The writer of Locke, Peaky Blinders and Eastern Promises discusses his career and shares his advice for new writers.
Listen to Steven Knight's Screenwriters' Lecture
In the third and final of this year’s Screenwriters’ Lectures, Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Locke, Peaky Blinders) delivered an insightful, honest and entertaining lecture.
The discussion began with a highlights reel of six of the prolific screenwriter’s most notable works, which served as a visual stimulus for the subsequent evaluation of the writer’s craft. Knight spoke readily about how the success of his first screenwriting venture - the BAFTA-nominated Dirty Pretty Things – coincided with the prosperity of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, of which he was co-creator.
It was Stephen Frears who picked up Knight’s first adapted screenplay: “‘It’s very good’, Frears said, ‘but could you make the end better?’ I said, ‘Okay, yeah, fine’, and that was it.” From conception to execution, and learning to acquiesce script changes, Knight explained how “all of that whole first film was an education”.
If you’re a screenwriter, your job is to try and defend the script word for word…but then you have to accept that it isn’t going to be like that.
He then moved on to discuss three specific craft areas in relation to his works: structure, dialogue and protagonists. Whilst expressing his reluctance to accept the “three act” plus “character arc” formula of Hollywood blockbusters, Knight suggested that a degree of structure was valuable: “if you know what’s going to happen at the end, at the very end, you can be as free as you want but at least you know what direction you’re going in.” Highlighting the opening scenes of his films, Knight divulged that he tries “to make the opening of the film an event or a decision which causes the rest of the film to happen.” The beginning of a film, he believes, should be “like the pebble that hits the pond.”
Knight expressed his love of writing dialogue, and emphasised that it must “feel real” - without stilted speech or passages of overtly conveyed information. He stated that exposition is “horrible” but can be sidestepped, either by inventing “a character who knows nothing” or establishing “a real reason to be very specific” such as police procedures or scientific investigations.
While discussing how he constructs characters, Knight accepted that his protagonists are often innocents who find themselves entangled with some sort of unfamiliar underworld. “I think the interesting stuff comes,” Knight explained, “when you actually take a strong character and put them in a vulnerable situation. If you take a weak person and put them in a vulnerable situation it’s just a shame.”
Steven Knight ended his lecture by reading an elegantly descriptive introductory passage from his script of Locke. Knight’s reading of this extract brought the critically acclaimed film back to its inception as a conglomeration of carefully crafted words; a fitting conclusion to this year’s Screenwriters’ Lecture series.
Screenwriter Steven Knight made his feature debut in 2002 with Stephen Frears’ intelligent crime thriller Dirty Pretty Things, earning him both a BAFTA and Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. He followed this with historical drama Amazing Grace (2006), and the muscular gangster tale Eastern Promises (2007) for director David Cronenberg, the latter both BAFTA and Oscar-nominated. After beginning his career in television, as co-creator of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, Steven recently returned to create hit series Peaky Blinders, and has moved to directing his own scripts; his feature debut, Hummingbird, was released in 2013, while this spring saw the release of the gripping drama Locke, starring Tom Hardy. Chaired by Briony Hanson.