Property of The State is a powerful drama based on the true story of a young woman who must deal with the devastating effects of having a murderer for a brother. This true story unfolded in Ennis, County Clare in April/May 1994. The feature received a standing ovation at its World Premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh (July 2016) and has since been included at numerous other festivals, including most recently winning Best Director, Best International Feature and Best in Festival at Emerge Film Festival.
Q: The film is based on real events that shocked Ireland in the 1990s, has this story always been on your mind as a subject for a feature film?
I have spent a lot of my life in East Clare and was a teenager when this horrific tragedy took place in the next village. I was abroad at film school when Ireland was shocked to its core by what Brendan had done, and although I didn’t know him personally, I did know of him from the village, and I too couldn’t understand what had taken place. In the years that followed, I like many others in Ireland, believed what was being written about him in the press, there seemed no need to question the fact he committed three horrific murders. So it wasn’t difficult to believe that this young man was inherently evil. At this point it was never my intention to make this as a film, however as the years passed I began to think more and more about why this terrible tragedy happened and if there were lessons to be learned from it. But the story I have told now is very different to the one I knew then.
Q: What was it about this particular story that held your interest?
Beside the fact that it happened very close to home, we, the Producer Terence Ryan and Writer Dr. Susan Morrall of the film and I started to hear that Brendan had spent time in a number of institutions and had been diagnosed with very severe mental issues. We were also told by some of the locals that they didn’t believe that these institutions looked after Brendan the way they felt they should have. Terence was to bring in several researchers to find out more about Brendan’s background and we were soon to find what appeared to be a failing in the mental health system. Our intention was and has never been to absolve Brendan of his guilt to the horrific crimes he committed, rather to highlight the deep flaws within the system run by the State.
Q: Had you always intended to tell the story from the point of view of Brendan’s sister? You mentioned that finding her diary by accident helped shape the film?
No. Though I am so glad we did. A decade ago our researchers had interviewed Ann Marie, Brendan’s sister, about her brother and she also handed over a journal she had written that included many entries of her relationship with Brendan. Initially we spent several years on different versions of a screenplay that focused solely on telling a story through Brendan’s point of view. However, none of these worked mainly because any empathy the audience may have had for Brendan early in his life, disappeared the moment he commits the three murders and was replaced with revulsion and anger. There were too many people that could be affected by this film, and if we were not comfortable and felt it was not right we would not make it. We were at a stage of almost giving up, even though there was a story that needed to be told. Then, by sheer luck we came across Ann Marie’s forgotten journal that she had handed over years earlier, found at the bottom of one of many boxes that contained all our research, we were putting into storage. Dr. Susan Morrall read the first line that was written, “Can you love someone who has done a terrible thing.” And we knew how we should tell this story. It gave us a very different perspective, and it became not just a story about Brendan but about a sister that tries everything to help, only in the end to be presumed guilty by her association to him. Telling it from Ann Marie’s point of view we don’t just dwell on the issues of mental health but of domestic violence and how people were so apathetic at that time to it. It is known that in cases similar to Brendan’s that this abuse can be the spark that sets in motion tragedies to occur.
Q: Another line from the movie that Anne Marie says “What he’s done, it never leaves me”. Did she found some peace over the subsequent twenty years?
I don’t believe she will ever find peace for what Brendan did, especially that there are still people who will aggressively remind her about it in public. Though. she has learned to live with it.
Q: The events in the film were huge news around Ireland at the time, have you found audiences still recall the details of these events?
Absolutely. I think most people over the age of 35 will remember it. Lots of people talk to me about it as it’s still very fresh in their minds.
Q: Brendan is now described as a man different to how the media portrayed him. What did the media get wrong at the time?
I think there was an agenda at the time that some in the State did not want to take any responsibility for what occurred and therefore fed the press some half truths along with Brendan being just pure evil, using headlines like ‘The son of Satan’; to describe a person that suffered from severe mental illness that they had diagnosed and had him committed on a number of occasions. Even leading up to his trial he was in a mental institution though had to stand as a sane man, which is unbelievable.
Q: Have attitudes towards mental health have changed since the events in the movie? Do you think the film will help change attitudes towards mental health in Ireland?
I believe we are in a better place than where we were. However, having spoken to those working within the system, many say we still have a long way to go, especially with cuts in funding. Mental Health may not be the taboo subject it used to be but I hope that Property of The State will open the debate up for how the mentally ill are cared for in today’s society.
Q: How difficult was it to research these true life events? Was it tough discussing with people who were involved at the time?
I know that the researchers had very difficult time as a lot of people would rather the subject be forgotten or just not spoken about. There were some brave people that did want to voice their concerns, though felt they couldn’t do it openly in a tight knit community.
Q: Was it a difficult film to cast? In particular, matching up older actors with their younger selves?
Yes, I had looked at many actresses before casting Asling Loftus for the lead role as Ann Marie. This was the same for Patrick Gibson playing the oldest Brendan, I saw dozens of young actors but I just knew straight away when I met him. Once these two were cast we knew then who we should be looking for to play their younger selves. We very lucky to get Hazel Doupe and David Rawle, not just because they were similar to the older actors but because they are so talented.
Q: Unusually for the industry, you had a majority female crew working on the film, how did that come about?
It really should not be unusual and not at any point did I find the experience any different, in fact I really did benefit with the majority of my crew being female. Though what I found very unusual was that we did not have any support from the film boards in the North, where we filmed, or from the Republic of Ireland. For a film that broaches such a sensitive subject, one would assume they would want to be a part of. Maybe they were scared by it, but this is not just a story about mental health, it is one about a woman, that was written by a woman, starring a woman, and made by a crew (65%) of women. There were so many strong women involved that without their help we would not have been able to tell a story about another strong woman, Ann Marie O’Donnell.
PROPERTY OF THE STATE is in Irish cinemas from Oct 27th