SCRIPT EDITING ESSENTIALS. One day course this coming Thursday June 22nd at the Indie Training Fund in Hoxton – still 2 places available.
The last couple of weeks have been mainly taken up for me by the 2nd weekend of the 2017 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE, culminating in the drinks evening at C4 that took place on Tuesday, at which we introduce the 12 course writers to potential employers (and agents) from the industry.
The 2nd weekend of the C4 course consists of a day of 15 minute readings by actors from the 12 course scripts, followed by a day of feedback for the writers from 4 guest script editors.
Here are a few thoughts from this final weekend of 2017 4screenwriting events –
As ever, the positive energy flowing between actors and writers was powerful and invigorating; and it’s interesting to note the differences in perception between reading the script on the page and hearing it read – how you pick up on different things. This reminds of how difficult screenplays are to read (and consequently write!). Reading a script is hard – so you need to do all you can to make it sing off the page, make it easy to read, enable the reader to play it as a movie in their mind’s eye. Don’t have anything come between the story and the reader.
Being a writer can be very exciting but also very tough. We try our best to put the writers at their ease – but at the same time they’re under a lot of pressure on the course. 5 months is not long to create a brand new series or serial, and it’s testament to the quality of the course writers that they achieve it so excitingly. The range and quality of scripts this year was remarkable – from a story about a female boxing club (with a Jehovahs Witness sub-plot!) and a ‘western’ set in deepest rural Wales; to a story of a father and son covering up a dreadful accident in which the son is involved; and 2 scripts set slightly in the future, with different – but equally striking – portrayals of how the future will look. (Not good!)
At the drinks evening on Tuesday, the 12 course writers are in the room to be met by about 200 eminent industry people – it’s nerve-racking! Because there is so much to be gained by these writers, there’s a lot at stake for them. It’s great to also see at this event writers from previous years who can now come back to this drinks evening in a slightly more relaxed frame of mind and who are able to enjoy it more while also connecting with industry people who they now know and like, as well as meeting new people, and trading experiences with the writers from this year’s course.
When we choose the 12 writers from 1400 scripts, we unequivocally love those 12 scripts – we’re so spoilt for choice – so we know that we have 12 hugely talented writers every year. But one of the things the course teaches us each year is that there is more to becoming successful in the industry than being a good screenwriter (although that is clearly the most important thing). Aside from the demands and mysteries of the craft of dramatic story-telling, being successful as a screenwriter is like being successful in any other career – in other words being focused, ambitious, strategic and smart in the way you run your career. An example from this week’s drinks evening – I was talking to one of the best and most successful writers from the 7 years of the course, the one who for me most epitomises an attitude of focused professionalism. She (very politely) broke off her conversation with me because the new C4 head of drama was hovering nearby and this writer wanted to talk to her, so she went over and started up a conversation. As far as I’m concerned, this is the sort of determination and initiative you need as a writer to be successful. Once when I was at a BAFTA screening with the same writer, soon after she’d finished the C4 course, she went up to Olivia Coleman in the BAFTA bar to ask if she’d like to read her course script because the lead part was just right for her (and it was). Ultimately nothing came off this – but it’s another great example of what you need to do to be successful. Importantly this writer is always charming, courteous, respectful, sensitive to the social situation and modest – but she has an admirably steely determination and inner confidence, which, combined with her talents as a screenwriter have brought her richly-deserved success.
In fact, modesty and humility (combined with an inner self-confidence) are qualities that all the successful C4 course writers have in common. They all have that necessary self-doubt, introspection and sensitivity you need to be a successful dramatic writer – alongside a tough persistence and passion for their craft.
As one of my (quite drunk) fellow course script editors said to me at the drinks evening, ‘This is the best night of your life!’ I wouldn’t go that far but this drinks evening is definitely always one of the highlights of my year – a celebration of the year’s 12 course writers, a chance to catch up with writers from previous years of the course; and the course feels so vindicated by the presence at the evening of representatives of pretty much all the big players in the world of UK drama producing indies and top literary agencies. It’s also a great chance for me to catch up with friends and former colleagues – there were 6 or 7 ex-colleagues from the Carlton TV drama department. It was great to catch up with all of them, and for them to catch up with each other.
Another moment from the course weekend that struck me – which made me think about ‘What does good screenwriting look like?’ Here’s a scene that does it for me from one of this year’s 12 4screenwriting scripts. This scene was part of the 15 minute actor readings last Saturday. I’d already read and hugely enjoyed this extremely impressive piece of story-telling. But during the actors’ reading, this scene in particular thrilled me – it leapt off the page as a beautifully nuanced piece of characterful, sub-textual writing, laden with deep, suppressed feeling.
INT. GRACE’S HOUSE. LIVING ROOM. NIGHT.
ROB returns home. He enters the house and JAN comes down the stairs.
Where have you been?
JAN isn’t convinced.
Nothing. Go back to bed.
It doesn’t look like much on the page does it? Part of its power is in its simplicity, in what isn’t said, in how inarticulate it is. It’s impossible to get a full sense of the power of this one short scene without reading the whole script – but let me assure you – this is what good screenwriting looks like.
It’s about tension, sub-text, clear but complex characterisation, and a sense of mystery; and, as with so many of the best scripts, characters that find it impossible to articulate their feelings. Good screenwriting doesn’t need to be flashy – just truthful.
Quotes from the KEN LOACH interview at Wednesday’s London Screenwriters Festival launch –
About the election result – ‘This is the most encouraging political development in my lifetime.’
Asked about Hollywood blockbusters – ‘What I find interesting is not what the industry finds interesting….The sub-text is shaped by the people who provide the money. And that subtext is – a man with a gun can solve your problems. It’s about the intentional use of money and violence to get what you want….It’s reflective of US foreign policy. Multiplex films are about commodification – and about fetishising bodies – what you should look like – but they forget what it means to be human.’
What makes good writing – ‘You need to look for a spark in the dialogue. The idea of structure has been elevated way beyond its importance.’
He discussed some of the writers who he had worked with time after time – Neville Smith, Bill Jesse, Barry Hines, Jim Allen and Paul Laverty.
He discussed how all the writers he’s worked with have a sense of comedy – comedy being about what makes people idiosyncratic, odd, unique, special. And good writing is about these people – how they relate to each other, their social background.
‘Most of the screenwriters I’ve worked with aren’t rich.’
Finally, thank you so much for the SCREENWRITING QUESTIONS you’ve sent me. Some really fascinating questions that I’m looking forward to answering in a future newsletter – but pleased keep them coming. It would be great to have several more so that I can fill a whole newsletter with this Q&A session.
The next newsletter will be on Friday June 30th,
All the best
June 16th 2017