Sarah Cullen caught up with James Phelan, writer of the RTE drama Striking Out, which follows the tumultuous professional and personal life of Dublin-based solicitor, Tara Rafferty, and her fledgling legal firm.
Acorn TV is giving the Irish legal drama an exclusive U.S. premiere on its streaming service on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.
I think one of the stars of Striking Out has got to be Dublin itself – the place looks fantastic! I wonder how important the location and setting was in the writing of the script?
Naturally enough, a huge amount of credit has to go to the director Lisa (James Larsson) and the DOP Frida (Wendel). I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for this being a case of an outside eye looking at the city afresh and while there’s an element of that, it was always envisaged that Dublin be the final character of the piece at script level too.
And I guess that’s what’s great about Dublin for drama. You can mould your vision for your drama around different and differing areas that are all legitimately and authentically Dublin. Even the juxtaposition of our beautiful historic districts bumping up against stunning new modern architecture really works well onscreen.
Overall, it was an upfront ambition to openly acknowledge that Dublin is an attractive city. I think I alluded to the connection between New York and Sex and the City in early style notes for the show. You want it to feel rooted and real as opposed to an affectation. But on a level deeper than optics, I did want to stock an attractive show about Dublin with attractive people without sacrificing depth. And without ever having to apologise for it. If Dublin gets a tourism boost out of how well the show looks, what a lovely upside.
There’s a lot of in-depth analysis of the Irish legal system going on in Striking Out. Did you feel the need to do any research for the court proceedings and the legal aspects of the storylines?
Oh yeah, I think you have to do due diligence and have the world sound and feel right. You don’t want to straitjacket the drama either by being overly zealous and overly exact but there is a balance to be struck. I have a slight grounding through studying law for a few years but really it’s the feel of the law in practice that has to feel right and real.
It’s not a show ‘about solicitors for solicitors’ but you want to evoke a recognisable world where the setting is a convincing crucible for drama. That said, adhering to the reality of the law would inherently kill so much drama if we had to truly acknowledge or account for every naturally occurring delay or adjournment that would crop up. So it’s definitely a balance between creating a case that would resonate with our main character Tara and then finding the entry point that cuts to the quick of drama. As in most screenwriting lessons – that entry point was generally as late as possible so Tara could be proactive, positive and effective.
Would it be fair to say that scriptwriting on Striking Out is a rather different affair to your historical comedy drama Wrecking the Rising? How did you manage to shift from one style to the other?
I’m definitely of the mind that any writer should have an adaptable style. The material is king and dictates so much. If a writer has a style that is so pronounced and particular and rigid – I doubt it would always serve differing subject matters properly.
In my book, I think the language and style of writing is sculpted to extract the most and evoke the most from any premise. A period horror script should read so differently from say – a cyber thriller. Even from the same writer. Obvious, I know. But one style does not fit all. Or suit all.
Wrecking the Rising probably contained a couple of different styles in that it had fictional modern men alongside real historical figures. I guess the most delicate balance there was to embrace the fun and whimsy of a time-travelling plot while also striving to be weirdly respectful, insightful and even poignant.
One of my ambitions setting out with Wrecking was not to have the historical characters converse in ‘patina-encrusted speech mode’. I loved how in JFK every minor character Jim Garrison interviews feels real and in the moment. And almost preoccupied in that moment by something personal. Hence, I had Connolly obsessing about his missing hat. Rather than fretting about masterplans or recounting all the events that lead to the occupation of the GPO. They all knew why they were there. Why on earth would they be reiterating it endlessly?
I’m delighted with Wrecking. And delighted it felt so different from Striking Out. And hopefully the next couple of planned dramas and features will feel very different too.
There’s some serious acting talent going on in Striking Out. When you were writing did you have any of the actors like Amy Huberman or Neil Morrissey in mind?
Well Neil was a bit of a bolt from the blue. Just in terms of a casting coup. The character of Vincent was created during the period of development that the show went through. He was always erudite and charming with a slight self destructive streak. Neil was inspired casting. He embodies Vincent so well. It looks effortless like all great acting.
It was the opposite situation with Amy because it’s a case of going from an actor I hadn’t thought of for Vincent to pretty much the only actor I suggested for Tara. And it was merely a suggestion. From a lowly writer with no power to swing these things. But back in the very early days when the producers asked who I saw in the role – I just thought instinctively Amy would be a great fit for Tara. On our lengthy journey to the screen, the show is never truly in casting mode until things get more concrete as it nears production. So there’s a lovely symmetry in Amy ending up in the role. And excelling in the role.
Were there any scenes or characters you particularly enjoyed writing?
I spent the most time on Episode 1. It’s an ultra dramatic start that kicks off the show and it has a propulsion that plunges Tara and the viewers into an engrossing chain of events. I always liked that Tara and Ray found each other and bonded on this most traumatic dramatic day. Seeing that connection blossom and the actors bringing it to life was very satisfying.
Did you spend any time in collaboration with Striking Out’s other writers, Rob Heyland and Mike O’Leary?
I hope I had lot of the groundwork in place by the time the boys came onboard. I had plans in place for the four episode arc but between us we divided it up and fleshed it out.
I guess I saw my job as show creator as equipping the other writers with compelling cases and a vivid cast of characters to play with. And through which they could explore and expand our world.
For example, when I came up with the bigamy case for Episode Three and the organ donor angle that underpinned it, I knew a writer as experienced as Rob would knock it out of the park, which he proceeded to do.
Overall, I’m most proud that of all the intellectual and storytelling rigour applied to Striking Out that the world and cast of characters I created really stood solid. You can tell that something is working when characters you conjured out of thin air are being instantly discussed as very rounded relatable characters. That occurred with so many characters from Tara’s mum to Eric’s father and everyone in between.
And finally, without giving too much away, the finale of Striking Out certainly left scope for a second season. Do you think Tara and the gang might return to our screens?
Striking Out was definitely designed to be a renewable and returnable series. I think there is plenty of mileage in the tank for it because I think an audience want to see more of Tara’s journey. It was my plan if we were lucky enough to get a second series that we see Tara returning to the dating scene and depict her enjoying her life again. Which she surely was before she discovered Eric’s cheating. An audience hasn’t seen that aspect of her yet. I think Amy and the rest of the cast can grow even further into these roles and entertain the nation for a while yet.
Premieres March 17 at https://acorn.tv/strikigout.