Indie writer and director, Mark O’Connor, speaks to Ryan Mackenzie about his latest project, working with Damien Dempsey and advice for young filmmakers
For a long time, inner city Dublin has been the focal point of the Irish film industry. Hits such as Intermission, The Commitments and Adam and Paul demonstrate the intrigue and attraction of this theme, something Between the Canals writer and director Mark O’Connor no doubt took into consideration when creating his latest project.
Set in a quintessential inner-city Dublin borough, Between the Canals follows the journey of three best friends from Sheriff Street over the course of St Patrick’s Day. The film, however, is by no means a romanticised interpretation of Ireland’s famous national holiday, quite the opposite in fact.
Marred by the drug-infested crime world that surrounds them, the three friends are forced to fend off the threats of rival gangs and the temptation of a life of crime amid the ever-growing peril of poverty. It is, in essence, a story of friendship.
While speaking to O’Connor, it becomes clear that realism was undoubtedly his motive for the movie. He speaks about how that he wanted to “make something that was real to the area and give a voice to the people” and hinted that his own personal experiences prompted many of the scenes and characters. He feels that a crime drama set in the nation’s capital was an avenue yet to be explored by other Irish films, and saw Between the Canals as the perfect movie to fill the gap.
In the pursuit of obtaining untainted believability, the young director took an unorthodox approach by seeking the use of amateur actors for leading roles. His reasoning was to avoid the bad habits actors often pick up when they’re in acting schools.
O’Connor believes that directing novice actors enabled him to “bring something out [of them] that’s completely natural and completely real, so it feels like a true performance”. In fact, some of the actors were even discovered on the street, after the process of auditions proved to be fruitless for the director.
One member of the cast was not plucked from obscurity though. Irish singer-songwriter, Damien Dempsey, plays Paul Chambers, a Dublin crime boss in his acting debut. While at first seeming to be a rather bizarre addition to a cast of unknowns, O’Connor explains that it was the musician’s own working-class background that spurred him to join the project.
The director also suggests that Dempsey might have what it takes to forge a bright future in the film industry, remarking: “Damien has intensity, on-stage presence and openness. You can work with him and he’s definitely got the ability.”
The project was incredibly low budget, which was ironic in keeping with O’Connor’s desire for authenticity. On a meagre quota of €100,000, filming was cut to only twelve days and actors were put under intense pressure to meet the rigorous deadline.
The film’s funding came from the Irish Film Board (IFB), of whom, despite their limited financial input, O’Connor speaks very positively of: “The Irish Film Board were great. They were very positive towards the project and they took a chance with a first-time feature writer/director,” he says, adding: “I loved working with them.”
It would seem that the IFB are the best source for any aspiring filmmakers, according to O’Connor. This being his first feature-length film and having made various short films in the past, the young director was new to many of the tasks and responsibilities involved in the process.
What’s more, O’Connor believes he has found his style and “something that interests [him] the most”, hinting that he intends to stick with the genre. His next project involves closely working with the travelling community, for which he will no doubt form a close parallel with his approach to Between the Canals.
For students hoping to get into the filmmaking industry, O’Connor’s advice is simply: persistence and practice. He describes the earliest stages of his career in the business as “a nightmare”, having spent ten years “working as a runner and trying to get work”, and implored perseverance.
While riding the inevitable struggle which greats any newcomer to the industry, O’Connor suggests that aspiring directors should “make as much stuff as they can” and hopeful writers should “write everyday”, all the while on the lookout for “people who take their craft seriously”.
It is clear that Mark O’Connor is passionate about the film industry. Often tainted by one-dimensional romantic comedies and so-called ‘Popcorn Movies’, the medium of cinema sometimes falls victim to criticism. It is, however, a powerful source of art and expression and O’Connor has made wonderful use of these expressive capabilities in his first feature length film, which cleverly captures the arduous world of inner-city Dublin, while also delivering an intriguing story.
Between the Canals is out now