Declan O’Dwyer is a U.K-based TV director (Robin Hood, Wire in the Blood, Merlin) who wrote and sold the spec script “Broken Cove” to Thunder Road Pictures.
Recently I had a terrific conversation with Declan about his unusual path into the entertainment business and how he has added “screenwriter” to his resume.
Today in Part 1, Declan describes his background and how he transitioned into TV directing:
Scott: Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in movies and TV?
Declan: I got shipped around as a kid. This sounds so Rikki Lake, I know – but I had a very broken childhood. I got bounced around from pillar to post. It was very disjointed. A bit in Ireland, then England. All over the place. My dad was in and out of prison and I got taken off my Mum. That whole white Irish trailer trash kinda vibe, that’s my background, I suppose.
It’s trite – but my only escape from that shit was film and TV. That was it – they were gods to me up on those screens. When I’m working I still go to the cinema nearly every other night. When I’m at home with the kids – it’s slightly different, you know.
Then I bought a Super-8 camera at a jumble sale and started making my own films. And finally, at age 26, I’d been married, divorced, I jacked it all and I got into film school.
Scott: Let’s talk about that. You attended Oxford School of Speech and Drama and then Bournemouth Film School, so how did that evolve?
Declan: I tried acting. I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted to be a movie star, big difference. Then the film school thing happened. Left school with no qualifications, nothing to speak of anyway – and I was told that I had to have ‘qualifications’ to go to film school. And because I didn’t know anybody in the industry I took everything that ANYBODY said to me as gospel. We didn’t have resources like your blog and stuff like that back then, man. I had no way of finding this information out. I suppose I did in hindsight – but at the time it didn’t feel like I did. And I got it into my head that film school was the only way and so that was it. I slept on people’s floors for years and just blagged my way into college basically to get a qualification in order to go to film school.
Scott: I read a quote from you in an article where you said, “I hate to misquote the Reverend King, but I had a dream – to make movies. Spent too many fucking years sleeping on the people’s floor not to.” So what is that dream?
Declan: To direct feature films. My day job now is actually a director, so I’ve kind of achieved what I set out to achieve to a certain extent. I’m fortunate enough to be directing some pretty cool high‑end stuff. But it’s still not the movies. That’s where I think my story skills lie. Although the screens have joined now, the big screen is no longer that much bigger than the small screen, you know. I think things like HBO have blurred the lines, very much so.
My dream is still to make feature films. There is something beautiful and fantastic about going into a dark room with strangers, strangely enough. That does sound odd!
Scott: You’ve got dozens of credits as a TV director with such series as “Robin Hood,” “Merlin,” “Being Human,” and “Wolfblood.” How did you get from film school into directing?
Declan: I didn’t for a long long time. I struggled.
I’d gotten very lucky at film school. I directed a short film – and the writer (fellow Black Lister Julian Unthank) managed to talk movie star Charles Dance into starring in it. It won a couple of audience prizes at a few decent film festivals. From that, there was a little bit of buzz, you know. I got a little bit of exposure. Then nothing. So I didn’t come out of film school and go straight into the business. I went on the dole (Welfare) for a bit before I got back to doing shitty day jobs, just trying to get by, hustle you know? Trying to earn some money. But I just kept writing. Just kept writing stuff, and people just kept saying, this is rubbish, this, that, and the other.
Then, there was a brilliant director, a guy called Baz Taylor, who has done some just outstanding television stuff over here – it’s embarrassing how long his CV is. He was attached to a film that a friend of a friend of a friend of my friend’s 3rd cousins, aunties brother’s sister, twice removed (exaggerated) had co-written. You know the score. It was fucking terrible. The script was just awful, and they said, “Well, what would you do to it?” I couldn’t really say ‘burn it’ so I said, “Listen, I wouldn’t do blah. I would do blah and blah.”
I basically did a polish on the script for them, and Baz, this director, he read it and said, “This is great. What do you do for a living?”
“Well, I’m a director.” I wasn’t at the time. I was working, driving kids with disabilities to school in the morning and picking them up at home time, and during the middle of the day, I was working shifting washing machines for a company called John Lewis.
Ha! When I say polish, it was a page one re‑write. It got a bit of interest, and then it went quiet, as it does. I kept trying to send Baz my reel. It was old VHS tapes, and I was going, “Please have a look at my show-reel, because I’m a director. I’ve been to film school.”
To his credit, Baz rang me up one day out of the blue – probably 18 months later, I was actually working in the café, earning £2.92 an hour, plus tips. And he rang me up and said, “I’ve seen your reel. Would you like to come and direct an episode of “The Bill”? One of our directors has dropped out unexpectedly. ‘Can you start Monday? The Bill’ was a very successful cop show at the time.
So I went from earning £2.92 an hour – to earning £1,550 a week. So that’s like $2,000 a week, directing one of the UK’s hit primetime cop shows. I got long-listed by BAFTA in the best newcomer category and from that point on, I just started bouncing off all the long‑running shows in the UK.
Scott: It’s always like that, right? Some “overnight success” that takes years and years.
Declan: Well, you know, that’s the thing, man. I got very lucky. Or did I create my own luck? Dunno.
Scott: Are there specific filmmakers who are especially strong influences on you?
Declan: This is a difficult one, because I love The Apartment, Billy Wilder. But it’s people like Fincher. What Fincher does with his storytelling skills. I love Se7en. Fight Club is such a fantastic movie. That film is special. Big fan of Mann. (that should be a T-Shirt) Then, you know, it’s people like Spielberg. Some people don’t like the saccharine gene that he’s got, but I love it. He’s a master storyteller and Abrams is going the same route at the moment, you know. I could go on about directors – but it just ends up sounding like a pile of pretentious wank.
I like commercial films. That’s kinda my core. I like intelligent films, and that can be intelligently stupid, like Airplane, for instance. One of the most stupid films that I’ve ever seen, but it’s absolutely brilliant in its stupidity.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Declan talks about how he started writing scripts and the inspiration for “Broken Cove.”
Please stop by comments to thank Declan and ask any questions you may have.
Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.