Filmmaker Q&A Nigel O'Brien
by Phillip Wilcox "Our Movie Demon"
For those who aren't familiar with you or your work, could you tell us what sparked your love for movies and the want and/or need to be a filmmaker?
To be honest, I have no idea when or where my love for movies came from. Movies, TV and film have always been a part of who I am. From a very young age I can remember sitting in front of the TV watching anything from, Laurel and Hardy, to Classic John Ford Westerns. My parents would bring us to the cinema at the weekends. I can remember when I was, maybe 4 or 5 years old, and being brought to see John Milius's The Wind and the Lion with Sean Connery. Back then movie theatres had big red curtains that would close over the screen at the end of the film. I made my Mum and Dad wait to the very end so I could look behind the curtain; I wanted to know where all the horses had gone. And I'm still looking, but now I'm the one behind the curtain. I'm the one saying ‘No you can't look back here, you'll ruin the surprise’. And then Star Wars came out. Here goes the old I saw Star Wars and it changed my life story - No. I saw the making of Star Wars and that was when I realized, you can do this as a job. Wow. That's what I want to do. I've seen all the Lucasfilm making of film as many times as the movies themselves. That is what sparked my imagination and set me on my journey to find out what really happens behind the big red curtain. But unfortunately as I was leaving school in Ireland in the late 1980's there was massive unemployment, massive emigration. We were lucky to have a family business, so that's where I went and my dreams of working in films were a million miles away and they would stay there for the next 20 years.
What are each of your films about, which one has meant the most to you personally and why?
I suppose like all storytellers/filmmakers/songwriters. We are a product of our own upbringing and that environment; the films we watch, books we read and the music we listen to. Growing up in Ireland/Dublin in the 70's and 80's there was a lot going on politically, which can also have a big influence on a young mind. Not saying it was all doom and gloom though. I had a great childhood, family dinner round the table, church on Sundays, summer holidays. I was brought up with the believe that family is the most important thing in life and you have to look after that and I like to think that's reflected in my work. My first short after college was a sci-fi called Runner. That's about a man trying to make the world a better place for his family, that's what drives him in the story. Gun Down, my second film, is about a bad man trying to do the right thing for his family. And again The Last Man is trying to get home to his wife and kid. Maybe subconsciously I'm channelling something, or maybe I've just seen to many Spielberg/Disney movies. But the one that's most personal to me is Runner. Not because it was my first film but because it got left on the back burner and we never got to finish the film. Budget, work and other crew commitments just got in the way and we never got the film out. It was shot on weekends, and whenever we could get the crew together over the course of a year and a half. Everyone gave there all on that film. My DoP and editor Barry Fahy did some fantastic work on that project. I can't thank the crew (and Barry) enough for all their hard work. But when people are helping you make a film in their own free time you can only ask for so much. Runner has sat on a shelf for over two years now but thankfully we will be finishing the VFX and edit with Colin Fleming taking over as post production supervisor and in the coming months Runner well get its long overdue release in 2017.
What are some of the most important lessons that you've learned through your time as a filmmaker and an artist?
For me, one of the most important things I've learned from making films is trust, respect, loyalty and friendship. You need to trust the people you are working with. If you can't trust your crew you’re fucked. And you need to have an open mind - there is always someone with a better idea or a better way to set up a shot, or even a better way to take the story forward. And let actors act. As the director you’re not an actor. They know what they’re doing so let them do it. And if you see something you don't like, work with them to make it better. Collaboration is key. I have seen Directors on set snap at cast and crew because it’s their way or the high way and every time there film has turned out shit. The trick is to never make the same mistake twice. Just keep making new ones, and learn from them. But seriously I have been very lucky to work with the people I have worked with over the last few years. I have said this before and I'll say it again. When it comes to making films, surround yourself with people you trust, people who know what they’re doing, who love what they do and have fun. Because if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
What's the most memorable experience you've have thus far making a film?
Every film brings new and memorable experiences, especially when you're working with people you love and respect, and that's been the case in my work. I always like to do a little speech thing on day one just before we start shooting. I suppose it's a filmmaking tradition with most directors. But it's nice to let your crew know that it's gonna be a fun and relaxed shoot. Nobody likes a hard ass boss. When you give people a sense of ease then they give you their best work. And at the end of the day it's all about the work. That speech is always memorable as most times it always goes wrong. But I think two of the most memorable experiences for me were, firstly on the day we shot Gun Down; it was August 11 2014. I was going over a scene with the actors and I referenced a scene from Moscow on the Hudson and asked one of the actors to channel that part of Robin Williams’ performance. The scene went down great, we wrapped the shoot, I got home that night, turned on the TV and Robin Williams had died. Having only been talking and joking about Williams with the crew that day, I was in shock as one of my childhood heroes was gone. We dedicated the film to his memory. The second was when we were shooting The Last Man out in the wilds of Galway’s Connamera. I was doing a 360 with the camera and just looking at this amazing landscape; in every direction I looked there was nothing between myself and horizon. You could set any movie, at any time in human history, anywhere on the planet in this place, or any other planet for that matter - and it's just wilderness - simply a breath-taking location. I'll never forget that feeling.
What can you tell us about your newest film, and do you have any upcoming projects for the future that you can tell us about?
Yeah. There’s lots of good things happening. Last summer we screened The Last Man, our sci-fi short at the Galway Film Fleadh and at The Richard Harris Film Festival in Limerick. The Last Man came about from my love of the old TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Again, this was shot by Barry Fahy. I loved those old morality tales that use allegory to portray the struggle between good and evil. I have always been fascinated by that type of storytelling. What if and what could be? I like pushing the limits of human imagination. These types of stories go back as far as the 15th and 16th centuries. I find that amazing. We got so lucky with our casting. Barry introduced me to Joe Byrne, an amazing Dublin based actor who played our lead. Joe gave a fantastic performance and really brought the film to another level. As for upcoming projects; we are in post-production on another short. This time it is a serial killer story in the style of David Fincher's se7en. Aftermath will be finished for this year’s festival run.
The film came about from an idea by Brian O’Regan at Celtic Badger Media. Myself and Brian had been looking for a project to work on together since way back in Gun Down times. Brian was the first person I wanted in that film, but timing and prior commitments crossed and we ended up going with another actor at the time. Brian is a fantastic actor and a great storyteller. After reading his idea I was totally blown away with this concept. First thing we needed was a script writer to get into the bones of the story and dig a little beeper and really get the script into shape. Thank the gods Colin Fleming, of City Morgue Films, came on board and did his magic and we ended up with one of the best scripts I’ve had to work with. He really added so much depth and humanisation to the film. Next we needed a producer that could do the heavy lifting and take all the Biz side of things off my shoulders and let me make my film. Emma Owen at Babyjane Productions stepped in and took care of that end, giving me the freedom to get on with getting the film made. Having a producer on board, with over twenty years-experience in the industry, was a god send. Next I needed an AD. Paddy Murphy, again from Celtic Badger Media, had my back and I can't tank him enough for his work on this project. Behind the camera, Barry Fahy knocked it out of the park with again with his beautiful cinematography, which gave the film its unique look. Our cast Brian O’Regan, Stephen Tubridy and Paddy Farrelly (A New York native and former us combat marine in his first film role), did such a fantastic job on this film. I could not be more proud with the way the film worked out. Next up is a story I have been working on about a group of Ex Irish Army Rangers working for independent contractors in the Middle-East that get double crossed on an illegal bank job and end up fighting for their lives. It’s a kind of a Heart of Darkness type tale. Myself and Colin will be working on that this year with the hope of getting it in front of the cameras sometime next year so yeah... the future's so bright we're gonna need some shades.