Theater, especially black box, is most often an intimate experience, both for the audience and for the actor. Award-winning playwright Raegan Payne talks about her playwriting and what attracts her to this kind of storytelling.
A Poor Man’s Art Form
“I like being forced to tell a story with just dialogue and almost no resources,” says Payne. “It’s a poor man’s art form, anyone can do it, that’s what I love. Inversely, it should also be accessible for the poor to see and often times it isn’t.
Tell a story with just dialog and almost no resources.
“Also, theatre has an immediacy as well as intimacy that can be missing in other art forms. And the audience influences the work – actors hear their response to their performance and that motivates them to change what they’re doing. Both sides of the stage are affecting each other.”
Feeding the Muse
“I think my ideas come from a few places,” says Payne. “I read a lot – news, fiction, non-fiction books. Sometimes I’ll find humor in a dark news story or maybe I’ll want to rewrite a story for a modern audience. It depends on my mood.
“My writing secret is that I always have more than one project going at a time. I don’t get writers block. If something scares me or I can’t work on it that day I jump to another project. My rule is one page a day at least, but I don’t say what subject.”
Acting on the Web
Payne acts as well. Her experience includes a number of episodes on the web series Lonelygirl15. She comments on the web series as a story medium. “Working on Lonelygirl was great because we were kinda inventing the form as we went along. It’s a legitimate medium that needs to be treated as it’s own beast.
It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form.
“Not all of the rules of TV will work, some of the rules of theatre will. It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form. I think fewer characters, deeper more ‘private’ moments or reveals work brilliantly online. I’m really looking forward to seeing some inventive new work in that medium.”
The Female Perspective in Art
“Women are under-represented on the stage,” Payne says, “as playwrights, producers, directors, and as executives in Hollywood. I think lack of the female perspective in artwork helps propagate disrespect. I remember being a young student at Groundlings and being told there were eight places for men and two for women in the troupe. When I asked why, their explanation was basically, ‘Well girls just aren’t funny.’ That idea needs to disappear.
“Girls are often told that they shouldn’t talk about certain things because it isn’t ladylike. Women need to be free to express themselves just like men.”
Raegan Payne’s plays: The Reaper just finished a run in Santa Monica, California; Things Unsaid goes up in Hollywood and Washington, DC in October.
Writer and filmmaker Sean Breathnach has produced a number of short films and music videos in his native Ireland. In viewing a selection – both his and others – I can’t help but notice what I would call a unique sensibility. A knack for telling the small story with beauty, charm, warmth – and with self-awareness, even humor.
“If that comes across in my work,” says Breathnach, “then I am delighted – thank you! I suppose you could say that a story is heavily influenced by the society that helped create it. I don’t know if the sensibility you speak of is unique to Ireland, but most stories that come from Ireland are influenced in some way by the long history of storytelling on this island. We use it to escape from our weather, our politicians, and other things that might get us down if we weren’t able to resort to humour. The knack for warm and humourous storytelling is perhaps reflective of the outlook of most Irish people. That would be a fine compliment.”
Breathnach says, “I like to tell stories that are subtly self-aware. I think this is because I like to entertain rather than to lecture. Perhaps I’ll make a more serious film some day, but things are pretty serious here in Ireland these days and I’d prefer to help movie-watchers escape from that even for a few minutes.
“The beautiful Irish countryside is an influence on many Irish film makers. I know it’s been a big influence on me, particularly in my music videos. When you have such beauty on your doorstep it makes it easy to go out and be inspired. I think the Irish are a positive people, and this is reflected in much of our story telling.”
Where do his story ideas come from? “I find inspiration in many things. The countryside, the people I meet, the stories I hear, in books and films. Even a single sentence I might read in a newspaper can inspire me.
“But if you don’t pay attention to your inspiration it can disappear in a puff of smoke. So usually when I find myself inspired I jot down a few notes, or record some ideas onto a Dictaphone. I don’t use most ideas, but you need to go through a lot of them to find the good ones. Or at least I do.”
For Breathnach, writing morphed into visual storytelling early on. “The route I took to visual storytelling was a long one. I’ve been writing stories since I was a
child. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. No, it wasn’t published – it was rubbish! I used to mess around with my Dad’s old camcorder too. But even though I loved film and story, I never really knew that screenwriting or directing could be a career.
“Then one time when I was out of work I ended up writing a comedy script. My wife loved it, and some friends told me it was good. So I sent it to some production companies in the UK, and one of them took an option on it. This was when I realised that I could actually make it. Nothing came of the option in the end, but my confidence had been given a boost.
“So I made a short film with a few friends, then I made another one, and another one, and I’ve kept on going. I joined up with a film collective in Cork (egomotion) and ended up meeting actors, cinematographers and crew. All of us helped each other to learn and to get our films made. Now it feels like I’ve been making films forever, but I am always learning.
“Writing can be a solitary pursuit. Directing gives you the social outlet you need, as well as being extremely satisfying work. The combination of the two skills allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
I wanted to know if there are a few key elements Breathnach always goes for in his directing work. “This is a hard question to answer,” he says, “because it depends on what I am working on. I spend a huge amount of time planning a film. The more films I make, the more time I spend planning. I know this drives the actors and crew nuts, but in the end it is worth it. I imagine the film in my head, over and over, from different angles and different perspectives. I try to shoot the scenes in my head in several different ways. Usually the best way to shoot it reveals itself eventually and that is a great moment.
“Of course, the whole thing is subjective. I am simply looking for the best way for me to shoot it. That’s all any of us can do. No point in imitating. You have to have your own style.
“I try to highlight elements of the story in inventive ways. I like to be subtle, and to gently push the audience’s attention in a particular direction. But the key to it all is working with a great team. If you surround yourself with hard working, talented people you can never go wrong.”
LITTLE FINANCIAL INCENTIVE
Being a filmmaker in Ireland today, especially working in small story, is financially unrewarding. Breathnach says, “The only way a filmmaker in Ireland could earn a living telling the small story is if the small story happened to be advertising a product!
“Though thanks to the Internet, doors are opening, and some short films can make a little money online. I don’t think you could make enough to earn a living though. Most people who make short films do so because they are compelled to do it. I haven’t met someone yet who thought they were going to make money on a short film.”
A final question: what themes or issues are trending in Irish filmmaking? “You know,” says Breathnach, “I think the interesting thing about Irish filmmaking at the moment is that nothing in particular is trending. There was a time where many Irish films followed similar themes, but today everything is fair game.”
A word of thanks to Irishfilmmakers.com, who posted a copy of this interview on their site as well.
Last month I posted part one of an interview with Irish writer and filmmaker Frank Kelly. Several of his films are Derelict and 140. Today I follow up with part two: Kelly’s thoughts on the new wave of filmmaking in Ireland.
Ireland has long been known for its strong tradition in writing and theatre. I asked Kelly if Irish filmmaking is finding its own place in that tradition. “Yes, I think so,” he says, “especially right now. There are a bunch of new filmmakers emerging, who are making great work, powerful work that’s rattling some cages. I definitely think that Ireland is in the middle of a new wave. There has never been a huge tradition of filmmaking in Ireland, not like in the UK, for example. There are great films that have come out of Ireland, and great filmmakers, but there have just never been the resources or finances here for sustaining an industry of a comparable scale.
“However, we’re always at the Oscars for technical ability. There’s always an Irish guy in the SFX awards, always an Irish short film in there. The animation industry is world class, and right now, the films that are coming out are outstanding, unique and coming from strong young voices.”
A Darker Tone
“Strangely though, there is a darker tone to most of these films. I think Derelict sits well among them for tone. I mentioned before that my story telling comes out of my environment, what is and what’s going on, around me. I think that could be said for most filmmakers actually.
“And in Ireland, among the corruption, the bad politics, the thieving bankers and greedy developers who raped our country, we filmmakers watched it, felt it, lived it and are now telling it. You have Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova, Ciaran Foy’s Citadel, Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings, Brendan Muldowney’s Savage, Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did… the list goes on. Brilliant filmmakers, making outstanding films that hold a mirror up to what’s happening in Ireland.
Commenting on his own place in Irish film, Kelly says, “I’m not sure I’d put myself up there with those guys, no. I’m not being modest, just truthful. I think I have a ways to go, some work to do. Not yet, would be my answer to that. But I’m hopeful.”
A Mirror To Society
Asked if there is a unique sensibility in Irish film, Kelly comments, “It’s really interesting at the moment. Many of the filmmakers coming up now are writer/directors, they’re young, thirties, and they’re pissed off. Pissed off with the system, with how things have gone for them, with the government – and it’s coming out in their films, in our films. I’m no different. Many of the films in the last couple of years have been extremely dark, violent and angry pieces. It really is an expression of what Ireland as a country is feeling beneath it all.
“But these are not depression pieces of self-indulgent, gratuitous slaughter. They’re honest work, truly cinematic, confrontational pieces. I think cinema has to be confrontational at times. I think I’ve said before it’s a mirror to society, and that what we’re doing at the moment, we’re holding up the mirror, and maybe what’s looking back is an ugly sight.”
Making Movies in Ireland
The filmmaking environment is difficult in Ireland. “It’s tough here,” Kelly says. “Ireland is like a small town. Everyone knows everyone. Which is good on one hand, but bad on the other, because everyone’s going after the same money, and there’s not a lot of it.
“But you build your own reputation, your own crew, and if you write a good story people will be a part of it. There are a lot of very talented people, good crew, brilliant cinematographers, writers, directors, make-up artists… across the board we’re world class.
“There are good schools. I attended Ballyfermot College of Further Education, where I studied animation. There’s the national film school – they have an excellent degree course and always turn out outstanding filmmakers.”
“As for films, there are the ones I mentioned above. You also have Grabbers, a fun Tremors-style comedy/horror; The Runway, which is the one bright, happy and life-affirming film I’ve seen! Lance Daly’s Kisses; getting back to the dark stuff there’s Rewind by PJ Dillon; Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse; Lenny Abraham’s two previous films Adam & Paul and Garage, both written with Mark O’Halloran.
“And going back a few years there is of course Once by John Carney, which I think turned the spotlight back on Irish films. I think Once probably gave us indies a better chance to make our smaller films. We could say, ‘hey, maybe we can’t do it big, but we can do it well’. Among them you have the bigger filmmakers, Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan working away, and Dundalk man John Moore taking Hollywood by storm.
“There is also a lot happening with television in Ireland right now, with the likes of Love/Hate and the BBC show Ripper Street filming here. A lot of these actors are getting the opportunity to show their worth on the small screen.”
Irish Actors Shine
I asked Kelly if Ireland has strong actors coming up through the system. “In Dublin there are numerous acting schools,” he says. “Dublin is awash with ridiculously good actors. When making an indie film in Ireland you’re at least guaranteed brilliant performances.
“Most of the actors I’ve worked with have a theatre background and move across film and theatre, seemingly with ease. Not being biased, but if you look at the cast of my last film Derelict you will see a strong and talented group of actors. It’s why I cast them.”
Finding New Ground
“I’m immigrating soon,” says Kelly, “and looking at what to do next. I’m writing something that’s about an adventure, about people getting out of the depth, and being afraid. So I guess that makes sense. It will be interesting to see what happens in my new environment, what comes out.”
Irish filmmaker Frank Kelly has what he terms ‘the gift of the gab’ and will continue to tell stories. “It’s who we are and I think Irish film is all about who we are.”
One of the core truths of writing a web series: it ain’t television or movies.
Sure, they have common elements. As Mildred Lewis, co-creator of the web series Etiquette, says, “Good writing is good writing is good writing. Plot, character, setting, conflict, compelling ideas, engaging emotions all remain crucial.”
That being said, the audience experiences a web series differently. “On the web,” Lewis continues, “you’re writing for a viewer who is going to have a more intimate experience. Most people watch web content alone, often on small devices. Funny has to be funnier! You can’t ride a laugh track or laughter in the room.”
Limited Viewing Time
Writer/director Choice Skinner directed the web series The One Percent. “What writers of web series have to keep in mind,” he says, “is that people who are watching content on the web have a limited time in which to invest watching and following what’s in front of them during that moment. Many people are at work or waiting on line somewhere or looking for content to help time pass by more quickly.”
Lewis agrees. “We’re writing for more distracted viewers. People have an astounding number of choices on the Internet. They can watch legacy media or take advantage of virtually unlimited, less well-known content.
“And as we all know, the standard has become to click away quickly. So in practical terms, your writing has to be absolutely disciplined. There is no room for self-indulgence.” Lewis stresses: “Every beat has to be earned.”
For some web series developers, web content translates to perhaps eight five-minute episodes in a “season.” That’s the equivalent of one television drama episode. When Choice Skinner recently read a 30-minute pilot script for a proposed web series, his advice was to cut it up into three 10 minute episodes. He said this made more sense in regards to shooting, posting on the web, and budget.
Lewis says further, “You can’t try to cram in too much material. First, there’s no time. The web favors shorter form content. Secondly, web viewers are smart. They want original web content, not film or television programming force fed onto the Internet.”
Get to the Point
Skinner says, “Unlike a feature screenplay, web content doesn’t have the play time or visual time to establish the story. You have to get directly to the point of the story and also end off the episode leaving the audience wanting more and tuning in for the next episode to see what happens next.”
“So whatever your story is,” he says, “it has to be quick, fun, direct and interesting. Your characters should be exciting. The topic should be amusing and entertaining and the acting should be convincing.”
When Lewis shot Etiquette, she said she was very glad that she’d had experience writing for comedians. “On the performance side, it helped to have actors with improv backgrounds.”
Write your story well, keep it short, and create exciting characters. And to quote Mildred Lewis again: “Every beat has to be earned.”