From a promising legal career to screenwriting, Robert Porter describes how a period of significant mental ill health led him to take up writing which, to his surprise, became something that ultimately ‘saved’ him
I graduated from Pembroke College in 1987, and, although I was from Belfast, went down to London with my friends to start a legal career. After a few years, I found myself at a prominent London media and entertainment law firm, which I absolutely loved.
Soon I found myself advising such household-name charities as Richard Branson, Virgin Group, Comic Relief, The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, The Prince’s Trust, and The Queen (I set up her Golden & Diamond Jubilee Trusts).
I was set fair for a spectacular legal career. But I worked far too hard, played far too hard, and soon quite unexpectedly became deeply depressed.
When once I was a “rising star,” now I could barely answer the phone. Lifting a pencil to mark up a contract became a supreme effort.
My employers didn’t really understand what had happened to me. But they were even more confused when depression morphed into mania and I tried to do dozens of things at once, including marathon running, as if I were a circus clown spinning a dozen plates on a pole.
I was eventually hospitalized in The Priory in Roehampton, which was the first of a number of hospital visits. Ultimately, I ended up in an NHS ward and inexplicably I seemed to respond well to that.
On the long-term sick
My employers were wonderful and adopted reasonable accommodations to help me out. But soon we all felt that I was so ill I couldn’t then properly fulfill the job of a practicing solicitor. And I went long-term sick. After a time, I began to improve. And I looked around for strategies to keep my mind active and stop it turning to mush.
My screenwriting story
In my early twenties, I had written a couple of screenplays, and although they had not been very good, I remembered how much I had enjoyed the process of writing them.
So I decided that I would take up screenwriting as a hobby to see where it led.
Eventually, I sent some of my scripts to a script consultant, who told me they weren’t perfect but that they held promise and I should continue.
So, I kept at it, and in 2017 two amazing things happened. One of my scripts was placed in a Hollywood scriptwriting competition. And another won a place in the coveted ScreenCraft Jamaica Residency where my prize was to be mentored for a week by Steven de Souza, who wrote DIE HARD and COMMANDO.
My time with Steven was like nuggets of gold, and soon the script found its way to a top UK Executive Producer who had Executive Produced THE ENGLISH PATIENT and WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE.
This EP took on my script, and from there we now have a powerful production team. We go to casting in April 2023, in time for a funding round in Cannes in June.
5 Things you need to think about before taking up screenwriting
If you are minded to take up screenwriting, here are a few tips to bear in mind:
- You must be an optimist. Only about 1% of scriptwriters manage to sell a script.
- You must be prepared to take your time. I first started writing my current script in 2016. That’s a seven-year journey.
- You must write your script in GCSE English. What I mean by that is that flowery or literary language is not recommended, so if you want to be the next Proust, then screenwriting isn’t for you.
- Screenwriting is quite structured, and you must learn the discipline of the recommended structures before you risk deviating from them. The deep structures of a well-written screenplay can lead to astonishingly expansive creativity. Just watch CASABLANCA, or (for a music-dance equivalent) seek out the recording of Torvill & Dean dancing the (very structured) Bolero to win gold at the 1982 Winter Olympics.
- Your screenplay is not your baby. If you are successful, you must give it away to a producer who can do basically anything they want with it. If you can’t bear such an occurrence, think about becoming a novelist.
5 things to do when starting out
If, despite all that, you’re still keen to give screenwriting a try, here are some pointers to get you started:
- Buy some script formatting software, because otherwise, you will find yourself bogged down in formatting issues when you should be letting creativity flow. Script executives use formatting as a crude filtration system: if you haven’t bothered to format your script properly, why should they care? Final Draft is the market leader. It’s pricey, but worth the investment if you’re serious.
- Write every day, if only for five-to-fifteen minutes to begin with. Creative writing is like a muscle – it needs to be ‘grown’ and if you try to write for six hours every day without easing into it, you probably won’t last the course.
- Hire a script consultant. They are worth their weight in gold. Don’t rely on your mum, your dad, your boyfriend, or your girlfriend. Even if they did know what they’re talking about (which they probably won’t), they’re unlikely to be objective.
- Read someone else’s script at least once every week. Many are available online.
- Go to the Movies at least once a week. If you’re not seeing one major release a week, how serious are you about becoming a screenwriter?
A final thought: how screenwriting saved me
So those are my top-level thoughts about how you might get started in screenwriting.
Whether or not my movie gets made, screenwriting saved me. It stopped my mind from turning to mush and gave me purpose and intellectual stimulus when I might have had none.
Try it out.
You never know.