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 6, Declan goes deeper into his approach to the craft of screenwriting:
Scott: How about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have any specific goals in mind or approaches that you take when you’re approaching writing a scene?
Declan: Yes, how does this move the story along? Does it need to be in it? Why am I doing this? Why is this character doing this? What is the objection in this scene to get them over? Does it move the character along? If it moves the character along, it will move the plot along. If it moves the story forward, it stays. If it doesn’t, I’m quite harsh. I edit quite heavily, even stuff I like.
Tarantino’s a master at it, an absolute master at this stuff. He writes what the scene is not about. I just admire how he can do that. All the stuff that you would get told to take out in a pre‑Tarantino era.
It’s crafting character by not talking about the story. If two hit men are going to kill someone, they don’t talk about it all the way to there. They don’t talk about, “We’re going to kill him and then we’re going to do this to him.” They talk about going to McDonald’s or Burger King. Their job is already afoot.
Scott: Your scene description is quite entertaining. A couple of lines I pulled out as examples. “Joan, a strangled cigarette under her lip hacks at a block of ice with an ice pick, splintering shards.” You describe a sex scene here. “The couple in climatic vinegar strokes of passionate sex.” What keys do you have in your mind when you’re writing scene description to make it entertaining?
Declan: It’s got to entertain me. I’m the first audience. At the same time, I want it to be entertaining for the reader because the audience is never going to see my entertaining introduction to a scene. They’re never going to hear that stuff, so it’s almost like ‘producer prose’ to a certain point.
Scott: You said you had written maybe 19 drafts of “Broken Cove.” What’s the re‑write process for you? How do you go about figuring out what needs to be saved or what needs to be changed?
Declan: That was one of the best things about putting it on the Black List. It’s one of the first times that I’d ever exposed myself to such criticism. I don’t agree with paying £500, $600 and often more, whatever, to one of those industry script reading services to get a generic script editor, ONE script editor, to go through my script and tell me what was wrong with it structurally and thematically and dialogue‑wise? I don’t agree with that – smacks to me as a fucking rip-off – preying on peoples hopes and aspirations. Many (not all) are just looking to tick certain boxes, to hand it to certain people who would like certain things. That’s not what I want.
The Black List is different. I put it up there and I paid for a couple ‘reads’. It’s a very small fee – especially when you think you’re getting people that do this for a living, reading your script, breaking it down, analyzing it, and putting up a review. Whether you like the feedback or not, that’s irrelevant – you learn much more from criticism that you do from praise.
I had some great, great reads for “Broken Cove.” First, a couple of 8’s and then I had a couple 9’s for dialogue n’stuff. Then I had a 4, man, from the dialogue. I was just like, “What? What kinda drugs are you on?”
Yeah man, I used the Black List as my script editor. I found when I got bad feedback and things, I was really honest with myself, really brutally honest, after having that initial, “What the fuck are they talking about?” moment. It was the, “Oh right, yeah, that’s what they’re talking about.” If I agree, I change it. If I didn’t, I didn’t. You’ve got to have faith in your story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t have faith in it because my attention spans’ too short.
Scott: Speaking of that, what’s your actual writing process?
Declan: It varies, it varies. It varies madly. It’s been hard with the baby, to be honest. In the midst of school run, nappy changes, and all that stuff, it’s been a bit crazy just to try and get any time to write at all.
And now, I’m knee‑deep into directing this new epic TV show, so writing has kind of gone out the window a little bit.
Yet, often enough, you find yourself sitting there at two o’clock in the morning going, “I really need to go to bed. I’ve got a 5:30 call.” Those are the days that get you. You know, more than anybody, what it’s like. Two o’clock in the morning, you’re still sitting there -and suddenly, you’ve got a great idea, you write it. The following morning, you read it, it’s shit.
That’s the process. The thing is, it’s all good, man. I’ve got a good work ethic. I work constantly.
Scott: So let’s say you had a stretch of free time to write, what’s your single best excuse not to write?
Declan: Oh, man. Twitter. It’s evil. Twitter has been put on Earth by the Devil. No, do you know what? My excuse not to write is to go to the cinema, or watch a DVD. That’s my absolute flaw. The worst thing I can do is get back to the hotel room and not write. If I turn the television on, I’m screwed. Because on one of those bastard channels, I’ll find something that’ll probably be shit. It will be something that was made in 1982 and was terrible then. I’ll sit and watch it to the end. I’ll watch until the final credit goes up and go that was rubbish. But until that point, I’ll be lapping that shit up. I’m addicted. I’m a proper cinephile. The amount of movies I watch is my education. It’s always been my education.
Scott: That’s what’s so tough about it. You can always justify watching a movie, right? You can always say, no, no, no, that’s all part of the process of… [laughs]
Declan: Research, man.
Scott: Yeah, research. [laughs] What do you love most about writing?
Declan: When I find the voice. When I find it, and I have that moment of clarity. It doesn’t come often, but when it’s there, it’s like a tuning fork. That’s the beauty. It’s the clarity. Most of the time when I write, it’s a fog, and I’m trying to clear the fog away. The same as I would when I’m directing something. I just work at making it. Do I believe the story? Is this true? I’m the worst critic. I’m the first audience. That’s always my thing. Do I find this entertaining? Do I believe it?
I wrote a zombie film a little while back. Up until the point the zombie came through the door, I thought it was fantastic. The moment the zombie turned up, I was like, dude, seriously, this is a fucking zombie film. I’m trying to find the truth in this zombie film, and I’m struggling. I’m 40 pages in, and it’s gonna stay at 41 pages in. Ha! That should be my epitaph ‘The fucking zombie turned up, and all my reality just went out the window.’
Scott: Finally, what advice can you offer to an aspiring filmmaker, a screenwriter, a director, about learning the craft and breaking into the business?
Declan: I still feel like I’m an outsider. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I’m part of the business. Work hard. Learn the craft. Work hard. Learn your craft. You will break in. The Black List has been a joy for me, because it’s a level playing field, man. It doesn’t matter what your background is. It takes you on face value. If your script is good, it gets noticed. If it doesn’t, write another fucking script.
Please stop by comments to thank Declan and ask any questions you may have.
Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.