Tom Holland Finds His Faith in Brendan Muldowney’s Medieval Epic ‘Pilgrimage’

Before he could skip into his Spider-Man gear, British actor Tom Holland went on a pilgrimage. In the aptly-titled Irish thriller “Pilgrimage,” Holland is a standout among an ensemble cast in this film about a group of medieval monks in 1209 who leave their monastery in rural Ireland in order to deliver a holy relic to Rome.

“Pilgrimage” was helmed by Irish director Brendan Muldowney, who took on the project after being pitched Jamie Hannigan’s original script. Muldowney recalls to Entertainment Voice how he was eager to make this film that takes place mostly outdoors in his homeland. “I always thought the Irish landscape was beautiful and could really give something to a film, especially when you don’t have a full Hollywood budget. One of my preoccupations would be religion and existence, and I really thought with monks in the 13th century there would be some interesting themes in there… and there’d be some action. That was really what hooked me. The combination of ingredients.”

Along the way, the monks see some action, as they are threatened by Norman invaders and others who wish to take the relic for their own purposes. As men of God, novice Diarmuid (Holland), and the other monks, including Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), are ill-equipped for battle. However, with them is an intriguing character known as The Mute (the very talented and versatile Jon Bernthal), a man who sought sanctuary in the monastery before the events of the story, who proves himself a more than worthy soldier during some intense battle scenes.

Muldowney reveals how, when it came to filming the action sequences, he had help from one of the people behind one of the most memorable onscreen battles in recent memory. “My assistant director [Charlie Endean] went on to do ‘Game of Thrones’ the last season, and he was on the episode ‘Battle of the Bastards,’ which was one of the best battle sequences I’ve ever seen. They had three weeks to shoot that. I had three days to shoot my ambush, so it’s not in the same sort of league. You really have to prepare a lot. You have to get in and you have to shoot with two cameras and you just have to capture it. This was a highly controlled operation. I was getting in by the skin of my teeth. And that wasn’t just the action sequences. Every day, just because of the limitations on time and budget that we had.”

Despite his film’s connection to “Game of Thrones,” Muldowney shares that he made a choice not to watch the series ahead of production of “Pilgrimage.” “I deliberately avoided things like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Vikings.’… I didn’t want to be influenced by it.” Instead, the director and Hannigan were influenced by westerns and other films, such as Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” as well as another recent film that deals with faith, “The Rising.”

Since the production of pilgrimage, Holland has not only gone on to star in the latest “Spider-Man” reboot, but Bernthal has since taken his talent for action to Netflix, where he stars in the series “The Punisher.” During filming, both actors were in the process of auditioning for these roles in the Marvel universe. “It was a little easier, obviously, because they weren’t yet big names,” Muldowney says of casting both actors for his film. “Tom Holland was the first one I decided upon. I looked at his films ‘The Impossible’ and ‘How I Live Now’ and I just thought he was brilliant. I had a quick Skype call with him, and over the Skype call he was one of the nicest people I’d ever spoken to, so I just offered [the part] to him on the spot.”

In addition to directing an actor who utters only one line of dialogue throughout the film, Muldowney also has actors conversing in English, French, Gaelic and Latin. “For starters, English was a stand-in for Latin…. There was no English [spoken in Ireland during this time], but we just couldn’t immerse and make a film in Latin, French and [Gaelic],” explains Muldowney, who had a language coach on set to assist.

Muldowney goes on to discuss one actor’s extreme method approach to his role. “Dealing with Jon Bernthal was interesting, because for the first week he went silent. He went silent from when he left for Ireland, and for the first week of shooting. He was going to do it for the whole shoot, but after a week he couldn’t communicate with everyone properly. He said he learned everything he needed to know about his character and the vow of silence by forcing himself to go silent for that week. [He was silent] even at dinner during the evenings. He told me he really had to question whether he really wanted that drink of water. That set into his character. He was questioning whether he was worthy of this glass of water. Obviously, it was difficult directing and communicating with him. When he wasn’t talking he would grunt and nod. So after a week, for the sake of me and for the sake of his fellow cast members, he decided to come out of it, but also in general he’s very vivacious… Once he learned what he needed to, then he could be Jon again.”

One of the most intriguing aspects is the relationship between the fanatical Geraldus and the more idealistic Diarmuid. As Diarmuid has only known life in the monastery, religion is still relatively pure for him, while it has become something almost political for Geraldus. Says Muldowney, “To me, it was nice to see those two versions of faith up against each other.”

Pilgrimage” opens Aug. 11 in select theaters and VOD.