It’s been a full-on few weeks with my last two weekends filled by first the Channel 4 screenwriting course and then last weekend my two day screenwriting course, ‘The Authoritative Guide to Writing and Selling A Great Screenplay’ in London with screenwriter friend and colleague Phil Gladwin.
Both weekends were thoroughly enjoyable and it was really interesting to me how many of your ‘top screenwriting tips’ resonated with what was said at both weekends and was reiterated by some very talented writers.
On the Channel 4 weekend we were very lucky to have the ‘keynote’ speech at the end of the whole course given by the inspirational TONY GROUNDS. If you don’t know Tony’s work, I suggest you rectify that. IMO he’s written some of the best drama shows on British TV EVER.
Shamefully one of his very best, BODILY HARM (Channel 4, 2002) isn’t available on DVD or on 4OD. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the C4 archives before the course weekend and it was an absolute treat – Timothy Spall, George Cole, Eddie Marsan, Elizabeth Berrington, Lesley Manville all at the top of their game, brilliantly directed by Joe Wright. But the quality of the writing is what shines through. Anyway, sorry if that’s a bit tantalizing! But there are plenty of other wonderful Tony Grounds shows that are available on DVD – and I’d particularly recommend BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS – again the casting is fantastic, with Ray Winstone, Mark Strong and Phil Davis as the three men of a certain age whose stag night goes horribly wrong…A superior British take on ‘The Hangover’.
Tony gave us his ‘5 top screenwriting tips’, among which was ‘find yourself a champion’. And ‘try envisaging an actor in your lead parts.’ Tony said that this was the case with both Tim Spall in Bodily Harm and Ray Winstone in BMD. For both these actors these roles were career-defining moments.
When talking about ‘BODILY HARM’ Tony said that the original inspiration was a newspaper story about a father who drove his family car – with his family inside – over a cliff, killing them all. (ACADEMIC) SPOLIER ALERT – This is pretty much the closing image of the film. So as good an example as you can find of knowing the end of your script before you start writing – know where your story is going.
Work-shopping the three scripts that I have been script-editing with three supremely talented writers on the Channel 4 course, this was one flaw that was identified in all three scripts by our estimable guest script editor.
Both courses reminded me of other important screenwriting truths – probably most important of all, how key WHAT you’re writing about is. The subject-matter, the situation in your script, is so important – if what you’re writing about isn’t that appealing to an audience, then it doesn’t really matter how well-written it is, it’s really hard to make it interesting. Conversely if you’ve got a great idea underpinning your script, as a reader you can forgive a lot of flawed writing.
This was particularly brought home to me in the final session of last weekend’s screenwriting course where we get the writers to pitch us (and each other) an idea that appeals to them, very often an idea they’ve been working on. The standard of pitching was really excellent and several of the ideas pitched are still running around my head.
One of the arts of pitching is the ability to distil an idea down to its essential and most compelling elements. Weirdly though this is often achieved by hooking the listener \ reader in through minute observational detail – some of the best pitches stood out because of one very particular visual image.
Which also underlined to me that at its best screenwriting is essentially a visual medium – cracking dialogue is obviously great and there is always a place for it (thank you Aaron Sorkin) but a lot of the work I did with my Channel 4 writers was constantly challenging them to tell their stories with LESS DIAOLGUE, to tell the story with ACTIONS instead of dialogue wherever possible.
One example of this. I was working on a really excellent two-stranded C4 serial pilot episode. The opening episode cuts between a distraught English family who learn that the eldest son of the house, a UK soldier, is missing after an explosion in Afghanistan; and the son himself in Afghanistan, who has been picked by a Pakistani truck driver who, too frightened to take him to hospital because he suspects he will be accused of abducting him, instead smuggles him across the border to Pakistan, uncertain what he is going to do with the dying boy.
As we developed the script, it became clear to us that both strands of the story were so strong, so emotionally powerful, that dialogue could be kept to an absolute minimum. What worked dramatically in the relationship between the injured soldier and the truck driver who is trying to help him, was their inability to communicate through language and their gradual bonding through non-verbal communication; and when a family are in an agonizing limbo waiting for news of their missing child, it’s often the continuation of mundane domestic tasks and what is NOT said that makes for emotional impact. The last thing you wanted in those scenes was the characters discussing how upset they were.
Another thing that was fascinating to me about this script was thinking about revealing \ witholding story information. In some ways the story-telling in this script broke fundamental ‘rules’ in that the audence were ahead of the family characters in what they know – ie watching the family, we know that their son is still alive and what is happeneing to him, information they don’t have. But mysteriously the knowledge we have as an audience here in fact deepened and intensified the emotional impact.
As writer (and script editor) you never stop learning.
Until Next Week
All the best
June 22nd 2012
PS If you’re interested in booking up for the next ‘Authoritative Guide To Writing And Selling A Great Screenplay’ it will be on the weekend of Sept 22 + 23 in London. Details and booking link on the website very soon.