Television screenwriter James Henry reveals how to break into the industry.
British comedy writer James Henry, best known for his work on sketch shows Smack the Pony, Green Wing and Campus, reveals his personal experiences with the television and film industry. He discusses writing techniques, the development of a screenplay and how to break into the industry.
LC: Could you briefly describe how your career in screenwriting began?
JH: I always wanted to write, but I never thought of doing scripts until I went on a course at Derby University. A writing course that had different modules, we were taught to write prose, poetry etc… But I never thought of doing scripts. I just had to do it for the course. It finally clicked for me when I realised how simple it is to lay out a script, I find the format really freeing. Once I finished the course I started writing radio scripts. They seemed a bit more focussed, in terms of layout, than writing for visuals. I entered a few radio play competitions, mainly because they are good for feedback; they give you a good half page of feedback, which is great for when you are starting out. I won the Channel 4 scriptwriting competition in ’99 – this lead on to little bits of work, like five minute commissions, an episode of Bob the Builder. I’d made some connections through the judges of the competitions, which was really handy. Then I got commissioned to do something a bit more narrative structured, one of the writer’s got me that. I went to talk to them about maybe getting five minutes of script, becoming a staff writer – which is the American approach. I did five minutes. That lead to a proper contract, which got me an agent and I’ve been working full time from then on.
LC: You mentioned an agent, is that the best way to get work?
JH: It’s a really frustrating catch 22. Because you need work to get an agent, but it’s really hard to get work until you’ve got an agent. You have to do the first lot of work on your own. You have to go a fair distance on your own to prove you can do it and then you’ll get an agent. It’s really tricky. It’s slightly different with film. If you write a decent feature script, that’s probably enough to get you an agent. If you write a banging film script straight away – you’ll get an agent. A lot of people get taken on, on the basis of one film script. I’d say television is tougher.
LC: As a writer who began his career in Cornwall, how does being in a place outside of London effect your movement in to the industry?
JH: Actually, by the time I started I was living in Canterbury. I moved to Canterbury because my friends had a place there and I could share a flat. I didn’t particularly want to live in London, but I thought if I at least lived nearby I could just pop in for meetings. I was working in a bookshop, quite gloomy, but nice, they were helpful in there. I think you can do it. There’s a writer called Ollie Jeffrey. He’s based in down here, in Cornwall, lives in Redruth, he’s my age. He’s written scripts, goes up for meetings. He’s now a full time writer. You can do it.
LC: Do online chat programs like Skype make it easier for those based away from the offices?
JH: Via chat doesn’t really work well. You need to be there in person. What I’m doing now is going up every Tuesday night… no wait, every other Tuesday night. I get the sleeper up from Truro at half past 10, come in to London around 7 o’clock-ish and then I can get home in the evening. I basically arrange it around one meeting. Say I have a meeting in the afternoon, 3 o’clock – I’ll tell my agent and see if he can fit meetings around then. That way I have the morning to muck around in London. You need to be prepared travel and to spend money.
LC: The common way to break in to the industry for most film students is to work as a runner, would this work for a writer? Or is there an equivalent for writers?
JH: Just writing. Obviously it wouldn’t do any harm to be a runner, to see how it operates. There’s actually quite a few writer’s who got in by being actors. They were sitting around with nothing to do a lot of the time, but they were meeting producers and people involved. You’ve got that direct link. To be honest it’s only writing. If you’ve got enough contacts to become a runner, you’ve got all the contacts you need already to be a writer.
LC: You previously worked on Green Wing and children’s television shows, is it hard to adjust between genres you are writing for?
JH: Not really, in a way it’s much like cooking. You bake a cake in the morning and then bake bread in the afternoon – it’s still cooking. If you’re a comedy writer, it’s still comedy – just a different audience.
LC: Something that I’ve noticed more recently in children’s films, such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, is that they tend to include more jokes for adults.
JH: Exactly, television is just starting to get their head around that. In the US, Malcolm in the Middle did it well. Although it’s not just one joke for one and one joke for another. It’s that the adults watching will get an extra level of humour, mainly because they can better understand the real pain the characters are put through. We haven’t really got that over here yet, but it’s on the way.
LC: When you are writing, do you write with a specific actor or actress in mind, or do you write a character then they select the actor accordingly?
JH: It depends. They’d already done the pilot for Green Wing when I started writing for them, so I already knew the actors involved. I think it’s very useful to have an actor in mind. There’s something I’m writing at the moment, but i couldn’t quite think of what he was like. I thought of Arthur Davill from Doctor Who. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be him, but I understand how he speaks, how he walks, how he looks and how he’d react. It wouldn’t have to be him, but it gives you a framework. It can be good to do a bit of fantasy casting. Putting a face to a main character, even though it doesn’t necessarily have to be them in the end. Funny thing is it can lead to people thinking of the same actor. I wrote an outline a while ago. I didn’t say that I’d thought of Nick Frost when writing the role, but everyone who read it immediately though – oh, Nick Frost would be great for that role.
LC: During the talk you gave recently, you mentioned that you’d previously written some screenplays for feature films. What were they?
JH: The first feature script I’d written was Hero Trip, I wrote it in about 3 days… do you want the one minute pitch?
JH: Basically it focuses on a slightly cynical superhero that has to team up with his nemesis, a minor league super villain; they have to drive across America to save the world. It’s a road movie, but with all the typical characters of a superhero movie. Instead of a normal superhero movie, save the world comic book movie, it’s more about the two characters – how these two arch enemies get on for the days they are travelling. The superhero has never properly met people before, he just saves them and disappears again, by the time he’s spent some time with people he realises they’re just dicks. Whereas the super villain, who has also finally met people who are kind to him for the first time and realises how much he likes them, the two switch. It’s a really simple premise. By the time they reach the end of the country they’ve completely swapped roles.
LC: That sounds great, what happened to it?
JH: The film council paid me to work with a script editor, who took notes and lead to rewrites, rewrites and more rewrites. I did about eight drafts with them. Universal really liked it, but they’d just started making Hancock, so they had already done on of them. Unfortunately the whole top level of the film council changed and things dissolved. Occasionally it gets brought up with other people, but it got me the opportunity to work with people and got my foot in the door. It’s something I’d like to come back to in the future, I like it.
LC: So you’re going to leave for now, or make more adjustments and pitch it again?
JH: I’m just leaving it in a drawer now. One producer said he was really keen to rework it with me and he had some suggestions for changes. I could see how that worked for him, but couldn’t see how it worked for me. It’s better to leave it in the drawer, rather than just rewriting and rewriting the same thing again. I’ll leave it, start something new, but it’s there, in the drawer, ready for when things come back around. Fashions go in and out. It might happen in the future, but for now I’m just going to leave it.
LC: You mentioned working with a script editor, how does that partnership work and does it affect your creative input at all?
JH: A script editor recommends things that I should address, but it wasn’t her job to tell me how to address them. It was all the parts in the middle of Hero Trip, the road trip parts; she made the very correct point that they didn’t build or go anywhere. This is fine, but it just means that there are seven or eight big scenes that could’ve been shuffled about in any order. What you want is a series of escalating scenes; they have to be emotionally driven. That was a really good point. She didn’t tell me how to do it, or what they should be doing in the scenes, just addressed the structural problems. That’s what a good script editor does. They aren’t being creative steamrollers… they come later.
LC: What is the process for getting a script picked up and made?
JH: I email it to my agent, they’ll have some suggestions. I’ll write a draft or a treatment. My agent will set me up with meetings with various producers, or email the script to film companies. There’s no point in sending a huge script to a low budget, indie Film Company, it just won’t get you anywhere.
LC: Besides length, are there any differences between a screenplay for television and a screenplay for film?
JH: Yes. Television is all about setting up the situation, they usually run indefinitely, it all builds up to a climax, but also opens a load of new questions. Whereas in film it needs to come to a conclusion, it’s different. It’s interesting. In a way, it’s more satisfying to write a film script, it’s something that has a beginning, middle and end. And that’s it.
LC: Would you recommend a MA in professional writing?
JH: Yeah, I would. I did a screenwriting course. I don’t think it’s for everyone. How it worked for me was that it made me do work. It saved me maybe five years. It just makes you do stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily have done as quickly. It’s much easier working with someone telling you to do it and setting you deadlines. It’s very good for that. It’s very much a starting place. As soon as you finish you do the rest on your own. I would definitely recommend it, it worked for me.