Best known for writing the TV series Unforgotten, Amnesia and A Mother's Son, Chris Lang talks to Mandy News about his journey towards becoming a successful writer, producer and actor.
Chris, introduce yourself and tell the Mandy News audience how you got involved in the film industry as an actor, writer and producer?
I’m Chris Lang. I started out as an actor – it was quite a brief career. I went to the Royal Academy and went into repertory theatre. I formed a comedy duo with Hugh Grant and we did little theatre shows - we were doing quite well.
Then we got our own TV show which was not very good. So Hugh went off and became a film star, and I went off and decided to become a writer. I started writing comedy for other people then I started moving into drama in the late eighties, early nineties.
Amazing. So before you began writing professionally had you always written anyway?
It was chance, really. Even now it feels like a leap, a job that other people do. We were in repertory theatre and someone said, ‘we’re going to do a little gala show for the 20th anniversary of the theatre in Nottingham. We want to do a little celebration for the cast and crew’ – and they looked at me and my mate as the youngest members of the cast: ‘would you organise it?’
We spoke to all the actors and one said they’d read a poem, another said they’d sing a song, someone would do a speech from a play. And of course, we thought, well what will we do? So we thought we’d write a funny sketch. Then there was that moment where we thought, hold on, we’re not writers, we can’t write a sketch! But then you stop censoring yourself, and we thought, well maybe we could write a sketch, let’s see what it’s like to write one.
So we sat down, literally in the attic of one of our digs where we were staying and started to think of ideas - we came up with one and that was the first thing we ever wrote. I remember thinking, OK, this is hard but it’s doable.
So we performed it and it got a lot of laughs. Suddenly, we’ve written something. That makes us writers. Once you’ve broken that barrier down that you have in your own head, it’s a lot easier then and you start to believe in yourself.
I wrote comedy for us and comedy for other people off the telly – Alas Smith and Jones, Jack Dee, Jonathan Ross, David Frost... Then you start to believe in yourself more – people are paying me to do this, I can’t be complete rubbish!
Moving on from writing that first sketch to writing for these stalwarts of British comedy – how did that transition come about?Someone saw our show in Edinburgh - there were three of us and it was quite successful. We got shortlisted for the Perrier award (as it was called then). Lots of people saw that and from that point on people asked us to write for them. At that time we were mainly writing for ourselves. The other two guys in the team went off and did other things, but I was quite keen to write for other people. I quite enjoyed it. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’s company TalkBack, which became TalkBack Thames but back then was a tiny little company run by Pete Fincham, who went on to run ITV and BBC.
He had one office in Carnaby Street and two tiny rooms where they’d been making radio commercials. That was how they started out. They asked us to write some radio ads for them - which we did. We wrote loads of radio commercials, they did very well and won lots of awards, so Griff and Mel asked us to start writing for their sketch show.
Once you’ve written for one, then all the producers started ringing up saying ‘hey, have you got any writers I can steal to put on my show? That was the chain. That was the progression.
Amazing! So you said you moved into drama after that – Hustle, Casualty, The Bill. Most recently Dark Heart, Innocent and Unforgotten. How did you come to work on Unforgotten?
Your first gig as a drama writer is almost always going to be writing on someone else’s show and that was no different for me. It was a bit of a leap for me from writing two-minute sketches or thirty-second headlines for people, to writing drama. My first one was The Bill, which were half-hour shows. You try your best to get your foot in the door.
My agent sent my ninety-minute spec script in and they said to come in for a meeting. I went into The Bill - which was based down in Malden at that point. I met a few producers, pitched them a few ideas for some episodes. The great thing about a show that was not serialised - each episode stood alone - was that it was like writing a half-hour play. You could spend as long as you wanted writing it. You didn’t have a deadline or schedule to write to. It wasn’t episodic, so it would slot in when it was ready. So I spent nine months writing one half-hour episode of The Bill – my first ever.
It was a brilliant training ground. I stayed on that show for a couple of years and I wrote 12 or 13 episodes in the end. Again, like in comedy, if you’ve written 13 episodes of The Bill, then Casualty are going to ring you up, or you’re going to ring them up and they’ll say, ‘I see you’ve done good work on that show, so come and work on our show.’ I spent 6 or 7 years writing serious drama - but always with a view to creating my own shows.
Then I got my own original drama off the ground in 2000, which was called The Glass with John Thaw and Sarah Lancashire. That had taken me about 6 or 7 years from my first drama script. I think that’s quite normal - it’s part of the process. Then you start interspersing your dramas with series work, which you do to keep busy, earn money and to learn. Always trying to push your own ideas forward as well.
When you’re working on your own shows now, how do you approach it? What’s your process?
The creative process isn’t especially different. The production and the making process is profoundly different because when you are a writer for hire on someone else’s show you pretty much have to take every note you’re given. When you hand over the script, that’s it, you’re done. You’re not involved in casting, or the post-production process and you’d be lucky if someone sent you a DVD of the finished product before it went out on the telly. It was very unsatisfying for me to work like that. It wasn’t what I wanted, ever. So as soon as you start getting your own stuff made, you get to control what you want.
When I was writing an episode of Casualty, or writing my own six-part series, it’s your vision, your voice and you want that to be realised in the way that it is in your head. I have total control now. I’m an executive producer on everything that I write, which means that I take a very strong position on every single part of the process. Right from the first day of pre-production through to shooting, to the day we deliver to the broadcaster. That’s key for me. I think that’s where every writer should want to end up.
You’ll still make mistakes, you’ll still get things wrong and you’ll still choose the wrong people, but at least they’re your mistakes and not someone else’s. It’s a long old road to that, and for a young writer it can seem a long way ahead but there is no shortcut. In a funny kind of way, I don’t think there should be a shortcut because you have to earn your spurs. You have to spend twenty years doing it before you really know how to make those decisions.
So series 3 of Unforgotten has been running on ITV. And you’ve also got Dark Heart which has aired on ITV. Are there differences between those two shows in the way that you work on them? Do you have a process that works across all of the shows that you work on?
They’re very different shows tonally and visually. Unforgotten is a very real show - it’s quite prosaic in the way that the story is told. It’s not a frenetic show at all, it has a very considered pace. Dark Heart is the polar opposite - it has a very visually heightened style; it’s a genre piece of London noir. In terms of the creative process, it’s quite similar. On both shows I had one director because I’d worked with one director on Unforgotten and it had worked really well for me and the show.
Usually, you would break a six-part film down into either three or two blocks, and you’d have two directors, possibly three. But on Unforgotten, right from the beginning, we had just one director and he’s remained the same throughout the series so far - that really worked. You get continuity of vision from the director, continuity of creative vision from me. It’s great to have one person out there shooting your show, and one person who’s there from the beginning of prep right through to the delivery of the show. It’s been a very successful creative process.
Amazing. So what are you working on, apart from the edit on series 1 of Dark Heart?
Apart from that, I may well be working on more Unforgotten, but that’s not been confirmed yet. Then I’ll be developing scripts for the BBC and one for Sky.
Where do you find time to do life away from film work? You sound ridiculously busy!
Well, it’s been an insane two or three years. It’s been too busy, to tell you the truth and it’s been really hard. I was absolutely knackered doing the editing for Unforgotten as it came out. And it only finished broadcasting two weeks ago and we were editing up to a week before it finished airing. I was busy on Dark Heart and a little bit across the Netflix show and other developments.
I got to the end of July and felt really, really empty so I took all of August off and I’m now slowly dipping my toe back in. But I’m going to take it easy over the next eighteen months. It’s not ideal to work like that. It’s great when people want your work, but you have to know when to say, ‘I can’t actually do that many things.’ I did four series in one year, most people would make one in a couple of years. So, it was crazy.
What additional advice would you give to young writers who want to break into the industry?
Write every day whether you’re being paid or not. In the early days, pretty much take any writing job – and I’ve done some shockingly bad jobs but you’ll learn a lot. I’ve written training films, adverts, gags, quiz shows, comedy books, drama… I’ve written so many things. Lots of them were not brilliant but I’ve learned from everything. If someone’s offering to pay you for writing, take it. It might not be your most brilliant job but it’s money, it’s a form of commercial subsidy – it’ll allow you to do the things that you really burn to do.
You really do have to be driven. You cannot think that writing is some lofty ambition that you do when the muse takes you. It’s a job and you’ve got to work at least 9-5, 5 days a week. I work from 8 until 6 or 7. I did many 5-day, 12-hour days last year. But that’s what you’ve got to do if you want to succeed.
Before I let you go, could you put a number on the amount of drafts a writer has to go through before a piece of work is finished? I often feel that the public or new writers don’t understand that aspect.
When you’re younger, you resist rewrites because you think it’s judgement on your first pass, but the real reason you resist a rewrite is that you’re scared. You think all your brilliant scenes, dialogue, characters and themes are going to be completely upended. You don’t think you’ll ever be able to do anything as good as the draft that you’ve just handed in - you must overcome that fear as 7, 8, 9 drafts would be completely normal.
They get less and less as you go along, but definitely, the first 3 or 4 drafts can be quite hefty. They might take you half a day for each one but it’s completely normal. Stop resisting changing it, because generally, change makes it better.
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