Looking for great new screenwriters

2014 Finalist Interview – Janet Williams

[Interview by Sally Brockway]

Congratulations! I read your script last night and it’s great!

It’s been four years in the making, on and off. We’re up to fourteen drafts now.

How did you find the idea? And how did you two come come together?

It’s based on a real idea. I used to be the BBC correspondent in Seattle and I did a radio feature about a small town, a very rundown town, but set in the most beautiful landscape, a beautiful ancient volcanic landscape in fact. And they decided to bring in the tourists by building the world’s largest lava lamp. That is still ongoing; they actually haven’t done it mainly because sadly guy who was pushing the whole thing forward died. I thought even back then – now that must be 10 years ago – what would happen if a town in Britain tried to do the same thing? So my friend and batted around the idea. We thought about a huge Devon tea where you jump in the jam or something, and the obvious one to do was a miner’s lamp. And weirdly, a village or a town in Yorkshire actually thought about doing it since we started writing the script.

Your Welsh dialogue is really authentic.

Oh good, thank you!

I’m not Welsh, though I’ve a Welsh actor who is going to go through and make it even more authentic. I’ve got relatives still up in Gilfach which is quite close to Tonyrefail, right in the Rhondda. The family is a mix of Pembrokeshire and the Rhondda. I’ve still got cousins up in Gilfach who never moved away.

Have you and your writing partner been working together for a while or did you come together for this script?

We’ve been best friends since the age of 18. I do most of the “writing” but she’s very, very good on dialogue and she’s good on the comedy. So she takes it from a good script to a really good script. And it’s great to have somebody who knows it pretty much like you do cause otherwise you’re very much in your own little bubble. And we do throw around ideas.

Have you been both in writing since you met?

No she’s a teacher’s assistant. I have been in writing.

How long have you actually writing screenplays?

Four years. But just this one. I went on the Two Phils’ course and I’ve read so many books, I’ve pretty much done the MA! But now we’ve actually started on the next one, thank God.

Often I’ve interviewed really established TV writers before and some of them will say they’re new and you find out they’ve been writing for 15 years.

We haven’t!

So it’s your first script.

Yes. And that’s why we’ve gone through 14 drafts, because when we started writing we didn’t have a clue. There must have been four times the scenes than are in it now, most of them have been and gone, that we’ve had to throw so much out. And lovely scenes we’ve had to cut for length.

With your next script do you feel that you can bring all that you’ve learned?

Definitely. We’ve got one really good idea which I think is one of the high concept ideas but we can’t make it work as a film. We keep on batting this idea around, and I can write the first 3 scenes and then it fizzles. So that’s really frustrating but I had another idea and I could almost see the film straight away because I could see where all the points are going to be. I could see what the heroine wanted and what she needed and what the hero wanted and what he needed and how it would end. In my head I can see the whole structure. The high concept script idea is driving us nuts because I know that one would sell a lot better but it’s so good you can’t write it.

There will be a way.

It’s a fairy tale one so I need to immerse myself in fairy tale folklore.

Speaking of research, did you spend a lot of time in Wales for The Soldier and The Lamp?

Yeah. I went to see the planning officers up in Pontypridd. I saw them twice in fact and they invited me along to a big planning meeting. So the big planning meeting at the end where they all stand on the plinth is exactly how it happened. They put me in touch with people who run something called Rhondda Life in Ferndale and Claire and I both went. And we met this lovely guy called Alan Clemmons. I’ve been several times to see Alan and he talked me through all the things that happened to them up in Ferndale trying to get this new clubhouse together. He’s sort of the Martin character because he loves this town so much. He’s from Ferndale; he was born, he lives, and he will die in Ferndale, and he loves every blade of grass in that place.

So the research was an important part of the process?

Oh yeah. I think all the best things come out of that. When I was in that planning weekend someone actually stood on the stage and said, “Young men come knocking on my door every day looking for work.” It was almost their words, saying they don’t want handouts, but they want their pride back. And how depression is a big factor up in the valleys, along with youth unemployment – I got all of that from the research. I also went to see a charity called Healing the Wound which deals with combat stress in Wales. I also took many personal trips to see cousins and aunts who lived in the area.

You’ve invested a lot in the script not knowing whether anyone would like it, or whether anything would happen with it. Why did you have such faith in it?

I’m not sure. The concept isn’t particularly new: a project can galvanize people in the town. We just loved the idea. I’m the type that can’t do something half-heartedly; if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it properly. So I went to Glasgow for the Two Phil’s course, I did the London Screenwriters’ Festival and everything.

Did you really?

The amount of money that’s gone into this script!

So you did Phil’s course, when did you do that? Was it quite early on?

That must have been 6 months into thinking we were going to do the script.

And was that helpful?

Oh yeah, really very helpful. Then I read his book, the short book that’s online, and then I started reading other books and then you meet other people and then you get into a writers’ circle. And the London Screenwriters’ Festival. I’ve been twice now and that’s really brilliant because you meet other people with other ideas.

Last year you got into the semi-finals of the Goldmine contest. What made you decide to work on it and enter again?

Because we’re both learning as we go along. And you get the feedback. Last year we had feedback from Si Spencer and then he became our guru and I paid him for a really detailed analysis. We changed everything based on what he said, and he wanted to change the end. We originally ended in the barracks – he suggested we end it at the top of the lamp. Then I got feedback from Industrial Scripts and they came back very much on what I think is a weakness in the script, which is the relationship between Richard and Lorna in that they didn’t seem to get on at all. And we thought, well why would they want to get married? All they did was argue! So we really warmed up and sparked up their relationship and made it a lot hotter. There was another reason we rewrote it: at one point it was clear that everyone is supposed to love Richard and Lorna, but actually everybody loved the dog.

The dog works well.

He’s so completely unfaithful to his master, he contrasts well with some of the other scenes in the film.

What are the mistakes you made initially?

Initially we didn’t have any idea about structure so it rambled in all directions and was way too long. When we started out we just thought: how do we get Richard to meet the townsfolk? So that’s the longest running thing that stayed in: the football game. I thought it was a cliché for him to be a rugby player, and I thought in football you have much more chances to chat with people. You can’t really chat with people in rugby unless you’re in a scrum, and I just thought it would be a cliché to have the choir and the rugby team and all that stuff. Then I read the book Into the Woods by John York and that really talked about the theme and I thought geez. So I changed the whole thing so the theme appeared: “there are many ways to be a hero”. So in the new version Richard spends the first act going on the offensive and tries to push everything through without consulting anybody and in the second half he tries to win hearts and minds. So in the first act, for example, he ignores the woman who complains that her sunflowers are going to be blocked by the shadow of the lamp. And in the second act he organises to move her whole allotment to a different and nicer place. But the point being that the one thing – trying to build the lamp – is the wrong goal and what we should learn is that you can be a hero by just buying a little girl a pair of shoes.

Did that work better?

We sent that draft to Industrial Scripts, and they didn’t pick up on that theme at all. They thought that the theme was redemption, but that we hadn’t brought it out enough. So we had to work on that.

How did you decide whose notes to listen to?

We listen when it’s relatively consistent between people.

So if a few people is saying the same thing then there’s something?

Yeah. There’s one thing that I’ve ignored from Si which I’ve consistently not changed which is in the scene where Richard’s talking about the lamp, and the committee are talking about the canary. Si wanted that cut back and he didn’t want anyone snitching anyone in the garden. But I thought, I need Richard to be distracted, otherwise he’s not going to cotton on that they’re talking about the canary and he’s talking about the lamp. And now we’ve made Richard find that really funny. He doesn’t storm out anymore, he just rolls around laughing.

So you’ve since worked on it since submitting it to Goldmine.

Yeah a lot. I think it’s a lot better to be honest.

From draft 14 do you feel it’s finished?

I think the thing that’s possibly still weak in it is individual voices. Because we had an actors table read at the Screenwriters’ Festival and the actors said Mr Kendrick and Martin sounded somewhat similar. And they had some great ideas! So I’ve made Martin much more soft-spoken and turned him into a schoolteacher with lots of books. Mr Kendrick is much louder, more gabby. The table read was great by the way. The director had some great suggestions for physical action that made it much funnier and raised it to a different level.

Did you outline this script?

No. We didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do.

So with your next – ?

Oh yes, we’re outlining! I’m not doing that again! It will get a full treatment. (Although I have written the first 5 pages because it was in my head and annoying me…)

Will you submit to other contests?

I’ve just submitted it to Blue Cat. And I’d probably put it back in Page Awards because the Page Awards quite like us. We almost made the semis this year, we were a few points off.

It’s just about finding those people that like your work.

Absolutely. And I wouldn’t want to keep entering this one in competition after competition after competition. Once you’ve finished it, once I’ve adjusted the voice to make them a bit more unique, I think you have to draw a line eventually and move onto the next one. You keep trying to sell it but I think entering it into endless competitions eventually defeats itself.

I think you’ve done the right thing in that you’ve entered it twice, but you’ve also polished it and polished it so it’s risen to the top of the pile.

I’m really pleased.

There’s something to learn about tenacity there.

Well yes. When I got feedback from Si Spencer the first time I was going to go lick my wounds and put it in a drawer for 6 months. Then he messaged me later, “Oh I forgot to say, I was speaking to my friend at Red Planet who loved your idea,” so I thought, oh well I won’t put it in a drawer then. The thing is you get so close to it; it’s your bunny, your baby. And it’s like, don’t criticize the baby. I let it sink in and then I go back and read it and think, hmm he might have a point.

If you had to add up all the hours that went into the screenplay, what kind of figure would we be looking at?

Oh god. I have no idea. It might be in the thousands. I must have written 400 pages worth of scenes if not more. And every line has been thought about and changed. But it it took them 4 years to write When Harry Met Sally, so you never know.

Great to talk to you.

Thanks Sally.

Get social

Find us on Facebook and Twitter

Learn how to pitch

Read The Fearless Pitcher and learn how to handle a pitch meeting.

Read the blog

Search articles for screenwriting tips, techniques, and interviews with winners

Look at our line-up

See our panel of judges, all acclaimed industry experts