Paul Finch is a screenwriter, author, and journalist. Paul has worked in a variety of genres from ITV’s police drama The Bill to last year’s fantastic horror film The Devil’s Rock. Paul is also an accomplished author, with a number of published novels and numerous short stories.
Firstly, congratulations on the success of The Devil’s Rock.
PF: Thanks very much. It was a lot of fun and a great joy to finally see it hit the big screen.
What attracted you to writing and how did you get to where you are now?
PF: My late father was a pretty successful screenwriter, so I guess I took my lead from him. But it’s been a long and twisting road since then. Like most of us, I did normal jobs first. I was a copper and later a newspaper reporter. I’d always been good at creative writing at school, and I enjoyed it whenever we were given the opportunity to actually write stories. Even when I entered adulthood and the world of the workplace, I continued writing in my own time, though really that was just for recreation. However, during my police service, a whole new world was opened up to me, and long before I’d finished I was writing police dramas – stage plays and radio plays, none of which ever saw the light of day. However, the ITV cop show, The Bill, was becoming really popular around this time, and one day, purely on-spec, I sent them a play I’d written called Knock Off Job, which concerned a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened for six months, and then I received a phone-call and was asked to go and see them. I think at first they were fascinated that a police officer could actually write, though I was very raw – my inside knowledge, however, was exactly what they were looking for. The upshot was that over a period of years, and all through my time as a journalist, I was writing episodes for the The Bill, having been coached in all the necessary techniques by what at the time was one of the slickest and most professional script units in British TV. The net result is that when I was finally made redundant from my newspaper in 1998, I already had another career to fall back on. The rest, I suppose, is history.
PF: Yes, I have. It’s a bit of a misconception that I only write horror – I don’t, I also write thrillers, crime, fantasy, science fiction, action, you name it. But horror is a genre I’m very, very fond of and one I’ve produced an awful lot of material for. I’m not sure where it started – probably when I was very young with shows like Dr Who and Quatermass, and all those wonderful Hammer movies with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, which used to air on Appointment With Fear on Monday nights.
Who have been the biggest influences on your career and why?
PF: My late-father, Brian Finch, is the obvious answer to that. He came from a coal-mining background in our hometown, Wigan, having had no formal preparation of any sort to be a writer. After he left the RAF in the early 1960s, the idea of him becoming a professional author still seemed utterly ridiculous to all those around him. But over time, and after a couple of false starts, he proved that you can make a good career out of writing. I never needed other influences, because I saw what pleasure Dad got from running his own life and his own career, and I could only imagine the satisfaction one must draw from actually earning money for doing what you loved, which was writing. Dad was definitely the man where I was concerned. If I hadn’t seen him go and do the amazing thing he did – his start in life was far poorer than mine – then I probably would never even have tried to become a professional writer.
Do you approach the writing of a screenplay differently to a novel?
PF: Not really. For me, the plotting comes first in both cases, then I just get straight into it, usually piling everything I’ve got into the first draft in a determined effort to get from start to finish. But after that the real work begins: the proofing, the fine-tuning, the inevitable extensive rewriting. What I would say with a screenplay, particularly if it’s a movie script, is that less is always more. Quite simply, you must keep it tight: minimal dialogue and minimal stage directions. Ultimately a movie script is all about what the director and the actors need to know, and little else. There’s no room for beautiful descriptions of locations – the production team will use whatever location they can find or afford. There’s no room for streams of existentialist thought. These indulgences which bulk novels out to 100,000 words plus have no place in a screenplay. It’s 20,000 words maximum for a movie script, for example, and bear in mind – that might be an adaptation of a 100,000 word novel, so you have to be ruthless. Screenplays, particularly film scripts, are essentially a visual medium – I’m loath to say this, but it’s more about the director than the writer – so in that respect writing a film is a very different job overall. Your main task as the writer is to create the floor-plan for the film; other creatives will take it from there.
PF: Ownership of the property is the most obvious one. One thing I always tell novelists who want to move into film writing is that they need to make a mental leap – away from being sole writer on the project to being, possibly, one of a number of writers. It doesn’t matter if it’s your original idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s an adaptation of your original novel. Once you embark on a professional screenwriting project you must be prepared for someone else to be brought in at some stage. In movie production, there is a big chain of command, and at every stage there are folk who for various reasons – from politics to nepotism – want to bring their own writers in. That would be unthinkable in publishing terms. Can you imagine having been commissioned to write a novel for a major publisher, and halfway through your editor gives you a call and tells you that someone else will be taking it from there? It just wouldn’t happen. But it happens all the time in screenwriting, and that is something you have to be prepared for. Just ensure beforehand that you have a good contract, and that, come what may, you still get paid and that your name is still on the credits at the end, even if it’s one of several.
What makes good screenwriting?
PF: Firstly, crisp but juicy dialogue. Characters in films don’t talk like people in real life. Their exchanges need to be slick, rhythmic, entertaining, and with no words wasted. No repetition. No meandering, meaningless Tarantino-esque banter (just because Tarantino gets away with it doesn’t mean anyone else can). Secondly, a narrative that is high on pace, tension and jeopardy. As many scenes as possible must end on a cliff-hanger – and that doesn’t just apply to thrillers. Any drama will benefit from a constant raising of the stakes, from making the audience excited or intrigued about what the next scene will bring. Remember, in the average movie script you have only about two hours in which to tell a complete and meaningful story, and at the same hook your audience from start to finish. You can’t afford to let them relax for one second.
PF: None that I’m aware of. In my case getting blocked is most likely to happen because I’m tired, in which case the obvious solution is to have a rest, though like most writers I’m not happy twiddling my thumbs. One thing I do know is that going over and over the problem in my head rarely helps. I actually do a lot of my writing via Dictaphone while I’m walking the dog through the countryside. That’s a kind of relaxing method, and sometimes that also helps if you’ve reached an impasse: taking a long, casual stroll and seeing what thoughts come without pushing too hard. Sorry I can’t be more helpful on this. I can only assume that every writer needs to deal with this bugbear in his or her own way.
How much influence do you have on the direction the script takes, primarily in the initial draft, and secondly once the draft has been handed in?
PF: That depends on your working relationship with the producer and the director. I pride myself on being easy to work with, particularly when it comes to film writing, in that I view it as an overall job which is most likely going to be completed as a team effort. As a result, all my recent film writing experience has been good because it’s not been as much about me as about getting the best possible finished product into the can. I also find that if you’re receptive to other people’s ideas, and, when you do disagree, if you can make your objection helpfully and constructively, you remain part of the brain’s trust. One thing you don’t want to do is come over as being precious about your material, or self-centred in any way. If they know you’re always going to resist change, they’ll just stop asking you. And ultimately, they won’t hire you again. That way you obviously end up with almost no influence at all.
There are times of course when the plot just drifts away from you, and it’s frustrating, and nothing you can say will change things back and you don’t understand why the others don’t get it. But I would urge new writers to always be receptive to other thoughts – particular if they’re coming from an experienced director, producer or script-editor. As writers, we don’t have a monopoly on cool ideas.
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