24 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Soap Series: Interview with ‘Red Rock’ creator and former Executive Producer Peter McKenna
04 Sep 2015 : Seán Brosnan
‘Red Rock’ returned to TV3 this week
This summer IFTN is taking a closer look behind the scenes of Ireland’s soaps – continuing our series we talk to ‘Red Rock’ creator and former showrunner Peter McKenna.

McKenna has long been a familiar face behind the scenes of Irish television. He has previously written for RTÉ medical procedural series ‘The Clinic’ garnering an IFTA nomination for his work on the show in 2009 and he also has a long and extensive background writing for UK dramas such as ‘Holby City’, ‘Doctors’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Casualty’.

‘Red Rock’ was a completely different undertaking for the Kilkenny based writer however. He was not coming into a world that was already written but instead had to create that world. Here, McKenna talks to us about creating ‘Red Rock’, why he only wanted to be Executive Producer on the show for one year and what his hopes for the show in the future.

IFTN: Can you tell us a little about the process behind creating a world that you would hope to be around for generations to come?

Peter McKenna: ‘To be honest, it was daunting! And for lots of reasons – the main reason being the one you just highlighted – the hope is that this show will be around for many years and decades. As a writer, the most daunting part in creating this world is that it would never run out of stories. We didn’t have a lot of time either so everything had to be done at pace. I started out on my own with a blank page wondering how do I start writing a soap opera.’

‘I then had a very broad idea and spoke about it with producers Ed Guiney and John Yorke and we then refined it. We then sent it off to TV3 and had interviews where we discussed budgets and all the rest and that was it – we got the contract.’

‘When we won the contract, all I really had was a four page pitch with outlines for characters. I then had to sit down and construct this four page document into a world that could sustain story and drama indefinitely.’

You wrote the first four episodes of ‘Red Rock’ yourself and set the tone for what the series would be – was it hard then to pass the buck on to another writer?

‘In the beginning, I only wrote one episode. The premise was two feuding families with the police caught in the middle – almost like an old fashioned western. The film that would have inspired me the most actually was a Gregory Peck film called ‘The Big Country’ where a man marries into a family which is feuding with another family. So, I wrote one episode which was 25 pages long and that was it initially. I sent it on to John and Ed and they gave me notes on it and then I wrote another episode and another. I spent about a month writing and at the end of it, there were four episodes. We then brought in another writer and we spent about a week or two working out storylines and how we could develop. It was at this point that we got a sense of what was working best and it became apparent early on that while the feud between the families was interesting and very important – the place that was potentially the most rich for drama was the police station. So, the emphasis switched very early on to the police station. We worked out big stories very early on like the feud between Sharon and McGonagle. We then began to being in producers and writers and we set up a Script Department and began to build the world outwards from there – if that makes sense!’

That story you just mentioned seems to be the one that captured the public’s attention the most - Garda Sharon Cleere’s (Jane McGrath) attempt to take down Sergeant Brian McGonigle (Sean Mahon) after discovering his affair with an underage schoolgirl. That story was a slow burner – were there any nerves writing it that you might not find the actors to give the material its’ due?

‘The truth about that particular storyline is that a very similar story happened in my locality growing up. A married man was having an affair with a young girl and one of my best friends worked in the same place as these two people – and he always thought it was odd that he would get dropped off first when they were getting a lift home in the evenings despite the girl living much closer to where they worked. They ended up getting caught and it became this big, big thing. I thought that was an interesting area and wanted to explore it here.’

‘In terms of casting, I watched a film a few years before ‘Red Rock’ called ‘Black Ice’ directed by Johnny Gogan and I thought she was brilliant in it. When I was writing the part for Sharon, I wrote it with Jane in mind. Having said that though, we auditioned a lot of other actresses before we settled on Jane because a lot of other people had a say in the casting of this show, not just me. So, we were back to square one when we were casting the role but luckily Jane came in and she was brilliant. It became very clear that she was perfect for the part.

‘McGonagle was harder to cast. Sean was an actor we really liked – we had spoken to him about other roles but not McGonagle initally as we thought McGonagle should be a little younger. So, we were struggling to cast that role and then we decided to give Sean a go and he was just brilliant. From the very first days of rushes, it became very clear that Jane and Sean together were going to be brilliant. So, even though we had written the scripts already, we went back and decided to beef it up and give that storyline a bit more time and focus.’

‘I have to say our Casting Agent Louise Kiely was just fantastic. She found loads of really talented actors – both young and old – who weren’t already associated very strongly with other roles which is exactly what we wanted. This allowed us to build a fresh world.’

And not just the actors, ‘Red Rock’ went for quality behind the scenes garnering an impressive list of writers and directors, not to mention DoP Ciarán Tanham….

‘In a funny way, having Ciarán on board played a role in us being able to hire some of our better known directors like Lisa Mulcahy and the Burke brothers. He gave the show a lot of gravitas – when we talked to directors about working on the show they were always very interested when we mentioned Ciarán. We tried to get a mix of writers and directors that had worked on dramas and feature films as well as soaps.’

‘We wanted to make this different and make it as close to a drama as possible. We shot on location, we shot in driving cars – we used different shooting techniques and production models for our show. By doing that, I think we attracted some talent that might not have done it if it was just a fixed camera soap.’

And you left the show as Executive Producer after one year at the helm and passed the buck on to Gareth Phillips – why did you decide to leave the series?

‘When I signed on, the idea was always that I would leave after a year. I live in Kilkenny not Dublin and with most shows I have created a working environment that meant I could stay in Kilkenny while writing – even for the British shows. ‘Red Rock’ was different because I also had show-running responsibilities which meant I had to be in Dublin all the time. It was a very full on schedule.’

‘So, even before I wrote the first episode I spoke to my wife and we decided I would only be there for a year and that’s exactly what happened. I started work there in April 2014 and was out by April 2015. It was not known in the wider world but would have been known by some of the top people in ‘Red Rock’ that that is what I was going to do.’

‘Gareth Phillips came in around June last year and he knew that I would be leaving as well. So, it felt like a very natural progression. Gareth was very much my right-hand man while I was there and he was involved in everything. We worked together very well and it was definitely an easy transition with him taking over. He is going to do very well.’

How did you feel watching ‘Red Rock’ grow from an idea on your page to a €7m Euro investment that employs 130 people? There must have been a lot of nerves when the first few episodes went out – especially in an age where criticism can come very quickly via social media?

‘I probably shouldn’t look at social media reactions to the show but I do! Even back when the show was announced and before anything was written, the reaction on social media was very negative. Expectations were incredibly low and that was actually good for us! I would have been worried if people were expecting the next ‘Love/Hate’ because we would not be able to do that as we’d have to deliver 80 episodes a year.’

‘As the show grew and more people got involved I felt a bigger responsibility. As we got closer to transmission and I saw how hard those 130 people were working I began to think “Oh God this is awful! I am going to let everyone down”. So, there were some nerves but when we began to see the rushes and the dailies we were re-assured. Ultimately in soap, not everyone is going to like what you are doing – people are going to hate it. But I think with the limited resources we had, we made something quite fresh that worked out well.’

‘Now that I am no longer working for ‘Red Rock’ I can look back on it with a different set of eyes. I have worked on shows with much larger budgets including the show I am working on now (‘The Musketeers’ for the BBC) but in a lot of ways the projects I am most proud of are shows like ‘Red Rock’ where we achieved a lot with limited resources.’

The TV3 launch took place earlier this week and right to the forefront of their packed Autumn schedule was ‘Red Rock’ – what were TV3 like to work with and what do you think the future holds for ‘Red Rock’?

‘TV3 gave us incredible freedom right from the word go. They were so supportive and they never really panicked – even at the start when we were slowly building an audience. I don’t think I have ever gotten that level of freedom from any other channel. I really don’t know what the future holds for ‘Red Rock’. I am almost as far removed from the show now as you. I am confident though that under the stewardship of Gareth it will continue to grow and hopefully become part of the TV landscape in Ireland for many years to come.’

‘Red Rock’ airs on TV3 on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8.30pm. Check out our past interviews with:

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