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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.