From Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and director John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck), Wild Mountain Thyme captures the romance, lyricism and transcendent beauty of the Irish countryside in an extraordinary love story between two lonely souls.
Passionate, determined and smart, Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) has been in love with her neighbor Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) since they were 10 years old. It seems that everyone in their farming community knows they were meant for each other — except Anthony.
An eccentric introvert, Anthony has spent his entire life working on the family farm alongside his father Tony (Christopher Walken). The aging Tony blindsides Anthony with his plan to sell the farm to Adam (Jon Hamm), his wealthy American nephew, because he doubts his son has what it takes to run it. And when Adam comes to visit, his obvious interest in Rosemary complicates the situation further.
With everything that’s important to him about to slip through his fingers, Anthony has to move quickly, but a series of losses and his own certainty that he is unlovable leaves his future — and Rosemary’s — in doubt. Filled with Ireland’s glorious vistas, poetic spirit and acerbic wit, Wild Mountain Thyme draws on Shanley’s Irish roots for a comedic and moving once-upon-a-time romance.
John Patrick Shanley says he first fell in love with Ireland when his father, then in his 80s, asked him to join him on a trip to the family homestead in County Westmeath. “The minute I walked into the kitchen of the farmhouse of the Shanley family, I felt like I was finally home,” he recalls. “The sensibilities of the immediate members of that household were much closer to my natural proclivities than the household I had grown up in. I felt a kind of comfort and recognition that I never had before.”
The Bronx-born Shanley, long acclaimed for his chronicles of working-class New Yorkers, was inspired by that experience to write the play “Outside Mullingar.” The story of two no-longer-young Irish farmers who long for each other from afar, it was produced on Broadway in 2014 and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play that year. “I’ve been a writer since I was 10 years old,” Shanley says. “In all of that time, the most pleasure I’ve ever had writing was in that play. I found the characters were funnier than I was. They were more soulful, more penetrating in their insights, kinder and profoundly romantic.”
The story, says Shanley, celebrates the humanity, the poetry, the loneliness and the quiet passions to be found among Irish farmers. “My father was an Irish farmer. He came to America when he was 24. He had a brogue and he was the greatest man I have ever known. When I first traveled to Ireland, he took me to the farm that nourished him. There I met his brother Tony, and Tony’s family. The farm was blocked from the road by two gates. You had to open and close these every time you came and went. I asked what was the story behind that, and never got a clear answer. It was that prompt which led me to dream up Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Wild Mountain Thyme is the story of Anthony Reilly, a farmer in central Ireland who works the farm he was born on. It is also the story of Rosemary Muldoon, the girl next door who has loved him since she was 10 years old, and won’t be settling for another man. “Rosemary and Anthony,” muses Shanley. “Romeo’s not able to climb the balcony and Juliet won’t come down. They’re in the second half of their 30s, and what’s going to happen?”
Shanley says he believes women are our salvation and Rosemary, a determined, independent and romantic woman played by Emily Blunt, is a prime example of that. “The emergency bells are ringing in an over-masculinized world,” he observes. “I cast Emily Blunt because I think she is a magical feminine force in the world. I see in her eyes kindness, compassion, understanding and intelligence. All the things that Anthony Reilly desperately needs.”
Blunt says she was looking for an intimate project, something with a small concept and big ideas, when she received the script. “I was utterly bewitched by it,” she recalls. “Reading it was a completely singular experience, like one beautiful poem on love and loneliness. I instantaneously wanted to do it.”
Shanley proved to be as inspirational a director as he is a writer, says the Golden Globe-winning actress. “John is such a wonderful person to be around,” she explains. “He is not at all precious about his words, which is incredibly rare for a writer-director. His notes are human and emotional and I feel very safe with him as an actor. Often when you do films, performances are sacrificed for the light or focus. Shanley’s just so easygoing about all of the technical stuff. He wants it to feel human, real and free.”
Working with Jamie Dornan was another of the pleasures of making Wild Mountain Thyme, according to Blunt. “Jamie is so much fun. He’s got a lightness to him that makes you want to be around him. He’s played so many leading men who seem to have it all together, but I think Anthony is a lot closer to who he really is. Jamie just really understands the introverted, reluctant, fearful elements of Anthony.”
Anthony is known in his community for being “touched,” or not quite right in the head, but Blunt says her character doesn’t think he’s crazy. “They’re kindred spirits. Perhaps to the outside world they have been driven a bit mad by their isolation and loneliness. But she sees this pathway to joy with him at the end of it and she’s pretty fearless and reckless in her pursuit of that. I think she adores every inch of him.”
For almost 30 years, Rosemary has been steadfast in her love for Anthony, to no avail. He has convinced himself that marriage and connection are not for him and nothing she does will change his mind. “When I looked into Jamie’s eyes, I thought, I know this guy,” says Shanley. “I can see him struggling with repression and fear and the great inner beauty he is protecting from being damaged by the more blunt forces of life. The emotional repression the Irish have experienced from hundreds of years of being oppressed by others has become part of the national personality. I can see that in Jamie, who’s from Belfast. Emily has the kind of warmth that can come from a woman who truly accepts you as you are. I was fortunate to get them both because I thought they were the yin and yang of something.”
Anthony, says Shanley, is looking for some place to bloom but finding the world to be a little too cold and rainy for that. “His father believes Anthony will never marry because he takes after his mother’s family, who he thinks are crazy,” Shanley says. “I’m not going to say he’s completely wrong, but then who is sane?”
More than anything else, Anthony is paralyzed by a secret he keeps hidden from the world, a secret he believes means he will never be loved. “It takes a brave actor to play Anthony Reilly,” says Urdang. “This is not a classic leading man role. It requires such vulnerability and Jamie was so willing to explore that. The character is sometimes hard to understand, but ultimately I think we all fall in love with him for his big heart, his poetry and his relationship to the land. I hope people can really appreciate the nuances Jamie brings to this role. In every scene you learn more and more about him.”
Dornan says he had never read anything like Shanley’s screenplay before. “It has a mystical, magical quality to it that is truly its own thing in the best possible way. He has a knack for bringing out the oddities in people that make them their brilliant selves. The script has a quirky sense of reality and snappy, unbelievable dialogue. The sense of loss, the heart, the humor — so much humor — all feel totally authentically Irish.”
Already an admirer of Shanley’s work, Dornan was doubly impressed when he learned that the writer would direct the film as well. “He has this beautifully calm presence,” says the actor. “His voice rarely raises above a whisper, which is a great energy to have on a chaotic movie set. He very gently guides you in a certain direction, always leaning toward what he sees you’re naturally wanting to do. He lets you play in your own zone and will guide you, but never makes huge adjustments.”
The relationship between Rosemary and Anthony is complicated, but no more so than Anthony’s with his father Tony, played by Christopher Walken, according to Dornan. “Anthony’s gone through his life thinking the farm will be passed on to him,” explains the actor. “When Tony reveals that’s not his intention, all hell breaks loose. We have a beautiful scene where all Tony’s truth and emotion suddenly comes out and he admits the real love he feels for his son, a scene full of sorrow and regret. It was just such a joy to speak those words.”
Dornan describes Anthony as the least “normal” person he’s ever played. “I’ve played some very dark characters, but never anyone as unworldly as Anthony,” he says. “He is just slightly in his own world and while it wouldn’t take much to make him very happy, he hasn’t been able to muster the right energy to make that happen and be fulfilled. I had to let all my insecurities and lack of understanding of certain elements of life come to the front with him. I feel like I’ve exposed myself more than I ever have in any other role.”
Acting opposite Blunt was all the things Dornan had hoped and imagined it would be — “and then a thousand times more,” he says. “What actor doesn’t want to work with Emily Blunt? We have a very similar way of taking on the work and we just have a load of fun. I think she’s one of the greatest actresses of her generation, so it was a bit of a thrill for me to be doing work so meaningful and beautiful with her at my side.”
The Muldoons and the Reillys
Playing Tony Reilly, Anthony’s hard-bitten farmer father, is Christopher Walken. The addition of the Academy Award winner to the cast was a milestone moment for everyone involved, says Shanley. “Chris Walken is to me a mythological creature who transcends being an American or an Englishman or a Russian or anything,” says the writer-director. “He is one of the creatures of the world, like Cary Grant. He will deliver a line in a way that you never dreamed of and it suddenly becomes your favorite line. He is the king of that. He did things that made me fall apart. I actually threw my arms around him and sobbed, and he was kind enough not to push me to the floor.”
Shanley says he had always wanted to work with Walken, and the powerful, sly, mischievous patriarch of the Reilly family proved a perfect role for the actor. “Even though he is oppressing his poor son, who does everything for him, underneath there is an extraordinarily tender human being. Both Chris Walken and Tony Reilly are like that.”
For his part, Walken was excited by the role and the opportunity to work with Shanley. “Obviously, it’s a special script and great art,” he says. “I’d met Shanley a couple of times and I wasn’t disappointed in the experience of working with him. He makes everything very comfortable. He’d probably be a very good actor because he knows what actors do, and is very in tune with us.”
Urdang says, “Christopher is so moving as Tony. He completely captures this Irish farmer who is in the third act of his life. There was a sacredness in his last scene that I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget. It was heartbreaking.”
Dornan, who worked closely with Walken, describes him as a “total living legend,” someone he never dreamed he would be lucky enough to work with. “When would that opportunity arise? So to find myself on that little kitchen set with him for three days in a row was pure joy. When you’re working with him it is hard not to be distracted by how brilliant he is. We’ve got some great, poignant moments together, but he’ll allow himself moments of cheeky laughter. He’s got a real childlike quality to him.”
Walken confesses he has wanted to see Ireland all his life and had never been there before. “At 76, I finally got there. And it is beautiful. I’d only seen Ireland in movies. I’m from New York City; I grew up every day of my life in that city. Spending a month out there in the country was really amazing.”
The atmosphere of the film is steeped in Irish music, humor and of course Guinness, but Walken says the story is universal. “Especially that conflict between the father and the son,” he says. “The two men living together in the same house with all the things that bother each of them about the other. They love each other, but they fight. Tony is trying to pull a fast one on his son by selling the farm out from under him. And his son knows it.”
Tony has been secretly negotiating the sale of his farm to his brother’s son Adam, played by Jon Hamm. A flamboyant Wall Street player, Adam takes a shine to Rosemary, throwing a monkey wrench into her plans. “Jon is this big, handsome, complicated fellow,” says Shanley. “When I look into his eyes, I see 20 things going on at once. He’s a powerful personality, and maybe the most American guy alive today. When he shows up, he destabilizes the stalemate between Anthony and Rosemary.”
Adam Reilly was born and raised in the U.S. and has made a fortune in the financial world. He is, says Hamm, ready to step back and lead a more pastoral life, a life that might come with an Irish wife. “Adam is immediately taken by Rosemary. She is independent, fiery, outspoken and very beautiful. Unlike Anthony, he acts on his impulses. He makes the hard play for her.”
Hamm brought humanity to a character who could have been dislikable, according to Urdang. “In fact, he made the character even richer than it was on the page,” says the producer. “He is dynamic and charismatic and he could handle Shanley’s dialogue, which not every actor can do.”
The playwright’s nuanced storytelling and elevated language made Hamm a fan long ago, he says. “We live in a time where very few stories are told without irony or snark or any misdirection. This is a straight-up love story that’s very lyrical and sweet. I’d loved the play so much, especially the writing, and that really carries over in the adaptation. And as a director, Shanley understands actors. He speaks more to feelings and leaves the technical aspects up to other people.”
Working in Ireland was a rare experience for the actor. “The whole tone of the film is celebratory not only of Irish culture but of Ireland itself and the beauty that it entails,” Hamm says. “Every place was a new experience for me. It’s pretty much as advertised. There’s a lot of nebulous magic that happens. It is not often we have a film that tells a story about people who are good, and maybe sometimes difficult; people who make bad decisions, but can be joyous.”
The sole casting carryover from the Broadway production is Dearbhla Molloy, who plays Aiofe Muldoon, Rosemary’s mother. “Initially the role wasn’t that big,” Shanley says, “but after our first rehearsal I realized I had to make the part better because this is a hell of an actress, and I want what she’s got. I began to make little changes and build up the role into what it became. And a warmer, more beautiful woman with white hair I’ve very rarely encountered. She’s incredibly charming, gentle and sly. Her contribution to the film was to provide a sort of balance.”
The Irish-born Molloy, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the 1991 Broadway production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” says that she was surprised and honored to be asked to reprise this role for the movie. “I opened my emails and there was the offer from John Patrick!” she remembers. “Playing Aoife again was a thrill.”
The story works even better on screen than it did on stage, in her opinion. “The elements of fantasy that can be difficult to express on stage are done so much more effectively on film.
John Patrick rewrote the script to expand it into a delicious fantasy love story and a sort of love letter to all things Irish, including his own heritage.”
The biggest new challenge for her in the film was a welcome one. “I had to overcome my awe at working with the living legend that is Christopher Walken, whom I love!”
Wild Mountain Thyme was shot over five weeks in County Mayo in western Ireland in and around the towns of Crossmolina and Ballina— the latter also the home to President-elect Joe Biden’s great-great-great grandfather. Witchel remembers quickly discovering that it’s hard to find something that is not beautiful in Ireland. “Everything was gorgeous,” she says. “Being on the set every day and seeing it come together was wonderful.”
Shanley arrived before shooting started, accompanied by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, with whom he had worked on his film directing debut, Joe Versus the Volcano. The pair spent about eight weeks scouting locations and prepping for the shoot. They even shared a house throughout pre-production and production, making and eating dinner together nightly.
“When I wrote this screenplay, it took place in the Midlands of central Ireland,” Shanley recalls. “It’s very beautiful, very gentle and quite flat. The landscape is alive. The ground is alive. You feel like you could put your hand on it and it would shake like the hindquarter of a horse.”
But the Midlands is not mountainous, and Shanley had it in his head that he wanted to call the film Wild Mountain Thyme, after a beloved Celtic folk song. Accompanied by Goldblatt, he went to see the mountains in Westmeath, where his family is from. “Westmeath doesn’t really have any mountains. My screenplay has a lot of them. So we went on to County Mayo and I saw this incredible lone mountain standing in the landscape, looking a little bit like a volcano. And I thought, that’s the mountain in Wild Mountain Thyme. We found a farm outside a little town, and everything about it was just greener and better and more varied than any other place I had looked at. And right smack in the middle of its view was the mountain.”
Niland, who refers to herself as “a very proud Mayo woman” — and even named her production company after her hometown of Westport — says, “Wild Mountain Thyme was made with a huge amount of love by all those involved. So I was beyond thrilled to be able to bring it to my home county to film. Mayo is a place of immense beauty and charm. I am so proud that this film showcases this part of Ireland to the world. The people of Mayo we encountered on this journey, and in particular those of Crossmolina and Ballina where we filmed, were so warm and welcoming. It was evident that this production being there meant a lot to this region. We’re so excited to share the finished product with them and with everyone here in Ireland and beyond soon.”
Shanley and Goldblatt began to wander the countryside daily and eventually found almost all of the other locations within a few miles of the mountain. “We walked through woods, fields and pastures and found one remarkable place after another,” Shanley remembers. “And so they’re all in the film.”
After spending so much time together, Shanley says he and Goldblatt developed a kind of “Vulcan mind meld” about how to approach the cinematography. “We had all the time we needed to talk about anything and everything we would like to do, how we’d like to handle it and where we might like to shoot it,” he says. “It comes in handy when it’s raining and you have 45 minutes left and you’re both desperately arguing about how to get this one particular shot.”
No effort was spared in bringing the vibrant, sweet, funny world of Shanley’s script to life according to his vision, says producer Gallo. “We wanted to reflect what life is like on a family farm in Ireland,” he says. “That meant selecting costumes that both suited the characters and were functional, and making sure we incorporated the grittier parts of Irish country living into our production design. There’s no shortage of rain, mud, and tiny farmhouse rooms in this film! The production design also brings a lot of humor to the relationship between Anthony and Adam. The contrast between Anthony’s functional workwear and self-conscious mannerisms, and Adam’s Rolls-Royce and American swagger is great.”
The filmmakers also wanted to honor Wild Mountain Thyme’s refreshing portrayal of romance, he says, which is enhanced by both the gorgeous shots of verdant County Mayo and composer Amelia Warner’s immersive score.
Shanley’s script, with its fairy-tale quality and whimsical, poetic dialogue, is a classic sweeping love story that required larger-than-life music, says Warner. “Finding the main theme was the most important part of the job,” she says. “John gave beautiful and insightful notes that really made me think and nudged me outside my comfort zone. It had to be romantic and take us through moments of hope, heartbreak and anguish, but ultimately be joyful and uplifting. Once we had that, everything fell into place.”
Traditional Irish folk music is also an important thread running through the score, explains the composer. “I tried to reflect the beauty and majesty of Ireland in the strings, which add scale and scope. We also had a folk band with an accordion, clarinets, folk fiddle and bass, which give real warmth and character. One of my favorite discoveries was how beautiful the accordion can be under the strings.”
Wild Mountain Thyme is an extravagant flight of fantasy, a charming romance, an introduction to a picturesque landscape and a love letter to the Irish people all at once. Urdang believes audiences will be caught up in the “once-upon-a-time” quality of Wild Mountain Thyme’s love story. “It takes you to a kinder, more beautiful place filled with a lot of different kinds of love and acceptance. It’s an escape from what we’ve been living with for the past year. Who doesn’t want to go someplace simple and beautiful again for a little while?”
The film will provide audiences with a unique escape, adds Helfant, one that will transport them into a world where love and perseverance make everything else worthwhile. “We are all very proud of this film,” he adds. “We’re excited to share it with audiences worldwide. It couldn’t be a better time for a little more love in the world.”
There’s an undeniable element of magic in the script that makes Wild Mountain Thyme a rare experience, in Gallo’s estimation. “Shanley’s unmatched dialogue and decidedly Irish sense of humor feel like a welcome respite from the world,” says the producer. “It’s incredibly fun to step into the emotional lives of characters that are so well-rendered. Now, more than ever, it feels important to showcase stories about families and the enduring, stubborn power of true love. And if we can make people laugh a few times, too, then we’ve done our job.”
One of the pleasures cinema affords, says Shanley, is the ability to visit places one has never been — or never fully explored. “This movie takes you to some of the most beautiful places in Ireland, with some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever be lucky enough to meet, like Chris Walken, like Emily Blunt, like Jamie Dornan, Dearbhla Molloy and Jon Hamm.
“I loved and love my father, though he’s gone,” adds the filmmaker. “I came to love his Irish family, and the farm that enriched us all. The film is dedicated to my Uncle Tony and his wife Mary. The story I have written is a fairytale, but fairytales spring from a deep cultural place. I am an Irish American man, a bridge between two countries, and profoundly proud of that fact. I’ve told a tale. I hope you like it.”