Fiona Graham Of Sonny & Skye Productions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker
Interview with Guernslye Honorés
Worry less: Embarking on any big project brings risk and worry, but worrying only depletes your energy and focus. At the end of the day, the things you worry about are not usually the problems you end up having to solve.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Fiona Graham.
Fiona Graham is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist living in Co Galway, Ireland. She wrote and produced the Irish feature film Songs for Amy, which won the Jury Award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking’ at Newport Beach Film Festival, California. Songs for Amy, starring Sean Maguire, was released cinematically in 2014 and is available on multiple global platforms. Fiona is the founder of the production & publishing company Sonny & Skye Productions Ltd.
In 2023, Fiona released her debut novel, The Chancer, which won the Bronze Medal for Comedy Fiction at the Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards 2023. Prior to publication, The Chancer ranked at #2 on The Red List by Coverfly, having reached the semi-finals of two international competitions. Her screenplay of The Chancer also has seven accolades.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, in the ’80s and ’90s and attended Glasgow University, where I received an MA (Hons) in Business and Psychology. Growing up in Glasgow was brilliant — we had a lot of freedom. The people of Glasgow are friendly and brutally frank but kind, and the humour of the Glaswegians permeates everyday living. My father’s family were from the Highlands, and we would spend our summers up there, sometimes being looked after by whoever happened to be there at the time. The Highlands gave me a passion for the outdoors and rural living. I moved to Ireland when I was twenty-one, so I was lucky to be surrounded by the humour of the Scots and the Irish.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always loved films and have a passion for writing. When I was around ten, my father was setting up a business from home, and he had a computer (rare in those days — that’s how old I am!). I worked every night on the word processor, creating a school magazine (which was confiscated by the headmaster) and writing a book (which was embarrassingly bad). That’s when I knew I wanted to write. I followed a conventional career, working for my Dad’s IT company (the one he had set up from home). In 1997, I moved to Ireland and set up a subsidiary for him. I worked for twelve years in the company but was always writing on the side. I gained a diploma in Filmmaking and a Diploma in Screenwriting from Lew Hunter’s 434 course and, in 2004, made my first short film with Stonestreet Studios in New York. I left the IT company some years later and set up Sonny and Skye Productions and wrote and produced Songs for Amy, which was released in cinemas in 2014.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
There were lots of funny moments, and it helps when working on a comedy because the actors will bring the script to life and bring even more moments of unexpected humour. One of the most interesting things that happened was not long before production. We had been looking to cast ‘a famous band’ for Songs for Amy, and it had been quite challenging. One evening, I had been invited to the film premiere of The Guard, but I had been so hectic in pre-production that I managed to turn up at the wrong cinema. I felt terrible as I had brought a couple of friends with me. As a small consolation for missing the premiere, I took them for a drink in Galway. The band, The Alabama 3, walked into the same bar we were drinking in. By the following day, they were cast in the film, and they were awesome — entertaining, interesting and up for leading everyone astray.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve been lucky to meet lots of interesting people, but I think what makes successful actors and filmmakers the most interesting is when they are down-to-earth and engaging. Sean Maguire was our lead actor on Songs for Amy, and he was so supportive, working incredibly hard to make the movie a success. We were lucky to have a great cast and crew who really gave their all, and all of them were interesting!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a lot of people I owe a debt of gratitude to. Every word of encouragement helps. However, I was lucky enough to spend time with Lew Hunter, Dean of UCLA screenwriting — I attended two of his courses and met up with him when I could — if we were both in LA. Lew was an excellent screenwriting teacher, and he stayed in touch with his students, constantly motivating and encouraging us. At the end of any correspondence, he would always say, ‘Write on, dear Fiona, write on!’ Sadly, he has passed now, but he leaves a great legacy behind him, with so many screenwriters and filmmakers encouraged by words of wisdom and enthusiasm.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘You’re only given a spark of madness. You musn’t lose it’ — Robin Williams.
When following an unconventional path, it can be scary — there will be people pouring doubt upon your choices, and when working in creative fields, we are often already full of our own self-doubt. We all need a little madness to help us become fearless. Robin Williams was probably my favourite actor, and ‘Dead Poets Society’ is one of my most loved films. There are several life lessons and quotes in that film from the Captain himself.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity is important to make sure reality and people are properly represented in art as art shapes and guides our opinions on the world around us; it can provide opportunities to those who have less access to such opportunities, and it can challenge negative mindsets. However, I am not an advocate of box-ticking. What I do think works is when reality is authentically represented, and films that highlight inequalities or dark times in history work very well at changing mindsets, whether through tragic dramas or comedy. I also think programs, training, and internships are crucially important to provide opportunities to those who are less represented or have less access to these opportunities.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have just launched my debut novel, The Chancer, which won the Bronze Medal at The Reader’s Favourite Book Awards. It’s a comedy set in 1989 in the west of Ireland and LA about a small-town nobody with delusional dreams of becoming a Hollywood actor. I’ve written the screenplay for the book and will be going into development soon.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
Making a film is a collaborative process. What starts with the script then comes to life with the actors and is transformed into a film by every member of the crew. Seeing the end result and knowing how much work and how many people contributed to the final product is what makes me proud.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- Worry less: Embarking on any big project brings risk and worry, but worrying only depletes your energy and focus. At the end of the day, the things you worry about are not usually the problems you end up having to solve.
- Get a good sales agent: Making the film is much easier than distribution. Making my first film seemed like a huge mountain to climb, but the real challenge comes when trying to find the right home to distribute the film. Independent films have to compete in a busy market and against huge films with large marketing budgets. Convincing companies to invest their time and budget in ‘smaller films’ requires a strong pitch. Getting a good sales agent on board early is key.
- Go Lean: Film money is big money. Every scene costs money across all departments of the film. We made lots of cuts to the script prior to production to reduce the budget, but during filming, we needed to make more cuts as the schedule was tight. If we had made the cuts prior to filming, unnecessary spending across departments could have been avoided.
- Do what you can now, not later: There are many elements of the film that can be ‘fixed’ in post-production, but this can be costly. Whatever can be done on the day should be done.
- Managing People: Making a film is like running a business for a couple of months and ensuring that everyone involved in that business is happy and motivated. Managing expectations and making sure people are looked after and motivated is really important. A lot of time is needed to communicate, listen to different opinions and find resolutions to make sure people are working together well. Sometimes, it’s small details that make a big difference to the cast and crew.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
It’s a combination of artistic vision and the viewers. Whenever writing a screenplay, I do feel like I’m writing for an audience, yet the ideas are usually seeded from experiences within my own life. When doing the read-through of the script with actors, it’s often obvious what does and doesn’t work for audiences. The read-through is a valuable step to see what changes need to be made.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Expose corruption. At best, corruption causes a lack of trust and gains at the expense of someone else’s loss. At worst, it causes poverty, wars, and death.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
There are lots of people I’d like to meet. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, for one — but he’s making such a big difference that his time would be better spent doing what he’s doing rather than having lunch with me! In terms of the Entertainment Business, I’d love to meet Ben Stiller, as I think he’d be perfect for one of the main characters of my next film, The Chancer, and he’s produced great comedies.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My website is: www.fionagrahamwriter.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
About the interviewer: Guernslye Honoré, affectionately known as “Gee-Gee”, is an amalgamation of creativity, vision, and endless enthusiasm. She has elegantly twined the worlds of writing, acting, and digital marketing into an inspiring tapestry of achievement. As the creative genius at the heart of Esma Marketing & Publishing, she leads her team to unprecedented heights with her comprehensive understanding of the industry and her innate flair for innovation. Her boundless passion and sense of purpose radiate from every endeavor she undertakes, turning ideas into reality and creating a realm of infinite possibilities. A true dynamo, Gee-Gee’s name has become synonymous with inspirational leadership and the art of creating success.
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