The State of Screenwriting in Ireland
Indie screenwriting in Dublin receives a bad rep. Sure, there are events like the Firehouse Film Festival, or the March on Film festival, but Irish cinema is not exactly renowned for its nuance, intelligence, or originality. There’s been a trend the last few years of the Hardy Bucks macho-not-macho male; the obliviously inept gym teacher in Gold, for example. One gets a sense that every Irish film is made in a shroud of irony. As the novelist Rob Doyle put it: we’re all just too afraid of offending each other to write anything original, anything honest. Dublin’s a small city, and a guy needs to work. So will this trend continue, or are there avenues still to explore?
A couple of interesting things have been happening. Blake Snyder’s screenwriting handbook Save the Cat, which long ago sounded the death knell for original writing in Hollywood, is falling out of fashion. Perhaps exhausted or depressed by the financial crisis, screenwriters have thrown caution to the wind a little more and there a few writers of promise. IndieCork is one example of an organisation designed to support original work, and in Dublin a number of independent production companies have sprung up. Unfortunately the majority of students at film school aim to be directors, actors, producers. Screenwriting is not a strength in these places. So where can we find it? The National Film School in IADT is a great environment because its film students mix with students of literature, psychology, and so on. A number of indie films like Seamus Hanly‘s BenD or Brian Dunster‘s Just, Leonard feature performances from indie writers like Colm Kearns or Tony Flynn. On the other side of that, these two directors have made forays into the literary world and published short fiction in The Runt amongst other places.
Charlie Kaufman is often cited as a screenwriter to aspire to, and I think what makes him stand out is his deep knowledge of literature. David Cronenberg would disagree, and recently said that a good screenwriter would be “nearly illiterate”, because screenplays are mostly dialogue. The film production course in FilmBase turned out Poison Pen last year, which was written by children’s author Eoin Colfer. It’s an enjoyable watch, but suffers from the same problem as Gold: Blake Snyder’s fingerprints are all over it. I have no idea how to write a good screenplay. But it’s nice to see that some of the newer, smaller films have begun to move away from this Blake Snyder model, which – for those of you who don’t know – well, think of any generic Hollywood film you’ve seen in the last ten years. That’s Snyder. You know what’s going to happen before you go in. The structure is ingrained in us.
Films like BenD are refreshing because they dare to go off the beaten path. BenD is by no means a perfect film, but it’s unique. There’s not a priest in sight. It’s Irish sci-fi. The Luas is in it. The dialogue isn’t melancholy, it’s funny. I think it’s no coincidence that its writer Seamus Hanly also performs comedy and writes fiction. It’s the skill of writing that maybe fell by the wayside during the financial crisis; less technical than the other roles, less vital at first glance (but, of course, arguably the most vital skill in film). You want to make yourself a desirable commodity – learn to work a camera, not a pen. That’s a false prophet, though. BenD utilises a small budget, and a small crew, but it showcases ideas. Its writing is sharp, and that makes it stand out. Gold, on the other hand, is lazy. There are things to like in it, but it paints-by-numbers. Its themes of mental health are important, but its comedy falls flat and the writing lacks vitality.
There are gems at the Firehouse Film Festival. Another Hanly film; a collaboration with Conor Barry; called The Last Days on The Making Of The Last Days on Mars is funny. This tendency towards humour, although a little pomo, is welcome. There is, however, another strand of Irish film that has emerged: the political film. Pat Collins’ Living in a Coded Land called itself a ‘cinematic essay’ and, really, offered us just that. It’s an examination of the coded values and behaviours at the heart of Irish society; the class markers and educational symbols that mark out those with power from those without. The behaviour of the upper middle-classes, it points out, is little more than a series of coded gestures designed to allow them safe passage to power. If you want power, you go into finance. You use your family to network in certain circles. You use the right kind of language with the right kind of accent. So we can see that within the financial crisis there were a number of changing factors – a politicisation of the populace, a shift in what we considered a valuable or marketable skill – that have had a pretty profound effect on the films that are now coming to light.
As a film, Living in a Coded Land is pretty unique. Although it falls prey to some arthouse pretensions, it does offer an incisive scream at the injustice of it all. It does, at least, dare to say what it thinks. It strays from the screenwriting guides and tries to make film relevant. It doesn’t shroud itself in irony. That it’s primarily a piece of analysis, rather than narrative, speaks further to the ability of a great orchestrator as an important part of the filmmaking process. It’s not all about stroking beards and getting the right shot. Indeed, many of its shots are terrible. But who cares? Like BenD, it’s trying.
There’s something about the Dublin scene. An emphasis on “Just making films,” Just do it, they say. That’s good advice, and Werner Herzog says the same. But I can’t help but feel that it’s the filmmakers who don’t just do it – who wait, who think, who write, who end up making the best stuff. It’s the Woody Allen problem. Maybe his films would be better if he didn’t churn one out every single year? A balance will be found, and I think an emphasis on screenwriting will help the industry. As it stands, too few Irish films have good scripts. The success of Love/Hate on RTE has evidently kicked this into focus, and now we’re seeing series’ like Red Rock or Charlie that try to say something true. These are the things that will last, and that will win success abroad. Since the financial crisis ‘ended’ there’s been a lot of arts coverage in The Irish Times, a lot of writing guides, a lot of encouragement. Now that the emphasis on the technical skills needed to survive a recession has fallen away, we might be seeing a return to the less ‘vital’ but totally important skill in film: writing.
Words: Stephen Totterdell