Glass speaks to director Peter Mackie Burns about his new feature Rialto

PETER Mackie Burns’s 2017 debut feature Daphne won plaudits for its portrayal of a complex female protagonist in crisis. He spoke to Jackson Caines about his new film Rialto, a Dublin-set drama which puts masculinity in the spotlight.

Peter Mackie BurnsPeter Mackie Burns

What led you to choosing Rialto for your second feature film?

I just happened on the script, and the writer Mark O’Halloran had written two of my favourite movies, Adam and Paul and Garage by Lenny Abrahamson, a great director. I read the script and I thought, ‘oh, this has to be a film, like, as soon as possible.’ 

The script is beautifully structured and unusual. It’s about an everyday guy, Colm, whose life falls apart over five days. And I thought, ‘this is a great character’. Very different from Daphne, a very warm character, but his life is in a real pickle, it’s falling apart before his eyes. Two men, two fathers, form a sort of safe space in the film. One of them is brought to this space by grief and the other one is brought by financial necessity. The script deals with men not being able to talk about their emotions to their family, their wives and their children, and the fallout of that. And I thought that, given the crisis we have around a type of corrosive masculinity, this was a really good time to make this film. So that was really the reason behind picking this film, because in terms of identity politics and story it really spoke to me. 

Tom Vaughan-LawlorTom Vaughan-Lawlor in Rialto

What did you learn from making Daphne and how did that shape your approach to Rialto? 

It was exhilarating and enjoyable, and I suppose I learned to try to embrace the process more on Rialto. When you do your first feature film, it doesn’t take six weeks to shoot, it takes years for you to get there. And I don’t think it’s possible to sustain the amount of existential anguish about every decision. It’s like a band: they spend years writing their first album, and then they have to make their second album in like two years. 

I think personally the second film is a step forward. But in order to achieve that, what I managed to do is have some continuity. I had the same producers, The Bureau, and the actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who played Daphne’s boss, Joe. Tom’s the lead in Rialto, he’s in every scene. That really helped create a sense of continuity and comfort because he knows the way that I work. So it was a really positive experience. Compared to the first film, this one was less angst-ridden and, although it’s emotionally complex, it looks very bright, it’s very sunny, it’s colourful, like the work by my favourite directors, Pedro Almodóvar and Ang Lee. We were so lucky, we got to Dublin and it was the warmest summer for years, so the colours were popping. 

Can you tell us about working with cinematographer Adam Scarth?

We first worked together on Daphne and we’re kindred spirits. We like to make a very strong lens plot and visual language for the film before we start shooting. So we decided in advance on the two lenses to use on Daphne and the grammar of the film. On this movie, we decided that obviously the movie needs a different type of grammar because it’s a different character. So the camera moves a lot more in this film. 

One of the films we discussed, and this is probably not very apparent, is Twelve Angry Men. We looked at that in a visual sense in terms of how the director plays with the height of the camera to create a relationship between the protagonist and the audience. That film has a very interesting lens plot, in that in the first act the camera’s above eye level, so you look down on the character, in the second, it’s on eye level, so you identify with him, and in third it’s below eye level, which gives the character a more heroic connotation. So we used camera height to create a strong sense of identity with the characters.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-CarneyTom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-Carney in Rialto

Early reviews have mentioned your use of ellipses to sidestep what in other films might be obvious dramatic moments. How deliberate was that? 

The script is so skilfully written that it goes to places that we don’t expect. I think that’s often more interesting for an audience because audiences are super smart, they’ve seen so many films. Mark’s such a great writer that he avoids the obvious, on the nose beat, and he’ll always offer up something which is more satisfying that takes the story in a different direction than one might normally expect. 

You said that Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is in every scene, which reminds me of Daphne, in which the lead actress Emily Beecham is in every scene. Is it fair to say you like films which intensely explore the psychology of a single character?

I do, or at least I have up to date. But I’m quite interested, in the next two films, of moving towards a wider audience base. To carry on making small character-based films could become slightly formulaic if I tried a third. It’s not that I don’t enjoy those films, I love those films personally, but I think to move forward you have to keep challenging yourself. The palette, the spectrum, the size of the film should always be a challenge. 

by Jackson Caines

Rialto is screening at BFI Southbank on Thursday October 10, 2019 as part of the London Film Festival