Direct Line with Brian O’Brien
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.
Hazardous Materials is a short film that looks at anxiety completely visually, without spoken dialogue, in an effort to convey something of the main character’s perspective on the world. Nora has trouble talking to anyone, and is scraping by day to day avoiding contact with people, while Rachel, a well meaning co-worker, wants to bring her out of her shell. When Rachel invites Nora to a house party – how will Nora react? The short has had considerable success at screenings so far, including a UK Premiere for World Mental Health Day and showings at 5 festivals/competitions to date.
Galway-based director Brian O’Brien has directed a number of shorts, but Hazardous Materials marks an impressive step forward for the developing director. Film In Dublin spoke to Brian for the direct line on his work.
What is the first movie you remember seeing?
We had a huge pile of Disney VHSes when I was a toddler, and the one I remember the most from start to finish from years of burning it into my brain would probably be 101 Dalmatians. It kickstarted a lifelong love of film and animation. I can rewatch it over and over and be blown away by how alive the animation feels.
Which fellow director has had the most influence on your work to date?
I take inspiration from so many directors, but at the moment I’d say Shane Carruth. Upstream Colour taught me that films at any budget or size can be about anything. It’s a movie that taught me to let your edit follow its own logic, without adhering to a traditional approach. It’s a film shot on a tight budget, that uses space and light better than most films with 10 or 100 times its budget. That sort of “selling the moment wherever you are, whatever your means” attitude has been a huge influence. Another director I can’t get out of my head lately is Hiro Murai, his music videos and work on Atlanta are absolutely brilliant, format pushing stuff.
What film do you love that not enough people know about?
This is tricky! There are so many wonderful films being made constantly and getting eyes on them is a huge challenge. Recently, I loved You Wever Never Really Here, and I think it’s wild that Lynne Ramsey wasn’t nominated at the Golden Globes for it, so I really urge people to seek it out, it probably isn’t what you’re expecting, and it’s incredible.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I was 12, I saw Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, and I instantly started looking for the rest of his movies. I was blown away. The background paintings, the music, the sheer sense of detail and place all in service of the protagonist’s journey was unlike anything I’d seen. It was done, I wanted to express myself visually.
Hazardous Materials is a short without dialogue – what was your approach with the actors in the film to convey their characters and the films message and tone?
Prep. Prep. Prep. Our main actor Molly O’ Mahony, was based in Dublin, and since we shot in Galway, there wasn’t much in person time beforehand. As such I had to really think about how the character would move, how she would react to noise etc, and then compare notes with Molly over the phone before the shoot. Then I generated a list of directions for each scene I wanted to get different versions of so that I’d be comfortable in the edit. I’d also make sure that the context of the scene, where it sat in the narrative, was clear to everyone on set, to try and combat the tone switching day to day from shooting it out of order and from there gave the actors room to experiment where we had time.
How much input did you yourself have in the technical aspects of the short – like sound design, the look of the suit etc?
A lot! I did defer to the costuming and post production team as I picked them for a reason, but I did my research and brought it to the teams, and they executed on it and some of their own ideas wonderfully.
Hazardous Materials was mostly self-funded – what was your biggest challenge in the funding process for this film?
I’d say the biggest challenge was just being focused and putting money aside when I could over several months before the shoot and before the post production. Self funding is really difficult, and it works well for smaller shoots, but I’d say that something as big as Hazardous Materials, a 15 minute short film is as large as I’m willing to go self-funded.
Best part of your job?
Someone came up to me after a screening of Hazardous Materials, thanked me, and told me they cried. That was so gratifying. I was honoured that I something I made had such a impact on someone. Seeing your work make a small impact is the best part. Apart from that, meeting and working with the cast and crew on the film, and seeing the short come together was unbelievably fulfilling.
Least favourite part of your job?
Sorting out scheduling. It can be a nightmare. Hazardous Materials was good to go at the start of March 2018, but the infamous snowstorm completely caught us off guard, and with key cast and crew people stuck with their cars in driveways, we had to reschedule the whole shoot and a find a new major location, adding an extra week of work. Always schedule in scheduling as part of the process!
Digital or film?
Digital. If only for the opportunities afforded to indie filmmakers like me to create decent looking footage cheaply, but I would love to play around with shooting film if given a chance!
You’ve been working on short films for several years now – would you encourage aspiring filmmakers to pursue that format specifically?
I would, but to also look at broadening the formats you want to work in; music videos are a great way to help you get work out there and maybe even a chance to get a good working relationship with a band which in turn could lead to other work. Short films are great, and you have a lot of control over the project, but having a versatile portfolio can only help you.
Is it better for a film to be subtle, or blunt?
I think it depends on the point the film is trying to make, to what audience, and how much time the film has. Short films are often served well with blunter storytelling as you want to leave a strong impression, while longer forms of storytelling might be better served with realistic, nuanced narratives.
What makes a film great for you?
When the technical aspects of the film are in service of the story, and don’t distract the audience, or at least don’t distract them too much. I love experimental art film, but I really love it when it’s for a purpose.
Who else in Ireland should we be watching?
The 2019 Oscar nominated short films are currently online, and I really loved Cartoon Saloon’s Late Afteroon, written and directed by Louise Bagnall; it wrecked me so please check it out. I really like Brendan Canty’s music videos over at Feel Good Lost. And Maps and Plans short film An Island is extremely good stuff too. I worked on Luke Morgan’s first feature with the Project Spatula, Sooner or Later back in late 2017, and I’d recommend keeping an eye out on Spatula in the future! Honestly, I could keep going for ages, there’s so much Irish talent. Screen Ireland just announced their 2019 slate, their releases have really been going from strength to strength, so check that out too!
What kind of project is your dream to work on?
I love directing, so I’ll take any chance I can where the story or mood speak to me. But I’d love to work on a music video that’s a hybrid of live action and animation, or a feature where the main character has an unusual character arc/journey, but one that still feels true.
What is the biggest challenge directing in Ireland today?
I think the biggest challenge is a mixture of standing out with what you can do well, and just finding good people to work with who trust you. I was so lucky when the Hazardous Materials writer Robin Oree trusted me with his script, and again when I found Hazardous Materials’ crew; that’s a once in a lifetime team. You have to work hard to be in a position to take those changes when they present themselves
What is the biggest change you see coming to film in the next few years?
I really hope that the advent of cheaper equipment and opening of distribution networks leads to more support for work from marginalized communities all over the world. There’s always been incredible work from marginalized perspectives, and the industry needs to support them.
What is the most important thing for a viewer to take away from watching a film?
I think the most important moment when watching a film is the moment the credits hit, and just sitting with that mood instilled in you. If it rings true, you can carry it away and reflect on it over and over.
Are you interested in working on other aspects of filmmaking – feature, music videos, advertising etc?
I am! I really enjoy the challenges that other formats entail I had a great time making a music video for Mongoose last year, and I’d love to work on more diverse projects all over the filmmaking spectrum.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on some music video outlines for Irish artists and I’m already on the hunt for another short film script to maybe shoot in the later half of this year, and I’m aiming to just keep growing my freelance business as a video editor too!