Michael Lesslie started writing plays when he was just 15. In the two decades since, he has worked on feature films, theatre productions and TV dramas – from the 2015 adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to a six-part series based on John le Carre’s novel The Little Drummer Girl, which aired on the BBC last year. Here, he offers some advice for aspiring scriptwriters – and explains how he went from reading scripts at the National Theatre to working with acclaimed director Park Chan-wook
Send off your scripts – and read other people’s The National Theatre has an amazing resource where they read every script that is sent to them and give feedback. I sent mine in, and they called me and said, ‘this is awful, but you’ve got something – maybe you could come in and have a part time job reading the scripts’. So I spent a summer in the script room and it was my job to articulate why a script wasn’t working. It was the best education in the world, in a way – thinking about these scripts and how they could [be improved] and having to put that into words was really helpful and it made me want to write.
I still get really excited by reading other people’s work. No one person can write every single story and I think opening yourself up to other people’s voices and experiences can only ever improve [your own writing].
Get a mentor, if you can When I was at university, the playwright Patrick Marber was coming to town as a visiting drama chair, and he put a note up on the drama website saying, ‘I’ll read anyone’s play if they send it to me’.
I didn’t have anything that was good enough to send to him so I spent two weeks writing this script, sent it in and didn’t hear anything back. Six months later, he was visiting again and he got in touch. I went to meet him, and he pulled out my play and it was covered in his notes. His words were literally, ‘this is shit – but you are a writer and I’m going to teach you how to make this good’.
That absolutely changed my life, and I owe Patrick Marber a huge debt. I think the biggest way it helped me was just having someone say, ‘you’re a writer’. It seems so implausible when you’re starting out, that you could actually do this … so that was a huge thing for me.
Patrick was also good at giving business advice … and he really helped me learn the craft of stage and screenwriting. And it is a craft: there is a grammar to it, and you can break that grammar – that’s where most of the exciting work in every generation comes from – but I’m a big believer that you have to know the grammar to break it, or break it in a way that’s interesting.
Get to know people Off the back of [the script reading job at The National], I did some internships, and one of them was at the Donmar Warehouse where I worked with the casting director Anne McNulty. I kept going back and helping out … and while I was there, Nick Frankfort and Tobias Round, the Executive Producer and General Manager there, left to form a West End producing company. I had been doing script reports for them and they wanted someone to do something on the cheap, so they said, ‘We’ve got the rights to [indie film] Swimming with Sharks. There have been a few attempts to crack it for the stage, but they haven’t really worked, because it’s got quite a complicated flashback structure and it’s quite cinematic. Would you be up for having a go?’
I got paid peanuts for doing it but it was a massive opportunity – I got that commission the day I left university and around seven months later it was on the stage with Christian Slater and Matt Smith and Helen Baxendale.
There’s no way of denying it – my first commission came through having met people. [Frankfort and Round] thought of me because I’d been doing scripts for them. But I think a lot of this industry is trying to meet people and prove that you can be collaborative.
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