Interview with writer Paul Longley

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

The first thing I ever remember writing was a story to read to my brother when he was a baby. I was about 4 at the time. I was a superhero named “Super Paul” and there was a dinosaur in it. I didn’t save the day surprisingly, I was eaten by the dinosaur… very bleak ending from a 4 year old.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

My earliest ever memories as a child were watching Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” with my grandparents, which my parents didn’t know about until I went to Sunday School and called the vicar a “liar” because he kept saying some guy called “Jesus” was the son of God – his name was Brian. So I think from there really, effectively I was brainwashed with comedy as a child.

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

You just need to get it off the page, there’s no point waiting for someone to read it in the hope they will get it made. Either film the whole thing, film a section of it… Even record it in a podcast format. Anything to get it off the page and bring your vision to life.

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

I have a real obsession with collecting character traits and turns of phrase from people I meet. The title character in “At Home with… Nick Mullins” is made up of three people… all of which I work with, all of which have seen it, and none of which have noticed themselves in him, which I absolutely love. I do it for everything, the minute I meet someone new or hear an unusual phrase or witness a character trait that I find striking, I instantly have this excitable itch to put it into something or develop a character from it.  

  • Can you explain your character development process?

It varies, sometimes it comes instantly, other times it can be a slower, more thought out process. I wait until I’ve found all the right pieces. It’s hard to explain, but I know when I’ve got all the right traits and components, I can feel it. On occasion in the past I’ve tried to lie to myself and pretend that I have and the end product was not as good, and on finishing it, I could see what it lacked. So now, I wait until I get that feeling, the feeling that I know who they are. (That might be the most pompous thing I’ve ever said, so, in short, I mess around in my bedroom playing make-believe until I’ve found something other people other than just myself might laugh at.)

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

I start with a lot of hot seating on my own usually. Try and find the voice first, then see what comes out, from there I can start to flesh them out a lot easier, so I basically do the bio out loud and see what sticks. Once the voice is right, everything begins to fall into place much quicker and it’s easier to be truer to the character once you can begin to embody them in someway. (Again, in short, I basically just play make-believe in my bedroom for hours on end until it’s time for dinner.)

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?

Too much! So many are based on people or traits of people that I know well and are in regular contact with, so I am regularly surrounded by elements of my characters, which is sort of like having my own secret world purely for my own entertainment. Some of the characters in scripts I’ve co-written with my writing partner we’ve now been with for the best part of 8 years, so they are very real to us. We will see someone in act in a certain way, and turn to each other and say:  “That was a very Chris to behave…” or “That was a very Robin thing to say”. It’s usually not flattering, so in that sense it also doubles as good code. 

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

Well the best comedies are made in its structure. It’s all well and good having a brilliant character and a great situation, but then if you drag out the story, undersell certain elements or are just unclear with the story you are trying to tell, then it’ll all going to be wasted. Especially nowadays, people get bored very quickly so it needs to be tight and concise to keep people hooked and engaged – they might laugh 5 times in the first minute, but if the next two are slow and a bit saggy then they will turn off. 

  •  Do you outline before you start writing?

I tend to use different methods for different styles of comedy. For “At Home with… Nick Mullins” for example, because it was always going to be a short comedy, I just had a word document with a long list of topics I wanted Nick Mullins to cover about himself and funny things he could be doing. Then I started piecing it all together like jigsaw to create a rough structure and shaped and reshaped to start to tell his story properly. The main thing is to never over complicate, especially when you have loads of ideas. It’s tough, but sometimes you have to be strict and lose some funny stuff to make sure the whole project is slick and moves at a good pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome. 

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

Honesty. They need to feel real. Audiences laugh harder and longer when they truly believe in your character.