Things I Wrote While I Should Have Been Writing - Part Three
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
I should say at this point in the blog, that while I am relating my experiences of a life in screenwriting as honestly as I am able, and trying to show the truthful development of what is a fairly mediocre career, I have been made aware that along the way I may be coming across as slightly bitter. I would like to make it clear that I am not - slightly bitter doesn’t cover it. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that being a writer is a privileged existence, and I know that I am extremely lucky to make a living doing something quite as pointless and self-indulgent as this, but nevertheless when things don’t go quite the way you want, strange and dark things can happen…if you let them.
Seeing my brother-in-law always reminds me of how ridiculous this career truly is. He always asks me how work’s going and I find myself responding by saying I’m overworked and under-appreciated, or that what I’m currently writing has little chance of seeing the light of day because of a producer or a director or a financier or possibly just me, and that being a screenwriter makes me miserable and frustrated. Usually he doesn’t hear the end of my rant as he has fallen asleep. Apparently working fifteen-hour shifts in a busy kitchen for twenty grand a year is quite tiring.
Bitterness is a terrible thing. I hate meeting bitter people, those that think life is simply unfair, that it’s conspiring to obstruct their career, their loves, their life - people who think that anyone in authority is trying to screw them, that anyone who gives them advice are just lying to their face as the world secretly laughs at them. Why do I hate meeting these individuals? For the same reason I removed all the mirrors from my bathroom when it became clear that a diet of alcohol, bread and potatoes turned me into Demis Roussos. It’s me. It’s bloody me.
Nobody wants to feel bitterness, nobody likes hearing themselves exuding it, but it happens. Just read the thread of any screenwriter and it won’t be long before the ranting begins. So what brings about this unsavoury state? The answer is, a myriad of things. There’s the feeling of sitting in a posh restaurant being asked to write a treatment for a show in the knowledge that the Producer who’s asking for it has no money, apart from what they can spend on an Italian dish that literally contains no words you’ve ever heard of. There’s the time when you realise that the show you’ve written three episodes of won’t in fact be shown as the channel have decided that they no longer want shows like yours anymore. There’s the moment you walk into a read-through for a film and realise that literally no one knows who the hell you are, apart from the runner, who asks if you could pop out for him and buy some more biscuits. There’s the moment the film is being shot when you turn up on set and spend the entire time being asked to move and be quiet, while wondering why the actors are saying about twenty percent of the words you actually wrote. Then there’s turning up at the premier of the film you wrote only to be asked by the PR people not to walk down the red carpet as someone from Cash In The Attic is currently being interviewed by Rio Ferdinand, and few things are more likely to engender bitterness than being told that the fifteenth draft of your script which has already been green lit is now back in development because the actor attached to play the lead has decided that his ‘character arc’ needs more work. A decision he came to while on the set of his latest Pot Noodle advert. So yes, there is bitterness, there is also pleasure, but mostly there’s bitterness.
A friend of mine wrote a film that was nominated for seven BAFTAs. He wasn’t invited to the event. He became angry, frustrated, and then he received an email from the Producer saying that their policy was only to invite the writer if he or she was actually nominated himself. He wasn’t. It immediately went to that place deep inside him that always knew he was worthless, ironically the very place that inspired him to write the film that was getting everyone else awards…not to mention laid. Just as he was starting to deal with this reality, after a week on his own on a Greek Island drinking ouzo and staring at his gnarled feet wondering why so many people feel the need to post photos of their own feet while on holiday, he received an email from the lead actor who had been nominated for one of the BAFTA’s. He was wondering whether my friend would write a speech for him ‘just in case I win, as writing isn’t really my strength’ - alongside acting, judging by the screening my friend had accidentally been invited to. At this point the previously happy-ish, successful screenwriter of some repute completed the transformation from fine, to not fine to full blown bitter. Bitterness took hold and he has remained in that hellish if occasionally comforting place to this day.
That said, there was a time in my life when bitter was just a long warm drink, but things started to change when I entered the wonderful world of ‘development.’
This is pretty much all you do as a writer. It’s ironic, as the meaning of development is to move a project or character forward. In reality there are fewer things in a writer’s life that feel less ‘forward-moving’ than Development, and as I said, this is pretty much all you do. You develop ideas and if you’re lucky they become scripts and if you’re even luckier you develop the scripts.
In comedy you are still developing on set, indeed in the edit suite. In fact I have sat in a room with my family watching something I have written that’s actually being broadcast, and people are still making suggestions for improvements. To be fair it’s usually my mother, who thinks that everything is worse than it was before. For some reason everything has to be compared to the first series of Dad’s Army. It doesn’t matter what it is. She enjoyed part one of The Godfather but it was drivel in comparison to the first series of Dad’s Army. ‘Keep you friends close but keep your enemies closer’ she admitted was a good line, but apparently nothing when compared to ‘don’t tell him your name Pike.’ Unlike my mother you are always developing. A script is never ready, it just sometimes gets shot somewhere in the development process. But hey don’t knock it, this is how you make money.
Development started for me when my agent got me some meetings with the very few Producers who had responded well to my sample script. By the way a script becomes a sample script when everyone has turned it down. It’s another way of making something depressing feel positive. I have about two dozen sample scripts and more underway. But a few Producers, or at least their readers, had seen something in the script that convinced them to ask me to travel to their office, usually in Soho or West London, so I could sit in a waiting room drinking tea and reading Broadcast while the Producer finished off their phone meeting with ‘someone in LA.’ (Remember that place? Presumably that’s where you’re reading this by now).
Those early meetings went something like this. I would walk in and sit down, and the Producer (in my experience either a woman in her forties who’d spent years cutting her way through the dense jungle of sexism, or a man in his early twenties who asked a mate for a job) would then tell me that they had enjoyed the tone of my piece. I learnt quickly never to ask them specific questions about my work, as more often than not they hadn’t read it, and you don’t want to embarrass them. Instead say ‘thank you’ and then think about the answer to the next question, which is: ‘what kind of things would you like to write?’ Obviously you want to write something quite like the thing they are supposed to have read, but don’t say that, it sounds sarcastic. Say something else, like ‘I’d like to write shows that allow me to explore universal themes in an entertaining way.’ That might keep you in the room and the Producer off the phone. It might not.
The thing about Producers, certainly the ones that are prepared to meet you when you’re a ‘no mark’, is that they have absolutely no idea what they want and even less of an idea as to whether you could deliver it (the women are exhausted from the years of fighting it took to reach the position and the men know fuck all about anything.) So all you are really trying to get out of them is a bit of money to write a treatment. A few pages that allow you to express an idea with the back up of some characters and maybe even a story. If you can get that, it was a good meeting. A few hundred pounds is good at this stage, that’s a week driving a van, a month pulling pints or ten minutes sucking cocks (a little known job I once did which involved removing sick chickens from a coop on a battery farm.)
Eventually I did get a couple of treatment commissions. Treatments are the bane of a writer’s life. A treatment is horrible. It’s an essay, you are in an essay crisis. Even writing a treatment for a show or a film that is etched in your soul is still like writing an essay on crop rotation in the fifteenth century. It is always dull. However, and I hate saying this, I find them useful. If not as a way of selling the idea then as a way for the writer to work out whether there is one. Invariably there isn’t. I find that most ideas I’m excited about are awful when fleshed out. I think the use to the writer is twofold. First and foremost the very fact that treatments are tough and vile means that if you get to the end of one you will know whether you wish to spend six weeks writing the script. Secondly you can find stuff in the writing of them that you won’t have had before when it was just a very impressive pitch. I have found characters, stories and comedy in the writing of treatments that were never in the original idea.
However (there is always a however), it kind of depends on who you are writing the treatment for. I have submitted treatments that have been anything from two pages to fifty, from an outline for a television series to a pitch document for a movie - and while I do believe they can be useful for the writer, don’t confuse that with being useful for the executive. It’s amazing how often I have been in a room with several highly paid people (not that relevant but worth saying, the bitterness remember?) while they pore over the tome of outlines and character arcs, themes and research for a pilot script, and hear the words ‘we just need a bit more clarification. We love it, we really love it but we’re not sure where the audience access point is.’ ‘The audience access point’ is the point of the story or the part of the character that allows the audience to engage with the show. In the case of Tony Soprano he may have just knee-capped a bunch of people (notice ‘bunch’ again because it’s American, where I imagine you’re reading this now) but the audience apparently only access him when he goes home and worries about the nesting ducks. It’s an obvious thing that a half-decent writer will think about while creating hopefully deep, flawed and fascinating characters and a thing that can only really come across in the style of the writing.
A treatment can not of course show the executive the kind of writing that the writer will be executing. They hopefully know your style from you ever growing sample script mountain but even then they will probably say things like ‘I really need to know how I am going to like this person.’ ‘How will I like this person?’ ‘Where is this character’s redemption?’ The times I have wanted to say, ‘ I don’t know why we like him, why don’t you tell me why people like you.’ Redemption is a thing that apparently needs to happen in drama that never has to happen in life.