Toby Venables

Staff. Lecturer, Screenwriting.

Toby Venables teaches screenwriting modules at ARU. A professional screenwriter with a particular interest in horror, he has co-written a BAFTA-winning film, 'His House', for Netflix, and also published four novels.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Toby Venables and I am a screenwriter, primarily. I’ve taught film-related modules at Anglia Ruskin as an Associate Lecturer for quite a few years, but just recently started on a permanent contract teaching screenwriting.

But I started out as a journalist, and so did a lot of film stuff with the Cambridge Film Festival, did reviews, did interviews, and that led to actually writing films, bizarrely enough.

Currently I’ve been pitching a load of things in the last couple of years as a result of the success of a film that I co-wrote called His House, which is on Netflix, and it won a BAFTA, so there’s been quite a bit of interest in that, which is nice. It’s a horror movie, and it’s got a social theme to it.

What one thing inspired you to do what you do now?

Oh gosh. It’s always really difficult to boil that down to one thing, because my experience is that there’s a whole load of things that all feed into it, and at some point you look back and only then realise what those things were. But sometimes there are moments where all of those things do intersect and come together, and that’s the moment of realisation that ‘Ok, I want to do this.’ I was always a writer fundamentally, whether it was journalism, scripts, and I’ve written four novels as well. Whatever it was, it’s always the same stuff at the end of the day. It’s all storytelling.

Looking back, though, there was a moment when a teacher at school read out the story of Beowulf and Grendel - not in the original language I hasten to add, because we wouldn’t have known what on Earth they were talking about, but a translated version. And it’s this incredibly dramatic, gory story. Kind of a horror story really, with a monster who Beowulf grapples with physically, because the monster is immune to weapons. So he has to throw off armour – armour’s pointless, weapons are pointless, swords are no use – you’ve just got to grapple with this thing, and because Beowulf is the strongest man in the world, he does it, and he just clings on to Grendel’s arms until it’s ripped from its socket. For some reason that really stuck in my mind, and probably was quite influential. Either it guided me into horror, or it was the thing that made me realise horror was the area I probably ought to head into, because I was both horrified and delighted by that story!

It also led into my interest in history. The four novels that I’ve written have all had a historical setting: three in the Robin Hood period, sort of late 12th century, but the first one was Viking-set, with zombies! So there was a lot of Beowulf and Grendel influence and references in that, and in fact the main character was called Bjólf, which is basically the Norse version of ‘Beowulf’.

Toby Venables in front of a screen of text from a screenplay

What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your education?

It’s interesting to me because of course I’m teaching; I’m involved in education, so it causes you to reflect on how you were educated, and how people affected you positively and negatively. You’re constantly thinking ‘Well, what effect am I having on my students, and am I getting across things in the way that I want them to get them across?’ And actually I suppose the one big thing that I take away is to do with enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm works. Looking back at my own school days – because we’re going back a little way now – teachers were perhaps a little more traditional than you’d expect them to be these days. But there were teachers there who were incredibly enthusiastic and all of us responded to that as kids. It’s infectious. And then there were teachers who were clearly just going through the motions, and had a terrible technique, to the extent that I actually gave up history because of the way it had been taught – it was all just reciting dates and facts. In fact, there was a point where we all had to choose history or geography, and for some completely incomprehensible reason I chose geography, and I didn’t do a history O-Level, as it was at the time.

Now that I see myself in a room packed with history books, writing historical fiction, it’s just hard to believe I made that decision. But it was that teaching that killed it for me, and what’s reignited it for me is partly lots of people on Youtube talking about nerdy historical stuff with real enthusiasm, and that’s so important. Knowledge of course is important, the facts are important, but ultimately what gets it across is that passion, that enthusiasm. So even if I’m feeling a bit jaded on any particular day, I’m always thinking ‘I’ve got to find the thing in this that is really the point of connection, the thing that brings it alive.’ So, that’s what I’ve taken away.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

This is always a tricky one, because the temptation is to do a Back to the Future sort of thing, and impart some secret that you couldn’t have known then; that with the benefit of hindsight you can deliver this bit of wisdom to your younger self and change things. The difficulty that I have is if you do that, it changes everything that happens afterwards. I’m kind of a bit resistant to that because actually, when I think about, I don’t really want any of it to have changed. Even the bad bits, even the failures, I kind of think ‘Well, you know what? That failure led to that bit of success’ or ‘That failure taught me something that has stood me in good stead ever since.’

So I think what I’d ultimately say – I wouldn’t give too much away because it would ruin the time lines – is ‘Just keep going. Keep going. It will work.’ That’s the message.

Toby Venables talking in front of black and white film

What interesting thing about Cambridge do you know, that others might not?

It’s to do with ghosts, actually. I write horror stuff, so I have an interest in ghosts. There’s a story that I wove into the first screenplay that I ever wrote, which was never made and probably never will be, but it holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first full length horror movie script that I wrote. This particular story was to do with Peterhouse College, where there have been quite significant hauntings apparently. People claim to have seen figures and dark shapes, and to have felt feelings of dread, and there have been all sorts of things over the years. Peterhouse of course is the oldest college, and some parts of it are 13th century, so seriously old, and also back in its history there was I think a bursar who hanged himself. So some people think the ghost of this bursar is haunting the place.

But the one that really got me was this tale of just a black shape – not even a figure, but a black shape moving around on top of this parapet over the entranceway, and looking down into the courtyard. People who lived in rooms near where this was were having feelings of dread, and it was literally sapping their energy and their will to live. That thing, in my mind, really stuck. But the other thing about it - and this is the interesting fact that I’ll just leave for people to think about – is that apparently, on about three occasions I believe, exorcists have been called in to deal with these things at various points. You think: ‘Ok, fine. They’re taking it seriously, or they’re hedging their bets, and covering all the bases, getting the exorcists in just in case.’ But the thing about exorcism - and I think this is something that maybe most people wouldn’t ordinarily realise - is that exorcisms aren’t usually for getting rid of ghosts. Exorcisms are specifically for casting out demons. I’ll just leave that for people to think about!

What would you say is your favourite horror story?

That’s a big question. It’s such a simple question, but it’s also a very, very complicated one. I think in some ways I would always go back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, just because it’s such an extraordinary piece of work. Actually, although it’s got horror elements, for me it’s really the birth of science fiction, and that’s in 1818. It’s very early.

There’s a lot of horror stuff that happens, and obviously the Frankenstein films are regarded as horror films, but within the novel there’s a whole process that Victor Frankenstein goes through where he thinks he can do this thing, and he starts looking at the writings of alchemists and mystics and all that stuff, and then he goes to university and his lecturers say ‘Forget all that. Throw all that away. Science. Science...’ And this was kind of at a time before science was really science, but he does throw all that away, and he applies himself to scientific methods, and he achieves what he sets out to using science, not magic.

So it’s not like Faust, where there’s a pact with the Devil, or spells or anything like that. It’s totally his achievement through the application of science, so it’s absolutely a science fiction story, which is one of the things I love about it. It’s kind of the first to have that, and I love that it has within the structure of the story this working through of old superstitions, rejecting them, and applying science instead. And it’s dreamt up by a teenage girl – in the early 19th century! That in itself is extraordinary, because it reads as such a mature vision. It’s one of those incredible pieces of work where someone genuinely seems like they’re visited by a muse in that moment, and just create this amazing piece of work. An absolute work of genius.

Toby Venable's silhouette in front of a screen showing text from a screenplay

What projects are you currently working on, both at ARU and outside?

So I’m carrying on teaching the various modules that I teach, one of which is Film Journalism, and a couple of screenwriting modules, but also putting together a new course which, hopefully, will launch in September, which is to do with TV Production, and there are elements of that that are tied into the writing part. So lots of people are having input into it, but there are modules within that that need to be put together and so on. So that’s one of the things that I’m actually doing now, which is really nice to do, to be able to think strategically I suppose, about how best the screenwriting fits with all these other disciplines, all of which together makes film and tv production.

One of the things that I’m pushing to do is make it really relevant to industry, because lots of people can teach you how to write a screenplay - lots of books can do that. You can find that out on Youtube. But the question is: What then? What do you do with it, and where do you take it? Always, I’ve wanted to have that element within modules that I teach, particularly the screenwriting modules; that there is this connection with the industry, and that people come away from it understanding why scripts are the way they are, for one thing, but also having some idea what to actually do with them, and how things work, and how sometimes they don’t work, which is just as important.

Also I’m writing scripts. This week I’ve started on adapting a 1970s British horror novel, which I can’t name, as a film. It is going to be set in the ‘70s as well, so it’s got that period feel to it, which is going to be great. I’m co-writing that with my writing partner Felicity Evans – we worked together on His House. We’ve written a couple of thrillers together as well, straight to TV thrillers, which has been a fantastic discipline really, to go through that process where it’s quite rapid. They just want fairly low budget, straightforward but compelling thrillers for TV. Boom. And to actually go through that process and make it hit all its marks, and be interesting, and to fulfil a brief, but for it to be more than just the brief – that’s a great challenge, and a great discipline actually, and a really interesting learning curve. Those were commissioned. The first two have been made, the third one is about to be made and we’ve just started on that. The ink is literally still wet on the treatment, so we’ll see how that goes!

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