Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke to Irish-born screenwriter Anthony Byrne about writing In Darkness and his upcoming fifth season of the TV series, Peaky Blinders.
As a kid, he picked up a camera at the age of four, as if it were a toy. In school, he would always say he wanted to be a director, even if that meant getting laughed at by teachers and peers.
“It was a lot of naivete as well—not understanding what it was [to be a director], but my parents were quite supportive,” said Byrne. “They never said, ‘No.’” According to Byrne, his family was middle class, but that didn’t stop them from being supportive of their son’s dream. “That was really a huge help.”
With his parent’s support, Byrne started to do the work to forget out what it would take to become a professional director. As he got older, he still felt a little naïve about the screenwriting process, but his wheels were already turning and moving in the right direction. “There was nothing else that I wanted to do,” he added.
It’s somewhat surprising for a child that young wanting to be a director, rather than an actor, for example. “I remember vividly, going to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, in Dublin when I was a little boy—that was the turning point for me. But, I never wanted to be Indiana Jones,” he added.
“When I was a kid, you could smoke in the cinemas. Not that I was smoking, but the beam from the projector was quite heavy. So, I used to spend a lot of time looking at the light coming from the projection box and hitting the screen,” said Byrne. “There was some kind of alchemy that was happening in the air. I was always curious how those images got on the screen,” said the director. “It was as simple as that.”
“I’ve always said to be people, ‘It’s about perseverance,” mused the director. “It’s about who is going to stay in it the longest. Sooner or later, you get recognized. You just have to stay there and do the work.”
Following The Dream Of Cinema
Byrne got started by making short films like Clubbing, Freaky Dreak 10 to 1, and Meeting Che Guevera before he finally made the art house film, Short Order. “It was a very esoteric film that I’m still very fond of, but it’s not a very accessible film,” said the director. “A kind of big learning curve for me was having the tools in place before you go make a film—have sales agents and distributions in place—and we didn’t have any of those things,” he mused.
“We were thinking, once you made it, people would see it. It’s all going to be fine,” said Byrne. “That was a hard lesson to learn. I suppose on that, I learned a lot about the craft of filmmaking. After that, I made a mistake with that particular film [but] people liked the movie.”
Despite a few missteps in the beginning, Byrne was offered more work. Eventfully, he met Producer Noel Pearson (The Field, My Left Foot). Together, they worked on a film called How About You… in 2007. Byrne accepted the project because he needed the money, but he felt like he went off the path he should have been on.
“I took a break after that because I didn’t want to be one of those directors who was just making [money] films,” said Byrne. “That moment, I got a call out of the blue from an English TV Producer. They were coming over to do a cop-drama called Single-Handed and they offered me [work].”
The Fast-Paced World Of Television
Byrne enjoyed the fast-paced television work that involved heavy collaboration with writers and producers. “I really enjoyed the process so I stayed with that.” Soon after, his name got out to the right people and he was able to work on various other shows like Love/Hate, Silent Witness, and Mr. Selfridge.
During these busy stages in Ireland, Byrne thought back on Indie filmmakers, who spent 3-5 years making a project. “There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it’s possible that these directors aren’t working at all while trying to get their film made. He viewed the constant work as honing his craft.”
“At the end of How About You…, which was the film I wasn’t having a good time on, I ended up meeting [Natalie Dormer], and at the end of The Tudors, and I ended up moving to London,” quipped Byrne about his fiancé and co-writer. Together, they started to chip away at the story that later became In Darkness.
“Anytime we had time off, we’d sit down and unpick it and figure it out. I supposed the germ of the idea came when I was editing How About You… in London,” said Byrne. “I’d always loved thrillers. Nat and I would sit down and watch Hitchcock movies together…”
“Films like Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, Chinatown, Klute, The Conversation, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Marine, Rear Window and many other Hitchcock films which we are both huge admirers of… Prisoners was another film from that last handful of years that we watched a couple of times and was a big influence,” said Byrne.
“Film Noir is a genre I’ve greatly admired from a very young age and I think these things seep in by osmosis,” he added. “I wasn’t consciously shooting it that way. It was based on the script. In fact, to be quite honest I never thought of the film visually until quite late in the process.”
“We were both first and foremost screenwriters, and we stuck very rigidly to being writers and getting the film down on the page so there was no camera movements descriptions or visuals written on the page. It was all about the narrative,” he added.
“Now there were obviously images popped into my head that I made a note of and I knew we wanted to shoot in an old red brick London apt building with a scissor door lift because it reminded me of old film noir and Hitchcock, so out of that one location as a specific brief it, in turn, demands a particular way of filming,” said Byrne.
“I wanted a very graphic look, graphic frames that very quickly communicate what each shot is designed to do. We always wanted a stillness to Nat’s performance of ’Sofia’ which obviously comes from the fact that she is blind but everything informs everything and feels very much the sum of its parts and I think there’s a confidence in that design. We were always watching thrillers. We loved trying to figure them out. That was the fun and the challenge of what became, In Darkness.”
Creating A Thriller Based On 40s Classics
Clearly, the duo loved the themes and tone of 1940s thrillers, but they also wanted to give the film a modern feel and challenge for Natalie Dormer as an actress. “The whole [movie] was set up to handicap me as a director. I wanted to remove vision from the protagonist.”
“That then forces you to come up with a new visual grammar,” added Byrne. “You have to then illustrate her world, her routine, and the rhythms of her life. That, in turn, becomes something that Natalie has to channel into, in order to play the role. It sort of stemmed from there.”
“Ultimately the film came about because we both wanted to create something that we were not being offered in our respective fields and importantly we wanted to make a film we wanted to watch that wasn’t being made. It just took a while,” said Byrne about the long process.
“The reason that that came to life was while I was editing another film in London, I was living in a serviced apartment. I realized after a couple of months of editing that I had never seen anybody else in the building—not in the lobby, or the lift, or the corridors, or anything like that,” he added.
“I would hear, late at night, this woman would come in at like one in the morning. She would click-clack around her apartment,” he added. “The geography of the apartments were quite similar, so I would know where she was or what she was doing, but she never took her heels off. I started building a life for this woman.”
“Because I never saw anybody, I was blind, figuratively,” he said about the formation of the character.
“That was the germ of the idea. Then, it was building a thriller.”
Creating The Writing Partnership
Anthony Byrne teamed up with his fiancé, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Tudors) for In Darkness. In addition to rebuilding their favorite genre, they also found a way to create a powerful script despite two hectic schedules. This all began by reading scenes to one another in their off-time.
“We read certain scenes out loud together which was helpful in terms of hearing the rhythm of the dialogue but I was always pushing to cut dialogue and keep it as lean as we could,” said Byrne. “I don’t storyboard or do shot lists. I find it more useful and creatively freeing to step onto the set with the actors and find the scene.”
“I always want to lead with [the actors]. I will always know what to do and I do an awful lot of prep which enables me to create a set where the actors are finding the scene and it’s not me always saying I want you to stand here or there or what have you,” he added. “Just making those small changes on set brings huge rewards but you have to be confident and know what you’re doing.”
“The only scene we storyboarded on In Darkness was the van kidnap sequence. It’s a big moment and I ‘pre-vis’d’ part of it to illustrate that it was achievable in camera for the most part and there was no green screen,” said the director. In terms of writing, however, they would sit in separate rooms and trade off scenes.
“We learned this the hard way having had many ‘moments’ together when we were trying to write in the same room but there’s always a moment with each scene where we would sit on the couch and work through the almost finished scene and agree on it. I think we’ve made too much in promoting the film joking about the arguing overwriting scenes but it was immensely satisfying to work out the beats and break the structure,” said Byrne.
“We just didn’t let each other away with anything but that in turn only kept the standard at the highest,” mused the director.
Roadblocks For Writing A Thriller
Anthony Byrne said there are various moving pieces when trying to construct a thriller like In Darkness. “We always had to take it apart each time we sat down to write a draft and the prospect of facing that again was always a struggle. [We had to] test and kick every single beat and build it back up again so that alone was difficult and very time- consuming,” he added.
“Another issue we constantly went back and forth on was the opening of the film and choosing the right moment to ‘activate’ Sofia and make that switch from a seemingly passive protagonist to someone who was very much in control of her destiny,” said Byrne. “Striking that balance was tricky in the writing process because I knew I wanted to spend time building her routine and establishing her rhythms.”
Byrne and Dormer knew this major shift in the pace and the story would throw the audience off her vulnerability, her soundscape, and the axis of the piece itself. “Another beat that we went back and forth on was the backstory between Mark and Alex which we wrote and shot, but I cut it in the edit because I quickly realized that any time spent away from Sofia was shifting the focus and the pace.”
The director concluded, “I wanted to be with Sofia and very concentrated on her journey all the time so we made sure to spend as little time away from her as possible.”
An Effort To Show Sound On Screen
Similar to Byrne’s focus of the light from the projector as a kid, there’s something unique about how the screenwriters chose to show sound on screen. In an effort to show Sofia’s lifestyle, there are zooms, close-ups, and noises to highlight locations, patterns, and life, for the blind protagonist.
“I knew from the beginning that sound design was going to be a big part of the film. Essentially, [sound is] another character and an important way into the film for the viewer in terms of placing you directly in her head, her environment, and to get a sense of how threatening the ordinary world is for Sofia,” said the director.
“I spent months with my sound designer (Sebastian Morsch) in Berlin working on it and he came to London and traveled on Sofia’s journey recording everything clean. It was a lot of fun to do and to finally see and hear it was so fantastic because it tied all of the elements of the story together in a way that was very rewarding for us,” said the director.
“It took a lot of time but I’m very happy that it has been mentioned in interviews because you want that to stand out and we also worked very hard to make sure that would be the case for the film on VOD and Blu-Ray etc. It was quite complex pulling all those elements together,” said the writer-director.
Stepping Into The World Of Peaky Blinders
“I’ve just finished a three part mini-series called Butterfly which is a very beautiful and heartbreaking story about a little boy who wants to become transgender and it follows the effect this has on the family and his importantly his parents,” said Byrne about his next project.
“It’s very much a drama for our times and I’m incredibly proud of it. That will hopefully come out later this year. It stars Anna Friel and a truly incredible performance from Callum Booth-Ford who plays Max/Maxine,” he said of the new series.
“When I get back from Los Angeles, I’m going straight into pre-production on Peaky Blinders. I’ve been a huge fan of the show since it began and have missed opportunities in the past to direct it due to other commitments so I’m very happy it’s worked out this time,” he said about the hit show.
“It’s such a great world to spend time in and be a part of. The new scripts are excellent and watching Cillian [Murphy] evolve. The many demons that haunt Tommy Shelby is a gift for any director and a very special opportunity and also a huge undertaking. It’s essentially a six-hour epic film and so it should be!”