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Getting Ahead In... TV & Film

For the second instalment of our Getting Ahead In... features, we speak to BA Performing Arts alumna Emilia di Girolamo and get tips on how to succeed as a Screenwriter.

Screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo had her heart set on becoming an actress, but after the success of her first play at Middlesex University it was clear that her talents were far wider reaching. With a CV that now boasts work as Lead Writer & Associate Producer of Law & Order UK (ITV/NBC) and The Poison Tree (ITV), Emilia speaks to Middlesex Alumni Relations Team about her journey from BA Performing Arts to showrunning an original series, and how working to rehabilitate offenders has inspired her writing.

Emilia di GirolamoWhat made you want to study at Middlesex, and what drew you to drama?

I spent most of my teens in various youth theatre companies or competing in arts festivals doing as much acting as possible, and after taking a Theatre & Television course at college I decided to do a drama degree. At the time the BA (Hons) Performance Arts at Middlesex was the course everyone wanted to do. It had very limited places and a huge number of applicants.

The first time I applied I didn't even get an audition as my predicted A level grades weren't good enough. I was so certain it was the course I wanted to do that I took a year out, worked hard, thankfully got an A in my Theatre A level and managed to bag an interview/audition and ultimately a much coveted place on BAPA Drama!

During my degree I found many of the lecturers inspiring, but Ruth Tompsett's writing for performance classes was the single biggest influence on my career. Ruth was a huge inspiration to me and gave me confidence and belief in my ability as a writer. I was lucky enough to lecture in Writing for Performance alongside Ruth at Middlesex while studying for my PhD.

Professor Leon Rubin was also a big inspiration. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship during my degree to go to Tokyo as a research assistant on a play he was directing in Tokyo's equivalent of the West End. That was an amazing and inspirational experience which really changed and shaped my approach to theatre practice.

What do you think are the pros of the industry you work in? And what can be most challenging?

It's an incredibly competitive industry where only the toughest and most tenacious survive! But it's also incredibly rewarding working creatively with producers, other writers, directors and actors.

I love television drama with a passion – the chance to tell compelling stories over many hours of series is a real privilege. I relish the opportunity to explore issues I feel passionate about and share that passion with millions of viewers and equally the chance to just tell a great story.

What projects have you found most exciting and enjoyed working on most?

I loved my time at Law & Order UK heading up a team of writers, getting involved in every aspect of making the show from writing, creating new characters and casting to edit reviews. Since I left the show two years ago I've been working with lots of production companies and several broadcasters to develop my own original work and adaptations.

The Poison TreeIt was a huge gamble to walk away from such a successful show but thankfully I haven't stopped working! I had my adaptation of The Poison Tree made for ITV, wrote a single drama for C4 and have written four original series pilots for BBC. It's incredibly nerve wracking waiting for greenlights!

Right now I'm just about to start a pilot for an original 10 part series for Sky and then I'm back to BBC to write a pilot for an original 5 part serial.

Tell us a bit about the rehabilitation work you did in prisons.

When I finished my degree at Middlesex I got a job acting in a company who took plays into prison. Inevitably one job led to another and I was suddenly working full time for prison theatre companies.

Around this time Professor Leon Rubin asked me if I had considered doing an M'Phil at Middlesex. I loved the idea of continuing academia while working and embarked on an M'Phil part time which turned into a PhD.

I was fascinated with the work I was doing in prisons and it seemed the perfect subject matter for my thesis. I started researching my own methods of using drama as a rehabilitative tool which formed the basis of my thesis. Drama is an incredibly powerful tool for change and provides huge benefits for offenders, raising confidence and self esteem and helping them think through alternative behaviours and try them out – literally acting out change. I worked in prisons throughout the UK for about 8 years until I started writing professionally.

It was my fascination with the psychology of offending behaviour that got me writing drama in the first place. I had this burning curiosity around how and why people committed serious crimes. I wanted to understand it. The more time I spent in prison, working with offenders, the more I wanted to explore crime in a fictional context.

Equally I was left with concerns about the prison system that made me want to explore those issues through drama. I've just finished writing the pilot episode of a 4 part serial drama on the very serious problems round deaths in custody and imprisoning vulnerable women with mental health issues. It's a project I've been pushing for nine years and desperately trying to get made! Hopefully the time is now – watch this space!

Law & Order UKWhat has been your biggest achievement to date?

Going from writing my first episode of EastEnders to showrunning Law & Order UK in the space of three years was a pretty big and unusual career trajectory. For me every script is a bigger achievement than the last! I'm always striving to learn more, be better, be the best writer I can possibly be!

How would you say your time at Middlesex has contributed to your career to date?

If it wasn't for Middlesex I wouldn't be a writer. When I started on BAPA I was adamant I wanted to be an actress. But during my second year I embarked on a performance project and when I couldn't find a play with a role I was really excited about, I was encouraged to write my own play. I did exactly that, writing and acting in my first play.

Afterwards everyone was raving about the writing and the lecturer responsible for marking my acting performance wondered if I would rather be marked on my writing. I got the hint there and then that I was a better writer than actor and although I did act professionally for a year or two after university, I never stopped writing from that point forward!

Middlesex also gave me a love for academia where previously I had this fear of it. I remember getting a first for an essay in my second year and feeling so elated. After that I was determined I would get a first for every essay, then I was determined I would get a First for my degree.

I refused to accept less than my best from myself and became a real perfectionist. And I got my First. But more importantly Middlesex gave me aspirations to always do my best and a tenacity to never give up. Those skills are invaluable in the industry I work in! I was never naturally academic. I was a rebellious teenager who moved through three schools between the ages of fourteen and sixteen and only just scraped five o'levels. To leave Middlesex with a First Class degree and a PhD was a huge achievement for me.

What advice would you give to a graduate, just starting out, who is hoping to follow in your footsteps? 

I say the same thing to everyone who wants to be a writer – just write. Write as much as you can. Write the best you can. Never believe that's it, I know it all now. If you want to be a TV screenwriter then watch all the TV drama you can. Read scripts. Learn your craft inside out. Then write the spec script that only you could write. Make it unique to you. Put your heart and soul into it. Write it and rewrite it.

When it's the best it can possibly be, send it to agents. If it doesn't get picked up it probably isn't good enough so write another. I wrote six spec scripts before I got a job. If that sounds too much like hard work then writing isn't for you.

What have you got coming up?

I'm waiting for a greenlight on several projects at the moment. Hopefully at least one of those will go into production later this year. Meanwhile I'm scheduled with script commissions for the foreseeable future so I'll just keep writing! I'm hugely excited about Exec Producing and showrunning an original series in the next eighteen months so with a bit of luck and a whole lot more hard work, I'll get there!

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