19 January 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Daytime Emmy Nominated Writer Will Collins Talks with IFTN
18 Apr 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Writer Will Collins
IFTN caught up with Irish writer Will Collins to find out more about developing the script for ‘Angela’s Christmas’, his Emmy-award nomination and his advice on keeping the creativity flowing.

Collins’ has a host of impressive screen-writing credits to his name, particularly in the world of animation. In 2010 Collins’ first feature screenplay, ‘My Brothers’ was brought to screen by Treasure Entertainment producers Rebecca O’Flanagan and Robert Walpole. The film earned Collins an IFTA nomination for Best Script in 2011.

Since then, Collins has had major success in writing for animation, primarily in the guise of Oscar-nominated feature ‘Song of the Sea’. The screenplay follows Ben, a young Irish boy, and his little sister Saoirse, a girl who can turn into a seal, as they go on an adventure to free the fairies and save the spirit world. Collins developed the script alongside Cartoon Saloon Co-founder, Tomm Moore.

In March 2019, Collins was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for his writing on ‘Angela’s Christmas’. The half-hour CG film is based on Frank McCourt’s only children’s book inspired by a story his mother Angela told him as a child. In 1997 McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling memoir, ‘Angela’s Ashes’. 

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin recently caught up with Collins after the news of his Daytime Emmy nomination.

IFTN: As a writer, how did you approach adapting the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author?

Will: “I was sent the original book (Frank McCourt ‘s ‘Angela and Baby Jesus’) by Brown Bag. Once I read it, I could see immediately in his original story there were all the tenets of a good Christmas story. It was essentially about family, but I think, more importantly, it was a good Christmas story. My favourite Christmas stories are A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. They're both about characters coming in from the cold. It had that kind of quality, but it was also very Irish and appealed to me straight away.”

“I knew how I could tackle it and take it from the page onto the screen and how it could be adapted. It really was one of those projects that were easy to say yes to. Once I got it I could see its potential straightaway, so it was really a pleasure to do.”

IFTN: The project also saw you work closely with Frank McCourt's widow, Ellen, and his brother Malachy who both Exec Produced. How exactly did that collaboration work and how was it working with them?

Will: “They were wonderful. I gave them my pitch on how I thought I would go about adapting it. They were very responsive to that. It was primarily Ellen McCourt who I was talking to. It wasn't until later on in the process, once the funds started moving into production that there were discussions about specific lines of dialogue. That was in production time, so the script had pretty much finished for me at that stage. They were really just kind to me and the drafts that I produced.”

“It was great to actually write Malachy's dialogue because there was no narrator as such. The narration was something I came up with. I knew it was going to be like a warm blanket. The fact that we knew Malachy would be available and was willing to do it was a great thing. That was a lovely exercise for me because I went and I actually downloaded Frank McCourt's audiobook for Teacher Man so I could get the sound for his voice. I listened to that a few times just to get an idea of Frank's own voice, a feel for his dialogue and his tenor. I wrote the narrator in my head thinking this is Frank McCourt's voice and Malachy then delivered such an excellent rendition of that. It was a really beautiful element and layer to have been able to add to the story and I think it really finished it off. It was like the star on the top of the Christmas tree having him as a narrator.”

IFTN: The film is directed and co-written by Damien O'Connor. Can you tell me a little bit about the shorthand that you developed with him throughout the course of the project?

Will: “Well, it was a very protractive project, like the development. I think the development started in 2014. I knew Damien was going doing the CG, but I wrote my drafts not really knowing that Damien was going to be the final director of the project. After I finished the initial drafts, (my partner and I) had another baby. So I was doing drafts of Wolfwalkers at the same time that Brown Bag asked me to do another draft as they were thinking about expanding it to an hour long or 45 minutes show. They asked, ‘Are you available to get on it now?’ I told them, ‘I've got two babies!’ I literally didn't have the time to actually take it on board, but Damien told them he had some suggestions instead.”

“I knew that Damien would have it covered so I let him do his thing. What was great about Damien was that he was really gracious and came back to me when they had moved on to the animatic stage. Damien had brought his own lovely ideas to the story so we collaborated on key moments. There was a lovely collaborative thing where you would have something that he might be banging his head against the wall with and he'd reach out to me and say, ‘I've got this particular thing but I don't know how to make it work.’ So we would work on it together to figure it out. It was lovely because it was such a long development cycle and it was like all animated projects there are numerous creative collaborators. You get used to passing the baton. You just kind of say ‘OK, you have a go of it on the animatic scale and you can come back to me and I'll have a look at it, we'll put our heads together and see how we can make it work.’ It was actually a very friendly and lovely and fulfilling collaboration. I think he did a wonderful job in bringing it to real life and realising the potential in Frank's original story.”

IFTN: A big part of writing screenplays is putting your faith in the director bringing it to fruition. How have you dealt with doing that and letting go of something that you've written throughout your career?

Will: “I suppose it's harder at the start obviously when you're a novice and you find that your heart and soul goes into every project that you make. You're creating something and have invested a huge amount in it so it’s natural that you want it to go into the world and be received really well.”

“However, through experience, you learn that you have to pass things on. You have to let them go into the world and particularly film is a collaborative medium, which is a cliché that's bandied around a lot but it's absolutely true. I suppose I've been really lucky in the sense that nearly all of the things that I've had the opportunity to write have been adapted by really talented people and the product that has come back to me has been better than I could have imagined. More often than not, the adaptation of my screenplays, whether it is an animated movie or real-life, has come back to me and been a delightful thing to look at.”

“Then the other thing is, even when I'm writing a pitch or something like that I get really invested in everything. I think we all do, but the way I deal with it, I just throw myself into the next thing as quickly as possible or I have multiple projects going at the same time. My creative brain is always moving. I never sit back. I'm rearing the next child while the older one is out there, smoking fags with the other teenagers behind the college shed. I'm at home with the next baby, trying to spoon-feed it and take it out of nappies. That's how I think I deal with it.”

IFTN: Your current project, Wolfwalkers, sees you team up with Tom Moore once again following your successful partnership on ‘Song of the Sea’, which was Oscar-nominated in 2015. How has it been to collaborate again?

Will: “We never stopped working. [laughs] That's the mystery solved behind that. The development lifecycle of the Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers and animated features, in general, anything animated is incredibly long and protracted. I started work on Song of the Sea in November of 2008 and I think it premiered at TIFF in 2014.”

“We actually started together with Ross Stewart, the other director on Wolfwalkers, in March 2013. So Song of the Sea was still in production when we got the ball rolling on Wolfwalkers. It was a continuous rollover. It is a continuous, slow, protracted development cycle where there could be pauses in developments as it happened with Song of the Sea. There would be pauses where Tomm would be focused on doing something else or I was writing a script for something else, but we are used to that. I mightn't even see Tom for six months, but we'll get back together and work on the next stage of it. It's been a continuous cycle and a continuous journey but we're always in touch.”

“My relationship with Tom though, we're good collaborators and good friends. I've had a brilliant relationship with him and now with Ross Stewart working on Wolfwalkers as well. It's incredibly satisfying. It's been incredibly challenging. I've learned a massive amount working on those two features. I owe an awful lot of my continued career to those projects. Even right now, Wolfwalkers is in production and it's rolling along. I'm very excited about it. I'm hoping it's going to be Tom's best film and Ross' first feature and hopefully his best film as well.“

IFTN: Wolfwalkers was recently announced as one of the flagship animation projects at the launch of Apple TV+ in LA. What was it like to see such a massive, global brand like Apple having your project as one of their headline productions for the animation branch of their new streaming service?

Will: “My answer will fall under the same umbrella as ‘How do you let something go?’ It's weird. It's strange. It's wonderful. It's delightful, but also, there's a part of me that goes, ‘That's what that project's doing now.’ My creative head's in a different place. I'm delighted it's doing well. I’m delighted it’s gone off and done really wonderful things. It's out there and it's going to be on a huge platform and will be seen by a lot of people because of that. It's incredibly exciting to be one of those first films that are on that platform. I've no idea what that's going to be like. Honestly, you're asking the wrong guy!”

“Tom was actually at the conference last week. He was at that unveiling. It's exciting, that's all I can say. To see someone challenging Netflix in a market that is redefining how we watch films, how we consume media and the fact that there are challengers to the monopoly of Netflix. It's going to be interesting to see how that one plays out. The fact that we've got something there is great.”

The 46th Daytime Emmy Awards take place on May 5th at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California.

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