David Gleeson

David GleesonIn September 2006, Felim MacDermot interviewed David Gleeson, writer and director of The Front Line (2006) and Coyboys & Angels (2003).

Felim MacDermot: Can you talk about how you came to write The Front Line after your debut film, Cowboys & Angels – they are very different films.

David Gleeson: Well Cowboys was not a genre film. It was a character-driven story. It was a tough film that took many years to write. Initially the story was very different, very simple. Two strangers in one location – an apartment. Stuff happens. They become close friends and when they move out the camera remains locked off looking down on this now empty apartment as though it’s waiting to receive two new people and change them too. That was the initial premise for my low budget debut feature as a director but of course when I got into the script it became this whole other thing and that initial premise didn’t work for me at all, so all I was left with were these two characters. So I had to rebuild the story on the basis of those characters. There were around thirty drafts of the script for Cowboys. The finished film doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a light teen movie. But there’s a lot of craft went into that. To make it look effortless.

This is heresy to some screenwriters who would say that everything has to come from character. I don’t believe this to be the case. Plot is often more important than characters. Of course this depends on the movie. If you’re writing Five Easy Pieces, or a piece like that, then it’s not about plot.

The attraction with The Front Line for me as a writer was to do a more straightforward genre screenplay. The structure and the characters came from the story rather than the other way around. After the slog of Cowboys I thought this would be a walk in the park, but of course it wasn’t.

When I first got the idea for The Front Line, I could immediately see the marketability of it. I think it’s important for screenwriters to know the industry they’re in. You have to be market savvy. 98% of jobs in the industry are in marketing, not in production. A screenplay is nothing on its own. It doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s the blueprint for a movie and the movie is the end product. Not the screenplay.

‘An African immigrant as the main protagonist in a thriller set in Ireland’ was the USP (unique selling proposition). If I managed to nail the screenplay I realized the premise might be a hook for financiers. A bank robbery movie didn’t appeal to me so I initially dismissed the idea. But it just wouldn’t go away. I later wrote the synopsis in 20 minutes. It was the basis of the movie – without the backstory containing the twist of Joe’s character. Initially I was thinking, “I could write this for TV”. Issue-based dramas are always appealing to broadcasters.

Nathalie (David’s wife and producer) eventually persuaded me to go away and write the screenplay so I went to a hotel to do it. I don’t really enjoy writing, so once I made that emotional investment to do it and once I went into that headspace to write it, I knew pretty soon that I’d also direct it.

How do you approach the writing process?

Like many writers, I never write treatments unless a funder demands it (even then it is derived from the screenplay). John McGrath, the founder of Moonstone, gave me a tip. He used to write episodic television, and he’d often write a 1-hour episode over a weekend. I asked him how he did that because at the time I didn’t have any discipline as a writer and was always curious about other people’s methods. He told me how he booked into a hotel room to work. By making the investment of paying for the hotel, he wouldn’t waste his time and he was productive. This is what I do now. I’ve written 5 screenplays in hotels all over Europe. The hotel approach offers 24-hour immersion. I really get into it. Almost like a method actor might become the role. I emote every nuance of the screenplay as I write. Re-writes, I mostly do at home. Although I often go to hotels for those too.

How long do you book in for?

I usually book in for around ten days. The fastest I’ve ever written a screenplay was 6 days. The longest was 9. I write maybe 20 pages per day. I don’t just go in there, sit down and wonder what I’m going to write. The idea will have been kicking around for at least a year. It will have matured. I will have thought about scenes but not structured or formulated anything.

I check into the hotel, I remove all books, TV etc. out of the room. I’m sure the hotel staff must think I’m terribly pretentious. I remove all correspondence from my laptop. The first day or two, I walk around the room, banging my head against the wall, thinking about the story. Eventually I will sit by the computer and bang out a synopsis and then I’ll tweak it and bang my head off the wall again and study the wallpaper. All very Barton Fink. I only leave the room for breakfast and evening meal. Eventually after two or three days I will have a page and a half of a solid synopsis. I’ll read it and go, “Yeah, I can write that”. And then I go for it.

One of the best things I’ve ever learnt in my life is how to type. I took a typing course once and learnt it in 4 days. The course was 5 days but I didn’t bother going 1 day. It’s really very easy. I can’t understand how more people don’t learn. It really frees you up. I can look out the window and type as fast as I think. I know Final Draft like the back of my hand. I have a remote keyboard on my lap and my computer over at the other side of the room.

The first draft will be very loose. I explore every avenue. Follow every possible plot point to its conclusion. Go off for 30 pages with minor characters just to see where it might lead. If I come up with another idea, apart from what’s in the synopsis, I will follow that for 50 pages or whatever. My first draft of Cowboys & Angels was around 280 pages, which I cut to 160 and then to 120 pages. It killed me to cut it to 120 pages. I thought, “My God, there’s nothing left!”. The final shooting script was 88 pages.

If there’s one problem with scripts in Ireland and I see lots of them through Nathalie, is that they’re too long. 95 pages should be about the maximum for someone’s first movie.

I’ll come out of the hotel with a first draft that I wouldn’t dream of showing to anyone. But Nathalie will read it. What I am looking for at this point is emotion. Feeling on the page. One of the first things I learned when I started to read other people’s screenplays was that when you finish the screenplay and ask yourself, “How do I feel?” If you feel nothing, that’s how you’ll feel when you’ve watched the finished film. I’ve always found that to be the case. If the writing is confused, the movie will be too. It’s scary exactly how much the finished film mirrors the screenplay. No matter what you do in the edit or during the shoot. It always comes back to script. Emotion is the key for me.

What do you feel is the function of a scene? Is it a ‘unit of drama’?

It pushes the story forward. Rather than, “and then this scene…and then this scene…and then this scene…” You should always be striving for “this scene leads to this scene which leads to this scene”. So it’s “which leads to, which leads to” as opposed to “and then, and then”. Much tougher than it sounds. Every scene has to drive the story forward – Forward, forward. All the time.

I read once that when Paul Schrader is constructing a scene he works out what he wants to achieve with the scene dramatically and what the characters need to say to make this happen. And then he just has the characters say it. A simple approach to dialogue, but very effective. Find out what information needs to be imparted and then have the characters give us that information.

With screenwriting, it’s the simplest concepts, the simplest lessons, which can be the hardest to grasp.

How did you research the script?

Can I tell a joke? Two screenwriters meet up. The first asks, “What are you up to?” He replies, “Oh, writing”. The first nods his head, “Neither am I.”

Research can be an excuse not to write. Sidney Sheldon once wrote, “Write it first, then research it”. So that’s what I did. I had the screenplay written by the time I went to the Congo. I went there to gain a deeper insight into my screenplay. I’m not a documentary filmmaker. My reason for going was a bit more emotional.

While attending a lab at Moonstone, when the screenplay was at a very early stage, someone commented, rather indignantly, that I hadn’t even been to the Congo. I knew straight off that I’d get beaten over the head for this on the film’s eventual release if I didn’t go, so I went. I traveled there with GOAL in 2004.

While I was there I tried to understand how someone could kill like the characters in my film do. And more importantly, how can you still feel sympathy with someone after they have killed.

I met people there who had been through some real horrors and I came to understand, in as much as anyone can, what could drive people to the edge where they would pick up a machete. My main character, Joe, is a man who has been through some horrific experiences. I wanted people to empathise with him by the end of the film. By going to the Congo, I found a way to do that. It humanized the situation for me.

The primary dramatic payoff of the subplot with Gerard McSorley’s character is the emotional confrontation in the church at the end. When you were writing, did you find yourself needing to intensify the emotion at the end by building up this McSorley’s character’s backstory?

That’s very perceptive of you. Yes, I did. There’s an interesting story behind that. We were trying to get a very well known actor for that role. I won’t say who. I met him at the US premiere of Cowboys & Angels and then went out to his house in Brooklyn. He was very interested in working with me, but said that the character of Harbison was too much of a cipher – a conduit of information. So I went back to the script and drafted an elaborate backstory, with pages of dialogue for him. We deepened his character – just to grab this actor. It didn’t work out with him, but the new material stayed in the script.

It was fascinating to see how this backstory hooked talent. We nabbed a few big names for that role but it never worked out, either due to schedule or budget. When finally we cast Gerard McSorley, who is wonderful in that part, we shot all this material and ended up cutting the lot of it. It simply didn’t drive the story forward and it also shifted much of the focus away from Joe, the main character. Our initial instincts had been correct.

The only thing we kept was the dialogue between Susan and the other detective, where they tell in the crudest fashion, that Harbison had lost his kid, hence his whole character. Even that scene was initially cut out. It was a little too obvious. But in a preview screening it became clear there was something missing in the final scene in the church. So we put the scene back in and the film played better.

The scene is very raw exposition and is not as elegant as other scenes, but as the rest of the film was so smooth I decided to take the hit and leave it in. And while the rule of – “If it doesn’t move the story forward, lose it” is a good one, it’s important not to be a slave to it. Sometimes you can cut a little too much. A lesson I learnt on Cowboys. There’s a few scenes from that movie I kinda regret losing.

And to take another specific scene – the torture scene? Where did the idea for this scene come from?

I didn’t come up with that. I just had ‘Joe gets beat up’. Nothing special and a little boring, so I gave it to a friend of mine, who has written some very disturbing stuff. I gave it to him, paid him to go over the bad guys and he came up with that horrific torture device. I reincorporated it into my script, so I can’t take credit for that scene.

Do you think in terms of beats, scenes, acts?

I think in acts. I look for a beginning, a middle and an end to a story. People often come to me and say, “I have a great idea for a movie”. But invariably it’s just a first act. For instance, say there’s a bunch of kids in an apartment. They hack into the air traffic control of a local airport causing chaos. Would that be a good movie? No, I think it could be a good first act. I don’t know where the movie is. What happens? How does it end? I can’t see 3 acts. When I can see 3 acts, I see a movie.

Did you have to pitch the script, and if so, what was the pitch?

I pitched it once or twice. My pitch was, “An African immigrant arrives in Ireland, gets a job as a security guard and is coerced into being the inside man in a bank robbery”. I’m the worst at pitching. If I tell you what the film’s about, you’re not going to want to see it.

What terminology would you use in discussing scripts with funders? Would you talk in terms of ‘plot points’ and ‘rising action’?

No, and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about if they spoke using that kind of terminology. In my experience – both my films have been international co-productions with many co-producers – funders tend to be quite trusting. The toughest is the Irish Film Board, by a mile. I have never had to sit down with any of the rest of them to justify my screenplays at all.

Were there any changes requested?

No. There is a fallacy that with so many co-producers from across Europe, that a filmmaker has to make concessions, leading to the dreaded ‘europudding’. That is not the case. People in the industry are generally quite bright. Certainly not stupid. They sign up to something they like and are sensitive about not imposing their ideas on a script. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. I have rarely had any contact with co-producers apart from, “Wonderful, well done”.

What screenwriters do you admire?

I knew you would ask me that! Quentin Tarantino’s scripts are a joy to read. Very entertaining. Just like the movies. Callie Khouri, her script for Thelma & Louise is brilliant. I really enjoy David Mamet’s scripts. His script for The Untouchables is so sparse. Very interesting style. The Coen Brothers – I love Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. And Billy Wilder too of course.

Writing is re-writing. You need at least 10 re-writes to get it right. Whenever I hear of people doing 3 drafts, then expecting to shoot, I think “Not”. The first draft is just a jumping off point. It needs a year’s work after that. I am never afraid of giving the script to people. Seeking their opinions. Script editors are a godsend. The more of them I can work with on a screenplay, the better. My experience of being a director comes into play. I am very much aware that once it’s out there everyone has an opinion anyway. When you’re writing a screenplay you might as well try to anticipate as much of this shit and deal with it then.

Is it pragmatic for young writers to write in genre? Does it help the prospects of the work being produced?

Well, I’d say it’s definitely easier to get a genre film produced in the US. In Ireland this isn’t always the case but if it’s a good genre film it’s a plus. It’s always easier to go to the marketplace, to funders, with a genre film. It’s easier to sell. Everyone has a rough idea what you’re shooting for and, hopefully, what you’ll deliver. This helped with The Front Line – a genre film with a European intellectual sensibility.

If you go out chasing the genre element for the sake of an easy sale you’ll probably fail. There has to be integrity. Your heart better be in it. And any unique spin you can give it, so much the better. The downside is that you’re competing directly with the studios when it comes to genre. And the Americans are good at it. If you’re going to do it, you better be up to the task. As well, to market a genre film effectively you need a lot of money.

Does cultural authenticity suffer when working in genre?

Occasionally, I think it does. With The Front Line, my feeling is that we dodged the bullet. This is a film about Ireland, Dublin. Right now. At this particular moment in our development.

By setting a genre film in Dublin, I have left myself open to criticism – people are much harder on you for that very fact. If your genre film was set in New York or LA people buy right into it, but in Ireland, the fact that you’ve made a thriller is a story in itself.

I think we’re still very self-conscious in a filmic sense. Audiences here like to see an Ireland they recognize reflected right back at them. Boy Eats Girl is an interesting example of what I’m referring to here. Much of the criticism I read about that film was that the character’s names weren’t Irish enough! I heard one critic say of The Front Line that the gangsters didn’t feel real enough. She then went on to acknowledge that maybe, as an audience, we have seen too many Scorsese films.

Some people have been offended by my examining such heavy social issues within a genre context. The same amount of people applaud me for it. There is a mindset that Irish critics go easy on Irish films. I feel this is not the case. I find them hypercritical.

You’re interviewing me at the wrong time. I’ve just spent the last three weeks reading critical responses. I can’t complain though. We did very well.