With my team of eight excellent script readers, I am now well into the very enjoyable process of reading scripts from the 2021Channel 4 screenwriting course applications.
We received far more scripts than we’ve ever received and already I’m struck by the high quality of the submissions. The range, imagination and originality of the stories being told is striking; I have already read several scripts that could go straight onto our TV screens and would be hugely enjoyable – which I find baffling when I scroll through current viewing options and struggle to find many shows that really excite me.
Having to select a mere 12 from the thousands of scripts we read is challenging and also frustrating – we have to turn down so many writers who would be outstanding candidates for the course. It’s also exciting knowing already that we’re going to be working with another crop of brilliant writers next year.
But it focuses my mind on thinking about what else we could be doing to support the writers who come close but don’t get onto the course; and about how we can spread the word about these other excellent writers to potential employers.
I had a phone call from a very good literary agent last week who talked to me about how the industry is hungry for new voices, for writers who have a unique story to tell – and how demand is outstripping supply.
This is something I’d really like to be able to address – the big question is how?! Any suggestions very welcome (seriously).
WHAT I’VE BEEN WATCHING / READING
Just raced my way through the 2nd (frustratingly short) series on Netflix. I really like the format of this show. Artificially restricting the action to the three interiors (interview room, observation room, corridor) could in theory make this a bit dry and repetitive. But as is so often the case when you impose artificial limitations, it can actually release and enable imagination and creativity. What this format enables is a real focus on the guest characters being questioned and the stories they’re telling. And because it all takes place in these visually uninteresting settings, the audience fills in the story gaps and questions with their own imaginative responses in a way that is really satisfying. The writing of the characters is brilliant – some really complex, fascinating and twisted characters, and some great story hooks. It also makes for some great performances – from the regular characters but in particular from the guests – Sophie Okenedo, Kit Harrington, Sharon Horgan and Kunal Nayyar.
But the main thing this series teaches me is the importance of format when you’re creating a new series. The format of this show is disarmingly simple – but incredibly effective; and, importantly, eminently achievable and repeatable. Hats off to series creator and writer, George Kay.
PLATFORM SEVEN by LOUISE DOUGHTY
I’m currently reading this novel and, like CRIMINAL, the thing that I find most striking and successful about it is the simplicity and clarity of the initial premise – a story told from the POV of a ghost (someone who committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train) in Peterborough railway station. It’s such a simple idea but enables the writer to observe people in transit, on journeys; and set up a powerful mystery from the start that the reader needs answering – why has this woman killed herself?
What we can learn from documentary storytellers –
Three of the very best things I have seen in recent months have been documentaries –
The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty (BBC)
Once Upon A Time In Iraq (BBC)
The Last Dance (Netflix)
All three shows are outstanding and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I also think, from a fiction / screenwriting point of view, all three are hugely inspiring.
Here are some notes I wrote about these shows –
Takeaways – characterisation – the parallels between MURDOCH & SUCCESSION
Characters that are larger than life – Sassaman (OUATII), Murdoch, Max Moseley (Murdoch) – such rich, vital, compelling characters.
The message. The political resonance
The dynamics of power – how Saddam taught his interrogator lessons about politics in Iraq, how Saddam (the prisoner) ran the sessions. How the interrogator felt an ‘aura’ from Saddam – status.
Powerful story comes from placing your character in extreme situations, taking them out of their comfort zones e.g. a war zone. Revealing and dramatising character is about how they respond in these heightened situations of crisis.
How the passage of time brings new perspective, an examination of how we change, what we learn, how trauma stunts or inspires us – eg the girl who loses an eye, the boy who loses a leg; the photographer who blames himself for the death of a soldier; Sassaman – from colonel in his prime, setting the agenda, to retired ex-army man trying to spin a buck by lecturing on leadership, trying (and failing) to make sense of his Iraq experience (OUATII).
Dramatising the heightening of senses – when time slows.
Emphasizes the power and primacy of story – the best stories like this feel like they should be essential viewing. How many fictional dramas and comedies feel like this? (The best ones do – I May Destroy You, There She Goes).
Shows this good change you the viewer as a person, make you see the world in different ways, make you rethink the world.
The Last Dance – taps into something within all of us – competition, achievement; the celebration of excellence; the politics of an organisation.
Are your lead characters as magnetic and compelling as Sassaman, Murdoch, the Bulls manager?
Rags to riches stories – achievements realised against all odds and despite the forces of opposition.
These stories are elemental – OUATII is about good and evil. But it’s about so much more – the human cost of careless, short-term, cynical, vote-catching decisions by politicians; how we all have a personal responsibility to fight for what is right, to be active against the forces of darkness
An illustration of how dialogue illuminates character. ‘No joke, I played chess with the guy and he beat me both times. He beat me in three moves and then I said you ain’t going to beat me again and I’ll be damned, he beat me in 5 moves. I don’t know how the heck he did it to this day.’ (Brandon Barfield, one of the military police who guarded Saddam, talking about Saddam and their relationship). Colloquial, chatty, casual dialogue – but it has such layers of meaning. The relative status of the two men; the fact that Saddam buddied up to him enough to play chess with him; the fact he was brilliant at chess; the hint of dark powers. And finally a metaphor for the whole US / Saddam relationship. That’s how to write dialogue!
It teaches us that politics is drama and that all drama is political.
The dramatic power of visual imagery (eg the bulldozer crushing satellite dishes, ep5)
The dramatic / emotional power of a late / withheld story reveal (ep 5 Mosul Eye). How you structure your story is so important.
The power of ‘story’ – as articulated (brilliantly) by John Yorke. Story is dynamic and active and unpredictable – John’s fascinating application of story to the Brexit vote and Trump election. ‘Make America Great Again’ is a more compelling story than ‘Together Stronger.’
To vote for Brexit was to vote for change, for shaking up the bad old ways, for progressive change, a step forward to something new and improved; to vote stay in was to maintain the old, stale, unsatisfactory status quo – voting stay in wasn’t as dynamic as voting leave. (Not my view – by JY’s articulation of how the leave vote was made to sound more attractive and compelling.)
The next newsletter will be in two weeks on Friday October 30th,
All the best
October 16th 2020