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Q&A with Christopher Byram; The 2020 Inroads Fellow

Christopher Byram is an award-winning script writer, producer and director hailing from the English Midlands. He specializes in episodic drama, and his wonderful TV pilot "Rednecks" just happened to unearth top prize in the 2020 Inroads Fellowship competition. After his win, Christopher signed a shopping agreement with one of the executive producers of American Gods! He was nice enough to give us some insight into his career and writing, enjoy!

1) How long have you been writing?

A long time! I’m 63 and I first tried to write scripts back in the late ‘80’s! I’ve been an actor and a director as well as a scriptwriter but I’ve also had a number of mental-health crisis that have significantly disrupted my career. Fact is I’ve screwed up more careers than most people have had hot dinners and this current foray into the business feels like it could be a last chance.

In 1989 I co-wrote a comedy theatre play called The Dig, which was produced and toured the UK professionally. But episodic TV was always my first love and in the early ‘90’s I started developing ideas as a producer. I would come up with an idea and write the pitch. Using that pitch I would get development funds from a UK broadcaster (BBC, ITV, C4) and then hire a ‘proper’ writer to write the pilot script… at which point it always went wrong.

The problem was I am a plumber’s son from Coventry and the idea that I myself could be a ‘writer’, was somehow inconceivable. Eventually I ran out of money to commission other writers but I had a great idea for a cop show and I had time on my hands because I was unemployed, so I wrote the cop show myself. This calling-card script got me a writer-for-hire gig on a UK cop-show called The Bill and my writing career started. But like a stuck record I screwed it up and at 50 I went barmy and ended up on an 8-year career break. Which brings us back to today and the Last Chance Saloon.

2) What screenwriting training have you received?

The only screenwriting training I’ve received was back in 1990 when I did Robert McKee’s three-day short course… and it changed my life! The notion of the three-act structure and stuff like the arc of rising jeopardy made immediate and instinctive sense to me and the notion that there was a language and tools with which to analyse scripts revolutionised my attitude to scripts and to writing. It wasn’t McKee’s specific ‘system’ that I found so inspiring, indeed I think much of it is as outlined in his book, Story, is so Byzantine as to be pretty useless. No, the revolutionary idea was that scripts could be rationally analysed and assessed. Having explored all this at great length I now use my own version of a classic Aristotelian three act structure based more on the paradigms described by Sid Field and John Truby.

3) What writing habits work for you? Do you write in short or long shifts, binge writing or scheduled sessions?

I write something almost every day but I’m not in ‘writing mode’ all the time as I find it too all-encompassing and exhausting. So a lot of the time I am in ‘thinking mode’ where my mind is free to flit about and my ‘writing’ will consist simply of notes and research but I try not concentrate too hard.

When I’m in writing mode I tend to write from 11.00-16.00 with no break. I will write like this Mon-Fri for several weeks or until I’m finished. I always, always take the weekends off.

When in this ‘writing mode’ my brain is completely filled with the story and I have to make a conscious effort to halt the flow of consciousness when I am for example driving or I will have to stop every few minutes to write notes.

When I’m in writing mode one of the most productive times of day is the liminal period between being awake and being asleep. I learnt long ago that if I don’t write down the ideas I get in this semi-dream state then I will never remember them. So when in the midst of a writing period it can take me an hour or more to get to sleep as every three minutes I am writing down notes on the images flashing through my head.

I type with one finger and am pructelly dislaxic so I write pretty slowly (5 pages of script a day-ish).

I prepare a lot before writing a first draft script by writing several versions of a pitch doc and outline proposal (even if no one else reads them). And I storyline in great detail using step-outlines/beat sheets.

4) What genres do you lean towards? Are all of your works for TV, are they all period pieces?

I have written theatre plays and features but my first love, both as a writer and a punter, is episodic TV. It is true that I am intrigued by history and love researching a historical drama. My other current big historical piece is called Nadya and is about Stalin’s wife who committed suicide rather than submit to him.

The research for Nadya and Rednecks took several years each and included trips to Moscow for Nadya and West Virginia for Rednecks (funded by grants from the Peggy Ramsey Foundation).

My favourite genres are Film Noir and Westerns and I like shows that are about something. I want to be thrilled and moved but I also want to ‘think’. Indeed, content is far more important to me than form.

5) Our judges loved "Rednecks", how would you describe the pilot to producers?

Rednecks, is a shoot-em-up, blood on the streets, industrial Western, set during the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1919-1922. During this largely unknown ‘civil war’, miners fighting for trade union recognition in Appalachia used to wear red neckerchiefs to identify themselves to each other. This is where the tern ‘rednecks’ first originated.

The mine wars were a brutal fight for civil liberties between the miners and the mine owners and involved a shooting war as violent as any in domestic US history. Western-style gunfights broke out on the streets of mining towns across the counties of southern West Virginia as violent intimidation, rape, lynching and brutal murder became a part of daily life.

All this culminated in the three weeks of the Battle Of Blair Mountain, when 'armies' of thousands, slugged it out in the mountains with rifles, machine guns and the first aerial bombardment by the US Air Force on American soil.

6) "Rednecks" seems like a very viable project. Any 3rd party interest thus far? Where/how are you shopping it?

I am in talks with one of the original Exec Producers who got American Gods started and who seems genuinely interested in Rednecks. The contact with this Exec came about through an old acting colleague from back-in-the-day.

It is sad but very true that in the film and TV industry, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” After a lengthy career-break I don’t have many contacts even in the UK and in the US I have none anyway! This is why screenwriting competitions such as the Filmatic Inroads Fellowship are such great opportunities – because they open the door of opportunity just an inch to those of us on the outside desperately trying to get past the gatekeepers.

7) What are you working on now? What do you plan on writing in the near future?

I’ve just finished a new pilot aimed at the UK terrestrial TV market. It’s called The Stand and is an eco-western. Logline: The hunters become the hunted.

The historical project I’m currently researching is about medieval religious oppression. The idea is still forming through the research but at the core of it I think there will be a trio of characters – a Jew, a heretic and a leper – who help each other to survive in an era of brutal conformity.

8) Any advice for those about to write their first feature or pilot?

“Be careful the toes you stepping on today, they could be connected to the ass you kissing tomorrow.” - Ving Rhames

Beyond that I have screwed up so much in my own career that I feel awkward about giving anyone any advice about anything!

But my own experience has taught me that if you have ambitions to be an authorial screenwriter devising and writing series of your own, then you have to write what you have to write.

Coming up with a new show is actually quite different from working as a writer-for-hire on someone else’s show. It is true one can lead to the other but it is also true that most hack writers do not actually ever get their own show commissioned.

When I first started writing I had a young family to help support and I desperately needed to earn money, so I tried to chase the market. I monitored the trade press and tried to develop shows that would self-consciously fit the industry zeitgeist. I was moderately successful doing this but it also literally drove me crazy.

After my ‘mid-life crisis’ at 50 I didn’t write anything at all for 3 years and thought I would perhaps never write again. Then gradually I realised I had nothing to lose and so I started to write just what I wanted to write, whether there was a ‘market’ for it or not. Much to my surprise (and delight) it is this more ‘authentic’ work that is gaining the prizes and the plaudits… and perhaps even production funding.

I had a long and painful journey to discover the perhaps obvious truth that to stand a chance of remaining sane, let alone becoming successful, a writer has to be true to themselves when they write...

Congratulations once again to Christopher Byram, the 2020 Inroads Screenwriting Fellow! All contact requests for Mr. Byram will be forwarded to his attention. You can also learn more about this talented writer HERE...


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