Friday 22 November 2013

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write

David Simpkin (@simplerDave) asks: If story leads to a big set piece (from Some Mothers to Miranda etc), do you write it & then budget it, or write knowing limits?

No. Stop it. Don’t. Seriously.

It’s very tempting to temper your writing because you know it’s a British TV show and that budgets aren’t huge. But it’s a serious mistake to limit your imagination and writing in this way. How to produce what’s on the page is the producer’s problem.

You’re the writer. Write. Imagine. Dream. Create.

I probably sound a bit pretentious here, but I know that in the past, I’ve been guilty of trying to think up TV shows that seem easily achievable and filmable – and in so doing have thought up ideas that were bland, mundane or too similar to stuff already out there. Of course a show about six friends living in New York can work. Or a show set in a bar in Boston can work. But why not set a show in a bomb disposal unit stationed at a patrol base in Afghanistan? Or a show in a BBC 1950s newsroom? Or a Manchester police station in 1973?

These ideas are much more interesting to write and, although they are hard work to research, the research throws up loads of brilliant stories, characters and moments. That’s what I’ve found on Bluestone 42. Plus, these shows are more interesting to TV Commissioners, Channel Controllers and the TV viewing audience who’ve already seen a thousand cop shows, medical dramas and flat-share sitcoms.

Unless you have a background as producer, you, as a writer, have no idea how much things cost. So don’t worry about it. Stuff that you might think is expensive often turns out to be achievable, while other things you might think are straight forward are a nightmare. So don’t prejudge it. Write something awesome.

Making it Work
A Foxhound
Good producers find a way of making it work. (And even some bad producers.) Plus an Art Department or Costume Designer might be desperate to do something different or interesting. They’ll find a way of making it work. Maybe they’ve just spend four years finding and dressing cottages for Midsomer Murders. Sure, professionals want a quiet life, but they also love a challenge. And the chance to do something brilliant. Harry Banks, our Production designer on Bluestone 42, has pulled together a team to construct these vehicles (see pics: A Mastiff, a Jackal and a Foxhound) which look amazing, but are essentially flat-bed trucks, wood and welded metal. And he’s made stuff even more awesome than this that I can’t show you yet.
A Jackal

So. Free your mind. Write the scene. Write the show. And leave the rest to someone else. And then, when the Channel controller has been wowed by your creative vision, and sufficiently enthused to buy the show, you can have that chat with the producer about how you actually film the darned show.

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write
Maybe your script contains three of the most expensive words you can write: ‘The fleets engage’. But there’s probably a way of shooting even clashing fleets on a budget – especially if the story is about two admirals, or cabin boys or whatever. After all, big ships firing cannon balls at each other isn't all that interesting.

A Mastiff
So as you go through your brilliantly imaginative script, you need to think about what is actually necessary to make the scene work? You’re writing a comedy, or a drama. Not an action movie. (If you’re writing an action movie, disregard this entire post, obviously). So do you need to see a thousand extras? Will that make the action more dramatic or funnier? Or do you just need to give the impression of a thousand people being there? Or a crowd?

Think about what Alfred Hitchcock said about drama and suspense. Do you want a bomb to go off – which can be expensive – or is it more dramatic to have a briefcase under a table that we know has a bomb in it? Special effects, stunts and motion graphics are often achievable but they’re not inherently dramatic. Seeing a human being jump off the Empire State Building isn’t all that interesting – unless you know who it is or why they’re jumping. But the most interest bit is the bit before they jump. That’s where the drama is. And where there’s drama, there’s comedy. Shoot that.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I've had a sitcom in mind for ages now which would look epic, but I'm convinced could be filmed on a shoestring budget. I'm going to take the advice here and write BIG, forgetting about the money side of things. Cheers :¬)