Interview: Director Mark O’Brien on The Righteous

He may not be a household name (yet), but chances are you’ve seen Mark O’Brien in one of your favourite TV shows (Hannibal, Halt and Catch Fire) or movies (Arrival, Bad Times at the El Royale, particularly scene-stealing performance in Blue Bayou). And after making countless short films with his friends — “well into the hundreds” by his own estimation — O’Brien has his directorial debut, The Righteous, done and dusted.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, which I think was necessary for me. Like in sports, it’s never a bad idea for them to go into the minors and develop,” O’Brien tells That Shelf in Toronto ahead of The Righteous’ theatrical release. “So it was never a bad idea for me to learn more and more and more.”

“Also, I have the benefit of being an actor who’s spent so much time on set that not every director has,” O’Brien continues. “Most of directing, honestly, for me, is stamina, eating, sleeping, and making sure everyone else feels good. Their [the actors’] creativity is going to come if everyone feels good physically and mentally. They’re going to give me stuff that they would never give me otherwise. I learned that from being an actor on set: encouragement and group camaraderie, all those things matter.”

Along with O’Brien, The Righteous stars legendary Canadian actors Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk, who offer up stunning performances against a nuanced script, also written by O’Brien. The film is a moody psychological thriller about a couple grieving the death of their daughter when a stranger arrives at their doorstep. The appearance of this man reveals secrets and conjures confessions that will change their lives forever.

The reception to O’Brien’s debut feature since its premiere at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival (where O’Brien won Best Screenplay) has been overwhelmingly positive. The Righteous, holding a 93% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards. O’Brien picked up a nomination from the Directors Guild of Canada.

The Righteous

The Righteous is a bold first feature for a filmmaker. The script is laden with doublespeak and is shot in a manner that recalls the classic horror films. Speaking with O’Brien, this wasn’t an accident — his influences are steeped in the history of cinema.

“I’ve [gotten] very into genre films in the last couple of years. It’s probably because I watch a movie every single morning and I normally watch a movie at night. I was running out of genres, and I was like, why don’t I watch some horror movies,” recalls O’Brien. “The Wicker Man had a big effect on me, and then I just started to get into more and more. I realized the horror of [Andrei] Tarkovsky and Carl Dreyer.”

He continues: “It all led to me writing this movie. It was influenced by this reawakening I had, that when you’re in a genre piece and you create a world, anything’s possible. That’s why we love [Guillermo] del Toro movies so much: he creates something that you’re like, whoa, what’s this world. Or even Michael Haneke, where it’s not big set pieces, but it’s a dramatic world that you’re walking into that’s really bizarre. Or Yorgos Lanthimos.”

In addition to being a frightening quiet horror, The Righteous is filled with religious tones and symbolism that lend a tangible texture to the film, but don’t be mistaken, the film doesn’t serve as a takedown of Catholicism or any religion. Growing up in Newfoundland, O’Brien regularly attended church with his family until he was a pre-teen. While it’s somewhat fashionable in 2022 to criticize the church, this doesn’t interest the filmmaker.

“My grandmother’s super religious, and it means something to her. I don’t want to offend people with a movie. That’s not interesting to me,” O’Brien says firmly. “Religion, in general, has this bad connotation, which is really funny to me. Because the people who are religious, it seems to be helping them. So unless you’re actively hurting someone, why would I knock on something that seems to help someone that I can’t fully understand as much as they do? Because their relationship to it is not my relationship to it.”

The desolate landscape is one of the most compelling and noteworthy aspects of The Righteous. There’s a distinctive cold and jagged quality to the film that will be familiar to those who know it and intriguing to those who don’t. Early in the writing process, O’Brien knew he wanted to film this at home. While the film is silent on its exact location (the mix of accents, including Southern and German, is a particular curveball), O’Brien was determined to give audiences the tactility of The Rock.

“I wanted to use the feeling that Newfoundland gives me,” O’Brien explains. “Newfoundland is in your bones. The weather is in your bones. And this movie’s in your bones — it gets inside you and it’s kind of unnerving. It drifts in and owns you a little. I wanted to use that about Newfoundland.”

Although now a resident of sunny L.A., O’Brien speaks of Newfoundland with a gentle fondness unique to Maritimers describing their home province. And when asked what he misses most about Canada?

“I miss all of my friends and the people. There’s something when you’re around Newfoundlanders and Canadians, and when you’re from there…,” O’Brien drifts off ever so slightly. “I have great friends in L.A. and in America, but I just miss the people. I miss them a lot. I get kind of emotional thinking about it.”

He continues: “I’m so happy to be doing this job, and it’s literally just because of a lot of people [from home] who are really encouraging. Everytime I’m working, there’s a feeling of, I wish they were there.”

The Righteous is now available on VOD.