Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, alongside producer Sue Vertue, are television royalty.
With their lengthy run on Doctor Who, overseeing both Peter Capaldi and Matt Smith’s Doctors, the global mega-hit Sherlock, which catapulted Benedict Cumberbatch into the stratosphere, and now Dracula, a slice of prime-time horror that never relents, they are still at the top of their game.
Their insights into the complexities of writing and producing these hits are invaluable to all writers.
“I think Mark and I are pretty good at pitches now,” says Steven. “But I do worry for writers who aren’t. You don’t need to be good at pitches to be a good writer.”
“Most writers are introverts anyway,” adds Mark.
“You can see amongst the people whether they’re listening or not,” says Steven. “Some think their job is to look mean, and that’s really hard. You don’t want to get no laughs to a best man’s speech. And you need to work out who you want to work with.”
“We have a tendency to write very long scenes,” says Steven. “We’re always wondering whether they’re too long. Then you realise it’s more than one scene – it’s full of escalation, suspense and surprise.”
“We were very emboldened by Sherlock’s success,” says Mark. “We were worried about the Baker Street scenes being ten minutes long. But then they were people’s favourites.”
“The word incident always comes up a lot. Though that doesn’t mean they have to be running about,” says Sue.
“Sometimes people cut away too early and that reduces the amount of entertainment,” says Steven. “The heights of Dracula are the confrontations between Agatha and Dracula. My favourite is in episode two when she talks her way out of the noose and takes control of the ship from the gallows. Those confrontations are the motherlode of drama.”
“The director of episode three, Damon Thomas, said fights without narrative are the most boring things you can imagine,” says Mark. “Modern films are replete with them. If you have the character moment, such as Spiderman’s friends stuck in the lift, it’s immediately more interesting.”
“On many occasions we’re working together we’re like, this scene doesn’t need seven jokes, it just needs one,” says Steven.
“In life and drama, you can veer from one to another in a heartbeat. What you need to be careful about is tone. If you’re trying to write a dramatic moment you don’t want to undercut it,” says Mark.
“Even during Covid there’s so much funny stuff around,” says Sue. “People will resort to humour no matter how bad things are. I think it’s easier for you two as you both come from a comedy background.”
“The good thing with Dracula was we were literally upstairs from the sound stages for four months. We weren’t in separate parts of the city, so if something needed fixing, we were there,” says Mark
“We did more in the same room collaboratively on Dracula that we’ve ever done before. They were quite intense days though,” says Steven.
“I remember when we got to the end of a draft of episode two.”
“We didn’t think we would.”
“Our brains were like soup. We were just pounding on the page to get there.”
“People are afraid of exposition, and they’re wrong,” says Steven. “Agatha Christie made more money by having exposition as the final third of her books. Embrace your exposition. It’s not something you should shuffle away from. People want to know how the trick was done. People like explanations.”
“It’s really interesting… you can shoot yourself in the foot by not telling anyone anything and you can look into the edit and think: ‘No one knows anything. We’re gonna need captions’,” adds Mark.
“Entertain,” says Mark. “You can never be too funny. Use every weapon in your arsenal. I was reading a friend’s pitch the other day and every page I wanted to tighten it and make it funnier. Ask yourself what’s going to make people want to read to the end.”
“Scripts are not necessarily much fun to read,” adds Steven. “You want to present a script that actively stops the reader from wanting to look away. It’s about seducing people from the first sentence to the last. When I was getting Doctor Who scripts I’d often lie on my bed to read them and challenge the writing to keep me awake.”
“Have your own voice; be sparky in the stage directions,” says Sue, “And don’t do anything on Zoom. No one’s going to want to use Zoom ever again.”
John Morris is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker based in Nottingham. John has already completed a sixty minute feature, two full length screenplays, and a full length novel, alongside dozens of shorter pieces. His Twitter is @JohnJamesMorris.
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