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Jonathan Wolfman Interview

Posted on 27 January 2011. © 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 screenwriter and script editor Jonathan Wolfman about his new projects and the return of Tracy Beaker....

Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, ( a potted history if you’re very prolific, highlighting notable achievements etc) and what you’re currently writing.

Years ago I started writing on a BBC Hospital soap called “Angels”, a radio soap called “Citizens” and was commissioned on series like “The Bill.” I wrote some radio plays, for the Theatre and had a few screenplays commissioned. I helped shape, direct and produce comedy shows with Ardella Jones - who is now a fantastic creative writing teacher for “Chalk The Sun” - and Kenneth Gray and they won the “New names of 92” award at the Edinburgh festival. For the last ten years I’ve been working in development (drama and formatted shows) and script editing, but I’ve just completed another original screenplay of my own. Although I treasure doing my own original work, I actually think my real skill lies in working with talented writers to develop and shape their material. I think it’s something to do with the right brain left brain thing. In the last few years I was script editor on “Bully Maloney”, a bizarre, cult 52 part animation series made by Moonscoop for France 2, “Tracy Beaker Returns”, series 1, 2 and now 3, and co script editor on “Pet squad” a 52 part animation comedy series and half of “Scoop” series 2 for CBBC.

There are a few things I’m really proud of: A play I wrote for the stage years ago called “Child’s Play” which I still think is good, and hit a nerve with those who saw it because it was either loved or loathed and had no anodyne reactions in between; the first Ken And Ard show which won them the award at Edinburgh; creating “Best Of Friends”, a formatted reality game show CBBC bought – I think we ended up doing about 92 shows for them and they still get repeated sometimes; and of course the Bafta for best children’s drama that series one of “Tracy Beaker Returns” won in 2010. Although I was the Script Editor on that with just one co-writing credit on a script, I had a big input on all the stories and scripts and it was very gratifying for me to have the producers, directors and writers acknowledge and appreciate your contribution. For personal satisfaction nothing beats getting the professional respect of your peers. Given the low budget and short shooting time I thought it came out well. It will be interesting to see how series 2, which begins airing this week, is received because I think it’s better than series 1.

I ought to be most proud of the screenplay I’ve just finished but I’m so close to it I don’t trust my own judgement. It’s natural for everyone who completes an original piece of written work to think it’s brilliant. After all, you start with nothing and create a whole set of characters, an environment and story which didn’t exist before. Out of nothing a whole world has materialised. Is it any good? That’s for others to decide.

Other work besides writing; eg. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing.

These days there’s a massive “how to write” industry. I’m talking about scripts and screenplays now. But when I started out there wasn’t - you had to figure things out for yourself. I began writing original television plays and films on spec and sending them off to television companies. I’d get a readers report and encouraging letters back. In fact one reader’s report said I was one of the best young writers around. But I never earned a bean from them or got any commissions. However, on the strength of these spec scripts the BBC offered me a job in their “Script Unit” which doesn’t exist now. They said it would help my development as a writer. Basically, I read scripts people sent in, wrote a synopsis and a report which analysed the script and recommended courses of action. I did this for 6 months, then the same thing for Channel 4 and the comedy department at Thames Television in the days when sitcoms were king. They then commissioned a booklet from me on writing comedy for television. It was during this period I began getting paid to write too. But the script analysis work kept coming in and I ended up doing it for all sorts of small independent companies too. I also taught script writing in various adult education classes. It sounds like I was earning a good living but I wasn’t. That kind of work is very badly paid and I still had to get ordinary jobs to help pay the rent. Around this time all sorts of books and workshops began coming over here from The States and the kind of vocabulary we use now when talking about drama and structure etc came into vogue. You could fill a library with this kind of stuff now though Robert McKee’s “Story” is still for me, possibly the best book on the subject. Reading a lot of these things and attending various seminars had a plus and a minus. The plus was the degree of self satisfaction I felt in that a lot of what’ was and is said was something I had figured out for myself through doing it. It also gave me a shared vocabulary and there’s always more you can learn – another angle. But there was a big down side for me too. And I suspect it’s true for some other writers too.
Basically, there’s a lot of craft in script writing but it’s an Art too. And in any creative field the artists we admire most march to the beat of their own drum, trust their own intuitive, let their unconscious do the work and work in harmony with their own soul, whatever that is. The work is a journey for them and when it works, becomes a memorable journey for an audience too. When I started writing it felt a bit like that for me. You don’t analyse you trust your instinct, your imagination and feeling. What happened with me was that all this analytical work got in the way of that. For years in fact. As soon as I’d start writing, going with the flow I’d stop and analyse. I couldn’t help it. Objectivity drowned the intuition. I even gave up altogether at one point and re-trained as a secondary school teacher because I felt I couldn’t go anywhere any more. But that life didn’t make me happy either so I talked myself into a development job with a production company I’d read scripts for in the past and it felt a bit like coming home.
Through some kind of osmosis the right brain left brain thing began to re-align themselves into more of whole and I started to be able to trust my intuition again in the moment. Instead of stopping and thinking you just kind of know when something is working or not as you are doing it. And as a script editor too I don’t often have to stop and think, I just know what’s working or not in a script as I’m reading it. The time and effort lies in turning that sense back into something meaningful and helpful to the writer in a way that doesn’t alienate them or work against their own intuition. Writers by nature are sensitive beasts – we take any criticism personally whether we want to or not. We can’t help it. Being a writer myself I think helps on that inter-personal front. Besides, in script work it’s incredibly rare that any first draft is as good as it’s going to get. Re-writes are part of the job and it’s in the re-writing that all those how-to craft aspects are probably most helpful for writers. A lot of scripts get 5, 6 or even more re-drafts because it’s work in evolution. But there always comes a point when you have to say enough is enough, that’s as good as I can do on this or that’s as good as it’s going to get even if you know it’s not great.

Now, with all the technology, the how to books and seminars, the script writing programmes, thousands upon thousands of people take up writing. But a lot of scripts I read feel formulaic and predictable. Even the big turning points and surprises can feel predictable and the characters stereotypical, more inspired by other films and series than by anything from life or a personal vision and imagination. We get a lot of scripts from writers who want to work on Tracy Beaker and with many me and the Producer look at each other and say well...there’s nothing wrong with it, which is really saying there’s nothing to distinguish it from another writer’s work. Nothing that makes it possible for you to pick that writer over another. I think this is definitely to do with the craft skills now readily available to learn. The objective, craft side of the Art takes over the brain, as it did with me, and the life, the soul, somehow gets squeezed out in the process. It’s a fine line. Writing isn’t easy.

How did you start writing?

I’d always wanted to be an actor and/or a director and I studied drama at University. After doing a post grad film course for which I wrote and directed a half hour film, I thought at the time, the best way to achieve my goal to direct was to write my own original material and that is what started me writing. So really I sidetracked myself into it.

Who are your favourite writers and why?

Too many to name! I have to say that Shakespeare is still king but really my biggest influences have been American. Raymond Chandler and the whole film noir genre was the earliest influence. Elmore Leonard whose economy and dialogue always thrills me. Most film adaptations of his work have been poor. But Tarantino captured the spirit in his film Jackie Brown, Get Shorty was pretty good but not as cool as the book. The first three episodes of “Justified” are probably the closest to the Elmore Leonard spirit though. James Lee Burke I love. He writes crime but has the soul of a poet. I’ve always liked the best action movies too, but the more grown up unusual movies and series keep me glued too.

How did you get your first agent/ commission?

When I started writing scripts and sending them off, people kept saying I needed an agent so I sent them off to one who took me on.

What's the worst thing about writing?

Disciplining yourself to do it when no one’s paying you or giving you a deadline. You have to be self-motivated. Dealing with rejection was the worst, but you have to get used to it. Also dealing with your own negativity. It’s very easy to lose heart and think you are crap.

And the best?

Hitting a wave when writing and surprising yourself with what comes out. And obviously anyone wanting to make, direct, produce or act in what you’ve written.

Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing.

You have to be aware of, respect and understand your audience, especially if there’s a specific audience you are aiming at. I’ve done a lot of children’s programmes and besides all the compliance and moral issues specific to children’s television, the best way to connect with them is to connect with the child in yourself.

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

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