‘Pilgrimage': Jon Bernthal on Going Method, the “Unbelievably Good” Tom Holland & More
That project is Pilgrimage, an austere, period epic that follows a group of 13th century monks tasked with transporting an ancient holy relic across a landscape riddled with enemies. Among the group is the Novice (Holland), a young and relatively altruistic monk and The Mute (Bernthal), who’s as stoic as characters get, uttering just one word for the entire duration of the film. It’s a gritty, bloody thriller with lofty ambitions, and features two incredibly impressive performances from its leads. Click here for my full review from Tribeca.
I had a chance to sit down with Bernthal and director Brendan Muldowney to talk about how Pilgrimage came together, the complications of shooting a period film on location, how they pulled off the film’s impressive gore effects, why Bernthal was so attracted to a character with next to no lines, how he went method for the role, and why he considers Tom Holland “one of the best actor’s [he’s] ever worked with”.
COLLIDER: I would love to just sort of start out by asking about the period aspect of this. I imagine achieving the style of this is mind-boggling in terms of the preparation and everything you need to do as an actor and you need to do as a director. I’d love to just hear about that process.
BRENDAN MULDOWNEY: Yeah, the writer did a lot of research, so he starts it, then I have to do my research, but he sort of truncated a lot of that for me. Then it comes down to all the different departments, the head of departments, and talking to all the actors, so I mean, it’s like any filmmaking process, it’s not a simple, quick thing, but once you take it every day at a time and each problem at a time, you just get through it.
JON BERNTHAL: I think we were really lucky to have a group of producers, a director, a writer, a crew and a cast who were enormously committed. Everybody was there for the right reasons, you know? And you don’t do a project like that for anything but the right reasons, because there are no other reasons, you know. And I think that the way in which we tackled it was literally going out to the most beautiful places on earth that were nowhere near any sort of civilization or sign of modern times, and that really does have an effect on you to not only work in it but live in it and to be in a place without internet, without access to the outside world and be together and be out in the elements, there’s nothing cushy about that job at all. So I think that really helped, it was a great group in a great place. Hopefully those two things kind of come out on screen.
How did it change things sort of shooting on location, especially with all this insane choreo – and how does that change it versus doing things like The Punisher, which I assume is much more controlled.
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, because Jon did a lot of work beforehand with the fight coordinator. You did a lot of work. While I was focusing on other things, I could just hear them screaming and shouting inside. But yeah, how did you find taking that to the location?
BERNTHAL: Great. I mean, look, then it becomes real. I think just like in anything with independent film, having your back against the wall and having a fire right under your ass, it’s tough, but it also helps and it means, we have got this afternoon to shoot this fight and that’s it and we’ve got to do it. So you can’t, like, any sort of the polite side of filmmaking really has to get out of the fucking way, and I think that, you know, for me also coming from a lot of TV fighting on Daredevil and stuff like that, I think that really helps it. It just makes the fight a little bit more like a fight and a little bit more unpredictable, and if things get messed up, just go and come at me and go hard, and I dig that. I think that the end fight scene, the stuff on the beach, we were literally, literally horrified. I thought we had a less than 50% chance that we were gonna make it that day all day, up until the very end.
MULDOWNEY: The sun was going down.
BERNTHAL: The sun was going down and we just didn’t have the money, it was that day or not. And ridiculously cold, you know what I mean? And hard, but I do think, I haven’t seen the film, but I hope that energy and that desperation, those are all kind of part of it.
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, and we never went into it thinking it was going to be very designed. I went into it wanting a loose, more visceral styling to the way it was shot. It was my only note. It’s the same with Savage as well, I wanted the violence to be messy. Like, have more of a feeling as closer to real violence than to real choreographed violence. Even though it obviously is choreographed, but to have a different feeling.
Where did the choice to go violent with it, go all the way, come from? Because I think, in this kind of subgenre, there’s not always that commitment to realistic gore.
MULDOWNEY: No, I understand, because I think that’s one of the, I would call it, the interesting things about the film and I definitely could see it from an outsider who goes, “Hang on, is it sort of like this serious profound drama or is it a B-movie with heads being split?” For starters, it was in the script, so I’m not taking responsibility, I went with that and I liked it. I would be a fan of violence in films that it has some repercussions. I’m not trying to be too preachy with it, but I like to see consequences and mess, rather than see violence where – I remember growing up and watching The A-Team, which I loved, I loved it, but there was never blood. It was sort of a lot of violence with no blood, and I’d be more on the side of, I like to see the repercussions of violence. Not necessarily wagging fingers, but violence is messy and that would be my thinking, and that’s probably why I went that route.
Yeah, I mean, for you, obviously you’re familiar in kind of working in fight-heavy situations, but do the squibs and all of that kind of stuff, does it complicate the fight scenes on the day or does it make it more interesting?
BERNTHAL: It’s what you make out of it, I think. In this, we were talking about the visceral nature of the violence but we’re also talking about a time where if you were going to engage in warfare, battle, into a fight with someone, you weren’t shooting them from across a room, you are hacking their limbs off. It’s very up close and very personal and extraordinarily violent, and I think that the themes of violence in this film are tremendously interesting, the reasons why people commit violence in the name of religion and in the name of spirituality and in the name of trying to defend your brother who’s next to you, and all those things are explored. I really, again, I haven’t seen the film, but I really felt like it was a necessary component to not shy away from and kind of dive in fully.
Obviously one of the most interesting things about your character is that he has only one line. Was there ever a conversation about whether or not The Mute would say anything else or was it always that way?
MULDOWNEY: It wasn’t with the writer, sort of as we were shooting, ideas would happen all the time, and Jon and Tom did come to me with an idea, which was as Jon’s character The Mute leaves to defend them for the last moment, and Tom, The Novice, is thinking this might be the last time he sees him, he might shout his name which would suggest they had actually been talking behind the scenes. Which I thought was a nice, clever idea, but you know, that doesn’t mean we lost that idea. It’s just that we never know whether he spoke. Maybe he did shout to The Novice, but we didn’t overstate it, which I was sort of trying to do as well, not maybe overstate things. But that was the only one I can remember.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, I heard there was an idea, I heard from somebody there was an idea you were thinking about or maybe someone was thinking about potentially dubbing in a line at the end rather than one more line to Richard, maybe in Arabic or something like that?
MULDOWNEY: Oh, yeah, there was! Which would’ve completely changed his character, because at the moment he’s a Christian who was picked up somewhere in Europe on the way to this crusade, this is the backstory. Or maybe it wouldn’t, maybe the line in Arabic would’ve been a reminder to Raymond where they would’ve fought, but where I go is it’s starting to bring up too many questions, but there was a discussion about that as well, yeah.
BERNTHAL: But I think overall, that was why I wanted to do the film. And there’s so many languages in this film and I think his language, the language of The Mute is another language that we had to come up with, a way of how do we communicate his language?
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, it was pretty unique, so like to actually then drop lines in was sort of taking away the purity of this unique idea.
I think it works very well with just one, but I can see how that would be the draw.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, and to try to express yourself and communicate these things without it, and not know, there’s also a challenge. We talked about it a little bit, but standard filmmaking is like, you cover the people that are talking, you have to cover the lines, right?
MULDOWNEY: It doesn’t help the writer’s given a line to each character.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and it’s like he has to cover the language, but then it’s like, my dialogue is the moments in between, seeing a guy talking and how that affects me or a little sign that I might give to someone else. We’ve talked about it before, but I decided at the beginning of the process that the only way for me to do this was just be silent all the time on set and at home.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, I mean, like wow, like that was cool, I learned a lot, but I think that after a bit it was really starting to get in the way. Because we needed to be in sync, hey, at this moment now, I’m going to do this, and then it’s up to him how he wants to cover it, but I wanted to at least be able to express that and to let that go.
MULDOWNEY: It’s interesting you say we had to shoot everyone’s lines. At one stage, I did a whole pass on the edit with the editor where we just looked at The Mute.
BERNTHAL: Oh, that’s cool.
MULDOWNEY: What’s he saying? Where is he positioned, how is he reacting to what’s been said? And it was really interesting to, during the edit, it started to come alive, after we did that pass.
I would love to hear about Tom, too, because you guys have an amazing chemistry in that movie. It’s a strange relationship, but you guys very well convey this far deeper relationship than we actually see on screen and I would love to hear about the process of casting him.
MULDOWNEY: There was a list suggested to me from the casting director and I watched him in The Impossible, How I Live Now, it’s a post-apocalyptic film, and he was superb, so I offered it to him. But the relationship, I have to give credit to Tom and Jon, the two guys really worked on that and brought what was unsaid within the script, they brought that alive. And there was lots we filmed, more, there was moments where they go further with that relationship, there was moments where we shot things where they had other activities together, but we tried to give it the right balance.
BERNTHAL: I think, at the end of the day, one of the things for my character in the piece is that he’s done all this fighting and killing and losing people in the name of religion, but now he’s committing violence because of his love for this young man, for Tom. We needed, it was essential that you saw that these guys loved each other and cared about each other, and it’s not just enough to say like, ‘I love you and I care about you, I’m going to look at you like I love you,’ you have to see things that are happening where they’re having fun together.
That stuff really wasn’t, I have to be honest, wasn’t in the script, and I think that, you know, I can’t say enough good about Tom, I think he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with and he’s unbelievably kind and good and works unbelievably hard and has an inner strength and inner power within that’s so crazy for someone his age, but just so crazy for someone period. He’s a fighter and I think there’s definitely a reason for everything that’s happening to him right now, there’s a reason for it, but he was very, very smart. We were constantly going back with ideas on how to build that. For me, I felt that if we didn’t have that, if that relationship wasn’t there, that was kind of the whole point for this character, and to try to express that without words is tough, you know? Because he doesn’t really talk to me that much either.
He talks The Mute’s language, which I thought was really — he really dove in on that. I just remember even when I was being silent, just one little anecdote: when I was being silent, it was really Tom who I bonded with the most. When you’re silent you can’t ask for things, I remember we were eating at the place we ate every night, and all we really ate was salmon, and we were eating the salmon and I really wanted some lemon to go – I like lemon with my salmon, you know? And I could just point on the menu to the waiter, but I really wanted some lemon and I was trying to communicate with Tom how much I wanted some lemon for my salmon and finally I just got a pen and I wrote, “can you get me some lemon?” He was always the guy I went to, you know, I depended on him. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going to anyone else, he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I got you, mate.” He asked the waiter for some lemon and the guy brings it and like drops it into my soda, you know what I mean? He just thought it was the funniest fucking thing in the world, but for some reason, there was a sort of mutual dependence for us. He was a joy to work with.
Pilgrimage hits theaters in limited release and is available on VOD and Digital HD today.