When Newry engineer Kevin Fitzpatrick submitted his first feature film script to an initiative for new writers, he never imagined that six years later he would be watching it brought to life for the big screen — with Pierce Brosnan playing the lead.
The 54-year-old father-of-four enjoyed writing as a hobby — listening to audiobooks on screenwriting as he trained for triathlons.
In 2015/16, Kevin submitted a draft to Northern Ireland Screen’s New Writer Focus scheme.
The initiative was launched to help writers develop their scripts and attract the attention of producers, with Kevin one of six selected to take part in the inaugural scheme.
And now, next week, shooting will begin here on The Last Rifleman, written by Kevin and starring Brosnan as a widowed Second World War veteran who escapes from his care home and makes his way back to France for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
Directed by Terry Loane and produced by Wee Buns Films, Kevin’s script was inspired by the true story of Bernard Jordan — an 89-year-old veteran who left his Sussex care home to travel to France for the anniversary of the D-Day landings. It also took inspiration from a documentary by Brian Henry Martin about the previously untold story of the Royal Ulster Rifles and the role they played on D-Day.
With filming about to get under way, Kevin said he could finally tell his family and friends about the movie.
He is also encouraging potential script writers to submit their best work to New Writer Focus and to be prepared for a lengthy and “super-collaborative process” with many tweaks and rewrites.
Kevin said: “There’s a structure and rhythm to script writing that takes a while to grasp and that’s where NI Screen’s New Writer Focus comes in handy.
“I was paired up with script consultant Steve Brookes and over eight months, we’d meet up in the NI Screen offices to brainstorm. Sometimes there were small tweaks, other times the changes were more radical.
“But the structure of my script didn’t change; the beginning, middle and ending. It was a super collaborative process that you grow to appreciate and understand.
“You can’t be too precious when it comes to ‘killing your darlings’. The more collaborative you are, the more inclined directors and producers will be to work with you.”
With delays caused by Covid, raising money and getting the right actors on board, Kevin told very few people that the film was being made until a start date for the shoot was confirmed.
He added: “It’s a bit like coming to the end of a marathon. The finish line is in sight, and I can breathe easily knowing I’m going to cross it.
“My wife and eldest son knew about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. I suppose part of me felt that it wasn’t going to happen.
“When I broke the news to my parents, they were startled.”
Kevin has also completed a script about Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and will be working with Wee Bun Films again. He added that he is grateful to NI Screen for putting him through the process.
“I’d absolutely recommend that budding scriptwriters apply, but don’t rush your work. Make it the best script possible,” he said.
“Be prepared to be collaborative, cooperative and creative.”
Mark McNally was just 20 when he wrote the script for In the Land of Saints and Sinners during the second year of his Queen’s University degree in film studies.
Taking part in the New Writer Focus scheme gave the Monaghan-born man the chance to hone his craft and work in a creative environment with like-minded people. One of those was Terry Loane, director of Kevin’s film and co-writer of In the Land of Saints and Sinner. Much like Kevin, the collaborative process proved hugely beneficial for Mark. It’s not every day a young scriptwriter sees the likes of Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds star in his debut feature film.
“The script took six months to plan out, but the actual writing took a month. I wrote every day and night over the summer,” said Mark.
“I got onto the New Writer Focus scheme and worked with development executive Ursula Devine, who was brilliant.
“It very much felt like a scriptwriters’ club, where we’d meet up every couple of weeks to work on our drafts and bounce ideas off each other. It was a collaborative way to see our scripts progress.”
Mark’s script was inspired by his passion for the classic American Westerns of the 1950s and 60s. He felt the gruff characters and vast, barren landscapes could be easily transposed to rural Ireland, where he grew up.
He wrote a story about a retired assassin who is thrown back into a game of cat and mouse that puts his skills to the test. As part of the New Writer Focus, up to 20 pages of his script were performed to an audience of industry representatives at The Mac. Terry Loane was there and was impressed.
Mark added: “I was a huge fan of Terry’s film Mickybo and Me and had seen it about 15 times during my school years, so to be working with him was surreal.
“He had huge enthusiasm for the script and the Western genre, and we found harmony in what we both wanted from it.
“He guided me towards what I was striving for, and the finished script is a healthy balance of both our voices.”
Mark say it’s surreal to have stars like Neeson and Hinds play the leads in the film, which was shot recently in Donegal. Once Neeson was confirmed, he broke the news to his parents, but no one else.
“Something like that you must keep secret because of all the moving components. If one component falls off, it can all fall apart,” he said.
Mark, who has multiple projects on the go, said the input of NI Screen was invaluable when it came to introducing him to script development.
“Without New Writer Focus, no one would’ve heard of In the Land of Saints and Sinners, so I owe Northern Ireland Screen a great deal,” he said.
Former journalist Tess McGowan had no formal script writing training or credits to her name when she submitted her screenplay, A Bump Along the Way, to the New Writer Focus scheme.
The Derry woman had tried her hand at writing a few shorts, but with a great idea for a film, she decided to pen her first feature-length script.
The script, about a party-loving 40-something woman who becomes pregnant following a one-night stand, much to the shame of her teenage daughter, was selected for the scheme.
Following eight months of “top-notch” development, the script was optioned and made into a film, starring Bronagh Gallagher and Lola Petticrew. It was released in 2019 and was nominated for Best Film at the IFTAs.
Tess said: “Screenwriting is probably the hardest part of the industry to crack. If you have no agent or credits and hand in an unsolicited script, chances are you’ll hear nothing back.
“What NI Screen does is put its weight behind you. Taking part in the scheme was a game-changer for me.
“You get to sharpen your own script and hone your storytelling chops by feeding back on other’s people work. If you have a script ready to go, you’d be crazy not to apply.”
NI Screen is seeking scripts and four will be selected to undergo eight months of development from September 2022 to March 2023. The process includes writers’ rooms, individual projects and writer development, development seminars and networking opportunities. More information at https://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk