Category Archives: Movies

Ken Bruen on crime, canines and the sound of savages

Ken BruenGalway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.

When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as……….slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay

Ferdia Macanna: screenwriter, author, musician, raconteur

Screenplays break down roughly on the lines of scene, action, and dialogue. Let’s take the first of these. In terms of scene what are the basic rules of writing? ‘Get in late and get out early,’ is the best rule for writing a scene. Sometimes writers have difficulty writing or constructing a scene for a film or TV drama or short movie, mostly because of the visual aspect. There are two basic things to remember. A scene exists as an ‘event’ to move your story forward – i.e. it should be about something and it needs to have a purpose. The ‘event’ can be as big as a crucial moment in a battle between soldiers in Saving Private Ryan a revealing disclosure between lovers (i.e. why Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris without an explanation) or some kids finally freeing an endangered whale or it can be as small as a car driving down a street or even a knowing look between two apparent strangers. The other thing to bear in mind is we are writing for a visual medium – let’s ‘SEE’ what your scene is about, rather than ‘hear’ it. Film is a ‘story told in pictures’. It’s not a play or a novel. Only what we can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ should go into your screenplay. There are no internal narratives.

In relation to action is it a case of less-is-more? Is there a danger of someone coming from say, a literary background, being inclined to write too much direction? Does a novelistic background work sometimes as a disadvantage? Visual Writing is important. It’s a new way of seeing the world. Once a literary writer or a playwright or a short stort writer or a poet gets the knack of writing for a visual medium, then I believe it helps their literary work as well. There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay. Anything that isn’t essential or crucial must be jettisoned. I spend a lot of time in my workshops on Visual Writing because I believe too many screenplays are dogged by long banks of descriptive novelistic prose or excessive expositional dialogue. Your scene can be beautifully written, contain lots of witty dialogue and demonstrate intelligence and flair but if it doesn’t move your story along then it has no place in the screenplay. Keep it visual. Keep the pace going. Free your imagination. Learn a new language and have fun with it.

Dialogue, is there also a potential problem in terms of the character saying “too much”, spelling out the plot when an image, a fleeting glance, scene dissolving into another can tell the story rather than words from thelips of a character(s)? You said it. Too many screenplays come across like stage plays disguised as films. I come at these workshops from the POVs of a director and producer as well as a screen and scriptwriter so I hope that I can steer students towards more visual, creative and effective ways of realising their story.

Are there any templates of scripts/screen plays you would recommend fledgling screenwriter look at? The best book for me is Syd Field’s Screenwriting. It’s straight forward and clear and puts over the basics better than any other work I’ve come across. If you want a guide book into screenwriting, Syd is your man. Almost all screenplays are free and accessible on the internet. You should be able to find the screenplay of your favourite movie – from Casablanca to Dawn of the Dead or even Critters 3 – or sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama or – Simply Scripts. Reading produced screenplays is the best instuction for a budding screenwriter.

What in your opinion is the perfect screenplay/script? Casablanca is up there. But my favourites are The Third Man and the French movie, Amelie. I also hugely admire The Insider, As Good As It Gets. Walk the Line and American Beauty and anything by John Hughes particularly Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I also love When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I also have a huge weak spot for Zombie/Horror flicks and low budget trash. I don’t want to mention Napoleon Dynamite but I will. There, I’ve mentioned it.

Who are your favourite screenwriters and list some of the films they are noted for? John Hughes (Ferris/Pretty In Pink/’Breakfast Club). Eric Roth (The Insider). Epstein Brothers (Casablanca). Anything by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes. I also like Charlie Kaufman who along with Tarantino, has probably the most recognisable ‘voice’ in modern cinema. The most exciting and enjoyable screenwriter I’ve come across recently is the Irish writer Kevin Barry – he really has a style of his own and that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve in screenwriting.

Do you think directors always make for good screen writers because [as you well know] some like to combine the two? Sometimes but not always. There seems to be a big emphasis on ‘auteurs’ in our culture. Not sure if that is always a good notion. I like to think that screenwriting is a difficult craft and possibly the most undervalued and unappreciated writing genre. Screenwriting is often collaborate, unlike say, novel-writing. It’s a tough craft to learn but once learned, I believe it really helps with other writing genres. It helps cut out excess description and it helps shape and present fictional characters.

Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience.

What is Irish cinema lacking in? Not enough comedy? Too much The Field style rural idyll drama? A dearth of urban gritty realism? Or should we expand our imaginations further? I like the look of Grabbers. I’m going to see it this weekend. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of recent Irish flicks. Too many boxes being ticked. The politically correct box. The intellectually correct box. Redemption buttons being pressed on virtually every character. Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience. We seem more focused on festivals and awards and that sort of thing. I’d love to see a situation where word-of-mouth attracts Irish cinema-goers to Irish films. Perhaps it’s a transition time. Irish films reached audiences at home and internationally in the 80s and early 90s with My Left Foot, The Snapper and The Commitments. Perhaps the success of The Guard will change things for the better. There’s no doubting the talent and the actors and our short films are superb along with our animators. Let’s hope we are entering a new era. Like I said, I like the look of Grabbers.

Would you like to see the great Irish sci-fi script-cum-movie? Absolutely. And if it’s a creature feature, I’d like a walk-on part please.

If you were to recommend one recently released film – either out on cinema at present or now on sale in DVD/Blu Ray- for your students on the course to watch and analyse what would it be? I would go for a classic like Casablanca. Everything you need to become a good a screenwriter is in there. The best TV drama I’ve seen recently is Breaking Bad. I would urge students to have a look at Season One. And to access the scripts online.

Some say one of the greatest modern British screenplays is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I….do you agree? It’s brilliant, but it’s a one off. I just wish the writer would come up witty another wonderful maverick idea like that. But let’s be grateful it exits in the first place. It’s hard to get a film made and even harder to get a good off-beat indie flick to an audience. Outline the key differences between screenwriting for feature films and TV? Feature film writing is particular – you have 90 minutes or so to nail an audience. Usually it’s a three act structure that stands or falls on the set-up (i.e. the first fifteen or so minutes). If the audience doesn’t buy the first 15 mins, your film will usually fail. TV drama is quite demanding. It comes in many formats including what’s now known as ‘the 8 act structure’ ) mainly due to ad breaks on US TV. I’ll be looking at both film and TV drama in these workshops. Most of the best screenwriting is now happening on TV drama series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire or The Killing.

Which TV drama-soap context would you like to set in an Irish context? Our stuff isn’t much fun. I’d like to see some really engaging extreme characters being created. An Irish Walter White. Or an Irish Cracker. Or an Irish Amelie.

What Irish book-novel would you love to dramatise on television? A really good question. My vote goes to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. I’m also surprised that nobody has tried to make a movie out of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home.

Are we in danger of following ITV’s route and putting on too many cop-based TV dramas? Dunno.

*BIG thanks to Ferdia Macanna for this Q&A.

Junkies, sirens, a city of half-eaten ears

Shell suits shimmered. A middle-aged man munched Wotsits. Someone else gurgled a gollier up and down an out-of-view nose shaft. Lovers in fake fur jackets, cuddled. Cineworld Parnell Street on a Thursday night for Brendan Muldowney’s debut film: Savage, starring Darren Healy and Nora-Jane Noone. I was really apprehensive. Most films about Ireland – and especially Dublin – are of the Carrolls Gifts & Souvenirs variety. Jovial women with croissant-shaped curls scrubbing doorsteps, their bacon rumps facing the sky…orthopaedically-challenged husbands bandying down to the pub for a game of cards. Or when the shit-grit is tackled, it usually depicts gangland scangers as dotingly hilarious, in-between ripping nails off with a pliers or disembowelling with a blowtorch for a €200 cocaine debt while a St. Patrick’s Day parade carries on as normal outside.

I was apprehensive too because there’s a PC-tendency to deny what is freely available to the naked eye all over Dublin: junkies lurching  forward in Zombie mode spouting delirium (“scuzzzzzz meeeeee, hav yi got mi bus fayerrr”), Romany kids being led to beg for people who can’t look after them, homeless men covered in piss eating out of bins, mothers fag-choking their fetals to birth outside the Rotunda, shoplifters and car thieves creating ‘opportunities’ in a country where policy stolidly lacks them. And so on. Nothing is as scary as the streets of Dublin at night-time, even if you’re terminally twee and desperately want to pretend you’re blind.

There was a 300% rise in muggings in the city centre in the first quarter of this year, some of which were grotesquely violent (one guy had part of his ear bitten off in the process): the youngest perpetrator turned 12 a few weeks ago. Stab statistics are higher than ever with a notable rise in ‘unprovoked’ attacks. Murder stats are no better: 59 murders and other violent deaths in Dublin in the past two years. Almost as many guns now as hurley sticks begorrah: a gaggle of machine guns were seized by Gardaí last week on the North Circular Road, no doubt business aids for the burgeoning drug market. Staff at Mountjoy Prison staged a walk-out last month in protest against the rise in inmate violence. Out beyond in the suburbs a few bored thugs shoved a firework into a female terrier’s mouth and blew off her jaw. The same thing happened to a bunch of swans in a city park that were fed fireworks concealed in folded slices of bread. Shit City at its best…

…so would Savage be able to colour Dublin with just the right shade of gritty realism? The plot is plain-flour simple: a man tries to come to terms with a brutal random attack and its consequences:

To me this is a film about the effects of personal trauma using Dublin as a whirring backdrop. The cinematography is incredible (filmed in drained monochrome and with shades of oppressive gun-metal grey) which makes it even more of a horror film as you witness Paul, the main character, sink further and further into a Dantesque wheelie bin. There’s such an odd sense of detachment and otherworldly strangeness about him. It’s no surprise that Darren Healy, who plays this lead-role, received a 2010 IFTA nomination. His is a stunning and memorable performance. In many ways this victim turned killer is already a peculiar character before the life-changing assault. He floats above the daily drudge and its cruel realities….which is the life of many press photographers and journalists. The periphery actors who walk the track suit catwalk around Dublin’s mean streets at night, are also superb. They are idiotic and gratuitous and bored and dangerous and unaware. The city for them is a dystopian scrapheap from which to extract shiny bits of metal at any [human] cost.

There’s actually very little violence in the film, despite what you might hear (!), most is suggested but the nugget that is in-your-face will have you pulling your retina clear off. Sound is very cleverly used too (“a visceral rollercoaster ride”, Muldowney called it) assaulting the senses, dragging you wincingly and mincingly inside Paul’s mountingly paranoid trauma. The Director drew his inspiration from various real-life stories including that of New Yorker Bernhard Goetz, the ‘subway vigilante’. He shot four young men on a subway in Manhattan on December 22, 1984, after they tried to mug him. He’d been mugged before and starting carrying a gun ‘just in case’ but was accused in court of actively seeking out trouble. Also the brutal deaths of British soldiers Derek Wood and David Howes, dragged from their car in Belfast in 1988 during an IRA funeral, found later that day in wasteland beaten and executed and bloodied.

What works is that the revenge is not exacted on those who deserve it, but on mere incidentals. It happens a lot. It’s how and why we have victims of crime. Person A is desensitised by a mix of familial violence and lack of care. A meets B, from a similar background and they pathologically wreak havoc on F who spends the rest of his life wondering what happened, himself now desensitised, etc. Ireland grew this particular bacterial brand of densensitisation en-masse in the 1950s/60/70s, with a great deal of help from church-run institutions. Knead this with an ungovernable drug problem and you have a city that is as much about random acts of incredible violence as it is about bodhrans and dead heroes.

The filming, lighting and direction is superb throughout. Although for me, the script has holes in it. Female characters are poor, both in terms of their lines and the actors. Paul’s romantic interest with the nurse/carer Nora-Jane Noone is weak and spectral. “We’ve all been there, where we just have to hold someone’s hand until they’re back on their feet,” she said in an interview about her luvvy role. However, she seems to be a cipher rather than a living, breathing human being. It would’ve been a lot stronger without the crud romance thrown in for good popcorn measure. That being said it is a sincere film, a study of unbending aggression borne out of savourless trauma. Expect to look at city streets differently, especially on cold dank nights on cobbled paths, when a hooded teenager walks towards you and smiles for no reason.