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


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?