Screenwriting Success – Delphine Bergsma on Breaking In
Script Angel client Delphine Bergsma was recently commissioned to write on a brand-new original television drama series. Having already had several of her own projects optioned and a number of other commissions in the pipeline, Script Angel founder Hayley McKenzie sat down with Delphine to find out about her journey to screenwriting success.
Congratulations on joining the writing team on a new drama series which is now very close to production.
Thanks. It’s an adaptation of Alex Scarrow’s best-selling thriller novel ‘Last Light’. It’s a co-production between Sydney Gallonde’s Make It Happen Studio and MGM International (Executive Producers Rola Bauer and Diego Piasek for MGM Int’l and Syndey Gallonde for Make It Happen Studio). I’ve written Episode 5 of the 6.
I’m also working on a commissioned project co-written with Rebecca Handley, my usual partner in crime and Script Angel alumni. It’s a crime procedural with a supernatural twist called ‘Past Forward’ for producer Elizabeth Kesses from EJK Productions.
ON GETTING STARTED
Let’s talk about your journey so far; from never having written a script and not working in the film/tv industry, to becoming a professional, commissioned screenwriter. When did you realise you wanted to be a screenwriter?
It was after my last case as a criminal law interpreter (French and Spanish). I had worked with the defendants, the defence team, the solicitors and barrister on a very harrowing case relating to genocide, where we had to go through a lot of personal testimonies, really graphic pictures and documents. I felt like I wanted to put it all down on paper to kind of exorcise the darkness. Then I discovered that novel writing wasn’t appealing to me. Everything came visually to me, so I thought about screenwriting, but I knew nothing about it. So I basically had to go back to university and learn a new skill and a new job.
Then as I got into it I realised that I’d spent the last 16 years of my career storytelling other peoples’ lives and stories. I was the medium for their voice. A lot of very rich, sometimes traumatic stories, which are the ingredients you need to write a great story or screenplay.
Did you take short courses before writing your first script?
Yes, I started with short courses at St Martins School of Arts back in 2010. Our tutor Josh Golding selected a small group of us from the course to workshop our projects over four months with him. I learnt a lot, we were writing to a deadline and we had to read each other’s work and to have something interesting to say about it at the next workshop.
Through that I developed a very rough draft of a project that is still with me now, which was very influenced by the last few cases I worked. They were quite tough cases with social services and because it involved children which really stayed with me and was the first thing I wanted to get out on the page. Then I did a year long screenwriting course at Birkbeck, University of London.
What brought you to Script Angel from that?
Meeting you Hayley, in 2013 at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. You were already working with Rebecca Handley who introduced us. Then I read some of your articles on your Script Angel website and I thought you’d be the right person to help me take my writing to the next level.
After we met I started to look into what script editors do and realised that even when you’re a professional screenwriter you usually work with a script or story editor to develop the work.
When we started to work together you already had another couple of spec projects. How did they come about?
I’d met another bilingual English/French writer at LSF and she had more experience than me. Eurydice Da Silva had been working on feature films for a couple of years, translating screenplays and writing shorts and knew more about how the business worked. We discovered we both loved period dramas and mysteries.
Our first couple of projects together were on a period drama telling the extraordinary story of the first female war reporters during WW2, as well as an atmospheric crime drama taking place on a small island in the North Atlantic.
Did you focus on writing for television from the beginning?
Yes, I like long form storytelling… actually I can’t help myself, 110 minutes is not enough to develop the story! And I also enjoy spending time with my characters as the story unfolds and impacts their lives, but also exploring their background and life journey.
Over the last five years you’ve developed lots of fantastic projects and you’ve moved increasingly into the crime/mystery and thriller space. How much of that was just the natural evolution of the kinds of stories you were being drawn to and how much of it was a strategic positioning?
I guess that’s what I like to watch as a viewer so it’s something I know. It also draws on my professional experience working in criminal law – it’s a world I knew so that helped give me and the projects credibility as a new writer with no credits.
You’ve been really dedicated to developing your craft, spending the time developing great scripts and projects. But you’ve also been very aware from the beginning of how important is was to build relationships with the industry, that your spec scripts wouldn’t just sell themselves. How did you go about that? What were your earliest experiences of connecting with the industry?
It was at LSF. Once Eurydice and I had developed the female war reporter project we decided to go back to LSF. We researched the speakers and panellists and discovered that Isabelle Pechou (now VP of Creative & Development at Nucleus Media Rights) who then worked in development at the French tv equivalent of BBC2 would be there. So we contacted her ahead of the event and asked to meet her for coffee and she agreed.
We got on great with her, she was lovely and friendly, and we pitched a couple of projects to her and she really liked the second one we pitched. She then asked us if we were attending these other industry festivals and conferences that she regularly went to.
And were those events for writers, or were they more industry focused with distributors, commissioners and producers?
They were mostly industry events across Europe but they had writers attending. And then it’s a game of cat and mouse – you have to chase the mouse (the producer) and go where they are going. It’s tough, it’s a lot of rejection. A lot of effort for very few meetings but every meeting counts and each one gives you another producer contact. At my first attendance at Series Mania I met a talent scout, the lovely Anne Thomen (Athom Entertainment), who had worked at Canal + and NBC Universal. She really liked my projects and introduced me to producers. She has an amazing professional network across Europe and the US.
But when you start doing that, you really have to be ready. I made some mistakes early on. Once you’ve pitched the one or two things you’ve got ready, you hear the phrase ‘what else have you got?’ and you need to be ready with other projects, and if you’re not ready you’re a bit ‘rabbit in the headlights’! But I learned and got ready with other projects that we’re necessarily at spec script stage but I had loglines and short paragraphs that enabled me to pitch other projects verbally.
What impressed me was that from those earliest goes at pitching your projects to people in the industry, you became responsive to the reactions you got. You started to gauge the kinds of projects that were getting interest and you started to build a slate of projects that were the stories you wanted to tell and also the kind of thing that the industry is interested in and commissions and makes.
That’s true. The more events I attended that were the events that producers, commissioners and broadcasters attended, like Content London, Series Mania, Serien Camp and Conecta Fiction, the better a sense I got of what they’re looking for. And from one of the producers that we met at Series Mania through Isabelle I got my first option.
That’s really interesting that on first glance that meeting with Isabelle doesn’t look like it leads to anything because she’s from a broadcaster and she can’t directly option any of the projects that you’ve pitched to her. But you and the projects really impressed her and through her you meet other people and start to build a network.
ON GETTING OPTIONED
So what was the first project to get optioned?
We were attending an event about UK/French co-production and there was a French writer, Herve Hadmar, whose series ‘Witnesses’ had been picked up by Channel Four. After the screening and panel event he was standing on his own, so we went up to him and just chatted. We asked him about the project and he asked us about ours.
One project we mentioned he thought that his producer, Christine de Bourbon from Lincoln TV would really like, so he put us in touch. We met her and pitched a couple of projects. It didn’t feel like any of them stuck and it wasn’t a particularly encouraging meeting, but six months later she came back to us and optioned one of them, a spy drama ‘Networks’ (Reseaux) set in the 1930s about a ‘phone girl’ in Paris embroiled in a spy network, with the rise of the far right as a background.
Did you have an agent in the UK or France at this point?
No, so when the producer said she wanted to option the project we asked if she could recommend a couple of agents we could approach to represent us, which she did. Two of them passed but the third we really got on with and she agreed to represent us.
How did the next project option come about?
It was our atmospheric crime drama series set on small island in the north Atlantic ‘The Beacon’. At another event we pitched it to a small production company Sama Productions who made a couple of long-running dramas. They happened to be refreshing their slate and looking for new projects at that time and our project was a good fit for them. It’s getting lucky and pitching the right project to the right person at the right time.
ON WORKING WITH PRODUCERS
How was the process of working on the project with the production company after it had been optioned?
It was a great learning curve. With the island project we worked very closely with one of the producers at the company and it got close but didn’t quite get greenlit.
With the spy story ‘Networks’ the producer wanted to bring in a more experienced couple of writers to work with us so we ended up in a writers’ room for our own project. It was a bit weird at first. We were the junior writers but it was our idea.
Did that feel like a compromise worth making if it would give the show a better chance of getting made?
Absolutely. The producer felt strongly that with a more experienced, big name writer attached as the lead writer would make the show easier to get greenlit by the broadcaster, and that made sense. It was a really interesting experience.
By then we were used to producers and broadcasters giving us notes but it was a new experience to have a fellow writer giving you their take on your story. Ultimately again it didn’t get greenlit but along the way I was being paid and learning a lot about the development process.
And at this stage, with a couple of projects optioned and being commissioned to write extended series bibles for those shows, were you still developing other ideas? Were you still writing a spec pilot script for those new ideas?
In my experience very few producers in UK, Europe or the US will option a project without seeing a spec script of the pilot, unless you’re a very well established, in-demand writer with a number of produced writing credits.
ON GETTING COMMISSIONED
Are you then also being put forward to write on other people’s projects?
Yes, our agent, Christelle Grossenbacher (AS Talents), put us in touch with a producer who had a project, but they didn’t like the series treatment they had for it. So they hired us to rewrite the series bible taking the show in a different direction. There were a couple of producers on the project who sometimes had conflicting tastes and ideas about what they wanted the show to be, so that was another really interesting learning experience.
Another producer had optioned a series of crime novels and asked me to come onboard the project. There was a French version of the project but he wanted to make it work for a UK audience as well so I was brought it to join a writers room with the original French writers, the director and the producer.
So you’re being hired and commissioned as a professional screenwriter but at this point there still isn’t a greenlit show that’s been announced that you’re working on. Was that something you were prepared for?
No, it’s been a major disappointment. You go into every project hoping it will get greenlit. It’s still very hard to take. There’s a big difference in what you earn in development versus writing a script for an episode of something being made. But more than anything it’s emotional. You put your heart and soul into everything you do and you want it to get made and seen so it’s hard every time that doesn’t happen.
ON DEVELOPING PROJECTS ON SPEC
Alongside all this commissioned work, you’re also still also developing your own original projects and ideas. How do you decide which ideas to spend that time and creative energy on?
Really in the first few years it doesn’t really matter what you write, you just need to write. And it needs to be something you’re passionate about, something that really keeps you going because it’s a tough process. And if there’s passion, your voice will start to come through in the work.
During my studies, I met another budding screenwriter, Rebecca Handley. For a while we were reading each other’s projects to provide feedback. Then we realised that we were providing storytelling ideas to each other and we decided to write together. We both like crime dramas and thrillers, I like period dramas and Rebecca is keen on supernatural as well, so we’re complementary and inspire each other into exploring hybrid genres.
From my time as a criminal law interpreter working with social services I wanted to tell the story of the people working in Child Protection, the unsung heroes. ‘Behind Closed Doors’, a crime drama, was born out this. I had a treatment and loads of notes. Rebecca really liked my story and we decided to co-write the pilot episode.
We entered the script into the BBC Writers Room competition and we came in the top 30 out of 3800 submissions! Rebecca and I use it as our calling card script to meet producers at events and pitch our projects.
How early in the development of an idea do you start writing the pilot script?
I’m sure it’s different for each writer. For me I start with a research document where I’m collating all my notes and ideas. From there I start to develop character biographies. Then I try to write a 2-3 page treatment of what the series looks like, the story arc that will sustain 6+ hours of drama.
Next I start trying to figure out where the episode hooks might come and I’m trying to balance the story across the episodes, making sure there are enough twists and turns in each episode.
I’m also at that point looking at my protagonist’s story of change and trying to make sure that the plot is forcing those moments of change on her journey.
Then I do a beat sheet for the pilot episode then finally I start a first draft of the pilot script. By the time I start writing the pilot script I’ve been living with the characters for a while and I’ve kind of heard their voices in my head, so it’s lovely to finally get that down on paper. You start to really discover all of their quirks. And the world really comes alive – what the place looks and feels like.
Sometimes if I’m stuck on a phase of the development, most often for me that’s breaking the series down into specific episodes, I will park it and go and write a very, very rough draft of the pilot script. No one else will ever read it but sometimes it can help me unlock the creative process. It’s very time-consuming because most of that first draft will get binned. I try to avoid doing it but sometimes if you’re pulling your hair out on it but you still want to keep on the project it can be a way to move forward.
How long would you usually spend on a project before you’ve got a script ready to show people?
It very much depends on how much research you need to do. It’s usually just under a year if I’m working on it nearly full-time, a bit less if there isn’t much research involved.
ON BEING A PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITER
What qualities do you think you need to be a professional tv screenwriter?
You need to enjoy collaboration. Film and tv are all about collaboration and compromise. You need to be able take other people’s ideas on, to accept notes graciously but also to know which things to fight to keep – you learn to pick your battles.
You need to be personable. You need to learn to listen. As a creative you’re really passionate about your projects and stories and you want to talk about them. But I would never start a meeting by pitching my project. I always start by asking them about their projects, what they’re looking for.
I always do my research about them and the production company, what kinds of shows they and the company have made or have in development that might have been announced. Be curious and interested.
What are you trying to discover from that meeting?
One thing is to find out if they are about to start production on something or are just finished filming. If they’re about the go into production on something they won’t have the head space to think about development and the projects you’re pitching for at least the next six months. If they have just wrapped on something or know that the next project into production won’t shoot until six months down the line, they will be much more receptive to your ideas.
If they’re about to go into production, then I make a note to follow up with them in six months’ time. It’s a very long game with producers.
So you’re always trying to find out about the other person and you’re adapting your approach to their circumstances?
Yes, you have to have the passion for your project because if you don’t, no one else will, but you also have to be pragmatic.
Do you feel like you’ve got the hang of it?
No, I’m always learning. There’s always an aspect of it to get better at or something new to learn. And it’s always interesting to see how other writers work. I really enjoyed that aspect of being in a professional writers’ room, seeing other writers’ creative process.
You’ve achieved an enormous amount already. Does it feel like that?
No, it’s frustrating! You never feel like you’ve ‘made it’.
Five years ago you couldn’t persuade anyone to read your script, and now you’re disappointed that the series you’re being paid to write on hasn’t been greenlit yet! You are now a professional screenwriter Delphine, you should be hugely proud of that achievement!
Thank you! It’s in no small part thanks to you Hayley, your help and advice and mentorship. There’s no way my writing would be what it is now if I hadn’t been working with you and Script Angel.
And find out how Script Angel can help you to elevate your writing and projects through our Screenwriter Coaching service.