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“God’s Creatures” Looks To Be An Emotional Roller Coaster Ride

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In a windswept fishing village, a mother is torn between protecting her beloved son and her own sense of right and wrong. A lie she tells for him rips apart their family and close-knit community in this tense, sweepingly emotional epic.

Releasing in theaters: Friday, September 30, 2022.

About the Film

Powered by quietly intense performances and incisive, exquisite filmmaking, God’s Creatures enters the life of a small, windswept Irish fishing village and a family whose bonds are as tumultuous as the sea upon which their survival depends. From those relentless elements emerges a gripping story, epic in its moral dimensions. The tale begins as Brian O’Hara returns home to his family’s hardscrabble oyster farm after seven estranged years abroad. But a mother’s answered prayer becomes her cross to bear. When Brian is accused of a terrible crime, his mother, Aileen, instinctively lies to protect him. Self-sacrifice and defense of one’s own define her maternal identity. As the consequences ripple through the village and tensions long left unspoken bubble to the surface, the film reveals a mother’s stoic devotion and its tragic undoing.

Few sons ever reappear in this coastal village of fading opportunity. It’s a place haunted by acts never accounted for, secrets never told, apologies never uttered—by memories as restless and unsettled as apparitions. It’s also a place of stark self-preservation, where the local fishermen purposely refuse to learn to swim, despite the constant perils of drowning, lest they be obligated to risk their lives to rescue others. Aileen is overjoyed to see her prodigal son come home to revive the family business, no matter how precarious. She watches with pleasure as he falls back into the elemental rhythms of the tides and the balm of hard work. But when the police inform her that Brian is suspected of sexually assaulting her factory co-worker, it is Aileen who finds herself in an accelerating nightmare. Caught between love, shame, and the urge to protect what little she has in the world, Aileen must reckon with the silence and denial that have long held sway in the village.

Directing partners Saela Davis & Anna Rose Holmer weave a poetic tapestry of intersecting relationships: mother and son, past and present, humanity and nature. They tell a story of reckoning that feels of a piece with the craggy mercilessness and dark wit of the Irish coast. They bring a unique vision that is tender and unflinching, at once authentic to the place and alive with rich, luminous color—a vision that takes the story full circle to two defining moments: one of harrowing surrender and another of affirming reclamation. The directors were captivated by the achingly beautiful screenplay by Shane Crowley. But most of all they were drawn to Aileen.

“Aileen really moved us because she felt like someone we’d not experienced before in this way. We saw an opportunity to deconstruct and re-imagine the archetype of a mother constrained to the role of a bystander by placing her at the center of our narrative,” says Davis. Continues Holmer, “It was Aileen’s story, her psychology, and her change of heart that inspired us to make a film where the lives of the women, in particular, are full and thorough, where their interior lives are as cinematic as those sweeping vistas.”

(L-R) Paul Mescal, Emily Watson. Image Credit: Courtesy of A24

Origins

God’s Creatures began as the story does—with the implacable sea. It was the film’s producer, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, who first had the notion of looking beneath the maritime charm of an Irish fishing village to the moral complications of the lives within. She grew up in such a fishing village in Kerry, on Ireland’s tempestuous west coast. “I wanted to tell a story about the world I came from,” she says, “about the hardships of local fishermen against the cruel sea and how this landscape of
crashing waves can make humble lives feel epic. In this primal landscape that seemed to hold us all captive, a disagreement over oyster licenses can carry the stakes of a grand territorial conflict. Here, the mundane and the ordinary seem to stretch into the realm of myth.”

Cronin O’Reilly took a chance on a screenwriter for the project: Shane Crowley, a childhood friend from a neighboring town in Kerry. At the time, Crowley had no professional training, but his long, poetic emails about his travels captivated Cronin O’Reilly with their atmosphere and human insights. “I found Shane’s voice to be so lyrical and distinct,” she says.

The two began creating, sparking a process which blossomed into nearly a decade of script development. An idea came into sharp focus as they began to hear more and more stories about women across Ireland who had been disbelieved and effectively ostracized from tight-knit communities after making allegations of sexual assault. “We were so dumbfounded as to how these women were being treated,” says Cronin O’Reilly, “It felt like these women, women I grew up with, were having their voices stripped away from them just as I was beginning to find my own. I was compelled to use my voice to highlight these stories that require attention.”

They envisioned a story of a mother and son, and a lie that she tells to protect him when he is accused of sexual assault. “We wanted to explore male privilege through a mother and son relationship,” says Crowley. Cronin O’Reilly continues, “And to explore the gender politics of our world. A story about the inner conflict of a mother torn between her unconditional love for her son and her own sense of right and wrong. It gave us the opportunity to investigate themes of gender, family, trauma, sexuality, desire, and emigration—and to ask the questions— how could people do this to sexual assault survivors, how could communities treat individuals like this?”

Ultimately, Crowley went to film school to give the script his all. “Shane found his voice during the development of God’s Creatures. It was a real labor of love,” says Cronin O’Reilly.

Creative kismet struck next when Cronin O’Reilly saw Davis & Holmer’s daringly original debut feature The Fits while touring the festival circuit with her lauded film Lady Macbeth in 2016. Cronin O’Reilly knew in her gut this was the sensibility for God’s Creatures. When the time came to look for a director for the project, there was only one choice for the producer.

The Fits drops you into the shoes of its main character, using visual craft and sound design to infuse that subjective experience with pure lyricism. Saela & Anna understood the poetic soul of Shane’s screenplay, the mythic romance of the landscape, and had an innate sense of how to realize the film in a way that would feel epic as well as intimate,” says Cronin O’Reilly. And while the screenplay demanded close-up, personal knowledge of Irish culture, Cronin O’Reilly sought the clarity of an outside view. “We developed a story with great specificity and authenticity, but one which also had universal resonance. With Saela & Anna at the helm, we knew God’s Creatures would be a challenging film of cultural significance.”

But perhaps most important to the producer was bringing on demanding, vividly emotional storytellers who connected deeply and sensitively to the creative process. “I ultimately wanted to work with Saela & Anna because of who they are as people. They are incredibly kind and thoughtful; collaborators in the truest sense of the word,” says Cronin O’Reilly.

In addition to being moved deeply by Crowley’s screenplay, Davis & Holmer felt a similar bond of purpose with Cronin O’Reilly. Davis recalls of their first cathartic meeting in 2018: “Fodhla is a rarity and a very bright light in this industry, a creative producer who herself is a filmmaker. We spent twelve hours talking, laughing, and sharing each of our emotional connections to the script. We felt a strong creative kinship with Fodhla and afterward knew we had to make this film.” They set out to honor the story’s profound sense of place, to capture the blood-pulse of a village shackled to the fortunes of the sea and a family trapped in inherited patterns, while bringing
their own vantage point and love of viscerally compassionate filmmaking.

The development process, once the directors had signed on, was methodical and deeply collaborative. “We knew that this was going to be an authored piece, so it needed Saela & Anna’s sensibilities,” comments Crowley. “Their notes on the story and visual storytelling—details of the hands and textures— were very specific and intentional. We worked pretty intensely for two years on it, folding in the way they were seeing the world within the story Fodhla and I had shared with them.”

Pivotally, Davis & Holmer made their own trip to Ireland to immerse themselves in the blustery, fruitful, but unforgiving coastline that has carved the characters’ willful personas. “Going out oyster farming, getting a sense of the Irish wind, and feeling the textures of life in Kerry was as much a part of the preparation as anything,” says Davis. “It was so special to have that time. The sensory experience is a critical part of our filmmaking process.”

Soon, the pair began exchanging film references with Cronin O’Reilly and Crowley. These included Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a modern parable that unfolds against the mythic scale of a Russian coastal town, and Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a mother confronted by her son’s heinous criminal act. There were also a lot of open-hearted conversations about the themes of men and women, parents and children, staying and leaving. “It’s a very intimate process,” comments Holmer. “We were sharing deeply as humans, sharing where bruises or scars for each of us show up in this piece. It was heavy material to carry, and it was good to share that weight.”

Pictured: Aisling Franciosi. Image Credit: Courtesy of A24

Production

Though the village in God’s Creatures is fictional, it needed to be completely alive, needed to have a palpable heartbeat of its own, like it had been there for centuries accruing memories, wounds, regrets, and specters of the past. The filmmakers searched through Kerry for the perfect locale, but ultimately found the space they needed in the Northwest of Ireland, in the tiny fishing village of Teelin (population: 300) in County Donegal, which features rolling green hills and a deep, silvery harbor. Explains Davis: “We had a very specific idea of how the factory needed to be visible from our other locations in the village. It was important that all the locations felt connected. Teelin offered us that and was incredibly intimate. It had the right feel as well as the right look.”

Teelin locals were happy to pitch in finding locations, sourcing props, acting as extras and advisors, and even teaching the actors how to gut fish and motor currachs. Says Holmer, “The community was very respectful and generous. The finished film wouldn’t have been possible without their support.”

Joining members of the local community is an accomplished ensemble of Irish actors. “We were so grateful to our supporting cast,” says Cronin O’Reilly. “They had to feel like they had this place in their bones, that they’d lived there all their lives. Everyone took the work incredibly seriously, preparing with Saela & Anna to ensure everything felt true.”

Working with dual directors was an exhilarating experience for all, as people were struck by how Davis & Holmer seem to collaborate on their own private creative wavelength. “They just have this beautiful way of communicating with each other,” observes Toni O’Rourke, who plays Erin O’Hara, Brian’s fiercely independent sister. “They support each other so wholeheartedly that this quality extends to everyone else, so you just feel supported and loved and cared for.”

Mescal was equally impressed by the directors’ immersion in the project. “The level of detail they bring to characters, the prep they bring—the minute you come to set they have answers – they know exactly what they want from everything. It’s built by them.”

Holmer explains of their collaborative style: “Our strength is that there are two perspectives always approaching the same issue. Once people see us in motion they understand. We have an unspoken language.” Being a twosome also has distinct advantages when it comes to working with actors. Holmer continues, “For example, in one scene, I might speak to Emily while Saela will speak to Paul—so they’re each getting one-on-one direction. Sometimes you don’t want another actor to hear the direction. This way we can tune the performances from the inside while still providing that personal feedback.”

Sums up Watson, “Saela & Anna had such a clear and deep understanding of every moment and gave very simple, emotional direction. They were so gentle but in a profound way. They gave us emotional pathways and the freedom to take them as far as we could.”

Further lending the everyday life of the village both a reality and a mythic sensibility is the cinematography of Chayse Irvin. Known for the iconic images of Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, and his work with Spike Lee and Andrew Dominik, Irvin’s elegant, timeless style felt like a match for Davis and Holmer. Says Davis: “We’ve admired Chayse for a long time. He’s a very Zen character and has a calm energy that creates a positive atmosphere on set. He really cares about what each character is feeling and that motivates how he photographs. It’s never just about camera angles.” Adds Holmer, “For Chayse, every take has a sacredness. That aligns with how we work.”

“I loved the script,” says Irvin. “I thought it asked really stimulating questions about our perception of rightness and wrongness—very human things that I adore in cinema. I like films that don’t tell you what to think and can interpret in the way you want. You can project your own soul onto the screen. I felt the tragedy and empathy on almost every side of the story.”

For the filmmaking team, the story of the assault and the village closing ranks to discredit the accuser felt like a global problem—a universal story, firmly rooted in the specificity of their own lives and a world they knew so well. “We didn’t want to hitch the film to one particular real-life incident,” says Cronin O’Reilly. “We didn’t want to allow the audience to compartmentalize what they saw, or push it into the past. That’s why we never refer to the name of the village, or the year that the film is set in. We wanted that sense of timelessness. These problems aren’t going away. It feels like the themes we wanted to explore are more important than ever.”

For Irvin, the timelessness of the film comes from the emotions and characters depicted on screen. “Timelessness comes naturally when you pare away extraneous things and focus on the premise and core,” he says. “When you’re concentrating on universal themes that are really poetic—feelings and needs and judgments—the more timeless it becomes.”

Irvin felt drawn to the script’s mix of the empathetic and unsparing and was excited to take his cues from the wildness of the mercurial Irish coast. His emphasis was on letting the moment dictate the image. “The weather became a kind of gift,” he explains. “You go with it and let that energy be the divinity of the film. It becomes less about choice, more about necessity.”

Production designer Inbal Weinberg (The Lost Daughter, Suspiria) also worked intently to forge a living, breathing village—filling the homes of the main characters with personal details. Israeli-born Weinberg had previously spent a year studying in Ireland, but she now gathered lots of stories from Irish natives. “I talked a lot with my Irish crew about the specifics of this world as I’m a guest in this culture,” she says. “We also took ideas from Sarah’s final monologue where she speaks about the ghosts of the houses, about the souls of their interiors.”

(L-R) Emily Watson, Paul Mescal. Image Credit: Courtesy of A24

The entire world had to be tactile, layered, and feel like it had experienced the shifts of time. But the directors did not want darkness. Says Holmer: “Chayse and Inbal understood that our world was going to be vibrant, full of life and color. We could have made it drab and monochromatic, but that’s so far from where we wanted to go: we all wanted to infuse the film with saturated tones.”

Weinberg meticulously crafted the factory layout in an empty warehouse, so the camera could glide through the space for the tense long takes in the last act of the film. Everything down to the machinery was sourced from local fishermen. “It had to be authentic,” she states.

That maxim also stood for the O’Hara’s oyster farm, a remote world few outsiders ever see. Irish oyster farming involves placing young oysters on large steel trestles that allow the water to flow around them, helping them grow. At low tide, the trestles are exposed but at high tide, the oysters are submerged in deep, nourishing waters. The process can be dangerous, even for the experienced. Tides are unpredictable and can rush in much faster than expected. Sinkholes are invisible and potentially deadly. It was thrilling to capture but logistically, there were extreme challenges. “You could have a general idea of when the tide would come in and out, but never how high or how fast,” explains Davis. “That caused us the most grief when we were planning scenes—you’d go out there and it would look totally different to how it had the day before.”

Even accessing the locations was a herculean effort. Says Irvin: “We were all walking through waist-deep water just to get to work.” Alongside the wooden currach boats holding the actors, Irvin’s team had a single camera boat with a mounted crane. “It became like a floating dolly. We were moving the set and the actors continuously. It was crazy logistics,” comments Irvin.

For the climactic sequence, Watson and Mescal spent hour after hour sodden in icy water, wearing waders designed to allow seawater in to prevent them from getting too heavy. “At the end of the day you felt euphoric because you’d got through it,” recalls Watson. “Although we had wetsuits, we had to have holes to let the water in, and once it’s gone down inside you, you feel it. It was exhausting in those dead weights, climbing back into the boat, hysterical, barely able to move because of the cold. And then added to that we had this huge emotional cliff to go over.”

That emotional cliff became the fulcrum of the edit, during which Davis & Holmer collaborated with both editors Julia Bloch and Jeanne Applegate. “We say that editing is the final draft of the film. During the process, it will constantly evolve. It becomes a case of new discoveries that lead to the strongest version of your film.” the directing team says.

Throughout the film, diegetic music plays an important role in establishing a strong sense of place and tone. Says Crowley, “We wanted everything to work thematically so we used typical traditional Irish folk songs, like ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’, a song that is particular to County Kerry and its people, which Brian sings with Paddy, to clearly establish the community’s sense of identity, rooted in place and culture. At the same time, there’s a counterpoint to that in Sarah singing Connie Converse songs, the idea that this doesn’t have to be a community stuck in the rhythms of repeating itself. It can look outward, pick ideas up, sing a different tune.”

For the film’s finishing atmospheric touches, the team turned to Sound Designer Chris Foster and award-winning composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, with whom they’d collaborated on The Fits.

“A vibrant auditory perspective is key to our cinematic approach,” says Davis. Adds Holmer: “Chris understands and appreciates how much sound informs our direction and is meticulous in his craft. We love how his precise design work enriches and heightens the experience in the theatre to immerse us in our character’s point of view.”

Early discussions about the tone and style of the score were wide-ranging, with no fixed ideas. Says Bensi: “It was a dream job. Saela & Anna encourage experimentation, but they also have the knowledge, vocabulary, and sensibility to come up with suggestions. They knew what they wanted but also wanted to be surprised by us.”

The composers embraced the specificity of Irish music without romanticizing it. “We took inspiration from Irish music, but we never tried to make Irish music,” says Jurriaans. Adds Bensi, “We’ve done a lot of films that take place in other countries, and we like to bow to the traditional music of that culture really subtly—and this was one of our subtlest.”

It was Holmer who came up with using a flute rather than more obvious instrumentation. “We started experimenting with overtones that felt almost like a penny whistle. It sounded very Irish without being Irish. And that became a pillar of the sound and the score,” recalls Jurriaans.

Just as much as the cinematography and performances, the music for God’s Creatures had to be in constant dialogue with the wind, the waves, and the battered shore but also with the lingering essence of the past and things too long left unaddressed. “There’s a haunted-ness to the whole film,” says Jurriaans, “and that’s what we tapped into with the flutes and strings. The music is a character in the film as a ghost—a ghost of history and what hasn’t been said.

Are looking forward to seeing God’s Creatures? Let me know in the comments or on social.

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