Matthew Jacobs Morgan on life as a screenwriter

Matthew Jacobs Morgan is a screenwriter, actor and director. He made the transition from acting to writing with a series of short films before writing for TV shows such as Hollyoaks. Most recently, he wrote an episode of supernatural thriller, The Rig. Matthew explains how he became a writer, what the process of writing for TV is like, and what the industry needs to change.

You started out as an actor; did you always want to become a writer or did that come later?

When I was young, I just wanted to be an actor and writing wasn’t really part of the plan. But who actually knows what their plan is when they’re young? When I was 17, I started writing just so I could put myself in my projects, but I ended up really enjoying it. For me, the two forms of self-expression feel so intertwined. I loved having a say in how the stories unfolded, as well as having more control over my own workload – I could have as many different ideas going on as I could manage.

The transition to writing felt very natural. It lent itself to my creative side, which has always been there. Growing up, me and my sisters were always expressing ourselves creatively; whether that was writing, putting on shows or creating music, and so writing for the screen just seemed like a natural progression from that.

How did you take those first steps into screenwriting?

It was through short films. The first one, I funded myself through my part-time jobs at Wetherspoons and Waitrose and shot it in friends’ houses with their help. I come from a middle-class family in Croydon, and didn’t have any contacts in the industry, so it was very much about clawing my way in on my own terms.

For the second film, in 2014, I was on a talent program, which gave production funding to a couple of shorts, and mine was one of those selected. My third short was crowdfunded, so it was again very cheap! But I always put a lot of effort in to try and ensure high production values despite tight budgets. These films are what led me to my agent, and what led me on to the programmes that I have written for since.

What were the inspirations behind those shorts?

One of them called Gracie was inspired by my grandmother who was struggling with dementia. I made it quite shortly after she passed away. The film is about an elderly woman in a nursing home longing to go back home to Jamaica but unable to because of her illness, so her grandson sets up a makeshift beach in the garden to bring Jamaica to her.

The one after that was called Mine, which is about two gay dads who recently had a baby by a surrogate. The non-donor parent feels isolated from the family as he doesn’t have the biological bond with the baby. This was very low budget but shot with some fantastic actors.

Your first TV job was writing an episode for Hollyoaks. What was that experience like?

I was in a story conference for about three months beforehand, which is where lots of writers get together in the same room and hash out as many story ideas as possible. I travelled up to Liverpool to attend the conference every couple of weeks, so I could know what the narrative lead up to my episode was and get a better idea of how the show works.

Hollyoaks makes about 250 episodes every year, so the process was absolutely mad. It taught me not to be too precious with my ideas and have the confidence to get stuck in in a room full of strangers, who have a common goal; to deliver as much material as possible. It was challenging in the sense that my episode was more than 4000 episodes in, so there is so much to know and not really any formal process of getting up to date with everything, bar watching as many episodes as I could and scouring Wikipedia. But it was my first proper writing job, and although it had its challenges, I learnt a lot.

What does your average writing day look like?

There have been periods where I’ve worked at home, periods where I’ve worked in offices. Now I’m working at a co-working space in London. I have ADHD so I find it really challenging working from home, where I’m surrounded by distractions, including my cat! So I find it really helpful to take myself out of that environment and be at a place that is actually built for work.

Usually, I get in around 9.30am, answer emails for 30 minutes and then just sit and write until about 6pm. I’m not one of these people who work until 3am, as I just feel that will have a negative impact on what you end up producing. I tend to treat it as a full-time job with very structured working hours, as much as this type of work allows at least. I find the structure really useful for keeping on track with all my deadlines.

Estimated breakdown of Matthew’s yearly income:


You recently wrote an episode of The Rig, which is a thriller/horror and very different from what you had done previously in terms of scale and genre. How did you find that?

I absolutely loved it. The creator, David Macpherson, is such an incredibly generous, talented guy. He really knew the genre well, and really knew his characters too. Writing for a show of that scale is always going to be a challenge, especially when it comes to production and understanding what you can and can’t do with a big budget like that.

I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in writing just for the sake of genre, but this show has such an important message about the consequences of failing to respect nature, and that was very attractive to me. I found it really heartening that a show with a first-time writer who had a deeper message to convey was able to reach such a wide audience.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing screenwriters at the moment?

I think we can take some notes from the US in the ways in which writers are demanding to be treated and paid fairly. Here in the UK, the amount of drafts you could be asked to do for your script fee can sometimes seem infinite, and I think we need more protections to make sure screenwriters are actually paid appropriately for their time.

We also really need to establish appropriate minimum fees for treatments and pitch documents. Less-established writers may spend a year working on a pitch for a production company, that they’ve only been paid £1,000 (in two instalments!) for. These situations are just financially unsustainable. When I was coming up, I had to have a lot of projects going on just to make sure I had enough money to eat.

I also think that the sector is sometimes held back by a lack of risk taking in terms of what shows are being greenlit. There is such a wealth of talented and creative writers in this country, but they aren’t always getting the opportunity to express that. Some of the best new shows to come out of the UK are things which would traditionally have been labelled a “risk”, but they have absolutely delivered on the promise of what our writers are capable of.

You can find out more about Matthew’s work here.