Mark O’Brien is known for his roles in the TV series City on a Hill (2019-2021), as well as 2019’s very bloody and very fun horror movie Ready or Not (2019) from Radio Silence. His incredibly impressive directorial debut, The Righteous, had its World Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival last month and was awarded Best Screenplay by the Cheval Noir jury.
Written, directed by, and starring O’Brien, The Righteous also features one of his co-stars from Ready or Not, Henry Czerny, as well as Mimi Kuzyk, known for Hill Street Blues (1981) and Astronaut (2019). The Righteous tells the story of Frederic Mason, played by Czerny, a former priest who is tormented by his past. When he and his wife, Ethel (Kuzyk), are visited by a mysterious, injured stranger named Aaron (O’Brien) late one night, Frederic is forced to confront his past sins and the reasons why he began to question his faith.
The Righteous is an expertly written, powerful story that plays out almost like a game of cat and mouse. The fact that the film is shot in black and white adds multiple layers to the story and illustrates the agonizing theme of good vs. evil and an underlying feeling of something that may or may not be supernatural. The film is driven by O’Brien’s jaw-dropping, chilling performance as Aaron, as well as the intense conversations between Aaron and Frederic.
Dread Central was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Mark O’Brien about the challenge of writing, directing, and starring in The Righteous, reuniting with Henry Czerny for the film, how he became a genre fan, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Synopsis: A burdened man feels the wrath of a vengeful God after he and his wife are visited by a mysterious stranger.
Dread Central: You wrote, directed, and star in The Righteous, which is such an impressive film and it’s been getting great reviews. How does it feel to have your directorial debut premiere at Fantasia and to see such positive reactions to it?
Mark O’Brien: It’s overwhelming [laughs]. It’s wonderful but also, I’ve been wanting to make a film my entire life and just the fact that we made the film and it premiered at Fantasia and is being received in a positive manner is kind of the most you could ask for as a filmmaker. You just want to share your art, that’s the reason why you make a film, you have something to say, and you want to display it for people. Fantasia is such a wonderful festival and I always wanted to be there, so this is it. This is why you make movies. There will always be good reviews and there will always be bad reviews. As long as people are thinking, as long as they walk out of the movie and it made them think to some degree, then I’m very pleased.
DC: Did you have a specific inspiration for this story?
MO: Not particularly. My daughter is almost four and I think getting older and starting a family made me think about anything that hampers me are normally things I haven’t dealt with that I haven’t confronted. Sometimes those things are really hard to find and take a lot of soul-searching. I wanted my life with my wife and daughter to be unencumbered and I thought about that a lot. You’re never going to be a perfect person, but I really just wanted to be a great dad and I think it kind of came from there. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, this is kind of in retrospect and it’s nothing specific, but certain things can bog you down and then I got obsessed with this idea of those things chasing you around your whole life. We all know people who are kind of bogged down by things that they’ve done that they haven’t come to terms with.
I’m also kind of obsessed with the idea of dreams and I think films really are dreams and I think it’s really hard to say that dreams are any different from waking life. When you wake up after a terrible dream, you still carry that emotion with you. Even when you’re in a dream and you’re like, “I know this is a dream,” it still doesn’t chill you out. It’s still scary, it still exists. So, that idea kind of fascinates me that dreams kind of inform life and to me this film is a nightmare, based on remorse and regret and grief, which then breeds narcissism. I think this is universal to all of us. I know the film is black and white and kind of a genre film, but I think this applies to all of us. Those things manifest themselves in certain ways like when you’re going through a tough time, and someone bothers you with something and you kind of snap at them. Because you’re going through something, it manifests itself in different ways and that to me is fascinating and then it opened up a whole world of surrealism.
DC: The fact that the film is in black and white adds so many layers to the story like the theme of good vs. evil. Your character, Aaron Smith, is dressed in black, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the film and the scene with the white rose also plays on the idea of good vs. evil. Was that your goal with making the film in black and white?
MO: Always, from the day I started writing it. When I think about the subconscious and dreams, I don’t think I’ve ever woken from a dream and remembered what color anything was because it’s about emotion. Maybe that comes from being an actor because you’re always thinking about the motivation for a scene and why people do the things that they do and I’m going to speak for every actor that ever lived right now [laughs]. I think that people who become artists or directors or actors because they want to understand something, they want to understand emotion, and that’s a black and white notion. There’s no color in the subconscious, it’s murky and it’s indecipherable.
You brought up some really good points too. All those things like life and death and there was a certain aspect of Aaron, like I wanted my face to be quite pale. I wanted him to be pale and dressed in black, almost suggestive of some sort of grim reaper type person. All those things play together a lot, and every piece of the film should somehow be connected to another piece of the film. So, the rose and what everyone is wearing, they connect to one another.
DC: The conversations between your character and Henry Czerny’s character, Frederic Mason, are riveting. What was it like reuniting with him on this film after the two of you worked on Ready or Not together?
MO: Thank you. I can’t be a bigger fan of any human being than I am of Henry Czerny. He’s the nicest, most wonderful person and he’s just so pro as an actor. I mean what he brought to the role I can’t even put into words. He makes the script better and that’s the best thing an actor could do is make the script better because he brings so much to it. And he’s not afraid to be deconstructed and broken down from what he even actually is, he’s just fearless. Those scenes were a big concern to me because they had to work. My job as a writer was to make sure that those scenes didn’t lose the viewer. It’s never occurred to me to be a filmmaker who doesn’t care about the audience. I’m uniquely concerned by the audience; I’m fascinated by what the audience is going to think and the worst thing that could happen is losing the audience. So, for me, something had to be peeled away with every line, there is some intention with every line that kind of leads us to the next thing.
I’ve talked about this before about how David Lynch and Michael Haneke, in a way, to me are as impressive as any filmmaker ever because they make films that you don’t quite understand, but you have to keep watching [laughs]. You just have to, and I love that so much as a viewer. Their inspirations are so within my body that I don’t even have to think about them [laughs] because I’ve watched their movies so many times. But my own creation was to keep people involved while staying true to the characters while not knowing what’s going to be said next. Then when you’re acting with someone like Henry, it becomes that much easier really. The director of cinematography, Scott McClellan, and myself didn’t want to be too flashy with it. When we cut to a profile, there’s a reason we cut to a profile. There was a lot that went into those scenes, but those scenes were the most fun to film. As an actor, it’s so fun to go spar like that. Henry is the greatest.
DC: What was it like to play such an intense character while also directing The Righteous?
MO: It was just a joy. I really enjoyed myself a lot. It’s interesting because Aaron is such a bizarre character. It’s hard to pinpoint what he even is and what to believe as far as what he’s saying, even when he bares soul in a couple of scenes. It’s funny because most of my work is as an actor and you get comfortable as an actor. I knew I could perform that role in what was needed but I didn’t know if it was going to be good [laughs]. He’s too complicated to explain to another actor [laughs], so I thought I would just play the role. Then when we were doing it, I was just having so much fun. When I had scenes to perform, it just made it that much more exhilarating.
I also really wanted to make a movie that kind of evolves with you the more times you watch it and I think the films I really do like do that. I mentioned Lynch and Haneke and every time you see their films they morph, there’s something else. I really wanted to achieve that. When you go back and watch it, there are a lot of things in there that might make even more sense the second time around. I hope I achieved that. We had a lot of fun doing it because we were all in on that on the creative team.
DC: You are truly phenomenal as Aaron. How did you become this character and get inside his head to prepare for the role?
MO: Thank you! I think I was so inside the movie that each character was a part of me in some sort of way, which I think most writers might be able to identify with. For Frederic, I can understand the idea of trying to confront things and being afraid of confronting things that you’re scared of, to be better. It’s a really daunting thing and Frederic struggles with it, probably more than I have, because I’m not having this existential crisis. For Ethel, it’s finding someone that you have, and you love, and you need who you need to cling to and then filling the void of loss. I think we’ve all understood loss to some degree in our lives. And for Aaron, I think it was just that I think there’s a part of me that likes to set things even and there’s a line in the film where he says, “You ever feel like you weren’t even with God?” And I think Aaron kind of represents that, of this is the way to make it even. What he proposes, or demands, of Frederic in the film is a way for everything to be even and, for me, I kind of like that.
Say you build something beautiful, and you show someone, and they say, “Oh yeah, it’s nice,” and then walk away. That’s not even [laughs]! I put so much work into this and I would expect a bit more than that. Or just objectively in life, if you witness someone doing something bad, and they say, “Oh, sorry about that.” And you’re like, “Well no, you stole my car! It requires something more than sorry [laughs].” So, I’m kind of a proponent of making things even and correct reciprocation. So, for Aaron, I think that was part of it for me, that this has to be correct. And I think it’s also important that he comes from a place that there is an emotional backbone to him too, that’s in there throughout, so he’s not just an entity that’s there to further the plot. That’s something I really wanted to focus on too, whether the human being of him exists or not, what is perceived by Frederic is real. And there are stakes and there is a history there.
There are things that he lost and that he’s dealing with, and even if he’s just a representation of that, it has to be real. I identified with him a lot, which is really weird because he’s kind of a crazy character [laughs]. But I kind of just understood him very well and you have sympathy. You have to understand characters too. A huge influence for me is the movie Peeping Tom, the Michael Powell film, which follows this peeping Tom who is a murderer, but they made you feel for him in the movie. And you do. I think when people repel against stuff like that it’s probably because they felt weird that they felt for someone who is bad [laughs]. I think for Aaron, you understand him a little and it also makes you understand why Frederic feels so conflicted emotionally about it.
DC: Aaron is actually so complex, and he evolves over the course of the movie, and you’re not really sure what he is. By the end, you’re still not quite sure.
MO: The biggest challenge in there is, I think, there’s a moment in the movie when he kind of reveals a lot of who he is, and that’s over the dinner table. He’s kind of almost seeing into the past when he’s talking to Frederic. It’s like he’s not even seeing Frederic, it’s like he’s seeing all these visions, all these things that happened. That was really tricky. That’s very tricky because how is he seeing this? That’s why you have to set up certain types of supernatural boundaries that can exist within this world, and the lights come down just before that. So, you’re like, “Okay, cool. The lights came down and that means there is a supernatural touch to this.” So, I think you have to touch on that throughout the movie to make those things believable. And then the character is a bit more believable because we’ve set up certain rules.
DC: Are you planning to direct another feature film, and would you like to make another horror movie?
MO: Oh, my goodness, you just opened up a whole kettle of fish [laughs]. I never stop writing. I’m an actor and I’m working on a TV series right now, but “yes” is the answer. I have many projects and I want to make all of them. I’m obsessed with writing and creating. It’s funny because they’re all genre films and I wasn’t really a horror film fan at all until just a few years ago. It was Carl Theodor Dreyer, he’s kind of my hero. I watched Vampyr and Day of Wrath. Those are kind of early horror films, not so much gratuitous, but psychological horror. Then when I got to The Wicker Man and some of those films, I was like, “Wow! The craft of those films is amazing.”
So, I’m drawn into that world now completely because I think there’s more of a license for creativity when you are in that genre because anything can happen. That’s a playground for an artist. Anything can happen and there are no boundaries and then you can twist genre too. It’s really hard to start a romantic comedy off and turn it into a Sci-Fi [laughs]. But you can start a horror film off and turn it into a Sci-Fi. You can start a horror film off and turn it into an emotional drama. I mean, The Sixth Sense is an emotional drama, but it’s also a horror film. There are just more avenues for creativity and that pleases me to no end.
DC: That’s so wonderful to hear and that’s a big part of why I’m a horror fan.
MO: Yeah, it’s so cool! It’s a playground and you can do anything. And just like The Righteous, everything I’ve written is generally no time, no place, which is hard to get away with in a comedy or a straight drama. You can set it in any world; you can create a world. What a wonderful opportunity for any artist. So, I’m all in.
DC: I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me today for Dread Central!
MO: Oh my God, thank you so much! I’m a big fan. You guys do really, really great stuff, so I was really excited when I saw the request come through. So, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, and thanks so much for your support and for watching the movie. I really appreciate it.