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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!

Writing Drama With Ambition and the Rise of the Co-Production

breaking badWe’ve long had a love-affair with American television drama and the list of US shows we Brits love to watch is long. Whether you were there twenty years ago with The Sopranos, E.R and Grey’s Anatomy, or ten years ago with House and Dexter, or are just discovering the joys of The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Blood, The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie, Under the Dome, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D or Nashville, chances are you’ve seen and fallen a bit in love with a US drama series. Heck, we even watch US remakes of our own shows – House of Cards on Netflix anyone? And the Americans aren’t averse to a bit of UK drama themselves, whether watching our original show (Doctor Who) or producing their own version (Shameless).

sherlockThat symbiotic relationship has also created a production partnership which, particularly between the BBC and WGBH/Masterpiece, has a very long history; many a period BBC Drama has been a co-production with Masterpiece; Bleak House, Cranford, The Lost Prince, Little Dorrit to name a few. In a climate where few UK broadcasters can fully fund the high-end dramas, many of today’s UK originated shows are hugely dependant on co-production money from the US. Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge (ITV Studios,  WGBH/Masterpiece), Sherlock (BBC, Hartwood Films, WGBH/Masterpiece), Parade’s End (BBC, Mammoth Screen, HBO), Dracula (Sky, NBC), Top of the Lake (BBC, Sundance Channel), The White Queen (BBC, Starz).

Lately we’ve discovered that there is a world of great drama beyond the US. We’ve been enjoying The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano, Borgen, Spiral, The Killing and The Returned. And where there is a willingness to watch each other’s drama productions, there seems to follow an appetite for co-producing. Red Planet Pictures’ hugely successful Death in Paradise is a co-production with Atlantique Production and France Télévisions. While Sky’s new drama The Tunnel, a Shine/Kudos/Canal+ co-production, is doing great numbers for them on Sky Atlantic.

But an apthe tunnelpetite for drama from other countries doesn’t always translate into successful co-productions on new projects. Zen, a co-production between the UK, US, Germany and Italy, didn’t take off in the UK and was cancelled after its first series. Will Gould (Tiger Aspect) has commented “sometimes a script comes to your desk and it has four or five different nationalities and a note saying ‘these nationalities will change depending on who is financing the project’. I worry about creating drama purely by the funding.”

At the annual Totally Serialized conference in London, organised by the Institut Francais, there are public screenings of the best of European dramas. The event runs 16-19 January with one day (16th January) given to an industry event discussing the topic. This year it includes a panel discussion of the challenges and opportunities of writing for co-production dramas.

As budgets get squeezed and our storytelling ambitions get bigger, co-productions feel like a natural solution. And with French film producer and distributer Studio Canal taking a majority stake in Nicola Shindler’s hugely successful UK indie Red Productions last year, it seems that developing partnerships beyond our own shores is set to continue. So if you’ve got a compelling story to tell that straddles countries, there is definitely the will to make it happen.

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