Monday, January 30, 2006

Q&A: Nick Ostler

Nick Ostler and co-writer Mark Huckerby are emerging stars on the UK screenwritng scene. Their animation series - The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers - has recently started its 78 x 7" run on CiTV and they have various exciting projects in development which include the 25 Words Or Less sci-fi winner Population (currently on Working Title's slate) and an adaptation of the classic German cautionary tales, Shockheaded Peter. Here, Nick takes some time out from his busy schedule as I pester him with a little Q&A...

Did you always want to be a writer, and in particular a screenwriter?

I always enjoyed writing stories, but my first "proper" stuff was writing comedy plays and shows at school and university. From there it was a brief spell writing for radio and then a pretty quick move into TV which seemed to have more jobs going and better rates (!).

I don't know when it first occured to me that writing was actually something you could do full time for a living - it still seemed a bit of a pipe dream when I graduated, in those depressing days when you realise the party is over and you have to "do something". It was probably when producers started saying to us that we could get more work if we were writing full time, then it became a real option.

It's still taken several years to establish anything resembling a reliable income though. Why screenwriting in particular? I guess my main influences growing up were TV comedy and film, so that's what I wanted to emulate. If I'm honest, there's also a practical consideration. I know a very talented novelist who has had three really good books published, but there's no money in it unless they are bestsellers. Screenwriting for a living is still hard, but not impossible.

How did you find the transition from wannabe to professional?

I'm not really sure when I became a "professional", but if it was the first cheque paid for something I'd written then I guess that happened when we still had day-jobs. Comically small amounts of course, but I can still remember the surge of adrenaline I felt when that envelope arrived.

Taking the plunge was actually quite easy for me at the time - even though I had zero guaranteed paid work to speak of to go to I knew that I was going to leave my day job (working in a bookshop) because I couldn't stand it any longer. I guess I thought why not try writing full time for a few months and if it doesn't work then at least I'd had a go. It was a much harder decision for my writing partner Mark Huckerby, as he was in a pretty well paid advertising job and was giving up financial security (although he hated his job too, so in that sense it was easy!).

It took about nine months of really scraping around for work, doing sketches for the odd radio show and some of the new digital channels (anyone remember UK Play?) before we got anything like a proper contract which we could see would pay the rent for the next few months.

What would you consider to be your first big break (and how did you celebrate?)?

That first longer term job was a break I suppose - it was writing seven minute episodes for an animated series being produced in Germany. I think they had the impression we were more experienced than we were because the script fees weren't bad.

Either that or they were fiscally inept which might explain why the company went under and the show never got made! Another lesson learned early on... BUT that gave us some short term stability which allowed us to find our feet and make more contacts. Aim number one was "make a living writing" - it didn't matter what at the time. We got that job on a recommendation from someone else we'd done a small job for.

Our attitude was always to do the best job we could even if it was for bugger all money and very low profile, because the way to earn a living was to get repeat clients (like prostitutes I imagine) and get your name passed around as reliable and competent (ditto). It was that gradual building up of contacts and jobs that gave us a bedrock to build on, not one big break really.

However, in terms of feature writing, which we built up to gradually after a years of smaller scale narrative writing, we did have what you might call a big-ish break, which was winning the sci-fi category of the UK Film Council's 25 Words or Less scheme. That resulted in our first completed feature script which was sold to Working Title - that was a huge surprise and delight and has opened more doors and opportunities for us which we are currently trying to capitalise on!

In a less showbiz way, and this may sound cheesy, but it feels like a big break every time you get an idea which you know has something to it, or every time Mark and I successfully "break" a story we've been working on for weeks. Those are the everyday breaks. I'm a firm believer in the adage "every overnight success comes after one hell of a long night" (or something like that).

How do you work with your co-writer?

When we started out we lived together, so it would be literally - meet in living room, make tea, discussion, retire to computer, take it in turns pacing room - the classic writing partnership image. And there's still a lot of that now, but mainly when we're in the outlining and polishing stages.

We're both married now (not to each other) and live in different counties (our wives hate each other) (not really), which is admittedly pretty stupid and will hopefully change sometime soon, but for now we make it work by frequent meetings at each other's house or in London and constant phone calls and emails. And ESP. When we have a finished outline we literally divvy it up and take alternate "chapters" to write into a first draft.

And at the end of the day we swap pages, read, note, move on until we have a finished draft. Then a bigger reappraisal, outline what needs rewriting, share out the scenes and repeat as above! That's still a fairly new system and who knows, maybe we'll find it isn't sustainable long term, but it does mean you can get a first draft done pretty fast - although, as we all know, the story breaking and outlining takes longer, is harder and less fun than the actual writing.

Writing partnerships are great in lots of ways - creatively it helps with self-discipline as it's a bit like having a boss who wants to see your work (although you don't hate them for it which is a nice change), a sounding board for ideas, instant feedback etc - it's all invaluable. But you have to be very compatible I think - same outlook, likes, dislikes, style, attitude, able to be completely honest with each other without ego-fits.

I don't buy that fiery-tempered partnerships are better creatively - I don't think they last. And professionally I think there's something intangible but very potent about the "writing partnership" myth which excites producers - it gives you more power in meetings somehow. More confidence. And there's this weird sense of "mystery" about what the two of you "do" when you're alone, which you can exploit shamelessly!

How do you get an agent?

The agents we've had have all been through direct introduction-recommendations by producers or development execs. We started getting paid work (in a small way) before we got an agent. I don't know how you'd get one otherwise - I can't imagine cold calling agents with scripts. They want to know you can make them money. They only know that if you've already made some money.

If I didn't have an agent and had never sold a script, I wouldn't be spending time hassling agents, I'd hassle producers, 'cos if what you've written is really good then someone will buy it and then getting an agent will happen easily. Agents, as we found out pretty fast, don't get you the work.

You have to develop your own network of satisfied customers and contacts and I think that's exactly the way it should be, but of course you would hope that your agent would be able to give you good advice, flag up opportunities, have access to people who can buy your stuff and deal with all the contracts and fee collection without constant chasing up by you (don't count on it, repeat after me "no-one cares as much about getting your money as you... no-one cares as much...).

We had very definite ideas about what we wanted when we were seeking out our current agent - someone well known in the industry who could get stuff read by the top people, who knew the movie industry, who could advise us on how to move our careers up to the next level - we did a lot of research, met several and sought out the one who we felt most comfortable with both personally and professionally. It's important, but I always think that a lot of writers agonise and obsess about agents way too much - yes you've got to have one but the quality of your writing is the really important thing!

As a working screenwriter, what has surprised you most (or what has been an invaluable lesson that you’ve learnt) about the practicalities of screenwriting?

The perceived (or maybe real, not sure yet!) lack of professionalism of UK screenwriters. We've had so many meetings where we quickly figured out that all the producers were trying to ascertain was that we "didn't mind rewriting" - that was the only reassurance that they wanted!

To us a writer who doesn't like rewriting is like a lifeguard who doesn't like getting wet. It's in the job description! Invaluable lessons? Always have more than one thing going on at a time. If you don't have about five projects all "alive" at some stage of development then it's hard to make a living. Choose who you work with carefully.

Best advice we had recently was from Bill Nicholson (Gladiator) - Be confident! You are the writer, you are being hired for your expertise. Your confidence will inspire confidence in you by the people hiring you. And don't be afraid to walk away from a job if you don't think what you are being asked to do will make it better - they'll respect you more for it and probably beg you to come back once they've realised you were right!

What advice would you give to new screenwriters?

Decide - do you really want to do this for a living or not? If you do, then do it, no half measures - don't be too proud to accept any job you can get, but get writing full time, because there's no better way to get better at it! Use paid jobs to improve your writing.

If you want to write movies, great, but you don't have to jump straight into the monster that is the two hour story - try seven minutes, then fifteen, then half an hour - work up to it. And those are all format lengths which you can get paid to write (radio, TV animation, short films).

Imagine you are training for the Olympics - it's four years away, but you've got to work like hell every day to get better and what you do - and then when the real opportunity comes, you'll be ready (as long as you don't pull a hamstring). The pressure of having to earn a living through writing (and nothing else) will be all the motivation you need to get those pages done!

Watch movies - watch them all the time (except when you should be writing!). Read scripts, again lots, but not when you're supposed to be doing your own. Don't wait for the "muse". It's a bullshit excuse. You're the muse.

And sorry, there's no such thing as writer's block. What the hell is that supposed to be anyway? Thank god surgeons don't get "surgeon's block" in the middle of your operation. "Pilot's block". Ouch. Imagine you are Vincent in Collateral - chase your procrastination onto a train, point a gun at it and scream "I DO THIS FOR A LIVING!". Only don't get killed like he does. Sorry, that was a spoiler. You should have seen it by now anyway.

Anyway, sorry, I got all American there for a while. Actually, no that's a good piece of advice. Get more American. Be professional, ambitious, driven, learn how to be "good in the room". And stop reading this and get to work. There.

How difficult was getting the pitch for Population past the 25 Words or Less panel?

I don't know because we didn't get to read the other entries! But... I think what that scheme is looking for is high concept, simple, ambitious ideas, along with that professional attitude - yes I want to work with a script editor, yes I love to rewrite. It's trying to do something quite "un-British" in that sense, which I think is brilliant.

Obviously we're biased, but I think it's an excellent way to get writers thinking commercially (as they should be) and it gives you "permission", if you need it, to write a pitch for a movie and have it seriously considered. We had a kernel of an idea for a sci-fi and it took a week to flesh that out to a one page outline and script the opening ten pages (which are the easiest pages of any script anyway) - so it's not a big outlay of time for what can be a great reward. BTW I don't buy into the idea that "commercial" and "art" are mutually exclusive. My favourite films are all brilliantly written and directed AND popular.

Where will you be in five years’ time?

Hopefully sitting at the back of a cinema somewhere watching the opening credits of something we wrote. Or leading the last remnants of Mankind in one final desperate assault on the barbaric Zaxavian hoards. I'm not sure which is more likely.

And finally, you’re a cyborg with the wit of James Bond, the body of Brad Pitt and the intellect of Einstein sent on a mission to save a planet full of virgins from a deadly asteroid. The question is: what do you set the video for while you’re away?

The Shield. Deadwood. Curb Your Enthusiam. That movie which I missed four years ago which is on Channel 4 at five past midnight on Tuesday. Bill Oddie's Springwatch (seriously). Um... anything with monkeys in, they're always good value aren't they?

Thanks Nick!

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