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Mark O’Brien enjoyed a rare privilege for a pandemic-era director on Sunday night — being in a movie theater and seeing the opening titles of his debut feature, The Righteous, roll and hearing the sound of a live audience cheering and clapping after a late night showing at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
“I’m getting on a plane riding on a high. I feel different. I feel a bit surreal, not even over my movie coming out, but that I watched it in a theater,” O’Brien, a first-time feature director, told The Hollywood Reporter as he flew to Chicago on Monday to resume work as an actor in the Michael B. Jordan AMC drama series 61st Street.
With film festivals canceled or delayed during the last 18 months, O’Brien said he had doubted his slow-burn occult thriller, in which he also stars alongside Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk, would ever reach a cinema screen, much less a live film festival audience. “This was literally the greatest professional and personal thrill of my entire life,” he added after Fantasia pulled off his Imperial Cinema premiere in Montreal.
A festival bow without a live audience just isn’t what an indie movie is supposed to be, O’Brien added after spending a year viewing The Righteous in part or entirely on his laptop computer or in the edit room, only to then finally see his film be supersized by Fantasia for its world premiere on Sunday. “This is a different film and the film I wanted to make and wasn’t completely conscious of. That’s why we make films, to share the experience. And that’s vital because the passion of filmmakers will dwindle without theaters,” he explained.
O’Brien wrote, directed and stars in The Righteous, the story of Frederic Mason, an ex-priest played by Czerny, who feels the wrath of a vengeful God after he and his wife and are visited by Aaron, a mysterious stranger (O’Brien), as they mourn the loss of their daughter. The black-and-white film, shot in O’Brien’s native Newfoundland, has striking imagery of light and darkness as The Righteous plays with notions of religious faith and grief and the need by Mason — who left the church to start a family — for redemption.
Even so, O’Brien is undecided whether he created a religious horror pic or just used religion as a narrative device to raise the dramatic stakes for his horror pic. Instead, as a genre-bending director, O’Brien like God wanted to work in mysterious ways for his Fantasia audience.
“If I pinned (the genre) myself when I was making the movie, then I would have given the audience an expectation of what’s going to happen. And the whole point of this movie is you don’t know what’s coming,” he insisted. “That’s why I took different turns with genre because I had to leave the audience wanting to lean in,” O’Brien added.
The debut feature is also a departure for an in-demand actor like O’Brien who, to helm The Righteous, had to juggle appearing on set in New Orleans as he played a police officer opposite Alicia Vikander and Justin Chon in Blue Bayou and fill the director’s chair on his $650,000 indie feature shot over 15 days.
“I had seven days of preparation, spread across two weeks because I was shooting a movie in New Orleans,” he recalled. Blue Bayou, a drama about America’s deeply flawed immigration system written and directed by and starring Chon, had its world premiere at Cannes and is set for a Sept. 17 release by Focus.
That balancing act for the Hollywood actor-turned-director is welcomed as a privilege for O’Brien, who admits to busily hammering out film scripts in his movie set trailer between star-turns in front of the camera. His expanding film and TV credits include Marriage Story, Arrival, Ready Or Not and Halt and Catch Fire, and he relishes the ability to keep communicating to audiences behind and in front of the camera.
“I know what it’s like to struggle as an actor and I know what it’s like to struggle as a filmmaker — I’m 37 and I’ve been trying to make a movie since I was 18 — so it’s a joy to be able to be able to struggle and to struggle,” O’Brien explained.
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