AN ACTUAL SHOW
My first experience of a real life television show was with an Independent Television company in London to be broadcast on Channel 4. My first proper paid job and on a show that was actually going to be on television and only a short three years after I got my literary agent. From now on my delivery van was going to have to just learn to drive its fucking self. Those books I had read about writers were all finally going to make sense, my life was going to be a series of moments I could recognise from the life and times of Neil Simon and Billy Wilder.
The show was the type that you become familiar with the more experienced you get. It’s what television is full of, a show created and developed by an in-house development team. These are people who are paid by a Production company to sit around thinking up ideas, usually ‘high concept.’ This is another one of those expressions you hear a lot in television and film. It basically means an idea that is infinitely better than anything the actual script can deliver. I have made a career pitching great ideas that become months of misery as I realise that my moment of genius that went so brilliantly in the room was actually not much more than a funny line. Still, if you’re lucky it takes them a few thousand quid and a couple of drafts for the executives to come to the same conclusion. At which point your ‘funny line’ goes into ‘turnaround’ and you get to sell it all over again.
The idea is everything. The days of a respected writer walking into a commissioning office or a film execs office and saying ‘I want to write a story about a man struggling with his inner self set somewhere in the middle of nowhere’ are over. Indeed the days of a respected writer walking into the same office and saying ‘so Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito are twins’ are also over. Whatever your concept, however high, they are going to need something more, an outline, a well-known director, better still a well-known actor and preferably one that doesn’t have a #metoo pending.
This show I was on was very ‘developed.’ It was about a group of friends who get together in their late twenties and decide to make a list of things they have to do before they’re thirty. The pursuit of these goals and the relationships that took place during it were what made up the show. I was brought on with three others who had received the ‘we like your work but don’t want to do anything with it, so how about you come and write one of our ideas’ speech. Hey I was grateful. I was in a room with three writers, two Producers and a script editor looking at a huge whiteboard full of character notes, actions, series arcs and story beats.
This was it. I was a writer.
As the development went on, the show moved away from its original concept and became more about the relationships between the group of friends. That’s what happens. It’s the concept, the high concept, that gets the company the money to develop the show, but the development of that idea inevitably leads to it becoming a different show entirely. What then happens is the executives who paid for it start to panic and the Producers have to convince them it’s going in a good direction while agreeing to make it a bit more like the original idea they commissioned. You, the writer, are in the middle of this. What that means is that you do endless story outlines that have to be passed by several people before you get to start on the script. The dream of being a writer becomes the job of being a writer. You will write more treatments and more story arcs than you ever thought possible for a half hour drama about a bunch of kids trying to get laid and do fun stuff.
Eventually we all settled on the six episodes and who was going to write what. I was writing episode two. That meant picking up the ‘set up’ episode and taking things forward slightly but not massively, emotionally and story-wise. I set off to start writing and I remember specifically that it just flowed. I’d finished writing the first draft in about three days, I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t care about anything else but having something I had written on the television. I handed it in and I discovered that the only thing quicker than me writing it was the time it took to get it back with a load of red lines through it. I remember one of the notes ‘stop explaining everything and just show it.’ Now that’s obvious. Everybody knows that, even people who don’t have anything to do with screenwriting know that. I forgot. So I started writing again.
This time it took me a week, and I sent it in. I heard nothing for a week then I got some notes. These were much better, specifics about moving things about, developing certain themes, hiding the plot, losing some exposition. I made the changes and again a week passed and more notes arrived, again mainly finessing and nuancing. I finessed and nuanced and sent it once more. Three or four days later more notes arrived, again tweaking and shifting. Did them. Sent them off. This time two weeks passed but it wasn’t an email it was a phone call. The script editor (more about those guys later) told me that they had decided to change the order of the episodes. Mine would now be episode five rather than ep two so that would change the arcs of the characters… ‘oh and we start shooting in two weeks.’ There was no explanation just a done deal. Fuck! I set about doing the notes, moving the characters on to their new emotional place even though I had no clear idea where they were at the end of ep 4. But I did it and I sent it. A few days passed and more notes, then more notes, then more notes. It was a day until the read through and I was doing a page one rewrite, I was on about draft nine. A’ page one’ is what we call a complete rewrite. No producer will ever admit to the fact they are requesting a page one, mainly because that usually means you can renegotiate your money, but also so as not to kill your morale. As you’re ploughing through the ten pages of notes, their words will be ringing in your ear ‘it’s nothing fundamental, just a few tweaks.’ The only time I’d heard the word ‘tweak’ before I became a writer was when, at school, someone grabbed my nipple and twisted it causing me immense pain, it was happening all over again.
I did the rewrite and the read through came, a room full of actors, producers, executives, with the addition of costume people, make up and the Assistant Directors. At this point in my career I had no idea what an Assistant Director did, let alone all three of them. I found out later when I attempted to direct a show I had written. I’ll talk about that when I get to the blog about not falling into the trap of thinking you can direct.
I had been at read-throughs before in my brief and deeply unsuccessful career as an actor, but this was different. These were my lines being read. It couldn’t have gone better, it got some laughs, it was even a little moving and definitely felt sharp and vibrant. I was delighted. It was all underway, my career had finally started and I was only thirty-two.
So the show was shot and I even got a call from one of the actors telling me how mine was his favourite episode, admittedly he got to have sex with the gorgeous girl in it who we later found out hated him, but he sounded genuine. But then everything changed, just like a great story should, just when everything was going so well.
A week before transmission I got a call. It was the Producer. I won’t name her but she’s the girlfriend of a very famous comic who used to be fat but isn’t so fat now. She told me that she had decided that my episode ‘didn’t quite work’, as a result they were going to pull it ‘for the sake of the show.’ Pull it? What the hell did that mean? You can’t pull something you already filmed, you can’t pull episode five of six it wouldn’t make any sense. How naïve I was. Of course they can pull it, they can do what the fuck they like. I was devastated. My career hadn’t begun after all. Where was the mortgage and the nods from admiring fans on the tube? Where were the film companies knocking on my door to ask me to write a movie? All I had was a copy of an episode that would never be seen and a very tricky phone call to make to my mother who had already invited over everyone she knew to criticise it.
I was totally lost, had no idea what to do next. I would be that bloke who had his episode cut because he couldn’t write for shit. My agent, the script editor, one of the actors and for some reason my neighbour all told me that wasn’t the reason but I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned it was fucked, it was over.
I could sense my old van was sitting in a pound somewhere, chuckling to itself wondering how long it would be before it played host to my already embittered failure of an arse once more. This is a hugely important part of being a screenwriter - an overwhelming sense of disappointment. You can never feel that enough, and as my career started to improve rather than disintegrate that disappointment has only become more intense and more frequent. I spoke to an Oscar winning writer about this recently. He said that you will always be disappointed you just have to hope that the increase in your disappointment is matched by an increase in fees.
If you are reading this blog thinking about becoming a screenwriter as a way to find happiness, forget it, if you want to be a screenwriter at all it’s too late. You’re just not the kind of person who will achieve that, and if you happen to become a good one then good luck, because that kind of happiness will be a stranger to you. I don’t say this out of misery or bitterness, both of which I have in large doses, I say it because I think it’s a trait that you need in order to be good. I know two happy screenwriters. One is independently wealthy and hasn’t written in ten years and the other is dreadful. I know several miserable ones, men and women struggling daily with their mental health, with their total inability to ever feel joy, and each one of them magnificent people and terrific writers. That said, we rarely speak to one another anymore…miserable wankers!