As far as writing goes, Chips Hardy has done it all. Advertising, novels, comedy, stage, film, and TV. There isn’t really a medium left that Chips has yet to use to present his complex characters and darkly comedic themes. As such, it felt only necessary that we tap him for as much information as we could, and Mr. Hardy certainly delivered!
When did you first decide that you wanted to pursue a career in screenwriting and what were the first steps you took in making it a reality?
It was a graduated transition. I originally set out to be a novelist. I also wrote plays at school and at Cambridge where I was studying English Literature, and acted in them and others. I was involved in some student films too. I think the main thread was an interest in dark comedy, though. I tried to get a job in the drama department of the BBC and when that didn’t happen I went into advertising to sponsor a barrage of sitcom ideas and pilots that I fired off to companies and broadcasters. That at least got me some near misses and an agent. I also started up collaborations with commercials directors I worked with. Adrian Lynne, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott were shooting them then. I got a gig writing a TV play for Maureen Lipman and other stuff followed but chiefly in TV. After a while though, the film medium called, and again with a friend I’d met through commercials – Alex Winter – I decided to take the time to work in depth on screenplays rather than TV comedies, investing the time in the way I had with novels. And by advancing on all fronts I got somewhere. In terms of craft, I’m pretty much self taught, a bit of Syd Field in the early stages and a lot of listening to the experienced people I was working with.
You’ve written a novel, as well as, for the stage and for the screen. Which medium is your favourite to write for and why?
They have separate advantages and demands. A novel allows you to build atmospheres and arenas upon each other that unfold behind the narrative. You get to play with unreliable narrators more easily, too, in my view. That said, I firmly believe long form television drama is growing into the equivalent of the novel, particularly when producers see the need to build in mood and context for the narrative. Film has a more defined paradigm devoted to protagonist, challenge and trajectory; this makes you slim down your stories till they have a mythic intensity, and I enjoy that discipline. A stage play is where you have the most creative freedom and yet you’re under the most intense scrutiny. You’re building the whole piece, world and players through the adroit and spare use of dialogue. I’ve found different levels of creative interference in each medium. Stage actors and directors generally respect the text, and you have to make sure it’s worthy of that. In film you’re crowded with external input and controls. The payoff is greater exposure and, hopefully, a more cogent script. And there is a similar situation in television, though I’ve found that inclusive collaboration is encouraged. You’re likely to encounter less collaborative input when writing a novel, though there’ll be an editor with a red pencil somewhere down the line. As for a favourite, it depends what I want to say and in what voice.
You’ve written on some dark topics, including self-harm and addiction. How important do you think it is for creatives, especially writers, to engage with the darker side of life?
We deal in human truths. And darkness is ever present. You wouldn’t see the light without it. Compulsive behaviours like addiction, co-dependency and the rest, all involve intriguing levels of deception, illusion and dislocation from self that bring the workings of the human mind into sharp focus. For me compulsive behaviour is only a distortion or an intensification of what everybody feels or has somewhere inside. So there is darkness everywhere, as of course there is light and redemption. I’ve written a fair amount of comedy – for Dave Allen, as an example – and darkness is an essential presence and often a premise for any comic release. You don’t laugh at things that are OK. So, if your work includes a foray into the darker side, you’ve got most things covered.
As far as writing for the screen, there’s always the issue of practical limitations (usually relating to the budget). Could you give us one example of how this hurdle has affected you and how did you handle it?
I’ve had no sudden surprises. Number of cast and scale of locations are pretty much standard as a creative constraint – on stage as well. They’re not going to let you have a wide shot of Death Valley for two lines of dialogue, unless the whole film turns on those lines. If every element in your script is effective and has purpose, money or lack of it doesn’t become an issue. There’s always a way to maintain that purpose. And often the piece is all the sharper for that creative constraint. Just accept it as a grown up part of the craft. Let’s face it; any production ‘hurdle’ is a five star problem because your stuff is being made.
From what I’ve seen, all your work has a heavy focus on character (usually one main protagonist). Can you think of any reasons why characters are such an important base for you as a writer?
While I love films like Battle Of Algiers or Le Quattro Volte, I’ve always needed people and dialogue to keep focus on what I’m trying to investigate. In comedy , I’ve always been dialogue and physical comedy strong; I couldn’t write Tati’s Traffic, or something like that. It would be too distant a metaphor for the challenging and often random reality of human interaction. And the same goes for drama, only more so. Characters give the most immediate access to human truths and untruths. Their language lets you explore all kinds of perspectives on any situation. They occupy the cartilage between you and your intended audience, partly independent and part the embodiment of what you as a writer have to offer. I don’t necessarily select one protagonist to be the repository of all I want to achieve, though in film and television drama that’s encouraged. I people my stories with the essential crew needed to bring them home.
Based on your work on Taboo, how difficult is it to write for a period piece? How much research did you do going into it?
It’s not easy to convey a period in history with full accuracy and at the same time keep your narrative fluid. It puts another layer onto your invention and your story. With Taboo the story centred on the main character playing out his dislocation and the various conflicting elements behind his vengeful onslaught on a decaying society. I had to make sure that the character and his historical setting complemented and fed into each other completely. So I knew why I was researching the period – to feed and enhance the narrative and characters playing it out. That’s a writer’s logic rather than an academic’s. I researched as I wrote, over months, looking for the distractions and irritations of everyday life, the connivance of the powerful, the general lack of hygiene and health, social weirdnesses, random events, unknown or bad behaviour, the scummy and the confused as well as the glittering and dramatic, the kind of things that don’t make their way into popular history but actually power up the authenticity. The whole team on Taboo was very strong on research, in order to be able to take off from a firm factual base.
Obviously, you worked on Taboo with your son. With, or without, family, how important is it to work on a creative project with people you like and trust?
It’s far more productive if you’re with people you trust, and even better if you like them too. Affinity produces a kind of creative shorthand between you all, which means you work more closely, more sensitively and I believe more creatively and successfully. Collaboration means you have to set egos aside and work for the piece in its purest form. That happens more readily with people you know, and with people whose talent you know you can trust. And you can see it works. In fact once it starts with a core of people, it will spread throughout the production. Trust breeds trust. And people enjoy it and live up to it. If you don’t know anybody on the production, just following your craft and respecting the work will soon introduce you to similar minded people on the project, and it’ll take off from there.
If someone wants to pursue a career in writing, how would you recommend they go about it?
Persist. You’ll know the areas that interest you. Put some synopses together. Then write. Just write. If you enjoy it or if you don’t like it much but can’t stop, keep writing. When you have something you’re proud of, show it to someone. Try and get some representation. If you can’t secure that early on, the feedback will still be invaluable. And the connectivity.
Agents can be tricky about unsolicited material though may read a letter and maybe an outline, but independent filmmakers, fringe theatres, small indie publishers and digital outlets will often look and talk. Take the writers you like, see in what sphere they operate (agent, production companies, publishers) and see if you can connect in those arenas. Broadcasters do new writers schemes and competitions. So do journals and magazines. Go for them. Remember there is a need for material. Good material.
Don’t worry if you can’t write full time. I know precious few people who do at the beginning. But if you have another job or interest or obligation, promise yourself to keep your writing as your primary purpose. That’ll give you the resilience it takes to get your work out there.
What would your top three tips for up and coming writing be?
These three things have helped me and continue to do so,
- Know why you’re writing what you’re writing. You’ll have to explain it to somebody (Potential agent, production company, theatre company) if you want it to go any further.
- Watch other people’s stuff. Read other peoples stuff. Be honest about what you like and what you don’t. Write for you. Learn from others.
- Accept rejection as inevitable and as irrelevant as a rain shower. Everybody gets knocked back, at whatever level they’re operating. It happens often and also on many occasions unfairly. Throw it away or it will slow you down. It’s just part of the job.
Interview by Reece Mawhinney. (Image of Taboo, courtesy of BBC. Image of Chips, courtesy of UnitedAgents)