Tuesday, 15 April 2014

They Say The Darndest Things...

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with some fellow TV writers. Well, I say a conversation; it was more a cathartic expulsion of bile and frustration. But then don’t all conversations between writers ultimately end up that way?

Anyway, the topic under discussion was “things that TV Development Producers say”. Or specifically, “things that Development Producers say that make you wish BBC & ITV buildings had functioning windows so that you could throw yourself out of them”. As I said, it was quite a cathartic discussion.

Many of the producer quotes were greeted with howls of painful recognition. We’d all heard them in meeting after meeting. Those little clich├ęs or go-to questions that they trot out in every meeting with every writer. So much so, that they are now a trigger for involuntary violent fantasies. But were we being fair? Do the producers even realise that they’re doing it? Perhaps they have no idea that we’ve heard all their little sound bites before?

So, I’ve decide to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but offer this as a friendly guide to things you shouldn’t say in development meetings. Especially if your windows are open.

I also provide a little guidance on how a writer should/should not react to these pearls of wisdom.

1. If you could sum this idea in one line…


What You Shouldn’t Say
If I could sum up my idea in one line I wouldn’t need to write a script? Why must everything be boiled down to the small paragraph that will appear in the Radio Times? It strikes me that if you can’t grasp a concept that requires more than ten words you’re in the wrong job.


What You Should Say
It’s Sherlock meets Breaking Bad.


2. This is a great start/first draft.


What You Shouldn’t Say
A great start? A great fucking start? Have you any idea how I’ve sweated over this? And do you really think I’d send you an actual first draft? Writing this ruined my marriage, you prick. I missed my kid’s Nativity play to get this to you.


What You Should Say
I can’t wait to take it to the next level.


3. Why should we tell this story now?


What You Shouldn’t Say
Because I've only just had the idea. And why does it matter anyway? By the time you’ve ummed and ahhed over it, we’ll be five years down the line. For fuck’s sake, aliens could have invaded and UKIP could be in government by the time you make a decision and it actually gets on the screen. And did you ask that question when you were doing your latest reboot/literary adaptation? Or did you just ask whether the material was out of copyright? Wow, do they actually give you a book of stupid, pointless questions to ask?


What You Should Say
I think we can draw a lot of parallels between the 16th century and Austerity Britain. And stories about the human spirit are ultimately timeless.


4. We really like what you’ve got here, but have you considered…


What You Shouldn’t Say
Of course I’ve considered it. I’ve been through every permutation of this story to get to this point. I didn’t just bash it out in an afternoon, you know? I’ve lived with this idea, working it through my mind, drawing on everything I know and have experienced. I’ve lived with these characters until I feel like I know every detail of their lives; things that won’t make it to the screen but will inform everything they do and say. I did all that before I could even consider showing this to you.


What You Should Say
That’s a really interesting idea.


5. Whose story is it?


What You Shouldn’t Say
It’s MINE! You can’t have it. You’re not worthy!


What You Should Say
Ultimately, it’s about a flawed and complicated protagonist. S/he’s an everyman/woman that the audience will fall in love with.


6. I’ll know what I want when I see it.


What You Shouldn’t Say
Well, any chance you could give us a clue what that might be? Start by telling us what you don’t want to see and we’ll go from there. And don’t give me that shit about your likes and dislikes being irrelevant and it being about ‘good writing’ when we all know it’s about who bought you a drink down at the Groucho Club last week. When I’m made to throw shit at the wall, I’d like to know there is an outside chance that some of it might stick.


What You Should Say
Wow, it’s great to have such a blank canvas. It’s like there are no wrong answers.


7. I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.


What Not To Say
Why? Are you incapable of doing your job? Actually, I asked my postman what he thought of you and he called you an unprofessional dick. The woman in the chip shop agreed. I like to get a second opinion too.


What To Say
It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes.


But the ultimate annoying question and one that we’d all been asked….


8. But, if the main character does this will the audience like her/him?


What Not To Say
Perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll have a strong emotional reaction to the character instead of simply liking them. I like lots of people but I don’t want to give up an hour of my precious TV viewing time to watch them. Did you like Tony Soprano? Walter White? Nurse Jackie? Hamlet? I think you’re confusing liking a character with having sympathy for them, identifying with them, rooting for them, being outraged by them. The job of the screenwriter is to get us to feel something, not just to ‘like’ it.


What To Say
I was thinking we could cast Martin Freeman/Suranne Jones.


So, there you have it; all genuine things that are said repeatedly in development meetings. If you have ever said any of those things to a writer; shame on you. But it’s not too late to change your ways.


As ever comments are encouraged and welcomed.

16 comments:

  1. Btw, we're giving your script to someone else for a dialogue polish. The producer has a friend who's never sold anything, and a co-credit wll help his career.

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    Replies
    1. Ooh, that gave me the shudders.

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    2. Happened to me three times over the years. All on projects I'd originated. Twice the crappy rewrites sank the project and the third time, Variety praised the show but singled out the 'clunky script' for criticism. My agent fought off the bid for a co-credit, though.

      Happy days.

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    3. Jeeeez. I've been rewritten once and it was the toughest time of my career. But three times... Power to your elbow.

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  2. This Game of Thrones. Whose story is it?
    Well, there are about 250 named characters and...
    Next!

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  3. Lisa it's all about power structure and making sure that you know your place in the hierarchy - which is not a creatocracy. (copyright symbol) The next time you attend a meeting and 'she' walks in. Simply ask for 'milk and two sugars love.' If it's a 'he' send out for biscuits.

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    Replies
    1. If only we writers had the ability to be so hard and high-handed! We're such approval-junkies.

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  4. What about the Producers who look blank when you reference classic TV/ Cinema? Even "Buffy" gets you "I've never watched it". There is a paucity of imagination and a betrayal of culture and writing, so we get Sky's The Tunnel based on The Bridge.

    Is it that they don't want good, experienced writers, just eager beavers who will do what they're told, and there is always someone out there sycophantic and ambitious enough to work for less- if not less.

    The book "Difficult Men" talks of the terrific show runners responsible for the renaissance in American Television . The disdain in which we are held by producers - who wouldn't give you their piss, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison, without charging you interest - is defiantly because deep down (like in Altman's The Player) they really do think they could do it themselves, if only they had the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you may be right. If our place in the Brit TV pecking order was producing results and great telly - carry on. I think we all have to admit that it's not. Now, where's that number for the Netflix UK office?

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  5. Did you see the "writer meeting" scene in W1A? Or too painful to watch?

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  6. Can you give the protagonist a dog or something? (I swear to God this is the only reason there is a dog is Enterprise and in Crimson Tide too.)

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    ReplyDelete
  8. Similar things happen in the music business. I write songs too. Twice I've had the chance of a cover by a name singer. Twice they (or their bag carrier) asked for a co-write credit. (& hence 50% of writer royalties) even though they hadn't written a full stop. I told them to shove it............ I'm still in the 9 to 5 !

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