As co-founder of Blake Friedmann Literary, TV And Film Agency Julian Friedmann knows more than most about what it takes to make it as a screenwriter.
As co-founder of Blake Friedmann Literary, TV And
Film Agency Julian Friedmann knows more than most about what it takes to make it as a screenwriter.
month sees Filmjuice as the proud media partners of The London Screenwriter’s
Festival. The Festival will see such writers as Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks
Later, The American (Main Picture), Brighton Rock) and Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy, Control)
amongst many more sharing their thoughts on writing for TV and film. We caught
up with one of the Festival’s organizers Julian Friedmann to give us an insight into what you need to make it as a screenwriter.
How does the industry view
In many respects the industry
views writers without track records as a bit of a nuisance. It won’t usually
say so (except some companies won’t accept any submissions from writers direct
– they must come through agents). There’s not a great deal of respect even when
the writer has studied hard and worked hard trying to write a script that
stands on its own feet. If it’s a great TV idea the probability is the producer
will try and buy it but then go and hire a show runner writer to write it so
the original writer may not get to write any or much of it.
If a writer is an established
writer of course it’s much easier because so much weight is put on the track
record of the writer that sometimes I don’t think enough attention is paid to
the script that they’ve just delivered and since great writers write bad
scripts and not very experienced writers can write great scripts this can be
unhelpful to all sides.
Should writers think more like
producers to give audiences better experiences?
Not many writers think about the
market, which means their ideas and the way they tend to develop those ideas
frequently fail because there’s no obvious connection with the audience for
which it’s being designed. This can be as simple as there being no central
character with whom the audience can empathise to, it being a subject that’s
been done to death or indeed a subject that’s barely ever been done because
it’s probably not worth doing. So, if writers were able to think more about
audiences then I think audiences would end up with better viewing experiences.
I don’t really think producers think enough about audiences themselves.
What one piece of advice would
you give to an aspiring screenwriter?
Apart from get a day job?
Remember you’re working in a market, even if you are an auteur, so do basic
market research, and try to think about becoming a brand as a writer, not only
writing what you want to write but writing what you are best at. Most writers
at the beginning of their careers earn whatever money they do by writing what
other people want them to write, so make yourself into a writer who is capable
of doing that, which means being versatile as well as focused.
Is there a crossover between
screenwriters and novelists?
There is certainly a crossover
from screenwriting to novel writing but very little the other way. Scripts are
far too arbitrary and technical in the way they are laid out and in the
methodology of storytelling for someone who only has prose experience to be a serious
contender as a scriptwriter. Scriptwriting requires a lot of practice and very
few young writers have ever read a script because they don’t feature on the
How does screenwriting differ
from writing a novel?
The most important differences
are that in a novel you can describe what a character thinks and feels but in a
script you can’t. Much of the best parts of a film have no dialogue and
therefore it can be quite difficult for some writers to write. I think there is
more of a craft to screenwriting than an art. I worry when words like art are
used in this context. A script is a blueprint for a hundred or more people to
get involved from costume design to carpenters to directors and
cinematographers, as well, of course, as the actors and it’s therefore more of
a technical document than anything else.
How does a screenwriter get an
With a brilliant and a polished
script and a willingness to rewrite and network and an ability to explain how
the market in film and television works.
If they can’t find an agent what
should they do?
They should understand the nature
of the deals and contracts and they should make themselves excel at the easy
access television slots. When writers at the beginning of their career chose to
go and do a degree in screenwriting most of them go and do a degree in writing
for film, yet we make relatively few films a year. A degree in writing for
television, such as the one at De Montfort, is far more likely to result in them
getting work in television, which is where most of the paid work is. Basic
knowledge of deals and contracts is not difficult to come by. My book, How
to Make Money Scriptwriting, was written specifically for that purpose.
Who are the most exciting screenwriters
There are many and in every area
or genre and I think it would be invidious to mention names.
Is it possible to make a film or
TV drama out of a bad script?
Yes, but it’s also difficult to
make a great film from a bad script and indeed many films are made based
on bad scripts. The sayings that the director can fix it during the shoot or
the editor can fix it in the cutting room are the words of desperate and
How do you facilitate your
clients getting work?
We sell writers rather than
projects, but obviously we use what they have written to get them work. We
familiarise ourselves with what they’ve done and we try and make sure that we
put them up for jobs that they are capable of fulfilling and that the scripts
they have written on spec go to producers who are likely to be interested in
them. Someone told me once that it takes on average three years for a
relatively new writer at an agency to cover the costs at that agency and I can
well believe it. We have to make a huge investment in new clients before we can
make money out of them and therefore a writer who comes along with a deal on a
plate can be quite attractive.
Why do American writers have
managers as well as agents?
There are some odd reasons,
including the fact that agents in California can’t charge more than 10%, but
they also don’t do a lot of the functions that an agent here would do, which
range from working on scripts to tax advice. It’s such a big and cumbersome and
rich industry over there that there are many more middle men. Thankfully we
don’t do that here and at Blake Friedmann we act on a much broader basis,
including acting as executive producer for our clients.
Tell us about LAST CHANCE SALOON
which you are executive producing.
I’m agenting it but doing much
more than an agent does so I am also down as executive producer on Last
Chance Saloon. This is a quite brilliant script about country and western
music. It’s about an elderly British couple who absolutely adore country and
western music and quite soon we discover that the husband is dying and before
he does they are going to go to Dollywood, where they will meet Dolly Parton.
I’m thrilled to say that Dolly Parton has agreed to play herself in the film.
We’re now looking for finance. It is written by a brilliant first feature
writer Em Muslin.
Is producing a natural
progression for an agent?
I don’t think producing is
because if you delineate line-producing from producing from executive
producing, I don’t think agents should line produce and producing is far too
hands on a job to do while you’re being an agent. However, executive producing
is being an agent plus some extra. So I think executive producing is compatible
with being agent, but producing or line producing certainly is not.
Tell us what happened with your PhD
Sadly I never finished it because
I had a job working for a publishing company and that job was to get the best
PhD theses for us to publish. Being at LSE gave me an inside track ahead of the
editors of other academic publishers and when the university discovered that I
was working in a publishing company whilst doing a PhD myself they gave me an
ultimatum: give up the job or give up the PhD, and since I so enjoyed working
with writers, I decided to give up the PhD.
What’s the best script you’ve
read in the last year?
This is an extremely difficult
and also fairly invidious question. I’ve read a small number of exceptional
scripts and rather more good but not exceptional scripts. I think two of the
most unusual and challenging and satisfying scripts are both comedies dealing
with death. One is a rites of passage story between a young teenager and her
grandmother who has decided to commit suicide by going to Switzerland, and the
Granddaughter wants to dissuade her but also feels she has to support her. It’s
a script (by jessica Townsend) that has characters who could easily fit into Shameless
and I found it very touching and funny and it’s got a lovely upbeat ending. The
other is a script about suicide but it’s actually the most life affirming
script I’ve read in years: it’s by Paul Bassett Davies and is called Leap of
Faith and is really more comedy drama, which I suppose Life Before Death
is as well. But there have been some outstanding thrillers too, especially Safe
House by Andy Briggs. When one has had the chance to work with a small
group of scriptwriters for quite a long time, they do tend to eventually
produce scripts that are exceptionally good.