Saturday, 23 January 2010

A New Hope

Last week, in this order, was the 2nd script meeting for Dough, propelling us into now writing the 3rd draft, followed by sending my first scripts off to LA, followed by my birthday, followed by me setting up a couple of meetings in the coming weeks.

1st the script meeting. It went well, was good fun, clarified uncertainty, and threw up new ideas and angles we hadn't even thought about. Once again we were armed with notes from readers, as well as our own thoughts. The script moved on a lot from 1st to 2nd draft. It's a lot tighter. But from here on in is where I think we (the writers) will earn our dough. It's from here I think that the men are separated from the boys (or ladies from girls, whatever.) Because, as Julian Friedmann is want of saying, good enough is not good enough. What we do now, the attention to detail and wringing out as much as possible from every single sequence, scene, line and character, will make the difference from a good script to a great one. That's not arrogance. That's what we are all trying for with every single script, isn't it? To write something great. It's really hard. Maybe we won't get there. But we're gonna have a helluva go.

Then the scripts. It's a big, big company... in LA and everything. I've not done this before. New York, yes. But not the motherland. Again, I tell you this not to give it the big I am. My point is that how does a schnook like me, sitting here in London, with no credits or agent, even get this shot? Only one answer. Being in the room. The room on this occasion was in New York in November back at the International Emmys. I spoke to someone who spoke to someone else. And that was it. Regular readers will know how I got in that particular room. But that's irrelevant. The room can be anywhere. Anyone who was at The Screenwriters' Festival was undoubtedly in any number of 'rooms' over the course of three days. 'Rooms' pop up all the time, mostly in London, but in other parts of the country too. Writers need to seek them out and get into them, by any (legal!) means necessary. I caught the show Spielberg on Spielberg on ITV4(!?) the other day. He said how he used to sneak onto the Universal Studios lot as a kid, dressed in his barmitzvah suit, so he didn't look out of place (cos back then everyone wore suits to work - which is ironic considering now the richer one is the more casual they are apparently allowed to dress to work!) I'm not suggesting anyone tries this nowadays. But hey... you do what you gotta do to get in the room and meet the people who can make a difference to your career.

Because if you have nowhere to send your scripts, it's self gratification. Okay that might be a bit harsh - but it's definitely a hobby. It's certainly not the building blocks to a career. I am under no illusions. A lengthy phone 'meeting' with the director of this company means I am already aware that the likelihood is nothing will happen with these script, for various reasons. But they'll get read. And hopefully they will be liked. And then I'm on the radar. It's always, always, about the long game.

But every single one of these things is a little new hope. Of course they hurt when they don't come off. But I wouldn't change that for not having these encounters. That frustration would be far worse.

And so to the meetings. They are exciting. Maybe everything, maybe nothing. I got them by networking and backing that up with the work, the script(s). So here is my five point guide to the possibility of a screenwriting career.

1. Read scripts (remember to get involved with David Melkevik's script club)
2. Write scripts
3. Get feedback (from peers, Power of 3, professional readers, I don't care)
4. Rewrite scripts
5. Network

Everything else is just commentary.

Oh wait, except, did I mention it was my birthday?

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Reader

The mercurial David Melkevick has come up with a brilliant idea.

We all know that screenwriters need to read more scripts. But how many of us actually do it?

Well David has started his own script club. And I really recommend as many writers as possible get involved, read the scripts, think about them seriously, and get involved with the discussion that follows.

If you miss a week okay, no problem. Just get back into it the week after. By the end of the year you could have read 50 more scripts than you otherwise might have done.

And if your writing doesn't improve as a result, David will eat his hat.

Monday, 11 January 2010


I was actually thinking about this blog before I read David Bishop's post which mentioned Phil Paker's theory on genre. But as I've said previously, I studied screenwriting under Phil during my MA. You spend enough time with the guy, you start to buy into a lot of what he says. (Sounds like a cult I know, but he's just a very good, very enthusiastic, teacher!)

So basically I agree with Phil's theory. There are four basic genres, Romance, Horror, Thriller and Personal Drama. Having said that, there are a few sub-genres in each. For example within the Romance drama, you've got Rom Coms, Romantic Dramas and Romantic Tragedies. I'm not going into the whole thing. There are back articles by Phil in Twelvepoint and he's got his own book. One further thing though, like David said, is his belief that things like Sci-Fi and Western are not genres, but settings. This actually makes perfect sense to me (although I respect the fact that others would completely disagree) because it seems a bit odd that Star Wars and Alien are supposedly both the same genre (Sci-Fi,) but have radically different stories (because one is an Action Adventure and one is pure Horror.) You can have a love story set in the Wild West, or you can set a thriller there. You get my point.

Why is this important? Because Genre is key to understanding how stories work. If we understand genre conventions, and we understand the genre we are working in, we have the tools to analyse what is working, what is not, and crucially, why something is not. Take for example two films I saw recently, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Pineapple Express. I believe that one works because it understood its genre and used its conventions to come up with something original, and that the other one got in a bit of a muddle.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was about Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) and his struggles to make it as a journalist, which took him somewhat inexplicably to New York. It's a Personal Drama (I'm not talking about tone. I realise it's a comedy not a drama!) Sidney's struggle is to become a journalist but not sell out and write puff pieces in order to do so. But he meets Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) and suddenly, towards the end of the narrative, the plot starts turning on Rom Com beats. I realise you can have a love story subplot - but in which case your main story should not turn on those beats. The active question was never whether Sidney would get a girlfriend, whether Sidney and Alison end up together. They do, at one of those open air, big screen old movie showings, that only seem to exist in, well, the movies. But we don't really care. The question I wanted answering was whether Sidney stayed true to himself and his beliefs. He did, in the end, kind of. But it was all a bit wishy washy.

On the other hand, Pineapple Express takes the familiar Action Adventure film and makes it new with its protagonists. I'm not gonna rattle off the plot, but it involves someone seeing something they shouldn't, going on the run, drug gang wars, corrupt cops, shootouts and car chases. That could describe many a Will Smith or Tom Cruise movie. The only difference here is that the two leads, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, are complete pot heads! So they stumble from one disaster to another, the worst shootout ever, the worst getaway car chase ever etc. And it's hilarious. There is total respect for the genre conventions - but with a couple of stoners thrown into the middle of it. It's similar to what Hot Fuzz tried to do, with mixed results. But it's a reminder that knowing genre conventions and using them, does not inhibit creativity and originality.

So whatever script analysis tool works for you, that is probably the one to follow. I don't always agree with Phil. (Phil - I still maintain Shakespeare in Love is a Romantic Comedy, not a Romantic Drama!) But the important thing to keep in mind is how important Genre is. Because not only will it help you write your screenplay, further down the line, it will also hopefully be a key tool in marketing your film too. But if you establish a genre, and therefore a 'contract' with the audience, and then don't deliver on those expectations for whatever reasons, chances are you'll have a bunch of unsatisfied customers on your hands.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The goals are, there are no goals

Since late September I’ve been harbouring a dirty secret. Whisper it quietly, but I’ve been working in a part time job. A real one. In an office, that pays and everything. And it has nothing to do with screenwriting, film, television, or anything industry related.

Y’see I’ve always been lucky. My wife, and my parents before that, have always supported my (somewhat ludicrous) career choice. They’ve never once pressured me to get a ‘real job.’ So I haven’t had to get one for years, going back to before my MA. And I realise I am privileged in this respect, as most people do indeed have a ‘day job’ and then write in the evenings.

I was emailing with a friend not long ago (no one talks any more do they?) This person was a bit down. I can’t remember why now; another rejection, another let down, we all know the feeling. And they asked how long can we keep doing this? I replied that we just have to keep going, for as long as we want to, as long as we can, and as long as we still have food on the table and a roof over our heads.

And there comes a point, probably around the time when you are literally standing in the supermarket debating whether you should buy one carton of juice or two, that you realise that this cannot go on. You may have signed up for this, but your family didn’t. Supporting you shouldn’t also mean suffering the consequences if you can help it. So I got a part time job. Fairly easily as it happens, with a big Jewish charity that does amazing work for the community. It fell in my lap quite by chance, although I don’t believe in chance. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, first lasting 3 weeks, then 5, then to the end of the year, and then, finally, permanent maternity cover for the whole of 2010.

So the challenge for me this year, and I dare say a lot of people, is to work everyday (albeit part time, which for me, physically, is like full time) and then work as hard as I can writing in the evening. That’s it. No get an agent, no get an episode of Eastenders, no get more film work. Because Piers is absolutely spot on. We don’t run the world. I was extremely close to getting an agent in 2009, after some rejections, only to have it fall apart at the eleventh hour through no real fault of anyone involved. And then I had an original feature optioned out of nowhere.

The only goals you can set are ones you can control yourself. So okay, if you insist, my goals for 2010 are to work as hard as I can doing the thing that I love, whilst at the same time working as hard as I can for a really important organisation, that also helps me to help my wife support us. Other than that, live the right way, be nice to people, do mitzvot, and be a good husband.

If I’ve done that by this time next year, it would’ve been a good year. Anything else, well, that’s not up to me.