Monday 22 October 2018

Film therapy: Irish director cast his own troubled family in film inspired by their real life struggles

'Our Father' tells story of devout Catholic father who struggles to come to terms with children's life paths

Johnny's parents Marian and Tony
Johnny's parents Marian and Tony
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

An Irish director has revealed how casting his own family in his debut film allowed them to heal rifts which had formed after his devoutly Catholic parents struggled with his siblings' life paths.

Johnny O'Donnell, from Omagh, has written, produced and directed Our Father, a feature length thriller inspired, in part, by his own family, and which will screen at next month's Belfast Film Festival.

It tells the story of a devoutly Catholic father who spirals out of control as he attempts to save his children from what he sees as the path of evil.  What begins as a drama based on his real life family becomes a fictional thriller at the mid-point.

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Johnny O'Donnell

Five years ago Johnny's nephew Jacob was born to his sister Deborah (31), something which caused a family rift as she was unmarried at the time.  Johnny's brother Ryan (29) also came out to his parents Tony and Marian and they struggled to come to terms with the news.  Those struggles and that family dynamic form the foundation of Our Father.

Funded by Johnny, his family, friends, "a few trips to the bank, a few credit cards", and filmed in Omagh with a skeleton crew and limited resources, the film has been five years in the making.  What is more remarkable is that Johnny made the unusual decision to cast his own family members as themselves.

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Marian and Tony in a scene from Our Father

"It's very exposing for them," reveals Johnny, who says he had to handle the situation "delicately and with care" when he approached them about playing themselves in a film which could potentially be seen by people on the big screen.

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Johnny's sister Deborah

"The movie was born really when Jacob was born.  My sister faced coming home to Ireland to face that judgement and I remember sitting down with them individually and had a conversation with them and told them I would be asking them to bear their souls for the world to see and asked them if they were comfortable with that," he says.

"Their first question was why?  Why would you do this?  I said I could see this movie as something that could unite us, bring us closer together, something cathartic to help us work through these troubling emotions and struggles. 

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Jacob as a baby

"Also, it could be something we could look back on and kind of provide us with perspective.  If we could see it from the outside looking it would be a great objective perspective to see."

Johnny also believed that other families who might be dealing with similar issues could "draw strength and inspiration" from their story.  Ultimately his parents and siblings believed in his vision and signed up, despite having virtually no acting experience.

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Tony O'Donnell

Only his father had experience on a film set, having accompanied Johnny, an actor, on various jobs over the years, and finding himself working as an extra.

His mother, a housewife, surprised him with her flair for improvisation.  And his sister's previous modelling experience meant she was comfortable in front of the camera. 

"It was bizarre directing them but a lot of moments were improvised and it really helped to get an authentic performance from them.  Some scenes blew me away," says Johnny.

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Johnny's mother Marian

However the film is received, the family ultimately benefited hugely from their feature film therapy.

"It was amazing," says Johnny.  "It brought us so much closer together and allowed us to work through those difficult emotions together.  I was there as mediator. 

"We recreated the scene where my brother came out to my mum.  That really happened and it’s a very heartbreaking, powerful scene.  The emotions are raw.  In recreating it we were able to go through those emotions again and it sort of helped them a lot. 

"My mum and my dad now do accept my brother and my sister and my nephew Jacob - they've been embraced by the family." 

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Johnny's brother Ryan

While Johnny has trained in film had roles in Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday and Rebel Heart, he is currently working as a concierge in London and was forced to film Our Father on short trips home to Omagh.

He's something of a celebrity in his hometown having caused a security alert while filming outside the police station.

"It was mayhem," he says.  "We did have police permission but in the scene, which was a major action set piece, we had dissident Republicans shooting at PSNI officers as they were coming out of the station. 

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A still from Our Father's action scene

"Motorists and pedestrians were confronted by this scene of PSNI officers lying on the ground looking like they'd been shot so the motorists took off and the pedestrians were screaming and running.  It was chaotic.  I was really worried the production would be shut down and I would never make a movie again.

"But people in Omagh laugh now and tell me not to be causing any more security alerts!"

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As well as directing and assuming pretty much every other role at some point during the production, Johnny plays a fictional character, the eldest son who becomes one of the aforementioned dissident Republicans.

"I would definitely like to point out that he's a fictional character - I believe in peace and reconciliation," he says.

He was, however, interested in exploring the political landscape of Northern Ireland in the film.

"It's interesting as an Irish man in England, the English perspective is that the Troubles are over in Northern Ireland and that they ended with the Good Friday Agreement.  So I wanted to capture the landscape in an authentic way.  Growing up you're surrounded by people with hardline views so I wanted the film to reflect Northern Ireland as it is in terms of family, religion, politics, sexuality - all those themes."

Our Father screens at the Belfast Film Festival on April 15.  For more info you can check out the movie's Facebook page HERE

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