Sundance UK Screenwriting Lab notes

‘It takes years of screenwriting to have an overnight success. It also takes talent, willpower, determination, grit and more than anything – it requires failure.’

This was the premise of the SCREENWRITING FLASH LAB at the London Sundance Film Festival which I attended last Saturday at the O2 Cineworld.

Excitingly, for someone like me whose film education included movies like BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, THE STING, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN etc etc, the session was introduced by Robert Redford himself! And he was impressively articulate and passionate about Sundance and the opportunities that it gives to new writers and film-makers.

The session was chaired by Mia Bays, and the screenwriters on the panel were PETER STRAUGHAN (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Debt, Men Who Stare at Goats) writer\director LYNN SHELTON (Touch Feely, Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday) and TONY GRISONI (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland, In This World, Death Defying Acts) and it was thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Here are some quotes from the 90 minute discussion –

ROBERT REDFORD: ‘Treat every failure like a step forward…hit the wall in order to rebound and really bounce back…the film business should be all about risk-taking.’

He talked about how at Sundance it’s all about the process of film-making, not the results. ‘Your worst day at Sundance will be your best day’ ie the day you learn most from.


LYNN SHELTON talked about acknowledging that the risk you’re taking on any project is that it might fail (at any point in the process) but that you have to embrace this risk.

Her fear at the start of the writing process on a new project is something that never goes away.

TONY GRISONI: At the start of his career, working on QUEEN OF HEARTS, he knew nothing. This was a great help – the arrogance of ignorance. ‘Nothing’s been as simple since.’

He talked about writing for yourself. ‘You don’t ask who’s it for. You write for yourself.’

In some ways, he has constantly sought ways NOT TO WRITE – on projects like ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ – where he said the process was more like ‘collaging’ and IN THIS WORLD where he wrote no dialogue – just the story and the action of scenes.

He talked about a rough time in his career, coming off DON QUIXOTE, where the shoot was closed down after 5 days, which was followed by another project that didn’t happen. He had a meeting with Michael Winterbottom who said he wanted to make a film about a ‘refugee’s journey’ – this two word pitch was the starting point for IN THIS WORLD. They decided to use the film grammar of documentaries to tell the story they wanted to tell – he read many accounts of refugees smuggled to the UK. The route from Afghanistan \ Pakistan to the UK became the spine of the film.

He talked about how he couldn’t write dialogue for IN THIS WORLD because they were working with non-professional actors. This ‘not knowing’ made it exciting.

Tony talked about how ‘Not Knowing’ is a really good place to start as a writer.

He had worked as 3rd assistant director for Producer Tony Garnett on Roland Joffee-directed THE SPONGERS where much of the dialogue was improvised – one of his inspirations.

So he talked about how much of his ‘writing’ is AVOIDING writing! – the starting point coming from other people’s stories. The imperative being to do justice to telling other people’s stories – someone else’s story that you’re trying to remain true to.

He quoted prose writer Iain Sinclair, ‘All writing is done in a state of trance.’

PETER STRAUGHAN: Said that mostly what he sees in his completed films are the bits of the script that don’t work to his satisfaction. Gave the example of one key scene in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SAILOR SPY of which he was very proud – it read very well. But when they came to shoot it, it was clear that it didn’t work. He then worked with director and editor in the edit and they rewrote \ restructured it – until it did work. He discussed how the editing process is very akin to the writing process – whereas he has little interest as a writer in being on set during the shoot.

LYNN SHELTON: in her experience, a ‘good read’ doesn’t necessarily make for a good scene when shot.

TG: ‘the beautiful thing about film-making is that it’s a social act.’ (even for the writer)

PS: ‘When films don’t work, it’s usually down to a failure of communication.’ ‘It’s a question of working with the right people.’

PS: ‘Adaptation is like writing the poem of the book.’

TG: ‘The best way to learn is to watch a million films.’

LS: ‘Have readings along the way, hear the words come out of actors’ mouths.’

TG talked about a discussion he had with a novelist – TG had told the novelist that when he writes, he acts everything out – as you work you’re imagining, pretending the film. The novelist replied, ‘That’s not what I do, it’s just words.’

TG discussed whether this was the difference between novel-writing and screenwriting.

PS: ‘The one way to get noticed is to write something different.’

MIA BAYS: ‘A lot of first-timers write what they see getting made – look for the gap in the market.’

TG: ‘It’s so much about choosing the people you want to work with.

LS: ‘There’s so much evolution at every stage of the process – the more you realise it’s an ever-changing organism the happier you’re going to be as a screenwriter.’


TG: ‘When I first got notes, I found it very hard. I still find it hard…Notes that ask questions are more useful than solutions. I’ve kicked against notes then later taken them on…Be confident enough to HEAR the notes – even the dumb ones…The producer should help you with the filtering of notes.’

‘Film is what you want it to be. If it works. The ‘rules’ are designed to prevent you trying new things.’

LG: On her first feature she got feedback from a screenwriter friend. Most of these notes were in the form of questions. ‘I couldn’t have done it without her.’ In the finished film this writer was credited as ‘script guru.’

‘Often an intense reaction means it’s a good note.’ ‘Kill your darlings’ – it is brutal’

PS: ‘It’s taken a while to get to disagreeing with notes. I’ve used dialogue less as I’ve gone on.’

LG: ‘The amount of dialogue depends on the nature of the story. But different styles suit different stories.’ She discussed how her film HER SISTER’S SISTER had a lot of dialogue – and a lot of improvised dialogue – but this was right for that film. ‘I’ve made three films which were basically just people talking.’


LS: ‘I love back-story. Essential for actors to have that history, that sense of self.’ About writing characters: ‘Become a professional people watcher.’ She has recorded real conversations then analysed and dissected them to try and learn how real people talk.

TG: ‘Character is what they do, or choose not to do.’

PS: ‘Practice projecting yourself into someone else, into your characters.’

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Woody Allen


Thank you for all the responses to my BROADCHURCH blog of last week – both via the website, by email and particularly via TWITTER.

Speaking of which – if you don’t follow me on twitter, then please do!


I tweet regularly about my courses, my blog, my script consultancy, what I’m up to, shows that I’ve enjoyed, and anything that grabs my interest in the world of drama, writing, film, TV and theatre.

I’m a relatively recent convert to twitter (thank you @OrnaRoss !) but I think it’s a really useful, interesting resource – I find out so much interesting stuff via twitter that I’d otherwise never find out – and I also get in touch with people who I’d otherwise not – if you follow the right \ interesting people, it can be a highly valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.


A reminder about forthcoming courses \ events –


Our London course May 11-12 now has only two places left – so please book soon if you’re interested as it’s highly unlikely these 2 slots will be available after the weekend.

And we’re also booking for our July 13-14 London course where our special guest is Pathe UK creative executive BRADLEY QUIRK. Bradley previously worked at the UK Film Council and the British Film Institute so he has an unparalleled overview of the writers market in UK feature films


Finally Jim Hill from the De Montfort University Leicester TV Scriptwriting MA course has asked me to remind you about their forthcoming London Comedy Writers Day on May 18th. They have lined up some great guest speakers – including Jesse Armstrong, Laurence Marks, James Cary.

Here’s a link to more information –

Until next week

All the best



twitter: @philipshelley1

May 3rd 2013