This July saw the Irish film industry come together in the summer sun out west, for the return in person of the Galway Film Fleadh. Always a big opportunity for rising Irish talents on and off screen, this year was no different, and one of the big winners was Laura O’Shea, director of the short film Wednesday’s Child.
Originally from Limerick, Laura has been building a name for herself over the last few years on the Irish Indie Film circuit as a filmmaker and actor to watch, picking up awards at the Richard Harris Film Festival, IndieCork, Catalyst and more. In 2020, Laura was selected for a prestigious ‘Puttnam Scholarship’, where she workshopped Feature Film development with Lord David Puttnam. Most recently, the director was selected by Element Pictures and Screen Ireland for a Shadow Director placement alongside Paddy Breathnach on the TV series The Dry.
Starring Caroline Harvey and Charleigh Bailey, the award winning short Wednesday’s Child was a collaboration between the two behind the camera as well. Produced by the actresses and adapted by Caroline from the memoir of the same name by Shane Dunphy, the film is a look into social work in Ireland. Marie (played by Caroline) faces her first day on the job as a social care worker. Despite her optimism, a house call to a family in crisis quickly brings her down to reality.
The short won the prized Tiernan McBride Award for Best Short Drama at the annual Galway festival, one of three Academy Award-qualifying categories at the Fleadh which sees the film automatically added to the longlist for the Oscars in March 2023. We met up with Laura after that success to talk about how her latest film together, how she works with actors and where the actor/director sees herself leaning in her career.
Congratulations on winning the Tiernan McBride Award at the Galway Film Fleadh. What was it like to be there and to pick up that win for the best fiction short?
Well it was great! The thing with us was we were just happy to be there. Galway is one of the biggest festivals in Ireland if not the biggest, and when we were in post-production we were aiming our deadline for Galway specifically, hoping to premiere there. We were gearing everything for the Fleadh hoping we would just get a screener you know?
So when we got selected we thought great, that’s that ticked off. We were happy enough but didn’t for a second think that we would take anything home. You never expect to win. I’ve been to festivals before where I’ve spent the entire weekend taking pictures, meeting people, and then I’d head home early before the awards because I’d have work the next day and then I get a call 3 hours later asking “where are you?? You just won!!” Then you think right maybe I should start sticking around for these things!
It was a great feeling because tt was a very low budget short, it was done for six grand and we were up against some heavy hitters, so it was really unexpected for us.
As well as performing on screen, Caroline and Charleigh are very involved with this short behind the scenes. Can you talk about how you all came together for Wednesday’s Child?
Charleigh and Caroline had been friends for years at this point, they’d been acting together and doing side projects. Caroline had a script written based on a book by Shane Dunphy, a collection of short stories from his time as a social worker. Caroline knows Shane and wanted to adapt one of his stories and she approached Charleigh as someone well known in the film industry, they wanted to do this together and produce it together.
The girls are all-rounders, they’re obviously really talented actors as well, so that helps when you’re trying to keep a crew to the minimum! They just reached out to me, I knew Charleigh from around Dublin and going to a couple of table reads together. There was nothing too extravagent about how I came on board really, it was just ‘Do you want to read the script? Do you like it? Yes I do. Happy days, let’s do it’! We were joking about how it’s called Wednesday Child, but it was about nine months gestation from me coming on board to us submitting to the Fleadh, it kind of felt like we all had a child!
The short is based on a story by Shane as you say and it has a very grounded, realistic approach. Were there other inspirations drawn or consultations with social workers in bringing the story together?
Not that I’m aware of. I’m one of those people who are like if I’m given this script, that’s what I’m working from. I know that Caroline worked with Shane in the writing of it, she’s got a relationship with him that’s very open, so she could come to him if she had any questions. Shane was very on board, he would come on set to see how things are going. I think it was the first time for him that he had ever had anything like that adapted for screen.
My biggest thing was that it did feel real. It’s very easy for dramatic moments like the ones we show to feel a little bit ‘big’. It might not have resonated as well because it would have felt potentially soap opera if it had gotten any more heightened, whereas my main concern all the time was always going to be hey, is this how real people behave? That’s how we treated it on set and the actors did an amazing job at that.
All of the actors definitely contribute hugely to that to that grounded reality. As somebody that’s experienced with the acting side of things yourself, how do you work with performers and set the scene for the overall story?
I think it’s good that I came to directing from acting. Some directors very much have a technical eye, whereas I look at it as there’s people there for that job, they’re good at what they do. The DP and the sound guy know what they’re doing, I’m happy to let them do their side of the job. I’m there to work with the performers and the actors.
I feel it makes me more empathetic as a director as well. I know how the performers are feeling, what it’s like to be on set. I would have Zoom meetings with the actors beforehand to ask if there was anything they were worried about, anything catching them on the script or making them nervous, we could have a chat and work it out. Talking with Fionna (Hewitt-Twamley) beforehand and she was saying her scene asks a lot. I told her if it happens, it happens, it’s going to be whatever we get on the day so do whatever comes naturally.
Allowing people to have the choice frees them up completely, and then before you know if they’re doing exactly what you wanted them to do anyway. Acting is a very strange psychology where if you just make people feel at ease it has the results that you were hoping for anyway because they feel like they’ve been given permission to.
There’s a scene here with very high tension where Fionna really does have to go big to an extent, but if you go too far, you lose the moment. How do you keep that balance and hold that tension?
We had shot a lot up to that point before that heated moment. Fionna and I discussed why do you think the character is doing this and what’s making her feel this way? Once she was in the scene already, it was easier for her to actually figure out her own train of thought too. It’s having those conversations with people in between takes where you and they are connecting the dots, that helps. It’s hard to know how things are going to go until it’s on its feet and having those kind of chats makes all the difference.
Also I’m the type of person that says do what you want, go as big as you want. After you’ve gone 110% it’s easier to bring that back to like 75, whereas if you’re telling someone to start off from 50 and then you ask them to go up to 75, it’s hard to ramp that up without feeling silly. We just got coverage and let Fionna go as big as she wanted and took it from there, and she knew herself what felt right then, she’s very good at what she does as all the actors are.
After working on this latest short for 9 months, how did this compare to other projects you’ve done and how do you feel yourself developing as a director over time?
It was the first time I felt comfortable taking on a script that wasn’t mine – I’d made two shorts before then that have done fairly well, but I was triple-jobbing on them you know? It felt quite chaotic. It was me and my mates wanting to make something, let’s just pick a weekend and shoot it, and if it’s terrible, nobody has to see it. I had fallen into directing almost by default, whereas this time around Charleigh reached out to me and from the get go it felt like a bigger project and felt like time to actually put the hat on and just do the one role, and I loved it.
I’ve been working for the last year in Bow Street Academy where I had trained initially. I’ve been tutoring in the part-time course. It’s been great directing young, fresh actors, that’s been hugely beneficial for my confidence, so I felt ready to take on something that wasn’t my own. It seems now to be the way my career is moving and I’m fine with it, because I love it.
Would you be interested in the future in combining roles again and directing yourself in projects?
I’m not sure, I still think I’ll always be an actor, I’ll never not have that itch to do it. Because I love both equally and separately, that’s fine, if for a while I just do directing and that means in a couple of years I’m in a position for it to come full circle again and I can start putting myself in things, that’s great too.
There’s a lot of people that I admire who are doing that quite well, Olivia Wilde, Greta Gerwig, Jim Cummings, they make it feel more accessible for people like me who want to do both. I think the days of being pigeonholed are starting to disappear. I tell students you need to start making your own work, it’s good for you and good for your soul as an actor to be making your own stuff rather than waiting for the phone to ring.
Are more lessons for actors in directing themselves something that you think would be useful?
100%. I have that conversation with them all the time, when you’re up and coming and so is everyone that you’re working with, those director may be still just learning, honing their craft. They might be amazing in ten years but when you’re all at the level where you’re learning, you have to help yourself right now. They might not have that vocabulary right now to be the best director for you. I tell them here’s things you can do on set to make you more at ease, more comfortable. I do kind of preach an awful lot about that in class, it’s not just about arriving and saying your lines. When everyone is learning and getting better, you have to be patient and help them while they help you.
That was something that was drilled into us when I started in Bow Street, about making your own work, so I had it in the back of my head always. When we made my first short Hold The Line, that was shot in a day with my friends from Bow Street on a budget of 500 quid. Before that, I had a year of looking at the phone, wondering why I wasn’t getting parts and auditions until I thought okay I should probably get off my arse so. I preach that same approach to people, I think it’s really worthwhile.
It seems like it develops a collaborative approach with crew also. On Wednesday’s Child you had a really good crew come together.
If you hire well, you know you have very little worries on the day. We had Evan Barry who’s one of the best DPs in the country, he felt like another appendage to me on set, he’s just so good at what he does. He doesn’t just stand there and wait for you to tell him where to point the camera, he’s very confident, he knows what he’s doing, and I wasn’t once concerned about what it was going to look like because I had complete faith in him. Likewise my editor Phil Shanahan, he’s edited everything that I’ve done and we’re at the stage where we have such a shorthand, I don’t even have to say anything, he’ll know by my face if I like it. There’s people that I’ve worked with over the last few projects that I I know I’ll continually work with, it’s about building that collection of people that are your go-tos.
Having developed this project with Fleadh in mind and building towards that, where do you see Wednesday’s Child going now?
It’s hard to know because the Fleadh is usually the first one to kick off festival season, a lot of people save their premieres for it in July and then there can be a lull until the autumn. We have Cork International coming up in the autumn, Foyle and Belfast, they’re some of the bigger ones that we’re hoping to get a shot at now that we’ve hit the ground running, but we won’t know just yet. Galway got us off on the right foot anyhow!
People have said to us that they were happy to hear that it won, partly because it was a lower budget short and also because it was about something that I guess could have happened 10 years ago or in 10 years’ time. People can be nervous about making something that people won’t like or isn’t trendy, which is the worst thing you can think about really. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about, like it could be about juggling, but if you absolutely are head over heels about juggling and you make a film about it, people are probably going to like it too. This is just a real story that was made for a modest budget, and I think people have found that encouraging to see that win because it’s almost a case of, well, hey, I could probably do something like that then as well.
It comes back to this being a story that resonated with Caroline, and then through her to you guys to the audience, if it resonates with one person, it’s got a chance of doing the same for others.
Exactly, people are passionate about what other people are passionate about.