Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lasseter on Cars, Monsters and lightning sound effects...

I was lucky enough to get tickets to IFTA's Cars 2 screening last night which included a Q&A with John Lasseter. In case anyone's just returned from Mars, Mr Lasseter is, of course, the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and the man behind the Toy Story franchise, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars etc etc etc.

Lasseter is a passionate, enthusiastic speaker and the IFTA interviewer was totally unable to control him, leading to more of a lecture than a Q&A. I think about five questions got asked in 45 minutes!

We learned:


  • That Lasseter loves cars. I mean, really, really loves cars. His dad used to have a Chevrolet garage and he worked there as a teenager.


  • He talked a lot about using inanimate objects such as toys and cars as characters and stressed the importance of finding the object's "face", which isn't always obvious. The cars in the Cars movies, for example, have the windshields as their "eyes", not the lights. He mentioned the sugar bowl which keeps adding more and more sugar to the tea in Sword in the Stone as a particular inspiration in terms of animation.


  • His first computer animation was a short called The Brave Little Toaster. This was also the film that got him fired from Disney, as his then-superiors were not impressed with this computer stuff. Definition of irony!


  • He's also a huge fan of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and is in awe that Miyazaki will make a whole animated film and only then do the voices, rather than building the animation around the voices like Pixar do.


  • Pixar scripts change hugely along the way. They do a story reel with temporary voices, music and images and make the (many) alterations based on this.


  • A good movie, whether it's an animation or live action, has a compelling story with interesting characters who draw you in.


  • Pixar will not do a sequel unless they have a really good idea for a story that is quite different to the first film.


  • There will be a follow-up to Monsters Inc! It will be called Monsters University and will be a prequel showing Sully and Mike when they first met at university.


  • Actors on Pixar movies don't have to go to Pixar to record. They flew to London to record Michael Caine, for example (he plays spy car Finn McMissile in Cars 2).


  • They cast actors who basically "are" the characters and ask them to use their real voices, rather than hiring voice artists who can put on any voice. What this says about Ned Beatty, who played the evil Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear in Toy Story 3, or Jason Lee who was Syndrome in The Incredibles, I'm not sure :)


  • They record everything in the booth, even the actors' chatty conversations. Owen Wilson "lightning sound effect" in Cars came from John Lasseter shooting the breeze with him during a break.
We were shown a trailer for Pixar's new movie Brave, which is set in medieval Scotland and features their first female lead character. Looks interesting!


Cars 2 producer Denise Ream barely got a word in edgeways, although she did say that Pixar is a really fun place to work and that it definitely beats Industrial Light and Magic, where she was based before.

Meanwhile, I'm still pluggin' away on my "moving to LA" plan. I've got in touch with a U.S.-based visa lawyer and awaiting a phone consultaton with her on my options. I'd still love to talk to anyone who's moved to the States, and to L.A. in particular. So if you've done this, let's talk!


I've also made the decision to throw financial caution to the wind and attend the Austin Film Festival this year. Life's too short not to have fun and talk movies endlessly for five or six days. Very excited that Hart Hanson, creator of one of my favourite TV shows Bones, will be at the Awards Luncheon. Hope Brennan and Booth decide to come with him!

Lasseter on Cars, Monsters and lightning sound effects...

I was lucky enough to get tickets to IFTA's Cars 2 screening last night which included a Q&A with John Lasseter. In case anyone's just returned from Mars, Mr Lasseter is, of course, the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and the man behind the Toy Story franchise, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars etc etc etc.

Lasseter is a passionate, enthusiastic speaker and the IFTA interviewer was totally unable to control him, leading to more of a lecture than a Q&A. I think about five questions got asked in 45 minutes!

We learned:


  • That Lasseter loves cars. I mean, really, really loves cars. His dad used to have a Chevrolet garage and he worked there as a teenager.


  • He talked a lot about using inanimate objects such as toys and cars as characters and stressed the importance of finding the object's "face", which isn't always obvious. The cars in the Cars movies, for example, have the windshields as their "eyes", not the lights. He mentioned the sugar bowl which keeps adding more and more sugar to the tea in Sword in the Stone as a particular inspiration in terms of animation.


  • His first computer animation was a short called The Brave Little Toaster. This was also the film that got him fired from Disney, as his then-superiors were not impressed with this computer stuff. Definition of irony!


  • He's also a huge fan of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and is in awe that Miyazaki will make a whole animated film and only then do the voices, rather than building the animation around the voices like Pixar do.


  • Pixar scripts change hugely along the way. They do a story reel with temporary voices, music and images and make the (many) alterations based on this.


  • A good movie, whether it's an animation or live action, has a compelling story with interesting characters who draw you in.


  • Pixar will not do a sequel unless they have a really good idea for a story that is quite different to the first film.


  • There will be a follow-up to Monsters Inc! It will be called Monsters University and will be a prequel showing Sully and Mike when they first met at university.


  • Actors on Pixar movies don't have to go to Pixar to record. They flew to London to record Michael Caine, for example (he plays spy car Finn McMissile in Cars 2).


  • They cast actors who basically "are" the characters and ask them to use their real voices, rather than hiring voice artists who can put on any voice. What this says about Ned Beatty, who played the evil Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear in Toy Story 3, or Jason Lee who was Syndrome in The Incredibles, I'm not sure :)


  • They record everything in the booth, even the actors' chatty conversations. Owen Wilson "lightning sound effect" in Cars came from John Lasseter shooting the breeze with him during a break.
We were shown a trailer for Pixar's new movie Brave, which is set in medieval Scotland and features their first female lead character. Looks interesting!


Cars 2 producer Denise Ream barely got a word in edgeways, although she did say that Pixar is a really fun place to work and that it definitely beats Industrial Light and Magic, where she was based before.

Meanwhile, I'm still pluggin' away on my "moving to LA" plan. I've got in touch with a U.S.-based visa lawyer and awaiting a phone consultaton with her on my options. I'd still love to talk to anyone who's moved to the States, and to L.A. in particular. So if you've done this, let's talk!


I've also made the decision to throw financial caution to the wind and attend the Austin Film Festival this year. Life's too short not to have fun and talk movies endlessly for five or six days. Very excited that Hart Hanson, creator of one of my favourite TV shows Bones, will be at the Awards Luncheon. Hope Brennan and Booth decide to come with him!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mining for Gold - Seek out the good stuff!

What is your script's USP? What the thing about it that makes people go "Wow" or even better, "I'd pay to see that!"

It's the thing that you always emphasise in pitches or in your logline, the part of the story you feel happiest talking about. The bit that the marketing boys will headline in the trailer.

That's your gold.

It may sound obvious, but it really cuts through a lot of crap that's talked about screenwriting - all the technical stuff that makes it sound like you're creating a mathematical equation instead of a creative work. Find what brilliance is in your script, be it a great concept, a compelling character or the humour running through it. Then sprinkle the gold in wherever you can, throughout the script.

And make sure to showcase your USP. Take out anything else that doesn't fit - you don't need it.

An exec read the script and liked the concept - don't tease her! People saw the magic in the trailer - that's why they're sitting in the cinema with a jumbo popcorn and Coke combo. They want to see it. So give it to them. Show them the gold!

I've seen too many films with an amazing idea behind them, that utterly failed to mine the concept for its potential. Or movies with a great character who should have been centre-stage, who ended up under-used.

And I've been guilty of it myself. Well no more. The gold is staying and any other parts of a script that don't work are going to be cut to make way for more golddust.

I'm hoping this film will bring the gold - it's one of the best concepts I've heard in ages. Hollywood execs were probably killing themselves to buy the rights, cos it's (whispers) a foreign language film. Yep, one of those...

Cell 211 is about a young prison guard who's caught up in a prison riot on his first day on the job and must pose as a prisoner in a desperate attempt to survive the ordeal. He becomes reluctant friends with the charismatic rebel leader and begins to wonder where his true loyalties lie.

Paul Haggis is directing the U.S. version, which has this one to live up to.

Mining for Gold - Seek out the good stuff!

What is your script's USP? What the thing about it that makes people go "Wow" or even better, "I'd pay to see that!"

It's the thing that you always emphasise in pitches or in your logline, the part of the story you feel happiest talking about. The bit that the marketing boys will headline in the trailer.

That's your gold.

It may sound obvious, but it really cuts through a lot of crap that's talked about screenwriting - all the technical stuff that makes it sound like you're creating a mathematical equation instead of a creative work. Find what brilliance is in your script, be it a great concept, a compelling character or the humour running through it. Then sprinkle the gold in wherever you can, throughout the script.

And make sure to showcase your USP. Take out anything else that doesn't fit - you don't need it.

An exec read the script and liked the concept - don't tease her! People saw the magic in the trailer - that's why they're sitting in the cinema with a jumbo popcorn and Coke combo. They want to see it. So give it to them. Show them the gold!

I've seen too many films with an amazing idea behind them, that utterly failed to mine the concept for its potential. Or movies with a great character who should have been centre-stage, who ended up under-used.

And I've been guilty of it myself. Well no more. The gold is staying and any other parts of a script that don't work are going to be cut to make way for more golddust.

I'm hoping this film will bring the gold - it's one of the best concepts I've heard in ages. Hollywood execs were probably killing themselves to buy the rights, cos it's (whispers) a foreign language film. Yep, one of those...

Cell 211 is about a young prison guard who's caught up in a prison riot on his first day on the job and must pose as a prisoner in a desperate attempt to survive the ordeal. He becomes reluctant friends with the charismatic rebel leader and begins to wonder where his true loyalties lie.

Paul Haggis is directing the U.S. version, which has this one to live up to.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An afternoon with a master - Gill Dennis

I spent a few days this week at the Galway Film Fleadh, one of my favourite festivals and this year was no exception. I went down there on Wednesday for the Writers Masterclass with Walk the Line writer Gill Dennis and was lucky enough to have a script consultation with him the next day.

Gill Dennis teaches at the American Film Institute and has worked on many famous scripts such as Apocalypse Now. He has a compelling and very effective approach to writing, which basically involves knowing your characters inside out by asking questions about their life experiences.

What was your hero's most terrifying moment?

What was his saddest time and what was his most joyful moment?

What's the most shameful thing that ever happened to him?

Dennis asks his students for examples of these moments from their own lives and often notices that there are common motifs between them (i.e. one man's stories all involved driving or cars).

He asked these questions of Johnny Cash when it came to writing the film of his life, and showed how the resulting powerful scenes contributed to the movie's structure. They began with Cash drawing a plan of his childhood home, which he was able to do with surprising accuracy.

Dennis also uses scenes, dialogue and characters from his own life and talked about weaving motifs into a film so that they run throughout. An example of this in Walk the Line is the "ghost" of Cash's brother following him through the movie whenever he mentions him to people, and in particular the memory that is invoked when he sees the band-saw in the workshop in Folsom Prison.

Other good pieces of advice:


  • "It took forever for me to learn to listen to bores" - this is a line he took from another writer. I know what he means - people you meet on the bus or in a queue are always the ones with stories.



  • You don't know your "through line", the one that will sum up or define your movie, when you start writing it. You discover it along the way.



  • "Any good line will do". In other words, put in some more good lines!



  • Don't show the script to people until it's ready - he commented that beginner writers are often horrified by how many drafts this takes.



  • Sounds in scripts are much more evocative than images.



  • The "elbow scene" - everything before and after hinges on it. In Walk the Line, it is the diner scene where Cash and June have their first proper conversation.



  • Dialogue - Leave a lot of the scene unspoken, so that the audience must fill in the blanks themselves. Ask a question - and don't answer it.



  • Write scenes a few different ways - and if you get a note from someone on a change, try making the change and see how it works.



  • Write as if this will be your last script - make it count!

I learned a lot and will be trying out some of the techniques during my next rewrite. It was a fantastic experience attending the Masterclass, but even better was having the consultation on Thursday, where I got to go through my Star on the Run script page by page with a veteran writer and teacher who really knows what he's talking about.

Some things have to stay in your own head, so I won't be saying any more about the advice he gave me and the insights he provided. Suffice to say that I now know exactly what I want to do with my script - and have the tools to do it.

Thanks to the Irish Film and Television Academy for setting this up - and to the Screenwriters Guild for hosting such a good get-together afterwards. You made my Fleadh!

An afternoon with a master - Gill Dennis

I spent a few days this week at the Galway Film Fleadh, one of my favourite festivals and this year was no exception. I went down there on Wednesday for the Writers Masterclass with Walk the Line writer Gill Dennis and was lucky enough to have a script consultation with him the next day.

Gill Dennis teaches at the American Film Institute and has worked on many famous scripts such as Apocalypse Now. He has a compelling and very effective approach to writing, which basically involves knowing your characters inside out by asking questions about their life experiences.

What was your hero's most terrifying moment?

What was his saddest time and what was his most joyful moment?

What's the most shameful thing that ever happened to him?

Dennis asks his students for examples of these moments from their own lives and often notices that there are common motifs between them (i.e. one man's stories all involved driving or cars).

He asked these questions of Johnny Cash when it came to writing the film of his life, and showed how the resulting powerful scenes contributed to the movie's structure. They began with Cash drawing a plan of his childhood home, which he was able to do with surprising accuracy.

Dennis also uses scenes, dialogue and characters from his own life and talked about weaving motifs into a film so that they run throughout. An example of this in Walk the Line is the "ghost" of Cash's brother following him through the movie whenever he mentions him to people, and in particular the memory that is invoked when he sees the band-saw in the workshop in Folsom Prison.

Other good pieces of advice:


  • "It took forever for me to learn to listen to bores" - this is a line he took from another writer. I know what he means - people you meet on the bus or in a queue are always the ones with stories.



  • You don't know your "through line", the one that will sum up or define your movie, when you start writing it. You discover it along the way.



  • "Any good line will do". In other words, put in some more good lines!



  • Don't show the script to people until it's ready - he commented that beginner writers are often horrified by how many drafts this takes.



  • Sounds in scripts are much more evocative than images.



  • The "elbow scene" - everything before and after hinges on it. In Walk the Line, it is the diner scene where Cash and June have their first proper conversation.



  • Dialogue - Leave a lot of the scene unspoken, so that the audience must fill in the blanks themselves. Ask a question - and don't answer it.



  • Write scenes a few different ways - and if you get a note from someone on a change, try making the change and see how it works.



  • Write as if this will be your last script - make it count!

I learned a lot and will be trying out some of the techniques during my next rewrite. It was a fantastic experience attending the Masterclass, but even better was having the consultation on Thursday, where I got to go through my Star on the Run script page by page with a veteran writer and teacher who really knows what he's talking about.

Some things have to stay in your own head, so I won't be saying any more about the advice he gave me and the insights he provided. Suffice to say that I now know exactly what I want to do with my script - and have the tools to do it.

Thanks to the Irish Film and Television Academy for setting this up - and to the Screenwriters Guild for hosting such a good get-together afterwards. You made my Fleadh!

Monday, July 4, 2011

You got their advice. Now what??!

I got my (heavily redrafted) Star on the Run script read this week by my fabulous writing group fellow members and by competition judges (from BlueCat). Also by a bunch of random people as I like to get a cross-section of opinions.

So once you've got multiple recommendations on what to do next, how do you decide which pieces of advice to take, and which to ignore?

There is no right or wrong answer to this, but here's how I approach it:
  • Have two or more people said the same thing? If so, this is usually a red glowing light that something needs fixing.
  • Do you find yourself reading a line of advice and nodding your head? You know it's the right thing to do when you're immediate reaction is "Yes, of course!"
  • Do you immediately feel defensive and anxious when you read or hear the advice? Then maybe it's worth listening to - that's your gut talking!
  • Are people confirming your own suspicions, however deeply buried?
  • Does it feel like a subjective, kneejerk reaction on their part, or are their thoughts worth considering?
  • Would this person every pay to see your film? Are they able to be objective about it? I'm probably not a good person to give advice on torture porn horror, for instance, no matter how detached I try to be.
I think ultimately, you have to know in your heart what thoughts to take on board. Only you know, for example, which direction your story should go in and what the basic essence of the script is. People can sometimes suggest huge changes that might improve the script but would also strip it of the things that attracted you to it. (As a weird analogy - many people would look better with cosmetic surgery, but that doesn't mean such a drastic change is necessary. Your script is no different!)

Seek good advice, take it on board, and make your script as good as it can possibly be...

You got their advice. Now what??!

I got my (heavily redrafted) Star on the Run script read this week by my fabulous writing group fellow members and by competition judges (from BlueCat). Also by a bunch of random people as I like to get a cross-section of opinions.

So once you've got multiple recommendations on what to do next, how do you decide which pieces of advice to take, and which to ignore?

There is no right or wrong answer to this, but here's how I approach it:
  • Have two or more people said the same thing? If so, this is usually a red glowing light that something needs fixing.
  • Do you find yourself reading a line of advice and nodding your head? You know it's the right thing to do when you're immediate reaction is "Yes, of course!"
  • Do you immediately feel defensive and anxious when you read or hear the advice? Then maybe it's worth listening to - that's your gut talking!
  • Are people confirming your own suspicions, however deeply buried?
  • Does it feel like a subjective, kneejerk reaction on their part, or are their thoughts worth considering?
  • Would this person every pay to see your film? Are they able to be objective about it? I'm probably not a good person to give advice on torture porn horror, for instance, no matter how detached I try to be.
I think ultimately, you have to know in your heart what thoughts to take on board. Only you know, for example, which direction your story should go in and what the basic essence of the script is. People can sometimes suggest huge changes that might improve the script but would also strip it of the things that attracted you to it. (As a weird analogy - many people would look better with cosmetic surgery, but that doesn't mean such a drastic change is necessary. Your script is no different!)

Seek good advice, take it on board, and make your script as good as it can possibly be...