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The Painterly Exteriors of ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Were Conceived While the Filmmakers Were Stuck Indoors

Cinematographer Ben Davis tells IndieWire how the isolating effects of COVID found their way into the haunting and beautiful imagery of "The Banshees of Inisherin."

"The Banshees of Inisherin"

“The Banshees of Inisherin”

Searchlight

The characters of “The Banshees of Inisherin” live on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, where the harsh weather and separation from larger world conflicts intensify the connections and conflicts between the island’s inhabitants. According to cinematographer Ben Davis, the cast and crew experienced a similar sense of isolation, though with far happier results than the fate of the fallen-out friends played in the film by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. The relative inaccessibility of the islands where they were shooting combined with COVID-19 restrictions created ideal conditions to yield some of the most beautiful and lyrical images of the cinematographer’s career.

The effects of COVID were felt — and had ironically positive effects — starting in pre-production, when Davis and writer-director Martin McDonagh were isolated together in quarantine. “We had to quarantine together on the Irish mainland for 10 days, because there was no COVID on the islands,” Davis told IndieWire. “Martin came in with storyboards for the entire movie, which was our initial kickoff point. They had a lot of Western language to them — a lot of looking through doorways at the landscape at different figures walking away — and it reminded me of John Ford.”

McDonagh and Davis looked at several of Ford’s movies for inspiration, as well as “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and various other influences. “We watched a lot of things and then we looked at some photographic references,” Davis said. “I looked at Dutch paintings from the 17th century, which I thought was appropriate for inside the pub. I was looking at stuff that was lit by oil lamps where you’ve got dark, oily backgrounds and figures gathered around a one-flame light source.”

This painterly quality leads to extraordinary images as Davis expresses his characters’ melancholy inner lives through a haunting interplay of light and shadow reminiscent of McDonagh’s beloved “Night of the Hunter.” Yet the interior photography is not only matched but perhaps surpassed by the film’s stunning exteriors, in which Davis’ camera perfectly conveys both the beauty and the sadness that struck Davis when he read the script. “I had to read it a couple of times because it kind of took me by surprise,” he said. “I thought it was incredibly sad. Very funny, but sadder and more nuanced than Martin’s previous work.”

Kerry Condon in "The Banshees of Inisherin"

“The Banshees of Inisherin”

Jonathan Hession / courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

When Davis got to the islands where they would be shooting, he immediately felt the sadness, but not necessarily the beauty, that he knew McDonagh was aiming for. “It’s a slab of rock surrounded by a pretty raging Atlantic Ocean, and you’re very distanced emotionally from the mainland because of that,” Davis said. “When we first got there it was gray and raining, and I thought, ‘How does this translate into the idea that Martin has in his head?’, because he wanted the island to be beautiful. He wanted to show the Ireland that he remembered from his childhood, but it wasn’t that.”

Eventually, however, Davis realized that there was a certain charm in the overcast, drizzly conditions. “It took a while for me to embed myself in that, but once I did I spent a lot of time thinking about how to deliver that beauty.” Davis and McDonagh went through the script and mapped out what kind of weather they would like for each scene, and once they were shooting were able to, in effect, chase that weather thanks to their relatively small crew and the fact that COVID kept everyone together on the island. “The great thing about having a captive cast and crew is that you can make that work as long as everyone buys into the idea,” Davis said.

All of the interior sets were builds on the island, so if the weather wasn’t what they wanted, Davis and the crew would shoot inside, moving outside quickly whenever the light was ideal. “We were lucky because we were a very small crew with a very small footprint in terms of equipment and a very small cast. There weren’t many players in our cast and we were all on an island together, so we could be very responsive and dance around with the weather.” It was an experience whose uniqueness Davis cherished. “The layman always asks, ‘Can’t you do that on every film? Isn’t that the way you do it?’ And no, it’s not. I’ve always wanted that to be the way, and you always try and achieve it, but in all the films I’ve made I’ve never actually had this sort of flexibility.”

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