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TV writer Declan De Barra on music, creativity and writing for The Witcher

Note: Minor spoilers for Netflix’s The Witcher

Declan de Barra has had quite a varied career. The Irishman has travelled the world with his music and has written for massive TV series like Iron Fist, The Originals and The Witcher as well as performing on the latter’s soundtrack.

But Declan’s journey begins in Bonmahon and Kilmacthomas, a small village in Waterford, where he grew up.

‘I think the boredom helped shape me,’ Declan tells me. ‘We had some encyclopaedias in the house, and I would live in them, the pictures especially.’

He describes the worlds within encyclopaedias as being akin to portals where he could access anything: space, deep-sea or even historical battles in faraway places.

‘Most importantly there was one picture that shaped everything I do today – Hieronymus Bosch‘s Garden of Earthly Delights,’ he explains. ‘Especially the right-hand panel depicting Hell. I’m still amazed by it today. It is the skin on my laptop, so when I write or make some music, that’s the first thing I see.’

Declan with the laptop skin of Hieronymus Bosch‘s Garden of Earthly Delights

The idea that a surreal world existed outside the mundanity, with demons and beasts was all too intriguing for Declan and it merged with the Irish mythology that he loved at school from The Táin, Síofras, Púcas and the Tuatha Dé Danann to paintings by Pauline Bewick and Jim Fitzpatrick.

‘I could see all that in the landscape of the Comeragh mountains that overlooked the village,’ he says.

Declan would walk for miles by the river near his house and make up stories in his head to entertain himself.

‘Everything, without me realising it, became about “the story”. To the point where everything I learned in school only worked for me if it was framed as a story, geographical concepts, mathematical equations, etc.’ he says. 

‘It only worked in my head as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.’

But Declan says that he didn’t feel as if he had an outlet for it at the time and certainly didn’t think he could make a living out of it.

‘All I knew was I had to do well in school so I could emigrate to somewhere where there were possibilities that matched the stories; 80s Ireland being an economic disaster, small-minded and conservative. If it were as open and creative as it is now, I would never have left.’

Declan’s father was working in New York as a builder and the family eventually emigrated to Australia.

‘Perth to me was a huge city full of potential. I went to University and studied painting but thought it too elitist, so I started playing in bands. Writing lyrics was storytelling to me. I loved the immediacy of it, the high energy, direct feedback from an audience. It took over everything for the next two decades of my life.’

Declan’s music career kicked off and he ended up taking his band Clann Zú back to Ireland where they lived and wrote for three years. Unfortunately, though, his bandmates got homesick and decided to leave but Declan stayed on.

‘There were great musicians who were supportive and helped me when I started playing solo, Richie Egan, Ronán O’Snodaigh, the Kíla clan, Julie Feeney, great classical musos, Mary Barnecutt, Kate Ellis, Cora Venus Lunny; the list is endless’ he says, speaking highly of the music scene.

‘I have never met an Irish musician who didn’t want to collaborate. There is a great feeling of support I have never felt anywhere else, no pettiness or jealousy, it’s all about the tunes and creating,’ he explains.

‘I miss that desperately. I toured for years and years, throughout Europe mostly, everywhere from Parisian theatres to Basque anarchist squats. It was my bread and butter. I was on the bones of me arse most of the time, but I loved it and was happy out.’

Declan’s transition into screenwriting for television and film began after he taught himself how to animate. When he came home to Ireland in 2003, he made some animated shorts for the Irish Film Board and it was there he also met the folks from Jam Media in Dublin.

‘I helped them out with some animation – I was the worst animator there and I still can’t believe they didn’t fire me – and digital comping,’ he muses.

‘I asked if they could let me write a script for them. It got made. So, they let me write some more. I wrote a bunch for their BBC show Roy and it went over really well.’

Declan says that this was a brilliant training ground for him and that he owes them immensely and loves them all.

‘I was playing music at the same time, and while on tour in Spain, I signed up for Twitter to keep me entertained on the long drives’ he says, telling me that it was, in fact, on there that he met his wife, Diane Ademu-John, an American TV writer.

‘I flew over to meet for a coffee and we got married three months later, after only meeting twice. I moved to LA and thought I may as well see if I could give TV writing a proper lash,’ he says.

‘I was obsessed with Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood and thought let’s see if I can write something adult. So, I wrote a pilot about a haunted house in Tramore where me Mother grew up’.

His pilot did the rounds in LA and Declan picked up an agent who he still works with today. He says that the fact that it was a little out of the box probably helped. His agent got him a gig working on The Originals, a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries, and a show about vampires, werewolves, and witches in New Orleans; Declan was in heaven.

‘That show was like a university. I got sent to set and learned all the production ropes. It just snowballed from there,’ he says. ‘I am very, very, lucky. I think there are 1700 or so working TV writers in the states. I don’t take it for granted.’

Declan tells me that his process for writing a script on a large series begins as collaboration and then becomes a solo affair.

‘You get hired on a show, the showrunner has what she or he wants for the tone of the show, and hopefully a really rough arc for what a season will be,’ he explains.

Then you sit in a room with 8 – 10 other writers and break down the shape of the season by episode and break each episode into beats which usually go up on cards on a whiteboard.

When the writers have the shape for the episode it is then you’re sent off to write an outline of what happens which the studio and the network can approve and afterwards you take their notes and go work on the script.

‘That’s where it gets granular and it is all you,’ Declan says. ‘You get notes on your first draft from the Showrunner, network, and producers, and then you rewrite. Then usually the showrunner will take a pass and make any changes they want. Then it is off to production, where budget and practicalities take the reins and you rewrite again to make all the new pieces and cuts work.’

From the first day in the writer’s room to when it screens could take a year or two before it see the light of day.

‘It is also completely time-consuming, and you are exhausted at the end of it all. Then you take a break for a few weeks, catch up on some life stuff; teeth, doctor, taxes, dead houseplants and so on… Your body and mind have been hanging on for this moment, so you inevitably get sick, recover, then take the next gig and do it all again.’

Declan’s most recent work was on Netflix’s big hit The Witcher starring Henry Cavill and Anya Chalotra where he wrote Episode Four, ‘Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials’.

His says that the experience was a blast to write on, especially as he loves fantasy.

‘I met The Witcher showrunner, Lauren Hissrich, and we got on like a house on fire. She wanted a European voice and I fitted in,’ he says.

‘It was the first time I had worked on adapting books, which is a balancing act as you want to do the books justice but also make it work for TV. The two are different mediums and what works for one might not for the other.’

Declan says that it’s like threading the needle, between satisfying all the fans of the books and making it work for someone who has never heard of it before.

‘It never fails to blow my mind when I write something insane and then you see it come to life: giant sets, monsters, hundreds of extras and crew, stunts, FX.’

‘I remember pitching the cockroach hounds for my episode, I had little sketches on my iPad to try and sell it in the writer’s room. They got approved, they made it onto the page, and now they exist on screen. That is insane to me. It’s a trip.’

For those who have seen the epic high-fantasy series, Episode Four is quite an important one in The Witcher as it introduces the ‘Law of Surprise’ which can be tricky to grasp your head around at first.

A review of Declan’s episode 4 from The Witcher

This was a particularly challenging thing for Declan to have to write while also trying to make it as accessible as possible for an audience but thankfully, he had read all the books.

‘When we put the stories from the book up on the board for each episode one of them was ‘Law of Surprise’. I remember thinking, ‘good luck to whoever gets picked to write that one’. Of course, I got picked!’ he muses.

‘It was tough! The ‘Law of Surprise’ is an insane concept at its core, and the story was heavy with complicated with backstory, hidden secrets and setting up future reveals’ he explains and adds that it’s also exceptionally hard to do in one closed episode.

‘I just dived in and tried to make it about character as much as possible to ground it. My favourite scene was Yen burying the baby, and her speech to the corpse as she laid it in the black sand. Anya Chalotra nailed that in one take I believe. She is a total gun.’

One of the scenes with Yennefer from The Witcher TV series.

Declan will be working in The Witcher world for the foreseeable future and says that season two is already in the bag with the scripts.

‘I wrote the first episode and we shot a good chunk of it before COVID shut us down’ he says.

Not one to just work on scripts, this talented musician also performed on four tracks on the official The Witcher soundtrack. Lauren, the showrunner, knew that Declan was a musician and so she asked him if he could help choose composers for the show.

He met with many composers but says that Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli just blew him away.

‘They got to work and somehow looked me up on YouTube and saw I could sing. They kept asking me to come and lay down some vocal sounds for the soundtrack and eventually, I went over there, mostly to check out their studio and geek out over gear.’

The Last Rose of Cintra from the soundtrack of The Witcher

‘They had a microphone up and I put down a lot of vocal textures you hear in the background of tracks. Sonya was messing around with her hurdy-gurdy, I loved the melody, so I asked her to play it while I scribbled down some lyrics. ‘

‘I sang them over the hurdy-gurdy and that became ‘Song of the White Wolf. Netflix and Lauren dug it, so we wrote a bunch more. I will end up working with them again on other projects. I love their energy. Really cool people and insanely talented.’

Declan tells me that they played about 56 instruments in The Witcher soundtrack that in turn shaped themselves into the sounds and songs that you can hear in the show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uWWQnEsNzc
Trailer for The Witcher on Netflix

In terms of music, Declan is working on some new pieces and says that it will be very different from everything he has done before. He won’t be touring it and so there are no limits on instrumentation or how he records.

He also said that he’s working on something else in the TV world, something secret and exciting that will take up the next few years.

So, what advice would he give those who want to break into music and/or scriptwriting?

‘Unless you live in a country with third-level education that won’t leave you in debt afterwards, forget film school or TV writing courses,’ Declan says.

‘Take that money and travel and have adventures, meet people from every walk of life, interact and observe. Get in scraps, get out of them. Experience as much life stuff as possible. That is your university. Listen. Observe how people act, talk, interact, when they are stressed, happy, bored. Try and experience all forms of living as much as possible, don’t just travel in your own comfortable bubble,’ he advises.

Declan says that it’s important to observe the nuances of people who are completely different to you in terms of wants and desires, even those who you may dislike. It’s also vital, he says, to read.

‘Get online and read every script of every show or film you love. Open up some screenwriting software – I love FADEIN because it is the best, cheap and you only pay once – and copy word for word the scripts you love,’ he says.

‘This was the best piece of advice I ever received. It teaches you timing, formatting and economy.’

Declan’s tweet about his work on The Witcher

‘Then study breakdowns on YouTube of shows and films and see what makes them tick. That is all the university you need. THEN start writing your own scripts. The first few will be terrible. Write the next one, then the next, and the next. Fail lots. Learn where your weak points are, work on them. Join writers’ groups, take notes, don’t get your nose out of joint, writing is rewriting over and over. You will eventually end up with a good script, in your own voice (most important) that will be a sample to hopefully get your foot in the door.’

When it comes to music then, Declan says that there are no rules.

‘The only advice I have is FIND YOUR OWN VOICE. There is only one of you, find what is unique to you, and raise it as your musical flag.’

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I'm a freelance content creator and a journalist who has a strong desire to do as much as possible in the time I've got left on this planet. I got a taste for storytelling when I interned in Storyful many moons ago and since then have worked for places like WorldIrish (now Irish Central), Her.ie and Lonely Planet. I am constantly curious.

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