An Interview With – Writer/Director Macdara Vallely
Armagh-born writer/director Macdara Vallely’s first film, Peacefire won best first feature at the 2008 Galway Film Festival. His second feature Babygirl, about a Puerto Rican teenage girl in the Bronx, premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Macdara moved to New York over a decade ago and has earned a living as a furniture mover and a musician before settling on screenwriting. He now lives in the Bronx, which is the location and inspiration for Babygirl.
Do you do an outline or just write the script?
It’s very hard to give a hard and fast answer to that question. It depends. The scripts that I’ve been most happy with haven’t started out as an outline but more as a little idea like a girl on a train. Typically what will happen is that I’ll write a lot and once I have the raw material, I will then shape and form it from there. I could end up with a first draft that’s 160 pages long. But I think it’s very important not think too much but let the characters propel the narrative and see where it takes you.
Honestly, the outline thing is pretty helpful for funders but it can really stultify the creative process. Your conscious brain can’t create. It can criticize. It has its place but the writing comes from somewhere else.
So you don’t work off a treatment?
A treatment is a piece of prose, it’s not a piece of drama. What I am interested in is drama. I am sure there are people that really love writing treatments and are really good at it. I am just not one of them. It’s probably best to write the treatment after you’ve written the screenplay.
But you treat writing like a 9–5 job?
I don’t really think you can call it job. It’s not really work in the sense that its not hard labour. I feel very lucky to be able to sit up in that library and write. But I think a big thing is routine and just being able to set aside the time. It’s easy to fall out of the routine.
Do you work on character arc?
I find it uncomfortable talking about the writing process. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. I just write. The conscious brain helps you when something is not working. It gives you certain tools. Things like characters arcs are useful to have because otherwise nothing happens but I don’t start with that. That comes later. That comes with the critical brain.
But you’ve been doing this quite a while now. Is there an inherent ability to know what form or shape a story should take that you would not have had your first day writing?
Absolutely. You have an intuition for when something is wrong. And finding out where it’s wrong. It’s like rot. Maybe you develop a nose for where it’s wrong and you go in and fix it.
Do you find yourself improvising on set?
It’s mathematics and economics. You can divide the amount of scenes by the number of days and you have your plan. For Babygirl, we had one and a half set-ups. So I didn’t have much room for improvisation. I don’t like saying to the DOP ‘go in there and cover that for me and we’ll make it work in the edit.’ Everything is edited in the camera and executed. If something’s not working then you go to plan B. We were shooting 12 pages a day. You can achieve that if you plan. The most valuable resource that you have is time on your set.
How do you decide on tone?
Well I never play it for laughs. I think personally that there’s a very fine line between comedy and tragedy. The best comedies are tragic at their heart and the best tragedies are somewhat comic. The comedy has to be inherent in the material. Restraint is an important part of my process. I like an audience to lean forward. I do not like to shove certain stylistic or tonal elements down their throat.
So how do you earn a living from filmmaking?
It’s not easy. It’s more complicated when you have people dependent on you to eat. [Macdara has a wife and a baby daughter.] I don’t mind suffering for my art but usually what happens is that other people have to suffer for my art. But I am very lucky that people think that I can write. Screenwriting is what pays the bills. But that’s recent, up until then I was playing music and I’d worked for moving companies.
What sort of things are you commissioned to write?
I write feature-length screenplays mostly. It’s a good learning process to work on commissioned work. You have to bring all your skills to the table. It can be more challenging because it’s not something that you initially wanted to a talk about.
Yainis Ynoa in ‘Babygirl’
The full interview first appeared in Issue 141 of Film Ireland Magazine, and is avaliable to read on their website.