INTERVIEW WITH SCREENWRITER PHIL GLADWIN
I first met screenwriter Phil Gladwin when we worked briefly together as script editors in the BBC Drama Series Department in the late 1990’s. Even then Phil’s ambition was to write for the screen and he has since gone onto work on a number of the UK’s top TV shows, as well as writing for theatre and radio. His credits include The Sarah-Jane Adventures, The Bill, Casualty and Trial & Retribution.
We teamed up recently when Phil came to talk to writers on the first Channel 4 screenwriting course; and since then we have run two weekend screenwriting courses together in London.
Q: Phil, What were your earliest influences – the shows, films, books, whatever, that inspired you into wanting to become a screenwriter?
As long as I can remember I just liked the physical process of writing. I remember being round at a friend’s house with my family when I was about 8, and finding an old typewriter. While everyone else was running around playing I spent a good hour copying out a newspaper article, finding each letter as I went, and being somehow deeply thrilled by the process. The first thing I actually wrote was a direct copy of a funny poem in a comic. I showed it to my mum and insisted it was all my own work. I still remember – with some degree of pain – the look on her face as she tried to believe me. Apart from the obligatory school English essay (weekly agony, 7-9pm on a Sunday evening) I didn’t really try writing again. But I was reading like a monster, literally everything I could find. One summer holiday, aged about 10, I hoovered up a couple of Noddy books, a James Bond book, and Slay-Ride by Dick Francis. Then it was Marvel comics for quite a few wonderful years, (and I know why when I look at some of them now – those Marvel writers had an astonishing gift for muscular storytelling. No fluff there!) alongside all those Victor Gollancz yellow-jacketed science fiction books. I finally came out of that via Ray Bradbury, and then to A Level English where I discovered non-genre stuff could be exciting too. In particular, EM Forster, Shelley, Joyce and TS Eliot – the usual A Level stuff. When I started writing again I was really more interested in being in bands, so it was all song lyrics for a while. (Neil Young and Bob Dylan were my inspirations there.) Luckily it didn’t take me long to realise that I had zero musical ability, so then it was short stories. I spent a good 10 years writing science fiction short stories and trying the occasional SF novel – selling about three in the process. It was only when I started to write screenplays that it finally all seemed to make sense. And only when I got the job at the BBC that I seriously thought it might just be possible to make a living doing this hobby of mine. Looking back, that’s a very long journey!
Q: So – working as a script editor at the BBC. Was this a deliberate strategy to kick-start your career as a writer?
Yes. Three sales in ten years?? You didn’t have to tell me there was something wrong. Some grave hole in my understanding. And I knew that without filling that hole I’d probably never get any further. I thought I wasn’t going to get any better training than I would receive at the BBC. If I couldn’t make it as a writer after working there then, well…
Q:…And how useful to you was your work as a script editor for your subsequent screenwriting career – both in terms of the craft and industry contacts?
Vital. Absolutely vital. I spent the first six months there as a Script Reader (like the Writers Room now) and over that time had to summarise perhaps 200 scripts. That discipline of extracting and summarising a story into a half page was the first step towards understanding what a story was. After that I worked on a show about Edwardian nannies called Berkeley Square, and a script editor on that called Suzanne Van De Velde introduced me to the notion of beat sheets, and how by going through a script you could pull out the beat sheets and thereby see the skeleton of the story. A few more years of that kind of pulling stories apart on shows like Bugs, Casualty, and The Bill, and I finally could knew how to write a story that people actually wanted to read!
Q: Do you have any particular tips for new screenwriters trying to break into the industry at the moment?
- Write every day, for at least an hour. Seriously. You’ll only understand the benefit of that once you have been doing it a week. A couple of days off, and you’re dead again. Just try it.
- Brand yourself. You are in a truly competitive market, which is made even harder by the recent cancelling of certain long running shows, and the current tendency of new series to be written by just one or two writers to concentrate the authorial voice. Whatever is unique about you, play on it, don’t hide it, bring it out. I’m not so sure of the value of that online presence re Twitter and so on (though you do want to google well, so get your own domain name etc,) but when you walk into a conference, or a meeting you want people to recognise you, and to know why they recognise you.
- Write at least two great spec scripts. Make sure they are as good as you can get them. Pay a couple of professional script editors to look at them, and if they give you notes that agree, act on those notes.
- Network like crazy – by which I mean attend every industry related event you can find and concentrate on finding people to make friends with.
- Set yourself a clear writing target, find out the people who can hire you for that target, and get to know them, and get your work read by them.
- Be proactive. Marketing yourself is 50% of the job. That never stops. If you don’t like that, you’re not alone. But if you won’t do it, if you think that you can sit in your bedroom and just send your work out, well, that’s like planning your life based on winning the lottery.
Q: When you read a script by a new writer what qualities are you looking for? What makes a script leap off the page, and capture your attention?
Sharp, concise writing. No fluff. Vivid dialogue. Strong characters. A story that kicks in early and keeps on cranking. A powerful, involving opening. And yes, you really, really can tell that some people can’t write after just half a page.
Q: What is the work of which you’re most proud and why?
Transmitted, the Trial and Retribution about the bad Nanny. It seemed to have a powerful emotional effect on a lot of people. There was an episode of the Bill I wrote about death – combining an extended interview with a serial killer (brilliantly played by Hywel Bennett), and a strange vagrant (the wonderful Giles Ford)who was obsessed with killing animals and fancied a policeman next– that I liked in a different way. It was a very dark hour, had a lot of ambition, and I thought it worked pretty well when I saw it.
Q: What is your broad overview of the current UK film & TV industry? What strategies can new writers use to get themselves and their work noticed at the moment?
Things move on, and the reality of it is that Come Dine With Me and the X Factor and all that stuff is what people want to watch. Hell, I want to watch those shows. I’ve been watching a lot of Jonathan Creek lately as research for something I’m speccing up, and it’s clear how far the industry has moved in the last 12 years. If you don’t stay current, and tell stories that in some way reflect the current state of the nation’s sensibility, well, it’s going to be all the harder for you to break in. Don’t get nostalgic about the way it used to be and spend a year lovingly crafting a Morse tribute, or even a Wire tribute – take a hard look at what is actually happening NOW, watch CSI, watch The Killing, watch Wallander, watch Spiral, watch Dexter, and Luther and so on, and see how you can move the game forward.
Q: Do you have any tips for new screenwriters trying to sell ideas (as opposed to completed scripts)?
Don’t bother. You’re not going to get listened to. If you must bother, then write it into a 2 pages pitching summary and get a meeting off the back of that and your two great specs. Work the idea up at the meeting and get the nod to expand that document into five, or ten pages. If you get paid it probably won’t be for many months, and many pages, but that’s how the game works now, even for very experienced writers. These days you’re basically forced to fund your own development and write a lot for free. (Not so different from when I started then!)