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Lakelands Interview: Robert Higgins & Patrick McGivney

Lakelands’ directors Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney sit down with us for an interview about their poignant Irish drama, sports culture and the storytelling potential of small towns.


One of the gems from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival was sports drama Lakelands from directors Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney. It’s a quiet and poignant story about a young man, Cian (Éanna Hardwicke), who suffers a severe concussion on a night out. In this interview, the directors – who also wrote the script – discuss how Cian’s injury has a ripple effect on all aspects of his identity throughout the rest of the film. Not only who he is on the pitch or out in the fields, but at the vulnerable heart of him.

Lakelands is a sports film about the aftermath of sports. It’s about finding out who you are without something that is incredibly important to, not only you, but to the culture around you. We also chat to the pair about the experience of releasing their debut feature, masculine sports culture and the prevalence of Gaelic Football in Ireland, as well as the importance of developing their characters authentically.


HOW SMALL TOWNS INSPIRED ROBERT HIGGINS & PATRICK MCGIVNEY

Hi guys. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Congratulations on the film, first of all. As this is your debut, what has this whole process been like so far?

Robert Higgins: It’s been amazing. It’s all brand new to us, this being our debut film, and the origins of it are very community based, since we made it in our hometown. We made it with quite a small budget: the farm was Paddy’s farm and the house we show in was Paddy’s too. We included our local football team and all our mates, so it was a real grassroots, community based way of making the film. And we’re delighted with how far it’s gone. From the Glasgow Film Festival, it’s travelled to Europe and America, and it would have been hard to believe when we were still in the local community centre. But it’s been a great experience so far.

loud and clear reviews Lakelands film movie 2023 glasgow festival
Interview with Robert Higgins & Patrick McGivney – A still from Lakelands (Wildcard Distribution)

That community aspect and rural intimacy is something that’s really noticeable within the film. What is it about small towns that feels so rich to you from a storytelling perspective?

Patrick McGivney: That’s a great question and it’s definitely something that we think and talk about quite a lot, considering we’re working on a second script at the moment, that’s also based in a small town. And the reason we’ve gone back is because it is so rich, and there’s still so much for us to unpack and uncover. Granard [the town where Lakelands is set] was such an inspiration for Lakelands and I think it all stems from growing up there. Watching the characters that make the place what it is, hearing the stories and going into the pubs, looking around at your mates and just seeing and how diverse and rich the culture actually is. There’s a real juxtaposition between that and the perception of what it is to be from a small town from the outside.

And in Ireland, people from Dublin refer to people from outside of Dublin as being ‘from the country’. I think that encapsulates the entirety of the rest of the island, and we feel like that’s a disservice. All these small towns, while they have commonalities, they’re all unique in their own sense and we wanted to subvert the perception of what people from them are like.

Our experience has been of young people who wanted to stay and had to leave, as opposed to wanting to get out and experience some something different. I think looking around and seeing how much inspiration was around us, we realised very quickly that this was rich, fertile ground with a lot to explore. And that became kind of the starting point for Lakelands and the journey we’ve been on.


THE IMPORTANCE OF GAELIC FOOTBALL FOR LAKELANDS

For those, like myself, who are outside of Ireland, can you elaborate on how ingrained Gaelic football is in the culture there?

Robert Higgins: It’s the main sport and the central pillar of a lot of communities. But what’s interesting about it is that there’s no money in it either: everyone just plays for pride and passion, and I think all the rivalries become much more intense as a result of that. From when you are very young, there’s an expectation for you to play, and then, when you do, that pressure only grows more and more as you get towards a senior level, until you end up with this massive weight of expectation on your shoulders.

There’s never really been a depiction where the sport has been so central to the film, and so we figured it would be really interesting. Yes, there are obviously parallels in other countries, like high school football [in the US], but we felt there was an opportunity for us to make something a little bit universal out of what is quite a unique part of Irish culture.

Lakelands is a sports movie about the aftermath of sport. Was it always the intention to explore the nuance of that, or did it come about as you were writing it?

Patrick McGivney: For us, it was an interesting kind of angle to come at the culture from. A man who’s a bit of a fading star, just past his potential period and now on a downward curve. Looking at the culture from the inside, we were taken by how much of someone’s identity can become wrapped up in this sport and being known locally as a good footballer and part of a winning team. We thought it would be an interesting way to depict the culture by having our main character have that perception of himself, and then for that to be taken away from him unexpectedly. It became a jumping off point for us to then explore the culture as a whole.

Because the thing with Gaelic football is that there are so many positive elements to it. It gives people such pride of place and keeps them coming home, which is probably the biggest plus. But it can become quite a claustrophobic environment as well, because the whole town come to the games and it is all well and good when you’re winning, but when you lose and you’ve been spotted in the pub the week before it can become a less than positive environment, to put it nicely.

And so we wanted to show the pressure these young players can feel to perform and push themselves to play through injury,. Having our main character be at the latter end of his career just facilitated that process. But it was always very much just a jumping off point to explore the rest of the culture and the culture of small towns in general.

Interview with Robert Higgins & Patrick McGivney – A still from Lakelands (Wildcard Distribution)

HOW ROBERT HIGGINS & PATRICK MCGIVNEY DEVELOPED LAKELANDS‘ CHARACTERS

Cian, as a character, is very internal – much like his injury. Was that always the case, or was it a collaborate process with actor Éanna Hardwicke?

Robert Higgins: We had a quite a firm idea before we brought in Éanna of what the central journey was going to be. But when he came down and workshopped with us, he brought a huge amount of his own experiences that we then worked into the script. So, it was collaborative, but the injury was always quite firm in our heads, as it was such an interesting way of looking at someone whose identity is then suddenly flipped on its head. We brought him down for a crash course in living in the country for a few days [prior to shooting], where he worked on Paddy’s dad’s farm and played a bit of football, and he brought so much to the character with his incredible creativity that it just enrichened the character as a whole.

Does he still play Gaelic football?

Patrick McGivney: [Laughing] He was talking a big game about having a newfound love for Gaelic football, but I think that’s been shorted and he’s back to the acting.

I found it really refreshing that the character of Grace was so much more than just a conduit for Cian to express himself. Was that a collaborative effort with Danielle as well?

R.H: Yeah, big time. For us it was really important that Grace had her own entire world, and we really looked at the whole film as a being somewhat of a two hander. While it’s obviously told through Cian’s eyes, they’re having nearly parallel journeys that are simply criss-crossing. Danielle is just incredible. She’s the best person you could ever have on set, making sure everyone is in great form, and she’s an incredibly creative artist as well. She also came down to workshop the script, which was invaluable for us because she would flag up any bum notes and we could work on them. We’re really grateful for that, because you’re always going to have some blind spots and you want to strengthen them that way. It was great to have that collaborative relationship with Danielle and it’s really strengthened her character too.

Do they make it work, do you think? Or are you happy for us to guess?

R.H:[Laughing]We do like to keep it open.


MASCULINITY AND SPORTS CULTURE IN LAKELANDS

Could you talk a little bit about the film’s themes of masculinity, and how you managed to simultaneously explore that cultural authenticity and Cian’s emotional journey?

Patrick McGivney: Great question. The way we always try to describe Cian as a character, and I suppose guys like that in general, is that they always tend to have a shell around them that you peel back in layers to a soft interior. And that is the driving force of what makes them unique and makes them good friends, good boyfriends etc. But these young men always feel like they have to have that hard exterior, and I think we always found that quite interesting because that need for the hard exterior can stem from the laddish culture they’re in.

I think it’s extremely prevalent in sports because you have to push through injury, and you have to train hard and play harder. But deep down there is a sincere vulnerability that everyone in these cultures shares. And we felt that with a character like Cian, something significant had to happen to peel back those layers and leave them exposed and for him to navigate the world without that hard exterior up. He tries to keep it up the best he can, but the more he keeps trying the more exposed he is, eventually the world just collapses in on him and he can’t keep it up anymore.

And then Grace’s presence helps build him up again?

P.M: Yeah! The combination of that significant incident happening and Grace, who challenges him in a way he’s never been challenged before, means he’s walking around this very masculine, hard world and it’s the female presence who offers perspective. We thought it was really interesting that she’s the most honest with him, because then the challenge doesn’t come from all those laddish men around him, who reinforce that hard exterior illusion, but rather someone who isn’t masculine or aggressive. And that’s the most beneficial feedback to receive.

Lakelands: Trailer (Wildcard Distribution)

ROBERT HIGGINS & PATRICK MCGIVNEY ON FUTURE PROJECTS

So, what’s next for you?

Patrick McGivney: We’ve got another script cooking and it’s another story set in small town Ireland. It’s more of an exploration of the grittier underbelly and, like we said, we definitely feel like it’s very rich, fertile ground to explore and we haven’t explored all of it just yet. This new script is set in the underground rave culture that we would have attended in our teenage years and been in relatively close proximity to it, so that’s the world we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive into next.

Do you see yourselves always sticking to those kinds of personal, grassroots stories?

Robert Higgins: We have started writing some that are a little bit more outside of our direct personal experiences, but I think it’s something we’ll always want to return to, if we’re lucky enough to keep making films. Particularly, in the midlands of Ireland, there’s no real film history there so we’d love to do more and more representations of it. But I suppose we’d also like to try our hand at going a bit bigger and going abroad.

Any other hidden Irish filmic gems you’d like to mention?

R.H: There’s a great film called A Date for Mad Mary, by Darren Thornton.

P.M: A real classic Irish film that we always return to every few years and that has definitely informed some of our work is called War of the Buttons, by John Roberts. There’s a lot of similarities between Gaelic football culture and rival neighbouring parishes like in that film. [Laughing] I think a lot of us were overly influenced by that film growing up.

R.H: That’ll be the root of it.

P.M: Yeah, that’s definitely our go-to Irish film that we recommend.

Now that Lakelands is out in cinemas, will you be going to see it incognito?

R.H: [Laughing] We estimate, with the editing, that we’ve seen it about two hundred times so it’s unlikely. But we might pop into a cinema and get the experience for a few minutes.

I’m sure the audiences would love that. Best of luck with the film guys, it’s wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

P.M: Thanks so much.

R.H: Thank you!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Lakelands opened in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on Friday 5th May 2023. Read our review of Lakelands!

Lakelands: Film Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
Film Review: Lakelands is a subtle and poignant film about learning to embrace a future that isn’t at all what you imagined.
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