14 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Dead Still writer and creator John Morton talks with IFTN
22 May 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Dead Still from RTÉ and AME.
IFTN caught up with Dead Still writer John Morton on his inspiration for the new series, productivity during quarantine, and advice for aspiring writers.

A murder mystery series set in 1880s Dublin, Dead Still, centres around the world of memorial photography – the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Ireland’s leading practitioner Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), his niece Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins), and his new assistant Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan) become embroiled in the mystery surrounding a series of murders linked to the demand for a new macabre type of death photography. A dark humour pervades the series as their adventures unfold.

Deadpan Pictures’ 6 x one-hour comedy-drama series, which launched on Acorn TV earlier this week on Monday, May 18th in the US and Rogers in Canada, has been described as “a gem of a series” by The Record in Toronto and “Curious, but brilliant entertainment” by areyouscreening.com.

Unusually for an Irish series, Dead Still premieres first on the North American streaming platforms before airing in Ireland, as it is scheduled to make its Irish premiere on RTÉ in autumn. The series will be available to audiences in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand on June 29th.

Created and written by John Morton, with story by Morton and Imogen Murphy, Dead Still is directed by Imogen Murphy and Craig David Wallace and produced by Suzanne McAuley. Deadpans’ Paul Donovan acts as series producer and executive produces alongside Ailish McElmeel, Christina Jennings, Scott Garvie, Sarah Eichenlaub, Shane Murphy, David Crean, Catherine Mackin, and Bea Tammer. The series is produced by Deadpan Pictures in co-production with Shaftesbury Films for RTE and Acorn Media Enterprises.

Dead Still is funded by BAI in association with ZDFE and Rogers Media with the Support of Investment incentives for the Irish Film Industry provided by the Government of Ireland with the participation of The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit funded by the government of Canada, an Ireland-Canada Treaty Co-Production. It was developed with the assistance of Fís Eireann/Screen Ireland with the support of the Creative MEDIA Programme of the European Union.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with the writer/creator John Morton to find out more about the upcoming series.

A Dublin-based period drama centred on the city’s first serial killer is incredibly intriguing. Where did the initial inspiration for the project come from?

“The initial inspiration was an idea I had about a murderer pursuing a photographer who had accidentally captured an incriminating picture. It was set in the earliest days of photography where people were getting to grips with the technology, and in this case, particularly criminals who were slowly realising their images could be captured. As we developed it the story jumped up about 40 years later to the early 1880’s which felt like much more fertile ground for a similar kind of murder mystery story. Cameras were becoming more commonplace, amateur camera clubs were flourishing in Dublin, post mortem photography was reaching its apex and crime scene photography was in its infancy. So that’s where the story eventually landed. And I’ve always been a bit of a Jack The Ripper obsessive so I loved the idea of telling an Irish story about that kind of shadows and fog killer on the loose in Dublin, a bit of an alternative history.

Can you tell me about working with the team at Deadpan, and how they got involved?

“It started life as an RTÉ Storyland submission in 2014, which Deadpan supported. Claire Gormley was the producer on it at the time and she saw the potential in the idea and helped set the project up. That particular submission was unsuccessful but Deadpan saw enough promise in the material to keep developing it. The entire team there have been beyond supportive and the producer Paul Donovan kept pushing the show at every stage until we eventually got it in front of the cameras. They have such a strong comedy pedigree but are very ambitious about channelling that into different genres so I’m delighted they rolled the dice on such an out-there idea.”

Can you give me a bit of insight into working with Directors Imogen Murphy and Craig David Wallace?

“Imogen and I started developing it from the start as she directed the initial Storyland promo which really laid down a strong visual template for what the show could be. We kept developing the show together over the years and then I was delighted when Imogen got to direct four of the episodes. She has such a feel for the world and affinity with the characters that there was no worry on my part in terms of handing the scripts over, having developed it together she knew the material inside and out. She’s done such a great job on the series and it showcases how talented and versatile she is. It was different then working with Craig, as he was coming in from Canada and hadn’t worked in Ireland before, let alone with us. But as soon as I met him I knew we were in good hands. He’s a big fan of the Coen Brothers and of old horror movies, on top of his experience directing shows in Canada like The Murdoch Mysteries, so we had a lot of similar reference points for the tone. He got it from the jump and his two episodes are really special.”

The show has just launched on Acorn TV and will debut on RTÉ shortly. What can audiences expect?

“It’s a real mixed bag of a show so without sounding overly simplistic about it, I really hope there’s something for everyone in there. My initial urge was to write something teenagers could enjoy watching with their grandparents, as I’ve such good memories of watching murder mysteries and spooky serials with my own. At different times, it’s a murder mystery, it’s a comedy, a police procedural and a horror. To be honest, it’s a few things I hadn’t seen in an Irish context that I really wanted to see as a punter, so when the opportunity was presented, I kinda lashed all those things into the mix and hoped for the best. I think what I’m most excited about audiences seeing is Victorian Dublin though. I’m a big history nerd so I hope history buffs get a kick out of it. There’s not a lot of fictional representations of that time in Ireland so it felt like a very fresh setting for a show. It’s Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and it can be very hard for us now to imagine what that was like. A lot of Irish historical fiction is usually about politics or past events we all know, but it was nice to tell a genre story with that era as a backdrop.”

The show has a great cast, which is led by the fantastic Michael Smiley. How did you envisage the portrayal of these characters when writing and what can we expect to see from them on screen?

“I guess I was just hoping for actors who’d bring emotional depth to the parts but also have the comic chops to carry that end too. And they all do, in spades. Even the smallest parts arrived fully formed, fleshed out by great actors. Michael is exactly as I had imagined the character, it’s uncanny. He’s one of the best Irish actors out there but I’m not sure people in Ireland know him as well as they should. I’ve always been a fan of colourful central ensembles, mismatched teams thrown into dangerous situations. Our central unit (Michael, Eileen O’Higgins, Kerr Logan and Jimmy Smallhorne) are very different, as characters and actors, and they complement each other wonderfully so I hope audiences enjoy seeing them in the various scrapes they get into. And then there’s Aidan O’Hare as Frederick Regan leading the Dublin Castle contingent, in which his character sits uneasily. Aoife Duffin plays his wife Betty, who was probably my favourite character to write. She’s an armchair sleuth, obsessed with the detective fiction of the time and their dynamic was a joy to see being created. Overall, it’s a big ensemble cast and the show shines a light into lots of different corners of Dublin at the time so overall I think it contributes to a very rich, colourful world of characters, which Irish society certainly was in the 1880s.”

As a writer, how have you found your productivity during the quarantine period, and what are you working on?

“I’ve been very lucky in that I had ongoing work to keep me busy. So very, very grateful in that regard. But the first couple of weeks were tough in terms of finding the focus to write. So I was slowly slogging through stuff with a really mushy brain. At the end of the day, sitting down to write stories is a very easy gig in comparison to the hard work others are doing out there to keep us safe and healthy, so reminding myself of that always helped me pull the finger out. I’ve no complaints. I’ve been working on material for a second season of Dead Still, which I hope we get to make. And I’m developing another show for Deadpan called The Roaring Banshees, which is based on a play Peter McGann and myself wrote. It’s about a Cumann na Mban unit in 1920’s Chicago so hopefully if Dead Still demonstrates an appetite for Irish historical genre yarns it might see the light of day.”

What advice would you have for aspiring writers currently developing a script for television?

“I think there’s a lot to be said for having full confidence in your own unique perspective and experiences. Just, avoiding cookie-cutter stories that feel like other successful shows. I think series like Normal People and Derry Girls have demonstrated how well different Irish voices and their perspectives can carry around the world. I’d love to see more shows from different corners of Ireland, different eras of our history, and our rich storytelling tradition. I don’t think writers should shy away from their own backgrounds when developing scripts because the success of the aforementioned shows proves that it’s not an impediment to international audiences.”

Dead Still is set to air on RTÉ this autumn.

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