THE TWO PHILS GUIDE TO WRITING AND SELLING A GREAT SCREENPLAY
Weekend course London May 16 – 17.
A course for screenwriters of all levels of experience. Run by PHIL SHELLEY and PHIL GLADWIN. With special guest speaker literary agent MATTHEW BATES (Sayle Screen). How to write a successful screenplay – and how to attract industry interest in your scripts.
Last Tuesday I went to – BAFTA Sally Wainwright interview
Here are my notes –
I was very lucky with my experiences on Corrie (as opposed to EMMERDALE. She wrote 6 episodes of EMMERDALE, then made the point in an Observer article that the writers on the show weren’t given any creative freedom – and was sacked.)
On CORONATION STREET there was a huge respect for the writer’s voice. The show was very true to itself and to the writer’s voice – you could usually guess which writer had written an episode of the show (at the time she wrote on the show the writer’s credit didn’t appear until the end credits). But because of the intensity of production, you weren’t encouraged as a writer to visit the set to see your episode being filmed. But they’d respect and keep your dialogue completely – and if they cut bits in the edit, they’d tell you before transmission. Whereas on EMMERDALE, script editors used to re-write what we’d written. Script editors are usually people who want to write but can’t. (Well she’s entitled to her opinion!).
When I worked on CORONATION STREET, it was only 3 episodes a week – and it was about finding drama in the humdrum existence of everyday lives. Once it became 4 episodes a week, this changed (she quoted the BROOKSIDE example of burying a body under the patio).
It was a brilliant apprenticeship – you were regularly in a room with 15 brilliant writers, brainstorming.
I was rubbish, I never spoke for 3 or 4 years. But my scripts were better than anyone else’s.
Being able to write dialogue is like being able to draw. But what I learnt on CS was story. That stories don’t come cheap. Stories built and built and got better the more people threw at them. I learnt how important it is to work at story.
But I learnt the value of having a solid back-story only on UNFORGIVEN – about a woman coming out of prison, and all her past life / problems coming back to haunt her. This was a big learning curve for me.
I’ve wanted to direct as long as I’ve wanted to write. I directed at university. At university I wrote a play just so I could direct it. It was a fantastic experience on Happy Valley. I didn’t know I’d direct that particular episode beforehand – they had to have an experienced director doing the first block, it made sense for another director to do ep’s 5 & 6 as they ran together – so I did episode 4 – which turned out to be the best episode dramatically (on paper).
(In discussing the sequence in which Sarah Lancashire is bloodied and beaten and which got a lot of outraged press attention) I wanted it to be a lot more violent than it was. The fuss that was made was ridiculous. It’s meant to be tough – violence is horrible. I don’t think it was gratuitous. (She compared it to THE FALL which she thought was gratuitously violent).
We often see violence against men on TV, and that’s not made an issue of…a lot more was suggested than was actually seen. As a novice director, I was struck by how the sound made such a huge difference. The emergency beep on Catherine’s police radio suddenly becomes so much more eerie. And we also didn’t put music on the sequence.
I visualised that scene (Catherine being beaten, rescuing Ann) hugely as I wrote it – how important to Catherine to shut the car door so she thinks the victim is safe before she dies. It’s about two women who end up helping each other. Having been rescued, Ann helps Catherine – it was about being cathartic and exciting, not gratuitous.
I always think through the sub-text more than the dialogue. I do a massively detailed 6 page scene breakdown before writing the script. At this stage I go through character thought processes. I had to act in an Ibsen play at university (Hedda Gabbler). I had to learn 10 pages – I thought it would be incredibly hard but it was easy – because of the thought processes. The sub-text was so clear.
I read Ibsen and Chekhov in spare moments working as a bus driver – we had 20 minutes break at the final destination to read.
(Asked if she enjoyed watching her own work on screen) It depends how badly it’s been directed.
AT HOME WITH THE BRAITHWAITES was her first original work on TV.
I was very lucky to meet Kay Mellor. She blazed a trail and I followed. When she was writing BAND OF GOLD I was writing 30’ CORONATION STREET episodes.
I write character notes usually only in selling documents – but character only really takes shape when you write dialogue and with casting – there’s an alchemy.
Entrances and first lines – one of the hardest and most important things to do. Give people a reason to watch and they keep watching. Every new scene needs to start with something from left field – the audience have to work hard to keep up with you.
Got very good advice from producer Tony Wood – don’t write the first episode of a series, write the 3rd episode – make the audience work to catch up; don’t spell everything out. Cut the last lines of scenes.
I rarely use dialogue in outlines – it’s all prose.
Bit bewildered by people trying to pigeon-hole my work as ‘Northern’ drama. SPARKHOUSE was more about class than about a North / South divide. It’s not a conscious choice – I’m just writing in my own vernacular.
At the moment I’m writing a biopic of the Bronte sisters with some very broad West Yorkshire vernacular.
SHAKESPEARE / CANTERBURY TALES RETOLD – BBC Projects
I read both Shakespeare and Chaucer extensively before writing.
Directions for actors – I keep these to a minimum then end up cutting out a lot of what I have written.
The subtlety of Bill Nighy and Julie Walters’ performances in THE WIFE OF BATH – less is more – they do so much without the dialogue.
I was shocked by how amazing Bill Nighy was (faithful to the written words). Not just word perfect – grunt perfect. Acted it absolutely as written – astonished by how detailed his performance was – but also how fluid.
With comic lines you rely on actors. At the first rehearsal of LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX Sarah Lancashire talked to Euros Lynn about the comedy in my writing. It’s nice to be involved, to have an eye across the casting – for instance in LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX Northern actors will get the Northern vernacular in the dialogue – but then Nicola Walker is not Northern and gets it all across.
SCOTT & BAILEY
I love writing telephone calls. Mal Young had a rule that you weren’t allowed phone calls. But with mobile phones you can’t not have them. It is intrinsically bad – so you have to go out of your way to make them funny or interesting.
Think through entrances and exits – what keeps people hooked.
Before SCOTT & BAILEY I prided myself on not having written a police drama. I thought about how to make it different. I talked to Diane Taylor from Manchester police who told me about, for example, proper police interviewing technique – interview strategy. Lots of UK police dramas are based on US police drama rather than going out of its way to look at how UK police really operate.
(Discussion of show-runners, hiring other writers to write SCOTT & BAILEY) In the US a lot of the show’s writers get rewritten by the show-runner. On SCOTT & BAILEY I had to rewrite two episodes almost from scratch. Amelia Bulmore has very successfully written episodes.
I really like working with certain actors – they charge your imagination. I wrote HAPPY VALLEY very definitely with Sarah Lancashire in mind.
Good drama is about people – and people are funny, warm, caring. If people can, they choose to be funny because it’s engaging. I wish I’d made HAPPY VALLEY warmer in places. It reflects real life.
The genesis of LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX was me telling Nicola Shindler at Red Productions about my mother getting remarried – and she said ‘That’s your next six part series.’ It was turned down by the ITV and BBC. But when Danny Cohen came to BBC1, he commissioned it just like that.
I don’t watch a lot of telly to be honest. Shows I love are few and far between – NURSE JACKIE was extraordinary; BREAKING BAD I loved. A lot of TV is not aimed at me. I often fall out with US shows – when they don’t have enough material to fill the hours (BREAKING BAD, TOP OF THE LAKE).
I don’t think I could write 14 episodes of a series – hard doing eight episodes of SCOTT AND BAILEY (even with Amelia Bulmore writing two).
I have to work hard to make something as good as possible. A 2nd series is often better then the 1st because of confidence – because the first series has been successful, and characters can develop.
The first time I’ve felt pressure is writing the 2nd series of HAPPY VALLEY. I’ve written 3 of the 6 episodes so far – I think it’s really good. It’s hard maintaining the quality – the last three will be the test.
I wanted to do a 2nd series of UNFORGIVEN but it wasn’t re-commissioned by ITV.
Research – on SCOTT & BAILEY I spent days with Diane Taylor knocking out stories together. On HAPPY VALLEY I worked with a police officer ( who ‘was’ Catherine in the show) on stories. She was also on set. This made it much richer. Not just about police procedure, about attitude.
I only ever really wanted to write TV – from an early age I watched a lot of TV and always wanted to write TV (rather than film).
If you get to a certain point, you get a lot of freedom. All my characters have aspects of me in them, not just the female characters.
You should write people in as balanced way as you can. You should write people as they present themselves. This makes it richer. Women are more emotionally articulate so you can do more with them.
I don’t do a lot of re-writing. I write scene 1 then revise and revise it, then move onto scene 2, do the same, then go back and rewrite / revise scene one and two together before moving onto scene three. Like building a wall. That way you write a shooting script in your first draft. Often I don’t write more than 2 or 3 drafts.
Until next week,
All the best
Feb 27th 2015