TVFilm Masterclass

Andrew Davies

Daydream, meet lots of charming talented people and then be ruthless, says Andrew Davies. Scriptwriting can be simply one of the most delightful occupations: you daydream on to your word processor, and then teams of talented people spend huge amounts of money and effort and skill to realise your daydreams on to the screen. What's more, you get paid for it, and you get to meet a lot of charming and talented people: actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on. There are even a few producers who are quite nice, too.

On the other hand it has to be said that writing for the screen is a ruthlessly competitive trade. Writers have very little power or influence; the people with power and influence tend to be TV and film executives with little vision, uncertain taste, paranoid ratings anxieties, and huge egos. If you are very talented and very lucky, you will get to meet some of these people, and they will use and abuse you in ways you would scarcely credit.

So, how do you break in? I'm afraid it's not a very encouraging climate for new writers, but then it probably never was. When I started writing for TV, the Wednesday Play (later Play for Today) was at its peak. One-off television plays drew big audiences, and were widely reviewed and discussed, and there were a lot of them. The way in, then, was to write a brilliantly original one-off piece, the sort of thing that made people say "I've never seen anything like that before, but it was good, wasn't it? It was true, and funny as well" (or heartbreaking, or better still both).

There are very few slots now (that's what they call them, slots) for the one-off play, and you will be competing for them with Simon Gray and Jimmy McGovern and me. Still, there's always room for new writers of outstanding ability - and you have to consider the intense pleasure you can get from creating a whole world of your own, even if no one wants to pay you for it. The people who run TV drama at the moment are obsessed with ratings, which means that series and serials (including soaps) are even more dominant than they were. The Bill is a police series that actively encourages new writers, and most other long-running series would be interested in good new writing talent. Study your prey with great care, and then write a speculative script which fulfils all the standard requirements, and also adds something fresh that speaks of your own quirky genius. It will of course have to be much better than the average episode. The producer will prefer to get her bog-standard scripts from tired (I meant to type "tried" but let it rest) and trusted old hacks. Even if your script is wonderful, she won't buy it, but she might consider you for the future. If she does, you may be well on the way to a professional career of well-paid mediocrity.

What about adaptations? Lovely to do, and a good way to learn the pleasures and pitfalls of screenwriting. Try to find something relatively little-read and out of copyright, but which has some resonance for the way we live now (Disraeli? Gissing?). You want plenty of story, conflict, and intrigue, strong characters (particularly strong women) that the audience will identify with and hope along with, or (I've done well out of this) love to hate. If the original source material provides some but not all of these, then you must remedy the deficiency. Your loyalty belongs not the original author, but to the screenplay. Write a brilliant first episode (50 to 60 minutes) and a story breakdown for the other episodes (six is a popular length). Send it to a producer whose last production you admired.

Another idea might be to create an original contemporary serial of your own, borrowing the plot structure and some of the themes of one of those solid old Victorian jobs. They used to build them like brick, er, outhouses in those days. No one will know where you got your plot from, unless you own up. (I offer this tip for those of you who, like me, are better at the twiddly bits than the fundamental carpentry).

Or - deep breath - what about a real film? It's not such a mad idea as you might think. Be your own Tarantino. Why not? Although the competition is intense, the field is genuinely wide open to new talent. All you have to do is write a great screenplay.

Er . . . how d'you do that, then? Well, the short answer is, of course, that nobody knows. There are people who make lots of money running screenwriting courses, but if they really knew how to do it, they'd be doing it, not talking about it. But there are a few obvious, and a few less obvious things that you would do well to bear in mind: 1) You have to tell a story that other people want to hear, and not just your girlfriend and your dog. In a real movie, that means you have to write something which people will drive across town and pay real money of their own to see.

2) But you mustn't pander to the imagined taste of others - you have to be passionately engaged as well. Which brings me to:

3) The most embarrassing and shameful experiences of your life, the things you can hardly bear to think about, let alone tell anyone else, your secret dreams, your darkest desires: these are your core material. The positive side of this is:

4) Nothing wholly bad can ever happen to a writer: it's all material, the worse the experience, the better the material. Put it another way: writing is about turning pain into money. That includes comedy writing.

5) People imagine scriptwriting is just about dialogue. Wrong. It's about telling a story through images and sound. If you can make your point without a line, lose the line. But:

6) Sometimes the dialogue can be one of the major goodies, a joy in itself, and the action becomes a fragile structure to hang rich tapestries of dialogue upon eg Pulp Fiction, a film I found much more enjoyable to read than the watch. But you have to ask yourself: am I as witty as Quentin Tarantino?

7) Subject matter: "Write what you know" is the standard wisdom, but if you dream vividly enough, that is knowledge too. Current production is dominated by blockbusters with very expensive special effects. The actual stories are usually based on well known paradigms - hero stories like The Golden Fleece, disaster stories like Pandora's Box. This "use of myth" idea is a useful dodge, but can also be applied to some of the categories there's a real shortage of, and hunger for, right now: sophisticated comedy like Ninotchka, intelligent concept-driven comedy like Groundhog Day or Trading Places; or simple love stories that can be enjoyed by people with a mental age of over 13, like Sleepless in Seattle or Circle of Friends. (I may regret passing this bit of wisdom on - it's the area I'm looking at myself at the moment.)

8) You do need to see a lot of films, old and new, good and bad, and try to tease out what makes them work or not work, and how you would change them if you were the writer or director. That's great fun in itself, and best done with a friend. You should also read as many screenplays as you can. Three brilliant ones from many published by Faber: On the Waterfront, Light Sleeper, Pulp Fiction. They will give you some idea of how to lay a script out, and how much stage direction to write - you will notice that not many technical terms are used. You might as well read some "how to" books as well, eg Screenplay by Syd Field. No need to take them as gospel.

9) The best scenes do more than one thing at a time: there is an overt action, and a subtext. The best dialogue is often oblique and indirect, but at the film's climax, an "on-the-nose" line can be devastating. (Imagine if Brando had said "I could have been a contender, instead of being a bum, which is what I am" on his first appearance in the story.)

10) Remember that no one thinks he's a minor character. The guy who keeps the store thinks it's a story about a guy who keeps the store - he thinks he'll get the girl in the end, and he's amazed when he gets shot down with a bullet that wasn't even meant for him. Get inside each character in turn and see the story from their point of view.

If you can do all this, you too could find yourself sitting round the pool in LA being treated like royalty; and some time later experience that quintessential screen writing moment when your agent (for you will have one then) phones to tell you you are off the movie and they are bringing in another writer to rewrite your script. I hope it does happen for you, and I mean that most sincerely.

Good luck!

Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for Circle of Friends, on current release, and his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will be screened on BBC1 this autumn.

The Lloyds Bank Film Challenge gives young people the chance to make films for Channel Four. Entrants in three different age groups from 11 to 25 should send their scripts to PO Box 666, London E15 1DW by December 15. Shortlisted writers will spend a weekend at Goldsmith's College honing their work with experts. Eight will be chosen to work with directors making films for broadcast next year (details 01345 443355). For details of writing competitions run by the BBC, send a SAE to: David Lloyd, Room G5B, Henry Wood House, 36 Langham Place, London, W1A 1AA.

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