BAFTA winning writer, actress and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge delighted students at the NFTS recently, spending an afternoon with the screenwriting students followed by a packed out evening Masterclass for the whole school.
Head of Screenwriting Brian Ward, hosting the Q&A, began by discussing her hit series Fleabag. Phoebe revealed there had been talk about making it as a feature film at one stage and that one of the things she loved about doing it as BBC series was that it was billed as a comedy “and then bam the tragedy hits you!” she said, gleefully miming a stab to the gut Villanelle from Killing Eve would be proud of. Elaborating, “For me the characters are tragic real people, the comedy was sort of a front.” Explaining that this was one of the reasons she loved the series’ director, Harry Bradbeer, as he understood that so clearly. “Harry just goes straight for the heart every single time. He would always see the pain in the characters. It was an instant connection to him, he was so open-hearted and he was really interested in my vision for the series. Because he came from the heart and cared about the characters I knew I could trust him.”
Discussing her writing process Phoebe said “I write quite freely before I think about structure. The first scene I wrote for series two is the scene in the bathroom where Fleabag is there with a bloody nose, turns to camera and says ‘this is a love story’. The producers loved it and said ‘what happens next?’ and I said ‘I have no idea!’ I was just excited by it, and then worked back from there to figure out who she’d hate enough to punch.”
One of the students asked about the talking to camera and Phoebe explained “It’s Fleabag’s persona in action – she’s trying to convince us she’s fine. At the end of the first series after she tells us her big secret she never looks at the camera again. So for the second series it had to be something different. And that was - if someone is in love with her and notices her doing it, not really knowing what it is, but being aware she’s hiding something. That makes it interesting and new. When I’m performing those bits I think about addressing the audience, that they’re there watching you. It can be an oppressive feeling for Fleabag. I feel like for women there kind of is an invisible audience that we’re aware of all the time, with the hair and the make-up and the ‘I’m fine’ - like we’ve always got to perform.”
Another student asked about the music and Phoebe happily told them “In the choral songs in series two all the lyrics in it are filthy words in Ancient Greek! So when Fleabag and the priest kiss in the church the lyrics are repeating ‘I’m coming, he’s coming’ in this euphoric way.”
Moving on to discuss Killing Eve and the difference of adapting from the novellas by Luke Jennings, Phoebe said “There was something really liberating not being the ‘creator’. The very opening scene wasn’t from the novellas. I wanted to have something that wasn’t a classic spy thriller big bang type thing and her putting the ice-cream on the little girl seemed more rebellious in a way than the violence we see later, because that is what we expect in a spy thriller, the ice-cream is somehow more shocking and more telling of her character.”
Reflecting on working with production design she laughed “I was no help at all! The designer would ask me ‘what is Villanelle like?’ and I couldn’t tell him what she was like. So it ended up the production designer taught me what she was like. He said “She doesn’t know who she is, so lean into that – she picks up trinkets from all over.’ It’s really amazing having people throw in their intuition – you learn from them.”
Phoebe revealed she’s planning to write a film of her own next, but she loves TV too: “There’s something about the way TV comes into people’s homes – it sneaks into people’s lives. Like making Fleabag a comedy and sneaking in a tragedy.” Discussing writing dialogue and comedy, Phoebe said “If it’s based in something truthful about the character then you can’t lose. Usually the comedy comes when someone’s very truthful about something. Or when someone’s lied about something. In Killing Eve having witty characters in a ‘serious’ show felt more truthful to me – it wouldn’t be spies all saying to one another ‘this important thing is happening and it’s urgent’, it’s not how people talk, they’ve been at work day in day out dealing with this stuff, they’d take the piss out of one another.” Concluding, “I think life is funny and dramatic at the same time. So if you’re truthful to that you can’t go wrong.”