Liza Marshall, producer of film and TV sat down and chatted to Giles and Dom about her experience in the industry, how she got work and how she went from starting as an assistant to becoming an executive producer.
Getting into the Industry
After leaving University, Liza thought that she wanted to work in film. “I was more obsessed with film at that point, than television, I had no idea how to start or what to do.” She started her career by getting a job as an assistant to a casting director on Peak Practice, working with script editor Damien Timmer. I had no idea that was a job.”
She was offered another job working as an assistant, but realised that she wanted to be “working with writers, so I took the script editor’s advice and became a script reader”, which she did freelance for a few years.
“I used to go to Channel 4, in the days before email, and pick up 10 scripts and go home and read them. I would always want them to be bad, because if they were bad you could write a really quick report – ‘Don’t touch this script. It’s terrible.’ If it was good, it was much more challenging. I worked freelance for various broadcasters and companies to get going. And then I got a job as a script editor.”
Liza said that she learnt a lot about scripts from being a reader. “It’s a brilliant way to work out what’s good and bad. People don’t use readers much now, but you’ll never get the good ones, you’ll be given all the unsolicited ones, and all the bad ones.”
During this time she realised that she “ wanted to produce. I never wanted to be a writer. I think script editors mostly fall into two categories – they either want to be full-time writers or they want to be producers. Some just want to be script editors, obviously.”
Her first job was working on a show called London Bridge. “It started off as a once a week show and then it got turned into a twice a week soap. I worked on that for a year and that was a brilliant training ground, because I’d script the storyline and script edited about 75 episodes. And we had all of these constructs because it was really low budget. So we had to come up with these insane storylines, but it was really creative and liberating. I think too often script editors can be divorced from production.”
While working at the BBC, they paid for Liza to attend the Robert McKee course, but she found that “the London Bridge experience was really key. We were working with junior writers and more often than not they couldn’t get there on the script. So we were doing an awful lot of helping.”
Liza said that her experience has helped her to guide writers now. “I’ve been doing it now about 25 years, so I feel like in terms of story, I’m quite good at helping people construct it. I think you can be taught to structure, but you can’t be taught to write.”
What Makes a Good Script Editor
“It’s a brilliant job. It’s a real art form to help people do their best work. You have to try and suggest an idea, and a writer might say no, but half an hour later might go, ‘Hey, I’ve got a brilliant idea!’ and they’ll tell you the idea that you told them.
And you have to say, ‘Oh my God, that’s such a great idea’. You have to be really nurturing and really supportive. And not let your own ego get in the way, because it’s not your script. You’re trying to help somebody make their script better.”
She also thinks that you need to be diplomatic and positive, “because people do their best work in a positive way. I’m not a confrontational person, I would never shout at anyone, or tell them their work was bad. It’s about finding the positive, because it’s so difficult to write a script.”
Moving into Producing
After working on London Bridge with producers Jane Tranter and Pippa Harris, they left ITV. Liza took Pippa’s job and script edited various shows. “Then Pippa and Jane offered me a job at the BBC as a script editor.”
“I did David Copperfield, which was a very intense experience. We were going to do the show with John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools and Horses. It had been green lit as a 90 minute Christmas special. And I remember going to his house and he had writer’s block. He just couldn’t find his way through it because I think he’d never done a book adaptation. And it didn’t work out. So in the end he ended up not wanting to write it.”
At that point, Adrian Hodges came on board, with only two to three months to work on the script. “He came into my office at the BBC. I read the book probably three times, marking all the bits that we could use – so I would read out bits of dialogue, and he would type it in. And we just wrote it together in these really intense periods.”
Simon Curtis, who was the director, “was very kind and supportive, and let me come on set a lot – and at that point I really wanted to produce.”
“There was a project written by Billy Ivory called The Sins and a different producer had been on it and had fallen out with Billy.
Jane offered me the job of producing it – I had been quite vocal in wanting to do more than be a script editor. I wanted to do all the other good bits as well. And so she took this enormous risk on me and let me produce a seven part show.”
Her Advice for Producers
“I think you have to be pretty determined, don’t give up, and don’t take no for an answer.”
To hear more from the wonderful Liza Marshall, listen to our podcast here.