WGGB member Danny Stack’s live action children’s whodunit Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? gets its world premiere at the 59th BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 7-18 October 2015. The film, which Danny co-wrote and co-directed with Tim Clague, is also on the official London Film Festival Selection list.
We caught up with Danny to talk about writing for kids, crowdfunding and how he made it as a screenwriter.
You have been a screenwriter for 15 years and have written for shows including EastEnders, Doctors, and kids’ TV shows like Octonauts. What were you doing before you were a screenwriter and how did you get your first break?
I was working in Channel 4’s comedy department as a commissioning assistant. I was responsible for logging and reviewing all the unsolicited scripts that came in, which was a great learning curve in what made a good script tick. I was always fascinated by scriptwriting, and wanted to pursue it exclusively. My bosses thought I was mad but I gave up the day job in 2000, and went for it. Of course, a writing career doesn’t happen overnight. I spent about four years reading and writing scripts, and then got my first break when I won a BBC new writing award, which coincided with my first TV commissions on BBC’s Doctors and CITV’s Amazing Adrenalini Brothers.
How did you get the idea for Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? And how have you found the whole process, from script to final film?
Tim Clague suggested we team up to make a family/kids film. We’ve been doing the UK Scriptwriters podcast since 2010, and we have a good laugh, so it made sense to be a bit more proactive instead of just procrastinating. I’ve been writing a lot of kids’ TV, while Tim is a natural fit to the family genre, so us doing a family film together was a no-brainer. We teamed up, Coen brothers style, to write, produce and direct. We used all the advice that had been given to us about low-budget film-making, plus everything we’ve advised others to do, and put it into practice. The idea for Nelson Nutmeg came about after an afternoon’s brainstorming in my kitchen (but it came AFTER we actually started pre-production on the film – some key practicalities were already in motion!).
How is writing for children different to adults – and what are the key challenges?
Writing for children is just as challenging and sophisticated as writing for adults. The main difference is tone. All aspects of screenplay craft come into play, if not more so, and storylines generally require more plot. Kids are smart. They know structure. They can see twists coming a mile off. They know what’s funny, and what isn’t. They don’t care about clever references, or if you’re a big fancy director; they just want to be told a good story. Whenever I’m writing a children’s script, whether it be TV or film, I’m just trying to write the best story it can possibly be. Does it make me laugh? Am I compelled and/or engaged? Once you start thinking “this is just for kids”, you’re doomed.
Is it true you funded the film through crowdfunding, and can you tell us more about that?
We made Nelson Nutmeg via three funding routes: our own pockets, small private investment and a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter covered our key production costs: insurance, travel and catering. But running a successful Kickstarter campaign is an event/production in itself! You’ve got to plan your videos (lots more than just one), make them, edit them, then launch the campaign, hit social media hard, and try to reach your target! But we managed to do it, and it was good fun, too.
You co-wrote and directed the film with writer/director/producer Tim Clague. What are the benefits of collaboration, and was this your first directing experience?
Tim suggested we write and direct together, which surprised me because as a debut feature, I thought he’d like to do all the directing himself. He’s directed a lot of short films (around 60!) whereas I’ve directed around four or five. Tim’s much more technically minded than me but because of my scriptwriting/script reading background, I’m a lot more story minded, so the collaboration worked really well (and of course Tim’s good at story, too). You’ve got to get on with someone if you’re going to co-direct, and our time together hosting the UK Scriptwriters podcast helped a lot. We’re not precious about our egos or anything like that; the focus was all about getting the film made. If you’re thinking of co-directing, perhaps a good tip would be to ensure that you work together on everything from the start: the story, the production, gathering the team etc. That way you’re seeing the film on an equal understanding throughout rather than one being more attached to a particular area than the other.
Which new projects do you have in the pipeline?
Tim and I had such a good time making Nelson Nutmeg, we’re keeping Nelson Nutmeg Pictures alive to specialise in live-action children’s entertainment across film, TV, games and education. Writer/producer Jan Caston has joined us, too. We’ve got the next film lined up, Who Kidnapped Santa Christmas? We’ve also got a riotous kids’ TV detective show with a twist called Enormouse! We’ve got another project about an urban family taking over a donkey sanctuary, and an exciting transmedia project called Future TX, as well as adapting a series of popular children’s books. It’s all go!
You run a script reading and mentoring service, and produce videos and podcasts giving advice to screenwriters. You also founded the Red Planet Prize in 2007. What are the most common questions you receive from emerging screenwriters?
I just got an email asking me “how do I get into writing?” It’s a common question but it’s badly phrased because it tends to overlook the obvious: you get into writing by writing. There’s no shortcuts or favours or secret handshakes. You write a script, you send it out, you wait for a reply. And while you’re waiting, you write another. And you write another, and another. Everybody gets rejected, so try to keep that in perspective. No one asked you to be a writer so stick to your conviction about why you wanted to write in the first place. And just like no one asked you to write, no one can tell you to stop either. Follow your passion. Write.
If you had to choose one piece of advice to give someone starting out in the business, what would that be?
Don’t try to second guess what the industry wants, or what you think you *should* write. Write what you love. If you love genre, then great, write your favourite genre. Genre is not a dirty word. If you prefer subtle introspective dramas or anything alternative, then write whatever you want. Your tastes are not unique. They’ve been formed by your viewing habits and personal instincts. Others will share or appreciate your style. If you’re any good, that is.
Why are you a member of the Writers’ Guild?
Writing can be a lonely, demoralising and isolating experience. It’s good to know that someone’s out there rooting for you, and working on your behalf, so that everyone can enjoy the same basic rates in TV/film/radio etc. All writers have original voices, but together we’ve got a strong voice that isn’t easy to ignore. In my view, being a member of the Guild is an important part of scriptwriting in the UK. If you want to be part of the UK writing community, or want something to be better in your writing life, then the Guild is a great resource and reference point, and it can be quite social, too.
Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on Saturday October 10 2015 (book tickets on the website). You can find out more about Danny’s script reading and mentoring service, plus find lots of useful videos on his website. Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? has its own website featuring a blog, video interviews, behind-the-scenes features and more.