'Finish your scripts' Modern Life is Rubbish screenwriter Philip Gawthorne on writing craft and more
Philip Gawthorne is the screenwriter of British rom-com movie Modern Life is Rubbish who is now working for Hollywood studios on a number of blockbuster projects including Chrononauts for Universal Studios. Here he tells Mandy News how he got started, how he approaches screenwriting and what screenwriters can do to get noticed.
Philip, tell us how you got involved in writing TV and film.
It all started for me as a playwright. I studied film and TV at university, got my degree and then moved out to London. My first start was at the Royal Court Theatre, and this is going way back, and they had this thing called the Young Writers Programme. You had to apply but that was my first real entry point along with other young playwrights. It was a quicker process to just create work and have it put on - even if it was just a stage reading. There was an immediacy to the process and it was exciting being around other writers and that led to a few connections in the theatre world.
At the same time, I learnt the new landscape of the London theatre world, which of course was all new to me, by knowing which venues put on new writing as opposed to older or established plays. I figured out how that system worked and then started to work in TV. Broadly, that was my trajectory from theatre to television and I recently completed my first feature film Modern Life Is Rubbish.
What got you into writing in the first place, before you went to university to study it as a subject?
The funny story that I like to tell, and my first memory of it, was I was obsessed with Transformers when I was a kid. I used to read the books as well as the cartoons. I was so into Transformers that at around four or five years old I wrote my own Transformers story and they read it out during one of my school’s assemblies. What was funny was my story was so long that the assembly had actually finished before my story had ended - so everyone had left. It was obviously a pretty epic Transformers story!
So I was interested in storytelling from a very young age. In my teens, Tarantino was a big influence on me because it felt like a really fresh, new voice with a man-on-the-street quality to his writing along with Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez. Those guys were coming up in independent film in the '90s and it seemed like they had jumped the queue in a good way. It felt like writing was no longer inaccessible, elite and more penetrable to a regular person like myself. My family weren’t in the business and I had no industry connections or contacts whatsoever. As Tarantino, Smith and Rodriguez had figured out a way to get in, it started to open the idea for me that maybe it isn’t as impossible as it sounds.
As I got a bit older, I really got into David Mamet in a big way and he had a huge influence on me. That led to me being interested in theatre and that was somewhat more accessible than film and TV.
What was it that led you to writing Modern Life Is Rubbish? Before the short in 2009 or did you write it for that?
I think it was in 2004 or 2005. I was doing the Young Writers programme at the Royal Court Theatre and I started meeting up with the other members to do our own things and exercises. We were assigned this exercise where we had to write a piece or scene that is inspired by a song – it was such a great exercise. Other people had done songs that were literally a story of a song such as The Kink’s song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ which is actually a story in and of itself.
For whatever reason, I gravitated towards the song ‘With Or Without You’ by U2 as I was more interested in the conflicting emotional state. That song always seemed to me to be a timeless song that never really got old. So I started thinking of this relationship that was a ‘With Or Without You’ scenario but it led to something that became about music itself and our relationship to music, specifically a couple who were separating their music collection and their differing views on modernity and technology were illustrative of the fissures in their relationship. So it became this commentary about modern life and the de-romanticism of music consumption.
We no longer bought records from record shops and they were dying off. This was going back away – and not as extreme as it is now – but that was the catalyst. Then it became a short play and was on at a series of theatres in London and later New York City and LA. I met Dan Gill and he was interested in finding some material and I gave him the short play, he loved it and wanted to turn it into a short film. It was only after that, that it eventually turned into a feature film but it was a very, very long journey. It all started with one writing exercise. I never would have imagined the journey that little piece would go on.
When you’re transforming something from a short play to a short film and then taking it to the big screen, what are the transitional differences and processes you go through as you write them?
That’s a great question! One of the reasons the film worked as well as it did is more of a credit to the director (Dan Gill) and the production team because they did an amazing job of opening it up and making it feel cinematic and visual. I remember when I was training at the BBC, we would talk about if a story is really well-told then you should be able to turn the sound off and someone should still be able to follow the story. It was challenging with this piece as it was so dialogue-heavy and its origins were in theatre which tends to be more dialogue-heavy.
The challenge was about trying to conceive ways where it didn’t feel, and this is not to be pejorative to those mediums, theatrical or televisual. It needed to be cinematic. Therefore, I needed to think of ways that would be visual to tell the story. It was tricky because so much of it was insular and contained so it was thinking of ways to open it up.
For example, there is a scene with the first kiss between the two characters and that takes place at a foam party at a student union and there is an explosive quality to that scene visually with not only the explosive foam but the chemistry between the two characters as well. That’s an example of finding a way to make it pop visually and not just tell the story through dialogue. Especially with a love story as dialogue becomes redundant because it needs to be about chemistry you can feel on-screen.
Once you and Dan had spoken about the project and finished the script for the film, how involved were you after that? Did you hand it over and step back or were you still involved through the production?
I had a really unique experience with that. I live in LA now and have done for the past five years and I was at that time transitioning from a visa to a green card and with that there is a window of 90 days where you can not leave the country. As fortune would have it, that was the exact time the film was going into production. So I was in a strange position where my first feature was being made and I literally couldn’t be there on set. It actually ended being a huge advantage as Dan and I had constructed everything from the beginning of the feature.
Once we started the feature process Dan and I worked very closely with each other throughout. It was a constant dialogue and we would be speaking and Skypeing every day. I was looking at every audition, being a sounding board for choices involving wardrobe, production, etc. I wasn’t getting in the way of the actors and relieving them of any pressure involving changes to the dialogue and they didn't have me being a bit precious about the script which sometimes can be unhelpful.
Secondly, it gave me a kind of dispassionate oversight in the sense that I could look at the footage during the editing stage and dispassionately say that something wasn’t working, or this actor wasn’t right, etc. It didn’t matter to me how nice or nightmarish a person was, how difficult it was to get a shot or how expensive it was. It was all about what was good for the film. In the end, it gave me an objectivity that I think was a useful voice in the process.
You’ve also written for such British classic TV series as Eastenders and Holby City. What is the difference approaching writing something like Modern Life Is Rubbish as a feature and something episodic?
This is going back 10 years but after I did the BBC Writers Academy, which was an amazing initiative, what it taught me was discipline. Film has a structure and a format but it’s a lot more malleable than television, specifically for the shows you mentioned. With those series, there is a very rigid format that needs to be addressed and there is also very rigid scheduling concerns. There is a mathematical element to those shows involving actor’s availability, what sets to use for which scenes, etc. That component is very useful as it’s the real world but the challenge is still finding ways to express creativity within a pretty strict format.
With film, and Modern Life Is Rubbish specifically as it was quite ambitious with its non-linear narrative, you have a little bit more room to breathe. I say ignore structure at your own peril especially if you’re trying to do commercial content. Unless you’re doing experimental arthouse stuff, you should always have an eye on traditional film structure especially if you’re starting out in mainstream cinema. The main difference between the two formats is more creative freedom, essentially.
How do you feel Modern Life Is Rubbish has gone down? How have the reviews been and how have you felt about it?
We had the film on at the Edinburgh Film Festival where it had its initial premiere and that was great and seemed to be very well-received. Then it was on at the Hawaii Film Festival and afterwards we got this great review from the Hollywood Reporter that compared it to two of my favourite films and were direct inspirations. High Fidelity and 500 Days Of Summer. I think it said something like: “If Nick Hornby had considered structuring High Fidelity like 500 Days Of Summer then the result would be something like the smart, British rom-com Modern Life Is Rubbish.” It was a perfect encapsulation of what we were trying to achieve. That was terrific and it felt like someone really understood what the film was. Those films were big influences along with early Cameron Crowe.
With a film like that, that wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s easy to cynically dissect it and attack it. It’s an open-hearted film so it requires an open-hearted viewer and if you have that then you will really connect and if you don’t then you won’t. We always knew the film wouldn’t be for everyone but the audience response has been sensational and I’ve had so many people contact me telling me that they really related to the film. Almost universally, people have a very powerful emotional relationship with music and with memories and that’s what this film was trying to evoke. That really has been striking a chord with people and that’s been wonderful to see and hear about.
What’s next for you?
The main thing I’m working on is a graphic novel written by Mark Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy called Chrononauts which is a time-travel action adventure. Mark Millar is the genius behind Kick-Ass and Kingsman and I was fortunate enough when I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, to hop over to Glasgow and have dinner with him and go to the pub. For someone so successful, he is so down-to-earth and cool and it’s amazing to be working with another writer who is so creative and talented. The other person I’m working with on that project is Chris Morgan, who is another incredible writer, and he’s producing it. Chris Morgan is one of the key figures in The Fast and the Furious franchise as a writer and producer of the last five movies.
So these are two guys who really understand adventure, action and the audience experience of a movie - they’re so dialled into that. It’s amazing collaborating with them and learning from them and trying to bring this really cool time travelling story to life with a unique take on the genre. This is all with Universal who have been fantastic partners too.
When can we expect it to be out?
Gosh, you never know with these things. The reality from my side since I moved to LA, you work on various projects, and I’ve worked for some huge projects such as Kojak for Vin Diesel’s company, but you don’t know which ones are going to go into production and when. It’s really more of a long game. There is a point where it’s no longer in your control. The only thing I can control is doing the best possible script I can do, be nice, be a good collaborator and consistently do good work. The rest is up to the gods of fate as to what goes into production and when.
Certainly with Chrononauts, we have a lot of momentum and I’m hopeful, and with a bit of luck, we will get something going in the next year or so – but you never know!
What advice do you have for young writers and people wanting to get involved with writing for TV and features?
Firstly, finish your scripts. That sounds obvious but one of the things that screws up a lot of people is the fear of their inner judgemental voice. You re-read scripts, when you haven’t even finished them, and you think they’re no good and end up not finishing them. Bash out that first draft and don’t re-read until you’re done. Put it in a drawer and come back to it and constantly re-write it. Otherwise, it’s being consistent, being disciplined and not giving up.
You have to realise, as I’m sure the most of your readership do, this business is 95% rejection. You have to be prepared for that and do your best to not let it deter you. It’s not only being consistent but being persistent too and treating it more like a marathon than a sprint. That first script you write might lead to one person reading it and telling you that it was good but also how to improve it. That relationship might lead you to writing a second script and that might not get made but leads you to a big director. That project might not get made but then they bring you on as a ghost-writer on another movie.
You have to look at it as a long-term process and not be dissuaded by it or seek short-term gain. In most cases, or certainly in mine, that’s typically not the case.
And Modern Life Is Rubbish – where can we see that?
The film is out in the UK now. It played at Picturehouse Cinemas in London, Cambridge, Liverpool, York and Edinburgh and you can now rent or buy Modern Life Is Rubbish from iTunes or get the DVD from HMV, Amazon, etc. I also believe it’s available on Video On Demand on Sky.
It’s a great date movie, it’s a great nostalgic experience and if you love music then you’ll love this movie.