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Thomas Hefferon: Switch & The Confession

Meet one of our most prolific makers of short films. His fourth short is currently showing at TFF, and another is available in The Streaming Room (for free!).



Tribeca: Tell us a bit about the two films of yours fans can watch during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Thomas Hefferon: Well I have a new film at the Festival this year, Switch, as well as one of my old films, The Confession, which is playing in the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival Streaming Room. And my other new film Heist, played in the Streaming Room before the Festival began.


Switch is an intense drama with hints of the supernatural. Set two years after a traumatic car-accident has left a young girl in a catatonic vegetative state, the man who put her there seeks out her mother to atone for his crimes. However, he soon discovers that righting his wrongs may take more than what he’s prepared to give. My writing partner TJ came to me with an idea to do a film about a vegetative catatonic girl last January, and we developed it from there. We put it in for government funding, which we then subsequently got.


And The Confession is a sweet little comedy about a young man, Johnny Smith, who goes to confess his sins, but the town priest seems to be more interested in gossiping about the local women than granting him absolution for his sins. It is based on an old Irish/Scottish joke that a friend emailed to me one evening. A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, wow, this would make a great short film.


Thomas Hefferon


Tribeca: What do you think attracts American fans to Irish films?


Thomas Hefferon: It’s a hard thing to quantify, as I genuinely think there’s such a wonderful array of diversity within the Irish film industry right now. I think we’re at the beginning of a golden age for Irish film-making—I mean, you only need to look at how well Irish short films have been doing over the past 3-4 years: winning Berlin, Tribeca and Sundance, as well as having an Oscar nominee for the past 4 years in a row, of which we won one. That’s incredible when you think how small a nation Ireland is.


Coupled with that, I think Ireland has a special place in the hearts of most Americans, especially New Yorkers. The city has a historically close relationship with Ireland, which I experienced in my first year at Tribeca, when half the people I met told me that they had Irish parents, grandparents or some other form of ancestral heritage with Ireland.


Tribeca: Tell us a little about your short film career—you’ve been closely aligned with Tribeca the whole time, yes?


Thomas Hefferon: Yeah, you guys have been really amazing in supporting my career. My first short film, The Confession, played here in 2009, when it was coming to the end of its run. It has premiered the year before at Palm Springs, where I met the programmer, Sharon Badal, and it went on to play at over 40 major international film festivals, so Tribeca was sort of at the tail end of that.


The Pool


When I attended, I had just finished shooting my new short, a government funded film titled The Pool, and I had such an amazing experience at Tribeca that I decided that I wanted to premiere it here the following year. I entered it for consideration and three months later got the call from Sharon to say that she loved it, and so again I had a film in the Festival. It was just such a wonderful feeling, as I felt the weight of expectation, with The Pool being my sophomore effort. Everyone kept saying, don’t worry if it doesn’t work out, second films are hard. So it was a kind of vindication for me—I felt like I’d justified everyone’s faith in me, none more so than Filmbase and RTE who funded it.


After having an amazing second time at Tribeca I was adamant that I wanted to be back again in 2011, as besides being my third year in a row, it was also Tribeca’s 10th Festival, so it would be a special occasion for both of us. I had recently co-written Switch, and in July got the funding to make it. It was an incredibly tough schedule to get it finished in time for the Festival, but we just about got it in on time and thankfully you guys liked it enough to invite me back again.



Tribeca: What inspires you to tell a story?


Thomas Hefferon: A story has to grip me if I want to be involved in making it. If I was to put a word on it I’d say that it must be compelling. Whenever I sit down to write a script or work on an idea with another writer, there needs to be some form of hook that draws me in. I never second guess myself when deciding if I want to pursue a film or not; you’ve got to have the belief to say, “This is good and I’m going to do my best to make a great film.”


Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that’s ever happened during production on one of your films?


Thomas Hefferon: Whenever I make a film I always say beforehand, “I wonder what will go wrong on this one.” Not because I’m pessimistic, but because something always goes wrong on every shoot, and in some ways a mark of your abilities as a director is how you deal with those problems and rise above them.


Each of my films have had their own crazy stories, for example a minor hurricane hit Ireland during the filming of the confession box scenes in The Confession, and the noise from outside the studio was so loud and unpredictable that I had to improvise and figure out a way around it. On The Pool, we had myriad problems, as you can imagine when shooting in water (and underwater) and with kids, but the challenge was good and a lot of fun.


The Confession


Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned over your career? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Thomas Hefferon: As long as you always keep an open mind and have the hunger and desire to learn all the time, then I think you learn more and more with each film. Every time I finish a project, whether it’s a film, music video or commercial, I always ask myself: What did I do well? and What could I have done better?


With that in mind I would say that the best advice I can give is to be open-minded and not lock yourself into things. If a location changes at the last minute, don’t try to force your old vision on it; be open. Likewise, when on set, be open to what’s around you. I like to storyboard, but when I get to a location I always try to see if there is any magical ‘spur of the moment’ things I can do.


Tribeca: Do you have plans for a feature film?


Thomas Hefferon: Most definitely. In fact, while I’m in New York I’ll be meeting with some companies to discuss a film that is set in New Jersey. It’s something that TJ Hundtofte (my writing partner) and I have been discussing for a while and wrote over the past 4 months. I’m also working on a couple of projects set in Ireland, which I’m hoping to get into production within the next year or so. But getting a feature off the ground isn’t easy, and it usually takes longer than you’d expect. However I’m pretty gung-ho about getting something into production in the next two years, and if I have to, I’ll raise finances myself and shoot a low-budget feature.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Thomas Hefferon: I think it’d have to be James Cameron. Growing up, he has been my idol, as I am a massive science-fiction fan. What I love about Cameron is that while he makes big-budget movies, he always places the emphasis on the characters and never cheats the audience by having them make incidental decisions to push the plot ahead.


This is probably cheating, but I’m also a big Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan fan, and so maybe it could be a roundtable lunch or something, as it’d be hard to choose between the three. I love the lush visuals and atmosphere of Scott’s films and his grandiose vision, while I think Nolan’s films have an incredible gripping quality and intensity to them, as well as beautiful visuals. As you can probably tell, I think a beautifully shot film (framing, lighting, etc.) is really important, as it sets the mood and tone.



Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Thomas Hefferon: I’d imagine that’d have to be David Gemmell’s Legend. If a studio came to me now and said I could literally make any film I wanted, I would adapt Legend into a film. Everyone I’ve ever recommended it too has loved it, and it is probably my favorite book ever. It embodies everything I love about cinema and story, which is an epic narrative anchored by its characters.


Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?


Thomas Hefferon: Hmmm, that’s a tough one to do without trying to either being comedic or sounding pretentious. I’d probably go for something like “The Journey So Far,” as I think life is a journey that doesn’t end until the day you stop breathing, I don’t think you ever stop learning and experiencing new things if you have a hunger to constantly grow.


Tribeca: What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival?


Thomas Hefferon: Wow, it’s so hard to pinpoint one thing I’m looking forward to, as there are so many amazing events, screenings and workshops. The charity soccer match day is going to be awesome, and I can’t wait for that. Also there are a few cool films I can’t wait to see, but for me the best thing about Tribeca are all the unknowns. I just love meeting new people and mingling with other filmmakers, so I’m probably most looking forward to all the great people I’m going to meet over the next few weeks. Oh and then of course there’s meeting our patron, a certain Mr. De Niro.


Find out where and when you can catch Switch at the Festival this weekend.
Watch The Confession now!


Meet more Faces of the Festival.



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