Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Niall Queenan

Niall Queenan is a screenwriter from the North West who currently lives in Dublin and graduated from the National Film School at IADT in 2012 with a Masters in Screenwriting. He was recently awarded an emerging screenwriter talent development mentorship from the Irish Film Board, won the gold prize in the thriller/horror category of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards for his feature thriller script NEXT OF KIN, and the bronze prize in the thriller/horror category of the World Series of Screenwriting Awards for his feature thriller script SHADOW OF THE BLACKBIRD. He was consequently signed by manager/producer Peter Katz of Story Driven in Los Angeles. His feature debut, THE HIT PRODUCER, an independent Irish crime thriller, screened and won awards at a number of international film festivals and recently had a limited cinema release in Dublin. He has worked with Irish director Cathal Black under his Nightingale Films Ltd production company in a script development capacity and also co-produced his recent short film BUTTERFLY. He has completed feature re-writes for Propaganda Italia in Rome, Bee Holder Productions in Los Angeles, and is currently developing a slate of spec genre thrillers.

Impressive work, Niall. So, when did you first begin to write for screen?

Six years ago. My initial forays were a total disaster. I wrote two scripts without knowing a thing about the craft, thought they were gold, and paid a professional screenwriter to critique them. To say he hated them would be putting it mildly. That said, he was very understanding and gave me some really solid advice. Three months later I still felt like it was something I wanted to do, so I started over, read pro screenplays and began to study the craft. The learning continues and I can’t imagine it ever ending.

Did anyone, famous or otherwise, inspire you?

Well, they’re famous in our house, but my father always made up stories when we were kids and it was time to shut us up for the night, and my mother got me hooked on mystery novels, so I imagine the seed was planted there. But it wasn’t until I saw ‘Catch Me If You Can’ that I knew I wanted to write screenplays. Something about that film really captured my imagination and in that case, for whatever reason, I quickly came to the conclusion that the magic had started on the page. From then on the desire has been to write something that will ultimately result in an audience being as engrossed and involved in a story as I had been that evening. So, I suppose you could credit Jeff Nathanson, and also – shocker – Steven Spielberg.

Do you write every day?

When I’m working on something new I write every day. I believe that it’s important to keep your head in the same space while plotting and writing the first draft. If I’m between things or planning to re-write I’ll leave it alone, or work on something else, and let the subconscious mull over whatever it needs to, which I find productive in the long run… plot holes, inconsistencies and bad dialogue always seem to spring to mind during down time. I don’t have a specific daily structure, but I tend to write a lot at night and into the small hours.

Do you have a preferred genre?

I usually write thrillers, be they crime, conspiracy, supernatural etc. I just love being in that headspace, where there’s a sense of mystery, danger or intrigue, and working out how to assemble the pieces of the story into a compelling read.

How long does it take you to complete a script?

Usually somewhere between three and four months to outline it and get a solid first draft down.

And on your first production break? How involved in the process were you?

I’ve had just one film produced, an indie crime thriller called ‘The Hit Producer’, which had a very limited Irish release a few weeks ago. I met the director at a pitching event set up by the writers’ and directors’ guilds, and after swapping scripts/ideas he sent me his treatment for it. We unsuccessfully pitched it as a Storyland project, but by then had come up with enough material for a feature so I wrote the script. The budget (€18,000) came from a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the crowdfunding campaign, which I was heavily involved in, and after that I was on set as and when bodies were needed to chip in during the shoot. I sat in on the edit for a time during post-production and once that was done so was I. So, very much a DIY break, but it has led to other opportunities and was absolutely worth the effort. Big thanks again to all who backed the campaign and in fact gave us that break!

Do you have an agent, or think one is necessary?

I don’t have an agent, but as of very recently I have a manager! I think when you’re an unknown you have to prove yourself, which means writing strong spec scripts, completing assignments and getting your name out there. I expect that once work generates positive word of mouth, and assuming there’s a demand for the writer, an agent gets involved. I think if a writer was in serious demand an agent would absolutely be necessary. The contractual/negotiation side of things alone is a headache that I’m sure few writers want to spend their time dealing with, but want to make sure their best interests are served, so an informed manager/agent is likely vital in ensuring things get done right.

Thoughts on social media and marketing for filmmakers?

It’s absolutely necessary where you’ve made an independent film or you’re looking for backers for your crowdfunding project, nobody else is going to talk you up, but with hashtags and viral marketing tactics it’s possible to build buzz. That aside, when writing, or developing ideas etc., the less time spent on social media the better… it’s a total time suck unless you’re incorporating social media into the progress of your project in order to engage.

And do you contribute to the marketing of your own work?

I use a few social media platforms like Stage32, Twitter and LinkedIn, and post updates if I feel like something is worth sharing, but outside of that I don’t really “market” myself. To be honest, I’d rather be writing, but if there’s a project I’m involved in out there then I’ll absolutely help the team get the word out.

What’s your opinion of the current world of film? National? International? Indie Film?

Where indie film is concerned, I expect that there are tonnes of gems going undiscovered that word of mouth and cult status in their respective countries will eventually bring to a wider audience. Indie film in the US seems to be defaulting toward a Sundance style formula but there’s still plenty of really interesting stuff being made. In the mainstream, I’m a bit tired of the superhero films because they all play out in the same way – more or less – and few risks are taken. Similarly, everything these days seems to be based on book franchises, or is inspired by true events, and it feels like spec scripts are for writing sample purposes only, which is borderline a crime. Where Ireland is concerned, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2020’s prove to be our golden age. A widespread confidence in craft is emerging on all levels, which is very exciting, and will hopefully result in greater funding for the respective bodies and lead to more opportunities for Irish writers and filmmakers.

Having just won a PAGE Award – and mighty congratulations on that – what is your opinion on the importance of screenplay competitions?

I think they’re a useful way to judge where your writing is at, and if you win, or place, or make the finals, it definitely justifies contacting producers/managers/agents – or will see them contact you. That said, I think a lot of aspiring screenwriters make the same mistakes I made before and submit scripts that just aren’t ready, in hope of magically hitting the jackpot. Even if you’re confident that the basics of the story work, I would suggest taking additional time to be brutal with your dialogue, and to work the hell out of the descriptive passages. There are tonnes of ways to describe a room, but maybe only a couple that fit the tone of your story, so print it out, red pen it, grab a dictionary and don’t just settle for the easy option before you shell out your hard-earned cash.

And since you have been heavily involved in crowdfunding – what has that experience been like?

I’ve worked on two crowdfunding campaigns, the first was for ‘The Hit Producer’, and the second was for a short film called ‘Butterfly’ – both were hosted by Fund It and, fortunately, both were successful. Crowdfunding is tough, though, and while my experiences of it were ultimately worthwhile, they were extremely time-consuming and exhausting. Engaging your audience on a personal level and putting in the time to talk about their projects is just as important as promoting your own, and it’ll pay dividends when you’re looking for likes/shares/re-tweets. What’s even more key is beginning the process of building your audience a long time in advance of the campaign launch. Trying to get people to notice you when the clock is already ticking is a stress you don’t need, so my advice to anyone considering it down the road is to set up your Twitter/Facebook pages now and start communicating. Talk about the development process, ask opinions, basically involve people so that they’re invested in its progress. I’ve a lot of admiration and respect for those who stick their necks out and decide to crowdfund, and even more respect for those who pledge and green light aspiring creatives. It’s a huge leap of faith and the hope for those who get to move forward is that your backers will ultimately be proud of the work.

Any advice for aspiring film writers, Niall?

Well, I’m still one of them, but from my limited experience I think writers should write the ideas that they personally connect with and can’t stop thinking about, as opposed to writing what people tell them is more suitable for the market/funding bodies. Getting to the end of a script is hard enough, but if you’re not engaged in it, or just doing it for the sake of it, then that’s what will come across on the page. Also, trust your instincts. If something’s bothering you in the script and you just can’t shake it, then cut it or re-write it. For me, re-writing is the best part of writing screenplays… it’s like being given back a test paper and getting to change the answers to something “correct” or at least closer to it, with the benefit of perspective and hindsight.

Is there a film script by another writer that you wish you had written?

There are hundreds. ‘Taxi Driver’ by Paul Schrader, ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati, ‘The Usual Suspects’ by Chris McQuarrie, ‘Catch Me If You Can’ by Jeff Nathanson … those are the first that come to mind.

Can you share with us what you are working on now?

I’ve written a very rough first draft of a psychological thriller which I’ve been working on with the assistance of script editor appointed by the Irish Film Board as part of their emerging screenwriter talent development initiative. I’m also developing a high-concept single location thriller that I’m very excited about, and a handful of other genre ideas.

Would you consider directing your own work?

Yes, at some point, but I think before trying I’d like to shadow someone else just to get a better idea of what to expect, and maybe make a really cheap short or two, just so it’s not all new. Even at that, I’d definitely be dependent on the crew’s technical expertise, but I love the idea of working collaboratively with a creative team to achieve a particular vision with a view to ending up with something unique that holds up over time.

And just for fun…six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

For the sake of seeing just how crazy things would get… Charles Bukowski, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Richard Pryor, Elizabeth Taylor and Chris Farley – all while at the height of their infamy.

 

You can find Niall on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Stage32

 

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