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Talking 'Sisk' With Terry McMahon & Brian O'Malley
25 Aug 2005 :

Terry McMahon & Brian O'Malley in LA

Brian O’Malley and Terry McMahon, writers of the award winning screenplay ‘Sisk’, may not be very recognisable in the Irish film industry but by all accounts they soon will be. Just back from a trip to Los Angeles, IFTN meets them with lots to talk about.

Terry McMahon is a screenwriter, director and teacher who has written and starred in the RTE soap ‘ Fair City’ while Brian O’Malley is a respected commercials director who has worked steadily for over a decade.  Recently though, the pair have found themselves in unfamiliar territory when their feature screenplay ‘Sisk’ scooped first prize in the Irish Film Institute’s Tiernan MacBride Screenwriting Award, earning high praise from judges including Kirsten Sheridan and producer Ned Dowd. 

Winning the IFI honours, their script was eligible to enter the prestigious Hartley Merrill Screenwriting Award and ‘Sisk’ was announced the overall winner at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.  Along with the obvious financial gains, part of the Hartley Merrill prize was a trip to Los Angeles, where they would be honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, collect their award and - perhaps most importantly - meet some very influential motion picture  executives  who could take ‘Sisk’ a step closer to the big screen.

After their return from LA, IFTN met up with the boys in a Dublin café for breakfast.  There’s more than the scent of Danish pastries in the air with confidence exuding from both the writer and director. Who could blame them, they’ve got the taste of success on their fingertips and the fi r st question IFTN wants answered is: just how long must they wait until they can bask in it completely?

Keeping his cards close to his chest, O’Malley is the first to speak; “Since we got back, because there was a lot of attention in the media about it (the award), it kinda upped the ante.  We’re meeting a lot of producers and, at this stage, we’re nearly ready to lift off.”  There’s no naming names, but O’Malley confirms it is predominantly Irish production companies who have shown interest in the script and understanding that he is now in a that enviable position where he can take his pick. “What happens when you win an award is that everyone is interested.  Everybody wants to be in there and to have said that they’ve read it, just in case it’s something they might be interested  in. Usually it boils down to a handful of people, or less, who will actually be able to step up to the mark.  We will have a choice but it may not be a choice of ten or fifteen it might be a choice of four production companies.   That’s quite unique in that most first time filmmakers don’t have a choice, they’re lucky to even get them made.” 

“Tell her you thought I was a c**t when I first walked into the room,” says Terry McMahon with a sardonic smile as he recalls his first encounter with Brian O’Malley at the Moonstone Screenwriters Lab in 2003.  Laughing, O’Malley picks up the story:  “I remembered Terry from Fair City and I make no bones about the fact that I hated him in Fair City. So I walked in the door and I saw him and I went ‘Jesus Christ, don’t tell me I have to spend a week with that f**king idiot’…Even though I thought he was a complete w**ker, I looked at the name of his script ‘The Dancehall Bitch’ and I thought it was a pretty good name for a film and I then thought, ‘is this guy actually talented?’  We became friends first and because of that friendship we decided we should read each others script.  Terry’s script for ‘The Dancehall Bitch’ was amazing, a work of genius. Terry then read my script, he liked it a lot but had lots of ideas to improve it.  So I was so impressed with his writing and we got on so well with each other, it just felt like a very natural progression.”

‘Sisk’ follows the final days of reformed Irish gangster Harry Sisk, returning to Dublin, after 30 years in the US, to say goodbye and re-build broken bridges.  His old enemies force him back into the underworld he left behind and Harry becomes embroiled in their bitter feud with the Chinese mafia.  Enlisting the talents of the IFTA winning writer of ‘Intermission’, Mark O’Rowe, to take the script to what they describe as a “new and exciting stage”, O’Malley, who is  also  planning to direct the film himself, is keen to see  their  edge of your seat thriller told in an Irish context and played out on the streets of Dublin.   Quite obviously collaboration between the writers was imperative in the development of ‘Sisk’, both were comfortable with the creative process and McMahon describes how their partnership worked: “I had no problem stepping in, I’ve done it before and I’d happily do it again.  Let’s be honest, it’s not all ‘let 's hold hands and sing kumbya’, but if you walk in without ego, if you go ‘okay what is the best film we can possibly make’ as opposed to ‘how good can I look here?’ immediately you have all kinds of obstacles removed. It becomes an exciting process as opposed to an ego fuelled process.  Among the three of us  - Brian , myself and Mark, there genuinely hasn’t been any ego, no stupid bitch fights or any of that nonsense.  We’ve had rows, don’t get me wrong, we’ve pushed hard against each other for various reasons, but in the final analysis and the final choices all three of us were very happy.”

Of the two, Terry has the most experience working within the film industry , having lived in LA and was contracted by Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah (Splash, Roxanne, Kill Bill Vol.1&2) to write her screenplay ‘Soul Cages’ some years back.  Brian has worked predominately within the commercials sector only branching out in 2004 with is Short Cuts short film ‘Screwback’ starring Liam Cunningham as, funnily enough, a reformed gangster called Harry.  With themes close to their feature screenplay, O’Malley now touts his impressive short film as a taster of what ‘Sisk’ will eventually aspire to. “It was designed very much to help ‘Sisk’ get made”, he says “and it has worked to that end.  Nobody has argued so far with me being the director of ‘Sisk’ because they’ve seen ‘Screwback’”

Liam Cunningham in 'Screwback'

O’Malley took the opportunity to screen ‘Screwback’ for the Academy in LA and was thrilled by the response he received from his captive audience of producers. Networking is a vital part of getting any film made and amongst others on their trip they were introduced

to; owner of RKO Pictures - Ted Hartley; Bill Immerman (former head of 20 th Century Fox and producer of 2004’s ‘Sahara’ and ‘Ray’); Del Reisman (President of the Writers Guild of America and writer of Rawhide, Twilight Zone & The Untouchables); Irvin Kershner (director Star Wars:The Empire Strikes Back); “Hollywood’s toughest agent” Jeremy Barber; marketing tycoon Gary Shapiro; Irish director John Moore (Flight of The Phoenix) and Oscar nominated director of ‘On Golden Pond’, Mark Rydell, who loves their script so much he wants to come on board as their American co-producer.  Rydell promised them he would put ‘Sisk’ into the hands of every gangster movie-makers fantasy cast -  Sean Penn, Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro! 

So with names dropping faster than Tony Montana’s circle of friends, how do they compare the LA scene they experienced in June to the one they face in Ireland today?

O’Malley begins the analogy: “Do you know why it’s different? Because they make movies!  Number 1, they make movies. In the Irish scene, we want to make movies and, to the large part, we don’t. Every time you go to a meeting, you’re meeting someone who has done it, who knows what they are talking about and instantly I was aware that, to a degree, I’m very much an amateur because I haven’t made a movie.  It ups the ante in the way that every meeting you go to is really important.  You need to make sure you’re on the ball and that everything that comes out of your mouth is correct and you’re making sense because they’ll sniff it out.  Also, the thing about LA is that everybody is your friend because you may be the next big thing, and nobody wants to insult the next big thing.  So everybody is on your side - except when it comes time to writing the cheques and that’s when things change…”

We ask Terry what he thought of his brush with Hollywood the second time round?   “I think there’s a level of professionalism, by professionalism I mean pragmatic application to a task. For example, if you give someone a script, they’ll read it that night and they’ll get back to you that night or the next morning.  Give some one a script in Ireland? Six months later it’s ‘aaaaah, I’ve been so busy but I promise I will try’ ".  O’Malley chuckles as Terry continues his berating, “they are constantly obsessed with the idea of looking at a script and trying to find what the author is intending to say. Whereas here, when we look at a script, we read it and we go “that’s shit”.  We haven’t even got the courtesy to look beyond the words on the page but we immediately presume, arrogantly, that we know what we’re reading.  Most of us haven’t a clue how to read here.  Over there, they know what they want, they’re hoping to find it and if they get a hint of it off you, they will eat you up and pay you handsomely for the privilege. Whereas here you just get f **ked for free.”

Over the past 12 months the writers have experienced a leap forward  in  their careers and I ask them, like many in the industry, was it always their ambition to eventually move into features?  They both agree their childhoods spent watching movie after movie  were  the best education they could find and their experiences, both in television writing and commercials are valuable assets as they branch out into this new area of their work. However, O’Malley is quick to point out that he will not be leaving the lucrative world of commercial directing behind and makes no apologies for doing so: “Like most directors I was only interested in making feature films, but after a couple of years on the dole I realised the harsh reality is that it’s all very well saying ‘I am a feature film director’ but you’ve gotta pay the bills…I discovered that you can make a very nice living out of commercials and I also discovered that I was learning, not sitting around for three or four years between movies and you hadn’t looked through a lens of a camera for three years, you’re shooting a couple of days every month…  there’s a snobbery about commercials in that - commercials directors can’t make good movies - but you find me a features director and I’ll show you a commercials director. They all do it because you’d be an idiot not to, it pays well, it’s short, it’s quick, it’s fun, you walk away and you have a nice cheque in your pocket.”

So as the interview winds  down , what advice would they offer to the thousands of budding filmmakers and writers who covet their position more than anything else?

Directed towards his fellow scribes, McMahon says: “Without the arrogance of being in a position of giving advice, but very simply from a writing point of view, just write.  Write the first word, turn it into a sentence and turn it into a paragraph.  There’s no secret to writing.  It’s about hard work, it’s about application, it’s about getting it done and then it’s about re-writing.  That’s the secret and it’s not a secret, it’s just hard work.”

And what if, in the highly unpredictable world of feature filmmaking in Ireland, it all goes belly up tomorrow, how would they feel?

It’s fighting talk from Terry: “You get up again, the amount of times things have fallen through, the amount of times you’ve been knocked to your knees…it’s a fight, a heavyweight fight.  You just get up again, write a new script. I’m working on two new commissions as we speak. I’m into that dark place where your alone with two screenplays to write but the last thing you think about is fucking it up for failing. All you think about is getting it done and moving onto the next one.”

Brian graciously adds, “I have to say for me it would break my heart.  This is a film that I have put four years of my life into and I think it deserves to be made. I believe it has a huge potential to be commercially successful, I believe it has the capacity to change the perception of Irish cinema because it’s based on an American model, its very commercial, accessible, exciting and it’s thrilling and yet very, very dark.  I believe it’s a film that deserves to be made, should be made, and if it isn’t I’ll be devastated.  But I don’t ever think that way, I believe I’ll be making that movie next year and you’ll see it in 18 months or two years time…”

“cut to two years time, Brian crying into his breakfast…” says Terry and they both laugh. 

To find out more about the Tiernan MacBride Screenwriting Award go to www.irishfilm.ie

By Tanya Warren

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