28 January 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network

Irish Film and Television Network




Features & Interviews

Joe Murtagh on Writing
30 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Calm With Horses writer Joe Murtagh.
With the nominations for the IFTA Awards announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on 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 what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke with writer Joe Murtagh who recently picked up his first IFTA nomination in the Best Scriptwriter Film category for his adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Calm With Horses; the film received five nomination in total. Calm With Horses marks the London-born Irish writer’s first feature script, which made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019.

A Screen International: Star of Tomorrow (2016) and graduate of the National Film and Television School, Murtagh previously collaborated with director Nick Roland (Calm With Horses) on Plan B starring Richard Madden, which was nominated for a Student Academy Award and won the Royal Television Society’s Best Student Television Award. He is currently writing an Irish Spaghetti-Western called Dreadful Ned and an original series about the Magdalene Laundries called The Woman In The Wall.

How did you first get involved with Calm With Horses?
“So I studied at the National Film and Television School with Nick Rowland (director of CWH). We made a couple of short films together and got along well, and we developed a pretty comfortable, shorthand way of working. Nick already had the ball rolling on Calm With Horses with DMC Film before we graduated and he was kind enough to put my name forward for the writing side of things.

“Colin Barrett’s writing is incredible; it has this brilliant layer of humour underneath everything. No matter how harrowing things get, and things often do, it’s never miserable. That humour is always there. It’s very Irish in that sense. That was how I saw my way into the story, that humour and tone of voice and all those familiar peculiarities you find, maybe exclusively, in that part of the world where my family is from. I’ve said this a good few times now, but I feel like any new scenes or characters or dialogue I added still weirdly belong to Colin, because they all just sort of sprung naturally out of a world he’d created so meticulously.”

What is your writing process like? (Mornings/Evenings; Writing every day/in bursts; Editing as you go or at the end, etc.)
“I tend to write throughout the whole day but in bursts. One thing I found early on is that a rigid writing schedule does not suit me – sometimes the writing just doesn’t come, and if it doesn’t come during those set hours you’ve told yourself you’re supposed to be working, you end up spending the rest of the day feeling like a waste of space and beating yourself up. I know myself well enough now to know that I love writing and that I tend to want to write more often than I don’t, so I know I’ll get the work done. If the writing’s no good, I’ll go do something else like read or research or watch a reference film.

“When I’m writing, I tend to edit as I go, especially during first drafts, which can be a bit of a problem... Sometimes I just need to get the words down on the page, and I need to tell myself ‘ok, this is a bit shite, and it’s going to be shite for a little while, but that’s ok because you’re going to make it better before anyone else reads it’. Notebooks have been my saving grace; notebooks and my God-awful handwriting. On Final Draft everything’s so formal and properly formatted, it’s intimidating, and it can stop you from writing. With a notebook you don’t have that, especially in my notebooks – everything looks awful! There’s no judgement, no requirement for anything to be any good, you can just write.”

Architect or Gardener: Do you plot the story out beforehand or write as you go?
“I suppose both. I’ll definitely write a few detailed drafts of treatments before I start the script, but I’ll always have it in the back of my mind that once the actual writing starts, everything’s pretty much fair game. I find out a lot about my characters from their dialogue and sometimes I haven’t got a clue what they’re going to say until they say it, and that’s always at script stage. So I think maintaining space for that spontaneity is crucial. However, I have learnt the hard way never to launch into a script without proper planning. You get attached to scenes and bits of dialogue and even characters that actually have no place being there and it is near impossible to move on or let things go after that.”

What differences were there between the initial script and the completed film?
“There were a few scenes cut, lines of dialogue here and there, that sort of thing. I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of what was cut because if it was important it would be there in the finished film. Some things don’t come into focus until you get to the edit. That’s the real strength of a good director like Nick, to know which darlings to kill, because ultimately you have to serve the film, not the filmmakers.

“I’ve heard other writers describe filmmaking as ‘the three deaths’. It goes something along the lines of: the first death occurs when the idea in your head is written down as a script, the second death is when the script is filmed, and the third death is when the film is edited. I think that’s a terribly cynical way of looking at it. I see the process of filmmaking more as one of adaptation. Just as I adapted the original story to a script, and had to make changes to the story, Nick adapted the script into a film, and changes had to be made again. The book is the book, the script is the script, the film is the film.”


How did you first get into writing professionally, and what have you learned through your experiences that would be of use to aspiring writers?
“I used to think I wanted to be a novelist, and thank Christ the world never had to read one of my novels, whatever the hell that would have looked like. While I was at university I met some guys who wanted to make a short film. I ended up writing the screenplay for it. It was pretty terrible, but I absolutely loved the entire process and couldn’t stop writing scripts after that. I suppose my journey from there was fairly simple. I kept writing screenplays in my spare time, sent one in to the NFTS, got accepted onto their screenwriting program, spent the next two years writing as much as I could, had my work read by agents and producers and got work off the back of it. I don’t mean to make it sound easy, it wasn’t, but it was pretty straightforward.

“In terms of advice, I always think of Steve Martin saying ‘get so good they can’t ignore you’. I think aspiring writers spend far too much time worrying about getting an agent, getting work produced – I know I did. But what we really need to be doing in those early days is getting really good at writing. If you have an incredible portfolio of writing, the work is going to come, the agents are going to come, and I truly believe that. That might sound like a tall order but, actually, that’s totally within your control. I think that writing – and I say this very relatively speaking – is probably the easiest discipline of filmmaking to get into professionally because you don’t need anyone’s permission to go and write, like you would do as a director, a cinematographer, an actor, etc. You could write an IFTA-worthy screenplay at home in your bedroom tonight, the only obstacles are time, perseverance, and actual writing ability. No small things but at least they are all in your control.”

What was your first paid writing gig, and how has your style changed over the years?
“Calm With Horses! Since then, I’d say my overall style has probably remained intact, but there are definitely elements that have changed, I think from experiencing the realities of filmmaking – sensing what’s going to end up on the cutting room floor, seeing the amazing things that actors are capable of, etc. I’ve found that has all influenced my writing style for the better, whether it’s a case of being a bit punchier with dialogue, or backing off in description a bit and leaving the actors and director to go do their thing.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?
“I’m certainly my own worst critic. I’ve found the only way to go is to surround yourself with people who are far more intelligent and talented than you, and who you know will be completely honest with you. I’ll have my gut instincts about something, but I’ll always then run it past someone like the producers at DMC and see what they think.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career thus far that you would share with aspiring writers?
“I haven’t exactly been given this advice, but it is something I have picked up on, and that’s the importance of writing something that reads well, which will often involve certain amounts of poetry and personality and all the things that screenwriting gurus will tell you never to do. Kubrick famously said ‘a screenplay is not meant to be read’, and who the hell am I to disagree with Kubrick BUT your screenplay IS going to be read - a hell of a lot of times - by producers, directors, actors, production designers, and so on and so on.

“I reckon if you can write a screenplay that’s actually a pleasure to read, as opposed to an Ikea set of instructions for a film, you’ll stand a much better chance of actually getting something made. All within reason of course – we’re not writing novels, but it doesn’t hurt to be that way inclined from time to time.”

Writers are often told to kill their darlings. How do you learn when to let something go or to fight for it?
“To be honest, I’m still learning and still getting it wrong sometimes. I go back to what I said about surrounding yourself with good people. Sometimes you have to stand back and realise that, if everyone in the room is telling you the same thing, you should probably listen. Having said that... I do think that sometimes it’s that one scene, that line of dialogue, that character who has no place being there whatsoever that is exactly the thing that makes something special. The ‘colour’, as I’ve heard people refer to it before. But ask me again in a few years, maybe I’ll have a more definitive answer.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?
“My little boy has been keeping me pretty busy! Other than that, I’m writing a TV pilot on spec for the first time. It’s an homage to old heist movies set in 1970s Chicago – a big spectacle, big budget, genre affair that is probably not the wisest move in terms of actually trying to get something made, but that has been very liberating, a real passion project where I can let loose. I’ve also been continuing with ongoing work like ‘Dreadful Ned’, my version of a spaghetti-western set in County Mayo in 1920 during the War of Independence, and ‘The Woman in the Wall’, a gothic murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Magdalene Laundries.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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