In Conversation: Jesse Armstrong

Photo by Anne Oswald

Photo by Anne Oswald

Jesse Armstrong is best known for writing sitcoms like Peep ShowVeep and Fresh Meat and features Four Lions and In the Loop. One lesser-known, or at least, lesser-cited, fact about Armstrong is that he and regular writing partner Sam Bain met on a Creative Writing course at the University of Manchester. I sat down with my fellow Manchester alumnus for a chat about writing, deadlines and his first short film, No Kaddish in Carmarthen, which was selected by Encounters for their Future Encounters strand. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

SH: No Kaddish in Carmarthen is your first short. What was it like to go from working with other writers to creating something that was singularly yours?

JA: I liked it a lot. So, it’s sort of a semi-autobiographical not-really-autobiographical but inspired by being like Gwyn – an uncomfy fourteen year-old… I think I knew the texture of the relationships [that I wanted to portray] quite well… That was was why it was particularly appropriate to direct it myself. And, I loved it, being the person on set… rather than being a writer sitting in a chair and thinking “Why aren’t we going a bit quicker? What’s holding us up?”

SH: It seems like you took to the role quite comfortably… Wasn’t it terrifying to go from being in the writersroom to the director’s chair?

JA: We always used to go down and see Peep Show filmed so I’ve learned from Becky Martin who’s directed that for lots of years, and before her Tristam Shapeero, and I’ve been on set to see Armando [Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, In the LoopVeep] directing, and in rehearsal with Chris Morris so I feel like I’ve seen lots of really great people do those jobs… So I felt like I’d had quite a lot of secondhand experience. Even though yeah, it was scary [on] the first day, to be the director.

SH: And what about writing by yourself? I know you said that the film was based on your own experiences so obviously that feeds into the writing, and it’s also a short which is possibly less intimidating… But you’ve worked in writersrooms for Veep, and I guess the question that I’m really trying to ask in polite way is… What was it like to write without Sam [Bain]?

JA: [Laughs] Well, firstly Sam and I always… do all our plotting and character breaking and story development together, but we write separately. So we write a whole episode of Peep Show [individually], but we cross-edit, so it was a lot like writing something and not sending it to Sam. Although in this case I did also send it to Sam, to give me some notes and thoughts, and also my friend Tony Roach who script-edited and gave me some extra jokes! I’ve written now quite a lot on my own… I wrote for Black Mirror on my own….

SH: Which is being turned into a film! How do you feel about that?

JA: Good! I’ve been involved and let’s see if it ever happens… A lot of things get sold in Hollywood and whether the thing actually ever comes out [is another story] but yeah, I’m so pleased, I’m so happy with the British version that I feel like anyone else [should feel free to] have a go at doing something else with it.

SH: Do you have any advice for young writers and directors starting out?

JA: I think the only advice that I can give is that anything you can do to put yourself in a position where you have to finish things is great. So, you should’ve taken the Creative Writing course if you could have, because then [you’d have had] to finish it. And, not to make you feel too depressed, but you would now have a couple of short stories, probably one of which you might hate and one of which you might quite like, and think “I could do something with that”. And it’s great to be made to finish things, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t procrastinate a bit, who doesn’t not want to write sometimes, who doesn’t find it hard, and the more things that you can do that get you through to having a finished thing, the better. So, whether it’s a class that you take, a friend who you promise, a bribe you make to yourself — finish things.

SH: I completely agree. Deadlines are —

JA: Deadlines!

SH: A writer’s best friend and worst enemy — otherwise nothing gets done. How do you manage to stay focused?

JA: Well, not easily. I wouldn’t be focused without the deadlines, so I am a focused because I have the deadlines.

SH: Even when you are working to a deadline, do you ever find your attention span drifting?

JA: I’m sufficiently interested in the projects that I don’t find it hard to do some work on them. I know that feeling of running away [from your responsibilities], but I guess the good thing is I usually have a few things on the go, so if I’m procrastinating, I can usually procrastinate on another project rather than the one in hand.

SH: I’ve heard that the best way to deal with procrastinating is just to be so busy that you can’t do it.

JA: Yeah!

SH: Is that how you run your life these days?

JA: Basically. [Walking] a constant tightrope of failure because you’ve got to finish something by tomorrow.

SH: What about your panel [So You Think That’s Funny?] here at Encounters? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JA: It’s about comedy. And I think it’s gonna be a bit theoretical about what comedy works and also we’re [Isy Suttie, Jim Field Smith and Peter Carlton] all gonna show some shorts that we like.

SH: Do you do these talks often? Do you get asked to do a lot of them?

JA: I’m always pleased to be asked and sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. I like talking to audiences of people with creative ambitions, because I’ve been there myself, and sometimes you get a good spark from someone that [can help] you with your [own] work. I know how that feels and it’s quite nice to be in the position to encourage [others]. You know, me and Sam met on the Creative Writing course in Manchester, and so, I’ve just got a lot of time for [people who are] trying to learn how to do it.

By Simran Hans

Did you miss Jesse Armstrong’s first short film, No Kaddish in Carmarthen at Encounters? Catch it again at London’s Rich Mix cinema in October, where it screens as part of the ‘Cult: Freaks ‘n’ Geeks’ strand of the London Film Festival’s short film programme. More details here.