Tag Archives: LSF

The London Screenwriters’ Festival: 10 amazing seminars in one handy guide

10 Dec
London Screenwriters' Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

London Screenwriters’ Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

The London Screenwriters’ Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. That’s right, the biggest and best event for screenwriters happens not in LA, not in New York, but right here. London, Hollywood indeed. I’ve written up all the best talks, screenings and seminars I attended at this year’s: that’s ten blog posts. Read ’em, one by one. You’ll laugh! You’ll learn!

Behind The Scenes

The Silence of the Lambs, with screenwriter Ted Tally. Discover the secrets of the famous jail scene between Clarice and Hannibal, how Jodie Foster got the part, and whose head is really in the jar. Part one, click here; part two, click here.

Finding Nemo, with co-writer David Reynolds. Find out: Why is the vegetarian shark called “Bruce”? How did Sean Penn narrowly miss being in the film? And why did Pixar have to make their animation, in parts, deliberately bad?

The Lost Boys, with director Joel Schumacher. Find out: How was Rambo an influence on the movie? How you do you get maggots to act? Why must Surf Nazis die? Where did Kiefer Sutherland go in full vampire make-up?

Great talkers

Joel Schumacher. The veteran director explains how Woody Allen changed his life, how the studio took fright at Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and how “if I can do this, you can do this too”.

Lynda La Plante. The writer of Prime Suspect, who is currently working on the prequel, tells how she made it as a screenwriter. Find out why her key tip is to “write like a transvestite trucker”.

Tony Jordan. The creator of Life on Mars and the forthcoming Dickensian talks about his long, illustrious and surprisingly accidental career. He explains how he nearly gave up after just a few episodes of EastEnders (he went on to write 250), and how Life on Mars came about.

Charlie Brooker. The sweet, avuncular, cuddly uncle of screenwriting – just kidding! – trains his bile on blockbusters (“like staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together”) and writing itself (“I love having written, but I hate the process of writing”), and talks about the Black Mirror Christmas special.

Writers’ guides

Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay, with Pilar Alessandra. Sigourney Weaver’s part in Alien was originally written for a man. But though it can be useful to ask yourself “what would a man typically do?” when writing for women, you’re missing out on a whole lot of depth if that’s all you do…

The Art & Craft of Dialogue, with Claudia Myers. She outlines the five pillars of what makes a good scene, and the four pillars of what makes good dialogue within that scene. Learn how even the way you address someone can matter: “In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her ‘Mrs.Robinson’.”

Bonus section: last year’s highlights

A whole lotta Joe Eszterhas: The straight-talking author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, who used to be paid $4 million for a script, was so entertaining and larger-than-life he could not possibly fit into one blog. So I posted several, including a, ahem, blow-by-blow account of Basic Instinct, his troubles with Mel Gibson, and his tips on writing.

Creating Character, with Pilar Alessandra. How to brainstorm a film structure from scratch, based solely on character (fascinating!); plus the three dimensions to character, and how to introduce a character in a script.

The Epic Spec: How To Explode Onto The Hollywood Scene, with Stuart Hazeldine. “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

Steve Pemberton. One of the League Of Gentlemen team gives a local talk for local people. Discover, too, how a director he didn’t previously know persuaded him to act, for free, in his short film, as a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia.

Graham Linehan. Absolutely one of the top TV comedy writers working today: the man behind Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd reveals how Robert McKee screwed him up, and what the Three Moments rule is for TV comedy.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2015 is pre-registering now, and already 37% sold out. Find out more here.

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Finding Nemo: the co-writer’s commentary to ten top scenes

12 Nov

An incredible amount of detail goes into writing animated films, particularly at Pixar: years of rewrites, then more rewrites when the voice artists are signed. David Reynolds, co-writer of Finding Nemo, gave a Page To Screen session at the London Screenwriters’ Festival in which he talked over a screening of the film to give some fascinating insider insights into its creation:

1062590_1386881790830_410_2301. Marlin shows his wife Coral their new home. Andrew Stanton had written the original scene – they’re on the edge of the reef and Coral was so happy about their new home and Marlin was nervous. I said, what if we flip it? So that Marlin proudly says, “Did I find you a house or did I find you a house?” So now, when the barracuda comes, it’s his fault. That’s why he’s so nervous [for the rest of the film].

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2. “You’re a clownfish, right? Tell us a joke.” Albert was hilarious, ad-libbing this really bad joke for five minutes. They originally had William H Macy who’s a fantastic actor and who was getting the laughs, but it just wasn’t working. So they got Albert Brooks instead, and he did some improv in a recording studio and was just great. So they said to me, take the script and rewrite every line to suit Albert Brooks. But one of the keys we learned early on was that Albert Brooks could not be allowed to be funny, after that opening. His son has been kidnapped, and I said you can’t stop and tell a joke.

15903. Marlin tells Nemo not to swim out to the boat, and Nemo says “I hate you” just before being captured by a scuba-diver. The inspiration for the film was that Andrew kept saying to his own son “don’t climb on this”. He said, “I loved him so much I didn’t want to be a kid, I wrapped him in blubble-wrap.” And when Andrew was growing up he had a fishtank, and always wondered what the fish were doing. The last thing Nemo says to his father is “I hate you.” When he finally comes back, that’s the first thing he addresses. Apparently, boys watching the film are like “He’ll never find his son” whereas girls were like, “the Dad will find a way”.

review-finding-nemo-3d4. They meet a fearsome shark called Bruce, who luckily is trying to give up eating other fish. The Pixar guys are movie junkies, they take a day off when a new James Bond movie comes out. It gets kind of geeky, but yes, Bruce the shark was named after what they called the mechanical shark when making Jaws.

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5. They’re trapped by a submarine, and the diver’s mask they are chasing falls into a chasm. We just kept pushing the story, one impossible obstacle after another. Any one of those problems should have stopped him, but he’s looking for his son, so he just carries on.

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6. They meet a school of fish that make shapes, with the voice of John Ratzenberg.  John Ratzenberg is the Pixar good luck charm. John Lasseter will not make a movie without him, he’s superstitious that way.

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7. The turtles take Marlin and his friend Dory surfing a current. Crush the turtle was voiced by Andrew, the director. We had wanted Sean Penn to do that voice from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He came in and saw the movie at Pixar, but he wanted too much money, or something like that. We all thought Andrew was the better voice anyway.

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8. Nemo is imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank. Everyone at Pixar had this little joke on me: they wanted to surprise me at the premiere. They secretly recorded this bit, about a kid in a dentist’s chair, where the dentist goes, “Well well, if it isn’t little Davey Reynolds.” I was sitting in the premiere, and when that comes up I go “Whaaaat?!” And they all turn round and go “Gotcha!”

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9. Dory, the fish with a hilariously short-term memory, is the first to find Nemo. “Really?” she says with delight, when he introduces himself. Then, “that’s such a nice name”, obviously having forgotten their whole quest! I snuck into a movie theatre showing the film and sat at the back, and at that bit I held my breath: could we pull this joke off again? The audience loved it.

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10. They all live happily ever after under the sea. There was a point in the animation where they created sea flow and coral that looked so real, it was like a nature documentary. So they had to mess it up a bit. They didn’t want it to look real, but with cartoon fish!

If you liked this post, check out Joel Eszterhas’s commentary on Basic Instinct, and Joel Schumacher’s top ten scenes from The Lost Boys.

Charlie Brooker on why he hates writing, warp factors, Twitter and Transformers

11 Nov
Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters' Festival, by Chris Floyd)

Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters’ Festival, by Chris Floyd)

My sixth despatch from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival is the fearlessly acerbic critic-turned-creative Charlie Brooker. You don’t need any commentary from me – just sit back and enjoy the rant.

On why he “f***ing hates” writing: If I appear to write a lot, that’s interesting. I have a terrible fear I’m not doing enough. I f***ing hate writing. I love the ideas side, and I love having written, but I hate the process of writing. There’s occasionally a eureka moment, but my life is a constant struggle to enter that and avoid the myriad distractions, like an acorn rolling by. I love my job, but it’s also like a fucking curse. The biggest high of it is “thank God I’ve finished that”. It’s just like the feeling of having done a massive poo.

On Touch of Cloth: I was going to say it’s like Airplane for cop shows, but I realise that’s Police Squad! So it’s The Naked Gun, but for Britain. It’s a collaboration – we run a writers’ room for it. We bought a script by the man who made Messiah, which was very bleak, and then used that as a basis for drawing knobs on, basically, because we were aping those dark Sunday night dramas that everyone seems to love but that I think are pornographic and weird, and dull.

We also got a compilation made of scenes from crime dramas, like morgue scenes, and when you watch nothing but these similar scenes, you spot the same tropes and clichés and become inherently funny. It was vital that in our world, none of the characters could acknowledge that what was going on was at all weird. Like in Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen takes it all seriously. The director would shout before every scene, “Don’t forget, you’re doing a serious drama – this is a real body, it’s the body of a child.”

On Black Mirror: The kind of sci-fi I like is allegorical, like The Twilight Zone. Not people with croissant-shaped foreheads talking about warp factors. Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone because he wanted to do plays about racism and McCarthyism, and couldn’t get them on air. That was my focus for the show.

Technology is never the villain in Black Mirror. It’s always, here’s a powerful tool – I don’t mean the character! – here’s a powerful technological tool, and we let the character pick it up and hit themselves repeatedly on the head with it.

We’ve just been shooting a Christmas special, with three episodes, like a Twilight Zone anthology. Jon Hamm’s starring in that because he’s a big fan of the show. It’s about what if you could block someone in real life like you do on Twitter, so they just become an anonymous blob – they can’t hear you or talk to you; and you play out the consequences of that. What I like is TV shows where you get to the end and you feel f***ing devastated. Now they’re all about easily entertaining people. How dare they!

On Nathan Barley: Oh god, writing with Chris Morris was terrifying. I was terrified he’d show up like his Day Today persona, and tell me to f***ing shut up, but he was jolly and friendly and very collaborative. But he’ll interrogate every aspect. He takes ages. We had a meeting before 9/11 and it actually went on air in 2005. We had meeting after meeting to discuss how to do it.

On Twitter: There’s this babble of voices, everyone feeling they have to chip in their two pence worth on how awful it is that Ed Milliband’s just done a poo on the High Street. And I do the same – why? Then everyone feels they have to outdo each other and exaggerate, and it all piles on top of each other, and before you know it everyone is performing, badly, and you’re struck by the existential pointlessness of it… So I wrote a column about it, going “here’s what I think about this! Look at this!”

On why it can be more creative to work on a low budget: The last 20 minutes of every big-budget movie is like you’re staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together.

LSF report #5: The Art and Craft of Dialogue

4 Nov
Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University's School of Communication

Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University’s School of Communication

One for the writers among my readers. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, I attended a seminar on The Art and Craft of Dialogue, given by Claudia Myers, professor of Film and Media Arts and writer of three produced feature films. She started off with what makes a good scene:

1. Each scene (unless it’s just crossing the road to the grocery store!) should have a beginning, middle and end, mirroring the structure of a play.

2. It should centre on conflict. And the essence of that is competing agendas – eg two dogs, one bone.

3. Start in one place and end somewhere else. If you take the scene out and the story if unchanged, you don’t need it.

4. There should be a polarity shift – like the “plus” poles and the “minus” poles. So if it starts off with things looking bad for your character, maybe it finishes by looking good. Or vice versa: you go expecting a romantic dinner, but in fact it’s been arranged to break up with you.

5. Build towards a climax, which should lead to a resolution.

Okay, now – on to what makes good dialogue within that scene:

1. It can advance the plot. If the scene is a break-up, that will be likely verbalised in some way.

2. It can reveal character. The way people say things tells a lot about who they are: their level of education, where they’re from. Maybe they’re pedantic, or use big words, or reveal someone who’s always looking on the bright side – like in Happy Go Lucky, where what she says after her bike is stolen is “Aww, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye!” Sometimes not speaking, not answering a question, can be revealing. You can express the way characters feel about each other, whether it’s contempt or admiration. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her “Mrs. Robinson”.

3. It can give exposition. There’s really only so many newspaper articles you can have conveniently lying around, or diplomas and picture of their past on the wall. Ideally a scene should give exposition and reveal character. Here’s a bad way to give exposition: “I’m so glad you’re my brother and it’s your birthday.” Better is “Happy birthday, sis”, or if they both talk about “Mom” it’s pretty obvious they’re siblings.

4. It can set the tone. It you’re writing a comedy and the dialogue is not making me laugh, that’s a problem.

So, those are the pillars of good dialogue. Now, always remember that good dialogue works subtextually. Subtext is when people don’t say exactly what they mean. We do it every day. “I’ll think about it” usually means “no”, politely. Actors love playing subtext, too. And good dialogue revolves around conflict.

So let’s say a girl wants to break up with her boyfriend. Bad dialogue is: “Tom, I want to break up.” “Okay.” A better start would be: “Tom, before you say anything, I just want to say that these have been the best six months of my life.” At the climax of a scene, usually, a character can’t hold back and is forced to say bluntly what they were trying to say politely, as a result of the pressure the scene puts them under.

We closed with an examination of some terrific scenes from Erin Brokovich and Fargo. None of the above is rocket science, but it’s a very useful check-list to have to hand, if you are writing a script. Go over every scene you’ve written, and the dialogue within that scene, and ask yourself: could it be working harder, and doing more of the things on that check-list?

10 great scenes from The Lost Boys, with commentary from director Joel Schumacher

30 Oct

The Page To Screen events at the London Screenwriters’ Festival are always great. This year, they screened Silence of the Lambs, Finding Nemo AND The Lost Boys. As it’s Halloween today, of course I’m kicking off with The Lost Boys. Joel Schumacher dishes some inside info on the top 10 scenes:A Opening shot1. The camera swoops in over the sea to a boardwalk by night: This long shot onto the boardwalk was meant to come in all the way onto Kiefer Sutherland’s face, but there’s a law that you can only bring a helicopter in so far, so we had to cut. Santa Cruz was the murder capital of the US at the time. A lot of runaways, prostitutes and murders. We had to change the name to Santa Carla, because Santa Cruz didn’t want to be known for that. Even though three of the most famous serial killers were discovered near here around this time.

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2. We meet the family, then it’s back to the boardwalk with a topless sax machine. This was Tim Capella, who was Tina Turner’s sax player. Harry Knowles who runs Ain’t It Cool News told me that on certain anniversaries of The Lost Boys they have a free concert on the beach and a big movie screen. I said why don’t you invite me? It sounds great.

Lost Boys comic store

3. Our young hero Sam meets two pint-sized vampire hunters in a comic store: This is the first time the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) were together on screen. I told them to watch Rambo a couple of times (to get a handle on their characters). That’s where the headband comes in.

Lost Boys the cave

4. Sam’s elder brother Michael ends up in the Lost Boys’ cave: My concept for this was you could have this amazing baroque hotel, and during the earthquake of 1906 why couldn’t it have fallen into the San Andreas Fault, so you get this great stuff underground. Then they took a million dollars out of our budget. They kept asking me, are you making a comedy or a horror movie? I said, yes! They said, it won’t work. I said, pray. So what the production designer did was brilliant: the caves were all “flats” on rollers, so they could be shifted around wherever the camera was pointing. There’s always a way.

Lost Boys maggots

5. The vampires make Michael hallucinate that his Chinese rice has turned into maggots: You need wranglers for the maggots. Here’s a little tip: to get them to move, you squeeze lemon on them, then yell “Action”.

Lost Boys bridge

6. Having drunk vampire blood, Michael and the other Lost Boys hang from a railway bridge. This is a bridge maybe 15 feet at most over a small gulley. To make it seem dangerously high, we used a piece of the bridge and suspended it over a whole sound stage filled with fog. The boys are wired – that’s the cheapest thing to take out with visual effects. When they drop, that’s a stuntman, falling the whole depth of the soundstage into cardboard boxes.

Lost Boys Campfire

7. Finding some Surf Nazis at a campfire, the Lost Boys feed. Run DMC gave us the song Walk This Way to use, and we just decided we’d kill Surf Nazis to it. It just seemed fun. The Lost Boys was viewed with some trepidation by the studio, but at our first test screening there were lines around the block. The theatre held about 750 people, and it was like a rock concert, it was fantastic. There were nine or ten Surf Nazis in the fourth row, and during the killing scene they got so excited that they tore the stuffing out of their seats and threw it everywhere. You’ve never seen so many happy executives.

Lost Boys Kiefer Sutherland

8. The young vampire-killers find the Lost Boys hanging upside down, asleep. They drive a stake through Alex Winter’s heart. Kiefer Sutherland is understandably upset. They had these hard lenses in, they hurt. We blow smoke at them. They’re hanging upside down. Actors are amazing! I’m not a genius as you all know, I’m not the greatest director in the world, but I’ll match my casts with anyone. Kiefer used to go to lunch in full make-up, and enjoy people’s reactions.

Lost Boys reversing car

9. The vampire-killers escape into the light, nearly reversing a car over a cliff in their panic. The kids were furious with me that I got stuntmen to do it. They didn’t speak to me all day. Corey said to me after, “The only reason we decided to do this movie was so we could drive backwards! It says it in the script!” He was 13.

Lost Boys death by stereo

10. The hilariously gory showdown. One vampire is electrocuted on the record player and his head explodes, after which Sam says triumphantly, “Death by stereo.” There was just so much cheering and screaming in the audience when his head blew up, they missed that line. And it’s a great line. So we had to put an extra-long pause in there. [Laughing] I want you to know that these fine actors, including the Academy-Award-winning Dianne Wiest, sat in this thick black smoke for all these takes. I had to go to one of those facials that cleans out your pores for the next three weeks!

For Joel Schumacher on how Woody Allen changed his life, click here. More from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: click to read tips from Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan and Lynda “Prime Suspect” La Plante. Or enjoy the Joe Eszterhas live commentary on Basic Instinct, from last year’s LSF.

Top ten writing tips from Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect

30 Oct
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Lynda la Plante: currently working on a prequel to Prime Suspect

After a diversion to report on the Brixton Ritzy strike, it’s back to my daily reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. One of the giants of crime writing gave a hugely entertaining talk: Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect. Here are her ten tips:

1. Write like a transvestite trucker. I was an actress [in cop shows like Z Cars and The Sweeney] before I was a writer. I had a role with dialogue that made no sense, so I thought, Can I have a go? I went off and wrote three short treatments. They were all rejected, but there was one, Widows, where someone had scrawled across it, “This is brilliant.”

So I sent it to [veteran producer] Verity Lambert, but decided I wouldn’t put my acting name on, but instead put “Lynda La Plante”. When she called me in, she looked up and said, “Oh no, you’re not Lynda La Plante, are you?” Because she knew me as an actress. “We thought it was a transvestite trucker!” She told me to write episode one.

2. Make sure you have a killer treatment. My treatment for Widows started like this: “Four men planning a raid blow themselves up with their own explosives. These men left four widows: Dolly Rawlins, Shirley Miller, Linda Pirelli and Bella O’Reilly. Bereft by the loss of her beloved husband, Dolly Rawlins finds weapons, money and a detailed map of the robbery, and knows where it went wrong. She approaches the other widows and says ‘I will pay you to work alongside me and do the robbery.’” But I didn’t know how to write it from there.

3. Do your research. So I went to source.  On every TV unit there’s always someone who’s done a bit of time, so I contacted one and said I needed to find some criminals. He’s like, “Oh yeh darlin’? What sort?” “Bad ones.” “Murderers?” “Yes.” He took me to the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the Krays hung out. He said, “Do you remember that bloke who fed the bodies to the pigs on a farm?” I said yes, not knowing at all. He said, “Right, here he is. John? Come and meet Lynda.”

Then I went to prison visits, met prisoners’ wives, widows. There was one who was tough, worked a greengrocery, and Dolly began to shape. I went to the police, they said they’d help me – I had no idea of police procedure. You show respect, and just ask.

4. Know how to keep your mouth shut. I’d had one big hit with Widows, then had various commissions that had all fallen down so was feeling a bit bruised. I was learning another big lesson – to keep my mouth shut in meetings. Instead I started off, I really need to know what you’re looking for. She said, “What we really want is a woman in a leading role, working on a murder investigation.” I said, “I’ve been working on that!” Which I hadn’t. She then said, “And we want her in plainclothes.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been working on just that!”

She said, “What’s it called?” The gods were on my side: I came out with, “Prime Suspect”. She said that sounded perfect, just what they were looking for! So I agreed to bring in a treatment.

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison

5. Do still more research. The first thing I did was phone the police and ask for a high-ranking woman detective. “No problem, we have three.” Only three! That was the first insight. So I go in to meet one, and in comes my prototype for Jane Tennison: DCI Jackie Malton. She would say the male officers were so desperate to elbow her out that when they got the call to scramble the squad cars, her rank would put her in the front seat, but she got her hand caught in the door three or four times because they didn’t want to let her in.

6. Keep one step ahead of the audience. People love crime fiction, because it’s a game. They say, “I know who did it – now trick me.” I will outwit you again and again. You think you know who the killer is? No you don’t. That’s respecting an adult audience, not decapitations and blood everywhere.

7. Break the rules – for a reason. I went for a split screen on Trial and Retribution because I had become so involved in forensics [La Plante is the only non-scientist to have been given an honorary fellowship by the Forensic Science Society], and was fascinated by the process of removing a single hair from a button, unwinding it bit by bit so as not to snap it, because the bulb at the end of the hair has DNA. How do you put that on screen, without the viewer making their cup of tea and going, “What, are they still on that button?” So that’s why I did the split screen, so the action could carry on. I did not copy 24. They came to me to find out how I was doing split screen.

8. Be prepared to fight your corner. When I suggested the split screen to the head of ITV, he said, “No, most people have 16-inch screens.” So I said, “Most old ladies watching this can also have eight cards of Bingo and do them all at the same time.” He said, “You’re bloody right, let’s go for it!”

9. Someday, you may want to set up your own company. It’s depressing for writers sometimes when they present a script, and they just go thank you very much. Then editors, producers and actors all have a hand in it. Towards the end of Prime Suspect, there were too many voices telling me where the character should go, which I didn’t always agree with. Then there’s the budget – you’ll write “four patrol cars steam up”, and they’ll say in the meeting, we’ll just have one.

10. And of course, know your characters’ background. I was at a book signing and this fan asked me in a Q&A, where did Jane Tennison come from? And I didn’t really know! It was astonishing. I had no idea. I kept thinking of this: where did she get that cold, aloof exterior, that iron will? So I’m working on a Prime Suspect prequel [book out in 2015, with TV series to follow in 2016] where Jane Tennison is aged 22, a probationary officer working in Hackney police station, fresh as a daisy. Ha ha!

For Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan’s equally entertaining tips from the festival, click here.

LSF report #1: Tony Jordan on going from Albert Square to Life on Mars

27 Oct
Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan at Dickens’s home in Kent, for a BBC4 programme on Great Expectations. Jordan’s 20-part drama Dickensian will air on BBC One next year.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival was an incredible three days of talks, events, seminars, pitches and networking. Each day this week, and probably well into next, I’ll post a new nugget from the festival. These include wildly entertaining chats with Lynda La Plante, Charlie Brooker and Tony “Life On Mars” Jordan; commentaries on Lost Boys, Finding Nemo, and Silence of the Lambs; and some “how-to” classes on scriptwriting.

I’ve kicked it all off with a news story in The Times today. It’s mostly about Tony Jordan’s forthcoming BBC One series, Dickensian, so let’s start off here with more life-lessons from the irrepressible Tony:

1. You have to blag it: EastEnders was my very first job as a writer. I wrote a script by accident – that is, I was chatting to a friend who was trying to get into television, and if he was collecting butterflies I would probably have collected butterflies, but as it is, I wrote a script. I had a pitch in a market so they somehow thought I was an East End barrow boy, even though I was raised just outside Liverpool. So after that I was Dick Van Dyke, I had to pretend to be Cockney. It stuck for 15 years until I was told there was a magazine wanting to do a feature about me growing up in the East End and I had to come clean.

2. You must hold on to your voice: We all have a unique voice as a writer. The problem is, when you go to soaps, they say “we want your voice”, but they don’t really; they want all the episodes to sound the same. So I did what any writer would do: I watched an episode, paused it, counted the scenes. Dissected it. After a few episodes I realised the structure was always the same.

There’s always a cliffhanger at the end, and that’s your North Star, you’re aiming for that. That then gives you your first image, because it has to be connected in some way. Chuck in another three or four narrative staging posts, and you can cover all that in about ten minutes. I worked out that left me 20 minutes to myself. When you see an episode with all the men in one corner of the Queen Vic having conversations that begin “The trouble with women is…” and all the women in another corner going “The trouble with men is…”, and juxtaposing them in an interesting way, that’s me.

3. You will have to deal with twats like Andrew. There was this twat [at the BBC] called Andrew, I can’t even remember his second name he was that much of a twat. He had me, a 34-year-old father of three, used to fist fights at 6am to safeguard my pitch, sitting on my back doorstep sobbing like a child. I very nearly gave up EastEnders at that time, after about eight scripts [he went on to do about 250]. On his first script meeting with Ashley Pharoah [who later co-created Life on Mars], Andrew picked up his script, held his nose, dropped it in the bin, and said “Shall we start again?”

When you recognise the twats, you have to get away from them as soon as you can. Or strike them physically.

4. Just write the truth. I was expelled from school at 14, so I didn’t understand the frames of reference when they’d talk in meetings about Brecht or Shakespeare or Dickens. But I eventually discovered there is no secret. It’s just writing down the truth on a bit of paper.

Hustle

Hustle: breaking the fourth wall

5. You can break the rules – for a reason. When I was writing Hustle, I got stuck. I had to explain all the cons to the reader and it was just pages and pages of exposition, like wading through treacle. I phoned Jane Featherstone at Kudos and said “It won’t work,” and she said okay, if we can’t make it we can’t, but just have a Bacardi and a bit of a think; relax.

So a couple of days later it hits me: when we have exposition, we just freeze it, and have the actors talk directly to the audience. Jane had the imagination to say, “That sounds pretty f***ing weird, but you know what, let’s do it. We’ll either make history, or we’ll never work again.”

6. Rejection is not the end. I had this great idea, and gave it someone, and they said, “We can never make that. It’s too silly.” Too silly. Right. No getting round that. But someone else later took it on. That was Life on Mars. So it’s not necessarily that the script is bad, it’s just not right for someone.

I also had this idea for a show about the making of a soap, which would be paralleled on alternative nights by the soap itself. It stayed in my bottom drawer for 12 years until a new head came in at ITV, and said they wanted to break the mould and take risks. I said, funny you should say that, I have just the thing…

Life on Mars

Life on Mars: dreamt up in Blackpool with £1,000 in carrier bags

7. There is life on Mars. At EastEnders we used to do these away-days, 14 writers in Badminton House playing poker and getting drunk. That’s why I stayed so long, to go to the story conferences! So I pitched to Kudos that they give me £1,000 in expenses, in three carrier bags, for me and two writers to go to Blackpool. We would work till 4.30pm, then our time’s our own. So we arrived at Blackpool train station, and found this poor runner standing there on the platform, who gave us our carrier bags full of cash.

One of the ideas to come out of this session was Legion [which Watch has now commissioned as ten hour-long programmes], and another was Life on Mars. I recently found a photo from those days and it has a flip-chart with “’70s cop show” with a big ring round it. Life on Mars came about for one simple reason: we wanted to write for The Sweeney, but it wasn’t on anymore. We thought we could never sell a ‘70s cop show, so we thought “let’s put a spin on it”. Doing a time-travel cop show wasn’t done because we saw a gap in the market, it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was three pissed writers who wanted to write for The Sweeney.

8. At some stage, you may want to set up your own production company [Tony’s is Red Planet]. Sometimes, when I created a series, they wouldn’t want me involved in anything but the scripts. I don’t want to just put the script up someone’s arse and the DVD comes out their ear.