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.
Ian Power on thinking in montage, discipline and an over-active imagination.
Can you tell us about your approach to writing?
Because I started to write so that I could direct, I’ve always approached writing as a learner writer. There’s a fundamental honesty you need if you want to get better. I’ve written six screenplays. My approach has always been ‘If you don’t like it, fine, I’ll write a better film’. The trick is the learning curve. So the first script was pretty bad, but they were incrementally better. Writing is a craft at the end of the day.
Starting out, you want to re-invent the wheel with story structure. By the time I wrote The Runway I was concerned only with telling a simple story in a very traditional way. I wanted to go after a three-act structure and do it as well as I could.
When you make a film you realize that three-act structure is really just an industry checklist to make sure you’re telling a story. The real deficit of the three-act structure as a theory is that it overlooks the power of standalone dramatic sequences. Stanley Kubrick had a theory that all films are made up of 8–12 ‘non-submersible units’. All his films have non-traditional story patterns but all feel like pure films.
The funny thing is that a person on the street will rarely talk about a film in terms of three-act narrative – they will talk always talk about ‘the best bits’. Think about it in this way – a monologue in a mirror, planning a heist, a dinner scene, aftermath of a robbery, a torture scene, a father and son scene, a Mexican stand-off – that’s Reservoir Dogs isn’t it? What about the first turning point etc., etc.? It’s just industry bollox.
The real genius of thinking about films in terms of units is that you think in terms of montage. You are forced to think about the screenplay in terms of film syntax, not prose. The beauty of that is that what you leave out can have just as much meaning as what you leave in.
So Oliver Stone takes 20 minutes to establish the madness of Vietnam in Platoon (traditional three-act approach), while Kubrick makes a single cut from a marine blowing his brains out in a sterile latrine to a hooker’s ass in main-street Saigon and we know we are not in Kansas anymore. It’s quite liberating when you think about it.
When you are writing are you thinking of an audience?
David Lean had a great saying – ‘Make the films you want to make and hope that people go and see them. If they don’t, then give up!’ He’s not talking about making films that are esoteric and personal – he’s talking about a hope that your sensibility as a filmmaker is shared by a wider group of humans. Ultimately we’re storytellers not storyowners – it’s a generous craft. In truth that’s the first gift of any great writer – the common touch.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
When I started writing I thought that you should write when you felt inspired, so I would sit around all day, then start writing late in the afternoon. This progressed later and later until I was writing through the night and sleeping most of the day. The result wasn’t very good. For starters you feel like you’re on a different path to the rest of the world – the baggage of being an unemployed writer seemed emphasized by the pattern of being asleep when everyone else was at work. So very quickly I decided to opt for discipline and started to get up early.
Norman Mailer talks about the phenomenon of going to bed and telling your brain that it needs to be writing first thing in the morning and how the brain responds so positively to the request. I’ve always found mornings to be the most productive time. I get up early, maybe 6am and I feel like I’ve got the jump on most of the rat race.
I’ve had a motto for a long time that if it’s not fun to write it’s not going to be fun to read. So before I start to write a script, I try to avoid beginning until the outline is in place. I’ll pitch the idea to anyone who’ll listen – honing the story. It’s amazing how things that stump you for hours on your own will suddenly come to you in an instant when you’re trying to thrill a listener. Once the outline is there I start the 6ams and blitz it. This probably translates to about a month of actual writing preceded by 6 months of pacing, thinking, and pitching. So I write quickly, but it takes a long time.
Do you ‘write what you know’?
Not specifically. It’s probably a weakness and a strength. I rely heavily on imagination. I’ve always had an over-active imagination. But I write things that have a personal sensibility. I don’t limit myself to my own experience because frankly I don’t believe I’ve had the kind of life experience that would be interesting to people to watch. I think a lot of Irish writers are guilty of thinking their lives and experience more interesting than they actually are.
If you’re Ernest Hemingway and you’ve just come back from the Spanish Civil War and you’ve spent your afternoons drinking rum and shooting bears then write about what you know, people will be fascinated. If you’re not, then you’re going to have to make it up.
What advice would you have for writers?
Keep writing and keep reading. I was lucky enough not to get into film school when I left secondary and ended up studying History of Art and English in UCD Arts. This was the single greatest advantage of my career because I’ve read all the right books and studied all the right paintings.
Learn to re-write. Re-writing doesn’t mean you write a bunch of new stuff. It means you look at what you’ve written, you consider what doesn’t work and you fix it within the confines of your story.
I know a lot of writers who can write great first drafts. The reason no one will ever hear of them is because after the first draft they lose interest in making the script as good as it can be. That’s the creative instinct – you see a thing almost complete and that’s good enough. That’s where craft comes in – craft is the thing that shapes creative instinct and systematically helps you to fully realize your inspiration.
Stay positive. There’s a real trap that writers fall into in this country where they start to believe that they’re not getting a break because of politics or because someone doesn’t like them. The truth is that talent will always find a way and a good script will always get you noticed!
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Winter 2011 issue 139, published 1st November 2011.