I’ve been overwhelmed by your responses to my SURVEY last week – both in terms of quality and quantity. It has been enormously enjoyable reading through the 90+ pages of answers.
What it did make me think is – there are so many good writers out there. The quality of writing was just superb – intelligent, impassioned, entertaining – so really, a huge THANK YOU. It’s made for a very entertaining week.
It’s also made for a rather agonising day yesterday (Thursday) as I worked through the entries, trying to come up with a WINNER. It made me a feel a little bit mean having to pick out one person only. And also made reminded me of the spurious nature of these sorts of competitions! – how judgment \ assessment of writing is so subjective. There were so many different submissions I could have picked for different reasons. Anyway, enough beating about the bush – my winner is KATHERINE MITCHELL. Congratulations Katherine, and thank you for such a thought-provoking, well-argued, thoroughly engaging set of answers.
In the next few weeks I will be sharing all of the answers with you. And I can promise you that you will find it thoroughly entertaining and instructive.
I’d like to say a particularly big thank for all your ideas about screenwriting-related courses. You’ve given Phil Gladwin and I so much good stuff to think about. We’re going to sit down together in the next couple of weeks and come up with some new course ideas – so watch this space!
Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it, can I point you in the direction of Phil G’s weekly blog that came out on Wednesday. I think it’s a particularly excellent one this week, with a nuts-and-bolts account ‘Back To Basics: How Do You Write Your First Script?’ – which is equally applicable to more experienced writers too.
Rather than crack straight into your survey answers, this week I’d like to share with you an account of this year’s BBC TV DRAMA WRITERS FESTIVAL in Leeds, which took place on June 26th & 27th. I didn’t go – but having read this excellent account by screenwriter Robin Lindsey, I’m kicking myself. This sounds like a fascinating two day event – inspiring in terms of what was said, and invaluable in terms of who you might meet. I’ll definitely be booking a place on next year’s version.
A huge thank you to Robin for sharing this –
‘The two days in Leeds were jam packed with fascinating talks by seasoned TV drama writers and I shall do my best to summarise the most relevant information for new screenwriters. The single problem with this wonderful event is you can only attend one of the four talks programmed during each time slot, so this represents a quarter of what was on offer!
So here’s a selection of the advice and highlights from the event:
Toby Whithouse spoke of creating characters with an inherent contradiction or placing them in a contradictory situation; such as a policeman from a family of criminals or a city cop moving to a rural police station. This creates conflict and thus potential storylines in a long running series.
A couple of good quotes from Chris Chibnall, who was discussing the politics of being a showrunner: “You win more battles by being delightful.” Have a good attitude, be collaborative and it’s easier to deal with all the notes and disagreements with producers and executives. On building a career, he said: “1) Work hard, 2) Don’t be a wanker, 3) Repeat.”
Patrick Spence, the producer of fact based dramas (like the superb Occupation by Peter Bowker) strongly advised writers to make sure before you develop any screenplay about real life people, you have the treatment approved by the Editorial and Policy Department. You don’t want to spend all that time developing the script only for it to be shut down at the last minute.
The character Peter enjoyed writing the most in Occupation was Stephen Graham’s Danny because Danny had the opposite point of view to himself and so was the biggest challenge to get right.
Patrick and Peter also ran a session on the best tips and worst notes from script editors. Peter said that when trying to fix a script, adding incident is the enemy of drama. Because when the newly added incident doesn’t improve the story, you will be encouraged to add more irrelevant incidents which become more ridiculous and take you further away from your story. The best notes are to do with structure as that’s always the hardest thing to fix. Good dialogue notes will force you to see if your character is truly speaking as themselves and not as the writer.
Peter cited the best note he’d had, which came from John Yorke. He was working on a dark script about a love triangle but he couldn’t figure out why one of his characters wouldn’t just go to the police. John said what if the characters in the love triangle were the police? Peter said that this simple twist elevated the material, providing all the tension and drama and it became Undercover Heart.
Peter said to know your script better than anyone else in the room, so you’re able to defend every single choice you’ve made. This was echoed by Patrick, who said if the writer doesn’t know the answer to questions of a character’s INTENT in every scene, that’s when he gets worried. Patrick thinks that good notes on a script in development shouldn’t be longer than a page and that the key to a successful collaboration is earning each other’s trust.
Steven Moffat gave an entertaining keynote talk. He believes that starting off writing comedy made him a better drama writer, as comedy is so much more taxing- you have to get three laughs per page. He warned any potential Dr Who writers that it is one of the hardest jobs in television, requiring an extraordinary imagination and knowledge of the show and it’s difficult to find new writers. He has asked female writers to join the show but they all said no. The idea for Sherlock came from a conversation on a train with Mark Gatiss; they both confided their love for the old Basil Rathbone films where Holmes and Watson took on the Nazis. He said there was no reason to set the show in the Victorian era as the stories were so perfect they could be easily updated; keeping them in period was unnecessarily distancing for a modern audience.
John Yorke looked at the different screenwriting theories and showed the ways in which they all converge, demonstrating the timelessness of narrative. His excellent 10 Questions to ask of every script were also recommended by Danny Brocklehurst.
Emma Frost said new writers had to build up their credits on long running series before being allowed to author your own work because people need to trust that you can do it. This definitely seems to be the rule but Dominic Mitchell was the notable exception when he created In The Flesh with no previous TV credits (he was discovered through a regional Writersroom scheme). Cameron Roach stressed the importance of nurturing relationships with script editors when building your career. Writers need to listen but also ask questions. Trust is crucial to the relationship.
An interesting point came up about whether you could be hired for a long running series if you hadn’t seen every episode and didn’t know the complete history of the show. Cameron said he had hired a couple of female writers for Waterloo Road who didn’t fit into that category but who still brought something new to the table. However the overall advice was that you would be at a disadvantage if you weren’t passionate about the show. He also said he’d had one writer who wrote an exceptional episode but their next one just didn’t work.
Emma said you shouldn’t rely on agents to find you work, you have to be constantly networking, building relationships. She had been script editor on Julia Davis’s Nighty Night and this brought her kudos as it was so admired in the industry. She also stressed the importance of pushing yourself and wanting to be a better writer, even when you have a staff job. It’s even more impressive if you can write one episode of many different series, showing off your versatility. At the same time you are building up your credits, you should be working on a spec script that defines your original voice as a writer.
Other advice hinged around getting your writing noticed in another medium. For many of the writers, it was a play that launched their careers. Producers and script editors often go looking for new talent at the fringe theatres. Interestingly, no one mentioned radio as a way of getting noticed as a drama writer. It seems that radio is a good route for comedy writers but not so much for dramatists. (What’s your take on this, Phil?)Phil: I think radio can be a good way-in but you need to also be sure that you’re writing a radio play because you’re passionate about the medium. Writers are perhaps more at the heart of the process in radio drama and while it’s not such an acknowledged way-in as theatre, having radio plays produced will definitely raise your status as a potential screenwriter. And the bottom line is – there are many more original radio plays made then original TV shows.
Danny Brocklehurst and Mark Catley stressed the importance of using humour to make bad guys likeable and discussed the challenges of writing “good” characters.
Dominic Mitchell had the idea for In The Flesh while watching a zombie film and realising the obnoxiousness of the human protagonists was causing him to feel sympathy for the zombies! Impressively, he wrote a 50 page bible for what was originally going to be 6 hour long episodes but was eventually commissioned as 3. He included a mock up of a GP’s health pamphlet about the zombie uprising, as he wanted to make it visually interesting for whoever read it. Producer Annie Harrison-Baxter spoke of her initial reluctance at being asked to read the script, as she was no fan of zombies. But by page five she had been won over by the quality of the writing, in terms of the human drama and the visual descriptions.
The festival was a great opportunity to learn about the craft and interact with other writers, script editors and producers. I learned a lot about other writers’ methods and the importance of building professional networks. I particularly appreciated hearing Peter Bowker and Patrick Spence talk about the development of Occupation, surely one of the best dramas of recent years.
I left feeling totally energised and raring to get back to my scripts. I definitely recommend you put it in your diaries for next year.’
Robin wrote and directed the feature length Deadpan Valentine, an anti-rom-com with an alternative view of Valentine’s Day. The micro budgeted film played well at international festivals, winning awards and receiving enthusiastic reviews. It was distributed on several Internet platforms and screened on a Canadian subscription channel.
He also has a short film SOFA SO GOOD on the BBC Film Network, which is well worth a look –
A quick reminder that we still have a few places left on our Two Phils screenwriting course next weekend July 13-14, with special guests BRADLEY QUIRK and TANYA TILLETT.
You can book here – http://thetwophils.co.uk/seminars/
Next week I will share with you all your fascinating answers to the question – What TV drama \ feature film \ stage-play in the last YEAR has inspired you as a screenwriter? And why?
I can guarantee it will give you a lengthy and very enjoyable list of shows to catch up with.
All the best
July 5th 2013