Simon Mirren: Lights, camera, shoot 'em up
While other Brits try to make it in Hollywood, a former plasterer from south London has been quietly turning into a top crime drama writer.
Monday 20 February 2006
Police helicopters fly low above Sunset Boulevard; looking down on them from the patio of his house, high in the Hollywood Hills, one of Britain's most successful screenwriting exports is considering just how far he's come. Twelve years ago Simon Mirren was a south London builder whose closest brush with the television business was plastering the roof of Michael Grade's office when the man ran Channel 4. Today he's one of the few British writers to have made it in Hollywood, and, as co-executive producer on smash hit drama Criminal Minds, has achieved something many US writers, never mind Europeans, have yet to match.
Mirren clearly sees the funny side. His neighbours are Johnny Depp and Chateau Marmont, the hotel that played host to countless Hollywood romances and where John Belushi overdosed in bungalow three.
But the view wasn't always this good. When Mirren's first film, G:MT Greenwich Mean Time, came out in the UK, the critics weren't kind. The fact that Mirren's auntie is a certain Dame Helen had not escaped their notice. "A lot of critics in the UK wanted to believe that Helen Mirren was making my career. The British press need to attribute success to someone else," he says. "One guy even said Mel Gibson's company only made the film because she was my aunt. I realised just how naive and twisted these people were."
The disappointment for Mirren was that his own coming-of-age story and cinematic debut didn't get the treatment it deserved. "The thing with G:MT Greenwich Mean Time was that it was a true story, and a story that stood on its own two feet. That wasn't serviced the way I would have liked it to be serviced, and it hurt."
But the bad press also inspired him. "In a way I can only thank the people who were negative about me. All the people that slagged me off. They are the ones about whom I thought, 'you know what, fuck you'."
He arrived Los Angeles for a series of pitch meetings under the stewardship of agent Scott Seidel at Endeavor, one of the main talent-shops in town. "I had 45 meetings in a week, with three or four people in each one," says Mirren. "Honestly, to this day I don't know who I met. And I learned that pitching is everything here. What Hollywood loves is confident, enthusiastic people who want to be successful."
But let's step back a bit. How did he move from plasterer to writer to Hollywood? "G:MT Greenwich Mean Time attracted interest from (the late producer) Alexei de Keyser at the BBC who asked me to write an episode of Casualty called "She Loves the Rain". Norman Wisdom came out of retirement to star in it," he says.
Mirren worked with producers de Keyser and Mal Young at the BBC for the next couple of years, moving on to dramas including Waking the Dead. "If I brought anything to these shows it was all my experiences," he says. "I have never felt like a writer. I have always felt like a storyteller. Throughout my life I have met really interesting people, from every walk of life. That has served me well to this day."
Mirren did two seasons on Waking the Dead and was developing a project called Deep Blue, using many of the contacts he had in the National Crime Squad. "It was with Kudos, which also had a pilot that had been kicking around for a few years called Spooks. I read it and I thought it was fabulous, but it didn't really describe the world that I had seen or heard about," says Mirren. So Kudos brought him in to work alongside creator David Woltenscroft. "I had three or four story ideas with me. The deep fat fryer scene came out of some of the things I'd heard from the people I knew in the real National Crime Squad."
As an established writer on what was becoming Britain's best drama in years, Mirren began to cast his eye further afield. "I was talking to a writer called Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Supremacy) who said he thought the sort of ideas I was having would lend themselves to American television. There are a lot of English directors working in the US (Danny Cannon, who was part of the creation team for CSI, and Rob Bailey who is now a producer on CSI: NY) but no writers. I don't know what it is. Perhaps they think we can't write for them, or that we don't understand them," says Mirren.
He decided that if he was going to have any success landing a job in the US he would have to spend a week on the ground pitching. Which, in January 2003, is exactly what he did. "If you want to drive a fast car you have to drive Formula One - for me if I wanted to do television and learn more I had to come to America."
After that chaotic week, back in London, Mirren received a call from Ed Redlich and Hank Steinberg from Jerry Bruckheimer's Without a Trace. "It was a conference call. I was at my house trying to figure out my next job. They said they had this show, Without a Trace, which sounded like Waking the Dead. Literally as I was speaking to them 22 tapes landed on my doorstep, just as they said 'you'll have the show any minute now'. Hollywood!"
Mirren was on a plane the next day and walked into a script meeting straight from the airport. He recalls: "I was jetlagged, had a cold, feeling really rough, and I went directly to the office. I'd never met these people in my life. I don't know what they thought of me. A south London builder walks into a Hollywood script meeting. That sort of thing just doesn't happen."
But Mirren's charm must have worked. Since that first day on Without a Trace he has moved up in the business and learned the rules as he's gone on. "Basically, in network television you write to an advert. You construct your drama around the ad breaks. And you have to figure which is the best way to bring the audience back," he says.
"Producing television in LA is all about the writers' room. It is all about the politics of those relationships, which is totally different to the UK - totally and utterly. In England you work a lot more on your own as a writer. You don't really get to see the production at all. You hand in your script and then you're on to the next one.
"What happens here is you start the season on 1 June. You walk into a room and there are between six and eight writers. Everybody sits there and you start talking about stories and figure out roughly what happens. You basically sort out the first six to eight episodes. Then you cast it, you produce it, you control all of it. There isn't anyone else involved. There is no pointing fingers at anyone else. It's all down to the team."
The US model means that when making Criminal Minds Mirren can find himself in all sorts of situations. "One day I could be working on a script and the next filming on location in the desert. I love being involved with the crew and shooting action sequences," he says.
But once the production locomotive leaves the station there's no stopping it. "By the time we start airing a season in the fall we are probably into episode five or six. We start writing those episodes in June and the actors join in July. On average we have five days to write the episode, eight days of prep, shoot in eight days and that episode can be aired two weeks later. Pretty much four weeks all in."
So what for the future? "Who knows," he says. "The only way I can survive is to dive into the frying pan and see what happens. I love the uncertainty of it all. What I love about working in network television here is I get to control what I write. And if it all falls apart, I'd always wanted to work with people who'd written on Hill Street Blues. And I got to do that."
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