Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student’s diploma dissertation.
I had two aims in mind, beyond the obvious one of helping him out. One was that I’d eventually put the material online for general use (so other film students, take from this what you will and don’t email asking me to write your essay for you).
The other involved the hope that I might inject a little contemporary awareness into academia, after hearing of a student on a script editing course being scoffed at for suggesting that the US TV writer’s experience can be better than here. But she was right – those epic horror stories from LA-bruised Brits are not the norm.
I’ve a lot of friends, colleagues and Twitterpals in the business who work in areas that I don’t, and usually in a piece like this I’d stop along the way to consider and qualify some of my remarks with them in mind. Here I just kind of charged on through. So if you want to take exception to anything, by all means do; and if you want to blog a riposte to any of these points, let me know and I may embed a link.
It’s in four sections. The others are scheduled to appear over the next few days.
So here goes.
What are the differences between writing for TV and for film?
I have to break this into two parts because there’s 1) the conceptual difference in the two dramatic forms, and then 2) the difference in working practice.
1) I’ve heard it said that if something remarkable happens to people once in in a lifetime then it’s a movie, but if something remarkable happens to them every week then it’s television. A film story fashions a universal myth out of its material. Television drama approaches the universal from another angle, taking the myth apart and finding the domestic details that build toward it. When you have nothing but the domestic details, to no ultimate purpose, you have a soap.
2) Most starting-out writers dream of selling a feature screenplay, but all the feature writers want to get into television where they’ll have greater opportunities for expression and control. See Ted Griffin, Graham Yost, David Goyer. It wasn’t always that way – TV used to be seen as a lesser medium with lower budgets and lesser ambitions – but that’s changed. They’ve now become very different beasts. As feature budgets have grown, their choices have become safer and safer. In features the writer is required to serve the director’s vision, and is a replaceable component. In TV – and especially in American TV – the director’s job is to get the showrunner’s vision onto the screen. The showrunner is an industry-trained writer in charge of a writing team and a production machine. He or she will most likely have conceived and pitched the idea to the network and written the pilot, although sometimes an experienced showrunner is hired to take charge of a series conceived by an inexperienced creator. The UK has yet to fully embrace the showrunner concept. In the UK writers are mostly shut out of production so they’ll rarely have any hands-on production experience.
How much influence do producers have over your work?
The two equally valid answers are, none, and huge. None because, as a writer, the thing that gives you value is your unique point of view. If you don’t have that, if you only ever write to assignment or chase the market, then you’re aiming no higher than the second division. You should conceive your ideas with no thought of catering to anyone else. And huge because, once you find a producer who picks up on your point of view and believes that what you’re doing is what he or she has been looking for, then you enter a partnership in which the other person steers. I’ve known that go well and I’ve known it go horribly wrong. They can hire a ‘visual’ director with no narrative gift, or one of the known ‘writer-killers’ who don’t respect the script. They can miscast key roles. In a worst-case scenario they can replace you with an untalented friend.