ADRIAN MEAD INTERVIEW
This week’s newsletter is an interview with screenwriter \ director ADRIAN MEAD. I’ve known Adrian for quite a while, ever since I met him as a newbie writer who had written a great spec script – a series pilot called TWO BY TWO about a struggling family-run zoo. I was working at Carlton \ ITV at the time. We met up with Adrian and it was clear from the first meeting that Adrian had huge creative energy and a brain full of great ideas (and some very entertaining anecdotes about his life).
I’ve since worked with him on two episodes of a new series at Carlton and then on WAKING THE DEAD at the BBC; and have run a couple of courses with him, in his hometown Edinburgh and in London.
As well as being a very talented writer \ director ADRIAN is also a great communicator and educator – in a number of courses he has passed on his experiences in the film & TV industry with great insight and passion.
He has also written a book MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER, all about the business of making a career in screenwriting, as opposed to the craft, which you can buy through his website www.meadkerr.com and which I thoroughly recommend. Incidentally all profits from the book go to Childline, with whom Adrian has a long working relationship, so buying the book is a win-win situation.
It’s also a good match-up with Phil Gladwin’s screenwritinggoldmine (www.screenwritinggoldmine.com) book which, in contrast, is 100% about the craft of screenwriting – two very different but equally good and complementary books, by experienced practitioners and written in response to their first-hand working experiences.
– Adrian, what inspired you? How did you first get into screen-writing?
I wasn’t a reader as a kid but I always loved films and TV and seemed to remember scenes and moments from slightly obscure shows and films that others had forgotten. Sit com Nightingales by Paul Makin is still a fave that hardly anyone else remembers and DVD box sets are a crack cocaine addiction that can easily devour my weekend if not carefully monitored.
I know it seems like every other writer says it but the power of story, something that can pull you in is still magic for me. One of the best things about living in Edinburgh is the wealth of festivals that bring world class storytelling from every corner of the globe.
To be honest I never considered a career as a writer or director as I thought you had to live in Hollywood or have a first in English Lit from Cambridge. My twin careers as a bouncer and hairdresser proved extremely useful for helping me get started. Broke film students always seemed to need a stunt man or someone who could get hold of quality wigs and I soon found myself helping out on their short films. Once I realised that making films combined all the skills I’d picked up over the years I was hooked.
– Where \ How did you learn the craft of screen-writing? Is this something you picked up instinctively or was there someone \ something in particular that taught you a lot?
A lot of storytelling instincts came from being part of a huge Liverpool family- when have you ever met a scouser who didn’t tell stories? The rest came from watching and reading everything I could get my hands on. This was early internet days and I didn’t have a computer and I couldn’t type. I scoured libraries for info and would ring people and offer coffee/beer/food to pick their brains. I still make a point of reading scripts of the latest produced movies every day.
People in the industry can be incredibly generous if you are courteous and organised. I made it a rule to never approach anyone for advice until I had exhausted all other possible sources of info first. It is amazing how much great information is now available on the internet, yet people still seem to miss the most basic opportunities and ask you the same general questions.
– How did you break into professional screen-writing initially?
Over a couple of years I entered every competition/scheme/initiative and got to make short films and a documentary for Channel 4. At the same time I wrote masses of stuff that I binned. When I finally had some samples scripts and shorts I was pleased with (after tons of feedback, rewrites and help) I set out to get an agent. This led to my first paid gigs on ITV’s Where The Heart Is and then a run of other shows.
– Please can you tell us about some of the shows \ projects you have worked on, and which you’re particularly proud of?
Like most writers I’ve worked on a whole variety of stuff, including episodes of Where The Heart Is, Waking The Dead, The Last Detective, Paradise Heights and The Eustace Brothers and lots of other shows and film projects. Of course you get paid to develop lots of stuff that never gets the final greenlight.
One of the most enjoyable projects was Night People, my first feature that I directed and co wrote with Jack Dickson. There is nothing that hones your writing skills better than having to direct your own work. Knowing you may have to justify every word and action to your actors really does make you interrogate the writing at every stage of development.
For me the best projects are those that really push you out of your comfort zone, where you learn something new about the craft from the people you are working with. Pretty much everything I’ve worked on has had some elements I was proud of but you always need to keep trying to push harder and be more adventurous.
Lately I’ve been working hard to generate new material whilst also breaking into new areas of work – such as writing for CBBC and a 90 minute drama for Radio 3.
– What advice do you have for new writers looking to forge a career as a screenwriter?
Make a plan! I often get asked to talk to new screenwriters at festivals and colleges. The advice I offer is always very simple. I tell them I cannot predict which of them is going to succeed, however I have a 100% accurate test that predicts which of them will definitely fail. I then ask if they would like to take the test, which consists of a series of ten very basic questions about their career plan. It is amazing how few of them have any sort of plan!
If you want to break into one of the most competitive industries on the planet you have to create a career building strategy. Talent + effort + strategy = success. The more you add to each part of the equation the more likely you are to succeed.
– How do you feel about the whole process of redrafting, responding to notes?
All work needs rewriting and benefits from constructive criticism. It’s easy to assume people will get what’s in your head and heart, when in reality it often doesn’t come across on the page until you talk it through with your reader. If I don’t agree with a note or feel the suggestion doesn’t improve the script I try to find the story reason behind why it was given. You can then usually find a better solution or at least one that satisfies everyone.
Of course sometimes you have to make major changes to a story in order to deal with production and budget problems. Always look on this as an opportunity. Turn that negative into something that raises the bar of the production with an inspired (but cheap/quick) solution and you stand far more chance of being hired again.
– What is your experience of working with script editors, producers, directors, executive producers etc?
Working with really smart people is the best part of the job, as they help to make you and your work look good.
It’s important to be passionate about a project but you have to get on with people and remember you are part of a larger process. No matter what title people have they face the same pressures of family, money, job insecurity etc. When the pressure is on you aren’t the only one feeling the heat.
– How did you get an agent? What expectations should a writer have of their agent?
I employed a very well researched strategy for approaching agents that proved successful. It has since worked for lots of other writers who have used it. If you google my name and HOW TO GET AN AGENT I’m sure you will find it as an extract from my book MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER. Download the book and you will get masses of practical advice regarding working with agents and formulating a career building strategy.
– When you’re thinking about new ideas, in particular new series ideas, are there elements you are always looking for? What sort of ideas appeal to you as a writer?
When thinking about new stuff I’m often very character led. If you can find a real life character that inspires you it is a gift but normally you will be starting from scratch or perhaps combining interesting elements of fact and fiction.
The stuff that appeals to me is pretty varied. It’s good to be able to shift between different tones and genres. Right now I’m developing a very dark 3 parter and a family comedy at the same time.
– How much do you look at the market, what broadcasters may be looking for? Or do you just pitch \ write what you feel passionately about writing?
I do a bit of both to be honest, but increasingly it’s more of case of writing what I’m really passionate about. I have turned down stuff that I knew I really wouldn’t care about, because despite the need for the money those are the hardest jobs to do.
– Please can you tell us a bit about how you manage your working life as a screenwriter? – Do you for instance always try to be generating new ideas? And if so, do you have some tips for how to approach this?
My usual working day involves hustling for work on existing projects and at the same time creating new material. I find it fairly easy to generate new ideas. However, you then have to road test them via mind mapping. This is a fun way to just chuck ideas and characters out there without self editing. It also tells you if it’s worth developing further, or merely some crap 1980’s show that was buried in your subconscious!
Once I’ve found a character and situation that’s got me thinking I then distil the huge amount of material I’ve generated down to a 1-2 page pitch doc which reveals if it is a movie, a series or just a sketch for a show.
– When you’re working on a new script, what is the process you go through in terms of outlines, number of drafts etc?
I pretty much always follow the same route with developing new scripts – Mind mapping – 1 page doc – 4 page outline – detailed treatment. If it’s something I’ve been commissioned to develop I like to really hammer the treatment rewrites until all parties (producers, execs, director) are happy. It means that when you move on to write the script it nearly always takes less drafts to get to shooting script.
With spec stuff I never send it out until I’ve had feedback from writer friends and used a professional script editor like Philip. There are thousands of scripts and writers out there competing for attention and money. You owe it to yourself to make sure you only send out highly polished work.
– Any reading material you would recommend?
Of course I’m going to plug the e book, MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER where you will find masses of practical advice about building a career strategy. There’s also a series of short podcasts of the same name that will give you a taste of the kind of material in the book.
All money from sales of the book goes to the UK charity Childline.
You can see the podcasts and purchase the book at www.meadkerr.com
Thank you very much Adrian!
Until Next Week
All the best
June 29th 2012
PS If you’re interested in booking up for the next ‘Authoritative Guide To Writing And Selling A Great Screenplay’ it will be on the weekend of Sept 22 + 23 in London. Details now up on the website.