Director Shaun O’Connor Talks A White Horse

Set in Ireland in the 1970s, this short film looks at a girl trying to escape a mental hospital where she is a patient going through conversion therapy. Seeing films like this always shatters my heart into tiny little pieces. To know that so many people had to go through things like this and are still going through these sorts of situations in the world now really is terrifying. That is why this sort of film needs to continue to be made, to raise awareness and understanding about this topic and the things that surround it.

The character of Bridget, played by Amber Deasy, is quiet, unsure and scared. She is played insanely well by Deasy, even though it must’ve been uncomfortable to really get to grips with this sort of person, especially with that they have to deal with. Written by Paul Cahill, we really are treated to a short that feels almost like it’s set on a fantasy planet, or we’re faced with the ghosts of our own past. I think this film is beautiful in ways and haunting in others, really letting the truth be known. Edited and directed by Shaun O Connor, we see how these ghost-like words have been bought to life in an artistic yet real way. I have some questions for him, and luckily, he is here to answer.

First of all, what was the cause of this production? And do you feel personally connected to the story in any way?

The film was made in 2019 with the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland’s ARRI TAKE award, based on a script by Paul Cahill. Paul had been inspired by the stories of people who found themselves committed, with little cause, into Irish psychiatric institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. The experience affected them profoundly and the film is in honour of them. Another major influence was the memoir ‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ by Hanna Greally, an Irish woman who spent nineteen years in a psychiatric hospital.

Things like this are not easy to talk about, let alone make a film about. What did you do to make sure that it felt respectful and understanding to the cast and crew, the people who have gone through it and for an audience?

That was something we addressed from the script stage in terms of tone. We did fine tuning throughout the rehearsal process too, making sure that the performances were hitting the right notes. Luckily, we had amazing actors on board who knew what we were going for. As dark as the subject matter is, we really wanted the film to be about the connection and love, however broken, between Bridget and her parents.

Being both the director and the editor, how did your final version of the film differ from the original vision?

It was pretty close. We shot on a very tight budget so didn’t have much space to manoeuvre outside of what we planned to shoot. The only major difference was there is no music in the finished film. That wasn’t planned, but when I started drafting up the edit, it felt very strong without music, so we stuck with that.

For me personally, with the colours and style of the filming, everything felt quite dream-like and surreal. I’d love to know more about the production choices and why colours are used in this film rather than just the typical gritty, grey colour palette.

We were trying to convey a sense of Bridget’s confusion and the fact that she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. For the scenes at her home and in Bridget’s room, we kept a warmer look to emphasize the fact that Bridget has been exiled from this place, physically and emotionally.

Your short film has won quite a few awards over the festival season. What do you think makes your film stand out compared to other films being shown, and even next to more films that look at similar topics like ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ and ‘Boy Erased’?

I think the fact that it’s an Irish story really makes it stand out. Irish culture is so unique in terms of our relationship with religion, the family unit, etc. Ireland was really at a watershed moment in the late 1970s (at the time the story is set), starting to discard its deference to dogma and authority. So while the story is a universal one, the context of it happening to an Irish family at that point in history really sets it apart.

How important is it to you that heavy topics are looked at in film and used to educate and help others understand?

It’s very important. It helps audiences to better empathize with and understand topics that might otherwise be abstract. But it’s equally important to make sure that you’re telling a story effectively. Portraying a heavy topic, or any topic, will only work if you’re actually connecting with an audience.

To finish, for now, are you hoping to continue creating films like this that can be uncomfortable to watch but are important? Or are you up to something else?

We’re currently developing a TV mini-series called ‘Unclaimed’ that is based on the same characters as ‘A White Horse’, and set in an Irish psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. It’s quite heavy in terms of drama but also has lots of humour and joy in it. I got my start in film making comedies and think that has always benefited me, even when making the heavier dramas.

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