BAFTA nominated writer and director Stuart Urban has a four page spread in this month’s Screenwriting Goldmine magazine. He talks to interviewer Angela Hagan about starting his career at 13, his experience of the industry, what it’s like winning awards, and how he likes to write.
The following is an extract, but you can read the full interview by subscribing to the magazine via this link: https://www.screenwritinggoldmine.com/open-door/
You are no stranger to awards ceremonies, what’s it like winning a BAFTA?
It’s amazing. I won twice in my thirties when I was ‘gosh the world is at my feet’ but it isn’t like that at all – it goes up and down! I remember winning the BAFTA for An Ungentlemanly Act and my wife saying; ‘we’re made!’ And then I spent the next six months out of work, as is often the case! It is, of course, wonderful to get one but it doesn’t guarantee anything, though certainly people will take you more seriously. I think nowadays it is a much more vibrant period than, say, the eighties and the nineties. Back then was a more rarefied world and there wasn’t as much work. But, on the other hand, if you were at the BBC on the fifth floor in the drama department you would put together an exciting script and a cast and you didn’t have to go through the whole commissioning loop like you do now. If you had a good package, it got made.
You took your first ever film to Cannes aged 13 - what advice do you have for very young screenwriters/filmmakers?
If you want to be a filmmaker the positive thing is that there’s no excuse for not picking up your device, whether it’s an iPad or iPhone, to make, shoot and edit your own films. That’s great and a democratic revolution in the last few years. However, there’s an immense wave of people doing it, therefore to rise and push your head above water is a lot more difficult. And you have to think more than ever before about how you’re actually going to place your work in front of the public, whether you do a niche subject or an issue-led drama or the kind of thing that’s happening in the world that you care about. More competition means your work must be that much more outstanding and you have to work very hard at it, such is the huge rise of applications to film festivals. It requires even more application and discipline and dedication than before. Yet it’s still possible to make incredible breakthroughs - the film recently, Tangerine, was all shot on an iPhone about trans people in LA, so it can be done.
Do you write every day?
At the moment I’m researching, which is one of my great displacement activities! Everything is relevant, and it’s rewarding, though one can over-research. I tend to write quite fast. I can usually write a first draft of a one hour drama in about four weeks, and sometimes I have written a feature script in that time. It depends how much factual cross checking and compliance you have to do. For example you don’t have to back up every conversation or fact, but not doing so can lead to a long time to unpick it all when the legal team asks ‘So did Hazel really have kinky sex in the dentist chair with the gas mask on?’
TV and film is well known for being a tough industry – how tough do you have to be to get on?
The art of the game, once you get to a certain level, is to get on with people, justify yourself often and have a very thick skin. If that’s not you I’d say don’t go into it, it’s too stressful!
Any real advice that you can give to new writers?
Be incredibly tenacious and keep writing. It was my sixth screenplay which got made, after I had been very disappointed by the five before which had got nowhere, probably because they were not good enough to be made actually. Then, whatever anyone tells you about a script I think you should only listen to them if A. they’re saying the same as everybody else and B. if they’re paying for it (even if they’re only prepared to pay £100) otherwise, stick to your vision! It took me a few years to get to that level. Also it’s not true that you have to keep rewriting - I personally don’t think they’re paying you to write ten drafts. I do not believe that every script has to have 20 drafts. Lastly, try to be paid to write for anything in any format – all of it is a craft: speech-writing, corporate videos, any kind of paid work.