In this series of engaging and inspiring interviews with world class artists, creatives and entrepreneurs, Rayna Campbell of Flow Artists asks Bafta nominated TV scriptwriter Chris Lunt a series of questions about art, creativity and Mindset.
1. Hello Chris, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an artist/writer?
Well, I became a professional writer quite late in life, at thirty-nine following redundancy. Prior to that I’d been working for a company that did CGI and visual effects, and before that I was the cameraman on a Discovery Home and Leisure TV series called TWO’s COUNTRY. So, basically, I’ve worked in TV since 1998. I’d had the ambition to be a writer for a while, and had worked part time as a writer, developing ideas for various production companies. When I was made redundant I received some redundancy money that served as a cushion while I gave it a go full time. My wife said I’d have to look for a proper job once that cushion got to less than a grand, and I think I had about £680 in the bank when PREY was greenlit!
2. What projects are you working on at the moment?
I have to be careful what I talk about as some of the projects are quite secret at the moment. I also have a bit of a golden rule that I don’t really talk about what I’m working on until it’s in the Radio Times. The truth is, as a professional writer, the vast amount of what you’re paid to develop and write won’t get over the finish line.
One of the top writers in the UK once told me that his strike rate – that is the projects he develops for which he gets a script commission – was only 12.5%. That’s a script commission, not a greenlight! I can say that I have a project called DOWN which is an original “written and created by” cross-genre piece that’s part crime drama, part alien abduction drama which I’m really enthused about. As a fan of science fiction, it’s something I’ve never seen before. That’s with Eleven Films who made THE ENFIELD HAUNTING and the script is currently with broadcasters. I’ve just spent a year working on a new drama called THE DEVILS, which is supposed to be heading into pre-production soon, I worked on that as part of a writing team.
The projects I can’t really talk about are an adaptation of a classic 1970’s sci fi film that we’re hoping to make into a TV series, and the remake of a Norwegian drama that we’re just sorting the rights out for. I’m also involved with the development of a couple of other drama’s in what I’d hope would become a showrunning capacity.
3. What do you do to stay at the top of your game as an artist/writer?
Work hard. From leaving school until I moved into working in TV I was an engineer (a very bad one) and a salesman for a welding company. As an engineer I worked long shifts, and as a salesman my wages were related to performance. I’ve brought my work ethic across to my writing. Reflecting on the previous question, and off the top of my head, I currently have two original ideas that have script commissions, five ideas were a prod company has come to me with the bare bones of an idea and asked me to help develop it, and five original or adapted ideas that I currently have treatment commissions for. That’s twelve ideas on my slate, I’d consider that to be my average. Having finished work on the DEVILS, my focus for the last few months has been to generate some new ideas, I’ve realized that I’m happiest working on the projects I have quite a lot of creative input on. I suppose the answer to the question is that I work really hard to create content, keep the ideas flowing, and stay on the radar of the commissioners and production companies. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important, that’s who’s going to pay you for stuff. Not your Twitter followers!
4. How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection is part of the game. You have to deal with it. As I said earlier, at some point almost all your ideas are going to get knocked back, no matter how far along in development they are. You have to dust yourself off and push on. I remember a discussion on Facebook and someone was bemoaning the fact that a project they’d been developing for a year had been turned down. I asked them how many projects they’d developed. It was their first one. I had a quick look in my “Old Projects” file and worked out I had over seventy (possibly more) projects turned down before I had PREY greenlit. That’s projects that had a production company interested, the majority that had treatments commissioned and a handful that had gone to script.
The truth is, all those rejections are part of building a name for yourself. It’s how you build your reputation, how producers and commissioners come to know your work. No one is going to get the first thing they write greenlit. I suppose if you only have one project in development you’re not going to get knocked back very often, if you want to make a living at the job, considering what you might get paid for a treatment, you need to be doing one a month, at least, to be comfortable, most, if not all of which, are going to be turned down. It’s not rejection, it’s economics. With regard to that, I forecast my income on the amount of treatments I can get commissioned, script commissions are cream, and a greenlighted drama is a trip to the Wonderful Land of Oz.
5. We do a lot of mindset work in Flow, how important is it to have a healthy mindset as an artist and how do you keep yours healthy and positive?
I think it’s always important to remember that it’s a privilege to work in this industry. I’ve stood in a swarf pit at six o’clock in the morning with coolant filling my boots, what I do now is never going to feel like work, not really.
6. You were nominated for a BAFTA for your mini series Prey! Congratulations. Did you ever visualize that sort of success?
I fantasized about it, but I never really thought it would ever happen. I did realize quite quickly that PREY was a little bit special, there hadn’t been anything really like it on TV before (there’s been plenty since <cough> HUNTED), but that was as much down to the brilliant direction of Nick Murphy and everyone else involved.
I always told my mum and dad I’d take them to the BAFTA’s if I was ever nominated, and they phoned me to arrange it within minutes of the announcement. They had a great night. My mum almost pushed “Ant” down some steps. Interesting aside, I only really became successful, i.e. was able to make a living from being a writer, when it absolutely had to happen and I no longer had a safety net! I was really thrilled to be named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit too.
7. There are a lot of negative connotations in the arts, you have to be this or that in order to be successful. What is your take on that and what is it that drives you to overcome these limitations?
Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been held back, or that where I come from has been an issue. think that is mostly down to my character. I’m a working-class Northerner. I left school at sixteen and never went to university. I became a ‘professional’ writer at thirty-nine and have made a good living from it ever since with no sign of a let up. I’m not afraid of expressing my opinions regardless of the company I’m in, but I try my best not too be too bolshy or arrogant, I much prefer to collaborate, and another of my golden rules is that the third idea is going to be better than the first two. I’m always enthusiastic, and honestly and integrity are something I put quite a lot of stock in. As much as I’m able I work with good people that I can trust. That works for me. I do sometimes like to convey a subtle air of menace when the situation requires it, which can prove quite useful – kidding! (not kidding).
8. What’s your writing routine and why?
As mentioned earlier, I tend to work quite long, set hours. I rent an office away from home, and part of my discipline is getting up, getting dressed and heading to a proper place of work. I tend to be here for about eight-thirty in the morning and work most days to half-five. If I’m working on a script I might work longer. My process when working on a script commission is to first create a very in-depth scene-by-scene or beat sheet, this is usually about forty beats and where the real hard work and time is spent. Once that is signed off by the production company I tend to aim to write on average five pages a day, that means, with luck, a first draft can be written in about two weeks.
This past year I’ve also been working with a writing partner, Michael A. Walker, on a couple of projects. Writing can be quite a lonely profession, and it’s sometimes fun to get in a room and work with someone else. Although we both still have our own projects, the stuff we’re developing together is quite exciting, and it’s good to have that quality control. I’m also putting a couple of writers rooms together at the moment, one for a project that I’m developing for a production company, and one for a project I’ve created myself that has a production company interested (they’re gigs 13 and 14 now I think about it). In those instances, the teams I’m putting together are a 50/50 mix of male and female writers.
9. Knowing what you know now, if you could go back to a time when you were just starting out as an artist/writer and maybe struggling for deals and commissions and a healthy income, what advice would you give to yourself?
Personally, I wouldn’t change a thing. I recognize how lucky I am to have achieved what I have and am exactly where I want to be in my career. My fear would be that if I changed one small thing then everything would come collapsing around my ears. Luck plays such an important part in this industry, and you can’t plan for that. The only advice I would give myself would be to work hard and understand that rejection and knock backs are part of the game. It doesn’t mean you’re losing so long as you keep moving forward. Maybe it was my age when I got into it full time, but I sort of knew that from the get-go. I’d also say that you’ll only be really content as a writer when you stop feeling like everyone else’s success is your personal failure!
10. And finally, how important is social media for you as an artist/writer?
To be honest, I probably use the social media a lot less that I used to apart from sharing news about Star Trek and Star Wars. When you first get into TV, especially as a writer, you’re working alone, and probably quite desperate to get some sort on validation. As a consequence, and we all do it, you’re Tweeting every time you brush past someone on Dean Street! Once you’ve had a little bit of success that becomes less important, in fact, you don’t want to telegraph every job you take on, as you know the likelihood of them getting all the way is remote, and the last thing you want to be is that writer that takes loads of work on but never gets anything made. The truth is, we’re ALL that writer if we’re working hard enough. We’re ALL making pitches, having meetings, winning commissions, having conference calls with LA, but the important thing to always remember is that until it’s happening, and frankly, even then, it isn’t happening!