Making a killing, part 1

Billy O’Brien on I Am Not A Serial Killer and how he became a filmmaker.

by Paul Risker

Max Records in I Am Not A Serial Killer
Max Records in I Am Not A Serial Killer

Director Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of Dan Wells’ teen fiction novel, I Am Not A Serial Killer tells the story of John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), a teenager diagnosed with sociopathic tendencies who finds his small Midwestern town stalked by a killer. The film played as part of the Cult strand at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, where O’Brien looked back on the making of the film with Eye For Film, offering an insightful take on film production exhibition.

In the first of a two part I Am Not A Serial Killer interview series, O’Brien reflects on his own creative journey and the nuances of the filmmaking process, touching upon the way in which it imitates life. He also discussed the unreasonable demands low budget filmmakers are confronting and the inability of film schools to prepare students for the harsh realities of modern filmmaking, concluding with concerns about the festival infrastructure.

Small town detective work
Small town detective work

Paul Risker: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Billy O'Brien: I grew up on a farm and I had very sensible parents. The traditional thing in an Irish farm is the son becomes the farmer, but both my parents realised early on I would be fucking terrible as a farmer. So they let me go to art college, which is what I wanted to do because I loved drawing. So I dreamed of being a comic artist, but I wasn't good enough, and to be honest in Ireland in the Eighties there wasn't a lot of demand for that. I heard there was a thing called storyboarding and so I looked that up. I did some storyboards and that got me into film school. I became a production designer because it sort of led from art college, only for me to realise that there was so much technical drawing involved. It's a bit like architecture and I'm rubbish at maths. Then I got to direct a student film and I just loved it.

I think before that it was growing up in the VHS generation and seeing all these really odd and weird films. We only had R21 and 22 channels and seeing things like Brazil, Blade Runner, The Terminator and Mad Max was just mind blowing for somebody on a farm, and so the combination of that I think led to it.

PR: I recall Quentin Tarantino saying: “If you want to make films, watch films. If you want to write books, read books.” But I have also heard the contrary opinion, to pursue that which you are less familiar with or rather have had less exposure to. How do you view the importance of exposure to a creative medium as being integral to the individual pursuing it?

Getting to know the neighbours
Getting to know the neighbours

BO'B: Well I think it gives it an hunger. I kind of wonder about kids today because everything is on tap. Look, I love music and I use Spotify, but I do think it slightly demeans everything when you can just... Look, you remember when you saved up to get the album and you listened to every song to death because you’d spent the money on it. All you had was that album. So the sort of Netflix equivalent of film is dangerous because it has that way of demeaning stuff a little. So going into film, the fact that I wasn't exposed to a lot growing up on the farm meant that when I went to art college, I went to the cinema every day. I started off in the afternoons going to see whatever was out, and that was a massive education. But for me it was the actual making of it. I was told by an old TV and theatre director in Ireland whose name completely escapes me, “If you watch a film and you think,I'd have loved to have been involved in that, you'll end up being crew, and you'll be very happy. If you watch it and think,I wish I made that or I could have made that better, you'll probably end up being a director.” There is quite a lot of truth in that.

PR: Have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced the way you watch films as a spectator?

BO'B: It's really simple. If the film and the storytelling is good you mostly don't notice it. If the film is bad then you notice everything, and my wife will tell you that she goes nuts at me because I'll be like, “Why did he do that?” But if it's good, the joy I feel at a well made film is just fantastic.

"You don't know the things I've done."
"You don't know the things I've done."

Kubrick always said that you learn more from watching bad films than from watching good films - it comes into my head every time. The other one about Kubrick that is fascinating is that he rang John Boorman, the director of Deliverance director in the middle of the night one time. They had a vague friendship, but John Boorman was like, Jesus, what's Kubrick doing ringing me now? And Kubrick goes,“We’ve got screenplays wrong. The wider part should be the dialogue and the description should be the narrow part.” Boorman wrote about this in the Projections series he used to edit. He said that when he went back to bed he couldn't sleep, so he got up and actually typed up a script and he found out that Kubrick was right [laughs]. I've never tried it myself, but it's funny.

PR: The idea of learning more from bad films is similar to how we learn more from our mistakes than successes in life.

BO'B: Absolutely, and spotting how somebody does something bad means you will be aware of that the next time you try to do it. So yeah, you are right there and that's a very good point.

PR: So living and making films is not all that different?

BO'B: No. When I am talking to directors that are going into it for the first time, what I try to teach them is not to underestimate the stamina needed, because it is a physical thing. In Ireland there are a lot of writers, as in literary and not screenwriters - it’s our tradition. They'll go and make a film, and they'll have a full Union crew and very little time. And that's the thing nobody teaches you at film school - how little time you get. They are used to working on their own in time in a dreamlike state, when in film you have to communicate, and it's tough. So I notice that these films sometime fail and what's really annoying is the director isn't given a chance, but everybody condemns him for the bad film. It’s actually that they didn't realise what they were getting into and it was kind of stacked against them.

I Am Not A Serial Killer poster
I Am Not A Serial Killer poster

Low budget films, ten years ago, you'd get six to seven weeks to make them, sometimes longer. I got eight on my first one, but the average now is three or four weeks, and you are expected to have the same product at the end, which is crazy, absolutely crazy. When I see a lot of bad films I kind of look for the spark. I know the whole film doesn't work, but I look for the parts that do work to see what the vision is, and hope that they have enough resilience to survive the backlash and go on to make another one.

PR: From conversations with filmmakers, I tend to come away with the impression that more budget would not necessarily have resulted in a better film.

BO'B: No, absolutely. This one was a combination. We had thirty days and we came in two days ahead of schedule, but we had to because we were running out of money, it was such low budget. But this is the fourth feature project I've done and if it was my first one, God I wouldn't have made it. But on this one, partly because Robbie the cameraman and myself went to film school together,there was a short hand, and he's bloody fast. So the energy was absolutely fine. I didn't feel at any point that I can remember the sense that you get on some experiences, where as the shoot goes on you are losing the battle between time and creativity. There were probably small irritations, but nothing major and I didn't feel it with this one at all.

We talked a bit about how if we'd have had loads more money there were certain areas we could have done with help for sure. It was too tight to get made, but the overall film wouldn't have... All of the main scenes with the main actors wouldn't have benefited much from more time.

PR: In the end it is a case of accepting the choices you have made and hope the film finds and connects with an audience. I wonder however, if the shortcoming of the critical profession is that we review based on our expectations, finding it difficult to adjust our expectations while the film is playing.

BO'B: I've been out of the festival circuit for a while because we spent so long getting this one made. There's a thing I noticed this time around, which is the whole festival premiere league nature of Sundance and Cannes. We were in South by Southwest and so we were in the first division, not quite in the Premiership. I've noticed, and it's not so much blogs or genre sites, but the mainstream papers like the New York Times and a couple of the Aussie ones. They gave it three out of five, but there's a flippant tone to their reviews that annoys me because if it had been in Cannes or Sundance, even if they had given it one star they would have been forced to consider it more, because it's one of those films. And because it's not they are assuming it's a low budget horror film that nobody really cares about, and so they do a quick kind of flippant review. So that annoys me because it’s about perception. And for buyers it's very important that you are in those big festivals because there is a festival frenzy where all of the buyers are competing. It's great to be there, but they haven't really considered how it has a knock on effect all the way down the line. Even just now doing the London Film Festival Afternoon Tea with the different press, somebody was saying that he'd been trying to watch all of the Official In Competition films. He had seen the press one of ours and then realised it was in the Cult section, and was quite surprised because he assumed it would be in competition. I'm not blaming the LFF. I'm quite happy because the Cult section suits me, but it is interesting when you think of why they put films in the different categories.

I Am Not A Serial Killer official art
I Am Not A Serial Killer official art

We are in Rome next week, which I am actually really thrilled about because I've always loved Fellini since I was in art college, as well as Sergio Leone and all the rest. But we are in the Panorama sidebar which are the teenage films [laughs]. Oh okay, but we are still in Rome. And that is a direct line down from Sundance and Cannes in that these festivals have to… The audience want to see the big names that they have heard about and so you have the premiere ones, and then the national ones like Rome and London. So I get it, I get the whole thing, but I never really considered it before. I am kind of like, you should judge a film on its merits, basically. I know that I Am Not A Serial Killer is not for everybody, it is marmite in that way, but I'm just doing my damnedest to make sure it's seen by as many people as possible.

Read part two of our interview with Billy O'Brien here.

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