After successful screenings at festivals around the world – including the St Patrick’s Film Festival London, the Galway Film Fleadh, the Kerry International Film Festival, VMDIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival-partnered Female Eye International Film Festival and many, many more – and having won Best Short Film at the Catalyst International Film Festival, Paddy has been enjoyed by audiences far and wide. Film Ireland catches up with impressive writer Sinéad Collopy who chats with us about her methods, her inspiration for writing this beautiful short and where she’s heading next.
Thanks so much for chatting with us. Can you tell us how you began your writing journey?
At school English was my favourite subject, in particular writing essays. I never thought of writing as a career, I didn’t know anyone who made a living from writing, apart from journalism, so I always considered it as something that I enjoyed but more as a pastime. Two years ago I was approaching 40 and feeling a bit creatively stunted. I wanted to get back to doing things that I was once really passionate about and writing stories immediately came to mind. I saw an interview with Olivia Coleman who just won the Best Actress Oscar for The Favourite. She spoke of her perseverance and how she nearly gave up her passion but kept going. Her story was really inspiring and I took her words to heart. I knew writing novels was not for me, I wanted to have my stories set to movement, sound and colour. I love the visual aspect of screenwriting and once I started I was hooked!
Who is your inspiration when it comes to writing – and film in general, for that matter?
I am a massive Ken Loach fan. I love films that have deeply rooted social messages. I also love writers like Margaret Atwood as well as historical fiction by writers like Tracy Chevalier. Shane Meadows is amazing in the way he can recreate a certain world in a certain time. Daniel Kokotajlo’s BBC film Apostasy was beautifully written about the lives of British Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dirty God by Sacha Polak and Susie Farrell was real poignant portrayal of a young woman living with horrific facial burns. These writers write characters exceptionally well and I’m drawn to fascinating characters. Michaela Coel is one of the most powerful writers of the moment. I’m inspired by filmmakers/writers who have something important to say.
Us too! So what are the stories that you’re drawn to?
I love social history so I’m automatically drawn to stories that explore an interesting time period so Steve McQueen’s Small Axe was very interesting, and I love Shane Meadows’ This is England. I’m drawn to stories that bring me into a world/experience I may know very little about and makes me question without preaching to me. I like crime dramas too, fast paced with plenty of twists and turns that keep you guessing. I’m a big fan of documentaries. I saw For Sama at the Galway Fleadh in 2019 and I cried the whole way through. I have a degree in History, Politics and Social Studies and I’ve spent 18 years working in Community Development and Child Welfare Services. Stories that involve the real lived experiences of people we often see on the margins of society are really important stories to tell.
What is your process when it comes to finding the heart of a story?
I generally start with a broad theme and narrow it down from there. I may have one character in mind with an overarching problem and then build the world around them. I’m a visual writer and obsessive researcher so I use a lot of Pinterest pictures to build the storyboard so the world is in front of me while I write. I generally don’t know the ending during the outlining phase, it may change a few times before I go to script. I outline excessively! I find that helps to cut away the excess and narrow it down to the core elements of the story. I’ve written both TV and feature scripts. For my TV projects the storyboarding process needs to be a lot longer to cover multiple episodes and multiple seasons.
A great way of looking at things! Is this where your short Paddy comes from?
The inspiration for Paddy came from research I was doing for a documentary about first-generation Irish in London in the 1970s. So many of us have English relatives of Irish parentage, lots of famous people like Liam Gallagher, Morrissey, Kate Bush. Morrissey’s song “English Blood Irish Heart” started me thinking about what it may have been like to grow up in England with Irish parents, that dual heritage element which can be a blessing and a curse; too English for the Irish but too Irish for the English. The 1970s was such a fascinating decade socially especially in the UK and I thought how interesting it would be to see how a young boy of Irish parentage coped with the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent in the UK around then. Music was the tribe he found common ground with. It’s a story about identity more so than punk music. Punk was just the medium he stumbled across, he could have found his tribe through political protest or joining a social movement.
It’s such a beautiful film. We hear you’re in the process of developing a feature… Can you tell us a little about ’77?
In 2020 I was accepted onto Screen Ireland’s Spotlight Writers Scheme development scheme for new and emerging screenwriting talent, where I got the chance to work with Julie O’Leary a brilliant script editor and develop my story ’77. It’s based in the same year and city as Paddy, London 1977, but it follows Paddy’s mother, Maura and her journey when she’s forced to face up to a world steeped in injustice following Patrick’s mysterious death at a protest march. It looks at the political scene of the time and the whole world of protest politics which I found really compelling and full of conflict. I loved writing ’77 as we don’t see the Irish female immigrant experience much on film when it’s told through an older woman’s eyes. It’s a period piece but with very contemporary themes and messages.
What has your journey been like on Spotlight Scheme?
As a relatively new writer, to get a place on Spotlight elevated my writing 100%. The caliber of their script editors and mentors is so high that I learned more from the experience than any course or book I could read. To have access to insights and advice from so many great writers, directors and producers is priceless. The process brought ’77 from a general concept to a fully fledged script which I feel has great roots for further development. The support you get from other writers too is so important. Writing can be a lonely space to be in, especially if like me, you don’t come from the arts/film world. I can’t recommend Spotlight enough. Most importantly, it gave me confidence in my writing which I may have lacked before I started.
What advice would you give anyone thinking about getting into writing for film?
It requires A LOT of perseverance, patience and time. I work full time and have three young children so my writing hours are generally at night. Exhaustion creeps in, naturally, but you’ll know it’s for you when you can’t put the story down. Once you feel that hook, the compulsion to get the story onto the page, you don’t mind the late nights as you love what you’re doing. Definitely learn about structure as writing a screenplay is very different from writing a novel/short story and writing for TV is again different structurally to writing a feature. A lot of people start out in shorts and there are a number of regional bursaries if you find the right team who want to collaborate with you. For me, getting onto the WRAP/Galway Film Centre writers scheme as well as the Spotlight scheme taught me so much as a writer. Get used to rejection and lots of it! It comes with the territory. BBC Writers Room is a great place to learn and they have a wonderful script library you can access. There are opportunities out there but you may have to roll the dice a few times before it lands the right way for you.
Some fantastic food for thought in there. Congratulations on Paddy’s festival success and we can’t wait to catch ’77!
Thanks so much.
Find out where you can watch Paddy in your territory by following their Facebook page.
About Sinéad Collopy
In April 2020, Sinéad’s poignant story, Salvation Calling, was one of ten short films selected from 7,000 scripts, to go into production by the BBC Writers Room. Sinéad was one of three screenwriters selected for the Galway Film Centre/Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Mentorship Scheme 2019 for her TV pilot Straight & Narrow. Her debut feature ’77 is one of twelve projects being developed through the Screen Ireland Spotlight Scheme. She is one of eight writers selected by Stellify Media/Northern Ireland Screen/Sony Pictures as part of the All Ireland Screen Writing Prize for her successful crime drama pitch Borderlands. Her short screenplay Paddy, directed by Roisin Kearney, is currently screening in festivals around the world and recently won Best Irish Short in the Catalyst International Film Festival. Her next short One Good Adult (directed by Mark Smyth and produced by Emerald Giant Productions) is scheduled to go into production in 2021. Sinéad is also developing a new feature project set in Czechoslovakia 1944 as well as a limited TV series set in Northern Ireland. Sinéad lives in Ennis Co. Clare with her husband and three children.