Friday, 30 October 2015
When the London Screenwriters' Festival comes to a close there's always a sad tinge alongside the elation. We leave rooms full of cheers and comradeship, nerves and excitement, knowledge and rainmakers of the industry to return to our computers, to sit by ourselves and pull stuff out of our heads to put onto a page. It can seem lonely except for the fact that we've come from a massive screenwriting seminar with hundreds of people who understand why we do what we do.
The solitary business of screenwriting is made less so when we remember how many of us there are and that peer group doesn't go away because a festival is over. The community may not be gathered in one place again until next year but in the meantime, we connect on Twitter (hashtag #LondonSWF) and Facebook and other social networks, information is shared on the blogs and all the delegates have access to the online LSF Connect community hub. Don't just sign up, contribute and join in and you'll find your support system there. Some of the seminars we didn't get to see because there's so much happening were recorded and will be edited and uploaded there.
One of the great things about the festival is the people who organise it, the staff and volunteers and the many speakers and industry folks who come and share their stories, knowledge, wisdom and humour with us all want us to leave with something valuable that helps us create. They all want us to succeed in our writing goals. Because writers make each other better.
Thank you to all for reading the blogs and tweets and connecting with me during the festival. A peer community is made by everyone who contributes toward it even in the tiniest of ways. For those who contribute a lot there are not words to express your awesomeness! As we cheer our way out of the auditorium and back to our desks we don't end with an ending. We end by beginning. With new enthusiasm, new knowledge and fresh insight to take with us, perhaps a Wonder Woman t-shirt or two, and we hope also some new friends.
Thursday, 29 October 2015
With the opportunity to read the original screenplay in the approach to the festival, then a chance to see the film with the screenwriter's live commentary, Script to Screen Live events are a real treat of the London Screenwriters' Festival.
When the film is a monster success like JAWS on the 40th anniversary of it's release it's a sensational experience. Jaws was a phenomenal success back in 1975 and it's worldwide box office since tallies in at currently around $1.94 Billion. It was the film that created the summer blockbuster. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said it was as frightening as The Exorcist but a nicer kind of fright. Watching a blu-ray edition mastered from the restored original print Eddie Hamilton and Chris Jones joined Carl Gottlieb to talk us through the adventure!
The film itself was preceded by a short documentary Eddie Hamilton had found shot in 1974 at the start of the shoot showing scenes of the making of the film with a 26 year old Steven Spielberg at the helm and featuring Carl Gottlieb.
The Jaws novel, on the bestseller lists by the time the film was being shot, had been written by Peter Benchley. Optioned early, as part of the deal he had been paid to write a first draft and some revisions. Another screenwriter had taken a pass to include some changes Spielberg wanted and take some of the literary quality out to make the film more cinematic. Though not entirely where the producers and Spielberg wanted it to be the studio was happy enough with the script to sign off on pre-production. Carl Gottlieb who was friendly with Spielberg was brought into the project for a small acting role. As the pair were wont to discuss projects and chat about matters of art, Carl, an accomplished writer as well as an actor gave Spielberg his thoughts on the screenplay and was hired to do rewrites before shooting commenced. For story considerations he reluctantly put his job as screenwriter ahead of his acting goals and wrote a lot of his role out of the picture. It was painful, he tells us, but necessary.
With three weeks to principle photography, no script finalised and actors still being cast and throwing their ideas in there was a lot of writing to be done. Setting up shop on location in Martha's Vineyard Carl Gottlieb and Spielberg shared a house and he was able to work with the directors input at hand to get things ship shape. Carl's initial desire for the film was that it could be a great popular entertainment film, making people as afraid to go into the water as they were afraid to get into the shower after Psycho. The script changes to make that happen were a lot and revisions were still being made when shooting began. Last minute changes threw production plans off kilter, the shark didn't work and cover scenes also had to be written to suggest it's menace until the beast itself could be made to function. Though Carl was able to go home after the dialogue in the screenplay was finished shooting there was another two months spent on set to get the action shots once the shark got going.
There was fun in the project though, the scene on the beach where Brody is looking over masses of people on the beach they called 'the menu' deliberately not sharing with the audience which 'dish' the shark was going to select. It ended up being termed 'the lunch menu' and the July 4th montage of the tourist influx became 'the dinner menu.' Robert Shaw brought the idea that the Quint character he was playing should be eating something, jaws mimicking the shark itself and they gave him saltine crackers to champ on. The grieving mother cameo was played by a local actor who was a member of the dramatic society and earned Carl's respect by delivering her lines exactly as written but bringing all the emotion to the role that we see on screen. A lot of locals featured in the film, one guy bringing his own dog, who's disappearance from shot became a foreshadowing of things to come.
Decisions had been made to exclude some of the book's storyline. Brody's wife in the book had an affair with Hooper that was unhelpful to the structure of the screenplay other than a small tension it might have added to the three men on a boat together. The later death of Hooper which made sense in the book as a kind of just deserts for sleeping with someone else's wife then also became unnecessary in the movie plot, where it would have detracted from Quint's misfortune. The scenes where exposition was necessary were cleverly injected with such passion that the audience doesn't realise they are being fed information. The screenplay structure itself was unusual in that it's a two act screenplay, act one ending when the guys sail off with a singing Quint and act two becomming 'man against shark.' The hard arduous work next to enjoyment of the movie's qualities was mirrored in the tone of the film. The notion that you can have horror moments next to laughter moments was something they worked hard on figuring if you like people you'll be more scared for them. The score was one of adventure music, like pirates braving the waves of the high seas. It's a film that contains a lot of enterprise.
For many of the film's shots lots of things are happening in the frame at once, Spielberg refused to compromise sometimes spending 12 hour days out at sea and coming home with nothing. The sharks malfunctions worked out as Stephen and Carl had been fans of The Thing where you don't see the creature until deep into the movie. For suggesting the shark they used yellow barrels with unnatural bobbing movements to indicate the frenzy going on below the water. For the places you see the shark Carl tells us if you see the head and tail in one shot it's the real shark and if you don't it's the fake one.
Eventually the film was finished and they did previews to test response. By the second paid preview they knew the film would be popular but it wasn't until the box office started flooding in that they realised it would be something historical. Since then it has become the template for releasing summer movies. Sequels followed, Carl joking that the law of sequels is only the last one loses money. His own pockets were sadly not filled with financial security from the job but, Carl tells us, the film is a rare example of a strong collaboration and when you write something iconic you have to accept it becomes part of you. Watching the film with him I realised that for many of us here today the reverse would be true and I'd never again watch Jaws without noting the scene and story choices, the blood sweat and tears gone into creating them that he'd shared with us today, my enjoyment enriched by the deeper sense of adventure I now know went into creating it.
C4's 4Screenwriting program 4Screenwriting was initiated and has been run by Phillip Shelley since 2011 helping to facilitate and fast-track writer's careers in the television industry. He joined us today to talk about the initiative along with co-ordinator Lisa Walters and two of the programs alumni, screenwriters Anna Symon and Jane Eden.
In it's sixth year the program is one of four run by Channel 4 all detailed on the 4Talent website. 4Screenwriting is only open to writers without broadcast credits or a feature film release (short films under 20mins do not preclude entry). The entry period window is kept fairly short to avoid the program being overwhelmed. Many of the entries are polished screenplays and these shine through so although this year's entry window was 30th Oct work not yet ready could be polished from now until the next time the submission window opens. CV's and writing samples are submitted, the CV just an idea of what the writer has been doing so they can get to know the person as well as the writing.
When accepted for the course writers come along with new ideas and are paired up with a script editor (three writers per editor) where on the first weekend they will talk through their ideas in a group and the writer with their editor decide which idea to work on. Work is developed and the writers write alone but with as much access to the script editor as the writer needs. A reading with actors helps to hone the work before a second script editor puts fresh eyes on it. As well as the writing development there is social mixing organised between the writers and prominent people in the industry. The course opens doors for new writers, allowing their work to be known.
The writers telling us about their experiences tell us it's a little scary to go along with a bunch of other writers and it's common to lack confidence. Anna says that it's well worth having some very well thought out story ideas before turning up so that you can articulate your ideas well and make the best use of your time. Being able to talk about your work is a key part of your work as a professional screenwriter. Learning how to talk about her work, getting access to people to get to know and talk to and ending up with a developed screenplay that has a C4 tick of approval that you can be proud to send out is, the writer's tell us, a great way to gain entry to the industry.
Jane told us the calibre of people is fantastic and she remembered being terrified at first, but then you have the opportunity to write an amazing script. You build your work, become a collaborator and get your work to production companies. Taking opportunities to meet people is also about them seeing if they can work with you now or in the future, it's a social collaborative industry. Jane has established a career through the course and her hard work, she's currently working on series 2 of Fortitude and has a script commission.
Channel 4 don't make any shows themselves, they commission production companies to make them. Your idea is championed to the broadcaster by the production company or the broadcaster may bring ideas to them. Everyone wants you to be a better writer.
Finding work is a matter of ongoing persistence. Work gets optioned and sometimes sits around undeveloped until a broadcaster can be brought on board. So few things get made in the UK projects don't always happen but there are US and other markets too and having a good script gets you work. Anna worked on the first season of Indian Summers and has been asked back to do more work on season two. Being asked back is a good stamp of approval she tells us and that can also get you other work.
Earning a living as a writer depends on what you do and how much work you get, what gets made etc. There are fee scales on the Writers Guild of Great Britain website. Option fees, Jane laughs, are never as much as you'd like to think. The writers agree though, that the discipline and ways of working plus the contacts they made on the 4Screenwriting course were invaluable to their career progress.
In a very practical LSF session writer-producer and author Jeff Norton talked to us about creating an immersive world for characters to inhabit and have us begin to flesh out and document the story world for our own personal screenplay. People after all are creations of nature and nurture, who they are, why they act the way they act, what motivates them and provides their story, these things are all influenced by their environment. There are many, many aspects of course that form these worlds, and by making them rich and real we make them accessible not only to our characters but to our audiences too.
And so we ran through a rough outline with Jeff of what it is that forms a world that's real.
A map is always a good place to start. Geography, the lay of the land, the places the character comes from and/or encounters on their journey. Arduous terrain, oceanic animals are they from the city or country, inland or coast? How do these things influence the culture of the world and the life of the character. Economics, Is there scarcity, or labour issues, how are resources, especially scarce resources allocated. Is there social control and hierarchy, who has power and who wants it? How are people incentivised? What are the politics, how are decisions made? What are the value systems?
In the western world for instance, we tend to take for granted the peaceful transfer of power, we have elections etc. Our culture informs character behaviour. It's possible to write a type of Wikipedia page for our story world defining all the information that makes up that place just as we do to teach ourselves the details about real places. Topics for our page include history, geography, economics, religion, social structure, education culture and climate, politics and demographics.
Within those frames it's then possible to look at how characters either live with or transgress the moral code. In those aspects we can find the conflict that builds our story. We apply a lens through which our character, or group of characters see the world.
It's also helpful to map the sources of conflict in the world. Where have been the societal flash points or cold wars? Have there been long simmering battles of ideology? In world building there is production design (the world how you see it) and the world that is what your characters actually do. What has been around that might be perpetuating grudges, are there organisations or general biases influencing events? Where are the powder kegs occurring now or that occurred in the world history. All these things will influence your characters. The world informs the creation of characters. A cool character won't always fit your world.
What your character was doing the day before page one of the story is also a useful thing to write down. It's a good way of knowing what your character's pre-story state is without the pressure of crafting a story around them, a bit like the principle of people being more natural when they know they aren't watched. You have to be able to know your character's set of beliefs or world view when you put them in a situation. If in your story world of the wild west people get rich by becoming criminals will your protagonist do that? Jeff thinks that for cinematic story it's helpful to use superlatives in one vector of a character when building their personality. What are they the best or the baddest at? Are they the best cowboy or the baddest gangster or the sharpest thinker?
Even knowing a lot about our own screenplays, writing down the detail and creating a bible for the world really beds down that information into practical things you can use. Story (the character's journey within the world) happens at the intersection of a character's life and times. Writing immersive worlds can be, well, immersive. The morning flew, we all had pages we could take away and some of us could continue to world build forever. One of Jeff's final suggestions was to give yourself a time limit when writing a world bible. Creating a rich world doesn't mean getting bogged down in it. But certainly for my story even a little bit of understanding world building had gone a long way.
Sharing his journey to success in an interview with Rogue Nation editor Eddie Hamilton, Christopher McQuarrie began speaking with the words "I was always in love with telling stories." As a child he would write stories to entertain himself. When discovered doing this, a teacher asked if that's what he wanted to do when he was grown and formed idea that yes, maybe he could write for a living. Though his road to career happiness has been a curving one and he did other things along the way, that thought of professional storytelling was always at the back of his mind.
Knowing director Bryan Singer vaguely from high school the two had later become friends resulting in him writing a screenplay for Bryan to direct. This went to Sundance and while in line waiting to go in he told his friend Dylan about an idea to write next. A column he'd read with the heading The Usual Suspects would, he said, be a cool title for a film about a group of criminals. To pass time they imagined what the poster would look like with a line up of motley offenders and they mentioned it to Bryan before forgetting about it. A month later Bryan had come across some investors willing to spend $3M on a project and asked Christopher if he could write the movie for the poster he'd told him about.
Christopher found himself in a room at the law firm he worked at in LA, pondering what he could write about. There was a bulletin board in the room and as he was looking at it picking up names and bits of info to use he came up with the plot for The Usual Suspects central story. Looking back on his career McQuarrie sights that time as the closest to a religious writing experience he has ever had. The film culminated in an Oscar win for only his second produced screenplay.
His career continued, he script doctored, took on his first directing gig with his film Way of the Gun and for a long time he worked as a screenwriter never getting to direct any of the projects he wanted to. Working on Valkyrie he founded a working relationship with Tom Cruise. They would work together again when he was asked to write and direct an adaptation based on the Jack Reacher novel. Initially he turned the project down as he felt he wouldn't ultimately get to direct it once a studio came on board and took over production, as had happened to him in the past. They'd want somebody more experienced. He had inadvertently invested someone else in his success and with someone else pushing for it the directing deal got signed off on before he began writing. The film got a $60M budget so it was expensive but not the sort of Transformers movie blockbuster type of story that brought in the profits. Still the project had Tom Cruise attached and a very (Christopher jokes) cheap director. It found it's audience.
His writing skills had led him to being the guy who got movies made. That also meant he got fired a lot. He learned during this time that anytime during the magic window of four weeks out from production and four weeks into it they will do whatever I say! It's a joke but not without some tough truth. He fixed a draft of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol but months out of production there was resistance to changing and letting go of what had already been planned and so he got fired from that. Later when he got the opportunity to work on Rogue Nation he wasn't sure about going back where there had been frustration before but it was a big movie, an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker so he went for it.
He learned over time not to take studio decisions personally and to always be the person who's easy to work with, between firings he always got hired. As writers we know we don't get treated like the stars but without doing what we do the movie doesn't get made. His dream had been to write, not to write a specific movie. He went from being the guy who said 'please make my movie' to the guy who said ' how can I help you make your movie.' Ultimately personal relationships are more important than credits.
Writing a great script is great Christopher tells us, but you won't be around when it's made unless you understand the process. The first meeting he had about Rogue Nation was with the astonished marketing division. They'd never had a director come in and ask how he could make a film they could sell. The airplane stunt ended up being their marketing image from the movie and as a self contained stunt they put it up front right at the beginning of the film where it made for an exiting entry point. The more he understood what it took to sell the movie, the more he was willing to let go of stuff he wanted but didn't fit. They did three tests, listened to the audience and the studio loved it but when asked if he'd brought in that script 6 months before would they have made it like that they said no, probably not. You have to go through that development process. There are things that are Mission and things that are not Mission, you get a feel for it. Understanding his own rhythms has helped him as a writer.
Finishing the session with thoughts about story Christopher points out that story is always the main thing that gums up the works. Good writing these days is a luxury option, it's not a necessary thing to make a good movie. Aesthetic is the new story, indeed there's a whole generation of moviegoers who have been raised on that. Great directors can make it work but looking at all the great directors best movies, they are usually the ones that are very well written. Food for thought from a candid and incredibly giving screenwriter who came to London to share his own story with us today.
Wednesday, 28 October 2015
Interviewed by producer Nik Powell, Stephen Poliakoff joined us for a talk about his work, career and having a strong voice while dealing with some of the uncomfortable topics he tackles in his writing.
Starting out in the theatre Stephen had some plays at The Bush that did well, particularly when Mary Whitehouse tried to have him prosecuted, which proved useful in getting his name and work known. He was invited to write something for a studio shoot at the BBC who at that time shot their big dramas on film and smaller drama with newer writers in a studio on a mixture of film and video. Thinking of something that would add interest and movement to make a studio shoot less static Stephen chose to set his story on a train where there would be constant movement affecting the characters. The BBC decided that such a story needed to be shot on location and therefore on film so immediately his contribution level had escalated in importance and the resulting success of the drama established him in TV. It was an exciting time to be a young writer.
It was a sin in the 70s and early 80s to be unoriginal with the work you put in, says Poliakoff. There was no 'it's a bit of Downton a bit of this' style pitching. That tradition of writer as king that came from the theatre took a long time to die out, but the sole voice eventually became distrusted. Stephen doesn't think it was the best turn for drama but thinks things are shifting again now for the better.
Being on set as just a writer can be exhausting. They say 'not now' when you are tempted to interject thoughts and people are busy there's never enough time. As a director you have more control. Writing a big role he tends to have a list of leading actors in mind so he knows roughly the kind of actors he's writing the character to be played by. Hopefully you get one of them. It's very important to have a good relationship with the actors. It's self preservation he tells us. Most actors will always welcome meeting the writer and getting to talk about their character with the creator. Stephen likes to talk about the show a lot himself before he makes it. A great relationship with a producer too is something to aspire to.
For all writers confidence ebbs and flows. For actors too, but writers need nobody just to get up in the morning and begin new work. It's easy for writers sitting at home to feel powerless but one must never underestimate the power to be able to create something from nothing. There's plenty to begin writing about. Looking about you, asking questions, 'What's going on over there?' starting storytelling to answer those questions is valuable to the creative process.
Perhaps unsurprising from a writer/director tackling the subtleties of difficult topics Stephen is not a fan of the big idea. Elevator pitching he tells us is the road to instant banality. Nik Powell chimes in with his own take on how selling anything is always about having a dialogue about a project. All roads, thinks Stephen, lead back to television even if it's just to the film department. For his own work he was aware that film distribution in the country can be difficult and Americans dominate the box office. He thought that to reach a lot of people he needed to write for TV. It depends what you want though, a mix is great. You have to go to bat for your ideas at times and be prepared to argue your point of view. Many TV shows fail so the person on the other side of the desk doesn't definitively know they are certainly right about every point. You have to stick up for your beliefs. If you feel you wouldn't want to watch something yourself then you cannot write against your belief. It's better in that case to walk away.
Directing your own work can be a marathon we are told. There's a lot to do but it's great to have that time to develop things. Stephen employs a researcher to work which he finds helps a lot, not least of which because he hate's ringing people he doesn't know. Also the time it takes to track people down or wait for returned calls etc. means that a researcher proves more efficient. He can then look at what she uncovers and delve further into the bits that interest him for the story he's crafting. He clearly builds relationships with the people that he works well with, working with the same composer for some 20 years. There's too much music in things these days he tells us, way more than there was back in the 70s and 80s, you have to be careful not to flatten out the drama with too much music. He's a fan of planning but says you don't want to over plan because that can be prohibitive. You want to be led and to allow for turns.
Though he deals with some uncomfortable and sometimes taboo topics Poliakoff is not a fan of violence and doesn't care for too much sex, he believes in decent cutting away from lovemaking. Some uncomfortable subjects are less easy to tackle. It took him a long while to write anything connected to his Jewish heritage. With some stories you need time and distance, the further away you get the closer you are.
Stephen Poliakoff's new drama about military secrets, Close to the Enemy, is currently filming and expected to come to BBC screens in 2016.
Kajaki screenwriter Tom Williams and director Paul Katis joined us to talk about writing a contemporary British war movie, the conception and writing of the idea and staying true to their concept as they brought the project to screens.
The guys had been working in the corporate sector, often working from case studies and crafting drama around real events. Though Tom had previously written Chalet Girl they had been talking about the possibility of making a first feature film together for some time. When commissioned to make a training film by the MOD the came across a young soldier celebrating his 18th birthday and preparing to deploy overseas. Telling a story about such everyman soldiers today and the situations they find themselves in seemed like a good way to connect the events of distant warzones to regular people's lives.
Researching stories the team settled on an incident that happened when a group of paratroopers became trapped by landmines near the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan. The men involved had shown extraordinary courage, the story could be contained to one group of people in one location and was a different story type from the sort we'd seen from prior British war movies in the past. In fact, it had been quite some time since a film about British troops had even been made.
Early on the storytellers had to gain the trust of the men involved, presenting themselves respectfully and professionally they allowed the Paras to tell them their story. Creating a facebook research group one friend invited another and the filmmakers were able to put together the sequence of events and strategic info from first hand accounts as well as the official records some of which had been redacted as some of those men were back on active duty and their identities were being protected. Eventually they met with the parents of Cpl. Mark Wright who had lost his life in the incident and had been posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery. The filmmakers made a big decision not to try to dramatise the truth but to tell the straight story unembellished. Slowly but surely convincing people they would do right by everyone involved.
The filmmakers set up a crowdfunding page and looked at EIS, investors, selling shares etc. to get the ball rolling on the project and made a decision to give some of the profits from the film directly to four military charities. The early finance raised allowed the project to move forward as they visited locations and sourced things like the helicopters that were central to the story. They had given themselves a deadline of being able to screen the film before the troops were pulled out of Afghanistan, and with that date announced the clock was ticking and money raised from Indiegogo proved invaluable.
Production brought it's own additions to the story. At the time they became ready to film in Jordan it was the summer and very hot. De-romanticising the filming process and just getting on with what needed to be achieved helped. Many of the actors were from the same towns or areas as the men they were playing, so the authentic dialects and improvised way of delivering the lines brought a lot of authenticity to the dialogue. Film marketing was designed to make a quite gruelling film appealing at first glance so an audience would be enticed to come and see the story they were telling. An exclusive realease with Vue cinemas had been negotiated before shooting which imposed some limitations but also gave some benefits to the project. It later also screened at Cineworld and Odeon and there were a number of event screenings at which the soldiers involved could be present.
Looking back on the project the filmmakers think they made an arthouse version of war movie and that maybe leaning more into a genre picture structure would have translated to bigger general audiences than the cinephile audience it found but for a first feature film the project has been a journey that has clearly impacted the people who set out to make this film and it became clear to us that it enriched them as people through the telling of it.
The film's life is far from over yet. Streaming on Netflix and available on Amazon and iTunes in the UK the film is about to release in the United States next month with a rebranded title of Kilo Two Bravo. It's a thrilling film about brave men, not least of which are the filmmakers who fought to bring us this authentic and ultimately uplifting war story.
NB: My feature article written for the Kajaki release is available at ShowFilmFirst and details a little more about the production of the film.
When you're writing story with many elements it's easier than you think to find yourself in a place where you have a problem continuing. It's a difficult place to be in as a writer, frustrating, defeating, maddening and depressing.
Sometimes we need a bit of help, whether that's in knowing the tools we can use to get through the complications, or if we don't, maybe knowing someone who does. Fortunately for us, teacher, script consultant and story analyst Pilar Alessandra joined us to give us some insight into common things we might get stuck around and ways we can look at dealing with them.
I've very briefly summarised a few of the scenarios we discussed here in case they are useful but if there is anything I've learned from today's session it's there's always someone who can put fresh eyes on your problem and help you get unstuck if you can't do it yourself.
One of the first things to do when things get stuck, Pilar advises, is to go back to the intentions of your story. Your logline should contain the goal of your story and your outline should reflect the stages of your goal. If any of the episodes of your story hijack your goal then you have to go back to that plan.
It's easy to get absorbed in the world you are creating, especially with sci-fi and fantasy genres. Know the tools of creating loglines and outlines to keep the story straightened out if you get off track.
What are the Stakes?
Sometimes your character's goal doesn't seem to have high enough stakes, that if they don't succeed then they'll be unhappy about that but it won't have dire enough consequences. In those situations you can flip the coin and look at the conflict that might be created if the person starts to succeed at their goal. What might be the price of success. Create conflict that way.
When writing episodic work for characters it can seem like they don't really change and episodes can begin to feel a bit samey. You can however use episodes like paragraphs in a story where the characters are this until such happens and then.. etc. That way you allow for character growth to be affected by story and vice versa.
Too Many Ideas
With competing ideas it's hard to know what to focus on, sometimes there's a story you want to write and a story you feel you 'should' write because it may have more chance of getting you paid etc. In that case it's a good idea to make the story you want to write as good as the one that might get you paid. With stories of equal value race to outline both. Knowing what each idea is and what the beats are and outlining will give you a clearer idea of what you should be working on.
When does an action sequence begin and end? Can you get stuck in a set piece without knowing how to get your character out? Decide what the story of your action piece is in order to keep it contained. What is the emotion going in? Find a simile for the action (They fight like.. what? They drive like.. what?). Think of the method or weaponry involved. Who gets the upper hand. What is the emotion going out. There's your story.
Really can't avoid getting distracted by one thing or another? Lock yourself in an internet free room for an hour at a time (someone who loves you can facilitate this for you if necessary) and commit to working for that one hour on that one thing. Work hour by hour until you are done.
To understand the beats of your story, look at what your character/group wants, what they actually do to get it, and what gets in the way. That's the end of your beat and a new beat begins until the story ends.
Cutting Scenes Down
Ask yourself what is the story of the scene, circle the lines to tell that story. You can afford to lose everything else though you may wish to keep some that adds flavour if you have space for it. Be sure to boil down 'set decorating' type description into a summary of the personality of the place (Laura Ashley lives here).
Too Much Practicality
Strangely enough being too practical or logical can sometimes cause a block. Don't be afraid to go to extremes and be silly in your approach to writing. Keep doing it until one of the crazy ideas works or the freedom of writing anything you can think of even the crazy stuff makes your good ideas flow more freely too.
Another way to get ideas flowing freely is a concept that was made popular by writing teacher Peter Elbow who believed that one should do so regularly. Set a clock, put your fingers on the keyboard and don't take them off for five minutes writing anything that comes into your head until it's time to stop. It's a way to learn to write without self-editing or the anticipation of feedback which is why it's a good thing to regularly practice.
Not Directing Acting or Cinematography On The Page
There are conventions we are told not to cross as writers but you do need to have emotion on the page, it's how people understand story. Just revealing one 'tell' (as in a poker tell) or key action that reveals emotion means that you don't have to puppet actors for a whole scene because once they know the character state they can work within that knowledge.
Characters Solving Problems.
At some point you will probably need your character to solve one or more of their problems but you don't wan those answers to appear out of thin air. Sometimes an answer may come to a character by happy accident but other times you may want to reveal solutions through a personality trait or even resistance.
There are ways other than dialogue to reveal information to an audience. One way is looking to what is physically available, technology, computers, or characters out of their comfort zone. You can take someone on a journey to somewhere they might not go and reveal things through their experience there.
Running out of time to continue (let's face it we could go on forever with the things we get stuck on) Pilar sent over a dozen writers away with thoughts on how to solve their problems in under an hour. Help exists for writers at any stage of their careers, we can all become stuck, but tools, ideas and people who know them are always worth seeking out or being reminded of. Happy writing!
Tuesday, 27 October 2015
Without elements of humanity science fiction and fantasy worlds can be cold, bleak places that lack resonance with the humans that look in on them. Nicole Perlman and Toby Whithouse joined Jeff Norton for a lively session about finding our humanity through watching characters in fantastical worlds.
Shows of any kind go through periods of development before ever reaching the screens and it's often during that period of growth from being pitched to made that a lot of humanity is added. Fringe for instance was a sci-fi show pitched as a 'case of the week' procedural but then the greater mythology of the worlds and people became the true heart of the drama. Toby says that shows like Doctor Who that dealt with all kinds of worlds and monsters in the early days really led the way for very popular relatable characters in sci-fi and we're really still travelling on the coat tails of that today. He was lucky that he had the opportunity to write on other people's shows for a long time and learning how to adapt his tone of writing to that of other writer's work. A lot of fantasy sci-fi is adaptation.
Guardians of the Galaxy was initially developed by Nicole from the Marvel comic books way back when the Dark Knight was popular but before the current explosion of superhero film popularity. She was going against the gritty themed grain of the time when she chose to develop something fun but it turned out to be great. Rocky was a character they went back and forth on including because he was a racoon and they already had a tree and didn't want it to be too cartoony but he's a character with great pathos and self-mockery who doesn't see himself as a racoon at all. The comics themselves had great tone to bring into the screenplay. Toby had Annie (the UK character's name) in Being Human making tea all the time that she couldn't drink because she's a ghost. As a writer it's not the monsters you worry about pushing too far, it's the actions, you don't want to do too much. It's about being courageous and nuanced.
The writers point out that we trust the storyteller to take us on a journey. Within those worlds we get to make any rules we want as long as we stick to them. If you violate the logic of your world you lose audience belief. You set limitations to your story and characters to help provide story later on. Toby's vampires had no reflection which was a pain in production but something he pushed for because he was fairly certain he was going to need to use that as a plot point later on.
The world of writing fantastical worlds and characters is changing rapidly. Comic book films and television have become widespread and the introduction of new technology like VR could change the landscape of how we interact with productions. Nicole thinks it will change things a lot, especially because of how emotional it is to be utterly surrounded. However sometimes it's difficult to get new projects greenlit. Toby doesn't think the UK TV industry is very courageous for instance and with limited budgets and only a certain number of new drama being commissioned each year it's easy to see why. Pitching becomes a kind of Trojan Horse type of deal, he couldn't have imagined a British corporation making Game of Thrones type drama before it became popular. A big budget, violent show that kills off it's main characters on a regular basis? Now everyone wants a show that's as popular as Game of Thrones though.
It seems finding the audience for a show is about how a show resonates with them, about how their humanity gets reflected and how invested they are in the worlds that they see. Pitching what producers want to make and developing ideas until the show is what you want to give an audience is part of the process. Adding human character in the fantastical worlds and characters that inhabit them is what builds loyalty to brands from an audience point of vew. For those of us loving the film and TV that is far from our normal world it was refreshing to hear such passion from writers who have a whole lot of that to bring to our future screens.
Winston Graham's historical epic is a beloved British classic both for the book series and the much cherished 1970's BBC adaptation. When production co Mammoth Screen wanted to do a new BBC adaptation, they brought the project to veteran TV writer Debbie Horsfield who with a background in literature and a trusted reputation for writing great TV seemed a great choice to write it.
A stranger to adaptation Debbie nevertheless saw, on reading the source material that she could bring the story to today's audience, though not considering at first the weight of public expectation such a popular property would generate. In some respects Graham's novels are akin in popularity to a Jane Austen and interest peaked swiftly as soon as it was rumoured.
With twelve novels there was a wealth of material and her job was to narrow down the salient drama to a workable television plot. However some of the greatest moments of tragedy for the main characters in the books, were dealt with in only a single line such as Demelza's loss. For novels of course the reader gets to think about the impact of these facts and her feelings in their imagination, but for screen viewing those moments have to be visualised in real time. As well as narrowing down storyline, dialogue and emotional material needed to be crafted.
With an abundance of side stories, characters had to tie into and strengthen the main story thread in order to earn their space in the adaptation. Some characters Debbie brought into the ensemble earlier than they had appeared in the books and sadly some favourites had to be lost to make for a tighter drama. Even so, with the first series equalling the first two novels there is a lot to fit into each season and Debbie has gone back to the production company and fought for an extra two episodes so that the story had the breathing space it needed for such an epic tale. Mammoth were great and found the resources to make that happen.
Sitting in a room watching Poldark clips on a large screen and having Debbie Horsfield talk about the choices she made really illustrated the incredible work she did to make this adaptation so breathtaking, and on a big screen you really see how cinematic and emotion packed this TV show is. Debbie explains that structuring is about finding the story heart of each episode and then everything else that happens impacts on that, either for that episode or a future one. That is how as a writer you navigate such a vast story. For revealing the inner thoughts that could be told in the novels but not on screen without voiceover or exposition, Debbie found characters unburdening themselves to another 'good listener' character was a way of more naturally allowing those inner states to impact the audience.
The show is very epic and ambitious and writing goes on even during production. Debbie Horsfield is also a producer on the show and the job can be intense. Coming to us form a particularly arduous shoot on location in Cornwall, they had made the decision to double bank eight episodes (actors go between two crews and two set-ups to keep up the pace of shooting) but that's something that usually works best in a studio and the juggling act of unpredictable shooting conditions and actor availability when things get re-shuffled or shooting runs over meant a lot of extra re-writing under time pressure to ensure it all got done and the richness of story wasn't diluted. The glamour of being a TV writer is never quite as glamourous as we'd like to believe. They probably won't be double banking outside the studio again.
The show when aired has proved as hugely popular as ever and of course fans want their characters to fulfil expectations. Writing season two had begun long before the first series aired so fervour for this particular adaptation had yet to hit, and there was no pressure yet to fulfil audience desire while writing. But whatever public expectations are and whenever popular characters commit unpleasant acts, Debbie returns to the source material and never treads over that source in presenting events, the way she presents them though is up to her and how she deals with the turns and twists of the ongoing story is something we are invited to watch for ourselves to decide if she's done well. It's hard to please everyone (one prominent fan society even blacklisted the original author!) but Debbie welcomes the passion brought to the table by all the fans of the stories. Whatever her adaptation brings the books and other adaptations exist forever and there is, she believes, ample room in the fan world for all of them.
This current TV adaptation of Poldark will continue to occupy Debbie's writing schedule hopefully for some time but she fits in other work when she has time for it. Mostly her own contemporary stuff but she's enjoyed the adaptation process enough to welcome the thought of adapting other works.
Meawhile the last two episodes of Poldark series two film in the New Year and will be scheduled to reach our screens sometime in 2016. If the twitter response to my live-tweeting the session is anything to go by it is much anticipated already.