It’s a new blogsite: indevelopmentuk.blogspot.com, built to accompany a project that’s just launched and it’s where my energies have been going for the last month or so. With my colleague Hannah Billingham I’ve been busily putting together a new, monthly networking group for people who work on the other side of the table – us script editors, development execs and producer types – otherwise known as ‘the enemy’, or occasionally, we hope, known as an indispensable ally.
The group is called In Development and our launch celebration was last week at the BFI, co-hosted with The Script Factory. It was a packed house, the wine flowed freely and a righteous celebration was had by all. Among those in attendance were heads of development, agents, producers and script editors. Guests included comedy producer Charlie Hanson and his Head of Development Katie Mavroleon, producer and script consultant Philip Shelley, Katie Williams of Blake Friedmann, script editor Jamie Wolpert; hot from working on an exciting new series for Sky Atlantic and of course the lovely Lucy Scher, our co-host.
The industry response to our new endeavour has been fantastic. Perhaps this goes to show that there is a demand out there for this kind of group. Writers’ groups and writers’ festivals abound, but we wanted to set up a group where drama development people could come together and discuss their own different set of skills and issues, share experiences and contacts and support each other’s progress. A bit like a mini, monthly dose of festival style drinks and discussion. Development remains a fairly hazy territory, so it can’t hurt to have a chance to air questions, learn from each other and get a regular top up on our map reading skills!
As with writing there are many areas of specialism within the development of screen fiction, whether film, TV or online, whether comedy, kids or long running series to name just a few. There are also many areas of overlap with other roles such as producing, writing and directing. To help us negotiate a path through all these possibilities the plan for the new group is to have guest and featured members at each monthly get together and a topic of discussion on the table. This will cover an area in which our guests have particular experience and give members a chance to chat informally with them over drinks and gain specific insight.
For example, next month we are very happy to welcome Yvonne Grace and Philip Shelley as our guests to chat with us on the subject of moving between script editing and producing in TV. Both are highly experienced producers and script editors across a broad range of hit shows.
We are also lining up sessions on script editing comedy and building relationships with agents, to name a couple as a starter for ten and we hope to invite script editors who have worked on specific films to chat with us about the process. If you’d like to know more about the guest and featured members lined up, or follow updates from the group you can follow us over at the new site: indevelopmentuk.blogspot.com. We’d also be happy to hear from you if you’d be interested in writing a guest blog, being featured as a guest member, or would like to introduce us to a potential guest.
This group is for professional development people so membership is limited. However, if you’d like to join our mailing list and receive monthly drinks invites, please contact us to introduce yourself, letting us know about your professional experience in development. You can contact Sarah or Hannah at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally I’d just like to say a big thank you to The Script Factory and to Jeremiah Quinn who took the photos on the night.
So - now I’ve introduced my two blogs to each other! I hope they will get on and understand the need to share. What with work, life, trying to get some of my own screenwriting done and now this cool, new project, I guess I can’t promise to be the most faithful and devoted blogger. However, I’m always here, always focused on the end goal of working on great projects and getting them to the screen, meeting interesting, new people, learning and doing more, so I’ll be back soon with more updates. See you out there.
When researching and writing The Social Network, (currently nominated for 8 Oscars and 6 BAFTAS), it was this feeling that became his way in to the character of Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook), allowing Sorkin to find common human ground with his central anti-hero. To me this seems like a perfect, revealing example of how the writing process works and how a writer’s psychology interweaves with that of their characters. You can’t really bring characters to life unless you can get inside their skin and find a motivation you connect with. Then as you invest part of yourself in them, so comes a glimpse of that all important writer’s voice.
Sitting in the audience at the Q&A I wondered how many writers, and creatively driven people of all types, might recognise and share a little of Sorkin’s motivation to belong. If you do, you can now be assured you’re in good company! Here are some other things Aaron Sorkin shared during the Q&A:
The Social Network is not really an adapted Screenplay
Despite being nominated in this category at the Oscars and BAFTAs, Sorkin didn’t actually have a completed book to adapt from when writing the screenplay, only a book proposal. When the book proposal came in it was decided that the book and the film should be written and come out around the same time to capitalise best on the mutual promotion. Therefore Sorkin and the author of the book were both researching and writing their versions independently. This left the playing field wide open in terms of how to interpret the research materials when writing the screenplay – a challenge when you think about all the available research.
The research process
The research included a combination of openly available material, masses of legal documents from the two different legal challenges that Zuckerberg faced and access to a number of anonymous, first person accounts from sources very close to the key players in the narrative. Neither Zuckerberg nor Eduardo Saverin contributed to the research. Zuckerberg was asked but declined involvement, much to Sorkin’s relief, as this wouldn’t have left him as much room for interpretation as he wanted; biasing the story too much in one direction. Saverin is legally bound not to comment, (on forfeit of considerable money), so was MIA for the period the film was being written and produced; presumably to ensure there was no possible doubt that he kept schtum.
To give you a sense of how close the anonymous sources were, Sorkin said that in one of the opening scenes where Zuckerberg is creating facemash.com in his college dorm room, the screenplay has him coming in and fixing himself a glass of spirit with a mixer, as this is visually interesting. However, from the research sources they definitely knew that he was drinking Becks beer from a bottle that Thursday night, years ago, even though there were only about four other people in the room. So director David Fincher made sure they changed it to Becks.
The Writing Process
After doing his in-depth research, reading all the documents, speaking to lots of sources, Sorkin still had to come up with his own way to handle the material. Producer Scott Rudin gave Sorkin the freedom to write the movie he wanted to write. Since three very different sides to the same story came out through the legal depositions and documents, Sorkin’s decision was to write the screenplay from these three perspectives, giving us a window into how things looked from all sides. Of course he had to make his own interpretation of the motives of each of the parties involved, but this is the space in which the writer is able to invest themselves.
Sorkin shared an anecdote about writer Peter Shaffer. On arriving at a destination once, he heard of an horrific event that had just occurred where a stable boy had stabbed out the eyes of a horse. Shaffer wondered why the boy had done it, but then immediately said, ‘No don’t tell me; I’d rather come up with it myself’ (and so resulted Equus). This was exactly how Sorkin felt about representing the motives of his leading players.
Once he also found his way in to the character of Zuckerberg he then shortly came up with his opening sequences, establishing what centrally drives Zuckerberg at the same time as taking us into the actions that first made him infamous at Harvard.
The opening scene of the film is a nine page dialogue scene of two people sat talking at a bar. This is an unusual thing to get away with as an opening scene. However, the audience are launched straight in to the middle of a fast moving conversation in a noisy bar and asked to lean in and pay close attention to make sure we keep up with what’s going on. Sorkin says he likes to assume the audience are at least as intelligent as him and likes to challenge us to have to sit up, pay attention, so we know from the outset we aren’t going to be able to just lay back and let it wash over us; we’re going to have to get involved.
The Production Process
According to Sorkin the script had one of the most straightforward journeys to the screen he has ever experienced. He delivered his draft and within hours it was green lit. It went out to David Fincher, the one director on their list, and within hours he called up to say he was on board.
It might be seen to be an unusual marriage of writer and director; a writer known for doing ‘people talking in rooms’, with a highly visual director. However, Sorkin thinks this sensibility is what allows Fincher to make people sitting at computers feel like exciting action.
Fincher agreed to the project with the stipulation that they went ahead and make the film right away so that there was no chance for the script to get mucked about in a lengthy and unnecessary development process. The script that was filmed was more or less the same one Sorkin delivered; he and Fincher just worked together going over the finer detail.
The screenplay was 162 pages long and there was the danger that Sorkin would be forced to cut about 30 pages. However, Fincher got together with Sorkin and a stopwatch. He asked him to read through the script exactly at the pace he saw things going, including, of course, the speed at which any long speeches or dialogue exchanges would go. At the end of all that the total time came out at 1 hour 59 minutes. Fincher kept the stopwatch for the shoot and timed all the scenes and if they were playing too long and didn’t match up he got the actors to talk faster until they came out at the right speed. The finished film is therefore 1hr, 59mins.
What do the key players think of the film?
Mark Zuckerberg hired out a theatre and took all his Facebook staff to see the film. His response was that; ‘I liked the parts I agreed with’. Eduardo Saverin asked for an opportunity to see the film and when he came out he was apparently too emotionally stunned by seeing such a difficult time of his life re-enacted that he was unable to express much, but apparently approved. The Winklevoss brothers have apparently seen the film a number of times and are fans.
How did Sorkin overcome the potential legal minefield of the subject matter?
Sorkin’s viewpoint is that if you’re going to write about real people who are still alive then what you require is a good, ‘inner moral compass that says; first do no harm. You can’t play fast and loose with people’s lives. Of course if your inner moral compass is broken there’s always the Sony legal department to help you out.’ He added, ‘We’re talking about a group of people who aren’t opposed to suing. If I had said anything untrue or defamatory you’d know because Mark Zuckerberg would own Sony.’
The author’s voice
An audience member mentioned a line that stood out for him in the film when someone says; ‘Private behaviour is a relic of the past’. Was this Sorkin’s viewpoint? He admitted to disapproving of the age of reality TV where everyone’s lives are a potential source of entertainment and derision and knew that putting in a line like this was a bit like saying; ‘and now a note from the author’. Should he be injecting his own personal opinions or should he be faithful to these characters? However, in the end all writers inject themselves into their scripts; ‘you want to; it’s why you’re doing it’.
Which I guess brings us neatly back to about where we started.
Hot off the success of the Golden Globes it’s not much of a leap to work out why Sorkin was here in the UK at this time. Apparently his father has said that he won’t believe his son’s a proper writer until the British approve of him. So getting that BAFTA in the bag might well be high on the shopping list for a man who continues to suspect that he doesn’t quite yet belong. It may not be the ‘healthiest’ way to live, but if you share this feeling that you have your nose pressed up against the glass watching other people on the inside – like Sorkin! - having all the fun, maybe it’s part of what drives your writing too and you never know where that might take you…
Like most areas of film-making the development process can truly bring you to the depths of hell, or heights of heaven. Its hellishness is well documented and most often comes from a lack of understanding of the writing process or how to work creatively with writers. The biggest single mistake made by well intentioned script advisers is to start telling you how to fix your problems, most often before they’ve even identified what it was you were trying to say in the first place. Anyone who’s ever written a script and given it to others for feedback will probably have experienced this somewhere along the line. The script isn’t working for the reader so they start to look for solutions. This is like trying to have a meeting of minds by bashing skulls together; they’ve got their view of the script, you’ve got yours and never the twain shall meet! It’s painful and frustrating. In my experience, when you come to understand the difference between this, (all too common), process and good development, it’s like seeing the light! The clouds part, everything becomes serene and clear. Now reader and writer have the tools to begin a productive dialogue.
How do you guarantee you’re getting the good stuff and not some sort of backstreet version cut with vim? The fact is good development advice could come from a producer, director, fellow writer, commissioning editor, development executive, script editor, actor or friend. The trouble is bad advice could equally come from any of these sources. They may be talented at what they do, but do they have the specific skills to facilitate a writer producing their best work? (Since a script editor’s job is specifically to work with writers we’d hope they at least have the skills, especially with all the talented people out there competing for the work, but there’s no 100% guarantee.)
Development remains a fairly fluid and amorphous area of the industry, with no widely understood benchmark standards. Organisations like The Script Factory are attempting to define some, but there remains work to be done to spread the word. As one of the first graduates of their Diploma in Script Development, I’m happy to help evangelise and wrote an article on this subject for Scriptwriter a while back. If there’s a general understanding of what makes good and bad development then we’ll all be better equipped to negotiate the process, avoid a voyage through hell and promote stronger working relationships and stronger scripts. I therefore thought it was worth starting 2011 with a few bullet points on what to look out for.
Good development input should:
· Identify problem areas in the script, rather than propose solutions
The main thing your developing partner should know is that development is not the same thing as writing. They should not be trying to force through their ideas or suggestions for ‘fixing’ your script without first attempting to get to grips with what it is you, the writer, are trying to achieve with the story. Taking the position of a kind of educated audience member, they can then reflect back to you where you’re so far succeeding in your intentions and where you may be losing the audience for various reasons. Once these areas for development have been discussed and identified you can go away armed with plenty to kick start work on the next draft.
The talent of a developer lies in being able to analyse a script and identify your intentions, or at least have the beginnings of an idea of your intentions, even if these are not coming across completely in the current script. Their talent also lies in being able to identify where this gap is occurring and why. The substance of a good development conversation is therefore a dialogue about closing the gap between a writer’s intentions for the script and the reader’s experience of it. Of course, it might also include some interrogation of these intentions and discussion of whether the best choices are being made as to what the story is centrally about. However, the base line of a good development conversation is a healthy respect for what the writer has already set out to do. In some development relationships, such as working with a talented director or writing team, it may be the case that they can then begin to brainstorm a solution with you. However, since real solutions can only be found by working an idea through in all its consequences and understanding the knock on effect to the rest of the script, it’s usually best for solutions to remain the preserve of the person who’s actually writing the script.
· Not become bogged down in minor detail
Arguments over a single word in a line of dialogue are the kind of bugbears writers often cite when complaining about bad development input. The fact is that a whole bunch of lines may get cut on the shoot because of time restrictions, or because an actor improvises the line differently. After that you’ve got the edit where more lines may be cut and scenes rearranged. Haggling over minor detail is therefore fairly pointless. Not only that, but if development input is really only scratching around in the surface detail, such as lines of dialogue or minor details of the action, this is a pretty clear indication that the person hasn’t fully got to grips with what it is you were trying to achieve. They’re therefore not likely to be able to give you the more useful development insight you might need regarding things like making your lead characters more engaging, your central conflict more gripping, or heightening the impact of how its structured over the course of the narrative. In my experience of development there is often plenty to talk about in the bigger, over all picture to ever get down to the close detail! If you are many, many drafts into the script and the discussion is down to minor detail then maybe this means you’ve fixed most of the big problems. Hurray! However, if you’re on an early draft and this happens; beware!
· Maintain a strong overview and grasp of the core concept
The problem with developers acting like writers and trying to ‘fix’ your script for you, or getting bogged down in the close detail, (apart from the basic pain of it!), is that they lose their more valuable asset of providing a detached overview. While caught up in a new plot detail, scene, or while playing with some solution for an issue with the script, it’s easy for a writer to begin to lose sight of the bigger picture and the reason for telling the story in the first place. As more voices wade into the process, (as is often the case), determinedly throwing around potential solutions, its possible for the core idea that everyone loved to begin to get lost. Whether working one to one with a writer or facilitating the discussion between many parties, the most valuable role of a developer is to keep a firm grasp on this overview so that a project can continue to move forward and not breakdown. They can help all parties to identify and reach agreement on what the project should be and then keep bringing attention back to this core spark should things begin to go off track. This is a bit like having a compass to guide you through the forest when you can’t see the wood for the trees. If someone in your development process is fulfilling this role that’s a fantastically potent development tool - one every project should ideally have.
· Recognise that writing is hard and takes time
Much of the pain of development is inflicted by people who have no real understanding of the fact that screenwriting, (for the majority of us anyway!), is actually f***ing difficult and that it takes time to work through problems with a script and find the right solutions. A script can quite easily get much worse before it gets better and this is not necessarily a cue to fire the writer, or start having a drastic rethink of the direction that’s been agreed. Quite often you have to go through this stage to come out the other side stronger. If you have someone on your side who understands the realities of the writing process, knows what you are trying to achieve and is keeping a firm grip on that overview for you while you work through to find your solutions; they can help keep everyone calm, on track and off your back. That sounds pretty much like development heaven to me!
· Attempt to filter all notes through one source
If you have a good development person on side who knows all of the above then the last thing they would want is for you to get lots of different sets of notes from different sources. This is perhaps the biggest archetype of development hell, where various producers and invested parties from all sides are throwing in hopelessly contradictory notes and development suggestions, leaving the writer’s head spinning and without a clue as to the best way to progress. This has been known to make even the most talented of writers begin to rethink their calling. However, if notes are filtered through one source then these contradictions can be recognised, (and ideally addressed or dealt with), before one clear set of feedback is delivered to the writer. A good producer might take on this role for their writer, or a strong script editor brought in to mediate a complex co-production process. It may not always be possible, but we can aspire.
· Inspire you to want to write the next draft
Finally, one of the most crucial aspects of good development is that rather than sapping your soul and making you feel like a defeated, clueless and no-talent hack it should help inspire and re-energise you to tackle the next draft. This may come from the developer’s ability to shed light on areas where a writer has become lost, illuminating a new path to explore and triggering the sparks of new ideas. It also comes from their ability to recognise and highlight what’s already working well in a script, as well as its flaws, and to be able to share a little in the writer’s vision of the work that’s still to come. As you stand like an artist attempting to conjure a beautiful statue from within a lump of rock, a good developer should be able to remind you of how much you’ve already achieved and how much it will be worth your while to keep chipping away.
How to negotiate the process
So that’s what development input might look like in an ideal world, but unfortunately, as mentioned, we don’t always find ourselves in an ideal world. In the fluid arena of development where input can come from all kinds of (variously qualified) sources or where the producer or director giving notes could also be your co-writer, it isn’t always a black and white relationship of developer facilitating writer. Short of throwing your script editor up against the wall in a strangle hold, or walking out on the whole ‘goddamn production!’, what are the tools the writer needs in order to negotiate a less than perfect development experience? This is, of course, dependent on many things, such as who’s giving the notes and your relative power in the process. However, some basic tools for dealing with notes are as follows:
· Just breath and buy time
I’ve heard a number of successful writers speak eloquently on the subject of dealing with notes, most memorably Sir David Hare, (whose speech at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival was the trigger for my Scriptwriter article), and Simon Beaufoy. Both have had plenty of those teeth-pullingly bad experiences, as well as receiving real inspiration and insight from other sources. Naturally a writer’s first reaction to most kinds of feedback goes something like this: ‘You idiot! That’s the most insane idea I’ve ever heard! That will ruin the whole script! Have you even read it?!’. Later we calm down and eventually come back to the notes ready to find a solution. As we think it through we may begin to see that some of the notes actually make sense and that tackling them should strengthen the script. Simon Beaufoy’s advice is therefore to bite your tongue, temporarily delete the word ‘ruin’ from your vocabulary and give yourself time to react properly. Some ideas may be easy for you to accept and incorporate, others more difficult. Beaufoy has a line reserved for such moments; ‘Hmm, that’s a tough one, I’ll have to go away and give that some thought’. No development exec or producer should have a problem with this, especially if you’ve been open to most of their comments thus far. They might however, take exception to being called an idiot, or to a writer who digs in their heels without even thinking about what’s being said.
Beaufoy also suggests that, if possible, ask for development notes to be forwarded to you a week before a development meeting. Then rather than having to react on the spot you can fully digest the input in advance. You can then already be over your initial hissy fit and be thinking productively about how to implement the notes when the discussion begins.
· Pick your battles
Similarly Tony Jordan advises writers to nod along to input, carefully noting everything down and cooing praise to the developer on their insight, while keeping a tight lid on your inner scream. However, should the developer suggest a note that tampers with the core of your idea then this is the time to stop them and take exception. As you’ve been such a sweetheart up until this point they’re naturally more likely to take your objection seriously. However, if you’ve been arguing with every tiny point all along then this just looks like more of the same pigheadedness. Though Jordan, like many writers, tends to play to the audience somewhat at a writers’ event and imply that most developers are idiots, on questioning he does accept that this isn’t always the case. It’s possible that your developer actually knows what your core idea is and is able to discuss potential changes back and forth while keeping this in mind. It’s even possible they can see this more clearly than you! As Simon Beaufoy observed at Cheltenham 2009, ‘at times I might not know what a script is about until somebody points it out’.
The beauty of Jordan’s advice, however, is that it’s effective whether you happen to be working with an idiot or a genius. Everyone prefers to work with a writer who can take notes on board and of course, the most important issue in any development process is to protect the core of your idea. This is the part of the narrative in which your writer’s voice can be found and as both Jordan and Beaufoy agree; without this you have nothing.
· Keep the process moving forward
Beaufoy likens the feature development process to a shark; it has to keep moving forward otherwise it dies. If you want the project to go ahead then it may be useful to see development meetings a bit like talks in an employment dispute. When ACAS moves in to help resolve a dispute their strategy is to ensure that everyone in the room must gain something; preventing the process from stalling. Being able to listen and be open to new ideas is therefore crucial. Beaufoy says that rather than being threatened by new ideas he’s learnt over the years that everyone at the table has a right to their input. Screenplays can actually be quite flexible creatures and bend to incorporate lots of new ideas – as long as you keep that all important core intact.
· Know that you don’t have to implement every note you’re given
Experienced writers like Beaufoy and Jordan know that a writer will not have to implement every note they get and you should not sweat blood trying to do so. As long as you address a good percentage of the concerns that are voiced and the material moves forward your development partners are unlikely to keep harping on about one or two small points. This may not be, as Jordan jokingly suggests, because they’ve forgotten the notes they gave. It probably wouldn’t serve you well to assume that the majority of developers are stupid and don’t realise if you’ve just gone away and tinkered with a script rather than addressing the major issues. A developer may not bring up notes you didn’t tackle because they’re picking their battles. Perhaps the changes that you have made have dealt with their main concerns. Maybe the developer realises that a previous note doesn’t matter now with the solutions that you’ve found, or maybe they have so many new, major notes that they’re not bothering with their old ones! Once again however, the principle remains true, whether dealing with an idiot or a genius – if you successfully get to grips with most of the major development issues at stake within the script then the rest of the notes may be allowed to fall by the wayside.
· Try to get notes from one source
Just as a good developer might have an eye to protecting a writer from a deluge of contradictory notes, so writers can be aware of this themselves. After one such excruciating experience Beaufoy now asks that all notes on any project come through one source. Obviously he’s highly successful and therefore has a little more clout in asking for things. However, there’s no reason why any writer couldn’t at least ask for this, if it’s clear that there are going to be lots of notes from different sources. It’s not a particularly weird or demanding request, so why not at least try to start as we mean to go on.
In the end perhaps the best advice when approaching the development process is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Don’t assume the producers, executives and script editors you meet will be idiots who don’t know how to work with writers. You may find the process to be a joy and a pleasure, a chance to gain real insight into the progress of your work, like a breath of fresh air bringing new life and energy into the process. They might be like a firm hand on the tiller helping keep all aboard on track. Of course on the other hand you may find you are lost at sea with a bunch of mutinous monkeys all chucking their ideas around like faeces. If so, you can take the advice of writers like Beaufoy; take a deep breath, quash your inner hissy fit, take your notes home and attempt to sort the shit from the Shinola. My advice to you is when you find people to work with who can offer you the former, whether producers, directors, editors or writers, build those relationships and keep them with you as you go. Good notes may come from any source, but while the basic principles of good development are still not broadly accepted or understood, (even by some writers), that taste of development heaven may still be harder to find than development hell.
In the session Should I write a spec script? Kate Harwood explained how desperate BBC editors could become when trying to hold on to talented new writers. A frustrated audience member asked; ‘If you’re desperate for writers and there are all these writers here desperate for work; what’s going wrong?’. Obviously there’s a disconnect here somewhere, but to me its fairly obvious what it is – money. Not just at the BBC, but in the industry as a whole; there’s limited money to invest in development and even less to invest in developing new writers.
In his session, Tony Jordan lamented the loss of a writers’ shadowing scheme that operated on Eastenders. This would run through the year allowing writers to follow the scripting process and write their own shadow version of an episode. Since their script wasn’t going to be broadcast there was room on this scheme for writers of varying experience. In his opinion, replacing this system with the Writer’s Academy is an example of how hard it is for writers these days to break in.
Say the Academy takes eight writers and they each get to write broadcast scripts for a number of shows. This does two things – it ties up a lot of new opportunities into the hands of a few writers. It also raises the bar for those applying to the scheme. If they’re expected to write broadcast scripts then the BBC will want to select very strong, fairly experienced writers. Therefore its almost not a new talent scheme at all.
Kate Harwood wasn’t 100% sure if the shadow scheme was still running and I’ve heard of similar schemes on other BBC shows, so maybe some still exist, (worth looking into). With budgets being cut on every front though, we can only expect investment in writer development to decrease, at least in the short term. Where screen agencies were sometimes able to give promising new writers development funds simply to hone their experience or spec script, this sort of opportunity is becoming limited. The regional agencies themselves are about to be merged into three hubs; north, central and south in a bid to streamline costs. Profit squeezed indies have less to feed back into development, some talent schemes are disappearing. I say all this not to put a downer on your day, but just because all writers should be aware of the reality of what it looks like from the other side of the table. Regardless of whether they’d like to or not, most producers don’t have funds to invest in developing new writers. Mostly they need to find writers who’ve already put in the leg work and can hit the ground running.
For me this is the disconnect; the source of the chasm between producers and the majority of emerging writers; the considerable time and money it takes to turn raw talent into skill and experience. There are a few things we can do about it, such as campaigning wherever we can on the importance of investment in all aspects of development. But in terms of what every emerging writer can do for themselves:
1. Invest in our own development
Any career needs a degree of personal investment; whether its years of practice and training, or capital up front to start a business. Deciding to make a business investment in your own development as a writer could help tackle the creeping suspicion that you’re wasting your time when you write a spec script. Every business needs R&D, test runs, equipment, so this perspective may also help justify investing in a ticket to a festival, travel to a networking opportunity, or a script editor to work with. Obviously it depends if we realistically have any spare money or time to invest. But until a writer has developed enough for someone else to put their cash on the line, we all need to make that mental leap for ourselves. Talent may be an unknowable quotient, but even Mozart put in thousands of hours of learning before he was recognised as a child prodigy. To bridge the chasm and become someone producers want to talk to, we inevitably must bear the initial financial risk and invest in our own period of talent development.
2. Understand the development process and the perspective of the producer
Tony Jordan shared an interesting insight on this subject (and bear in mind this is a writer/producer who actively supports new writers). He said he’s not interested in seeing a three page treatment for a TV series from a new writer. He wants to see a script. Not only that but; ‘I don’t want to see it until it’s the 10th draft and you’re really happy with it and proud of it and think it’s the best you can do’. He’s come across new writers who balk at this, but look at it from his perspective: Is this a man who’s lacking ideas of his own, or access to established writers with great ideas? Why should he back your proposal unless he can see your talent to deliver? The same is true for any creative company; they won’t be lacking ideas and much of what they develop may well originate in-house. What all producers need, however, is relationships with talented writers who can deliver.
As Andy Briggs and Daniel Martin Eckhart pointed out in their panels, its all about being ready when a door opens to you. Maybe someone likes a script you wrote, but what if they want to see more? Do you have a few more you can pull out of the draw? What if someone actually wants to hear some of your ideas, do you have plenty up your sleeve if they shoot the first couple down?
Obviously the ideal is to be paid to develop our ideas from a three page treatment, but it’s rare until a writer earns their stripes developing their speculative projects and putting in work on other people’s material. There are one or two golden opportunities that come along, like the recent Shine competition. But, they had 700 entries and you can bet that the winner has put in their trench time elsewhere.
So where are the opportunities for newer writers to cut their teeth? Well, low budget productions of all kinds always need emerging writers because they can’t afford the established ones. The pay won’t be great but at least it may be something and you’re gaining experience and a credit along the way. Breaking in at this level, the burden of proof is not quite as strong. You still need some track record and sample scripts to prove that you’ve mastered the basics and that you have some flair and voice, but you won’t be expected to be perfect. This is because your share of responsibility is likely to be small. There'll be a supporting team around you to guide your work and take over if you can’t deliver. This is also the principle of many high profile, ‘entry’ level writing opportunities such as a first slot on Eastenders or winning the Red Planet prize. People will take a chance on you if the risk is small and there is a back up plan firmly in place.
Risk aversion is the natural inclination of producers and commissioners where jobs and sometimes even companies can be on the line if they don’t come up with the goods. Development is expensive so funds must be invested as securely as possible in projects and writers with the best chance to deliver. Understanding the producer’s perspective and problems seems an invaluable tool for a writer. They’re not the enemy guarding the gate, but are constantly looking out for viable new investments. Its up to us to become the reassuring solution they so desperately seek.
3. Learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff
Historically producers have not been known for their deep understanding of the writing process. If you listen to any established writer they’re all able to reel off entertaining experiences of dealing with teeth pullingly painful development input. In recent years there’s been some investment in development training for producers and decision makers; to some extent increasing your odds of meeting a producer who understands what you do. Some producers have natural creative instincts, some are writers themselves and some simply respect the writing process. When you’re out there meeting people, making relationships and getting involved with projects, how can you tell if a producer, or what they’re offering, is a good bet?
There was plenty of advice on this score at the festival. An excellent tip from Julian Friedmann’s session Should I produce?, concerned dealing with option agreements. Opinion varies on whether new writers should accept £1 options on their scripts. As an agent, Julian is clearly against them and I’d tend to agree that if a producer is any good shouldn’t they be able to get together a bit of cash to pay the writer? If there’s little or no financial risk for them, where’s the incentive to get working on your project? However, as much as worrying about the price of the option, Julian suggests you also discover how many other projects the producer has on their slate and where yours is likely to sit in their priorities. Is it better to be paid a small amount by a producer who will leave your project on a shelf, or practically nothing by someone who’s putting everything into getting it made?
A couple of years ago I attended intensive producer training at Cannes with U.S. producer Robert Nickson. He said he would only pay $1 options because he would then invest $10,000 in trying to get the thing off the ground. Rather than just feeling grateful when someone wants to option your script Julian advises writers to assimilate some of that producerly thinking, evaluate producers as potential business partners and don’t be afraid to negotiate different types of agreement. As long as you’re realistic about what each party is bringing to the table there could be partnerships to be made.
Putting aside big companies that we’d all love to work with, how do you evaluate the up and coming producers and directors you meet, or smaller independent companies you could build long term relationships with? Obviously you’ll be interested in their connections, track record, knowledge and ambition. What about their passion and vision; do they know what kind of projects they want to make and how they intend to go about it? Are their passions similar to yours? Also, fundamentally for me, how much respect do they have for the writing process? A producer may not be creatively strong themselves but do they recognise this and work with others who can support this aspect of their business? Do they understand the importance of writing and development to the whole production process and prioritise it wherever they can?
As Nicola Shindler said in her session, if you look at the success of her company its no surprise to learn that she puts writers at the heart of what she does. For Tim Bevan Working Title’s success is also evidently built on realising the importance of development, having a varied slate and working closely with writers through all stages of production. In these lean times, newer producers may not have a lot of money for development at first. But if you want to spot the new Nicola Shindlers and Tim Bevans coming up, a healthy respect for the importance of development and an ability to work with writers might well be qualities to put on your shopping list.
As you build these relationships with producers, directors and development people, how do you recognise who has this knack? How do you know which notes to take note of and which to ignore? Festivals are always full of great tips on this score. However, as this is a subject of great passion for me, I think it’s definitely got to be one for another day!
(In the meantime, if you’re interested, I wrote an article on the development process for Twelve Point a while back which you can read here )
I don’t get carried away by TV that often, but back in the late 90s, when Season 2 started to bite, (excuse the pun but if you know the show you know what I mean), I became a passionate follower. Having never really bought many films or TV shows previously I bought all seven seasons on video, (yes VHS!), and then again on DVD. It’s a show that I know and love better than any other so far. It would be, for me, like getting to work on the Doctor Who reboot after having adored it as a child.
However, no sooner has this idyllic thought popped through my head than I read today that Buffy is already scheduled for a ‘re-imagining’ in movie form! You can read the article in Screen International here
Now the show only ended about six years ago and was a massive hit with a still loyal fan base. Warner Brothers and Atlas Entertainment obviously hope to cash in on that fan base and on the teen/vampire mania of the Twilight series. Of course the idea of a Buffy movie franchise is good in principle but there are a few things that really define the Buffy universe for its fans. Is this project likely to please them or piss them off?
Well the first thing sending fans across the internet into a rage is the fact that creator Joss Whedon will not be involved in the project. Now if you want to look at a writer with a voice, you could hardly ask for a better example than Whedon. The humour and turn of phrase that was a trademark of the series was unmistakably, individually his and had a big influence on many shows that followed. Can someone other than Whedon himself update this style while at the same time retaining the core voice that people loved? This seems unlikely. Now, this would be fine if we were talking far into the future when times have fully moved on, (like, for example, updating The Avengers for 2012). Time would then be ripe to have a ‘re-imagining’, but this show is still fresh in everyone’s minds.
Another aspect of Whedon’s clear voice was his ability to perfectly balance the humour of the show with a genuine depth of emotion and emotional truth within the conflicts at stake. Yes the story had a supernatural fantasy setting, but the personal conflicts; involving issues with parents, peers, first love and betrayal, or dealing with our own desires and failings, were recognisable to any teenager or twenty something. When your heart is breaking for the first time it really does feel like the world is going to end and for Buffy it actually is. Although the show was always able to share a knowing joke with the audience about its own flaws and conventions, it was never tongue in cheek about the central emotional struggles of its characters. This helped create an audience that actually cared. Getting the balance exactly right; between knowing humour and emotional truth would be a sizable challenge for any writer.
Another thing that made Buffy what it was – it was set in a high school. The more she ages and the further she moves away from this basic principle, the more you’re messing with the central premise and strength in the idea. Buffy is essentially a girlie cheerleader forced to face up to the unimaginably huge responsibility that she alone can save mankind from the forces of evil. How do you deal with life when one minute you’re worrying about your prom dress and the next you’re having to stab your date through the heart? This gets you into all the juicy stuff about growing up and becoming a woman; about letting go of childish, romantic dreams and learning to stand on your own two feet. No surprise that more of Buffy’s core audience are women, or, perhaps, that the writer set to pen the reboot is a woman who watched the show as a girl.
The problem however is that in this new version, apparently, Buffy is not going to be a high school student anymore. To me this is not a good sign. The fact that the named writer; Whit Anderson, is a newcomer with no apparent writing credits also seems a bad sign. As others have noted; in her inexperience is she likely to have the strength of vision, or the clout, to withstand potential pressure to take the franchise the way of the Twilight crowd? – Essentially a story about a girl who's clinging so hard to her childish, romantic dreams that she acts much like a daughter to her wise and ancient boyfriend!
Buffy and Twilight are two very different animals. If this new movie messes with that it will alienate the loyal fan base and may well not be able to pick up the Twilight crowd on the other side. The danger of making a hash of it; not capturing the core magic, the premise, the themes, the voice, all seems a little too great. Even a young Whedon couldn’t get his vision for Buffy onto the screen in the original film, where it became twisted by various more powerful influences. For his opinion on the reboot read here.
For all I know Whit Anderson may be wildly talented and visionary. This may turn out to be a fantastic film. But the first signs don’t seem that good. I think its too soon. Buffy spawned a legion of shows attempting to cash in on the same magic. None of these have really come close, bar perhaps True Blood and Being Human. But by now don’t we all have vampire fatigue? Even the most die hard fans? Aren’t we all putting our vampire and werewolf related stories on hold with a view to digging them out down the line? Perhaps it would be ideal if they could do that with the Buffy reboot too. And by then, some years in the future, maybe I could be in the running to work on the new series!
Weird link - both have been news stand extras in different feature films; Jamie as a vendor and Chris a customer! (and we all turned out to be NFTS alumni)
Turning prior aquaintances into proper connections was a main highlight of the festival, where I enjoyed hanging out with writers and developers including Catherine Skinner, Tim Clague, Danny Stack, Lucy Hay and Evan Leighton Davis. I caught up with old pal and one man literary machine Andy Briggs and got to meet other entertaining writers like Daniel Martin Eckhart, comedy writer Nathaniel Tapley and Alice D. Cooper. In the bar on the Friday and Saturday nights I also enjoyed meeting American/slash/northerner James De Marco and sharing a jar with fellow festival veterans Piers Beckley and Dominic Carver.
On the first day Tim Clague was my guide to discovering ‘the secret room’, or what should more properly be called ‘the containment area’ - its basic function being a place where speakers can be coralled, before being led to their sessions. If you didn’t have access you can rest easy in my report that most people only passed through here briefly. It was a good place to get a coffee though and possibly run into someone interesting. I had a chat with script guru Linda Aronson and on the last day met the panellists for Writing for European Markets and USA as they gathered to plan their session. (This was a panel I actually suggested on a survey that came round many months ago – so go me!).
My festival highlights among the sessions include Writing for Young Audiences – an area where I felt qualified to join in the interesting discussion. Also listening to Tony Jordan, Nicola Schindler and Tim Bevan. Its always great to get tips and insights from the big hitters.
By the time our Meet the Gatekeepers session rolled around toward the end of the last day I was ready to take my turn on a panel. Before we started we thought we’d have trouble filling our 90 minute slot, but the time sped by and it seemed like we only scratched the surface of the topic, (perhaps a posting for another day). I ended the festival making a number of further good contacts from within our audience.
For me writers' festivals are primarily about building connections and sharing inspiration and insight. Apart from the genuinely fascinating topic of the writer’s voice, the other relevant issue of the festival for the emerging writer is of course; how to break in, form relationships with producers and work with these relationships once you have them. Where one subject is as welcome an indulgence as a warm bath, the latter is more like a cold shower. Its not exactly pleasant, but potentially invigorating, to confront the reality of the challenge ahead and be sure battle plans are firmly in place.
This was supposed to be the subject of today’s post, but to avoid a blog of infinite length; more shortly.
Another thing that was different this time was that I recently had my first professional script writing gig – (a whole episode to myself, not just storylining!) - so I was wearing my writer’s hat at the festival almost as much as my producer/script editor’s. I straddle the divide if you will, like some sort of colossus! – a perkily attractive and normally proportioned colossus of course, but you get the idea. I also occupy the middle ground between delegate and speaker. More delegate than speaker really, (I was only on one panel on the last evening), you could think of me a bit like a double agent stealing inside the inner sanctum and bringing back news from the front. And if I’d thought of this idea sooner I could have actually got some green room gossip, but this at least gives you a picture of my perspective on things.
So in my two hat wearing capacity, what did I glean from the London Screenwriters’ Festival? Well plenty of relationship building primarily and inspiration. But for the emerging writer I think it mostly boils down to two key issues. Firstly, finding, developing and protecting your ‘voice’ as a writer. Secondly, finding a way to network, break in and form relationships with producers and decision makers and work with these relationships once you have them. I figure this might be covered in two blogs, starting with the writer’s voice.
The Writer’s Voice
When I was first starting out from Film School, a fresh faced writer/director, I was annoyed by the vagueness of the idea of a writer’s ‘voice’ and didn’t know what it meant. Having since read, analysed and provided notes on hundreds of scripts I’m no longer confused. I definitely understand what this is. I may even be beginning to get an inkling of what my own voice might be. People perhaps assume we all know, so you don’t often get a clear explanation, but I think its worth defining. For me a writer with a clear voice is someone whose unique passion and perspective is always evident in their writing. It might be that they regularly return to similar themes, ideas or genres, or that they have a particular identifiable style of storytelling, or perhaps it can be seen in the types of characters and character voices they explore.
For an obvious example you might look to someone like Charlie Kaufman, who most often explores stories from an off centre, psychological perspective, (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine etc.), or Richard Curtis who, without realising it, actually managed to write the same core story in two hit films, i.e.; young man, with a group of quirky, supportive British friends, falls in love with an unattainable American girl who keeps coming in an out of his life… Even if you only read one script from writers like these, their unique passion and perspective; their voice, is still all over it. I can think of no better example than reading Diablo Cody’s Juno when it was doing the rounds and how vividly her fresh, unique, comic voice jumped off the page.
Finding a writer with this quality is gold dust to those holding the purse strings. At the festival session; ‘Should I Write a Spec Script?’, both Kate Harwood and Ollie Madden were clear that this is what they’re always crying out for and that writers with a strong voice would immediately be gobbled up and showered with opportunity. Some may have kinked a dubious eyebrow at this, but the fact is that finding and honing your voice while also developing you craft skills as a screenwriter is a big challenge, often unpaid. Many, except the most exceptionally gifted or determined, are going to fall by the wayside before they get close. As Daniel Martin Eckhart, on the same panel, put it; we all need to invest the time and energy to exercise our ‘writing muscle’. He wrote and rewrote 10 spec scripts before eventually landing his first paid screenwriting gig. In that time he discovered that his passion was for writing crime thrillers.
The advice from this panel, (and plenty others I’ve seen), was don’t try to write the genre or style you think is fashionable, but write what interests you. If you know the type of films or shows you ultimately want to write; start exercising and honing that muscle now. If you don’t already have an obvious passion; try different things out until you find it. Find out if you love writing breathless action sequences, or quirky regional characters, a certain kind of comedy, or twisted, psychological drama, or if there are themes and ideas you feel most passionate about exploring in different ways. We should use our spec scripts (as well as any kind of paid writing work we can get!) as time to experiment and find this voice. Most of us probably aren’t going to sell our spec script to Warner Brothers for $2million, (although this is a possibility as recently happened with The Hangover). However, we may create something that can open doors.
One of the most eloquent advocates of the writer’s voice is Tony Jordan who also had a session at the festival with Nicola Schindler. For Tony, a writer’s unique voice is the most precious thing they have and it must be protected. Although our own scripts may be the place where we can hone our voice, this unique quality should be present in every script we write. Sitting at home watching Eastenders, or even listening from the kitchen, Tony Jordan can recognise the voices of different, experienced writers on the show. Their individuality comes through and they are able to write lots of episodes precisely because they always find a way to express themselves within their scripts. Tony says that if you lose this quality you’ve lost your most valuable asset as a writer. I suggest that if you lose this; what are you writing for anyway? You may as well be writing instruction manuals.
So the festival has assigned us a mission to find and explore our writing voice. And according to Tim Bevan we should not shy away from being culturally and regionally specific. This is because culturally specific, English language films go down well with the worldwide audience and this is where British films make more of their income; rather than the U.S.. So, if your voice comes from the Welsh valleys, an inner city Chinese community, if you straddle two disparate cultures like some sort of devilishly handsome colossus, the unique, authentic detail you could bring to your work may well be what stands out. Apparently, it’s mid Atlantic, culturally non-specific material that’s harder to sell these days and thank God for that. Who wants bland, ‘everyman’ when we could have a window into something unique?
Next blog; more from the festival on how to make professional relationships and how to work with them once you have them to ensure you protect your unique writer’s voice. Also, perhaps a bit more on my personal experience of the three days and the interesting people I met. In the mean time if you have the chance to get on with the mission, God bless your luck! I know as well as anyone it can be hard to find the time and discipline amidst work and family. But if you’re like me, writing is like a passionate affair. You want to find a way to get back to it and be with it. You know it’ll be hard work once you’re there, but it’s worth it for the highs. I want to get back there soon. Maybe you do too.
- Sarah Olley
- Hello. I'm a UK based script editor, development producer and writer working in film and TV. You can visit my professional website at: www.scriptsurgery.co.uk and the developers' group I co-host and organise at: indevelopmentuk.blogspot.com