I had good fun being interviewed by Lee Middleton on the Cover to Cover podcast this week. We talk Star Wars, the Bestseller Experiment, Back to Reality and my thwarted dream to become a firefighter. It’s a fab show for readers and writers alike. Click to listen… https://m.mixcloud.com/Studio5OnAir/cover-to-cover-episode-12/
Thanks to my Odeon Limitless card, I’ve seen more movies than ever before in the last twelve months, but I still haven’t got around to seeing this…
And there’s a very specific reason for that. I just can’t bring myself to see it. To do so would be like revisiting a very bad toothache. Let’s go back to my diary entries for ten years ago today, when I had a meeting with Dean Fisher, who was producing Waiting For Eddie, which I hoped would be my debut film (it wasn’t)…
Monday 8th January, 2007
Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.
Tuesday 9th January, 2007
I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.
Wednesday 10th January, 2007
Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…
The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…
Wednesday 8th September, 2010
Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.
You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something made.
The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.
Seriously, try it.
Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.
Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.
This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.
So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.
I was at the London Screenwriters’ Festival last weekend, and it was delightful to meet so many writers, young and old, starting out on their writing careers. Their optimism, energy and determination
made me feel very old invigorated me… and they reminded me of myself ten years ago. My script, Waiting For Eddie, had a producer in Dean Fisher, a director in Jon Wright, and we were waiting for news on our submission to London Film’s inaugural Microwave film scheme…
Wednesday 6th September, 2006
A most excellent day. Dean called to confirm that we’re through to the final stage of the Microwave scheme! A week of intensive script development awaits me in October and, with any luck, we’ll start production.
Told my agent and she was very excited. She also let slip that Working Title have agreed to read The Last Time Machine – they’ll reject it, of course, but it’ll be interesting to hear what they say.
I also bought my Apple MacBook today. It’s gorgeous, though I’ve spent most of the evening trying to figure out how it works.
Before you go rushing off to IMDb, I should warn you that (spoiler alert) neither Waiting For Eddie or The Last Time Machine were made into films, so all that talk of ‘Going into production’ was fuelled by the same kind of optimism, energy and determination those new writers had at the London SWF. Okay, you might call it hopeless naivety, and some days that’s all you’ve got, but when someone else shows interest in your work I would encourage every writer to enjoy and revel in the moment… then put it aside and get on with writing the next thing. Because, even if it your script is picked up and made into a movie, they’ll want something new right away, and if they don’t, you’ll need something new for the next round of
crashing disappointments submissions.
**Even less true.
Summer 2006 suddenly went very quiet on the writing diary front. Producer Dean Fisher was pitching my script Waiting For Eddie around town, and then everyone goes on holiday in August. These are always worrying times for a writer. The phone stops ringing, emails don’t ping in your inbox, and you begin to wonder if all the enthusiasm for your project has just evaporated… Then summer ended and it all started kicking off again. September 2006 began with a fortuitous meeting with someone who was to change the course of my writing career, film director Jon Wright…
Friday, 1st September, 2006
I jumped on a train to London for the really important meeting of the week. Dean, Jon Wright and I headed off to a meeting with Film London (to pitch Waiting For Eddie for the first ever Microwave Scheme).
Jon and I hit it off immediately. Quite literally: we bumped heads as we both sat down. Jon had some notes on the script, which were excellent. He definitely gets the script and it’s hugely gratifying to hear someone enthuse about it who will hopefully be in a position to make it a reality.
The Film London meeting went really well. Both Maggie Ellis and Sol Gatti-Pascual were friendly and encouraging and I have to say that Dean, Jon and I certainly held our own (I was a bag of nerves). I got the feeling that Sol really wants to work with Jon, so this could definitely work in our favour. We’ll hear if we get through to the next stage on Tuesday, but both Jon and Dean said they wouldn’t be despondent if we didn’t get through as they’re confident we can raise the budget elsewhere.
So, yes, in the kind of meet-cute you could only find on the corniest romcom, Jon and I met by head-butting each other. To put it in some kind of context, he was the first proper film director that I had ever had a meeting with, and I started by giving him a Glasgow Kiss. For a second I seriously thought I had completely ruined any chance I ever had of working in film ever, but fortunately he laughed it off and we got down to business.
The real boost was getting his very insightful and thoughtful notes. Like I said, he really understood the tone of my warped ghost story and it became clear that we shared many sensibilities, which would definitely pay off in the future, as he would eventually become Obi-Wan to my… Jar Jar…? Stay tuned for more…
One of the most fascinating things about looking back at an old diary is the sheer tonnage of stuff that I would otherwise have completely forgotten: people I’ve met, places I’ve been, and ideas for stories that never got beyond the scribble-on-a-scrap-of-paper stage. Some turn out to be complete duffers, but some still linger, and that includes an idea for a story that occurred to me exactly ten years ago today.
It started with an exercise where I jotted down various movie sub-genres on a page and drew random lines between them. The world isn’t quite ready for my superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musical, but there might be something in a Western Ghost Story…
Friday 23rd June, 2006
I’ve been scribbling ideas down for a Western Ghost story. I’ve talked to Steve, who can’t recall seeing that combination before, and he knows more about westerns than anyone I know. I sent him an email asking if he wants to work on this one with me.
Spent most of the afternoon researching ghost towns on the net. Got some great stuff, including the story of Henry Plummer. History still hasn’t decided if he was a fine, upstanding lawman or the worst kind of lowlife, but he was once the sheriff of Bannack, Montana, most of which is still standing, even though it’s totally deserted. How does a town get like that?
Monday 26th June, 2006
Did some work on the Western Ghost Story. Synopsis coming along nicely.
Wednesday 28th June, 2006
Found plenty of time to finish the Western Ghost Story synopsis, which Steve likes, so hopefully we can work on it together.
Thursday 29th June, 2006
Steve’s given me Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy to read. He says I’ll find inspiration in its pages.
I did indeed. Lordy, that’s one hell of a book. Relentless and truly shocking.
The Western Ghost Story idea became something called The Ghost of Little Shiloh, which never really got beyond the treatment stage. One reason is that my friend Steve Mayhew started his doctorate in John Ford movies and that combined with a full-time job didn’t give him much spare time to write. And, as you’ll see in future diary entries, I was about to become quite busy myself.
But I still have a folder on my laptop labelled ‘Western’ (it was last modified 17th September, 2006), and every now and then the idea gives me a nudge and wonders why I don’t call anymore, and I entertain the notion. However, the sad truth is I’ve learned a lot about the business in the last ten years, and no one’s looking for original Western ghost stories these days (or superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musicals). Plus, Doctor Steve’s busy with his own books and sharing his substantial knowledge with the world. But you never know… old story ideas never die, but they might just become ghosts.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and cursed/blessed with a vivid imagination, you might get a bit carried away when fantasising about that first ever professional payment. Would it be for a life-changing sum of money? A million dollar deal that meant you could finally say sayonara to the day job and pursue your dream full time? Or would it be for about £82.73 (less tax) and take forever to arrive? Guess which one happened to me!
My script Waiting For Eddie had been optioned by a producer back in November 2005. The producer paid promptly, but whenever I asked my agent about the money I only ever got vague replies. Things were complicated by the fact that I had two agents: one for film and a literary agent. The film agent did the deal, but all the money went through the lit agent. I found a handful of mentions of it in my 2006 diaries, and I’m clearly getting a bit fed-up at this point…
Tuesday 18th April, 2006
Script agent emailed me to day and told me that the Literary Agent has had my Waiting For Eddie option money since November… It’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.
Then, over a month later…
Tuesday 23rd May, 2006
I got another rejection today… Oh, and they (Literary Agent) found my cheque. It was at the bottom of an in-tray… I should get it tomorrow.
Thursday 25th May, 2006
The cheque arrived today. My first money earned from writing. I suppose I can call myself a writer now… £82.73. I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job just yet.
Nearly six months from option to pay! Believe me, that would not happen now. I’d be on the phone with an earful of righteous indignation for someone in less than 48 hours. When you’re starting out, it’s not uncommon to be coy about getting paid, but never forget that what you do as a writer has a value. No one would be on that set if not for you and your ideas. Forget any bullshit about getting exposure, or publicity value, or an opportunity to “get on the ladder”. You have worked your butt off producing a work, and if they want to make it, they have to pay you, and pay you the going rate. If they can’t afford to pay you, then they shouldn’t be in business. No other industry puts up with this crap – try asking a baker to make you some bread for free – and yet it still goes on today: see the recent scandal over Sainsbury’s attempt to get an artist to work for free.
And just put yourself in the producer’s shoes for a minute. They have a slate of projects, including your script, which they optioned for free, and another script which they paid money for. Which one do you think will be their priority? They have to make a return on their investment, and producers hate losing money, so your little freebie won’t be getting to the top of their pile anytime soon. It’s all about being valued. Make sure you are.
I’ll leave the last word to the wonderful Harlan Ellison. This video has been doing the rounds for a few years now and it’s one of my favourites (and yes, I’m aware of the irony that, this being YouTube, Mr. Ellison probably doesn’t see a penny from this), but he sums it up better than I ever could…
By the way, I still have a day job, so clearly need to work harder at this payment malarkey myself.
I had not one but two agents at this very early stage of my writing career (that word still makes me look over my shoulder to check that no one’s sniggering at me). I met my first literary agent at a networking event at Waterstone’s Piccadilly called ‘The Film World Meets The Book World’ (I think). I can’t remember how I heard about it, but I knew that I had to go as there would be agents and film producers and people who would surely see my colossal writing genius for what it was and insist on flying me out to Hollywood to introduce me to Mr. Spielberg that very weekend… I’m nothing if not optimistic.
Like many British people I can find it difficult just introducing myself to strangers for no reason other than personal gain (or “networking” as it’s known) and like many aspiring writers I found it borderline fraudulent to introduce myself as a writer at a time when I’d only written and staged a handful of plays. But one of the most important lessons I had learned from my failed career as an actor is that no one will knock on your front door and ask if you fancy a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company… You have to go to them and let them know that you’re good and what you do could be of value to them.
And so I walked into a crowded room where everyone seemed to know each other and I knew no one.
Eventually, and I have no real recollection how, I found myself talking to a very nice lady who ran a well-established literary agency, primarily for children’s books. I had no real desire to be a children’s author (at the time), but happily chatted with her and pitched my first play to her, which had a teen protagonist. She thought it would make an excellent children’s book and asked to read it. She was also intrigued that I worked in publishing and we discovered that we had a few mutual friends. I made it very clear that I wanted to be a screenwriter first and foremost and she said that was fine and that she would hook me up with a film agent, too.
Which is how I ended up with two agents. This all came together in the autumn of 2003, so I had been with them both for a couple of years at this point and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pursue the children’s author career. I had written a couple of books that got some very nice rejections from publishers, and the pleasant lady who ran the agency had since passed me on to one of her junior associates. To be honest, the junior associate and I did not get on. She pulled strange faces when talking about my work, and seemed to treat me like a nuisance if I ever got in touch.
The film agent, however, was terrific. She was very encouraging and wanted to get me work and I was kicking myself for faffing about with the books for so long, and so in 2006 I made sure I would have a spec script for her to show around town. Few spec scripts sell, so I was determined not to worry about budget or anything that might seem small or too kitchen-sink-British. I wanted to write a commercial Hollywood movie that would get me noticed by commercial Hollywood people, and I came up with an idea called The Last Time Machine, which was epic stuff with time travel, dinosaurs, Roman Legions, the Luftwaffe and the end of the known universe (I write more about this project and how it was doomed here).
By May 2006 I had finished a polished draft (written in Microsoft Word, hence my note that it needed formatting!), my script agent had read it, and we were set to meet for lunch on the Monday, and here are my diary entries for that time:
Sunday 14th May, 2006
Had a quick read-through of The Last Time Machine script in prep for tomorrow’s meeting. Made a few minor notations. I’m proud of it, just a shame it’ll never get made.
Monday 15th May, 2006
Had lunch with my agent today. She loved ‘The Last Time Machine’ and has a whole list of people she’s going to send it to. I just need to format it finally and she’ll send it off. She said a very nice thing: she’d wondered if she’d been having too good a day when she read LTM because she had so few notes. She really couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I explained that this was my first truly original script without the baggage of having previously been a play. We talked about other movies I could write – she’d love to see me write a horror movie – and my career. I asked about the teams that write for the likes of Spooks and Hustle. She’d rather establish me as a feature film writer first (her words – there’s something a little bit unreal about all this… at least until I earn some money from it or see my name on the big screen).
I wasn’t so aware of it back then, but she was doing the things that a good agent should aways do: she was encouraging, she was critical, but in a positive way, and she was talking about my future and the direction of my career. The horror movie thing is interesting, as horror features are often the best way for a commercial writer to get a film made: they can be produced for a low budget and can be very profitable, thus giving your career a great start. The very next thing I wrote was a horror film and it very nearly got made, introduced me to some very influential folk, and definitely took me up a notch.
The junior associate literary agent also had some ideas about my career, but they didn’t tally with the direction I wanted to go in and so it was an uncomfortable relationship. Like dating someone you know isn’t right for you, but you’re so desperate to cling on to a girlfriend/boyfriend that you’ll put up with the unhappiness, but we all know that can never end well. If you’re dreading an email or a phone call from your agent then something is seriously wrong.
I stayed with the literary agent until they eventually dropped me in 2010, but it became an increasingly distant relationship. I wanted to make films, and 2006 would be the year where this once-fantastic dream very nearly became a reality…
I saw Florence Foster Jenkins last night, a fine and enjoyable film based on the true story of a socialite who sang opera in New York in the ’40s, eventually playing Carnegie Hall, despite the fact that she had something of a tin ear…
It also reminded me of the incredibly twisted film Windy City Heat, which Jon Wright gleefully introduced me to while we were in pre-production on Robot Overlords. This faux-documentary is an elaborate prank whereby Bobcat Goldthwait and friends fool comedian and wannabe actor Perry Caravello into thinking that he has the lead role in a crime drama called Windy City Heat and they do everything they can to sabotage his dream…
Intriguingly, even after she had heard herself sing on a record, Jenkins still couldn’t discern that there was a problem with her singing, and Perry doesn’t think that he’s a bad actor. And what’s really fascinating is that both of them have just enough talent, the tiniest sliver of ability, to make them think that they can actually achieve their ambitious dreams.
Making Robot Overlords was a dream come true. A British science fiction family epic, with huge stars, a great cast, a decent budget, and a fantastic crew. But I have to confess that while watching Windy City Heat there came a point where I wondered if this was Jon’s way of breaking it to me that the whole project was an elaborate prank, that it really was too good to be true… Thankfully, it wasn’t, and I’m an idiot to think so, but that was just me entertaining the poisonous friend of artist’s everywhere: paranoia.
I’ve yet to meet an artist or creative type who hasn’t feel like a fraud at some point, usually when the rejections, failures and doubts feed the paranoia to a degree where they think they’re a talentless hack. I get it on a regular basis.
Paranoia’s evil twin is delusion. ‘I can do that!’ is my default answer to any challenge, but there comes a time when confidence becomes hubris and you fall flat on your face.
Both can be crippling if you surrender to them, but I encounter them so often now that I think I can cope with both their peaks and troughs, and I’ve found the best way to do this is to use them as creative fuel:
Hubris and delusion are great when I’m faced with a challenge. Can I write this pitch/script/book/comic? Hell, yeah! I can do anything! I hitch a ride on that boost of confidence and get it all on the page and screw the consequences.
Paranoia and self-doubt are useful when it comes to editing. That awesome piece of work I did yesterday? Dear God, it’s a piece of crap. You’re hopeless. Do better! Instead of wallowing in pity, I try and use the critical faculties of paranoia to improve what’s already on the page.
I try to step back and see my work as objectively as possible, but it’s simply impossible to be certain, and I’ve had strangers tell me that they love my work, and I’ve had two-star reviews where they found it dull. Who can ever really know?
But, like Florence and Perry, I enjoy what I do. I write every single day and I love it. Florence sums it up perfectly, ‘People may say I can’t sing,’ she said, ‘but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’
My day job is with the wonderful Orion Publishing Group in the sales department. I’ve been there since 2003 and through work have met some remarkable people. Indeed one of the reasons I started keeping a diary was because with my feeble mind for names I was losing track of some of them and it’s always handy to look back and double check.
I’m always meeting authors and agents, but ten years ago it was fairly unusual for me to meet anyone from the film world, and I’m afraid that when a film or TV producer entered the building it would take every ounce of what little professionalism I had to stop myself from pouncing on them, yelling “READ MY SCRIPT! GIVE ME MONEY! I WANT TO MAKE STAR WARS!”
However, as you’ll see, on this occasion I had an in: I knew someone who knew these people… My friend Simon worked as an editor in the same building as them… once… ages ago… Well, it was better than nothing.
Thursday 27th April, 2006
Ian Sharples and Rod Brown, the producers of the forthcoming TV version of THE HOGFATHER came in today. Their director is Vadim Jean and they all remember working in the same building as Simon in Wandsworth (I should point out that Vadim wasn’t there today – he was asleep after a night shoot). They remembered Simon fondly. I had to mention my near-miss with Vadim many years ago. I suppose I was 17 (just after he released LEON THE PIG FARMER). Simon gave me Vadim’s details and I sent him my CV begging for work as only an actor can… and Vadim called me back!
Except I was out.
Dad took the call, and the number, and for some idiotic reason I never called Vadim back.
Still, I got both Ian and Rod’s details and gave my script THE LAST TIME MACHINE a hearty plug!
The idiotic reason for not calling Vadim…? Shyness? Lack of confidence? A feeling that I wasn’t ready? God knows. I wouldn’t hesitate today. And having had a few writers ask me for advice (me?? Yes, really) I’ve been only too happy to dole out what guidance I can, and I’m sure Vadim would have too.
If you’re an aspiring writer and you have questions and you find yourself offered an opportunity to ask for advice, take it! Be polite, don’t outstay your welcome, but don’t be frightened. And if you meet producers or directors and have something to pitch, then choose your moment carefully. There’s nothing worse than some writer derailing a conversation with an ill-timed pitch (like I did here). Ask for the best way to get in touch, or if it’s possible to get a meeting. That way everyone can relax and you get to pitch to someone who’s receptive to your ideas, and not defensive like cornered prey.
I do meet Vadim again one day, but that comes in a future instalment of this diary…
I’m delighted to be part of the inaugural Epsom & Ewell Arts Festival this June! There are oodles of activities to choose from including music, art and literature.
I’ll be running a couple of screenwriting workshops. One for children, one for adults.
First up for the kids…
THE HERO’S JOURNEY – YOUNG SCREENWRITERS’ WORKSHOP
Author and screenwriter Mark Stay
Join professional screenwriter Mark Stay for a fun workshop where we’ll look at the ‘Hero’s Journey’, how one page of script becomes a finished scene, and we’ll create our own story using ideas and methods explored during the session. .
Mark Stay wrote the screenplay for the film Robot Overlords, released in 2014, starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley.
Robot Overlords is set in a world where Earth has been invaded by an occupying force of robots from another world. Every citizen has an implant in their neck that alerts the robots if you step outside. You get one warning… then you’re vaporised!
Suitable for ages 10-12.
Epsom Library, Learning Centre.
Mark will be signing copies of his original novel Robot Overlords after the event.
‘FROM PAGE TO SCREEN’
Screenwriter Mark Stay
Join professional screenwriter Mark Stay for a scriptwriting workshop and fascinating insider look at the development of a screenplay. Discover how one page of a screenplay becomes a finished film via storyboards, rehearsal, pre-viz, shooting, VFX, scoring through to the final scene.
Mark Stay wrote the screenplay for the film Robot Overlords, released in 2014, starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley.
Suitable for ages 13+.
Mark will be signing copies of his original novel Robot Overlords after the event.