23 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Writer James Phelan discusses his Platform 31-selected project Forsaken
29 Apr 2021 : Nathan Griffin
IFTA-winning writer James Phelan
We spoke with screenwriter James Phelan (Galway Races, Striking Out), a recent recipient of funding from the inaugural Platform 31 bursary, for which to support the development of his latest feature film script.

Forsaken is a period thriller, set in Waterford, about the aftermath of an abduction that rips a family apart. 

Developed by the Association of Local Authority Arts Officers (ALAAO), in collaboration with the Arts Council, Platform 31 offers financial and developmental support for the 31 mid-career artists who were selected. The Bursary is a national development scheme for artists to develop their practice and test new ideas of collaboration, research, audience development, place based arts and sharing their work.

It was this mid-career description that caught the eye of Phelan who has been mainly concentrating on animation work since his original drama series Wrecking the Rising and Striking Out debuted in the same year on Irish television screens.

“I guess the sobering reality of realising you probably are mid-career could either spark depression or inspiration,” Phelan tells IFTN. “So I tried to be positive about it and get a feature film project into Platform 31. I can’t remember the exact wording but the scheme description did chime with me. It mentioned wanting to afford artists the time and space to perform a creative pivot in their careers.”

Phelan took this as an opportunity to pivot back to live-action for several years prioritising his regular writing work in animation. “Writing in animation has dominated my last few years,” Phelan explains. “Personally, I’m delighted to remain in a really interesting and truly international sector with animation, but out of all the areas I want to make progress in, I guess film is the slightly neglected one.”

“I’ve technically contributed to features and have written and directed several shorts but if there are outstanding ambitions for me, it probably is in film,” James tells IFTN.

The Platform 31 scheme, which seeks to foster both individual projects and collaboration, is itself a collaboration with 50% of the funding for the scheme coming from the Arts Council, 50% from the Local Authority Arts Offices. Incredibly, this is also the first time that all Local Authority Arts Offices have come together for an artist development project - even though they have been respectively supporting artists locally for almost 35 years.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Platform 31 scheme is a much needed and welcomed initiative for Irish writers, who Phelan says have to “embrace uncertainty from the get-go,” when pursing the profession. The Waterford native also argues that this is the case for “anyone aiming to make a living from writing in any country, let alone Ireland,” but admits that the arrival of Covid has made it feel like “that uncertainty multiplied by a huge factor”.

“As I mentioned earlier, I feel very blessed that animation has proved such a robust and resilient outlet for me during Covid,” Phelan continues. “I’m very aware that certain arts practices like theatre hit a solid wall during the pandemic.”

“Of course, there have been really creative ways of keeping theatre alive and it’s great to see film production managing to steer a path through this, but for individual artists it must surely be one of the trickiest times ever to stay afloat.”

“I think that’s why the funders behind Platform 31 were interested in a very direct intervention by offering direct support to artists. So yeah….when you get a positive decision from any kind of open call or funding body, it serves as a boost for sure,” Phelan admits.

“When that boost has a financial dimension, it’s clearly even better again. We all need regular affirmation that we’re on the right path. Or at least producing ideas worthy of further development and exploration,” Phelan continues.

A positive for other film creatives is that the Platform 31 scheme intends to become an annual and recurring scheme, one which Phelan believes writers and creatives “should keep an eye out for it when it hopefully comes around again”.

Phelan describes his selected Platform 31 project, Forsaken, as “a period thriller set in the late 1800’s in rural Waterford about two sisters separated by an abduction and their battle to find each other again”

The genesis of it comes from stories in my Mum’s local area during her childhood about women in particular being spirited away in the dead of night. And to hear people tell it, they were never heard of again. Were these local legends, exaggerated rumours, or cautionary tales designed to modulate behaviour? But then - what if they were true?” Phelan tells IFTN.

Based on early research, Phelan tells us that there does seem to have been a particular period when abductions in the Irish countryside were rife. “Considering the rate at which they were happening, it may surprise no one to hear that prosecutions and trials for the offence were outrageously rare. In an uncaring world, how do these women find each other again and get out alive?” Phelan asks.

Phelan says he was drawn to the themes and issues that the idea could host immediately. “There’s really no point writing some historically sealed time capsule of a story,” the writer states. “It has to resonate and be relevant today because the original spark has prompted so much, I no longer care that much about the accuracy of the original story.”

“My script is a fiction inspired by a tradition of oral storytelling that probably has moved the core facts of the case to an unrecognisable extent anyway,” Phelan continues.

Phelan describes his crass elevator pitch for Forsaken as “Barry Lyndon - meets - Taken - meets - Promising Young Woman. How’s that for a mix of high brow and low brow?” he laughs.

Phelan, an IFTA-winning writer, has plenty of experience developing projects through local council schemes, having previously completed a year as the Dlr Writer In Residence in 2018. Asked whether the type of project he pursues is influenced by the environment or scheme for which he writes it, Phelan says; “For this, I tried to do right by a new scheme - by coming up with something new."

“There were plenty of pretty viable film projects sitting on my laptop that would have been new to Platform 31, but I knew I would have been recycling them,” Phelan admits. “Forsaken was a bit of a skeleton of an idea as I was applying but since the scheme intended to facilitate developing it - it seemed to be in the right place for this particular scheme.”

Interestingly, Phelan believes that his approach to a scheme like this has stayed much the same over the years. “When I look back on what has been successful for me in applying for these initiatives, I think it is having an honest and uncynical approach,” Phelan tells IFTN. 

“If the scheme states a preference for new original material to be generated, just try to honour that. Rather than repackaging a project that has been in for every other scheme under the sun. Challenge yourself with something fresh and even if you don’t get your target – at least you have a new project out of the process. It’s a very worthwhile compensation in my experience,” Phelan advises. 

Other than developing Forsaken, Phelan is also very busy developing a number of live-action TV shows. “I’ve been working on a couple of four and six part TV dramas. Maybe some of them could stretch to ten episodes if Netflix want to get involved,” Phelan jokes. “Lately, there’s a distinct thriller aspect to my TV projects. There’s always a bit of dark comedy rumbling through them as well.”

“There are also plenty of animation projects going through the production pipeline,” Phelan continues. ”The next one to emerge will probably be ‘The Adventures of Little Penguin,’ which is a wonderful silent show that was a joy to concentrate on during lockdown. Silent visual storytelling is always a good ability to hone. And I wrote the bulk of the season on that by myself.”

As to what is possible under the Platform 31 scheme, James is positive and open-minded. “I think everyone involved is just curious as to what can be achieved. Maybe it will be a slew of personal projects that grow out of this. Maybe it won’t be the projects we applied with that are the true outcome of the process,” says Phelan. 

“Maybe it will be a ton of unexpected collaborations that no one can foresee right now.  Thinking about it, a film set is formed from a range of different disciplines bringing their own expertise to bear. In the end, maybe Platform 31 will be just like that….”

Click here to read more of IFTN’s Features and Interviews.

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