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11 February 2020

Colin Teevan: ‘Research is paramount – you can’t fill in the dots later’

Colin Teevan Screen Writer for TV
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

We’re so excited to welcome celebrated screenwriter, playwright and translator Colin Teevan to the the Curtis Brown Creative tutor team. He will lead fifteen screenwriting students in our first ever Writing an Original TV Drama Serial course this spring. Colin is writer and executive producer of Rebellion (RTE, Netflix) and lead writer, showrunner and executive producer on seasons 2 and 3 of Das Boot (Bavaria Fiction/Sky TV). His other work for television includes Charlie (RTE), Silk (BBC), Vera and Single Handed (ITV). Colin’s theatre pieces have been produced by the National, the Young Vic, the Soho Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. Until recently he was Professor of Screenwriting and Playwriting at Birkbeck, University of London, where he had lectured for twelve years.

Read on to discover how Colin got his first break as a screenwriter and for his advice to aspiring TV writers …

What first inspired you to get into screenwriting?

I came to screenwriting from theatre, and started writing for the screen seriously about ten years ago. For a long time, I didn’t want to work in TV – I’d be offered this and that, but I didn’t find TV inspiring as a form. What really began to excite me was the huge shift in the early 2000s – around the time HBO started making TV series. Of course there had been great TV series before, but they were quite rare. With the arrival of shows like The Sopranos and The West Wing the bar was raised. It’s interesting that writers like Aaron Sorkin moved from film into TV.

Strangely, TV has become one of the most exciting mediums. Film has become like the short story while television has become like the novel. What excited me as I began to move into TV was the scale of the canvas: shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, which are fifty or sixty hours long. TV started to do something that neither stage nor film could do – show a character go through a whole evolution. In comparison, a film or a two-hour stage play is quite narrow. With TV you can have multiple characters and even multiple worlds. And TV has only continued to become more exciting.

So, we’re in a Golden Age of TV?

There have always been a few great shows and a lot of dross. I would say the proportion is still the same, but now there are so many shows. What has changed is the sheer scale of it – the amount of television drama being produced globally is staggering. Last year I heard that Netflix had ninety-eight serialised dramas in production in Europe all shooting at the same time. And that was just Netflix! When you consider Amazon, Apple and Disney as well as all the traditional broadcasters like the BBC, ZDF, Canal or RTL it’s extraordinary.

Then you look at the staggering budgets on shows like The Morning Show, and really TV drama is the new movies, the new Hollywood.

Do you remember the first TV script you wrote?

Theatre got me a break into TV writing by accident. A commissioner from Irish television Jane Gogan saw a play of mine at the Barbican and was amazed to discover that I was Irish and that she hadn’t heard of me. So we met and talked, and the first TV show I worked on was a show of hers for ITV called Single-Handed.

I moved very quickly into doing my own series of films about Irish politician Charles Haughey, in which Aidan Gillen played the lead. That was really fun and very quickly I found myself showrunning my own show as well as being my entire writers room! It was a big learning curve even though I had experience writing for theatre and writing treatments/outlines and even scripts that weren’t made. When you’re going into production, the technical aspect of writing for television is quite complex but it’s also really exciting. I could do things I could never dream of doing on stage just by a juxtaposition of images or moments and through manipulation of point of view that the camera enables. For stage you’re always writing for a full tableau and you’ve got to use speech to drive the focus point, but for a television scene there is always a point of view and you can lead the camera, which is really interesting.

The form is always evolving, and I would say that I’m still learning – particularly from other writers, directors and producers. I’m enjoying working with the screenwriter Tony Saint on season three of Das Boot at the moment. Writing something like Das Boot – with huge action scenes – would have been unheard of ten years ago when I went into television. Now it’s possible with film standard CGI and bigger budgets. I’m finding it fascinating working on this show based on an iconic German movie and about the most difficult moment in their history.

How important is research when you’re developing scripts for TV? And what is your approach to research?

I’ve done a lot of historical dramas (Rebellion, Das Boot, Charlie) and they always involve an awful lot of research. If you’re writing something set on your street today you’re living the research (I don’t imagine Phoebe Waller Bridge had to do much research for Fleabag, or Paul Abbott for Shameless!), but when you’re writing historical drama you’ve got to get into the mindset of the domestic, everyday habits of the time. For something historical, I probably read upwards of fifty books. On some shows, if you’re lucky, you’ll have historical advisors – on Das Boot we have a German U-boat captain. I now know a ridiculous amount about the mechanics of how U-boats work and how torpedoes are launched etc. Charlie was also really interesting because I got to interview former Irish politicians, and research is much more interesting if you can talk to a person.

When they approached me to write for Silk, I raised the idea of writing a story about the right-to-die, and they said to go off and research it and tell them what it might look like in the context of Silk. So, I talked to the barrister who advised them and did a lot of legal research, not only about the law but also about how the law plays out in certain cases, and I read around the ethics as well. When you are writing about experts (police, doctors, lawyers etc.) you need to have a grasp of what they do and what the characters are living every day.

Research is paramount – you can’t fill in the dots later. Often your research gives you plot details and plot turning points. I do a huge amount of research and a lot of the fun part of the job is entering these worlds.

Do you have any tips for crafting convincing dialogue?

Dialogue is to drama what soft furnishings are to architecture. When you walk into a room you look at the soft furnishings or the decoration, but the building and engineering and architecture need to be there first. Dialogue is usually just the tip of the iceberg, just one part of the experience. You also have to consider the characters’ faces and their reactions. Someone said to me recently that ninety percent of TV acting is reaction – it’s not about delivering big Shakespearean monologues. Audiences don’t want to be told things in dialogue – they want to look at the characters’ reactions and feel that there’s something going on. What dialogue does a lot of the time is set up reaction. The dynamic of the scene comes from knowing the characters’ intentions even though they might not be saying anything to each other at all.

You want to make dialogue as subtle as possible. The last thing you should do is to make it explanatory or expository. Audiences don’t like to be told things – they like to work things out for themselves.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching screenwriting?

I love working with new writers and helping them develop their ideas, and it’s so rewarding to see a writer develop a piece over a course. Dennis Kelly, Lisa McGee and Jo Laurens were all playwriting students of mine at one point or another. They all have really original voices and are writing things that I’d never consider writing. I get a huge amount of pleasure from their success and knowing that I helped them move up a gear and go on to thrive as writers – though I cannot claim to have given them anything other than encouragement and a steer towards their first break. This is why the opportunity for students at CBC is so exciting – the chance of a first break is built in!

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring screenwriters what would you say?

When people write dialogue they often write the thought as dialogue followed by a line of dialogue. They use two sentences when they should be using one. The character can say half as much. For example, when a character says: ‘I’m really angry with you. Go to your room.’ You just need: ‘Go to your room.’ A good actor will play the thought (reaction again!).

It’s amazing how often writers do this – even really good writers. I often go through my scripts after revising just to cut out all those thoughts and this really lifts the writing. Remember, it is the writer’s job to embed the thought and the actor’s job to discover/deliver it (without stating it!).

Do you have an idea for a TV drama? Don’t miss out on the opportunity to work on your screenwriting with Colin Teevan and other top TV writers, producers, Curtis Brown Theatre, Film and TV agents and directors. Apply by Sunday 16 Feb for a chance to develop your work on our 18-week Writing an Original TV Drama Serial course. We also have one scholarship available for a talented writer of limited financial means.

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