Monday, October 31, 2011

Day 2 of Austin 2011....

Next morning, it was up early and on to a roundtable. First up with Disney’s Maggie Malone, who gave the following advice: you have to be so enthusiastic in your pitch that you bring the listener on a journey. Also, as a studio writer you have to be able to communicate someone else’s ideas as passionately as your own.

Next was literacy agent Gayla Nethercott. Her ideal client, she revealed, has to employable, good in a room, have a voice she likes and be self-aware. I explained to her that I’ll be moving to LA next year, most likely on a three-month tourist visa initially. She advised me to set up as many meetings as possible before I go and to use my three months wisely. No Irish shyness allowed!

The last exec was Cort Lane, VP of animation development at Marvel. He works on TV animation and most of their stuff is aimed at 6-11 year old boys. This isn’t an area I know a lot about, but it’s extremely interesting – for example, there are a lot of rules on TV animation for kids. There’s no face punching, no breaking windows and if a character goes on a motorcycle, they must be wearing a helmet (Unless they’re Spiderman. Then anything goes). Because their characters are superheroes, they can get away with more – but developing child-friendly stories for Wolverine or Hulk, for instance, can be challenging.

Then it was on to talk on reversals and pay-offs with the one and only Shane Black, who is currently working on Iron Man 3.

He claims – rather refreshingly – to still have fears about pitching and finds that writing gets harder, rather than easier, once you have a few scripts behind you. While some writers claim to love writing, he says he’ll do anything, even clean the house, to avoid getting started.

Here is just some of the other stuff he covered:

  • Every story is a suspense thriller, whatever the genre. Will the guy get the girl? Will the hero escape the slasher killer?

  • Reversals – things that put events or details in a movie in a different light. Everything seems okay, but wait! There’s a problem. Most scripts suffer from not having enough of these kinds of moments. It’s rare to have too many – Reindeer Games is one movie that does.

  • Quick reversals – these are usually used in action movies. Example – La Femme Nikita, where she goes to a bathroom window, her only escape route, to be faced with a brick wall.

  • Slow reversals – we only find out at the end of Stand By Me why the main character has been telling us this story.

  • Pay-offs – All the balls that you’ve been spinning during the script should start to come down in Act 3. Small victories – the “You’re a loser” line in Rocky that pays off at the end of the movie when he “wins” by staying on his feet. But you have to hide your set-up – you’re looking for an “Oh my God, I forgot about that!” from the audience.

  • If you’re stuck, go for a walk! And if you’ve just finished a first draft, leave it a month before looking at it again.

  • Script doctoring – they’re paying you to put your own stamp on the story, or else you’re just taking their money. With Iron Man, it was a case of finding the version of the story he wanted to tell.

  • Make ideas seem like executives’ own thoughts, like if they want to change something and you disagree with them. Make them feel like geniuses – they’ll love you for it!

  • A really good tip – learn to expect the best, not the worst! Use positive thinking, as it’s so easy to be negative, especially in LA.


I went from there to a panel on agents and clients, which featured UTA agent Rebecca Ewing and her client, screenwriter Amy Talkington. Amy is currently working on several projects, including the scripts Valley Girl and Undercover, as well as the remake of Private Benjamin.

She explained that she got her first agent after she made an award-winning short film while studying at Columbia University. The short ended up getting screened at Paramount Studios and she got referred to Rebecca as a client after this.

Here are some of the topics they touched on:

  • Open assignments – Rebecca Ewing explained that the process to win these is now highly competitive. As an agent, she must use her influence just to get clients in the door and on the shortlist. She talked about meeting a new client recently, hearing what he was interested in writing about, and giving him the option of doing a book adaptation at one of the studios, which he was immediately interested in.

  • Contact with your agent – Rebecca will leave Amy alone while she’s writing on a project. At other times, when she’s between projects, they’ll talk every day. While they’re friendly, it’s important to remember that you and your agent have a business relationship first and foremost. One interesting note is that it often takes the agency longer to write up an agreement with the studio than it takes the writer to write the draft!

  • Agents and clients tend to have handshake deals rather than signed contracts.

  • Managers – Rebecca works closely with Amy’s manager. The manager will go through her pitch with her and breaks projects down; it’s a more casual relationship and they will talk more regularly. A manager will often bring a client to an agent they know – or vice versa. Amy did stress that while she likes having as many people out to bat for her as possible, it’s important to make sure that your team get along.

  • Getting an agent  - their advice was to concentrate on writing great material rather than finding an agent. Great scripts rise to the top. When you’re ready, you can try to get representation through referrals. Do research on a potential agent before you meet them and feel out if this is someone who will be with you for the long haul.

  • You don’t have to be based in LA, but you have to be committed to coming out for meetings 2-3 times a year. Rebecca stressed that she doesn’t mind if a client is shy or has poor pitching skills, as these can be worked on.

  • Screenwriter gaffes – these would include “stalking” an agent, expecting too much too soon and not respecting boundaries. Also, not understanding that this is a long-term career, not a quick fix.


Overall, this was a session full of good advice, and it was nice to see an agent-client relationship that seems to work really well!

Lastly for Friday was a panel on the art of screenwriting, featuring Terry Rossio (writer of Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin etc etc), Laurence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat etc etc) and Nick Kazan (At Close Range, Reversal of Fortune, etc etc). No rookies here!

Process – Rossio uses a board and index cards to map everything out. He doesn’t think about theme so much as the characters and how they relate to each other. Kasdan likes to use cards with one word on them to represent each scene. And Kazan likes to rely on writing huge outlines. When he feels like he knows the movie inside out, he starts writing. When things are going well, he has pictures and dialogue in his head and he’s writing at speed to try to describe them.

Kazan talked about going to the University of Michigan, where the guy who taught Arthur Miller was still teaching. The three-act structure was so drilled into him there, he hardly has to think about it now.

Theory – Rossio maintains that theory is only good as a diagnostic tool – useful once you have a draft and you’re trying to figure out how to fix it. He drives around and around for hours thinking about his scripts.

Notes on movies – the general consensus was that studios know when they’re making a huge mistake with a script note (like, a 100m dollar mistake). But they’re going to make it anyway!

Casting – “sometimes the casting fairy dust lands” – as with Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and pretty much the whole cast in The Big Chill.

Terry Rossio then said something huge about exposition. This was the most useful thing I heard during the festival – and I heard a lot of useful advice. His advice was, “Take it out. You don’t need it”.  He went on to explain that in the course of each situation or scene, the information will naturally occur during the story. You want interest and mystery, not exposition. This was big for me because one of my big problems is getting bogged down with explaining stuff in scripts. The idea of taking it all out and tossing it is a huge relief!

Making a career  - this has become harder because all writers have is their work and writers don’t tend to be good schmoozers! Kazan advised newbie writers to align themselves with other industry professionals such as DOPs and directors, to build their network of contacts. You have two things to use as leverage – your talent and your discipline.

Developing characters – the best characters are “primal” in some way. For example, Rossio pointed out that Sherlock Holmes is “curiosity” personified.

I then headed off to a barbecue in the grounds of the French Legion. It was a balmy evening by then and there was a lot of free food and beer, so not much to complain about!  Afterwards everyone moved on to a festival happy hour. The great thing about a festival like this is that everyone is there to make contacts and meet other writers/producers/agents/whatever so you can just walk up to anyone and introduce yourself.

Friday ended at an ungodly hour – and we were only halfway through....

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to do the Austin Film Festival – an essential guide

It’s October, so that means Austin Film Festival time. I missed last year’s festival – something about being sensible about money or some such nonsense – but when I say I missed it, I really meant emotionally. Where else but Austin can you rub shoulders with A-list writers, directors – oh, and the odd actor? So this year it was back to Texas, where a friend from the 2009 festival had kindly agreed to put me up.


The festival kicks off with a four-day conference comprising roundtables, panels and pitches, not to mention parties, with films sprinkled in between. I tend to arrive on the Wednesday night to avoid jet lag, and stay until the Monday night, cos Austin is a fun place and Monday’s the only time you get to spend exploring it. The rest of the time, you’re sitting in freezing air-conditioned rooms or drinking beer in hot bars, but all the while hearing war stories and screenwriting tips from the best in the business.

Day One

The first panel began at midday on Thursday 20th October with a conversation between Austin writer and playwright Pat Hazell and Alec Berg, writer as well as  director and executive producer on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I have to hold my hands up and say that I’m much more interested in writing movies than TV. But this was a fascinating discussion – Berg said more about writing for TV in an hour than I suspect many TV-writing courses will teach you in a year.

He talked about writing comedy in college and how he teamed up with his future writing partner there. Working on Seinfeld was very different to the traditional writing rooms he’d experienced on other shows. Instead of writing with a room full of other writers, he would come up with some ideas, put them past Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and write them up by himself. Another thing that was different was that the usual sitcom show morality was turned on its head. Bad things were always happening to the characters and the moral was not, “don’t do that again”, but “don’t get caught!”

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, there is no script. Instead, they have an 8-9 page outline and the whole thing is improvised based on this. Many of the ideas come from real life – Larry David makes note of situations that make him feel uncomfortable and uses them on the show! There is no “they” on the show – the writers and David are free to cover pretty much whatever they want.

Berg now writes with two other writers, and claims that this works because they never get bogged down with disagreements. There’s always a tie-breaker!

He also talked about the movies he’s done. He and his partner wrote Eurotrip as something inexpensive to produce that they could direct themselves. He described this experience as their “film school”. It was weird working with film characters who have to have an "arc" compared to TV characters, who have longer to develop. They’re now working with Sacha Baron Cohen on his new movie The Dictator, having worked with him before on Borat and Bruno. Berg described him as mad but brilliant  - no surprises there!

One good piece of advice he had about movies was to take notes on your script from execs - even crap notes - but to try to come up with a good take on them. Also, try to figure out what the exec or whoever is actually trying to say about your script - read between the lines.

Other things they covered during the conversation: working from home – impossible, as family members keeping saying “you’re obviously doing nothing!” when you’re sitting staring into space. The episode of Curb with the “gay kid” – “The casting director tasked with finding a camp eight-year-old called and said, ‘I’ve found the kid!’”

Alex Berg is a guy who's truly been there and done the work, and it was brilliant to hear his advice and stories.

I skipped the next panel to have lunch instead with editor Frank Reynolds (thanks to Frank for taking me to Huts Hamburgers, which is awesome!) and director Whit Stillman, who is a lovely man.

That night there was two great parties (the free booze was only starting), one of them hosted by Black List founder Franklin Leonard. I also caught the one and only movie I managed to catch during the festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Starring Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen as a girl who’s escaped from a cult, this is a brilliant film featuring an impressive performance from Olsen and a even better one from John Hawkes, the star of last year’s Winter’s Bone.

Then it was on to Day Two, otherwise known as Friday....

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why we should all watch Die Hard....

I'm in a private film club that meets once a month in the lovely Denzille Lane Cinema. The administrator sends around an Excel sheet via Facebook and you choose whether or not to sign up to attend this month's screening. As the cinema only has about 30 seats,  it's a bit like sitting in someone's very fancy living room.

Anyway, the December screening just went around today, and it's nearly full already. The movie? DIE HARD. Well, it's set at Christmas!

I've already seen Die Hard dozens of times - and I can guarantee that most of the others going will seen it a lot more than that. Yet I'll still watch it on DVD or whenever it's on TV (about once a month!). And we're all going to show up on 2 December to watch it on the big screen. So what's Die Hard's big appeal?

To paraphrase Bill C, it's the script, stupid. Seriously, it's a kick-ass script. And what else would you expect from something co-written by the legendary Steven E. De Souza.

It has everything: a likeable hero with one big flaw (he loves being a cop too much to follow his wife to LA). A villain who is every bit as compelling as the hero (check out that great scene where Hans pretends to be a hostage and he and McClane talk Roy Rogers and guns).

Supporting characters that are interesting and compelling in their own right. There's Holly Gennaro McClane, who takes the fact that her company Christmas party has been hijacked in her capable stride. The traffic cop Powell who gets reluctantly involved in the situation and emerges as McClane's new friend (and gets over his gun phobia into the bargain). Gruber's crazed henchman Karl, who seems to be impossible to kill. And that's just a few - this is a movie packed with cool characters.

Instantly quotable dialogue - there's yippee ky yay but so many other great lines. I especially like the bit where Hans sees the architecture model for the Nakatomi Tower and quotes Alexander the Great. Or anything that comes out of the stupid police chief Dwayne T. Robinson's mouth (as brilliantly played by the late, great Paul Gleason).

Plus there's the great simplicity of the plot: put one good guy in an impossible situation, against better-trained, better-equipped opponents and let the games begin. This is the blueprint for how action movies should be made, but it's also a good example of how a story should be structured for any genre. If you can write a script - whether it's a comedy, a drama or a sci-fi, where you make people care about the characters and keep them compelled as much as this, then you've succeeded.

I can't wait to watch it again - this time on the big screen. Remember, watching Die Hard is fun but can also be classed as an education...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review of Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

One of the things writers do to avoid actually writing scripts is read books about writing scripts. And I’m no exception. Sometimes I even learn something!

So I thought it would be fun to review the occasional screenwriting book, starting with this one: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.

These two guys have written nine features together, including Night at the Museum, Reno 911!, The Pacifier and Taxi. Their movies have, according to this book, made nearly 1.5 billion dollars at the box office. Now, if you read that, saw the list of movies and thought “This is exactly what’s wrong with Hollywood today”, then this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to read all about writing Hollywood blockbusters from two guys who are actually out there doing it, then read on.

This is probably the thing I liked most about this book: it’s written by two working screenwriters who are writing and selling scripts right now. There are way too many books out there written by people who last sold a TV movie in 1993 – if they have any credits at all. Incidentally, Lennon is also an actor and if you watch his performance in 17 Again and don’t fall around laughing, you have no funny bone. The guy singlehandedly saved that film.

This book is divided into two sections, and it says a lot that the first section is Selling Your Movie, whereas the second half concerns Writing Your Movie. The selling part begins with the words “If you don’t sell it, it’s not a screenplay. It’s a stack of paper for the recycling bin”. Never were truer words said!

The three things you need to get started as a screenwriter are listed as follows:

1. A copy of Final Draft

2. An Agent or Manager

3. Discipline. The ability and desire to write loads. And loads.

You also need to live in L.A. They are very insistent about this and even provide useful information like the best places to park in or near studios and a list of In-N-Out Burger locations.

In the chapter “Why Isn’t Anyone Buying My Brilliant Screenplay?”, the two boys give their rules for writing screenplays that sell. And let’s face it, they’ve sold a few. So here they are:

  1. No one wants you to reinvent the wheel. For example, most people out there (I’d include myself in this) would not say on Saturday night “I know – let’s watch Eraserhead again!”

  2. 2. Most people go to the cinema not to be challenged, but to be entertained.

  3. You don’t become a better writer by thinking about it. You get better by writing.


Next up, pitching the movie! Make sure the premise is easy to describe in terms of other successful movies. AND – the main character must be the kind of flawed (but amazing) character a movie star will want to play. Also, dress well. Practice your pitch til it’s burned into your brain.

They go into a lot of interesting detail that somehow I’ve never seen in any other screenwriting book. What it means when you sell a movie. How much you can expect to make. Credits – and exactly what they mean. What face to put on when you’re receiving notes and experiencing extreme rage. How one single movie exec can screw up your entire deal, and things to avoid doing yourself to avoid sending your deal toilet-wards.

I laughed a lot reading this book, especially the examples of scripts they sprinkle throughout the book (“Turbulence”, a comedy set at the airport starring Kevin James as a downtrodden baggage handler and Cameron Diaz as an art historian). The brilliant but terrifying thing about these plots is that they could be real. They probably are!

You will absolutely hate this book if your favourite film is Eraserhead and you hate mainstream films. But even then, you’ll learn something about the process of pitching and selling movies. I think it’s well worth a read and I look forward to the sequel, “Writing Movies for Fun and Even More Profit!”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review - Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

One of the things writers do to avoid actually writing scripts is read books about writing scripts. And I'm no exception. Sometimes I even learn something!

So I thought it would be fun to review the occasional screenwriting book, starting with this one: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.

These two guys have written nine features together, including Night at the Museum, Reno 911!, The Pacifier and Taxi. Their movies have, according to this book, made nearly 1.5 billion dollars at the box office. Now, if you read that, saw the list of movies and thought "This is exactly what's wrong with Hollywood today", then this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to read all about writing Hollywood blockbusters from two guys who are actually out there doing it, then read on.

This is probably the thing I liked most about this book: it's written by two working screenwriters who are writing and selling scripts right now. There are way too many books out there written by people who last sold a TV movie in 1993 - if they have any credits at all. Incidentally, Lennon is also an actor and if you watch his performance in 17 Again and don't fall around laughing, you have no funny bone. The guy singlehandedly saved that film.

This book is divided into two sections, and it says a lot that the first section is Selling Your Movie, whereas the second half concerns Writing Your Movie. The selling part begins with the words "If you don't sell it, it's not a screenplay. It's a stack of paper for the recycling bin". Never were truer words said!

The three things you need to get started as a screenwriter are listed as follows:

1. A copy of Final Draft
2. An Agent or Manager
3. Discipline. The ability and desire to write loads. And loads.

You also need to live in L.A. They are very insistent about this and even provide useful information like the best places to park in or near studios and a list of In-N-Out Burger locations.

In the chapter "Why Isn't Anyone Buying My Brilliant Screenplay?", the two boys give their rules for writing screenplays that sell. And let's face it, they've sold a few. So here they are:

1. No one wants you to reinvent the wheel. For example, most people out there (I'd include myself in this) would not say on Saturday night "I know - let's watch Eraserhead again!"
2. Most people go to the cinema not to be challenged, but to be entertained.
3. You don't become a better writer by thinking about it. You get better by writing.

Next up, pitching the movie! Make sure the premise is easy to describe in terms of other successful movies. AND - the main character must be the kind of flawed (but amazing) character a movie star will want to play. Also, dress well. Practice your pitch til it's burned into your brain.

They go into a lot of interesting detail that somehow I've never seen in any other screenwriting book. What it means when you sell a movie. How much you can expect to make. Credits - and exactly what they mean. What face to put on when you're receiving notes and experiencing extreme rage. How one single movie exec can screw up your entire deal, and things to avoid doing yourself to avoid sending your deal toilet-wards.

I laughed a lot reading this book, especially the examples of scripts they sprinkle throughout the book ("Turbulence", a comedy set at the airport starring Kevin James as a downtrodden baggage handler and Cameron Diaz as an art historian). The brilliant but terrifying thing about these plots is that they could be real. They probably are!

You will absolutely hate this book if your favourite film is Eraserhead and you hate mainstream films. But even then, you'll learn something about the process of pitching and selling movies. I think it's well worth a read and I look forward to the sequel, "Writing Movies for Fun and Even More Profit!"

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Blog!

I've made the decision, after a couple of years and a lot of posts, to move to Wordpress. Their themes are prettier and I can host my own blog there which seems like a good plan.

The new address is http://dublintohollywood.com. I'll sort out a redirect as soon as possible but in the meantime, this will be my new home!

Thanks folks.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How to get your mini masterpiece made....

I have a short film called Tiger, about a tiger kidnapping and a battle of wits that develops between one of the kidnappers and one of the victims, a bank official's wife.

It's 10 pages long, is set in only one location, and has only five parts (three of which are speaking roles). I reckon it could be made in some style, with everyone getting paid at least a small amount, for five grand.

So what are my options for getting it made? Should I go down the DIY route or hold out for a proper budget? Since I can't be the only writer with a half-decent short script, here are some options for getting your short onto the big screen.

1. Make things easy on yourself by starting with a low-budget script. A 15 minute script with 10 locations is going to be a nightmare to shoot. Try not to have any more than 5-6 speaking roles and avoid anything that requires special effects or too many expensive props.
2. Enter competitions and apply for funding schemes. The main ones in Ireland are the Filmbase Awards and the Film Board's Short Scripts scheme. Competition is fierce, and you may need to have a director or producer lined up if you're approved - but this is definitely one of the better options.
3. Send it direct to production companies and hope that one of them will get behind your script and want to make it. I'm going to try this with Tiger, targeting production companies that have made similar shorts and have a good track record. I'll report back on how this goes!
4. Make it yourself. This could potentially be the most rewarding option, but it's by far the hardest. If you can't crowd-fund the movie or raise money via investors, you could find your credit card getting bent WAY out of shape. I wouldn't advise going down this route unless you have exhausted all other options - and even then, you will need a talented team to keep you on track.

Anyone have any other ideas on getting a short film from page to screen?