British TV writer Camilla Blackett is living the Hollywood dream
Brit TV writer Camilla Blackett started her career at the tender age of 18, as a writer on the hit teen TV drama Skins. After stints working in London and New York, she now lives in LA and writes for hit shows including The Newsroom and New Girl. Read on to discover how she got her lucky break, what advice she’d offer to aspiring TV writers, and some of the things she loves about her job (lots of free food, for a start).
Hi Camilla. Please tell us where you’re from, where you live, and what you do there.
I’m from a town called Reading, Berkshire in the UK. I currently live in LA and am a TV Writer.
From Reading to Los Angeles – how did that happen?!
I went from Reading to Bristol to do my A-Levels, and to London to write on Skins and then work at a hedge fund. After that it was off to New York as an ad producer, then to LA to go right back to TV writing. It was a roundabout journey but I’m so grateful I got to travel and experience a variety of professions before I could figure out that what I wanted to do was exactly what I started out doing in the first place.
I started on Skins when I was doing my English A-Levels with [Skinsco-creator] Jamie Brittain. When he and his father started Skins they asked me to write a short script,read it, and then they offered me a job. No, getting a TV writing gig is not usually that easy! But when you have a window, jump through it because they don’t come around every day.
You started writing for Skins when you were just 18. What were the most valuable things you learned during that time?
Skins was such a unique show in that it was so committed to portraying an unsanitized portrayal of being a teenager in the UK. The drugs, the drinking, the sex – all of it. No teaching, no preaching, just a rare window into life as 16-18 year old in the UK. And so being in an environment where I didn’t need to censor myself and to see that idea responded to so positively really affirmed for me that that lack of self-consciousness is what creates compelling television. Which is a very long winded way of saying: Keep it real.
Did you attend university? If so, please tell us about what you studied, where, why you’re glad you went… If not, do you think aspiring screenwriters are better off seeking on-the-job training?
I actually skipped out of going to Kings University in London to work on Skins and that turned out to be the absolute right decision for me personally. I think college is important for certain professions, but I didn’t see the point in sitting in a lecture hall learning story-structure theory when I had a real opportunity to do the job I wanted to do right in front of me.
I think if you’re trying to do something creative the most important thing to do is just that. Write something, then write it again, then throw it away and write something else until you get better and better at it.
You’ve been working in LA for several years now, both on The Newsroom and New Girl. How does the experience of being a TV writer in Hollywood compare to doing the same job in the UK?
It’s a much more aggressive world in Hollywood. It’s more of a business than an ethereal artistic pursuit, for better or for worse. The gulf between doing a US cable show on HBO and a US network comedy could not be more different. I feel like the process in cable is much more similar to the British model and more agency is given to the writers to do what they deem interesting, as opposed to the hard math of a comedy room. Being in the UK it’s rare to have a writers’ room where a collective creates the show, whereas in the US it’s rare to have one writer take the helm. Obviously for something like True Detective, it’s almost necessary to have a single person controlling the tone and minutia, whereas I can’t imagine a world where a one person could write a whole season of Friends without a joke-punch room.
The ‘writing room’ sounds like a very intense professional environment! What’s the reality of the situation?
It can be absolutely awful or the most fun you could ever hope to have whilst getting a paycheck. At its worst you’re in a room with a bunch of people who are moody, competitive and insecure. Where your show runner treats you like shit and your co-workers throw you under the bus to get ahead. So, y’know – like a regular job. OR you’re spending your entire day with the funniest, smartest people you’d ever hope to meet and you leave the room with a bunch of friends who you’ll know forever just like in Stand By Me. When it’s like the latter, it’s Xanadu. You’re literally being paid to make sh*t up all day with a bunch of awesome people. Oh! And then someone brings you food! For free!
What are the best aspects of your job? And the most challenging?
When you have a good room, there is nothing better. You will learn so much more from your peers in the room than you ever will from a screenwriting book. The most challenging things are deadlines, turning in your drafts, waiting for notes and then having to do the re-write based on those notes. But… then you get more free food and everything is okay again.
Can you share three tips for girls who want to become screenwriters but don’t know where to start?
Just go write some sh*t. Write a lot of it. And when you finally think you have something good, send it to friends. And when they give you notes re-write it, and re-write it again – and only after that should you send it to someone who can get you in the door.
And if you don’t know who to send it to, enter script contests, get it up on tracking-board.com or get out a camera and film it and put it up on YouTube. There are so many more platforms to get your material out there and get noticed now – so get creative and don’t be shy about saying “This is the job I want to do and this is the job I CAN do, please read my f*cking script.”