Maybe because of his prolific experience as a playwright, director Martin McDonagh (“The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is a storyteller who allows for much mystery in the lives of his characters. His acclaimed black comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” begins with Colm (Brendan Gleeson) ending his friendship with Pádraic (Colin Farrell) for reasons that are never made completely clear. The time is 1923 rural Ireland.
“Martin doesn’t do much backstory in his writing,” production designer Mark Tildesley explained to TheWrap. “He wrote the script and the drew storyboards for the whole film and he had very specific ideas for how he’d like to make it. But we knew that the audience would have to piece together parts of the characters’ pasts through the look of the film.” Tildesley, whose credits include Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” also designed the 1980s-era sets for the current film “Empire of Light” (see interview here).
A critical part of his work for “Banshees” was done in the cottage in which Colm resides. All the elements of his bachelor pad were deliberated over, including the art, ephemera, and the large gramophone for playing records. Color also was used to indicate a yearning and ambition within Colm that the character himself never fully articulates.
“The film is set a hundred years ago on an island where most of the people have never been outside of their village,” Tildesley said. “But Martin wanted the story to have a modern twist, which was that it would be super colorful, not an old, dreary black-and-white world as you often see.”
In conducting research for the production design, all the photographs from the 1920s were, of course, in black-and-white. “So the challenge was to find a way to bring all this color in,” Tildesley said. “We managed to get some piece of folklore from a local museum in Galway. We went and looked at some of the original dyes and colors — much of it okra and indigo blue and oxford red.”
Colm’s cottage was a real place and not a set built for the film. After a long search, Tildesley and his team found the modest home, an original whaling cottage, at a place called the Achill Islands in County Mayo.
“We weren’t going into the studio to build anything for this house,” Tildesley said. “The person who owned the cottage was very nice, but we explained to him very carefully what was going to happen in his home and what we’d like to do.”
Tildesley added, “Eventually we were able to persuade the owner to let us get involved in the design. It was very dark inside, so we needed a few more windows, so we burrowed new windows into the original stone. We managed to put a couple little windows, including the one which Pádraic views Colm from outside.”
The detail was essential. “It is a film about windows. It’s so much about views through doors in that John Ford kind of way. That was all in Martin’s storyboards, that we would have this ability to see characters relationship to the land.“
The cottage’s interior offered secrets to the character of Colm.
“We didn’t want to give away the fact that Colm was unwell, in terms of his sadness, but we just wanted to slightly connect the interior of his home to his melancholy,” Tildesley said. “We imagined that Colm had been a great musician and over the course of his life he’d connected with other musical artists who had traveled along the coast. That sense of trading, with a lot of ships coming from the Mediterranean, offered him a connection to those other worlds. He would have collected some puppets from Europe, for instance.”
Tildesley continued, “Also his gramophone and some of his records were a way to connect him with the big universe outside. And to make him more different and worldly than Pádraic. This was a sort of dreamer’s place — Colm had a connection to the outside world and this was a dreamy place next to a wild bay. It’s the most exotic and glorious location in the whole film. We painted the interior yellow as bright and bold as we possibly could. And the same thing for his red door.”
Though the use of yellow was also a reference to the great sense of melancholy in the home. “With the yellow, we were thinking a lot about Vincent Van Gogh. We hung a chair on the wall, like in a Van Gogh painting. Colm is also struggling with the darkness as Van Gogh did. And he loses some body parts as well, as Van Gogh did.”
He added, “It’s a tricky old business, trying to find the tone. Martin has such a specific tone in his writing, but we wanted to make that house just feel strange enough — not too heavy or mysterious, but just enough to give you some information that might help you understand how he’s come to be who he is.”
There was also a tricky conversation with the cottage owner about — spoiler alert! — the climax of the film. Colm’s home is deliberately set on fire at the end, which was achieved with minimal visual effects but instead a fireproof blanket that was designed around the perimeter of the home.
“The house was completely skinned in a fireproof blanket, as it were, so the ancient, glorious building was totally protected,” Tildesley said. “And then the fire was completely controlled. And then we set that on fire, while this ancient glorious building was protected. The owner of the cottage was there that day, watching the burn. It was quite surreal for him.”