in this idea that if you can make the audience fully empathize with Cáit, even the minor, mundane things will take on more meaning or more tension. I was aware that I had to work things into the film in order to maintain some tension—but from my own reading of Claire’s work, I always felt glued to the story, even though in that the narrative is very slight.
You have a powerful tool for empathy in the person of Catherine Clinch, your lead actress.
When we got her self-tape in, we were just blown away. She understood the power of the camera and the need not to over-emote. I remember looking at the tape and finding myself leaning into it—she had this magnetic quality because of what she was withholding. I thought, “OK, this young person completely understands this character and also has this preternatural ability to just allow the camera to witness her.”
Read more from the International Film issue here.