THE TWO PHILS GUIDE TO WRITING AND SELLING A GREAT SCREENPLAY
Weekend course London May 16 – 17.
A course for screenwriters of all levels of experience. Run by script editor / producer / trainer PHIL SHELLEY ( runs the Channel 4 screenwriting course) and writer / script editor / screenwriting guru PHIL GLADWIN (Head of Development, Bentley Productions). With special guest speaker, literary agent MATTHEW BATES (Sayle Screen).
DAY 1- The craft of screenwriting – DAY 2 – The business of screenwriting.
Recently I’ve been working with 15 MA Dramatic Writing students at Central St Martins / University of The Arts London. I set the students a tall order – to each develop a compelling three page written pitch for a long-running drama series.
I was blown away by the quality of the ideas they came up with. What stood out was the sheer originality of the ideas – it made me think about how much more original many of these ideas were than many of the ideas that more experienced screenwriters often come up with.
It’s quite salutary to observe how sometimes more experienced writers – because they’ve been to the meetings, studied what gets commissioned, and understandably try to increase their odds of a commission by second-guessing the producers and commissioning editors they’re trying to sell their ideas to – self-censor.
But I’ve watched so much good TV (+theatre, films, books) recently that stands out for the boldness of its conception and writing. Projects that haven’t been interrogated to death by script editors and producers. Projects that work precisely because they feel deeply personal and therefore original and different.
I haven’t seen much of it yet but from the glimpses I’ve seen, TOGETHERNESS is one such show. It could be accused of being indulgent and ‘niche’ but to me it seems bold, original and it works because it’s so true to itself.
But this isn’t a quality that is unique to US indie shows – it’s also the strength of shows like UNCLE and NURSE, two outstanding UK comedies.
UNCLE is now in its second series (written and directed by OLIVER REFSON) but NURSE is a new BBC half hour comedy (although could probably more accurately described as ‘comedy drama’) written by David Cummings & Paul Whitehouse, starring Paul Whitehouse in multiple roles, and the excellent Esther Coles as the eponymous nurse.
Other TV screenwriting that I’ve been enjoying recently in this ‘Golden Age of Television’ –
I’m really enjoying the boldness and brutality of CRITICAL. Bold because it’s so uncompromising in its story-telling – everything is focused on the piece of meat / patient of the week with only the very slightest concession to traditional series story-telling conventions around regular character relationships and the doctor / nurse / patient dynamic. But I really admire – and more importantly am really enjoying – the show’s narrative disciplines. Jed Mercurio has concentrated all the drama around the team of medics trying to sustain life in the most critical conditions and even though we generally get no inkling whatsoever about the character of the patient, we care because this is so elemental – they’re trying to save a life, in real time, and that’s drama enough, regardless of who the accident victim is.
At the same time it pulls no punches in the grisliness of the medical detail it shows – episode three’s removal of foot then both legs was stomach-churning – and the fact that the episode closed with the patient’s death somehow made you think even more deeply about the nature of the medics’ work.
Hats off to Sky for commissioning something this ground-breaking and risky – this is very far from being conventional mainstream 9pm UK TV drama – and in a 13 episode run at that. And it’s great to see one of the UK’s top screenwriters, JED MERCURIO being given licence to create such a formally original and bold drama series.
BETTER CALL SAUL
If you’re struggling a little with the early episodes of BCS I urge you to stick with it. Personally I’ve hugely enjoyed every episode so far – I love its oddness – but episode 6 stood out for me as an absolute gem. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it (CRITICS TAKE NOTE!) by talking about its narrative content here, but I was absolutely gripped by it. It worked as the most wonderful self-contained tragedy, beautifully plotted, and just an outstanding piece of drama on every level, featuring the outstanding Jonathan Banks. Wow.
Here’s an interesting review / appreciation of the episode – but DON’T read it until after you’ve viewed the episode – it contains spoilers.
HOUSE OF CARDS 3
This too is outstanding. Like CRITICAL and BETTER CALL SAUL, this is bold story-telling that really has the courage of its convictions.
Three episodes into this new series, I’m already absolutely hooked. I’m of a mind to binge-watch it – but there’s just too much good stuff to watch at the moment!
Here’s a link to a blog written by HoC writer LAURA EASON and it’s an absolutely fascinating insight into the work that goes into the creation of this outstanding series. A real coup by Abigail Gonda at the BBC Writers Room.
Another piece of excellent writing. But arguably not so much about textured, relatable characters (like HOUSE OF CARDS & BETTER CALL SAUL) – more about Jimmy McGovern’s skill as a story-teller. The stakes are as high as they could be for the characters, and the characters are confronted with the most horribly difficult personal dilemmas. Character here is revealed by their actions and responses in the face of deep personal crisis. The situations in which he places his characters ask such huge questions of them – this is a refreshingly visceral approach to historical / period drama.
‘Good writing is an alchemy of the personal and the universal.’
Good writing, and what makes it good, is such a hard thing to put your finger on. I try to go to see as much new theatre writing on the London fringe as possible but I’ve had a bad run in the theatre in the last few months, not really loving any of the last ten or so shows I’ve seen (which makes me realise just how golden this TV age is!).
But I recently went to a new show at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs – THE WASP by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. This was a 90’ two-hander; and from literally the first minute of the play I knew this was going to be good – and sure enough it was excellent.
The play opened with two old school-friends meeting at a cafe. The first full sentence of dialogue was –
‘I’m so sorry! I didn’t realise there was this bit out here. I’ve been in there all this time.’
Now this may not seem to you like the most earth-shattering line of dialogue you’ll ever hear but it struck a chord with me – it felt real, and this situation – a misunderstanding about meeting place – also felt real and raised a smile. For the next 90 minutes I was entranced by the quality of the writing. The run has finished now but it’s a great read too, published by Oberon Books –
Similarly I’m enjoying AM Homes’ excellent ‘THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE’, a character study of a man who has everything but has lost his soul – the American nightmare – it’s just a wonderful, funny, incisive character study.
Until next week
All the best
March 20th 2015