5 Things I Learnt From Script Consultant Andrew Ellard

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Script Consultant Andrew Ellard has credits including shows such as The IT Crowd, Chewing Gum, Red Dwarf and Detectorists. He’s also a writer with various scripts in development and feature film AfterDeath under his belt.

1) What first inspired you to begin your career in this industry, and can you share with us how your first ‘break in’ the industry came to be?

I don’t believe in the term ‘breaking in’, since it’s a process of getting job after job. You don’t break into the catering industry with a job in McDonalds, but everyone starts somewhere. You might start as a runner, but did you then impress people enough to get the next job, and the next?

I was determined to be a soap writer after university, when I went to work for Grant Naylor Productions, who make Red Dwarf. I’d impressed them with my (voluntary) work on the Fan Club magazine and they hired me out of university to write content for their new website.

While there I made myself useful, producing and directing content for the Red Dwarf DVDs - cheaper than hiring someone else to do it! And I gave notes - just cos I was asked for my opinion and couldn’t shut up - on the Red Dwarf feature film that was being developed…which basically changed my career entirely.

The reaction to those notes was so good that I’ve been Red Dwarf’s script editor ever since. And that led me to a gig for ITV Comedy consulting on all their new shows.

Back then I also posted reviews online of The IT Crowd. When Graham Linehan saw those, he hired me on the fourth series. A chance to get the reviews early.

Even now I do ‘tweetnotes’ on movies and TV shows on my Twitter feed. My notes, reviews and tweetnotes all follow the same basically philosophy: what are they trying to make and does it work? You take the side of the author. My job is to get you to the best version of what you’re trying to write; my hobby is seeing if what a movie was trying to do succeeded. Rather than say “they should have done something else”.

In all cases you remove your ego - and, in a way, even your taste - from the equation and aim to see the author intention.

2) From your own experiences, can you share your top 4 tips that you feel are essential for becoming a professional and successful Writer/Script Editor? 

Make sure the writer knows - and believes! - that you’re on their side. You want the same thing: the very best script that comes from them. Understand that “how you would write this” isn’t part of the equation; it’s all about their style, their tone.

One thing I see a lot is stories started very late. 20 pages of meeting everyone, 10 of plot. Generally you feel the drag there. And the solution, almost always, is to get the big story started and then meet the other characters while your main character is trying to achieve their goals.

Don’t send scripts out with an email that talks about how it’s your “dream” to be a writer. No producer is interested in making your dream come true, they’re interested in finding great writing. This isn’t X-Factor, where an emotional backstory affects the public voting. The best way to obtain that dream is to rewrite a script until it’s amazing. And then do the same with 20 more scripts, since the chances people want that first one are slim!

Oh, and finish your drafts! Just get to the bloody end. That’s a hard thing in itself, but you can’t rewrite - which often means getting to the end and then realising to make that end work you need to change the first two acts entirely - until you’ve written.

(And if your first rewrite is a tweak here and there, there’s a good chance you’re not solving the deeper problems. Maybe start a new document, write the script again - you can always paste old bits in. But like the ‘we went on holiday and the hotel wasn’t built’ stories from real life, things get better in the retelling. You unconsciously streamline the tale, dump useless details, add ones that will enhance the punchlines.)

3) What would you consider to be the most important elements of a script when reading through it for the first time? Can you elaborate on the importance of these elements?

Just be compelling! Really, that’s it. If you’re endlessly fascinating everything else - act structures, any dos and don’ts - can go hang.

It’s hard to becompelling because everyone’s seen movies and TV shows. They know a cough means a character’s going to get sick, they know a dead body you don’t see is probably not really dead. Genre is a huge thing, and as soon as you write something in a genre, people know how to predict it.

So you need characters that are endlessly fascinating and relatable, situations that are compelling in their stakes and surprises. You need to make the world we see interesting.

I have bugbears - I loathe the ‘flashforward’ opener for example, where you cheat a lack of early intrigue by showing something from near the end of the story. But even then, once in a while, a show like Breaking Bad will use those in such a way as it adds real tension to the rest of the narrative. So even cheats, even annoying tropes, can work if you make them work hard for you.

4) What advice do you have for other filmmakers and writers when It comes to networking and building professional relationships in the industry?

Be useful to people! That’s why you get a second job, and a third and a fourth. When you work with someone be memorable for all the right reasons.

Social media’s good, too. I’m terribly uncomfortable at gatherings, which is a difficult problem for this industry. Twitter has been a joy for me because it’s helped me make industry contacts without embarrassing myself in front of people. The tweetnotes work as almost a ’showroom floor’ for what I can do feedback-wise - much better than me eating a sandwich awkwardly in front of you.

I do think writers often aim their scripts at the wrong people. They want the praise of other writers, people they admire, but generally the people you should be looking to impress are producers. I get emails year round asking “I have a script, who should I send it to?” People who want scripts! Look at the films and shows that are in the same area as what you’ve written - chances are the producer of those is looking for more brilliant scripts.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given for working in this industry, and would you mind sharing with us?

A producer once gave me a great tip - if you have to write character bios (and sometimes it’s unavoidable), have your characters write each other’s bios.

Instead of a dry document of facts you get a real sense of how they appear to someone else. It’s a great way to road test the relationships. It’ll highlight the ways the character are different, and difference is how you get to drama and comedy. (Difference, after all, is what leads to conflict!)

If you try it and the bio still comes out flat, you’ve probably discovered that the characters need work. Either they’re not rich enough, or not different enough to be in a show together.

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