Monday, October 7, 2013

No shoes and a little white dog - when truth is stranger than fiction...

Ah blog, it's been a while. What with a new job, new night course and house-hunting, something had to give. And for a while, it had to be you...

Despite the madness, I've been writing and rewriting scripts, and I was going to return with a post on this. But instead I got inspired by a real-life event on Friday night that was straight out of a movie script.

I was fast asleep on Friday (actually it was 5am on Saturday morning) when I was woken up by a noise outside. Somewhere down in the street, a girl was screaming at the top of her lungs, "Give me my shoes!" More like, "GIVE ME MY SHOEEEESS!!!" - while hammering on each door in turn. She sounded posh, despite slurring her words quite considerably.

At some point between waking up and getting to the window, the thought of ringing the police occurred to me. But by the time I'd pulled up the blind, the fuzz were already on the scene. I don't know whether someone had already called them or they'd just been cruising around, but there was a Garda car and two pissed-off looking guards approaching a very drunk/drugged out/mad girl who was swaying in the middle of the road. She was in a party dress and had no shoes on.

Girl looked like she was about to leg it, but alcohol/drugs/being mad impeded this, as did the absence of footwear. Then she whooped in delight as a little white Scottie dog showed up, followed by a sheepish, well-spoken but very embarassed-looking guy. Guy tried to remonstrate with the cops, as his girlfriend (?) exclaimed very loudly over the doggie and petted it. All was right again with her world, despite the fact that it was 5am and she was about to be arrested.

Guy begged the guards not to take her in, but they were having none of it. She'd already woken up half the neighbourhood (unless they were deaf). As she was being handcuffed - still screeching and wailing - they were like, "We've given you 10 chances already, she's now under arrest. And if you (the guy) keep talking we'll arrest you too". I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like that.

I don't know what the background to this was - maybe they'd already been called to a house party she was at that night? Maybe this is her normal Friday night routine? Who knows.

She was eventually frogmarched to the car, still protesting that she'd never been in trouble before, and they took off, telling the guy that she'd be at the Bridewell (that's the nearest police station).

The little dog ran after the car while the guy stood silently in the road staring after it. Eventually he went after the dog (which was clearly hers and not his), but the dog wouldn't go to him.  He chased the dog around the street in vain for about ten minutes, calling it. In the end, the dog ran away up the road and the guy ran after it. That's the last I saw of them.

The whole thing struck me as being like a scene from a movie and it took me a while to identify why, but here's my guess:

1. The inclusion of the dog. If I was writing this scene for a script, the thought of adding the dog in might not have immediately occurred to me, but having it there upped the emotion of the scene. And the aftermath with the doggie running after the car taking away his mistress was a heartbreaker.

2. The fact that the guy was not drunk at all, or at least much more sober than the girl. If they'd both been off the heads, it wouldn't have been such a weird and kind of sad situation.

What can we learn about writing scenes from watching a real one like this? First of all, while real life can inspire script ideas, you have to be sure to milk the scene for all its potential. In real life, the dog won't always be there and the other character won't always be sober.

Wring every last bit of emotion you can from it, whether you're aiming for laughs, scares or tears. And last but not least, realise that real life is often much crazier than anything you can imagine...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Meeting the (producer/writer) of your dreams....

I’m running a networking evening next Wednesday (4th September) at Toners pub on Baggot Street, in conjunction with producer Ruth Treacy from Tailored Films.

Basically, this is going to involve a formal speed networking hour, and then a few drinks and chat. Space will be limited to approx 20 writers and 20 producers. So if you want to attend, RSVP on the event’s Facebook page (!/events/494871497274458/?notif_t=plan_edited) and email me at the address on this blog’s Contact Me page.

Now, the thing about these kind of events is that, like actual speed-dating events, they’re a necessary evil. Yes, they’re kind of stilted, and it would be much cooler if you could just meet your ideal producer (or writer) out of the blue at a bar. Or go to a friend’s party and be introduced apropos of nothing to someone who’s a great laugh – oh, and who wants to make your movie.

In the same way, no one REALLY wants to do online dating or attend singles mixers. Nobody sane, anyway. To a lot of people, they seem unromantic and can be total meat markets. But the fact is, serendipitous meetings where you meet just the person you were hoping for don’t happen very often. Sometimes, you have to do a bit of work to uncover your Mr/Ms Right (or the writer who’s written a killer script). And if you’re a writer, the likelihood is that you’re more of a “sit upstairs and write” than a “mover n’ shaker” kind of person. You need an excuse to leave the house and mingle.

But whether you’re going to a speed-dating event to meet a guy or girl, or to a business mixer, roughly the same rules apply for impressing the right people! Here they are (based on my extensive experience of both types of events ;)) –

  • Arrive early and scope out the competition/victims/individuals you want to connect with.

  • Come armed with some witty stories and be prepared to be charming. If you can’t be charming, be the most polite, most pleasant version of yourself possible.

  • Relax and take deep breaths. This is not an exam. It’s supposed to be fun.

  • Make sure to listen as least as much as you talk. Irish people – myself included – are terrible for yakking on and not listening to a word the other person says.

  • Do not do "obvious pitching". Yes, you're there to sell yourself and your ideas. But you have to find a way to make this subtle and to make your pitching natural and conversational. You may not meet "The One" (or even the one who can help you with your movie). Focus instead on making contacts and generally being a pleasure to be around.

  • Take business cards and be proactive about both giving yours out and collecting them from other people. If someone you want to make contact with doesn’t have a card, make sure you take note of their details yourself.

  • Use tricks to remember names – whatever tricks work for you. I find that remembering a detail about their appearance or their company and associating that with their name seems to work.

  • DO NOT GET DRUNK. This is the big one. Do not. Seriously. If you’re a lightweight like me, have one drink max and then switch to Coke (the liquid kind, naturally). Even if you’re able to drink for Ireland, boozing all night is not a good look and the likelihood you won’t remember people’s names increases with each drink.

Hope to see you next week, and to all the writers and producers attending, the best of luck folks!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Lucky Dozen...

The Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild recently ran an event called the Lucky Dozen. This offered 12 writers the opportunity to meet a well-established writer, producer or director and discuss their work with them. Apparently it’s going to run as a semi-regular event and I highly recommend it. Partly because it was really informative, partly to support the Guild and partly because it was a lot of fun. I got to meet 11 other writers and the Guild had even managed to provide some wine, cheese and crackers. Looking forward to the next one!

By the way, the promo video for Connecting Creativity is up on Youtube. This is the theatre piece that I’ve written a monologue for - the show is on the 16th August at the Centre for Creative Practices on Pembroke Street, Dublin 2.

As usual, being a writer I can only say how horrifying it is seeing myself filmed. The only good thing I can say about my contribution is that at least my hair looks nice...

But you can judge for yourself:

Monday, July 22, 2013

When good pitching goes bad...

Well, as regards the Fleadh I had a great time in the 30 hours I spent at it! I drove down there like a maniac on Saturday evening, having stopped off at a friend's birthday lunch before leaving Dublin. I got to the Radisson (late) for a pep talk on pitching from the moderator, Magma Films' Ralph Christians, which was actually really helpful. Ralph gave a rundown of what they were looking for, which was basically a rundown of the story and characters, an idea of the possible budget, any ideas on directors or actors to be involved, and the film's USP. There were five contenders - three guys, two girls, including me.

Then it was off to the Film Board party and a lot of talking and drinking. Non-alcoholic drinking for me, cos I hadn't managed to sort out any accommodation and had to stay in my parents' holiday house instead. Nothing wrong with that - it's a lovely house - it's just that it was a forty minute drive away, the last ten minutes down tiny country roads. It was midnight when I got there, with mad locals driving right up the car's tailpipe on the way. Still, it was free, and it forced me to get a (sober) early night!

Anyway, the pitching. I don't think it would come as a shock to any of the three lads to say that their pitches did not go well. They all spoke for far too long, and we did have ten minutes in total, which is a long enough time for a pitch. Two of them used visual aids, which didn't go down well with the judges at all. (Can everyone just accept at this stage that visual aids DO NOT WORK? I've seen them ruin so many peoples' chances. )And at least two of the pitches were so muddled that I couldn't tell you what the story was.

Now, I hold my hands up here. I didn't win - so my pitch wasn't perfect either. My project was a sports comedy about  a really bad GAA football team. First problem with the pitch was that it was too detailed and mentioned too many characters. I should have cut it back to the bare bones. Second, some people just don't like sports comedies - they're Marmite. At least one of the judges did not seem to like the concept, the genre, (or me, tbh ;)). Third, I did not have a logline prepared when they asked for it. I know. Doh. My only complaint is that they should have asked everyone else for their logline too! Some of the projects would have benefitted from being distilled down to one sentence.

The winner - the only other lady involved, was also the only person pitching that I was happy to lose to. She was just a very natural, fluent pitcher. She was also the calmest-seeming of all of us, and a worthy winner. Congratulations to Jacinta!

Here's the ironic thing I found: it's all about making the pitch seem as natural as possible, but that's not easy when you're standing in front of a ballroom full of people. It IS easy when you're standing in a bar talking to 3 or 4 people. And before and after the actual pitch, I pitched the project effortlessly in several bars. Now I just have to figure out how to replicate the bar pitch in an official situation...

In the meantime, thanks to the Fleadh for yet another great time, and for the opportunity to pitch. By the way, if you get a chance to see Four Queens, a brilliant short by Vittoria Colonna, make sure you do. It's a ghoulish tale of four middle-aged sisters who meet to pick over their dying mother's estate, and stake all their hopes on a game of cards. Well worth a look!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pitching, working with actors, and actors vs. the Apocalypse...

Two new developments in less than a week! I’m going to be taking part in the Galway Film Fleadh pitching competition this coming Sunday and I’m also taking part in Connecting Creativity, a project that connects artists and writers.

The pitching is a daunting enough prospect: on the one hand, I have 8 minutes (max) to pitch. Even if I only do six minutes, which sounds more likely, that’s a nice long time to have. On the other hand, it’s going to be in front of a hotel ballroom full of people on Sunday afternoon. And there’ll be no Dutch courage (probably a good thing) because I have to drive back to Dublin afterwards!

But apart from being a great opportunity to practice my pitching, this has forced me to finish a treatment for the script I’m pitching. Nothing like a deadline to get things moving.

I’m really looking forward to the pitch but also can’t wait to have it over…

Incidentally, this is the fourth year I’ve applied for this competition, and the first time I’ve been accepted. There are five writers chosen each year based on submitting a one-page idea (and the prize is pretty cool -€3,000!). In retrospect, none of the ideas I’ve submitted in the past have been all that strong on concept, so maybe this is what finally swung it this year.

The second project, Connecting Creativity, is a really interesting idea. Five Irish writers have been paired with American actors, and five American writers are working with actors over here. If you’re the writer, you have to talk to your actor via Skype and try to come up with a five-minute monologue for them based in some way on this conversation. Then in August, the actors will perform their pieces at a theatre in Dublin – the Irish ones in person and the Americans via Skype.

As you can imagine, this is fairly challenging as there’s no theme you have to stick up and no real guidelines other than basing the piece on your actor and your chat with them. I’ve already had a quick talk with my (very nice, friendly) actress Bridget, but I’ve a feeling it might take a few go’s to come up with a script! The golden thing about this project though, is the opportunity to gain experience working with an actor and in particular, to work with someone in another country.

Talking of scripts, I saw This is the End recently. This is a film which was about 50% improvised and I thought the quality of the comedy (possibly as a result) was really skewed. The scene where Rogen and company argue over the last Milky Way (minor, minor spoiler) was hilarious, yet I imagine it said nothing more than “They spat over the Milky Way and who gets to enjoy it” in the script. Or even, “Milky Way scene”. On the other hand, there are endless, talky sequences which manage to make a Hollywood Apocalypse seem boring.

There was a really good movie somewhere in there, it just wasn’t the one we were watching on screen. And I think this is partly because Seth Rogen wrote it (with Evan Goldberg), directed it, starred in it (with all his friends) and probably chose the music, arranged catering and did Jonah Hill’s hair. In a situation like that, you need perspective. Maybe he should have found some script editor who was a complete stranger to him and taken their thoughts on board.

I did enjoy This is the End but I have to agree with the sum-up delivered by the wise soul I saw it with (“it was REALLY self-indulgent”).

I’ll report back on the pitching terror next week…

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is it that makes some characters memorable?

And why are there so few of them?

Let’s face it: if you could remember even ten characters from a year of watching movies regularly, you’d be doing well. And if that year happened to be 2012, with its particularly mindless blockbuster line-up, you’d really be challenged.

Off the top of my head, the most memorable characters from the last six months (of movies I’ve seen) are:

  • Tommy, the bereaved, tormented single dad in Citadel. Brilliant character, exceptionally well played by Aneurin Barnard.

  • Christophe Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. By far the best thing in or about the movie.

  • Ditto for Killer Joe, played in truly disturbing fashion by Matthew McConaughey in the eponymous movie. He was pure evil, and it broke McConaughey right out of his nice-guy, romcom rut.

  • Robert Miller in Arbitrage. Richard Gere clearly had a ball playing this venal, amoral banker, and boy did it come across.

  • Tiffany, played by Jennifer Laurence in Silver Linings Playbook. In my opinion she was a more interesting character even than the main character Pat Solitano – so maybe the Academy judges were right?

  • On the other hand, Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross in The Place Beyond the Pines was an amazingly-written part – definitely stuck in my head long after I saw the movie.

  • And last but not least – for now – female Israeli soldier Segen in World War Z. Am I the only person to think that the movie would have been WAY more interesting if she had been the main character? The woman is a bad-ass: she endures a limb amputation with nothing more than some airline bottles of vodka and kills way more zombies than Brad Pitt (at least by my count). I was dying to know more about her and really hope she’s in the (mooted) sequel , which is surely the sign of a good character?

That’s seven memorable characters in six months, and that’s despite the fact that I have a ridiculous, Asperger’s-like memory for movies.

Obviously all the characters above are played by brilliant actors, which helps. But even a talented actor can’t do much with a poorly-written character – see the usually-great Mirielle Enos struggle to bring her insipid wife character alive in World War Z.

So it comes down to good writing and decent character work on the writer’s part. I think great characters have to have the following:

  • An identifiable, recognisable, compelling goal. It’s crazy how often I come out of a film having no idea what the main character actually wanted.

  • A truly awesome obstacle in their path. This can be a brilliant bad guy, or an awful situation to get out of, or both. Without this, we can’t root for them, or get caught up in their story. They can also BE the obstacle themselves – Killer Joe and Robert Miller, for example, are the architects of their own different, but similarly unpleasant ends.

  • They have to have their own unique take on the world. Tommy is agoraphobic and his whole life is ruled by fear. Tiffany has had mental issues and has come to believe that she’s unworthy of happiness. Dr. Schultz has a very original approach to bounty-hunting and loves old German myths. Avery Cross is ferociously ambitious and this quality dictates all of his actions, good or bad. At the end of the day, these quirks and ticks are what make these characters real.

Seeing one good movie with a character that stands out is what I love about cinema and what keeps me coming back again and again. Now I just have to follow my own advice and aim to write a character that other people will remember as much as these ones…

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The scriptwriting process - and how to do it with your sanity intact...

Scripts are a bit like men (or buses). You wait for ages and then… well you know the rest.

At the moment, I have 3 different projects going on. There’s a script idea I’ve been developing for a while (a sports comedy set in Ireland) which I ultimately want to submit to the IFB for a First Draft Loan. Right now it’s just a promising treatment, but it still needs work. There’s also a jewel heist/rom com set in Europe and a thriller TV pilot (both at the early, early stages). I’m absolutely DYING to write one of these. It’s like a pain in my heart. But for the moment I have to be content with developing the ideas and making sure they’re bombproof. I know what happens when I set off without doing this initial prep, and it involves gnashing of teeth and wailing (literally).

I’d much rather concentrate on one thing at a time, but you have to go with opportunities when they appear. And let’s face it, it’s better to be busy…

Here’s what I do at this stage, the very first part of a project’s life:

  • What is this script about? What’s its essence? Sum your idea up in a sentence or two. This is obviously going to change as you develop the project, but it helps to know where you started from.

  • I also like to come up with one word that the story is about, which then acts as a sort of touchstone during the writing process. For the sports comedy, it’s “acceptance”, for example – because this is what all the characters in it are really seeking. With the thriller, it’s “trust”. Every script is ultimately about one thing, one element that drives it.

  • At this point, I also like to do a two to three page character portrait for the 5-6 main characters. Who are these people? Where are they coming from, and what do they want? And more importantly, what do they need?

  • These portraits always give me loads of plot ideas, so at that point I write a quick summary of the plot. I like to know how it starts, what the midpoint is and how it ends, but the rest will be pretty vague for now.

  • Then I outline, using a beat sheet to flesh out the structure, theme and basic plot. At this stage, story problems or character inconsistencies usually become clear, so I fix these as much as I can before moving on to…

  • The infamous first draft. The draft I love the most, until 3 days after it’s done. Then I hate the script with a passion. It’s flat, and lifeless, and is generally like a curry with no spices added, if that’s not too weird an analogy.

  • So after an interval of mourning, it’s time to add those spices in. This can involve anything between 2 and 10 drafts, with loads of “Aha!” moments in between where it occurs to you that the two henchmen could be one, and that the hero could have a terrible fear of dogs. Basically, these drafts are hopefully where things start to get shape and where the characters turn into flesh and blood people.

  • Repeat until you’re confident that it’s a decent draft, after which it’s time to expose your baby to the cruel world. In my case, it’s time for my screenwriting group to take a look and poke holes in it with their swords (pens). I’ve also asked friends and family members to read drafts and if you’re very brave, put it online and let total strangers annihilate it. And there’s always professional script consultants. Whoever you allow to read it, make sure you listen carefully to their feedback and try not to snort, cry or scream at them. They’re very often right, and if a bunch of people mention the same thing, it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s a problem.

  • After another suitable mourning/incubation period, it’s time to look at everyone’s notes and at your script. Take the notes that make sense and that ring true. Make the necessary changes – punch up your script until it’s a lean, scrappy machine. Then it’s definitely time to get it to a pro for feedback, if you haven’t already.

  • After that, and more rewriting, once you’re sure that this is the best possible version of your script, the ultimate evocation of your original idea, it’s time to get it out to the people who can get it made. Which is a whole other ballgame, and one I will deal with v. soon in a post.

Good luck and get writing!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Surviving Cannes - and how to do it in style...

I came back from Cannes on Wednesday night but it says a lot that it took me until today to finally find time to email/otherwise contact everyone I met. And then it took ALL AFTERNOON. That's how many people I met in Cannes.

And that's not me having a boast about being Irish and being a gabbler - although I am. The world's most unsociable person could go to Cannes and come back with a wad of business cards and DVDs.

This is how it went down - and at the bottom you'll find my tips for surviving Cannes. Because make no mistake, it's about survival. And not dying from exhaustion/scurvy/vintage wine poisoning...

Saturday evening, when I arrived, was not the nicest weather. We flew into Nice in the middle of what seemed to be a Category 5 storm and monsoon rain poured down as I got onto a bus and headed for Cannes. Then me and my waterlogged case had to find a taxi to Mandelieu, where I was staying (more on this later) and finally, a taxi back to Cannes. That sounds easy, except it meant calling for a cab in French.

Now, my French is okay. Functional. I was able to make myself understood no problem in person, but phone French was beyond me. I gave taxi lady my address but got only shouted repeats of, "Je ne comprende pas". Tried every possible pronunciation of the address. She finally yelled, "Pah!" in a very French manner and hung up. I tracked down a French person and asked them to call me a cab...

I got to the accreditation office at the Festival De Palais in Cannes by six thirty to pick up my pass, but they were closed. After an unpleasant flight with about a hundred screaming toddlers and no food, and a journey full of rain and misunderstandings, this seemed like a harsh end to my Cannes intro. Would I be able to do anything that night, apart from heading to a bar and downing Ricard? Was I going to be a badge-less Cannes pariah? Would it EVER STOP RAINING? I came the closest I ever have at a festival to going off and having a little cry. Then I remembered that a. I was in Cannes, b. I'm way too old to be defeated by French administration, c. crying is for wimps and d. the Film Board party had free booze. I schlepped off down the promenade to a very, very wet marquee by the beach and sure enough, the lovely Film Board lady on the door waved me in.

Inside, there was an apocalyptic feel. The CEO James Hickey was giving a speech with pounding rain as a soundtrack and huge waves crashing on the beach right behind his head. The whole tent was sweating, as if it could see The End. All I could see out the window was a pair of huge Dr Eckleburg eyes that someone had set up down the beach in honor of The Great Gatsby. Everyone was reacting to the apocalypse as Irish people always do, i.e. talking up a storm and getting pissed.

After several hours of good craic (and making some decent contacts), I went off to the Majestic Hotel to meet American screenwriter and producer Diana. We'd never met in person (only online during a recent online pitching class) but she and her British producing partner Andromeda are top ladies and within half an hour I felt like I'd known them and their friends for years. I managed to make a tit of myself by approaching Liam Hemsworth, who was standing by the bar in full tux, for an autograph. His huge minder told me that Mr Hemsworth wasn't to be disturbed. Mr Hemsworth drank a beer entirely on his tod and beat a hasty retreat, trailed by the man mountain....

That was Saturday. I got back to my accommodation in the wee hours and it was still raining like someone had opened a massive water balloon right over the Cote D'Azur. But the next morning was cool and showery. That's the kind of weather I understand.

Sunday was my first proper day, so I hotfooted it to the Palais, got my festival pass - Finally! Precious! - met my friend from L.A. Sarah and went up to the Short Film Corner. Sarah is an actress, writer and director and also had a film in the Corner. Basically, the way the Corner works is that you network, meet other filmmakers, drink a lot of free Stella and coffee and if you can get a spare booth, watch some short films. Or you can arrange a screening room and show your move to a whole bunch of people at once.

Sarah's director had arranged a screening so we watched her movie (The C-Gate - check it out!) and chatted to everyone in sight. Then it was off to the Pavilions for a orgy of free wine, free snacks and cultural crash courses. Every country - or at least every country I could think of - has a Pavilion, which is a marquee down at the Cannes marina where they spend the festival promoting their country's films and trying to encourage collaborations and co-productions. It costs a  jaw-dropping million euro to rent a Pavilion for the whole festival, but if you don't have one, you're out of the game. If you want your country to be a movie player, it's mandatory!

But I can assure the Irish public that your tax euros are going to a good cause, and not just towards feeding free Guinness to free-loading filmmakers. Actually, everyone I met over there had only good things to say about the Irish Pavilion, partly because it's friendly and inclusive (unlike the U.S. one, which charges 30 euro just to get in) and partly because of the amazing free wi-fi. It was my favourite place to hang out in Cannes.

Each country's Pavilion is like a little snap shot of that land. So the British Pavilion has excellent free tea but terrible food. The Italian one has INCREDIBLE food (the pulled pork!) and wine. And it's v. stylish. The Russian one has knockout vodka cocktails. Etc.

Sunday was a long night. We did the Pavilions until the last one finally kicked us out, then we went to the Grand Hotel and met a bunch of British filmmakers, plus some from Montreal (typical Cannes stuff, in other words). Then it was on to the Carlton Hotel.

The Carlton is the maddest hotel with the most insane clientele I've ever seen, and I've been to L.A., Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Most of the men look like Bond movie villains and most of the women can barely walk under the weight of silicone in their lips alone. The fish tank in the bar is full of what look like piranha. Everyone's wearing about two grand's worth of designer gear. Dizzee Rascal was there rocking black tie. All you had to do to have a good time is sit in the bar and laugh at the madness of it all and at the super-rich getting down and dirty to French rap.

We did sneak into a private party in a secret room further into the hotel (my friend's a good actress and blagged us in). This seemed to be a party entirely for mega-wealthy French people who all know each other and who always come to this particular party at Cannes. The champagne flowed and the guests did what (I assume) millionaires always do at parties - stand around a piano and sing along to Beatles and Queen numbers.

I finally got to bed at nearly 7am, but after a very small amount of sleep it was back up for Monday...

Monday was the first day I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. Cannes is huge, spread out and can be really confusing. But now I had my pass, I knew where everything was, and I'd already met a LOT of people. Full of optimism, I went up to the ticketing area and tried to get tickets for one of the red carpet galas, but I'd already left it far, far too late. I'll give a tip below for how to avoid this sorry fate - it IS avoidable. But then again, red carpet events are, like, way overrated. The only one I really missed was the Liberace movie (which everyone agreed was excellent). So after another day of networking with other filmmakers and sampling the free drinks and snacks of the world, I queued up to see Ruairi Robinson's new movie Last Days on Mars.

Robinson is a friend of a friend and I'd heard that this was a sci-fi movie shot on a relatively low budget in Jordan (doubling as the red planet). It looks amazing, with production design far above the average and a pretty top-notch cast, too (Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai and Johnny Harris). Schreiber and Harris are both playing against type and it's nice to see Schreiber in particular play a nice guy for a change. The tension and scares are well handled and the packed audience (I was the fifth last person into the theatre) seemed to really enjoy it. It's just a shame that the scares in space genre is already so full of classics - any new film inevitably suffers a little in comparison.

I had a (relatively) early night on Monday. Well, 2am. Tuesday, I was super focussed and spent most of the day in the Short Film Corner meeting people and watching short movies. A lot of folks I knew or had met had already started heading home, so I was forced to mingle solo. But this was good - it forced me out of my comfort zone and meant that I met a more varied selection of people.

I also took a turn around the film market, where Hong Kong actioners are on sale along with arthouse future classics, TV specials and bargain-basement B movies. All of film is here, the best and the worst. A Japanese film called Shield of Straw (sounds a bit like a more kick-ass version of 16 Blocks) was making big waves - the screening tickets for this one were hard to track down. The three best B-movies on sale, based on title alone, were FDR Bad-Ass (Barry Bostwick as a machine gun-toting FDR), Squirrels (horror movie with killer squirrels) and Sharknado, starring Tara Reid and Ian Ziering (tagline: "Enough Said!"). It seems to be about sharks... and a tornado. Nope, no idea...

I went on one last tour of the Pavilions and it turned into a night out that went on and on and took in a visit to Cannes's worst (but cheapest) bar, the Petit Majestic, and a midnight visit to a creperie where about ten people ate galettes at a table in the middle of the street. I was out with a bunch of friendly Italians, a Sri Lankan DoP, and at various times, a Romanian, a few Americans and some South Koreans. And somehow, we all communicated. It was the sort of night out you could only have in Cannes.

On Wednesday, there was only time for one last amazing petit dejeuner and a last minute meeting with a filmmaker at the Irish Pavilion. But even on the bus on the way to the airport and on the plane on the way home, I was still meeting people and hearing stories about making movies. Half of the people on the Aer Lingus flight to Dublin were coming from the festival.

In short, if you ever get a chance to go to Cannes, GO! You'll have a ball. Your liver and your digestive system will take a hit, and you might want to take out a personal loan, but it will ALL BE WORTH IT. Trust me, I'm a screenwriter. We never lie.

That said, here are my essential tips for managing to stay sane in Cannes:

  • Firstly, aim to arrive on the first Friday and get out of there by the Wednesday after. Your body will be begging you to leave by then and a lot of the bigwigs will have left anyway.

  • Stay in Cannes. Stay in Cannes. Seriously. Otherwise it will cost you a fortune to get in and out, especially at night and because...

  • All the prices go up in Cannes at festival time. It's very, very expensive. The top hotels will screw you for 18 euro for a glass of wine and 10 euro for a beer. It's madness. So have a big breakfast, make use of the Pavilions' hospitality and just accept that you're going to be living on olives and bar nuts. And champagne, if you blag your way into the right parties...

  • The minute you arrive, book into one of the gala screenings. Failing that, show up the minute the box office opens in the morning. For any non-gala screening, arrive at least forty minutes (preferably an hour) early and queue up - you should get a ticket for most films this way.

  • If you have a short film in the Corner, make contact with buyers before you leave home and set up meetings with them in Cannes. If you forget to do this, you can leave messages for them while in Cannes but it may or may not be possible to get a meeting. They're busy people.

  • Carry a dress and heels with you at all times in case someone gives you a gala ticket at the last minute. I had an evening dress that was light and easy to throw in a bag. If you're a guy, wear a tux and pretend you're James Bond. That won't be hard in Cannes, which looks just like a spy hang-out should.

  • If you have any high school French at all, resurrect it. It's hard to get around outside of the tourist traps without some of the lingo. If you don't have any French, at very least learn how to say hello and introduce yourself. Oh, and get used to the kissing - the French kiss on each cheek (Paris and the north) or three times (Provence and the South). There's a lot of bouche-ing.

  • Be nice to everyone - and have a great time!!! Au revoir and bon chance....


Monday, May 13, 2013

Croissaints on the Croisette....

I'm in a weird, in-between stage of writing at the moment. Stupidly, I haven't set up a script to work on but instead have ended up developing two ideas at once. One is an Irish sports comedy, the other is a romcom and will either be a novel or a screenplay (or both).

I like both ideas and believe they both have legs. But while they're still amorphous ideas floating around in my head, being chipped away bit by bit as I write outlines, it's like constantly eating tidbits while longing for a bigger portion. I can't wait to sit down and bang out a first draft. I know, though, that this is a crucial time and that the longer I spend doing prep, the stronger the resulting first draft will be.

The other thing taking up my time is preparing for Cannes. This is kind of hard to do, because it's impossible know where I'll end up over there or who I'll meet. But I'm looking up distributors who are going to be there and trying to figure out who might be interested in licensing Tiger. We've pretty much tied up the U.S. rights with Shorts HD, but there's still the U.K. and European rights, so I'll be keeping an eye out for someone who deals in those territories.

Other than that, I'm getting a pitch together for my Irish comedy and signing up for as many industry parties as I can. I can't wait for four days of talking, drinking and, it being France, eating great food. Bring on the moules mariniere and the croissaints! But one thing I'm determined to do this time is actually watch some movies. I have a terrible record of going to festivals and seeing no movies at all. Too much time yakking in bars.

Here are the five films I'm most looking forward to. If I have to fight someone for a ticket to one of these... but hopefully it won't come to that -

Only God Forgives - I'll be lucky to snare a ticket to this one, Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up to Drive, starring - once again - Ryan Gosling. But that doesn't mean I won't try, if only to see Kristen Scott Thomas as a scary crime boss...

Behind the Candelabra - Steven Soderbergh's swan song? About Liberace? With Michael Douglas as the mommy's boy himself and Matt Damon as his lover? I'm sold!

Young and Beautiful - it would be sacrilege to go to Cannes and not see at least one French movie. And if it has to be a French movie, it might as well be one directed by Francois Ozon, starring his regular leading lady Charlotte Rampling.

The Bling Ring - I'm a big Sofia Coppola fan and read all about this seedy real-life case when I was over in L.A. The film - concerning a bunch of spoilt society burglars who target celebrities - should give me the shot of Hollywood sleaze I've been pining after...

Magic Magic - the female Into the Wild stars Juno Temple as a girl unravelling during a trip from California to Chile.

I'll be blogging from the festival (time permitting, assuming I can find an internet cafe and that my brain still works by Day Two...).

Monday, April 29, 2013

How pitching can save your script - and your sanity...

A script can often seem like a handful of sand, slipping through your fingers. That's what it's like when you're about halfway through a first draft and you reach a dead end, or even worse, you've lost faith. This bundle of pages is the worst thing you've ever written. You loathe it. It's like person you've been on three promising dates with, who suddenly makes a racist joke or screams at a waiter.

You thought you knew what it was, thought you had a handle on it, and now it's gone off a cliff and left you clinging to the edge, staring into the abyss. There was no explosion, it's never going to hit the bottom in an oily inferno. It's just gone.

I don't think there's any way of absolutely preventing this, but there are tactics. Little safeguards. For example, when you're still excited about the script, write down exactly what you love about it. What's the essence of it, the thing that hit you like a brick to the head the first time you thought of it? The "Ah!" thing? Write it down, keep it in a drawer. When you're wondering what the hell this script was, if it ever was a thing at all, that piece of paper is your pathway back.

Another thing to do is pitch the idea - the one sentence idea - to as many people as possible. Practice it on anyone who'll listen as early as possible. And pay close attention to what they say. People who know nothing about films or writing and haven't seen a movie since Die Hard 3 are often the ones with the most insightful comments, weirdly enough.

Once you've honed your one sentence pitch until it's the tightest, most beautiful, perkiest pitch in the world, it's a lot harder to go off the reservation later on. I'm currently doing Stephanie Palmer's online pitching course (using an existing script) and fixing the pitch has already made me see what needs to be sorted out in the actual script. And while that's useful, wouldn't it be great to do this BEFORE you have fix a whole script? Get the pitch right, then write - that's my new MO from now on. Oh, and I highly recommend Stephanie's course. The lady knows her stuff.

In other news, we've come to a licensing deal for Tiger with a v. large shorts distributor in the States. Right now it's just for broadcasting rights on two channels, but there's the potential to go for different formats and more territories. Plus, going to Cannes with one deal already in the bag will be a big help! Btw, if anyone else is venturing down next month, drop me a message! We'll do margaritas.

Lastly, the very last ever film screening at the Workmens Den Cinema Club takes place  on 7th May. The Workmens Den is possibly Dublin's worst pub, but I have a sort of insane affection for its strange drinks range, appalling toilets and unexplained draughts. And the Cinema Club has allowed me to see a lot of great movies on the big screen over the years. So it's with a heavy heart that I'll be going to see Strictly Ballroom, the final film. In happier news, Tiger is screening right before it, so if you're in the neighbourhood and are happy to brave the Den, pop in!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A super, super-low budget gem, and Tiger goes to Cannes...

I thought I’d do an update on where we are with Tiger, the short film I wrote and produced last year. This film was made during February 2012 and had its first screening (albeit for family and friends) last summer at the Lighthouse cinema in Dublin. Since then it’s been screened in London, at the Underground Film Festival in Dun Laoghaire, at the Waterford Film Festival, and more recently as part of a shorts double bill in a cinema in Navan.

The costs for the film to date are nudging €3.5k, but that isn’t bad for a short (except in comparison to the movie below), and we still have some money left over to get it out to more festivals. It’s a little movie that was relatively non-stressful to make (the fundraising was the most onerous part tbh) and one that audiences really seem to respond to. Or at least, that’s what they tell me!

And there’s some really good news recently - Tiger’s been accepted into the Short Film Corner at Cannes, and as its co-producer, that gives me Cannes festival accreditation! So I’ll be going over next month for four days to take full advantage of the free pass and meet as many industry types as possible. Bring on the free stuff and the lovely people!

I submitted Tiger to a bunch of distributors and I’m also happy to say that one of the biggest distribution/licencing companies is interested. It’s early days, but things are looking promising! So if that works, out, Tiger will be seen by an even bigger audience, and me and the director/co-producer might even make our costs back some day. You never know.

Talking of super-low budget films, I found myself at an IFTA screening last week for Gerard Barrett’s Pilgrim Hill. Barrett is a young Kerry guy who wrote, directed and produced this feature film for less than €6k. You read that right. Actually, it might even be much less than that – he borrowed €4.5k from his local credit union and added “ a bit extra” to make it. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, the film was shot in seven days, with just three members of crew (Barrett, a cinematographer and a focus puller).

So the question you’re probably wondering is, is this frugal epic any good? And the answer would be, yes it is. Barrett’s clearly dealing with a subject close to his heart – the film’s hero, a lonely bachelor farmer in his forties, is based on the director’s own uncle. The performance he gets out of real-life farmer and sometime actor Joe Mullins is incredible – to the point where you feel uncomfortable watching it at times because it doesn’t feel like a performance at all.

Mullins’ character is a slave to the family farm and to his own demanding, disabled father. He’s long given up on escaping the isolated life he seems doomed to follow, but the events of the film force him to confront his past, his present and most definitely his future. There isn’t a huge cast – there’s probably only four main characters, but the quality of the script and the acting means that you barely notice this. The film looks amazing too, beautiful photography by Ian D. Murphy and a final scene that will wrench your heart out.

My only complaint – even bearing in mind the budget constraints – is that I would have liked a little more story. But this is a small problem with a film that’s already put Gerard Barrett on the map. He was there in person for an entertaining interview with Arena presenter Sean Rocks and talked about his next project – a family drama set in Dublin called Glassland. After seeing Pilgrim Hill, I’m really looking forward to it.

Seeing a film made for a budget as tiny as this can’t help but make you think of what can be done – even of what you could do yourself for a similar amount. I have a friend whose script was made last year for €18k, which seemed (and indeed, is) an incredibly small amount to make a feature. That being said, Pilgrim Hill has a lot going for it – the writer’s intense knowledge of the subject matter, a decent script, an excellent DoP and a real find in its lead actor. There are no stunts, no car chases and no explosions. Only a bare-bones cast and crew. This is DIY film-making at its best.

Still, if you have a great idea and don’t need a huge crew involved, maybe you don’t need to approach the Film Board or track down a producer. You could skip the usual fundraising route, raid the piggy bank and make the low-budget feature of your dreams…

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writing for TV - when you're NOT a telly addict...

Writing for TV is something I've always had in the back of my mind, but it's stayed there while film writing has taken up the rest of my brain - and time. In a lot of respects, this makes no sense. TV provides much more regular work than film, it can be very lucrative, it's more sociable and as we all know, some of the best screenwriting out there now is on TV. So why haven't I had a yen to write a pilot?

It comes partly down to personal taste. I watch a lot more movies than I do TV. I'm not a huge consumer of television in general. In fact I went nearly three months in the last year without having a TV at all and didn't miss it all that much. Whereas I don't think I've gone more than two weeks since I was 15 without watching a film.

Then there's the fact that TV writing in Ireland is limited to working on two shows, both soaps, apart from the occasional one-off series. I don't watch soaps and don't fancy writing for one. So your options as an Irish writer are extremely limited. If you want to get serious about writing for TV, you have to go abroad. This is true for film scripts too, but with TV it's crucial.

All that being said, no writer worth his or her salt hasn't considered TV writing and most of us have probably thought of a show we'd like to write. If I'm going to do a pilot, I'd like to write a half-hour comedy with strong characters - something like The IT Crowd or Fresh Meat, for example. If I do sit down with the remote, that's the kind of show I go for.

So what's the best place to start and what sort of stuff are the U.S. studios looking to develop? I talked to a few established TV writers while I was in L.A. and this was what they had to say:

  • If you're going down the road of writing a spec script based on an existing show, choose a top 5 show and make sure it has legs. Don't write a Walking Dead script just as it's about to wind up.

  • Ideally, write an original pilot AND a spec script. Don’t worry about what’s producible – write what you want to see on TV! What show is just not being made, but should be?

  • Do 6-10 sample scripts for follow-on episodes. Have an idea of what happens during the entire series.

  • Break down existing TV episode scripts – what is the outline? What tends to happen during an episode?

  • Having a name actor helps but is not essential – look at Friends, for example.

  • With comic scenes, ask yourself: if you took out all the jokes, would it still work as a drama or would it fall flat? One writer talked about a HBO show that was pitched about two girls who worked in an office. The writers had based the show on themselves and kept talking about how things had happened in real life - but comedy on TV is more absurd than that.

  • When pitching, keep it short and don’t add in every detail about a show – keep some stuff back. Find a way to get the TV execs involved in your pitch. The more they ask, the better it’s going.

  • They’re looking for a unique voice – write something that will get their attention!

  • Try to get into the Warners/Disney Fellowship Program - these programmes nurture new writing talent and can really open doors for you. The downside - you must have a U.S. visa to apply for them.

I hope this helps - now all I have to do is follow my own advice and crank out a spec script that will knock Lena Dunham's socks off...

Next up: the brave new world of writing content for the (terrifyingly-named) Transmedia.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Free movies, screwball movies, great ones... and a bad 'un

First, a few service announcements. A reminder that there is a free movie every month at the Workmens Den pub at the Quays - next month (9th April) is the Eighties classic Say Anything with John Cusack. Details here if you fancy coming along - yours truly is doing the    introduction so you can heckle while you're there...

There's also a season of screwball comedies at the Lighthouse every Wednesday in March. This week was the brilliant It Happened One Night - a film that even people who haven't seen it will recognise from the scene where Claudette Colbert attracts a lift while hitchhiking by hitching up her skirt. But there's also The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday - all well worth seeing. And they're repeated at the weekend, so you have two chances each week to catch some laughs.

And... back to normal service. I saw a bunch of great films during the film festival a few weeks ago, including Macdara Vallely's Babygirl. The story of a teenage girl growing up in New York with a mom who's only interested in her latest boyfriend, it was inspired by a mom and daughter the writer/director saw on a bus one day. A skeevy guy tried to chat up first the girl, then the mom - who gave him her number. In the movie, Lena had had enough of her mother's string of useless guys and decides to get rid of the latest man by any means necessary. Yainis Ynoa is absolutely brilliant as Lena - she's definitely one to watch, and Vallely's script keeps you guessing as to who is really the bad guy in this situation.

Another one I'd recommend was Pablo, the story of famous film title designer Pablo Ferro. Ferro is a total legend, having worked on the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy. He's designed some of the most iconic and recognisable film title sequences ever produced, some more famous than the films they appeared in.

He started out in advertising, and it's impossible when you watch some of his Fifties and Sixties TV adverts not to think of the old MTV cartoons and all the hyperactive graphics that  followed.

The animation part of the film takes you on a visual journey through Pablo's memories, while the documentary footage features interviews from the likes of Jon Voight, Beau Bridges and Robert Downey Snr. Ferro is clearly still a mega-talented guy at 72, but there's been a real dark side to his creativity too, with years lost to substance and alcohol abuse, financial problems and family breakdown. Pablo was a fascinating watch and I'd highly advise checking it out if it gets a cinema release.

One that didn't tickle me as much was, once again, the Surprise Film. I love the idea of the surprise film, of not knowing what's going to pop up on a big screen each year in front of a packed Savoy 1 audience. But in the last ten years I think I've only been happy with the actual movie once - that was for The Squid and the Whale in 2005. And this year was no exception, with a film that was ultimately underwhelming.

Welcome to the Punch is the new movie from Shifty director Eran Creevy. Shifty was a really auspicious debut and I'd had high hopes for this one. Punch concerns London detective Max James McAvoy) who's obsessed with bringing bank robber Jacob Sternwood to justice (Mark Strong). When Sternwood's son is injured during a heist that's gone sour, he is forced to return to London for the first time in years, and Max sees his chance to finally catch his nemesis. But the two men soon find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that's much bigger than their personal battle.

I had three main problems with this movie. One was that Sternwood is an infinitely more interesting character than Max. If he had been the main character, I'd have been gripped from moment one, but he's not. Instead we're stuck with McAvoy's bitter cop, who's straight out of the super-intense detective book of cliches and spends most of the film scowling at everyone. So the wrong guy is the hero.

Creevy has assembled a super-talented cast, but the script is not up to the same standard. Andrea Riseborough, who I think is the best actress of her age-group in the U.K. right now, is wasted in the thankless role of Max's police partner. Peter Mullan is Sternwood's long-time friend, another character who could have been interesting but ultimately goes nowhere. As the police chief, David Morrissey really looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here.

What's worse is that the film feels like a routine TV police procedural, sort of like The Bill or The Sweeney. When you strip away the fancy production design (and it really is fancy - the film looks gorgeous), that's all it is. A cop show. Albeit one with the most confusing plot ever. Two weeks after seeing it, I'm still thinking of new, unanswerable questions about the plot.

Still, overall the film quality in JDIFF this year was high - roll on next year.

Next blog, I'll be talking about TV writing, specifically what I learned from some veteran writers while I was over in the States...

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

JDIFF 2013 Part 1 - Story Campus....

The film festival has come and gone for this year, and as usual it went far too fast! On the first Saturday I attended Story Campus, a whole-day seminar on film-making and screenwriting.

“How many of you are writers?”, moderators David(s) Keating and Pope asked at the start of the day. A large chunk of the audience put up their hands.

“And how many of you have written a produced feature film?”

Two people sheepishly put their hands up. If that. It was going to be one of those days.

It all began so promisingly - a two-hour chat with screenwriting legend Robert Towne. In the city to attend the festival, he sat down for a lengthy talk about his movies, his scripts and the list of amazing people he’s worked with.

Here are some of his best bits...

  • He took an acting class in his early twenties where he met Roger Corman (who hired him) and one of his later stars, Jack Nicholson.

  • He views outlining as a process of discovery and distillation. During the Chinatown shoot, he used to cut his outline into scenes and paste them on a wall so that he and Roman Polanski could stare at them and move them around. He also does fresh outlines of later drafts, distilling and testing scenes to see if they fit in and advance the story.

  • With the famous Godfather scene where Corleone warns Michael that he is about to be assassinated, Francis Ford Coppola came to Towne as a friend (they had worked together previously on a script called Dementia 13). Towne wrote the line, “And at that meeting, you’ll be assassinated”, partly because it advanced the story. And partly because he knew the audience would listen to any amount of other dialogue after that, to find out what happened next! The scene – a crucial one between father and son – was written in a panic between 1am and 6am one night and Towne brought the script directly to the set the next morning. “Read it again”, Brando said when he’d finished reading the scene to him, which was when Towne knew it was working...

  • Towne thinks that screenwriting is more an act of discovery than invention – the perfect scene is waiting to be discovered and once you find it, it seems like it was always meant to be there. This scene, written in a hurry during production, definitely falls into that category.

  • His neighbour Sydney Pollack asked him to write The Firm’s script when they were both taking out the garbage one morning! Towne didn’t like John Grisham’s downbeat ending (where the protagonist is unable to practice law anymore) and changed it, partly with the help of his lawyer brother-in-law.

  • He’s working on a script about the Battle of Britain at the moment, which sounds right up his street. He talked about a scene where one of the characters stands on the cliffs of Dover watching sea birds dive and soar, which then turn into planes... There hasn't been a blockbuster covering this air battle specifically, so I can't wait to see his take on it...

  • Towne still gets advice on his work from family and friends, and likes to tell people his ideas and get their feedback. I think this is a great technique as non-writers often pick up on issues with your story or characters that you are unable to see yourself.

They showed a clip from his movie Personal Best, which Towne wrote AND directed (according to Peter Biskind's book Easy Rider, Raging Bulls, the experience ended his marriage and nearly ruined his career). Unfortunately, no one had bothered to buy a copy of the DVD, which meant the movie had to be streamed - and the sound and picture quality was terrible.

Towne took this well and overall was an intelligent interview subject with loads of great stories and advice.

The afternoon was where things started to go v. badly wrong, technology-wise...

A directors' panel with Irish directors Phil Harrison, Juanita Wilson and Paddy Breathnach and Danish director Mads Matthiesen was interesting and informative.

Phil Harrison, for example, came from a non-film background to make a short film and a feature. His first day on a film set was his first day on the short. His third day on a set was his first day on the feature film! Directing experienced actors like Aiden Gillen. Partly in South Africa. Oh, and he crowdfunded his feature film The Good Man using what sounds like a very original new technique (everyone involved in the project owns part of it. 40% of any return on the film now goes back to the investors, 30% to the various production companies, 20% to the cast & crew and 10% back into the township where they filmed in South Africa.).

Other snippets - Juanita Wilson's next project will be an adaptation of (Winter's Bone writer) Daniel Woodrell's novel Tomato Red, which sounds amazing. And Paddy Breathnach's next movie will be Perdido Amore, set in the world of drag artists and scripted by Mark O'Halloran.

It would have been great to have heard more about all of this, but after only about 30 minutes of chat, the moderators cut the panel short in order to do a Skype chat with legendary Polish director Agnieszka Holland.

Now, I'm sure under the right circumstances this would have been a fab interview. But the circumstances involved the worst Skype reception I've ever seen and a subject who doesn't (I think) really understand how to use it properly. We couldn't hear her half the time and the rest of the time she couldn't hear poor David Keating's questions, forcing him to wrap things up after five (incomprehensible) minutes.

So it was on to another Skype interview, this time with Finding Neverland and Life of Pi screenwriter David Magee. David started out taking money at the door at Michael Moore's film club in Flint, Michigan! Now based in New Jersey, he had no more luck with the Skype reception than Ms Holland, with David Keating having to dial him back five times.

David Magee was unfailingly polite and good-humoured throughout all this, and talked about how he's become the king of book adaptations and the impossible task of bringing Life of Pi to the big screen.

Here was what he had to say:

  • His first writing job involved abridging novels, and doing this for 85 books taught him how to pick out only the essential dialogue and action. It now helps him to adapt novels. If it's a 300 page novel, he starts by writing a 3-4 page outline of what the book is about.

  • Then he tries to find the basic thing that drives the hero on to his journey. He also does a logbook with notes about the characters and jokes and ideas he thinks up on the way, as well as a finished 15-30 page outline and a pitch that he would use to explain the film to someone else. These three documents help him to stay on track as he writes the script.

  • He consulted shipwreck survivor Steven Callaghan about his experiences and Callaghan became an advisor on the film. Magee first read Life of Pi about ten years ago while he was working on Finding Neverland and had long been passionate about adapting the project. He took on board Callaghan's memories of being "in a bowl in the middle of the universe" during his 74 days lost at sea.

  • His biggest advice? If you stay around long enough and are good enough, you will get your screenwriting chance. Do you have the tenacity to stick to your guns? If your stuff is great, it will find its way.

Next up for him is a movie about the late Jim Henson and a Dreamworks film about whales (!).

I really enjoyed the day in general, and I know from organising events myself how hard it can be to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

But it has to be said that the organisers needed a Plan B (i.e. a landline phone that they could have resorted to for interviews). Skype constantly breaking down and a film being streamed badly let them down and made the festival - and the Irish industry - look amateurish, and that's not good. I'll be back at Story Campus next year, but hoping that they've invested in some DVDs and sorted out their tech problems!

Next up, a look at some of this year's JDIFF movies...


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Writing, not writing and how to write your own way....

I'm really looking forward to the Dublin film festival, which kicks off this Thursday. There's a whole day of film talks and seminars at the Lighthouse next weekend, including an interview with Chinatown writer Robert Towne (Story Campus) and I'm going to see 5 or 6 movies, including Macdara Vallely's hotly-tipped Babygirl, a documentary about film title designer Pablo Ferra and The War of the Roses (with Danny DeVito in attendance!).

Now that I'm back living in the city centre (Stoneybatter), the film festival's easier to become completely immersed in for ten days. Can't wait!

Also, I've been thinking about writing and my approach to it, especially after reading this book. It's not about writing, let alone screenwriting, but the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about his approach to working and it struck a chord.

Let me be honest - I know you're not a proper writer (in some people's eyes) unless you're writing for two hours, every night. But I can't work that way. Even if I did have a spare two hours every single day (and who does?), I like to write like a madwoman for a week (or a month) and then do nothing for two or three weeks. This is not just affectation - I do it because when I'm constructing a first draft, losing momentum can kill it. Getting the story down on paper in what feels quite literally like a vomit draft is crucial.

And I'm not alone. I was talking to some other writers about this recently and one of them said something interesting: that he can tell the scenes in a script where he lost focus and let things slide for a day or two. The not-so-funny scene he wrote because he was in a weird mood or the depressing dialogue he put in because he'd had a bad day. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like, "If I don't write it in one go, if it goes on for months and months, then I'm not the same person writing the end of the script as I was at the start, and that will show". You have to get it done before life intervenes, and life does not come in two-hour daily chunks. It's messier than that.

Taleb even has a section where he talks about procrastination and how he uses it to judge whether a section in his book should be kept or not. If he doesn't want to write it, keeps putting it off, why should he inflict that piece of writing on his readers? This makes sense - the bits that stay in my head whispering at me, the ones that beg to be written - those are the good scenes in a script. The bits I can't face writing - they should be cut, cut, cut.

The novelist Georges Simenon wrote over 200 novels, and he never wrote for more than sixty days a year (presumably sixty manic, pedal-to-the-metal workdays). But still over 300 days of doing... nothing.

My point is that you have to work the way that suits you, the writer. There's no "proper" way to write - as long as you have words on paper, you're winning...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New year's resolutions - and what we can learn from Casablanca...

Nine days into 2013 and I'm deep into plotting and planning mode, which I guess a lot of people are. What are your goals for the year ahead? What do you want to have ticked off on your to-do list by Christmas 2013?

My goals are simple: to write another original feature screenplay and a TV pilot (my first ever). I do have a yearning to make one of my 2013 scripts an Irish-based one. But I don't know if that will be the feature script or the pilot.

There is, of course, other work to be done - rewriting existing scripts, for one. And if I get an idea for another script, which I tend to do on a regular basis, I'll write a one-pager or even a treatment for it.  And of course there's the regular stuff to keep up (watching movies and reading other people's scripts). But by year end, if I achieve nothing else I want the new feature and the pilot to exist -and ideally be blowing readers' minds...

So those are my screenwriting resolutions for 2013 - what are yours?

You could do better than sign up for Ashley Scott Meyer's brilliant blog on screenwriting. He has a guest column this week from writer/director/producer Alan Denman on seven signposts for successful screenwriting, two of which are Visual (making your scripts as visual as possible - show, not tell) and Emotions (as Denman puts it, "for your characters to be real they must perform explicit actions but they must also have non-verbal agendas driven by emotional needs"). Make the audience feel, don't just dazzle them with wizardry and expect them to respond.

I went to a screening of Casablanca last night as part of the Workmans Den Cinema Club (which I highly recommend by the way - their Facebook page is here. I'm going to be doing the intro to the monthly movie from now on. Oh, and it's free!).

Casablanca is, of course, a stone-cold classic. It's got a dream cast - not just Bogart and Bergman but the classic oily pairing of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, not to mention the great bad-guy actor Claude Rains (who gets all the best lines). But the script is a minor miracle - four credited writers and even more rumoured to have worked on it, and yet it sounds like it was written by one, highly-talented scribe. The last five minutes alone has some of the most famous dialogue in movie history - every line's a jewel.

And yet, I'd argue that this is not what makes Casablanca such a beloved film. It's visual, for sure - instead of Captain Renault remarking that he's sick of being part of the Vichy regime, we have him staring pensively at a bottle of Vichy water and throwing it contemptuously in the trash. Instead of Rick admitting that he's not as hard as he pretends, we see him nodding at his roulette dealer to turn a losing gambler's fortunes. We see what a defiant hero Victor Laszlo is, not when he delivers a big speech but when he risks his freedom by getting a whole bar to sing The Marseillaise in front of a group of fuming Nazis.

So the visual impact is part of its attraction. But the emotional undercurrent - what the characters don't say but get across with their looks and actions - is what sucks you in. What makes the final scene between Rick and Ilsa so touching? It's not what they say but what they do. Shake hands politely and walk away from each other forever. I'll take that over a corny speech any day (hello, Pearl Harbor).

So maybe that should be my other big resolution for 2013 - to find a way to maximise the visual appeal of my scripts and to find the emotional core of each story, each set of characters. Show, not tell, in the truest sense of the phrase...