Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Vanessa Gildea

Vanessa Gildea studied film as part of a Liberal Arts Degree at the University of Limerick. Subsequently she worked in film training for nine years, mostly for Filmbase. She has directed short documentaries for Amnesty International Ireland and award-winning Dublin based production company Venom Films. In 2006 she wrote and directed the Irish Film Board funded short film ‘The White Dress’ which won numerous awards (Best Short Film Foyle Film Fest, Belfast Film Fest, Cinema Tout Ecran Geneva, awards at Galway & Kerry Film Festivals) and was nominated for an IFTA. It has been purchased / screened by RTÉ, Swiss, French and Italian Television.  In 2009 Vanessa wrote and directed a short film called ‘The Beast’ for award-winning production company Venom Films. She has received three IFTA nominations including ‘The White Dress’, Dambé – The Mali Project, a feature-length music documentary shot in Mali, West Africa, which was nominated for an IFTA 2009 in the Best Feature Documentary category, and ‘John Ford – Dreaming the Quiet Man’ in 2013. Also in 2013, she was the first recipient of the Tyrone Guthrie ‘Film Writing Bursary Award’ and in 2014 she received the Arts Council’s ‘Film Bursary Award’. As writer / director she completed an Arts Council Project Award film called ‘The Abandoning’ which won BEST SHORT FILM at The Sky Road Film Festival, 2014, a Special Mention at The IndieCork Film Festival, and was highly commended at The Belfast Film Festival, 2015.

Vanessa, with such accomplished writing, directing and producing credits, can you tell us when it all started for you?

I was always playing around with ideas, since I was a teenager but I only started to write in my 30s. The first film I wrote was called ‘The White Dress’, I wrote it in one sitting and I never did any re-writes, but I had written the film in my head a hundred times, and luckily it got funded.

Did anyone, famous or not, inspire you to get into film?

The first filmmaker that blew my mind was Mike Leigh. When I saw ‘Life is Sweet’ as a teenager it changed my view of what a film is, up until then I had only seen hollywood movies. I didn’t know people made films like that, reflecting real life back at the audience and I thought it was the most exciting and moving film I’d ever seen. I still love it and when I’m writing I think about authenticity and Mike Leigh is always somewhere floating around that thought process.

And your first production break?

I had made a short doc for Amnesty [International] and someone from the Irish Film Board had seen it and she decided to take a chance on me as a first time writer / director of a drama. I am forever grateful.

Do you write every day?

No. I work in production, research or teaching. When I’m not working I can spend time writing but not as much as I’d like.

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

There’s a hundred. I am in awe of Charlie Kauffman, the complexity, simplicity and brilliance of ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. Also, I wish I had written or could write something as good as ‘The Visitor’ by Tom McCarthy.

Do you have an agent, Vanessa, or think it necessary to have one?

No I don’t have one and I think if you want to write as your profession then yes, an agent is a good idea.

Do you contribute to the marketing and PR of your work?

A little, but I dislike that side of things, I’d much prefer someone else do it.

And on social media for filmmakers?

I have mixed feelings about social media but it’s here and it can be a very useful tool. It is boring to use it solely for self-promotion though, better to have a bit of fun with it.

What’s your opinion of the film industry in general?

There are great films being made all the time, some are Hollywood, most of the films I really love and admire are not from the Hollywood system. I have to seek out the films that I like, but it’s not hard, with the IFI, the Lighthouse and VOD platforms like, but one major problem I see is the lack of women storytellers, women centric stories and characters. I recently heard most film crowd scenes have 70-80% men in them, what is going on? Women are not coming forward, they’re not being allowed to and when they do the kind of films they want to make are not getting the same support. We are 50% of the population, we should be telling 50% of the stories.

And on the importance, or not, of film competitions and awards?

Winning awards can be a bittersweet experience but the recognition is good and it definitely helps when it comes to getting the next project funded, well I think it does.

Have you, or would you, consider crowdsourcing to produce your own work?

I haven’t, but I have supported plenty of projects, I would consider it.

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

Of course you have negative reviews, I would like my films to provoke a reaction in people, but you have to learn to shrug it off, and also sometimes the person critiquing the film might have a point. I equally take praise with a pinch of salt, I know when I am happy with my work, I know the moment when I am happy to say that’s it, it’s finished, that’s all we can do. I also know when I have worked hard and done everything in my power to realise the idea. After that, I don’t think you have a clue what people will think or how they will react, but you make it to be seen and the rest is beyond your control.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

No, because I am still one myself.

Write what you know? Agree or Disagree?

I think if every writer stuck to that as a rule, we would have lost out on some great fiction and dramas, but you can write what you know about life, love, loss, emotions in to characters, in to situations without it being necessarily autobiographical.

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

I am about to start an MA in Screenwriting at the National Film School Dun Laoghaire, so I am playing with a few ideas for that as part of the course we have to write a feature script. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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

My Dad, my grandparents and Brendan Behan.


Vanessa’s film, The Abandoning, will shortly screen as part of the Short Film Programme | Irish Women in Film, I am curating at the MFFA



Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Len Collin

Len Collin was born in London and has lived in Ireland. He trained as a professional actor at Arts Educational Drama School, London and is also a production and Direction MA graduate of the Huston Film School, Galway, Ireland. Len started writing for the theatre in the early nineties. His award-winning play Box, set during the first Gulf War and WWI, brought him to the attention of TV producers and he began writing for that medium. In 2010 he wrote, directed and produced the award-winning Irish web series Covies and he has written for several TV shows, including Holby City, Casualty and London’s Burning.

Welcome Len. Your writing credits are quite impressive – so where did it all begin?

I’ve always written, from diary entries as a teenager to bad poetry. At drama school I began to write scenes and then plays. Eventually screenplays. I started writing seriously after leaving drama school. I’d write plays when I wasn’t working as an actor… seven years later I wrote Box, which won a national competition in the UK, and kick started my writing career. After the success of Box I got an agent and was invited to write for two TV shows. The Bill and Families. Drama is my genre. Within that at one time I specialized in crime stories. However I tend to just be interested in justice and injustice. I tend to write about bigotry and intolerance. I’m a Yes voter.

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

I think all writers are influenced by other writers. My influences range from Stan Lee to Sean O’Casey. The Silver Tassie was a particular influence as well as Shadow of a Gunman. Spiderman comics were really just storyboards…I loved the humour. Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams, Tony Marchant, Budd Shulberg, Charles Bukowski and more recently Charlie Kaufman.

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

Withnail and I – Bruce Robinson.

With regard to screenplays, how long does it take you to complete a script?

The fastest I ever wrote a first draft of a one hour broadcast screenplay was twenty-two hours. It was surprisingly good. But writing is all about the rewrites, so I have written good material that took a week and other good material that has taken years. I have no idea why that happens.

You mentioned that you have an agent, Len. Do you think it necessary to have one?

Yes. A good agent makes all the difference.

What’s your opinion of the current world of film and writing?

Nationally, I think Ireland struggles to find a voice. I really admire Terry McMahon (Charlie Casanova. Patrick’s Day) for his work. He has something to say and he says it, and that’s what writing is all about. But I despair at the lack of rigour when it comes to screenwriting in general. There is no excuse for lazy writing.

And Internationally?

Internationally, the market is dominated by facile superhero movies (Remember I like Stan Lee) I cannot get excited by another Superman reboot or Avengers Go Shopping in Supervalu. Then you get a drama like Birdman – which is good but gets over hyped because there is so little intelligent drama out there. In TV everyone now believes slow is good so we have British and American shows aping the Scandinavian dramas. Only the cable channels, and new online broadcasters seem to be taking risks… and what wonderful shows they have produced. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are particular favourites, and Netflix’s Lilyhammer. Love / Hate and Pure Mule seemed to signal a new era of drama for RTE, but perhaps that was just a blip. In my opinion RTE need to think more about international sales, so that we can do what the Scandies have done and export our stories.

Do you place any importance of film competitions and awards?

Anything that gets your name out there is ultimately a good thing. I got attention because I won a playwriting competition, there were two awards in that competition, two plays that were produced and two careers that came from that competition, myself and Conall Morrison. So yes I think they are a good thing, but would advise that it’s all about the right competitions.

And your thoughts on Indie Film?

Indie film is very important. Equipment is cheaper and better now than ever. Buy a DSLR and Tascam and go out and shoot a movie. Yes most of your efforts will be mediocre or worse…but you will learn…and then there is always the chance that your next movie will be the catalyst for your career.

Have you ever considered self-publishing, funding or crowdsourcing?

I have considered self-publishing a novel I have written. E readers are ubiquitous, and there are gems. The problem is the advertising. How do you market your novel? It’s a vast ocean.

What are your feelings on social media as a marketing tool for writers and filmmakers?

Writers have to learn how to use social media… we all have two personalities now… our online and our real. I try to keep my online persona as close as possible to my real persona to stop me going insane. That way I make sure I never say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person. But social media is here to stay… and we have to use it.

If you’ve ever had any – how do you handle negative reviews?

If you produce enough work you will get good reviews and bad reviews and you should treat both imposters the same. Only you can judge your work at the end of the day, and you will always be your own harshest critic.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Keep notes. Write down the names of people you meet, who they are and what they do. What you think of them. Read the end credits of films you like and don’t like…because if you are going to have a career you are going to work with some of these people – and for when you forget there is IMDb.

And write what you know? Agree or Disagree?

It’s nonsense… so much of the “Rules” you read about are. My first piece was set partly in the First World War…I had to do that thing called research. A better rule is “Write what you are passionate about” Because if you are passionate about something the chances are that someone else will be too.

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

About to direct my first feature – Christian O’Reilly has written the script – It’s funny, thought-provoking and quite brilliant. It’s called Sanctuary – and the cast are mostly actors with intellectual disabilities from Blue Teapot Theatre Company in Galway.

And finally, name six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with…

Eamon Collins (He was killed by the IRA and wrote a book called Killing Rage. I tried to secure rights for it. He was brave and idealistic.) Charles Bukowski (Poet), Louise Brooks (Actress) my Dad (He died before I could ask him all the things I would want to ask him) Now I’ve realized they’re all dead so I’ll have to add fellow writer Ted Gannon and Edwina Forkin (our producer on Sanctuary) Because she really is the brightest, funniest person and if Bukowski was getting sulky on us she’d sort him out.

Cheers, Len!

Check out Len’s new website and IMDb Profile Here

Doing it with Passion: Writers in Ireland Series: Hugh Travers

Hugh Travers is a graduate of D.I.T (B.Sc. Film and Broadcasting) and The Huston School of Film (M.A. in Screenwriting). He received a scholarship to The Professional Programme in Screenwriting at UCLA. He has written a number of award-winning short films, and is currently working on Over The Bar, a feature film in development with the IFB, Deadpan Pictures & Dan Films. Over The Bar was recently selected for The Brit List, a shortlist of the best unproduced scripts of 2014. Most recently his critically acclaimed play LAMBO completed a national tour, was nominated for the Little Gem Award in the Dublin Fringe Festival and was adapted for RTE Radio. It won the PPI Drama Award for Best Radio Play of 2014. His previous play Clear the Air ran at the Theatre Upstairs in Dublin and the Electric Picnic Arts Festival in Stradbally. He recently completed Rough Magic SEEDS, a two-year artist development programme for theatre writers which included staged readings of his plays Cardboard City and The Disappeared. Hugh co-wrote The Variety Show, an animated series, produced by A Man & Ink and RTE and he developed The H-Files and Chicklings with the IFB and Paper Dreams. He created the comedy panel show format Choose or Lose with Screentime Shinawil and RTE and was head writer on the pilot episode and was the head writer on The Big Pitch a panel show pilot for Sky and was the writer and chief researcher on Green Is The Colour, a hugely successful four × one hour historical sports documentary series for Treasure Entertainment and RTE.

You are obviously a prolific writer, Hugh. Tell us how you got started?

I wrote terrible songs in secondary school so always had an interest in creative writing. Then I began to write scripts in college. I studied Communications: Film & Broadcasting but really started writing through the drama society where you could kind of put on anything you wanted and have the freedom to fail.  I then specialised in writing for my final year and went on to do a masters in Screenwriting and a professional programme in UCLA.

Freedom to fail, love that! And your first big break?

Well, I came back from UCLA in 2006 and started properly trying to chase funding and make applications to get things off the ground for the first time. In early 2008 I got funding for an Irish language short (An Cosc) through Filmbase and TG4’s Lasair scheme, so it took me about a year and a half before I got anywhere. It’s hard to know if that short was a break necessarily but it was a small step on the road. I had written a rough first draft of it on my own. I pitched the story idea to the producer Claire McCaughley. She really liked it and so we reworked the script a bit before applying to Filmbase. Then once we were shortlisted we got Vincent Gallagher on board to direct. The same team then got funding for a second, English language short not long after and things began to build slowly from there.

Do you have an agent, Hugh and do you think one is necessary?

I do have an agent and I have found it to be very helpful. We have a good relationship and it’s good to have a supportive ‘consultant’ as much as it is good to have someone fighting your corner on contracts and getting you meetings etc. Is it necessary? No it’s not essential at all. I think it’s possible to get ahead just fine without one but it has certainly helped me. I think once you reach the top-level, it would become absolutely essential.

Do you contribute to the PR and marketing of your work, for instance on social media?

I’m more a consumer of social media than I am a creator of content. In other words I’m on twitter but I don’t tweet. I’m on Facebook but mainly as a procrastination tool rather than as a means of expression. But when it comes to marketing, it’s a completely different story. I think it’s essential. You have to find your audience. The right people for your work. They’re not just the people who will pay to see it, they’re the people who will actually enjoy it because it’s in their wheelhouse. So if they’re on facebook you have to communicate with them there.

Back to the practice of writing. How do you structure your time?

I keep office hours. I generally start at ten and finish at six. Monday to Friday. A lot of that time is naturally spent avoiding writing but I do try to put myself in the chair for those hours. I am at least threatening to write!

And how long does it take you to complete a script?

It depends. A first draft of a feature script can take anything from a few weeks to a few months. But the real writing begins with the rewrites. That can sometimes take years, depending on what the process is.

Do you place much importance on Film competitions and awards?

I think for a writer, awards and competitions can be very helpful early in your career to get people to take you seriously. If you’re lucky they can buy you a few months of attention or replies to your emails. But I think it’s important to remember that not all writers and not all scripts fall into the categories that tend to win awards or place well in competitions. They’re not the be all and end all. I think when it comes to getting a finished film seen, they are really helpful. In the crowded market place, they hang a lantern on your movie and allow it to be noticed. It’s easy to be dismissive of the industry love-ins but I think they are a necessary indulgence.

Any thoughts on our film industry in general?

We’re living in strange times as far as film goes. I think there has never been more opportunity and yet things are getting more difficult. Technology has opened up all manner of possibilities and yet it has had a lot of side effects.  The streaming and VOD model is still bedding in and it remains to be seen if it will work financially for filmmakers. Illegal downloads can be damaging to smaller independent films. The tent-pole movie culture in Hollywood has squeezed out grown-up dramas, comedies and mid-range films. So ultimately it’s easier to make a film than ever. But it’s harder than ever to get that movie seen and to make money from it. And consequently, it’s harder to get paid to write them.

And on Indie Film?

I love the fact that indie films continue to exist because at the moment, it’s the only way that interesting movies are getting made. Again, I think the independent sector is still in flux. After the initial boom in the 90’s we’re probably now entering a new era with streaming and VOD and different distribution possibilities but the jury is still out on whether it will be boom or bust. It could be hugely hugely positive and usher in a new golden era or indie films could go the way of indie music and the music industry in general where passionate artists are making great work but it’s next to impossible to make a living.

Have you self-funded or considered crowdfunding for a project?

I did use crowdfunding to stage my first play. It was a great resource and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who rowed in behind that project. I do think you have to use it responsibly. I will never say never but I don’t plan to go back to the well any time soon. You’re essentially asking family and friends for a dig-out and you can’t do that too often. Unless I ended up in an unusual position where a project I was working on had interest from the wider public but couldn’t get traditional funding. If you were genuinely finding a way to service a demand that was out there by allowing an audience to effectively pay in advance, then crowdfunding is absolutely the way to go and that’s a responsible way to use it.

I’m learning through this series that feedback, and how we handle it, differs from writer to writer, particularly if it comes in negative form. How do you handle such reviews?

I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided scathing reviews. There have been a couple of middling to negative ones and the ease with which I shake them off depends on the nature of the project. The worst review I got was probably for a comedy panel show that I worked on but the whole point of the show was to be genuinely silly and embrace that completely so it’s easy to be philosophical about that. I’ve never been panned for my plays or my work on TV but even good reviews often include the odd throwaway criticism and you have to remind yourself not to obsess about that one line.

Given your experience to date, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Find a way to stay in the game. If you have had any sort of indication that you have talent and aren’t banging your head up against a brick wall, then it’s all about staying in the game until your number comes up. For some people that involves working a day job and writing in your spare time. For others it’s working part-time in a bar or cafe or shop. Maybe it’s even trying to get by on the dole. Whatever your way is, you need to keep living while you keep trying. If you’re good – and if you’re dedicated to continually getting better – your number will come up eventually. So find a way to stay happy, to stay writing and to pay the bills while you’re waiting.

And ‘write what you know’ – agree or disagree?
It definitely helps but it’s not at all essential. I’ve written about worlds that I know nothing about and written stuff that has been a little autobiographical. I feel they both scratch different itches and each option still requires due diligence. In the ‘write what you know’ scenario you have to stop yourself form being too self indulgent and getting too close to the material. You have to still see it as a story in its own right and allow it to go where it needs to go, not in the direction of your experience. With the other stuff, it just takes research. Lots and lots of research.

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

How about a book that became a film? I’m a big fan of The Butcher Boy. I’m not sure it’s something that I necessarily would write – even if I could – but it’s one of those pieces of work that has always resonated with me for reasons that I can’t even properly understand or analyse.

Apart from your feature, Over the Bar, are you are working on anything else right now?

The reality of being a working screenwriter/playwright is that you have to have a lot of irons in the fire and a lot of work in development. It’s necessary to pay the bills but it’s also necessary if you want to get something produced. If you’re concentrating on one piece of work, your odds might not be great. You have to keep all the plates spinning and hope that one of them will somehow take off. I’m hoping to do a new play next year and I have a few exciting feature and TV projects in development, which I hope will go into production soon.

Thanks, Hugh, and just for fun – six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

Woody Guthrie, Larry David, Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Billy Bragg, Orson Welles – literally the first six people that came into my head – in that order.  And my favourite beverage? Currently a whisky sour.