How seaside settings evoke turmoil, melancholy and tension

Set on an island in Ireland, The Banshees of Inisherin sees the splendor of the North Atlantic in almost every shot. That was purposeful for writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose film revolves around two old friends going head-to-head when one suddenly decides to end their friendship.

“Part of it was the claustrophobia of being on an island — a breakup happens and you can’t physically break away from the person you’re breaking up with was a big part of the drama of the story,” notes McDonagh. “You’re going to have to pass that person every day, you’re going to have to see them in the same park or church every day. That claustrophobia was a big part of it. But capturing the beauty of the west coast of Ireland was also an important part of the storytelling.”

To create the fictional island of Inisherin, production designer Mark Tildesley found filming locations on Inishmore, part of the Aran Islands, and Achill Island. Most of the sets were built and everything had to be brought in by ferry from the film’s base in Galway. Ireland’s stormy weather was also a factor, but that sense of an uncontrollable environment played into the tone of the film itself.

“‘Banshees’ is really about that wild riot,” says Tildesley. “It’s this sad need to go to war with each other. You would never go to the Aran Islands to shoot a film – no sane person would ever go there. But Martin had been there as a young man and he performed some of his early plays there. The appeal was that it was so wild and added something extraordinary to the turmoil that was happening between these two characters.”

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson sit overlooking the sea in the film "The Banshees by Inisherin."

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin.

(Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Shortly after filming The Banshees of Inisherin this past summer and early fall, Tildesley relocated to another coastal location, Margate, for Sam Mende’s Empire of Light. Set in the early 1980s, this film centers around a cinema called Empire and captures the seedy, melancholic feel of English seaside towns. The production was originally centered around Brighton, but Margate embodied the time-warped sensibility Mendes wanted. Tildesley and his team redesigned the Dreamland Cinema, a former working theater on Margate Beach, using mostly real-world locations as cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted to capture the light that was available.

“We put ourselves in a difficult position because we decided to use this cinema, which we renamed Empire and we gave it a facelift because it is actually derelict and no longer in use,” recalls himself Tildesley. “It was a beautiful building but it’s crumbling, which in a way was really great for us because we wanted that feeling. Shows Old World cinema, the glory years and good times that have passed and what it used to be. It was also a challenge to shoot by the sea in winter.”

In Empire of Light, Olivia Colman plays the theater’s manager on duty, Hilary, a woman struggling with mental health issues. The film, shot primarily chronologically, uses the setting to convey Hilary’s state of mind. It helped that Margate, like many English seaside towns, is in a state of disrepair despite its storied Victorian history.

“That sense of decay is obvious,” says Tildesley. “Hilary, our character, struggles with her mental illness and has these fits of being good one moment and lost the next. In a way, this city and this cinema and this decay was really reflected in her character.”

While Empire of Light ultimately chose not to shoot in Brighton, Michael Grandage’s My Policeman used the South Coast for many of its scenes. Set between the 1950s and the present day, the film has largely recreated the Brighton and London era on location. Production designer Maria Djurkovic looked to numerous references to get the aesthetic tone right, drawing on Edward Bawden’s 1958 linocut of Brighton Pier.

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman watch fireworks over the water "realm of light."

Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.

(searchlight images)

“It was so reminiscent of the atmosphere, mood and colors of this piece,” says Djurkovic. “I carried that image in my head. It led me into the color palette for the whole film.”

In the modern narrative, the characters reflect past regrets, compounded by their isolated seaside home. Production took place in a real home in Peacehaven, alongside the iconic white chalk cliffs and the turbulent English Channel.

“One of the photos we had on our moodboard was the house we ended up shooting in,” notes Djurkovic. “The houses all line the seafront and then there’s the cliffs down to the ocean and we’ve been trolling back and forth and back and forth. Peacehaven was very good in terms of mood and atmosphere. This place has a really melancholic vibe and that’s what we used it for.”

A similar sense of regret and melancholy underscores Oliver Hermanus’ Living, which sets one of his key emotional moments in Bournemouth. After the film’s protagonist, Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), discovers he is dying, the character takes a train from London to the coast, where he tries to balance his stoic life with his spirit of adventure. Although the scenes in Bournemouth are relatively brief, they reveal William’s sad state of mind and his ill-fated attempt to break free from the city’s monotony.

Set in a remote fishing village, God’s Creatures, directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, uses the Irish coast for an even more intense atmosphere that plays into the darkness of the storyline. The film, about a mother who goes to great lengths to protect her son, required an actual fish processing camp and oyster beds, which the filmmakers found on the Donegal coast.

“The proximity to the water was very, very important to us,” says Holmer. “Not just in the visual storytelling that we wanted to bring to screen, but also in the psychology of the characters. The sea is a constant. The weather, the wind conditions – that shapes people and their psyche a lot. We see the sea as a character in our film. There is something almost mythical about old landscapes. And there is a heaviness. You don’t have to force it into a gothic tone – it’s there. Those massive cliffs, those massive waves, those massive views. Human life is quite small on the scale of the landscapes we looked at.”

Although the shores of England and Ireland can evoke a moody sensibility, they can also convey a more upbeat sentiment. In the final scene of The Banshees of Inisherin, the two main characters stand on a beach overlooking the water.

“It was shot there on that beach, hoping it would have cinematic quality,” says McDonagh. “But we had such great lights and weather that day. The sun broke through those dark stormy clouds. You wonder cinematically, “Is hoping for the sun to break through the clouds part of what happens in the end?” Or will the gray clouds be what the film is about at the end and there is no hope?’ I have a feeling there is [hope]and I think the weather and the location contributed to that.” How seaside settings evoke turmoil, melancholy and tension

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