For his feature film directing debut, actor Mark O’Brien couldn’t have chosen a weightier subject.
“I’ve always been interested in stories of damnation and God and the devil and your soul because that’s the ultimate stakes,” he said in a Zoom interview. “There’s nothing bigger than that.”
He not only directed but wrote and co-stars in “The Righteous,” which opened in Canadian theatres Friday, an intense psychological thriller that deals with sin, faith, penance and retribution.
O’Brien is a Newfoundland native whose face would be familiar if you’ve watched shows like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Republic of Doyle,” “City on a Hill” and “61st Street,” or movies like “Goalie,” “Ready or Not” and “Marriage Story.”
So, yes, acting is what he’s best known for, but he said he’s always wanted to make movies.
As a student studying English at Memorial University in St. John’s — he minored in classics and very nearly double minored in philosophy — he’d do whatever theatre jobs he could get on the side, often unpaid, and make short films on the weekends with his friends. He was also a children’s show host for CBC.
“So I was just constantly learning … these thoughts were always kind of percolating,” the 38-year-old said.
Acting is “a hard racket,” he added, full of rejection, but “making a movie is like going to war. It’s a tough thing to get done.”
Still, O’Brien considers himself lucky for a first-time filmmaker. “The Righteous” took two to three years to get made with the help of Telefilm’s Atlantic office and the Newfoundland & Labrador Film Development Corporation.
“Other ones I was trying to make fell by the wayside along the way. So this one kind of came together, probably because it was a little bit smaller in nature so it was less of that leap of faith.”
It has a cast of just six, but it’s an impressive cast, led by notable Canadian actor Henry Czerny, who’s been in everything from miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent” to TV dramas “The Tudors” and “Revenge,” and the blockbuster “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise.
In “The Righteous,” he plays Frederic Mason, a former Catholic priest who left the church to marry Ethel, played by another notable Canadian actor, Mimi Kuzyk (“Hill Street Blues,” “Workin’ Moms”). Following a tragedy, which Frederic perceives as a punishment from God, an injured stranger (O’Brien) turns up at Frederic’s and Ethel’s door. The ex-priest is forced to confront a long buried secret and asked to make an impossible choice, one he fears could completely sever his relationship with God.
“I remember when I was in university and read ‘Paradise Lost’ for the first time it had a huge effect on me; like those ideas of spiritual damnation or betterment are really fascinating,” O’Brien said. “The movie has a lot to do with confrontation, with confronting others, yourself, things you’ve done, and coming to terms with it and how you’re willing to do that. And I think you see in the film that it takes a lot of layers until you can finally get to that place.”
O’Brien wrote the script with Kuzyk in mind — he met her years before through fellow Newfoundland actor Shawn Doyle — but “Henry just came to me much later on. We’re good friends and it just hit me: I just think he’s right for it.”
The cast is rounded out by Kate Corbett, Nigel Bennett and Mayko Nguyen.
O’Brien found it useful to be a director with acting experience.
“I think every actor should direct and every director should act,” he said. “As an actor, I can’t exactly know what they’re going through each and every moment, but I do understand the process very, very well. And I know what things not to say, what situations not to put someone in, what they need as a performer and what’s appreciated.
“But mostly it comes down to a human being understanding that other human being’s situation, and being able to empathize with it and also just understand it so that they feel comfortable enough to give their performance.”
The camaraderie of the group determines the final product, he added, and he’s very happy with how “The Righteous” turned out.
It’s been well received at various film festivals, winning Best Screenplay at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal and Manchester’s Grimmfest, as well as Best Cinematography at Grimmfest and the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival. (Scott McClellan did the shooting, in atmospheric black and white, and got on film exactly what O’Brien said was in his head.)
But an especially important screening was to take place in St. John’s on Friday night. “I honestly get emotional thinking about it because I went to those movie theatres dreaming of making a movie,” O’Brien said earlier in the week.
Although he’s lived in Los Angeles for the last eight or nine years, “I couldn’t be more proud about being a Newfoundlander. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to go back and shoot there,” he said. The “very, very tight and supportive creative community” of St. John’s is “the only reason that I’m making a living doing this job today.”
As for that living, he’s been shooting Season 2 of U.S. TV series “Perry Mason” but says there will be more moviemaking in his future.
“I like wearing all those hats just because I love this job so much … it’s like a kid in a candy store.”
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