Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Ben Davis about The Banshees of Inisherin and how the Western seeped into his aesthetic.
While leather never gets slapped in The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s not too difficult to imagine Colin Farrell‘s Pádraic and Brendan Gleeson‘s Colm as gunslingers stumbling from the saloon, ready to draw down at high noon. The two friends turned reluctant combatants scratch a Western mythological itch, where disagreements escalate into shootouts. Writer/director Martin McDonagh never allows his characters to go full-Leone, but those dusty antagonistic ideas certainly inform the film’s visual language.
When cinematographer Ben Davis landed in Ireland, Covid restrictions required him and several department heads to lockdown in quarantine for several days. They passed the time devouring McDonagh’s storyboards and what he saw in them was a Gary Cooper showdown. The instinct was compelling, and whenever he dismissed the notion, it floated right back into his imagination. Before they were released back into the world, Davis was determined to lean into those cowboy feelings.
“I guess we’re not in America,” says Davis, “but you are a stepping stone away, well, from the Atlantic. Many people who were in America at that time, in the time of the Western, came from that part of the world, from Ireland. If you think of the time period [in Banshees], it’s a Western time period. It’s just a slightly different location. It’s a sort of slug-out between two guys. It’s High Noon, particularly in those scenes on the beach. They’ve got a very High Noon idea about them, and then, going to burn the house.”
While held up in quarantine, Davis and McDonagh bandied their favorite Westerns back and forth. High Noon and The Searchers were the films they kept returning to, but they weren’t the only ones. Davis saw an opportunity to champion one of his faves, a flick that doesn’t seem to get enough love these days.
“I don’t know if Martin was aware that’s what he was doing when he drew out the storyboards,” he says. “A lot of those Westerns were in there. We started to discuss them quite a bit. Shane, in a way, was another influence. I showed Martin because I was interested in Brendan’s silhouette, The Long Riders, which is a favorite Western of mine. All those long coats!”
Davis may be unsure whether McDonagh intentionally infected his storyboards with these cinematic references or if they simply sunk in subconsciously. When they left quarantine, they didn’t fully commit to the aesthetic. However, as the shoot moved along, the Western kept revealing itself on location. A cinematographer must go wherever Brendan Gleeson’s shadow takes them.
“We’d get home from some days on set,” Davis continues, “and I’d think, ‘I really do feel like we’re working on a Western here.’ We’d line up the shots, and there would be Brendan. You had this landscape, and there’d be the two figures. We did some huge wide shots of them when they first confronted each other. It felt right.”
Beyond Westerns, Davis used the conflict fueling the film as his divining rod. The inciting incident is Gleeson’s Colm severing his bond with Farrell’s Pádraic. Colm doesn’t give a reason. He merely states it as plainly as he can. The friendship is done. Sit somewhere else. Make nice with someone else. The hurt in Pádraic spreads speedily.
“The set-up’s a thing itself,” he says. “It happens very quickly in the film. I think you get to it in the first five minutes. You get to the point where Gleeson says, ‘I don’t want to be your friend anymore.’ Distance becomes the character in the film.”
Taking a note from the protagonists, Davis accentuates the void that hangs between them. As the film progresses, more barriers divide the two (see the header image above). Davis then pushes the camera into the two separated characters. Alone, apart from the other, they become the biggest objects on the screen.
“The general strategy with the film when we started was to give space,” he continues. “To stay back from the characters, to give a sense of isolation. There’s also the idea that the world would become more claustrophobic as it went on. The camera would get closer and closer and closer. We played with it. The interesting thing is, as we get closer and closer with the audience, the characters become further and further apart.”
Also critical to the Western vibe and the ever-growing distance was Inisherin itself. The production erected the island community practically from nothing, building sets where Davis wanted to point his camera. Scouting always being an essential element of photography and an element often overshadowed.
“We started with the landscape,” says Davis. “What do we want the landscape to look like? If you look where Farrell’s house is, it’s at the top of the hill and looks over the whole of the island. So, we traveled the whole island, and we’d get to a place, and I’d go, ‘Wow, look at this place. What if we built one of the locations here? Could it be the pub? Could it be Farrell’s house?’ We were looking for those epic landscapes.”
Selecting exterior to determine interiors had another positive side effect. The rooms were made with the shots in mind, allowing space for their operators to maneuver. Rapidly, the crew removed the restrictions you frequently encounter on location.
“We decided early on,” he says, “based on those boards, that we needed to build both interiors and exteriors. There’s a lot of threshold work – coming in, coming out, through windows. They became cover sets. You can go inside if the weather’s bad or outside if it’s good. It gave us a huge opportunity.”
Irish weather can be quite fickle. No production wants to give over to nature’s will. Building sets created tremendous flexibility. And when you have actors as top-tier as Farrell and Gleeson, Davis and his team can pivot without worry. Of course, if the weather is gonna get hardcore, there’s only so much a cinematographer can do.
“Every DP out there is an amateur meteorologist in some ways,” says Davis. “We spend so much time gazing at the clouds or the lack of clouds. I was very worried about it. The strategy was high risk; there’s no doubt about it. It was high risk because there’s only a certain amount of work you can do inside, and if it gets too bad inside, it’s not going to work anyway for sound, et cetera, et cetera. But we got really lucky. It was a pretty mild summer in that part of the world. It was a good summer for us. We started shooting end of August, and we broke into early fall. We dodged around it. We were lucky.”
The luck of the Irish is another essential tool for any cinematographer. Also, those extra days cramped together during quarantine didn’t hurt either. Ben Davis wouldn’t recommend it for every film shoot, nor would he curse the world to suffer through another global pandemic, but he appreciated the intensive lockdown-enforced creative consideration. The experience allowed McDonagh and him an unusual allotment of time to think over their imagination and expand on their Western fantasies. The Banshees of Inisherin is better for it.
The Banshees of Inisherin is now streaming on HBOMax.