Lakelands is an excellent Irish drama set in a tiny town in Longford. It centres on Cian, played by Éanna Hardwicke, a young man who faces having to give up playing his beloved Gaelic football after suffering a serious head injury. As his entire life revolves around the game, it uproots his very sense of self. We spoke to Éanna and one of the film’s directors, Robert Higgins, about bringing small town Ireland and Gaelic football to the big screen, their collaborative approach to shooting the film, and the current rude health of Irish cinema. Éanna also earned bonus points and eternal fandom for making film editor Kevin Ibbotson-Wight a cup of tea before the chat. 

Can you can you tell us a about Lakelands?

RH: It’s set in our hometown, Granard in Longford. Not a very big town as you might have guessed from the film. Me and my co-director Paddy [McGivney] grew up there. We’ve known each other since we’re kids. We always wanted to make a the world of Gaelic football. It’s our national sport, but there’s never actually been a film made about it really, so it just felt like an interesting jumping off point. And we wanted to explore the issues young people are dealing with these days in Ireland. We come from a place wheres films aren’t really made; there isn’t a history of Longford films. And so we wanted to make one and just kind of show our corner [of Ireland]. Everywhere has its own kind of unique culture and we just wanted to show that off. So that was really where Lakelands came from.

What was the casting process like?

EH: It was a very nice casting process, for me anyway. Rob and Paddy got in touch with script, and that was I it. I thought, ‘I’ll have a read. I don’t know what they mean by this cryptic messaging!’ But then I read it and loved it. And I did have a feeling straight off where I thought that I know this guy, and I feel I would know how to play him, and it’s a very familiar world for me. So we hopped on a call and I didn’t know at first what what they had in mind for me. And we talked about playing Cian. So I got very excited about it, and told my agent about it, and then kind of went, ‘Yeah, but it might not happen.’ There are lots of people with good scripts out there, and this will probably never come too light.  And I just kind of forgot about it. But the lads were back in touch a few weeks later saying we should come down and do development on it in Longford, and here’s the other people we’ve got involved. And they just had assembled such a great cast at that point with with

forgot about it as you know, I mean, lads were back in touch a few weeks later saying we should come down and do development honours in Lanford, and here’s the other people we’ve got involved and just sat assembles such a great cast at that point with with Dafhyd [Flynn], Gary [Lydon], and Lorcan [Cranitch], Danni [Danielle Galligan]. So we got to develop the script then for a few days.

RH: He says development, the development for him was really  working on a farm. We put him to work for a few days.

EH: Yeah, they got two days free labour out of me! We did full immersion: the full farm experience, cans at the local drinking spots, and had a bit of food along the way. Immersive rehearsing!

Was the script pretty much fully formed? How much were you able to bring your own perspective to the character?

EH: It was pretty fully cooked, but Paddy and Rob very generously were open to other ideas with the character and that rehearsal period we did was invaluable. I mean, if you could do that on every film, you would. We got to talk about backstory, we got to talk about their relationships, we got to talk about how long they’ve known each other and what life is like in the tow. So we did a real forensic, deep-level script. Then some new ideas – mainly from Lorcan and Danni, who have an amazing head for scripts and for character. So they brought some ideas, about what our relationships are and how we can flesh them out. It was mainly a chance to develop the story inside of the script.

I think Danni said it one day; you hold up the script and that’s only 10% of everything you’re playing with. The offscreen life has to be brimming as well. So it was mainly delving into the offscreen life because the actual dialogue and structure were so, so good.I think the draft that we read was pretty much the final draft, I guess.

RH: Yeah, I think it’s part of our process now to invite [our actors] to bring their own world to it, and they can really make the characters their own then. It’s a lot. We’d done a lot of work because we talked about everything to death before. The choices that are gonna be made are informed by a lot of conversations we’ve had, and they just brought so much. Even just tightening the dialogue. We just wanted to sound out what feels good for for the guys. Sometimes you want to not get away of how they would naturally say something. It was all a conversation, and really just helped to tighten up, and develop, and really improve the script.

The film is also a really nuanced look at small town masculinity. Is that accurate to the area? It’s not necessarily a toxic masculinity, but it feels like there’s a very set idea of what a man should be.

RH: something we talked about a lot was that Cian has this shell of masculinity. He doesn’t have a defined idea of who he is. He doesn’t really talk about it. He deflects with a lot of humour a lot of the time. And I suppose this film is when the shell gets kind of cracked. He then looks in on himself and kind of tries to analyse these things he’s been very bound to; to find out are they working or if he needs to, potentially, find deeper connection, be more open with his emotions. To shed that protective coat. It’s something we’ve definitely seen growing up with our with our friends, you know. It can be difficult to communicate that openly. But you can evolve and learn to do that. That’s what a lot of our friend group have done, so we wanted to map out that journey a little bit.

It’s telling that the the introduction of a wider perspective comes from a female perspective. How did you how did you cast Danielle Galligan?

RH: Yeah, Danielle is is amazing! I’d seen her in loads. She’s done a really wide amount. She’s done some amazing short films, she’s done a couple of TV shows, and Shadow and Bone on Netflix. There was such a breadth of work there, and we could see she was equally adept at humour as she is with the heavily dramatic and her character goes through the full spectrum on that. So she just seemed perfect. Then since we met her she’s just a real artist. So serious about the work. It made the whole thing a pleasure. We’ve often spoken about it, but she just has an incredible way about her and she’s just very warm. Across the whole set she’s cracking jokes and keeping everyone in good form, and simultaneously being just so focused in on her art. She just strikes and mazing balance that’s really unique.

EH: She’s phenomenal. They’re the things that I think make films sets work actually. Good sense of humour, being generous, and so forensic and precise about what’s going on, in every scene. Dramaturgically and personally. You’re casting someone who’s right for the part and who will be really, really good at it, but you’re also casting the person and what they’ll bring to it. And I think Danni brought, as well as an incredible performance, she brought so many brilliant ideas and a depth as well to [Danielle’s character] Grace. We’ve said plenty times between us, you’re only as good as the person opposite who you’re acting with. And with Lorcan and Danny and with the whole cast, I felt like they were driving me up with them. Honestly, they’re just phenomenal actors who get more out of you than you thought you had because they’re so, so good.

What are your hopes and expectations for the film? Is there going to be a cinematic release?

We’re coming out in cinemas May 5, so it’s going to get a wide release in Ireland ,and then it’s going to do a small release here around the UK. So it’s exciting to get it out because we’ve been on the festival circuit for a while. I look forward to it. You know, hopefully it resonates and connects with people. That’s all we’re looking for. You get a couple of messages from people who’ve seen it, and say it’s a story that they normally wouldn’t have connected to. That’s kind of the best feeling you can get from it. So just really, really happy. It’s gotten to this point and even just the experience of making it [was great], and we’re all great mates now, which is brilliant, you know. So it’s been a really positive thing

How long was the actual shooting process?

EH: 17 days.

Was that including the two days on the farm?

EH: No [laughs]. That was a few months in advance. But I needed that.

RH: He also went back to [Gaelic] football for learning, and he would play football for two months.

EH: Yeah, it was the Summer, and I joined a local club, Clanna Gael. So thanks for having me. They were very welcoming. And I met a coach there and we had a chat and we played a bit of ball. Then I started going to training twice a week and sort of not tell anyone why I was there. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, just kind of getting back into it. But I can only be here for six weeks!’ [laughs]. They’re like, ‘We know you’re doing it because you’re about to do a film.’ So that was the hardest of all.

Did they take it easy on you, or did they go harder?

EH: No, there’s no easy games with football. It’s a supposedly amateur game, but played at a professional level. People get that whether they’re playing for their county or their club, there is an enormous commitment. It’s funny seeing people on the team who were in my area who I kind of recognised, and then you see them on the pitch and they’re totally different, you know, they’ll fight to the death! I played for a few years so I kind of knew my way around the pitch a little bit.

But I was pretty much done filming. And a week or two later, I was out for dinner with someone who was visiting. I said,’Listen, I have to take off dinner because I’ve got my final training session.’ We had a little of time so we grabbed an ice cream, walked round Dublin, and I said, ‘Alright, must go!’ hopped on a bus and went straight to training. Got togged out and then we were playing a challenge match against another club. Because they had a big semi-final. And I was like recusing myself. ‘I’m not playing. There’s not a chance that I’m playing!’ But they threw me on for the last 10 minutes. This will give you an indicator of the fitness you need to play at a good level. You’re always running. I was on for 10 minutes and I nearly vomited. The pace you need is something else. So I can’t say I got there in the fitness level, but I I gave it a go [laughs].

Have you got anything anything else in the pipeline? Are we filming anything at the moment? 

RH: We have a new script that’s just gone into development with Screen Ireland called Bonfires. And a couple of TV projects that are starting to take shape as well. Hopefully they get a little bit of a bounce after [Lakelands] comes out ar the cinema.

EH: I’ve just finished filming a show called The Doll Factory for Paramount+, so we wrapped that last week in Dublin. And The Sixth Commandment, a programme I made for the BBC. I think that will be out in the next few months. We don’t have a date or anything because that’s all been announced. So yeah, that’s where I’m at.

There seems to be lots of excellent, very intimate Irish films coming out at the moment. Do you think there’s kind of a grass roots movement that’s allowing new talent to come through?

RH: Big time.  There’s just a real bit of buzz about it. And I guess when we’re getting the films that some of them are doing now it’s very encouraging, and shows our stories can travel. Also, the Irish film industry is quite young compared to a lot of others. We had made film more on off but only really settled in the last 25 years. So there’s a lot of Irish stories that haven’t been told. We’ve always had the lineage in other artforms, but I guess film is kind of hitting its stride now, which is great. And at the Oscars this year, of the acting nominations we have a quarter. It’s great, there’s great energy about it and hopefully we can continue.

EH: It’s really exciting. It’s a great storytelling culture anyway, with great literature and I think it was it was always just a case of it filtering down to the point where it made its way on screen. Now, it had for many years before this, but obviously we’re at a critical mass now. Also, there’s there’s now such professionalism in the industry. The crews in Ireland  are phenomenally skilled and well trained because of all the big stuff that’s shot there, like Game of Thrones and Vikings. So there’s this good ecosystem, you know what I mean? You’ve got massive, massive shoots, that have trained people up to a really, really high standard. And then you’ve got great independent film culture that’s on the rise now,films like The Silent Girl [The Quiet Girl]. It feels exciting right now.

Lakelands screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival and will receive a limited UK cinema release later in the year.