Interview With Terry Cafolla

TERRY CAFOLLA is one of the most talented screenwriters working in British TV drama today. As you’ll see from this interview, his talent is driven by a passion for his craft, and the awareness that as a writer you never stop learning. I first met Terry when he was on the Carlton screenwriters course. We worked together on a wonderful crime drama script set in Belfast, and he has since gone onto have the successful career he deserves, with credits on shows such as  Messiah and the new UK version of  Law & Order, which will be hitting our screens shortly. There are many gems in this interview for budding and more experienced screenwriters. Enjoy!

– What inspired you? How did you first get into screen-writing?

Television has always been a massive part of my life. As a kid I remember watching shows like Roots, The JFK story. Star Trek. The Rockford Files, Rockcliff’s Babies. The Twilight Zone. My folks had great taste. But the telly in the corner wasn’t on constantly – everything in my house was appointment TV, so TV felt special.

Growing up, writing for TV never seemed an option for somebody from Armagh. Writing seemed a bit alien to honest. I began by writing poetry. Short lines. Short thoughts. That’s me all over. This really, I mean really bad poetry coincided around the time that shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide started on telly here. American TV drama was what I fell in love with and it was the American shows I turned to to learn from …. Previously I had always been a viewer, those shows made me want to write for them. NYPD could bring me to floods of tears. I remember thinking – I want to be able to move people like that. These were the first shows that felt authentic about life to me. Those shows opened my eyes to other home grown drama such as Cops, The Grass Arena and Cracker.

– Where \ How did you learn the craft of screen-writing?

Well first off, to go all writerly and picky on you, I still haven’t learnt the craft of screenwriting, (a few directors and editors will nod vigorously in agreement) Learning is an ongoing process. I’m still learning and probably always will be. The trick is to work with people better than yourself, so that you push yourself. I’ve been doing this as a job now for a few years and still got the best bit of advice I ever had from a writer just a few months ago – drama is light and darkness, and the darkness has to be earned. I started learning by watching TV. Studying it and then trying to apply what I learnt across to my own writing. Structure is my god. Still is. In particular the American TV one hour format. Even now the thought of writing 90 mins or 120 scares the crap out of me. But 12-15 mins per act leading to reveal/twist, that I can just about do.

OK I’m going to sound like a real nerd now and badly in need of a life, but this is what I did and this is what I still do on a regular basis. I watch an episode of something I enjoy, I break it down scene by scene, then within the scene, I break it down beat by beat. I do an outline based on it. I write up an outline as though I’d written it. It’s not procrastination its work – honest. When I like a show I break it down to see how it works, what choices were made.

– What advice can you give writers starting out about learning the craft?

As well as the answer to the previous question, watch TV. Listen to commentaries. Joss Whedon. David Milch. David Simon. Tim Minear. Jane Espenson. David Chase. Go listen to their commentaries. Read the scripts. There are websites where you can download the original scripts. Why they make the choices they did? Second, write as often as you can. Rewrite more. Then repeat.

– How did you first break into film \ television? What were your first experiences of contact with industry professionals?

My first contact with telly people was the Carlton TV screenwriting course. They had asked for an original or theatre piece. I decided to do a spec NYPD Blue script. I never liked the theatre, still don’t (sorry – but I’d much rather watch telly) The course asked for an original piece and I thought, I’m going to be writing others peoples’ voices for telly, I might as well write something for telly. What’s the worst that could happen? I was called over for an interview. Which was my first lesson. Don’t automatically think you have to give people what they ask for. Give them passion on the page and let the writing speak for itself. Everybody on the course was friendly and it was a huge learning experience for me. Even meeting people from TV and seeing that they took my writing seriously was a big boost.

– How do you feel about the whole process of redrafting, responding to notes?

If you can’t respond to people giving you notes on your outlines and scripts, then this job isn’t for you. TV is far more about rewriting than writing. I rewrite my own script over and over before I hand it to a script editor or producer. Then they give me notes. The thing is not to sit slavish and try to do everything they say. Often times the suggested solution is really about identifying that there’s a problem in the scene, or sequence and if you can go away and figure out how to solve it differently, all the better. Listen, make notes, if you have a solution there and then, speak up otherwise go away and think about it. I have to mull things over and try different things before I find my solutions. I’ve sat in a room with the writers on Law and Order though and every time there’s a problem, one of them will come up with the perfect solution on the spot. It’s quite annoying!!

– What is your experience of working with script editors, producers, directors, executive producers etc?

Television is just like any other job. There are people who are good at their jobs and people who aren’t. I’ve been lucky that when I had to make my break into telly, I was working with good people. The best people tend to be the nicest. And if you can work on the show where the showrunner is a writer, you’re off to a flying start. They know the problems you face, they’ve faced them a thousand times. They fight the same writer battles as you do whether that’s the fear of the blank page or by starting an unexpected phone message by assuring you there’s nothing wrong (writers always expect the worst!)

– How did you get an agent? What does your agent do for you? What should a writer look for in an agent? What expectations should a writer have of their agent?

As a writer, getting an agent should be the last thing on your list. Weirdly you don’t get an agent, they get you, and the way that happens is to write two or three scripts that are the best that you could make them. They should be able to be filmed tomorrow and the only way that happens is to write constantly and rewrite even more . My script from the Carlton course was passed on to an agent.

Agents will try to find you work, especially when you first sign, they’ll send your scripts out and arrange meetings and get you through the door. But getting the job is down to you. With my agent, I’ll go back and let her know if I want anything from her, she’ll get in touch and let me know if someone has been asking whether I’m interested in writing for a particular show.

As an example, I read somewhere that there was a chance of a new series of Law and Order based in the UK. I’ve always been interested in American cop shows so I asked my agent where to go with it. She found out who was involved and got me a meeting. But I had to ask her to do it – she wouldn’t have known I’d want to write for a series. Did she get me the job?? Yes and no. I had to go and meet the exec producers and explain why I should be one of the writers. I love the original and I presume that came across in the meetings.

The agent-writer relationship is like any other relationship, in my experience there’s no one model. Some agents read their clients scripts and give feedback, others don’t, the bottom line is that they are there when you’re in trouble or need help. They’ll deal with all the negotiation about fees and contracts that writers don’t have the skill or the confidence to sort out. My biggest advice when it comes to agents is not to expect them to be mind readers. If you want something from them, ask. The other thing to remember is that you are one of many clients so don’t impose too much on their time.

– Can I ask about money? Do you earn well? Was it hard to make the decision to give up your previous job and commit to writing fulltime? What advice do you give new writers about making this step?

This year, I’m making a comfortable living and will hopefully be able to pay off a chunk of my mortgage and treat myself to a new imac. But last year I barely made enough to scrape by and we survived mostly on my partner’s wage. Money comes in chunks – the outline, the first draft, the acceptance fee and best of all the principal photography fee when something is actually made. Some companies stump up straight away, others will keep you waiting for months. I’m still learning how to manage this. My biggest advice is to always keep something for a dry spell – I never want to be in a position of having to write something just for the money. And to remember you will have to pay income tax so put something aside for this as soon as you get paid!

Personally I’m not a big risk taker and I didn’t leave full time work till I knew I had a commission under my belt and my partner had a permanent job so the mortgage would get paid for a year. If things hadn’t worked out within that year I’d have had to reconsider. I don’t know if I can offer advice to anyone on this, I think you have to figure out what’s right for you.

– What have you learnt over your professional experiences, script commissions? What do you do differently now to when you started writing?

I have never done a job for money. It’s as simple as that. That’s not being snobby. It’s just I don’t want to wake up 3 months into script and not have the passion to go back to the computer screen. I’ve spent time on projects that in the middle of researching I suddenly realize, actually, this isn’t for me. Which is difficult for the people who’ve asked me to look at stuff. But I’d rather walk now than turn in a crap script. When all is said and done all you have to sell is your writing, and you as person who is either easy to work with or is a pain in the neck. I worry about the writing first and foremost.

– What do you do differently now to when you started writing?

Oh don’t get me started. I drive my partner mad with this. I do a thousand things the same and a thousand things differently. I’m so superstitious it is stupid. I’ll use the same types of pen and pads. The same whiteboard markers. If I’m working on two scripts I’ll work in different rooms to get a different head space. What’s the point of that – its all in my head?? Literally and metaphorically. I also love the noise of coffee shops – it becomes wall paper. People complain about the music but I really can’t hear it. I’ll have different coffee shops for different stages. One for thinking, one for outlining, one for writing. Same in the house. My office, the kitchen, the telly room, all have different jobs. I’ll compile a play list. I’ll listen to sad music as I’m writing sad scenes, fast music as I’m writing action scenes. The list is endless and gets more and more ridiculous.

– Do you often have more than one project on the go? How do you find juggling more than one project at a time?

I would say that this has been the hardest thing for me to learn and it is still something that I feel I have yet to fully get the hang of. It’s not bad when I’m moving between outlines on different projects I can spend a morning on one and move onto another in the afternoon. The problem for me is when I hit script stage. I focus to the detriment of everything else – bathing included. I think for me it all goes back to when I started writing I would work on one piece until I thought it was finished before moving on to the next script. This has been my hardest habit to break. I get so involved in the one piece of work, the rest suffers. At first I tried dividing up my projects into days. 3 days on one and 3 on the next, but that didn’t work for me. If I’m working on several projects I allow ideally a fortnight but definitely a week. I envy people who can move from project to project without any loss of quality.

– What advice would you give to writers starting out now?

I’m biased. But I’d say first and foremost, if you don’t love TV, you shouldn’t be working in it. I get annoyed with people who use TV to pay the bills while they work on their films, or walk off a script after they’ve done their requisite drafts and notes. I believe that TV is the best medium for telling stories and I want to work with people who feel the same away about it. Not somebody who treats it as a poor cousin.

I would say to get that first credit you have to do anything. You’ll work your bollocks of and learn loads. This is a job and it is hard work. You have to write, rewrite and rewrite again. If you believe that you’re a natural genius and your first draft will be enough, you’ll be disillusioned. In fact these are the people who you find complaining at writing groups about how producers wouldn’t know talent if it bit them. If you love TV. If you watch it all the time, if you study writing, if you rewrite and rewrite until your work is good enough, you will get found. Good writing always finds its way. Spend time on your scripts, spend time on the craft instead of complaining that people just don’t get your work or worrying about getting an agent. Apparently Dick Wolf has a sign on his desk that says – It’s the writing stupid. Couldn’t agree more.

– What tips do you have for writers trying to sell new ideas and scripts?

Personally I think if you’re a new writer, don’t try to sell new ideas. Get some time under your belt working with people on things they are passionate about and write on your new ideas in your own time. Realistically in TV now you are a lot more likely to get paid to write something that someone else has brought to the table, especially in the early days. But I’d also say choose what you write carefully, make sure there’s something there you can care about passionately or you won’t be able to do a good script. It might be writing on a long running series or it might be writing a one off script that someone else has already had green lit. But the first credit is vital to proving that you can cut it in TV so care about it.

It’s unlikely that you as a new writer will be given a series. Unlikely but not impossible. Of course, I still haven’t had an original series commissioned – so maybe I’m going about it the wrong way!!! But I trust my writing that something will get made one day, BUT as I said, what people say they want might not be what they want, so don’t stop trying.

– What tips do you have for writers to survive and flourish in the industry?

Someone once told me there are two approaches to writing for TV.  You’re either an architect or a builder.  That’s the line I take.  I take both seriously.  If I’m writing on someone else’s show, my job is to help realise the producer or the showrunner’s vision of their show, my job is to make life as easy as possible for them, by giving them a script that is as close as possible to what they want.   Yes there will be creative differences, you make your points, have your say, but at the end of the day, it’s their show.    TV is a team effort.  And I have to find a balance between being a team player and fighting for something in the script that I feel passionate about.    There will always come a point when there is one thing that you will feel can’t be taken from the script.  It’s never dialogue for me, it’s always something to do with theme, or a choice made by a character.  I’ve had to learn to listen carefully to what people are saying to figure out the problem they are trying to identify.  And to ask for time to think about an issue raised, so I can let it settle with me and see whether my concerns are justified.   I’ve been lucky that I’ve worked with some great people who have really helped me with this.  The bottom line is everybody is trying to make the script as good as possible, make the story as tight as possible, and make the characters believable.

Many thanks to Terry for taking time out of his intense writing schedule to do this interview.