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'Gosford Park' Screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the Power of the Unproduced Screenplay

Many screenwriters don’t take the most direct path to their eventual position of writing for the screen. Some may strive to become directors, but realize they can’t find the right material to shoot, so they have to write it themselves. Others may write for different media and get sucked into this strange economical style of storytelling in the screenplay format. And others still may have pursued a career in acting, run up against too many obstacles to launch their careers, and found themselves writing content for the screen instead of acting it out on the screen. Hailing from this latter category, British screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Academy Award winner for Gosford Park, Downton Abbey writer/creator) practically stumbled into the role of screenwriter when his acting career didn’t take off. In his recent British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Screenwriting Lecture, he tells the tale of how he started his screenwriting career and how he found “overnight success” on his road to winning the Oscar for writing Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman.

You can listen to Julian Fellowes’ entire BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture here:

Tucked in between anecdotes, Fellowes gives aspiring screenwriters a key piece of advice:

I think one always has to remember when you’re writing a script, if some of you are writers who haven’t yet been produced, when you’re writing a script it isn’t necessarily going to be that that script gets made, but what it may do is be an audition that opens the door.

Fellowes goes on to tell an excellent tale about how the actor Bob Balaban introduced Fellowes’ writing to Robert Altman, but you’ll have to listen to the lecture (or check out the transcript) for that one.

Of course, aspiring screenwriters always hope or believe that the screenplay they are writing now will be made. Otherwise, why else are they writing it? In reality, the screenplay that turns an aspiring screenwriter into a professional screenwriter may never reach the screen. Even several screenplays written as a professional screenwriter (i.e. paid) will likely never make it to the screen. Each screenplay, however, has the possibility of leading to the next (hopefully paid) gig.

And as Julian Fellowes can certainly attest, you never know exactly how or when one of your screenplays will launch your career.

Do you have a story about how one of your spec screenplays paved the way to another writing gig? Share with us in the Comments.

Link: BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture – Julian Fellowes

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  • Right on. When the production company I was working for was in development on a new script, I was unhappy with all the revisions being made. I felt I could do better.

    This was ten years ago, I was so young, and I didn’t even have a computer. But I stayed late to work every night for a week and wrote my own version of the third act. When my boss was at his wits’ end with the current writer, I casually mentioned I’d been working on a version.

    “Send it to me,” he said. When we ran out the contract with that writer, I was chosen to write the next draft. It remains unproduced, but what a valuable experience!

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