Before I start, a quick reminder that today Friday Nov 1st at 5pm is the cut-off for entries into the Channel 4 screenwriting course 2014. We won’t be accepting any entries after this time.
LONDON SCREENWRITERS FESTIVAL 2013
I spent last Friday and Saturday at this year’s London Screenwriters Festival and had a very enjoyable time.
It was great to catch up with so many writers who have done our ‘2Phils’ screenwriting courses, many of whom were pitching at the ‘Pitchfest’ and it was very pleasing to see that a lot of them were having significant pitching success.
I ran a ‘Script Lab’ on the Saturday morning on the subject of ‘Writing & Creating TV drama series.’ This is an area of the industry that I find particularly interesting – this is the hardest format to crack but new, successful TV series are like gold-dust to broadcasters.
To get into this script lab, writers had to submit a one page series pitch, and a three page section of script from the pilot episode, and I had to select the 6 best ideas (from 36 submissions). The quality of the entries was excellent but even so the 6 I chose stood out with the sheer originality of their ideas –
a woman from Dublin, going through a mid-life crisis, who decides to launch her singing career at the Edinburgh festival;
a male therapist and his male client, both of whom are serial adulterers;
a Hobbit-esque fantasy adventure juxtaposed with a grim urban Midlands housing estate;
a woman who has died but comes back to life to investigate the mysterious circumstances of her death;
a young Englishman who gets work in the bizarre showbiz world of US wrestling;
and a black comedy about a minor celeb who decides to wreak terminal revenge on his social media abusers.
But not only are these strong ideas – in the material I got to read, the realisation of these ideas was as impressive as their originality. So I expect to be hearing about all these writers and the doors that these projects will, I’m sure, open for them.
(Incidentally as well as my www.thetwophils.co.uk courses in November, I am also running a weekend course in Norwich on ‘Creating And Writing a TV Drama Series’ (Nov 23-24). There are still places available if this is an area of screenwriting that interests you –
I also went to a number of fascinating and inspiring screenwriting talks \ sessions at the London Screenwriters Festival –
Producer GUB NEAL and writer ALLAN CUBITT talked about the creation, writing and production of this excellent crime series.
About how dramatic tension was sustained even though the audience were ahead of the police. Seeing the moment the serial killer comes home – a novel approach to the genre.
AC: ‘We all have a part of ourselves that is impossible to know (Stella Gibson) – we find out v little about her – what we know of her is what we see on screen.’
GN: ‘AC did a lot of research – the show pulls people in through its authenticity. The reality of most police procedure is far more dramatic than anything we could have dreamed up.’
In the killer, the juxtaposition of the ordinary (domestic + working life) and the extraordinary – the killer hunting his prey – was inherently dramatic.
AC: ‘Considering this is a serial killer story, we wanted a low body count. Deliberately juxtaposed sex and death. Made audience into a voyeur. All these crimes based on fantasy.’
‘Good crime dramas often have a strong sense of place – in this case Belfast.’
AC: ‘Research – Police handbooks very helpful for dramatising crime scene sequences. I like to do a lot of reading around a subject – a lot of ideas come from this.’
‘I usually get good ideas at other times than sitting at my computer – running, swimming, getting into the bath.’
David Hare was fascinating and inspiring – a really excellent public speaker – impressively articulate, intelligent and outspoken.
‘When you write a script, you think \ assume that everyone sees the same thing you do – but they don’t.’
‘Nine tenths of my work is lawyering – advocacy – explaining to the people who work on the film what I see.’
‘The second part of the screenwriter’s job is to stimulate the imagination of the director.’ A screenplay shouldn’t be prescriptive – ‘there needs to be an openness to a screenplay that invites…’
He talked about executive notes – in particular bad notes – referring to the ‘cute inversion’ – a note that suggests turning an idea on its head – a way of not really thinking about or engaging with what’s in front of you.
He took issue with two of the principles \ clichés (depending on how you look at it!) of screenwriting – that ‘Film is a visual medium’ and ‘Show don’t tell.’ He talked passionately about the importance and power of language and dialogue in screenplays. He raised the example of Quentin Tarantino (he referenced Pulp Fiction) – how his best movies stand out because of the brilliance and originality of the dialogue.
He talked in praise of Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘rules of screenwriting’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Film-making-Alexander-Mackendrick/dp/0571211259/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383222896&sr=1-1&keywords=on+filmmaking+alexander+mackendrick
He referred particularly to (I paraphrase) ‘DON’T write the scene where the hero explains why he’s done what he’s done.’ He talked about ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ which he says is an excellent film – until the moment the Matt Damon character explains why he has committed the murders – and at this moment the film ‘deflates like a balloon.’
He entertainingly laid into the new Alfonso Cuaron film, ‘Gravity’, in which he said, despite the vast amounts of money spent on cast, CGI etc, ‘nobody says a single interesting thing.’ He referred to some of the tired dialogue, eg ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ In a film which is meant to be at the cutting edge of cinema, he suggested it may have been worth their while spending a bit more care and attention on the dialogue. He talked about the visual originality of the film – but how it looks as if they have viewed the dialogue as the ‘icing on the cake’ whereas to him, the dialogue ‘isn’t the icing, it’s the cake.’ He stressed that film-makers should have as much ambition about the language of the film as about the visual image.
He talked about some of his development projects that haven’t made it to production – in particular his adaptation of Jonathan Frantzen’s ‘the Corrections.’ ‘I worked for 3 years and 23 drafts on ‘The Corrections.’….
Which led him onto the issue of directors too often wanting to bring too much of themselves and their egos to projects – director Bob Zemeckis said to him about ‘The Corrections’ script, ‘There is nothing left for me to do apart from shoot it.’
In contrast he praised director Stephen Frears as the director beloved by writers because he loves scripts – and shoots them as written.
He talked about his adaptation of THE READER. He said he hates voiceover in movies and that it was an easy decision to dispense with the THE READER’s first person narrative. He said, to compensate for losing the first person narrative, he had to invent ‘a frame for the viewer’.
He recommended Sarah Polley’s film STORIES WE TELL.
He spoke in praise and admiration of actors and what they bring to the writers’ work, how the best actors ‘become’ the characters, and take them to a new level. He referred to the brilliance of Anthony Hopkins’ performance in his stage play ‘Pravda’, and to Meryl Streep in his adaptation of ‘The Hours’.
(Which reminds me – I watched the excellent Fernando Mereilles \ Peter Morgan movie ‘360’ last week – there is one long Anthony Hopkins speech in the middle of the movie that is an acting master-class.)
He talked about the problem of dramatising exposition – what he refers to as ‘tucking information away’. Giving the audience information without them knowing they’re being given information.
Talking about notes – he said writers should view them as an opportunity to make their script better. He talked glowingly about his regular script editor Andrew Ellard – how, before Graham knew him, Andrew had posted some notes on The IT Crowd online – Graham thought they were spot-on, so hired him as script editor. He said that Andrew’s notes inspire him – he described how Andrew’s notes are written like an essay section, then page-by-page, beat-by-beat notes on the script, with an analysis of every joke.
(From my POV it was great to hear such a good writer talking about how his script editor inspires him to do his best work).
He says he prefers writing the 2nd draft and beyond – rewriting – to writing the first draft.
He likes to research an idea thoroughly – look at how other shows have done it, circle an idea for a long time – until he can’t wait to write it.
About studio \ multi-camera sitcoms – ‘Most of them look terrible – but when you get it right it’s glorious.’ As examples of the best sitcoms, he mentioned Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones. He feels that often single camera comedy shows don’t have the comic rigour of the best studio sitcoms. He said that the best Seinfeld episodes are like a Cole Porter song or a PG Wodehouse novel.
He talked about other influences \ inspirations – Woody Allen, The Simpsons, Larry Sanders.
‘If you’re a shy, retiring writer who doesn’t want to get their hands dirty, you should write novels.’
He was a great advocate of writers trying to get involved at every stage of the production process, and doing all they can to make sure their vision makes it onto the screen. You need a strong attention to detail, and to be a good collaborator.
Shows he held up as examples of the best current \ recent comedies –
Always Sunny In Philadelphia – which has learnt the lessons from the best of Seinfeld.
Girls (Lena Dunham)
Eastbound & Down
The early stages of writing a sit-com is testing out the characters – seeing which combinations of character are funny. He doesn’t dive in – he needs to think about it a lot, know who all the characters are.
You have to give yourself the freedom to be terrible in the first draft – he talked about what he sees as the pernicious influence of the likes of Robert McKee – who is teaching you to write a classic, not a first draft – very dangerous for a new writer.
He’s not a huge fan of detailed character profiles – he finds lines of dialogue that suggest an attitude – he thinks it’s his characters’ ‘attitude’ that is important.
Try not to make your opening episode too obviously a ‘pilot’ that just sets up the story. Get to a situation in your first episode where everything is already in place and going.
J Blakeson talked about how he wrote The Disappearance of Alice Creed in 10 days – but that he’s also watched a huge amount of films, written a lot, read a lot. And there were restrictions – he set out to write a contained film so that it would be made.
So all in all, a fascinating and inspiring two days – notwithstanding what I may have missed on the Sunday!
Until next week,
All the best
Nov 1st 2013