Cillian Daly: Filmmaker and Overall Cool Guy
Interviewer: Kimberly Viveiros
Cillian Daly is a talented director and screenwriter living in Ireland. I was incredibly excited when he agreed to an interview with me, and even more surprised to find out so much about him through so few questions. From what I got out of him, I know he is a husband and father who juggles filmmaking and screenwriting in his busy schedule, and has an amazing work ethic. He’s passionate about his projects and once he gets an idea or vision, he never stops until he makes it come to life.
Cillian first did a Model Making & Special Effects Diploma course when he went to the National Film & Television School in Dublin. His hope was to work in the film industry by way of model making and VFX, a tiny industry in Ireland at the time. He ended up getting a job working for an architectural consultancy firm making digital models and inserting them into photographs using Photoshop.
He stayed there for four years but his love of cinema got the better of him and he left to make his first ever film; “an appallingly bad horror movie – it was rubbish!” (as he puts it).
It did, however, get him into the film degree course in the National Film school where he specialized in screenwriting with a minor in directing. And his eight minute graduation film cost him more than his first ill-fated feature. His graduation film is titled This Way They Came and it’s been aired on the national broadcaster in Ireland several times.
Interviewer: How did you come to realize your love of film, and what motivated you to actually become a screenwriter/director?
Cillian: My earliest cinema memory is when Return Of The Jedi was released here [Ireland] in 1983. It was shown in a local cinema as a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. Watching the scenes on Hoth with the AT-AT’s and Snowspeeders, sandwiched between my dad and older cousin in the 3rd row: that’s what pushed me towards movies. (My cousin is now a Production Designer for film and TV, my sister is a camera person in a national TV station — so it’s in the family!)
I wanted to do that, make those images outside my head, rather than contained in my imagination. That’s why I did model making first when I got out of school.
I had a very active imagination when I was a kid, still do! So making things up, acting out adventures on a grand scale with GI-Joe’s, and Star Wars figures, in a massive LEGO environment, during the summers after my Star Wars introduction, set me off.
My English teacher in secondary school (ages 13-18 here) always said I had a great imagination, and loved making stories up. Whenever we had to do essays, I’d be throwing in sci-fi references, weird stuff, rather than the usual everyday things. It drove him mad!
So my motivation was really a need to get these mad images out of my head, my own sort of catharsis I guess. And I’m still going!
Interviewer: When did you first start making films, and what was your first project?
Cillian: My first major film was my horror feature. My family never had 8mm cameras, or old VHS camcorders. But my dad was very much into photography and in a way he trained my eye. The first movie camera I ever got was the DV cam that I shot my feature on. I was 21. Not like Spielberg or anything! I suppose I was always writing above all else. And I read a heck of a lot. I used to read novels cover to cover in a day. Just hide away in my room, and read.
Interviewer: How do you overcome writer’s block when writing a screenplay?
Cillian: I don’t really get writers block. If a scene gets sticky, or I become demotivated to write it I either move onto a completely different project, or I push through. Write anything as a place holder, and go back and edit it when I feel better about it. Or go play on Twitter.
Interviewer: Has screenwriting gotten easier for you over time than it was in the beginning? Or is it “your process is still your process” and will not change?
Cillian: I guess with the continued practice of writing, writing, WRITING! it has gotten easier, at least as far as formatting because that has now become somewhat second nature. The main issue I have is putting cohesive ideas together so that they make for a compelling story, at least in my mind. I’ve learned a hell of a lot from feedback, mostly from my college peers and people I’ve met via Twitter. The thing with screenwriting, for me anyway, is that different movies can be tackled in many different ways. For the spec market, you can write in a specific style, quick, succinct, sparse with lots of white on the page, etc. But if you’re writing to direct, which my short scripts are, I can indulge myself, since I’m most likely to be the only one worrying about the description being right and clear. I’ve found it easier to differentiate between these types and edit my scripts accordingly.
To be honest, it has gotten easier. I’ve found a rhythm that I enjoy. Now I can write 18 page shorts in a few days, and get a few drafts of a feature turned over in a couple of months. Also, being married with a 2 year old son means I have to make time to write and just write in that time. So life experiences have honed my writing management
So yes, it has gotten easier as I’ve matured, but whether it’s gotten any better content wise, is another thing entirely!
Interviewer: When you’re in-between projects, or coming up with your next idea, what are the things in life that inspire you or just kind of keep you turned on as an artist?
Cillian: I’ve usually got a few ideas going at the same time, I’m lucky in that I’ve yet to be short of any! I read a lot – history, especially to research and develop a seed of an idea that I get, or a scene I imagine. I have a passion for science, specifically astrophysics. I was this close to doing a science degree instead of model making all those years ago!
So I read that kind of stuff, novels of all sorts. I get lots of inspiration through that, and observing life around me. I usually carry a notebook, and when I’m out shopping, in malls, in work (part time consulting) I’m writing notes and ideas, lines of dialogue, that sort of thing. I go to the cinema as much as I can too, and I’m lucky to have many good friends here in the Irish film and media industry whose work inspires me to improve and do better. And I get a lot of imagery and some crazy ideas from my dreams. I’m lucky (maybe!) that I remember pretty much all of my dreams. So I pull stuff from them. My parents and what they’ve had to deal with in life have inspired me too. And dealing with loss – grandparents and pets, affects perspective, and I’ve used that grief and channeled it into my work, in a good way, hopefully. (I’m naturally dark when it comes to drama, I’m not content with the Hollywood happy ending, I like to keep a bit of an edge to it, keep it somewhat realistic. So life has informed that to some extent.)
Ideas are everywhere – it’s how your voice explains them that makes you out as special I guess!
Interviewer: Do outlines play a big part in your process in the beginning of your script? Do you beat out the whole story, or just dive in after page 1?
Cillian: What I’ve done on the last few features I’m working on, and all the ones that are still in the development stage, is to start a word file that I just throw anything I come up with that might be relevant to that story into. They usually start with one scene that has no story. I’ve yet to start with a character. I don’t think I ever will. I find the images I get first are what dictates the story that comes from that. That eventually becomes big enough to construct a basic story from.
Obviously not everything I put in there makes it out, but it’s good to just free flow ideas. And they sometimes jump to other stories. Within that doc are the character description, traits, the world they inhabit etc.
From there, I print that doc, highlight the scenes, lines, dialogue I want to keep and then write them out onto index cards. Then I arrange them into story order, and number them. I’ve yet to keep the numbers in the same order – everything changes! Then, I start with FADE IN. And then it all goes to hell in a handcart!
But that’s the fun part.
Interviewer: Directing. Screenwriting. If you could only do one for the rest of your life, which would you choose to do?
Cillian: Screenwriting. I have to write. Can’t help it. It’s a primal need with me. It’s a solitary thing too, an escape sometimes and I like that. I do love directing, but that only happens after the writing. And knowing I could write, but have to wait around for someone else to do it, that’d wreck my head!
If I got a spec sale or a few jobs from my spec writing, I’d keep writing. In reality, it might lead to a chance to direct professionally. As it is now, I’m prepping that feature to direct my self, and a I’ve a few spec adverts I’m going to make this year, all self financed and/or crowd funded. And with every favour I’m owed cashed in!!!
So, yes, screenwriting, no doubt. It’s what I am, and I’m okay with that. For now…!
To find out more about Cillian Daly’s film work and to follow his growing success check out his website http://www.cilliandaly.com.