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Make it Happen: in conversation with Paul Viragh

Cahootify – a free software platform empowering independent producers, filmmakers and actors – is hosting a three-day film conference in Bristol on 22 April, welcoming some of the industry’s most established professionals, including renowned actor and screenwriter Paul Viragh. Here, Paul delves into his career and offers some advice to aspiring writers…

On a mission to further the careers of independent producers, filmmakers and actors, Cahootify describes itself as a cross between LinkedIn and IMDb. A free software platform, it acts as a professional industry calling card with tools to help people create an impressive online portfolio. It also allows users to advertise or express interest in requirements for their upcoming projects, whether it be a call out for crew members or an announcement about paid partnership opportunities. What’s more, Cahootify runs engaging events for all those interested in making their creative mark. On 22 April, the team is inviting aspiring filmmakers, directors, producers and writers to join them at their JustMakeIt! Film Conference, taking place at the Richmond Building in Clifton. Hailed on their website as being “probably the most inspiring little film conference in the world”, the three-day event comprises of film screenings, music performances, Q&As and talks from established film industry professionals. On the bill is renowned showrunner Matthew Graham, who will be talking about how to go from being a screenwriter to US-style showrunner; Aardman Animations’ senior creative Gavin Strange, who will be sharing the valuable lessons he’s learned in his career; Fundsurfer co-founder Oliver Randall Mochizuki, who will be explaining how to crowdfund £50,000 for a feature film; and screenwriter Paul Viragh, who will be speaking about the definitions of story and plot.

Ahead of the conference this month, the Cahootify team sat down with Paul to delve into his long and illustrious career, which saw him appear in numerous cult classics such as The Bill, Grange Hill, Casualty and Midsomer Murders before going on to write the acclaimed musical Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biography of punk rock musician Ian Dury. Light-hearted yet honest, Paul speaks openly about the hardships of his profession, never failing, however, to encourage budding writers to strive for big things. What follows has been edited for clarity.

Above: screenwriter Paul Viragh will be talking about the definitions of story and plot at the JustMakeIt! Film Conference

C: How did you find your start in the creative arts? Did you know what you wanted to do? What did you do to find your way?
PV: My mother was an actress, lots of friends of the family were actors, I’d seen what a miserable life it was so I went and did a physics degree. Then that made me realise maybe the world of acting wasn’t so bad. After about 15 years, I got really dissatisfied with the scripts. Around that time a whole bunch of us decided we’d like to try a bit on the other side of the camera. A couple of writers wanted to do some directing, a couple of actors wanted to do some writing, we managed to get a bit of funding together and we started making short films. The reason I chose writing was because it was the thing that bothered me most as an actor. You end up with a job where you get good or bad words, and I decided that I’d be the one to try and fix that. I don’t know if I’m doing any better than anybody that gave me a script, but I thought that was the area to try.

What attracted you to telling Ian Dury’s story in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll?
I had a very lucky break in that I got to go to the Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival]. They have a thing there called the Talent Campus [now the Berlinale Talents] which is where they bring together new writers and directors from all over the world. It was one of the very early ones so people like Stephen Frears were there. It was fascinating. When I got back, I approached one of my mates who I’d done some short films with, Andy Serkis, who of course everyone knows now but at the time we were all just actors running around, jobbing. I said “would you be in it?” he said he’d like to direct it, so we put it together and we had approached actors like Bruno Ganz and Martina Gedeck. We were doing really well, and then the whole thing fell apart, which was unfortunate. I think we were both a bit depressed about that so we met for a pint in a pub called the Blue Posts in Soho. It had terribly sticky floors as I remember and we didn’t have any money with us, which was a bit odd, so we could only afford one pint, which we didn’t even ask for in two half pint glasses, so we shared out the same pint glass outside the Blue Post, and I said “what about doing Ian Dury?” Andy had worked with Ian, he’d done a musical with him and he said he’d be really excited about doing it. So, I put a little pitch together.

Then, we go up to Soho again, to the Bar Italia and the producer, Damien Jones, came to join us. As he was approaching, Andy leant over to me and said “Do you think we should ask to be Executive Producers?” and I said “Yes that’s a really great idea.” So we did at the end of the conversation, and obviously Damien agreed. Often most people’s first time stories are quite hard work, you know “took me 20 years”, “couldn’t raise the money” – this was really easy! My agent went to university with Ian’s daughter and so she introduced us to Ian’s widow, and we went round and met her and her two children. So, having the idea was about 2009, and within about 18 months we were on set doing it, which is unusual to say the least, I’ve tried to do it since and it’s not possible.

What do you look for when finding a subject to write about?
I think there are just things in life that you’re interested in. The usual maxim is ‘you write what you know’, but I’m not sure if that’s entirely true. You write about what you’re interested in and bizarrely it happens to be something to do with you. The difficulty with being a writer is that there are a million ways to tell a story and you have to decide which way you’re going to tell it. If you don’t have an opinion, or you don’t feel strongly about it, don’t do it because it will be an absolute nightmare.

What were some of the challenges and responsibilities that you noticed about telling Ian Dury’s story in particular?
My way of working is an actor’s way of working as a writer, which is something a lot of writers don’t have access to. It’s a lot of research, it’s a lot of trying to find out how people really are, rather than how you picture them to be. To do that, you have to talk to a lot of people, and if people are generous enough to give you the access to their life, then you are under a massive responsibility to do a good job. You feel a responsibility to the person, their life and what they meant to their nearest and dearest, what they meant to their fans or to the wider world. There’s also a responsibility as a writer to bring the humanity. When I took the first draft that I wrote of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll to Ian’s widow, she gave me permission to go as far as I needed to. We all then felt like we had permission to do something that was very close to what Ian really was, truthfully. Interestingly, the ones I’ve worked on where the person is no longer with us, you can do more. The ones that are about people who are still alive, the scripts often end up being a little bit of a hagiography.

Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.
Being, I suppose, a bit of a restless spirit, a few years ago I decided I wanted to do a bit more directing again. A friend of mine and I did a short film. We put it in to a short film festival and it did pretty well, which was quite impressive considering it was shot in an evening. At the same time an old friend of mine, who I’d met on the Ian Dury project; interesting thing about that Ian Dury project was that because it was about a disabled man, there was a mentoring scheme for disabled filmmakers. Every head of department, (camera, wardrobe, make-up) had a disabled mentee, who’d come along and learn about the business, from that particular angle. I had four mentees, of which one was a wheelchair user, an actor called David Proud, who then went on to become the first wheelchair user in EastEnders. Cut to about five or six years later, we had co-written on a couple of things. He had recently gone to the Wellcome Trust, who had given him some money to do an [Engagement] Fellowship. He began investigating the future of disability, which sounded like a great documentary idea, so that’s what we’re doing now. Unfortunately, Covid got in the way, the pandemic stopped everybody; a lot of what we’re trying to do is shot in America to give it a global feel.

What determines what you want to do and how do you make it happen?
This is going to be depressing for people [reading] this but the truth of the matter is: it takes a long time to get a real facility with writing. There’s no real shortcut, you just have to keep churning the words out. The 18 months it took for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll; from having that beer to being stood on set with Mat [Whitecross], Damian [Jones] and Andy [Serkis] – that doesn’t happen very often. And certainly, in the experience of most writers on their first film, that really doesn’t happen. If you’re saying, for instance, there’s a 10 to 1 development to production ratio, and you’ve got to write 10 scripts, that means you’ve got to write 30 scripts to get 1-3 films made. My advice is make sure that a: it’s something quite interesting. And b: it’s something that lots of people want to come and see, because if lots of people don’t want to come and see your film, then why are you doing it? Another consideration is what would you get known for? Where would it take you? I’ve been offered just about every music-type film because of Ian Dury. Do I feel that’s my only area? Not sure that I do.

Above: Paul Viragh (left) with actor Andy Serkis (centre) and director Mat Whitecross (right) | Image credit: Larry Busacca

What will you be talking about at Cahootify’s ‘Just Make It’ conference and what do you hope to take from it?
What I’m going to be talking about at the conference is story and what that really is and what it means, because it’s one of the more complicated things. Lots of execs don’t know what it is. People know it when they see it, so it’s a kind of an elusive concept. My expectational hope is that I can bring just a few little illuminations of what it is. If you can see the story, it’s very simple. When it’s brilliant, it’s utterly brilliant. It’s very different to plot, however. You’ve got to know the difference because it’s almost fundamental and it affects everything. It affects character, location, everything afterwards, whether anyone is going to come and see it. That’s what I’m going to talk about.

At the end of the day, I have a certain amount of experience in a lot of different areas of the industry, which makes me different to a lot of writers. It’s a tough old business, but there are opportunities for people who are prepared to work out how to do it. It really is 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration. There’s no genius to it.

What advice do you have for people who don’t know where to start, or don’t feel confident in getting their project made?
If somebody’s got a project and they’re not entirely sure what to do, feeling a bit unconfident about it, there are a few things that can be offered up to help. Frankly, you’ve got to look at yourself first, that’s the truth. Have I read the books? Have I done the online courses? Have I practiced enough? Am I working hard enough? Obviously, there is always the ‘give the project to somebody you know’. Don’t give it to someone you don’t respect and don’t give it to somebody who doesn’t have a good understanding of script. Most people think they can read scripts, but it’s really quite hard to read scripts. They’re a very specific, technical document in a lot of ways. The other thing that helped me is a mentor. Find somebody who is prepared to mentor you, to read your work. The more people you talk to who know what they’re talking about, the more experience you’ll get because the stories are all the same – they’re all going through the same process. I would also say talk to other writers, other filmmakers, talk. Do lots of talking. Theoretically, if you pick the right people, these are the people who are going to be with you in the business, sooner or later. The number of people I’ve had come up to me on set and go, “Hi Paul, how are you?” And you go “Oh, great…who is this?” And it turns out they were the runner and now they’re the executive producer, so good job you were nice to them! The ultimate thing is that it’s all in your hands, you can make it happen, but you do have to make it happen yourself.

JustMakeIt! Film Conference is taking place at the Richmond Building in Clifton from 22 April. For ticket prices and more information about the event, visit: cahootify.com

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