Fergal Rock Interview

BlueCat Fellini Award (2011)

BlueCat: Tell us a little bit about your script Calvin and Skye.

Fergal Rock: Calvin & Skye is a story about a hypochondriac called Calvin who visits a cancer support group in order to confront his fears. Here he encounters Skye, a terminally-ill teenager with a seemingly fearless attitude to life. Snubbed by her friends and smothered by her parents, Skye exerts what little control she still has in life to forge an unlikely friendship with Calvin. The relationship is initially self-serving for Skye (she uses Calvin to further her own needs; going to parties etc.) and quite antagonistic in nature but later blossoms into one of genuine affection and mutual respect.

I wanted to avoid sentimentality as much as possible so it’s comic and poignant rather than maudlin. It’s very much a character-driven screenplay, packed full of heart and emotion. It’s always encouraging to see independent films break out and become internationally successful. Films likeJunoLars and the Real GirlLittle Miss Sunshine. These, and Harold and Maude, were the films I had in mind when I started writing Calvin & Skye. I wanted to write something small, with heart and strong characters and I wanted it to have universal significance. As much of the action takes place in an airport (where Calvin works) Calvin & Skye’s story could conceivably be transposed to any number of cities around the world.

BlueCat: How long have you been writing screenplays?

Fergal Rock: I’ve been writing screenplays on and off since the late ’90′s. I decided quite early on that I wanted to be a filmmaker and so I was always writing bits and pieces.

My first short script was called Waiting To Inhale and recounted the existentialist tale of a man’s futile attempts to find a light for his last cigarette. It was in the vein of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and heavily indebted to Hal Hartley, of whom I was a big fan at the time. There were a lot of men in black suits smoking cigarettes in my early scripts.

A friend of mine had an idea for a feature which he’d aborted and which I then took on. It was called Circumstances and it was about a drifter who arrives in a small town on the same day as a murdered body is discovered. I’d always been a fan of film noirs and John Dahl was making a lot of those great contemporary noirs at the time (Red Rock WestThe Last Seduction).

I didn’t know the first thing about writing feature screenplays but I went to the library and found a book on screenwriting. I copied out the Three-Act Structure breakdown and used that as my guide. I think I wrote about two-thirds of it before I binned it. The first feature screenplay I actually completed was called Small Hours. I think this was in 2001 and like a lot of first feature screenplays it was a multi-stranded narrative in the vein of Short Cuts. I must have sent it to someone because I remember getting a note that said “The writer is perhaps a little too in love with his own poetry.”

I took that as a veiled compliment at the time. I did an MA in Film Theory & Production in 2002 and the course included a pretty intensive screenwriting module. I learned a lot about screenwriting that year. We didn’t write any features but I did write two short scripts; Tom Waits Made Me Cry, which I directed in 2004 under a scheme financed by Filmbase (a non-profit resource centre for filmmakers) and the state broadcaster RTE and Henry & Sunny which I directed in 2009. Both films are on Vimeo if any of your readers care to watch them.

After the MA I focused on writing screenplays and a couple of short scripts I’d written were short-listed for funding. I wrote a couple of feature screenplays and sought development funding from The Irish Film Board with those. A few years ago The Irish Film Board changed their submissions policy to encourage the submission of treatments rather than first draft screenplays so from then on I concentrated on writing treatments. After a while it occurred to me that I was amassing this collection of treatments but I had no new screenplays to show for them. I went to LA last summer to attend the Feel Good Film Festival in Hollywood. My short film Henry & Sunny was screening there and I’d been nominated as Best Director. There was an award for best unproduced screenplay and I decided I’d write a script to submit for the following year’s festival. The resulting screenplay was Calvin & Skye.

BlueCat: How many screenplays have you written?

Fergal Rock: Well, I wrote a lot of screenplays when I was first starting out which I probably wouldn’t show to anyone today. I still stand by the stories but a lot of them are under developed. As far as features go, in addition to Calvin & Skye, I’ve written a drama called The Colour of Love and a sci-fi drama called Things We LostThe Colour of Love is about a guy and a girl in their twenties, who grew up in loveless environments, falling in love for the first time. I recently wrote a short script around these same characters for a film I directed called On Our Way. I’ll be submitting it to film festivals later this summer. Things We Lost is about a man named Peter Franklin who works for a company that provide a facility whereby a bereaved party may have their “grief” removed. They don’t lose their memories, just the associated pain and feelings of loss. When Peter’s wife dies in what appears to be a terrible accident, the company book him in for the procedure – only Peter, convinced of a cover-up, is unwilling to comply.

There are quite a few funding schemes for short film scripts in Ireland so I’ve written a lot of those. In addition to On Our WayHenry & Sunny, and Tom Waits Made Me Cry, there’s The Astronaut (Friends, family and colleagues remember NASA Astronaut Ellis Edwards who disappeared while on a solo flight mission to the moon), L’amour Fou (A collector, a forger and a thief conspire to steal a world famous painting – until love intervenes) and The Thing About Comedy (A deaf man dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian) to name a few.

I’ve also written a number of film treatments, a TV pilot and an outline for a TV series.

BlueCat: What was the inspiration behind this story? How long have you worked on the project?

Fergal Rock: A few years back I saw an incredibly moving documentary on TV. It was sort of a video-diary about a teenage girl who had terminal cancer. I think she was sixteen and she had a one year old daughter which was doubly heart-breaking. Her story really struck a chord with me.

Around the same time I read an article about hypochondria which discussed the role of cognitive-behavioral therapies in confronting the condition. I’d been writing a lot of off-beat stuff that wasn’t getting anywhere so I made a conscious decision to write something that was very much routed in the real and so I wrote a script called The Language of Happiness. This was basically a prototype for what would become Calvin & Skye.

The Language of Happiness was a very serious drama, emotive but light on laughs. A lot of people really responded to it but nothing came of it and it went back in the drawer. I still liked the idea and people would ask me about it from time to time. Eventually I just decided to take another stab at it. I knew I wanted it to be more comedic. Obviously the material was still highly emotive but once I found Skye’s voice (which happened quite quickly) I knew I could strike a balance and again I had the likes of Lars and the Real Girl and to a lesser degree Synechdoche, New York as a reference point. I think I started writing it in January, 2010. By then I’d completely re-worked the storyline. There isn’t a single surviving scene or indeed character name from The Language of Happiness inCalvin & Skye. I finished the first draft and showed it to some friends who all loved it. I left it in a drawer for a few months, occasionally returning to edit and re-draft it now and again. In January 2011 I showed it to a writer I know and he gave me some great notes. I think I wrote one more draft and then submitted it to BlueCat. When I got the two reader reports from BlueCat I wrote another draft and then resubmitted it. All in all I spent maybe 15 months – on and off – working on it.

BlueCat: What made you decide to enter BlueCat?

Fergal Rock: I mainly entered the BlueCat Screenplay Competition for the analysis. I’d always been a little wary of screenplay contests. There are so many of them out there and some of the submission fees are quite prohibitive. I did some research online and made a list of contests which I felt were reputable and worthwhile entering. I figured (with BlueCat) even if I didn’t get anywhere the analysis alone would be worth the entry fee.

I didn’t think much more of it until I received the reports both of which scored the script quite highly and made some excellent points. I was in two minds about re-submitting the screenplay but again I figured it was a good opportunity to re-draft the script as there was a fixed deadline for resubmissions, plus I’d get another report. It goes without saying that Gordy Hoffman’s involvement was also a big selling point. I’d seen Love Liza years earlier and greatly admired it. I was also impressed with the community aspect to BlueCat and the resources available through the newsletter (screenplays, interviews etc.).

BlueCat: Are there any writers that have influenced your work?

Fergal Rock: As a writer/director I’m probably influenced more by writer/directorsthan writers. People like Hal Hartley, Alan Rudolph, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen Brothers were early influences. Also the films of Nicolas Roeg. I like Paul Thomas Anderson and Sofia Coppola. Also Alexander Payne has done some very smart stuff and I think Fatih Akin is a real talent. I like some of Mike White’s stuff too. I’m pretty much influenced by everything though; music (Tom Waits), prose fiction (Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Chandler), photography (Gregory Crewdson, Philip Lorca diCorcia). It all ends up in the melting pot.

BlueCat: What’s your writing process like?

Fergal Rock: When I first started writing my process was to sit down in front of a computer and type. I’d just figure things out as I went along. Nowadays I do a lot more prep before I start writing. I keep notebooks and I spend a lot of time in coffee shops mapping out ideas, drawing out characters. I find it cuts out a lot of those “staring blankly at the screen” moments (though certainly not all of them).

In recent years I’ve taken to writing treatments or rough outlines first and I find this helps to narrow the focus of the story. I’ve never been short on ideas and in the past I’d finish one script (a first draft) and move straight on to the next project. I used to find writing was a lot more fun than re-writing and so I’ve amassed quite a lot of first drafts. I’m in the process of re-drafting a lot of those now and generally divide my time between those and developing new ideas.

I don’t really keep “office hours”, although if I had an office I might, and I’ve never been one of those “writing through the night” guys. I tend to do the bulk of my writing between early-afternoon and early evening. If the script’s going well I’ll write for longer. If it’s not I’ll probably still put in the hours but I’ll spend a lot of it checking my email. If I have an idea but I’m not ready to start writing it I tend to read a lot of fiction, or go to the cinema but I don’t tend to do either while I’m writing. I’m usually too focused on my story to invest in other people’s.

BlueCat: What are your goals with the script after winning the Fellini Awards?

Fergal Rock: Winning the Fellini Awards is a huge validation and it’s already opened some doors for me. I was greatly encouraged by Gordy’s thoughts on the script and he gave me some sound advice. Obviously the goal now is to get the film made. Whether that’s in the US, here in Ireland, or the UK remains to be seen. I’ve sent the script to a number of independent producers in New York and LA and a few Irish and UK producers have also asked to read it.

I think there’s definitely a market for a film like this in the US and in Europe and I think producers will recognise that potential. The script offers two great parts for a male actor (I’d always envisaged a Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Paul Giamatti in the role) and a young actress (potentially a breakout role as we saw with Ellen Page in Juno) and there’s some nice, comic supporting roles too. Aside from getting the film made, I hope to use Calvin & Skye as an audition piece when pitching other scripts and treatments to producers/agents.

BlueCat: What’s your favorite screenplay that you’ve read?

Fergal Rock: I don’t know that I have a favorite screenplay. I probably don’t read as many screenplays as I should. I’ve tried to factor it into my writing schedule but by the time I’ve read ten or fifteen pages of a script online I’m usually inspired enough to return to my own script.

Before I started writing Calvin & Skye I read the screenplays for JunoLars and the Real Girl and Harold and Maude. I knew I wanted to write something in a similar vein so they were good reference points, as well as being very entertaining reads. Prior to Calvin & Skye I wrote a treatment for a comedy script called Billy Loves Julie. It’s a story about a couple in a long-term relationship in which the girl begins to realize she’s outgrown the guy in terms of her goals and aspirations in life. She still loves him but they’re moving in different directions, or rather she is as he’s perfectly content for things to stay the same. She’s a Teacher and he works part-time at an Adult Store. When she goes back to her home town (in an Irish-speaking part of the country) to supervise an Irish-language summer camp, he realizes he may lose her so he enrolls in the camp, where he’s the sole adult amidst a hundred odd teenagers. It’s kind of a belated coming-of-age tale modeled on the Judd Apatow brand so I looked at the script forKnocked-Up when I was writing that. Other than those, I don’t know, I really liked the script for The Kids Are Alright. Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay for You Can Count On Me is an old favorite as are the scripts for Taxi DriverThe ConversationBlade Runner.

BlueCat: What have you learned from your BlueCat experience?

Fergal Rock: Prior to BlueCat I was very much focused on getting projects funded in Ireland. There are a lot of talented filmmakers in Ireland and while it’s a small pool, funding is limited. It can be frustrating at times, particularly when you know you’ve got a good project. Winning this year’s Fellini Award not only validates the script, it shows that I can compete on an International level and that’s a tremendous boost to me personally.

BlueCat: What’s next for you as a writer?

Fergal Rock: I’ve got quite a few projects on the go now. I’m writing a screenplay called Sanctuary. It’s a father/son story framed around a young man’s attempts to build and launch his own submarine. That’s one I’d like to direct myself. I’m also co-writing a screenplay called Winter Blindness with Shirley Weir of Stitch Films (Ireland). After that I’m going to start work on a conspiracy thriller that I’ve been developing for a while now. It takes place in New York, Portugal and Berlin and would be similar in some respects to the Bourne films. Then there’s the aforementioned Billy Loves Julie, plus a gentle drama in the vein of Ghost World called While the City Sleeps and an off-beat road movie called In the Age of Sadness which is about a circus clown who discovers he’s adopted and goes in search of his biological parents. There are a few others but it’ll take me a while to get to those.

Our thanks go out to Fergal Rock for taking the time to join BlueCat for an interview. Congratulations Fergal on being chosen as one of the five winners in our Fellini Awards. Look for more interviews with the winners of the Fellini Awards in the coming weeks.

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