21 May 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTA Q&A Series: Joe Murtagh on Writing
17 Apr 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Joe Murtagh
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.

Joe Murtagh is IFTA-nominated for Best Script - Drama for The Woman in the Wall. The series is also nominated for Best Television Drama. Murtagh has previously been nominated for Best Script - Film for Calm with Horses. His other recent screenwriting credits include Gangs of London and The Kitchen.

IFTN: How did this project first come about?

JOE: “I've wanted to write about the Magdalene Laundries ever since I saw Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters. Over the years, I kept putting it off because I felt that perhaps I had no right to do so. Some people obviously still feel that way. But I kept on reading about these institutions, kept hearing more stories, and I was getting increasingly frustrated that every time I mentioned these places to anyone outside of Ireland, they had no idea what I was talking about. And all the while, more stories were coming out, what happened at Tuam, at Bessborough. I felt like there was this huge disparity between the scale of the horror, the amount of lives ruined by these places, and just how few people knew about them outside of Ireland. And so ultimately, my desire to try and address that disparity outweighed any fears that I had about telling this particular story.”

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

JOE: “I wouldn’t say anything out of the ordinary. I tend to do a lot of preparation before script, a lot of detailed outlines, but I try to never be wedded to things in the end. I’m ready to let things go if needs be. In terms of writing conditions, I’ve gotten used to two very noisy little boys running around, so any semblance of peace and quiet is always a plus.”

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

JOE: “I always wanted to tell the story in such a way that it reached as wide an audience as possible. So the genre elements and the murder-mystery plot were all built in from the get go. But I guess over the course of making the series, it became a little more grounded. It certainly turned out more emotional than I had initially expected, which I couldn’t be happier about. That seems to have helped a lot of people engage with the show.”

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?

JOE: “I think my route in was fairly straightforward. I started out writing lots and lots of short films and watching them get made. I built up a portfolio of work, and got it into the right hands. The writing itself is obviously an important craft to hone, but I would definitely say that the experience of actually getting work made is equally important. Going through the development process, getting notes, working with directors and producers, and letting everything go again when it comes to the edit. Then you just transfer that knowledge and those experiences into longer and longer work.”

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

JOE: “Surrounding myself with good people whose opinions I trust. And trying to remember my initial instincts, trusting those.”

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

JOE: “I’m sure I always give the same answer to that question, but I always think of what Paddy Chayefsky said: Don’t think of it like art, think of it like work. I think it’s important to try and take our egos out of the equation. Don’t take things too personally, don’t get overly emotional about the job, generally just don’t tie ourselves in unnecessary knots, and get the job done.”

“The job we do is inherently ridiculous. It’s glorified make-believe, and it’s beautiful that we treat such a ridiculous thing with such reverence, but it’s also really important to take care of our mental health. We’re not curing cancer and we really need to remind ourselves of that from time to time so we don’t drive ourselves (or the people around us) mad.”

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

JOE: “The more work you get made, I think the easier this becomes. Once you see something go through the full production process, watch a finished piece of work, you see which of your instincts worked, which didn’t, and you get better at trusting yourself.”

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