It was heartening to hear Bob Schultz say at the beginning of his interview with Frank Spotnitz that he’s been to many screenwriters’ festivals and that The London Screenwriters Festival is one of the best festivals he’s ever seen. I happen to agree, even though LSF is actually the only screenwriters festival I’ve ever attended. The truth is that be it two people or six hundred there is something very special about a communion of screenwriters in a room, and while I’ve been blown away on a number of occasions this year, here in this room I feel that creative kinship stronger than ever. Perhaps because of the tone Frank uses when he speaks about not just his but our craft and shares the benefit of his experience with us.
A reporter, who’d been to film school Frank Spotnitz ended up, through a stumble of circumstance, working on the writer team for The X-Files second series, luck of sorts (along with his talent) played a part in getting him the job. He’d been at one time in a book club where Chris Carter was also a member, but they were not friends. However, when a friend of his from film school asked if he’d contact Chris to see if he’d look at his work, he agreed to make a call. The answer was no but Chris told him he’d be happy to read any of his work if he wanted. Frank took the opportunity, the work was good and happened to coincide with a couple of spots opening up on the writers team one of which he was given.
“We were really figuring it out as we went along, figuring out the mythology.” He says speaking of the way X-Files evolved in plot. He believes he probably wasn’t all that ready for the job he’d gotten in the writing room. “I kept coming up with these mythology episodes that were unproduceable. I nearly got fired!” The room laughs but the scale of the writing had meant those episodes weren’t affordable within the budget for the show. When they figured out a way to pay for them, banking on audience figures rising if the show had more scale to offer, these scripts became tentpoles of the series. X-Files was the mini-move version of television.
It was the relationship between Mulder and Scully that fuelled the drama and some clever things were done with the scripting. Gender stereotypes were flipped in the two. Scully is the scientist and sceptic, and Mulder the intuitive believer. Almost inevitably each episode began with an unexplainable crime, the episodes then driven by Mulder and Scully’s arguments about what happened. The characters had contradictions within themselves too, with Scully the sceptic believing in God and Mulder who believed in all kinds of alien and paranormal phenomenon, everything but God, the idea of which he refused to entertain.
On the writing process Frank Spotnitz finds deadlines incredibly useful. The terror that you were writing an episode that would be made and aired for millions is a great motivator. Even the ickiest monster episode had ideas in it though that helped you make sense of life. “Some of the best works are about something,” says Frank. On the comedy episodes of X-Files he speaks of a script Darin Morgan turned in that was a beautifully written episode, a great script but kind of threw them all because it was a comedy. Ultimately they trusted the writing and the audience loved the episode and loved the show more because they could laugh at themselves. “If you want to do this don’t give up,” Frank advises, saying that “your chance will come to you and you just pray you’re ready when it comes.” The business isn’t always easy, one writer left because he found it just too painful to do television with the constant notes and critique, the stereotype of execs who don’t know what they’re doing is not right though and makes the case for the important job they do.
Changes in writers won’t change a series too much but changes in show runners can and Millennium filmed consecutively with X-Files and was not designed to take up too much of their time, however they did end up running it and the experience of two prolific shows at the same time wasn’t pleasant. The show got new management the following season to relieve the pressure on them changed flavour and then those guys did it for a year and didn’t want to do any more so new showrunners again brought another direction to the material. The result being three quite different seasons.
Living in London now and with a new BBC & Cinemax spy drama Hunted airing its first season he explains the idea came about when he thought of a new angle for the spy genre in this character of Sam, thinking of her as the answer to what a real life Jason Bourne might be like. What sort of person would take on this life and do these things for a living and how damaged must they be. Coupling this with the privatised security industry he’s taking a look at the world now, the things that don’t get talked about like the government becoming the little guy to corporations that can afford private armies and espionage companies to do their bidding.
He said he realised, coming to the UK, how commercially he’d been trained. “You can do anything with artistic merit in the UK, but my mind jut doesn’t work like that, I like big audiences. I realised though that I could write a British spy show that Americans would watch.” In his first two years in the UK this is his second Cinemax co-production. “The more passionate you are the more likely you’ll reach an audience.” He tells us adding that the tactic of cynically playing the odds won’t.
Frank’s British writers room works exactly the same as they do in Hollywood. “A volume of episodes needs a consistency and it’s also more fun.” He gives credit to the production company Kudos for making the commitment to pay writers to be in the writers room as otherwise the need to spend some of their time on other work would have prevailed and so that was very important. As a process, he tells us, the writers’ room is really successful. They lay out the episode (he uses cards on cork board) and argue out everything. As series creator he acts as moderator and chooses the solutions that they are going to go with. In a good process that solution should feel right to all the writers. The process is about putting the work first and the ego second. “If I can re-write your script and make it even 5% better, why wouldn’t I? Or you mine. It’s still got your name on it and now it’s better. If you can rewrite a script of mine and make it better I would say ‘thank you!’” He speaks of the writers room in being helpful to keep things fresh, writers push each other because a new script every eight days forces you to do that.
Talking about ‘Hunted’ he says he would have liked to embrace transmedia platforms more but unless it’s advertising it’s hard to find the money to fund that. HBO though did take out Byzantium adverts at the time of Occupy Wall Steet was still going on, without explaining what the adverts were. The tagline was “We’re not for everyone. Just the 1% that matters.” And inviting people to apply for a job by doing a Byzantium test, which caused buzz (and some outrage) about who Byzantium were. For his source material he researched a number of private security firms who were amazingly helpful. While nobody admitted to killing for a living, and of course some of the show is magnified for impact it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Research he says gives an authenticity to writing and prevents the rehashing of things you only know from other shows and films.
Finishing up Frank speaks about how writers are said to put their heart on their sleeves and the work being personal and responds. “This is your life. You put yourself out there, and it’s worth it.”