With an impressive IMDB roll call behind him and a bright future ahead of him we chat to screenwriter and actor Niall Cassin.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How and why did you originally get into the industry?
I always loved movies as a kid. The escapism – How they could make you feel happy or sad, thrill or scare you, make you laugh. Me and my dad would watch old war movies together – I loved the way they would take me on a journey to somewhere I’d never been; an entirely new experience. I thought to myself, that would be cool if I could give that experience to someone. So after school, I studied film… and then I ended up working in a bank for the next 10 years.
For me, working in a bank was an extraordinarily unfulfilling job, but I used to tell myself that no one really works in their dream job and those that do are ‘lucky’. But the dream of writing and making movies just won’t go away. So literally one day, I was 28 or 29, I was like f*ck it, I’ll try to write a script and see how it goes and so began this amazing journey I’m on at the moment.
Talk about a baptism of fire. You really jumped in the deep-end as an office assistant on a Jerry Bruckheimer show. How did you get the job?
My plan was to quit my job, head to LA for a couple of weeks then go to Vancouver cause I heard somewhere they made movies there and to get a visa was easy. So I quit my job and went to LA on a bit of a holiday with zero connections and zero experience. My aim was to get a tan, see the Hollywood sign then maybe knock on a few doors, meet a few people producers… I’m sure you can imagine how that went. But it did fortify my resolve.
So I end up in Vancouver. I’m sleeping on someone’s couch, getting noodles and sending out CVs and like the second job I apply for is this Jerry Bruckheimer pilot called ‘Home’ – it never got picked up – and I end up getting the job… maybe it was my experience working in the bank, lol. All of a sudden I was around all these producers, actors and executives – I’d made it! Then after about two weeks I get fired… because I didn’t have a clue what the hell I was doing. I was so gutted. But the Location Manager took pity on me and gave me a job as a production assistant on set… and that’s when things started to work out.
Any anecdotes you can share from the set?
Bruce Greenwood played the father in the pilot. I remember he would sit on the steps of his trailer and stop the crew going by and ask them to name a song. So one day I was going by and he yelled at me to stop. He asked me to name a song. So I say anything by Thin Lizzy. He looks at me and goes ‘Irish?’ I nod my head and he goes straight into ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’. From that moment on he’d call out ‘Hey Irish!’ whenever he saw me. He was a fun guy.
How would you describe the role of Production Assistant?
It’s similar to a trainee AD in Ireland but you’re more of a dog’s body. First in, last to leave. In Vancouver a working day as a PA is 15 hours and it’s a pretty thankless job. But I couldn’t get enough. I would have worked 24 hours a day if they’d let me.
Sounds like everyday is different and brings new challenges…
Definitely! I was learning so much, seeing how things were done, how shots were set up, what were the responsibilities of the different departments. I’d talk to the grips, props, the drivers. It was a 2-year crash course in filmmaking and I was learning from the best… Jason Reitman, Gus Van Sant, Brad Anderson and Matt Reeves to name but a few.
In saying all that, I spent a lot of time standing in the rain far away from the action of set. I just kept saying to myself, as long as 25% of my time is spent learning something, it’s all worth it. Then at the weekends I would write and write and write. I was like a dog with a bone.
Any particular highlights / favourite experiences from your time working in film?
I remember working on War for the Planet of the Apes. It was stupid o’clock in the morning and we’re deep in a forest, high in the mountains. The sun begins to rise… and then the director shouts ‘Action!’ There’s a massive horse charge, explosions, gunfire, stuntmen acting like apes – pure madness. At that very moment I thought to myself, I’m part of something that stretches back to the 60s, to the originals. Even though I was probably the most insignificant person there, it meant so much to me.
Writing wise, when I got my first script optioned by Oliver Hengst and Elizabeth Wang-Lee – I think I fell off my chair. He produced massive movies like Terminator 3 and Punisher Warzone and she had been involved in Resident Evil movies and here I was Forrest Gumping my way through the film industry, writing movies I thought no one would like… and now someone is paying me for it, like actual big-time producers. I think I cried.
Had you always wanted to be a writer?
I knew from a young age I also wanted to be in the movie business but not necessarily as a writer. I could always see the stories in my head but when I tried to put them to paper I could never get the words the way I wanted… also I was terrible at English. I remember my English teacher in school laughing at a story I wrote – it wasn’t a comedy – and told me I should drop down to pass-level English. That memory always stuck with me. I always kind of wrote on the side, poems, short stories but rarely showed anyone.
Nowadays, I find writing very therapeutic. I think it’s similar to the way people talk about the gym, they hate the first 15 minutes but at the end they feel refreshed. It helps relax me. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I’m happy!
Can you tell us a bit about your process as a writer?
Everything starts with an idea, an idea that won’t go away. The best scripts come from the ideas that keep coming back and the only way to get rid of them is to write them. Writing is like a puzzle to me, I enjoy the process of figuring out the plot, conflicts and actor arches but I try not to map everything out too much – where’s the fun in that? Sometimes I start off with the main character wanting X,Y,and Z and by the end I realize that it should actually be A,B and C – that’s what I love. To me, that means the characters and story are alive.
What I try to do with my writing is not just describe how the scene looks or what the character says, etc., etc. I try to evoke an emotion. Something that the director/producer/actor can relate to. When I write, my words create a vague box that allows the director/producer/actor to fill it with what they see.
How would you describe your writing style? Has it changed over the years?
I would describe my writing style as lean – almost bullet point. The more white on the page, the better. When I started writing, I would be super detailed with my descriptions and would have characters talking for half a page. Then the more scripts I read, the more I realised why my scripts were being rejected. Over the years I definitely think I have developed a style that works best for me and the types of genre I write.
What is your favourite genre to write?
I love writing sci fi, but very grounded – no space ships, laser beams, stuff like that. Ask yourself the question, what would happen if everyone could travel back in time just once? What if one day you woke you and you were invisible? What if you begin to receive emails from the future? And build a world around the idea.
I’m also a fan of contained thrillers. I enjoy restricting and challenging myself. Right, I only have A, B & C, now write a script. And at the end of the process you’d be amazed how creative you can be when you limit yourself.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer?
First off, drop the aspiring bit. As soon as you type INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT or whatever – congratulations, you’re a writer. Don’t wait for people to validate you cause they won’t. Believe in yourself.
Secondly, learn the basic structure and format of scripts – these are simple things but so many beginner scripts I read are littered with structural problems or formatted incorrectly. Writing scripts is like learning a different language, just because you read a lot of books/watch lots of movies doesn’t mean you can write a script. Same goes for spelling and grammar errors – these are avoidable.
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to reach out to writers or filmmakers. When I first went to LA, I tweeted Doug Richardson, he wrote Bad Boys and Die Hard and we ended up going for drinks and he talked to me for hours about writing and the industry in general. Christopher McQuarrie always used to reply to my questions too. You’d be surprised who’s willing to share their knowledge.
Also, if your buddy has an uncle in a film production company ask for an introduction. If the girl who comes into the shop you work at cuts hair for someone on Fair City, ask for an introduction. Most people will happily chat to you.
Lastly and the most important is persistence. Screenwriting is an extraordinarily tough, competitive business. At the start, it’s 99.9% rejection. But you only have to find that 0.1%… that person is out there! I used to get down when I got a rejection but then I changed my mindset. I’d say to myself, well now that producer is out of the way, I’m one step closer to the producer who will love my script!
Tell us about some of your current and future projects.
Three movies I wrote are due for release this year or early next year. The first being Mister Mayfair starring Armand Assante, Steven Bauer and Ken Davitian. I wrote this with the director Philippe Martinez, he’s a great guy and a colourful character. The movie is a lot of fun and the guys were great to work with.
Another script I wrote should be going into pre-production soon in the States. We have a great director and we’ve spoken to a few major Hollywood stars and things are looking promising. I wish I could say more…
I’m producing my first feature-length movie I wrote called The Smoke next year in Vancouver with two producers I met when I lived there. It’s a crazy horror/comedy with heart – it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying the challenge of putting everything together.
I also have several other scripts in various stages of development with established directors and producers. 2021 is gonna be a big year for me!