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!


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!