Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #049 with Tom Melia.
It’s a new series of and I’m thrilled to be starting things off with a chat with fellow Nick Turner Management client, Tom Melia. Tom’s written over 60 episodes of Hollyoaks, was a member of the writing team for Sky’s hit comedy Bloods, and has even co-written a feature film that is ACTUALLY being made! Talk about living the dream, right? Tom’s also an experienced producer/director of daytime TV and has worked on far more projects that I can list in this intro, so let’s just shut up and get into it!
When did you start writing?
When I was growing up my Dad was a jobbing actor. He was never in a position to help me get work, but I was definitely privileged in the sense that having a career in telly felt totally achievable. But to me, being in front of the camera seemed like a terrible choice – the uncertainty, the pressure, the constant scramble for work (nothing like being a writer then). So, I knew pretty early on that I’d be more suited to something behind the scenes.
I used to draw a lot and I was given recycled scripts for scrap paper, so I’d be doodling on the back of pages from ‘The Bill’, ‘Minder’, ‘EastEnders’ or whatever he happened to be working on. Scripts were just always around and I became fascinated by them.
I wrote my first feature when I was 14, on my parent’s giant electric typewriter. It was a heist rom-com and it was and remains, incomprehensibly bad.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land the job?
My first official writing credit was ‘Hollyoaks’. Before that, I’d made short films and a web series, but that was the first time it felt real.
I made the web series (‘The Art of Awkward Conversation’) with a few mates and my sister, Charlotte. To say it was zero budget would be a lie, but only because I stretched to a couple of pizzas for lunch.
The series ended up getting something like 80,000 views on YouTube, which is nothing compared to what you can achieve on Twitter or TikTok now, but felt like a bit of an achievement back then. That helped me get a meeting with my now agent, Nick Turner. When he asked me if I had anything else he could read, I handed over 10 years worth of ideas and scripts I’d been chipping away at whilst working other jobs. Nick had a lot of clients at Hollyoaks already, so he submitted something of mine and they took me on.
I’m really interested in your experience of working on daytime TV shows as a producer/director. How did you get into this work and what did you learn from the experience that has helped to shape you as a writer?
My family moved from West London and we ended up living not too far from Teddington Studios and I became focused on trying to get a job there – it felt like my way in. They made some legendary light entertainment, but when I applied to work there as a teenager, the only job I could get was in the customer service department of a shopping channel, finalising people’s purchases of foot spas and fielding the complaints when the spas inevitably failed to live up to expectations. But I used that experience to get a job in the call centre at Cactus TV working on ‘Richard & Judy’.
If they needed an extra pair of hands on shoots, the production team would poach us, and I put my hand up for everything. The following series I was promoted to Runner, then Jnr VT Director and finally Producer/ Director. I bounced between ‘R&J’, ‘The One Show’, ‘This Morning’ and various other programmes that no one remembers.
I had some amazing times and met some lifelong mates, but despite sort of being in the right place, I felt like I was climbing up the wrong ladder. In a way I was still getting writing experience– the scripts were factual, but they had to tell a story and get lots of info across in a short amount of time. I had to learn to redraft on the fly, making changes often minutes before something would air and I spent countless hours sat beside editors, which was easily the most valuable part. Plus, some of those jobs afforded me a LOT of time to pretend to be busy, whilst actually writing my own stuff.
A lot of writers get their foot in the door with an entry-level opportunity but then struggle to find a way to move forward. What advice do you have on building a career?
I struggle with giving that kind of advice, because I feel like I’m still trying to build a career myself and have no idea whether I’m using the right bricks, how to switch the concrete mixer on, or whether this analogy’s working.
I guess the most annoyingly simple advice is ‘keep going’.
Some people are natural talents (freaks) and don’t need to put in their 10,000 hours, but that’s not my experience. I had to write a lot of shit before I got to the point where someone responded positively. There’s a lot in this industry that’s out of your hands, but you can control how much work you’re prepared to put in. So keep writing. And get a good chair, because 10,000 hours will fuck your lower back.
A big part of being a writer is being able to network and sell yourself to producers and other key figures within the industry, which doesn’t always come naturally. What tips do you have on reaching out to people?
Okay, so I need to caveat this by saying I am not good at this side of things, but I also know how important it is, so it’s a constant struggle.
That bit on applications when you have to write in the third person and describe all your achievements? My nightmare. It’s why I think I’d struggle in the US – they don’t want you to be self-effacing and apologetic over there, but that’s my natural state.
I know people who are great at the whole networking thing, they go to everything and seem to know everyone – and y’know what? It totally works. So if you have that in you, go for it. But if you don’t, if your idea of hell on earth is some forced small talk after a screening with a commissioner who’s scanning the room for a quick escape, then get good at meetings.
You’ve written over 60 episodes of Hollyoaks. What challenges does a show like this present?
Like a lot of wannabe writers I was a bit sniffy about working on a soap (or continuing drama), but my experience there turned out to be invaluable. For starters, it allowed me the opportunity to quit my day job and get paid to write every day – and I mean every day. Soaps are machines. The turnaround is beyond quick and basically non-negotiable. You can’t request an extra day ‘cause you’re moving house, if they’re filming your scenes in an hour.
At my peak I was writing an episode a month, sometimes doubles, whilst still doing drafts on previous scripts and making changes to others. It could melt your mind, but it also gives you the superpower of being able to jump between multiple scripts and troubleshoot instantly.
Every single episode would have its own unique set of problems. An actor’s been fired? There’s a major continuity problem? Production needs you to move your nightclub scene to a cafe at lunchtime? You better have some ideas about how to fix it. You also gain the ability to write anywhere. When our son came early, I finished a script in between my wife’s contractions (I was new and we really needed the money).
What kept me sane was that I continued to write my own stuff on the side, which meant I had breaks where I went off to make pilots, or wrote guest episodes on other things. I get annoyed now when writers, who have never had a single second of produced work, look down on soaps. Not only is it chock-full of ridiculous talent, it’s constant (and well paid!) work. So, I would absolutely recommend it, especially for new writers looking to learn.
You’ve collaborated with Nathan Bryon. How did you both meet and how would you describe the working relationship?
I was making a pilot for BBC Three and Nathan auditioned. As well as thinking he’d be great in the part, I got a sense that he’d be fun to have on set. But I was wrong. Nah, I’m kidding, obviously.
We had a very enjoyable week filming in Glasgow (side bar – it’s been my experience since that writers aren’t supposed to force themselves on a cast and just hang out, but I did and it was glorious – six nights, eating good food and laughing my arse off at Vincent Franklin’s unbeatable anecdotes? Heaven). On wrap night, Nathan and I ended up in KFC at 3am and vowed to work together again.
We met up for sporadic coffees, chatting about various ideas and eventually we landed on writing a rom com. Not only is Nathan super talented and hilarious, he’s also an optimist, while I’m a reluctant pessimist (I assume the worst, but hope I’m wrong), so we balance each other out. From the moment we started, he never had a single doubt that our film was going to get made and that kind of ridiculous enthusiasm is infectious. In fact the only problem with our partnership is that if we have a 3 hour work zoom, we’ll spend approximately 2.5 hours shooting the shit about anything other than work.
Your first feature, Rye Lane (co-written with Nathan) is being released soon by BBC Films, BFI, Fox Searchlight, and DJ Films. How did you know that you had an idea that was best suited for film rather than as a TV series? How did the process differ from other projects and what has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
We knew we wanted to try and write a film, so I don’t think we ever contemplated it as a series. We were chatting about how much we love rom coms, but bemoaning that – although we’re both fans of Richard Curtis – every British one always seems to be set in a London we don’t recognise. Adding to that, Nathan talked about how disappointing it is that he couldn’t think of a single British rom com starring two people who look like him (this was before Aml Ameen’s ‘Boxing Day’ had come out).
Quite quickly we landed on the idea of doing our own take on ‘Before Sunrise’ – two people falling in love as they walk around the London we grew up/ have lived in. What I’ve found is that film is different to TV, but also kind of exactly the same. There’s still execs and notes and redrafts and meetings. One difference is that it’s more of a director’s medium (whereas TV tends to be writer led) – so there’s a sense of handing over your baby. Luckily, we get on really well with our director, Raine Allen-Miller and it’s always felt like a collaboration. To be honest, it all still feels totally unreal and mad that we’ve made an actual film.
Rye Lane is now completely done and just awaiting a release date – should be early next year!
What has the experience been like working on Bloods? Particularly as it’s a show that has a writer’s room.
It’s always a bit weird going into a new room, because in theory you shouldn’t feel too stressed – it’s someone else’s characters and world, you’re just there to help add meat to the bones. But I get bad first day nerves and I put a lot of pressure on myself to earn my place around that table. Luckily, Nathan and Paul (Doolan – his co-writer on the show) created a really lovely, open atmosphere. In general, I wish there were more writer’s rooms – some days they make your brain hurt and you definitely drink too much coffee, but you laugh A LOT and in my experience, they always make the show richer.
What’s your strength in a room?
This is one of those moments of self-promotion I hate – “Tom is hard working and knowledgeable…” Hmm, I’m gonna say that I’m pretty good at coming up with solutions for story problems (my Hollyoaks training) and that, hopefully, I’m a champion for other people’s ideas – there’s nothing worse than pitching something to deadly silence.
Also, I feel genuinely lucky to be there, which I think goes a long way!
You’ve also written in a partnership with your sister, Charlotte Melia. What is it like working with a sibling? Is it something that you’ve always done since childhood?
We had very similar tastes growing up and still do. She’s the smartest person I know, so when I started out, I’d use her as a sounding board for ideas and I’d get her feedback on scripts. It always felt inevitable that we’d write together eventually.
Working with your sibling is interesting – we have a shorthand and can cut through any bullshit quickly, but sometimes it’d probably be good to have that layer of politeness as a buffer. With your sister, it’s very easy to just go “nah, that’s shit, we’re not doing that”. So we’ve had to find the right balance. The good news is, we can’t ever have a big bust up, because we still have to see each other at Christmas.
One of your projects with Charlotte is a script called Planet of the Tapes, which is based in a video store. What movies do you remember seeing on the shelves as a kid and being fascinated by?
Charlotte and I both worked at video shops – ‘Moonlight Movies’ for her, ‘Apollo Video’ for me. But before that, we haunted the aisles of ‘JR’s Video Hut’ on our local High Street. We’d lose hours scanning the shelves, pouring over blurbs, admiring the cut-out of Patrick Swayze from ‘Roadhouse’ and begging for spare posters. We also had some very open minded (irresponsible?) babysitters who’d let us take out basically whatever we wanted.
My son’s 7 and barely out of his Pixar phase, so I can’t believe we were 10 and 11 renting incredibly violent films, or on one memorably mortifying evening, ‘Porky’s’. My favourite section was always comedy – ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘Fletch’, ‘Coming to America’, ‘Adventures in Babysitting’, ‘House Party’ or anything to do with John Hughes. God, I miss video shops. That thrill people have as they head through the turnstiles of their home football stadium? I’d get that same buzz walking into a Blockbuster.
What comes more naturally to you – writing dialogue or writing action?
I find writing dialogue much easier than writing action. With dialogue, I go into a zone where I can hear the conversation in my head. But with action, I’ve had to work hard on trying to make my stage directions clear and precise, but still entertaining.
It seems so obvious, but my number one tip is to read other scripts. Dissect how the great and the good do it and then copy them, at least until you find your own style (which will probably end up being a mishmash of everyone you love). Obviously choose whatever script is closest to the tone you’re going for, but I reckon a good catch-all is Sally Wainwright’s ‘Happy Valley’ pilot. It’s God-tier.
You’ve worked on numerous development projects for a range of production companies and broadcasters. Creating a strong pitch bible is a big part of the job but isn’t discussed anywhere near as much as the craft of writing a script. What skills are required to be successful in this area?
It feels like most of my time is spent creating pitch docs, treatments, or bibles. Unless you’re writing on spec, it’s much rarer to get to the actual fun part of writing (or rewriting, which is my favourite bit). I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys writing treatments, but they need to be enjoyable to read, so you can’t let your frustration or disdain bleed onto the page.
Again, it’s worth trying to track down a good example of the kind of doc you’re going for – someone sent me a brilliant one pager for ‘Hustle’ years ago and I still dig it out as a template.
The actual content is about balance – you want to tell them enough to get them hooked, but not so much that it becomes confusing or boring. At the end of the day, they’re selling tools – either to get interest in the initial idea, or to get a script commission – so (unfortunately) you have to give them time and focus. I will say the process becomes a lot easier the more you have to do it. And you’ll have to do it a lot.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read? (can also be YouTube videos or podcasts)
To name but a few…
‘Adventures in the Screentrade’ – William Goldman
‘On Writing’ – Stephen King
‘The Writer’s Tale’ – Russell T. Davies/ Benjamin Cook
‘And Here’s the Kicker’ & ‘Poking A Dead Frog’ – Mike Sacks
‘Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It’ – Spike Lee
‘How to Write Everything’ – David Quantick
‘Smoking in Bed’ – Bruce Robinson
‘Hollywood Animal’ – Joe Eszterhas
‘Happy Valley’ (Pilot) – Sally Wainwright
‘Adaptation’ – Charlie Kaufman/ Donald Kaufman
‘When Harry Met Sally’ – Nora Ephron
‘Michael Clayton’ – Tony Gilroy
‘In Bruges’ – Martin McDonagh
‘Atlanta’ (Barbershop) – Stefani Robinson
‘Years and Years’ (Pilot) – Russell T. Davies
‘Lethal Weapon’ – Shane Black
‘Get Out’ – Jordan Peele
(And obviously any episode of ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘ER’, ‘The West Wing’, ‘Fleabag’, ’30 Rock’ etc)
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
Lots of things come to mind – for instance, if I saw ‘Young Guns TV Show’ as an email subject I’d become an instant puddle.
One old show I think about a lot, because I feel like it’s an indication of how the industry’s changed, is ‘This Life’. A new writer, an unknown cast, a series (to quote IMDB) ‘following the lives of five young professionals’.
Of course, that’s not it, you get to know and care about those characters like they’re your mates. But there’s no massive twists, supernatural element, ripped-from-the-headlines premise or clear international appeal. Yet it still gets talked about 25 years later. I think it would be a miracle if ‘This Life’ got made now. Of course, there are still shows that are more character driven, like ‘Normal People’ – but imagine pitching that if it hadn’t been an award-winning book first – you’d still be able to hear the screams of “BUT WHAT’S IT ABOUT?” echoing around the streets of Soho.
What are your current writing goals?
To reboot ‘This Life’.
No, to be honest it’s just to be able to keep paying my bills and work on stuff I like. It’s as simple and non-ground breaking as that.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
‘Grow thicker skin’ would be solid, but ultimately useless advice, because all writers are overly sensitive people pleasers. So, I think I’ll say ‘enjoy the small victories and always be nice to script editors’.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The rejection is tough, but I’d say the waiting is worse. Because often it’ll be followed by rejection. Everything takes forever. Especially in the summer when things basically shutdown from June until after Edinburgh. Sometimes you’ll be waiting to hear news on something for months, only to read on twitter that the exec who commissioned you has left the company. I also think a factor that’s hard is that it never feels like a good time to celebrate, because there’s always another stage of development, or the constant fear that it could all fall through any second. So you only ever allow yourself cautious excitement.
I guess the answer is that you should just say fuck it and celebrate every successful step (if you’re into jinxing things obviously).
Okay, for balance – What is the best part of being a writer?
All the rest. Yeah, it’s hard to continuously motivate yourself and there’s definitely periods where you feel like you’re digging in sand, but you get to make shit up for a living! A few months ago, Nathan and I sat at the back of a cinema and watched a preview of our film with an audience. Hundreds of people laughing at the dumb jokes we made up over expensive coffees and almond croissants. There’s no feeling like that. I would be writing in my spare time if I wasn’t doing it professionally, it’s my passion (and compulsion) and it’s almost inconceivable that people actually pay me to do my hobby.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
I saw Tim Key live recently and thought I might have to leave, in case I did myself some permanent damage.
TV and films never fail to make me lol are ‘30 Rock’, ‘Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, all iterations of Alan Partridge, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, ‘Broad City’, ‘This Country’, ‘Step Brothers’ still makes me weep every time I watch it, so does ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen doing Garth and Kat on SNL, Jackass, anything involving Steve Martin and Martin Short and to my shame, Youtube compilations called things like ‘Crazy fails of the week!’.
The first bit of TV to make me laugh uncontrollably was Rick Mayall’s gushing finger wound on ‘Bottom’ – I must’ve been about 11 and whilst doubled over in hysterics, I had an epiphany that if you can make someone do this, then that’s the ultimate achievement.
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