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Industry Report: Television

Masterclass Série Series 2016: Matthew Graham


- Screenwriter Jed Mercurio interviews showrunner and series creator Matthew Graham at Série Series 2016

Masterclass Série Series 2016: Matthew Graham

(© Sylvain Bardin & Philippe Cabaret)

Matthew Graham began his career writing forty or so episodes of the cult British series EastEnders. He is also one of the co-writers of Spooks, Hustle and Dr Who and is the creator of both Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes. He has worked in America and, amongst others, has worked with George Lucas developing the Star Wars’ franchise into a series (but it was never made). More recently, he adapted Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, for a miniseries for SyFy. Today, he is being questioned by a fellow screenwriter, Jed Mercurio, who suggests going back over his experiences, his methods, his recipe for success and in some cases, failures.

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Matthew Graham, In the Beginning

From the age of twelve, Matthew Graham knew he wanted to be a scriptwriter. One of his neighbours brought home some scripts and he read them. Soon after, he began writing dramas for children, after all he was still only a child himself, a very determined one at that. When he was 16, he had a life-changing encounter with Terry Gilliam, who had just finished directing Brazil, and he agreed to read one of his scripts, which he turned down, but he did tell Matthew that he had no doubt that he would become a professional writer… This vote of confidence from one of the greats in the world of cinema was what fueled him. He found an agent very quickly and then learnt his craft on EastEnders, with its many storylines, but also learnt how to deal with all the production problems.

Matthew Graham is Not an Idealist

If there is one thing to learn from Matthew, it is that there is no point in dreaming of the ideal project. He realised a long time ago that, as an author, one has to be pragmatic. Rather than arriving with one’s own original idea, it is better to ask what the producers want. Once one has started working on a project, it very quickly becomes one’s own anyway. An interesting and unexpected confession for someone who has been so successful…

Childhood’s End: Between Respect for the Book and a Contemporary Adaptation

In light of this, he visited Michael De Luca, the producer, to see what he had options on and he came up with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a childhood favourite of Matthew’s. He prepared and made a verbal pitch to about 35 executives from the Syfy channel over the phone and they liked what they heard.

He feels that the medium of cinema would not have been right for this book, because it is too philosophical and too bleak and it is a story which needs more time to be developed than a feature film of one and a half to two hours.

What is important is to respect the book and for this reason he chose the series format. Respecting the book is fundamental, no matter who the author is, but also altering it as one sees fit, to make it palatable for a modern audience.

Back to Science Fiction

“It’s almost a miracle that we managed to make science fiction in the late 90s”, Matthew Graham says and a marvel to him that he managed to get The Last Train made. This is a post-apocalyptic serialised drama first broadcast by ITV in 1999, then on ITV2 and followed by many repeats on the U.K.’s Sci Fi Channel, renamed SyFy in 2010 (it should be noted that the American version, The Ark, commissioned by Fox Network, never went further than the pilot). At the time, the sort of series being created were Inspector Morse, or A Touch of Frost, which were very grounded and middleaged in their approach and delivery. Science fiction was considered, at best, eccentric. The question of genre is of prime importance.

The Importance of Genre

Science fiction is a very specific genre and it is not just a question of spaceships and flying cars, but needs to be more of a concept. “It must be set in our world”. Matthew Graham mentions the success of Humans, the British remake of the famous Swedish series Real Humans. Channel 4 normally has a more niche audience, but this was a very popular programme, because it was a new take on science fiction.

More generally, it is essential for a television scriptwriter to understand the meaning of genre. It is not just a question of selling an idea, but of knowing how to express this in an adapted format and according to a well-defined genre that appeals to executives and are easier to imagine. When he came up with the idea for Life On Mars, (with Ashley Pharoah and Tony Jordan) Matthew Graham wanted to even ‘’subvert genre’’, to push its limits. Undoubtedly, he will continue to do this as he is working on Electric Dreams, for Channel 4, at the moment, which is a series of ten stand alones based on an anthology of ten novels by the celebrated science fiction author, Philip K. Dick.

Writing is Not Selling

Unfortunately, success is not a question of quality of the writing. On this point, Matthew Graham does not hide his frustration, when he is not acting as showrunner, to see the broadcaster handing all the sales and marketing strategy over to people who have had nothing to do with the creative process. For Childhood’s End, they had a very good team and he liked the way they promoted the show, but this is not always the case.

Jed Mercurio understands only too well how authors feel when faced with the corporate side of the business and to avoid a possible creator/broadcaster clash, he suggests always trying to have a seat at the table when marketing is being discussed. Here, the writer can shift them very subtly towards what his concept of the show is and away from the often very generic way of promoting series.

Sell With Passion and Informality

On the subject of selling ideas, Matthew insists on the importance of talking to people. He feels it is better to make a verbal pitch rather than a written one. “You can be sure that they will have already heard a version of your pitch”, so it is personality and conviction that will make the difference, above and beyond the quality of the concept and the writing. “Don’t write anything down, just go into the room as though you were going to the pub and telling a friend about something you’ve seen on the TV that you really liked”, he advises and “engage and excite them with your passion”.

Matthew Graham illustrates this with an anecdote: Ashley Pharoah and he went to the States to pitch a show to a potential buyer, with everything scripted down to the last word and it didn’t work. That evening they went to a bar, had too much to drink and came up with another idea that made them laugh. The next day, with hangovers, but also much more relaxed, they pitched the new idea to ABC, NBC and Fox… and sold it! Here’s the secret: “Relax and be yourselves!”

Vive Europe!

Matthew Graham points out that it is a very favourable time for European screenwriters. In America, they are bored with American authors, who are all pretty much the same, with the same somewhat limited cultural references, all wearing Converse and baseball caps! For the first time, European authors can be themselves, because it is exactly our difference that the Americans are looking for and are excited by. They pay a lot of attention to content, they are intelligent, always methodical and are always scanning the broadcasting landscape to spot that gem like The Killing or The Bridge. The best in American production is already excellent, but that really does not stop them from looking elsewhere for the reasons mentioned above. Now is the time to take advantage of this, as they are open to and very keen on European ideas.

Matthew Graham says he hopes his writing fits into the European landscape and wants to be a part of it. He has been particularly impressed by the quality and bravery of what is coming out of Europe at present. However, he feels that everything is much more global now, rather than American, or European, with the rise of subscription platforms like Netflix and streaming that have completely changed how people watch series. They can take their time, watching as and when they so choose. Jed Mercurio feels that the cross fertilisation of talent in Europe is only just gathering momentum and whatever happens in Europe politically, this will continue to be very productive and exciting on the world stage. Matthew mentions, in particular, a Franco-British coproduction which is currently under way and also a project for a series between Barcelona and the United Kingdom with a very Hitchcock-like atmosphere, which he is discussing with the Americans, but for which he wants to use mainly European talent.

Honesty in the Face of Success and Failures

Recently, Jed Mercurio asked an author to talk about her failures and she replied that she had not had any, which, according to Jed, was definitely not the case. Of course it is always difficult to admit failure both to oneself and to others, Matthew Graham replies. Yet, with time, we realise that we can look back and analyse why they didn’t work and often it is only a few small things which make a difference. Such was the case with Eternal Law, which was not a success.

As for his great successes with both the public and with critics, like Ashes to Ashes or Life On Mars, he is very modest, pointing out that success is always a surprise. Of course, a success like this is always very comfortable and gives one confidence, but one can never predict the market and social forces around when the show goes out. Just before Life On Mars was aired, Lost was a huge, but unlikely, success for Channel 4. However well thought out a project is, one can never predict the public’s reaction.

A Joint Venture

One should learn not to count on success, but to put together a really good creative team and work with people who you enjoy working with. Since this is something else which everyone should be reminded of – success is always a joint venture.

It is also important to know how to listen, to not want to have the answers to everything and to be able to listen to people’s criticism. Knowing how to respond to notes constructively and interpreting what can sometimes be badly worded notes is essential.

Matthew Graham likes working with directors and wants them to be a part of the creative process. He has engaged somewhat robustly with directors on set at times, but says this is not the place for it and any differences should be ironed out beforehand. This is also why the visual reality must be well thought out way before shooting begins.

There are now more and more screenwriters present on set and this has been the way in America for a long time. This said, there is a time for everything, in other words all the different aspects of a series should be discussed as much as required and well in advance, but once on set, all this has to be put to one side.

In the Writers’ Room

Matthew feels that when putting together a team of authors, there should not be too many and that you should know and like their work. A writers’ room should be dynamic and egalitarian. Everyone should be allowed to speak, but somebody needs to direct them. He remembers the way in which George Lucas led the writing room on the project for a Star Wars series he worked on. Like him, he likes people who have energy and enthusiasm; writers who can work fast and share ideas and also be able to change their ideas if they are not right, without going off into a sulk. People who are quiet and solitary are not suited for this method of writing. It is also very useful to have a second in command, somebody in whom you have confidence, who can run the room when you are not able to be there.

When questioned on the inexistence of writers’ rooms in other countries, Germany for example, Matthew Graham recognises that it can seem to be expensive, but he points out that one saves money on other posts if one puts together a team of writers who come up with good scripts rapidly. He would advise using economic arguments to convince the powers that be to use this model.

An Author with Responsibilities

Matthew Graham is no longer simply an author. ”You have to decide what sort of author you want to be’’, he says. He has chosen to be a showrunner, which is becoming more and more common in the United Kingdom, even though there is no training available for this. It is wonderful to be able to oversee one’s work from A to Z. Nevertheless, it is a position that you must want and be able to assume, as it must be said, “with great power comes great responsibility~.

Being showrunner means setting down standards so that good scripts are ready in good time. It’s all about managing the creative side under pressure, having a vision and believing in it. It is not about being able to do everything oneself, but having an image in one’s head and communicating this to other people who can do it for you. One has to be coherent from end to end, particularly with changes in directors on long series. One has to work with the director to ensure uniformity and the choice of cast and crew. In the end, it is all about having a creative vision and seeing it through.

This should not stop you from taking on a role with much less responsibility, just the writing for example. When he went from Life On Mars to Dr Who, Matthew Graham says he had a lot of fun simply writing and comes up with this metaphor to explain the difference: “organising the whole party, or just going to a party”. Some people enjoy the frenetic position of showrunner and others simply writing scripts in their office and never setting foot on set.

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