The winner of the 2019 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Visitation, Helen Gaughran expertly crafted a tonally perfect genre mix of character-driven drama and grounded horror. Though still relatively new to screenwriting, she’s made a bold leap into establishing herself amongst the next wave of film industry talent.
You’re heard this plenty of times by now from us, but let’s say it once more for the road: Visitation is perhaps one of the best feature screenplays we’ve reviewed in over a decade. For too many reasons to list here. You pulled some pieces from history to construct the script, right? What was your original intent with the idea, and how did it change, if at all, from initial concept to final draft? Given your connection to Ireland, was the story itself, or its themes, personal?
First, Matt, I want to thank for relentlessly puffing up my self-regard. It’s taken a beating over the years, and now it’s back to previously insufferable levels. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT!
Yes, there’s a ton in Visitation based on my own memories of being a schoolgirl at a castle-convent in Ireland. Little flashes like the girls arguing with the nuns about no-sex-before-marriage; the gothic atmospheric setting on the cliff-edge of the world; black, belligerent skies, the sound of crashing waves and screaming seagulls; trees twisted by the wind into strange, monstrous shapes. It’s a very specific, ritual-soaked world: the lives of the nuns, the girls’ blasphemous banter, and their quick intense friendships, the casual confidence of wealth and everyone’s curious ability to simultaneously believe and disbelieve. All of it taking place at a moment in time when Ireland was beginning to reject the notion of sexual shame.
I’d always been intrigued by Ireland’s particular obsession with the Blessed Virgin Mary, praying to her far more than they pray to actual God. When I was growing up, everyone’s Mum or Granny had a framed poster of “The Memorare” prayer, which to me always had the power and hook of a pop song. It stuck in my head, and it sort of fed into this swirling confluence of thoughts that ended up being Visitation.
I mean, I remember, I can trace how the Visitation story came together. Weirdly, I thought of a movie name first, “Sister Silence,” which led to a serial killer nun, and on the heels of that came another thought: don’t be ridiculous, why would a nun kill? Then I had a flashback of my smart-and-science-y older sister explaining parthenogenesis to me and I thought, well obviously the nun kills because she’s obsessed with virgin birth. And why would she be obsessed with virgin birth? Because she desperately wants the Virgin Mother to appear to her! Therefore: a remote castle-convent for pregnant girls.
(For anyone who’s mystified: Visitation is set at a remote castle convent in Ireland in 1981. It’s about a murderously obsessed nun–desperate for the Blessed Virgin Mother to appear to her–who becomes convinced that an innocent, young newcomer has conceived without sin.)
Ironically, after the name being the initial springboard, I ended up changing it. “Sister Silence” was tonally way off, much too slasher B-horror for this, which is very grounded and real. Process-wise, I dictated the outline on my phone while walking my very slow-moving dog and at stoplights (sorry. . . and also, Siri, get your act together, my accent is not that strong). The outline ended up being 11 pages long. The beginning was there, the ending was there, and the second act was a bit of a jumble, but I knew in general where it was going. Then I wrote the screenplay on a legal pad in my back garden because I’d had foot surgery and I had to keep it elevated. 90 pages later, I gave it to a Berkeley student to type, and when she handed it back to me, it was only 60 pages long! What the–? But it was serendipity because it allowed me to explore/expand/deepen the relationships with new scenes; make sure everyone’s character developed at an even, natural pace; add more scary/disturbing stuff; dramatize the emotional sickness of the nun so she was complex and disturbing, even heartbreaking, rather than a scenery-chewing provocation; and make sure each scene was from a specific character’s point of view. Happy upshot, henceforth I’ll be writing all screenplays this way.
Thematically, it’s extremely personal. Quick recap: The innocent, young girl runs from her beloved mother’s sickbed, too terrified to accept that she is days from death. The next morning, she’s spirited away by her grandfather to Visitation, a castle-convent for pregnant girls, but she has no idea that she’s pregnant. This piques the interest of the dangerous BVM-obsessed nun–and the terrified, guilt-ridden young girl has to find a way back to see her Mum before she dies.
Given the following, you’ll see the parallels: my own Mum died in late 2017 in Ireland when I was 5000 miles away in California. It was very hard being so far away when she wasn’t well. I loved her beyond belief, and I was in deep denial that she’d die. I’d have these bargaining sessions with my doctor sister: she’s got 10 years, right? No. Five then? Helen, she has chronic heart failure. . . . I just really couldn’t picture a world without her in it, her presence was that huge. So, I didn’t necessarily plan it this way, but thematically it’s really about the doubt and panic and denial of a parent dying, and that a mother’s love is strong enough to survive even death. So you can and will survive her loss. Without doubt, this screenplay is 100% dedicated to her. She was a remarkable woman.
Visitation blends genres so seamlessly, did you feel at some point you had to pick one or the other? Make it a full-blown thriller, or a straight drama, or a down-the-middle horror? Were you consciously trying to “be different” when it came to this genre?
Oh God, not at all. And I’ll thank you to not make me think this way! For the sake of my sanity and productivity. This isn’t a cop-out, I swear, but I didn’t necessarily choose this genre or genres, the story idea did. Given what it was, it had to be horror; and my personal belief is, all films are dramas, or at least should be because they have to be character-driven. I mean, look at really great murder-mystery writers like Tana French or Minette Walters, their character subtlety and impact and originality and, I don’t know, excitement and charisma, is what makes them so addictively readable. It is the center and the driving engine of what’s happening, so my mind doesn’t even compute a genre film without a tremendously character-driven approach, I’m bored already just thinking about it. I think it would be inevitable that it’d be repetitive and derivative, like all those throwaway airport books that feel like fast food you can’t bring yourself to finish.
Your background is wildly diverse, and much of it not at all related to screenwriting. Yet you’re clearly a fantastic screenwriter, even without “formal” training. How is that possible? Were you mostly, in basic terms, self-taught? What sort of clicked into place, and what was the impetus behind venturing into film and TV?
Yes, my life has been a bit of a wild ride interspersed with long periods of boredom. Perfect for a writer. I was born in Belfast at the height of “the troubles.” My family moved to Dublin when my Dad died, leaving my Mum with three daughters under the age of seven and no house. We went to a fancy private convent school, and the decent, wonderful nuns were kind enough to just never send my Mum a bill. I moved to San Francisco, waited tables, worked in ad agencies, played pool on the WPBA, the women’s pro tour. I’ve written for a living for years (I was head storyteller for Benefit Cosmetics/LVMH, plus all the ad agency stuff), but I finally got around to thinking I should write something in my own voice and that’s where I am now. Visitation is my fourth screenplay.
As to self-taught, I suppose yes, although I presume most screenwriters are unless they’ve gone to film school. I’ve read a lot of books, taken a bunch of classes, I read screenplays, I listen to podcasts, got some terrific advice from screenwriters I follow on Twitter. My first screenplay was spectacularly bad, but of course I thought it was great. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Thank God for misplaced hubris, it kept me chugging along.
I feel like between Visitation and my last screenplay, something really kicked up a gear. Before that, I knew intellectually what a story was, but I didn’t yet feel what the essence of a story was. (The choice of story, for one thing, and how much easier that makes it to write.) When I actually try and put that in words, I’d say the following things in no particular order, with the full understanding that later I’ll kick myself for forgetting something. By the way, I’m not saying these are right, they’re just what made my writing better. . . .
- Pick a tight and uncomplicated story. Crucial. A girl is whisked away from her rapidly-dying mother and must get back to see her before an emotionally damaged and delusional nun does her in.
- Something that feels emotionally momentous or deeply affecting in a primal way, like a wake-up punch to the heart. Like the stuff you see on social media and go, Oh my God that’s awful, or Oh, wow that’s uplifting in a heartbreaking way.
- Be aware of your own boredom. If you’re speeding through a section because you’ve seen it before, or it’s necessary for the story but perfunctory, find a way to change it, add something original, make it worth reading.
- Stop stressing about format, it hamstrings your writing, messes up your prose. Just make it clear and write what you’d be excited to read.
- Not everything needs to be described. Just enough to make it evocative. (This is surprisingly big.)
- Don’t be afraid to sound like yourself.
- Get your ego out of the way. It makes your writing precious and puts you under too much pressure. This is also true for pool. And, come to think of it, life.
- Have a moral to your story. Stories aren’t frivolous, they’re warnings (or premonitions, or truths you’ve been avoiding). A strong stance needs to be there to give your story a point.
- I like unusual worlds, but that’s just me. Maybe I feel like I need it to be interesting, like a crutch. Somewhere cool and unusual to be that people will be attracted to.
- Be big-hearted. Have faith in people/characters, not contempt, no matter how awful they are. There’s usually a fascinating reason they’re so awful.
Regarding why film and TV? There’s nothing like the grandeur and excitement of a great film. I like to picture things. I love to see how others picture things, the visual imagination of great directors, add all that with music and you get a total experience unlike any other. Also, I’ve always been a visual writer. I like quick, riveting movement. Visceral, vivid, visual words. Ha! Clearly I’m not averse to alliteration either.
We already know the answer to this question, but hey, let’s set you up for an easy response: are you sticking with writing for film, or are you dabbling with a series idea–that may or may not be based on an incredibly marketable and culturally relevant true story. . . ? *cough*
Why yes, I am working on an idea for a TV series that’s loosely based on a true story. . . .
I have a story synopsis and characters written, and I’m stoked about it. The working title is The Breaks and it takes place in San Francisco. A gambling Filipino pool player is widowed young and left to take care of his 5 motherless children. He teaches them to play pool, enters them in junior tournaments every weekend, and installs a full-size pool table in their kitchen where they play to determine who does chores. Two of the girls become champions and successful big-money gamblers. One girl wins the Junior World Championship.
I have to say, the pool sub-culture is rich as hell with stakes and flavor, and I’ve never seen it really done quite right. I was neck-deep in it for years during my pool-playing days, and there’s a LOT to write about. Plus that world is just riddled with colorful characters and dialogue. (One of my favorites, because it’s so tremendously mean, is a pool player from Manila who was given the nickname “Manila Folder” because he always chokes on the money ball.)
Along those lines, writers so often hear “write what you know,” but how important is it to “write what you want to write?” Naturally, sometimes what we may know well isn’t terribly appealing. In your eyes, is it worth venturing far beyond your comfort zone of subject matter or genre, so long as you’re committed to telling a compelling and honest story?
Hmm, this is a tricky one. You’ve got to write what you want to write, no question. Otherwise you’re phoning it in, and it’ll show in the end product. You’ll disappoint yourself, and you’ll feel shame. Who wants that? Writing what you’re fascinated by is the only way to create something worth writing. On the other hand, I believe you can write well about anything as long as there is a true emotional core and a strong moral to the story (or theme, or thesis, or statement, or whatever you want to call it.)
It’s definitely much easier to write something that you have personally experienced. You can delve into your past knowledge and memories for inspiration (like the sound of feathers being ripped from a chicken’s flesh or how the bog in Ireland preserves bodies undecomposed). Even something as practical as writing description, dialogue, cadence, it helps a ton to have been immersed in a given world because you can just flow with total confidence. It’s so much easier than dipping your toe in or making everything up from scratch. It feels ten thousand times more authentic. It bestows authority and trust. Plus readers/viewers want to learn something they don’t already know. It’s fun. It’s worth reading/watching. They want to be rewarded for their time.
That said, I think if there’s some new area you’re really into and want to write about, you’ll throw yourself into it, and the emotional core and theme coupled with your own personal perspective will win the day. And weirdly, if you’re over-familiar with something, you might be bored by it and assume others will be, too. Examples abound.
So, the excitement of an unfamiliar area can ignite creative thoughts and unexpected viewpoints, too. And “beginners mind” (but, but, but…why?) and weird newbie misconceptions can be unexpectedly fruitful.
Helen Gaughran grew up in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, Ireland–the tiny hometown of James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw (who have also enjoyed modest writing success).
There, she attended a castle-convent where she was taught Latin, discipline, and a love of literature by nuns who could easily have played bridge professionally.
She graduated from an Irish university you’ve never heard of and moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a waitress until she won a green card in the lottery (God bless America!). She proceeded to squander her good fortune by working in a raft of ad agencies, where she picked up a One Show pencil and a Clio (along with the urge to write something more personal and meaningful).
Helen has written three other feature screenplays: Pop Psychology, The Patriot Test, and The Domina Effect. She also won an all-Ireland medal for math at age 11 and, to this day, has no idea how that happened.
In the alter ego category, she is a former California State pool champion and played pool professionally on the WPBA Tour (and yes, she lost to the Black Widow).
Follow Helen: Twitter