Q&A with Writer/Director, David Skynner

Word of Mouth

In our latest Word of Mouth we talk to Writer/Director, David Skynner, about his career to date, including BAFTA wins, interviewing Gary Numan, and starting out on Aliens.

What was your first job in TV?
My first job in TV was also my first as a director, on The Bill for Thames TV, but by then I had already been working in the industry for ten years, partly in features and also making corporate films.

My first proper production job was after I left The London Film School, when on graduating, the school found me a two-week attachment to the AD dept. on James Cameron’s Aliens. I got on so well with them I ended up staying three months and moved on to the creature shop for another two months, when Stan Winston saw a painting I’d done for a film school production. It was a very exciting film to work on, very very long hours though as I’d be in at 6am to open the dressing rooms and as the film slipped behind schedule and the days got longer, I often wouldn’t leave until 11pm.

The high point for me though was the day we shot the fight between the Alien Queen and Sigourney Weaver in that yellow walking power lifter. By then I was working in the creature shop and was operating the tongue on the Queen, firing it out with one lever and opening the jaws with the other. It was like a video game and I must confess, I did get a little carried away. When we cut, I heard a little cough behind me and looked up to see James Cameron looking down at me. I thought I was in trouble, but he smiled and said “Nice work David”.

What would you say has been the defining point in your career?
Defining moments can come from both positive and negative experiences. A defining moment for me was winning a Best Drama Bafta for The Giblet Boys. This was positive as a series I had directed, had contributed episode scripts to and was immensely proud of being recognised. But it was also negative as the phone stopped ringing for TV directing work, which is something I’ve learnt is not uncommon.

That led to a protracted and difficult period in my career that forced me to go another way and expand my skillsets beyond directing into writing, self-shooting, producing and editing an ever-expanding range of media types.

Consequently I have hugely extended and deepened my skillsets and am now at a point where I am in command of my craft in a way I probably never would have been if that had never happened. It was definitely difficult and to a degree, it still is. What this really taught me is that you never stop learning and developing, like every art, its principles are deceptively simple, but from that simplicity you can create infinite and profound variation and it is in that, the composition you create, that the real skill lies.

You worked recently on the documentary series Rock n’ Roll Cars where you interviewed over 20 music names. What are your top tips for filming interviews and getting the most out of on-screen talent?
Principally, focus. I don’t mean keeping the camera in focus, though that is obviously vital, I mean becoming very focused on the interviewee. It may sound obvious, but when interviewing, you have a few things to think about simultaneously, so it is easy to keep nodding while taking your focus off what is being said to you and that is generally not great. It is important and very rewarding to really listen, to think about what is being said and to look for hidden meaning or subtext that might be there as you can then try to tease out that meaning.

When you really focus on and listen to someone, it also opens them up. I think this is partly because, it is quite rare to be really listened to, except by a therapist. When you really listen, you bring about a deeper level of engagement and quite remarkable things can happen because interviewees become involved in the exploration and can often find truths that they were only partially or sometimes not at all aware of.

I found Gary Numan a particularly rewarding interview. He has Asperger’s and as social interaction is very difficult for him, that should have made him a difficult interviewee. We had a quite extraordinary discussion though that lasted nearly two hours and covered every aspect of his life; he was very generous with his time and insights and and I put that down to really listening and engaging with him.

What is your go-to camera for self-shooting and why?
I started self-shooting on DSLRs and I still have a great affection for them. Yes, they are not principally designed for shooting video and are a pain to get used to, but once you become skilled, the small size and the anonymity they provide, plus the range of exceptional lenses does offer great rewards.

I’ve been shooting a lot over the last year on the Red Weapon (complicated but a stunning image) and the Sony FS7 (ergonomic and relatively easy to use and also a lovely image, if a tad crisp). I would probably opt for the FS7 as my go to, though I also love the Canon C300 image, but not the ergonomics.

If a DSLR seems the most appropriate kit, then it would be the Sony A7s for it’s incredibly compact form, 4K and stunning lo-light levels.

You’ve worked across a variety of genres throughout your career. Do you have a favourite?
I’ve never found it hard to switch between genres and seem able to handle most with ease. It is a slightly depressing feature of current production practices that producers only want to hire people who have done pretty much their exact show several times already. Though I appreciate that they want someone who can do the job, I think it does undervalue the skills of professional film makers, for whom doing the same show again and again is also rather boring.

We all want our work to be interesting, that is largely why we do it and I am drawn to anything that seems challenging to me and gets my juices flowing; I’ve never been good at being bored.

My favourite genres have tended to cluster at opposing ends of the dramatic spectrum, funny and scary/thrilling. I did a lot of dramatic thrillers to start with, but a light-hearted character in a court drama then led to a long line of comedies.

Lately I’ve started doing documentary and am developing a couple of reality shows and I’m enjoying them a great deal too; once again finding the range of my structural understanding, directorial and writing skills, are directly applicable. If I have to choose a favourite though, it would probably be comedy because it is just so much fun to do.

What’s the most challenging production you have worked on and why?
One of the most challenging from a production perspective was The Story of Tracy Beaker, where because of restrictions with the hours the children could work, nearly three quarters of the scheduled day had to be completed in the middle third of the day. Every day it was a supremely frantic charge at getting that completed, bookended by a nicely leisurely start and end, but we got it done.

A large TV adaptation was also very challenging, though for completely different reasons, in that case it was a couple of incredibly intractable working relationships. The DOP was not someone I wanted, but the producer, who was very controlling and difficult, hired him anyway. Trying to get him to shoot more than a master shot on any scene was a daily battle and it was amazingly selfish. I was then told that the execs were not happy with what I was doing and that I was on the cusp of being fired. That leverage was then used to openly control everything I was doing, apparently at their behest and this continued all the way through the shoot. Turned out once we had completed, that it was all a lie.

It turned out all right, but it was pure hell. In the aftermath I learned a lot about the huge value of a quality crew and working relationships, and I always listen to my instincts about people now. In my experience the filming process tends to be either very good, which with very few exceptions it has been, or very bad, and when it is bad there is almost nothing worse. The people you work with are just so crucial.

What has been your favourite location to film in?
Probably the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall in the centre of Birmingham, a towering cavern of glass and steel, criss-crossed with interweaving raised walkways. We got to film a chase sequence for a BBC comedy pilot there, with Jack Dee and John Thompson chasing a robber through the complex on a Vespa scooter. They drive up escalators, weave round practicing ballroom dancers and even drive into a glass lift before finally crashing into a fountain outside. It was a massive undertaking but huge fun, and I can barely believe we were allowed to do it. It was one of the pieces of work I was proudest of, but there were contractual problems with going to series and sadly it was never screened.

What tips would you give someone who’s starting out as a Scriptwriter?
My main tips for scriptwriting are…

  • The sketch approach to writing. When I was an art student, we were taught to do a very rough outline of the whole work, then start refining and refining and adding in detail. I’ve found that a very useful way to approach writing. Start with a whole idea, expressed as just a few sentences and then build out from there.
  • It may take you a long time to become a good writer, it is VERY hard to write scripts well, it’s taken me twenty years and everything I wrote for the first five years is complete rubbish, though of course I didn’t think that at the time. So don’t be discouraged, it is all practice.
  • Practice a lot, everyday ideally, for the reason above.
  • Do not send anything to an agent, producer etc. unless you are certain it is perfect; it is actually quite hard to get anyone to read anything and if you’ve had to read a lot of bad scripts you will understand why; this means you won’t get a second chance, so don’t waste it.
  • Use maximum economy in your writing. Know what the scene is about and what you wish it to say, then do that while keeping it as short as possible.
  • Read David Mamet’s ‘On Directing Film’ and John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’. They contain pretty much every writing tool you will ever need and I still reread them.

How has the industry changed since you first started out?
Well, it’s changed so much. Budgets have gone way down and are still sinking. When I started, mostly doing corporates, or branded as I suppose they are known now, the budgets were very good; £60-90k was pretty common and even a very simple production with only a couple of days shooting would still be around £20k.

There is now a very high expectation of a great deal for next to no cost, and an established dependence on one person shooting, producing, directing and editing. It feels like there is often a shortage of imagination or aspiration. Skills and ability don’t really feel valued, except perhaps in high-end production. It felt like a profession when I started out, but it now feels a bit like a hobby that clients want to use for their benefit.

It was also always a very competitive industry, quite difficult to get started in and that seems exactly the same, or possibly even worse. There is compounding this a massive oversupply of people and product and a relentless focus on only giving an audience more of what they already have, which means that talented people and original programmes get easily and repeatedly overlooked.

On the plus side, anyone can pretty much do anything now, they just have to pick up a camera and a computer to edit on and off they go. That is fantastic, but has produced surprisingly little that is really noteworthy, a reflection on the complexity of good storytelling I suspect more than anything else.

Quality television is also enjoying a rich and well overdue revival and that is to be celebrated. Simultaneously the concentration of cinema into largely studio driven franchises is pushing independent filmmakers and actors into TV, which is pushing out the people who were previously making TV. I’ve been told I have to make a movie before I can be considered for TV drama now. But that is the current economics of the business. It’s fluid, complicated and all about the money I guess, but perhaps it always was.

David Skynner is a Writer & Director, and a ProductionBase member. If you’d like to be featured in a future Q&A, let us know!