35: Johnny Smith (writing screenplays for animation)

Danielle Krage interviews Johnny Smith, animation and live-action screenwriter and script consultant. His work spans books, TV and film, including Dragon Rider, and co-writer for The Queen’s Corgi, and Gnomeo and Juliet.

This conversation includes:

  • Creating rules for your world, using setting, and telling the story visually.
  • Considerations for writing physical comedy.
  • Lessons learned from working with studios and production companies.
  • Ways to approach writing in a partnership.
  • Self-esteem and mental health challenges for writers and creative people.
  • The importance of finding your voice, and writing for you.
  • Advice for having and changing agents.

You can find out more about Johnny Smith and his work here:

https://www.johnnysmith.co.uk

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:01.378)

Today, I am very excited to have Johnny Smith with me, who is a live-action and animation screenwriter and script consultant. His work spans books, TV, film. For example, he wrote Dragon Rider and also co-wrote Gnomeo and Juliet and The Queen’s Corgi. So I’m very excited to talk to Johnny today about all things animation, but Johnny, you do so much more than that. So what else should people know about you and your connections to creating comedy?

Johnny Smith (00:29.391)

Oh, well, first of all, thank you for having me on. I also write live-action, which is everything which isn’t animation, I suppose. And I write a lot of TV stuff and I write kids’ books, too, for a publisher called Scholastic about a boy whose name is John Smith, which I know an awful lot about, I can tell you. So that’s sort of what I do.

Danielle (00:48.968)

Brilliant. So much to talk about. One of the places I wanted to start with, if we’re thinking about animation and we’re thinking about…for example, you’ve worked on so many different animation screenplays…what do you think are some of the misconceptions that people have about writing screenplays for animation?

Johnny Smith (01:14.063)

I think the biggest one is people think it’s only for kids and therefore it’s going to be easier. You kind of tend to think.. oh well you talk down to kids… you know you’ve been there already, you know more than them, so you only need to use half your brain to tell them a story. It’s actually far harder because you have to not only be yourself but be your audience too when you’re writing animation. You have to think as them. But still stay yourself.

I think the other thing which is difficult about animation is you have to often build an entire world. So live-action in a sense takes a slice of our world. I mean, that’s not quite true, but it sort of does where animation is completely its own world. It has to justify itself anthropomorphically for being animated by being something other than our own life that we have.

So you have to build everything from the ground up. So it’s not just the characters and their families or relationships and stories, but it’s sort of everything that might be in that world they’re in, which includes all the rules of what can happen, but also perhaps even more importantly, what can’t happen in that world. That all makes it a lot more testing as a way of doing things creatively.

So I think that’s another….I don’t know if that’s a misconception, but I think it all goes back to people thinking you throw it together. And the other thing of course about animation is it takes a really long time. It takes a really, really long time to make an animated movie. I mean, many years. And the final thing I think I want to say, not today, but on that, is that if you were to make a live-action movie, the performances would…the performance would all happen at the same time. In other words, you film a performance and that becomes the film. Whereas in animation, what tends to happen is that the actors lay down the voice track and then the animation is physically generated, visually generated in a sense to match the inflection of the voices. So the voices come first and the visuals come second.

Danielle (03:28.898)

Hmm. Yeah. And so many stages in that process. I wanted to ask you about one of the layers and I don’t know whether these things, like where your focus happens, whether it’s concurrently or at different points, but thinking about the physical comedy, for example, because the animations that I’ve watched of yours, there’s so much physical comedy, whether it’s like the big opening sequences or kind of montages or high action that has music going underneath.

Any tips for people for thinking about how to capture physical comedy on a page and convey that in a way that’s really useful?

Johnny Smith (04:08.243)

I think the most important thing is when you’re writing something which is physical comedy on a page is it has to justify itself by being part of the narrative. So you know characters don’t just do physical things for the sake of it, it’s for the same rules as they’re doing everything else. They want something, they need something, something’s stopping them getting it, and so a physical routine has to have its own integrity. If you can write it like that. What you write might be two or three lines on the page, but two minutes of screen time or the other way around. And that’s really in the director’s hands then, but you should write what you write with the integrity of the character behind it.

Danielle

Yeah. Okay. So I wanted to ask you about physical comedy, one of those many layers, specifically, because in the movies I’ve seen of yours that you’ve written, there’s so much great physical comedy, whether it’s like the opening scenes or the montages or the high action with music running underneath. So I wondered any tips for people who are thinking about how to get physical comedy onto the page?

Johnny Smith (06:53.135)

I suppose the big thing is that you don’t set out to write physical comedy for its own sake. If it’s physical comedy it still has to be telling a story. So it still has to be about a character who wants something and something or somebody is stopping them getting it. And that’s what the physical comedy will be. The audience will appreciate the challenges that face that character or whatever the situation is. You don’t write physical comedy bit by bit by bit in the way that a director would want to expand on it. You just need the through line of the character and to keep their integrity. Clearly, if you can write the prose in terms of the description of the comedy with some life and humour in the prose itself, then that’s great because that will point towards the overall tone of what you’re trying to achieve. But two or three pages of screenplay might end up as 10 seconds of film all the other way around. So don’t try to write it for its own sake, and keep the integrity of the character and what they are trying to do running through the whole of it.

Danielle (08:03.068)

I love that. And as someone from the outside who doesn’t have experience of this kind of process, there’s such a strong use of music in animation. Is that something that you consider as you’re writing physical comedy sequences or can influence in any way, or is it actually just quite complicated?

Johnny Smith (08:22.863)

I think on the scripts I’ve written and when I’ve worked with my ex-writing partner Rob, we sometimes have a song in mind and you write that song onto the script. Obviously there are all kinds of rights and creative taste issues around that song you’ve chosen, but it helps you be inspired yourself over what you’re trying to do if you hear a certain track that goes with it. But…

when that gets filtered through many other hands, that very often doesn’t survive the process. And either a different known song comes in or another piece or a piece of original music and sometimes nothing at all. So you sort of, you can’t think too much about production stuff when you’re writing. But then the more you think about externals, like what does the music sound like,

and even how can I convey all aspects of a physical comedy routine, the more you’re outside yourself looking in and that’s not a good place to be when you’re a writer.

Danielle (09:21.364)

Yeah, that’s really wise advice because I was going to ask you….in your biography, the amount of different studios and production companies that you’ve worked with is extraordinary. So I was going to ask, from the perspective of where you are now in terms of patterns, what are things you’ve learned about that process that you just couldn’t have known going in. I know that’s a broad question.

Johnny Smith (09:43.919)

I think the biggest thing, and this is something which I’m still learning, is that when you write, you may be employed by many, many people, and you may work in big organizations or small production companies. You have to write for yourself. You have to write for you. The trick is that you have to trust that what you write will…serve what everyone else around you in the production wants, but you must write for you first. If you listen to too many outside voices you will become distracted and confused, and you will try to please too many masters or mistresses. You must write for yourself.

Danielle (10:30.48)

Yeah, that really sage advice. And you have experience of writing as a partnership as well. And when you look at lots of films that come out, there are multiple writing credits often on films. So what are things do you think that you’ve learned about either co-creation or collaboration in your time as a writer?

Johnny Smith (10:37.614)

I think first of all, writing comedy plays well to writing in partnerships because if you make the other person laugh then you’re sort of on the right lines, and comedy also is a more externalized kind of thing to do. You know you don’t sit down and write a deep and meaningful personal story with a writing partner necessarily because of the subject matter. So I think collaborating is very important. You have to trust the other person. You have to trust that if they don’t get where you’re coming from why would anybody else? So I think that’s terribly good. And also I think in a partnership like anything like a marriage, you hope that your weaknesses are your partner’s strengths and vice versa. There’s no point in both being good in the same area, both being good in dialogue and both being bad in structure, let’s say for argument’s sake. There’s no point in that because you’re going to end up with something which is not very structured, even if it’s got great dialogue. You need to have complementary strengths, be that conceptual, be that to do with plotting, dialogue, structure, character, you know, these are all slightly different things and you need to cover all of them between the two or the three of you or however many there are. So I think that’s why you see writing partnerships.

Writing credits where there’s four or five writers is more to do with the politics of arbitration and the studio system and more to do with executives hiring and firing writers quite often, going …just bring in fresh blood. For some reason executives always think it’s better to fire the writer even if the writer was simply carrying out what they wanted. And so they bring in fresh blood, new people, and it can at its best it can be greater than some of its parts and at its worst it’s the curate’s egg or it’s the…camel being a horse designed by a committee. But that’s why you see many names. You see more than one writer on most films. Funny enough, you don’t see more than one director, but you see more than one writer, or not often anyway.

Danielle (13:07.329)

Fascinating. And what do you think are some of your writing strengths, particularly from a comedic perspective, or things that you just really enjoy? Where you’re like…oh, this is the bit where I get to do this.

Johnny Smith (13:32.267)

I think I’m very good on concept. I think I’m very good on conceptualizing worlds, building worlds. I think I’m very good at coming up with the essential concept that gets everything going. So if you The Queen’s Corgi. The Queen’s Corgi is essentially… if you take a dog who lives in Buckingham Palace and has a pampered life and he’s cast out, and he goes to Battersea Dog’s home, then you can see two different settings, two different homes for that character and you can see a certain amount of narrative and what that will bring out for his journey. So I think I’m very good at kicking off core ideas, core concepts.

I think I’m very good at writing visually so that I think people can see what I’m writing when I’m writing it. I hope they can. And…I think I have a very good strong first person writing voice as well. So a lot of my books are written in the first person. I think it’s a sort of egotistical thing. That’s me in there then because I’m writing as me. So I think that’s also a strength. I’m very, very good, I think, at picking apart things that aren’t working. But, you know, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Everybody does. And also sometimes those strengths are stronger some days than other days, you know, they fluctuate within themselves too. So, I think it’s a strange business writing comedy and it’s a strange business working on your own as well. And neither of them are particularly good for your mental health. So, you know, yeah, I put a big one there on the table, didn’t I? There you go, you see.

Danielle (15:16.368)

Yeah, you did. I’ve got a minimum of three things I want to ask you about straight away. So I’ll try and remember them all as we go. And the first one…so I had a question about concept, because that was something that I’d noticed, whether it’s Gnomeo and Juliet…you only have to say the name and already the concept starts to spring to life. I can absolutely imagine seeing the title, a logline, a pitch and being immediately grabbed. So I did, I did want to ask you about that one, or it could be a different example. And just using it as an example of what that process was like for you coming up with the concept through to the pitch stage.

Johnny Smith (15:54.779)

So I think it was Rob actually who said gnomes. And then it may have been him, it may have been me, I can’t remember who said… oh, well, what about Gnomeo as a character? And for a long time, this is insane. For a long time, it was called A Gnome’s story… about Romeo and Juliet with gnomes. Anyway, when you have an idea like that, that is Romeo and Juliet with gnomes, the idea tells you nearly everything the idea has to be. You see the end of the creative journey at the same time as you see the beginning of it. By which I mean that the last inflection of any creative journey is…. what would the marketing people do with your film?

Well, it’s your first idea. It’s Gnomeo and Juliet with garden gnomes, as opposed to….it’s an epic tale on a tiny scale. That’s what they say. But so you say, okay, it’s got to be Romeo and Juliet, the basic beats. And it’s got to be set in an English suburbia because that’s where you get garden gnomes. And you’ve got to have two rival sets of garden gnomes. And then you’ve got to have love across the divide, in this case, a garden fence.

Danielle (16:55.77)

Mmm. Oh, that’s good.

Johnny Smith (17:18.671)

And then you’ve got to have two warring factions. So you have one set of gnomes, another set of gnomes, Capulet, Montague, all that sort of stuff. And it’s one of Shakespeare’s more high-profile stories. And it’s been done as a musical, and it’s been done in all kinds of modern romantic comedy kind of ways. And you go, right, this idea tells us 85% already of what the idea, what has to be in the film.

Because what has to be in the film at that point, it’s very generic, that idea, or it’s very easy for people to get there, commonly to get their heads around it, to say, well, obviously it’s Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes. Now, whether you have lawnmowers, whether you have flamingos, whether you have Elton John, whether you have greenhouses, whether you have, you know, all that kind of stuff… how much Shakespeare do you have in there? Do you have lines of Shakespeare? Because I always wanted ‘a plague on both your greenhouses’ as a line to be in there.

Danielle (18:16.325)

Oh…

….you know, and it never made it in. And I was very angry about that. But how much Shakespeare do you have? How much background in Shakespeare? How much… this is what the grownups were like? Those are also levels you can play with. But at the end of the day, it has to be a film about fantasy things that come to life. Because that’s really what animation is. Either they’ve always been alive or they come to life like Toy Story. And so you say, okay, they’re garden gnomes by day.

And they’re these characters by night or out of sight anyway. So once you look at the rules of the world, if you look at the rules of the world, then you just go play. And now it’s like you’ve invented the board game. Now play with it. And that’s sort of I think what me and Rob started off with. And that’s sort of how we got going down the road. And then we wrote…. So you want to know how it went from that to the film or to well.

Danielle (19:12.416)

To the pitch, yeah.

Johnny Smith (19:15.467)

Okay, so at the time we were represented by an agent in America at ICM, ICMB American agency, and we said we’ve got this idea we wanted to do this. We wrote it as a speculative screenplay. We wrote a script without showing anybody, and we sent it to our agent, and he said no one over here knows what gnomes are. No one knows what garden gnomes are. So that was that. So about a year went by, and in that year we rewrote it, and we improved it a lot.

But we also, I was told by ICM in London that a certain production company called Rocket Pictures owned by Mr. Elton John would very much like to have a look at this. So we shared it with them. And I think Sir Elton had a first look deal with Disney and he showed it to them. And coming through London, they then said, well, you’re Sir Elton and you’ve done The Lion King. So go for it then and let’s develop it.

And so there wasn’t the need to have a pitch because the script was there. And then it only took 11 years to make the film. So that was sort of, I don’t know, if Rob listens in, he’ll go, No, it wasn’t like that. It was like this. But it was something like that. Yeah.

Danielle (20:23.676)

Oh gosh. Okay, totally, yeah. Worth it. That’s really interesting to hear behind the scenes. Thank you. So I wanted to ask you about the visual side, because you said that’s one of your strengths. There are some really good visual jokes. If we stick with Gnomeo and Juliet, for example, there’s some really, really great visual jokes. If someone’s like, I’m not very good at that, what would be a way that you might get them to start practicing this week? To turn their brain or that bit of their brain on to start looking for visual jokes? Or do they just need to find a writing partner that’s good at it?

Johnny Smith (21:06.607)

Well, actually, when I meant writing visually, I didn’t necessarily mean writing visual jokes. I mean writing so that you can envisage the thing on the page. In terms of writing visual jokes, obviously, in the script, and even though a script is leaning in, is part of a visual process, it’s still clearly a non-visual thing at that moment. You’re reading a script, it doesn’t have pictures with it.

Danielle (21:18.193)

Right, got you.

Johnny Smith (21:36.275)

You still need to write it through the integrity of the characters again, and you have to write what amuses you. If that’s a visual thing great write it and don’t worry if people don’t pick up on it. Trust yourself, trust your instincts. And on the broader front, try to be telling a story visually with a screenplay. You know, especially animation screenplays, they’re meant to be stories told visually with dialogue to accompany it. That way around. Not the other way. So you’re not a radio play. You’re meant to tell the story visually and where needs be accompanied with dialogue. And apart from that, if you have a certain flair for how you write humorous material visually on the page, great. Absolutely. Do that but don’t sweat over it and don’t think that your screenplay will be judged based on that.

Danielle (22:40.084)

But I loved, for example, that you really used the setting for that too, I don’t know whether it was you or….I don’t want to give away the joke, but there are the house signs. It was a really fun joke that brought in the Shakespeare. I made that as a note to myself, because I also really love character, and I love your advice to filter things through character, I think without that it falls apart, but it was a really good note to myself to really think about what the setting can be doing as well. I tend to think of it in terms of atmosphere, but you had some really good ways of using the setting.

Johnny Smith (23:13.155)

Yeah, and again, it’s having fun with your world that you’ve created. Have the confidence to let it sit on two levels if you want. Capulet and Montague and 2B and not 2B and all that sort of stuff. And have Shakespeare in there if you want to. In fact, go more meta. Go more self-conscious if you want to. Be more clever if you want to, because audiences come out of that enjoying those references. And to those who don’t pick up on those references, they’ll pick up on them the next time they watch it or someone might say… that was that was to do with this or that the other. So, be intellectual as well. Be intellectual if you want to especially if it’s Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake, you know. So yeah, and you find those things as you sort of go through it and they become more apparent. As I say some don’t make the final cut. Some people don’t like a particular joke. Or for some people, they might think, yeah, but that kind of goes outside the situation too much. And, you know, but put it all in there.

Danielle (24:23.676)

I love that. And you mentioned earlier in the interview, right at the beginning, that actually it is a misconception that it’s easier because you know….one, children are very smart viewers. And two, as you say, you’re actually writing for a much broader spectrum of people than that. And I think animation often has quite a weight to carry in terms of all the people it’s meant to be entertaining if it’s seen as a family film.

Johnny Smith (24:42.968)

Yes.

Danielle (24:50.612)

So I just wondered any advice for balancing those different considerations, but still being able to come up with this unique tone. As upi were saying, you need to write for yourself because there are so many voices. So how do you balance that tone when you’re trying to keep in mind, you know, whether it might be grandparents that are watching who’ve also got a six-year-old. Any tips?

Johnny Smith (25:11.435)

Yeah. So you’ll be challenged about this quite a lot. I think it might depend on whether you’re writing something which is a speculative piece of your own material. Let’s just assume you are not writing on commission. On commission is a slightly different thing because they have an idea of what they want, let’s say a production company, and you have to try your best to fit into that. Not wholly, but you try your best. If you’re writing speculatively, you’re writing your own stuff. There’s been a trend in the last 30 years with animation movies to give them what is called crossover appeal. So I think probably Toy Story began it. So…Mum and Dad go and see Toy Story and their son and their daughter get a lot out of it. So guess what? The film company has four people all really enjoying the film. And Mum says to her mum friends the next day at drop off, go and see that film. So they take their kids and their husband says, I really liked it, you know. Well, lo and behold, students, studios love that, obviously, because it means it’s four tickets.

Now there’s a problem with that and that is that you start to make films that only have crossover appeal. They only have…they want to appeal to both mum and dad and the kids and that can sell kids short. Basically, you know, not all things are meant for the parents as well as the kids. Otherwise you end up with that slightly, you know, kind of hip humour all the time.  You know, somebody’s got the funny put down or whatever it happens to be. And then films become the same. And then people say, well, actually, let’s go back to doing stuff which is only for children and do that with that integrity. But you know, you’ll find your own way. Everything as a writer, everything is about finding your voice. Everything. If you find your voice, then you can use that and adapt that and mould that around whichever project you’re working on and whoever you’re working for. If you don’t find a voice then you won’t get started anyway and that voice comes back to ruthlessly, I’m afraid, writing what you want to write. It’s sort of, it’s playing a game with yourself. That’s what it is. It’s playing a game with yourself.

There was a man, he was in theatre. And he once upon a time said we are truly creative when we don’t feel responsible for being creative. And that’s terribly important that responsibility is not a good word when you’re trying to kind of go on a creative journey. So the more you can play the game with yourself, the more you can outrage yourself of what you’ve done, the better, the better, I promise you. It’s sort of…It’s where psychologists find flow and things like this. So that’s what I think.

Danielle (28:27.177)

I love that. And I wanted to ask you, because you did mention it, about mental health. You’ve just touched there beautifully on what states might be helpful for creation. What made you mention mental health? And I do think it’s an interesting conversation for writers and actually not one that we’ve had on the podcast so far. So I was just curious what your sort of take on that is.

Johnny Smith (28:53.207)

I think, okay, so to go back to basics, I think creative people, we’re all a little bit insecure. We are creating stuff and putting it out there into a space where it is obviously judged and viewed. And we want to share what we do, which opens us up to feedback, rejection, criticism, any of those things. And we’re often working on our own. So we are the self-consumer of all our woes, to quote John Clare. And so it’s hard to get balance. That’s another good reason why to be in a writing partnership, you can pull each other through the bad times. So I think that weighs in on you. I think it can take a toll on your self-esteem. I don’t know many writers that don’t suffer from that. It’s all well and good to say, well you should be, you know, be a bit more bullish about stuff, have a little more resilience, but often you can’t find that sometimes when you need it. And that’s the time when you need it most, and it’s the time when it deserts you, and it’s the time then when you are unconfident about what you do…I know that feeling for myself, I really do.

I think also you must write because you love it. You must write because you want to, and because you enjoy it. But let’s be realistic. If you’re looking for an end result from your writing, so if you’re looking to sell a screenplay and get things moving for yourself and you spend three months, six months, nine months working on something that comes to nothing at all….then you would have to be quite Pollyanna-ish to assume that that’s not going to affect you, because it does. Because you feel like you’re an actor who’s rehearsed and never went onto the stage. So it has a terrible crushing feeling, it’s quite existential. And every writer has got a drawer filled with projects that they’ve laboured over and never went anywhere. And I don’t even mean that… oh, there were a lot of people interested, but it never got off the ground. I mean, it never went anywhere at all beyond the gatekeepers who all threw it back in their face. So that’s not good for your mental health either. And I think all of these things undermine your self-esteem.

The opposite is true. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Fabulous when you…write something that you are proud of and which other people recognize. And when friends come to you and say, oh, my son’s just read one of your books and they loved it or whoever, or you see it online.

Online is another problem obviously. So you see things written about yourself, about your material, which can be very, very undermining of how you feel. So you mustn’t go looking. So I think that’s where it’s a problem with, you know with your mental health, and I think those sit closely to being…it sounds grand to say to being a creative person but I think that there’s a sort of a neuroses alive there which is just part of the way it is.

Danielle (32:26.376)

Yeah, that makes total sense. And you shared that really beautifully. Thank you. And obviously everyone is different. Everyone has a different brain, different living situation, different working situations, different pressures. But are there any things that you think have helped you, or have helped other writers that you know, in those times where maybe it is that disappointment of having invested so much in a project that hasn’t got off the ground or hearing the no. Particularly if you’re trying to write something that’s fun and entertaining.

Johnny Smith (32:56.799)

I know, I know. Yeah, it’s not good for that, is it? Well, first of all, remember that it’s not just you. It’s everybody and it’s everybody at all levels of success, by the way. Who was telling me this story? Yes, a friend of mine. I won’t quote him, who he is. But he’s like one of the greatest film editors in the world. And he told me that he was with Hans Zimmer, the composer. And Hans Zimmer had just won the Academy Award. I’m just trying to find out what this film was. I can’t remember whichever it was. And the next day Hans Zimmer had notes from a producer on something else and the producer said this sucks. This is lousy. This is awful. Do it again and Hans Zimmer told my friend…you know I’ve had all the success but I still suffer from imposter syndrome. I still feel like I’m living someone else’s life and I’m about to get a tap on the shoulder to say… you were not meant to be in this space. And that’s Hans Zimmer, wildly successful, massively talented man. So I think that everybody, whatever they’ve achieved in life, feels like this is all about to be taken away or that I’ve run out of road in terms of my talent.

I think everybody knows that insecurity. So what I would say is that if you’re feeling that, wherever you are, wherever you are, whether you’re just starting, whether you’re coming down from success, whether you feel like… I’ll never break through, you’re only experiencing what every single person who has got a soul feels.

Danielle (34:31.852)

Yeah, that’s incredibly reassuring. Yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to ask you, because you mentioned earlier on that first person voice point of view, sounds like it comes quite naturally to you. But I wanted to ask whether there was anything that you found surprising or challenging when you moved into publishing books as well.

Johnny Smith (34:59.067)

So publishing books, writing books, writing for kids is great in the sense that there’s fewer people in the process. You work closely with an editor, but you retain the IP with the book. So the book always stays your book on some profound level. When you write feature films, you sell the IP. So that has enormous repercussions for a writer, not only legally and contractually and financially, but in a sense, spiritually. It means…This is not my baby. I’ve sold the freehold to my own property. Whereas in a book you own that freehold. You always will. And that’s very reassuring. It’s a smaller world, often with a small, with less to gain financially probably. But you can control creatively the world that you’re in. Also, obviously, with a book, you’re not bound by the confines of budget. If you want to dream up, you know, the world splitting into a million pieces and whatever else that happens to be or whatever you want to do, then that’s not… those words don’t cost more than other words. All words cost the same on the page. Whereas in a film, clearly, you’ve got a lot of restriction over what you can do budget-wise, which shouldn’t be your start point with a film. Never edit yourself, but you will come up against that if people are interested in it.

Beyond that, I think when you’re writing, it’s really up to you to rock the vote. You need to go out there, you need to read your material to whoever your ideal reader is, as Stephen King would put it, and you need to find where those readers are and what they like about what you do, and you need to kind of get people one by one by one. Word of mouth is really important in books. In film and TV they haven’t got time or the budget for that. I mean it’s too big, we need to really go fast and wide and with a lot of energy and will employ lots of people to do it. So that’s a very different thing. You don’t have the tap on your… you don’t get fired when you write your own book. No one fires you. It’s very rare that a publisher will invest in your book and then give up on it halfway through the process of rewriting the manuscript. It’s going to be a book on a shelf. When you write a film and you sell it, it might be a film in the cinema, but it probably won’t, I’m afraid, because of the ratio of films developed, scripts developed to films made. So I think that’s one of the nice things about writing books. And they’re always around. I can see my books up there. They’re always around, you know, whether people like that or not, they’re always around. So that’s what I think the difference is.

Danielle (37:49.undefined)

Lovely. And are there any particular comic creators that you love? And I use comedy in the broadest term. It doesn’t have to be that kind of laugh-out-loud comedy, but whether that’s in books, whether that’s in films, TV, for any ages, and just any personal favourites.

Johnny Smith (38:05.391)

When I was a kid, my hero was Woody Allen. And obviously we would have to have to slightly pause now, I’m afraid. But my hero was Woody Allen. He was unbelievably clever, incredible range as a writer, but also just a brilliant comedian, a brilliant comedian. I love Ricky Gervais. I think all of Ricky Gervais’ stuff is fantastic. I think he writes with a kind of honesty.

He’s another person that doesn’t care what people think of him and that’s such a strength. It’s such a strength and I think he’s fantastic. Everything that he’s done virtually, whether it’s been his stuff that he’s been doing, is great. I think Afterlife is superb. You know, after podcast I’m going to think of 20 other people. But why didn’t I mention these people? I thought Fleabag was fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. I could watch Only Fools and Horses all day long because I think he’s just John Sullivan. He’s just a genius.

So yeah there’s….oh Airplane. So when I was a kid, Airplane. I went to the cinema one day. It was 1979 I think or 78 and I was 16 and there’s this film called Airplane and I couldn’t believe that anybody could do such clever things with…It was so obvious but clever at the same time. It was brilliantly obvious and brilliantly bright and clever. You know, it’s obvious is not the opposite of, you know, the opposite of clever is not obvious. The opposite of clever is stupid. But it was obvious in the sense of, of course you can see the joke, but you’ve never thought of the joke. And that’s where the genius happens with that film. And I just thought they were breathtakingly funny those films. I mean especially that first one. Like a whole new kind of comedy. It was amazing. That was like Damascene moment for me seeing that film on screen. I love Monty Python. I love Monty Python but for some reason Airplane has got a sort of surreal, throw it away, discard it, we don’t care, it’s a bit forward of the like, I can’t quite put my finger on the attitude behind it, it’s the attitude of the film, where you go, that’s a great film. If they’re watching Abraham Zucker and Abrahams well done gentlemen. Carry on making films.

Danielle (40:48.976)

Always love to give a shout out to writers and creators. Yeah. I love that. Brilliant. So many fun things to think about. Like that obvious-clever relationship as well. Because again, some of the things that I loved about your work as well, it’s like….well, we’ve, we said it now….the 2B or not2B joke. But actually how you see it, it’s in this fresh context and it like catches you and makes you laugh and it’s really satisfying. I love that.

Johnny Smith (41:16.335)

Great, thank you.

Danielle (41:19.288)

Wonderful. So I have one more question I want to ask you before we wrap up, which is that you’re based in the UK. I’m also based in the UK. And our listeners, lovely listeners all around the world, including in US and lots of other countries. I just wondered how it’s been for you having a career where you do live in the UK, just because often our assumption with some of the studios is that, um, it’s trickier to do and that you have to be in LA and you’ve mentioned earlier on actually going through the UK branch, which again, I didn’t know as a thing. So how have you navigated that? Has it been lots of travel, doing it remotely? How have you done it?

Johnny Smith (41:55.079)

I mean, both those, yes. I mean, Rob and myself used to go to Los Angeles now and again, have meetings and work on various projects. It’s nice to come home. It’s nice to not be there, if I’m honest with you. I mean, I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America and all that sort of thing, but I don’t have to be only in that world. So you come back and..It’s great being in London and being amongst our own culture. And there’s a whole market here as well. So that’s wonderful. There’s probably been a price to pay down through the years. I think if you’re in Los Angeles, then you can have those meetings more readily and more easily. But there’s a lot more, how can I say? People are often given false hope I think. And you know you’re there but so are a million other people and it’s also, it’s a real factory thing in America. You’re hired and fired. We tend to be… I think somebody like Stephen Frears was the one who said that… they’re not loyal enough to their writers in America and we’re too loyal over here. Meaning that they’re fired too soon over there and we’re not replaced soon enough here. He may not say that about directors, so you know it’s easy to say about another person’s job… but I think it was Stephen Frears.

But I’m happy to be here, there’s been plenty of other Zoom calls. To be honest with you, in animation I’ve worked a lot on the continent as well, in Germany, in France, in Belgium and there’s a lot…there’s more and more and more being made there now and you still have more freedom as a writer to explore your ideas. But that’s because the budget’s a lot smaller. So you know an animated film here may cost 15 million euros. 150 million dollars, 200 million dollars in the US. And then the same to market it. So there’s a lot more pressure. Some more people want part of that. I’m very happy being here. Unless obviously they invite me over and then I’m gonna say… no, no Danielle, I was lying. I’m fickle. What am I talking about? Yeah.

Danielle (44:16.232)

And you just wave goodbye to us. Ha, ha. I love it.

And you’ve given us such a great challenge today to really double down on writing our own voice and being unapologetic about that. Such great advice. So many things I’m going to listen back to and write down and remind myself of. So I really appreciate it. Before we wrap up, where should people go to find out more about you and your work?

Johnny Smith (44:37.495)

Well, as I mentioned earlier, you see, I was born John Smith. So that’s really difficult if you Google that. Writing name, Johnny Smith. If you were to Google Johnny Smith screenwriter, it’ll take you to my website. So if you Google that, you’ll see me and you’ll see a lot more about what I do, the kind of things I offer, which is also script consultancy as you mention and you’ll see the TV work I’ve done and the live-action which I haven’t talked about at all. That’s the next podcast obviously. So look me up from my website and then that will link you through to all the usual social media if that’s what you want to do and also I’ve just changed agents can I mention that?

Danielle (45:29.04)

Tell us. We want it all. We want to hear it all.

Johnny Smith (45:34.251)

So you can go to Emily Wraith, my agent at Berlin Associates. And you’ll see a bit about me there. Or you will do in the next week or two, because I’ve literally just changed agents. Otherwise, just go to my website and that will let you know.

Danielle (45:55.42)

Wonderful. And one sneaky last question. Just any advice for writers who are in the process of changing agents or considering it? Because sometimes…. it’s something that’s not talked about so much, but I know lots of writers who’ve changed agents for all kinds of different reasons. People move to different places, people’s family commitments change, people are focused on different things. Just any advice for people who might be in that position…to have to navigate that.

Johnny Smith (46:23.407)

Well, yeah, some basics. I mean, if you find that you really, really are at a point where you and your agent aren’t working well together, and by that point you need to be honest and think, I’m probably no more used to them than they are to me. It’s not all a one-way street. Then…make sure you have an honest conversation with your agent first, because sometimes they say… oh, I didn’t realize you felt that way. I think writers can be a little bit intimidated because that’s their only ally and they don’t want to turn on them. But if you really are, then my advice would be make sure you get a new agent before you let your previous agent know, in a very nice way, that it’s not worth it for either of you.

But the other advice I would give in terms of having an agent, slightly different, I think is…Get an agent and then behave as if you don’t have an agent, which means empower yourself. Go to conferences, festivals, network, meet people, pick up the phone and speak to a producer yourself. You don’t need to go through an agent and then you can refer them back to your agent if they want to hire you and they’re discussing a contract. If you do that, you don’t need your agent as much and therefore you’re likely to become less unhappy with them because you’re actually in a sense your own agent and you kick back up the work that you’re generating to your agent to negotiate on your behalf. So get an agent and then behave as if you don’t have an agent.

Danielle (48:00.176)

Yeah, I love it. Super proactive and really interesting advice to consider. Thank you. And of course I’ll put all your details in the show notes for listeners who want to follow those links. And thank you so much for your time today. I’ve learned tons.

Johnny Smith (48:11.103)

Okay. Oh gosh, no one’s ever said that to me. All right, well thank you very much for letting me be part of this. It’s been really good fun. Thank you.

Danielle (48:20.948)

Thanks, Johnny.