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#scriptchat Stephen Gallagher Q & A with Eleanor Ball – Ellie’s last post!

This is Ellie signing off! I’ve had a great time interning for Lucy over the last few months, meeting people I’d never usually have the chance to meet and learning things I’d never usually have the chance to learn, and I’ll consider myself a bona fide Bang2writer for years to come.

For my final blog post I’ve been given the wriggle-worthy chance to pick the brains of Stephen Gallagher. He’s the screenwriter, novelist, director, and all-round Man of Many Bowstrings who created and wrote ITV’s Eleventh Hour and NBC’s Crusoe. He’s also written Doctor Who episodes from the Tom Baker and Peter Davison eras, as well as for Rosemary & Thyme, Bugs, and The Forgotten, which aired last year on ABC. His thrilling back catalogue of bookage includes short story collections Out of His Mind and Plots and Misadventures, and novels he has adapted for TV: Chimera, Oktober, and The Kingdom of Bones.Stephen enjoys long walks and Bovril (but I made that part up).

Stephen has been extremely kind to answer my questions, with very thought-provoking results, rife with great advice. Read on or fight me.

Which is more important to you: writing to entertain, or writing to make people think?

No distinction. All play has purpose, it’s wired into the species. Some people have this notion that high art is the only culture and entertainment is ‘mere entertainment’ and I don’t think either’s fair. I’m for popular cuture that respects intelligence. Maybe I can explain it this way; when my daughter was small we got onto various mailing lists for toy catalogues. There were the dull ones full of ‘educational toys’ and then there was the Hawkin catalogue — full of glorious crap and it read like THE BEANO. But the stuff you found in there did exactly the same things for a kid’s mind as the toys designed by a committee of psychologists, with real imagination and without the dull air of State Approval. Thinking is entertainment. The point of art is to make it effortless. You can talk about ‘getting the audience to do the work’ but you’ve failed if you don’t make them want to. Of course, in making your audience think, you don’t want the thought to be, “This is a waste of my time.”

Books, television, radio, articles: it seems you’ve done the whole kaboodle, and then some extra kaboodle on the side. In what medium do you feel most at home?

I feel like an outsider in every medium, if I’m honest, and that may be part of the reason why I’ve never thrown my lot in with just one. There’s also a big element of ‘kid in a candy store’ about it. Wanting to try your hand at everything.

Radio was at the root of it all, I think, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a grounding for all dramatic writing, whether it’s for the page or the screen. I’d done the odd competition story and some amateur work for the theatre but that first radio script was like building your first wall. Get it right or see it fall down. Your basic tools are dialogue and structure — structure first, really, structure comes before everything — and what you learn there can be taken onward into prose fiction or screenwriting with equal usefulness.

What do you think makes British dramas like Eleventh Hour so ripe for American adaptation?

The upside of the American network ethos is that they’ll try anything that looks as if it might draw them a crowd. They’ll buy a pitch, pour money into it, test it, air it, tweak it, drop it, try something else, all in the space of a year. It’s brutal but there are plenty of chances to get up and have another go. I got my first real glimpse of the system at a MediaXchange event in London a few years back. Two days of panels and screenings with showrunners, producers and staffers from LA, basically talking you through the system, the practice, the way of putting series together. It was a couple of hundred quid for the weekend, some of the best money I ever spent. Most people there were sent by their production companies. I saw Simon Crawford-Collins and the Spooks writers, and Shefali Malhoutra from Granada. Simon had been my location manager on Oktober, and Shefali would be the development producer on Eleventh Hour. One of the panelists was Luke Reiter, with whom I’d later work on The Forgotten.

One of the things that stuck with me was an improv exercise on the Saturday afternoon where the US writers took unpromising elements yelled out by the audience and turned them into a workable franchise. I began to see the difference between the thinking for a story and the thinking for a show. I put that into practice when I started work on Eleventh Hour but didn’t get too far with it on the UK version where I didn’t even get to meet the other writers, let alone brief or supervise them. But as one of the JBTV execs later told me, when she picked the pilot script off a pile she spotted my intentions straight away. As British writers start to think more like executive producers we’ll find the US taking more interest in our stuff. Then maybe our own broadcasters will be a little more adventurous as they realise they’re no longer the only game in town.

Definitions of “science-fiction” are becoming increasingly convoluted – just look at Wikipedia with its measured approach to plausibility within the genre. How do YOU define science-fiction, and what’s your attraction to it?

Oh, Jeez. Bear in mind I’m a dinosaur and my conception of what makes sf was formed pre-Star Wars, and by magazine stories and novels rather than by anything on the screen. The heart of sf to me is a surprising idea pushed to its logical conclusion, which can require the creation of an alternate but plausible narrative reality to contain it. Not sf tropes in a bog-standard adventure plot.

You were lead writer on Crusoe (but hang on, that isn’t my question). My question is, what exactly is a lead writer? As a lead writer how much influence do you have over the other scripts, and how do you go about finding other scriptwriters for the series?

A lead writer is Britain’s gelded version of a showrunner. Both write show-defining scripts, set the series arcs, brief the other writers and take a final pass on the scripts for consistency. But generally speaking, a lead writer has no producing power. If you can fire a director, you’re a showrunner. If a director’s giving you notes, that’s a lead writer. The Crusoe job was an odd hybrid, for two reasons — time was so short that the production company bought my take in its entirety and let me crack on with it, and then I was working day-to-day with an American producer and network. They expect you to own problems and solve them, not just offer suggestions. The other writers were people known to Power TV in one way or another. NBC brought in Rohan Gavin, and Avrum Jacobson came in from Canada.

Ever sat in Starbucks with a script…?

Nah. See? I told you I wasn’t a proper writer.
LAST WORD FROM LUCY: Thanks Stephen, you’re a star. And as for you Ellie, I can safely say it’s been a PLEASURE to have had you on board here and at the Facebook site and I know my Bang2writers think so too… Thanks so much for your time and I’m glad you got something out of it ‘cos we certainly did: your articles have been insightful, informative, interesting and most importantly, fun to read! Best of luck creating and building your career and see you in the blogosphere and hopefully, “real life” too!

Connect with Ellie here on Facebook and find her own blog here.

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