As we reach the final stages of this year's Red Planet Prize, here's an interview with last year's winner Simon Glass!
Congratulations on winning the Red Planet Prize 2011! What was your reaction when you found out you had won?
Thank you kindly. Winning, as naff as it may sound, was a life-changing event. I had more or less decided I was going to give up writing. It had been a very hard year and the only thing I had by the end of it was the second round of the RPP. We’d had an early snowstorm and it was pretty grim outside. I knew that the winner was being announced that day. On the internet, several people had been announcing that they were runners up and I thought “oh well, that’s it then”.
So I was sitting there feeling pretty rotten and a call came through. Since I didn’t recognise the number I let the answer service pick it up. When I listened to the message it was Simon Winstone from Red Planet asking me to phone back: I have a tendency to awfulise so I waited two hours before ringing back and that was it, I’d won. And suddenly the world was a very nice place to be.
What's your winning script about? Give us the pitch!
A tattoo and piercing parlour opens for business on an upper middle class street.
At this point you’re probably thinking “ooookay, great... good luck with that”. But In The Flesh is about modern Britain in crisis. It’s about the lives and lies people believed would make them happy crumbling in the face of what the world is, what we’ve made of it. And it’s about revelling in the delight of your inner freak.
Can you tell us anything about the script's background (how you got the idea, how long you were kicking it around, etc)?
I’d been up for a couple of commissions on shows that year, which, whilst not being career making or what I wanted to do, would have been lucrative in the short term. They both fell through at the last minute and I was angry as hell. But instead of internalising that anger I decided to pour it into a script but the crucial thing here is that even though In The Flesh was motivated by anger, it’s not an angry script. It’s redemptive.
But I had no idea what I was going to write, I had no idea for a drama so it wasn’t contrived or forced, and one night I had a vision of this surly, sex-kitten teen sitting in a tattoo parlour blagging a tattoo even though she’s underage and it’s illegal – and that was it I had a first scene. Suddenly I had a starting point – the trick was to turn something that could seem like a comedy sketch into a full-on drama.
How long did you work on the all-important first ten pages of the script?
There’s one very important thing I think it vital to point out here: I didn’t write In The Flesh to enter the Red Planet Prize. It was just fortuitous that it was finished at the time the prize was announced. There was a whole script that had a cohesive whole that the first ten pages actually linked to when I was put through to the second round.
Good scripts aren’t ten pages, the ten page rule is of course vital, but that’s about hooking your audience but if the following fifty pages are disjointed, poor, self indulgent or sentimental then what was the point of writing ten good pages? To be honest, I can’t remember how long those ten pages took as they weren’t written as a stand alone. By the time you reach the end of the script your first ten pages may have changed beyond all recognition.
Hard question but what was it about the first ten pages that made it through to the next round, do you think?
The easy answer: they made you want to read more.
The hard answer: I didn’t hold back from what I’m about as a person. I didn’t hide behind characters. I let them speak for me. In The Flesh is a freaky script and I’m a bit of a freaky person. I’ve done a lot of stupid crap in my time, but crap that if you don’t die and do come back from you actually have stories to tell – I suppose my writing is honest, I’m writing about the world as I view it now from my experience.
I do have a very specific style, but by style I don’t mean a set way of writing dialogue, character or any of those other facile things that screenwriting “gurus” bullet point on powerpoint presentations in those criminally overpriced courses. When my writing works you’re getting a glimpse of the shit in my head and luckily for me people now seem to like that. They didn’t always, believe me.
What about your writing background? How did you start? What difficulties did you face?
I never intended to become a writer, that’s the truth. But I had an idea in my head for a play called Parlour Games, a play that was beyond hardcore and in many ways it’s still my favourite piece of writing as it is absolutely fearless, it doesn’t care who it offends. It’s also pretty nasty. I reread it recently and felt a bit nauseous by the end.
Anyway, at the time I left it a year and thought 'everyone writes, why send it away?' But then I did as I thought I’d gone to all the effort and was overwhelmed by the response. Everyone I sent it to seemed to want it. I sent it to agents and they wanted to represent me – it was what could have been a starmaking entrance into the writing world.
And then it all went horribly wrong: the landscape of theatre has been changing in the past ten years. The main producing houses can't take risks anymore (they were once happy to) as funding is paramount. Putting on Parlour Games and keeping commercial and corporate sponsors happy are not mutually inclusive.
Suddenly all those doors which seemed to open were slamming shut but what the play did do was get me picked up as a writer of promise by the BBC and did get me into TV, but it’s been a very, very long hard process.
I made a huge mistake in choosing my first agent, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing so I went for the one with the nicest biggest building, who was an agent with one of the “then” big four London agencies and to be fair to him he was a good agent for a certain type of commercial client, which I am not. He saw me as one of those “arty” clients who look good on your list but he didn’t know what to do with me and I wasted five years with him and the end when it came was sadly acrimonious. People get so obsessed about getting an agent – but the wrong agent can destroy your career and even with an agent, a good agent you may get nowhere.
In many ways Parlour Games not being my first big hit was a blessing – I would never have been anything else other than the guy who wrote “that play”, moving on from it would have been very hard indeed – writing is full of people who’ve crashed and burned after an initial “career-making” first success and it’s a pity, people change and writers need time to develop and that can take years. I’m glad my break has happened now as I’m finally writing to my potential.
How has winning the Red Planet Prize changed your life?
It’s given me a shot at the kind of career I no longer thought was possible for me and for that I am profoundly grateful. It’s opened doors which I never thought would open, I owe everyone who picked me a huge, huge debt of gratitude. If I hadn’t have won I wouldn’t be writing now.
What are you working on at the moment?
Besides the second episode, a lot of development work with production companies. That’s the thing I don’t think that people realise: how much goes on behind the scenes which never makes it to the screen. And I'm working on a book for children: very strange children.
What's next for you?
I don’t know, it’s funny though as for years people were ambivalent to my style of writing and with the global shit suddenly I’ve become quite popular. I think that’s it, my abilities and talents are about darkness which suits the time – so should we enter a Utopia I might be in a bit of a quandary.
Any advice for new writers or anyone thinking of entering the Red Planet Prize?
There are no shortcuts or easy ways. I knew once I’d won the Prize it was going to be hard and it has been but hard in a good way. But a career is what you make of the opportunities that come your way and which you make for yourself.
Once you’ve entered the Prize, forget about it completely. If you’re shortlisted try to forget about that too. Don’t spend months obsessing and should you win or be a finalist understand it’s only the beginning of a very long road.