Monday, May 07, 2007

Life On Ashes

And here it is, as promised.

Mark Greig has written for Life On Mars, Taggart, Afterlife and the new Gene Hunt series Ashes To Ashes. He found time in his busy schedule to answer a few nosey questions from myself.

Q: How did you get into writing?

Constantly being told that I was 'good at English' as a boy, and devouring the written word like chocolate raisins.

And for more...

Q: What's your writing highlight to date?

Getting to the end of the first draft of anything. Plus a few neat story beats and some lines of dialogue - most of my favourites of which ended in the cutting room bin. Note for learning writers; dialogue isn't really what it's about.

Q: Readers of your blog are aware of your love for all things stationary, what is your most treasured stationary object and why?

A Pentel propelling pencil I've had for years, because I've had it for years, and because writing in pencil makes the words on the page somehow provisional and fluid, which is a good thing in the early stages of making something up. And the yellow A4 pads from Ryman's, of which I have a satisfying stack. And a lovely notebook from Muji that's too beautifully functional to use. And, and, and...

Q: You're currently working on Ashes To Ashes, is there anything else we should be keeping an eye out for?

No guarantees, but there's a better chance than most that a single I'm developing at the Beeb will make it to screen - an urban fairytale with songs and rent boys - and as I write this, an amber light is flickering to green on a 2 part pilot for a new cop show that will be written before the end of the year.

Q: What can you tell us about Ashes To Ashes with out getting fired or publicly flogged?

Mmm. Most of the stuff we hoped to hold back is now in the public domain - how *do* people get hold of it?? - e.g. 1981, London, female co-lead etc. Same but different. And better, obviously. I find Alex Drake a stronger and more interesting character to write than Sam Tyler (CHARACTER, weirdy fan nuts - no reflection at all on John Simm's excellent performance), who was oddly passive for a dramatic lead.

Q: It was reported that there was going to be a third series of Life On Mars, but this was changed at the last minute and the final episode rewritten to bring an end to the show. As you wrote the penultimate episode how did this decision impact on you and the rest of series two?

It was known that there would only be two series before Matthew started on the last episode, but that start was pretty late. Although Matthew always had the ending clearly in mind, the plot and story mechanics (i.e. how to make it work) didn't really emerge until I was on draft 3 or thereabouts (this was a year ago, so it's hazy). By that time the Frank Morgan/Hyde character had made such an impact that it was obvious we'd be missing a trick if he didn't continue into ep 8 in a big way. The story of the week of ep 7 was locked down quite early, but various bits relating to Hyde - what Sam knows and when etc. - were tinkered with up to principal photography and beyond.

Q: On my blog I've discussed two possible interpretations of the ending of Life On Mars (I may just have been reading more into it than there was). What was your interpretation of the ending and what was the official one?

Sam was in a coma, and entered a 1973 world weaved from a slippery combination of memory and fantasy. A surgical process brought him round from his coma, but he found the 'real' world less vivid and meaningful than this other world, a world where he paradoxically felt more alive and more true to his emotional self, so he chose to return there permanently by killing himself.

As far as I know that's also the official version. Everybody involved were, and continue to be, amazed by the myriad alternative interpretations, some of which were, well - perhaps a little over-complicated. Good reading, though.

There was no time travel.

Q: What instructions were you given for writing Gene Hunt?

I watched the first series and read a couple of early drafts of series 2 eps. You don't get instructions in the way I think you mean.

Q: Your episode of Life On Mars was slightly darker in tone than previous episodes, was that deliberate?

Only in so far as it reflects my apparent inclination towards the heart of darkness. Just can't help it.

Q: Please explain the process once you've been commissioned for an episode of a series?

You have a chat about the series as a whole and your ep in particular with the producers, editors, and sometimes the other writers. You come up with an idea and put it on a page. They like it. You then do a treatment/sequence outline/beat sheet, whatever you've all agreed to call it on that particular project.

I call it a beat sheet and tell the story in sequence units of a paragraph or two, numbered for ease of discussion (much better to refer to number 17 rather than 'you know, that bit where she gets lost in the cave, the one after the bit where the old bloke says 'whatever you do, don't go in the cave'.'). You send that in, you meet and talk about it, and then you revise it. You then either meet and talk and revise or phone and talk and revise, and then you either revise and meet and talk or you go to script.

Repeat the submit, talk, revise process till you have to stop, usually the first day of principal photography. And sometimes beyond...

4, 6 & 8 part series work differently from things like the soaps and Casualty/The Bill etc. where episodes are to a greater or lesser degree storylined for the writer, but the basic process of submit, talk, revise and repeat ad infinitum applies to all.

Q: Have you ever had to turn down work that you regret, and what was it?

Probably the first series of Life on Mars. Who knew?

Q: What's your preferred writing beverage?

Coffee. By the piping hot black cafetiere load. Less of a beverage, more of an essential tool for living.

Q: Where do you write and under what conditions?

In a room at the back of the house with a view of next door's vast holly tree and the bully bastard magpies*, and occasionally with a little girl, who thinks that work means listening to music on headphones, wriggling on my lap demanding to look at pictures of herself on the PC.

*is it legal to shoot magpies? Someone out there must know. And cats, although I'm pretty sure I know that answer to that one. I'd just like it to be different.

Q: If you could have written an existing film or TV series from past or present, which one would it have been and why?

Mm. Don't know. There are lots of films and shows that I love and respect, but that doesn't mean I'd want to write them. I'm still happy to get sucked into someone else's world. And maybe I love them precisely because I *couldn't* have written them.

Q: What's your favourite film quote?

As above - it's not really about dialogue. That's there to move the plot along and show how clever the writer is, but for me the films and film moments that stay with me are about image and sound and the parts between the words.

Oh okay, if you're going to *force* me - uummmmm - "Do you eat the herring?"

Q: What advice would you give to a new writer trying to break into TV?

Have a gift for it, be productive and persistent. You learn more by doing than by being taught. And have a gift for it.

Thanks Mark.

If you want to wonder at Mark's world then check out his blog, but be warned he doesn't update it regularly even though he really should. Naughty boy!


Unknown said...

You can definitely shoot squirrels, so long as you kill them and don't maim them - er, I looked into it.

Could you lure the magpies away from next door's garden with an ingenious trail of sparkly things leading to a better place far, far away*?

*first identify the better place, then collect the sparkly things, then lay the trail...

Dan said...

Great Q&A, Dom. Cheers!

Near by said...

Yes great. Ta

Piers said...

Nice interview, ta

Andy Phillips said...

Thanks Dom and Mark.


Interesting Q&A - thanks Dom [and Mark].

Anonymous said...

cool, I loved the pencil bit