On their first day at the NFTS new students were treated to an inspiring masterclass with multi BAFTA winning writer-director Sally Wainwright, creator of hugely successful series such as Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.  

NFTS Head of Editing, Richard Cox, Sally Wainwright and NFTS students

She wrote and directed the highly acclaimed To Walk Invisible about the Bronte sisters, and has a new series coming out later this year, Gentleman Jack, which tells the story of remarkable early 19th century Yorkshire-woman Anne Lister.

Still from Gentleman Jack

Sally was chatting to NFTS Head of Editing, Richard Cox - who is Sally’s editor. Richard began by saying what a joy Sally is to work with and asked how she started out. She told students she’d known from the age of twelve that she wanted to write for TV.  And how growing up in Halifax, long running TV serial Coronation Street was massive, and she wanted to write for that but knew that she “wanted to write very realistically, very down to earth things.”  She recalled how she wrote a play while at University, which she took to be performed at Edinburgh and that she wrote to all the people whose work she liked on TV inviting them to come to see it.  “No-one came”, she laughed, “but, one agent asked to see the script, I sent it and she took me on.  That’s the thing – you have to put yourself out there.  People are looking for talent; you shouldn’t ever feel you can’t knock on a door.”  She moved to London, and spent 18 months working as a bus driver.  “And took the time to read loads.”

Still from Happy Valley

She advised students that she never worries about what broadcasters are looking for “because by the time you figure it out, what they are looking for has changed.  I write what I want to see on telly, what I want to watch.  You have to keep in touch with your instincts about what would be interesting.”  Discussing the creative process, she told students “Inspiration is the tiny part, and then making a really cracking story is hard work, you have to really work at it.  Screen time is precious – if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right.”

Sally Wainwright and NFTS Head of Editing, Richard Cox

Richard complimented how as an editor reading her scripts he could tell which character is speaking without needing to see the character name.   Sally agreed it was important to properly establish distinct characters, and talked about how she liked to create them.  “I have actors I love working with and I’ll latch onto things from them when I’m writing characters, whether they end up playing the part or not, it helps form the character.”  Adding, “I like complex, flawed, funny characters.”

Still from To Walk Invisible

Turning to how Sally writes dialogue, Richard said she’s well known for her distinctive style of writing, in short or unfinished sentences and non-sequiturs.  Sally said, “Realistic dialogue is jagged, for a number of reasons.  We often don’t finish a sentence, or other people finish them for you, or we hope that they understand what we want to say without us having to actually say it.”

Sally had been hugely successful as a writer and in 2013 began directing as well.  She revealed it was something she’d always wanted to do, but the writing took off first and the directing got left behind.  She studied a short course at the NFTS when she decided she wanted to move into directing as well.  “A lot of directors get to where they are just through confidence.  That is half the battle, pushing yourself out there”, she advised students.  Reflecting on what it takes she said, “You have to know what you’re talking about, especially with actors.  And you’ve got to put the hours in.  A director has to be 100% obsessed.  I love directing, it’s the best thing in the world.  It’s even better than…” she pauses to consider what could even come close, “…tea!”

Last Tango in Halifax cast

One of the students asked Sally about writing dialogue and she said “I think it’s a bit like being able to draw – some people have a talent for it.  You can work at it and get better.  At some level it comes down to how much you’ve thought about the story beforehand.  I do a detailed scene breakdown, when you’ve done so much work before you start to write it flows.  The more prep you do, the more free you can be when it comes to writing.  I’m a great believer in prep.  It’s the key to being successful.”  Adding, “Now that I’m a director as well as a writer I can be more fluid, so I can decide on set if you don’t need a particular line.”

Asked by one of the students about how to develop a career, Sally advised “the most important thing you can do is get an agent.  And having something you can send to people as a calling card – write something you’re proud of, that you’re excited by, and send it to people, make everybody read it.  You’ve got to show that you can produce a complete piece of work.  They are looking for talent, but they are also looking for people who can finish things.”