Monday, 29 December 2008

Freedom of Expression

I think I'll wait until after the holiday season to look at what was on TV - so in the meantime there's something else I want to talk about - Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Speech, and how it specifically relates to screenwriting.

Often cited as one of the key tenants of any democracy, it's also a massive responsibility and continually used to defend offensive material. The most obvious minefields surround race (although fortunately not nearly as frequently nowadays) and religion. Thankfully, during my script reading career I have never encountered anything I have found offensive, and I'm not sure how I would react if I did. That's not to say that I have not read stuff whose message or theology I have not agreed with. It will come as no surprise that as an Orthodox Jew, I don't subscribe to Christian beliefs, particularly about Jesus. But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy the mythology of movies such as The Matrix and Narnia, even though its allegories are pretty clear. So too when I give feedback on a script - for me the important questions are is the story telling working, how is the structure, the characters, the themes etc. It's important to remain objective. But it's difficult too, as movies are often open to interpretation. What is inoffensive to one person is not to another. I think Kevin Smith's Dogma and Monty Python's The Life of Brian are hilarious, but the latter was originally banned and the former received a lot of unfair criticism (especially for a movie that if you watch it, is certainly not anti-religion, it just has a rather unique take on it!) But what about Mel Gibson's The Passion... I have not seen it myself so cannot comment directly. But it caused huge offense within the Jewish Community, despite claims that it had no intention to do so. (Gibson's subsequent anti Semitic drunken rant did not exactly help these protestations.)

Maybe that's an obvious example. Let's take The Golden Compass instead. I haven't seen the movie yet (it's on my to do list) but I've read Philip Pullman's novels, His Dark Materials. Pullman is a renowned atheist and his novels certainly have an anti religious theme. But they work as intended and are often seen as a rebuttal to C.S Lewis and his resurrecting lion - which is fair enough I suppose! Then there's Jerry Springer - The Opera, which many Christians thought blasphemous due to its depictions of Jesus, but which the BBC nevertheless decided to broadcast. What about Theo Van Gogh, murdered for making a film about violence against women in Islamic societies or the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed that caused riots all over the Muslim world? As I say, it's a minefield.

How does this relate to non creative activities? When, for example, convicted Holocaust denier David Irving is invited to speak at Cambridge, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a speech at Columbia University, the defence is often that the opinions of these people are given a platform so they can be shown up for their disgusting content in intellectual debate. I've always thought this pretty stupid to be honest. The platform gives legitimacy to their opinions regardless. You wouldn't waste time to debate whether the sky is in actual fact green and the grass is blue. There would be no value in that because there is no legitimacy in the claims. But that aside, how does that argument extend to a one way broadcast in Channel Four's alternative Christmas message? There was no avenue to question, challenge or debate. Instead we were treated to a carefully orchestrated peace to all mankind message from probably the biggest threat to world stability apart from Osama Bin Laden. It seemed like nothing else than an appalling attempt by Channel 4 to shock (had they run out of funny celebrities for their message?) but only they know what their true intention was.

And here lies the crux. Like a bad tackle in a football match, only the perpetrator knows deep down whether their intention was to go for the ball or injure his opponent. Creative writers are no different. Only we know what our intent is when screenwriting. Are we out to question, debate, shock or offend? How do we approach screenworks that may do all four? Honestly, I have no idea. Banning everything that may be controversial is hardly the answer, but neither should we be naive enough to think that everything under the sun should be allowed. I hate it when the most extremist, disgusting and offensive views that have no intrinsic value, are given weight and a platform, whilst everyone hides behind the banner of free speech. Freedom of Expression and Free Speech are a right, but they are also a privilege. And if they are abused, the offenders should not be appeased.

I'm not suggesting that any readers of this blog are guilty of anything! But as a general point, we must be aware that we choose the subject matter and the themes and the character and every single thing that goes into making our screenplays. I certainly do not think we should all stay away from controversial subjects. That would be like driving with the handbrake on. But we have a responsibility in creating the stories we tell and it's not one that should be treated lightly.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

That's entertainment

It's inevitable at this time of year, people take stock about what they have done and achieved over the past twelve months. I've done a bit of that but I'm not going to bore you guys with it! So too we look forward and think about what we want to do in the next twelve. But I'm not gonna bore you with that either, save to say that I want to secure an agent, make a short film or two and continue to write the scripts I want to write. And it's that last bit that I want to focus on, not for me personally, but what do we writers as a whole want to write in the coming year?

This will apply mostly to speculative film scripts, which as we all know stand a very small chance of getting picked up, let alone actually made. But leaving that aside for now, the slush pile is still out there, it grows stronger by the day and it's not going anywhere any time soon! I've listened to and read about many excellent people explaining the problems of the British film industry - and I dare say they all know a great deal more than I do and talk a lot of sense. Why certain films get made over others, why most fail at the box office and why our industry appears to continually live on the brink of collapse? But ultimately, although many grit their teeth when admitting it, all films start with one thing... the script. Films get made based on the scripts screenwriters write (loosely in some circumstances! And not forgetting commissions which don't start as the writer's idea - but even those have to still be written).

So to some degree at the very least, the films that are made are dependent on the scripts we write. And to some extent at the very least, we can choose what they will be. Let's think back now to what John Woodward and Chris Collins from the Film Council said back in September.

Films should be entertaining. You need to remember that. There’s a bit of a British thing that sees a lot of history scripts and biopics. That’s fine. We welcome them. There’s nothing better than telling a story about something familiar with a new take on it... But there is also a need for contemporary stories that are about something... It’s worth noting that it’s easier to
finance genre movies than straight drama. But the statistics and submissions seem much more weighted towards drama. This is dangerous if you want to create a commercial, profitable industry.

I read a lot of scripts, from companies and individuals, so can form my own idea of how this slush pile is looking. And I think we as writers can still do more to create more entertaining and commercially viable scripts. Commercial seems to be a dirty word here that of course it's not in Hollywood. But funnily enough, no one seems to mind when Hollywood creates a fantastic blockbuster, a comedy or action movie or whatever, that everyone enjoys, critics included. The 'commercial' slur is only brought out when a crap film is made and seems like a complete sell out with no value, commercial or otherwise, at all. This is not what I am talking about. For our purposes, let's assume that we are talking about good scripts, because that's what we all set out to write. But for some reason, in the UK, we often choose to invest our creative energies in gritty, social realism dramas, mostly about abuse of some kind, that tend to end tragically. I can't for the life of me think why. Maybe it's seen as a more noble form of writing. Maybe it's a cultural thing, our writing heritage often linked to the stage, whereas America's is from the screen. Maybe it's because when award season comes along, the films recognised are much more likely to be dramatic 'message' movies.

I want to be clear that there is nothing 'wrong' with these movies. There is tremendous value in these films and their excellence deserves to be recognised too. But I believe that there is an equal value in films whose only goal is to entertain. What's so wrong with that? Entertaining people, making them laugh, or just making them happy, is a noble pursuit in itself. Think of the films you reach for when you've had a crap day, or you're depressed or just in a bad mood. When I was in hospital a few years ago two of my best friends turned up with a Playstation 2 and a copy of Love Actually. During the many weeks of recovery I would watch Shakespeare In Love, or South Park Movie, or The Office, or pretty much anything that made me laugh. As much as I admire Traffic or The Insider etc, I certainly didn't feel like watching that type of movie.

Without a shadow of a doubt, there is room for both types. But if you have a couple of ideas, one an entertaining genre film and the other a gritty drama, don't think the 'right' thing to do would be to write the message movie. I don't even think it will necessarily show off your writing to any greater degree. (Comedy is often thought to be the hardest thing to do, but make someone laugh their arse off whilst reading your comedy feature and you've got a good chance of getting a meeting.) Although to be honest if you are writing a television feature it may be worth ignoring this entire post. I find it interesting that the precious TV one off slots are pretty much exclusively reserved for 'issue led' dramas. This is both a shame and shameful. Whatever happened to just good story telling with excellent characters? There is merit in that too - a screenplay can just be about that (I say 'just' as if that's not hard enough to write!).

It's just a thought, mine and no-one else's. At the end of the day everyone has to write what they want to and are passionate about. But I think it's worth bearing in mind when starting a fresh project in 2009. Turn on the news and it's all doom and gloom. Read a newspaper and it's global economic implosion. Should the entertainment industry not do what it says on the tin? Should our creative output add to this worldwide feeling or should we take the opportunity to make people happy and laugh? Is there any more worthwhile creative goal than that?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Holiday Greetings

I would like to wish all my Jewish readers a (belated) happy chanuka, all my Christian readers a merry christmas, and all my agnostic or atheist or other readers a happy extra days off work - wohoo!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 17 (spoilers)

Well everyone seems to be taking a holiday! Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and Entourage have both taken mid season breaks, whilst other shows are coming to a close just before the Christmas TV schedule.

So just a brief column this week to take a look at Apparitions. This show highlighted why I don't usually review stuff after just one episode. I don't like it when newspaper critics do it and I don't like it when audiences do it either really. So I shouldn't have done it myself. And somehow I got lumped in the 'against' category when was doing its roundup! All good fun but I wasn't really. All I said was, well... read for yourself here.

As it panned out I thought the series was excellent. One of my concerns was the matter of fact way it went about its fantastical elements. But this was gradually blown out of the water by increasingly skeptical story of the day characters and some wry, tongue in cheek dialogue from Martin Shaw's Father Jacob. The finale went all out with Jacob himself needing to be exorcised, making a deal with Satan (I didn't quite understand all this to be perfectly honest!) and a thwarted assassination attempt of a future Pope in Rome. Lots of blood and violence too! It didn't hold back. And credit where it's due, the BBC have broadcast a very bold series. (All the more surprising really when I remember John Chapman talking about a violent moment in The Street that needed Jane Tranter's specific approval before it made the cut.)

I hope we see Apparitions returning. Recently, both Bonekickers on BBC1 and Harley Street on ITV1 were both cancelled. Although I was critical of both, I was a little bit sad by the decision, for different reasons. I thought Bonekickers was truly original and had enormous potential. Another season may have seen it really take off. I gather the creators are in talks to take it across to America, much like they did with Life On Mars, which has been doing very well there too. So it will be interesting to see how this one does. Harley Street was the brainchild of new writer Martson Bloom. Does this mean that the next series from a new writer will be harder to get away? Could it have been given longer to find its feet? I guess the economic climate doesn't help, and risk taking is kept to a minimum, but TV history is littered with shows that struggle in their first season, were on the verge of the axe, only to go on and become excellent an series.

But anyway, to move on, the festive season is the season of one offs - so I'm sure we'll be looking at some of them in this spot soon. Enjoy!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

To hop or not

Last night I workshopped with my writers group. Four of us attended and it was as productive as ever. I was pleased with the reception my new short film script got, but I was equally pleased to see the evolution of two other outstanding projects in the group, and the beginnings of another one being written with the mentoring of a production company.

The evening evolved into a discussion of how far we had all come since the three years of completing our MA. It's not my place to talk for the others, but for me personally, it's fair to say this has been my most successful year. Shortlisted for the Red Planet Prize and winning the Ustinov were amazing experiences. Part of the process is becoming a better writer, year on year, script on script. That is normal, or should be at least. But in trying to analyse what I had done differently this year from the previous two, one key thing came up. This year there was no project hopping. I wrote two scripts whilst promoting the one I had written on my MA (and seemingly spent two years polishing!)

I should say that I am referring exclusively here to writing on spec. Working in the industry, juggling commissions etc, project hopping is I dare say not only necessary, but it will be your flexibility and adaptability skills that sees you get more work. But when you are developing your own projects, hopping from one to the other may be seriously detrimental to creating a portfolio of polished scripts.

This is not the case for everyone. Some writers can move around quite freely from one script to another. Or from a script to a new outline to something else. But there was a general feeling amongst the group last night that once you start developing a project, once you have committed to it, you should stick at it and see it through. Starting something new is exciting and fresh. Plugging away on something for six months can be grindingly tough. It's enormously tempting to get to a point with a script, get fed up with it and think oh I've got this much better idea, I'll leave this one and do a new outline etc.

I'm not sure this is the best philosophy. I acknowledge everyone is different. Just look again at all the writers on Screenwipe and the different methods they have. But I feel that comes with experience too, and when you are still relatively new, and building a slate of scripts, it's important to focus and concentrate on something to develop it and rewrite it to its fullest potential.

I'm not big on new year's resolutions, but if I was going to plump for something it would be to continue working in this way (is continuing something a new year resolution??) to believe and commit to the ideas I choose to develop, and in the words of Russell Davies, when working on something, "finish it. It’s not a script until it’s finished. You’re not a writer unless it’s done."

Monday, 15 December 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 16 (spoilers)

Where have all the new shows gone? Maybe this is the lull before the Christmas special storm. But never mind. Gives me a chance to check back in with a couple of shows already featured in this column. They both finished this week and I have to say they are two of my favourites this year - Spooks and Merlin.

If this is why we pay out TV licence - fair do. But a certain amount of bar setting means that more of the same would also be nice!

First to Spooks. It is slick story telling personified. Everything is done so fast and so smoothly that even when occasional plot holes are thrown up, they are more often than not missed by the viewer (another trait this show has in common with 24.) Which is how it should be really. But Spooks has always managed a couple of other things really well too. In this thriller plot heavy genre, the characters can often seem functional, there to serve the action and nothing much else. But Spooks has always been clever enough to make us care about the characters. We get to know them through what they do, not through needless diversion into banal personal lives. This season Lucas ably stepped into the Adam vacated void but it was Ros who was really the star. She is surely the hardest female ever on British TV, but we also got to see her vulnerable and emotionally wounded, when she slept with the man who wished to bring Britain's economy to its knees, to gain his trust. (A side point, these episodes must be filmed some way in advance but that episode was particular eerie with the current global melt down.) Then there is the boss, Harry Pearce. He didn't hesitate in shooting Adam's murderer in cold blood early in the series, was later tortured when suspected of being a Russian spy, only then to discover it was in actual fact his oldest friend in Section D. Finally, he gets kidnapped in the season finale!

I caused controversy over at for a stand out moment that unfortunately didn't quite work for me. (Although seemingly only from Lucy - bless her!) It was from James Moran's penultimate episode. And no, it wasn't about the SAS smashing through the window in large numbers to arrest Harry (as seems to have been an issue over on his blog.) This made perfect sense to me. Harry was suspected of working for the FSB. Firstly, he may not have been alone. Secondly, the guy has been a spy for goodness knows how long. It's safe to assume he's armed and dangerous. Would you and a mate turn up by yourselves to arrest a sixty something James Bond or Jack Bauer? I'd err on the side of caution. No, the moment that didn't do it for me was when Connie, the real mole, slits Ben's throat. I won't go into detail of the scene but what it hinged on was character motivation. Ben could've left the scene, had the opportunity and all the motivation in the world to do so, but didn't. Why? Cos he needed to be killed off in a shocking twist. The discussion on became one of narrative logic versus believability. I think I've said before that I will believe anything. My wife often watches TV with me picking out all sorts of silliness in whatever show is on, and I usually defend it, because I have already suspended disbelief and am too engrossed to care. Believability is in the eye of the beholder. Anything is believable if you make it make sense. But when it betrays character motivation, and therefore narrative logic, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and what follows feels contrived. I don't know James, (I hope he doesn't kill me if we do meet) and I admire his work (the guy literally writes for all my favourite shows, Dr Who, Torchwood, Primeval, in fact, why not Merlin - have a word with your agent James!) but this scene didn't work for me. It did however highlight the other thing that Spooks has never shirked away from - killing off it's main characters AND keeping that a secret beforehand. (No small matter when you consider the tactics the soaps employ in leaking explosive storylines.)

It's a lesson that could be learnt in Merlin. My main gripe with Heroes since season one has been the reluctance to kill off main characters. In a show about good and evil, heroes and villains, with threats to the very existence of civilisation, people need to die to establish the danger and stakes. The season finale of Merlin climaxed with the near death of three characters... but all survived. Fair enough that Merlin and Arthur were going to make it. We'll be needing them for season two. And true also that Merlin destroyed Nimueh, which was pretty cool. But she was a baddie and had only appeared in three episodes. The fact is, either Merlin's mother or Gaius, could and should have been sacrificed, probably Gaius as he is a main player (nothing against the character himself or Richard Wilson who did a very good job.) But as Merlin's mentor, it would've been a sacrifice and wound for Merlin. Season two would then see him on his own, without that guidance. But at the same time Merlin could rise to court physician and play an even more significant role. It remains to be seen how characters evolve for the next series, but what's more, what is there left for Gaius to do? His farewell letter to Merlin was a fitting and emotionally satisfying end. The way it did eventually end - everybody won and nothing was lost. Maybe this is feel good and necessary for the time slot, (however Dr Who and Robin Hood don't seem to shirk this) but it came at the expense of the stakes and the drama.

Having said all that, I thought the first season was excellent and just so enjoyable. Along with the other two shows in this Saturday evening slot, it has become a solid addition to BBC output.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

International Emmys (Part Four - A sequel too far?)

Just when you thought it was all over, just when you thought I couldn't possibly do another post on it, just when you began to fear I'd attempt to beat the SAW movies in number, behold --

Brendan and Margaret doing a fantastic job as my protagonists

Emmy Chairman Fred Cohen says some nice things about me... most of which are true

Giving em pearls

Me and my plaque

Me and the missus owning the red carpet

Meeting the press

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 15

So by now you all should've watched Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe: Writers Special, (if you haven't, hurry, it won't stay on iplayer forever.) I figure I won't often get the chance to be in the company of six such great writers, so in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I have picked out some key comments, and then added my own take. It's my blog and I'll do what I want. But my extra reason behind this is that sometimes it's useful to hear how someone a few, ahem, rungs below the ladder than these guys does it. (There is some paraphrasing below, my shorthand is not THAT good.)


This is THE classic question, and I've spoken about it before on this blog. My main point is that I think the question how did you get into writing, to writers of a certain age group, is now defunct. You can’t now do, what Tony Jordan did, and put a script in an envelop with BBC London on it, get it read and be offered a gig on Eastenders. Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that even now, comedy writers frequently start off by writing sketches.


TONY JORDAN: Get in the office about 9am. 14 cups of tea. Play solitaire. Internet. Write 11am. Stop at 11:30am. Cup of tea. Solitaire. Stop for lunch at 1pm. Watch loose women and the news. Cup of tea, solitaire. Maybe some hearts. Come 4pm I realise shit, I’ve haven’t done a thing. But I can write quickly between 4-6pm and if I get done what I need to do that day that’s fine. If not I can be there till midnight.
GRAHAM LINEHAM: I can go for days without writing a word. But at some point I start panicking and think I better write something. So I look for things I find funny and see if I can use that. So part of the procrastinating is feeding the subconscious.
PAUL ABBOTT: It used to be 10 hours a day non stop with some breaks. Now I get 3 days in 10 to write.
JESSE ARMSTRONG & SAM BAIN: 10am-6pm. We storyline together and go away and write the dialogue separately. Starting without a storyline can really hurt you. But that is just our experience. Some people can just go and write. We hate them.
JEZ FREEDMAN: My biggest smile watching the show came after Tony's day description. It would be fair to say that I fit into this mold, the only difference being is that I most certainly don't start at 9am. But I simply can't seem to write before late afternoon at the earliest. This used to bug me, but I've grown to accept it. It's biological! To do with body clocks and all that. Once you recognise what type you are it can be liberating. It's not an excuse not to write though. If you can't really work until late afternoon/evening or even better late at night, you better have an understanding partner and quite possibly two laptops (hence my recent search for a netbook.) This was easier when I was single but you have to write, and if you are better at it later in the day, so be it. But probably best not to mess about the rest of the time (if you're Tony Jordan you can play computer games, the rest of us need to do some sort of work.) So this is when I do my emailing, read other blogs, read scripts, and watch tv. (I rarely watch anything live. Everything is recorded for early afternoons!)


TJ: I like the free fall of just starting with a blank sheet of paper. Before I start I’ll have a rough shape of the piece in my head. I’ll know the opening so I’ll write that. And I’ll know sort of where it’s going. With a show like Hustle I just wrote and got to page 55 and now I have 10 pages to explain in flashback how they get out of it. And I swear to you at that stage I have no idea.
RUSSEL T DAVIES: I have an idea in my head, although not in any real order and you slalom your way through it.
GL: I have a structure as a way of getting me through the first draft. But the first draft for me is just toilet paper. It’s just a bunch of notes.
PA: when I wrote State Of Play I didn’t outline the political story. I know it was defined as such but I just wrote about these people, one of whom happen to be a politician. So I got 10 pages in and this one is dead and that one is dead and thought well I better explain this cos I’m getting paid to! But I like not knowing what’s going to happen when I turn the corner. I’ve had to use index cards recently because of time constraints but I like taking a leap and not knowing where I’m going to land. It’s a really respectable way to write… I have painted myself into a corner, but I love proving that I can get out of it when the odds are against me.
JF: I'm a bit of a structuralist and like to know where I am going, at least to get the first draft done. I feel much happier if I have a plan. That plan may not be anymore than a 1-4 page outline or even a page of bullet points. But there has to be something so when I get stuck and start hyperventilating, I can look at the plan and say ok this come next, keep writing, keep writing. It might be crap and probably will be and need rewriting, but doesn't everything?


RTD: For me it’s instinct. I just sit down and start writing them. And that’s what I’m good at. I know people sit down and draw up lists of where characters went to school, what nickers they wear, if they smoke. And I don’t do any of that. I can imagine characters and I’m good at imagining and writing their voices as they would sound.
TJ: I think you have to recognise something of yourself. There has to be that empathy. I bring different aspects of people I know or have met. I mix and match. It’s like Mr. Potatohead. What you add to that is then the research. In Hustle with Micky Briggs, I had a friend who was effortlessly cool.
GL: Sometimes you get lucky. With Father Ted we created a show with a bunch of characters that really worked. They were separate characters but when we brought them together they felt like a family. And that’s why I think it hit the ground running. I sometimes like cliches because they are funny. In Ted we had an alcoholic who drinks toilet duck. You go so cliched it becomes funny.
PA: Most characters should be 3 people in one. 3 people you know. You pick bits from different people.
JF: I think I find myself somewhere between Russell T Davies and Tony Jordan here. I think I also have an instinct for characters and when I was first starting out I did make all those lists, because I thought that was just how it is done so I better get on with it. And it really pissed me off and felt false. Gradually I've knocked that on the head, but I'll still do a little paragraph about the character, although it will focus more on their attitude to things and temperament, then any background. And if I can draw on characteristics of people I know, or even greater, myself, then so much the better. Because you will inevitably get to a point in the script and think what now. And it's bloody useful if you have a character who is similar to someone you know or yourself. Because you can then turn round and say what would I/they do now. What would I/they be feeling and thinking. There is of course nothing wrong with the other way. As with all things, you find what works for you.

TJ: I have a scene heading. Put the characters in there. And if I’ve done the work on the characters and I know them as people, they’ll start talking to each other and I write down what they say. But the trick to great dialogue is to write your lines, and then start taking out words and see if it still makes sense. You take away as many words as possible and you might only be left with one. But this is snappy dialogue and this is actually how people speak. You can learn craft, story structure, narrative drive, but if you can’t write dialogue you’re kind of screwed.
SB: I act out the characters on the page. It's like being an actor in your own head.
RTD: Bad dialogue is like 95% of TV. Most TV dialogue is functional and talks about the plot. It ping pongs and you are absolutely in trouble when people are actually talking to each other explaining the plot. Jimmy McGovern says I would rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds. People hardly ever listen to each other. They are just waiting to say their next line. Good dialogue is like two monologues that connect sometimes.
JF: One of the best tips I've ever had is the one Tony gave above, which I first heard from him when last years Red Planet finalists met up back in April. I now have a special rewrite, just for this. I literally go through the script line by line of dialogue to make sure I have done this. And boy does it make a difference. Interestingly, Davies went on to give the example of a drama starting with the line "happy wedding day, sis," and how crap that was. Or someone saying "you would say that, you're my brother." His point was they were expositional and no one talks like this. But it made me think of that Tony Jordan - Zoe & Kat Slater classic "You're not my mother. Yes I am!" To be fair Davies did admit that sometimes you needed to get information across (The Doctor is very useful for just blurting out a load of exposition.) And I think what he was saying of course is that there are good and bad ways to do it. An argument is often a good way. Things do get blurted out when people are arguing. Just imagine if the "happy wedding day, sis" would've been followed by the bride replying "shut up" or "get lost" or worse! That's not what you'd expect. So immediately it makes it more interesting.

PA: I think the first draft is always a drudge and I wish there were elves who could just lay it down. But they can't and you just have to do it.
GL: The thing about writing is that the fist draft is so hard, that once you finish it you don’t want to change anything. Because it was so hard you don’t want to do it ever again. But the second draft will become easier, and the third still. And by the fourth you’ll be having so much fun. Because all the dead wood will be gone and you’ll be adding new jokes and structural work…
JA & SB: We do a lot of rewriting. 22 drafts? But by the end that number can be a bit boastful. Changing the odd line here and there is not really a new draft.
TJ: You have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I’ll do ten or twelve drafts of Hustle. Matthew Graham wrote thirty drafts of the Life On Mars pilot. Because you’re honing it all the time, making it smarter, crisper, sharper.
JF: I don't have much to add here. Yes the 1st draft is the hardest, yes you have to rewrite as much as possible. But you also have to recognise when something is 'finished' or good enough to submit. Nothing is ever perfect but tinker too long and you won't write anything else ever again. This comes with experience I think. Finally, I think it's worth noting that Paul Abbott did not say there was no such thing as elves, only that they couldn't write the first draft for you.

JA: Sometimes you sit down and there’s a scene you’re excited to write but I feel like it should be more fun than it actually is.
SB: The more fun the writing process is, probably less good the show, and the more hard work the writing process is, the funnier it will be.
RTD: It’s like it has to be punishing in some way. But I love it at the same time. I love it when it’s done, when it’s finished and made. But I hate writing at the same time.
TJ: I love having written, I hate f**king writing. I hate the process but love having done it.
JF: Whilst it's certainly true that there is no feeling quite like the one of having finished something, it's scary that everyone seems to hate actually writing! I'm not sure I feel like this. Yes I procrastinate with the best of them, but once I get going, and once I am into a rhythm, I think I enjoy it. I've reluctantly come to accept that I am never going to play for Arsenal (because of my age of course, not anything else) so cannot think of anything else I'd rather be doing.


GL: If you want to write something have an idea about what you want to write about and don’t write it for ages. Writing is kind of like having a poo, it’s really hard if you don’t want to go. But there’s a time when you have to go. And that’s what it should be like. When you have built up all the ideas you’ll be so excited to get going. That’s why people falter, they start writing too soon and don’t know where to go. They don’t know what the characters well enough, they don’t know the tone, the world.
RTD: Finish it. It’s not a script until it’s finished. You’re not a writer unless it’s done. You’re not a writer with it all in your head. It’s not a script with only two pages. You’re not a writer until you have a script or a novel or whatever. So get on with it.

Well as hard as it would be to top Graham's writing is poo analogy, I'm going to leave the last word to the Eastend barrow boy impostor, Mr. Jordan.
TJ: A writer writes. That's it. That's what you do. Clue is in the title - Writer. F**king write.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe: Writers Special

This episode of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe has been doing the rounds on the blogs all week but in case you missed it anywhere else, click here to watch the show.

I'll be blogging about it tomorrow in a special, time to get back to work post NY trip, edition of Things we noticed watching tv this week.

But just briefly, it's absolutely excellent. Featuring Tony Jordan, Russell T Davies, Paul Abbot, Grahame Linehan, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, it's a fifty minute masterclass on screenwriting.

I watched it thinking I've paid a lot of money over the years on courses, books and lectures to find all this stuff out - and now everyone can hear it for free! So make sure you catch it and come back soon to read my analysis.

Monday, 1 December 2008

International Emmy's (Part Three)

And so we come to the final installment in my epic travelogue. As you read in the previous post, it was a busy Sunday. But I was kindly invited to attend a lunch the following day to honour Dick Wolf. Mr. Wolf, supremo of Wolf Films, is the creator of the massive Law and Order franchise, along with all its related spin offs, as well as producing a host of other well known US shows. It would therefore seem pretty rude not to turn up so I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled the few minutes from my hotel to the Hilton.

As it was quite a posh do, I didn’t take my notebook. But there were a couple of very interesting points. When asked about the longevity of his shows and how they were kept fresh, Wolf didn’t hesitate is replying it was the writing, first, foremost and always. It was all I could do to stop myself from doing a one man standing ovation. He went on to state that on his shows, writers write, directors direct and producers produce. You won’t find any actors or producers with directing or writing credits. Same with writers with directing or producing credits. That might not seem so strange here, but in the US it’s quite unusual. But that’s how he runs his shows and everyone is told this from the outset. If they don’t like it, don’t join up. But possibly the most interesting feature was Dick’s response to the inevitable credit crunch question. A little worryingly, especially when he’d just spoken about the importance of the writing, he felt one change that was coming was the disbanding of the famed US writing rooms. Shows simply wouldn’t be able to afford to employ a large writing staff. What would be more likely was a couple of senior writers/showrunners, and then episodes being commissioned on a freelance basis – so pretty much what we do over here. I was a little saddened, as this writers room structure is often credited as the reason why the US produces more and better shows than we do here.

But overall the lunch was another nice event to attend, and I met more industry people, many of whom would return to the Hilton that evening for the Emmy Gala. I had a couple of hours rest before it was time to don my dinner suit and walk the red carpet with my wife – a surreal and thoroughly ego boosting experience. I even did a quick interview, although goodness knows where if anywhere it was on! Inside it was pretty clear that I had the cheapest tux in the place. David Aukin kindly introduced me to David Sutchet, a very nice chap indeed, who expounded on his theories surrounding Robert Maxell's death. I congratulate him later on for winning the best actor award for his performance as the media mogul, but really wanted to ask Liz Murdoch, who was hosting the Emmy's, and whose dad was Maxell's bitter rival, thought about it all! It turned out to be a cracking night for the Brits, who swept the board in all categories they were nominated, except, ironically, Britz, as I mentioned previously. Special mention to Lucy Cohu who won for her sterling performance in Forgiven, and was also very nice when we had a little chap. Watch out for her in the next season of Torchwood. And of course as I've already demonstrated in pictorial form, the Life on Mars contingent for letting me wave around their Emmy. It made me want to go back and get my own like never before.

A quick word on networking. Those who know me and indeed readers of this blog, will know I watch a fair bit of TV. But two moments over the trip clarified for me how important that is. The first was when I met Ashley Pharoah. I like his writing and have done for a long time. I certainly wasn't hesitant in telling him so. But I think he was a little surprised that instead of talking about Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, or even Bonekickers, I mentioned what first brought him to my attention (!) was Paradise Heights, a show he created and wrote over six years ago (around the time that I started writing properly.) It only lasted one season (although there was a slightly different follow up) but I thought it was excellent. Ashley admitted he'd poured himself into the show and seemed pleased that I even remembered it, let alone admired it! And I genuinely do, by the way, it wasn't empty flattery. The same thing happened at the Gala. I knew by now that Ashley was there, and I'd already knew producer Cameron Roach a little, but when Cameron introduced me to SJ Clarkson, a little bell went off in my head. She directed a lot of Life on Mars episodes but I also remembered, because I make a point of noting these things, that she co-created Mistresses, surely one of the best shows of 2008. And so I told her and we had a little chat, and that was that. I don't know when I'll run into SJ again but hopefully I am now on her radar a little bit more. And again, it's not empty flattery. But the point I am making is that watch TV, make a mental note of who's involved with the shows, especially the ones you really like, because you never know when you might bump into them.

When the evening ended it was time to head back to my hotel, and the trip was almost over. We flew home the next day and a week on, it all seems a little like a blur. But I have my plaque, my cheque, a load of business cards (by the way great tip from Danny Stack recently about scribbling on the back of cards to remind you who everyone is - cos I would never have remembered!) and all the motivation I am ever going to need to be the best writer I can possibly be. I also have a load of photos, but Mr. Toby 'lightmattersstudio' Tenenbaum buggered off on holiday and hasn't sent them to me yet! When I do I'll put some on the blog and the rest on my facebook page! A final thank you to Fred Cohen, Tracy Oliver and everyone else on the Emmy organisational committee who were so welcoming, so friendly, and did so much for me.

But I think it's only right to leave the last word as a quote, I think, from Dick Wolf. "Television has a strange way of ensuring quality prevails."

Let's prove him right.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

International Emmy's (Part Two)

So after a short break, it was time for The Storyteller script reading. I was told to just sit amongst the audience, incognito, so the actors didn't know who I was until afterwards. The reason for this was that my presence, as writer, may make them nervous as to whether they are doing it 'right.' I was actually quite chuffed with the thought that I had the capacity to intimidate anyone at all, but this was short lived as the official photographer chose this moment to get some snaps of me, thereby blowing my cover.

Anyway, eight actors split the parts between them and did a marvellous job performing what I had written on the page. It was a weird experience, not one I've had before. A kind of mixture of detached interest, as if this had nothing to do with me, and nervous tension that it was crap all along and I was about to be found out. I was relieved that Brendan Burke, who was playing the protagonist, did not attempt a Scottish accent. He was kind enough to say that the dialogue worked really well with the Scottish twang he could hear in his head, but confessed in the Q & A that when the director sent him the script, he was a bit concerned about butchering it. Admittedly, it was sometimes strange hearing the dialect I had written, complete with British slang and swearing, come out with an American accent, but otherwise, the actor nailed the part and even looked uncannily like what I imagined the character would look like. In fact I thought all the performances delivered in getting over what I was trying to do and I was very happy with it.

But more than that, you write and rewrite and rewrite. And then you win something like this and you think yeah, I nailed that. However once you have a reading, and you get interpretations from the director and actors, you realise things can always be better! It was fascinating to see that what I perceived as some of the funniest lines, be greeted by complete silence, and others getting very generous laughter. But overall, what pleased me most was the fact that a few people commented that the protagonist, whilst being unpleasant and then likable again in equal measure, was always interesting and he never lost the audience empathy. It reinforced my conviction that 'unlikeable' characters make excellent protagonists, something I have been banging on about a fair bit on this blog!

After the reading I was introduced (officially) and presented with my plaque and cheque (wohooo) by Fred Cohen, Chairman of the International Academy of Television Arts, (and an incredibly nice chap). Fred and I then had a chat in front of the audience before questions were thrown open to the floor. Fred pointed out last years winner, Felicity Carpenter, was here again and even though we hadn't met yet, it was nice to know someone who had been through all this before was in the audience! A couple of questions came up that are worth mentioning here. Firstly, I was asked what improvements I would make to the script now that I had heard the reading? And I replied none. I made it clear that this did not stem from any arrogance on my part. If and when a producer/company is interested, and feels development is needed, I will more than happily oblige. But on spec, I felt that if it was good enough to win this award, it was time to move on and write something else. You can fall into the trap of rewriting and perfecting and messing about with the same script over and over, and that does no one any good. Writers need a portfolio, we need to demonstrate range and consistency, not just have one script to shop about. So instead of rewriting The Storyteller, I will take what I learnt and apply it to the next one.

Another question concerned the role of writers in the UK compared with the US. Interestingly, the questioner felt that we were valued more over here than writers are in the US. I suggested that we felt the opposite! Writers rooms are virtually non existent here and it's rare to have writer/producers or showrunners. So life may always seem greener on the other side but two key points are that the situation is beginning to change here, with shows being created and then produced/show runned by writers, and an interesting point by Dick Wolf that things may be about to dramatically change in the US due to the economic crisis. (But more of that in the next post.)

After about a couple of hours in total, the event was over. It was enormous fun and a fantastic experience. There was a brief break before the HBO hosted cocktail party, where I met a whole bunch of industry people from the US, UK and the rest of the world. My friend Toby, who was with me, suggested I hold my plaque during the party and work the room with it under my arm. At first I laughed, feeling I would look like a bit of a plumb. But I realised that he was 100% right and just what a good idea this was. Self promotion is not only useful, it's expected. You're in a packed room full of people who can make a difference to your career. You want to stand out. It's no time for being shy and coy. It worked too. It got me attention and made people want to come over and speak to me, rather than me having to approach everyone cold. There is no place for arrogance or ego, but networking is a massive part of this business and you do what you can, politely, to make the most of it.

At the end of a long Sunday, it was time to find a kosher restaurant for dinner with friends, not hard to do in NYC! Monday would include a lunch to honour Dick Wolf and of course the gala Emmy awards dinner. Come back soon to find out what happened!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

International Emmy's (Part One)

This will probably be a trilogy of posts cos there's a lot to get through. But bear with me, some of it may even be interesting!

So my trip began a week ago, when we flew out from Heathrow to Newark. The plane ride wasn't bad, but due to my back, other pain issues, and general dislike of flying, was still not the most enjoyable 7 hours.

The Festival actually began with a party on Friday night followed by seminars throughout Saturday. But because I don't work on Shabbat (Sabbath) my wife and I took some time out to visit family Upstate.

So I didn't join the action until Sunday, and the first thing I went to was the TV Movie/Mini Series seminar. Basically what happens is that the four nominees have clips shown of their work, and then there is a panel with a Q & A. David Aukin and Hal Vogel were there from Daybreak Pictures with the excellent Britz. But from what I saw of the clips, it was a very strong category with films from Germany, Argentina and China. (The award eventually went to
Television por la identidad from Argentina and Britz was unlucky to be the only British nomination not to collect the Emmy in their category.)

What was interesting was that apart from Britz, the other three movies were all period pieces, from the Eighties, Seventies and Twenties. The 'P' word is usually a TV taboo so when I quizzed the nominees on this, the general feeling was that they had a sense of duty to tell these stories. The passion was clear to see and an overriding theme was what can we learn from past successes and failures to inform our world now? Aukin added that whenever they do a period piece, it should always say something about the world today, and not just be about a nice classical book (a slight dig at costume drama but I think it was more that this was not his thing, rather than that was fundamentally wrong).

Another point worthy of note was that, only getting to see the first 15 minutes of each film, it was fascinating to see what was packed into that time frame and how it was structured. Although each film was very different, all four had very clear protagonists and inciting incidents. It's worth thinking about, next time structure is being bemoaned as formulaic and stifling creativity, that stories are told this way (for the vast majority of the time) for a very good reason. Get that right and you have a good foothold. Mess around with it and you could be on a slippery slope. And don't think for one minute that within that structure, you can't be very creative, because obviously you can and these four films were being rightly honoured for being the best this year.

As for Britz, Aukin revealed that he and writer/director Peter Kominsky were sitting in a coffee shop 400 yards away from the 7/7 attacks in London. What shocked them in particular was the fact that the Muslim terrorists were British born and bred. The war on terror was clearly no solution, and was only exacerbating the world climate. At the same time Channel 4, who were extremely supportive, wanted them to follow up the David Kelly story, The Government Inspector, and so Britz was a direct response to all of this.

Aukin and Kominsky are both children of immigrants so had an innate understanding of the pull between assimilating and holding onto your own culture and history. But of course neither were interested in doing a political essay, and were conscious of the fact that Britz was first and foremost a thriller, and had to work on those terms. Nevertheless the script was thoroughly researched and Aukin stated that everything that happened in the film had happened somewhere to someone.
Finally, when asked why a TV movie and not a cinema release, the reply was simple. It was four hours of screentime. They couldn't do it in less without serious compromises for the story, which of course they didn't want to make. TV gives you a bigger canvas, with a greater scope and a larger audience. Plus the nature of the story and the dual protagonist also lent itself well to a two-parter. Cutting between the two stories simply wouldn't have worked or had the same impact. The reward was that the second part got a bigger audience than the first (which is pretty unprecedented,) the main reason being the strong word of mouth and resonance with the British Asian audience.

What came across really clearly in the seminar was that you had four very different countries, complete with different histories, cultures and traditions, who in turn produced four very different movies. But whilst doing that, the focus very much remained on what was universal, in both characters and themes (not to mention the modes of storytelling like I said above.)

When thinking about our own work, it's so important to keep this in mind. Even if we are telling a very personal or localised story, it has to resonate with an audience. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, my script The Storyteller, was the most personal thing I've written to date. But what pleased me the most is that other people 'got it' and it wasn't so interior as to alienate an audience.

What did intrigue me though was how American actors were going to interpret it. Come back soon to find out how the public reading went..!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


I'm back, knackered and exhilarated all at the same time. Thoughts need to be gathered and batteries recharged before I blog about my trip, but in the meantime a couple of people from over the pond have asked me to mention their sites. So have a look at: and

I haven't had time to check them out in any detail yet but they look pretty cool. See what you think.

As a taste of things to come - I can't resist posting this pic...

This is NOT my award. (I did get a smashing plaque though with a mini Emmy statue on it.) But the one above belongs to the lovely people from Life On Mars. A special thank you to Cameron Roach, S.J. Clarkson and Ashley Pharoah, who indulged me enough to let me wave it around like a moron (and omg it's heavy!)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Play is suspended

Right, I'm off to New York, for International Emmy Festivities.

Try and cope in my absence, I know it will be hard.

All being well I will post about my experiences upon my return.

Goodbye for now, and happy writing!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Euroscript Networking Event - 4th December

Euroscript's FREE Christmas Stocking - Thursday 4th December7.00 for 7.30pm

Top Screenwriting TechniquesAll Wrapped Up And Tied With A Ribbon And FREE
In the spirit of Father Christmas, our December Networking Event is packed full of presents to help you plan, write, evaluate and market your scripts.

We've bribed our top tutors to come and give you a sneak preview of their best ideas, systems and methods. This isn't a panel event or discussion but real, solid expertise.

We'll teach you a selection of our top techniques for inspiring creativity, writing great scenes, effective script editing, selling your scripts and much more.

These come straight from our 2009 programme of events, soon to be launched, and on this one night you can get them in advance - free and with no obligation. Of course, if you do decide to book a course or two then you can twist our arm too!

And there really is absolutely no obligation, except to join us, have fun and maybe even buy a drink and socialise with the other writers, directors and producers who come to our popular Euroscript Networking Evenings.

Thursday 4th December 2008 7.00 for 7.30pm
- and then turn up in good time to make sure you get in. This is going to be a popular way to start unwrapping your first presents for Christmas.

WHERE:Central London location. When you book you will be informed of the address.
We often run free networking events for writers, directors, producers and development executives. If you would like to be kept up to date, click here to be put on our mailing list go to
Enquiries Phone + 44 (0)7958 244 656

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 13 (spoilers)

Three very different shows to look at this week, and more importantly, all are British made. It came as quite a surprise to me that, for all the TV I watch, before this last week only Spooks was British. This is perhaps a bigger debate for another time, but in the meantime, I was thrilled at the return of Outnumbered (BBC1)

Created by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, I thought the first series was the funniest sitcom I'd seen in a long time. Broadcast bizarrely late on consecutive nights, it gave itself no time for word of mouth buzz and I was equally flabbergasted that some critics seem to think it was rubbish. Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis play the parents, and they do their roles well, but I don't get what's not to like with the sublime children, especially the youngest two who are simply hilarious. Certain umbrage seemed to be taken that a fair degree of the show is improvised, thus enabling more natural performances from the kids. Now I know this is probably not what a screenwriting blog wants to hear, but it worked, and worked very well. And let's be honest, it hasn't done Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm any harm. The second season will be shown on Saturday evenings, and certainly deserves this far better slot. It kicked off with that horror of horrors, a family wedding, and two standout brilliant scenes when the little bridesmaid filled the bride with complete trepidation, and the little boy harangued the Priest as to whether Jesus was as good a superhero as the likes of Superman. I mean seriously, what's not to like?? I know I am supposed to be more analytical in this column, but it's just hilarious and watch it if you haven't already.

A far different tone was set in Apparitions (BBC1). Created by Joe Ahearne, this six part supernatural thriller is an astonishing commission for prime time BBC. It must say something about the clout of both the writer and star Martin Shaw, that they could get a show about an Exorcist on at all! With anti religious feeling seeming to be the fashion (I have already read this: Unfortunately, there are some who will regard this programme as justification for believing religious, supernatural tosh,) this is quite a turn up. But come on people, this is fictional drama, not Songs of Praise. And this from a religious Jew! It didn't matter that I didn't believe 95% of the theology. All that mattered to me was does the screen narrative work? And the answer was a bit mixed. It was spooky, to a degree, which was the point, and not half as gory as some press build up would've had everyone believe. Father Jacob, the protagonist, was played with gusto and it was nice to see a character so committed to their faith. The tone was serious and played entirely straight. Maybe you could argue it took itself too seriously, but this would be completely missing the point. No one would accuse Spooks or The Fixer, for taking itself too seriously. Because these are crime dramas/thrillers set in worlds we can all immediately buy into (despite both shows have some far fetched elements). So the challenge to Apparitions was to set up this world, with all its fantastical elements, and make us believe it. It didn't quite manage it... yet. The trouble was that everything was done so matter of factly. And it was that that I didn't buy. It was too realistic! If it had set up this exorcist wing of the catholic church as more of a secret, little known practice, that may have worked better in establishing the world where demons are everywhere. But this was only the first episode and it was refreshing not to have another cops n docs show (a reason stated by Shaw for wanting to do it). So I will certainly be tuning in to see where they take the series.

Finally there was Walter's War (BBC4). Written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, this drama was inspired by the life of Walter Tull who, after years in an orphanage, went on to become a professional footballer and then the first black commissioned officer to lead British troops during WW1. It was impossible to escape the significance of watching a drama about a black man becoming an officer in the British army, when the official regulations stated he was not allowed to be, just a few days after Barack Obama was elected to the White House. In terms of the drama, I was surprised it was only sixty minutes long. This seemed a rich world and subject matter that could've been explored more. But even so, the combination of subtle writing and a fantastically understated lead performance by O T Fagbenle, made sure it eschewed big speeches in favour of letting actions speak louder than words. (Never a bad idea when it comes to screen drama!) One memorable moment came when Tull rescued a fellow soldier who had dropped a hand grenade during training, only to be castigated by him, and then failed by the supervisor because if the officer dies, who will lead the troops. It encapsulated the no win situation Tull was in. And the drama, rather than make it a mission on behalf of all black men, was cleverer than that, and focused on Tull's quiet determination to do what he wanted to do, no matter what stood in his way. The fact that the thing he wanted to do was to become an officer and lead men over the top of the Somme, said all it needed to say.

So what to take away from these three, very different British shows. Well, I've mentioned this before I'm sure, but the world you create is so important. I know Walter's War is historical drama, but the world is accurately recreated so that the context makes perfect sense. So too in Outnumbered, the performances are completely in step, and improvised or not, everything that comes out of the mouths of the actors is so character specific, that it's a useful lesson anyway in character creation. Apparitions on the other hand is not quite there yet. I admire and applaud it for playing its drama straight. But these are not everyday occurrences. And pretending they are gives it a false note that is unintended and self defeating. I hope it's not too late to fix it.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Much more than a Script Competition (apparently, it sounds just like a script comp to me)

The reliable Robin Kelly got there first but in case you haven't seen it yet...

ÉCU is currently calling for short and feature length script submissions for its 2009

We at ÉCU understand that for many talented writers - especially those without representation - it can be difficult getting scripts read by the people that matter: directors, producers and heads of development. We also passionately believe in the powerful experience, for both a writer and an audience, of witnessing scripts being read live by professional actors.

That’s why we have decided to launch ÉCU’s 2009 Much More than a Script Competition.
We will read scripts in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian before making an official selection of the very best to be showcased live at ÉCU 2009. The festival will be held at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Francois Mitterrand in Paris, France.

The selected scripts will have a short dramatic sequence read live by professional actors in front of an audience of industry professionals, indie filmmakers and the general public.

Two overall winners will receive an additional prize and the coveted title of Best Feature Script / Best Short Script 2009.

So if you want your script to stand out to industry professionals at the European Independent Film Festival, then send it in before the deadline of JANUARY 1ST 2009 or the late deadline of FEBRUARY 1ST 2009.

Click here to enter.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Performed readings

Tonight I was supposed to go to the Rocliffe New Writing Forum at Bafta, with David Parfitt chairing. I've never been before so was really looking forward to it, but alas a combination of my volatile back and feeling a bit under the weather, meant I didn't in the end. (By the way if any of you onthebloggers - yes that's what I've decided to call you, Lucy can have her Bang2Writers so I'm having my onthebloggers - did go tonight get in touch and guest blog about it!)

As I understand it, what happens is that three 7-8 minute script extracts are performed by professional actors. Following each performance the writer receives feedback from industry folk and answers questions from the audience.

Here's a confession, I've never heard my work performed out loud before. Shock horror! But to be fair I'm probably in the vast majority of writers. But I don't think you'll find anyone who says it doesn't help. And all being well this will change soon as The Storyteller is due for a reading in NY a week on Sunday. I'm really excited about the trip as a whole, but particularly intrigued about the reading. It's already been stressed to me that it will be the actors interpretation of my script, whatever that means. (I must resist the urge to shout just read what I bloody wrote!) It should be all the more interesting as my script was set in South London, with a hard drinking, hard talking Glaswegian for a protagonist. I presume all the actors involved will be Americans, so probably no "Och aye the noo" (I swear I never wrote that once)

But I have seen scripts given a performed reading before. During the first term on my MA, we all wrote short film scripts. Three of the best were read to the group. My friend, Matt Sinclair, wrote a cracking short called The Lamppost. The last line was an exclamation of anguish from the protagonist. None of us in the workshop group thought it worked, tonally, character wise, nothing. And then the actor who was reading that part did it so well, so absolutely got it, that by the time we met next in our group everyone had changed their mind.

It was a real eye opener as to what an actor can bring to a part, how that can make or break a character and a line, and how you just wouldn't know this unless you hear it performed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Write a Skins mini episode

The plan
Are you an aspiring young writer looking for your first break? Would you like to be able to call yourself a Skins writer? Well you’ve come to the right place because we’re giving someone that amazing opportunity! We’re giving one talented person the opportunity to lead writing a Skins mini episode featuring some of the Skins 3 cast, which will be screened online (and possibly on TV) in summer 2009. Don’t worry if you’re a little overwhelmed , we will be there to support you every step of the way. If you’ve got what it takes, we’ll make sure you’re given all of the support you need, like we do with all of our writers.

The winner will join the Skins Writer’s room, which is the place where the Skins writers thrash out their ideas and the creative process takes place for each Skins episode that makes it onto the screen. This will give you an opportunity to fine tune your skills, get some vital experience and contribute to Skins in a unique way. You will also visit the Skins set for one day of filming of series 3 and will be on set to witness the mini episode being filmed.

What do I need to do?
Write a short comedy-drama which:
Is a maximum 1600 words
Doesn’t use any existing Skins characters in the scripts.
Contains a minimum of 3 new characters
Uses a maximum of 5 locations Send your finished script with your name, address and age to

What will you be looking for?
A good sense of structure and comedy, appreciation of story, believable dialogue, complete characters and passionate storytelling.
The judging process Company Pictures and a member of the E4 team will pick the person they feel most meets the selection criteria (above), and they will be crowned the winner. Entries must reach us by 6pm on December 9th 2008

Important stuff
A set visit will take place one day between 15th and 19th December 2008, which you will be required to attend. On the 12th January, you will be required to attend the first meeting with the rest of your team. Another three meetings will be arranged subsequently, and will take place between January 13th and 16th March 2008. Your time attending the writer’s room will begin mid January. We expect you to attend a maximum of 10 sessions. There’s a chance that once these 10 sessions have been attended, you may be invited back to the writer’s room as a contributor, this decision is at the discretion of Company Pictures. The filming of the Skins mini episode will take place between 16th March and 20th March 2009 in Bristol. You will be required to attend the four day shoot where you get to witness the mini episode being filmed. For all meetings, set visits and shoots, accommodation and travel (if necessary) will be paid. You will also be paid a day rate for your time (amount to be confirmed with the winner).

Terms and conditions
At the time of entry you must be aged between 18 and 23 years and a UK resident. Proof of age and identity will be required. Your script must not exceed 1600 words.
Your script must be your own work and not use any existing Skins characters. Your script must contain a minimum of 3 new characters and a maximum of 5 locations.
The winner will be required to enter into a standard form of engagement agreement with Company Pictures (Skins production company).
By entering this competition you confirm that you have no contractual obligations or agreements with any agent or other third party.
You will be paid a fee for your visits to the writer’s room and time spent attending meetings and shoots. Travel and accommodation (if necessary) will be provided.
The winner will have 72 hours to respond to notification before another winner is selected.
You can enter as many times as you like, as long as each entry revolves around a new story and characters.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 12 (spoilers)

Half way through the current season of Spooks, it's high time I commented on what is surely one of the best examples of what a British tv series can do. We inevitably compare our stuff with the best the US has to offer and we often come up short. But this is one show that stands up to comparisons. Both in its ambition and scale, it's fantastic. There was a shift in format last season, changing from a new main story each week, with very little continuing threads, to one long story about the threat Iran posed and internal British factions with a very different agenda to the establishment. And I thought it suffered because of it. It seemed to struggle to keep up the momentum each week. This season is keeping that format and it's fairing much better. It got off to a cracking start with the unexpected killing off of Adam Carter. Spooks does this better than anyone. Instead of leaking it to the press to drive up ratings, they kept it a secret and it came as a big shock. I had no idea Rupert Penry-Jones was leaving the show and whilst I'm sure it was his decision, Spooks continued its reputation of not being afraid to kill off characters. I've criticised Heroes in previous weeks for baulking the trend of the show by now seemingly not willing to kill off anyone. It decreases the threat and drama. But back to Spooks and Richard Armitage has come in well as Lucas North and Hermione Norris' Ros Myers has to be the hardest woman on tv, and would probably be able to give Jack Bauer a good tussle. My one criticism of the show at the moment is the repetitive anti-American theme. Politics aside, it just seems like it's pandering to BBC sensibilities and from a dramatic point of view, if it's always the fault of the Americans. it gets a bit predictable. But it's a great show and I can, er, maybe exclusively reveal there will definitely be another series cos an old MA buddy of mine is writing an episode for it!

In a change of tact for this column, I want to look at Imagine... A Love Story (BBC4 repeated from BBC1 a couple of weeks ago.) It looked at what made a good love story and our obsession with them. What became apparent is that, with the exception of Jane Austen, the great love stories all end badly. This is even true on the big screen, and even in Hollywood, so often seen as the home of the happy ending. Robert Mckee noted that whilst happy endings are a must in the Romantic Comedy, "we mustn't mistake Romantic Comedy for a Love Story. Romantic Comedy is not really about love. It's about the courtship. Love Stories are more often than not tragic. Casablanca is the choice between Romance and Love. Romance is conditional on the presence of the person you love. Love is the feeling we carry in our heart whether the person is there or not, alive or dead. Love is unconditional."

At the end of the day, what fascinates us is the destructive power of love. The active question of all love stories is - is it worth giving up everything for love?

But a real question for us to wrestle with now is, how do we write love stories today? The traditional obstacles that fuel them, like adultery, family feuds, race, class, don't seem to bother us anymore. It's worth noting that most of the successful screen love stories, like Titanic, are all set in the past. Today, are love stories dead? We are more likely to get Romantic Comedies like Sex and the City, which is about the politics of love and about finding the right partner from a choice of many.

So that's the challenge for writers today.

From my point of view, I love Love Stories, be they Romantic Comedies or, what Phil Parker defines as Romantic Dramas (which always end with the lovers apart.) One of my first features was a love story set against the backdrop of rising fascism is post war London. The lovers ended apart. Like Casablanca (a big influence on my script) they put duty ahead of their own wishes. And the feedback I got, even from those who really liked the script, was that the ending was downbeat! As receptive as I am to feedback, this was one case of sticking to my guns because I knew that if they ended together, it would kill the power of the story. I'm working on another Love Story now, this time set in present day, and I think I've found a nice divide, separating the protagonists without the old obstacles. But interestingly, although in an early outline the lovers ended apart, since then I have rewritten it so they end together. Whether this will cost me the chance of writing a 'great love story' or not, I don't know. But it doesn't feel right anymore that they end apart. Maybe it's because when I began thinking of this story I was single, and now I am married! Maybe it's because I want to avoid the predictable "the ending is too downbeat" feedback I'd get? But whatever the reason, sometimes you have to go with your gut and only time will tell whether the story will work or not.

Thursday, 6 November 2008


I did my Screenwriting Masters at London College of Communication (formerly Printing.) Twice a year, the current intake run an event called Masterclub, for all students, past and present. Industry guests are invited to a round table event, where advice is dispatched and contacts are made. Just off the top of my head, over the last few years personnel who've attended have come from Working Title, Qwery Films, Red Productions, Red Planet, Tiger Aspect, Greenlit, Leftbank, BBC, Channel 4, ITV, World Productions, Company Pictures, Capitol Films and Kudos. That's just off the top of my head. Top quality people give up their time to come down and meet writers - most of whom are new writers.

I don't know if other Masters or degree programmes do this, not just have guest lecturers, but actually specific networking events. If not, they should. It's absolutely invaluable. Almost every industry contact I have at the moment, most of whom have read my work, has been made through my LCC connection. And whereas you might think you have an entry point into one company, people move around in this industry quite a lot. Someone at Touchpaper one minute can be at Tiger Aspect the next. As long as you keep in touch with them, they can take you with them. Maybe you didn't have anything that company wanted, but the next one might. When they read your work, you also get free feedback, from people who have more experience than you and have read a lot of scripts. It all adds up.

But the best thing by far is that it's so important not to write in a vacuum. That's for the hobbyists. Which is fine. Good luck to them. But professional writers need an outlet for their work. Otherwise what's the point - it's all an act in futility.

The flip is this. Why do the industry guests bother coming to events like Masterclub? They are all very busy and have many constraints on their time. Quite a few years ago I did a couple of work experience stints at two very well known, very well established Production Companies. And they are busy. To frenetic proportions. Especially the people writers most want to meet and talk to. The ones who work in development. Because they always have a never ending script pile to read, there is always more work to do, there are always projects already in development. And the only answer I can see (apart from the free booze and nibbles) is that they want to meet new writers. They are always on the lookout for new talent. This sometimes get lost in the scheme of things. Sometimes, it can be seen as a battle, to get your stuff read and to get it out there. But whilst it's certainly hard, and you have to be tough enough to be persistent, it's not a case of us versus them. No one is deliberately standing in your way, hindering your career and devaluing your talent.

So remember. Networking is important. Only very marginally less important than the actual writing. Because after all the work has to go somewhere. Make contacts, and do everything you can to keep in touch with them. Always, always be courteous, polite and thank people for giving their time when they don't have to. Be grateful for feedback and take the comments on board. Don't fight it. Some people won't like your work or won't 'get' it. Cest la vie. Someone told me recently that whilst my structure and development was excellent, my stories weren't that original and therefore predictable! You have to resist the temptation to reply "what the .... have you ever written!?" Because not everyone will agree! (Hopefully) There's a certain vulnerability to making a contact and then sending them your work. You are exposing something that means a lot to you. But that's what we have to do. That's behaving like a professional. And it's the only way to becoming a professional.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 11 (spoilers)

As mentioned last week, I thought I'd give the tv a break and catch up on some movies. First up was Run Fatboy Run, essentially billed as a rom com about a guy who has to win back the pregnant girl he ditched on their wedding day, by running a marathon. I like Simon Pegg. I like what he does and I think he is the only British actor at the moment that can open a comedy movie (with the exception of Sacha Baron Cohen but he does his own thing with this own characters). So I knew Fatboy would be daft and sweet, and there were certainly funny moments. But the two main things that were of interest to me focused on the central character and the genre. Continuing our look at unflattering, morally dubious characters, all the films I watched this week have these. Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, a slacker who runs from commitment and responsibility and as I said, abandoned his pregnant fiancee on their wedding day. Not a common set up for a rom com lead. A key factor was certainly casting Pegg, who can bring a warmth and humanity to obnoxious characters, something he did before this with Shaun of the Dead and afterwards with How To Lose Friends and Alienate People. But another major part of keeping this guy likable, and of course us on side with him, was his relationship with his son. Dennis is not the best dad, but he tries, and his son loves him. The movie is as much about their relationship as it is about whether he can win back Thandie Newton. And this is the key problem. Whether a marketing tool or otherwise, this movie is not really a rom com. The active question is really will he finish the race, will he prove himself to be something other than a quitter. This is articulated clearly when Dennis says, towards the end, he's doing it for himself and no one else. Neither does Dennis win back Newton at the end, although he does ask her out and she accepts, hinting at a brighter future, but that's all. The important information seems to be that he is fitter, a better person and a better dad. There's nothing wrong with this. But the movie suffers from trying to shoehorn a rom com plot into it. This is more often a British phenomena (Dodgeball, Old School, Happy Gilmore etc have minimal romantic subplots but are comfortable enough within their premise and comedy to let the main story speak for itself). But it's surprising here because, although set in London with a predominantly British cast, the film is written and directed by Americans (Michael Ian Black and David Schwimmer).

Eastern Promises was a whole different kettle of fish. Written by Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg, this is a dark, brutal film about Russian gangsters in London. It features an outstanding performance from Viggo Mortensen (although I may not be able to watch him as Aragon in Lord of the Rings in quite the same light anymore!). I have a fondness for gangster movies and I liked this one... right up until the twist. Mortensen's character is fascinating. He's the driver and enforcer for the son of the head of the family. He is clearly rising through the ranks. We see him 'clean' a body for disposal and it's made clear he is capable of extreme violence. But at the same time, there are hints of a kinder morality about him. We can tell his interest in Naomi Watts' Anna is genuine. He not only helps her out, but also a prostitute they have working for them. There is something different about this guy and that makes him interesting to watch. You find yourself on his side, backing him against nastier enemies. So when it looks like he may have killed Anna's uncle, as he was ordered to do, you are unsure of yourself again. I find that fascinating. BUT. The reveal is then that he's actually an undercover cop. It was a massive let down because now we know exactly why he behaves the way he does (he of course didn't kill the uncle after all, only arranged for him to leave town). He behaves the way he does because he has to. He doesn't question his morality or his actions. He's a cop, he enforces the law, that's the end that justifies his means. But this isn't Donnie Brasco. We don't get to explore what makes a man surrender his own life to become someone else, someone repugnant, for the sake of the greater good. So it left it all rather empty and that was a big shame.

Finally there was Michael Clayton. Obviously this film got a fantastic response when released so I was expecting big things (which is always dangerous!). The fact is, it's well written and directed, both by Tony Gilroy. It had the feeling of one of those seventies movies, slow, careful, deliberate, with great performances from Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson. Clayton is a lawyer, but really he's a fixer. Or a janitor as he calls himself. Sorting out the problems of major clients. He becomes involved in a case where it's clear that the corporate clients are guilty as sin and are responsible for giving cancer to the many plaintiffs. But this is not Erin Brokovitch. Clayton is no hero fighting for the underdog. His chief responsibility is to ensure the cover up, solve his own gambling debts and keep doing his job. But when his friend is killed things change. But, the problem, as I saw it, is as follows. The film is called Michael Clayton. He is played by George Clooney. It's very obviously focused on him. But for all that, we don't get much of a character arc. We don't see much of Clayton before the story begins, only a glimpse of his ruthlessness etc. So by the end, when he of course does the right thing and shops his clients to the police, it's all rather predictable and unsatisfying. For example, there's a cracking Act Two choice. Clayton is $75,000 in debt and will have to deal with some very bad people if he can't pay it. He also now has the evidence to destroy the clients. But, his boss gives him the money to pay off his debt. So, quite literally, in one hand he has the cheque, and in the other the evidence. What to do? This was brilliant writing and encapsulated the character's problem. His choice now would define the movie. Take the cheque and it's virtually hush money to save himself. Rat out the client and he'll lose more than his job. But the very next scene sees him handing the cheque over to clear his debt - and then he goes on to deal with clients! He gets his cake and eats it. There are no consequences to his moral choice. It was a staggering choice by the writer and for me, played a major part in making the movie feel unsatisfying overall.

So what to take away from all this. Well, as we mentioned with Run Fat Boy Run, genre rules are very important and knowing what genre you are working in can prevent a whole lot of painful rewriting later on, as well as a muddled movie. But the key thing apparent to me this week, was that characters, and character choices, will define a story and a plot. I know what you're thinking - that's blindingly obvious! But it can sometimes get lost amongst three act structures and weaving intricate plots etc. Shoehorning is not going to work or go unnoticed. The choices the characters make had better make sense within the context of the story, and had better lead to the most satisfying of conclusions, because if not, the whole thing is going to feel very luke warm.