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Emilia di Girolamo Interview

Posted on 04 February 2014. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to Law & Order UK screenwriter and fanatic Emilia di Girolamo

Emilia di Girolamo
Tell us about your screenwriting career so far- high points, low points, weirdest momen

I was working in prison facilitating drama projects and using drama workshops as a rehabilitative tool and writing whenever I had a spare hour or two. I wrote a few plays and three novels before I realized that my heart was really in television drama. The one novel I had managed to get published, Freaky, was optioned by the brilliant Clerkenwell Films (Misfits, Afterlife) and developed for BBC3 but when I read the scripts, I knew it was what I really wanted to do. I retrained to write for TV and focused solely on screenwriting from that point. It took a good few years and a lot of disappointments along the way before I got my first commission.

How did you get that first break?

I was fortunate that a really great agent had faith in me and took me on having read a play I developed with Paines Plough. Over the next couple of years I wrote several spec scripts and met just about everyone there was to meet but it was the same story – everyone liked me, liked my writing but no one was prepared to put their money where their mouth was on a ‘new writer’ and give me a job. But then I met Sally Stokes at the BBC and she commissioned me to write a 60 minute single drama for a new ‘Evening Play’ strand. Although the strand was never made, the script was developed and I walked away with a really strong spec script. Even all these years on, it’s one of the projects closest to my heart and one I still hope will get produced.

When I heard the series wouldn’t get made after all I was heartbroken but I dusted myself off and applied for the first year of BBC Writers Academy, making it to interview and then to a point where there was a choice between me and one other writer for the final place – it went to the other writer. It was a huge knock to my confidence and I certainly had a week or two where I came very close to giving up. To make matters even worse I wrote trial scripts for Doctors (twice) and Hollyoaks but they both turned me down.

John Yorke had shown real faith in my single drama and he asked EastEnders to read it and consider me for their shadow scheme. I won a place on the scheme and just decided it was my absolute last chance before I gave up and went back to working in prisons! Fortunately the script was successful and I was offered my first commission.

You had interesting timing there...

My daughter was five months old at the time and so the baby I had put off having as I struggled to get the career I wanted, was in my arms as my career started to happen! But there was also a real magic in that experience. I took all the love I felt as a new mum and wove it into my first EastEnders script. The result was a scene where Tanya played by the brilliant Jo Joyner, had a touching heart to heart with her daughter Lauren about the time they had together when she was a newborn baby. The truth in the scene, which was based on how I felt about my daughter, rang true for Jo and the producers. Apparently Jo went to see the exec to say she was tired of always shouting at her onscreen kids and wanted Tanya to have more of this! The result was another commission.

For the next two years I wrote EastEnders back to back, often arriving at Elstree to pitch my episode, with my baby in tow, handing her over to my mum while I dashed in to do my pitch. I would then write entire episodes of Enders over a weekend while my husband looked after our baby because week days were taken up with being a mum! It was incredibly tough but I was determined to have the career I’d worked so hard for and the baby I wanted more than anything. In the end it worked brilliantly because becoming a mum gave me so much material for a show that is all about family.

How was your Enders experience?

I loved working at EastEnders and anyone who gets snobby about starting out in soap has no idea how tough it is or how rewarding. It’s a great place to learn about story and about writing very, very fast! I got to work with some brilliant and hugely inspiring people. It was impossible not to learn sitting in a story meeting with Simon Ashdown, Dominic Treadwell Colins, Diedrick Santer and the rest of the team.

Your big passion was your Law & Order. How did that work out?

My agent was still sending me for generals in the hope of getting some of my original ideas into development or lining up work on other shows and on one of these I met Noelle Morris at Kudos. Noelle asked me what my favourite crime show was and I waxed lyrical about Law & Order Special Victims Unit for so long I think she thought I was a bit mad! Finally I stopped and she said – ‘You know we’re making Law & Order for the UK, right?” I didn’t and my heart leapt and sank in the space of a second.

I loved the show. I wanted to write the show. I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone else writing it. I knew with certainty they would screw it up without me! But Noelle was very clear, the team was formed, there was no job. As I left I made sure she knew just how passionate I was about being part of that team (in case she hadn’t already go the message) and somehow it worked. When another writer didn’t work out, Noelle suggested me and handed my spec – the single I developed at the BBC – to Law & Order UK showrunner Chris Chibnall.

I met with Chris and script editor Laura Lankaster (now Head of Development at BBC Wales) and I just went for it, showing them all my passion, enthusiasm and seriously geeky knowledge of the show. A few days later, I was standing in the Aquarium in Hastings at a kids birthday party when the call came – I had got an episode of Law & Order UK.

I was absolutely stunned that Chris would take a chance on me when all I had on my CV was a handful of episodes of EastEnders and a few shows I’d developed which had never made it to screen. But I am extremely thankful he did because it was the start of a long relationship with the show and a chance to explore some incredible territory.

What's a showrunner?

A showrunner is essentially a lead writer who runs the show with full creative control. Originating in the US showrunners are responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series. They have an executive producer role and shape the individual episodes and series as a whole so it reflects their creative vision.

Chris is the most supportive showrunner, the sort most writers dream about! He was hugely generous with his time and energy, guiding me towards the end point. He ran tone meetings for all the scripts so the writer’s vision of the show could be shared with the entire creative team. Though how I managed to get my vision across as I sat nervously at the table with all the key crew and producers I will never know! But when I saw the episode, my vision was there. ‘Hidden’ aired as the second episode in Series 2, a key position, and got fantastic ratings.

When Series 3 & 4 were commissioned exec producer Andrew Woodhead asked me to write 3 episodes but I ended up writing 4. For series 5 & 6 he asked me to take over as Lead Writer and Co Producer which I jumped at. I planned to leave the show at the end of series 6 as I had several of my original series ideas commissioned to pilot scripts by then and no time to write them but in the end I wrote and Associate Produced the first 2 episodes of series 7 and then left. I wrote 13 episodes of my own and overwrote a couple by other writers which didn’t quite make the grade. I got to write some really amazing storylines and I’m immensely proud of all my episodes though my two two parters will always be my favourite. Getting two hours instead of one to tell a story on TV is always a luxury!

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

balio at 08:21 on 19 June 2023  Report this post

marisoljohnson at 06:30 on 15 February 2024  Report this post
That's great

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