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!

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