How I got my first writing gig, became an "overnight success" only to crash back down to earth just as fast.

May 8, 2013

 

I came into the industry cold, with no contacts or experience, hadn't even studied it at university.  I was in my early 20s, broke, stuck with a student loan and useless degree before I knew I wanted to work in showbiz.  Against the wishes of my entire family (including all those far flung ones in Hong Kong), I committed myself to learning about this business of show.

 

Fast forward two years and I'd been working in film production for a while now, on independent, low budget movies, doing whatever roles I could get my hands on (for how I got my first industry job, see previous blog entry).  I wasn't sure what I wanted to be at this time but I figured it would come to me if I just kept gaining experience. The money was shit, the hours, long (on one movie I did 18 hour days, six days a week for three months) and the films would turn out so bad, they wouldn't even get a release. Sitting in the garden, reading this terrible screenplay that was about to shoot, I thought to myself: surely I can do better than this?

 

Around the same time, The West Wing was on television, and I became hooked on the characters, their stories and the writing on the show.  I couldn't afford film school or any other course but needed to learn how to write pronto, so I decided to lock myself in my room for a month and study this amazing show.   I searched around and found a few of the show's scripts online and poured over those too.  During this period, I'd heard about a writing scheme that would teach the basics and all that was needed was a short film script to enter.  I wrote one that weekend and sent it in.  I was selected for the scheme (which was free, yay!) but amazingly, everything they covered I'd already gleaned just from watching TWW.

 

My short film script came to the attention of a well known RTS and BAFTA award-winning producer who was guest lecturing there.  He liked my writing but wasn't interested in making shorts, only TV series.  He asked if I had a TV idea he could look at.  I replied yes, but wanted the weekend to tweak it and told him he'd get something the following week.  I went home that night and had a full blown panic attack - I had lied, big time.  I had no TV idea.  I had no other ideas at all, but I wasn't going to let this opportunity slide.  I spent the weekend drinking vast amounts of coffee and knocking up a drama series idea of around 8 pages, which I sent to him on the monday.  By friday, he had committed to being my producer pending his business partner's approval.

 

A week later, after my day job (I office temped in between film jobs), I met with his partner who happened to be the head of drama at a company who's name I've honestly forgotten, but I do remember it's based off Tottenham Court Road.  He liked it too.  So there I was, a complete newbie, with two known producers.  All we needed now was a broadcaster.  We went into C4, pitched the idea and shockingly, won a commission.  Just like that.  I went home, quit the temp job and celebrated my new overnight success story status.  I didn't even have an agent at this point, but I had a drama series commission and two producers.  I immediately searched online for a house to buy for my mother.

 

But then, disaster struck!  Only two months later, in the middle of my writing the pilot, the show was cancelled with no explanation.  It wasn't until years later, when I would find out why, namely that C4 were making major cuts at the time and any risky projects (especially those from newbies) were being axed.  So my overnight success story ended almost as quickly as it had began.  It was a hard crash back to Earth.

 

After licking my wounds, I was back to temping and was assigned a job... AT CHANNEL 4!  How could the universe be so cruel?  I had no choice but to take it, bills needed to be paid.  I told no one who I was and they didn't realise but that job?  Big test of my character. Huge. (Those eagle eyed among you may spot the movie quote here though I've taken a few liberties)...

 

I know this story hasn't ended particularly well, but all of this was essential to my growth and subsequent success.  In the space of five or six months, I went from complete newbie, to pitching my own show at a broadcaster, winning a commission, working with known producers, getting an agent, writing a pilot, navigating development waters and then suffering the dreaded red light.

 

The two things I want you to take away is this: if I hadn't said yes to that award-winning producer when he asked if I had a TV idea, my writing career would never have started.  Yes it's best to actually have something to back up your claim rather than outright lie like I did, but you know, we do what we can to get on.  And the other thing, if you want to write for film or television, WATCH lots of great films and shows, and READ their scripts whenever possible.  You can learn as much theory, read as many "how to" books as you like, but you'll only learn how to write like the greats by studying their work, and then doing it.

 

Tune in next time for more madness and let us know if you got the film reference! A prize will be sent to you in the post.

 

Disclaimer: That last sentence isn't actually true.

 

 

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