Television writer Lucy Prebble has a knack for getting inside people’s heads and writing what makes them tick – and sometimes, it’s not pleasant watching. The screenwriter behind smash hit Succession and phenomenal new series I Hate Suzie, which follows a former child star’s journey to scandal and infamy, talks to Capsule about writing real, raw and revolutionary female characters.
- Do you think we’re in a golden age of people finally giving the writing of a show – and the writers – the credit it deserves?
Yes, maybe! It’s always been fascinating and somewhat sad to me that most people couldn’t name the writer of even their favourite film. Screen work has always deliberately hidden the writer a bit. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we so want to believe in the worlds we see on screen, the characters, that the actors become our heroes or replacement family or whatever. I’m not sure we like the idea of someone writing them or making them up.
So now there is such a demand for ‘content’ to fill all the new forms we have created, we are slowly coming round to appreciating the people who create that content (to use a depressingly technological term.) Acting stars are still also massively prized, because they make something stand out or feel worth trying or familiar.
But they do need to be attracted by quality writing, and so yes, I think there is a shift happening towards empowering creators. But also owning them. The new tendency for large providers to buy up writer/creators reminds me of the studio system in the 50s with stars. It’s both empowering and trapping. And although it’s great to see channels commissioning on the basis of a writer’s expertise and talent – what they really mean is on the basis of past successes. I wonder who it is who is nurturing and helping new talent, in the way the BBC and Channel 4 here in the UK used to do very successfully.
- There has been a rise in female-centred shows helmed by female writers and creators – why do you think that is? How are you helping to ensure it continues?
I think part of that is the successes of some of the earlier shows, like Girls or Fleabag. The channels feel comfortable about emulating something that’s already brought acclaim. So that helps open the doors a bit. Also there is a shudder of shame that’s gone through the industry after the Me Too movement, and there has been some apologetic schedule-filling as a result. What’s heartening is how many of these pieces have directly supported the argument that women should have greater, more equal opportunities.
- I Hate Suzie is the second series you’ve done with Billie Piper. How does that creative relationship work? Why do you think you work so well together?
I think we know each other very very well. We are close friends as well as colleagues and have been for a long time. So we talk a lot about ideas even when we’re talking about life or about work or whatever. We share a sense of humour, very bleak, very dark. I tend to fret and panic a lot and Billie calms me down and inspires me, then I write very hard and raw and she helps me work out what is worth pursuing and what is a bit received or dishonest. Then she acts the shit out of it.
- It feels like we’re finally allowed to see female characters act as flawed, or messily, or at times be as unlikeable as their male characters. Is that more freeing to write for?
Oh sure but even in the question is a strange sort of difference. We rarely describe male protagonists as ‘messy’, as if they are an upturned handbag, or even ‘unlikeable.’ We sort of assume it’s normal for a man to be ‘unlikeable.’ None of it matters except being compelling.
- Segueing on from unlikeable characters – you write and executive produce Succession, an absolute smash hit of a show (congratulations on the Emmy!). Did you know when you started out that it would become the behemoth it has?
Ha, now you’ve said that I realise you’re right, those male characters ARE often described as being ‘unlikeable’, mostly because they are so rich!
No absolutely not. It would be funny if I said, ‘Yes, immediately we recognised our genius’ wouldn’t it? But no. In fact, early on I thought it was quite similar to stuff that had existed before and worried how we would differentiate ourselves.
I think now I can see it is the very specific dark humour that Jesse specialises in and the fusion of tone (dark comedy and tragedy) that the room has created. I am honestly surprised and delighted by its success. I think we got some good (?) fortune with the shitshow that the world is at the moment and how a bleak comedy about narcissists and dynastic arseholes seems about right.
- Where do you get the inspiration for your characters and their lines/insults?
We just try to make each other laugh in the room. Also writers like Tony Roche and Jon Brown are masters of that. I have always just liked fitting words together in a way that feels impactful but rolls off the tongue smoothly. I like practising that on Twitter too. Imagining the brilliant actors saying them is the best bit. Well, the second best bit. When they actually say them is pretty good too.
- Lockdowns around the world have changed so much about the entertainment industry – have there been good changes? And what changes would you like to see?
I really don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I think, for me, I have a newfound appreciation for the hard work or all those people in the post-production process who had to move mountains to get the sound mixed and the edit done. Like, doing ADR remotely with actors in completely different settings, literally phoning it in, then seeing the tricks and skill employed to layer those voices in already recorded scenes. It made me see anew what they do, even in ordinary times, and never get any credit for.
- When it comes to writing Covid-19 content, do you think there’s a place for that or does it feel ‘too soon’?
Of course! There is no ‘too soon’ any more. Life is too soon. Reality is too soon. I think the key is probably to go creatively really hard towards it and create something that is defined by events totally, or to try to ignore it. I worry that halfway measures are going to be difficult and unsatisfying.
I Hate Suzie is streaming on Neon now.