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EIFF23: Interview with Silent Roar director Johnny Barrington

This morning I spoke to filmmaker Johnny Barrington ahead of the World Premiere of his stunning debut feature Silent Roar, dubbed “A teenage tale of surfing, sex and hellfire set in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.”

SYNOPSIS: On the island of Lewis, Scotland, Dondo, a young surfer, refuses to accept the death of his fisherman dad, despite being missing at sea for over a year. Unlike quiet and dreamy Dondo, his clever classmate Sas, is never afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. Dondo and Sas’ unlikely bond will help them find their path in their rural community, through waves, beliefs, and hellfire.

AM. Congratulations! Your debut film Silent Roar is having its world premiere tonight as the opening film of the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival, you have six sold-out screenings across today and tomorrow, how do you feel?

JB. A bit numb.

AM. Numb?

JB. It’s very exciting to be told that but it has still not sunk in. It feels quite surreal. Just need to pace myself.

AM. Are you excited to hear what an audience thinks about it?

JB. Yeah, that’s pretty much the main thing that I am thinking about. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the big screenings and watch people’s reactions.

AM. If we were to watch your short films back – Trout, Terra Firma, Tumult – it might be easy to assume from the outside perspective that you had a linear path to here, but it is never normally the case, so could you describe how you got to here?

JB. Well, my last year at art school my camera got stolen, and with the insurance money I bought a video camera instead. I very quickly latched onto this idea of how exciting it would be to make feature films with narrative, genuine narrative, spoken word, music, movement, and photography all rolled into one thing. From that point on everything I did was aiming at that, even if it might not appear to be. There was quite a lot of years working as a photographer or as a joiner and staring at plasterboard walls for quite a while but it was all part-and-parcel of getting to this point here and now.

AM. So you are a Scottish filmmaker working in Scotland making a film about Scottish people in Scotland, what has that process been like? Have you had to think a lot about what shape your film has to have, or whether or not your film has to avoid certain stereotypes?

JB. I quite like leaning into clichés. And fucking about with tropes. There’s a lot of different Scotlands out there. I just want to play around with ideas and not think too hard about whether I am representing something correctly or incorrectly. I would rather place the emphasis on emotion and idiocy.

AM. Colour is hugely important in the film – the blues, pinks, yellows, and browns – a lot of that is part of shooting it on 16mm. Can you talk about the importance of the decision to shoot on film?

JB. When you shoot on digital it is not just the image, it is the time. You can squeeze actors like sponges on digital and not realise that you are doing it. Kind of rinsing them, emotionally. When you shoot on film you have got less takes, you have got less time, and people seem to condense their energy better when you shoot on film. That’s something that is hard to explain when you haven’t been on a film set, but when you have got a digital camera that can sort of just roll and roll and roll, it is like the cart gets in front of the horse. But who wouldn’t want to shoot on film? What’s not to love?

AM. Well, people like different textures I guess

JB. During lockdown, I got really into looking at footage on YouTube that was originated on film, obviously it had been digitised. I have an emotional connection to a slightly shaky image, it’s all sentimental stuff, but I quite like sentiment. At the start of my work, I worked for a long time on film. For me, it is not like I grew up shooting digitally and then thought, ‘oh I wonder what film is like?’, it is much more like ‘I would like to put on my old school clothes and start again’. It is also the fact that it is a high school movie, based on my high school years in the mid-90s, and that was a time before digital photography took off. When I was at high school mobile phones didn’t exist.

AM. Where there any decisions you had to make with shooting scenes outdoors with the Scottish weather?

JB. Yeah, there was a massive amount of weather variation. We shot the film in two sections – winter and late summer, although the film is meant to be mid-summer. That just adds to the schizoid light that you get on Lewis anyway, it just made the visuals more nutty. I’m okay with that, I don’t mind if the cloud blocks the sun on one shot then is glaringly bright in the next.

AM. How was the shooting schedule?

JB. The shooting schedule is always tight, it is always a rush. But we had some great times. A lot of the shoot was outdoors, a lot of it was at sea, and not only that a lot of it was in the sea. I just have to doff my cap at the cast and crew for putting up with it.

AM. What does shooting in the sea look like?

JB. The underwater cinematographer, John Frank, he really went off and just got on with it himself, we were shooting other scenes at the same time. I had to stick with the actors and trust John, and what he got was amazing. And above the water, Ruben Woodin Dechamps [cinematographer], we were experimenting with different mechanisms for shooting dialogue scenes when the actors are sitting on surfboards. It is unbelievably tricky, sound-wise and picture-wise - to keep them steady, amongst all the interrupting noises, and water slapping on the sides of hulls. It was a stiff challenge for all sorts of reasons.

AM. The soundtrack is wonderful, by Hannah Peel, can you talk about your creative process and working with her?

JB. It was amazing working with Hannah Peel. I knew from quite early on that I really wanted to work with a composer who could straddle classical score, scoring for orchestras and choir, and make electronic, synthesised sound as well. She had quite a job on her hands corralling all these different musical elements, there’s two different choirs, an orchestra, individual musicians on trombones – an absolute avalanche of different emotions which is what I was after. I loved working with Hannah. I would have to fly over to Northern Ireland to work with her there in her studio, and then she came to Glasgow and we got a choir from Edinburgh, and a lot of musicians from the RSNO, and we recorded them over three or four days, and that was bliss. I would love to do that again. It enriches… it is more than just enrich, it IS the film! If you were blind you may be able to enjoy the film, with a bit of guidance.

AM. Is that something you have thought about before?

JB. I haven’t really thought about it. I guess you’d have to receive a bit of explanation of the geography and layout, but the texture of peoples’ voices, and the music, and the weather sounds - I’d find that pretty satisfying to listen to.

AM. So what were your influences then filmically? Whether it be visually or tonally?

JB. A heck of a lot of different things. Zabriskie Point. Éric Rohmer, a lot of his stuff. A lot of surfing footage shot on 35mm from back in the 70s and 80s. Sun-drenched imagery that has originated on film was a big influence. Also, a lot of literature, a lot of books, plays.

AM. Any in particular?

JB. There’s a writer called John Moriarty, he’s a kind of mystic philosopher, I discovered him during lockdown. There’s quite a few videos of him telling stories, on YouTube, and one of them is Story of Big Mike, I recommend that. He’s got a way with words that I’ve not come across before, he is very good at talking about human beings’ spiritual connection to the world. And I find what he says very funny as well, funny in a soft, touching, vulnerable way. I felt a vulnerability with him that I love. Also Martin McDonagh plays, some of his early plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan. A lot of short stories, there is another writer called Kevin Barry, again Irish, a lot of his short stories really rattled me – in a good way.

AM. So you mentioned the spirituality element, and in the film you take this surf culture and sort of transcend it into a form of spirituality and play it off against the local Christianity. How did you come to decide that these were going to be the two forces that play off each other in the film?

JB. It kind of just happened without truly deciding it, but it makes sense looking back on it. Quite a strong influence over the story was the death of my father. My dad worked at sea for quite a long part of my childhood, and then he became a minister. So those are two elements really, the sea and the pulpit. The cockpit and the pulpit! And the contrasts between those two areas. Psalm singing on Lewis absolutely raises the hairs on the back of my neck and tears at my soul when I listen to that recital. I’ve been listening to it for years and years, actually, I have got another feature that is even more heavily inspired by Psalm singing. For me, it represents a powerful extreme of faith and belief, and spirituality, and depth of commitment, which I can only stand back and gaze at in awe. And then the surfing, again it is another area of immense commitment and passion, and love, for an activity that transcends the everyday. When I surf, I really feel cleansed. I feel like I have been to the confession box and spilled my beans, and had a good time. There is less shame and guilt obviously. Well, there is a bit of shame and guilt mixed up in surfing, cause you can indulge yourself in it so much that you can just want to check out and just go and surf more and more and more.

AM. Going forward you have said that you want to keep making feature films, do you have any details on any future projects, and are any of them likely to be set in Scotland?

JB. I have got a couple of projects. I am very, very grateful to Screen Scotland for helping me out with one of them at the moment, I should have a script ready soon. One of them is set in Scotland, very much set back up on the islands in the Hebrides. The other project is set more between France and Scotland and is contemporary. They are both very different ideas, and I am enjoying working on them both at the moment. One of them will demand my full attention at some point but they complement each other pretty well. I’m desperate to be shooting films. I’m very emotionally churned up to realise that I have actually finally made a feature film. On the last day of the shoot the most pressing thought in my mind was that I would really like to do this again, to make another film, and stay in the saddle.


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