8th July 2020

James writes television dramas, features and animation. He won an IFTA for his 1916 time travel mini-series ‘Wrecking the Rising’. Other original shows he created include ‘Galway Races’ and ‘Striking Out’. He works extensively in animation. Recently contributing episodes to ‘Dorg Van Dango’ from Cartoon Saloon; currently broadcasting on RTE.

Clíona Ruiséil: Tell me about the scripts you’re currently writing?

James Phelan: I’ve just finished writing the pilot episode of an animation show for a Scandinavian company. It’s a gig which arrived via my agent Jean Kitson and while the details are under wraps for now, I’m happy to report it was a lovely, smooth and positive process. I’m also working with my good buddy Alan Keane of Hot Drop Films to create a cartoon series originating out of a Canadian studio. Up until recently, it’s been episodic writing duties on most animation shows for me. I love being a writer for hire. But it’s really interesting and insightful to be in on the ground floor and build something up.

In features, I’m doing the hardest work that any writer can undertake – which is re-writing. The project is an original science fiction film called ‘Memory Bank’ which I have naively set in both the distant future and Dublin. (Though I will decamp it to America in a heartbeat the second Hollywood shows any interest). I’m a huge fan of detective fiction in every form. Nearly all famous detective novels have notoriously weak plots. So my first draft of ‘Memory Bank’ certainly paid handsome homage to that. Though I think the lead female character and concept are really strong so I hope that’s a good foundation to work from.

In TV, I just finished my first script specifically for the UK market. ‘Dog Years’ is set in London and Brighton and follows a useless punk band who discover their talent for robbing venues far exceeds their musical ability.

CR: What inspired you to write this particular story?

JP: For ‘Memory Bank’, it was love of the detective genre and extrapolating on where artificial intelligence is heading. The notion of a detective buying up memories to solve crimes seemed rife with potential but also filled with inherent pitfalls that are dramatically compelling. Memories are highly subjective, malleable and unreliable. They deteriorate and change over time, so how can you trust them? Or rely on them legally?

‘Dog Years’ arrived via considering what if a band realised the only way to make money from music was robbing the places they play? This radical departure is prompted by bitterly acknowledging that they are never going to make it. I’m playing with the idea that the song they record as a F.U. to the industry and world becomes an unlikely hit as their crime spree ramps up.  My tip of the hat to the Soggy Bottom Boys in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’.

CR: In terms of the creative construction, tell me about the stages you go through when writing a typical script?

JP: If the project originates with me, the spark can take many forms. Often it’s one scene that occurs to me or it can be a character that comes first. Sometimes even a really good title can get the show on the road. There’s something that really coalesces on a project when you have a title that is succinct and evocative. Just the two words ‘Memory Bank’ firmed up a lot for me. Whereas ‘Dog Years’ is deliberately more mysterious and reveals itself within the show.  Again in terms of my own inspiration, I usually start just writing a spine or archipelago of scenes or dialogue exchanges that occur to me. The connective tissue comes later but around then, a good one page summary can start to shape the material. Longer treatments can help too but I think their usefulness taps out the bigger they get. Some producers would like 20 page treatments for a 52 minute script.

CR: Are there elements of writing a script you find particularly easy or difficult?

JP: Being a subscriber to the notion that ‘self praise is no praise’, I will deign to merely mention that my dialogue tends to attract plenty of praise. It’s also my natural tendency to inject humour into any situation or genre. I liked being hired for comedy polishes and it seems you either have comedy bones or you don’t. It’s binary.

In terms of difficulty, I’m not crazy about creating an irrelevant amount of backstory for characters that you can never relate or express onscreen. To my mind, you reveal character through what they say or don’t say and what they do. Having a thick dossier on each adult character’s childhood is just overkill to me.

CR: Where do you work?

JP: This question used to get a very definitive – ‘in the privacy of my own home’ riposte but I have softened on this mainly because I was writer in residence for a year at the Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire. And there’s a setting that would inspire me to write. In the main though, I do think writers shouldn’t over-romanticise where they work. There’s a touch too much of putting writing up on a pedestal like ‘I’ll rent a hotel room and write’ or ‘I’ll go to that Italian villa and write’. Aim to make your setting ordinary and your writing extraordinary rather than the other way around.

CR: What advice could you offer writers who are new to the industry?

JP: Put your head down and work. Put in at least the ten thousand hours that will bring a level of experience and expertise to your work.  Always have more than one project in the works. Write samples in every form and format out there. So if a producer or broadcaster asks for a short or a sitcom or an hour long drama or a feature, you will hopefully have your own slate to show the breadth and depth of your ability.


Scriptorium means a place for writing – so this is a place for you to discuss your work, your views on writing in general, your thoughts on the industry and anything else you’d like to mention. You can focus on a script that you’ve written which was produced during the last year, or one you’re currently writing. We hope you enjoy this series and look forward to hearing what you think of it. We welcome in particular writers who may have an unusual or atypical experience of scriptwriting in Ireland in terms of their ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, socio-economic background or other life experience.

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