Monday, 27 October 2014

Jackie Malton and Pete Salt, The Real Sources Behind Prime Suspect and Casualty ~ #LondonSWF

Realism, that thing that gives drama it's impact, often involves writers going to a source or special consultant to enrich the content of their work. Two such sources Jackie Malton on who's life Lynda La Plant based Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and Pete Salt the inspiration for Casualty's Charlie Fairhead joined Casualty co-creator Paul Unwin to talk about the process of being an expert source.

The relationship between fiction and fact is very distinctive. At the end of the day, says Paul, audiences want to switch off the TV and still be able to feel that the world is okay. Given that, how does story work with facts to create realistic drama?

For Jackie she was brought a script by Lynda La Plante who'd been referred by a mutual police acquaintance as she was looking for a high ranking woman detective to authenticate the character and crime she was writing about. There are police advisors who can check facts for writers but Jackie had never really wanted to do that, however she did have an interest in the stories behind the crimes and people she came into contact with. Their process became that she would be brought a script to read through, then meet with Lynda to talk about what was incorrect in the procedure or behaviours described in the writing. Jackie says that talking to Lynda was like going to therapy. Lynda never wrote notes, just allowed her to speak asking questions when appropriate. Then she'd go away and when she came back a while on all sorts of things Jackie had revealed would have emerged inside the new draft.

For factual correctness there's a fine balance to be achieved as to what's healthy for the public to see about professions that deal with life and death. Jackie wouldn't want for instance to reveal too much about actual police tactics for dealing with serious incidents that might endanger them solving future crimes. That's where artistic licence can take hold. For Pete, the whole premise of Casualty is to be as accurate as possible but there are things that might be medically unsafe to put out there that he'd prefer to hold back on. Even if something really happened it's not always wise for it to be included in a drama and care is taken to scrutinise story that might cause distress to viewers who've experienced loss or hurt.
The way Pete works in his role to advise the Casualty writing staff is to get hold of the basic story outline for an episode and what's going to happen medically in it as soon as possible so he can see if the medicine the premise is based on will work for the story. If someone's had a serious head injury they're not going to be better by the end of the episode and massive multiple injuries most frequently leave patients unable to speak for some time. Either there's a solve or alternative in the medical facts that can work around a problem, if not then the story may need to be changed. Usually he'll look over about five drafts of a script during the writing process. Sometimes a show has it's own 'grammar' that shades what the storylines should be, like Casualty's medical accuracy. Jackie worked for 13 years advising on The Bill that had a grammar of 'crime doesn't pay'. Both Jackie and Pete point out that their job is to advise about the more complex aspects of their work and not as proxy writers or encyclopedias for people too lazy to do their own work and research. The best writers take the notes they are given on board, not so good writers hold onto their stories no matter what.

Over time long running series can sometimes become gratuitous but the reality of situations of life and death can be very visceral for the people involved says Jackie. Society fails people and some of those people are the people who become criminals. Writers aren't touched by the emotions that stay with police, doctors and other crucial professons. Maggots on a corpse will likely trigger real life memories and emotions that remain with a person who's seen a fellow human being in that state. It can be harsh spilling information, it exposes you. The story of character Jane Tennison's life and alcoholism is Jackie's story, she had internalised much. Though she hasn't had a drink for 22 years the crimes she worked, the people involved are still very real to her.

Writers, hungry for stories, conflict, drama and grit often want to know what the worst thing is that a source they speak to has experienced on the job. Pete has learned that quite often when he's gone there, he's just upset them. The worst of life and death professions can be very bad indeed and people don't really want to watch distressing horror on their screens. He recommends writers ask instead about the incidents that most impacted people. Often it might not be the horrific thing you'd expect to hear but something small that is still dramatic because it holds rich human story in it. Jackie says you have to have empathic curiosity, stand in the source's shoes, ask questions that are deep and you'll find the emotional drama.

Sources it's clear bring a huge amount of experience to scripts. Over time consultants become adept at advising on points of writing accuracy and that's something that should be valued and approached with humility. Recognise always that sources are being courageous in what they tell you and in some situations, especially if you're writing about things like injustices or national policy their own jobs could be affected by speaking out. Most people like to see their professions well represented and will want to help if they can and it's easy to go into a police station or hospital and politely ask if someone can answer a couple of questions you have about procedure even if you don't have personal contacts to tap into. Many people are in these jobs in the first place because they are predisposed to help others.

I for one, recognised the huge helpfulness of Jackie and Pete in coming to speak to us today, one of the most invaluable sessions I've experienced this weekend and a great final seminar to wrap up on, because in sharing stories (as William Nicholson said wonderfully earlier this weekend) we transmit values within our society and it's well worth remembering and including feedback from the real life people who are very much a part of that society we represent on screen.

Getting a Writing Gig that Lasts Years: Writing Sit-Coms ~ #LondonSWF

Sit-Coms are, love 'em or hate 'em, a lasting style of comedy and one in which, if you're fortunate enough to be good at, can provide work that lasts for many years. Comedy writer and director Paul Basset Davies (Spitting Image, Alas Smith & Jones) hosted a discussion with Pete Sinclair (Lead Baloon, Never Mind the Buzzcocks), Karol Griffiths (How I Met Your Mother, Friends) and John Lloyd (Blackadder, Not the Nine O'clock News) about comedy writing and the waning art of the sit-com.

As a writer who wants to write sit-com Paul suggests we have to immerse ourselves in the craft, but what is a sit-com? What are those unique qualities that make this particular sub-genre work? In sit-coms, people first and foremost are usually trapped in a situation they can't escape. Maybe they are trapped in an awful marriage or business like Fawlty Towers, or confined to prison for a long time like Porridge. Writing for that comedic clash is about finding the comedy in those things in life that don't readily change and that provide ongoing conflict.

There are some rules to sit-com writing, but its worthwhile noting that many shows will break a rule at some point. For example, mostly you'd be looking to a handful of regular characters that your show is always about but Dads Army had a very large cast of characters and worked well because of it, and Blackadder introduced a new major character each week which was kind of it's thing. Writing comedy certainly tends to be a community effort, many lines made funnier by actors thoughts and improvisations, and in terms of the process it helps to have a writing partner, team or someone that you can bounce stuff off. Cost however means UK writers rooms are unlikely to become a reality nowadays with management looking for predictability in what will grow audience and commissioners finding it a struggle to get fresh shows agreed.

Styles of comedy will differ. It's our job as the next generation of comedy writers to give people half an hour a day where they can leave aside their problems and feel better. The writers submit that sit-com in essence needs, even in it's darkest form, to be dark and jolly rather than dark and edgy. Shows like 'The Thick of It' and 'Yes Minister' were examples of comedies that made bleakness their thing. Even they can be a little heavy to watch if you just want some light relief at the end of a hard day. Pete Sinclair comments on how comedy at the moment trends towards being very overt with shows like 'Mrs Brown' being very popular for their brashness, but he'd like to see new writers bringing forth shows that are more subtle and intelligent to balance that. Karol Griffith thinks a lot of sit-coms are really mean these days, she's even left a few shows that felt mean preferring to work instead on things that move her and have a lot of heart.

There's been some change in recent years with the way television is managed and there are far less comedy producers than we had in the days of prominent popular shows like 'Dads Army' or 'Porridge'. Comedy writing is hard there's no doubt. Good one-liners are hard to write for anyone, to write a bunch of them to turn into sketches is really difficult and not every writer will be capable of doing that. Comedy, John Lloyd points out is a rare gift. There are more brain surgeons in the world than good comedy writers. In the US Karol tells us there are more comedy pilots than ever being made these days, although with just one episode to grab an audience before they've had time to get to know the characters it's still tough to get a pilot to series.

With the changing ways content is delivered now there's a real possibility that comedy channels will emerge for new comedy with producers and commissioners that understand comedy specifically and can support emerging work as it should be supported. Writing as much as possible, taking the money jobs to hone skills and meet contacts and future collaborators, then grow those skills enough to be able to write entire shows. Or make content yourself, it's so much easier these days with crowd-funding or online platforms. Watch out on comedy websites like the QI website to see when they're looking for new writers. If you can write something really funny then it will get picked up. Skills will out is the message of the day. Opportunity exists, and that's no joke!

Originality, Commercialism and Creativity: Steve La Rue and David Reynolds ~ #LondonSWF

There are twenty-nine superhero movies currently scheduled for release, TV development exec Steve La Rue calmly announces to a gasp from the many delegates in the room. Even for those of us with some understanding of industry trends, hearing that figure stated aloud is astonishing. Though the superhero genre is in decline it still makes lots of money and pulls a majority of financing into it's vortex and away from the more 'risky' original stories that could be being made instead. The repercussion of the studio successes with this genre is that TV emulates those studio decisions and we're seeing a lot more superhero TV also. There's certainly a market for these shows but Steve doesn't think the trend will last and what replaces it will depend on what new writing can offer.

Steve has flown in Santa Monica, California to join Disney and Pixar writer David Reynolds to talk to us about re-invigorating the industry and finding that place in our writing that is fresh and that also has a market. Firstly he points out that good writing still matters in the superhero genre, TV series Flash is currently getting more traction than the show Arrow that it sprung from, because of the writing. There's a glut of content that serves the fanboy set and those of us in that group love what we're getting, but with one demographic receiving the bulk of the market right now it's worthwhile looking for those gaps that can be filled. Personal stories like Orange is the New Black have found their support base from people who have been starved for content more relatable to themselves. It's success as a show has united the creative community who are looking for the next Orange to attract and retain those audiences.

Our little lives are interesting it seems, there's a lot more drama in our lives these days for starters, we all have extended and step family situations, drama in the workplace, we travel more. We have busy dramatic lives. Amazon's new show Transparent, about an ordinary family where the dad comes out as transsexual is resonating with audiences right now. From Six Feet Under and United States of Tara writer Jill Soloway the story happened in her own life. "It just immediately hit me as this is the show I've been waiting my whole life to write." she told Rolling Stone recently proving that personal stories can be fulfilling for writers as much as audiences.

Only you have that insight into your own stories Steve tells us, by all means throw in that supernatural hook or whatever you like to write but you don't need an amazing hook to begin with. Once you have that simple premise you can just throw 'what if' at it until you have seven or eight stories to form episodes. You don't need 24 for a series anymore, dramas are going shorter these days. It's easier than you think to find a premise you care about and begin writing original story that only you can tell.

Selling your stories is about your personal insight too. You have to own your idea, to be able to point out what's unusual and what's universal, that's your hook and what makes you, not some other writer more qualified to write your tale. If you pitch a cool sexy idea, you still have to know how to write within that world, so maybe you make the astronauts like your family. You have stuff that's relatable and then you just lay the whole world on top of that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was really the concept that for teens in high school, life is hell. 

You're going to write a lot of stuff that people don't like, Steve and David tell us. We all do. You're going to write a lot that people like too, and if you can learn to write to your own personal voice you can write anything.

Silence of the Lambs: Script to Screen with Screenwriter Ted Tally ~ #LondonSWF

There's not a lot of talking going on, even from Ted Tally, as Silence of the Lambs plays on screen gripping a room of hundreds. Personally I'd forgotten how good it is. The film is iconic, enthralling and every moment is pregnant with emotion. The fact that it still plays well and we sink into it so easily so many years later, Ted says, is down to the costume and set design that has meant the film hasn't dated much and remains relevant. Though Ted himself hadn't watched this film for a decade seeing it with us today he admits "It holds up very well."

Though exceedingly violent the film, Ted illustrates to us, was not mindlessly violent. For instance when Lecter is moved to a cell and escapes, killing the guards, that's a shocking and horrific thing. The first guard violently attacked, his tongue bitten out reveals the true cannibalistic nature of Hannibal, the second, bludgeoned to death we see only Hannibal and blood splash, not the blows hitting or the guard dying. It was the most tasteful way Ted tells us, that you can film such a violent act against a human being. Strung up like a crucified moth, echoing the butterfly motif that permeates the visuals throughout the film the second guard becomes a type of performance art for Lecter to distract from the second guard's body on the floor, he doesn't want them looking too closely at that barely breathing survivor who is not quite what he seems. These vistas are not there to be gratuitous or merely shock, they underpin crucial elements of the story and theme.

Ted credits much of the plot genius to the original novelist, Thomas Harris saying there are mythic underpinnings to his writing. I could never have come up with that plot twist, he admits as the ambulance scene plays out., or the one with the two houses at the end. In adapting the novel for screen though he did make some bold decisions that broke the usual rules of screenwriting, in the escape scene we've just seen for instance, we have broken away from our protagonist for some fourteen minutes. It was crucial to include that scene from the book, he tells us, and he told himself it was okay to leave Clarice behind for a bit because when we go back to her, we never have to leave her again for the rest of the movie. Don't break the rules just the break them, he tells us later, you have to trust your story to lead you and if you need to break the rules to make it work, you do. The one rule never to break though is the rule that says "don't bore the audience" he adds wisely.

Ted always assumes a very smart engaged audience for his work saying the audience is much smarter than we give them credit for, most have seen thousands of stories already and they're way ahead of you. He makes a point to say that the screenplay was easier to write than it looks, the book was a banquet of material, far more really than was needed for a movie but with no flab in it. Writing the adaptation he was very conscious of the subtext, Clarice mourning for her father's long ago death, Ted's own father dying as he wrote the scenes. The ending was changed to give hope though. Rather than an original plan to have Lecter find Chiltern hiding out with personal security somewhere but director Jonathan Demme wanted to allow for the illusion that Chiltern might get away. Ted came up with the idea that maybe he would be getting on a plane to the tropics and then you could cut to a scene where Lecter, on the phone to Clarice, was already there waiting for Chiltern to arrive. You mean you and I would take Anthony and a small crew to the tropics in January to write and film this scene, and it would be paid for by the production budget? was Jonathan's approving response. The rest of this story of course, is film history.

The British Screenwriters' Awards 2014: Hosted by Rhona Cameron

In a star studded (Ted Tally and Joel Schumacher sat next to one another in the front row counts) and joyous event 2014 found itself the year that was putting screenwriters at the forefront as the British Screenwriters' Awards burst into being.

Four awards were up for grabs in this inaugural event and if that sounds like humble beginnings for an awards event then we should be humbled only by the outstanding writing from TV and Film work of the nominees. And set within the warm arms of the London Screenwriters' Festival it was a heartfelt affair to honour the true architects of great storytelling, the writers themselves.

Hosted by the redoubtable Rhona Cameron who had us in raucous stitches and kept us that way for some time, the awards, golden envelopes an' all, were greeted by roars from a packed house full of screenwriters honouring their own. Here at the London Screenwriters' Festival we are a family, inspiring each other to excel. "Writers are conductors of the soul." Rhona imparts philosophically.

Here are the nominees and winners of this first event. Many thanks to The Writers' Guild of Great Britain for their sponsorship of the event.

Outstanding Newcomer for British Television Writing

‘Murdered By My Boyfriend’ by Regina Moriarty (BBC3)
‘Raised By Wolves’ by Caitlin Moran and Caroline Moran (Channel 4)
WINNER: ‘In the Flesh’ by Dominic Mitchell, John Jackson and Fintan Ryan (BBC3)
‘My Mad Fat Diary’ by Tom Bidwell, Rae Earl and Laura Neal (Channel 4)

Outstanding Newcomer for British Feature Film Writing

WINNER: ‘Saving Mr Banks’ by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
‘The Riot Club’ by Laura Wade
‘Starred Up’ by Jonathan Asser
‘Pride’ by Stephen Beresford

Best British TV Drama Writing

‘The Honourable Woman’ by Hugo Blick (BBC2)
WINNER: ‘Happy Valley’ by Sally Wainwright (BBC1)
‘Sherlock’ by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss (BBC1)
‘Utopia’ by Dennis Kelly (Channel 4)

Best British Feature Film Writing

‘The Selfish Giant’ by Clio Barnard
WINNER ‘Philomena’ by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan
‘Locke’ by Steven Knight
‘The Double’ by Richard Ayaode and Avi Korine

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Adapting Novels: Ted Tally with Daniel Martin Eckhart

Adapting novels into screenplay is something many screenwriters balk at, whether wanting to focus on their own stories exclusively or finding the process of honing a dense work into something far more concise that will work on screen to be a daunting challenge. But for writers who do work with adaptations broader work opportunities become available. Oscar winner Ted Tally and screenwriter Daniel Martin Eckhart joined us to share their processes and thoughts about the adaptations they've done.

It seems there's a knack to adaptation that begins with finding the right material to work from. Money and contracts come second to finding a novel that you really see something in, say's Daniel. Something to look for are great characters that you want to spend time with. Reading the novel for the first time, Ted likes to pretend he's just reading it for fun rather than looking too hard at where the plot needs keeping or trimming for a transfer to screen. You want to feel there's a motor there, you hope the plot is unpredictable and you hope that the third act is good. Often if the novelist hasn't been able to solve the third act problems you won't be able to either.

When it comes to the adaptation process Ted makes his outline scene by scene having read the book three or four times by this point until he has a some twenty-five page treatment of what the project will be. Gradually he'll flesh out the treatment picking the bits that stay with him from the novel. As he writes he'll work more from his outline than from the novel, eventually forgetting the book unless he needs to look up something specific from it. Daniel has a slightly different approach, writing an approximately ten page proposal that outlines what the story, characters and major themes will be. Both ways achieve the same aim of being able to show execs the particular take on the story that a writer sees. Even if you've been sent a novel to look at adapting doesn't mean you'll get the gig and you may still have to pitch. It's wise, says Ted, to assume that execs don't know the material when you go in, even if they bought the rights to it.

Silence of the Lambs was a long novel with multiple points of view throughout. Ted Tally focussed on the Clarice character as he felt she was the most important spiritual guide for the audience and the right person to lead us through the story. He made a choice to write in a way that would only reveal pertinent information as Clarice herself discovered it, he wanted us to know stuff as she knew it, not ahead of her. With any decisions come downsides and for this choice it meant the richness of other great characters in the novel was muted in the screenplay. It's not always obvious in novels who the story is about but most movies have two or three key characters. When it comes to story adaptation Ted believes 'If it ain't broke don't fix it.' All the Pretty Horses was a good example of a story not needing to be changed extensively to work on screen.

When working with a novelist adapting their work, collaboration from both sides is essential. If the author and screenwriter don't respect each other's mediums or if the relationship isn't good then it's going to be bad for the material. How much research you need to do on a subject you're adapting can depend on how much the novelist has already done. For Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris had done a lot and Ted knew it was reliable and authentic in the novel.

Having adapted a novelists work once, it sometimes happens that they will produce a sequel book and the option to adapt that also comes to pass. For Silence of the Lambs, a sequel film had been a very real possibility right away but knowing Thomas was writing his own sequel it hadn't felt right to go ahead with a new film ahead of his book. However after waiting ten years for him to write it, Hannibal was not the book they were hoping for, Thomas had taken the characters in a completely different direction than the first. The day they received the sequel book to read was the day the Columbine massacre happened and the influence of media on young people was at the forefront. The violence in the book was of a gratuitous nature and both Ted Tally and Jonathan Demme had kids of their own. They took a pass on adapting this sequel as did Jodie Foster. A few years later Thomas Harris who had not liked Manhunter, a wonderful film but Harris felt one that didn't deliver on the promise of the novel, wanted to go back and revisit that origin story. Ted got to work on Red Dragon and the rejection of Hannibal was politely forgotten.

All the Pretty Horses had been an easy adaptation and became known around Hollywood as one of the great unmade screenplays. Billy Bob Thornton, got himself the job of directing it but he had little experience as a director and the resulting film wasn't so good. Ted was brought back in to help with the edit process and work to find the story and structure from what had been shot after Billy Bob walked away. Sometimes the adaptation process itself isn't so good and it feels terrible if you spend a year or so on something and then it doesn't work but it goes with the territory. In the same way it's frustrating when good work goes unproduced. There's nothing deader than an unproduced screenplay. And then again, jokes Ted, sometimes it gets made and you think 'oops' wish that one hadn't been!

Daniel likes to see the process of adaptation as being given frames, that while they may appear to be confining, within those frames you get to be as creative as you want, debunking the myth that writing to the confines of someone else's story might dampen one's ability to be fully inventive. With many produced works these days coming from adaptation, that's something to remember and maybe worth giving it a try if it's something you haven't considered yet.

The Craft: Killer Style, Tone and Techniques with Pilar Alessandra ~ #LondonSWF

Script consultant and editor Pilar Alessandra took us on a whirlwind hour of screenwriting craft to analyse screenplay and see how our choices, if we used our craft correctly could greatly enhance and improve our work.

Scenes can give us the feeling of an idea and Pilar showed us how, while keeping the pertinent description of a scene intact, we can still colour the expression of the place, different word choices giving hints to different genres depending on what you are writing. Word choice is important and what's also important is to remember that readers grasp things in context, so you don't need to dumb down medical, military or other types of language that would be used in the context of who your characters are.

In addition to word choice the placing or separation of descriptive phrases can draw the camera's eye to images that have significance, to add weight to them. Because at the end of the day, the emotion that comes out of a line of action is the story. How you approach the dialogue or visuals matters.

When it comes to adding subtext, there's a 'tell' in a scene that you can find. Replacing what a character truly might wish to say with a revealing gesture is enough to grasp what's really going on. Those revealing gestures can also inform an actor the tone of the dialoge. "I'm sorry," could be delivered in many different ways but if there's a clenched fist also it's clearer what kind of delivery by the actor serves the intention best. Focusing on the key tell helps you focus on what your scene is about.

The right word choice can do the job of three different sentences, in particular when it comes to character description where if you capture the essence of a character rather than locking down specific physicality that tells little about their inner state. 'Beguiling vamp.' says way more than 'tall blonde in a bustier' and leaves casting and costume choices more open. Similarly something like 'subordinate chic' can say a lot about a location without tying down a specific look (especially if you might need to do research to know what that look is as with something like Mad Men which is both period and a particular field). Essence plus action can describe a character very well. If your beguiling vamp works in somewhere that's subordinate chic then she's going to stand out, a lot!

Going through scripts to edit or re-write Pilar encourages us to find our 'one liners'. Those memorable bits of dialogue that people will remember.. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." that was such a contrast to the hysteria of the scene that it had huge impact. A word choice in the opening can set the tone for an entire scene.

Ultimately your job is to find the story of a scene. What has to be there and what helps or hurts the main beat of your story. When people say edit it's not so they can read less (although they like to read less) it's so you can be truer to the story you want to tell.

Pilar is continuing teaching her extremely precise grasp of technique in more sessions at the LSF.

Hollywood Classics: Joel Schumacher ~ #LondonSWF

Once again sitting down with Joel Schumacher (do I make that sound like there's not a few hundred people in the room?) to look over some of the scripts he's directed. For a number of Joel's varied projects we looked at a cold reading of the screenplay performed by actors then compare them to the finished excerpt of the film to see what gets added and taken away during production.

In Falling Down for instance, sound and score had been used to great advantage to create pressure in the opening sequence of the film, the car on the highway which had been filmed in a style to imitate Fellini's 8 1/2. Something that only a couple of critics picked up on after the film's release. There are many little visual clues in the finished segment that enhance the depth of what the screenplay offered. The tableau in total took eight hours to shoot. A little later we take a look a the Whammy Burger scene, where Joel gives great credit to his actors and to production design. The flirty Whammy Burger employee had cheekily picked up a ringing phone inside Joel's office answering it as if it were Wendy's (US burger chain) and as she handed Joel the phone with an 'it's for you' he told her she was hired. These casting decisions informed how the characters on the page played out on screen, 90% of directing is casting.

Looking at The Lost Boys train scene (which we'd covered yesterday somewhat) the most obvious change from the screenplay was that instead of falling through darkness into David's arms the character falls through fog and lands on his own bed the next day. One major change that had happened from the spec screenplay was that the characters ages had been raised from 8-10 year olds (a film that Joel didn't want to make) to being teens, that and a couple of other ideas made the project which he'd initially wanted to turn down, more worthwhile to him and the studio loved his ideas for it.

It's incredible sometimes how at the Screenwriters festival many sessions reinforce something you learned in another session. The visual writing, enhanced by even greater visual detail added in direction reminded me of many of the subtext elements in Ludo's seminar the day before. Joel tells us that as an audience we see only what they want us to see on screen. This is so we can feel it.

Phone Booth was a 12 day shoot on a street so they rehearsed first for two weeks. Again the actors get credit from Joel for a lot of the enhancement from script to screen as do the camera angles. A lot of impro came out because of the tight schedule and location shoot. In fact many reactions of people in the film are the real reactions of people on the street. Colin didn't have much experience but the studio had let Joel use an unknown and he feels the film would have been a totally different movie with stars in it. Due to the need to keep rolling they shot using 'French hours' where food was passed around all day instead of stopping for scheduled breaks. The didn't even know if they could make the first day in terms of needing to get a certain amount done (I believe 13 pages) but they had to get finished before the Christmas break as holding over till after the holidays would have been too expensive. Everyone worked their asses off but it wasn't until the first screening that they knew whether they had a hit on their hands or not.

All the in depth reminded me that there's never enough time or enough budget. It's evident in how the scripts are brought into the finished film and when in good hands it matters less if there's less, in not so good hands it wouldn't matter if there were more. Fortunately Joel is good hands to put a film in. A pleasure to look at some more of his work today.

Echoes in Eternity: In Conversation With William Nicholson ~ #LondonSWF

With a formidable body of work, William Nicholson joined us to share some of his experience, in his own words, "to try and be useful" to us with whatever he could share of the writing process. As it happens that's a great deal.

The film he's perhaps best known for writing on is Gladiator where he was brought in to begin a complete re-write of the screenplay just two weeks prior to shooting. The film had come about from a script that wasn't working but Ridley Scott, who is a very visual person, had seen an image and felt he could make the story work, that there was something to it. Rewrites happened and the screenplay improved but still had problems, however Russell Crowe, who was not yet a star got on board to play Maximus. The script however continued to have problems and when Crowe walked out after a read through Nicholson was brought on board as a Production Writer, an unusual thing, to get the material ready for shooting on short notice and to continue to write as the shoot went on. Writing in a little trailer on the back of the set he spent some 15 weeks working on it in total. During that time and because of his proximity he became more involved in production matters than was usual for a writer as people would just knock on his trailer door and ask him questions.

Writing, William says, is about emotion, it's the key to all great drama, and that the vehicle to deliver the emotion you've chosen is the character. Once your character is serving your emotion you need to add structure. Done the wrong way characters can become puppets serving the plot and that's often the case where you see a film that you like but that didn't move you. After we watch a clip of Commodus commit a heinous act against his father Marcus Aurelius he explains that even as we write an evil character doing unspeakable things we must find a way into that character's moment, to understand them. This speech about virtues, where Commodus mentions the chief Roman virtues his father values but that he doesn't have, explains there are other virtues and values, he's really asking his father why he can't see him, why he doesn't see the value of his son. That was a way into Commodus' point of view. The resulting action stems out of something we can more fully understand than if we'd just seen a violent act without that greater context. Similarly the opening entry into the film is of a man in a field, we see a man who wants to be a farmer not a soldier so before we see the entire Roman army just out of view, we already have a sense of who this character is. A lot of story, says William, has no spoken words at all.

The best writing, Nicholson thinks, comes from an authentic emotion in the writer. When he wrote Shadowlands, he was a vastly distant sort of person than his professor protagonist was, but at the time he was struggling with commitment issues. He was at root, frightened of being hurt, being vulnerable. That fear of loving is what Shadowlands is about. A lot of very powerful material comes out of heavy emotions like anger, humiliation, revenge etc. Writers, he half jokes, are neurotic failures who use the medium as their revenge on the world.

Moving on to talk about adaptation his he uses Life Story his TV film screenplay about the structure of DNA, to illustrate how his screenplay was not in fact an adaptation of the book but that he'd used the Juliette Stephenson character as a way into his own take on the story. She was the person he'd settled on because she was the tragic figure in the tale, she'd independantly done all the work and was just missing a piece of the puzzle, something she knew she'd missed and was trying to solve when her work was seen without her knowledge and then completed without her involvement. That's a take you don't find in the book. There's a lot to be said, says William, about not doing too much research. You're writing story not reality.

One very important point he makes about screenwriting is that what we do is not escapism. It's a way to transmit values within a society. What we do is important. Many old westerns contain a lot of morality. Over time, the morality changes, being forthright enough to not hide and shoot but to stroll out in broad daylight and wait till the other person was ready before you shot them is not the morality of today, but there are still societal values imparted in the stories we tell.

Giving us his take on the industry his story sounds like it all happened easily, a job shooting little documentaries led him to follow into screenwriting when the opportunity was thrust at him, one piece of writing led to another and a while on from that he was being nominated for an Oscar. But in actuality he had first wanted to be a novelist and he'd done a lot of writing before anything really happened for him. A good way into the industry, if your work is not known he imparts, is by having an interesting subject. The subject matter is always more interesting than the pedigree of the writer. Time helps too, you can't fabricate authority. Where does what you write come from? It comes from you and it comes more readily with age and as you accumulate experience. Everything that goes wrong in your life feeds your material. That also means that it's never too late to have a breakthrough.

Certainly accumulating the experience of such an accomplished writer today did us no harm whatsoever.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Joel Schumacher Script to Screen: The Lost Boys ~ #LondonSWF

Watching one of my favourite films, The Lost Boys as Joel Schumacher himself sits in the room talking about it's making was for me a huge treat, not least of all because it was evident from the first second Joel walked in the room that he was, despite his great success and long career, a down to earth, kind and giving person with a great sense of humour.

The fourth of his distributed films and following on the heels of St. Elmo's Fire, the success of The Lost Boys cemented Joel's early directing career. It's easy with hindsight to view the film as a Hollywood classic and indeed it is, but as it was being made it was an inexpensive project where budgets were tight from the beginning and were slashed further during production with $1M being cut from the production design. However, making the most of the limitations Joel worked to include low budget fixes to make up for what the film could have had on a higher budget and the movie is perhaps better because of the innovation required. For instance, with no money do do elaborate flight scenes for the boys Joel took a note from Jaws where the shark doesn't appear until late in the movie and instead of flying used pov camera shots and other tricks to create fantastical illusion every bit as effective.

Santa Monica at the time was really the murder capital of the world, the boardwalk scenes at the beginning of the move contained no extras, only the colourful locals and the buff dancing musician was a chap called Tim Cappello who was Tina Turner's sax player. They needed to create a cool but weird vibe which fit in with the tone of the story. Most of the cast were at that point unknown. Much of the fantastical vibe was created with smoke, a very effective inexpensive tool to give an atmosphere and mystic veil to surreal/fantasy scenes. Joel says that it's hard to explain these scenes sometimes using a script so you have to fight for them. Lighting was used to effect with devices like an arc light on Kiefer that picked him out and highlighted his already strong screen presence. Nothing was stinted on for the animals though with actual wranglers on set for the worms and maggots and two dogs, one nice one and an attack dog. As attack dogs can't be played with they needed two. Lemon juice was used to get worms and maggots to wriggle and squirm instead of their rather dormant normal state. The train bridge idea was another economic stunt, the bridge being low (it's actual height hidden by smoke underneath) and the stunts in the studio replica proving simple, with wires on the actors being easy to remove virtually even at that time and a stunt double falling into empty cardboard boxes, a good way to break a fall. Though the train illusion was inexpensive it was very original and a great idea. Stock footage from Top Gun was provided by Jerry Bruckheimer for a later sky scene of flying through clouds. Many solutions to budget restrictions proved to only enhance the magic of the film. The role of the director, Joel says, is to elevate the material.

Music too served to elevate, the Cry Little Sister track came in on a demo and found it's way to Joel's desk, on hearing it he felt it fitted the movie like a missing piece. Similarly a track by Run DMC, Walk this Way, was provided and Joel not sure what he was doing with one scene of the film where the vampires kill decided it would be a great idea to kill surf Nazis in conjunction with the song. You build tension any way you can, says Joel, with music, with shots.

Prosthetics had been overused in the 80s and they decided in changing regular to vampire faces on the boys that only a little change was necessary so that we could see the boys not the makeup. Joel blessed with amazing casts wanted to use them to advantage. He credits his actors and amazing screenwriter for everything they gave him to work with saying that when we can be most destructive is when we don't realise it's a collaboration.

Speaking of his career a little, Joel points out that he began poor, had no TV and grew up with comic books
 and movie theatres for his entertainment. It was just him and his mother in an industrial town across the bridge from Manhattan and he got into trouble a lot. When he found his first sober friend, that person was able to introduce him to contacts who eventually facilitated his move to California to work on the movies he loved, at first as a costume designer as he was known for his own style. Joel credits Woody Allen for being influential to his career. Woody had an openness to his set and though he didn't always act he listened to what people had to say. It was he who encouraged Joel to write his own stuff resulting in Joel finally getting to direct two of his scripts for movies of the week which got picked up for TV. Hires to direct distributed pictures followed. When you do early films and get lucky you just hope you'll get another job Joel tells us. Thankfully for us, he did. - Film News