Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #042 with Omari McCarthy.
Omari is a talented writer with a clear drive and focus. He began his career working as a production coordinator/manager for some of the UK’s biggest shows, before making the transition to writing. Since then he’s had credits for popular children’s series such as PJ Masks, JoJo & Gran Gran, Biff and Chip, and Love Monster.
After winning the Triforce Creative Network’s Writer Slam competition in 2019, he developed his original script with Amazon Studios and is currently co-writing a biopic exploring the life of Claudia Jones. He has various development deals, joined the BBC Studios Writers’ Workshop 2021, and… honestly… there’s too much to include in this intro. To summarise, Omari is 🔥
When did you start writing?
I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know it was possible for me as a career.
When I was in secondary school my first phone was the BlackBerry Quark 6230 (ask your parents) where I used to write everything that was going on around me; banter with friends, family drama, hope and dreams. All with precise time logs too. I think that was when I started. I didn’t even know it.
You have a background as a production coordinator and production manager, working on the teams for some hugely successful animated series (Mr Bean, Hey Duggee, 101 Dalmation Street) as well as the Tiger Who Came to Tea special and popular comedy series such as 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.
How did you get started working in production and what exactly is the role of a production coordinator?
When I graduated from Falmouth University (class of 2013) I applied for about 60 jobs, had 10 replies, 2 interviews then landed my first paid job in the industry was as a Production Assistant at Tiger Aspect on the Animated Mr. Bean series. Yep.
When I applied I knew the guys I needed to reach (Tom Beattie) and drafted a lovely email asking for an interview. But I couldn’t find his exact email address. So I BCC’d it to 7 different variations of the email format. 6 bounced back. 1 got through. The rest is history.
A Production Coordinator’s job is to facilitate a show or a department and make sure all the trains run on time. But I quite like the airport analogy too. A show is like an airport where each episode is a plane you want to bring in as safely as possible – on schedule and with all the assets in the right place. The production team are air traffic control and the Production Coordinator can sometimes be in the tower – across a whole show. Or sometimes you’re in a specific department – down on the tarmac like an aircraft marshal making lots of hand signs.
So how did you then make the transition into writing?
Deep down I’ve always wanted to write as well as produce but I didn’t think it was possible for me so I didn’t tell a soul. But that changed in September 2014.
I was working on the Animated Mr. Bean Series at Tiger Aspect and our director Tim Searle used to give these amazing speeches on Fridays. One day he said there were 10 episodes left of the 52 and they were looking for ideas. That was the first time I admitted to myself and others I wanted to do it.
I think it was because I could see a clear roadmap to get there. I pretty much went home that night and tried to come up with episode ideas. But this isn’t some fairytale. I never got to write an episode but it got me started.
What was your first credit as a writer?
PJ Masks! Trust me, Chris, you can’t get a better start than that in kids telly!
PJ Masks is a HUGE show. How did it feel to come on board as a writer? Which episodes did you work on?
Deborah Thorpe (Kelebek Media) was nice enough to introduce me to Simon Nicholson (Head Writer, PJ Masks). I was nervous but I knew I had to give it my all given the status of the show and what it could do for me if I did a good job.
I wrote 2 episodes for season 4; ‘All About Asteroids’ and ‘The Labours of Armadylan’ which have both aired in the U.S & U.K on Disney Junior last year.
Writing for popular children’s shows like PJ Masks gives you a lot of street cred in the industry and with parents with young kids!
Are you now a full-time writer or do you balance production work?
I used to joke that I was a production manager by day and a writer by night.
Between us (and the entire internet) when I got my first writing gig on PJ Masks I didn’t actually tell the production company that I was writing. That was only because it was my first writing gig and I was worried I would get kicked off! I couldn’t bear the embarrassment so I kept it a secret. They found out and it became a whole thing but they let it go in the end.
Since then I would tell production companies I was a writer during the interview. Throughout 2020 the writing work reached a tipping point where it felt like my day job was getting in the way of my writing. At that point I knew it was time to leave. I’ve been writing full time since Jan 2021.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
I should mention this is where being an industry insider helps.
Back in 2017 / 2018 I was a Production Coordintor at Jellyfish Pictures on Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed. I got to know Michael Elson, who was a Producer at Beano Studios at the time and asked if I could write for the show. They said no as they were only working with experienced writers.
But in January 2018 he and Michelle Ford were nice enough to read my original script and they invited me to writers drinks they were having at Beano Studios. Michelle introduced me to Lucy Fawcett on the night who would later become my agent.
Early in your writing career, you attended various writer workshops. What was this experience like and how did it feel to be in the room?
The first couple of rooms were nerve wracking. All the other writers knew each other and dive straight into their usual banter while I sat there like a lemon. But I’m good in the room and being an industry insider means I recognised some of their names from shows they’d worked on so that was my way in. They all seemed intrigued by my production experience. Some of them were even a little intimate by it which surprised me.
Also when the writers’ room would be faced with production logistics and the dreaded ‘asset counts’ I would sometimes give them production jargon to politely clap back which they all found useful.
What advice do you have for anyone who finds themselves in a room for the first time?
Always pitch first. I have a lot of anxiety around pitching. I can’t bear the dread of waiting to pitch. Also if it’s bad they’ll forget, if it’s good you’ve set the pace. Once you’re out of the way it also frees you up to riff on other people’s ideas.
Writers’ rooms tend to have low energy in the afternoon after everyone’s had a big lunch so pitch in the morning when there’s more energy in the room.
You’ve written for JoJo & Gran Gran. There’s a really great team behind this show and the series seems to be picking up more and more well-deserved praise all the time. As a black writer, what has it meant to you to write for a show that’s so committed to authentic storytelling for children?
I was invited to a writers’ retreat when the show was in late stage development. It was loads of fun and I met the lovely Laura Henry-Allain who created the books. JoJo and Gran Gran is a milestone in children’s tv so I’m proud to be a part of it.
But it’s also a shame it took this long. Funnily enough when I was first told it was the first black British pre-school I was surprised and I guess a little naive for thinking there has been one before. I wrote two episodes for the show. I’m particularly proud of the “It’s Time To Bake” episode which is about baking Banana Bread. While writing it I called my dad for the recipe as he used to bake it when we were kids which brought back memories.
You’re on the writing team for the new CBeebies Biff and Chip live action series. As a parent, I have a strange emotional attachment to the books from my own childhood through watching my kids learn to read with these characters. What was it like bringing the world of the books to the screen?
Biff & Chip is pretty much a staple of every household. I had a great time in the room for that show and I remember feeling like I did well on the day. We had some really interesting conversations about what to honour from the books and what to make our own.
Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta, the author and illustrator of the book were there and gave us their blessing. The episode I pitched on the day is the same one I ended up writing. It’s a slightly off-format episode so I’m excited to see how it comes out.
As well as your work for existing series, you’ve also developed some of your own original projects. This is one of the areas I struggle with sometimes as I find I’m moving from one series to another and don’t invest enough time in developing my own specs between jobs. How do you discipline yourself to create something with no one asking (or paying!) you to do it?
I develop my own specs on borrowed time and stolen moments. Meaning I have a lot more freedom than most. I don’t have a lot of time to work on my own stuff so I usually chip away at it over a long period of time at nights, weekends or that small window between delivering a draft for one project and moving back to another commission. In terms of process I have a dedicated notepad for each project which feeds into a living document on my laptop where every idea goes into the pot to simmer. Then when I get the rare moment of downtime I can simmer it down into a pitch.
Your original scripts – Little Loud and How to Catch a Monster both sound really fun. What can you tell us about them?
These are the scripts that got me an agent. Little Loud is a slap-stick pre-school series about a good little girl with a big bad shadow. Imagine your shadow took on a life of it’s own and behaved like the tazmadian devil. I had the idea back in uni and had planned to make it as a short for my final major project to then take out to broadcasters. But unfortunately it didn’t get picked to go forward. I dusted it off a few years later and it became one of my spec scripts.
I’d pitch How To Catch A Monster as ‘Ghostbusters meets the Goonies’. It’s about a girl called Alex Hunter who leads a rag-tag group of misfits to hunt monsters and solve supernatural mysteries in their small town. I originally wrote it as an animated feature then I came to my senses and re-wrote it as a tv pilot.
You don’t exclusively write for kids and your original adult writing has also been recognised by the industry, including Once Upon a Time In Handsworth, which earned you the title of co-winner for the 2019 Writerslam competition. What inspired you to write the script and what was it like to be selected?
I could see myself being pigeonholed in pre-school despite only doing it for 18 months. So I thought I’d write an original adult drama to help me punch into live action adult drama. It was inspired by growing up in my own neighbourhood – Handsworth in Birmingham. It’s a working class, mostly black and south asian neighbourhood.
They arranged for actors to do a read through in front of the audience. It was the first time I’d heard my work out loud as nothing I’d written had broadcasted at the time. One of the actors struggled with a line which I didn’t realise was so clunky until I’d heard it out loud. I changed the line.
I developed the script with Lydia Hampson (‘Fleabag’ Producer) at Amazon Studios over 6 months. The script has since got me general meetings around town and still does and a co-wiring job on Claudia which will be my first feature credit.
You’re currently writing a feature film based on the life story of journalist and activist, Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival. How did you become involved in the project and what has the writing process been like working on a biographical piece for a person with such a legacy?
My script called Once Upon A Time In Handworth got me the job. I think it was TriForce Creative Network who recommended me. I had a zoom meeting with Frances-Anne Solomon (Writer, Director, Producer, Founder of Caribbean Tales) and she told me about this woman called Claudia Jones.
At the time I didn’t know anything about Claudia or 1950’s London. But when I researched her I discovered she lived this amazing life and was a force of nature. Her life felt epic. Even, biblical. I couldn’t quite believe I’d never heard about her or that her story had never been told until now. It felt as though her life had been kept secret. I didn’t think they’d pick me as all I had were pre-school credit and not a drama credit to rub together. To my surprise they chose me based on the strength of my script and I’m now co-writing with Fracnes-Anne.
Writing a historical drama starts with a lot of research. Luckily I’ve been able to meet people who were alive at the time who are now in their old age.
I have to understand the politics and policies of 1950’s London, the nuances of the black and white working class in Notting Hill of the time, and work through a load of books, documentaries and films from the period. Claudia was also a communist so I have to understand that too. It’s a big undertaking.
How does your process change when you’re writing a feature instead of for TV?
Some good advice I was given is that in a film the character’s problem should be resolvable but in a TV show it should be unresolvable.
It really shows what submitting to a competition can lead to. What does it take to grab the attention of judges with a script?
I think writing in kids tv helped. Often these competitions have a tight script length of 10-15 pages. For some people that’s nothing but I’m used to telling a whole story in that length. I think the trick is to tell a whole story to satisfy the reader while hinting at a bigger world.
What other projects are you currently working on (that you’re allowed to talk about)?
I don’t know what I can and can’t say so I’ll say this… I’m across 6 projects at the moment with 2 more pending. It’s all development work and all at various stages. The projects span animation and live action. Across series and features. Across children’s and adult content. The first 3 need to be completed by the end of the year and the others I’ll start in 2022.
Sorry this all sounds so cryptic.
I’m sure that like most writers, you’ve also had your share of rejection and missed opportunities. How do you cope with this side of being a writer?
In the early days it was disheartening. Back then I had no agent or credits so I was being turned down as a matter of course. It was even more annoying because I was in the animation industry and knew the right people and was even working on shows I could have written for but when I asked they said no. I guess it’s that thing of people seeing as you the role you’re in rather than what you could become if given a chance.
Anyway I was able to persist because I could see a path where I could leverage my animation production experience to write for shows before I had an agent.
So when you start out you’re looking for what you can leverage. It all worked out in the end. I went from overlooked to overbooked! Nowadays I’m turning down more work than I’m taking on because I’m busy.
But now that I’m trying to push into live action teen and adult content I have a whole new wave of rejections to face so I guess it never stops.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes, it is on new projects, less so on ones that have been kicking around for a while.
I have my notebooks and my living document. I’ll re-read what excited and inspired me about the project in the first place. I also go back to my theme and the allegory if it’s a genre piece.
What advice do you have for writers who may be struggling to find new opportunities or progress to the next level of their career?
Focus on craft and your network. But it’s who you know in the industry… and who knows you.
What’s your number one tip for creating characters and writing dialogue?
The way I approach characters is always the same. I have my checklist for character; want, need, flaw, facade, lie, ghost, personal hell, defence mechanisms, etc.
Then I work on their relationships, hobbies, interests, hopes, dreams, fears for each character too. All on a pen and paper first so I can think and dream. I try to avoid the computer for as long as possible.
Character is ‘tone of voice.’ A surprising amount of dialogue is shaped by our hobbies and interests. Have you ever noticed how your friends who are into sports use way more sports analogies?
What are your current career goals?
My career goal is to become a Writer and Producer across Film & TV and across animation and live action. As yet I’m still trying to find a production company who will leverage me for both my production skill set and writing.
The truth is I may start my own… One day I’d also love to land one of those mega overall deals with a major streamer you hear about in the trades (See: Shonda Rhimes).
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s a whole trilogy in that.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney – for it’s beauty, impact and economy.
Alien (the draft by Walter Hill) – for the way he writes scene action and scene descriptions like haikus.
‘You Are A Storyteller’ with Brian McDonald – start with episode 18 ‘Charged Objets’
‘The Screenwriting Life’ – start with episode 49 with Michael Arnt on 1st Acts
Scriptnotes – episode 399 ‘Notes on Notes’.
Team Deakins – cinematographer Roger Deakins interviews his peers
John Truby’s Audio Classes
‘Soft White Underbelly’ – in which Mark Laita, a former advertising photographer, interviews people at the the edge of American society; the homeless, illegal immigrants, gang members, strippers, pimps, prostitutes, dealers, addicts and even an inbred family.
It’s harrowing stuff and may well bring you to tears but it’s a profound insight into the human condition and a crash course in empathy for the ‘other’. If you do watch it, start with the introductory video called ‘Soft White Underbelly Intro Video’. You’re in for a ride.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Be patient – I was in such a rush to get started but everything has happened right on time.
Meet and build a network of other writers sooner – in the early days of your career agents get you jobs but as you progress it’s other writers.
I’d probably try to get a book published then write the adaptation. IP is the whole game now.
Watch ‘This is Us’ sooner. It’s the best show on TV.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The first is the epidemic of the ‘shortening of the first act’. Everyone wants you to start sooner. Their hearts are in the right place but there are consequences.
The second is knowing something is right and true but not knowing how to articulate it to your collaborators. Like how do you defend an idea when you know that it’s right in your heart?
The best part of being a writer is that moment between the first spark of an idea and writing it down. There’s this energy in you that’s hard to describe.
The other is strangely when you get a good, good note on something. Not when they agree but a note that cuts through the noise and gets to the heart of what you’re trying to say and reveals something new about the piece. Those notes are rare.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Playing with my little cousins and watching Community season 1-3.
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