This week some notes from a session at the excellent SOHO CREATE festival that takes place every June in Soho. If you’re London-based, look out for it in 2017
SOHO CREATE : JUMPING OVER THE EDGE: What It Feels Like When It Works
‘How successful do these three brilliant creative people feel? Critics Circle Award-winning actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, recently seen as Lulu in her screen-writing debut, Crashing, will be in conversation with Dennis Kelly and Colin McIntyre. Kelly wrote his first play at 30 and has since written over 20 more including Matilda The Musical with Tim Minchin. McIntyre who as well as having a successful recording career under his own name and the Mull Historical Society, has leapt of the edge recently by writing his Edinburgh Book Festival award-winning debut novel. Together they will discuss what drives them to continue to create new work, take different directions and leap into the void.’
PWB: I left drama school and no-one wanted me to act in anything. In the 2 years after I left drama school, when it was really hard, I met Vicky Jones, we started Dry-Write – we pushed each other – someone who champions you and encourages you.
CM: Story-telling the key word. Song-writing has helped me. I come from Mull. My story started there. I went to Glasgow to study – but have been writing songs since I was 6 or 7. Always did it myself. At uni in Glasgow, Jeff Travis from Rough Trade saw me perform. While on tour, I started writing short stories – they came from the same place as my songs. My grandfather was a bank manager on Mull, but also a poet.
DK: I left school at 16, worked in a supermarket in Barnet. Went to youth theatre, used to live for that Thursday. Spent a dissolute 20’s. I was shit at acting so I wrote a play. A friend put it on, they still wouldn’t let me be in it.
I’d love to say it was all research but I was just making bad life choices. But it’s definitely useful to have lived a bit. But it’s more about honesty – with yourself about the material you’re writing.
Ideas are weird – you can’t sit around waiting for them. Sometimes I slog away for ages, there’s nothing there; you have to keep grasping for it.
CM: You have to find something that feels real. I spent a lot of my teens sounding like Blur or someone else – until you find something that feels a bit different.
PWB: Daring to feel like your own voice can be unique. Just the way you’ve been chatting to your friends for 10 years.
DK: There are lots of pitfalls. ‘Find your own voice and that’s it’ – terrible advice. There’s a danger that if you go out and find a voice, that it’s not you. But the thing to do is try to be you and hope you’re not a prick.
CM: You don’t think about the audience, just a little secret of your own. I didn’t even tell my wife I was writing my novel. Then it’s just for you.
PWB: CRASHING came from a series of short plays. ‘Big Talk’ Productions liked the plays – asked how can we put the characters together? A Big Talk exec came up with the idea from the Property Guardian. C4 liked the character – but asked, ‘why now?’
I come up with the character arcs first, then try to inter-link them as much as possible, throw hideous things at them. Then coming up with a beginning, middle and end – each episode story.
DK: On UTOPIA, I was working with really good people. Good producers do nothing – just work with really good people. Marc Munden was brilliant, as were the actors. It was difficult to write – it was sprawling, wheedling in real events, ‘bending the truth’ into the story. It’s hard to keep a story arc over the whole series, and then to write episode stories within that. As a writer, it’s hard to see the difference between film and TV series. The audience is sophisticated and intelligent. In the UK, we get scared that the audience won’t understand everything.
CM: My novel is set on an island like Mull. Charles Darwin visits the island.
PWB: FLEABAG – a friend was running a story-telling night, and asked me to do a 10 minute story. So I wrote a ten minute thing, I wrote it to make Vicky laugh – it went down well. We sorted out a slot in Edinburgh – but it was for one hour. I expanded my ten minute piece in ten minute sections, until I had one hour of material. The company helped me to dramatise it – helped me find a story in it, pulling out the truth in it. Daring it to be brave. Wrote the ending on the way up to Edinburgh. It crept up on me, the rawness. Had a great response. BBC interested. Adapting a one woman show into a multi-character cast was challenging.
DK: MATILDA for the RSC. At first it was just me. They asked, ‘Do you fancy doing a musical?’ My response, ‘I hate musicals.’ They said great. I often write out of the house. Being in a coffee shop is just the right balance of private and public. With MATILDA, I had to make the story my own, tear bits out. Dahl’s structure for film and musical is terrible – it’s structured to work as a children’s story. But he gives you this great colour and characters. Really hard work, loads of workshops – making something that we believed in.
I feel like ignorance is under-rated. I didn’t want to see other musicals – which is very stupid because I got lots of stuff wrong. But it’s good in some ways because you follow your instincts.
PWB: I didn’t want to learn the lesson of structure.
DK: Structure isn’t that difficult really – it’s like telling a joke in the right way. Referenced Robert McKee’s ideas on structure.
PWB: But McKee is just breaking down other people’s structure…
DK: But they’re not inventing it, it’s all there – by p.7 this needs to happen, by p.15 something else needs to happen – it can be useful and right, but sometimes not.
CM: I’ve always been slightly fearful of ‘learning how to do things.’ When writing the 3rd or 4th draft of my novel, I sent it to my agent. The 1st time I’d ever had editorial feedback. He loved the things I was most insecure about. Having someone believe in you, when someone give you that belief, it allows you to fly.
DK: Writing a big zombie film, Matilda musical. Currently writing 3 films.
PWB: Editing FLEABAG for BBC, goes out in July. Adapting a novella about a female psychopath. And auditioning for things I haven’t written – which I’m really excited about.
PWB: FLEABAG: The power you have as a narrator is that you’re seeing everything through one person’s skewed version of the world and characters. I had to let go of the idea that she was in control of the whole story. There is some direct address to camera, but her control slips. Vicky Jones was script editor – she and the producer helped me with it. Having a sounding board is really important for me – talking things out, acting them out.
DK: I have a tip about writer’s block – it doesn’t exist – it’s fear. We’re all scared – but we’ve ‘medicalised’ it. Do you hear the voice of your character? When I get scared, I get a new notebook – makes me feel it doesn’t matter. You have to ‘de-importantise’ it. I’ve been doing it for 15 years. If you can write something bad, write it so that you can get to something good and better.
CM: Don’t hold onto it – move onto something else.
DK: But don’t throw anything away.
CM: Just wake up tomorrow and start writing.
PWB: It’s about daring yourself. If I’m writing something that’s quite personal to me, then I get a thrill that it might also mean something to someone else.
DK: Just write to the best of your ability at that time. Don’t worry if it’s good or bad.
CM: Whatever you write, it has to come from a spark. What’s the thing you’re trying to communicate? At some point you have to jump off that cliff.
DK: With my first attempts at plays, I was trying to write things I thought people wanted – mistake. I changed to thinking – what do I really care about? Things that really mattered to me. Not easy to find, not easy to be honest with yourself about.
Taking notes from people is really hard, it took me a few years. We all know what we think about films etc – we develop those skills to judge films, plays, etc. But the mistake is to think we can apply those skills to our own work.
What other people can help you with is to see it through their eyes, to get outside yourself. It takes time to learn to cope with notes – but it can be brilliant if you have smart people helping you. But you have to trust your gut – because sometimes a terrible note can look the same as a good one.
CM: Amazing skill of editors to help you stand back – and then help you move forward.
PWB: It forces you to articulate your work, what you were trying to do. It’s helped me understand moments better. Sometimes not agreeing with a note helps you understand – you’re not quite conveying something that you need to.
Learning how to listen to note-taking a whole new skill. If they don’t get it, don’t dismiss this.
DK: You can get shit notes – try not to get upset – people are trying to help.
The next newsletter will be on Nov 25th
All the best
Nov 11th 2016