Monday, 26 December 2011

LSF 5: In Conversation with Ashley Pharoah

The penultimate session I attended at LSWF was an in depth conversation with Ashley Pharoah, one of the most experienced writers working in British television today. (As ever these are my paraphrased notes.)

How did you get started?

Ashley always wanted to be a writer. He knew nothing about scriptwriting. He listened to Radio 4 plays and wrote a 30 minute play, sent it off to BBC and about 6 months later they got in touch and said they’d like it. He got paid £300 and that changed his life. This was something he enjoyed doing so much and you could get paid to do it. Ashley went to the NFTS, didn’t eat for about 5 years, and then properly started on Eastenders.

How did you get on Eastenders?

A director he was at NFTS was working on the show and said the scripts were awful. But the weird thing was whilst at college the thought of writing for TV, an even more so a soap, was appalling to Ashley. So even though he was on the dole and completely skint, a part of him still thought was it worth the shame? (which he blushes about now.) But he sent in a spec film script which was a good writing sample, and it was good enough to get him an episode, and he ended up being there for 3 years. Film school turned out to be the theory, whereas working on Eastenders was the practical. Hearing actors say your lines – and psychologically, seeing your name on telly, he felt like a real writer.

When you’re creating characters and series bibles etc, what sort of things do you think about?

Ashley doesn’t really do series bibles. They are really hard to write and really hard to read. He’d much rather write – and read for that matter – a script. All the bibles he’s been involved with have been retrospective ones put together by script editors for the purposes of series continuity. He might have done more work on characters etc when starting out, but nowadays he’s likes to discover the characters when writing the screenplay. Does it matter where they went to school or what they had for breakfast? What matters is action. Character is action.

Can you talk us through how the commissioning process might go?

Different ways. You've got to get that first meeting with a commissioner. Ashley met so many people on Eastenders like other writers, producers, script editors, that went onto work on other shows. John Yorke was his junior script editor on Eastenders. Often young writers will show Ashley ideas for a series and it’s not really. It might make a good movie, or three parter, or serial, but it’s not a series. There has to be something in the kernel of the idea that will generate conflict for a long time, so if a commissioner turns round and says okay what might happen in series 7 episode 3, you have some idea of where you can take the series. Something in the one page pitch that tells you there is potential for endless conflict. For example Wild At Heart. A show about an English family in Africa. Company Pictures asked him to come up with a Sunday 8pm ITV show. And he’d done so many he said no. But this was going to be set in Africa. So it was a traditional dysfunctional family, but the environment was new and could exert so much pressure on the characters. And if the original family left, you could bring in a new family into that environment. And they’re just doing series 7 now.

What can writers do to improve their chances of getting a series green lit?

It’s complicated and the worst thing you can do is to try and double guess what they want – which we’ve all done. You obviously need to get your script in front of someone who can green light a series. Ashley's in the fortunate position now of getting those meetings – although even then it doesn’t mean getting the series. With his new show, Eternal Law, about angels being lawyers on earth and learning about humanity etc, it was a bit high concept and he didn’t want to give people the chance to turn it down just from the pitch. So he wrote the pilot on spec and took that to ITV because he wanted to retain control of the content. That’s what got him the meeting and although the pilot script changed a bit, the kernel of the idea was in place.

How specific should you be about talking about things like channels and time slots?

If it’s your own stuff, probably not as much, but certainly have an awareness of the different styles of broadcasters and, really crucially, the difference between 8pm and 9pm slots.

You've done quite a lot of supernatural and high concept stuff, when are we going to see a return to more naturalistic stuff like Our Friends in the North?

Ashley's actually done a fair bit of both. Ever since Cathy Come Home people think television is about social message and political change. And of course it can be. But it's always bothered him that television is seen as social realist and cinema more poetic. It began to change with Dennis Potter. With Life on Mars they tried to have a high concept show that had emotional truth, and hopefully said something, even ironically, about the political situation. Things like Our Friends in the North dominated for around 50 years. So a few high concept shows doesn't hurt.

How does the collaboration with Matthew work?

They're very different people and very different writers. When they were in America pitching to people, Matthew described them that if they were doing an episode of ER, Matthew would do the helicopter crashing on the roof and Ashley would do the old man dying. Matthew is more of a movie writer in that sense and Ashley is more interested in the emotional core. In series television it works really well to bring different strengths to a project. Ashley doesn't think, coming from the more socialist realist background, that he could have done shows like Mars and Ashes without Matthew. But he likes to think they would have been weaker shows without him trying to keep them real in terms of emotional truth. Ashley and Matthew write episodes separately, and they are not joined at the hip. They did try to co-write in the same room once on a project for Aardman but it was a disaster because they are such different writers they kept just trying to rewrite each other. But what it means is that they can go off and do their own thing.

Why do you write on series TV as opposed to feature films?

Because he has a mortgage. Like he said at film school he never would've dreamed of working in TV. But attitudes have changed and a lot of the snobbery has gone, mainly because of US shows. And in any given week 90% of the best writing on screen is on TV. Going to the cinema now, unless you've got your kids with you and you have to put those glasses on, there's nothing to watch. It's become a theme park. You strap yourself in and have an amazing special effects ride, which is okay. But we don't see our life on there. Compare that to going to the movies a lot in his twenties, and something like Chinatown, which was a mainstream Hollywood movie, would that happen now? Having said all that, Ashley does write movies but they never get made. Whereas his TV stuff does and he gets paid and you have a lot more influence, from casting, seeing the edit, the rushes, the music, etc. When working in that environment Ashley sees himself as a writer that's a filmmaker. But in the movie world, he feels like a cleaner again. He's sat in meetings with a production company, the director and him, and the conversation has been about what's going to happen in the next draft, and no one actually looked at him. It baffles him that they are not interested in using his knowledge and experience, and it's his script. And it baffles them that he would want to be involved in the stuff he's involved with in TV, like the edit, casting, rushes etc. In film writers just deliver the script – and maybe they'll get fired and another writer will do the next one. And so on.

How much do the actors contribute to creating the characters?

Obviously they do contribute. And if you're very lucky something magical happens between them getting the script and what they do on screen. When it works well it's really exciting and dynamic. But when it doesn't, it can be quite painful to be a screenwriter.

For long running series is there room for others thing apart from crime, life and death, family, etc?

Well that's not a bad start. The soaps do cover that and the obvious reason is that it gives you natural intensity and conflict. Of course there is room for other areas of story telling. But funnily enough when really powerful writers reach the stage where they can write anything they want, and stray away from genre, it can often not work. Because no one is editing and reigning that in. When Ashley's stepped out of genre in his career he's come a cropper a couple of times. He thinks genre is a help. The example he gives is the sonnet, one of the most rigid forms of writing – but it's produced some of the greatest ever. He likes being told this show is going to be on ITV, 8pm, you've got 44 mins, 3 act breaks. It's a challenge.

But series television is a really hard place to be learning on the job and Ashely has seen writers come unstuck. For example the first series of Life On Mars had gone out and Kudos knew of a playwright they really rated. This writer had never written a TV episode of anything and they wanted them to do one in the second series. Ashley and Matthew hope they are generous people, but realised what massive pressure this person was now under. If someone said to Ashley can you write a play by next month he'd say no, he's never done it, he would need to learn the craft. And it chewed this poor person up and it was unfair.

But on series TV writers are really well paid. Ashley now exec produces most of his shows and sees the budgets, so knows he sees what directors, producers and DP's get and it's not as much as writers. It's really annoying when writers on series television do sloppy work and at some stage you do see it. And he just thinks you lazy bugger. Because it's not just about talent. And the danger is falling into a comfort zone where you make a good living and as long as you don't stick your head above the parapet you're okay. And the other thing is that the quality of directors coming into the TV industry is getting worse. When Ashley started out the director was the most important person but it was generally a good democratic thing. Now writers are the most powerful. They get shows greenlit, actors do to, but directors don't. So the talented ones go and work in movies where they get the reverse of what Ashley gets in that environment. A few years ago the Directors Guild tried to get more power in TV and Ashley could understand why. But in cinema they insisted on retaining the horrible 'A Film By' credit, which is the most disrespectful credit in the history of cinema. And until they say they don't want to do that, why should they have a piece of the TV cake?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

LSF 4: Hollywood Pitching

Festival Sunday. I was tired. Already. Even with not being there on the Saturday and with getting an extra hour in bed because of the clocks moving. So I missed the first session of the day. It was a shame, but I actually felt the physical benefits as the day wore on compared to last year. So the first session I attended, and wasn't going to miss, was this one. Moderated by Jonathan Newman and attended by David Reynolds and Stuart Hazeldine, it was a great session and insight into the life of a jobbing writer who has to pitch a lot, especially relevant to working in LA, but still applicable here too. (As ever, these are my paraphrased notes and apologies to those involved if there are any mistakes.)

How did you first get into the industry?

DR – Got a staff job on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Wrote some sketches and got hired. Went back to LA, tried to get on a sitcom, and his agent said do you wanna go over to Disney for a couple of weeks and do some punching up on scripts. And he fell into a career and six years and fifteen movies later with Disney and Pixar, here he is.

SH – Sold his first spec script, basically Die Hard on the London Underground, around the mid nineties. Got an agent, did some BBC work but realised he’d always be writing TV if he didn’t get a Hollywood agent and that’s not what he wanted to do. So went over there and got an agent in late nineties and has been pitching and doing assignment jobs since.

What makes a good pitch?

DR – Have a good idea. These days the pitch is 20 mins or less. And people will leave the room or pick up the phone after 20 mins. You need enthusiasm, get your point across. A lot of execs want to know the end first. They'll say just tell me how it ends. It’s counter intuitive to writers because we like to tell stories, and build up to the end which will hopefully be surprising and satisfying etc – and they just want to cut to it. It’s then hard to do an enthusiastic pitch to go back to the beginning of the story and pitch it knowing they know the end. But be flexible.

SH – Try to hold as much back though as you can. So maybe don’t say the guy dies, just say it’s a tragedy, or it ends badly, something a bit more vague. And just to show you nobody knows anything the pitches he’s sold have all run longer than 20 mins and he tends to pitch in more detail than most. Stores up a lot of energy and gives it his all so he’s exhausted by the end of it. And it works for him. If that’s your personality then go with it. But still have a strong antennae for when their attention is waning. Be prepared for anything and any level of rudeness. The exec might leave and you’re just left pitching to their assistant.

What should and shouldn’t be included in the pitch?

DR – A lot of the time they know what you’re going to come in and pitch because it’s an assignment or you know they are looking for something specific. Sense the pitch moment to moment to get a feel for how they are responding. But pace it out. Don’t be 20 mins in and you’re still on Act One. Practice it. With friends etc. Good tip, if you’re doing action, set up one sequence in some detail, and then when you get to the next key one just say it will be like that but better and bigger! You don’t have to get it all out there.

JN – Rehearsing the pitch is brilliant and crucial. Went to LA with a project he’s working on with a producer and beforehand they were in London and the producer said okay pitch it to me. And they did this like ten times. So all the mistakes were made in a little café in London and not in the room in LA.

SH – Don’t mention the location of the script unless it’s vital to the story. And don’t pitch with dialogue, unless it’s something like ‘I see dead people.’ Make sure whatever you’re pitching is really germane to the understanding of the story. He always practices, writing it out, then doing it without having that in front of him, and so on. You go in, have a few moments of pleasantries, and then you’re off. Need to frame it in some way, be it with genre or hook them in with something, be it an intriguing character or action set piece, whatever. Try to pace it out around 5 mins for each act. And state it “and then in Act Two…” and, “and then around the middle” so they know where you are in the movie. At the end they’ll have questions – and of course answer every single one no matter how long it takes. Then frame things at the end more directed towards marketing. Now they know what the story is you can say this is why the movie should be made now and there’s a really strong audience for this, etc. You’re telling them how to sell it to their boss.

How do you know if the person in the room doesn’t like your pitch and what do you do if that’s the case?

DR – Sunglasses on, taking calls, scrolling a blackberry. You know if they’re not into this. It’s like trying to pick up someone in a bar and you know if they are into it or not. If it’s going badly you start to bail. You don’t go just forget it and walk out. Finish it, but get it done as quickly as possible. Wrap it up.

SH – Just to play devil’s advocate, sometimes the guy who seems the most bored ends up buying it. Conversely sometimes the guy who seems the most enthusiastic is just going through the motions. So read the signs but don’t be too effected by it. And when they buy something don’t delude yourself that you know what they are buying. You pitched it so you assume they are buying what they heard and they love what you love about the story, and it might not be true. When they offer to buy something call them up again and ask what they like about the story. Not to be combative. But let’s say you were pitching a whole story because of one character and they buy it and you get to the 2nd draft and they say we like it but do we need this character. And you think if they take that character out you won’t be able to continue writing it. That character was the main thing that interested you but they see it as superfluous. So try and establish that early rather than going through 12-24 months of hell.

Speed/elevator pitching – have you done it, what do you do?

DR – It’s tricky because every now and then you’re be working on a spec, let’s say with Will Ferrell in mind, and you might meet him and he’s like hey what’s going on and you’re like working on a story, you know, about a guy and you’re resisting the temptation to say you, you, you. It’s really tough. Some people can do it and say I’m working on this thing right in your ballpark and we should get together some time to talk about it. Or you do it like this. I’m working on something and it would be great for Steve Carell, and all of sudden Ferrell will be like, really, what it is, send it up this way. You have to know who you are talking to but you can do it. But you’ve got to be careful.

Who are you most likely to be pitching to?

DR – It’s case by case. If you are pitching to a studio and you are new, you’re going to be pitching to the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. Who’s usually 12. And that’s just the way it is. And hopefully when you get more successful you’ll move up the ranks. If you’re pitching to a producer, you might pitch to his number one guy. And you’ve got to sell it to him. And these people will sit in the room and just write. You might only see the top of their heads. Because what they have to do is go back to their boss and tell them the pitch. It’s really unnerving and tough.

What do you think about using other material alongside the pitch, like visual aids?

DR – Has been on pitches that have visual aids. If you’re pitching a specific location you can have pictures, especially on ipads or whatever. Or maybe some small story board type things. But be sensible with it of course. Leave the easel and fog machines at home. If you can have something you can readily unfold and bring out of a briefcase it might help. If it’s something that helps sell the story it can be very strong.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Creative England launches new fund for regional filmmaking talent

Creative England opened for business on 1 October 2011, with the core purpose of supporting the sustainable growth of independent creative businesses, and the talent that feeds them, in every part of England outside London.

This new organisation builds on the work of the Regional Screen Agencies that, for the past ten years, have assisted the development of the film, TV, interactive, games and digital media industries, and the growth of film culture in England.

The Development Fund is open to individual writers, writer/directors and/or producers based in the English regions for the development of all types of feature films, including animation and documentary. Applications are also invited from writer/director/producer teams. Funding is available for the costs of developing a screenplay (or the equivalent for documentaries) such as research costs, writer’s fees, script editor/developer support and script readings.

Funding is also available for screenplays that are ready to be presented to potential financiers, to help with budgeting, scheduling, casting, producing teaser trailers/pilots, and other expenses associated with raising finance and generating sales and distribution interest.

The Development Fund totals £250,000 in its current round and applications are welcomed on a rolling basis. Awards will range from £2,500 to £25,000.

Click here to download guidelines and application form.