What is it about films that attracted you to the industry, specifically screenwriting?
I’ve always loved the cinema, and I’ve always loved writing. It just took me a while to realise that I could combine the two. Screenwriting is a very different skill from other forms of writing – one that’s arguably undervalued by the majority of the people who enjoy the ‘end product’ – but I find it a fascinating and fulfilling craft. It’s so often about subtext, about what’s not said; that’s the key I think.
What sort of training have you had?
Even outside college / university, there are so many screenwriting courses now that you could probably spend 365 days a year sitting in lecture halls trying to soak up the wisdom. Not to say these courses are without value, but I’d argue that you learn more in the process of completing one full script than any number of “gurus” can teach you. Especially if you don’t touch it for a month after finishing and come back to it with fresh eyes. It’s all about re-writing. And re-writing. And re-writing.
What are the challenges of working on a big soap like Holby City?
I think first of all you have to understand that a show like Holby is its own brand. It has its core of dedicated followers, it has a plethora of long-standing, much-loved characters, and if you’ve got any sense you won’t go in trying to turn it into something it’s not. There’s unquestionably a Holby ‘style’. So really it’s about trying to be fresh and witty and original within a clearly defined framework. I think you can tell when Holby writers really love their characters – the warmth shines through. Also, writing for Holby is about being able to deliver what are often significant changes under time pressure. The team there are so smart and talented that the process is fun rather than terrifying; most of them will be running the television industry in ten years.
How does writing television differ from feature films?
The immediacy of television is a key difference. Personally I love that side of it; being subjected to tight deadlines often brings out the best in me. And of course your stuff gets made. Never underestimate this. It’s all very well having written your so-jaw-droppingly-good-that- everyone-who-reads-it-says-it’s-going-to-change-the-world feature script, but unless it actually gets made, there’s no amount of world-changing going to happen. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write it, because with luck one day someone will make it, and if it’s a success then everyone will want you to write the same thing over and over again in different guises. Which is why, for up and coming writers, it’s so important to just write. Write as many scripts as you can, in as many different genres as you like. As long as you’re passionate about them, there’s no reason why they can’t all be great, and along the way you’ll learn where your strengths lie. And then when your first script gets made, you can fight with every fibre of your being to get the others made instead of a derivation of the first.
You recently signed on for Series 2 of Ripper Street. How did you get involved with that?
The easy answer is: they loved my feature film script and liked what I had to say when I met them. Chemistry is very important – you have to get along with people who you’re going to be working with intensively for a few months. And it probably helped that I love the show – I think it’s one of the best things on TV at the moment.
The longer answer is probably a lot more complex and boring! They may not have hired me if I hadn’t come through back to back Holby commissions and lived to tell the tale; even if they never saw the episodes or read the scripts this told them I was easy to work with. I hadn’t been fired, or inexplicably buggered off to Azerbaijan midway through the process. And I might not have got the Holby commissions if I hadn’t won a couple of writing contests (not that these were related but they’re a great ‘hook’ for your agent to send out an email and push your name to the forefront of people’s minds). And I might not have got an agent if I didn’t get a brilliant young American producer attached to my feature script. Who knows. What seems like luck is often the result of months of hard grind, networking and honing of your skills.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. How many hours a day do you write? How important is research to you?
In terms of a daily routine, I’m lucky in that I’m very disciplined. I’ll be at my desk by 9am and work through till 6pm. When it comes to the actual writing stage of the process, I find I can only produce maybe 4 hours of really good, focused work in a day, so I try to break my schedule up into sections of researching, networking / housekeeping, and writing. Except when I’m writing for something like Holby – then it’s pretty much writing, writing and more writing! As far as research goes, I confess I’m a bit of a research junkie; I love it. Research is the cement that holds your story structure together. Talent is what gives it the wow factor. Often when I’m struggling with a scene or story beat I realise it’s because I haven’t done enough research, so it’s a great cure for writer’s block too.
You were Head of Development at Really Useful Films. What inspired you to make the transition to full-time writing?
I wrote my first screenplay whilst at Really Useful Films – an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful book The Butterfly Lion which we had optioned. I enjoyed writing it so much that I knew I wanted to be a full-time writer.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I have a portfolio of about a dozen or so different ideas and treatments, from features to TV, from serials to series. This is the other thing to keep working on in the gaps between paid jobs: a range of brilliant and original ideas (as well as your pitching skills to sell them when the time comes!)
Do you have any advice for budding screenwriters?
Wanting to be a writer is the easy part. The hard part is making it work. I’m lucky enough to have a partner who believes in me and whose patience withstood the sleepless nights worrying about how the mortgage would be paid. It’s a long game, trying to be a writer. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight. Being a successful writer is probably about five things: talent, contacts, discipline, timing and luck. If you nurture the first three, the last two will take care of themselves. Don’t imagine for one second that you can get by with just talent. You might hate networking, but if you put the effort in, the rewards will come eventually. And if I’ve made it sound like a career in writing is tougher than you might think, remember this too: the rewards are worth it. It’s the greatest job in the world.
To find out more about Jamie’s work, check out the links below.