17 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
“Write stuff that scares, embarrasses, and exposes you”, writer Ray Lawlor discusses Obituary
04 Oct 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Siobhán Cullen in Obituary
We caught up with screenwriter Ray Lawlor to talk about his new television series, Obituary, on RTÉ One.

This brand new six-part dark comedy is screenwriter Ray Lawlor’s first television series for broadcast. In 2001, Lawlor received his Bachelor’s Degree in Film and Television from DIT. Following this Lawlor worked in a bank in Dublin for six years, before deciding to move home and pursue writing full-time. Since then Lawlor has had several projects optioned, such as four-part drama Glortha (TG4), and feature script Conceive (Keeper Pictures, formerly Blinder Pictures). Most recently, in June 2020, he wrote four episodes of the TG4 streaming series Le Ceangal

Obituary follows 24-year-old Obituarist Elvira Clancy, who is now being paid per obituary, after her employer falls on hard times. When deaths trickle to a halt and work dries up, she soon discovers that by murdering the residents of her small town, she will not only earn more money but discover an untapped bloodlust. The only problem for her lies with the paper’s new hire, Emerson Stafford, a suspicious crime correspondent who she begins to develop feelings for. 

The cast is led by Siobhán Cullen (The Dry) as Elvira. Michael Smiley (Bad Sisters, Bloodlands) joins Cullen as Elvira’s protective and troubled father Ward Clancy, and Ronan Raftery (The Rook, Mortal Engines) stars as ambitious new crime correspondent Emerson Stafford. The cast also includes Danielle Galligan (Lakelands), David Ganly (Moon Knight), Noni Stapleton (Penny Dreadful), Éabha Moore (A Sunken Place), Paul Tylak (Harry Wild), Fiona Browne (Red Rock), Eva Hein West (Lift), and Shashi Rami (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

The series was directed by John Hayes (Dublin Murders) and Oonagh Kearney (Five Letters to the Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain), and produced by Nell Green (The Outfit, The Undeclared War). Paddy Hayes of Magamedia and APC Studios’ Laurent Boissel feature as executive producers on the series, which is made with support from Screen Ireland, WRAP Fund, and the Coimisiún na Meán, formerly the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In the US, Obituary will stream exclusively on Hulu later this year.

We sat down with writer Ray Lawlor to discuss getting Obituary off the ground, the research and inspiration that went into his writing, and what it takes to carve out a career as a screenwriter.

IFTN: This is your first television series, how does it feel to have Obituary premiere on RTÉ?

RAY: “It's a massive relief. Also, I can now finally point to something that I wrote, got made, broadcast, and seen. Once you meet the crew and actors, which I did, and see the crazy amount of work and sacrifice they invested to make my words come alive, you're so happy for them and hope that they are proud of their work and get further work out of it. All anyone in this business wants is another chance to do it all over again. And I’m delighted it’s on RTE. It’s a big swing for them but they gave us a super time slot along with terrific advertising.”

IFTN: When did you first come up with the concept for Obituary, and how has the project developed since then?

RAY: “Looking through my files, I can see that I started writing the show in 2018. Wow, that’s a long time ago. Initially, the show was a half-hour, probably a little lighter. But the advice at the time, which I think was spot on, is that it would be better suited to an hour-long format. So that change in the length of each episode required the most heavy lifting. In fact, the characters Mallory and Ward, two characters I adore, were not even in those early drafts.”

“After that, I realised I had a ton of story to tell. I always knew the ending, the last twenty minutes of episode six, but the rest was trial and error. Writing the whole thing on my own was daunting. Some days you feel like you will never fill six hours. But once I had the pilot episode in good shape, I realised that there was enough there that could fuel the rest of the series. I kept going back to the pilot and realising that I had set up so much story, probably subconsciously, that all I had to do was delve deeper into those story beats and see where they would take me. I guess the DNA of every TV series is in the pilot and your job is to expound on that.”

IFTN: How did you approach the research for this project? I understand you were able to consult your father as he is a retired Guard.

RAY: “Anything Guard-related, I always refer back to Dad. He’s handy to have in the background, and it means I save time. He saw the first episode and said the way Garda Rose acts was on the money. Again, though, I have to give credit to Noni Stapleton. I grew up around a lot of Guards, and she felt so real and natural. Plus, she’s a hoot.”

“Regarding research, I was lucky. There’s an amazing documentary called ‘Obit’, about the obituary desk in the New York Times, that I watched more than once. There’s a gallows humour to it that informed the show, but also a real honour to their writing that I tried to emulate and respect. And this also gave me the idea of writing the advance obituaries, which fuels much of what Elvira does. Without that documentary, I may not have had the confidence to explore and stick with the premise.”

IFTN: To what degree does the fictional town of Kilraven draw inspiration from your native Castlebar?

RAY: “Almost everything I write is set in a small Irish town, so naturally, my hometown provides great inspiration. The characters I meet every day are unique and hilarious, and like our fictional Kilraven, there is always something slightly odd going on in Castlebar. And I’m always listening. So many of the lines used in the show are me eavesdropping on people and noting it in my phone. My mates have already spotted lines of dialogue they may have said years ago. I love that for them, to know they inspired me. No matter how high the premise, for me as a writer, it boils down to the life around me and getting that on the screen. It’s really important we see more stories told from my part of the world.”

IFTN: After six years of working in a bank, you left to pursue writing. What advice do you have for anyone wishing to leave their current career and do the same?

RAY: “I would never be silly enough to tell people to quit their jobs and start writing. Each person is surrounded by different circumstances, and it may not be plausible. No matter who you are, money matters. But for me, it was the right time to leave Dublin and move home. I was in a job that I knew would never satisfy me, and I would be miserable if I didn’t at least give it a try. But if someone reading this decided to follow the same path I did, I would say that it can be done. Just be aware that it can take years. Or maybe never. That’s the crucial call you have to make. You can only succeed at this if you realise there is a massive chance you can fail.”

“The best advice I could give is twofold. Take it seriously. Be ambitious. Aim high. Your goal should be to become the best screenwriter in the world. Now, you will fail. And you won’t become the best screenwriter in the world, but that should be the path you are trying to follow. If you take yourself seriously, people will take you seriously.”

“The second thing I would say is to be brave. This is a business that crushes your soul at times, and rejection is massive. But you have to embrace that and even chase it. By being brave, I mean when you send your script to a person to read, ask them to attack it. Don't hold back. Only when you can get your head into that mindset can you see your flaws and work on them. Sometimes something you write just needs to be dumped in the bin. And not wasting your time writing a piece of crap is key because time moves very fast when you’re writing. And also, when I say brave, I mean be brave in your writing. At the beginning, you are always holding back. Censoring yourself. You need to get past that fast and start to write stuff that scares you, embarrasses you and exposes you. It’s hard, but if you can do that, your writing will flourish.”

IFTN: Are there any projects you're planning to get off the ground following Obituary?

RAY: “This is the question I’m asked all the time. And the answer is no and yes. Because of the way this whole thing moves, I have to start writing season two now. We have to be ready to roll in case things fall into line. I have a movie I’ve written that’s fun, so we shall see. And a new TV show I want to write, but it’s only scribbles on a page until I get the time to sit down and see if it actually works. And that may be a while yet. You never know, that one may end up in the bin too.”

Obituary airs weekly on Tuesdays at 10.15pm on RTÉ One.

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