Get into: Screenwriting
“Get into” is an interview series that aims to encourage individuals to consider professions that they traditionally believed were out of reach. In our second segment, we will be speaking to the talented screenwriter and showrunner Emilia di Girolamo, who has written for EastEnders, Law and Order UK, The Tunnel, and much more. Emilia talks about the beginning of her career, her experience working as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and what she wishes she’d known before starting a career in screenwriting. So, whether you’re considering a similar career yourself, are a fan of Emilia’s work or are simply intrigued by the realities of working within the television industry, read on.
First and foremost, how did you get into television screenwriting?
‘I was working in a prison as a drama worker and writing plays and novels in any spare time I could grab. I had a novel published and it was optioned for television. Reading the scripts made me realise I was writing in the wrong medium. I did a six-month training programme which took professional writers working in another medium and retrained them as screenwriters. It took three or four years of writing spec scripts, doing shadow schemes and taking any meeting I could get before I got a real commission. I developed a single drama with the BBC and it was that script which got me a job on EastEnders and then Law & Order UK.’
As a screenwriter, what does your average day look like?
‘Most days I’m at my desk writing between 7 am and 6 pm unless I have meetings. If I’m show-running something new then I’ll be in the writers' room with the other writers working out the show and plotting out the series before going back to my desk for the writing phase. If I have a show in production then I could be writing, on set, or once we go into post, be in the edit a couple of times a week for reviews. I love the whole process, and I love the variety and collaborative aspects of show-running as much as sitting at my desk writing. I think doing just one or the other would drive me mad after a while but the combination means my job never gets dull!’
What were your original perceptions of a career in screenwriting and how have they changed through your experience? What is one thing you wish you'd known before you started?
I think if I’d known how long it takes and how hard it is to get original work made I might have just stayed working in soap! You put so much of yourself, your heart and your soul into your passion projects and nine times out of ten they end up in your bottom drawer. I don’t think anyone ever tells you that. You need a thick skin and tenacity in this business! One of the scripts I’m developing now has been round the houses and in development for 13 years!
Having worked on huge shows such as EastEnders, Law and Order UK, and The Tunnel, what has been your biggest challenge?
‘Showrunning The Tunnel: Vengeance was my biggest challenge but also my biggest joy. Taking on a popular, successful show isn’t easy. There was a lot to live up to and a lot riding on me getting it right! But I loved every second and was fortunate to be working with the loveliest team of execs, producers and writers ever who made my job feel relatively easy! I loved being able to create a compelling crime thriller that also made people think about the enormity and complexity of the refugee crisis.’
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
‘I’ve always cared about social issues and the inadequacy of our justice system so inevitably a lot of my work has been issue-based. When people write to tell me my work has affected them it’s incredibly rewarding. I wrote a Law & Order UK episode about a mother forgiving her child’s killer and it attracted a lot of nastiness from the tabloids. Sara Payne, mother of Sarah Payne who was murdered in 2000, got in touch to tell me she supported the episode and the portrayal of the mother. I was blown away that someone who had been through such extraordinary pain and loss took the time to reassure me. It’s easy to forget just how powerful television drama is – we take our stories right into people’s living rooms and I think that carries responsibility. I try and think about that when I originate or take on a project.’
What are you currently working on, and how do you fit this work around other aspects of your life?
‘At the moment I’m show-running a big, new, international crime drama which I’m hugely excited about and I have two true crime dramas, and a few original dramas and adaptations in development.’
‘My life really falls into two categories – I work and I’m a mum. In all honesty, there isn’t much time left for anything else! As my daughter gets older and is off doing her own thing more I seem to just fill the gaps with more work! Maybe I need to look at that!’
Have you ever felt that you have been treated differently as a woman in the television industry?
‘Having taken over two shows that previously had male show-runners, I certainly haven’t been treated differently in terms of the work I’m offered or the quantity of work offered. I’m extremely fortunate to have worked solidly for the past eleven years, since my first episode of broadcast television without a break. These days I turn down far more work than I am able to do so I’m truly blessed. But, I know this hasn’t been the case for many of my female colleagues and while it does seem things are changing, I’m not sure they’re changing fast enough. We need more schemes to help women get into the industry, we need to employ more women in writers rooms and we need to green light more work authored by women.’
‘I’ve certainly had times when I’ve seen my original work lose out on a green light to someone from that little inner circle of white, male, Oxbridge writers who dominate TV drama and felt my gender and class has been a hindrance. But really, I don’t lose sleep about the losses. I see it as a challenge I can overcome. The bottom line is I’m pretty scrappy – I was virtually chucked out of school at 16 and barely scraped a handful of O-Levels but it just made me want to prove the school wrong. I went on to get a First class degree and a PhD. So if the boys club are getting an easy ride, good luck to them. When I get to where I want to be I’ll know I got there on merit.’
Finally, are there any tips you would give to anyone looking to launch a career similar to yours?
‘Don’t do it unless it is literally the only thing in the world you can do that will make you happy. If you choose this path then write a fantastic spec script. If it doesn’t open doors, get you an agent and get you a job, it isn’t good enough? Write another one. Write your truth, the script only you could write. I honestly believe it’s that simple.’
‘Once I had a killer spec, the doors opened wide and these days, when I read an incredible spec, I’m desperate to work with that writer.’