Thursday, 24 June 2010

Licence to Bore?

No this is not the name of the next Bond film. Neither have I forgotten our look at successful British movies over the past 18 months. I'll get to that. But there have been a couple of other things on my mind and I'd like to share them with anyone kind enough to read this blog!

In my previous entry I blogged about the panel at the BFI. I didn't mention it myself but it's been widely reported elsewhere that Jimmy McGovern said theatre writers should carry a card in their pockets that said 'licence to bore.' It got a good round of laughter, which suggested there weren't many playwrights in the room! Turns out this is not the first time Jimmy has said this. In this interview in 2007 he says something very similar, although the emphasis seems to be to backtrack on this. (Maybe he's seen some really bad plays and read some really bad screenplays by playwrights between now and then that has led to another reversal!?)

I don't go to the theatre very much, and when I do, it's usually to see something by the best of the best, Mr Will Shakespeare. But here's what Jimmy went on to say: "I get lots of approaches from theatre writers who want to write for The Street or whatever and I’m telling you, a lot of theatre writers are crap. It’s boring. You don’t learn story structure writing in the theatre. Stay away from the theatre, it’s the worst thing you can do if you want to write for TV. Fight to get on a soap, get on Corrie, get on Emmerdale. That’s where you’ll learn." (Quote from Michelle Lipton's transcript.)

And I agree with Jimmy. I don't understand the obsession of people in the film and television industry of searching for new writing talent... In. Other. Mediums. It was not without a certain irony that days before Jimmy's comment, Joe Oppenheimer (BBC Films) said he tends to look at people with a track record in TV or theatre and thinks theatre is the best source for finding new writers. Meanwhile Charlotte Knight from The Rod Hall Agency said Theatre is where you can see writing in its purest form, there’s nothing to hide behind. (Sourced from Dave Melkevik's Serious Screenwriting write up - so any mistakes are down to him!)

First of all, no Charlotte, it's not. The novel is. I think King Lear is the greatest play ever written, but if someone was daft enough to cast me in the lead, the play would not get very good overnights. Playwrights are at the mercy of actors just as much as screenwriters. More so, because you can't re-shoot. But this notion of finding screenwriters from already established novelists and playwrights drives me crazy. I'm not saying everything in the screenwriting garden is rosy. And we'll come back to this in an upcoming blog post. But there are writers and scripts out there of high quality. And if people backed them instead, helped them develop their work, even if they had no credits or track record in something else, that is where you would find your screenwriters of the future. SCREENwriters. The clue is in the name.

A few years ago The Script Factory ran a course specifically designed to encourage and introduce successful novelists into screenwriting. I found the whole concept nauseating. This is the problem with writing. Screenwriters, novelists and playwrights all put words on a page for a living. Surely it's interchangeable? If you can do it in one form why not another? But would you use a property lawyer for a matter of criminal law and vice versa? Why not? They both studied Law. What about a tax accountant for corporate finance issues? They are both accountants. Or an ear, nose and throat doctor for heart surgery? They both studied medicine. I think you get my point.

And it works both ways. All we screenwriters seem to hear from Julian Friedmann these days, be it on Twelvepoint or at SWF is that we should be writing novels. (And by the way that is not meant to disrespect Julian, who I respect, like and has done me more than one favour.) But Julian, I don't want to write novels. I want to write screenplays. And I want the gatekeepers in my industry to be looking for me, not going to the theatre. Read scripts, not what's on the New York Times bestseller list.

Now all this of course comes with a caveat. You can of obviously do what you want. It's a free country and if someone wants to write novels, plays, screenplays, radio scripts, whatever, they are free to do so. And if they are talented in everything then good luck to them. But that is not what I'm talking about. You should have to prove yourself in each medium. Not success in one means you get a leg up in the other. Nick Hornby is one of my favourite novelists and he started his screenwriting career by adapting his own book. Fair play to him. But now he's an Oscar nominated screenwriter. And all credit to him for the fantastic script An Education is Debbie Moggach is another novelist who made a successful transition to screen. And I'm sure there are others and playwrights too. But, if Jimmy McGovern is right, these are the exceptions that prove the rule (whatever that means - I've never quite understood the expression! But the other irony of course is that Jimmy himself has used those with a playwriting track record, but not a screenwriting one, in both The Street and Moving On.)

But my overall point is that it's no good senior industry folk complaining about the lack of new writing talent coming through, if you keep looking for it in the wrong places. I've been hearing how great a place theatre is to find new talent for as long as I've been screenwriting. And I've been hearing the complaint about the lack of new talent for just as long. So you do the math.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Writer in Modern TV

Last night I was at the BFI event - which had a subtitle of Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? Tony Marchant, Jimmy Mcgovern, Donna Franceschild, Gub Neal, Nicola Shindler and Ben Stephenson were the ones charged with deciding. If you don't know who these people are, and want to work in British TV, then you should. So do your own googling! (Also there was David Butcher, but I'm never overly bothered by what critics have to say. And it was chaired by Mark Lawson)

So where did everyone sit on this rather wide range of a question? Unsurprisingly, all pretty much firmly in the middle. I'm probably one of the worst in the blogging community at doing event write ups, because my note taking is appalling. But these were some of the highlights of the discussion. (Disclaimer - like I've said before my short hand is rather hit and miss so the following is probably a lot of paraphrasing. Apologies to any of the participants if I've misquoted them.)

I ended up feeling a bit sorry for Ben Stephenson because the conversation inevitably turned to him to defend what the BBC does and doesn't do. All. The. Time. The poor bloke looked increasingly uncomfortable trying to strike the balance of not talking too much, and having to weigh in every two minutes. When discussing the lack of risk of TV drama - he insisted that he believed risk can very often define great TV. The BBC (somewhat bizarrely) are doing a drama about the creation of Coronation Street, the reason being because at the time, no one wanted it, no one thought it would work and the result of course is that now everyone is standing on the show's shoulders.

Tony Marchant said that you can do difficult topics on TV, but that they have to be packaged in a genre. He felt it was a shame things couldn't be tackled as straight drama. Ben agreed that a Trojan horse of a genre piece can be useful in terms of attracting an audience. But he wouldn't want to foster a false element on a story because it wouldn't work and therefore would be rubbish.

Interesting, although in the last few years all we've been hearing is high concept, high concept, high concept - Nicola Shindler thought the need for this was beginning to disappear. Gub Neal concurred that the idea of low concept - high character, was finally filtering through. And he was unequivocal in that it's coming through from the US shows over the last five years.

Donna Franceschild thought that The Street would show execs and broadcasters that drama about ordinary people (or seemingly ordinary people, but were of course actually anything but) can be a critical and popular success. And it just didn't. She felt it's still about self-censorship and what can we sell, not necessarily what we want to make. Ben acknowledged that from a BBC point of view, yes there's a corporation and a business and no system is ever perfect. But the only way to get the best TV is to get the best writers and allow them to write what they are passionate about.

And that's probably a good place to leave it. There was more of course, but my hand got tired. It was being filmed so I guess look out for it somewhere in the near future. Final word should probably go to Jimmy McGovern, the absolute master and most entertaining member of the panel. This was actually in the programme notes but he appears to have written it himself.

"I started writing seriously when I joined the Scotland Road Writers' Workshop in the seventies. Pedre James gave me my first break at the Liverpool Everyman round about 1980. And then Brookside took me on and I learned everything I know there. I left Brookside in 1989 after the Hillsborough Football Disaster and nobody in television drama wanted to know me - not the BBC and certainly not Channel 4 - until Simon Passmore commissioned me to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot for the BBC Screenplay strand. George Faber, the executive producer of Screenplay, then commissioned me to write a film called Needle and, shortly after that, Gub Neal asked me to write Cracker. And, after that, I was on my way. About 20 year from beginning to breakthrough."

Twenty years! And that's for Jimmy McGovern! Please, no one tell my wife.
Okay so after writing all that out the clever and apparently very fast note taker Michelle not only has a brief write up on her blog, but also a link to a six page transcript! So if you wanna read more - go there.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

British Pride

No I haven't joined a White Supremacist group (not sure they'd have me.) Here's what this is about. I've been a bit quiet of late. Yes I've been busy - but for good or for bad, that never seems to change. And I was a bit unwell, but whatever. No, the main reason for the quiet has been (and this is gonna sound pretentious whatever way I try to spin it) is that I've been thinking. Don't get me wrong - that hasn't involved sitting for hours and staring into space, or even sitting for minutes and staring into space. It's more been when I've been doing other things or can't sleep, which is often.

You see one of the pleasures of working on Dough has been the chance to learn from John Goldschmidt. It's been like my own private masterclass and mentor scheme rolled into one. John is so knowledgeable about our industry, and so generous with that knowledge, that I have learnt more in the last nine months working with him than I did in the previous six years. I'm not necessarily talking about the writing. I'm talking more about how the industry works, how movies get put together - basically all the stuff they don't teach you, no matter how great the writing course.

We want Dough to be a successful British movie. But how is 'success' defined? The British film industry seems to live in a perpetual state of crisis. People often look back to the mid to late nineties, at films such as Four Weddings, Billy Eliot, Bend It Like Beckham, East is East, Full Monty, and Lock Stock (apologies to those left out) as the last golden age. But over the last 18 months or so there have been a number of 'successes,' defined differently, that would suggest that we continue to make movies that are worthy of note, be that through box office, critical, artistic achievement, or all three.

So I've decided that over the next few weeks I will look at some of those films, not just from a screenwriting point of view, but through thinking about things I have picked up over the last few months; the budget, the actors, the financing, the package etc. I haven't actually decided which ones to look at yet, so can't tell you. But stay tuned!

ps. All opinions and comment will be mine and mine alone - and bear no reflection on John or anyone at Viva Films!