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IFTN chats to Niall Owens, the Director of IFTA-nominated Short Film ‘Animal’ #IFTA17
20 Mar 2017 : Katie McNeice
A newspaper article on modern-day slavery inspired the plot of the ambitious ‘Animal’, one of six projects nominated in the Irish Academy’s Best Short Film category.

The 2017 Film & Drama Awards take place at the Mansion House, Dublin on Saturday April 8th and have thus far earned international attention for the standards showcased in this year’s nominated Irish film and drama talent.

Owens’ project is produced by Pic Du Jer Productions and follows a slave who leads his rescuer back to the camp where he was imprisoned. He talks us through the modern-day influence of the project, his hugely supportive team and his upcoming creations.   

IFTN: For readers who haven’t heard of the project please give us an overview of ‘Animal’,  your key cast members and where the concept came from.
‘Animal’ is based on a newspaper article I read in early 2016 about modern day slavery.  The article along with a song I was listening to at the time called 'Dirty Paws' kind of fueled the idea behind ‘Animal’.

Once the idea had fully formed I knew there was only one person I wanted for the lead role and that was my friend and fellow producer Ian de Bri.  I couldn't picture anyone else playing Animal. I knew Ian could handle the role; he had all the depth within himself to be able to go to the places necessary to portray the pain and fear Animal feels.  Once Ian said yes I went about casting the other roles.

My good friend and talented actor Timmy Creed agreed to sign on which really gave me confidence. Timmy is a great friend and a superb actor. I have had the pleasure of directing him on several other occasions.  The next key role was that of Driver—I had my heart set on Tom Sullivan and that's what I got. He is a superb actor who also has a marvelous insight as a director. Having someone like Tom on set is gold, as he asks the hard questions and helps push a scene in the right direction. 

For the role of the Woman I approached Eadaoin O'Donoghue, an actor from Cork, who I have admired for a long time. So much of the story hinged on Eadaoin and Ian's interactions, and as Eadaoin is a powerful stage actor and I knew she could bring what I needed to the role.

One of the key characters in ‘Animal’ was the antagonist Redcap.  Redcap is only in a few scenes but they are extremely significant scenes.  I needed an actor who could handle the physical requirements of the role while also embodying the ruthless inhumane aspects of the captors.  Kevin Barry was my go-to for this role, as he is an actor of tremendous ability.  There is a key scene in the film where Redcap humiliates Animal,  and this scene could have been terrible if handled incorrectly,  but I knew I could trust Kevin and Ian to create what I needed, which they did.  The first rehearsal of the scene left everyone in shock; it was a thing of terrible beauty.  

Ronan Conway came onboard at the last minute to play Scar, our second captor. Ronan brought an intimidating physical presence to his role which rounded out the Captors perfectly.  Olivia Romao was the last key actor to sign on and played the role of Beautiful. Finding Olivia was the spark the project needed as she brought a strength and depth to her character that was something special to watch on set.

IFTN: What were the key stages in getting ‘Animal’ from script to screen? Also on the script, how difficult was it to work with the trilogy of timelines as regards rehearsals, shooting and editing?
I wrote ‘Animal’ first as a short story as there was no dialogue, so utilizing a short story approach allowed me to get a clearer feel for the world and the story. It also allowed for potential cast and crew to be able to get into the flow of the story without the sometimes distracting structure of a script. 

Rehearsals were very brief for ‘Animal’ as there was no dialogue to learn. The actors and I spent time talking about the characters and the different interactions they would have.  

Before we got anywhere near filming myself and Ger Murphy, the Director of Photography, spent a few days on location in Co. Wicklow. Ger and I talked through scenes and also the look of the film.  For Ger and I was very important that we decide on the look and the approach early on.  We talked to Ian de Bri who was going to be doing the grade on the film about the color palette and other technical aspects.  Once we have made decisions we did not deviate; if a shot did not fit in with what we are creating then we didn’t get it, no matter how pretty it was. It is important to trust your DP and I trust Ger completely. Considering I don't like to use a monitor it is all the more important that as director you and your DP are on the same page.

Upon completion of the shoot I did a preliminary edit of ‘Animal’ just to see if I had the story. There were a few scenes I was missing that I would get as pick ups.  Once I had all the footage I spent about three weeks working on the edit. I then took it to Greystones to Ian de Bri where we sat down and worked on it some more.  It is important to acknowledge that one does not necessarily have all the tools or all the answers when it comes to creating something, and without Ian's input and guidance ‘Animal’ might not have turned out as it did.

IFTN: Talk us through filming in Co. Wicklow and any supports or obstacles you received?
Shooting in Co. Wicklow was to be honest quite straight forward—we had a good team and we were well prepared, there were no major hurdles to overcome. I had a great 1st AD in Patricia Dennehy and she kept myself and DOP Ger Murphy on track. Paraic English who also produced ‘Animal’ along with myself Ian, Timmy and Ger was invaluable during the shoot. He took care of all aspects of production while we were on set, and any would be hurdles were quickly flattened out by him.

You have an extensive filmography as a First Assistant Director on many projects, some of them feature length, and also in the locations department. Do you think you will continue to work on your own short format projects as a writer/director in the coming years?
Writing and directing will always be my first love and my day job is as a 1st AD.  I am hoping a day will come when I won’t have to do it anymore, not because I don't enjoy it, but because it’s not what I want to be doing full time.

What projects can we expect to see from in the coming months?
I am not sure. I have another short I want to do entitled, 'Trust'. Time and money will of course be a factor in whether or not I can get it done.  I have a feature script based on ‘Animal’ that Bankside Films are currently taking a look at.  I am hoping to secure a development loan from the Film Board to facilitate further development of the script.

What does the IFTA nomination mean for each of the cast and crew going forward?
I think they are delighted and proud, as I am of them.  I am especially proud of Ian de Bri, who had very little acting experience coming into ‘Animal’ and handled it like a boss.  The film rests on his shoulders not mine, and he carried it.  Going forward it will help them all in whatever they decide to do next.  ‘Animal’ is only nominated because of the sum of its parts and all those parts are clearly Academy quality so who wouldn't want to work with them? 

For a full list of #IFTA17 Nominees visit the Official IFTA Website 

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