Writing for TV and Film panel at the MCM London Comic Con

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At the MCM London Comic Con, some of the leading screenwriters and producers of TV and film today took to the stage to talk about writing. Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Husbands), Brad Bell (Husbands), Christian Taylor (Six Feet Under, Teen Wolf), and Remi Aubuchon (Caprica, Falling Skies) all were in attendance, answering questions about their craft and the state of the union. 

First off, the panel were asked about what attracted each of them towards writing. Jane Espenson explained simply that she watched TV growing up and she wanted to make more of the thing that she loved. Brad Bell said that it was the draw of “creating a whole universe on the page, anything can happen!” Christian Taylor said that he always wanted to direct, but other people didn’t let him direct, so instead he wrote.

Espenson thought quite the contrary to a question about what challenges there were in regards to getting your work out there for people to see. She said it’s a lot easier getting things out in front of people, the real challenges now lie in actually making sure your product is ready to go and to make sure you’re putting out the very best product, because now that anyone can do it there’s a “whole lot of forest out there, you want your tree to stand out.”

Taylor said that it is a great time to be a creative right now, though he said that unfortunately the feature film industry is a little more closed off for writers because a lot of the films being made are huge budget films that take huge writers. Taylor added that despite this, the Internet and other technology has made it so much easier for people to create things and share things, with many outlets available to get your work to your viewers.

In the debate of original work vs. the remake and the adaptation, Espenson said that with original work it’s much more about having a reason to tell your story, for that is where the originality can come from it. She described how that’s why her and Bell created Husbands because they had a story they wanted people to hear. 

husbandsweyumepromoBell added to Espenson’s points by saying that a good part of telling a new original story is the hook of saying something that needs to be said right now, whether it comes from the headlines or an idea that should have happened already.

Taylor described that television is much more open to fresh ideas, while film isn’t. He said that richer stories can be told on TV and that the whole dynamic is shifting from film to television. There is less of a freedom on film while the exciting and fresh stuff has more recently come from TV. 

An audience member asked how difficult it is trying not to trip each other up with continuity problems and the like when it comes to writing for TV. Espenson answered by saying that it was less of a problem than one would think, as what usually happens in the writing process is that the entire group of writers on a show actually sit in the writers room to begin with and “break” a story together, so everyone has a hold on what’s meant to happen in the story before going off to write. She does say that it does happen when it comes to writers splitting an episode in half, however.

Another question aimed at Espenson was whether she would be writing for Joss Whedon’s new show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She said she would love to write an episode, but we’d have to wait and see if she’s given the opportunity. Espenson is already working on three different shows (Once Upon A Time, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, and Husbands) but she joked that if you can do three shows you can probably do four.

Procrastination is one of the biggest obstacles people face when writing, and that was a topic in discussion at the Q&A. Remi Aubuchon humorously explained how he was an expert of procrastination but he said eventually the blank page calls you to a point where you just have to get something down. He continued by saying that you have to be willing to write badly and not worry about what you’re putting down. There’s always time for revision but if you don’t get something down at all you’re doomed to staring at a blank page.

Jane Espenson said that nothing cures procrastination like a deadline and a paycheck. She also suggested that one should try one of her writing sprints, where you work for an hour and only that hour and that you’ll be amazed when you find what you can do in that time without any distraction such as the Internet.

Brad Bell agreed with the whole idea of just writing, even if it’s not your story but, as a journal entry or some other piece of writing. Bell said that if you can physically write, then just write, pushing that idea to the audience of who want to write.

Christian Taylor gave more advice and suggestions for when one gets stuck writing: the problem might just be in the preparation. He said to do your research and build up the groundwork first to then build on. Taylor also said to young writers that they should read a lot and also if they’re trying to tackle a particular genre, such as a western, watch every great western and take what you want from that to help spark ideas of your own that fits that mould.

The panel described their own origins in the industry. Aubuchon told the audience of how he went to the American Film Institute as a director and while showing his work people asked about what he had written, leading to Aubuchon writing a script he was lucky enough to get sold, to which he had never had to look back from.

Espenson said she had two main points of entry herself. The first was the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation allowed writers to submit scripts without representation, and the other was the ABC Writer’s Programme, a course that still exists to this day.

Bell took a rather different route, having been active initially through the Internet, he put up everything he made online to display it, while also surrounding himself with creatives on his level and those more successful than him (while also being very nice to them, he joked).

teen wolfTaylor had a much longer road, describing how at an early age he knew he wanted to work for TV and film, working for a casting director when he was 19 on films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Valmont. After that he went to film school in New York and got nominated for an Oscar for a short film he made, leading him to move to Los Angeles and not work for ten years.

The writer eventually got his break with Six Feet Under after many other smaller jobs in the industry. Taylor said that you just have to persevere and meet and talk to as many people as you can. He added that if you want to be a writer you should write, if you want to be a director then direct and make shorts, if you want to be an actor go to classes and ensure you’re trained, and ultimately just believe in yourself and keep going.

Jane Espenson added that people should not be afraid to put stuff out there. People shouldn’t worry if something of theirs is stolen, for you should have a lot more ideas in your head and if you don’t show people anything at all there’s no real chance of getting something made. Bell also added that if people are stealing ideas from you, it’s actually a good sign, but if it’s the only idea you’ve got it deserves to be stolen.

On the topic of the lack of female writers in film and TV, Espenson originally was going to say she didn’t agree with that as she knew many female writers, but she considered the fact that if you look at the statistics, that’s correct. She said that a problem might be at times that female writers are caught and hired more for having specialisations, such as writing stories full of heart and strong female characters, when really female writers – and any writers – should just be considered good writers.

Another issue is just the fact that people hire people that remind themselves of them; because they are going to spend so much time working on writing together it’s best to be able to look into a mirror. She does say that hiring of writing is getting more and more diverse though, and she looks and hopes for it all to continue to improve.

An audience member asked Taylor about directing, and whether that meant he wanted to do so in order to protect the creative vision in his writing. Taylor gave an interesting explanation of his intentions in his career and his experience, discussing how the power with the writers is much more prominent in TV than film, giving writers a lot of control. He then went on to say that there’s this weird idea of how “directors are the gods” in feature films, which isn’t the case when there are other writers and crew that are usually part of the process too. He did say that there is much more hyphenates around now such as the writer-director, so it’s a good time for being a creative.

The final question asked the panel what their favourite scripts are of the ones that they have written, to which it was almost unanimous that that question was hard to answer. It was a common point said that they were just lucky and happy to have the projects they’ve been given, and that their opinions are usually towards the works they are currently on, which is hard to blame them for, for the Writing for TV & Film panel at the MCM London Comic Con brought together some real powerhouses of talent.

The next question to be asked, really, is: When can they give us some more brilliant writing?

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