- by Lina Gardiner
A special thank you to Peter James for taking time out of your hectic schedule to offer insights in the television and movie industries. To truly understand the depth of Mr. James’ expertise, please check out his Blog Bio - http://www.peterjames.com/about
Reading your Career bio, it seems that you were fated to be involved in the entertainment industry. Does it feel that way to you or did your Interests lead you there (even at the young age of 16)?
Right from early childhood I had two ambitions: To make films and to write novels. I left Charterhouse ignominiously being asked to leave after playing truant for a long weekend with a stunning Brazilian model I met in the school grounds after she had come to see a relative playing cricket. I’d just taken my A levels. I then went to a tutorial college to cram for Oxford Entrance and the first film school in England started up and I decided that was what I wanted to do.
I’ve always written since the age of 8 when I used to keep a notebook and write down my thoughts. I never ever dreamed anyone would want to read them!!!! I did write three novels in my late teens, but luckily they were never published – they were so bad! But, I did win a BBC short story competition when I was 17 which gave me some confidence.
How did you end up in Canada, and what brought you back to England?
I went to Canada after film school, it was impossible to get into television in England at that time. An uncle, who still lives in Canada, said to me ‘come out here, it’s all happening’ and I stayed there and in America for six years, coming home to visit my parents. In 1975 I came back to Europe to make the film Spanish Fly with Terry Thomas and Leslie Phillips and while I was over my father became ill, I’d also just met my then to be wife. Various things conspired and I went back to Canada but decided in 1976 to move back to England.
What initiated your venture into Television? What part did you like the most? My children loved Polka Dot Door, by the way.
Back in 1970 when I first arrived in Toronto I was working as a “gofor” – a tea boy and runner on a daily show you mention for pre-schoolers called “Polka Dot Door”. One day the writer didn’t turn up with a script because he was sick. The Producer had seen on my CV that I’d won my school poetry prize and asked me to write that day’s show. I ended up writing the show three times a week for a year – I was just 23 years old! That was a wonderful break for me.
Where did your interest in science originate?
I’ve always had a big interest in science – and in particular whether advances in science have been so fast they have overtaking our evolution, in terms of our ability to understand and harness these advances. Science may have made going to the dentist a less painful and frightening experience than when I was a child – my dentist back then pedaled the drill himself by foot – but it gave us the ability to create nuclear power and weapons, long before we realized the ease with which nuclear capabilities could be obtained and used by those with evil intention.
Science has given us so many of the technologies that have made our lives so diverse, enriched, comfortable and mobile, but now accompanied by the latter day out of control spectre of global warming.
I never had much interest in science at school, but that changed at the age of 22 when I was living in Canada and staying with my uncle (Dr Josef Kates). He was an absolutely brilliant scientist and one of the early computer pioneers. He was then Chief Scientific Advisor to the Canadian Government, and he had a passion for science that I had never experienced with any of my school teachers. He was the person that enthralled me and got me to understand its marvels.
With medicine my interest really came as result of researching a novel I wrote about the pharmaceutical industry in 1984 called Alchemist. I spent a year doing my research, with several pharmaceutical companies as well as the UK and the US patent offices, and I began to realize just what an inexact science medicine is, and how much is drawn not from new science but from the most primitive natural history. I also became intrigued by what I call the “arrogance of doctors” – so many believe they are right – and yet there are big clashes between so called “Western” medicine, and other disciplines, such as Chinese or ayurvedic. What is without dispute is how life expectancy is increasing. One hundred years ago in the UK it was 43 for a male and 47 for a female. Now both can look to topping 80. In one hundred years from now, people will routinely live to be north of 100, but in bodies that look no more than 60, and at some point in the future, if we don’t wipe ourselves out first through war or abuse of our planet, we will reach a point where we are able to stop and reverse the aging process, replace lost limbs and cure all diseases – we will become biologically immortal. Then there will be a whole paradigm shift for the human race.
What did you learn as a producer/scriptwriter than benefits you as a writer?
I think I have learned a great deal from my start in life as a scriptwriter that helps me to write engaging novels. In screenwriting there are three invisible words in the mind of the author all the way through the process. Three very simple words: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? It is almost like a mantra. For me the biggest lessons I have learned from film and TV production are pacing and intercutting more than anything else. I love using a technique of intercutting between different characters and converging storylines, which is a very cinematic technique and I have always loved reading novels constructed in this way. There is a different experience between film and TV in that because the audience is captive, films can afford to start more slowly than TV dramas. I worked for a time on a sitcom in the US and learned a big lesson from that: In a sitcom the US rule is that you must have a laugh every 12 seconds, because they figure otherwise they will lose their audience. I have translated this into my crime writing – not a laugh every twelve seconds, obviously, but the realization that to keep my readers interested and hooked, I need to constantly surprise them. Laughter and fear are very close emotions and they compliment each other. You laugh to shrug off fear. Then when the laughing stops, the fear is even worse. Many of the greatest crime thriller novels and films have humour in them – Silence Of The Lambs is a great example of this. Polanski’s early film, Cul De Sac is a wonderful example of tension, terror and pure comedy.
The great joy of writing a novel compared to writing a script or a screenplay is this: With a movie or TV production you are part of a huge committee-like process, where a whole bunch of different people all lay claim to the finished product. You have two or three producers each claiming it is their movie! The director claims it is his. The Director Of Photography claims it is his film because without him, it would be nothing. Your 2/3/4 lead actors each claim that really it is their film. The Production Designers says it is his or her film. The editor claims it is his film. The composer says the film would have been rubbish without the music. And so on…. You end up with a compromise on almost every film, because creatively they are in one long fight from beginning to end. With a novel it is totally different – it is just me! I don’t have to change one single word, if I don’t feel like it. And I love that!
What do you feel makes a good script?
Do you think movie and television writers write to trends or create the trends to start with?
There will always be a movie or a TV series that starts a trend and then endless copycats at the requests of film and TV producers.
In your experience, how long does it take for a film to go from a book to a script and from a new script to finished film?
From a book to a script I would say 3-6 months, and for a script to a finished film 1 year.
How did you choose the movie projects you worked on?
Mostly they were scripts that I read that appealed and excited me.
Which of the movies that you produced are your favorites and why?
Two of my highlights have been the Royal Premieres of two films I have been involved with. The first was Biggles, when we had Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the second, Merchant Of Venice when again we had Prince Charles but this time Camilla Parker Bowles. Both ladies were equally charming. I remember at Merchant of Venice asking Camilla Parker Bowles if she still smoked, bearing in mind that Charles disapproved. She gave me a big grin and replied, “Are you looking for someone to come behind the bike sheds with you for a quick fag???” The Merchant of Venice is the film that I am most proud of. Mike Radford did a stunning job directing and the cast, especially Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Lynn Collins, Ralph Fiennes, Kris Marshall and Charlie Cox were such delights to work with.
Nowadays, what do you think about screenwriters who don’t live in LA (since many of our members are in North America) and thus aren’t available for meetings, for pitching, etc. It’s just about impossible to have a career outside of LA unless you’re writing extremely low-budget indies and people local to you are filming them. Main representation for screenwriters are with the big US agencies such as CAA and ICM.
As a writer you can live and work anywhere.
What do you think about screenwriters entering and placing in contests, such as the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, Austin Film Festival, Final Draft, etc? Would it mean anything to you as a producer?
I don’t have any experience of this to give an answer
Do you think contests are a viable way to get your foot in the door? And if so, which ones do you feel have the most clout?
How do you suggest novelists get their novels in front of ‘the right people’ who can option them for film or television?
They have to get a book-to-film agent of which there are many. Most literary agencies have a film and television department these days.
What TV/Film movies today are your favorites? What is it about the plot that drew you to it?
My favourite film of last 12 months is Nebraska – I loved it for its very simple human story, beautifully and, at times, very humorously told. I’ve actually just started watching the series Breaking Bad and it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time because the characters are so good. At the end of the day, the most important thing in any storytelling, be it written word or on-screen, are the characters. We all read a book, or watch a film, or TV series wanting to find out what happens to characters, those we have met at the beginning and feel that we know. So many dramas fall over for me because I either don’t believe, or don’t feel I know the characters.
How do you manage your time doing book tours, and producing the World Stage Premiere of your book, The Perfect Murder?
I think I need a clone ! I try to ensure that whatever I’m doing I leave myself time to write 1000 words 6 days a week whether it’s in a plane, back of a car or in a hotel room.
Given your extensive experience in producing/directing and writing, do you have any advice for authors as a result of your experiences?
I believe in a crucial trinity of character, plot and research, in all fiction, but research is especially important in crime fiction, because the world of the police is unique, they have their own culture, their own procedures and in turn their own way of looking at the world. As I mention before, people read books first and foremost to find out what happens to characters they become engaged with. That is the first step with a debut crime novel – instantly engaging characters. Second is to put them into a situation that leaves the reader gasping, and wondering how they will get out of it. Thirdly is to imbue the story with a veracity that can only come from good research.
I don’t believe good writers can be taught, although I think their technique can be helped. My most important recommendation to any person who wants to write novels of any kind is to read, read and read. Particularly the kind of novels they would like to write – and to deconstruct them, literally – and work out what made them like this or that particular book. How did the writer get them hooked… how did the writer make them care for the characters…. It is impossible to stress this enough. Once you have started writing, keep up a continuity. At least six days a week write something every day, however little, to keep everything alive in your mind.
Thank you very much for your time, Peter!