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Monday 29 July 2013

Of Shadows and Pilgrims

Pilgrim Shadow Logo

A shout-out for this one-hour SF comedy, beginning a 6-night run at the West End's Tristan Bates Theatre this evening at 7.30.

Written and directed by Stephen Jordan and featuring Cliff Chapman and Adam Joselyn, it's presented by Manmoth Productions as part of the Camden Fringe and is a FringeReview Hot Pick.

Why the shout? Well, a) it's smart and funny, and b) its Associate Producer is Ellen Gallagher, aka Little Miss Brooligan, whose mission in life seems to be to erase my name and steal all my friends. By day she can be found in the Media Department of the Blake Friedmann Agency. At night, just follow the noise to the relevant karaoke bar.

The same team were responsible for last year's Fringe success Dead Static, which opened at the Etcetera Theatre and went on for a further run at The Hen and Chickens. It's now available as an audio drama, free to stream or download during Pilgrim Shadow's run.

See you there?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Four

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation. This is the last, and the briefest.

Which companies have you worked for? What are they like to work for? Are there differences in styles and techniques?

Off the top of my head -- the BBC, ITV, BBC Films, Zenith, Carnival, Gaumont, Power TV, Jerry Bruckheimer, Warner Bros, CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC, most of them several times. You can find my full credits list in the IMDB but that's only a partial snapshot of my career because there's no mention there of the 14 novels, the early radio dramas where I learned my craft, or any of the companies 
I've developed stuff with that didn't get made, including at least four feature screenplays.

Most people along the way have been good to work with. My style and technique don't really vary as I move from one place to another, because that's what they come to me for.

Parking space, Warners lot. Trust me, it's a big deal
Parking space on the Warner Bros lot. The paint takes one season to fade away.

Monday 22 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Three

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

How would you go about selling a script or concept? Can you sell a concept?

You can sell a concept, and people do it all the time, but it has its hazards. Because, see above - if you've sold a concept then you've then got to find its form with the added pressure of people invested and breathing down your neck. So in my case, when I pitch a concept, I've got the completed plan already thought-out. Not in minute detail, but in the broad strokes. If rushed it's very easy to make lazy choices - of characters, motives, and incidents drawn from other films and TV - and once those are locked-in, you're stuck with them. You'll see many a film or TV show where the one-line concept is intriguing but the characters and situations are all stock.

US TV has a 'pitching season' in the middle of the year when all the broadcast and cable companies open their doors to new material, and producers book appointments to go in with their writers and pitch the show they've been developing together. You get about 20 minutes to explain your show to a listening team of four or five executives, and then it's the next team's turn. Sometimes - rarely - a pitch will be bought 'in the room'. More often you'll hear back within a couple of days, a week at the most.

In the UK it's way less organised. A broadcaster will circulate a note to production companies to say they don't want to see any more crime shows but they're in the market for an inner-city medical series about Travellers. Every producer contacts their regular writers and works up a Big Fat Gypsy Medic pitch. All the pitches come in at the same time. Meanwhile the broadcaster buys something completely different, probably a crime show. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen this happen.

Are there certain rules about production companies wanting in-house staff writers?

The US hires writers and the UK buys stories. Every US show is staff-written with almost no openings for freelancers. There's a 'staffing season' that comes right after 'pilot pickup season', where the showrunners of new shows read script samples and hire that season's team. There's a ranking order to the job titles with Executive Producer at the top, then co-exec, then supervising producer, story editor, consulting producer, staff writer. All are writers, and each will probably have two scripts in the season with their byline. On those scripts they'll be the prime writer, though the story will have been worked-over and beefed up by everyone in the Writers' Room and the showrunner will give it a final pass for style and consistency. Staff Writer is the 'entry level' job. People get to be staff writers by writing 'spec scripts' of shows they don't work on, to show as writing samples. Every writer on the team has a personal project of their own that they someday hope to sell.

In the UK, the episodic series producer will first approach writers he or she has worked with before, and then will put out a call to agents for potential contributors. Then a meeting or a phonecall in which the producer describes the show to the prospective writer, who then goes away and cooks up two or three story ideas. It may go further, it may not. If it doesn't, the writer's been working for nothing. In my experience of such series the writer usually doesn't meet the creator or any of the other writers. In my humble opinion this is a vastly inferior system. The few times I've seen a UK production attempt to imitate the American system, it's stumbled at the British reluctance to commit to a writers' talent and put them on staff to produce material. They want to see the story and then buy it.

Soaps are different, employing storyliners who supply detailed outlines to a pool of scriptwriters, but they still depend on the freelance model. Producers are trusted to be paid a salary for work they haven't done yet, writers aren't.

Friday 19 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Two

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

Is there a difference in writing for UK and US audiences, and if there is, what is it (cost, budget, more/less freedom)?

I don't think the audiences are that different, but I find that the commissioning cultures are. I much prefer dealing with the US, where they don't fanny around. There I've pitched a script in the morning and had a Yes before lunchtime. The energy level's higher and if something doesn't work out, it doesn't count against you. You've simply proved yourself a player. UK commissioners are unclear on what they want and indecisive over what they're shown, and they have no concept of the value of a fast No.

In the writing I don't really discriminate between US and UK because the stuff I do tends to work in either venue. Either that or I've always been a misplaced American TV writer at heart and that would explain why getting every one of my UK projects made has been like re-inventing the wheel. I like US pace and structure. To me it's all about witnessing things as they happen, not watching conversations about events.

Budget's not such an issue at the concept stage where the ideas set the agenda. Once a show is under way then budget is a factor, because it's been set before the scripts are written. Every episode is scheduled for, say, 8 shooting days, with maybe 5 of them in the studio and 3 of them 'out'. In the studio you'll want to make maximum use of your standing sets, and on your 'out' days you'll want to combine locations to minimise time-consuming crew moves. I once had to lose a crowd scene in order to be able to afford a submarine. You can call that a limiting of freedom; to me it's just the way to what you want.

What are the differences between original material and adaptations?

With an adaptation you're spared the sweaty anxiety of the early stages where you have an idea, and you feel it's good, but you don't yet know if there's a form in which it will work. When you're adapting your own work or someone else's, that question's already been solved. You may need to come up with a radical reconception of form to take it from one medium to another, but the baseline is that the ideas fit together, they go somewhere, and there's a pool of characters and incidents to draw upon.

With an original, you first have to do all the work that gets you up to that baseline. For me it's the crucial part. It's satisfying but it's not enjoyable.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part One

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

I had two aims in mind, beyond the obvious one of helping him out. One was that I'd eventually put the material online for general use (so other film students, take from this what you will and don't email asking me to write your essay for you).

The other involved the hope that I might inject a little contemporary awareness into academia, after hearing of a student on a script editing course being scoffed at for suggesting that the US TV writer's experience can be better than here. But she was right - those epic horror stories from LA-bruised Brits are not the norm.

I've a lot of friends, colleagues and Twitterpals in the business who work in areas that I don't, and usually in a piece like this I'd stop along the way to consider and qualify some of my remarks with them in mind. Here I just kind of charged on through. So if you want to take exception to anything, by all means do; and if you want to blog a riposte to any of these points, let me know and I may embed a link.

It's in four sections. The others are scheduled to appear over the next few days.

So here goes.

What are the differences between writing for TV and for film?

 I have to break this into two parts because there's 1) the conceptual difference in the two dramatic forms, and then 2) the difference in working practice.

1) I've heard it said that if something remarkable happens to people once in in a lifetime then it's a movie, but if something remarkable happens to them every week then it's television. A film story fashions a universal myth out of its material. Television drama approaches the universal from another angle, taking the myth apart and finding the domestic details that build toward it. When you have nothing but the domestic details, to no ultimate purpose, you have a soap.

2) Most starting-out writers dream of selling a feature screenplay, but all the feature writers want to get into television where they'll have greater opportunities for expression and control. See Ted Griffin, Graham Yost, David Goyer. It wasn't always that way - TV used to be seen as a lesser medium with lower budgets and lesser ambitions - but that's changed. They've now become very different beasts. As feature budgets have grown, their choices have become safer and safer. In features the writer is required to serve the director's vision, and is a replaceable component. In TV - and especially in American TV - the director's job is to get the showrunner's vision onto the screen. The showrunner is an industry-trained writer in charge of a writing team and a production machine. He or she will most likely have conceived and pitched the idea to the network and written the pilot, although sometimes an experienced showrunner is hired to take charge of a series conceived by an inexperienced creator. The UK has yet to fully embrace the showrunner concept. In the UK writers are mostly shut out of production so they'll rarely have any hands-on production experience.

How much influence do producers have over your work?

The two equally valid answers are, none, and huge. None because, as a writer, the thing that gives you value is your unique point of view. If you don't have that, if you only ever write to assignment or chase the market, then you're aiming no higher than the second division. You should conceive your ideas with no thought of catering to anyone else. And huge because, once you find a producer who picks up on your point of view and believes that what you're doing is what he or she has been looking for, then you enter a partnership in which the other person steers. I've known that go well and I've known it go horribly wrong. They can hire a 'visual' director with no narrative gift, or one of the known 'writer-killers' who don't respect the script. They can miscast key roles. In a worst-case scenario they can replace you with an untalented friend.

Saturday 13 July 2013

The Long Road to Bedlam

At the request of crime specialist and site editor Barry Forshaw, I wrote a piece for the Interviews section of the Crime Time online website. Here's a taster:
There are two kinds of characters that carry novel series. They're devised or they're grown, and those are quite different beasts. The devised character is like a track car, stripped of all unnecessary parts in order to run and run. The art in the creation of such a series hero is assemble just enough well-chosen characteristics to give the illusion of a character without the encumbrances of personal development. As readers, we're complicit in this. We accept Mike Hammer's life of brutal solitude without questioning from where, exactly, comes this infinite supply of Old Friends who show up needing his help. 
 And you can read the rest here, if so inclined.