Funded by Grand Scheme Media & Creative Skillset, I’m running a series of very affordable 2 day script-editing workshops, with some excellent, experienced guest screenwriters, around the UK between May & July 16th (in Belfast, London, Cardiff, Bristol, Salford & Glasgow). More details, & how to book can be found on the TRAINING NEWS page of the Grand Scheme Media website http://grandscheme.tv/
This week – Some random highlights from my 2014 newsletters –
Writer / Director JOHN DRYDEN on Radio Drama –
‘Radio drama is often described as the theatre of the mind. For me this suggests that it’s an intellectual thing. But I don’t think it is. Paradoxically, radio drama is the most visual of mediums. What I mean is this: think of the difference between film/TV and theatre. In film/TV what the audience sees on the screen, how the characters look, what kind of car they drive, the clothes they wear etc are all right in front of you to see. There’s no scope for you to imagine anything else. In theatre you know what the characters look like but, because of the constraints of the stage, there are only visual clues to suggest everything else. The more effective these visual clues are, the more the audience’s imagination is engaged. Radio drama works a bit like that – the whole world is created in the audience’s heads by suggestion. The better the writing, the less the audience realizes that they are being “fooled” into imagining an entire universe. When it really works the listener is completely pulled in. It seems effortless.’
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 actors who don’t move from their seats throughout, is a testament to the brilliance of the writing.
And in last month’s Sight & Sound, an article by Charles Gant on the script for STARRED UP, a film written by JONATHAN ASSER, to be released in the UK next week – which is already generating a lot of positive feedback.
Asser refers to his original writing approach to his story as – ‘not one he would recommend to others. Or even himself. No treatment, outline, story arc or even list of characters. “I just plunged in…I started on page one and every time I went back to it, I’d start again at the beginning. I was just really getting to know the characters and letting them do what they wanted…’ (which seems to me a very healthy approach).
‘To learn how to become a screenwriter, Asser followed a path that had already served him well with his poetry: attending a series of creative writing courses run by the charitable Arvon Foundation…Arvon uses current industry practitioners to mentor the attendees, and after each course Asser maintained contact with the professionals he’d just encountered. “I certainly went every year…some years I’d do more than one. I didn’t go on holidays – my holidays were Arvon courses. You get to spend a week with these people, they read your material and you build a relationship…and that is absolutely invaluable…When you’re a writer doing your own thing on your own, at the foot of this mountain, having people like that take you seriously is worth a million dollars – it’s permission to take yourself seriously. Everyone needs role models and all those people have been role models to me in one way or another.’
This touches on a point that’s worth emphasising – creative writing courses aren’t just about what you learn in terms of the craft of writing – they’re also about the people you meet, the contacts you make.
Which contemporary screenwriter\s do you find the most inspiring and why?
‘I’ve just come back from a British Council cultural exchange at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where some Brit writers met their Moroccan counterparts – and one of our overseeing tutors was Razvan Radalescu, who wrote one of my favourite films ‘The death of Mr Lazarescu’. I had no idea he’d been involved on that film until I met him, but his work takes him around the world, meeting people, getting their stories, finding the shared humanity. I’ve been working on a dark comedy film about a couple going through IVF and he was able to give me pages of notes because he’d been visiting fertility clinics in Germany for a documentary he’d made. But even if he hadn’t, he would still be able to find the heart of a story- of what an audience wants and will be able to respond to. You can write a film about the failures of the Romanian health system but an audience in the UK will still ‘get it’. And that’s pretty amazing.’
‘For me, David Chase is one of the greatest. And in its own way, The Sopranos is just as important as either The Godfather or Goodfellas. It took the best elements of family drama, which television always does well and combined it with a “larger than life – and death” threat outside the home. The basic conceit of the show, America has become so selfish and violent that even a gangster can’t cope … brilliant. And the chances he takes with narrative are almost “Art House” in approach. It’s as if HBO had hired Antonioni to run a successful TV show. Characters come and go, certain “plot points” don’t get paid off. Sometimes he’s challenging the audience with – you don’t need to know – I’m leaving it with you guys. Similarly, his protege, Matthew Weiner’s: Mad Men is a significant achievement. A lot of what “happens” in Mad Men seems to be under the surface or “interior”. The characters are brilliant at selling the American Dream but never quite manage to live it. I love Aaron Sorkin too, but for different reasons. He’s gifted from the gods and the rhythm of his dialogue … like good music.’
House Of Cards
‘…but it was completely gripping. And what it consolidated for me – after time spent working on various scripts – is that CHARACTER IS STORY. Without compelling, identifiable, credible and engaging characters you don’t have a story – you just have plot. In HOUSE OF CARDS, FRANCIS UNDERWOOD and PETER ROUSSEAU are both brilliantly conceived characters – both, without question, objectively unlikeable – both successful politicians in their very different ways, men who have sacrificed much ( and trodden over the bodies) to get where they are.
What this episode did brilliantly though was to show the flickers of humanity and vulnerability behind the successful ‘men in suits’. It showed at what cost both had achieved their ends. In terms of narrative development the Frank (A story) had little real movement – the big narrative political issues were in effect put on hold for an episode; the Peter (B story) had a little more movement – a significant political victory – but again this was more about a character journey – a moment of learning and insight for the very flawed Peter Rousseau.’
One thing these written pitches shouldn’t do is recount your story in great detail. There is nothing harder to read, in my opinion, than a lengthy synopsis. For me, the word SYNOPSIS implies a story with all of the fun taken out. What a pitch should do is distil the essence of an idea – what it needs to convey is WHAT EXCITES YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL WRITER ABOUT THE IDEA. It needs to connect you as an individual writer – and your distinctive, individual take – with a brilliant idea.
A written pitch should ideally contain –
The story’s Unique Selling Point.
A strong narrative hook (these first two may be one and the same!).
The broad shape of the story – in the least possible detail that will do it justice – it’s so important this is economically written and doesn’t balloon into indigestible ‘synopsis’. Ideally this should include at least one telling visual detail. (Often what the reader will remember from the best-written of these documents is a single memorable visual image that encapsulates the theme \ story \ lead character).
At least one, hopefully two, memorable and distinctive characters (anymore than three and your reader’s brain is going to start hurting).
The memorable, distinctive world of your story.
An idea of genre and tone
And if it’s pitch for a comedy, then there needs to be something funny in your one page!
What your one pager mustn’t be is full of empty promises. ie don’t waste valuable words on meaningless guff like ‘This going to be side-splittingly funny… this will be hugely exciting and dramatic etc’ A one page pitch needs to deliver not tease – SO, for instance, if your story has a great ‘Sixth Sense’-style twist, include it in your pitch.
Until next week,
All the best
May 8th 2015