Some of you may recognise this man from television:
No, he’s not a dodgy bank manager off Crimewatch, he’s ITV‘s Political Editor which makes him one of the most senior political broadcasters in the UK. He’s also a novelist, screenwriter and my old friend.
I met Tom when we were both students at Edinburgh University where he showed me how to aim high (why not The Financial Times instead of the Barchester Chronicle?) and introduced me to the man who became my husband. I owe him an awful lot and am his unsecret admirer. I persuaded him to answer a few questions about writing novels and screenplays. I hope you find his answers illuminating. I do.
Me: My first question is very rude. Why did they ask you to write the screenplay of Shadow Dancer? Why didn’t they get an established screenwriter?
TB: The short answer is that ‘they’ couldn’t find one. All the established screenwriters they thought would be good for the project were up to their ears in work. One day I just woke up and thought that I’d like to have a go. So I asked the producer, Chris Coen and he said okay. He paid me a comparatively small amount which I thought was generous considering I’d never written a screenplay before and was completely untried. That screenplay eventually came 3rd on the Brit list, which is a kind of competition where all agents in the UK and Ireland vote on their favorite unproduced screenplays. This helped accelerate it into production and opened a lot of other doors besides. It was a very advanced case of beginners luck.
Me: (Trying to act cool like this is completely normal, which, actually, it is for Tom.) How did you learn to write screenplays?
TB: I read two or three screenplays and then sat down and wrote Shadow Dancer. I think people make a lot of mysteries out of writing for screen, Act 1, Act 2 etc. It’s just storytelling. Plus, in a way, my two jobs – reporting for the news and writing novels – were a perfect preparation for working on screenplays. The first is all about writing to pictures and distilling complex subjects down to short, crisp sentences and the second is about structure and character. Screen-writing is a pretty even marriage of both skills.
Me: How many drafts did you go through?
TB: About twenty-five, I’d guess, some big some small. I got a lot of help from Chris and his producing team in the early stages and I then worked very closely with the director James Marsh, who won an Oscar for ‘Man on Wire‘. James is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a genius and I would say the secret to what success I have had in writing is that I have surrounded myself with people who are a lot smarter than I am and then listened very closely to what they have to say.
Me: Has the experience of adapting your novel taught you stuff about writing novels that you hadn’t thought of before?
TB: Not really, though it has focused me again on the value of a simple narrative, particularly when you are writing thrillers. If you can’t sum up the premise of your thriller in a crisp, compelling paragraph, probably best to go back to the drawing board.
Me: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? By whom?
TB: I was never really given this advice, but it is the summation of what I have learned; get a lot of help from clever people. That way you give yourself the best chance possible.
Me: What’s your own advice to struggling wannabes like me?
TB: (Missing his chance to correct my self-characterisation) Keep going. I think it is mostly about hard graft.
Me: What are you working on now?
TB: I am working on quite a few things, including a new book and a re-working of the eighties thriller ‘Defence of the Realm‘.
Me: When will Shadow Dancer be on general release?
TB: August, I think.
So, get on with it. You heard what the man said. And he is, unarguably, in a position to know. Thank you Tom. Just add this to the lengthy invoice. I’ll settle up one day, honest.