2003 British Council / New Zealand Writers Foundation UK Scholarship

Vanessa Alexander (Magik and Rose, Being Eve) was selected for our scholarship internship in 2003 by UK production company Working Title, renowned for their smart romantic comedies including Bridget Jones and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Vanessa spent two months doing script development and rubbing shoulders with the stars at the London offices of Working Title.

Working Out: An Interview with Vanessa Alexander from WRITE UP, Winter 2003 (The Magazine of the New Zealand Writers Guild).

Tell us a little about Working Title

VA: Working Title is a highly successful London-based film production company (many of their projects have been nominated for Oscars and Baftas) that has sat at the cutting edge of British international success for over ten years with films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Elizabeth, Fargo, About a Boy, and Bridget Jones s Diary. They also have a newer lower-budget arm of the company called WT2 their first film Billy Elliot came out to acclaim and Oscar nominations a few years ago. The whole company is run by Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan (an ex-patriot New Zealander) who were together awarded Producers of the World in 2002. Someone told me that this is because they have a higher hit rate than any other company, a knack for knowing what audiences like and how to market it to them.

So what did you do while you were there?

VA: I read a lot of scripts and books and old drafts of scripts and sets of notes. I also managed to attend at least an industry screening a week, go to the development meetings, watch some of the Thunderbirds shoot, go to a premiere party, meet several talent agents, and talk to a film investor. Some of the experiences were so far from what I had done before it was really exciting others felt like the stuff we do at home.

What is the film industry like in the UK?

VA: They said it was a cottage industry and I laughed, they said something was low budget and I laughed. I think this says a lot about the never satisfied aspects of human nature and that even though we fantasise, no budget is ever big enough.

There seemed to be a lot of production development going on compared to here over 30 features at WT and quite a few other companies developing between 5 and 10 projects at any one time. Of course, they don’t all get made. The main difference is that WT concentrate on international films and it is not a requirement that they are British or representative of Britain.

They also operate as part of the star system . Hence who is attached is an even bigger deal than ever and the writer is subjected to more forces pulling the project in different directions.

Are there any differences between the UK development process and the process in New Zealand?

VA: Projects are market and star driven instead of state funded so the concept and the audience are crucial to justify the budgets they spend. Also they have people who have worked doing only feature film script development for 20 years. This kind of experience isn t available here because people usually have to turn their hand at a few things to make a living.

Just like New Zealand, a writer still has to find a producer they still get piles of notes and they still have to do 23 drafts. However producers don’t accept unsolicited scripts. This means you have to have an agent. Agents (certainly good ones) aren’t easy to come by so the bottom end of screenwriting is weeded out in the process. I never saw a script that came from an agent that wasn t in correct format, with three acts, turning points, a protagonist and evidence that the writer had at least read Linda Seger 101. Of course this doesn t mean they are good. It just means that the average standard is higher. Writers also get paid more than in New Zealand. A LOT MORE! Like 200% more.

Do you think you learned anything in particular during your time at Working Title?

VA: I learned that script structure isn’t everything and that it’s been overemphasised to the detriment of individuality. I am not saying it isn’t important just that everyone talks structure structure structure and I read at least 30 scripts and wrote reports on them. Never once did I write great characters, brilliant idea, funny, couldn’t put it down, crap structure. Instead it was usually well-structured but derivative with uninteresting characters and dead boring . Teaching people structure does not a good script make. In fact I now think the idea is ultimately the most important because not every idea can actually be made into a strong and interesting script.

I also learned that a guy who once worked in props at The Film Unit went onto set up the most successful film company in Europe. I think the fact that Tim Bevan has done that is pretty cool. I’ve decided to be super nice to everyone I ever employ including the runner because who knows where they’ll end up.

Given that, how would you like to see development in New Zealand change?

VA: More emphasis on whether the concept is really worth pursuing in the first place. More producers who can give clear useful feedback or who hire someone that can. More money for writers and if not more backend for writers more respect for writers because (I can say this because I’ve acted as Writer, Director and Producer at various times) it is the hardest and the loneliest of the three jobs. Less negativity about the standard of writing, an acceptance of the fact that if a film fails it isn’t the scripts fault, it is the producers fault they took it through development and said it was ready to be made. Oh! And I think someone should work out how to clone Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson so that there is a spare pair we can go to for advice.

So what’s the best thing you’ve taken out of the experience?

VA: Offers from a few good agents. Knowledge that even WT can t predict the future – they turned down Bend it Like Beckham. Understanding that the writer drives the path through development: if you lack energy and don t take the lead the project will sit in development purgatory forever. A certainty that no matter how many scripts float around overseas how well structured they are or who commissioned them the percentage of work that is yapping away in a clear unique voice is the same everywhere.

And now you’re home what have you got coming up?

VA: Finishing off directing a block of Mercy Peak then seeing my kids, finishing the fourth draft of my feature and after that hopefully a nap on a very warm island.


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