Script Angel’s James Gillam-Smith chats with screenwriter Daisy Coulam (Granchester, Casualty, EastEnders) about her new Channel Four thriller Deadwater Fell, getting a greenlight and her writing process.
JGS: Firstly, many congratulations on the success of Deadwater Fell. What was the inspiration and starting point for the series?
Daisy: Deadwater Fell started as an obsession with True Crime. Me and the producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd, we were constantly talking about The Staircase… Who we believe did it, the different motives and so that was our starting point. We wanted to do something quiet and forensic, the way those documentaries focus on the everyday rather than exciting police chases. We wanted to do it in a small way.
Weirdly it was one of those ideas that came together quite quickly. I don’t know why that was. Sometimes when you’re quite passionate about an idea, it all falls into place. It was the first time I’ve ever had that, to be honest!
JGS: Could you tell me a little bit about the development process, once you’d had the initial idea?
Daisy: We did a very small pitch document because part of us thought that no one would ever make it. We loved the idea, so we thought, ‘Let’s just do it and see what comes out’. We wrote three pages, setting out what the tone of the piece was going to be. At that point, we didn’t actually know the end or where it was going. We knew the general premise (which I can’t give away because… it would spoil things)…
We added a bit of research that we found on the internet that backed it up – statistics on the kind of crime etc. Then we put in four of the characters. We always knew it was going to be about a quartet of characters; two couples and their viewpoint in the past and the present on a crime… and that was it!
I wrote the script with no one in mind. You can get caught up thinking, ‘What will the BBC want? What will ITV want?’ Sometimes if you just actually write from the heart you get better results because you’re not second-guessing.
I wrote the first draft and it came together really easily. I felt like I knew the characters already. It was one of those lucky things really. It doesn’t happen much that you sit down and write and you fully enjoy it – so it was a real pleasure.
JGS: For this project, you felt it all just came together then?
Daisy: Yes, I think I only did two or three drafts before it went to the broadcaster. We took it to Channel 4 and they were pretty much interested straight away and then we had the inevitable regime change, which always seems to happen when someone’s interested… The Head of Drama left, but then Caroline Hollick came in and it was one of the first scripts she read and it’s her first green light.
JGS: So, with the change of personnel at the broadcaster, was it just down tools and wait?
Daisy: Yes, it was just waiting to see what people thought and whether it would make it through. You never know when someone new comes in, whether they want to bring their own projects in but she [Caroline Hollick] is brilliant. She’s very good on script and story. There were quite big changes from my first episode. We added another plot to it…. Quite a few changes – but all for the better.
JGS: Could you tell me more about the sort of changes and notes that were given?
Daisy: Her main note was – and I think this is a good note for writers – she said there was not enough story in the present. There was a lot of backstory. She was like, ‘what is going to move the story on and what is going to hook us into the next episode?’… That was her biggest note. And she was right.
[SPOILER] If you’ve seen episode one, Tom and Jess having sex was the thing that she suggested that pulled us into the next episode. That didn’t exist in the script before… It gave the characters a secret. It gave Jess something that she was hiding and purpose through the next episodes… whereas before she’d not done anything wrong and was perhaps a bit too perfect as a character.
This is the problem – sometimes you write characters and you really like them and then you realise they’re not active. They’re not doing anything; they’re just observing everyone else. That’s what Jess was doing in my script. She was just an observer rather than an active player. That change gave her story and that gave her somewhere to go. It was a good note.
JGS: So really most of the work happened after the greenlight?
Daisy: Yes, before that, we knew roughly where it was going to go. But not fully…
JGS: Did you know who was the killer before you pitched it?
Daisy: Yes, but we didn’t know how or what was going to lead us there. I think if you have a strong idea, that’s all that commissioners are interested in: – that the idea is intriguing and strong enough to hold up. They don’t need reams of detail about who did what. They just don’t need that and also they won’t read it.
Another thing I would say is documents with loads of pictures… that’s great but actually that’s not what’s going to sell your project. It has to be concise and grab the attention. That’s easy to say – I hate writing pitch documents but I think if you believe in your idea and you can convey that in a few paragraphs then you’re onto a winner.
JGS: This is obviously one project that you pitched and you were successful. How difficult is it in reality? How many times have you pitched and the project hasn’t then been picked up?
Daisy: Well, I’ve made two shows and I’ve worked on about thirty pitches so the hit rate is not high. It’s funny – sometimes you can tell when you write a pitch document that something is missing or you’re overwriting it to compensate for the fact you’re not entirely sure what it’s about. Rather than a few paragraphs going – “yes, that’s what it’s about!”, you can flog an idea to death if you over-write it or work on it too hard. It loses the spark.
JGS: When you were writing it did you know it was going to be set in Scotland?
Daisy: It stems from Robson Green, actually! (who plays Geordie Keating in Grantchester, which Daisy also created).. It wasn’t set in Scotland first. Deadwater Fell is a real place in Northumberland and Robson has talked about how beautiful Northumberland is; how there are these forests and these amazing hillsides and I thought “I’ll set something there”. What we wanted to do was create a world that was almost like a character itself; this village surrounded by trees and forest – it becomes its own sort of sinister presence. But then, as soon as David Tennant was attached, it became clear to us that it would be interesting to do it with a Scottish cast and moved it across the border.
The contentious thing was that the title was no longer reflecting the real place – it’s definitely not in Scotland. We thought about it a lot – we thought about it a lot, a lot, a lot! But came to the conclusion that ‘Deadwater Fell’ as a title is actually a really atmospheric name and says something ominous. I’m sure the people who live by Deadwater Fell will be outraged but for us it was really just an evocative title.
JGS: With it being set in Scotland, it was great to see a lot of actors I’d not seen before.
Daisy: When you go to a particular region, you have a different pool of actors. Jamie Michie (Simon) is incredible, as is Stuart Bowman who plays Mark, the other doctor. You’ve just got these incredible actors. Maureen Beattie – Oh my god she’s amazing. She plays David Tennant’s mum. She’s phenomenal actually. It makes you look rather than going for obvious people.
All of those kids had never acted before. Lynsey Miller, the director, is brilliant with children. Some of the kids have to do some quite tough scenes and the things she gets them to play are amazing.
JGS: Once the scripting process was underway with Channel 4, how easy was it to retain the sense of it being your show and maintain creative control?
Daisy: I generally work with Emma Kingsman-Lloyd and Danny West, who is a brilliant script editor. I think I tend to be quite a collaborative writer because it’s harder just being on your own, banging your head against a wall.
But other people’s ideas are good, right? That’s not to say that sometimes I’d get notes and be like ‘Well, that wasn’t quite what I’d intended’ but I think this is the balance for a writer – the balance between accepting that your draft isn’t going to be perfect and that other people will have good ideas – and hanging onto what you love about your script. As a writer, you need to say ‘no’ sometimes if you feel passionately about it. People respect that, I think. You can’t fight everything and often the notes are good, like Caroline (Hollick) was right to say ‘This character is just an observer. She needs a story.’
It’s the balance of being collaborative and sticking up for what’s yours.
JGS: Once you went into production, I believe you were quite heavily involved. Could you tell me about that part of the process?
Daisy: Yes, I was an Executive Producer on it, which is exciting so I was involved in casting, meeting directors and just trying to stay on top of it all really…. sitting in the edit with the editors, who were brilliant and having a voice in that room where you’re thinking about the cuts and which bits are important. There’s the truism that a TV show gets made three times:
In the script… on set… and in the edit
Sometimes when you get to the edit something doesn’t work and they’ll make it work. They’re really brilliant guys. That’s one of my favourite parts of the process, sitting in the edit, figuring out how to make the story the best possible version of itself.
JGS: Can you give me an example of something in the first episode that changed drastically in the edit process?
Daisy: There was some stuff that was cut out. In the script, Jess is doing IVF and she had to go along to the hospital and have a check-up. The idea was – in the script – life carries on even when a terrible tragedy has happened…. but when it came to the edit, it just felt so jarring and so out of place that it just didn’t work and so it went. It made it a much more streamlined first episode.
That scene has now gone into the second episode. It worked better there. It worked as a scene but it was in the wrong place. It happens a lot.
The thing I’ve learnt most from this project is that, if you have a good team, everyone is a storyteller and everyone is working towards the same goal. The writer isn’t everything. It’s a team.
For instance, sound and music can be used to tell a story. We had an amazing composer. Sometimes you’ll watch a scene and it doesn’t quite hit you emotionally but as soon as the music goes on, it lifts it. It’s just incredible. Every little piece together tells the story.
JGS: So from start to finish how long did everything take?
Daisy: It was about two years from first thinking of the idea to it being made, which is quite short.
I’d written episode one and it got the green light. I then had to write three episodes and re-do episode one in about four or five months. It took quite a while to get the green light and then time was constrained.
But it was quite nice. What they allowed me to do was to go away and write it from beginning to end. I re-did ep one and then wrote two, three, four then handed it all in and re-edited it after that point. There were loads and loads of changes.
JGS: How many drafts would you do per episode?
Daisy: On average, about six or seven of each one probably.
JGS: And did you do very detailed outlines before you went to draft?
Daisy: Yes. There are two time frames in the series. We did a timeline running all the way through to the end and then we chopped it all up. One day, Danny and I set out massive bits of paper with Emma and we wrote out the entire story from beginning to end. We cut them up, laid them out on a table and we moved the beats around. That became our blue print… Obviously things changed from there. There were lots of scenes – like one where Jess and Kate meet for the first time at baby rhyme time and they’ve both got little kids – that went. Loads of stuff went. I had Tom meeting Kate for the first time. That went but, in a weird way, the scenes were useful because it was a way to write my way into the characters, even though they never got used.
At one point, I gave David Tennant twenty-seven pages of scenes that never made it into the script. It charted his relationship with his wife and – I think! – he found it really useful. I put them together in the little bundle for the actors and it gave them a little bit of background really so it wasn’t wasted.
JGS: How does something like this differ from working on EastEnders or Casualty?
Daisy: Or Grantchester actually. Working on shows like Grantchester, it’s much more of a team process. We always call Grantchester a family. What’s great about Grantchester is the actors have ideas about their characters. The crew sometimes come up with ideas. There’s Richard (Cookson, the producer), Emma, Danny, me and John Jackson, another writer, and it’s much more everyone’s ideas thrown in. And I suppose, because it’s a story-of-the-week show, each writer gets to own their episode so it’s not owned from on high.
I like both processes. It’s lonely being a writer so it’s quite nice when you get to work with other people.
JGS: And so finally… What’s next?
Daisy: I wish I knew! I’ve got a few projects in development. None of them are close to being green-lit. My dream would be to do another series of Grantchester – I love that show and I love the people on it.
It’s a funny old business because nothing is certain. You just have to roll with it a little bit. So I literally don’t know what I’m doing this year!
JGS: How long does the broadcaster take to tell you whether or not there’s going to be another series?
Daisy: They tend to see how the viewing figures go across the series as it’s broadcast – then we might know after that. It’s a business. That’s what you realise. It’s a creative world but it’s still a business.
JGS: Am I right in thinking you were up against yourself (in the schedule) for that first episode of Deadwater Fell?
Daisy: Yes, I was up against myself! And Grantchester won the slot so we’re very happy about that. Deadwater Fell got 2.6 million viewers on the night, which for Channel 4, at that particular time, is a good figure.
JGS: Thanks for sharing with us Daisy.
You can read about how Daisy broke in as a screenwriter and got her first writing credits here.