“What is the collective noun for a group of screenwriters?” asks David Pearson, Director of the UK’s inaugural Screenwriters’ Festival. “Good screenwriters are lions. This is a rare concentration of film and television writing talent, and for me the only way of describing screenwriters in the plural is as a pride.”
It’s a nice thought and a good collective noun, but I think I have a better one: a desperation of screenwriters. This is not meant to be glibly dismissive of our craft but more of an accurate description of what it’s like for both successful and aspiring writers alike.
Cheltenham Film Studios is neatly tucked away just off the M5 and its dreary roundabouts. In contrast, the studio exists in a picturesque setting, with an impressive mansion house and opulent gardens. I was attending on a Day Pass, as the cost of full attendance was far too expensive, and the night before I had stayed with Sam Morrison in Bristol (where he lives) as he screened his terrific new film, Rocket Science! (It’s an entirely self-made and self-financed fifteen minute animation short: a black and white spoof of 1950s noir and B movies. Lots of fun and fantastic work, as usual.)
A bit tired and bleary, I collected my ‘Professional Delegate’ pass and went for much needed breakfast at the catering marquee (where they were cheekily charging us to eat there! Lunch prices were particularly outrageous). Immediately, I bumped into Paul Campbell, Nick Ostler, Mark Huckerby and Justin Trefgarne (now freelance writer/director), along with fellow script reader Paul Williams, and it was nice to ease into the morning in good company.
First session of the day was with Julian Fellowes in conversation with Colin Brown (editor of Screen International) on why writers need to become more commercially minded. Julian was great value as he regaled us with his wit and experience, and it was the perfect way to start the day. During the break, a blogspotter came up and said hello (hello Adrian!), so that was nice.
Next up was ‘Telling the Truth is Tough’ with TV legend Jimmy McGovern. He spoke with Times critic Paul Hogart about his life, work and the responsibility and hurdles of telling the truth. An excellent talk. Mr McGovern’s so passionate about his subjects and himself, and far more personable and humble than the often abrasive way he can be referred to in the media.
Co-writers Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran had an informal chat and exchange of information with Nick Oslter & Mark Huckerby in the more intimate Manor room (away from Stage A where most of the sessions were taking place) where they discussed the trials and delights of writing as a team. One of the more pertinent questions was: "What happens if one of you die?" which despite the initial giggles brought out an interesting reply from Marks & Gran: "We're insured. If I die, Maurice gets a hefty sum and if he dies, I get a hefty sum. It's a business."
Lunch followed. Nice but expensive. Seven pounds fifty for a square meal.
A session on Long Term Characters then with Ashley Pharoah, Marks & Gran, Barbara Machin (Waking the Dead) and Jimmy McGovern, and the discussion was chaired by Mervyn Watson, exec producer of Casualty.
Then a scheduling clash. What to see? Producer Kevin Loader on his illustrated view of working with writers or Bill Nicholson, writer of Gladiator etc, on his approach to surviving as a Hollywood writer? I was inclined to see Mr Loader as I’m a fan of his work but Nick & Mark convinced me that Mr Nicholson was a terrific speaker so I went along to that session instead. And boy am I glad I did. The highlight of the day, no question.
Bill Nicholson spoke with honesty, modesty and a full and frank appreciation of what it takes to survive as a working writer in Hollywood. It was illuminating and inspiring: a more realistic appraisal of all the usual tales that you hear about the development process. Even execs are much maligned. Well, maybe not much. Either way, Mr Nicholson demonstrated that even as a sought after, Oscar-nominated writer, you still have to jump through the hoops and suck all the eggs that they throw at you. It’s a privilege to be in his position, he told us, so if you do the hard work and commit yourself with professionalism, even to the most jarring of notes/advice, then you’ll be able to sustain a career. If that thought isn’t appealing, then screenwriters need to make that switch to being novelists.
A three-hour car drive home was looming and my energy was flagging. I managed to chill out for a half an hour before my return trip so I missed a few other sessions that I would have ordinarily been in the front row. But I had a great time. It seems that in this day and age, information and knowledge about screenwriting is well-understood and appreciated on a par between aspiring and professional writers alike. All of the talk and insight was pretty much the facts and wisdom that people share every day on blogs and chat rooms (perhaps this is why the New Writers’ Day on the Tuesday didn’t live up to some people’s expectations) but it’s still invigorating and inspiring to get a first-hand account of the delights and pitfalls of success.
Let’s hope a similar desperation of screenwriters gather next year for what is clearly a successful venture on the festival market. Congratulations to David Pearson and his team for organising such an event but next time, try to keep the costs down to a more reasonable level. If it was set in London for example, most people wouldn't have the need for accommodation which is a significant extra to any festival expense. Regardless, it was a good day and I’m sure the rest of the festival will be just as enjoyable. Let’s hope Paul gives us a rundown on his blog when he gets back.