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Steven Moffat on writing for TV

18 Mar

Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who and Sherlock (the latter with Mark Gatiss), has discussed his career and television in general with The University Observer’s Emer Sugrue.

I make no secret that The Moff is my main inspiration for writing, especially screenwriting.

Even though he wasn’t the sole writer of Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (he was initially involved until he was offered the top job on Doctor Who), his influence is certainly felt throughout the brilliant film. It’s very simple to say things like, ‘get rid of exposition; make it more visual;’ it’s quite another to pull it off masterfully. But he’s an expert. Tintin is a must watch – because it comes from an ingenious creative team.

So interviews with Steven Moffat are a great help with getting your head around the TV industry, and in this particular one, he talks about some of the things that really concern me.

Firstly, I’m constantly worried about the state of children’s TV; CBBC has really dumbed down, and doesn’t feel as comfortable as it always was – with a few exceptions, naturally – while ITV has junked CITV completely! I think we forget how important kids are, and Moffat has previously written about how we shouldn’t alienate them, because clever storytelling should appeal to all ages. He elaborates on this:

“[Coupling’s] ‘The Man with Two Legs’ was a very funny show – my son would love it, I’m sure – but it’s just a bit too naughty. But with just a little bit more inventiveness and a little bit of cover phrasing you could make that show for a mainstream audience as opposed to a niche audience. What is the point of addressing a smaller section of the audience? And God knows kids love telly, so actually stopping them watching is stupid.”

A further point of interest is the difference between drama and comedy:

 “I don’t think there’s any excuse really unless you’re making people cry when you should be making them laugh. I wrote comedy before I officially wrote comedy because Press Gang was always funny. I honestly don’t change the approach very much at all; the difference is when you’re doing a sitcom, you’re actually thinking ‘they’ve got to be laughing on this page and this page and this page’.”

I recently workshopped a drama, and got quite a few laughs, just from the banter between a couple. It was a lovely surprise: the scene was low-key, but relatable. Comedy and drama shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, as Moffat says here:

“I think comedy sits better in a drama – the way its sits in life, really – but then successful comedies come often from dramatic elements. The line can be blurred because comedy is an artificial distinction unless you’re actually talking about a comedian: if you’re talking about narrative comedy then it is just story telling.”

Moffat, on the set of Couplings, with his wife, Sue Vertue.

A big worry when writing a script is length and timing. Steven, here, offers insight behind the length of Sherlock, compared to Doctor Who:

“I think the longer length in some ways is a blessing because, I mean, I think I spend most of my life trying to get Doctor Who episodes down to 45 minutes and that can be really, really tough. Whereas, you know, when I was doing [A Scandal in Belgravia] this year, it was deliberately set over a year so you got a big chunk of their lives. Things like the Christmas Day scene would never make it into a normal length episode because it’s just a bit of indulgence – no doubt could be called self-indulgent! But the 90 minutes allows you that degree of character, in effect. And character is very important in that show.”

When a show is shorter, it can occasionally lack depth; however, a great writer should be able to seep character into every line of dialogue. It’s tough, but you shouldn’t be a writer if you don’t love what you’re doing enough to put some serious man-hours into it.

Finally, a foray into Doctor Who territory, as he remembers first writing for Doctor Whoin 2004:

 “It felt impossible that we were actually doing it and could go to the set and see the police box. It hadn’t been on for 15 years, it was so incredibly exciting! And I remember sitting down for the first time and thinking ‘bloody hell, I’m actually writing Doctor Who.’ That never completely wears off to be honest; I’m always very excited about writing Doctor Who but it’s now harder for me to recapture the feeling of it being entirely a novelty.”

I’m using a clip from Doctor Who: The Lazarus Experiment in my script, and – even though it’s somebody else’s words – it was so, so incredibly exciting to write ‘THE DOCTOR.’ I hope I get to write it a vast amount of times!

Tone is always important, and Moffat shares his thoughts (and those of Gareth Roberts’) on the subject in Doctor Who:

“Gareth Roberts [The Shakespeare Code; The Lodger], one of my fellow writers on Doctor Who, had a theory that you write the Doctor Who you remember; he tended to remember the funny ones, so he writes funny Doctor Who and I remember just being terrified of it so I tend to write the scary Doctor Who. Neither memory is more accurate, it’s all kind of nonsense but I do like the fact – the sort of weird sense of transgression of it being slightly wrong to have a television show whose mission statement is to petrify kids. Try and pitch that and get it made today!”

And to end… we all know Amy and Rory leave the TARDIS later this year, and Steven has stated it ill be ‘heartbreaking.’ I’m 100% sure he’s right. But he has elaborated with this lovely sentiment:

“Heartbreaking doesn’t mean unhappy.”

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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Unpublished work

 

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