Based in Aberdeen, Peter Forbes lectures in The Creative Industries: Television at a Skillset Media Academy where he has executive produced over fifty short films and has been teaching screenwriting for more than five years. As a working screenwriter he has trained extensively with Phil Parker and David Howard and is currently in post-production on a short film and development on a number of features. He also works in graphic novels, the most recent of which is being published as a member of The Sleepless Phoenix in the anthology Survival Stories.
How did the filming of Downing go?
Very well. I saw a rough cut the other day and it seems to be coming along nicely. There’s a cohesive narrative. I mean, it is still a rough cut so there’s work to be done but all the major elements are in place to hopefully create something kind of special.
How much input do you have after writing the script?
Downing’s been a very collaborative process because, as a script, I worked on it for probably a year beforehand, if not longer. It’s a very, very different film now. It started out as more of a thriller, and over the process of developing it changed into more of a coming-of-age story. When I was doing my MA in screenwriting last year, I met a producer and we started working on a script together so it was developed in that sense, with a producer on board who had a good deal of input at script stage, and it kind of stayed the same right up to now.
How much input do you have during the filming process?
I think traditionally people like to keep the writers away from the set. Ben [the director] is based in London, and we hadn’t really met that much before the shoot but he’s essentially a promo director and this is one of the first narrative things that he’s done, so again, as far as character motivations and so on, we were very collaborative on that. And I think because… every line on the script you sweat over, you just suddenly notice things like, ‘oh no, she wouldn’t do that’. I was careful about doing it too often; it was only when something was really crucial and really mattered, because you don’t like to step on people’s toes.
Did you enjoy the process overall?
Yeah, the days on set were absolutely fantastic. I had a massive downer the week after just because the actual filming went so well and everything went relatively smoothly and you’re seeing it come alive and then you go back to your normal life, which just isn’t quite as much fun. So the week after wasn’t as good. But seeing it come alive was just amazing.
Is Downing the biggest project you’ve worked on to date?
I’ve done a couple of shorts and before that I wrote and directed myself, and I’ve had very large scripts optioned, as in really big budget stuff, but it’s never really gone past the developing script stage, simply because of budget problems. But in terms of seeing it through to the end, this should be the largest project I’ve done, yeah.
You’re also involved with graphic novels?
Yeah, Wages of Sin was just published two weeks ago at the Birmingham Comic Convention, as part of an anthology that came about because Insomnia Publishing went under. That was a nine page script that actually started as a film script, and now I think I might actually be working it into a larger graphic novel with the artist that did the art that’s on the website.
Is the process of writing a comic script similar to that of a film script?
It’s weird, I think, because there are so many differences but there are just so many similarities as well. You are essentially still writing for the screen but as a screenwriter you spend years training to write just the essential stuff, so only what the characters need to do or say to put it across to the reader. But then when you start writing for comic, you actually have to write for an artist, so anything you want to be in there you have to specify. So suddenly, instead of writing something that would have taken one line before, might now take a paragraph. So the same, but different is the best way of describing them.
Does the artist show you anything beforehand?
It depends on the artist you work with. With Wages of Sin, I saw some mailed sketches of the pages, then he sent me the roughs, then he sent me the finished work, and then they went to the letterer so, yeah, again that was fairly collaborative, But it’s odd, because you write the script, and you put it away, and every time I’ve had a page back, it looks nothing like I thought it would: but it always looks better. They always add stuff that you can never think was going to be there, so it’s really nice and it’s actually really easy suddenly to talk about your work in a positive way, because the art isn’t yours. You can say nice things about something you’re involved with without sounding too big-headed, because the visuals were someone else’s work.
How long have you been writing for?
Ever since I was 16 or 18, I’ve always been working on something and trying to push it forward. It’s always pretty much been part-time and in between working for a living. I think I’m probably at that point now [where I am able to support myself through writing]. Doing the MA at Napier certainly helped push me towards that. But saying that, at the moment I have a job that’s steady, and in this economic climate it’s very hard to give that up. I’ll probably keep doing both for right now.
Had you participated in any writing courses before Napier?
I’ve done quite a lot. I actually teach screenwriting as well. Before the new government in their wisdom, shut down the Film Council, there was a course that was developed by the Film Council and a screenwriting guy called Phil Parker. I’ve done quite extensive training with him and I’m one of the tutors who teach that screenwriting course up in Aberdeen. The course is taught throughout the UK. I’d also done a screen development workshop called North by Northwest that was in Denmark for three weeks, spaced over a year. During that I developed the screenplay for Wages of Sin, that’s where that idea was originally developed. That was an amazing process, and I’ve still got a lot of contacts from that actually, so it continues to be useful to this day.
Do you like to collaborate?
I much prefer working with other people, it’s a much nicer process, although [laughs] in saying that, I’ll probably regret those words at some point in the future if I have to work with people I don’t enjoy working with, but so far, everyone’s been a pleasure. At the moment I’m working on a web serial, something that can be worked in a slightly shorter format, and maybe I can do a bit more directing as well. For that, I’ve actually cast the lead actor first and then we’re going to develop the storyline and his character together, just because when I was on the set of Downing working with the actors was such fun, and working on the motivations for the characters, that I figured I’d like to do it a bit more.
Could you tell me a bit about the web serial?
Well, it’s called The Cat. I’ve just started the Facebook page that I’m probably going to use to develop it and I’m also probably going to use it for crowd-sourcing. Because at this stage it’s certainly being done not-for-profit, there’s pretty much no money involved so basically you do it for the passion or the experience, hopefully the passion. I don’t currently know what the whole storyline is but in a way… I would say teen-Dexter, but he’s slightly older than a teen. I think it’s going to end up being something relatively dark.
Is that something that you’ll be able to finance yourself?
Well, the way that I’ll actually shoot it, yeah. I won’t be looking for funding on that, simply because it’s more of an experiment. It’s just seeing what you can tell in a short period of time, maybe not just for the web but mobile phone applications too. Everyone’s all trans-media these days, and there are multiple devices. It would be nice to do a little experiment and see what’s possible.
Do you have experience with digital media?
Not really. I can do basic Photoshop manipulation, which I think actually is becoming a lot more important for writers nowadays, because often just your words aren’t enough. You have to be able to put some visuals to them. Not in terms of the script, but in terms of proposals. The last film proposal that I put out included visuals and the people liked it so I would think that with the next feature, which I’m also working on with the producer of Downing, we will get some visuals to go with it, because it gives it more of an impact.
Is there anyone who has had an influence on your work?
Probably David Mamet, I’m a huge fan of his work. He’s very good at the twists and I suppose he does go for true drama, he doesn’t have people talk for no reason: they tend to be talking directly to get what they want. In some strict screenwriting theories that is what people should do; they should only talk when they want to get what they want. There shouldn’t be endless superfluous dialogue. But it’s different when you hear your words spoken out loud. I think on the set of Downing, I noticed there were some things that worked on the page but didn’t really work when spoken out loud. So that was a bit of a learning process.
Are there any screenwriting books that have helped you?
Mamet’s On Directing Film, which says it’s about directing but I think it’s more about screenwriting, Story by Robert McGee, and Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder – that one’s quite formulaic but it is quite a fun read.
How do you feel the British ‘auteured’ model compares with the American teams of in-house writers?
I think a lot of that comes down to money. Over in the states, if you want to put on an episode of 24, you have 24 episodes which are forty-five minutes long, and you can’t do that with just two people, in the way that a six part series might be written over here. And you can’t do a 24 episode comedy show with only two people, because it’s too much work, and you’d probably run out of ideas. So I think, just the nature of what they’re writing is the reason why there’s so many more writers involved in the process.
You wouldn’t be opposed to working in that environment?
No, I’d love it. I think the finished product is what’s important, not the ego of the writer. I don’t think you should be precious about your work, I think when you’re producing something like that, when there’s a lot of people involved, your goal is to make sure that it comes out as good as possible.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
One of the challenges for me is location: because I’m based in Aberdeen it becomes a lot harder to do the networking thing, and the business isn’t just knowing how to write, it’s knowing the right people to get the work done. I’m rubbish at networking [laughs]. Most writers are. You have to sell yourself. Being slightly less British and slightly more American doesn’t hurt. Unfortunately the only way people learn things about you is if you’re willing to talk about them: finding the balance of being able to talk about yourself in a way you’re comfortable with, where you don’t feel like you’re pushing yourself forward constantly. It’s a difficult balance especially for writers, who aren’t the most socially gifted in the first place. I always much rather have a producer so that they can do the bits I don’t feel as comfortable with. Having Russell on Downing was amazing. He did a fantastic job and he did all the stuff that he was way better at than I was. I think we worked really well together in terms of that.
Any advice for aspiring screenwriters just starting out?
Oh God. [Laughs] If you want to make money don’t go into this business. You might get there in the end but it will be a long struggle, unless you’re very, very lucky and work very, very hard. It’s an incredibly tough business. When you get to the stage where you actually see stuff coming alive, it’s amazing. But the process to get there can be long, and depending on what you write, quite painful… depending on how painful you find writing.
Do you find writing painful?
I don’t think it ever comes easy. I don’t like writing but I love having written. I get it done in the end, but it’s not a process that’s particularly pleasurable while you’re having to do it. Sometimes it is. Sometimes you might get a breakthrough that you’ve been working on for ages, and that’s good.