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"

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


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


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.