Monaghan writer reveals the story behind Liam Neeson Donegal blockbuster

In the Land of Saints and Sinners started life as a university assignment

Liam Neeson in In The Land of Saints and Sinners
Liam Neeson is back in action mode, this time with his own accent

All potential moviemakers can dream and for Monaghan writer Mark McNally his feature film idea about a disillusioned hitman coming out of retirement for one last job has exceeded his “wildest dreams”.

The Donegal-filmed action thriller, In The Land of Saints and Sinners, boasts a top cast led by Ballymena’s Liam Neeson. Since its release at the end of April, the movie has been a fixture in Netflix’s top 10.

“I always felt an Irish Western was something that people would want to see,” says the 28-year-old.

Monaghan screenwriter Mark McNally
Monaghan screenwriter Mark McNally, whose first feature film In the Land of Saints and Sinners stars Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds

“I first had the idea when I was half way through Queen’s University, studying film. We had to do an outline of a possible film and I wrote basically what became the bones of In the Land of Saints and Sinners. Soon after that, I heard about NI Screen’s New Writer Focus (NWF) scheme, so I workshopped it into a script and sent it in.”

A successful recipient of the annual scheme, the support he received contributed to him mixing with some of the biggest names in the movie industry.

“The NWF scheme gave me an insight into the professional and developmental process of screenwriting - the critical thinking, character analysis and structure.

“It also exhibited to me how support networks and creative environments are net positives for all involved.”

Annually awarded to up to four writers, at the end of the scheme, a portion of the recipients’ scripts are read to a group of ensemble industry insiders.

It was here that Mickybo and Me writer Terry Loane saw the potential in McNulty’s work and went on to become a co-writer on In the Land of Saints and Sinners.

“Terry is so infectious. As I developed the story with him I became aware that his voice was enriching it. From that collaboration, Terry sent the script to his Prodigal Films producing partner Geraldine Hughes, who in turn got the script to Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds.”

McNally admits he still “hasn’t found the words” to describe his reaction to Neeson’s involvement.

“It’s was one of those bizarre situations where you are in a little apartment in Belfast and you’re working on this little script that you have to your head for years and now these larger than life cinematic heroes are getting involved. You almost feel this weird sort of impostor syndrome.”

Neeson was fully involved in what McNally describes as “a very collaborative production”, though he suggested very few changes.

Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson in In The Land of The Saints of Sinners
Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson

“What drew Liam Neeson to the character is that it wasn’t written with him in mind. Being the consummate actor that he is, he wanted to bring to life what was on the page.

“He didn’t mould the character, but used his weight of experience to quietly and effortlessly deliver it.”

Set in 1974, In the Land of Saints and Sinners opens with a heart-stopping sequence involving a car bomb in Belfast that leaves three children dead.

What drew Liam Neeson to the character is that it wasn’t written with him in mind. Being the consummate actor that he is, he wanted to bring to life what was on the page. He didn’t mould the character, but used his weight of experience to quietly and effortlessly deliver it

—  Mark McNally

The action then centres around Finbar Murphy (Neeson), a contract killer in a remote coastal village in Co Donegal, who decides to retire.

His tranquil existence is short lived when he is forced back into vigilante justice with the fleeing IRA terrorists who are now his neighbours.

Whilst not directly Troubles related, nor with any profound political commentary, In the Land of Saints and Sinners, makes a broader point about the poisonous nature of cyclical and generational violence, and its corrosive effect on a community and its innocent victims.

“I’m of the post-Good Friday Agreement generation who grew up learning about the Troubles from textbooks. In that context it’s more of a story of morality and violence, and all the innocent lives that get caught in between.

“One of the greatest films ever made, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has this sort of the Western plot, but in the background is this raging civil war.

“I always thought the Western genre could be a lens in which the Troubles-era in Ireland could be viewed through in a way that talks about morality and violence.

“My story is about someone who doesn’t view what he’s doing as wholly malicious, rather as righteous.

“All any writer hopes is that a story can move people, and maybe teach people something. I want viewers to walk away with a sense that no matter how violence is justified, the innocent will always suffer the consequences.”

Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson in In The Land of Saints and Sinners
Jack Gleeson and Liam Neeson

Filming for the movie took place over two months in south west Donegal.

“Geographically Donegal is right on the edge of the wild Atlantic Ocean, but it’s also very close to the Northern Irish border.

“The story functions as being on the edge of that conflict and Donegal represents that in the most beautiful way. It also provides that ruralness that the character Finbar can hide in,” says McNally, whose creative ideas and curiosity first emerged as a young child holidaying in the county.

“Much of it was desolate and as a kid you think, ‘Oh, what’s happening here,’ laughs McNally, who also carried some of the nuances and details of his home village of Glaslough into the film.

“A lot of names and personalities inspire the characters, as do a few local phrases and the pub takes its name from the local in Glaslough.”

The stellar ensemble cast also includes esteemed actors such as Colm Meaney, Ciarán Hinds, Kerry Condon, Jack Gleeson, Sarah Greene, Desmond Eastwood, Conor MacNeill, Seamus O’Hara, Valentine Olukoga and Mark O’Regan.

Kerry Condon as Doireann in In The Land of Saints and Sinners
Kerry Condon as Doireann

“It is the creme de la creme of Irish talent. As a young Irish screenwriter, it couldn’t have been any better,” he smiles.

At the helm was Clint Eastwood regular Robert Lorenz, who previously directed Neeson in The Marksman.

“My footprint on the film is in the words but Robert is a genius and knew the best way to bring the story to life.

“There are moments where I’m watching it and it’s very close to how I imagined it, but at other times he takes it in a new direction and elevates it his way,” adds McNally, who first saw the finished movie last September at the Venice Film Festival.

Northern Ireland Screen are now seeking feature film scripts, which can range from art-house to commercial, to develop for its New Writer Focus 2024-2025.

Other scripts that have come through the scheme in the past include The Last Rifleman which starred Pierce Brosnan and McNally’s advice to anyone considering applying is “go for it”.

“All writing competitions are valuable. You may fail or get rejected, but you will improve your work as a result. And if you succeed it’s the start of something beautiful.

“The hardest thing as a screenwriter is getting people to read your work in the first place. The biggest benefit of all of this - Venice, the Netflix deals - is that professionals now take me seriously and are open to reading what I write.”

Co Monaghan screenwriter Mark McNally
The Netflix movie In the Land of Saints and Sinners began as a submission to NI Screen's New Writer Focus scheme by Mark McNally

McNally has maintained his writing partnership with Terry Loane and the pair are almost ready to pitch their next “really interesting idea”.

He has also finished developing a script for Lee Magiday (The Favourite, The Lobster).

“There’s exciting roads ahead and we will see where they go,” adds McNally.

Does he have an eye on Oscar success?

“We can dream, and after the great success of An Irish Goodbye it’s achievable,” he laughs.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners is streaming now on Netflix. For further information on the Northern Ireland New Writer Focus scheme visit Northernirelandscreen.co.uk/funding. The closing date for entries is June 23