An interview with David Pearson

Screenwriters’ Festival Director David Pearson has worked in the television industry as a director, producer, executive producer and commissioning editor. From his base in Gloucestershire he speaks to Chris Jackson about his career, horror films and a passion for good stories.

Meeting David Pearson on a wet and miserable day not long after the first Screenwriters’ Festival it would perhaps surprise many to find the former BBC producer swaggering towards the door sporting rugby shirt, shorts, reclined sunglasses - “just in case” - and a most casual expression that would suggest he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Are things going well with the clear-up operation,”

I enquire, knowing all too well as a runner during the event how much of a logistical nightmare the festival had been to organise.

“We’re running at a loss at the moment,” he calmly replies; the words spoken with that soothing, melodic cadence I quickly learn rarely changes to accommodate fluster or frustration.

For a man whose recent projects have included a hair-raising trip to the most heavily bombed areas of Iraq to follow a Saddam Hussein look-alike for a documentary entitled Saddam’s Masks, I presume orchestrating a large-scale media event must be a piece of cake.

David invites me into a small room at his production office base in Stroud, an old fashioned building that couldn’t be further away from the glamorous climes of Hollywood all screenwriters aspire to.

I immediately enquire as to the inspiration behind his most recent domestic success, which saw hundreds of rookie and professional writers convene for a week long series of lectures, interviews and workshops at Cheltenham Film Studios. “David Bill (owner of Cheltenham Film Studios) and I were sitting and talking about screenwriters and we were saying how they never got the chance to get together and mix with each other, which is not true of other industries. We wanted to give them the chance to learn from each other and get far more integrated into the industry, feel part of the whole thing.”

David assures me that despite the initial losses, the first Screenwriters festival was a big success, garnering higher than expected ticket sales, achieving glowing reviews from trade magazines and attracting a plethora of big name stars such as Cracker scribe Jimmy McGovern, comedy duo Marks and Gran and Hollywood writer/director Guillermo Del Toro. More tantalising are some of the names that fell by the wayside, although Pearson insists on protecting their anonymity in the hope they will make it in the future. “The first year was always going to be the most difficult. Setting up from scratch there were a lot of unknowns. With the response we’ve had from the industry I’m sure next year will be a lot easier,” he says.

So, why all the effort, one might ask. Well, it would seem David is on a mission to enlighten talented writers. “Being able to write on your own is not enough. It’s very unlikely that you would be discovered in that way. You have to put yourself out there, meet producers and directors and find out what they want. It’s what you have to do to function in Hollywood.”

Evidence of Pearson’s passion for writing is never far from the surface, especially in the offices of his production company Arturi, the motto of which is ‘making stories travel’. Indeed, David traces his love affair with storytelling right back to his youth and his first film, which he called The Thing.

“I made my first film at the age of twelve. It was only a couple of minutes long. My father lent me his 8mm camera and I made this thing about a ball of energy that attacks children. I’d heard of a technique whereby you could make animation by literally scratching directly onto the film, so that’s what I did. I duly had the screening in the front room with family and friends and although there was a good reaction what I realised was wrong with it was there was no story.”

Perhaps surprisingly then it was in factual rather than fictional programming that David made his name, beginning at the age of twenty as a trainee film editor at the BBC and quickly rising through the ranks to become producer, executive producer and then a commissioning editor at the corporation, before going on to work for Granada and ITV. Yet in all the high profile documentary series he was involved in, including Bag Lady, 10x10 and A Change of Sex (his team were the first to follow a sex change patient in the lead up to and aftermath of the operation) David insists that storytelling remained the key component to success. “The mechanisms may be different (in fictional and factual film-making) but knowing what a good story is is fantastically important. A lot of my time at the BBC was spent looking for those good stories. I’m obsessed with good stories.”

David even has some pertinent advice for first time film-makers trying to pitch story ideas to busy producers. “Write down the description of the programme that would feature in the Radio times. Boil your story down to the very essence. Obviously that might change during the course of time but if you don’t know what road you’re on to start with you won’t convince anyone you know where you’re going.”

Producer of over 40 and director of more than 30 full length documentaries, not to mention contributor to shows as diverse as Celebrity Florists and Comic Relief, David is obviously extremely proud of his portfolio of work in the industry, quoting BAFTA nominations and RTS awards as he tries to give me some idea of the quality of his work. The names dropped hark back to a golden age of British television many critics believe we will never see the likes of again.

“At that time you could go into the BBC Bar every night and there would be the stars of the British Film Industry. People like Mike Leigh were on contracts and you could just go up and talk to them about things, whatever you liked,” he says.

In comparison to the film and television industry of the seventies, David acknowledges things are much harder for would-be writers and directors today. “There should be more opportunities in all big broadcasters,” he stresses. “There are some schemes but the most disturbing thing is that there is nothing to join up people making short films with people making features, which are two very different animals. There’s nothing in-between. I’d like to see an interim level so that people can progress properly and not run before they walk.”

So was it, I wondered, a desire to remedy some of the industry problems and pass on his wealth of experience that led to him establishing a production company with producer partner Elizabeth Morgan Hemlock. In fact, the reasons were far more straightforward. “I’d done all sorts of good things in television and then at a certain point I thought television was going in a certain direction and I wanted to make some movies. So we set up Arturi, which exists, as the slogan says, to make stories travel, which is what I’ve been trying to do all my life.”

Arturi’s most high-profile current project could be deemed somewhat of a far cry from Pearson’s early work - a slate of films he defines as “intelligent horror”. “The horror thing came about because I felt horror was straying from its core values. They (horror films) should be scary but I thought a lot of them were just horrific - messy, violent and viscerally unpleasant but that doesn’t necessarily mean scary. We wanted to make films that had a story at their centre, stories you want to watch from behind the sofa”.

The current slate of films nearing production is emblematic: Curse of Onan, a comedy horror David hopes to film locally, The Chain, a supernatural horror with the “terrifying concept” of a chain letter the recipient cannot afford to ignore and Dungeon Master, a thriller based around fantasy role play games.

David’s aspirations for these films, as with all of his projects, are simple - that “they will be seen by the maximum number of people.” However, as he is keen to express, that doesn’t mean to the detriment of originality.

Pragmatic, passionate and dare I say practical, David Pearson is someone every screenwriter should be grateful to have on their side.

More details of David’s upcoming work can be found at www.arturifilms.com.

The Screenwriters’ Festival website is www.screenwritersfestival.com.

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