Cartoon Gravity No. 2
Another thrilling instalment of the newsletter.
...in which I overuse the word "process".
And so to the end of the first week of recording on ‘Who Is Aldrich Kemp?’, a drama series for BBC Radio 4 which will air in February 2022. We’ve been down in Hove in Sussex for the past few days, mostly recording in a house but with a brief sojourn to a set of tunnels underneath Brighton Pavilion, that we used as both an Albanian dungeon and a villain’s lair beneath the Ural mountains.
It’s always fun recording audio, but these sessions have been the best ever. The cast is perfect and everyone knows each other, so there’s a great atmosphere. We have a few more days this coming week, and then we’re done and into the edit.
“Who Is Aldrich Kemp?” is the most fun I’ve had as a writer in quite a long time and it’s made me very aware that I enjoy doing the slightly more stream of consciousness, off-the-wall stuff (like this and the Lovecraft Investigations) far more than when I have to adhere to the relatively rigid requirements of regular TV and film. The trick is how to apply my preferred process to a project with a ton of execs and money attached.
The irony is that I get hired because someone has read one of my own pieces, but then they immediately want me to ditch my preferred process and come up with “something just like that thing we liked” using a method that they feel more comfortable with. For writers, this is a tale as old as time but it’s endlessly frustrating and counter-productive.
I’ve been musing a lot, recently, about how screenwriters work and what is expected of us in terms of process. Because there is so much money at stake in television and film, the process has been made quite rigid in a way that often seems to choke creativity.
Going from outline to treatment to script is the process that producers are most comfortable with, and yet it is creatively stifling for most writers. The outcome is work that is not as good or original as it might have been. Is that what anyone actually wants? Since when were we in the business of making producers feel comfortable? I appreciate that they are the ones writing the cheques (or at least causing the cheques to be written), but it’s our names that go on the finished work, our reputations that suffer when that work is driven to be sub-standard by a process which works against us instead of to our benefit.
If you’re hiring a writer because you like something that they wrote, would it not be sensible to dig in to HOW they wrote it and perhaps tailor the process to best suit that individual writer’s methodology? That doesn’t seem like rocket science, and yet it hardly ever happens.
And this is why I like writing audio, because the process there is exactly the same as the one I adopt when writing the spec scripts that seem to generate all my TV and film work - I make it up as I go along and then edit afterwards. Never on an audio piece or a spec script have I started with an outline, much less a treatment. I’m working from character and I want to surprise myself with where a story might go.
In “Who Is Aldrich Kemp?”, I wrote a monologue for the lead character at the beginning of the first episode. That monologue was really just me getting her backstory clear in my mind. The idea was to write all this stuff out and then discard it once I had her voice set in my head. But then something happened in that monologue, a detail of her past which just spilled out as I was having her talk. It didn’t just become germane to the story, it BECAME the story. Everything in the last two episodes of the series hinges on those few lines.
Would I have invented that in an outline or a treatment? Maybe, but I don’t think so, because it was such a left turn for the plot. It turned so much on its head that, even if I had come up with it in an outline, a committee of producers would have got rid of it before it had a chance to find its feet.
This way of working is cumbersome and it does feel dangerous - basing a whole plot on a few lines of monologue without knowing if it will actually hold up, going back and editing and re-writing to give those plot twists some real roots etc takes time and effort. And it can’t be anticipated and it can’t be done up front.
And that is why the writer needs to be trusted - if you like the work, trust the process.
The problem is that a lot of producers operate from fear; of their bosses, of the studio, of the unknown, of their own shadows… They need some certainly, they need to be blameless; “I got this writer to do an outline and then a treatment and everyone approved everything at every step of the way, so I can no longer be held accountable for the shitshow that this became”. It’s understandable, but I think that process of assurance is flawed. Luckily, I may be edging towards a solution…
I’ve recently come up with a hybrid approach that seems to work with more enlightened, flexible (braver) producers; the Concept Document. Instead of an outline or treatment, I produce a document that discusses characters, themes, tone, whatever research I may have done etc. It deliberately shies away from discussing narrative, but it encompasses the world of the story and paints a picture of the project that allows everyone involved to feel like we’re on the same page tonally.
This is, I believe, all anyone REALLY wants to know - we’re all making the same movie, we’re all setting out on the same road with the same destination in mind. That is as much assurance as anyone can get at the early stages of development; whatever happens along the way, we all at least know where we’re heading when we set out.
A concept document can achieve that peace of mind for everyone without forcing the writer to fix the narrative at the outset. I’ve actually found it helpful, as it allows me to get into the mindset of the story and set the right tone before I start writing. Actually, I think it’s a process that I go through mentally anyway, so noting it down doesn’t seem like any kind of a hardship. And I find I refer back to that document as I’m writing the script far more often than I would ever look at a treatment.
As writers, I think we need to continually examine how we work, how the various processes benefits us (and how they hurts us) and how we can create better work more easily. In television and film, the writing process seems to have been locked down by producers and lawyers and now we need to start looking for ways to free it up. The result will be better work, happier writers, more gratified audience and, ultimately, more money in producers’ pockets.