THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: MATT ORTON
The Insider Interviews series started in 2010 as a set of recorded interviews, featuring the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Gareth Unwin, who produced THE KING’S SPEECH, Ben Wheatley and Hossein Amini, the Oscar-nominated writer of DRIVE and THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. You can watch these here.
The Insider Interviews now exist as live monthly events in central London, which is a combination of a compered interview and taking questions from audience members. If you would like to check out future speakers and join an Insider Interviews Live evening, you can see more details here.
After winning the BBC Writersroom Young Writers’ Competition in 2012, Matt Orton’s spec screenplay CLEAN featured on the Brit List and was optioned by Michael Kuhn’s Qwerty Films.
Matt Orton’s script OPERATION FINALE, about the team who captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, is soon to go into production at MGM with Oscar Isaac starring and producing and Sir Ben Kingsley starring. His current projects also include a film based on the Battle of Britain for Ridley Scott to direct.
This Q & A was compered by producer Pete Smyth.
You’ve been very busy recently with a number of projects, including OPERATION FINALE, can you tell us a bit about what are you working on now?
The Eichmann movie [OPERATION FINALE] starts shooting in the Autumn. It’s the first time I’ve been through this process and it’s exciting. And I’m also working on a political thriller with a wonderful director. So yeah, juggling those little guys.
So how do you juggle multiple projects? How do you manage?
TThat’s a really good question. Very little sleep is part of it. A bigger part involves dividing my day. I try to be disciplined with getting up really early and finding a cut-off point in the day that allows me to switch over to something else, so I can work five or six hours on one project, take a pause, go and have lunch, and spend the same amount of time on another one.
A lot of the management of this stuff is quite admin-y, so it’s also about not letting the admin side of it overwhelm the creative side. So I try to turn my phone off all day, unless it’s a window of time when I’m replying to emails and doing calls, just to make sure there’s enough time to focus on the creative things, because ultimately that’s what’s important.
You don’t want to spend more time writing emails than scripts.
Exactly. Sometimes it really feels like you’re doing that. This is the other thing as well, working with America they’re obviously eight hours behind, so people will sometimes ask, “Can you do a call at 1 PM?” and I just don’t think about the fact that that’s at 9. So that’s where the lack of sleep comes in.
But there are fun parts of it too. Yesterday I got to have a long call with our wonderful director, Chris Weitz, and an anesthesiologist about anaesthetics that were used in the 1960s. Those kind of calls are always worth staying up for.
In terms of OPERATION FINALE, am I right in thinking that was a spec script?
It was a spec script. Originally a friend put me on to the idea, and then I started doing a little bit of digging around. I thought it was a great story about the formation of Israel. It’s this huge moment in this country’s history, the first real moment where Israel was presented with an opportunity to hold its past executioners to account.
This was an incredible moment for a country which had for 12 years done its best to ignore the Holocaust. There are all these amazing and awful stories about Holocaust survivors being called nasty things and forced into poor housing, being ignored rather than comforted.
When I went to Israel and spoke to people, universally the one thing that they all remembered about the Eichmann trial was that it was this moment of national catharsis. It was this moment of them finally confronting the past, mourning together, and finally being able to move on.
You don’t get any work done, but it’s brilliant, it’s an amazing country.
And I, in reading about the main character, this guy Peter Malkin, found someone who personified that journey really well. He’s this guy who’s haunted by the death of his sister, who died, she and her children, during the Holocaust, though not via Eichmann’s hands.
He’s this guy who’s stuck in arrested development and he begins to imbue this mission to capture Eichmann with the sense that this might be the thing that will allow him to move on with his life, as opposed to someone who’s haunted by his past tragedy. That to me mirrored the story of Israel.
As I started to dig into that, I was lucky enough to make contact with the son of the anesthesiologist who ended up putting Eichmann to sleep. It’s incredible, you go to Israel and speak about this story and strangers in a cafe will overhear, and say, “Come over here, over here, come talk to me!” You don’t get any work done, but it’s brilliant, it’s an amazing country.
I slowly ran myself into more and more debt doing research trips like that, but then ultimately I had this script which MGM bought, and that was a really big moment.
That’s the dream when writers sit down to write a spec script. What was it do you think that was in that script that appealed to MGM? What something made it stand out among all those other spec scripts?
I wish I knew the answer to that! It’s a story that has been told several times before, but never really, and I hope it’s okay to say, never really to great effect. For one reason or another, people have tried to glorify it in the wrong way, or they focused on the wrong bits, or they tried to present Eichmann as someone different to who I think he was.
One of the sources that really inspired me for this story was this amazing book called Eichmann Before Jerusalem by a woman called Bettina Stangneth, a brilliant historian.
She presents a very alternative vision of Eichmann, not as Hannah Arendt presented him, as this banal bureaucrat, but actually as this sort of social chameleon. A performer who could read audiences really well, who knew exactly what kind of character and personality to affect to get certain things out of the people he was sitting across from.
We go to great lengths to humanise Eichmann in our story. I think that only serves to make him all the more unpleasant and unbearable when we finally get a glimpse of his true self. But it’s his humanity, his weakness, that’s what forces the Mossad agents to really question who this guy they’ve caught really is.
That was a very long-winded way of saying that I think there was an interesting antagonist. It had a clear structure – they capture him at the midpoint but then are forced to stay in Argentina for 10 days, and so the forces searching for him slowly draw closer and closer.
And I love the ending, I won’t tell you what it is, but there is a final moment that ties the story together and that is my favourite part of the whole thing. It is the one thing that has been left untouched. So a compelling villain and a clear structure really helped.
One last question on this creative development, in terms of creating something that appealed to the studio, ultimately commercially. How calculated were you when you were writing it? Was that a thought at the forefront of your mind, or in your mind at all?
That’s a really good question. There’s an appetite at the moment for true stories, obviously. We can see this when we look at the films that are playing at the cinema. So that’s one thing.
Another is finding a theme that speaks to something higher than the actual content of the film. If you can make it “about” something universal, or have a theme that really matters to you or society – say, female empowerment, or letting go of the past – and allow that theme to permeate your script, without distracting from a compelling story, then you’ll be on to something good.
Having something that you can immediately put on a DVD shelf, like “OK, right, this sits roughly between ARGO, MUNICH and ZERO DARK THIRTY.” It’s in there, somewhere. That’s quite helpful.
One thing that I was quite militant about was making sure I had a clear midpoint, a very clear end to Act II and a very clear climax. They’re all these archetypal story beats, that I hope I made my own and original, but ultimately they’re there. There’s nothing “art house” about it.
So basically, big themes, high concept, so, “it’s a thriller, it’s a kidnap movie.” It fits into clear marketing spaces. And then the last thing I said, which was not art house.
Not art house, but not wanting to succumb to a temptation of maybe being too clever, or to outfox the audience.
One of the things that my scripts often suffer from is that I try to be too smart too early. That’s not to say that’s always a bad thing, but I pump intellectual ideas into something that should be much simpler.
Often that’s because I haven’t quite cracked what a scene should be, or what the emotional core of it is. So I’m like, “it might be interesting if they’re talking about this or that or whatever,” and often in my vomit drafts I’ll see that there are cool conversations but the characters aren’t speaking, I am.
But that’s almost part of your drafting process?
It is, yeah. Because within that you find really interesting themes and ideas and strands that you can pull on. And then suddenly you find the subtext of a scene, what the characters might really be having a conversation about beneath the context of the scene. You can then reveal that with just the smallest turn of phrase, some suggestion or comment that just speaks to a much higher idea or tension to the scene.
In my favourite scripts of mine I can now see those moments where there was once a scene that was two pages long and it’s now half a page, and contains just a very concise observation on people, or humanity, or human nature, or legacy, or something.
Well it sounds like it’s a drafting process that’s working. I’d be interested to take it back, as we usually do, to how you came into the industry. When did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter, basically?
I started learning about screenwriting really young, about 15. I didn’t realise it was a thing, I was just a curious 15-year-old and I started reading about it. I wrote a spec while I was at college which I just wish I could find.
It was called ‘The Connoisseurs’ and it was about these four kids wanting to become the connoisseurs of everything, and then they all came up with things they wanted to do with their lives apart from one of them. Actually, I look back on it fondly, and think, “What if it was amazing?” I know it wasn’t, it was crap, but I’m slightly romantic about the idea of rediscovering something brilliant buried in the past.
Then while I was at university, I wrote a pilot to a TV show about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. I studied history at university, and one of my subjects was the Spanish conquest of South America, and I think that it is the most amazing untold area ever.
So I wrote this pilot in 2008, so it was just before event TV became a real thing. I think THE SOPRANOS had happened, ROME was going on, but it was early days for that sort of thing. I worked on it throughout university, wrote a couple of other things, and then went travelling for six months after an ill-fated foray into acting.
More rejection than I could possibly bear to regale you with…
I got back from travelling and GAME OF THRONES had started, and so suddenly there was this appetite for bonkers, very expensive TV. I had this stupid, cocky, sixty-page thing which had comets coming down and pyramids, and in 2008 people would have laughed me out of a room. But in 2012 I was lucky enough to meet my wonderful agent, who picked me up off of that one spec. That was my start, and then I assumed when that had happened that this was it, I’m done, next step Hollywood.
It was a slightly more laborious process, and actually I’m really grateful for that. It was a lot of spec writing and treatment writing, and more rejection than I could possibly bear to regale you with. An almost endless cycle of refining my process, then getting knocked back, working out why I got knocked back, then taking small steps forward.
And while I was doing that I was doing awful odd jobs. I was tutoring a lot, which was inspirational in some ways, lots of stories, but also harrowing in many other ways.
Those stories are probably not as relevant as the other questions, but I did want to ask you about a couple of your odd jobs briefly, because it involved tutoring billionaires.
I‘ll regale you guys with one of my favourites. I still look back on this and think:
- A: this is a film, but
- B: this is ridiculous.
I tutored the son of an oligarch, out in Russia. I went out to Moscow in March, so it was very snowy still. I get driven to this private village that I think he’d built. It was me, the kid, his babushka, and six bodyguards living there.
Sounds more like a sitcom than a film.
Well, a sitcom with the added threat. Because all of them are armed to the teeth. Two days in, this oligarch comes to visit, and he’s this very impressive, feline man. He says, “Matt, we go for walk.” So we go out to his private forest, of course, and we’re walking on this path where the snow has all been dug out, and so there’s 6 feet of snow on either side of us. It’s me, this dad, and a guy carrying a Kalashnikov, walking behind us.
The dad goes, “Matt, I want you to help me write letter to Tonbridge. In letter, I want to say we give very big gift if they accept my son.”
I was like, “Ooh, I don’t know. That kind of sounds like a bribe.” And he says, “No, not bribe. Gift.” So we go on this walk and talk about what this letter could or couldn’t look like. We finally get back to his house, and I’m thrilled to still be alive.
His hand is literally on the door and he stops, and asks if I know how to throw hunting knives. I make sure I’m hearing him properly – yes, he did mean knives. Suddenly, I’m wondering what my tutoring agency have told this guy.
I apologise and so no, I don’t know how to throw hunting knives. I have to clarify when he asks do I know how to fire a handgun.
He considers this a moment, deeply disturbed. Finally, he concludes, “OK. Tomorrow I send man from Moscow. He teach you.”
I’ve seen James Bond. I’m basically James Bond.
Next day, a guy turns up with a bag of hunting knives, a tomahawk and a gun, and he just points to the forest, as if to say “let’s go.” He doesn’t speak any English, so the 13-year-old kid I’m supposed to be tutoring is translating as I am stood in this wood trying to throw knives at a cardboard cutout of a man dressed as a robber.
He’s shouting things like, “Don’t throw like girl!” but via the kid, so both he and the kid are laughing at me. And then it comes to the handgun, and by this point all of the six bodyguards are watching. They’re all like scarred and tough and living, breathing stereotypes, and I look like such an idiot.
I take this handgun, thinking, “OK, at least this bit I’ve got, I’ve seen James Bond. I’m basically James Bond. This is fine.”
Then I fire the handgun, and obviously I immediately perforate one of my eardrums because it’s really loud and you’re supposed to close your teeth. So I’m like, “Aaahhhh!” and they find this hilarious. They’re insisting, “No keep going!” One of them screams, “Aim at his balls!” It’s all very very stressful.
I ask, “Ear plugs! Can I have ear plugs?” and of course the answer’s no. I ended up taking out two bullets and using them as ear plugs, and if you’re ever in that situation, it works. They may have kept mocking me, but I couldn’t hear them so it was fine.
So I guess during these crazy jobs you’re working on, you were writing at the time?
I loathed some parts of tutoring but loved other parts of it. There are these families in the world, some of whom are lovely, some of whom are less so, but all of whom have the finances to say, “We want you here, we want you to do an hour’s homework with our kid per day, and then leave.”
I’m really grateful for that as an opportunity because you can earn a decent amount of money for relatively short hours, so it meant I could almost write full time and that was really great. I’ve been in London trying to do this for about six years now, and I was tutoring until January or February 2015 – that was how I kept myself afloat.
you have to be desperate and you have to be hungry, because otherwise you don’t push yourself to the very edge
During that time I was really honing my craft, so I’m grateful for having the time to have done that. And I always stress this to people who are starting out who ask for advice – be hungry. I moved to London and I was living in this absolutely crap room that was just awful.
I was ill the whole time, I could barely afford food, but it was good because I was desperate to make it work. I got up early, I went to networking events.
I’ve got a lot of friends who are in this industry but are living with their parents and have been since university, and are talking about that short film that they’re gonna make.
You’ve got nothing to write about if you’re just cruising your whole life
That’s fine, and that works for some people. But I think you have to be desperate and you have to be hungry, because otherwise you don’t push yourself to the very edge.
You’ve also got nothing to write about, if you’re just cruising your whole life. I haven’t yet written about being in a forest with Russians, but that fear I felt then, the humiliation, the desire to think differently about a situation like that, that really has informed my writing.
It sounds like that hunger was very productive. What’s notable is that you were writing scripts, spec scripts and treatments. I wanted to touch on whether the spec scripts were entirely things you just wanted to write about or were they sometimes-
Yeah, pretty much. I remember I wrote a script called CLEAN about a window cleaner who was stuck outside the Shard and framed for murder. I spent months and months working with this lovely producer on it, trying this and trying that, and I remember coming away from it feeling like it never quite got there.
But actually, I look back on the experience now and I’m like, “I really evolved during that process, I really got a sense of how I write, what I write.” That kind of exposure of specs. And now I believe the project now has a brilliant new writer/director involved.
I think one of the reasons why I loved writing specs so much, and I reckon I wrote about ten specs before Eichmann, was the rejection, conversation, critique, development, all of that. There was this three year period where I was in this washing machine of advice and feedback that was so, so helpful.
If there’s one thing I’m saying that is worth internalising, it’s keep writing specs, keep showing them to people, keep being told they’re bad, because eventually they won’t be, and every time you write one it’ll get better.
I think that is incredibly useful. We all appreciate that experience is what leads to success. But even though you hadn’t had anything made up until that point, in some ways you’re an experienced writer. You’ve written ten scripts.
This is the other thing I meant to say. Do vomit drafts. Allow yourself a bad draft. It’s so important. I can’t stress this enough. I came across this technique from the fantastic writer and friend, Michael Lesslie.
About two years into trying this, I had had a year where I hadn’t written anything. I’d written treatments and stuff but I’d not written a script, and I was freaking out about it. I’d started countless scripts, and just it wasn’t right. I remember Mike saying, “Just get out of town, go somewhere, and say to yourself, ‘I am going to write 10, 15 pages every day.’ Finish three projects, and don’t come back until you’ve done it.”
And I did. I wrote three things. One of them I was like, “Actually, nah. Not interested in that.” Another of them I will come back to one day but I did it up a bit, and was like, “Hmm, gonna park that until I know exactly how I’m gonna do it.”
And one of them was a police procedural based around human trafficking, set in Southampton, that ended up getting picked up, and again went through that process of development and conversation with a brilliant production company.
Also, when you say “this is the vomit draft,” if it’s crap you can say to yourself,” OK, it’s fine because this is a vomit draft.” And then you can look at it and you can read it and can say, “OK, in my head I was trying to do this, but it doesn’t really work on the page so now I’m going to change it.” There’s a great Hemingway quote, that “the first draft of anything is always sh*t.” That is true. I stand by that.
It’s effectively, allowing yourself to fail. By the sounds of it, getting away from the fear of the blank page.
Yes, exactly. It’s like when someone gives you a script to read. You’re always a bit nervous, because if the script is rubbish and you have no idea how to make it better, it’s very hard to know how to give feedback.
But if someone gives you a script, you as a storyteller should begin to wrap your head around what works, what doesn’t work, which characters are coming out for you, which aren’t, and I think that you can allow yourself the same experience. Finish your vomit draft and put it to one side, even if just for a week. Then come back to it and assess it as if it were a script written by someone else, that you have been hired to fix.
The one other thing, amidst all this work you were doing, it sounds like you had a lot of support from the industry. I think it was your script CLEAN that you mentioned before that was on the Britlist?
Yeah it was!
The Brit List is a funny one. That was really nice to be on it and it’s a fantastic way of exposing up and coming voices. But I now look back on that script and feel like that early draft didn’t deserve to be on it.
But Guiding Lights , I could not recommend it enough. It’s an amazing lottery-funded scheme based down in Brighton, and they find writers, producers, and directors, and exhibitors to pair with mentors.
They choose a cohort and then they ask you who you’d like to mentored by. You give them a list of five names and they reach out to them and ask them to be your mentor. You have to go through quite a rigorous interview process first.
I had a wonderful experience with those guys. I was in Berlin and we had a conversation where I’d given them these five names they’d asked for. And my list was Matt Charman, Peter Morgan, Jane Goldman, and two others I can’t remember. At the time, this was June 2015. Matt had just had SUITE FRANCAISE come out, but that was it, although obviously he’s a fantastic playwright.
I had this great call with the Guiding Lights people where they were like, “Hi, so, just so you know. The list you gave us, we were hoping for it to be in order of preference.” And I was like, “Yes, this is my order of preference.” And they basically couldn’t quite get why I wanted this one-time screenwriter and playwright over Peter Morgan and Jane Goldman, who’ve got huge credits and I think have worked on the scheme before or who they have contacts with. And I explained:
- A, I’ve always been a fan of Matt’s writing.
- B, I had spoken to a few friends in the industry who knew him, and they had unanimously suggested we’d get along.
- C, and most crucially, I knew he had BRIDGE OF SPIES coming.
I followed his career a bit and I knew that he had blown up from that.
the industry is changing every day, and it’s very different now to how it was even five years ago.
I was interested in speaking with someone who had had loads of success recently. Jane Goldman is incredible, Abi Morgan is amazing – she was one of the mentors on the scheme in my year.
These are award-winning, unparalleled writers who have been very successful writers for years and years and years. But the industry is changing every day, and it’s very different now to how it was even five years ago. I wanted to learn from someone who had navigated enormous success recently.
So I insisted, and they eventaully got in contact with Matt and Matt very kindly said yes. And two days later, the BRIDGE OF SPIES trailer came out, and I got this phone call from Emily, who runs it, who was like, “Yeah, we’ve just seen the trailer. Good call.”
It has been and is the best experience I could’ve asked for. There’s not a better person in the world, I love him dearly. He’s been very wonderful, and I’m lucky to have him still in my life as a producer, mentor and friend.
That is another piece of great advice. I think often in these mentoring schemes there is this temptation to go for the biggest or the most established name.
I think that applies to anyone getting into this industry. You have to think more strategically than “Who is this? Who’s the most massive agent that I can send my stuff to?” because they won’t read it. “Who’s the biggest producer I can show this to? What’s the biggest budget thing I can come up with and throw at the wall?”
I would always say, when you’re starting out, go for the newer producers, go for the younger agents. Go with someone who you can build a career with, not someone who you think is going to build your career for you. Because immediately that’s a recipe for disaster.
I’ve read your Eichmann script-
And I want to know about how you acquired your technique. There’s a very visual style, and I want to know how you acquired that.
Firstly, thanks very much. We joked about this earlier, it always makes me feel really on edge when someone says they’ve read an old draft of a script, because I’m like, “You should read a new one!”
Partly it’s a process of reading other people’s scripts. Especially early on, I did a lot of reading of spec scripts that I really admired and spec scripts for movies that I hated, which was also quite revealing. I started to build out a sense of the techniques that filmmakers I admired used.
Another thing that I used to really enjoy doing was to have a script open and watching a movie, so I’d go through and see where they differed and where they lined up.
Sometimes I’m like, “Yeah, that’s actually how they’ve done it on the screen!” And then when it’s not there, you’re like, “Oh, that must have been ADR, but actually it works quite well, so maybe when I do that I should put it in as a pre-lap.” A pre-lap is a bit of dialogue that’s played as a voiceover before a scene starts.
Friends and family are not used to reading scripts, so all they’re doing is trying to work out if they like the story or not.
That was part of it, and then just loads of practice. Again, that feedback loop, I’m very lucky I’ve got wonderful friends, and an amazing girlfriend, who read lots of things that I make and they’re very good at saying, “This actually isn’t working,” or “I’m not getting this character,” or “I can’t really picture this.”
It’s great, because some of the people I ask to read stuff don’t work in the industry. They’re not used to reading scripts, so all they’re doing is trying to work out if they like the story or not. I think that’s actually sometimes the best people you can ask to read your stuff.
My Dad was very against me becoming a scriptwriter for a long time. He’s subsequently come round to it in quite a big way, mainly because he’s now adamant that he’s going to write a script and it will be a corker. No, he’s amazing, and the absolute best Dad I could ask for.
But I always have him read my stuff, and partly it’s because he gives these infuriating notes where he’ll be like, “Not sure they had six-packs back then, more likely to be a keg.” And I’m like, “that’s so annoying but you’re probably right.” He picks up on things like that which is quite fun.
My question is this. You said that you had the pilot that you wrote, the bonkers one, but how did you actually get it out to agents?
I was very lucky. I had a friend who was an assistant at Independent, who handed my script to someone. I begged her to show it to somebody, she showed it to her boss, her boss very kindly set up a bunch of other meetings for me, which is where I met my agent at The Agency. And Emily [Hickman] has been just so fundamental to where I’ve managed to get to. I wouldn’t be even close if it wasn’t for her.
She – and this is what the best agents do well – has helped identify which projects to pursue, which people to meet, and which notes to follow in order to best improve my scripts.
I did a lot during those early years in London of going to networking drinks, particularly for young producers. The thing is, a script from you to an agent is only going to be added to a slush pile. Agents get so much stuff sent to them.
But if you have a producer on your side, if you have someone who has read your script and is like, “I actually believe in this, I think this is cool,” their email to an agent saying, “I’ve found this guy who’s written this script, you should check this out,” immediately gets a higher place in their pile.
There’s always mutual benefit there
So firstly I’d suggest going in and trying to form some of those networks, meeting producers, talking to producers. There’ll always be a way you can mutually help each other, maybe they’ve got a treatment that they need someone to have a look at, maybe they want to option your material. There’s always mutual benefit there, but cultivating those relationships is a really good start.
The other thing that I suggest often to writers trying to break in is to look at the agents that you would really like to be represented by, in an ideal world, and then look at their assistants, because I guarantee that their assistants are going to be the next big thing.
So they will already be thinking about the type of client they want to represent, they’ll have learned from the agent that they’re with, and will be brilliant agents in the making.
look at their assistants, because I guarantee that their assistants are going to be the next big thing
I’d really recommend those being at least the people you start the conversations with – assistants or people who have just become agents. They’re the ones who are going to be more hungry, they’re the ones who are going to be more willing to take a punt on somebody.
As I say, this is a very over-subscribed industry, and the barriers to entry in terms of sending a script to an agent are quite low, you just have to have 120 pages, or even 60 pages. But a recommendation from someone already in the industry is the number one thing to set you apart, top.
When you send a synopsis or treatment to someone, have you usually completed the script as well?
It depends if I’m writing a project for myself or if I’m writing a project for a studio or a producer. I like to be quite collaborative with my writing process, also because honestly it saves you so much time further down the line. Everyone says they want you to just come along and be brilliant, but it’s the very nature of this as a career to want to be part of the process…
By the way, it’s an incredible paradox, that there’s this obsession with the artist and the writer and the author and all of that, and then there literally could not be more voices in your ear saying, “yeah, but can you just make that Dwayne Johnson, because we want him?”
I’ve broadly been really lucky with the people I’ve worked with, and my manager – the unrivalled Jeff Silver, founder of Grandview and all-round amazing guy – has been so helpful in protecting and honing my voice.
The best manager will guide your career and your talent, making sure it doesn’t get lost int he process. That’s Jeff ,and what you should look for and expect in a manager.
I’ll write an outline, I can spend a day on it, I can spend a month on it
Anyway, so, yes, people will always want to influence or have an opinion on your work. So I try to show people outlines before I write, partly so that there’s slightly shared culpability if it goes wrong, partly so that people feel shared ownership, and partly so you can demonstrate you know where you’re going.
I’ll always write an outline, and this is something that I currently find infuriating about myself, I can spend a day on it, I can spend a month on it. It can be the most meticulous thing I’ve ever crafted. But when I come to write the script, almost immediately I’m like, “oh, that doesn’t work.” Every time, without fail.
So it’s also about knowing how to go off-piste, how to write an outline and how to deviate from it that doesn’t lead to your third act being irrelevant or whatever. So sometimes getting other people to read it can be quite helpful for that, cos they’ll say, “oh yeah, cos if you miss this than this is screwed.”
I read an article commenting about one of the festivals and a producer with a list of twenty, thirty scripts that they had to power through over a weekend, and that a number of years back that would only be three or four. Has that changed the way you write, that you feel that you have to write something that in the first ten or fifteen pages hits the producer or reader, forcing them to read the rest?
If only it was that simple! The problem is, again, it comes back to that it’s this very over-subscribed industry now. A lot of my friends who are producers will put down something if they’ve read the first three pages and they don’t like it. I think that there are several ways to avoid that happening to you. The first is a basic level of format and craft prowess that I’m sure everybody in here already has. Don’t write it in a Word document, that type thing. That’s on level 1.
Level 2, this should be absolutely fundamental, don’t have your female characters all busty and described by how they look. Basic awareness of sexual, racial, gender or age stereotypes, just slice all of them out. And then thirdly, yeah, having a hot open, something that really tantalises or excites or compels you to read on.
If you can get all of that into the first three pages, the producer’s probably going to read to page five, and that’s good. Hopefully by then you’ve set up your story, and they’re into it.
Some people will read a few pages of a script and then they’ll have an assistant do coverage on it. So ultimately your script has got to excite someone. These producers probably have a couple of assistants who are reading through those thirty scripts and are writing notes, and those assistants will say, “Pass, don’t worry about it.” The producer will say, “I’ve got to read thirty scripts over a weekend,” and what they mean is “my assistants are going to read thirty scripts over a weekend and decide which two I look at next weekend.”
I have a very specific question about historical scripts. I’ve written a few, but there’s always an issue of intellectual property. So if you have a historical script, is it based on a book? Is there any potential of writing something historical that’s not based on a book?
Yes, there is! This Eichmann story is in fact not based on a book because there’s so much in the public domain. Eichmann is a really interesting one because three of the agents who were on that mission wrote accounts of what happened, and they could not differ more. They conflict, they criticise one another, they contradict one another. And then you have historians who try and pick their way through it all, but they’ve got different opinions, and then you’ve got interviews given by the other agents who contradict all the rest of it.
you should carve your own point of view out of whichever period of history you’re choosing to dive into
It’s basically one of the reasons why I’m obsessed with and love history. History is an amalgamation of points of view, and you should carve your own point of view out of whichever period of history you’re choosing to dive into. And so actually the most interesting spaces are between the sources, rather than the sources themselves necessarily.
There’s also obviously, if the writer’s been dead for however long it is, 70 years, so H. G. Wells is fair game. Ultimately, if you do find a story that is only based on one book, reach out to the publisher, reach out to the agent, to the writer even. Chances are it’s optioned, but maybe it’s not, and maybe you can do it.
Could you tell us some of what you found about spec scripts and getting those over the wall?
Again, it’s a process of building a network around you of people who can criticise and also improve the work you’re doing, and then ultimately who can put you in the lap of an agent that you’d like to be represented by. Especially younger – and I should stress I mean younger in their career, not in age – people, they’ll be plugged into assistants, young producers, young directors, young writers.
Those are the people it’s actually really helpful to speak to about representation, because they will be reflected well in the agent’s eyes, if they’re like “I found this hot new script, I’m going to slip it to you.” Obviously they’re doing that to five different agents, but as far as the agent’s concerned, they’re getting this exciting proposition and so suddenly it’s like a bit more sexy, a bit more exciting, someone’s recommended it.
When it comes to production companies, it’s kind of the same thing. Again, what will normally happen is you’ll write a spec, a production company will read it and they’ll be like, “Yeah, not this, but something, come on in for a general.” They can be the most amazing meetings in the world, they can be not the most amazing meetings in the world, and anywhere in between.
But one of the great things about this industry is that it is literally stuffed full of the loveliest people, so it’s never a waste of time. You’re always hanging out with nice people. But those meetings come when you have work that is being sent out and passed around and talked about, and the more work you produce and the more work that gets passed around the more you’re spoken about, the more people want you to come in.
It’s a bit of a snowball, but you are the one who can generate that snowball. So do it!