Oscar-nominated screenwriter Shane Connaughton has come a long way since stumbling across filmmaking deals in a Dublin pub by chance. His script for Jim Sheridan’s ‘My Left Foot’ earned him an Academy Award and BAFTA nomination, while ‘The Dollar Bottom’, which he co-wrote with James Kennaway, scooped the Academy Award for Best Short Film.
An actor as well as a writer, his acting skills earned him roles in long-running UTV soap ‘Coronation Street’; Neil Jordan’s ‘The Miracle’, as well as a number of successful theatre productions.
In between working out development deals for a screen adaptation of his 1989 novel ‘A Border Station’, Connaughton is currently busily rehearsing lines for his role of Philly, in his play, ‘The Pitch’.
Ahead of the accomplished writer and actor’s opening night in Dublin, as well as his IFTA In Conversation With… public interview tomorrow (August 1), IFTN caught up with the 71-year-old industry veteran to discuss all things Hollywood, why he’ll always help out a fellow writer, and just why extracting real-life experiences for his work is more important to him than fiction.
Shane, you’ve had one the most successful careers of any Irish writer. Let’s start from the beginning. Did you know ‘My Left Foot’, one of your first screenplays, would go on to be the success it was?
How I got involved was a complete accident. It was during the Dublin Theatre Festival one year and I decided to go in and meet some actor mates in a pub which was acting as a theatre festival club. It was up round Grafton Street some place, and I walked in, and I said to myself ‘Oh I don’t want to have a night out, I’ll go home’, ad then I said ‘Ah while I’m here I may as well go in the door’, so I pushed the door open at the exact moment that Noel Pearson, whom I never met, never knew, was standing with his back to the door, taking to an actor called Alan Devlin. He had just said to Alan Devlin ‘I’m thinking of doing a film of ‘My Left Foot’, do you know anybody that would do the script?’ And at that moment I opened the door and Alan Devlin looked up and said ‘There’s a fella there he’ll do it.’ And Pearson turned round and that’s how I got that job. It was a complete fluke. The best things happen by accident.
So what happened from there?
I went over, Alan introduced me, we started talking and he said ‘I want to do this script will you do it?’ and I said ‘yeah’ so I started doing a storyline for him. John McColgan was the director then. I did a draft and another draft and then Jim (Sheridan) heard about it and he wanted to come on board, he wanted to direct like mad, because he directed me as an actor in Dublin and all that, so, eventually the two of us got together.
What happened to John McColgan?
That’s a good question! He went on to fame and fortune, if he’d have stayed nobody would have ever heard of him!
Did receiving the Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for ‘My Left Foot’, as well as the Academy Award win for ‘The Dollar Bottom’, set the premise for your career? Was there a pressure to deliver another script just as successful?
No not really, I never acted under pressure, because I had written my first book, ‘A Border Station’, so when we were out in Hollywood for ‘My Left Foot’, all the producers would come to see us and I’d show them ‘A Border Station’ and they’d go ‘Oh my God this guy’s a real writer!’ So ‘A Border Station’ was a big help to me.
So how different is writing a novel to writing for the screen?
In my case I don’t think there’s a great difference at all, because I’m always writing about my own life, so it’s all crest to the mill as it were. My novels are very pictorial anyway, we did ‘The Run of the Country’, now ‘A Border Station’ is being made into a film. There’s a company in London doing it so we hope to be doing that next year. The two things seem to meld very nicely.
Will ‘A Border Station’ be filmed in Ireland?
Yeah it will be filmed back in Cavan I hope, the same as the others.
So how involved are you in the production process, after the script is written. Do you have a say in casting etc?
I’m quite involved. Of course, the director has the last word, I’d have the first word but he’d have the last word. ‘A Border Station’ is going to be directed by Julian Jarrold, he’s a real up-an-coming in England at the moment.
Have you worked with him before?
No, I haven’t. He did that television series recently ‘Appropriate Adult’, about Fred West. It won a lot of BAFTA’s. So he’s doing it, and the script is with Emily Watson at the moment, to play the mother and they’re talking about various actors so we’ll see.
You said you write from your own life experiences, so when you were writing the likes of ‘The Playboys’, did you have actors in mind when you were writing the script, or were those characters based on real-life people?
They were based on real-life people, because I worked in the theatre all my life really, I went to drama school, I was an actor in England for a number of years. Again Alan Devlin played a part in ‘The Playboys’, he was around in the house in London one morning and I asked him about his career and he started telling me about the actors he belonged to during a summer season down in Kerry some place.
They were trying to compete with a local cinema nearby and they used to improvise the shows, this ramshackle bunch of actors, and one day one of them said ‘let’s do the Old Testament’, to entertain the passing public. [Devlin] said it started by an actor sticking his hand out from the wing of the stage, holding an apple, and that was the start of Genesis. I said ‘that is a marvellous marvellous idea’. What an imagination! So I was telling my friend Kerry Crabbe who wrote ‘The Playboys’ with me and he said ‘Oh God let’s do a film about this, this would make a great subject, a bunch of actors going around Ireland in the 50s’. [The actors] used to come to Redhills and they used to set up this very very poor tent on the village green and entertain us for a week or two. The policeman in [The Playboys] was based on people I knew very well having grown up on a barracks.
How do people react then when they read your work and recognise themselves in your writing?
I don’t think they do, it’s a funny thing that. People don’t seem to recognise themselves, like this play I’m doing at the New Theatre (The Pitch), that’s based on a real-life character, he only died about a year and a half ago, but he never recognised himself at all. People by and large don’t, a lot of the time anyway.
So is there any technical aspects you have to take into account when writing for the screen and writing novels – are there any main differences?
I don’t think so because what you’re trying to do is tell a story about human beings, trying to tell a story that first of all interests yourself, and if it interests you and rivets you, and it excites you, it will excite others. I’m writing so much out of my own life, I have to do it and that’s it. I want to tell the world ‘This is my story, OK you’ve got your own story, but this is my one, so maybe you’ll read it, or watch it’.
When you are writing a script, are you somewhat limited as opposed to writing a novel, because you have to think ‘somebody has to act this scene out’?
It wouldn’t happen exactly as you envisioned it when you were doing it, but then the actors bring other things that you never thought of. Writing a screenplay, it’s a real pairing down business, you’re doing draft after draft after draft, you’re honing it all the time. That’s certainly different from a novel. In novels we don’t seem to do more than one or two drafts, but in screenplays it’s being worked on all the time because it’s a pragmatic business, it’s a lot of other hands on board, you know, directors, producers, money people, actors.
Do you prefer one over the other?
I don’t think so, I’m very happy to be doing something that somebody wants me to do! I’m very pleased and relieved, and consider myself pretty lucky.
How important is it for you to reference Ireland and your own background in your writing? Why do you draw from your life experiences rather than producing fiction?
They’re readily to hand. Some writers are not a bit interested in life as they live it, they want to set it in Mars or some place, or do horror movies or something. But I happen to just work on the world that I know well. The world that I know well is a very wide one. I mean I just did a novel which is set in Camden Town, nothing to do with Ireland at all. So it just depends on where I am and what I’m up to. But Ireland of course is very important, my part of Ireland is.
What do you think is the key to making a novel work on the screen? Not every book can be turned into a movie, why did Maeve Binchy’s ‘The Lilac Bus’ or ‘Tara Road’ work as a screen adaptation?
‘The Lilac Bus’ was a series of short stories that Maeve wrote and she thought I made it too sexy. She was always joking with me about it, she said ‘I never realised it was so sexy!’ So that worked well, and ‘Tara Road’ hasn’t been shown in the cinema that’s for certain, I think it probably will be now. It was Gillies MacKinnon who directed that on a skimpiest of budget and under the most straightened circumstances. I thought he did a terrific job with terrific actors. Andie McDowell was very very good in it, Stephen Rea, Iain Glen, Olivia Williams, Ruby Wax even, and of course Brenda Fricker, who’s one of the great actors and one of the greatest people I know.
You started acting very early on, you could write a role for yourself in every script, but you don’t. Why not go down that route?
That’s what I’m doing now in ‘The Pitch’ at the New Theatre. But I didn’t set out to write a part for myself, I couldn’t find another actor to do it so the director said I should do it so that’s how it happened. I knew the character very well and I was an actor all my life. They did a production of it some time ago with an amateur guy playing the part, it was an amateur production, I wanted to do a bit better than that.
Tell me about your character Philly in ‘The Pitch’…
’The Pitch’ is a three-handed play, I play the part of an old man. It’s based on Philoctetes by Sophocles, that famous play that’s 4,000 years old. Philoctetes was the man who was abandoned by Ulysses and his friends on an island because of a wound he had on his foot. This man in my play is abandoned on an island of memory, he’s plagued everyday of his life by what happened to him, a, playing football, and b, he was accused of something that he never did and there was certain people that accused him of this, and they’re now trying to get his land and put him a nursing home.
There’s a lot of very funny football stuff in it, but really the play rivets an audience in Ireland because of the whole nursing home thing here.
You’ve written and acted from your own script, have you ever considered directing your own script?
Yes, I directed in the theatre the odd time. I was going to direct a big movie in Hollywood once, but it never happened in the end. It was ‘Guests of the Nation’, a Frank O’Connor short story, it was being produced by a guy called Stephen Haft (Black Swan). We had the script and everything, we had a read through in London with Jude Law, Sinead Cusack, Bernard Hill and Peter Egan. We had a fantastic cast lined up and it was a very big company in Hollywood on board. The accountants all came over, it was ready to go, then it fell by the wayside, and then it was ready to go again, and it fell by the wayside and the whole thing changed then.
Do you think that’s something you may revisit?
It’s there certainly, It’s a very very good script, if I may say so myself!
Do you feel screenwriters get less credit than they deserve, that perhaps actors and directors are pushed more to the fore?
The writers are trying to fight back. In Hollywood they’re treated just lamentably, but then they’re paid well so the producer will say ‘what are you complaining about you got paid didn’t you?’ You know the old one about the Hollywood starlet, she was so stupid she even slept with the scriptwriter, so there’s all that.
I hope that old saying wasn’t about you…
It probably was! The power really is with the director and the money people. He who pays the piper records the tune.
You are the subject of IFTA’s next In Conversation With… event. What can we expect from that?
I’m going to be excited meeting a lot of people who are interested in film, because I used to be a visiting tutor down at the National Film School at Beaconsfield (UK). That was a terribly important time for me because I learned so much from students, from people who are interested in film, you learn from them all the time. So I’m always very excited about meeting people because they’ve always got such good daring and original ideas.
So if a budding screenwriter came to you with a script would you read it?
If I had time I would. I always try and help people, I know some people won’t, or some people won’t read it for less than 100 quid. A lot of people think writers have all the time in the world to do things, I mean you would never ask a plumber to come round and do your plumbing for nothing, but they seem to be able to do that with a writer. But anyway, I’ve never charged a penny to anyone, I always try to help if I can.
What would your three main tips be for young writers looking to get ahead in the film & TV industry?
Write what you know and what you love and what you are interested in, that’s obvious. The administrative side of a talent is just as important as the talent itself. You have to make the phone calls, write the letters, make contacts.
I just did a film up in Cavan called ‘No Party for Billy Burns’. It was done by a few local guys and Padraig Conaty. All these friends had studied together, they’d very little money, but the whole community rolled in behind them. The Gardaí gave them squad cars and uniforms, the parents fed us everyday, and the whole thing was done on a shoe string. It was the most exciting film I’ve ever worked on. I just loved doing it because they’re all so young and talented and full of energy. You can get together with your friends and do it. If you’ve got a play, do it in the pub, get your friends together, cast together, and do it. ‘No Party for Billy Burns’ will be opening in cinemas later in the year.
There’s always something to do. Writing is like going to a spring well with a bucket full of lovely water. The well hasn’t dried up yet so I’m going to carry on.
Shane Connaughton will hold a public interview with IFTA members tomorrow (August 1) at 5pm in the New Theatre in Dublin. This In Conversation With… event is free and exclusive for IFTA members, and continues on from this year’s successful trilogy of public interviews, which saw cinematographer Seamus McGarvey discuss his work on ‘Avengers Assemble’; Hollywood heavyweight Peter Bogdanovich talk all things John Ford; and French actress Isabelle Huppert, who discussed her many award-winning roles.
‘The Pitch’ is showing at the New Theatre until August 18, when it will tour a number of venues around Ireland.