Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Austin 2012 - Part One. Pitching challenges, parties and Terry Rossio on Revisions...

I've been putting off blogging for a few days, partly because there is so much to write (arrggghh!!) and also because it's been crazy since I got back from Austin. But now I'm determined to get this blogging shit back on track!

First of all, a big thumbs up and best of luck to Chas Fisher, an Australian writer/director who I met up with over the last few weeks. He has an excellent blog here, which covers his projects and his recent trip to the States. Basically, Chas attempted to do in 3 weeks what I've been trying to do in 3 months, and he managed to do a scary (but impressive) amount of stuff while he was here. Have a look - his schedule was pretty busy, but it's an inspiration!

So, Austin. Going to AFF this year was kind of weird because a. I've always gone there from Ireland before and b. it's usually been the ONLY time I have to meet people in the U.S. industry. So it was strange going there from L.A., having spent a few months meeting industry types.

This did make me a bit more chilled-out about the whole thing, but it has to be said too, there weren't AS many reps or producers there this time round. At least, that was how it felt. I must get my old AFF festivals programs when I get home and see if my suspicions are correct. There was a different, less career-desperate vibe. People actually relaxed and went out to chat and get hammered.

There were a lot of other writers there, though, both famous and not-at-all famous. And to be honest, the reps tend to show up and split early anyway, in case some writer should actually ask them to represent them ;)

I arrived in Austin on the Wednesday and spent the first night saying hallo to a few familiar faces and availing of the 2 for 1 hamburger deal at Huts. I highly recommend Huts, even if you have just the one burger - they're excellent.

Thursday, my friend Frank kindly took me to The Salt Lick, an Austin barbecue institution that's about 30 minutes outside town. I'd never been there before cos I'm too chicken to drive in Texas, but that hadn't stopped me featuring Th' Lick in a screenplay I wrote set in Austin. It was a big relief to get there and see that it really was just like I'd pictured it. They have the best barbecue meat I've ever tasted, and their sauce is to die for (not literally).

I should have had an early night and practiced my pitch, for I was pitching the next morning. But I'm not that sensible a girl. So instead I went to the Driskill Bar and talked for hours, then went to two parties. I'm ashamed to say that I only went back to the hotel when a (very sensible) friend heard I was pitching the next day and grabbed the wine glass out of my hand. Thanks Cathy!

I was pitching Last Girl Standing, a script that reached the top 10% in this year's AFF screenwriting competition. The pitch on Friday morning actually went well in that I managed to finish it in 90 seconds and did not have any blips in delivery. The problem was - and it's amazing how hard it is to see this yourself - that it was all set-up and no meat! All Act 1 and not enough Act 2. And especially in a comedy, where all the funny bits are in Act 2, this is a disaster.

The two judges - Amy Talkington and Pamela Ribon - gave me some great tips on how to improve it and were generally lovely. The other pitch contenders were also the friendliest I've ever come across at AFF and some of them are people I know I'll be in contact with for a long time. A shout-out to the poor guy with the massive head cold who had to pitch despite being smothered. That was brave!

Then it was into Terry Rossio's second annual workshop on Revisions. Last year's workshop taught me a ton so I had high hopes for this one.

The big note that he stresses again and again is: Believe your script can get better. Don't settle when it's "okay" or even "good". Aim for "great"!

Here was the main gist of his advice during the session - I hope some of it helps you as much as it's helped me:

  • Your scene doesn't start until your character's "want" is revealed. Or until the situational dilemma is understood.

  • You have an opening image, a key moment and a "throw" (or transition). Figure out what these are, protect them and enhance them.

  • A scene ideally exists to make a single story point. Character points are not the same - a scene can have any number of these. But any more than one story point and things are going to get confusing.

  • With performance dialogue, the shorter the better. Silence between words provides an opportunity for the actors. Too many words restricts them.

  • Actors also hate question marks as it locks them into a rising vocal. Try to make questions into statements if you can - it's stronger anyway.

  • What he was going through with us was polishing your script - he advises doing a rough draft, leaving it for a while, then rewriting. Rinse and repeat. Then he reads the script several times and when nothing jumps out or feels awkward, when it reads perfectly, then and only then is it done.


Terry showed us his desktop on the big screen and how it's laid out. He advises giving each screenwriting project a unique icon, even a drawing or image that you've done specially for it. Somehow, it helps him "will" his projects into existence!

He writes in sequences with his partner, and showed us the 36 sequences for their latest script. They're color-coded, with the red ones being unfinished, the yellow ones totally completed, etc.

The other really fascinating thing he showed us were pitch materials he and Ted Eliott use with their script pitches in conjunction with their story board. These included drawings, other artwork, even a full animation that they commissioned to give the execs the right feel for their story. As he pointed out, your competition will be doing this stuff, so you should too!

As I said, last year's session was fascinating and this year's was just as good. Terry went through a few people's script excerpts on screen and once again, "re-wrote" them. You learn a huge amount just by watching him do his thing, and the effort he puts into making things perfect is massive.

Then it was into roundtables, with mostly TV writers. Now, I'm thinking of writing something for TV, but like (I suspect) a lot of writers back home, I don't have any TV specs. So this session was right up my street.

TV writer Christine Boylan advised us to write both an original TV pilot AND a TV spec.

Her advice:

Don't worry about it being produce-able, write what you want to see on TV. What show is just not being made, but should be? They're looking for a unique voice, so write something that will get the execs' attention.

Do 6-10 sample scripts for follow-on episodes. But mainly, have a clear idea for what's going to happen during the rest of the series.

Break down episodes of existing TV shows and try to establish what's happening. How are they structured?

Comedy writer Paul Simms advised us to look at each scene and ask ourselves: if you took out all the jokes, would it still work as a drama?

TV is more absurd than real life, so if you're basing your show on real-life experiences, you're going to have to heighten them a bit. Don't make them TOO realistic.

He said some wise words - write every day, especially when you don't feel inspired. As with jogging, skipping days is fatal! (As a runner, I can unfortunately confirm this is true).

When pitching your show, keep it short and stick to the most important details. Try and find some way to get the execs involved, get them inspired by your idea. The more questions they're asking, the better.

We also met a film writer (who will remain nameless) whose script was recently made into a hard-hitting film, but only after the script was butchered and rewritten by the director. It then bombed at the box office, which should be a lesson to that studio (but probably won't be). This is sadly a story I hear every time I go to AFF! Hollywood, firing the writer will NOT fix the script!

Friday night, there was a barbecue at the French Legation that was as good as always and  a crazy party at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse that led to a LOT of hangover the next day. The less said the better!!!

I'll update tomorrow and Wednesday with what transpired on the Saturday and Sunday and since I got back to L.A. - there's more, much more...

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