Necessary shitness

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The first draft of anything is shit. Everyone knows that. But how far does that shitness extend? Is it just the first draft of a script? Or can you extend it to a scene? Or a line?

I’m always acutely aware that as we progress towards and even through production any rewrites are effectively first drafts. Anything which hangs over from the first full draft of the script will be rewritten, tweaked and massaged 50 times. Anything which is inserted on the set, minutes before being filmed will be a first draft.

The first thing I thought of.

The shit.

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Sometimes not. Sometimes those things turn out to be the best bits of the entire film. Hopefully the script is robust enough to cope with having the odd scene yanked out and replaced at a moment’s notice.

But still I worry.

Not about being shit. Or writing shit. But about letting people down.

Actually, no. That’s not true. I don’t feel like I’m letting someone down if the first draft of a new scene isn’t perfect because that’s a silly expectation. The first draft isn’t going to be perfect and I know that. The thing I worry about is does the client know that?

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When I get asked for a last minute replacement scene or line of dialogue, do they remember the five or six years we spent pummeling the script into a half-decent shape? Do they remember all the dead ends we strolled confidently along, absolutely certain that this time we’d cracked it? Do they remember all those drafts which just didn’t work or made the script worse than it was before? Do they remember the u-turns and the climbing down from our respective high horses when we realised our most cherished inclusions were dragging the whole thing under?

Or do they just look at the current draft, the one which seems perfect and flawless and beautiful and wonder why anything new added to it can’t immediately achieve the same standard?

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I hope not.

I hope they understand the first draft of anything new is just a thumbnail sketch, a rough edit to act as a starting point. It’s a talking point, a jumping off point for a discussion.

Basically, I don’t want them to think that that’s the best I can do.

Which sounds odd. As if I’m not really trying on the first draft of any new line or scene … but I am. I try really hard and the results will always be fair to middling. Even though I’m trying my hardest, that isn’t the best I can do because it isn’t the end of the process, it’s the beginning.

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Or at the very least a temporary midpoint. A way of saying “I’ve penciled stuff in, speak now before I ink the bastard”.

I really don’t mind being told something I’ve written is terrible. I do mind a client thinking it can’t be improved upon. Or more specifically, I can’t improve on it.

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Something on my mind? No, no, no.

Why yes, I am currently waiting for notes on a couple of projects. How did you know?

Categories: My Way, Writing and life | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Vanishing point

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I once accidentally got involved in a discussion/argument about the midpoint of Back to the Future.

It was one of those pointless online scriptwriting debates where lots of people who’ve never sold scripts harangue each other for not following rules laid down by other people who have also never sold scripts and have instead taken to writing books about how people can achieve successful writing careers by following the advice which didn’t work for them.

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For some reason (call it capricious youth, call it naivety, call it shit-stirring) I chipped in with my opinion:

The midpoint in Back to the Future is when Doc Brown points at the audience and says “We’re sending you back to the future.” The reason I think that’s the midpoint is because that’s where the intermission was in the cinema … so it’s probably roughly halfway through.

I got called a lot of names.

Actually, I don’t think I did. I think people just disagreed … but that doesn’t sound as interesting as the version where everyone except me is an idiot. Despite the precise opposite being true in almost every case.

Some people thought the midpoint came a few sentences later when the characters realise Marty’s past is disappearing.

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Others thought it was at the end of the scene when Marty accidentally outshines George in the town square/skateboard bit.

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Others still thought it was later on again, when Marty fails to get Lorraine interested in George and they come up with the new plan to get them to kiss on the dance floor.

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Yet more people thought it was when Marty threatened to melt George’s brain.

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One or two even thought it was earlier when Marty finally managed to persuade Doc to listen to him. An upbeat midpoint.

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I believe there was even one lone voice who insisted (quite vocally, possibly in ALL CAPS) that the midpoint comes when Doc realises it’s impossible to generate the 1.21 gigawatts needed for time travel.

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At the time I remember distinctly not caring.

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But it’s been playing on my mind ever since.

Well, not ever since. Occasionally. When I’ve got nothing better to do. Or when I have got better things to do and don’t want to do them.

It’s not that I think I was right (which is weird – I always think I’m right) and don’t get me wrong, I still don’t care … but my not caring has become the point. For me.

I don’t think these points should be points. I don’t really like having a specific frame of film I can point at and go “Aha! That’s the inciting incident!”

Or the midpoint or the ‘all is lost’ moment or … you know, stuff.

Apart from those times where the midpoint is a twist or shock reveal which throws the film onto a completely different path … I think these story points should be kind of smeared out.

To me, a midpoint isn’t point, it’s curve. It’s where the story changes trajectory because sustaining the pursuit of one goal for the entire second act is a tricky thing to do.

Something happens which either knocks the protagonist off course or changes their goals. Or introduces a new goal they have to accomplish before they can achieve their original one.

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Sometimes these are instant, right-angle changes … but more often than not they’re a slight change of course. Sort of heading towards the original goal but on a tangential path. Or maybe a parallel one?

A single event may initiate that course correction but more often than not several things have to happen to push the protagonist onto the new course. The curved path between course A and course B is a constant state of change during which the protagonist tries to stay on course A like a satnav refusing to accept the driver is trying to avoid the A259 … before finally (and grumpily. I’m sure my satnav gets the hump) accepting the new route home.

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In other words, it’s not an obvious text-book point. It’s a gentle, organic change from one state of play to another. The midpoint I scribbled on an index card at the beginning of the process becomes a scene or a sequence, smearing the point out over several pages of script.

I kind of see that as my job, to make clear and identifiable points and then hide them in the flesh of the piece. The changes should feel surprising but also inevitable. They should feel like there was no other way for that change to happen … but not stand out as a plot point we were aiming to hit precisely on page 55.

I like my stories to have smooth transitions from one act to another rather than sharp and spiky points which flag themselves as screenwriting 101.

Except when I don’t.

Sometimes that shock twist or reveal is the best thing for the story. I guess each story defines its own type of plot points.

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So in the case of Back to the Future – who was right? Where is the midpoint?

Well … all of the above. Surely? All of those things contribute to a change of direction and a new goal for the character. All of those things happen somewhere in the middle and the fact no one can agree on which one is THE one is kind of the point.

At least I think it is anyway.

Bullshit or not?

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’ll end it on a largely unconnected anecdote. My six-year-old daughter watched all three Back to the Futures on consecutive weekends. During the third film, Doc Brown tells Marty to take the time machine back to 1985 and dismantle it. My daughter made me stop the film and demanded to know why he wanted the time machine destroyed?

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“Well,” says I, “you remember in the second film when Biff got hold of the time machine? He changed everything didn’t he? He made it all bad and Doc doesn’t want that to happen again.”

My daughter thought that was silly:

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“He doesn’t have to destroy it though, does he? Why doesn’t he just put a lock on it? It could be an electric lock with a voice thing so you have to say ‘Hello, this is Doc’ or ‘Hello, this is Marty’ and the door would open. But if you didn’t say it then it would electrocute you and kill you.”

Which, as points go, is a damned fine one … and one I wish I’d thought of.

A bit like this watch:

I’m going to stop now. Choco-delirium has set in.

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Everything that follows is a lie

I went to see Focus at some point prior to writing this post and it was … alright. Entertaining enough. Sort of.

I thought it suffered in a couple of ways. One movie-specific, the other genre-inherent.

Oh …

SPOILERS FOR FOCUS

POSSIBLY

BUT PROBABLY NOT

The movie-specific problem was a lack of through line throughout the script. There was no clear goal for the protagonist, no indication of what he wanted or needed and (crucially) when he will have achieved it.

In other words, it’s a bit like watching a race and not knowing if it’s a 100 metre sprint or a marathon. Or possibly a triathalon. Or maybe they’re all running to a pasty shop? If you don’t know when the race will be over, it’s hard to build tension towards the end or care about whether or not the protagonist will win.

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I’m aware not everyone wants this in a film, but I do. I like to know where the finishing post is … and then be surprised at how the protagonist crosses it.

Or not. Not crossing the finishing line is fine too. Not saving the day or the guy or the girl or the city or yourself or … anything. That’s fine too. So long as I know what they meant to do.

Focus doesn’t seem to have that. Or if it does, it’s not apparent to me what it was. Which might be my failing rather than the film’s. To me, stuff just happened … for a bit. And then, at an undefined point … it stopped happening. Then it turned out to be carrying on for a bit. Then it really stopped. Then it started again a few years later … and then stopped again.

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Fun, entertaining stuff … but just stuff for no apparent reason all the same. Maybe it would be more fun the second time around?

The genre-inherent reason is more problematic and pretty much derailled the story for me.

And it’s this: it’s a heist movie. Specifically, it’s a conman heist movie.

Or conwoman.

Conperson movie.

Con movie. The whole movie is a con.

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The problem there is we all know how these movies work – nothing you see is real. Nobody is who they say they are and nothing they do or say is what you think they’ve done or said.

Nothing.

Don’t bother getting attached to any of the characters or invested in the plot because it’s not real. The movie is lying to you. Everyone on screen is lying to you. The filmmakers are challenging you to spot the lie.

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That police man? He’s working for them.

That older person? She’s someone’s parent.

That bank? It’s not a bank, it’s a fake bank.

They’re not in a taxi, it’s a lie.

That’s not a plane, it’s a lie.

It’s all lies. All of it. Nothing’s real. Believe nothing and trust no one!

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And that’s a problem for me. I find my brain making assumptions which aren’t right. Assumptions which obfuscate whatever character goals may or may not be present.

In Focus, I thought she was playing him from the beginning. I thought she might be a cop. I thought maybe he was a cop. Or maybe they both were and it was just a very badly planned operation.

None of those things happened …

WARNING!

THAT THING I JUST WROTE IS AN ANTI-SPOILER!

I JUST MADE THE FILM BETTER!

… but because I spent the whole film assuming one of them would, I didn’t bother getting invested in what was actually happening because I didn’t believe it was.

This might be the old age cliche kicking in – perhaps I’ve just seen too many of these kinds of films and it’s aimed at a younger audience who don’t expect these kinds of twists?

Yeah, maybe.

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But maybe we should be trying to compensate for this built in suspicion? Maybe the only way to effectively write a modern con movie is to start the con before the movie opens? Maybe the only way to nip this kind of audience detachment in the bud is to hide the fact you’re watching a con movie?

That’s what I’m doing with my current script. I’m not letting anyone know it’s a con performed by a conwoman until the very last scene. I’m giving her a completely false set of goals, problems and intentions … with a genuine need underpinning it all. She will never achieve any of the things she sets out to do because she never intended to do them.

The film can be marketed and sold as a completely different genre and (hopefully) no one will know what they’re really watching until the final image.

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Hopefully.

I don’t think that’s a unique solution and I know other films have done the same thing … but to me it’s an elegant solution which fixes a genre-inherent problem which may not even exist outside of my own brain.

But fuck it, it’s my brain and I want to write a movie which will fool me.

Basically, I’m running a con on myself.

Or am I?

Bullshit or not?

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The best is not enough

I caught a few episodes of Firefly on TV the other day and was suitably gobsmacked – I’d forgotten just how good it was.

I mean, I’ve always known it was awesome and I’ve blogged before about its connection to my descent into scriptwriting …

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…but I’d forgotten just how good it was. It’s truly exceptional and I’d say it’s got to be one of the best Sci-Fi shows (if not the best of all shows) ever made.

There are shows  I love more (Doctor Who for example) but, to me, nothing is as consistently good as Firefly was.

Every single person involved in Firefly was at the top of their game – dialogue, stories, characters, set design, actors, direction, music, costumes … just superb.

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And I find that really depressing. Firefly is the HTC of science fiction.

Every year HTC make (what most reviewers agree is) the best premium smartphone. In terms of features, design and software they’re ahead of the pack* – a perfect storm of loveliness wrapped in sheer beauty …

And no one buys them.

Well, not no one. Nearly no one.

I’ve had a few now, three in a row I think. Every 18 months I go looking for something different, because I have no brand loyalty and just fancy a change … and every time I end up buying another one because there doesn’t seem to be any competition.

Still, me aside, it’s near enough to no one to make it quite rare to see anyone toting one.

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Which must be incredibly frustrating for the HTC boffins – every year they make the best phone. Everyone tells them it’s the best phone … and they still can’t sell any.#

Okay, so a large part of that is down to advertising budgets. There tends to be a huge correlation between advertising spend and best selling phone. HTC don’t have the budget to compete with Samsung or Apple – the lower level of sales does make sense.

But damn it must be frustrating. Just knowing you’ve done the best you can do, that everyone involved is at the top of their game … only to find out your best isn’t good enough.

Just like Firefly.

I’m not as good a writer as Joss Whedon. I’m just not. There’s no shame in that. Just like there’s no shame in an animated movie not being as good as a Pixar one. Not being as good as someone who’s exceptional still leaves plenty of room for merely being better than good enough.

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That’s fine.

But if, as with Firefly, being that good still isn’t good enough … well, that’s just faintly depressing, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Maybe knowing something truly exceptional can still fail takes the pressure off? Maybe it’s a comforting thing?

Bullshit or not?

I mean, if Firefly and HTC can fail by being the best of the best, then maybe being lower down the scale and failing is fine too?

Maybe.

I don’t know.

What I do know is, although it’s a crying shame there will never be any more Firefly, there’s still half a season and a movie and that’s plenty of awesomeness to keep anyone happy.

If you haven’t experienced the awesomeness, it’s never too late:

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* In some areas well ahead, in some just a little ahead, in one or two a teensy bit behind. Everyone has a preference for OS or design and everyone’s opinion is correct because the reality is the difference between the top ten smart phones in any given year is so minimal it may as well not exist … but the general consensus, when rolled up into one uber-opinion, tends to favour an HTC over their competitors.

You may disagree … and you’re entitled to do so. You’re just wrong.

# Obviously they must sell some and indeed do sell plenty or they wouldn’t keep making them … it just feels like this sometimes. You’d think the phones  which consistently top the best phone charts would at least place somewhere in the top ten sales charts.

I would anyway.

Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Page thinking

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I appear to have two different ways of solving script problems – one is to just ignore it, let it fester and hope inspiration strikes; the other is to sit down with a pen and paper (or laptop and fingers) and work it out as if it were a maths problem.

I know writers who take great umbrage with one or the other of these approaches. Some who seem to believe it’s all art and inspiration, others who apparently think it’s all formula and beats and nuts and bolts.

Most, thankfully, realise it’s a mixture of the two.

Most art is, isn’t it?

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Carpentry, for example, has a lot of maths in it. There are a lot of angles and sums and calculations and possibly even trigonometry … but the end result (can be) a work of art. There’s inspiration in there, talent, craft and an underlying formula … isn’t scriptwriting the same?

Inspiration, letting your unconscious mind sort it all out, is one tool; pen and paper plotting, calculating what goes where in a logical manner, is another. Both are useful, in different contexts for different reasons.

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Generally, but not always, I find character and emotional stuff works best by just staring out the window or having a shower or watching the telly or otherwise just ignoring it until the answer gets pissed off and starts jumping up and down to get my attention.

Generally.

Plot stuff, on the other hand, the nitty gritty of what bit goes where and what beat I’m hitting when and the order of scenes – that stuff I find best to commit to pen and paper. That stuff is like quadratic equations to me – there’s too much information for me to hold in my head, jotting it down makes it easier to solve.

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I find it really useful to be able to switch approaches when solving a script problem. If mulling something over or talking it through with a writing friend doesn’t produce results, then maybe writing it all down in columns will?

Maybe what we need here is a spreadsheet or a table or a graph?

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And vice versa.

When the columns are all full and the answer is no clearer than it was five days ago, when plotting out the character’s emotional state or journey isn’t helping … give up. Maybe throwing all that stuff away and letting my mind wander will help?

Or maybe I should just write a totally pointless post just to annoy everyone else?

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Old age cliché

RiddleMeThis

When is a cliché not a cliché?

That’s not a riddle, by the way. It’s a question because I have no idea.

I know a cliché when I see one … but not always when I use one.

On occasion I’ve had people asserting something I’ve never seen before is a cliché even when they can’t give any examples of where or when it’s been used.

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But, you know, I know that does happen sometimes.

I know there are some campfire tales which are so widespread that no one could get away with using them in a script … or at least get away with claiming they came up with them. But sometimes I’m surprised by what people consider a cliché without being able to list either specific stories or specific characters.

This surprises me more the older I get, because as younger people roll up to give me notes, I would expect them to recognise less clichés rather than more.

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We all know, for example, that escaping in a ventilation duct is a cliché. Everyone knows that, no one would even consider using it in a film … except the people who do.

Why on Earth would anyone do that though when it’s such an overused cliché? Not just a cliché, an overused one. A double cliché, if you like?

Well … my daughter’s six and she wouldn’t consider that a cliché. She doesn’t really know what a cliché is and even if she did, she probably hasn’t seen anything where anybody uses a duct to escape something.

So does that mean it’s okay for people writing scripts aimed at six-year-olds to use the vent-duct cliché?

I mean, apart from the fact it’s fundamentally stupid and wouldn’t work?

Is there a statute of limitations on clichés?

Again, I don’t know, I’m genuinely asking.

As we get older, do more things seem like clichés? Do we inadvertently limit ourselves by avoiding clichés our potential audiences have never seen?

I think I’ve written a similar post to this before about jokes … but I can’t be arsed to look for it and it might have been a dream anyway. So take clams – the jokes which seem fresh and funny but quickly go off.

“He’s behind me, isn’t he?”
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Another joke I can’t be bothered to think of.”

Are these off the table forever?

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Or do we just have to wait ten years or so? Can we use them in kids’ stuff? Is it even a problem anyway?

Who are the people who complain about clichés?

Scriptwriters, critics and people on the Internet who think they’re critics?

Writers spend a disproportionate amount of time watching films and TV and trying not to do anything anyone else has done. Critics and Interneters just do the first bit.

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Are these people representative of the audience as a whole? Should we be taking their (and our) opinion as to what is or isn’t a cliché as gospel?

Or should we accept that the majority of the audience find these things funny or inventive years after people with too much screen-time on their eyes are bored of them?

Yet again, I don’t know. Just thinking in public.

When The Matrix came out – every damned concept or idea in that film was a hoary old cliché from a Century or so of science fiction pulps … yet people loved it because it (the first one! Just the first one!) was incredibly well done and packaged in a new way and, most importantly, watched by people who had never, ever come across those concepts before.

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It literally blew people’s minds.

Science fiction fans, on the other hand, could happily list a half-dozen books with the same concepts and point out (in dreary detail) that every long running sci-fi TV show has at least one episode with the same set up. Along with an episode where the characters end up in a parallel dimension and one where two (or more) of the major characters swap bodies.

Imagine if the Wachowskis had brought that script to me:

“Yeah, well it’s well written and all … but you’re clearly just ripping off Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin. Can’t you think of something original?”

That, by the way, is why I’m not a development exec – I’d be fucking terrible at it.

So the question remains – should we as writers avoid all clichés forever more? Or is it acceptable to reanimate the classics after a certain rest period? Maybe each individual writer should be allowed to use each cliché exactly once? Or maybe individual writers should avoid the clichés they recognise, but not get bent out of shape when script-ociety as a whole keeps using them?

I don’t know

All I know is that’s more than one question and I wish I had some answers.

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Categories: Industry Musings | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Failing towards success

WARNING!

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR BIG HERO 6

… OR IT MAY NOT.

I DON’T KNOW, I HAVEN’T WRITTEN IT YET.

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Over the half-term my family and I watched Big Hero 6 and we loved it. We thought it was exciting and emotional and hilarious and … well, all the things we expect from a Disney and/or Pixar film.

Following on from last week, it can quite clearly be broken down into thing/reason chunks and just generally hit each emotional beat bang on. It’s the kind of movie I’d love to be writing.More than that, it was written in a manner I’d love to be able to employ. I don’t know if you know how Disney/Pixar write their animations, if you do then there’s no new insight here. If you don’t it’s well worth checking out Jeff Goldsmith’s The Q&A Podcast:

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This isn’t the first time the process has been mentioned in the podcasts, but I was listening to it this morning (which was last week some time in your universe) and once again it struck me how much I’d love to write movies that way.

If you haven’t come across this yet then basically the writer(s) write their script (with input at every stage – outline, treatment, script -from The Braintrust: a whole bunch of writers, directors and animators and other clever people) …

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… and then hand it over to be roughly animated in a kind of big-screen flickbook with temp voices and soundtrack.

Once they have a watchable film, everyone piles in, watches it and tears it to pieces.

The writers take whatever’s left, whatever everyone agrees are the good bits along with suggestions from everyone present, go away and begin the process again.

They do this half a dozen times or so. I think they did it eight times for Big Hero 6.

Eight times.

Eight times they ‘made’ the movie, screened it and then tore it apart and started again.

Eight. Times.

Over several years. Three, I think in this case.

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That’s not eight drafts of the script. Each scratch-movie goes through several drafts of the script before being animated.

Some people might find that soul-destroying, but I find it wonderful. An impossible dream, an environment where you’re expected to make mistakes. Over and over. An environment where everyone just wants the script to be right before they start spending serious money on it.

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Okay, so I know that’s kind of what happens with every script – you write a draft, it gets notes, you write it again … but that’s just not the same as seeing it on the screen before you.

I’ve had the opportunity to do endless rewrites on a project and it (usually) produces good results – providing the people I’m working for have the best interests of the story at heart.

I’ve also had situations where the first thing I’ve written has been filmed. Sometimes without my knowledge.

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I’ve written on projects where my first draft, the horribly rough one I haven’t even had time to spellcheck, the one which makes no fucking sense whatsoever, has been sent out to investors and cast and directors and … yeah, that’s not good.

I’ve written for people whose company motto is ‘get it right first time or you’re sacked’. You get one crack at this and I want it by tomorrow!

That rarely goes well.

What I’ve never had is anyone telling me it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to just take your time, meander in and out of blind alleys and dead ends and let’s just see where this thing goes.

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‘Failing towards success’ is how Robert L. Baird or possibly Paul Briggs described it. And I like that idea.

I know it’s not really practical in live action to make and remake the film eight times … but, actually, why not? Why can’t you make a flick-book version before you go out and film it?

I mean, I know things go wrong on set and have to be abandoned or the actors insist on improvising so much they miss the point of the story or directors want the freedom to suddenly decide to shoot the sun-tan scene at midnight because it looks cool.

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But in principle, wouldn’t every film benefit from having test-screening before anyone’s stumped up $100,000,000 for something which fundamentally doesn’t make any sense?

Reading scripts is hard. Even people who are good at it and are good at giving notes still miss glaring mistakes which are obvious when you’re sat watching the movie. A joke on the page may be amazing … until you realise what or who they’re saying it in front of. Or how what they’re wearing affects what you feel about them.

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Test screenings and reshoots help catch those^ but while you may be able to reshoot a few scenes or even a whole sequence, you can’t rewrite the entire script from scratch to incorporate newer, better ideas. To a large degree, whatever you have at the end of the shoot is what you have to make a movie out of – regardless of how little sense it may make.

I love the idea of being able to fail fast and fail early in complete safety, knowing that’s the entire point: make your mistakes now so we don’t have to fix them (or lump them) later on.

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I love the idea of multiple notes from mulitple sources all of whom want your script to succeed.

But most of all, I love the idea of being able to write a draft, seeing it on the big screen and then being able to have a second, third or eighth crack at it.

That, to me, sounds like heaven.

I’d like to do that, please.

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* I have written things like this, one of them seems to be gaining a bit of traction … but then these things always seem to be when all you get is the occasional producer update.

^ I’ve writte quite a few movies where, not only are they not test-screened, but the producers don’t let anyone (sometimes including the director) see the edit until it’s released … by which time it’s too late. That’s quite frustrating, especially when there’s a simple bit of dialogue you could have ADR’d which would have made the story seem less implausible. Or shit.

Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | Leave a comment

Reasons and things


Story

I may have said all this before, I may not. To be honest I tend to get a bit confused nowadays and can often be found wandering the aisles of my local supermarket in my pants demanding to know where Kevin went.

But that’s another story for another time.

What I may or may not have said before is this:

I’ve been thinking about structure a lot recently and looking for shortcuts to my writing process which I can apply to scripts/stories which don’t appear to be working properly.

As I said last week, I like the three act structure. It makes sense to me … but it’s fairly useless when it comes to writing a script because it’s the story-telling equivalent of saying this is how it begins, then some stuff happens for ages, then this is how it ends.

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 09.00.14

I’m quite fond of looking at animated features when I’m musing on structure because I think they tend to get it right far more frequently than anyone else (Pixar/Disney in particular) so I was delighted when the excruciatingly awesome Michelle Lipton pointed me in the direction of this by Michael Arndt:

Which pretty much sums up how I think about beginnings but using much more better wordences than what I can.

That’s the first act sorted … but what about the rest of the film?

To me writing a script is a process of breaking it down into ever smaller chunks. A sentence which sums up what’s going on becomes four bits (act one, act two (a), act two (b) and act three) which becomes eight bits which becomes umpteen scenes which finally becomes 100+ pages.

At each stage, I try to find names for the bits.

Well, not the pages. I rarely name the pages. Unless I’m feeling exceptionally procrastinaty: Anna, Bruce, Caitlin, Devon … only 106 more to go!

animal_naming_cartoon

At the four-bit stage I’ve taken to experimenting with:

SET-UP
WRONG THING/WRONG REASON
RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON
RIGHT THING/RIGHT REASON

… which seems to work for me. Now I know in the grand scheme of things this is equally unhelpful for creating a story, but it helps me to break the story into chunks so something changes goal/personality-wise on the long plod through the second act.

Are-We-There-Yet

Take The Incredibles as an example (because it’s superb). The set up follows Michael Arndt’s video (more or less. Mostly more) and establishes Mr Incredible needs to come to terms with the loss of being a superhero and the gain of having a family. Or perhaps integrate the two?

WRONG THING/WRONG REASON – Mr Incredible lies to his family and sneaks off to be a superhero again. This gets him into a lot of trouble and puts his family in danger.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – working together, they beat the bad guys and get off the island. This gets his family out of danger … but isn’t the answer. When they get back to the city, Bob is still trying to keep his family life/super life separate. He’s still driven by fear.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – only by fully merging his two lives and allowing his family to help him can they work together to beat the bad guy. He can be a family guy AND a superhero!

img_eRTCnP

Wreck It Ralph’s another great example:

THE SET UP – Ralph wants to be accepted by the ‘good’ people in the game. He wants to be thought of a hero.

WRONG THING/WRONG REASON – he tries to steal a medal because he thinks that’s what make the Nicelanders like Felix. He can’t see the cause preceding the effect.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – Ralph helps Venelope attain her goal for purely selfish reasons, to get the medal back. He’s doing what a hero would do, but not why the hero would do it.

RIGHT THING/RIGHT REASON – Ralph tries to sacrifice himself to save not just Venelope but the entire arcade. He is a hero.

imagesdissonance-man

I’m not sure if this always applies to all stories, but it seems to apply to the kind of films I like to watch and tends to be a useful tool to get me thinking about my own stories.

I don’t really believe in universal rules or solutions … but I do believe in stocking my toolbox with a variety of ways of getting the job done and at the moment this appears to be working for me, so … you know … it might be worth a go?

images

Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 3 Comments

Three acts – why not?

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This week I’ve been listening to/reading about writers who rail against a three act structure – it doesn’t apply to my art, it’s constrictive, it’s prescriptive, it’s just plain bollocks …

I’ve never quite understood the problem. To me the three acts are BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END … don’t all stories have those?

Except Mr and Mrs Smith, which I seem to remember just stops at the end of the middle.*

2012-07-13-Happy-Ending

But generally, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t they? They might not follow chronologically, but all three bits should be there.

“Aha!” people exclaim, righteously pleased with themselves for having out-thunk me ” MOMENTO doesn’t follow the three act structure and that’s a great film!”

Well, yes it is … but it still has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is a murder, the middle is a ‘why did/will he do it’? and the end is when the story concludes and we understand what did/will happen.

Still three bits to my brain.

mybrainhurts

Generally the beginning and the end are shorter than the middle, that makes sense to me.

Beginning: this is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.

Middle: this is all the things they go through trying to get the thing they want.

End: they get it. Or don’t, in a way which is fairly permanent.

That’s it, three acts.

5d439c729d120d965b6b9fd6c89c8b8c

“Aha!”

Oh fuck, it’s him again.

“Shakespeare wrote in five acts and Shakespeare is awesome so therefore the three act structure is wrong!”

Well … maybe. I don’t have any Shakespeare to hand (at the time of writing this) but I’m fairly certain those five acts will divide up into beginning, middle and end.

Maybe acts one and two are the beginning, three and four are the middle and five is the end? Or some other combination, but I’m fairly certain there’ll always be three bits.

eaabecec544536861603cef987350aa3

Every time I read someone who propounds a five act structure, on closer examination there turns out to be three acts broken into smaller bits. People break the beginning into two bits: before and after some kind of inciting incident (which seems to be what Shakespeare does, if memory serves). Then they break the middle into two bits and call them different things. Five act people rarely seem to divide up the end, but sometimes they do.

The other advice which comes with the three act structure is exactly that: chuck in an inciting incident halfway through the first act – in other words, introduce us to the main character before you start changing things for them. After the inciting incident, maybe have them worried about accepting that change before taking the plunge?

the-change-curve (1)

In the middle, maybe consider changing something around halfway through? It’s a fuck-long way from the beginning to the end, so maybe get to halfway and pull the rug out from under them? Or in someway alter the story to stop it being monotonous?

At the end of the middle, it’s dramatically satisfying to make the audience thing everyone is fucked. Then they win. Maybe.

That’s all the three act structure is … but still people rail against it and I think the problem is the word ‘act’ – it’s either misleading or completely the wrong word.

images (1)

What is an act?

To me, it’s a place where you could cut to an ad break or close the curtains for an interval or otherwise just pause for a da-da-daaaaaaa! moment.

And that’s it.

I guess we should feel free to divide it up anyway we like to help us write it … but when we’re discussing it with anyone, it helps to think in three acts because the three act structure is just a codified way of talking about the components of a film. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end … with a few handy signposts along the way which *most* satisfying stories hit.

Most. Not all, just most.

So why is the idea of a beginning a middle and an end so offensive to some writers?

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* Lots of films seem to struggle with the concept of a beginning, middle and end. Like HANCOCK which has a beginning, middle, end and then another beginning, middle and end. Or CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER which has a very clear beginning, middle and end … and then carries on for another hour because there are apparently there are still story-extraneous Nazis who need punching.
The lesson I learnt from these is to try to put the end of the story at the end of the film. Like all lessons, it’s easier to say than to do.
Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 3 Comments

Fancy free

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The other day I heard Footloose described as a guilty pleasure.

Why? Why is liking Footloose a guilty pleasure? What’s wrong with Footloose?

Some people seem to think it’s this cheesy teen dance-movie … but have you actually sat down and watched it beginning to end recently? It’s an awesome movie with some really nuanced and poigniant moments.

Okay, so there’s the cheesy “I’m so pissed off I have to dance” moment. And there’s a cheesy-ish montage. And maybe the final dance is a bit cheesy … but overall the film really isn’t.

To me, Footloose feels like it was meant to be cheesy, like Dean Pitchford was given the assignment (I don’t think it was an assignment, I think it was a spec – loosely based on a real story, if memory serves) of writing a cheesy teen-dance movie and instead handed in a script which is all grey areas and no absolutes.

No one in the film is right or wrong. There’s no villain. John Lithgow is, nominally, the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy by any means.

fhd984FLE_John_Lithgow_006

All the characters have satisfying arcs … except Sarah Jessica Parker, but … fuck it, you can’t have everything.

Take some of the potentially more cliched scenes:

The love-interest’s boyfriend shows he’s the unsuitable suitor by hitting her.

Well, yes … but actually she hits him first. The scene starts with him pissed off at her because he thinks she’s cheating on him … which she is. She hits him. He hits her back. She smashes up his truck. He loses his temper and hits her again to make her stop.

Violence is (almost) always wrong … but who’s in the right in that scene? Is it good girl/bad guy or is it more nuanced than that?

What about the town hall scene?

Kevin Bacon makes an impassioned speech to the council about dancing, using their terms and their religious text to make his point. A more cheesy film would have him win and then go straight to the dance … but he doesn’t win. He loses. You rarely change people’s mind with one speech, no matter how impassioned. Life’s not really like that and neither’s Footloose – so it takes a more difficult route to the final dance.

Kevin Bacon (sort of wins) when he goes to ask John Lithgow if he can take his daughter to the dance … but John Lithgow isn’t humiliated. He’s not taught a lesson and he doesn’t really change his mind – he’s still terrified and uncertain at the end.

litgow-wiest-before

Every scene is like that. Nothing’s clear cut. It’s not pro-teen, adults are stupid. It’s not dancing is the be-all and end all of living. It’s not even chock full of super-amazingly good looking people. I mean, yeah, it’s a Hollywood movie and everyone’s attractive … but no one looks like a model.

I love it. It’s a genuinely great movie with a few cheesy moments and 80’s songs … but it’s easily one of my favourite films and one I can watch again and again and again.

In lesser hands it would have been a cheesy piece of shit. It sounds shit … but it’s really not. And it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure – it should be a fucking joy to behold for everyone.

Plus, if you don’t at least tap your feet to the theme tune then you’re clinically dead.

Categories: Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Leave a comment

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