Brendon O’Loughlin is a film director with many years of experience in the industry. Now based in his native Australia, Brendon was kind enough to spend some time with me to discuss filmmaking before he flew back to Oz, having lived in the UK for some time.
O’Loughlin explains why he always produces a storyboard before shooting a film and why he thinks filmmaking can be ‘such a hard slog’. You’re in for some home truths, but also some great tips, from this movie director.
The challenge of storytelling through filmmaking
FF: How did you come to be a director… Did you have any roles within the film industry that led to that position?
B O’L: I always wanted to be a director, like most film students. I love story and the challenge of getting the concept of story across to an audience and allowing other people to engage with your world; it’s something that fascinates me. When I was 14 I read a book that I thought would make a great movie. So, from there, it’s been something I always wanted to do. I haven’t always directed… I’ve got through mass production roles including sound, production management, producing, camera department, editing, and being on set. I’ve directed some short films, educational and corporate videos, and then moving onto narrative film.
FF: Do you think it’s harder to get into the film industry now than when you first started out? Or is it actually easier?
B O’L: It depends on what you’re trying to get into. If you’re trying to get into feature films, it’s a lot harder. If you’re just happy to be on camera then, of course, social media and, in particular, YouTube and gaming platforms have opened up the whole industry. You can shoot it all yourself and it doesn’t have to look that good. If you can get a good following, then, you’re there… Anyone can do it and it’s democratised film making. You don’t need a big budget. All you need is a smartphone or similar gadget.
Getting into films is, as a I say, a lot harder. You’ve got all of the YouTubers wanting to get into that as well, so you’ve got more people competing for jobs. Then again, you’ve got things like Netflix and Amazon Prime opening up things a little bit. They’re willing to spend a lot of money on a number of projects.
Always storyboard before shooting a film
FF: Do you always storyboard before shooting a narrative film or do you take a more flexible approach?
B O’L: I always storyboard before a film. I feel that’s the best way to be prepared for a film and know what you’re trying to achieve. Be open to happy surprises on set. An actor will often give you a different performance than what you were expecting. It’s a matter of trying to work out whether the performance is what the film needs. Sometimes a performance is great but it’s not actually right for the film.
Storyboarding helps you work out camera angles and allow your support staff like your DPs and your gaffers to be able to work out where they’re going to be running cables and setting up lights. You get to do that on set through blocking as well but having previewed the location before shooting, doing a storyboard to that location is a lot easier. It just saves so much time on the day. Asking questions like: does the camera look good here… No. Let’s try here or here. As much prep work on a film as you can manage is good as it saves you time which is so precious.
Is film school really necessary?
FF: Do you have to go to ‘film school’ to learn how to direct and what do you actually learn there?
B O’L: You don’t have to but it is good to do so. They teach you the various aspects of film making. You can pick up what they teach you at film school elsewhere of course. As a director, I feel, that you need to know all of it.
You do need to know about sound. Film is 50-60% sound. That’s what sells the ‘world’; it’s a packaged process. Getting good, believable performances out of people is quite important. At the film school I went to they taught direction in the third year (which I didn’t get to do). A lot of films look amazing but you don’t believe the acting; so learning to work with the actors to achieve the necessary performance is quite difficult.
FF: … I imagine that at least partly comes from experience..?
B O’L: Yes… Experience also comes from life. Most people have watched a fair number of films so, hopefully, at a gut level, you know whether you believe in someone’s performance or not. It’s difficult on set because you’re there in the middle of it in this artificial environment looking at this screen thinking ‘do I believe this?’. You have to step back and think as the audience… If he’s meant to be conveying anger: does he look angry? Do I feel that he’s angry…? Maybe I need a little bit more out of him… then you get into edit afterwards and realise that it was a little bit too much, too cheesy etc. and that the first take was actually spot on. That sounding board of reality and what you believe is an important part of the directing role and guiding that through. It’s your vision but also making sure that what passes to the audience is believable and in style. Wes Anderson and other directors have a specific style and are happy to bring it all together. It’s a whole painting. OK, the performances might be a little kitsch but it goes with the style and the audience is happy to suspend their disbelief.
The moment you get on set you’re fighting against everything to try and reach your vision… All of these things eat away at your vision and it’s a matter of trying to manage that.
An incredible experience of ‘synergy’
FF: What’s the most difficult thing about making films and what’s the easiest?
B O’L: The most difficult thing is… everything! Everything can be a ‘problem’. Every role has got its difficulties. Getting the story right is always difficult; so much work has to go into it. So many people just want to get to the filming. Filmmaking is an incredible experience of synergy, with everyone working to the same goal. If you’ve got an amazing crew, actors and story, you’ve hit ‘Mount Everest’, the peak, and you’re on top of the world.
You’ve got all the behind-the-scenes stuff: raising money, putting all the pictures together, getting the right performances out of actors, on set and off set politics. There’s so many egos in filmmaking but that’s also a good thing; people really care about their work.
It’s a hard slog, especially as you get older! You’re getting by on 4 – 5 hours sleep most nights. Over an extended period of time that does take a toll on your health. I won’t say it’s a young person’s game but it helps if you are on the younger side! Hopefully as you get older and more experienced you get through things a lot quicker because you know what you’re after.
Oh, and I’ve written a few screenplays. The physicality of writing out 5000 words is hard!
What’s the easiest thing? Hmm, none of the above! It’s easier to be enthused by it. Personally my first major feature took a toll on me. It was so hard – I was fighting all the time to get this thing made. There’s something to be said for getting the bit between your teeth and just carrying on to get it done. Kudos to anyone for making a film because I know how hard it is!
A great story will get you out of bed in the morning. It might be 5:30/6:00am on set and you’re shooting through ‘til 6pm at night and don’t get to bed until midnight but you still look forward to the next day. Peter Jackson mentioned something… one of the hardest things is that everything in your head is at 100% – you envisage having great lighting and that all the performances are amazing etc. The moment you get on set you’re fighting against everything to try and reach your vision… You don’t have enough time to shoot what you need. Ideally you’d have 3 days to shoot one scene so you get the perfect performances from every single actor. But you’ll be on set and one of the actors will be sick or not quite on their game. Sound’s struggling with broken equipment or aircraft flying over; you’re dealing with bad lighting, changing weather etc. All of these things eat away at your vision and it’s a matter of trying to manage that.
FF: Sounds very stressful!
B O’L: Yeah, it is… Everything’s a challenge. What you end up with in the final film usually isn’t exactly what you envisioned at the start. It’s a close approximation.
Editing can make such a big difference. One of the romantic scenes we did with the editor on Baseline (2010)… we went through it all and sent it to the producers and they said they didn’t think it worked; it lacked the ‘magic’ and tension. The editor quickly cut it again and completely changed it in about 20 minutes. Editing in the narrative sense is the third time you write the story following the original writing and direction. You need to know why you’re cutting it the way you are and need to be able to stand up to the director. Be opinionated enough can help; you’re telling the story. If necessary, try to convince the director as to why the performance is better when edited in a certain way etc. Some directors just want a film to look cool. Michael Bay makes film look brilliant; Transformers looks absolutely incredible. As an editor you’d be trying to get more out of the performance.
A good cinematographer on board is so good. On Baseline (2010) they literally saved the film; they worked so quickly and they were so good with the lighting.
FF: What’s next for you?
B O’L: One project is nearly ready to go, we’re just waiting for funding and we’re good to go!
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.