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.