CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2015.
Don’t forget – entries for the 2015 course close this coming Monday Nov 3rd at 6pm.
I had a great couple of days at the LONDON SCREENWRITERS FESTIVAL last Friday and Sunday, meeting up with so many old friends, running a Script Lab on CREATING TV DRAMA SERIES and attending some fascinating and inspiring sessions. Here are my notes from two of those sessions –
LONDON SCREENWRITERS FESTIVAL 2014 SESSIONS
Dennis Kelly (writer), Marc Munden (director)
DK: The idea originated at Kudos, who pitched the idea to him. In their version the characters who found the graphic novel were investigative characters – DK changed it so that they were more ordinary, ‘a bit shit like me’.
A writing rule – never use the word ‘we’ in screenplay directions, never include camera directions – it pulls the reader out of the story.
On the writing of the story and series as a whole – ‘I have rough ideas about the direction the story is going. But if I’m surprised by the way the story goes, you’re going to be too. I like to surprise myself within a general idea of where it’s going.
The characters changed over the course of the series as he took on board the performances and characters of the actors. Originally Jessica Hyde was colder and cooler but Fiona O’Shaugnessy’s performance was more emotional and so that developed and changed in the writing.
There’s something good about leaving some of it open but it’s also scary. Human beings are machines for understanding other human beings – given that we judge people through conversations. So you don’t need too much detail in these people – the audience enjoy the process of working them out. The interesting thing about darker characters is the lighter bits of them. You understand character through their actions eg you understand Jessica from seeing her watching Ian and Becky together.
It’s about creating characters you care about and then doing shit things to them.
DK emphasised just how hard it is to write a good script. A lot of the scripts were rewritten and rewritten. It was very collaborative – this is a huge part of the process. Trying to get it better and better with every draft.
MM: rehearses every scene with the actors, a chance for the actors to experiment in a protected atmosphere. Important that the actors have access to the writer at this point – but also that the writer is not always there at rehearsals.
The characters were really fully-formed on the page – although actors always bring something to the characters that will change and develop them further. Eg Becky wasn’t Welsh in the script, and Fiona O’Shaugnessy brought so much of herself to Jessica.
He observed that a lot of the scripts is Dennis having a debate with himself, trying to work things out. Characters that are quite muddled in their thinking, but they work. The audience have to work quite hard to define them, which feels quite characteristic of the series as a whole.
DK: A lot of the scripts went through a lot of re-writing.
Notes: as a writer he feels collaboration is really useful. Very happy to take on a lot of the really good ideas he’s given – it’s his name on the script wherever the good ideas come from! ‘It can be very emotional taking notes…but if you’re working with good people, it’s valuable.’
‘If you compromise now you will compromise all through your career.’
‘Our job is to fight for the best version of the show. But with the collaborations you can end up with something that is better than it would have been.’
‘I only have notes in meetings – I have to understand where the notes are coming from, to interrogate them. I can’t do that with written notes.’
‘There are lots of story-telling devices but it’s all sleight of hand. An audience is constantly working things out but as writer you have to bury things, keep people engaged with something else.
MM: The combination of the humour and the darkness drew me to it. And I thought Dennis had written something really epic in terms of the ideas, but also that it was domestic in nature.
The approach to colour in the show came from a line of Dennis’s in the directions. ‘The guy comes in with a yellow bag.’ From this a logical process followed to the development of the visual style, the bold use of colours. MM was keen to make it the exact opposite of what you’d expect. He had seen a Doris Day movie soon before shooting – which suggested the colour and visual style – a counterpoint to the story content.
BRITISH MOVIES : STORIES OF CLASS
Chaired by Robert Thorogood.
RT themed the session around BRITISH STORIES OF CLASS and talked about three distinct categories –
BRITISH COMMUNITY STORIES
Films like – The Full Monty, Billy Elliott, Kes, Made In Dagenham
BRITISH POSH STORIES
If, Another Country, Brideshead Revisited, The Queen, 4 Weddings & A Funeral
BRITISH POSH VS NON-POSH STORIES
Mrs Brown, The King’s Speech, A Room With A View, Howards End
Laura Wade (writer THE RIOT CLUB, POSH) David Livingstone (Producer, PRIDE)
Last year income from UK indie films make up only 6% of UK feature film box office income.
DL talked about reading a script by PRIDE writer STEPHEN BERESFORD, which had great characters and dialogue (but not a great story). He met with Stephen, liked him, wanted to work with him. DL said he pitched SB ‘lots of naff rom-com ideas.’ He then asked SB what he wanted to write. ‘In pitching he made me feel special – although it turned out he’d been telling people about this idea for 20 years!’ As he explained the idea more, the ending sold it to DL – ‘400 miners lead the Gay Pride march of 1985.’ This felt like a wonderful cinematic ending and there were ‘journeys’ for all the lead characters. In fact, ‘there were so many fantastic threads that it could seem very cheesy.’
LW – re POSH, the stage play that spawned the film THE RIOT CLUB. She worked on it at the Royal Court, who put her together with director Lyndsey Turner. They were both interested in the idea of looking at wealthy young people. When she heard about the Bullingdon and other Oxbridge dining societies, saw the famous Cameron / Johnson Bullingdon club photo – then she knew she had a story. The idea that the Bullingdon diners smashed up the rooms in which they dined then paid for the damage on their way out seemed like a perfect metaphor – her eureka moment. She said that often, it’s this one image or story moment that gets her up and running with a story.
DL: talked about wanting to avoid the British tradition of films like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. They were trying to do their own thing, convey the unique qualities of this particular story, not worrying about fitting into a UK film tradition, genre.
LW said she felt that for her as a writer it was important to acknowledge those other ‘posh’ films, particularly ‘IF’, with which THE RIOT CLUB has parallels. Particularly that British films about posh people who aren’t very ‘nice’ hadn’t tended to sell that well. She had to grapple with the question of the likeability of her characters.
DL: talked about the structure of PRIDE, the fact that there is no single lead character, rather there are about 20 lead characters. But he knew it had to be about people who changed over the course of the film, people who went on a journey of change. But the odd complexity of the film was that there were a lot of different stories and characters.
He talked about the fact it was based on a real story, and real people who they talked to about their stories. He said the film is ‘80% true.’ Stephen Beresford had taken the spirit of what had happened but not the literal, accurate truth of what happened. All the real people depicted in the film agreed to sign release forms.
LW: conversely they were never aiming to create a representation of real life – THE RIOT CLUB is fiction. The truth of the story is the metaphor. The research she did was about creating something that could be true, not something that actually happened.
DL: in terms of pitching and content, there was every reason why this wouldn’t be attractive to financiers – Thatcher, Wales, miners, gays, lesbians – but ‘our aim was to make this great British story into a great British movie, not dress it up with marketing ploys.’
RT posed the question – how do you deal with studio notes?
LW: It can be emotionally difficult. The director, producers, executive producers – they all want a say in the film, and often come to the table quite late with thoughts about things that you feel are quite well-established within the creative team. It was always about trying to balance what they suggested with what was underlying their notes.
DL: Although there were several different voices / producers – BFI, BBC, Pathe – the project was quite well-developed by the time it arrived on their desks. Most of the notes chimed.
People want to work with people they enjoy working with – you need to find a way to get the notes to enhance what you’ve done, even if you don’t take their suggestions at face value.
LW: I look back at notes that seemed seismic at the time but in fact were small calibrations, but I needed the help of the director to go through this process. The approach in stage and film is very different. While there is a structural approach to story in theatre, this is much more marked in film. And in theatre notes would often be prefaced by, ‘But of course this is your play.’ This isn’t the case in film! In film there are quite a few people who want a say in what you’re writing. You need to cling onto what you originally wanted to achieve in the script.
RT chipped in: ‘All of my talented friends who have done less well have had attitude problems.’
DL: as producer what he’s primarily looking for is a good story. He wants to make decent films, not just entertainment. He cited ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ as an example of a film that was more than just an entertaining rom-com.
He discussed how real stories are quite fashionable at the moment (citing ‘The Imitation Game’, about Alan Turing and ‘The Theory Of Everything’, about Stephen Hawking). He talked about stories that had something significant to say, and stories with a really strong premise.
LW: It was great fun to put things into the film that were only discussed in the play. And letting go of words to some extent. Recalibrating one’s sense of boredom – film eats up story, the story is key, and has to keep moving forward with pace. Although the producer at one point asked her to put back a lot of the funnier lines from the play that she’d cut from the screenplay.
Next week, I’ll write up the session I probably enjoyed most at the festival – the brilliant Charlie Brooker talking about his screenwriting work.
All the best
Oct 31st 2014