30 May 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
     
IFTA Q&A Series: Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson on Writing
12 Apr 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson
To mark the 21st anniversary of the IFTA awards, we are showcasing Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry.

We find out about their approach to craft, working on the projects they’ve been nominated for, and the best piece of advice they’ve been given in their career.

Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson are IFTA-nominated for Best Script - Drama for Blue Lights. They are the co-creators and head writers of the series. Blue Lights is up for four IFTA awards including Best Drama, Best Script - Drama, Best Lead Actor - Drama (Martin McCann), and Best Supporting Actor - Drama (Richard Dormer). They’ve previously won the Best Short Film IFTA for Rough, and they’ve previously been nominated in the Best Script - Drama for The Salisbury Poisonings.

IFTN: How did this project first come about?

“It was borne from two other projects. We’d just finished a factual drama for the BBC called The Salisbury Poisonings, which was the first thing we ever had commissioned. The BBC were quite well disposed to hearing ideas we might have about what to do next. We had also just finished our first short film Rough, which went on to win an IFTA in 2021. The producer of that film was Louise Gallagher, and she and Stephen Wright from Two Cities Television had an idea about a woman who leaves social work to become a PSNI response officer. The BBC commissioned a pilot script, and things grew from there. It all happened relatively quickly.”

IFTN: How would you describe your writing process? What conditions help to produce your best work?

“The perfect conditions would presumably be a remote cottage for two months with great views of the ocean, nobody to disturb us, and a pub nearby, however we have never been able to engineer those conditions. Like most other writers we do the job amidst the mess and demands of family life. We have a little office now in Belfast, which has a big whiteboard covering an entire wall, and we go there most days and write ideas on it. We can actually work fast and well when we get a few hours together. Then we go and pick children up from school and take them to a swimming class. As it should be.”

IFTN: What differences were there between the initial scripts and the completed series?

“There’s a massive difference between the first draft and the production script. We do many drafts of each episode. The cliché is true, all good writing is rewriting. And listening. To your fellow execs, to the BBC execs, to your script editor. Apart from playing in a band or an orchestra, screenwriting must be the most collaborative art form in existence. It’s problem-solving at heart, both logistical and conceptual. And sometimes you need other people to draw attention to those problems so you can fix them.”

IFTN: How did you first get into writing professionally, and what have you learned through your experiences that would be of use to aspiring writers?

“We started writing together in the summer of 2013, and it took six years to make our first short film, and a year after that (2020) to get our first TV commission on air. In those years we read all the screenwriting books, went to writing courses, and wrote many TV and film scripts and treatments that never got made. It was a bit like doing an unofficial self-taught masters’ degree in screenwriting, mostly learning from the things we got wrong. However, even though there were a lot of disappointments along that road, we really enjoyed being creative together. It really sustained us and invigorated us. Our advice to aspiring writers would be to enjoy the process of creating and building worlds and characters. Even if a particular project doesn’t get made, it can change your life in other ways if you love writing it.”

IFTN: We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to combating this as a writer when developing work?

“There is no way of avoiding self-criticism as a writer, because it’s part of writing. You have to critique your own work and your own instincts in order to make the work better. In every line and scene you write there should be a voice that says “could this be better?” The problem is when self-criticism gets out of control and becomes a kind of negativity that is at first dispiriting and then at some point paralysing. What you need to do is find an honest external reader who you trust who can tell you if something is working or if it isn’t. These people are hard to find but they go a long way towards building your confidence.”

IFTN: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

“In writing, ‘don’t be precious’. If someone has made it to the top of the industry as an exec, and they think something about your work, you had better listen. Not constantly roll over, but certainly take their views on board.”

“In directing, our good friend the director Saul Dibb once said to us ‘make your days’. Don’t run over. Don’t keep a crew late. That sounds prosaic, but it’s the single best piece of advice we have ever had.”

IFTN: Writers are often told to kill their darlings. How do you learn when to let something go or to fight for it?

“Kill your darlings only if there’s a powerful thematic and artistic reason to do so. Never shock for the sake of shocking. If you’re going to upset an audience, do it because it’s crucial to what you are trying to say.”

“In a wider sense, if lots of people around you are saying that they feel a scene or a character or a story arc is unnecessary, then either you are a certified genius and God’s gift to film and television, or the scene is unnecessary. Newsflash: it’s very probably the latter. Listen, always.”





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