An Interview With – Kirsten Sheridan
Dublin born Kirsten Sheridan is a multi award winning writer and director. She has directed August Rush, Disco Pigs and Dollhouse, which she also wrote, and was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing In America with her father, Jim Sheridan, and sister, Naomi Sheridan. She talked to Film Ireland’s Steven Galvin about her approach to writing and to give her advice for aspiring writers.
Tell us about your approach to writing.
Up to this point my approach has been a little by the book. But the more writing I do, and the closer I get to the real story I’m trying to tell, the less the rules matter. The more I can trust the instinct of what is happening in the subtext of the entire story (as well as the scene), the less I need to rely on logical rules and building blocks and all the usual architecture of writing. I find these things help but they can overpower and oversimplify sometimes. I believe you need to write a good few scripts that have cracked the traditional structure so that you can then trust when to throw it out.
Do you have ‘Eureka’ moments?
I definitely have moments where the characters refuse to say what I want them to say. But I’m a firm believer in something Stephen King said in his book On Writing – the muse is a basement kind of guy. In other words you only get those rare moments of eureka when you’ve procrastinated and been depressed and forced yourself to sit down and write and sweat and have gone through the whole cycle from start to finish, same time with every script. It’s a process that seems to stick and one just needs to go through the hard work to get those tiny moments of reward when everything seems to fit and flow.
When you’re writing, are you thinking of an audience?
Not specifically when writing actual scenes. But definitely before I start a story, I think of the audience. Before I embark on what will end up being some kind of emotional commitment of writing, I need to know who it’s for besides myself. And if it’s not for anyone else, then that’s fine. But I still need to know that, to manage my own expectations.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
It used to be 10am–3pm on writing days. But it has changed very recently to writing notes upon notes, moments, lines of dialogue, images, snippets of songs, etc. Anything and everything. All different pieces of the jigsaw. Letting that drift around my head for weeks. And then I lock myself away for literally entire 24- to 150-hour periods and write all in one go, sometimes 12 hours a day. I think every project requires a different approach. If you’re writing something controlled, specific and poised, your process needs to mirror that. If you’re writing something with less control, that’s more raw, then the process should mirror that.
How did the script for Dollhouse evolve?
The story idea started with a location. We had a free location of a house in Dalkey and I thought someone from The Factory should write a story based in it. Then I decided I could only ever write about the kind of teenagers who would break into a house like that. And a one-line idea came into my head. For want of a better word, I suppose, it was a tag line of sorts.
From that I wrote a 15-page treatment. Then we discussed the treatment in The Factory and I was equally encouraged and challenged into changes that dramatised it further. From that I cast the film and developed the dialogue by watching and listening to the actors in life and by doing improvs with them and interviewing them ‘in character’. I would privately write options for dialogue from each character. Then on set I would feed them back the dialogue. It became like directing live TV with multi cameras. And they would improvise. Long takes, many takes, very hard work for the actors.
You’ve written two shorts and two features – how did you find the transition from crafting a script for shorts to crafting for features?
There is very little comparison, apples and oranges. The overall structure of a feature film is so complicated at times. And the one clear theme or story has to be present in every frame, in its own way. A short is a moment in time. I think character is easier to do in features. I guess I have written two features that got made, but like every writer I have twenty scripts in a drawer that haven’t yet!
Do you write ‘what you know’?
As much as possible. That might not necessarily mean writing about a place or type of person; it’s more the theme of the film. I’m not comfortable writing genre yet. I’m still a drama person, which can be difficult in this market.
You have said that with Dollhouse you didn’t want to work with a traditional script. What were your reasons for this? And what did it bring to the final product?
I had written quite a few feature scripts and I just wanted to challenge myself. I had also done some work as a writer for hire, so I was immersed in traditional arcs and architecture. I knew I could do the traditional backstory reveals. But I thought it would be interesting to have the script only exist in the here and now. No talking about what one thinks. Not much articulating. I knew there would be certain expectations in a story about a group of kids who spend one night together. But I wanted to subvert those expectations if possible.
Because the actors didn’t have the lines to rely on, there was an energy (perhaps terror at times!) that was communicated. An edginess and unpredictability. In some way because the actors didn’t know what was going to happen next, that was translated onto the screen, so that the audience feels like there is an ‘anything can happen’ quality to the performances.
How did that work as a ‘pitch’?
It was a hard pitch because it was quite experimental and risky. It’s hard to finance something based on 15 pages and no well-known cast! So you have to keep the cost low and sell it based on visuals rather than pages.
Alongside yourself and the likes of Rebecca Daly, Juanita Wilson and Carmel Winters, there’s a strong presence of a female voice within Irish storytelling on film.
Is there? Good, if so. There needs to be more. I even find myself writing the female characters that I’ve been accustomed to seeing on screen, which are generally male projections of what a female character should be. The good wife, the moral centre of the story, the maternal instinct, etc. There is an incredible lack of complex, compelling, unique female leads. They seem watered down. Or some version of a male perspective. I think it’s so ingrained it’s almost impossible to see anymore. TV is obviously starting to have more interesting characters because they have the time to really get under the skin into the moral or emotional complexities.
What advice would you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Every day. All the time. And figure out why you are writing something. You need people to ask you questions. To challenge and push you so you discover the reasons why you are writing certain stories over and over. Or why you are changing the story you usually write. I like what Kevin Barry says – you should write as soon as you wake up. Before you become ‘online’ with phones and Facebook and the world. Before the images or thoughts or moments from the in-between land of dreams and sleep disappear.
This interview first appeared in Issue 143 of Film Ireland Magazine.