1) When did you first realise that you wanted to become a screenwriter?
I never did. I worked as a runner, a third, second, first assistant director on commercials, music videos, TV and features. I had worked in the cutting rooms as an assistant and in the sound transfer department. I worked as a production manager and producer of short films and documentaries. Then I took time out, I sat down and just wrote out ideas for films, or sometimes collaged images, shot bits of Super8, anything I could to give an impression of what the film might be. That’s when I started writing screenplays of sorts. It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people.
2) How did you make that transition into making it a fulltime career?
I worked on music videos and commercials as an AD to earn the rent. I did anything. I kept plugging away. Then a friend of mine who had risen up the executive ranks got me a commission. But it was 5 years before anything got made (Queen of Hearts, 1989), so I worked on an awful lot more music vids.
3) What were the main obstacles you faced when starting out as a writer?
Apart from my own shortcomings, it can be depressing when nothing gets made. A screenplay is part of a process, the first part to be sure, but alone it’s of limited value. It isn’t a novel or a poem or a song.
4) Do you stick to a daily routine when writing? If so, has this changed at all over the years?
Routine saves me. I get up very early. I go to the desk. I imagine a dark cinema. I imagine the first sound, the first picture. I get ready to watch the film. It is trance-like. I write. When I am full on writing I don’t want interesting things going on around me. I don’t want distractions. I need to focus on the page and on the movie in my head. So, an early start to the day – 5.30 or 6. Then something physical – yoga, run, swim, whatever. Coffee. Sit down. Do emails. Then turn off phone/internet/children. Write. Stop at 1pm. Walk. Take a notebook. Walking is good for ideas. Eat something very light. Sit down. Read what you wrote the day before. Research a bit. Make notes for where you will start tomorrow (never complete anything). Stop around 6pm. Go home. Be nice. Do this 6 days a week. Research on the 7th. Keep going. Do not rewrite as you go. GET TO THE END. Then rewrite. That’s the plan anyhow. Good intentions. Hell awaits.
5) What gives you the most pleasure when writing, and what elements of the craft do you find most difficult?
There is a huge amount of acting involved in writing. It is close to possession – you must allow a character to inhabit you as an actor would. A character wants something – to get to London, or to have a separate identity from his brother, or to get married and have a home, or to have their daughter be alive again. The more obstacles between them and what they want, the better the drama. That’s the received wisdom but the truth is I don’t always find it very helpful at the beginning. My way in is to allow the character to inhabit me – then to go on the journey – to see what happens. Once I get to the end I go back over and identify themes and plot and the rest and I try to smarten it up. I’ve always got things I want to do to get to a second draft but third drafts are tough. It’s a matter of staying on it when some of the novelty has worn off. Also there is the question of notes…
The game is part of the fun. It is a dance. Sometimes I get irritated and I bitch and moan and drink too much. But I have an admission – on more than one occasion a really really dumb note has seemed less dumb the next day, in fact quite good, in fact a completely better way of doing the scene. How amazing that the note-giver has learned so much over night.
6) If there was a piece of advice you could tell your younger self when starting out, what would it be?
I doubt very much if my younger self would have listened. But if I could attract his attention for a second I’d like to remind him how film making is a social act, how he needs to share information and hopes with his peers, how you are weak alone but very strong as a group. Even beyond agents and executives your peers are the most important part of your career.
7) Writers always seem to need agents in order to have their work seen and sold, yet most agents want to see credits before representing a writer. Do you see a way to break through this?
You phone agents, you ask for a meeting, you ask for a reaction to your work. You do the rounds. You keep writing. You do the rounds again. If you’re lucky you get to meet a junior at the office. But agents are smart, that junior will have his or her own clients in a year or two. That client could be you.
8) You’ve directed several short films. Is this something you’d like to do more of?
I am quite a novice in this department having only directed a clutch of short films and a couple of art films installations. The main appeal is just being so much a part of the social act that is filmmaking – contact with actors and crew – problem solving – being carried along by the wave of a group effort.
There are problems. Directing uses a very different muscle to that used for writing. I find writing for something I will direct quite difficult as I have to push away the little voices warning me of the reality that awaits. But then I love coming to the screenplay as a director – simplifying – identifying the main beats. It makes you a little schizophrenic. Though I do miss the dance between screenwriter and director.
9) Do the directors often work with you once they have become attached to the project?
Initially I prefer to work with producers. I like to find the piece – discover the world – write the film. Then I want to work with the director – to travel with him through the story – to hear his or her questions and doubts and notions. It is a joyous moment as the whole thing is developed, reinvented and moves closer towards a reality. Listen. Be prepared to entertain something you do not understand. Ask questions. Answer other people’s questions truthfully.
The script is being developed all through the making of the film. The screenwriter is only truly free once the final cut is delivered.
Actors bring everything – you write and they become. I marvel at what they do – tilting lines – finding surprising or new ways of interpreting something. So long as they start with the text and the intentions, so long as they make an act of faith in the world, then I am excited by where they take the piece.
I have gained a lot of insight from directors – by watching all the rushes, seeing it edited and different versions emerging. Recently I have become a bit obsessed with what is off screen. It has come out of working on a new miniseries called SOUTHCLIFFE with Sean Durkin directing and produced by Peter Carlton. Sean is very interested in pushing the action off screen. It makes for a fantastic dynamic tension between his directing and my writing. So when I have been writing since, I start to reference action more obliquely, more poetically perhaps. It encourages the audience to buy in more – because they are contributing to the action.
10) Which one of you scripts and films are you most proud of and why?
It takes a lot of people make a film. It would be churlish to name a favourite child. But there have been one or two that have helped me reinvent myself and my path: QUEEN OF HEARTS was the first, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS was a treasured intro to Gilliam and his world, VANISHED! A VIDEO SEANCE with Brian Catling rescued me from a very low point, IN THIS WORLD showed me the world and what filmmaking could be, RED RIDING reignited my love affair with TV and helped me get to SOUTHCLIFFE.