Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Meet the Producers

Here are the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from a great panel and award ceremony hosted by Euroscript at the British Film Institute this week. These are likely to be most useful for Screenwriters working in the UK, but also some great reminders for producers.

The panel consisted of three speakers:

Judith King, Head of Development at independent TV company Red Planet;

Robyn Slovo, independent Producer who has worked with Company Pictures and Working Title;

James Cotton, emerging producer who recently made the micro-budget Powder Room alongside Damian Jones.

And here are the wise words that resonated most with me:

  • Stick to your voice. Red Planet has to sell to UK broadcasters before they can move to sell America, so you can write in an authentic local voice that feels true to you.
  • Write a really amazing character you can cast well.
  • There is a danger in doing a story that's too small.
  • Most of the writers that get put forward to more experienced producers like Robyn have won competitions or have written for theatre. Theatre is a great place to get experience and to get seen.
  • If you get traction with a fiction project in cinema, that's a good time to also approach television.
  • Judith is looking for samples and talent when she reads unsolicited submissions more than just the pure idea. Her advice for email approaches is: "Go small on the sell and big on the introduction".
  • James' pet peeve is when screenwriters say "the script is finished" in their intro email. Invite collaboration, acknowledge that it's not your role to say when it's finished.
  • If you're not a collaborator, don't become a screenwriter. Become a novelist. As a screenwriter, you have to be open.
  • Don't be too precious and defensive when you get notes. A really bad re-writer will sabotage their own career.
  • At the same time, there's nothing more frustrating than someone who just lies down and takes your notes. As producers, we don't want to write the script. It's up to you as the screenwriter to decide which notes are good - and which ones are merely working as flags to point out there is a problem but no one knows what exactly or what do about it. No one except you.
  • Keep it short.
  • Most common for James is reading 10 - 20 pages and not knowing who the main character is or what's going on.
  • How you begin is the most important thing.
  • Structure: You have to learn the rules and then not use them when you write. Structure is very important, but you need to find your own structure and that is not always the same as the models taught in script classes and books.
  • You don't have to like a character, but you have to be intrigued or interested. My personal take on this frequent note given to writers is that what is really needed is that we are able to understand the character. For example, if the main character is a serial killer we will follow their story happily if you put us in the shoes of the serial killer - make us understand why they act the way they do, even if it's for hedonism or power or from anger etc. Make a coherent character we can relate to - and often the fact that we can relate to that will glue us to the screen in morbid fascination at our own darkness. This is why Walter White from Breaking Bad works so well - we can understand how a guy who is sick and tired of being under-appreciated and poor could make some dubious choices and we can follow every step of his evolution into a monster. Every step seems so logical - and the result is mesmerising.
  • It's hard to get big stories made as a first time writer - even The Kings Speech and The Theory of Everything were relatively small films.
  • Underlying IP is a very strong thing to have in the US and protects you and your idea, even if it's not a very good book/play etc.
  • Read a lot of screenplays.