Category Archives: Screenwriter Interviews

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part Two)

In Part One of our interview with screenwriter Jed Mercurio, we talked about the process of developing his phenomenally successful drama series Line of Duty.

Here, Jed discusses with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie how he deals with notes, his process for developing new ideas and the challenges of writing science-fiction.

Hayley: As well as being the screenwriter, you’re also an Executive Producer on many of the shows you write and create, so you could presumably push stuff through. How do you get fresh eyes on the work?

Jed: Occasionally we’ll have a difference of opinion but we tend to just talk it through. If people are really opposed to something, it’s normally not a black and white thing, it’s normally a sense that something isn’t working or it could be better, and we just keep talking it through. So the editorial process is that at the start I have a meeting with Simon Heath and our script editor Priscilla Parish, and just say roughly what the series is going to be in terms of the launching off point. Then when I deliver the script they come back to me with their thoughts and we get into the practicalities of it.

H: How much time do you spend developing your characters once you’ve settled on your precinct?

J: I don’t develop characters separately from the story, they go hand in hand. I think about the kind of character who will fit the story.

H: Can you talk a bit about your writing day. Do you do set hours?

J: No, I tend not to beat myself up about that. As long as I’m on schedule for the week, that’s ok.

H: When you’re intensively focused on one project if you’ve got a greenlight, how much time are you able to invest in other ideas?

J: Right now I’m totally focused on writing the fourth series of Line of Duty, but when I finished my writing commitments on the third series I was writing other things. Even though at that point I already knew we’d be doing series four, I wanted to get some other things into development so I worked on some pilots of scripts for new series that I then delivered. None of them have yet been greenlit, but none of them have been killed yet either. So once I’ve finished writing the fourth series of Line of Duty I’ll go back and do more work on those based on the feedback from the broadcasters. And maybe if I’m lucky one of those might be greenlit.

H: When you knew that you had a little bit of time to develop other ideas, where had those ideas come from? Do you have an ideas notebook?

J: No, they’re more things and areas that I’m interested in. I will kind of note down any ideas but usually what happens is that they’ll stay with me. I’ll be thinking about them and potentially reach a kind of threshold point where I think, that’s going to work and I want to do it – I want to make that programme. Then it’s a case of having to find someone interested in working with me on it; a production company or a broadcaster. And not always do they respond positively. Sometimes I have ideas and no one is interested, so I have to drop them and come up with something else.

H: What kinds of shows did you love watching growing up?

J: My favourite show in my early childhood would have been Star Trek, then I started watching things like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

H: You’ve written science-fiction yourself, with Invasion: Earth, would you like to do more science-fiction?

J: I would, but I think that it’s a very difficult sell in the UK. I would tread very carefully. If there was a science-fiction idea that I really wanted to do and I believed there was a way of doing it that didn’t fall foul of the tv landscape, then maybe I’d do it.

H: Do you think that there are more opportunities for science-fiction shows on channels like Netflix and Amazon?

J: I’m not sure that there are more opportunities there but I think that they’re probably a safer environment. I think that the terrestrial channels feel that they need to have a very broad appeal. Doctor Who has kind of reached the point, where it’s no longer a sensitive test for audience interest in science-fiction. Like in the 1980s where Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for so long that asking who the prime minster is, was no longer a sensitive test medically for dementia. While it’s great that Doctor Who remains a successful and admired show, I don’t think that it helps us in our understanding of how you can make science-fiction, get it on air, and make sure it’s supported by the broadcasters. I think that’s an area where to be honest I don’t have a good answer.

H: Your *first show was Cardiac Arrest, and at that stage you were a working doctor and hadn’t been screenwriting at all. Did you learn the craft of screenwriting by writing that show?

J: Yes, I was lucky that I was kind of given an apprenticeship by people who were really invested in it. The fact that they were coming back to me with notes on the script and they wanted to make them good so that the thing got made, meant that people who do that for a living were really focused on that shared goal. It’s different from writing in isolation and sending scripts off and getting rejection letters or maybe getting some encouragement, which is nowhere near as intense or focused or detailed, so that meant that it was a really steep learning curve for me. We were in development for a couple of years on that show so there was plenty of time for me to understand the identity of the series and how to write the scripts. Then when it went out, because it was fortunately successful I was able to keep progressing on the second series. I become more serious about storytelling and I read books about it and went on courses. I didn’t slavishly follow those things. There were some things I agreed with and some things that I didn’t find helpful, but they did give me better analytical tools in terms of storytelling and judging my own work, in the way that when I first started the people who were involved had better analytical tools than me to be better able to say why something wasn’t working.

H: Cardiac Arrest, which had a lot of comedy in it, was followed by The Grimleys which was a very warm comedy piece. Since then your work (Bodies, Line of Duty, Critical) has been tonally more serious. Which is the real Jed?!

J: I suppose as a writer I’m probably more comfortable writing the kind of social realist precinct dramas that I have been writing since The Grimleys. I think that’s probably what I’m going to carry on doing. But I do love comedy and when I was writing Cardiac Arrest I tried to get a lot of humour in but I found that a lot of it got cut. We shot it, and it worked, but then it would get cut; to make the running time of the episode work the humour came out, so I just felt a little bit frustrated, and that made me want to write comedy, and get all that out of my system, which I kind of did with The Grimleys. I certainly watch a lot of comedy and I’m probably not as troubled as you might imagine from what I write in my drama.

H: Could you be tempted back into comedy writing?

J: I’d do it if it was the right thing, but I think that it would be a tough sell for anyone to commission me to write a comedy.

H: Have you created a screenwriting identity?

J: I think that people would have more confidence in commissioning me to write a thriller or a precinct drama rather than to write something that was different from what I’ve been writing in the last ten years.

H: Finally, what advice would you give to new writers?

J: Watch a lot of tv and write a lot. Don’t keep just going with the one idea and polishing it endlessly. Write an idea, then get it out there. And if people love it, then great, and if they don’t then be prepared to move on and come up with the next idea that’s better. Keep writing and keep moving forward.

Thanks Jed!

*From Doctor to Screenwriter. – Jed talks about how he came to screenwriting and how his breakout show Cardiac Arrest came about in this short interview with BBC Writersroom.

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part One)

If you love your television drama you’re probably one of the nearly 5 million people who have recently been watching the third series of BBC2’s smash-hit drama Line of Duty. line of duty series 1-3

Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie was lucky enough to sit down with the show’s creator, the brilliant  Jed Mercurio, to talk about the show, his screenwriting process and career.

SPOILER ALERT! Just a word of warning, they do discuss story from all three series of Line of Duty so if you want to avoid spoilers, best watch the box-set now!

Hayley: Congratulations on the third series of Line of Duty, it’s been a huge success. You must be delighted.

Jed: Yes I’m very happy with how it’s gone down. When something’s in the can and ready to go out you never have any idea how it’s going to be scheduled or promoted, and whether enough of an audience comes to that first episode and then likes what they see enough to keep coming back.

H: Can I take you back to the beginning of Line of Duty when you were first developing the idea and can you talk us through that process, when you first decided on doing something in this precinct.

J: It was probably in gestation for a good number of years; the idea of doing a cop show and then finding what felt like a distinctive angle on it which was police corruption. Although that had been done before there was nothing in recent times that focused on police corruption. In fact a lot of cop shows portrayed a very conventional positive image of the police. And although we’re not trying to portray a negative image of the police we are acknowledging that police misconduct occurs and that’s the focus of the drama. But also we decided that it was important for the drama that we weren’t having corrupt officers who were out-and-out villains, that we were having shades of grey so that the audience would be divided and that was always part of the concept. The other part of the concept was to make it a returnable series. Although the first series was viewed as being a serial we’d always said to the BBC that if it was successful the investigators could come back and they would have a new character to investigate.

H: So how early in that gestation period are you going to a production company and pitching that idea?

J: Very early. It kind of arose out of conversations I was having at World Productions, which initially were with Tony Garnett who I’d known since I’d done Cardiac Arrest. He and the company had a real track record of doing really good and interesting cop shows, so it felt like a very good match in terms of my creative ambition and the company’s experience. But the main creative relationship has been with Simon Heath at World and we saw the series the same way, we had the same ambition for it and that’s not always the case and I’m very fortunate that we’ve seen eye to eye throughout the development of the show.

H: And how much work on paper are you having to produce in order for Simon to then pitch it to the BBC? Are you writing a full treatment?

J: No, with the original pitching process, once we had a pretty solid idea of what the concept was, which would be something I would be able to write up in a couple of pages, then we went and spoke to a commissioner at the BBC and explained the idea to him. He was excited about the idea sufficiently to commission a script. But prior to that, I needed to deliver something on paper, so I delivered something about five pages long that was a summary of what the concept of the show was, the main characters and how the episodes would work. And also just the overall format of the show, which was that it was serialised, that it would have a closed ending story for the cop under investigation but an open ended story for the investigators, and if successful we would do a second series in the same format. So a lot of it was just practical and technical which allowed a broadcaster, from a business point of view, to see what they’re commissioning.

H: Once you’ve got that interest, what’s the next stage for you in terms of mapping out those episodes?

J: With the first series there was a very early document, which was I think was a page, about how the story would develop after the first episode. But that was before the first episode had actually been written. Then I outlined and wrote the first episode script and by then the series arc was already out of date. So we tend to work episode by episode, although there’s an overall understanding of where we’re heading which was very important in series one because we were more under the microscope as a new series. So within the production company and within the broadcaster there was a certain level of surveillance about what we were doing. As the series have gone on people have asked fewer questions about where the series was going.

H: And presumably they’ve needed to see less on paper in order to be confident about where the story is going?

J: That’s right. Recommissions tend not to be based on a pitch for the next series. It’s more the fact that the series has been successful for them and they want more. And it’s much more about when can you deliver the next series. Once there’s a commitment to that next series, that’s when they ask, what will the next series be? And so again, we can say, we’ll follow the same format and with series two it was a short while after we’d been recommissioned that I pitched the idea of the ambush and the officer that was under investigation.

H: Many writers are still discovering their process, especially in television where you’re managing multiple hours of story. How do you practically go about juggling that much story? Are you using index cards, are you white-boarding?

J: I write it down as an outline. An outline for an episode of Line of Duty is typically between five and ten pages. And what I write down in the outline is a description of what happens in every scene, and sometimes I even write down particular lines of dialogue that might encapsulate what someone is saying. I might summarise the conversation or I might summarise the action, but it just allows someone reading it to follow the flow of the story. And that for me is also a break-down of how much story I need and whether the episode reaches a satisfying conclusion, by which I mean that it propels the audience into wanting to watch the next one. So what I tend to do is break it down into ten minute segments because it’s not a commercial hour with ad breaks there’s no real act structure. Obviously if I’m writing a commercial hour then I do think in terms of the four acts in a British commercial television hour. For an American script often it’s a six act structure. You do have to have some idea of what each chunk of story will achieve. Because that doesn’t exist on the BBC hour I tend to write in ten-minute chunks, just so I’ve got some idea of where I’m going with the story.

H: And when you go to script on these episodes that you’ve outlined, how much is changing?

J: It varies. If the outline is working, then great. But if it’s manifestly not working then I’m not going to carry on flogging a dead horse, so then I may take a step back and rethink that episode outline. I may even go back to delivering a new outline and starting the process again, or I might figure it out as I go along – so I might just keep writing scenes that seem to work and when I reach a scene that isn’t working, I’ll throw that away and do something different.

H: Line of Duty was a change of precinct for you, having done medical with Cardiac Arrest and Bodies, how much research did you have to do to feel confident writing about a precinct you didn’t have personal experience of?

J: I didn’t feel I needed to do a huge amount. I felt that a lot of the ways in which an institution, a professional corps, behaves was transferrable from medicine to the police. In respect of the details of the law and procedure, I didn’t want to do my research before I wrote it.

H: So, story first?

J: Yes. I read a few things that were in the area I was interested in, which was about the target culture in the police, and the bureaucracy, so I specifically sought those things out. And then in terms of writing the procedure, we had advisors who gave notes on the script in terms of points of law and points of process.

H: And those long interview scenes, which the show has become famous for, was it hard to convince people you could sustain the tension over that length of scene?

J: We did it for the first time in the third episode of series one. That was a scene that ended up being about ten pages long. It went through a process. When I first wrote it, it was about five pages long. And I felt that it was an opportunity to put Tony Gates (Lennie James’s character) on the spot, and it felt like, maybe we should just keep going at him, see how far we get. And also I was kind of aware that we weren’t doing the kind of police interview that was contingent on one small fact that someone pretends not to know or lies about, and that comes out then everything collapses like a house of cards. We don’t do that. So, it was an organic process. When we filmed it and cut it together, everyone was happy with it, then when it went out, everyone was happy with it. So when we came back for series two, it felt like something other shows weren’t doing, that we’d kind of piloted, so we were going to push it a bit further.

H: How do you as the writer make sure that you’re sustaining that narrative tension right through a scene lasting five to ten pages?

J: A lot of it I could take for granted because a situation in which someone is very clearly hiding something, being confronted by a bunch of people trying to find out what that is, can be interesting in itself, and we know that from the fact that people have responded the way they have to those interview scenes. Because that’s taken for granted, I feel I’ve got a platform to write the scene. I don’t feel that I need to be doing something more in the writing to sell the scene. So when I come to those interview scenes, I never think, this is going to be a certain length, I just write the scene based on the information that the characters have at that point in the story and I explore it pretty organically. I know certain things that are important to the story and always each interview scene has a single, fundamental story point. At the end of it someone’s standing within that group has shifted, and a piece of information has come out that propels the story forward. And that’s all that’s really required.

H: How are you directing that on the page? So for example in the last episode of the third series, those interviews with Steve and Dot, we know that something has changed because Kate reacts to something they’ve just said. How are you conveying that on the page?

J: I’ll write ‘she writes a note’ and I’ll write what that note is. So I’ll be as explicit as possible. And that’s what we shoot, but that’s not necessarily what ends up in the final cut. So then in the edit we’re watching the scene cut together, and we’re not sitting there ticking off each of those moments that were in the script, instead we’re asking whether as a whole we need all of those moments. I certainly take the philosophy that if I’ve written five of those moments of Kate making a note, and we only end up with two or three, that’s ok as long as we’ve got the point across. I do feel though that if I’ve only written two of those and then we’re in the cut and they’ve not worked, then we’ve got nowhere to go because we can’t create more at the stage. So I’m often over-writing things in the knowledge that they can be cut back.

H: How much of future series’ stories are you planning and seeding ahead?

J: The Caddy and Tommy Hunter feature in series one but it wasn’t until we were commissioned for series two that I went back. We’d established an embedded corrupt officer and we felt that it would be great to use that more. The same process applied to series three, I felt a need to reinvest in that story and the same applies to Lindsey Denton’s story. When we made and delivered series two we all felt that it had a closed ending – Lindsey Denton’s going to prison for life. Just as in series one, Tony Gates’s story had a closed ending because he’s dead. Opinion was divided about whether Lindsey was really guilty or not, in a moral sense, which was intentional.

H: So when you were writing series two and we’re investigating the ambush on Tommy Hunter, did you know at that stage what lay behind his story, which you’d then use in series three?

J: No, again, it was about exploiting the resources we already had. We could have invented a different protected witness and a different cover-up for series three, but actually the fact that we had existing characters who could fulfil that role, felt neater, simpler and leaner and more satisfying in storytelling terms.

END OF PART ONE

More from Jed in Part Two of our interview, in which we talk about dealing with notes, developing new ideas and advice to new writers.

A huge thank you to Jed for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.

 

Screenwriter Interview – Daisy Coulam

Daisy Coulam is a British screenwriter who has written for ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Casualty’ (BBC) and last year wrote the new hit ITV show ‘Grantchester’. Here she shares with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie her screenwriting journey.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on the success of your drama Grantchester (ITV) which has been recommissioned for a second series. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDaisy: Thank you! Diederick Santer and Dom Treadwell-Collins who were working at Lovely Day approached me with the book. I knew Diederick from EastEnders days and he thought I’d like the sad gentleness of James Runcie’s writing and characters. He was totally right. I read the book in 2 hours on a train journey and fell in love with Sidney, Geordie, Amanda, Leonard, Mrs M and Dickens.

We expanded a couple of ideas in the book to make serial strands – like Sidney’s wartime past and his love triangle with Amanda and Hildegard. But basically the blue print of the series was all there in the novel.

It took 2 years from acquiring the book to getting the commission. I was on honeymoon when I heard that we’d got the green light. My husband and I celebrated with beers in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest which was pretty surreal…

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise that you wanted to be a screenwriter and that it could be a career?

DC: I used to write stories when I was little – they were always pretty ropey and I never finished a single one of them. I was a procrastinator even then… I’ve always loved films and TV and reading though so maybe that set me in good stead.

I never considered writing as a career until I became a script editor in my twenties. I loved working with writers and it seemed such an appealing way of life. Being freelance, having control over your own working day etc.

I applied for the BBC Writers Academy using a script I’d re-written at The Bill (ITV). I never considered that I’d get on the course – there was so much competition and I didn’t feel like a ‘real writer’ – but when I did, it was like everything clicked into place.

HM: What was the first script you finished and what made you write it?

DC: I have a confession to make – I’ve never written my own spec script. The first script I wrote properly was my EastEnders commission via the Writers Academy. What made me write it? Fear of being sacked! To be honest, that fuels every script I ever write – I’m not sure the anxiety of being hoisted off a project ever goes away.

HM: How did you get people in the industry to notice your writing?

DC: I worked my way up from the inside – first as a runner then a script editor and storyliner. There are a multitude of ways in to writing but this route worked for me. You learn so much working on a production and you meet a lot of lovely people (people like you Hayley!). These people then go on to work on other shows and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a network. Without having to do one of those scary networking events where you get nervously drunk and can’t remember what you’ve said.

I was lucky. I had friends who trusted that, even when my first drafts were dodgy, it would all work out. I think writers need that space to make mistakes. Because – let’s face it – no one writes a perfect first draft.

If you do, I salute you – you’re my hero!

HM: How did you get an agent?

DC: My way of getting an agent was a little topsy-turvy. I didn’t find one until I’d finished the  BBC Writers Academy. Bianca Lawson who worked at Casualty at the time put me in touch with Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a dude and has been my agent ever since.

My advice about agents would be – don’t worry about it too much at first. I know that’s easy to say but there seems to be this horrible Catch 22 – you can’t get a job without an agent – you can’t get an agent without a professional piece of work.

Try and be relaxed about it – focus on writing something you’re proud of. The agent will follow…

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just get their first screenwriting credit then the work will start flooding in and they’ll be able to sit back and pick the opportunities. Is it really like that?

DC: Yes and no. There’s no doubt about it, once you get a credit on IMDB  people sit up and take notice.

But that’s not to say you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘You’re only as good as your last script’ is horribly accurate. In my experience, you have to keep proving yourself script after script.

There will be bumps along the road – I’ve been sacked – most writers I know have at some point. It’s an ego-bruising experience. But you have to learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work.

On a positive note, you inevitably improve as you write more. My latest scripts are miles better than my first ones. And you get tougher – the knocks hurt but not quite so much.

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

grantchester - daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDC: I must admit, I struggle with this. At the moment, I’m working on Grantchester Series 2. But I have three other projects on the go which have had to take a back seat for the moment. In my experience there’s a very fine line – take on too much and you burn out, take on too little and there’s a risk that in a year’s time, you’ll still have nothing off the ground.

I think you just have to work on instinct. If you’re weeping at your laptop at 10 at night whilst consuming a family pack of Jelly Babies, then you’ve probably got too much on your plate…

Learning to say no is bloody hard. But it’s absolutely necessary.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

DC: There’s so much going on in Television at the moment – and so many wonderful shows being produced – that I’m very happy where I am. I’d love to write a film one day but the right idea hasn’t shown itself to me yet. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll pop into my head one day fully formed…

Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

DC: If you can boil your idea down to two lines, then I think you’re onto a winner. If you’re itching to write the script, that’s fine. But be aware that people in those (generally terrifying!) meetings want you to be able to sell your idea succinctly.

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

DC: Don’t be discouraged. You will experience knockbacks and rejections. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Keep the faith – you are great!

Conversely, have the humility to realise that you’re not ALWAYS great. If someone gives you notes on a script, listen to what they say. If the notes make you angry, it’s probably because deep down you know they’re right. Or it could be that they’re wrong and haven’t read your script properly. But mostly it’s the former. Damn them…

I’ve found that sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you before everyone else follows suit. If you can find that one person – be that a producer or script editor – stay in contact with them. Not in a stalkery way. But if you have a genuine connection with someone, you never know where they’ll end up and where that will lead you.

Hayley: Thanks Daisy!

Daisy: No worries!

Screenwriter Interview – Nicholas Gibbs

Script Angel’s very first Mentoring client in 2013, Nicholas Gibbs, was signed by an agent in January this year. Here Nicholas kindly shares his experience to-date of that journey towards a long-term screenwriting career.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on signing with an agent last month. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

Nicholas Gibbs signs with agent - 5 March 2015Nicholas: I approached Elizabeth Dench at the Dench Arnold Agency in mid-September with an introductory email and my writing CV. About an hour later, she responded and invited me to send a writing sample. She asked to read a second script that led to a meeting with Elizabeth and Fiona Grant. The meeting was scheduled for late October but did not take place until the following month. From that, they asked for documents relating to the scripts they had read plus another script I had. We were then scheduled to speak on the phone about representation in early December but for various reasons – not least, the festive holiday break – we didn’t have the conversation. I thought at that stage that the interest was gone. Then on Sunday January 4th, I got an email from Elizabeth rearranging the call. In that call, she made a verbal offer of representation. I had a think about it and accepted and then we officially signed. It sounds all straightforward and easy but as all the writers out there know it is not. At the time of approaching Elizabeth, I had also approached other agents – some of whom said no. What was in my favour was at that time I had three different scripts being read by three different production companies all of whom responded positively about the scripts and kept the door open to read again.

HM: Can I take you back and ask, what was the first script you finished and what did you do next with it (agents, producers, etc)?

NG: Once I have finished a script I show it to three trusted writer friends who do give honest feedback, which then leads to rewrites. At that stage, I would then pass it on to a script consultant like, for example, that rather good Script Angel. Then I work the script to its best possible incarnation before sending it out to producers. On occasion, those producers will provide valuable feedback. In this business, everyone has notes and everything is subjective.

I would like to say I wrote all three scripts in a week and it was really easy. It wasn’t. There were many drafts of all those scripts. And before that, there were other scripts that were what I regard now as learning scripts. Some were dreadful but there is a progression of quality not just in terms of the latest polished draft but also with the first draft. I have always leaned towards approaching Indies and producers first rather than agents and have had a good response and as I said before prior to getting an agent I had opened doors with some of those sample scripts. Those little breakthroughs end up on the writing CV, which impresses the indie, or agent you approach next. It also helped that I had done the BBC Script Editing course and written a book on Writing Television Drama.

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter and that it could be a career?

NG: I have always loved stories from a kid playing Batman – the Adam West version not the moody cinematic versions – in the playground. I vividly remember at primary school writing a story about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and meeting dragons. I did drama at university and in my last year I wrote a book on the England football team which was endorsed by the FA and the then England manager Bobby Robson did the foreword, that was picked up and published that led into journalism. I went freelance and got involved with BBC RaW and a whole range of theatre and radio projects. I can’t say I have a screenwriting career yet. Now, I just have access to a wider group of people who can say no.

HM: Did you have a plan of where you wanted to be in five years’ time?

NG: I didn’t have a five-year plan but I would like to think I could have a returnable series up and running by then. That may sound optimistic but you have to believe it is possible or else what is the point? That is in contrast to two or three years ago when I seriously thought of abandoning the notion. It combined with a difficult period in my life where loved ones were lost. Out of that period was an all or nothing approach. I contacted you, we did a six-month stint working on a number of scripts that were enhanced, and the response has been positive.

HM: What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your scripts?

NG: I must say that I have had more success getting scripts read than those who say no from the outset. I am always appreciative of any industry figure who takes their time to read my scripts given that it is often an unsolicited approach. And I am always delighted when people take time to give feedback. To have people of that experience and with such demands on their time to be willing to do such a thing is a boost every time. The truth is no one is obliged to read anything and there are perfectly good reasons for people to say no.

It is hard for all writers to get read so when you do make sure that script is the best you can make it. However, to get the script read there is a need to sell you along with a commitment to screenwriting. Enrol in courses, enter good competitions, and attend industry events as your time and budget will allow.

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

NG: At the moment, I have two half-written scripts one of which will be completed when I am away with a couple of writer friends in a remote part of West Yorkshire next week. I am story lining an ambitious epic series, which is a mighty, complicated task to make it work and understandable. I also have a file of story ideas, which range from a sentence, a paragraph or a two page documents. I have also taken writing down scenes, scenario or sequence ideas which may end up in a script. I also have on-going book projects as well.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films? What attracts you to those media, as opposed to writing novels or radio?

NG: I prefer television drama because I love multi-episodic storytelling. There is nothing better than watching an emotionally engaging and inventive TV series. That is not to say I don’t like single self-contained stories. I do. Indeed, I have some story ideas that best suit the one-off show. I have a little experience in radio and I have written non-fiction books. I am writing, on the sly, a novel based on one of my scripts.

HM: Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment? Do you think that will change in the future?

NG: I am at the stage where it comes down to the script because the truth is I do not have an on screen credit. Unlike most of the books I’ve written, which have been pitches first, and then you are commissioned and given a modest advance. In the future, I hope the commission comes first from an idea and they pay me to write the script.

HM: How do you think getting an agent will change things for you? Will you still have to network / get yourself and your work out there?

NG: Based on a couple of sample scripts an indie has put me forward for one of their shows. The producers of that show will decide whether, based on the sample script, whether they think I maybe suited for the show. That probably would not have happened if I didn’t have an agent.

I am still going to continue doing what I have been doing because it has proved to be successful. What having an agent does is open you up to a wider set of industry figures that you previously didn’t have access to. It also means you can target your scripts to the right individual producer, production company or broadcaster. It gives the writer an endorsement and says to any producer that what they are going to read has had quality control. Networking remains important because you still have to show you are not an arse! That no matter how good your writing is, you are someone people will want to spend time and work with.

HM: What do you want to be doing in five years’ time? Do you have a plan of how to get there? Does your agent help in this?

NG: Ideally, I want to do this job for the rest of my working life and the only way to achieve that is to continue to have good ideas and write.

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

NG: It is a long a commitment. Learn the craft and you can only learn that by doing it. Read the books, attend the courses but more than anything Write, Finish, Rewrite. Do not be afraid to put your work out there. It is unlikely to happen overnight and when you get the inevitable rejection (it happens to every writer) be miserable for no longer than eleven minutes (the length of the average TV act).

HM: Thanks Nicholas!

Nicholas Gibbs is represented by The Dench Arnold Agency and his book  “Writing Television Drama” is available to buy now. 

 

 

Screenwriter Interview – Tripper Clancy

Script Pipeline Winner Tripper Clancy found management through the contest and this year has gone on to sell projects to 20th Century Fox & QED International.  Tripper has kindly agreed to share his experiences with Script Angel.

HM: The script that won the Script Pipeline contest was Henry the Second. I’m guessing that wasn’t the first spec script you’d completed. How many scripts had you written by then and how long had you been writing for?

TC: I can’t tell you an exact number, but I had probably written around a dozen feature-length specs before I wrote Henry. I had been in LA for five years at that point, writing for another two on top of that if you count film school. Most of the work I had done until then was with my writing partner, so Henry was an opportunity for me to stretch my legs in a solo effort and find my voice. I’m glad I wrote it.

HM: Winning the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest in 2010 seemed to open lots of doors for you. Was that the first big contest you’d submitted to?

TC: Script Pipeline was the first (and only) big contest I entered. Since I was already a represented writer, I thought, “What good would a screenwriting contest do me?” But my manager at the time didn’t believe in Henry enough to show it to producers, something about it not being commercial enough—which was heart-breaking—so I decided to test the waters myself and submit it. When I won the contest, it validated my work and directly led to my new manager and agents. I’m still with them today.

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter and that it could be a career?

TC: I grew up playing classical piano and guitar, so my first love was song writing. I probably wrote 100 songs by the time I was 18, but it was just a hobby, a fun creative outlet. My junior year in college at Wake Forest University, I took an intro screenwriting course. I’ve always loved movies, so I thought it’d be a fun class, but it was more than just fun. It tapped into that same creative outlet in a cathartic way. After that semester, I knew I wanted this to be my career… I just didn’t know how much work was ahead of me. Ignorance is bliss.

HM: What was first full script you wrote? What made you write it?

TC: It was called Tin Stars, about four buddies who decide to write a screenplay together. Holy shit, what a logline that is! It wasn’t Oscar-winning material, but I played around with voice over, dream sequences, and all those other supposed ‘crutches’ you’re never supposed to use. I think I got an A in that intro screenwriting class, but I’m pretty sure anyone who actually finished their script that semester got an A. Like winning a good participant ribbon.

HM: What did you do with it and how did you know what to do with it?

TC: I used it to apply to graduate film schools. I ended up choosing the two-year M.A. program at University of Texas in Austin, which is probably the greatest place on earth to be broke and write screenplays. It’s also where I met my wife, so yeah, I love Austin.

HM: Did you have a plan of where you wanted to be in five years’ time?

TC: I knew I wanted to be in LA and writing for a living. I had no idea how I’d accomplish that. My plan was to take whatever soul-sucking day job I could find that could pay the bills, and then write mornings/nights/weekends until I broke into the industry. And that’s what I did.

HM: Writers often struggle with the catch-22 that producers won’t read scripts by unrepped writers and managers/agents only take on writers if they’ve got a producer interested. What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your script?

TC: I actually disagree with this theory. You can definitely land representation without a producer attachment. From my experience, I think managers more so than agents are willing to take a shot at an unknown writer if they believe in his/her voice. Managers can develop that voice and help guide it to a commercial place. Then, once a script or two starts to gain traction with producers/studios, your manager can set meetings with potential agents for you. But at the end of the day, managers or agents are only as good as the material you give them, so ultimately it’s up to you to write a great script.

HM: How did you get your first manager/agent?

TC: I wrote query letters. Lots of them. And then finally had a film school friend working at a small agency who was nice enough to push my query letter in front of an agent there, which got me read and eventually signed. But landing an agent or manager doesn’t guarantee you anything. They’ll slip your spec places, but if you don’t get a good initial response from producers, you could be searching for a new rep before you know it. Rejection is simply part of the process. I hopped around several places until I found reps that didn’t just believe in the promise of one spec, but believed in me as a writer. That’s the key, but it often takes a little while years to find that.

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just break in and get that first credit, then 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 to you and pick and choose or do you still need to hustle?

TC: If you’re looking to sit back and let work come to you, then screenwriting is not for you. It’s a constant hustle. You’re always being asked to prove yourself over and over again, especially in feature writing. As you move up, studios will contact your agents and bring you source material or see if you’d pitch on an assignment, and maybe they’re only asking you and one or two other writers. That’s a good situation to be in, but even then, you have to pitch your ass off to land the job over the other writer(s) who are probably just as deserving. One thing aspiring writers don’t realize is how important it is to be good in the room. Your previous scripts will get you in the door, but you have to win people over in the room in order to sell the pitch or land the OWA. You have to prove that you’re the only person in the world who could write this script (or at least the best one in their price range). Secondly, that first big check you get won’t be all it’s cracked up to be. Go check out John August’s “Money 101 for Screenwriters” on his website.

HM: What projects are you writing at the moment?

TC: I’m currently writing Stranded, a family adventure comedy starring Kevin James for Sony and I’m about to start work on an action comedy remake for a division of Warner Brothers. I also have a new comedy spec out to talent.

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

TC: Write your fuck you script. Don’t think about the marketplace or what studios are buying—by the time you write your script, the landscape will have changed anyway. Sure, it needs structure, compelling characters, etc., but beyond that, just write the most interesting thing to you and don’t worry about its commercial value. With any luck, you’ll find your voice by doing this and if it’s a unique voice, doors will open for you.

Thanks Tripper!

Screenwriter Interview – Chris Lunt

preyHayley: Huge congratulations on the green-light from ITV for PREY. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

Chris: Hello and thank-you. I’m afraid I can’t talk too much about the specifics of the drama beyond saying it’s the story of a copper, Marcus Farrow (played by John Simm), who stands accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He goes on the run, desperate to clear his name for the sake of his family. I’d spent a long time developing various drama ideas, being a massive nerd and sci fi nut they all tended to be high-concept. I was working closely with Red Productions and one day they called me in. I was told that, regardless of how good my ideas might be, they’d be difficult sells in the current market, so I should try to come up with something a bit more traditional. I went away, had a think, then suggested we do something like The Fugitive, one of my favourite movies. I was also very intrigued by acts of bravery, how far ordinary people could be pushed in extreme situations. Marcus Farrow is an absolutely ordinary bloke; he isn’t a superhero or Bruce Willis type. That was a lot of fun, creating these incredible, high-octane set pieces then dropping an ordinary bloke in to the middle of them. The road from concept to production was actually quite smooth. I’d been writing since about 2001 but only became a ‘professional writer’ through redundancy in April 2010, I pitched the idea for Prey in May and then developed the first episode via a treatment, scene x scene and script. It was pitched to Steve November in Spring of this year, I think. They asked me to write a second episode, which I did in less than a month and they greenlit it very quickly after that. It was tough not to talk about it until the official announcement in August. We’ve been shooting for almost three weeks now; it has a phenomenal cast and crew working on it, and is looking absolutely great so far.

H: Can I take you back and ask, what was the first script you finished and what did you do next with it (agents, producers, etc)?

C: The first script I wrote was called MOONSAILOR and was a science fiction movie. That spun its wheels for a long time going no-where, as I didn’t really know what to do with it or how the industry worked. In the end, MOONSAILOR worked well in opening doors, I suppose it acted as a spec script demonstrating what I could do. It was quite character driven, but with action and adventure. I think it’s where I first started developing a voice. I firmly believe that someone should recognise your work without actually seeing your name on front of the script.

H: What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your script?

C: I’ve usually teamed up with production companies, and have spent a lot of time cultivating those relationships. I’ve very rarely sent something unsolicited. I find that sending an email with a brief overview of the idea – literally a paragraph – is enough to gauge an interest. If there is interest I’ll write a treatment, anywhere between three and seven pages. I’d then hoped to be commissioned to write a more detailed treatment or script.

H: How did you get an agent?

C: This was when I was an amateur writer, say 2006. During that time I met various production companies to pitch ideas and managed to get a script for QUATERMASS commissioned by the BBC via Red Productions. While I was writing that we learned that the BBC had actually lost the rights, so it fell through. I’d realised that an existing IP was easier to sell than an original idea, especially high-concept stuff, so I went after a couple of IP’s, one of which was BIGGLES. By a happy coincidence, the owners of the rights to BIGGLES were looking to develop it as a TV series. I sent MOONSAILOR to the agency that represented the estate, got the gig and ended up signing to the agency.

H: Many new writers who want to write original drama for television are told that you won’t get a commission unless you’ve got writing credits on other people’s shows. Did you ever feel under pressure to ‘work the ladder’ writing for continuing dramas in order to get your own projects made?

C: I entered the industry pretty pig ignorant of the rules and regulations. My ambition was always to produce authored work. I wasn’t really interested in writing continuing drama. Even when I had an agent and the opportunity to be put forward for that kind of work it didn’t really float my boat. In the end, I stuck to my guns and it paid off. I’ve no doubt it’s the hardest route, you certainly have to have plenty of irons in the fire to earn a living wage, but I think writing stuff I was really engaged and enthusiastic about kept me going.

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

C: I’ve just worked this out and it’s pretty terrifying – I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’ve three script commissions I’m working on, three optioned treatments, and three projects I’ve been commissioned to write but need to schedule this next year. And I’ve not stopped yet. As a rule I can handle two scripts at a time. I’m also working with one of the broadcasters to develop a new and quite exciting continuing drama that I’d advise any new writer to try to work on!

H: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

C: I’ve recently had a feature film called THE MARTIAN AMBASSADOR optioned, I’ve also written the script for GETTING EVEN, a heist movie for Simon West, but that’s in development hell at the moment. I’ve become involved in adaptations somehow, two of the gigs I have lined up for next year are book adaptations. That wasn’t by design, but it is quite exciting work. THE MARTIAN AMBASSADOR is also a book adaptation. I’ve just remembered I’ve another movie to write next year, a thriller set in China!

H: Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

C: I have a very specific process which works well for me. I’ll either meet a producer to brainstorm or I’ll send them a paragraph outlining the idea – I’ve actually had ideas optioned from just that, so it’s a skill that’s well worth developing. I’ll then write a treatment, which is an overview of the characters and a synopsis – none of which is wholly set in stone. I think of this as a sales document, so it’s snappy, and I try very hard to make it reflect the tone of the piece. It’s now that I’d expect a production company to commit in some form to the project. I either then write an extended treatment / bible, or if I’m lucky I’ll then write a scene by scene. This is where the real hard work takes place. I’ll write the sc x sc in final draft, and it’s literally what it says on the tin, a scene by scene outline of the entire episode or movie. This document runs to pages and pages and certainly takes up most of the development process.  Ultimately, once the producer has signed off on the sc x sc it’s just a case of adding the dialogue and that can take almost no time at all. The strength of this process to my mind is that no-one should ever be surprised by the script. If they’ve signed off on the sc x sc then they know what’s coming, so although there’s still the usual dozen or so drafts, they’re never massively structural as a rule! Touch wood!

H: Finally, what advice would you give to new writers?

C: Network as much as possible, it’s a very small industry and a good network is essential. Be prepared to listen to Producers, they know what the industry wants better than you do. No one criticises for the sake of it, never take criticism personally, they wouldn’t bother if you were crap. Try to be original, try to make your script stand out. Work on creating a voice, a good script should be like a piece of music, you should recognise the composer. Find yourself a good script editor. I can’t stress this enough. I’ve worked with some brilliant script editors such as Richard Fee at Red Productions and there is no way on gods earth that PREY would be being produced if it wasn’t for Richard Fee, Nicola Shindler and Caroline Hollick. The third idea is always, always, better then the first two. Be prepared to work a decade to become an overnight success. I did. There are absolutely no short cuts.

H: Thanks Chris and we can’t wait to see ‘Prey’!

Chris is represented by Rob Krait at Casarotto Ramsay

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