This week, more answers to the questions I didn’t have a chance to get to on my BFI Academy session a few weeks ago.
What advice would you give early career writers on how to approach scale?
Go for it! This is one time in your writing career when you should have no limitations or inhibitions about writing a story of real scale. Without wishing to be unduly pessimistic, your initial calling card scripts are unlikely to get made. So you shouldn’t worry about being production-savvy. But readers of your script are likely to respond to a script that feels ambitious and cinematic. You have an opportunity at this point to write your passion project, to write something that really expresses your identity as a writer. So don’t hold back!
Are there any genres you would recommend sticking to (or avoiding) at the early stages of your career?
Absolutely not. As above, write what you are burning to write and don’t start pre-empting yourself with non-creative considerations about which genres are more likely to sell. Write the script that you’re excited to write even if it’s ‘niche’.
What kinds of stories do you think will be popular post quarantine?
Anything that’s not about Covid-19! I think people will be sick of talking and hearing about it and will be keen to move on.
But it’s not an issue that can be addressed simply. Of the three writers I’m working with on this year’s 4screenwriting, 2 slipped quarantine / social distancing references into their scripts. I suggested that they both remove the references because I think you either have to dramatise a world in which it is an all-encompassing reality (which has huge narrative implications) or ignore it altogether.
What are the main structural differences between a feature and a short film?
Short films are often used as testing grounds for feature film ideas; and there are plenty of examples of short films that have then inspired or been the basis of feature films (eg THUNDER ROAD).
Sometimes (and if you can pull this off, it’s very impressive) a short film is structurally intricate with a sophisticated three act structure and story of real scale told in ten or so minutes. Conversely, sometimes a short film is a single scene with a single character in a single, interior location. The form needs to complement the idea.
But a short film is undoubtedly a less daunting place to start out as a writer than a full-length feature.
Are there any script concepts that you read a lot and you would say to avoid as a new writer?
This is a tricky one because it’s at least as much to do with personal, subjective taste as it is to do with, more broadly and objectively, what works and what doesn’t work.
One area that I think has become over-familiar is dystopian story worlds set in a non-specific future in which the world has gone to shit as a result of all the terrible things that are happening now. For me, too often, trying to tell a story set in a futuristic, dystopian, fictional society that is trying to address current problems (whether it’s the climate crisis, the refugee crisis, growing economic equality, global pandemics, etc etc) actually takes the edge off the idea and becomes more about slightly cliché, over-familiar dystopian tropes and less about the huge, burning issues that the script purports to be about.
As above though I encourage scale and ambition and ideas that feel inherently dramatic and that are plucked from the headlines.
Other concepts I read a lot and I would suggest avoiding – ensemble, low-concept comedy dramas about young millennials making their way in the big city; glossy US-set thrillers written by British writers who have no first-hand experience of the US – these will inevitably feel derivative.
I would also say – think long and hard about period stories and why you want to write a period rather than a contemporary story. I’m not saying don’t write a period story. But I would say you need to think about why your period story feels like a timely and important story for a contemporary audience. Why are you telling this period story now? What is its relevance for a contemporary audience?
Philip how did you get into the industry? What was your first big break?
There is no one, recognised way of getting into the industry but if you want to work as a script editor or are interested in dramatic writing, the most common route in is as a script reader. I was an unsuccessful actor and started writing. I wrote a stage adaptation of a novel, sent it to Paines Plough theatre company. Their very kind and excellent literary manager at the time (Robin Hooper) contacted me. They didn’t like the play enough to do anything with it but he offered me reading work at Paines Plough which led onto a little bit of dramaturgical work, meeting and talking to a couple of writers about their scripts. I enjoyed this so then started looking for more reading work. Over the next year or two, I spent most of my time at home reading huge amounts of scripts for quite a few different companies (Theatre, TV, film). One of my favourite reading jobs was for an acting agency, reading the scripts that had been sent in as offers for Anthony Hopkins. For him, I remember reading and being inspired by Dennis Potter’s adaptation of Dickens’ ‘The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.’
Eventually one of my script reading contacts, the wonderful Gwenda Bagshaw at Granada TV Drama, gave me a 2 week contract as researcher on a Paul Abbott series about missing people (that was never made). This contract kept getting extended and I worked for Gwenda and her boss Sally Head at Granada, London Weekend Television and Sally Head Productions for quite a few years of my career (as a team they were responsible for iconic TV dramas like Cracker, Prime Suspect & Band Of Gold, not that I worked on any of those shows!)
Would you recommend setting short term (daily?) goals for writing? Or is it better to think more long term?
Absolutely. You need to do both. To make any impact as a writer, you have to put the hours in. There is no getting round the fact that it is hugely time-consuming. So you need to get into the daily discipline of finding space and time for yourself to write.
But I also think you need to have longer-term aims. You need to strategize and think about why you write and what you want from it. From time to time you need to stand back from the daily slog of writing and think about where you want to be in three years time and how you’re going to achieve this; and to make sure that you aren’t going down unproductive forks in the road. You need to keep reminding yourself of your strengths as a writer and what you are trying to achieve.
Do you have any tips for navigating the minefield that is networking?
I think the answer is in the question! Try not to see it as a negative. One of the things I enjoy about this industry is that I get to talk about films and TV shows with like-minded people. That’s actually fun. Networking has become a pejorative word but you need to find ways to embrace and enjoy the social aspect of the industry – because it is a significant part of it. And there are a lot of nice, smart people and if you’re interested in screenwriting, TV, film etc you will have a lot in common with them. It’s a small world and there is a lot of sharing of information about scripts and writers. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice. In general, people are happy to help.
FOLLOW-UP to my newsletter of 2 weeks ago, THE SOCIOPATH TEST
I had so many fascinating, heartfelt responses – thank you so much – and it motivated a thread on one of my facebook pages. Originally I’d intended to title the blog, IMPOTENT FURY and one of the main questions that came out of the collective fury and frustration at the way we’re all being mugged off was – what can we do about it? The first and obvious thing to do is make sure we write to our MPs expressing our feelings and asking them what they’re going to do about it.
Then I mentioned a tweet which struck a chord with me, ‘DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT VIOLENT PROTESTS WHEN YOU DIDN’T LISTEN TO THE PEACEFUL ONES.’
Which elicited this response, ‘The poll tax was introduced in Scotland one year earlier than the rest of the UK by Margaret Thatcher. There were protests, many protests – all peaceful. And nothing changed. When it was due to be introduced in England a year later, there were violent riots south of the border. This led to the abolition of the tax. As a young man at the time, the lesson to me seemed obvious. Still does.’
And then this very pertinent question, ‘So what is the suggestion? At the moment, we all seem to be commenting as we watch the inevitable unfold.’
This (difficult!) question seemed to bring the conversation to a bit of an abrupt full stop. That is the important question – but not an easy one to answer.
And then the protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis followed, which very much fed into this debate.
The bottom line is, it’s all very well being politely middle-class and going on protest marches. But in the last few decades, even when literally millions have turned out, as they did both to protest the Iraq war and then to protest Brexit, the uncomfortable reality is they have achieved pretty much f*** all. Would you disagree with that? Is the only worthwhile form of protest something more akin to the Extinction Rebellion model of disruption and direct action? (The act of the pulling-down of the Colston statue in Bristol also feeds into this debate).
Another connected thought was triggered by a book I’ve just read – ‘Talking Theatre’ in which Richard Eyre interviews notable theatre people. One of the recurring themes that keeps coming out in conversations with the likes of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and David Hare is a discussion of political theatre – from Shaw to Brecht and then Arthur Miller, and British writers who first made a splash in the ‘70’s like Hare himself, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Caryl Churchill.
But where are the politically-committed writers today when we need them? Will the crap that’s happened in the UK over the last few years motivate a new breed of British political writers? (Anders Lustgarten and Beth Steel are excellent examples and exceptional in this regard).
Whether it’s in the theatre, cinema or on TV, I would love to see more impassioned, angry, humanitarian, political writing.
Finally this week I’d like to draw your attention to a short documentary film made by Tallulah Self, who has been a runner on the Channel 4 screenwriting course for the last couple of years. It’s a lovely and excellent piece of storytelling –
NB From now on, this newsletter is reverting to its fortnightly schedule, so the next newsletter will be on Friday June 26th
All the best
June 12th 2020