EP15: Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler | Peter Rabbit vs Werewolves
Emmy winners and BAFTA-nominated, Huckerby & Ostler are one of the most successful TV writing partnerships around, and with their new novel, Defender Of The Realm, they’ve created a fantastic children’s adventure series.
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In this episode you will discover:
- The links between horror, comedy and children’s writing.
- How writing with a partner can give you an advantage.
- How to resolve conflicts in writing partnerships.
- And strategies for when you get stuck.
- Scrivener – The Official Writing App of the Bestseller Experiment
Links featured in today’s show:
- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
- Question Mark: Have a question you want answered on the show? Click here.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Huckerby and Ostler have written hundreds of episodes of TV shows such as Danger Mouse, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Peter Rabbit and Shaun The Sheep, as well as writing horror movies such as Howl and Don’t Knock Twice. Emmy winners and BAFTA-nominated, they are one of the most successful writing partnerships around, and with their new children’s book, Defender Of The Realm, they’ve created what is destined to become a bestselling adventure series…
How did they first meet?
Mark Huckerby: This is a true story. Nick and I met on the very first day of university. We went to Nottingham University in about 1992, and we were queueing up for a registration and I turned round to this guy behind me and said something like, ‘Bit of a long queue,’ or something, and it was Nick, and he completely blanked me. I thought, ‘What a dick!’
Nick Ostler: I just didn’t like the look of him.
Mark: And it turned out that Nick was the only guy there whose dad was in the queue with him.
Nick: I was mortally embarrassed. I had never been away from home before. Mark was slightly older and wiser and streetwise than me, and I was panicking I think. I thought if I don’t talk to anyone I won’t have to introduce my dad. I just pretended I hadn’t heard him and he thought I was really unfriendly.
Mark: We didn’t speak for a term, and then I heard Nick was writing plays, and I was acting at the time, and there was another guy there called Dan Chambers.
Nick: I saw them dicking around with each other. They used to do something where they would be in the main room watching Neighbours, and Mark and Dan would pretend to have a fight in front of the TV at a really crucial bit just to make everyone laugh and piss them off, and I though this was really funny and just assumed that they were really good at doing comedy acting, so I approached them and it turned out that they had actually done a bit of acting. So I cast them in the plays I was writing. To cut a long story short, we starting writing together, we did our version of the Footlights, we did comedy sketch shows that we would put on in the theatre, much to the annoyance of the really serious English Lit grads who wanted to do Ibsen and stuff like that, and we would come on and do our stupid sketches in lycra pants. We managed to con our way into getting sent to the Edinburgh Festival. I infiltrated the committee and managed to rig the election so that we got in under the wire to get some money – a few hundred quid – so we could go to Edinburgh.
Mark: It was a committee of forty people, and Nick got a job as the fire safety officer.
Nick: My only job was to buy a single fire extinguisher, something that I failed to do in two years.
How they started writing together:
Mark: We started sketch writing together on notepads and a really basic word processor.
Nick: We did a lot of student radio, as well. A weekly show. It became a good discipline of writing comedy sketches quickly and performing them and seeing what worked and what didn’t work. Most of it was probably rubbish, I think enough of it was okay, and we gradually got better, and that’s where we made our first contact at the Edinburgh Festival with a BBC Light Entertainment radio producer. He sent us a letter afterwards, and we thought we’d made it.
On Breaking Through:
Nick: What it boiled down to was we had a meeting with him in London, while doing other jobs that we hated, but it eventually led to us getting some non-commissioned work on Radio 4, and we started getting more and more stuff used. Eventually a producer said to us that if we were full-time doing this then we would get a lot more work, so we casually jacked-in our jobs and attempted to make a living. A couple more breaks happened and then we ended-up writing on some animation shows. We did a few sketch shows along the way, but we wanted to write more narrative stuff. We liked doing the longer form. When we got an opportunity to do animated scripts for TV, which were seven minutes scripts, or eleven minute scripts, we really enjoyed that and accidentally fell into that as a bit of a niche. Animation is one of those worlds in the industry where everyone knows each other and if you get stuff used on a show then your name gets around, and that was more our break, segueing into that area, which we still do a lot of now.
Were they also writing screenplays during this period?
Nick: That came a bit later. We built up to it, which was quite a good way of doing it. We started doing seven minutes, then eleven minute sketches, then some twenty-two minute shows. By the time we decided to do a feature — not that our first one was any good — but we built up to it. We didn’t dive straight into doing a ninety minute script, which is different beast and much harder.
Mark: It always surprises me when you hear people say that they’re going to start straight in with a feature. I remember, just post-university when we were working for Radio 4, how hard it was just to write a decent two minute sketch. Gradually we started expanding that out, so I did feel that when we came to write the feature scripts that we were ready to do that. There was very long lead up to be ready to do screenplays.
Nick: We did a bunch of screenplays — plenty that haven’t been made — but luckily we got a couple of low-budget horror films made, one of which was out last year, and another is going to be out in 2017. It’s a coincidence really that it’s the horror ones that got made. I think at the time we were doing them those were the kind of films at that budget level that could get made.
We have a bit of a weird CV. We were writing Peter Rabbit at the same time as a werewolf movie.
The link between horror and children’s stories:
Nick: When we were approached for Peter Rabbit we hadn’t done pre-school stories before, and we more comfortable doing comedy-adventure for slightly older kids, and we didn’t think it was for us, and we resisted it for a while, but then we looked at the source material and of course it was very red in tooth and claw, and basically about a thieving rabbit, and a fox and a farmer who’re constantly trying to kill him, and we thought that if you can put that jeopardy in there, it would both be faithful to the source material and it would make it more exciting, so we wrote an action-adventure comedy show, that happened to be based on this hundred-year-old property, and we were given free-reign to try what we wanted to do, and luckily they really liked it and it was the take that they were looking for. Kids like to be scared and they like horror in a safe way.
I think there are more parallels between horror and comedy. It’s said that a laugh and a scream are the same release of tension.
I think that’s why when we were getting to know each other at university, we were watching movies like The Evil Dead, which was perfect. It was scary, supernatural and really funny. They do crossover, so maybe it’s not as weird a CV as it sounds.
What is it like writing as a team?
Mark: I have immense respect for writers who write on their own. I can’t really imagine doing that. It’s such a solitary profession where you’re alone with your thoughts for long periods of time, and I’ve never really had that. I’ve always worked in a group, whether it was with Nick or Dan at university, it was always the three of feeding back on what we were writing.
The big advantage that you have with a partnership that’s grown naturally is that we’re always feeding back, we’re always really honest with each other on we think about each other’s scripts and work, and it’s not even a big deal anymore to say what we think about something.
We’re very good at taking notes when we’re working on the TV stuff with producers, and it’s just no big deal for us to get notes on our scripts because we’ve been doing it for a long period of time. I know that sometimes for writers that are on their own getting script notes can such an arduous trauma. It always is when you get your work critiqued, but maybe we’re more used to that and robust in our attitude to that.
And it’s kind of like having a boss. I know what Nick’s working on, he knows what I’m working on, you’ve always got something to aim for at the end of the day — the end of a chapter or the end of a script — in order to exchange it, so you have that nice time pressure.
Nick: There’s a certain mystique about writing partnerships, which I think does give you an advantage in dealing with other people in the industry and producers and directors, because you’ve got this slightly mysterious thing that no one quite knows what goes on between you in that creative space, and it gives you a bit more power in the equation. It definitely makes a difference with two of you going into a meeting. You’re less likely to be outnumbered, you’re more likely to pick up the slack and back each other up, and I think it does help you in the room, which is a big part when you’re collaborating on film and TV, and books as well. There is safety in numbers.
Mark: Nick and I have developed what we call the Hive Mind. I know what Nick’s thinking, he knows what I’m thinking, we often just react in the same way to notes. It’s definitely an advantage. I prefer going in with Nick than on my own.
Nick: And if I can find the meeting, because I have a terrible sense of direction, so I tend to follow Mark around Soho, about two paces behind him, and then we get there. I think our partnership works. We’ve been together for over twenty years and most of that professionally. I think it survives because we were friends first, and also because we’re quite similar in many ways, not in every way, but generally speaking our tastes are quite similar. We like the same kind of stuff, we like writing the same sort of things, we tend to think the same about people and situations, so we don’t really argue, which I think is actually important. A lot of people think partnerships only work if it’s like chalk and cheese and you’re both completely complementary, and we’ve met partnerships like that before and they don’t tend to survive in my experience, because it’s just exhausting. We joke that it’s our first marriage, we’ve been working together longer than each of us have been married to our wives, and it doesn’t last if you’re fighting all the time, and you’re pulling in opposite directions. I think a lot of it also comes down to personalities just clicking, in a way that’s not too confrontational, but where you’re able to be honest to one another.
What do you do when you’re both trying convince each other about something?
Nick: Well, I just get my way… It generally doesn’t happen that much. It sounds terribly boring. We’re not pushovers. We do have disagreements and different ideas, but we have to resolve them, but those genuinely don’t last very long, we don’t have big blubs. I don’t think either of us are so stubborn that we won’t listen to reason or coherent notes from the other.
Mark: If that ever does come up then the other person will say ‘We’ll give it a go. Convince me.’ And that will often lead to new ideas, if it’s not that thing then it will lead to something else, and you’ll work it up together from there. I think that’s the way to deal with that. If you’ve got an idea and you feel very passionate about it, then have a go at it and see if you can make it work.
Nick: It can also depend on what you’re working on. There’s a practical aspect to it, that we’re working on different projects at once, and most days we’re going to be working on different things. They might be different chapters of the same book or I might be writing a Danger Mouse script, and Mark’s writing a script for another show, so we might each be heading-up a particular script, so if you’re the one heading-it up then you kind-of have more of a say over it, and the other one, depending on how busy we are, might not. We get eyes on everything. There’s nothing that goes in that both haven’t looked at, but it often — and this again is a trade secret, we wouldn’t tell this to producers we’re working with — but it might be that a script you’re getting is ninety-five percent written by one of us. In that sense we’re a bit of a company, so everything goes out with our names and brand on it, but within that there’s a whole range of ways that we manage the workload.
Obviously, if it’s something like the book, or a feature film, then we’re going to be working much closer together the whole time on it. But if we’re working three different shows at once, then inevitably you’re going to split work up to be practical.
How much of a culture shock was writing a novel?
Mark: I just hadn’t really thought about it when we got our deal with Scholastic, and we pitched the book, and we were ready to write it. Then there was that moment when we started to write it, it was a bit like… Can we do this? It reminded me of the first time we went on stage at Nottingham University when we were acting together, I remember just before we went on the first night, one of us turned to the other and said, ‘How do we know this is funny?’ None of us had thought, ‘Maybe we’re not funny?’ I guess we were confident with it, and with the book we thought we’ll approach as we do our screenplays. We did a lot of outlining, prior to writing, we sat down and talked for weeks and weeks about it, and then we divided it up and I took the first two chapters to have a bit of run-in, Nick took three and four and then we switched over, and then there was that moment of truth, ‘What’s it going to be like to see Nick’s prose writing?’ as opposed to his screenwriting. And he had the same with me. Weirdly, when we compared our two samples of prose writing in the first tranches of the novel that we wrote, they were really, really similar. It was that weird thing of working together for so long that, without knowing it, we had developed a prose style. Which was based on a prose style that we used in the screenplays.
Nick: It was also because we realised that, as a screenwriter, in the hoops you have to jump through to get to a script, you have to write treatments. And those are prose documents of one, two, three, four, ten, fifteen pages or more, before you get to do the script. And we learnt in the early days that it wasn’t enough for those to be functional, structural documents. They’ve got to be entertaining. If they’re not page-turners, the execs are going to get bored, and not be interested. And that’s fair enough.
If you’re proposing to write a comedy film, your treatment for it better be funny, and if you’re going to write a horror film your treatment better be scary.
We hadn’t realised, but we had actually learnt a bit of a house style writing these treatments over the years, which is what we brought to the writing. When we showed our sample chapters to our agent, she said ‘I can’t tell who wrote which bit first,’ which was a big relief, and we probably hadn’t thought about it as much as we should have done.
And we do rewrite each other’s pages. It’s not like we can say this chapter’s written by me, this chapter’s written by Mark. We might be able to remember who did the first draft, but they’ve gone through a lot of editing by both of us over months and years. It’s all in the outlining. We did that the same way we do a feature script, and then we do a really detailed chapter outline. When we presented the outline for the second book to our publishers, we’d done a twenty-five page outline, and one of the editors let slip that ‘Writers never do this.’ I guess it’s from necessity, but I also don’t know how you’d do it without one.
How did Defender Of The Realm come about?
Mark: It was Nick’s original idea: what if the King or Queen of England was a secret superhero? And we were deciding how to deal with that: was it a film? Was it TV? We originally optioned it to Tiger Aspect as a TV idea, but that was way too early in the process, and we got it back after a year, and we thought ‘Y’know what? This is a book.’ And we started to think of it as a book and then from then on that’s how we pursued it. We were talking to various publishers about it and we originally wrote eight chapters, and we thought that’s enough to sell it, and we had the whole idea, we knew how it was going to end, and we were really happy with it, and we’ll send this in to publishers and see what they thought. And we went to Penguin and Scholastic and various places and everywhere we sent it to said, ‘Yeah, we like the idea, we can see where it’s going, but we don’t buy partial books.’ And we were like, ‘What?’
Nick: We were lucky at the time, though, We had a good writing job in TV, so we were okay for money, so we didn’t need to be paid to do it. It was more just finding the time to do it in between that. We were disciplined in wrestling a free day here or there where we could push it on. And then within that year we got to the end of it.
What are the practicalities behind writing together?
Nick: We’re very basic on that. We just keep files on a Dropbox for our projects. We don’t have of those live collabowrite things. I think we tried one once, but it was a bit of a pain. For example, the book will be in chapter files for most of its life, up to the point where we’re ready to compile it and send it in, so that we can work on different chapters independently.
People are probably imagining that we’re in the same room, walking around behind the other one typing, which is how we spent our first couple of years writing, but these days we don’t live in the same county, even. So we’re in our own offices, and we do rely on this technology to do it remotely.
What happens when you get stuck?
Nick: That’s just the day-to-day grind, isn’t it? We don’t believe in writer’s block. If you give it a name like that, it suddenly becomes this thing that is out of your control.
The clichés are true: you just need to treat it as a job. A surgeon can’t say that he’s got surgeon’s block. You just have to do it.
You learn techniques and ways of attacking problems, and there are plenty of books that can help you with that. It’s mainly the thing that, as Mark said, there’s two of us. If you’re feeling there’s a problem, you’ve got someone to talk to till you’ve solved it. I think it would be much harder by yourself.
Mark: Today I hit a problem with a script, and it’s a complete luxury to send it to Nick and say can you have a look at this, there’s something wrong with the middle section of this script, and sure enough a bunch of notes came back which unblocked the drain. Sometimes just walking the dog helps. It’s just great to get out of the house. Having said that I found it very hard to write two minute sketches when I first started writing, it was very hard to concentrate and sit down and do that, I’ve now worked up to the point where I could sit very happily at my desk for seven hours a day, which is not healthy, to do writing. And if I ever do hit those kind of blocks, then it’s great to get out and walk on it, and it’s the bit that everyone laughs at; ‘Oh, writers… sounds like an excuse for a walk.’ But, actually, when you let your brain just kind of relax a bit and you just get those surprising, subconscious thoughts come through, that always comes on a walk for me. You don’t even know you’re thinking about the problem and you come back and sit back at the desk afresh and suddenly there’s a new angle and new light shone on the problem.
Nick: That’s why it’s good to have multiple projects on the go as well, because if you’re really not feeling it on one project one day, then you can hop onto something else. You’ve always got something useful to be doing. I think you need to have a healthy lack of sympathy with writers who complain about not feeling the mood to do it today, or the muse. Get over yourself and get on with it. It’s just hard work, y’know? It’s not supposed to be a glamorous, exciting thing all the time, it’s just like anyone else’s job.
Mark: Hammer the keys!
Nick: Sometimes it’s just hard work and you’ve just got to get on with it.
Mark: Make your forehead bleed. Who said that? Was it Richard Curtis? Writing’s about staring at a sheet of paper until your forehead bleeds. That’s just what it is. Some days it’s brilliant. You can always write something, even if you end up scrapping it. There will be something you will build on and use.
Nick: And even if you’re dog-tired — I’ve got a couple of young kids — there are days when you haven’t had any sleep. You can do something. You can go through an outline and you can put the sluglines in. Just a mechanical, boring thing that has to be done at some point. You can do some formatting, or your title page, and by the time you’ve done that, you’ve actually read through it a couple of times and then you have an idea. Sometimes it’s just one word at a time.
Having been published, would you do anything different?
Nick: It was brilliant. Almost in every way it was a more enjoyable experience than scriptwriting and trying to get scripts made, I think. We were taken aback by how much creative control you have, how few voices there are in the room… Not that that’s always a bad thing, but when it’s your idea and your book, it’s treated completely as your baby, and the responsibility is on you in the end, and that’s what it’s going to be forever in that book, and there’s a pressure in a way, you’ve got no excuse. You can’t say, ‘Oh, the director didn’t understand it, or they didn’t have the budget to do this bit,’ so it’s more nerve-wracking in some ways, but at the stage that our careers are at it was just what we needed, and it was fantastic, and it felt completely ours, in a way that no other project ever had. And we were very proud of it and there were the nerves of it getting published and getting nice feedback and reviews was like, ‘Wow, people are enjoying it!’
For me, it was the single most satisfying creative end result that we’ve ever had.
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