Bob Gillen on Storytelling

Month: August 2013

Talking with Screenwriter Caroline Farrell

Caroline Farrell

Screenwriter Caroline Farrell

My Creating Story sessions with Irish filmmakers continue with screenwriter Caroline Farrell. Farrell has written award-winning feature and short films, as well as short stories. Her film In Ribbons is now in post-production.

Farrell writes her own blog, which includes a series of conversations with Irish women filmmakers. I was interested in knowing if she sees any emerging or ongoing trends.

“What I notice mostly from connecting with these women,” says Farrell, “is that most of them are creating their own art. By that, I mean they are not waiting for funding opportunities, or for the green light from producers, directors, whatever. I think the male/female ratio of successful screenwriters in Ireland is mirrored internationally, but I am optimistic that it is changing. The wave of independent productions, much like the ebook revolution, is altering the goal posts, and the previously stifling role of the gatekeepers. That can only be a good thing.”

Create Your Best Work

Farrell knows a number of talented male writers who aren’t getting the breaks either. “My take on it? Forget about gender disparities, just get yourself out there, find like-minded people with talent, and create the best work that you can. If it’s good, it will be recognized, eventually!”

It’s commonplace for writers in Ireland to move comfortably between the screen and the stage. I asked Farrell how that might impact a person’s writing and storytelling ability. “I haven’t written for the theatre,” says Farrell, “though I know many writers who move quite freely between stage and screen. I would imagine that it can only have a positive impact. Exploring story from every angle makes the telling of it more imaginative and exciting.

“Film is more about action and subtext, while theatre is generally dialogue-centered and physically expressive, but it all has to stem from good story. That is where the real ability and talent lies for any writer. How to express it (play, film, novel) is, I believe, a choice that comes instinctively.”


In her blog, Farrell offers up her top ten tenets for writing. Here’s one: “There are only so many books, courses and master classes you can read/attend. Learn from the best of them and move on. Get down to the actual storytelling.” Easier said than done, I’m thinking. How does she suggest a writer get down to the actual storytelling?

“Here’s the thing,” she stresses. “There is a difference between want and need. Wanting to write is not enough. I need to write, and therefore, I find a way. I struggle from time to time.  Life gets in the way and knocks me back now and again. I get foggy brain sometimes, and I question my ability, but the need remains, and so I get back to it, always.

Shot from IN RIBBONS

Caroline Farrell’s IN RIBBONS

“We live in story anyway,” she says, “so if you are awake to your own personal myth, you should be able to absorb story in everything around you. Inspiration comes from living your life. I can brew a story in the back of my brain for anything up to a year before I write it down. I love the brewing bit, but sometimes, the writing of it scares me. Writing is hard, but necessary.”

The Tradition of Myth and Legend

I asked Farrell if there might be a unique sensibility in Irish film. “I reckon so,” she says. “As a nation, we are steeped in the tradition of myth and legend, not to mention the scars of war, revolution and resilience. An amazingly rich heritage of language and literature are embedded into our culture, as is the oral tradition of storytelling.

“Ireland has changed a lot in the past ten years or so – for better and for worse – a convergence of everything that has gone before, and film reflects that. So I think, even unconsciously, that rich tapestry emerges through the work and shows us as we are.”

The Independent Wave in Ireland

Farrell talked about the current filmmaking environment in Ireland. “We have some amazing filmmakers: Juanita Wilson (As If I’m Not There); Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did); Carmel Winters (Snap) – to name but a few. I mentioned the Independent wave earlier,” she says. “That is where I see the most noteworthy change, with some excellent filmmakers emerging through the work.

“Not all are flawless, but where is the truth in perfection? The last couple of years have seen films like Charlie Casanova, written and directed by Terry McMahon; and Pilgrim Hill, written and directed by Gerard Barrett. I mention those two because, while they couldn’t be more different, they both represent a slice of Irish life and were made on shoestring budgets by men with talent, a story to tell and sheer determination.

“Those films, and more like them, generate debate and, certainly with the former, controversy. No bad thing, to my mind. And the upside of it is that both films have proved to be spring-boards for their creators towards more mainstream support and funding for future productions.”

The Struggle for Film Profits

Farrell says that the Irish Film Board is the main source of funding for the majority of Irish films that go into development. Profitability is a real concern for Irish-made films. “Many struggle to get a distribution deal, and even when they do, it can be difficult to compete with the international productions, and a fickle cinema-going public!” She says some of the films made are excellent, but are rarely seen.

Training Filmmakers

“In Ireland, we are fortunate to have the national Irish Film Board (IFB), which is publicly funded, to support new talent and indigenous film. There have been quite a few changes to the structure and personnel within the board in the last year or so, and there is a general air of positivity abounding. Time will tell,” she says. “Screen Training Ireland, functioning in the area of training and development within the industry, has recently been amalgamated into the IFB, a result of our economic downturn – but, the potential is there for sharing resources in a cost-effective and productive manner, and hopefully, emerging writers, directors and producers will continue to benefit from that.”

Reflecting Irish Life

We wrapped up the interview with a few comments on whether or not Irish film was reflective of Irish life. “Yes, of course,” Farrell says, “though it’s not all about depictions of happy drunks, gangsters, junkies and navel-gazers looking out over soggy fields. I think, as filmmakers, we could do a lot more to reflect more of it. Life as we know it. Forgotten social history, politics, women’s rights, immigration, emigration, the fallout from the ‘Troika’ (The tripartite committee led by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that coordinated financial assistance to the governments of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus), and the economic drain on our resources – all human-interest from micro to macro level, and all fodder for meaningful, and particularly, in the case of politics, comedic storytelling.

“And speaking of comedy, Irish people are innately funny, steeped in wit and irony, and yet, we don’t seem to be able to master the art of comedy in film. Or perhaps, we just can’t laugh at ourselves from the viewer’s point of view? Now, I need to go and reflect on that last thought!”


Caroline Farrell Bio

ADAM short film picture

Caroline Farrell’s ADAM

Caroline has written several published short stories. Many of her screenplays have been shortlisted for awards, including LADY BETH at The London Independent Film Festival 2013 and THE BOOK CROSS, The Irish Film Board Gearscannain, 2012. Her fantasy feature screenplay, PIXER KNOWS, won the Atlantis Award for best family fantasy screenplay at the 2011 Moondance Film Festival. She was also a finalist in the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards 2010, and took second prize at the Waterford Film Festival in the same year. Caroline has written and co-produced ADAM, currently entering the Festival Circuit, and IN RIBBONS, now in post-production. See Caroline’s blog. And see her IMDb page.



Irish Filmmaker Frank Kelly

FK smiley head.large

Frank Kelly

Recently I’ve connected via LinkedIn with a number of people involved in Irish filmmaking. Reading their profiles and looking at some of their work prompted me to want to do a series of interviews on filmmaking in Ireland. With the long-established Irish tradition of creating story in print and the stage, I wondered if filmmaking there is carrying on the torch. So here goes. We’ll find out together. Enjoy!

I spoke (by email) with Irish indie writer/director Frank Kelly. This will be a two-part interview: part one now, talking about his own filmmaking; part two soon, discussing the state of filmmaking in Ireland. Kelly has achieved recognition for his films Derelict (2012) and 140 (2009). Since this blog is all about story, naturally I wanted to know what influences his ability to create story.

Creating Story

“I think it’s environment,” Kelly says. “Where I am physically, mentally, emotionally at a given time. With 140 I was spending a lot of time online, getting into social media, watching how it was changing, looking at Facebook and Twitter and forming friendships with people I didn’t know, might never really know. So an idea for making a film in that environment came along.”

The idea for Kelly’s film: 140 people in 140 locations around the world, all at the same moment, shot 140 seconds of film each. Kelly then edited it together.

Derelict came out of anger and frustration – with my own situation, with the recession and what was happening in the country to people around me, the corruption and feeling of despair. It was my answer to that. My way of dealing with it. That film is set in a dark room full of tension and fear, and honestly, that’s what I was feeling for a couple of years.”

Kelly describes Derelict, his first feature film, as a dark crime thriller about a group of men who kidnap a bank manager and his family, and hold them hostage in a derelict building while robbing a bank. It should be a simple job, but as the night wears on things become very complicated.

Good Storytelling

“Something else that inspires me,” says Kelly, “is good storytelling. When I see a great movie, read a good book or hear a story about someone’s life, I am inspired to do good work myself. It reminds me why I do this, to tell good stories that connect, entertain and move people.

“Often when you’re in the bubble of trying to get a film made, which is 90% not about the story, but about schedules and funding and a bunch of other boring stuff, you forget about that. It’s good to be reminded.”

The Writing Process

Kelly has elsewhere described his own writing process: long months thinking, talking, making notes, storing ideas; then a “blast draft;” then rewrites. I asked him if germinating an idea in this way works effectively with all of his projects.

“Most of them, yes. I sit in coffee shops, or grab an hour after the kids are gone to bed, and fill notebooks, for months. I’ll work on story ideas, I’ll develop characters, I’ll test scenes, I’ll have conversations with myself on the page, ‘What if I tried this?’ ‘What if these two characters were one, how would that work?’ and go on and on like this until I feel it’s there. I leave enough room to discover new ideas in the first draft. Really I’m working out the world and the people.

“The blast draft, as I call it, the one I write in a week, just gets it out in order, and is also the first time I’ll put dialogue in. It’s always a terrible draft, but it’s important and it’s usually fun to do… until I read over it again and cringe at the terrible dialogue!”

Building the Story

“But for me,” says Kelly, “it’s important to build the world and the story and the characters first. I know some writers prefer not to do that, but to plan and prepare and get to know the world and the people really helps me understand it.”

“I think it’s why I find it hard to direct other people’s work. As a writer/director I build everything from the ground up, so I feel complete ownership of it and like I’m the one who understands it best, so I can answer all questions that come. When I’ve tried to work on other people’s scripts I’ve definitely felt that connection missing, so I haven’t gone on to direct them.”

When Kelly turns his efforts to writing novels, his process changes. “Strange thing though, I don’t work this way with novels. I’ve written two unpublished novels. Just for fun really. But when I start a story that I know will be in novel form, rather than screenplay form, I won’t plan at all, I won’t even take notes. I’ll just sit and start to write.

“I know what kind of story I want to tell. I’ll have had the general idea that has inspired me to start, but nothing else. I sit, write, and figure it out as I go, discover it. It’s completely unique to this form. I don’t know why that is, but I find it immensely liberating and loads of fun.

“Often after a tough shoot I toy with the idea of just sticking to writing and trying to become a novelist!  But after a while I start to get excited about shooting again and a new plan emerges.”

Continuing the Storytelling Tradition

Irish filmmaking will carry forward the country’s tradition of storytelling in print and on the stage. “What Irish film does,” says Kelly, “is focus a lot more on character, performance, conversation, people over plot. We’re a nation of talkers, storytellers. We have the ‘gift of the gab’ as they say, and it comes across in our films. There’s a poetry to it. You will often find Irish film heavily laden with bad language, but again, it’s not vulgar, it’s not gratuitous, it’s lyrical, it bounces, it’s poetry. It’s who we are and I think Irish film is all about who we are.”


Part Two of Frank Kelly’s interview will follow shortly: “I definitely think that Ireland is in the middle of a new wave.”


Frank Kelly’s blog.

Interview with Frank Kelly in

Check out the Irish Film Board and Ireland’s Filmmakers Network.

“We should go back to the moon!”

blog Ray Bradbury

In March of 2009, I attended a book signing with Ray Bradbury, one of my writer-heroes. Bradbury arrived in a wheelchair, a rumpled man with a huge shock of white hair.

One thing I enjoy about having writers as heroes – they’re more accessible than other kinds of heroes. They do book signings. They speak at conferences. You can get up-close without 10,000 screaming fans crowding you.

After settling in front of our group of maybe 50 fans, Bradbury talked of his love and passion for writing. “There’s no writer’s block if you write what you love,” he said.

Elsewhere, he has written, “In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write. The more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the ONLY style worth tiger-trapping.”

Be quick with your words. Blurt. Leap upon the truth. It sounds so easy. I admit I fight constantly with the inner editor that wants to revise it all before it hits the page.

At the book signing, Bradbury was excited to tell us that, while he has never had a driver’s license in all of his then almost 90 years, he was thrilled recently to visit the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California, to drive the Mars Rover on the surface of the same planet he has visited in his imagination since The Martian Chronicles.

Bradbury asked us, “Do you remember being born?” Lots of shrugs from the group. “I do,” he said. “I remember colors in the womb. I came out laughing. I was happy to be born.” I have never met anyone who remembers being born, but I believe Bradbury remembers it. He lived his whole life laughing, in love with writing, happy to be in this life.

After Bradbury had fielded several questions from his fans, someone asked him what he thought the future held for our young generation. He raised himself up in his wheelchair, his eyes sparkling, and almost cried out, “We should go back to the moon! Go on to Mars, with the moon as a base camp. Then go on to Alpha Centauri.”

Nothing about getting a degree, or working hard, or networking. Take us back to the moon, Take us beyond our own imagination.

(I first posted this on in July of 2010.)

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