The art of screenwriting is often enigmatic; inspiration can come from anywhere, and there are countless paths writers can take to master their craft. Behind every great film we find a childhood memory, hometown, or recurring observation that inspired the original script. We recently interviewed award-winning screenwriter Conor Walsh to learn what drives his passion for the visual storytelling medium.
Hailing from Manchester, UK, Walsh’s work has been recognized internationally, including Cannes Film Festival (2016), LA’s Sunset Film Festival (2013), and Williamsburg Intl. Film Festival (2013). He also worked with Bedlam Studios, an organization behind the production of 2011 Best Picture: The King’s Speech.
We discuss many facets of Walsh’s screenwriting inspiration, including his heritage, spirituality, tough-love mentors, and more!
Your heritage is Irish, a country with many famous storytellers. Do you find that your background inspires your approach to film?
Most definitely. Ireland has a rich culture and history that’s hard to ignore, no matter where you’re from. Some of the greatest storytellers have come from Ireland, and I was made aware of that from birth really. There wasn’t a week that went by that my parents didn’t have The Pogues, Christy Moore, The Cranberries, Luke Kelly and all those amazing musical storytellers playing through the speakers. I get goosebumps every time I hear Shane McGowan sing “A Pair of Brown Eyes” in particular. Sinead O’Connor’s song with The Chieftains’, “Foggy Dew”, is another favorite, and The Dubliners’, “On Raglan Road”. There really is an endless list of rich storytelling for such a small place. I love that Conor McGregor walks out to Foggy Dew. That guy is another example of how strong Irish culture is around the world and of the strength of our spirit. It’s deeply rooted within me. Cinematically, some of my favorite films are Irish: In Bruges, Calvary, and Sing Street most recently; and War of the Buttons, Angela’s Ashes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley a little while back. I’m definitely looking forward to the day when I release some Irish based content. It’s been such a huge part of who I am.
If being Irish wasn’t enough inspiration, my folks being from Manchester and my being born there has really fuelled me from the start. The stories they’d tell my siblings and I about things like the Hacienda and the music scene, the songs they’d introduce us to, the unique characters you meet there on a daily basis, it all truly expanded my mind and sparked my desire to tell stories in general.
You credit your English teachers with nurturing your talent and opening your eyes to the possibilities of film. What in your mind makes a good teacher/mentor?
That’s a hard one. I guess they have to be memorable in a positive way. The first memorable teacher for me was a History and Drama teacher named Mr. Williams. He taught me in primary school at St. Michael’s in Highgate, London. He’d sit us all down and read us a story and the way his mannerisms changed as he flipped from character to character was gripping. He had us all hooked into these stories. I doubt we would ever remember a word if he weren’t so animated and memorable as a result.
The first English teacher that got me thinking about being a storyteller myself was Mr. Mortimer at Highgate School. He was a writer himself. I had written this story based on one of the stories my Dad told me about growing up in Manchester. I enjoyed putting my own twist on it and writing it with the accent and all that. I wasn’t too concerned about what anyone thought about it, I was just so happy that he’d given us a storytelling assignment. Next thing I know, he says to the class that there was one story that stood out more than everyone else’s and he pulls my paper up for everyone to see. ‘This is how you tell a story, boys.” He read it out to class, doing the accents and the narrative with seamless timing. It was as if it was a classic piece of literature he’d studied. It was one of my proudest moments and I think he knew that. He would give us a lot more story assignments and was just all around a great teacher. We’d watch films with him too, so his classes were always just my favorite part of any day.
The English teacher that encouraged the screenwriting direction I wanted to go with was Mr. Catherwood. He seemed strict and he had the air of a super-villain about him; sort of like Stewie in Family Guy. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He was a proper character. That being said, I disengaged for the first few classes I had with him. One day, he’d had enough and had a proper go at me. That guy could shout. From that day on I hung on his every word, not because I had to, but because once I opened my ears I realized he was without a doubt the best teacher I’ve had. Very sharp. Very quick-witted. Very passionate about literature. He showed us films like Abigail’s Party and Bullets Over Broadway and had some ex-students of his who were filmmakers come in for a day to teach us a few things. I got on really well with him; he knew my ambition was to be a screenwriter so he really helped to get me involved.
I guess from all of that, it’s fair to say that a good mentor/teacher needs to be encouraging when they know what it is you’re passionate about. It helps when they’re eccentric and passionate about something themselves. A kick up the arse when you aren’t focused helps, too.
You got out of the gates running with your first two films, featured at the Sunset Film Festival in LA and the Williamsburg International Film Festival. Were those features a positive experience?
Yeah, it was an amazing experience. I wrote both of those feature scripts in such a short space of time, and right after I had dropped out of my first University course. For them to get noticed so quickly was such a huge confidence boost. I knew I was meant to be a screenwriter after that. I had a lot to learn but it didn’t bother me. I was driven, and having my scripts in those competitions fuelled that so I’m forever grateful to Sunset and Williamsburg.
How was your experience working with Bedlam Productions?
I really enjoyed my time there. It was the first real experience in a production company and I was so grateful to have been given that opportunity, especially being right on the back of their Oscar win with The King’s Speech. I’ve been quite lucky like that in terms of always working with companies whose films I truly admire and watch continuously. I had nothing but good times there and good people.
What is your creative process like when screenwriting? Do you have a regimen/schedule you stick to?
For the most part, I get up around 7 am, I meditate for 20 minutes, I write down whatever I can remember and analyze from my dreams. If I don’t remember much, I’ll write some words of gratitude and perhaps some of my goals. Then, if I don’t exercise after that, I go straight into the writing. With a feature film idea, I’ll throw a couple ideas around and write it all down as if I’m having a conversation with myself. Once that’s done, I’ll outline the narrative I’ve come up with. If it’s structurally engaging, it will serve as the blueprint for the script itself.
For TV, I’ve found it helps to start with a sort of pitch deck. I make a vision board for how I see the world and the characters and the cast. The inspiration for words will often come from that and I’ll throw a bunch of ideas around for the Pilot Episode. Using a typical structure to help in these early stages has helped me both in Film and TV so I often try and outline something simple based on that Four Act paradigm.
Each day can differ in terms of how much I get done and how satisfied I am with the quantity. I often just have to be happy that I get to do what I love. But when the words really do flow it’s pretty magical. There’s something Max Landis said that has helped me ever since, and it’s that your mind is a computer. Whatever equation or problem we put in there, if we have the faith, it will figure it all out for you.
What in your mind makes film the best storytelling medium for you?
I’d say film and TV are equally good; there’s a great mixture of art that makes up a film or an episode of TV. There are visuals, there’s music and sound, there’s the written and spoken word. All of it just creates an experience way more magical than any other storytelling experience out there. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, we are pulled into worlds that can shape our thought and change who we are. It’s a powerful medium, film and television. I mean, I remember watching Interstellar and feeling actual enlightenment. I left the cinema speechless out of fear that one word might trigger tears. It was insane. No book has ever done that to me, as much as I love reading, there’s just no other medium like the visual medium.
Photos by Aaron Akrong. Instagram: @kaiopic