Caroline Farrell’s series of interviews with screenwriters continues with Hugh Travers.
Hugh Travers is a graduate of D.I.T (B.Sc. Film and Broadcasting) and The Huston School of Film (M.A. in Screenwriting). He received a scholarship to The Professional Programme in Screenwriting at UCLA. He has written a number of award-winning short films, and is currently working on Over The Bar, a feature film in development with the Irish Film Board, Deadpan Pictures & Dan Films. Over The Bar was recently selected for The Brit List, a shortlist of the best unproduced scripts of 2014. Most recently his critically acclaimed play Lambo completed a national tour, was nominated for the Little Gem Award in the Dublin Fringe Festival and was adapted for RTE Radio. It won the PPI Drama Award for Best Radio Play of 2014. His previous play Clear the Air ran at the Theatre Upstairs in Dublin and the Electric Picnic Arts Festival in Stradbally. He recently completed Rough Magic SEEDS, a two-year artist development programme for theatre writers which included staged readings of his plays Cardboard City and The Disappeared. Hugh co-wrote The Variety Show, an animated series, produced by A Man & Ink and RTÉ and he developed The H-Files and Chicklings with the IFB and Paper Dreams. He created the comedy panel show format Choose or Lose with Screentime Shinawil and RTÉ and was head writer on the pilot episode, and was the head writer on The Big Pitch, a panel show pilot for Sky. Hugh was also the writer and chief researcher on Green Is The Colour, a hugely successful four by one-hour historical sports documentary series for Treasure Entertainment and RTÉ.
You are obviously a prolific writer, Hugh. Tell us how you got started?
I wrote terrible songs in secondary school so always had an interest in creative writing. Then I began to write scripts in college. I studied Communications: Film & Broadcasting but really started writing through the drama society where you could kind of put on anything you wanted and have the freedom to fail. I then specialised in writing for my final year and went on to do a masters in Screenwriting and a professional programme in UCLA.
Freedom to fail, love that! And your first big break?
Well, I came back from UCLA in 2006 and started properly trying to chase funding and make applications to get things off the ground for the first time. In early 2008 I got funding for an Irish language short (An Cosc) through Filmbase and TG4’s Lasair scheme, so it took me about a year and a half before I got anywhere. It’s hard to know if that short was a break necessarily but it was a small step on the road. I had written a rough first draft of it on my own. I pitched the story idea to the producer Claire McCaughley. She really liked it and so we reworked the script a bit before applying to Filmbase. Then once we were shortlisted we got Vincent Gallagher on board to direct. The same team then got funding for a second, English language short not long after and things began to build slowly from there.
Do you have an agent, Hugh and do you think one is necessary?
I do have an agent and I have found it to be very helpful. We have a good relationship and it’s good to have a supportive ‘consultant’ as much as it is good to have someone fighting your corner on contracts and getting you meetings etc. Is it necessary? No it’s not essential at all. I think it’s possible to get ahead just fine without one but it has certainly helped me. I think once you reach the top-level, it would become absolutely essential.
Do you contribute to the PR and marketing of your work, for instance on social media?
I’m more a consumer of social media than I am a creator of content. In other words I’m on twitter but I don’t tweet. I’m on Facebook but mainly as a procrastination tool rather than as a means of expression. But when it comes to marketing, it’s a completely different story. I think it’s essential. You have to find your audience. The right people for your work. They’re not just the people who will pay to see it, they’re the people who will actually enjoy it because it’s in their wheelhouse. So if they’re on facebook you have to communicate with them there.
Back to the practice of writing. How do you structure your time?
I keep office hours. I generally start at ten and finish at six. Monday to Friday. A lot of that time is naturally spent avoiding writing but I do try to put myself in the chair for those hours. I am at least threatening to write!
And how long does it take you to complete a script?
It depends. A first draft of a feature script can take anything from a few weeks to a few months. But the real writing begins with the rewrites. That can sometimes take years, depending on what the process is.
Do you place much importance on film competitions and awards?
I think for a writer, awards and competitions can be very helpful early in your career to get people to take you seriously. If you’re lucky they can buy you a few months of attention or replies to your emails. But I think it’s important to remember that not all writers and not all scripts fall into the categories that tend to win awards or place well in competitions. They’re not the be all and end all. I think when it comes to getting a finished film seen, they are really helpful. In the crowded market place, they hang a lantern on your movie and allow it to be noticed. It’s easy to be dismissive of the industry love-ins but I think they are a necessary indulgence.
Any thoughts on our film industry in general?
We’re living in strange times as far as film goes. I think there has never been more opportunity and yet things are getting more difficult. Technology has opened up all manner of possibilities and yet it has had a lot of side effects. The streaming and VOD model is still bedding in and it remains to be seen if it will work financially for filmmakers. Illegal downloads can be damaging to smaller independent films. The tent-pole movie culture in Hollywood has squeezed out grown-up dramas, comedies and mid-range films. So ultimately it’s easier to make a film than ever. But it’s harder than ever to get that movie seen and to make money from it. And consequently, it’s harder to get paid to write them.
And on indie film?
I love the fact that indie films continue to exist because at the moment, it’s the only way that interesting movies are getting made. Again, I think the independent sector is still in flux. After the initial boom in the 90’s we’re probably now entering a new era with streaming and VOD and different distribution possibilities but the jury is still out on whether it will be boom or bust. It could be hugely hugely positive and usher in a new golden era or indie films could go the way of indie music and the music industry in general where passionate artists are making great work but it’s next to impossible to make a living.
Have you self-funded or considered crowdfunding for a project?
I did use crowdfunding to stage my first play. It was a great resource and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who rowed in behind that project. I do think you have to use it responsibly. I will never say never but I don’t plan to go back to the well any time soon. You’re essentially asking family and friends for a dig-out and you can’t do that too often. Unless I ended up in an unusual position where a project I was working on had interest from the wider public but couldn’t get traditional funding. If you were genuinely finding a way to service a demand that was out there by allowing an audience to effectively pay in advance, then crowdfunding is absolutely the way to go and that’s a responsible way to use it.
I’m learning through this series that feedback, and how we handle it, differs from writer to writer, particularly if it comes in negative form. How do you handle such reviews?
I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided scathing reviews. There have been a couple of middling to negative ones and the ease with which I shake them off depends on the nature of the project. The worst review I got was probably for a comedy panel show that I worked on but the whole point of the show was to be genuinely silly and embrace that completely so it’s easy to be philosophical about that. I’ve never been panned for my plays or my work on TV but even good reviews often include the odd throwaway criticism and you have to remind yourself not to obsess about that one line.
Given your experience to date, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Find a way to stay in the game. If you have had any sort of indication that you have talent and aren’t banging your head up against a brick wall, then it’s all about staying in the game until your number comes up. For some people that involves working a day job and writing in your spare time. For others it’s working part-time in a bar or cafe or shop. Maybe it’s even trying to get by on the dole. Whatever your way is, you need to keep living while you keep trying. If you’re good – and if you’re dedicated to continually getting better – your number will come up eventually. So find a way to stay happy, to stay writing and to pay the bills while you’re waiting.
And ‘write what you know’ – agree or disagree?
It definitely helps but it’s not at all essential. I’ve written about worlds that I know nothing about and written stuff that has been a little autobiographical. I feel they both scratch different itches and each option still requires due diligence. In the ‘write what you know’ scenario you have to stop yourself form being too self indulgent and getting too close to the material. You have to still see it as a story in its own right and allow it to go where it needs to go, not in the direction of your experience. With the other stuff, it just takes research. Lots and lots of research.
Is there a film script by another writer that you wish you had written?
How about a book that became a film? I’m a big fan of The Butcher Boy. I’m not sure it’s something that I necessarily would write – even if I could – but it’s one of those pieces of work that has always resonated with me for reasons that I can’t even properly understand or analyse.
Apart from your feature, Over the Bar, are you are working on anything else right now?
The reality of being a working screenwriter/playwright is that you have to have a lot of irons in the fire and a lot of work in development. It’s necessary to pay the bills but it’s also necessary if you want to get something produced. If you’re concentrating on one piece of work, your odds might not be great. You have to keep all the plates spinning and hope that one of them will somehow take off. I’m hoping to do a new play next year and I have a few exciting feature and TV projects in development, which I hope will go into production soon.
Thanks, Hugh, and just for fun – six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!
Woody Guthrie, Larry David, Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Billy Bragg, Orson Welles – literally the first six people that came into my head – in that order. And my favourite beverage? Currently a whisky sour.
Caroline Farrell has written several feature and short scripts. Most recently, In Ribbons, which she wrote and co-produced, screened at the 2015 Belfast Film Festival and the Corona Fastnet Film Festival. Caroline blogs… on writing and film… and on a few of her favourite things.