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Clive Dawson on finding favour in Hollywood with his feature film script Last Days On Mars
Liev Schreiber in Last Days On Mars, adapted by Clive Dawson from the book by Sydney J Bounds
If it’s something you aspire to, rest assured that no matter what stage you’re at in your career it’s never too late to have a crack at Hollywood. It goes without saying that you’ll need a little talent, preferably some kind of track record, and a great deal of good fortune. Above all else, you’ll need a good sample script. Getting through the doors in the first place is the hard part; the rest is relatively straightforward. There’s no set way to go about it, but here’s the approach that worked (more through luck than judgement) for me.
Until its cancellation I was a regular writer on TV series The Bill, and had been for many years. I enjoyed writing for the show, particularly in its earlier incarnation of half-hour, stand-alone single dramas, but towards the end it became clear to many of the writers that the show was unlikely to survive; ITV had tampered with the format to the point of destruction. I’d written for other shows over the years but had never found another ‘home’ and, despite constant submissions and occasional development deals here and there, my original series and single drama ideas never seemed to find favour with the network heads. In short, my screen credits were limited, and once The Bill was axed my prospects in TV didn’t look good.
Fortunately, I’d never entirely given up on the hope of working in film. I’d had an original screenplay (a World War II psychological thriller entitled The Bunker) produced many years previously. Although I all but disowned the director’s turgid film version the screen credit itself was welcome and my screenplay continued to prove a well-received writing sample. Nevertheless a subsequent film project, funded by the UK Film Council, ended up in legal limbo due to the collapse of the production company, and my long-standing agent gradually seemed to lose interest in promoting me. Now, with my regular TV work gone, it was time to either sink or swim.
Against this backdrop, I decided to risk a little of my own money obtaining an option on a published short story, The Animators, by the prolific British author Sydney J Bounds. It’s an extremely creepy 11-page science-fiction thriller that I first read in an anthology many years ago, and I’d always felt it could form the basis of an effective film. A series of internet searches and emails to publishers finally led me to Philip Harbottle, the agent representing the estate of Syd Bounds. My initial query was polite and simple: were the rights to the story available, and if so, would it be possible to negotiate an option? To my amazement, the answer to both questions was yes. Phil was extremely accommodating and we eventually agreed an option for an initial sum, against a larger additional payment if the project went into fully-funded development.
At the Edinburgh Film Festival this weekend, Andrew Walsh, Treasurer of the Writers' Guild, spoke at a lively panel session on writing for multi-platform media - Thinking Outside the Page: Expanding Models of Storytelling (pictured, above).
Fellow panellists were Phil Parker, founder of the legendary MA Screenwriting at LCP, and now launching a website www.bcre8ive.eu, where all kinds of creatives can meet and work together on a wide range of projects, and Olivia Hetreed, screenwriter and new President of the Guild. The panel was chaired by James Mavor, also a screenwriter and lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University.
The panellists discussed their own wide variety of working practices and range of experience from video games to television and feature films large and small and also explored with the audience the challenges and opportunities of new media and the practicalities of audience reach and financing such blue sky ventures.
Later, Olivia Hetreed was joined by Andrea Gibb, incoming co-Chair of the Film Committee and one of Scotland's most successful screenwriters, to present the findings of an international survey of film festivals, Written into the Picture. While many of the findings present a grim picture - 80% of surveyed festivals invited no or fewer than five writers as guests and over 60% do not have a Screenwriting Award - we also found that North American Festivals have a more positive attitude with two thirds inviting writers. While the statistics are shocking the survey also revealed the pressure festivals are under financially, from distributors and press and caused some festivals to reconsider their attitude to writers.
In an informal discussion with a large audience at the Traverse Bar, Andrea and Olivia considered the further action that can be taken by the Guild and by individual writers to improve the situation, including follow up surveys, awards for best practice - Edinburgh itself is one of the most writer-friendly festivals, with many events and a large number of writer delegates - with the aim of shifting perception among the festivals, press and public regarding the truth about the complex creation of a feature film.
The event was followed by a very popular networking drinks event where it was good to catch up with Guild members and especially Scottish Branch rep, Julie Ann Thomason. Scottish members should get in touch with Julie via the Guild to be part of future events.
More photos: www.facebook.com/thewritersguild
David James remembers writer Olwen Wymark who died last week
Olwen was extraordinary. Vibrantly alive and present, raffishly glamourous, fiercely intelligent, often maddening, and with great human fragility. She was a real dame (in the American sense) and the full deal.
Olwen loved writing and writers, and one of her greatest passions was championing writing as a viable profession that would pay the bills. On the Theatre Committee, we always spoke of the ‘career playwright’ and their need for support (she had little truck with funding initiatives aimed at the likes of ‘Mrs. Ding-dong’s Bell-ringing School’). Olwen was chair of the Theatre Committee from 1989 through 1999. She worked closely with David Edgar on drawing the Theatre Writers’ Union into the Guild, was tirelessly involved in endless Arts Council dialogs as a member of their now-gone Drama Panel and through meetings with New Writing officer Charles Hart. She deeply mourned – as did all of us on the Theatre Committee -- the losses over a decade ago of ring-fencing for new writing and of blue-sky bursaries, which gave writers the chance to freely explore new ideas and themes. Often together or with others like Neil Duffield, we trawled the regional ACE offices, talking to Drama Officers, some of whom, like Alison Gagen at West Midlands and Ian Tabron in Manchester were cherished allies, and some of whom felt like a total waste of space. But we kept at it. It was a time when regional new writing policy very much depended on the commitment of the officer in place. She was always in a dialog with SOMEBODY.
Olwen’s own writing was very precious to her. Although I can’t speak fully about her writing credits, her most prominent play was certainly Find Me (1977), which is still often a set text on UK school syllabi, and she would glow with pride when receiving a letter from a student, about how the play remained relevant. She approached every project, from the smallest to the biggest (which included a massive – and brilliant – adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, with her old friend Paul Schofield) with equal commitment. She would go to the British Library day after day in her little car to write SOMETHING on a yellow pad in her great, scrawling hand; and – as for all of us – it pained her deeply how difficult it was to actually get something commissioned and produced. I remember a late reading at John Calder’s bookstore (John was another old friend) when she spoke so movingly about how she always struggled with her writing.
Stephen Potts on how he combines careers in medicine and writing
A few years ago I stood at a crossroads, uncertain which way to go. Should I quit the day job and throw myself into writing full-time, or continue trying to combine the two? I wrote about the decision in this magazine, and many readers offered advice. As so often, events – two young children – took over and made my decision for me. I could inflict the financial uncertainties of a full-time writer’s life upon myself, but not upon my family. So I carried on, and now find myself invited by the editor to offer views on the day job question.
I read somewhere that only 15% of published writers earn a living from their writing. So nearly all of us need a day job, raising questions about how we regard it; how it relates to the writing; how we assign our time and energies between day job and our writing projects; and how we shut off from one when engaged in the other.
My day job is in medicine. I’m a psychiatrist in a busy general hospital, seeing people in A&E, the medical and surgical wards, and the transplant unit. Medicine is a notoriously hard task master, and I bemoaned its ‘all or nothing’ nature in my earlier article. I’ve worked part-time for most of the past 16 years, though currently part-time means 36 hours a week plus one weekend in four on call. This is far too much like full-time work for me, but if I am to do less, someone else has to do more, and that’s not been an option for some time, though I live in hope.
There is one day a week when I am not in the hospital. I try to be ruthless in protecting my writing Wednesdays, though I do still get calls. I suppress irritation about them, aware that writers’ day jobs are often resented. In the extreme (and I am not here talking about my own job) they leech upon our time, our energies, our enthusiasms, perhaps our creative sparks: and we endure them only for the income they bring, for they offer nothing reciprocal in the way of new perspectives, new insights or new skills to carry into our writing lives. If it is hard for a non-writer to get up each day and drag her weary frame into a dreary workplace, then – perhaps – how much harder for a writer who wants to break free, who scribbles and taps away in stolen moments, and dreams nightly of the Big Break which will allow her to walk into the boss’s office with a smirk and tell him where to put his P45. But if the Big Break doesn’t come, going to work each day with that extra burden of desperate hope will eventually become intolerable.
The American-born playwright Olwen Wymark, who spent much of her working life in England and was a long-standing member of the Writers' Guild, has died.
Her plays include Find Me, Gymnasium, Loved, Best Friends and Strike Up The Banns. Olwen also wrote for extensively for radio and television.
Olwen was Chair of the Writers' Guild Theatre Committee for many years.
Olivia Hetreed is the new President of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, following a vote at the Guild's AGM
Olivia, best known for scripting the hugely successful film Girl With A Pearl Earring, has served for several years as Chair of the Guild's Film Committee and a member of our Executive Council. Olivia started her career as a documentary, drama and film editor and moved into writing with a series of family films for ITV including The Treasure Seekers and The Canterville Ghost. Other credits include the award-winning Man of Law’s Tale for the BBC and the feature film Wuthering Heights, released in 2011. She is currently in development with Philip and Liz, the love story of the young Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. Olivia’s unopposed election as President was announced at today’s Guild Annual General Meeting. She takes over from the eminent playwright David Edgar, who has been our distinguished President for the past six years.