Advice from a Writer – Ciaran Creagh
Ciaran Creagh (Parked) on the learning curve he faced moving from writing for the stage to film.
Quentin Tarantino once said that ‘if I really considered myself a writer, I wouldn’t be writing screenplays. I’d be writing novels.’ These words do hold some resonance for me because I have always been somewhat uneasy with the label ‘writer’. Perhaps this discomfort stems from a lack of formal training or that I have never studied English at college. However, I suspect it might be a nervousness about proclaiming publicly that I am a writer without having the established credentials to back up this claim.
Initially, for a reason that now escapes me, I started writing about 10 years ago and concentrated exclusively on playwriting. Seldom were earnest thoughts of writing a screenplay entertained. In a way, I think the solitude or even the selfishness of writing a play is the real attraction where, until intensive rehearsals begin, the script is exclusively yours. When I did decide to seriously tackle a screenplay, I was somewhat unaware of what lay ahead.
Writing is writing, you might have thought, but that is clearly not the case. I suppose it is a normal progression for a playwright to move sideways into screenwriting and I happily set about this, unaware of the learning curve involved. Thanks to the internet, you can quickly find out the rules and methods, what you should and shouldn’t do, and deliver the American three-act masterpiece where the hero wins out against adversity. Maybe that is what a producer is looking for but you must be so careful not to lose your direction and creativity in order to conform.
My own particular style is to write long. This is how I wrote for theatre and perhaps I find comfort in lots of action and dialogue. The key for me in crafting a screenplay is the edit where I continually revise the script, cutting dialogue and action. A script that I am currently working on had 123 pages on the first draft, was cut to 58 on the second and is now at 79 with the aim of adding an additional 12 to 14 pages. Perhaps the pragmatic thing to do would be to plan, write the treatment and shorten this process. But that, to be honest, would not be me.
It should not be underestimated how difficult it is to change from writing for the stage to writing for film. In an average play you might have two to five scenes as compared to over one hundred in an average screenplay. This corresponds to a significant amount of turning points, linked scenes and tonal ambience to contend with. On the stage, given the constraints of a live performance space, dialogue drives to the core of conflict. I have always loved dialogue and this was probably the most difficult change for me to make. Less is just so much more in film.
To be in development is the manna for scriptwriters but I do wonder sometimes if this is the best place to be. For your career it certainly is, but for the creative process, I remain unconvinced because of the constraints imposed by the other interested parties during the process. The Irish Film Board’s concept of first-draft loans to writers is fantastic and allows writers the space to get an idea fully formed and ready for the onward march towards production. Once you have been though this process you soon realise that the script is no longer yours and you just have to let it go. Understanding this is perhaps the key from the writer’s perspective and gives the script the best chance of making it to the big screen.
Once the writer makes it through this psychological barrier and becomes immersed in the production, a whole new level of learning begins and the experience, while difficult, can be wonderful. You soon realise that the other players in the development and production cycle are not there to scupper the script but that the script has gained a new raft of parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins who want to protect, nurture and give the script its best chance at life. When you sit there in the darkened cinema as the film finishes and the credits roll, it is then you realise how vital and beneficial this process has been for the script.
This article first appeared in Issue 137 of Film Ireland Magazine.