Writers on Writing
Six screenwriters from both sides of the Atlantic reveal what it is really like to put pen to paper for a living.
So You Think You’re A Screenwriter ?
Writer The Scouting Book For Boys, Skins (TV),
Shameless (TV), Cast Offs (TV)
…which also could be rephrased as a question a lot of people have asked me since they heard about Scouting Book; i.e. ‘how the fuck did you get a film made?’ And the truth is, I am very aware of how lucky I’ve been.
I know lots of writers who have specific aims in their career, like ‘I will have a play on at the Royal Court’ or, ‘I will write a film starring Dev Patel’. Well, the truth is, I was that person who wanted a play on at the Royal Court; the trouble is, they thought I was quite shit. I did the young writer’s programme, I met the literary manager, they showed me the door. So I had to get less schematic, and the rules I deployed after rejection were more scattergun than anything else.
With that in mind, I tried to draw up a list of career highlights of the last 10 years—chronologically it went; Royal Shakespeare Company give me new writing prize, Heyday films take me on an internship, I get employed writing a mobile phone tour of London, a female porn director asks me to write for her… And there’s no real pattern to it at all.
But I kept writing, and I think that’s the only advice I can give. And I kept writing for other people—and I think that’s important— because quite a lot of a screenwriter’s job is about dealing with notes. Eventually I wrote a play that someone liked and they employed me- that person was director Pawel Pawlikowski-and then I made the short film A Supermarket Love Song with Dan Outram that producer Ivana MacKinnon liked, and she then commissioned me to write on Celador Films first feature slate.
Six months later I delivered the first draft of The Scouting Book for Boys. Ivana liked it and Christian Colson, her boss, liked it. Ivana decided to get a director attached, and she brought Tom Harper on board. I’m not saying it was all gravy; my second draft, commissioned with the support of FilmFour, was shit because I listened to too many notes and got myself in a mess—if it were not for the fact that we finished second on the ‘Brit List’ (a rundown of the best unproduced screenplays) I’m pretty sure the film finances would have fallen apart. But it didn’t and, two years later our film is finally being released.
Jack recently won the Best British Newcomer Award at the 2009 London Film Festival for his Scouting Book For Boys screenplay, which is scheduled for release next Spring. His mockumentary Cast Offs is showing on Channel 4.
Embracing the Fear
Writer Control, Nowhere Boy, Cold Feet (TV)
As a writer, all I wish for is to sit down, write the thing, get to the end -and for it be GOOD. Sounds pretty simple, huh? So why am I racked with insidious insecurities before I embark on any writing journey? It beats me, so I’ve given up trying to understand and instead accepted that these jangly nerves are integral to the whole experience. I use this paranoia to make sure I write at my best, constantly re-evaluating, re-writing, seeing if I can make it, well… better. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Maybe I’m desperately seeking positives so that I’m not crippled each time I sit down to write. And it seems to work. I’m now wary of over-confidence. I need my neurosis. Most writers I admire are mad, crazy or weird in some form or other. Most are introverts. Now after years of trying to fit in with others, I’m realising that perhaps I just don’t. And that’s such a relief.
I’ve been very fortunate in that the two movies I’ve written have turned out better than I could have imagined. But with both I had a ‘feeling’ I was on to a good thing. I was in the characters, I was in the story, and crucially I knew where I was going. That’s the key. Even if I’m not happy with a scene, as long as I can keep going in telling the story then I will. I’ll come back and re-write stuff that’s crap, but as long as the premise and plot are in place, I’ll keep going. I need to see my work progressing. Even if it’s something as mundane as page count.
Matt Greenhalgh won several awards for his debut script, Ian Curtis biopic Control. His latest work, Nowhere Boy, is released on December 25
To read further ‘writers on writing’ contributions by the likes of Doug Chamberlin (Toy Story 2) Jeffrey Berman (creator, The Write Environment) Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and Mikkel Juel Iverson (founder, Save the Cat screenwriting network), subscribe to the print or digital edition of the magazine.