25 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Mark O’Connor on Writing and Directing
28 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Mark O'Connor
With the nominations for the IFTA Awards announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke to writer/director Mark O’Connor who received his second IFTA nomination in the ‘Best Scriptwriter Drama’ category for his work on the six-part television show Darklands. The series follows a young MMA fighter with dreams of escaping his tough neighbourhood, but is drawn into a dangerous world of drug gangs and violence when his brother goes missing. Darklands is created by O’Connor, who acted as writer, director, and showrunner on the project.

O'Connor’s debut feature film, Between the Canals was highly acclaimed, with Film Ireland calling it “the best Irish film in a long, long time”. Mark went on to write and direct King of The Travellers, which received a cinema and DVD release in the UK and Ireland, and in 150 territories across the world on VOD. In 2012, Mark's third feature film Stalker won best film at the Underground Film Festival and was the runner-up at the Galway Film Fleadh.

In 2017, Mark helmed his most successful film to date, Cardboard Gangsters, which made 700K at the Irish box office and received nationwide critical acclaim. The film earned Mark his first IFTA nomination in the 'Best Director Film' category, and was acquired by Netflix who released it globally on the platform in September 2018.

Where did the idea for Darklands come from and why did you want to direct it?

“When we were shooting Between the Canals I thought about the idea of a TV show focusing on the younger generation. The Sheriff Street feud was happening at the time and we saw the effect it was having on the community and I wanted to explore how young men from normal families could get pulled in to that world. I always wanted to direct. I started directing short films in my early teens so it’s always been a passion of mine.” 

What was your approach to making this project, and where did you take inspiration from during the process?

“The approach was to show the reality of gangland, the true horror of it and the effect it has on families and the community. Myself and my co-writer Adam were not out to glamourise anything or present these people as gangsters like you often see. We wanted to humanise them and show them as real people who are caught up in this violence for various reasons. Jason for instance has low self-esteem and wants to prove he can be a man to his older brother and uncle. Goose is out for revenge for the death of his brother and Butsy organises the pub shooting in retaliation for Wesleys murder. Bernie is clearly a little more on the evil side! But then Damien is like any school boy with hopes and dreams until Wesley goes missing and this is the catalyst for him to become involved as he wants to know what happened to his brother.”

What is your general style of working with the team, cinematographer etc., and what is the most important focus for you during the whole production?

“I worked very closely with Séamus Deasy. Séamus is an amazing cinematographer. He shot the General which I loved. Séamus is old school. We’ve both made a lot of films so we didn’t really use many story boards or shot lists as I would on previous films. This was much more about our relationship and understanding of the work and many conversations over cups of tea about the vision and style. I wanted the show to feel epic in scale even though we were working off a very small budget. That’s one of the reasons we decided not to shoot in the north inner city. I thought that this was a story which could work in any small town in Ireland but Bray opened up the visual landscape. In pre-production you can get distracted with the small details running from the costume department to the props to makeup but what I believe is important is always being aware of the theme of the work and the journey of the character.”

How do you like to approach working with actors in general to get the best results and what advice would you give to aspiring directors on this front?

“If they are very experienced actors then it’s about conversations. It’s about exploring the character and asking questions and giving the actor the freedom to find their version of that character. It’s all about trust and believing in someone. You hire someone because you believe in their skills so let them do their job! Often on set it’s just small tweaks and feedback and encouragement. If they are non actors that can be very different. Then you may need to loosen up the script or use some improv or find your method to extract performance through certain techniques. The more comfortable they are the more natural they will be! You have to let actors experiment too and make mistakes and get excited by the mistakes because that’s when a magical moment can happen.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?

“My favourite moment was being in the octagon with Dane our lead actor who was only 15 at the time of shooting. We had just a few hours to rehearse and shoot an MMA fight and Dane gave everything. I’ll never forget it.”

What was your first role as a director (feature/short), and how has your style changed over the years?

“My first short was when I was about 8. We kind of directed and acted together with my brother and his friend. Then at 15 I started writing scripted shorts. I think my style developed probably in my late teens- that fast paced high energy style with a lot of movement. When I started in film school it evolved a bit more as I learnt new techniques. I admire and love slow paced films with locked off cameras but I just find myself getting a little bored when directing like that. Maybe my next film will be slow and steady!” 

What do you think of the current state of filmmaking in independent and mainstream cinema? Are there trends you’re excited about or that you like/dislike?

“I think it’s a great time for independent cinema (Despite the pandemic!) because there is so much freedom. You can write shoot and edit and win an award at a top festival and then there’s plenty of opportunity to sell to major platforms or do an independent cinema release.”

What filmmaker or director’s work has influenced or inspired you the most? 

“I’m a huge fan of cinema so I have a lot of film makers I admire. Tarkovsky, Fellini, Godard, Scorsese, Truffaut, Coppola and in Britain Shane meadows and Ken Loach. In Ireland my favourite director would be Jim Sheridan. He’s been an influence on my work and a mentor to me. Jim has a magical way with actors and a great knowledge of story-telling.”

What other Irish filmmaker have you been most impressed by in recent times?

“Jim Sheridan. Also I like Ivan Kavanagh. He’s someone who has made it happen by himself from doing low budget shorts to large scale features, I love his style.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had been a part of...?

“I liked Calm with Horses. I think it would have been an enjoyable film to make and be a part of.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?

“I can’t go back and watch my own work. I mean I’ve done it but it’s painful because I just see all the mistakes and it makes me frustrated as I imagine how I could have improved a shot or a moment of performance or how I rushed into casting a non-actor! But you learn! I’m incredibly proud too though and I’ve met incredible people through my films.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring directors?

“I was in the cutting room and had a brilliant visual shot. It was the most cinematic shot in all the footage but it didn’t do anything. My teacher said to me ‘Mark every shot must move the story along!’ The light bulb went on and I cut that shot out and finished the edit. That’s one of my rules now. If the shot doesn’t drive the narrative forward then there’s no need for it unless you’re making the thin red line!”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“All I’ve been doing is writing and working out and spending time with my family. I have multiple projects developing which I’m very excited about but it’s never easy getting a film or a TV show off the ground. We’ll see!”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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