In Alan Bennett’s Writing Home he has a diary entry about his experience as the writer on a film set where he says, “I am called in if there’s a problem with the script, I watch any scene that involves dialogue, but my main job seems to be to help jolly things along”.
For the filming of Black Ice, the new Irish feature film on which I’m the co-writer with Director Johnny Gogan, I find myself standing around in the wilds of County Leitrim in raw, freezing-cold February weather perished to the bone. And the joke on Johnny and me is that where a film like Mamma Mia! is set on an idyllic Greek island in high summer in a world of bikinis, beaches and gorgeous scenery, our story takes place in the depths of an Irish winter in a bleak border area mainly at night amongst tearaway racers.
Other than making a cameo appearance as a clergyman condoling with the family at the funeral of their daughter, my work on the production is done. And budgetary and time constraints mean there is little or no deviation from the script. It is being filmed as written without last minute doctoring. All I have to do is show a corner-boy’s aptitude for standing around and not get run down by a speeding car when the crew shout, “Rolling”.
The central character in Black Ice is Alice Watters. She returns to her home town for the funeral of her brother Tom’s girlfriend. Two years earlier Tom was involved in a late-night car crash that left him dead and his girlfriend in a coma.
Over the course of the funeral an estranged and grief-haunted older Alice relives the part played by her younger self in the crash. We follow the schoolgirl Alice as she is drawn into the boy racer scene by Tom and by the charismatic and older Jimmy Devlin who drives a sleek totemic Skyline.
Throwing in her lot with Jimmy, Alice wants him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional rally driver as a way out of the rural backwater where they live. Only when Jimmy gets a try-out he doesn’t play it straight. Tom is concerned Alice is in over her head, but her young life becomes entwined even closer with Jimmy as he reveals how greed and turning a blind eye have taken hold of an entire community with the building boom about to collapse. Alice’s complicity in Jimmy’s descent into criminality leads to a final devastating betrayal that only a deadly confrontation in the present can resolve.
From this plot summary and the title you might have guessed Black Ice has all the essential trappings of film noir: a gritty realist style, a doomed central love affair, and cars.
Choosing a genre is essential to writing a screenplay and the yet the script started when Johnny Gogan came to me with an idea or more accurately a feeling he wanted to explore: he’d skidded on black ice driving home one night and the loss of control and the sense of having no choice but to ride out the slide and hope to come out the other end in once piece stayed with him.
So in Black Ice the characters and their world slide increasingly out of control as did Ireland at the time in which the story is set. It was a counter-intuitive decision to have a teenage female as the central character in a world of young male racers. And in some respects she is a delinquent whose behaviour could alienate cinema goers – who might appreciate that she is going through the difficult right of passage of first love, but also reasonably ask why does she make such bad choices? To keep the audience on Alice’s side we ‘put the camera on her shoulder’, so to speak, telling the entire story from her point of view so we participate in what’s driving her. This is a screenwriting device that locks the audience into the main protagonist’s fate, so again like skidding on black ice we are compelled to go where the situation dictates.
With the genre, tone, central characters and setting to dramatise our theme in place, the most difficult challenge of all was to accurately portray how these young people express themselves. To be true to their lives and their world these young racers and ‘petrol-heads’ had to be uncomfortable trying to articulate their needs and feelings. As a group and by themselves they are prone to communicate through shrugs and awkward pauses and silence. Often what they mean goes unspoken. At best they are guarded and sometimes completely inarticulate.
Getting across this essentially faltering and tongue-tied mode of expression without resorting to lingo that can date quicker than ink dries on the page was the real writing challenge. And audiences will have to decide how far we’ve succeeded in bringing an authentic sense of their world to the screen. Several key moments in Black Ice hinge on deep feelings expressed only hesitantly or in impulsive bouts of self-destructive behaviour, yet it is the fraught release of emotions pent up too long that ultimately becomes the dark heart of the story.
Black Ice is on release in selected Irish cinemas from September 20th 2013.
(c) Brian Leyden
Brian Leyden’s books include Departures, a collection of short stories; the novel, Death and Plenty, and The Home Place, a best-selling memoir. He scripted the RTE documentary, No Meadows in Manhattan, which won a Jacobs’ Award. He has written extensively about his native area for RTE Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany and in the documentaries No Meadows in Manhattan, Even the Walls Were Sweatin’ and The Closing of the Gaiety Cinema in Carrick-on-Shannon. He has edited the Irish literary journal, Force 10, and been Writer in Residence in Leitrim (2000) and Sligo Libraries (2010). His most recent work is a screenplay written with Director Johnny Gogan for the feature film Black Ice released in Irish cinemas on September 2013.