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Brit Takes: This Screenwriter Has a Solution to the Problem With British Television

Brit Takes: This Screenwriter Has a Solution to the Problem With British Television

[Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Shinola
in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. As
makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals,
Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the
beauty of industry.  Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.]

READ MORE: Why Pioneering British TV Writer Jimmy McGovern Thinks American Are the Lucky Ones

Screenwriter Philip J.
Javens has just landed his first break in the UK television world. As it turns out, it’s just as challenging to navigate that arena as it is back in the
States. Now 28 years old, Javens started about four years ago working at
television production company, Shine Group, which is responsible for bringing
audiences “MasterChef” and “The Biggest Loser.” Its satellite studios, Dragonfly,
Kudos, and Princess Productions handle both scripted and non-scripted series. He’s now under contract with Green Door Pictures to develop his first political satire-sitcom. 

Indiewire spoke with Javens about how he reached this point and where he hopes to go next.

How did you get your start in the UK television industry?  

I started about over four years ago. I got my
first TV job at a company called Shine Group, which was headed up by Elizabeth
Murdoch. She wanted to create an independent company that had the power of a
major company group, and she focused on monetizing for entertainment TV. In this country, there’s a lot of money in that. So I worked there as an office runner for about
seven months, completely hated it at the end, and I left. But, during that
time, I met some amazing people and I learned about TV and I learned what I
didn’t want to do, which was work in entertainment.

Why not?

In my opinion, there’s a lot of gravitas about
amazing new ideas, but in truth, all of it is the same. Through my experiences,
I learned that I was more of a script person. After that, I worked for Channel
Flip and they focus on new media. I met some amazing people, but after that, there
was literally no work. It was a catch-22, which I’m sure is the same in the U.S.: You can’t get new experiences, you can’t get a job, nothing will be given to you
without experience — so I chose to think outside the box and I was like, “I’m
going to make my own stuff.” I had this friend named Gail
Porter [Scottish television presenter, television
personality, former model and actress]. We made this thing
called “Gail’s Life Bites,” and it was basically just looking at
London Street Food and talking about it. We shot this thing in 12 hours, I cut
up to three films, distributed it. Then yeah, I had something on my CV — something where I could say, I did that myself and I did it in full.

READ MORE: Ex-Disney Studio Chief Rich Ross Joins Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine America

What did that momentum bring?

I did an internship here
and there through friends and opportunities that I made for myself. Between
then, I had no money, but I kept writing. That’s the one thing I always did,
kept writing — new ideas for drama, film, comedy. My gut was just saying, “Go
for this.” So I did that for ages. I would [imagine] a short film so that I
could potentially get funding and then bolster my experiences that way,
and I was writing treatments for larger things. I was basically just practicing how to present someone with an idea in the industry
standard, which is so mystified. In a lot of ways, I was self-taught.

Who helped you find your way?

During this time, I was also having
meetings with CEOs and executives of creative companies. Through Shine, I had a
mentor at [television production company] Kudos named Daniel Isaacs; he was instrumental in my learning of the

What ultimately led to you writing your script?

I had a crunch moment, where I was living above a chicken shop for two and half years and a rat was on my arm — an actual
rat. I felt the claws in my forearm, I felt a spring on my arm like a
springboard, and I woke up, saw it fly in the air, and land on the ground. It landed on what I presumed to be its mother, which was huge, and it crawled from
under my bed into my clothes rack. I was like, “I’m done. I can’t do this
anymore. I’m done. I tried really hard but I’m done.”

I went back home to
my parents and I smashed out the script that I had in my mind for this TV show. My gut was saying, “Write this,” so I wrote it within a month and
re-wrote it as well. You know, even though it wasn’t ready to a point, my gut
was saying just send it to these certain people. And those certain people were
[UK production company] Green Door Pictures. I did that in
November of last year. I just sent them an email […] I wrote that and I sent it away. Meanwhile, I applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to do an MFA in screenwriting. I had just turned 27. I applied for a scholarship to try and get things free and that didn’t happen, and then I got a job in December working on the second season of the British sitcom “Vicious” as a runner over the weekends. Gary Reich from Brown Eyed Boy gave me a job as a development researcher, working on a comedy. So during the week, I was a development researcher and during the weekend, I was a runner.

How does the writing process on British shows compare with American ones?

In America, there’s a progressive standard in
teaching writers and raising them up to become senior writers. In England, we
don’t have that. We have a system where you’re an auteur. You’ve got to write
on your own. We’ve got amazing writers
like Abi Morgan. But I believe there needs to be a more democratic system where
top echelon of writers can’t always be booked while new guys and girls are left out in the cold. I was told that the BBC team is crying out for new writers
because all their senior writers have been booked up for the next six years,
and it’s like, “Well, of course, they are. If you keeping them working, you’re
going to shoot yourself in the foot.” Unfortunately, due to the increasing conservatism that BBC is going under, it’s
been incredibly more right wing. There seem to be a lot of words without any action. They have great things like “BBC Writer’s Room,”
but there’s no having teams of writers.

And the American system?

The American system is the greatest system. I mean, you’ve got
shows like “Family Guy,” “Fraser,” “Breaking Bad,” “X-Files,” “The Walking Dead.” You
know, we don’t have that here. We have “Silent
Witness.” I don’t watch it, but I
know deep down that I would hate it. British
television could be so much better. British film is
incredible…we’re doing so well because people are taking new bold ideas and
taking new writers and challenging the norm. But I know a lot of people who do
TV now are starting to want a change and that’s exciting for me because I’m at
the start.

Ever get writer’s block?

Writer’s block does happen to me. It
happened to me in development. So I recently hit another deadline and it was
the third incarnation of what I’ve given them. No ideas were coming. I think,
ultimately, I was worn out. I needed time. I needed to
breath and gain some life experience. We were in Paris and got chased by a drug gang on a mo-ped on a motorway…that was a
rush and it added fuel to the fire. So to cure writer’s block, do something
that’s completely different to what you’re trying to focus on. It depends how
your brain works. For me, I either go to sleep and wake up with the solution or
do something else. I procrastinate or I make dinner or I exercise — and just
like that, something will come and you’ve got to write it down.

Do you have an idea of where your show will be picked up?

Yeah, so we’ve discussed
where it would go. And I know exactly where I want it to go, because I feel
British TV platforms are lackluster now and they’re not as forward thinking. I don’t
see why I should be investing my time in companies that don’t want to invest
in the younger generation of writers. The BBC has got such a tight
demographic of who watch — no disrespect — “Mrs. Brown’s Boys,” which I’m not a fan of. I
can’t see what I’ve written on that platform. It doesn’t work. The demographic
that I’m tuning into doesn’t watch that  stuff. They’re not going to tune
into that channel because that channel has become increasingly conservative.

What do you think about Netflix or Amazon as a
platform in regards to writing a political satire?

They’re my goals, because a)
they’re democratic b) they’re bigger. They have a wider audience because
they’re so accessible and have more of an outreach. If you can connect that
many people to watch your show, you’ll get more of an understanding and data of
who loves it and who hates it. It’s not just some group or society, it’s the
whole world. For me, that is important, because we have entered a
huge communication age where I can talk to anyone over the click of a
button. It should be like that with TV.

READ MORE: ‘House of Cards’ Screenwriter Beau Willimon Thinks Writing Is Like ‘Grabbing at the Cosmic’

This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of
Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. Detroit based
design brand Shinola was conceived with the belief that products should
be made by hand and built to last. As makers of modern watches,
bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at
scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry. Learn more
about Shinola handcrafted goods.

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