Monthly Archives: August 2006

If you can’t be the best, be the fastest

Something I’ve learnt from sketch submissions to The Treason Show and Newsrevue; your material doesn’t have to be the best, if it can get there first.

This may not be what you want to hear; but it’s true.

I’m not saying a work of utter genius won’t blow all its competitors out of the water; but as I’ve mentioned before, most of us produce work of a very similar quality. Genius is very rare.

Think about it: you receive a sketch which is good; it’s funny, topical and easy to perform. It goes on the pile. A few days later, you receive another sketch on the same subject which is just as funny, maybe even a little more so; but you’ve already started rehearsing the other one, and it isn’t that much different really. So you stick with what you’ve got.

Any sketch which gets there second, or later, has to be considerably better in order to replace the first one.

The same applies to screenplays: a production company looking for scripts will be easier to impress earlier rather than later. As the ‘maybe’ pile grows, it gets harder and harder to get added. The odds here are probably better than topical sketches, at least your script will (hopefully) have a different story; but it’s still got to be better to get there first.

Or maybe it doesn’t work like that? Maybe the quality of the majority of scripts is so poor, any diamond shines, no matter how late in the game? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be willing to risk it.

For me it’s all about maximising your chances. I stick to standard screenplay format, even though I know standards in the UK aren’t as strict as the US, because you never know when you’re going to come up against a truly anal reader. I don’t want to get marked down for some minor margin infraction, why run the risk when the rules are easy to adhere to?

Yes, you need talent, skill and the ability to spell; a good story, great characters and killer dialogue – those are a given. If you’ve got all these, getting a script in earlier may not help; but it certainly can’t hurt.

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Categories: Industry Musings | 1 Comment

An idea by any other name

I got accused of plagiarism last week; not the nicest email I’ve ever received.

A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed a screenplay on Trigger Street; a couple of months later I posted a screenplay, originally called THE CRYSTAL SKULLS, now called CAUSE AND EFFECT. Apparently they contain a similar idea; not the same idea, but a similar one.

Recently, two years later, I received an angry email from the author accusing me of stealing his idea. Now I’m at a slight disadvantage here, because I don’t really remember this guy’s script. The review I wrote at the time hasn’t helped to refresh my memory either. The only thing I can say for certain is, I didn’t like his script.

CAUSE AND EFFECT is about a group of people who ensure the future happens the way it’s supposed to. They’re guardians of the timeline, keeping history on course.

The other script is about a camping site and some giant spiders. There was some kind of time travel element, or possibly an inter-dimensional travel element or maybe even something else – I honestly can’t remember. I’ve since downloaded this script and a quick scan through leaves me none the wiser; save for a mention of a guardian of time.

Although I don’t appreciate aggressive emails, I understand this guy thinks I’ve ripped him off; so I explained:

The seed of the idea comes from a Terry Pratchett book called: SMALL GODS
which was published in 1992. There’s a minor character, a monk, whose order
is described as the caretakers of history. I liked this idea and formulated
a story around it; one I was mulling over for a long time before I wrote
CAUSE AND EFFECT. Another influence was Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series; where 
psycho-historians plot out the future of the human race and
manipulate events to ensure it happens.

This isn’t enough for him and his anger persists. For some reason, the fact I can mention two fairly famous novels which contain a similar idea, isn’t proof he didn’t come up with the idea originally; or that I didn’t deliberately steal it from him. Growing up, I read and watched a lot of sci-fi; this guardian idea seems like a fairly standard one to me.

Off the top of my head, and without the benefit of Google: there were the black and white guardians in DOCTOR WHO; the guardian in the STARTREK episode – The City on the Edge of Forever; or even Jean-Claude Van Damme in TIMECOP.

It seems to me that originality comes from the execution of the idea, rather than the idea itself. As far as I can work out, my execution is totally different to his.

This got me thinking about the nature of coincidence; it’s a bugger when it happens to you, but it seems to happen all the time. A few months back, a friend lent me the complete series of FIREFLY; I watched it in absolute shock.

I wrote this series when I was ten. Or at least I devised the series when I was ten, played the games with Lego, then wrote it down in my twenties.

The set-up of the universe, the look of the show, the plots, even the characters: all of it. To be fair, my main character was called Hal, instead of Mal, and the ships looked different; but it’s all there. The stories aren’t identical; but they’re close enough to look like Joss Whedon wrote them after reading my synopses.

The only snag is, I’ve never shown the scripts to anyone. Ever. It’s all coincidence. A series of incredibly bizarre and improbable coincidences; but coincidence all the same. This was my Magnum Opus, the one idea I’d been holding back for the right time. I wrote it so long ago, the scripts aren’t even on my PC; they’re on an old AMSTRAD gathering dust under the stairs.

Or they were. They’re now in a skip somewhere in Brighton; Joss has already done it, they’re useless to me now.

So my point is: your ideas probably aren’t as unique as you think they are.

The problem with writing is you have to show your work to someone at some point. They might rip you off, they might not. They might have a similar project already in development, that’s the chance you have to take; but think long and hard before you decide someone has stolen your ideas – that way madness lies.

You could of course keep your ideas to yourself and never show anyone; lock them up and bury them under the stairs – and remain an anonymous writer forever. Or you can let them free, hope they find a sympathetic reader and blossom into a proper scriptwriter.

I’ve tried the locking away method, it doesn’t work. Either Joss broke into my house, read my mind, or (more likely) watched the same shows, read the same books and had the same idea. Sending my ideas winging around the world seems a much better option. If your ideas aren’t that unique; the trick is just to get there first.

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The Evolved on DVD

During a period of sleeplessness last night I was Googling random words and found out a film I co-wrote, THE EVOLVED, is available to buy at Amazon.com. It’s not released until September the 5th; but it’s available to pre-order.

I’m not trying to generate sales here, by the way, I’m just really excited; it’s the first time I’ve seen something I’ve written actually for sale somewhere. I’ve seen raw footage, I’ve seen rough cuts and I’ve seen trailers for various projects; but this is the first totally complete project to hit the stores.

Or at least the Internet.

They’ve got it here too: Movies Unlimited!

For the benefit of those who don’t know, which will be pretty much everyone who reads this, THE EVOLVED is a film I co-wrote with one of the two directors: Andrew Senior. Andy placed an add on Shooting People asking for help with a script he and some friends intended to make. He’d written around 30 pages of this script, about a shark monster terrorizing London, and wasn’t sure where to go from there.

We emailed each other back and forth, writing several drafts of the script, before arriving at the one which ended up being filmed. It was a bit of a torturous process; mainly because, every time I thought we’d finished and I could go back to saner projects, Andy would email me and say something like:

“You know what this script is missing? Nazis.”

I’d shout at the screen in frustration for a bit, then mull it over. Yep, he’s right. The script could use some Nazis.

Then Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party as a Nazi and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea to be running round town in Nazi costumes. So the Nazis became a fast-food company – Burger Priest. Which is apparently what happened in real life. From there it became obvious that the ruler of Burger Priest should be The Pope. A Nazi Pope, that’s hilarious.

Until they actually elected one. Then all of a sudden it went from foolishness to satire. It’s not meant to be, we just thought it was funny.

Again, I thought we were done; but Andy added this tiny scene with a talking foetus, found in a burger. I thought this was great and insisted Feety became a character; and the film was re-written again.

You may have gathered by now, this film isn’t going to win any Oscars. The film was written specifically with Troma in mind; if you’re not familiar with their work – shame on you.

We were nearly done with the script, but we still hadn’t got an ending we both agreed on. Problem was, Andy and John Turner (his co-director) had already started shooting. As the weeks rolled by, we tried various combinations of endings, none of which were quite right. In desperation, Andy rang me up; which was the first time I’d ever spoken to him:

“How about if they just run away and we say it’s end of part one?”

Genius, I can go back to my real life now. So they did.

And that was that. The film was made and it was entered into Tromadance, where we thought it might find an appreciative audience; but it didn’t: it was refused entry to the festival.

We were a bit annoyed.

Until, that is, we found out it wasn’t in the festival because Troma already knew they wanted to release it. From there we got a screening at the film market in Cannes; which was fantastic. For those of you who haven’t been, the screening rooms hold about 30 people. The films we went to see were about half-full; and fifty percent of people walk out after 15 minutes. The Evolved was full, with people sitting in the aisles, and no one left for half an hour. Most of the audience stayed until the end. Even Lloyd Kaufman himself turned up for the screening – apparently that’s quite rare.

The weirdest part of this for me, was I was meeting the guys who made the film for the first time. All thanks to the wonder of email.

From there, we got reviewed in Variety (I love this interview, particularly the puerile script comment, and the references to a talking eyeball – there isn’t one); we got an interview on Radio One; and now the DVD is due to be released on September the 5th.

All in all, working on this film has been a blast. Okay, so it’s not going to win any awards; hell it’s probably not even going to sell any copies*, but it’s mine. I wrote it, or at least half of it, and I’m very excited by the whole experience.

You can tell, can’t you?

*Oddly enough, even though it’s not released yet, it has a sales rank. The weird thing being, it’s gone up 2 places over night. Has someone actually bought a copy?

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Be nice to each other

Every time I meet with a director or producer, one of the first comments I get by email afterwards is about how nice it is to meet a writer who is actually friendly and approachable.

This always strikes me as odd, why would a writer not be friendly and approachable? These people are (hopefully) going to pay you to do a job; meeting them is a job interview, isn’t it? Why would you walk into a job interview and be unpleasant to the guy who decides whether or not to work with you?

Here’s an example:

Nice meeting you, your amicable attitude is a definitely plus – some writers are very strange indeed and yet you write well and can handle yourself socially!

Some writers are very strange indeed – why? What’s the benefit in being strange? Is it that people equate genius with madness? That the media tells us geniuses (or should that be genii?) are cranky, obstreperous and socially incompetent? Do people put it on because they genuinely think that’s the way to behave?

Or is it that people only become writers because they’re incapable of interacting properly with the real world? Are writers people who have retreated into an imaginary world where they are the hero and all the girls fancy them? I know that’s why I started.

(As an aside, think about that the next time you watch the Matrix. The hero, a computer geek with no friends, suddenly finds out – in the real world, he’s a hero who everybody admires and PVC suited babes fancy. He can also do Kung Fu and kick the bullies’ arses. Every fat, pasty guy’s fantasy.)

I have to admit, all of the writers I’ve met have been really nice. Everyone I’ve worked with has been fun, outgoing and easy to get along with. Yet, considering how often I get told I’m easy going for a writer, is the reverse true for the writing population at large?

Maybe writers are naturally suspicious of directors and producers? After all, these are supposed to be the people who take your perfectly crafted work and ruin it with their own short-sighted vision.

Another ‘truism’ I’ve yet to substantiate.

Yes, they usually ask for re-writes; and yes, sometimes I disagree with them. Overall though, I’d say their comments have been succinct, helpful and generally true. The opinions I disagree with I can (politely) argue against and frequently persuade them round to my side.

I think perhaps the difference for me is: I’m not a scriptwriting genius.

I don’t think I’m supposed to admit that, but it’s true. I’m a jobbing scriptwriter. I write for money; that sometimes means writing stuff I don’t particularly want to write.

I don’t think I’ve written anything which is a towering work of genius; but be honest, who has? I’ve written stuff which I think is good, I’ve written stuff I like; but in a thousand years, no one’s going to mention me in the same breath as Shakespeare – and I’m fine with that. This means, when people request changes to my work, the suggestions are welcome because their ideas are either:

a) better than my ideas

b) neither better or worse, just different.

or c) stupid ideas, I’ve argued my case and the director/producer still wants the changes and at the end of the day, they’re employing me to write what they want to film. If I don’t do it, someone else will.

I’m not advocating being a yes man here. In my (limited) experience, directors and producers don’t want to be surrounded by yes men any more than anyone else; they welcome your opinion, as long as it’s reasonably presented, they just don’t have to agree with it.

How you present yourself is just as important as the quality of your work, if you don’t know how to be friendly and sociable, take a course. So far, a lot of my paid work has been from people I’ve worked with before. If I wasn’t easy to work with in the first place, I wouldn’t get those repeat offers.

So what I’m saying is: be nice to people. You may discover the writing industry is a very small pool; and unless you are a genius, the number of people who want to work with you will dwindle pretty quickly.

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Long term goals or short term benefits?

Every month I face the same dilemma: where should I be focusing my scriptwriting energies?

I can make an easy few quid writing sketches for The Treason Show and Newsrevue (assuming Newsrevue actually pays up, quite a rare occurrence); or I can focus on writing feature scripts which, hopefully, pay a lot more at some indefinite point in the future.

The short term benefits of sketch writing are: money, okay, it’s a pittance; but then every little helps; I get to see material performed within a month of writing it, rather than waiting two or three years; I get the satisfaction of seeing my name repeated frequently on the running orders (not that I’m competitive or anything); and I get to vent my frustrations at the world in sketch form.

On the down side: as soon as the run’s over, it over. There’s no lasting effect of having written a killer sketch about something like racism in the media. People laugh and go back to buying the same papers anyway. The world is not a better place and I’m no closer (okay, I’m a few pounds closer) to being a full-time scriptwriter than I was before.

Writing feature scripts on spec is much less fun. They take much longer to write, they take much longer to sell (if at all, which at my level – the bottom rung- usually equates to less than I make for sketches anyway) and even when they’ve been produced, you still have to wait years to reap any benefit from them; but, every imdb credit, every produced feature, every producer and director who’s read and liked my work; advances me slightly towards the goal of being a professional scriptwriter.

Sometimes the choice is easy; this month I’ve been asked to re-write a feature which starts production next month. Due to an odd set of circumstances, the script may or may not actually be used; depending on whether or not the original writer produces a re-write. If it’s not used, I’ve made about the same as I would from sketch writing; if it is used (which I’m obviously hoping it will be) I’ll get a lot more, plus profit share and another credit. Plus I get to help out some nice people, who regularly make movies and are already looking for new projects. So, that’s the next couple of weeks booked up.

Last month, the choice was slightly harder. Yankee Disco Productions, the guys who made The Evolved, want to shoot another film this year. They may pull it off, they may not; but having done it once, and secured distribution, and got a screening at the Cannes Film Market (that was fun); I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Andrew Senior and I bashed out a script; and hopefully that’ll start shooting in the near future.

Other months, the dilemma is harder. No one’s buying what I’m selling; and I’m slaving away at a screenplay which may never see the light of day, while my fellow sketch writers are working equally hard, but gaining tiny financial rewards and running order plaudits for their efforts.

I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong answer to this. I suppose I should just alternate: sketches one month, features the next. Then again, there’s always that idea for a new sit-com I could be working on; or the TV drama I’ve been mulling over; or endless episodes of The Simpsons on Sky (you’ve got to “acquire” inspiration from somewhere).

It’s always a hard choice, one I regularly feel ill-equipped to make. At least the choice is already made for this month, now all I have to do is make enough money not to care before next month rolls around.

Easy.

I wonder what’s on telly?

Categories: Career Path | 1 Comment

Phantom Jobs

This week, I’ve had emails from: four people about writing a feature for them (two complete strangers, one I wrote a treatment for last year (who might want a re-write on a new project) and one who I was recommended to by a friend); a woman who’s read one of my features and wants to produce it; a guy who wants to discuss the writing of a sitcom based on his web-diaries; a guy I worked with who wants to employ me as a part-time, in-house writer for a corporate production company; and two people who are still intent on filming two of my short scripts.

Now, this is not a ‘normal’ week for me; what the hell’s going on? Is there a writer’s strike or something?

There’s an odd pattern to the people who ‘cold email’ me about feature writing jobs. They all say something like:

 Hi Phill, I found your profile on **********.com; I’m a producer/director who’s done ******* and I’m looking for a writer for a feature film I intend to produce/direct next year/month/millennium. Are you available/interested? The budget is quite limited, but there would be a small fee available.

Regards

Random Person.

Now, I always reply to these people; because you never know who they are or what the chances of them actually making a film are. In the past I’ve been paid by reasonably established people who then disappeared; and ended up with a feature produced by people I thought were full of shit. So I always reply:

Dear Random Person,

I’m certainly interested in learning more about you and your project. If you’ve got some details about yourself and the story, I’d love to look them over.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards

Phillip Barron

But I never do. Hear from them, that is. I always look forward to hearing from them.

This is weird, isn’t it? It’s not just me? What’s going on? Have they emailed a large number of people, found someone they like more and can’t be bothered to tell me? Were they drunk, having a laugh and emailing random people? Have they realised, actually they don’t have a story idea or the means/will to make a movie? Is my reply rude? Have they found out I’m ginger?

What’s going on?

Surely it doesn’t take much for a ‘thanks, but I’ve found someone else’ reply? Where’s the professionalism? Where’s the courtesy? Where’s the love?

Actually, scratch the love, I’ll just settle for some good old fashioned courtesy. Am I asking too much?

Categories: Industry Musings | 1 Comment

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