Report – Creative Masterclass with Holly Phillips
- Spend as much time developing characters before you begin writing; it will pay off.
- Diversity in the writers room is key to a rounded cast of characters that speak to a wide range of teens.
- New writers need more opportunities to develop their skills on the job.
This inspirational session began with a screening of the ‘Get Even’ trailer, a CBBC/Netflix co-production from production company Boatrocker, and an intro to Holly Phillips, showrunner.
Throughout the masterclass, Holly touched on a range of creative issues. But first she outlined her background. She grew up in a small village where there was nothing to do, so TV was a big deal to her and the characters were her friends. She later did a screenwriting course, where she was the only female, and later still a degree course, for which she wrote a play that subsequently won a writing contest. Her writing career truly began with the BBC Writers Room. Working on numerous shows, she had mixed experiences as a writer. So, when she had the chance to create her own writers room, she was keen to make it a positive experience.
Developing Characters for Teens
Holly doesn’t distinguish between ‘character-driven’ or ‘plot-driven’ shows. For her, ‘character is simply plot in action.’ She likes developing characters thoroughly first because this makes the storytelling quicker, easier and more fun. The writers she chooses bring a variety of lived experience to the characterisation, and often her writers rooms are very personal spaces where everyone is free to ‘overshare’. To round out characters, she likes to ask, ‘What would these characters do if given a jar of sweets?’ or ‘What would these characters do on a dancefloor?’
For ‘Get Even,’ the author of the YA novels that the show was based on told Holly that the characters were as much Holly’s as her own. This shows that adaptation doesn’t necessarily restrict character development.
Because directors only come on board for a few episodes, the writer is an important presence on set during production to ensure the characters are best portrayed. The writer talks to the actors, as well as to the costume and makeup departments.
Developing Story for Teens
Holly described the challenge of making a teen show that was ‘pre watershed’ in nature. How can you tell a story for teens that doesn’t include sex, drugs/alcohol, or swearing? The answer is emotional truth of the narrative, which is what teens connect with. Some teen shows can be alienating if they deal with convey adult emotions. Holly discouraged writers to pander to commissioners; instead, write only for the audience when drafting a pilot. Switch off your practical side: everything can be sorted in the rewriting process.
When putting together a writers room, writing talent is important, but Holly also chooses writers according to their passion for the genre, their life experience, and how easily they connect with the teen experience. She talked about how important it is to nurture new writers, and on ‘Get Even’, she recruited ‘shadow writers’ (including Dan), who wrote alternative versions of each episode. She didn’t feel there were enough opportunities like this for upcoming talent, and that it was important that ambitious young writers do not write for free because writing shouldn’t be the privilege of the well-off. Paying new writers is the best way to encourage diversity in writers rooms. First drafts are always terrifying to submit, so supporting all writers is important.
Finally, in terms of ‘What Next’ for Holly, she has recently set up her own production company to satisfy her desire to make more content for teens (and has a project supported by YACF). The secret to her success, she said, was that she never really grew out of adolescence and continues to be bad at ‘adulting,’ and she encouraged delegates to be like an enthusiastic teenager and approach all their ideas (even bad ones) with 100% commitment.