Over the coming weeks Film Ireland will publish online the entire back catalogue of articles written by members of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild that have appeared in Film Ireland magazine. These popular articles give an insight into the creative process used by each writer. Terry McMahon, writer/director of the recent cinema release Charlie Casanova, wrote the first piece in Film Ireland 132 Spring 2010 which was published on April 1st 2010.
Two Actors, a Camera and a Taboo
With over a hundred Fair City episodes under his belt and several screenwriting awards, Terry McMahon talks about every writer’s Holy Grail: completion.
I got a second tattoo recently. The first one I got a few years back in a tattoo parlour sandwiched between a Chinese takeaway and a strip club on Hollywood and Vine when Daryl Hannah flew me out to Los Angeles, first class no less, to write a script for her. Living in a council flat on Dorset Street with my missus and young kid, and, having just written my first screenplay, I was naïve enough to think the world would give a damn. It didn’t. But Daryl did, and for a long time I kept the stub of that advance cheque; her name on it and the three most exciting words I’d ever read: twenty-five thousand dollars.
Writing originals, along with more screenplay commissions, I was also paid to portray absurdly unconvincing stereotypes as an actor. Things were dandy. I was working on scripts with the cream of a generation, Damien O’Donnell, Paddy Breathnach and Richie Smyth; hell, I’d even been feted in Cannes and Hollywood where they gave me screenwriting awards. My screenplays were going to be made into movies. No doubt about it. Fast forward to more commissions, a couple more kids, a home owned by the banks instead of the council, a hundred plus episodes of Fair City, and thirty pounds of spare tyre stomach hanging above an increasingly flaccid fallacy. Every script turned from green-lit certainty to amber-dark shit. Not one movie made. Not even a short. Not even an opening title sequence.
So I did what any frustrated hack would do. I got words tattooed onto my arm: ‘The Art is in the Completion. Begin.’ It was 3 am, near Christmas, and, to distract me from my need to scratch the ink burn on my arm, I pondered why I had become immersed in the soul-raping loneliness of writing? It wasn’t cash. It wasn’t fame. It wasn’t sex. (Whoever boasted, ‘I fucked a really hot writer last night?’) And then I remembered what I’d loved in the first place: the simple compulsion of two actors, a camera and a taboo. I emailed in my unknown-to-me-at-the-time final episode of Fair City, then typed a message into that bizarre funky funhouse Facebook:
‘Intend shooting no-budget Charlie Casanova, a provocatively dark satire, in the first couple of weeks of January. Need cast, equipment, locations, and a lot of balls. Any takers? Script at www.terrymcmahon.org. This is sincere so bullshitters fuck off in advance. Thank you.’
The standard lies are learned early in life: the cheque is in the mail; I won’t cum inside you; I won’t mess with your script. Sure as night follows day, writers get fucked. Standard contracts are written in ink but writers’ contracts are negotiated in Vaseline, and, when you pull your underwear back up, you discover everybody and everything, including the used lubricant, has secured more rights than you, and probably a co-credit too. Not that I’m complaining. Writing has been damn good to me. I consider it a humbling privilege to make a living from it. And there are occasions when collaborating with remarkable people whose sole intention is to elevate your words from script to screen is sublime. However, when the author’s contribution is valued at the standard 2.5% of the entire budget, it remains clear, in this gorgeous love affair, who is the pimp and who is the whore. I had no equipment, no cast, no crew, no budget, but I had a script, and a taboo. It took eleven seconds for someone to respond. Within twenty-four hours, a hundred and sixty more responses. A mass blind date was set, and, with me as writer and director, against the oddest of odds, the first day of principle photography was set for four weeks away.
Now we’re about to edit our strange little movie, and, like the weirdo you try to avoid but end up getting drunk with, it has character, balls, and is unlike anything you’ve known before. Does that mean it’s good? Who the hell knows? You’ll decide that for yourself. What I do know is this jaded tattooed hack-whore took that cobwebbed script out of a drawer and is now somehow editing a movie. The only gig in town, Fair City, is no more, and the bank manager wants to know how in hell I’m going to honour my debts and I want to know how in hell I’m going to feed my kids, but I don’t despair. From equipment to locations, everything was donated; everybody worked for nothing and the ensemble cast, led by Emmett Scanlan and Leigh Arnold, were courageous beyond measure. The crew were mostly in their early twenties; diligent, passionate, fearless, and an honour to work with. If these kids are Ireland’s future, then, despite the incompetence and corruption, our future is bright.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Spring 2010 issue 132, published 1st April 2010.