Billy O’Brien spoke to Adam Shaw about taking the Irish film industry to the American Midwest
With their majestic scripts and trademark dark humour, Irish director Billy O’Brien has always been a big fan of Joel and Ethan Coen.
So when he travelled to rural Minnesota to direct a film involving murder, there was only one thing that crossed his mind.
“It was like you were in Fargo – the whole place was covered in snow and, coming from Ireland and the UK, it was like nothing you usually experience,” he said. “It sounds strange but it just felt like you were in a film, and this particular one is as if the Coen brothers had produced a serial killer film. It’s got that same black humour.”
I Am Not a Serial Killer was completed in March and now, as part of the festival circuit, is making its way to London.
Set in a small town in the Midwestern United States and starring two American actors, it hardly follows the blueprint of a typical Irish film. However, with a strong Irish team behind it, it has fully earned its place at the Irish Film Festival London 2016. (Screening on Friday 25th Nov @6.30pm at Tricycle Cinema)
What’s more, Billy believes it highlights Ireland’s growing role in the international film scene.
“It’s true that we’re a bit of a square peg in a round hole because it’s not set in Ireland, it’s not jammed with Irish performers and it’s not based on an Irish book,” he explained. “We were asked by Dan Wells [author of the book from which the film is adapted] if we wanted to make it more Irish but we wanted to stay as true to his version as possible.
“But now you’ve got a case where Irish film is getting further afield. You only have to look at the fantastic success of Brooklyn and Room.
“Maybe it’s just the world adapting, maybe it’s the influence of the internet and globalisation but I do think it shows the strength of Irish film in the current climate.”
He added that this film has “reversed the trend” in the sense that Hollywood is no longer using Ireland for filming locations but that Irish filmmakers are taking on the US.
Billy also put it down, in part, to Ireland’s overall outlook on the world. “We’ve always been very outward looking and tried to make an impact wherever we’ve gone,” he explained. “You only need to look at emigration and how there are Irish and second-generation Irish looking to leave their mark wherever they may be.”
This opportunism might be a telling factor, but the Cork-man accepts that there are other fortunate factors which play into the hands of Irish film.
Having just returned from a festival in Finland, he noted how, despite being a similarly-sized country to Ireland in terms of population, it suffers from not being English speaking. Plenty will point to the success of Scandi-noir and the Finns remarkable grasp of our language but, the fact remains; English as a native tongue is undoubtedly an advantage.
In any case, Billy believes the fortunes of Irish film are just rewards for the Irish Film Board’s attitude to the industry. “It’s not been easy for them to work during hard economic times but they’ve adopted a patient outlook and now they’re reaping the benefits,” he said. “You compare it to Britain where, due to the population, it’s bound to be much more competitive but they’re holding their own.”
The “patient outlook” has almost been mirrored in Billy’s own career, in addition to how he now approaches his films.
Growing up on a farm in Co. Cork before moving to Limerick to study at Art College, he thought his future would lie in comic books. But work in such a field, in Ireland at least, was never going to be too lucrative and so, he turned his hand to film.
“Unfortunately, in the late 80s, there wasn’t a great demand for comic book strips in Limerick,” he said. “But, as it turns out, it directed me towards the film industry. I was hooked from the outset and I haven’t looked back since.”
And while he always has some form of storyboard and plan for his films – to do otherwise would be rather reckless – he’s come to appreciate the beauty of the unexpected.
“Of course I always have some sort of idea but if something goes in a different direction and it turns out to be something magical, you just go with it,” he explained. “Happy accidents are actually a great thing and you need to give the actors room for them to be able to do their thing.
“It’s fantastic to watch Robbie [Ryan, the film’s cameraman and one of its producers,] work on set.
“He’s got this very quiet way of going about things and actors just trust him. He makes them feel so comfortable.”
Next up for Billy is a children’s film – a tribute to his two kids and based on Irish myths and monsters. He’s also got a thriller lined up which he likens to as if the traumatic situation in Syria was going on in Britain.
But, given his style, and the fact that one of his recent horror scripts has turned into a folk musical, don’t be surprised if things head off on a different course.
Above all, the film industry, particularly a blossoming Irish one, gives him the chance to work with some bona fide stars. This time it was Christopher Lloyd who was immortalised in his role as Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy.
“We were a bit worried that, as an A-Lister, he might prove difficult and act like a prima donna. But he was absolutely fantastic and so wonderful to work with,” Billy recalled. “You could see he was a bit wary when he saw these three Irish guys rock up but from the moment we explained how we wanted to make a proper, decent film, he totally relaxed.
“And he was a pleasure to work with. He has this fantastic Charlie Chaplin-style of acting and he’s incredibly fit.
“He’s got a great sense of humour, didn’t mind rolling about in the snow at 11pm and is extremely fit for his age.
“All you need to remember is to give him a copy of The New York Times and a good cup of coffee.”
Film, it seems, is all about the simple pleasures. This is what Billy hopes to give out and, in the same way that the Irish film industry is in general, he is succeeding.