Interview with makers of ‘Opus K’ which screens at Darklight Festival

(Patrick O’Donnell in Opus K)

Opus K is a stylish detective story that screens at Darklight on Friday, 21st October at 4pm in The Factory, 35A Barrow Street, Grand Canal Dock.  Film Ireland caught up with its director Eamonn Gray and DOP Baz Al Rawi.

Q: How did Opus K come about?

Eamonn: After film school I had pages of notes and diagrams which roughly outlined ideas for possible films. I was 26 and concerned about arriving late to the party. I’d read the CVs of Irish directors making feature debuts and the thoughts of spending the next ten years making short films or ‘calling cards’ made me a little nauseous. I knew Baz felt similarly and that we shared an innate discomfort with any notions of practical wisdom, so when the idea of making a feature was floated, it was accepted immediately and without debate. Now we needed a script.

All I had was a proposition based on an article I’d read about the organ trade in Pakistan. It was simply this: Your brother needs a kidney transplant. Without it he’ll die. He comes to you for help. You say no. How do you justify your decision?

I checked myself into Stephen Walsh’s programme for procrastinating screenwriters in Filmbase. I had eight weeks to get from fade in to fade out. I left with about seventy semi-coherent pages and a title that I hoped to change down the road. That title was Opus K, borrowed from a cataloguing system used by classical music composers.

The most important decision I made during that time was selecting the genre. It would be a detective story, along the lines of The Parallax View and Angel Heart. The case would be the structure. I wrote dozens of drafts between 2007 and 2009. I thought I was finished writing when we began shooting but the truth is I was writing during the shoot and well into post. Nothing informs your writing process like seeing your words as moving images which a lot of people sweated to create. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Q: What are the film’s main stylistic influences?

Baz: We wanted to make a film in the style of the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s particularly films like Alan J Pakula’s ‘Klute’ and ‘The Parallax View’. The cinematographer on both of those films was Gordon Willis aka ‘The PrinceOf Darkness’. These films had a naturalistic feel to the lighting and Willis expertly used shadow and darkness to emphasize moral ambiguity. He was a master of visual relativity, crafting strong contrasts between scenes using light, and as as his moniker suggests he was never afraid of the dark. His work was hugely influencial on the style of Opus K.

The protagonist, John K, has sheltered himself within a cocoon but soon finds himself being manipulated by external forces which force him out of his comfort zone. We wanted to paint the scenes in high contrast to convey this shadowy world filled with shady characters of questionable motive. The visual style of the film was very deliberately designed to accentuate and augment the thematic resonances within the script. We chose an earthy colour palette of muted greens, blacks and browns to dominate John K’s world, it’s a dark and troubled place which is contrasted occasionaly with flashes of yellow.

We looked at a lot of Edward Hopper, particularly for his use of green and his depiction of alienated and isolated characters in urban environments. A lot of the motifs that you see in the film were drawn directly from the script but certain elements we built into the set to enhance the theme and the mood even further such as flickering fluorescent lights and narrow windows. Darius Knondji’s magnificent work on Seven and Jeff Croneworth’s handling of a shadowy underworld in Fight Club also provided strong starting points for our approach.

Q: How and where was the film shot?

Baz: We shot the film over two weeks in April 2009, picking up some scenes over 4 days in October and the final pickups in April 2010. The film was shot digitally in high definition using the Sony Ex-1 and the Cinevate Brevis 35mm lens adaptor.  Most of the scenes were shot on locations in and around Dublin city, except for John K’s apartment and a few other interiors for which sets were built in a warehouse in south Dublin city. Having a purpose built set to shoot the majority of the film in was a dream as it allowed us so much control over the look. Eamonn and I spent a long time discussing the style of the film, what kind of atmosphere we wanted to create. These conversations evolved firstly into sketches and then 3D mock ups of sets. Creating the space from the ground up was a daunting task, you have a completely blank canvas to work with so you’re essentially looking to design something that is going to facilitate blocking, have the right aesthetic and is not going to throw up any unforseen difficulties. It needed to be a space that felt lived in and that captured the mood of the story.

Emma Lowney joined the team and contributed her expert guidance on how we could take the sketches to the next stage and she oversaw the build and decoration with a keen attention to detail and a telepathic understanding of what we were trying to achieve. It wasn’t an easy task by any means, it was a case of loaves and fishes when it came to the budget but she pulled it off with aplomb. The warehouse itself was provided by Moxie Studios in a former space in Inchicore. While perfect for the construction of the various locations, the proximity of some band practice rooms nearby pushed our sound recordist Niall McNamee to the limit.

Our crew was small and such was the nature of the production, lets just say that the departmental responsibilities were very fluid. We had a nice tight crew, all in all during production we had between 7 – 10 crew members each day who all got stuck into whatever needed to be done. We were generally extremely lucky with the level of commitment from all considering the nature of the production.

Eamonn: We were well prepared for post. All the clips were catalogued, the paperwork was in order, I even stuck an extra Gig of RAM into my MacBook Pro. The first rough cut was done in a couple of weeks. It was immediately obvious that there were a lot of scenes that didn’t work. When I took them out they left gaping holes in the narrative. The reason was ominous: the script was not the masterpiece I’d convinced myself it was. Worst of all, the scenes which didn’t seem to work just so happened to be the ones that cost the most in terms of money and personal hardship to create. The difference between making a short and making a feature is one of perspective. Narrative arcs are just that – they are curved like the surface of the Earth. The farther you travel, the harder it is to see where you’re going, not to mention where you’ve come from. I read somewhere that the more money you have to make a film, the less flexibility you have in making it. We had no money, and therefore, infinite flexibility. When it became painfully clear that new scenes would have to be written and shot, we were lucky enough that we could simply grab the camera, a microphone and a couple of lights and just go and do it.

Having been on board since the inception of the project, my brother Tommy was scoring as I cut. He was receiving scenes out of context and listening to pieces of music I’d send him. This was by no means ideal but the score really came into its own when he finally received a “picture lock” version of the film. This wasn’t the final cut, if there is such a thing, but it allowed him to create a real thematic development that brought the film to another level. The sound issues from the set were painfully evident and could have ruined the final product if not for a combination of good timing from excellent actors, and the maximum lattitude I extracted from our scant coverage.

Q: How was the film financed?

Eamonn: The film was financed by Baz and I through our production company, Triptych Productions. We had bought a Sony EX1 and had been kindly offered the use of the lens kit for free. We were confident that we could make the film for ten grand. This money came from a small business loan secured just before the banking crisis. The bank were fully aware of the purpose of the loan and were very supportive. We were obviously lucky with the timing but the reality of being in debt and still without any cast, crew or locations hit us pretty quickly and it was something of a race to get to principal photography before the first payment was due.

The budget was only enough to cover equipment rental, insurance, set construction, transportation and catering. All of the cast and crew worked on the basis of deferred compensation. It’s very easy to be cynical about people until you ask a perfect stranger to do you a huge favour, offering nothing in return, and they say yes. A sense of serendipity has really underwritten this film from start to finish. Everything that could have gone wrong almost went wrong, but then didn’t. A religious man might read into that kind of thing, but we’re filmmakers so we’ll just cross our fingers and hope we get to make another one.

Opus K screens at Darklight on Friday, 21st October at 4pm at The Factory.


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