Things I Wrote While I Should Have Been Writing - Part One
Updated: Apr 21
There’s a story told by someone brighter than me that being a screenwriter is like running the first three legs of a relay with the crowd cheering you on before handing the baton over to the Producer, who with five yards to run hands it over to the Director who, with a yard to run hands it over to the actor who breaks the tape and takes the lap of honour, and while he’s shagging the beautiful sponsor, you are bent double gasping for breath and sicking up on the side of the track. It’s a great story, my only criticism of it is that it’s not entirely accurate. The truth goes more like this: you run like fuck out of the blocks and no one is cheering you on, because you’re running around that section of the stadium that’s empty, that’s still having building work done, all the fans are in the home straight, and all you can hear as you run is the pounding of your competitors’ feet and the sound of your own breathing, an unsupported solitude that leaves you wondering whether anyone actually knows you’re running at all. What’s more, you don’t get to hand over the baton because half way round the final bend you forget why the hell you started running in the first place and drop the baton like that lanky uncoordinated kid at school whose legs gave way when someone shouted that he stank of meat. They pick up the baton, hating you for dropping the thing and from then on you’re left out of the medal ceremony and are blamed for the fact you came third and not first.
The first thing you have to know about being a screenwriter is this: if you can make a living, it’s a great way to make one. The second thing you have to know is that you’re probably not going to make a living. The third thing is that even if you do, the industry is not about you. It has never been about you and it never will be about you. The last thing you have to know is that they will tell you that it is. They’ll tell you it’s all about you. You will hear things like ‘you can make a great script into a bad movie but you can never make a bad script into a great movie.’ You’ll hear things like ‘film is about script, script and script, we would have nothing to say if it were not for the script.’ You will hear things like ‘I read the script and I knew immediately we had a story I wanted to tell.’ Great, it’s wonderful to know that as a screenwriter you are the foundation stone of the entire film and television industries. Unfortunately that’s not true. Film is about the Director, television is about the Producers, and both are all about the actors, and none of those are you. Remember that. Then once you have dealt with that, you can find ways to make the job a great one, or at least an interesting one. But you really need to remember that basic fact, say it after me, ‘this is not about me’. Remember, if it was about you then maybe the public could name more than one screenwriter, instead of none. Jesus I am one and I can only name three, and one of them is my writing partner…and one of them is me. Two, I can name two.
In case you were wondering, this blog is not about how to write a screenplay. There are thousands of those books and they know better than me, besides you just need to watch a load of movies (or a bunch if you’re in LA where incidentally you should be) and then write a load of scripts and one day you’ll find out whether you’re terrific, ordinary or shit. This is a blog about my experience in the screen trade, mainly in the UK, from television comedy, through television drama to low budget films (again movies if you’re in LA) to bigger budget films. I’m lucky enough to have had all of the above made, some with a degree of success and even some awards and others with no success at all and a good deal of abuse.
I first wanted to be a writer when I watched The Odd Couple, I was about eight. I had no idea how you could be a writer or even whether they existed, it just seemed to me that Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon said really funny stuff and were so clever that they knew what order to say it in. It wasn’t until my father came into the room and told me that the film had originally been a play written by Neil Simon that something took root.
Mainly that my father thought it was funny and that meant that we could both laugh at the same thing, even though he was laughing at the layers of the human condition being so brilliantly expounded and I was laughing at Mathau’s hat. If comedy could allow me to be in the same room as my father, both of us laughing, that had to be a win.
Several years later, when I was somewhere between trying to read set texts for school and trying to meet girls and smoke Rothman’s, only the last of which I did with any success, I was introduced to Woody Allen (not literally which I’m glad about, I’ve since learned that meeting heroes especially comic ones is a deeply disappointing experience, they’re all depressed and they mostly hate you for loving them, but more of that later). I had been through Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and even Jacques Tatti (although my mother thought I meant Jacques Cousteau and made me sit through three hours of diving footage while inexplicably laughing all the way through it, looking back I think she was jealous of my relationship with my father), but nothing came close to the first time I saw Woody. Three scenes of Annie Hall and that was that. I was going to be a writer and probably a Jewish one from New York.
It was a few years before I worked out that I might actually try and be a writer rather than talk about it as something I would like to do at some point, although not writing and finding excuses for not writing is a huge part of being a writer. But in my defence, I truly think as a youngster you have nothing to write about. I know that we apparently write about the first sixteen years of our life over and over again, but the point is that until you’ve lived a bit you have no idea how to structure it, or what the themes are, indeed what themes are at all. I’m always very suspicious of writers under 30, they’re either geniuses or frauds but either way they’re irritating.
I was once asked by a young screenwriter what advice I would give him. It was simple, you do a load of different jobs, in my case teaching English to foreigners, farming, onion grading (yes it is a job and it does mean grading onions), sports journalism, several types of factory work, endless van driving, chauffering and pub work, as well as a job writing treatments for a low rent Production company who wanted to turn puns into shows (they had me pitch a show about people who have sex with animals purely because of a typo on a treatment that ended up reading Tails Of The Unexpected). Alongside the array of jobs, you need to have done some major work on your psyche, and I don’t mean for the better I mean for the worse. For example you can’t write either amusingly or movingly unless you have fallen horribly in love with someone utterly unattainable and had your heart wrought in two. If you have managed to pull that off you may be a half decent writer, but there’s more. You also really need to think you have fallen in love with someone who is in turn totally in love with you, before realising that their love for you is stifling and therefore you don’t love them after all and you’re gonna have to break their heart. Ideally then follow that by being the antagonist in that same equation. Finally, and I think most importantly, you must have a very complicated relationship with your family, if you’re male then especially your father, although a mother is fine, and both would be ideal. This is much easier to achieve than you might think. Just remember how much you want to make your father happy/laugh/feel better about his life and how little you can do about that and trust me, you’re nearly there.
I gave this advice and the kid wrote it all down studiously. Five years later, he wrote to me and told me that, having listened to my advice, he had decided not to become a screenwriter. He had thought about it but then realised that he quite liked his father and didn’t need to do a load of morale-sapping jobs as he was independently wealthy, which was presumably why he liked his father. In addition to which he found no difficulty in getting girls and felt that he wasn’t the falling in love type, so hearts could only really be broken one way, and that would never be his. In short, he was too wealthy, too cold and too cerebral to write. Instead he had decided to become a Producer. He then asked me if I had any projects he could option for a laughably tiny amount of cash, reminding me that it’s all about script, script, script. Oh good.
So anyway, how did I finally become a writer? I had the strange family background, a terrible flat full of bits of broken heart, mine and someone else’s, and I had done years of mind-numbing jobs that had left my morale somewhere around the stage of Terry Wait’s two years into his captivity when the guard walked in and said ‘good news we found another radiator shop.’ So surely all I needed to do was write. God no, instead I felt it best to spend some more time delaying and instead dedicated my time to reading about writing and writers; Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Alan Bennett, David Nobbs, Woody Allen, Dennis Potter, William Goldman, all the American short story writers. This took me ages and once again I had successfully delayed the moment I was dreading, namely the moment when I would sit down and work out what the hell it was I wanted to write about. What really did happen in those first sixteen years of my life and was there anything funny or moving in it that I could nick? Christ. But in the meantime, reading about the lives of these writers was confirming for me that not only was this writing thing going to be great fun, but also relatively easy and extremely lucrative. In addition to which I would be undoubtedly sleeping with some exciting and sexy women, all of whom could see past my growing paunch and directly at my untamed wit. And then, after many years of waiting, I wrote something. I became a writer and it turned out it was all a bit harder than that. Everything was a bit harder than that.