Entertainment

Prasanna Puwanarajah on directing Patrick Kielty and Seána Kerslake in Ballywalter

David Roy speaks to director Prasanna Puwanarajah about Ballywalter, his bittersweet comedy drama starring Seána Kerslake and Paddy Kielty in his big screen debut which was shot in Co Down and is premiering tomorrow night at the Belfast Film Festival...

Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Seána Kerslake and Patrick Kielty in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Seána Kerslake and Patrick Kielty in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray Seána Kerslake and Patrick Kielty in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray

"IF YOU ask Patrick, he'll say we asked absolutely everyone else in Northern Ireland first – and they all said 'no'," jokes director Prasanna Puwanarajah of how comedian Patrick Kielty came to make his acting debut in Ballywalter, a bittersweet and darkly funny drama which opens the Belfast Film Festival tomorrow night.

"The reality is he was there very, very early in our thoughts," clarifies Ipswich-born Puwanarajah, who is making his own feature debut behind the camera with the Co Down-shot film from Belfast screenwriter Stacey Gregg (Here Before).

Ballywalter centres on two troubled souls who form a connection during a series of car journeys between the titular Ards Peninsula village and Belfast. Kielty plays Shane, a recent divorcee attempting to restart his life in middle age with the aid of a stand-up comedy class. Co-star Seána Kerslake is 20-something Eileen, back living with her dysfunctional family in Northern Ireland following an abortive foray into journalism in London and working as an unlicensed taxi driver to help make ends meet while she plots her next move.

"It was actually Stacey who suggested Patrick after she saw his first documentary [My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me]," explains the director, who also acts – his CV includes parts in Doctor Foster and Line of Duty, with his latest role being that of BBC journalist Martin Bashir in the new series of The Crown on Netflix.

"I think what was interesting was that Patrick was moving into a phase in his life where he was just cracking the lid open on a number of things in his personal story. And there was something intriguing about a person doing that.

"As a director, sometimes if you can see the soul trying to happen in the world in a kind of vulnerable way, that is a space where you can assist a person in terms of performance. So it was a gamble in that Patrick had never worked as a screen actor before – but only as much as any piece of casting is a type of gamble. I sort of saw it more as a kind of possibility."

Patrick Kielty, Seána Kerslake and Prasanna Puwanarajah. Picture by Helen Murray
Patrick Kielty, Seána Kerslake and Prasanna Puwanarajah. Picture by Helen Murray Patrick Kielty, Seána Kerslake and Prasanna Puwanarajah. Picture by Helen Murray

Happily, Puwanarajah was able to tap into his background in theatre directing – "I actually started as a director and got weirdly side-tracked into acting," he explains of his career path to date – spending time rehearsing with both leads before filming commenced, a preparatory process which helped to ensure they could hit the ground running once the cameras rolled.

"I worked with Patrick for about three or four weeks in London," the director explains, "and then with Seána and Patrick together in Belfast for two further weeks.

"We spent a long, long time kind of going through things and discussing the characters and the processes of film-making.

"And, you know, he was wonderful. Patrick was absolutely wonderful to work with, they both were. And he's beautiful in the film, I think. So we're totally thrilled. It all sort of makes so much sense with him because of his story and his journey.

He adds: "I think there's also a thing around comedy, which is the sort of nakedness of it, of being out there in a light with a microphone. It's utterly exposing. And there's a very keen kind of electric sensitivity to what an audience is reading, I suppose. The amount of honesty and vulnerability that you put up there is in that mix.

"So while this was Patrick's first screen acting job, he already had tens of thousands of hours onstage, communicating with humans about scary things. So, you know, he actually had an awful lot of experience."

Patrick Kielty as Shane in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Patrick Kielty as Shane in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray Patrick Kielty as Shane in Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray

Though they start out as strangers, Shane and Eileen gradually form a mutually restorative bond during their weekly 40-minute round-trip taxi rides in Eileen's borrowed Toyota Corolla.

"The two of them make this beautiful and unusual connection and just spin each other off the lip of a downward spiral," explains the director.

"It's kind of a delicate and humane story, but it's also quite a blackly funny movie about two people connecting in a tough landscape."

As for how Puwanarajah chose Ballywalter as his first feature project as a director, the film has its origins in a previous TV project he and Stacey Gregg collaborated on, the Belfast-set short Spoof or Die.

"Stacey and I first worked together on a Channel 4 strand for new talent about 10 years ago," he says.

"The producers paired us together, I think initially because we kind of shared not incomparable heritage from post-conflict spaces [his parents are Sri Lankan Tamils].

"So we did that film and have stayed friends and collaborators since then. Stacey is a very important part of my life. We were trying to work out what our next screen project might be and we discussed, I guess, tones and characters and relationships and scales and things that intrigued us in cinema.

"We both kind of liked the idea of something that felt kind of 'huge in miniature', if you know what I mean? Something that just takes a very focused look at a single point in a relationship and kind of shines it through or refracts it through a moment in a place.

"Movies like Nebraska, Fargo, The Last Picture Show and Paris, Texas were kind of our early touchstones – films where character is plot, I suppose. Films where you can kind of fall into the space between two people. And that's the journey of this movie.

"Stacey went away and wrote it and then presented it to me. Then we sort of worked on it for a period of time before I took it to [producer] James Bierman, who I'd worked with in the West End, and then he subsequently brought on Nik Bower from Riverstone pictures. And then it took six years to make."

When filming eventually got underway at the tail-end of 2020 during a lull in Covid restrictions, the Ballywalter shoot combined the widescreen beauty of the picturesque Co Down scenery with the more claustrophic vibes of a 20 year old Toyota's well-worn interior.

Seána Kerslake in a scene from Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Seána Kerslake in a scene from Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray Seána Kerslake in a scene from Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray

The latter scenes involved a concerted effort to make them as cinematic as possible while also serving the film's story, as Puwanarajah reveals.

"I worked really closely with Federico Cesca, who is our brilliant cinematographer, on the choice of camera and lenses to try to maximise the opportunities within the car," he tells me.

"I wanted to shoot those scenes with a kind of narrative journey baked into the photography, I suppose. So we were dealing with the journey of those journeys as a kind of cinematographic journey in itself.

"The way we shot them is always related to the point in the movie which we're at, and the various points of their evolving relationship, whether it's growing or breaking down or whatever. But hopefully the actual architecture of that remains largely invisible [to the audience]."

As for the added challenge of film-making during the first pre-vaccine winter of a global pandemic, it seems the five-week Ballywalter shoot remained relatively untouched by the dreaded virus.

"I think out of 650 Covid test PCRs that we did right in the throat of the pandemic, we only generated one positive," reveals the director, who trained as a doctor prior to becoming an actor/director and is currently working with Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio on a new three part drama for ITV set at the start of the pandemic.

Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray
Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray Prasanna Puwanarajah filming Ballywalter. Picture by Helen Murray

Where that will be shot remains to be seen, but it seems Puwanarajah has grown fond of Northern Ireland over the years.

"I've always loved being there," he enthuses.

"I've done a couple of acting jobs there and I'm always up for it because I just love being there. I love the place, I love hanging out with people and seeing friends and the energy and rhythm of it. It just feels kind of familiar. So yeah, it's a very special place to me."

:: Ballywalter premieres as the opening film of this year's Belfast Film Festival tomorrow night at Cineworld. Tickets for the 6.45pm screening are available now via belfastfilmfestival.org.