Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Toby Whithouse Q&A: A Report

So, I went, I saw, asked a few questions. That's it.

You want to know what he said?


About 50% of my questions went unanswered - other people were asking them so I actually only asked him three questions, one of which I asked in the bar afterwards, so I'll put down the question that I wrote in my notebook and provide a summary of what he said. It wasn't always as a direct answer to a direct question but combined from "things he said". I'll keep it in 3rd person because these aren't literal quotes - although it reads a bit strange like this.

Most of the questions were about "Being Human", unsurprisingly.

Does your role equate to the UK version of a showrunner? Yes and no. He has creative input apart from just the script. He worked with the other two writers and had a say in the casting. But not quite as intense a position as Russell T Davies on Dr Who.

To what extent do you edit the other writers? He plans the episode, provides notes on treatments from the other writers, and then notes on their scripts.

What level of creative control do you have? See previous two answers.

Is the next series 8 x 45mins? (This was me being a smart-ass, the BBC commissioned 8 episodes for the next series but 8 x 45 would be the same as 6 x 60, so it would look like more while actually being less - taking credits into account) No, it's 8 x 60min.

Did you re-shoot any of the last episode because of the renewal? No, that was the last episode as originally written.

How much did you have to compromise your vision? Not much.

Do you see "Being Human" as genre as opposed to straight drama? It is genre, but it's easier to highlight human themes with something non-human. Life isn't genre, you can go from the sad to funny in a moment. You can have weird stuff happen, or have totally ordinary drama with your significant other.

To what extent did the public support of the "Being Human" pilot actually sway the BBC's decision to commission a full series? Completely. Although the BBC had kept it "in development" that didn't really mean anything. They wanted "Phoo Action", they'd made the decision. But they changed their minds. This was exactly the audience they'd been trying to find and it was now demanding they make this series.

History is now being re-written, Phoo Action is getting air-brushed out and people are saying that they always wanted Being Human really.

How long ago did you first write "Being Human"? It has been around a while and in various guises. Touchpaper wanted Toby to write a series about a houseshare between some friends, which he thought was pretty boring. He had this idea for a sitcom involving the undead all of whom were fully integrated into humanity - Mild Thing.

He and Touchpaper had a final meeting about the houseshare idea and suddenly Toby said "what if they were werewolves?". The idea went through various other incarnations until the final pilot appeared.

Toby did not want to have the pilot made and put into the series of pilots. But it seemed the only opportunity for it to be made at all. The rest is history.

Where does the writing process begin for you? Characters. He fleshes them out in detail with biographies, lots of research, and then the ideas start to arrive for plots.

Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? Yes. He works 8:30am until 5:00pm. He tries to do 5 good pages a day, and that includes re-editing them.

Do you have a character that you feel is the most rewarding to write for? Yes, the one he's working on at any given moment, right now it's Mitchell. It'll be a different one tomorrow.

How does it work with other writers for your series? Toby and the writers spend a couple of days going over the plotlines for the series, then he spends a day or so with them individually on the episodes they'll be writing.

Toby chooses the writers himself, he wants writers that he knows will be able to duplicate the voices and tone of characters and series. In the next series he'll choose writers whose style best matches the type of episode. He's writing four of the eight episodes himself so will use four other writers. He's currently storylining the second series.

Other questions that weren't on my list...

How did you get started? He was an actor and got scripts where he thought he could do better. He started writing bits of ideas, just jokes and gags, which developed into characters, which developed into plots and ended up as a stage play. He was going to put it on with some other out-of-work actors but then entered it for a major competition and it won.

He thought he wanted to write sitcoms. Then he had to write one and hated it. Luckily the series was never commissioned.

Do you ever want to write a good part for yourself to play? "There're are a lot better actors than me out there." [That one's a quote]

To what extent have you planned your career? He hasn't, he only really think in terms of "the next job".

Could you go back to writing for other people's series? He is but can't talk about it. [That'll be Dr Who then.]

Who were your influences? Alan Moore (comic writer of Watchmen and many other significant comics); and others, like the writer of Ultraviolet (the TV series). [Sorry I forgot to write their names.]

Would you go back to write for the theatre? Yes, he has an idea for the stage now. In the theatre the writer has more control but there's no money. Yet theatre is completely unconstrained, you can do anything. TV is limiting in what you can do, the content has to conform.

Having been an actor do you allow actors leeway?
Yes and no. As an actor he knows that having a character with a name is much better for the CV than "Man with Bike"; he also tries to give the one-line characters something meaningful to say, maybe a gag. But when it comes to the script, if he gets a call saying that so-and-so actor doesn't think his character would say that - he says: Really? Funny, that's what it says in the script.

On a personal note I had a quick chat with Toby in the bar afterwards. My scripts, Air and Monsters are with his script editor so I popped him a business card with the URL of the scripts on the back, just in case. However the chances of me getting to write for Being Human are slim to the point of nothingness, but ya gotta put yourself out there.

Met up with the Lord Arnopp and Rob Jones of Snowbooks and had drinkies and talkies.

A jolly time was had by all.

What's on the turntable? "One Alone" by Vangelis from "Bladerunner"


John Soanes said...

Terrific write-up, though of course it really suffers from the omission of the insightful question about the differences between working for stage and C4 and for the deliberately targetted audience of BBC3... oh, all right, that was mine.
Am I right in thinking you were sitting about three rows from the front, in the middle?
Anyway, fab write-up, ta.

Paul McIntyre said...

that was great, thanks for the write up. i wonder what his thoughts on demons are? for me his series is miles better and would have perhaps captured even more of the public's imaginations if given a saturday night terrestrial slot.

cheer adaddin.

Rachael Howard said...

Thanks for writing all that down. How do you listen, ask questions and write at the same time? A useful skill I think.

John Soanes said...

Oh, and a couple of the other writers he named as influences/heroes were PJ Hammond and Aaron Sorkin. There was at least one more, but I'm old and brainfeeble.

Adaddinsane said...

Hallo, peeps, Stavros here.

What? Oh sorry, got an attack of the Enfields.

Hey John: Yes, it was me, row 3 in the middle, the one who asked the question on behalf of his daughter :-) Ah yes, the audience thing. Other people have covered it.

Yo, Paul: We discussed Demons in the bar, briefly, he thought it was a very cynical attempt to get viewers. (And highly unsuccessful obviously ... except 3.5 million people were still watching it at the end. And some people really liked it. Is that scary, or what?) But we agreed that even as a cynical production it could still have been good. But it wasn't.

Hugs, Rach: I could claim I do shorthand, or that 17 years in journalism honed the skill. But I'd be lying. I just jot down significant words which then remind me of the context. Also my list of questions reminded me of the answers. Easy peasy. And despite my 25+ questions I only asked two inside, and one outside.

Useless fact #475862: Touchpaper TV is within 20 minutes walking distance of the Soho Theatre.