Monday, 26 December 2011

LSF 5: In Conversation with Ashley Pharoah

The penultimate session I attended at LSWF was an in depth conversation with Ashley Pharoah, one of the most experienced writers working in British television today. (As ever these are my paraphrased notes.)

How did you get started?

Ashley always wanted to be a writer. He knew nothing about scriptwriting. He listened to Radio 4 plays and wrote a 30 minute play, sent it off to BBC and about 6 months later they got in touch and said they’d like it. He got paid £300 and that changed his life. This was something he enjoyed doing so much and you could get paid to do it. Ashley went to the NFTS, didn’t eat for about 5 years, and then properly started on Eastenders.

How did you get on Eastenders?

A director he was at NFTS was working on the show and said the scripts were awful. But the weird thing was whilst at college the thought of writing for TV, an even more so a soap, was appalling to Ashley. So even though he was on the dole and completely skint, a part of him still thought was it worth the shame? (which he blushes about now.) But he sent in a spec film script which was a good writing sample, and it was good enough to get him an episode, and he ended up being there for 3 years. Film school turned out to be the theory, whereas working on Eastenders was the practical. Hearing actors say your lines – and psychologically, seeing your name on telly, he felt like a real writer.

When you’re creating characters and series bibles etc, what sort of things do you think about?

Ashley doesn’t really do series bibles. They are really hard to write and really hard to read. He’d much rather write – and read for that matter – a script. All the bibles he’s been involved with have been retrospective ones put together by script editors for the purposes of series continuity. He might have done more work on characters etc when starting out, but nowadays he’s likes to discover the characters when writing the screenplay. Does it matter where they went to school or what they had for breakfast? What matters is action. Character is action.

Can you talk us through how the commissioning process might go?

Different ways. You've got to get that first meeting with a commissioner. Ashley met so many people on Eastenders like other writers, producers, script editors, that went onto work on other shows. John Yorke was his junior script editor on Eastenders. Often young writers will show Ashley ideas for a series and it’s not really. It might make a good movie, or three parter, or serial, but it’s not a series. There has to be something in the kernel of the idea that will generate conflict for a long time, so if a commissioner turns round and says okay what might happen in series 7 episode 3, you have some idea of where you can take the series. Something in the one page pitch that tells you there is potential for endless conflict. For example Wild At Heart. A show about an English family in Africa. Company Pictures asked him to come up with a Sunday 8pm ITV show. And he’d done so many he said no. But this was going to be set in Africa. So it was a traditional dysfunctional family, but the environment was new and could exert so much pressure on the characters. And if the original family left, you could bring in a new family into that environment. And they’re just doing series 7 now.

What can writers do to improve their chances of getting a series green lit?

It’s complicated and the worst thing you can do is to try and double guess what they want – which we’ve all done. You obviously need to get your script in front of someone who can green light a series. Ashley's in the fortunate position now of getting those meetings – although even then it doesn’t mean getting the series. With his new show, Eternal Law, about angels being lawyers on earth and learning about humanity etc, it was a bit high concept and he didn’t want to give people the chance to turn it down just from the pitch. So he wrote the pilot on spec and took that to ITV because he wanted to retain control of the content. That’s what got him the meeting and although the pilot script changed a bit, the kernel of the idea was in place.

How specific should you be about talking about things like channels and time slots?

If it’s your own stuff, probably not as much, but certainly have an awareness of the different styles of broadcasters and, really crucially, the difference between 8pm and 9pm slots.

You've done quite a lot of supernatural and high concept stuff, when are we going to see a return to more naturalistic stuff like Our Friends in the North?

Ashley's actually done a fair bit of both. Ever since Cathy Come Home people think television is about social message and political change. And of course it can be. But it's always bothered him that television is seen as social realist and cinema more poetic. It began to change with Dennis Potter. With Life on Mars they tried to have a high concept show that had emotional truth, and hopefully said something, even ironically, about the political situation. Things like Our Friends in the North dominated for around 50 years. So a few high concept shows doesn't hurt.

How does the collaboration with Matthew work?

They're very different people and very different writers. When they were in America pitching to people, Matthew described them that if they were doing an episode of ER, Matthew would do the helicopter crashing on the roof and Ashley would do the old man dying. Matthew is more of a movie writer in that sense and Ashley is more interested in the emotional core. In series television it works really well to bring different strengths to a project. Ashley doesn't think, coming from the more socialist realist background, that he could have done shows like Mars and Ashes without Matthew. But he likes to think they would have been weaker shows without him trying to keep them real in terms of emotional truth. Ashley and Matthew write episodes separately, and they are not joined at the hip. They did try to co-write in the same room once on a project for Aardman but it was a disaster because they are such different writers they kept just trying to rewrite each other. But what it means is that they can go off and do their own thing.

Why do you write on series TV as opposed to feature films?

Because he has a mortgage. Like he said at film school he never would've dreamed of working in TV. But attitudes have changed and a lot of the snobbery has gone, mainly because of US shows. And in any given week 90% of the best writing on screen is on TV. Going to the cinema now, unless you've got your kids with you and you have to put those glasses on, there's nothing to watch. It's become a theme park. You strap yourself in and have an amazing special effects ride, which is okay. But we don't see our life on there. Compare that to going to the movies a lot in his twenties, and something like Chinatown, which was a mainstream Hollywood movie, would that happen now? Having said all that, Ashley does write movies but they never get made. Whereas his TV stuff does and he gets paid and you have a lot more influence, from casting, seeing the edit, the rushes, the music, etc. When working in that environment Ashley sees himself as a writer that's a filmmaker. But in the movie world, he feels like a cleaner again. He's sat in meetings with a production company, the director and him, and the conversation has been about what's going to happen in the next draft, and no one actually looked at him. It baffles him that they are not interested in using his knowledge and experience, and it's his script. And it baffles them that he would want to be involved in the stuff he's involved with in TV, like the edit, casting, rushes etc. In film writers just deliver the script – and maybe they'll get fired and another writer will do the next one. And so on.

How much do the actors contribute to creating the characters?

Obviously they do contribute. And if you're very lucky something magical happens between them getting the script and what they do on screen. When it works well it's really exciting and dynamic. But when it doesn't, it can be quite painful to be a screenwriter.

For long running series is there room for others thing apart from crime, life and death, family, etc?

Well that's not a bad start. The soaps do cover that and the obvious reason is that it gives you natural intensity and conflict. Of course there is room for other areas of story telling. But funnily enough when really powerful writers reach the stage where they can write anything they want, and stray away from genre, it can often not work. Because no one is editing and reigning that in. When Ashley's stepped out of genre in his career he's come a cropper a couple of times. He thinks genre is a help. The example he gives is the sonnet, one of the most rigid forms of writing – but it's produced some of the greatest ever. He likes being told this show is going to be on ITV, 8pm, you've got 44 mins, 3 act breaks. It's a challenge.

But series television is a really hard place to be learning on the job and Ashely has seen writers come unstuck. For example the first series of Life On Mars had gone out and Kudos knew of a playwright they really rated. This writer had never written a TV episode of anything and they wanted them to do one in the second series. Ashley and Matthew hope they are generous people, but realised what massive pressure this person was now under. If someone said to Ashley can you write a play by next month he'd say no, he's never done it, he would need to learn the craft. And it chewed this poor person up and it was unfair.

But on series TV writers are really well paid. Ashley now exec produces most of his shows and sees the budgets, so knows he sees what directors, producers and DP's get and it's not as much as writers. It's really annoying when writers on series television do sloppy work and at some stage you do see it. And he just thinks you lazy bugger. Because it's not just about talent. And the danger is falling into a comfort zone where you make a good living and as long as you don't stick your head above the parapet you're okay. And the other thing is that the quality of directors coming into the TV industry is getting worse. When Ashley started out the director was the most important person but it was generally a good democratic thing. Now writers are the most powerful. They get shows greenlit, actors do to, but directors don't. So the talented ones go and work in movies where they get the reverse of what Ashley gets in that environment. A few years ago the Directors Guild tried to get more power in TV and Ashley could understand why. But in cinema they insisted on retaining the horrible 'A Film By' credit, which is the most disrespectful credit in the history of cinema. And until they say they don't want to do that, why should they have a piece of the TV cake?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

LSF 4: Hollywood Pitching

Festival Sunday. I was tired. Already. Even with not being there on the Saturday and with getting an extra hour in bed because of the clocks moving. So I missed the first session of the day. It was a shame, but I actually felt the physical benefits as the day wore on compared to last year. So the first session I attended, and wasn't going to miss, was this one. Moderated by Jonathan Newman and attended by David Reynolds and Stuart Hazeldine, it was a great session and insight into the life of a jobbing writer who has to pitch a lot, especially relevant to working in LA, but still applicable here too. (As ever, these are my paraphrased notes and apologies to those involved if there are any mistakes.)

How did you first get into the industry?

DR – Got a staff job on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Wrote some sketches and got hired. Went back to LA, tried to get on a sitcom, and his agent said do you wanna go over to Disney for a couple of weeks and do some punching up on scripts. And he fell into a career and six years and fifteen movies later with Disney and Pixar, here he is.

SH – Sold his first spec script, basically Die Hard on the London Underground, around the mid nineties. Got an agent, did some BBC work but realised he’d always be writing TV if he didn’t get a Hollywood agent and that’s not what he wanted to do. So went over there and got an agent in late nineties and has been pitching and doing assignment jobs since.

What makes a good pitch?

DR – Have a good idea. These days the pitch is 20 mins or less. And people will leave the room or pick up the phone after 20 mins. You need enthusiasm, get your point across. A lot of execs want to know the end first. They'll say just tell me how it ends. It’s counter intuitive to writers because we like to tell stories, and build up to the end which will hopefully be surprising and satisfying etc – and they just want to cut to it. It’s then hard to do an enthusiastic pitch to go back to the beginning of the story and pitch it knowing they know the end. But be flexible.

SH – Try to hold as much back though as you can. So maybe don’t say the guy dies, just say it’s a tragedy, or it ends badly, something a bit more vague. And just to show you nobody knows anything the pitches he’s sold have all run longer than 20 mins and he tends to pitch in more detail than most. Stores up a lot of energy and gives it his all so he’s exhausted by the end of it. And it works for him. If that’s your personality then go with it. But still have a strong antennae for when their attention is waning. Be prepared for anything and any level of rudeness. The exec might leave and you’re just left pitching to their assistant.

What should and shouldn’t be included in the pitch?

DR – A lot of the time they know what you’re going to come in and pitch because it’s an assignment or you know they are looking for something specific. Sense the pitch moment to moment to get a feel for how they are responding. But pace it out. Don’t be 20 mins in and you’re still on Act One. Practice it. With friends etc. Good tip, if you’re doing action, set up one sequence in some detail, and then when you get to the next key one just say it will be like that but better and bigger! You don’t have to get it all out there.

JN – Rehearsing the pitch is brilliant and crucial. Went to LA with a project he’s working on with a producer and beforehand they were in London and the producer said okay pitch it to me. And they did this like ten times. So all the mistakes were made in a little café in London and not in the room in LA.

SH – Don’t mention the location of the script unless it’s vital to the story. And don’t pitch with dialogue, unless it’s something like ‘I see dead people.’ Make sure whatever you’re pitching is really germane to the understanding of the story. He always practices, writing it out, then doing it without having that in front of him, and so on. You go in, have a few moments of pleasantries, and then you’re off. Need to frame it in some way, be it with genre or hook them in with something, be it an intriguing character or action set piece, whatever. Try to pace it out around 5 mins for each act. And state it “and then in Act Two…” and, “and then around the middle” so they know where you are in the movie. At the end they’ll have questions – and of course answer every single one no matter how long it takes. Then frame things at the end more directed towards marketing. Now they know what the story is you can say this is why the movie should be made now and there’s a really strong audience for this, etc. You’re telling them how to sell it to their boss.

How do you know if the person in the room doesn’t like your pitch and what do you do if that’s the case?

DR – Sunglasses on, taking calls, scrolling a blackberry. You know if they’re not into this. It’s like trying to pick up someone in a bar and you know if they are into it or not. If it’s going badly you start to bail. You don’t go just forget it and walk out. Finish it, but get it done as quickly as possible. Wrap it up.

SH – Just to play devil’s advocate, sometimes the guy who seems the most bored ends up buying it. Conversely sometimes the guy who seems the most enthusiastic is just going through the motions. So read the signs but don’t be too effected by it. And when they buy something don’t delude yourself that you know what they are buying. You pitched it so you assume they are buying what they heard and they love what you love about the story, and it might not be true. When they offer to buy something call them up again and ask what they like about the story. Not to be combative. But let’s say you were pitching a whole story because of one character and they buy it and you get to the 2nd draft and they say we like it but do we need this character. And you think if they take that character out you won’t be able to continue writing it. That character was the main thing that interested you but they see it as superfluous. So try and establish that early rather than going through 12-24 months of hell.

Speed/elevator pitching – have you done it, what do you do?

DR – It’s tricky because every now and then you’re be working on a spec, let’s say with Will Ferrell in mind, and you might meet him and he’s like hey what’s going on and you’re like working on a story, you know, about a guy and you’re resisting the temptation to say you, you, you. It’s really tough. Some people can do it and say I’m working on this thing right in your ballpark and we should get together some time to talk about it. Or you do it like this. I’m working on something and it would be great for Steve Carell, and all of sudden Ferrell will be like, really, what it is, send it up this way. You have to know who you are talking to but you can do it. But you’ve got to be careful.

Who are you most likely to be pitching to?

DR – It’s case by case. If you are pitching to a studio and you are new, you’re going to be pitching to the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. Who’s usually 12. And that’s just the way it is. And hopefully when you get more successful you’ll move up the ranks. If you’re pitching to a producer, you might pitch to his number one guy. And you’ve got to sell it to him. And these people will sit in the room and just write. You might only see the top of their heads. Because what they have to do is go back to their boss and tell them the pitch. It’s really unnerving and tough.

What do you think about using other material alongside the pitch, like visual aids?

DR – Has been on pitches that have visual aids. If you’re pitching a specific location you can have pictures, especially on ipads or whatever. Or maybe some small story board type things. But be sensible with it of course. Leave the easel and fog machines at home. If you can have something you can readily unfold and bring out of a briefcase it might help. If it’s something that helps sell the story it can be very strong.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Creative England launches new fund for regional filmmaking talent

Creative England opened for business on 1 October 2011, with the core purpose of supporting the sustainable growth of independent creative businesses, and the talent that feeds them, in every part of England outside London.

This new organisation builds on the work of the Regional Screen Agencies that, for the past ten years, have assisted the development of the film, TV, interactive, games and digital media industries, and the growth of film culture in England.

The Development Fund is open to individual writers, writer/directors and/or producers based in the English regions for the development of all types of feature films, including animation and documentary. Applications are also invited from writer/director/producer teams. Funding is available for the costs of developing a screenplay (or the equivalent for documentaries) such as research costs, writer’s fees, script editor/developer support and script readings.

Funding is also available for screenplays that are ready to be presented to potential financiers, to help with budgeting, scheduling, casting, producing teaser trailers/pilots, and other expenses associated with raising finance and generating sales and distribution interest.

The Development Fund totals £250,000 in its current round and applications are welcomed on a rolling basis. Awards will range from £2,500 to £25,000.

Click here to download guidelines and application form.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

LSF 3: In Conversation with Joe Cornish

After the Edgar Wright session there was a half hour break until the next one - In Conversation with Joe Cornish. So I'm hanging out with the very lively Adele Kirby who has been given permission by the festival organisers to get some short podcast interviews from speakers for use on another website. Cool.

Adele wasn't at the festival last year but I was. And more importantly, I knew where the Green Room was - the room the speakers get to hang out in for a bit of peace and quiet. So being the helpful fellow that I am, (and sniffing out a chance to get backstage passes) we trotted off to see who we could find to talk to. And we enter the building the Green Room is in, and who is sitting in a little Starbucks, all on their own, but Chris Jones, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.

I'm not a shy person. Especially when I'm in this sort of environment. So we went straight in there, told Chris who Adele was, and was ready for a private chat with Edgar and Joe. Nor, it should be said, do I get particularly tongue tied when networking. However I wasn't expecting Adele to get her recording device out, wave it in front of Edgar, and go "so Jez, what questions do you have for Edgar Wright."

Cue gormless stare and birds tweeting. I really don't remember what I said. Some stupid babble about admiring his work, how old he was when he broke into the industry, how old he was now and what he has already achieved. Honestly it was awful. It was particularly ironic considering Edgar had spoken in his session about what it was like meeting and working with Spielberg - and how he didn't just blab about how much he loved Raiders but tried to connect with him on a shared love of film, David Lean movies, etc. And no disrespect to Edgar - but he's not Steven Spielberg. I mean I loved Shaun of the Dead, and liked Hot Fuzz. But I mean honestly, I just stood there like an idiot.

So here's a tip from me. You know you're going to the festival. You know by and large who is going to be there. If you have trouble sleeping like I do, spend some time lying in bed at night in the few days before the festival thinking about what insightful cool stuff you would said if you happen to bump into, see, stand next to in the toilet (use with caution that one) Speaker X, so you don't end up looking like a moron.

However I did get to apologise in advance to Joe Cornish, that if he saw me leave half way through his upcoming session, it wasn't because he'd bored me into an early exit, it was because it was Friday afternoon and I had to get home in time for the Sabbath. He was very magnanimous about it.

So hear are my notes from half of being In Conversation with Joe Cornish:

Joe was mugged in 2001 and had the idea for Attack the Block in his head for about 4 or 5 years. He got money from the Film Council and Film4 to develop what at that stage was just a 5 page outline and a 'mood book.' Joe loves to sketch and grew up in the eighties surrounded by that style of marketing. He'd created a book that tried to capture the feel and look of the movie and pitched with that alongside the outline. When we go to the movies sometimes all we see is the movie poster, the tagline and the premise. Joe began from there and fleshed it out from that starting point.

Attack the Block is a pretty straight forward chase movie so once he had figured out the inciting incident, why the aliens were chasing the kids, how to trap them in the block, and how to get the trajectory of going upwards, the rest was filling in the detail that was greatly informed by research.

Joe knew he had to go out and research that world. He grew up around those areas but would be lying if he said he came from there. He went to loads of youth clubs and sat down with a group of young people, switched on his tape recorder and talked them through the story. "You're coming home from football practice and you see this..." and Joe had visuals of the aliens sketched out by a friend of his in urban environments. And the kids just responded. Joe let them talk it out and asked questions; what would you do, where would you go, how would you defend yourselves, who would you want to defend, who would you be less interested in defending, if you went home to get something to defend yourself what would it be, who would be at home at that time of day, etc.

And once he'd done that they identified the pairs of friends who were sparking off each other in those larger groups and went back to talk to them again in smaller groups, often just asking about their lives, their interests, what was in their pockets, what they like on TV.

Because in part, Joe was terrified of actually sitting down and writing the damn thing. But also because Graham Linehan had once told him not to worry about not writing and to wait until your brain bucket is so full of stuff that you can't not write. And you never know what might be relevant to the story when you start working your way through it.

He filled up two A4 files of verbatim transcripts of what those young people had said to him and he typed it up himself, as if learning a foreign language, to get the slang and the rhythm right. He talked to people who had been mugged, talked to residents in the tower blocks. So when he was writing, if he got stuck he could pull something out of reality to help him out, and not have to make it up. But it was when they cast they were also testing the dialogue as the real acid test.

Obviously the movie is heightened reality and slightly simplified so it travelled abroad. Joe was aware that fantastic movies like Trainspotting and stuff from Shane Meadows has struggled in this respect (often using subtitles even in the US!)

There are two types of alien movies - there's withhold the monster type, which Joe loved in the eighties but there was a point in the late eighties where it started to get stupid because the creature was built up so much when it was finally revealed, it couldn't possibly live up to expectations. So the other sort is to reveal the monster early but play on the multitude. Similar to Gremlins, and perhaps the difference between Alien and Aliens. Joe wanted to start with a withhold the monster type thing, but show enough - and then play on the multitude later on. And that's kind of how Zombie movies work too. So they had to come up with something they could show, but not too much, and that's where the shadowy type thing came in. Joe knew they couldn't afford CGI creatures so in part it was a budget thing, but also as a film goer he was bored of movie aliens. He likes the real stuff, like Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, or in Gremlins. And as a kid it wasn't like he didn't believe in those things. In fact maybe even more so because they were actual physical things that were there. So in Attack the Block they had a guy in a suit, and then used low fi CGI to actually remove detail, rather than add it. But it was a big sticking point in development. People often asked how are you going to do this and all these creatures. So they had to kind of prove it could be done.

There were still things they couldn't afford to do. There was a sequence of them fighting the aliens up the side of the block in a kind of Errol Flynn balcony type thing and they had scouted locations and story boarded it and about a month before the shoot realised they couldn't afford it. And it was tough then for Joe to maintain the momentum and geography of the story. But he was reading a book at the time about the making of Star Wars and an anecdote that George Lucas wanted a planet for Darth Vader and a separate spaceship - but they couldn't afford both. So he combined the two. And Joe reckoned okay, if the Death Star can come out of a budgetary restraint, then he could figure out his thing. But it was really like a maths problem and he hates maths. Was always better at creative writing.

Joe took a Robert McKee course when he was 24 and read all those books - but they actually gave him writers block because it made him feel like everything he wrote was wrong somehow. And every time he wrote something he would compare it to some sophisticated template and it wouldn't fit - and that actually held him back for years and years. He felt somehow he wasn't good enough etc. But working with Edgar on Ad Man really taught him to forget all that. He reiterated Edgar's advice - don't let it be a chore. If it becomes a chore then you are doing something wrong. Why not enjoy it? Or, maybe a better question, why are you not enjoying it?

And unfortunately, that's round about where I had to leave.

I was back at the festival on Sunday and the first session I went to then was Hollywood Pitching, with Jonathan Newman, Stuart Hazeldine and David Reynolds.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

LSF 2: In Conversation with Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright was the second session I went to. I kinda felt bad for the other speakers in this slot because Edgar was a late addition to the festival line up and judging by the fire risk size of the audience, a lot of people had clearly also made a late switch.

Edgar Wright made his first film, A Fistful of Fingers, when he was around – staggeringly – the age of 20. But by his candid admission, the film was powered along by its own naivety and if anyone had stopped to think about it, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s not the greatest film of all time and didn’t turn out the way he planned or it was in his head. He doesn’t like to badmouth it, because a lot of good people that he still knows and works with worked on that film. But he realised he was trying to run before he could walk and was more obsessed by the idea of making a film before he was 20, then getting the film right.

It’s 78 mins long and they had to actually pad it out to make it that long. Which was another thing that he learned. Make sure the script is right first. The edit room is the final draft, but you can save yourself a whole lot of trouble by getting it on the page and the script right first. The film actually got a small release and came out the same weekend as Golden Eye. That’s what you are competing against. It doesn’t matter how much less it cost to make. It’s now in the cinema and that’s the competition. And that’s worth keeping in mind.

Edgar got his first break through meeting Matt Lucas and David Walliams, which led to a TV directing job. And that was more like going to college. It was a second chance to learn his craft. He was only directing at this stage, having had his confidence knocked and taken a back seat from writing. Some early advice he got had come back to haunt him – don’t make a spoof as your first film. And you’re too young to be a comedy writer. Go out and live your life a bit first. By the time Shaun of the Dead came along, he and Simon Pegg thought they had. Zombies aside, it’s essentially kind of autobiographical, about wasters living in North London.

Edgar didn’t hesitate to say that professional relationships have been key to his success. Meeting someone like Simon, even before they did Spaced together, Edgar knew he wanted to do a film with Simon in the lead.

His writing process changes from project to project. Watching movies and documentaries can be useful – but sometimes it’s procrastination. However one of the great things about Hot Fuzz was the research with the police. Ride alongs, tours of regional stations, etc. There’s always something brilliant you’ll get out of research. Even for a comedy. There are bits in that movie that are so silly or little lines here and there, but they are the result of something someone said. With Shaun of the Dead there wasn’t much research to do because they were living those lives. But they’d never been police officers so thought they should.

When Edgar moved onto Scott Pilgrim, the tone attracted him and reminded him of Spaced. They never did a third series of that but he still felt he had an itch to scratch and liked that world of magical realism.

Edgar and Joe Cornish actually wrote on Tintin in 2008 – which shows how long animation takes. It was a different experience because he was just being paid as a writer. Not only were you working for Spielberg and Peter Jackson, but you have the books to live up to and be faithful to. Spielberg is like an icon – but he creates a great environment, which makes you feel free to suggest things, even certain shots, etc.

Then came the questions:

How many drafts does Edgar usually do?

For Fistful – clearly not enough. For Shaun, it was quite a long process probably through something like 10 drafts. It was with Film4 and then that collapsed and they had to go round to everyone, getting no after no, until Working Title. But it was a scary time because he’d been devoted to that and it’s like putting everything on black and if it doesn’t land, you’re broke and wasted three years. He turned down a really good proposal to direct a TV series because he was concentrating on getting that movie off the ground and when the producer heard this, she said if I had a pound for every time a director said that… And it was like wow, that’s how it is. That’s how hard it is.

What is it you think that Working Title responded to that the others didn’t?

Maybe they’d seen Spaced. But it’s difficult to get the tone across in comedy on the page. A lot of people who read the Shaun script, which is pretty much exactly what you see on screen, if you didn’t know what the style was going to be like, and thought it might be quite broad, Carry On style, they just didn’t get it. Some actors passed on it who they were really banking on because they just didn’t get it. On the other hand. Bill Nighy, who hadn’t seen any of their stuff, got it straight away and he was in.

What kind of development process do you go through when you start writing a script?

Different with Tintin and Scott Pilgrim, and even (the upcoming) Ad Man because comics exist. But him and Simon map out beat sheet in 3 act structure, flip chart, page per scene, keep writing on a flip chart until nothing left to write and you have to start on the script page one. Some of it never makes it into the film, just a chart about a character, what do they like, back story things, etc. It’s just good to get it all out there. Write it all out in a room together. But Edgar does go back to those screenwriting books, especially if he’s blocked. There’s a point where you’ve got to put those books away and just write. Read them once and put them away. This past summer he wrote something on his own for the first time in ages and that was tough because there was no one to bounce off. So he would find a couple of people who were sounding boards.

Before Shaun, he and Simon watched films they liked and tried to match them up to traditional structure and books – and it was interesting. Because some do and you can learn from that, but then again a lot don’t. But it’s an interesting exercise to take your favourite films and break them down.

You Exec Produced Attack the Block, how much involvement did you have with that?

Edgar met Joe ten years ago and similar to when he met Simon, wanted to do something together. Joe had never written a screenplay but they worked on stuff together and then he went off to write Attack.

What value do you think it would have to go into the world and say I’m a writer-producer, (not writer-director) and seek talent to put the big picture together?

Edgar has never been in that position but it could help. It might give you more control and power. The easiest way to get your script to the screen the way you see it, is to direct it yourself. That’s not to say it can’t work the other way around. But if you’re just a writer on your own, especially in Hollywood, you can get screwed over. That could be by a director, or an actor, who just decides to improvise around the dialogue. And you’d be surprised how often that happens. So the more power you have, it’s going to help. But if you’re really precious about something, do it yourself. That’s what Tarantino did. He was always very protective over his scripts and there were ones he was happy with and ones he wasn’t as happy with. And now he’s not ever written or is ever likely to write for anyone else.

What mistakes have you made?

Edgar said he didn’t really think Fistful through. He was really passionate about making a film but wasn’t serious enough about it. Everyone worked really hard but when he got a second chance with Shaun, he was determined not to mess it up and to make sure he got on screen what he had in his head.

What advice would you offer to screenwriters starting out today, or have writers block and just not getting where they need to get?

Edgar has had writers block and then you’ve got to treat the writing as something you love and not a chore. Go out and watch a movie and don’t feel guilty about it. Read other stuff, try and get inspired, even if it’s got nothing to do with what you’re working on. Do research and find something that sparks something off. Get feedback, which could do the same thing. In terms of starting out, probably two ways to do it. Either have a very strong, personal voice, or really zero in on what you want to sell. In LA it’s completely different. A lot of people over there it’s about writing the script but then also selling the script. You almost have to be a great salesman. So sometimes it’s a question of what kind of writer you want to be. Do you want to be recognised through your voice and be distinct that way, or do you want to be known as a writer who can turn their hand at lots of different things and genres. (Like Billy Wilder – so not a bad thing – it’s not being a sell out.)

And perseverance. A lot of people seem to be waiting for a hand out to get something made – but it never comes. You’ve got to go out and make it happen.

A cool session. And appropriately enough, next up, we're in conversation with Joe Cornish.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

LSF 1: Another 50 ways to break into the business

Apologies for the lateness of my LSF write ups - but the story begins... with a sequel. The follow up to last years 50 ways into the Industry. That session was extremely well attended, a great all round chat about the business, but only covered about, erm, 9 ways in. This year, chairman Danny Stack had other ideas. He had a list. A list dammit. Of all 50. And he was determined to guide Martin Gooch, Vadim Jean, Chris Hill and Bernie Corbett through it.

#1 Get a job as a runner or as an assistant to a producer or agent, etc

MG started off as a runner. He had no connections to the film industry but that's all he wanted to do. He went to America, couldn't get any work, came back here, did a degree, still couldn't get any work, so went to Soho, became a runner, and it all started from there. "I could've saved 4 years of my life." As soon as he did that he started to meet people. And he still works today with people he met then, 17 or so years ago.

VJ first job on a movie was as a runner - or actually a driver, going up and down the motorway ferrying people or equipment around. Most useful skill as a runner - reading an A-Z. (Although to be fair to Vadim runner technology, i.e. satnav, has come along way since his day.) You have to work for free to start with. Most of the people who come and work for him are rubbish because they have no common sense. But if you can make yourself invaluable, be the best runner ever, most of those have gone on to get paid work from him.

MG noted a lot of people in the audience looked a bit, erm, old, perhaps for a runner position. So forget about it, just go out and make a film!

#2 Join a writers group

CH - writing is a solitary endeavour and when you're starting out you might not have any contacts in the industry. And it's a way to meet other people etc.

#3 & 4 Online media, social networks, blogs, etc

DS You have to be careful how you present yourself, because it's a public forum and you don't want to end up looking like an idiot.

# 5 Write a script

VJ Because if you haven't actually got a screenplay to show, you're not a writer, you're a fantasist. Just write. If it's rubbish then throw it away. But you've got to do it.

MG Get into the habit of writing regularly, even if you don't feel like it. Write another script and another one and another one. Just one isn't going to be enough. And you have to rewrite and refine all the time.

DS Online distractions are just that. It's not working. Writing is working.

MG Turn the internet off. Martin isn't a morning person (and neither am I) His shoots start at 8am whereas most start at 7:30am (which still seems pretty early to me!) But when he's writing he starts at 9pm and goes onto 2am.

#6 Do as much as you can.

MG The only way you can get on in the film or TV industry and learn the skills you need is to do stuff. Be proactive.

#7 Join the Writers Guild

#8 Network. Things like the festival, obviously, but also Q&A screenings.

#9 Most networking things are rubbish. (Apart from LSWF obviously!)

It was suggested most of the time the people in the room are not the people you want to talk to. But I'm not sure I agree with this one. And to be fair the conversation then went onto a tangent that everyone can help everyone. Danny has got jobs through other writers he knows and Martin, if he isn't available for a job, will pass it onto other directors he knows.

#10 Read lots of scripts

#11 Get feedback on your own scripts

Not from friends and family. Everyone needs feedback but be careful who you get it from. Feedback from someone who doesn't know what they are talking about can be really damaging.

#12 Have a portfolio of scripts

Doesn't have to be features. Shorts too. MG's best short is 3 pages long. A really, really good short film is worth more then a bad feature.

#13 Screenwriting degrees and MA's

Access to filmmaking equipment is more available these days but in terms of meeting peers, learning the craft of writing, etc, these courses can be really useful. My own opinion is that there are some wonderful courses out there, that teach you a great deal, you'll meet really good people, and they also get you access to the industry. But there are also a lot of rip off courses out there too that are both a waste of time and money - so be careful and do your research.

#14 Don't give up the day job - or just yet anyway.

BC Save up and maybe take 6 months off to write. He knows a lot of people who have left their jobs to devote their time to writing and hoping a career will follow. But real life isn't always as straightforward as that.

MG Spent most of my life being skint. Whilst as a runner, a camera loader, a DP, whatever. And most of the time he'd be doing other jobs alongside that. (And he wouldn't tell anyone what they were!)

VJ runs a company that's a full time job. Producing and directing is his day job. But he writes, the passion projects, on trains and planes.

CH has a maths degree! He did some work as a tutor so figured he might as well use it. He saves up and then lives on bake beans for a couple of months.

DS It's tough but you can't use the fatigue from the day job, only to come home and put the kids to bed etc, to not write. It's really, really hard but that's what we've got to do.

MG A lot of people don't schedule in thinking time. Writing notes, going to see stuff, research. It's almost as important as the actual writing.

#15 Read the industry papers like Screendaily and Broadcast.

DS You can get a few people together and get a joint subscription and then read the content online.

#16 Get a job in a Distribution or Sales Agency to see the cutthroat decisions on which films get made and why.

CH It's generally not about the script, more about casting. But it's interesting to see which scripts cut the mustard and informs, to some extent, what he writes now.

VJ is 50/50 on this. On the one hand it's great to know this stuff and you have to write for the market. But so often the best stuff he reads does not come from this mindset.

#17 Get your autobiography out of the way.

BC When people are starting off in writing they often draw on their own experiences, which isn't necessarily a bad thing to do. But you need to get it out of your system. As a writer you're going to work on lots of projects. And that one may not be as interesting to others and you think it might be.

VJ Having said that, he's seen scripts based on someones life where it does have an emotional truth and does happen to be universal and it was the best thing that particularly writer had ever done. A lot of scripts he sees don't ring true because the writer isn't bringing any of their own life experience to the story.

MG Research is fun. He's spent a day on a London ambulance and in the London sewers.

DS Write what you know is an incomplete sentence - it should be write what you know about the human condition.

#18 Just ask and just do it

MG Because we're all obsessed with emails, the letter is coming back. He's had much more success with a letter. A poorly written email or letter is a very bad sign. As is getting an email with the body of the text in one font and the name in another - so obviously cut and pasted!

#19 Write and make a short film.

MG It's easier than ever. People approach him all the time to make their film and he just thinks well why don't you do it.

VJ The first time he took a script and shot it was a massive revelation. In the cutting room there was that horrible 'but that script was brilliant on the page' moment. And he got rid of it all except one line. Write a two page script, get a camera and shoot it. Because you'll learn so much and it will improve your writing more than anyone else. Unfortunately, not enough film execs have had experience actually making a film.

#20 Learn about contracts, copyright and industry practice.

BC Gets a lot of calls from people who have people interested in their script, but they have no understanding at all of the nuts and bolts of how contracts work and what rights they have, etc. There are books you can read. It's not particularly simple or interesting but it will repay itself. And if you are going to be a professional, you need to know this stuff. People seem to be overly worried about plagiarism, which is very rare, as opposed to Producers coming along with rip off contracts, buying up rights for no money, etc.

DS Producers will exploit you basically if you don't know what you're doing and you don't have an agent.

VJ - doesn't do that.

#21 Make the first 3 pages of your script amazing.

VJ It used to be ten. He doesn't use readers because he wants to read it himself. And the slate is big and the spec pile is massive. It comes down to a very basic do I want to know what happens next? Robert McKee and all that is useful to know the basic rules and especially when you get stuck. But what it basically comes down to is do you want to know what happens next and that has to be captured within the first 3 pages.

MG There isn't enough time to read everything. He picks up a script and flips to the back to see how long it is. If it's over 90 pages it's bloody hell. (And by the way ALL people reading scripts do this.) And if it's in the wrong font and spelling is awful, then forget about it.

CH Used to be a script reader and could tell within the first page whether it was going to be good or not.

VJ You're competing against everyone else, people who have far more of a track record than you and with scripts and a writer that he knows he can take to a broadcaster and get a commission. So you have to force him to read the whole of your script by having a brilliant opening 3 pages. This is even more the case in TV. In film it's easier to make a feature from a new writer. But the principle about the script remains true.

#22 Have a story

Following on from that, it should really go without saying that a brilliant opening will only get you so far. It may well convince the reader to read the whole script. But if that doesn't stack up, it's going to count for nothing.

VJ A lot of screenplays have no story. They don't have that basic fairytale element, a beginning, middle and an end, something that takes you on a journey. Are people actually going to want to see this thing you've written? Have a story. He writes most of his stuff with other people and he's working more and more with writing teams. Because it's great for bouncing off ideas etc. And it can also be more fun.

#23 Get an agent.

VJ They are a gatekeeper of sorts. And it protects both parties. You might think your idea is really unique but very often it's not. For some bizarre reason every broadcaster at the moment seems to be working on something with a nanny. And it's not that they've stolen it from anyone. But fashions come in cycles.

BC Famous catch 22. Can't get any work until you've got an agent, can't get an agent until you've got work. There's a lot of truth in that. On balance they are helpful to writers. It's a relationship and a good one won't just be about reading your contracts. They'll read your work, talk about what you are working on, what you are working on next, give you feedback, etc. Don't rush into the first agent. Try and establish yourself a bit first so you can control that.

DS You don't need one, until you get one. You should be too busy and too proactive with your own writing. (I'm actually about to sign with an agency so I will speak more about this in a separate blog post soon-ish.)

#24 Go to Cannes

MG has been 11 times, and next year will be his 12th. He sold a screenplay this year at Cannes so it can happen. He sets a budget for £500, finds somewhere cheap to stay and eats everyone else's food.

BC You can't just turn up though. You have to get accreditation. The Writers Guild can do this but only to bona fide candidates.

#25 Maintain contact with your network

DS Every few months keep in contact. Not just hi how are you just checking in. But ask about what they're doing, if there is anything you could work on etc. Obviously be cool and polite about it.

#26 No money, no work, no £1 options, no deferred fees.

BC Very dogmatic about it, don't do any work unless you're getting paid. There are some grey areas especially when you're starting out. But we are talking about a multi million pound industry where people get paid for what they do. And that's the whole basis for a professional career. £1 shows no serious commitment to the project. They'll be taking taxis to meet financiers and buying dinners so why can't they pay you? If your script is under option you can't do anything else with it. Very occasionally, he has known producers to take an option on a film to stop it getting made, because they have something similar in development (This was, perhaps in my own naivete, completely shocking to me!) A lot of producers around live a fantasy life, hoovering up projects, when they don't have the skills, contacts, experience to do anything with it.

CH £500 shows a certain level of commitment. He's been in both positions, and the £1 option is often there at the beginning and can be tempting to get the ball rolling.

MG Works for free for himself and his mates - anyone else has got to pay. If you came in and did the plumbing, you get paid. Or at least get them to buy you are really nice lunch. People are exploiting our love of film.

BC A lot of small budget projects will work on deferments and that means later on, not non existent. Get something in writing what will come back to you if there is a profit. Partnerships are more common. If you trust the producer then fine - but get something on paper. It will save a lot of lawyers fees later on.

DS Producers come to him with no money, but with a one page agreement that if there is to be any development money or other money, you get a slice of it. So there is a bit of a carrot there - they're not just taking advantage.

(This is quite an interesting and far reaching topic and I will try and do a longer blog post on it soon-ish.)

#27 Never give up

BC In any given year there are around ten thousand film scripts floating around the industry - and one hundred get made. Those are your chances. So you have to absolutely love it.

MG The magic, the love and the passion is the most important thing. If you don't have it, stop now. Because it's really, really hard. But when you do see your name on the screen credit it's the best thing ever.

That was the end of the first session I attended. And yes, we only got just over half way. But it was a fine effort and these are my paraphrased notes. So apologies to any of the panel involved if I have misquoted anyone.

Coming next... In Conversation with Edgar Wright, Wright, Wright

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

And all your RPP questions answered

Courtesy of Danny Stack - here we go...

1. What is a single play?
A single play is a one-off story. For the purposes of the competition, this would be a one-off 60-minute TV script (typically 50 pages min - 80 pages max). In general, pilot scripts are more popular and common for submissions to the competition but feel free to submit a single play if you don’t have an idea for a pilot script.

2. What is a pilot script?
A pilot script is the first episode of a potential new TV series.

3. Will you accept 30-minute scripts or feature length (90-minute+) scripts?
No. 60-minute original TV scripts, please.

4. Is there any particular genre you’re interested in?
We’re interested in great writing, and don’t mind what genre it comes in.

5. Can I submit an adaptation I’ve written of a book/game/other source?
No. Original scripts only please, even if you’ve adapted from your own book/game/other source.

6. What’s a logline?
A logline is a brief description of your story idea. For example, ‘A British cop gets sent to the Caribbean to solve murders.’ A logline shouldn’t be mistaken for a tagline e.g ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream’ (from Alien).

7. Should the 100-word synopsis summarise the script, or the series as a whole?
Whatever you think best represents the idea, story or script.

8. For the first round of submission, why just the first ten pages of a script?
It’s a truth universally acknowledged in the industry that the first ten pages of a script indicate a great deal about a writer’s talent as well as how the script is shaping up.

9. If my first ten pages end in the middle of a scene, should I submit additional pages?
Please submit the first ten pages only, regardless of where the scene ends. Similarly, please do not send the full script at the first round stage. These will be immediately disqualified.

10. Can I enter more than once?
Writers can enter once as themselves, and once as part of a co-writing team. Multiple entries from an individual will result in disqualification.

11. Can I get feedback on my first ten pages, or on my script?
Unfortunately, due to the large number of submissions received, feedback cannot be given for scripts that are unsuccessful.

12. Should my script end on a cliffhanger?
That’s up to you, and the story!

13. I’ve rewritten my script that got rejected last year. Would it be a bad idea to resubmit it for this year’s competition?
Not necessarily. If the script represents your best writing, then feel free to resubmit.

14. When is the deadline?
16th January, 2012.

15. Should I wait to write the rest of the script?
We strongly advise that you write the entire script, as there will be little turnaround once we request the full script to read.

16. Can I submit a script that has been optioned by another producer or production company?
We want original scripts that have not yet been optioned or produced. If your script gets optioned (or an offer) whilst in consideration for the competition, please get in touch to let us know.

17. What happens if my first ten pages get through to the second round?
We will request the full script. Once all of the full scripts have been read and assessed, we will make a longlist of the scripts/writers we wish to put forward for the competition’s final stages.

18. What are the competition’s final stages?
A shortlist will be compiled. Tony Jordan and the other judges will choose a winner. We expect this to be around Spring 2012.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Red Planet Prize

It's back :)

The Deadline is 16th January 2012.

Mark it in the diary folks.

Good luck!

Saturday, 29 October 2011


On Sunday I'll be at London Screenwriters' Festival.

If you're not there - why not? *

If you are, come and say hi.

It's gonna be awesome. Full write ups of every session I attend as soon as possible.

* I mean that seriously. Genuine question. If you didn't go, tell me why. Comment here or send me an email, and I will try and pass it on to the organisers to see if it can be addressed for next year. Put simply we need everyone who can go to do so, and support the festival. Otherwise it will fold. That's just basic economics and times are tough. The festival is financially touch and go every year.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Does this make me official?

Yesterday I discovered this

Smallest profile ever.

But hey, it's a start. And in the words of David Brent - coolio


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Pitch Your Script To The Industry With Advance Films

You may have already heard about this as I'm sure a few of us got the same press release. But just in case... and don't forget to do your own checking:

Get ready to pitch your script to the most influential people in film with David Pope, the director of advance films, whose directing credits include the award winning feature film, MILES FROM NOWHERE. Advance films have teamed up with online writing platform, Circalit, to host a screenwriting competition to find great ideas for film scripts. As the former head of the New Producers Alliance, David knows the who’s who of the industry, and he will get your pitch up to speed so that you’re ready to be introduced to a network of contacts tailored to your project. David will help you position your screenplay for the industry and recommend to you the producers and executives who are just right for you.

Advance films is a London based production company that also provides training, support and consultancy services. Advance consults on projects at all stages from development to finance to distribution and David’s clients and collaborators have included everyone from the BBC, BFI and the UK Film Council to the Cannes Cinefondation, The Rotterdam Lab and Edinburgh International Film Festival; so make the most of his experience to get your script pitch perfect.

All entries will receive a professional feedback report on their script. The deadline for submissions is Dec 1st 2011. Please visit for more information.

£15 Entry Fee

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Film London - Borough Short Film Funds

The London Borough Film Funds are currently open for entries for short film ideas from filmmakers (either the writer / director or producer) who live, work or study in the boroughs listed on the website:

Various deadlines apply towards the end of the month.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Portal Entertainment Create £6k Writing Competition for Multiplatform Storytelling‏


Portal Entertainment today announced that it has launched a £6k global writing competition to create a storyworld: a story told using different types of media across multiple platforms. The winner of the competition will receive £6k to develop their storyworld with Portal Entertainment. The Top 5 entries will be given professional feedback from BBC Multiplatform Executive Producer Sarah Clay (Becoming Human, Waterloo Reunited, E20).

The competition was launched at the Immersive Writing Lab - a global creative event to help writers learn the tools to tell multiplatform stories. To find out more about the launch event and the to watch videos from the event go to

‘Coming up with a storyworld is not easy and we know that,’ said Julian McCrea, Founder of Portal Entertainment. ‘We have designed the competition, to help develop the writer's storyworld over three months, across five different stages: world, characters, story, audience, and medium. We will be giving feedback at each stage of the competition.’

The competition is hosted at Circalit, a platform that enables writers to showcase their work to industry professionals online. To enter the competition or for more information please visit

Raoul Tawadey, CEO and Founder of Circalit commented, 'It's clear after attending the Immersive Writing conference that digital convergence hasn't simply affected the business end of media, it's affected our notion of narrative storytelling itself. We're extremely happy to be hosting a competition to explore what the stories of the future will look, feel and sound like, and on what devices we will experience them.'

The Immersive Writing Lab event is being supported by Stellar Network, Circalit, Imaginox and Varytale.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

New Year

Tonight sees the onset of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. So I just wanted toLink wish everyone a happy and healthy new year, and thank you all for reading my blog over the past 12 months.

Also, at this time of year we ask people we may have upset or offended over the last year to accept our sincere apologies and forgive us for any hurt caused.

I'm aware that a large part of what I do is give feedback on scripts that are very personal to the writer - and although I try to be as careful and delicate as I can be with my words, if I have said anything that has caused any hurt please accept my apology.

But this is a screenwriting blog so let's not get too heavy. Let's end the year with a screenwriting resolution - courtesy of Danny Stack - and make next year the year to end all script formatting problems!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Pitching & Bitching

Last Wednesday a group of Red Planet Prize finalists met up at Kudos HQ, together with Tony Jordan, Alison Jackson, Simon Winstone, Vicki Delow and Camilla Davies from those two companies. We were taking part in a pitching workshop, a chance to hone our pitching skills, something screenwriters absolutely need to do, but don't often get the chance. I've often said that practicing pitching, for example with friends or even at college, is a lot like taking penalties in training. No pressure - no problem. But in front of a packed stadium - well, did you see Rooney hilariously fall on his butt last week? However this was somewhat different - as the practice session was taking place in front quite a panel of industry experts.

We weren't there to pitch our own projects, it wasn't about that on this occasion. So the brief we got was to pitch Hustle, as if it was our own idea and a completely brand new show, and yes... to the man who actually created it. And then that same man would give us feedback. No wonder pretty much everyone asked for a drink before we got started. But we all did a really good job and it was both great fun and really educational. After we were done, Tony gave us a few tips based on his years of experience. And I'm sure he won't mind me sharing some of them with you guys. (NB: These are my interpretations of his words and the notes we were given - and should not be directly attributed to Tony Jordan or anyone at Red Planet or Kudos.)

Think about who you are sitting in front of. Some like the more conversational, relaxed approach, whereas others will still want a back and forth conversation, but might be a little more focused and business like (for want of a better word.) A lot of this comes from experience, but try and do as much research on the person you are about to meet beforehand and obviously pay attention to their body language during the meeting.

Be a Writer. Be the creative guy. Just because you’re going into a corporate office to meet a business person it doesn’t mean you have to turn up in a suit with a briefcase. They want to meet you because you are a writer. Keep it informal, relaxed and be yourself. My own rather more limited experience suggests that this is truer of TV than it is for film, (especially in LA, as you may have seen in my write up of the Alan Denman lecture.) In film they still expect you to dress like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, but possibly expect a more business like approach.

One of the questions I hate the most is Why Now? How is the idea relevant to the times we are living in now? This can be really tricky, but it's important and sometimes easier than others. Ironically enough, just as it's coming to an end, Hustle is more timely than ever. But whatever the idea is, work very hard to have an answer to this question prepared before you go into the meeting.

Don’t overkill the idea. A pitch should be able to convey the heart and soul of a series within the first 30 seconds. You want to make the listener ask questions to find out more. Keep it clear and brief. There’s no need to go into details about episodes, the twists and turns of the series - or even the characters - unless you have a concise, clever, universal way of doing it. (For example a couple of people at the workshop likened the characters of Hustle to modern day Robin Hoods - Mickey is Robin, Danny is Will Scarlet, Stacey is Marion etc, which is archetypal and everyone will 'get it' immediately.)

Own the idea - it’s yours. Don’t read anything out. Keep it fresh and spontaneous. Exude confidence and passion for your idea. Frames of reference provide instant clarity. It’s often better to give singles references to convey the tone (for example Tony mentioned a few times that Hustle was basically Ocean's Eleven on TV,) instead of merging two or three together, eg. ‘Sex in the City’ meets ‘Spooks.’ That can look like quite calculated and unimaginative. (Again this is quite a British thing - I'm led to believe that they love all that this is this meets this thing in the States.)

Bear in mind Broadcasters are looking for ideas that will meet the specific channel requirements at that specific time. You love the idea, and you’ll try to get them excited about it too, but if it’s not for them it's neither the end of the world, nor is it necessarily any reflection of the project itself. It's more important to just enjoy the experience and keep the door open for the future. So whatever you do, do not try to persuade them this project IS for them when they have said it isn't. That's like saying they haven't been smart enough to get it, or they are being an idiot. That's not very clever - and in any event, no way are they going to change their mind (even if it's just on principle!) Just accept they are not interested. Be gracious because it's a small industry where everyone knows everyone and talks. So it’s worth building and maintaining a good reputation.

If it looks like the broadcaster is bored and is thinking oh my goodness this is rubbish, don’t be afraid to stop halfway through and acknowledge this. In fact, maybe the idea has only been in your head until now and saying it loud has made you realise oh my goodness this is rubbish. Fess up. Be open and light hearted. They will thank you for it and want to see you again. As opposed to if you keep going on and on. Next time your name comes up in their diary don't be surprised if you end up seeing an assistant. (The caveat to this is to be absolutely sure about what they are thinking. That can be tough but what you don't want is to end the pitch or say oh that's rubbish isn't it - and actually they were quite into it.) But if they have lost interest and don’t want to know any more, use the few spare minutes to have a chat and build a relationship. This particular idea may not be for them but you want to leave the door open, so use the small talk wisely.

And during that small talk try to glean useful information. What are they are looking for? At what stage do they like to get involved in an idea? Do they like loglines? Fully formed treatments? How do they like to receive pitches, post or email? (So down the line you can send an email or a letter and reference ‘you know you said you liked X, well here’s my new idea... etc.)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Channel 4 Screenwriting Course 2012

You may well have already heard this elsewhere, but just in case, applications are now open for the Channel 4 screenwriting course 2012. CLOSING DATE FOR SUBMISSIONS: Tuesday November 1st 2012.

Full details can be found at:

or at:

And remember Janice Okoh made it onto the course last year so don't forget to check out her blog.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Breaking Into Hollywood

Last night I attended the Breaking into Hollywood presentation by Alan Denman. It was two and half hours long - and overran. Comprehensive doesn't even begin to cover it. Alan has been in LA for around nine years and the purpose of this course is to distill that experience into a one evening lecture and give the rest of us the shortcut and benefit of this experience.

I can't possibly go into too much detail in one blog post - simply because there was so much detail. But the evening covered things like the layout of LA, where best to stay, the need for a car and the pros and cons of renting against just buying one, parking regulation, how to eat well but economically, important visa information and of course, where and how to network. Things like The Table and Britbreakfast that I'd never heard of. Free screenings that go on all the time, where, if you're watching Social Network for example, Justin Timberlake and Aaron Sorkin might turn up to watch it with you (true story.) Info about agents, managers, entertainment lawyers, the list goes on and on.

Do your research and prep before you even get on the plane. Figure out who you want to meet and how to get to them. It's much, much easier in LA than it is in London. Take plenty of quality business cards with you. Have a US mobile phone because you'll need to be contactable at all times. Be polite and respectful when networking and everyone is really friendly and helpful. But if you have a cynical, pushy or arrogant attitude, no one is going to give a damn. You're just not that important.

One thing that really stood out for me was that writers in LA are far more industry savvy than here. You're expected to know about things like budget, finance, actors, sales, territories, target audience etc - i.e. the practical nuts and bolts of filmmaking. That's in addition to having a verbal logline on tap that will get people excited, before you even get to the polished script you've got on your laptop. If your pitching a project you should probably have a short 1-4 page business plan to go with it that covers this sort of thing. Everything in LA is geared towards commercial movie making. That doesn't necessarily mean high concept, but it does mean it's treated like a business and movies need to make money (even if most still don't.) The indie scene is far more prevalent in New York. But even then, it's probably best to leave your gritty, kitchen sink drama in England.

This is a practical course. It's geared towards people who are genuinely interested in going to LA - not necessarily to live - it might be for 2 weeks, 2 months or multiple trips every few months. But before you do I would seriously urge you to get in touch with Alan. He also offers residentials, either scheduled like the upcoming American Film Market or any time throughout the year tailored to what you are looking for. You'll probably even be invited to dinner. You need to be brave out there. Introverted is going to be a waste of time and money. But so is just turning up, script in hand, and having absolutely no idea what do to or where to go in this huge city. Get in touch with Alan. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

On September 22nd, during BAFTA's Screenwriter's Lectures series, Souvenir Press are re-publishing an updated version of The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer's Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay - by David Howard & Edward Mabley. And they asked me to review a copy for this blog. My first thought was ooh, me? How kind. (So lesson to all, beware the vanity and flattery of the poor screenwriter.) My second thought was, ooh, free book. (See first lesson.) So I immediately agreed... And then immediately regretted it. What if I hated it? I'm not going to say nice things about it if I don't believe them to be true. Oh goodness, am I going to read it, hate it, and then have to politely (or not so politely) send it back and apologise? So it was with some considerable relief that not long after beginning to read it, I thought my word, this is actually quite good. By the time I got to the end, I'd forgotten about the review and was just enjoying reading it.

I should explain. I believe there should come a point in a screenwriters life where you basically don't read screenwriter how to books any more. You should read scripts, and just write, write and write some more. And then get loads of quality feedback. Because they can become a distraction. A couple of years ago I sold all my screenwriting books except Vogler's Hero's Journey and Mernit's Rom Com masterpiece. I now have Tools to complete a trilogy. Because there should also be a point in a screenwriters life where you read everything. Gobble it up. For me it was at college, helped by the fact that the library meant I didn't have to pay for Seger, Aaronson, Field, Goldman etc, etc.

The Tools of Screenwriting doesn't have cool, funny industry inside stories that both amuse and shock. There are no anecdotes about what the munchkins got up to on the set of the Wizard of Oz or why there are no bras in outer space for Princess Leah to wear. Tools is exactly that. It gives you a clear run down of the tools you'll need to generate a good screenplay. Reading it won't make you a great writer. In the same way reading a great cook book will not make you Masterchef. But it will give you a description of the ingredients you will need, tips about how to use those ingredients - and then it's up to you. The chapters are short. There is no padding or fluff to this book. It's just a workers guide. It breaks down into four sections and I'm going to list the chapter headings to give you an idea of how the book approaches its task.

The first section is titled About Screenwriting and contains the chapters The Screenwriter's Task, Stage Versus Screen, Adaptation, The Auteur of a Film, The Screenwriter's Relationships and A Cautionary Note. This is the background info. This is about where, as screenwriters, you might find yourself within the industry and what your job might entail.

It then moves on to Basic Storytelling. Chapters include What makes a "good story well told," The Division into Three Acts, The World of the Story, Protagonists Antagonists and Conflict, Externalizing the Internal, Objective and Subjective Drama, Time and the Storyteller and The Power of Uncertainty. This section really gives you the fundamentals of how to construct a screen story. What methods and techniques are at your disposal.

The third section digs a little deeper. Screenwriting Tools. The chapters are Protagonist and Objective, Conflict, Obstacles, Premise and Opening, Main Tension, Culmination and Resolution, Theme, Unity, Exposition, Characterisation, Development of the Story, Dramatic Irony, Preparation and Aftermath, Planting and Payoff, Elements of the Future and Advertising, The Outline and the Step Outline, Plausibility, Activity and Action, Dialogue, Visuals, The Dramatic Scene and Rewriting. This is where you start to earn your bread a little bit more. Writing a basic, linear screenplay that works is a good start. But are there things you can set up on page 20 and pay off 50 pages later? Twists are great when they come off but is dramatic irony, letting the audience in on something the characters don't know, more engaging? Does the story world make sense and is there narrative logic behind even the craziest of ideas? Like I said, the chapters aren't long. It's more like the book is a bite size accumulation of the tools of the screenwriting trade.

The final section is an analysis of several feature films, including ET, Some Like it Hot, North by NorthWest, Citizen Kane, Witness, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, Chinatown, Annie Hall, and more. If I had one complaint about the book it was probably this. An update to include films of the last ten years would've been good. Instead of Annie Hall how about 500 Days of Summer? Instead of Streetcar maybe Crash? What about Little Miss Sunshine or frankly anything by Pixar? But it's a small complaint and to be fair the films chosen are absolute classics. If you haven't seen most of them and want to be a screenwriter, it's probably time to sign up to Lovefilm or something.

I realise all I've mainly done is list chapter headings and this is probably the weirdest book review of all time. Souvenir Press may well be regretting the day they sent me the book. But in closing, all I can say is, if I ever start teaching on a screenwriting course, I would definitely use this as my core text.