After another very enjoyable and successful 2Phils screenwriting course last weekend, I’m really excited to announce two new London weekend screenwriting courses for Sept (28-29) and Nov (16-17) with very special guests –
for September CHRIS CHIBNALL, writer of the hit ITV show BROADCHURCH;
and for November, writer of so many ground-breaking TV drama shows – LUCY GANNON.
I have worked as a script editor \ producer with both Chris and Lucy. Both are of course wonderfully talented and very successful writers but what they also share is a fierce passion for their craft.
I’m really looking forward to hearing both talk about their work, how they have developed their careers, and their tips for new (and more experienced) screenwriters
Early booking is recommended as these two courses are bound to sell out – and we limit each course to the first 20 applicants.
It’s a bit of a bumper newsletter this week because I want to fit in the rest of your answers to the question-
What TV drama \ feature film \ stage-play in the last YEAR has inspired you as a screenwriter? And why?
Again – so many brilliant, fascinating responses – thank you all so much. But – to warn you – this is significantly longer than my normal newsletter so you may not want to plough through it in one go…
Again, I’m sure it will have you hunting down DVD’s etc of some of these shows that you’ve missed. Among others, the two that are definitely on my list to catch up with are THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and HANNIBAL.
One thing about your responses is the huge range of different answers – clearly, there is so much good drama being made at the moment.
Here are your answers:-
‘The Town on ITV, which was intriguing, absorbing and cleverly plotted. It didn’t talk down to its audience. It wasn’t sensationalist. It was a fairly quiet, calm, almost ponderous script.’
‘Abi Morgan’s writing on the second [and, sadly, final] series of The Hour. A masterclass in subtext, particularly the strand surrounding Peter Capaldi’s character.’
‘Without a shadow of a doubt: My Mad, Fat Diary – this show made me ache as a writer to convey a similar world of truthful emotion to an audience. The characters in the show are all so wonderfully drawn. The central character Rae’s sharp one-liners beautifully conceal her struggle to hide the secret of her self-harm and period in a psychiatric unit from her new friends. The writer deals with the topic of mental health and teenage angst in a very human and real way. The scenes with Rae and Tix, her anorexic friend, still resident at the psychiatric hospital were especially poignant. The great inventive use by the creator of visual imagery to highlight Rae’s journey triggered my imagination to go into overdrive.’
‘Borgen (and most of the other ScandiNoir series). Grown up drama mixing big political themes and human drama. In a very non-US way, it avoids the occasional schmaltz that West Wing was pray to. I love the ambition of it, and that’s what I need to have the confidence to go for more. Also, I want a ‘What would Kaspar do?’ t shirt.’
‘Deadfall starring Eric Bana. It’s unusual to find a film where everything is believable and all the characters – even the villains – are interesting and allow you to empathise with them.’
‘In the Flesh (BBC Three) I was really inspired, because it came out of nowhere, it was a completely new and very moving take on a genre that has been rather popular lately. It was a very original approach.’
‘At the moment, the show I find the most interesting in regard to my own work is the brand new SyFy show “Defiance”. Not only is it great science fiction but the interweaving of personal and more directly global scales is dealt with in a very interesting manner. The drama is consistently both personal and general, in that every action that is taking place in the world established by the show results in the audience discovering something about the nature of the characters, whether it is directly related to their own personal history or more characterial traits which allow the audience to engage with the events in a more personal manner. I think that is one of the great accomplishments of the show, that is, its capacity to weave intimate and global drama in a manner that never seem obvious and heavy handed, but rather seemingly ‘natural’.’
‘Silver Linings Playbook. A character-driven story with emotional depth about real people I wanted so badly to succeed and be happy. It reminded me of movies I love from the 1990s.
Also Looper, because it took an original take on an old idea and made a compelling and quite excellent movie out of it.’
‘I know this is not going to be original, so I am sorry, but I watched Breaking Bad for the first time this year. Got through the whole of it in a couple of weeks. It inspired me in so many ways. Mainly I loved the rhythm of the show. It started off slowly, but somehow drew you in so you kept with it. Not only because you were curious about what the hell was going on, but because the intricacy of the characters. From the word go, every character was so detailed and individual. No-one felt like a stereotype….As the show went on I loved how invested in the characters you became. Everyone of them, even the annoying ones. They all had the perfect story to tell, they all had secrets, they all had an arc. Even unexpected ones. It made me realise how much we as an audience fall for the anti hero (Tony Soprano before Walt and even Schmidt in ‘New Girl’ since). The one you don’t expect to like, be drawn to, the one that does things you don’t possibly agree with but can’t help empathise with. In my writing it made me want to concentrate more on the characters’ reasons for why they were the way they were and not just their outcomes. I wanted to focus on vulnerability in every character….Vulnerability for me was something that stood out in that show and made me more aware of my own characters in the things I write.’
‘I think the film Broken, which I saw at the LFF. I think the reason it inspired me was that it showed that strong drama could be lead by a young female lead, without it feeling saccharine and forced. It drew back the twitching lace curtains of life in cul-de-sac Britain in a really fresh and exciting way. As a writer, I like to base my stories in reality and I feel like I knew a lot of these characters. For me it was inspiring because it demonstrated we don’t need endless twists or supernatural characters (not that they’re not exciting)- we just need strong characters facing decisions that we can relate to.’
‘Broadchurch. The slow build up and more emphasis on character rather
than spectacle is similar to the Scandanavian models of The Killing, The
Drop Dead Diva – a truly refreshing comedic view of life and thereafter.’
‘Homeland – for the gradual character reveals, and the way it depicted the complex, messiness of life. Also loved that the central character has mental health issues.
It’s a shining example of how amazing tv drama can be and it’s make a date tv – so you don’t find out what happened via social media first – it’s got to be pretty special for the fact EVERYONE talks about it on twitter when it’s on, they’re all watching live.
Kosminsky’s The Promise was more than a year ago but I have to mention it for the deft and compelling way he tells the story of Palestine/Israel past and present – something most directors or writers wouldn’t have the courage to touch for its political nature and the sheer scope – he made it look easy, and personal, and it was brilliant.’
‘The film I enjoyed the most recently was probably the Oscar winner, ARGO. I think writer Chris Terrio did a great job crafting an effective and entertaining thriller around real-life events. No mean feat really. I didn’t know much about that particular story before I saw the movie, but it felt very relevant to today’s news and current affairs, and I’ve always enjoyed a good political thriller. It was also beautifully shaped piece of “genre” writing. Ben Affleck had a very clear goal, to get the captives out, whilst the clock was ticking and the Iranian security forces were gradually closing in on the group. The tension built gradually and perhaps inevitably toward the airport, but I still found it all … nail-bitingly tense.’
‘I was inspired by Sightseers. It was good to see a British film that took a few chances. It didn’t neatly fit a genre but it was well made, quirky and interesting. It made great use of location and delivered a big story on a small budget.
As a screenwriter it inspired me because it made clever use of visuals with the stunning Lake District, shabby caravans, and Kendal pencil museum, these were very British and showed our little island has plenty of variety for visual storytelling.
It gives me hope that a good story, well told, with a sensible budget, will find an audience.’
‘Without a doubt it would have to be Game of Thrones. Society today needs escape from a state of existence that is devoid of values, completely anxious ridden and constantly threatened. Game of Thrones puts its audience in a non-existent nostalgic medieval epoch with which they can fully associate and one that fulfils all their secret needs. This is done not only through the brilliant and captivating plots, but also by the exquisite photography that if one stops the footage at any point, one finds himself looking at a magnificent painting. This is taking Akira Kurosawa principals to the limit.’
‘The Killing (American series).
When I first started writing a detective screenplay for a television series, a year or so ago, I thought each episode had to be filled with murders and overly dramatic plot lines to keep the reader interested. Shows like The Killing, and more recently Broadchurch, have shown that as long as you write believable three dimensional characters with storylines and emotions that you care about, the series will be exciting without unnecessary amounts of action. I really loved the slow build up that The Killing offered, with the murder of one girl spanning over two seasons, and I was never bored or disinterested with the case because I invested in the characters.’
‘Last Tango in Halifax because it was so watchable despite the fact it had no high concept premise, dead bodies or murder. The characters were brilliantly drawn and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them – even the ones I didn’t love. I’m not sure anyone else could have got that commissioned but the fact that dramas like that can get on (and do well) is good for all of us.
Also: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (the novel although it was originally written as a radio play). The book contains so much emotion – heart and warmth as well as loss and reconciliation in such a simple story. You do go on the pilgrimage with Harold and it’s quite a journey. Also very funny at times. I can’t wait to see the film. I liked it so much I pitched to adapt it as a screenplay.’
‘Howard Brenton’s stage play “Anne Boleyn.” It dealt with a fascinating historical character in a sharp, fresh, highly entertaining and rewarding way, with plenty of contemporary relevance to us. It takes a long view, speaks intelligently about England and the English and our culture, religion and politics, reminds us that our present-day ideological battles are nothing new, and grew out of our past; and it makes credible and dynamic these larger-than-life personalities who are always in danger of becoming ossified as figures frozen in a pageant.’
‘Downton Abbey! Having never watched the show prior to this year, I had to binge-watch the first two seasons in order to catch up. I am envious of the talent behind the characterization. So NOT cliché, as I thought it might be when the show first appeared two years ago. All of the characters are refreshingly and equally detailed regardless of their importance in the story. Great job Julian Fellowes, et al.’
‘Mud – it’s got everything; it’s an intimate coming of age story, there are bigger themes of masculinity in there, it’s also a portrait of a whole community on the edge (literally) and about to disappear forever, and it is so brilliantly visual – the shots of the river as it opens into the sea are just breathtaking. And it’s also a thriller. Shows how the best cinema has layer upon layer upon layer. It was also inspiring to read that writer/director Jeff Nichols has been thinking about this story for more than ten years. TEN YEARS!! A good story takes a long long time to craft. I also loved it for being – ultimately – hopeful.’
‘Although not officially a stage play but rather dance, Matthew Bourne’s ‘Play Without Words’ (Sadlers Wells) was quite inspirational. It was an adaptation taken from the film ‘The Servant’ (circa 1963) and was unique in that there were always three identical protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast on stage at any one time acting out a scene at staggered positions in the time frame. The effect was mesmerising and (aside from the fact that I wanted to go back immediately and watch it all again) it got me thinking about the detail that was to be found in each repeating snippet – something that I am trying to transfer to my description writing. As the play title says it was ‘without words’ but plenty of action and non-verbal. Absolutely brilliant!’
‘Django Unchained blew my mind because Tarantino has a way of delivering the story to the viewer so that you can be both engaged in the current action, but also still asking: ‘Wait though, why are we here? Why did he just do that?’
I think the best example is the saloon scene: the audience wants to know why Schultz has engineered the summoning of the sheriff, and this keeps them interested while Schultz explains what a bounty hunter is; he then unexpectedly shoots the sheriff and creates the standoff to demonstrate exactly what a bounty hunter does. Tarantino gets away with so much exposition because he presents the audience with a mystery first; the viewer accepts the information offered so that they can find out the answer to their questions afterwards. This made me think about the best ways to unfold a story to the audience. It’s more interesting to make the audience question what they’re seeing at the start of the scene and answer this in a topsy-turvy/back-to-front order by the end of the scene rather than presenting the story in an A-B-C format.’
‘Gods Property by Arinze Kene, which I saw at the Soho Theatre. The script is raw and honest in what is essentially a kitchen sink drama but it does not lose sight of the need to entertain while it informs and ponders on its serious themes. The lengthy discussions in the middle part of the play are never boring because we have long since been engaged by the charismatic performances and sizzling exchanges. This inspired me as a screen writer because I saw how a huge subject can be taken on and be intelligently analysed and observed in a relatively short period of time without compromise and still be riveting, edge of the seat, thought provoking drama.’
‘Julia’s Eyes’ by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s the first horror film in years that has made me think. It takes the whole ‘being scared by what is not seen’ concept to a whole new level. The killer has a face that no one remembers. He is so plain he blends into the background, and when he speaks no one hears him, and he has become cruel and bitter from the world’s indifference to him. This makes him both sympathetic and terrifying.
Many horrors, like ‘Jeepers Creepers’, really stumble once the killer is revealed. But ‘Julia’s Eyes’ remains scary after we know the killer’s identity. Not only does ‘Julia’s Eyes’ elevate a horror convention to a new level, it overcomes a flaw in the genre that few horrors avoid. That takes hard work, and it’s inspiring.’
‘After a great deal of deliberation – Parade’s End. There’s been a hell of a lot of great TV drama around this past year. Why? Ford Maddox Ford’s books are pretty hard going, but worthwhile if you can stick with them. The characters are so unusual and most definitely of that particular period which is just slipping out of living memory. The love story that develops between Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop is pure and subtle. The sense of being trapped by social propriety into marriages that should never have happened is eye-opening. The series was a definite triumph of adaptation.’
‘The film that has inspired me the most in the last year was “The Hunt” by Thomas Vinterberg. The story follows a teacher falsely accused of being a pedophile. What really grabbed me was how the story had no villains yet it seemed to turn you against people doing the right thing. It places you in the impossible position of siding with the teacher against concerned parents and co-workers who believe they are in the right. The biggest example of this is the headteacher of the kindergarten who begins the process. The student tells her a lie about the teacher and the headteacher investigates, the lie developing further and forcing her to take action. The mistakes the headteacher makes are very human and understandable, yet when watching the film I was furious with her! It certainly contrasts well with how the UK and tabloids create panic over pedophiles seemingly on a daily basis. What I took away from the film was how characters don’t have to be black and white, and that shades of grey are far more interesting to paint with.’
‘The Killing (Danish version). I caught up with this on DVD box set after hearing rave reviews. It was inspiring because it was problematic. I liked that the glacial pace and extended focus on the grieving process of the victims worked when many of our script
shibboleths suggest they shouldn’t. But, I couldn’t figure out why the cookie-cutter plotting was not more heavily criticized. In Series 1 every character followed the same pattern – lie to the police, get painted into a corner, then ‘fess up. They ALL did this, no matter how low the stakes for them personally (e.g. the car park attendant??). And yet despite its flaws, it got made, and was a huge hit, no doubt largely due to its strong central character. As someone writing a TV crime series set outside of the UK, The Killing inspires because it shows that transnational TV that breaks genre rules can be successful.’
‘TV Drama: Hannibal (Sky Living). I probably would not have gone near Hannibal (given that I thought it was an impossible and somewhat foolhardy task to create a TV series out of such a successful movie franchise) if it weren’t for the fact that I saw that Mads Mikkelsen, the terrifically brooding Danish actor, would be fronting the show. It also didn’t harm matters that Laurence Fishburne took a break from movies to invest time and effort into a thirteen episode mini-series. Anyway, onto the writing: excellent. Will, the troubled psychoanalyst, is on the brink of a mental breakdown the entire (thus far nine episodes) series and yet, cruelly, the real villian (Lecter) is calmness personified as he charmingly welcomes guests into his home and feeds them various human entrails disguised as a lavish, healthy meal. For me, it has the feel of that ‘other’ Chris Carter series from the nineties, “Millennium,” and is creative in portraying the killers and advancing the respective journeys of the two main characters. Effective, bold imagery successfully combined with clipped, to-the-point dialogue is what I take from this intriguing series.’
‘I’ve found TV drama to be increasingly inspiring over recent years and more often than not I feel TV as a medium offers far more in terms of creativity, bravery and originality than many feature films (even with their big budgets and star power.) It’s hard to choose just one production from a list that has inspired me for various reasons – to name a few – Homeland Series 1. Utopia. The Returned. In The Flesh. The Village. Black Mirror. Murder: Joint Enterprise. But if I was to choose one I think I’d have to choose Utopia. Although at times I felt there was a certain sense of style over substance in as much as I’d liked to have had the story and characters fleshed out just a little more, I thought, stylistically, that the whole production was extremely cinematic and the storytelling big and bold even with a script that was surprisingly spare and pared down. The heightened, stylised visuals echoed and emphasised the graphic novel theme featured within the storyline and the over-arching plot was epic and ambitious, yet strangely believable/possible especially if we consider some of our own real-life conspiracy theories. The story posed questions for the viewer and had something to say about the future of our world and population size without resorting to heavy-handed didacticism.
Neil Maskell’s wheezing hitman was strangely compelling, and everything, including the photography and production design, was just that little bit skewed and unsettling which added an extra dimension to the disturbing and often brutal nature of the piece which became something between a dream and a nightmare.’
‘I recently watched Robert Benson’s ‘Billy Bathgate’ immediately after reading E.L. Doctrow’s superb novel, and was very impressed by the way Top Stoppard’s screenplay stayed true to the book while realising most (all would be impossible) of the book’s themes, and cleverly mirrored its pace and development. And like everyone else I think that “Breaking Bad” is about as good as it currently gets in TV drama.’
‘Broadchurch was the show that inspired me this year as a writer because it was a fresh approach to the over-saturated cop genre. It shifted towards the repercussion and impact of a murder on the family and local population while giving a more realistic view on police procedure. Beautifully written characters acted by amazing actors.’
‘In the last couple of years in particular, I’ve really been diving into a lot of TV drama (which has directly inspired me to write some TV drama scripts for my portfolio of screenwriting), but specifically in the last year more than one piece of TV drama has been of great inspiration. “Breaking Bad”, not only for showing how you can completely change a character in fascinating ways and maintain audience support for them, but also in terms of dreaming up shocking, intriguing, or downright bizarrely inventive ways to cap story arcs. “Utopia” was very stylishly presented, but it was also superbly written – it became increasingly morally ambiguous as the story progressed, possessed the power to truly shock, and maintained my interest throughout – the strong sense of story, and dedication to maintaining viewer interest helped me focus in my own writing to always keep the plot moving forward, but without sacrificing important time to spend with each character. Finally, and happening right now, “Les Revenants/The Returned” has been a real joy to watch (even though we’re only half-way through the series) because of its masterful approach to mystery – there are large, series-wide mysteries, but each episode also has a handful of mini-mysteries that are solved, or developed further, in shorter periods of time, so the viewer never gets frustrated. There is always some new twist, or tantalising idea, or deliciously dark possibility in every single episode that contribute to the whole – plus it presents some great scenarios.’
‘Channel 4’s Utopia inspired me. I’m not usually a fan of slow starts but it was this factor that had me very engaged in Utopia as I was desperate to know more about the characters and where the story was going. In addition, I felt the opening was especially engaging, a group of characters who didn’t know each other and from very different backgrounds planning to meet up for the first time in reality.’
‘Good Cop, Stephen Butchard. (August 2012, taking this last year to
mean 12 mths not from January).
Just when you think every permeation of police procedural had been done
before, there comes along something with a fresh perspective. John Paul
Rocksavage is the kind of policeman who would come to my house after a
break-in. I can imagine him patting my hand and arranging me better
locks, but alongside this ‘realness’ comes the titular moral and
dramatic question, can he stay a good cop? This has us viewers picking
through the morality of his actions and asking soul-searching questions.
Sure, taking an innocent and leading them through a moral maze isn’t
that original, but Good Cop manages to integrate this character study in
a way that drives the drama and goes way beyond your average whodunit.
Good Cop has made me think anew about ‘the same but different’ and
realise that it is achievable but also inspired me to look at my
characters and see how a character, and the flaws and strengths in it,
can drive a plot.’
‘Film; perhaps this is crass, but The Hobbit. Not because I think it’s a great film, but the epic scale of it. As an emerging playwright, you’re trained into thinking for 3 actors and a black box, and slapped over the wrist if you go beyond this as it’s too expensive to produce. So it’s easy to just think small. With the Hobbit, my kids wanted to watch Peter Jackson’s vlog, and I was blown away by the size of the production. It made me want to write big.
Play; David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was glorious, I came out almost skipping with glee. I find myself questioning a lot of what gets put out there, whether we should have more responsibility as writers/artists, whether it’s enough to hold up a dark mirror to society and go “Look, it’s all a bit shit, isn’t it?” or whether we should be going beyond that. Does reflecting the shit merely create more shit? So a piece that’s engaging, exciting and ultimately uplifting is to be treasured. Also, seeing Kate Tempest perform Brand New Ancients – one young woman telling a story, the power of which made me physically shake. It reaffirmed my belief that story should be at the heart of everything we do as writers.
TV; Broadchurch was a step forward in terms of allowing a gentler pace, but then Scandinavian drama has been hugely influential with that, particularly with The Killing. I started watching The Fall, but stopped after 2 episodes because I’m so sick of seeing women being tortured and killed, and the show really fetishized that, so maybe there’s a lesson there. It’s inspired an idea, anyway.’
Until next week,
Enjoy the sun while it’s here!
All the best
July 18th 2013