Short film The Observer Effect is a dark thriller with a twist about a man and a woman inextricably linked whose paths, when crossed, are destined to end in bloodshed.
Anthony Assad caught up with director Garret Walsh ahead of the film’s Dublin premiere at the Silk Road Film Festival.
AA: First of all congratulations, the film appears to be doing very well, gaining traction across Ireland and further afield in festival circuits. How long was the production process in all? How does it feel to see it travel?
GW: Thanks very much. Well it’s been a long process! I kicked off pre-production in February 2015 and we ended up shooting it in two blocks: one in November 2015 and one in February 2017 and by the time we finished post in August it was two and a half years, all told. In reality, it only took so long because I funded this 100% myself so a lot of the time, pretty much all of 2016 in fact, was spent working elsewhere to build up the funds to do it.
It’s really incredible to see where the film’s gone since then. Our first film festival selection out of the gate was the LA Shorts film festival: Hollywood of all places. I actually flew over for that one – to be in Hollywood for the first time and have it be to screen your first film – well, I couldn’t pass up that chance.
And the reception it’s had everywhere has been just amazing – it’s fascinating and really gratifying to hear how people have reacted to it and hear what they’ve taken from the story and the performances – beyond what I ever thought they might sometimes. We actually have our Dublin premiere in a couple of weeks too – March the 9th at Trinity College as part of the Silk Road Film festival – I’m really interested to see what the reaction will be to its first showing back in what’s effectively its home town.
AA: I understand it’s your first film writing and directing. It’s a very ambitious piece, were you nervous about pulling it off? How long did it take to drum up interest and gather your crew?
GW: Oh, terrified – but in a good way. I’d actually been writing feature screenplays for about 20 years – doing like most writers do, I guess, which is start off writing rubbish and then hone and hone until you not only get better scripts but hopefully become a better writer in the process. When those scripts got some positive interest from a couple producers in the UK and US I decided I’d bite the bullet and make a short of my own, sort of a calling-card for them and – as no-one was going to fund me – give myself my own shot at directing.
I think it took about three months to gather most of the crew. If I remember right, after Kathy came aboard as producer the first key creative was Lilla Nurie, our production designer – and her work was the key to getting it moving. She’s unbelievably talented and I found she shared a really similar idea for the look and feel of the thing as I had. When she showed me her concepts for the main set in the film, to which the story builds and that plays such a part in the ending – almost like another character in fact – I felt we had something really special and I think that was something that drew people in initially, a strong story with that unique execution and world-building.
I think a big relief came when I found my actors though – that had been a huge worry up to that point. As soon as I met Vanessa Emme for the lead I knew she’d be perfect for it and both she and Patrick O’Brien, who plays against her in the film, they both just own the screen whenever they’re in front of camera. It was a huge learning curve for me too – to see how just much an actor can bring to a character with their performance, conveyed with just the subtlest of emotions – something it’s so hard to imagine on the page. Whatever trappings you put around them on the screen, film is always about character and all of them, Brendan Sheehan too – really brought the whole thing to life.
Garret Walsh on set
AA: The production values are quite exceptional. I imagine you spent a lot of time conceiving the look and feel of the film. How closely did you work with your cinematographer and the set designers to realise it? Were any other films used as reference points?
GW: Lilla and I must have spent two or three months at least working on the main set design; looking at images of crypts, ossuaries and religious architecture from all across Europe and surreal artworks from artists like Zdzisław Beksiński and Hieronymus Bosch as inspiration for the look and feel of the thing, getting it just right for the part it has to play in the film. She and Aaron O’Sullivan, our set construction specialist, actually spent nearly eight weeks building it in the end – it was a huge undertaking, they worked miracles with it.
My director of photography, Philip Blake, and I, who has an incredible eye, did something similar too. We spent a long time comparing notes on films we both loved the look of and whose aesthetic could inform what we were imagining. The films of Ridley Scott – like the feel of Tyrell’s office and bedroom sets in Blade Runner – and David Fincher were big reference points. I think we looked the washed-out brown-yellow colour palettes and the textures of ‘The Game’ in our final scenes and it worked great for it.
Another thing whose importance I hadn’t fully appreciated until we made this but which had a huge effect was post-production – colour-grading and effects. We were really lucky that Chriona and Bernard at Element Post here in Dublin liked the project and agreed to work on it. Their colourist Leandro really understood what we were going for and did a beautiful job of grading the image and accentuating and refining it and the work the FX guys, Stephen and Diarmuid, did really brought it to life – it’s hard to exaggerate how much difference that makes.
AA: Thematically, you’re treading quite dark territory. Were you relieved once the final cut was in place, exorcised perhaps? Or do you feel at home with all things mysterious and macabre?
GW: It feels amazing when you finally finish a film, especially one that’s taken so long, so in one respect it was a relief to be done but it only takes a day or two before the withdrawal sets in and you wish you were back on set again, there’s just nothing like it – the crew were all incredible to work with and every single person just gave so much to getting this made, you wish you could work with them, like that, every day.
I guess I am drawn to mysterious and macabre stuff – but more so for how it can capture the imagination and draw an audience in. I think that’s what I love to experience in a film and to shoot too, be it a chiller, a western or a sci-fi, all of which I’ve written – it’s always to create an immersive world and characters for the audience to get drawn into, transport them completely.
AA: There’s a history and lore hinted at in the film. Have you thought of exploring it further, perhaps in a serialised format?
GW: Absolutely. I love films that both tell their story fully but also hint something larger, which is exactly what I was aiming for with this script to begin with. Although I hadn’t actually planned to take it any further when I started this I became fascinated by it as we explored who these characters are and the mystery that lies at the heart of it – where it all came from and where it could all go afterwards.
So yeah, as soon as I finished post-production I started developing it into a TV show and I now have a series bible/treatment written for a ten-episode first season run of The Observer Effect and the ending of it already has me excited to get started on Season 2 – I should probably just take a couple of days off or something or maybe write another feature but it’s perhaps a good sign that the possibilities of the story won’t let me go until I explore where it all goes next.
The Observer Effect will screen in the Silk Road Film Festival on Friday, March 9th at the Edmund Burke Theatre, TCD in a selection of Irish & international short films. Entrance is free.