From behind the reins, to behind the camera
In this week's interview, Fergus Dennehy talks to former Killarney jarvey driver turned screenwriter, actor and director Damian O’Callaghan about studying with Michael Fassbender,his own origins in film making, the depth of local talent and scenery in Kerry and how he believes that more needs to be done to help finance independent filmmakers in Ireland
You'd never know from talking to him that Damian O'Callaghan is a native of Cork, such is the passion and love in his voice as he waxes lyrical about the stunning landscapes and natural beauty that exist here in Kerry.
It might all have been so different for the former jarvey driver - turned actor, director and screenwriter had he not ventured across the border to Kerry one weekend on the off chance that he might secure a part-time job at The Gleneagle Hotel - but thankfully for fans of his films and especially, fans of home-grown films, he managed to secure the job and in his own words, "the rest is history."
Every actor has their own unique beginnings in the craft, whether they are introduced to the stage as a child or whether they discover it later in life - in Damian's case here, it was an off chance meeting with a young actor called Donal Courtney that first put him on the path to where he is now.
"I trained in the Briciú Theatre Company with people like Donal Courtney, Martin O' Brien and a certain Fossa man known as Michael Fassbender - we trained in acting up in the old Áras Phádraig and we did plays like 'Philadelphia Here I Come' and we had a great time - it was Donal Courtney that actually approached us originally, we used to be regulars in the old Strawberry Tree pub in Killarney and that's where the hub of the Briciú Theatre Company was," said Damian, talking to The Kerryman.
"He asked us if we wanted to do a play with him and it was presented as almost a challenge to us and so we accepted of course and so the first ever play that we all ever did was 'Philadelphia, Here I Come' - we were performing in front of Leaving Certificate students and I remember that once we got on stage on, the buzz and the adrenaline rush that I felt was amazing - I was hooked from this moment on; I found that I had an appetite for performing, my role as Ned was a comedy one and so once I got the first few laughs from the audience, the acting and performing bug was there from then on," he continued.
A natural storyteller, Damian said that working as a jarvey driver around Killarney and its surrounding areas for well over 10 years helped him to unknowingly develop his skills for a future career as a writer and director.
"I'll say this, it was the best job that I ever had because to me, it felt like you were constantly on holiday - you were driving people and tourists around and they were always in a good mood, they were always friendly; you're bringing them around the Lakes of Killarney, you're meeting new and interesting people, you'd sometimes have eight people in your carriage and it was almost like a mini-stage in a way, you're telling stories, you're making jokes and so for me, it's just really fond memories."
"The more people you are meeting, the more stories that you are telling and are being told means leads to more ideas you get to hear and the more ideas you hear, it all feeds back into your own storytelling ability." he added.
As happy as he was telling his stories to groups of tourists, Damian knew that he had much more to give in terms of his ability to weave together all the fabrics of a story and so he handed back his reins and headed back to college, where he earned a degree in Business - a degree which allowed him to realise his dream of helping to set up a production company - and so OC Productions was born.
The mission statement for OC Productions states that their aim 'is to create professional and artistic feature films, shorts, advertisements, trailers, corporate content and music videos. We thrive to produce entertaining, provoking and moving film from script to screen that inspire audiences around the world; so far, judging by the positive reaction that their latest productions 'Bouncers' and more recently, Damian's debut feature film 'The Gift' have received, it is safe to say that the company is well on its way to achieving this mission.
"I'm not film-making full time just yet, the company is full time though; at the moment, I'm just hoping to make as much of the film-making as I can and as many productions as I can you know? I did a play called 'Let's Be Frank' in Siamsa Tíre a number of years ago and it was about a well known comedian from Tralee and so when he passed away, I decided to write a play and I put some of his material into it and I mixed it with my own material aswell from my Jarvey days and it turned out to be a sell-out for Siamsa."
"It had a great response in the town and people seemed to really enjoy it and so this success gave me the confidence and the motivation again to go on and create further projects - I made the short film ' Bouncers' which was basically about two bouncers on the door of a nightclub and it just gave the audiences a different view of there perception of bouncers and what goes on - it was a nice, light-hearted comedy and it went down very well in the Kerry and Cork film festivals and the Charlie Chaplin comedy festival aswell - people loved it."
'The Gift', which is a harrowing tale of one mans planned suicide attempt, is Damians and OC Productions first attempt at a full length feature film, was released to a number of cinemas around Ireland towards the end of April and Damian says that he is blown away by the success that the film has seen - something which he says has a lot to do with the generosity, the unwavering support that he received from Killarney people and the stunning landscape that is Kerry.
"It [The Gift] was very well received, I mean, to get a such a response for their first feature film is fantastic and to get as wide a release as we did for our first film, that in itself is a huge achievement for me, the cast and the all the crew that were involved in the film."
"It's not just our team that should be proud of the film, it's the people of Killarney and the businesses of Killarney that were instrumental in motivating and supporting us to keep going - they gave us such great encouragement and they wanted to promote the town and the film tourism of the town aswell - we get to highlight Killarney and people nationally get to see what a beautiful place that we live in."
It is a beauty and location that Damian thinks needs to be utilised more in order to help build a foundation upon which a new generation of filmakers and local acting talent will be able to build upon.
"You're going back in time in some of the places, there's no evidence of the 21st Century there and that's what people want to see - the American's especially, they want to come over and see the old Ireland and they're going into beautiful nature - the iconic scenery that we have is sublime; I would encourage as many film makers as possible to film in Kerry because as I've said, we have so much to offer here."
"We need to exploit the resources and the scenery that we have here and we need to put more money into funding more independent film-makers here - we have another fantastic resource here in Cinema Killarney and Tom Cooper who is very supportive of local films here and he gave me great help with my own work aswell."
Some of the resources in Kerry which Damian talks about is the large pool of highly talented upon which he drew from for when working on 'The Gift'.
"There's a big appetite for acting in Killarney and there was a lot of local actors that acting in 'The Gift' alongside the professional actors; actors like Owen Roberts, Donal Courtney, Martin O' Brien, Peg Sullivan and they were all just fantastic on set and they really shone on the screen."
""We have fantastic talent here and we should support that as much as we can - if you look at the ETB Training studio in Tralee, they have brilliant €3million studio there - so we have the resources - the problem is the funding. We need to get funding for the independent film-maker - they need that support because otherwise, these great films that are out there, just won't be able to be made."
"There are a lot of great film-makers out there from Killarney and the Kerry area, who just want the chance to make their film and for them to be allowed access to funding, it's instrumental to them being able to make their film a reality - we do need the support to make this happen."
Never one to rest on his laurels, Damian is already hard at work on his next productions, one of which stars legendary comedian Brendan Grace - until then looks like we'll just have to wait with baited breath for the next 'gift' from Damian.