Frank Kelly studied animation production at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. He began writing screenplays during college and formed a writing partnership with Thomas Kennedy when he graduated in 2000. Together they founded Pale Stone Productions Ltd and completed their first short, Emily’s Song in 2006. It was screened at 30 international film festivals, broadcast on RTE and Channel 4, won the Crystal Heart Award, UNICEF Award and special Mention at Oberhausen Short Film Fest. Frank went on to make Bill, For Short in 2008, distributed by Network Ireland Television, and Slán agus Beannacht in 2009, both screened at festivals around the world. He began production on 140 the same year, a global documentary that was shot in 23 countries around the world. Completed in January of 2010, it had its world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Fest and its European Premiere at the IFI in Dublin. It won the Bronze Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival. Frank completed Raise My Hands in 2010, which screened at 15 international film festivals. He completed his first dramatic feature in 2012, Derelict, which had its premiere at the Underground Cinema Film Festival in Dublin, where it received an honorary mention. Since then Frank worked on the BBC documentary Michael Woods’ The Great British Story, and completed a short film, Joe & Sarah for Ablevision Ireland. Now living in California in the United States, Frank works at Apple and writes episodes of The Tom and Jerry Show for Warner Bros. He is also in pre-production for his next feature film, I Am Ireland.
Welcome to the series, Frank. To begin, can you recall when your love of writing and film first manifested?
When I was a kid, I got into films at a young age and would re-write the films I liked, then I’d write my own sequels. I remember when all my friends started to get into video games – this was when computers still had wood panelling – I borrowed my cousin’s Commodore 64, and I’d use it to write, even though I couldn’t save anything, I just loved seeing the words appear on the screen.
Did anyone famous or otherwise, inspire you to write?
There was a drama society in school, which I was not actually part of. But the teacher of it came into our class and asked us to stage a play. So I wrote and directed it, and afterwards he pulled me aside and said he really liked it. It was the first time I’d had that kind of affirmation and it propelled me forward. But I was writing before that. It must have been Back to the Future. When I saw that film, aged 9, I knew then I wanted to make films. I had no idea how films were made, but I wanted to do whatever it was. For me, the Back to the Future script is still a perfect screenplay. Economy in story, brilliantly structured, highly entertaining but with depth and character. So I suppose Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis were a huge inspiration on me.
Do you write on a daily basis?
Yes. I work full-time and have two small kids, so I don’t write as much as I used to. When I was younger I would write about 4 hours a day, actually sitting at a computer and writing. Then I’d have a notebook that I always wrote in, park myself in a cafe somewhere and write several pages of ideas and thoughts. These days I don’t have that luxury. But I try to write at least one page. If I sit down with the idea of writing just one page I find I’ll usually write a lot more. I’m much better at using what little time I have.
How long does it take you to complete a script?
Six months to a year.
And your preferred genre?
My films are generally straight drama. For me it’s the human interaction over the situation. I like to get characters in a room and get them talking. I find that very compelling. And I like the play of language. It’s a challenge to write natural sounding dialogue that also has to be plot driven. You don’t want to feel like the writer or director is steering the car, you want to feel like the brakes are off and the characters are hurtling down the hill – and if they survived it to the end it was pure luck!
You produce your work as well?
I’ve produced all my own films. I worked on the first script for a long time until I felt it was ready. Then gathered a cast and crew, raised as much money as I could and went into production. I’ve always found it difficult to get any outside support, but I’ve never let that stop me from writing or trying to get films made. My first short film, Emily’s Song, came out in 2006. It was my first experience watching my words come to life, seeing actors perform them and seeing something I imagined on my own, fill a room. There was no going back after that!
How do you raise the finance to fund your projects?
All of my films, seven in total, are self-funded and crowdfunded! I made a film called 140 which was entirely crowdfunded and crowdsourced. I’m working on a film at the moment called I Am Ireland which is crowdsourced. I’ve always found that going down the traditional avenues to get funding just delayed and annoyed me. I could spend 6 months jumping through hoops only to get a two-line standard rejection email at the end of it. I found if I just made my own films I could use all the time and energy much more usefully.
Do you have an agent? Do you think it necessary to have one?
I don’t. I’m not sure that it’s necessary at my stage, but at some stage, yes. A successful friend of mine once said that the industry is a swanky party, and when you’re unknown, it all depends on who you walk in the door with. I think agents can open doors.
So how do you manage the marketing and PR?
I do it all myself. I design my own posters, write loglines, send out press releases to media, set up social media campaigns. I don’t exactly enjoy it, but it’s necessary if you want people to see your work.
Social media is important to the process then?
As an independent filmmaker it’s essential. It’s how I build my audience and a community around my films. It helps spread word of mouth and it reaches people who I never would have been able to reach.
And the significance of film festivals and awards?
It’s important in the marketing and life of the work. I’ve found in the past that films of mine that have won awards or got into more festivals get more attention and have a longer life. Those that haven’t won awards tend to have shorter lives. If it gets the film seen I think it’s a good thing. Plus festivals are fun to go to, you meet a lot of like-minded people, which is nice having spent months, or years, alone in a room working on this thing.
What about reviews? How do you handle them?
I had a review once that said my film was “Too Irish”. I had nothing to say to that! I try to take negative reviews or comments on the chin. Sometimes I agree, I see the mistakes, can take it constructively. I remember I was in a pub once after a screening of my film Derelict. I’d spent two years making this film, spent a ton of my own money on it, and I was finally screening it in my hometown, Drogheda, in the Droichead Arts Centre. A proud moment. The screening went great, it looked good, sounded great, the place was packed. So this person I know, half cut, comes up to me and decides to tell me everything she thought was wrong with the film. Some of it was valid, some of it was stuff I was trying to do that she just didn’t like, but in the end I just made an excuse to walk away from her. I look forward to the day she spends two years and all of her money making a film so that I can witness perfection and learn from her example.
From a global perspective, what’s your opinion of independent film production these days?
It’s an exciting time for independent film. There’s never been more opportunity to just make a film. But in saying that, it does feel harder to get a film out into the world then it did 10 years ago. The traditional ways of getting work out are all but gone, so independent filmmakers are inventing ways of getting their films seen and making money with distribution. It’s equal part exciting and terrifying! I think Indie film is in good shape. There are a lot of exiting films being made – you look at a hit like The Babadook, one of my favourite films this year, an independent film, with the financing partly raised on Kickstarter. Another Kickstarter film, Blue Ruin, was a big indie hit last year. There are incredible filmmakers out there who are finally finding a way to get their films made and out into the world, whereas before they might have been denied the chance to tell their story because a reader in some funding body wasn’t into their script. I think we’re going to keep seeing amazing and original work because we’re find ways to not just cut through the red tape, but to by-pass it altogether.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, Frank?
Write. That’s all you have to do. And write everyday. It’s a muscle that gets stronger with exercise. Books and films don’t write themselves. Read a lot, watch a lot, observe a lot, sit in cafes and think a lot, drink a lot of coffee, live a lot! That’s important. Don’t think you can just be a writer, that’s rare, so much of your inspiration for stories and characters will come from everyday life, and working that shitty job you need to pay the rent will give you more ideas than you can imagine, so don’t be afraid to join the real world once in a while.
Is there a film script by another screenwriter that you wish you had written?
Ha ha! Many! I wish I could write something like Some Like It Hot, it’s just perfection. If I could get anywhere near anything Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond wrote, I’d be doing alright!
Write what you know? Agree or Disagree?
I agree. But I think that piece of advice can be misinterpreted. You might know Vampires more than anyone else, so write Vampires. Write what you’re inspired to write, and you will come to know it.
Name six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!
Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Hayao Miyazaki and Stephen Fry.
And finally, can you tell us more about the projects you are working on right now?
I’m working on two things at the moment, a crowdsource documentary called I Am Ireland about Irish Immigrants around the world, their experience and their relationship with Ireland. And 10 Days in December, which is a feature script about two people from different worlds who fall in love during Christmas in Ireland. It’s a true story and close to my heart. I hope to shoot a proof-of-concept at the end of this year and raise enough funding next year to put that feature into production.
You can follow Frank’s progress via his Blog and Facebook page:
Caroline Farrell has written several feature and short scripts. Most recently, In Ribbons, which she wrote and co-produced, screened at the 2015 Belfast Film Festival and the Corona Fastnet Film Festival.
Caroline blogs… on writing and film… and on a few of her favourite things