Kate McCullough, ISC, explains her choices for the photography of Colm Bairéad’s "The Quiet Girl"

As good as gold
Selected in the “Director’s debut” competition, The Quiet Girl, by Colm Bairéad, is a drama set in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which depicts the life of a young girl whose troubled parents send her to spend the summer with a couple of cousins. This film plays a lot on the unspoken and on a false appearance of distance to better reveal the many secrets at the heart of the story. This very touching portrait of early adolescence is played by the young Catherine Clinch, who radiates talent on screen. It is also the second Gaelic-language film for the Irish director of photography Kate McCullough ; the first was the very beautiful Arracht, by Tom Sullivan (at Camerimage in 2020). Note that Kate also has a special link with Poland, since she attended the Łódź film school... (FR)

Asked about what it was like to discover the project and what the first images were that may have come to her mind, Kate McCullough confides that she had already read the short story by Claire Keagan on which the screenplay was based :
“I really liked this book, and I’ll admit I was a little nervous about what Colm Bairéad was going to make of it... Or, if the adaptation was worthy of the original, that my work wouldn’t be. All works of literature inevitably trigger very personal emotions and images, and it is never easy to slip into that universe as a filmmaker. Anyway, I became very emotional as I read the screenplay, and I even surprised myself by shedding a few tears on the final pages. That’s not a common experience when you read a screenplay as a technician, since you usually have a certain clinical distance from the subject, and emotions can often be hidden by the work itself. Films played in the Irish language aren’t legion, but this is the second one I have had the chance to film (after Arracht, itself in the Cinematographer’s debut competition three years ago) even though I don’t master the language perfectly. I can manage to grasp the meaning of the sentences, and the dialogues... but speaking it fluently in the context of a conversation is unfortunately very shaky for me... The crew therefore worked in English most of the time, with Irish being more reserved for the director, in particular for directing his actors.”

Cait (Catherine Clinch) étudie l'homme de la maison Sean
Cait (Catherine Clinch) étudie l’homme de la maison Sean

Concerning the references that were discussed in preproduction, Kate McCullough cites the work of British director Lynne Ramsay : “Colm Bairéad, the director, had previously only made short films and a few long form documentaries. The Quiet Girl is his first feature film. When we met, he mentioned Lynne Ramsay, particularly citing Gasman, one of her short films which depicts children aged 10 to 12 in an underprivileged Scottish family. I also remember Ratcatcher, the first feature film by the same Lynne Ramsay, whose protagonist is also a young boy living in the working-class neighborhoods of Glasgow in 1973. We gleaned a few ambiences here and there that we used to build the universe of our own film. One of the challenges for me was to combine the naturalistic observer’s point of view in these two films with touches of more stylized reality at certain key moments. Such as, for example, the scene where Eibhlin accompanies the young Cait to the well...”

Cait (Catherine Clinch) voit le puits pour la première fois
Cait (Catherine Clinch) voit le puits pour la première fois

As though they were timeless, both the countryside and the Irish farmers in the film seem straight out of the 1960s... Kate McCullough explains : “The film is set in the 1980s, but you know, rural Ireland hasn’t changed much between 1960 and 1980. We chose locations during scouting which are almost all exactly the ones we ended up shooting in. For example, Sean and Eibhlin’s house, which Cait moves into at the end of the first act, hardly required any alterations. Only a little coat of paint in the entrance hall to give the backgrounds a little more definition. On the first set in the film, that of Cait’s parents’ bachelor house, I still remember the absolutely captivated reaction of the owner, who lived there and who suddenly saw the whole circus of a cinema production come into his very simple life. Shared lunches suddenly became an avalanche of questions about our profession !

Beginning with a very well-composed long take, the film immediately identifies that it is about what is said and what is unsaid… According to Kate McCullough : “Our idea, for this opening shot, was to delay the discovery of Cait’s character. Not seeing her face right away, separating her from the permanent noise of the family, and disconnecting her from this world. At first, we planned to do a whole series of close-ups showing parts of her body lying in the middle of the grass to offer a fragmented vision of her through shots of her feet, hands, hair, etc. But the filming constraints related to her age, in particular the very limited number of hours of work that a child can do on a film, pushed us to simplify this opening. So, we found another way to do it, as is often the case in filmmaking ! A long take, which I think fits perfectly with the theme of the film : how we slowly pass underneath the quiet surface of things and people to discover the reality that hides within...”

Another constant in the plans was the presence of nature as a link between all the places...
“I remember, during one of our first location scoutings, visiting Sean and Eibhlin’s house and how important the presence of nature was even indoors. The sun coming in through the windows created delicate moving shadows of the windswept trees... Of course, we didn’t want to fall into atmospheric effects like the ones you sometimes see in fantasy films, but it seemed to us that playing with the presence of trees would contribute to making another, more spiritual, life force be felt within this space. We were therefore able to take advantage of this particularity of the space by bringing the windows to life or sometimes playing with the ballet of silhouette shadows. In particular, I’m thinking of the scene where Eibhlin does Cait’s hair, where the view on the trees through the window is very visible.”

Kate McCullough
Kate McCullough

Asked about her choice of lenses, Kate McCullough answers with a smile that almost everything was shot with a 35mm and a 50mm Zeiss Compact Prime. “I know it may come as a surprise, because these full-frame lenses aren’t often given much attention, but I find that they have a very nice rendering, neutral and simple. Mounted on a Sony Venice, using them in a 1.37 aspect ratio made it possible to take advantage the center of the image above all, and consequently to limit any imperfections. For a few sequences only, like the one in the kitchen at night (which follows the interrogation of the neighbor), I used a 14 mm. It definitely looks weird in the viewfinder : the shot suddenly pops out with great force, quite muscular. But it was just for this moment, where we wanted to signify a change in the relationship between the characters.
Probably to reinforce the feeling of loneliness... Another idea that we had at the start was to plan for a change in aspect ratio in the middle of the film. We’d thought we’d go from 1.37 to 1.85 or straight to 2.4, as for example Xavier Dolan had done on Mommy. But we gave up that idea, since the effect seemed too manipulative for this story. Also, the significant difference in size between Cait and the adults did not easily lend itself to 2,35...”

Although Ireland is not necessarily famous for its Riviera-like weather, The Quiet Girl is nonetheless a resolutely sunny film...
Kate McCullough explains : “The decision to shoot the film over five weeks in the heart of autumn allowed us to obtain these atmospheres. This is, I think, the ideal time to film outdoors. The days are still quite long, and above all you can make the most of the sun’s effects almost all day long. From a narrative point of view, it was something that seemed evident to me. First, the story takes place in summer, and even if Irish weather is not often radiantly sunny, it was hard to see how we’d be able to film the majority of the exterior scenes in grey weather or under the rain. Cait’s arrival at her cousins’, for example, had to be sunny. This is how it was in the book, and adds a special intensity of atmosphere to these scenes.

Cait (Catherine Clinch) est accueillie par la femme de la maison Eibhlin, Carrie Crowley, après un long voyage
Cait (Catherine Clinch) est accueillie par la femme de la maison Eibhlin, Carrie Crowley, après un long voyage

Another sequence where the young girl begins to relax a little is the first race to the mailbox. “This is the first time we’ve seen her smile, and it was very touching on camera. For me, it was necessary to convey the energy that she has in her, which she’d kept like a secret from the beginning, and which suddenly explodes onto the screen. To capture this moment, I used a Ronin stabilizer on board a golf cart. As always, I would no doubt have liked to shoot even more… Not necessarily to have multiple camera angles, but to obtain certain longer shots, precisely to avoid having to make cuts.
The other key scene, which sees Cait being questioned by Oona upon her return from the funeral, was filmed with the same setup. The set is different, it’s on a country road, under a sort of vault formed by the trees. It’s more of a late afternoon atmosphere, with a little more contrast. For this scene, we managed to do almost everything in one long shot, with only two takes. There’s a closer-up shot on Cait that is set apart and concludes this scene of revelations. The natural light adds a bit of tension, as does the slight camera movement. There were no spots used on this scene, just simple reflectors.”

Among the film’s technical challenges, the night scene on the beach between Cait and Sean marks another turning point in the film... Kate McCullough explains : “It really wasn’t an easy scene ! First, we had to shoot this unique night scene with our young actor, on a beach, with the tide and the possibility of a good Irish gust of wind ! This scene was supposed to highlight the closeness of the two characters, while remaining very simple and delicate. Like a little moment the two of them have stolen… We deliberately stayed behind them, so as to enjoy the view of the sea. This way of shooting the scene also made me think of the scene on the beach between the two boys in Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins. To light these scenes, I was able to install one 10-m cherry picker with 2 x 6 kW spring-balls aimed at the beach. As the sea covered the entire scene at high tide, we had a very tight window of time to install and shoot the scene.
I must admit that luck was on my side because the night was very still, with an authentic full moon in a cloudless sky. Filmed at 4,000 ISO with the Venice, we captured all the brilliance on the sea, and the lights of the boats they observe in the distance. It’s always difficult as a director of photography to know how much to light this type of immense space..., how to justify the lighting, where to stop for the viewer... Here, it’s true that the presence of the real moon and the very high sensitivity of the camera helped me a lot !”

Asked about what she is most proud of in this film, Kate McCullough immediately replies : “I felt a lot of very strong things on the set. Not that my childhood wasn’t like Cait’s, but I really recognized a part of myself in her character. The way people talk to each other, not really daring to look each other in the eye... The way Sean says good night to Cait every night... Sometimes I recognized certain images from my own life. Transmitting them through this film is something I’m very proud of !”

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC)