Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #030 with Matt Baker.
Matt is a full time writer for kids TV, putting words into the mouths of beloved British icons (Dennis the Menace, The Clangers) as well as modern day favourites including Wissper, Pip and Posy, and The Rubbish World of Dave Spud. Featured in Prolific North’s list of 50 top scriptwriters working in the North, Matt balances his work with a family, a love of painting people’s heads, and a side hustle in writing for some pretty extreme documentaries. It was a pleasure to speak to Matt about his career, book adaptations, lockdown, and the latest ways he’s avoided sitting down to write!
When did you start writing?
I got a job in advertising out of college and used to write lots of 30 second TV scripts. I’d try and force silly character-stuff in there, which wasn’t always gratefully received. One client was a leading brand of exterior paint and I pitched famous weather presenters of the day – Fish, Kettley et al – trying to smash a house up using oversized weather symbols. Another, for a 24 hour weedkiller, featured a daisy on a massive bender after finding out it only had one day to live. (Neither ran).
Frustrated at the lack of violent weather presenters/party weeds in adland, I got a job at a production company who pitched a kids show about Santa’s melting runway. It was great fun but also pretty weird as no-one was really checking the scripts. We just wrote them then went to Greenland and shot them in -20 conditions. Madness. But it felt like something I might want to do full-time and…ooh, five years later, I cheekily sent a producer of an upcoming show a spec script, they didn’t think it was terrible and Bob’s your uncle.
When you started out you had a series of shorts online via BBC Comedy. What were the shorts and how did you first get involved with the BBC?
The comedy shorts were a very early writing thing where the production company I was working for shot a pilot of a sitcom I’d come up with (based on my old Manchester bus route). We cut it into a couple of 3 min chunks which the BBC liked, licensed and posted on their old Comedy Extra website.
To be honest, the humour of the shorts I wrote was a bit mean and something I grew out of. But it was a good experience – working with a director, casting, post-production – and at the time it was exciting to have a BBC logo appearing at the end of something I’d been part of. A good confidence boost to go make more stuff.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
When I was starting out, other writers I met said I should get an agent to handle the paperwork. I just wanted one as I thought it sounded cool. I got turned down by a few, but managed to get on more shows, which I’m guessing helped prove some sort of longevity and the next agent I asked took a punt on me.
As others have mentioned, having an agent isn’t a golden ticket to jobsville. But it does give you a single point of contact for people looking to staff-up and – those pesky writers were right! – they do take care of the paperwork. Which is a good job as I definitely would have ballsed up by now otherwise.
Are you a full time writer or do you balance with a day job?
I’ve been writing kids’ shows full time since 2015. Obviously nothing ever syncs up perfectly, so there’ll be times when shows finish at the same time, or there’s a break in production and I’ll need to find something to fill the gap. Luckily the old adland thing is handy to fall back on for short-term hits.
Whilst researching this (and definitely not stalking you) I ended up on your Instagram account and realised that like me, you’re also balancing writing with parenting. How are you at spinning plates?
It’s full-on! But also nice to work at home and be around for school drop-offs/pick-ups etc. I’ve got an office, but enjoy the kids wandering in and spouting nonsense. Sometimes that nonsense fills a plot hole I’m struggling with. That said, lockdown was the absolute pits, of course, and I pray homeschooling and working full time is something we never have to experience again (shudders).
Do your kids enjoy the fact that you write for TV? Mine (3, 5 and 7) are happy to pitch me ideas but are 100% against me coming in to talk at their school.
They’re not always keen on the shows I’ve written! Especially the preschool stuff they’ve outgrown. On the whole they do seem to like it though. The eldest likes to try her hand at writing too and has come up with a bunch of characters I’d like to turn into something one day. One of them is called Michael Duck.
What scriptwriting software do you use and how important is it for new writers to equip themselves with these tools early on?
I make notes in Bear. Write premise/outlines/scene by scenes in Pages. Write first drafts in Highland 2. Then all further drafts in Final Draft.
I find Highland much nicer to write in than Final Draft. But then I convert to Final Draft for all the tweaky/re-write stuff.
I think it’s important for new writers’ scripts to look legit. Whether that’s using a word template, Celtx, Fade Out, Writer Duet etc. To save yourself formatting wormholes, you’re probably best investing in something proper. Look for student discounts. Go twos on some software with a mate. Stuff like that.
You’ve written for Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed and The Clangers, two iconic and beloved British properties. How did it feel getting the opportunity to join the teams and what is your process when it comes to writing for characters with so much history?
Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed was a fresh take, so it felt less weighed down by history. I just tried to make sure I got some of Dennis’ old mischievous ways in there, even though it was a step removed from the comic.
Clangers on the other hand felt like I could single-handedly destroy a much-loved children’s classic. As it’s cherished by many – including the production team who did an amazing job with the look and feel – it was difficult to strike a tone that everyone felt was sufficiently Clangers-y. It’s probably the worst ratio I’ve had for pitching ideas vs getting an episode commissioned, but understood the need to be careful. Although I still think Major Clanger should have been allowed to build a twerk-ray (I promise I did not pitch that).
The Rubbish World of Dave Spud is a really fun show with a great team behind it, which you joined for series two. What is the process like writing an episode?
Damn, I love Dave Spud. It’s exactly my sense of humour. I walked in on the kids watching an episode from series one and instantly felt distraught I hadn’t worked on it. Not long after I got a shout to work on series two and nearly exploded. Unfortunately homeschooling meant I couldn’t pitch as many ideas as I wanted, but I’m chuffed with the ones I did.
The process is similar to most kids’ shows I’ve worked on. Short pitch. Move on to an outline. Then script. Vicky Godding, the head writer, is great at taking half-thought ideas and helping you make them sing. The voice cast is ridiculously good. It’s so much fun thinking up bizarre things you can get Johnny Vegas, Philip Glenister and Jane Horrocks to say.
Animation (like any kind of TV) is very collaborative. Can you describe the process of working with storyboard artists?
It doesn’t happen enough! I find the storyboarding/animatic stage the most interesting part of the process. You can instantly see if a joke works and a storyboard artist can turn a throwaway bit of action into bags of fun. On a recent show I was allowed to dial in to the storyboard workshop over zoom, which was fascinating. When something isn’t working, you can make live suggestions, it gets noted and then – bang – you move on to the next scene. Loads of opportunity for extra gags and nice touches. I understand budgets/timings mean it’s not always possible to get writers involved at that stage, but if you get the chance it’s a blast.
My kids are all big fans of the Pip and Posy Books so the announcement of the series was a big deal in our house. It’s definitely lived up to expectations so far. How did you get involved in writing for the series?
A nice writer I’ve worked with suggested my name to Magic Light Pictures and they got in touch about a year later when the show moved into production. We didn’t read the Pip and Posy books in our house, but are big fans of the Magic Light/Donaldson/Scheffler specials, so I was excited to climb onboard. As the show’s all about the stumbling blocks of early years’ friendships, I could draw upon my own kids’ experiences. Which was good as, honestly, it’s about time they pulled their weight.
A few of your projects originally started life as books/comics. What should writers keep in mind when adapting books for the screen?
More and more of them are. I suppose that’s because the concept has been pre-approved by kids. There’s less work required than if you were developing something from scratch. And in theory there’s a guaranteed audience of expectant fans. But I hope original titles aren’t crowded out too much.
It sounds obvious, but one thing I’d suggest is to be collaborative with the author. I think there can be an urge to treat the book and the series as completely separate entities and make your own mark. But if you’ve got an expert in the thing you’re about to do, RIGHT THERE, it’s much better to use their understanding of the work, rather than feeling threatened by it.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
After you’ve got to the end of a draft, go back and try to spot lines of dialogue that feel like they could be given to any character, then rewrite them so only that character could say it. Even something as functional as a “let’s go!” could be rewritten a hundred ways to add different characters’ twangs to it.
How much of an impact has the pandemic had on your work?
I had to step off a couple of shows due to homeschooling. A shame as they were really nice projects but things were too crazy. My wife’s job was more traditional 9 to 5, so I had the kids till the afternoon then tried to catch up at night. It was exhausting but at the same time I was grateful that the animation industry was still rumbling on.
Many writers struggle to find opportunities to write beyond open entry shows (such as Newsjack) and competitions. What advice do you have on building a career?
My advice is the always-boring-and-potentially-rage-inducing ‘just keep chipping away’. Most of my work has come from the same small group of head writers who liked my stuff and either got me involved on their next show or recommended me to others. So keep going till you find an in, impress when you get the opportunity and build from there (easier said than done I know). Also I’ve submitted to Newsjack in the past and got nowhere, so play to your strengths I guess!
Is imposter syndrome something you ever deal with?
Absolutely. I felt like the odd-one-out in the first 4 or 5 writers’ rooms I attended. I was very quiet and anxious, especially the time I turned up an hour late after my train set on fire. Now I swan in like I own the show, grab all the pastries and sit in the big boy’s chair. Not true of course, but the anxiety has died down over the years.
As well as your writing for kids TV, you have a side hustle in documentaries. How did this start?
The boss of the production company I used to work at is drawn to bizarre stories, or maybe bizarre stories are drawn to him, and he gets me involved with some VO scripting. It’s a fun diversion and has so far included Dennis Rodman going to North Korea (I ducked out of that trip), former cartel members in South America (I ducked out of that one too), a former boxer turned poker star and, most recently, a 70-year-old who rowed solo across the Atlantic.
How does the process work when you’re writing for a documentary?
Usually I’ll take a look at a rough edit, chat with the director about their intentions, then write positional chunks of voiceover to help the editor better shape the story. Repeat that process x 20, then polish the VO and tighten everything up so it makes sense and flows nicely.
What are your favourite documentaries?
Off the top of my head… Spellbound and Free Solo. Watching Alex Honnold climb El Capitan without a rope on an IMAX screen was sweaty-palm central.
Writers are notorious procrastinators. What creative ways have you been avoiding work recently?
In the past 12 months I have taken up boxing, portrait painting (@mattpaintsyourhead on insta), juggling and jogging. All will definitely be short-lived and end in failure. I’m always on the lookout for a future ex-hobby.
What projects are you currently working on (that you can tell us about)?
I recently finished working on Lucas the Spider, which was very exciting to be part of. I can’t say much, other than it’s for Cartoon Network and is based on the incredibly popular Lucas the Spider YouTube shorts. If you haven’t seen any, go take a peek. I think it might do well.
I’m also working on a rather special development project (another book adaptation!) with some very talented people, so have all my extremities crossed on that one.
What are your current writing goals?
To keep working on a variety of shows and help to develop others. There are a couple of personal projects I keep picking at, which I’d like to get into a pitchable state before I’m 90, just so they stop staring at me from the corner of my desktop. They’re doing it right now.
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
I’m not 100% against reboots… But all this talk of book adaptations has got me thinking. I’d love to develop a series based around those Usborne Adventure Books. You know, the one’s with puzzles on each page. I didn’t read much as a kid, but I burnt through those. Danger at Demon’s Cove. Murder on the Midnight Plane. The Intergalactic Bus Trip. I’ve just started re-reading the Agent Arthur series with the eldest. Imagine that as one of those interactive Netflix shows, but instead of being simply multiple-choice, you have to solve puzzles, decipher codes, find clues to progress. Right, that’s it, I’m faxing Netflix right now…
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
Big obvious one is the Scriptnotes podcast with John August and Craig Mazin. Dan Harmon’s story circles are very handy. Michael Arndt’s ‘Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion’ video. All googleable and easily digestable.
What do you enjoy most about writing for kids?
The length! I have a very short attention span, so a 7-11 minute episode length is perfect. Anything more and I’d probably have to UHU Kids Glue myself to my chair.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
We had 4 VHS tapes at home when I was growing up that I watched over and over again. Spaceballs. The Three Amigos. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And Stir Crazy. Not only do they make me laugh non-stop, I think my entire sense of humour is built from them.
Also Christopher Guests films. There are so many scenes I can’t wait to watch again: Jennifer Coolidge saying “We both love soup” in Best In Show. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara singing Midnight at the Oasis in Waiting for Guffman. Ah man, so funny.
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