In the first of what I hope will become a series of chats and interviews with people in the biz, here’s an exclusive Q&A with Justin Trefgarne, Development Executive for Working Title Films. So pour yourself a skinny mocha latté and hunker down for some valuable insight into the development process…
What advice would you give for those who would like to break into the business on the development side of things…?
There are a million answers to this question. I’d say the most important thing I look for is whether someone actually ‘gets it’ – ie do they convince you – is there passion backed up with knowledge. It’s not just about being able to say you’ve seen all the films released in the last six months or quoting all the good bits from Tarantino movies – it’s about whether you are tuned into the things that make stories dramatic. By this I mean the underlying, invisible qualities present in a piece of work. I personally call this the ‘mythic’ quality to a film – the thing that makes a work memorable, important and dramatically whole.
And I suppose informing that awareness is a sense of why you want to be in development in the first place, rather than something else in film. Again, when I meet people I’m always looking to be convinced in some way – I’m not talking about judging someone – it’s about finding their passion, their humanity – things that I hope they’d be looking for in me as well. It’s only in the meeting of minds that we can ever properly develop material of value.
On a practical side you need to be able to express yourself both verbally and on paper. Sounds obvious but you’d be amazed at how many people fall at either one or both of these hurdles. So much of what we do is dominated by these core skills – and yet our biggest issue is finding people who really shine in these areas. And the best way of developing them is to work as a reader – reading scripts for whoever, whenever you can and finding novel ways of getting your point of view across.
I worked as a reader before my first break which was working for a director, which brings me to my other point – experience of production. Good development people have spent some part of their life actually seeing a movie get made. Short films, TV films, features, whatever. The problem with just developing stuff is that until you’ve actually been in a production environment it’s all just academic. Get on a set and try and work out what everyone’s doing and why very few of them are actually looking at a script. Then go back to the written word and see what’s changed.
Another good way is by watching movies and then reading the scripts again – seeing how the realisation differs from the objectives of the screenplay. And ultimately it’s about tenacity – hard work matched with determination and street-savvy. Development jobs are tricky to hear about but it’s amazing how quickly really good people progress. Never close a door to an opportunity, however unlikely it seems at the time. And be nice to people.
What do you think is the secret to Working Title’s success?
Hard work, investment in the right things (ie talent and development), risk-taking, courage and the desire to make money, rather than languish on the fringes. And probably luck, though I’ve yet to really be convinced of what luck really is. Faith might be better – faith in people and the total desire to see certain situations come good.
How much emphasis is put on the writing process?
Until a film gets greenlit it’s all about the script. That’s not saying that the scripts are perfect – no script is ever perfect – but it’s about application – a realistic and determined drive to make the script into the thing that best sells the movie to your cast, investors, distributors etc. We invest an awful lot of time and money in development and when it pays off it always justifies the occasions when it doesn’t, if you see what I mean.
Do projects spend a long time in development?
Yes and no. Depends on the zillion variables that affect the process. Obviously the less time in development the better but life ain’t that simple.
How closely do you work with the writer?
I prefer to work as closely as possible – I like to really roll my sleeves up and get stuck in but with more experienced writers you may find yourself in less hands-on role. It depends on the kind of project but I guarantee you that any really good film has undergone this kind of forensic approach – by which I mean every single word has been gone over at some stage of its life – either with a script editor or more likely (and ideally) with a director.
How many script submissions do you receive a week?
Hard to say – as we don’t accept unsolicited submissions it’s fewer than you’d think. Probably around 10-15.
And how many scripts do you read a week?
Including the things I’m working on, which form the bulk of my reading load, probably 5-10.
Do you rely on the reader’s report or will you take a quick look at the script regardless of the reader’s verdict?
No. There’d be no point in having readers then.
Do you accept unsolicited script submissions?
In your opinion, what are the common mistakes that most writers make in their spec scripts?
Oh blimey. This is a horrible question because it’s so negative – it’s always about what’s wrong over what could just be better. The things that crop up though are probably fairly simple in the end.
First is that most scripts don’t really know what they are – ie for whom are you actually writing this? People have very naïve expectations of what sort of material is going to appeal beyond a niche audience. If it’s just a niche audience you wanted to reach fine, but then the scale needs to correspond. In conjunction with this is that thing I was talking about – the ‘invisible’ quality to a piece of work. The thing that elevates it into the extraordinary rather than the ordinary.
How many people are really prepared to dig deep into their souls and find the heart of their work? I would argue not enough. As a result so much of what I read is just purely derivative, or half-baked or just plain dull. In movies, unlike say publishing, it’s about finding something different rather than just more of the same. Predictability is a disease in cinema and it’s killing our enjoyment. People want to write movies but they don’t want to do the living to get there. It’s not a God-given right – it’s a calling, something that takes over your life so you have to find the voice – the essence – that demands for this thing to be seen.
Even if it’s Ace Ventura there’s a good version and a bad version of that. Other things that are less intangible: tone, structure, pace, tone, tone… dialogue and usually top of the list: the story itself. As I said predictability is death. Compare a movie like The Island – dreadful, an abomination – with Seven – not dreadful – and you’ll see what I mean.
Your job is to entertain me and the last thing I want to see is a whole bunch of crap I’ve seen before. Surprise me! Be the audience for your own work – would you sit through this? If the answer is probably not you need to do some more work! I’m not saying make it weird, I’m saying make it fresh.
Do you have any ‘pet hates’ when you read a script?
If you could change one thing about the UK film industry, what would it be?
Its low aspirations.
There’s a growing consensus that UK screenwriters aren’t very good (or that there’s a significant lack of quality UK scribes) - do you think this is true or indeed fair?
Is there really or is it just the same old moaners moaning on? It’s a small country compared with the USA so obviously there are fewer Brits when positioned alongside their US counterparts, which they are always by virtue of sharing a language. I don’t have the numbers but I think it’s probably bollocks. What there are though is too many poorly conceived British movies.
What should a UK writer do to make their work more original and/or marketable?
You’ve just got to keep bashing away. I’d say it’s also helpful to have some people in your life who know what they’re talking about to read your work. But they have to be the right people – not the sort of people who are frightened of telling you the (constructive) truth.
Likewise you have to protect yourself from the negativity that pervades this kind of thing – you’ve got to really make sure that you don’t lose your self-confidence and that means avoiding the people (of whom there are many) who just want to make you feel bad.
Characters or structure?
And finally… if Orlando Bloom was in a fight with Colin Farrell, who do you think would win?
It wouldn’t be either of them that determined the outcome. It would be their lawyers.
Huge thanks to Justin for the Q&A.