Three Generations of Actors

Spiritual Cinema Circle

Keith O’Grady has been working in film and television for 20 years. He directed our December short film Saving Santa.

First can you tell us a little about yourself and your film career?

I started as an actor, but loved the process of developing and telling the story, and always had my eye on directing. I moved from acting to behind the camera, and I’ve been Directing and Producing for nearly 13 years. I’ve also been teaching directing and cinematography, for a day, each week, Belfast, NI, for 13 years too. I still love acting, although I get little chance to explore it these days. I love drama, but I do also love telling documentary stories, and I found myself telling much more of them because they were easier to get off the ground, and I had to work. In recent years, I have been slowly moving into drama. I have made four short fiction films now, and one feature as a director. I co-directed it with another director.

How did you become involved with Saving Santa?

I have a brother who is an artist, and an actor. He actually did much of the animation on a fantastic animated film that came out of Ireland last year called ‘An Béal Bocht’, or ‘The Poor Mouth’. My brother worked many years ago with Jonathan Fulton, the writer of ‘Saving Santa’, in a DIY store. They used to talk movies a lot, and Jonny always was interested in getting into writing. My brother introduced us, and I read Jonny’s script, and straight away, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I had made a few shorts before, and was interested in doing something on the subject of compassion. I took it, did some re-writes to fit how I wanted to do it, sent them to Jonny, and he agreed to go forward with it. He also wrote it for his father, who was a recognised actor in Ireland at the time. He had been in a long-running sitcom on BBC Northern Ireland.

Saving Santa is an original holiday story in a traditional Christmas wrapper. How did you manage that balance?

Well, it was really because of the influences I take. I love the films of Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Jim Sheridan, John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Kubrick and others. I love classical golden age Hollywood Cinema too. So that’s where I felt this story had to go. I wanted it to feel like a Ken Loach short film set in modern day Derry, inspired by the classics of old Hollywood.

So I approached it from the perspective that this was a film set in Springtime (only the last scene is Christmas), but that it would have an atmosphere of Christmas throughout. So it would look and feel more nostalgic, and would have those values that we all espouse at Christmas time – goodwill to your fellow man etc. Compassion and nostalgia run through the film. Nostalgia for them thinking about their families, and nostalgia for the audience, for childhood Christmases. That is why I decided to colour grade it with the old two-strip process that would’ve been used in old Hollywood. It is reminiscent of old movies, but red and green are also the colours of Christmas.

You had three excellent young actors in this film. How did you find them? How was it to work with them?

They were all brilliant. I found them all in an open casting process. Daniel White had already been in a few things. He was in a feature film, and had a small role in the TV drama ‘The Fall’. Éva Morris had never acted before, and she didn’t really even know what an audition was. That being said, she was determined, and she hung around with her mother, because they didn’t have an appointment, until someone didn’t show up, and she took the slot. I saw Éva on the first day of the auditions, and I did many more throughout Northern Ireland, but I always kept thinking back to her. At the callbacks, my mind was very easily made up then, because I cast them all, based on their talent, obviously, but also on the fact that they looked like they could be Paul Ronan’s children.

Did you face any special production challenges?

There were a few. Mostly relatively normal issues that can be encountered on any production. For example, the totally unexpected extreme heat we filmed in. We shot it in early May (in Ireland, this doesn't normally give you what you'd call tropical weather), and it was really very HOT. So the actors had to be kept away shaded, when not on camera. However, there were other issues that came to light during filming too, that we had to work around. It became apparent that the actor playing 'Santa McCann' wasn't fit enough for two of the scenes, and those scenes had to be re-planned (one of them was cut eventually anyway for story momentum). He unfortunately passed away very suddenly a couple of months after shooting. He had been in Berlin working after shooting our film, and had a great time, so it was a big shock when he passed. We were waiting on an opportunity to get him into the sound studio to do some re-voicing in post, but he passed away before the scheduled time. It was only two lines I wanted to re-record with him, both because of sound quality, but we masked the issues with other sounds as best we could. We could’ve just re-voiced the whole part to make it all sound perfect, but that just wasn’t an option for me. It was important to respect his work, because Jonny wrote it for him. It was a tough time and it was a great pity he never got to see it finished.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the film?

It is essentially a short film about compassion, and we made it to be shown to both children and adults. Hopefully, with everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, it’ll entertain, primarily, but also give food for thought. It continues to do well in festivals around the world.

What are you working on now?

I have a no-budget feature coming out this year that I directed together with another director, Ronan Carr. It’s called 'The Prince of Pies' in Ireland, but it may well have a different name elsewhere. I'm developing a few scripts for next year too, two shorts and a feature script, which I intend to be my feature debut as a solo-director.