Q&A with Ferdia MacAnna: Screenwriting for Beginners Workshop Director

We’re very pleased to introduce Ferdia MacAnna as our Screenwriting for Beginners 3-Day Workshop Director, one of our range of thirteen Creative Writing Workshops taking place during Listowel Writers’ Week 2016.

Ferdia has written three novels, one of which, The Last of the High Kings, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Gabriel Byrne, Jared Leto and Christina Ricci. His first feature film, All About Eva (2015), is an old school Film Noir revenge thriller set in the horse-racing community of Kildare and was an official selection at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.  Ferdia has worked as a Television Producer and Director with RTE, BBC and TG4, specialising in film and TV drama,  sitcoms, documentaries, talk shows and music. His credits include The Late Late Show, Don’t Feed the Gondolas, Seacht (Celtic Film Festival Winner 2008), Upwardly Mobile (Montreux Rose D’Or nominee), Couched, Fair City, Ros na Run and the hit BBC/RTE comedy-drama Custer’s Last Stand Up (BAFTA winner 2001).

Ferdia has taught Creative Writing, Screenwriting, and TV broadcasting for over twenty years at DCU, Trinty College, NUI Maynooth and IADT (the national film school). He has also taught studio multi-camera directing and TV presenting and is currently co-facilitator at the Innovation Academy, University College Dublin.

Cartoon City by Ferdia MacAnna
Cartoon City by Ferdia MacAnna

Q. Have you visited Listowel Writers’ Week before? If not, what have you heard about the festival and what are you most looking forward to?

A. I’m mortified to admit that I’ve never visited the festival so I am looking forward to it immensely. I have heard wonderful things about it. I expect to reap the rewards of close exposure to brilliant writers and artists from a variety of disciplines and enjoy the festival experience and ambience. I’m not really expecting to attend late night parties and eventually wake up a week later in a different country wearing someone else’s clothes. However, should that happen I intend to honour the interlude by chronicling it in a memoir or short story or movie screenplay. Really looking forward to Listowel.

Q. Your father, Tomás MacAnna, was Director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. What are your most enduring memories of that time growing up?

A. My dad was a massive presence in my life but he was a remote man. He found artistic fulfillment from his work in theatre and he loved my mother, and that was it as far as he was concerned. However, he left me a legacy that included love of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, good books and movies and a passion for soccer. Strangely, I never felt much of a calling for the stage, though I have written plays and even directed some. He passed a few years back, almost stage-managing his own exit from the stage of life with minmum fuss and a limited though palpable degree of grandeur. He had an epic life and he did everything he ever wanted to do and more or less under his own terms. I still think about him a lot. He may have been disappointed that I didn’t follow him into the theatre where he had formed another family of surrogate sons and favourites. However, he admitted that he got a kick out of my rock and roll days, particularly on the occasion when someone introduced him as the father of the rock singer, ‘Rocky de Valera’. I guess he was chuffed I had found a stage of my own.

Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

A. It always seemed like a beautiful thing to do. I started writing when I was a kid, around nine. Strong, blokey stories based on the Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV show, James Bond books and movies, and Cowboy films. Later, I discovered Ray Bradbury. He became – and still is – my favourite writer. Someone once told me that I am basically a humourous writer that writes about what it’s like to be young. I am OK with that.

Q. What writers influenced you most as a young man and why?

The Last of the High Kings by Ferdia MacAnna
The Last of the High Kings by Ferdia MacAnna

A. As a young man, I was very taken by trash TV drama series and rock and roll. I loved Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-cutter’s Donkey as well as Richmal Compton’s William books.  I devoured cheap pulp fiction by thriller writers such as Richard Stark (still a fave), John Creasey and Ian Fleming. Later I discovered Ray Bradbury (my father’s influence) and he became a lifelong passion, along with Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Flannery O’Connor, Flann O’Brien, Angela Carter, Alice Hoffman, JD Salinger and Raymond Chandler and later still, Edna O’Brien, Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett. I still read and re-read these writers today. Today my favourites are anything by Cormac McCarthy and David Sedaris. Recently, I have become a big fan of the stories of Alice Munro. It’s hard to say if any of these writers influenced me, but I have definitely been inspired by Carver, Vonnegut and Bradbury and well as mad poets like Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams. The truth is I have been influenced as much by Punk Rock and Film Noir and by embracing a freewheeling attitude to life than individual writers. Though, if I were trapped on a desert island today and could only take one book I would chose almost anything by David Sedaris, a writer who makes me laugh out loud.

Q. Your novel, The Last of the High Kings, was made into a film in 1996. How did that come about? Did you have much involvement with the screen adaptation?

A. David Keating, the director of The Last of the High Kings (released in the USA as ‘Summer Fling’, because the US distributors reckoned that American audiences would mistake  ‘High Kings’ as a swords and arrows epic like Braveheart) very graciously consulted me at each screenplay draft and took most of my suggestions on board. I was pleased with the movie and it still holds up well today. It looks exactly as a I remember Howth in 1977, the summer of Punk, and Jared Leto’s Boho Dublin accent was impressive. It was a fine film and I am proud of it.

The Rocky Years by Ferdia MacAnna
The Rocky Years by Ferdia MacAnna

Q. As well as two other novels, you’ve also written a memoir, The Rocky Years, Story of an (Almost) Legend, about your time on the Irish rock scene during the 1970s and 80s. Can you share one or two anecdotes about that time?

A. It was a very free time. The adults had no idea what their young were up to. The music scene of the late 70s and 80s was like a different kind of college. I think Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher had put Irish rock on the world map, as had Van Morrison. In the punk era, it became possible for any young person to find a voice in music and it didn’t matter if they didn’t have a degree in music or even if they could play – they just had to want it and maybe have something to say about our society or indeed, anything – an attitude went a long way in those days. Becaue it was such a Do-It-Yourself era – if you wanted to be in a band, you could. I wound up in a band by accident, maybe as an alternative to finishing my MA in Anglo-Irish lit. It defintely prevented me embarking on an academic path. I remember playing a gig on stage in McGonagles – a Dublin fleapit venue so decrepit that the carpet moved around of its own accord. We were loud and sweaty and we rocked and rolled with no clue about tuning or musicality. A big bloke in a leather jacket sat on the stage and smiled at us. During a lull in the music, he indicated that he wanted the microphone I was holding. Like an eejit, I handed it over. ‘Motorhead are better than youse’, he announced. ‘And they’re shite’.

Q. You have also worked as a director and producer for RTE. How do you find time for the solitary pursuit of writing?

A. It’s difficult and it remains so. Raising kids is a terrific way to interrupt a schedule or derail the finest of plans. You need to apply bum glue and be really selfish. If you don’t take the time and try to be as ruthless as possible, then the writing will not happen. In the last ten years, I have produced far less work than I intended. Instead, I worked as a freelance. I guess you could say that I did the writer’s favourite dance – the Procrastination Shuffle. I found it easier to direct the work of others or to teach, mentor, produce or organise, than to steal away to solitary confinement with my own muse. Now that my kids are young adults, I have no more excuses. I am getting my writing time back. I am writing a new novel – my first in ten years. And I am working on a screenplay. Last month, my first poems were published in a new anthology. So you could say I’m getting my groove back.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your other work and your role at the Innovation Academy at UCD?

A. I develop film and TV drama projects, mentor budding novelists and screenwriters, run writing courses in Dublin and around the country and I also work as an educator with the Innovation Academy, UCD. I completed a certificate in Enterprise, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UCD last summer – absolutely the best and most empowering course in education I have ever experienced – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who wants to reconnect with their creative spirit and become fearless and impassioned about creativity and taking risks. I applied for and was fortunate enough to get, a position as a part-time educator/facilitator on the same course and I totally love it. It’s like being part of a brilliant and inspiring revolution in education, a movement based on rediscovering and empowering creativity. Artists are basically entrepreneurs. This course bestows the tools of enterprise and innovation upon those seeking to reinvent themselves.

Q. Do you have a daily writing schedule?

A. Sometimes. I carry notebooks and I write in them whenever I can. It’s working for me at the moment. Though I would love to borrow an attic flat in Paris for a few months.

Q. For those starting out on their creative writing journey, what is your best piece of advice? A favourite quote perhaps?

A. I have two. The first is by Ray Bradbury. ‘Writers need to jump off a cliff and make their own wings on the way down.’ The other is mine and it is this: ‘Finish what you start’. That’s it.

Q. What do you think are the main benefits of attending a three-day Screenwriting for Beginners Workshop?

A. The workshops are an introduction to the Visual World. Screenplays are stories told in pictures. Once you learn the tools of screenwriting and enter the Visual zone, the benfits to your fiction or memoir writing or poetry can be immense. It’s a different and exciting new language.

Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in the Workshop?

A. I will focus on character creation, visual writing, film and TV drama genres, dialogue, narrative technique, plot and story development including The Three Act Structure, as well as Comedy. I promise not to sing or recite dodgy song lyrics.

To book Ferdia’s workshop, or for details of our full range, please click here Creative Writing Workshops