SUCCESSION: AN EVENING WITH THE WRITERS. SOUTHBANK CENTRE
I went to this event last Wednesday and here are a few reflections –
First, how unique to go to a packed-out, sold out event in a 2500-seat venue that was a celebration of screenwriters and screenwriting.
The writers in question were creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong and other writers on the show – Lucy Prebble, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche and Jon Brown.
The event was hosted by Adam Buxton. It was interesting to compare the natural performer Adam Buxton with the writers.
It made me smile to see these archetypal self-effacing writers somewhat uncomfortably being literally centre-stage with none of the normal actor or director egos to front the show.
None came across as natural performers, they came across as …writers. This was one of the things I loved about the evening – that these people not normally used to the limelight were thrust into it due to popular demand and the general love of the phenomenon that is SUCCESSION.
(PS The event also sent me back to the excellent ‘Adam Buxton podcast’ – so many entertaining, interesting interviews).
It’s so rare and therefore refreshing to see screenwriters celebrated in this way. And so well-deserved for the huge amount of love, care, sweat and brilliance that went into the creation of the show.
A few other reflections on the evening –
A Jesse Armstrong quote from the evening that resonated –
‘If you’ve got the stuff there burn it.’
A reference to the debate about whether to hold back your best story material for later stages of the series, a notion that JA kind of refuted with this quote. I liked this. In relation to the C4 screenwriting course, whether in the scripts writers submit to get onto the course or in the script they write on the course, there’s no point holding back your best material for later episodes that may never get written, let alone read or produced. JA seemed to be a firm advocate of making the most of your good ideas as soon as possible; it then maybe forces you into having to come up with even stronger material to top it in subsequent episodes.
I was interested in the way the writers all resisted the use of conventional screenwriting jargon. Rather than ‘structure’ there was a lot of discussion of ‘shape.’
One of the examples they gave of ‘shape’, was the idea that the 4th and final 10 part season took place over a ten day period – 10 episodes over 10 days; and how this pre-ordained ‘shape’ was so helpful in the way the stories for season 4 developed.
Jesse Armstrong talked about the principle of compressing time as a helpful principle of series storytelling – ie telling your story over as short a timeframe as possible as a way of maximising the dramatic impact of the stories.
The writers room
There was discussion of how the writers room worked. They talked about how JA insisted on a very general, non-script-related discussion at the start of each day. They joked about how this was meant to be about what they had each done the previous evening but tended to become more about what they had cooked / eaten for dinner.
Tony Roche’s response to the two part question, ‘What did you do yesterday evening? And what did you eat for dinner? was, one day, ‘Nothing. Potatoes.’ Which led to him being referred to by this two word phrase.
What I took away from this was that JA understood for the writers room to work at its best, the writers had to get to know each other well (many of them had already worked together several times before), to feel relaxed and at ease with each other, for them all to be able to chat shit, make rubbish suggestions and not feel they were being judged or marked down – the essential basis, it seems to me, of any creatively successful writers room. It made the writers room sound like a lot of fun. It also felt instructive that a couple of times when Adam Buxton asked about the genesis of particular story or dialogue ideas that they couldn’t quite remember who came up with specific ideas – so there was a real sense of shared ownership of the story, no undue sense of ego.
Leading on from this, the writers talked about how they seemed to have avoided the feeling of anti-climax / comedown after the end of the show; and one of the things that had helped was that they met regularly socially; for instance on a works outing to see Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect at the National Theatre – it was nice to hear that they are friends as well as work colleagues, that bonds had been created through the work they have done together.
One other thing that wasn’t discussed but that the discussion and clips made me think about – when you know your characters as well as these writers did, then sometimes ‘on the nose’ dialogue – the characters clearly articulating what they are about and how they feel – can work brilliantly. The idea that ‘on the nose’ dialogue is necessarily bad seems to me one of those screenwriting principles that needs challenging.
But above all what I enjoyed about the evening was the uniqueness of this huge crowd of people who had come together to cheer and celebrate the very best screenwriters and to reflect on the pleasure their work has given us – the audience, fellow writers and those of us fascinated by the craft of screenwriting.
Adam Buxton finished by sharing with us the directions from the final image of the show – Tom and Shiv together in the car, hands clasped. The directions were a brilliant, entertaining description of this final image – and very much made me want to read the scripts –
THE LOVERS – by David Ireland
This 6 part rom-com series (Drama Republic / Sky) is one of the shows I’ve been enjoying a lot recently and I really enjoyed this article by writer David Ireland in Drama Quarterly, in which he talks about the writing and creation of the show.
The article is full of fascinating thoughts and writing insights, such as, ‘One of the challenges with writing anything for me is to let the characters speak for themselves and to keep your own views out of it.’ And – ‘The series is full of homages to my favourite romantic comedies…’
I think so often the best writing happens when writers really know and have studied the genre in which they’re writing, if only so they can subvert and bring their own unique take to the genre.
For this reason, it’s interesting to compare The Lovers to the equally excellent and enjoyable Starstruck, in particular season 3, written by Rose Matafeo, Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson.
Both shows are delightful, distinctive examples of the genre (rom-com).
The next newsletter will be on Friday October 6th.
Friday September 22nd