Thanks to Mark for taking time out for the informative interview… and check out his site for links to some great material!
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got into screenwriting?
I used to write short spoof stories starring people I worked with. They became quite popular in the office. A guy called Al Lougher read one of them and approached me to see if I was interested in writing some screenplays for him to shoot. I said yes for a laugh and found a love for the craft of writing scripts.
Q: And how long have been writing screenplays, and you write fiction too – which came first?
Fiction first. Can you believe I switched from prose to scripts because I thought screenplays would be easier? HAHAHAH! What a loon!
Anyway, I dabbled around for a while just writing spoofs and really bad scripts and didn’t really take it seriously until 2013. That is when I threw away everything I thought I knew, bought a load of screenplay writing books and started from scratch. That’s also when I joined Simply Scripts.
Q: You have taken direct action with some of your work and helped get them made, what made you take this approach?
I quickly realised that I had a lot of competition. There are thousands of scripts online from writers who are literally begging to get them produced. Most seem willing to offer their scripts for free just to get their first sniff. There are also thousands of entries from annoyingly talented writers in every major screenwriting competition out there.
At first I just believed folks would read my brilliant scripts and be queuing up to produce them. That bubble quickly burst. I decided to take action to get one produced myself. I saved up for a year, wrote the cheapest script I could come up with, snagged a director (having the funds REALLY helps with this) and got it made.
The idea was to showcase what one of my scripts looked like on screen, made with just the money from my own pocket, and hopefully give others the confidence in my work. I hoped this would help me stand out.
That didn’t actually happen the way I imagined. It took over three years, producing three of my scripts at my own expense, taking the films around the festival circuit and spending ages promoting them before I started to get the types of queries I’d been hoping for on day one.
Q: You made a great short (and starred in it!), I Am Peter Cushing, back in 2002, was that your first foray into movie making?
It was the first short film I made and it was great fun. I made that with Al Lougher and with filmed it guerrilla style. I wrote and starred in it as the main character and used my family and friends as extras. Al borrowed a camera and we just went out, found locations, set up, took some shots and ran as we didn’t have permission to shoot anywhere.
Prior to Peter Cushing we shot a trailer for a feature film that doesn’t exist called, “Winston: The Last Known Jamaican Witch Hunter.” Can you believe we got Danny John Jules from Red Dwarf interest in making a film based on that? It all fell apart when he found out we didn’t have a clue what we were doing lol but Al kept the voice mail with him agreeing to it for ages. He may still have it!
Q: What did you learn from that experience and your subsequent shorts?
Being involved in the script to screen process is one of the most valuable lessons a screenwriter can experience. Collaborating with a director on the script is an education. It’s an amazing but sometimes challenging process. The script will change, a lot! Some is unavoidable due to budget, location etc. some simply because the other person wants to pour some of their creativity into the story. The screenwriter must learn to be open to collaboration, to weave in the changes without breaking the spine of the story. You must also learn when to stand up and challenge changes.
Also, hearing your dialogue spoken by an actor is incredible. You instantly know what works and what doesn’t and the actor helps you figure it out.
Q: Any advice to writer’s considering a similar approach?
DO IT! Even If you need to use you own phone, family and friends. Making I Am Peter Cushing and that spoof trailer was one of the most fun, educating experiences I’ve ever had.
Q: You have a number of projects, including features, in development – what’s the situation with them?
I have a TV series I’ve developed called The Nearscape. It took me a year to write the pilot script, TV bible and supporting materials. I also made a proof of concept short film called The Survivor: A Tale From The Nearscape. I have the pilot script in all the major TV writing competitions, the film in film festivals and pitching the idea to however I can. I realise I’ve got zero chance of getting a big budget sci-fi TV series sold as I’m an unknown, but I’m passionate about the Nearscape and thought, why not try.
Saying that, it’s scoring well so far and reaching the final stages in some of them. I got an email from the BBC today as I was writing these answers telling me it reached the final 4% of the Drama Writer’s Room group. It also got to the final of the Inshore Fellowship.
Apart from that I’m writing a feature length version of Cyborn. My writing time is extremely limited, so those two are my main focus for now, although I’ve loads of ideas I dabble with.
Q: You’ve written a ton short scripts, why do you think they are useful?
They are the backbone of my writing. Due to work and family commitments, writing is a hobby. I may get 3 hours a week to write something, sometimes no time at all, so a short script or story is very much more achievable for me.
Q: Did you start with short scripts and then move to features?
I concentrated solely on shorts for the first few years, then half hour TV pilots. Last year was the first time I attempted a one hour TV pilot. I have tried writing features before but they’ve been disasters.
Q: When it comes to feature scripts, how do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?
My previous two features were horrendous. Due to the time constraints mentioned, I avoided features for ages. Then I suddenly attempted to write some with no preparation or structure. The results where vomit drafts that were beyond hope. I wrote myself into corners I couldn’t get out of without scrapping the whole thing and starting again.
With Cyborn, I’m trying to do it properly. Due to my time limits I needed help, so I’ve been following the guidelines in the book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time by Pilar Alessandra. I was luckily enough to attend some of her classes at the London Screenwriting Festival last year and she signed a copy for me. The book breaks down the planning, structure and writing of a feature into easy to follow ten minute segments.
So far I’m loving it. I’ve written the whole outline including character bios, broke it down into acts, sequences and scenes yet I’ve not written a single page of the script yet! I’m finally ready to begin this weekend. The plan is to treat each sequence as a short script, but one that is already planned as a connection to the next. I’ll spend the week planning the ‘short’ in my head just like I do for the Simply Scripts one week challenges, and then write it in a day. Rinse and repeat the following weeks until the first draft is done.
That’s the plan anyway!
Q: What was the first feature you wrote and how did you get it out there? Did you query Producers, enter competitions, use Inktip, etc?
The first feature I wrote was called Impulse. I paid £100 to have it professionally reviewed and it got such a bad report, I never showed it to anyone else and binned it.
The second was called The Twelve Step Killers. This was another vomit draft. I put it on Inktip to test the waters, got around 5 requests to read the script but no follow ups. I’m not surprised though, it was terrible.
Q: Your work has done well in a variety of competitions (congrats!), have you received interest from agents/producers afterwards?
Rarely. I got asked for some horror features after I reached the finals of Shriekfest in 2017 but I didn’t have anything suitable. Apart from that, nothing. I promote my wins as much as I can on social media but the queries I’ve had so far are a result of listings on Inktip, Simply Scripts, Script Revolution etc.
Q: What are your thoughts on screenwriting competitions in general?
In my opinion and experience, a lot of these competitions (and film festivals) are cash cows that take advantage of writer’s and independent filmmaker’s hopes and dreams. They are like a lottery in many ways. When I was at the London Screenwriting Festival I also attended a few sessions held by agents and producers. They said the only competition they take notice of is the Nicholl Fellowship.
So unless you are taking part in the top screenplay competitions in the world (there’s only about 10 which the industry recognise and thousands enter these) the rest are just digital laurels you can put on your writer’s CV that may help build your portfolio, but they won’t impress the big boys.
Q: Your script, Cyborn, recently won the Inroads Fellowship Awards, what’s the prize and what next for Cyborn?
The prize was supposed to be a trip to LA to attend the Robert McKee Story seminar. Unfortunately, the seminar changed dates late on and it was over before Inroads finished. So, they’ve given me a cash alternative of $1,200 (£814) and I’m going to the London seminar in May instead. It’s not LA but I’m still excited about it.
I also get Inktip listing and some copyright vault freebies. The main prize is they are going to promote me and my work for the next 12 months. I’ve no idea what this entails, they are getting a press release ready now. Whatever happens, I’ll try to take advantage of it.
As for Cyborn, I’m desperately trying to turn a three-page short into a feature as quick as I can in case someone asks for it!
Q: You’ve managed to go a step further than many with some of your work gaining distribution in a variety of places, how’d you go about that?
I got a bit lucky there. The distributors saw my film online and approached me with a distribution deal. This is a first for me, it is a 3-year deal, so I’ll see how it goes.
Q: And where can people see these released works?
I Am Peter Cushing, Surrender and The Survivor: A Tale From The Nearscape are all on Vimeo and YouTube. The links are on my website at http://www.mark-renshaw.com. No More Tomorrows and the So Dark episodes are on Amazon Prime.
Q: There are a ton of people out there who offer coverage services, position themselves as gurus etc, what’s your view on such services?
I’ve used such services for spelling an grammar. But if I want an opinion on the script as to the story, characters etc. I’m not willing to trust some anonymous person’s opinion who I have no idea how much experience they have. I like to get feedback on trusted beta readers, fellow writers at Simply Scripts and other writing groups I’m a part of. Some of these people’s work I’ve seen and really admire. I tend to reach out to those for feedback.
Q: What are your thoughts on the business side of screenwriting, getting your scripts ‘out there’ and networking to make connections?
I love writing. Producing, promoting, networking; I pretty much hate all that. I wish I had a producer to do such things but I don’t, so it’s down to me for now. It’s a necessary evil, so I put on a mask and do it.
Q: You are fairly active online, SimplyScripts, Facebook groups and the like, why do you think these are important?
I think staying in touch with other writers is very important. We are like a clan, we support each other, which I do like. Sometimes it’s a very naughty distraction though. I end up checking Facebook when I should be writing sometimes.
Q: If you’ve used services/sites like Inktip, SimplyScripts, The Blacklist, what’s your view on this type of model for screenwriters to get their scripts seen, and hopefully picked up?
Anyway to get your script out there is gotta be good right? I just don’t like paying a lot for these things, so I’ve used Blacklist but didn’t really like it. Similarly, I use the free Inktip short listings but the paid for section is used sparingly.
Q: What other projects are you working on now and when can we next expect to see your name on the credits?
Due to time constraints I can only focus on one thing at a time. For now it’s writing Cyborn while promoting Nearscape and some shorts. I do collaborate with Al Lougher a lot and I’m always working on something with him. The latest was a brilliant short film called The Dollmaker, written by our old Simply Scripts pal Matias Caruso. I helped out with the producing on that, don’t think I got a credit (yet), but I honestly don’t mind as I just love collaborating with another creative like Al. The Dollmaker is killing it at the horror festivals at the moment.
Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting advice you’ve been given?
Some feedback notes I’ve received from film festivals have been horrendous. The last bunch of notes I got for Nearscape was basically a list of TV shows they recommended I watch…and I’ve seen them all lol. The best, was to get honest feedback from people who don’t know me and therefore have no vested interest. Family & friends are nice, but they won’t tell you the truth.
Now for a few ‘getting to know Mark’ questions
Q: What’s your favourite film? And favourite script, if they’re different.
Predator. Cheesy I know but I think that film is pretty much perfect. My current favourite script is The Expanse TV pilot.
Q: Favourite author and book?
Legend by David Gemmell.
Q: Beer or Wine (or something else)? And which variety?
I quit alcohol a little over 4 years ago. Now my guilty pleasures are coffee and chocolate.
Q: Favourite food?
Q: Any other interests and passions?
Just the usual boring stuff, reading, music, training vampire dragons etc.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters of SimplyScripts?
You guys are amazing. You are creators. Most people on this planet, they destroy stuff. You are the creators of stories; there are not many greater callings in my opinion. The feedback and support I’ve received on Simply Scripts have been priceless. The One Week Challenges, I’ve enjoyed them more than any film festival. Keep up the great work!
Thanks again to Mark for the great answers!