Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chronicles 38 - The First Time I Will Actually Get Paid For It

If there is any truth in Samuel Johnson's maxim that, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money", then I must have reached the very zenith of 'blockheadedness' since, having started writing, (well, not screenwriting) but 'creative writing', just over 11 years ago I haven't been paid a single farthing for my 'lovingly crafted' words. Maybe I should take it as a badge of honour, proof that I've earned my stripes as a "struggling scrivener in the garret", or to paraphrase Little Britain's, "I'm a lady" - "I'm an artist, darling".

Still, considering I started writing a novel, which I abandoned after about 6 pages and then went on to write fringe/arts festival/theatre in education plays it's not surprising I didn't bring in any bacon. Or is it? In the UK, production company D-girls and boys trawl the fringe theatres looking for hot new writing talent and agents scour the same source for potential fodder to churn out the never ending stream of soaps, cop/doctor dramas.

I almost got an agent on the back of the first short play I staged, but it never happened, I almost got this same play aired on the radio, never happened, later on the back of my first script I almost got an assignment (in 2002), and almost got a TV agent in 2005 but didn't (they liked my writing but not my location!).

Since I've always had a pretty decent day job, (eliminating any romantic notions of Dostoevskyian poverty), then it just didn't seem to be the 'way of the Tao' for me to make a swift segue-way into earning my daily crust from pounding the keys. I did get an Arts grant for one of my plays which we sank into the production budget for my recently shot short film but I didn't get paid as a writer as such.

Still, I'm not complaining, my theatre experiences have been incredibly satisfying, to go from writing words on a page to a reading with professional actors, to rehearsal to curtains up, and then to get a great response from the audience is an experience worth its weight in gold and an invaluable foundation for screenwriting.

Talking of which, the first feature script I co-wrote went out to market in 1999, see Chronicles 30 - The Early Years - Part 2, and resulted in a free lunch with Robert Redford's development executive and a few other meetings in LA. That was it. No sale. No option. Zilch.

I started screenwriting in 1997 and my second script, a rom-com, (multiple drafts later) now has a director, top US casting director and finance (cast contingent) attached to it along with a credited co-producer. Nothing I can pay the mortgage with but progress nevertheless.

The third script got me about 15 meetings in Hollywood and almost an assignment from a Warner Brothers producer. There's that 'almost' word again. Still, it gave me the chance to pitch my fourth script, a first draft of which is currently languishing in the 'work in progress' drawer.

Anyway, I've digressed. Back to Samuel Johnson. Yesterday I finally signed off on the work-for-hire biographical drama contract and will send it off in the post today. This will be my 5th feature script and even though I'm not getting a full WGUK fee, (it's a partial fee against a principal photography payment), it's a bit of cash I can invest into promoting my other projects, Cannes 2007, maybe a trip to LA etc. So, who knows, maybe my 'blockhead' days are over!

This assignment resulted out of a meeting in Cannes. One of those hotel-lobby, half-rushed, pitch meetings that may or may not amount to something. I sent off the rom-com script and 2 months later I got a call that the UK prod. co. wanted to hire me for a character/dialogue polish which has now evolved into a page one rewrite.

It's a fascinating true life story and has involved a lot of research into late 18th century ('a time of genius and madness' as the protagonist in 'Russian Ark' says) and early 19th century period. So, for the last few months my head has been buried in historical books, interviews and on-line libraries. Now I'm at the point where I'm going over the source material and all the highlighted research and I'm starting to map out the outline which will then lead to the treatment and the screenplay.

I'll then move on to writing my 6th script and use the short film to promote it. The short film is essentially one story thread in the feature and we'll use the script and short to attach talent and raise financing. We have the editor of a recent major box office hit comedy coming in next week to look at editing the short and hopefully he'll help us out with a rough cut before he flies off back to LA. It's taken some time to sync up the sound and download the footage. In the meantime we've done some cast/director interviews for the EPK and we're working on finishing the web page.

It's also taken some time just to get the rom-com director hooked up with the casting director. The casting director was meant to start going out to talent in December then she got sick, then she recovered and wanted to first touch base re. the casting list with the director and then she got sick. Now I finally hope to get them talking to each other next week for the first time. This Sisyphus on Largactol, wading-through-treacle, grindingly slow pace of the indie-producing world is a constant reminder why I haven't given up the day job!

I guess if I'd really wanted to earn a living out of writing I could have focused all my energy into TV writing. That's where the bread and butter is in the UK but it seems that it takes just as much time and energy to get onto a soap series than it does to set up feature projects.

A friend of mine recommended me to a UK soap prod. co. They got back to me about 10 months later asking me to write a spec. I sat down and watched the soap and, to be honest, I found it akin to pulling teeth. It was so badly written and badly executed, a constant litany of unfunny jokes and unsympathetic (but not in a good way!) characters that I really had to convince myself that this was something I could do for a living.

Anyway, I started writing the spec and actually found myself enjoying the process and thought it was a great improvement on the garbage that I'd seen on screen. My TV writer friends thought that I'd done a good job and even a writer on the series thought they would love the humour I'd put into the script and also gave it the thumbs up.

Months later the prod. co. passed saying that I hadn't nailed the characters but I could have another crack at the whip. Because I'd been travelling a lot I hadn't had that much time to get to know the series and even though over time, I'm sure I could have cracked it, I just thought to myself, "Nah, life's too short, sod it, my heart's not in this", and I gave up on the idea.

My attitude to TV writing was, "Yeah, sure, if it flows and it's easy, sure, I can 'knock out' a soap ep, why not?" Basically what I learnt is that you have to apply the same amount of emotional energy, in the beginning at least (write TV spec, wait, get rejected, write another TV spec, do meetings, more waiting, get commission, rewrite etc) to break into TV writing as you have to with theatre and film, so, for the time being, I'm focusing on the latter.

Of course the other point here is that I watch theatre and film on a regular basis and NEVER, EVER watch UK soaps, one hour TV dramas, cop/hospital shows so TV writing isn't something I really think of on a daily basis. In fact the only TV drama I watch is Lost, Prison Break, 24, Sleeper Cell etc - and only on DVD. I don't watch any UK TV drama, not even on DVD. Period.

Now, if everything went south with the day job and I managed to get an agent, who knows, it could happen but apart from the kudos of being able to tell people that I'm a professional TV writer, I would be, for the soaps at least, essentially be doing it for the money. No doubt Samuel Johnson would be pleased. :-)

Ciow for now