Sunday, February 20, 2011

JDIFF festival movies, plus a very frank screenwriting panel...

The film festival started on Thursday and I've been really impressed by the movies I've seen so far. Which were, in order:

Submarine, the opening night gala. This is a quirky comedy set in Wales, directed by The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade. It has some very funny lines and a great cast (Sally Hawkins, Noah Hunter, Paddy Considine) and I guess can best be described as a cross between The Graduate and Skins. The story is fairly slight and the film's distinctive style takes over a bit at the end, but it's still well worth a watch. Ayoade was there in person, dressed exactly like his character from TV, Moss, and sounding just like him. He was hilarious - the guy doesn't need a script to be funny.

Then there was Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's latest piece of madness. This documentary is easily the most sane Herzog film I've ever seen, dealing with a cave in France where 35,000-year-old paintings were discovered in 1994. The paintings are astonishing, as fresh and beautiful now as they were in paleolithic times. Herzog doesn't deal enough, in my opinion, with important facts like how the pictures were drawn, what materials were used and how paleolithic man understood perspective. Instead, he interviews a range of eccentrics, including an archaeologist who gives a really bad demonstration of how cavemen might have shot and killed horses. But the cave pictures are so amazing that they make up for it all. They elicit an almost emotional response in themselves.

Lastly for the films so far was Ballymun Lullaby, a doc about a music teacher in Ballymun in north Dublin, who started a choir for local children. Anxious to counteract the area's bad reputation, he teams up with a composer to record a song written and performed by the kids. Ron Cooney, the teacher involved, comes across as a truly inspirational figure. His efforts and the frank interviews with the locals who engage with the project make this a touching and highly entertaining piece of work.

I also made it to the Screenwriting Panel, which took place yesterday in a tiny, hot room in the Central Library. These events can be boring and unengaging, but this one worked really well, mainly because of one of the panellists, writer and director Carmel Winters. This is how the discussion went down:

The panel consisted of Barry Dignam from IADT (the moderator), Carmel Winters (Snap), Brendan McCarthy (writer of Wakewood), Brian O'Malley (writer and director of Crossing Salween) and Thomas Hefferon (co-writer and director of The Pool).

My comments in italics -

The writing process

Brian O'Malley ended up writing a 12 page script of Crossing Salween, based on a friend's short story, in 4 hours because of a funding deadline.

Snap started as a training piece for psychiatrists. The eventual script was written with specific parameters, for a low budget. Winters feels you need to reach the right temperature to write, commenting that avoiding writing is the most painful part of the process!

Thomas Hefferon prefers working in a writing team. He recommends trying to identify an "anchor scene" in your film, the most telling scene in it. In The Pool, this is where the bullied, overweight main character examines his own fat in a mirror. He likes to prepare a short script for about a month, then writes it very quickly.

Brendan McCarthy wrote Wakewood as part of the IADT MA course. He was already friends with David Keating, the director. Hammer then came on board as studio, but McCarthy wasn't keen to work with them at first, as several of their previous "comebacks" had failed. They shut the film down once, right before it was due to shoot, because they weren't happy with the script. McCarthy and Keating holed up in a country house in Ireland and rewrote the script, "refining the emotional journey of the audience" and that was the draft that was shot.

Carmel Winters remarked that you have to "love cutting"! Take out anything from your script that doesn't work or have a distinct purpose.

Script sales

Brendan McCarthy stressed the importance of identifying your audience. If it's an arthouse film, who's going to direct it? He has a theory that coming-of-age films don't do well at the box office, including one of his own (The Sun, the Moon and the Stars) and 32A. He might be right, but then again, I would mention Stand By Me and Almost Famous.

Thomas Hefferon claims he has written 30-40 one-pagers for film ideas, but has only chosen 4-5 of them to actually write.

Carmel Winters said she has 3 great scripts at home that haven't a hope of getting made. "You don't want to write stuff that no one will see". Also, "Write scripts that could never work as a play, that are cinematic".

Barry Dignam commented that 20% of his students scripts are copies of American films. The panel were generally down on Irish writers doing American scripts, but I think you have to write what you like. They also don't rate Irish scribes chances of selling in the States, but that sounds like a rule made to be broken...

Getting produced

Carmel Winters claims she's a full-time writer and therefore broke, even though she had a play put on at The Abbey last year! She remarked about her career, "The minute I based a script in Ireland, I became produceable. People give money to people, not to scripts. Get yourself out there - it's a relationship business". She also remarked that she's given up on some characters because she was unable to write them except as stereotypes. "You have to have insight into them".

Doing research

Brendan McCarthy - "Doing research is another way of avoiding work!"

Carmel Winters said she had to do research into what producer the Film Board would trust with a low budget. That was her big step - to identify what people to approach with Snap. "Put yourself in a position of influence and be prepared to step up to the plate". Everyone looks for "trust and reliability".

Thomas Hefferon said he kept the Board informed every time one of his short films went to a festival. He made sure they knew who he was and introduced himself at events.


Carmel Winters was scathing about the training industry. "Don't wait to write. There's no replacement for it, including training".

Hefferon's last tip was to download the Blacklist scripts and to read one a week.

Overall, it was very good advice. My only gripe? They scheduled the event at the same time as The African Queen screening, with original script supervisor Angela Allen in attendance! Grr....

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