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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!

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Creating An Original TV Drama Series

We all know that writing a killer feature film script is hard but how about creating a pilot script for a drama series; something that will be compelling not just over an hour, or a series of hours, but over years?

downton abbey

I’ve been working a lot recently with a couple of talented Script Angel clients who are creating original tv series on spec. Developing a new series is an ambitious undertaking and not something I’d usually recommend early-stage writers to attempt. After all, creating a single protagonist story over ninety minutes is challenge enough. But my writers love television drama; they are avid viewers, know the medium and envisage a career writing for it. In the UK you can’t impress a television exec with a spec of their own show, so writers have to create something original in order to demonstrate their abilities both to create original shows and to write on existing shows.

It’s reminded me of the challenges we face in developing that pilot episode script, which must do so much more than just entertain in its own right.

1) Be consistent. You might only be expected to write the script for episode one on spec (please don’t waste time writing the others) but in order to write the pilot you have to know your show inside and out. The pilot script must look and feel just like any other episode in the show. Having sat on the other side of the fence I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a pilot script that feels like one kind of show and then reading the series proposal which is pitching something entirely different! You need to have a clear vision for the series and the pilot episode must sell that vision.

2) Where to start? So how do you begin to shape your original Drama Series? The characters and setting will play a major role in the success or otherwise of your series. However, knowing what story form your show will take will help you to begin envisioning what your episodes will look and feel like.

3) The episodic series. Drama series can take two distinct forms. The first is the ‘episodic’ series, sometimes referred to as ‘story of the week’, whereby there is a new story each week and it concludes at the end of the episode. There are regular characters who return each week and often a recurring setting but the primary plot driving each episode is set-up and paid-off within one episode. One advantage is that viewers can miss episodes and still enjoy the show – you don’t need to have seen last week in order to enjoy this week. Most crime dramas take this form whereby the crime is investigated and ‘solved’ at the end of the episode; CSI, Sherlock, Castle, NCIS, Death in Paradise and also Call the Midwife.

4) The serialised series. In this form we tell stories over multiple episodes. These shows usually have a central character but also a significant ensemble cast around them in order to spread the story weight over multiple hours. Most episodes will move stories on for a number of regular characters. This is where a whole new skill-set comes into play as you develop multi-protagonist storylining. Examples include Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Breaking Bad.

5) The best of both? Of course you can combine the two and it’s typical for even episodic series to have a serialised element for their regular characters. Many of the UK’s long-running one-hour shows (Casualty, Holby City) started as almost purely episodic but became more serialised over the years in order to give the regular characters more rewarding material, thus also rewarding long-term viewers. Indeed, in the current climate it would be unusual for an episodic series to have no serialised element for its regular characters.

6) The story engine. Figuring out where your show will sit on this story form spectrum will help to determine where the drama will come from in your episodes. What is the central conflict at the heart of your show? Deciding how much screen-time is spent on the story of the week (if there is one) and how much on unfolding series-long story arcs will help you know what your pilot episode and all subsequent episodes will look like and where to focus your attention in developing the show. Of course, both your characters and your stories need to be awesome but in a serialised series the characters are even more important because they are your story engine.

7) Have a central character. Even with an ensemble cast we almost always come in to the show through one main character. Over time the show might expand out to give more weight to other characters but you can bet your bottom dollar the show didn’t start like that. If you go back to the pilot episodes of any long-running show it’s very clear who the focus of that episode is. Casualty today might look like an ensemble show with no lead character but the pilot episode was entirely focused on male nurse Charlie Fairhead. Downton Abbey began life focused on Lord Grantham, The Paradise centred on shop girl Denise, Orange Is The New Black focuses on Piper, Mr Selfridge might have a great ensemble cast but the title of the show tells you who is at its heart. You might have lots of great characters but we need to watch that first episode and know ‘whose story is this?’ The answer should be the same for the rest of the series.

8) Make them flawed. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than a boring central character whose most apt description is ‘nice’. While in a long-running series you may never complete your characters’ journeys as you would in a feature film story, you still need to know what that ending would be. Knowing your character’s flaws allows you to exploit them dramatically. The theme of the show (what it’s really about) is usually dramatised through your central character’s flaw. Your central character also needs to be in opposition to something / somebody and preferably to lots of things to give you an abundance of story riches to choose from.

9) Where are we? The story world, precinct or setting can have a major influence on your show, particularly on its tone and style. DCI Banks and Death In Paradise might both be cop shows but with one set in Yorkshire and the other on a Caribbean island they couldn’t be more different.

10) Establishing tone. Be consistent and make sure that your stories, characters, setting and writing style all work together to create a show that has a clear tone. Is it light and warm, easily consumable like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Castle or NCIS, or tough and challenging but rewarding like Peaky Blinders, The Wire, True Detective or The Americans.

Putting all that together is hard. You need a story engine that can run for years. Your characters need to be flawed enough to be interesting but with enough redeeming qualities that we’ll keep watching them. But if you get it right, and the pilot script is executed well enough to sell that coherent vision, then you could really impress and, who knows, even get your show commissioned!

Screenwriter Interview – Robin Mukherjee

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

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

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

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

How did ‘Lore’ come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Robin!