This week, a few more RANDOM SCREENWRITING THOUGHTS –
Going back to the script editing course I ran 2 weeks ago at Baby Cow Productions – one part of the discussion focused on the relationship between screenwriters and producers \ script editors – and what a good script editor or producer can bring to a writer’s work. This led to a discussion of those ‘successful’ writers who the group thought could benefit from a good script editor. Now, I have a policy of trying not to be negative here – but the name Woody Allen was mentioned, and I have to say I think this is spot-on. I feel this particularly strongly because he made some of my favourite-ever films – ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM. But the story-telling in some of his latest films (well, many of his films over the past 20 years!) has in my opinion not been great. BLUE JASMINE seems to be held up as one of the highlights of last year’s films (BAFTA and OSCAR nominations for best original screenplay!). Admittedly the central character (and performance by Cate Blanchett) were excellent – ‘Jasmine’ is a memorable character – but in my opinion some of the contrived, clunky story-telling would have embarrassed any self-respecting writer or script editor on HOLLYOAKS. And the whole film was wall-to-wall dialogue – everything was explained in excessive, waffling detail instead of SHOWN.
It says something about the absurdity of ‘awards season’ when a film like this get nominated as one of the best 5 screenplays of the year – writers like Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (THE WAY WAY BACK), Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) Richard Curtis (ABOUT TIME) JC Chandor (ALL IS LOST) must be weeping with frustration at the injustice of it all. This is compounded by the fact that your film pretty much only seems to stand a chance of an award if it’s released between December and February – voters’ memories don’t seem to stretch beyond about two months!
Having said this, I was delighted that Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope won the best adapted screenplay BAFTA for their excellent script for PHILOMENA.
On the subject of brilliant story-telling, I’ve just read the Sebastian Faulks novel, A POSSIBLE LIFE. The first 84 pages tell the story of a life – from late 1930’s through to the 1960’s. It’s a beautiful, compelling piece of writing. Like many of the best stories it works because it’s about an engaging, credible, complicated – and hugely flawed character. About what the character does and doesn’t do. The choices he makes over the course of decades is what makes the story so powerful. Even though it’s a novel rather than a piece of dramatic writing, it’s an object lesson in visual, active, dynamic story-telling that recounts a life in the sort of detail that takes us into the heart of events – but lets us make up our own mind and draw our own conclusions about the man and the decisions he’s made – and failed to make.
Which reminds me of a Stephen Sondheim quote about lyric-writing that applies as strongly to dramatic story-telling –
‘the three principles of lyric writing (Content Dictates Form, Less is More and God is in the Details), all in the cause of clarity’
Last week I ran a CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS course at the Actors Centre in London. As part of the course, the writers had to create a fictional character from the starting point of someone whom they observed on the London streets – I’m still thinking about and enjoying some of the characters they came up with and developed – Robert \ Roberta, a glamorous cross–dresser & model from Stevenage with brand new breast implants; Pete Knox, an unhappily-divorced father of two young kids, obsessed with zombie-based computer games; Niza, a grouchy, sardonic Algerian chef who runs his own West End sandwich shop and despairs of the British lunch-obsession with jacket potatoes; an immaculately-dressed but dysfunctional dandy-about-town with an OCD fixation about the mechanics of time-pieces; and a polite, cheerful middle-class woman living with the secret guilt of having hit a child in a hit-and-run car accident.
This reinforces 2 things for me – the importance and potency of observation for writers – how we should all be constantly using observations from our everyday life in our work. There is no richer and stranger starting point for memorable characters than real people.
And the fact that no matter how well-plotted a story is, it’s nothing without an engaging, identifiable, multi-layered character at the centre of it.
The sad death of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me what a fantastic list of films he’s been involved in – and he was always good, always interesting and so watchable. Among those I’ve seen most recently which I’d really recommend are THE IDES OF MARCH and MONEYBALL. I have a number of his films to catch up with – but it’s very sad that there will be no new PSH films.
I’m continuing to enjoy the excellent LINE OF DUTY2. One of the outstanding features of the first two episodes has been the hugely long but brilliantly sustained set-piece interview scene in each episode as AC-12 take on the wonderfully complex DI LINDSAY DENTON. The episode one scene was 10+ pages, and the equivalent scene in episode 2 was almost as long, and even more compelling than the episode one scene. Being able to keep an audience gripped through an 11 page dialogue scene featuring 5 seated actors who don’t move from their seats throughout, is a testament to the brilliance of the writing.
Finally, to follow up on my very incomplete list of the top TV screenwriters in the UK from last week, thanks to all of you who pointed out these WRITERS I MISSED –
Peter Bowker – Occupation, Eric & Ernie, the underrated Monroe and the forthcoming From There to Here about the 1996 Arndale bombing
Tony Marchant – The Mark of Cain, Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies, The Family Man, Holding On
Tony Bagallop – Inside Men, What Remains
Kay Mellor – Playing The Field, The Syndicate, Fat Friends, Band Of Gold
Lynda La Plante – Prime Suspect, Trial & Retribution
Hugo Blick – The Shadow Line, Sensitive Skin, Marion & Geoff and the forthcoming The Honourable Woman.
Peter Flannery – Blind Justice, Our Friends In The North, The Devil’s Whore and forthcoming C4 drama The New World
And an old book on dramatic writing that comes highly recommended – The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.
Until next week,
All the best
Feb 21st 2014