Subtext Series: Chris Webster & James King
Chris Webster: I grew up in the countryside of merry old England – in a tiny little village which is about a thousand years old. I went to quite a straight-laced school where they prepped you to be a lawyer or a business person or that kind of thing. But I just wanted to be an actor – and so I spent most of my time doing plays, writing stories, and reading.
When I graduated, my parents were all about me going to college to get a “real” degree...and so I went to King’s College London and did a BA in War Studies (the weirdest degree I could find). That’s where I first met James, kicking about with the other drama kids. After bumming about London for the better part of ten years trying to scrape by as a working actor, I moved to Los Angeles with my American wife in 2015. Since then, I’ve actually managed to pay the bills as an actor, which has been a great relief. I’m newer to screenwriting – but it’s the logical and most rewarding thing to do when I’m in between roles.
James King: I moved around a lot as a kid. My grades were good, but my behavior was not –– so I went to a lot of different schools.
My happiest times were in the summers, when I could escape and go work on the crew of this 100-year-old tall ship. In my head, it was a pirate ship. My father had been in the merchant navy so sailing was in my blood, and those summers really instilled in me a passion for travel and adventure –– which I think has bled through into my writing and the types of stories I like to tell.
I remember when I was about sixteen we got caught in a particularly hairy storm crossing the Bay of Biscay. High seas, they call it, which, when you’re stuck in the middle of it, is basically like living on a rollercoaster, as each wave is the size of an apartment building and they come crashing towards you every fifteen seconds. I’d stupidly managed to get my arm wrapped around a metal wire and I thought I was going to lose the limb. The wire had cut right through my rubber overalls and blood was pouring everywhere. I was screaming out for help but no one could hear me as the wind was so strong it just sucked the air right out of my lungs any time I opened my mouth. Amidst all this thunder, lightning, and sideways rain, the sea suddenly erupted with all these dolphins. I mean literally, dozens and dozens of dolphins just filled my field of vision. Hundreds maybe. They’d congregated in this one tiny patch of churning water –– I think they call it a super-pod, when that happens –– and were leaping up in the air and playing around doing flips and screeching and seemingly laughing at my foolish human predicament, totally indifferent to the storm raging around them. I remember thinking in that moment that life was really weird.
CW: I started writing plays during my lean acting years back in London. In fact, I often found myself at my most prolific when I was being creatively stifled in my day-to-day routine. I had one awful corporate office job when I was about 27, full of really sad people bullshitting each other with empty business jargon. It was a tough time – but man, I wrote so much during that period! I’d take myself off to this little church next to the office during my lunch break and just rattle off page after page.
I find with writing that I struggle to make myself do it – it just happens as an organic compulsion of its own. I just have to do it sometimes.
JK: Writing was always a great escape for me. When I was at one particularly miserable school, somewhere way out in the depths of the English countryside, I used to spend rainy afternoons sat on top of this leaky old radiator in a disused science classroom, hiding out from rugby practice and scrawling little adventure stories in my notebook. I think that’s when I really caught the bug for storytelling.
The first film that really blew me away in terms of the writing was Chinatown. They had a published edition of Robert Towne’s screenplay in the local library and I checked it out and would read it over and over again. It was so great, the plot so labyrinthine and the characters so engaging and conflicted and complex. I remember wishing I could create something like that and felt this strong urge that this was something I was meant to do.
"As an outsider coming into that world, it just takes time (and I mean years) of persistent effort to start building those relationships and establishing a reputation of capability. I try to remind myself of that whenever I still feel daunted by the strange machine that is Hollywood." - Chris Webster
CW: I’ve been writing on and off for the better part of ten years, but it was only last year with the sale of American Alligator that I’d been able to translate anything I’d written into something which garnered any kind of professional attention. Did that get me down? Yes. But bear in mind, I’m more than used to my fair share of rejection and disappointment after more than 20 years as an actor.
What I’ve come to understand is that the entertainment industry is like any other – in that it’s all about relationships. People have limited time and energy and as a consequence, they only want to dedicate their resources towards projects (and people) that they already know and trust. As an outsider coming into that world, it just takes time (and I mean years) of persistent effort to start building those relationships and establishing a reputation of capability. I try to remind myself of that whenever I still feel daunted by the strange machine that is Hollywood.
JK: My writing got a bit side-lined during my twenties as I was starting out in the film industry and went through a series of very intense and time-consuming jobs. Firstly, I worked an intern for some fairly well-known film producers, which was a pretty all-encompassing task. Then I went to run an arthouse cinema in the heart of Central London, which was another 24/7 blood, sweat and tears job. After that I spent several years working in the independent film distribution sector, which was a lot of fun and meant I got to travel around to all the major film festivals and see a lot of movies. But eventually I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life –– screenwriting was still where my heart was. This meant I had to step away from a pretty comfortable, secure, well-paid job. This was a tough decision as it meant making a lot of material sacrifices. But that’s just life, anything worth doing requires sacrifice –– and I haven’t regretted it for a second.
"The funny thing is, American Alligator actually came about precisely because I wanted to quit." - Chris Webster
A Writer's Routine
CW: James and I wrote American Alligator more or less in about a week. We went hard every day. We planned it out in minute detail. It was a compelling story and we felt gripped by it and so it just emerged – almost on its own. Other projects take longer to tease out. I’m convinced you can’t really control it one way or the other. I am in awe of writers like Stephen King who can just bust out a few thousand words religiously every day. However, by SK’s own admission, this is no guarantee of quality!
JK: I aspire to one day achieving strict discipline in my writing routine, but I’m not quite there yet. Procrastination remains a daily battle. I’m very guilty of getting lost in research, or spending too much time in the planning stages, making sure all the 3x5 cards on the cork board look perfect, writing outlines that are longer than the scripts themselves, mapping out periphery characters’ dreams, aspirations and dental histories.
This is where having a writing partner like Chris is an absolute godsend. Chris comes to each day with so much energy, determined to get as many words down on as possible, absolutely attacking the blank page. Feeding off each other’s energy and ideas is one of the real benefits of a collaboration –– and certainly helps me pull my head out of my ass when the work needs to get done!
Screenwriting: Reality vs. Fantasy
CW: I think I once had an idea that when you were a writer you had to be precious and fiercely defensive of your work (and sometimes, to my detriment, I still can be). But the reality is that the more amenable and open to input and editing you can be (particularly when you’re writing with someone else), the better.
JK: The reality is that you have to work at your writing every day. Whether you want to or not. Whether you feel inspired to or not. Whether you’ve even getting words down on paper or not. Sometimes trying to break a story problem feels like smashing your head against a brick wall. It can be really tough. You have good days and bad days.
I think there’s this myth of the artist working in intense bursts of divine inspiration, thrashing at the canvas with their paintbrush in a mad fervor –– and it’s true sometimes you do have those moments where you’re totally in the zone and channelling some force greater than yourself. But the majority of the time it’s just hard graft. There’s a lot of unglamorous heavy-lifting. You have to do a lot of work that you know you’re going to throw out in order to get to the right words and the right direction for a story or a scene or an exchange. And then you have to deal with notes and do it all over again!
"It’s the waiting around that I struggle with the most. And there’s an awful lot of waiting around. At times it’s like a Beckett play." - James King
Prepping for That First Meeting
CW: I think my first official meeting as a screenwriter was with Protagonist Pictures, who were interested in optioning the pilot script of American Alligator. I was fortunate in that I’d had a lot of time to work on the pitch and had a really clear idea of the tone and the structure for the rest of the series. And of course I’d done exhaustive research into the company and all their recent projects, watching as many as I could –– I probably stalked everyone who I knew would be on the call’s LinkedIn profiles too, just to get a sense of their tastes and backgrounds. I think the most helpful thing I did was meditate for about 30 minutes before the Zoom call just to calm my nerves!
JK: Honestly, I think I just Zoomed with James. I think we were meeting David [Knoller] – who ultimately came onboard as an EP on American Alligator. We were nervous, but we knew he’d already read our work and had evidently liked it...as he’d been on the panel that had selected it as the ScreenCraft TV Pilot winner. So in that sense, we knew we had a sympathetic audience. I think we just decided to have zero expectations as to what might emerge from the conversation, and just give an honest account of ourselves.
Bringing an Executive Producer On Board
JK: David expressed an interest in coming on board the project right at the start of our very first general meeting, which was amazing but also very surreal and completely caught us off-guard. He’d been an instrumental figure in so many of the shows that we’d grown up with and been inspired by that to hear he wanted to be involved in our project was unreal. But he was super passionate, sincere and confident that the show would sell and just wanted to help out in any way he could. By this point the pilot had been optioned by the guys at Protagonist Pictures and they immediately hit it off with David too, so we were able to come up with an agreement to bring him on board as an EP pretty quickly. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in the support and enthusiasm we’ve received from everyone involved.
A Writer's Low Moment
CW: The funny thing is, American Alligator actually came about precisely because I wanted to quit. It was the summer of 2019, I hadn’t worked as an actor in two years and I was thirty-two. My mother and father had both just passed away and basically nothing seemed to be going right. I wrote a script out of that pain and realized I had no-one to send it to who would care, other than my dear old friend James back in England. I sent it to him, he read it, and told me what I already knew – that it was good but far too angry and sad to ever be commercial.
I was at a really low ebb, and so my wife called James and told him he should come over to California and that he and I should write something together. And guess what? He did! He flew out two weeks later, pitched me American Alligator, and we just got started on that. After that my luck changed. That fall I was cast in my first series-regular role. And sure, a global pandemic showed up not too long after, but I’ve kept up a series of acting roles, sold my first script, and my wife and I are now expecting our first child any day now. Life’s a rollercoaster.
JK: There have definitely been moments where I’ve considered choosing an easier line of work for myself. I can handle the rejection that comes with screenwriting, but it’s the waiting around that I struggle with the most. And there’s an awful lot of waiting around. At times it’s like a Beckett play.
But the problem is the ideas –– when they come to me they hound me and torment me and won’t leave me alone until I’ve figured them out and gotten them down on paper. So long as the ideas keep coming to me, I won’t be able to quit. I’d go insane.
"I left Chris a voicemail telling him the good news, went out for a long run, found a secluded place, and screamed." - James King
CW: I think probably writing work that isn’t in some way provocative [is my fear].
JK: One of my biggest fears is of losing sight of why you’re writing something. What a project means to you on a personal level and what you’re trying to say with it, what kind of worldview you want to express. As you transition from writing being a hobby you do for love, to doing it as a job – something that needs to pay the bills – it’s very easy to become workmanlike about things and view it all through a very business-minded lens. It’s tempting to write things you think people will want, trying to be fashionable or placate the market. But unless you’re saying something with a script that you truly believe in, it’s a pointless endeavor.
Quitting: Not an Option
CW: I’ll be sappy here and say that love got me through it. The love I received from both my wife Mackenzie and from my writing partner James, the faith they had in me...and the love I have for James and the idea he pitched me. And finally the love of story. Because story as a medium for contemplation and self-reflection is just fucking great.
JK: I’m in a writing partnership with one of my best friends, so I have that support system which is great. When one person’s at a low ebb the other person can drag them right back up and supply the necessary pep talk. But I’m also a very stubborn person. Writing is hard and many people will be dismissive and laugh at you for even trying your hand at it. All you can do in the face of that negativity is to just dig your heels in and say: “Screw this, screw everyone, screw the world.” and do it with energy every day.
Waiting to Exhale: The Other Side of Success
CW: Oh no. No sigh of relief here. And I’m not convinced there should be one. I mean, obviously we shouldn’t go around all being neurotic, but I think complacency as any kind of artist breeds sloppy work. Here’s the fucked up thing: I think the best work has to have an element of desperation to it. If it doesn’t need to be said, then why bother saying it all?
JK: There is no relief. But I must say, on that grey January morning, when I turned on my computer and read an email from Neha at ScreenCraft saying we’d won the TV Pilot competition, that was definitely a good moment. A momentary reprieve from the daily dread. I think I may have even mumbled to myself: “That’s good.”
The ScreenCraft Subtext Series is a group of personal interviews with writers who’ve recently taken their first big step into the industry. The interviews hope to shine a spotlight not only on their success but on the journey behind it - the determination, the setbacks, and the persistence that leads a writer to their success. We hope they are inspiring and that you can take a piece of advice or two for forging your path.