Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Screenwriting 106 - Masterclass

So, back up to Birminham for a 3 hour discussion with Casualty script writer Linda Thompson (winner of the Bridport Short Story prize back in 2000, and then also, of the BBC's Talent competition - to write an episode of Doctors). She says that going from being a literary fiction writer to Casualty is not a sell out. It's a career.

Scripts, she says, are the same as short stories. There is no overloading viewerd with too much information/exposition. A character arrives, does their bit and leaves. Of writing for an established program, she says, that writing something new (a new series, one off, etc) is fraught with uncertainties, but writing for an established program is a certainty that you will get made. So many new series are filmed but never shown.

Casualty is aimed at a mixed viewership for mainstream Saturday nights. As such it can't be too dark, too edgy, and yet the producers are always asking for edgy stuff, messed up story structures (ala Memento) and yet never accept anything that doesn't fit the formula (typical company types - eh?)

The quality visibly varies on an episode by episode basis. Whereas writers in the US are locked up together in an office day-by-day, UK writers do their episodes at home, on their own. This leads to freedom but also inconsistency.

Linda gave us four separate documents - part of the episode development.

Serial Document
This is written by the Story Producer and details 3 main stories - the A story, B story and C story. This focus upon the main characters, and in the case of Casualty - the medical staff. These set up the character/story arcs that link through the entire series based upon pre-series discussions about what's going to happen (which characters come to the fore, who'll be killed off, what's important in the real world, etc), and pretty much looks as if the story is already there.

These set up the themes that will play in the episode (in the case of that provided to the class: Freedom, Unrequited love and Life's too short). Since Casualty follows the 5 act principle, each Story (A, B and C) are written in five separate paragraphs (I'm sure you can work out why), each ends with a cliff hanger of sorts. (None of this is entirely set in stone).

Remember, that all stories are character led - says Linda.

From this serial document, the writer, ie: Linda, is allowed to go away and construct a script incorporating these elements around a medical drama of the day - in Linda's case, she chose a wedding that led to lots of little medical emergencies. She is allowed up to 10 guest actors to play these roles.

Linda made two important points:

1. The themes of the three main stories must be enhanced/backed up by what's going on in the medical incident/drama parts. The guest stories must magnify the serial elements by mirroring them as this adds to the character pressures.

2. Whilst the dialogue is going on the characters/actors must be moving, working, giving a sense of perpetual movement. Nobody just sits there doing nothing whilst they talk.

At the beginning of each new series (each year) – there have been 20 seasons of Casualty, spanning the 20 years since it began in 1986, with 48 episodes per season (crikey) – each of the writers is given a Writers’ Bible which covers everything the need to know – info on advisors to sets, direction and directors, to the main characters. We were shown Charley’s page, detailing him, as Linda said of a previous Bible as Animal – Sheepdog. A previous Series Producer hadn’t liked Charley’s character much… though the latest Bible states Animal – Silver backed Gorilla.

Linda briefly mentioned that if you’re in the UK wanting to break into BBC script writing, write for Doctors. It’s such a long running stream of episodes that generates some of the highest mid-day viewing figures that they’re always looking for writers. This is the way Linda got into it (remember, she one the BBC Talent competition(?) and she did so by impressing upon the Series Producer her knowledge of the characters, issues and the types of stories run – she did her research).

It’s difficult, she says, to play stories through the paramedics! She makes this point because the B story in the serial document focuses on Nina (Paramedic). Doing so means that the paramedic needs to spend a lot of time in the hospital hanging around (when they should be off saving lives). Linda moved the B story from Nina to Abs. These stories need to focus on the main character as the point of view character, and it made sense to make Abs the point of view – his character had the greatest arc/journey in this instance.

Diplomacy is the key! Linda says. In the C story, Guppy lost a patient, leading to his character arc. Linda felt this was off key with the feel of the rest of the episode that she argued a point of using something else to spark Guppy’s character change, and had it agreed. (Diplomacy is something she returned to later… but more on that… later)

The three stories generated in the serial document occur thusly (on average):
A story runs through the whole of the episode (this is 1 in level of importance)
B story runs from about Act 2 to 4 (this is 2 in level of importance)
C story runs from about Act 2/3 to 5 (this is 3 in level of importance)

The script editor will take the first draft of the script from the writer (or their ideas/questions) and give it to the Producer to relay/ask questions.

Vignettes, says Linda, are great little moments. There was one that a medical advisor came up with about an old man who’d been taking his pain killers whilst changing his batteries on his hearing aids. He couldn’t hear anything and no one could work out why – he’d changed the batteries after all, it couldn’t have been the hot toddies the old couple had been drinking! It turns out that the old man had swallowed the batteries and popped the pills into his hearing aids instead.

Linda says you can quite often fit 2 or 3 small vignettes like this into an episode.

Initial version of Guest Story
Linda next showed us the accepted initial version of her guest stories, managed by the 5 Act structure. This specifically Beats out the acts, and in Linda’s case, was one big A story (for the guests).

Better drawn characters (those with more layers) will garner better actors for the episode. Characters are perceived visually, and she suggests that in creating them, they are developed from the outside in.

Having got the initial idea, the writer can then rely upon the researchers to go and find details about any aspect from the story (for example: a blacksmith, or the procedure for Police or social services, etc). The researchers will go out and interview or find out the relevant information.

After the first set of drafts are done, a treatment must be created – this is a tedious process that generates the scene-by-scene beats. Linda calls this “writing cold”. This document is literally the “Tell” of what is going to happen (kind of like a synopsis, but in real depth). Unfortunately it is really important.

There exists a committee who then review all this stuff, consisting of:
The series producer, story producer, series editor (commissions the writers), episode producer and the script editor.

With these people, it takes the writer 12 weeks to complete an episode. 2 weeks for the first treatment, 1 week for the 2nd, 3 for the script. A meeting is held regarding justification of the first script draft. Then a mass of notes is handed back by the script editor on the 2nd draft. A third version goes to the executive version, and sent to a woman called Belinda, who seems to be top of the hierarchy… and her word is God… so, everyone agrees with whatever she says. The production draft is created and given to the director and then the shooting script is finalised, with the inclusion of pink pages (which we won’t worry about, since the writer’s journey ends here) – they just relate to the fact that sometimes what works on paper doesn’t work (timewise) in the flesh.

Casualty is a 50 minute program, with roughly 50-60 scenes. 3 minutes is the longest for any scene length (most being no longer than 1 minute) and everyone must keep moving, doing things, throttling one another, etc. Each episode generally covers one day or shift, flashbacks are rare and jump cuts are necessary for timing.

So, finally, back to diplomacy! Linda says that criticism is hard to take, but as a script writer you must have the skin of a rhino. It’s a very difficult process, and people who don’t write (but wish they were) are telling the writer how to write. Never lose your temper, she says, swear/tell them they’re crap… because you’ll never work in this town again!

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