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Inspiration 6 Min Read

From graduate winner to screenwriter of the Closing Night Gala at BFI London Film Festival

November 16, 2023

Meet Joe Murtagh, co-writer of the film “The Kitchen”

In this piece:

By Cindy Symons

Back in 2015, I stood on the stage at the graduation ceremony of the renowned National Film and Television School (NFTS) in London and handed screenwriting graduate, Joe Murtagh, the award for Most Promising Student, which is sponsored by Christie. So, when I noticed he was the co-writer of this year’s closing gala film at the 67th BFI London Film Festival – coincidentally, being screened on a Christie RGB pure laser projector - it was the perfect chance to find out more. As it turned out, 2023 has been a stellar year for Joe, as he also wrote, created and executive produced a prime-time BBC drama series, “The Woman in the Wall”.

Lessons from NFTS

I was four weeks into watching the six-part series when I spoke to Joe from Spain, where he now lives. The first question had to be how his time at the NFTS had helped him achieve such success. His reply came immediately. “Two things come to mind,” he shared. “Being prepared for the industry, and having the best portfolio that you can possibly have.”

“What’s great about the NFTS is that it's like a microcosm of the industry, so you’re prepared for the production process when you enter the real world. I was able to hold my own in development meetings – and even ‘blag’ my way through an edit.”

“The second thing was the way Brian Ward, head of screenwriting, taught us how to write. Before film school, I was under the notion that you have to follow a prescribed set of rules laid down in screenwriting books. But Brian was never prescriptive, he would ask you questions, find out what it was you were trying to say, where you were trying to go, and then help you get there.”

A diverse group of people standing on a red carpet at the BFI closing night gala

The directors, producers, writers and cast of "The Kitchen" at the BFI closing night gala.

What this meant - a phrase Joe used a few times - was “finding your voice.” He explained, “It [finding my voice] was brilliant, and it was practical, because I ended up with the best portfolio I could put together. Something distinctive, genuinely unique to me, and that could capture attention. Brian guided me and, as a result, I felt more prepared for the industry.”

A valuable example of this came in Joe’s second year at NFTS when students had to write a full-length feature film. “I was torn between writing a film that could realistically get made and the one that I actually wanted to write: a huge budget Western set in the snow. I talked to Brian and he asked me, really simply, what did I want to write? What would make the better script? I picked the Western and I’m glad I did because, although the film hasn’t been made, it was a strong enough script that it got me work. I think it still gets sent out by my agent.”

The importance of a good script is something Joe underlines many times. “I think new writers spend too much time worrying about getting an agent, finding a producer – those things are important, obviously, but having a good script is by far the most important thing. And at least that’s within your own control. If you have good scripts, those other things tend to fall into place. You attract the best agents, producers, directors, actors.”

From NFTS to BFI London Film Festival

Co-writing “The Kitchen”, the premiere film that closed this year’s BFI London Film Festival, “Came about initially because of my relationship with Dan Emmerson [producer of “Calm with Horses],” says Joe.

As for “The Kitchen” being chosen as the closing gala of the BFI London Film Festival, Joe says, “It’s amazing. It's fantastic that we had that profile and attention. The film is set in a future dystopian London and straddles the sci-fi genre and a father and son story. It's really unique.”

Developing a BBC drama

The “Woman in the Wall”, Joe’s recent BBC drama, was inspired by a desire to expose a dark chapter in Ireland’s recent history where women were exploited in state-funded mother and baby homes, and it breaks convention in more ways than one. In an industry that is often prescriptive, Joe created a very quirky mix of drama, gothic thriller, whodunnit, and murder mystery. It's a bleak topic with morbid humor thrown in.

I think new writers spend too much time worrying about getting an agent, finding a producer – those things are important, obviously, but having a good script is by far the most important thing.

“TV tends to have more restrictions than film, particularly independent film where you have the freedom to be a little more flexible,” he explained. It's all the more impressive for such a unique script as “The Woman in the Wall” to be commissioned.

Advice for the next generation of filmmakers

Aside from the common challenge of getting a foothold in the industry, Joe’s additional challenges “were largely around anxiety. A couple of people from the directing course from my year at the NFTS were a huge support,” he shares.

“Highlights of my career are moments I took away such as my relationship with Gareth Evans from “Gangs of London”, from whom I learned a lot. And showrunner Josh Zetumer taught me how to run a writers’ room and strike the balance between giving clear direction and giving others room to share their ideas,” shares Joe.

Joe shares more advice and encouragement for anyone who wants to make their way in the industry. “Writing may seem like a hard thing to get into because of the mystique of it all, but really it’s just a lot of hard work. It’s not easy, but again at least that’s within your own control. Another bit of practical advice I’d give to any writers hoping to run their own show is to first take part in as many writers rooms as they can, so they can learn how a room is run and how a show gets made.”

Following his two great successes this year, Joe is taking some time to decide what to do next — although another project may well be in the offing. And, who knows, it could all count towards getting big-budget backing for a Western set in the snow. Perhaps one day we’ll go to the cinema to find it did. I rather hope so.

Christie has sponsored the NFTS Most Promising Student Award for 18 years. Nurturing the next generation of filmmakers and cinematographers, particularly in the AV field, is an important mission of the company.

About the author:

Cindy is a freelance communications professional, with almost 10 years of experience in the AV industry. She specializes in public relations, content creation, and strategy. Cindy is based in London, England.