Interview: Danny Stack – Screenwriter on ‘EastEnders’, ‘Octonauts’ and Director/Writer of award-winning short ‘Origin’
Cork-born Danny Stack has been carving out a successful career in the UK, where amongst other projects he has written for EastEnders and Brown Bag Films’ animated series The Octonauts. He won a BBC New Writing Award in 2004 and set up the Red Planet Prize with Tony Jordan in 2007 to help new writers. He is a former story analyst for UK Film Council, Working Title, Pathe and Miramax. His short film Origin recently won Best Horror at the London Independent Film Festival 2012.
Steven Galvin caught up with Danny to find out more…
You had an interesting start to your career – can you tell us a little bit about that?
I was in the civil service but it was killing me so I left. I managed to convince the producers of Jo-Maxi (old RTE magazine show) to let me do their film reviews for a while. It was great fun but I was pretty nervous on-screen (evidence). At the same time, I was a runner for SFX Ireland based out of Ardmore Studios. My first job was shovelling the snow from the set of In the Name of the Father! I was having great fun but hardly earning anything, so I decided to move to London in 1994 (just before Braveheart was made in Ireland, d’oh!).
Amongst other things I see you were involved in Black Books and you were a researcher on Ali G’s Alternative Christmas Message…
When I got to London in 1994, I got a job (fairly quickly) in Channel 4 (because I could type). I worked my way into the comedy department but left in 1999. Through my contacts, I got to work on Ali G’s Christmas Message as researcher, and Black Books as production assistant (both were awesome in terms of watching performers/writers work really hard). A comedy producer role was opening up for me but I said ‘no, I’m going to be a writer’.
What made you want to get into writing?
I was always interested in screenwriting, and read everything that came into Channel 4 as well as the stuff they commissioned. Something inside me said ‘I can do this’ but more importantly it said ‘I REALLY want to do this’.
You wrote for EastEnders – there must be tremendous pressure there…?
There is a pressure, yes. It’s very difficult to get in. They rejected my first attempt (a trial script they invite you to do). I was devastated as EastEnders is the soap I truly love. But I got a second attempt a year later, and was determined not to get rejected, and I didn’t! My focus was: ‘do one episode, get another’. I did two, and things were going well, with another episode offered, but then a new exec came in, and there was a big shake up of writers. I was one of the ‘last in, first out’ crowd. I’m still planning my way back in.
What was the origin of your short film Origin?
Origin‘s based on one of my feature scripts which I thought was OH MY GOD, THIS IS AMAZING. The industry didn’t see it that way. They ‘liked the writing’ (i.e. a polite rejection) but couldn’t see the commercial potential. So I thought, fair enough, I’ll make a short film version. That way I can have a proper go at directing, too, which was also a long-held interest along with screenwriting.
The film won Best Horror Short at this year’s London Independent Film Festival – how important was that?
The standard of short films at the moment is really excellent so it’s easy for a good short film not to get noticed. Also, getting into a festival is an achievement in itself but for industry execs, it’s a basic expectation. So, to win an award is fantastic as it gives you extra industry recognition and attention. On a personal level, it’s hugely thrilling as you know all the hard work that went into the making of the film.
You’ve recently written for Octonauts, the animated series from Dublin-based Brown Bag Films, for CBeebies – what are the challenges writing for children?
The thing about writing for Kids’ TV is that you write exactly the same way as you do for an adult audience but better! Kids are so switched on and sophisticated. They just want to be told a good story. They don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. If you can hold their attention, make them laugh, and satisfy their expectations, then thank you very much. Parents who have to improvise a story to their kids will know what I’m talking about. So, when I’m writing for something like Octonauts (which is very sophisticated and action-packed), I’m trying to use all my storytelling skills and never patronise the audience with weak explanations or stupid motives.
You created & co-host the UK Scriptwriters podcast. Tell us a little about this.
One day, I was stung from a few rejections and I was avoiding work. I looked online to listen to a screenwriting podcast but couldn’t find any that were UK based. So I thought, hey, why not do a bit of positive procrastination and do one yourself! BAFTA-nominated Tim Clague lives near me, and he has a good microphone (and a good sense of humour) so he was the first and only person I thought to do the podcast with. We’ve been going 2 years now, and we came 2nd in the European Podcast Award last year!
And you also set up the Red Planet Prize with writer/producer Tony Jordan in 2007…
I did a Q&A with Tony for my blog, and shortly afterwards I had an idea about a screenwriting competition that would help writers AFTER they won the award rather than forget all about them. I emailed Tony and said ‘what do you think?’ and he said HELLSYEAH and came up with an amazing prize: £5k, an agent and develop the winning script or get a commission on one of Tony’s shows. The Red Planet Prize is named after Tony’s production company. I’m very proud of the competition’s success, and I’m big on writers helping other writers whenever they can. As an aside, Kevin Lehane worked on Origin (m’short) as an assistant, and then I recommended him to Working Title, and next thing we knew, Kevin’s script Grabbers gets snapped up, gets made and is being released later this year! Bastard! I mean, FANTASTIC.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m developing a kids’ show with a well-known production company so I’m very excited about that. I’ve just finished my next short film, which is a 5-minute comedy (I like to vary my genres), and I’m about to start a new feature spec script as you always need new scripts as a freelance writer. Always.
What advice would you have for aspiring writers?
Write, write, write. Don’t take rejection personally, and keep writing. Get a portfolio of scripts going (a feature, a TV pilot, a half-hour script, a short film script). Make a short film or get a producer/director to make your short film script. Get online and network but don’t get too distracted. Watch lots of films and TV, not just for enjoyment but for analysis, too. Read popular writing/filmmaking books. Absorb what works for you, discard the rest. Write, write, and write some more.
Finally people can keep up with you on your screenwriting blog, which has been going since 2005…
There’s a ‘best of blog’ section with lots of advice & stuff (how to get an agent, etc.), plus there’s a free download section (10 Tips on How to be a Pro Writer, etc.).