Fergal Rock is a Dublin-based screenwriter. After a Masters in Film Theory and Production in DIT, he wrote part-time while working in the RDS Members’ Library. In 2010 he became a fulltime writer of screenplays, mainly films for independent production, as well as being a regular writer for legendary Irish soap opera Fair City. His screenplay Departures will start shooting next month with a star cast, including Nina Dobrev (Vampire Diaries) and Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones).
How did you start writing?
I never wrote much as a child but I was a keen artist. I loved comics and wanted to be a game designer. Art and English were my favourite subjects and I applied to Art College but didn’t get in. By then I was really into film and fancied being a director so I went to University of Limerick to do a BA in English & Media Communication Studies. I’d written a few screenplays at school while I repeated my Leaving Cert and after my degree I started to take it more seriously. I did a Masters at DIT in Film Theory and Production.
Did writing screenplays pay the bills at this stage?
No! There was a joke that the dole office was across the road from DIT so you walked out of Uni and went to sign on. I knew I didn’t want to be a camera man or front of camera, for me it was all about writing and directing.
What was your first big success?
In 2004 I got an RTE short script film award worth ten thousand Euro. It was for a film called Tom Waits made me Cry, a dystopian sci-fi film. It was about a world ruled by celebrities – it seemed farfetched at the time! I had really high hopes for it but with hindsight we still had a lot to learn. It had a lot of black humour but we stripped it out. We tried to make it like Eraserhead by David Lynch but it meant we strayed too far from the original project. It taught me to be really clear about what I wanted and make sure everyone had the same idea of what the film should be.
What happened next?
I got a job through the Community Employment Scheme – basically because I’d been on the dole for a while! I had a really kind employment officer Bernie O’Connell, who worked hard to match me to a job I would enjoy. She came up with the RDS job – I was a library assistant, filing books and helping the public. I loved it and it gave me time to write on the side, mostly short scripts.
In 2007 and 2008 I went for funding awards for a film called Henry and Sunny and didn’t get anything. It’s frustrating because just to go for the award you have to have a script ready to go, ready to film so it’s a blow when you don’t get anywhere. At this point I had a break from the shorts and starting working on feature length scripts but I also became a library cataloguing archivist and had less time for writing.
How did you return to script work?
In 2008 my friend Orla got a film kit. She really liked my script for Henry and Sunny. Because it had been turned down for funding she convinced me to make it on no money. I rewrote the script to make it cheaper to shoot and we roped in friends to act. After a slow build up, it did really well on the festival circuit – over 20 festivals screened it. In 2010 it screened at the Feel Good Festival in LA and I was nominated for Best Director. We went over and had a great experience. We discovered they had an Award for Best Feature Screenplay so I decided that was my goal for the following year.
Did you win?!
No but I entered my next script into the Blue Cat Screenplay Contest and it won so it was worth the effort. It was called Calvin and Sky and it did well in a few contests, which helped it get optioned by BCDF Pictures. It’s being produced this year under the title Departures and it has a big name cast. So, you know, only 7 years in the making!
Is your main focus still writing feature-length scripts?
Yes, that’s my ideal, I’d love to be writing films all the time but it takes so long from idea to production that you need other avenues of regular income. I got a lucky break in 2014 when I was commissioned to write for Fair City. That sounds very straightforward but I had approached them previously and found out later that my contact had moved on. So, you need that combination of patience and persistence. I started my induction in Feb 2014 and by July I was commissioned to write my first full script.
How has that worked out?
It’s been great. It’s a really flexible day job that allows me to develop my skills and leaves some time for me to work on other projects. It gives me a regular income which allows me to take more time and more risks with my other projects. I love the collaborative aspects and it’s interesting writing someone else’s stories. We get a brief and a template but there’s freedom within that. It teaches you about taking feedback and working with script editors. Being precious doesn’t work – you’re all working as a team with a common goal.
For someone interested in screenwriting as a career, what’s the best path?
The main thing is just to keep writing, for yourself. There are loads of books and courses out there. I read all the books but in the end once you know the basic rules of the craft – the structure, the formatting – it’s just about going away and honing your craft. I find it helpful reading screenplays – there’s a website called www.gointothestory.com which has loads of scripts of big films which have been produced. You can read the scripts and then watch the film. It’s a good way of tracking the changes. You can see how the film evolves from the script and study how the narrative emerges. There’s also a podcast called Scriptnotes on www.johnaugust.com which I found helpful.
Funding is important. Do you have any tips or tricks?
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get funding straight away. Feedback is important – get other writers to read your work, not just your friends. Re-writing is the main thing you need to learn. It’s always tempting to finish one script and go straight to the next when actually it’s the redrafting that makes your work strong. There’s a great book called Your screenplay sucks! by William M Akers. It’s an irreverent look at the redrafting process which I found helpful.
What are the good things about Screenwriting for a living?
It’s flexible. All you need is a laptop or notebook and pen and your own imagination. You can do it anywhere and set your own hours. You do need to be able to manage your time – you might be given weeks to write a script but deadlines can sneak up. Once you get to rewriting with editors you might have to turn things round fast, think on your feet and be open to changing things.
What are the hardest bits?
The lack of regular income unless you can get into writing for a TV show. There’s a shortage of paid writing work out there. For film, it’s a very competitive industry, lots of people are competing for the same pot of money. A lot of younger screenwriters are trying to write films to be made in America. The screenwriting competitions can get a bad press because there’s an entry fee but as long as you target them, they can lead to good opportunities. I recommend The Nicholl Fellowship contest in LA.
Also, people should know it can be a very solitary job. It’s really important to foster connections with other writers and artists who get what you’re doing, who can give you support and feedback. You have to make time for other interests.
Key skills for a screenwriter?
Empathy so you can write good, relatable characters. Screenwriting is a marriage between the craft and imagination and books can only teach the craft. You have to know when to break the formula and to take a risk. The more you write the more intuitive it becomes. Like every branch of writing you need to practise and redraft. Resilience, thick skin and a bit of stubbornness are essential to face the knockbacks along the way!
Would you recommend it as a way of making a living?
It can be a tough job. Maybe I would have stopped if I could have but it’s just in me to do it. I’ve taken breaks from it but even then I was making notes, it was bubbling away. If you’re equally as passionate about something else that pays the bills better, do it instead! Otherwise you can end up all your writing being about earning an income and that can take the enjoyment out of it. There aren’t many jobs where you face so much rejection for sustained periods. The key is to learn early: don’t take it personally! And hang in there because breaking through can take longer than you expected but it’s sweet when you get there.