In Direct Line, Film In Dublin cuts to the chase, asking 20 questions of Ireland’s directors to get a brief look into their outlooks, influences and inspirations.
Director Shaun O’ Connor’s work has screened all over the world and won awards at various festivals, from DC to Dublin and Cork, where Shaun himself is based. He’s directed for television, on stage and for several advertising campaigns, but has received particular notice for his short films. His latest, A White Horse, has been a smash success on the Irish festival circuit over the last year, as an official selection at the Galway Film Fleadh, the Belfast Film Festival, the Cork and Waterford Film Festivals and VMDIFF 2020. Having won at the Oscar-qualifying Foyle Film Festival, A White Horse will be on the longlist for the Academy Awards in 2021.
Getting on the Oscar radar is sign enough that Shaun is going places, but he was also a nominee for the Discovery Awards at DIFF, speaking to us as part of our feature in February Discovering the Discoveries. Wanting to hear more, Film In Dublin went back to Shaun to get the direct line on working on film and stage, how the current pandemic is impacting the industry and the essential importance of dinosaurs.
What film do you love that not enough people know about?
There’s a BBC drama from 1968 called ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’ that I really love. It’s an M.R. James adaptation. It has groundbreaking use of sound design and simple practical effects, and it’s so effective. It’s a great reference point for independent filmmakers.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Seeing Jurassic Park when I was 12 (though I procrastinated and didn’t make a film til I was 28!)
Are there directors you look to for inspiration or is it better to do your own thing?
I think it’s good to watch all the greats and basically steal from everyone. Your own style will emerge in time.
Who’s the best filmmaker you absolutely DON’T want to emulate?
No filmmaker in particular, but in broad terms I guess the directing approach of being angry and shouty to get results isn’t very appealing.
How do you prepare for a day on set?
I try to have shotlists and notes ready and printed the night before, that way the morning isn’t a rush. And I always bring some fruit. And comfy shoes. And a change of socks, just in case.
Best part of your job?
Working on set with good actors and HoDs is always amazing. And in post, getting to the point in the edit when you know a story is working, that’s pretty awesome. From then on you’re just fine-tuning it and it’s so enjoyable.
Least favourite part of your job?
Rejection letters from funders / film festivals.
Digital or film?
Digital, with a film look.
What kind of atmosphere do you like to have on set?
As relaxed as possible. Even if it’s a serious drama, the cast + crew should be comfortable and enjoying it.
You’ve directed on stage also – what are some of the differences directing in theatre and in film?
With theatre, rehearsals are the main focus of preparation. With film you have way less rehearsal time. Also with film, you only need to get a shot or performance right once. With theatre there’s so many different variables each night, things that can go right or wrong. But that’s kind of thrilling too!
You’ve had success with awards at a number of festivals – are film festivals still exciting or are they more like work?
Oh no, film festivals are great fun. Networking, screenings, industry events. Ireland has a relatively small industry too so festivals are a great opportunity to meet and connect with people working at the top of their games.
Should short films be shown before features in cinemas?
Yes! Get rid of a few of the ads and throw on a short beforehand. The Triskel in Cork do that before some of their screenings and it’s always a welcome surprise.
What are you missing most about cinemas while we’re in lockdown?
I’ll tell you what I’m not missing: Telling people to stop talking or scrolling through Facebook during the movie!
What concerns do you have at the moment for the Irish film industry coming from this pandemic?
Production schedules have been massively impacted, and potentially will be for some time even after the pandemic is under control. The demand for content will still be there on the other side, but it’s undoubtedly a blow for the industry, both nationally and globally.
What makes a film great for you?
A compelling story. And ideally, dinosaurs.
Who else in Ireland should we be watching?
Tristan Heanue, Megan K Fox, Brendan McCallion, to name just a few. We have a thriving independent film scene and there are some great filmmakers on their way up.
What kind of project is your dream to work on?
I’d love to write and direct something like Black Mirror. High concept stories with real depth and social relevance.
What is the most important thing for a viewer to take away from watching a film?
If you’re thinking about a film, processing it and discussing it, I think it’s done its job. I love films that challenge the audience.
What is the best way the industry in Ireland can support up-and-coming filmmakers?
Funding, lots and lots more funding.
What was the most important thing you learned while making A White Horse?
It was my first film after directing theatre, so I was particularly conscious of taking as much rehearsal time as possible. We had amazing actors and it was so good to carve out the time and space to develop the characters and performances with them.
What’s next for you?
Editing a music video, developing a TV show and writing a feature. And trying to keep office hours and stay motivated during the lockdown.