Indie Training Fund – Story, Ideas & Character Masterclass London March 9th
We’ve just had the first weekend of this year’s C4 screenwriting course and it was a really exciting, thought-provoking couple of days.
Some observations from the weekend that I hope may be helpful to screenwriters –
I’ve been thinking about what the scripts by the 12 writers on this year’s course (selected from 1400 script submissions) had in common.
They were nearly all about big subjects, challenging ideas – female genital mutilation, a trans-gender character, racism, gender politics. If this makes the scripts sound a bit dull and worthy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as mainly tackling big, important, controversial topics, all of the scripts were exciting, entertaining and compelling.
Others that didn’t necessarily tackle big subjects stood out in other ways – for instance – scripts on more familiar subjects that were brilliant examples of that genre – that demonstrated outstanding story-telling ability within a familiar area, and were fresh, original takes on familiar genres and stories.
The best of the scripts created wonderfully rich, engaging and original characters, and put them in challenging, provocative and difficult situations – that forced the characters into drastic action that revealed other sides to them.
Of the writers chosen for the course this year, 6 wrote screenplays, 6 wrote stage plays. Usually the balance is more heavily weighted on the side of screenplays. But this is perhaps a reflection of the thriving new writing culture in UK theatre – a culture that doesn’t exist in the same way in screenwriting in the UK. (A topic for another newsletter!)
To the course itself – we had a brilliant line-up of guest speakers. Starting off with script guru KATE LEYS, talking about story-telling for the screen. Kate has spent her working life thinking about how story works, and has worked with many of the very best writers mainly in feature films but also in TV. She had so many pearls of story-telling wisdom – invaluable for both writers and the script editors on the course. (We have 4 script editors working on the course, each of whom work with three writers, and who are also shadowed by 4 trainee script editors.) Kate addressed the absolute fundamentals of how story works in a way that is straightforward, jargon-free and highly insightful. If you ever get a chance to listen to her talk, or work with her, take it!
Next up was director MARC MUNDEN. Marc is one the top TV directors in the UK today, his most recent work being on C4’s 4-parter, NATIONAL TREASURE, and before that on the wonderful UTOPIA. Marc showed a clip of the brilliant opening sequence of UTOPIA S1 ep1 (mass murder in a shop – if you saw it, it will be imprinted on your memory!) and scenes from National Treasure. Both were master-classes in clear, dramatic and visual story-telling, and really instructive about his working relationships with writers (in these cases, Dennis Kelly and Jack Thorne). He talked about how important it was for writers to leave interpretive gaps in their work, and about creative collaboration at its best.
Finally on day one, 4Screenwriting alumna CHARLIE COVELL talked about her writing work since the 2014 course. (You may want to catch up and enjoy Charlie’s work – her outstanding feature film BURN BURN BURN is now on UK Netflix; and her two brilliant episodes of BANANA are on All4 – Channel 4 catch-up). And on the Sunday, we had two other 4Screenwriting alumni do a talk together – CAT JONES (2012) and ANNA SYMON (2013).
All three have enjoyed significant screenwriting success since they did the course. They are all obviously, in their different ways, outstanding screenwriters. But in itself that’s not enough to achieve success. What they also have in common is a huge passion for writing and their craft, huge intelligence, great determination to succeed, and an ability to collaborate and get on with their co-collaborators – even when things get tough. And all three talked about the pitfalls as well as the successes – the bad notes you get, the projects that don’t get green-lit, the sheer intensity of the demands that are put on you. There is a fair level of stress involved, and while all three have been very successful, all three have also had their share of frustrations – and what is impressive about all three, is how they manage to rise above these difficulties and keep focused and determined – with the focus being on the continued quality of their work.
On Sunday we opened with Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith talking about their Channel 4 serial RUN (another show to watch on Netflix). It was really interesting to hear about the pros of being a writing partnership (of which there are many) and of their work across TV and feature films. What strikes me about Dan and Marlon is that beneath their undoubted talent as writers, they are hugely determined and focused on developing their careers and the range of their industry connections. They have a number of very exciting projects in development. They also clearly enjoy passing on their experiences to the newer writers on the course – and I think this sort of generosity of spirit is something a lot of the successful writers have in common.
They were followed by Channel 4 drama commissioner Liz Lewin. Liz, also a hugely experienced producer and script editor, accompanied by writer Lisa McGee (London Irish), was a force of nature – giving off huge energy and enthusiasm for the work she does with writers. She had also (incredibly generously) done a massive email around her many industry friends and contacts the evening before to ask them for their tips for writers just starting out in the industry. The resulting 6 page document was a screenwriting master-class in its own right. And here are a few of the many insightful quotes from it –
‘Eavesdrop. I got a character today just by listening to a lad on the till at Waitrose boasting to a Saturday girl.’
‘If your characters don’t care about what’s going on, the audience won’t care.’
‘Agents like writers who as well as talented they feel are also hard working and proactive.’
‘You need to spend time thinking about how to work out what is unique about your voice.’
‘Don’t write a SINGLE line of dialogue until you have a COMPLETE, fully working outline!!!!’
‘Read as many scripts as you can. Read scripts every day.’
‘Once I’d given up the notion of trying to ‘please’ a reader, I was completely libertated. And that’s how I found my ‘voice’ as a writer.’
‘Write and write and write, and be your hardest critic, and don’t second guess, and don’t be afraid of failure.’
‘Don’t be precious. Don’t get despondent. Don’t waste all your time on twitter.’
…and so on. Six pages of this stuff from some of the most successful writers, producers and agents in the business. Absolute gold-dust for the writers and script editors on the course.
Then we had HILARY NORRISH, one of the best script editor / producers working in the UK, with a wonderful CV of outstanding shows, talking about the writer / script editor working relationship. Hilary has spoken on every year of the C4 course – she is a brilliant public speaker, a natural comedian, and hugely perceptive about how writers and editors work together at their best (based on a career of working with people like Alan Bleasdale, Paula Milne, Guy Hibbert, Simon Block etc).
At the end of both the days, the course writers sit down with their script editors to pitch the ideas they’re interested in writing about in their course script. Over the years, we’ve found that finding a really exciting idea that the writer is burning to write but that is also suited to C4 / E4 is probably the hardest part of the process. Sometimes just finding the right idea can take several weeks – but once a writer has settled on the right idea, the process is very exciting. We tried to tackle that issue this year by having a briefing evening for the 12 chosen writers before Christmas at Channel 4, where C4 drama head of development Matthew Wilson and script editor Natasha Phillips talked to the writers about the sort of ideas C4 are interested in, what constitutes a C4 idea, and the sort of ideas currently in development and production, and why they stood out from the crowd.
And the rage of ideas pitched by the writers was very exciting. I’ll report back after the 2nd weekend in June about the writing process and the resulting scripts – but for all of us working on the course, it’s the start of an exciting adventure that we hope will end up for the 12 writers with the sort of success achieved so far by Charlie, Anna and Cat.
The next newsletter will be on Friday Feb 10th – with exciting news of the launch of my TRIBUTE podcasts!
All the best
Jan 27th 2017