End of days
With his post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings, Leaving Cert dodger and former adman Conor Horgan has directed one of the best Irish feature films of the last decade – in his first attempt (the cheek). He talks budget constraints and the scary-as-bejesus future with DONALD CLARKE
CONOR HORGAN has had his fair share of enviable lives. Having stumbled into fashion photography as a young man, the grizzled, dark-voiced Dubliner, now 48, went on to develop a successful career as a director of commercials. Then, at the height of his success, he gave it all up to start again as a proper, grown-up film-maker.
We should be grateful. His first feature, One Hundred Mornings,is one of the very best Irish films of the last decade. But his decision remains a peculiar one. Not many people become millionaires working in the Irish film industry.
You can probably guess what he’s about to say. Blah, blah, blah. Working as a fashion photographer is not as glamorous as you think. Blah, blah, blah. You have to get up before lunch and spend whole minutes preparing. You know how these people go on.
“Oh, it is even more glamorous than you think,” he laughs. “Yeah, it’s suchhard work taking photographs of pretty girls in frocks. I think back and some of the shoots we did had real narratives. We’d shoot Italian funerals or whatever. If I’d just had a camera we could have made very good short films from those shoots.”
If you scrunched up one eye and wrapped yourself in preconceptions, you might just detect a fashion photographer’s aesthetic in One Hundred Mornings. The images, photographed in washed-out shades by Suzie Lavelle, are elegantly composed and tastefully balanced. Yet there is real grit between the gears. Horgan’s film goes among a group of people forced to huddle together unharmoniously in a remote cabin following some global catastrophe. As supplies dwindle, various brewing animosities become ever more volatile. Never mind the apocalypse. Who’s been eating my canned goods? Who’s been messing with my girlfriend?
“This area had interested me for a number of years,” Horgan says. “I had done a bit of reading about the challenges that civilisation was facing and a lot of the stuff I read scared the bejesus out of me.
“I first wrote a lavish James Bondian thing – guys in black cars chasing our hero. It wasn’t great, if I say so myself. When funding came along, we abandoned that and decided to make a virtue of the absence of things.”
It would be a shame to focus unduly on the scanty nature of the budget. After all, One Hundred Morningsdoes not look like a cheap film. But, made under the Irish Film Board’s Catalyst Project, which financed films up to a budget of €275,000, the project is notable – as Horgan acknowledges – for the ingenious way it makes a virtue of its financial limitations.
“People often ask me if I would have done things very differently with a larger budget,” he says. “They ask if I would have had these mighty ruins or whatever. I actually don’t think I would. It was everybody on the film believing in the absence of these things that made it feel real. But I might have spent more time. That’s the main thing I missed.”
Conor was raised in Dún Laoghaire and Ranelagh. He is the son of John Horgan, former TD, senator, journalist and current press ombudsman. His mother, Sarah, is an artist, and his sister, Kate, also works as a photographer.
“I guess what I am doing is halfway between my father’s thing, which is writing, and my mother’s world, which is visual arts.”
Coming from such a high-powered background, he might have been expected to progress triumphantly through one of our finest universities. But he never quite got on at school. He directs part of the blame – or, perhaps, credit – to the then novel concept of Transition Year. During his time off, he and his fellow students put on a play, published a newspaper and made a Super 8 film. A class of creative virus seems, at this point, to have lodged itself in his adolescent software.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it might not involve the Leaving Cert. That turned out to be true. I didn’t even do the Leaving, and that put paid to thoughts of university. When I was 16 I ended up in London as a punk.”
Somehow or other, Horgan found himself working as a surveyor in Morocco – “Driving land cruisers up and down dunes; operating laser theodolites” – and, having stashed away some savings, he decided to spend the money on camera equipment.
Returning to Germany, his base at that point, he set about turning his new hobby into a profession. Prestigious commissions for British Vogue, GQand Harper’s magazines eventually followed. In 1994 he presented a solo exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin. By the turn of the century he was a thriving member of the advertocracy.
Horgan, a man at home to dry wit, is happy to spill the beans on the egotism and insecurity that fires many advertising professionals. When I mention a famous commercials director and occasional film-maker who is much given to intergalactic tantrums, he begins laughing wryly. (For fear of knife attacks and legal missives, we’d best keep the name to ourselves.)
“He is a perfect example of the kind of roaring baby who gets on well in the world of advertising. If you give the appearance of somebody who is just impossible to please and hugely demanding, they assume you are doing all this on behalf of the product. They often ferment these personalities to appear more unreasonable than they actually are.”
He goes on to explain that advertising is, in certain ways, very good training for a potential feature director. You get to play with the toys. You are given a generous amount of time to complete your work. But the end product “doesn’t really matter”.
In 2002 he completed a highly acclaimed short entitled The Last Time. The film, which stars Linda Bassett (best known as the long-suffering mum in East Is East), concerned a middle-aged woman in search of hitherto deferred carnal excitement. The picture won prizes at the Cork and Kraków Film Festivals and at the Galway Film Fleadh.
It took another seven years before One Hundred Morningsreceived its premiere at the fleadh, but, freed from the advertising shackles, Horgan had done much challenging work in the interim. In 2008 he made About Beauty, a documentary about the artist Dorothy Cross, for the Documenting the Arts scheme. In 2007 he shot a film entitled Happiness, in which more than 100 Irish people ponder the things that make them content. Last year, Horgan’s Deep End Dancefound David Bolger of Coiséim Dance Theatre dancing underwater with his septuagenarian mother.
“I just found those films really, really interesting to do. The art in my work as a film-maker has come out quite a lot over the last few years, and part of that has been working with these remarkable people and feeling a kinship and connection with them. The films that have come out of that have been things I’ve been really been proud of. They have meant something to me.”
It has taken a further two years for One Hundred Morningsto make it into cinemas, but the picture feels no less timely for that. As the Irish film industry continues to look outwards – consider recent international co-productions such as Essential Killingand As If I Am Not There– Horgan’s first feature again shrugs off parochial concerns to embrace the universal. The drama was filmed near Roundwood, Co Wicklow, but it could be set almost anywhere. The forests could be Canadian. The house would look at home in the Appalachians.
“Yes, a lot of people have noticed that it’s not a particularly Irish house,” he says. “But I never set out to make an ‘Irish film’. I really wasn’t interested in doing something that was screaming ‘Irish’. I wanted to give the sense that this could happen anywhere. I hope that it does seem universal.”
When not fermenting an upcoming drama, Horgan, who is now resident in the Portobello area of south Dublin, has been working on a documentary concerning the Irish drag artist Panti Bliss. It’s nice to have him about the place. But it would be forgivable if he allowed himself to be lured into the Hollywood machine.
“I am working on a script, supported by the Film Board that – I can say no more – is an odd little love story. But, as somebody in America said, if I went over there would be no shortage of offers for films concerning people living in remote cottages. There’s already a pigeonhole there waiting for me if I want it. Which I don’t.”