Find your people

Find your people

By Michael Pickard
February 2, 2024

The Writers Room

Four writers – Nicole Amarteifio, Kodie Bedford, Zara Hayes and Cat Jones – discuss how they started working in television, their latest projects and why screenwriters need to find the producers who will back their ideas.

Despite spending five years working for the prison service, Cat Jones never stopped pursuing her ambitions to write for stage and screen. Writing plays and running an arts programme with inmates, she found a route into the television industry open up when she became a consultant on ITV drama Prisoners’ Wives.

Cat Jones

“I spent a bit of time in the writers’ room, helping to generate ideas and things, and it was a great experience,” she said. “Actually, I did that thing of saying to the lead writer on that show, ‘I’ve written a play. Would you read my play?’ She did read it and she passed it on to her agent, and then her agent got in contact and said she would be interested in representing me.”

Jones went on to write for shows including Doctors and EastEnders, and later as a guest writer on series such as Harlots and Wolfe, before finally landing her own primetime drama, the BBC’s Jenna Coleman-led detective series The Jetty. “I’ve just been kind of working and working and at the same time developing my own ideas, of which The Jetty is the first one that I’ve managed to get over the line.”

Jones joined Nicole Amarteifio, Kodie Bedford and Zara Hayes on a Writers to Watch panel at Content London, where all four discussed their path into television screenwriting, their latest projects and the opportunities and universal challenges facing writers working around the world.

Hayes is best known as the director of BBC drama Showtrial, as well as the writer and director on recent Paramount+ thriller The Killing Kind. In fact, her career began directing documentaries, which helped to open doors for her into drama as she weaved more fictional or dramatic elements into her documentary work.

“But when I started looking at fiction directing, I felt I wanted to be involved from an earlier stage, a development stage, and what I realised in the process of crossing over into directing drama was that in making documentaries and editing documentaries, you’re basically writing because you’re structuring the story in the edit,” she said. “I took that as training, in a way, and started experimenting with writing scripts.”

Jenna Coleman in Cat Jones’ BBC detective series The Jetty

After making The Killing Kind with Eleventh Hour Films, Hayes has now joined the company as an executive producer and writer, with a remit to build a slate of projects containing those she has originated as well as ideas from other writers.

“The difference between what I’m doing with them and a [traditional] first-look deal is that with a first-look deal, I’d have to send them X number of ideas over a period of time and they’d say yay or nay to developing them. This is much more of a process of back and forth, so I am sending them really early-stage thoughts that they’re feeding back to me on and we’re developing them in tandem.

“One thing they would say is that they are a company that thinks carefully about everything they do. Everything has got to earn its place, so there is a process of, ‘Is this worth spending the time on?’ But until then, anything is up for grabs.”

Zara Hayes

Like Jones, Nicole Amarteifio didn’t start out as a writer for television, instead working for the World Bank. But it was the negative views of her home country of Ghana, and Africa more widely, that she was exposed to at a young age that drove her to change the narrative through storytelling.

“I wanted a different story out there,” she said. “Issa Rae came out with [web series] The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and I thought, ‘Wow, I could use YouTube to tell a different story about the African continent.’ I got my heart broken, somebody gave me the disc set of Sex & the City and I was like, ‘An African version of this – that’s the way to fight the negative story about the African continent.’

“Then I started Googling, ‘How do you write scripts? How do you find actors?’ I knew absolutely nothing, but it all came together. I got a lot of support from my community.”

Amarteifio filmed her series An African City in 2012 and 2013, and posted the series online in March 2014, leading to rave reviews from viewers as far away as Korea and China.

“The fact was that it was so specific to Ghana, but women around the world could really relate to it, and yet people were talking about the African continent in a different way,” she said. “It wasn’t poverty, it wasn’t famine, it wasn’t death. It was light, it was fun. So 10 years on, I’m hoping we’ll do a season three. I’m hoping we’ll do a film. I’m hoping we will do something. I definitely want to end it; I want to wrap it up.”

An African City then became her “calling card,” helping her to get meetings and leading her to join the writers’ room on Peacock’s 2022 series The Best Man: The Final Chapters.

Zara Hayes wrote and and directed Paramount+ thriller The Killing Kind

“I’m just urging writers just to do something because when you do something, your name gets talked about and it gets you in certain rooms,” she said. Amarteifio also said working remotely during the Covid pandemic has now changed the way writers work, having participated in LA-based The Best Man from her home in Ghana.

“Just the fact that I wrote The Best Man sitting in Ghana, I couldn’t have done that before,” she added. “Now all my meetings with LA are over Zoom, so I love this new way. I get to be with my newborn and just sit in Ghana and write and be on LA time, which is fine because I get my day and get on an LA call at 5pm. That’s how I work and I love it.”

Australian screenwriter Kodie Bedford started her career in journalism, having learned the tradition of storytelling from her parents – her mother is Australian-English and her father is Aboriginal Australian – while growing up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. But it was when she discovered a particular television series that she first became inspired to write for the screen.

Nicole Amarteifio

“My life changed when I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she revealed. “Buffy changed my life because I went, ‘I want to be Buffy,’ and then I realised someone wrote Buffy and I was like, ‘I want to write Buffy.’ What a crazy dream for a 12-year-old Indigenous girl in the 90s in regional Western Australia. I used to drive to the city four hours away to go to a bookshop to get the Buffy scripts, and so I learnt my screenwriting craft basically reading those scripts.”

Journalism seemed to be the most viable route into a writing career, and after studying journalism and then documentary filmmaking, she landed at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was able to move into drama. “I’ve never really looked back,” she said.

Bedford has written on series including Mystery Road, Mystery Road: Origin, Firebite and RFDS, while she is now on the writing team for Return to Paradise, the upcoming Australian spin-off from UK crime drama Death in Paradise.

“When I heard there was an Australian spin-off, I got the call and I’m like, ‘Yes, I’ll write an episode.’ But honestly, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to plot,” she said. “I’ve done crime shows, I’ve done comedy, but they make it look so easy. It’s the hardest thing to plot.

“But at the same time I’m working on my own stuff as well, because I love working with other people; I love collaborating. The most wonderful thing about screenwriting is being in a TV writers’ rooms. But, of course, there’s always that yearning to tell your own story. With my producer Liliana [Munoz], we’re on this epic journey to tell a supernatural western set in the Kimberley region based on my family’s stories before white people came, which is just the craziest thing I ever wrote.”

Nicole Amarteifio joined the writers’ room for Peacock’s The Best Man: The Final Chapters

Amarteifio said her goal was to help tell more stories from Ghana, but to do so, more money needs to come into the industry there.

“I raised money for An African City and a lot of people did a lot of favours for me,” she said. “I learned how to sew on set and my grandmother cooked, so we were able to keep budgets very low. We spent about US$150,000 through the whole of season two.

“The budgets are much, much lower in Ghana, which is unfortunate because that’s why we then get accused of not telling our stories properly. But we just don’t have the budgets for high production value stories – and that’s the ultimate goal. There’s so many beautiful stories that can come out of Ghana. We just need better and bigger budgets to do so.”

Kodie Bedford

Jones managed to win a commission for The Jetty at the BBC, but she noted how many projects every writer develops that never land anywhere.

“It’s actually incredibly hard to get things over the line because so many things have to come together. It has to be a good idea, people have to believe that you can write that idea, and it has to find the right producer and the right broadcaster,” she said. “All those things have to come together at the right moment for something to happen – and it’s really hard.”

What makes it more difficult is the lack of series where writers can gain experience and pick up a first credit, such as BBC daytime drama Doctors, which is coming to an end later this year.

“It’s much harder than it was for me breaking in 10 years ago, where you could get an episode of Doctors and, if you did well, you got to go on to [school drama] Waterloo Road and EastEnders. There was a pathway, whereas I don’t think that’s quite as clear now,” Jones continued. “At the same time, while you’re developing your own stuff, you need a stroke of luck, and you need to find the right people and the right collaborators, and that’s a big if.”

That’s why Amarteifio believes it’s important that writers “find your people” – those who will back your ideas and champion them at every stage.

“There were so many people who told me no one wants to see a show about a bunch of African women. ‘No one’s going to watch it. It’s not going to translate to other markets. It’s not going to do well.’ I just kept hearing that,” she said. “But it was the people around me who believed in it just as much as I did. You have to find your people. You’re going to find a lot of people who don’t believe in the idea, but there’s a lot of people who do as well. You got to find them.”

Kodie Bedford wrote on Mystery Road (above) and Mystery Road: Origin (top of page)

When it comes to a question of what producers can best offer writers, Bedford’s answer is trust. She continued: “We start with a blank page. We’re the only people in the creative process that start with a blank page so our job is already pretty bloody hard. Then we’re pouring our trauma and vulnerabilities onto a page, so when we hand that over to a producer, we want to know it’s going to be taken care of and those words are going to be taken care of. A simple reply to say, ‘Thank you for your script. I’ll read it within 24 hours’ or however long, and then giving feedback, really makes a difference. It’s as simple as that. That starts to build up the trust, the relationship and getting you on the same page.”

Jones said: “I think producers who know the difference between notes and opinions is quite an important one because anyone can have an opinion on a script, but a note is something quite specific, which is about moving the project closer to that shared vision, [something] that’s not something that’s plucked out of thin air. Producers who can give really, really good notes and add value to the project, that’s what a lot of writers are looking for.”

Hayes added: “Ultimately, if you’re all trying to make the best thing and put as much of the money as possible on screen and they’re nice people, that’s just heaven for me. You’d be amazed at how many bad experiences people I know have had – working with people who forget the writers in this process or treating the writers like a machine or a piece of furniture, which is never going to lead to the best outcome. Stick with those guys who love and respect writers.”

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