Iain MacLeod: Screenwriter
Iain MacLeod is a film and TV writer from Nova Scotia. Educated at York University and the Canadian Film Centre, where he was captain of the soccer team, Iain’s first TV gig was writing sketch on CBC’s Street Cents. Later he spent six seasons on Showcase’s Trailer Park Boys as story editor and the last four of those as one of the writers too. Since then he has consulted on various shows in development, done some teaching and mentoring and also spent a lot of time thinking about joining the Navy. Most recently his co-written feature comedy Beat Down was produced and will be released in theatres this fall.
RUSTY TALK WITH IAIN MACLEOD
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Iain MacLeod: I grew up in rural Nova Scotia, and I can remember playing in the woods a lot and pretending to be a soldier in WW2. I’d make up characters and little story lines. In terms of actual writing-it-down-writing though, I guess that would be writing stories in elementary school. A teacher said to me once I could be a writer. Foolishly I listened to her.
KM: When did you first start writing for film/TV?
IM: As far back as grade twelve I’d fooled around with video but nothing serious. Then when I finished university I somehow convinced my Mum to loan me a lot of money to make a 48-minute film. That was in 1996 and afterwards I made a few more shorts before getting a job at CBC’s Street Cents in 1999.
KM: What inspires the stories you tell?
IM: I think it’s a combination of my neurotic brain and the weird area I grew up, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, which is literally the worst town in Canada (seriously there’s a list and it’s finished last, two years in a row…don’t get too cocky though Toronto you were 47 this year). There’s always something strange going on there and I just love that. So my inspiration is crazy people, myself included? Does that make me bad? It might. I just love people and the nonsense they get up to. Worst species ever…but I love us.
KM: Was there a writer or filmmaker that had a big impact on you?
IM: All kinds really though I’m not quite sure how each person did. My favourite writer for example is Jane Austen (who is the greatest writer in the history of the English-language and I will fist-fight anybody who disagrees) but I don’t think anyone would see her influence in my writing. Should I just say Quentin Tarantino?
KM: What is the writing process like for you when working on your own projects?
IM: I love to write but I also hate it…a lot. It isn’t always that much fun and (I hope) like a lot of writers I avoid it as much as possible. If I’m writing a script there’s usually a long drawn out period of making notes, thinking about structure, and so on. Then there’s an outline and that should be followed by a treatment but often isn’t. Finally, I write the script and that can actually happen fairly quickly if I get on a roll. I find a lot of the process is about waiting, staring at the ceiling, searching Wikipedia etc. Not fun.
KM: How do you approach revision?
IM: With terror. To be fair sometimes it’s not that bad and can even be fun, but I also often feel like “that’s it, I’m done, it’s perfect” when I finish a first draft. And by often I mean always. You have to revise though. I guess?
KM: What was the co-writing process like on your feature film Beat Down?
IM: My co-writer, Deanne Foley, and I have a very similar sensibility (I don’t know if we’re really funny or not but we find each other hilarious) so for the most part the writing went smoothly. It can be a bit complicated to distribute scenes, acts etc. fairly between two people, but there was a lot of talking things through and knowing where we were going first. It ended up taking 2-3 years in the end, and I think that was both a good thing and a bad thing. On the whole though, it was a great experience. I’ve done co-writing where it’s been wonderful and where it’s been an absolute unbearable hell. Writing Beat Down was the former.
KM: What is the biggest difference between writing for film and writing for TV?
IM: Other than the paycheque you mean? I guess it’s that a movie ends but you have to keep coming up with new stories for a TV show. That sounds obvious but it is a really hard thing to do (watch The Beachcombers Season 15 for example). Not all show concepts can sustain that. When I pitch TV series I often hear “that’s a movie” so I guess I haven’t really mastered it myself. Another thing is that, at least in Canada, there are far more people weighing in with notes for TV than with film and not always in a good way.
KM: When getting notes from producers or story editors, what do you do when you get a note that you don’t like or agree with on your script?
IM: I smile and think they’re idiots. That’s actually true. But then if the note’s any good or I respect the person giving it I do seriously consider it, which is something I never used to do when I was younger. Maybe I’m growing up. Ultimately, if you’re getting paid and these are the people who will, hopefully, get your thing made you have to listen. It’s a balancing act though, fighting for your vision on the one hand and hearing different views on the other. It takes a long time to figure that out and given the nature of this business I don’t know that anyone ever does completely. As a general rule though, if you’re getting the same note from different people they’re probably right. Idiots!
KM: Do you have any advice for someone aspiring to write for television? What is the best way to break in?
IM: I don’t have children but whenever I’m asked this question I feel like that’s what it would be like if I did and they asked me about Santa Claus. I genuinely want to be encouraging, but at the same time the simple truth, which is rarely stated unfortunately, is that writing for TV is highly, even brutally, competitive. And not only is it competitive, but also there isn’t a prescribed path to take to break in. It’s not like being a doctor or a welder or a taxi driver or whatever, where as long as you do certain things it will happen. TV is just so unpredictable. One of the things that’s hurt me (and it is possible I just suck too) is it took me a long time to get my head around that. I was trying to apply my small-town Presbyterian worldview to the industry and it wasn’t adding up. Anyway by all means immerse yourself in TV, try to write a brilliant spec script, talk to as many people as you can who are already in the business and so on but my biggest piece of advice is simply, understand just how unpredictable and ridiculous this business is. It’s probably going to be hard no matter what, but if you don’t have that perspective I’m talking about, it will be much harder. And you’ll probably go completely insane (that isn’t a joke). Of course everything I just said only applies to people who aren’t scumbags. For those of you who are, my advice is much simpler, just keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll go far. I’m totally serious by the way—they have a much better shot. Lucky bastards.
KM: What is your favourite moment that you’ve experienced as a writer or filmmaker?
IM: I was in a bar in my hometown once talking with some people a buddy of mine knew. They asked me what I did and I told them and one of them quoted his favourite Trailer Park Boys line, a line I’d written. So that’s probably the best moment. Not quite saving the world but I’ll take it.
KM: What are you working on now?
IM: I have a couple features in development. One of my own, called Soccer Punch, and another with co-writer Ed McNamara, Brobots. I have a few more in pre-development (which is code for I’m not getting paid), and I have some TV pitches I’m working on too. I’m also fooling around with a novel fragment that I wrote when I was in my mid-20s and finally decided to work on again. It’s called Leftovers and is about my hometown (I’m also toying with calling it The Worst Town In Canada).
IAIN MACLEOD'S MOST RECENT FILM
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