Writing for money

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I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.

Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.

“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”

“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”

“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”

“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”

These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”

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It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)

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The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.

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The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.

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Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.

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10 thoughts on “Writing for money

  1. I do enjoy your writing, which (aside from your engaging camera presence and ever-changing shirt choice) was the main draw of your Guardian weekly column.

    But for those of us suffering withdrawal, will you ever be posting video chats of these columns? Or is this solely for the writing?

    Can’t say I agree with group-written comedy working better than group-think drama. Hadn’t thought too much of it before, but it’s that group-think v personal vision that indeed nails the difference between US and UK telly. Too polished is slippery, and shiny; looks good, but doesn’t resonate as well as powering forward a personal vision. A vision a viewer might not agree with, but it’s the gravelly edges of our love of a particular TV comedy/drama that keeps us enthralled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I, too, am suffering withdrawal. But I don’t have the equipment or know-how to make a video, and I fear an inferior product after five years of professional filming and editing at the Guardian. Let’s just say I am exploring options.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As a former IT specialist I should have something to offer on making videos.

        But as a Luddite non-Smartphone-owning person, I think I can only say: Surely your phone can record videos? Set it up in a secure position, and do your talking thang at it.

        But I don’t want to emphasise too much the lack of video, since, as I said before, it was always the writing that kept me coming to your column. It was always the nonchalant whipping out of connections (and your ceaseless championing of the tech folk in addition to the actors) that make your writing worthwhile reading.

        And, as always, as a non TV owner and watcher solely of iPlayer, I need your reviews of programmes available elsewhere to feel fully ‘up’ on modern culture. Thank you again.

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      • You over-estimate my phone!

        As a non-TV owner, will you mind paying for a licence to watch iPlayer when subscription for the service is introduced, as per the white paper? (Maybe you already pay for one?)

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      • Told you would like it.:) (I boast after being sure you’d like The Americans and The Affair, and being wrong on both counts.) Best of all, Billions gets even better after the pilot, and the season finale is magnificent.

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      • I cannot wait. (Also, to be fair, I did like the pilot of The Americans, and watched the first season, but fell out quite quickly with the second, then ran like the wind. And I’m sure I gave The Affair a second chance because of cheerleading from you and other Guardian commenters. I do sometimes wonder if I’m missing something when I go against a consensus.)

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  2. I had been put off this one by a ridiculous interview that Damien Lewis gave on Radio 4, which made the whole thing sound not only like a male vs male dick-swinging contest, but also likesome kind of crude apologia for hedge fund avarice. Now will have to give it a go, particularly as I was put off MAD MEN for similar reasons… and, well… that was just stupid of me.

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  3. I think team-led drama can produce great results when show creator and showrunner is also a writer. Writing room really becomes a supporting team for one person’s vision, creating earlier drafts and helping polish it.

    There probably are exceptions, but I can’t think of a one right now.

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  4. Somehow I can’t reply directly to your reply to me (bloody tech – eh?).

    In response to your iPlayer question – yes, oh yes, oh yes. I scrupulously avoided for YEARS watching anything live and only watched BBC progs on catch-up. Then (mostly due to Doctor Who and Sherlock) I started watching live.

    I’ve seen all the costings of Sky v the TV license and know that paying for BBC progs is MORE than worth it. (And the nefarious backroom deal that made BBC available on Sky subscriptions is shameful – and assumed the stupidity of the populace to boot.) I will happily chip in for whatever an iPlayer key-unlocker requires.

    I’d wax lyrical about Ch4 too except I don’t watch enough of it (except news, and then only on holiday) – and having grown up watching US telly, the advert breaks are sh*te. Honestly, people who booh about the license fee have NOT spent enough time watching US telly. I value my time and brain more than ad breaks of 30-40% of the programme’s running length.

    Liked by 1 person

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