WFT Member in Focus: Cathriona Slammon

By 8 August 2023News & Events

At WFT Ireland, we are constantly inspired and impressed by the calibre of work being done by our members across the screen industry. So much so, that we love to celebrate their achievements with our slot ‘Member in Focus’. We are elated to feature Cathriona Slammon, a talented writer and director, whose work was most recently finalised in Virgin Media Discovers. We talked to Cathriona, who gave us some deeply honest insights about her writing style, navigating her way through the industry and her decorated career as a writer. 

Can you tell us about your journey as a writer and filmmaker?

I had no idea that I was interested in filmmaking until the summer of 2018. I spent that summer in New York, and I had a ‘MoviePass’ which allowed me to see a film every day in cinemas across the state for just $10 a month! I spent almost 3 months in and out of the cinemas of Manhattan, and watching all of these films so closely together with an audience, something just started to shift inside me – I had always loved writing, why hadn’t I ever considered writing for the screen? Then Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY came out and that sealed the deal. I went back to see it 9 times, including once when the actor who plays ‘Charlie’ was sitting right behind me! I was mesmerised by that film. To me, it’s a masterpiece and reminded me of that feeling when you’re a child, trying your best to get a peek at a horror your parents rented (I was born in the 80s) and you manage to get this quick glimpse of something horrific before you’re chased back to bed, but you can’t stop thinking about that little bit you saw, and you have horrible, relentless nightmares, but you’re totally hooked and you want more. That film reminded me of the horror films of the 70s and 80s, the ones that terrified but intrigued me, and it really took me back to that childhood feeling of being deeply affected by a film, which doesn’t happen as much as an adult. 

I didn’t know anything about screenwriting and I didn’t know anyone in the industry, so I decided to do a course. I ended up doing the MA in Film Direction & Production from the John Houston School of Film & Digital Media in Galway. I thought it would be more beneficial to do a course that touched on all aspects of the filmmaking process, not just writing. I had a lovely screenwriting tutor there, Jenny Roche, who was really encouraging. During that time, I wrote one of my first short scripts, which won the Kerry Film Festival Screenplay Award, a great boost to my confidence at the time. Then the lockdown happened, so all plans for our graduate films with crew just went out the window.  The only option was to make a film on our phones, from home. Because I had no sound equipment, and the camera on my phone wasn’t great, I decided to write something that had no dialogue, and shoot in black and white. I had a cousin who was willing to act in it, so I came up with a story within the confines of all of those things, and I made THERTEEN. I sent it out to a few festivals and it won some awards, which was amazing to me. I then managed to get funding for my first ‘proper’ short, SANCTUM, which we shot last year, here in Mayo, currently in post-production. I wrote my first feature script WHAT LITTLE GIRLS ARE MADE OF, which was inspired by THERTEEN. This got me a place on the Ardàn/BAI Script Mentorship Scheme, where I worked with the incredible Dearbhla Regan, who helped me revise the script. This was the turning point for me – I learned so much from Dearbhla – and her guidance was invaluable. The script placed in the top 1% for BBC Writersroom, and secured me a place on BBC Writersroom Voices 2023. More recently, it won the Golden Script award in the USA, and a mentorship with John J McLoughlin (Writer, BLACK SWAN), which has been incredible. Since then, I’ve been working on a TV Series outline and two more feature scripts, as well as a couple of shorts I would love to get funding for.

Do you have a writing process? What does it look like – from idea to filming?

Honestly, I don’t. Every script I’ve written has been different in that way. With shorts, it’s either an idea pops into my head and I write the whole thing from start to finish there and then, or, I have a concept I like but I don’t know what the story is, so I will take time to think about it before I write anything down. I usually go on long drives to do this – something about it seems to work for my brain! And after the first draft, I’ll tell myself that I won’t go near it again for a few weeks so I can have fresh eyes, but that never happens. I’m too impatient! One thing that seems to happen to me a lot is that an image pops into my head, which is usually an ending or some type of revelation, and I try to come up with a story based around that ending or image, so there have been scripts I’ve written ‘backwards’ in a sense. I don’t approach ideas like ‘I want to write about love’ for example. I never do that. It’s always an image that starts the idea for me, or sometimes it’s a piece of dialogue that I hear in my head and I become obsessed by it and wonder about the story of how we get to that piece of dialogue. 

I always write what interests me, what I personally would like to see on screen. I tend to be interested in things that other people might consider strange or off-putting, and I’ve had feedback that my ideas can be too dark, but I don’t let that put me off. I think it’s crucial to write from a genuinely curious place, and preferably a personal one too. With SANCTUM, it was a huge learning curve as it was my first production. I found myself re-writing the script to fit the location, the budget etc, which was a challenge I actually enjoyed. I found little bits of inspiration in the location which I implemented into the story, and I think this is something I will continue to do going forward. Right now, I’m in pre-production for another short, and I worked on the screenplay with an editor. Again, this was a really invaluable experience. Feedback – from people who really know what they’re talking about – is so important, and even though it can be hard to hear criticism of your work, sometimes it’s the very thing that takes your work to the next level and I think you have to be open to that if you genuinely want to improve as a writer.

You lean into female-centric psychological drama, horror and surreal; where do you get your inspiration from? What draws you to these genres specifically? 

I’ve always loved psychological horror – anything strange, dark, unsettling, surreal. Not slashers or jump scares though, I’m talking about atmospheric psychological horrors that really get under the skin and into your dreams. Those genres lend themselves perfectly to exploring human complexities, and that’s what I’m interested in. Why people do the things they do, why people think and feel the way they do. I’m the nosiest ever, I want to know everyone’s family background, their deepest fears, their greatest desires – I’ll talk about traumatic experiences and uncomfortable feelings with anyone, it’s literally my comfort zone. I find it all fascinating. I did my BA degree in psychology. I’ve always been interested in people’s motivations, and especially their inner conflicts. Everyone has bad and good in them, everyone has self-destructive tendencies and motivations they’re not even consciously aware of. Horror and the surreal are great ways of exploring these things, giving tangible physicality to something we can’t understand, so that we can try to make some kind of sense of it. I think ultimately what I am trying to do is to understand myself, and make sense of my own childhood and experiences and anxieties that I struggle with. I’m inspired by the struggles of the people around me, too, particularly when it comes to forms of addiction or desires people have which they don’t understand. And of course, I’m inspired by the great films and artists. As a child, LABYRINTH was an enormous influence, as were THE NEVERENDING STORY and RETURN TO OZ. I think something about those dark fantasies really seeped into my little girl soul and set the landscape for the dreams (and nightmares) of my adult self!

Congratulations on being announced as a finalist for Virgin Media Discovers! Can you tell us a little bit about your film We Could Not Survive Without Bees? Where did the idea come from?

Thank you! WE COULD NOT SURVIVE WITHOUT BEES is a character study about self-acceptance, with a surreal twist.

“When a new love interest seems to accept her unusual traits, a self-conscious woman who takes refuge in the world of plants and insects, is pushed to re-evaluate the body she hates so much and confront the surprising secret she’s been working so hard to hide.”

Self-acceptance comes up in my work a lot, whether I intend it or not! This is one which started with an image I had in mind of how I wanted the film to end, what the final shot looked and felt like (which is a surreal image), so then I created a story around that to get us there. It takes place against the backdrop of plants and insects so it’s very rich, textured, colourful and a little grotesque. It’s slightly fantastical, but still very much grounded in reality.

Do you have any projects in development right now?

 I’ve developed a TV Pilot called EATER. I created the series outline as part of the BBC Writersroom Voices scheme, and currently I’m working on writing the pilot script with the help of an editor. EATER is concerned with female obesity, food and fat fetishes, food addiction, self-acceptance and family dysfunction. It’s a protagonist we don’t see on screen and it’s a story we’ve never seen on screen. I don’t think food addiction – as a trauma response – and the lethal consequences of food addiction, is something which has been sufficiently explored in film or TV, but it’s a very topical and narratively-rich issue which deserves attention. And my first funded short film SANCTUM will be released soon.

Do you have any words of advice for up-and-coming writers?

 I do think the obvious things can be taken for granted and neglected – write, read screenplays and be open to feedback. You have to be constantly working on your craft, and you have to be open to the fact that you have a lot to learn, and you have to genuinely want to learn. I’ve never read a book on screenwriting; I tried, but I couldn’t take it in. It felt too foreign or too formulaic to me. I’m not saying that writers should not read those books, I think they should at least try, but not every writer is suited to that kind of learning. I’m not, because I learn as I do. I write instinctually. I learn from my mistakes, so much so that I now see mistakes as positives, because I genuinely take so much from them. I think reading screenplays is vital. Read your favourite ones, read how your favourite scenes were written on the page. Once you’ve written a script you believe in, get someone to read it – someone who knows what they’re talking about. Get feedback from multiple people. You don’t have to take on board all of their comments, but if the same thing is coming up from several people, you should probably consider it an issue. Enter a contest and see where you get, or look up schemes or workshops. The Ardàn/BAI Script Mentorship Scheme is something I would highly recommend. Additionally, if you’ve chosen to pursue this as a career, be prepared for rejection, and lots of it. Be prepared for loneliness and isolation and fear. Not to be too dramatic, but it’s true that the rejection can be truly painful! The feeling of isolation and ‘what am I doing with my life?’ can be terrifying, but it’s inevitable. You have to really want it and you have to believe in your voice that you have something interesting or important to say that no one else can. You have to develop a thick skin! Having a support network of family and/or friends is also crucial. People don’t talk enough about the emotional hardship of pursuing these careers. It’s a scary thing and you have to go in with eyes wide open.

What piece of advice has stuck with you throughout your career? 

To nurture and maintain my own unique voice. I always knew what I wrote was somehow ‘weird’ or ‘difficult.’ There was a time that I tried to address that as though it were a negative thing, and lean more towards the commercial, or the more ‘positive’ side of things. But then I worked with a fantastic editor who encouraged me to not only stick with my own voice, but to go further with it, to prioritise it above all else, which I now do. It’s something I would encourage everyone else to do. We all have our own unique voice, perspectives – it’s the one thing that sets us apart.

What did you learn in the process of writing your first feature?

Writing WHAT LITTLE GIRLS ARE MADE OF was the single most enlightening and positive experience in my career so far. It’s where I learned the value of feedback, of considering how things are landing with an audience, of seeing things through different eyes, of being open rather than overly-precious. But the feedback has to come from someone you respect, someone who knows what they’re talking about. I also learned that you have to know your story, your characters, your themes and your arc like the back of your hand! I thought I understood all of those things, but when I sat down and really thought about it, I realised I had to look much deeper to really get to the truth of what I was trying to explore. I’m currently working on two other feature scripts, and before I wrote a word down for either, I asked myself the important questions – what is the question this story is asking? and so on. I never would have done that before.


What do you hope to see in the industry going forward?

I would really like to see more honesty and openness within the industry. We all get rejected, we all struggle. Anytime I post something on my social media alluding to some kind of ‘win,’ few realise that win has come after a mountain of heart-breaking rejections. People congratulate you. They think you’ve made it. You’re flying it. No bother to you. But it’s so far from reality. That win is amazing (and even in its amazingness, outside of validation, it can be ultimately meaningless) but you’ve had to go through rejection after rejection to get it. You’ve suffered. You’ve sacrificed. You’ve made yourself incredibly vulnerable. You’ve questioned why you’ve even bothered. You’ve wondered if you’re delusional, a bad writer, a fool. Then you get awarded something, and you’re catapulted from existential crisis, into suddenly feeling confident and excited and being congratulated…until the next big rejection…and so the cycle continues. It’s a difficult journey and I think if we, as filmmakers, are more honest and open about rejection and the emotional struggles of pursuing this kind of career, it would help in feeling less isolated and less crazy. We don’t have to impress each other with our wins. Why don’t we focus on relating to each other with our struggles instead? That’s where community is the most valuable: in the hardships, not the wins. I don’t actually know what I’m doing, I haven’t a clue, and for all the self-belief I do have in myself, I’m also a complete idiot who is just stumbling along, hoping for the best. I’m not afraid to admit that!

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Cathriona! 

About Cathriona Slammon 

Cathriona Slammon is an Irish writer/director from Co. Mayo. After completing an MA in Film Direction & Production from the John Huston School of Film in Galway, Cathriona went on to write and direct two award-winning no-budget short films, and most recently, the psychological drama short SANCTUM, which was funded by Creative Ireland and is currently in post-production. Cathriona has won several awards for her screenplays and films which have screened around the world, and was selected for BBC Writersroom Voices 2023, where she developed her TV Series EATER. In 2022, she completed her feature script WHAT LITTLE GIRLS ARE MADE OF, which was awarded a place on the Ardán/BAI Script Mentorship Scheme. It went on to win the Golden Script Award 2023 and garnered her a mentorship with John J McLaughlin (writer, BLACK SWAN). Cathriona recently made the finals of the Raindance Film Festival Screenwriting Award, and was shortlisted for Screen Ireland/Virgin Media Discovers for her short script WE COULD NOT SURVIVE WITHOUT BEES.