Irish Writer Mark O’Halloran On Finding the Voice of Cuban Drag Stars in VIVA

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Mark O’Halloran is the rare artist that has made his impact both in front of the camera and as a scriptwriter. Working closely with director Lenny Abrahamson (Room), he scripted Adam & Paul, Garage, and the mini-series Prosperity before crafting his latest story, far from his native Ireland. His upcoming film, Viva (in theaters April 29), takes place in the underground drag clubs of Havana, Cuba, and explores a complex relationship between a father and son. LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher caught up with O’Halloran to talk about his latest project, the craft of writing, and the art of international storytelling.

John Bucher (JB):  Tell me a little bit about how you found the story of Viva. Was it a research thing or did you meet some people who introduced you to this world?

Mark O’Halloran (MO):  The whole process began because I met Paddy Breathnach, who directed Viva, and I wanted to write for him because I really respected his work. I said to him, “Can we try and find an idea that would suit us both, that would give us something that we can both work on together?” He had been to Cuba in the 90s and had seen a drag show in Santa Clara, and it had a big effect on him. Paddy’s a straight man. He hasn’t really been around the drag scene but it had a big effect on him.

He said, “Perhaps we could go on holiday to Havana and maybe find some story over there. We went to drag shows and interviewed performers, and I took a lot of notes. When I came home, an idea for a story had come, which was sort of an amalgamation of some of the stories that were told to me. It became the story of Viva. I wrote that for him in short form and he accepted it, so we went into the development process with it.

JB:   It’s always interesting to listen to other writers’ processes. Can you talk a little bit about once you have this amalgam of stories that come together, how you structure that and put it into some sort of outline? What’s your process like?

MO:  My practice is, I spend a huge amount of time planning. If I do a treatment, for instance, my treatments can be quite long. They generally are about the world of the story before the story starts, if you get my meaning. It gives you extensive background on characters: extended background and the cultural background of the story and how it fits into the current situation, society-wise. Or extensive story about relationships that might not be in the film, but could be used and could impact the film. They’re really intense character studies. I will only very barely map out the story line. I tend to let a lot of that develop as I write. I will understand that there are story beats, and possibly the end will need to be this way, but I won’t be sure exactly how to do it.

I don’t do a three act structure outline before I begin, for instance.

JB:   How did it affect your construction or writing of the film knowing that it would be done in Spanish in the end? How did that affect your writing?

MO:  I think it was always planned that we would make it in Spanish just because we wanted to make something very authentic. What I did was I read a huge amount of Cuban literature in translation. I noticed certain shapes of sentences and shapes of idioms with it. I felt pointed towards the type of communication that they use or a type of way they use language. I was able to pick up on those things. Also, much of it I wrote in an Irish colloquial way, which sounds odd, I know. I just wanted to make sure that there was no possibility of a direct translation happening because I wanted it to be in a strong Havana vernacular. I made sure that it was in a strong vernacular when it was given to the translator.

I don’t know if that quite makes sense to you.

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JB:   Yeah, it does. That’s really an interesting sway to approach it.

MO:  There’s some of it which is direct translation, but there’s others which I would sit with the translator and go, “Well, look, this type of language comes from this particular way of speaking. There’s a reason why they may not be able to use this word or that word, blah blah blah. Is there a possibility that you can give it in a way that would happen in Havana? It was a really interesting process. I really enjoyed it actually.

JB:   In several of your previous pieces, you’ve created some interesting yet very unique characters. Are you seeing any themes emerge about the characters that you tend to write about?

MO:  I’ve tended over the last few years to veer towards writing about fractured families and parentlessness or fatherlessess. That’s been very dear to my heart.

Writing-wise, I’m very observational. I myself… I don’t think I have anything to say. But my characters sometimes do. I find that writing for me is a process of getting out of the way.

JB:   The people you observe, I see connections to a lot of archetypes and things that we might have studied in psychology.

MO:  I do love to start with an archetypal character and then draw him or her as deeply as I can, so that an audience recognizes them almost immediately when they look at them, and then sometimes gets surprised by the nuance that you can deliver. Irish films about the countryside had always used the trope of the village idiot as a peripheral character, so at one point, I decided to write a film that brought him, the village idiot, into the center of the film, and give him room. I do like archetypes, for sure.

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JB:   How has this experience been different for you than the projects that you’ve worked on with Lenny Abrahamson?

MO:  This is different because when I was finished with Prosperity, I stepped away and I started writing for the theater and went back to acting. I stopped writing for film or television, just because I’d come to the end of a creative process. Myself and Lenny had come to the end of our working life together. We’re still working together — maybe we’ll do something else together — but we’ve come to the end of a certain type of process. We both wanted to make different things afterwards.

I wanted to go back and write for the theater. I sensed that I needed to go and do some investigation there. Then this thing came along, this idea of writing completely outside of my own culture really excited me. It was as if I wanted to challenge myself to see, if it’s not happening outside my window, can I still write about it?

JB:   You’re someone who began writing after you already had a career in acting. What gave you the confidence to begin writing later after you had established yourself as an actor?

MO:  It’s an odd one because I didn’t write until I was about 30. It was very late. I found that the type of imaginative process that I used to create characters in plays or in the theater was the exact same process that I used to create characters when I write. The end product, the nuts and bolts of actually finishing it was different, obviously.

I am a great diary keeper. I write a daily diary and I also keep a note diary and a leisure diary. I had all this stuff around watching heroin addicts in Dublin and I did have an idea of writing something that would set between sunrise and sunrise. I pitched that to some friends I had in the theater community, and they put me in contact with Lenny. That was a really lovely project, with me and Lenny, we would just sit around and laugh. In many ways Lenny taught me how to write a screenplay because I didn’t have a clue.

JB:   Last question for you. One of the things we always like to ask people is for the most practical or best advice that you have as a writer, what would you say to other writers who would seek your advice.

MO:  A couple of ways around answering that. What is a writer? A writer is somebody who writes, so just write. Another thing is, like, finish. Finish the fucking thing.

I often I do workshops with people and people will go, “I’ve got this brilliant first act for a film but I’m afraid I’ll break it if I continue on.” Just finish it.

There’s also little practical things. I remember a writer saying to me once, “A character rarely comments on themselves.” The reason they don’t comment on themselves is they don’t have the self-awareness to. We don’t really know who we are. That’s why drama is necessary. I thought it was a really great observation.

I think that if, for instance, a character can describe what’s wrong with them, in a play or a film, then there’s nothing wrong with them. I like that idea.

Viva hits theaters on April 29.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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