Doing it with passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Martin Duffy

Martin Duffy describes himself as a storyteller. He is a film director, a writer and an editor. Martin’s work includes the feature films, The Boy from Mercury and Summer of the Flying Saucer. He has written several non-fiction books, novels for young people, and also writes songs.

Great to connect with you, Martin, and as always, I’ll start by asking you when you first began to write?

I first started applying myself seriously as a writer in my early twenties – around 1974/5 – when I was a young married man and father and a postman. It was an attempt to fight off the boredom of my work.

And the initial breakthrough?

I wrote a few articles that were published in ‘The Postal Worker’, including an article about George Orwell. And through that I got the nickname ‘Georgie Orwell’ among my fellow postmen. After about five years of writing unpublishable novels I wrote a TV play and that was bought and produced by RTE in 1978. The play was ‘Your Favourite Funny Man’ and starred Jim Bartley. It was about a guy who works in a boring job by day and is a failing stand-up comic by night. No idea where I got the idea from…1978 was a key year for me. My second son, Steven, was born, I got a job in RTE as a trainee assistant film editor and I sold my first TV play. The sale of the play came about through Eoghan Harris who, at the time, had been made head of comedy development in RTE. I think I was one of the few comedy writers he felt had any promise.

Did anyone, famous or not, inspire you to write?

I have always aspired to write with a sense of lightness and openness. My earliest writing influences would have been detective novels (Chandler, Hammett etc) and – Georgie Orwell. Dialogue is my thing and film is my natural habitat. Billy Wilder is my idol.

And do you write every day?

I do write every day. Sometimes it is practical work (such as edit jobs or script report jobs) but when I am doing my own thing I am very disciplined. I just about fall out of bed to my desk: starting by 8am at the very latest. I usually work through until about 1pm. Then I stop, maybe take a walk, certainly take a nap at some point in the afternoon, and then mull over the work (and catch up a bit with the outside world). My problem is that I tend not to know how to stop. I often put in a few hours in the evening.

Write what you know? Agree or Disagree?

I have a brother (Bill) who is an extremely successful businessman. Many years ago he asked me ‘what is the one thing you do? There has to be one thing you do.’ I gave him a list of this and that: editing, directing, books. Now, however, I am concentrating on one thing: comedy. A dear late friend of mine was New York poet Sam Menashe and one of his last books was titled ‘The Niche Narrows’. I now think that’s where I am.

Does your writing lean towards a specific genre?

My first break was with writing bitter comedy and I find that now I am a bitter old man I am returning to that old well. I have learned late that I am not Billy Wilder – who could move from genre to genre – so now I am concentrating my failing sight on comedy. It is a bit of an easy way out. If you have written something that makes an audience laugh, you know you have done your job.

Comparing books to scripts, how long does it take you to complete either?

I am often a jobbing writer and have done family history books (I like writing non-fiction books and I like research). Such a book would take me at least six months. Writing a screenplay is a different animal. Idea, plotting, outline etc might take up to a year (floating around in the back of my head) but I would write a first draft of a feature screenplay in maximum two weeks once the ducks have been lined up in my head.

The ‘Agent’ Question? Do you have one?

I have an agent again as of middle last year – Linda Langton in New York. I had an agent for a few years in Germany (I live in Berlin) but agents here do not pursue work for their clients. They simply do the deals. Linda looks for work for me and is representing right now my biography of the late rocker Tony Sheridan. I think an agent is crucial. It is the element of credibility above all else. As it happens, Linda also sends some script and book editing work my way.

What is your opinion on the importance of literary/Film competitions and awards?

Very, very important. I wish I had more awards and had been more conscious of their importance. They are the poor (wo)man’s marketing. The toughest thing is to get the public aware of you. And as most writers are anti-social (or is that just me?) the awards process makes all the difference.

Not just you, Martin! And with that in mind, do you contribute to the marketing / PR of your work?

I tried and failed. My eldest son, Bernard, set up a website for me but after a few years I gave it up because I didn’t know how to change it and he had no time to update it. I have a blog I don’t update and I have an Amazon Author’s page. My inability to market myself may be why major success has eluded me. That, and lack of talent

Scratch that last sentence! So, what are your thoughts on social media?

I know it is vital, but I don’t know how it works. My agent says she wants to find a ‘platform’ for me. By which she means something that identifies me with readers. Several years ago my brother-in-law Derek happened to notice a Bill Bryson book (‘A Walk in the Woods’) and, being a hill walker, he bought it. He enjoyed the book so much he went back to said book shop and simply bought every other Bryson title on the shelf. Social media is that connection between writer and reader, between filmmaker and undiscovered audience. Marketing is bonding.

As an author and filmmaker, what’s your opinion of the current business of both publishing and film?

It has taken me a couple of years to realize that while I was catching bits of work here and there (books published, screenplays not produced) there has been a huge shift going on. By this stage in my life I have two hats I most often wear. I have been writing non-fiction (such as ‘The Trade Union Pint’, published a couple of years ago by Liberties Press or ‘Vagabond’, my Tony Sheridan biography) or screenplays of films I want to make (such as the comedy ‘The Mistress’ or the ghost story ‘Little Boy Priest’). It seems to me that with publishing you maybe find a niche and that is where an agent comes in. As for my scripts, the film business has changed so much that they get tougher to make because they don’t make financial sense. Damn you, Marvel Comics!

And on Indie Film?

It’s a mystery. As I mention elsewhere here, I am in the process of making a micro-budget film. I contacted two distributor friends of mine in the UK about my plan and both said ‘don’t do it! The world is awash with them!’

Have you considered crowd-funding your film project?

I haven’t tried any form of crowd funding but I am working on a micro-budget comedy feature film project right now and I might try – later this year – to see if I can drum up some crowd funding to complete it. I am writing, directing, doing most of the camera work (with my own gear) and editing.

You have self-published your books?

I went Kindle a couple of years ago with a selection of books of mine that either never found a publisher or had fallen out of print. I also put some un-produced screenplays out there. Last year I resurrected a crime/comedy novel of mine called HANRAHAN and this year I did it as an audiobook (even with me on guitar in bridges between chapters). I have earned very little money from those ventures, but at least the work is there and available.

If you’ve ever had any: How to you handle negative reviews?

I drink. No. Just kidding. I drink to celebrate positive reviews also. Everybody has their own opinion. Some people think I am a handsomely ageing Adonis. Some say ‘look at that fat bald guy’. Your work – film, book, whatever – stands and the review, good or bad, will be wrapping fish and chips tomorrow. Or would have done in the old days. Now it remains forever on the internet. Oh well.

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

Simple answer: anything by Billy Wilder. Although Herr Wilder never wrote alone, actually. And then several books by Bryson and Orwell.

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

At the moment the focus is on comedy. A producer here in Germany is developing a sitcom of mine. I wrote the concept, the plot outlines and three scripts in English and he has brought in two German comedy writers. I am also writing and making a micro-budget comedy feature (mentioned above) that has already had a few shooting days. Plus I am maybe half way through plotting a script that would be a German/English language comedy script set in Berlin.I cannot reveal any of the plots, though!

Six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

My Dad, Stephen Fry, Billy Wilder, Bill Bryson, Steven Spielberg (for the networking) … and Georgie Orwell.

Last request, Martin! Any advice for aspiring writers?

I honestly think that being creative is our highest level. I think also that it can be a lottery. I didn’t win the lottery, but it has been an interesting ride. Advice? It’s a schizophrenic job. You have to look inside yourself and sit alone in your room to write, then you have to go out there and sell yourself and find your audience. So I guess my advice is ’embrace your inner schizophrenic’. And don’t give up – the work is what matters.


Visit Martin’s page on Amazon:


Feature Film Showreel:
Photograph courtesy of Jens Winter.

Journey of a Storyteller 2: Learning from the professionals, the mentors and the ‘doers’…

Over the years, I’ve attended many filmmaker courses and masterclasses, always searching for the magic ingredients that will give me the template to forge ahead as a screenwriter and someday director. And yes, while I have gathered a wealth of invaluable knowledge and experiential anecdotes from listening to the creatives who have been there and done that…some have been a tad disappointing, unfocused, badly organised, or just not relevant to what it is I am seeking.

Each experience though, has taught me something, and what continually comes to the fore is this; that even the ‘doers’ in this business sometimes struggle, make mistakes, are let down or manage to turn something potentially beautiful into a balls-out mess! And, that while treading your path, you will always encounter your enablers, your mentors, the ones who are secure enough not to pull the ladder up behind them as they carve their own niche, there are also ten more who will shut that door on your unknown, unripened tenderfoot!

Making your way in this business is not easy and it can take a long, long time to see the benefits…nobody knows you while you struggle the lonely road towards developing your voice, coming up with the goods and making the grade…and nobody wants to know you until you do. Therefore, if, like me, you are going to launch yourself into the mire of this weird and wonderful world, it would be wise to seek and find those mentors, and to listen, really listen, to what they have learned…

Most recently,  I encountered two such mentors, both at the top of their game, when I attended a Writer/Director Masterclass with Irish Director, Aisling Walsh (Song for a Raggy Boy, The Daisy Chain, Wallander). The all-day workshop was hosted during the inaugural Fingal Film Festival and there was a double treat for participants when we also got to spend the afternoon with actor Martin McCann (Swansong, Story of Occi Byrne,  Killing Bono, Titanic: Blood and Steel). Martin is not just an amazingly talented actor, he is also a generous one, giving over an entire day to talk about his craft; to share the knowledge, and between the two of these amazing people, they managed to turn the day into an entertaining and insightful experience.

Here are the main points that I took away:

Build relationships: Writers can be shy, directors can be shy, actors can be shy…talk to people…make connections.

Make a short film. Nobody knows your story better than you do. Low budget, no budget, gather your team and just do it.

You don’t have to be technical: Work with the best crew and actors you can get; learn from them.

The energy will come from you: Be a good listener, see things others don’t see, be a decision maker, stay calm.

Three traits you need to have: Concentration. Communication. Stamina.

Learn about Actors. Find out about them, what it is that they do and how they do it. And listen to their instincts.

You can make your film three times: When you write it. When you make it. When you cut it.

Open the door and walk in! Are you going to just think about it? Or are you going to do it?

Right so! Armed now with bundles of notebooks, filled with theory, paradigms and checklists of how it all comes together, it is time…

Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power…

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe