Monthly Archives: January 2019

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.


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.


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.

Categories: Progress, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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.


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

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