Saturday, 29 November 2008

International Emmy's (Part Two)

So after a short break, it was time for The Storyteller script reading. I was told to just sit amongst the audience, incognito, so the actors didn't know who I was until afterwards. The reason for this was that my presence, as writer, may make them nervous as to whether they are doing it 'right.' I was actually quite chuffed with the thought that I had the capacity to intimidate anyone at all, but this was short lived as the official photographer chose this moment to get some snaps of me, thereby blowing my cover.

Anyway, eight actors split the parts between them and did a marvellous job performing what I had written on the page. It was a weird experience, not one I've had before. A kind of mixture of detached interest, as if this had nothing to do with me, and nervous tension that it was crap all along and I was about to be found out. I was relieved that Brendan Burke, who was playing the protagonist, did not attempt a Scottish accent. He was kind enough to say that the dialogue worked really well with the Scottish twang he could hear in his head, but confessed in the Q & A that when the director sent him the script, he was a bit concerned about butchering it. Admittedly, it was sometimes strange hearing the dialect I had written, complete with British slang and swearing, come out with an American accent, but otherwise, the actor nailed the part and even looked uncannily like what I imagined the character would look like. In fact I thought all the performances delivered in getting over what I was trying to do and I was very happy with it.

But more than that, you write and rewrite and rewrite. And then you win something like this and you think yeah, I nailed that. However once you have a reading, and you get interpretations from the director and actors, you realise things can always be better! It was fascinating to see that what I perceived as some of the funniest lines, be greeted by complete silence, and others getting very generous laughter. But overall, what pleased me most was the fact that a few people commented that the protagonist, whilst being unpleasant and then likable again in equal measure, was always interesting and he never lost the audience empathy. It reinforced my conviction that 'unlikeable' characters make excellent protagonists, something I have been banging on about a fair bit on this blog!

After the reading I was introduced (officially) and presented with my plaque and cheque (wohooo) by Fred Cohen, Chairman of the International Academy of Television Arts, (and an incredibly nice chap). Fred and I then had a chat in front of the audience before questions were thrown open to the floor. Fred pointed out last years winner, Felicity Carpenter, was here again and even though we hadn't met yet, it was nice to know someone who had been through all this before was in the audience! A couple of questions came up that are worth mentioning here. Firstly, I was asked what improvements I would make to the script now that I had heard the reading? And I replied none. I made it clear that this did not stem from any arrogance on my part. If and when a producer/company is interested, and feels development is needed, I will more than happily oblige. But on spec, I felt that if it was good enough to win this award, it was time to move on and write something else. You can fall into the trap of rewriting and perfecting and messing about with the same script over and over, and that does no one any good. Writers need a portfolio, we need to demonstrate range and consistency, not just have one script to shop about. So instead of rewriting The Storyteller, I will take what I learnt and apply it to the next one.

Another question concerned the role of writers in the UK compared with the US. Interestingly, the questioner felt that we were valued more over here than writers are in the US. I suggested that we felt the opposite! Writers rooms are virtually non existent here and it's rare to have writer/producers or showrunners. So life may always seem greener on the other side but two key points are that the situation is beginning to change here, with shows being created and then produced/show runned by writers, and an interesting point by Dick Wolf that things may be about to dramatically change in the US due to the economic crisis. (But more of that in the next post.)

After about a couple of hours in total, the event was over. It was enormous fun and a fantastic experience. There was a brief break before the HBO hosted cocktail party, where I met a whole bunch of industry people from the US, UK and the rest of the world. My friend Toby, who was with me, suggested I hold my plaque during the party and work the room with it under my arm. At first I laughed, feeling I would look like a bit of a plumb. But I realised that he was 100% right and just what a good idea this was. Self promotion is not only useful, it's expected. You're in a packed room full of people who can make a difference to your career. You want to stand out. It's no time for being shy and coy. It worked too. It got me attention and made people want to come over and speak to me, rather than me having to approach everyone cold. There is no place for arrogance or ego, but networking is a massive part of this business and you do what you can, politely, to make the most of it.

At the end of a long Sunday, it was time to find a kosher restaurant for dinner with friends, not hard to do in NYC! Monday would include a lunch to honour Dick Wolf and of course the gala Emmy awards dinner. Come back soon to find out what happened!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

International Emmy's (Part One)

This will probably be a trilogy of posts cos there's a lot to get through. But bear with me, some of it may even be interesting!

So my trip began a week ago, when we flew out from Heathrow to Newark. The plane ride wasn't bad, but due to my back, other pain issues, and general dislike of flying, was still not the most enjoyable 7 hours.

The Festival actually began with a party on Friday night followed by seminars throughout Saturday. But because I don't work on Shabbat (Sabbath) my wife and I took some time out to visit family Upstate.

So I didn't join the action until Sunday, and the first thing I went to was the TV Movie/Mini Series seminar. Basically what happens is that the four nominees have clips shown of their work, and then there is a panel with a Q & A. David Aukin and Hal Vogel were there from Daybreak Pictures with the excellent Britz. But from what I saw of the clips, it was a very strong category with films from Germany, Argentina and China. (The award eventually went to
Television por la identidad from Argentina and Britz was unlucky to be the only British nomination not to collect the Emmy in their category.)

What was interesting was that apart from Britz, the other three movies were all period pieces, from the Eighties, Seventies and Twenties. The 'P' word is usually a TV taboo so when I quizzed the nominees on this, the general feeling was that they had a sense of duty to tell these stories. The passion was clear to see and an overriding theme was what can we learn from past successes and failures to inform our world now? Aukin added that whenever they do a period piece, it should always say something about the world today, and not just be about a nice classical book (a slight dig at costume drama but I think it was more that this was not his thing, rather than that was fundamentally wrong).

Another point worthy of note was that, only getting to see the first 15 minutes of each film, it was fascinating to see what was packed into that time frame and how it was structured. Although each film was very different, all four had very clear protagonists and inciting incidents. It's worth thinking about, next time structure is being bemoaned as formulaic and stifling creativity, that stories are told this way (for the vast majority of the time) for a very good reason. Get that right and you have a good foothold. Mess around with it and you could be on a slippery slope. And don't think for one minute that within that structure, you can't be very creative, because obviously you can and these four films were being rightly honoured for being the best this year.

As for Britz, Aukin revealed that he and writer/director Peter Kominsky were sitting in a coffee shop 400 yards away from the 7/7 attacks in London. What shocked them in particular was the fact that the Muslim terrorists were British born and bred. The war on terror was clearly no solution, and was only exacerbating the world climate. At the same time Channel 4, who were extremely supportive, wanted them to follow up the David Kelly story, The Government Inspector, and so Britz was a direct response to all of this.

Aukin and Kominsky are both children of immigrants so had an innate understanding of the pull between assimilating and holding onto your own culture and history. But of course neither were interested in doing a political essay, and were conscious of the fact that Britz was first and foremost a thriller, and had to work on those terms. Nevertheless the script was thoroughly researched and Aukin stated that everything that happened in the film had happened somewhere to someone.
Finally, when asked why a TV movie and not a cinema release, the reply was simple. It was four hours of screentime. They couldn't do it in less without serious compromises for the story, which of course they didn't want to make. TV gives you a bigger canvas, with a greater scope and a larger audience. Plus the nature of the story and the dual protagonist also lent itself well to a two-parter. Cutting between the two stories simply wouldn't have worked or had the same impact. The reward was that the second part got a bigger audience than the first (which is pretty unprecedented,) the main reason being the strong word of mouth and resonance with the British Asian audience.

What came across really clearly in the seminar was that you had four very different countries, complete with different histories, cultures and traditions, who in turn produced four very different movies. But whilst doing that, the focus very much remained on what was universal, in both characters and themes (not to mention the modes of storytelling like I said above.)

When thinking about our own work, it's so important to keep this in mind. Even if we are telling a very personal or localised story, it has to resonate with an audience. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, my script The Storyteller, was the most personal thing I've written to date. But what pleased me the most is that other people 'got it' and it wasn't so interior as to alienate an audience.

What did intrigue me though was how American actors were going to interpret it. Come back soon to find out how the public reading went..!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


I'm back, knackered and exhilarated all at the same time. Thoughts need to be gathered and batteries recharged before I blog about my trip, but in the meantime a couple of people from over the pond have asked me to mention their sites. So have a look at: and

I haven't had time to check them out in any detail yet but they look pretty cool. See what you think.

As a taste of things to come - I can't resist posting this pic...

This is NOT my award. (I did get a smashing plaque though with a mini Emmy statue on it.) But the one above belongs to the lovely people from Life On Mars. A special thank you to Cameron Roach, S.J. Clarkson and Ashley Pharoah, who indulged me enough to let me wave it around like a moron (and omg it's heavy!)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Play is suspended

Right, I'm off to New York, for International Emmy Festivities.

Try and cope in my absence, I know it will be hard.

All being well I will post about my experiences upon my return.

Goodbye for now, and happy writing!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Euroscript Networking Event - 4th December

Euroscript's FREE Christmas Stocking - Thursday 4th December7.00 for 7.30pm

Top Screenwriting TechniquesAll Wrapped Up And Tied With A Ribbon And FREE
In the spirit of Father Christmas, our December Networking Event is packed full of presents to help you plan, write, evaluate and market your scripts.

We've bribed our top tutors to come and give you a sneak preview of their best ideas, systems and methods. This isn't a panel event or discussion but real, solid expertise.

We'll teach you a selection of our top techniques for inspiring creativity, writing great scenes, effective script editing, selling your scripts and much more.

These come straight from our 2009 programme of events, soon to be launched, and on this one night you can get them in advance - free and with no obligation. Of course, if you do decide to book a course or two then you can twist our arm too!

And there really is absolutely no obligation, except to join us, have fun and maybe even buy a drink and socialise with the other writers, directors and producers who come to our popular Euroscript Networking Evenings.

Thursday 4th December 2008 7.00 for 7.30pm
- and then turn up in good time to make sure you get in. This is going to be a popular way to start unwrapping your first presents for Christmas.

WHERE:Central London location. When you book you will be informed of the address.
We often run free networking events for writers, directors, producers and development executives. If you would like to be kept up to date, click here to be put on our mailing list go to
Enquiries Phone + 44 (0)7958 244 656

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 13 (spoilers)

Three very different shows to look at this week, and more importantly, all are British made. It came as quite a surprise to me that, for all the TV I watch, before this last week only Spooks was British. This is perhaps a bigger debate for another time, but in the meantime, I was thrilled at the return of Outnumbered (BBC1)

Created by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, I thought the first series was the funniest sitcom I'd seen in a long time. Broadcast bizarrely late on consecutive nights, it gave itself no time for word of mouth buzz and I was equally flabbergasted that some critics seem to think it was rubbish. Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis play the parents, and they do their roles well, but I don't get what's not to like with the sublime children, especially the youngest two who are simply hilarious. Certain umbrage seemed to be taken that a fair degree of the show is improvised, thus enabling more natural performances from the kids. Now I know this is probably not what a screenwriting blog wants to hear, but it worked, and worked very well. And let's be honest, it hasn't done Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm any harm. The second season will be shown on Saturday evenings, and certainly deserves this far better slot. It kicked off with that horror of horrors, a family wedding, and two standout brilliant scenes when the little bridesmaid filled the bride with complete trepidation, and the little boy harangued the Priest as to whether Jesus was as good a superhero as the likes of Superman. I mean seriously, what's not to like?? I know I am supposed to be more analytical in this column, but it's just hilarious and watch it if you haven't already.

A far different tone was set in Apparitions (BBC1). Created by Joe Ahearne, this six part supernatural thriller is an astonishing commission for prime time BBC. It must say something about the clout of both the writer and star Martin Shaw, that they could get a show about an Exorcist on at all! With anti religious feeling seeming to be the fashion (I have already read this: Unfortunately, there are some who will regard this programme as justification for believing religious, supernatural tosh,) this is quite a turn up. But come on people, this is fictional drama, not Songs of Praise. And this from a religious Jew! It didn't matter that I didn't believe 95% of the theology. All that mattered to me was does the screen narrative work? And the answer was a bit mixed. It was spooky, to a degree, which was the point, and not half as gory as some press build up would've had everyone believe. Father Jacob, the protagonist, was played with gusto and it was nice to see a character so committed to their faith. The tone was serious and played entirely straight. Maybe you could argue it took itself too seriously, but this would be completely missing the point. No one would accuse Spooks or The Fixer, for taking itself too seriously. Because these are crime dramas/thrillers set in worlds we can all immediately buy into (despite both shows have some far fetched elements). So the challenge to Apparitions was to set up this world, with all its fantastical elements, and make us believe it. It didn't quite manage it... yet. The trouble was that everything was done so matter of factly. And it was that that I didn't buy. It was too realistic! If it had set up this exorcist wing of the catholic church as more of a secret, little known practice, that may have worked better in establishing the world where demons are everywhere. But this was only the first episode and it was refreshing not to have another cops n docs show (a reason stated by Shaw for wanting to do it). So I will certainly be tuning in to see where they take the series.

Finally there was Walter's War (BBC4). Written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, this drama was inspired by the life of Walter Tull who, after years in an orphanage, went on to become a professional footballer and then the first black commissioned officer to lead British troops during WW1. It was impossible to escape the significance of watching a drama about a black man becoming an officer in the British army, when the official regulations stated he was not allowed to be, just a few days after Barack Obama was elected to the White House. In terms of the drama, I was surprised it was only sixty minutes long. This seemed a rich world and subject matter that could've been explored more. But even so, the combination of subtle writing and a fantastically understated lead performance by O T Fagbenle, made sure it eschewed big speeches in favour of letting actions speak louder than words. (Never a bad idea when it comes to screen drama!) One memorable moment came when Tull rescued a fellow soldier who had dropped a hand grenade during training, only to be castigated by him, and then failed by the supervisor because if the officer dies, who will lead the troops. It encapsulated the no win situation Tull was in. And the drama, rather than make it a mission on behalf of all black men, was cleverer than that, and focused on Tull's quiet determination to do what he wanted to do, no matter what stood in his way. The fact that the thing he wanted to do was to become an officer and lead men over the top of the Somme, said all it needed to say.

So what to take away from these three, very different British shows. Well, I've mentioned this before I'm sure, but the world you create is so important. I know Walter's War is historical drama, but the world is accurately recreated so that the context makes perfect sense. So too in Outnumbered, the performances are completely in step, and improvised or not, everything that comes out of the mouths of the actors is so character specific, that it's a useful lesson anyway in character creation. Apparitions on the other hand is not quite there yet. I admire and applaud it for playing its drama straight. But these are not everyday occurrences. And pretending they are gives it a false note that is unintended and self defeating. I hope it's not too late to fix it.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Much more than a Script Competition (apparently, it sounds just like a script comp to me)

The reliable Robin Kelly got there first but in case you haven't seen it yet...

ÉCU is currently calling for short and feature length script submissions for its 2009

We at ÉCU understand that for many talented writers - especially those without representation - it can be difficult getting scripts read by the people that matter: directors, producers and heads of development. We also passionately believe in the powerful experience, for both a writer and an audience, of witnessing scripts being read live by professional actors.

That’s why we have decided to launch ÉCU’s 2009 Much More than a Script Competition.
We will read scripts in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian before making an official selection of the very best to be showcased live at ÉCU 2009. The festival will be held at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Francois Mitterrand in Paris, France.

The selected scripts will have a short dramatic sequence read live by professional actors in front of an audience of industry professionals, indie filmmakers and the general public.

Two overall winners will receive an additional prize and the coveted title of Best Feature Script / Best Short Script 2009.

So if you want your script to stand out to industry professionals at the European Independent Film Festival, then send it in before the deadline of JANUARY 1ST 2009 or the late deadline of FEBRUARY 1ST 2009.

Click here to enter.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Performed readings

Tonight I was supposed to go to the Rocliffe New Writing Forum at Bafta, with David Parfitt chairing. I've never been before so was really looking forward to it, but alas a combination of my volatile back and feeling a bit under the weather, meant I didn't in the end. (By the way if any of you onthebloggers - yes that's what I've decided to call you, Lucy can have her Bang2Writers so I'm having my onthebloggers - did go tonight get in touch and guest blog about it!)

As I understand it, what happens is that three 7-8 minute script extracts are performed by professional actors. Following each performance the writer receives feedback from industry folk and answers questions from the audience.

Here's a confession, I've never heard my work performed out loud before. Shock horror! But to be fair I'm probably in the vast majority of writers. But I don't think you'll find anyone who says it doesn't help. And all being well this will change soon as The Storyteller is due for a reading in NY a week on Sunday. I'm really excited about the trip as a whole, but particularly intrigued about the reading. It's already been stressed to me that it will be the actors interpretation of my script, whatever that means. (I must resist the urge to shout just read what I bloody wrote!) It should be all the more interesting as my script was set in South London, with a hard drinking, hard talking Glaswegian for a protagonist. I presume all the actors involved will be Americans, so probably no "Och aye the noo" (I swear I never wrote that once)

But I have seen scripts given a performed reading before. During the first term on my MA, we all wrote short film scripts. Three of the best were read to the group. My friend, Matt Sinclair, wrote a cracking short called The Lamppost. The last line was an exclamation of anguish from the protagonist. None of us in the workshop group thought it worked, tonally, character wise, nothing. And then the actor who was reading that part did it so well, so absolutely got it, that by the time we met next in our group everyone had changed their mind.

It was a real eye opener as to what an actor can bring to a part, how that can make or break a character and a line, and how you just wouldn't know this unless you hear it performed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Write a Skins mini episode

The plan
Are you an aspiring young writer looking for your first break? Would you like to be able to call yourself a Skins writer? Well you’ve come to the right place because we’re giving someone that amazing opportunity! We’re giving one talented person the opportunity to lead writing a Skins mini episode featuring some of the Skins 3 cast, which will be screened online (and possibly on TV) in summer 2009. Don’t worry if you’re a little overwhelmed , we will be there to support you every step of the way. If you’ve got what it takes, we’ll make sure you’re given all of the support you need, like we do with all of our writers.

The winner will join the Skins Writer’s room, which is the place where the Skins writers thrash out their ideas and the creative process takes place for each Skins episode that makes it onto the screen. This will give you an opportunity to fine tune your skills, get some vital experience and contribute to Skins in a unique way. You will also visit the Skins set for one day of filming of series 3 and will be on set to witness the mini episode being filmed.

What do I need to do?
Write a short comedy-drama which:
Is a maximum 1600 words
Doesn’t use any existing Skins characters in the scripts.
Contains a minimum of 3 new characters
Uses a maximum of 5 locations Send your finished script with your name, address and age to

What will you be looking for?
A good sense of structure and comedy, appreciation of story, believable dialogue, complete characters and passionate storytelling.
The judging process Company Pictures and a member of the E4 team will pick the person they feel most meets the selection criteria (above), and they will be crowned the winner. Entries must reach us by 6pm on December 9th 2008

Important stuff
A set visit will take place one day between 15th and 19th December 2008, which you will be required to attend. On the 12th January, you will be required to attend the first meeting with the rest of your team. Another three meetings will be arranged subsequently, and will take place between January 13th and 16th March 2008. Your time attending the writer’s room will begin mid January. We expect you to attend a maximum of 10 sessions. There’s a chance that once these 10 sessions have been attended, you may be invited back to the writer’s room as a contributor, this decision is at the discretion of Company Pictures. The filming of the Skins mini episode will take place between 16th March and 20th March 2009 in Bristol. You will be required to attend the four day shoot where you get to witness the mini episode being filmed. For all meetings, set visits and shoots, accommodation and travel (if necessary) will be paid. You will also be paid a day rate for your time (amount to be confirmed with the winner).

Terms and conditions
At the time of entry you must be aged between 18 and 23 years and a UK resident. Proof of age and identity will be required. Your script must not exceed 1600 words.
Your script must be your own work and not use any existing Skins characters. Your script must contain a minimum of 3 new characters and a maximum of 5 locations.
The winner will be required to enter into a standard form of engagement agreement with Company Pictures (Skins production company).
By entering this competition you confirm that you have no contractual obligations or agreements with any agent or other third party.
You will be paid a fee for your visits to the writer’s room and time spent attending meetings and shoots. Travel and accommodation (if necessary) will be provided.
The winner will have 72 hours to respond to notification before another winner is selected.
You can enter as many times as you like, as long as each entry revolves around a new story and characters.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 12 (spoilers)

Half way through the current season of Spooks, it's high time I commented on what is surely one of the best examples of what a British tv series can do. We inevitably compare our stuff with the best the US has to offer and we often come up short. But this is one show that stands up to comparisons. Both in its ambition and scale, it's fantastic. There was a shift in format last season, changing from a new main story each week, with very little continuing threads, to one long story about the threat Iran posed and internal British factions with a very different agenda to the establishment. And I thought it suffered because of it. It seemed to struggle to keep up the momentum each week. This season is keeping that format and it's fairing much better. It got off to a cracking start with the unexpected killing off of Adam Carter. Spooks does this better than anyone. Instead of leaking it to the press to drive up ratings, they kept it a secret and it came as a big shock. I had no idea Rupert Penry-Jones was leaving the show and whilst I'm sure it was his decision, Spooks continued its reputation of not being afraid to kill off characters. I've criticised Heroes in previous weeks for baulking the trend of the show by now seemingly not willing to kill off anyone. It decreases the threat and drama. But back to Spooks and Richard Armitage has come in well as Lucas North and Hermione Norris' Ros Myers has to be the hardest woman on tv, and would probably be able to give Jack Bauer a good tussle. My one criticism of the show at the moment is the repetitive anti-American theme. Politics aside, it just seems like it's pandering to BBC sensibilities and from a dramatic point of view, if it's always the fault of the Americans. it gets a bit predictable. But it's a great show and I can, er, maybe exclusively reveal there will definitely be another series cos an old MA buddy of mine is writing an episode for it!

In a change of tact for this column, I want to look at Imagine... A Love Story (BBC4 repeated from BBC1 a couple of weeks ago.) It looked at what made a good love story and our obsession with them. What became apparent is that, with the exception of Jane Austen, the great love stories all end badly. This is even true on the big screen, and even in Hollywood, so often seen as the home of the happy ending. Robert Mckee noted that whilst happy endings are a must in the Romantic Comedy, "we mustn't mistake Romantic Comedy for a Love Story. Romantic Comedy is not really about love. It's about the courtship. Love Stories are more often than not tragic. Casablanca is the choice between Romance and Love. Romance is conditional on the presence of the person you love. Love is the feeling we carry in our heart whether the person is there or not, alive or dead. Love is unconditional."

At the end of the day, what fascinates us is the destructive power of love. The active question of all love stories is - is it worth giving up everything for love?

But a real question for us to wrestle with now is, how do we write love stories today? The traditional obstacles that fuel them, like adultery, family feuds, race, class, don't seem to bother us anymore. It's worth noting that most of the successful screen love stories, like Titanic, are all set in the past. Today, are love stories dead? We are more likely to get Romantic Comedies like Sex and the City, which is about the politics of love and about finding the right partner from a choice of many.

So that's the challenge for writers today.

From my point of view, I love Love Stories, be they Romantic Comedies or, what Phil Parker defines as Romantic Dramas (which always end with the lovers apart.) One of my first features was a love story set against the backdrop of rising fascism is post war London. The lovers ended apart. Like Casablanca (a big influence on my script) they put duty ahead of their own wishes. And the feedback I got, even from those who really liked the script, was that the ending was downbeat! As receptive as I am to feedback, this was one case of sticking to my guns because I knew that if they ended together, it would kill the power of the story. I'm working on another Love Story now, this time set in present day, and I think I've found a nice divide, separating the protagonists without the old obstacles. But interestingly, although in an early outline the lovers ended apart, since then I have rewritten it so they end together. Whether this will cost me the chance of writing a 'great love story' or not, I don't know. But it doesn't feel right anymore that they end apart. Maybe it's because when I began thinking of this story I was single, and now I am married! Maybe it's because I want to avoid the predictable "the ending is too downbeat" feedback I'd get? But whatever the reason, sometimes you have to go with your gut and only time will tell whether the story will work or not.

Thursday, 6 November 2008


I did my Screenwriting Masters at London College of Communication (formerly Printing.) Twice a year, the current intake run an event called Masterclub, for all students, past and present. Industry guests are invited to a round table event, where advice is dispatched and contacts are made. Just off the top of my head, over the last few years personnel who've attended have come from Working Title, Qwery Films, Red Productions, Red Planet, Tiger Aspect, Greenlit, Leftbank, BBC, Channel 4, ITV, World Productions, Company Pictures, Capitol Films and Kudos. That's just off the top of my head. Top quality people give up their time to come down and meet writers - most of whom are new writers.

I don't know if other Masters or degree programmes do this, not just have guest lecturers, but actually specific networking events. If not, they should. It's absolutely invaluable. Almost every industry contact I have at the moment, most of whom have read my work, has been made through my LCC connection. And whereas you might think you have an entry point into one company, people move around in this industry quite a lot. Someone at Touchpaper one minute can be at Tiger Aspect the next. As long as you keep in touch with them, they can take you with them. Maybe you didn't have anything that company wanted, but the next one might. When they read your work, you also get free feedback, from people who have more experience than you and have read a lot of scripts. It all adds up.

But the best thing by far is that it's so important not to write in a vacuum. That's for the hobbyists. Which is fine. Good luck to them. But professional writers need an outlet for their work. Otherwise what's the point - it's all an act in futility.

The flip is this. Why do the industry guests bother coming to events like Masterclub? They are all very busy and have many constraints on their time. Quite a few years ago I did a couple of work experience stints at two very well known, very well established Production Companies. And they are busy. To frenetic proportions. Especially the people writers most want to meet and talk to. The ones who work in development. Because they always have a never ending script pile to read, there is always more work to do, there are always projects already in development. And the only answer I can see (apart from the free booze and nibbles) is that they want to meet new writers. They are always on the lookout for new talent. This sometimes get lost in the scheme of things. Sometimes, it can be seen as a battle, to get your stuff read and to get it out there. But whilst it's certainly hard, and you have to be tough enough to be persistent, it's not a case of us versus them. No one is deliberately standing in your way, hindering your career and devaluing your talent.

So remember. Networking is important. Only very marginally less important than the actual writing. Because after all the work has to go somewhere. Make contacts, and do everything you can to keep in touch with them. Always, always be courteous, polite and thank people for giving their time when they don't have to. Be grateful for feedback and take the comments on board. Don't fight it. Some people won't like your work or won't 'get' it. Cest la vie. Someone told me recently that whilst my structure and development was excellent, my stories weren't that original and therefore predictable! You have to resist the temptation to reply "what the .... have you ever written!?" Because not everyone will agree! (Hopefully) There's a certain vulnerability to making a contact and then sending them your work. You are exposing something that means a lot to you. But that's what we have to do. That's behaving like a professional. And it's the only way to becoming a professional.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 11 (spoilers)

As mentioned last week, I thought I'd give the tv a break and catch up on some movies. First up was Run Fatboy Run, essentially billed as a rom com about a guy who has to win back the pregnant girl he ditched on their wedding day, by running a marathon. I like Simon Pegg. I like what he does and I think he is the only British actor at the moment that can open a comedy movie (with the exception of Sacha Baron Cohen but he does his own thing with this own characters). So I knew Fatboy would be daft and sweet, and there were certainly funny moments. But the two main things that were of interest to me focused on the central character and the genre. Continuing our look at unflattering, morally dubious characters, all the films I watched this week have these. Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, a slacker who runs from commitment and responsibility and as I said, abandoned his pregnant fiancee on their wedding day. Not a common set up for a rom com lead. A key factor was certainly casting Pegg, who can bring a warmth and humanity to obnoxious characters, something he did before this with Shaun of the Dead and afterwards with How To Lose Friends and Alienate People. But another major part of keeping this guy likable, and of course us on side with him, was his relationship with his son. Dennis is not the best dad, but he tries, and his son loves him. The movie is as much about their relationship as it is about whether he can win back Thandie Newton. And this is the key problem. Whether a marketing tool or otherwise, this movie is not really a rom com. The active question is really will he finish the race, will he prove himself to be something other than a quitter. This is articulated clearly when Dennis says, towards the end, he's doing it for himself and no one else. Neither does Dennis win back Newton at the end, although he does ask her out and she accepts, hinting at a brighter future, but that's all. The important information seems to be that he is fitter, a better person and a better dad. There's nothing wrong with this. But the movie suffers from trying to shoehorn a rom com plot into it. This is more often a British phenomena (Dodgeball, Old School, Happy Gilmore etc have minimal romantic subplots but are comfortable enough within their premise and comedy to let the main story speak for itself). But it's surprising here because, although set in London with a predominantly British cast, the film is written and directed by Americans (Michael Ian Black and David Schwimmer).

Eastern Promises was a whole different kettle of fish. Written by Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg, this is a dark, brutal film about Russian gangsters in London. It features an outstanding performance from Viggo Mortensen (although I may not be able to watch him as Aragon in Lord of the Rings in quite the same light anymore!). I have a fondness for gangster movies and I liked this one... right up until the twist. Mortensen's character is fascinating. He's the driver and enforcer for the son of the head of the family. He is clearly rising through the ranks. We see him 'clean' a body for disposal and it's made clear he is capable of extreme violence. But at the same time, there are hints of a kinder morality about him. We can tell his interest in Naomi Watts' Anna is genuine. He not only helps her out, but also a prostitute they have working for them. There is something different about this guy and that makes him interesting to watch. You find yourself on his side, backing him against nastier enemies. So when it looks like he may have killed Anna's uncle, as he was ordered to do, you are unsure of yourself again. I find that fascinating. BUT. The reveal is then that he's actually an undercover cop. It was a massive let down because now we know exactly why he behaves the way he does (he of course didn't kill the uncle after all, only arranged for him to leave town). He behaves the way he does because he has to. He doesn't question his morality or his actions. He's a cop, he enforces the law, that's the end that justifies his means. But this isn't Donnie Brasco. We don't get to explore what makes a man surrender his own life to become someone else, someone repugnant, for the sake of the greater good. So it left it all rather empty and that was a big shame.

Finally there was Michael Clayton. Obviously this film got a fantastic response when released so I was expecting big things (which is always dangerous!). The fact is, it's well written and directed, both by Tony Gilroy. It had the feeling of one of those seventies movies, slow, careful, deliberate, with great performances from Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson. Clayton is a lawyer, but really he's a fixer. Or a janitor as he calls himself. Sorting out the problems of major clients. He becomes involved in a case where it's clear that the corporate clients are guilty as sin and are responsible for giving cancer to the many plaintiffs. But this is not Erin Brokovitch. Clayton is no hero fighting for the underdog. His chief responsibility is to ensure the cover up, solve his own gambling debts and keep doing his job. But when his friend is killed things change. But, the problem, as I saw it, is as follows. The film is called Michael Clayton. He is played by George Clooney. It's very obviously focused on him. But for all that, we don't get much of a character arc. We don't see much of Clayton before the story begins, only a glimpse of his ruthlessness etc. So by the end, when he of course does the right thing and shops his clients to the police, it's all rather predictable and unsatisfying. For example, there's a cracking Act Two choice. Clayton is $75,000 in debt and will have to deal with some very bad people if he can't pay it. He also now has the evidence to destroy the clients. But, his boss gives him the money to pay off his debt. So, quite literally, in one hand he has the cheque, and in the other the evidence. What to do? This was brilliant writing and encapsulated the character's problem. His choice now would define the movie. Take the cheque and it's virtually hush money to save himself. Rat out the client and he'll lose more than his job. But the very next scene sees him handing the cheque over to clear his debt - and then he goes on to deal with clients! He gets his cake and eats it. There are no consequences to his moral choice. It was a staggering choice by the writer and for me, played a major part in making the movie feel unsatisfying overall.

So what to take away from all this. Well, as we mentioned with Run Fat Boy Run, genre rules are very important and knowing what genre you are working in can prevent a whole lot of painful rewriting later on, as well as a muddled movie. But the key thing apparent to me this week, was that characters, and character choices, will define a story and a plot. I know what you're thinking - that's blindingly obvious! But it can sometimes get lost amongst three act structures and weaving intricate plots etc. Shoehorning is not going to work or go unnoticed. The choices the characters make had better make sense within the context of the story, and had better lead to the most satisfying of conclusions, because if not, the whole thing is going to feel very luke warm.