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Screenwriter James Moran

James Moran
Screenwriter


     
 

   
   

Name: James Moran
Title: Screenwriter
Credits Include: Severance, Cockneys vs Zombies, Tower Block, Crazy For You, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Spooks, Spooks Code 9, Primeval, Crusoe
Interview Date: August 2014

Q. Hi James, give us a little background on yourself before you became a screenwriter? (degree, relevant work experience, interests, etc)
A. I did a series of jobs that I didn't enjoy very much (admin, tech support, more admin), failed a computer studies course, passed a one year journalism course that led me to get a job working phones in the delivery department of a newspaper (but no actual journalism), and wrote lots of short stories and sketches that I mostly didn't send anywhere out of fear of rejection. I always wanted to be a writer, but didn't think it was possible to break in without connections.

Q. And how did you first get into the film industry and become script writer?
A. I won a short film competition with a ten page short film script, which got made and released in selected cinemas. That didn't get me anywhere in the industry though, just gave me a boost in confidence. I took that boost, and started applying to agencies to get represented. The first place took me on, based on a TV episode pilot I wrote, and I then spent a year writing what became Severance.

Q. You’ve written feature films, episodes of TV series, short films, virals and much more – do all these different types of production require different writing skills and approaches or are they all fairly similar? If so, why?
A. They're all the same, in that you have an idea, flesh it out, and try to tell a good story. You pick the idea that fits the length, and try to do your best.

Q. How do you go about writing for an established TV series like Doctor Who or Spooks with well established characters?
A. Make sure you like the show, otherwise you won't do a good job - if you can't find anything to like about the show, it'll be obvious on the page. And then try to match the characters and the "voice" of the show. Bring something of yourself to it, but never forget it's not your show, don't break it.

Q. Do you have a structure or formula for features or shorts? If so can you explain a little?
A. Not really, but a similar process - get an idea, brainstorm it (think up all the fun / cool / scary things that might happen based on that idea), stick some of the things together and figure out a story, do a short outline, work out the characters that belong in the story (this usually partly happens during the brainstorm), make a music playlist to listen to over and over, do a rough script draft, put it aside for a few weeks, then rewrite it several times until it's good.

Q. Is it important for scripts to be formatted correctly? (i.e. Courier font, font size 12, correct line spacing / indents, etc). If so why?
A. Yes. People have to read a lot of scripts, and having them all formatted the same makes it easier. You can get free software that does it for you, so if someone has decided not to format it correctly, then it's a sign they might not care about other details, like story, character, etc. Scripts roughly work out at one page per minute (on average) and if you use different fonts / indents then they can't tell how long your script really is.

Q. What is the optimum number of pages to aim for when writing a feature?
A. All depends on the genre, but general guideline is between 90 and 120. Just write it first, without aiming for any length, then in the rewrites you can add or delete. I try to keep mine snappy, towards the lower end of the scale.

Q. Typically how long does it take you to write a short film and how long to write a feature film?
A. Brainstorming and outline takes a few weeks, rough draft can take from 1 to 6 weeks, each further draft can be a week or two. Depends how many drafts. Short films are quicker, as they're about 8 to 10 pages long.

Q. Typically how many drafts do you go through when writing a feature film?
A. At least 3 before it's ready for anyone else to read - that becomes my "first" draft. Your first draft that people read should never be your real first draft, it can always do with polishing, rewriting, fine tuning, shortening. After the first draft, there are usually 3 or 4 more drafts, on average.

Q. What is the value of doing live script readings with actors when you have a finished draft of a script?
A. Priceless. Hearing the dialogue out loud will tell you if it's any good, if it sounds right, if it's believable. Seeing the scenes acted out will tell you if the sequences are the right length, what works, what doesn't, what's too fast, too slow, etc. I usually read it out loud before that stage, to make sure there aren't any tongue twisters...

Q. What are your top tips for someone writing their first feature film?
A. Tell the story you're dying to tell, a story only you can tell in this particular way. Write from the heart, write what you're passionate about. Don't ever write what "the market" wants, because they'll change their mind next week. They want good stuff, always. So write good stuff. Read lots of scripts, watch lots of movies. Avoid cliches like female characters falling over when being chased by a killer - women don't fall over every 5 minutes. Give every character a reason to be there. Remember that actors will read the script and decide if it's worth their while doing the part - could you cut the part out without affecting the film? If so, cut them out, or make them a vital part of the film.

Q. What is the best bit about being a writer?
A. Telling stories for a living, working with creative, fun people, seeing your words brought to life on screen, hearing an audience react to your work, working from home.

Q. What is the worst bit about being a writer?
A. The constant worry about where the next job is coming from so you can pay your bills - if there even is a next job. The financial insecurity is the absolute worst part of it, and is the only thing I miss about day jobs. That, and not seeing lots of people every day (like you would in an office environment).

Q. What is the most challenging bit about being a writer?
A. All of the above. Making yourself work when you're tired, feeling down, when you've just had a project fall apart and your confidence is completely low, wrestling with a story that isn't working yet, feeling like you don't know what you're doing.

Q. Is it easy to make a living as a screenwriter?
A. Ha! No. See above. Every single meeting is a new job interview, every new project is a new job, a new chance to fail and feel bad about yourself.

Q. How do you go about finding the next writing job?
A. Work as hard as possible on the current one, be nice to everyone, remember who is looking for stuff, keep coming up with new stuff and sending it out.

Q. Is it important for a writer to have an agent? If so why?
A. For me, yes. They put you up for work, negotiate deals, protect you, and can get your scripts out to people who only read stuff through agents.

Q. Is the writing process a painful or pleasurable one, or a mixture of both?
A. Both. Mostly pleasurable, I love writing, telling stories, making stuff up - but some days your brain just won't co-operate and you can't think of anything, or the words feel crappy. But at the end of the day, it's your job to make up stories, so that's pretty damn cool.

Q. Where do you get your inspiration and ideas from?
A. Everywhere. Being scared of everything. Trying to rewrite events that went badly so you win. Imagining what's the worst thing that could happen next, then making it happen on the page. Looking at the world and thinking "what if". What if this happened, what if I did that, what if that guy was an alien.

Q. Do you have a special room, location, routine in order to write?
A. The spare room upstairs. I have a desk, an office chair, by the window, looking out at some trees. I put my earphones on, and off I go.

Q. What is writers block and how do you deal with it?
A. When you can't write the thing you're working on, you're stuck on a plot problem and can't think your way out of it. You have to think about something else, work on something else, go for a walk, go back a few steps. If you've done enough brainstorming and outlining, then it shouldn't happen as often.

Q. What tips do you have to become a better writer? For example people often say pen 10 pages each day, every day? Or read 1,000 scripts? What’s your advice?
A. Just keep going. I look back on stuff I wrote a year ago and think it's much worse than what I'm doing now. You get better all the time if you keep writing new stuff. That's the only thing that works.

Q. Do you ever collaborate on scripts? If so, does it drastically change how a script is written?
A. Nope. I did once, we tried alternating scenes, then one wrote while the other talked, it was a disaster. We got there in the end, by taking turns to write the next section and rewriting the previous bit the other guy had done. We both hated it! The script was good though. But never again.

Q. Which writers, screenwriters, playwrights or novelists do you most admire?
A. Shane Black, Billy Wilder, Larry Cohen, and in the UK, Jimmy McGovern, Sarah Phelps, Sally Wainwright

Q. Which movie script do you most admire and why?
A. Die Hard, Alien, and Aliens - those three. They're beautifully written, have a great voice and style, great stories, great characters, and are a masterclass in writing a movie.

Q. Which book or books would you love to adapt into a screenplay?
A. The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison. The rights were taken years ago, but nothing seems to be happening. I'd kill to adapt those.

Q. Which directors would you like to work with most or direct one of your scripts?
A. Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Verhoeven, Terry Gilliam.

Q. How do you get the right people (producers, directors, actors, agents, etc) to read your script?
A. My agent sends the script out to selected producers at companies that make films. If they buy it, then they're the ones who get actors and directors involved. Although the more people you meet, you build up a group of producers etc who you can contact directly.

Q. Is it hard to get your script read without agent or manager representation for fear of litigation? (certainly the case in the US)
A. There are still some companies here that will read anything, they're easy enough to find. But yes, most places prefer to go through an agent, partly to avoid legal trouble, mostly to save time.

Q. Which genres sell the best?
A. Horror and thriller always seem to do well. But if you're dying to write something that isn't either of those, just write it. The things that sell the most are good scripts...

Q. Once you’ve sold your script does your role end there?
A. Depends on the film company. Some keep you involved, most will expect a rewrite for the sale price, and you'll have to take notes and talk through changes. Some will kick you off and get someone else to rewrite it. But this is decided at contract stage, so if the deal isn't good enough, you don't have to take it. I've been fortunate to have stayed involved all the way through the process on my last two movies, and for most of the way on my first.

Q. Should people think about how saleable a script will be when they write it or just pen it from passion whatever the idea? What do you personally do?
A. See above. Write what you want, what you're passionate about. Always.

Q. You seem to write mainly dark, witty, comedic, horror, sci-fi scripts, are there any other genres you are keen to explore?
A. I'd love to do a proper action movie. I've written a couple, but it's difficult to get them made in the UK because they tend to be more expensive. That's the goal, anyway.

Q. Do writers get unfairly pigeon holed or typecast for their work? If so is it easy to break out of and get paid to write a completely different genre
A. They do, but it's easy to get out of it: write something different. If it's good, then you're out. First I was the horror guy, then I was the science fiction guy, then the thriller guy, then the comedy horror guy, etc etc.

Q. Is it necessary for a screenwriter to be on set while their script it being shot? Is it beneficial to the production?
A. I think so, yes. You're the one who came up with the story, from nothing, so it makes sense to have you around, even just in case people have questions. I try to be around as much as I can, for questions, if they need quick rewrites of scenes, alternate lines of dialogue, etc.

Q. Do most of the films and characters you’ve written turn out how you imaged them in the completed film?
A. Never. It's always different, and usually better than you imagined. Except once or twice, where they'll cast someone who looks exactly like the person in your head, even though you haven't described what they look like. That was spooky!

Q. How does it feel seeing your script on the big screen, whether at a festival or the cinema?
A. It's amazing, I never get tired of it. Seeing your words become a real, physical thing is always magical.

Q. Do you ever re-write parts of a script during a shoot?
A. Not the story, mainly just lines or bits of scenes. If there is a big location or budget issue, they prefer to have that worked out before filming starts, otherwise they'd lose tons of money.

Q. What happens if a director or producer wants to change the lines or even the storyline?
A. Depends on the contract... If they're allowed to, they can, and hopefully they're not idiots. On my last two, I had contractual things built in so that if changes needed doing, I'd be the one to do them. Obviously sometimes during rehearsal of a scene the actors and director will tweak things as they go, that's normal though.

Q. How important is it for a writer to promote himself/herself and their work or is this best left to their agent?
A. You have to keep making new contacts, staying visible, getting yourself out there. Your agent can only do so much, you still have to generate work for youself.

Q. Is it important for writers to attend film festivals such as Cannes? If so why?
A. I've never been, I think it's more for producers with movie packages to sell.

Q. You currently have over 17,000 Twitter followers and have tweeted over 70,000 times! How important is it for a writer to have a social media presence?
A. It's entirely up to you, some do, some don't. I like it, as I like seeing what people think of the work in general, I like talking to my friends, I like talking to people I'd never normally get to meet and hear about their lives, their world. It's like a virtual office, and a good sounding board.

Q. In recent years you’ve directed several of your own short films such as Crazy For You and Halloween: H33, both of which screened at FrightFest, how did you find your foray into directing coming from a writers world?
A. A bit scary at first, because you're starting from scratch in a brand new job, in front of people - but if you know your story, your characters, and what you want, then it's easier. It's fascinating to rewrite things on the go, as you're filming a shot, dropping things that don't work, adding in new things - and getting instant feedback from the actors. It's a great experience working with the people who actually have to say the words you've written - if they don't believe it, they can't say it convincingly, which is when you have to figure out a better way between you all.

Q. Do writers generally make good directors?
A. Not always. We live inside our own heads, and some of us are a bit shy. Directing is communicating what's in your head, not everyone can do that, they're happier putting it on the page. But if they can do that, then they're the best person to direct their story. We know our own work inside out, which you really have to when directing.

Q. What’s your opinion of script reading services?
A. The good ones can be really valuable, it's hard to get proper feedback and notes when you're starting out. Just make sure it's somebody with actual credits, anyone can set themselves up as a reader.

Q. Many new script writers are afraid of showing their scripts to anyone or telling them any details for fear of someone stealing their ideas – what’s your view on this, should one be very guarded and carful who they talk to about their scripts and ideas, or just get it out there and get as much feedback and exposure for a script as possible?
A. The people you need to get feedback from won't steal your ideas. You should probably be cautious showing stuff to just anyone, but at the same time, if people can't read a script, it can't get made...

Q. How do you know when you’ve made it as a writer? Sell your first feature? Make a living from it? Buy a Hollywood mansion and retire off the back of a blockbuster smash hit?
A. You've never made it, you just keep breaking in all over again, with every new project. You never, ever feel like "this is it, I'm finally in the club". The only thing you can do is say "now I'm actually a writer" - that feeling usually comes when you sell something or get something made. I didn't like saying I was a writer even after I'd had a film made and was working on my 2nd TV episode, I didn't feel like I'd earned it. That feeling never goes away!

Q. What advice would you give someone wishing to pursue a career as a screenwriter?
A. Like I say on my blog, read a lot, write a lot, re-write a lot. Get feedback, refine your work, be persistent, polite, and not weird. Not too weird, anyway.

Q. Thank you James, we look forward to seeing more of your scripts brought to life on the silver screen soon!

James's Contact Details:
Contact: James Moran
Website: www.jamesmoranwriter.com
Twitter Handle: @jamesmoran
Facebook Page: facebook.com/jamesmoranwriter
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/jamesmoran

   
     
     

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