In film business Niall trusts, and it pays off

In film business Niall trusts, and it pays off
Niall Owens, film director. Pic: David Keane.

With an IFTA nomination under his belt, and his latest short film 'Trust' being shown at the Galway Film Fleadh this week, the future is looking bright for Cork director Niall Owens. He talks to Kelly O'Brien about his career. 

As a teenager, Ballinlough man Niall Owens said he knew instinctively that a career in academia just wasn’t for him.

He didn’t particularly like school, and didn’t put much emphasis on tests and grades. As fate would have it, however, it was in secondary school that Niall eventually discovered his passion - a love for writing and directing films.

He admits the obsession first began in Transition Year, but that it wasn’t until fifth and sixth class that he started writing scripts.

“I didn’t really care about school. I knew it wasn’t working for me. I was so disinterested in the Leaving Certificate that I spent all my time writing film scripts instead of studying. They were awful, of course, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he explained.

And nowadays, that’s exactly what Niall does. In his day job, Niall works as an Assistant Director, working on feature films such as Michael and Sadbh, which was partially shot in Cork Prison last year, and TV shows such as Assassin which recently aired on TV3.

But while working as an Assistant Director pays the bills, Niall’s passion truly lies in bringing his own stories to life. He has been writing and directing short films for many years now, and even has a feature-length script up before the Irish Film Board at the moment which he is hoping to get funding for.

His latest project, a hard hitting short called Trust, will premiere tomorrow at the Galway Film Fleadh. 

"It's on between 12pm and 2pm and it's number three in the programme. It's in there with a short film by Jim Sheridan... so no pressure! His is on first, then there’s another film and then it’s Trust, followed by four others. So it’s a great programme." 

Niall said he was delighted to have been selected for the festival. 

"You enter and it either gets picked or it doesn’t. You apply and you hope that it gets in. I’ve applied in the past and I haven’t gotten into it, so I’m delighted I got in this year. It’s very competitive," he said. 

"I entered twice before but I thought this time that the entry really did suit the festival. With the Galway Film Fleadh, they do tend to focus more on the topical issues. Not exclusively, but a lot of the time they do. And I supposed Trust would be about a topical issue." 

The film focuses on a recovering alcoholic who is tempted to return to drink after his girlfriend sexually assaults him. 

"He doesn’t know how to deal with it... so he starts thinking about drinking again. It’s a strange situation for a man to picture himself in. It’s something that people don’t often think about. When we think of sexual assault, people think of females being sexually assaulted. And that is the most common form of it, but it does happen on both sides and you don’t hear about that very often," explained Niall. 

"Of course, I would have very strong views on the whole issue – it’s completely wrong no matter who it happens to. But I wouldn’t feel right writing about the issue from a woman’s perspective because I’m not a woman and I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like. I actually think it would be disrespectful for me to try and do that because I can’t comprehend the full complexity of how something like that would affect a woman. So all I can do is tell it from a male perspective."

Niall said he got the idea from a news article he read a couple of years ago about a case of sexual assault in the US. 

"That kind of sparked the thought process. And the alcohol side of it then was always a theme I would have in the back of my head. I’d know a lot of people who are recovered alcoholic or who would have dealt with alcoholism. Depression is also an element of the story. Not so much initially but it’s there in the aftereffects," said Niall. 

"After I had the idea I was working on a TV show in Dublin and I was driving home and I turned on the radio and the presenters were in the middle of a conversation about the sexual assault of men and how it’s not discussed or talked about. So when I heard that it kind of reinforced the idea to go ahead with the story and to tell it." 

The entire process, for him, is quite slow, admits Niall. He likes to let an idea sit in his head for a while before he commits it to paper. 

"The minute I have an idea, I don’t immediately write it down. Because if I was to do that I’d have reams and reams of ideas. And they’re not all good! But a good one will stay with you. It will percolate, as I like to put it," he said. 

"So with a previous short film, Animal, I had the idea one day walking into town. I’d read a newspaper article about human trafficking and the idea for that one formed in my head. I didn’t write it down, I just let it sit there, and I thought about it and thought about it and it just came to a point where I was ready to commit it to paper because I felt it had enough merit or weight behind it to do that. Trust would have been the same process."

As you think about it, different layers are added to it, and it starts as a very faint outline then it becomes more solidified. Then you realise that story needs to be written down, he explains. 

"One that happened, I knew who I wanted to be in it, from the outset, so it was just a case of asking them. Thankfully they did it." 

Niall said he tries to challenge himself with every short film he makes. With Animal, which was nominated for a prestigious Irish Film and Television Award, he told the story without any dialogue at all. The story was told purely through visual means. 

With Trust, Niall decided to change tack entirely - he asked the actors to improvise their dialogue. 

"I try to challenge myself in every short film I make. Every one is different. Every film is different. Otherwise you’re not pushing yourself. I sat down with the actors and said what I was looking for. Then I let them go away and create whatever they want to create. That way, when it came time to shoot, I didn’t know what they were going to say or what way it was going to go. I think it humanises it. It’s not me putting them into a box and telling them that they need to exist within this parameter. I give them the freedom to be themselves. That’s how we shot it."

The end result? A short film which essentially blurs the line between documentary and fiction. 

"I think it worked very well. People aren’t sure if they are watching something real or not. It’s up for the viewer to decide." 

The film was shot in two locations - in Niall's house and in the community centre in Ballinlough. 

"It took three days to shoot and it was a very straight forward production. Dealing with post production was tough, but it got there, thankfully, in time for Galway," he said. 

"I think it will be interesting to people but I don’t know what the reaction will be. I’ll be there and I am curious to see the reaction, but I’m not too worried about it. I have no expectation. I want to let people go in, see it, and think what they want to think and if it has a good reaction, great, and if it has a negative reaction, great. At the end of the day what you aim for with stories is to motivate a conversation of some sort. The worst thing would be for people to walk out and go ‘That was nice’ and that’s the extent of the thought they’ve given it. I don’t want that. I want people to leave and talk about it."

Niall said he intends to put Trust forward for an Irish Film and Television Awards and is hoping for another nomination - but he's not rising his expectations just in case. 

"For me, it’s not about awards, it’s about making something. Where it goes or how it’s perceived or what it wins, that’s just secondary. It’s all about the work. So once Trust is done I’ll start planning my next one. Not because I want plaudits, but just because I want to tell the next story," he said. 

"In the meantime, I’ve written a feature length version of Animal which is before the Irish Film Board for a development grant. I don’t think I’ll get it because it’s hard to get, it’s competitive and there’s a lot of great writers out there, but it would be great to get it so I’m waiting for news on that."

If that doesn't work out, he said he will try and tweak the feature-length version of Animal or will embark on a new short film project. 

"I have the desire to do that, to tell stories. The next one I’m going to do will be a comedy, I think, because I’ve never made a comedy before."

Niall said he hopes he can look back in five or tens years time and that all the sacrifice – all the time spent working on films, all the money he has put into it – that it will all be worth it. 

He said he realises that there is only a finite amount of funding out there, but that he just wants to have enough money to live and to make films. Anything else is a bonus.

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