Laura Cotton tells us why being script editor for Being Human is "the best job in the world!"
When the credits roll at the end of Being Human and you stuff your fingers into your ears to block out the inane prattling of the continuity announcer, how many of the names going past do you recognise? Sure, you know the names of the stars, and probably showrunner Toby Whithouse. If you’re really clued up you might be able to name the writer and director. But making an hour of TV is a team game which relies on scores of people, all furiously beavering away.
If you have paid attention to Laura's name as it scrolls past, you’ll know that she’s the show's script editor. But what exactly does a script editor’s job involve? Do they write all the scripts? Er, not quite. Do they go through 'em with a pink highlighter marking up incorrect apostrophe usage? Or is their job simply to put the scripts in an attractive binder, and award a gold star to anyone who makes a particularly creative cock joke? Look, tell you what, why don’t we stop posing stupid questions and actually ask Laura?
SFX: What was the career path that you took to become a script editor?
Laura Cotton: I started out as a runner, then I became a production secretary, and then a production co-ordinator, so I come from the production side of things. I thought script-editing looked much more interesting and so I made the leap. I was really lucky. I got a job script-editing a BBC show called Belonging which is a regional drama set in the Valleys - Eve Myles was in that, as her first job. Then I did a show called Crash , which was another regional drama by Tony Jordan from [independent production company] Red Planet. Then I was really lucky and got the job on Being Human , and I’ve been here since the start of series three. I’ve been very lucky and blessed with all the people that I’ve worked with.
I think a lot of SF fans’ idea of what a script editor does – if they have one at all – goes back to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when the script editor used to be the person who commissioned all the scripts, and would often end up heavily rewriting them. But it’s not really like that any more, is it?
“I think it has changed a bit, yeah. And it’s slightly different company to company or even programme to programme, in terms of the script editor’s involvement. I’m really lucky on Being Human , in that I feel very involved in it. There’s three of us in the room story-lining from the very start: myself, [showrunner] Toby Whithouse and [producer] Phil Trethowan. It’s just the three of us, and we sit in front of a big empty whiteboard and say, ‘Right, what do you want to happen this series?’ Then it’s, ‘We want Annie to have a really strong journey this series’, or whatever. We start putting up those headlines and we just work from there, really.
“We also think about the guest characters that we would like to see, in terms of whether we’d like to see a WAG like we did with Sasha [the zombie in series three’s “Type 4”. We always start from the character point of view. We storyline it for a few months, then we get the writers in once we’ve got a shape for the series and a rough shape for the episodes, and match that up with the writers.
“Once the writers are on board the three of us give notes, whether that’s on an outline to begin with or an actual draft. Then at a slightly later stage, Rob Pursey, who’s our other executive producer, comes in with a fresh eye once we’ve got it into a certain state. From then on, it’s the four of us giving notes. As a script editor you're there as support for the writers if they’ve got any questions or they want to chat through a story problem.”
So you’re the first port of call when they’re having problems…?
“Yeah, I guess so.”
.... the one holding their hand a bit!
“No, not really! Our writers are great - they don’t really need their hands holding! But yeah, I’m absolutely here if they want to chat anything through. And I’ll talk it through with Toby and Phil as well and we’ll all come up with solutions, so it’s quite a community affair on Being Human .”
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So is being involved right at the start in the storylining of a series, like you are, unusual for a script editor?
“It does vary. I’ve worked before when the script editor comes in at a much later stage and is only there for the taking notes at the script meeting - and I do that as well. But I think I’m really lucky on Being Human in that I feel creatively involved too.
“Then there’s the other side of the job. You have to make sure that everything’s cleared, any names or products, and also that we are in compliance. So I deal with the BBC compliance and make sure that we’ve got the correct amount of violence, profanity and religious profanity, and all of that.
And if there isn’t enough, you’ll put more in?
“Yeah, that’s exactly how it works! The BBC are always saying, ‘ Please can we have more ‘fucks’ in Being Human ?’, and I’ll say, ‘Okay, well if you insist, I shall wedge them in there!’ No, usually it’s taking them out: they are guardians, quite rightly, of our morals!”
Is it hard to translate BBC advice on things like swearing into a script? I can imagine that leading to some odd conversations!
“Yeah, it can, but often the advice is there for good reasons. And because we’re on at nine o'clock on a digital channel I think we get a lot more leeway than we would if we were on at eight o'clock or nine o'clock on BBC One or BBC Two. They know the audience is a comedy-horror audience and that they have certain expectations. But yeah, you can end up having some ridiculous conversations about how many ‘fucks’ you’re allowed, and it can be quite funny!”
Can you think of an example where you have had to change something in the script because of compliance?
“Well when series two was being broadcast there was quite a lot in the news to do with knife crime, so with series three they were really concerned about the number of knife attacks that we had in the script for episode seven, because Herrick stabs Nina with a knife and there were a few other instances with knives. In the script originally there was a scene where the police attack the house near the end of the episode and Mitchell tries to hold them off, and he’s pleading with Annie to let him escape, and they said we had to cut down the number of knives in the episode. So what we did in the end was that he grabbed a bottle off the sideboard and smashed the bottle and threatened them with a smashed bottle. I think that’s equally as violent, but it was that thing that repeated knife imagery was unacceptable. So you ended up with something equally as violent, but I suppose it was just about imitative behaviour.”
I guess if you’re using knives a lot it starts to look like something habitual and everyday.
“Yeah, like you’re sort of sanctioning it in some way.”
So typically how many drafts does a script go through before it’s the finished shooting script?
“It depends on the writer and on the process. Sometimes you just can’t get the story right, and that’s not because of the writer at all, it’s just the story we came up with in the first place wasn’t good, so you get a few drafts done before you realise that! But mostly it’s around four or five drafts and then a lot of fiddling right at the end. Toby, because he knows the show so well, tends to do three, and some of the newer writers can do up to eight, but yeah, I would say typically four or five.”
And presumably even when you’ve got the shooting script locked down there are still last-minute changes that are your responsibility?
“Yeah, part of my job is to deal with amendments. So it could be that you’ve written a scene outside, and then on the day they go to film it it’s absolutely pouring down. That happened with the episode with George’s dad in the caravan: we were meant to have a scene of them outside in the park, but there was absolutely torrential rain, and I think it ended up being in a café. So on the day I had to amend the dialogue, because there were references to it being outside and we just couldn’t shoot it outside.”
Do you tend to be there on set, or do they ring you up in the office?
“I go out to set most days, just at the start, to check that everything’s okay, but any emergencies tend to be rung through.”
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On our magazine we have a “style sheet” which tries to define the style of the mag and give some does and don'ts for new writers. Is there any Being Human equivalent of that? Do you have a list of “phrases we never want to hear on this show” or guidance on how characters speak, or is it more open than that?
“Well we know the characters, we were there at the inception of the characters, so we tend to have a really good idea of the voices.”
But with new writers? Presumably you talk it through with them?
“Yeah, that’s part of the noting process. You’ll say, ‘I don’t think Tom would say this.’”
And how does the process of clearing names and so on work?
“We have somebody who’s called a neg checker who deals with that sort of thing - they do all the legal searches for us. We send them the scripts and a list of things, and the art department will give us a list of things as well. If we’re featuring something, we can’t feature a brand on the BBC, so the art department have to make up their own products.
“A lot of the stuff that I do, actually, when we’re in production is the newspapers. In Being Human we seem to have had loads of storylines surrounding newspapers, and they’ll be in things quite naffly called The National Gazette or The Barry Post – things like that, that don’t actually exist! Then I’ll have to write all the articles that go in the newspaper."
I guess that’s the problem nowadays when people watch programmes in HD and can pause them – you can’t get away with having repeated cut-and-paste waffle filling a page!
“Actually we had that once, and the bloggers picked up on it and said, ‘It’s written to a certain point and then they’ve just repeated the words, or it goes into gobbledegook.' So we have to write the whole articles now – curse those eagle-eyed viewers! It was a nightmare with the Box Tunnel storyline in series three, because Mitchell had this massive scrapbook that was full, so you can imagine the amount of work. We got all the writers involved with those as well: the writers wrote about ten articles each and I wrote about fifty articles. So there was a lot of work that went into that. And in this series as well, we’ve got a few newspapers that have had to be written.”
So when the newspaper flashes up on screen for about one second, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘That took me all day!’
“Yeah, but it’s all worth it. Everybody who works on Being Human genuinely cares about the show so much that everybody goes that extra mile. There’s brilliant details in the set that you would probably never ever notice on screen. One example is that the art department makes sure that whenever we're in a vampire's domain, there will always be a button-down sofa. The house – button-down sofa. The World War I officer we see in Mitchell's purgatory in series three – button-down sofa. There's loads of examples. It's one of those brilliant unknown facts that I love about the series. Every single department goes that extra mile, so it’s up to us to do that too. So if that means writing the whole newspaper, then that means writing the whole newspaper!”
It sounds like very hard work, but a very rewarding job.
“Yeah, it’s the best job in the world!”
Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman
Read our Being Human series four reviews .
You’ll be able to read a bit more from this interview in SFX221, on sale 4 April.