29 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
“For me, it was about taking away, stripping back, and allowing the performances to shine through;” Editor John O’Connor discusses Smother
01 Apr 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Editor John O’Connor
We caught up with John O’Connor, one of the editors on Treasure Entertainment’s drama Smother, to find out more about the impact of Covid on the editing process, collaborating with director Dathaí Keane, and delivering the series via remote working.

A graduate of the National Film School, O’Connor editing work primarily lies in drama and comedy, having started his career at Windmill Lane in 2006.  His credits include films such as John Butler’s Handsome Devil (2016) and Stephen Burke’s Maze (2017), documentary such as Making The Grade (2018), and TV drama such as BBC’s Dublin Murders(2019), Virgin Media’s Darklands (2019), and the second season of Treasure’s Finding Joy for RTE.

In 2020, O’Connor began working on RTE/BBC co-production Smother, written by Kate O’Riordan (Mr. Selfridge, Penance) and directed by Dathaí Keane (An Klondike). A family thriller about deeply buried secrets and their unintended consequences, Smother is set in a small town on the wild and rugged coast of Clare and shot on location in Lahinch.

The series was produced by Rob Walpole and Rebecca O’Flanagan for Treasure Entertainment, while Tom Sherry and Michael Parke for BBC Studios and lead-writer Kate O’Riordan featured as Executive Producers on the series. The series was supported by Screen Ireland and the WRAP (Western Region Audiovisual Producers) Fund.

Because of the production schedule, editing for the series was also done on location during the shoot. Editing duties were shared with Dermot Diskin who began work on the series ahead of O’Connor, John explained. “Assembly editing was done on location in Lahinch,  alongside Dermot (Diskin) who had started on Block 1."

“Because of the production workflows that were set up, I was able to see the dailies and a weekly output of assemblies and so I was familiar with the direction it was taking in terms of the look and the tone of the whole piece,” O’Connor continued. “This made it easier to hit the ground running when I joined the production.”

Although the shoot had a good start and the edit seemed to be on track, Covid had other ideas with O’Connor facing setbacks shortly after joining the production. “I started to work in Lahinch at the end of February 2020 and was there for a week before the Covid pandemic shut down filming.  

“The entire mobile edit set up was moved back to Dublin and, that was that,” O’Connor recounted. Unfortunately, it would not be until the end of October/beginning of November that the Smother production team were given the greenlight to get back to filming in Lahinch. 

One silver lining highlighted by O’Connor, was that the editing were at least able to begin assembling aspects of the initial episodes with what had already been filmed before Covid shutdown the set. “Luckily, a lot of material had already been shot for one of the episodes I was to cut, and after discussions with producers Rob Walpole and Rebecca O’Flanagan, it was decided that I would continue assembling for some additional weeks.”

Read our interview about Smother with producer Rebecca O’Flanagan.

Despite being very challenging for everyone involved, O’Connor insisted there were some upsides to the enforced changes. “It actually allowed me to work much more closely with director Dathaí Keane, who would normally not be available to me as he would have been on set,” he told IFTN. "Although the shoot had stopped, the edit was able to progress for a few more weeks, albeit remotely.”  

After a lengthy hiatus Production resumed in September and cutting continued right through to January 2021. The majority of this process was done remotely involving edit outputs and video calls. “One thing we did before developing the assemblies to the next stage, was to have brainstorm screenings.  Myself, Dermot & Dathaí would throw around lots of ideas for how we wanted certain sequences to land or how we might restructure certain sections," O'Connor recounted. "We had lots of new things to explore then, as we went back through the editing passes on the cuts."

O’Connor explained the benefits of having the director join the editing process: "because Daithi hadn’t been in the room for every iteration, he was seeing full cuts with a much fresher perspective and was able to give his instinctive reactions to ideas that we were implementing in the edit.  We soon found a good creative momentum this way.”

“For the fine cut, we did have to be in the same room and we spent 4-5 weeks in November/December (between lockdowns) getting it to the point where it could be shown to producers and the execs for the feedback sessions. In the end it was a pretty tight schedule.”


John worked very closely with director Dathaí Keane, spending time on crafting the piece to reflect the director’s vision for the drama and the characters. “Obviously the edit took the lead from Dathaí’s vision and from the scripts, but we took an organic approach to the edit,” O’Connor elaborated.

"The footage shot by Cathal (Watters, DoP) from the local area was just stunning, lots of crashing waves, drone shots of the Burren. Part of the challenge was always trying to embed this unique landscape through the story in a way that felt authentic,” he continued. "It would have been easy to become overly indulgent in this footage, so we always tried to make sure that they earned their place in the edit in terms of what mood they were reinforcing or what they were adding to the story. 

"The choppy seas and rugged landscapes certainly helped set the tone for how we cut certain sequences and what type of music we were using for the temp score," O'Connor added.

Read our interview with the team behind the sounds of Smother.

In relation to the narrative of any project, O’Connor said there are always tough choices to be made. “In Smother, there are various characters at a pivotal event and we need to spend enough time with them all to figure out who they are and what their relationships are to other characters,” he explained. 

"You’re always asking where is the conflict and whose point of view do you want to experience that conflict through? There's certain underlying tensions that you may want to amplify and others that are very apparent on the screen and you may want to take a less is more approach," he continued. "It’s always about finding that balance in the edit –  turning the dial on those things.”

O’Connor and Keane were keen to allow the characterisation to breathe, while also giving space to the performances. “Often less was more,” John said. “Great actors can do so much in their performance that they often don’t need to vocalise their feelings in a direct way,  so for me it’s often the most interesting approach to keep the elephant in the room for as long as possible. Holding back the moment of direct conflict until a pivotal moment in the story."

"Audiences are instinctively in tune with such subtle things in actor’s performances so it’s so interesting when you get these tensions carrying through the whole story from scene to scene of something that ‘s left unsaid, and then having the payoff of seeing it all come out at once,” he added.

As a seasoned editor, O’Connor was keen to heighten the dramatic tension. “When editing a crime drama you have to constantly try to put yourself in the mind of the audience as much as possible to make sure that you’ve given them just enough information to keep them intrigued, but not enough to allow them to jump ahead too much. If you can manage to keep that perspective though multiple watches and rewatches you’ve done half the job,” O’Connor explained.

When discussing the tone of the piece, O’Connor had some iconic references for his approach. “The story shows a different side of rural Ireland we haven’t really seen before,” John told IFTN. “ There are themes of class, for sure. The Aherne family are privileged and perhaps taking that privilege for granted. 

“This creates a friction with the rest of the town and I certainly felt that there were some echoes of Big Little Lies in that small gossipy town environment,” he continued. “That was certainly a good reference for me for the tone of the drama and how the locations could be used in an abstract way. Smother is, however, uniquely Irish. It’s a different spin on this kind of story. It’s not a procedural crime drama but is very much about the family unit and how far they will go to protect themselves .”

The fifth episode of Smother airs on RTÉ One this Sunday at 9:30pm.

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