Katie McNeice, Screenplay Winner, LISP 3rd Quarter 2020
Can you please tell us about your daily life?
My first thought on this question is how totally different my answer is now from what it would have been before the start of this year. I’m based in Co. Dublin, Ireland though I’m originally from Co. Kerry which is a rural county in the south. In my day job I’m a producer for a multinational learning company called HMH, so up until March I was waking up early and walking through the city to get to our studio on Pearse Street every morning.
These days I’m based in my home office (or bedroom corner, whichever you prefer) in my apartment near Phoenix Park. I got into woodwork during the lockdown so I’ve got a weird but wonderful desk I made from old pallet wood, some upcycled windows and mop handles with an extendable top for when I need to draw. There are plants strewn absolutely everywhere in mismatched pots, as is the case in every room. A homemade light with a giant bulb made from an old boiler’s copper pipes hangs over my laptop too. It sounds ridiculous because it is but I love it. Having that highly personal space to work is an important motivator for me; I’ve either built or grown everything here myself.
During the day I stick to the day job, working on educational videos for the US educational system––anything from 2D or 3D animation to live action and audio recording for our ebooks. It’s actually a very broad role with plenty of production coordination but a lot of space for the producers to get involved creatively as well. I could do anything from scriptwriting to directing a recording session or doing basic animation myself on any given day.
In the evenings and any other spare second I have, I work on my films. Using my personal creative space for my day job has been a challenge during the lockdown, for sure. There were a lot of mental barriers there which I really treasured before, and rebuilding them in this new context has been difficult, I have to admit. I also became a director last year which meant shifting my time from writing full-time to also investing a lot of creative energy into pre-production, chasing funding and promoting the festival run of my debut film, In Orbit.
I’ve attached funding to two shorts since the beginning of lockdown, and am plotting a feature adaptation of one of these already. I’ve also begun the process of optioning a book for a second solo feature, all with the aim of keeping myself busy as a writer until it is safe and sane to cast my shorts and get into production early next year. So for now I’m spending my days nurturing these projects from a strategic perspective to dovetail together. Once all that is settled, I’ll get cracking on that next feature script.
When did you start writing? How often do you write?
I can remember being around seven or eight years old and winning a poetry competition at school. I’ve forgotten what the prompt was but my poem was about the lonely peninsula the narrator lived on. I described it in detail––the waves, the wind, the feeling of emptiness and beauty competing within him.
I wasn’t from the area though my cousins were and I have a very distinct memory of one scoffing that Kerry Head is actually nothing like what I’d described in my poem. He was jealous, bless him. I do remember the realisation that he was right, though. I’d never actually seen the peninsula and so I’d invented the whole thing with a series of assumptions.
I panicked for a second wondering if I’d lied but then felt this kind of relief and excitement at the idea that I can invent whatever I like when I write. I can write about the world as it is, create a new one, or steep myself into someone else’s mind, which is a world within a world again. That’s been a constant theme in my writing since, whether poetry, prose or film.
I wrote obsessively while I was in secondary school. I’ve kept all of my notebooks and have re-read them a few times. I sketched almost as much, always dark portraits with expressive eyes. There’s a lot of typical teen angst in there but again, there are themes I’ve seen resurrect in recent times. Going to college was such a drastic life change that I stopped writing for a while. I did discover cinema as part of my undergraduate degree in English. That, coupled with studying philosophy, reoriented me from wanting to write novels to thoughtful films instead. I stayed on within the English department to complete an MA in Film Studies and graduated in 2012.
Then there were a few very difficult years trying to get a career going to pay the bills, while
also learning to write screenplays and trying to get started as a writer. I went from telemarketing to 3D printing, then film festivals to UX design and worked as a journalist for the Irish Film & Television Network before eventually becoming a producer in my current job. Finally the day job and film started to merge a little.
In the midst of this I wrote In Orbit which turned out to be a life-changing project. It was the first script I wrote totally for myself, without other directors or funding schemes in mind. It’s a nostalgic but futuristic sci-fi short which sees an older woman being interviewed on her memories of learning to love which, forty years into our future, we consider to be the greatest experience of all time. The themes are ageing, LGBT love, and the concept not only of the love we have experienced, but love which didn’t get to happen.
I did a festival run with this script before getting into production, picking up four awards and fourteen nominations. From there I self-funded it, got a small crew together and some cracking actors, edited it and finished off the VFX myself. One year later it’s won thirty-five awards on the festival circuit, including a Special Jury Mention at the Galway Film Fleadh and Best Irish Short at the GAZE International Film Festival here in Dublin, which is very close to my heart. In Orbit was a long time coming and in every respect has been an overwhelming experience.
While in pre-production with In Orbit I also co-wrote my first feature screenplay with Graham Cantwell. Lily is an adaptation of the short of the same title, about a young girl in her final year of secondary school who deals with a lot of fallout as she discovers her sexuality. Digging into Lily’s story and building the world around her was so rewarding on a personal level, as she and I share a lot of negative experiences. In writing her struggle but also her happiness, her endurance and her enthusiasm for the future, I think we created something a lot of people Lily’s age really deserve to see. Lily is in post-production right now. Graham had a lot of success with his short so I can only hope the feature follows suit.
Since just before the lockdown started I started re-learning the Irish language in order to write Focail Baile Croí (Words Home Heart) and enter the Comórtas Fisín Pitching Competition. This began as a story about a father imagining the moments he would share with his unborn son as he grew up. Each of these moments or vignettes is given a single word, which he says combine to form their lifelong concept of home. Using simple language like this made it easier for me to write in Irish while keeping the emotional quality I love to capture in film.
Between rounds of the competition my grandfather passed away from a heart attack. I loved him and it devastated me. I used my preparation for the final live pitch to try and process losing him, and changed the core of the script to reimagine grief as a privilege of having loved. Now the words are tied together in rhyming or alliterative couplets, to match the pace of a heartbeat coming to life and fading out. The action connects with this metaphor as well, as the boy literally rises and falls between shots, from his first days as a newborn to a child playing, growing and eventually as a young man lifting his grandfather’s coffin. I won that live pitch and have €5,000 to shoot my short next year.
The second short I’m working on is Lambing, which won the London Independent Story Prize for Best Short Script. This is about a young man’s struggle with masculinity and fatherhood in rural Ireland, as he discovers his baby is born intersex. This is a script with a lot of silence and atmosphere, so I’m putting a lot of upfront work into the music and cinematography. A few months back I was fortunate enough to win the IMDb Script to Screen Award in association with FilmBath which also comes with £5,000 in funding.
Similar to In Orbit I’m promoting both my short scripts with writing competitions like LISP to get momentum going and make connections with festivals. Apart from directing these projects I am first and foremost a writer, and promoting that aspect of the work is particularly important to me.
How does it feel to have your work recognised?
It’s a very surreal feeling. As I mentioned above, I had to struggle for a long time to set myself up with the skillset to write as I wanted, to figure out how to balance writing with earning a living, and also with finally starting to work on my films as a director too. In the midst of all that work I think we can forget to enjoy the process. We can lose ourselves in the rejection emails, the loneliness of the craft of writing, that staggering lack of connection to other people that devoting yourself to writing can cause. It’s all about balance, practical and mental alike, to get the results you need. It was only when In Orbit started to do its festival run as a finished film I realised a lot of its success is down to the intensive work I put into the script.
There is no way to become an experienced writer other than to keep writing, and I’m at a point in my career where that’s just about starting to pay off. Getting into competitions like LISP is such a heartening experience but that doesn’t happen right away. Remembering to enjoy the process and committing to yourself as a writer is a huge step. I am not someone who “wants to be a writer”. I am a writer.
When I started to say that to myself I noticed I became more confident in my decisions and little successes have followed. Right now I’m holding the excitement of heading into two new projects in my chest, and steadying myself to prove Comórtas Fisín and IMDb right with films I can be proud of.
What's the best thing and the hardest thing about writing a Screenplay?
Getting started is a nightmare. It’s more intimidating than pitching a finished script because when you start a new script it’s not other people you’re trying to convince, it’s yourself. The imposter syndrome is a fly you’ll never manage to swat completely. That’s another thing I’m encouraging myself to accept. For me, getting over that first blank page with a beat sheet and the silhouette of someone I’m convinced I want to know is the hardest step, and then the excitement starts.
My favourite part of the writing process is when you realise what the most important emotional moments are; those cornerstones you craft the rest of the story around. I know where I want her to go but how do I get there? She thinks she’s feeling one thing, but what does she actually feel? Will she ever discover that? What is the nuance here and will the audience stop breathing when it lands? Hopping out of bed at three or four o’clock in the morning with an idea that nestles those moments together is a fantastic place to be. You don’t feel the tiredness or think about having to be up again at seven for work. Getting swept up in those creative compulsions is such a satisfying feeling. You know you’ve convinced yourself it’s good enough.
How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected screenplay? Is there a story behind
your story? And, how long have you been working on it?
We’ve got a complicated relationship with all things sexual in Ireland, be it orientation or gender itself. I started on Lambing a couple of years after the babies were found in the septic tanks in Tuam, which brought up a lot of tension between the public and the clergy yet again. That scab between anger and forgiveness had been picked beyond healing well before this and this time, it sparked rage. As a country we got talking not just about how these babies and women were treated, but how the ideas we have about gender and power in Ireland sit in our psyches on a parasitic level.
I was also discovering more about queerness and gender identity in my own life at the time, and finding my place writing LGBTQI screenplays with peripheral characters. Most if not all of what went on within the clergy in Ireland was enabled by people looking the other way. As a gay woman trying to become involved in her own community in a more mature and proactive way, I realised that myself and others in the LGB group are just as culpable for the lack of support for intersex and trans people as the wider public. I realised my privilege and I knew I had been looking the other way.
I was in a relationship with a girl from a rural midlands family at the time who told me all about the lambing process, including how orphaned lambs are bonded with ewes by tying the skins of their dead, biological lambs around them. This metaphor is central to the film and roots Lambing in its rural setting.
The decision to run with this but focus on the father has two motivators. In the first instance, it aligns the audience to share in asking his horrifying question; can I love this child or not? Secondly the crisis of toxic masculinity in rural Ireland needs to be addressed. David is devastated not just for the struggle his child will endure, but because he wanted to have the “perfect” boy to heal his own trauma at growing up as a sensitive, emotional child. These weak, “feminine” qualities are hidden by many men in Ireland and our staggering suicide rate is just one symptom giving this away.
I argue David’s struggle has several stages, as does our own process when it comes to supporting trans and intersex people. The point is, before we can respectfully discuss these identities we need to detangle the poisonous but familiar ideas we have about gender. There is no “perfect’ man or woman with rulesets for behaviours and appearance. There is a long way to go on undoing the damage this concept has done, but it’s a starting point.
Can you please give us a few tips about writing a short screenplay?
Always write emotionally. If you don’t know what you want the audience to feel, you are not working hard enough. Take criticism with open arms. Learn to love feedback and give it respectfully. Ideally your short screenplays will turn into features and you’re going to have to know how to collaborate with people whose value lies in how they will challenge you. Your cinematographer or editor will not agree on every detail you have written. Learn to defend it. Learn to adapt to good advice and bear in mind you will do this as you write.
Leave nothing to chance. I write as a director too so this will not apply to everyone, but I write as I mean to film it. Every moment, movement and feeling is on the page. Working the script like this makes directing a lot easier and takes the weight off those conversations with the crew, where the success of your film depends on them understanding what you want.
Write realistically. It drives me absolutely mad to hear unnatural dialogue in films and television. It ruins the story and pulls you out of it. I no longer believe in people when they say something I would never hear in real life, or when all the characters in a scene sound the same. Listen to people talking on buses, in the street, wherever you can. You’ll learn how drastically different we speak and applying that to your characters will make them feel more human.
What's the best thing and the hardest thing about writing competitions?
The best thing is the upfront promotion it gives a project. There was a workshop on writing at the Galway Film Fleadh where my first film had its debut, and the shorts programmer Eibh Collins picked me out of the crowd to make a point about writing competitions. She said she knew everything about my film, from the look and feel I teased with my social media images, to the story and wider team before I submitted it to Galway. There’s just no understating the importance of a project having credibility when you cast it, crew it and eventually promote it to festivals, which are the lifesource of your film’s success.
The hard part is always being rejected from a competition, and sometimes several competitions in a row. I’ve gotten funding for both my short scripts and yet they’ve both been turned down from other competitions. I think the subjectivity of that is difficult to accept. There is sometimes a feeling of luck or chance which doesn’t marry the idea of the hard work paying off when your work reaches a certain standard. My only advice on that would be to research competitions and festivals well before you submit. What scripts have won previously, for instance. If your style or themes don’t line up with what that competition is about, it’s probably not for you.
Lastly, do you recommend the writers to give it a go on LISP?
Absolutely! There are a lot of competitions out there which are essentially money-making machines. That’s a terrible thought but unfortunately, very true. There is no value to be gained from being involved with them. On the other hand, LISP runs a good quality website, promotes the winning projects on social media and interviews writers. You have a good reputation which took time to build. That’s a lot of effort and shows a genuine investment in the people who submit their work. To get FinalDraft as a prize was fantastic, too. I’m heading into two feature scripts in the next year and free software just won’t cut it anymore. It’s something I genuinely needed and is going to help me in my next steps as a writer.