Wednesday 14 May 2014

Interview with Phil Clarke

Phil Clarke lives in London. He is a former assistant director/production assistant who turned to writing. He now works as a story analyst, script consultant, screenwriter and novelist. He has also written non-fiction books on a variety of subjects ranging from execution to maritime humour, from scientific experiments to hostage negotiations.
    These days his main role is as a script consultant, assisting aspiring and established industry writers, ensuring their work reaches a submission-ready standard.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Luton, Bedfordshire. Not the most salubrious of places, but has a decent film pedigree—007 composer, David Arnold, and directors, John Badham and Danny Cannon. I grew up in the sticks on a disused dairy farm—my grandfather's. He was the village milkman.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

A very loving family. My dad was a solicitor, my mum a hard-working housewife, looking after me and my younger sister. No dysfunction to speak of, really. Thankfully.

Where did you go to school?

Dunstable Grammar School
I spent my middle school years at what used to be the old Dunstable Grammar School, attended by the one and only Gary Cooper.

When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

From a very early age. I used to spend hours glued to the small screen. I was fascinated by the colours, the movement, the stories and even the long list of credits at the end of films. I was given a massive film review book as a child and was always found poring over the thousands of entries. I also recall painstakingly writing out the words to Star Wars. One could say this was the first screenplay I ever wrote! Well, more of a transcription, really. I called it Star Words. Oh dear...

What was your first paying job?

This was at Wyevale Garden Centre, following a stint of school work experience. Not particularly green fingered, but I just saw it as a way to get a Saturday job.

What was your first job in the movie business?

Strangely, it was Star Wars! The first episode, The Phantom Menace. I was out of work after being made redundant from a print & design company and bombarded the UK film studios with job-seeking letters. Leavesden Film Studios finally came back to me, offered me an interview to be their studio runner. Two interviews later and the job was mine and they had just become the home of Star Wars. My first day I saw R2-D2 and bumped into George Lucas. It was quite surreal.

You’ve worked on some big shows, including a couple of Harry Potters, a couple of Star Wars, Band of Brothers, De-Lovely, and State of Play. How did you find your way into those jobs?

Well, it all kicked off with Star Wars, as I've said. I then became the studio's Production Liaison fairly quickly, acting as the main contact for all productions on site from initial recce to production wrap. This was a perfect apprenticeship as I got to liaise with all cast and crew on a wide range of productions from movies such as Sleepy Hollow (1999), An Ideal Husband (1999), or Star Wars (1999), to TV shows, commercials and pop promos, working with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Jamiroquai and the double denim-wearing B*Witched

After three years doing this job, I started to get a few offers to join the actual crews on films. I decided to make the leap, getting my first film credit on the spy drama, Enigma (2001) with Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott. This was a big milestone for meI'd made it onto those end credits I'd stared wide-eyed at throughout my childhood.

You have worked with—as someone put it—the ‘cream of cinema.’ What did you learn from some of the famous names?

Good question. I am sure I learnt more than I realise. It's tough to work out exactly what I learned from whom. I guess the overriding realisation that these famous names are ordinary, real people, not demi-gods, the best of whom are genuinely nice folk. This taught me you don't need to be a screaming, pretentious a**hole to make italthough I certainly met a few of these! 
    I learnt a lot from Chris Columbus. I had the honour of working closely with him on the first two Harry Potters as his on-set assistant. As well as showing me how to be at the top of your game and still be a great guy, he taught me how to love baseball. 

Watching Alan Rickman work on set showed me how the best actors immerse themselves in their roles. Unsung crew members that don't exist in the limelight taught me a great deal too. I had the honour of working with one of the best 1st ADs in the businessChris Carreras, a Great White shark with a great film brain.

Who has had the most influence on you?

Ooh, another tough one to answer accurately! I would say my dad has influenced me greatly. His work ethic, his dedication to doing a good, honest job, never to cut corners, has influenced how I work. Many would say I work too hard!

Your main work these days is as a script consultant. Are there any particular genres you specialise in? If someone wanted you to look at their screenplay, what’s the best way for them to contact you?

I have my favourite genres, but I work in all of them when it comes to consulting. As for contacting me, the best waycurrentlyis to email me at: or you can follow me on Twitter: @philmscribe, and I can also be found on both and LinkedIn. After years of resisting the urge to get a website, I'm finally caving in to peer pressure! Because my consulting was initially industry-based rather than helping those outside of it gain entry, there was no pressing need for a webpage, but, as I've branched out, I've realised a stronger internet presence would be beneficial to all. To this end, a website is now under construction, to be launched imminently.

You’ve been working on a novel set in the 17th century over the last few years. How’s that coming along?

Slowly. Though, not through any lack of desire or getting stuck. Because my script consultancy is so involved and all-consuming, it doesn't leave me with much time to dedicate to it. My work with others takes precedence these days. It's a great project though. It started out as a screenplay and did the rounds on both sides of the Atlantic with a few production companies, but while it resonated with many, it was just too expensive to shoot. I then decided if I wrote it as a novel, I wouldn't need to worry about budgets!

What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

Something Chris Columbus said about screenwriting has stuck with me ever since. Having been reading a lot of Syd Field, I asked him about 3-act structures and paradigms and he told me to just write an entertaining story. A lot of new writers lose sight of this deceptively simple truth. There's no point writing a story that sticks religiously to a well-used and time-honoured framework if the story itself isn't engaging. If a story entertains then it works.

What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?

I have been very lucky in that I got a lot of great advice from people in the know early on, so I've never felt like I missed out on certain golden nuggets of wisdom. I suppose one thing it took me a while to work out was that your first draft didn't need to be perfect. I'm a bit of a controlling perfectionist so writing vomit drafts never came naturally to me. Saying that, it's always best to write that vomit draft after you've created a solid detailed outline.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

There are a number of very good books out there, but the one that inspired me the mostprobably because it was the first one I ever readwas Michael Hauge's Writing Screenplays That Sell. It's written in a very open, easy style and demystifies the process, helping you to feel like you can do it. You need this at the start as it can all feel quite daunting.

• What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

Favourite movies? Hard to limit to just ten, so forgive me if I run over.

Braveheart (1995)
Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (1984)
Se7en (1995)
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Casino Royale (2006)
Carlito's Way (1993)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
JFK (1991)
Rear Window (1954)
Heat (1995)
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Die Hard (1988)

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Phil Clarke sounds like someone who really knows the industry.