Category Archives: Feature Film

Cinema or Living Room: Writing for Film and TV by Joe Williams

With the emergence of VOD platforms and cheaper forms of digital film production, there has never been a more exciting time or as many opportunities to create film or TV content as there is now.

tv vs film

TV in particular is said to be going through a ‘Second Golden Age’ with shows such as True Detective, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad and Sherlock rivalling or even superseding films in terms of public discussion.

The UK has no shortage of distinctive and talented writers working in both formats; yet despite this, there are only a few who equally move between both mediums. Examples of these ‘format hoppers’ include: Abi Morgan, Jeff Pope, Peter Morgan and Dennis Kelly. At the same time, iconic writers such as Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and Russell T Davies have carved out enduring careers exclusively in television, while Jane Goldman, John Hodge and Hossein Amini have concentrated on film.

I personally adore both and will happily jump from Sherlock to Sherlock Holmes in the blink of an eye. Having also worked in film and TV development, Hayley has kindly asked me to share a few thoughts about writing for both mediums and what can be expected in the development process.

Structuring Your Script: Arguably the greatest difference is the amount of freedom in terms of length and structure. When writing film scripts, entire pages can be added and discarded often with little consequence to the overall film. In TV, a script’s length is poured over, especially in production where a read-through will typically be timed. The length of your script is even more pronounced if you have to factor ad breaks when writing for broadcasters such as ITV or Channel 4. While working on the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, we would discuss the importance of creating a strong inciting incident at the end of ‘Part 1’ (around p12-15), to ensure a potentially fickle audience would be hungry for more. In film, you are able to delay this to a later point, giving you the freedom to write closer to your own pace.

If you’re writing for TV, your series also has to compete with any number of distractions in the home from the kitchen to your iPhone (in my case, guilty as charged!), so the need for attention-grabbing material is more pronounced. When your film is on general release, you can take comfort that the audience is locked in and hopefully free from distraction. Of course, many TV writers relish these challenges and such constraints can push you to write taut and tightly structured scripts that still allow your vision to shine through.

The Development Process: A common complaint heard in film or television development is the lengthy amount of time it takes to get projects off the ground. Even so, there is still often a clear difference between the mediums in terms of the amount of time spent developing projects. In film, you are typically allowed to work to your own timescale within reason. Even if you have a creatively strong script, it can still take months or even years as the producers delve in to the quagmire of film financing. In TV, the time scale is notably accelerated, particularly if you find yourself working for hire on an existing series. This does not necessarily mean that TV is the quickest way to getting your writing out there, as a variety of issues from the broadcaster’s end can come into play before your work reaches the screen. Either style can work for you depending on your personality but when writing for both mediums it’s worth preparing for lengthy periods of waiting, punctuated by occasional bursts of energy.

Broadcasters and Distributors: In the British film industry, while there are many distribution companies with distinct identities (Artificial Eye generally release ‘art-house’ films, while Lionsgate tend towards action genre titles), there is generally less consideration of where your script will end up during the writing process. While no TV broadcaster would wish to compromise a screenwriter’s vision, when assessing material they still look for stories that will sit comfortably alongside their current slate. Therefore, when writing your TV script, it can occasionally be worth bearing in mind where you want to see your show transmitted. Say you’ve written a gritty crime drama, do you want to see it in the company of Luther (BBC), Broadchurch (ITV) or Top Boy (Channel 4)?

Directors: In television, despite the influx of ‘auteur’ directors, the writer is still traditionally in a greater position of influence in contrast to film. To give an example, whenever Abi Morgan pens a new TV series, such as The Hour, she tends to take centre stage in terms of its promotion. This is in contrast to her film work, in which she has generally taken a backseat in the public eye to either the director (Shame) or the subject matter (The Iron Lady). The world of film is undoubtedly exciting and writing for it can offer more structural freedom, but it is still, at least in the public eye, the medium of the director.

Your Characters: Another factor to influence your writing is the different directions you can take your characters in. When writing a film script you can decide your characters’ endpoints and use it to inform their actions. Television offers you the chance to keep on developing the characters while knowing who will be cast in the roles so you can write to their voices. What’s more, TV can allow you the opportunity to re-invent your work based on background characters. Kryten in Red Dwarf and The Fonz in Happy Days are both breakthrough characters that emerged long after their pilots were written.

Ultimately, it’s a question of personal preference whatever medium you choose to write for in terms of working habits and your own creative instincts. As mentioned, many writers have succeeded in finding their voices in both fields and given the increased opportunities in terms of technology and platforms, it’s very possible to wear two hats or one, depending on what fits you best.

Joe Williams is a freelance development consultant working for numerous film and television production companies. He has previously worked in development for Scott Free Films, Sprout Pictures and Channel 4’s Drama Department. Joe recently also participated in the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course as a Shadow Script Editor. You can follow Joe on Twitter @josephmwilliams

 

Screenwriter Interview – Jamie Crichton

Ripper-StreetHayley: First of all, congratulations on being commissioned on Law&Order:UK (ITV) and on Ripper Street (BBC) this year.  Can I take you back and ask what was the first spec you wrote and how did you know what to do next with it?

Jamie: I was working at Really Useful Films and we’d optioned Michael Morpurgo’s book The Butterfly Lion. We had Richard Attenborough onboard to direct but the screenplay just wasn’t quite working. It looked like the project had derailed.  I knew the direction we wanted to go in with it so I went to my boss and said, ‘give me 2 weeks off and I’ll write it.’ He agreed and I wrote a new draft. My boss liked it, the director liked it.  Although the stars didn’t quite align for the project at that time, it was the script that crystalised in my mind that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that the script I wanted to write was what would become Bogland so as soon as I finished working at Really Useful Films I started researching and then writing Bogland, which was my first original script. I’ve redrafted it periodically since then but it’s still the spec that goes out as a writing sample.

H: Before the Michael Morpurgo project had you been writing in your spare time but just not taking it seriously?

J: Not really, I’d harboured ambitions to write but not really done much about it.  

H: Did you have notebooks full of ideas but just weren’t pursuing them?

J:. Everyone’s got half baked ideas that you spew to your friends after a few drinks but I had never really put them into any kind of coherent pitch type documents or treatments. Developing ideas seriously only really came about subsequent to Bogland and getting an agent.  

H: How did you know who to send your spec script to?

J: I didn’t have a clue is the short answer. So I did what most writers do; I got a list of the top 50 literary agencies and sent it to them all. 45 never responded at all, 5 wrote back saying thanks but no thanks. That’s a path well trodden by new writers. I guess what I learnt from it though is that nobody knows anything. So don’t take to heart the fact that 50 people didn’t like your script.  So then I went round everyone I knew telling them I had a script and took up any offer from anyone to pass it to someone they knew. I did have one friend who said she knew an American producer, Neda Armian (Rachel Getting Married) who was just starting her own production company, did I want her to pass it on to her. I said yes, as I did to everyone who offered, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Then Neda called me from New York and said she was really interested in producing it. It’s all about little steps, momentum, something leading to something else. Neda got me some meetings in L.A and I signed with an L.A agent before I had a London agent.  

H: So you’ve got a London agent, an L.A agent and your spec script’s been optioned by an L.A Producer, how did writing for Holby City (BBC) come about as your next step?

J: If you want to work in UK you either get lucky with your film script or you look towards tv. As it happens I think we’re in a golden age of tv and I think that there are great opportunities in UK tv. When I got an agent he quite rightly suggested we should look at tv but you’d have to be incredibly lucky to get any tv work from just a spec film script. He advised me to write a spec tv script – something that I was passionate about. So I wrote Obedience which is the first part of a four-part serial for television.  That was the script that got me Holby City.  

H: Did you do a trial script for Holby City before getting the episode commission?

J: Yes. I’d had a meeting with Simon Harper at Holby City after he’d read Bogland and he’d said I should send him a spec tv script. So after I’d written Obedience I sent it to him and he liked it and got me on the Holby City Shadow Scheme. I was really pleased that from that I did manage to secure an episode commission on the show – it was a real champagne moment.

H: So you’ve had a second episode commission for Holby City and now you’ve been commissioned to write an episode of Ripper Street, is that right?

J: Yes. Tiger Aspect had loved Bogland but I’m sure they wouldn’t have taken a risk on me without me having written an episode of something else. When I went in to meet the team, I made sure I’d watched the four episodes that had aired by then. I had 3 pitches up my sleeve for episode ideas for a Ripper Street episode. I knew they liked Bogland and wanted to play to my strengths. Since it’s yet to air I can’t give away details of the episode but they liked my idea. They then got me back to pitch that episode in more detail a few days later so I had to do a lot more work very quickly. They liked it and they commissioned me to write that episode for the next series.  

H: So between Holby City and Ripper Street were you looking to try to move on from the continuing dramas to the shorter run series?

J: Not consciously but after the first two Holby City episodes there was a sizeable gap before the next commission. It made me realise that I needed other gigs and couldn’t rely on Holby City to support me financially. I did another big wave of networking. You have to be quite media savvy as well. I did a lot of Twitter and LinkedIn networking and I’ve subsequently met a whole bunch of people who I contacted in that period. That’s all in addition to the work my agent was doing for me. The simple truth is that until you’re an established and respected tv writer you’re not going to be picking and choosing your next step – you’re taking the next opportunity that comes to you and doing the best job you can with it.  

H: Are you looking across the current tv landscape, finding shows you’d love to write for and figuring how to get on those shows?

J: Yes to an extent. I think it’s good to do that. One of the commonest questions at general meetings is ‘what other shows do you watch, do you like?’ My mind always goes blank at that point so I’ve had to make a list of my favourite shows and I look at it before I go to meetings! Also if your agent says what do you think about x or y or z, you need to have an idea about what those shows are.  

H: At the same time are you still writing spec material?

J: Not scripts right now, no, but I’ve been doing a lot of brushing up on my portfolio, my treatments. I’m starting to get interest in some of those ideas now. One has been optioned by Clerkenwell Films (Misfits) and I’m writing a bible for an idea I’ve sold to BBC Drama. Although a Treatment might only be 4-5 pages and might only hint at what’s to come it’s usually been distilled from a much more developed, much lengthier document. I’ve got about 12 projects in that early stage; roughly 4 films, 4 tv series, 4 tv serials.  

H: If you’re going in for a general meeting are you going ready to pitch all of those 12 or are you selecting a couple?

J: It’s usually just a couple. I’ve got a bit better at that. I used to be a bit blanket with it which wasn’t great. Sometimes you’ll know what they’re looking for, like they’ll say they want ‘crime series’ which can help, but I’ve got more specialised about what I pitch to whom. But you have to do your research, know their output.  

H: It looks like in a couple of years, since writing one spec screenplay, you’ve had this meteoric rise. Your spec’s been optioned by a US producer, you’ve written for Holby City, then Ripper Street and now Law&Order:UK. Do you have ideas now about what you want to be doing in 5 years?

J: It hasn’t felt meteoric! But yes I am thinking ahead. There’s always a clash of realism and idealism but fingers crossed the next writing project is one of my own original ideas.  

H: You seem quite focused on tv at the moment but are you tempted to go to script on spec with one of your film ideas because obviously the film script is an easier sell than the treatment.

J: If I had another spec film script already written I would now be trying hard to get that made. Bogland is a tough sell and there’s a chance it might never get made but even if that’s the case it will have served its purpose. Your spec still has to be the project that you’re most passionate and excited about, not necessarily the most commercial idea.  

H: If you did have a big enough gap and wrote another film script on spec, would you choose a project that was an easier sell than Bogland?

J: I don’t know. I remember after I’d had a week of stereotypical L.A meetings a few years back, (all hot air, ‘I can get Russell Crowe attached’ kind of thing) and most of them were saying ‘your next script – make it single male protagonist 35-45, box office friendly.’ Then my L.A agent said no, that’s the worst thing you can do. It probably won’t be any good because your heart and soul won’t be in it. Worse, if you get success with something like that you’ll be lost and miserable and people will expect you to keep writing that kind of thing. Obviously it’s a huge pressure for writers, figuring out how to get by. It’s a constant stress and unless you’ve got some other income I think you do have to have one eye on it.   

H: So, say I’m a writer with one completed script. I don’t know if it’s any good or what to do with it, what’s your advice?

J: Write to agents, use any connections you have, use social media. Don’t discount any opportunities, any types of approaches.   

H: It’s about getting your work read as widely as possible to get interest?

J: Exactly. You only need one person to like your script and believe in you.  

Thanks Jamie!

Jamie Crichton is represented by Fay Davies at The Agency    

Screenwriter Interview – Robin Mukherjee

lore-uk-quad-movie-posterRobin Mukherjee is the screenwriter of award-winning feature film ‘Lore’ (2012). He’s written ‘Combat Kids’ for CBBC and many UK primetime series such as ‘Casualty’ and ‘The Bill’, as well as numerous radio plays and theatre pieces.

Script Angel caught up with Robin to find out how ‘Lore’ came about and what it’s like as a screenwriter working  in both feature films and television drama.

So Robin, congratulations on ‘Lore’ which is a brilliant film. It feels like there’s quite a buzz about it. 

I think so. It has certainly been very well received, which is a great thing.  Of course it’s not a ‘blockbuster’, nor was it ever meant to be.  But we’re very happy.  And the audiences that I’ve seen – at Q&As for instance – have all been incredibly responsive.  People get it.  Which is all we wanted.  What’s been nice is that the release process is such a long one as the film goes out to the various territories and different festivals.  TV tends to be a momentary explosion, but this long, slow burn is definitely there to be savoured.

How did ‘Lore’ come about?

Paul Welsh, the producer, had read an early draft of Rachel Seiffert’s book and, I think, secured the film rights possibly even before it was published.  Paul had seen my earlier film ‘Dance of the Wind’ at the London Film Festival and we’d met at some point.  I think we understood each other.  I liked his sincerity and he seemed to like the way I tell stories.  ‘Dance of the Wind’ was very art-house, on the spectrum of watching a plant grow for ninety minutes to Spiderman.  Not quite staring at a plant, actually not at all like staring at a plant but, as I said, very art.  However, I’ve also got that discipline from Television of being able to communicate widely.  He sent me the book and I wrote a proposal for the adaptation. Scottish Screen supported the development, though it took about a year from liking our proposal to actually saying yes. Rohr Films came in early and stuck with it right through. Others came on board but disappeared, which seems to be in the nature of raising production finance. Rohr Films are an interesting company with a slate of quite experimental work where people are allowed to be brave and trust their instincts.  So it never felt like a prescriptive environment where I had to tick other people’s boxes. I was given free rein to tell it as I wanted, and then Cate [Shortland, Director] was given the freedom to bring her own vision to the story.

Did you hand over your script when Cate came on board or was it a collaborative process?

Paul and I met Cate in Berlin to talk about the story, to kick around the adaptation, and to ruminate on the themes and ideas we were trying to deal with.  I think we both work in a similar way.  We’re both instinctive rather than formulaic.  What matters is the truth of what we’re saying and finding the most truthful way to say it.  I don’t know much about inciting incidents and all that.  Stories are stories.  We know how they work.  We are stories.  You just have to tell it as you live it.  So we went very deeply into the material with a lot of research and feeling our way around the territory.  Paul was there to make sure we didn’t go insane with it.  Although you have to go a little bit insane.  There came a point when Cate prepared a director’s draft.  Which is exactly what we wanted.  She had to make it her own.  And what she produced, in the end, was an utterly committed piece of cinema.  You believe in the story because there is so much self-belief within it.

Was it a straightforward development process once Cate was on board?

Pretty much. Until we decided we had to do it in German. Then BANG. We lost at least a year. One of our major English funders backed out because they were only able to support English language films.

Presumably there was a point at which you handed the script over to Cate? Was that scary?

Not at all. The worst thing for a writer is if a director just shoots your script.  You want them to bring something to it. You want everyone to bring something to it – the Director, the designer, the DOP, composer, the Actors.  In a way Cate was working with different sources of material.  There was my script, the original book, all of our research, all of our thinking and, of course, her own perspective both personal and as a film-maker.

In television the director pretty much shoots the script that you’ve written. Were you worried that the film that emerged wouldn’t be the film you’d written?

Well, as I’ve said, you don’t just accept the collaborative process, you welcome it.  It is slightly different to television in which everyone is quite compartmentalised.  A film emerges from the energies of everyone involved.  Which is wonderful.  In the end it is the Director’s film.  Depending on the director.  Cate was offered this project for a reason, because of the way she makes films.  She makes it her own.  But then we’re all a part of it.  There’s a lot of fuss, often, in television about who did what.  But it doesn’t matter.  I’ve known producers who tell you ‘I thought of that’.  But the reality is they didn’t, and if they did it was probably wrong!  As a writer, the best ideas, the best lines and all of that, you don’t know where they came from.  They appear on the page and it might be that they’re responding to the way an actor moves his face.  But there it is.  Ego is no help in this process.

It sounds like you had a great experience on that film. You also write radio and theatre and tv. Do you write in all those mediums because different stories demand different platforms or because you feel you need to diversify to sustain a career?

I’m just a tart.  Seriously, I think all of those mediums offer something different, something exciting from a creative point of view.  I love radio because the word is so important, and you plug straight into people’s imaginations to create a mood that is very intense. I love tv because it’s so widely accessible.  You do something and you know that millions of people have been engaged with that.  Also tv gets made quickly. Film allows you to tell a big story with very deep themes, very layered.  You can also be more questioning and enigmatic perhaps, than in television.  Your audience accepts more experimentation, more risk.  With tv, you trade enigma for accessibility.  Which is fair enough.

How do you decide what to work on next? Is it a mixture of commissions and spec work?

Yes, that’s about right.  It’s a mix of things we’re asked for and projects we initiate, although the ones we initiate inevitably get swamped by the things we’re asked for. The trick is to be asked for something you wish you’d initiated. But there’s always stuff bubbling away. You have to find the right person and the right opportunity, the right moment in time to convince someone else of its worth.

Emerging writers often feel that if they could just break in and get that first credit that after that it’ll be a full-time paid job where the work just keeps coming in. Is it really like that, can you ever just sit back and watch the work come in and pick and choose or do you still need to hustle?

Many writers, when they first break in, have a flavour-of-the-month period, which may last a few of years, where every series is asking for an episode, and you’re run off your feet.  I think one has to be careful that it doesn’t become the entirety of one’s creative exploration. Television is great fun but you can learn to compromise too easily. You may have to curtail your creative ideas but at least you get things made. In a way, that’s the trade-off. But yes, the reality is that every project still needs hustle.  Even if a project comes your way and you’ve got a producer doing most of the hustling you still have to be part of that process. And it’s a necessary process. To have a sustained livelihood in the industry you need to be constantly fertile and proactive.  There’s no sitting back on your laurels.

How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

There’s always the main focus. For me at the moment that’s a new feature film – we’ve got some production money and a director who is very much a part of the project. Then there’s another adaptation.  I like the book and we’re currently raising development money.  There’s another project in which a company has come to me with a new director they want to develop, which sounds very exciting.  Oh, and I’m also writing a book on screenwriting which I’m due to deliver in October. And then, of course, there’s the notebook, my scribbles, which is always festering with ideas.

Before you were a full-time writer, were you writing stories and did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?

Oddly enough, I was put into the remedial reading set in primary school because my reading was under-developed.  What happened was that the teacher would walk around while we read from the books we were holding.  One day she sat next to me and realised I was just making them up.  I thought that’s what everyone was doing.  Then she explained about all those squiggly things: written words.  I soon caught up but telling stories definitely preceded reading them.  I write for different reasons but mainly it’s to make sense of the world.  Or to try to.  I’m told if I don’t write for any period I become a bit grouchy.  So furthering one’s career was never the impulse.  Neither are prizes or money.  Writing is just wired into me.  In fact I didn’t have an ambition to become a professional writer.  One day my girlfriend sent a script I’d written to the BBC and they wrote back.  I couldn’t think why the BBC had written to me.  But they liked something in what I’d written and gave me a mentor, Tony Dinner, who I’m in touch with to this day.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

In the early days I did all sorts of jobs, mainly because I couldn’t really commit to any other kind of career.  And of course I was writing.  I remember coming home from a gardening job one day, sitting on a bus, cold, wet, muddy and, frankly, pretty miserable.  I asked myself the question: if my writing only ever gets me to this place here, tired, grubby and broke, would I still do it? And the answer was yes.  I would.  I guess my advice is to ask yourself, do you have that commitment, that conviction?

Thanks Robin!