A second series of Tom Rosenthal’s brilliant Absolutely Fine has just been released on Comedy Central UK’s youtube page. I had the pleasure of exec producing this. Tom and the cast did a great job. Here’s the first one…
Interest declared. I am only writing this blog in a bid to get you to watch my video and buy my song. But there’s a lesson in it. Not the view/purchase, that’d just be you showing what a good person you are and doing something nice for once in your life. Look at all the free content I’ve provided. And it’s a good song, so buy the blimmin’ thing. Is that a deal? Excellent. Here’s the link to buy Flat Packing Anger Management on iTunes.
Why is there a lesson in it? Well, this song and the subsequent album came about because a couple of years of ago something amazing happened – Channel 4 commissioned me to make a short pilot – or taster as we often call it in televisual show business – of a spec musical sitcom script I’d written. As you can imagine I leapt around the room when I got that call and screamed with excitement. I was surprised because it’s quite a risky idea, but they liked the script and if someone likes something I’ve done then I like them, they’re ace. Genocidal maniac gives me a five star review? Cool!
The commission meant recording a few songs with a full band and working with my musical production genius of a friend, Gus Bousfield, who not only used to work with me in TV, but who also writes, performs and produces brilliant music. His band Gurgles have become faves of Stuart Maconie on BBC 6Music. Nice work, Gus.
As a creative process it was immensely challenging but incredible fun and I felt very privileged to have been given even a small budget to produce the music and then shoot some scenes to show how the script would come to life. We cast Diana Vickers and David Elms who made a really great couple and Javone Prince as a crazy ex-boyfriend of Diana’s character. It’s rare that a pilot feels perfect – you want it to be brilliant and guarantee a series, but even if it’s close to doing that, it should at the very least be something you can build on to develop an idea further – and this was no exception. The cast was great, lots of elements worked and overall I was really happy with the result. There were certainly things I’d change moving forward but I was proud of something I’d put a huge amount of effort into.
I’ve used this from the taster as a video for the single….
The reception to it was positive at the channel, but in the end like most projects it didn’t move forward. Gutting, but them’s the breaks. Pick your self up, dust yourself down and scream into the abyss. The chances of me getting the project as far as I did were slim, they always are. Of course, I think it would have made a really good series but the competition is incredibly tough and I always see rejections as part of the process. Even the most talented people have to be committed, persevere and bounce back from rejection to succeed.
What I decided to do, though, was use the songs I’d recorded as the basis for an album. I’d enjoyed the process of recording with a band so much that I thought, ‘what the hell, keep on rocking.’ I’ve got some good songs really well performed and arranged, so it would be a shame to just hide them away on a hard drive.
I think there’s a lesson in this somewhere. Maybe it’s that having completed something that you think works or has something so it, then it’s worth looking at different avenues to move it forward. I don’t believe it’s a good to focus on one idea for one medium for too long once it’s been rejected by everyone. It is good to be passionate and committed to an idea; you should care for a horse that’s living, treat a horse that’s injured or unwell with love and attention, but as for a dying one… put it out of its misery and bury it in your bottom drawer until all the commissioning editors have moved on. Then you can whip the horse repeatedly until it comes back to life. What you should never do is keep flogging a dead idiom.
But if you can find another format or arena where your horse can live on, then feed it some hay, strap on your saddle and ride off into the sunset.
If you follow any comedians on Twitter, read arts pages in newspapers / online content providers or are in Edinburgh in August then you’ll know that the Edinburgh Fringe is happening. Right now. I’m on the train heading up there, literally now. Has it finished yet? No, it goes on for blimmin’ ages. It lasts pretty much the whole of August. Which is why people bang on and on about if for ages in August. I’ve done it, I know. Talk to my friends. Actually, don’t; they wish to hear no more about it. But as a writer/performer/producer/directer, whether you’ve got your foot in the door and stepped directly onto the ladder while passing go and collecting £200 or are stood waiting at the door in the pissing rain with no coat or umbrella then it’s worth thinking about Edinburgh.
A good friend of mine asked for some advice about this recently. Someone who is already a successful actor and a very good writer. They thought it would be an idea to ask someone who has never appeared on telly – unless you count Points of View or a, thankfully fleeting, moment in my critically acclaimed Channel 4 documentary, Bare & Breakfast – for some thoughts on the matter. So, as someone who has taken several shows to the fringe and achieved no small success whatsoever, here’s my two penneth.
You definitely should put on a show. Edinburgh is a great, but expensive way to do it. It is gruelling and can at times be dispiriting, but it is also inspiring, challenging and can lead to opportunities you’d never imagined even if you are not nominated for any awards, which I certainly never was. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but writing and performing fringe shows got me into comedy professionally. It was a loss leader on the road to moderate achievements.
And here’s some specific tips, numbered to give it that clickbaity, buzzfeedy vibe….
1) Go to Edinburgh to watch stuff. You can’t imagine what it’s like until you’ve been. I visited for the first time in 2002 with my erstwhile partner Michael Spicer. Some shows were amazing and many were just okay. I thought I could definitely do an okay show and have certainly proved it. Michael and I returned full of ludicrous vigour and ambition before embarking on our highly successful 4 star – or 2 depending on your choice of publication – two hander sketch show Soft Toys in 2003.
2) Start writing. Now. You can never have too long to write your script. Want to do a show next year? Start getting your ideas down. Work on your structure. You want to be ready to perform previews early in the new year if you can – even if it’s just trying out sections of a show, putting something before an audience is the best way to see what’s working or not. Stand ups, character acts and sketch groups generally try out material across the year as they gather an hour of sure fire rock solid comedy gold. That’s the idea, anyhow. And many have been writing and performing for a few years before they take their first full show up, so it’s often three or more years in the making.
3) If you’re unknown or even if you do have a bit of profile, it’s probably best to start on the free fringe unless you know you’re going to have a knock out, very professional show that is worthy of people’s time and money. And if you put a great free fringe show on people will come, they will put money in your bucket, then you can take your show on tour around the country, then the globe, clean up and you will be a millionaire within months. That’s my guarantee to you.
4) Be your own producer. When you do your first show you could spend a huge amount of effort trying to find someone who will produce your show. And they do cost money. I’ve done it both ways and having a producer is great; it takes a huge amount of stress and time out of the process and you have someone to moan at, but you still have to be responsible for your show and getting people to watch it. It’s tedious admin but you can do it. Other shows had their highlights, but that 2003 show is still probably the most successful I did and the most cost effective. Deadlines for submissions to the fringe programme etc. come early in spring (I can’t remember exactly when and I’m on a train, the wifi is intermittent so you’ll have to do a bit of research, soz) so start planning early.
5) If you can’t afford PR (which can be expensive) then do your own. Find an angle, write a press release and send it out to any relevant publications. Contact people throughout the run to keep momentum. If anything happens, a small newsworthy (at least in the festival press) story, then contact journalists and you might get a mention. In 2003 there was an incident – I was accused of theft by a small Edinburgh post office where I was doing some photocopying. It really kicked off. You literally couldn’t write this better. Let me paint a picture of the drama; a post office worker said, ‘Did you nick that Blutack?’ and I replied, ‘No, it’s mine. I already had it on me.’ And they said, ‘Oh, sorry mate.’ The story somehow exploded into me being apprehended for an hour before breaking free and only making it on stage with seconds to go. I know, shock PR tactics. I was helped by a journalist friend that year, so I did have an advantage.
6) Have an idea of what you want to get out of it. I certainly had no idea when I started. For stand ups there is a clear path to follow, so if you’re in that game then talk to others and have a look at what they do. For character acts and sketch groups there is also a well-trod path; do a show, get great reviews, get an agent, get on radio then on telly, do a bunch of shows, have a lean period, split and do some serious acting, be a comedy walk on or baddie in a Hollywood movie, get back together for a money-spinning tour. Or do a few bits and bobs, then get a regular job in TV production and blog about it in a bid to make people think you know what you’re talking about.
If you’re a stand up or are involved in the circuit then you’ll be talking to people who know what the game is about. I guess it’s similar if you’re involved in fringe theatre. If you’re from outside those worlds then it may seem like a mystery, but throw yourself in. It’s like eating olives; you don’t know what you’re missing until you force yourself to eat them. There is still plenty to be gained and learned by taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I still don’t like olives, though.
Essentially my advice is; talk to anyone who might know anything and read loads of stuff online. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this but I’m approaching Edinburgh and will need to get off the train, jump in a taxi and head straight to destination comedy. So this must end now. Good luck.
Ever get the feeling you’re missing out on the party? You know, the party where ‘all the important people who decide everything’ are at? Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly is there with Frank Bough and he’s off his nuts on showbiz sherbet (I’m showing my age with a Viz reference – if you don’t know Viz, it was the viral hit of the grubby paper age of my youth featuring Roger Melly ‘The Man on the Telly’ a consummately unprofessional presenter who, at the very least, has not been cited in historical criminal cases).
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I reckon many people feel they are not connected even if they are working regularly in television – that there is some kind of clique making all the decisions around a table littered with £50 notes and white powder while seething external catering service workers clear up while desperately, and completely understandably, wanting to punch everyone’s lights out.
Like you, I don’t particularly feel a part of the glamorous set. The glitterati. We’re just the Yentobi-wannabe-kenobis (#labouredstarwarspun). Admittedly, now I’ve spent 20 odd years in the showbiz firmament I have been to the odd thing and I do have friends who’ve done some brilliantly cool things. Most of those are people who, like me, have done okay and are occasionally invited to a glamorous event. My friend Jane and I once went to the Hampstead Bark Off where she was a celebrity judge alongside Rachel Riley off of Countdown. She does a brilliant blog about dog friendly travel, phileasdogg.com, featuring her dog and my best canine mate, Attlee. It’s all glamour in my life now.
If there is a dinner party set then I’ve never made it to the top table. I’m not sure there is one. Of course, there are well connected people but if you start to think that you’re somehow deliberately NFI then you could be sliding down a rickety spiral staircase bannister to despair and bruised nether regions when you hit the nubbin at the bottom.
When I started my career in television at Plymouth’s most successful export since Sir Fancis Drake (this was before Tom Daley made a splash), Two Four Productions, I thought I was on a road to glamour, golden toilets and a budget for ‘office sundries.’ And when I say ‘office sundries’ I don’t mean post-it notes, guys. That road, via the office on an industrial estate in Plympton, was not paved with golden toilets, there was no budget for ‘office sundries,’ in fact you were lucky to get actual office sundries. Fortunately, now I could probably afford the occasional splurge on ‘office sundries,’ I have been educated enough to ethically oppose their procurement. Ignorance really is a blissful high sometimes.
One reason for writing this post is the memory of my early days in Manchester, when I was setting up a production company, forging relationships with writers and comedy talent. I was new to the city and didn’t know many people so I invited a few people I’d met and liked for a birthday drink because it was my birthday and otherwise I’d have been sat in my flat playing online backgammon into the early hours – heady and the disappointment on their faces when it was about five of us in the Crown and Anchor sipping pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Best birthday ever. I can’t speak for my glamour-expectant guests, however.
There isn’t a great point to this blog, but I guess it’s just try not to get stressed about that stuff and get on with doing other stuff. Those parties are probably full of wankers anyway.
You don’t have to be mad to write comedy, but it helps. I should get some mugs and t-towels made for my merch page and become a millionaire. I recently had an email with the subject line ‘Catch 22?’ and there does seem to be an impossible and conflicting dilemma for aspiring writers. While not quite as life-threatening as a Captain Yossarian situation it can drive people to the brink. Still, I thought I would answer the query while probably failing to answer the query.
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So, you’ve written something; a sitcom pilot script, short film, web series, brilliant comic feature film. You nervously send it out into the world to anyone and everyone who might just take a look at it. Chances are you won’t get many replies, but maybe one or two people respond and say nice things. If you show some promise, great potential or even generate genuine interest in your work then this is just the start of what could be a great ride. But, unless you are brilliant and lucky, it will be a bumpy one, like a comedy writer’s version of World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Ice Road Truckers or if you’re a partnership, Touching the Void.
My recent correspondent had written a web series which received some interest and nice comments from industry professionals. And you know what? That is great; it’s encouraging, someone has actually given you feedback and you feel like you’re making progress. And you are. But then… nothing. Back to square one like the worst game of Snakes and Ladders you’ve ever played and you scream and cry like a child while your competitive dad laughs smugly while he whizzes up another ladder. Then I shout, ‘It’s not fair!’ and he replies, ‘Life’s not fair.’ And I think, well okay maybe life isn’t fair but if people were less of a dick about it then maybe life would be a bit nicer. And now that I’m just as bad as my dad when I play board games, my girlfriend refuses to play Scrabble with me. It’s the circle of life.
Sorry about that tangent, but sometimes it’s good to get these things out. So, you feel there are barriers in the way of your writing moving forward, such as the fact that you haven’t got an agent when you can’t get an agent because you haven’t had anything produced. I know what that feels like, but while having an agent is great, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you pursuing your writing. In fact, you can waste precious time trying to get an agent when an agent isn’t going to be interested in signing you.
If producers are reading your work, enjoying it and giving you good feedback and even asking you in to meetings, but not pursuing projects further then, frustrating as that is, you just have to see it as step forward. Most industry folk do try and take time to encourage talent and even if nothing comes of those contacts now, they may do in the future. They have to look at your work and decide whether or not they have a chance of selling it and if they think that’s unlikely then they can’t afford to spend more time on it. This is particularly true if your first projects are sketches or web series. The ideas and scripts might be great, but there’s not a lot you can do with them, so you have to pursue them yourself. There are a few outlets on radio for sketches and gags but whether it’s a sketch, an online series or short film, the only way forward might be to make it yourself. And, yes, there’s probably a whole other post on this, but the only real answer to, ‘how do I do that?’ is, ‘by going out and doing it, learning from your mistakes and doing it again.’
As a new writer without an agent it is difficult to get people to read your work, but some people do and if they really love it, have time to pursue it and believe they have a chance of getting it made then they will. Those three things coming together is rare, but the issue of whether or not someone has an agent has never been an issue in my experience. In fact there are writers and performers whose scripts I have developed who have gone on to get an agent and develop a career and most of them had been through exactly this process. So, dust yourself down if you’re feeling dusty, get up again if you’re feeling Chumabwumba-y and make stuff, write more, write what you want but try and write something someone might want too. Be aware of what’s out there. Watch shows, read scripts. And one day you could be writing a blog and considering merch with snappy slogans in a foolhardy attempt to monetise it.
Just a footnote; David Quantick’s book How to Write Everything is well worth a read and will help anyone in this situation, I think.
Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas.
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I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.
What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.
So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…
- An amateur dramatics society.
- Struggling actors in some way shape or form. I have a lot of sympathy for actors, it’s incredibly hard, the constant rejection is possibly even worse than it is for writers. Still, write about something else. No one cares. Except me. I care.
- A struggling indie band (or other genre, but indie bands seem to be a common one. Maybe that’s because the writer was once a songwriter in an indie band who wrote moderately amusing lyrics in a sub-Jarvis Cocker style. That was the kind of band I was in, anyhow) or a once successful band whose members are now living ordinary lives.
- The open mic comedy circuit. Loads of wannabe comedians are also wannabe writers, so it makes sense that they’d come up with this idea and there are loads of crazy characters on the open mic circuit, but… no one cares. I’m happy to admit that when I was a factual television producer and doing open mic stand up in London I thought it would be a good idea for a documentary series. It was not a good idea. It was quite dull and I quickly gave up on it.
- Two guys in their late twenties or early thirties who are getting nowhere in life. They probably share a flat and one of them has an ex-girlfriend who has moved on, but is still around. Or there’s a girl they’ve known for years they both fancy.
- A bar or pub. This is one where, of course, several comedies of various quality have been made. I really liked Early Doors, for example, and I have vague fond memories of World of Pub, which I should refresh. I also remember getting a script set in a bar which had something different in the writing — funny, weird and slightly surreal. I did develop and pitch it and it did pique the interest of a commissioning editor, but ultimately didn’t get through.
- A hotel or guest house. The legacy of Fawlty towers over this one (see what I did there, I should work in comedy). The really annoying thing about this setting is that, like the pub, it does frequently reoccur — there was Heartburn Hotel in the late nineties and more recently the children’s comedy All At Sea and comedy drama Edge of Heaven. Even more annoying for me is that I’ve got one. Yes, commissioners, I’ve got a guest house comedy and it’s, like, totally brilliant and I grew up in a guest house and then a small hotel, so it’s authentic and everything. I think mine is an interesting take on the situation (of course I do), but I’ve held back on pitching it at times because of all the above. Anyhow, you can see that I feel your pain.
There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.
It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).
As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.
Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.
My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.
And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.
Happy New Media Year.
It’s a new year and a new you. And a new me. This year we’re all really gonna make it. I absolutely guarantee it. Money back. Although, I am still largely working in old media. Except here, that is. Here is where, unlike all you millennials out there, I am a digital immigrant, culturally enhancing the online space with my grey matter (hair).
I thought I’d post a couple of things I’ve helped out with and like.
Here’s a rather brilliant short film I had the pleasure of being involved with a small bit. I’ve been really impressed by Meat Bingo’s shorts and project CS911346d, written by and starring Sanjeev Kohli, is no exception. They’re based in Devon, from whence I hail, and I had the pleasure of meeting up with the director John Panton and some of his talented collaborators in an Exeter pub just before Christmas. That’s the power of Twitter, which is how we first got in contact. I’m looking forward to seeing more from them, hopefully a feature sometime soon.
I first became aware of Meat Bingo through their collaboration with Michael Spicer who’s output online continues to be brilliant, original and funny. His latest work Rec 601. is ace. Here’s a preview clip – it’s one of my favourite sketches from the series. There are three short episodes on YouTube, so do check them out.
Why isn’t he on the telly yet? Maybe I’ll do a blog about that, but I hope his work finds it’s way on to the small screen soon and, yes, I am trying to help make that happen.
I hope those bits inspire you to do stuff. Write, shoot or whatever you want to produce. They inspire me. I’m releasing some stuff later this month, mostly music based as I’ve been working on some tunes which I’m really happy with. At the end of January I’ll be releasing We’re In This Together – my song about the (sadly) fictional kidnapping of George Osborne along with a video and ludicrous short story.
Please do contact me. I like hearing from people especially if they at least pretend that they’ve read, watched and listened to everything I’ve ever done. Many get in touch asking for advice on where to send their script or how to contact production companies. Here are a few blog posts that should help with that.
May the force awaken for you in 2016.
Yes, I watched the Star Wars film over Christmas. I quite enjoyed it.
They say the chances of anything getting on TV are as low as anything coming from Mars. But, just like those pesky Martians in War of the Worlds, still they come. Now play dramatic futuristic chords and Richard Burton’s apocalyptic voice in your head.
Last week I saw a tweet from TV and literary agent Julian Friedmann from the Broadcast Commissioning Forum and it stuck in my head…
Okay, so those odds are actually a lot lower than the chances of inter-planetary invasion, but the telling point is that these are scripts coming from producers.
I’m not flagging this up to put you off. If you want to be a comedy script writer and you do what needs to be done – write a script, then rewrite it until it’s brilliant, write another, repeat process – then you won’t be put off. And you shouldn’t be. It’s a rejection business, but still they come. It’s simply useful to know the reality in the hope that it both ups your game and helps you to avoid descending into bitterness. If you get some interest from a producer in your script then this shows you are already doing well. Producers do pick up on good work and they want to get shows made. After that it’s a case of timing.
The reasons why those 249 scripts get rejected are many and varied. It’s all subjective, but those scripts will almost all be of very good quality. It’s very rare that I get a response from a commissioning editor that tells me the script I’ve sent is a load of balls. And often I’ll be told that they love the script, but…
a) It doesn’t fit the channels needs. Different broadcasters are looking for different kinds of shows and those needs change over time as shows get picked up or cancelled.
b) There is something similar in development – this can be very vague and can reference shows that don’t seem very similar at all, but this is because the channels have to look at the mix of shows. So what seems very different to you, isn’t to them.
c) There just isn’t a slot. There aren’t many slots for sitcoms, so they get filled.
d) They love it but can’t convince the genre boss / the channel boss / the marketing people (in the case of commercial channels).
e) The talent isn’t big enough. Channels are talent obsessed. And with understandable reasons. Of course it is very difficult to attach talent to your script and if you think it’s easy for even big production companies, it’s not. There’s probably a whole other blog on this, but there isn’t time here.
f) Insert other nebulous factor.
There are probably loads of other reasons, but that’s everything that’s come into my head right now.
I’m not sure what there is to learn from this, but it is useful to know. It doesn’t deter me and it shouldn’t deter you. It makes me want to develop more interesting ideas and find shows that are brilliant, different, and will make a mark.
As ever, good luck.
Got to go now, a Martian’s just turned up with a spec sitcom script. What are the chances?
In a recent round of replies to people who have contacted me through the site one communicant said they were planning to film an episode of their sitcom script to put on youtube. I replied to say they should think very hard before doing this and not just plough ahead and film a whole episode. That makes me sound like an awful naysayer like that teacher at school who said you’d never amount to anything. I promise that, unlike Chemistry’s Dr. Gosling, I believe in you totally. You will amount to something and I am one hundred percent confident of that. Prove the doubters wrong. Don’t listen to the haters, people. They are planning to hate but I, for one, plan to shake the fuckers right off. And so should you.
Thing is, you absolutely should film stuff when you can. But be selective and take time to make what you shoot as good as it can possibly be. The email got the numbskulls in my head doing a little dance, so I thought I should post some advice to make them stop. After all I’ve shot stuff in an attempt to sell an idea and failed massively, so why not learn from my terrible mistakes. I have also shot good ones that did sell an idea so, y’know, in yer face Dr. G.
I shot a little taster tape for a mock-documentary idea many years ago and the first fatal error was to put myself in it. Now, I am a moderately competent performer who has commanded as much as one hundred pounds sterling to perform in Warrington to an audience who seemed far more interested in their booze, their mates, or someone they’d just picked up. There was an actual real life couple snogging right next to me totally oblivious to the musical comedy truth bombs I was dropping. I am that good. But I can’t act. The tape also featured the very talented Michael Spicer who can act. That was a good decision, but we still didn’t get the thing on television.
Anyhow, thanks for your sympathy, but let’s give you a few pointers picked up from years of flinging shit at commissioners to see what sticks. (Tip – never fling actual shit at them, no matter how much of a knob you think they are, it may stick, but it is unlikely to get you a commission.)
1) Why do you want to film your script? It’s worth asking yourself this because it should inform what you do. Do you want to film a whole episode just so you can show people you’ve done it or do you want to sell your idea and help it progress and maybe get it on television? I’ve touched on this before in a blog about how a show gets made. I’ve seen really good examples where film and television students have shot a whole series but, while that’s still a huge achievement, they’ve had the time and resources to do it and its contributed to their studies. I’ve seen many examples where people have just shot too much.
2) Is your script good enough? Every comedy starts with a script or at the very least ideas that have been written down that will hopefully create laughs. So if you find that people haven’t taken an interest in the script so far then maybe it needs work. Even if people have said it’s brilliant, it can still be improved. I recently read a blog by Dave Cohen about Paul Abbott’s approach to scripts saying he redrafts at least 15 times. Abbott’s phenomenally talented and he does that? The two might be connected. I’ve written something recently with a co-writer and I think we’ve rewritten it that many times and guess what, it’s probably the best script I’ve delivered.
3) What should I film? Obviously, everything I say should be taken with a pinch of artisan rock salt. But if you have a thirty minute sitcom script that you want to bring to life it’s probably a good idea to focus on a few scenes involving your key characters. Or take your episode and create a short (5-10 minute max) taster that conveys the characters and a key story or two from your episode. Generally speaking, short form content works best online and if you’re sending something to get interest from a production company or commissioning editor then they don’t need to see a whole episode. Part of the process of getting other people on board is that those people usually want to feel like they are involved in the project. And that doesn’t have to be prostratenegative, especially if they are showering you with riches or at least chucking a few pennies in the hat that lies prostrate before you.
4) How should I film it? For comedy the most important thing is the content, so focus on your script, your cast and the direction (more below). It’s so much cheaper and easier to film great looking shots now, so try to match up to that if you can as it’s always nice to see pretty pictures, but it’s frustrating to see beautiful camera work when there’s a lack of content or if the style has overtaken the gag.
5) Who should I cast? Not your best mate or your mum because there’s no one else available. Unless your best mate is Steve Coogan or your mum is Jessica Hynes. And not yourself unless you are Steve Coogan or Jessica Hynes. Obviously, you are most likely to be asking people for favours, but people tend to do favours for people they like whose work they like. So, if your script is good and you are not a bell end then you have a chance. That’s another reason for keeping it short. If it just means a few hours or a day rather than a week shooting a whole episode with no pay and Tesco value crisps for catering then, again, it’s a bit more appealing. One of the skills in making comedy is casting and it is an incredibly hard thing to get right. Everyone has an opinion and it’s rare that everyone agrees, but if you cast actors who don’t feel right for the part or who don’t make your wonderfully crafted lines zing then you’re up against it from the start.
6) How do I direct it? I’m no expert, but I’ve worked with some top comedy directors and I’ve directed some small things myself with big crews, small crews or just me and a camera. There are probably very long essays out there about directing comedy by people with far more knowledge than me, but for what it’s worth….
a) Plan it meticulously but be flexible on the day because it’s a shoot so things will inevitably go tits up to some degree. And by planning I mean your shot list and blocking. At least have an idea of what shots you need and what your actors are going to do physically alongside opening their mouths to bring your masterpiece to life. And if you’re producing the shoot too then make sure everyone knows where they need to be and let them know what’s going on. If things are taking longer than you expected and some actors are hanging around then take a minute to let them know otherwise it’s like being on a train that you sense is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is massively delayed but no one on the tannoy has told you what the hell’s happening and if they don’t soon you really are going to have stern words with the train manager.
b) Rehearse beforehand if you can. Having a chance to hear your actors read the script will help and you’ll want to do a rewrite, so give yourself a bit of time between any rehearsal and shoot.
c) Be nice and be confident. Directing is hard, but you don’t have to shout and be a dick. Do shout if you need everyone in a wide area to hear what you’re saying, but shout politely. And direct the shout up and over the crowd and not right in someone else’s face. Like you’re lobbing a ball underarm for someone to make an easy catch rather than chucking it at them like an over sugared child with a snowball.
7) What do I cut out? Everything that doesn’t quite feel like it’s working brilliantly. At this stage you are selling yourself and your idea, so you’re not constrained by episode timings. Two minutes of brilliantly funny material is better than a half hour peppered with an occasional lightening of the mood.
8) What do I do now I’ve finished it? Show it off. Get the best version you can on youtube or vimeo, publicly if you want people telling you that you should probably have been shot at birth, privately if you’d rather avoid the hell that is people on the internet. Politely email it to any contacts you have or can find. Similar rules apply to sending out scripts, which I’ve written about here.
That’s enough for now. Good luck with it. And wish me luck too. I’m about to film my dark, heartwarming, high concept, low budget, found footage, political, romantic, zombie, slasher tragicomedy about the Labour party leadership contest. Not sure I can make it funnier or more appalling than the real thing and I’ll struggle to find as many emotionless beings stumbling around randomly attacking things. Ah well.
Quite a few people have been in touch recently asking for advice, a shin up over the Great Wall of Media. They’re all shouting for help and the honest truth is, to use the highly effective language of Ed Milliband when interviewed by Russell Brand, it ain’t gonna happen right away. Most of these are requests for information on where to send a script or asking if they can send me their idea.
I do aim to respond and I write this blog to offer advice and succour to people trying to get on in the media, whether you want to be a producer, director or writer. Or maybe you haven’t worked that out yet and that’s fine too, I’m not sure I have. It’s also a useful exercise in writing for me – it’s not totally altruistic. I’ve got to bring home the bacon, eggs and quinoa. Luckily there’s a NISA shop just a few yards away and their Heritage branded goods are excellent value plus my trip is 100% carbon neutral.
In spite of the wealth of information on this internet it can sometimes seem impossible to find simple things like contact details. Where can I get the email of that one producer who will turn my script into a BAFTA winning series that will be remade in the US followed by a film spin off of that makes me millions? It can be tricky, I mean I’ve never found that person, so if you do can you drop me a line with their email and mobile number?
Production companies don’t make it easy because if they did they’d be flooded with scripts they don’t have time to read. Some have info addresses and if you send your script to that then it may get looked at, but probably won’t. The best approach is to look at the companies who make shows you like, look at the credits, find the names of producers of shows you like. And if you can’t find an email then you could send them a hard copy – I know, old school – but I’ve recently had scripts sent to me with a letter saying how much they like shows I’ve been involved in and asking if I would look at their script. And I have, because I think, ‘Oh, that’s nice, they’ve made an effort so I’ll do the decent thing and read it.’
That’s why it’s so important to think about your approach. Find people who might be receptive to the kind of show you are hoping to make, flatter them a bit and send them a short email or letter along with your treatment and script. There’s a lot more detail on that here. Some people have contacted me and just asked, ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea where do I send it?’ or ‘Can you help me get my show made?’ whereas others have contacted me thus, ‘Dear Matt, Thanks for your informative and witty blog posts, I have read every single one of them from top to bottom’ and then introduce their request. Now, I try to reply to people who contact me, but which do you think I am more inclined to help? It just makes sense and it’s exactly what I do when I’m trying to sell shows up the chain.
There’s some useful info in another post of mine with some links. And, as ever, there is some very useful advice from James Cary and his Sitcom Geek blog. You should read his posts after you’ve read every single one of mine from top to bottom. No skimming, I know exactly how long you’ve been on the site, I see the stats.