I’ve had a hectic but very enjoyable week working with a lot of different screenwriters.
Last weekend was the March edition of ‘The Two Phils’ Guide to Writing & Selling Your Screenplay‘ course in London. It was a really enjoyable weekend with an excellent group. Several of the ideas and characters that were developed over the weekend by writers on the course are still rattling around my brain. I hope that the writers in question will take these ideas on and develop them into screenplays – the ideas in question were so strong they deserve exposure to the wider world!
Then yesterday I spent the day working with 1st year students on Chris Walker & Jim Hill’s Television Script Writing MA at De Montfort University Leicester. I had already read three of their drama pilot series scripts. And yesterday was a day spent discussing the thorny topic of rewriting.
One thing that I really tried to get across – spurred in part by my weekend course, and also by analyzing why I choose the writers I do for the Channel 4 screenwriting course – was just how important the ideas behind your script are.
One thing I find myself saying to writers a lot is – it doesn’t matter how good the writing is if the idea behind your story isn’t that big or interesting. If the idea is humdrum, then however well-written it is, you will struggle to really engage the reader \ audience. Conversely, if there’s a strong idea, and the writer has a real agenda, something they are burning to express through their script, then it can compensate for a multitude of writing sins!
As writers we all need to think deeply about what we care about, what excites and moves us, what has really angered us – and write about it.
Some recent TV dramas that spring to mind – Guy Hibbert’s excellent COMPLICIT for Channel 4, an impassioned dramatization of the issues around state-sponsored torture; and Charlie Brooker’s 1st Black Mirror film in series 2, ‘Be Right Back.’ Both of these films stood out for me because the writers in question so clearly had something to say. Both films were underpinned by a deep intellectual curiosity – but of course the writers had also done the really hard bit – transformed interesting ideas and questions into compelling character-driven, emotive dramas.
I met up this week with one of this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting writers to discuss his excellent first draft script, and to give him notes for his 2nd draft.
This first draft was really polished – an impressively tight and enjoyable piece of blackly comic story-telling.
I don’t wish to embarrass the writer in question so I won’t mention his name but, impressed as I was with how well-realised this was for a first draft, I asked him about his working methods.
Initially he had given me a detailed 15 page or so outline of this series pilot episode, which was almost a scene-by-scene breakdown. The script deviated only minimally from this initial document.
When writing the script, the writer in question will first write out a scene by hand – with a lot of crossing out and amending – before committing it to computer when he feels it’s ready (ie he’s already done a draft or two of a scene before he types it up).
Once he’s got the whole script on computer, he will do a reading-out-loud of the script with his partner. This will lead him to make changes, adjusting dialogue, bits of story etc. (Reading a script out loud is such a worthwhile exercise – it will bring things to your attention that you simply won’t pick up reading in the normal way).
The next stage is to get the script to a few selected screenwriter friends who read the script. He then meets up with them and discusses the script. The questions they ask are mainly about story, and clarity of story. This will lead to further adjustments.
He then prints the script off again and gives it a through proof-read, making more changes.
Then, and only then, he emails me his ‘first draft’!
As I said the script was excellent. This is a really talented writer – but what the above shows you is that he is someone who makes the most of his talent – he approaches his writing professionally, and he has real commitment to his craft.
One of the things this week – in which I’ve met and talked to so many screenwriters – has brought home to me – is just how many keen and talented competitors you all have here in the UK.
And it’s no accident that someone like this C4 writer is rising to the top – his passion, commitment, single-minded focus and sheer relish for the craft is a lesson to us all!
On a slightly more ambivalent note, I have been going to a lot of new theatre shows recently – a good proportion of which have been new shows by writers from the Channel 4 screenwriting course.
This week, the excellent (and sold out) ‘God’s Property‘ by Arinze Kene at the Soho Theatre. Next month the equally excellent (I already read it) ‘Glory-Dazed‘ by Cat Jones, also at the Soho. Last month a reading of Jon Brittain’s very funny new play (also at the Soho!); in June it’s off to the Churchill Theatre Bromley to catch Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong‘ on its UK tour.
And in the recent past I’ve been to Anders Lustgarten’s ‘If You Won’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep‘ at the Royal Court, and Vivienne Franzmann’s outstanding ‘The Witness‘ at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
While a lot of these (and other) writers from 4screenwriting are beginning to attract a lot of interest from TV and film, and screen commissions are beginning to happen for the 4screenwriting writers, I can’t help rather enviously comparing the health of the new writing scene in theatre to its equivalent in TV – and feature film. This seems to be a bit of a golden age for new writing in theatre – there is so much exciting new theatre writing at the moment.
When you look at what theatre is doing, the Royal Court writers schemes stand out like a beacon – but there is also major encouragement for new writers from numerous other theatres and companies – Paines Plough, Theatre 503, the Finborough, the Bush, Hampstead, the Tricycle, Soho Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Trafalgar Studios, National Theatre, Stratford East…the list goes on and on. And this is only London! I know less about the theatre scene outside London – but I do know that in a lot of cities and regions (Bristol and the SW spring to mind) there are also hugely active new writing scenes.
With the temporary (?) shelving of the annual BBC Writers Academy scheme, the Channel 4 screenwriting course is now the only broadcaster initiative to attract and work with brand-new writers for TV. Perhaps it’s time that some of the bigger independents invested the relatively tiny amount of money it needs to launch their own new writing initiatives to help attract more of the huge array of untapped dramatic writing there is currently in the UK.
Touchpaper TV’s Channel 4 ‘Coming Up‘ scheme is an excellent example to how it can be done.
Finally, we’re still booking for our ‘The Authoritative Guide To Writing And Selling A Great Screenplay‘ course for May 11-12 in central London.
Our special guest is highly experienced BBC script editor ESTHER SPRINGER. I worked with Esther at Carlton TV some years ago, and Esther has also been a real pioneer for new writers in TV – at the BBC she has worked on the Eastenders spin-off E20. She was a guest lecturer on the 2012 Channel 4 screenwriting course. And she played a huge role with me in the running of the old Carlton new writers course.
She is right at the cutting edge of TV drama production in the UK and is a fount of knowledge for UK screenwriters of all levels of experience.
Here is a link to more detailed information about the course –
Until next week
All the best
March 22nd 2013