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Dublin: 15 °C Sunday 26 May, 2019
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'If this wasn't Ireland, this film would never have gotten made'

Director Billy O’Brien tells us about what went into making a film about a serial killer, set in the American midwest.

Source: IFC Films/YouTube

A FILM ABOUT a serial killer, set in a small snowy town in the American midwest, might not seem like your ‘typical’ Irish movie. But Irish directors and producers are proving that as we move into 2017, there doesn’t need to be anything typical or stereotypical about the work they produce.

Take I Am Not A Serial Killer, the aforementioned film – out this weekend – directed by Corkman Billy O’Brien and starring veteran actor Christopher Lloyd alongside Max Records, the fantastically named teenager whose breakthrough role was in the big screen adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

Filmed in Minnesota as the winter set in, and with a budget of just $1.45 million, it’s based on the young adult novel of the same name by Dan Wells.

Records stars as John Wayne Cleaver, the son of a mortician who helps his mother prepare cadavers. Diagnosed as a sociopath and seeing a quite ineffectual therapist (played by Karl Geary, brother of the musician Mark), the movie follows as he tries to track down a local serial killer.

So far, so not Irish, a fact that’s not lost on the team behind it.

“I’ve met people in different countries like Sweden and so on, where this film would never have gotten off the ground if we had been [for example] Swedish,” says O’Brien when TheJournal.ie sits down to chat with him and Records in a Dublin city-centre hotel.

“Because they’d have said no, it has to be a Swedish story – so you know that’s why we’re really grateful that they were supporting it the whole way.”

The ‘they’ are the Irish Film Board, who part-financed the film along with the Fyzz Facility and Quickfire Films.

iamnot a Max Records (left) and Billy O'Brien

The film took years to get made – Records did his first test shoot back when he was 13 (he’s 18 now). The 16mm film required for filming sat “glaring” at O’Brien for a long time from fridges at his house, having been bought by producer Robbie Ryan (who also works with lauded British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, of American Honey) as it was due to go out of stock.

“The [Irish Film Board] were probably going ‘are they ever going to get this made’, but they supported us from the word go,” says O’Brien. “You know, they were just fantastic and also very outward looking. We didn’t know about [Oscar-winning] Room going on or Brooklyn or that, but if you look at their range of films they’re all Irish to one extent or another, but they are also international, which fits Irish people being all over the world.”

O’Brien wrote the screenplay with Christopher Hyde, and says the IFB appreciated the adaptation “from our first conversation”. Getting a big name like Lloyd on board (who has talked about how he loved that the film “is taking me into another genre”), was another boost.

“With Robbie Ryan and Nick Ryan and myself they are supporting Irish filmmakers as well which is a really great thing and a very important thing to do, in that it’s tough out there,” adds O’Brien of the board.

You meet American directors who are so envious – because it’s fine if you’re going to make a Star Wars or Superman but if you’re an American independent filmmaker you get no support, so it’s a great thing to have.

“You never know how the audience will react”

The release of the film is described by O’Brien as a “relief” and Records as a “an exhale”, and the positive reaction to it is, of course, welcome. Records shines as a troubled teen, managing to make the audience feel more empathy towards him than fear. Lloyd, meanwhile, does a great turn as a seemingly doddery old man who in fact harbours a chilling secret, while the 16mm film gives the whole production a nostalgic look.

“You never know with films, they’re their own beast and you never know how the audience will react,” says O’Brien. “It’s just it’s really good in this one because people get it and particularly in Ireland we seem to be getting the black humour really well, which I love, so that’s great.”

Filming took place about 100 miles from the Canadian border in a mining town, and the isolation afforded the team a lot of creative freedom.

“We could do what we wanted, and that’s very rare,” says O’Brien, which Records describes as a huge attraction for him in choosing to work on the film.

“[It] was great because we were away from anything and the locals loved having us there,” says O’Brien. Some of the locals even ended playing parts in the film. “You just kind of get on with it in the cold. One thing compared to Ireland, Ireland’s very grey and grim, like today. They get a lot of sunshine over there.”

Interjects Records: “It’s a different kind of grim.”

Making it

The book was set in a midwestern town, so O’Brien and his fellow producers knew they’d have to get there to make the film they wanted. It was a “thrill”, says the director, but they always questioned if they would actually be able to do it.

“[I] remember me, Robbie and Nick just sort of talking about this and then we decided… we’re not big time producers but we are filmmakers, so we just hopped on a plane and went over there and that’s where we got Max up and did the tests.”

It was a revelatory moment for them.

“We realised something, that actually it’s not that difficult and the town – in terms of the look the town has it all, so we don’t need a massive art direction budget, we don’t need a big crew, there actually is a way,” recalls O’Brien.

Because in one sense it sounds mad, Irish people going on location to America to film rather than a big American film coming to Ireland, but actually we got over there and there’s a real can-do, do it yourself spirit in the midwest because they have to – so yeah, it just fitted and it was good that way, it worked.

I Am Not A Serial Killer goes on general release this weekend in Irish cinemas.

Read: Trailer Watch: Which movie should you go see this weekend?>

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