Saskia Schuster is Head of Scripted at Fulwell 73, James Corden’s production company. Following a successful career with major broadcasters and production companies alike, she also founded and focusses on Comedy 50:50, addressing gender imbalance in the industry and is invited to discuss her work on international forums. All from someone who was told she would never make it in TV!
What does your day to day look like?
I suppose I should explain what I do. I’m Head of Scripted for a TV company. That means I find and develop drama and comedy TV shows and feature films, and sell them to broadcasters mainly in the UK and the US. That’s just the start. We then have to make, edit and promote the shows. There are regular weekly all-company meetings which are mainly about communication and making sure the company is joined up in approach and working practices. I read a lot of scripts and novels that are submitted to us. Those we are interested in developing require a lot of notes – a script will go through dozens of drafts. The quickest turnaround for a comedy series from the point of a broadcaster commissioning it, to seeing it on screen is around 18 – 24 months. Longer for drama. My role can be mundane – admin, people managing, budget managing etc but it’s mostly creative. For example, the factual team at my company recently pitched a show to Disney who were more interested in a scripted version of the idea. So I devised a series, wrote a treatment and sample scenes for it and am now attaching a director before going back to Disney to talk in detail about the project and persuade them to fund scripts. Today I had a two hour casting meeting about a project we are developing, then I went to meet a US stand up comic who is Dave Chappelle’s warm up act but who has also written a comedy drama script that we are considering taking on. I gave a lot of feedback on the script; that was my way of seeing if she can engage with notes. She grilled me about everything; that was her way of seeing if I was the right producer for her. It went well. I also liaise with lawyers to discuss options, contracts and agreements. I talk to agents constantly to make sure their best clients are pitching me their newest ideas, I meet with on screen talent, writers, directors, crew etc. with an eye on hiring for our various projects. There’s a whole bunch of stuff more, you get the gist. No day is the same, and I love it that way.
Did you always want to work in scripts/tv?
I’ve always loved writing, as well as literature and storytelling in various forms. I did a BA in English Lit and found out I was good at it. After graduating I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, so I thought I might as well carry on studying and did an MA in Anglo-American Literary Relations with the intention of converting it into a Phd and becoming an academic. I took a gap year first, travelling and working in Kenya but when I went back to my studies, I think because I had by then seen a little of the world, post grad study started to feel irrelevant – coming up with clever theories purely for the sake of it, and it started to kill my love of literature. So, after I completed my MA, I started to think about what other jobs there might be that involved writing and storytelling. I’d done some unpaid work experience in my university holidays with the writers on Casualty and that’s when I first became aware that there was this thing called a ‘script editor’ which seemed like my dream job. And you could get paid for it.
What was your career pathway?
I had no contacts in TV so I wrote to every tv production company that did drama and/or comedy and offered to work for free. Only one replied. I worked in the drama department of Initial for three months for no money (doing cleaning work in the evenings and at weekends to support myself and pay my rent) and then I got a lucky break. The Head of Drama was setting up her own company and having read my script reports, asked me to come and work for her. Because we were a tiny company of two people, I did everything. I read scripts, wrote notes, had meetings with writers, assisted with casting, worked on productions, sat in the edit. I wasn’t restricted to one role, so I learned a lot very quickly. We made 11 hours of drama in our first year (that’s a lot) and our office was based in a post production house so there were actors and directors coming in to do edit related work all the time. On my first day I bumped into Robert De Niro at the bottom of the stairs. I thought that’s what every day would be like – and it kind of was. When Alan Rickman was editing The Winter Guest, he asked me to record some temporary dialogue for him, and then let me sit in his edit suite and observe and learn. There was the boring stuff as well of course, but I found myself in a world of creative people at the top of their game and it was both inspirational and intimidating. After that I went freelance as a script editor working in film and also TV drama and comedy. After a while I took a permanent role at Talkback as Head of Development for comedy. Among other things, I worked on the first script of The IT Crowd and produced a radio comedy show. That set me on a comedy route for the next twenty years. After Talkback I worked at Objective on shows like Peep Show, Star Stories and Pete Vs. Life before working with Armstrong and Miller at their company Toff. From there I went to Sky as a Comedy Commissioner for three years, working on Little Crackers, Trying Again, PsychoBitches, The Kumars, Yonderland and A Young Doctor’s Notebook, before spending time at ITV as Controller of Comedy for nearly six years. I’ve now returned to the independent sector where I am Head of Scripted UK for a UK / LA based production company.
How has your approach to work/career changed in your 40s compared to your 20s and early 30s?
In my 20s I felt like an imposter. My first boss told me I wasn’t cut out for TV and that I’d never make it because I had the wrong personality. I’m quiet and shy. TV is filled with large, loud, confident personalities. I didn’t feel like I belonged, especially being a young female working in comedy which was almost exclusively a boys’ club. But, I’m stubborn and I wasn’t prepared to be someone I’m not. So I kind of found my advantage in being different. When everyone else wants to dominate the room, being the quiet one who listens and observes means you hear everything, especially what is not being said. Working with writers, that’s almost like having a superpower. In my 30s I suddenly found myself a single parent with two very young children and no money. Really no money. For two years I couldn’t afford hot water or heating. I ate my kids’ leftovers, I could afford food for them but not for me. It sounds like a Ken Loach film. It kind of was. Suddenly it wasn’t about how I felt or about listening to my insecurities, it was about needing to provide for two other people. That gave me a different drive. I wanted to give my children a better life and I was lucky enough to be doing something I loved that had the potential to be well paid. I suppose I found a sense of purpose and ambition that rose above my insecurities, because it was more urgent. It was bigger than me. In my 30s I grew up, I had to. So in an industry that is at times fractious and difficult, I learned how to navigate and negotiate, and to keep the end goal the object. Basically, I tried to depersonalise my more difficult work interactions and to keep my toys in the pram. An ugly divorce can have its learnings. In my 40s, I’ve discovered that I have power and that I can use it to effect. It needed to be pointed out to me, mind you – I haven’t totally lost that imposter syndrome. When I was Head of Comedy at ITV, I started thinking about what kind of legacy I wanted to create. Just making TV shows felt too purposeless, I wanted to achieve more than that. Meanwhile, I was angry and frustrated by how much of a male, misogynistic world comedy still is, so I started an organization to implement practical measures that work towards creating a gender balanced industry. I forced TV productions to employ women as part of the terms of an ITV commission, I created a database of female writers for producers to access free of charge, and I created paid and unpaid work placements with productions for female off-screen talent. It made the national and international news for five days in a row – imagine, paying women to write comedy! Shocker! And I received a lot of hate for it. But it only showed me how necessary change is, and how deeply ingrained misogyny is in our culture. However, I think my strongest supporters and allies have been male TV writers who understand that working with women only improves the scripts, the characterisation, the jokes. I thought they would be my biggest haters. So that taught me something too.
How important is work to you?
I love my work, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. The creative aspect makes me feel alive and fulfilled. I meet amazing, inspirational people. My work gives me purpose, keeps me learning and challenges my thinking. But, it’s only one aspect of me. My family and friends are what it’s all about. For far too long, my work/life balance has been off kilter. I changed jobs 18 months ago and it’s been a leap of fear and faith; I’m learning new skills and my role is different to what it has been for the last nine years so I’m truly out of my comfort zone. All of that is scary and my self doubt is at the level of me in my 20s, but it’s also exhilarating. In addition, I now have a little more time; I don’t work as many evenings any more – well if I do, it’s on zoom at home rather than long evenings in a TV studio. So I now have more time for the people I love, I’m able to enjoy my friendships and in the process I feel like I’ve found something I’d lost, because for a while I had to put my work first in order to build a career.
What are your top 3 highlights?
Just before Covid put the world on pause, I was invited to the International Women’s Forum in Toronto where I sat on a panel to discuss my work on gender imbalance in the media. There were over a thousand people in the audience; among them former prime ministers, Nobel prize winners, astronauts, actors, journalists, top business people and yet strangely, for once I didn’t feel like an imposter. And I think I felt validated. Since then, I’ve given talks across the globe via zoom to advise other media groups on how to set up similar initiatives for women.
I’ve been privileged to attend a lot of glamorous events, work closely with global superstars, travel internationally for work – and I can appreciate how lucky I am. But in terms of career highlights, nothing beats the comparatively simple buzz of working out what isn’t working in a script and why, cracking what can unlock or fix it, then working with the writer to find solutions. It’s like a detective working out who the murderer is, finding the evidence to prove it, testifying in court and then getting the culprit locked up. In the long term, all recognition of individual input quite rightly gets lost in the overall evolution of the end product; it’s a collaborative job, it’s not about seeking personal glory. But that buzz is addictive.
As a commissioner, your role is exec producer ie fairly hands off. You are the fresh pair of eyes on everything and the final say on decisions. On one new series, the team particularly welcomed my input from the start and I ended up working very closely with the production on every element from script, to days spent on set, and days and days spent in the edit. As a thank you they gave me an onscreen credit but because ITV didn’t allow commissioners to have credits, the producers invented a production role for me and used an anagram of my name. They did it as a surprise and I only saw it at the cast and crew screening. In that job, you tended to get all the blame if something didn’t work out, but thanks or credit was rare, so that was a pretty special moment.
What is next for you?
I’m continuing my work with Comedy 50:50 (comedy5050.com) which is about addressing gender imbalance in the industry and that’s going to be ongoing until we are no longer necessary and the world is equal. Like that’s going to happen in my lifetime. In addition, in my new job I have initiated a venture that I can’t really talk about in too much detail because we haven’t announced it yet. But, it’s about regenerating a specific region in the north of the UK in terms of film and TV production, on-screen representation, the stories being told and about bringing new skills to the area and keeping them there. We are part of a multi million pound investment into the area including, we hope, the building of international film studios. This venture will change lives. I don’t make that claim lightly. It’s incredibly exciting. So yeah, I’m still trying to change the world.