Ahead of the Barnes Film Festival this weekend, we have some extra special interviews with our film competition panellists. Today we have the highly talented Rob Shearman. His TV work includes Doctor Who, bringing back the Daleks for the BAFTA winning first series!
He began his career in theatre. His plays have won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the World Drama Trust Award, and the Guinness Award for Ingenuity in association with the Royal National Theatre.
He’s also written five short story collections, and between them they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers Prize, and three British Fantasy Awards. His latest book, We All Hear Stories in the Dark, is to be released by PS Publishing next year.
Hi Rob! To introduce yourself to our readers, you’re a writer for the famous Doctor Who. How did you go about starting your career and what would you view as your big break moment?
I was a very shy kid with a terrible stammer – and I found out that the best way for me to overcome that was by acting. In school plays, and then local amateur drama groups, the full works! I was dreadful at it, though. Really awful. I liked shouting a lot, I seem to recall – which I think was probably very liberating, but wasn’t much fun for audiences.
When I went to university it became very clear that people didn’t really want me to ruin their productions, so I started writing so that I could cast myself in my *own* plays. And I quickly realised that I wouldn’t want anyone as bad as me ruining my lines either, and accidentally I had changed into a playwright!
I was very lucky – by the time I graduated I’d had a couple of plays put on, I’d won an award at the National Student Drama Festival, and I had an Arts Council bursary attachment to the local regional theatre as a writer. Anything to get me to stop overacting…!
Doctor Who is famous for its extravagant sci-fi concepts. What are the inspirations you draw from, or is it all your creative spark?
I don’t make much distinction between Doctor Who and any other writing, really. I go for long walks and chat away to myself (in my head, so no one arrests me) – coming up with crazy ideas, and egging myself on, “what happens next?”
You’ve also won some World Fantasy Awards with your short stories. Could you tell us a little about those?
They’re usually a product of my longer walks, and my crazier ideas! A lot of my short stories are based on ‘what if’s – you know, where you muse to yourself, what would happen if such and such a thing would happen.
What would happen if everybody in the world had to line up in alphabetical order, or your wife started giving birth to furniture, or we all woke up one day to official letters from the afterlife telling us exactly how and when each of us will die. Silly things like that. When I was a little boy I’d get silly ideas and was told off. Now I write them out for a living!
You’ve said you’re a comedy writer, but others argue you’re an absurdist. Do you think there’s any truth in the latter?
Oh, I expect so! But I always worry if people start calling my stuff absurdist, it means I’m not being funny enough! A lot of my work looks at the world from very peculiar angles, and some of it is a bit disturbing.
But in my head everything starts off as being a funny comic idea – if it pops into my head and makes me laugh, then I plot it out and find out what sort of story it is. Quite often I end up with this very grim piece of work and I’m the only one left who still sees the joke in it!
What would your main piece of advice be to anyone staring at a blank page trying to think of a movie concept?
Don’t. In a nutshell. You shouldn’t be staring at a blank page. You should be out looking at life and getting inspired by it, finding stories you are itching to tell.
By the time you get to the blank page you ought to have your ideas and concepts already, you should be eager to fill up all that white space on the page with them. If you’re staring at a blank page trying to think up the building blocks, you’re turning one of the most joyous jobs in the world into homework.
And for budding scriptwriters, what’s your process for creating an episode? Not just for Doctor Who, but for any of the radio shows you’ve also written?
Everyone has their different methods for writing. I’m naturally quite lazy, so I force myself to go out to my favourite parts of the city where I feel happy, wander around museums and art galleries and castles with a notebook and pen. And fool myself into believing I’m not really working at all, but having fun – whilst refusing to let myself go home each day until I’ve got a few thousand words written.
You’re judging a few films for us – will you have any favouritism for the science fiction genre? Or do you think something else may appeal more?
I don’t especially like science fiction, actually! I never got on that well with science at school, so I always feel a bit suspicious of anything technological or space age. All I’m looking for is the things that cross over genres – I want good *stories*, with a point, and a heart. And if there’s room for a few jokes in there as well, that would be nice.
In an era of YouTube and online content, do you see this trend for new filmmakers on tiny budgets continuing? Or will it just be a faze?
No, it’s the future! What’s wonderful is that people are no longer being held back from telling their stories. Centuries ago people weren’t able to tell their stories because books were rare and expensive, and literacy was rare.
Now we take for granted that anyone can just pick up a bit of pen and paper if they want to let a story out – and we’re getting to the stage that if you want to tell that story cinematically, it’s hardly more difficult than picking up your smartphone instead. It removes a huge barrier for new writers’ and directors’ creativity, and mistakes can be cheap.
Finally, if you’re happy to answer, what do you think is the worst sci-fi concept you’ve ever come across?
Oh, all of mine. Seriously. I was at a science festival in Manchester a few years ago, and primary schoolchildren were lecturing me about the inaccuracy of everything in my Doctor Who script. “That’s not how DNA works!” they all cried out as one. I was very grateful to them. Sort of.