Thursday, November 12, 2009

Q&A with BBC Drama script editor Joe Donaldson

I’ve been working with BBC script editor Joseph Donaldson for four or five years now, starting with my teen drama project ‘ROCK’, which sort-of-morphed into a Cornish-set crime drama series called ‘BANDIT COUNTRY’, the outline and series bible for which have just gone off to important BBC people to see if they fancy commissioning a pilot script.

Not many people know how drama script editors work (and script editing is even murkier in comedy, which get brought up below), so I thought I’d get him to do a bit of a Q&A for the blog (click on the 'sort of interviews' tag at the bottom of the post if you want to read the other ones, although I'm SURE I don't have to tell you how these things work. But just in case).

Here ‘tis:

Joe, how would you describe your job to someone who has no idea how the television industry works?

I help writers to produce the best script they can by providing them with advice and constructive criticism on their work at every stage of the writing process. I also act as a filter for the feedback which comes from the producers, executives, and commissioners, all of whom are very important and have different thoughts on what the writer is doing right and wrong – their notes must be taken into account but can be quite blunt and sometimes contradictory so it helps to have someone to collate and translate and them for the writer.

What shows have you worked on?

I worked on the first two series of Lark Rise to Candleford and on Survivors, for which we have just finished the second series. I’m also working on lots of projects in various stages of development.

The title of 'Script Editor' tends to suggest someone who comes in at the end of the process - but that's not exactly the case, is it? How do you edit a script that hasn't been written yet?

No, most shows in our department will have a script editor assigned as early as possible, usually when the idea is first being discussed.

Editing script that doesn’t exist: this can happen in two ways.

If you’re working on an existing show then you already know the characters well and should understand the sorts of stories that work best for that show and which are best avoided for whatever reason. Therefore I can talk to writers before there is a script about what direction they would like the show to go in, episode ideas, potential new characters, etc.

With a new idea, my job is to talk to writers who have a story to tell and as well as giving them the usual constructive feedback, I’ll help them figure out things they may not have considered. This might be the length and number of episodes, which channel it might go on, how much it will cost, who they might cast, what the tone of the show will be (eg serious, funny, gritty, camp, etc). Thinking about all these things informs the way the idea develops and really helps us to pitch the show to the right people in a way that gives it the best chance of getting commissioned.

What are the classic mistakes first-time writers tend to make? Or come to that, what are the classic mistakes more experienced writers tend to make?

I find the worst scripts from first-time writers read like they have just taken one long rant, about something they are clearly passionate about, and divided it between Person A and Person B without giving any consideration to who the characters are what story they are trying to tell. That shows a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of drama.

Usually a new writer will have natural ability in writing either characters, stories, or dialogue. If they are lucky they might have a knack for two out of three. If they’ve got all three then they don’t really need my advice. A first-time writer will do the things he/she is good at well, but their script may be let down because they don’t understand the other elements. If they are given good advice they can improve on their weaknesses which will allow their natural abilities to shine.

I’ve found that writers who have been doing it longer are more aware of their key strengths and confident in their ability, they are therefore comfortable discussing their weaknesses and accepting help.

How did you start out as a script editor?

I was a runner in the BBC Drama department, which meant I kept a contestant supply of tea flowing and trekked back and forth from reception collecting guests. In my spare time I read scripts for projects in the department and wrote script reports on spec. I was lucky enough to have bosses that would read them and give me advice, and ultimately promote me.

Is there a recognized career path for script editors? Do they tend to stay in the same job but work on bigger and bigger shows? Or can it be a gateway to a production role?

Some do it long term and become highly experienced and sought after. Some become producers as the job does allow you to learn a bit about that production because so many elements of program-making are connected to the script. Some will take more senior roles in development, looking after drama slates in BBC departments or independent production companies.

Do many Script Editors have any interest in writing themselves?

I think plenty of them do, yes.

Do only the BBC employ script editors? How does it work outside of the Big British Castle?

All dramas in Britain have script editors as far as I know, different genres may work differently. Do they have them in comedy James?

(Quick interruption by me: there are a lot of credited ‘script editors’ in comedy, but it’s a much looser term. It can mean someone ‘polishing’ the script by chucking a couple of extra jokes in, or pulling apart and rewriting a script altogether. Big names can be brought in to give a script a once-over as a way of getting their name on the credits too, although it’s very hard to quantify exactly what work they did. So it can range from an equivalent to ‘additional material by’ to ‘executive producer’, which makes it practically meaningless, to be honest.)

I know they don’t have them in the US because they usually have a writer’s room and therefore the editing is done by other writers and producers in big group discussions – that’s my understanding anyway.

How many shows are you working on at any one time?

Between five and ten. Usually one big one that is greenlit and will definitely be made or is being made, and several others at different stages of development.

How do you see your role in relation to the writer? And do you have pretty much the same sort of relationship with each writer, or is it different with each one?

The script editor is the person who works most closely with the writer on a production and has probably read the script more times than anyone else, this can often give us the clearest picture of what the writer is trying to achieve and what they are capable of. I try to be an ally to the writer throughout the script developing process, which can get pretty brutal the closer you get to filming when budgets, bad weather, and a million other unforeseen things can force you rewrite the whole script at a moments notice.

Relationships vary quite a bit. I hope that every writer I work with has enough respect for my judgement that they can rely on me for useful feedback on their progress, but that respect has to be earned and it is hard to work well together without it. Then it depends on the personality of the writer. Some find lots of discussion fruitful and like to have their ideas constantly challenged, some are very self-sufficient and I won’t hear from them until they deliver a new draft, some will pick up the phone whenever they are at a fork in the road or if they’ve got a risky idea they are thinking of using in the script and they want to quickly bounce it off someone to check they’re not crazy before committing to it fully. Every writer has a slightly different process and as long as the standard of their work is good then I’m usually flexible about how we work.

How does it work with a really experienced writer, like Andrew Davies- does he get assigned a script editor, or is he left to get on with it?

They all need an editor no matter how experienced. The more experienced writers will often deliver a more complete first draft and may have nailed it by the third draft but they still need someone with a different perspective to tell them where the script could be improved.

What are the warning signs that a project is going to need some serious hands-on time?

I was taught to always do my first read without a red pen in my hand, so that you are just absorbing the work at first without analysing it too much. On that first read I’ll know in my gut if something is wrong, either because I can’t follow the story, or I don’t believe the characters, or I’m just left cold by the script. If you really struggle with the first read for whatever reason then you know there is work to do. I’ll then read it several times over and start making notes on what I think the problem are – if I’ve scribbled on every page then it probably means a lot of work for me and ten times more for the writer.

What are the fun bits of the job?

Reading a first draft of anything is fun because an idea only has so much life as an outline, it is always exciting to see the characters and the world expanded. Then seeing the first footage is always thrilling because the people and the places that you have been sitting in a room chatting about for years are suddenly real. That’s a cheesy answer. My real favourite thing is seeing which actress is cast in the ‘sexy young blonde’ role and then nervously shaking that actresses hand at the read-though.


Simon Dunn said...

This was excellent. Thanks James, and thanks Joe.

Unknown said...

Fascinating stuff - thank you both! It's really interesting to find out about all the things that go on behind the scenes and what the job actually *is* behind all those mysterious titles that whip past during the credits.

Unknown said...

Helpful post.

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