Playwright Mark O'Rowe on his big-screen directorial debut The Delinquent Season and star Cillian Murphy's 'interesting process'
Mark O'Rowe tells our film critic about the intricacies of infidelity films and actor Cillian Murphy's 'interesting process'
'My big fear was that I'd be overwhelmed by the pressure of it all, but in fact it was the opposite - I loved it." Mark O'Rowe is talking about The Delinquent Season, his feature film directorial debut, which was built on his own script and stars Cillian Murphy, Eva Birthistle, Catherine Walker and Andrew Scott as two apparently happy couples whose lives disastrously collide.
It's a dense, thought-provoking film, in which Murphy's character Jim is putting up with the presence of his wife's maritally challenged friend Yvonne (Walker) in his home when a spark flies between them, they fall in love and all hell breaks loose. What drew O'Rowe to this particular subject?
"I like infidelity movies," he says. "There aren't a huge amount of them but I do like them, and David Lean's Brief Encounter, for instance, is one of the best, because there's a kind of love triangle at play there, no one is bad, no one is really at fault. But what I find with a lot of contemporary stories about infidelity is that usually someone is the bad guy, or the circumstance is untenable for the character, so it kind of lets them off the hook in terms of having the affair.
"In this film, I wanted them not to have an excuse to do it, so I could explore that thing of, why does anyone fall for anyone else? It's just something that happens, you can't say well it's because he has blue eyes, and because he made me laugh: there's plenty of people who can do that. There's something happens, some electrical charge between you, so I just didn't want to give anyone an easy way out.
"I was also interested in the idea that if you're in a marriage, you're living in a particular house, with a particular person, or group of people, and then when you break up or an infidelity happens or whatever, everybody's life has to take on a new shape. I was interested in all of that."
O'Rowe's film unfolds by increments and is careful to reserve judgment on its characters, all of whom could claim to have their reasons for acting as they did. "It's too easy if you can put the blame on somebody," he says, "and I think if you find a way of sharing the blame as it were, or being forgiving of everyone, then it's easier for viewers to identify with the characters, and recognise themselves in them.
"I look at the four of them, and their reactions to certain things, and I think, I do that, and I do that. They're all a little bit me."
His characters also seem like people you might know. "I just wrote them the way I kind of felt people spoke. I mean if you were to compare this film to say a Woody Allen movie dealing with the same situation, those characters would be incredibly articulate about how they're feeling, but they would still run into the same problems that my characters ran into. So that even with great articulacy, there's still a deeper level of communication, emotional or whatever, that we're not quite capable of."
In The Delinquent Season, O'Rowe's characters misunderstand each other so disastrously that he seems to be suggesting that we're all unknowable to each other.
"It's terrible, isn't it? You know the older I get, the more I think life is a game of self-deception, or not looking at things that you shouldn't be looking at, like the idea of death, even down to the idea of helping someone. We all want to be generous people but there's a line we won't cross, and if that act of generosity begins to create problems beyond which we're prepared to go, well then we don't. So it's like there's this limit to everything, we'd all like to think the best of ourselves, but unfortunately we'll only go so far.
"We can know each other in a way, we can know each other in moments, but it's kind of sad that we're all locked inside our own heads and our own hearts as well."
Directing a film seems to have been a hugely positive experience for Mark.
"I loved it," he says. "I remember before I directed a play for the first time in 2007, I'd been complaining to my wife saying that even when people direct your work well, it changes, it's not yours any more. So I said I need to try it once, and if it's not for me, I'll continue to moan, but I just won't have that thing of wanting to do it.
"So I really enjoyed directing for theatre, but then the film thing was another thing altogether - the big fear with a film is that you've a limited period of time to get the shots you need. But the way it works, and the thing I really liked about it, is that actually you're never thinking about the film as a whole, you're only thinking about getting through the bit you're doing now. You always have to be told what's next because you've been so focused on this bit that everything else is kind of a whirl. And once you get your shot, you move on. It's a real comedown after you shoot it, and even though you're exhausted while you're doing it, you don't realise that until it ends. I don't have another script yet, but I'm dying to do it again, I'd love to."
A cast of The Delinquent Season's calibre must have made life a little easier for him. "They're all brilliant actors," he agrees, "so they didn't need a hell of a lot of guidance or direction. We did snatch little bits of what I called rehearsal, but that was really just meeting up for a coffee and talking about the script so the actor could go off and work with that and kind of be as ready as they could. And then on set, the direction you're giving on set is usually slower, or faster, or less, or whatever.
"The instincts that you have for stuff in performance is rarely as good as the actors': they usually come up with something better. You can't put Cillian Murphy in a chair and say look to the right and do the scene, you need to go what d'you think or where do you want to go. And usually wherever an actor chooses to go is the best place for them to go, because their intuition is from the inside out."
He enjoyed watching Murphy work. "All actors have slightly different processes, but his is an interesting one. In a way, he's trying to get a frequency going so he has to do it a few times, and so usually you would just be really relaxed in the first couple of takes and you'd just see him getting into gear, and it beginning to coalesce, and then it would just be there and it would be utterly real."
O'Rowe, of course, is best known for his theatre work, compellingly powerful plays like Terminus, Crestfall and Howie the Rookie that combined classical themes with the grim realities of modern urban life. But film was one of his first loves, and played an important part in his artistic development.
"I was a teenager at the dawn of the video age," he tells me, "so it was all those early video releases that I first watched, video nasties, sex and violence, and kung fu, I was a big kung fu film fan. I also loved things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the first Evil Dead: I wasn't really interested in more adult or mature stuff until I was much older!"
He settled on writing, and the stage, more or less by accident. "I was from Tallaght, and I never went to college. After I left school, I did various jobs that didn't really grab me, but I was huge into films and huge into literature. I read a good bit of theatre as part of literature, because you know you'd heard about Dostoevsky and you'd read all of his stuff, you'd hear about Tolstoy, but then you'd hear about Chekhov and you'd get a book of his. But it was a character's name and then dialogue, and so that was a bit harder to read because it was a play, but you'd read it anyway, and you'd read Shakespeare because you knew he was the greatest, and you read some of the other greats, like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
"I wanted so badly to be creative, and I wanted to find the easiest way that I could do that. And I'd three choices: one was to write a movie, but there was really very little being made, and the odds against that happening were astronomical; and the other was to write a novel, and I just felt I didn't have the grammatical skill or the vocabulary, though now I realise that you don't really need that for a novel; and then there was plays.
"That was just people talking, so you only had to know what they would say, and if they talked like normal people they could just talk like you. And I figured that if nobody ever wants to put it on, you could kind of put it on yourself, if you met an actor or got a few mates to help you. So it all kind of came from that.
"I entered a competition then for young playwrights that the National Association for Youth Drama was running, and I was one of the winners. And then, after that, all you need in the beginning is a little bit of encouragement, a little bit of success, and you kind of go, oh I want to do that again. So it was slightly by mistake - I'd read many plays before I ever saw one.
"But then again I'd read tons of Mamet and tons of Pinter, those kind of more minimalist, more rhythmic based writers, and that was hugely inspiring to me. And again less words on the page, so it didn't look as if you'd have to work as hard!
"But, as I discovered, the thing is, if you're writing a novel, it's lots and lots of words, but with a play there's less words but lots and lots of rewrites, because you're structuring and redrafting all the time. So it probably ends up evening out."
The Delinquent Season is in cinemas now