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Graham Jones on Script Writing, ‘Davin’ and World Suicide Prevention Day

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Stage & Screen
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By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

Graham Jones is an award-winning Irish filmmaker who made his first feature film How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate in 1997, his second Fudge 44 in 2005, The Green Marker Scare in 2012 and  The Randomers in 2013. Variety Magazine describes him as ‘a very talented director’. This year Graham is bringing that talent to a unique project – a film called Davin which examines the reaction of an Irishman’s friends and family to the news of his suicide. The film is being made freely available online in 136 countries in advance of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th 2014. This year’s theme is ‘Suicide Prevention: One World Connected’ – the suggestion being that combating suicide requires connections on many levels: social, clinical and cultural. How true.

Davin features a large cast of Irish actors who, as well as Jones,  feel it’s deeply important to draw attention to this issue – they all play mourners driving  to the funeral of their loved one who actually took his life while in a car. Jones explains, “I suppose that’s the place Davin ended up emotionally trapped, so in writing the screenplay I wanted to trap the characters there too – and the audience, ultimately.”

Keen to know more, we asked Jones what had originally inspired him to write the film – he told us, “It’s hard to know. Suicide is something everybody thinks about to some degree, in the same way we all think about mortality or love or whatever. It’s just a question of the degree to which it touches us. Sometimes it touches us very deeply, through friends or family or if we take our own life. I’ve experienced some difficulties, like everyone. But trying to figure why I actually made the movie is not straightforward. For one thing, it’s not just a film about suicide and grief. It’s also about how we are remembered, or how we are defined. In the modern world, it sometimes feels like we are defined to a great extent by others. We can’t be immune to that world, not completely.”

graham_jones smallJones went to film school in the early nineties and then started making indie movies. He said,  “This is my fifth, I think. I certainly wanted to make movies from a young age. Some people say I am a writer at heart, and I do know what they mean, but what I write does tend to be for the screen. I’ve written a few novels and journalistic books that were printed to a very limited extent, but feel more comfortable writing for the screen and in the case of these indie movies, directing them too. I love working with actors in particular. Davin was an actor’s movie, which is why the Casting Director was so important. I couldn’t have worked with just any Casting Director on this. Ali Coffey has a very special gift.”

In this movie, we don’t get to meet Davin, the central character, but learn about him through the eyes of others – an interesting concept that could be tricky to achieve – but Jones pulls it off.  We neither go back to when Davin was alive nor reach the memorial that his friends are apparently en route to. The entire film takes place within the mourner’s cars. And there is a huge cast.

Writing.ie wondered how similar screen writing is to novel writing and whether Jones had to create complex back stories for these many characters?

Jones explained, “I do remember some writer friends telling me in the past how the origin of each character and also every aspect of the plot needs to be elaborately and explicitly fleshed out in advance. Even if this doesn’t end up on the page, they reasoned, it should be worked out fully – so that what does end up in the story will feel real. I certainly do agree that the reader or audience should believe that’s the case, in a sense. They should always believe the story or characters continue beyond the edge of the frame or last page – be convinced the story you are telling is grounded in reality or a kind of history.

‘But as a writer, to be honest, I have found that’s something one learns to do without scaffolding. There’s a lot of hard work involved in writing, but I am not sure it extends to being so historical about things. It’s kind of like a person who lies or is a fantasist – the verisimilitude of a good liar is formed more through life experience and just flows out of them. I would certainly think about who the characters are and what they do and the style in which they do it, but more in terms of impressions or images or feelings – not chronological backstory. You just know when something smacks of the truth. Davin is a good example of this. I feel the characters have some substance, but we never discussed their history much. The words came from somewhere within me, and the performance from somewhere within the actors. It was the Casting Director who kind of ‘set us up’ together.”

BOOKCLUBBLUEWe asked Jones to explain his writing technique, whether he plotted and planned a movie script scene by scene or whether the writing was more organic? He told us, “Very organic nowadays, although when I was younger it used to be more workmanlike – I would structure everything in a very logical way, which of course didn’t make for very good writing. Nowadays, I try to open up and allow myself to go on a journey, to be surprised. In the case of Davin, I just started with a feeling and also an image – which was of everybody travelling in cars. Why is that? I don’t know. I don’t drive myself which is unusual considering that I am forty years old and someone said to me recently that cars, including matchbox model cars, have showed up repeatedly in my work. I can’t say exactly why that is. In my earlier years I could. Ha! I would say ‘I am making a film about the Leaving Cert because it’s evil and must be destroyed’ or whatever. Nowadays, ideas comes from somewhere less defined and maybe deeper. I started with these bereaved characters in cars, let them start talking to each other and in the process Davin slowly formed and so did they, actually. They define Davin, but Davin is also at work – defining them.”
We’re often being asked to recommend script writing software, and wondered if Jones used it? He told us, “I became familiar with the screenplay format at a young age and employ it without much thought. It’s naturally suited to film and I would certainly vote for writing screenplays in the traditional format if you’re going to share them with anyone. But I would stress that it’s a very basic format. I mean it’s a deliciously simple format, that probably emerged on a set. You don’t really need a piece of software to type like that, but if that helps, then nothing wrong with that!”
As you can see from the trailer, Davin has unique cinematographic qualities that sets it apart from other movies. We asked Jones about this and he explained, “Yes, that’s the look of the film. Each of my movies has quite a specific look. There’s never any doubt which one you’re looking at! I do like monochrome and in some cases have bent over backwards to shoot monochrome when I was a little reluctant to do so. Like in The Green Marker Scare when I used ‘green and white’ instead of ‘black and white’. You can’t work in black and white all the time, because even though it’s an extremely natural ‘light and dark’ form and while they are very seductive to me personally, people tend to project their own sh*t onto it.

‘They say black and white is ‘arty’ or ‘stylised’. I heard when they made Raging Bull, there was reluctance to shoot in black and white because it might be viewed as pretentious. Of course, you just need to make the film in whatever way you believe to be right. In Davin, I think it’s more ‘white and black’, because the dominant areas are often white. But the sketch-style-stream-of-consciousness imagery is an attempt to capture that space people are in when they experience birth or death, those two experience being the great levellers in life, when you suddenly realise you a part of something larger and more mysterious and face aspects of existence that you normally block out. I think when we face those things, we’re sometimes surprised by how okay we are with it. We’re not as terrified as we’re meant to be. That was the feeling I was trying to get, visually. I also wanted it to look like you could see people’s energy or temperature. Like a heat camera, or something – a monochromatic heat camera, or karma camera or even cancer camera. I think people will have their own feelings about it. I just know it feels right to me.”

Something that makes Davin exceptional, and a stand out movie, is that film wasn’t funded in the traditional sense. Jones and a small group of artistic collaborators worked on it because they found it interesting and important.

Having written and directed many films, we asked Jones for his tips for new script writers. He revealed, “The main thing I would beware of is the whole ‘writer’s block’ myth – the Coen Brothers call it a myth and so do I. Don’t subscribe to the idea of ‘writer’s block’ or any of its variants. If you want to write, nothing can stop you. You have to be bloody-minded about it. Nobody else decides whether you are producing work, only you. It’s honestly right there, where the difficulty starts. There is no such thing as ‘trying’. You either do something, or you don’t!

Watch the full film here and do please share this interview or blog about it to help spread awareness of suicide and the indescribable impact it has:


(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

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