This is my weekly newsletter \ blog for Feb 17th 2012.
This week’s newsletter is an interview with another screenwriter I met in Singapore.
MARCUS GOH is an incredibly busy, and despite his self-effacement, very successful staff writer for Singapore’s main broadcaster Mediacorp.
He fulfils a role that doesn’t really exist in the UK – trusted staff writer, employed long-term by the broadcaster to write across a whole range of fictions shows, both drama and comedy.
The production structure in Singapore is more like the US (than the UK), where writers largely run the shows. In the UK system writers are a bit further down the production pecking order! (a topic for another day!)
In particular there’s some fascinating stuff here about what’s involved in storylining a long-running drama series.
And I think it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in how you carve out a career for yourself as a screenwriter on the other side of the world.
MARCUS, how did you start off as a screenwriter?
I would like to say that it’s my sparkling wit and excellent prose that landed me a job as a scriptwriter, but that’s not the case. I have no idea how it happened.
Before I was a scriptwriter I was a researcher for docudramas, at my local TV station (in Singapore, this would be MediaCorp), the only TV station in Singapore anyway. I did harbour a secret passion for fictional writing and had, to my credit (or discredit), the usual storehouse of fanfics and short stories that I am now too embarrassed to let see the light of day.
But then one day, a lady took the cubicle next to mine, or adjacent to it (the seating positions are a little unorthodox where I work, and the partitions between cubicles are short enough that I still have to watch where I sneeze) and I didn’t know who she was at that time. I was talkative enough to strike up a conversation, upon which I found out that she was a writer, the new head writer.
I volunteered to be a writer, and she gave me a chance to write. And that’s how I became a scriptwriter. Of course this is all simplifying it a little too much – there were conflicts, drama, a bit of a struggle, and some blistered fingers. But the truth is I am very grateful to be a scriptwriter, grateful to my boss for giving me a chance, and grateful to my company for having let me stumble into such a fortuitous set of circumstances.
And, of course, for FinalDraft.
Did you train and if so where and for how long?
Apart from a course on screenwriting at college (which I got a D for), some student films that I did as an undergraduate, and some short film competitions, I don’t really think I had formal training before I started off as a scriptwriter.
Since then though, I’ve been on several writing courses, and most of my training has been on the job. This also means that I’ve committed almost every grievous writing sin possible, and still do sometimes.
The on the job training forced me to learn, fast. My first project was co-writer for a ten episode local comedy series, First Class, set in a secondary school/high school. There were only two writers (me and the other one), and we had to churn out the ten scripts in less than four months. That was being thrown into the deep end of the pool (remember, no formal training before I did this) and being forced to learn how to swim, and as masochistic as this may sound… I really loved that process.
What films \ TV shows influenced you?
Hm. I would like to name some art films or critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful shows, to make myself look like very intellectual, deep, and sophisticated. But really I try to watch as many shows as possible to get as many influences as I can. Smallville, Lost, Supernatural, Ally McBeal, Charmed, Buffy, Friends, Gossip Girl, Chuck, Fringe, How I Met Your Mother, The Golden Girls, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Prison Break, Flashforward, and as many as I can squeeze into my schedule.
What were the films \ shows that inspired you to want to become a screenwriter?
Well, I love cartoons. I think that’s what made me want to be a scriptwriter. You take an unbelievable premise and create a world that’s so enthralling that hooks me to the screen for 30 minutes.
I’d pick Transformers as my first one. I mean, on the surface, it’s about a bunch of good robots fighting evil robots. And all these robots can transform into vehicles or other cool things (I am a huge Transformers fan, so it pains me to be such a reductionist). You’d expect that the episodes can follow a certain formula, like a)evil robots steal world destroying device or b)evil robots hold a important person hostage or c)good robots fight evil creature created by evil robots. And many of them do.
But there are a good many episodes that deal with themes like euthanasia, post war trauma, death and religion, addiction and steroid use. An entire mythology has been built around the original series. The Transformers themselves sometimes betray one another, and even the good guys don’t always agree with each other.
What impressed me most was the recurring elements, the serialization that occurred in a Saturday morning cartoon. There was an episode that featured Optimus Prime seeking out his creator. Later on, there was a time travel episode showing how the creator built Optimus Prime. After that, there was another time travel episode about how the creator wasn’t always a wise old sage – he was once a cowardly young brat who had to grow into the person (or robot) that he is today.
And when I started noticing these things, I realised that a good many cartoon series did this. Avatar the Last Airbender is a prime example. The 1995 Spider-Man The Animated Series did this to the extent that for each season would have a season long arc, reflected in all the episode titles for that season. I was very impressed, very amazed, and very captivated by this serial element in what I thought were basically one-shot stories.
I think that’s what made me want to be a writer.
How did you get your job as staff writer at MediaCorp?
I’ve been a staff writer for as long as I’ve been a scriptwriter, so it’s the same story. I know I’m very, very blessed to be a staff writer – something I didn’t realize when I first started out.
What does the job involve?
Writing? Well I have to write scripts, that’s number one. As an employee of a corporate organization, there are also an inordinate number of meetings that I have to attend.
I’m involved in story meetings; the conceptualization of the series; helping to write some of the promo and press materials; assisting my boss in keeping track of writers, episodes, and continuity; helping clarify doubts about scripts and writers’ intentions. I also book meeting rooms and write nice emails thanking people for giving me snacks when I am hungry.
What shows do you work on?
I’ve worked on almost all in-house English drama and comedy productions since I started. Comedies I’ve done are First Class, Police & Thief, Silver Lining, and an upcoming office comedy called Payday. Dramas I’ve worked on include Polo Boys, and Point of Entry, which is starting on its second season soon. I’ve also done some work on reality programs and some holiday specials.
How does a series like ‘Point of Entry’ work from a writing POV? (Perhaps you could explain a bit about the show – what it’s about)
Point of Entry is an investigative drama about an intelligence team in the ICA – the Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority – that works to keep Singapore’s borders safe. Episodes include smuggling cases (particularly drugs), illegal immigrants that go on to commit crimes, and also a season long arc involving a syndicate.
From a writing POV. Hm. It started off with us getting case studies and other research notes on border crimes from ICA and news sources. After amassing a large number of cases, we culled the less interesting ones until we had 20 cases (1 per episode). Then we went on to do more research on each individual case, and how to build the case-of-the-week story from there. This is the episodic portion.
For the serialized/dramatic portion, we created a series long arc, and had to do many charts detailing the progress and evolution of the story across the series. For instance, we had this arc about a syndicate. We had to plot out how the ICA discovered the syndicate – in which episode did they discover the runner who finally named the syndicate, when did they find out about the boss of the runner, when they found out that one of their allies was actually a high level syndicate member, and finally confronting the syndicate. The difficulties lay in figuring out when the ICA knew what – if they knew too much about the syndicate too early, why weren’t they doing anything about it? If they knew too little too slowly, then why were they so ineffective in finding out about the syndicate?
It was really tough working out the arc, especially for the last few episodes, because we had to figure out how to pace it so that it didn’t wrap too quickly or play out too slowly.
How many episodes is it?
20 episodes for the first season. The second season will have 18 episodes.
How many writers work on it?
We had 8 writers for the first season. The new season will see 6 writers on the team.
How many episodes did you write?
For the first season, 4 episodes. For the new season, most probably 3 episodes.
How many drafts of each script do you write typically?
The PR answer would be: as many as it takes to get the script right! Typically it’s up to 5 or 6 drafts, or sometimes just 3.
Who oversees the show and gives you script notes?
My boss, who’s also the head writer on all the projects I’ve worked on. She’ll go through each script, give script notes, and then do a final polish on all the scripts before they go into the final shooting stage. The EP also gives his notes on the script, as well as directors.
It would be good to get an idea of the process of creating a new series as a whole and the process of writing an episode on a series from first draft of the outline to shooting script.
Usually it all starts when our programming/network colleagues give us the green light on a successful concept. It takes a few months of brainstorming – anywhere from 2 to 7 months – to create all the characters, establish the tone and style of the show, figure out major arcs and ongoing plots. After that we have a workable series bible, and also a rough idea of where the series begins and ends.
From then we go on to each individual episode. The writers will beat out each episode’s plot, and once there’s a rough set of beats for each episode, the respective writer will take it back and write the script. The first and second drafts will be circulated among the production team for their notes, and then a third draft will go into the punch up (sometimes called the script read).
Punch ups, as you know, can go either way. Sometimes a script flows by so smoothly that nobody has anything to say. Sometimes, short tempers and barbed words fly. Punch ups are always exciting.
After the punch up, a new draft of the script will be out, and this is usually the shooting script. Further drafts are normally minor changes.
Where do opportunities lie for budding screenwriters in the current Singapore marketplace?
I’d say the best thing to do is to have a few spec scripts, and then apply to any of a large number of production houses as a writer. But I honestly do not know very much about this. As you can tell, I kind of stumbled into scriptwriting myself.
What sort of a screenwriting community is there in Singapore?
I’m not very sure of this myself. I’m still meeting and getting to know scriptwriters who are far more experienced than me and have had many years in this field. But there is one – most writers seem to know each other by name, if not personally.
What are the scripts you have written of which you’re most proud?
Again I have to give the PR answer – I am proud of all the scripts I have written. For Point of Entry, I’d have to say that the episode I wrote about a syndicate using credit card skimmers is the one I’m most proud of. I like tech stuff (though I wouldn’t date call myself a techie) and I like sci-fi, so this is the closest I’ve come to doing a sci-fi story.
I’d single out this First Class script, about how five different school bullies/villains band together to make life difficult for the five main student characters. The bullies called themselves the Injustice Gang, a reference to one of the Justice League’s enemy groups. I liked it very much because it brought together five recurring characters (the serial element) and showed how they worked, or didn’t work, together to irritate our main cast (expanding on the serial element).
Why have the scripts that have done well for you, worked?
I think most importantly is that I really loved doing those stories. As in, the premise and idea of the whole thing really intrigued me, and that gives you special impetus to put in more effort to make it work. I know that sometimes, working on things that are close to your heart or very dear to you makes it difficult for you to have that objectivity needed to make it work. But to me, if I like something very much, I will go out of the way to make their motivations stronger and to tie things together as coherently as possible.
Do you see any common elements in your more successful projects?
Um. Well. They’re all usually sci-fi or fantasy related. More modern, I’d say.
Please can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done as screenwriter, what excites you, what elements you look for in a story.
Work I’ve done as a scriptwriter – well apart from the shows I’ve listed earlier, and short of giving a resume, I’ve submitted many concepts (include a Chuck-like one) that haven’t quite caught the eye of the higher-ups.
Many things excite me, but you’re probably talking about writing. Well, seeing the first cut of an episode I’ve written will still bring tears to my eyes (though they will not fall out). That’s something that I still cannot get over sometimes, that actors are actually saying the lines I wrote and following the directions I wrote. That feeling is even more awesome on set – seeing actors, live actors, actually speaking the dialogue that I spent sleepless nights working on and ruthlessly editing for brevity and comic wit. I don’t know how to describe it.
I guess it’s a sort of a power trip – hahaha I have created a world and dictated all that happens within my little dictatorship. But there’s also something about seeing your words come to life. It’s like, all these little black squiggles on white paper can actually become these moving pictures of full colour three-dimensional beings. And in a few months, the whole of Singapore will see it. There’s this wonder about it.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching Singapore TV, local sitcoms and dramas, and it just defies my belief that I’m now on the other side of the screen. That’s it. I think it’s seeing it from both sides of the screen, that really excites me as a writer.
That’s something I hope I’ll never get over, because the day I do is probably the day I stop being a writer.
Do you have a literary agent? How important is a good agent \ manager for you? What qualities should screenwriters look for in an agent?
I’m not sure how to answer these questions because I don’t really think there’s an agent/manager system here in Singapore, at least not for writers. Most writers I know are their own agents, I think.
Do you have suggestions for new screenwriters just starting out about how to go about learning the craft of screenwriting – any drills or good practices you’d recommend?
I myself am still not very experienced, so I’m not sure if I am in a position to dispense advice. But well. Hm. I’d say the most important thing is to actually write. It’s one thing to say you want to be a writer, that you have all these wonderful ideas for a script, a show, a series that you want to do. You can say that you want to be a writer all you want, but if you’ve not finished a script, how can you know for yourself?
I know it’s difficult to hold down a full time job and write and develop a script at the same time. But that’s partly how I got my job. I think writing and finishing a script, by yourself, without anyone pushing you, is proof of a quality that writers all need – the ability to finish what you start. It is so easy to procrastinate, blame others, write on Facebook that you have no inspiration, so on and so forth. Finishing it is what counts, and ultimately, what every writer worth his or her salt has to do.
What is a half-written script but an unformed mass of ideas without a resolution? It’s one thing to have a written script but say that you need to do more drafts on it. At least it’s finished, it’s there, it’s workable. But a script without an end is like trying to repaint the walls of an unfinished house. There’s no roof to protect you from the sun and rain and you want to have prettier walls.
Thank you very much Marcus – really interesting and inspiring…
All the best
February 17th 2012
NEXT WEEK : An overview of the courses I am running Spring \ Summer 2012