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2014 Grand Prize Winner Interview – Stuart Nicholson

Stuart Nicholson[Interview for Screenwriting Goldmine by Sally Brockway]

How does it feel to win this contest?

I’m absolutely thrilled. It was amazing news and just a real confidence boost. It was also a justification for a lot of hard work. There’s that whole 10,000 hour rule idea, and I recently calculated I’ve spent 5 to 6,000 hours writing. If you put that into a normal career who knows where you’d be with it!

How long have you been writing?

I’ve always written in one form or another. For a long time I studied music and for a long time it was songs. And then short stories for a little while. Screenwriting probably about 5 years, seriously about 3 years.

And have you been entering competitions throughout this time?

In the past year or two, yes. I’ve got to the shortlist or semis of a few but this was my first win, which was fantastic. It was great to get over the line. This is my second screenplay and I’d say my first script was really more of a learning process than anything else. I’ve rewritten it endless times and I think each time I rewrite it I discover what not to do. It’s been this learning experience that I don’t think anyone’s ever going to see. I don’t think I want anyone to see it but I’ve kind of been making all my mistakes on that first script and that’s really been my school before I went on to this second one.

How long do you think it took to write The Boundary?

I was thinking about the story for a number of years and I built it up from a simple idea and I held back from writing it before I really knew what I wanted to do with it and what I wanted to say with it. And then I took a break from my previous script – I saved up money which took me years in any case – and when I took the time off I had prepared everything. I was ready to go and I sat down and the actual writing of the script only took 6-7 weeks. For the first draft that is. But that was on the back of years of thinking about the story and figuring it all out.

What was that original simple idea, and where did it come from?

I lived in Liverpool for over 10 years. First I studied there, then I went into working in the shipping industry, so I’d seen both sides of the boundary – which is what the script is about. Another beginning was my observation that university campuses in Liverpool (and in many cities outside Liverpool) are very close to less-advantaged areas. It struck me as interesting that these worlds they were so close together. And the gulfs between the two are enormous and the difficulty in getting from one side to the other is incredibly wide and getting wider.

Did you do an outline? Or did you just write it?

Yes I did do an outline. I’d learnt from the previous script and other scripts that I’d attempted to just sit down and spew out in one session or in a short period of time that you really need to know where you’re going. But I really tried to use both sides of the brain in conjunction. It’s good to have a rigorous process like that of planning, but you also need to allow the right side of the brain to go to places that you weren’t expecting as well. I think I was just trying to figure out a way of balancing those two sides. A screenplay needs to be structured, but you don’t want it to be predictable either so I tried to figure out a method whereby I could allow myself to go off into different interesting areas but also to keep a framework to anchor the story. I had a full treatment before I went into that 6 or 7 week period of actually getting the words on the page in script form.

Do you enjoy planning and outlining?

There’s a part of me that really likes that kind of thing but I’m also conscious that if you overdo it you’re going to come up with something predictable and overly formulaic. I think a lot of scripts suffer from that with so many books out there that have these strict “ you have to do this by this page” and what have you.

Have you digested all the screenwriting tomes in these five years?

Yeah, I have. I have a love/hate relationship with them. There’s a part of me that thinks they can kill originality. There’s another part of me loves the actual combination of these methods into a process. I do think the best books draw on things which are inherent in story in any case, deeply rooted things which in the form which you can’t really get away from. There’s a reason why stories have taken these forms over thousands of years and I think it’s something inherent within the form itself. The controversial one is Save the Cat because it’s so prescriptive. But you can’t help watching films and noticing a lot of films do hit the beats that are put forward in that book. I prefer the more open ones like the Joseph Campbell stuff which Phil’s book draws on.

Have you read Phil’s Goldmine method?

Yes I have and I liked that it was what I was just saying there: there’s a framework there but you can be very free within that framework to allow the creative side of the brain.

How did you get the time to write this script?

I had saved up for years and finally found myself in a position where I could take six months off and then change career. The idea was to write for 6 months, and I did a huge amount of work in that 6 months.

What did you change your career from and to?

I was in shipping in Liverpool, in the shipping industry. And I am now an admissions officer at a university.

You have a very bright main character who is on the wrong side of the tracks, who meets a fallen professor. They talk about some very clever theories. Did you have to interview anyone to find out that stuff or do you think that way anyway?

I’ve got an interest in science, a really passionate interest in all areas of science. I don’t know if that’s rare for a writer but I don’t see the two things as that different. I just read a lot of that stuff for fun. A lot of the ideas I’m moving forward with have a scientific basis to them. I’m interested on how these types of theories can shed light on very human things.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a number of things, a ton of ideas far along in the process. I’m just really waiting for the time now to finish them. This year I’m pushing on finishing a few things and adding them to my portfolio.

Are they films?

Generally. I think a couple of them are feature screenplays, one of them is a TV pilot, and then I have some ideas for radio plays that I want this year as well. It’s all time.

Has any of your work been produced yet?

No it hasn’t.

Do you think that winning this competition may change that?

I very much hope so. Obviously it’s quite a big name competition. And once I come out of this period with a baby, so to speak, I’m looking to capitalize on it.

Has anything happened yet? Have you had any meetings, anything lined up?

Yeah, I had a meeting with an agent last week which was great and I have a few other things on the horizon. But my fiancée had a baby very soon after the competition so my head’s not been entirely in the screenwriting area these past few months.

Do you want to have a fulltime career in screenwriting?

Absolutely. I’ve tried to give up writing in the past because it takes so much time, but I just can’t. I always come back. I always feel something’s missing when I’m not doing it. It’s absolutely what I want to do for a living. The dream is to be waking up on a weekday and to be going and doing that fulltime. I can’t think of anything more that I would want so I’m going to pursue it.

But a win like this must show you that actually you’re onto something; it’s not a pipe dream is it?

Absolutely. In terms of a compliment, it’s been massive. I guess after The Boundary I was developing ideas and working on them but at that stage you want to know if your words are connecting with people and this was validation for that and great for the confidence going forward.

How many drafts of The Boundary have you written so far?

The one I entered in the competition was probably the 9th draft.

That’s like running a marathon.

Yeah. It depends how you define draft because some of those drafts would have only had minor changes. I did get a lot of feedback: from the point I finished the first draft I used a lot of feedback services and friends who are writers. I was constantly kind of like an aeroplane trying to get to a destination, just constantly making little adjustments here and there off the basis of feedback. I still don’t think the script is finished yet. I mean they’re never finished, are they? In terms of that script as a template it could make a number of different films depending what the producer or director would want to do with it. So I think now it’s at the stage where I’m looking for a producer or director to come on-board and say I really want to push it in this direction and heighten it in this direction. And then I’ll be able to hopefully improve it further.

Is it film where you see yourself or television or both?

I’m most familiar with film. I feel I have a natural tendency towards that, so as soon as I get a story it moves into a feature form. But I love television as everyone does and it’s something I’d really like to move into. One mistake I’ve made is to concentrate too much on the writing side of things rather than the promotional side of things. Whilst I’m burning to get all these new ideas down onto the page I think I need to devote a little bit more time to getting the actual work out there as well.

Will you keep redrafting The Boundary?

No I think I’ve got to a point with it where on my own and without collaboration it’s as good as I can possibly get it for the time being. If a producer or director comes along and they say we want to push it in that direction or we want to do this and that with it, that’s part of the process.

Excellent. Well it’s been lovely talking to you. Congratulations on the birth of your daughter and the win. It’ll be the lottery next!

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