CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London Saturday June 21st.

A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting ideas and characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHILIP SHELLEY with guest speaker writer ANDERS LUSTGARTEN



Hi There

Apart from the 3 excellent films I saw, my day at Sundance showed me the fantastic creative contribution the Sundance foundation and festivals makes to the richness of independent film culture.

In the Lab on ‘Truly Independent Visions’, all three writer \ directors – Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest), Charlie McDowell (The One I Love) and David Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) – talked about how much they have benefitted from the development work their projects underwent at Sundance Labs.

In particular Sydney Freeland (DRUNKTOWN’S FINEST) talked about how the work done in the Lab on her script forced her to concentrate on character rather than plot – brought her to the understanding that her stories needed to be more character-driven, and how her work developed and improved as a result of this intensive work on this and other scripts. She talked about how being forced to get outside her comfort zone opened up many new possibilities for her.

She talked about how, initially, she tried to write the sort of stories that she thought people wanted – but concluded that you can’t write a film for someone else, you need to write it for yourself, try to make a movie that you yourself would enjoy to watch – hence DRUNKTOWN’S FINEST, set in and around the small New Mexico town where she grew up.

All 3 panellists agreed that one of the most important aspects of being able to thrive as a screenwriter and film-maker is developing the ability to roll with the punches, learning how to handle rejection, and keep moving forward.

All 3 – now high-profile writer \ directors with strong reputations agreed – that they’d all had to handle a lot of rejection along the way – and still do!

Charlie McDowell, on the genesis of his film THE ONE I LOVE, talked about how they, in effect, ‘reverse-engineered’ the project. The story was dictated by a great location that they had – the use of a main house next to a guest house, which is the setting for the story of the film. A skeleton script was written, and as they made the film they knew the solid structure of the story. But as they shot, script pages were replaced by the dialogue created through cast ‘improv’.

He also talked about how he and his writing partner had spent 4 years trying to make one particular movie – and how the attempts to get funding for a project can so easily get in the way of the creative work – he advocated doing all you can to film your scripts, to keep making work, rather than waiting for everything to fall perfectly into alignment on your big, dream project.

Sydney Freeland agreed with this, and talked about how technology is becoming more and more accessible. There are fewer excuses for not being able to make a film these days, because film-making kit – cameras, editing software, etc is so much cheaper and more accessible. Some of the footage in DRUNKTOWN’S FINEST was shot on her i-phone. And the new technology can lead to bold innovations in story-telling.

Charlie McDowell talked about how he shot his film in just 15 days – but was able to do so because of the thorough preparation in pre-production.

Sydney Freeland concurred – her film (a 97 page script) was also shot in 15 days.

David Zelner – talked about his base as a film-maker in Austin, Texas, which has a small but thriving film community. He discussed how being based in Austin has been hugely beneficial to his career as an independent film-maker. And he talked about Richard Linklater – another very successful film-maker from the Austin area. He stressed how you don’t need to be in a particular acknowledged film-making hub (he referenced New York or LA) to be a film-maker. And that coming from a particular area and centring your work around a particular town \ area, gives you a distinctive voice and perspective. In Austin, he has a wide group of friends and contacts who he knows he can call on – there are so many good film-makers in Austin.

(I suppose UK equivalents would be Shane Meadows and the fact that so much of his work has been based around his hometown of Nottingham, or Nicola Shindler’s Manchester-based Red Productions that make so much excellent and distinctive TV drama based in the North of England) *

Zelner’s previous films were heavily driven by certain available resources – an actor, location, etc. But for his new film, KUMIKO, he had a proper budget. The film is based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who sees the film FARGO, and, believing (thanks to the deliberately misleading caption at the start of the Coen Brothers film) that it is a true story, comes to Minnesota to find the buried money that is a key part of the film’s plot. So the film is set half in Japan, half in Minnesota, and this required a very structured and planned logistical approach.

All the panellists emphasised how much competition there is to get into the Sundance Labs, and then how hard it is to get your work shown at the Sundance Festival. Sydney Freeland talked about how she had been rejected 6 times by the Sundance Labs before finally getting accepted on the programme.

It was instructive that David Wain (THEY CAME TOGETHER) asked the audience to spread the word about his film if we’d enjoyed it, as it doesn’t currently have a UK release date. This surprises and depresses me because, as well as being brilliant, I would have thought it’s also a commercial, mainstream film – accessible, with a mainstream star, Paul Rudd, an out and out rom-com with the emphasis very much on the com. The depressing truth is that in the UK there is a whole raft of excellent low budget independent films (from all over the world, not just the US) that never make it to these shores. Just as every shopping mall throughout much of the developed world has a smaller and smaller range of bland multi-national outlets, so increasingly multiplexes around every part of the world only show the likes of SpiderMan, X-Men, Pompeii, Tarzan, Rio2, Captain America… (a snapshot from last week at my local Vue cinema). The vast majority of these films hold no interest for me whatsoever.

For further insights into David Saulnier’s film-making process on  BLUE RUIN, this is a really interesting article (thanks for pointing this out Danielle Wager!)

*Talking of Red Productions, they have two excellent new shows currently on TV – BBC1’ s HAPPY VALLEY by Sally Wainwright, and PREY (ITV1) by Chris Lunt.

HAPPY VALLEY, in particular I think, is outstanding. Great characters and brilliantly crafted story-telling by the truly excellent (and incredibly prolific!) Sally Wainwright. The Sarah Lancashire character at the centre of the series is a wonderfully complex and human creation, and the stories have real dramatic impact. It’s really worth studying how these stories are put together and crafted – they are an object lesson in effective, engaging story-telling.


De Montfort University Leicester TV Writers Day. The Actors Centre London Saturday May 10th

Yes – tomorrow! I’m giving a short talk at this event – my ‘Top Tips for writing a screenplay that will open doors for you’. Personally I’m particularly looking forward to hearing John Yorke (Into The Woods – if you haven’t read it, you should!) and Jed Mercurio (Line Of Duty – one of the best TV drama of this or any other year).

If you’re going to be there, please say hello!

I think there are still a few tickets available –

Until next week,

All the best



Twitter: @philipshelley1

May 9th 2014