This week Mark O’Brien sat down for a chat with Father Son Holy Gore while promoting his new film, The Righteous, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Mark talks about his influences for the film, what draws him to the horror genre and what kind of films he likes, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and a bunch more! Dig in while it’s hot.
C.H. Newell: Hey, Mark.
Mark O’Brien: Hey, a fellow Newfoundlander! What are you at?
CHN: (laughs) This is it. How are you doing today?
MO: I’m good, man. How’d you like your quote in the trailer?
CHN: Oh, so great to see. I loved the movie, and of course it’s exciting to talk to you. It’s one thing to write about the film and enjoy it, it’s a whole other thing to get to talk to with you. But, yeah, it was really cool to see my quote in there.
MO: Well look, your review was not only complimentary, it was so well written, I loved it. Made me kind of think about my own movie in a different way.
CHN: That’s pretty much the best compliment a filmmaker can possibly give about a review, I’m humbled.
You segued perfectly for me because, I think you and I are close to the same age, and we’re obviously both Newfoundlanders. I’m curious, did growing up in Newfoundland shape this film specifically? Particularly the religious aspects of the story? I ask due to the fact I’m old enough to remember when things were closed on Sundays and it was only the gas station open, and there’s this lingering Catholicism that still hovers over Newfoundland.
MO: I think it couldn’t not be an influence, right? No matter where you grow up it’s going to affect the way you think about things. Because it was your education, you know? Everything you saw everyday growing up is going to create a foundation going forward in your outlook, especially in the way you create things. It’s why so many filmmakers write about their childhoods.
For me, I studied English at Memorial University, and I was always interested in high stakes, things that are really big—I liked big ideas. I like popcorn movies, but I always liked Brian De Palma movies, thinking “oh man, this is really big and grand.” It’s the same with Hitchcock, I always thought it was so big, and just in concept. I always liked reading things that were big, as in philosophically, that kind of thing; Norman Mailer, for instance. I love Paradise Lost, I was obsessed with that when I was in university. And, that upbringing—that religious upbringing—y’know, I went to Catholic school and everything, you have an understanding of that, a bedrock of that. So it did influence the movie.
I also didn’t want to condemn or say anything negative about something that helps a lot of people. I don’t want to do that. There are rules in religion, and if you break them, what would that do to you? Those are big stakes—the biggest, really: heaven, hell, and what’s going to happen to your soul. That’s just a great story.
There’s also something about the Gothic nature of religion and churches. When I go on vacation, like somewhere in Europe, I go to every cathedral I can. It’s beautiful, and there’s a weird kind of mix of tradition and otherness about the Catholic Church that I wanted to play with in a story way.
So, yes, I was affected by it in all those ways, but in a positive way.
CHN: I think that’s refreshing, too. Like the Church has a lot of issues, things could be far, far better, in many ways, but sometimes, especially nowadays, I think it’s easy to beat up on faith in general, Catholic or otherwise, when—as you said so well—faith helps a lot of people.
It’s also fun to hear you mention Paradise Lost because that’s a text I’ve been similarly drawn to over the years and have worked on academically. Sometimes I tend to read Paradise Lost into a text rather than letting the text actually show that influence itself, but with The Righteous it really did feel like there are bits and pieces in there that show how close you are to the text personally. Speaking of influence, and of course horror, what is it that draws you to the horror genre? Horror comes with a lot of emotions, whether it’s fear or, like in The Righteous, guilt, and I’m always curious why people are drawn to it individually.
MO: That’s a great question. For me, it’s imagination. Because anything can happen, right? Anything is possible. I don’t particularly love slashers so much, yet someone like Dario Argento, there’s such an art to that, and you also feel like, anyone can be killed at any second, there’s blood all over the place! In horror, anything can happen, and your imagination is working, it’s moving.
Look, I love all types of movies, I watch a movie every single morning, and there’s not a genre I don’t like—I’m not a big rom-com guy, but I love Ernst Lubitsch movies from back in the day—there are tons of movies from all genres I’m obsessed with. But my mind isn’t working as much, generally, as it is when I’m watching a horror or thriller, or crime movies; anything where you don’t know what might happen. My mind works more when I’m thinking “oh, who’s the killer?” or something like that, as opposed to “do these two like each other? will they go out again?” That’s very low stakes to me. And that’s just personal taste, it doesn’t mean movies with lower stakes aren’t good. Like, Ladybird, I thought, was a triumph.
CHN: A great little film.
MO: For me, your imagination is really clocking when you’re watching a horror, and something that can create fear—it’s like a roller coaster, you get on it because you know you’re going to scream, you want to scream. We want someone to die in a horror movie. It’s amazing. And we’re all good people, we hope. It’s incredible that a movie can make you want someone to die. You aren’t even consciously thinking that, but you want that, or else you wouldn’t be watching a horror movie in the first place. That’s a big power, and you can wield that in such crazy ways I find really exhilarating.
CHN: It’s great you’ve touched on that, because I think I’ve always thought of horror as a kind of safe space in which fictionally, figuratively we can confront a lot of difficult stuff. And some of it is uncomfortable, like a horror film can make you want to see something terrible, but we’re kind of complicit in it, too; we’re part of that experience when we choose to watch it. That’s a very interesting space to be in as both an artist and a viewer.
MO: Absolutely. One of my favourite filmmakers is Michael Haneke, and that’s the whole point of Funny Games: if you don’t turn this film off, they will die, and as the audience you’re then responsible for their deaths. And it’s like, holy shit, nobody’s ever tackled that before. And of course I kept watching, then those characters died because of me, because of that viewing. That was revelatory to me.
CHN: It really is, when the pieces come together like that, it’s groundbreaking.
MO: I think if, as a filmmaker and a storyteller, you can do something like that, it’s impressive. And, I can’t give away what happens in The Righteous, but I think at a certain point you want Frederic [Henry Czerny] to do the thing that’s asked of him, which is fucked up. (laughs). To do something like that is very hard to achieve, so I always respect that when I see it. I guess that’s what I was trying to do, where your notions are flipped on its head about what this story should be based on other things of a similar ilk.
CHN: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, where a lot of the horror in The Righteous comes from is that tension between what should be done, what wants to be done, and that’s the brilliance of it, where the torture comes in—I say torture in the most complimentary of ways, in that it’s psychologically torturous to watch this play out.
MO: (laughs) Yeah, I tortured you the whole movie. But, yes, it’s really all about, what is the worst thing that could happen to these people? Then twisting the knife more and more. And that’s why you want to watch something. It’s like watching a courtroom drama and they say “We have a surprise witness.” You’re not gonna get up and go to the bathroom, you want to see the surprise witness! When you twist that knife, it leaves the viewer wondering what will happen.
I read so many things as an actor and the things that fall through the cracks are the stories without any stakes. You’ve got to give me something big. That’s what I’m always looking for, something big—stakes, something I never saw coming.
CHN: In terms of aesthetics, I love that you chose black-and-white for The Righteous. I love black-and-white films whether contemporary or older. I’m curious as to what led you to choose black-and-white. Was there a thematic reason? Because the film obviously deals with good, evil, sin, all that religious stuff, so it fits. Was that on your mind, playing with a contrast in the light and the dark thematically? Or do you just love black-and-white films?
MO: I think, once again, the black-and-white movies are another foundational thing for me; the things you love will come out in your own work. Also, I just pictured the film that way. When I starting writing it, I thought to myself: “This is in black-and-white.” I think a lot in images, probably like a lot of screenwriters, but yeah, I just thought that’s what this is, this story. Then once there was no other way it couldn’t be that, I started leaning into it aesthetically and thematically. A lot of the film is from a point-of-view of the subconscious, so I thought, yes, this is black-and-white.
Plus, it creates this idea of, where are we, and what’s going? (laughs).
There are certain movies in black-and-white and I don’t know why they are, but with The Righteous I just knew, it lives in this world, there’s a concrete reason for this. I heard it once, I think it was [Guillermo] del Toro said: “As soon as you see something in black-and-white, you know it’s a metaphor.” I thought, “oof, that’s good.” And he’s right.
CHN: Wow, I’ve never heard that before. That’s brilliant.
MO: Because we don’t see in black-and-white. So when I show you something in black-and-white, you’re like “okay, this is metaphorical, in some sort of way.” It’s not normal life. I just love that quote, and I’d heard that after we made the movie. But, y’know, sometimes you hear something and you think, “Maybe I was thinking that at the time and just didn’t know it consciously.” And this movie just came out of my loins so much that I didn’t even notice.
CHN: I get that, too, as a writer. Sometimes stuff just comes out, and you sort of piece it together afterwards in a way that makes sense. On that note, I wanted to ask you one last question, being that you’re a fellow Newfoundlander who’s been doing lots of fascinating work and been involved in some big productions. Perhaps selfishly, as a writer from Newfoundland, who also knows many others in the film and literary industries here, I’m wondering do you have any advice for actors/writers/other artists, not even just from Newfoundland but from smaller, out-of-the-way places?
MO: I’m really glad you asked that. There’s a lot of things I could say, because I’ve been fortunate to learn from a lot of successful—I wouldn’t even say successful, who cares about that—from a lot of creative, wonderful people. Listen, we’re from Newfoundland. We’ve got a great artistic community, which is one of the reasons I’m a working actor today, because of people like Robert Chafe, Lois Brown, Paul Pope, Andy Jones, Cathy Jones, [Allan] Hawco, on and on and on—the many people who supported me, and we supported each other, not as if they were only supporting me. (laughs). We all did these things together, we were creating constantly, and everyone had each other’s back.
Y’know, making it to Hollywood as an actor, objectively it seems like a 0% chance. Growing up, we didn’t have any money, I didn’t know anyone in the business. But it was just a sheer obsession with what this art is. I’ve faced rejection, and the more my carer goes on—and hopefully gets more exciting—it comes with more and more rejection. It never ends! And it gets worse, because you’re trying to do even more things and you think, “Well, nobody wants to do that.” It’s tough. But if you love it that much, you can’t stop yourself. I get rejected still, I got rejected for something last week. My wife came in the room and asked “Are you still pissed off about that?” I just said, “Nah, I’m working on this script.” And I went back to work.
So, advice: never stop working, never stop taking new opportunities, and treat everyone great—because you should do that anyway—and support other people when you can. If you’re obsessed with it, you’ll get good at it if you’re not already, and it’ll work out eventually, because you’re obsessed with it. Passion is what informed me a lot. I watched Edward Norton in Primal Fear when I was twelve years old and thought: “I could do that.” And I was just going to figure it out, I guess! We had no money, and my buddy’s parents had a camcorder, so we said, “Can we use your camcorder next weekend and make a movie?” It’s just because I was obsessed with it.
Don’t forget that obsession, don’t knock it, or don’t think it’s weird. When I tell people I watch a movie every morning they look at me strange, but that’s just what I do. When I go on the road for a movie or a tv show, I bring a Blu ray player and CD cases so I can watch movies. And people ask why I don’t just stream, but I think, what if they don’t have Rosemary’s Baby on a streaming service where I am, or what if the internet connection isn’t good?
CHN: I absolutely know where you’re coming from.
MO: You know what I mean? People laugh, but like, I love what I do, so all right. (laughs). That’s my advice, though: stick to the passion, the obsession, don’t let the noise, and the bullshit, and the superficiality of it all, or what this or that person’s saying, don’t let that deter you. Just stick to your lane and fucking love it. Just keep doing it. Because it’s a cool art form.
CHN: I love that, Mark. A good, honest answer.
MO: Thanks, man. Good question.
CHN: Mark, I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to talk with me. It was fun to pick your brain a while. Once again, loved the film, and I hope others will, too. And I’m always on the lookout for whatever you’re doing next, so good luck.
MO: It was nice talking to you. And thanks again for the beautifully written review. Even if you had not liked the movie, I would’ve thought it was beautiful writing.
CHN: (laughs) Thanks, Mark. Really appreciate that.