Continuing our series of articles from members of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild, writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde tells us about his experiences as a co-writer on the screenplay for Silence which is currently in cinemas.
It was as early as 2006 when Pat Collins asked if I’d work with himself and his wife, Sharon Whooley, on an idea they had for a feature film. He told how the story would involve a sound-recordist, who was given the strange task of making field recordings in areas free from man-made sound and that his work would take him to remote and out-of-the-way places throughout the country. I was intrigued. Although I hadn’t co-written anything before, I couldn’t turn down such an offer, and soon we got to work creating the landscape of what we could only hope someday would become a feature film.
I had gotten to know Pat and Sharon a few years previously, working as a translator on one or two of their documentaries, and the relationship we built over the years was really important to the creative process. I think you take a chance when you start to share new ideas and you need that common ground and understanding to allow yourself to open up creatively to others. We trusted each other from the start and I didn’t feel that the mistakes that I was bound to make as I foosthered in the dark would be thrown back at me too hard.
Writing is usually a solitary thing and quite personal. I think most writers don’t like to show their work to others until they know it’s almost finished and beyond influence, so the process of co-writing was a little tricky for me at first with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of work, but I soon began to enjoy it. That trust that we had built up turned out to be very important.
And then Pat asked if I would play the lead character in the film and my role in the film suddenly took a new twist. He felt that the main character should be someone who had an intimate connection with the script – that it would allow us to do things a little differently. I gave in and was happy to be fully involved; I loved the challenge.
Although we met and communicated often, I think the hardest part was pinning down exactly what we collectively wanted from the script. We all had our own ideas, but Pat directed the writing from the start and with an uncanny eye he could see when the script was veering off into unnecessary or overstated territory. I think the crucial thing about co-writing is striking a balance. Everyone wants something different from a piece of work but finding the common ground is the key and we found that early on.
I remember at the beginning there was a certain character that I’d introduced who changed the tone of the film somewhat. He was a wise old man who spoke of superstition and otherworldly things like an fear ocrach, the hunger spirit, and of course I thought he was great and he survived into later drafts. It was much later that it became apparent that the old man was giving us a bit of a bum steer in the film, his emphasis on the supernatural wasn’t quite right, so we decided to let him go. The point is that he was allowed to live until he proved himself unnecessary and his existence in turn created the space for other things to happen in the script. In the final draft remnants of him remain in spirit, and, in some way, he guided us in a certain direction that helped create part of the world that the film inhabits. Every idea becomes part of the shared consciousness of co-writing, and I learned that by allowing those ideas a space to live that you can create a world that you can navigate through. This is something I got to like about co-writing, it has a malleability that you don’t get with writing on your own because it lives in more than one mind and it can change independently of you, if you allow it.
Other times I felt I was trying too hard to impress the others and that I would steer the plot off in some direction of my own without being sensitive to the overall plot. Although, funnily, I’ve a feeling that might have focused the others on the true direction of the film and marked out the path a bit more clearly too. In co-writing I think you ultimately need one person in control and the others bringing all their ideas to the table; one person must have the final say and Pat was very clear on the direction that the film should take all along.
The most frustrating part of the process for myself, which eventually turned out to be the most liberating part, was Pat’s quiet insistence to avoid any direct narrative, or a narrative that was too obvious. I really was stumped at the beginning at how he managed not to be taken in by my clever attempts to tie everything up neatly in a narrative that gathered pace as the film developed. It was only later that I saw that he was purposefully eschewing narrative in order to let the more subtle nuances grow and gain ground in the film, and although I thought I understood this form of storytelling I soon learnt that, when it came to it, I hadn’t the same conviction as Pat.
As the writing continued I began to understand a little more about how Pat worked. He recognised the poetry in every single shot and knew how to space it to allow each scene to breath. It wasn’t about drama or subplots but about the feeling of that particular moment and how the authenticity of every emotion would make a scene work. If he didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the realness of a scene, he would drop it. There was no room for half-truths or trying to trick the audience by pulling the wool over their eyes; as far as Pat was concerned, it was all true or it had no place in the film. I think that that truth comes across in the final film. All those feelings we explore are in some way true and have been arrived at through his personal exploration of the scenes and situations that are played out on screen. I felt that even our own lives were in scrutiny in order that the reality of each moment could be explored. But it was a gentle scrutiny, almost standoffish, that let the real emotions show.
As we went into production, having being intimately involved in the writing of the script and with Pat’s guidance, I felt I was able to set the script aside and tease out the themes and conversations with the other actors in a way that felt real and free. It provided genuine situations where I could then try to get the other characters to say what the script had asked for, but in their own words, and this meant their reactions were real and not like acting at all. This is one of the strengths of the film, I think, and I couldn’t have achieved it without being part of the co-writing team.
Silence is a film that allows the viewer to participate in the story. It doesn’t shut you out but rather provides the space for your thoughts and meditation in a way that few films do. We set out to make a film that felt real and that gave the viewer a chance to experience something without feeling alienated, and I think with Silence that we have in some way achieved that.
Silence was released on 27th July 2012
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Spring 2012 issue 140, published 6th February 2012.