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Interview with Stephen O'Connell – Editor of upcoming Sky Atlantic show ‘Fortitude’
09 Dec 2014 : Seán Brosnan
With ‘Fortitude’, a thriller set in a sleepy, Icelandic town starring Richard Dormer and Stanley Tucci, airing on Sky Atlantic next month, IFTN caught up with Stephen O’Connell, the man who cut three episodes of the slick, suspenseful, British show.

Stephen is an IFTA winner (for 2006’s ‘Stardust’) and has worked on television shows such as ‘Titanic: Blood and Steel’ and ‘Camelot’ and edited features such as ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Pipe’.

IFTN: Tell us about your work on 'Fortitude'.

STEPHEN O’CONNELL:‘Snowmobiles! Murder! Sophie Grabol and Stanley Tucci - what’s not to love! It’s a contemporary thriller set in an arctic research town that has had no history of crime, until now. I’ve never cut the middle block of a series before so I was interested in the challenge of strengthening the centre-point of a series, re-enforcing character and story where dips often occur after promising starts. We shot all exterior scenes in Iceland and most interiors in London. In Iceland, rushes were uploaded every night by the location DIT and processed every morning, synced and re-uploaded in London. On an average morning I would have 60GB of HD rushes ready to cut in Dublin by 10am. It was a very smooth and efficient workflow, thanks to my assistants Charlene Short and Samantha Fogerty. Having a fantastic post-supervisor in Nina Khan early in the process was hugely beneficial also. I had never worked with Director Hettie McDonald but was a fan. She was a joy to work with from start to finish. Her focus on story and performance is inspiring and it was particularly interesting to explore the subtext of scenes in light of what had come before and where the show was going. There are some terrific performances from Richard Dormer - he plays the Sheriff of the town of Fortitude. It’s like a Western in many ways. In the snow.’

What training/education did you receive to become an editor?

‘I studied the very basic principles of film and television at DIT for 2 years. You can’t learn a craft in a specific timeframe, so that was really a foundation for what followed.

What was your first job in the industry?

‘I spent a year running! I got a job in a post-production facility (Windmill Lane) and was taken on by Tom O’Flaherty in the commercials department to be trained as an Assistant Editor. I was lucky to work under the finest people in the business at that time, in commercials, drama, graphics and music. It was hard work but fantastic fun for five years. A great Editor called Philip Cullen took me under his wing and taught me about rhythm and listening to your gut. His attention to detail was/is critical. The environment there was incredibly conducive to expression, but I was craving drama, and there were more opportunities freelance, so after five years I left, and have been my own man for almost 20.’

What do you enjoy most about being an editor? And what do you consider the greatest challenges to being an editor?

‘I can't imagine anything better. I feel very lucky. As time goes on, I notice that I invest more of my own personality through editing. You feel more free to explore and give more of yourself, drawing from your own life experiences - through the films you see, the music you listen to, books, art, photography, the travel and relationships - your life becomes a greater reference point for your work. I work with the Director in realising their vision when all the elements are shot. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the best way to achieve this, but there’s nothing better than sitting in a cutting room with a Director exploring ways to tell a story. When you see a scene come together, the way they intend, it’s magic. And I love the freedom to bring something new to the table, something that hasn’t been thought of, but elevates the story. I also travel quite a bit which is great. I’ve cut all over the world in places as far away and as diverse as Australia, India and Canada, but I work between London and Dublin mainly. The challenges are many, like in any department. Finding those stories that speak to you is important, and having the time with the Director to get everything you can from their material is always a challenge.’

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.

‘I love early starts during production and the morning is precious time in editing for me. There are less calls, and my brain is primed. An Editor has to be on top of the material from the moment it comes in the door, and give feedback through an initial edit or a call to the Director or Producer before the day ends. Myself and my assistant are the first to see rushes in the context of the story, so initial feedback is important. I try to leave the afternoons to problem solve, communicate with crew, organise and catch up on notes from the Director on the previous day’s scenes. Though I use mainly Avid, the difference between available equipment is minimal now and the focus is about the infrastructure around your kit, connection speeds, more efficient workflows and giving time back to Editing. Apple democratised editing, like Canon have done with shooting, so the focus is now on what you are saying, rather than what you’re using to say it. This has to be welcomed. I’m looking forward to seeing where Avid Resolution Independence and Avid Everywhere brings us - being able to fluidly scale rushes via the cloud and across your entire workflow could be game changer.’

What filmmaker/editor has influenced you?

‘I’m influenced by everything to be honest. ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ blew my mind as a kid. ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ shook my body. And when I saw ‘Wings Of Desire’, it woke my soul. The first time you realise how film can move you, it’s powerful, it’s like falling in love.’

What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘There’s something very moving about John Huston’s film ‘The Dead’, that never leaves me. All the elements are in sync with the source material, not least the editing. It’s a terrific example of perfect story and rhythm. ‘Bloody Sunday’ is exceptional, and shows how editing can be an upfront character in telling a story. It’s raw, visceral and confident. But like ‘The Dead’, the story and rhythm are perfect. I would love to have cut ‘In America’.’

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

‘I was a regular kid in the 70’s and 80’s. My Father had a love of French, Italian and Russian films, as well as being a Westerns aficionado! He was a printer and painter so I think I have a broad palette of influences. I didn’t think it was actually possible to work in the industry though, it was like the circus there, but you’d never be allowed to join! Ireland has come a long way in a short time in that regard, and with easier access to education and technology, it’s a choice anyone can make now. Leaving school, it was a confluence of everything I had grown up with and the penny dropped and I realised - I can actually do this!’

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

‘Big question. International projects can have higher budgets obviously, and with that comes a different level of talent and expectation. There can be more resources, and more time to get something right as there’s often more at stake. On the creative front, there was a time when pace differed widely between continents. I remember being told by an American producer that there must be a cut every three seconds to keep the viewer engaged! I feel the current swell in television drama has levelled those differences considerably, and a piece of drama, whether film or television, either works or it doesn’t. Audiences are smart. Most indigenous productions now have an international element to it so we are getting used to the notion that our audience is the world. On ‘Fortitude’ there were scenes we recut for the US specifically, but every market has differences and concessions and these can’t be ignored.’

What are your hopes and fears for your profession?

‘The infrastructure which supported the training of Assistants has all but disappeared. The responsibility has landed on post-production facilities and freelance Editors, which is better than nothing, but haphazard. This isn’t healthy for Editing. I’d like to see Irish Editors become more organised as a group and get more international work that often goes abroad after shooting here. Despite a country of our size, we have incredible Editors available and our post facilities like Windmill, Screen Scene and Egg are as good if not better than most in London.’

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into editing?

‘Just do it! There’s no excuse. Film, television, and the craft of editing is new and the possibilities are endless. There’s lots we haven’t discovered yet, places we haven’t explored. Forge your own way forward and don’t underestimate what you can bring to the screen that is uniquely you and valuable. It’s very tough to break into, particularly drama, but you need to be persistent and remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

Check out our interview with DOP John Conroy, who worked on the opening three episodes of ‘Fortitude’ here.

‘Fortitude’ will air on Sky Atlantic in January 2015. Check out the trailer here:




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