Learn to Communicate. As a filmmaker, you don’t need to be able to design sets, choose lenses, do hair and makeup. But you do need to be able to communicate the look and feel of the film to people who can.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Director Shaun O Connor, an Irish filmmaker whose work has screened and won awards at festivals around the world. In 2020 Shaun was nominated for the Virgin Dublin Film Festival Discovery Award. He is currently writing his debut feature film and developing A White Horse into a TV series with writer Paul Cahill. Shaun also has a personal interest in mental health issues, having suffered with chronic anxiety in his mid-20s and later writing a book about his experiences in order to help others recover.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I loved film growing up, and was always a big fan of Hollywood films. I watched way too much TV as a kid. But in terms of creating film, I think it always felt out of reach, or something that other people did.
I studied Multimedia in college and one year we did a filmmaking module. I got to shoot and edit a short documentary, which was a revelation to me in terms of the practicality of the process and how achievable it was. I later did an MA in Film Studies, which was theory-based but great in terms of learning about film history. After college I ended up working as a full-time musician for years. It was only much later that I took the plunge, bought a camera and started making my own short films and music videos.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
One of the most interesting things I’ve encountered is the connection between music and film. Some of the best filmmakers, and in particular, editors I’ve worked with have worked as musicians in the past. There’s something ineffable about good editing, it comes from a core understanding of rhythm and feel rather than technical expertise alone. I remember working with a brilliant editor where I noticed we were using musical terms like ‘staccato’ and ‘percussive’ to describe a scene. I think the same things apply in varying degrees to all of filmmaking. With scripts and performances, you’re looking for peaks and troughs, volume and stillness. We really tried to use that in our short film ‘A White Horse’ which has no score, but moments of deliberate silence to emphasise what’s not being said.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
A few years ago I decided to take acting lessons, not to get in front of the camera, but to build up my confidence and ability when working with actors. It turned out that the classes locally were being taught by this incredibly gifted teacher named Tom Kibbe who had worked in New York and LA for decades and trained under the world’s most respected acting teachers. So I’ve been taught by someone who learned under Meisner, Strasberg and Adler, which is pretty mind-blowing.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We’re currently developing a TV mini-series called ‘Unclaimed’, based in the same world as ‘A White Horse’ and set in an Irish psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. We want to explore that world, in which being gay or in any way ‘abnormal’ could lead to someone being subjected to psychiatric treatment or incarcerated for years. But we also want to focus on culture being at the cusp of massive positive change, and our characters learning to fight back against authority and tradition.
In addition to that, I’m working on some new music videos, and writing and developing a feature film.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Can Prince be considered a historical figure? In terms of creative output and quiet social activism, Prince was pretty amazing.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Mental health is a subject that’s very important to me. In my mid-20s I developed chronic anxiety and a symptom called Depersonalization, which is a feeling of being cut off from the world around you. It put my life and career on hold for two years but thankfully I overcame it, and later wrote a book about my recovery as a guide for others.
I’ve tried to be as open about mental health as possible and integrate that into my creative work. That’s certainly been the case with ‘A White Horse’, which is about how, throughout the 20th century, mental hospitals were often used as catch-alls for people considered ‘abnormal’.
I’m also a passionate believer in veganism and animal rights. I’ve worked on video projects for animal rights groups and am currently working on a series of short animations promoting veganism.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Soin terms of mental health, it was the humbling nature of my own experience with chronic anxiety. It gave me a sense of empathy in terms of mental health issues, which as a younger man I never imagined would happen to me. In terms of my work on veganism and animal rights, it was a confluence of circumstances which led to a questioning of my dietary choices, the environmental impact of those choices, and learning about the abuses of animal rights that are so widespread in the meat and dairy industries.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
At the festival screenings of ‘A White Horse’ we invariably had audience members approach us to speak about their own experiences or those of someone they knew, be it a friend or family member. These were individuals who had in the past been committed to mental hospitals because of their sexual orientation, for being ‘troublesome’, for being a ‘burden to society’ etc. It’s a part of our recent history that’s not often discussed, so it’s been great to have the film connect with people, and inspire them to talk so openly about it.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- Speak as openly as possible about mental health issues.
- Remember that advancements in civil rights are not guaranteed. For example, the rise of ultra-conservatism in the US and the effect it could have on LGBT rights, female bodily autonomy etc, is very concerning. It’s up to individuals to keep tabs on these shifts in policy.
- Get involved with local charities, outreach groups etc.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Learn to Communicate
As a filmmaker, you don’t need to be able to design sets, choose lenses, do hair and makeup. But you do need to be able to communicate the look and feel of the film to people who can.
2. Watch and Read as Much as you Can
Inhale as much film / literature / theatre / music as you can. They may seem disparate but all will influence your taste and help you develop as an artist.
3. Take Acting Lessons
Even if you have no interest in being on camera, acting lessons are just incredibly valuable. And not just in terms of communicating with actors, but in your own ability to improvise, facing your fears and emotions in front of others, your overall confidence.
4. Everyone Just Wants….
…. to be involved in good work. Regardless of the budget or the size of the project, whoever is involved. The great leveller is that every creative person just wants to make good stuff. Remembering that core motivation will get you through all sorts of nerves, imposter syndrome etc.
5. Enjoy Your Work
In his book ‘Catching The Big Fish’, David Lynch outlines one of the main reasons he got into filmmaking: ‘Because it seemed like a lot of fun’. And that’s exactly what it should be. There’s pressure, granted, but at the end of the day it’s a creative process and it should be a joyous, fun thing.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
It’s so important. At the moment, climate change is literally the most important issue facing every human being on the planet. We need to urgently change so much about how we interact with the world in terms of how we eat, travel, consume. The danger is that we tend to become apathetic in the face of such a challenge. Social activism is vital, as it motivates and reminds. And when it’s done through art, it may be even more powerful since it can bypass social biases and generate more empathy than say, a news report.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Earthling Ed is a campaigner for animal rights who does brilliant work on social media. In a climate where almost everything is politicized, even dietary choices, Ed is a consistently patient and compassionate voice of reason.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We have a right only to our labour, not to the fruits of our labour.” It’s from the Bhagavad Gita. It reminds us that we shouldn’t approach any creative endeavour with the expectation of reward; the endeavour is its own reward. Everything else is gravy. It helps give you perspective on your career, and the inevitable victories and losses that happen along the way.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!