Gospel of Frank Daniel inspires Irish screenwriters

Two sisters look to the golden age of cinema to guide the approach of a new generation

Robert Redford and Frank Daniel at the first Sundance in 1978. Photograph: Michael Daniel

Robert Redford and Frank Daniel at the first Sundance in 1978. Photograph: Michael Daniel


Somebody wants something very badly and is having enormous difficulty getting it – this is the essence of all great cinema according to the late Frank Daniel.

Daniel, one of the most influential figures in American cinema who established screenwriting programmes at Columbia University in New York, the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the Sundance Institute and the University of Southern California. His techniques influenced many of the great American screenwriters and directors since the late 1960s. Two Dublin sisters are now determined to spread his gospel to Ireland.

Mary Kate and Rachel O’Flanagan have cinema in their blood, their great-grandparents owned one of the first cinemas in Athlone and they were raised in a family where bedtime curfew was only ever broken to watch classic films. Rachel has been script-editing and producing Irish film/TV drama for 17 years, while Mary Kate is a screenwriter and script consultant. A third sister, Rebecca, produced The Stag .

Mary Kate and Rachel lead workshops throughout Europe on Daniel’s Sequence Approach to screenwriting.

“We’re sitting on a goldmine of creativity in Ireland and it’s about to start yielding,” says Rachel. The one thing lacking is good scripts. “We see scripts that are really novels or plays – they’re well-observed insights into someone’s interior life but without much plot. They get made, but then they feel like there’s a lot of nothing happening.”

“We call these films, A Man Walks Around Feeling His Feelings ,” says Mary Kate. “They have a narrow appeal; most audiences want a narrative.”

The O’Flanagans spent their teenage years in Denmark getting an insider’s view of the flowering of Danish cinema and television. “We noticed that everyone involved in telling the story, not just writers, but producers, directors, editors and script editors are being thoroughly schooled,” says Mary Kate. “They have a common language to talk about what’s working and what’s not.”

Daniel’s Sequence Approach offers a way of engaging an audience and keeping them emotionally involved until the end. It divides a film into sequences, each sequence can be viewed as a chapter, asking and partially resolving a dramatic question with a twist that ratchets up the tension for the next sequence. Ideally each act, sequence and scene within each sequence begins with the status quo, rises in dramatic action and ends in resolution with a new challenge that sparks the next scene, sequence or act.

“It’s a way of creating that edge-of- the-seat engagement that draws an audience in, gets them emotionally involved in the outcome,” says Mary Kate. What is remarkable is that the approach is teachable over a weekend. “Most people we work with are enthused to discover there’s an easy path through the forest,” says Rachel. “The majority of films made in Europe don’t realise the filmmaker’s vision and don’t connect with their intended audience. That’s a tragic dissipation of talent and commitment. It can kill a promising career.”

The O’Flanagans are keen to stress that this is not an attempt to force a prescriptive American cookie-cutter formula on European film. In fact it’s the reverse. Daniel was Czech: the first foreign student accepted into the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, (VGIK) in Moscow; he was later dean of Prague’s famous FAMU film school. The American Film Institute (AFI) was concerned in the late 1960s that Hollywood movies were becoming staid, and they sent a delegation to find out who was behind the four Czechoslovakian films that received Oscar nominations between 1965 and 1968.

Everyone they talked to mentioned Daniel. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 he fled to the US where the AFI created the post of dean for him. From there he helped spark the golden age of American cinema in the early 1970s with films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Taxi Driver and Eraserhead .

It is appropriate and timely that his techniques are now being brought back to Europe to inspire a new generation. Ireland is bursting at the seams with amateur poets and short-story writers. If even a few managed to master screenwriting we could be producing films that would not only provide employment but help spread awareness of Ireland to a wider world.

For more on the O’Flanagan’s courses see adramaticimprovement.com

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