25 May 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTA Q&A Series: Peter McKenna on Writing
16 Apr 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Peter McKenna
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.

Peter McKenna is IFTA-nominated for Best Script - Drama for Kin and Hidden Assets. He is also an executive producer on both series, which are both nominated for Best Television Drama this year. McKenna has nine IFTA nominations to date, and has won three IFTA awards for his work on Red Rock.

IFTN: How did these projects first come about? How did they evolve from initial idea to completed series?

PETER: “Both projects came about very differently.”

“I have always loved families as a vehicle for storytelling, and the more trauma and pressure on them the better, so exploring the lives of a family of Dublin criminals felt like the perfect knotty subject matter.”

“Hidden Assets was born out of a meeting with the producers who had a number of story elements already in place, so the challenge was knitting everything together in an exciting and coherent way.”

“Making a television show is such an incredibly collaborative process, and so many people along the way shape, influence and leave their mark on your idea, that it's hard to keep track of all the evolutions your story goes through. I think the phrase ‘it takes a village’ best sums up the process.”

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

PETER: “Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what my ‘best work’ is, never mind how to produce it. I find that my process is usually defined by the particular demands of the show I'm working on.”

“Some producers and broadcasters want to see lots of documents, outlines, and rewrites, whereas on Kin 2 I wrote a four page document at the beginning with my intentions, and never wrote another outline again. I would write an episode, take a pause, and think ‘What next?’. It was fun and unique because producers and broadcasters would get the first draft of an episode without knowing what was going to happen, and then read it completely fresh.”

"Left to my own devices, without deadlines and responsibilities, I tend to putter along at a snail's pace, producing very little."

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?

PETER: “Even though I probably always dreamed of being a writer, I never really wrote a word until I was almost thirty. And then I suppose I got into writing, by writing. I bought a ‘how to write a script’ book, read it, and got down to work.”

“I'm afraid I don't really have any great wisdom or insight to impart to aspiring writers. But looking back now on 28 years of trying to write, I would say that it was a very long, and often lonely road, filled with disappointment and rejection, but also an incredibly wonderful and exciting way to live your life. I try to remind myself at least once a month (usually when I am feeling frustrated or unmotivated) that it is a gift to be able to make my living telling stories.”

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

PETER: “I'm not sure I do try to combat it. I think I'm probably too old for changing now, so it's easier to just accept that all my quirks, neuroses and insecurities are part of who I am, and get on with things.”

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

PETER: “The best advice I ever got was from my friend and mentor John Yorke. He said, remember the industry is small, and everyone talks to everyone, so you should think of your reputation like a share price, and remember that every single thing you do affects it. So make your deadlines, write good work, be pleasant to the people you work with, and you'll be fine.”

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

PETER: “It's really hard to know. I try to trust my instincts and fight for what I think is important, but in a collaborative process you also have to be pragmatic and listen to other people when they tell you something really isn't working, or is unachievable. I realise that's a bit of a non-answer, but making a show can sometimes feel like an endless round of negotiations and compromises.”

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