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FilmSoc Interviews: Black 47 writer Pierce Ryan

Posted by FilmSoc on Mon, 19-10-2020

Pierce Ryan is a Dublin based screenwriter, making his debut feature in 2014 with Standby and following it up with Black 47 which became the highest grossing Irish film at the Irish box office for 2018. He’s also wrote several short films including Runners, which won the 2010 IFTA for best short. Back in 2019 I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his career for NUIG Film Society's special one off magazine . This week his film Black 47 won best film of 2019 at the Irish Film and Television Awards (there was no ceremony that year) so I thought I'd republish the interview here with this new context. Enjoy.   - Eoin McCambridge


Q. Tell us about how you got to be part of a profession most people only dream of.   

A. I saw Superman 2 in the Carousel Cinema in Tramore on my own when I was five (my father was up in the projection box with the owner, so it wasn't completely negligent parenting). It was the second film I had ever seen in the cinema, the first being a reissue of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (my only memory of that is Angela Lansbury being tossed around on a flying bed). I remember being in the foyer after watching Superman, looking over at a large decorative vase that was there to give the place a taste of the exotic, and thinking to myself "If I could just frown hard enough and concentrate, I bet I could get lasers to come out of my eyes and blow up that flower pot"). So I guess from that point on, film had got its hooks into me. 

I studied English and History in UCD to a commendably poor level, but my main interest was always creative writing. I had written and directed a play for UCD Dramasoc and continued to write bits and bobs, when a mate who was doing an MA in film production in DIT asked if I had anything lying around that he could put in for their end of year script competition. Long story short, the script was picked and produced. Then a terrible trick was played on me: the film turned out better than I could have hoped, and won some awards (the short is called Smalltalk, you can find it easily on Youtube, I still think it's the best thing I've been apart of). So clearly this film business was dead easy and more fun than working. So I did an MA in Screenwriting in Dun Laoghaire (which you could get a grant to do, so basically you were being paid to watch films for a year, interspersed with the occasional rant from Eoghan Harris, it was a fair enough trade). And then the long slog began...

Q. Black 47 is based on a short film you also did the script for called An Ranger. What was the process in which the adaption began? 

A. I was lucky in that I had got to know PJ Dillon who was the DOP for a short film I wrote called Jellybaby in 2005, (he's presently shooting a Marvel series for the new Disney+ channel). He had the idea to do a revenge western set during the famine, and this character of a Connaught Ranger who comes back to find his family dead and goes looking for some answers. So my job was to take that fantastic setup and figure out what the story could be. The first thing I came up with was the pig's head scene which forms the basis of the short. We wrote a treatment for the feature at the same time as writing the short film script that became "An Ranger". That short was a great help in convincing people that this revenge western environment crossed with the Irish language could be a really interesting combination. Even still, to give you a rough timeline of how long the project took to get made, the first emails I had with PJ about doing any of it were in January 2007, and Black 47 premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2018. 

Q. Director Lance Daly said he felt there was a ‘curse’ over Black 47 due to difficulties during filming. Did you ever feel such a ‘curse’ during the writing process? And Id imagine that eleven-year period between original idea and finished film got frustrating

A. For a cursed project, he seems to have done alright out of it! Lance came onto the project about seven years or so into the life of the project. And there were times before then when it nearly got made but something would get in the way at the last minute, but I think that's got more to do with how challenging it is to finance a project at this level than as a result of all the fairy forts that I have willfully destroyed. Maybe...

It's so difficult to get anything made, at any level, that frustration would certainly take a toll if that's all you were concentrating on every day. The thing I've had to learn over the years is to take as much satisfaction as I can out of doing my job to the best of my limited abilities. Everything else that happens after you hand over a script is out of your hands.

Q. The classic complaint I hear from screenwriters is other writers being brought in to change their ideas. As someone who was one of four credited writers on Black 47 what has been your experience with this process? Especially as someone who would have been used to being the sole writer from Runners, Jellybaby and Standby

A. The script didn't wildly change as much as having four credited screenwriters might suggest (but that's not to say there weren't changes made over the years). Because PJ is the executive producer on the project and controlled the rights to the script, the bulk of our work (which made up the bulk of the script) was more protected than might usually be the case.

Each project is its own thing and experience. On some projects you might be much more involved in the process than on others, so again that's why it's important to enjoy the part of the experience that you can have some say over, when it's just you alone telling yourself this story for the first time.  

Q. Ive read that your short film Runners was based upon you witnessing a robbery. Do you find a lot of your ideas come from real life situations and how effective of a way of writing do you think it is?

A. Runners came about while I was out for a not very frequent morning walk. I was just down my road when I saw two kids on bikes break a car window, steal a laptop and cycle away. It all happened in about twenty seconds and I guess with my screenwriter's hat on, my immediate thought was "if that's twenty seconds, what's the rest of their day like?". In hindsight, I should probably have rung the Garda instead of immediately writing a script outline... 

Not every story falls into your lap like that, but something I definitely do believe in when it comes to the subject matter of your writing, it's that the personal is the most universal story you can tell. Whether that's the emotional life of the characters or the world they inhabit, the more specific you are, the more an audience will be drawn into the story and form an attachment to it.

Q. I also read you did some special research for Runners. Can you tell us what that entailed?

A. Through a local community leader, I got to interview two kids (about eighteen years old) who were already involved in the distribution end of the drug trade in the city. Actually, just before I met them, I was told that they were runners but were now dealers, so had gone up in the ladder. They were fascinating to talk with, explained where they kept their drugs when out on the street (sometimes in crisp packets that would be on the ground beside them), the kind of clothes they wore and why (light layers that they can remove quickly to change their appearance), just a lot of detail that to a writer is incredibly helpful. They were extremely bright and easy to talk to, that was about ten years ago, and I wonder a lot about what might have happened to them in the intervening time. I live about a twenty minute walk from where they were living, but it might as well be on Mars.

Q. Your past 2 films have been feature length theatrical releases. Do you think it’s difficult to find the appeal in writing short films once the transition to feature length has been made or could you easily see yourself doing another short? 

A. It always depends on the idea itself. There are stories that only a short can do right, and other stories which need the broader scope of a feature. Shorts work best when they take something small and expand upon that, rather than trying to take a larger story and condensing it down (which inevitably feels unsatisfying for the audience). I love the precise economy that a short narrative demands, so would definitely hope to do another one at some point when the right idea comes along.

Q. Can you share anything about what we might see from you in the future?

A. Two features, one about the Europa Hotel in the 1970's and the other a Victorian body horror.

I'm also thinking about joining a gym again

To keep up to date with Pierce Ryan and his future projects you can check out his twitter @pierceiswriting

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