Ep. 08 – Writing For Film & TV With William Gallagher of Writers’ Guild of Great Britain
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Ep. 08 – Writing for Film & TV

With William Gallagher (Writers’ Guild of Great Britain)

Traditionally the world of the writer was very insular. However with the advent of the internet, and the work of groups such as the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain (WGBA), writers have greater access and ability to work together sharing ideas, advice and stimulation. This not only adds to their creative output but helps to create a sense of community, guiding one another through the peaks and pitfalls.*

In this episode we discuss writing for film, radio and TV – and explore how to survive and thrive as a writer.

Our guest, British writer and journalist William Gallagher, has seen his work published across a variety of mediums, from stage and radio to publications such as The Independent and the Radio Times.

Some of his most notable work includes working alongside Colin Baker, when writing for the Doctor Who radio play series.

William is also the Chair of the West Midlands Region of The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain; a trade union which represents professional writers across the media industries.

SL: What does it take to be a writer?

WG: Writers are all different, we tend to have the same focus on detail and we are incredibly curious and we are interested in people. We are interested in words but I think its in communication and people that we all share a connection.

I think writing is a illness. You can be taught to write better but you can’t be taught to write, so you either have it or you haven’t and if you have got it then I apologise.

SL: What does it take to be a professional writer, in other words to earn a book off of it?

WG: Writers go into it for the art, but you really have to think of it as business. I’ve been called a commercial writer by someone who didn’t see it as a compliment.I have to think what my work is worth, where I’m good, where I’m bad, and pitching things that I will enjoy but will also pay well.

My only reason to exist really is to write better and the only way to do this is by writing and the only way to keep writing is to find ways to pay off the mortgage. Doing this brings in a lot of business skills which has taken a long time to get used to but now I find it all part of the fun.

Some people don’t write for a professional standard but I do and I have to write for an audience which makes me a better writer. It is all art but there is a commercial end to it.

William Gallagher profile picture by Lee Allen photography
William Gallagher by Lee Allen Photography

“My only reason to

exist really is to

write better and the

only way to do this

is by writing”

SL: Do you have to be an expert on what you write about, as people say; write what you know?

WG: I kind of disagree as I don’t really know anything. I have two answers to this. One, is when I worked for a magazine I loved picking up new stories.

I worked for Radio Times and they were doing a daily blog about ‘Big Brother’ which I don’t watch or like but I was the only available writer, so I had to absorb the show for that day knowing that the audience know the show very well, so getting to see their point of view and finding out something they don’t know, something they will be interested in, that is a huge skill. Its a deep dive into it.

I had people around the BBC office calling me up and saying I thought you didn’t like ‘Big Brother’ and if you asked questions the next day, it would be all gone. You adopt things then move on. Generally speaking we don’t know much, but write about what you are interested in or about something you want to learn as an excuse.

SL: When it comes to fiction, the idea of write what you know doesn’t apply, I mean who knows about orcs and elves?

WG: I agree, Tolkien with ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ books, that annoys me because both of us are from Birmingham and people say that this part of the book is based on Birmingham. It is just if you see something or know something you can use it, even for a fictional book.

SL: If you can write for print or web publications, is it easy to write for other mediums?

WG: I think artistically, I love that I do a lot of things but financially, I have to do a lot of things and some of them transfer really well.

If you are a novelist I think you will have a lot of trouble adapting scripts, but script writers do really well because dialogue has to be really tight and conversational and most web publications are a conversation between the writer.

Getting tone and meaning is the skill that most script writers have and news writing is another useful skill.

SL: Talk us through the process of an ideal treatment, what is the typical way it works?

WG: There is a typical way but in practice it does vary a lot. I write Doctor Who radio dramas and its very distinct as they have a very tight production schedule. You pitch a single sentence to them and they say if they have similar ones or not.

This part is all non paid work, but if they like it, you then develop it into a paragraph and see if people are still interested. So for Doctor Who, the shows are 2 hours long split into 4 parts, and you write a summary, about 1000 words long for each. This is still all unpaid work! BBC licence Doctor Who from Big Finish so the summaries go to different heads and producers and soon you may get the go ahead to script it.

Big Finish go to script very quickly, you get about 6 weeks to write something to hand to your script editor, 2 to 3 weeks later you get comments back to work on the second draft. Many of the Doctor Who episodes on radio go to 5 drafts and I like the fact that mine have never gone past two but thats probably because of the production schedule I stick to. TV is more around 10 to 20 drafts.

Example of Doctor Who Radio show
Multi-camera vision mixer image.

SL: Is that because for radio there are less direction cues than on screen?

WG: Yeah, that has to be part of it, there’s also the fact that there are less people involved in radio so fewer opinions. TV is a lot bigger so there is much more riding on it to be perfect, but Big Finish take it all very seriously. Just that TV has more money behind it making it more important to get it right. That’s not to say we don’t do that on radio.

We also do take it seriously. But after the final draft it goes to the studio and by then you as a writer have done your part. I’m normally going on to write other things at this point but it is handy to be with the studio at this point as well. I had a great moment with Colin Baker, who was recording a key line from my script and he said ‘but’ instead of ‘yet’, and I knew it was wrong but didn’t say anything.

We went on to record the big finale and in all the heat, Colin stops, points through the glass and says ‘The author isn’t happy!’ and we stopped. We debated the line for some time which is expensive in a studio. I must have had it on my face because I was fine with it but was obviously thinking about it. But that’s what I enjoy about it all!

SL: Where do you get your inspiration from? And have you got any tips on overcoming the usual writers block?

WG: Someone famous once said ‘I can only write when the muse hits me, so I make sure that the muse hits me 9 till 5, Monday to Friday’. I don’t really believe in writers block. I’m trained that if you get on with it now, the answer will hit you.

Fiction and drama are a lot harder than news and I’ve had times where I’ve had to walk around for a bit. I walked around Birmingham city centre for a day in the cold winter, trying to come up with one crucial plot point, and when I got home, put the key in the door, it came to me.

Usually though, it’s just sitting down, working hard. When I went freelance, people told me that you can make your own hours and maybe for the first day, yes, but when the mortgage starts coming in you find these things.

picture of someone struggling with writers block

SL: People are surprised when they hear a script takes months to write, but is that because you do a little then come back to it?

WG: There is just a physical aspect to how long something will take to make but when every word can count, a ‘but’ at the start might work, but doesn’t work at the end. Caring about that takes a long time.

When I first became a script writer people asked; why do you prefer that to journalism, I replied, because you’re only telling stories through what people are saying and actually thats not true. It took me a long time to realise that you are telling stories through what people don’t say. You are having to layer everything.

You have to write to make it sound as if people aren’t reading and its what they would actually say like they have never heard it before. At the same time you are delivering the plot, shaping people’s opinions on characters, creating jeopardy, so there are all of these layers and they have to be hidden to work and thats the thing that takes time.

People say scripts are sculptures in which you have to chip away piece by piece as if the art has always been there. I think Russell T. Davies said that ‘there are one thousand ways to tell a story but only one to tell it right’. I can have brilliant ideas but if it doesn’t work, then one tiny idea which makes the script just work.

It’s slightly mad and unhealthy, its fine when you get it but frustrating when you don’t but its more of an involved process than just typing out the work. The more you do, the more you realise what in it.

SL: Writing is often seen as a lonely job but you like working with other writers.

WG: Yes, very much so. I’m all for it. I do love writing on my own and tomorrow I’m actually at home in my office writing for 16 hours straight and I can’t wait. The reason why I’m less of a novelist and more into drama is because it’s collaborative.

My absolute favourite part of writing Doctor Who was when my script editor Alan Barnes called me up and couldn’t stop laughing at how bad one of my scenes was. We spent about an hour discussing how we could make the scene work better in a less silly way and I loved what we came up with.

There is an image of writers sitting at home and writing by yourself and thats it but here we created something together and I think that’s true across drama, film, radio, is that you are all working together to deliver something for the audience. Writers forget that and so do producers and directors we get all separated but when we are together, we create something better.

Series 10 Trailer – Doctor Who

SL: How does writing by committee work? Americans seem to be big on this but not so much in the United Kingdom.

WG: Yeah, that’s true and I think its because British writers work on their own to create authored series which are very good when they are good. Also, American producers do it right whereas British producers don’t. A British producer would go over and ask them how they do it but don’t actually listen to the end of the sentence.

I’ve interviewed British producers and they say ‘Great, we will do that’, go home and hire a lot of writers like we are stationary or something but in America they actually hire them on staff so you are there on the show all the time. British TV doesn’t spend that kind of money. They think if you hire 10 writers at the start then send them away again and pay them later on, that will be fine.

In America you all work together. You break a story together. I was against committees until a producers called Ronald D. Moore created a show called Battlestar Galactica and now Outlander and he said to me; ‘It’s fine to go off and write whatever you like but you can’t have a blank screen on BBC 1 on Tuesday night’. You have to work to that deadline, you have to work together and they’ve made it a machine but I love it because the individual writers voices do come out.

I think a great example of this is in British Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies had different writers for each episode then he would go over it because the audience need to feel that it’s one coherent show. It must have a consistent voice but he tried to bring something else. Financially it helps in America that you are supported for a full season allows you to put all your energy into that show.

Also if you look at the credits for an American TV show you will see lots of associate and executive producers and almost all of them are writers because they come in as writers then move up the chain. The fact that its a writer producing does make a massive difference to the shape of the production. We have certain skills that transfer, not all but some that help.

SL: You are the chair of the West Midlands Writers Guild of Great Britain, so how does the guild negotiate deals like pay and conditions with companies like the BBC on behalf of the writers?

WG: I’ve fortunately never been involved with these negotiations because they have been going on for years, since the start they have been negotiating something or other. It always takes a long time.

With unions you would expect an adversarial thing. No doubt all companies want to pay as little as they they can but they also know the worth of writers. All sides are working together to get the best deal.

SL: I suppose people don’t want to crush the writers as they need them?

WG: Yes, you’re right. Some people don’t know how writing works so they might, but seasoned people who have been in the business for a long time are much more willing to negotiate, its just always the details that take a long time. Today as we speak, the guild has just negotiated a 2 percent increase in pay for BBC writers and a 1.75 increase for ITV writers.

If there is one thing that I love about the guild is that if you are a writer and even if you haven’t heard of us we still raise the bar for everyone. Writers need to support each other and no one else does this. Imagine if the guild wasn’t here. Rates would be infinitely lower but they would also would be very complicated.

Every deal would be different and you would spend all your time figuring what to do. I love the fact that the guild helps producers by telling them this is what the rates are for writers.

logo of west midlands writers guild of great britain

SL: I must say that I’m very impressed with the guild’s website because it so full of information.

WG: A great majority of that is open to anyone so people might come to me with a certain problem and I know most of the information will be on the website so I can point them in the right direction.

SL: Are the guild there to help set the value of writers work and time?

WG: The aim of the guild is to help protect the writers and that means their work so there are contractual things, we will vet a contract, by we I mean the professional legal team the guild has. All the literal and practical, pounds and pennies stuff we handle. Writers have this issue of undervaluing themselves, I think its because we submit to someone else and then we don’t see anything.

We take their judgment. If you look at something that the guild isn’t in, like online web writing, and you will see sites recruiting with a pay of something like 1 pound per 10,000 words. Writers will actually go for that which allows businesses to continue to do this and then writers cannot survive. This cannot happen in TV, theatre or radio because of the guild. We are practical but writers have to know their own worth and that can be hard when you are working on your own.

graphic of copyright stamps

SL: Can an idea be copyrighted or is it just the words on the paper?

WG: Once you start writing it down, you can copyright it. A famous example, a Star Trek series let freelance writers pitch when they were at a high enough level and a famous writer pitched an idea and the people opposite said that it was such a good idea that it was airing tonight. Thats how similar it was.

It was good for the writer obviously as it demonstrated he knew the show. He went on to write things for them later. I’ve written things that I thought were so good only to realise that they were written 13 years ago.

I had an idea that I loved but I couldn’t do anything with it because a TV show was already doing something similar. Its easy to say I’ve got a great idea and so many people do but once you get past that, and you say we will do it this way, thats when it gets copyrightable.

Thats when it starts to get messy with production companies because they don’t have any money until they can sell the idea but then who owns the idea after they’ve sold it, you or them so there is a lot of trust involved. Whenever I’ve judged play writing scripts, it is amazing how many scripts are similar, like there is something in the air and we have all had a try at it. Everybody is different but the idea is still the same.

SL: How involved can the writer be after the final draft of the script has been signed off? Are they expected to be consulted on script issues?

WG: The writers guild has certain agreements with certain companies about that. Kay Mellor said recently that she had a script that was particularly precious to her and the production company asked her if they could make some changes which she thought would change the movie but in the end the production company just said ‘we’re changing it anyway’ and the Writer’s Guild stepped in, which I am very proud about.

“Just remember that

the writer did what

they did for a

reason”

But it is down to the relationship. I once had a director and I heard third hand that they were going to cut a sequence from this play of mine. I texted him, and he said ‘don’t worry, it will be fine’ I replied ‘no it wont’. I knew the reason why he took it out because it was hard to do but it was difficult because it was an important section. I need to say that the other biggest row was with another director and I wanted to cut out a line from my script but she wanted to keep it in. I loved her for that and we had a good relationship.

We cannot let writers be in one camp and actors and directors in others, we are all together. When we are together, we don’t only make the best work but its the best experience ever. We do have to protect our work and there are certain steps that we can try to enforce.

SL: Do you have any tips for producers and directors working with writers?

WG: Just remember that the writer did what they did for a reason. That if you want to change something, fine but there may be something else that you haven’t seen yet. You get that most with actors, in the moment, they know that they can do the line much better but they may not know that it has a massive impact on something later. Being able to talk to the writer to work out how to get that change is important and everybody wins.

SL: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers who want to get their first big break?

WG: We have an advantage now that this is a time that you can just go and film everything you write. You can record radio for anything you like. I think we are at a time where if you haven’t done that then it looks slightly odd. As difficult as it can be, just go out and make something.

It will be rubbish but you will learn from it and the next thing you write will be much better. The more the writer knows where their writing is going, for example, I’m writing a webinar for someone and I need to pull off something and I realised in the software they are using I can make something quite dramatic.

I will use that and I know it is there because I have seen what’s in their space and I’ve learned from that. Learn everything that you can but remember you still have to have something to say as a writer. We are each as important as everyone else in drama and every thing that we contribute and can learn from everybody else. Actually, be a generous writer. I do a workshop about how to get rejected because writers get hurt sometimes.

Even over the smallest rejection. We are writing very personally we get hurt a lot and there are ways to help that, ways to see why you have been rejected that mean it doesn’t matter. Learn how to see your work from the perspective of others but you should join the guild, meet up with other writers. None of our families have any idea what we do but other writers do.

I have this club where we don’t talk about jobs and hand out business cards, we just talk about this strange industry. Any contact with other writers helps as you spend a lot of time on you own. It also helps to get your name out there. Human Contact is needed and some people can find that hard.

SL: Thank you William, it’s been lovely to talk to you.

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