Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Around the table with...Billy O'Brien.

Born in Cork, Ireland in 1970, Billy studied art and film in Ireland before doing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He began work in the film industry while still a student, designing short films and music promos. He also worked as a storyboard artist for Hugh Hudson (Chariots Of Fire). After college Billy began directing TV commercials and, in 2000, was nominated for a BAFTA for his short film The Tale Of The Rat That Wrote. He went on to direct the dark horror feature film Isolation in 2005, and since then has worked as both a screenwriter and director on several projects. Billy lives on the edge of Dartmoor with his wife Philippa and their two small children, Brendan and recent arrival Ebba.

From left to right - Howard, Billy and Rex.

H - Today we have the first in our series of 'Around the table with...' interviews. And we are very pleased to have our friend and fellow villager, writer/film director Billy O'Brien. So, first of all, Billy, thanks for coming...
B - Pleasure. This is a slightly odd way to be ‘interviewed.’
H - We like to think of it as more like a chat.
R - I like to think of it as an interrogation.
B - I’ve actually done a lot of interviews lately, and the interviewers nearly always ask you questions like 'How much does a pint of milk cost?' To see if you live in the real world.
R – While the croissants are warming up, let me ask you first: What did you feel about your conveyancing over here with me?
B – Well, it's a beautiful morning. I was worried about ice on the hill up to the house, but it was fine.
H – And was Rex polite to you? I worry about that.
B -  Polite, yes, but slightly unsettling. He uses words like 'conveyancing,' and I have to guess what that means. I was half-expecting him to appear with a balaclava and a silencer, like the Hot Fuzz neighbourhood watch committee.
H - Yes, I worry about that with Rex too! 
R – Hmm....
H - So, Billy, let’s begin. As I think about the graphic novel we're creating, and the odd way that it has developed, being arse-about-face....
R - Whose fault is that?
H - Quite, whose fault was that, Rex? Anyway, Billy, ignoring Rex and getting back to the question…
B – But what was the question?
H - I was wondering how you begin your film projects, and if your approach is different if you are working from one of your own ideas, as opposed to when you're hired to direct someone else’s story. Take, for example, your film The Tale of the Rat that Wrote....

B - I co-wrote that film with a young Brazilian writer, Murilo Pasta. I had just come out of art college, and writing a script was daunting to me. I had worked on storyboards for films, but the idea of writing a filmscript was, at that point, a little worrying. It was also the first time I had to do research for a story. I had meetings with the anti-vivisection campaign, BUAV, and at one point in my script the film devolved into a propaganda rant against animal testing. When I started working with the rat puppets, though, they brought the story back into focus, which was very important, as story should always come first.
R - What about the allegation that the puppets were cruelly treated?
B - Is this off the record?
H - No.
B - Then there is no truth to those allegations! In fact, the puppets saved the day, as did the whole visual side of the filmmaking process. Todd Jones, a Henson puppeteer, came on board the film as the chief puppeteer. One amazing thing that happened as result is that Todd trained up our animators as puppeteers. Animators are solitary people, but puppeteers have to work closely with one another, with maybe three of them controlling a single puppet. On Day Two, one of the  animators got up and walked off set and disappeared! He couldn’t deal with working so closely in a group.
R - It is quite a remarkable film.
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
B - I think it's still the best thing that I’ve done. And that was in 1999.
H – So, back to my question….
B - Which was?
R – Wait, I’ll get the croissants out before they burn.
H - Use an oven glove....
R - I’ll use a puppet!
H – Okay, was that among the allegations of puppet cruelty?
R & B - …….
H – So, back to my question, which was: What is the difference between working with your own  story as opposed to being hired to direct someone else's story? For example, the film you’ve just finished for The Syfy Channel...
B - After my first feature film,  Isolation, I was sent a lot of filmscripts by my terrifyingly powerful L.A. agent. It's such an industry over there -- like in Glengary Glenn Ross. They send you  leads (ie, scripts), and a lot of them are old, etc.. They have stock-piles of scripts -- but for those scripts to become 'alive', and to have any chance of getting made, the scripts need ‘elements’ (a director, actors, etc.) attached to them. If the project can attach a director, the hope is that it will be also attract actors, etc. -- so they send a lot of stuff to new directors like me. At first I turned down everything, because I found it weird to be sent stuff, and because I didn’t know how to get into other people’s work. To be honest, there was also a certain amount of fear...and also, frankly, a feeling that some of the scripts just weren't good enough. Because filmmaking had always been intensely personal for me, I found it hard to understand the language of how to work on someone else’s project. But film is money, filmmaking is business. I didn’t know where my job began and ended. Cut to five years later, and I end up working for Syfy! 
H – Why the change?
B - Because I was broke! I had a second child on the way, and I needed the money. It turned out, though, to be one of the best experiences I could have had. The necessity of working in a fast, focused way cut through all my insecurities. Also, I always wondered if I could actually do a film in 15 days. Whenever I'd pitched low budget ideas to producers in the past, there was always a niggling doubt: Could I really do a film that quickly and cheaply? Now I know that I can, and that was a big break through for me. But to get back to your question: Working on other people's ideas requires a totally different mind-set than working on your own project. When it is your own idea and story, it can be easy to get very self-indulgent.
H – That's interesting. Rex and I have talked about this in relation to comics….
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
R – Yes, it's a problem in comics too. When it's your own story, it can be hard to know when you've crossed the line into self-indulgence. Take my first version of John Barleycorn Must Die, for example. I thought it was brilliant, but no one who read it could understand it!
B – In that sense it's easier to work on someone else's story. You have more distance from it, you can see what it needs. As a director, I have the freedom to change things. Script writers don't always like that, of course, but for a film to work hard decisions have to be made throughout the process, the story has to work not just on paper but as a film. The difference between writing a filmscript and a book is that a book is an end product in itself, but a script is a blueprint; it's the film that's the end product. So as director, your priority isn't following the script religiously, but making the film work. This is true of every film project; whether you're a writer, director, or both, you have to live with this reality. 
H – So as a director, your obligation is to the film not the script. It's the film you have your name on, not the script.
B – Yes. When you're working on someone else’s project, it does give you a kind of freedom. It's easier to say: 'This is a mundane scene, let’s take it out, or make it better.' That's harder to do with your own story; it’s harder to be distant enough from the tale to see it as objectively.
H – Rex and I have been talking about that subject, both within our own project and in regards to film.
R – Yes. But I think some directors have too much power.
H – Oh god, Rex, don’t start talking about Ridley Scott again!
B - Ridley Scott...?
H - Ignore him, Billy. It's interesting what you're saying here, as I would have thought it would be the other way around: easier to change your own work, because you created it and because you don’t have to clash with another writer's ideas.
B – In an ideal world, of course, the other writer always agrees with you! I mean, if it were David Mammet, or someone of that stature, it would be different; I wouldn’t dare change a word. But sadly, in five years of having scripts sent to me – and these are ones already vetted by the agency - I have to say that in most cases they are pretty dull. It doesn’t mean they will make bad films, necessarily. In some cases, because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, weak scripts can be turned into good films.
H -  Another question then: How do you imagine your work? I mean, in film there are so many different constituent parts: editing, compositing, special effects, etc.. In your films, there are a lot of visual monsters and gore and there must be lots of post production. How do you imagine that before you start filming?
B - Because I come from a drawing tradition, I always do my own storyboards. Many producers expect you to storyboard only the action sequences, as a technical exercise, but I do my own narration storyboards for the whole of the film. One has to be careful not to over-plan. I find that if you plan a film too much it can kill the energy on set, especially with actors; but for me creating a storyboard is the way that I get all my ideas down on paper. For example, people think a dialogue scene is a simple collection of close ups, but actually it is like a collection of photographs. Look at Rex sitting in a chair there: the way he sits reveals as much about him as what he says. If a portrait photographer was to photograph him, they would find a way to convey Rex's personality through the framing, the lighting, and the angle of shot. So there is much more to a simple scene of dialogue than the words the actors are speaking. By storyboarding the scene, I have a sense of what I want to convey visually while the actors speak. 
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
H - I see.
B - The classic example of this idea is Rosemary’s Baby. The cameraman lined up a shot with Mia Farrow perfectly framed, on the telephone, and then called Polanski over. Polanski moved the camera over a few feet. Now all you could see of Mia Farrow was her back and the door frame. The cameraman was confused, but Polanski, with a little smile, said: 'Shoot it.' At the premier, the cameraman said he looked around at the audience at that moment in the film, and people were physically leaning, trying to peer round the door! What is film, after all, but a series of cut-up pictures?
H - Like a comic?
B - Exactly. A director needs to know two things: what to say to the actors, and where to put the camera. 
H – It's interesting to hear you talk about the process of directing, because I've spent most of my life directing too, although in my case for the stage. I come out of the theatrical tradition of Commedia dell'Arte -- which is similar to film, I think, in that Commedia works best if the director conceives the piece as a series of moving images, or tableaux.
B – That's interesting.
R - There was one shot in your latest film, Billy, where the senator was walking towards the camera, approaching an actress, and just as the senator's head was in shot, a soldier’s head came into view.
B - The only interesting shot in that five minute scene!
R - Where did the idea for that shot come from?
B - The two key actors in that scene are the senator and a woman scientist. They are like two contestants. I imagined their connection like a chord between their eyes -- and the soldier breaks that. The idea came originally from the script, which made me think of the scene in picture terms -- and so it was storyboarded, and it worked on the day of the shoot.  
R - In some of the shots of the senator, it seems as if there is a knowing nod to the camera….
B - I think that's because John Reese Davies is an a very good actor, but quite big. He was improvising, off the cuff, out the side of his mouth. All that was improvised. It was great.
R - It's a shot that I use a lot in comics, an ironic side stare.
B - There is an Alan Moore comics technique that I really love, where he uses the same panel over again, exactly the same. In the first panel some devastating news is delivered, and in the second panel it is like the character is frozen by the news. There was a moment in The Killing Joke, for example, where the Joker hears that his wife is dead. It is a wonderful device, it is like time has stopped still.
R - That was Brian Bolland. The artist for that comic.
B - Yes, it might have been, but I've read Alan Moore’s scripts and he is anally precise in his instruction to the illustrator. He's like: 'Draw exactly five buttons on a shirt based on this pattern.'
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
R - He is quite a technician, Bolland, and has good narrative technique too.
B - It's an incredible comic. When the Joker comes in and shoots the police commissioner’s daughter in the stomach, there is no dialogue on the page. It is a classic Eissenstein montage.
R  - You know, I'd forgotten that almost everyone that we plan to interview for this blog, no matter what their particular field, also has some interest in comics.
H - Billy, had you ever considered going into comics yourself?
B - When I was in art college (in Limerick, Ireland) in the 1980s, there wasn’t much of a career path in comics. So I went on to film school instead. But I’ve always loved comics. 
H - If it had been possible, would you have liked being a comics artist?
B - My drawing isn't good enough for that -- but back then I didn’t know you could be a comics writer. Now I'm on a different path, but it would be interesting to write a comic.
H – Have you been influenced in your directing by comics?
B - Um, it's different to that. My brain works in a sequential way, because I always doodle the storyboard when thinking of a film. It's a kind of safety net; it’s instinctive for me that if I want to picture a scene I draw it. I now find that I also ‘post’ storyboard, to make sure that I have all the shots I need at the end of the day. It is obviously ingrained in me that this is the way I need to work. If I am having a bad day on the set, a storyboard will perk me up, let me know which way to go with the scene, even if everything else has gone to hell. When I went to art school, in Limerick, it was at the dawn of the great graphic novels: The Watchmen, V for Vendeta, Arkham Asylum, The Sandman, and Electra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz (which is still one the most post-modern uses of narrative in a comic). Books like these are what got me into sequential story telling. Narratively, in Electra Assassin, you have up to nine speech bubbles, with different colours, to distinguish between each character. It was like a post-punk way of cutting things up. Since I was in art college, learning about bauhaus and pop art etc, it really spoke to me.
R - Howard would very much like to have John Barleycorn published in colour, and to use colour as a narrative tool. 
H - I want to have the inner realm world in a flat colour, like that used in old comics, like the ‘Beano'  -- and then the other realms coloured with more 3D effects, giving depth to these scenes and showing the different levels of reality.
B - Here’s an idea for you: You could print out of a page of the comic, and put props like a coffee cup on it, then photograph it, so that it becomes an image of an image. Frank Miller does that, in Electra Assassin, Bill Sienkiewicz draws creases in the paper for example.
R - I was wondering on a personal level: I know you have a small child, and a newborn baby. Congratulations, by the way.
H - Yes, congratulations.
B - Thank you.
R - It must have been tough for you to be away on a film set for four months.
B - Seven months, in total this year. Yes, this is something that Phillipa, my wife, and I are facing regarding my career. It is rare to have a film shot where you live. It’s like the circus. It travels. I am always going to be going away to work. It is lovely to be home in the village now, with my wife and my children.
H - One final question.
B- Yes?
H - How much is a pint of milk?
B - 42 pence? It varies, depending on whether you go to the Spar or the Dairy….

Billy O'Brien - The camera never lies.


  1. Fascinating reading the interview back, bit like an out of body experience. the croissants were very good though. I think this series of interviews asking questions that effect both your own work and the interviewee is a very positive thing. Its rare that interviews happen between equals so to speak, and so the process is valuable for bringing into the opening the working method. Cheers again!


  2. Great interview. Thanks, guys!

    I would have liked to have heard more about the difference/similarities in directing for film and for stage, so I was a bit sorry when the conversation, after touching on this, suddenly veered in another direction! (A conversational thread to pick up at the pub one night, ey?) But I was fascinated by Billy's comments on comics and sequential storytelling, and how that has influenced him as a film director. Much food for thought.

    Again, thanks!