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Fantasia 2021: An Interview With Mark O’Brien, Writer and Director of The Righteous

The Righteous was one of the Fantasia screenings that impressed me the most, to the extent that I tracked down Mark O’Brien and his publicist straight away to ask for an interview. It is his feature debut as a director, though he is already known to many as an actor in films and TV shows such as Ready or Not, Bad Times at the El Royale, Parallel, and Halt and Catch Fire.

Beyond seeing him on the screen in those roles (and possibly others), I knew very little about Mark, so started by asking him to tell me a little about himself. “I’m from Newfoundland in Canada, and I live in Los Angeles,” said Mark. “I’ve made a lot of short films, though my career has primarily been as an actor. I was hoping to make my first feature for a long time—as everyone knows, it’s not easy to make a film—and this is the one that came together. I’ve written other scripts and stuff, but I think mostly my passion went into this film for a while. We did it in a very modest budget, and in fifteen days, and I’m very proud of the result.”

Mark had mentioned his shorts and other scripts; I wondered why this tale, in particular, had demanded to be made into a full-length feature. “I think because it just had to be,” said Mark simply. “I had a lot of questions I wanted to raise and I think there wouldn’t have been enough time to do that in a short. It never actually occurred to make this as anything other than a feature, once I started writing it. I think if you have that many questions and that many things to say, that many themes to jump around on, it made me go further: it required that.”

As Mark had said, there are a bunch of pretty heavy concepts in The Righteous: karma, redemption, forgiveness. I wondered if he was suggesting, through his writing, that it takes a crisis (bereavement in this case) to make a person address these issues. “The message I wanted to put across,” said Mark “could be a different message for everyone who watches it. I can only give the message that’s inside me, and that could possibly be a number of messages. I hope that everyone who watches the film takes away something unique to them, maybe something that wasn’t directly touched on in the film; maybe it’s an indirect idea that strikes you. For me, I think you learn more about yourself by going through hardship: hardship makes you reflect, makes you grow. If it doesn’t, it means you’re not confronting the hardship, the misdeed, the mistake, the regret, or whatever it was. Those things stick with you, dreadfully sometimes, and I think grief and remorse—especially buried grief and remorse—breed narcissism, which the film deals with a lot: it’s wrapped up in your own head, your own problems, and your psyche. And then what does that do to the people around you?”

The Righteous had a very small cast: an elderly couple, Mark’s own character, and a couple of minor roles. I asked Mark what made him decide to cast himself in the role of Aaron, rather than someone separate. “It’s kind of this weird, intuitive, inexplicable thing sometimes when you’re writing, and certain things just come to you, and it just fits. As an actor, I’ve been doing this a long time, and you know when a role strikes you. When actors read a script and decide to do a role or not, it’s not usually just one reason. It’s normally something that seeps into you and connects in some way. As I was writing, I never planned to write myself a role or anything, but I just thought I could see myself doing this. And then I got to the point where he’s such a bizarre character and he’s sinister and innocent and all these kinds of things at once: I figured it would be easier for me to play that part than to communicate it as a director to another actor. I don’t think I’m equipped to communicate just how bizarre this character is, because I’m just identifying with him, so the continuation of the writing of this character would be the performing of him; so it should be the writer who did it. So it just made sense to me.”

I asked whether he put himself into the other characters as well. “Oh absolutely,” said Mark. “Oh my goodness yes. I’m just, you know, not in my sixties. Even Frederick [played by Henry Czerny]: the whole film is from his point of view, and as I’m growing older, having a family, I realize a thing that bogs me down is something I haven’t dealt with from the past, so I kind of want to extrapolate from that and make the stakes as high as they can be. And even for Mimi [Kuzyk]’s character, Ethel: she’s just happy to have the thing that she has, and she needs to fill the void; we’ve all felt that if we’ve lost a loved one, or if you lose your partner or move on from friends. Whatever it is: that’s the part of Ethel’s character that was so important to me. And then there’s Doris, played by Kate Corbett: full of desperation, and not knowing where to put her love, and not knowing who to turn to and being kind of lost; and that probably has to do with me moving a lot. I moved from Saint John’s to Toronto, and then to Los Angeles, and I go start a new job three times a year with people I don’t know. So that kind of loss and confusion, and trying to find someone to cling to through life; for Doris, she’s found Frederick and Ethel, but doesn’t quite know how to handle that. And then there’s Father Graham, played by Nigel Bennett, who’s been doing this a long time: he plays the priest, who goes by the book and tries to help people through his knowledge. I think we all do that, we try to help others. There’s a large part of me in every character, and I think there has to be for any writer.”

Henry Czerny as Frederic Mason in The Righteous, considering his visitor

I wonder, from this answer and the previous one, whether there is something cathartic going on for Mark in writing The Righteous. “Yeah, I think so,” said Mark. “I think if you write anything, there’s a level of catharsis because if you have something to say, it’s an unburdening. I think it was around the time of having a child, I realized that I don’t have time for all my BS anymore: I have to focus on this now, so I have to put to bed any things that are hampering me or keeping me down. And I just thought of going through a whole life of not dealing with things; it must be such a burden. You can’t just start over again, you think you can. Frederick goes and starts a new life, but no: you may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with you. So it was very cathartic. Also, in a meta way, because I’m finally making my own film, which I wanted to do forever, so it was like [breathes] a giant release of emotion and excitement and passion that was just burning within me for such a long time. No-one’s asked me that, so now that I think about it, it was immensely cathartic!”

So you felt better afterward? “I certainly did, my God!” agreed Mark. “My wife tells me that she was with me at the time we were making it and our daughter, who was two, and it was just the happiest I’ve ever been: that release was throughout. Then when I was done, it was like ‘I did it. I did that thing I wanted to do so badly.’ And you know my hat goes off to anyone who makes a film because it’s hard.”

I have watched and reviewed several films in the past couple of months that had something to do with the past not leaving us alone (Antebellum, Kandisha, Martyrs Lane, When I Consume You, The Kindred, Coming Home in the Dark). I wondered if Mark might have any theory as to why this is a current topic. “Well, we’ve had a year and a half to sit and think,” he said. “That might have something to do with it. That’s a very interesting question, so I’m just going to be presumptuous here. I don’t know the answer, but there has been a lot of turmoil in the last couple of years, a lot of disagreement, and I think an artist’s job is to take in what they see around them and turn it into an expression. I think if there’s so much turmoil, artists naturally think about that, and their role: are they responsible, and how does it make them feel? Artists do dwell on those things a lot, and there’s been a lot going on; sure there often is, but right now we’re really feeling it, maybe because of the rise of social media, and the availability of information. That’s where my mind goes anyway.”

The next question was one that Mark seemed more ready for: I asked what his film inspirations are. “Oh boy, how much time do you have? So for me, my hero is John Cassavetes; I think just because he had such gumption and I don’t think anyone had more balls in the history of cinema, just to travel from city to city making his own films. It was that kind of passion and no-holds-barred attitude that I admire; which shows in all his films, especially A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. And then there’s Scorsese, and Hitchcock, and Joseph Losey, and oh my God! And Anthony Man…the list goes on. When it comes to this film, Bergman is obviously there, but that’s just in me; I can’t control that. On a conscious level, there’s a lot of Lynch and Michael Haneke, I think they really inspire me because they ask a lot of questions and keep you attached to the film in a magnetic, hypnotic way, and you don’t really understand why; it’s such a tightrope. And I think [Yorgos] Lanthimos is kind of continuing that. But Michael Haneke and David Lynch—oh! and Carl Theodore Dreyer— were the biggest inspirations for me. Dreyer was so ahead of his time, the most impressive filmmaker I’ve ever seen: no-one made movies as bold as Vampyr and Day of Wrath at that time. I could go on for days, there are so many, but Haneke surely changed my life.”

Mark O'Brien, writer and director of The Righteous
Photo courtesy of Narrative PR

I can imagine he would. I had been reminded of Brimstone and Treacle (written by Dennis Potter) when I first saw The Righteous. Mark wasn’t familiar with that play/film, so I outlined it, recommended it, and mentioned the similarities in terms of the model (young man who has an impact on a middle-aged couple, etc.). “You know there was a conscious effort to take a sort of notion we’re somewhat familiar with (like stranger coming to a house); that was intentional because I wanted to create a world that we think we know and have seen before. My hat is always off to writers who create a giant new world, and in the first few moments you’re like ‘whoa, I don’t know what this is!’ Probably why Bladerunner wasn’t received so great right away, and 2001. Certain movies are just too much, that people can’t even fathom it. But when you have something familiar, the audience has certain expectations. As a filmmaker, you have an opportunity to warp those expectations; play with them, and overturn them. This is one of the reasons that Aaron is innocent and sweet to start off with, and then what he ultimately wants from Frederick is not what you’d expect; it’s kind of the opposite. So playing with pre-conceived notions is something that I love to do.”

The Righteous was one of two Fantasia films I watched the same week that was in black and white and I asked how Mark came to the decision to make it that way. “It’s really because that’s how I pictured the story to be, an artistic choice. And then I was able to articulate for myself why I wanted it that way: if I was seeing things in black and white right now, I wouldn’t have as much understanding of the things around me. Color gives you more information; you have a certain feeling for something if it’s bright or dark; colors influence you. If it’s black and white, I don’t understand it so well, and this movie is very much about Frederick’s subconscious, and I needed him to not understand the things around him. Frederick sees things in black and white, but the rest of the characters in color: we’re delving into his world, so it should be in black and white. It gives an opportunity to add to his confusion and the murkiness in his unconscious.”

I wondered if things turned that way after his daughter died. “Yes! That’s a great way to put it. The minute before this film started, he was seeing in color, but now everything is distorted and drab, and it’s like a different world he’s in and he’s trying to navigate it. That’s what sets him apart.”

I’ve read the news that The Righteous was awarded best screenplay at Fantasia International Film Festival, and I congratulated Mark. I had to wonder where he goes from there! “Down!” said Mark. “I’ve written a lot of scripts and The Righteous was the one that got made, the one I wanted to get made the most, and Fantasia was the festival I wanted to show it at. So it all worked out very well, but you can’t stop what is successful for you. What’s successful for me, as a person is writing and acting. I’m doing a series now for AMC, loving every minute of it; and at the same time, I have a plethora of other scripts ready to get made. But on top of that, I started a new script yesterday: don’t stop, don’t stop. And roll with the punches: If the next one isn’t as successful, that’s fine, as long as people watch it and the fact that I got to make a movie was amazing. The fact that I get to get out of bed and type up another one is amazing, so it’s all good: art is subjective anyway, so getting that award is a great moment for me and I’m very thrilled. I’m just honestly happy to be here, it’s all a treat.”

I hope the rest of the world will get to see The Righteous too and asked whether there is a distribution deal in place. “That is being heavily discussed right now, so I can’t say much, but yes: hopefully the rest of the world will see it sooner rather than later. And it’s been announced that we’re going to Grimmfest, and I’m taking it as it comes, and putting trust in the people around me.”

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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