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.