From this week onwards, for the next few weeks, I will be sending out this newsletter WEEKLY rather than fortnightly as I have some really excellent gust blogs that I’d like to share with you. So the next few editions will alternate from week to week between my musings and guests writing on various screenwriting-related subjects.
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE INTERVIEWS – SOME OBSERVATIONS
Having undertaken 37 x 30’ interviews over three days (and having done this now for quite a few years), I hope you will find it interesting if I observe what makes for a good interview.
Here are a few thoughts (which I hope are applicable for job interviews in general not just for 4screenwriting in particular).
As with everything, do your homework and come prepared. I send the interviewees a list of 4 things that we will ask them about – ‘We’d like to talk to you about your submitted script, your other writing work, why you want to come on the 4screenwriting course, and ideas you may be considering for the script you would write on the course, if chosen.’ – but then usually try to ask them one extra thing that I haven’t alerted them to in advance (although usually it’s a question that writers in this position should have views about anyway – a question like – who are your favourite screenwriters? What are you watching on TV at the moment? ie nothing too left-field).
I would expect writers to have read all the information available on the internet (my website, the 4talent website) about what happens on the course, what is expected of the writers on the course. We don’t go into a long explanation of what happens on the course (mainly because doing this 37 times is not good for our sanity) but we give the writers the chance to ask any questions about the course; and this is an important element of the interview – sometimes if they ask you particularly searching or difficult questions, it can bring an energy to the conversation.
Obviously the interview can be quite nerve-racking and we try to make it as informal and relaxed as possible. This is easy for me to say and sometimes hard to achieve but it’s important that you find a way to manage your nerves so that it doesn’t inhibit you – the best way to do this is to be prepared and have done your homework.
One thing that nerves sometimes does is get in the way of the interviewee ‘reading’ the room. As an interviewee you need to try to make this into a conversation rather than a monologue. It’s important that as interviewers we do all we can to help you feel at ease; but part of the ‘contract’ is that you are aware of how that works in the other direction. Occasionally a pitch will go on too long and as interviewer it’s hard to find a way that doesn’t feel rude to move onto the next question or idea.
Nerves can also sometimes mean that a question like ‘What recent TV drama have you enjoyed and why?’ can generate a complete blank. This is very common and absolutely reasonable (I know I’ve experienced brain-freeze sometimes when this question is thrown back at me). Some interviewees bring along a notebook or written notes; and at this point will often say ’Do you mind if I refer to my notes?’ My personal response to this is very positive – I’m impressed that you’re well-prepared and have made notes and have brought them with you – to me it demonstrates conscientiousness and good preparation. If you want to refer to notes in an interview that’s a positive. The only caveat I’d give is that you don’t then just read responses from the notebook or read out your pitches – try to keep in mind that the interview should be a dynamic conversation with eye contact – not just you performing a monologue to the interviewers.
One of the things that is difficult is for writers is when we ask them what they love on TV and inevitably they often come up with the same show. This year it was SUCCESSION, last year it was FLEABAG. Clearly neither of these are the wrong answer! But if someone is the 25th person to tell you how wonderful SUCCESSION is, it’s not going to be as interesting as the 1st person to say this! So even if you love the big hit show, it can sometimes be a good idea to acknowledge that show with some rapid and insightful analysis of the script’s brilliance – before moving onto a show that is perhaps less obvious and more likely therefore to feel distinctive. And it’s not just what shows you like – but being able to analyse what is so effective in the writing of those shows that makes them work.
Above all though we’re looking for the passion and individuality behind your writing; and for your ability to articulate this – because alongside your writing, it’s such an important part of the TV drama industry. We want to see your enthusiasm and passion for your own ideas, a distinctive, informed and specific response to TV drama in general and Channel 4 drama in particular; and a curiosity about what the 4screenwriting can do for you.
One of the most important parts of the interview is the writers telling us about the ideas they would be interested in writing on the course. If these ideas are exciting, then it’s an exciting prospect for us to be able to work with the writers on those ideas. Two of the three writers I’m working with this year are developing the ideas they pitched in the interview – and it’s very exciting seeing these ideas blossom into life in discussion and then on the page.
Making sure it’s a dynamic, two-way conversation – eg turning the tables, asking the interviewers questions.
It’s also great if we feel that you’ve done your research and have thought about what the course can do for you and what you as a writer can bring to the course – so, for instance, if you’ve read the course information and testimonials, even looked into the work and scripts written by former alumni of the course (done easily with a few quick google searches) or even have spoken to writers who have been on the course in the past. We want to know that not only are you a good writer but that you’re pro-active and thoughtful.
The interview process in general is very exciting. It’s great being able to put a face to the scripts that we’ve really enjoyed reading, being able to tell the writers how much you enjoyed their scripts and hearing about what inspired those scripts and how the writers came to write them. And I always come away from the interviews with a long list of recommended TV shows that I haven’t watched and would like to.
Add something about CV’s. CV’s are selling documents – they are there to sell you, to make you sound interesting, ambitious, distinctive. Like one page pitches. BUT be honest. You need to work on CVs – they are part of your application, another creative document.
I’m resistant to personal mission statements that contain nothing meaningful. We look for people with impressive writing credits but also interesting, colourful life experience that shows ambition and a sense of adventure and imagination.
In the absence of live theatre, there have been quite a few plays and other really interesting theatre-related stuff on the internet in the last few weeks. Here are a few of the things I have enjoyed –
LOLA ARIAS – and her way of working. I knew nothing about Lola Arias before I read about her play MINEFIELD, which was broadcast via the Royal Court Theatre website a few weeks ago for a limited period. This was a play performed by 6 Falklands War veterans – 3 British, 3 Argentine – about their experiences of the war and life since. Frustratingly I missed the live stream by a day but read a lot about the play and watched clips. It looked completely fascinating and alerted me to the journalist / theatre-maker LOLA ARIAS. I then watched her play, MY LIFE AFTER (available on youtube) ‘based on the biography of six performers who re-enact their parents’ youth during the dictatorship in Argentina.’ Which I thought was great. She comes from a journalistic background. This isn’t quite ‘verbatim’ theatre – but she seems like a really talented and very original dramatic storyteller
HAMPSTEAD THEATRE – are showing some of their archive of plays for a week each on youtube. Last week I watched TIGER COUNTRY written and directed by the excellent NINA RAINE. (She has written a number of really good plays, in particular, CONSENT and STORIES.) This was a warts-and-all examination of the stresses and strains placed on doctors and nurses working in one NHS hospital. Although originally produced back in 2011, the play feels particularly timely right now.
Two JAMES FRITZ links. James was on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in 2015 and is a really excellent dramatist and screenwriter. If you get the chance to see one of his plays, take it. You won’t regret it.
He has written this excellent blog on the Bruntwood Prize website – this is largely about form in storytelling and is hugely insightful.
And he has done an interview about his play LAVA as part of the Nick Hern Books PLAY GROUP podcast. Nick Hern books are making a play available to read for free on their website every week, then interviewing the writer about the play and their work in general. James’s interview is really interesting, as is ANNA JORDAN’s about her play, YEN. (Anna has since gone on to write on SUCCESSION).
I haven’t yet got to the 3rd interview with Winsome Pinnock; and the latest play to read, currently available on the Nick Hern website is ARLINGTON by ENDA WALSH, with more to come.
+ Anna Jordan interview https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/playgroup
A useful checklist of many of the theatre shows online at the moment –
SCRIPTNOTES podcast has been particularly enjoyable recently, especially two zoom episodes, one in which John August and Craig Mazin talk to PHOEBE WALLER BRIDGE and RYAN REYNOLDS about their screenwriting – in particular the way both have made much use of direct address to camera in their writing.
And even more enjoyable to me was the subsequent THREE PAGE CHALLENGE episode, also on youtube – in which John, Craig and guest Dana Fox analyse the first three pages of 4 scripts, then talk to the writers about their scripts. This is such a great lesson in both how to analyse and read scripts but also an insight into writers’ working processes. An added bonus is that we can read the three pages as they’re being analysed – it’s invaluable hearing experienced, talented pro screenwriters like this respond to the detail of script pages.
Two rather wonderful examples of what is creatively possible in these restricted times. Thank you Laurence Tratalos, Adam Lavis and Tamzin Rafn for bringing a smile to my face. Some great comic writing in both of these short films –
LOCK ME UP, LOCK ME DOWN – Tamzin Rafn
IN A WHILE, CROCODILE – written by LAURENCE TRATALOS.
There has been some wonderful TV drama in the last few weeks.
BETTER CALL SAUL S5 Ep8 – 10
I am a huge BREAKING BAD / BETTER CALL SAUL fan – and I think the last three episodes of Season 5 of BETTER CALL SAUL were just outstanding – gripping, intense, utterly distinctive. Dramatic storytelling at its very best, based on rich, textured characterisation, and beautifully directed. Shot after shot is a work of art. The show is loaded with visual references / call-backs which just add to the richness of watching the show (mint choc chip ice cream anyone?)
QUIZ on ITV by James Graham.
This was a very enjoyable romp. One of the things I admire about James Graham as a writer is that he has a great instinct for what makes a cracking story – he homes in on the BIG IDEAS that so many other writers shy away from. Everything he writes about is political in some sense and is often plucked from the headlines. The characterisation in QUIZ was good but what was best about it was the moral murk – the complications and unresolved mysteries at the heart of this story. It had a lot to say about Middle England and the political climate of the UK – but in a way that was entertaining and subtle.
NORMAL PEOPLE – adapted from her novel by SALLY ROONEY (and ALICE BIRCH). I think this series is beautifully written and made. It’s an object lesson in how (contrary to what I was just saying about Quiz / James Graham!) stories don’t always have to be big, bold, headline ideas. The best stories can, indeed, be about NORMAL PEOPLE. If they’re told with this much love for and attention to detail in the characterisations, then a simple love story told over 12 x 30 episodes can be just as gripping. The show is a great reminder of the primacy of CHARACTER. If you create characters who feel textured, complicated, flawed – but above all real and relatable – people will love to spend time with them.
And to have directed so brilliantly two projects as different as ROOM and NORMAL PEOPLE is a great reflection on the talent of Lenny Abrahamson as director.
Incidentally, I don’t know about you – but the fact that this was structured in half hour rather than in traditional BBC one hour episodes, made it even more appealing to me.
As mentioned above, the next newsletter will be in a one week’s time – on Friday May 8th.
Until then, look after yourself and stay safe,
All the best
May 1st 2020