This week – a report back from one of my recent script mentees, Ann Hawker, on her experiences at The Writer’s Lab 2018 Sponsored by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman –
‘In September this year I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in The Writer’s Lab, a scheme sponsored by Meryl Steep and Nicole Kidman and hosted by Women in Film and TV in New York.
Twelve women writers and writer/directors over the age of 40 were selected from the United States, the UK, Canada and Ireland to take part in a four day intensive workshop with mentoring provided by producers, writers and script doctors from both Hollywood and New York.
The twelve of us writers met in the middle of a New York thunderstorm at Penn Station to make the four hour train journey “Up State” to the breathtaking Lake George. The retreat was held in a nineteenth century summer house built on the lake. If we weren’t already feeling inspired by our company and our mentors the surroundings alone would have been enough!
My fellow participants were an amazing group of women who combined a huge amount of writing and life experience. Most were in some way already linked with the world of drama or film. There were several actresses, documentarians, a camera operator, a lighting electrician as well as several feature film writer/directors.
We had all applied with a specific script and had been lucky enough to have been selected from a thousand applicants. (A thank you to Phil Shelley, who helped with my script!) Over the four days we received intensive one to one feedback from producers and writers on our individual scripts, as well as participating in more general group sessions.
So what did I learn? The producers and writers approached their notes differently, but both came back to the same thing; the importance of character. In my sessions with my writer mentor I found myself going deep into the back story of my characters and interrogating every last piece of their motivation. Meanwhile my producer looked at my script with an eye to casting and attracting talent. She emphasised how much top talent are drawn to fully rounded and motivated characters.
All the mentors emphasised the need for an authorial voice which comes through writing from the heart. It is this which can help create a unique script and ultimately one which might get made. It was striking how many of the selected scripts had strong personal connections with the writers.
My script, which dealt with my experience of Alzheimer’s in my family, touched a real chord with the producer I was working with, whose father was suffering from dementia. So in my case, writing from personal experience led to a strong professional bond, which hopefully will continue!
Since I was in America it was hardly surprising there was a big emphasis on pitching. Don’t go into a general meeting in the US without a carefully honed and well rehearsed pitch! No off the cuff ramblings allowed. A top pitching tip was to always start with your own personal interest in the story, why you chose to write the script and importantly why only you can write it.
Some of the producers recommended creating a look book for your project. A collection of visual reference points and inspirations which can go a long way to capturing the tone of your project. This was probably more relevant for the writer/directors, but it could be a useful exercise for writers as well.
The advice was sometimes surprisingly detailed. There were tips on how to dress for those important producer meetings… (no surprises here, not your slouch pants and a baggy jumper). Would that topic ever come up in a room full of men writers? I doubt it. I suppose this points to some of the extra hoops older women writers feel they have to jump through.
The overall message was clear. As writers we need not only an impressive and unique script, but we need to be able to sell it to producers and commissioners with professionalism and self belief. What was encouraging was that there’s also no doubt that we writers are our own best ambassadors.
We are the people who have the passion for our scripts, we know how we want them to hit emotionally, we have researched and lived what we have written in our pages and there are many commissioners, producers and executives out there eager to hear that experience.’
Thank you very much Ann.
…AND a response to something I wrote a few weeks ago about meetings, ideas, pitching etc- and about finding the best way forward for you as individual writers –
‘This is the area I feel I really suffer from. I am not a natural at fleshing out bags of ideas. I do not have a secret drawer. I learn my ideas/characters by writing them out in scripts – by giving them monologues and scenes. This makes my process lengthy and haphazard and that just doesn’t swing in this telly climate sometimes. I feel I constantly let people down.
I was never really prepared for how to go into telly meetings, and despite having now met tons of lovely script editors, producers and developers I really don’t think I’ve yet to find my groove.
I have developed a spread of stuff – sometimes really me – but more often than not – not me at all. And it’s been a horrid journey of material that falls apart in your fingers and causes hours of wasted time for everyone.
I feel it’s so important what you have said about the idea being exceptional and YOURS. I think there’s a bit of a false idea that you should have a million projects in with a million indies – but actually if you’re like me, you have to fall in love with an idea – and I find it very hard to fall in love that often – it’s just who I am. Yes, it makes it rather nerve wracking – the whole question of ‘what are you up to’ but I suppose you just have to hold that nerve and know that when you do have an idea that takes over, you will finally be able to answer that question with more than just ‘oh some stuff’.
The best time I’ve had this year and a reminder that whilst I might not come up with reams of material by myself – when surrounded by peers I am on FIRE! I just really love a writers room to be honest – think it chimes with what you said about being playful and under time pressure.’
NEW FREE EVENT | On 4 Dec @shootingpeoples host their final SHORT CUTS event of 2018. They will be joined by one of the UK’s most prolific and accomplished producers, the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning, Stephen Woolley (Carol, On Chesil Beach, Interview with the Vampire) for an in-depth Q&A. It’s also their end of year Christmas party, so expect a few extra treats to boot. Get your FREE ticket before they go http://bit.ly/SPCDEC4.
The next newsletter will be in two weeks’ time on Friday November 30th – in which I (and my script readers) will reflect on the (very positive!) experience of working our way through the 2800 scripts that were submitted for the 2019 Channel 4 Screenwriting Course.
All the best
November 16th 2018