Monday, October 7, 2013

No shoes and a little white dog - when truth is stranger than fiction...

Ah blog, it's been a while. What with a new job, new night course and house-hunting, something had to give. And for a while, it had to be you...

Despite the madness, I've been writing and rewriting scripts, and I was going to return with a post on this. But instead I got inspired by a real-life event on Friday night that was straight out of a movie script.

I was fast asleep on Friday (actually it was 5am on Saturday morning) when I was woken up by a noise outside. Somewhere down in the street, a girl was screaming at the top of her lungs, "Give me my shoes!" More like, "GIVE ME MY SHOEEEESS!!!" - while hammering on each door in turn. She sounded posh, despite slurring her words quite considerably.

At some point between waking up and getting to the window, the thought of ringing the police occurred to me. But by the time I'd pulled up the blind, the fuzz were already on the scene. I don't know whether someone had already called them or they'd just been cruising around, but there was a Garda car and two pissed-off looking guards approaching a very drunk/drugged out/mad girl who was swaying in the middle of the road. She was in a party dress and had no shoes on.

Girl looked like she was about to leg it, but alcohol/drugs/being mad impeded this, as did the absence of footwear. Then she whooped in delight as a little white Scottie dog showed up, followed by a sheepish, well-spoken but very embarassed-looking guy. Guy tried to remonstrate with the cops, as his girlfriend (?) exclaimed very loudly over the doggie and petted it. All was right again with her world, despite the fact that it was 5am and she was about to be arrested.

Guy begged the guards not to take her in, but they were having none of it. She'd already woken up half the neighbourhood (unless they were deaf). As she was being handcuffed - still screeching and wailing - they were like, "We've given you 10 chances already, she's now under arrest. And if you (the guy) keep talking we'll arrest you too". I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like that.

I don't know what the background to this was - maybe they'd already been called to a house party she was at that night? Maybe this is her normal Friday night routine? Who knows.

She was eventually frogmarched to the car, still protesting that she'd never been in trouble before, and they took off, telling the guy that she'd be at the Bridewell (that's the nearest police station).

The little dog ran after the car while the guy stood silently in the road staring after it. Eventually he went after the dog (which was clearly hers and not his), but the dog wouldn't go to him.  He chased the dog around the street in vain for about ten minutes, calling it. In the end, the dog ran away up the road and the guy ran after it. That's the last I saw of them.

The whole thing struck me as being like a scene from a movie and it took me a while to identify why, but here's my guess:

1. The inclusion of the dog. If I was writing this scene for a script, the thought of adding the dog in might not have immediately occurred to me, but having it there upped the emotion of the scene. And the aftermath with the doggie running after the car taking away his mistress was a heartbreaker.

2. The fact that the guy was not drunk at all, or at least much more sober than the girl. If they'd both been off the heads, it wouldn't have been such a weird and kind of sad situation.

What can we learn about writing scenes from watching a real one like this? First of all, while real life can inspire script ideas, you have to be sure to milk the scene for all its potential. In real life, the dog won't always be there and the other character won't always be sober.

Wring every last bit of emotion you can from it, whether you're aiming for laughs, scares or tears. And last but not least, realise that real life is often much crazier than anything you can imagine...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Meeting the (producer/writer) of your dreams....

I’m running a networking evening next Wednesday (4th September) at Toners pub on Baggot Street, in conjunction with producer Ruth Treacy from Tailored Films.

Basically, this is going to involve a formal speed networking hour, and then a few drinks and chat. Space will be limited to approx 20 writers and 20 producers. So if you want to attend, RSVP on the event’s Facebook page (!/events/494871497274458/?notif_t=plan_edited) and email me at the address on this blog’s Contact Me page.

Now, the thing about these kind of events is that, like actual speed-dating events, they’re a necessary evil. Yes, they’re kind of stilted, and it would be much cooler if you could just meet your ideal producer (or writer) out of the blue at a bar. Or go to a friend’s party and be introduced apropos of nothing to someone who’s a great laugh – oh, and who wants to make your movie.

In the same way, no one REALLY wants to do online dating or attend singles mixers. Nobody sane, anyway. To a lot of people, they seem unromantic and can be total meat markets. But the fact is, serendipitous meetings where you meet just the person you were hoping for don’t happen very often. Sometimes, you have to do a bit of work to uncover your Mr/Ms Right (or the writer who’s written a killer script). And if you’re a writer, the likelihood is that you’re more of a “sit upstairs and write” than a “mover n’ shaker” kind of person. You need an excuse to leave the house and mingle.

But whether you’re going to a speed-dating event to meet a guy or girl, or to a business mixer, roughly the same rules apply for impressing the right people! Here they are (based on my extensive experience of both types of events ;)) –

  • Arrive early and scope out the competition/victims/individuals you want to connect with.

  • Come armed with some witty stories and be prepared to be charming. If you can’t be charming, be the most polite, most pleasant version of yourself possible.

  • Relax and take deep breaths. This is not an exam. It’s supposed to be fun.

  • Make sure to listen as least as much as you talk. Irish people – myself included – are terrible for yakking on and not listening to a word the other person says.

  • Do not do "obvious pitching". Yes, you're there to sell yourself and your ideas. But you have to find a way to make this subtle and to make your pitching natural and conversational. You may not meet "The One" (or even the one who can help you with your movie). Focus instead on making contacts and generally being a pleasure to be around.

  • Take business cards and be proactive about both giving yours out and collecting them from other people. If someone you want to make contact with doesn’t have a card, make sure you take note of their details yourself.

  • Use tricks to remember names – whatever tricks work for you. I find that remembering a detail about their appearance or their company and associating that with their name seems to work.

  • DO NOT GET DRUNK. This is the big one. Do not. Seriously. If you’re a lightweight like me, have one drink max and then switch to Coke (the liquid kind, naturally). Even if you’re able to drink for Ireland, boozing all night is not a good look and the likelihood you won’t remember people’s names increases with each drink.

Hope to see you next week, and to all the writers and producers attending, the best of luck folks!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Lucky Dozen...

The Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild recently ran an event called the Lucky Dozen. This offered 12 writers the opportunity to meet a well-established writer, producer or director and discuss their work with them. Apparently it’s going to run as a semi-regular event and I highly recommend it. Partly because it was really informative, partly to support the Guild and partly because it was a lot of fun. I got to meet 11 other writers and the Guild had even managed to provide some wine, cheese and crackers. Looking forward to the next one!

By the way, the promo video for Connecting Creativity is up on Youtube. This is the theatre piece that I’ve written a monologue for - the show is on the 16th August at the Centre for Creative Practices on Pembroke Street, Dublin 2.

As usual, being a writer I can only say how horrifying it is seeing myself filmed. The only good thing I can say about my contribution is that at least my hair looks nice...

But you can judge for yourself:

Monday, July 22, 2013

When good pitching goes bad...

Well, as regards the Fleadh I had a great time in the 30 hours I spent at it! I drove down there like a maniac on Saturday evening, having stopped off at a friend's birthday lunch before leaving Dublin. I got to the Radisson (late) for a pep talk on pitching from the moderator, Magma Films' Ralph Christians, which was actually really helpful. Ralph gave a rundown of what they were looking for, which was basically a rundown of the story and characters, an idea of the possible budget, any ideas on directors or actors to be involved, and the film's USP. There were five contenders - three guys, two girls, including me.

Then it was off to the Film Board party and a lot of talking and drinking. Non-alcoholic drinking for me, cos I hadn't managed to sort out any accommodation and had to stay in my parents' holiday house instead. Nothing wrong with that - it's a lovely house - it's just that it was a forty minute drive away, the last ten minutes down tiny country roads. It was midnight when I got there, with mad locals driving right up the car's tailpipe on the way. Still, it was free, and it forced me to get a (sober) early night!

Anyway, the pitching. I don't think it would come as a shock to any of the three lads to say that their pitches did not go well. They all spoke for far too long, and we did have ten minutes in total, which is a long enough time for a pitch. Two of them used visual aids, which didn't go down well with the judges at all. (Can everyone just accept at this stage that visual aids DO NOT WORK? I've seen them ruin so many peoples' chances. )And at least two of the pitches were so muddled that I couldn't tell you what the story was.

Now, I hold my hands up here. I didn't win - so my pitch wasn't perfect either. My project was a sports comedy about  a really bad GAA football team. First problem with the pitch was that it was too detailed and mentioned too many characters. I should have cut it back to the bare bones. Second, some people just don't like sports comedies - they're Marmite. At least one of the judges did not seem to like the concept, the genre, (or me, tbh ;)). Third, I did not have a logline prepared when they asked for it. I know. Doh. My only complaint is that they should have asked everyone else for their logline too! Some of the projects would have benefitted from being distilled down to one sentence.

The winner - the only other lady involved, was also the only person pitching that I was happy to lose to. She was just a very natural, fluent pitcher. She was also the calmest-seeming of all of us, and a worthy winner. Congratulations to Jacinta!

Here's the ironic thing I found: it's all about making the pitch seem as natural as possible, but that's not easy when you're standing in front of a ballroom full of people. It IS easy when you're standing in a bar talking to 3 or 4 people. And before and after the actual pitch, I pitched the project effortlessly in several bars. Now I just have to figure out how to replicate the bar pitch in an official situation...

In the meantime, thanks to the Fleadh for yet another great time, and for the opportunity to pitch. By the way, if you get a chance to see Four Queens, a brilliant short by Vittoria Colonna, make sure you do. It's a ghoulish tale of four middle-aged sisters who meet to pick over their dying mother's estate, and stake all their hopes on a game of cards. Well worth a look!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pitching, working with actors, and actors vs. the Apocalypse...

Two new developments in less than a week! I’m going to be taking part in the Galway Film Fleadh pitching competition this coming Sunday and I’m also taking part in Connecting Creativity, a project that connects artists and writers.

The pitching is a daunting enough prospect: on the one hand, I have 8 minutes (max) to pitch. Even if I only do six minutes, which sounds more likely, that’s a nice long time to have. On the other hand, it’s going to be in front of a hotel ballroom full of people on Sunday afternoon. And there’ll be no Dutch courage (probably a good thing) because I have to drive back to Dublin afterwards!

But apart from being a great opportunity to practice my pitching, this has forced me to finish a treatment for the script I’m pitching. Nothing like a deadline to get things moving.

I’m really looking forward to the pitch but also can’t wait to have it over…

Incidentally, this is the fourth year I’ve applied for this competition, and the first time I’ve been accepted. There are five writers chosen each year based on submitting a one-page idea (and the prize is pretty cool -€3,000!). In retrospect, none of the ideas I’ve submitted in the past have been all that strong on concept, so maybe this is what finally swung it this year.

The second project, Connecting Creativity, is a really interesting idea. Five Irish writers have been paired with American actors, and five American writers are working with actors over here. If you’re the writer, you have to talk to your actor via Skype and try to come up with a five-minute monologue for them based in some way on this conversation. Then in August, the actors will perform their pieces at a theatre in Dublin – the Irish ones in person and the Americans via Skype.

As you can imagine, this is fairly challenging as there’s no theme you have to stick up and no real guidelines other than basing the piece on your actor and your chat with them. I’ve already had a quick talk with my (very nice, friendly) actress Bridget, but I’ve a feeling it might take a few go’s to come up with a script! The golden thing about this project though, is the opportunity to gain experience working with an actor and in particular, to work with someone in another country.

Talking of scripts, I saw This is the End recently. This is a film which was about 50% improvised and I thought the quality of the comedy (possibly as a result) was really skewed. The scene where Rogen and company argue over the last Milky Way (minor, minor spoiler) was hilarious, yet I imagine it said nothing more than “They spat over the Milky Way and who gets to enjoy it” in the script. Or even, “Milky Way scene”. On the other hand, there are endless, talky sequences which manage to make a Hollywood Apocalypse seem boring.

There was a really good movie somewhere in there, it just wasn’t the one we were watching on screen. And I think this is partly because Seth Rogen wrote it (with Evan Goldberg), directed it, starred in it (with all his friends) and probably chose the music, arranged catering and did Jonah Hill’s hair. In a situation like that, you need perspective. Maybe he should have found some script editor who was a complete stranger to him and taken their thoughts on board.

I did enjoy This is the End but I have to agree with the sum-up delivered by the wise soul I saw it with (“it was REALLY self-indulgent”).

I’ll report back on the pitching terror next week…

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is it that makes some characters memorable?

And why are there so few of them?

Let’s face it: if you could remember even ten characters from a year of watching movies regularly, you’d be doing well. And if that year happened to be 2012, with its particularly mindless blockbuster line-up, you’d really be challenged.

Off the top of my head, the most memorable characters from the last six months (of movies I’ve seen) are:

  • Tommy, the bereaved, tormented single dad in Citadel. Brilliant character, exceptionally well played by Aneurin Barnard.

  • Christophe Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. By far the best thing in or about the movie.

  • Ditto for Killer Joe, played in truly disturbing fashion by Matthew McConaughey in the eponymous movie. He was pure evil, and it broke McConaughey right out of his nice-guy, romcom rut.

  • Robert Miller in Arbitrage. Richard Gere clearly had a ball playing this venal, amoral banker, and boy did it come across.

  • Tiffany, played by Jennifer Laurence in Silver Linings Playbook. In my opinion she was a more interesting character even than the main character Pat Solitano – so maybe the Academy judges were right?

  • On the other hand, Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross in The Place Beyond the Pines was an amazingly-written part – definitely stuck in my head long after I saw the movie.

  • And last but not least – for now – female Israeli soldier Segen in World War Z. Am I the only person to think that the movie would have been WAY more interesting if she had been the main character? The woman is a bad-ass: she endures a limb amputation with nothing more than some airline bottles of vodka and kills way more zombies than Brad Pitt (at least by my count). I was dying to know more about her and really hope she’s in the (mooted) sequel , which is surely the sign of a good character?

That’s seven memorable characters in six months, and that’s despite the fact that I have a ridiculous, Asperger’s-like memory for movies.

Obviously all the characters above are played by brilliant actors, which helps. But even a talented actor can’t do much with a poorly-written character – see the usually-great Mirielle Enos struggle to bring her insipid wife character alive in World War Z.

So it comes down to good writing and decent character work on the writer’s part. I think great characters have to have the following:

  • An identifiable, recognisable, compelling goal. It’s crazy how often I come out of a film having no idea what the main character actually wanted.

  • A truly awesome obstacle in their path. This can be a brilliant bad guy, or an awful situation to get out of, or both. Without this, we can’t root for them, or get caught up in their story. They can also BE the obstacle themselves – Killer Joe and Robert Miller, for example, are the architects of their own different, but similarly unpleasant ends.

  • They have to have their own unique take on the world. Tommy is agoraphobic and his whole life is ruled by fear. Tiffany has had mental issues and has come to believe that she’s unworthy of happiness. Dr. Schultz has a very original approach to bounty-hunting and loves old German myths. Avery Cross is ferociously ambitious and this quality dictates all of his actions, good or bad. At the end of the day, these quirks and ticks are what make these characters real.

Seeing one good movie with a character that stands out is what I love about cinema and what keeps me coming back again and again. Now I just have to follow my own advice and aim to write a character that other people will remember as much as these ones…

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The scriptwriting process - and how to do it with your sanity intact...

Scripts are a bit like men (or buses). You wait for ages and then… well you know the rest.

At the moment, I have 3 different projects going on. There’s a script idea I’ve been developing for a while (a sports comedy set in Ireland) which I ultimately want to submit to the IFB for a First Draft Loan. Right now it’s just a promising treatment, but it still needs work. There’s also a jewel heist/rom com set in Europe and a thriller TV pilot (both at the early, early stages). I’m absolutely DYING to write one of these. It’s like a pain in my heart. But for the moment I have to be content with developing the ideas and making sure they’re bombproof. I know what happens when I set off without doing this initial prep, and it involves gnashing of teeth and wailing (literally).

I’d much rather concentrate on one thing at a time, but you have to go with opportunities when they appear. And let’s face it, it’s better to be busy…

Here’s what I do at this stage, the very first part of a project’s life:

  • What is this script about? What’s its essence? Sum your idea up in a sentence or two. This is obviously going to change as you develop the project, but it helps to know where you started from.

  • I also like to come up with one word that the story is about, which then acts as a sort of touchstone during the writing process. For the sports comedy, it’s “acceptance”, for example – because this is what all the characters in it are really seeking. With the thriller, it’s “trust”. Every script is ultimately about one thing, one element that drives it.

  • At this point, I also like to do a two to three page character portrait for the 5-6 main characters. Who are these people? Where are they coming from, and what do they want? And more importantly, what do they need?

  • These portraits always give me loads of plot ideas, so at that point I write a quick summary of the plot. I like to know how it starts, what the midpoint is and how it ends, but the rest will be pretty vague for now.

  • Then I outline, using a beat sheet to flesh out the structure, theme and basic plot. At this stage, story problems or character inconsistencies usually become clear, so I fix these as much as I can before moving on to…

  • The infamous first draft. The draft I love the most, until 3 days after it’s done. Then I hate the script with a passion. It’s flat, and lifeless, and is generally like a curry with no spices added, if that’s not too weird an analogy.

  • So after an interval of mourning, it’s time to add those spices in. This can involve anything between 2 and 10 drafts, with loads of “Aha!” moments in between where it occurs to you that the two henchmen could be one, and that the hero could have a terrible fear of dogs. Basically, these drafts are hopefully where things start to get shape and where the characters turn into flesh and blood people.

  • Repeat until you’re confident that it’s a decent draft, after which it’s time to expose your baby to the cruel world. In my case, it’s time for my screenwriting group to take a look and poke holes in it with their swords (pens). I’ve also asked friends and family members to read drafts and if you’re very brave, put it online and let total strangers annihilate it. And there’s always professional script consultants. Whoever you allow to read it, make sure you listen carefully to their feedback and try not to snort, cry or scream at them. They’re very often right, and if a bunch of people mention the same thing, it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s a problem.

  • After another suitable mourning/incubation period, it’s time to look at everyone’s notes and at your script. Take the notes that make sense and that ring true. Make the necessary changes – punch up your script until it’s a lean, scrappy machine. Then it’s definitely time to get it to a pro for feedback, if you haven’t already.

  • After that, and more rewriting, once you’re sure that this is the best possible version of your script, the ultimate evocation of your original idea, it’s time to get it out to the people who can get it made. Which is a whole other ballgame, and one I will deal with v. soon in a post.

Good luck and get writing!