Renowned actor, director, photographer and writer Hugh O’Conor chats with Banjoman head of production Matt D’Arcy about their exciting new partnership
All-round talent Hugh O’Conor is widely recognised not only for his years in acting - starring opposite Liam Neeson in Lamb at just nine years old before going on to appear in the likes of My Left Foot with Daniel Day-Lewis, Chocolat with Johnny Depp, and The Stag with Andrew Scott - but for his directing, writing and photography skills too.
On the other side of the camera, Hugh has worked with talent such as Sinéad O'Connor, directed his first feature Metal Heart which recently sold to Sky Premiere, as well as co-writing and appearing in the Irish sketch show Your Bad Self starring Domhnall Gleeson and Amy Huberman. His photography work has also been highly acclaimed, and he received the Maverick Award at the 2019 Dublin Film Critic’s Circle for his achievements.
With an all-round understanding of the film industry, Hugh holds the rare ability to envision a production from multiple angles - which is perhaps the key secret behind his success.
Having been a long-time fan and follower of Banjoman’s work, Hugh decided to reach out over Instagram, and their instant connection will look to see Hugh become an indispensable part of the team, joining Banjoman as the newest director on their reel.
LBB sits down with both Hugh and Banjoman head of production Matt D’Arcy to learn what this means for the Irish production company, hear about their shared values, and discover how Hugh utilises his acting experience as a director.
Q> Hugh, How did you first get into film? You have so many talents from acting and directing to writing and photography - which came first?
Hugh> My dad is a concert pianist and music teacher and he encouraged me to go to drama classes when I was a child, a bit like his Mum did to him, so I started acting when I was really young - I was about nine when I was in my first film. I went to Trinity College in Dublin and did drama and theatre studies, then got a Fulbright scholarship to NYU to study film. That’s how I got into directing and also photography - they taught us to explore still photography as a way of telling a story through an image. My portrait photography has been showcased at the Dublin Film Festival for the last couple of years and I just had my first solo exhibition in Armagh which is coming to Dublin at the end of this year, if things calm down a bit…
I still act as well - on stage as well as on film and TV - as I think it’s good for directors to have some sort of acting experience to help them relate to the actors. You learn that every actor is different and needs a different approach. It’s good to have some background and experience of that first-hand.
Q> How would you describe your directing style? Does being an actor influence the way you work at all?
Hugh> You kind of have to turn that switch off, although I feel you’re acting as a ‘director’ just as much as an actor! It’s nice to just focus on the acting sometimes. I really enjoy seeing how other directors work and I learn so much every time. My own directing style depends on what the project is. If it’s a more visual project, I storyboard a lot. With actors, I like them to have a semi-improvised script so that there is an element of spontaneity - the audience can tell if something is delivered more naturally. If the actors are uncomfortable it’s going to show. Filming is supposed to be a fun and creative process for everyone, so if you can ensure your set is an encouraging place to work you’ll get the best results.
Q> So, coming to Banjoman, how did you guys first meet or become aware of each other’s work? Matt, did you know Hugh as an actor before a director?
Matt D’Arcy> Hugh is well known on the Irish scene and he’s a very multi talented individual, so when he touched base with us on Instagram as a fan of our work, we knew who he was straight away and arranged to meet for a coffee. That’s where the relationship first started.
Hugh O’Conor> I was a long time fan of Banjoman, so I thought I’d reach out and when I met Matt, I could tell that he was heading up a great team - I love their work and attitude which I feel is quite similar to mine. Previously, I was repped at Piranha Bar and I love those guys and still hope to work a lot with them for post production in future. They have started to focus more on purely CG work, however, and Banjoman had always been on my radar, so as Matt says, after some nice words over Instagram, I thought we could have a conversation about taking my work on from here.
Q> And what are some of your favourite pieces of work that have come out of Banjoman?
Hugh> I love the Weir’s piece they did last Christmas, it was really impressive. Some of it was shot on green screen, some was real, and it looks like it was done on a much bigger budget than it was. It was a really ambitious commercial and it was done beautifully.
Q> What makes Banjoman the right company for you to progress your filmmaking career with and what do you hope to bring to the team?
Hugh> Every time I liked a piece of work and looked up who’d produced it, it was Banjoman’s name that kept coming up! So we’re clearly on the same wavelength. They’re young, really ambitious, have a positive attitude and a great style. I like to think that I have some of those same values - if not their youth, dammit! - and when we all met up it felt like a really good energy.
Matt> It felt quite natural and we knew he would be able to create an enjoyable set at Banjoman. Being able to gel with people and create a good atmosphere for our crew, cast and clients is a big thing for us. We’re confident that Hugh will be able to deliver that really well. He'll primarily be working on commercials but we like to support our directors when they work in drama and music videos too too.
Q> Hugh, which project of yours would you say you are most proud of so far?
Hugh> My last short film Corduroy is something that’s really close to my heart. I wrote and directed it, and it was selected for Berlin which was a big achievement for me. I’m also really proud of A Concrete Song, a short film directed by Dave Tynan that I shot myself with an in-credible dancer and choreographer called Oona Doherty who is in Jamie XX’s new video.
Her dance show Hard To Be Soft came top of the Guardian’s list last year. I got to know her in an Enda Walsh play we worked on together and we shot this video in just one day. I shot it on a Canon 6D and also with an anamorphic lens on the iPhone. We had no agenda at all, just hoped it would be really creative and we were really proud of how it turned out.
Q> What sort of commercials are you hoping to work on together?
Hugh> I suppose the nature of commercials is that you get different challenges with each one. I love the fact that you can cross genres and try different things. I have an interest in Irish comedy so I would hope to work on those scripts.
Matt> Hugh has a great sense of comedy and grasp of the genre, not only from writing but from his acting too, such as his role in The Stag - which was a big success here. A huge amount of the scripts we see are very local and Hugh gets the colloquialisms and characters really well. It’s going to be unbelievable for us to be able to offer his experience to the Irish market.
Q> And Matt, where are you hoping to take the business next?
Matt> We really want to push ourselves as a production company in Ireland. We are relatively new to the scene and are up against some amazing companies, so being creative and working on interesting projects is integral. We aren’t interested in having a huge roster to represent here, but rather a small knit team of directors who each have their own voice. At the moment we are focusing on going after great creative and challenging projects. We are very much motivated by the work, rather than the bottom line, so we want to continue developing our reel with diverse and ambitious storytelling.
Q> Finally, how have you guys been keeping entertained in lockdown?
Hugh> If nothing else, this is a great time for writing and coming up with ideas. I’m working on an animation project, a couple of new film concepts, and a TV project with an old friend of mine that we started years ago. We’re doing Zooms every week that we were never quite organised enough to schedule in before so it’s great to get back into that.
Matt> I’ve been trying to do some home improvement and been getting out in the garden as much as I can trying to improve it. Regrowing grass is my pet project at the moment… that’s what lockdown has done to me!