Houston-based writer and producer Ed McCardie has helped create some of the most popular TV shows in the last decade, including Shameless, Sneaky Pete, Spotless and many more. He talks to INSIGHT Magazine about his big break, his favourite scenes and the enduring appeal of the anti-hero.
Did you have a ‘big break’ into the business of scriptwriting?
When I was just starting out, I won a pitching competition at BAFTA in London (the competition was the end of day entertainment for a rather dry funding conference). The prize money was more than a year’s salary for me at the time, so I quit my job the following Monday, to become a full-time writer. When the prize money for the pitching competition finally came through, it was less than half what was originally advertised… Tough at the time, but a good early lesson. The TV and film business can be a bit like that for writers – lots of promises which don’t entirely materialise.
I’ve noticed that your siblings are all actors. Were you a ‘theatrical family’? And do you ever fancy getting in front of the camera?
We weren’t a theatrical family – my Dad was an engineer and my Mum was a nurse. My two older brothers got into acting because they had a brilliant teacher at school, who really inspired them – he really changed the course of their lives. My youngest sister is also an actor, probably because that whole world had been opened up to her by seeing my older brothers. For my part – I wanted to be a writer of books, really (still do), and just fell into this.
As for going in front of the camera – no, not ever. No desire to. Acting is a proper, technical profession, and I have absolutely none of the skills required. I hate standing up to talk in front of people. My wife is an actor and has a remarkable set of skills. She’s better than me. I married ‘Up’.
You do a lot of producing as well as writing. How different are these two areas of your work and which do you prefer?
I prefer writing, hands down. It’s what I’m best at. And getting lost in an idea, creating a story and characters is a really joyous thing, when you get the time to do it. Though you don’t often get the time – a screenwriter usually writes with a gun at her/his head, and a producer piling on pressure. In an ideal scenario, the writing side of the job is done in the quiet, with time to think, plan and play with a story (planning takes time, and is hugely important – but it’s hard, and lots of people try to skip it). Writing is the happy side of the job.
Producing is… different. Producing is project management really, and a very different skill-set from writing. It involves dealing with people, and writers are not good at that. Writers as producers is a relatively new thing in the UK – and, writers tend to steer the creative side when made a producer, and a strong Production Manager tends to steer the practical (management and financial) side.
Shameless went on for 11 series. It was a massive hit. It was described by The Herald as “A mix of burnt-out car wreck depravity, cutting-edge reality and coal-black comedy.” Why do you think people took the Gallagher family and their neighbours on the Chatworth Estate to their hearts?
I think the Gallagher family (for all their dysfunction) looked out for one another in the end, always; I think they were very human and made mistakes as people, but fundamentally had family and community at the heart of everything they did. I think that, although the show was a comedy drama, there was a large slice of truth in their life on the margins of society – when the show first came on, it was a very warm and human portrayal of a very marginalised section of society, rarely seen on telly. Shameless was always at its best when it had one foot in reality.
The show was often harshly pigeon-holed. There were drugs and crime and other bits of badness and mischief in Shameless – but that is only human. There are drugs and crime and badness and mischief in all sections of society – as demonstrated amongst the current political classes in Westminster. I think it shone a light back at the viewers.
Do you have a favourite scene from Shameless?
Lots, really. There were some truly brilliant actors on Shameless, who are capable of making your writing seem better than it actually is. One stand-out for me would be Series 6, Episode 1, the opening scene of the series – Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall) is staggering home from the pub, in a heavy storm, having been told he is a waste of space as a human being – he rails at God about his lot in life (and actually uses a speech from ‘Hamlet’ to do so – I was quite pleased to sneak Hamlet into Shameless), and asks what his life is for, has it been worth it? He then drunkenly urinates on a generator by some road works – is electrocuted and has a heart attack, which puts him in intensive care. While unconscious, he is visited by the ghost of himself, aged 12 – a promising, sparky and bright lad with a great future… who somehow ended up as Frank. Young Frank holds Old Frank to account, and tells him he will die – unless he can show that he has done one good thing with his life (with all that promise). Across the Episode, Frank tries to prove that his life has been worth living. David Threlfall… was brilliant.
Many of the characters you write for – for Frank Gallagher, Sneaky Pete’s Marius, the Bastiere brothers in Spotless – exist on the outskirts of society, often involved with criminal behaviour. What is it about these types of characters that attracts you?
I think it’s that they are people too – people just like you or me. In drama, sometimes the ‘bad guys’ are written or presented just like that – two dimensionally, as bad guys. In truth, they have hopes and dreams, and flaws and ambitions and worries – they have to pay bills, and worry about their kid’s part in the nativity play. Their circumstances in life, or the hand that life has dealt them, might mean they operate in different circles from you or I – but they are people too. The anti-hero. The character of Tony Soprano broke the mould with this – yes, he is a Mafia boss, but he’s also a father, son, husband and brother, with all the stuff-of-life that that entails. So, what appeals is – decent people that we can relate to, in extraordinary circumstances.
Which has been your favourite show to write for, and why?
It’s a toss up between Shameless and Spotless, I guess. Probably because on those shows there was the freedom to tell the story in as fresh, innovative and challenging a way as possible. They were probably the most creatively ambitious shows I’ve worked on – and I was pretty senior on them, and so had a bit of clout to try and realise the ambition.
Netflix and Amazon Prime have changed the way we watch TV. Has this been a good thing for screenwriting?
Yes – it is undoubtedly a good thing for screenwriting. There are more opportunities, a much wider variety of stories and jobs, a huge desire for content from different channels. And… writers are not completely dependent on opportunities from the BBC, as used to be the case. Don’t get me wrong – the BBC is a wonderful national treasure, and if we allow it to be undermined or diminished, we’ll lose a huge part of our cultural life that we’ll never get back. It’s crucial that we maintain the BBC. But it is also great to have options now. There are stories being told now which really wouldn’t be seen or heard if there weren’t other platforms. So, yes, it’s good for screenwriting. Any good story now has a chance.
You must work away from home a lot. How difficult do you find getting the work/life balance right?
It’s pretty difficult. I hate being away from my family. My preferred state is being at home, writing and emailing scripts to people. I’m a real home-body, and my greatest happiness in life is my wife and kids. But – there is a reality to it, in that we choose to live here, in Scotland – and the TV industry is not centred here. That’s our choice, not the industry’s fault. And I need to work, so… we get on with it.