Wednesday, July 07, 2010

TV Writers' Fest: Low Budgets, Being Human

Jack Thorne [JT]: The relationship between writing and budget is getting a lot closer. Shows like Cast-Offs cost £100,000 an hour. The first series of six eps cost £600,000 in total – which is what it costs to make an hour of Skins. Low budget is the future for a lot of people.

Toby Whithouse [TW]: Being Human costs £500,000 an hour. It’s a high concept show, so there are added expenditures. But it’s inspired by science fiction shows from the 70s and 80s, made for tuppence. That forced writers to devise a new kind of storytelling, where everything’s implied. Sapphire & Steel is a classic example.

On Being Human we had to find a way to portray death. All the ideas were too expensive. We had a spare door, so I came up with the idea that death is a door with a light behind it. Chilling, a brilliant effect – but cheap! Often editorial and tone decisions are made by having no money.

Low budget is a pain because it restricts the number of characters. That’s why you have to shave edges and characters to save money. But low budget can be an opportunity. You have to be create to overcome it.

Tony Roche [TR]: Armando Iannucci [AI] was offered £300,000 to make a pilot for The Thick of It. Instead he decided to make three episodes for £100,000 each. You learn a lot more by doing three episodes than just one.

There was lots of creative cheating. They couldn’t afford a big crowd of extras, so minister emerges to find only a cleaner outside – everyone’s gone home. Low budget limits your choices, which does focus the mind.

TW: The success of low budget shows like Cast Offs and Being Human means commissioners expect more low budget shows. Being Human is deficit-funded by money from BBC America, RDF, even borrowing against future DVD sales.

[JT has been working on This Is England 1986, made for £600,000 an hour.]

TR: We do at least 11, 12 pages a day on The Thick of It. We shot 35 pages in a day on one occasion. The rough and ready nature of it allows for stumbles and mistakes. When the actors can’t forget their lines, they often swear instead. It’s a unique show. We have a writer on set every day, punching up sides for the next day

[TW encourages writers to put everything they want into a first draft on BH.]

TW: First draft are all in. Subsequent drafts are written to budget. The first draft has a responsibility to be big, expensive and silly. For the new series we’ve spent money on new werewolves. That means less actors, fewer locations.

Low budget forces your stories to have more scenes on the set. Writers always want scenes to go elsewhere. When you spend so much time in the precinct [the house in Being Human] of your show, it all comes back to character. Low budget has made Being Human a character-led show, I’m proud of that.

A controlled environment like a purpose-built precinct is easier for production purposes, but can be creatively stifling. Invisible monsters on the most recent series of Doctor Who are a budget choice.

JT: For Cast Offs, the disabled actor pool is small so I cast the show before writing it. Nothing gets cut for compliance reasons. Channel 4 wanted it more controversial.

TR: Cast Offs was funded by the disability section of Channel 4. As a result it was greenlit fast and done a lot quicker than other drama series.

TW: Compliance has got a hell of a lot more restrictive since Sachsgate. We’re allowed the word fuck up to three times in each episode of Being Human, but only in the second half of the show [i.e. the section broadcast after 9.30pm].

Blasphemy is a bigger problem than violence. I’ve been asked, when this character gets his throat torn out, does he have to say, Oh God?

TR: Once on The Thick of It a line of Malcolm’s got changed. Shut your gash got overdubbed to shut your cave – implying Nicola had an enormous vagina!

TW: Everyone’s wages go up, but the budget gets smaller with each new series. At the beginning you have to aim for the moon. Budgetary compromises will come. Worry about that later, don’t let it kill your creativity.

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