I was lucky to get the chance last week to sit down with Connor Horgan, Writer and Director of the Workbook Project Discovery and Distribution Award winning film, One Hundred Mornings. He talked about making the film, the challenged he faced, some of his upcoming projects (shark hunting, anyone?), being “chuffed,” and some very useful advice for anyone aspiring to make films, which can be helpful for anyone trying to follow their artistic dreams, be they film, writing, shark-hunting, what have you.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Conor: I had been reading a lot about some of the challenges that are looming and in the middle of all that, I went to a talk given by Margaret Atwood and she recommended a book called A Short History of Progress by a Canadian author called Ronald Wright, and I read that and a couple of other things, and they really just opened my eyes and blew my mind a little about how reliant we are on all of this easily available power. And I saw how in New Orleans after Katrina, how quickly the whole fabric of society can just fall down, and I found this a really compelling subject, so when the chance came to make a low budget film, or as Americans like to say, and “indie film,” it seemed like an ideal topic to explore. And if I’m going to make a film about a world in which all the lights have gone out and where there’s no power and society is breaking down, I was really interested in making as realistic a version of that world as possible, and that was an achievable thing to do on a very low budget. In this world where if you want to know what’s happening over the next hill, you have to climb the hill and look over it. There are no phones, no other forms of communication, so the world that people would live in and the series of events would be very small, and that serves the scale of the film as well.
Along those lines, what was the motivation for the small cast, the very few locations, and the very little dialog in the film?
Conor: Taking those in order, with the small cast, I liked the idea of a small group of people who are forced by circumstances to live together when they weren’t getting along terribly well, and also who displayed the characteristics that many of us come up with when faced with a looming crisis. Like some people go straight into denial, some have an unrealistic amount of optimism, some sort of hope that someone else will sort it out. I thought that to have this small group of people who obviously have pre-existing relationships, that was something that appealed to me. It’s not just the four people in the house; there are other people around, people who pass through, who play very significant parts in the story. But I wanted really to concentrate on the human cost, the human reactions to how we deal with the circumstances of our actions, in good ways and not so good ways, in helpful ways and not so helpful ways. I felt that having a basic cast of four people would allow me to play with that in hopefully what would be a good way. The house, the one location, as I said before, it was very fitting for the world that I wanted to create, where a lot of the action would take place in or around one location. I knew that if most of us end up in this kind of societal breakdown, we probably would hold up in one single place and see what that would be like. If you look up post apocalyptic things, a lot of people think that if the world breaks down there will just be no rules and no societal constraints and I’ll be able to do whatever the hell I want and it’ll actually be fun, but if you do any kind of reading or thinking about what that world would actually be like, it would be incredibly dull at times and very tense, and not necessarily exciting in the way that people would expect, and I wanted to get that across in the film.
What about the dialog?
Conor: Partially, as a filmmaker, it always appeals to me to show more than to tell. But I also thought that as relationships between the four main characters of the house deteriorated, they’d be talking to each other at the bare minimum, the way that people become defensive or guarded as they become increasingly isolated. And as I look at the way our society is at the moment, we tend to become quite splintered, isolated, rather than all coming together and working together, everyone is becoming more separate, and that was replicated in the house. The more that was happening, the less they were saying. The more the story was progressing, they were saying as little as possible, almost to conserve energy. When I was writing the script, I was trying to tell the story as visually as I could, and I probably cut about half the dialog in the course of writing the script, and when it actually came to shooting it, I probably cut about a third of what was left, so I was really quite ruthless with paring it down to the absolute minimum that was needed. I was trying to make the physicality of the actors and their actions tell the story as much as possible.
How much of the setting, the feeling, the dissonance and the distance of the people and the community, or lack thereof, is true to the way that people of Irish culture would react, or the way that humans in general would react, or was this just a thematic choice on your part?
Conor: I never really saw this as being culturally specific. A few people have said to me, “This doesn’t feel like an Irish movie,” and to me, I don’t know entirely what an Irish movie would feel like, but it’s not what I set out to make. I wanted to make something that was absolutely human and just to try and bring it down to very basic human reactions. Some of those reactions were not the most noble reactions either, and that’s something I worked on with the cast. I remember saying to all of them in rehearsals that there are no heroes and no villains in the film. For each of these characters, there are good reasons for what they do, and they’re very understandable reasons given the circumstances. Now, how they play off and how they affect the other characters is the other characters’ problem. I didn’t want to have these clear heroes and villains. I wanted everyone to actually be human, and actually not to judge all of the characters and what they do, but just to understand it.
Why did you choose to have the circumstances in the film world, i.e. how they ended up that way, nonspecific?
Conor: Probably the most important reason is that the film is about how we as humans deal with the consequences of our actions, rather than the causes of that. We’re just saying that these are the ways we can deal with the consequences, rightly or wrongly, and that became interesting to me. Another reason is that any time I’ve seen a post-apocalyptic movie, they probably spend the first half of the movie explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened, and then if you’re of a particular mindset, you then spend the rest of the film arguing in your head with the filmmaker about how that particular scenario might be, and that was not something that interested me. I’m not saying, “Oh, if you don’t look out, this might happen!” There is any number of things that might happen or might not, and if you want to know what they are, just look in the newspapers.
Can you talk about production a little bit? How long did it take to make, how much shooting time, were you living on set, etc.
Conor: We shot over 20 days, 4 or 5 day weeks, which is ridiculously small. We weren’t living on the set, but the set was hugely, hugely important. It was a pre-existing wooden cabin on the shores of Lough Dan, which is about a thousand feet up, just outside Dublin. A very particularly beautiful part of the country and also very isolated, which was very important in building this world, and I actually had to go back a little in writing the script, when we started to look at the location and at what that location needed to do, suddenly it became the hardest working location in Ireland. We had to get somewhere that had nice big windows, and most Irish cottages don’t have nice big windows because of the cold and wet and damp over here. We had to get somewhere that was big enough that we could get enough visual variety with a number of interior scenes without using the same shot over and over again. It had to be away from any street lights, any industrial noises, even any livestock. It had to have that kind of strong sense of isolation and that there’s nothing else happening out there. If there had been tractors on the road or something, it would have completely destroyed the illusion of the world that we were creating. It took about eight months of some fairly serious location hunting before we found it.
How did you find it?
Conor: I had a brilliant location manager who kept showing me place after place after place. He showed me one place at the top of a hill and I thought it wasn’t great and the estate agent told us that they had a holiday estate at the bottom of the hill, but were we sure we wanted to go down because it was a very steep hill, but we went down and I looked, and instantly, this was the place. It had so much atmosphere, so much potential. When I brought the actors there, one of the great pleasures was to bring the actors down and show them the locations, and just seeing their faces, it was as if the place had been built for the script. It was kind of perfect. I lived in a little bed and breakfast at the top of this hill, this hill that became rapidly christened “the hill of death,” because it was so steep and kind of burned out one of our trucks and we had to climb up with the truck. I was at the top of the hill, they were down the road, and everyone involved with the film was staying kind of thereabouts, and by halfway through the first week it kind of felt like we were living in the world of the movie. I really think that you can feel it when you see the movie, when you see the actors. It feels like they’re there.
It does. So what other films, and directors or writers, have influenced you in general? And for this film specifically?
Conor: In general, it’s quite hard to say because there have been so many films that I’ve loved. There’s one film I saw that I actually wrote a blog about for Lance for the Workbook Project. I saw a film called Zed when I was about 11 years old, and it was about the injustices of the military dictatorship in Greece in the 1970s, and it was the first time I saw a film that had me tossing and turning at night. Not because I was scared by it, but because I was just infuriated. It was the first time I ever realized that films could evoke such strong feelings in me, or in people, as well as just entertainment, that films could just be really thought-provoking. That was probably as big an influence on me as any film I’ve seen. The effect it’s had on me has stayed with me ever since. I was really interested in trying to make something that was really thought-provoking, that would be challenging in some way, that would challenge people. I’ve had people come up to me six weeks after seeing the movie, telling me that my film has been haunting them. A specific film I found inspiring for this is The Time of the Wolf by Michale Haneke, because it deals with a similar type of situation. It’s different in that it’s a road movie. It’s about a mother with two kids on the road in France, trying to find shelter during a societal breakdown. That was something that certainly was very inspiring for me. Because it’s my first film, you can almost say that every movie I’ve ever seen kind of inspired me, although that’s not entirely true. So many things that I’ve responded to over the years I’ve find inspiring towards making this particular film.
Is this the first film that you’ve made?
Conor: It’s the first feature film, yeah.
How did you start making films, and what was your first gig or first short film that you made? How did you work your way up?
Conor: Well I started as a photographer quite a number of years ago, and moved into advertising, and some people in advertising thought that I might be able to direct TV commercials and it turned out that they were right, and I directed TV commercials for a couple of years, and I did a couple of promos and things like that. Around 2001/ 2002, I started losing interest in that rapidly. There’s only so much you can learn from TV commercials, and you’re not really the master of your own destiny in any sense. And ultimately it’s not storytelling for it’s own sake, it’s for the sake of selling more products. Once I did that and knew I could do that, I really wanted to do something that was a proper story, told for the sake of the story and for no other reason. The first film that I made was called The Last Time. It’s actually on my website, it’s 12 minutes. It’s basically the story of a middle-aged woman who’s going out, looking to get laid, in her mid-50’s. People found that to be an interesting topic and an interesting story and the script seemed to work well, and it just kind of worked. We won a couple of really good awards, and picked up a nationwide release in Ireland with the feature film The Banger Sisters. It probably did as well as a short film coming out of Ireland can do. Halfway through the first day of shooting that, I realized that this is what I want to be doing, I don’t want to be making ads anymore. This is absolutely where I want to be and the kind of thing I want to be doing. So that’s really what I’ve been doing. And since then I’ve written quite a lot. I’ve written a number of feature film scripts which are un-produced, but all of which hopefully have made me a better writer and helped me write the script for One Hundred Mornings better than I would have been able to otherwise. I’ve made a number of experimental films. I made a film about happiness where I went around the country and interviewed nearly 400 people and asked them what made them happy, and I turned that into a 25-minute film. I did a similar one about fear. I went to Paupa New Guinea with an Irish conceptual artist and went out hunting sharks with her in canoes. She was looking for sharks to make art with. And a couple of other documentaries and other things along those lines. I’m working on another feature script which will hopefully be my second film. I’m making a documentary about one of the greatest drag acts and political activists in Ireland, and I’m directing my first show in Dublin in about two weeks, so I’m keeping busy.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Conor: So many younger filmmakers come to me now, and they know that I’ve made ads, and they think, “Well if I just go into that world, and I learn to play with all the toys and make lots of money, then whenever it suits me, I’ll just go off and make feature films.” And while some people do do that, the vast majority of people who do that end up making ads, and not doing what they really want to do. So as far as my advice to aspiring filmmakers, if you want to make a particular kind of film, make that particular kind of film. Don’t be side tracked. Don’t go into something else just for the money. Because certainly in my experience, advertising is littered with the still breathing corpses of many writer/directors who would much rather be doing something other than what they’re currently doing, and they’ve just gone in there and they weren’t able to get back out again. They got stuck and they fell in love with the money.
So you’ve just won the WorkBook Project Discovery and Distribution Award. Congratulations.
Conor: Thanks. We’re incredibly chuffed. Do you need that word translated?
Conor: “Chuffed” is the Anglo Saxon version of “delighted.”
Great! So how do you anticipate a Los Angeles audience receiving this film?
Conor: I have no idea actually. That’s a very good question. I imagine it’s going to be the same as it’s been received in other parts of the world. In some ways it’s kind of odd, because I thought when I was making the film that if I had a model in my head it would have been a French movie, but halfway through the film I was talking to two of the actors and I said, “you know, we’re making a Western here,” and we were kind of laughing. You know, there’s a sheriff and a frontier-type kind of community. So that might possibly explain why American film festivals have absolutely taken the film to heart. Every week we have another two or three American festivals that want to screen the film. As I said, it’s a challenging film. It’s not a sort of sit back and let it wash over you kind of film. One of my friends here, and Irish filmmaker, said something that I really appreciate, that it’s the type of film where you have to lean forward a bit. You have to lean into it. I was very touched by that, because that’s really the kind of film I wanted to make, where if people would lean into it, if they would engage with it, it would be worth that effort.
What’s the distinction between making a short film and a feature? Do you see that as a good model to start making films? Can you briefly describe what that process has been, from going from short film to feature?
Conor: I’m sort of unusual in the sense that I made one dramatic short, and then went to a feature. I’ve had a lot of experience, but I’ve only made two dramatic pieces in my life: one short and one feature film. I think making shorts is a fantastic way towards working towards features, as long as people making shorts want to making them. When I made my short, I made it with this voice in the back of my mind, saying, “I might never get the chance to make another film. This could be it. This has got to be the best short I could possibly make, given the circumstances, given the resources. I might never find the money to make another short.” It wasn’t about making something that was a calling card for something else. It had to be made absolutely the best it could possibly be, because if I never get another chance… That’s the way I looked at the feature as well, and hopefully I’ll be able to make another feature and another after that, but each one of them I want to make as though this is it. It better be good, because it might be the last one I ever make.