Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The King and I

We've had the luxury of quite a few guest speakers who have worked in TV present to Line by Line. Last year, Gareth Calverley spoke about the relationship the producer has with the writer, Kelly Lefever spoke about TV roles and how to break in, and Spencer McLaren shed light on the value of performers to the writing process. All of them spoke about the passion and dedication required for this industry and that TV genuinely offers an ongoing source of income for those employed in its quarters.

I wasn't sure it was possible to get any more inspiration from a guest speaker about writing for TV. That was until the King entered court!

These are some of Joss King’s words that struck a chord with me so I’ll elaborate on these first, naturally imbibing them with my own thoughts:
1. Believe in yourself
2. Use life for inspiration
3. Be adaptable to any type of show but with integrity

Actually, apart from stating this in his list of top tips, Joss didn't offer any more about this specifically as he began talking about writing in general. I'm not having a go at him for not expanding on this statement because it's self explanatory, and certainly something we've all heard before. So simple: Believe in yourself. Can you teach someone how to do that? Oprah probably thinks you can. But it is somewhat vague a concept. How was Joss trying to teach us about this? 

Every time he talked about a knock back I thought of this statement...believe in yourself. What if the statement were "Believe in yourself even when you wrote 75 episodes in 18 months for a TV series and it never got up”? That's what happened to Joss. So now are you getting a clearer picture of what it means to believe yourself? It's probably not just sticking post-it notes to the mirror so you can chant your mantra about self-love. It means believe in yourself despite all else. And the 'all else' is really code for rejection. If you believe in yourself (and let's face it, self-belief also has to be backed up by some level of skill, you can't just be wishful) then what seems like rejection is instead a learning experience and offers an opportunity to get better at what you do. And sometimes rejection is also a result of chance and personal preferences.  

If we flip it around the other way, we can say the same thing about acceptance, can't we? A chance to learn and get better at what you do by extending on what you are good at. And, like rejection, there is also the element of chance and other people's preferences. 

If rejection and acceptance are so similar then why feel the terrible hurt inside when something doesn't go your way? Joss dealt with that too. In TV land, you face rejection at every turn and soon enough it stops being your enemy. When you present your ideas at the writers table people are constantly editing you (your thoughts, your ideas) discarding what is not useful and keeping what is. Joss sees story-lining (coming up with episode stories and the threads that link episodes) as 'practice pitching' and in TV you do it constantly. Joss says you can figure out the idea from the feedback you get and you must shrug off the hurt and slight.

When TV executives choose not to proceed with a project you've been working on for months, even years, it doesn’t mean it’s personal. There's the audience to consider and the show that's the best fit for the network. These are market decisions. So there’s no reason to stop believing in yourself.

'Water off a duck's back' is one of my favorite expressions. Joss is testament to this ability to take knock backs because he's still here, creating work that goes to air, not hiding under a rock in the wilderness sobbing 'Why me?' while someone else slips in to take his gig. The industry is competitive and Joss reports it’s going through tough financial times, which draws writers to the safety net of in-house employment on stable programs. Knock-backs are more likely than ever so the ability to believe in yourself – armed with skill - applies to all aspiring writers.

Writers can tread a fine line in reference to this piece of advice. Self-indulgent fodder for an audience of one is not what Joss is talking about here. Even so, writing can be therapeutic, says Joss. If your writing connects with people there’s every reason to look internally for inspiration. Opportunities to draw on your life experience can come up when you least expect. 

After years working on a popular soap, Joss went looking to expand his horizons. And expand them he did, across the horizon and into the longitude and latitude of a little place called Hungary. Here was an audience on the other side of the world who he could still entertain just by tapping into his long-time talent of connecting with people on an emotional level.

You never know when your own life experience might provide insight for the show you are working on but when the time comes use it! Believe that other people sitting at the writers table are doing the same thing – an inevitable melting pot of experience from all walks of life.

Joss says you need to be very open and adaptable to any type of show. By that I think he means you can bring your writing skills to a project even if you may not necessarily know that much about the topic.  His great example of this was ‘H2O’ a show for kids about mermaids. Of course his resume did not show twenty years experience writing in the mermaid subgenre. But he found a role for himself within the vision. He had to think about what the show was really about – for its intended audience – and bring it to life. He realised he knew quite a lot indeed that would help him tell the stories for that subject.

But adaptability comes with a warning from Joss. With lots of different projects on offer you still need skill and appreciation for the subject matter. Don't bullsh#t. If you can't find a way to believe in that project and do it with integrity, don't take on the job. Writing is a way to discover and convey truths and sometimes that subject is not yours. You need to have the spark to get you through.

It’s hard to work on something when you’re half-hearted. It’s not always obvious to a producer that this just might not be a project to your liking so it pays to be open about that.

Joss’ advice is not limited to those three pearls of wisdom. He drew from his broad experience to paint an even bigger picture.

Joss’ first long term job was writing for New Zealand’s popular TV soap opera ‘Shortland Street’. He hadn’t studied screenwriting in a formal way so he learnt all his tricks on the job.

When he became Story Editor it was his job to manage the table of writers and train the up-and-coming writers in a constant cycle. Joss emphasises that soap writing helps you form good habits – writing for an audience, deadlines, getting along with people – and the work is always there because soap is part of the network stable.

I was interested to note Joss’ comment that to him writing for soap is like enjoying pop art. The more you do it, the more you learn about the specific art and craft, the more you can appreciate it.

And it’s satisfying because there’s a public passion for the shows in the way they talk about the characters.

When Joss left soap it was to discover what he called a more ‘slow burn approach to drama’. The challenge of finding freelance work and making ends meet forced him to be more mercenary. It appears he found his way through by recognising his talent was playing with people’s emotions with his writing. Listening to the audience is key to doing that successfully.

The upside of freelancing was doing all kinds of projects in varied timeslots for varied audiences. But he also mentioned a downside can be working with people at times who are so set in their ways and prepared to protect their own permanent positions they’ll quash creativity.

Joss recommended writing for kids TV specifically. Kids TV, like soap, is often over-looked by writers. But he says the rewards are strong audiences, believability is less of an issue, it allows you to use more of your imagination and the productions are more flexible which he pinpointed to the personality-type of people running those kinds of shows.

Joss joked about the invention of ‘Small Time Gangsters’, which developed out of a short conversation in the pub with Boilermaker’s Gareth Calverley, whose company about to pitch its slate interstate. The only project not written up was the one that caught the attention of the network, so it pays to pitch whatever you have! They were challenged to submit an episode within 24 hours which they managed to do and went on to create the series.

I was interested to hear Joss’ thoughts on the film industry. He conceded that none of us can completely guess how the industry will come out of the technology wash, especially after spending its spin dry cycle in the GFC. However, he was able to distinguish two distinct types of film being made. There’s the massive blockbusters made by the industry elite that none of us get a look into. And there’s the low budget films. Middle budget films aren’t getting made as they can’t recoup their money so there is a lot of pressure and competition at this lower budget end now.

Changes in television are pretty obvious too. Pay TV is a little up-in-the-air with Foxtel yet to make announcements about its future. There are still lots of soaps – there always will be  - and across all timeslots, playing the heartstrings of the middle market. And we know that people are watching a lot made-for-television content via DVD box sets.

Joss tells us that in TV, small ideas grow through the process, make adjustments as you go and have empathy for the audience. The ideas don’t need to be over-worked to appeal. Basic stories are told with heart so don’t try to conquer the world.

When you’ve reigned, that’s easy for the King to say…


Fiona Leally

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