Earlier this month, the Norwich Film Festival (NFF) caught up with Norfolk based writer William Osborne for a brief chat about his work as a scriptwriter and author. He’s best known for his work on films such as Twins (1988), Ghost in the Machine (1993), The Scorpion King (2002) and lots more. William is now working as a successful author with books such as Hitler’s Angel (Chicken House, May 2012) Winter’s Bullet (Chicken House October 2014) Mithra’s Eagle (Chicken House TBC October 2016). We are incredibly excited to welcome William as one of our 2016 festival judges. This is what he had to say about his work in film…….
NFF: We always like to start at the beginning… How did you fall into the world of writing screenplays?
WO: I came to screenwriting in a rather roundabout way. I was Vice President of Footlights my final year at Cambridge and as such had to write and cowrite a Christmas Panto, A Spring Review and then a touring summer show (toured for 3 moths round England) so that’s where I got the bug for writing for theatre. Then after I left I co wrote a two radio series for Radio 4 and so kept on writing while I trained as a barrister. Once I was an actual barrister I found that I missed the writing and as luck would have it I ran into someone I has sat next to on a play going to American in my gap year to American High School on a scholarship. His name was William Davies. We both found we loved film and decided we should become a screen writing team. I resigned as a barrister and he took time off (had just got a job as reporter for the Daily Mail). We wrote two screenplays over the course of a summer, took them to Hollywood sold them the first day we arrived and never looked back.
NFF: Do you think moving to Hollywood enhanced your career? If so, how?
WO: Moving to Hollywood in the 1980s was essential for the films we wanted to write, big studio movies and also to build a career. I believe it still is.
NFF: The classic 80’s film Twins was one of your first screenplays to be made into a feature film. Firstly, how did that come about? And secondly, what did you learn from selling your screenplay to the studios?
WO: Two days before we were leaving to come back to the UK on our inaugural trip our newly acquired agent (literally this all happened in a matter of days) got us a meeting with Ivan Reitman. He told us that Arnold wanted to make a comedy. Did we have any ideas. Give us a couple of days we said and we went to the beach (Zuma mostly) and dreamt up the story of Twins. We went back on the day we were supposed to leave and pitched him the story. He bought it in the room. What did we learn, work hard, work fast – swing in with your sword between your teeth and take no prisoners.
NFF: Can you walk us through how you write a screenplay from the original idea through to the finished product?
WO: No, I can’t walk you through. Everyone has a different process. What I can do is suggest you buy a book called Screenplay and read cover to cover five times. This is all the training/preparation we did before we started writing .
NFF: Two part question. Firstly, which screenwriters inspired you at the start of your career? And secondly which screenwriters do you admire now?
WO: Inspiration came from studying China Town by Robert Towne which is analysed in Screenplay – and by reading William Goldman’s classic memoir of the seventies, Nobody Knows Anything. Of the modern screenwriters or those still going…Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, Wes Anderson, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Lem Dobbs, Leslie Dixon….
NFF: How important is the collaborative process with other screenwriters in your experience? Or indeed with the producers/directors?
WO: Collaboration is essential, working as a team as I did for ten years helped not just the work but also to survive the slings and arrows of the business. Note of favourite writers two are a team. The Bond boys have worked together for twenty years as a team, amazing. Collaboration with producers and directors is essential.
NFF: What have been your biggest challenges in writing screenplays? And equally what have been the biggest rewards?
WO: There are myriad challenges to writing screenplays not least the prospect of filing a hundred and twenty blank pages. The rewards have been hugely satisfying both creatively and financially.
NFF: How easy was it to make the switch from writing screenplays to writing novels?
WO: In switching from screenplays to novels I was hugely helped by my editor at my publishers Chicken House who was able to shape the prose without taking away what I hope is a very visual style I have inherited from screenplay writing.
NFF: Your last screenplay was in 2004, have you been tempted to write any new ones? Do you miss writing screenplays?
WO: My last produced screenplay was 2004 but I have written a number of spec scripts that I have sitting on my desk waiting for the right time to send them out. I have also developed a few TV ideas up but it is a very fashion driven business and you sometimes have to wait till your TV idea is back in fashion. I remember once writing a pilot for a fresh take on Sherlock Holmes in around 2000 and being told by ITV and the BBC that no-one was interested in Sherlock Holmes.
NFF: Do you have any tips for budding film writers?
WO: My only tips for budding writers is write, write, write, but also very importantly think who is going to buy your story and why before you start
NFF: You have also experienced the world as a film producer. What was it that attracted you to those particular projects?
WO: I have enjoyed producing because the role of the producing is that of the field marshall of the army, with the director the general in the field and the writer the battalion commander. Sorry, not sure that analogy actually works.
NFF: How important do you feel the film festival circuit is to the next generation of short filmmakers? And any additional advice?
WO: I think Film Festivals are incredibly important if not least because it is a chance for film makes young and old to meet and exchange information and advice. The only advice I would give is write and hustle, write and hustle….eventually if the work is good enough you will succeed.
Interview by Craig Higgins