Funded by Grand Scheme Media & Creative Skillset, I’m running a series of very affordable 2 day script-editing workshops, with some excellent, experienced guest screenwriters, around the UK between May & July 16th (in Belfast, London, Cardiff, Bristol, Salford & Glasgow). More details, & how to book can be found on the TRAINING NEWS page of the Grand Scheme Media website http://grandscheme.tv/
This week, notes from one of the sessions at the TOTALLY SERIALIZED TV drama event I attended in January.
BAFTA BREAKING AND ENTERING TV SCREENWRITING SESSION @ TOTALLY SERIALIZED
Chaired by HILARY MARTIN (BBC North Drama)
Writers on the panel: Daniel Fajemisin Duncan, Marlon Smith (BAFTA winners – Run), Lucy Kirkwood (The Smoke, Skins), John Jackson (Being Human, In the Flesh) and Benjamin Dupas (Un Village Français, Kaboul Kitchen)
Where did they all get their start as screenwriters?
LK: started in theatre, wrote 3 episodes of SKINS – an episode per series. Producer Noelle Morris from Kudos was very supportive of her. She was interested in the Olympics \ Stratford, wrote a spec script about it which led to a conversation that led to ‘The Smoke’.
JJ: First break was as script secretary on NIGHT & DAY, new Granada soap, this was a solid grounding in writing and production. Ended up writing episodes on the series. Had to unlearn much of what he’d learnt when he moved into writing for Chidrens TV. Wrote spec scripts. This got him an episode of ROBIN HOOD. He met Hilary Martin through his spec script. Then worked on Being Human.
DFD + MS: RUN was originally intended as an online drama. They made a short version of it for online. Marlon had a family connection to producer Jamie De Cruz. Jamie liked it, took it to Channel 4. C4 immediately saw more in it, wanted to develop it. DFD + MS talked about ‘learning on the job’. Thrown in at the deep end.
LK: The Smoke – she spent three years developing and writing the opening episode then had 18 months to write the next 7 episodes. This is typical of the timescale in the development / production process once a series gets green-lit. It was a big shift in working rhythm. LK found the pressure of this hard and frustrating. After shooting the well-developed ep 1, they then spent £1m shooting ‘something I wrote last weekend.’ She found the business side of it difficult initially – writing the pilot but not being sure if it was going to be made.
BD: on ‘The Line’ (aka ‘Un Village Francais’) one of very few writing rooms in France, run by Frederic Krivine. He learnt 80% of what he knows on ‘The Line.’ You first learn that you deserve to be there, that you’re not an imposter; then you learn to blend in with the style of the series creator; then you find your own voice on the show. It’s a cyclical learning experience. You compare strengths and weaknesses with other writers on the show. But you have to try and be a complete writer, to work on your weaknesses. After a few years working in a writers room like this, you can ‘fly on your own.’
JJ: The writers room culture still doesn’t really exist in the UK. Toby Whithouse was a real mentor to JJ on ‘Being Human’, JJ learnt huge amount from him. Whithouse didn’t so much over-write other writers’ episodes as tweak them.
On ‘In The Flesh’ – the first series of three episodes was all written by new writer Dominic Mitchell, and it was very much in his voice. On the 2nd series the whole format was changed – 6 episodes with three other writers besides Dominic Mitchell. JJ said it was hard to find the voice of that show – he is from London, urban, whereas D Mitchell’s voice is Northern, and very particular. JJ likened writing on other writers’ shows to being a session musician.
Writing on other writers’ shows, he always tries to find something of himself in the characters, to get under the skin of the characters. To find a real life metaphor, however high-concept the show is.
Notes, feedback etc
MS: on RUN, the notes they received were very beneficial. Jamie de Cruz was helpful because he knew the sort of stories we wanted to tell. Not that they were always totally in agreement. He gave quite a lot of notes but all of them were on the same page. Sometimes we wouldn’t go for the exact notes – but we could see what he wanted. ‘A note can be a great thing…it can really help you.’ But you have to have that connection with the person who is giving you the notes.
JJ: Notes are tough. Writing is expressing yourself, putting your life on the page. You have to view notes as part of making your script better. But you mustn’t let go of things if you don’t think they’re going to make it better. Sometimes notes aren’t consistent – the channel notes can be different to production notes. A question of picking your battles.
HM: Your sample / calling card script is very important. This should be a labour of love, as perfect as you can make it. On the other hand, once you start developing an idea with a producer or script editor, it’s a conversation, you go on a journey together. It should be an organic process in tandem with your producer / script editor.
LK: You have to respond to notes. Often you don’t agree with a note, it can be a wrong diagnosis – but notes do usually identify / pinpoint a problem with the script, something that doesn’t feel right. So although often the suggested solution isn’t right, the spotting of a problem, and area that doesn’t feel right, usually is. A ‘clean reader’ ie someone with a fresh perspective on a script, can be very helpful.
DFD: You need to have a good amount of material. It’s good to have 2 or 3 scripts ready to go, not just 1. Often people will say, ‘We don’t want to make / develop this, but what else have you got?’ So you need a body of work.
DFD + MS were school friends who shared the same taste in movies & TV. When they wrote, they ripped off the same movies (Tarantino).
LK: Don’t hold onto things for too long. Get stuff out there. But she stressed how important proof-reading your work is. Don’t send stuff out with loads of typos in.
JJ: Give script editors some typos so they can wield their red pens. Remember – no rejection is final – ideas can be used again. Ideas can come back, so keep track of all your old ideas and scripts. The turnover rate in the industry (heads of drama, executive producers etc) is very fast, so you can often re-submit ideas a year or two after they’ve initially been rejected.
BD: When you start writing, don’t focus on stories, just focus on the first scene, a scene that disturbs and provokes. Start with a raw emotion, not a story.
DJD + MS: Processes are writer-specific. Everyone has their own way of working. They like to plan a lot before they start writing the script.
DJD: Sometimes we’ve over-planned and the story has been too locked-in, it’s made it harder to make changes.
JJ: Two different sorts of outlines / treatments – 1. what you write to sell an idea and 2. What you write for yourself in building, planning a script.
Ways Into the Industry
HM: The BBC Writers Room is a very useful bridge into development for new writers. C4’s ‘Coming Up’ scheme was also mentioned (although the Channel 4 screenwriting course wasn’t!).
Literary agents are very useful in recommending writers to producers, script editors, etc.
LK: she said that she’s entered a lot of competitions, sent her scripts to loads of people. She suggested finding out who is the agent of your favourite screenwriters and targeting them – you want your agent to have similar taste.
Research all the people and competitions that you can send your script to, and keep putting your work out there.
And make your own shows and put them online. The example of ‘People Who Do Nothing’ a show that made an impact on youtube, and was picked up by the BBC.
LK: started in theatre, great access point for TV. She wrote a lot of short plays for free, every time she was asked. If you get your work on, important people will see it.
People are looking for good scripts – and a good script is a good script, however inexperienced you are as a writer.
DFD: When you get rejections and are feeling bad because of it, that’s when you need to work hardest. Use this negative energy to drive yourself.
MS: You’ve got to keep moving on. Don’t waste time wallowing. The industry moves fast. Don’t waste time beating yourself up – move onto the next project.
JJ: You need to have more than one idea on your slate. It makes it easier not to dwell on the rejections – it’s good to have different ideas at different stages of development.
LK: Even on the days when you’re writing something you love, starting work can feel like putting on a wet swimming costume – so make sure you only work on projects that you feel very strongly about. It’s hard to know when to give up the day job to concentrate on writing full-time. But in some ways, casual jobs can be seen as writing time – writing time can be the thinking time doing menial tasks that don’t fully occupy your brain, and when you’re travelling on buses etc. It’s good to be able to juggle a lot of different things. Be patient but persistent – it’s a long haul.
Until next week,
All the best
May 1st 2015