Wednesday, 17 August 2011

TV Drama: The Writers’ Festival – Jimmy McGovern in Conversation

“If you’ve not been told you need a psychologist, as a writer, you’ve failed.”

Photo by Jason Arnopp
One of the biggest treats of the festival was Jimmy McGovern in conversation with Kate Rowland. Frank and funny, a self-confessed “grafter”; here’s a man with wit, integrity, a commitment to revealing the truth through drama, and some highly quotable one-liners…

He said you have to “tell the story you want to write”; that it’s about “having a visceral response to a story” – and “a story that helps people”.

He would not write a story if it meant nothing to him. He said that he’s not “political with a big ‘P’”, but writes about issues that matter to him.

Asked “Why TV?” he said, “nobody’s going to go to the cinema to see Hillsborough; that most British and Hollywood films “are an insult to our intelligence” (he praised foreign films), and that most theatre writers “are crap”. On television, “you can tell intelligent stories about things that are important.” TV “gets done… If it’s any good it’ll get made”.

On Hillsborough, he said that all that mattered was telling the story. He didn’t expect the BAFTAs – and feels uneasy about that side of things. “People are still grieving.”

He talked about “forgiveness” as a theme, and said that he finds himself writing about it all the time. “Compassion; what it means to be a human being”.

He believes that “lousy journalism creates the need for good drama”, and that it should empower the people involved, whose stories are being told. “The process has got to be more than the product.”

For Sunday, he spent four years in Derry talking to everybody involved in the events, and stood by every word. He said that every detail in the drama was later revealed to be “spot on”, by the Saville Inquiry.

The idea that “law and justice are incompatible” informs the whole of Accused; and in Frankie’s Story, it’s about “the conflict between humanity and the need to kill (at war)”. The question examined is: “what does it take to get young men to kill other young men?”

On The Street and Accused (on which he works with other writers), he “never accepts a story unless (he) can write it” (because ultimately he “might have to”) – and he “tries to work with writers who are good”.

He prefers writing with other people, and gets “depressed” writing on his own. The “best times” are “talking story (and getting paid for it!)”. “No ego… none of that, thank you… It’s not about ego, it’s about story.” The aim? (“We fail!”) “…to end up with a story so pure… total integrity – it looks as though we found it in the street.” It “looks effortless”. The writing is “not present”.

He said, "if God spares me, I’m going to write a historical epic” – with writers he likes.

On writing and hard work: “we confuse writing with typing… writing is sweating blood.” It’s about “getting under the skin”.

He avoids writing the first way he thought of getting into a scene; as that’s just “adequate’. He finds a totally different way, and “gives five hours to it, not half an hour”; he “finds a way most other writers wouldn’t come up with” (the bonus being, that this makes it more gripping for audience, as they won’t have thought of it either).

He said, “we strive to write great drama,” but that in this attempt, “you (we) will fail, we all fail.” He believes that the way to succeed in this quest is to “employ brain and heart – and strive to write great drama”. “It’s all brain and heart - some writers only employ brain.”

He told the story of football trials as a child, and the way he’d get noticed, and said to: “write as the kid with his shirt outside his shorts… that’s how you demonstrate talent; that’s how you get the phone ringing”.

On Brookside, he would be “writing for eight actors… six who couldn’t act - pieces of wood”. “Write for the two who can act.” “What counts is the manifestation of your talent.” 

Update: Broadcast has more highlights of the conversation here.

July Drinks - Critic and Creative

Thanks to our lovely guests this July - Film 2011 critic, journalist and novelist Danny Leigh and screenwriter, journalist and novelist Jason Arnopp. They were with us to chat about their experiences working as critics of other people’s fiction as well as creators of their own. What are the advantages and pitfalls of moving from one end of the creative process to the other?
With 20 years experience interviewing interesting types from across TV, music and film, m'colleague Mr. Arnopp has just launched a fascinating e-book called How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else, as well as a website for aspiring journalists. Always witty and fun to be around, (his 12 thousand twitter followers I’m sure would agree), Jason can certainly teach us all a thing or two about ‘bedside manner’. Meeting and forming relationships with such a breadth of people in the industry also doesn’t harm you when making the transition into screenwriting. A long time journalist for Dr. Who magazine, Jason now writes a variety of official Dr. Who fiction and his first produced feature Stormhouse was launched this year at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Long time film and music journalist Danny Leigh was recently plucked from his Guardian film blog to co-host the revamped Film 2011 alongside Claudia Winkleman. Their partnership of informed everyman and passionate intellectual has already proved a successful mix. Danny has written two critically acclaimed novels and was noted as ‘a key writer of his generation’ by Dazed and Confused magazine. He is currently writing his third novel and shared with us the pitfalls of trying to keep your creative focus when juggling multiple projects.

With lots to talk about with both our featured guests we’re glad they found time to join us for a drink amidst undeniably busy schedules.

Our area of the BFI lounge was buzzing as usual with a whole host of interesting guests from the world of film and TV development and production. These included award winning writer/director Justin Edgar, currently developing new feature projects with his company 104 Films, comedy producer Norma Burke, actor Ronan Vibert, about to fly off to shoot series two of The Borgias, (with the first series of this lavish production just launched on Sky Atlantic). Also, Christina Pickworth and Steven Russell from Loves Me Not Films, Adam Polonsky from Focus Films, script editor and writer Merle Nygate and script editor Lauren Cushman among many others. We had a fantastic evening with new friends and old and look forward as ever to the next one.

 For the summer break, August’s get together will be a relaxed affair, with featured guests this time: you and us! Come and ask us what we’re up to and tell us your news. Then we’ll be back with more featured guests and events in the autumn.

Hope you can join us. Invites coming soon. x

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

TV Drama: The Writers’ Festival – Day 2

By Hannah Billingham

Plenty of time to digest Day 1; now, finally, here’s Day 2…

The curse of the scriptwriting guru?

John Yorke, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Production and New Talent, is renowned for his engaging and informative lectures on screenwriting. His Series Masterclass at last year’s festival was excellent (see Margit Keerdo’s write-up, here). This year’s session was so compelling, I almost forgot to take notes…

John Yorke. Photo by Jason Arnopp
The gist of it was: we get worked up about structure, but storytelling, and story structure, are inherent to human beings. It’s as simple as a beginning, middle and end. Jason Arnopp has written about the session on his blog: “It's hardwired into our psyches, just like morning, afternoon and night, or birth, life and death.” John also referenced the Hegelian Dialectic’s  “thesis”, “antithesis” and “synthesis”.

We were taken on a tour, from ancient Greece to the present day, via Eugène Scribe’s well-made play (the “first formula”), with the conclusion that the five act structure and the three act structure are fundamentally the same (the latter, a simplification of the former). John cleverly put the structure diagrams of several script gurus’ theories (from the ages) next to each other, to prove that they are all saying the same thing.

He concluded that while people like David Hare may disparage the “film school”/Syd Field/Robert McKee “formulae” of film structure (see photo), practitioners of every other art form takes pride in the academic study of the history of their art - and that classical drama structure is rooted in history, and in the way that human brains think.

The session ended with the quote:

“First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” – Delacroix

Launching a new series

This was a festival highlight, with another experienced, successful, know-their-stuff panel.

Jane Featherstone, Kudos’s Creative Director opened by saying it’s about getting the elements right, but it’s also about “alchemy” between those elements, and “luck”. She said: “it all starts with the writer”. Writer, Bill Gallagher said it “starts with the character”. Ashley Pharoah said that, in the case of Wild At Heart, premise came first, then potential for conflict, then character. It’s about having an instinct for conflict that “has legs”. And ensuring that every scene is as entertaining as you can make it.

Toby Whithouse believes you have to “give the audience what they need, rather than what they want”. Audience is broad. You can’t please everybody. It’s not about “producing something facile, in a desperate need to please”. He said he creates massive reams of character bios - digging to create three-dimensional characters.

The panel agreed that the key to a successful series is wit and humour (in terms of take on the world), and that you generally need to “get to the premise more quickly”, in episode one. They referred to the US “premise pilot” and said that In the UK the first series is the equivalent of a US pilot. Series one of Luther lacked “tonal clarity” – rectified for series two. (There’s more on this from Luther writer, Neil Cross, here.)

Ashley Pharoah said that the times he has “come a cropper” are when he has “stepped out of genre”, and that you need to know the rules of what you’re creating: the “world”, and “what it is”. In the telling of the story, you need confidence; you “have to look as if you know what you’re doing!”

Toby Whithouse said that it sounds obvious, but you should show characters “doing their thing” to set them up.

Jane Featherstone thinks that Spooks has kept going for so long because of a “let’s make the next series better” mentality. Total passion, total commitment.

Bill Gallagher wrote thirty-two episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford and absolutely loved the characters, so there was never an episode where he thought, “Oh, God… (not this).” He learned on Casualty that drama is to “create a character (and) throw shit at her.”

Other points made were: it’s about having “an iconic character you love” (for example, Gene Hunt, from Life on Mars) – one that “stands out above the ensemble”. And don’t let characters change and grow too much. An audience comes back to the characters they love. “Things aren’t fundamentally changing greatly.” (Pressing the “reset button” at the end of an episode.)

Thriller – the trojan
“Or: how to smuggle ideas and stories in under the beguiling cloak of genre.”
Panel: Frank Spotnitz, Jane Featherstone, Fiona Seres, Hugo Blick

Some gems of advice here, but my notes are a bit sketchy for this one... (If anyone can fill in the gaps, of who said what, I’d love to hear from you.)

Hugo Blick defined suspense as “knowing what is coming” and mystery as “not knowing what is coming”.

It is manipulative if the writer has an obvious intention.

Thrillers need wit and élan – we can’t get underneath dull characters.

Use the elements of the genre and spin them for your own purposes – will become fresh. Weave in truth. We need to buy into the story emotionally and believe it could happen. Heart and head.

“No tears for the writer, no tears for the viewer.” (The same goes for fun.)

“Sit forward, rip the mask off, don’t be po-faced, have fun!”

Don’t be polite; make the audience uncomfortable. And, in plotting, “don’t show the strings”. In film, “you can really see the strings” and the heart gets pushed out.

Frank Spotnitz said that, as a writer, if you don’t know how it’s going to end, it can be a good thing. He’s been in this position before on The X-Files. How will the audience know how it will end, if you don’t? You’re going to figure it out eventually, because you’ve been setting it up, subconsciously.

It shouldn’t be: “character services plot”. Should be: “only this character can experience this plot.” The perfect goal.

Panel: Paula Milne, Sarah Phelps, Bill Gallagher

Paula Milne likes adaptations for “not having to find the story” – and will do them if she thinks she can “bring something to the table”.

Sarah Phelps asks “why is it a classic?” and “Is it still a classic?” She’ll work on an adaptation if she has a “blood beating passion” for it, and a way to tell the story (the perspective might have shifted). Writing Nancy, in Oliver Twist, she saw Sophie Okonedo’s face. She was criticised for the choice of a black actress in this role, but in classic stories she’s passionate about asking, “who are these characters really?” - and looking at the sweep of history.

Bill Gallagher discussed the idea of adaptation as “translation” and Paula Milne said you can’t be in awe of the book.

Sarah Phelps said she’ll really kick the stories around and interrogate them – and that it’s about telling new audiences “how good these stories really are”.

Burning Questions
Ben Stephenson and John Yorke

Key points: 

People still have a hunger for shared experience. (Twitter is about “now”.)

Ben Stephenson said that what moves him is “something someone has a passion for” – he “can’t stand second guessing”. “No great idea ever born out of cynicism.”

The best script note is: “how can it be more itself?” - it's all about tonal clarity.


If you haven’t been on the Writersroom website recently, it’s an incredibly useful, inspiring and highly addictive resource - and includes scripts by Writers’ Festival panellists, including Paula Milne, Danny Brocklehurst, Toby Whithouse, Jimmy McGovern, Esther Wilson and Alice Nutter.