Monthly Archives: March 2013

Other people’s ideas

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I think we all become scriptwriters because we have lots of ideas, lots of stories to tell. It’s certainly true for me, whenever people ask me how I became a scriptwriter, my stock answer is:

“As a child I told a lot of lies. Turns out, as an adult, if you write those lies down you get paid for it!”

Which is more or less exactly how it happened.

But the thing is, as a scriptwriter, I actually spend more time writing down other people’s ideas.  It seems to me the job is mainly taking other people’s thoughts or images and translating them into words. Sure, if I write a spec script (which I haven’t done for years) then they’re my ideas … but as soon as the script sells, it belongs to someone else and they want their ideas layered over the top.

And that’s when it gets difficult.

I find the hardest part of the job isn’t putting my ideas down on paper in a concise and lucid manner; but putting other people’s ideas down on paper in a concise and lucid manner. Mainly because their ideas are rarely concise or lucid to being with.

“I’m a little confused with this note, are you suggesting we replace the scene where we reveal who the murderer is with a masturbating baboon? Oh, it’s allegorical, is it? There was me just thinking you were a pretentious twat.”

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But the pinnacle of hard-isity is writing a script for an idea which is already half-written (whether that half-written means a synopsis, treatment or existing script) because I have no idea what bits of this idea mean to the person who hired me.

When I’m asked to work on someone else’s idea, the first thing I try and do is work out what the story is actually about. Whose story is it? Why could it only happen to them? What do they learn? What’s the theme/point of it all? Basically, what is the story trying to say?

Asking the person doing the hiring doesn’t always help – if they’ve tried to write it themselves and got stuck, it’s usually because they have a pile of good visual ideas with no idea how they connect together. My first job then is to try and put a skeleton inside the body they’ve already created.

In theory, that doesn’t sound too bad. You’d probably imagine it would be easy, just cut it open, insert the bones and sew it up again.

Simple.

Except, no.

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Because a story without a theme, the body without the skeleton isn’t a head, two arms, two legs and a torso waiting to be animated – it’s a pile of unidentifiable organs and fleshy bits. There’s frequently no way of telling which bits belong where. Sure, some bits are obviously eyes or a lung; but other bits aren’t so clear.

Frequently what I’ve been given, once I separate it into piles, is three arms, five legs, no head and a torso which belongs to a goat. Or maybe just one massive arm with nothing else attached. One where the skin appears to be cobbled together from six different ethnicities and the flesh is infested with maggots.

Without that clear skeleton of …

  • Whose story is it?
  • What does he want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • What’s stopping him?
  • What does he actually need?
  • Other questions I can’t be arsed to write down.

… then there’s no way I can make a coherent person out of the disparate body parts. The easiest way to make it work is to put all the bits to one side, craft the skeleton and then see if any of the bits belong to it.

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This is fine if I’m dealing with a producer who’s optioned/commissioned a script from someone else, tried to get it work, can’t and has come to me to try again. Usually there’s one or two core images/concepts they want to keep; the rest is up for grabs. Here’s a spleen and an elbow, make up the rest yourself.

Fine. If I know the size/location of the spleen and elbow, I can make up a body to fit around it. That’s okay.

But what if the producer wrote the initial idea? Or worse, the director? If it’s a director then there’s usually a load of really cool images and shots and things happening which HAVE to stay in. They have to. If it’s a producer, I often get saddled with an unworkable mish-mash of characters because they’ve already promised the roles to certain actors who will guarantee financing/distribution.

If I have to throw it all out, then it’s essentially telling the person who hired me that all their ideas are crap.

Even if that’s true, it’s not very nice to hear. The person who made this random pile of body parts worked really hard on them.

Really hard.

True, they’ve worked really hard in the wrong way on things which don’t matter until late in the game; but they’ve still worked hard. They have an emotional attachment to the seven really cool ears they’ve designed or the new type of liver which is sixteen foot long – throwing them out would be a disaster!

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Sometimes the bits are fine, they just need explaining. If he can explain what the spleen is and what it does (which is impossible, no one knows what a spleen’s for. No one!) then I can work it in. Frequently though, the first few drafts of a new synopsis are just me trying to understand what the intention behind all  the wobbly bits was. I often find myself throwing out all the bits which aren’t needed, crafting a perfectly working body and then finding out the two spring-things were spring-loaded kneecaps which enable the body to jump really high and thus become an awesome basketball player.

Oh, right. I get it now.

So why not just make the body taller and ditch the springy bits no one is going to believe? You hadn’t thought of that? Of course not, that’s why you hired me.

Sometimes none of the bits I’ve been given belong to the idea the person who hired me had in mind, because they don’t really know what they had in mind in the first place. Sometimes all of the bits belong (albeit in a different order) but I didn’t know that because the person who hired me is incapable of articulating what their idea is. And, of course, sometimes it’s all just my fault for not listening, not understanding or simply grabbing the wrong end of the stick and running like hell in the wrong direction.

This process, this understanding of intention, is the part of the job I find the hardest. It’s a laborious, frustrating process which can result in both sides thinking the other is a fucking moron … but it’s a vital step. I’ve walked away from some projects because I couldn’t work out what the hell they were on about. I’ve been fired from others for much the same reason.

Luckily I seem to (eventually) get it right more often than not; but it doesn’t change my loathing for that bit of the process.

Hopefully the future will bring some kind of what’s-the-fucking-point telepathy which will help people understand each other; but until then I guess I’ll spend my days knee deep in unidentifiable wobbly bits, praying that last squelch wasn’t me stepping on anything important.

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Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 2 Comments

P90X vs biscuits

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I was having dinner the other day with the admirable Arnopp, conversing about all things writerly, when the conversation drifted (as it often does) to exercise.

Now you may think exercise is an odd thing for two writers to talk about, given writing itself is about the least energetic thing you can do (even though thinking does burn quite a few calories); but that’s kind of the point.

There’s a tendency for writers to pile on the pounds a bit. I guess it’s due to moving nothing but your fingers and eyes for hours on end, usually within sauntering distance of the biscuit barrel.

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I don’t know why, but chocolate biscuits seem essential to the writing process. Or my writing process at least. Some people like to choose the right music to write to, I like to choose the right biscuit to set the mood.

The end result of years of finger-waggling and biscuit-guzzling has left me slightly larger than intended.

I don’t know how it works for women, but as a man I’ve always said “The day I can no longer see my own cock will be the day I hit the gym in earnest”.

Well, that day … never came. Although I suspect I may have been leaning forward a bit.

The day that did come though was the “clothes are too tight and I can balance a mug of tea on my stomach whilst sitting bolt upright”. Okay, so the personal tea shelf is quite useful; but the clothes thing was annoying.

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So it was time to do something about it.

But what?

I’ve been an occasional gym member over the years and found it takes too much time getting there/back; plus, if you work out how much time I spent in a gym versus not in one, I largely paid NOT to go to the gym.

Which is a waste.

There’s a free gym on the Secret Writing Island; but I could never guarantee it wasn’t full of other people. I hate going to a busy gym Having to constantly modify my workout to anticipate which machine/piece of equipment will be empty next just irritates me beyond belief. Seriously, if you ever see an episode of Death in Paradise in which everyone in a gym is dead except for one chubby, spoon-wielding,  ginge – IT WAS ME!

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Years back I used to train three different martial arts on various nights … but I’m a family man now and disappearing every night is frowned upon. Mostly by me. So that’s out.

Time is another restriction. I don’t want exercise taking up all morning. Nor do I want it taking up all evening. If Mandy’s out of the country then I have to look after Alice and can’t really leave the house, so I needed an exercise program I could do in my own house, with limited equipment which didn’t take longer than an hour a day.

Enter P90X.

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I don’t know if you’ve seen the infommercials for this; but it’s all over American TV and looks really, really fucking annoying.

But … I wasn’t getting any thinner it seemed to tick all the boxes – an hour (ish) a day, limited equipment, no need to go to the gym.

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to research, so I spent a few months poring over the details and decided … oh fuck it, why not?

And you know what? It’s been really good.

Well, mostly good.

I’ve enjoyed it anyway.

Or at least the bits where I wasn’t lying broken in a pool of my own sweat vowing to hunt down and murder Tony Horton.

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I didn’t do the before and after photos because … well, it’s a bit weird; but let’s just say after completing the program I can happily report my penis and I are once again seeing eye to eye.

To be fair, I didn’t even do it properly. Instead of six days a week, I did four or five and I didn’t even bother with the meal plan. I did give up chocolate, sweets, crisps and biscuits for February (never give up stuff in January, it’s too long. February’s much more civilised) and have subsequently found I’m not that bothered about snacky stuff now.

Or, you know, significantly less so.

Immediately pre-P90X I ate 16 Lily O’Brien’s chocolate chip cookies in less than an hour.

That’s just silly, in anyone’s delicious book.

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P90X is essentially a series of alternating muscle/cardio videos – 14 in all. You do muscle/weight stuff on the odd days and cardio stuff on the evens. The muscle stuff is broken down into groups so you don’t work everything at the same time, whilst the cardio stuff is plyometrics (an hour of ‘fuck me is this nearly over yet?’ jumping and squatting), Yoga (an hour and a half of ‘fuck me, I can’t do that!’ whilst dislocating the odd shoulder) and Kenpo (an hour of vaguely martial-art-themed punching and kicking. I’m quite good at that one).

I’ve found I can do it immediately after Alice has gone to bed or early in the morning before breakfast, depending on whether I’m in the UK or on the Secret Writing Island. It’s an hour of effort with no travelling time … and, well it worked for me.

I look better, I feel better and I’m thinking better. Hopefully that translates into writing better too … but probably not.

For me, it’s a good system at a reasonable price. Even more reasonable if you get a second hand set off eBay.

No, there’s nothing revolutionary in it. Yes, you could put a similar program together yourself; but there’s an inherent level of motivation to be had from following a video. It’s far easier to give up or slow down (on the cardio bits) if you’re just doing your own thing, so for me it was worth it.

There are dozens of similar products out there, this was just the one I chose. I think I’m going to try Insanity next because the adverts amuse me.

“Most of you watching this won’t be able to do Insanity. If you try, you’ll fucking die so don’t even bother.”

But if you’re feeling a bit porky and want to sort yourself out, you could do a lot worse than checking out P90X.

Like I say, it seems to have worked for me.

Or at least, everyone keeps telling me it has. At great length and in effusive detail. Which is exactly the same as having friends and family following me around saying:

“Fuck me, you used to be so fat. You were massive. Oh my God, you were so big I wanted to be sick.”

All fucking day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do some one-handed press ups.

I need the other hand to eat these biscuits.

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Categories: Bored, My Way, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently, Writing and life | 5 Comments

They loves it at Cannes, they does

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Occasionally I get asked to write (or re-write) a script by someone (be that producer, director, actor or anonymous other) whose idea “went down really well at Cannes”.

Sometimes they’ve shown this idea to huge celebrity x or massive producer y or ginormous studio z and the response was incredibly positive – they love the idea/treatment/script and said this person should go away and get a script (re)written. Come back and see us when you have!

This used to impress me as much as it impressed the person who wanted to hire me to work on their fabulous idea. I mean, if huge celebrity x, massive producer y and ginormous studio z think it’s a good idea then it’s got to be worth working on! At least the person I’m writing the script for has someone in power eagerly waiting to read it when it’s done! That’s got to be better than writing a script for someone who has no idea what to do with it afterwards, isn’t it? I mean … they love it! Right?

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Well, yes … and no.

Yes, because the person doing the hiring has at least worked out how to get the material in front of someone who could, potentially, make it.

And no because if the idea/treatment/script were any good then said important person would have bought it.

The vital bit of the second paragraph is “go away”.

“I love it! Come back when you’ve developed it further!” means “Fuck off and take your stupid fucking ideas with you.”

But this is a polite industry staffed with “artistic” people who react badly to criticism, so no one is honest. Not really. A producer/exec/actor will rarely tell you something is truly awful because they don’t want to offend and they don’t want to risk being wrong.

Just because someone puts a god awful idea in front of you today, doesn’t mean they won’t come up with a work of genius tomorrow. It’s unlikely in most cases, but not every piece of work from a good writer is going to be perfect. Or even good.

Similarly, just because you don’t like an idea doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad – someone else may like it. Several hundred million someone else’s might like it. If they do, then it makes sense to invest in that person’s bad ideas because … well, fuck it. If the idea makes money, it doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are about it.

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There are plenty of films I think are appalling which have been smash hits – if I’d been in position to commission those ideas, I’d have lost my studio untold millions. Okay, so that happens; but if you decline politely then at least you’re in a position to say yes to the film maker’s next project. If you tell them to take their talentless shit and fuck off then they’re unlikely to want to do anything other than yell “I fucking told you!” through your letterbox at three in the morning.

So no one says no. Or rather, they say no; but make it sound like “I love it … but it’s not for me.”

Which leaves me in the interesting position of dealing with people who think their idea is awesome because no one’s told them it isn’t.

And in a way that’s fine, because they hire me to fix it.

Sometimes there is a nub of a good story buried in the script/treatment/idea and there’s something to build on – those are the jobs I accept. Sometimes there really isn’t anything to it – those are the ones I politely decline, for much the same reasons listed above.

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The problem comes when the hirer believes the “It’s great! Please go away.” means their idea is so amazing it doesn’t need much work. Those projects are tricky because they don’t want to be told what’s wrong with their idea – they know for a fact there’s nothing wrong with it because x, y or z loved it.

It’s really hard to explain to people what x.y or z really meant without upsetting them. I try not to get involved with people like that because … well, it’s just frustrating and pointless. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to determine how immovable people can be on ideas before you sign the contract.

I wish I could. I wish there was some kind of collaboration test I could get potential employers to fill in. Something which would let me know how open they are to new ideas and how clingy they’re going to get to the bits which don’t work.

But there isn’t. Or at least, I don’t think there is.

So instead I’m left with my fallible intuition and the annoying realisation that I will occasionally get trapped in one of these pointless arguments.

I should just tell them the truth.

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If they loved it they would have bought it there and then! Money is the only yes!

But I never do. I just swear a lot in private, wait a couple of years and then change their names and genders so I can whine about it on here.

Does that make me a hypercritical coward?

Yes, probably.

Sorry.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way | Leave a comment

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