Film In Motion 5 – Screenwriter Eleanor McSherry Talks Turning Ideas into Films

Film in Motion is a series of articles and interviews which look at the different roles needed to produce the visual medium of film. This week we talk to screenwriter, Eleanor McSherry…

Eleanor McSherry is a freelance screenwriter, producer and director from Limerick. She teaches a successful scriptwriting course in the Limerick Writers Centre and her own work has been shortlisted for the Galway Film Centre Short Script Awards in 2009 and 2010, the Dublin Filmbase Short Script Awards 2010 and the Waterford Film Festival Short Script Awards 2012. Eleanor also has a background in journalism and public relations and has served as Public Relations Officer on a number of film projects. Eleanor is an active member of the film community in Limerick and has previously served as the Creative Director for the Richard Harris International Film Festival and currently serves as the Vice Chair of the L.A.C.E Film Strand.

Screenwriter Eleanor McSherry -
Screenwriter Eleanor McSherry

How would you define the role of screenwriter and what they do?

The screenwriter is an extremely important part of the movie making process. The screenwriter puts the words in the mouth of the actor, gives the outline to the director and gives the producer something to sell. Without the screenwriter none of this will happen. So the screenwriter provides a vital role in the moviemaking industry as a whole.


What was it that attracted you to screenwriting?

I always wanted to write. I actually wanted to be a journalist with the BBC, but my life took a different turn. When I was a kid I use to write sequels to films I liked, so I wrote Grease 3, it wasn’t that great to be honest with you. On Saturday afternoons RTÉ would should 1950’s black & whites and musicals and so on. I loved watching them, they drew me in and as I got older I wanted to know more about film. So I went back to college as a mature student in my 30’s, specifically to study screenwriting and I ended up doing a Masters in Philosophy, but along the way I found out that I actually wasn’t too bad at screenwriting. It’s something that I don’t find particularly hard to do and I actually love doing it.  

What was your path into the industry?

I did a couple of screenwriting courses in Dublin and a night course in RTÉ. Then when I moved back to Limerick I went to Mary Immaculate. Straight out of the course I wrote a short film for the Galway and RTÉ film centres short film scheme, and it was shortlisted. At this stage I knew nobody in film and when they rang me and asked me what production company I was with, I told them I wasn’t with a production company. I then had to get a team together and go and pitch. I got into the top three but unfortunately there was only money for two. It was a very good learning experience. I then took the script to production companies and ended up caught in a bidding war between Wide Eye Films and John Michael McDonagh. I ended up going with Wide Eye Films and ever since then I’ve been involved with film, primarily in Limerick. I also teach a short script course through the Limerick Writers Centre. I run the course two or three times a year and 70% of people who have come and done the course have gone on to make films.

What training or experience did you find most helpful?

I do think that you have to learn a structure. Even if it is a short course like the one I run or the one’s in Filmbase or a film centre. I think you do need that, because it teaches you discipline. It teaches you how to sit down and how to have a certain amount done in time. Also the industry looks for a script to be a certain way, so I think you do need to have some sort of training in it. Other than that I think you can’t teach talent.

Where did you look for inspiration when you were starting out versus now?

I’m an inherently nosey person so when I was starting out I would be sitting on a train and if I saw people I’d imagine what they are doing. Where they are going. Who they are. You have to be a people watcher in any kind of writing, be it script or novels or whatever. Then I’d write down notes. I have a folder at home full of ideas, I have little notes written everywhere. I think it’s a good idea to bring a notebook with you. That was then, now I’m more structured. I structure my time more wisely, I’ll actually start a script if I think it’s a good enough idea. Back then I was all over the place, bits of script written everywhere. I think now I know what I want, I know who I’m pitching to and I know who will film it for me. If you want to be a scriptwriter then you really need to be able to set yourself up to have your structure and to be able to in-visualise whose going to be your audience. Who’s going to make this film for me? Until you have that, it’s going to be very difficult to get your film off the ground.

When you are writing are you thinking about an audience?

Always think about an audience. I think you cannot be a scriptwriter without being a film lover. I just don’t think it works that way. Even if you’re a fussy film lover, even if your thing is non narrative and it’s arty, arthouse or whatever. I think that if you really what to take yourself seriously you have to go out and watch films. Most of the filmmakers I know can quote a film at the drop of a hat. If we’re in a pub or something happens in a pub that reminds them of a film. If you ever watch NCIS, there’s a character called DiNozzo and he spends his whole time quoting films. I think that’s what you have to do, you have to be an avid watcher of films. I don’t think that you can call yourself a scriptwriter unless you can do that.

What is your favourite thing about screenwriting?

Seeing my film. Sitting in an audience and watching people’s reactions. I remember the first time. It was a documentary I made and sitting in the audience and watching people’s reactions. We put our heart and soul into it and seeing people crying, seeing people coming up to me afterwards going wow that was absolutely amazing. Now technically it wasn’t the best thing in the world, structurally it was actually very well structured but technically it was awful, really bad. So it was actually fantastic to see other people’s reactions. I have a quote I think on my Facebook page somewhere about that, about the emotion of film. You know when you’ve ever come out of a film and you go “whoa that was cool!” You don’t know why it was cool you couldn’t point to one particular thing but you just feel really good about yourself. That’s what I want to make people feel. So when you’re sitting in an audience and watching people react to it, there’s nothing like it.

What have been some of the greater challenges in your work?

Time. Lack of time. I’m involved in so many other things and I always overcommit. It’s making time and space for writing, and finding the time to actually go out and film. That’s the biggest struggle. I don’t think anything else, I mean if you really want to make a film you’ll find a way.

What are you currently working on?

Well I have a documentary that I’m working on with some refugees. I have a short film with a production company in Dublin. I have another short film that I’m finishing with somebody from Limerick. I also have this feature that I want to start and I also have an idea for a TV series that I’m working through at the moment. I’m hoping to base it in Limerick. There is just so much going on but I’m still working away. I never stop, so please god they’ll all come to fruition.

What advice do you have for those looking to break into screenwriting?

Don’t talk about it, do it. All the people who come to my course walk away with a finished script. And they have been writing, it’s to get out do your writing, don’t let anyone stop you, don’t let structure stop you. There’s plenty of online stuff that you can do that will help you to write but I would advise anyone that if you have a story in your head, put it down on paper. There will always be somebody who will help you make it. There will always be someone who will be interested in what you’re doing.


Check out the rest of our Film In Motion Series below:

Part 1 – interview with director Peter McNamara

Part 2 – Interview with actress Maeve McGrath

Part 3 – Interview with producer Keith Bogue

Part 4 – Interview with editor Simon McGuire

Featured graphic credit: Phil Shanahan