This week an interview with screenwriter MELISSA BUBNIC.
Melissa was on the 2011 Channel 4 screenwriting course. Originally from Australia, her background is in theatre writing – she got onto the C4 course with a wonderful stageplay Stop. Rewind; and she has gone from strength to strength since the C4 course -
When did you start writing? What started you writing? What were your initial inspirations?
I decided to be a writer when I was 8. I’ve always loved the power of stories to take you into a completely different world and care about people you’ve never even met. My favourite kind of stories are those that make you laugh, rip out your heart, and leave you elated and heartbroken and warm and sad all at the same time.
Did you start off initially as a playwright? How did you get into screenwriting? Do you have a preference for one medium over the other? If so, why?
I did a course at uni where I wrote, directed and produced my first play. I was hooked. I loved it. It was amazing to me that I could create a world and characters, get my mates to act in it, put it on a stage with three chairs, and people came and saw and liked it. Participating in the Channel 4 Screenwriting Programme was my first real attempt to write for television. I love television and film and want to make a career in this industry, but you can do quite amazing things on stage and go really out there to bizarre strange places and when theatre works, it’s amazing.
What would you say are the differences for a writer from Melbourne to London?
There are more opportunities here, and much more to see and experience. The London theatre scene is probably 9 times larger than the whole Australian theatre scene. There are no programmes like the Channel 4 Screenwriting programme. I had been desperate to get into TV writing in Australia and couldn’t find my way in at all.
Please can you tell us something about the course you did at Goldsmiths, how you got onto it, what you got from it, how useful it was?
I felt my career was stagnating in Australia. I was working the same admin job trying to motivate myself and feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I looked intodoing a course overseas where I could get a scholarship. UK-based friends told me that Goldsmiths was a great course, I got a scholarship, and that was that. I loved the course. It was wonderful to focus on writing for a year, constructing stories, analysing what works, arguing over what doesn’t. It was an opportunity to create characters and stories that have had a longer life than just the course.
Please can you tell us about the script that got you onto the C4 course. And can you tell us about what the C4 course involves, what it did for you?
The script that I submitted for the C4 course was Stop. Rewind. It was a play that was commissioned by a Melbourne-based theatre company and had a very successful season there, and is now about to be published and tour Australia. The play is a comedy about a group of co-workers who are forced to examine what it is they really want, and what they are prepared to do to get it.
The C4 course involves two weekends – one weekend to kickstart the programme, the final weekend to celebrate the work created and discuss next steps. During those weekends, writers are paired with a couple of script editors and need to develop a concept for an original TV drama series or serial, and write the first episode.
With the support of my script editors, I developed an original concept and pilot script for a series. The spec script has opened many doors. First, it got me meetings with several TV production companies, an option agreement with Clerkenwell Films, and a shadow writer place on TV show Shameless.
How did you get an agent in the UK? Do you have any tips for writers looking for a literary agent?
I had met my literary agent, Lily Williams from Curtis Brown, when she came and addressed a group of us at Goldsmiths (I’m represented by Lily Williams, Ben Hall and Jessica Coleman from Curtis Brown). I followed up after the course and sent her my work. My tips are to research various agencies and get a feel of who you would like to be represented by. Which writers do you respect and who are their agents? Don’t feel deflated if they never get back to you! Agents are very busy and have multiple priorities. Have work that you are proud of and send it to them. And have more than one script. The first question I was asked after Lily read my first script was send us more. Your agent needs to know that you are serious about a career in writing if they’re going to take you on.
How useful is it to have an agent? What do you expect from your agent? What does your agent do for you?
It is very useful to have an agent. The meetings I’ve had with production companies have all been brokered by my agent. And every time I meet with someone in the industry, they seem to take me more seriously when I say I’m with Curtis Brown. But having an agent doesn’t mean you can take it easy. I still have to be proactive – no one is going to care more about your career than you. I pursue all opportunities. I expect my agent to have my best interests at heart, to be a sounding board and give me advice, and to do their best to help me establish a career.
Did being on the C4 course have a positive impact for you as a writer?
Most definitely. Without the support of script editors, and the panic of a deadline, I doubt I ever would’ve created a spec script. That script has been the door to many other opportunities. Also, it put me into contact with other great people who’ve also provided invaluable advice and contacts (and friendship too).
What work have you been doing since the C4 course?
The script I created for the C4 course was optioned by Clerkenwell Films. We’ve been commissioned by Channel 4 to develop the concept further. I’ve finished writing a sitcom. I’ve been commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company to write an adaptation for performance later this year. And I’ve just been appointed as a shadow writer on TV show Shameless.
What work do you want to do in the future? Do you see your future as playwright, screenwriter or both?
My dream is to create my own TV series. I love TV. Of all cultural media, TV is the one that I use the most and have always done. But I love theatre too and I think some ideas just work better in plays than in films or TV.
What tips do you have for new screenwriters without a credit trying to break into the industry?
It’s really, really hard. But don’t be discouraged. If you want to do this, you can. Some tips… You need to write. You need to create scripts. You can’t get an agent, or a meeting, or anything if you don’t have a body of work behind you. You also need to be proactive. Seek out opportunities, take chances. And I’ve found it very reassuring to have a day job in admin. It’s not the most glamorous or exciting, but it’s steady pay at 3 days a week. It’s something I can count on. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of a starving artist. Starving sucks. And I don’t feel creative when I’m stressed about paying the rent. If you have other skills that can help you with an income, that’s a great thing. If you can teach, or tutor, or work in a bar, or have something that means you interact with other humans outside of the industry, that’s a good thing.
How does the screenwriting process differ from stage-writing?
The biggest difference I noticed is that in screenwriting, you need to know everything that happens before it happens. That’s a treatment. I’m very poor at plot. I like dialogue and characters and have always found the ‘But what happens?’ question very hard to answer. In TV, things have to happen or an audience won’t stay with you. It’s required me to think differently about creating stories, and hopefully will instil a little discipline that will benefit me in both screen and stage.
How do you respond to the whole process of responding to notes, getting notes on your scripts?
I’m always hungry to be better so find it really helpful when someone gives me some clues on how to achieve that. At the same time, people can give notes that aren’t helpful (ie. you walk away unclear of how to improve things.) I have a couple of ‘go-to’ people whose opinion I value but more importantly, I know that they can give me notes in a way that makes sense to me, so I walk away feeling empowered because I know what to do next.
Do you have tips for writers for the process of writing, and for generating new ideas?
I’m sure almost all writers already do this but I believe in writing down your thoughts, scraps of ideas, overheard dialogue etc. When I was trying to come up with ideas for the C4 course, I went through old notebooks and was struck by a couple of lines I had scrawled about a family birthday celebration a few years ago. It became the opening scene of my script.
Do you often have more than one project on the go? If so, how do you juggle projects?
Staying organised. Having a good calendar system!
Melissa – thank you so much for this – really interesting and insightful for writers trying to break into the UK film and TV industry.
Good luck to Melissa and all of you with your writing!
April 20th 2012