Sunday, 28 November 2010

LSF 6 : Meet the Gatekeepers

Meet the Gatekeepers was a chance for most of the writers in the room to put a face to and get an insight from the people most likely to read their scripts. Chaired by Evan Leighton Davis, the panel included Jamie Wolpert, Sarah Olley, Alex Mandell and probably more familiar to you all, Danny Stack and Lucy V Hay.

So what is a gatekeeper? It's not people to keep writers out. Honestly. It's most likely to be the initial filter facing your script. There's too much material floating around for the execs and producers to read, so they will use readers. Readers will write a synopsis, a report, and typically deliver a verdict like Pass, Low Consider, Consider and Recommend.

So what are they looking for and how do writers get through this initial pass?

JW: His job has been mainly to find writing talent as opposed to projects. Most people he has worked for have more than enough projects already on their slate. But what there's a deficit of is really talented writers they can bring to them. So an original, strong voice, a real depth and authenticity to the writing. His big thing with scripts is that the vast majority of the ones he reads have series of scenes that are either a story scene, a character scene or a twist scene - and if you watch really good TV, all of those are happening in the same scene. And a writer who can do that, even if the overall script is a mess, is someone he would want to meet.

DS: The companies he has read for want to know two things - is the writing any good and therefore is the writer of interest? And is this project something that they would possibly be interested in making? They look at the front sheet of the report first, and maybe last. Does it say Pass or Consider etc - and then the premise Danny has written of your script (note not yours. His. That's how clear it has to be cos someone else will be interpreting it.) And most execs just read that and if it doesn't do anything for them they won't read any more. Some might read the synopsis (again the reader has written it, not the writer. So the plot better be clear,) and actually think this is interesting after all and decide to read the first 10 pages or whatever, to see for themselves. But that's pretty rare. The main things Danny's looking for is originality, style of writing, is it commercial, is it a genre film? And the more you read the more you realise that so little is out and out original. What hasn't been done before? So much is derivative that it's hard to come up with something truly original. But that said, you can still stand out by doing whatever it is you are doing, really well.

ELD: What the execs he's worked with really want to know is; if I pass on this project am I potentially passing on something that will be a really good bit of business? If I pass on this will I lose my job if it goes elsewhere and does really well? If I pass on this project and don't meet this writer, am I passing on what could be a really considerable piece of talent? People work with the same people over and over again - and relationships tend to be long term. As Tim Bevan said, he managed to get Richard Curtis and that relationship drove much of Working Title's business in the early years.

SO: The commercial potential is really important. Has it got a new hook that will raise it above the other stuff that's out there? Can I imagine the poster campaign on the tube? Horror was a really important genre but it's saturated the market now - so there has to be something fresh to make it stand out. The biggest thing for her is structure. Because if a writer can't structure a story properly there will be too much work to get something off the ground.

LVH: The biggest problem she sees is with structure. Secondly, character. A lot of writers seem pretty good at evoking a mood and dialogue. But dialogue is probably the least important thing. Structure and plot are probably the most important thing because there are so many ways in which it can go wrong. If characters aren't following an arc of some kind it's very easy to get bored. Structure is not a miracle cure despite it being a script buzz word not that long ago. And whilst we don't want tick the box screenwriting, everything should have a beginning, middle and end, no matter if you call it three acts, 21 steps, whatever, whatever. Otherwise it can kind of all unravel - especially after the initial set up.

SO: If a writer sends a script in and the structure is a mess, but they have brilliant characters and a strong voice etc, it might be that she still wants to meet them and get to know them. It's just that they probably aren't ready to come in on something being worked on now.

JW: Obviously structure is vital. But the 'what' isn't as important as the 'why' and the 'how'. He'd much rather find an interesting voice in a jumble of a script, because you can sort out structure. It's harder to sort out lack of character or story. If it's not there it's not there. But if a writer has great characters, dialogue, setting etc, structure can be worked out together. That's what he does as a script editor.

AM: There are two schools of thought. The US and the European. US is more focused on the structure and European more on character. If you have a story, and character building from that, that's half the battle. Dialogue comes last because it can be changed easily. The first 20 pages are crucial. If you've got a mesmerising opening then you've got someone hooked. Of course you then have to keep the interest, the pace etc, but if you've got them hooked they will finish the script. If you don't deliver in the first 10-20 pages they probably won't read any more. From a studio point of view high concept is also really important. That one sentence log line that makes you go I want to read that.

JW: In TV high concept has probably had its day. Even in film, in this country, your high concept idea will still probably feel like a diet version of something else. The big thing for him was the distinction between Plot and Story. Story is what happens and why. It's the meaning of the thing. Plot is the order those things happen. So the example he heard from Paul Abbott is that the Plot is the King and Queen die - the Story is that the King dies and then the Queen dies of a broken heart. If you have an interesting story with interesting characters, you can mess around with the plot until you find the best way of telling that story. But that's not to imply that structure isn't important. If it's near impossible to follow what is going on then people who don't have to read the whole script may well not bother. Readers have to because that's their job. But a producer doesn't and might not.

ELD: What are the shortest cuts to antagonise readers; what makes your heart sink quickly?

JW: "I'm in my twenties and a drink a lot and club a lot and here's a story about me and my mates drinking a lot and clubbing a lot." And it's relevant to anyone else how? You might be great and the dialogue might be great, and in fact he read one recently which was, but he didn't care if the character got the girl or not because the writer didn't care if he got the girl or not because he was with a different one every night. Autobiographical is great but it's got to have a meaning. Your life is not necessarily interesting to someone else just because you've written it down. There's got to be more to it.

SO: Don't try and tell someone the whole story in one massive email. Keep your approach brief. If a writer has a lack of market awareness and you don't know what your audience and genre is, that shows you're not really aware. Also not knowing your central conflict, what's it about - and a vagueness; so is this a rom com, a thriller, TV show, film? That's pretty annoying.

LVH: A sense of audience is really important. So many scripts seem really conflicted. She sees a lot of stuff that appears to be for children and yet there is loads of swearing in it. It's really important you know who you are writing for and what the restrictions are. And the other thing that really bothers her in scripts is rape being just a beat in a story. Not against stories about rape like The Accused or The General's Daughter, which are important films. But rape that happens to both female and male characters as just something that happens and isn't it shocking but now lets move on to the real story. And it's not great.

JW: Second to drug addiction that's absolutely true as the most overused plot device. The number of times he's seen a script where a female character's motivation was because twenty years ago she was raped - and the glibness of it is really offensive. If you are going to use something that emotive and difficult, you have to really use it and honour it. Changing the subject. When sending in a script you also need a sense of perspective. Readers might have over a hundred scripts sitting on their desks so don't send an email two days letter asking if they've read it yet and what their notes are. He once had a writer send in an 180 page script in iambic pentameter and when he hadn't read it a week later, was asked to send it back with an apology.

DS: First thing a reader does when picking up a script is flip to the last page and see how long it is. So if it's a feature and it's over 120 pages that's a bad sign. If it's a TV hour and it's over 70 pages, that's a bad sign. And then scripts with basic formatting issues are a bad sign. Everyone seems to have Final Draft these days which is great but scripts still come in with green font, and dialogue centred, and scene description centred. And notes to the reader; "dear reader please consider... or please press play on track 2 on the accompanying CD in scene 2.... or did you enjoy the chocolates that came with the script..." All true apparently. Chunky paragraphs of descriptions, even in the most pacy written scripts, are also just visually still a turn off. Keep it lean.

ELD: Exposition would be top of the list. It's incredibly lazy screenwriting. Characters telling each other or asking each other things they blatantly already know just because the writer wants to convey the information to the reader. It's a massive turn off. Another pet hate is too many characters introduced in a rapid period of time early on in the script. It might be late at night, a reader has read umpteen scripts that day, and the last thing they want to do is double back on pages thinking who is that again?

AM: Loads of characters with the same or similar sounding names. Because you just lose track of who you are referring to the whole time.

ELD: Audience again. So important. Knowing who the audience is. And not kidding yourself either into thinking (and stating) that this is for absolutely everyone. Everyone in the whole world will want to see this movie.

Just a few final points that arose in the session:

The majority of the stuff you read as a freelance reader you wouldn't take to anyone else. But all the panel, and I would echo this, were clear in that readers want more than anyone to find great scripts and writing talent. And if they do they will hook them up as best they can. Because as well as it being quid pro quo, you also want to be connected to the next big thing, to say yes I know them or we helped get that off the ground. Because it does you no harm and you might want to work with them in the future somehow.

Don't send out stuff too early. What you send out should in your opinion be the final draft. (It won't be, but you have to see it like that at that stage.) If you know there is stuff still to work on, there's no point. Obviously this particularly applies to companies and producers, but even if you are sending something to a script consultant. If you know some areas need work, you are wasting your money. Send stuff to them when you've done all you can, and you can no longer see the wood from the trees, and you really need help now and a fresh pair of eyes to take the project to the next level.

Readers will have favourite genres just like everyone else does. And writers often feel that they might get unlucky or a bad report if their script happens to be in a genre the reader doesn't like. But as Lucy pointed out, she hates vampires cos they have been done to death, (my bad pun, not hers) but counters that with the fact that one of her all time fave specs had vampires in it. She's not a fan of Sci-Fi but has read some brilliant sci-fi scripts. With good writing it doesn't matter. And in some ways it's better to impress the non fans of that genre as opposed to those who love it and may want to make apologies for it. I totally agree. I hate horror and would never pay to go and see one. (I did once cos my mate was booking the tickets and for some reason booked Stigmata rather than American Beauty.) But that said, one of the best specs I've ever read was a horror script that was bloody scary even to just read it on the page.

For new writers this session was probably the best and most informative one I went to. So many scripts fail for silly, basic reasons and the more writers who cut that out, the more the overall quality of the slush pile rises, the better for everyone. But what's interesting is look at what the guys say is the priority of what they are looking for. Some emphasise character, some structure, some a strong authorial voice. But you don't get to choose your reader. How are you going to know which one you are going to get? How do you know that if your structure is really tight but your characters could do with work, that you'll get the reader who will empathise with that. Or what if you have something really interesting to say but haven't done so with clarity at the moment. Will you risk the reader being more interested in one than the other? The answer of course has to be no. And so - as obvious as it may seem - the overall answer to what are people looking for in a script, is that it is good. In. Every. Single. Area.

That's really, really hard. But that's what it takes. And if it was easy, we probably wouldn't need or want seminars like this one.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

LSF 5: How do I sustain myself

This was the shortest session I went to, still just over an hour though, and a tricky topic to cover. It was chaired by Ceri Meyrick and featured Deva Palmier, Phil O'Shea and Martin Gooch - and the panel decided that sustainability in this industry could mean creatively, financially and psychologically - and they would try to cover a little of each.

Deva decided not to chase the cash. Through the Guiding Lights scheme, Gurinda Chadha mentored her for a year, and she was faced with the cash question very strongly. She had meetings for the directors lab at the BBC and made it down to the last nine. They picked eight, and you guessed it, she was the one to miss out. It made her think about what she wanted to do and when she asked why she was the one to miss out, the answer was that although she had clearly done her homework, they knew she didn't really watch and love Eastenders. And she didn't. It wasn't for her and it saved her time. She could've done with the cash, but she went back to Gurinda and had a long chat with her about what she should be doing and how she should be spending her time. She'd been doing teaching but that was taking up a lot of her time. So her solution was to get an extension on her mortgage, upgraded her flat, and got in a flatmate who pays for everything. She does a little cash job at the ICA lab, answers the phone a bit, but most of the time writes, and it's understood that she is allowed to do that.

I liked Deva a lot. There is a passion and integrity about her. But when I later asked the panel if anyone had ever taken a job for the money, they all said of they had. Even Deva. She admitted that had she got onto the BBC programme to direct Eastenders, she definitely would've done it. And she has made some stuff where her heart wasn't in it. But now, right at this moment in time, she's not doing that. Now she's only doing what she passionately wants to do. It's right for her, now. Martin added that when he directs commercials of course he does not think they are works of art. But when you can get ten grand for the gig, which then pays for you to attend the whole Edinburgh fringe festival, then it's worth it.

Interestingly, Ceri picked up on this point. The biggest problem she comes against is writers who feel they should work on continuing drama but don't really love it or want to. They feel, and are often pushed by their agents, that they need a Doctors credit because then you'll get to do Eastenders and then you'll get to do Holby and then you're off and running. But if you don't love those shows it's a complete waste of time for the writer and Ceri. The power of 'no' is really important and you keep control of your creative career - and it gives you a creative boost if that's not what you want to do they you shouldn't be doing it.

This was, unsurprisingly, immediately pounced on by someone in the audience because as well as meaning this is turning down potentially a career sustaining amount of money, we all know that by and large, it's also the only way in. Ceri insisted it wasn't the only way in - which of course it isn't, not 100% - but it to most new writers it doesn't feel like that. Certainly not the writer in the audience who was invited into the BBC on the strength of her spec, that was tonally similar to an existing show at the time which she loved, and that this person at the BBC mentioned maybe putting her up for - but only after she's done a bit of Doctors, a bit of Eastenders, a bit of Holby etc, etc. Suddenly it would be about six years later before she would get a chance on the show that was the reason she was in the meeting in the first place. No system is perfect and of course giving new writers shots at existing high profile shows is never really going to happen. But I think it would be nice if - certain - development people recognised the enormous frustration this causes. That said, there are exceptions. Writers who have not wanted to write continuing drama and stuck to their guns, writing original stuff and have eventually made the breakthrough. Deva knew of one at the ICA lab and I can think of a few off the top of my head too. Not many though.

The flip side is that working on continuing drama gives you a massive learning curve, and the important flying hours (basically actual productions of your work on TV) to hone your writing. And to get a show of your own or higher profile shows, you need this. So again we have this tension of writers being told both that going for continuing drama if you don't love it is a waste of time, but actually it's the best learning experience you'll ever have. And as Ceri admitted, statistically it is the best way in - it's just not the only way.

Phil gave the sound advice to those starting out, who are passionate about being screenwriters, is that you make a list about what is really essential. So a roof over your head, food to eat, and if you have family they are looked after too. And after that you just keep writing. There is no point sleeping on the street because you've taken six months off to write a script you then haven't sold. You might hear those stories but they are so rare - and I would add, completely insane.

Phil plays safe. Experiences peers and colleagues of Phil's have had is that someone gets interested in your project, say off the back of a treatment. But they haven't got any money to buy it or develop it. So you decided to borrow money from the bank to give you the time to write the script, which you do. But when you take it back to them they say sorry, it's not quite what we expected or we're not interested now, or something similar in the meantime has come out. And now you have a massive overdraft to pay off. So be careful. Plenty of writers have day jobs. It's not the end of the world if you spend forty hours a week working somewhere. You've got the rest of the week to write. What Phil didn't specify - but it's there in the subtext - is that hang on, that just leaves evenings and weekends. Yep. That's the trade off. You can pretty much forget about a social life. And that's hard. I can tell you from experience that it's very hard. I see my wife because I live with her. But since I took a part time job just over a year ago, I rarely see my friends any more. I don't feel good about that and it's tough. So this thing of ours is not something to get into lightly. (Fortunately Jews have Shabbat, one of God's best creations - a day when we're not allowed to work and get to spend time with our family and friends. I seriously recommend it for everyone. Just pick a day, Saturday or Sunday are the obvious ones, when you don't even turn on your laptop. And no sneaky email checks on your phone. I'm sure you'll find it extrememly refreshing.)

If you do break in, that's great. But as Phil noted there are plenty of writers and directors who for whatever reason just had that one opportunity. Just check out IMDB for example. So don't rush to give up your day job. Get a few episodes under you belt first. Writers can go for a year without getting a paid gig - same as directors and actors etc. The difference and perhaps slight advantage we have is that we can and must still be writing our own projects in that time. But of course you also have to make sure your house doesn't get repossessed. Creatively, Phil always has a least ten projects on the go, all at different stages. So a couple of scripts doing the rounds, some treatments, working on new stuff etc. You have to send a lot of stuff out because producers don't come to your door.

Martin has wanted to be a filmmaker since he was five. He later set himself the target of writing a feature film script each year, which he has kept up and is now at thirteen. Some are good, some are bad, but he did accidentally manage to sell one to a guy he met in a pub that flew him out to Hollywood and bought his script. He actually loves the making of films and became a writer almost by accident - because no one was writing the short films he wanted to make. But he found that he loved it, and was amazed that so many writers, even on his MA hated it like it was tearing their soul apart. He thinks you've got to love it and look forward to it. He sets aside whole days when he writes and loves it. Above all, Martin thinks that working in this industry isn't really a job, it's a lifestyle. You wake up and you're thinking about your film. You go to dinner and you're thinking about your film. And so on. I agree with Martin, to an extent. But I think it's also really important to think about other stuff, important stuff, too. I'm not sure workaholicism is ever healthy, regardless of the profession. And just on the other point, there have of course been many tortured soul writers - so don't feel too bad if you're one of them!

Martin loves walking onto a set and just making stuff. He makes everything, commercials, music videos, any old crap, for money, and it's not all great but it's an incredible experience. Sustainability as a writer can mean having another discipline. He knows writers who are camera men, loaders, runners, and extras. Just being on set you learn tons - as he did watching Spielberg as an extra on Band of Brothers. And you are also making contacts, which is incredibly important.

Finally a couple of what not to do's. Firstly from Phil. Writers will see in the trades and on the web that the BBC or this company or so and so is looking for this. And they'll think great I'll write that. But realistically, by the time your script is going to be ready, that ship would've sailed. Don't worry about stuff like that. What he's always done is write what he wants to write and at some point or other you will find somewhere to place it. That may be from someone looking for something or competitions, like Phil did when he won one of the Film Council's 25 words or less pitch things a while ago. I would echo that. Any success I've had in comps has been with scripts that I've written quite some time beforehand. They were just scripts I wanted to write and then bunged into a competition.

And the last word to Martin - which basically breaks down like this: you only get one bite of the cherry. Don't send stuff out too early. It will only get read once and if they don't like it they won't read it again - no matter how brilliant the rewrite has made it. The script is now tarnished and you might have blown a really good opportunity with a great contact by just not being ready yet. And how do you know if it's ready yet? Get feedback. Lots of it. Deva once had a meeting with a key person at Film Four but Gurinda told her to cancel it - because her script simply wasn't ready. That can be hard to do. You might think it's ok, you'll pull it off in the meeting. Better to take it now and get my foot in the door whilst I have the chance. But you'll only end up then getting it slammed in your face if the script is not up to scratch.

Did the session cover how does one sustain themselves? I'm not sure. But as a topic that was probably the hardest one on offer. It was also the last session of the festival, so everyone was knackered. But I think it's a credit to the panel and the audience participation that meant there was still a great deal of interest and useful advice.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

LSF 4: Writing Comedy

This session was chaired by Paul Bassett Davies, and featured Dean Craig together with writing team, Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil and they took on the ambitious task of tackling this broad topic and trying to find some sort of universality to it.

It was felt that comedy has to come from a place of truth. There has to be an element of the familiar that people can recognise - but then a twist or a surprise, something the audience hasn't thought of. Because if they can see it coming, it probably won't be funny.

One possible secret of comedy success is re-incorporation, which came from Patrick Marber. This is where the real craft lies. You seed something early on and it pays off later in an unexpected way. Quite a good tip if you are stuck at your ending is to go back to the first twenty pages and see what else you have set up that you can then pay off. If you have an A plot, B plot and C plot - the C plot is often a running joke about an object. So look at your script and see what physical objects have been used, and think about how you can bring them back in a comedic way.

Dean, probably the most laid back person at the entire festival, wasn't convinced about rules and such. He mostly follows instinct. If it makes him laugh etc, etc... But he did agree that if things had an element of truth they are much more likely to be funny.

You have to believe in what you are writing. A crucial point is that comedy is often very character specific. For example when things happen to characters in a drama, thriller or even horror, the initial reactions at least will be very similar no matter what the character. At the beginning of Panic Room Jodie Foster could be anyone. But with comedy, something that happens to one character may not be that funny if it happens to another character. Think about what that particular character is going through and what is it about that character that makes this situation funny? This doesn't necessarily apply to sketch comedy, which is generally purely ideas led. But anything longer than that and it's well worth considering.

When Kevin and Andy work they brainstorm ideas, don't limit themselves, throw anything in etc. There will come a time when you have to censor, and reject things and rewrite. But it's always easier to rewrite than it is to come up with the initial ideas. Because in the first instance you have to get the work out. John Vorhaus noted in his book, The Comedy Toolbox, that writers should expect to see the 10% rule. In other words, when thinking of and pitching ideas, if you want to come up with ten good ones, you will probably need to have a hundred. And even then you'll find that when they have all been rejected you'll suddenly come up with something in the room that is the one they go for. This is staggering when you think about it. The amount of material, ideas, concepts that have to be generated. But this is what makes comedy so tough. Concept wise, drama for example can be okay. Some might find something interesting, others won't. But with comedy the reaction is immediate. You either laugh or you don't. And part of doing comedy is about putting yourself out there, going for something, and it may not catch everybody. The same scene in a movie for example may be people's favourite, or their worst.

When writing sitcoms, it's always a problem in every episode one in the first five minutes to establish the characters and get the story going. You see a lot of scripts where the characters come on and almost literally say to the view hello I am so and so, and tell a joke to illustrate their character. But five minutes in and nothing has actually happened in story terms.

It's also always handy to have a social structure. If you think about who your main character is, it's useful to have people above them and people below them in the pecking order. So you have people they can give orders to and people who hassle them. Even if it's a family scenario. Put your main character in the middle, who is often the most normal one and the one the audience can relate to (30th Rock, Seinfeld) and then surround them with more eccentric characters.

The session was then thrown open to questions from the audience and the first one was about swearing in scripts. This was particularly interesting because most script readers are put off by it, yet it is still very common to see a lot of it. The reason being it's just not done well enough. It's thrown around for impact, but of course the more you do something the less impact it has. And I've found, probably unsurprisingly, that the younger the writer, the more swearing there'll be. That's possibly cos younger people generally swear a lot more than older ones. You just have to ride the bus round where I live to notice that. And there is probably the influence of things like Skins and The Inbetweeners too. The consensus in the panel was that there is probably too much of it, but when it's done well it can make the dialogue pop. But it has to come from character and should probably be inventive. The obvious example is The Thick of It. However when you get the sense that the writer is just sticking in swear words instead of actually telling a joke, it just becomes bad and lazy screenwriting.

The next question was about structure, and whether comedy structure differed from say, drama? It specifically referred to feature films and the overriding opinion was that it essentially didn't. But something interesting did crop up in that there is often a danger that comedy films are less funny in their final act. In a three act structure, when you say what's that film about, it's normally about what happens in act one. So take The Hangover for example. It's a film about a stag party in Vegas with a few guys and they wake up with no recollection of what happened the night before and have lost the groom. And now they have to find him. So the end of act one is often a very funny moment and quite often the very first idea of the film. Once you get to the end of act two, and it's a crisis point for all the characters, it's very easy to slip into drama. And then in act three you're dramatically paying off the emotional threads you've set up at the start - and there tends to be less laughs. And what you have to make sure is that there isn't no laughs at all in act three. You need the heartfelt moments. But make sure the laughs are in there too.

Something that had been picked up from Robert Mckee was that comedy is possibly the only genre where you can get away with having a scene, or scenes, that don't further the plot - if they are funny enough. Richard Curtis often goes back over a script he's written and looks for the funniest scene and then just extends it. A great example of this is the press junket in Notting Hill. It doesn't advance the plot in any way shape or form but that sequence is one of the funniest in the movie. But a cautionary word too. This has to be used sparingly. By and large you absolutely have to keep the story moving forward. You can't string a bunch of funny scenes together that don't do this, and then defend them because they are funny. One or two maybe, but probably no more than that. And it can happen that you have a scene that you love, think is really funny, but doesn't help the story at that juncture. You've got two choices then. Cut it - or cheat a bit and find a way to make it integral and work for the film and story as a whole.

But one final comment. Try not to take the so-called rules too seriously. For example comedy does tend to be more dialogue heavy and that can work. Sometimes things work and no one knows why. And vice versa. Two great examples in a couple of the biggest films in the last year or so. The Hangover has no central character. Up is a film about an old guy with a house with loads of balloons, talking dogs, a kid and oh yeah, the first ten minutes are really sad. Can you imagine trying to pitch those to a studio?

In conclusion, I once heard Gary Lineker talking about the difference between strikers and midfielders. A midfielder can be brought into a club, plays okay, a few nice touches here, and couple of good passes there, etc, and the fans will think he's alright and give him a chance. But with a striker, even if his all round performance is good and better than the midfielder, he will be judged purely on his goal tally. I think so to with drama and comedy. A drama can have nice moments. It can do a bit of everything, make you laugh, cry, whatever. And like I said above, some people will like it and find it interesting, and others won't. Comedy will be judged and defined but how many people you make laugh and how often. How many comedic goals do you score? It's probably the hardest thing to do. Both on the football pitch and in a script. It's tough and it's risky. But very often, with high risk comes high reward.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

LSF 3: Editing and the Script

Not long before the festival I was speaking to last years Ustinov winner, Clare Tonkin, who works for an Australian broadcaster. She mentioned how access to the production side of things, especially being able to observe the editing suite, was a real insight that she could learn from and bring back to her own writing. So this session, given by Eddie Hamilton and Chris Jones, was an absolute must for me. And I think from an educational point of view, it was the one I got the most out of.

I know lots of writers, a few directors, and a fair few producers. But no editors. And Eddie was clearly a very smart and enthusiastic one. He began by talking about how he broke into the industry. He made student films but got turned down for three film schools. He ended up doing a job he hated and decided he had to give it up and really go for what he loved doing. And he discovered at a young age, messing around with videos etc, that the combination of the technology, the storytelling, and being able to spend hours working at it on your own, meant he really fell in love with editing film. So he got a job as a runner in Soho, asked the editors hundreds of questions, and taught himself to use Avid etc.

Eddie had read Chris's filmmaking book, discovered via his website that he was making a film, and asked whether they were looking for an editor. He lacked experience but had a great attitude and enthusiasm, and it was ultimately this that got him the job. After that he hustled for work, met Matthew Vaughan, which led to work on Mean Machines, Kick Ass and now the latest X-Men movie. Eddie admitted to working on films that haven't always been great (see Swept Away) but nevertheless was always able to learn something from the experience. And if you do good work, stay professional, and don't fall out with anyone, you can get recommendations and a leg up for the next job. And basically that is how the industry works.

Eddie has read tons of scripts. If it's for a job, and he knows the director well, he might read it quite early in the process. But he'll also read scripts from friends etc and approaches screenplays differently to writers or even directors. The first questions are who is the target audience? Who will pay money to see this? Because at the end of the day it's a business. And if you make films that no one wants to see and lose money, it's going to be harder to get the next project off the ground. Eddie trusts his instincts when it comes to script, how it's working, and how developed a project is. And you ask questions like how dense is it? How sharp is the dialogue? Is it clear who the main character is? And these are the same questions writers, readers and script editors should be asking.

But film is created in three stages - written, shot and edited. It's three steps where the film is re-invented and made. However one common question is why does a finished film often look so different from the finished script? And Eddie's answer was quite revealing. By the time the film reaches the edit suite, the script no longer matters in a way. Because all you've got to work with is what's been shot. And if for some reason things went differently on the shoot than expected (and that can be anything from the weather forcing an interior shoot rather than an exterior one, or an actor having a bad day, or co-stars lacking chemistry,) that's still all you've got to work with. What may have been on the page is gone. So you have to try and craft the best film possible from the material.

It's not the technology available that matters. For Eddie, all that matters is story and character. When he's looking at the material that's all he's thinking about. And if for example something hasn't quite worked in the shoot, an actor didn't deliver or whatever, then you may have to find a way to minimise the focus on that character. It can happen that whole characters get cut out of the finished movie. Sometimes a relationship isn't there in the material. Can you help this in the edit? If the answer is no, you may have to re-shoot scenes or shoot additional material.

By the same token, it's only fair to say that good actors and good performances sometimes means dialogue gets cut. For example working with Toni Collette, she's such a good actress, and there's so much going on with her, that she can convey something in one line instead of the half a dozen that were in the script. But writers shouldn't necessarily feel bad about that. The dialogue sometimes has to be written out like that for the reader, and then ultimately the actor, to understand the intention. But if this intention can then be conveyed in less dialogue, so much the better. (I would add a caveat to that, as a script reader, that writers shouldn't fall back on this as an excuse for writing reams and reams of long winded dialogue. It should still be as sharp as you can possibly make it. But just be aware that good actors can bring something extra to the table.)

Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, Eddie repeated what Tim Bevan said, that producers will often greenlight a movie too early because they need the production fee to survive. And I'll repeat what I said then. That I believe this is the single biggest reason movies fail in this country. I have no idea what, but we must do something to try and change this.

Eddie sees his job as holding the hand of the audience from the very first shot. What is the tone, character and story? Tone is so important because audiences want to know very quickly what story they are settling in to watch. How can I best elicit the emotional responses you want from the audience by choosing what shot you want and how you cut them together. (Music is also really important in this respect.) This also felt similar to what Bevan had said and keeping the audience and what you want them to feel at the forefront of your thinking is a lesson many writers still need to learn. And a lot of films don't work because the tone is not right or unclear.

There are many tales of films being completely re-conceived in the edit - most famously Annie Hall. But if the writer, director and editor are working well and functioning as a team, all anyone wants is to make the right choices to make the film as good as possible.

A couple of final comments from Chris to close. In the creative process everybody filters through their own life experience. When you ask for opinions some might say no way would anyone say or do that, whereas others will say that's exactly what I'd say or I know someone who has done that. I think writers have to trust their own voice and be true to their vision, as long as it's not at the expense of narrative logic and plausibility.

By the same token, when thinking visually, it's important to remember that human beings are meaning making machines. And when we see something on screen we can make it mean a huge amount in a second. But it's really hard to do that in a script. Because all you have available to do that are words. It's not exactly new but I don't think I've heard a better description of film as a visual medium than this. That is what, ultimately, it is all about. And it's the writers who are best at using their words, as economically as possible, to create the visual images in the director's mind, so that they find their way into the shoot, that means that when the material reaches the edit suite, what you want to achieve is still there.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

BAFTA Screenwriters' Series

This dropped into my inbox yesterday - and the fantastic lineup certainly looks worth checking out.

We asked six of the film industry’s leading screenwriters with credits including Atonement, The Devil wears Prada, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Reader to give their opinion on the craft, the films they have written and their career so far.

The result is a series of exclusive videos, clips and profiles providing a fascinating insight into the discipline and culture of screenwriting. We are really pleased with the series and have been getting great feedback.

Hope you get a chance to take a look and that you find the series insightful!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

LSF 2: 50 Ways Into The Industry

The title of this session was a bit of a misnomer. Because although the panel gamely came up without 35 ideas on index cards, the session became more of a general discussion and we only actually went through a few of them. That didn't make it any less interesting though.

It began with the panel introducing themselves and talking a bit about how they broke into the industry, although it soon became clear that there is never usually one big break. More likely there are a couple of breaks at different stages, and that staying in the industry once you have got in is as much of a challenge, which is something I think resonates with a lot of people.

Moderator and Writer-Director Jonathan Newman took quite a common route. He made short films. Less common though is the fact that he has now turned not one, but two, into feature films soon to be released.

Consultant and talent scout Shirani Le Mercier took a different route, but one more common to those working in development or on the production side of things. She sent CVs, lots of CVs. About 150 she reckons to be anything, assistant, tea maker, whatever. And funnily enough she got 3 job offers - after 5 months of rejections. But once in she worked her way up from there, doing much the same thing to get to the jobs and positions she wanted to be in.

Back to the writing side of things and Stuart Hazeldine made shorts, wrote a spec (kind of like Die Hard on the London Underground,) worked as an extra and hustled as much as he could. And the hustling never stops. Even once you're in. Because it's like you're starting from scratch each time. (I think the entire panel concurred on this.) Even if you are at the top of your game, like Aaron Sorkin for example, he's still got to chase the next great project and battle it out with, I don't know, Steve Zaillian lets say. They don't rest of their laurels because people rarely come to you. They or their agents are busy hustling.

Screenwriter Marc Pye wrote and wrote and wrote. Whatever he wanted to. Short stories, TV specs, novels, features, shorts. And then guess what - he hustled. He barraged (politely, that's important,) a script editor on a soap until he eventually got a shot. And then he did the same thing to try and get on The Bill, pitching idea after idea, getting rejection and rejection, until he finally got a break. He stressed the importance of building up a body of work. You've got to have more than one script because you need to be able to answer the inevitable question - what else you got?

Also on the panel was Paul Trijbits. He spoke more about what screenwriters should be doing rather than his own career (but did mention how being invited to run the Film Council's Premier Fund was a fantastic opportunity and experience.) There was a bit of a debate about what the emphasis of the screenwriter should be. Most of the panel had talked about the importance of networking but Paul disagreed slightly. He affirmed that at the end of the day a good script (and to be fair it probably has to be better than just good) is your best tool. Networking, hustling, etc, shouldn't be at the expense of sitting at your computer and writing scripts. That was what producers and agents are for. But I think by and large at the end everyone had agreed. That for writers the priority has to be the writing. But in a working day you can spare an hour to make phone calls, send emails, etc. For my money I think there has to be some networking and contact making. Otherwise you can be the most prolific writer on the planet. It won't make a difference if you don't know anyone to send them too.

And when you do meet people it's important to have a good logline ready. A broad idea of what the film is about and the tone. You need to be able to distill it like this because if you can't no one else will be able to. Shirani suggested a good pitch contains genre, target audience and a 'this meets this' to put them in the right frame of mind. The consensus was that this could be quite dangerous though. You tend to get people just crossing the two most fashionable films of the moment but there is usually a uniqueness to them that you can't and probably don't want to mimic. My own opinion is that describing your project to be in the vain of something else is normally okay. It's a very economical way of getting the feel of your project over to someone. But use it with caution.

A couple of other points worth mentioning. It's so important not to send stuff out in haste. We've all done it. We make a new contact, we've got a script, and we just want to get it to them. But if it's not ready, they will notice. And you only get one shot. Jonathan told the story of how one of the Farrelly brothers (Peter I think) saw his short, called him up and was interested in turning it into a feature. Jonathan flew to LA and was sent in to pitch with Fox and Dreamworks. But in truth he had no idea at that stage how to turn it into a feature. They had no story. And the opportunity was lost. It was a chance with two massive studios that never came again (at least with that project.)

By the same token don't submit something and say in the covering letter that so and so thinks it's really good. Because it begs the obvious question - if this person or company like it so much, why didn't they pick it up?

As the session came to a close there was a bit of last 10 minute scramble to talk about some of the ways in the panel had come up with. These included soap Shadow Schemes (don't be precious about this. Even with Marc's soap track record nothing is guaranteed,) internships at a production company, working as a PA (this might be better for someone interested in producing or development, rather than writing,) and Stuart Hazeldine's idea of writing a spec sequel to an existing movie.

I have to be honest I'd heard people say this before, but never actually met anyone who had done it. Stuart wrote a sequel to Blade Runner, and wasn't worried about being sued - because he had no money anyway! It got him a lot of meetings and people still ask him whatever happened to it today. Even more significantly, having demonstrated he could write in that universe, he got a job adapting another Philip K Dick short story. (I notice on Stuart's wikipedia page that he wrote a sequel to Aliens 3 too - so it's obviously a tactic that appeals and works.)

I would say to also use this one with caution. It can be cool but it's limiting. This can be your passion project, or your comfort project. A bit of go to writing when you're burned out and can't write anything else. But it shouldn't take the place of coming up with your own, original scripts.

So for writers 50 Ways in at the end of the day boiled down to about two. Write the best screenplays you can - and then find the right people to get them too.

Good luck!

Monday, 8 November 2010

LSF 1: In Conversation with Tim Bevan and Michael Gubbins

The London Screenwriters' Festival opened, appropriately, with Tim Bevan, the head of the most successful production company in the country.

The conversation took the form of a history of Working Title Films, which was very interesting, particularly for those looking to establish their own company in the industry in this country. But for the purposes of this blog entry, I've picked out the bits most relevant to screenwriting.

Bevan admitted that in the beginning, script development was quite incidental. They just had to get the next film made and were never allowing the development process to take as long as it needs to. An Indie is in the terrible position of having all their money in development, but your income is dependent on getting a film made, because that is where you get your fees from. And because getting the thing on becomes the be all and end all, you forget a little bit about the quality of the thing. (I actually believe this is the single biggest reason why movies in this country fail - which I think I got from Phil Parker, but can't recall for sure.)

Bevan came to the conclusion that you need capital. Because you have to spend money on developing a script and at the end of that process, be able to take a long hard look at it, and if it's not good enough, to chuck it in the bin. And an Indie doesn't have the luxury (and my guess is that 98% of the producers and companies in this country don't either.)

Bevan felt that there was a lack of ambition in British movies - partly because of money - but he realised that audiences wanted to be entertained. At Working Title they think about the audience from Day One. What's the genre? They made mistakes early on with films that fell in between. Now a marketing person sits in on development meetings. Ultimately they have to sell this. It shouldn't be based purely on that. Bevan doesn't believe that a marketing person should run a studio, but they should be in the room.

But the question in the first development meeting isn't a sales or commercial one, it's is there a good story here? The only thing Bevan expects to see in the first draft is - is there a decent story in here? What you want to see is a narrative running all the way through the script. And in the first draft the narrative is normally very up front. Script development is about getting the characters to carry that narrative. And so throughout the process the characters evolve and become more and more important.

Notting Hill is set up as an overtly commercial movie - but Billy Elliot isn't. But there is something in the middle of that movie about aspiration and emotion, and father and son relationship, that affects people all around the world. And Bevan believes this is the key. That what one is looking for is the emotional core, whatever the movie is; funny, serious, a Richard Curtis movie or United 93. It's the emotional core that appeals to audiences.

So the three questions Working Title asks is; are there characters, is there a story, is there emotion?

Bevan stated that he didn't think people went to the cinema to have their own lives reflected back at them. They go because they want to escape for a couple of hours. Maybe it's a serious movie. But all great cinema is slightly heightened. So if Notting Hill is two feet off the ground, most films are at least two or three inches off the ground.

When you go to the movies you either want to laugh or cry, be frightened or spectacularly wowed - and these are all emotional responses. (Which interestingly, also, in a loose way, correspond to comedy, drama, horror and thriller.) And if you don't get that emotional response it's a disappointment. If you don't have an emotional connection with something it seems to be a little bit pointless.

I've never understood the criticism Working Title gets. There was some talk about the Working Title 'formula' (which Bevan said if that means making 200 million dollars on a movie then it was a formula he was all for.) But there is a tendency to associate the company purely with sugary rom coms. It's true they had a run of films like Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually, About a Boy and Bridget Jones - all very successful movies that I can watch over and over again, especially when I feel unwell or it's bloody freezing out. What's wrong with that? But the company also provides a home for the eclectic cinema of the Coen brothers, as well as movies like Elizabeth, Frost/Nixon, The Interpreter and Atonement.

Of course not everything they make is great. But that's not what this is about. The sniping about a perceived philosophy of filmmaking I think comes more from a place of jealousy. But not listening to one of the most successful producers of all time surely comes from a place of stupidity.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Free Networking The 21st Century Screenplay: An Evening with Linda Aronson An Evening with Linda Aronson

If you weren't able to make it to the London Screenwriters' Festival, or did but are having withdrawal symptoms, you might wanna check this out.

Thursday 11 November 2010
- 7.00 for 7.30pm

If you want to read about the things the other screenwriting books don't tell you, you couldn't do better than Linda Aronson, award-winning screenwriter, novelist and story editor, whose book
Screenwriting Updated stormed into the best film schools and universities around the world.

Her latest book The 21st Century Screenplay brings even more insights.

Linda was one of the stars of last weeks London Screenwriting Festival so we're delighted that we've been able to get her for a very special Euroscript networking evening while she's on one of her rare visits to this country.

Linda Aronson is expert in the fundamentals and also highly advanced techniques, from the basic story sentence and character development to how to handle flashbacks and non-linear storytelling.

Her session at the LSF was one of the most popular and she teaches regularly around the world at top schools such as NYU and Berkeley.

If you didn't see her at the festival, now is your chance, and if you did, then now is your chance to hear even more.

She has also promised to have copies of her brand new book The 21st Century Screenplay which updates Screenwriting Updated and adds a great deal more.

Linda will be in conversation with award-winning writer-director Charles Harris.

Come and learn, and ask questions, drink, chat and mingle.

Booking essential. Our events are often highly popular - please arrive in good time to ensure you get in.

To book your free place click here now - you will need to give separate email addresses for any friends you'd like to bring along.

The Green Man
383 Euston Road
London NW1 3AU

Opposite Great Portland Street Station

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Channel 4 Screenwriting Course 2011

Still recovering from the London Screenwriters' Festival and chasing my tale a bit with following up on things from that and other commitments too. I write too slowly so I'm rubbish at taking notes (I was one of those kids who got extra time in exams - suckers) so I recorded all the sessions I went to instead on my handy little mp3 player. As I listen to them again over the coming days, on the train, bus, car, whatever, I'll jot down the juicy bits and report back.

In the meantime, in case you've not heard about this already, check out what looks like a really cool competition from Channel 4.

All the details can be found here.

Deadline is Friday week, the 12th, so don't hang about!