Monday, 29 September 2008

Happy New Year

Tonight sees the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. We don't really go in for the whole jumping in the fountains around Trafalgar Square at midnight kind of thing. It's more two days of praying and a fare bit of eating too.

But I'll be offline until Wednesday night when Trevor Walsh, a writer and now reading client I met over at, will be guest blogging for me about the Euroscript Comedy Writing course last weekend.

In the meantime, I would like to wish all my Jewish readers a happy new year!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Things we noticed from watching tv this week 7 (spoilers)

Two shows that we've previously looked at in this column ended this week. The Cup and Lost in Austen were both largely successful but their finales brought up a couple of points worth examining.

Last week I expressed concern that the lead in The Cup, Terry McConnell, bordered on being so unlikeable, that it was actually affecting the comedy and making it hard to buy into the show. So I was delighted to see three beats, three brief moments, in the final episode that addressed this very point. Early on in the episode, Terry argues with his rival, Steve. Steve makes some derogatory remark about Terry's short lived career and his son, but Terry reacts passionately, telling him that his son is a better player than either of them ever were. And he means it too. He puts his son in front of himself. Later, after Terry and his wife have rowed, and she has made him choose between her and football (the choice every man dreads), and after he has initially chosen football, he turns down the chance to manage the team to watch the game in the stands next to his wife instead. It may sound a small thing when written on the page here, but in context of the show it was a massive moment and choice. Finally, after his son misses a last minute penalty, costing his side the cup, Terry consoles him with genuine, selfless, tenderness. Three brief moments which for me rounded out this character so much that it was then no problem laughing at the usual crap he pulled during the rest of the episode. The finale was then the strongest one of the lot and I hope it returns for a second series.

Amanda Price made it back to present day in Lost in Austen, but only briefly as it turned out. When I first looked at this show I confessed that I loved it, but wondered how long it could last, as this new take on Pride & Prejudice seemed to have a built in limited shelf life. What I didn't realise at the time was that its run was only going to be four episodes! Two shorter than the standard series run in the UK. And with apparently very little avenue available for a second run. Big shame. Not sure whether it was a lack of confidence in the show, a budget issue, or what, but there was surely more scope and fun to be had reworking the famous story of Elizabeth and Darcy. Oh well. As it happened, the final episode was completely bonkers. Amanda found a door back into contemporary London, followed by Darcy, who then found Elizabeth working as a nanny, using all the latest mod cons, but still talking like she was two hundred years old. Then, they all made it back through the key hole, as it were. There was some fast talking to be done, and playing hard and loose with restoring Jane to Bingley because she had married Collins instead. But never mind all that. What everyone wanted to know was who was going to end up with Darcy. My wife, an ardent Pride & Prejudice fan, promptly declared that after loving the series, if Amanda didn't end up with Darcy instead of Elizabeth, she would hate it. And there in lay the challenge. There was a lot of talk of destiny and fate, and Elizabeth seemed resigned to hers with Darcy, even though she clearly preferred 21st Century living. But really, there was only one logical conclusion. Elizabeth would follow her dream, and Amanda would live hers. The series closed as Amanda and Darcy kissed and embraced for the first proper time. It was hard to argue with that... and it made the missus happy too. But the standout moment of the episode, in fact probably the whole series, was when Amanda made Darcy come out of the lake, shirt all wet, and as she put it, "having a very post modern moment." It mimicked Andrew Davies' adaptation and the infamous Colin Firth scene, which of course was never even in the original novel. It was hilarious. And it perfectly summed up what Lost in Austen was all about.

Finally we come to our first look at Merlin. When I heard about this series and how it was going to fill what is now known as the Doctor Who slot, I thought what a great idea. Kind of like Robin Hood with magic. Interestingly, in a forum over at three separate people revealed they also had Merlin projects in various stages of development, now effectively up in smoke. All no doubt had different takes on a classic story. The BBC have, naturally, gone for family friendly, PG, Merlin and Arthur as teenagers. The pilot showed a lot of promise and I really liked it. The young leads meet, clash, and hate each other, unaware that their destiny's lie together. And there was a lot at stake too. In Camelot magic is banned, but an evil sorceress tries to kill young Arthur. Merlin saves him and a mutual respect, if not quite friendship yet, is born. The acting was okay and the special effects not bad (the dragon has come in for a bit of stick but I thought it was fine.) The set seemed a bit monty python to me but they just about got away with it. But for me, and I guess for most of us, story telling is everything. Sometimes a pilot, strangely, is the weakest episode in the show. But when you think about it that's not so surprising. Everything is new, everything has to be established. And they did that well. But the second episode is where I expected things to kick on. But early signs are there will be a heavy story of the week format and very little serial element. Personally I think this is a shame. The second episode had a knight tournament as its main, and only story really. When one considers that Arthur is hardly likely to be killed off in episode two, what was really at stake? Why should we have cared who won or not? Both Doctor Who and Robin Hood were built around a different main story each week, but with distinct series elements. Merlin now needs to introduce something that is going to keep us coming back each week. There needs to be an overarching story, a hook, something at stake for the whole of Camelot or at least the main characters. But I will certainly tune in next week to see more. One thing though. Merlin was deemed to be special in the first episode because he had never studied magic, had been born with the gift, and just had to look at stuff to do it (jedi style.) In the second episode he was uttering spells left, right and centre?? Any old teenage wizard can do that!

This time next week - Heroes is back!!!!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

How to write? The Guardian tells us all

Okay so despite my somewhat flippant title, the supplement in The Guardian all week, featuring all aspects of writing from novels, poetry and screenplays, has been pretty cool. If you missed any of the newspapers, don't worry, you can read it all online here. One article did make me giggle though, when it declared you can't teach writing, pretty much undermining the whole supplement. But that is a pretty big debate. My own theory is that the initial desire to write, that nagging, irrepressible need to do it, can't be falsely injected into someone. You either have it or you don't. But once the desire is there, and once you are going to do it anyway, then you can certainly be taught how to do it better. Having buried myself under screenwriting books and short and long courses years ago, the articles in The Guardian haven't really thrown up anything new for me. But there must be plenty of people reading this week who now think, hmm, I'll have a go at that. And what's wrong with that?

Consider this story. I met a producer and we got on well. We spoke about scripts of course but in the meantime I wanted to read for him. He asked me to send him some script samples - not script reading report samples, but script samples - so he could basically gage if I could walk the walk myself as well as talking the script reading talk. It was a bit odd to be honest, but I'm professional and wanted the gig, so I sent some samples of my work. He read them and liked them. For other reasons I didn't read for him but we're still in contact and you never know what the future may hold. But he explained to me that he asked for the script samples because he gets sent so much rubbish from people calling themselves 'screenwriters' that it gets to be a joke. (He actually apologised to me which I took to be a good sign!) But he went on to say that there should be some rule that people have to have earned money from their writing to be able to legally call themselves screenwriters! He was only half joking. In fact to be fair I don't think he was joking at all. And although I qualify now under these terms, not that long ago I didn't. But I was working bloody hard to earn my stripes. And I know plenty of talented writers who, under those rules, wouldn't be able to call themselves screenwriters. So where does that leave us?

But - on the other hand I could understand where he was coming from too. As a reader I know only too well just how horrendous the slush pile can be. And there is a uniqueness to writing that is obvious but people don't often talk about. Put simply, anyone can do it. Anyone can't, for example, call themselves a doctor, or lawyer or even a builder. You can call yourself a footballer but a kickabout in the park is not going to convince anyone. But have your manuscript or screenplay ready, properly formatted, professionally binded, and you can call yourself a writer - and who's to say you're not.

There is no solution to this situation and I certainly can't offer one. But I do know one thing. Hordes and hordes of rubbish scripts, falling off the desks of agents, producers and production companies, damages the industry we all wish to work in. So I think whilst anyone of course has the right to call themselves a writer, there's a responsibility that goes with that. Don't just send out any old bollocks. We've all written crap. But we're not going to con anyone with it. We all know deep down whether it's rubbish or not. And if we don't, we need a second and third opinion for that matter. We learn from the rubbish ones, and we do better next time, but these scripts don't need to clog up the system anymore than it is already. There's a notion that if we only get the script in front of a producer, that even though it's really bad, they will think wow, crap script but blinding idea. Let's buy it anyway. Not. Going. To. Happen. And as ideas can't be copyrighted as such, you might be doing yourself more harm than good. Let's say for arguments sake you truly do have a fantastic idea. They will take this idea, commission a better writer to work it up, and that will be the end of it as far as you are concerned. So let's do everyone a favour, including ourselves. Let's make sure that if we call ourselves writers, the work we send out does justice to that name. In the long run, it will be better for everyone.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 6 (spoilers)

I've been pretty busy this week getting my Rise Summer Challenge script finished. I'm happy to report it's pretty much done and will go off tomorrow! (I've stopped giving submission envelopes a kiss for luck, really, I have.) But rest assured, I've still managed to catch some TV. Last week, with Red Planet in mind, I looked at three hour long shows on. But don't forget that they will also consider thirty minute formats. So let's look at a couple of those.

When is the protagonist not the protagonist? When you are watching Entourage (ITV2). Season five, following the exploits of movie star Vincent Chase and his boys, has kicked off and it's as good as ever. I really love this show. It's so superbly written, so brilliantly executed, so hilarious, that it's baffling why ITV2 have not made more of a big deal about it and kept messing about with its time slot. But never mind all that. For our purposes, lets look at how the show works. As I mentioned, although Vince is the obvious candidate for protagonist, he is actually the least interesting character in the show. For the first four seasons, he didn't change that much. He was a playboy, a charmer, good hearted, but living life to the full. But not for nothing is the show called Entourage, and not Movie Star. His crew, from manager Eric Murphy, half brother and one hit wonder Johnny Drama, and all round dogsbody Turtle, have been fascinating to watch. They have all come of age in their own right. Not to mention his agent, the irrepressible Ari Gold. Starting as a relatively minor character, he has become one of the linchpins of the show.

I talked a little last week about working with 'unpleasant' characters. I was critical of Mutual Friends for basically not having any characters I could empathise with. But Ari Gold is a brilliant example of a character who is foul mouthed, rude, money orientated and morally debunked - and yet we love him all the more for it. How does this work? I think there are couple of reasons worth noting. One, he's funny. Really funny. And I've often argued that if a character makes us laugh, we will forgive them most things. But also, he is often, ultimately, right. He knows how to play the Hollywood game, and genuinely wants to do the best for his client. The third aspect is his relationship with his family. He loves his children, humiliating himself last season in front of a school principal for the sake of his son. And although he often argues with his wife, he has never cheated on her, despite the obvious opportunities such a man would have in Hollywood. So finally we come back to Vinny Chase. He made a great independent movie, then a blockbuster, and last season saw the release of his latest film. Cleverly, it flopped. Had it been a success there would've been nowhere for the series to go. Now, the focus returns to putting Vince back on the Hollywood map. For the first time, Vince questions where he is and what he is doing with his life. I can't wait to find out what happens next.

The other thirty minute show I'm watching at the moment is The Cup (BBC2). This series about a junior football team in Bolton, and moreover the parents of the players, is filmed as a mockumentary. And for the most part it's funny and works well. But coming back to our discussion about unpleasant characters, the lead here, Terry McConnell, definitely fits into that category. And I do sometimes find it difficult to get on board with his actions. He is socially inept, neglects his wife and is completely insensitive to others. Well, so is Basil Fawlty and David Brent, right? But there are significant differences. Cybil Fawlty is a shrew and we feel sorry for Basil. Terry McConnell's wife is the nicest character in the show. Brent doesn't hurt anyone, only himself. McConnell's antics contributed to the team manager having a heart attack and possibly poisoning the rival boy for his son's position (although we don't know this yet and I seriously hope it will be revealed not to be the case - it would be hard to justify character wise, even in comedy.) He's also casually racist and knows it too, unlike Brent who is just clumsily ignorant. Finally, McConnell claims he does everything to help his talented son become a professional footballer. But we can see that he doesn't really care about his son's wishes, but only lives vicariously through him. In fact, his son loves cooking more than football and would rather become a chef. Most of the time McConnell is oblivious to this and when he is aware of it, dismisses it with dismay. This stuff matters because I think it prevents The Cup from being brilliant. If, for example, the two were in tune, that McConnell was exactly the same, but his son wanted to play for Bolton as much as he did, you could empathise with his actions more. It's possibly the difference between a good show and a great one. If The Cup gets a second series, I wonder whether there will be a shift in McConnell's character, or at the very least his relationship with his family?

Good luck to everyone again with their competition submissions and this slot next week will be taking my first look at Merlin!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Screenwriting analysis

There's a forum going on over at about what screenwriting books and manuals we read. Instigated by Craig Batty, who has written excellent articles for Scriptwriter magazine and now TwelvePoint, I believe it's research for a book he's writing. But it got me thinking about the role of the screenwriting guru and the cynicism that can accompany what they do. In the forum, the usual suspects were mentioned, McKee, Field, Seger, Vogel, Truby etc etc. A long time ago, when I was first starting out, another writer I knew asked me what was the point of reading these books by people who don't exactly have an army of screenwriting Oscars on their mantle pieces. It kind of stumped me at the time. It's a fair question. What weight would you give a law book not by a top lawyer, or, erm, a plumbing book but someone who doesn't do all that much plumbing? Yes I am struggling with examples here but I think you get my point.

And you sometimes get the same reaction with any source of feedback and screenwriting analysis. Basically what the hell do they know, what have they ever written?

This carte blanche attitude is a big mistake.

The fact of the matter is, analysing a screenplay and writing one are two different skills. Take this football analogy (any excuse.) The three most successful Premiership managers are Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. Not a notable playing career between them. By the same token, some of the great players, like Bobby Moore or Kevin Keegan, have made for decidedly average managers. The two roles are from the same industry, but clearly require very different skills.

I can never remember which one is which in the whole right brain left brain theory. But it's clear that some people are more creative and some are more analytical. Of course there are plenty who are both (the lucky sods), but what is absolutely true is that it's easier to analyse someone else's work than your own.

So when reading screenwriting books, or taking feedback about your work, my general rule is to take what helps, and ignore the rest. The danger is swamping yourself with too much. Knowing what to do with feedback and screenwriting manuals is a skill in itself. There can be a tendency to accept everything you read or are told, chuck out your script, and almost write a whole other story each rewrite. This way madness lies! A more consistent approach to rewriting, where you hold onto the core of the story but address specific problems in the script, is a much more effective way of developing work.

No one is ever 100% right, even the gurus. And there is always more than one way to skin a screenplay. But equally, dismissing techniques and feedback from people, just because they aren't multi award winning writers themselves, is often self-destructive. It's a balancing act that if you get right, will infinitely improve your work.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 5 (spoilers)

Now that I am back online properly, I can get back down to business. And as the Red Planet Prize deadline is looming, I've been reading a few first ten pages for people. So naturally I've also been watching and thinking about tv shows. And it occurred to me, that although a lot of talk surrounds what goes into the first ten pages to make them as good as possible, there are of course a few steps before that. The most important one is the concept itself. So lets look at three very different shows, Spooks Code 9, Mutual Friends and Lost in Austen.

Spooks Code 9 has finished its run on the youth focused BBC3. I love the original Spooks, although I thought the last series was the weakest, mainly because it seemed to struggle with the new format, i.e. more continuing series than 'story of the week' based. Funnily enough, Code 9 seemed to have both hats on. The first three had an A Story of stand alone missions with a continuing sub plot of who was the traitor inside MI5. The last three seemed to flip this around, and the focus became much more centred on who was behind the first and upcoming second bomb. The writing was ok overall, and there were stand out moments, like the bank hold up and breaking the terror suspect out of prison. And if it had been performed by the likes of Adam Carter, I would've been totally on board with it. But at no point during the series did I by into the concept. We were told that post nuclear attack on London, terrorists were getting younger so MI5 recruited younger operatives to infiltrate these groups. Er, what? Why? There was nothing to back up this under thirty universe this show created. It looked and felt odd. And at no point did these twenty somethings convince playing spy games. It was dubbed as Spooks for the Skins generation. But did someone forget that Skins is about teenagers, er, being teenagers. Spooks Code 9 was completely ludicrous (as was its conclusion when the traitor was revealed to have some seriously weak motivation for doing what she did, something I will come back to,) and for me was an example of the concept letting down the work put into it.

Mutual Friends (BBC1) is far safer fare. It's a domestic comedy drama, about the lives, loves and secrets of a group of middle class, middle aged ish, Londoners. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Well written, well acted drama can work almost anywhere. In the main, you just need cracking characters. And here's the rub. Where I am really struggling with Mutual Friends is, all the characters seem like arseholes. The argument is always that empathy and not sympathy matters, that characters don't have to be 'nice,' as long as they keep you interested. And there are plenty of examples to back this up. Think of shows like The Sopranos, Californication or House - are the leads in that nice guys? No. But we are fascinated by what they might do next. And we understand the moral universe that these guys operate in. We get that Tony Soprano genuinely believes that what he does, is in the best interest of his biological and crime family. You've probably guessed by now that what I'm talking about is motivation. If we understand that, we buy into what 'unpleasant' characters do. In the last two scripts I've written, both the protagonists have been anti heroes of sorts. And I consistently got feedback that the reader didn't like them, and subsequently didn't care about them, which is script suicide. And the main reason for this is that I wasn't doing enough conveying their motivations. The trouble with Mutual Friends, as far as I can see, is that the characters behaviour is generally baffling. And so when they are having affairs, neglecting their children, behaving like idiots, you just want to slap them.

Finally, we come to Lost in Austen (ITV1). This is probably the most high concept of the three, although surely became infinitely more sellable post Life on Mars. In fact every bit of press and promotional material I've seen has described it as Pride and Prejudice meets Life on Mars... which is exactly what it is. And I think it's fantastic. I would've loved to have written something like this. Take a modern, twenty first century person and plunge them into an older world, slap bang into the middle of a famous story. It's such a simple idea, such a basic concept... but that's the beauty of it. And of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Because until something thinks of it and makes it... etc etc. Peter Fincham and Laura Mackie must be doing cartwheels across ITV HQ. It's well known they have been desperate for a series hit and stated unequivocally that what they wanted was traditional drama series, with a twist. It doesn't get much more traditional than Jane Austen, and the twist is pretty smart too. I've read Pride and Prejudice but I doubt I know the book anywhere near as well as its fans do. But I have the advantage of my wife providing DVD like commentary just in case I miss a reference or in joke. But it's easily recognisable and at the same time gives us an idea of what it would be like if we were indeed taking part in this famous story. What will be interesting to see is how far it can last. The creators of Life on Mars confessed that ultimately it had an in built, rather short, shelf life. Would Sam Tyler get back to his own time/wake up from his coma, or not? And there is only so long you can string that out. So too, the Pride and Prejudice story has a limited shelf life, and either Amanda Price will get back through the door in her bathroom and back to her own time, or not.

So what can we take away from all this? I think it obviously demonstrates the many different things that need to work for a tv series to be successful. Getting one or even two right won't be enough. But just to come back to our starting point of the concept. The safest concept here is possibly Mutual Friends, and this is also probably the weakest of the three so far. Spooks Code 9 might of looked like a safe spin off from a very popular show, but failed precisely because of it's spin off/concept nature. The craziest one, Lost in Austen, is the most entertaining. It works because it takes something safe, familiar and traditional, and ensures the spin off/concept nature make sense within the context of that world. We've already bought into Sam Tyler going back in time and John Cusack discovering a door into John Malkovitch's head. So we can buy into this too. When thinking of ideas, it's always worth asking the question, what is familiar about this idea, and what is original? Because both elements are going to have to work and come together.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Euroscript Film Council event

I put my networking hat on last night and attended a Euroscript Open Evening with UK Film Council Chief Executive, John Woodward and Tanya Seghatchian and Chris Collins from the Development Fund. It was an interesting evening, with doses of pessimism, optimism, but most of all realism. Here are the selective highlights.

Following a question about the state of the British film industry, John stated that statistically, it’s healthier than it’s been for years and growing. He conceded that the perception is guided by the media, where it’s either a great success or in critical condition. One year we have winners in Cannes, the next year we don’t have any movies there. But wait a moment, maybe we have some at Toronto instead. Overall he insisted there is more good news than bad. But, he did strike a note of caution when he asserted that he believed there were tough times ahead over the next few years, especially for independent production companies. The main reasons for this are the growing complexities and difficulties in actually financing movies.

Question: Do screenwriters need to think about these market conditions when writing, or just get their head down and write?

Tanya: Don’t paralyze yourself with doom and gloom credit crunch and market issues. But at the same time never forget that you’re writing for an audience. You need to hold onto that and consider whether what you are creating is something an audience will want to see.

Question: There is a perception that development is financially starved. Do you find this?

Chris: The Film Council, BBC Films and Film Four has a decent amount of development money.
Tanya: Obviously there is our development fund. It’s a completely open door scheme. No need for an agent or any experience. It’s there for writers who have just been sitting at home writing a script. But, it still has to be high quality. The obligation is on the writer to make sure that the work is as good as possible before you submit it anywhere. After that, if the work is good, if you have a voice, you will get noticed. Because at the end of the day everyone wants to find the hot new script and new writing talent.
Chris: Keep in mind that we receive 25-30 First Feature Fund applications per week. So far, we have funded 15 projects this year and 3 or 4 of those have been from writers with no agent or industry experience. They then worked with us for 6 months, with hands on script editing support. Ultimately, the idea is these scripts go into production but even if the end result is just to get the writer an agent, it’s achieved some measure of success.

Question: Although the classic question is what are you looking for, is there anything you aren’t looking for?

Tanya: That’s a hard one. What I do want is something readable. You want to turn the page from page one. It sounds silly but when you’ve read thousands of scripts you may not necessarily be surprised, but you want to be engaged. Then there’s the usual stuff, a clear beginning, middle and end. If it’s a comedy, be funny. If it’s a thriller, be thrilling etc. This might be vague but it doesn’t make it less true. Read and watch and analyse as much as you can because the next writer would’ve done and the reader you are trying to impress certainly would’ve done.
John: It’s an old cliché but FRESH is the key word. Let’s face it there are a limited number of narratives and genres, but has it got something in there that’s different?
Tanya: Transport someone into a world you know better than anyone. One reason Harry Potter works so well is that that world is bullet proof. One script that blew me away was Being John Malkovitch. I read it before it was the big hit it later became and however mad the idea sounded, it took you into a fascinating world.
Chris: Films should be entertaining. You need to remember that. There’s a bit of a British thing that sees a lot of history scripts and biopics. That’s fine. We welcome them. There’s nothing better than telling a story about something familiar with a new take on it. For example, the upcoming John Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy, written by Matt Greenhalgh, which focuses on Lennon's life as a teenager as seen through the eyes of his aunt and mother. But there is also a need for contemporary stories that are about something.
John: It’s worth noting that it’s easier to finance genre movies than straight drama. But the statistics and submissions seem much more weighted towards drama. This is dangerous if you want to create a commercial, profitable industry.
Chris: If you have a musical send it now! (Post Mama Mia they are desperate for them.)

Question: The application form calls for a 3-5 page treatment. What makes a good treatment for you?

Tanya: Treatments are really hard. They should be an evocation of the film. It should give over the mood and visual experience of the film. And it should be light, not leaden – easily readable in one sitting. (If someone puts your treatment down they may not pick it up again.) Don’t do the clichéd … (ellipsis) at the end and not tell say what’s going to happen. It’s a selling document that then does nothing.

So all in all it was another good evening by Euroscript. These events are free too, so even more of a reason to keep an eye out for future ones and come along. The only sour point was my kippa (that's the Jewish skullcap) flying off down the Northern Line. But that's a whole other story.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008


Argh, my interenet at home is down and computer not working properly. So I was scrambling around like an idiot yesterday, borrowing the facilities of friends and family, putting the finishing touches on my KAOS films entry.

It's weird though that everything can stop cos one machine bugges up. A friend of mine's computer packed up the other week and he lost two days work - which is insane when you think about it!

I have often wondered about the merits of working with a pen and notepad a little more than I do and this has reaffirmed it!

I do hope normal service will be resumed soon...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 4 (spoilers)

Whenever you open a copy of Broadcast or hear an interview with commissioners at BBC, ITV or indeed any of the major channels, one thing seems to be rearing its ugly head again and again. Each in turn believes that television one-offs will become fewer and fewer. So it was somewhat surprising to find three on last week.

To be honest I couldn't get through My Zinc Bed, (BBC2) adapted by David Hare from his own play. It felt exactly like it was, a stage play that someone had filmed. It was slow, static and frankly dull to watch. Despite quality performances from Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Paddy Considine, the story was generally uninteresting. And it was a good example of how not to over use voiceover in screen drama.

So it was with some dread that I approached God On Trial (BBC2). Written by the hugely experienced Frank Cottrell Boyce, it told the story of prisoners in Auschwitz, their faith tested by their suffering and the barbarity of the Nazis, putting God on trial. Taking place mainly in their camp blockhouse, it felt for all the world like a stage play, and I wondered if it would manage to sustain the visual interest needed for the small as well as big screen. But that actually turned out to be irrelevant. The script was so well written, the performances so captivating, and the story so absorbing, you couldn't look away. It was sometimes tough going and during watching it I wondered if it could maybe be shorter, an hour or so, not the full 90 minutes. But then I realised that the reason I thought this was not because I had lost interest, but because the arguments being presented swung your emotions so much, I could barely take any more. As an orthodox Jew, it asked questions we grapple with often. But before watching it, I was worried about what the agenda might be.

Executive producer Mark Redhead told the Sunday Herald: "God apparently hit an aeroplane into a building and killed 3000 people. He appears to be on the world stage in a way that he hasn't been at any point in my lifetime. A born-again Christian is in the White House. Religious fanatics are conducting a terrorist war. Tony Blair has become a Catholic. To me, it seemed time that he was called into account."

It did occur to me that this may be a Richard Dawkins like attack on the existence of G0d. In fact, although clearly very well researched, it was quite selective in its analysis of Scripture and paid only cursory attention to the depth of its explanations. But the most powerful aspect of the script was the fact that it did not take the easy option of bashing belief in God. So despite finding God guilty of abandoning his people, the script ended with the prisoners being left with only one option. To pray. And not once during the many poignant arguments during the trial, as far as I can recall, did any of the prisoners question the existence of God, only why He was allowing this to happen. It was a fascinating piece of television drama and an incredibly bold piece of commissioning.

And it didn't finish there. Fiona's Story (BBC1) examined a woman's struggle to keep her family together after her husband is accused of downloading child pornography. This one was written by newcomer Kate Gabriel. I am always suspicious when I read something was written by a newcomer because further research would usually reveal that they weren't that 'new' after all. But I could not find out anything about this writer so I can only assume that she is. And this is fantastic because hopefully it goes to show that a great script will find a way to get made, even by someone with no track record. (If you ever happen to come accross this Kate, please get in touch, as I'm sure we'd all like to know how this project got from script to screen!)

Again, this script sought no easy answers or didactic posturing. Gina Mckee's performance as Fiona was excellent. But what stood out for me was the characterisation of her husband, Simon, played brilliantly by Jeremy Northam. As the story progressed it emerged that he was guilty as charged, although the police could not get enough evidence to make the case stick. This allowed the character to go from a pathetic, snivelling, guilty mess, to someone who was filled with almost righteous indignation that his human rights had been infringed and that he was the victim in what was otherwise a victimless crime. It's a repugnant argument of course but it's brilliant writing, getting at the heart and into the head of the most repulsive character in the script. I've mentioned this before and it's worth reiterating, that you need to go to uncomfortable places in yourself, especially with antagonists, to make them and their points of view seem real, however much you ultimately disagree with them. Kate Gabriel achieved that ever so well here.

I personally agree with Adrian Renolds that "the only false note (in the script) was struck by Simon’s brother and his defence of a man’s right to look at porn, which sounded a bit too much like a political stance than something a real human would come out with." But I did also wonder why the drama was prefaced with the title card that "The following is a work of fiction inspired by many true stories." Did it need this? We assume that, unless stated otherwise, television drama is fiction. We also assume that it has been, no matter what the topic, thoroughly researched. This title card seem to suggest a lack of confidence in the material and undermined it a little for me. The script was so subtly written, that it felt real. And that's all I needed.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Son of the Pitch

It doesn't seem that long since the Screenwriters' Festival last July, but I got this email today:

"As the year hurtles to it's inevitable end we are starting to gear up and begin prep on the Screenwriters' Festival 2009. Tickets will go on sale in November so we are now starting the more popular than ever pitching competition, which this year we are calling 'The Son of the Pitch', yes it's a little b-movie-ish but we like it.

Once again we want you to send us your movie or tv ideas so that you can win the opportunity to pitch your idea live to a panel of leading industry professionals. Oh and you get to do in front of all the other delegates too. So whether your idea is about vampires, princesses, ratmen or whatever, send them to us.
Click Here to find out all the entry information as well as the rules and regulations.

SWF'08's pitch winners Martin Gunn, Simon Sayce and Elena Fuller have all had a little push in their careers thanks to them taking part in the competition and pitching live on stage. Their ideas were chosen out of over 1,600 entries from over 1,200 entrants, and then chosen from the ten live pitches. This could, and will, happen to you if your idea is chosen...
So, get those ideas in starting from Monday 8th September at 17.00pm (GMT).. The closing date is Friday 31st October 17.00pm (GMT) so you've got almost two full months to get your entries into us."

The deadline is quite a bit earlier than last year (I think it was February!) so there is no time to waste. Of course this is one competition whereby winning might not be for everyone - having to pitch in front of so many people is pretty scary! During my MA, three producers were invited in and we would take it in turns to pitch to them.

Beforehand, we had a practice session in groups and with a tutor. And I sucked. Big time. But I consoled myself with the theory that practicing pitching is like taking penalties in training, i.e. it doesn't really matter because there is no pressure so what's the point anyway. I was sure that when the real thing came along I would rise to the occasion, wowing the producers with both my pitch and charisma.... And I sucked again.

Formal pitching is certainly not as big here than in the US, but it's still a useful thing to be able to do. I'm a little better at it now, although still not great, but when I do network and get talking to people, I am able to get out a couple of lines about a project. Well, it's a start. And hopefully you can always follow it up with an email and phone call. For example, I approached one of the producers who came into college some time later and assured her that my script was better than my awful pitch. To her credit, she believed me, and read it! It didn't come to anything at the time but she has read another script of mine since, being quite complimentary about both, and we continue to keep in touch.

So I would urge everyone to get involved with this competition. You never know. And although winning might actually be worse than not, ultimately, you'll get over the fear and really benefit from the exposure. (Well I say that now but of course if I am lucky enough to be one of the ten you'll be able to see me shaking a mile off.) But as I always say, you gotta be in it to win it.

Good luck everyone!


Check out Mr Arnopp's excellent post on last year comp and some great tips on the black art of pitching!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Red Planet Prize 2008

There's just under 4 weeks to go until the Red Planet Prize deadline. Open to everyone, the major difference between this year and last, is that the competition is specifically looking for tv series ideas and scripts. I imagine there is a good, if somewhat sad reason for this, in that broadcast opportunities for television one-offs are becoming less and less frequent. (Although having said that there have been three on tv recently so I will talk more about this on Sunday in my regular slot.)

But for the time being, let's concentrate on the Red Planet Prize and tv series writing. Now as I have mentioned erm, once or twice, on this blog, I got to the final twenty last year. And I have received support and mentoring from the good people at Red Planet ever since. So it goes without saying that I seriously recommend entering this comp, because even if you don't win it, it could still be enormously beneficial.

Assuming that at this late stage, people are beyond the idea stage, a couple of things have still come up in conversation with a few writer friends that could be quite significant. Namely, whether to write a standard pilot, which is traditionally the first episode of a series, or do a back door pilot, which would set up the world, the characters and the concept, but its plot would function as a stand-alone story. This enables it, in theory, to be made and broadcast as a one-off, which is far more common in the US than here, where loads of pilots are made, shown but then comparatively few are picked up.)

I should point out that I have not spoken to anyone at Red Planet or Danny Stack, a key organiser, about this. So these opinions are purely my own and should not be seen as any hint about the comp itself!

But the important thing to keep in mind is that Red Planet are looking for a returning series. It's no secret that that's the holy grail for tv, and especially ITV, at the moment. And having already delivered Moving Wallpaper and the albeit short lived Echo Beach for them, I'm sure Red Planet would love to further their relationship with ITV and provide what they desperately need. Tony Jordan is on record saying that wouldn't it be nice if they got a Bafta winning series out of the Prize.

Therefore I would personally lean on the side of a traditional pilot, complete with first ep climax/cliffhanger. That doesn't mean you can't close off one or two of the subplots, or even go for a 'story of the day' set up. But there should be strong, continuing, series elements and the big stuff, the reasons we are going to tune in next week, should of course be left open. Also, if this is going to be a series, or even a sitcom, characters should obviously not go through massive arcs and change dramatically in one episode. The thing needs legs! And consider this, courtesy of another Alice Charles article, in conversation with Ellen Sandler.

Says Sandler, "It used to be that if you were a new writer, you were told, 'Do not write a pilot.' It's true that you still can't sell an original pilot, but now it's become the spec of choice to read. People want to read original material. They'd rather read a pilot than a feature because it's shorter. And yet you still answer all the questions - can you develop characters? Can you tell an original story? Can you write brilliant dialogue? That's become the spec of choice."

She's predominantly talking about the US, but it's true here too. It worked for Marston Bloom, whose spec went one further after being picked up and turned into Harley Street. So even if your pilot isn't lucky enough to win the Red Planet Prize, you may still have an excellent calling card script on your hands.

Good luck!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Script Reading On The Blog

Summer is over - it's back to work people! Okay so in truth writers never really stop. But with the onset of September, it's time to pick up the pace again and get down to some serious writing. And today sees the launch of the script reading service linked to this site, imaginatively titled, Script Reading On The Blog! I've mentioned this in previous posts but just as a reminder, I have been reading scripts for many years, for both individual writers and production companies. And although I get my feedback these days from my workshop group, this is not an option for a lot of screenwriters. But also not viable with any regularity are the large fees charged by the majority of those who provide feedback services. My aim is to redress that and help writers develop their work to a higher standard. Plain and simple.

This information will be on the sister site, but here are the details:

For the time being at least, my service will have only one option - Script Reading (although this will include both film and television). The coverage will take the standard form that production companies use. This will include:

  • A front page containing a logline.
  • A table of Plot, Character, Dialogue & Structure - marked either Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor.
  • Brief comments summing up the key points.
  • An overall mark of Recommend, Consider, or Pass.
  • This will be followed by a two page synopsis of the story. Why do you need a synopsis of your own story? Because it's so useful to see how someone else summarises your script. Are the key turning points there and evident, or have they got lost somehow? Plus, you will often have to write a two page synopsis for producers, which is a right pain! But this way I do it for you!
  • Finally, the coverage will conclude with a two page analysis of the script.

The thinking behind this is that writers often bemoan this type of coverage by faceless script readers reporting to company execs who then never see their work. I know because I sit on both sides of the table. As a writer I often submit my work to companies in the knowledge that a reader will be looking at it in this very context. And I will of course never get to see their report. As a script reader myself, I have written tons of these and know exactly what the execs are expecting and looking for. It's not a perfect system but complaining about it is futile. This is the reality and you have to be in tune with it. And this is hopefully where I can help. Your script will receive Production Company like treatment, only this time you will get to see the report afterwards. It will be polite, constructive and treated with respect. But it will also be honest. And of course, follow up discussion of why I have marked and written things the way I have will not only be allowed, but actively encouraged. I firmly believe this will be a massive help in getting your script past company readers.

The fee for this service will be £35 per feature film scripts or television one offs over 60 mins and £30 for television episodes (up to 60 mins).

You simply won't find it cheaper elsewhere. People can pay through Paypal and scripts and reports can be exchanged via email - thus ensuring fast delivery and no postage costs.

But there's another feature to this service. It will also run as a monthly competition. The best script I read each month will not only be given a refund, but will feature on the blog in a pitch format (logline, genre, synopsis etc) not dissimilar to Shooting People's Script Pitch bulletins. The writer will also be interviewed and receive a profile on the site and there are no problems with copyright issues or anything like that. But you will of course have the option to opt out of this feature if you so wish. However, self promotion is the name of the game in this industry so I would not recommend this. The idea behind this is that as I raise my profile and more and more people read the blog, a few other writers will also get some attention, and it all helps promote better scripts. And that can't be a bad thing.

So what are you waiting for?? Get in touch soon, the first day of September is nearly over already!