[14 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For film critic Paul O’Callaghan, life has always been a ‘movie’. Ever since graduating from NYU Film School, he’s been pursuing a dream to be a director. Of course, that goal got sidetracked when his self-professed “labor of love” - the Tampa, Florida cable access show entitled Your Life is a Movie, led to an association with local shock jocks Ron Bennington and Rob Diaz. As the “movie guy” on the nationally syndicated Ron and Ron Show, O’Callaghan (who goes by a shortened nickname, ‘Paul O’, on-air) became something of a celebrity. Yet in the back of his mind, he still wanted to make movies. “I’ve never given up on the goal,” he repeats during a recent interview in his adopted hometown. “I just needed the right motivation to move forward.”
That drive came from his current gig as part of the Ron and Ron revamp, The Ron and Fez Show on XM Satellite Radio. “Here am I,” O’Callaghan says, “spending an hour or so a week talking about what I love (movies),” and so naturally, the conversation would turn toward his own aspirations. “I talked about it a lot,” he offers, “but what I really wanted to do was something big. This secret project I had that I knew no one would finance.” O’Callaghan is alluding to a mystery script that he has “squirreled away in a bottom desk drawer somewhere”, a possible blockbuster that he refuses to discuss. It’s one of several he’s written over the years. But when the time and opportunity came to actually get behind the lens and make a movie, O’Callaghan had to set his sights - and his scope - a great deal smaller.
Thus the small indie horror film Gap was born. “It’s about aging, about the state of the world”, the first time filmmaker confesses. In the movie, O’Callaghan plays a nameless man who, frustrated by what he sees around him, has decided to videotape a multi-victim killing spree. Speaking directly to the camera (with some intercut montages and title cards to suggest his mental state) the character spews an almost non-stop collection of missives, prophecies, edicts, and tantrums. Then the slaughter starts. “I wanted to work in a recognizable type,” O’Callaghan says, “something an audience could instantly relate to.” He also understood the basic foundation of the independent film business. “No one is going to give me, a first time filmmaker, a big budget like on a mainstream movie.” With horror, the movie could be made cheaply, easily, and have a kind of “instant recognizability” amongst the viewers.
O’Callaghan actually had the fans in mind when he made the movie, “It was highly collaborative at first,” he admits. “I got lots of input from the (Ron and Fez) listeners. We run ideas, improvise scenes. Sometimes, I would take on the character and we’d adlib something.” All this material then was filtered into O’Callaghan’s script, though there was room for improvisation on the set. “I gave the actors a basic outline,” he clarifies, “letting them know where the material was going.” But once he got into the character, O’Callaghan felt free to take the scenes toward places even darker. “There were definitely times when people were afraid of me,” he admitted. “I’m a big guy…an imposing guy, figure. It got pretty intense at times.”
Indeed, one of Gap‘s most impressive aspects is its fierce philosophical stance, a painful projection of popular culture’s destructive properties. “Yeah, a lot of the issues raised in the film are beliefs I hold personally,” O’Callaghan explains. “Not literally, but in general. I think society is going in the wrong direction. I think people, especially young people, are influenced by a media that feeds them nothing but garbage.” He points out that, in the film, he only kills “kids” under a certain age because they are the one’s most vulnerable to the corrupting influences around. “They don’t think for themselves”, he chides, “they’re sheep. They believe whatever society and the stupid news tells them.” As a result, in O’Callaghan’s mind, they are unprepared for the real horrors that face them once the truth is told.
But murder? “Yeah, it’s an extreme reaction.” He laughs it off. “My point is…Gap‘s point is…someone has to teach the world. The character (of the killer) sees himself as someone on a mission. School won’t teach them. He’s going to use these tapes, these lectures, as a way of communicating his ideas.” O’Callaghan admits that it’s heady stuff for a horror film, but genre titles are more readily accepted from first time filmmakers than larger than life, epic in scope ambitions. “As a novice director, no one is going to give me the money to realize my dreams,” he says again, realistically. “No, it’s easier to approach a recognizable film type, in this case, the horror film, and then try to inject some intelligence into it.”
Surprisingly enough, the shoot was relatively simple, according to O’Callaghan. “No real problems. Most of the cast came from the Ron and Fez audience.” But there were also elements at play behind the scenes which threatened Gap‘s completion. “While I won’t say the film was cursed…” he trails off, later admitting that there were tragedies all throughout the production. The most difficult of course was the untimely death of his wife Gail (who had a small role in the film). “It really added some perspective,” he admits, taking a long pause for some self-reflection. But it did not defeat him. “I felt I had to go on, to finish. I needed to get this done. It was therapeutic in a way.” Even then, O’Callaghan admits that it took several months in the editing room and post-production to get the film exactly the way he wanted.
“I had a vision for the film,” he explains. “I wanted it to be just like The Blair Witch (Project) . I wanted people to just ‘discover’ it, to think that what they were seeing was real, was happening.” In the early stages of the idea, O’Callaghan tried to come up with ways where people could just ‘find’ the film (perhaps online or at conventions). “That was the whole premise,” he states, “to put people off guard. To see their reaction to something where they couldn’t quite tell if it was true, or just a put-on.” Of course, any and all publicity destroys that illusion. “Yeah, talking to you, or anyone, about the film really undermines that surprise or shock value. In some ways, the more I advertise, the more I destroy my concept.”
In the end, the final project speaks for itself. “The feedback has been decent,” he adds, “even the negative has been constructive.” O’Callaghan also understands that his first effort will be judged more harshly because of his critical past. “A critic is just asking for it,” he laughs, alluding to the notion that someone who used to derail movies for a living is just waiting to have the same thing done to his own offering once it hits the circuit. Still, by getting the word out, by fueling interest in the DVD currently available, O’Callaghan hopes to continue exploring his muse. “I really enjoyed the experience,” he states, “it was fun finally getting a chance to chase my dream. I have to do it again.” It’s a message Paul O’Callaghan wants the whole world to embrace…embrace, or else.