Wednesday, 24 November 2010

LSF 5: How do I sustain myself

This was the shortest session I went to, still just over an hour though, and a tricky topic to cover. It was chaired by Ceri Meyrick and featured Deva Palmier, Phil O'Shea and Martin Gooch - and the panel decided that sustainability in this industry could mean creatively, financially and psychologically - and they would try to cover a little of each.

Deva decided not to chase the cash. Through the Guiding Lights scheme, Gurinda Chadha mentored her for a year, and she was faced with the cash question very strongly. She had meetings for the directors lab at the BBC and made it down to the last nine. They picked eight, and you guessed it, she was the one to miss out. It made her think about what she wanted to do and when she asked why she was the one to miss out, the answer was that although she had clearly done her homework, they knew she didn't really watch and love Eastenders. And she didn't. It wasn't for her and it saved her time. She could've done with the cash, but she went back to Gurinda and had a long chat with her about what she should be doing and how she should be spending her time. She'd been doing teaching but that was taking up a lot of her time. So her solution was to get an extension on her mortgage, upgraded her flat, and got in a flatmate who pays for everything. She does a little cash job at the ICA lab, answers the phone a bit, but most of the time writes, and it's understood that she is allowed to do that.

I liked Deva a lot. There is a passion and integrity about her. But when I later asked the panel if anyone had ever taken a job for the money, they all said of they had. Even Deva. She admitted that had she got onto the BBC programme to direct Eastenders, she definitely would've done it. And she has made some stuff where her heart wasn't in it. But now, right at this moment in time, she's not doing that. Now she's only doing what she passionately wants to do. It's right for her, now. Martin added that when he directs commercials of course he does not think they are works of art. But when you can get ten grand for the gig, which then pays for you to attend the whole Edinburgh fringe festival, then it's worth it.

Interestingly, Ceri picked up on this point. The biggest problem she comes against is writers who feel they should work on continuing drama but don't really love it or want to. They feel, and are often pushed by their agents, that they need a Doctors credit because then you'll get to do Eastenders and then you'll get to do Holby and then you're off and running. But if you don't love those shows it's a complete waste of time for the writer and Ceri. The power of 'no' is really important and you keep control of your creative career - and it gives you a creative boost if that's not what you want to do they you shouldn't be doing it.

This was, unsurprisingly, immediately pounced on by someone in the audience because as well as meaning this is turning down potentially a career sustaining amount of money, we all know that by and large, it's also the only way in. Ceri insisted it wasn't the only way in - which of course it isn't, not 100% - but it to most new writers it doesn't feel like that. Certainly not the writer in the audience who was invited into the BBC on the strength of her spec, that was tonally similar to an existing show at the time which she loved, and that this person at the BBC mentioned maybe putting her up for - but only after she's done a bit of Doctors, a bit of Eastenders, a bit of Holby etc, etc. Suddenly it would be about six years later before she would get a chance on the show that was the reason she was in the meeting in the first place. No system is perfect and of course giving new writers shots at existing high profile shows is never really going to happen. But I think it would be nice if - certain - development people recognised the enormous frustration this causes. That said, there are exceptions. Writers who have not wanted to write continuing drama and stuck to their guns, writing original stuff and have eventually made the breakthrough. Deva knew of one at the ICA lab and I can think of a few off the top of my head too. Not many though.

The flip side is that working on continuing drama gives you a massive learning curve, and the important flying hours (basically actual productions of your work on TV) to hone your writing. And to get a show of your own or higher profile shows, you need this. So again we have this tension of writers being told both that going for continuing drama if you don't love it is a waste of time, but actually it's the best learning experience you'll ever have. And as Ceri admitted, statistically it is the best way in - it's just not the only way.

Phil gave the sound advice to those starting out, who are passionate about being screenwriters, is that you make a list about what is really essential. So a roof over your head, food to eat, and if you have family they are looked after too. And after that you just keep writing. There is no point sleeping on the street because you've taken six months off to write a script you then haven't sold. You might hear those stories but they are so rare - and I would add, completely insane.

Phil plays safe. Experiences peers and colleagues of Phil's have had is that someone gets interested in your project, say off the back of a treatment. But they haven't got any money to buy it or develop it. So you decided to borrow money from the bank to give you the time to write the script, which you do. But when you take it back to them they say sorry, it's not quite what we expected or we're not interested now, or something similar in the meantime has come out. And now you have a massive overdraft to pay off. So be careful. Plenty of writers have day jobs. It's not the end of the world if you spend forty hours a week working somewhere. You've got the rest of the week to write. What Phil didn't specify - but it's there in the subtext - is that hang on, that just leaves evenings and weekends. Yep. That's the trade off. You can pretty much forget about a social life. And that's hard. I can tell you from experience that it's very hard. I see my wife because I live with her. But since I took a part time job just over a year ago, I rarely see my friends any more. I don't feel good about that and it's tough. So this thing of ours is not something to get into lightly. (Fortunately Jews have Shabbat, one of God's best creations - a day when we're not allowed to work and get to spend time with our family and friends. I seriously recommend it for everyone. Just pick a day, Saturday or Sunday are the obvious ones, when you don't even turn on your laptop. And no sneaky email checks on your phone. I'm sure you'll find it extrememly refreshing.)

If you do break in, that's great. But as Phil noted there are plenty of writers and directors who for whatever reason just had that one opportunity. Just check out IMDB for example. So don't rush to give up your day job. Get a few episodes under you belt first. Writers can go for a year without getting a paid gig - same as directors and actors etc. The difference and perhaps slight advantage we have is that we can and must still be writing our own projects in that time. But of course you also have to make sure your house doesn't get repossessed. Creatively, Phil always has a least ten projects on the go, all at different stages. So a couple of scripts doing the rounds, some treatments, working on new stuff etc. You have to send a lot of stuff out because producers don't come to your door.

Martin has wanted to be a filmmaker since he was five. He later set himself the target of writing a feature film script each year, which he has kept up and is now at thirteen. Some are good, some are bad, but he did accidentally manage to sell one to a guy he met in a pub that flew him out to Hollywood and bought his script. He actually loves the making of films and became a writer almost by accident - because no one was writing the short films he wanted to make. But he found that he loved it, and was amazed that so many writers, even on his MA hated it like it was tearing their soul apart. He thinks you've got to love it and look forward to it. He sets aside whole days when he writes and loves it. Above all, Martin thinks that working in this industry isn't really a job, it's a lifestyle. You wake up and you're thinking about your film. You go to dinner and you're thinking about your film. And so on. I agree with Martin, to an extent. But I think it's also really important to think about other stuff, important stuff, too. I'm not sure workaholicism is ever healthy, regardless of the profession. And just on the other point, there have of course been many tortured soul writers - so don't feel too bad if you're one of them!

Martin loves walking onto a set and just making stuff. He makes everything, commercials, music videos, any old crap, for money, and it's not all great but it's an incredible experience. Sustainability as a writer can mean having another discipline. He knows writers who are camera men, loaders, runners, and extras. Just being on set you learn tons - as he did watching Spielberg as an extra on Band of Brothers. And you are also making contacts, which is incredibly important.

Finally a couple of what not to do's. Firstly from Phil. Writers will see in the trades and on the web that the BBC or this company or so and so is looking for this. And they'll think great I'll write that. But realistically, by the time your script is going to be ready, that ship would've sailed. Don't worry about stuff like that. What he's always done is write what he wants to write and at some point or other you will find somewhere to place it. That may be from someone looking for something or competitions, like Phil did when he won one of the Film Council's 25 words or less pitch things a while ago. I would echo that. Any success I've had in comps has been with scripts that I've written quite some time beforehand. They were just scripts I wanted to write and then bunged into a competition.

And the last word to Martin - which basically breaks down like this: you only get one bite of the cherry. Don't send stuff out too early. It will only get read once and if they don't like it they won't read it again - no matter how brilliant the rewrite has made it. The script is now tarnished and you might have blown a really good opportunity with a great contact by just not being ready yet. And how do you know if it's ready yet? Get feedback. Lots of it. Deva once had a meeting with a key person at Film Four but Gurinda told her to cancel it - because her script simply wasn't ready. That can be hard to do. You might think it's ok, you'll pull it off in the meeting. Better to take it now and get my foot in the door whilst I have the chance. But you'll only end up then getting it slammed in your face if the script is not up to scratch.

Did the session cover how does one sustain themselves? I'm not sure. But as a topic that was probably the hardest one on offer. It was also the last session of the festival, so everyone was knackered. But I think it's a credit to the panel and the audience participation that meant there was still a great deal of interest and useful advice.

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