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An interview with Jack Thorne
An edited transcript from the Writers’ Guild podcast, August 2010
You can listen to the interview in our podcast section. All of our podcasts can also be found on iTunes.
Tom Green: To start with, Jack, how would you characterise your own writing?
Jack Thorne: I wrote this play called When You Cure Me, which is the reason that I got hired to do Skins and Shameless. And I thought it was this dark tale about kids going through quite a lot of trauma and then I ended up working in comedy drama for the next two years. So I don’t really know. Maybe in ten years I’ll be able to answer that question but at the moment it’s what anyone wants to hire me to do I seem to be available for.
TG: And is it something you think about at all? Do you have an idea of the kind of writer you want to be?
JT: When I did the Young Writers programme at the Royal Court, Simon Stephens said that every writer has got a myth and your secret as a writer is to discover your myth but not to fetishise it. And very few writers change their myth, although apparently Pinter did – he had two distinct phases as to how he looked at the world which, apparently is what a myth is. And I don’t think I’ve quite worked out what mine is, but a few friends have had guesses.
TG: I guess it’s up to audiences to decide for themselves.
JT: I’ve had dark things said about what my writing is. An ex-girlfriend characterised it as me wanting to hurt women.
TG: Which I’m sure you deny!
JT: Exactly. I don’t think what other people think is necessarily true.
TG: What about the writers who have influenced you?
JT: The big influence was whoever was writing EastEnders that week. I loved that show and I think that was probably the biggest influence on me working out what writers did – though I did think the actors made up the words. That sort of storytelling was a huge influence on me. In terms of playwrights I tend to admire the writers I can’t write like – so I don’t know if they’re an influence on me but they’re people who I just think are incredible . The likes of Sarah Kane and Dennis Kelly – the really poetic writers; and I’m not poetic. Ronald Harwood I think is a genius and I would watch any film he has written.
TG: I know that you met Ronald Harwood recently; how was that?
JT: Yes, I was at a writing conference recently when they gave us a week of talking to great people, basically – Mike Leigh, Ronald Harwood, Jane Campion – so it was a great week. And when it came to Ronald Harwood speaking, I got the other writers to promise me that if I started dribbling or sounding stupid they would hit me. I looked at my notebook afterwards and I’d written 12 pages; all these thoughts of this great man.
TG: What about the practicalities of your writing process? Do you have a routine?
JT: I write a lot – 10 or 12 hours most days. And I tend to sit there and type and sometimes it’s typing not writing. I do a lot of rewriting. I don’t write sequentially. I think I’m a bit insane about how I write and hopefully when I grow up I’ll learn how to do it. But at the moment I write the last scene first and then I write a scene in the middle and I write a scene two-thirds of the way through and then I rewrite the last scene. It’s sort of like a jigsaw. I keep hammering until I find something and then I keep hammering at that. And then I discover that the whole thing is shit and rewrite it again. It’s not a very productive process and mainly results in great psychological pain most of the time. My technique is by characterised by failure I would say
TG: Failure punctuated by a great deal of success. Is that process something that just happened for you or did someone suggest it?
JT: I don’t think anyone would think it was a good idea. In the masterclass the subject of my method came up and Jane Campion just looked at me like I was totally off-the-wall.
TG: One thing I’ve read is that you will rewrite a scene four or five times as you go – you’re constantly rewriting. Then again, since many writers say rewriting is the key, maybe you’re just getting it in early.
JT: Yeah, but then again, the last thing I had made was on draft 16 in terms of the drafts that had gone through the execs but in terms of the drafts that had gone through me I think it was about 48.
TG: And having gone through all that redrafting yourself, how difficult is it to get into this process when you’re getting notes and having to do even more redrafting?
JT: I think that’s always hard, whoever you are. And I tend not to tell execs about the way that I do it. I think they’d think I was pretty mad.
TG: You’ve written for many media – theatre, TV, film and radio. Was that something that you had always had in mind or did it just happen?
JT: I think it just happened, because it all came about in the same year, 2006. I’d written a play that had got on, so I thought I was a theatre writer. But then I didn’t have any meetings with theatre; no one commissioned me. So when these telly people came along I thought I should be nice to them and then I ended up working in telly and doing Skins and Shameless. And then at the same time I’d had a short film which Ivana McKinnon at what was then Celador films liked. And they had a small amount of money with which they could gamble on you writing a first draft – it was probably against Guild regulations, sorry about that! And so at the same time as I was writing Skins and Shameless I was writing a film and I think because of that it sort of kept going. I think if I’d written film and then tried to do telly I’d have found it quite tricky in some ways. But because it was happening at the same time it seemed okay. But it all happened randomly. I liked being employed, I like writing. It’s not like I prefer theatre to telly to watch – I like them both. So it wasn’t a plan.
TG: That is quite telling, what you said there, that you didn’t have any meetings in theatre. You’d had a play on and you’d been successful and the implication is that the theatre world is a bit slow picking up new talent.
JT: I don’t know. Maybe they just didn’t like my stuff. There are lots of theatre writers who do really well. I was hoping that I’d get another commission and the Bush theatre did commission me again. But I wasn’t immediately pulled into meetings at the National and the Royal Court and the Soho and those kind of places. Which was fine and they’ve all ended up being good to me in one way or another. But I wasn’t a theatre overnight success. I wasn’t a Polly Stenham or a Laura Wade.
TG: But of course Skins did come along at that stage.
JT: That’s right.
TG: And even though that’s still a relatively young show it does already seem to have been a significant one. Given that you were involved from an early stage can you tell us what it was like to work on?
JT: I do think it’s one of those shows that caught something. I mean, I’ve got a play on in Edinburgh at the moment and I was asking one of my friends when he thought it would be that I was no longer billed Jack Thorne (Skins) – though it’s great to be recognised in any form, I don’t have a problem with it.
TG: It had a big impact.
JT: It did, which was awesome and we didn’t expect it. Because it was just me and the two creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain in a room at the beginning, sitting there and we’d read bits of script to each other. Slowly it became this whole big thing.
TG: I get the impression that the process was relatively free of executive interference.
JT: Yes, because of Bryan Elsley. His pitch document was as much about his method as it was about the stories he was going to tell. He said ‘I want this to be about giving young people an opportunity’. And there are lots of pitch documents that say that, but very few writers carry though on it. What Bryan did was say ‘I trust you. What stories do you want to tell?’ I did two episodes in the first series. The first was about a kid who gets £1,000 to have a party and Bryan thought the whole episode would be about the party. But I wanted that over in the first 10 minutes. The bit that interested me was how he got the money. And Bryan just said ‘go for it’. And the second episode, which was supposed to be Anwar’s story, I think, and I said I was interested in Tony’s little sister and his relationship with her. And, again, Bryan just said ‘go for it’. Writers argued about things in the writers’ room every week; I’ve never had an experience like it in terms of creative freedom. And that’s all down to Bryan.
TG: You said you didn’t really have a plan for your career. But you’re in a position now where lots of things must be offered to you, so presumably you must have some sort of plan now.
JT: It’s tricky. I’m trying to be a bit... notice the stumble in my voice. I wish I had more of a plan. I’m feeling very lucky at the moment but I’m also feeling quite scared that’s it’s all going to end quite quickly. So I’m being as careful as I can. I’m learning. There are certain things that have happened in the last year – like I’m writing this show with Shane Meadows and I’m trying not to let go of him because he’s amazing.
TG: That’s This Is England ‘86 – tell us more about that.
JT: It starts on Channel 4 on September 7th, 10pm. Shane wanted to tell a story about what happened to the group of kids from his film This Is England when they grew up. And he took it to Channel 4 and they liked it and suggested he worked with a telly writer. And I think because he liked my film Scouting Book For Boys I was thought to be a good idea. And then we sat in a room together and worked some stuff out. It was in the paper yesterday that we’d worked the whole series out in a 30-minute cab ride and we did come up with quite a lot of it then. He’s brilliant to work with – he doesn’t do things the way other people do them.
TG: And how many episodes is that going to be?
JT: Four one-hour episodes.
TG: Talking about individual shows, last year Cast Offs, the first TV series you’d written, was broadcast. What was that experience like, and will there be any more to come?
JT: That was a very crazy experience because initially it started with Alison Walsh who has a small budget for disability programming on Channel 4. She tries to be as ambitious as possible and she asked various production companies to come up with ideas for drama series. One of them was Eleven Film and they came up with this idea of a show behind the show about a bunch of disabled people on an island. Alison thought that was interesting and because she’d liked a short film of mine called The Spastic King that I’d done for the Coming Up series on Channel 4, she suggested they speak to me. I liked bits of it, and didn’t like other bits. They didn’t have any characters in it and I said the sort of characters I wanted. That was the end of October and we started filming in March. The other thing I decided and they agreed – was that I didn’t want to write it until we’d cast it. Because the pool of disabled actors is quite small and we wanted the best six disabled actors we could and we didn’t want to get into a situation where we’d written a part for a disabled man and then this amazing disabled woman came along. There were bits we were doing but really we were waiting until the cast got cemented and that didn’t happen until the start of January. So we had three months. I was working with the great Tony Roche from The Thick Of It and Alex Bulmer who I’d written a radio play with and who is blind. The three of us just basically went to hell for three months writing six hours of TV. It was a crazy experience and a brilliant one and I’m really proud of that show. Is there any future for it? Well there are various plans but we’re waiting to see what happens.
TG: One thing that I think is new for you is adaptations. You’re adapting a Nick Hornby novel, I believe. What’s that experience like?
JT: I did Hunchback of Notre Dame with Alex Bulmer but we were very free with that adaptation. Then I’m doing The Flawless Skin of Ugly People by Doug Crandell for Big Talk and then A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. The interesting thing with adapting Hornby novels (and I’ve only recently met him, which has been very strange) is that there’s a certain tone you have to find. There’s a certain thing that is very Nick Hornby in its very essence. And if you don’t find that you’re all at sea. And finding that tone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But it’s been a really interesting process.
TG: And how involved has he been in the process?
JT: He doesn’t want to be. He says that if he’d wanted to be involved, he’d have written the screenplay himself. His wife is one of my producers, so there are people involved who know an awful lot about the book. It’s been really, really fun.
TG: And what stage is that project at now?
JT: I’m not sure I can say. But it’s still alive. I’ve just handed in a new draft so hopefully that’s the start of something.
TG: I know from reading your Twitter feed and from reading a bit about you that you’re a political person. You’ve been somewhat active politically, you’re a member of the Writers’ Guild, you helped run the recent BBC event for drama writers – to what extent do you consider yourself political as a writer?
JT: I’m probably not political enough. I’ve done some quite political plays but I’m still trying to work it all out. Because I think Cast Offs was political – not in terms of what was said in the show but in terms of what the show was. I think Skins, oddly, was probably the most political thing I’ve done. We talked long and hard in the writers’ room about all the decisions we made. And we had quite serious discussions about Jal getting pregnant with Chris and whether she should keep the kid. Because it’s more dramatic there is a culture within TV of mothers having abortions and being stopped at the last minute by a husband or boyfriend who really loves them, or being traumatised by it for the rest of their lives. I think abortion is such a tricky issue but we decided that it was important that Jal, who was the most ambitious of all our kids, should have an abortion because it was the right decision for her at the time. And I think that, arguably, has been the most political decision I’ve been involved in. And I think it was the right one. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily great about abortion but it was that thing of not condemning it as an act which I think was so important in a show like Skins which was so much for and about kids.
TG: Did you get a lot of interaction with kids watching the show?
JT: Yeah, which is brilliant. I did a coming out episode in series three and you get really nice stuff written to you. Skins is one of those shows when people get a certain look in their eye when you say you’ve written for it – certainly in the theatre world no one likes the show and there are a lot of people who are condemning of it. But for a lot of kids it’s really important.
TG: I think it’s a great show. And of course now, in the age of social media, people can seek you out as the writer.
JT: Yeah, they either just send me little tweets saying ‘I hate you. Why didn’t you get Cassie and Sid together at the end of Series two, or they send you quite a long Facebook email about how they’re trying to become writers. I think I need to write a form letter I can send out every time but I like all that. I love Twitter. I’m on there all the time.
TG: In amongst your 12 hours of mad working?
JT: Well, I live in Luton. I don’t really have any friends there and I only come into London once or twice a week. I talk to people on the phone but basically I’m a bit of a hermit and that’s the way I like my life. But that’s the great thing about Twitter, that you don’t feel lonely. You just tweet something about something and someone will be on there and it’s kind of glorious and I like that. Basically because I’m a lonely loser.
TG: Well, lonely loser and successful writer, Jack Thorne, thank you very much for speaking to us.