Don’t be afraid of a little competition, advises screenwriter Ryan Brown.
Although still early in his career himself, Brown has been making waves, having won the Bafta New Writing Prize of Drama in 2016, and been runner up in an Idris Elba-fronted writing competition, 'Write to Greenlight'.
Competitions are now key to breaking into the industry as a young writer, he believes. While in the past it was possible to get your break with a killer script and the right opportunity, now young writers need an ‘in’. Competitions, he believes, are the key.
“I don’t see how you would do it without them,” he says. “Maybe that’s just my experience, but I cannot see how an unrepresented screenwriter could [break in].”
However he cautions against paying inordinate sums to submit your scripts. While many competitions – including Bafta – do charge for submissions in order to cover their costs and ensure they receive serious entries, some are less considerate and can charge as much as £600 an entry.
The script that has been drawing him praise is a true crime drama called We Are Your Children, based around the real-life murders of 14 gay men in 1970s San Francisco. It is the research, he says, that draws him to a project. “That guy could be alive!” he explains. “Can you imagine? Wouldn't it be great for a non-docu to capture [a serial killer]?”
Pausing for breath, he laughs. “I could talk about serial killers for days. It’s not healthy!”
To write his script, he took a research trip to San Francisco. “The research was more [about] just being in the place,” he explains. Dialogue is essential to screenwriters, and Brown is “a stickler” for an authentic sound, so to get a sense of the city was vital to the script.
As with many young writers, Brown began playing with stories at a young age. “I have always been obsessed with film and TV,” he says, recalling how he borrowed his neighbour’s camera to shoot his own films. “Awful films! Terrible,” he laughs. “I decided to do a musical and I managed to convince all the neighbours to be in it. I would steal from actual films – cut them up and insert them in mine and hope no one noticed… The scene from Jaws in my shitty musical.”
It was at university when he really got the opportunity to explore writing, and – at the prompting of his professor - he began writing plays for RADA students’ final performances. “I think I would have fallen into it eventually, but you need someone to give you the kick.”
Now, with a writing credit for BBC comedy Coconut recently added to his CV, Brown is looking for the next challenge, however he is running up against a common problem for young screenwriters: an overcrowded industry.
“I find in the UK it is very much the same [names]. You can probably guess when a new thing is coming on TV [that] one of 10 writers is behind it,” he admits. “I am literally having meetings where people are saying, this is fantastic, but with you being a new writer, I think you need maybe a few more credits for someone to take a chance on you!”
Brown is quick to list those writers that he admires, including Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley), Neil Cross (Luther), and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who’s BBC horror-dark comedy series Inside No. 9 is an inspiration for Brown. “[It’s] one of the best things of TV. It doesn’t get the credit it deserves,” he believes. “They’re kind of doing that ‘Creature of the Week’ anthology.”
“People seems to be a bit wary of the horror thing,” Brown notes, citing US series including American Horror Story and The Walking Dead as examples of the popularity of the genre. “We kind of invented horror here, so we should really bring it [back]” – a job, he adds, that he’d be very happy to do.
Despite his successes, Brown is still holding down another job in order to make ends meet. “I don’t know how many writers survive,” he marvels. “You make a little bit of money and you try and make that last as long as possible. I can’t wait for the day where I can just take six months to write!”
Now though, a number of Brown’s scripts are in development. One of his comedy scripts – about a gay man struggling with depression - is in development with Hat Trick Productions, and one of Brown’s all-time comedy heroes has reportedly read the part. We Are Your Children, Brown’s first script, is being developed by another production company,
“Things are happening slowly,” he smiles.