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. Stephen Walsh, writer of Where The Sea Used To Be, which won a Van Gogh Award for Best First Time Director for Paul Farren at the 2012 Amsterdam Film Festival, wrote this piece in Film Ireland 134 Autumn 2010 which was published on September 17th 2010.
Writing on Water
Screenwriter Stephen Walsh describes how he stopped his characters from fecking off home.
Stanley Kubrick said somewhere that the ideal way to make a film would be to shoot a few scenes, think about them for a month or two, and then shoot the next scene. But he supposed that such an approach wouldn’t be financially feasible.
It was only after we’d made a feature film employing that very approach that I found the above story. It made me and other members of the gang who’d made Where the Sea Used To Be feel very, y’know, clever and everything. For about three seconds.
The gaps in our schedule resulted from the mad scramble to assemble the resources to continue shooting. Or we might have to wait to get the people or the gear together, or to get into somebody’s house and use it as a location. So the script bubbled away.
Myself and the director Paul Farren came up with the idea and pretty much had the structure nailed in about an hour. I went off to Italy, drank wine, ate tomatoes straight off the lemon tree and wrote about forty percent of the script.
I came back, we looked at it and then threw it out. The characters were beginning to make themselves known to us, however, so we knew we were onto something. We knew we weren’t complete idiots. And I can’t stress the importance of that small lifebelt of a fact enough.
We concocted a story that made the most of whatever we could get our hands on, or thought we could. Christmas was coming. Good. Stories are always looking for traps that the characters can’t get out of, and Christmas is a lovely great sucking pit of emotional headbuggery.
We figured out just what was happening at Christmas – on Christmas Eve, as it turned out – and dropped the half-formed characters into the pot.
There comes a time in every script when the writers must ask themselves what’s keeping their characters from just fecking off home. Okay. We thought about that. And made them brothers. Get out of that, Patrick and James. And yes, they had names now too.
And friends. And a sort of itinerary which, I’m only realising now, was inspired by John Sayles saying something to the effect that he often figured out what needed to happen in his scripts by drawing a map of the action. Thanks, John.
There were people we wanted to work with too, so we wrote for them. Some of them we even managed to attract to the project. Bairbre O’Toole, for example, was a lock for her character very early on. She has a small scene, but quite an emotionally pivotal one, and just thinking about her in the part helped me figure out how the scene should go. Luckily, she accepted the part.
Other people we weren’t so lucky with. What was interesting, though, was the way the writing changed as different actors came aboard.
Anyway. I completed a first-draft and sent it off to Paul, in his capacity as director and co-writer. I didn’t hear anything from him for ages. Phone calls were non-committal. This was the first time I’d ever written with someone, so I was nervous.
The script came back. He’d changed everything. Every single line. Every single word. He’d even changed the format. I wanted to kill him.
There were four of us in the gang now. Sean Cuthbert was producing and Alan O’Connor was director of photography. They didn’t seem to want to kill Paul, so I was forced to have another look at what he’d done. I became reassured that he was trying out things, not welding them onto the plot forever. Onwards.
We evolved a way of writing that seemed to have more in common with musical composition than anything you’ll find in a Robert McKee book, treating the words and images like lyrics and music. We shot some initial scenes and, over those few days, the piece began to settle into its own skin; began to reveal itself as a definite possibility.
We never deviated from our structure, but as work progressed – complete with those aforementioned Kubrickian pauses – we found new and better ways to tell our story. About two brothers. Who never see each other these days. Who meet for the obligatory pint on Christmas Eve. And then, when one of them misses his train, are forced to spend the day together.
The film exists now. We had a work-in-progress screening at the Galway Film Fleadh. People laughed in the right places and went quiet in the right places. They praised Alan’s wonderful images and Adrian Crowley’s transcendent music. Most of all, they got it. Now all we’ve got to do is sell the thing to the world. Oh, and make another one.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Autumn 2010 issue 134, published 17th September 2010.