This week I am so delighted to share with you this guest blog – screenwriter ANNA SYMON, a C4 screenwriting course alumna, writer of MRS WILSON and DEEP WATER, interviewing director RICHARD LAXTON.
A massive thank you to both Anna and Richard for taking the time to do this and for their generosity in sharing it.
Hope everyone is coping with lock down as best they can. So many friends have said to me how lucky I am that, as a writer, my work life goes on as normal, and while it’s true in some ways, in most ways of course it’s not. For one, there is the existential anxiety which makes it tough to focus on sitting down and making things up, and then there are all the new ways of working, getting notes and having creative conversations via Zoom, and, by no means least, there is the issue of motivating oneself to write scripts with no clear production start date. One thing is for sure, once this is over, and filming is able to start up again, there is going to be a mini production boom. Actors, crew, directors are all going to be hugely in demand and there’ll be a proper bun fight to get the best collaborators attached to your project. All that led me to think that it might be useful to write this guest blog about how to entice a director to your script and more generally about the relationship between the writer and the director in TV drama.
I spoke to Richard Laxton whom I worked with on MRS WILSON, a mini-series I wrote for BBC One in 2018. Richard is an award-winning director who has worked with a diverse and high calibre list of writers including Abi Morgan, Emma Thompson, Neil McKay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Jed Mercurio, Brian Fillis, Simon Donald. The list goes on and on. In recent years, he has collaborated extensively with Stefan Golaszewski, directing the brilliant shows HIM AND HER and MUM. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was over the moon when he agreed to direct MRS WILSON.
How do scripts land on your desk? And what do you look for in a script?
I don’t have time to read when I’m in the middle of a job. So I start to look at scripts when I am coming towards the end of post-production on the job I’m currently working on – or soon after. My agent sends me ones she thinks I’ll enjoy (perhaps weeding a few out as she knows my taste) and I will generally read at least twenty to find one that really touches me. The first consideration is always: am I compelled to keep reading? After that its – am I intrigued enough about the world that I’m in, do I care enough about the characters? Do I believe the world of the characters is emotionally resonant and complex enough to hold an audience? Where is the humanity within the script? What does the script say about us all that is interesting and possibly confronting? This last point can be quite subtle, it doesn’t have to be something writ large in the script. Perhaps there is a theme or resonance that I can see in the script that I’d want to bring out further.
What I find really interesting about what you’ve just said is that your primary thoughts are about story-telling, not your ‘vision’ for the show.
Before I take on a project, I have to have to have a deep connection with the story. The first reading of a script is the most important one I will ever have. It is the closest I will ever get to the audience’s experience of this world.
That’s really interesting. Can you remember your first read of RIVER by Abi Morgan, for example?
Yes, I can vividly remember my first read of every script I’ve ever worked on! I was on holiday and I was exhausted from work and I really didn’t want to read any scripts at all. I knew that RIVER was a cop show and I really didn’t want to make a cop show – but my agent said “look, it’s Abi Morgan, you should read it” so I got off my teenage high horse and I can clearly remember where I was, sitting on a sun lounger on the beach. I found I just couldn’t stop reading and I was so moved and drawn into the world of this incredibly tender human being and this private and tortured condition that he lived with, all I can says is I just couldn’t stop reading it. I decided instantly that I wanted to go and meet her to talk about it.
What happens then?
I prepare for the pitch with the writer and producer. Producers often need broad brush references so they can understand what I want to achieve with the piece. For example, for MRS WILSON, I talked about CATHY COME HOME for its visceral emotion and TODD HAYNES for the suburban palette. Of course, in reality it is much more subtle and complex than that but it gives people a frame of reference. The stakes feel really, really high. If I don’t get a job I love it’s very painful because by the time I haven’t got it I’ve normally engaged a lot of myself in it to try and get the job. You end up bringing so much of your brain and thought and imagination that if you don’t get it there’s a period of withdrawal or mourning. I always connect with stories from an emotional perspective.
How about comedy? When you first read MUM, did you respond to it from an emotional/ character or a ‘laughs’ point of view?
I knew Stefan very well already because of directing HIM AND HER but MUM was a very different tone to that so, in some ways, it was like a new read. I remember being moved emotionally and I giggled. That combination is gold dust. I found the main characters incredibly touching but there was also a chorus of characters around them that were real but also extraordinary. By the end of the read, I felt like I’d been on a hell of a journey. Also the first ep is incredibly raw as it is the morning of the funeral of the lead character’s husband. As much as there were many nerves about that from a commissioning point of view, it shows you can start a comedy anywhere as long as you are truthful to that environment. That is such a big thing for me: do I believe this would happen?
Leading on from that, are there any red flags in a script, like this lack of truthfulness, that lead you to pass?
If I can see the work that the writer has had to put in to get to the joke, I see the archness of it, then I’ve no interest in that as a director. Similarly, in drama, if I can see the ‘scaffolding rig’ of the script behind the work it is a turn off. If I start to think that the genre is leading the story rather than it coming from the heart. I think it’s because if I can see the mechanics of the script, I can’t be drawn in and seduced by the world. Sometimes, I have to be honest, I get sent things that I just don’t think are ready to be made. I don’t think the writer and producer have thought hard enough about the story.
On the other hand, there are some scripts that I read that I can see are very well written but they aren’t of interest to me. You have to love something so much to invest your emotional energy and time into it.
Once you take on a job, how does that relationship with the writer work?
I see my job in those early script meetings to look at the script from the audience’s point of view. What is it that I don’t understand in this scene? Why am I not interested in this bit and always skip over it in the read? Could the audience need more back story here to help them understand the character? I guess it’s about truth and clarity.
Trust is so important between writer and director as both creatives are making themselves vulnerable by talking about the work. The director may be thinking deep down inside: I don’t want to be the one to fuck up this brilliant script. The writer will be thinking: Don’t fuck up my script! So it’s a very careful conversation that can be tense. It’s so important to try and work out when there is a difference of opinion whether it’s because the script does not fulfil the writer’s intention or whether the director or other creatives just don’t get what the script is saying. It’s very useful to have other script execs or producers in the room who can steer and help make sense of this process.
So you give a lot of notes?
[said tongue in cheek… I know he does! We sat down together for two days on MRS WILSON. It was tough but worth it, as his notes hugely improved the scripts.]
Some writers hate taking notes but not the good ones. Even the most high profile writers will listen carefully and make time for notes. Due to their busy schedules, both Emma Thompson and Abi Morgan re-wrote scripts then and there in the room as we talked into the night.
At the same time as working on the script with the writer, I start internalising the story, my thoughts constantly evolving so that I can bring the piece to screen. The work then starts in practical terms with hiring the Heads of Dept (production designer, DOP etc) with the right sensibilities for the piece and, of course, casting. By the time we start shooting, everyone in the crew has to be of one voice in the interpretation of the script. In this way, the writer and director should be completely inter-dependent. Everything, everything, must always come back to the script.
Thanks Richard, very thought-provoking and hopefully will inspire us writers to make our scripts as director-ready as possible.
Thank you both!
The next newsletter will be next Friday June 12th.
Until then look after yourselves
All the best
June 5th 2020