Monthly Archives: February 2014



Years ago, when I first started writing, I made several very wrong assumptions.

The first was that my initial goal was to ‘break in’, as if there were some walled garden somewhere where all the TV/movie people hung out. Possibly a darkened and debauched nightclub with lots of drugs and morally ambiguous men/women/goats.

There isn’t. There’s no ‘in’ to break into. Behind the wall you’re looking at, whatever the stage of your career, is just another wall. Sadly, it’s walls all the way to the grave.

The second assumption was that I could start small, get a micro-budget film produced, then a low-budget, then a medium-budget … and so on until I was filthy fucking rich and could start my own debauched nightclub and hire my own damned goats.

Wilder and Betsy The Sheep

Yeah … that didn’t work either.

But the assumption I want to talk about today is fact checking. I used to think there was a department for checking facts in a script. I figured I could just get things vaguely right and someone somewhere would send me a list of corrections during pre-production.

I mean, there’s probably a whole department for this sort of thing, right? I think I was imagining some kind of dimly lit office crammed with desks where miserable old men slave away in front of piles of reference material.


“Phill Barron’s written another script!” one would say.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, what facts has the useless cunt got wrong now?” would chirp another.

Then they’ll fall on my script like a horde of ravenous … um accountants? Fact checkers? Damn, can’t really think of a good analogy there.

Anyway, they’d spring into action and instantly correct me on my spurious and inaccurate portrayal of 17th Century submarines.

They had submarines back then, right? Pretty sure they did. Probably made out of wood or hollowed out pumpkins or something.


I mean, come on – if it’s in a movie then someone must have checked it, right? Surely they don’t let idiots like me just make this shit up? I mean what if I get this stuff wrong? What if I can only remember four of The Beatles’ names and make up the other seven? What if I can’t remember which country Africa’s in? Or which end of the EM spectrum gold is on?

This is important shit! When you’re writing high-quality, much loved toss like Strippers vs Werewolves, people want, nay need, to know the facts they’re presented with are not only accurate but … um … something else. More accurate?

Turns out, there isn’t a fact department. At least not on the films I’ve worked on. There’s just me.

only me

Which is a shame really, because I know absolutely fucking nothing about absolutely fucking everything.

This is a problem, because one of the skills I think you need as a scriptwriter is a basic working knowledge of everything. Or at least the ability to find someone who does know.

Thank fuck for Wikipedia, I say, because they know everything, right?


just the facts

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, Random Witterings | 1 Comment

What’s in a name?


I’m never quite sure what to do with minor characters. Or rather, I know what to do with them, but not what to call them.

Conventional wisdom is to just call them Thug #1 or Florist #17 (which is a lot of florists). The problem with conventional wisdom is not everyone agrees and, frankly, I’m one of them. Keeping track of three or four Thugs in an action sequence is really difficult. Okay, so they don’t all have to talk and you can sometimes get away with:

Bob shoots three THUGS in the head. *


But what about when you have six thugs who split into teams of two? What if you have three heroes running around dealing with them on different floors of the same building? And then the Thug-teams meet back up and join together?

Sure, you can still call them THUG(S) #1 – 6 but it’s a bit of a dull read.

Wiser conventional wisdom says give them all an adjective as a name: SKINNY THUG, FAT THUG, STUPID THUG, TRANSVESTITE THUG … and so on.

That works well … except when it doesn’t.

images (1)

Some scripts have lots of Vox Pops from one-line characters. Or have the protagonist meeting small groups of near-identical speaking characters at regular intervals like TAKEN, for example. I’ve not made the slightest effort to find the script for TAKEN, but I can imagine running out of adjectives towards the end of the script CREPUSCULAR BADDIE, HOMOGENEOUS BADDIE, TUTU-WEARING BADDIE …

Similarly, listing them up to BADDIE #113 would be quite wearing.

Then you get the producers (usually the micro-budget ones) who want all the characters to have names, citing the logic that it’s easier to get a slightly better actor to agree to a low-paid cameo if they’re playing CAESAR BING as opposed to FACELESS NOBODY #7.

This is an opinion which varies from production to production and while I don’t think it’s terrible advice, some producers think it’s nonsense and just panic when they generate a cast list and see forty-odd named characters.

images (2)

Personally, I think it’s best not to do this until you know that’s what this particular producer wants. Especially if you have a lot of people getting beaten up or shouting during the first few pages – it’s just confusing and scares readers who don’t know which names they have to remember. I’d rather only the major characters were named in the first ten pages or so, but that might just be me.

When a producer does insist every character is named, then I find I still have the issue of keeping track of who’s who. SEBASTIAN on page 93 – did we meet him on page 4? No, that CASPIAN. Or was it a talking SEABASS? Oh look, I’ve lost interest.

Was GERALD one of the biker gang or one of the scientists? They’ve been arguing for several scenes now and I’m beginning to lose the will to care.

images (3)

Sometimes I experiment with different naming systems. If someone gets into trouble with a small gang of ROWDY YOUTHS … I might give them names which belong together, like FANCY, SPOOK, CHOO-CHOO, BENNY and BRAIN. Or HERCULES, SHIRO and LEE. Or SCOTT, ALAN, VIRGIL, GORDON and … um … BRIAN? WAYNE? MAYNARD? Fuck, can’t remember. Oh dear.

Point is, these names only belong together if you’re of a certain age and wasted too many Saturday mornings in front of the telly.

LAUREL and HARDY might be good names for two bumbling security guards … unless the reader is in their early twenties and has no idea who Laurel and Hardy were.

“Oh, those two guys from that black and white poster?”

images (4)

Fucking criminal, I know – but nobody’s famous forever.

Other times I’ve tried giving a group of DISPOSABLE MERCENARIES colours for names: RED, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE … That seemed to work quite well during a particularly convoluted fight scene.

Very recently, I had a multitude of characters commenting on the action to camera, like an expanded Internet-based Greek chorus. We occasionally came back to the same person, but the number of them keeps growing. I tried calling them by their job title – but most of them weren’t in situations where their job was easily recognisable from their clothes/backgrounds – unlike, say, PARAMEDIC or NAZI.

So I tried giving all the characters an adjective-based name … but that wasn’t really working either because there were too many of them.

Then, after a dressing down from a frustrated producer on a different project who thought “giving all of the minor characters proper names is just standard and why the fuck aren’t you doing it?”, I panicked and rewrote every script I was working on … but this one just didn’t lend itself to that kind of thing. If you call the Paramedic STEVE, then you have to include an action line explaining he’s a paramedic, whereas a PARAMEDIC can just start talking.

Then I had a brain wave – why not give every character an alliterative name? NURSE NERYS, DOCTOR DAN, RENE THE RETRO-PHRENOLOGIST?

Yes! This was genius! Why hadn’t I thought of this before?


Because it’s fucking stupid, that’s why.

Never, ever do this.

Unless you want to. Because, obviously, rule number one is never, ever take advice from me.

I still haven’t found a solution I’m happy with. Or perhaps I just still haven’t found a solution which works every time. I’m searching for the Grand Unified Theory of Minor Character Naming … but perhaps there isn’t one?

Perhaps it’s something I should just review on a script by script basis?

Or perhaps I’m just writing this because I’m avoiding writing something useful and feel better knowing you’ve just wasted a significant chunk of your day too?

Yes, that sounds more likely.

images (5)


* With one bullet? Or one after the other with three bullets? This is a terrible action line. Never put this line in a script.

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

Cliff notes

Mini cliffhanger! Ha! Mini cliffhanger! Get it? It's a mini and it's ... oh all right

I’ve been listening to the Nerdist Writer’s Panel Podcasts a fair bit recently, specifically the comics edition, and there was a little nugget of info I found interesting – namely, comics writers try to end every odd-numbered page with a mini-cliffhanger to keep you turning the pages. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to pose some form of question in the reader’s mind which makes them want to keep reading.

Now I knew novelists do that with chapters and clearly individual issues of a comic will end on a cliffhanger, but for some reason it never occured to me they would end each page (or pair of pages) with one.

So I checked it out and realised it was quite obvious … once I knew it was there.


The reason I mention this, is because it occurs to me I do the same thing in a script.

By the way, I apologise now if you already do this. I doubt this is new information to anyone; but here it is, just in case.

So, long ago, it occured to me that if people rarely read past page ten, then it would be wise to leave something hanging at the bottom of the page. Someone falls off something, someone asks a question, a bullet streaks towards someone’s face (dot dot DOT!)

These moments occur naturally throughout a script anyway, so tweaking things to make them land at the bottom of page ten isn’t a great hardship. Sometimes I have to re-write an action block to make it one line instead of two or maybe snip out a word from someone’s dialogue to stop it going onto the next line. Other times I might have to separate out an action block into two or three separate, punchier lines. These things help improve the read anyway, so it’s not hurting pages 1 to 10 either.


Since listening to John August and Craig Mazin’s three page challenges I’ve also started doing the same for page three.

And I read somewhere Will Smith gives a script five pages before putting it down, so I put one there too. To be honest, I do it periodically throughout the script as well, because … fuck it, it probably can’t hurt.

Don’t get me wrong here, this isn’t something I do whilst writing the first, second or even third draft. Nor do I do it in production drafts* because by then people (a lot of people) already like the script and are invested enough in it to keep reading no matter what. This is something I only do in the in-between drafts – the ones betwixt the first few and the locked production drafts. And even then, it’s not something I really think about until I’m close to getting the story nailed down … but when I have to show the script to someone, when they have to read and like it … well, like I say, it can’t hurt.


Maybe you already do this?

Maybe you’ve tried it and decided it’s fucking stupid?

Maybe just the thought of it makes you roll your eyes with contempt? I mean, come on! The script isn’t the point, the film’s the point. No one ever even sees the script, so who cares what happens on what page?

Well, me.

And to be honest, the only people who do see my scripts in this mini-cliffed state are the people who are (or I’m hoping will be) buying it from me. It’s a competitive industry and the money people have a lot of reading to do. In my view, anything which gives me a teeny-tiny advantage over the next script, anything which helps keep people turning the pages, no matter how insignificant it may seem … it’s got to be worth it, hasn’t it?

Bullshit or not?


* Once pages are locked, this sort of thing becomes not only pointless but downright impossible. Especially if the production team are using Final Draft, which takes its pagination from your printer settings. This essentially means everyone who looks at the script gets a page break in a different place.

I had one script locked for production where the line producer and I were having a small war of attrition over the page numbers. Every time I did a revision and sent it in, she would change the page number font to Arial and send it back. I would change it back to Courier Final Draft for the next draft … and so on.

After a few drafts of this, I was getting annoyed. I mean, it doesn’t really matter … but why the fuck was she insisting the page numbers HAD to be in Arial when the rest of the script was in Courier FD? Eventually, I casually (that means with limited swearing) asked her why.

She was horrified – she would never interfere with the writer’s work. Even the page numbers. All she was doing was adding the headers and the revision date/number to the title page in the format she was used to. And anyway, the whole script was in Arial, wasn’t it?


Turns out, her computer had somehow deleted the Courier Final Draft font. Final Draft didn’t seem to notice and just picked a new font at random. The change in font was turning a 90 page script into a 130+ pager.


This meant all of the production team were working on different length scripts with different fonts and different pagination depending on whether they got it from her or from me.

So, you know, page-ending cliffhangers were completely and utterly pointless.

Categories: My Way | 2 Comments

The spec chain

I keep talking to/reading posts/tweets by writers who are unsure of which project to write next. It seems to be a regular dilemma for lots of writers: “I have x number of new projects to start, all of which I’m excited about – how do I decide which one to do first?”


To be honest, it’s a question which puzzles me slightly. I’m not sure I fully comprehend the situation – were you just working on one project? Or were you working on several and they’ve all finished at exactly the same time? Which would be weird because, presumably, they must have all started at different times. How did you arrive at a point where you’ve finished everything?

I just don’t work like that.


Maybe my industry experiences are completely different to everyone else’s? Maybe my working method is unique? I doubt it. Doesn’t feel unique or even vaguely special when I talk to other writers.

I tend to have two lists of work – paid and spec. The paid work takes precedence over the spec stuff. To be honest, most years I don’t get more than a few days at a time to think about writing anything just for me. I’m trying to adjust that balance, because I have stories I want to tell and they’re generally the most fun.*


The paid list isn’t really a list, it’s more of an interlocking chain, because each project consists of several different parts and each starts at a different time. So, currently, it looks like this:

  • Project 1 : waiting for producer’s notes on first draft
  • Project 2: readers reports have come back, discussing which ones are relevant with client.
  • Project 3: waiting for producer to actually phone when he says he’s going to so I can sign off on latest revision.
  • Project 4: waiting for vague acknowledgement the producer has received the treatment or at least isn’t dead.

Essentially, a lot of waiting. For reasons I can’t begin to explain, it takes people ten times longer to read a script than it does for me to write it. I’m guessing they’re just very busy, many irons in the fire sort of thing.


Which is fine. The lengthy pauses give me time to work on lots of different things. If everyone was prompt and punctual, I’d never get anything done.

The gap between submitting a treatment and getting the go ahead to proceed to script can be anything between a few days and (in one extreme case) four years. $

Any new projects (whether they start with a synopsis or someone else’s script) slot into the gaps.


Any gaps left over are filled with spec projects,  for which there’s another list:

  • Project one, TV pilot: reached the end of the first draft, need to go back through the whole thing and see if it’s any good.
  • Project two, feature film (or possibly two-part TV drama): reread the last draft (7? 8? Can’t remember), the one everyone thought was brilliant and see if it actually is any good.
  • Project three, TV series: rewrite synopsis/series proposal using super-useful feedback from TV script development bod.
  • Project four, feature film: index card the shit out of the plot, see if it makes as much sense as it does in my head. ^
  • Project five, feature film: take terrible first draft and make it far less terrible.

These five projects will probably take me several years to finish. If I ever actually get time to do any of them.

Admittedly, if I actually reached the end of the spec list, I might have to think about what to do next – but I don’t seriously expect to ever get there.


I can also see that project four on the spec list is essentially a new project (albeit one I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year or so) so, potentially, that slot could be filled with a choice of projects … but …

… um …

Can anyone remember what the point of all this was?

I’ve just been (pleasantly)  interrupted by a phone call and can no longer remember why I started this. Even reading it back doesn’t really remind me.


Fuck, what a pointless waste of time.

Sorry about that. I probably shouldn’t even bother to post this. You definitely shouldn’t waste time reading it.

I suppose I should put that last sentence at the top.

Oh fuck it, I’m going for lunch. Next week’s blog might have a point. Try that one.



* But also the hardest to write – it’s far easier to write a script when you get client feedback at every stage. Far easier and far more frustrating and upsetting, which is an odd definition of ‘easier’.

$ Four years to read (and love) ten pages.

Four. Years.

Long enough for me to have completely forgotten who the producer was and what the hell he was talking about when he finally phoned up. Interesting conversation that one:

“The only thing I don’t really like is the ending. Can we have less blancmange?”

Yeah, sure. Why the hell not? Unless the blancmange is essential, in which case – no. I have no fucking idea, are you sure I wrote this?

^ No. No, it doesn’t. They never do.

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, My Way | 5 Comments

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