Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Day 3 of Austin 2011...

Saturday began with a discussion between TV titans Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars et al) and Hart Hanson (Judging Amy, Bones et al). Hanson was due to receive a special award at the festival awards luncheon that afternoon.

Bones is a great show. The episode with Robert Englund as a creepy janitor was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV. But what really excited me was that Hanson was one of the writers on The Beachcombers, a Canadian TV show that I remember watching as a kid. I’m sure it wasn’t that great a show in retrospect, but back then I was glued to it.

The two guys agreed on one big thing – that being a showrunner is the best job there is for a writer because of the level of control. Yet Hanson claims – rather surprisingly, that he’s not a natural showrunner and has only found himself in this role out of necessity. He says he hates when everyone’s head swivels toward him in meetings, but he loves not having his stuff rewritten. He now runs two writers rooms – one on Bones and one on his new show The Finder. This possibly mainly because his exec producer runs the Bones room and Hanson himself mainly gets involved when it comes to hearing the case pitches.

He explained how Bones came about – he had an overall deal with 20th Century Fox and had to produce a pilot for them every year. Another show he’d been planning didn’t pan out, then his producer showed him a documentary on author and former pathologist Kathy Reichs and he thought there was something there. While the casting has been key to the shows success, Hanson’s initial meeting with David Boreanaz went really badly. Then Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel had to audition together – in front of a large crowd from the network.

Rob Thomas claims to be too afraid to read online reviews of his show, while Hanson said he has some people who say they hate Bones but still watch it religiously!

So how do you get Hart Hanson to read your TV script? You need to be a repped writer. His advice was to write loads of TV scripts, polish them, and send them to agencies until someone agrees to represent you. OR – get an entry-level job on a show and someone will, eventually, agree to read your spec. Don’t do what one writer did and submit one of the showrunner’s own specs to him! You’ll need at least two samples of your work – but they can be plays or feature screenplays instead of TV scripts.

One big skill you will need – one that Hanson admits he has – is to be able to copy other writers’ voices, that is, to adapt the voice of a show. You should be able to put it on like a jacket.

In terms of what the networks are looking for, Hanson says that shows about interesting people doing interesting things isn’t enough anymore. The networks want a show with a cool, high-concept hook.

The next panel discussion was about The Heroine’s Journey and featured female writers Elizabeth Hunter (Beautyshop, The Fighting Temptations) and Pamela Gray (Conviction, A Walk on the Moon).

They covered what it means to be a female writer, but also what it means to write a good female character.

For example, making your female character “more likeable”. Does this mean making her less edgy? Less angry?

Elizabeth Hunter made the point that if four people give you the same note on your script, you have to pay attention to it. In her film The Fighting Temptations, the main character was originally a gangster rapper, but making him an advertising executive worked better.

Pamela Gray – It’s not that there are no parts for women, it’s just that there are more leading men who can open movies. There’s a perception that only teenage boys watch films. Writers rule on TV – and look at the TV roles for women. She said she’d like to be a showrunner on a show some day – it’s about creative control.

Elizabeth Hunter – There’s more interesting stuff on TV – it’s a lot more expensive to put out movies and people are afraid to take risks.

The panel acknowledged that there is a perception that only women will watch “female movies”, whereas both genders will watch a male-oriented film.

Gray said she was a fan of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, but pointed out that the journey is different for female characters. A woman in a script will tend to “refuse the call” more than once. They don’t just launch into action. The “threshold guardian” – often these are wives but in her film Conviction, Betty Ann’s husband was the threshold guardian, trying to stop her from taking her step forward. Also, “mentors and allies” tend to be the main character’s best friends in a female character’s story – and women tend to join a community at the end of the story rather than going it alone.

Taking an entrepreneurial approach – what can I get made next? Hunter says she reads books and takes a proactive approach to pitching projects. She loves producing and wants to direct a project at some stage. She pointed out that the studios are already not as relevant as they once were. You can make a low-budget movie and get it distributed. There’s the internet, video on demand.

They mentioned Mindy Kaling’s recent entertaining article in The New Yorker about female characters in movies – they all seem to work in art galleries and/or be klutzes. They’re romantic leads (where do you start?), virgins (Twilight) or assassins (Salt). Whether your main character is a man or a woman, they can’t be passive. Taking action is what makes them a hero – or a heroine.

Notes – you often get a character note that does not serve the main character – for example, she must have a viable romance, even if this has to be shoehorned into the plot.

Pamela Gray’s movie A Walk on the Moon featured Diane Lane as a woman at a 1960s Catskills bungalow colony, where women and children would spend the summer and their husbands would only join them at the weekends. She was told that the scene where her long-married main character has her first orgasm when she sleeps with a visiting salesman could not be shot as written. The reason? What would it say about her husband? She eventually managed to get the scene filmed as she had originally intended, but it meant standing up for her script and for her character.

This was the first time AFF had done a female panel any year I’d been there, and I thought it was really useful. Plus it got the biggest female attendance of all the events!

I then shot off to the awards lunch at the Austin Club, where Hart Hanson, screenwriter Caroline Thompson, some guy called Johnny Depp and Pixar supremo John Lasseter were all getting awards.

There was obvious and genuine affection between David Boreanaz (who introduced Hanson), Emily Deschanel (who did a recorded video due to being heavily pregnant) and their boss. Terry Rossio introduced Johnny Depp, who sported a hat, sunglasses and heavy beard, but managed to come across as that rare thing, a nice movie-star. His movie The Rum Diary had screened the evening before, and I was unable to get a seat (i.e. couldn’t be bothered to join the massive queue). But I’d heard from several attendees that director Bruce Robinson was wasted during the Q&A, while JD himself had also had a few WKDs or whatever it is he drinks). Maybe he’s nice when he’s hungover – or maybe it’s not an act. Either way, he’s a one-off, and a bit of a legend.

My pitching session was fast approaching but first I caught a Q&A with writer and director Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment, Albert Nobbs). Garcia is the son of famous Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose books are on school syllabuses all over Latin America. Rather surprisingly, Marquez himself was a screenwriter in Mexico and according to his son, had wanted to be a director. He talked about growing up in a household full of creative people discussing stories. To people who ask him, “How did your father influence you?” he always asks, “How did yours influence you?”!

Garcia began as a cinematographer before moving into directing and now, writing. He still feels that each movie is composed of three films – the written version, the filmed one and the final edited version.

He prefers writing female characters as: “they are more complex. The men are always good boys – like me!” He never asks the same person to read his script twice, but shows it to two people, does a rewrite, shows it to two more people, does another rewrite, and so on.

On the writing process – he writes something every day, even if it is only a few pages. “You have to turn the computer on, or it won’t happen!” The second act is always a nightmare. He watches a movie a day when he’s writing, even if it’s one he’s seen before, to “feed the brain”.

Albert Nobbs (which shot earlier this year in Ireland) – this was a passion project for Glenn Close, who first played the role on stage in 1982. She chose Garcia to direct and he says she had a very solid idea of what the character would be like.

TV versus the movies – he likes to ask, “what is the problem?” in each story. What are the desires and what are the obstacles? Each script needs a touchstone or central idea. The age of your main character is crucial – where are they in their life? In answer to a question about dislikeable chracters, Garcia made the good point that this means they have been badly written. Downfall, the movie about Hitler’s final days, is full of compelling chracters, yet they are Nazis!

With shaking knees, I then headed off to my one and only pitching session, in front of judges Tai Duncan (Paul Schiff Productions) and Joyce San Pedro (Sony Pictures). There are nine pitching sessions during the festival and two writers progress from each to the live final. After going through my own private hell and watching 10 other pitches (some amazing, some okay) we got the results. I didn’t get through – I came third. But this is still my best ever result, so at least I’m improving (slowly!).

The pitch finale took place in a crowded bar later on. Every year I’m amazed at the courage it must take to get up in front of a lot of other drunk writers and pitch your movie. Twenty or so brave souls did that, and all I can say is fair play, folks...

Then there was the always immensely fun conference wrap party, which took place in Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Legend has it that Robert Rodriguez staggered in there after finishing El Mariachi and celebrated with a big, juicy steak.

The night finished much later in the Driskill Bar, but not before I met Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), who might well be the nicest man in the world. He explained the Act 3 changeover in TS3 (it involves the little toy aliens) and gave his pitch for Little Miss Sunshine 2 (sounds like a hit! But not an Oscar winner).

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