‘Tenner’ dir. David O’Neill

Homer, a seemingly dysfunctional teenager who lives with his eccentric grandfather, Jolly, holds a vendetta against local shop-owner Pardip. 

Year: 2008
Country: UK
Director: David O’Neill
Writer: David O’Neill
Producers: Andrea Bigger, Darren Bender
Key Cast: Bronson Webb, Jonathan Aris, Emma Chapman, Barry Martin

C8: ‘Tenner’ is interested in subverting perceptions: perceptions of youth, of old age, of ‘justice’ - and its great trick is managing to leave the audience in a totally different place at the end than they were at the start. Was that always the plan? 

DO’N: Shorts take quite a commitment to watch and I’m always conscious of how to hook an audience. If you can steadily build and resolve tension by playing with perception, then you’re more likely to hold your audience to the final big reveal. I set out to do this right from the opening shot. Question: What is this guy doing? Answer: not quite what you think.

C8: The structuring of the story is really impressive, and the layers of information unpeel like an onion as you build to your climax – how long did you develop the script for? 

DO’N: It took quite a while to come up with the idea. I’d made a documentary for the BBC about drug dealers who wanted to become rap stars. They were always telling me about their ankle Rolex. Then I was producing a segment of ‘dancing with the stars’ - America’s version of ‘strictly’, featuring Heather Mills. I was impressed with her ability to dance with a false leg. A lightbulb moment. Combine a false leg and an ankle tag, away you go. The structure fell into place very quickly after that. What’s really strange is that the story became reality a few years later. Two security staff, who were tasked with fitting ankle devices lost their jobs as a result. I’ll always wonder whether the guy being tagged had taken the idea from the film.

C8: What were the biggest challenges in production?

DO’N: The biggest challenge is getting off screen talent to come and work for virtually no money. I don’t mean cast, but camera department, stuntmen, lighting and location finding. Then there was the actual stunt itself. Bronson had to look like he was being hit by a car. We needed our angles to be exact, and the car to skid perfectly. filming stunts without cash is tough!

C8: Bronson Webb, who gives a great performance as the young Homer, has since gone global, starring in everything from ‘Batman Returns’ to ‘Game of Thrones’; did you know then you were working with someone special.

DO’N: Rosalie Clayton, the casting director insisted that I meet Bronson. I’d seen him in some other films and thought he had a really authentic presence. I was keen to find someone new to film, but he just came in and gave the the best read, and I would have been mad not to cast him. He was wonderful to work with. Utterly committed. We were filming on the same day as his ‘Batman’ premiere. We had some tech problems with the camera and had to over-run. He got to Leicester square ten minutes after the doors closed. Missed his big screen debut, thanks to us. He never complained once. Lovely man.

C8: Where does ‘Tenner’ sit in your career, what had you done before it? 

DO’N: I’d spent a long time directing factual TV from single authored documentaries to water-cooler reality shows. At the time, I’d been making some inroads with TV drama, and was slightly stuck in ‘Casualty’ land. ‘Tenner’ gave me a new calling card which helped me get work directing series like ‘Law and Order’ and ‘Lewis’. The best thing though about short films, is they push you to find your storytelling voice.

C8: How was ‘Tenner’ received on the festival circuit and did you do much travelling with the film?

DO’N: The film was screened around the World, from Australia to Canada. It won a directing award at the British independent Film Festival, a Danish publishing house has even brought out a book about the film, now used as part of their schools’ English curriculum.

C8: You have an agent now and are doing lots of work in TV, both factual and drama. What tips do you have for emerging talent looking to crack into the industry?

DO’N: My career has been a process of evolution. I loved documentary, and thats what I aimed to make. Then I wanted to learn more about directing actors and bigger teams of people, so did whatever I could to get hands-on experience in that world.  Above all it’s about a passion for storytelling. If you have that passion, pick up a pen or a camera and get going.

C8: Which are your favourite shorts and why should we check them out?

DO’N: These three are truly inspiring:

  • ‘Wasp’ - Andrea Arnold’s last short. It’s got fantastic kitchen sink energy, and a really well worked narrative.  If you want to see how shorts help develop a film-makers voice, then watch her other shorts too. You can see her storytelling skills slowly emerge.
  • ‘Love Me or Leave Me Alone’ - A really simple and engaging story, beautifully shot by Lol Crawley, one of the best DOP’s in the country. It shows how awkward, inarticulate and generally crap teenage romance can be. Its also a great example of how to tell a story visually with few words.
  • ‘Election Night’: A brilliant circular narrative.  It is very funny. Pokes its tongue out at standing up for your principles. 

C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?

DO’N: Filmmaking is a team game. It should be fun, and should explore and exploit the best of everyone’s talents in front and behind the camera. 

C8: What’s next on the horizon for David O’Neill?

DO’N: I spent the summer in the Caribbean filming ‘Death in Paradise’, which is broadcast on the BBC at the moment. I’ve written another short, which is having an interesting funding journey. it was commissioned by the UKFC and Screen East. Then the money went missing and Screen East were suspended from trading. Then it came back again with the BFI and now it seems to have gone  away again! Very frustrating. Anymore Caribbean adventures greatly received!