Interview with Rialto Director Peter Mackie Burns

Ahead of the release of Peter Mackie Burns’ second fiction feature Rialto, HOME’s Head of Film Rachel Hayward caught up with him to talk actors, framing and what it means to be an emotional gardener.

Rachel Hayward: Rialto packs such an emotional punch when it comes to its portrayal of fathers, and each male character is impacted – mostly negatively – either by their own father, or by their status as a father. Could you tell us a bit more about this, and do you think that Jay could be seen to represent a level of hope in terms of fatherhood?

Peter Mackie Burns: There is a line in the film, “ We all hate our Da’s… Supposed to I think.”  which encapsulates the theme of fathers and sons in the film. Colm’s recently departed father was an Alpha male, a hard drinker a philanderer and a bully whom Colm despises. Throughout the movie propelled by grief and longing Colm effectively becomes his father and ‘destroys‘ his own son. Colm views himself as failure as a parent – a father – and a man. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy one might say. Cognisant of the situation as he is, Colm cannot help but punish his son because of his own failings.

Jay’s father was feckless and as damaged as his son. Jay has parented himself and perhaps because of this wants to do the right thing by his new-born daughter. I hope he is a good father but the odds are stacked against him. Colm’s relationship with his daughter is the most tender and loving in the film so one might say that there is a glimmer of hope for relationships in the film.


Rachel: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is wonderful as downbeat Colm, did you always have him in mind for the part after working with him for Daphne?

Peter: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is an extraordinary actor and it was a privilege to work with him and I hope we continue to collaborate in future. I have been extremely lucky to work great actors in the films I have made to date, Emily Beecham, Tom Glynn-Carney, Brenda Fricker, Monica Dolan, Geraldine James, Sinead Matthews, Ritu Arya, Eileen Walsh, Stuart McQuarrie and all the other amazing ensemble cast members. It was an absolute delight to work with them and I hope to do so again in future. To return to the question I knew I wanted to work with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor after Daphne, and then Rialto came along and I had a hunch that Tom might like to have a go at playing the character. He did and I think his performance is extraordinary.


Rachel: Could you tell us more about the casting for the film, including the casting of Salford-born Tom Glynn-Carney as Jay?

Peter: Amy Rowan, the Dublin-based casting director, did a fantastic job on the film and got Salford-born Tom Glynn-Carney in to audition for the role. I had seen Tom in Dunkirk playing opposite Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance and thought his performance was terrific. Tom’s audition was the best I have seen and I offered him the role immediately. His performance as Jay is detailed and unshowy; he inhabits the role completely. The chemistry between him and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor was palpable. There is to my mind something of the young Albert Finney about Tom Glynn-Carney. I think he will go on to do really interesting and great work.


Rachel: How did you work with your cast to get these performances? Do you have a specific process?

Peter: My process, if I have one, is pretty simple: cast the best people and then get out of the way and let them do their work. I trust the actors completely and they always deliver their best work. I see my job as a director working with actors is to prepare the best given circumstances for the scene and let the actors work. When one sees an actor doing something one doesn’t expect it is a really great experience as a director. They are the creative artists I just prepare the ground. I’m an emotional gardener!


Rachel: The film is based on Mark O’Halloran’s play Trade, a brilliant two-hander, which is here developed to include a wider on-screen representation of family and work colleagues.   For me these characters have some really poignant moments, revealing their own backstories but also important details about Colm. Can you tell us about the decision to develop in this way?

Peter: We simply wanted the world and the characters who populated it to feel authentic and three dimensional and ultimately to feed into Colm’s story. Mark created a wonderful script that has detailed subtle moments and my role was to write these with the camera and the cast to build a detailed story world for the audience. I write backstories for all the characters and share these with individual cast members to help build up a picture of who the characters are out with the confines of the drama. Character-based films live or die on such details and I hope we managed to create a world that feels authentic and dramatically satisfying.


Rachel: Colm is so incredibly alone in the film, in so many ways, and has been an observer to his own life for so long.  Can you talk about how you’ve portrayed this, and what it means to you?

Peter:  Colm is an observer in his own life. Our lens plot begins with us looking down on the character for the first third of the film. As we get to spend time with him, we lowered the camera to eye level and in the final third we dropped the camera to beneath the eyeline to create a feeling that in some sense Colm was beginning to change. In terms of framing we forced Colm into the corner of the frame using strong vertical lines to imprison him. The character would never stand in the centre of a room, he would always be an outsider on the periphery of the action of his life and experience. An observer. If you watch the film you can always see him near a door or a window anywhere where he can get away. And slowly we pull him into the middle of the frame. So by the final shot in the film he is in the centre of the frame and looking almost directly at us- on our level, and ready to face the consequences of his actions.


Rachel: Masculinity in crisis, grief and redundancy – all important in the film – are all broad themes which are universally relevant.  Did you ever consider relocating the film to another town or city, away from Dublin?

Peter: The film was always going to be set in Dublin. It has universal themes as you touch upon but as the story intimately knows and loves the city it had to be set there.


Rachel: And lastly, how has the recent lockdown period been for you?   I’m in total admiration and awe of people who’ve been able to use the time for fantastic creative endeavours – are you one of those people?

Peter:  I have two kids aged thirteen and six years-old so they kept me very busy during lockdown. I enjoyed the time at home as I live in Glasgow and travel a fair bit for work. I took up running at the start of March and I have become quite addicted. I also wrote more in the last six months than I have in years so in that sense I have been extremely fortunate but now it’s time to get going on the next film.

I am delighted that HOME are screening Rialto, it is an amazing venue and I had a great time there when I took part in a Q&A with my debut film Daphne. It was my favourite Q&A on the tour, the audiences were great and I hope to come back one day. Manchester is a great city.


Rialto screens at HOME from Fri 2 Oct.