23 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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"It wasn't just about getting to the end of the shoot; we also needed to produce the series we had set out to make before Covid;" Producer Rebecca O'Flanagan discusses Smother
26 Mar 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Behind-the-scenes of Smother
Having debut on RTÉ One earlier this month to wide acclaim, we caught up with Smother Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan of Treasure Entertainment to get a better insight into the production's disrupted journey to the screen, adapting and filming during COVID, and acquiring a fantastic ensemble cast.

Written by Kate O’Riordan (Mr. Selfridge, Penance) and directed by Dathai Keane (An Klondike), Smother is a family thriller about deeply buried secrets and their unintended consequences, set in a small town on the wild and rugged coast of Clare.

Dervla Kirwan (The Stranger) leads as family matriarch Val - a devoted mother who is determined to protect her family and particularly her three daughters Jenny (Niamh Walsh; Good Omens), Anna (Gemma-Leah Devereux; Judy), and Grace (Seána Kerslake; The Hole In The Ground), at any cost. 

When Val Ahern’s husband Denis played by Stuarxt Graham (The Cure, Hunger) is found dead at a foot of a cliff close to their home the morning after a family party, Val begins to interrogate the events that unfolded the night before. Val explores Denis’s relationships with his children, step-children and his siblings in order to find out who might have been responsible for his brutal, shocking death. The deeper Val delves into her family’s secrets the more she realises how her late husband’s controlling, manipulative behaviour had a deep effect on each member of the family. 

Smother has endured an unexpectedly long journey to screen as a result of the ongoing pandemic, with filming on the production being shut down back in March 2020, and a subsequent delay incurring to the release of the series on RTÉ. Having finally been completed late last year, the noir-drama debuted on television screens earlier this month and has since caught the attention of the nation.

“It has been hugely satisfying to finally get Smother on the screen,” producer Rebecca O’Flanagan told IFTN. “The added challenge of working through a global pandemic makes the achievement greater for us as a team – and for the cast and crew.”

“Ultimately, for the audience, you hope that it has no impact,” O’Flanagan continued. Rebecca explained that that the real challenge has been to present a series where the audience is unaware of what was shot pre or during pandemic; “the most satisfying aspect for us is that the audience is responding to the series on its own terms and not as a “pandemic” production.”

Smother began its 12-week shoot on February 10th, with an expected wrap date of Friday, May 1st, when filming would have been completed across a number of prominent locations in the west of Ireland including Lahinch, Liscannor, Spanish Point, Fanore, Ennistymon, and Lisdoonvarna. 

Unfortunately, the production was destined to shut down in mid-March, barely halfway through its scheduled shoot. At the time, O’Flanagan recounted that the producers were focused on a number of conventional on set challenges, rather than the severity of the unforeseen, yet impending pandemic that was creeping ever closer. 

“We began and were battling with all the usual production headaches (filming on the west coast of Ireland in February brings its own unique challenges…). It was really only in week 4 of the shoot that we began to realise that covid was an escalating situation that might very well have an impact on us,” Rebecca told IFTN. 

“We started to introduce hand sanitising stations and other precautions but the idea of stopping altogether still seemed quite distant, and then it came down the tracks very quickly,” she continued. The tough decision to postpone production had to be made with her production partner Rob Walpole over the course of a weekend, according to O'Flanagan. “I’d say myself and Rob walked the prom in Lahinch, back and forth, about 20 times that weekend, talking it over back and forth. And even then we thought we might be down for a few weeks. Little did we know…”

Smother was developed by BBC Studios Drama North and Scotland in partnership with Treasure Entertainment, and commissioned by RTÉ. It was produced by Rob Walpole and Rebecca O’Flanagan from Treasure with Executive Producers Tom Sherry and Michael Parke from BBC Studios, Shane Murphy and David Crean for RTÉ, and lead writer, Kate O’Riordan. The production was supported by Screen Ireland and WRAP (Western Region Audiovisual Producers Fund).

Preparation and Expense

 “It was very foreign to us all at the outset,” O’Flanagan explained. “Film and TV sets are close knit communities and we are used to working in very close quarters. It seemed so unnatural to have to stayed removed from each other and keep our distance, but crews are, by their natures, quick studies who are used to adapting to new circumstances – so we were able to make it work.”

“There was a huge amount of work that went into creating the protocols and preparing for our return to work,” O’Flanagan continued. “We were incredibly lucky to have such a committed cast and crew who were as determined as we were that we complete the job we had started.”

Smother became one of the first project to return to filming in Ireland after the first lockdown,  something that O’Flanagan said brought its own challenges as the production team felt an onus on them to complete the shoot safely so that others could follow. “There was a massive additional burden of responsibility, especially as we were one of the first productions to return to shooting:  it was so important to us to do everything right,”

“At the same time, we had to keep our eye on the creative process and make sure that wasn’t overly compromised,” O’Flanagan recounted. “At the end of the day, it was not just about getting to the end of the shoot; we also needed to produce the series we had set out to make before covid. We needed to keep the narrative and the audience in mind too.”

Returning to production also brought with it a “huge expense,” but the show was back with additional funds to implement the regulations and safety standards needed to carry on; “Thankfully our financiers and especially Screen Ireland were really proactive in helping us finance these additional costs.”

Although there is doubt surrounding filming during COVID, O’Flanagan believes it is still doable. “The expense is real – there are tangible additional costs to creating a safe working environment for everyone, but, it can be done. Our industry is built on creative and innovative thinking and I think that has really stood to us over this period.”

Now on its fourth episode, Smother’s ensemble cast, which also includes VMDIFF Discovery Award winner Hazel Doupe (Float Like A Butterfly), Thomas Levin (Borgen), Hilary Rose (The Young Offenders), and Justine Mitchell (Cheat), has been widely praised for their strong performances thus far. 

O’Flanagan put this down to the great work of their casting director; “we had the wonderful Louise Kiely to help us, who is herself a superstar. “

“We knew that the series would stand or fall on the quality of the actors but we also knew that there was a great range of roles for the talent that we wanted to attract,” Rebecca explained. “We were particularly excited about the range of really meaty and exciting roles we had for the women of Smother because we knew the depth of talent that was out there for those roles. We are thrilled to be able to showcase them all.”

Anticipation continues to build ahead of this week’s episode with producers seeing a huge uptake in interest from Irish audiences’ towards original Irish content following the success of dramas such as Normal People, while viewers continue to remain stuck indoors. As such, O’Flanagan feels it is “critically important” that Irish productions are supported and continue to film during these challenging times. “(This applies) across all genres but, in my view, especially across scripted comedy and drama.”

“Storytelling serves such an important function in our lives,” Rebecca told IFTN. “The role of storytelling is never more important than when we are experiencing upheaval, adversity, and change – we need it for escapism, but we also need as a way of reflecting back to ourselves who we are and how we define ourselves, and projecting this image out into the world.  It can provoke debate – either light-hearted or ferocious – but that conversations is essential in forging our sense of identity – in good times and bad.”

The fourth Episode of Smother airs on RTÉ One this Sunday at 9:30pm.

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