Dom’s a Bournemouth Film and Television Screenwriting graduate who has worked really hard over the past 12 years to build up his career. Today, he’s got a screenwriting prize, 4 commissions, an agent and an option under his belt. So, aside from very hard work, how does a screenwriter get from Uni to full-time screenwriting career? I’m delighted to welcome Dom to Writesofluid to find out!
Welcome, Dom! So, first thing’s first – how did you get into writing in the first place? Was it something that you had always wanted to do?
I kind of stumbled into it to be honest. I’ve always had a great love of films, TV, and making up stories, but it wasn’t until I had an eight-month period of unemployment in the 90s that I actually knuckled down and wrote something longer than a two-verse poem.
At the time I lived in a one-mile square village in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside and being unemployed meant I couldn’t go anywhere, I didn’t have a car and the buses were crap, and I became very bored very quickly. Books were my only lifeline and I bought one a week with the little money I had. At the time my creative leanings didn’t have a focus and it was on impulse that I bought a screenwriting book – Teach Yourself Screenwriting by Ray Frensham. After reading it I decided to write a screenplay, basically because I didn’t have anything else to do. The result was utter rubbish, the worst screenplay ever, but I learnt from it and it showed me that at least I had a talent for structure. It was a start. I put the screenplay away and forgot about it.
A few years later I found myself in a dead end job with no prospects and I was rummaging through my bedroom cupboard for my CV so I could update it, when I came across the forgotten screenplay. I remembered how much I had enjoyed writing it and decided writing for a living was an avenue I was going to explore. I applied for the BA (Hons) scriptwriting course at Bournemouth and was accepted on the second attempt. I was off and running.
What was Uni like as a training ground? Is Bournemouth THE place to study screenwriting? What can students do outside of their normal Uni work to put themselves ahead of the pack?
I enjoyed university very much and I learnt a lot about writing, but next to nothing about what I should do once I left university. I would certainly recommend Bournemouth as a place to study however, you have to decide if it’s the best direction for you to take as a new writer, as there are plenty of alternatives. I’m going to say something very controversial now, so please don’t yell at me, but… if you want to be a writer a scriptwriting degree is a total waste of time. Let me explain why…
If you want to be a writer a scriptwriting degree is a total waste of time.
To be a solicitor you have to have a law degree. You don’t need a scriptwriting degree to be a writer, anyone can be a writer, and indeed there are a ton of writers out there who don’t have a degree and who have made very successful careers for themselves. If a producer is looking for a writer for a project the degree isn’t going to play even the smallest part in their decision. What is important to them is whether they feel they can work with you or not. If you come across as a gibbering loon bag they are going to get you out of the door as quickly as they can, degree or no degree.
Where the scriptwriting degree does come in useful is if you’re young, have plenty of patience and don’t mind starting at the bottom.
Very few of the people on my course are still writing, but others have used the degree as a stepping-stone to other careers. One such graduate joined an agency straight after leaving uni, reading through the scripts in their spec pile. Now he is a very successful agent in his own right. Two others who graduated the same year as I did, from one of the other media courses at Bournemouth uni, are now both successful producers, having started off as runners in TV and working their way up.
If you’re a more mature writer you might want to bypass the degree and teach yourself how to write, read lots of books on the subject, attend lots of weekend courses and practice, practice, practice!
If students want to get ahead of others on their degree they need to start entering competitions, getting their work out there, get feedback, learn and improve. The other way to get ahead of the pack is to learn to network like a ninja, and create yourself an online profile.
Approaching industry professionals is a great idea, but be polite, ask them what they’re working on, or just simply tell them you love their work (make sure you know what you’re talking about though, otherwise you’ll be found out and it will get you a bad name – nobody likes a phoney arse licker!). Don’t ask, especially pester, them to read your work. Make friends with them and they will remember you for being a nice, polite friendly person who has shown an interest in what they do. This could pay dividends in the future. The more people you know, the more varied your contact list, the better your prospects.
How did you keep up the momentum after finishing Uni? Were there difficult times, and how did you overcome this?
There have been a lot of tough times since leaving university. The first six years after I graduated I was completely and utterly lost. I knew nothing about the industry and struggled to make any connections. I still wrote, occasionally sending stuff out, but I was at a loss to understand why I wasn’t getting anywhere. Basically I drifted and I began to lose interest. There were even times I considered packing it all in.
There were a couple of highs to keep me going; AGN – a comedy horror short film which was broadcast on Norwegian TV and THE TRAVELLER – a short thriller which was picked as an official selection at the Cannes Short Film Festival 2011 and the Gulf Film Festival 2012. Short films are a great way to get your name out there and to showcase your writing. I’ve another one, a comedy called GOODBYE, coming out just before Christmas.
Despite the odd achievement now and then it was only when I made a conscious effort to make contacts within the industry, to learn how the TV and feature film businesses worked, that I started to make serious progress. I’ve always been shy and networking is simply terrifying, even now, but I forced myself to do it and not only does it get easier, but I really love it now. I’m quite happy to wander up to complete strangers and start talking to them.
Originally working a day job I found I was too tired most evenings to do any writing. It wasn’t until I deliberately swapped my day job for an evening one, working from 5pm to 2am, that I got any real amount of work done. Just a simple change to my working hours meant I could get up early and work hard on my writing until it was time to go to work. I got a lot done and it really helped to improve my writing too.
Everyone has days when it’s not going right, or they simply can’t be bothered. On those days if I have a deadline I plug my headphones in, switch on iTunes and listen to Oasis while I force myself to work. If I don’t have a deadline I’ll work until I have a page of work done and then bugger off and have a lazy day off. I’m not worried about this because I know there will also be those days where I write tons, balancing out my lazy days. Why force myself if I’m not in the mood?
There have also been times when I’ve been so skint I’ve not known if I should spend the last of my money on petrol to get to work or on food so I can eat. There have been a lot of times when I have had to make some tough sacrifices, including selling all my books and DVDs just to eat. I still make hard sacrifices for my career even now. My eldest son’s birthday is on the 25th October during LSWF weekend. Every year I’m struck with guilt when I buy my LSWF ticket. I make it up to him when I get back though; I’m not that much of a bad dad.
Since 2011 things have really started kicking off for you. You won the Prequel To Cannes Feature Screenwriting Prize with your spec script Faith. How did this feel? Did it lead to any other opportunities? Do you recommend writers enter competitions?
It was an odd feeling. I entered the competition and honestly forgot all about it. It wasn’t until my wife told me I had made the final four, after seeing it posted on Facebook, that I got really excited. I made the mistake of looking online to see who the judges were. I found out I knew some of them and knowing how important their integrity and impartiality was to these judges, I decided I wasn’t going to win so forgot all about the competition again. It came as a great shock to find out that I had actually won and I was walking around with a big childish grin on my face for days after.
It meant more to me than if I had won any other competition, because knowing the integrity of the judges I know for sure that they must have really, really, really liked my screenplay to vote it the winner. It made the win ever so special. After the win the same screenplay got me onto Industrial Scripts’ Talent Connector Scheme, interest from Curtis Brown and approaches from a ton of directors and producers who wanted to work with me. It was all very overwhelming at first.
Of course writers should be entering competitions, as many as they can. Not only do competitions give you exposure if place in them, but most of them also provide invaluable feedback on your work.
I’ve also heard of judges contacting writers who didn’t win, after the competition, to option their work because they loved it so much. It’s all about exposing your work and yourself as a writer.
In 2012 you got your first couple of commissions – The Lost Soul for Paramita Entertainment and The Giant Under The Snow by John Gordon. They’re very different projects. How did these come about, and how are they going so far?
They both came about through networking. On the first I was approached by one of the judges of the Prequel To Cannes Feature Screenwriting Prize and asked if I was busy. He had been to Cannes the year before and had met a French director/producer couple there. They had contacted him late 2011 looking for help with a feature project they were working on. At the time he was too busy with corporate work to take the job, but remembered that my winning screenplay was in the same genre and recommended me to them. I started the first draft in January 2012.
The second came about from a Prequel and Sequel to Cannes networking event at Lighthouse in Poole. I listened to the producer pitch the idea to a panel during a pitching competition in which he eventually he came second. I told him I loved his pitch and it was a pity it didn’t win. A couple of months later he approached me and asked me to write a treatment. I did and I think he was impressed because he came back a month after that and offered me the screenplay.
Both projects are still in the process of finding funding, although The Lost Soul now has a short teaser to view on You Tube.
Working on a commission, to a deadline and in collaboration with a team of people, must be very different from working on your own specs or working to a Uni deadline. What’s the process? There must be difficulties, as well as benefits?
I love working on other people’s projects and there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate me. I can get stuck in a rut with my own specs sometimes but with a commission I can’t afford to; it really focuses the mind.
There have been some difficulties, which I won’t go into any great depth about, but thankfully not many. They’ve been the usual – difference of opinion, that sort of thing, nothing that can’t be sorted out by a six-hour line-by-line examination of the screenplay on Skype.
The writing process for each of my commissions has been slightly different. First I turn their idea into a 6 to 10 page treatment, sometimes longer, to show where I would like to take it. This is so the producer and I can see if we are on the same page. I’ll usually get notes once I’ve made the changes and if they approve of them, then I begin work on the characters.
Characters are important to me because everything I write will succeed or fail on how well the characters are constructed, so I spend quite a bit of time on them.
Then I get my index cards out and write down forty of the key scenes. They don’t have to be detailed, just enough information so I know what’s happening. If I need to know more I can always refer back to the treatment.
Once the scenes are sorted it’s on to the first draft. I can usually knock out a first draft in 21 days leaving me enough time to go over the draft a few more times, checking character arcs, dialogue and structure before I hand it in. Hopefully they’ll like it and there won’t be many notes for the rewrites.
The screenplay then goes back and forth until everyone’s happy with it, although I’m a perfectionist and I’m never totally happy with anything I do. Just one more draft before I email it out… please?????
I do, however, tend to procrastinate more on my spec scripts. It’s easy to do when there’s no deadline and no one breathing down your neck.
At the end of 2012, you landed an agent! This is often one of those scary, elusive accomplishments that writers fear. What was your quest to get an agent like (before Christina)? How did you land yourself in Imagine Talent’s book of clients? What strategy would you recommend writers take when trying to get an agent?
It took me years to get to the stage where I was ready for an agent. Over that time I’d already approached most of the bigger agencies and been turned down. I got the occasional, “I like your work”, but nothing more than that. In the end I gave up looking and networked hard to get my own work and negotiate my own contracts. It wasn’t until a friend told me about Christina setting up her own agency that I became interested in agents again.
I emailed her, sent her some of my work, met up a week later, the day before the LSWF and she offered to represent me on the spot. I bloody love Christina, she is truly an awesome agent. She’s the second woman in my life and I couldn’t do without her insights and dedication.
Most writers try to land an agent way before they are actually ready for, or indeed need one. You need more than one completed screenplay to land a good agent.
What you have to remember about agents is they are in this to make money. If they don’t make money they won’t survive. To land an agent you have to prove to them that you are a viable prospect, that you’re finding your own work, or that you show promise by winning a competition or two. If you can’t show either of these don’t waste your time looking for an agent.
If you think you are ready then research agents and approach two or three at a time with a short, polite introductory email – what you’ve done, what genre you like to write most and why you’ve approached them specifically. I would advise seeking out independent or smaller agents, as they will work harder for you.
Hopefully they should write back and ask for samples of your work. Send them something you love, something that will knock their socks off. If they like it they will ask to read more and if they like that they ask to meet you. Don’t be nervous, they just want to see you’re not a psychopath and that you have a clear career plan. Remember they will eventually be working for you, if they agree to represent you, which means you’ll be the boss.
What I took to my meeting with Christina, that really impressed her, something she told me she had never seen before from a writer, was a spreadsheet breakdown of what I had earned over the last year as a writer and what was still yet to be paid. It’s a brilliant tool to show you are earning money and a massive incentive for them to take you on. Obviously getting that work in the first place is easier said than done.
Us writers are always told that a portfolio is essential in order to show off your skills to other industry professionals, particularly agents. Yours must have been varied, given the different genres you’ve gone on to be commissioned to write. What was your portfolio like? What do you recommend a writer has in their portfolio?
I had 11 years of writing behind me before I landed Christina and consequently my portfolio was massive. I had everything in there from 10 minute dramas and comedies, half-hour sitcoms, hour dramas and comedy dramas, TV features, to dark drama, thriller, comedy features. Christina had plenty of work to choose from. I’m still not sure if she’s managed to read it all yet.
Ideally writers should have a 10-minute short, a half hour sitcom, an hour drama episode and a feature in their portfolio. If they also have work in a number of different genres it helps to show their versatility.
You’ve been incredibly busy over the past couple of months, with your latest completed commissioned feature, “Playground,” causing quite a buzz already. What’s it all about?
It’s about child soldiers in Africa, the loss of innocence, suddenly being thrust into an adulthood world and witnessing some seriously crazy shit children should never be subjected to. It’s about hope, recovery and above all the importance of childhood.
I constantly harassed Paul the producer to let me write the screenplay, because once I had read his outline I knew I was the only one WHO COULD write it. He finally gave in after about three months of pestering from me, but we didn’t get around to working on it for nearly another year and a half because of his work commitments. When I handed in the first draft Paul cried, not once, but twice. It was then we all knew it was going to be something special.
I can’t really say much more about it other than it has already attracted some serious attention both here in the UK and in Hollywood. It’s going to be massive and I’m so glad Paul let me be a part of it.
What’s next in the screenwriting diary for Dom the working screenwriter? And for Dom the spec writer?
I’m currently working on the first draft of my latest commission, an adaptation of the novel Cowboys Can Fly by Ken Smith, for Sean Langton, a very talented producer who has just finished his first feature and is most certainly going places.
I’ve just finished a second draft of a spec comedy heist feature. I’m still not happy with it though and want to get back to another rewrite as soon as possible.
When can we hope to watch some of your work on the Internet/TV/big screen?
Your guess is as good as mine. Movies take ages, years even, and I have to admit I’m not the most patient of people…but I am learning. Playground has the highest chance of being made first so keep an eye out for that.
There are some short films and comedy sketches on my You Tube channel you can watch and I have a comedy short called GOODBYE currently in post production that is due to be delivered by Christmas.
What advice would you give writers who are hoping to take their screenwriting from novice to professional level?
Work hard on your writing to improve it. Write every day. Read as many professional screenplays as you can. Read as many nonprofessional screenplays as you can. Read anything you can. Just read lots. Network like a person possessed. Be polite, helpful and interested. Don’t push your work on people. Build relationships. Wait for people to ask to see your work before sending out.
Take on board constructive criticism. Don’t be precious about your work. Seek out advice from people higher on the ladder than you. Don’t pester or bombard them though. Write, write, write, write and write. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Get feedback from a seasoned reader – like your good self, Michelle – I use Michelle and she’s awesome.
Mix with other writers. Don’t be a cock. Go to weekend seminars, talks, yearly festivals and enter as many competitions as you can. Learn, learn, learn, learn and learn. Write a blog. Build an online profile. Use Twitter, Facebook and Linked In. Don’t slag people off in public or online. Don’t slag off work that someone has spent years on, in public, or online. Be nice. Be likeable. Work for free when you’re starting out.
Keep at it and don’t let the momentum slack… ever! It’s well easy being a writer 😉
Thanks, Dom! A fantastic, insightful interview. And thank you so much for the script reading compliment too 😉
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