29 November 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network

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A Year In Dun Laoghaire: IFTN Talks with James Phelan About his Time as 'Writer in Residence' at the Lexicon Library
28 Jun 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with screenwriter James Phelan to find out about his year long stint as writer in residence at the Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire.

Irish writer James Phelan is best known for his work on ‘Wreaking the Rising’, TG4’s three part historical time-travel comedy drama starring Peter Coonan & Sean T. O’Meallaigh, which aired in 2016. Phelan in turn received the award for ‘Best Script Drama’ at the 2017 IFTA Film & Drama awards.

He is also the creator of RTÉ Drama ‘Striking Out’ starring Amy Huberman, which was produced by Blinder Films and Acorn TV. His other works include TG4’s seven-part comedy series ‘Galway Races’, which debuted in 2009. The series itself won an IFTA, and saw Phelan pick up a nomination for ‘Best Script Television’ that same year.

James has also worked on a number of animations including ‘Cuby Zoo’ & ‘Oddbods’, the hit children’s TV series for One Animation & Boomerang TV. 

In 2017, Phelan took up the title of writer in residence at the Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire, IFTN caught up with the writer to find out about his time at the library by the sea.

IFTN - How did the opportunity at the Lexicon arise?

James: “Well, I knew of the library and was a huge fan of the building and its’ inspiring internal atmosphere as well as the wonderful varied views of Dun Laoghaire. And I also knew there was an annual residency out there. When the Arts Office advertised looking specifically for a screenwriter, I definitely thought it was the year to throw my hat in the ring. I was lucky to be selected and have access to an office at the Lexicon and partake of a space that is simultaneously both extremely calm and extremely stimulating. The Dublin city library service is a pretty wondrous thing and there is always something going on at the Lexicon from education to art exhibitions to a myriad of events.”

IFTN - What did you get up to for the year?

James: “The residency has an equal emphasis on the writer’s own core work that formed part of the original application as well as engaging with the public via events and projects throughout the year. My personal project was a large scale science fiction feature script called ‘Memory Bank’. The theme of my residency was exploring ‘The Future’ in various ways.  So my applicant project suited the remit and then benefited from the time and space the residency afforded to think about it and research it properly.”

IFTN - What kind of public events did you end up doing?

James: “I was interested in exploring different aspects of screenwriting during the year so I started with an event that focused on adaptation for film and TV. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has been so culturally to the fore of the zeitgeist that I thought comparing the acclaimed Hulu series with the relatively forgotten feature film version might be interesting. And I hope it was. Of course, the world the novel portrays is an alternate future or concurrent reality so I feel it also fitted the theme of the residency.”

“Next, I wanted to delve into an area that is becoming more interesting and important to my career all the time – namely animation. Specifically the future of where Irish animation is heading. This event was disrupted from its’ original date by coinciding almost uncannily with the worst night of the Beast from the East. Undeterred, we re-scheduled for May and ultimately had a very popular and productive event with contributors from companies like Pink Kong, Jam Media, Salty Dog and Hot Drop offering up sage advice and insight across two different panels.”

IFTN - And was it always your plan to have a table read of your residency work ‘Memory Bank’ as the last event?

James: “No. I had plenty of other ideas but I guess I wanted to extract maximum benefit from the year and strengthen the feature as much as possible.  I equally felt it might be dangerous to show the work too early. But much like a series like ‘Wrecking the Rising’, I could have spent forever researching ‘Memory Bank’. At a certain point you gotta jump in and bring the thing into existence. And then I think table reads are very interesting for authors and I believe audiences too.”

“I learned a lot from putting ‘Memory Bank’ on in the Lexicon studio with a great cast of actors including the sublime Lesley Conroy in the lead role of Mia. The entire event was a huge reminder for me of what great actors we have in this country. I’ve been privileged to work with the likes of Don Wycherley, Carrie Crowley, Sean T O Meallaigh and Paddy Courtney before. But then I was equally blown away with the ability of Ryan Lincoln and Leah Minto. Both are surely destined for big things and are already well on their way.

“Ryan is a real dynamo and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in ‘Kissing Candice’ after being so impressed with him in ‘Cardboard Gangsters’ and ‘Michael Inside’. And I know Leah is in ‘Dublin Old School’. So not to get all ‘Zoolander’ on it but they are so hot right now. And deservedly so. Great talents and people.”

IFTN - Was there room for your other writing during the year?

James: “Yes.  It was a busy year on the animation and sitcom front and the Lexicon just meant I got to do my current writing gigs in much more salubrious surroundings than my front room.  Another piece of original writing completed specifically for the residency was a short film script called ‘Talking Trash’ which I used for a series of podcasts about drafting a project from original idea to final draft.”

“It’s a really cute short in the end, set very much in the area around the library and where I currently live. It might be a short that I look to make at some point and would be a nice way to complete the circle on bringing a script idea to total completion.”

IFTN - Would you recommend the residency?

James: “Whole-heartedly. It’s a wonderful opportunity and an incredibly placid yet inspiring ambience to work in. The Lexicon has already selected its’ next writer in residence for 2018-19.  Sarah Maria Griffin’s programme for the year is going to have a broad focus on History/Herstory. I’m sure she will have a great year.”

“But definitely I’d advise other writers to bear it in mind in future years especially if the planned remit for the year sits well in your wheelhouse. Or suits a particular project that chimes with the theme of the residency.”

IFTN - What’s next for you?

James: “After a lot of progress and I hope some success in TV drama, I’m really eager to enter a feature phase of my career. I have a decent slate of feature projects that I’d love to get off the ground. That said, I’m not excluding anything. TV drama is very much still on the table.  The wonderful thing about this career is that you can jump around between genres and types of work so easily. I’m currently loving sitcom length for example. Stitching together a writing career in this country is always a tapestry of varied and sometimes surprising work.”

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