Interview: Patrick O’Shea, director of ‘Tree Keeper’

Tree Keeper is a gripping thriller about a young man’s fight against a sinister business man to protect his inherited woodlands from being developed as a landfill site.

Ailbhe O’ Reilly caught up with Patrick O’Shea, whose film Tree Keeper is available on DVD, Blu-ray and as a HD Download from the film’s website,

How did you originally get into film?

I always loved stories when I was growing up – books, comics and of course movies. As kids my mother used to take us to the Ormond Cinema in Midleton which of course is closed now. I made my first film back in transition year in secondary school with a full size VHS camera. That was it, from then on it was my ambition to be a director. I spent 4 years in D.I.T. Aungier St. studying Film & Broadcasting and I continued to make independent short films from the time I left college back in 1999 up to making Tree Keeper, which is my debut feature.

What was the biggest challenge you faced shooting a feature?

Money – or a lack of it! Because we had very little money there was a lot of multi-tasking. This had its benefits in that we were for the most part a very small and very mobile crew and we were able to get through our set-ups reasonably quickly. But, having to take on multiple roles take its toll on your energy and your concentration. This can lead to certain aspects of the film suffering. When you’re juggling so many balls at once it is inevitable that you drop one from time to time.

And what was the biggest lesson you learned?

That a feature is a marathon not a sprint. You literally have to just keep chipping away. If you were to actually stop and think about how much work you still had ahead of you, you would lose your mind. You just have to keep your head down and concentrate on doing one scene at a time. In Sidney Lumet’s book, ‘Making Movies’, he equates it to an artist working on a mural of tiles. Each scene is a small bit of tile and you polish it as best you can in the time you have. In the end when you stick them all together hopefully you have something that is coherent and more than just the sum of its parts.

Because I was also the producer on Tree Keeper I learnt a huge lesson when it came to the distribution end of things. I knew nothing about film distribution and I jumped head-first into it by attending meetings at the Galway Film Fair in 2011. All of the distributors were looking for genre and named cast. It was a huge eye-opener and a great experience. Following the film fair at the Galway Film Fleadh I contacted distributors all over the world and I will now have a very different approach in mind when tackling my next feature with the distribution side of things in mind. Film distribution is in a transitional phase at the moment with VOD and so many people viewing films and TV shows on their laptops and even the distributors themselves are trying the figure out the best way forward.

I found the genre interesting for an Irish film; it must be a bit of a risk as it’s harder to shoot a thriller on a low budget. Were you inspired by Irish or foreign/mainstream films?

I tried to make a film that I would enjoy watching myself. I also realised that this could possibly be the only time in my film career where I would be free to make the film I wanted to make and not have to contend with outside influence over where the story went. I watch all kinds of films across a broad range of genres but I do tend to grab a thriller or action movie off the shelf when I sit down at night to unwind. I am inspired by mainstream films and by both Irish and foreign movies. The French film La Haine had a big impact on me when I first saw it in the Screen cinema in D’Olier St. and Tarantino and the Coen Brothers have always been a big influence. Someone commented on a particularly bloody scene in Tree Keeper recently and how it was obviously a homage to Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs whereas the scene in question was directly inspired by the scene in Marathon Man when Roy Sheider’s character stumbles into Dustin Hoffman’s apartment after being stabbed. The lead actor, James Browne and I had both just watched Marathon Man and we discussed that scene at length.

Was the film hard to get financed?

Tree Keeper was shot on a micro, micro budget in terms of standard film budgets. In all the cash budget currently stands at around €16K and close to €150K when deferrals, discounts and sponsorships are taken into account. The small production company I set up in Cork a few years back, Southernman Films, provided the actual cash budget, most of which was spent on the actual shoot. The cast and crew worked on a deferred basis. On top of that we received some very generous discounts and sponsorship deals from the likes of SLR broadcast hire in Cork who provided all of the camera, lighting and grip equipment, Secret Garden Studios in Cork where all of the post sound work was carried out and of course Windmill Lane Post Production where the grade and online edit were carried out.

Could you tell me about using Cork as a location; and also if you have any desire to work abroad?

I would love to work abroad if a script required it. If I was offered a chance to direct an interesting script in another country I’d grab the opportunity with both hands. But, I do love the Irish landscape and I grew up in Cork and after a good few years away I came back and started making films in Cork. When making films at this level it is a lot easier to have that local knowledge and local contacts. Also Cork has amazing locations which haven’t been overly exploited. I like living and working here and I will continue to strive to make films here for the foreseeable future.

What do you think think are the advantages of using the national landscape?

For such a small country Ireland has a fantastic variance in its landscape. The majority of larger towns or cites in Ireland are never more than 30 to 40 minutes away from a field, wood, mountain or beach. I grew up in the countryside in Cork but within easy access to Cork city. That country landscape influences my story-telling and the majority of the woodland locations in the Tree Keeper wrote themselves into the script. It truly was a case of write what you know. I’ve had a lot of people asking me for directions to certain locations used in Tree Keeper as they hadn’t realised that Cork has such beautiful woodlands. So the landscape inspires and promotes the film and the film sparks an interest in the viewer to go and see these places for real. I love that aspect of movies.

There is an interesting contrast in the film between Doire’s tranquil world in the woods and the cruel outside world the other characters live in –  was this the main theme of the film?

It certainly was one of the main themes in the film. Doire is at the centre of the film and as such everything else is tainted by his perspective. He is a troubled character who finds peace and calm in his isolation in the woods. He doesn’t do well around people and isn’t comfortable amidst the noise and concrete of towns and cities. It was a conscious decision to portray the urban parts of the film in a much harsher and grittier way than the woods because firstly this is the way Doire sees them and secondly it is where all of conflict in the film comes from. When Doire is in the woods, sketching, planting and clearing, his mind no longer races and he can sit still and so to him the woods are a place of tranquility and beauty and so we did our best to portray those scenes as beautifully as we could. I have to say we were helped a lot by the weather that summer, which was unusually dry and sunny.

How much was the environment and how people treat it a theme?

It was the inspiration behind the whole film. On daily walks in the forestry near where I live I would come across various piles of domestic rubbish. Everything from old electric appliances to general household rubbish with food waste and dirty nappies. People would park in the entrance to the woodlands at night time and chuck their empty chip cartons and used condoms out onto the pathway. It happens all the time. It’s disgusting behaviour. I started thinking about a character who lived in the woods and decided to scare people into not dumping their rubbish and so began the first draft of the script!

How much did music and simple camera tricks create the tension in the scenes?

The tension all began with the actors’ performances and then we were able to heighten that tension with a combination of music, camera angles and cutting. The more action based scenes where there was physical violence are very difficult to pull off on such a low budget. It takes a lot of rehearsal with the actors and the camera team. The tension and the believability of the violence is then taken to a new level when you add the right piece of music, sound FX and cutting.

The two leads worked well together, how did you develop that?

I did a lot of rehearsals with the two leads leading up to the shoot. We worked and re-worked the scenes and I filmed the rehearsals and we watch them back and discussed them. Quite a lot of their dialogue changed or was simply cut during this process.

Can you tell us about your relationship with the director of photography Rupert MacCarthy-Morrogh

Myself and Rupert work very closely together. We first worked together on a corporate video production and that led to us doing our first short together, ‘Tunnel’. Since then we have covered a lot of areas together from music videos to live shows. One of our most recent projects together was ‘Stout City’ a web advert for Cork’s two stouts, Murphy’s and Beamish.

We both share a passion for the technology of film-making and Rupert has a fantastic knowledge of camera and lights. We both agree that everything must serve the story and from that vantage point we work together on creating a look and design for whatever project we are working on.

From the outset on Tree Keeper we decided that all of the scenes in set in the woods would be shot on a tripod, dolly or jib and all of the scenes in the town would be hand-held. Then as the story progresses and certain aspects and characters from the town start to intrude into the serenity of the woodlands there is more and more handheld camera used in the woods. This was an easy decision to make sitting around drinking coffee and sketching out ideas but it turned into a lot of hard physical work when it came to lugging tripods, dollies, jibs, sandbags and cablecam rigs across rough terrain into the various woodland locations! But, we stuck to our guns and I think it makes a real impact in the film.

Tree Keeper is available on DVD, Blu-ray and as a HD Download from the film’s website,


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