“It was a challenge,” O’Donnell says of directing the film, which opened in limited release Feb. 4. “I had to respond to that challenge. I really liked the screenplay. I was so engaged by these two characters.”
One of the characters, Michael (Steven Robertson), is severely physically handicapped with cerebral palsy. As a result, his speech is extremely impaired. Robertson’s manner of speaking had to be just right – a performance too over the top or too subtle could have weakened the film.
“I left it to Steven to develop his speech and mannerisms,” O’Donnell says. Surprisingly, this is Robertson’s first role in a feature film. He had just graduated acting school before filming on Rory began.
In order to learn more about the type of people they would be portraying, Robertson, James McAvoy (Rory) and the filmmakers went to a number of different care homes. O’Donnell says his perspective was forever changed.
“I had my own prejudices completely transformed,” he recalls. “It was a great journey for me. Like the majority of the population, I was ignorant.
“In a way it does make an impact on you. Many people think that people with cerebral palsy also have a mental disability, and that is not the case,” O’Donnell continues. “They’re really no different from us. They have the same desires.”
Although each character’s disability plays a part in the shaping of this film, O’Donnell says the core of the story is Michael’s relationship with Rory.
“The thing I want to emphasize is [that the film] is not about the disabilities, it is about the friendships,” he says.
Upon Rory’s entrance into the film, one might not foresee a friendship taking off, as he is a bit of an “asshole,” O’Donnell states. But unlike everyone else, he can understand the more reserved Michael. Rory, however, has his quirks throughout the movie, including a joy ride in a car and numerous arguments with authority figures. O’Donnell liked Rory’s conflicting traits.
“Rory lives his life as hard as he can, because he doesn’t know how long he has,” O’Donnell says. “If he had the ability to use his hands, he’d probably take a spray can and make graffiti. But I never wanted to make him nicer. You can have sympathy and empathy for characters without liking them.”
Although O’Donnell admits that there may have been some pressure to make Rory more compassionate, he wouldn’t stand for it. “I wasn’t up for that,” he says. “I hate that syrupy manipulation.”
When he directs, O’Donnell says he shapes every script to his liking. “I’m a very hands-on director,” he says. “I like to take the script apart. To have a good script is essential but it doesn’t stop there. The script is a battle plan for the final project that is the film. “I always question what’s being said,” he says, adding, “I’m very disrespectful of the script. I don’t just take someone’s script and direct it – I kick the shit out of it.”
In the end, all this work seems to have paid off with the film receiving a standing ovation after screening at the Sundance Film Festival. O’Donnell says he has been very impressed with American audiences.
“It was a real encouragement for me,” he says. “In the middle of the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, on a Thursday night, a 1,200-seat theater was totally packed. The passion was moving.”
To this end, O’Donnell calls America the greatest place to present films. As a result, he has hopes that Rory O’Shea can reach an audience and have an effect on people.
“It’s not a blockbuster film,” he concludes. “I hope we can find people like the ones at Sundance; people who will give it a chance.”