A few students have hit me with a handful of standard questions to help them with their final submissions, so here's a taste of some of that action. However, if anyone has any queries about something more specific or troubling, then just holler from the back.
From a writer's view, what first steps should you make?
Well, it may sound obvious, but you should write. Not only that, you should read and write. Read as many scripts as you can, and read as much advice and insight into the process, too. Books, magazines, blogs, websites, whatever. By reading about screenwriting craft and how the industry operates, the quality of your scripts will automatically improve.
How did you start your career into film/television?
I wrote to RTE and told them that I was going to be a film reviewer! It was a cheeky letter, to be honest, but it landed on a producer’s desk for a youth magazine show, and he wanted to meet. I was already writing film reviews for a Dublin listings magazine. The producer liked my reviews, and he gave me a screen test. That was nerve wracking but I managed to get through it, and I was a film reviewer on the telly for about three months! During this time, I contacted Ardmore Studios, Ireland’s main filmmaking studio, and I got work as a runner for a special effects company. I wasn’t getting paid much with either job but it was terrific experience. When it ended, I came to London and after about six months of temping around, I got a job at Channel 4, and my career started in earnest.
What where the difficulties and problems of reaching this stage?
There’s a lot of stiff competition out there. Everybody wants to work in film or TV, or have written a script, or their parents know a producer and they’ll get the job ahead of you. So you have to be savvy, focused and committed. When I wrote to RTE, I knew it was the right time because it was the summer break and productions would start to think about ‘crewing up’. It was an extremely exciting time for me, I was only 21, but it was also very difficult because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and soon, I was living on a friend’s couch, practising my film reviews in his sister’s bedroom mirror! The SFX work was great but it was long hours and poorly paid, so I couldn’t afford to live like that anymore. I had stretched my friend’s family’s hospitality to the limit, so I decided to make the move to London. Once I arrived in England, I was lucky to settle in quite quickly, and the job at Channel 4 was the start of making proper contacts, which created a lot of opportunities for me.
As a script reader, what makes a good script stand out?
A script that’s original with its premise, characters and story, and told with a distinctive style or ‘voice’. A lot of scripts follow a conventional or predictable narrative with a ‘samey’ style of what’s considered to be the accepted screenwriting approach. Scripts that truly stand out know how to subvert the form and content of the so-called rules but do so by telling great stories. Charlie Kaufman, Zach Helm, Frank Cottrell Boyce, David Mellis & Louis Scinto, to name but a few American and UK writers, know how to spin a good screenplay.
What advice would you give to someone like me who wants to work as an independent film maker (writer/director)?
Get involved in the industry in whatever way you can. Start making contacts. Work on short films, for free, and use the contacts to make your own short film. A good short film strengthens a writer’s reputation, even more so if he/she has directed it, as it can lead to immediate work in TV or some development work for feature films. Don’t assume you know everything about the industry. The industry needs talented writers and directors. It’s not in their interest to ignore you, but you have to be good, and a lot of people aren’t, or are just the same as everyone else trying to break in. Try to be distinctive and original but don’t be alternative and quirky for the sake of it. Find your own voice. Get used to rejection. Develop a thick skin and tell yourself, over and over again: “it’s not personal”. Keep writing.