Tag Archives: Belinda Campbell

Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Great Expectations: On set with the BBC’s Dickensian

Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.

He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?

Red Planet Pictures' Tony Jordan
Red Planet Pictures’ Tony Jordan

Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.

Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.

It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.

Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.

The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).

Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.

Recreated locations
The Three Cripples pub is among the painstakingly realised locations

The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.

“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”

Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”

The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.

Cast
Dickensian’s ensemble cast includes Stephen Rea, Tuppence Middleton and Caroline Quentin

“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.

“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”

Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.

“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”

Another
The BBC1 series comprises 20 parts and began airing at Christmas

Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.

“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”

Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”

With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.

“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”

Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”

Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.

Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”

Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.

Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”

But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Eyes on the Red Planet Prize

deathinparadise
Death In Paradise resulted from Robert Thorogood winning the Red Planet Prize

Red Planet Pictures, the UK indie behind productions such as Dickensian, Stop! In the Name of Love and Hooten and the Lady, has launched the latest edition of its scriptwriting competition.

First held in 2007, the Red Planet Prize aims to kickstart the career of new writing talent by optioning their television pilot script in the hope of turning it into the next hit series. The winner will receive £5,000 to have their screenplay exclusively developed by Red Planet Pictures and will also have six months of intensive development with an experienced script editor.

Announcing this year’s competition, Belinda Campbell, head of drama at Red Planet Pictures, explained: “The Red Planet Prize is about finding hidden writing talent and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills through an unrivalled mentoring scheme. Red Planet Pictures is all about the writer and we are committed to finding new voices, original stories and ambitious scripts from upcoming talent.”

Red Planet head of development Judith King added: “We’re looking for ideas that burst with character, people and worlds we’ve never seen before, new spins on genre or totally new genres. But, most importantly, ideas that are deeply truthful and personal to the writer – stories that only they can tell.”

Red Planet Pictures' Dickensian
Red Planet Pictures’ Dickensian

Last year, the competition (held in partnership with Kudos) was won by documentary editor Paul McIntyre and former film art executive Tracy Ann Baines, the first time there had ever been joint winners. McIntyre’s project The Family Next Door was about a woman who discovers family secrets after finding a hole leading to her neighbour’s house. Baines, meanwhile, was singled out for her period drama Iron Roads, which looked at the men on the frontline of the industrial revolution.

There’s no news yet on whether either of these projects is going forward into production. But if you delve a bit further back into the history of the prize, it’s clear that it can deliver on its promise to kickstart writing careers. The most celebrated example of this is Robert Thorogood, who won the 2008 prize with his ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea. Three years later, it hit the screens as BBC drama Death in Paradise. Thorogood wrote five episodes of the first season, which immediately proved popular with UK audiences. He went on to write episodes across the next three seasons and also wrote a series of Richard Poole murder mystery novels (Poole was the central character in the first couple of series of Death In Paradise).

So what does it take to win the prize? There is an interesting interview here with 2013 winner Jonathan Neil, where he outlines how he approached the competition. And there is also a useful blog here, from someone who got to the second phase in 2009.

Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik
Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik

One interesting point to take away from both these articles is the issue of the first 10 pages. The way the competition works is that you enter 10 pages of your script in the first round. If the judges like those, you’ll be asked to send the rest of your script. Neil’s assessment of this was that it was important to be dramatic and bold and to “set the tone quickly.”

However, what’s also clear is that you need to have made some progress with the rest of the script as well. The message from the second blog is that there is no point having a great 10 pages if you haven’t got the rest of the script in shape. This is because the turnaround time between finding out you have made the second round and submitting the rest of the script is too tight.

With that warning, for anyone interested, submissions are being welcomed here from 12.00 on Monday January 4, 2016 until 12.00 on Friday January 22, 2016. You’ll also find full details about what the competition requires from you.

Elsewhere in the world of writing, HBO Europe has announced is now in production on an original idea from writer Stepan Hulik. Called Pustina (Wasteland), the eight-hour drama tells the story of a village on the verge of extinction. The village sits on huge reserves of coal, and foreign companies plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a mining complex.

Commenting on the show, Antony Root, exec VP of programming and production for HBO Europe, said: “We are proud and excited to be producing this major original piece from one of the most talented young screenwriters in our region. Pustina tells a story that goes to the heart of the economic and social changes facing communities in the new Europe. It is also a page-turning mystery. We believe both the story and its themes will resonate strongly with our audiences.”

Hulik’s major credit to date is Burning Bush, a three-part miniseries centring on the true story of a Prague history student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.

El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US
El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US

That show saw success at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, where Ivan Trojan won a Golden Nymph award for best actor in a miniseries. Hulik himself won screenwriting awards in his native Czech Republic. Hulik, who is also reported to be working on a biopic of the troubled 1960s jazz singer Eve Olmerova, is also known as a film historian. As part of his work, he has looked at the famous Barrandov Film Studio and how it was affected by the Soviet occupation in the period after the 1968 invasion.

Finally, DQ reported a few weeks ago that ABC in the US is leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit of international ideas that can be adapted for its home market. More evidence that this is a concerted drive comes this week with the news that ABC is developing a local version of Spanish drama El Chiringuito de Pepe. The US version will be written by Don Todd, whose writing credits include Sleepy Hollow, Hart Of Dixie, Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty.

The original show is about a famous chef who comes to a small beach town to breathe life back into his father’s failing cafe. However, he quickly finds himself falling in love with the place.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,