METAL HEART – Interview with Irish director Hugh O’Conor

There is much rivalry between twin sisters Emma and Chantal, quite different in just about every way, when their mysterious young neighbour moves back in.Directed by Hugh O’Conor. With Jordanne Jones, Leah McNamara, Moe Dunford , Seán Doyle. METAL HEART opens in Irish cinemas on June 28th

How did you first get involved with METAL HEART?
I first approached the writer Paul Murray after a mutual friend of ours, the much-loved and dearly departed Stephen Swift, saw I was reading Paul’s book Skippy Dies, and put us in touch. I pitched him broadly on the idea of a suburban teenage film we could try and make for very little money, and he came back with a warm, funny coming-of-age story about fraternal twin sisters who are very different from each other, but have to try to learn to be friends again. We developed it with the Irish Film Board, and Treasure and the eternally brilliant Claire McCaughley as producer came on board from there.

How long did it take to get the film made?
Altogether, about 5 years! Paul was writing his third book, and I was working on my own animation project, The Overcoat, which ended up quite surreally premiering on the same day as Metal Heart at the Galway Film Fleadh last summer.

You have over 60 acting credits in your filmography, was being an actor first useful for stepping into a directors shoes?
It definitely helps in working with actors – I can feel their pain! I know how challenging it is to act in front of camera, but also how exciting the possibilities can be if the actor is made to feel comfortable and able to play around with the material. I really believe the audience relaxes if the actor does too.

Tell us about casting the twin sisters? What type of similarities were you looking for in them?
It was tricky, as they had to believably be sisters, while also being very different from each other. The lovely Louise Kiely was our casting director, and we saw so many great people it was dizzying. I already knew Jordanne from her amazing work in Frank Berry’s I Used to Live Here and Dave Tynan & Emmet Kirwan’s Heartbreak, and I’d just acted with her in the RTÉ series Rebellion. With Leah, I was shooting with Fionn O’Shea for a Dublin Film Festival exhibition, and I asked if he knew any good new young actors. He recommended Leah, who was nominated alongside him for the Rising Talent award that year at DIFF, so we met and shot together, and she seemed spookily right for Chantal. We asked Jordanne and Leah to read some scenes together, and they just seemed to click.

Jordanne Jones won the breakthrough award at Galway’s Film Fleadh for her role of Emma. What discussions did you have about her character and how did she approach playing a goth on screen?
Jordanne is an incredibly instinctual, honest and truthful actor. She reminds me a little of Barry Keoghan – they’re both so committed to being real and natural, and revealing through behaviour. They’re a great inspiration to young Irish people in terms of what they can achieve. Metal Heart is definitely more of a comedy than a drama, so the actors around her needed to be funny, but Jordanne had to play it for real – if she’d been trying to be funny, we wouldn’t feel her pain, and we wouldn’t care about her, even though she does some really bad things as Emma. Instead, because it’s Jordanne, we root for her no matter what, and that’s really a testament to who she is as a person.

For the goth experience, both herself and Seán Doyle who plays Gary were totally up for it. Jordanne has her own individual sense of style, so she was able to put Emma’s look and wardrobe together with our costume designer Belle Phipps and our makeup designer Louise Myler. I know Seán went to Bruxelles in full Queen of Darkness gear just to soak up some gothness. Also, there’s a website called Goths In Hot Weather – as you might guess, it’s photos of goths in hot weather, which we drew a lot of inspiration from…

How much rehearsal did your two leads do so they would bond as sisters on screen?
We got some really valuable rehearsal time together in the weeks leading up to filming. For me it was great just to roughly block the scenes so myself and Eoin McLoughlin our DP would know what we’d be facing on the day. It was also a chance for the actors to practice their lines out loud and play around with them. We rehearsed with almost everyone who had scenes together, then I storyboarded pretty carefully with Eoin so we’d know our timings for the shoot. That ticking clock is scary.

The film includes some well known actors like Moe Dunford, Aaron Heffernan and Dylan Moran, tell us about their involvement in the film?
Moe had just been in Handsome Devil, so the Treasure gang loved him, and now so do I! He’s such a brilliant presence on set, as well as being a hugely accomplished actor, and he’s just getting better and better. I can’t say enough good things about him. I had seen Aaron in his Collapsing Horse theatre shows. He’s an amazing puppeteer, among many other talents, and I showed the Treasure gang a piece he did on Grafton Street playing a D4 puppet, which is hysterical. Dylan Moran I’ve been a massive fan of for years – I once got to play a small scene with him in A Film With Me In It and was totally starstruck. We were so happy when he said yes.

As an actor yourself, were you able to relate to your actors on set and did this help with giving feedback and direction?
You’d think that, wouldn’t you? (They were all great + they made me look like I knew what I was doing)


The movie features a number of original songs from different genres. Tell us about the writing of these songs and what you were looking for?
Paul had already written the lyrics to the ‘Molecule Song’ in the script, and our composer John McPhilips came up with a few different versions that we use. We also needed the song ‘Desecrated Viscera’ that becomes ‘Emma’. John said if I wrote the lyrics, he’d write the music, so that’s what we did. Rob from Treasure suggested having the words ‘Metal Heart’ in there as they’re never spoken in the film. Seán Doyle recorded the vocals in his Dad’s makeshift studio at the end of his garden.

Apart from that, we really wanted some great Irish music in there, and we were so lucky to get a few tracks from the amazing Ships, a gorgeous New Jackson track, and King Bones’ teeth-smashing ‘Party Animals’.

Did you play around with band names much in the film? Did many of the band names actually exist elsewhere?
There has never to my knowledge been any bands named The Nothingness, The Goitres, or Gorgoron. But dammit, there should be.

A number of bands had a song called ‘Metal Heart’ in the past including Garbage, Cat Power & Accept. Did you listen to these for inspiration? Did you look into including any versions of the song in the movie?
We listened to all of them but they didn’t seem to fit, so we decided to hell with it, let’s try and write our own.

The soundtrack also includes some well known songs, including a feel good tune from The Polyphonic Spree, were these important to include? Were they difficult to get rights for?
That was put in as a temp track by our editor, Julian Ulrichs. It played really well, so we all pushed to get it in. The really difficult one was the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’. Paul had it in the script from the beginning – Moe’s character even talks about Jordanne looking like she’s in the band (who she’s never heard of). We thought it would be impossible, but somehow, Sarah Gunn in Treasure managed it. We had to send the clip we wanted to use it with to Lou Reed’s publishers, and miraculously, a few weeks later they agreed.

You make a cameo in the film yourself, was this something you always planned to do or was it an impromptu role?
I kind of got talked into playing the nerdy Smiley Burger functionary and somehow it’s on my IMDb page now even though I’m uncredited and it looks like my acting career has taken a steep nose dive. I make no apologies, however. It’s some of my finest work.

Leah McNamara spends a lot of the film in a neck brace, was it a full brace, how uncomfortable was it for her to wear and act in it?
I’m pretty sure it was a full neck brace, it was incredibly uncomfortable, and she was a total trouper.


What were the biggest challenges for you shooting on a tight budget?
We were lucky to be shooting at all, but time is something to be weighed up very carefully when you’re running with a full crew. Also, who does the catering.

The Dublin suburbs look bright and airy and glossy in the film, was it difficult to keep everything feeling so light?
That was one of the scariest aspects of shooting in Dublin. It was nearing the end of summer 2017, and despite having every weather app going I remember getting out of bed every morning terrified it was going to be pouring rain. We really wanted a warm, sunny feel to the film, so we used anamorphic lenses, and tried to shoot it with a lot of energy. Without the sun, though, we were dead. The god of film smiled on us.

Did you look at other musical films before starting?
I’m a total film nerd so I watched all sorts of films in preparation. Scorsese’s films are so musical and his camera is so tuned to it that I watch his work over and over again anyway. I remember Whiplash being a real inspiration as they shot that in about 20 days as well. In Irish terms, Sing Street and The Commitments are just magical.

The film made its American premiere at the Santa Barbara film festival, how did foreign audiences react?
It seemed to go down really well! I’m just back from Newport Beach where it was warmly received too, and I’m heading to the Seattle International Film Festival with it at the end of the month. We were sort of inspired by American films so it’s great it seems to work with audiences there. More than anything, we really hope teenagers will go and see it, and hopefully relate to it.

Some of the girls friends wouldn’t be out of place on an American TV show, like Glee or Scream Queens, did you watch any similar shows or movies for inspiration?
Superbad was a big one for us – I love how warm, funny and relatable that movie is, and how the characters really feel like they’re talking to each other. The female characters are strong and in control of their own lives as well. Mean Girls will always be a classic as well – Tina Fey is such a hero. Suburban Dublin isn’t a million miles away from suburban California or llinois if the sun is shining… okay, maybe not a million miles, but it’s still pretty far.

Tell us about the credits scenes, they look like a lot of hard work went into them.
I love credit sequences, and sometimes they get squeezed because of budget, or everyone is just so damn tired at the end. I had been acting in an Enda Walsh play called Arlington with superb video work by Jack Phelan, and I asked if he’d be up for working on an opening and closing credit sequence for the film. He and his partner Erin shot all the images, and created all the cartoons and fonts by hand. They’re so talented, and we couldn’t have done it without them.


Whats next for you? A return to acting or another directing role?
I think I’m done! It’s been fun, but when you’ve come so far, so fast… what am I talking about? I just directed a pilot for RTÉ called Headcases, written by Charleigh Bailey and starring herself and Seána Kerslake – they run a hair salon in Artane, so we’re keeping our collective fingers crossed on that. I’m also developing a few more projects of my own. On the acting front, I’m in Sonja: The White Swan, directed by Anne Sewitsky, which premiered in Sundance and is coming out soon – it’s based on the life of the Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, played by the hugely gifted Ine Marie Wilmann. I play her dicky second husband.

METAL HEART is at Irish cinemas from June 28th