Dennis Hurleston is a screenwriter who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past few months. His way of writing light-hearted and funny yet simultaneously deep and moving stories is admirable and always makes for a pleasurable read. I caught up with Dennis to find out more about his journey to becoming a screenwriter…
1. Have you always been interested in writing? How did you come to start?
I was one of those kids who read whatever I could get my hands on, and wrote when I could. At school my favourite exercise was to read the first few paragraphs of a well-known short story and then develop our own ideas for the story. The Grand Guignol nightmare I produced from an understated Roald Dahl opening is too embarrassing to share here. My first lesson in “less is more”. There was a long hiatus from my teens onwards, but the urge to write never really left me.
When I eventually typed my first lines in years it was like coming home.
2. How did you discover screenwriting, and how did you learn the craft?
In the late 80s, I read my first screenplay and knew straight away that it was the genre I wanted to write.
It wasn’t until a decade later that I decided to start.
I delayed because we had young children and the priorities needed to be family life and a reliable income. I had already trained in psychodynamic counselling with its emphasis on exploring an individual’s inner world, and had gone on to train in systemic therapy with couples and families. I hope that training has given me an eye and an ear for the unspoken in communication between people which might have helped with my writing.
It was during the systemic training that I wrote a piece of dialogue for a family role play exercise, and the urge to write re-emerged.
I began working – untutored and freestyle – on a Word document (!) – on a feature length screenplay “Dear Uncle Nat”. Without the stimulus of sharing with, and bouncing off, others, I struggled. I joined the now defunct Kent Screenwriters group and enjoyed the experience of being with other people who loved the craft of screenwriting. I convinced myself that I still needed to develop my other career, and took on more courses in different therapies.
I had to be honest with myself though – I was procrastinating about writing.
Much of that procrastination was driven by self-doubt. What I have discovered about self-doubt is that, rather than let it bully you into abandoning something you love doing, you must ask what it is trying to tell you. In my case the doubt was about “would anyone really want to see anything I write?”
In direct opposition to self-doubt was this need to tell stories that no-one else would if I didn’t, so by then doing nothing was not an option.
I was already studying for an OU Literature degree (another distraction but it satisfied part of my need to engage with the written word.) In the final year they introduced a screenwriting module. I reconnected with my first love and was introduced to the disciplines involved in the craft.
3. Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Life! People! It might be an item I’ve read in a newspaper, a conversation, even a single line overheard. Last year, in a shoe shop, I observed a mother buying school shoes for a petulant teenager. Having persuaded him to try them on and walk around a bit, she said “No, don’t look down! Just feel the comfort!” – just the kind of line that has me speculating about the relationship, the back story, and how I might build a story out of it. “Millie & Dee”, however, came from the experience of cancer in my own family, and how I’d been moved by the way in which my emotionally undemonstrative sister bonded with her teenage son through line-dancing. My wife is also pretty inspiring. She’s been a great guide into the female psyche, which has helped in writing two female protagonists.
“What if?” ideas often pop into my head regularly, so I add them to my notebook and let them incubate for a while…
4. Do you have a particular routine/process for writing a script?
I’m sure I have been terribly undisciplined compared to most screenwriters, because the urge to just Get Stuff Down is too great to be any other way.
Above my desk (tiny table actually) is a note to self: “Don’t get it right. Get it written!”
Not original – stolen from Tony Grounds. It frees me up to follow my first instincts. My initial writing is completely raw as a result, and I love the intense feeling that comes from writing in that way. Exhausting as it is, it is also the most vital part of writing for me, because it contains the essence of the story I need to tell.
Ruthless discipline kicks in much later.
I trawl through, skim off the “froth”, kill off characters, wave farewell to what I’d imagined to be sparkling dialogue, and pare it down to the bone, trying at the same time not to lose the heart and soul of the work. Making sluglines consistent, proof reading for typos, trawling for syntactical and grammatical errors are eye-wateringly dull but often neglected parts of the job. I swear that last week I read a script for a televised series, which described a woman baking with a “flower-flecked face”. Having said that, I did once write Odour Cologne in a school essay!
New screenwriters have to be almost forensic checking their work before sending it out if they want to be taken seriously. Tarantino can get away with asides and digressions. We can’t.
5. Can you tell us a bit about your latest script, Millie & Dee?
It’s a full-length screenplay about two very different women, one a successful middle class artist, the other a no-nonsense care worker from the other end of the social scale. Both breast cancer patients, they have a run-in in outpatients and form an unlikely friendship. Millie impulsively offers to teach Dee to paint, while Dee counters with a challenge to Millie to join her line dancing group as it prepares for a big competition. Opposition comes in the form of Millie’s controlling husband, both women’s own character flaws, and the spectre of cancer. The question is always “How can this friendship survive, never mind the patients?”
6. I love the lighthearted and humorous overtones to Millie & Dee. Are you influenced/inspired by any particular writers/TV shows/films?
I read as many screenplays as I can find the time to, and I love the humour that runs through great films such as “American Beauty” and “The King’s Speech.” I tend to work from the principal that you can find humour in almost any situation, but it must be used with a light touch, and both of these films pull that off.
There’s a difference between writing to get people to laugh out loud, and having them touched by characters’ capacity for humour in difficult times.
7. I admire how you’ve managed to create a story about cancer, which isn’t defined by the cancer itself. It’s really a story about friendship and independence, which is initially sparked by the illness. How did you keep focussed on the real theme of friendship and independence?
This story was always going to be about friendship in the face of adversity and opposition, rather than about cancer. I also wanted to create a story about class and cultural difference, and about relationships. In fact when I first showed it to a screenwriter, I was advised to make more of the cancer element because I’d made it so secondary. I don’t know if, unconsciously, I was avoiding confronting head-on a subject that I’d been touched by through the death of my sister from breast cancer. I rewrote to give cancer more of a presence as an antagonist in subsequent drafts, but still felt it to be important to subsume its role to the central themes of friendship and identity. Essentially “Millie & Dee” is about living despite cancer. I hope I have now managed to achieve the right balance.
8. What advice would you give to writers who are considering writing about a hard-hitting topic such as cancer?
Writers are often told to “write what you know”, and there’s a lot of sense in that, especially if you take on a topic like cancer.
Whether you think you know about your subject or not, research is essential.
The challenge is to wear that research lightly. I find few things worse than a “matador” style of writing which flicks jargon at you to show how well researched it is. In an issue-based story, showing not telling is particularly important; otherwise you’re left with very worthy-but-dull viewing (if it ever makes it to the screen). Just as important, if writing about a character with cancer, is to remember that the character is the protagonist. Cancer must be just one of several antagonists if you want to avoid creating a one-dimensional story.
8. These days, many screenwriters are branching out into novel-writing and vice versa. Do you think this is something you might try?
I don’t have “the novel” in me to write. I’ve certainly enjoyed the disciplines involved in both short story writing, and writing for radio, though, and would never rule out venturing down either route…
9. What’s next for Millie & Dee; the script?
It would be pointless writing a screenplay that I’m so passionate about if I’m going to just file it away. So right now I am submitting it to competitions to get it out there. I am also hoping that an agent or producer will find the story, and how it’s written, intriguing enough to want to represent me/develop it. Writing “Millie & Dee”, my first completed feature length script, has been a huge learning experience.
One brutal lesson I did learn is “Never send anything out too early.”
It most probably is not yet good enough. Someone once said that writing is rewriting, rewriting and rewriting, and I can heartily agree with that. It is almost never ready. In my experience it’s important to get it read by a reputable professional script reader who can tell you straight what you need to do to elevate it, rather than offer you ego-massaging platitudes. Both my screenplay and my ego have taken huge knocks over the past year, but I have been determined to learn from them because I know I have an important story to tell.
10. And what’s next on the cards for Dennis Hurleston; writer? Any more projects in the pipelines?
I have a soft spot still for my very first (uncompleted) “Dear Uncle Nat”, and would love one day to develop that, but I have a couple of short film ideas I want to finish first. A new idea emerged just this week, during one of my regular “what if?” daydreams, which has excited me. I will flesh it out in my notebook and who knows? It might just take precedence over the others, and I’ll be consumed again…
I say go for it, Dennis!