Marion McDowell is a freelance scriptwriter from Juneau, Alaska, where the rugged weather gave her a deep desire to not be out in it.
After a foreign exchange to Northern Ireland in the 90s turned more permanent, Marion developed as an actor and writer within the local film and television industry.
Her latest short script, 'Shiny Things', deals with the difficult themes of suicide and forbidden love against the controversial backdrop of Northern Ireland, but uniquely told from perspective of a common magpie.
Marion said she wrote the poem that her script is based on in response to the suicide of someone important to her, in frustration that people never see just how much value they hold.
The log-line reads:
A magpie encounters a man at the end of his tether. She offers a different perspective when she comments on how many things she sees in him that would be worth stealing.
'Shiny Things' won Sunday Shorts Script Competition this month and we jumped at the chance to ask Marion about her writing.
How did you get into screenwriting?
Although I did a lot of writing in my teenage years, I left it all to one side for a long time, and it was only late 2015 when I started screenwriting. I'd been doing a few roles as a film extra in Belfast, and then started working on indie shorts with filmmakers I met through that, and finally decided to have a go at writing a script myself. It was pretty awful! But I connected with other local screenwriters and started looking for people who really understood the craft to get notes from, and I got better.
Storytelling has always been something I've enjoyed, and I really like this form: knowing it's a collaborative effort and actors, directors, editors, will add layers of depth to the story I've told with their own interpretations.
You mentioned the poem was written in response to the suicide of someone important to you. Was the script inspired by their story too?
The script explores the same theme but through a different lens. Suicide statistics have become absolutely shocking here in Northern Ireland, especially amongst men aged 20-54. I live near a motorway bridge that was recently covered in laminated leaflets saying 'You matter.' / 'It gets better.' / 'If you're looking for a sign not to kill yourself, this is it.' All in an attempt to stop anyone thinking that way for just long enough to not do it. And for me, that connected with the poem I had written a couple of years ago - the magpie's words offer the same reminders.
The story in the script came out of that, and out of a reaction to the continuing stigma for LGBTQ+ couples in Northern Ireland - for example, every other part of the UK passed legislation to allow same-sex marriage in 2014; we're the only jurisdiction where it's still illegal. I wanted the pieces of Tom to include a love story, and a loss, so that's where I went with it.
Are there any screenwriters/writers you look up to, and why?
So many. William Goldman was just amazing. And Robert McKee's insights into story and dialogue have been incredibly helpful. But I also like the writers behind some of the ridiculous farces of the 40s and 50s: Noel Coward, Sidney Sheldon, Billy Wilder - those are my popcorn, and there's always room for popcorn. And then writers with a strong voice like David Webb Peoples, who wrote Unforgiven. Or Martin McDonagh, who wrote the exceptional Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I've also been really impressed with Aaron Ehasz's writing for animated series.
What was your process to adapt the poem to a short script?
It was pretty quick, actually. Once I got the idea to adapt it, I did a quick one-pager to give myself the bones of the story, and then when I started thinking about what I wanted to show against each line, the story just seemed to knit itself together. But getting that one-page storytelling out first has become an important part of my process. I haven't always done that, but having that in place first definitely makes writing anything a lot easier.
What do you find the most difficult about the screenwriting process and how do you overcome it?
Middles. Writing the ending, for me, is the fun bit. I always know what happens at the end, so if I get stuck, I jump to the end and write that, and then work my way through the middle from both sides. And then use at least a dozen edits to smooth it all out.
You've submitted a handful of scripts to Sunday Shorts over the years. Did you have a feeling this script would be a winner?
I first submitted to Sunday Shorts because the entry fee was low and included free notes, and I kept submitting to Sunday Shorts because I found the notes I was getting were particularly good at winkling out the rough bits that didn't quite work, but that I couldn't put my finger on, and editing against those notes has always, always, always made my work better.
I didn't think Shiny Things was going to win - I know the Sunday Shorts standards are very high. But I knew it was one of the better things I've written, so I thought maybe it might get a selection. I've won other things along the way, but I am absolutely chuffed to bits to have won this one. This festival has been a special part of my learning process.
What would be your advice for beginners looking to get into screenwriting?
Learn how to tell your story in one page, and then expand into writing the script from there. Be clear on your whole story first. Also: read everything you can get your hands on: scripts, blogs, screenwriting books (but ask around to find the good ones). And then alternate between learning and doing.
What’s next for you and what's next for ‘Shiny Things’?
A whole lot of maybes! I've got a couple of scripts in a couple of different funding calls - if they get the nod, they get made; if not, I have to think about other ways to make them happen. But the process has given me the opportunity to work with a couple of different producers on the various applications, and working with people who believe enough in my work to suffer paperwork has been a really fulfilling step forward. If these chances fizzle, then I learn from it and I keep trying.
I've had some interest in 'Shiny Things' as well, so we'll see where that goes, and then I plan to go through another edit based on the notes I got from Sunday Shorts, and put it into a few more competitions to try and generate some interest and funding.
I'd love to get this one made this year. We'll see!
Marion McDowell's works include DARK & STORMY, a comedy horror about a woman who literally refuses to play the victim, and BOOS UP, a farce about rival ghosts competing to haunt a pub. Marion stopped answering questions about her age when she hit 35 and lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.