Brian Ó Tiomáin interviews fellow Film Ireland journalist James Phelan about the scripts of his show Wrecking the Rising – a comedy drama about time travel and 1916 that broadcasts for three nights in a row starting this Saturday 23rd April.
Can you tell us where the idea for Wrecking the Rising came from?
Well, will I start with an exclusive? (laughs) I’ll try to be terse but this is actually me coming clean. A few years back there was an open call for 1916 ideas to pitch in public with some prize money attached. I had this notion of battle re-enactors travelling back to the exact battle they knew by heart. And the first iteration of this was World War 2 in my basic note. But the second 1916 connected with this idea, I felt I had something. I applied for the pitch but didn’t make the shortlist. Then I passed the concept by TG4 and drama commissioner Micheal O Meallaigh. Again it would be glossing over fact to say he went for it first time. But a few months after I thought this idea was going nowhere Micheal got back in touch and said that the central idea of Wrecking had been gnawing its way into his subconscious. And that we had to do it and we did. But getting a show off the ground is never a straight line and everything gets knockbacks and setbacks – but I was chuffed the idea for this show won out.
After you started writing the script, did the concept evolve further over time?
The basic concept of three guys travelling back in time to the Rising where they immediately put the cat among by pigeons by accidentally killing one of the leaders on Easter Monday morning stayed intact throughout. Around the fringes there was plenty of change, and ‘evolve’ is a good word. The main change I can think of is initially the three friends all used to work in the same school but now we have a variety of occupations and they come together for re-enacting. Which was so useful. For instance, Peter Coonan’s character Sean being a site archaeologist freed us up for him to be the guy to find the time travel relic organically enough… I know – ‘time travel’ and ‘organic’ in the same sentence. I didn’t kill myself on the time travel science but we wanted it purely as a device. What works for Woody Allen is good enough for us!
Genre wise, what is Wrecking the Rising?
It’s a hybrid for sure of lots of genres but unified by a pretty clean concept. This project was a dream to pitch because it was ‘time travellers wreck the Rising before it even begins’. If I had to describe it as a dark comedy historical adventure drama with elements of science fiction, it would have bogged the whole thing down. Having seen it, I’m so pleased that the last episode has such a powerful emotional climax. Even if people think we’re just goofing around inside history, I think we will surprise people by making them think about both the past and present in a fresh light.
There’s been a huge amount of 1916 programmes already this year, are you afraid of viewer fatigue?
Of course. I’m afraid of everything. Afraid we’ll be lost in the flood. Afraid that we won’t get a chance to connect but we hope people give us a chance because we really are something radically different in relation to 1916. It’s not just marketing rhetoric but we are genuinely the antidote to all the solemn stuff. We rip through history and though we are not ripping the piss, we provide something original, outrageous, extreme but also extremely funny and thought-provoking. There’s been a lot of classical treatments of 1916 knocking around – this is more punk rock.
Speaking of… do you listen to specific music when you write?
Hah. I used to think that was such bollocks but now I understand why David Koepp says he wrote Panic Room to an exclusive score of heavy metal. I actually did a soundtrack for the writing of this and no, it wasn’t diddely aye era-specific folk music. It was Springsteen’s album ‘Wrecking Ball’. The title is kind of just a coincidence but the music on that vastly underrated album has a real aggressive protest song vibe to it. While also being pretty redolent of Irish/Scottish airs. And it really fed into the script. So much so that Peter’s character within is it a big Springsteen fan who actually infuses the music into the show at pivotal and totally anachronistic times. Fair play to Tile Films and the director Ruan Magan for following through on it. We have Peter pay tribute to one song in a recurring manner that is both really funny and really moving.
Can you remember how you first became interested in writing and at what stage after that you thought about writing for the screen?
Well, English being my sole good subject in school guided me a bit. In fact I lie. History was decent for me too but probably because it was an English-language subject. In my secondary education in Abbeyside Dungarvan, I got great encouragement from two English teachers and when you spend your time writing essays for other people in class, it’s probably a precursor to feeding actors lines. I always liked the secret pride in that.
And before you ask – no, I wasn’t good at Irish either. I’m still not. So again, credit to TG4 to being open enough to accept ideas and scripts from everyone and everywhere. When I first sent in my ideas for Rasai na Gaillimhe /Galway Races I thought I’d probably be disqualified by having these ideas in English. Gallingly, my mother is from the smallest Gaeltacht of Ring outside Dungarvan and my Irish teacher knew she was fluent but I remain stubbornly resistant to taking any additional languages onboard.
Who were your major influences in film and writing?
Anytime I answer this I feel I should be all obscure and arty but the truth is I believe that film and TV are primarily entertainment. It’s occasionally elevated to art if the practitioners excel but I love mainstream writers who please an audience while still being true to themselves. The last decade of TV has thrown up people I admire and adore on occasion. From Josh Whedon to Aaron Sorkin to Tina Fey. In film I feel like such a bore saying the Coens, but it’s true. The variety and consistency of their work is astonishing. That said, as my recent review of Hail Caesar attests – they can still have the odd off day. And I’d have to qualify my love for Quentin by limiting it to early Tarantino. I quite like the films Diablo Cody is putting together but putting together a really satisfying body of film writing seems to getting harder and harder.
Are you drawn to particular genres or subject matter?
Judged on my TG4 work it would seem I have a thing for setting things over one week. That said we did Rasai Na Gaillimhe twice so it was bound to be race week twice. But also ‘Wrecking’ being set on Easter week. Other recurring things thus far – I seem to have a dark comedy obsession with moving dead bodies around. Weekend at Bernie’s must have had a bigger effect than I imagined on me. I will defend myself by saying I think it’s an inherently dramatic and often comedic situation. If you factor in my short films, I think there’s a tendency to lose body parts too. Oh, and I inject comedy into everything. The darkest material is made palpable by humour and even on their worst days, I like my characters to summon humour to cope or improve a situation or just be defiant. It’s a trait in Wrecking... for sure, where even in the deepest peril, the characters find the funny.
Any interest in features?
Plenty of interest. I just need to get producers interested in my feature scripts. I started out by writing features to learn the trade. And it worked to some extent. I see a steady improvement and I have a little reservoir of viable features sitting there. They will always need another draft but I favour writing actual scripts over purely having short documents to represent a project. I hate short docs as much as any writer out there and I think they lie and over-promise anyway. I have a script that I’d love to do as my debut feature. And increasingly I’m looking to animation too. I’ve got TV animation credits under my belt with Oddbods which is apparently doing very well audience-wise on Boomerang channel.
Wrecking the Rising screens over three consecutive nights on TG4 at 9.30pm starting on Saturday, 23rd April.