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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.