Irish Women in Film Series: Mary Duffin

Mary Duffin achieved first class honours in her Master’s in Screenwriting from IADT and received the 2009 National Film School/ Irish Playwright’s & Screenwriter’s Guild Award for Screenwriting. She worked as company manager of Crooked House Theatre Company for seven years, and currently, her work includes drama facilitation, stage and event management, theatre directing, acting and writing. She is in development with Fantastic Films on her feature thesis screenplay with Aisling Walsh (Song for a Raggy Boy) on board to direct. Her script received funding from both the Irish Film Board and Media Europe. She was also a Storyland 3 finalist and was shortlisted by the Filmbase/ TG4 Lasair Irish language shorts scheme. Her main interests lie in the nature and application of Story in all its forms.

Mary, begin by telling us how and why you got started in the business? 

I was blown away by film from the first time I went to the cinema as a young child. I saw Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. I didn’t have a clue what it was, how it was made or how I could be part of it, but I was hooked from that very first moment and I still am, although my tastes are a little different today. I loved everything about it, the acting, directing, costumes, lighting,  the emotional investment and of course the stories. There were no film schools or even courses when I left school and even if there were I wasn’t aware that it could have been a choice for me. Through years of cinema going, movie watching on TV, copying videos all the way to DVD’s, and streaming, I felt that standards were slipping in movie making and finally gave up going to cinema altogether as I was sick of being disappointed and having to pay for the privilege. I decided (in my head) that I could do better and that’s when I decided to take a screenwriting course. I had over the years become an actor, director, drama teacher and facilitator and I had no idea when I started writing that all of that experience was invaluable to any screenwriter. So from my first VEC funded weekend course with the wonderful Michael Kinirons (to whom I owe a lot) in 2004 up to completing the MA in Screenwriting in 2009, I finally got started when Brendan McCarthy & John McDonnell of Fantastic Films approached me to option my thesis screenplay. The icing on the cake was definitely when I received the National Film School/ Irish Playwright’s & Screenwriter’s Guild Award for Screenwriting. That was the first time I felt like a screenwriter and not just a wannabe.

Apart from the MA,  I took every screenwriting class I could, attended every seminar, conference and social gathering in order to immerse myself in that world so I could understand it and hopefully carve out a niche for me. I’m not an avid fiction reader but I have a collection of books about screenwriting, drama, film and the industry which I relish the way some relish Fifty Shades of Grey. I think I most enjoyed listening to Oscar and award-winning writers speak about how they did what they did. That to me was always the source of the most practical & helpful information and wildly inspiring too.

What have been your seminal influences?

I can honestly say I have taken something from every film I have ever watched, the good and the bad, one learns so much from the bad ones, but I always did adore hard-hitting dramas. Back when Oscars were actually given to the best films,  I judged them on whether or not I wished I had written them,  The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs Kramer, Terms Of Endearment, Ordinary People, and of course One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to name but a few. Once I discovered Coppola & Scorsese, a love for truth on-screen was born. I was blown away by the bravery of not shying away from violence and not-so-nice characters. Pulp Fiction was a religious experience as I knew it was a game-changer in the writing world at least and I am an avid Tarantino fan to this day. Oddly, I have a thing for the big scale musicals of yesteryear, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly will always be my dance partners in the movie in my head.  Grease made me realise that you could tell Romeo & Juliet in any way you liked, that blew my mind. The good vs bad themes of all the great old westerns generated in me a love for the, sometimes too simplistic, good guy, bad guy stories.  And finally…or I could go on all day… Film Noir was the sexiest, most exciting and dangerous thing I had ever come across in my young teenage life and I suspect it’s that influence that helped forge in my mind images of strong independent women, something that I had felt missing in cinema and in my life experience. I think that’s changing still.

Who are your current favourites / influences?

Carrie Khouri’s  Thelma & Louise changed my view of what were turning out to be the chick flicks. It was, she said, inspired by anger and frustration at the blatant sexism she & many other women experienced almost daily. That she could take that feeling and turn it into such an amazing screenplay inspired me to write my first real screenplay. Ideas are born from the oddest places. Diablo Cody’s Juno reminded me of the different world we live in as teenagers and how film can be a window into that world. I’ve watched a lot of European cinema in the past few years and I prefer their no-holds-barred adult approach, so unlike the saccharin WASP propaganda-driven drivel that passes for mainstream American cinema.

So, you’re having a fantasy dinner party!  Living or dead, name six people you would love to have around your dinner table.

Oooh, my favourite question! I’ll have to invite seven though as I wouldn’t like an odd number for dinner.

Albert Einstein – For many reasons but mainly so I can hear the theory of relativity from the horse’s mouth!

Oprah Winfrey – She has spoken to so many amazing people over the years it’d be like inviting them all!

Leonardo Da Vinci – So he can explain all the drawings we haven’t managed to decipher yet and tell me why the Mona Lisa looks so smug.

Harper Lee – Just for writing To Kill A Mocking bird

Adolf Hitler – I think we’d all like to have a word with him.

Marie Curie – If she could thrive in her then man’s field in the then man’s world I’d like to have a chat about her experiences.

Mary Phelps Jacobs – So I can slap her for inventing the bra!

I’d cook Scallops on Clonakilty Black Pudding with a Poached Egg; Whole Spit Roast Pig with all the trimmings and Key Lime Pie. I wouldn’t give Hitler any dessert.

What’s your opinion of the current Irish film scene, Mary?

Hmmm, well it changed drastically this year. I happen to think that Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova is one of the best Irish films I’ve seen and to see that the industry didn’t recognise that properly was painful. I think we need to get rid of the quaintness and tourist board advertisement view of our country that seems to pervade our film industry. I think we need to show the world more than just inner city drug dealers and country bumpkins, there’s a lot more to the Irish than that. I have yet to see me, my life, that of my family and friends or acquaintances on-screen in an Irish film. Charlie Casanova came close to addressing some of this but it’s not enough. I know there are great scripts out there and many brilliant short films and features being made by disillusioned yet impassioned filmmakers, but frankly, they need more help and support than they currently receive. I am aware of the lack of funding and that times are tough but I feel that what is being funded doesn’t reflect the true picture of the variety, creativity and talent that I have read, seen and am privileged to know.

Highlight of your career so far?

Definitely my first meeting with my producers John & Brendan and our director Aisling Walsh. Sitting talking about my script and the story, hearing how Aisling saw it and how they all wanted to make it was a pretty good feeling.

And your ultimate goal?

As cocky as it sounds I really do intend to get an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Do you have any advice to offer Newbies coming into the business?

Read lots and lots of screenplays; watch lots of films both good and bad; write short scripts using each one to work on a different element as a learning tool; talk to other writers; join the guild; FINISH your screenplay; get people whose opinion you trust to read it; don’t take it personally; writing IS rewriting just as acting IS reacting; know your genre; don’t write what you wouldn’t go see (and pay for!) and always remember what the great Goldman said ‘Nobody knows anything’.

Thanks, Mary! Any final comments?

Despite what I think of the current Irish film scene, I am aware that it is young yet and like all young things, lessons need to be learned in order to flourish and grow. I suspect the Irish film industry will choose to be a hard-way learner as most teenagers are wont to be. I just hope I’m still around for the glory days that are yet to come. Keep the faith!

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