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Blood writer Sophie Petzal talks with IFTN
30 Mar 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Ian Lloyd Anderson and Grainne Keenan in Blood: Season 2.
We caught up with award-winning writer Sophie Petzal to find out more about penning the second season of Virgin Media Televisionsí original Irish drama series, Blood, picking up a Writersí Guild of Britain Award, writing for established characters and the process of introducing new ones, and what advice she would give to aspiring writers.

Writer Sophie Petzal won the long-form drama category for the first series of Blood at the annual awards, beating BBC1’s Gentleman Jack and Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star back in January.

Commissioned by Virgin Media Television, Blood has become one of Ireland’s most successful drama exports, selling in over 65 territories around the world and receiving critical acclaim from The Guardian and Time Magazine.

Starring Adrian Dunbar, Grainne Keenan, Ian Lloyd Anderson, and Carolina Main, the season finale of Blood: Series Two airs this Monday, March 30th at 9 pm on Virgin Media One.

Viewers can catch up on all episodes of Season Two on the Virgin Media Player – here.

IFTN: Firstly, congratulations on picking up your first Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award. What was it like receiving that honour?

Sophie: “A big, big shock. I feel that there's like two dilemmas when you're going through something like that: Either I prepare a speech, don't win and then have to live with the knowledge that I was hubristic enough to prepare a speech; or you don't (prepare a speech), win, and then forget someone's name and have to live with that for the rest of your life.”

“About an hour before the event, I realised that the second one was worse. In Jonathan's office at West Road Pictures, I scribbled down a speech that I thought about. It ended up paying off, [laughs] because it's kind of terrifying. But, you know, it was amazing. It was a really nice validation for all the work that everybody put in, because while it is a Writers’ Guild Award and they're reading scripts, they're still there watching the episodes, and they’re reacting to not just your work, but the work that everybody has put in. Those moments are just really good for us to take stock and pat everybody on their back, aren't they?”

IFTN: You often hear of people getting a case of impostor syndrome in these sorts of situations, was this the case for you?

Sophie: “Yes. When you're read out in the same category as Sally Wainwright, who's been my hero forever, I felt like I wanted to apologise to her. Her Gentleman Jack is so phenomenal as well, so when you are up against a show like that, you are like, ‘Of course [that is going to win]’. I was looking at the awards programme when they announced ‘and the award goes to Blood – Sophie Petzal!’ You do feel a little bit like ‘Is everybody in this room going 'what is this show?’ ‘What?’ ‘Who is she?’ ‘Why didn't Sally Wainwright win?’"

“I feel like the impostor syndrome is overwhelmed a bit by, you know, the ‘Wow, isn't this cool?’ factor. I think the cool thing to say is, ‘These things don't matter, do they?’ Technically, I guess, they don't. It's mainly just five minutes in the sun; people send you nice emails afterward. You get a couple of meetings that you might not have gotten before. Largely it's just a reason to celebrate and to go like, ‘Wow, we've done something.’"

“Blood was always a bit of an underdog. It was the first venture into original primetime drama for Virgin Media and Channel 5. It always felt like a bit of a gamble and I wasn't anybody; I wasn't a name. Adrian Dunbar was our high-profile name, which was incredibly useful for us, but it always felt like we were the little show that could.

“It just felt really nice to be listed among people like that and then, to come away with something, just to be listed even among that; the likes of Tin Star, Gentleman Jack, it was just so exciting. It's been lovely.”

IFTN: When talking with writers, there is always an element of giving your baby up. How did you find dealing with that transition of handing it over to someone for the first time, and trusting them to bring it to the screen as you envisaged?

Sophie: “I was always worried about that in UK drama and British drama, there is that hand over all the time. You feel that there is a disconnect between the editorial and production. Sometimes, that's fine, but I've often found that some of the biggest problems or mistakes that will come from that could have been avoided if there was actually just a bit more - I hate the word, it feels a bit like The Apprentice - synergy. A bit more, cohesion.”

“Luckily for us, we were such a small team. It was just me writing the scripts and Jonathan Fisher, our exec, who was there to develop it with me. We developed this from the ground up. With Season One, we were just present all the time. We hired our directors, we oversaw everything, and so, we were part of that process. There wasn't really a handover; it was all just part of one process.

“What was nice about Season Two was that we were basically bringing the same team back. It wasn't that we didn't trust them in Season One; you just want to make sure that you don't come back and feel like, ‘Oh, I don't like this.’ That would have been avoided if I had just been there and been able to have that conversation. When you know that we're all on the same page, there's not going to be any confusion, always communication, so on Season Two, you know, we just popped in for a visit and said ‘Oh, this is great. You're brilliant. Bye!’

“For me, part of the pleasure of making television is I get completely lost in the woods writing the thing, and then I give it to somebody who has their own creative take and has their own ability and has their own perspective, and they can enhance it if everybody is on the same page, everyone’s contribution is an answer.”

“I'm always so excited to see it because I am probably one of the least experienced people working on the show. You have directors who worked on plenty of things, or editors, in particular, who if I tell them that I am concerned that audiences might not understand a particular transition. They'll have these little tricks and little things that they can do to make it perfect. I love the collaboration.”

IFTN: You mentioned having that shorthand coming back in Season 2, how much more comfortable did you feel with the whole process?

Sophie: “It was coinciding with the women's World Cup, so I was away in France for most of it. That's how comfortable I felt. I was like, ‘You guys have got it. You don't need me!’ You stay across the rushes and you see everything that they're shooting, but even then, I found that like, I used to watch all the rushes, which is just the raw footage that comes in every night. You find you start worrying about like, ‘Oh, God, is that it, did we have this, did we have that?’

“Ultimately what I've learned is that that's not my part to play. Like, your director and your editor is going to find any issues. You'll watch their cuts and all of the problems that you thought that you were going to run into, you don't have anymore, because the people that are there to fix those problems, have fixed them, and actually all I'm doing is worrying myself over nothing because I don't really get it.

“I guess there's been a huge amount of learning for me over the last couple of years and what I've learned really is that these people are really, really talented, and I don't need to micromanage.”

IFTN: It's impressive to have realised all these things so early in your career.

Sophie: “I'm really, really lucky, really fortunate. I mean, it's remarkable to have done a show at my age, anyway; it’s fairly unusual, but you don't get to use that as an excuse when things go wrong. [laughs] You have to make sure that you've got the right people around you. We were just so lucky that we had one of the best teams in the business, really. So wherever I lack, or wherever my faults are, I get to hide behind giants so it's brilliant.”

IFTN: How did you approach introducing new characters in the second season to feature alongside those that were already established in the show?

Sophie: “I felt it was a quicker process [to the first season]. I was inventing and reinventing [the characters]. Then you cast people and then they bring something new to the role and then you're modulating as you go, trying to suit their strengths and their voices sometimes. Series 2, you know exactly who they are except for the new cast. It allows you to unpack from them, access their interior lives a bit more and you're not spending too much time thinking about their voices in the same way that we were trying to develop them in Season 1.

“As much as it is with anything, it was trying to create compelling characters to attract a greater cast, create idiosyncratic, individual compelling roles. You now hear them in your head and you also have a year of experiencing the range and the abilities of these incredible cast members and you have untapped depth there. You think, ‘Wow, I've seen only half of what she can do or he can do. Let's go further. Let's push them here.’ It's freeing actually. It's freeing knowing exactly who you've got and who you're writing to and especially knowing the range that our gang has.

“It also meant it was really fun to create new characters and think, ‘Well, what's a brilliant type of character to have rub up against Jim? What would Fiona's husband be like?’ We were now creating the new characters; we weren’t creating in a vacuum. I had to think about: What do we have space for? What do we need here? Tom and Gillian are fantastic characters.

“I think episode 1 in series 2, it's all loaded looks that have questions behind them. People looking at each other across the dinner table and us going, ‘What does that mean? Are we going to find out what that means? What does that look mean?’ It's going to be great to have a character that is similar to Barry last year who was just the really nice guy. He was the one character who doesn't really have a complicated agenda. He was just lovely.

“Tom throughout this series is similar. Everyone has stuff going on, everyone has secrets and everyone has things to deal with, but Tom comes in at just the right moment. When you need a bit of a laugh and Denis Conway just plays him so beautifully. Writing season 2 just allows you to go to places like that, which has been such fun.”

IFTN: Your success is inspiring for those who have aspirations to become a writer. What advice would you give them and what are the truest lessons that you have learned?

Sophie: “I don't want to be negative, like ‘it's all rigged’. [laughs] Perseverance I suppose. I often find that you know, the people who are working a lot of time, they just didn't give up even if you thought you were crap. I guess if I had to give advice it'd be, ‘Stop paying so much attention to your heroes because sometimes they make you feel like, ‘well, I'm never going to be that good and therefore I shouldn't bother.’ Actually your heroes weren't always that good.

“Maybe watch bad movies that your heroes made or rather focus on somebody who's working a lot, but that you think is rubbish because you can be like, ‘maybe I could be that person’. I could be someone who's also rubbish and working along. I don't have to be brilliant.

Never let mediocrity get in your way. That's the great truism. I think I’m being ironic. I have to take my eye off the people who inspired me because sometimes I found that I would just cower in fright and not want to risk realising that the truth was that I was mediocre. It might be that I am. It might be that I'm not great, I'm fine, but actually, there's a market for that. [laughs]”

“Also you're only the beginning of a process. I think the auteur theory has a lot to answer for both in creating monsters and egotists, but also I think in giving people a real fear that if they themselves are not geniuses they will never do great work and the truth is, scripts are always a work-in-progress. Scripts are always the beginning of the process and things have gone on to become great, began as "eh" scripts that needed a lot of work.”

“There've been episodes of Blood that have gone on to being my favourite things that I've ever done, have gone on to impress people I've always wanted to impress, that have begun as "eh" drafts. You're not the be-all and end-all and that should infuriate egotists and hopefully encourage being anxious and insecure.”

IFTN: What is next for you and would you have aspirations to write for feature film?

Sophie: “Next, I’ve had a few months where I've just been developing stuff, which has been really nice because two years on Blood created a lot of opportunities and opened a lot of doors. Doors I've not really been able to go through or entertain for a while because I've been so busy. It's been nice these last few months to take those meetings or take those jobs. To develop stuff or sell ideas and commissions; I’ve had some commissions luckily and work on some of my own new stuff and see where that goes or see where that takes us and see if there's a future for Blood and what have you.

“With feature films - I'd love to give it go. I've talked about projects before, but the schedule is always a problem. TV takes up all of your time and yes, maybe one day. It's a different medium. I think TV will spoil you as a writer to write important. [laughs] I think film is a director's medium all the time unless you're a writer/director. I have friends who get sacked off films constantly and so part of me is, do I want that, but at the same time, I love movies and movies is the way I got into TV. Yes, of course, I want to have a go at some point. We'll see what happens!”

The season finale of Blood: Series Two airs this Monday, March 30th at 9 pm on Virgin Media One.




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