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.


Adaddinsane said...

Ooooh, controversial :-)

Like all generalisations it has some basis in truth but doesn't necessarily apply to specific cases. Which means people can argue until the cows come home and nobody gets anywhere.

In fact recent blogs and interviews I've seen seem to be heading towards Screenwriting being most like Poetry. Which is nice, because that's where I started and I even made money at it (oh yes).

Today's verification word is "dificsl": Spelling words while inebriated.

Jez Freedman said...

Well you're in good company. As Will S considered himself a poet and wrote plays to make living. Wait that's the other around isn't??

I basically don't care anyone writing whatever they want. And I like to think those 'cases' proved themselves in whatever form they were writing it. Where I take exception is this notion that the best place to find screenwriters of the future is from a different 'trade' - even if the tools of that trade are superficially similar.

Jamie said...

I couldn't agree more. Well said.

I had a meeting with some BBC Drama executives once where I was told in no uncertain terms that their primary source of new writers was theatre. I didn't argue much (though I should have), but they didn't seem half as bothered about actual spec TV scripts submitted from agents or even their own Writers' Academy, not to mention people championed by the Writersroom. It's all theatre, dahling. Their staff were encouraged to regularly attend the theatre to find new voices, but why not also attend the cinema or *GASP* watch some television from other broadcasters?

This is not to say that a great writer can't be equally skilled in multiple media. Take Jack Thorne, a brilliant writer for theatre, television, radio and film. Amazing talent and hard work. But Jack Thorne is not a great TV writer BECAUSE he's a great theatre writer. He's a great TV writer AND a great theatre writer. There's a difference.

By having this theatre bias, what TV broadcasters are essentially doing is priming a generation to learn the craft of writing for theatre towards the goal of writing for television. It's a non-sequitur and it devalues both forms, encouraging TV to be sub-stage and making theatre a training ground for TV wannabes.

Television ought to focus more on training and developing from within. You shouldn't have to work your butt off to get a play on as a means to the end of getting into TV, nor vice versa. Talented scribes can work in both, of course, but it should be because of their talent in multiple forms and nothing less.

Sorry for the rant, you woke a sleeping dragon!

Jez Freedman said...

no apologies neccessary jamie. we should be passionate about what we want to do and the industry we want to work in. i must say i find the meeting you had very troubling but not surprising.

I was asked over at David Bishop's blog where I would suggest was the optimum place to find new screenwriters?

I'll repeat my answer here: It's about reading scripts. It's there on the page. I read loads and if I find a really good one I'm interested in that writer. (Who for all I know could be a playwright, a novelist or a barman) If that person sends me a second script and it's as good or even better than the first, I'm very interested indeed. I'm not a 'gatekeeper' so it's irrelevent - but if I was I would want to meet that writer.

My worry is if the people who are supposed to be looking for new screenwriters are going to the theatre instead, because it's easier/more interesting/you can play on your blackberry if bored - than wading through the pile of scripts on their desk, we've got a serious problem.

Anonymous said...

I hope to write a longer response later but here's a quick one.

Jez... you are clearly demonstrating your lack of industry experience here. Honestly, really... *shakes head*. I find that SO concerning how you perceive theatre and theatre writers. Quite frankly it smacks of sour grapes and jealousy. Harsh but I have to be honest. Unfortunately it also hints at ignorance.

I don't quite know what theatre you're going to but it aint the kind I'm watching. I've worked in the arts/entertainment/call-it-what-you-will for over 20 years. There is an INDISPUTABLE link between screenwriting/TV writing and theatre.

Yes Jimmy said that but Jimmy started in theatre and he's no doubt talking about BAD theatre. Bad theatre is the pits. The worst. And probably something like 85% of theatre is bad. Nothing like being forced to stay in a room for two hours with no story going on but....

Almost every professional writer I know began in theatre. Why?
Because it's LOW cost - it's easier to get on, less risky for it to fail;
you get to work with actors - see how a performer translates what you've written, you discover what an actor looks for (and what they don't);
you have MORE permission to fail (because of the cost but also because there are a plethora of writing initiatives and playwriting groups attached to professional theatres);
you get to see what an audience responds - god, that's crucial. You can see what makes them laugh, cry, gasp, hold on to each other.... (you don't get that on the page);
You get to rewrite, tweak, test, rewrite constantly.
It's immediate and a shared experience - you LEARN so much by that.

Man... there's so many reasons. It's a much much simpler thing to start in theatre. Theatre's so confronting - there's nowhere to hide. Doing theatre is like ripping your heart out and letting people stamp all over it. It's so much harder than screenwriting, it's so much more personal and exposing. Read any Jonathan Harvey interview to see that he concurs.

Jack Thorne... jack is a scripting god but how did he get that BIG break in to TV and film? HE WROTE A PLAY THAT PEOPLE WATCHED. I saw that play - "When you cure me" - it was f'king gobsmackingly awesome. I sobbed my heart out. I was right up with the action (cos it was at The Bush Theatre which only seats 80) and it was ELECTRIC. That catapulted him into TV and film world. Yes he would have got there anyway but his journey was hugely accelerated. If he hasn't been spotted then I would have said those people WEREN'T doing their jobs.

Those powers-that-be don't just go the theatre cos they're lazy arses who can't be bothered to read scripts - they do that ALL the time. They go to see how those writer's scripts translate with an audience, they want to see new upcoming ACTORS and directors. My favourite actors (who have also appeared in my screen work) are actors I met through theatre. Actors on screen have to have a far lower ability than successful theatre actors. Actors move between the mediums constantly - and guess what many of them hold up as the most exciting job??? That's right theatre - because it's a phenomenal showcase and there's nowhere to hide.

I'm waffling now and this isn't short (apologies) but Jez... the bottom line is this - there is a symbiotic relationship between theatre, screenwriting and TV. Of course there is. They feed each other.

Of course, theatre isn't the only route (it isn't!! honestly) in don't dismiss it. It's not a bad thing!!!

Jamie said...

I don't think that's what Jez was saying by any means. No one's knocking theatre, just the opposite in fact by not reducing it to a recruiting ground for television.

Comparing the worth of each medium isn't the point (as far as I see it), more a certain blinkered sensibility about where to find new talent from some quarters. Theatre can be fantastic in its own right, no argument there, just that it shouldn't necessarily be the premium recruiting tool for television. Is it any better a place to learn one's trade than, say, soaps? Don't writers toiling away on shows that produce two, three (or sometimes more!) hours of drama a week every week all year round have as much going for them as hot playwrites? There are certainly just as many pressures with one crucial difference -- they're writing for the screen and not the stage. THAT, I think, is Jimmy's point. And I have to say I agree with him.

I reckon it's just the "licence to bore" soundbite that has irked a lot of theatre writers and deflected focus away from the underlying issue, which is that TV drama can develop new talent from within (with soaps, short-form singles like MOVING ON) rather than looking outward to the theatre in the hunt for writers who are equally skilled in the craft of different media (which can certainly happen, but is by no means guarenteed).

I should also add, following on from my previous rant, that there are actually lots of good people working in TV development who DO work very hard sifting through spec scripts and nurturing new writers. And it was very heartening to hear comments from Ben Stephenson and John Yorke at the guild event about valuing a brilliant script ahead of anything else, regardless of past credits or theatre work. I really think they've got a great attitude, I'm just not completely convinced that the people below them are fully practicising what they're preaching. If Jimmy McGovern's comments can help ensure that they do, then that can only be a good thing I think.

Jez Freedman said...

I find it interesting that when commenting on blogs, the 'big words' so often come from anonymous mouths. But okay. Let's go in order:

Who am I being jealous and sour graped about exactly when I have not named a single playwright and in fact if you read the blog properly you'll realise it's not actually about playwrights at all - but about the people looking for new screenwriting talent?

You do know what theatre I'm talking about - if once again you'd read the blog properly - because I told you "I don't go to the theatre very much." Because, um, once again, this blog is not about the quality of theatre.

Having said that I find it shocking (and a little laughable) that in defending theatre, you attest that 85% of it is BAD. Oh. Dear. Lord. One assumes therefore that it's these 85% who keep sending Jimmy McGovern their crap scripts. His words not mine.

You then go on to defend what I assume is the remaining 15% of good theatre very eloquently. And I don't disagree with a single word. Because once again nowhere have I said writers have to pick a medium and are banned from writing in another one.

Because yes, once again, this isn't about writers. It's about people looking for new talent. And I'm really glad you know lots of great writers who started in theatre. But I know lots of people who somehow managed to overcome all these handicaps you get from not writing theatre to become great screenwriters. We can both play that game all day - you naming ones that started in theatre, me naming people who have probably barely stepped foot in one. But it would be missing the point.

So finally we come to what this blog was actually about. The powers that be - as you describe them. Of course they are allowed to go to the theatre. And if they see a great play obviously they'd want to know more about the talent behind it. They can go the the theatre every night for all I care. And of course I'm not suggesting every single script reader, producer, exec, sneaks out to the theatre everyday instead of reading the scripts on their desks.

But for Jamie to be in a meeting (a meeting he got for presumably writing a damn good script) and be told their primary source of new writers was theatre, well, it's just a bit rude if nothing else. And of course this is not the only time he or I have heard this. But just to clarify, not once did I call these people lazy arses. I said it was easier and more interesting to go to the theatre. And it is. The industry people who read screenplays are completely and utterly swamped. And this is something I'll come back to at another time.

But the crux, and this is something you and I have both missed thus far, is that the system is clearly not working. Because if it was, it there was a constant - not naming a handful, but a constant - flow of writers from one medium to the next who were brilliant, then literally all those powers that be that you mentioned would not tell you that the vast majority of the stuff they read is rubbish. If theatre is churning out such brilliant screenwriters, or for that matter if film and tv would be generating fantastic playwrights, why are the percentages of poor material and subsequent failure so high?

joshleibovitch said...

Hey, I have a question. As a Screenwriter, I am very new and have a lot of ideas. However, I know thatjust handing my script to someone is not always the best thing to do. What do you think are some good ways to market yourself as writer in Hollywood.

Joshua Leibovitch

Jez Freedman said...

sorry josh, i've got absolutely no idea. i live and work in london and have practically no hollywood contacts. i can only suggest reading the blogs from people over there, books by Alex Epstein, and read the trades, etc. Sorry I can't be more helpful. Good luck.

Lucy V said...

Oh dear... Took me over a week to get here, I'm getting way out of this blogging lark. Missing controversy! OUTRAGEOUS.

Personally, I think this is all about varying POVs so I don't see how anyone can make assertions about what is the "purest" form of writing - whether that's Charlotte Knight, you Jez or me -- but I'm going to, lol and for me, it's going to be the novel every time.

But Theatre can be a great place to find TV writers - look at the evidence. Jonathan Harvey is a FAB TV writer, he's easily my fave on Corrie by a country mile. He has a kind of "stamp" that makes each episode his own.

But whether someone is a great TV writer BECAUSE s/he's a great playwright, or vice versa or a great TV writer AND playwright can't actually be proven. What Jimmy McGovern was saying - to me, anyway - was SOME playwrights are boring and it's not always the best place to find writers for TV. Which we know anyway, because WHEREVER you find writers some of them will be crap and some of them will be good, it's the nature of the beast.

BTW, you may be interested - re: Julian reckoning screenwriters should write novels - at SWF09, he actually said exactly what you say in this post, Jez: we are all writers and these supposedly different skills SHOULD be interchangeable. So if you wanted to write a novel, you could. But you don't want to, so you don't. I agree that "learning" to write "another way"(when you already can one way) is nonsense - however, sometimes writers in one medium do need to know a few basics to get started, if only to feel more confident in their ability to make that switch. As a screenwriter attempting a novel right now, sometimes I think it might be easier to be with others trying the same for the first time - for about 5 seconds. Then I just do what I always do and run head first screaming into the first draft!

Nice post by the way.

Jez Freedman said...

hi lucy, i thought you'd been eerily quiet! much as i like to i can't disagree with you. Of course Jimmy said some (he actually said "a lot" - that's the quote and I believe it's accurate.)

but like I've said time and again this post is not and was never about theatre writers. I used Jimmy's quote as a jumping off point to blog about where people are looking for and finding new screenwriters.

And once again, of course there are writers who write well in all mediums. What I disagree with (and if I didn't make this clear in the original blog then I apologise) is that the BEST place to find new screenwriters is at the theatre. That's the key word. BEST. And you can change that for primary, preferable, or whatever else, that suggests that this is over and above other ways. It's said. I've heard it. And so have many others. I disagree and I stand by that.

I actually got a bit giggly this week because Ceri Meyrick wrote on the Writersroom blog about what the Academy workshop writers had submitted. She said it was "interesting in the light of recent debates on the blogs about where TV development people source their writers from. Can I just say that I source writers from ABSOLUTELY ANYWHERE, and I don't actually care what medium the script is in if it's good."

Is she talking about me?? It's gotta be me right? Well, me or David Bishop, which is probably more likely. But still, not knowing Ceri I got a little bashful at the thought she was aware of my blog. So that was pretty cool. And this is the final word on this topic for now. My next blog might well prove even more contentious.