Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #003 with Nat Saunders.
With a CV featuring Smack the Pony, Big Train, Cardinal Burns, Trollied, Sick Note and the upcoming Simon Pegg and Nick Frost Amazon series, Truth Seekers… Nat Saunders has some valuable lessons to share.
When did you start writing?
When I was in school, about eleven or twelve, I used to fancy my English teacher, so I wrote lots of stories in the hope of impressing her. I was pretty imaginative, I think, although I wonder if she started to get creeped out when she started appearing in the stories too. They were mostly weird horror things, if I recall. We never hooked up because it would have been illegal and immoral and also I think I made her nervous.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land the job?
I freewheeled a few years after dropping out of uni, playing in a band called Nub, doing rubbish jobs, and then I met a guy called Chris Hayward. We both started work in the same office on the same day, as sub-editors for softcore porn magazines (Mayfair and Men Only).
Obviously we needed to get out of those ridiculous jobs fast as hell, so we both started submitting sitcom and sketch ideas to production companies. We managed to land a meeting or two, and then out of the blue a bunch of our sketches got picked up by Smack the Pony and Big Train, so we landed an agent and then spent the next ten years failing to get our own sitcom off the ground.
People are often advised to get their writing out online to get noticed and show that an idea has legs. One of the best examples I can think of is Misery Bear – from simple web videos to Comic / Sport Relief appearances, CBBC sketches, a book deal, and partying with celebrities.
Where did that idea come from and what advice do you have for people who want to create web comedy?
Good question. And of course the internet was very different ten years ago, when the little bear had his fifteen minutes, to how it is today. Back then we just saw a sad looking bear, made a sketch with it, threw it on YouTube and it happened to catch the eye of a producer at RoughCut TV (Jon Petrie, who has since moved on to nurturing award-winning gold like People Just Do Nothing and Stath Lets Flats), who turned it into a viable web series. And then we all just plugged away at trying to get the videos in front of people’s faces.
I guess these days you’d harness Instagram, and TikTok too, but back then it was just YouTube, and there was no surefire way to “go viral”. About a million more people watched the episode where Misery Bear had a boring day at work, which co-starred little old me, than watched the Comic Relief episode that co-starred the legend that is Kate Moss.
So my advice would be: Make it funny, keep it short (you know what people;s attention spans are like) and if you build it, they will click (hopefully).
How is Misery Bear these days?
Pretty pissed off, tbh. I have two kids who treat him pretty rough too. This wasn’t the life he had planned.
Nat, I’m sat here going through your CV. It might be the most consistent collection of cool TV shows I’ve seen any British writer work on. What’s your secret?
Well, there are big gaps in that CV. Lots of failed projects, rejections, humiliations… And I think that’s the key: Perseverance. Not blind self belief, but a willingness to learn, figure out what people want to watch and/or make, and how your creative ideas marry up with that. No point desperately trying to get your “vision” on screen if nobody else gives two hoots about it, but totally worth seeing if your vision can accommodate the viewing habits of actual people.
So yeah, don’t give up and don’t be a dick. People try to avoid working with dicks when possible.
The last I heard, you were working as a “Creative Director” at Stolen Picture. That sounds fancy… What does it mean?
When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were setting up their new production company, Stolen Picture, they asked myself and my writing partner, James Serafinowicz, if we’d join them and help bring their ideas to life, and in return we’d develop some of our own with the company.
So yeah, we had a blast developing films and shows, the first of which to come out of the gate – Truth Seekers – hits screens soon on Amazon Prime. James and I have since set up our own label, Consec Industries Ltd, so we’re not at Stolen Picture now, but we’re still developing some projects with them.
What was it like working with a big streamer like Amazon and did it change the way you approached the writing?
They’re great to work with, you get solid notes but they also want to make sure it’s your vision that’s being brought to screen.
In terms of plotting, character development and all that stuff, it really isn’t that different from working with a regular channel or platform, although I’d say the one thing that’s changed in the twenty or so years I’ve been writing is the concept of bingeability – the streamers really want to make sure your show has hooks in that keep the viewer wanting more. So we’re all very aware of that now.
I got to know you back around 2008. At the time, you had credits for Big Train and Smack the Pony but hadn’t written for TV in a while. So you were running around doing the same kind of stuff I was, filming online videos and trying to get your writing out into the world.
(Bishop & Douch x Worm Hotel collaboration)
How did you manage to go from filming silly sketches about ice cream and invisible shoes with me to co-creating a comedy horror series starring some of the biggest names out there (let’s not forget Lindsay Lohan in Sick Note) and doing San Diego Comic-Con panels in, like, 10 years?
Ha! I’d say the secret is not to get downbeat when the paid work stalls. Keep making stuff. That’s what we did with you – always making things, finding new ways to create, branching out into different mediums.
We taught ourselves how to film, edit, do FX, even animation. We tried live comedy, podcasts, all kinds of stuff. Made sure we kept working, even when we weren’t in demand.
What’s the story behind your movie/web series SOS: Save Our Skins? This was a really ambitious project and it paid off with a whole bunch of awards.
What was it like creating a production of that scale and if you could go back, is there anything you’d change?
That was a labour of love. Chris and I came up with the idea back when we first started out writing together at the tail end of the 90s, but didn’t manage to sell it anywhere in the UK. And then we decided to enter it into the Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Fest pitching competition in 2011, where the selected entrants could pitch their idea to a panel of experts in front of an audience.
We decided the pitch would go great if we had a trailer to accompany it, so we partnered up with our friend Al Campbell, who directs shows like Code 404 and Two Weeks To Live, as well as being Barry Shitpeas on Charlie Brooker’s shows, and made a fake trailer for it. We just wrote some funny scenes and went out and shot them for no money, over a weekend, and Al cut it together brilliantly.
The trailer totally sold the show at the event, which is a good thing as I recall being painfully hungover while trying to pitch the thing. We had interest from some Canadian production companies, who in turn sold the concept to some investors and horror-based streaming networks in the US. And that got Baby Cow to get involved too from the UK.
So we had a lot of great help, a really amazing crew formed, and we went to Toronto and New York to film it, and had a blast. I’m proud of the end result, and it was nice to get a few awards and see it on big screens. As with anything I’ve written, I’m sure there are things I’d go back and do differently if I had the chance, improvements with story/character/jokes/pacing, but I’m not George Lucas. Once the thing is done and out there, time to move on to the next thing.
SOS, as well as some of your sketches (Funny or Die’s The Photocopier comes to mind) perfectly tread the line between comedy, fantasy and horror. Truth Seekers feels like the natural next step in your career and the ultimate Nat and James project.
How long has the idea been kicking around for and what can people expect from the series?
James and I are genre nerds, so yeah, it was always natural that we’d gravitate toward genre elements in the stuff we do. Truth Seekers began with Nick and James, they started it years ago and worked up a treatment together, and then Simon and I came onboard.
The writers room was basically months of us sharing ghost stories, obscure horror movie recommendations, old creepy clips on YouTube, pages out of those books about the supernatural that used to shit us up when we were kids. The horror elements came naturally, so then we were able to focus on creating rich characters, relationships and stories that will hopefully keep people coming back for more. We surprised ourselves in the writing of the show by how deeply we became affected by the journey the characters go on. Can’t wait for viewers to be able to go on the same journey.
Many writers dream of creating their own original series but the idea of pitching is terrifying and confusing. What tips do you have?
I’d say get your ideas down in a document. Bear in mind that ideas aren’t the big deal – it’s the execution. Every time you invent a show or a film, chances are a thousand other people have had the same concept. So you have to work hard creating characters, figuring out their relationships, what the themes of the piece are, why it’s relevant, what other shows or films it might be like, so you can gauge what other kinds of people might like your thing.
Get it all down in note form, then start writing it up into a presentable document that sets out the world of the show, the tone and themes, the characters, the pilot episode, and what future episodes it will contain. Maybe suggestions for the kind of casting you visualise.
Once you have a pitch document that makes sense to you on a laptop, you can practice saying it out loud, in the hope you can convey it to others. If you’re a solo writer, find a friend to pitch it to, gauge their enthusiasm for it. That said, I’ve always worked with a writing partner. It’s sooooo much easier when you can bounce ideas back and forth.
What does an average day of work as a professional writer look like for you?
Lots of procrastinating, talking, watching and reading things of interest, moaning about projects that have fucked up, scrolling through social media, trying not to fall asleep, failing and then having a secret nap, then writing a load of shit up in a hurry when you realise there’s only an hour left in the day. All whilst on Zoom with James, who is doing pretty much the same.
You were on the original writing team for the hit Sky One sitcom, Trollied, which ended up running for seven series. What was it like working on the show?
I was on Trollied full time for seasons one and two, part of a writers room, which was an invaluable experience, especially as I then went to the US and worked writers rooms over there for a bit. And then ran writers rooms back here. It was a really good learning experience, I made some friends for life, and got a regular income at a time when I was having a struggle in that department. I wrote a couple of episodes in the third and fourth seasons, I think, but then they carried on valiantly without me. A lovely fun comedy made by lovely fun people, with a great cast.
What was it like working in US writers rooms and how did the experience differ from writing in the UK?
In the US they’ve been doing it that way for decades so it’s like a well-oiled machine and everyone knows what they’re doing, what’s expected and what everyone’s role is. It’s a product of the network show system, whereby a single writer can’t possibly be expected to knock out 22 episodes of a TV show in a few months.
Over here they’ve only really become common, I feel, since streamers have started demanding that UK TV shows have more than just six episodes. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been writers rooms over here (I did one or two for Smack the Pony 20 years ago) but there are just lots more of them now. The big difference I noticed at first was in the US, the writers’ assistant was such an important role – someone to log all the discussions, type up all the notes, keep track of it all. They’re insanely talented and undervalued. Whereas over here, I’ve done plenty of writers rooms where there hasn’t been one, everyone just jotting down their own notes. But we’re catching up. We’ve got this.
What’s your number one tip for writing action?
Well, there’s that common misconception that scripts are just the dialogue. When of course that’s not ture.
I saw a critic recently write about their surprise that an award went to a writer for a script that didn’t contain much dialogue. I now know that this particular critic has no idea about how the process works. A script is everything, from the actions of the characters to the words they say to the rhythm of the scenes to the minutest detail in the action. And the writer does all that in front of a white screen.
So when writing action, remember it’s an integral part of the script: keep it interesting, don’t overload it with detail, and get to the nub of the action as succinctly as you can. Always worth remembering that characters in your story are equally brought to life by what they do as by what they say.
What are the common mistakes you see new writers making?
I made the mistake early on by thinking everyone knew better than me and that I shouldn’t really be there.
I also didn’t realise you could be friends with producers, execs and commissioners – I think maybe I was scared of them at first. But they’re just doing what you’re doing as a writer – taking chances, trying to get stuff made, screwing up from time to time, and other times hitting the jackpot. So I think it’s worth bearing in mind that you need to make friends in the industry, be supportive of others, see what people are doing, probably best to not just be an outlier.
It’s hard, though: I definitely felt imposter syndrome a lot in the early days, and it can come back from time to time.
Also, like I said before, don’t get so protective about your ideas – I’ve seen writers cling onto them like they’re the only one who’s had them, refusing to even let producers see their work in case they get ripped off. While I’m sure people’s ideas DO get ripped off from time to time, ideas really are ten a penny. It’s the execution that counts. And if you only have one idea that you’re rabidly protecting, you won’t get very far. Better to have a whole bunch of them, and myriad ways you could tell the stories and introduce the characters within. I think maybe I’m just using a long-winded way of saying “don’t be precious”.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
I literally can’t tell you that because it might jinx it. I have a fair few. Books, shows, films… there are many I’d like to bring back in a new form.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The rejection. People asking you to work hard on stuff for free. Notes from dumb execs who think they know your project better than you. The feeling you sometimes get that you’re on the bottom of the food chain, when the rest of that food chain literally wouldn’t have a job if you didn’t put those words down and build those worlds and characters in the first place.
Sometimes being a writer sucks, but saying all that, I do love it.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
It annoys the fuck out of me saying it but James, my writing partner. I hate that he’ll read this. Ugh. Maybe he won’t get this far.
When I Googled you, despite everything you’ve done, one of the suggested questions was whether or not you’re related to Jennifer Saunders… Are you?
She has no clue I exist. So no.
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