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 2, Declan talks about how he started writing scripts and the inspiration for “Broken Cove.”
Scott: Why did you decide to take up screenwriting in addition to directing?
Declan: My reason was that I wasn’t getting the scripts that I wanted to see. I only want to write stuff that I want to see. Like I said, I’ve got a very commercial sensibility. I want to go to the cinema to be entertained. First and foremost, I want to be entertained. I want to see a great story. I want to see great acting. I don’t want to see great directing, because directing shouldn’t be visible. Directing should be invisible. It should be honest performances and great storytelling. If you give good actors a good story, man, they are going to give you bottled lightning. That’s kind of what made me start writing, out of frustration, more than anything else.
So I wrote “Broken Cove” in order to make the transition into directing movies basically. I kept it low. I kept it a personal, close story, still cinematic, still, you know, Coen brothers, man. Anything the Cohen brothers do is, I’m gonna pay good money to go and see it.
But even so, it wasn’t sort of, “I’m going to write a Coen brothers film.” Nah, I’m gonna write a film that is completely part of my heritage, part of my background. Some of the things that are in it are true. Some of them are exaggerated. But the core of it, the emotion in it is completely true. And I’ve felt and fought that emotion enough times. So I thought, I understand this, and this story deserves to be told. That was kind of where I’d gotten to.
Scott: And how did you go about learning the craft of screenwriting?
Declan: I don’t think I’ll ever learn the craft of screenwriting. When I first went to college I was given a computer by Apple. Well, they didn’t, personally, but the college gave me a Macintosh computer. Remember those? They gave me one because I was dyslexic. So I learned to type. As soon as I could type, it was like a freedom. I didn’t have to form letters. I didn’t have to do any of that. It was muscle memory. And there was this little thing called spellchecker, which corrected everything.
Scott: Let’s talk about your script “Broken Cove.” Here’s the logline on IMDb. “A man living in London moves back to Ireland when he finds out his brother’s been killed.” I see it described at noir western. Does that work for you, and why?
Declan: Because it’s lawless, the way the Wild West was. This small town in Ireland is the same as a small border town in Texas, I suppose. It’s a lawless society governed by the matriarchs and the patriarchs, rather than the law. That was kind of the environment I wanted to create, and have fun within that. You know, films like Unforgiven. They’re damaged people. I want to explore these damaged people. There are no goodies. It’s intentional. There are no white hats in my film. They are all black hats, all of them. But just because one person falls on a particular side of the moral compass, it doesn’t necessarily make them evil, just because they’re not sticking to the law.
Scott: You mentioned the Coen brothers, which I picked up quite a bit in reading “Broken Cove”. One of the things that’s pretty common in a Coen brothers movie is they create a morally complex universe. There’s a line in “Broken Cove” where one of the characters says, “There are no innocents in this. We’re all guilty to a greater or lesser extent.” You just mentioned that idea that there are no goodies in this story. Could you delve into that a little bit more?
Declan: Well, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? It’s a difficult one to explore truthfully, because we all project a certain opinion of ourselves.
In “Broken Cove” I set up a generational matriarchal society – where a son is judged on his fathers honor, his family honor. They would do anything for their brother. You know? And it’s like, OK, that’s cool. But your brother’s an asshole mate. Why are you sticking up for your brother? Your brother is an prize a-hole. He’s doing something wrong.
It doesn’t matter. He’s my brother, I’ve got to stick up for him.
Well, that’s interesting. That suddenly, to me, makes it an interesting character. And we all have that inherent mechanism, there is a line you cannot cross don’t we? The interesting part, though, is what’s that pivot? What is that point when you will go that one step further, or where you won’t. You’ll falter. That’s the stuff that fascinates me.
So with “Broken Cove”, every character is either at that point, or has been through that point and come out the other side. It doesn’t matter if it’s an alcoholic priest. If the priest is hiding, using the priesthood to hide the crimes committed in the past, he’s just trying to find his way, like everybody else. It’s never clear‑cut.
I always write my villains first, as well. I always try and find the right side of the line so that my villains ask, what makes them a villain? Normally when someone makes it, it’s because we have a perception of what villainy is.
The villain never thinks they’re being a villain. They always think they’re just sticking to their moral code. That just fascinates me. So “Broken Cove” became an exploration of that, really. The word exploration just frightens me, because I start to sound like one of my teachers.
Scott: You create that scenario in the script where the protagonist, named Smith, returns home to seek revenge for his brother’s death. He probably knew that his brother was not an angel, but along the way he finds out some more stuff about him. It really suggests that his brother has a very checkered past. At the same time, I guess what you’d call the Nemesis character is also doing something, motivated out of his commitment to a family member as well. It’s like you’ve got both of these sides, and both of them doing something out of their commitment to their family. Is that right?
Declan: Absolutely. Absolutely. The thing is, in any other world, when Smith comes into our world, he’s our hero, just because of our viewpoint and the way he handles himself. But Smith is a murderer. If we told the story from anybody else’s point of view, Smith is a bad guy. He comes into town, we know what he is. We find out, well, we don’t know what he is when he arrives, but we know everybody is nervous of this man. We know, his reputation precedes him, and we see how he handles himself. He is not a nice man.
At the same time, if we told the story from any other characters point of view in the movie, it would be like, the villain’s coming to town, and he’s gonna mess the town up. You know?
But naturally, just because it’s our viewpoint, we’re influenced by his moral code. I never wanted to make it clear. I just wanted that there was doubt in his mind, and that was enough for me to explore here.Scott: So even in the midst of this morally ambiguous world you created in “Broken Cove,” and given the fact that Smith is essentially a killer, there’s a certain kind of nobility to what he’s doing in honoring his brother’s memory, even though his brother was, as I said, not an angel.
Declan: Oh, completely. Completely. His Ma is our divining rod in this. She holds a strong hand. Despite the fact that she’s old and frail now, he’s scared shitless of her. It’s the only person in the world that Smith is scared of. It’s a misplaced honor. The thing is, you get the feeling that it’s generational. You know, you felt like the same thing happened to the father, and the mother had to live through it once before with the dad’s misbehavior and who he got involved with. So, yeah, man. It just makes for interesting playing for an actor, to get into those people that are ambiguous. It’s good, man. I think it’s good cinema. I can talk about it all day, but it’s good cinema, to see these people. It’s the sort of film that I would pay good money to go and see.
Scott: Hopefully, soon, you will be able to see it.
Declan: Yeah, man. I really trust Basil’s [Iwanyk] instincts on it, as well. I’m really stoked that Thunder Road is doing it, because The Town is a cracking movie. Again, a morally ambiguous film. I loved that movie. Basil, Affleck and Renner absolutely nailed that!
Tomorrow in Part 3, Declan digs more deeply into the writing of “Broken Cove”.
Please stop by comments to thank Declan and ask any questions you may have.
Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.