I’m just in the process of starting work on a new commission. I am the least superstitious person in the world. I’ll deliberately walk under ladders and I’ve never been hit by a can of paint or a brick like in all the best cartoons, I would never kill a rabbit so I can obtain one of its feet and the only reason I won’t put new shoes on a table is because tables cost a lot of money, so why would I risk marking one, the table not the shoe. But when it comes to talking about new projects, I keep quiet – at least to begin with.
Ridiculous, but I don’t want to jinx it. I have to get it at least to script stage, before I start mentioning it in conversation. People will invariably ask what it’s about and sometimes you don’t now until you are way down the track. For those of you who are not screenwriters I feel I should explain that being a scriptwriter, is a bit like being a ball in basketball game, you have endless hoops to go through before you get to the end game. And even when you get there and have a script commissioned, there’s no guarantee that it will be made. You can do ten drafts, by which time the original idea has probably disappeared entirely and you’re working on some homogenised, watered down version of what was probably, in your mind, going to be the next Breaking Bad. And who knows – it might have been.
The truth is in the total budget of a film or TV show the writer represents a very small percentage of that budget, on average between 1.5% and 2.5% – not a lot when the truth is no script, no film, nobody works. But if you don’t actually know what you want, or even what’s good or bad, why not mess the writer around. It’s relatively cheap and there’s always another one waiting round the bend.
The process of getting to the script stage can vary. A typical version would be punting the idea verbally, then writing a paragraph to a page on the idea, then a more fleshed out version of that idea to a fully worked out treatment, which depending on the size of the show can be anything from ten to a hundred pages. This is all prose at this stage and certainly for myself these are processes I would go through by myself anyway, making sure the story works. I suppose the real problem is having to constantly share it with some else, who invariable shares it with someone else, who shares it with someone else and suddenly you’re getting notes from half a dozen people, who have no idea what your original intention was, and it’s not surprising the whole thing gets watered down. One thing I do know is it’s impossible to please everyone. But when you do actually achieve that metaphorical pot at the end of the rainbow, and the script gets made, the feeling is like winning the London marathon having run it backwards.
All that said I still love writing scripts. When you start off as a writer you have to write scripts on spec, otherwise how does anyone know if you can write or not. I still write scripts on spec, because I love the idea of getting my vision of the story on the page. The enjoyment I got from finishing my first novel, Beck Le Street, was immense. It was totally my vision. I knew the story, I knew where I was going, the real enjoyment was going on the journey to get there. And I still love that journey, which is one of discovery as much as it is of fulfilling the original idea. Despite the many trials and tribulations I’ve experienced as a writer, I still count myself lucky to be able to make a living out of something I love doing. Anybody who’s attended any of my lectures or talks will have heard this before, but I’m not going to apologise for the repetition – if they didn’t pay me I would still write, but conversely, they can never pay me enough – ever.