Writing for the Screen: An Interview with the Screenwriter Alasdair Mackay

DG: How did you get into screen writing?

AM: I started to have regrets, I think like a lot of people, in my late-twenties. My biggest one was not, at least trying, to train as an actor. So when I hit thirty, I started looking around for a short screen acting course. I found one close to my house in East London and it was while I was on that course, in July 2011, that I discovered my true creative passion was writing for screen.

We were filming duologues for the actors on the course. One of the actors had a scene to shoot, and she was using a duologue they’d taken from a catalogue. The director wouldn’t let her film the one she wanted to use, because she didn’t have the last line in it.

I was sitting there waiting to do my thing, and I sort of piped up and suggested that her character could say something else at the end. I can’t remember the exact line, or even the duologue, but everybody in the room went, ‘oh yeah, that’s a really good idea.’ The feeling I got from that hitting, being a successful addition to the scene, was such a good feeling, and I felt so proud and so enlightened that I decided to start writing scenes. Everything else I’ve done grew from that one eureka moment.

DG: What is the first story you ever wrote?

AM: As a screenwriter? Or as a writer?

DG: Either. both.

AM: The first story – I remember winning a class award when I was at school for writing an essay-story. I must have been about 11. I am assuming I had written stories before that, but I won an award for this one. Funny that I never connected the dots back then that that was what I wanted to do.

It was a story about a fictional Scottish fisherman called Angus McKipper, who went to the fishing world cup in Brazil to represent Scotland. Can’t remember what happened, but I am assuming he won because it wouldn’t be a good story if he didn’t win, right!?

The first screenplay I ever wrote was a scene about a pair of sisters. One sister’s husband is fighting abroad, and the other sister is a bit jealous. I wrote that in August 2011, so probably a month after I did that course. I filmed it in the following December. That was called Siblings.

Don’t know what the Angus McKipper story was called. Couldn’t tell you. It was 20 something years ago.

DG: What movies or stories have inspired you the most?

AM: I am constantly inspired when I come away from the cinema. I think that’s really important part of what keeps you going as a screen writer, or as a writer of any description. You have to keep watching films that other people write, other people make. You have to keep reading books that other people write because you see great work and it inspires you to produce great work of your own. So there is no short answer. There are so many.

I saw Wild recently, and was blown away by the screenplay which is by Nick Hornby who I know predominantly as a novelist, a novelist who has had a few of his books adapted as screenplays, but still not a screenwriter per-say.

I read High Fidelity, and About a Boy, and Fever Pitch. And then watched the films later on when they were adapted. So I guess maybe the first author I really liked was Nick Hornby.

DG: You trained in Mile End, right? How was that experience?

AM: I trained at the International School of Screen Acting (ISSA), which is at 3 Mills Film Studios in Bow, so near Mile End. And that was possibly the most fun I ever had over a sustained period of time. There is a screenwriting and a directing module within that course, which you can elect to take, and which obviously I did. It was an eye opening experience on so many levels.

I think like a lot of people I grew up believing that the film industry was behind this ginormous iron curtain and that it was impossible to access and that you would never get to work in it. And the reality is actually very different. If you go out there, and you make an effort, and you try then there are opportunities for you, opportunities to learn, and to develop yourself. That’s what ISSA provided for me. I am really grateful to all the guys and ladies that taught there. I learned a lot and grew enormously as a human being in a short period of time. And honestly, I feel very confident within myself as a result of that course. It’s given me access to a life that I didn’t know I could reach for.

DG: You trained as an actor too. What made you choose screen writing?

AM: Acting is something I really enjoy, the process of building a character, the moments when you are doing a scene, when you are just connected to the other actors…it’s a really uplifting experience. But, I am a little bit too much of a control-freak to be an actor. Ultimately, the actor answers to the director, they assess the script that’s written, build their character from there and are then edited to a degree by someone else with a greater view of the direction that the overall story has to travel in. It’s as it should be, but there is less creative licence than I was expecting there to be from the outside looking in.

For me, it was a fairly easy transition from there to write my own stories and write my own characters, and therefore have more power if you like, over the story and the direction it goes in. That’s not to say that the screenwriter is all powerful – not at all. The director comes on board, the producers come on board and the actors have their own input. But, the initial heart of the story comes from the blank page. And that’s the screenwriter.

DG: You also direct films, so how does the experience of acting and directing affect your job as a screenwriter? Does it affect it?

AM: Yes, and that’s a great question, and I think it should affect it. I think, when you elect to do any job which is affected by other jobs around it, you should have an understanding of those jobs. In other words, a director should know how to act, how to set up lighting, should know how the sound is recorded, should know how the script is written, and the writer should know all those things as well. I feel very fortunate that I do direct, because that helps my writing, and that I have acted because that also helps my writing, and it helps my directing as well.

DG: What is your writing process? Do you start with an outline and bios before you start writing?

AM: I think a lot of screen writers and also possibly writers say that great stories come from great characters. And I see that point.

But I do it slightly differently.

I think of a story first, and then I take the characters out of that story, and put them over in a separate document. I leave the story alone, forget about it completely. I develop the characters, and then I take those developed characters and put them back in the original story, and use the characters to develop the story further. So you end up with story-character-story, rather than character-story which is I think how a lot of writers do it.

The truth is that every writer is going to come up with their own systems and own formats, and you have to do what’s right for you. I know of several writers that don’t pick up a pen or open up a word or Celtx, or a FinalDraft document until the idea is formulated in their head. I can’t work that way. I need to do it in stages. To each their own, but that’s my way.

DG: Would you say that your characters end up driving your story?

AM: I think they do. I don’t start writing the story in terms of the actual scenes until I have structured it. To carry on with the point I was at earlier, once I have got the story, I then start applying the logic of a film script to it, i.e. when do I want key moments to happen, when do I want my audience to invest in my characters, what do I want to happen and at what pace, and then I build my scenes from there. Then again, I put it down. After each stage, I put it down, I forget about it, and I do something else for a period of time. And then I come back and check over it with a fresh set of eyes.

Having said all that, once I start writing the first draft, if I find myself thinking I don’t want that to happen now, I am gonna go off in this direction, or one of my characters says to me I don’t want to feel this way about this person anymore, I want to feel this way about this person or situation, I let it happen. As long as I get from point A to point B then anything can happen along the way. And I think that’s important. In order for your characters to be real, and feel real, you need to let them be real, and let them develop as a real person on the page.

DG: On average how long would you say it takes you to finish a script from the idea to the end?

AM: Well, obviously it depends on the length of the script. A monologue you write in a couple of hours, if that. A short film you could write in a day. A really good one in a couple of days. Once you start to get towards a long script, a TV pilot or a feature, then you have to develop the process and it does take longer. Personally, all in, I would say it takes me six months. But that’s not constant work. Like I said, I put it down and do something else. So I could be working on two or three things at once That’s another big part of my method, in order to be able to separate myself from the story completely, I have to focus on another story. So I have three things going on at once, so I might do three in six months.

DG: I know some writers get confused when they are working on multiple projects, their characters and stories overlap. Does that happen to you?

AM: I hope not. I have never had anyone level that criticism at me, in terms of people that have read some or all of my scripts. There is a certain truth in the fact that every character you write has a little piece of you and has to in order to be real. So perhaps the one thing that links all of them is me. In terms of my truth and where I come from.

DG: What are your thoughts on structure?

AM: It’s of paramount importance, because without structure you are just waffling. I think that you can write without structure if the story demands it. So some stories, you will approach with a different structure to others depending on what the genre is, what the topic is, and what the format is. I think the structure is of paramount importance, particularly for a screenwriter because the top of the industry demands structure and the sooner you get used to writing within that structure, the sooner you can start to move up and progress within your career.

DG: Do you think that structure constraints creativity?

AM: It can if you allow it. I think you have to embrace the structure for what it is. When I look at back at my really early stuff – when I didn’t know anything about structure and I was just writing – I find that creatively it’s great, but it’s not very good cinematically, because it lacks that structure. Then, there’s the stuff from when I began to apply the structure. My work from that period is creatively weaker, but structurally strong, and ultimately that makes it cinematically better. But now, I believe and hope that I have got to the point where I am past that, and that I’ve got used to the structure without losing my creativity.

DG: How do you feel about the rewriting process?

AM: I’m fine with it. [Laughs]. In what respect do you mean?

DG: Does it frustrate you? I mean I know some writers who hate doing it because it just means going over the same story, multiple times or do you find it more satisfying that you get to perfect it?

AM: I think as long as I can justify it improving the story then I am fine with it. I don’t think a rewrite should be done for a rewrite’s sake. I think as a writer you should seek criticism from all angles, but you should also be willing to ignore that criticism and follow your gut. Take everything as advice, then listen to what you think is right, and ignore what you think is wrong, and continue to be true to yourself, and don’t be afraid to rewrite.

DG: You have written monologues, short films, features, as well as a TV show – does the experience of writing and creating change with each of them?

AM: Yes.

A monologue is a character story and it’s one person talking – clue’s in the title right? And then, I would say a TV Pilot, or TV Series in general is more character driven than a feature, purely because it’s the characters that you follow and the stories will change. A feature is just one story. There may be sub-stories, but ultimately it’s just a story of how someone gets from A to B, so yes it’s different. But I would come back to my earlier point, and say it’s defined by the story, and not the format. How you write a horror film is entirely different to how you write a rom-com, and that’s entirely different to how you write a monologue from a priest’s perspective, say.

DG: What do you prefer to write the most?

AM: I like writing them all. But obviously from a career perspective, you need to focus on TV pilots and feature films, because they are the only things that are going to pay you any real money. My passion for films comes from being an absolute nerd for the cinema first and foremost, so I prefer writing movie scripts more than TV pilots, even though arguably there is more money in writing for the TV these days. I am in love with the cinema so that’s what I prefer. But I like writing all of them.

DG: Some of your work has been to Cannes. How does that feel?

AM: Bizarre! The first two times, I didn’t go. The first two I wrote both went to Cannes in 2013. First one, Best Friends Forever, was directed by a Bulgarian director, Cathy Kostova. It was briefly screened on Bulgarian television alongside an interview of Cathy. The second one, Shadows, was directed by an Indian director, Sreemoyee Bhattacharya. It was her story. She gave me the script, and I rewrote it for her. Shadows has gone on to win Best Film, and Best Director at various festivals all over the world. The last one, Confession, came as a result of Best Friends Forever. The director of Confession, Martin Denham, knew one of the production managers on Best Friends Forever; he got his hands on the script, loved it, and wanted to work with me. So, he sought me out, and we worked on Confession together, to the point where I cast it, directed the actors in rehearsal, we worked and reworked the script, and took the film to Cannes together. It was a lot more collaborative a process, and of course that is very enjoyable.

Cannes itself is like nowhere else in the world that I have been to, yet. It’s surreal because you see a lot of people turning up to the festival in tiny little cars, with people in tuxedos crammed into it, desperate to get in. The people who work in the film industry are wandering around in t-shirts. So you get this bizarre situation of guys in tuxedos turning up outside and trying to blag or beg their way in, and these hugely underdressed people just meandering past them, with their passes. It’s almost like an alternate universe.

DG: You also direct films. How do you like that?

AM: The first five films that I directed, all shorts, I liked the idea of directing. And then when I actually got to the process, and I saw how much compromise you have to make from what’s in your head, and how many mistakes you make when you first do it, and how different the film looks when it’s sitting in the edit suite, where you encounter more problems and compromise. It always takes longer than you think and more energy than you think. You come away at the end of the process and you sort of go, never again. Because it’s really draining, like nothing else.

And also the other side to directing is that you sit in the edit suite, and you watch the film over and over and over again with the editor, and by the time it comes to being screened anywhere, you don’t want to watch it again, because you have seen it so many times.

That being said, the last film I directed, Refraction, is currently one or two meetings at post-production away from being ready for release. We finished filming it last August, and honestly when I finished that, it was the first time as a director, I went…I want to do that again. So I think you have to get to the stage where you are good at it, and feel comfortable doing it, before it becomes enjoyable. It’s inevitable that it takes time, and takes experience…bad experience.

DG: Writing involves spending a lot of time alone. How do you feel about the solitary aspect of the job?

AM: I like it. My dream is to be sitting by a pool in a house in Los Angeles just writing. And very occasionally wandering onto a film set and do a little bit of directing, may be a little bit of acting, though I doubt it. Just being able to write is great. I like being on my own.

DG: Who is your favourite screen writer?

AM: My hero is Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men as a play originally, and developed it into a screenplay. And is perhaps most famous for The West Wing.

In terms of favourite screenwriters, I think I categorise them as writers, and then writer/directors because they are two different things. It’s an incredible skill to write and direct a film.

My favourite writers include Sylvester Stallone, who is massively under-appreciated as a screen writer. Rocky Balboa is a phenomenal piece of screenwriting. That was the sixth one. And I would say Nora Ephron who wrote When Harry Met Sally. She directed Sleepless in Seattle but she wrote When Harry Met Sally, which is just a great screenplay. Diablo Cody wrote Juno, which is fabulous.

And then writer/directors, I think Martin McDonnagh who did In Brugge and Seven Psychopaths. Kevin Smith is brilliant, who did Clerks and Dogma. I’m sure I can come up with several more, but these are the people that immediately come to mind.

DG: What are you working on right now?

AM: Alongside several other projects that are in early development, I am currently writing additional scenes for a feature film called Exocet, which is being produced by FilmQuest based at 3 Mills Studios. It’s a film about the sinking of the HMS Sheffield in the Falklands Wars in the early eighties, and the psychological effects on the sailors. I am also directing a horror film at the moment, called the Bad Moon Rising. Those are the two big projects going on at the moment, but like I said, I have to keep busy with other stuff. Because you concentrate just on the now then you come to the end of now, and you go…right, I have a gap, and my mind-set is that I have to keep working.

DG: What advice would you give to aspiring screen writers?

AM: Do it if you love it. Don’t do it if you don’t. because the only way you will ever be good at it, and good enough at it, is if you allow it to consume you. The only thing you read are screenplays, the only thing you do is watch films in your spare time, and the only thing you do with your work time is write, continuously write. You have to let it take over. Top screenwriters, at the top level, probably have one in ten of their feature length screenplays produced. And if you think it takes six months to write one, then you just do the math, then you know it’s three years between the feature length screenplays that actually get made, for most writers. That’s why, when a writer first emerges into the greater consciousness, there are three of four films that come out in a quick succession, then they go quiet for a while. Because that’s their back catalogue. Because they have written thirty or forty scripts before anyone knew who they were. And the amount of time and dedication that takes, and the amount of people whose hands you will have to shake, and the amount of shameless self-promotion you will have to do isn’t for the faint-hearted. And you shouldn’t do it if you don’t love it. And if you don’t love it, it will drive you insane trying to be successful.


You can find out more about Alasdair Mackay on his website.

Follow him on Twitter @ReelMackay

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