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Nick Marston: 'You have to be the client's confidant - and give them confidence'

BY Nick Marston
6th Feb 2020

Nick Marston is the Chairman of Curtis Brown's Theatre, TV and Film department. He's been an agent here at Curtis Brown since 1997, representing an extraordinary array of screenwriters, directors and playwrights including Conor McPherson, Enda WalshMark O’RoweStuart CarolanEugene O’Brien, Hossein Amini and Rowan Joffe.

We talked to Nick about how he got started as an agent, and what advice he gives to new screenwriters...

I always knew I wanted to be an agent. My grandmother was a literary agent and my other grandmother was a publisher. They were both a huge influence on me.

My literary-agent-grandmother looked after people like Samuel Beckett, Enid Blyton and Eugène Ionesco and represented the rights for people like Jean-Paul Sartre. Some of these writers, like Jean Genet, were around a lot when I used to hang around her house. It looked like really good fun, with the whole thing based around relationships rather than business – and that’s always been my philosophy: take care of the relationships, and the business will follow.

I first started working as an agent at AP Watt, in the early 1990s. I had started off in Waterstones selling books and then writing their literary diary - then I got a job writing the theatre, film and books column for Vogue and GQ. After that I went and worked in a publicity department at Methuen where I took people like Arthur Miller and Peter Brook around. Arthur Miller was very nice to me, and I had to get him to sign lots of copies of his book. Then I decided to go and work in a literary agency.

There are four key things a TV and film agent needs to do.

1. When you take on a client, you need to give them the confidence that they may be able to make a career as a writer. Agents don’t get paid by the hour like lawyers - an agent stakes their reputation, and crucially, their time, so they have to believe that’s it’s going to work. You have to be the client's confidant – and give them confidence. It’s a lonely life as a writer - they will need someone in their corner.

2. You have to read the client's writing, and indeed other writers' work as well because you can’t judge your client's work unless you read other material. So you have to watch, read, cover. You need to be a literary source as well as an editor, giving the client proper feedback but also giving them books which they may be able to adapt.

3. You need to be really plugged in to the industry – an agent needs to be a good source of information, of what’s happening. No film script or TV project exists in isolation. It only exists in terms of everything else that is going on at that moment - and so it’s important that you have an overview or road map of what's going on in the industry, otherwise the writer is going to get lost in the jungle.

In order for a script to have any chance of existing in the outside world, it needs to demonstrate an awareness of what else is out there. The script must have a place in the Film/Television market. So ideally, we need to know what sort of channel the script is aimed for, what kind of length it needs to be, how it can return. These are all very important from an editorial point of view. However at the same time the script has to be totally unlike anything else in the marketplace. It needs to be original - you need to be able to think: ‘this could only come from that particular writer’. It’s a very delicate balance and it’s a hard one to bring off.

4. Agents know which producers are doing well, what’s being commissioned, what the channels are trying to do and which writers they’re working with; what kinds of genres, formats and programme lengths people are looking for. At the same time, you can really tell when something has been written only with a sale in mind – chasing trends doesn’t work. If you try and second-guess the marketplace you’re nearly always going to get it wrong.

And the fourth thing we do – which lots of people think is the only thing we do – is to negotiate contracts.

The one piece of advice I always give to writers is to keep going. And not to worry too much about your career at the beginning.

If it’s going well, you need to keep writing. If it’s going badly, you need to keep writing. If you stop writing, it’s like trying to drive a car without fuel. As a writer you have to be self-generating. You have to be able to keep going – that’s true of novelists as well. It’s very easy to get up in the morning and not write.

One personal thing I’m hugely excited about this year is that an adaptation of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is finally being made. I’ve been trying to get that off the ground for over 25 years, so I’m absolutely delighted to see that being commissioned, and in fact with the one writer who I’ve always thought would be perfect – because of the fact that Seth’s novel combines great qualities of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens – and that’s Andrew Davies.

The BBC have just finished shooting, so I think it will either be on TV late this year or early next year.

One of the proudest moment in my career was the film Boy A. It was based on a book which I’m very fond of, written by Jonathan Trigell. It was written on the University of Manchester MA in Novel-Writing, and CBC's Anna Davis had been his tutor there. We put the adaptation together with Irish writer Mark O'Rowe, and a great director John Crowley.

Everyone was new to it, we were new to it – John Crowley hadn’t made many films, it was one of Andrew Garfield’s first roles, and it won six BAFTAS. Andrew Garfield was the youngest ever BAFTA winner for best actor.

It was a beautiful piece – I’m very, very proud of it. I’m proud of it because no one quite knew what they were doing, and so it felt like there were no rules in making it. That was a whole new experience.