So you want to be a… scriptwriter

Michael Lesslie, Lead Writer and Executive Producer of The Little Drummer Girl, explains what it’s really like to create scripts for the stage and screen – and offers some tips for aspiring writers

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.