Discovering and working with writers

Rachael Prior, Big Talk Pictures, talks about how she finds new writers, what she's looking for and working with some of the biggest writers in UK comedy.

14 June 2016


Matimba: Welcome to the BFI NET.WORK podcast, I’m Matimba Kabalika. Here at the Network, we're into discovering, developing, and funding new and emerging filmmakers. It’s not always easy to get your questions in front of people who make decisions, so we’ve been running around with our microphone and pulling in some favors. I went over to Nassau Street to chat to Big Talk's head of film, Rachael Prior about development, rejection, and baked goods.  
Rachael: I'm going to get this. Good [inaudible 00:00:34] this is. That stands for the official brand of Big Talk.  
Matimba: What happens in this room?  
Rachael: Magic. Magic is... 
Matimba: This is where the magic happens?  
Rachael: Yeah, well this is known as the development meeting room, so this is...predominately the script meetings happen in here.  
Matimba: Thank you so much for having us here today.  
Rachael: It's a pleasure, so exciting.  
Matimba: I bought you obviously, you are... 
Rachael: Someone knows me, and [inaudible 00:01:04]. 
Matimba: ...a baking extraordinaire.  
Rachael: I don't know if extraordinaire is quite right, but that looks very impressive.  
Matimba: I see your pictures, I see the tweets, there's no need to pretend. You're amongst friends.  
Rachael: For the record, let it be known that I've just been presented with the most delicious looking cinnamon bun. Thank you.  
Matimba: No, you're welcome.  
Rachael: This is all going very well.  
Matimba: Well, thanks for seeing us. I'm so interested to talk about all the stuff that you do here at Big Talk. I wanted to start out talking about your journey as a development exec, because you often speak about how tough it is to get in.  
Rachael: I just kind of knew that I needed to get to London, and thankfully I traveled south, and growing up in the Midlands, I traveled south so I had a lot of friends at university who were from London.  
I just wrote, in the summer holidays, I remember writing probably about 50 letters just to various theatre, TV, film companies, not really knowing what I was doing, but just going, "Here I am." Yeah, I pretty much got 49 rejection letters, and I had one invitation to go and work selling advertising space on a free newspaper. So I just took that job to get me down here. Thankfully didn't have to do too long with it, because I found it agonising to be cold selling over the phone. I got a job on the stage door at the Royal Court Theatre, which came out of one of the letters that I had written. They didn't have anything at the time, but then they offered me that position.  
So really, I kind of...that's where I started, just very luckily, in the heart of me writing. I'd essentially had a reception position, but got to know a few quite key people, Steven Doyle being one of them. I did go and work for another theatre producer for awhile, then came back to the Royal Court, and they made up a job for me, which is kind of a grand title of artistic assistant, which I thought was really exciting. So I spent a good couple of years there, and amongst the associate directors casting and in Steven's office, just really soaking up what it meant to, essentially, produce something from start to finish.  
So I worked there for a few years, and it was actually when Steven was leaving as artistic director, and had done a deal with Working Title. He mentioned to me that there was an assistant job going, development assistant, which I just didn't know. I had no clue how films got made, which is not very forgivable now probably for someone of 23 years old to say that, given the amount of information that's now at one's fingertips. So it was actually Natascha Wharton, who you know very well, who's at the BFI, who interviewed me. So that's how I got my break into film, kind of just by getting my foot in the door of a different sector of creative writing industry, I suppose.  
Yeah, I mean, I worked there for 12 years and I just worked my way up, learning the job and learning the ropes from some incredible women who mentored me through those 12 years.  
Matimba: That is an incredible path in. It's interesting, and when you talk about rejection, it's so interesting, because I was saying that I was just always constantly, because I used to work in advertising, and trying to move into film, and I was getting constantly rejected, even for the most basic jobs. But I remember there was a job going that I was woefully under-qualified for, but I was like, "I'm just going to write to everybody, because my name's Matimba. Maybe they'll remember if a receptionist job comes up." So I wrote, and you responded, and I said I love it, because it was the nicest response to something. Everybody would just say no, but yours was actually so nice and kept me going.  
Rachael: I'm glad it was nice.  
Matimba: It was lovely.  
Rachael: Actually on Twitter, there's a writer who's very successful in the States now, but a Brit that moved over there that actually showed me that he'd kept one of the rejection letters that I'd written to one of his screenplays, and I was just so horrified. I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be awful," But actually it was a very sweet, very nice, encouraging pass, thank God. But actually, some things that Natascha taught me about very early on is that the thing of how you conduct yourself, more than anything, this is a very fluid industry. One day you could be riding high, the other day you just never know.  
People that were your assistant five years ago suddenly going to be the people saying yes or no to your finance money, so one hopes that you're a decent person anyway, but keeping your P's and Q's in check is really important, and it shows that even if you were very late responding on a script, as long as you're professional and you apologise and you're sincere, it goes a long way. And I should think it's one of the best pieces of advice that I was ever given. So I'm so glad.  
Matimba: It's so interesting that you remember the rejections, but I love hearing about your Working Title journey, and coming up through the Royal Court. I think that's incredible. What I'm interested to know is how did you start to figure out what was your taste, and how did you start building those relationships with writers, because obviously that was quite a strong thing, coming from the Royal Court.  
Rachael: Yes, absolutely. I think I didn't really...I sort of underestimated what value I would have as an employee for a film company, having worked only in writing theatre. When you're young like that, you don't understand what qualities you have or what experience you have are actually quantifiable skills or a database that someone might want to essentially purchase when they're hiring you. So I didn't really understand I had that through being at the Royal Court, but of course I did, because I knew who all those writers were up and coming.  
And even though the job was principally an administration job as an assistant, being able to say, "Oh, you should check that person out," or, "That person's on this scheme at this theatre," was honestly a useful skill set to have. Your taste or your ability to judge how good something is is only as good as how refined your measuring scale is, and the way that you refine that is simply by reading and reading and reading more material. And hopefully you're getting access to, which I certainly was at Working Title. People at the beginning of their career who are a bit rough around the edges, but you can learn to spot sparks of talent, and you're reading people at the top of their game. Not that I was giving any notes ever when it came to the script.  
But we were producing their films, and I was reading their drafts as they were coming in. So you start off, I was a story editor, was kind of the person in the room that was writing down all the notes and had to do all the homework and might occasionally chip in, but as the executive in the room would be running the meeting, when you get feedback in the room, if you say something and your boss or the writers are like, "That might actually quite work," you start to gain in more confidence and realise what's helpful and what's not in those situations.  
And then I think there comes a point where you realise you've got an affinity for, essentially, story and editing, or maybe you don't. And I think the job will tell you that, and writers, if in their own unique way, will let you know that. And you'll either move up the chain, or you'll find yourself stuck, and I think it's important to listen if you're finding that you're getting stuck is maybe just you're not in the right area of the business. But your relationships with writers come about from being helpful to them. It's as simple as that.  
Matimba: And how long into your Working Title journey did you start to feel, "Okay, this feels like a Rachael," you know, did you start having those feelings [inaudible 00:09:10]? 
Rachael: I think, probably when I moved over, because I started as a development assistant, and then I was there for a couple of years, and they set up a low budget division which Natascha ran, and then I moved across there to be a story editor, which was my first non-assistant title, and I think it's very important when you're coming up. I don't know, you just hit a groove. You find yourself like, "This is where I belong." Started to realize that when I would read a script, it stopped just being words on a page, and started to gain a shape in my head, like a story graph shape.  
I always describe it as when you start out, you're right in the nitty gritty like, "Oh, I don't like that line. That's not very funny." And then the more experience you get, it's like you just fly up higher and higher over the script 'til you have this bird's eye view of it.  
Matimba: So let's jump to Big Talk. It's obviously renowned for being home to the new wave of British comedy, Edgar and Simon and Nick. So how did you come into that dynamic? And then, how did you start growing or expanding that?  
Rachael: I think that the...Simon and Edgar and Nick and I...I think I'm the exact same age as Edgar. I think his birthday's like a month or so away from mine. We're all of the same generation. When Shawn of the Dead came into Working Title, I think we just got on very well from the outset. I don't know, sense of humor, cultural, popular culture references that they were kind of reaching for, the soundtrack, the music, I understood all of their references, and references were very important thing for them. When there was an opportunity here to start something, Big Talk was expanding at the time, and doing a first look deal with Studio Canal and Film4, and I'd been at Working Title for 12 years, which is big part of someone's life, was ready for a new challenge.  
Matimba: There's such an energy, because it doesn't age. You watch it now, and I can still quote. When you can quote something, it's good, because it's not about how many times, it's got that fresh energy.
Rachael: Yeah. What it did do is make me realize that something I'd kind of understood on a subconscious level, but that thing of authorship being so vital, and I think that is why what Simon and Edgar and Nick achieved with their movies is so loved and so unique. It's because it's just their giving of themselves. Like, they's distinctly British, but so exportable. And it's just so on point. I think just because of having come up the way they did, Simon through his stand-up, Edgar having been making films and funny films since he was knee high to a grasshopper, they just had had that audience, like, joke response training ground for so long. And they knew what they admired in movies, and they were just uniquely able to just put that out with their own stamp on it. So it's hard. Those people don't come through the door every day. But when you get a little scent of something like that in someone else's writing, it really gets me excited.  
Matimba: Well that kind of leads nicely into my next question, which is about that element of discovery is so important, that how do you stay connected to that?  
Rachael: It's a really interesting question, because as one person with only so many hours in a working day, and also your evenings and weekends, which is a big part of the job, it is really just about making sure that you're always reading new people. That is very much a kind of metal detector hobby. I always say when I people out with metal detectors, "I feel you." There are fields and fields of writers, and you can't know if anyone's good unless you read the work for yourself. Sometimes you hear, "You should read this person." People get recommended to you. We're very fortunate, we have a huge, and very, very dynamic TV company here who are doing great comedies, great dramas, so they are obviously discovering people who are coming up in that way.  
So there's a good sharing of information, but ultimately nothing replaces the fact that you'll just get sent a sample by an agent, and even if it's going to take you six weeks to read it, because you got all this other project work that's really demanding, that you ultimately make sure you get to that new writing. That happened to me a couple weeks ago. I read a new writer from Australia I just thought was absolutely exceptional, and so, so right for us. So that was really exciting. They always know hen I really, really have fallen for their writing. There's no way they walk out being mistake that I am ambivalent in any way.  
Matimba: They get baked goods.  
Rachael: No, they don't get baked goods, no. No they don't. I mean, they get baked goods maybe when we're making a movie.  
Matimba: That's a real sign of...that's when you close the deal.  
Rachael: Basically, yeah.  
Matimba: Kind of leads real nicely to talking about "Man Up." I just want to know the whole story of how that happened, how you came across Tess, and how that, because it's a recipe of goodness, all the things that we don't seen enough of that you just want more of. Rom-Coms, you know.  
Rachael: I would be lying if I said we weren't frustrated by the box office performance of that film, which is something we really have to take onboard, but I'm incredibly proud of the film. I mean, I feel like I've been across so many films now that have gone into production and released across my time at Working Title, and here, and I know when a film is okay or not so good, and I feel it in my heart that "Man Up" is a good movie. I'm really proud of it. So the script came to us as a spec, which is not that usual. We get a lot of scripts through the door, but they're not sent out in that way, like, "This is a spec. It's out to a few people."  
I was very new to Big Talk. I don't know how long I've been here, almost a year, I think. But Tess had already met with an exec, Tamsen [SP], who had already been working at Big Talk for awhile. So the script actually came in to Tamsen, and she was reading it, and her assistant was reading it. Her assistant...I was on this floor at the time, and her assistant was sat in front of me just reading the script, and just laughing and laughing and laughing. I was just getting a bit annoyed, trying to concentrate on my work. I said, "What are your reading?" She was like, "Oh, this script, 'Man Up.'" She was like, "It's really good." I was like, "Well if you still think it's really good by the time you get to the end of it, give to me, I'll have a read of it."  
So she finished it, and was like, "I think it's really good," Passed it to me, and I started reading it. And that way, then, I'll always do it, if I get handed a script, and someone's like always open the first couple of pages, and if I'm like, "Oh, okay." I'm going to have to concentrate on that a bit more, it will get put to one side until I have a proper slot for reading. But I started reading "Man Up," and I just couldn't put it down. I think I was like 10 pages in, I was like, "This is unlike anything I've read." I mean, genuinely, there was a way in which Tess had captured the character of Nancy and put it down on the page.  
She writes very differently from Simon and Edgar, but what she had that was similar was this voice, character, and dialogue that felt very distinctly British, but also felt international. It felt like, already...I read no end of scripts. I've read the Bridesmaids script, I read a lot of those just for my own edification just to make sure I know what a Judd Apatow movie looks like on the page. I could feel that it was competitive on that level, and I could feel that there was a writer just utterly in command of her character, and really confident. There was outrageous things in that script that stayed in the movie, that I was just like, "I love that she had the confidence to write that."  
She wrote it brilliantly, but it's that thing of just flinging yourself on the page with abandon, going, kind of know what makes people laugh is all of our weirdness, and all of our things that we think are private and shameful, but are actually universal, and that is comedy.  
Matimba: How does Big Talk and how do you engage with emerging writers?  
Rachael: Okay, this is a really interesting question. So I suppose a traditional route is through agents introducing us to new clients saying, "I've got this person, you should check them out." Another way is we work with quite a lot of writers/directors, short films is a way that we discover a lot of people, and sometimes we're discovering writers that way, too, kind of accidentally. Like they're being sent to us because it's like, "Look at the director." And you're like, "The script is really smart. Let's just have a look who's actually written this thing." So that's another way in.  
We go to the theatre. We're TV obsessed even though we work in films. Pete and I, Pete my right-hand man, is always pulling writers in from that field, and we're working with a writer at the moment, actually, Marnie Dickens, who's written 13, the new BBC drama, she's fantastic. So we're finding writers that way, and recommendations that are coming up from the television department. What we don't have, and it's just simply a kind of...we're owned by ITV Studios now, so things will be a bit more formalized, because we're owned in that way, but honestly, we just simply don't have the resources for unsolicited material.  
So it's more challenging. I'm not going to pretend that it's easy, but an agent is the best thing for any new writer to try and get if they want to get on the desks of someone like me, who might read and ultimately commission them. I've read some writer's I've solicited from finding them very amusing on Twitter. So that's another...not that I really want to advertise that, but I have read people. If people ask me to read stuff, I say no because I can't read things in that way, but I have definitely met with and encouraged some people who are either on the peripherals of writing, or starting to write that I think show just the great command of comedy or language.  
Matimba: What do you see, if you do, as the next thing in comedy? What's the, kind of, next big...  
Rachael: Do you know what? I would just be an idiot if I tried to pretend I even had an answer to that question. I don't know, but I know that what I'm increasingly drawn to and what I'm finding audiences increasingly drawn to is people that are just really writing very truthfully about a unique circumstance or experience that isn't the generic norm. I mean, even just looking at shows like Catastrophe for example, I mean, it's just superb on so many levels. It's just not trying to please anybody in particular, it's just being very brutally honest and truthful, and so full of heart and soul. I love it.  
Michaela Cole, I'm just obsessed about. It's like, "I will get a meeting with you." She's so busy at the moment. So I think it's that, so looking at shows on TV, but also in film. I love "Diary of a Teenage Girl," I just thought was fantastic. It's not an out and out comedy, but it's just these voices that are coming from not the usual...the 90's were full of all that, weren't they? Those kind of slightly bland, universal experience, made, hysterical by falling over in your high heels sort of movies. More interesting stuff is coming out of independent American movies and British TV I would say is where I'd get most excited about voices coming from.  
Matimba: My final question, if you were to gather all the emerging writers, writer/directors out there, in a room, and you just throw down a gauntlet in terms of, "This is my challenge," What would it be?  
Rachael: I think the challenge that I would set them would be what I've talked about quite a bit, I think, today, is to put aside that notion of the concept that they think will sell. The concept that they think is going to earn them some money. The character they think that other people want to hear, that sounds a bit like the one that was successful, and just understand that their currency is completely within their own weirdness. And so it just requires you to be brave, because someone like me is going to respond to that dialogue, that character, over an above any other quality that you might be able to put down.  
I passed on a lot of, on paper, good concepts because the characters and the dialogue just seemed very generic and could have been written by anyone. So find your voice. That's it. It's a very standard thing to say.  
Matimba: That's perfect. That was a really good gauntlet.  
Rachael: And look, the answer would differ probably from company to company, slightly, because of the taste of what each individual company are trying to put out there, and I just know for a film to make it onto the slate of Big Talk, it being authored is the most essential thing. So I think it's that thing, like, if we make a film and it doesn't necessarily work commercially, or as well commercially as we might have hoped, "Attack the Block" and "Man Up" are both examples of that. I've caused such disappointing, everyone's put a lot of work in, and you think it deserves better, but how can you feel you've wasted your time when you're standing behind films like that that ultimately people do discover on DVD, and have a huge love for.  
And let's stand up as fresh, innovative, and you can't go home at the end of the day and feel disappointed if you've done that, whereas I think you probably can feel very disappointed if you go after the big commercial blockbuster with those dollar signs in your eyes, and then it fails because you haven't...I wouldn't take back any of the experiences on those films, because they're so creatively rewarding to work on. So I'm lucky that I'm at a company that that is the ethos of what we're trying to do. I think that thing about voice is just something that I've come to just realize after so many years, like, 19 years working in development, is it doesn't matter if you have the greatest idea in the world. You'll get chucked off it if you can' just will. That's what will happen. Someone else who can [inaudible 00:23:05] character and has found their voice will come and make your idea into a movie, and that's a terribly disappointing place to be.  
Matimba: Thank you again. Thank you, honestly, thank you so much for taking the time.  
Rachael: Of course, it's been lovely. 
Matimba: It's been nice to meet you.  
Rachael: Lovely to meet you.  
Matimba: Lovely to meet you, too. Thank you so much. Ok, ok let’s do some thank you’s. We couldn’t have made this podcast without Rachael Prior, thanks to musical talent Sir Rory Dempsey, the whole BFI Network team and producer Marie. We want to know what you think of the podcast, so tweet us @BFINetwork. Bye for now. 
Hello, it's me. Matimba Kabalika.