Ashley: Welcome to Episode #291 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer-director William McGregor. He’s from the UK and just finished a historical slow-burn horror film called Gwen. We talk through his early career and how he was able to get this film funded and ultimately produced, so stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director William McGregor. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome William to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
William: Hey Ashley, thanks for having me.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
William: Yes, sure. So I grew up on a farm in Norfolk, which is a very rural flat part of the UK, and just always enjoyed drawing, taking pictures, being imaginative and that just led to mucking around with a handy cam and just sort of making films about the kind of world around me, growing up almost documentaries became my thing just as a kid. And then I kind of gradually realized that you could make films, and I watched the behind the scenes and watching… listening to DVD commentaries and things like that I realized, “Huh, it’s actually [inaudible 00:02:38].” And I just kept making short films, I studied art at the university which is [inaudible 00:02:44] screen focus so we got to make short films and just kept making short films really.
I must have made like 20 to 30 shorts before I started working in commercials and then TV drama and alongside that for the last 10 years developing the feature script for Gwen off of a short film called Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite.
Ashley: I got you. Let’s talk about some of those early short films and how those eventually were able to transition to paid work. Maybe talk us through that step. So you’re producing these short films, I assume… you said you made about 20 or 30 so when you were doing numbers one, two, three, four and probably 10 and 12 and 13, you were just self-funding them, you were just using whatever equipment you can find. At what point were you able to make that transition to professional commercials and stuff?
William: So yeah, the first stuff really was just learning and I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was just having fun and just making them for nothing. But I feel like each film got slightly better and then you know when I was I think it was my second year at university I saved up the money for doing sort of cooperate videos for local businesses, that really low end and basic stuff but using the uni kit to make a little bit of money to finance the short films, don’t know if that’s technically what we were supposed to be doing with the university kit but it was helpful.
Ashley: [laughs] I got you. Yeah, you gotta make it happen.
William: Yeah. So that meant that I then had a bit of a budget for this short film Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite and that probably was about six grand that I saved up with some friends to go and shoot that. And that was one of the kind of bigger short films that I made. It wasn’t the last short film that I made, but that short film specifically was seen at Student Film Festival by a producer who had [inaudible 00:04:38] Jones and I was just talking to her during like a drink film networking thing and she said how much she enjoyed the short film and we just got talking and that was the start of us meeting and discussing how… I was in my third year of uni then but how we might start working together to develop a feature film.
That was probably around 2009, 2010. So really meeting her just at Student Film Festival that began the whole process.
Ashley: And how many shorts had you made before making that $6,000 short?
William: A few. I felt pretty prolific, but just because of I enjoy doing it I wasn’t doing this knowing that I was sort of laying the ground. It wasn’t my intentional practicing ground work on a journey towards becoming a film director. It was just having fun and making things. I think it was when I was at uni that I started to take it more seriously and think about how I could start a career and that really sort of pushed me towards entering the film festivals, going to all the student film festivals, entering any film competitions I could and that’s actually where I met most of the people that have helped me later on in my career.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect.
William: [inaudible 00:06:01] my career.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. I think that’s a great description of how you got started. So let’s dig into your latest film, Gwen. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is the premise of that film?
William: Kind of slow-burn anti-catalyst folklore about a young girl growing up on a farm in the industrial revolution. Her mum’s unwell, her farm’s the risk of losing that to the quarries that are growing around them and really just asked what it is that she should be afraid of losing her home or is there something else going on with her mother, accusations of witchcraft and it just becomes a very harsh slow-burn atmospheric sort of dread-filled journey into something folkloresque.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What’s the genesis of this story?
William: I’ve always enjoyed fairytales and I was afraid the worst part of the short film I mentioned that was very much conversion of any fairytale. When I started out as that it was very medieval and really was almost like a Company of Wolves type film, very influenced by [inaudible 00:07:18] but as I kept writing alongside that I was exploring north Wales and learning about the landscape, learning about the history and the [inaudible 00:07:32] for the quarries during the industrial revolution really piqued my interest and this story changed from being a fairytale into something that has sort of folklore roots but is also grounded in the history. I don’t know if I can call that realistic but it’s sort of moved away from being fairytale.
Ashley: As you’re doing this research and you’re kinda figuring out that you wanna do a feature film are there things that are guiding you? I’m talking about the marketing, were you talking to distributors and trying to see what they could sell? Were you just trying to follow your passion, things that were interesting to you? What was the guiding light in deciding what feature you were gonna work on?
William: We’ve got the British film Institute in the UK and they’re quite unusual in that they don’t think commercially and I think it’s a really… it is a positive thing but it also can mean that perhaps in the UK we might have a bubble of artistic films that necessarily don’t work in the same way the American genre films would find an audience. They seem incredibly supportive for you to experiment and do your own thing which I think with Gwen is fantastic because you get a kind of cross-genre film that isn’t horror isn’t [inaudible 00:08:52] somewhere between the two. There’s a lot debate over what the film is but there’s not really the same amount awareness or focus on a market or on audience expectations’, that’s actually something that I’ve learned through screening Gwen that I would be using in… even from just down to distributors.
Who’s distributing it, how they’re distributing it, conversations with other distributors. I’ve learnt through Gwen in terms of how I might think about things in my next film without letting go of my own thumbprint. How to make a film that can reach out to a broader audience but really the focus I think for the BFI on the first film scheme is just to let you run it and see what you can do and they are supportive and they help you to tease out your ideas but there’s zero thought to the commerciality of the film.
Ashley: Tell me again, what did you call… it’s the UK film institute, what is this organization called?
William: BFI- British Film Institute. They’re a really an incredible organization in the UK that basically are custodian of film in terms of presenting it, preserving it and then finding new voices. They’re a pretty special and unique really. But they give you a real platform.
Ashley: Yeah. And we have non-profits here like the Sundance Institute. We do have some of that, I think similar type things. But tell me, how does the UK filmmaker, how do they apply to BFI? Are you submitting a short film and saying I wanna turn this into a feature film? Are you submitting a screenplay or are you just submitting a resume? How does someone apply to get the fellowship?
William: Really it was a long process. I was very lucky I met Aaron Zach who has been incredibly helpful and guiding me along the way really [inaudible 00:10:53] Frankie at the Berlinale Film Festival but I wasn’t there with a film in the competition I was actually there, I was at Berlinale Talent Campus. Basically there for a week to study film and to watch films and she did a round table and I met her there and then just added her on social media online and stayed in touch and she would see my shorts through my Facebook or what have you. And then I applied for development financing, were we in like 2012, and we got the development financing and then that was probably six to seven years of working with them, developing the film.
I was also going off and working on TV drama so I wasn’t doing it all the time but it was a kind of slow process of them helping me to realize the script definitely wasn’t my thing.
Ashley: And so then eventually you get a script that everyone’s happy with do they then help you find funding for the actual production?
William: You apply for production financing and you’re not guaranteed it. Just because you had them fund development doesn’t mean you’ll get it. And like only, I think it’s like 40% to 50% of the production they can finance, they can’t do it all. You’re celebrating you got your BFI funding, they’re backing you, you’re really excited. We were really lucky as well for a long time back we had a film in Wales, from [inaudible 00:12:21] and supporting us so they earned a bit of money and you get tax breaks, we’ve got like 20% tax breaks in the UK but we still had a gap probably like 40% and on so my producers were out talking to potential… other financiers and we were lucky to find Great Point Media who came on board and helped out with the rest of them, they were our sales agents as well.
It was sort of piece by piece and even when you got some of it, it’s no guarantee you’re gonna make it.
Ashley: Sure. That’s part of the game. Let’s talk just briefly about you’re writing process. Where do you typically write? You have a home office, you have a coffee shop you like…? Where do you do most of you’re writing?
William: I’m stood in my home office which is basically the second bedroom of a flat that I just sort of filled with things that just made me feel at home when I’m writing. So yeah, I just come and sit in here. But I probably only do three or so hours in a day, I don’t write for very long and a lot of it’s probably just daydreaming and thinking and then I’ll come in here and sit down and just log through it… kinda processing [inaudible 00:13:42].
Ashley: Yeah, sure. How much time do you spend preparing to write versus actually in final draft? How much is the outline index card stage versus how much is in final draft actually writing scene descriptions and dialogue and stuff.
William: I think I probably spend quite a lot of time doing that. I think I could probably spend two to three months just writing a treatment and outline, doing the cards, reading around the subject, like going… not that I’m a prolific writer you know. I’ve got one film and writing the second one but if that’s anything to go by that’s kinda what I work, and then go and explore the landscape and it is a lot of groundwork. Then part of the outline doesn’t often deviate from it and I find one of the things I’m always finding a balance with is I love genre but I’m trying to twist the genre but how far can you twist a genre until you’ve basically broken the formula and it no longer works and I’m writing a revenge for a moment at it’s just interesting what things you can change.
But you change too many things and all of a sudden it’s not conforming to the genre anymore and I find that a constant balance.
Ashley: What did the development process look like at BFI? Did you get assigned some more experienced writers and then you’re sending the script pages to them and getting notes. How did that development process work?
William: My producer and two producers at the production company one of which started out as the development exec and sort of the project being a producer you would find us developing Gwen save those other two and then first films also had an exec producer and a development exec there as well and actually had two different development execs during my time there because people move on to different jobs or different companies. So few different people that I’d worked with are development execs there as well and then you know Film Warehouse and [inaudible 00:15:55] Media I think were giving their feedback as well, so you would get quite a lot of feedback. They weren’t ever too specific and as I say it wasn’t really…
When I work in TV I know that my notes are to explain things to the audience and they’re often about exposition whereas the notes weren’t so much about that. They’re actually… one time I wrote an ending which was a slightly less aggressive ending than Gwen currently has and I chose notes back towards the original and the note was my shock and I’ll remember why you’re making the film. Often the notes are quite supportive in just helping you get… helping tease it out from you and giving you confidence which is sometimes a lot of problems is actually having confidence in your own writing.
Ashley: Yeah. Were there ever notes from BFI that you simply didn’t agree with and how did you handle some of those situations? They’re funding this development process, they’re helping so I’m sure you don’t wanna look like the jerk director who only sees his vision. But how do you handle that if there’s things that you don’t necessarily agree with?
William: I can’t remember a note that I categorically disagreed with. I think the bigger problem I have is when a note’s really good but I know it’s a lot of work and you just think, “Ah! That’s right but if I do that then I have to rewrite this whole bit,” and then you just have to sort of sit down, process it and then just crack on again. I think the other notes were the hardest.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like? How can people see the film Gwen?
William: It’s out in the UK. The moment of release was 19th of July and then 16th of August in the US and I think it’s Day and Date, so it’ll be in a few cinemas but then online as well and then coming to [inaudible 00:17:55] like a couple of months after that. [Inaudible 00:17:58]. It’s definitely a film that has genre elements and folklore elements to it. It was definitely inspired by folklore a bit and also period dramas so it’s one of those scripts that you’re using genre in it to sort of how you balance that. That’s always the tricky thing.
Ashley: Sure. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.
William: I’m just off @williammcgregor on Twitter so if you put into Twitter you should find me. Yeah. That’s probably the best way.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. I’ll round that up and I’ll put it in the show notes so people can click over to it. Well, William I really appreciate your time today. Good luck with this film and I look forward to following your career and hearing about your next film.
William: Yeah, cool. I had a great time so thanks Ashley.
Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later.
William: Right. Definitely, bye.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select Screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service. You can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS Podcast Episode #222. I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing director Nick Hamm. He just directed a film called Driven, which is the story of John DeLorean so we’re gonna talk through that film as well as how he got into the business. Keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.