Mark O’Brien is an award-winning actor/filmmaker whose feature directorial debut, The Righteous, which he also wrote and starred in opposite Henry Czerny, premiered at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival (where it won Best Screenplay) and is available to stream in the US on June 10 from Arrow Video. Nick Allen of RogertEbert.com said the film “displays an ambitious leader of performances and someone with ideas that continue the conversations from Bergman’s best.” As an actor, Mark has starred in Showtime’s City on a Hill, opposite Kevin Bacon, and AMC’s critically acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire and Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, opposite Kelsey Grammer, Lily Collins and Matt Bomer. In 2016, he starred in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival which went on to garner eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Other films include Marriage Story, opposite Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, the box-office hit Ready or Not for Fox Searchlight, and Jason Retiman’s The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman. In 2020, Mark won the Canadian Screen Award (Canada’s Oscar) for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the film Goalie.
I want to know what’s going to happen next. I need to know what’s going to happen next. This can be exhausting in day-to-day life. But when it comes to observing the lives of those who don’t actually exist, it can be the greatest thrill to spy them running through the rat maze, trying to find a way out, to find an answer to a life-and-death scenario where everything is at stake. This is how I approach the films I watch and re-watch, and now, the films I write.
It was September 1997. I was 13 years old. I had no dreams of being an actor or a filmmaker. I didn’t really know much about films other than from watching the popcorn movies which played in my local theatre in St. John’s, Newfoundland. From Jurassic Park to Batman Returns to The Rock to Independence Day, these were the movies I was ingesting. Far from the risk-taking, avant-garde works turned out by Kieślowski, Haneke and the Coen brothers at this time. I simply wasn’t privy to them. To be fair, at that time, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated them. I needed to be challenged, but I didn’t know it.
Back to that September day in ’97. I saw a commercial film. Commercial enough to play at the major theater chains, but auteur-driven, indie-spirited enough to challenge the viewer. It was David Fincher’s The Game. I often cite this as my favorite film. Maybe because of the time and age at which I saw it. Maybe because of how much the film appeals to my personal tastes. Or maybe, just maybe, because it planted the seed of the kind of taste I would adopt as my own moving forward. It’s hard to judge just how great a movie is when nostalgia plays such a big part in why you love it. But what I do know is I’d never been a participant in the watching of a film to this extent before. I’d never gone to sleep replaying the movie in my head, seeing how the ending made everything before it make perfect sense. It was ideal for a 13-year-old, willing to suspend a megaton of disbelief in exchange for being granted intelligence by its maker. The film twists you and turns you and spirals deeper and deeper into the implausible. But who cares about plausibility when you’re under such a spell? The filmmaker has forced you to keep watching. Is it a game? Is it real? How is Sean Penn involved? There are so many questions. Every scene asks another question, and then another. Nothing tickles me more than when a film does this, because at that point, it has taken over.
When you turn on a film, you are in control. You’re challenging it to impress you. “OK, let’s see what you got?” But The Game quickly took ownership of me. Suddenly, it wasn’t about quirky lines or big shootouts, it was about emotional misdirects and genuine mystery to keep me puzzled in a way a whodunit never could. Few movies make me truly wonder what’s going to happen next. I have no trouble settling into a Die Hard movie, even though I know the outcome. But, as the viewer, I need to see how John McClane is going to kill the baddies. That, for me, is just enough to keep me excited and willing (I suppose) to go on. Most films have a formula of this sort or another. They have a setup we’re familiar with and an outcome we can suspect without much thought. And that can be all well and good. On the other side of this, we have the meandering film, with no basic plot, that just takes you from the house to the office to the shed to the gym, and it’s an “experience.” This can work too, but it’s a tougher fish to reel in, unless you’re Fellini or Cassavetes or Malick. It was on that day in ’97 that I realized there were other films to look at besides blockbusters. It was on that day I became less obsessed about what was going to happen next in my own life, because I was too busy worrying for Michael Douglas, who I knew was a movie star, worth millions and in no peril whatsoever. What a giant trickster a movie can be.
But what else is art supposed to do? It’s meant to make us become a part of its telling, of its presentation. If I tell a story to a friend, it will affect him differently than it would another friend. And each of those friends will have uniquely different days than they would have before being told such a story. It affects us in ways we can’t quantify because we’ve now been changed by having heard it.
I want to know what’s going to happen next. We all do. That’s where worry is born, both in life and in movies – is everything going to be OK? Am I getting sick? What if I miss my flight? Is my house going to burn down? What am I going to do about my friends and the fight we just had?
But … what if I put this burden of worry onto someone else? Maybe I can switch roles and make someone else pine and obsess over what’s going to happen next? Maybe I can make them care about characters on a screen they’ve just met and don’t exist in real life? Maybe I can make films? There’s something subversively joyful about all this. It’s a mischievous opportunity where no one gets hurt. As an actor, I can only do this so much. But as a filmmaker, I have the opportunity to twist an audience into a psychological pretzel. And deep down, maybe this is just what the audience wants. The Game achieved this as a commercial thriller. But what if you can achieve this through something with even higher stakes? Stakes that exist outside of our regular lives? Genre can offer this. But I hated horror films. I shunned and judged gratuity. And I don’t like being scared. But I do like being challenged …
I’d always shied away from Rosemary’s Baby for the reasons listed above. Of course, I assumed it was violent before having seen it, based solely on the everlasting lore of the film. It wasn’t until about 2014 or so that I decided to try watching it, scared it would forever fuck me up. What I saw was a nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, a nightmare bathed in paranoia, ambition and a mother’s worst fear. Again, and like never before, I was left wondering what was going to happen next. But unlike The Game, this was a world of God and the Devil, where our greatest fundamental fears could materialize onscreen – the inhabiting of Satan himself. What could be more thrilling? It wasn’t simply about whether Michael Douglas finds out who the baddies are, it was about the potentiality of Lucifer, for God’s sake. Or is it all just hysteria?
But it wasn’t just Mia Farrow experiencing these emotions, it was also me. Suddenly, anything was now possible in film. And it was only possible because of the grounded human nature of the circumstances and plot that presented itself clearly, without overwrought ambiguity and aimlessness. It was real. It was happening. And I was scared to death because of that, but also desperate and aching to see what was around that corner.
There’s an innate and addictive joy that accompanies fear. Why does anyone get on a rollercoaster? Perhaps because you know everything will work out and you’ll get off the ride in one piece. But that doesn’t stop you from screaming your lungs out. There’s a parallel here to film – you know the characters aren’t real. You know you won’t personally be afflicted or affected. But you want something to shake you. You want someone to be killed, scorched, deceived or cuckolded. Leave the subtlety to the actors, leave the melodrama and the world without limits to the filmmaker – and leave the nasty pleasure to the viewer.
If someone tells you they have a story to tell, do you want to hear them talk about how they got the wrong hairdo at the salon? Or do you want to hear them talk about the vision they had from God? An easy choice. It’s that uncertainty caused by supernatural stakes, within a world that looks like your own. It’s the safety of being shocked, but with the challenge to think new thoughts. So why not have these stakes or surprises be of the grandest and most implausible order? After all, no one is going to get hurt.
And thank God (and these films) I have all this to think about, instead of wasting my time wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Featured image by Duncan De Young shows Mark O’Brien on the set of The Righteous.