Cian O’Connor – “Filmmaking has Always Been a Part of My Life”.

Official Poster for The West Kerry Cowboy
Official poster for The West Kerry Cowboy Photo: Cian O'Connor

The young director lets loose about his passion for film and upcoming projects in this exclusive interview.

From Neil Jordan to Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland has been known for dishing out some of the most sought-after film creatives for several decades. One aspiring filmmaker, Cian O’Connor will be one to watch out for as the years roll on. Having screened his directorial debut, The West Kerry Cowboy, at the Kerry Film Festival, Cian is hopeful he will become a prominent filmmaker in the years to come. We sat down with Cian to talk about his passion for film, how the pandemic has halted his work schedule and what he plans to do in the future.

Q: What made you want to get into filmmaking?

Cian: I had always been interested in watching films since I was a very small child. It’s always been a part of my life in a lot of ways. So I suppose there was never any clear “moment” where I decided to make films, it just happened naturally. My dad bought me a tiny Toshiba camera when I was 12 and it took off from there. I think I always had it in my head that I would do something creative and filmmaking turned out to be the thing that stuck.

Q: Describe your film, The West Kerry Cowboy, and why this project is so dear to your heart?

Cian: The West Kerry Cowboy is a comedy drama about grief and masculinity. It’s about a man named Big Mac trying to connect with his father after his mother’s death and it’s set in the heart of West Kerry. There’s also a twist in there about their relationship but I don’t want to spoil it yet! It was my graduation film after studying Film and TV production for 4 years in IADT. The film is personal to me, primarily because I based it on my own experiences of growing up in West Kerry. Looking back, I feel like there was an unsaid societal pressure on how men should act and it really affected me as a child. I wanted to explore the complexity and depth of rural Irish identity such as the tensions between tradition and modernity, old values and new beginnings. I also tried to make it funny, because along with the themes of loneliness we see in a lot of depictions of rural Ireland, there is also a wit and humor that’s often left out.

Q: How have you battled through the trials and tribulations of being an aspiring filmmaker in times like these?

Cian: I knew going into this industry that things were going to be tough, but I didn’t realise it would be this tough haha. I think working in film is a vocational thing for me personally. I don’t think anyone goes into it expecting to make a lot of money. I think more so people go into because they want to create or help to create something they are proud of.  There are a lot of things they don’t teach you in college about being an aspiring filmmaker. Like what kind of avenues directors can take to make money and also create what methods of funding there are available for young filmmakers in Ireland, how to get signed by a production company etc. As well as that film is very subjective, so when it comes to getting your work into film festivals it can sometimes feel like a lottery. After a year of being full time in this industry, the one thing I’ve learned is to take the wins when they come. There are a lot of compromises and bad luck in filmmaking, and I think it’s really important to appreciate and enjoy when things go right. It’s only this year in “Cowboy”’s festival run, that people have really started to come around and see it for how I see it. We’ve picked up a couple awards now, and it’s been really encouraging to see it finally find an audience.

Q: Have you any future projects in the pipeline?

Cian: So, when I just finished college, I was very driven to make something. I had seen a lot of filmmakers ahead of me who might have made great graduation shorts but oftentimes it would be 2-3 years until their next project. I really didn’t want to fall into that. I had this idea for a documentary about soccer in Limerick, and I was lucky enough to receive funding from Limerick Arts Bursary to bring it to fruition. It’s a documentary about when Limerick FC (who as of right now are bankrupt) played Real Madrid in the Champions League in 1980. It’s a bit of a David vs Goliath tale about this match nobody remembers, but that these old Limerick players will never forget. It’s called Sit Down and Shut Up, which is a play on Stand Up and Fight, which is a book about when Munster beat the New Zealand All Blacks. Due to Covid, the production was delayed, however we finally managed to shoot it this past summer. We are currently in the final stages of the edit, and I am really excited to finally get it out there.

Q: What did you learn from working on the RTE show The Young Offenders?

Cian: Working on The Young Offenders was a lot of fun, and I learned quite fast how a major film set operates. It was really interesting to see how the scripts would develop and be redrafted throughout the schedule. I realised how tough film sets can be, and how the environment can be quite stressful. But I also learned how crews can oftentimes feel like families. I made a lot of friends from that shoot that I would be quite close to today.

Q: How did you find submitting your film for virtual festivals as opposed to what could have been? Were you annoyed you couldn’t showcase your film in person?

Cian: It was certainly frustrating to see my film start to get accepted into wonderful film festivals and to see them all go online. The day the pandemic started I had to cancel a flight I had booked to go to Manchester Film Festival. It was going to be my first time seeing the film at a major festival which was quite disappointing. However, I also understand that in these times it is extremely difficult for film festivals to operate. Film festivals rely heavily on ticket revenue from in person sales, and I imagine it must be very stressful to go online. Of the festivals Cowboy has screened at recently, the online platforms both Kerry Film Festival and Indie Cork had were brilliant. Both festivals really managed to make the most of a difficult situation and the streaming platforms they used were fantastic. I got to watch more films than I normally would which is definitely a positive thing about virtual film festivals.

Q: Has it been hard to find work since the start of the Pandemic?

Cian: To be honest the pandemic has made it more difficult to find work, I had two directing jobs booked from before the pandemic that thankfully we were able to complete in between lockdowns. But there have been less jobs available since then. As well as that, I had intended to move to New York for work through the graduate visa programme however due to the pandemic that has fallen through. I hope to still emigrate possibly in 2021, however now I am solely focused on developing my own creative work. Despite being a tough time to find jobs, it has been an excellent time to create your own work.

Q: What advice would you give to young filmmakers like yourself during times like these?

Cian: I would say now is the time to start your next project. There has never been a better time to throw around ideas you have stored in your mind, and to put pen to paper. What helps is the fact that for many, myself included, it’s a time where you don’t even have to show people your ideas. It can just be for yourself. So yeah my advice would be to keep the head up, and to focus on creating. I’m lucky to be young and have less financial burden than older figures in the game, so I see these years as the best time to focus solely on being creative.

Q: What have you been doing during the pandemic to keep on top of your budding career?

Cian: I have been busy finishing up the Limerick documentary I spoke about, and I have just started a new short film script that I intend to get funding for. I would like to shoot that in 2021 hopefully. As well as that, during the first pandemic I started a photo series documenting local business owners in Dingle my hometown, and how they see tourism changing in the post Covid future. So I’m juggling a couple things, but the main thing I’m trying to keep on top of is my mental health. Lockdown can be a very stressful time so I think it’s important to look out for each other.

Q: How would you say the Pandemic has affected the industry as a whole, and for you personally as a young filmmaker?

Cian: The pandemic has affected every industry. I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t been affected by it. It’s been hard to have shoots because of the proximity of people in production crews. It’s also difficult because some films haven’t been able to go ahead as planned. If there is one good thing about the pandemic, it’s that there seems to be more development opportunities available, and I think that’s because people see the need for creatives. I think people are starting to see that film and art is important for society as a whole.

The West Kerry Cowboy has been screened at multiple festivals this past year, and one can only imagine the height of stardom Cian may reach to in the future. As a frequent filmgoer myself, I look forward to seeing Cian’s career take off over the next few years.

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