Thursday, 30 October 2008


I had a series with the BBC. The scripts had been commissioned, one after another, with such alacrity that my agent was prompted to say, 'This is unheard of.' There had been discussions about the second series. Then - a quick round of musical desks, and I've got a new boss.

'We like the scripts', I was told, 'but there'll have to be changes.'

An intake of breath. Wait for it.

'We want the characters to be younger.'

Now, this wasn't the first time I'd had this note on this particular project. At the start of the whole process, nine months earlier, I'd been told to drop the ages of the characters. And I had done so, as far as credibility would allow.

(One of the characters was a consultant forensic psychiatrist. There's about a twelve year training period involved in becoming one of these rare and exotic creatures, so thirty was about as young as I could reasonably make the character. Besides - who'd want a consultant forensic psychiatrist in their twenties?)

But this time, I was worried. For a start, the scripts were written. The previous management had accepted them. Suddenly, though, there had to be changes. The characters would have to be younger.

So, presumably, a lead character who had twin children would maybe not have those children anymore. And all the others would be a slick bunch of 'Hollyoaks' rejects. And we couldn't have them making mistakes because that would make their youth seem like folly. So maybe they'd have to be better at their jobs than their slightly older and more experienced originals. Which means that we've just thrown any attempt at realism out of the window.

The project died, there and then. I knew that to make major changes to the characters would destabilise the stories we'd got.

The note - 'We want the characters to be younger' - had not been thought through. Implementing the new requirements would create major script problems. The management would then weigh in with another dumbass idea, with more suggestions as to how to make it work (it was working to begin with, but then we started making changes) and the whole thing would gradually unravel.

It's too easy these days for producers to make remarks such as 'We want the characters to be younger.' I'd had a glimpse of this new tendency at the BBC a year or two before. This was on a series I was familiar with, having worked on Series One, and it was only after the third draft of my script had been handed in that someone in management - Armani suit, just back from the Algarve, definitely the new breed - stepped in and demanded that the beginning and the end of the script must change. The result - that script was ruined.

What makes producers think that they're entitled to behave like this? If they haven't got a sensible suggestion to make, why can't they shut up?

They really do seem to believe that a script is a document that can be rewritten ad nauseam, pulled this way and that, until it has reached a kind of homogenised state that nobody could take offence at.

In reality, what producers are doing when they fiddle with our scripts is they are taking away our own individual style, our voices. They are removing the 'author' from his or her own work. As a result, the script will lack 'authority. It will be 'unauthorised'.

This takes us back to yesterday's blog. Producers these days say that they like working with soap opera writers. Soap scripts are designed and constructed in such a way that they can be changed over and over again. Scenes do not rely on one another - a whole storyline can be lifted out and replaced.

In a real drama script, the story evolves, developing organically, as, little by little, the flesh of the script is put onto the bone of the plot. Making any major change at any point in the process, especially if that change has not been thought through, can ruin the story. Till then, the characters have been developing, taking on the forms that they require for the story to work. Suddenly, the characters are capable of being anything, doing anything, if it appeals to the producer. It doesn't matter that this new kind of character behaviour is violently at odds with the way the script has been developing. The producer has demanded it, so that's that.

In days gone by, producers tended to be excellent script editors. They also knew how to delegate. A scriptwriter was hired to do a job. They were hired because the producer believed that they could do this job. They were helped, advised, guided, but generally left alone to do the job they'd been hired to do.

Not anymore. Respect for scriptwriters and scripts has pretty well vanished. Producers who simply do not understand scripts, the processes by which they come into being, the delicacy of the strands which hold the various elements of the script together, feel that they have a natural right to alter any aspect of the script, at any stage in the process, whenever they feel like it.

This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It leads to appalling scripts. It leads to endless pointless rewrites, and to writers trying to incorporate stupid ideas delivered by producers who haven't got a clue.

It leads to producers trumpeting the merits of soap opera writers over and above experienced dramatists.

It leads to crap drama.

This is what writers are up against, these days. If it isn't tough enough breaking into the industry, the writer then has to be broken by that industry. On many series, they only employ writers because it takes too long to train a monkey to type.

So - suggestions, please, as to how we can overturn this horrendous state of affairs. We need to generate a debate on the future of scriptwriting for film and TV. At the heart of that debate must be the status and role of the writer.

Until some semblance of the old respect for writers is restored, we'll continue to see our working conditions deteriorate, and the quality of our scripts too.

How do we persuade big, scary producers that we know what we're doing - that we don't need their idiotic input?

Any thoughts?

1 comment:

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

wow, you brought up some good points about how changes to age can affect the script, I haven't thought about it that way.

I myself have not much experience with film/TV producers like you have. I've only had dealings with theatre producers who were quite pleasant and maybe a little more artsy than film producers because theatre is well, different.

as for lack of respect for screenwriters, well, that's just how it is. producers make movies because they want to make MONEY, right? So basically they see screenwriters as money-making whores who will churn out money-making stories that are "high concept."

how do we gain respect? I dunno, man. My suggestion would be that if a screenwriter truly wishes to be respected as a screenwriter, then he/she should probably avoid writing money-making screenplays (like Disney-esque comedies, slapstick sitcoms, big-budget action films,etc) and just focus their energy on "artsy" screenplays (like Brokeback Mountain, the Atonement, Savages, etc) and then they'll probably gain respect by film lovers and artsy film producers, although they probably won't be household names.

unless you're Diablo Cody, but that's a different story for a different time.

Damn, that makes no sense. lol