Mark O’Brien’s so busy these days, between his own film projects, helping others with theirs and shooting “Republic of Doyle,” if the only spare time he has to chat is on his way to pick up groceries, you meet him outside the grocery store.
He’s busy and he’s nervous, at least for now, while his first full-budget, professional film, “Kathy,” is screening at Halifax’s Atlantic Film Festival.
O’Brien, 27, a native of Paradise, may be best known for his role of Des Courtney on CBC TV’s “Republic of Doyle,” but his acting career started long before that; his career as a filmmaker even longer.
“Me and a couple buddies used to make movies with our parents’ video cameras when we were 13 or 14,” O’Brien explained.
“We’d edit them with two VCRs — one with the tape of what we’d shot, and the other with a blank tape.”
Eventually the homemade films grew to be an hour long, and O’Brien and his friends would rent a TV from their school’s AV room, book an empty classroom at lunchtime and tell their fellow students they were having a film screening.
O’Brien did his first “real” film at age 20, thanks to Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-operative (NIFCO)’s First Time Filmmaker program; a short called “Downward Calling,” which he wrote, produced, and now has a hard time watching.
“It was my first introduction to NIFCO. I got to know how it works and what’s important, but it’s really hard to watch. I cringe,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also put together a couple shorts himself, “Lying Awake,” which he produced, shot, wrote and for which he composed the music, was shown at the Young Cuts Film Festival, while “Pretty Girls” was shown at the Nickel independent film festival in St. John’s.
“I didn’t have the money to make full-budget films, but I just had to make them. I couldn’t help it,” O’Brien said.
“If I couldn’t get grants, I’d use my credit card to rent cameras and I’d edit the films at home. They suffered in quality, but I would always recommend doing the things you want to do instead of just not doing them at all, and some of the things I learned, even making movies with my buddies when I was 15 still help me today.”
From his days making home movies came a love of acting as well, and he’s been following that dream while learning how to work behind the camera. Apart from “Doyle,” he’s appeared on CBC Kids, as well as in the feature film “Grown Up Movie Star” and shorts like “Cut From the Same Cloth,” “Quiet at Dawn” (with fellow “Doyle” actor Allan Hawco, produced by “Doyle” producers Rob Blackie and Tony Butt), and “Brad,” which he also produced.
“Directing is what I’ve always wanted to do, but when I started acting, I realized how much I liked it,” O’Brien said.
“Every time I’m acting and a director is talking to me, I think, ‘Oh man, I wish I was doing that.’ When I’m directing, I often wish I could be acting. I think every actor should try directing and every director should try acting.”
“Kathy,” written by Emily Bridger and produced by Shannon Hawes, came to life as a part of NIFCO/Telefilm Canada’s Picture Start program, for which the trio applied together. Starring Cassidy Lacosta and Julia Kennedy the nine minute film, with a musical score by Mick Davis of The Novaks, tells the story of junior high school teenager Kathy, mostly in narration through the eyes of one of her friends, now grown up. The film was shot over three days at and around Gonzaga High School in St. John’s.
“I think everyone went to school with someone who was magnetic and unpredictable. Kathy’s wild; the kind of girl you just don’t know what will do next,” O’Brien said.
“It was the same in junior high for boys — there was always someone who was the best at playing hockey, the best at playing basketball, the best at baseball, who was going out with girls and who was a rock star. Kathy’s definitely a rock star.”
People don’t change much in that respect as they grow older, O’Brien explained.
“Pre-teen, teenager, adult, middle age — we’re all the same in that when you meet someone with a huge personality like that, it affects your own personality.”
Working with such a young cast wasn’t any more challenging than working with adults, said O’Brien, especially since many of the young actresses — like Julia, daughter of Health Minister Jerome Kennedy, who’s been appearing in music videos and short films since she was a young child — are already pros in the film industry.
He wasn’t intimidated by all the estrogen on set, either.
“I have three older sisters and no brothers, so I’ve been surrounded by women my entire life. I didn’t find it weird at all, and I think it helps that I can look at the story objectively but still connect with the girls,” O’Brien said.
“Kathy” was screened twice at Atlantic Film Festival: once last weekend, and once on Tuesday, though O’Brien wasn’t able to attend, since he’s in the middle of shooting Season 3 of “Doyle” — of which, he admitted, he’d love to direct an episode one day, given the chance. He heard from Bridger and other friends at the screening that it went over well and the audience’s reactions were right on cue.
“They laughed when they were supposed to laugh and they gasped at the one part that’s cringe-worthy, so it’s all good,” O’Brien said.
“Kathy” will be screened next in St. John’s early next month at the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival.
In the meantime, O’Brien’s got several new film projects in the works for which he’s hoping to get funding. When he’s not actively working on films, he enjoys watching them at home, picking them apart and learning from them. He owns more than 500 movies, he said, and watching at least 15 a week, counting “The Social Network,” “Black Swan,” “Animal Kingdom” and “No Country for Old Men” among his favourites.
“You can’t learn any more about acting than watching Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” and you can’t learn any more about directing than watching a Woody Allen film,” he said. “I think the most important thing is that a movie shouldn’t just be entertainment; it should leave you with something.”