Characters drove me into screenplays
Growing up in a small town where rain clouds go to retire, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I certainly had no thought of film, TV or any art-form as an option.
In order to break in I took a couple internships...
I studied a science degree up until Master’s level, then spent the next couple years trying to get into that world. But the passion wasn’t fuelling it. I had more interest in talking pop culture whilst working in retail or playing “Drink the Drink”, a game we invented in the twilight between university and real life. It wasn’t until a friend, who had the insight to actually study something he loved instead of what is tangentially associated with something you’re somewhat interested in, made the leap down to The Big Smoke and began coaxing me to join him. Despite enjoying my time behind the Walkabout bar in Sheffield, getting to know the alcoholics who pub-crawl the city every day, I was convinced. After a decade of hearing me spout “fun” facts about film and TV, he knew where my passion lay before even I did. But I had to make a risky move down to London to take a trial shift to see if they’d take me on first. Thankfully my year of pouring pints created an outrageously high skill set for making teas and coffees. Turns out though, the Master’s degree wasn’t appealing. I spent a year at Smoke and Mirrors, and another two at RSA films. Learning the industry, figuring out what I could do within it. I headed towards producing, knowing that my organisation skills could be utilised. I poorly produced a couple shorts and music videos and I tried to learn from those I worked under, but I realised that the scripted world was where I needed to go.
In order to break in, I took a couple internships to get that XP. During my second, at a smaller staffed company named The Bureau, my visit collided with the Cannes Film Festival. Fatefully this meant it left me and the Head of Development alone. She wanted to ensure I had something to do and handed me a script to read for the first time [please imagine the Pokemon levelling up sound]. THIS! This is what I have to do. I don’t know what it is, but I want it, give it to me (sorry I’m an only child). I was lucky she was kind enough to give me her time and taught me the basics. And from that point, I began my own education. But this degree (I’ve given myself this qualification by the way) is something I actually loved learning. I read scripts, took online classes, read books, watched all of YouTube, picked brains (thanks Emily). All in the goal of developing other people’s projects. I love breaking down art, why I like it, why I don’t, what specifically works, what could be better, no matter what the form. This finally utilised that skill instead of my friends having to listen to me explain why Rogue One is the third best Star Wars movie!
But after a year of learning the craft, the temptation to give it a go only grew and grew and… Oh man, I’ve gotta do this as well… My first script was a short, following the last shift of a taxi driver before he retires. A couple gets into the back seat of this happy cabby’s car and he charms them into a chat. When they realise he is a few hours from parking the car for good, they pay him to show them around the city and be his last ever trip. In doing so, he tells (and we visualise) some of the highlights of his life; meeting his wife, where they were married, where they lived up until she passed. Proper sentimental stuff which I haven’t returned to since, but a nice starting point for me to say I’ve written something.
And after loving the first go at it, I tried my first feature script, then my first pilot. Constantly trying to get better and loving each go at it. And eventually breaking my brain so that I have to write and develop other people’s scripts forever.
My first feature was a noir-crime thriller
Today I write screenplays for film and TV mostly focused on character driven pieces. I’m genre agnostic, so I’ve written in crime/horror/sci-fi/fantasy/historical settings. But always with an artistic focus and a theme I’m pondering on. My first feature was a noir-crime thriller set in the world of Faerun (shout out to the nerds who don’t need to Google this). Pretty much everything I write is influenced by Marlowe, The Coen Brothers, PTA and the entire Easy Riders Raging Bull era of American film. This one was my first go at copping my favourites but throwing it into a fantasy world. I often pair genres, tones and styles in worlds they aren’t often seen in (if at all). This one I’d love to revisit, even though it would never get made, because it’s probably my favourite of the mash-ups.
I have a lifetime supply of ideas written down from concepts to characters down to minor moments that at some point I was excited about, touching almost every combination I’m interested in. But I am most interested in representing the UK in interesting ways that we don’t do enough of, in places we don’t see enough of, with faces we don’t see enough of. As all people do, I want to see myself in film, and I want everyone to have the same experience. But I don’t want it to solely be seeing myself hung or abused or beaten for the colour of my skin. Or the sad and lonely experience of living in the north. We need those because people don’t read history books anymore. But we also need to see British POC There Will Be Blood’s or Little Women or Blade Runner’s. If I could make one project that has that goal in its sights, I’d be very happy.
Each script really has its own influence, depending on what it needs and what I’m trying to say. I try not to get bogged down in mimicry, but you can’t escape your taste. The common denominator of artists who creep into my work are The Coen Brothers, Kurosawa and Paul Thomas Anderson. Their range of genre and style is part of what excites me about their catalogues. All are writer-directors, all interested in the dark and light facets of humanity, all looking to the past and what it pertains to the future. But also with a unique and distinct tone. An example of how their inflections stand out that I think about a lot. I watched an interview with Matt Charman, writer of Bridge of Spies. He did an exceptional job with the storytelling of this film, but Spielberg knew something was missing that makes a movie stand out. So he brought the Coen’s in to punch it up. In this Q&A I was watching, someone asked Charman how he came up with the line “would it help?”, which Rylance’s Russian spy character kept answering to Hank’s character, wondering why he isn’t panicking or upset. I knew the A before he even finished the Q, of course it’s a Coen line you idiot! Not to say Charman had no skill or contribution in writing the dialogue, but the irony of the moment, the oddity of the delivery, it’s alllll Coen. It’s not unnatural, but it’s unique and rhythmic and hilarious. This is something PTA also has in droves. But what he and Kurosawa bring is their cinematic, atmospheric scene work that delves into the humanity of the stubborn character in the centre of the frame.
All of PTA’s movies are character pieces, even the ensembles (which is why they are so damn long). They challenge the conviction of the character and they either grow, get worse or suffer (or all of the above). And surrounding them are gorgeous landscapes, fully formed supporting characters and/or representations of their ego. Poetic, often darkly hilarious and tense memorable scenes that I often explore whilst thinking about my own work. Same can be said for most of the above with Kurosawa. With his work from an age of theatrical characterisation and plotting, it’s less affecting for me than PTA’s work in an emotional way (though we are still talking about two masters here). But it’s pure cinema and so many images are burned in my brain that come in the writing. Washizu staring at the arrows. Kikuchiyo holding his sword, waiting for an army. Sanjuro laughing dow nat the two gangs. [shout out to Mifune and swords, wow!]
The most important thing is to finish the next draft!
Follow your gut when you are choosing which project to do next and whilst writing along the way. But don’t let it get in the way of finishing. The most important thing is to finish the next draft. It’s so much easier to edit or even completely redesign a story when you have the scenes written. The outline doesn’t count. Even the prose summary doesn’t count (if you write them). It’s not the same and most amateurs don’t put the effort into scene work of a treatment that a novelist would. When you are in the midst of writing the script, the format itself will change the way you view the scene completely (hence why it takes people so long to finish them, despite the friendly word count). So, get the story down ASAP. Leave it for a couple days at least. Then red pen the hell out of it!
My personal process is the following:
- Get a headache: Whilst trying to decide which of my 150 concepts to do next.
- Figure out the protagonist: Either choosing between potential options you’ve already thought of or coming up with new options because the concept is vague. Then going into detail of what makes the character interesting, what their drive is, what their flaws are, 4 distinct and definable traits. Then do the same for the antagonist, if there is one.
- Write the 3 acts: One sentence per act so I know at least where it’s generally going. It’s actually 4 acts because I split act 2. But whatever, it’s my script. Also, I’ve tried 5 act structure too which kinda worked but ultimately bogged me down too much in the weeds too early. I don’t find it helpful to think toooooo much about acts. It’s just a guide to get me on track and know where I’m going.
- Start a beat sheet: Just one sentence per beat. Keeping it simple. No details. No tangents. Get it down until you are at the end. None of this is final so don’t get bogged down.
- Sticky notes physically on my wall/dry erase board: These consist of SCENE HEADER - ONE LINE OF WHAT IT IS. Ordered by acts 1, 2P1, 2P2, 3. I repeat NONE of this is final. All we are doing these steps for is to get the ball rolling. But I go through them dutifully because it ensures I don’t rush ahead without consideration. My thought is some of these stages will merge and disappear as I get to my 10,000 hours. But for now, it helps me funnel my blue sky thinking until we get to the script. We do this stage so we can see the whole story easily, see which acts are lacking so far and then so we can easily rearrange the scenes once we have begun to…
- Expand the beats into a full outline: I spend the most time on this part. The earlier steps get me going and it won’t take me more than a couple days to do steps 1-5 before I move on. This is where all the writing happens. During this, the character may change. The beat sheet will change. The sticky notes will change. You’re thinking through each scene, in full, trying to figure out the best way to start it and end it. What fun things can happen in between. Maybe writing some dialogue in there. Making colour coded notes: character names, beats that are important to the plot, beats that are important to the character’s development, whether it’s a big scene or small. Challenge and question every single decision you have made thus far because it was probably not your best idea. Then the more detail you get down into this doc, the easier it will be when you FINALLY get to…
- Write the damn script: Let your left brain go free and go wild with the scene work and dialogue. Don’t stop until you hit the end. I never ever go back and review what I’ve done because in my opinion Goldman said it right: “writing is rewriting”. You are trying to get this version of the script done because it will always be rubbish, unless you are a seasoned pro. I am not a seasoned pro, my first draft is ALWAYS poo. So is yours. Sorry, but it is, I read it. It was poo. Why did you send it to me? We don’t even know each other? At least say hello first. So once this script is done, you can relax, take a few days to mull it over. Then come back with fresh eyes. Whilst I’m writing the script, I’m already noting down ideas for the next draft. I always have a NOTES document for ‘type a’ categorised ideas/notes on the draft I’m in the middle of writing and also for when I’m not: where I think it’s not working, ideas for more scenes, dialogue ideas (specific or overall), new characters etc.
- Hurray you have a poo first draft, so outline it again: With your notes, ideas and thoughts. In the past I, and people I have met over the years, give the work out too soon. That first draft, or even that rough cut of the second/third draft, is only for you. It’s still a rough draft, despite how long it took you to do it. Go through it, re-outline with all the knowledge you’ve gained from the first draft and make it your best work.
- THEN write draft 2.
- Now polish it: until it’s crisp, and gorgeous, and I’ve lost the metaphor… make it as smooth and readable as possible. Not just removing all typos (which is important) but also how easy the prose is to read, how nice the dialogue is to hear (I highly recommend you literally reading it aloud, alone or with others), how well the scenes transition from one another. As well as ensuring its cinematic, interesting, funny (if appropriate), tense, suspenseful, dramatic and sounds like only you could have wrote it.
- Finally, get it out to your friends: If you give it too early, you risk presenting that you are relying on other people to get your best work out, which if they are doing for free is risky and unfair to them if it’s true. If your relationship is great, they won’t mind, but you will find out that you are hearing feedback that you already know. So not only are you wasting their time, you’re wasting your own. So get that piece shaped up and ready to be ripped apart (with love).
On the flip side of that, some people don’t share their scripts at all. As Seth Godin phrases it, you must “ship the work”. It’s a consumer-based art form and you need feedback. If you don’t have a writer group, I highly recommend you go on the internet find some strange reclusive writers in a library near you, meet up and talk about your writing journey, swap scripts, be kind but constructive, build that relationship, win an Oscar, give me 10%... It’s so valuable and it’ll make you a much better writer to have reliable notes whenever you need them.
A-list actor signed a letter of intent which got us an Oscar winning director
I have a sci-fi/drama optioned. This year I was commissioned to write eps 1-3. We had an A-list actor sign a letter of intent which got us an Oscar winning director to give it a read and help with its development. While I’m awaiting feedback, I’m working on a lower budget psychological drama/thriller feature. One that I aim to direct and shoot myself in the coming years. Set in my home town, highlighting the disjointed world of modern conspiracy theorists. Influenced by John le Carré, Tarkovsky and The Conversation.
I’ve enjoyed the two shorts I’ve managed to direct, though neither had much, if any budget, so I’m dying to take the next step of a budgeted short and then this feature. I love working with HODs and cast to try and accomplish my weird vision of the world. I can’t wait to do it again. But at the moment I’m still working on my ideas and scripts, helping other filmmakers on theirs, and trying to get past short lists on competitions (or give up and save my money? yeah probably that). Thankfully I’ve managed to find a few mentors along the way. Brian Birigwa being the one who has spent the most time advising and recommending me, as well as being a great collaborator to work with when I’ve consulted on his projects and him on mine.
I’m looking to connect with producers through WriteSeen
Through WriteSeen I’m looking to connect with producers who are interested in artistic genre film and TV, especially film. I have a few scripts I need to rewrite, but I’d love to focus on the projects people are interested in specifically. Obviously, each exec has their own tastes, and I love trying and working in different styles/worlds/genres, so I am hoping to connect with many different creative producers who are as passionate as I am about the art form. Then discuss my ideas and already developed projects as well as their own for what they may be looking for writers for.
Simon is a Screenwriter, Producer & Director.
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