Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #011 with James Hamilton.
With a background in live sketch comedy and um, Edwardian science… James has had a ridiculously impressive career. He’s worked with some of the biggest animation studios around and is currently head writer for a secret new Netflix series in LA…
When did you start writing?
I’m not sure what age I was exactly, but as long as I can remember. I wrote short stories into an exercise book in junior school – they were mainly about my best friend and I finding a time machine. I learned the word “anthology” when my head teacher, Mrs Donovan, asked me to compile them all for her into one book before I left. You never forget your first taste of external validation.
What was your first credit and how did you land it?
MANY years later! My sketch group, Casual Violence, had been going for a few years, taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and making short films. We had a breakthrough show, House of Nostril, in 2013, that landed us a slot on BBC Radio 4’s Sketchorama in 2014. That was the first “proper” credit (ie: not something I’d produced myself).
At what point were you able to transition to being a full-time writer and how did you know it was time?
I was exceptionally lucky in 2015, after a few years of frustrating under-employment, to get an acting role at Time Run, London’s best escape room / immersive theatre hybrid (RIP).
I had a wonderful job where I got to dick around as an Edwardian scientist, surrounded by brilliant, kind fellow creatives. It was also in 2015 that I started working on The Amazing World of Gumball, but my work for them was initially sporadic. Generally I would balance the two – sometimes going straight from Gumball’s offices to a shift at Time Run, and trying to juggle my own projects in between.
One of the many benefits of Time Run – which, looking back, was genuinely one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – was that they were happy to scale back or dial up my hours as writing work waxed and waned. I worked there from beginning to end – it closed in April 2018. Unfortunately, the end of Time Run coincided with a dry spell of writing work, so I spent a very depressing summer working for a far inferior escape room in London.
Writing work picked up again in autumn, coinciding – not coincidentally – with getting new representation.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
My first agent came to see Casual Violence at the Edinburgh Fringe. She ended up signing us after House of Nostril in 2013, though she happened to come to the ONE performance of our run where nobody laughed and fourteen people walked out. When we secured our first run at the Soho Theatre for the show, I emailed her basically to say “hey, it turns out we’re not shit, please come watch this.”
It was a good relationship for a while, and I wouldn’t have started on Gumball if not for her, but the further I went into animation, the more it became apparent we weren’t a great fit for each other. I changed agents in 2018, and now have a team working with me who are far better suited to the kind of work I want to do.
You specialise in writing for animation. What were your favourites as a kid?
I was thoroughly a Cartoon Network boy: Dexter’s Lab, The Powerpuff Girls, Ed Edd and Eddy, Freakazoid, Courage The Cowardly Dog.
There’s a whole bunch of people out there who want to write for animation. What steps should they be taking?
That’s such a tough question, and – understandably! – the one I get asked most regularly. I know this feels like a cop-out, but there isn’t a step-by-step guide. I was lucky to get put forward for Gumball, which came through the agent I had through four years of making live comedy, and subsequent opportunities have come from that.
The truth is, everyone carves their own path. I had a guy message me recently asking a similar question, and he said “I’ve been writing comedy sketches and characters for ages, I’ve been talking to LA managers, I wrote a pilot and got into the finals of a screenplay competition… what more should I be doing?” And the only answer I could give is… “…everything you’re already doing?”
The best advice I can possibly give is the most obvious: write things, and then try and make the things you write.
What are the most common mistakes that you see new writers making?
Two immediately spring to mind: forcing plot onto character rather than allowing character to drive plot, and writing shit female characters who only exist as a foil to the male lead.
You recently tweeted about banning goofball characters named Chuck. What else should writers be avoiding?
There are many more things I could add to that list, but I would be in danger of breaking NDAs. Let’s say I’ve also noticed a pattern with no-nonsense, hyper-competent female characters who hang out with mostly boys – a character trope you should be avoiding anyway – and they always have the same name. It begins with “S”.
What’s your number one piece of advice for writing action?
Keep it tight, and keep it light! Dense blocks of description are really tedious to read.
Are there any particular books or scripts which you suggest all writers check out?
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It’s a wonderful book that gives you the origins and etymology of well known turns of phrase.
Can you explain a bit about the collaborative way in which writers and storyboard artists work?
In my experience, writers and storyboard artists have been compartmentalised far more than I think is helpful. Heads of creative teams talk a good game about having collaboration between the two sides, but in practice, I have never worked on a show where the showrunners actively bring the writers and the storyboard artists together. It’s a source of some frustration to me, and doesn’t make for effective collaboration.
What usually happens instead is the writers do their thing, and then whoever is running the show will carry the script over to the storyboard artists and they’ll make changes without the writer’s involvement.
I really, really wish the writers’ opinions were valued a bit more and that both the writers and the board artists had the opportunity to discuss things. Even on my current show, as head writer, I haven’t been brought into meetings with the storyboard team. I would dearly love to work with a team that actively encouraged more conversation between departments.
I think a lot of this attitude comes from the old-school way of working on animation, where everything was board-driven. The showrunners want the board artists to “plus” things and have more power – which I agree they should – but without that opportunity for conversation, moments in the script can be lost, or cut erroneously, or played in a way that doesn’t make the joke work…
So with that in mind, what kind of page length would an 11 min episode be when it leaves the writers room?
This is an easy one! An 11 minute script should be no more than 14 pages.
You’ve written 50+ episodes of the Cartoon Network favourite ‘The Amazing World of Gumball’. How did you first get involved with the team and what magic are you using to generate so many episode ideas?
After my agent put me forward, I did a writing trial for them alongside my writing partner, and we both got put onto the team. As for generating episode ideas – we had a huge pool of writers! The magic is as simple as “the more creative brains you have, the better”!
You’ve got a ridiculously hot CV filled with the BIGGEST names around (Netflix! Warner Bros’! Disney! Dreamworks!). Does the buzz of working with such iconic organisations every fade? (I went to Warner Bros’ in London once and was so excited, I even took a photo of a sign in the bathroom)
I haven’t felt the magic you’re describing particularly strongly, if I’m honest – I think because, to me, it all feels so transient. Each job feels so short and comes with so many variables, so much uncertainty; it’s hard to feel secure enough to go “this is awesome”. For me, it’s always more “how do I not fucking lose this”. I wish I wasn’t so negative about it. I crave job security. The job I have now, which will be coming to a close by the time this interview comes out, is the closest I’ve had to this, because I’ll have been doing it for over a year.
I feel like what you’re describing sounds impressive from the outside, because those are big names, but I would much rather work for one company and stay there for a long time, consistently making things, than do a scattergun 2-3 freelance scripts for lots of different places.
That said, I did get excited when I first went to LA and I walked into, for example, Netflix’s building, or Cartoon Network’s building, or the Warner Bros studio lot. That’s a surreal, giddy feeling.
You’re currently working over in LA on a secret new show. What can you tell us and how’s it going?
Haha, well, there’s a lot I can’t say. It’s for kids, it’s 2D animated sci-fi comedy I was hired to be head writer on, but someone else created the show and is the de-facto showrunner, alongside another guy.
I worked really hard with a wonderful team of writers to make the show as special as we possibly could. The production company who are making it, Atomic Cartoons, are completely brilliant people who fully support good writing and strong creative, and Netflix have been super great on that front too.
What was the initial experience like moving over to LA? What’s surprised you most about the experience?
I think probably the most surprising thing about the experience was that a pandemic got in the way of me actually having one.
Can you talk us through an average day in the writers room?
Most of the time we spent “in the room” (or, in the case of our second season, on Zoom) was at the beginning of a season, when we would flesh out the season arc and start coming up with episode ideas.
We’d usually only have about two days to work on the arc and then one day to break each episode – it was pretty tight. My three writers, my script co-ordinator (also a brilliant writer) and I would hash out ideas together, map out the beats, and put together premises alongside the creator and the showrunner. The writing team and I would also sometimes use the room for punching up scripts, finding fixes for problems that had arisen, and that sort of thing – but once the pandemic hit, we sadly didn’t get to do as much of that for the second season as we did for the first.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about the life of a writer?
In the UK, that would be the obvious one: that it’s not a real job. The other one I had more than once whilst working on Gumball was “which character do you write?”
What ‘s your process when you start work on a new script?
Procrastinate for ages, then bash it out not long before the deadline while still agonising over every line. When I’m doing professional work, I’ve usually written a very thorough outline beforehand, but I’m really bad at at applying that same process to my personal work. I tend to do it much more “organically”, which means I tend to hit more walls.
Getting to pitch an original series is the dream for a lot of writers. It’s also terrifying. What advice do you have?
I don’t know if my advice is worth much, given – at the time of writing – I have never successfully sold a pitch for an original series! But doing it has been tremendously worthwhile anyway, because it introduced me to producers and meant I was hired for other work. So, bearing that in mind: know your project in detail, try and make it feel conversational even if you’re doing most of the talking (talk to them, not at them) and remember you’re presenting yourself as much as you’re presenting the project.
You’ve also had a lot of success with live comedy – is this something you’d recommend to all writers?
Absolutely not. Only do it if you’re funny.
You’re the creator of the podcast sitcom, Hector vs The Future. Where did the idea come from and what inspired you to develop it as a podcast?
Hector and the Obsoleteum he curates / resides in came from a Casual Violence show we made for the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe called “A Kick In The Teeth”. The sketches we made for that show were kind of the bookends of the series we ended up making.
By the end of 2015, I was itching to create something more narrative driven and less ephemeral than a live show. Our friends who make Wooden Overcoats were having huge success with their project and I wanted to emulate that, but I was keen to do something that both felt more Casual Violence-y and also replicated the “studio” feel of Radio 4, with a live audience. I enlisted my now-regular writing partner and now-one of my best friends James Huntrods to co-write it with me, which made the project about a thousand times better than it otherwise would have been.
It’s also worth saying that we pitched the project to Radio 4 multiple times, and they consistently turned it down… which is a big part of why we decided to make it ourselves. There was a real “fuck it, we’ll make it if they won’t” drive to it.
What advice do you have for anyone who’s looking to launch a new podcast into an already crowded market?
I genuinely would not recommend launching a new podcast these days. As you say, the environment is super saturated. I think more people make podcasts than actually listen to them. But if you’re going to press on, then I would advise you to hire or collaborate with good audio engineers who can make your show sound good. Badly made stuff is immediately off-putting.
Do you still go to Edinburgh (obviously when there’s no pandemic and you’re not in LA…)?
I went back to Edinburgh in 2016 for my friend Bec’s wedding (she’s a Fringe comedian, so got married at the Gilded Balloon!), but haven’t returned since. It’s weirdly like a break-up – going back has been vaguely off-putting for a few years. That said, I really, really miss making live shows… Maybe when I’m able to actually return to Britain without travel restrictions, I’ll consider a return!
If you could reboot any TV show or movie, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
Freakazoid, and I wouldn’t change a fucking thing. Or Animorphs, and I guess I’d… do justice to the books?
You find a time machine BUT it only travels back to the day that you first decided to become a writer. Do you murder your past self or give them a piece of advice (and if so, what’s the advice)?
Given that the first stories I was writing were ABOUT me finding a time machine, I have a real nagging suspicion that I may have actually done this and created a bootstrap paradox. Although if I had to give my younger self something, I’d probably give them all the work I’d go on to write early, and try and give them a head start.
What’s the most perfect season of television you’ve ever watched and why?
Season four of BoJack Horseman is a masterpiece. The jokes are exceptional and densely packed in, every episode is insanely inventive, and it’s utterly heartbreaking regularly. It had the perfect balance of everything to me.
Who are the creators/writers that you look up to?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg (and Kate Purdy for Undone), Loren Bouchard, and Rob McElhenney.
Rejection, job insecurity, imposter syndrome – mental health is a major concern for writers. How good are you at recognising when things are getting too much and how do you deal with it?
I struggle with these things constantly.
I am reasonably self aware, so am very good at recognising when things are getting too much – right now, due to a combination of work-related factors, my mental health is in tatters – but I am terrible at dealing with it. Honestly, this is a question I ought to be asking, not giving an answer to!
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
When you’re self employed, your boss can be a real dick to you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
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