I went to a talk last night at Filmbase by the founder of the Raindance film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliott Grove.
Grove, a Canadian with a Jeff Goldblum thing going on (I think it was the black suit and sunglasses – indoors) once made a movie called Table 5 for £200. He’s passionate about making movies on low budgets and his festival aims to bring as many as possible to audiences. He also runs training courses for filmmakers – some of his alumni include Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan.
Grove grew up in an Amish farming community near Toronto and didn’t see his first film until he was 16. He had been told that the Devil lived in the movie theatre, so when he went in and saw the tiered seating (like a church!) and the red velvet seats, he figured this was true! Then the movie turned out to be Lassie Come Home….
Farmers look for patterns in things – this is something that’s stayed with him.
Reading friends’ screenplays – he saw the same patterns of mistakes in every one! He read 50 screenplays from the BFI library and says he learned more from this than anything else.
Grove has a touch of a snake-oil salesman thing about him – he certainly had no qualms about flogging his books and DVDs. But I liked the guy and some of what he said was really interesting.
His top ten maxims (I’m paraphrasing a lot of this):
1. Entertainment – it’s an industry. Not an artists colony.
2. Commerce - it’s a collaborative business, something a lot of writers try to ignore. Your job is to inspire the director, the actor and the editor, and then back off.
3. Reality – stories are crafted by the writer. Take reality and enhance it in the interests of your story. People pay to see something more than reality at the movies.
4. Peeping Tom – humans are transfixed by other humans’ misfortunes. We are the only species that does so! So capitalise on that in your scripts!
5. Maximise – make good use of every word in your script. But don’t overwrite.
6. Discipline – people will do anything to avoid writing. Household chores, watching TV. Be disciplined and use your time well!
7. Hollywood – Grove loves Hollywood films and doesn’t apologise for it. Movies take you to a new world, or bring you to somewhere new in your own world.
8. Audience – the audience for a screenwriter is a reader, preferably someone with a big chequebook or someone who can connect you to someone with one.
9. Misfortune – it will befall you. Your script will be directed by an awful director, or they’ll hire the wrong actor, or it will tank at the box office. Move on and don’t take it personally.
10. Sex and violence – there should be violence on every page of your script. But not just physical violence. Sociological or psychological violence works just as well.
Social setting for scripts – this is important because it encompasses what your character can or cannot do - their limits. There are 4 social settings, according to Grove:
Wilderness – typically where a male travels alone, in a wilderness like a jungle, desert, forest etc. He may have sidekicks or companions – this is mainly because he’s the best source of protection for them from external dangers or threats. The wilderness hero will usually achieve some sort of enlightenment and bring this knowledge back to other people – like Moses and the Ten Commandments for example. All great religious stories take place in the wilderness.
Village – A town where you can stand at one end and see the other. All the buildings look the same, no one lives in a nicer house than anyone else. There’s always a leader (sheriff, mayor etc.). The villagers usually face threats from external sources of one form or another. In village stories – or comedies – the hero doesn’t have to change by the end of the film. But THEY change the villagers’ lives forever. The Seven Samurai and Red Rock West are example of village stories.
City – Now we’re going up in the civilisation stakes. Some people live in great houses, some live in crappy apartments. There is far less social interaction – people don’t know each other as well. In city stories, a character usually fights to right an injustice of some sort (Erin Brockovich/City Hall).
Oppressive City – The rules have changed. Stuff you used to be able to do is now banned and things have gone a bit dystopian. The hero is an antihero who just wants to get on with their day but instead is forced to get involved in a struggle against the prevailing order. 28 Days Later, Children of Men and Shaun of the Dead are example of oppressive city settings, but thrillers also fall into this category – Minority Report and Blade Runner.
Most of our stories are now city-based. You can flip it around – Crocodile Dundee did this, as did City Slickers.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – at the start they’re in the village, successfully robbing banks and staying one step ahead of the soldiers who are searching for them. But then the railroad comes – the city encroaching on them. Now the soldiers are one step ahead of them all the time. They’re being hunted by the next social stage – and they can’t adapt to this change! “Who are these guys??, they cry at various points for the rest of the movie.
So what stage are we at now? Grove reckons oppressive city. Was 911 a first attack from the barbarians (I think he was going all ancient Rome here)? Is Big Brother our version of gladiators? (Um, yes – but I wish they’d bring in lions).
Ideas for movies – Roger Corman apparently starts his day by reading the newspaper headlines for ideas for movies. Some years ago, he saw an article about NASA discovering water on Mars. He immediately released a press release saying that his new movie was going to be about Mars.
This led to news teams sitting outside his office and a bigwig from Warner Bros calling him to discuss “the Mars movie”. The Warners man said he was on his way over. Corman judged that it would take him about thirty minutes, and proceeded to sit down and write a single paragraph – which he sold to Warners for a ridiculously large sum. That movie was Mars Attacks!
Corman’s sales technique is apparently to get a graphic designer to come up with a glossy “one-sheet” with images and the title/logline on the front and a paragraph description on the back (sort of like a DVD cover). Then he uses this to gauge interest with buyers. If they hate it/are disinterested, he bins the idea. If they love it, he hires a screenwriter and makes the movie!
Grove reckons screenwriters should do the same – do a one sheet, see if producers etc. like it, then write the script. I’m torn on this one. It makes twisted sense, but you’d have to be one efficient writing machine to pull it off! Not to mention the madness involved in essentially writing to order. I guess it might be worth doing if you had several ideas and wanted to know which one to write?
Pitching – writers hate it. Grove reckons you should start by asking, “What if…”? Draw comparisons to stuff people know. Bring them in by painting a picture for them.
Budget – don’t let it rule you but bear it in mind. Moving locations costs money. Write something with 2-3 locations and cut between them instead.
He told us about a friend of his who wrote a low budget (300k) horror movie and put it out on video on demand in the States. He made the money back plus a small profit in a week. His secret lay in choosing a title starting with “D”. The VOD screen shows titles A-D, then you have to press a button to get to E-G and so on. Most people are lazy and pick something off the first screen!
TV, web streaming companies, gaming corporations, mobile platforms – all looking for content. This represents a huge opportunity for writers.
Grove’s golden rules:
1. Sit down and write. Even for only 15-20 minutes, but do it EVERY day. Yes, you’ll work 12-15 hours if you’re on deadline, but most days 20 minutes is better than nothing at all. If you don’t write every day, you’re not really a writer.
2. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity with the first draft. Get it down, then fix it!
3. You need to learn to reject rejection. It’s a depressing business at times, but 500 new members were admitted into the WGA last year. The only way they could have done this was by getting something made. So there is hope!
Check out http://www.raindance.org/ for more info on the festival, which takes place next week in London.