When did your interest in film begin?
Around the time I was teaching I knew half a dozen people in film. This is a real irony in my life because my brother was head of CBC news in Canada, one of his best friends was a commercials director who'd moved into TV and films and I knew other people so the interest has always been there. I actually wrote a comedy script for them on Club Med but I was only dabbling in these things and never pushed it because I didn't believe I could make it. There is a good book, 'The Unkindest Cut' by an American film critic called Joe Queenan and in it he says that he grew up going to movie theatres but that it never occurred to him that he could make his living out of it. He put it across in a lovely way, he said, 'It no more occurred to me that I could do it than be a Peruvian lap dancer.' I feel I am one of those people, I just didn't understand and even when I understood the people I knew that were working in the industry, I didn't understand how I could get there. Then two and a half years ago I bumped into some people from the London Screenwriters Workshop, they told me or convinced me to stop writing novels and to try my hand at some scripts. I still didn't understand how that could work but I was living opposite the artistic director of the Croydon Warehouse Theatre who told me if I'd like to enter their annual playwriting competition. So I wrote a play very quickly, I didn't win by any means but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of writing dialogue particularly. Frankly I've always known that I'm not a great descriptive prose writer like, say, DH Lawrence who's fantastic at natural descriptions, I just can't do it. So anyway, after that I decided to do a script about an ageing American ice hockey player and it went so well that I did another one about a Rolex street robbery with stalking etc. So then I had two and at that point things started to happen. I got commissioned through a friend of a friend to write a script for a few thousand pounds. Its actually a true story of a New York lady in 1939 who went to cover the Japan-China war and got trapped behind enemy lines. Its a great period story with foreign locations and the rest of it. Then, what I wanted to do was a Hollywood picture of some kind, they recommend it as a calling card script. So I wrote a black comedy feature, on a large scale, set in London which involves the Russian mafia. After that I wrote a feminist piece called, 'Having It All'. There was no great mysterious motive for writing that apart from wanting to write something that my girlfriend might like and that it is good to have a range of subject matter. That's a story set in the Docklands about the problems a woman has raising a family whilst working and the problems encountered when her business becomes more successful than her husband. That was my fifth and I decided that I should try to sell them.
How do you go about that?
Well networking is a huge part of it. I've networked now for two years, met the heads of Channel 4 and BBC films, people from Hal Films, Scala, Polygram and a whole bunch of smaller ones and I managed that by going to Peeping Toms and Grouchos , Cannes and by just writing to people. I even met Charles Dance once at Grouchos and he offered to read a script, I didn't ask but he didn't like it in the end. I've had agents interested in me but in general agents aren't interested in first time script writers because they are not going to get a great deal of money from the first film, they will always want someone with a cannon of work already so they can make you into a money making property quite soon. I think you can just as easily approach a producer by writing to them and then sending them an entire script or a sample, although they are far more likely to read your work if they already know you.
Would you encourage writers to search for interesting historical themes for script ideas or to use their imaginations and how do you keep hold of that idea?
Well when writing a novel that might take 2 years work locked in a back room its incredibly important to get your idea set. In film its a very quick process, you need an exciting, strong idea and there are many thousands of ideas out there. On this I've learnt by experience, I've read most of the books on how to write scripts and I've come to the conclusion that it is wrong to start writing without getting your idea visualised in your head and worked out. You can make all the notes you want from walking about in bars, talking to people and so on but that's not really the issue. The problem is, with a novel you can get there by building bridges between separate pieces and add descriptions but with a movie you are dealing with that magic again. A script is about 100 pages long, with about 50 words of dialogue a page which comes to about 5000 words of dialogue. That's not very much and every one of those words has to do something so you just can't ramble. Really, its as mathematical as setting down an average of 35 scenes on a single piece of A4 and don't forget that a scene of 5 minutes or longer is really stretching the limits of the viewer's concentration. Also, by doing an outline you won't get a block because within say, 15 minutes of sitting down to write one scene you'll have an idea.
What advice would you give to a young scriptwriter who is very keen on descriptive prose?
If they are keen on that then I would recommend they write novels, its the only way to go. In film the least amount of description is the best. Although some might prefer to say, 'he rushed into the room' rather than, 'he walked into the room' all that really matters is that he 'comes in', its up to the director to say whether he rushed in, tripped in or whatever. Some people try to make their scripts literary or interesting to read but generally speaking that gets in the way, it should just be extremely simple, blunt clear prose.