To keep herself in work, a writer turns killer in Irish drama Obituary. Writer Ray Lawlor takes DQ into the evolution of the show and discusses the challenges of writing a series about a serial killer.
As a one-line pitch, there can’t be many better than Irish drama Obituary, in which the obituary writer for a small-town newspaper becomes a serial killer to keep herself in work.
Of course, there’s more depth to the darkly comedic six-part series than that, but as a starting point, it’s easy to see why Ray Lawlor’s series drew the attention of Irish broadcaster RTÉ and US streamer Hulu.
Landing a commission wasn’t a straightforward process, however, and it was only after several years of work honing the pilot script and series outline, and then partnering with producer APC Studios, that he was able to secure a green light.
“When you went into any room and you pitched that one liner, you got a smile,” the writer tells DQ. “We’re in Ireland and here it’s very different. I was unknown before this, but once we partnered with APC, we pitched it to several of the streamers, Hulu came on board, and that was it really.”
The story introduces 24-year-old Elvira Clancy, played by Siobhán Cullen (The Dry), who adores her job writing obituaries, but lately, she’s been feeling unfulfilled. Then when her newspaper falls on hard times, her boss tells her he is unable to keep her on the payroll.
Overnight, she finds herself being paid per obituary, so when she “accidentally” kills a rude person in the town, she discovers she might have some untapped bloodlust and relishes using ever more crafty methods to kill off the town’s unpleasant residents — all while making them look like accidents. Unfortunately, Elvira then falls for the newspaper’s latest hire, a suspicious crime correspondent with a penchant for conspiracy theories.
Launching in the US on Hulu on November 21, following its RTÉ debut in September, Lawlor began work on Obituary back in 2018, originally writing it as a half-hour series before he was encouraged to extend it to an hourlong format.
Since then, Lawlor says, “I’ve just been plugging away, trying to get it made, trying to get producers and get the money together, which is very new to me. Then you end up shooting it and broadcasting it in the same year. It happened so quickly.”
But while he was writing the pilot script, a lot of his efforts went into setting the tone for a series that isn’t an outright comedy, but never takes itself too seriously either.
A big part of the show’s evolution was also expanding the world of the series by adding new characters to the main trio of Elvira, her newspaper editor Hughie (David Ganly) and crime reporter Emerson (Ronan Raferty). The subsequent introduction of Elvira’s father Ward (Michael Smiley) and her best friend Mallory (Danielle Galligan) to the main roster created additional lines of storytelling – and plenty of complications to explore, not least when Emerson hooks up with Mallory.
“It’s not the most serious show in the world, and that gives us some leeway to get away with a few things,” he notes. “When you’re writing a half-hour, your scenes are a little bit lighter and quicker and more flippant and they’re moving on. But some other shows have done more serious stuff, and that’s what I was going for. Then it was a simple case of trying to get that into a longer format.
“Ward and Mallory weren’t originally in it, and that expanded the world so then you have more characters, and you give them their own arcs. And it did change the tone. I’m not trying to be funny with it. It’s not an attempt at comedy. I’m cutting through with the humour I like, but it did let me feel that I could have a 10-minute stretch without any attempt at humour.”
Following a traditional drama structure, Obituary could also have seen Elvira dispatch with a different victim in each episode – a so-called ‘body of the week’ format – as seen in shows such as Columbo or Poker Face. But without wanting the show to stray into Midsummer Murders territory, Lawlor blended that idea with an ongoing mystery that rumbles along in the background until bursting to the fore in episode five.
“I always knew, no matter what, that in the first few minutes she’s got to find someone to point a finger at them and go, ‘I’m going to kill them,’ so that at least gave me a narrative guide for each episode,” he says. “Then I had to try to match all that together with how that interferes with the character’s lives.”
The murders that take place in the series always mean more than good newspaper copy, as they all have repercussions, depending on whether something goes wrong, such as Elvira killing the wrong person or believing the person she has killed didn’t deserve it.
“It became way more interesting than just stabbing someone,” Lawlor says. “I tried to make them as different as possible, whether it’s nail gun or a cliff edge. But if she kills someone, halfway through an episode, let’s look at the repercussions of that. That’s where I really started to enjoy the writing.”
But despite any moral quandary she might find herself in, Elvira is a person who can only find happiness when she’s killed someone.
“A lot of the time there’s a selfishness to serial killers where they blame the world, their upbringing, they blame their environments, and they blame their victims, and I wanted to examine that,” says Lawlor, who delved into this world for research behind the series. “We open with her and she’s able to blame her job, and her arc is all about getting her to a place in the last episode where she realises that’s bullshit. She has no one to blame. She’s doing this because she wants to do it.”
The difficulty with having a serial killer as your protagonist, however, is that you have to give viewers a reason to follow them through the series. It was a challenge the makers of US drama Dexter faced, and one that also confronted Lawlor.
“I wasn’t crazy about making Elvira a good guy, because really she’s not a good person,” he explains. “But she is doing her job, so it’s kind of relatable. People can go, ‘Well, at least I have an inkling of why she’s doing this,’ but it’s treading that fine line about how you present what is, in essence, a very evil person, but make them palatable, understandable, and fun to an audience. That’s why you don’t see an awful lot of shows about serial killers, because they’re very hard to do.”
A crucial part of the series – produced by APC and Magamedia, with APC distributing – was then establishing Elvira away from the murders as a “very normal, awkward, dark, lonely person,” the writer continues. “I didn’t want to make her a robot, where she has no feelings or emotions. If I could just make her a very human young woman living in a small town who kills people, that to me was the key.
“It wasn’t the case of trying to make her likeable but make her very normal, so if we take out the murder and put her in a normal scene, she’s an interesting character.”
Obituary marks Lawlor’s first television series, and so much of his time early in development went into getting the pilot where he wanted it to be, setting up the characters and the world of the show. The next five episodes then emerged from the series outline, pulling on the DNA of the pilot.
“I’m a big believer that whatever’s in that pilot is telling you where to go with your story,” he says. “I wrote the series outline, a big, long 40-page document, but a lot of it was placeholders. I knew the last episode and I knew the first episode, and that gave me enough for a second episode where I knew what I was doing and taking different stabs at those third, fourth and fifth episodes.”
Knowing where he wanted Elvira to land at the end of the season proved to be a “guiding light” during the writing process, before the scripts would change again to make them production ready.
When filming began in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Lawlor always made himself available to directors John Hayes and Oonagh Kearney if they had questions about the show or wanted to suggest different locations than those in the scripts. He was also looking at different cuts of the show, while Elvira’s voiceover narration constantly required amending to fit the scenes as they were filmed.
“During the shoot, you’re getting emails all the time from the director, the production designers and stuff like that, and it just problem solving,” he says. “I was ready to rock and roll at home at my computer, and I could just go off and do a new script. I had so much faith in John and Oonagh, they got it and it was amazing watching what they shot. They got the humour and they got the tone.”
It’s too early to say whether Obituary will return for a second season, but Lawlor is already back at his computer writing new episodes so that if a new series is commissioned, production can resume as quickly as possible.
“We really want the scripts locked down before we go near shooting, so I’ll carry on as if it’s going to happen. If it doesn’t, then I have a lot of dead PDFs on my laptop. That’s how I have to approach it,” he says. “But I’m having a lot of fun writing it. I’ve definitely improved as a writer. I’ve learned more from the first season, and so I feel more equipped.”