Sunday, 5 December 2010

LSF 7: In Conversation with Tony Jordan & Nicola Shindler

If Editing and the Script was the most educationally beneficial session for me personally, then this was probably the most entertaining. It featured Tony Jordan and Nicola Shindler, two people who put writers at the heart of what they do. With Tony it's less surprising, because at heart he himself is still a writer, who just happens to run a company. With Nicola though, it's a philosophy that she readily admits has contributed an enormous amount to the success of her company. A lot of people in the industry pay lip service to the writer being at the centre of the creative vision, far fewer actually do it.

  • Nicola started out as a script editor, a job she never knew existed - you just don't do you if you're not in the industry? - because basically she just wanted to work with writers. And she set up her company for much the same reason.
  • What inspired Tony was the same then as it is now - the audience. If you can imagine you're at Wembley, and something exciting happens, and you get an oooh or a roar from the 80,000 strong crowd - well imagine that when 26 million people are watching Eastenders laughing or crying at the same, that's a massive turn on.

Whilst Tony and Nicola are at the top of their game, both agreed that it never feels like that. All you have is what you are working on at the moment. There are never any guarantees that the next thing will get commissioned or you'll be working next month or next year. Tony said he had his last three ideas turned down.

Q: How does the landscape look to you at the moment?

NS: It's difficult because budgets are getting lower all the time and it's hard to make things for less and less money. And there are less and less hours to make things for. But actually Nicola felt things are better now than they were five years ago because television seems to be opening up again in terms of taste and what people want. There was a period where things were getting quite restricted - so very high concept material was being looked for, or things that copied previous successes. But it feels now that people are more open again to writers coming in and not immediately knowing that this is a twelve part series for this type of audience - but they've just got this script that's great and we'll then find a home for it. And because there's less money and less slots, that's not always a bad thing in terms of making smaller ideas work.

TJ: The way the industry works, and new writers get pissed off about it and rightly so, is everybody is terrified to put their head above the parapet. So if a broadcaster makes one of Tony's scripts and it bombs, their job's still safe because they can turn round and say it was a Tony Jordan script, how was I to know? But if they commission a script from a new writer and it bombs, they took a punt and therefore they pay with their job. That's why they like writers with a track record. But he agreed with Nicola. Three or four years ago briefs were quite restrictive and your pitch had to be a different kind of pitch - that this is this, it will attract this kind of audience, for this slot, this is the what the first episode's about, here are the character arcs, and it will all be defined right from the outset. But now there's more freedom to go into a meeting and say this is the idea, we're not quite sure what it is yet, but run with it from there. For example Tony had a conversation with a broadcaster for what he thought was a series, and came out the meeting with it being a two-parter (although he wasn't sure if that was good business or not!)

NS: You have to put in the work. Like Tony who worked for years on soaps, generating ideas all the time. You have to learn your craft. In any job you work your way up. You can't just be expected to be given a BBC 1 series at 9pm.

TJ: As a writer you spend your life staring at a computer screen. You write a script, send it out get it rejected, put it away, start another one, send it out, get it rejected, and so on. The beauty of long running series is there's an instant reaction to your writing. Your script is on screen in two months. That gag on page 11 that you thought was hilarious, and it dies on its arse, if your stuff isn't made you never know. So Tony did 200 episodes of Eastenders and it was kind of like handing in his homework. Because when he watched it he could see that didn't work, or he thought those scenes would cut together in a certain way and maybe it didn't come across, or whatever. It's feedback in a way that new writers don't get. All they get is rejection letters that don't help.

Both Red Planet and Red do try to give some feedback on scripts they reject, but Nicola noted that sometimes people get very cross... when you're trying to help them. I found this staggering but not too surprising bearing in mind I'm a script reader too. It's just not cool. It means these people will probably never want to work with you, ever. So even if you vehemently disagree with the feedback you get, don't be an arse about it.

Q: What are the new opportunities for new writers at the moment?

NS: There are still the soaps, although it's hard to get into them. The Writers' Academy, Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Coronation Street, although they are quite tough.

TJ: The Writers' Academy has made things tougher. In Tony's day they ran Shadow Schemes and he didn't think this was the case any more. I should point out though that Tony's actually mistaken and I know for sure Eastenders still does run one, although the format may have changed a little from when Tony was there. But the Writers' Academy, as brilliant as it is, only takes 8 writers that are guaranteed episodes of Eastenders, Doctors, Holby and Casualty. So those shows know they are getting at least 8 new writers every year. And if a number of them do well, they'll stay. So it's tough to get on. Even getting on the Academy is very tough and the ones that do can often have written for TV before. So that initial gig is very, very tough to get. It's always been hard but from working with new writers there is the sense that it's harder than ever now - there's just nowhere to go.

Q: So can there ever be too many writers?

NS: Well there can be too many people calling themselves writers, which is a different thing. You know that saying about everyone's got a book in them or everyone's got a story to tell - is absolute bollocks really. You're born a writer. It's a specific hard skill and there's a madness to every writer she's worked with that's specific to writing. There's a way of thinking, of working out stories in your head, a solitude, which is such a specific way of living, that it's not for everyone who wants to get into it. And again it's about putting the work in. You get people who say I've got a great idea but I'm not showing it to you because you might steal it. Or I'll give you a treatment but not a script - but you've got to write and write and write and put your heart and soul into it.

TJ: Red Planet takes unsolicited scripts and talks to new writers, because Tony still remembers what it's like starting out and it's horrible. But he does get people who come to see him with a 3 page treatment or an outline for a major new series - and they want him to invest in it. To commission a script, to go to a broadcaster, to use his contacts to sell it, to do all that. And they've written 3 pages. So Tony will ask for a script and they will turn round and say well I'm not writing for nothing. That doesn't go down too well. A writer writes. It's in the title. What they'll also say is I've talked to a lot of other companies and there's a lot of interest. Please don't do that. What you need to do is write the script, and then rewrite it. Tony doesn't want to see it until it's like your tenth draft, and you've done all you can and you're really proud of it. Then he wants to read it and if he share's that belief, he will use every contact he has and never let it rest and try and get it on screen. That's the way it works.

NS: But you have to invest your time in it first of all. The thing with ideas is that they could go either way. If you're very experienced and Nicola knows your work and your take on things, then she'll get how the idea will evolve. But if she doesn't know you or your work, then you have to give. To give of yourself.

Q: You're two of the few remaining companies that take unsolicited material, at the expense of a great deal of time and money. Why do you do this and what are the benefits to you?

TS: The reality of it is most of the television in this country is written by a little network of old farts. There's about 8 of them, including Tony. (His words, not mine!) And he never understood that until he started producing, when he used to go to broadcasters to put a show together and find the writers, they'd say can we give you a list. And it's the same 8 names on it every time. And these writers always have stuff in development, they're always working on about 8 different things at once. And they do that because they are on the list. And because Tony understands that, he said that the future of his company rests on him finding the new generation of writers. And to find them first. If he can find them, and before anyone else does, and make them feel part of the Red Planet family, and mentor them and help them with the scars and bruises he's picked up himself along the way, then that list that goes round will all be writers that came through Red Planet, and they'll bring him their stuff first. It's kind of a long term plan which makes perfect sense to him. Because the other problem with the 8 old farts is that they are usually hard to get because they are so busy. And if you do get them you don't get their full time because you are one of 8 things they are working on. Whereas if you can get a new writer, who is passionate and dedicated, you get 100%. And it's worth noting that Red Planet are making an 8 part series next year from a writer who came through the Red Planet Prize - and it will be the first thing they've had on TV. So it can happen!

NS: Her first job at the BBC she was led down this staircase. And the BBC as part of the license deal has to read everything that comes in. But no one had done it for a few years and that was her job. She became obsessed with getting rid of that pile. The truth is of those scripts only about 2 went anywhere. But you might find work from a writer with an interesting voice, who can be mentored and worked with etc.

TS: As he said earlier, broadcasters, rightly or wrongly, want a safe pair of hands. And he is perceived as a safe pair of hands. So the beauty of Red Planet Pictures is he can go to a broadcaster with work from a new writer and he can act as the insurance. He can say if it all goes pair shaped he will step in.

Q: How easy is it for new writers to hold onto their original voice?

TS: You have to. It's vital. And it's not about arguing over every single line of your script because then you just become a pain in the arse that nobody wants to work with. Tony's technique was to ask himself a question about every note he got; does it fundamentally change what he was trying to do with the script? If the answer is no, just agree to it. And you'll be a joy to work with for the first 17 pages. But when you come across a note on page 20 that really matters, that changes the heart and soul of the character and story, you can say I just can't do that. If you do that on everything by the time the crucial one comes along you're just being awkward. But if you just do it then you see them go whoa. And they'll say okay then let's leave that. And the reason they do that is because nobody knows anything. So if you pretend you know something it really freaks them out. They'll be like whoa, he knows something!

NS: I should point out at this juncture that Nicola thought Tony may just have damaged so many careers of people sitting in the room! Her basic point was that they are not all that stupid and they only gives notes if they genuinely think it will improve the script. She has found that the best writers she's worked with suck up notes. It's the ones who are neither here nor there that are a bit defensive about notes. Obviously as a reader as well as a writer, who works with other writers giving plenty of notes, and receives them too from my writers group etc, I agree with Nicola. But there's unquestionably bad readers and script editors out there to (just like there are bad writers, directors, producers, plumbers, whatever.) And it these guys you have to be wary of and probably deploy Tony's tricks of the trade. (And to be fair to Tony he did clarify the point that there are good and bad ones, and you just have to be careful.)

There were then some questions from the audience but not much new ground was covered. One I should point out from Janice Day was about whether there is a certain ageism with writers. Whilst Nicola conceded that stories about characters of a certain age could be harder to get away, both she and Tony were adamant that if the script is great, it really doesn't matter who wrote it, let alone how old they are.

Sadly that brings to the end my write ups from the festival. I've now covered all 7 sessions that I managed to get to over the one and a half days I was there. Just imagine what people who were there for all three crammed in. I hope you've enjoyed them and found them useful, and there will probably be one more post on the subject bringing together my thoughts on the festival as a whole and a writers approach to it thinking ahead to next year.

4 comments:

Martyn said...

Fantastic posts, Jez. Thank you for taking the time to put all this down.

Jez Freedman said...

cheers. you're welcome

James said...

I definitely second what Martyn said. Thanks a lot Jez.

Jez Freedman said...

thanks james