September 22, 2021

N.L.’s Mark O’Brien steps behind the camera in new psychological horror film

Newfoundland and Labrador filmmaker Mark O’Brien writes, directs and stars in the new indie horror film The Righteous. (Duncan Deyoung)

Newfoundland and Labrador filmmaker Mark O’Brien wants his new psychological horror film, The Righteous, to make you think — whether you like the movie or not.

The film, which stars O’Brien, Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk, centres on a burdened former priest who feels the wrath of God when he and his wife are visited by a mysterious stranger after the death of their child.

“It’s a nice light romp,” O’Brien joked in an interview with CBC Radio’s On the Go.

O’Brien, who’s originally from St. John’s, has starred in major films like Arrival, Ready or Not and Marriage Story, but this is the first time he has written, directed and starred in his own movie.

The Righteous was shot in Newfoundland over just 15 days in December 2019 on a budget of $650,000 CAD.

The team only had seven days to prepare for the shoot, during which O’Brien was also flying back and forth from New Orleans to Newfoundland because he was in the midst of shooting another film, Blue Bayou.

The sound mixing was done remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. O’Brien, who lives in Los Angeles, collaborated with Harvey Hyslop, located in Newfoundland.

Local filmmakers like producer Mark O’Neill, cinematographer Scott McClellan, production designer Jason Clarke and others were essential parts of the shoot, said O’Brien.

“It was very much a Newfoundland production,” O’Brien said. “And, you know, being at home with the b’ys was wicked.”

Bringing a vision to life

O’Brien said directing a film for the first time proved a daunting challenge, but since he wrote the film, he said he felt “comfortable” with the material.

He’s also had plenty of practice; he’s been making short films for years, even before he starred in CBC’s Republic of Doyle from 2010 to 2014.

He said he worked on the script for The Righteous during other film shoots. O’Brien said it was difficult to get the film made, but in the end, his vision for the project won out.

The Righteous centres on a burdened former priest who feels the wrath of God when he and his wife are visited by a mysterious stranger after the death of their child. (Duncan Deyoung)

“When you believe in your project, I think others then believe in you,” he said.

The grim Newfoundland December weather perfectly fit the tense mood of the film, which was shot entirely in black and white. 

O’Brien said he planned to shoot the film in black and white from the beginning to match the dream-like, surreal aesthetic of the film.

“I think black and white is scarier than colour in general because colour is more understandable, because you have more of a grasp on it. You have reality,” he said. “When something is black and white [it’s] more mysterious, it’s more confusing.”

Last Saturday, the film premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. O’Brien said he was “overwhelmed” watching the movie in a theatre alongside an audience.

“It felt very surreal because I was actually seeing it pure on a screen,” he said. “I got to tell you, it was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my career, that’s for sure.”

O’Brien said he hopes people like the film, but the filmmaking process was the most rewarding part for him.

“It’s the movie I wanted to make,” he said. “If it’s good or bad, it’s up to someone else to decide.”

The Righteous doesn’t have a release date yet, but O’Brien said the filmmakers are in discussions with the film’s distributors.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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