I always enjoy being in the presence of other creative people

My Name is Joe is a profoundly touching film that exhibits the best of the Loach/Laverty partnership: superior writing, accomlished direction, tremendous characters, and phenomenal acting. Yes, this film does deserve those adverbs and adjective.

Combined with seeing Ae Fond Kiss (review here) the previous night, I was looking forward to posing a couple of questions to Mr. Laverty during the screenwriter’s masterclass.

The Huston School is a curious white building that sits by the river, just across the bridge from the main site of the NUI Galway campus. When the sun is shining, as it was today, it’s a beautiful location. After class I perched on the steps that slope down to the grassy bank, and listened to the wind rush through the reeds and watched the sun glance off the water. It’s a peaceful place even though it’s close to one of Galway’s busiest thoroughfares.

The workshop was intimidating. There were roughly 20 people present, and most of them had significant experience writing for TV and film. I already know one of my future MA classmates, and met another at the workshop. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was picked to join this group of talented and experienced people, many of whom knew each other; it’s a small industry in Ireland.

I didn’t allow my feelings of inadequacy to hinder me, and raised all the questions I had formulated after watching Laverty’s movies. Laverty and Loach have a successful, and unusual, working relationship. The most non-conformist approach they take is that they shoot their scenes in sequence. Laverty repeated an anecdote of an American producer’s reaction to their style of shooting: “We haven’t done that since Cassavetes, and we don’t intend doing it again.” The reason is simple: shooting in sequence is expensive. The team saves money in other areas to reign in the costs.

The other quirk in their production style is that the actors never receive the whole script. Often, they receive their script the day before the shoot, and they are not informed what happens in scenes in which they do not appear. There are no read-throughs, or rehearsals. This is to allow for a spontaneous performance from the actors, and to prevent them over-thinking their responses. It is successful in provoking naturalistic acting, judging by the films I’ve seen. However, this approach depends on having actors of quality to carry it off.

Laverty talked a lot about his creative process, and how he submerges himself in research before he writes anything. He rarely writes a full treatment in advance, but does have some rough plan before he begins typing. I noticed that Laverty repeatedly came back to the notion of the “world” of the film, and its location. For him this informs the actions of his characters, and it must be consistent or else the audience notices. He urged us to dig deep into characters’ motivations, give them limitations, and put them through the mill. Also, to try and see every scene from the point of view of each of the characters as it can offer up new insights. Each scene, he suggested, should work on a number of levels, and some element (the action, characterisation, foreshadowing, etc.) must be advanced during the sequence. All while taking into account how the scenes lead into one another.

He admitted he tends towards over-writing in the early drafts, but as the process continues he strives to reduce it to a lean state. As he said, if you only have an hour and a half to tell your story you have to highlight the main thread and stick to it. Side-plots, and interesting characters sometimes are sacrificed so the pacing remains taut. Some of this takes place during the editing, of course, where entire scenes can be lopped off.

Laverty is lucky to have such a strong and respectful working relationship with Loach–which is not a common situation between directors and writers. He is part of the entire process: from casting, shooting and editing. This gives him a rare ability to modify the script continuously based on the actors’ and director’s input. His approach to screen writing is organic, and does not ascribe to any of the popular methodologies of screenwriting (such as the McKee method)–though he reminded us that each person has to find his/her method.

He listened carefully to the questions, and put effort into offering a full reply, while being struck by tangential ideas and exploring them as they arose. Laverty is not interested in impressing people with his talent–why should he, when his work is so accomplished? It was an informative, and illuminating couple of hours in the presence of a man who works hard on his craft.