Everyone seeking a life in the film industry will spend time in Los Angeles. It’s inevitable. In my year living in LA every random new friend I met was in a band, a writer, a model. It’s cliché because it’s true.
There’s too much there. The industry. The workload.
In Austin I met Eilis Mernagh, a writer from Dublin Ireland who was at the film festival with her comedy script ‘Last Girl Standing,’ which had made it to the second round. She was in the States living in Los Angeles for a short while on a visa and was making the most of her time there. I was impressed with just how much stuff she had crammed into her short time in LA, and embarrassed that I hadn’t tried even half as hard as she had when I was there.
Eilis is back in Dublin these days working on getting herself back to Los Angeles. She runs the excellent blog ‘Dublin to Hollywood‘ which chronicles her time in the States and she also wrote some extensive write ups of the panels at this year’s Austin Film Festival.
I checked in with Eilis and asked if she’d be up for discussing her writing, Los Angeles versus Ireland, and the things writer’s do with their time.
ET: You recently made a temporary move from Dublin, Ireland to LA. Your visa ran out, and now you’re back in Dublin again. I heard you mention that you’re going to try and go back to LA again. How do you spend your time while in LA?
EM: I went to LA with the aim of seeing if I liked living there, exploring the city as much as possible and meeting as many people as I could. I did meet a LOT of people, especially in the industry. Plus, I caught up with people I already knew in LA. Day to day, I was also writing, rewriting, submitting my scripts to management companies and agencies. I did an improv workshop (6 classes) with The Groundlings, plus a six week comedy sketch writing course with an ex-Groundling, which taught me a huge amount about writing comedy. And last but not least, I attended every film festival screening and seminar I could while I was there.
What is the film industry like in Ireland?
The industry here has a lot of talented people who make a lot of excellent films – despite the funding challenges. It’s obviously a small industry, but I think in some respects it punches above its weight. Irish people love movies and love filmmaking, and I know from short films that I’ve produced that a lot gets done here through goodwill and cooperation. I just wish there was more money available, particularly for developing scripts and encouraging new talent.
On your blog Dublin to Hollywood, you ran a string of posts on tips for getting a visa to stay in the States. You’ve been very dedicated in getting to LA. What does LA offer you that Ireland doesn’t? What’s the draw?
The draw is that in LA, large numbers of people are making a living from working in the film industry. That’s not true to the same extent in a smaller country like Ireland, especially for writers. The screenwriters guild here did a survey a few years ago and I think the average screenwriter here was making 7,000 euro a year from writing scripts! So clearly, most people are working a day job as well to make ends meet. Making feature films here is also challenging because the Film Board is pretty much the only show in town in terms of funding. I want to make a decent living as a screenwriter AND get some features made, and the only place it seems reasonable to do that is Los Angeles.
Do most of your stories take place in Ireland or the States? Have you had any issues with the location your stories take place?
I’ve written three films set in Ireland and five in the States, but I think the ones in the States are set there mainly because the stories seem “bigger” or need a really cinematic backdrop. I have a film about a female pop star, for example, and it seemed natural to have her living in the States rather than here because she’s this global star. I’m currently developing two scripts, one a family sci-fi set in California, and the other a comedy set in Dublin. I’m happy writing a script set anywhere, but in general I need to have visited the location and feel comfortable setting a story there.
What’s your day job? Are you making a living as a writer?
Right now, as I’m just back from LA, I’m not making money from anything! Actually, that’s not true – I got paid a bit recently for writing an article and getting a short radio play produced. But while I’m back in Ireland, I’ll be going back to my usual day job, which is temp admin. Ultimately, I want to support myself solely through screenwriting.
How was your experience at the Austin Film Festival? Had you been before? Was it worth the trip for you?
This was my fourth time in Austin but my first time placing in their script competition. I had a great time and met loads of people, as usual at AFF! I’d highly recommend the festival to any writer. The only thing I’ll say is that it seemed a lot less business-oriented than in recent years. There seemed to be fewer reps and producers there than in 2008/2009. Then again, maybe I was a bit more relaxed myself – because I’d just spent 2 months in L.A., the Austin festival wasn’t my only opportunity this year to meet industry people.
What sort of avenues are you taking to get your work out there?
I believe people buy scripts a.) because they think the script itself is great and b.) because they like the writer and/or think they can work with them. So my strategy is twofold – to make sure my scripts are the best they can be and to get to know as many industry people as I can. I submit my scripts to a writing group I’m in in Dublin, but I’m now also paying a reputable script consultant to read my work and give me notes.
In terms of making contacts, you never know who can introduce you to someone interesting. My flatmate in LA was a doula (a type of midwife) and even she knew several established screenwriters who were able to give me help and advice. Be polite and charming to everyone you meet. If you act like a dick to someone’s assistant, it will come back to haunt you. Apart from the fact that it’s bad karma, that assistant could be in a position of power themselves at some point in the future.
Lastly, don’t pitch to someone you’ve just met (unless they ASK to hear your pitch). Be good company, stay in touch with them and manage that relationship. That way, they’re more likely to want to help you out – and you may not even have to ask for it.
Your comedy script ‘Last Girl Standing’ was a Second Rounder at Austin. Is comedy your main genre?
Yes. I’ve tried writing horrors and thrillers, but the general consensus whenever people read them were that they weren’t scary, gory or tense enough. But they tended to make them laugh. And to be honest, 90% of the time when I go to the cinema, I want to see something that will make me laugh. So I’ve decided to stick to comedy from here on in. But within that, I have a family horror comedy, a teen comedy, a rom-com and I’ve developing a family sci-fi comedy. It’s not like writing comedy is that restrictive.
Going through your site I get the impression that you have quite a few scripts under your belt that have had a various levels of success in competitions. How many finished features do you have? What’s your writing pace like? What’s your time frame from idea to final draft?
I have four short scripts, three of which have been filmed. And I have eight completed feature scripts – three of which are horrifically bad, one of which is optioned to a TV company in the U.S. and four of which I’m happy with and trying to shop around. When I started writing scripts, I never used to write treatments or outlines, which explains why my first three were so terrible.
Now I’ve got a routine going. I come up with an idea and write a one-page outline. Then I try to establish what the film is about in one word. For example, my family horror comedy is primarily about fear. Some of the characters use fear as a weapon, while others find that their lives are ruled by their fears and phobias. That word becomes a touchstone for the treatment, which is what I write next. I also do up a 3-4 page character bio for each of the main characters. Most of that stuff won’t get used in the actual script, but it helps me to know who these people are, what makes them tick.
Then, once the treatment is finished (usually about 16 pages), I write a quick first draft. This usually takes about a month. Then I rewrite the script until I can’t see any more niggling faults or plot holes. And at that point, it’s ready to be read by other people. I try to write at least something every day, but I count rewriting or even just reading the script as writing. Script work, I guess I should call it.
Did you direct / produce the three short films of your scripts or did you find filmmakers looking for scripts? Do you have any desire to make the production part of your career?
I wrote ‘Regards to the Chef’, the movie that was made as part of ‘Hotel Darklight.’ Basically, the Darklight Film festival here in Dublin filmed 11 horror/thriller shorts that operate as stand-alone films or together as one big movie, all set in the same hotel over one night. I then produced the independent short ‘Prodigal Son’ and wrote and co-produced my latest short film ‘Tiger.’ I’d definitely produce again, but I have no interest in directing. Talk of camera directions and lenses makes my eyes glaze over!
In terms of how they came about, I was at the Waterford Film Festival because ‘Tiger’ was nominated for best short script, and I met Cathal Nally, whose script was also nominated. Cathal is an award-winning director and liked the sound of ‘Tiger’, so we agreed to co-produce it and he directed it. With ‘Prodigal Son’, I knew the writer/director Colin Scuffins because we were in the same writing group.
Screenwriting can be very strange. You sit alone to write stories in a format not meant to be read by a general audience. Plus, every film base website, festival, and school is full of statistics reminding us aspiring writer that there’s very little chance that we will make a career of it. Yet we keep doing it. What motivates you to keep writing? How concerned are you with making it a career?
I write, not to sound like a pretentious twat, because I have to. I get cranky and unhappy if I don’t write for any more than a few days. Earning some money for it would be nice, but it’s not my driving force. I’d be very upset if I sold or optioned a bunch of scripts that never got made. I’d rather sit in a cinema, see my name on screen and hear an audience reacting to a film based on my script than pocket a huge cheque. I love movies, love writing, and I get a real buzz out of writing scripts and meeting interesting people. That’s what keeps me going.
A huge thank you to Eilis. When she’s back in Los Angeles I owe her a drink or two for playing along.
Make sure to follow up with Eilis on her blog ‘Dublin to Hollywood‘ and why not follow some of the other links embedded in the interview? Don’t you deserve a few minutes of internet perusing?