A time and a place

Somebody once said that “comedy has a time and a place”, meaning that specificity is funnier than ambiguity.

At least, that’s what I think it means.

Sitcoms should be set somewhere, not just a generic town but Surbiton or East Cheam or Torquay. Locating the characters in a physical location helps define them, the range of stories and the type of humour.

They should also be set some-when. This is something I feel quite strongly about, not just where comedy is concerned but for all genres. When I read a script the first thing I want to know is when it’s set. It’s hard to get a decent mental image of someone ‘dressed in their Sunday best’ or ‘polishing his new car’* if you’ve no idea whether the script is set in the ’20s or the present day.

I expect to read the time period in brackets at the end of the first scene header.^ If someone doesn’t include the time then I guess it could be read as default Present Day, but just like a story where you don’t see a character’s face makes me suspect it’s a character who’s being deliberately kept secret, not reading the time period makes me wonder if it’s a deliberate trick.

Now I’m expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me, if it doesn’t happen it’s always faintly unsettling. On screen you can see instantly roughly when a story is set (assuming it’s not opening at a present day ’80s fancy dress party or something) so why not mention it right off the bat?

Similarly, keeping the location vague rarely makes it feel inclusive because either that place looks like your home town or it doesn’t.# Knowing where in the world the story takes place as quickly as possible helps the viewer concentrate on the story.

I’ve been watching two TV programmes recently which having confusing time periods: Sex Education and Star Trek: Discovery.

The first episode of Sex Education confused the hell out of me. The adults are wearing ’50s clothes in their ’50s houses. The kids are wearing ’70s clothes. Except those kids who are wearing ’80s clothes, driving a new ’90s car. The school looks American but everyone’s talking in an English accent. The English accented Head Boy is even wearing an American Jacket.

When the fuck is this set? And where? What am I watching?

Which is fine, I guess. For some reason this is the look they wanted for the show: deliberately confusing. The problem I have is while I’m being confused by all the visuals I’m not concentrating on the characters or the story. I’m not empathising with anyone because I’m trying to figure out the basic details, the minimum information I need to get started.

I’m not sure this is a great idea.

Similarly, ST: Discovery – what the fuck is going on there? Two seasons in and I still keep wondering why it’s a prequel? I mean, why? What possible benefit is there to telling a prequel story when everything on screen tells you it’s set sometime after Voyager? It’s almost like they got to the end of production before someone decided to make it a prequel.

“But it’s clearly a sequel, it looks nothing like the pre-Kirk era.”

“Fuck it, it’ll be fine. Just change the dates on the screen. Ooh! And call those new aliens Klingons!”

“The aliens which look and act nothing like Klingons?”

“Yeah, fuck it. Just dub everything into Klingon. People won’t notice.”

I just don’t understand why? So they can introduce Spock’s hitherto unspoken of sister? Why is she Spock’s sister? Why is that important? What does it add beyond a quick nod of recognition followed by weeks of … wait a minute. It’s not even like they’re filling in any details we’ve longed to hear about for years.

I mean, at least the Star Wars prequels told the origins of characters we already knew. I’ve always thought a Star Trek series set aboard Pike’s or April’s Enterprise would be cool. I felt ’90s ST became a little too utopian for effective drama, all those well balanced, nice people weren’t great for storytelling. A prequel show has the opportunity to be a little more ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’. Less tech is more interesting, let’s see how they cope without stuff … but a prequel with more tech?

I guess the difference between these examples (at least for me, I’m aware my opinion isn’t valid outside my own head) is I care about the characters in Sex Education. I relate to half of them and can see my friends reflected in the rest. It may not look or feel like anywhere I’ve ever lived but the characters feel familiar and once I’d gotten over the weirdly conflicting visual information I was hooked.

Discovery, not so much. I mean, the characters are okay … but they keep doing nonsensical things which make it hard for me to believe in them. I think the show has many problems (and the odd nugget of joy) but a good chunk of them would be resolved by not being the prequel it doesn’t look like.

I guess the point I’m trying to make (apart from character is king) is why add more confusion than is necessary to tell the story? If something’s not meant to be a mystery, don’t make it one. Don’t deliberately try to confuse the audience$ about things which don’t need to be confusing.

Not knowing when or where something is set is disorientating. If there’s no story need for doing it, why do it?


Was it Galton and/or Simpson? Or maybe Barry Cryer? I can’t remember. Maybe it was me? Sounds a bit too clever for me.

* I would never write something like this because a car tells you a lot about a person. The kind of person who polishes a new Ford Ka is a very different to the kind who’s just bought a new Lamborghini. Probably. Unless they’re the kind of person who’s got one of every car ever made, in which case they might be equally happy with whatever they’ve bought.

Maybe.

^ Which, I suppose, makes it the second thing I want to know since it immediately follows the location.

# I think this is only true of a story which takes place in your home country. Or one you know well. As a kid I had no concept that Hill Valley was geographically adrift because I just assumed all American towns look like that. Take the town in Gremlins, for example, that looks nearly identical!+

+ Yes, I know. That’s the joke.

$ Or me. Don’t try to confuse me. I confuse easily and then cry about it.

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In defence of traditional martial arts

I want to take a break from my regular scriptwriting rambling to talk about one of my other passions, martial arts. I may find some vague link to writing at the end, but probably not.

If you’re not involved in the world of hitting people for fun there’s a weird running argument online about the value of traditional martial arts, (things like Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, Taekwondo … etc). The main thrust of the argument is that they’re inherently useless because nothing except for MMA or possibly Brazilian Jujitsu will win a fight. Maybe boxing at a push.

I tend to disagree with this. I’ve trained in a few different martial arts over the last couple of decades, picking up the odd back belt here and there. I’m currently learning Tiger Crane Kung Fu from Neil Johnson in Lewes and will (hopefully) continue to do so until one of us gives up or dies.

One of my black belts is in what the internet deems the ‘most useless’ of martial arts, Aikido. You can never win a fight with Aikido, goes the refrain.

I have two issues with this line of thinking.

1) How do you define useless?

At no point during my Aikido training did I think I would eventually be able to use it to square up to a trained professional in a ring and win a fight. I did it because I enjoyed, because it made me happy, because I made friends doing it, because we used to stop in the middle for a biscuit and a cuppa, because it kept me supple and active, because the black skirt looks like Darth Vader’s, because my Sensei was a lovely, lovely bloke, because … well, lots and lots of reasons really.

It was so clearly not a fighting art that it wasn’t even taught as a martial art, it was taught as a physical philosophy. My classes were intended to be physical exercises which helped promote a way of thinking about life and confrontations. The principles of Aikido work equally well in verbal confrontations as in physical ones and I use them to improve my interactions with people on a daily basis.

As fun as Aikido was, Kung Fu has always been my first love (Lau Gar from Carl Jones in Swansea, Wing Tsun from Paul Hawkes in Crawley and Lau Gar again from Carl Sims in Brighton before switching to Tiger Crane – each change being necessitated because either I or my instructor moved rather than me being fickle!) Kung Fu doesn’t really have a direct translation into English (or so I’m told), it kind of means ‘good health’ or ‘self improvement’ or something like that.

I tend to like the idea of it meaning ‘self improvement’. This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of a martial art. I think humans are happier when their life has direction, that we all need achievement and progression to be happy, whether that comes from work or a hobby. Martial arts help provide that, you’re always working towards something, improving on old skills whilst learning new ones. You have grades or belts to achieve, giving you a way of marking your progress over time.

Kung Fu is a fighting art, yes, but more than that it promotes health, vitality and fitness. It’s good for both physical and mental health, for concentration and confidence. I’ve seen students start a class barely able to look people in the eye but a few years later have the wherewithal to actually interact with humanity.

Fighting is a game for the young, Kung Fu can be practised for an entire lifetime and can help extend that lifetime. I struggle to see this as ‘useless’.

Which brings me to my second niggle:

2) You can’t win a fight with traditional martial arts.

I suspect the problem here is the definition of the word ‘fight’.

What is a fight? Is it two highly trained professionals squaring up to each other in a ring? Or is it someone taking a swing at you in a pub? Is it a shoving match in a takeaway restaurant? Is it a verbal argument? Perhaps one that escalates?

Is it, maybe, all of these things?

Here in the UK we’ve spent the last two years screaming ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Leave means leave’ at each other without bothering to define what either of those things mean, rendering the whole argument pointless.

A ‘fight’ can be many things. Sometimes several different things in quick succession.

Could a twice-a-week Aikido practitioner hope to win a cage fight against a six-hours-a-day MMA fighter?

Probably not. Almost certainly not, but I guess nothing’s impossible.

Can someone use the principles of Aikido to deflect a drunken swing and immobilise an assailant?

Yes. I’ve done that. Was that a fight?

I’ve also stopped someone hitting me in a night club brawl simply by adopting a Kung Fu fighting stance. The guy in question was charging at me with his fist raised, as soon as I dropped into a fighting stance he stopped, lowered his fist and pretended to be interested in a nearby section of wall before selecting an easier target and hitting him instead. Was that a fight?

I’ve de-escalated a verbal argument which was getting very aggressive and threatening by calmly offering to fight both of the shouters. They backed down and then sent one of their girlfriends to apologise. Was that a fight? Did I win?

Did I win the fight when one of a group of teens attacked me and knocked me over? I performed an Aikido roll and came back up to my feet right in his face … at which point he shit himself and ran away. Who won that one?

None of these things are a ring fight, but all of them perhaps come under the umbrella term of ‘a fight’ in which traditional martial arts were useful. I’ve had people try to punch me and fail because I blocked it or stepped out of the way. Techniques which would never, ever work against a sober, trained fighter work perfectly well on a night out.*

I see people on YouTube debunking all sorts of breakaway techniques by grounding themselves in a firm stance and gripping someone in a completely static manner … and then looking smug when the technique fails. Which is a little bit like someone opining that a hammer is a useless tool because it can’t be used to change a plug.

The correct Aikido technique to use if someone grips you in a solid and completely static grip, tensing their muscles and holding on for dear life is to … wait. Maybe have chat until they get bored and let go? People who grab you with threatening intent will probably try to push or pull you or hit you with the other hand. Either don’t let them grab you or react to whatever else they’re doing. If they’re just holding you without doing anything else then maybe they want to be friends?

Most people I’ve ‘fought’ against in a real situation can barely stand up, not in a martial arts sense. They don’t have perfect footwork, they don’t have a balanced stance and they’re usually drunk. Almost any body movement, trained or not, throws them off balance or makes them fall over.§

I guess the other side of this argument comes from the people who think training a couple of nights a week in a traditional martial art makes them Bruce Lee or Batman or something. The kind of people who go on forums and yell ‘my art’s better than yours’ without ever having trained anything else. Or ‘we don’t compete because our art is too deadly!’ which always smacks of bullshit to me.

Some arts are better for fighting than others, but it’s  really more dependent on the person than the art. Realistically the only way to be great at fighting is to get into lots of fights.

If I have a point at all in this long ramble, it’s that traditional martial arts aren’t useless and they can be used to win a fight, depending on your definition of ‘useless’ and ‘fight’. If nothing else, martial arts should give you an understanding of balance, a stance to work from, the confidence to stand face to face with someone who’s aggressive, an awareness of how people move just before they hit you, a familiarity with being hit and the ability to react rather than freeze.

All of these things are useful, but perhaps not so useful as doing something you enjoy with people you like. I don’t really get into fights anymore. I’m never really in a situation where that sort of thing happens, but I still train because it’s fun and that to me is all the usefulness I need.


* Let’s be perfectly honest here, if you want to win most ‘street’ fights then your best  option is just to stay sober. You’re more likely to see trouble coming, less likely to inadvertently cause the trouble in the first place and it’s far, far cheaper than training all day every day.

Hurts less too.

† If you’ve let someone grip you and root themselves in a firm, static stance then you’ve done the equivalent of letting your opponent in chess take all of your pieces bar the King before you decide to make your first move. Mind you, if they settle into a static grip it’s a bit like they’ve got to that point and decided not to make any more moves anyway.

§ Which I guess is where the oft-touted wisdom of ‘most pub fights end up on the ground’ comes from. They probably do, mainly because neither person knows how to stay on their feet. I don’t want to end up on the ground. It’s dirty down there. I’ll stay standing while the other person sprawls on the floor, thank you very much.

‡ There was a Karate club in Swansea which used to engage in what they called Kingsway Katas on a Friday night after training (The Kingsway being a street with lots of pubs and clubs on it). Basically, under the watchful eye of their Sensei, they would go out after training, get drunk and get into fights. I’ve no doubt they won a lot of these fights … but fucking hell. These are the kind of people who watched The Karate Kid and thought Cobra Kai was a cool club.

I feel they’ve missed the point somewhat, but each to their own.

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In the background

 

A film script I’ve been writing has a second level of story which (hopefully) won’t be obvious on first viewing. It’s a story which reflects on the theme and deepens your understanding of the events, but happens almost exclusively in the background. The kind of thing which helps give a film longevity and makes people want to re-watch to see how much of it they’ve missed.

The problem with that is it’s all well and good having stuff on screen that happens solely in the background, but I find it tricky to do in a script. The act of writing it down draws attention to it. Writing IN THE BACKGROUND or WE’RE* NOT FOCUSING ON THIS, BUT … is all well and good, but you can’t read that stuff without paying attention.

Sure, you can bury it in a big chunk of text, but then people reading get annoyed because their brain keeps skipping over stuff. I know that’s the point, but annoying people isn’t.

So how do you do it?

No, seriously, how do you do it?

I tend to put that stuff in italics with a note to the reader on the first occurrence like:

We’re not focusing on this, but IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE: in the background there’s a giant rubber duck hiding behind a car. The audience probably won’t notice, the protagonist certainly doesn’t.

And from then on just title each unobserved piece with IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE:

But is there a better way?

What would you do?


*Oh no! I used a ‘we’ in an action line! But that breaks all the rules! I’ll be put up against the wall and shot! No one will ever buy my work again! Oh hang on … no, that’s right. No one cares. Sorry, as you were.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reading rules

I think one of the most important tools a scriptwriter should have in their arsenal is a good peer group.

If you don’t know any scriptwriters, you really need to rectify that situation. I kind of lucked into a whole bunch of peers thanks mostly to the efforts of the esteemed Piers Beckley who used to run a writers drink/meet up in London and very kindly invited me along.

I politely declined a few times before finally overcoming my inherent shyness and joining in.

Best thing I ever did.

Firstly, being exposed to a roomful of other writers is good for you. Having someone who understands how difficult it is to plot out a film or create interesting characters or the ins and outs of film structure is invaluable. Friends and loved ones are all very well and will often listen and make encouraging noises (or, you know, glaze over and go ‘huh?’ every now and then) but you can’t beat talking to someone who actually knows what all the drivel you’re spouting means.

Secondly, you need them for the bitching. Scriptwriting is already hard enough without having to go through the actual process of getting something made. Having a group you can go to to complain about the stupid notes you’ve received allows you to vent without actually swearing at the person who gave you the note. This in turn gives you the space you need to realise the note isn’t actually as stupid as you first thought.

If you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had, it also gives you the opportunity to moan about all the stupid decisions made during or after the shoot which completely and utterly undermined the hard work of everyone else involved.

This kind of bitching helps us all build up a list of those who should never be worked with or at the very least allows us to lower our expectations going in.

The third advantage is the sharing of opportunities and contacts. I try to pass on opportunities whenever I find them because although I’m possibly in direct competition with some of my peer group, I’m not really. Either the person concerned likes my script/idea or they don’t. If someone I know can profit off a bit of info then I’m all for that. Personal successes are few and far between, filling up the gaps with the success of people I care about helps keep my enthusiasm high.

Every now and then I hear of someone who refused to introduce a writer to a producer they know who’d be a perfect match for their script and I find it a bit weird. I love matching people up. I love it even more when someone I know gets a commission out of an introduction, I find it very satisfying and can’t really fathom what it must be like to live in fear of someone else getting one up on you.

But hey, each to their own.

The most important use for a peer group (in my opinion*) is having a small army of script readers ready and willing to aggressively rip your work to shreds. This is, without a doubt, the most useful thing one writer can do for another … so long as they’re being honest.

Friends and family who read stuff tend to just go “Yeah, it’s good” which is in no way helpful. Especially when you know it probably isn’t.

Having a peer point out every deficiency and flaw is so, so useful. Honesty is the only way to really grow as a writer.

So with all that in mind, I have some loose rules about asking people to read my stuff. Just a few guidelines to (hopefully) avoid pissing people off.

1) I never ask anyone to read my work for free if they offer a paid script reading service.

I extend this rule to all walks of life – I wouldn’t ask a plumber to fit a bathroom for me for free, or a childminder to babysit my daughter without pay so why would I ask a professional script reader to do their job for free?

I may ask them for advice if I know them well, discussing an idea or issue in a conversation … but I’d never ask them to read a script for free.

I would, however, read a script for them quite happily. I don’t charge to read friends’ scripts. Or even enemies. I’m not a script reader and my opinion is suspect at best and should be treated with caution.

2) I don’t expect people to read my work without offering to read theirs.

In fact, I offer to read other writers’ work without any thought of asking them to read mine. I like being helpful, I like being useful. I read scripts for friends who I know would never, ever read one of mine in return. Some will, some won’t … it doesn’t matter. I like being nice to people and don’t expect anything for it.

Hmm … which I guess means I don’t expect anyone else to hold to the same rules I set for myself.

Some people may think that makes me a sucker.

Those people can fuck off.

3) I don’t ask people to read anything if they seem stressed or too busy.

Which is a shame, some of the people I respect the most are in near constant demand as a writer (or certainly seem to be) churning out episodes of Doctors or Casualty or their next novel or a mindbendingly impossible number of other projects a year. They have enough on their plate, I don’t want to add to it.

Which is a shame, because some of these people have opinions I really, really value.

I would, however, happily read anything they wanted me too, up to and including a novel. Again, I want to help.

4) I never ask anyone to read more than one draft of the same project.

This is something that really galls me. Every now and then I get contacted by a new writer looking for an opinion. I’m quite happy to read their stuff, so long as they’re prepared to accept the criticism. And by ‘accept’ I don’t mean take everything I say as gospel, but rather ‘not get upset because I didn’t tell them their first draft was a flawless work of art’.

The problem comes when that person, someone I don’t know who’s contacted me through this blog (which is fine, please do. Why not #PhonePhill?} then sends me a second draft. And a third. And a fourth, all the while refusing to take on board any of the points I raised with the first draft.

I don’t really get this. Either you value my opinion or you don’t, either is fine, but if you don’t value my opinion why are you still seeking it out?

One free read per project. That’s fair. I don’t want to put people through the same misery time and time again!

5) I don’t hassle people who don’t read things in a timely manner.

Or don’t get round to reading it at all.

We’re all busy, people are being kind. If they don’t have time, they don’t have time. It’s just one of those things, not something worth getting upset about. No one owes me a read, even if they said they would.

There are probably more ‘rules’ I set myself … but to be honest I’ve got some work to do …

… and I think this has gone on long enough, don’t you?

If you haven’t got any scriptwriting buddies, get some. There must be some somewhere nearby. Writers are lovely people (sometimes) and creating your own peer group really pays off. Why not organise your own monthly or quarterly meet-ups?

You could even invite me, if you like.

I won’t come because I’m shy and don’t like to leave my office very often, but it never hurts to ask.


*As if none of the rest of this were my opinion.

Categories: My Way | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Suspiciously positive

Last week’s blog post wasn’t actually written last week, it was written months and months ago … and then I lost interest. So when I mentioned a script that was about ready to be sent out to trusted friends for a read through, that’s already happened and the results are in.

It’s always a nail-biting time waiting for those first opinions. Okay, so this time it wasn’t a spec script, it’s one written with a friend whose opinion I respect and trust. We’ve argued with each other and slagged off bits of the script and finally come to a consensus about what the film should be. The question now is: does what we intend come over on the page?

I mean, the version in our heads (which may or may not be the same version) sounds great and works brilliantly. It’s funny and scary and exhilarating and intriguing … but maybe we’ve talked each other into things which don’t make sense? Or maybe it just doesn’t translate properly onto paper? Maybe we’ve missed out the key bit of information which makes the protagonist as fun as we think she is?

It’s always stressful opening yourself up to critique, even when it’s just from people we know.

However, the results are in and on this occasion … the opinions are overwhelmingly positive.

Which is weird.

And suspicious.

You’d think I’d be elated by all the positive feedback, but … well … I enjoy rewriting. I like the process of figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it. I expect to throw away a minimum of 50% of any first draft.

Minimum.

An excellent first draft is fifty percent utter toss, in my ill-informed opinion.

I expect to replace roughly 50% of each new section in each subsequent draft until the fourth draft hits something reasonably coherent.

So far, that’s how this script has progressed. Draft 4-ish went out for opinions and received broadly positive comments.

Scratch that, it’s received a veritable fountain of praise.

Which has left me feeling like a puppy who’s chewed through a sofa and been petted rather than smacked with a rolled-up newspaper. I’ve got one eye still closed, waiting for the pain which doesn’t appear to be coming.

That’s not to say there wasn’t criticism, but it’s mostly about clarity of certain points. This script is a time-travel murder-mystery spanning several realities. One of the characters turns up in three different guises at two different ages. Another spends a good portion of it not existing. The story teeters right on the confusion event horizon and it doesn’t take much to miss a plot point which leaves the reader falling into the black hole of ‘huh’?

There’s all sorts of bits which will be blindingly clear on screen but which are difficult to differentiate on the page and some of these things did confuse some of the readers … but they’re an easy fix. In most cases it involves merely underlining, bolding or separating crucial sentences out into separate paragraphs.

Other things just need spelling out clearly and succinctly.

All of those things have been addressed now and apparently the script is good to go.

Apparently.

It remains to be seen what producers think about it since they have different criteria to writers and directors, but hopefully they’ll like it as much as everyone else has so far.

There’s still a long way to go to get this made, but it’s a nice way to start the New Year and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all pans out.

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The power of three, the peril of two

Hello, how are you? What have you been doing with yourself?

I’ve been beavering way, writing this and that, having the biggest film of my career quietly fall apart without the slightest idea why.*

One of the ‘this’es I’ve been writing is a feature script I’m very proud of, one of my favourite to date. It’s kind of everything I love in a film whilst being utterly achievable on a small budget.

Except the bits that aren’t.

The project was born of a #PhonePhill conversation (or one of many such conversations) with Calum Chalmers. This is a completely unintended and lovely side effect of the whole #PhonePhill thing. It was never meant to spawn anything other than chat.

But there you go. Chat led to chats led to ideas led to a feature script. It’s currently residing with a couple of trusted friends who are reading and (hopefully) tearing the fucking thing to shreds.

As pleasant as this process has been and and good as Calum and I think we’ve got the script (me as writer, him as director) there’s always a chance we’ve completely overlooked something. Or that something we think makes sense doesn’t. Or that there’s somehow a massive and glaring plot hole right in the bit between the opening and closing credits.

It strikes me that even if we have nailed it and gotten a water-tight, plot-tight, sense-making script … we still have to face the Peril of Two.

For me, the preferable way of writing is to have the script triumvirate (writer, director, producer) in place from the very beginning. That way, when we’re all in agreement, the script stands. Anyone else who has an input after that has to run the gauntlet of three people who are already in agreement.

That’s the Power of Three.

The peril of having just two (writer and producer or writer and director) on board during scripting is there’s a very high chance I’ll have to do the whole thing again when the third member arrives. Everyone likes to put their stamp on the project and (for the most part) everyone has good ideas which help refine what’s already there … but for some reason there seems to be an inordinate number of producers or directors who sign onto a project because they love the script … and then demand a complete page one rewrite.

So, okay, if the idea is awesome and it’s just the execution that’s appalling then fair enough. But it often seems to be a complete change of the core idea itself.

“I love this script, love it. Please choose me to realise your ideas … only, maybe instead of a drama about homeless teens it could be a thriller about some murderous ostrich eggs?”

Or, on one memorable occasion a few years ago, a prospective producer told the director and I the equivalent of telling George Lucas:

“I love this penetrating family drama about moisture farming, it’s a world I understand really well … but then it veers off into this weird space thing. We need to cut all the space stuff and get back to the core of the story.”

Yeah … I’m not sure you’ve understood this script.

Frequently the incoming person goes through all the ideas we discarded during development, the ones we tried but don’t work. Those aren’t bad ideas, they just don’t have a place in this script and we have to try and remember all the arguments and discussions we had which led to one or both of us letting go of what we’d become erroneously attached to.

That’s frustrating and time consuming … but that’s not the Peril of Two.

The peril comes when the one of us who’s not me is so enamoured with the incoming director/producer they agree with them. Suddenly, the script they paid me for, the one we worked on together which they loved and fulfilled their brief completely … is no good. In the absolute worst case scenario I’ve been secretly blamed for managing to accommodate all of their ideas, for making their flights of fancy work.

That’s quite annoying. Sometimes I get to rewrite it, which feels like a waste of time when it’s essentially a new project and means burning all the ideas developed so far … and sometimes I get replaced. Which, to be honest, is probably the preferable outcome.

It’s annoying though. Annoying when you get hired to write an idea, the client loves the idea, the client finds someone else to help make the idea … only to have the new person say they don’t like it, the client to agree and then claim it was my idea in the first place and they don’t know what I was thinking.

Luckily, that’s an extreme case and doesn’t happen very often. I like to think I’ve got better at spotting those people and avoiding working for them in the first place. I’m pretty sure I have, it hasn’t happened for a long time at any rate. The last time it happened the director told the ‘moisture farming guy’ where to go, so that was a win.

Hopefully that won’t happen this time. I’m pretty certain (almost, if not 100% certain) there won’t be any secret blaming with Calum, he’s not that kind of guy, but sooner or later we’ll have to start bringing other people into the mix and then … well, we’ll have to see what we shall see, won’t we?


* It fell apart very quietly. So quietly in fact I had literally no idea it wasn’t happening until I tried to find out where and when I was supposed to report for the shoot.

Still don’t know why.

It was probably cancelled by aliens. Or ghosts. Those are the only two possible explanations.

Imagine you were a prop designer, hired to design a new TARDIS. The producer gives you the brief – make it red, like the Glasgow Police Boxes originally were.

You suggest sticking with the traditional Doctor Who/Metropolitan blue might be better, but they disagree. They want to take a bold new direction, a Scottish direction. It’s their TARDIS, they want it red and they want to pay you to design it.

So you do your research, find the exact shade of red the original boxes were painted, you work out which red will most closely resemble it under studio lights and location lighting and … you know, stuff. You submit the plans and the producer loves them – this is exactly what they wanted!

Then someone else comes along and points out that making the TARDIS red is a stupid idea. The producer actually respects/is a little afraid of this person so they blame you having the idea in the first place and get you fired.

Hooray.

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

The information pass

The other day I had a fantastic idea for a blog post. One of those light bulb, one in a million ideas which would greatly benefit the scriptwriting community and help raise the level of writing the whole world over.

Unfortunately … I’ve forgotten what it was. A bit like that time I invented time travel in the bath, but got distracted by some grout and forgot how it worked.

Time travel. Not grout. I know how grout works.

So instead, I’m going to witter on about the first thing which pops into my mind.

Um …

Maybe I don’t know how grout works? I mean, I’ve used it … but do I really understand it?

Meanwhile, back at the point:

Ooh! Got something!

So, one of the techniques I use when plotting out a script or writing a treatment or even rewriting an existing script is The Information Pass … which … I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’ve rambled on about before but called it something else?

Never mind, I’m committed now. It’s this or a 10,000 word musing on the nature of grout and its impact on humanity.

Let’s go with The Information Pass.

Feel free to say THE INFORMATION PASS in a deep, booming voice. If you feel it helps?

Sometimes I find I get carried away with a story and miss out the crucial piece of information which makes the whole thing make sense. I find the art of scriptwriting is partly the art of parcelling out information.

Too much and the audience gets bored.

Too little and they get confused.

What I’m aiming for is the fine line betwixt boredom and confusion, the line of engaging mystery.

Feel free to say ‘the line of engaging mystery’ in a spooky voice, if it makes you feel better? I’d go for the same tone as ‘Have you ever seen a shirt make a phone call?’ in the Son of the Invisible Man.

So what I do is I go through the treatment or script or whatever and I try to clinically and coldly describe exactly what information I think a scene is conveying.

For example:

There’s a spaceship. Shooting at a bigger ship that’s chasing them. The people on the smaller ship look scared. There’s two sentient robots. Apparently there’s a princess somewhere who won’t be able to escape whoever’s on the bigger ship. Not this time at least, which implies she’s escaped a lot before …

And so on.

I am, of course, doing an information pass there on Kramer vs Kramer.

 

This helps me keep the story on track.

Sort of.

The downside of the information pass is it doesn’t really help me work out what the audience will be able to guess. I mean, it kind of does but it’s also limited. The idea is to imagine you’re watching the film cold, with no foreknowledge, and trying to piece all the clues together.

Certain events come with built in knowledge, like: someone crying over a grave.

I’d probably assume that person has lost someone they love, hence the tears. Depending on the age of the person crying, I’d probably make a stab and guessing who’s in the grave. A child … probably lost a parent. An elderly person … probably a spouse. Someone in the middle … could be anyone – parent, lover, offspring … who knows?

Being able to figure out what information the audience is likely to guess at helps subvert it or not make a mystery of things they’ve already guessed. I hate watching the protagonist, particularly one who’s meant to be a detecting genius, desperately trying to figure out something the audience guessed straight away.*

Understanding what information the audience have helps me work out what information they haven’t got … then all I have to do is figure out if they need it and when to give it to them.

I find it helps me to separate out the logic of structure and information from the emotional journey of the characters. Writing, like all arts, has a logical, ordered component which some people can do instinctively, but others (like me) need to think about in a separate pass.

I find it useful, if you don’t already do something similar, maybe you’d find it useful too?


* The caveat there being, if there are five suspects for a murder then a tiny portion of the audience will have decided each person is the murderer and then claim it was obvious who it was, when in fact it’s just an unavoidable statistic.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Shore Scripts short film fund 2018

Over the last year I’ve been intermittently fiddling with a short film script which hasn’t really come together. It’s been one of those ideas that seems great, but after much debate with the director/co-writer and many drafts we’ve come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t work.

Which is a shame, but never mind. These things happen.

If you, on the other hand, have a short you’re happy with and looking to get made then maybe you should check out the ShoreScripts short film fund?

In their own words:

We will be commissioning at least one short film with a budget between $9000-$15,000.

The winning film(s) will be submitted to world-renowned film festivals, as well as being shown to our Oscar winning Judges, Production Companies, Agents and Managers.

The filmmaking team will have the full support of Shore’s staff all the way through the production process, including equipment and post-production service deals.

The fund is open to writers from all countries. Scripts must be in English. If a writer wishes to direct his/her own script, then we are open to this discussion.

These are the two previous winners:

Lift – Directed by Claire Fowler. Starring Leslie Bibb (Iron Man)
The Orgy – Directed by Sam Baron. Starring Alexandra Roach (Black Mirror)

And if you think it’s worth a go, then you can enter here.

Good luck!

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

#̶P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶P̶h̶i̶l̶l̶ #PhoneDanny – Conversation #̶1̶8̶ #1: Danny Stack (Full Circle)

I have questions, damn it! Questions which need answers.* And who should you turn to when you have questions?

No, not him. Why, Danny Stack of course.

Danny Stack is a UK scriptwriter who mainly focuses on children’s scripts. He’s written for things like Octonauts and Thunderbirds as well as co-creating the UK Scriptwriters podcast and co-directing the feature film Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg?

He’s also the reason #PhonePhill exists at all, seeing as it was his impromptu phone call which got me wondering who else I might like to talk to. Hell, he’s the reason this blog exists in the first place.

Danny is a grafter, finding new and innovative ways to promote himself and to help all of us. Always moving forward, always breaking new ground and exploring new avenues, both on his own and with his partner in crime Tim Clague.

A while back Danny positioned himself as a children’s scriptwriter as opposed to an all-rounder, and found he’s been steadily employed ever since.

Last year I wrote a kids’ feature film which got partially shot before falling apart (which seems to happen to me a lot) and has left me with a completed script (which is mine, I own the rights) and about half an hour of footage (which belongs to the director). There’s something in the idea I really like and the footage shot seems to lend itself more towards a kids’ TV series than a film … so that’s what I wanted to chat to Danny about.

What should I do with it?

As ever, Danny was friendly and helpful and insightful and used a term to describe the kind of writers we both are which was hilarious, apt and completely and utterly unrepeatable in public.

Danny’s advice and extremely useful and had me thinking about the project in new ways – this is exactly what I wanted from him. Not help, not a leg up or for him to do the work for me, just a brief chat about the kinds of things I could do and the kinds of places/people who might be interested.

For me there are two universal lessons to be learned here:

  1. Make friends with other writers. Seek them out, be nice to them, help them when you can. Sideways networking is important – expect nothing from them and only keep in touch if you genuinely like them – but build that support network. It’s invaluable.
  2. Pick a genre and stick to it. I think most writers naturally want to write a little bit of everything. We all enjoy a wide range of entertainment and like to think we can be good at all of it … but typecasting helps. Be the goto person for that thing and reap the benefits of being known as ‘good at …’ We can always write our way out of the pigeonhole if we get bored.

If you want to know what Danny (and Tim) is (are)  up to, then you can see details here: nelsonnutmegpictures.com/projects

If you haven’t listened to the UK Scriptwriters’ podcast then you can do so here.

And if you want more advice and insight than any one man should be able to deliver in a lifetime whilst holding down a career, then you can check out his website/blog.

If, on the other hand, you just fancy a chat with me, then drop me an email at the address in the sidebar and we’ll arrange a time to call/skype/bang on the pipes in adjoining cells.


* Are there any other kind?

I’ve told the tale many times, but basically back in 2006 I was wondering why I kept hearing his name when I hadn’t seen anything he’d written, discovered he had a blog, what a blog was and thought I’d give it a go.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

No more cheating

It turns out I’ve been making a rod for my own back by actually being good at something which isn’t supposed to be true.

Everyone in the film industry knows that one page of script = one minute of screen time. It’s a fact. It’s how scripts work. Everyone knows it.

Except we scriptwriters who know that’s a load of bullshit.

One minute sometimes = one page … but more often than not, it doesn’t.

A page of one liners will (probably) be less than a minute. A page of monologue might take nearer five minutes to deliver. A page of action … eh, who knows?

So a producer’s insistence on keeping the script to a certain page-count always seems baffling. Why does the script have to be 90 pages as opposed to 95 if those extra five pages will only take an extra two minutes on screen? The audience won’t care. Surely a budget is worked out on the length a scene takes to film, not how long it takes to watch? Surely the budget depends on the type of scene as opposed to its length§?

What’s particularly bemusing is how a 118 page script is too long, but the exact same script, with fewer line breaks and full stops, which comes in at 110 pages is perfectly acceptable.

It’s the same script! Commas don’t show up on screen! Removing them from the script to alter the page count shouldn’t affect the budget!

For years now I’ve assumed this page-count nonsense is just about perception. If the script seems shorter, the producer seems happier so my last pass will always be a series of tweaks to preemptively shorten the script before handing it in.

But here’s the problem: my pre-tweaked drafts (apparently) always follow the one page = one minute rule.

My 95 page script is 95 minutes of screen time. Tweaking it to 90 pages may mollify the producer and the financiers in the short term*, but as soon as the script gets into pre-production and someone puts a stopwatch to it … the truth will out.

I’ve hidden 20 pages of a script before by judicious use of ellipses and parentheticals … only to have kittens when, deep into pre-production, someone figures out the 110 page script is actually 130 minutes long. Being asked to lose a huge chunk of the story when actors have already been cast and I can’t just hack out a complete sub-plot is a spine-chilling experience … but one I’ve brought upon myself by being all smug and sly in the first place.

Knowing how to make one page = one minute may seem like a useful tool, but it’s not useful if I then screw all that up by shuffling punctuation around.

So my New Year’s Resolution is to flip my way of working. Instead of making life easier for myself at the early draft stage and harder at the production-draft end of things, I’m going to be tougher on myself from the outset and actually cut pages instead of commas.

I’ve no idea if this is going to work, but it feels like a path worth taking.

I’ll let you know how I get on.


 I suspect some do.

There’s a correlation.

§  Yes … and no.

* I’m not 100% clear on how this works. I know length can determine budget because of the number of days needed, but I suspect there’s also a need to hit certain lengths for certain genres in order to please the distributors. If anyone wants to ring me up for a chat and explain it, I’m all ears.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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