Monday, 21 December 2009

Kaos Films British Feature Screenplay Competition

Somehow this fell under the radar but Kaos have relaunched their feature screenplay competition.

Full details are here

I've always felt their entrance fees are a bit steep, and I won't be entering this year anyway cos I am knee deep in Dough, but at least they seem to make good on their promises.

Last year's winner, John Paul Sheerin, has his film The Legend of New York Pizza, in development and is now represented by Katherine Vile from United Agents.

Early deadline is 3rd Jan - late deadline is 28th Feb.

So I wouldn't recommend starting something new. But if you've got something you've been working on, there's certainly enough time to do some rewriting and polishing and get it in.

And of course, (shameless plug coming up) if you want some feedback on it, you know where to come!

jezfreedman"at"hotmail.co.uk

Happy holidays and happy writing!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week - well actually last week

The Men Who Stare At Goats is the best Coen brothers' film that the Coen brothers never made. Although I knew going into the movie that they hadn't written or directed it, we arrived a little late so missed the opening credits. It's so like one of their movies, complete with Coen regular George Clooney in the lead role, and Jeff Bridges virtually reprising his iconic role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, that I was convinced I would discover at the end credits that they had at least produced it. But they didn't and to my knowledge had nothing to do with it. However it was interesting to note that there was a strong British influence, from writer Peter Straughan, to producer Ruby Films and BBC Films, which was all the more remarkable considering the movie felt so much like an American indie.

The supposedly, maybe, a little bit true, premise is that the US military once had a special unit trained to fight by using the power of the their mind. So they could mentally detect where someone was hiding, or even kill etc. They are called Jedi warriors, which seemed like one big in-joke considering the presence of Ewan McGregor. But the movie is actually about guilt and redemption. Clooney's character is the star pupil, and reaches the point where he is tested as to whether he can kill a goat simply by staring at it. At first he is reluctant - what has this innocent goat done to him? But soon he succumbs, and is willing to sacrifice the goat because he just needs to know whether he can do it or not. But when he does, he is racked with guilt, and he is never the same man again. Of course it's daft and played for laughs. But isn't that a poignant and profound observation. Just because we can do something, doesn't necessarily mean we should. And this (rather weird) journey is all about how he can atone from this one moment weakness.

And one moment of weakness is at the heart of the climax, or probably anti climax would be more accurate, of A Serious Man (definitely the Coen brothers this time.) I liked this movie. I liked the eccentric characters and I liked the very bittersweet comedy. But the ending was infuriating. I've never been a fan of movies that just seem to stop, with no sense of resolution or even evolution. In fact, considering all the bad things that are hurled at the protagonist, the one moment of fraudulent weakness he displays at the end feels like it should come at the beginning. Maybe that's the point and I am missing it. The subject of faith and God comes up on a few occasions in what must be the most Jewish movie of all time. And perhaps the Coen's are suggesting that the Almighty already knew what Larry Gopnik was going to do and therefore punished him in advance! But I'm not sure I buy that. However leaving the ending aside, what was really interesting to note was how the Coen's handled their protagonist. Larry is not a bad man. And you certainly don't get the sense that they don't like their leading man. Quite the opposite. But nevertheless they don't hesitate is putting him through the absolute wringer. That is where the drama and wry comedy comes from. And I often find that I am too easy on my characters, especially the protagonist. I created them, and I get to know them better than anyone, and then I am soft on them! I don't want them to suffer. But if they don't suffer, emotionally as much as physically, then the story will.

So what did we see from my NY movie fest. In brief:
Into the Storm - don't be afraid to make your protagonist, even a national hero, into a complex, often unpleasant, human being.
Up - the power of visual story telling cannot be underestimated. It's crucial in animated movie because children respond to it. But as adults we never lose this and a picture really can be worth a thousand words.
Julie & Julia - a lack of much at stake and of narrative drive will mean the story falls flat, even with a couple of likable lead characters.
District Nine - On the contrary, a strong narrative drive with very clear goals and a tough journey for the protagonist, will keep an audience emotionally engaged on the edge of their seat.
The Men Who Stare at Goats - real themes and emotions can make even the most surreal of plots resonate.
A Serious Man - Don't love your characters so much that you aren't willing to put them through hell for the sake of the story.

I'm willing to bet that we all knew these things already. Nothing written above is anything particularly new. But as soon as we decide to become screenwriters, our days of casual viewing are over. Entertainment is one thing, but we can take learn from everything we watch. And reading theory books and attending lectures is one thing. But when you see it on screen, and pick out this is why this does or doesn't work. That's when the writing really comes alive.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week - whilst still sitting on a plane

How much does our own subjectivity effect our reactions to a film, and if this is of a significant degree, are we all screwed in trying to write universal stories?

On the plane home my wife and I both watched Julie and Julia. It was useful to watch it as it reminded me just how visually exciting food can be in film. Like the wonderful Chocolate etc, there is just something so visceral about it you get an immediate, instinctive reaction. And I'm not exactly giving anything away that by working on a film called Dough that features a Jewish baker, there is of course a big food element. And I want to make as much use of that as possible.

I know absolutely nothing about Julia Child but apparently she was a bit useful in the kitchen and was probably the first celebrity chef. My wife tells me that she led a really interesting life, and would've preferred a straight biopic about her. I on the other hand, as a struggling writer and blogger, could relate to the present day, real life story of Julie Powell, a wannabe writer who decided to cook all 524 recipes in Child's book in a year... and blog about it. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams do a good job in making their characters as likeable as possible (although it never quite explains why American born Child sounded like someone doing a Maggie Thatcher impression!). The trouble is, their husbands, played by Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, are such good blokes, and love their wives so unconditionally (apart from one little tiff the modern day couple has,) that there is zero conflict whatsoever. Certainly admirable in real life. I'm sure there are many people reading this whose partners support them unconditionally in achieving what sometimes seems like an impossible dream. But in a film narrative, it's a disaster. The result is that the film is episodic, just tracing the lives of these women from one event to the next (or from one recipe to the next,) with very little at stake. If Julia doesn't get her recipe book published, it will be a disappointment, but no more. If Julie fails in her challenge, she'll just look a bit silly to herself, in front of her friends, and blog readers. (But as we all know they are a pretty supportive bunch, apart from the one's that slag you off!) As I've been thinking a lot about narrative drive recently, it was all the more apparent that this didn't really have any, and as a result really lagged in the middle. Then, when we got to the end, there was no climax, and the film kind of just stopped. Julie and Julia never met, even though Child was apparently aware of Powell's blog before she died and allegedly made a disparaging remark about it to a reporter. But we only see Julia Child the saint? Did she turn into a cranky old bitch in her old age? If so, why? Unfortunately, it meant the narrative fell a bit flat.

The same could not be said about District 9. Essentially a sci-fi action adventure, it's concept is that aliens have arrived, become stranded on earth, and we shepherd them into refugee camps for 'our own safety.' Set in South Africa, there are obvious parallels with the Apartheid era, and you are just waiting for a unlikely hero to liberate them. He comes in the form of slower than average bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe. In attempting to issue eviction orders to the aliens, he gets squirted with some sort of alien juice - which of course begins to turn him into an alien. I'm not going to get into details about the plot, you can read about that elsewhere or just see the movie. The important thing is that the key elements, like what is at stake, and therefore what is driving the story forward, are so clear, that it creates a momentum and excitement that leaves you on the edge of your seat (not hard on a plane but still.) It even manages to generate an emotional investment in the story, which is not always the case is this genre when special effects are relied upon rather than story. You very rarely go wrong by taking an average Joe schlub, throwing all sorts of crap at him, and get us to root for the underdog.

Which is pretty much how The Men Who Stare at Goats and A Serious Man work. And being a rather bad tourist, instead of visiting the usual nonsense, I took in a couple of trips to the cinema instead. So I'll be looking at these two movies next week.

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week - whilst mostly sitting on a plane

I'm back. And soon it's gonna be like I've never been away. Back to the real world and there is already a lot on. But it's mostly good stuff, so I'm not complaining. I'm definitely busier though than when I started this blog and although I'll keep blogging regularly, one thing that probably won't happen quite as often is the Things we noticed watching tv this week schtick. Firstly, I am not watching TV as it happens as much, with more and more stuff being stored up for a quiet hour here and there. But secondly, Dan Owen does it better, and more frequently, than anyone else around. (ahem) However, I will still pipe up from time to time with shows he's not covering, like Spooks (bizarrely) and Cast Offs (haven't started watching it yet, any good?) But I'll get to them in due course.

I also don't get to sit down and actually watch movies nearly as much as I would like. So even though I hate flying, the one plus side is the chance to catch up on some films!

First up was Into The Storm, the follow up to the exquisite The Gathering Storm. I'm not sure why Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave didn't reprise their roles as Winston and Clementine Churchill, but Brendan Gleeson and Janet Mcteer are so good, the transition is almost seamless. One person who did reprise his role was screenwriter Hugh Whitemore. Although I preferred the first film, simply because it depicted a far lesser known time in both Churchill and England's history, both films are superbly written and delightfully evocative of the period. (Like I've said before, everyone treats period piece as the taboo genre but when they are this good and this well received, it makes a mockery of that.) Whilst this was the more familiar territory of Churchill the war leader. But what has been so effective about both films is the characterisation of its famous lead. There is no sugar coated national treasure or hero worship here. This was a man, warts and all, who channeled both his negative and positive traits to lead a country. To the film's credit, most of the time you are a little embarrassed by Churchill's behaviour, like when he needless bawls out a servant. But what this does is make those key moments, when we're allowed a glimpse of the brilliance of the man, all the more powerful.

Next up was, well, Up. I'm not sure this is Pixar's finest movie, but then again no one has set the bar quite as high as them. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie with a much talked about opening ten minutes that is a lesson in visual storytelling. And it's the visual detail that really makes this film special. Yes the plot is good fun, although not quite as tight as Monsters Inc and Nemo. Yes the characters are memorable, although not quite up there with Woody and Buzz. Yes it's funny, but again not quite as much as those that came before it. But. It's so visually rich, bookended by two key sequences. The first is when Carl's house takes off for the first time, lifted out of the air so majestically by all those balloons. The second is the climax involving much action and adventure on Charles Muntz's huge zeppelin like airship, which echoed Jabba the Hut's spaceship cruise liner in Return of the Jedi.

On the return journey I watched Julie and Julia and District Nine. And I'll be blogging about them tomorrow!

Friday, 27 November 2009

A New York state of mind

I'm still in New York, having an excellent time. Like I said, this time it's mostly just a holiday, catching up with my wife's family (and in particular having my first real thanksgiving yesterday - which was very nice indeed.)

But last Sunday I got to go back to the International Emmy festival. It really was great to be back, to see old friends and make some new ones. I met up with Claire Tonkin, the new Ustinov winner, and really enjoyed the reading of her script. (I actually enjoyed it more than mine last year which was all a bit of a blur.) I'd already read the script so I knew how good it was. But if anything it was even better during the reading. Comedy plays well in an audience. And the actors did a fantastic job in conveying Claire's sense of humour and witty script. Everyone was laughing... a lot. And I thought the whole script really came to life and sang. I will go into more detail about how I saw this years competition as a whole at some other point. (When I have a bit more time.) But one final thing for now that caught my attention was the fact that like my The Storyteller, Claire's script, Me and Mine, also contained elements of personal experience. We'd both, to a degree, found something close to our hearts and were passionate about, and decided to write a fictional story based on that. I'm not a big 'write what you know' advocate because that seems a bit limiting. ('Write what you find out about' would probably be a better saying because there is such a thing as research.) But there is nevertheless some truth and benefit to be had in thinking about our own lives, I mean really thinking about them, the experiences and feelings, not just a cursory "well all I did today was go to the shops and bought a kit kat," and seeing what it is that makes us unique. What is it that I have experienced that can give me an insight into a particular story that maybe not a lot of people have?

Being back at the festival, I got some understanding of how things in the industry were being perceived at the moment. And because this is an International Festival, there is quite a wide take. So whilst there is of course acknowledgement that things are tough right now, there was still a strong sense that people are still doing stuff, people are still making stuff and, particularly amongst the Americans, that optimism should prevail.

I did wonder whether this was a state of mind. There is cynicism about being told to have a nice day every five minutes, or being asked how you are every single time you enter a different shop. And we joke about that and pour scorn over this obviously fake sense of 'being nice.' But I've begun to see the benefits. Whilst acknowledging that it is a bit forced a fake, is this not better than the scowl and cynicism you get from some spotty teenager serving you in shops around England? Does this attitude translate to the film and television industry, where we thrive on being doom and gloom merchants as opposed to the can do optimism of the US?

And perhaps even more crucially, does this actually extend to the stories we tell? Has this led to a culture of kitchen sink dowdiness and depression, whereas American writers actually tell stories to make the audience smile and come back to see them again?

Do we still have to learn in this country that delivering on that basis is not selling out. The tortured artist thing might impress a handful of people. But if you want audiences to actually warm to and enjoy watching your stories, we need to tell them in such a way as to make that possible.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Big Apples

I'm in New York. Hurrah. This year it's just mainly for a holiday. But as luck would have it, the International Emmys are this Sunday so I thought I would swing by, see some old friends, and meet my worthy Ustinov successor, Clare Tonkin!

I'll report back on that and more from the festival next week.

I'm back in London on Dec 1st so won't be reading scripts until then. But I'm happy to take bookings for when I return. Contact me as usual on jezfreedman"at"hotmail.co.uk

A couple of thoughts in the meantime. I was listening to an online shiur the other day and bizarrely got some of the best screenwriting advice I'd heard in ages.

The lecturer said that if you don't understand something or if something is just not working for you in your thought process - ask more questions. That may well lead you to solving your original problem.
Secondly, if you have a single problem, and then think of a solution, that may or may not be right. But if you have several problems, and then think of one solution that solves them all - it will very likely be the right one.

Thinking of screenwriting - how true is it that if something is not working, be it structure, characters, whatever - if you dig deeper, ask more questions, look at other areas, very often you will find the solution to your original problem.
So to that if you have many things that aren't working, sometimes one idea - to cut the opening, to combine two characters into one, whatever it may be - will very often solve all your problems. That sense of economy is what screenwriting is all about.

As I digest everything that arose from the DOUGH script meeting earlier this week, one thing that really became the motto was narrative drive.

There were scenes and indeed whole sequences in the script that both me and Jonathan liked, and were equally convinced that John would like because of their visual, cinematic quality, only for John to quite rightly come along and say well yes, they look nice, but how are they moving the story forward?

Answer is, they weren't. And this led to a lack of focus and a 10-15 min story lull which now needs to be cut. The knock on effect from this is that it allows us more breathing space and screen time to develop some things that were crucial to the story, but are actually underdeveloped at the moment.

One solution solved about three problems.

Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Dough-nuts

So where were we? About two months ago I announced the DOUGH news. And it’s been full on ever since. As promised, I want to keep everyone informed of the development process. This is relatively new to me so as I go along, inevitably learning along the way, it may prove to be of some use to others too.

Me and my co-writer, Jonathan, delivered the first draft on the last day of October, bang on when our contract stipulated. I brazenly thought we’d get it in earlier, but things do have a habit of cropping up and in the end we were happy to have the extra time. Because when I say we delivered the first draft, what I actually mean is, it was the first draft for Viva Films. For me and Jonathan, it was about the third draft.

I had taken the first stab at it, then Jonathan had a look at it, then I workshopped it with my writing group, and then we both rewrote it again. Feedback, feedback, feedback. I’ve said about a thousand times on this blog that that really is the name of the game. And I’ll probably say it a thousand more.

And of course after we delivered the draft, we then got notes from John Goldschmidt and a couple of readers. This was invaluable because John, Jonathan and I all felt that it was important it was looked at by people who didn’t know the story. (My workshop group had already given feedback on the original four page outline, so although things evolve of course, the basic premise has remained the same.)

One reader totally got it. That’s not to say the report was just blowing us metaphorical kisses from screenwriting heaven. When I say they got, what I mean is, they engaged in the story, stated explicitly what they felt we were trying to do, and then went on to say how and why we perhaps weren’t quite there yet. (And they were right on both counts.) It’s extremely gratifying from an experienced reader to pick up your script cold, read it, and understand what you want it to do. It means that even now, at this relatively early stage, that much at least is coming across.

Having said that, the other reader wasn’t as keen. The story just didn’t grab them. And John, being the very nice chap that he is, tried to protect us a little bit from what he perceived as quite a critical report. I realised this, and the thing is, like I told John, I am perhaps a little thicker skinned than other writers of my age and experience. Having gone through two years on my MA course, workshopping all the time, and continuing to do that as much as possible even now, I am used to people criticizing my work. Because after all, we call it feedback, but what we mean is, criticism. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice and appropriate for a reader to mention the good bits and what is working. But it’s far more important and useful for them to talk about what isn’t. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in self-gratification. (And more crucially, the work won’t get any better.)

What’s more, this ‘harsher’ (for want of a better word) of the two reports also contained some very complimentary words about the writing – and more significantly, hit the nail on the head on a couple of really key points that have become central to the next rewrite. John wasn’t to know this but trust me, I have had a lot, lot worse feedback reports than this!

So yesterday John, Jonathan and I met up, three sets of notes in hand, to discuss where we go from here. I’ve had script meetings before but not on a project as exciting as this and although the meeting lasted around four hours, the other two had to almost crane me out of the room to get me to stop. The room is what it’s all about. Writing is a solitary business (albeit less so when co-writing.) But collaborating, meeting, discussing, throwing ideas around and beginning to think about the type of locations, the use of music, the role of montages and cuts etc, to achieve the visual look we want, really gets the juices going.

And that's where we are at the moment. What comes next? What do you think. Another draft of course. Pencilled in for delivery about a month from now. At which point we’ll do the whole process – notes from John, a couple of readers, and a meeting – where we’ll probably lay down the foundation for, you guessed it, another draft.

I don’t know why they call this development hell. Sounds like heaven if you ask me.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 32

I don't like Ken Loach. No wait. Let me revise that. I don't like certain elements of his politics. I've never met him so I'm sure he's a very nice man. But seemingly unlike the man himself, I can separate politics from art. And whilst I don't much care for all the grim kitchen sink stuff, films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and My Name is Joe, (surely a masterpiece,) have both influenced scripts that I've written. (Having said all that, the screenwriter in me bristles at the term a Ken Loach film, disrespectful as it is to the enormous talents of Paul Laverty.)

Although there has been plenty of humour in their previous collaborations, their latest film, Looking for Eric, is the most upbeat yet. The protagonist, Eric Bishop, is a man who is lost. His life has taken a seemingly irreversible downward spiral. Even in this haze, one standout, hilarious scene features Eric and his other Mancunian mates trying some psycho babble self help. They encourage each other to think of someone they love and admire, and look at life through their eyes. Suggestions range from Frank Sinatra, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. But for Eric, there is only one. Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.

Of course, I would've called the movie Looking for Bergkamp. But footballing preferences aside, the film works very well as an example of what we were talking about last time - i.e. movie characterisation.

Ostensibly about real, 'normal' people who are in fact anything but, nobody pulls off this delicate balance better than Paul Laverty. It still gets gritty at times, and some key moments to propel the story into the final act were a bit of a stretch. But its heartwarming, if slightly improbable finale, demonstrates that a naturalistic, realistic, dramatic tone and characterisation, doesn't necessarily have to lead to a downbeat ending - even in a British film!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Character

Sometimes a blog is just useful to put down on paper, as it were, random thoughts going round in ones own head. And unfortunately for those kind enough to read it, it come sometimes be misinterpreted for some profound, revolutionary insights.

With that in mind, as I've been working on Dough these last few weeks, (first draft delivered last Friday - hurrah,) I’ve been naturally thinking about character a lot. And after emailing with a friend about the script they are working on, I’ve come to the conclusion (not a very inventive one) that there is no such thing as an ordinary film character.

Movies that look like they are about ordinary people, like American Beauty, for example, are in fact not. When you look closer, you see they have unique quirks, they are unusual, and they change in ways and in a space of time that doesn't happen in real life.

The only time you might get a character that is truly ordinary is in an action movie or thriller - because then the fun will be about plunging this otherwise ordinary person into an extraordinary world (Enemy of the State.) But even then you will probably discover that they in fact have special skills or strength they didn't know they had in order to help them survive this new world.

Sometimes I read scripts where the characters are too real. This can often happen when the story or characters are based on real life stories and people. And so the characters might behave like people do in real life, but that doesn’t necessarily make them effective movie characters. For one thing, we as an audience don’t really want to watch real life people on screen. (Even reality TV is heightened and cut to get the maximum amount of entertainment.)

So the trick, I think, is too look for ways to initially make characters look ordinary - but in actual fact, when we get to know them, all sorts of quirks and desires are revealed. It can be anything really. Build it slowly but deliberately, and in the process you are guaranteeing audience engagement.

But keep in mind what a character consciously wants is not usually the same thing as what they need. The story should be about them trying and trying to achieve whatever it is they think they want - failing - and then during that process realising that the thing they want is not what they really need. And they realise (and maybe find, or maybe not – that will probably define the tone) what it is that they really do need.

Simple eh?

But it needs to be there in every sequence, every scene, every line of dialogue. And I need to keep reminding myself of that. All the time.

Thanks for helping.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

97

Kudos to Mr Steve Turnball, the Jack Bauer of the blogosphere, who is blogging in (almost) real time about the festival.

Make sure you go over there.

Right.

Now.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Shh it's oh so quiet

So no. I'm not in Cheltenham. There are three main reasons for that.

1. Couldn't afford it
2. Where does one get kosher food in Cheltenham - taking a load with me was hardly an option
3. The physical intensity of the festival, to get the most out of it, seemed a bit daunting. I could've done the two day ticket. But all four might have been a bit much.

So here are am. Is there anyone still out there in the blogosphere?

But it got me thinking that this is what is so great about screenwriting blogs as a resource etc. Of course I'm dying to know what happens at the festival. And of course reading about it is not the same as being there. But this is where a community spirit really comes into play.

So it's up to you - those who have been lucky enough to get along. Have a brilliant, fun, fantastic week and when you have suitably recovered, shine a reflective light down upon the rest of us with some hopefully positive news about the industry we all love.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Culture Show

Interesting first half hour of the Culture Show tonight, about the London Film Festival, the state of the industry in the recession, with particular reference to getting moderate budget movies off the ground, and then an interview with Michael Palin.

After that it was all about whether professional critics have a future in the age of the bloggers and some weird art stuff - so I tuned out. It then finished with a quick interview with David Morrisey.

Check it out here.

Or catch the repeat, late Saturday night

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

To debate or not to debate

In the final season of the West Wing, VP candidate Leo McGarry prepares for his televised debate. Rumours abound that Leo is going to be awful. The Republicans gleefully await their man wiping the floor with him. But as the debate begins, it's clear that Leo is about to remind everyone that he is the smartest character in the show and turn in a very impressive performance. One bemused Republican turns to another and shrugs, "well, I never said he was going to stumble onto the stage and full over the podium." (or something like that.)

Tomorrow night Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, will appear on BBC1's Question Time. Despite the protests, the arguments for allowing this are as follows.

Firstly, that the BNP must be confronted by reasonable, rational politicians in open debate, and shown up to be the white supremacists that they really are. The trouble with this, is it assumes the other panelists will win the debate. My Rabbi describes Richard Dawkins as a brilliant fool. He's not being disrespectful. What he means is, as a religious minister, he is obviously not going to agree with a militant atheist, but there is still acknowledgment for the power of Dawkins' mind and thinking. Just because you stand for the exact opposite of someone, does not make the other person an idiot.

Secondly, that banning the BNP will drive it underground and make it more attractive to the lunatic fringe. For one thing, no one is talking about banning the BNP. Banning a political party is a democratic nightmare. But there is a difference between not banning something and actively giving it a platform. And more to the point, it is not the lunatic fringe you have to worry about. They already lap this stuff up! But what you are doing is legitimising a party in the eyes of the undecided working class, middle class and upper classes. Because don't think it just appeals to the uneducated working class (whatever that means.) Sir Oswald Mosley was aristocracy - and so were many of his supporters.

Thirdly, A YouGov survey for the Sunday Times found that 63% of the public support the BBC’s invitation, compared to 23% who do not. Well that settles it then. Because the general public, who would vote for the return of the death penalty if you'd let them, are often the source of the moral compass a society should aspire too - just like in thirties Germany or Ancient Rome.

I've always tried to keep politics off this blog, but as this concerns the BBC, it seemed fair game. And I have to say the corporation continues to puzzle me. The same body that is often accused of playing safe with drama, will still seemingly take controversial decisions like this very lightly. A society suffering economic crisis, massive unemployment and a general distrust of mainstream politics, are all ripe conditions for the far right. We've been here before and we'll be here again. It often starts with blaming the Jews, and will stretch to anyone who can be labeled an immigrant - be they Asian, Muslim or Black - apparently even if, like Ashley Cole, you were born in Stepney.

I haven't decided if I'm going to watch Question Time. The controversy will probably mean the viewing figures get a bump. (Maybe this was the BBC's intention all along - although I've never quite understood BBC obsession with viewing figures - my license fee doesn't seem to go up or down accordingly.) But I just hope, that like the Republicans in the West Wing, the BBC are not scratching their heads looking at each other Thursday evening, one turning to the other and saying "well, I never said he was going to whip his shirt off and reveal an American History X style swastika tattoo."

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week special: Phil Redmond's Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture

I was flicking channels late on Monday night and came across this on BBC2. The lecture was given last month but I don't recall any blog coverage about it then. And I certainly don't think it had been broadcast already. So I was quite pleased to stumble onto it.

I couldn't find it on iplayer so I was going to do one of my scatter gun like note taking. But a little bit more research later and I found the whole lecture, word for word, could be read here. I certainly recommend taking the time to do so.

But if you haven't got time for that, the slightly shocking long and short of it can be read about here.

Plenty of interesting food for thought. All comments welcome of course.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Old news

I'm officially old news, which will no doubt please my number one fan. Congratulations to Claire Tonkin from Australia for winning the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award 2009.

Commiseration to Michelle and all the other entrants. For anyone who doesn't turn thirty in the next twelve months or so, next year is another chance.

I really enjoyed the part I played on the jury and I'm planning a few things as soon as it's possible, which hopefully writers will find useful for next time around.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

James Moran lite

And here's me thinking you had to be really successful and write for really cool shows to be abused on your own blog - a bit like, say, James Moran.

But apparently not.

Good to see people are still reading my blog posts from back in July.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Antonement

Tonight sees the onset of Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It finishes Monday night, the completion of 25 hours spent mostly in Synagogue, fasting and praying. We ask forgiveness for the sins committed in the last year and pray for a better year to come.

The thing that most people don't get about religion is that it's just all about making choices. Making choices about how we spend our time, making choices about how we behave, and how we treat other people, making moral choices everyday. Can you be a moral person, however that is defined, without being religious? Of course. Can you be a religious person without being moral? No. You can pretend. Many people sadly do. But they usually get found out in the end.

As screenwriters, we also constantly face choices. What stories we tell, how we tell them, what a character does when, where and how? The more successful we are, the more important these choices become. When you know what you write will end up on the big or small screen, hopefully watched by millions, the words and stories can have an incredible influence we may not consider when we first scribble FADE IN.

However, I have never supported the idea that a film is the 'reason' people do what they do. Off the top of my head there have been criminal court cases which have led to accusations being made against films like Child's Play (I've never seen it) Reservoir Dogs (loved it) & Severance (never seen it.) How many people saw these movies, and yet only one, or two, thankfully, decided to act out something they saw on screen. These people were sick, and if it hadn't come from a movie, the 'inspiration' would've come from elsewhere.

But nevertheless, it's always worth thinking about what we choose to put on screen. Like I've said many times on this blog, I am all for freedom of expression. But just because we have the legal right to do something, doesn't mean we should ignore the moral obligation not to. Take for example Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Let me say up front that I haven't seen it. And I don't normally like to comment on something I haven't seen myself (and if I do, I make sure that I state that I haven't) But goodness me. I know what it's about, I know what's in it, and when the director himself describes the movie’s ending as full of “violence and stupidity”, and apologised for some of the clumsy Biblical references, saying “normally I would have taken out all that shit. I was relatively uncritical of the script,” you really do wonder who thought the estimated 11 million dollar budget was going to be money well spent?

But if anything, I was even more dismayed by the recent Nick Love film, The Firm. Again, I haven’t seen it, even though the official website screams it’s 'this year's must see film,’ (courtesy of Zoo, apparently) But maybe a better epithet would be the most unnecessary film of the year. Did we need another film about football violence? We already have the original The Firm, ID (which I had a rather unhealthy obsession with when I was younger and dumber) Green Street, and The Football Factory (from er, Nick Love, again.) Yes I’ve read all the protestation that The Firm not actually about football violence (do they protest too much?) but, well, sorry, it is. Because that’s the setting you’ve chosen to tell your story about male behaviour, boys growing up and whatever else you want to chuck in there. (Not to mention the obvious glee in the interviews on the website with the creators about the violence.) Nick Love and co couldn’t have known that not long before the film’s release, Millwall and West Ham fans would conduct their own remake of 80s football violence. And he is of course entitled to make the film he wants to make. (I’ve never met him and have nothing against him!) But why the hell would you? And perhaps more importantly for the industry at large, why the hell would you finance it?

This goes to the core of an article by Phil Parker recently in Screen International, reprinted over on Julian’s blog. Phil was in charge of my MA when I started there and was a huge inspiration for me. Anyone who has heard his passion for screenwriting and film knows that when he speaks, the industry really should take note.

But coming back to what we ourselves do on a personal level. And I speak as much to myself as to anyone kind enough to read my blog. Let’s think about what stories we want to tell this year and how we want to tell them. I’m not talking about censorship or being a prude. For a start, when I read scripts, I never pass judgement. One of the best spec scripts I’ve read was a horror film that I’d never go and see in a million years – but its quality was undeniable and scary even just on the page! Previous screenplays of mine contain violence, alcohol and drug abuse, swearing and er, in the last one, some pretty low brow Judd Apatow style comedy! And as the tagline for Dough is now in the public domain, the savvier amongst you will no doubt recognise a drug reference that is very relevant to the movie. But I hope and like to think that the overall message of the stories I tell is a positive one, never justifying things that a moral society should find abhorrent. And that the content is never included just to shock, to cause controversy or because I couldn’t be bothered to “take out all that shit.”

Good luck with everyone’s writing this year. Let’s tell stories that force the British film industry to acquiesce to Phil’s wishes, and end the endless monotony of remakes and sequels etc. And more importantly, choose stories so that when we look in a mirror in our old age, we can still think, I’m proud I did that.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Happy New Year

Tonight sees the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. It's a time for introspection, prayer, and eating apples dipped in honey.

So I would like to wish all my Jewish readers a happy new year - the rest of you just go about your business and have a good weekend!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Dough

With thanks to Hashem, I can finally tell you all that my latest project, the one I have been busting myself over for the last couple of months, has been optioned by Viva Films. I'm incredibly excited by it and look forward to working closely with my co-writer, Jonathan Benson, and producer/director John Goldschmidt. It's called Dough, and whilst I obviously can't disclose any confidential information, I will try and keep everyone informed of the process, which hopefully other writers will find useful.

This all started many years ago in fact. Jonathan knew I was a screenwriter and told me he had this idea for a movie. Now I don't know about you, but this happens fairly often when people hear about what I do. And a lot of the time you just want to extract yourself from the conversation as quickly and as politely as possible. Sometimes, the idea might even be really cool, but you still feel like saying okay then, go and write it. But I knew straight away Jonathan's idea was a bit special. We both went off to do other things, always promising to work on it together, but never getting round to it. Mentally I always kept returning to the idea though.

At the end of June I was in contact with John Goldschmidt about reading for him. He asked me to do a trial script report and I was bit put out! I was far too experienced for trials!! But I remained professional and calm and did the report. John really liked it and we met up for a chat. We got on well and during the meeting spent more time talking about his projects and mine, instead of script reading. He said he was actively looking for a new project and told me a bit about the sort of thing he was after. I couldn't believe it. It sounded exactly like Dough. So I pitched it to him then and there, and John liked what he heard.

He asked to see an outline, which of course we didn't have. So I rushed home, phoned Jonathan, and said we have to work on this right, now. We spent about a week or so writing a 4 page outline, which I then got notes on from my workshop group. We rewrote it and then sent it to John. For him it confirmed the potential he already felt the story had.

Next all 3 of us met up to discuss it in more detail, the upshot being that John asked for a treatment. My heart sank a little. Like most writers, I hate treatments. But both John and Jonathan agreed we needed one and I reluctantly admitted it was probably a good idea. John said to keep it to about 10 pages, with 1 page representing 10 minutes of screen time. I don't know about anyone else but I've heard so many things about how to write treatments, the optimum length and style etc, but had not actually heard this one. It's so simple but for some reason it just clicked. This was far more manageable and made sense both in my head and on the page. It seems to work and I will be doing all my treatments like this from now on.

Anyway, a few weeks later we handed in the treatment and John liked that as well. A lot of the ideas had evolved and fleshed out and where we were really lucky was that all three of us were in close contact throughout this time. Quick emails and text messages were exchanged with alarming regularity and it meant ideas could be banded about and got feedback on straight away. This is clearly not a usual situation. Projects don't often evolve like this and I personally really like the collaborative nature it took. John was convinced that this was the project he was looking for. And he wanted to option it.

I don't have an agent. And neither does Jonathan. And when the contract arrived, some of the jargon is mind boggling. We were all getting on extremely well but you have to remain professional. John is fantastic to work with but you cannot just sign anything that is put in front of you. So I asked an agent I know if they would do me a favour and look at it. They kindly agreed and certain things were highlighted that we wanted to review. I won't name the agent because I don't want them to be inundated with people asking for favours! But they know who they are and I am really grateful for their time.

So there was still some thrashing out to be done. It was a bit stressful but the important thing was that everyone ultimately wanted the same thing and remained on good terms, resolute in the desire to develop this project. Finally everything was agreed and we met up for dinner last night to sign the contract.

It was a great feeling, but none of us are under any illusions. The real work starts now as we write the first draft, which will inevitably be rubbish, but then commit to rewriting and rewriting until it's exactly what we want. The fact of the matter is that most films don't get made. But we are determined not to become just another statistic in the quagmire of the UK film industry and no matter how long it takes, to write and make a film we are all proud of.

I will keep you up to date on our progress as much as I can.

One final post script. My original meeting with John was the same week I got rejected from the Writers Academy. I was pretty glum and this opportunity came along at just the right time. Had I got in would I have had time to concentrate on Dough? Probably not. Having said that if John Yorke phones up tomorrow and says Jez, there's been a terrible mistake and there couldn't possibly be an Academy without you... would I turn it down? Of course not. But once again it just goes to show you've got to roll with the punches, keep plugging away, and be in contact with the industry as much as possible and in anyway you can. Because you never know when or where the next opportunity might come from.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 31 (spoilers)

Once upon time I wrote a period piece. It's set in London in the forties. I wrote it as my MA script and it's a cracking story inspired by real events. (Well, :-) I would say that wouldn't I.) It's also frighteningly relevant to a modern day audience, and it's been well received by people in the industry. But the overriding response has always been the same. Period is the taboo word, they are too expensive, and they never find an audience.

And yet I like them, they pop up every now and then, both on the big and small screen, generally seem to do well, and depending on how you make them, don't actually cost as much as you might think. So when one does come along, I tend to check it out with interest.

5:15pm everyday seemed like a good time to take a break from writing. And wouldn't you know it, that was same time Land Girls was on BBC1 all last week. Set during WWII, it focused on the girls who had been left behind by the men who went off to war, and kept the country in food by working the land. The time slot was indicative of who this drama was going to be aimed at, and it was not me. But I was really interested to see what had been done with it to entice the age group coming home from school that once upon a time would've tuned into Grange Hill or Biker Grove. And initially, I was pleasantly surprised. The first episode seemed quite daring. There was that traditional, genteel country feel to it. But at the same time, the episode addressed racist segregation (African American soldiers were not allowed into certain places) and by the end of it, young Bea (Jo Woodcock) had been seduced by an American GI under declarations of love, when of course all he wanted was a quickie in the woods. I personally feel that period pieces should, by and large, have something contemporary to say. These two issues did that. So I was interested to see how this would continue.

Unfortunately, the black GI’s bizarrely did not appear again in the entire series and Bea, of course, fell pregnant. So here was a drama, aimed squarely at a young audience, dealing with teen pregnancy. Oh Lord. Even teens must be fed up with this. That’s not to say that teen pregnancy is not a contemporary issue. Of course it is. A massive one. And one of my favourite films of recent years, Juno, focuses on exactly this. But there was very little new on offer here. To make matters worse, and to make the most out of this storyline, the series had weird time jumps that I could just about keep up with. But overall what this meant was that the narrative didn’t make much sense. Because the rest of it felt like it happened within a small time frame. When you then learnt that three months had gone by, for example, you were just left wondering how and why things had not changed at all since we last saw them! I could go on, but frankly it was all a bit dull, and I was left with the feeling that the pilot promised far more than was eventually delivered. Then again, I accept I’m not a teenager anymore. So if anyone out there has one or is one, and feels different, I'd love to hear your comments.

It did get me in the period mood though, and a few weeks ago I recorded Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin (BBC4). Now, this wasn’t exactly high concept stuff. It didn’t smack as obvious screen work material. And for about an hour, this was perfectly reflected in the drama. Because at the end of the day, there really wasn’t any. Alexander Fleming had already discovered penicillin. But this was the story of the far less familiar, Howard Florey (Dominic West) and his team’s efforts to develop it into a functioning drug to save lives. But this development process, with all its scientific jargon, and even explanatory voice over’s from Florey, sailed comfortably over my head. I neither understood it, nor cared about it. I was waiting for some human drama. And waiting and waiting and waiting. Throwing in the odd scene of Florey’s troubled marriage just didn’t cut it.

Then, finally, things got interesting. Fleming effectively stole Florey’s thunder and announced the development of penicillin. Politics, economics and morality came to the fore as questions about whether to paten the drug, who should get there first and who should it be available too were all grappled with. And then just as quickly it was all over. Bummer. I was left with the feeling that there was drama to be had here, but that for some reason no one had mentioned to start the film about sixty pages into the script. There was even contemporary relevance to be had, with health care at the forefront of American politics, it’s ramifications resonating over here, and the pervading influence of one of the evils of the modern world, large pharmaceutical companies, all very much hot topics. Unfortunately, this kind of botched the lot.

I remember an old lecturer of mine (I forget who so whoever it was, forgive me for stealing this story,) telling us that when they had written the first draft of their MA script, it had gone off to then head, Phil Parker, for a read through. It came back with the simple note, “you can start three scenes in,” (or something to that effect.) Early on we often write scenes setting up the story that we then don’t need in subsequent drafts. Later drafts want to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, with Breaking the Mould, it felt like it had a great many scenes that could be cut for a much, much, later start.

I still like period pieces though - and just wish a few more companies and broadcasters would be a bit braver!

Monday, 7 September 2009

CBBC Residential (Part One)

Matt Sinclair was one of only 8 writers to gain a coveted place on the CBBC residential later this month. This is his story so far…

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As most of you know, it all started with the competition. From that, 19 writers were chosen to participate in the day long Masterclass, before which we had to complete a 2 page writing exercise. We were then whittled down to 12 writers, and then finally 8 writers were chosen to attend the residential.

I didn’t want to blog about the masterclass at the time because we were still waiting to hear who had got through to the residential – and yes I didn’t want to jinx it! I’m relieved the wait is over now and if anyone is interested, here are a couple of things that may have contributed to me getting this far (although, until I’m actually sitting there, I’ll still think it is a terrible admin error…)

I did a course. An MA Screenwriting, which I’m still paying the career development loan off for. You need people who know what they’re doing to show you how to do it too. When I started out writing, I was short-listed for a Thames TV drama competition. I think I made the final 30 out of 500 entries. Based on that, I thought I could write. I couldn’t. I’d just got lucky with good characters based on real people and a simple structure. Everything I wrote after that was poor, until I did the MA. I think I wasted 3 years doing that. I failed to get onto the MA first time round and they advised me to do some short courses. So I did one a Screenwriters’ Workshop on The Hero’s Journey (where I met Jez for the first time although he says he can’t remember me) and an Arvon Course which was like an epiphany. After that doing the MA was like having a light switched on in my brain, being taught by writers and working with 25+ people who all want to write. It was one day a week for 2 years and I didn’t want the days to end (possibly why we stayed in the pub until closing every week). That MA was the best thing I’ve ever done. I learnt how to analyse scripts, write reports, give and take objective feedback – all of which are just as important as the writing itself. If I could go back in time to that initial competition, I’d tell myself: do a course, you’re really not as good as you think you are.

I gave up my job. I knew redundancy might be on the cards for over a year so I had a while to plan, work out how much I needed each month and how long I could write for without needing to work. Having done the MA and worked so hard, I just wasn’t getting anywhere with my writing. My job was enjoyable but demanding and it was very hard to switch-off and switch-on to writing. Writing full time, meant that I could devote 4 weeks to the CBBC entry – about 20 days full time. I’m positive that if I were still in my job, I wouldn’t have written anything as good, or maybe anything at all…

I went to the CBBC Writersroom Q&A. It was really important to hear from successful children's writer Elly Brewer and Head of CBBC Drama Steven Andrew. I really connected with what they were looking for. But at the same time I know people often cannot make these events, even if they want to. But take heart, a lot of the writers at the masterclass hadn’t been to it either.

Research. I started watching CBBC straight away (and still am), I have a few mates who have kids in the 9-12 age group and asked them what their kids watched and why. I also went to the children’s books section of Waterstones and had a look at what fiction was out there. I also asked a few kids what they watched. This was a little bit dodgy, but I made sure their parents were around and made a point of asking their permission and explaining why I was doing it. They ALL watched The Simpsons and liked shows that had funny characters. The 5 kids I asked really informed my work. Unfortunately, the next 2 parents I asked said ‘no’ I couldn’t talk to their kids and one kept giving me dirty looks and making me feel uncomfortable… so I left.

I’m in a writer’s group. We get together roughly 4 times a year and read/report on each other’s work. We also do each other reports on an ad-hoc basis all the time. This meant I got quality feedback on my work really quickly and, because we all did the MA together, we have a shared language of analysis. So when someone comments on ‘tone,’ for example, we all know what they mean. It also meant that when I had to complete the 2 page exercise, I got feedback within 24 hours and was able to complete the exercise in 2 days. I have no idea if the BBC were counting the turn around time as a factor, but I figured it can’t hurt to produce something good, quickly. I owe my writer's group pretty much everything really.

Attitude. OK, this isn’t a contributing factor, but once I’d sent the entry, I filed it away in my brain in the mental cabinet marked ‘done’ and carried on with the project I was previously working on. You have to treat writing as a job, finish it, and get on with the next one. Understandably disappointed writers were putting stuff like they were being treated with contempt on the CBBC blog. You cannot be that precious about either your work or your attitude, because if you are, no one will ever want to work with you.

My Girlfriend. Your partner, husband, wife, best mate, Mum, Dad, whoever. Someone close to you to give you that extra support when you really need it. She supported me over my decision to take redundancy, was happy to accommodate my stress as I drove back from Galstonbury very, very fast so that I could get to the job centre, sign on, get home, make the changes to the script and send it the next day. (This was at 4am with no sleep since Blur.) She also reads my work and gives me a non MA angle which is always insightful and wrote a report on my 2 page exercise after we’d had a massive row about money and mortgages and weren’t speaking. (Although a cynic might say that’s just emotional leverage to make me apologise first!) Don’t take these people for granted, you’d struggle without them.

The Masterclass. There’s been coverage of the day elsewhere but to be honest, it left me a bit deflated. I was hoping for some kind of interview where I could impress them with all the points above but it was group work and discussion and I’m very much an introvert. The cynic in me also thought that it would be a numbers game: there’d be a loony, a big mouth egoist who dominates everything, someone who got lucky and is out of their depth etc… Maybe then I’d have a better chance of making it to the next stage. Unfortunately, the other short listed writers were all really strong! We all had to pitch our ideas and the quality was outstanding. I went to pieces and delivered the worst pitch of the group and started to think that in fact I was the big mouthed, egoist who clearly got lucky…

In the afternoon, we broke into smaller groups and got feedback on our scripts from key BBC people, like Kate Rowland. Being able to discuss your work is a big factor in writing and I got some valuable insight from her. We then had 2 days to re-write if we wished and then send in again, to be considered for the next stage. Some of the writers were unsure about making any changes at this stage. My view is: if the head of new writing tells you your script title doesn’t really work and the inciting incident needs to come forward from page 10 to at least page 5, you go home, switch on the computer and come up with a new title and bring the inciting incident forward to page 3.

After sending the final copy, that was it, lots of waiting, gnashing of teeth and wailing until I found out I’d made the final 8. Like I say, I still won’t believe it until I’m sitting there…

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Cheers Matt! Great stuff.

All being well Matt will do a follow up to this post after he's attended the residential. So come back then to find out whether his participation was indeed a clerical error! :-)

For a list of the other writers who made it, click here. Congrats again to Felicity and also Alice, who started the MA with me and Matt but who jumped ship when LA came calling!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Tony Jordan on Crash

An interesting article by Tony Jordan from Broadcast

Executive producer Tony Jordan wanted a fresh approach to the medical genre, and nurtured local Welsh talent to help him realise his vision.

Fact File

CRASH
Production company
Red Planet Pictures for BBC Cymru Wales
Commissioned by Clare Hudson, Piers Wenger
Executive producers Tony Jordan, Claire Phillips, Rob Gittins
Executive producer for BBC Cymru Wales Bethan Jones
Directors Ashley Way, Gareth Bryn, Dave Evans, Daf Palfrey
TX Wednesday, 9 September, BBC1 Wales
Programme summary A drama about the lives and pressures faced by a group of young doctors

My first thought when receiving the green light by BBC Cymru Wales to make Crash was that just finding a fresh and vibrant new way to approach the medical genre wasn’t tough enough. We should also do it on a shoestring budget, with a producer, line producer and team of writers all new to their respective roles. Hell, let’s shoot it in HD too.

Yes, of course we could make life easier by finding a studio and building sets, or even using an old hospital building, but where’s the fun in that? So we found ourselves an old abandoned school in Caerphilly and in the best tradition of the old MGM musicals decided to “make the show right here”.

Stage one was to brief the writers about the vision, the characters and the kind of stories we wanted to tell, commissioning all 12 episodes at once. It’s not rocket science - if you have the scripts in good shape long enough before the shoot starts, it allows you to plan properly, to address expensive scenes/set-ups and work out clever ways to adapt them to achieve the same outcome, but cheaper. It also means that your guest cast can be booked early and efficiently, booking them for the days they’re actually needed.

We weren’t the first show to have a recognised showrunner working with new writers, but unlike most of those others, I decided early on that I would not overwrite any of the scripts. Instead, I would do something radical. I would actually sit down with the writers, spend time with them, use my experience to teach them what I could and help them find their own way to a shooting script. The result is that every episode of Crash is actually written by the writer who’s credited.

Harder work in the short term, but it makes fantastic sense in the long term. By investing that time to help them grow as writers and to retain their own voice, we’ve built of team of writers ready to go if the show is recommissioned.

Design decisions

Stage two was design - something that was crucial to making the whole thing work. We had to find a way of making one space look like a dozen different sets. Our art department came up with a genius idea using colours and fl ats to re-dress one space to make it look like 12 different ones within a single episode.

Stage three was our crew and as this was a production for BBC Wales, we concentrated on finding people who lived in South Wales, so that they could go home to their family at the end of a day’s shoot. We found some real stars and managed to recruit 85% of our crew locally. We also made use of trainees where we could with an eye to the long term and building relationships for Red Planet in Wales.

We were honest and upfront with people about the rates and the budgets we had to work to, even making it clear before they came to the interview. That way, we didn’t waste either their time or ours.

Once in production we continued to look at finding creative solutions to budgetary restraints, we combined the locations from Blocks 1 and 2 to shoot across the same week, so recurring locations were only dressed once.

The end result is probably the best atmosphere on a shoot I can remember. Everyone parked their egos at the door and did whatever it took to make Crash as good as we could make it. When our sound assistant was off sick, the gaffer was holding the second boom. We have cast and crew barbecues, drinks on a Friday night and despite the tough schedule, everyone feels part of the Crash family.

Red Planet Pictures is completely independent - we have no ├╝ber masters looking over our shoulder, no higher authority to answer to - but by forging relationships with Caerphilly council to make use of our abandoned school, with BBC Wales to buy into our vision and by allowing the creative people we’ve hired to be creative, we are making a show we’re all incredibly proud of and having a ball in the process.

And if what we do isn’t about exactly that, then what is it about?

My tricks of the trade

■ Look after your writers
■ Allow your creative people to be creative - if you only want things done the way you would do them, leave TV and devise a one-man stage show
■ Choose your caterers carefully, an army marches on its stomach
■ Surround yourself by clever people - in the long run they’ll make you look better than you are
■ Drink Bacardi
■ If your head’s up your arse, it makes it difficult to see what’s going on around you

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This to me sounds like the true beginning of Tony's vision for Red Planet. Dunno why it's only on BBC Wales though just cos it's set in Wales!

And although I'm sure the irony is lost on Broadcast, isn't it interesting how Tony's top tip of the trade is to look after your writers, and Broadcast can't even be bothered to list them in their fact file. The directors get a mention though. And here's me thinking TV was a writers medium. I do know that Joanna Leigh, the inaugural Red Planet Prize winner has written an episode, and I will hunting out ways to watch the show. Good luck to everyone involved.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Script Reading on the Blog - One year on!

Has it really been a year? Goodness me. Script Reading on the Blog was set up to redress what I saw as an imbalance in the industry for writers, particularly newer writers, to get much needed feedback on their work. With a few notable exceptions, the only services available were very expensive. Now, as I've said before, people have a right to charge whatever they wish, and will no doubt state they provide value for money. Fair enough. Good luck to them. But whether it's value for money or not is a bit irrelevant if writers can't afford it in the first place.

So the plan was to set up an affordable service, that would mimic the sort of script reports readers write for production company execs, but that writers never usually get to see. This was going to be a way to show writers how these readers (me being one of them) think and assess their work. And then as the scripts started to come in, that all flew out the window. Partly responding to feedback from clients, partly off my own back, the service changed a little bit. But significantly, what was meant to be a 2-3 page basic report, evolved into 3-4 pages of more intensive development notes. No one forced me to do this - I just can't help myself! Because you know what, I actually enjoy doing this. I like connecting with other writers, reading scripts, and seeing if I can help the writer develop their work.

(It has become apparent though that it's a little more time consuming than was initially planned, and as a response to that the two main script reading services have gone up by just a fiver. I still think this is a pretty good price for the report received and everything is always turned around within a week. I don't think anyone does it faster than that.)

But anyway, more importantly, what have I learnt from the first year of Script Reading on the Blog? Well, firstly, the standard is really high. Higher than I expected actually. Most of the scripts that come through the blog are by unproduced, un-agented writers. This is not the case with scripts I read for companies. But I can tell you right now that there is no qualitative difference from the best ones I read privately, to the ones I read for companies. I absolutely love to find a fantastic script that has come to me through the blog from an unknown writer. I would be unbelievably proud to have helped develop a script that goes on to be produced. I'm simply not in a position at the moment to help anyone else in that respect, working as I am to get my own work produced! But if the day ever comes when I am in that position, there are already 2-3 writers and projects that I have 'found' that I would certainly chase up on.

Of the scripts that I get that aren't quite there yet, the standard and enthusiasm is still very high. I know there is this conceit that readers tell people what they want to hear and don't tell people they are just bad writers. Well, I can only speak for myself in that the first statement is false and the second one is absolutely true. Because there is no way to judge from one script whether a writer can cut it or not. And who the hell am I, being just one bloke and one opinion, to tell anyone this is not for them? But more than that, during the course of the year I have had perhaps two scripts that I was at a bit of a loss with! And again, that may just be my take. Of the others, I don't call them bad. Something that is bad suggests to me an intrinsic problem that cannot be resolved. But I have had plenty of flawed scripts. But a flaw can be worked on and corrected. A massive pleasure for me has been to see the same script a few times, improving with every single draft.

Not everyone will make it as a screenwriter. Sorry. There are just too many writers for too few gigs. Especially at the moment. And there are probably people who are just not very good at this thing of ours, something that can only be judged over a number of scripts (and probably a number of drafts - as for example a set of first draft scripts are probably all gonna be rubbish!) But most writers who go to the considerable effort of finishing script after script and draft after draft usually don't fall into this category. You get a feeling, an instinct, and you improve over time as it is.

But it's extremely hard to do that in isolation. Feedback isn't a luxury. It's an absolute necessity. The best way to get this regularly is to form a workshop group with other committed writers. If that is not possible, for whatever reason, use a script reader. If you want to get better, you need at least one other set of eyes looking at your work, asking the tough questions, pointing out the flaws, and even suggesting solutions. (Some readers don't do this. Some writers think readers can't do this. I think that is a nonsense.)

So to conclude, I just want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has allowed me to read their scripts, something that is often personal and hard to share, over the past year. I hope I have helped every single time. I have certainly learnt a few things too. And I hope that I have become a better reader for it... and a better writer too.

Thanks again and if you keep sending em, I'll keep reading em.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Visitor (2008)

I'm writing a script at the moment. I know that is not earth shattering news from a screenwriter on a screenwriting blog. But apart from a short film I wrote back in January, 2009 has been the year of the outline, the treatment, the pitch proposal, the script reading... pretty much anything apart from actually writing a script.

And I'm loving being back in the groove. Sure it's tough, and yes a bit stressful because there is a deadline (more of which I will elaborate on when I can) and no I can't sleep cos story ideas, scenes and lines of dialogue keep whirring around my head as soon as it hits the pillow. But hey, we live the life we choose.

And I chose to have a look at The Visitor (written and directed by experienced actor, Thomas McCarthy.) I actually watched this for a specific research purpose, but I got much, much more out of it. There are no spoilers coming, but the set up is essentially that a tired, lifeless middle aged professor returns home to find a couple of illegal immigrants living in his apartment. It's primarily a story about characters interacting and it was very, very good.

But as I work on my first draft, inevitably rubbish and overwritten as they always tend to be, The Visitor was a lesson in economy. Economical storytelling, economical characterisation, and economical dialogue.

Mr. Barron blogged about this last aspect, as eloquently as ever, only yesterday. I didn't realise when I watched the movie who Thomas McCarthy was but his experience as an actor clearly stood him in good stead when it came to trusting his cast to say more with a look, a glance, a change of expression, than any line of dialogue.

I read a script recently and told the client that I thought the dialogue was overwritten. They replied that they agreed but had been told it was one of their strengths. (If you're reading this I'm not having a go - just illustrating a point!) I'm not sure overwritten dialogue is ever a strength. And I know there are many screenwriters known for writing fantastic dialogue - but that's not quite the same thing as overwritten dialogue.

Check out The Visitor if you haven't seen it. It gave me plenty of food for thought for when I finish bashing out the first draft and get stuck into the real business of rewriting.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Michelle's Masterclass

Yeah the CBBC Masterclass write up didn't quite happen on this blog in the end - don't blame me, blame Matt, who was probably tired from all the preceding fist bumping.

But, as you probably already know, Michelle has a fantastic write up on her blog. So go there.

But, um, don't forget to come back.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Glorious Basterds

I've been busting myself on a project recently and juggling that with other commitments like reading work, so a lot of TV is getting recorded at the moment, to be watched at a later date. (Special shout out though to The Street and Desperate Romantics. I've seen a few episodes of both and truly excellent stuff.)

However when I got the offer of a spare ticket to the Inglourious Bastards premier a couple of weeks ago, I spent about three seconds deciding to take some time out.

I love Tarantino. I think most people who write do. He's one of us, right? But I'm also a purist. For me, guest directing, segments, and all that crap, doesn't count. So I didn't get involved with Grindhouse/Death Proof shenanigans and as far as I'm concerned Basterds is Trantino's fifth movie after Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. Dogs just blew everyone away didn't it? Quite literally in fact. It came out of nowhere, by a guy no one had heard of, and was just brilliant. Pulp Fiction, I think, is a masterpiece. It's just one of my favourite movies and screenplays of all time. Jackie Brown is also a very, very good movie. I often feel that if that had come first, it would get far more credit. But following up the previous two was always going to be extremely difficult. Is that why we had to wait six years for Kill Bill? I don't know. But when it came, it didn't do anything for me. I didn't even see Vol. 2 in the cinema. It just wasn't my cup of tea, plain and simple. It's not even that the movie didn't work. Some of it did, some perhaps didn't. But it wasn't to my taste. However I respect it enormously because one thing that stood out for me was the fact that Tarantino had obviously been able to make exactly the film that he wanted to. He'd reached a stage where there must have been little interference from the Weinsteins, something unheard of for them!

Six years later and Basterds sounded like something far more interesting from my point of view.

(Spoilers from here)

If I hear one more time that this is Tarantino’s ‘men on a mission’ movie I think I will scream. But alas that’s exactly what it is. Well, to be a little bit more thoughtful about it, it’s actually an action adventure movie set to the backdrop of World War Two. To me that’s different from being a World War Two movie, or more exactly, a Holocaust movie. It’s a shame Tarantino has come in for some stick for both altering historical fact and accused of trivialising the war. Make no mistake. This is Tarantino’s ‘take’ on WW2. The Nazis in Basterds are the Nazis from The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape or even Indiana Jones. They are almost caricatured, comic book esque villains. They are most certainly not the Nazis of Shindler’s List or The Pianist. And as for historical fact? Well, wouldn’t it have been nice if Hitler and the entire high command of the Third Reich had been slaughtered by a bunch of Jews in a movie theatre in Paris!?

Because of the backlash about the film, and because it was Tarantino, I didn’t really know what to expect. But I definitely enjoyed it. It’s characterised by Tarantino’s sharp ear for snappy, funny dialogue, and of course by pretty hardcore violence. Brad Pitt gives his funniest performance since Mickey the Pikey in Snatch a million years ago and it becomes apparent pretty quickly why Christopher Waltz won best actor at Cannes for his performance. I think a special mention though should go to Melanie Laurent, who as Shoshanna Drefus, actually gives the most restrained, emotionally true performance in the movie – probably a tricky thing to do when everything around you is a little bit crazy.

On the writing side, as I mentioned, it’s classic Tarantino. But that has its pros and cons. As with Bill, he can get away with things that others can’t. The movie opening is a perfect example. It’s essentially one (very) long scene of two people talking at a table. It’s well written, and Tarantino almost literally adopts the Hitchcock mantra of this being interesting if the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table – on this occasion the bomb being replaced by Jews hiding under the floorboards. He repeats this a couple more times, with people talking but under the table they are pointing guns at each other etc. Let’s face it, in Tarantino movies, people talk and talk and talk… and then usually kill each other.

The rather dodgy avalanche of imitations that followed his debut all those years ago is testament that this style is probably best left to him. I for one certainly wouldn’t recommend to any new writer to write twenty-minute scenes of people chatting, no matter what you’ve got under the table.

But like I said, it’s a good movie and Tarantino fans will love it. And at the end of the day it’s a film about Jews killing Nazis. What’s not to like?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Blogoversary!

I didn't realise that Mr. Danny Stack and I almost share a blogoversary! He celebrated his four year one yesterday and today is my first. One whole year, 115 posts of blogging. Lovely jubbly.

A definite nod has to go his way as his blog was always my first port of call when I was looking for info, advice and industry gossip. His blog, together with Lucy of course, were certainly the inspiration when I was considering starting my own.

Then, whilst I was thinking about it, I met Jason for the first time at a Euroscript thingy, and took that as a sign I should join the blogosphere. I figured if he could do it, so could I (just kidding mate!)

So here we are, a year on. It's been a really fantastic experience, connecting with other writers/bloggers and learning from other people's experiences. And on a personal note, as regular readers will know, I have certain chronic pain and tiredness issues that mean I am not the biggest socialite and networker going. So being able to keep a toe in to what's going on and connect in this way from the comfort of my couch has been a really crucial resource for me.

Recently I needed to spend some time in a specific, shop based workplace for some script research. I spoke to the owner, told him a bit about myself and what I wanted, and he was very helpful. But of course, as he was giving me behind the scenes access, he naturally wanted to make sure I was who I said I was. He asked if he googled my name would he find info about me. I said yes, for one thing he could look at my blog. He replied well that's okay then, no one is going to fake a blog just to get behind the scenes at his shop!

So the message was clear - with the blog I was someone of repute - without it... well, it doesn't bear thinking about!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

We are what we write III

Actually the title is a bit misleading. I just thought it would be cute to continue this little series. But in fact this one is probably more accurately 'we aren't always what we write.'

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with a producer. Ostensibly it was to talk about possibly script reading and scouting for them. But we got on well and the conversation moved onto talking about our different projects and what we were both working on now. This producer was actively looking for a specific new project and they asked to see one of my scripts.

Now, from our conversation, I was pretty sure that this particular script was not for this person. But I wasn’t about to say no, you can’t read it! So I sent it and sure enough, I got an apologetic email the next day telling me that they couldn’t really get past the first act because they didn’t emotionally engage with it… and so stopped reading!

I could only laugh. Thank goodness I am experienced enough to take this kind of comment (given as it was from a very, very nice person who had built up a relationship with me after only one meeting to be able to be this frank.) I am also extremely confident about this particular script, and it has probably been the warmest received piece of work I’ve written to date. And like I said, I knew deep down that it wasn’t this person’s sort of thing.

But it did occur to me that if I had been a bit wet behind the ears, feedback like this would’ve left me completely mortified! So despite what I said in the posts here and here, sometimes, we aren’t necessarily what we write.

There are determining factors. As above, maybe the script you’ve written is just not for the person you’ve sent it to. And that's not all. I know from my own experience of both giving and receiving feedback on scripts, it's not personal (or never should be at least,) it's just about these particular words on these particular pages. One bad script doesn't make you a bad writer. One aspect of one script, say dialogue for example, doesn't mean you are bad at writing dialogue. It just might mean that for this specific project it is not working, for whatever reason. Another script on another day and the dialogue might be flying.

Stuff like this is important to remember. Because as writers we are going to get hammered again and again. Dare I say it, but probably most of us will have more failures (by that I mean scripts that don't get sold let alone produced) than successes. That's just the reality.

I'm about half way through my Peter Ustinov Jury Dury and some scripts are good, and some aren't. Just like any other pile on any desk, for any other scheme, competition or company. But the ones that haven't worked on this particular occasion does not define the writer.

So I take back what I said in the previous posts. I should've known better. In screenwriting, things are never black and white are they?