Friday, November 26, 2010

Do you know when to stop?

There's story I heard once about someone who went to an exhibition of primary school art. One class of tots had very impressive paintings displayed - they were naive but amazingly effective.

The guy remarked to the friend who had invited him that the teacher of this class must be really gifted to get this kind of work from such small kids. The friend replied, "No, she just knows when to take the pictures away from them".

This truism can be related to almost anything. Do you know you've had enough to eat, when you've worked enough on a presentation, when you've hung enough pictures on your living room wall? There's a fine line in most projects between something being done and it being overdone.

And screenwriting is no exception. There's usually a moment in most writing group sessions when the person whose work is being read has had enough feedback. If they get any more, people will start making mad suggestions and frying the victim's brain ("maybe the main character should be an alien?" That kind of thing).

And there's usually a point for most scripts where it's been tweaked and rewritten enough, where any further efforts will disimprove it, flick a bit too forward on the dial and tip your work towards a producer's waste paper basket. And sometimes you can't see that point until it's happened.

You have to be vigilant, to know when your screenplay is working and when it isn't. You have to know more than anyone else... when to stop.

Do you know when to stop?

There's story I heard once about someone who went to an exhibition of primary school art. One class of tots had very impressive paintings displayed - they were naive but amazingly effective.

The guy remarked to the friend who had invited him that the teacher of this class must be really gifted to get this kind of work from such small kids. The friend replied, "No, she just knows when to take the pictures away from them".

This truism can be related to almost anything. Do you know you've had enough to eat, when you've worked enough on a presentation, when you've hung enough pictures on your living room wall? There's a fine line in most projects between something being done and it being overdone.

And screenwriting is no exception. There's usually a moment in most writing group sessions when the person whose work is being read has had enough feedback. If they get any more, people will start making mad suggestions and frying the victim's brain ("maybe the main character should be an alien?" That kind of thing).

And there's usually a point for most scripts where it's been tweaked and rewritten enough, where any further efforts will disimprove it, flick a bit too forward on the dial and tip your work towards a producer's waste paper basket. And sometimes you can't see that point until it's happened.

You have to be vigilant, to know when your screenplay is working and when it isn't. You have to know more than anyone else... when to stop.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who's rewriting my script?

The topic on every screenwriter’s lips at the moment seems to be the Amazon Studios weird screenwriting contest/crowd-sourced work/publicity stunt hybrid.

John August has already weighed in on this on his blog, as has Craig Mazin and Michael Ferris at Script Magazine. Between them they’ve covered everything – the strange overall idea, the 18-month lockdown on selling your script to anyone else, the idea that someone you don’t know, online, is going to be in a position to rewrite your stuff. Maybe badly.

That last bit is the bit that really makes me feel queasy. I mean, I’m not naïve, I know stuff gets rewritten. But at least when a studio hires another writer, there is at least some chance that you will know that other writer. Like, know their real name. It won’t be Spankypants88 rewriting your baby, it’ll be some journeyman screenwriter having another pass at it. And you might actually get paid properly, in some transparent manner.

There’s a lot that stinks about the whole deal that Mssrs. August, Mazin and Ferriss have already outlined. So my only other comment on it is that it’s a shame Amazon decided to go this way. They obviously want to break into the industry in some way and they obviously have money to spend. So why not run a proper screenwriting contest or scholarship programme instead of this cheap and nasty piece of screenwriter-baiting?

Well, there is one end result of the whole thing and it’s called column inches. Maybe no publicity is bad publicity?

In other news: rewriting. God, I hate and love it at the same time.

I’m in the process of a big “throw out the bath water and hope the baby hasn’t gone with it” job at the moment and one thing I will say: it hurts but sometimes you have to try something radical to save your script. Don’t be afraid to start again, or feel like you’re starting again. Maybe it’ll be better, maybe it won’t. But at least you can say you’ve tried everything – and there’s always the original draft to go back to!

Who's rewriting my script?

The topic on every screenwriter’s lips at the moment seems to be the Amazon Studios weird screenwriting contest/crowd-sourced work/publicity stunt hybrid.

John August has already weighed in on this on his blog, as has Craig Mazin and Michael Ferris at Script Magazine. Between them they’ve covered everything – the strange overall idea, the 18-month lockdown on selling your script to anyone else, the idea that someone you don’t know, online, is going to be in a position to rewrite your stuff. Maybe badly.

That last bit is the bit that really makes me feel queasy. I mean, I’m not naïve, I know stuff gets rewritten. But at least when a studio hires another writer, there is at least some chance that you will know that other writer. Like, know their real name. It won’t be Spankypants88 rewriting your baby, it’ll be some journeyman screenwriter having another pass at it. And you might actually get paid properly, in some transparent manner.

There’s a lot that stinks about the whole deal that Mssrs. August, Mazin and Ferriss have already outlined. So my only other comment on it is that it’s a shame Amazon decided to go this way. They obviously want to break into the industry in some way and they obviously have money to spend. So why not run a proper screenwriting contest or scholarship programme instead of this cheap and nasty piece of screenwriter-baiting?

Well, there is one end result of the whole thing and it’s called column inches. Maybe no publicity is bad publicity?

In other news: rewriting. God, I hate and love it at the same time.

I’m in the process of a big “throw out the bath water and hope the baby hasn’t gone with it” job at the moment and one thing I will say: it hurts but sometimes you have to try something radical to save your script. Don’t be afraid to start again, or feel like you’re starting again. Maybe it’ll be better, maybe it won’t. But at least you can say you’ve tried everything – and there’s always the original draft to go back to!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Truth? You can't handle... you know...

So here we are. If we were a company, there'd be an examiner appointed and pink slips all round. But instead we're a country, so we're just going to have to live through it instead. There's a lot of depression about and a lot of "feck it, let's get pissed".

The Spanner reckons Brian C should take us all to Tenerife with the IMF money. But maybe he should take us all to the cinema instead? A good comedy, that's what we all need.

And it's all a reminder of what we're really about here (in the movie industry, I mean). Selling distraction from everyday life, from the newspapers with our leader's deflated face plastered all over 'em. From the news stories which are really, really fucking grim.

Go to a film, forget all that for a few hours. Watch something fun/entertaining/thought provoking.

So enough of that, and onto something very big in everyone's minds right now: telling the truth. Every script has a truth, but does its writer know what it is? Are you telling your script's true story, giving us its true voice? Can you, in fact, handle its truth?

I don't know about you, but I've had the thing where I've woken up with a start and thought "Yes! That's the truth! That's it!" Maybe I'm mental.

Here's my top five list for uncovering the truth about your screenplay (Brian, take note):
1. What is it about? What's it REALLY about? Write down one word that encapsulates this.
2. Who is the main character? (This is not necessarily the person who changes the most).
3. What do they want? (This has to ring true in everyone's mind, not least yours).
4. What's the natural truth of the story? What's its natural direction? Are you sticking to this or veering off on some false path?
5. Is the ending true, or does it feel tacked on? If so, ditch it and uncover the true ending!

Remember folks, stay strong, watch movies. That's all there is.

The Truth? You can't handle... you know...

So here we are. If we were a company, there'd be an examiner appointed and pink slips all round. But instead we're a country, so we're just going to have to live through it instead. There's a lot of depression about and a lot of "feck it, let's get pissed".

The Spanner reckons Brian C should take us all to Tenerife with the IMF money. But maybe he should take us all to the cinema instead? A good comedy, that's what we all need.

And it's all a reminder of what we're really about here (in the movie industry, I mean). Selling distraction from everyday life, from the newspapers with our leader's deflated face plastered all over 'em. From the news stories which are really, really fucking grim.

Go to a film, forget all that for a few hours. Watch something fun/entertaining/thought provoking.

So enough of that, and onto something very big in everyone's minds right now: telling the truth. Every script has a truth, but does its writer know what it is? Are you telling your script's true story, giving us its true voice? Can you, in fact, handle its truth?

I don't know about you, but I've had the thing where I've woken up with a start and thought "Yes! That's the truth! That's it!" Maybe I'm mental.

Here's my top five list for uncovering the truth about your screenplay (Brian, take note):
1. What is it about? What's it REALLY about? Write down one word that encapsulates this.
2. Who is the main character? (This is not necessarily the person who changes the most).
3. What do they want? (This has to ring true in everyone's mind, not least yours).
4. What's the natural truth of the story? What's its natural direction? Are you sticking to this or veering off on some false path?
5. Is the ending true, or does it feel tacked on? If so, ditch it and uncover the true ending!

Remember folks, stay strong, watch movies. That's all there is.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to make development execs hate you...

My screenwriting group had a visit from two development execs last night and they talked us through their company's development process. It was a really helpful session and I'd recommend it to anyone else in a writing group. Apart from anything else, it blew away any preconceptions we might have had about development execs being faceless suits. Not so. They were very nice and approachable.

Among the useful info we gathered was a list of things that writers do to annoy production companies. So here they are - don't be the numbskull that commits any of these crimes, especially the first one...

  • Writers emailing their stuff to multiple people in multiple production companies and not using bcc. Doh!
  • Being fake and telling them they love the company’s stuff when they haven’t seen it/hated it.
  • Not formatting scripts properly.
  • Hassling them with phone calls or generally being weird.
  • Stating that the script is perfect and that there’s nothing that can be changed (leaving them nothing to work with, basically).
  • Being overly precious about their script.
  • Not being passionate enough about their script. If you don't love your script, who will?

How to make development execs hate you...

My screenwriting group had a visit from two development execs last night and they talked us through their company's development process. It was a really helpful session and I'd recommend it to anyone else in a writing group. Apart from anything else, it blew away any preconceptions we might have had about development execs being faceless suits. Not so. They were very nice and approachable.

Among the useful info we gathered was a list of things that writers do to annoy production companies. So here they are - don't be the numbskull that commits any of these crimes, especially the first one...

  • Writers emailing their stuff to multiple people in multiple production companies and not using bcc. Doh!
  • Being fake and telling them they love the company’s stuff when they haven’t seen it/hated it.
  • Not formatting scripts properly.
  • Hassling them with phone calls or generally being weird.
  • Stating that the script is perfect and that there’s nothing that can be changed (leaving them nothing to work with, basically).
  • Being overly precious about their script.
  • Not being passionate enough about their script. If you don't love your script, who will?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why your villain must fit your story...

I'm reading the late Blake Syder's wondrous third Save The Cat book (called Save The Cat Strikes Back, naturally). It's probably the best of his books in that it deals with the thorny subject of rewrites. Now, I have no problem writing a draft, but rewrites fill me with dread, so his advice in this one is great. If you're in a complete rewrite hell, Cat 3 will get you out of it.

Now that my unpaid informercial is over... He talks at one point about how a movie character's punishment must fit both their crime and the tone of the film they're in. For instance, in Pretty Woman, Jason Alexander's character tries to assualt Julia Roberts near the end, out of jealousy and because of the (correct) assumption that she has ruined his business deal with Richard Gere. His punishment for this is to be punched by Gere and ostracised professionally by his biggest client. Snyder asks if this is enough. He has just tried to rape someone, right? Shouldn't they have reported him?

Well in the context of this movie and this story, the book concludes that what happens to him represents justice. Okay, in an action movie, Gere and Alexander would have had a big fight and Jason probably would have been thrown to his death out a window or something. In a thriller, there would have been a tense chase scene, resulting in the villain's death or prosecution. But in a romcom, his punishment is totally fitting. We don't expect to see deaths or lengthy court cases in that genre.

So to finally get to the point of this post: the villain themselves must also fit the genre, plot and tone of your movie. The basic movie plot is good versus evil, a hero defeating a threat to their world and their way of life. Sometimes, as in Star Wars, the stakes literally are that big.

But more often, the villain is just a really horrible boss and the world a character's workplace (Working Girl, Office Space, Devil Wears Prada, etc etc). We already know going in that the villain boss isn't going to get killed - more likely fired or demoted. But if we go and see an action flick and the villain is some bland pen pusher, we're going to be pretty disappointed. Like someone once said, James Bond works not because of Bond himself (he's basically a cypher) but because of all the cool villains he's up against. The success of a Bond flick rests largely on how entertaining and evil the bad guys are.

Make your villain fit the kind of story you're writing - and watch your hero become a lot more heroic.

Why your villain must fit your story...

I'm reading the late Blake Syder's wondrous third Save The Cat book (called Save The Cat Strikes Back, naturally). It's probably the best of his books in that it deals with the thorny subject of rewrites. Now, I have no problem writing a draft, but rewrites fill me with dread, so his advice in this one is great. If you're in a complete rewrite hell, Cat 3 will get you out of it.

Now that my unpaid informercial is over... He talks at one point about how a movie character's punishment must fit both their crime and the tone of the film they're in. For instance, in Pretty Woman, Jason Alexander's character tries to assualt Julia Roberts near the end, out of jealousy and because of the (correct) assumption that she has ruined his business deal with Richard Gere. His punishment for this is to be punched by Gere and ostracised professionally by his biggest client. Snyder asks if this is enough. He has just tried to rape someone, right? Shouldn't they have reported him?

Well in the context of this movie and this story, the book concludes that what happens to him represents justice. Okay, in an action movie, Gere and Alexander would have had a big fight and Jason probably would have been thrown to his death out a window or something. In a thriller, there would have been a tense chase scene, resulting in the villain's death or prosecution. But in a romcom, his punishment is totally fitting. We don't expect to see deaths or lengthy court cases in that genre.

So to finally get to the point of this post: the villain themselves must also fit the genre, plot and tone of your movie. The basic movie plot is good versus evil, a hero defeating a threat to their world and their way of life. Sometimes, as in Star Wars, the stakes literally are that big.

But more often, the villain is just a really horrible boss and the world a character's workplace (Working Girl, Office Space, Devil Wears Prada, etc etc). We already know going in that the villain boss isn't going to get killed - more likely fired or demoted. But if we go and see an action flick and the villain is some bland pen pusher, we're going to be pretty disappointed. Like someone once said, James Bond works not because of Bond himself (he's basically a cypher) but because of all the cool villains he's up against. The success of a Bond flick rests largely on how entertaining and evil the bad guys are.

Make your villain fit the kind of story you're writing - and watch your hero become a lot more heroic.

Friday, November 5, 2010

From novel to screen...

I'm currently reading the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, which inspired the recent movie The Town. So far it's richer and denser than its cinematic version, but there's no doubt that Ben Affleck's screenplay captured the essence of the book.

Then it's on to the original novel Winter's Bone and I previously read Ben Mezrich's infamous opus The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network.

For me, it's fun to read a book that a film is based on because it's interesting to see how the writer overcame (or failed to overcome) the transition from book to screen. For example, Aaron Sorkin had in some respects a real challenge on his hands with Mezrich's book. It's a slight tale which jumps all over the place and has no likeable hero.

However, Sorkin managed to get around this by taking the elements of the book that worked and discarding the ones that didn't. Friends of the real Mark Zuckerberg claim that he is nowhere near as witty or charismatic as the onscreen version (and bear in mind that Sorkin writes him as someone who's quite likely autistic).

But film people are smarter than us, have better one liners and have more dramatic lives - and Sorkin's script manages the feat that Mezrich's book only aims for - making the story of Facebook into a gripping tale of power and betrayal.

Sometimes the novel is better than the film, sometimes a film takes a sow's ear of a book and creates a cinematic silk purse. I think the best cases are where the film compliments the book but creates a stand-alone work of its own.

Also on my mind is the idea of killer premises. You know the way sometimes you hear an idea for a movie and think, "Yes, I'd watch that?" Wrecked, starring Adrien Brody, is just such a film - check out the trailer. I'll be buying a ticket anyway....

From novel to screen...

I'm currently reading the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, which inspired the recent movie The Town. So far it's richer and denser than its cinematic version, but there's no doubt that Ben Affleck's screenplay captured the essence of the book.

Then it's on to the original novel Winter's Bone and I previously read Ben Mezrich's infamous opus The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network.

For me, it's fun to read a book that a film is based on because it's interesting to see how the writer overcame (or failed to overcome) the transition from book to screen. For example, Aaron Sorkin had in some respects a real challenge on his hands with Mezrich's book. It's a slight tale which jumps all over the place and has no likeable hero.

However, Sorkin managed to get around this by taking the elements of the book that worked and discarding the ones that didn't. Friends of the real Mark Zuckerberg claim that he is nowhere near as witty or charismatic as the onscreen version (and bear in mind that Sorkin writes him as someone who's quite likely autistic).

But film people are smarter than us, have better one liners and have more dramatic lives - and Sorkin's script manages the feat that Mezrich's book only aims for - making the story of Facebook into a gripping tale of power and betrayal.

Sometimes the novel is better than the film, sometimes a film takes a sow's ear of a book and creates a cinematic silk purse. I think the best cases are where the film compliments the book but creates a stand-alone work of its own.

Also on my mind is the idea of killer premises. You know the way sometimes you hear an idea for a movie and think, "Yes, I'd watch that?" Wrecked, starring Adrien Brody, is just such a film - check out the trailer. I'll be buying a ticket anyway....

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is this a movie? Or a transmedia project?

Ah, blog. It's been too long since we last talked.  It's been a mental couple of weeks, but I've survived work/play/house upheaval and now it's back to writing....

I did catch some of this year's Darklight festival. Including the launch party, featuring a band with a lead singer wearing supertight jeggings he was way too old to wear (and playing electro music he was taking far too seriously. Kraftwerk you ain't). 

Much better was the Lance Weiler workshop yesterday morning at Filmbase. Weiler's a very interesting guy, as well as looking super young. He made a little movie called The Last Broadcast back in the Nineties for 900 dollars that went on to gross 5 million dollars and was the first digital cinema release. The movie also at very least inspired The Blair Witch Project (by the sounds of things, it was completely ripped off by the Witch heads). 

Weiler retained the rights to The Last Broadcast despite studio overtures, and later produced the movie Head Trauma. He's currently working on a Lord of the Flies-type movie called Hope is Missing, which is being supported by a variety of other media (iPhone apps where viewers can interact with the world of the film, web films where fans can find clues relating to the movie etc etc). He's a big advocate of transmedia and is always aiming to increase audience participation in his work. 

Here's a quick rundown of his advice:

When writing a script, ask yourself - 
1. What is the story about?
2. What does the story mean to you/
3. Why does the story need to be told?
4. Where is the best place to tell the story (film? webisode? TV? An app?)

To go deeper - 
What is the story I want to tell?
How will I deliver the story?
What kind of audience participation do I need?
How will audience participation affect the story over time?

Weiler's a big fan of story bibles, like the ones used in films like Lord of the Rings, with images, flow documents, character bibles (in other words, all the stuff that doesn't make it into the film but informs it).  

He also mentioned stuff like serialised content, which can be on a separate timeline to the rest of the film or TV show, with different characters. Shows like Heroes and Harper's Island used these techniques in recent years, with supporting webisodes and comic books, but studios are still figuring out how to use the different kinds of media.

He estimates that 75% of viewers are currently passive, while 5% are heavily into audience participation - but reckons that this is due to change. Audiences are going to want more supporting content and more control over what they see in the future (we can see this already in fan fiction, fan sites and even in things like Sky Player). 

The big question, of course, is whether all the social media and other supporting applications will affect the finished film/TV show or enhance it? Weiler thinks it's all about creating more of a back story or extra plot than changing the direction of the main event.

TV shows have always had spin-offs. But now the spin-off might be into a different media type. 

Anyway, here are his six tips for creating a movie world:
1. Take the time to evaluate the story you want to tell.
2. Ask yourself the hard questions: why will anyone care? And is this the best way to tell the story? (should it be a web series rather than a movie?)
3. Let go of a single POV. 
4. Consider how you can show and not tell.
5. Make it easy for your audience to become collaborators.
6. Don't let the world get in the way of your story - it must serve the story!

You can see more of Lance and his work at www.workbookproject.com

Is this a movie? Or a transmedia project?

Ah, blog. It's been too long since we last talked.  It's been a mental couple of weeks, but I've survived work/play/house upheaval and now it's back to writing....

I did catch some of this year's Darklight festival. Including the launch party, featuring a band with a lead singer wearing supertight jeggings he was way too old to wear (and playing electro music he was taking far too seriously. Kraftwerk you ain't). 

Much better was the Lance Weiler workshop yesterday morning at Filmbase. Weiler's a very interesting guy, as well as looking super young. He made a little movie called The Last Broadcast back in the Nineties for 900 dollars that went on to gross 5 million dollars and was the first digital cinema release. The movie also at very least inspired The Blair Witch Project (by the sounds of things, it was completely ripped off by the Witch heads). 

Weiler retained the rights to The Last Broadcast despite studio overtures, and later produced the movie Head Trauma. He's currently working on a Lord of the Flies-type movie called Hope is Missing, which is being supported by a variety of other media (iPhone apps where viewers can interact with the world of the film, web films where fans can find clues relating to the movie etc etc). He's a big advocate of transmedia and is always aiming to increase audience participation in his work. 

Here's a quick rundown of his advice:

When writing a script, ask yourself - 
1. What is the story about?
2. What does the story mean to you/
3. Why does the story need to be told?
4. Where is the best place to tell the story (film? webisode? TV? An app?)

To go deeper - 
What is the story I want to tell?
How will I deliver the story?
What kind of audience participation do I need?
How will audience participation affect the story over time?

Weiler's a big fan of story bibles, like the ones used in films like Lord of the Rings, with images, flow documents, character bibles (in other words, all the stuff that doesn't make it into the film but informs it).  

He also mentioned stuff like serialised content, which can be on a separate timeline to the rest of the film or TV show, with different characters. Shows like Heroes and Harper's Island used these techniques in recent years, with supporting webisodes and comic books, but studios are still figuring out how to use the different kinds of media.

He estimates that 75% of viewers are currently passive, while 5% are heavily into audience participation - but reckons that this is due to change. Audiences are going to want more supporting content and more control over what they see in the future (we can see this already in fan fiction, fan sites and even in things like Sky Player). 

The big question, of course, is whether all the social media and other supporting applications will affect the finished film/TV show or enhance it? Weiler thinks it's all about creating more of a back story or extra plot than changing the direction of the main event.

TV shows have always had spin-offs. But now the spin-off might be into a different media type. 

Anyway, here are his six tips for creating a movie world:
1. Take the time to evaluate the story you want to tell.
2. Ask yourself the hard questions: why will anyone care? And is this the best way to tell the story? (should it be a web series rather than a movie?)
3. Let go of a single POV. 
4. Consider how you can show and not tell.
5. Make it easy for your audience to become collaborators.
6. Don't let the world get in the way of your story - it must serve the story!

You can see more of Lance and his work at www.workbookproject.com