Industry Musings

#PhonePhill – Conversation #10: Jay Sutherland

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This #PhonePhill didn’t begin life as a #PhonePhill. It started out as a random phone call about a script.

But I’ll get to that, first, some background.

Jay is an actor. Here he is starring in a feature film:

And here he is pissed up and armed:

I’ve known Jay for an awful long time … without really knowing him. He’s my younger brother’s best friend’s younger brother. A few years ago he got in touch about maybe writing a script together. We had a chat, found some common ground and words flowed from there.

That script never got made, which is a shame because it’s really good … or rather, it was quite good. I’ve just made it really good by tweaking two things … but that’s another story and shall be told another time.

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Since the two tweaks had struck me, I’d been meaning to ring Jay and tell him about them … but he rang me first to talk over a new project he’s writing. It’s a good project and hopefully you’ll get to see it one day.

Being primarily an actor rather than a writer, Jay had a couple of writerly things he wanted to run by me – specifically, how to introduce a complex backstory in the opening minute or so.

People keep telling him not to use voice over or news reports because it’s against the rules.

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This is, of course, utter bollocks.

What they mean to say is “Don’t use voice over or news reports badly“.

That last word is vitally important.

Voice over in films can be fantastic.

News reports can be a superbly quick way of getting across lots of information.

They’re incredibly useful tools which, unfortunately, are incredibly easy to misuse.

So how should they be used?

Well … so here’s the thing. I hate giving advice. I hate laying down the law and saying “this is the way to do it!”

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… because it probably isn’t.

The problem with all script advice is someone, somewhere has broken it and created something wonderful. Every time I think I’ve taught myself a rule … I realise I’ve been ignoring all this other evidence to the contrary.

Humans are like that, we remember the evidence which backs up our conclusions, ignoring that which contradicts it instead of basing our conclusions on all the evidence. It’s just the way we’re wired.

So I apologise in advance if what I’m about to say is total bullshit.

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I think (but can’t be certain) that voice over works best when it’s either present tense or very, very brief. As in a few introductory lines and then disappears until the end of the movie.

Why?

Well, because I think if it’s all past tense then it makes what you’re watching feel like information you need to know before the story starts. If that past tense voice over goes on for the whole film … I spend the whole film waiting for the story to start.

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After an hour of waiting for the story to start, I get a little bored – come on! Hurry up!

Present tense voice over gets around that problem by seeming to be the voice overer’s inner thoughts. And even then, I think that only works if the character’s inner thoughts contradict or add additional information to what we’re seeing on screen.

Except when it doesn’t. I can see it being amusing to have a voice over explaining exactly what the character is about to say. But maybe not all the time?

Or maybe do. If it works.

Jay and I love voice over in films. Both of us (sorry) prefer the film noir version of Blade Runner (sorry) to the director’s cut (so sorry).

Which, now I think about it, may all be in past tense.

So’s Goodfellas’ voice over. That’s awesome too.

See what I mean about ‘rules’?

The other thing, the news report thing … well, to me, the problem with that is it’s not the protagonist talking. It’s a third party, explaining to you what’s happening in the background or last week or somewhere else.

A little of that is fine. A lot … well it just keeps me from connecting emotionally with the protagonist.

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Except when it doesn’t.

Used well, you get to see how the news affects the protagonist. If she’s watching the news, for example. Or maybe we get snippets of news reports interspersed/playing over the protagonist going about tasks which reflect/contrast with what’s going on in her life.

Something like that.

Again, I’m fairly certain there are films which blow this ill-thought-out theory out of the water.

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The good thing is, this kind of meandering musing was exactly the kind of food for thought Jay was looking for. And it struck me that this was exactly the kind of phone call #PhonePhill works well as – a reconnecting with an old acquaintance whilst chatting about random (occasionally writing-related) stuff.

So I’ve retconned this conversation as #PhonePhill #10. If you’d like to be #11 (assuming I haven’t already had #11 whilst you’ve been reading this) then get in touch. I want to talk to you, whoever you are, old friend or new, about whatever the hell you fancy.

Come on, #PhonePhill

Categories: #PhonePhill, Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #9: James Moran

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Still going! Next week’s conversation has already happened too – I’m a week in hand!

Frankly, this is quite surprising … but lovely.

Conversation #9 is writer/director/raconteur/blogger/kitten-lover James Moran. He used to be known in these parts as TV’s James Moran but nowadays he’s got his fingers in every pie imaginable and has long-outgrown the confining title.

As is now customary, he was lovely.

One day, someone on the other end of the phone won’t be lovely. On that day I will break with tradition and refuse to name them as such.

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But today is not that day.

Full disclosure: I already know James, but haven’t spoken to him for a long time. Ages, in fact. Maybe even longer.

We do know each other though, so we do have each other’s phone numbers. With most #PhonePhillees I email them my phone number so they can call me – this isn’t because I’m cheap and don’t want to use my free minutes (even though I am and I don’t) but because I don’t want to go round harvesting complete strangers’ phone numbers – if they have mine, they can choose not to ring me on the day or withhold their number and keep their anonymity.

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But because I already have James’ number (which I will sell for the right price. Or even the wrong one) I rang him.

Or at least, I tried to.

First time it went to his voicemail, so I hung up and immediately tweeted him to accuse him of leading me on.

He assured me he was there, ready and waiting. Possibly moist with anticipation … I mean, he didn’t say he was, but he probably was.

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So I rang him again and got the same voicemail. Only … what was that surname? The voice (which didn’t sound like his voice at all) definitely said it was James someone … but it was a bit muffled and didn’t sound like Moran.

Closer examination revealed his contact had two mobile numbers. Only one of which was his. The one he text me from. The only mobile number he has. The one I hadn’t just called. Twice.

So apologies if you’re called James something and are wondering why I called you twice on Friday without leaving a message, but the truth of the matter is I hung up because you’re not James Moran.

Hey, few are.

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James Moran, luckily, is.

Chat was wide and varied. We started off with a discussion about haircuts – James had just had his cut at a very reasonable price. My barber is slightly more expensive than James’, but worth sticking with because (for some reason I don’t quite understand) he’s convinced I wrote Iron Man 3.

I’ve never bothered to correct this mis-assumption because … fuck it. I’ll take that credit.

After that (and a few pleasantries) we moved on to directing.

James does it.

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I don’t.

James has also taught himself editing and grading and possibly even flower arranging. He seems like the kind of chap who’s determined to learn it all.

Normally I’m wary of writer/directors* feeling that, although there are many people who are awesome at both, they are a tiny percentage compared to the people who aren’t.

Generally speaking^ someone who lists themselves as more than one creative contributor tends to be someone who’s failing at more than one thing. As if they have a limited pool of talent and would probably be really good at one thing or the other … but when that talent is divided between writing, directing, producing, catering, dress making … it just doesn’t work.

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James, happily, belongs to the people who can. He’s directed a few shorts:

and this FrightFest intro/ident thingy:

He’s good. At all of it.

He’s working towards directing his first feature … that will be a day worth waiting for.

James thinks every writer should direct their own thing. He says it’s massively illuminating and helps your writing immensely.

Since I haven’t done it, I can only assume he’s right. I do occasionally think about directing a little web series … but then I don’t bother, I’m too busy.

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Maybe one day … and then I too can be terrible at two things.

Conversation then drifted, quite naturally, onto Matt Houston.

Well, not specifically Matt Houston, but those kind of action adventure shows in general. James and I loved them growing up and lament the fact no one really makes them any more.

I suppose The Flash is probably the nearest thing. Which I love and can’t wait for the next season.

But where are all the Saturday adventure shows? Where are The Fall Guys and The A-teams? Who’s the spiritual successor to Matt Houston, Magnum, The Dukes of Hazzard, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Automan?

Why does no one make the kind of things the ten year old me loved?

Or maybe they do and I just don’t watch them because I’m not ten? Maybe all those shows of my youth were terrible to anyone who was an adult and I’m missing out on the modern day equivalent because I am now (nominally) an adult and therefore dismiss them as terrible?

Maybe. I don’t know.

For those of you interested in that period, you could do a lot worse than watching this interview with Glen A. Larson.

Glen A. Larson, for those of you young enough not to remember his name on the end of every other US TV show in the 80s was the driving force behind … well, every other US TV show in the 80s. Stephen J. Cannell created all the others.

And Donald P. Bellisario of course. He did the third half.

Why did everyone in the 80s have a middle initial? If I use my middle initial, will I be able to create a raft of amazing action adventure shows?

Might be worth a try.

The big question, of course, is which of those shows would you most like to remake as a movie?

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James went for Knight Rider – which is an excellent choice. Four times someone has tried to remake it and each time they’ve fucked it up because … well, watch those Glen A. Larson interviews to find out. He knows, because he was dead clever.

Me? I’d go for either The Fall Guy (which is supposed to be happening with The Rock as Colt Seavers! I really, really want to see that movie!@) or Tales of the Gold Monkey.

And that was #PhonePhill #9.

#10 is already done and awaiting a write up … so who’s next?

I would love to talk to you no matter who you are or what you do. Industry connected or not. Aspiring something or professional something completely different.

Anyone, I don’t care. Email me and we’ll work something out.

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*I wrote a post about this once, referring to them scathingly throughout as hyphenates … until someone pointed out in the comments I always used a / and not a –

^Generally, not always and not YOU. You, of course, are amazing at both … that’s why either no one will pay you to do it or why all your films (which you are in complete control of since you also produced them yourself) got a whopping 1 star rating on IMDb#.

#IMDb reviews for terrible low budget movies always follow the same pattern. The first five reviews will be 10 stars … because that’s someone’s family/friends/alternate personality posting them.

Then the film gets released, real people actually get to see it and it tanks completely.

How do I know? Because I’ve tracked many of the terrible movies I’ve written.

@Just use the theme tune. Please. The theme tunes are part of what made those shows so awesome and so memorable. I loved The A-Team movie (why didn’t everyone else?) but it really, really needed to rip into the theme tune after the voice over before the end credits. Not using the theme there was just silly. I know they did use it earlier … but come on! I wanted to leave the auditorium humming the theme.

Actually, I was anyway.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Competition

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Competition. I’m not afraid of it, are you?

That’s not to say I’m confident I can out-write any other writer, far from it. In fact, if anything, I tend to assume everyone else is better than me and I need to try harder.

Those of you who’ve seen any of the films I’ve written might well agree. Those of you who understand the filmmaking process might well decide to reserve judgement until after you’ve read one of the scripts they were loosely based on.

Either way, I rarely compare myself favourably to anyone else.

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And still I’m not afraid of a bit of competition.

Every project I’ve ever worked on has involved a degree of competition. Every co-written job has me jostling with the co-writer to get my ideas and my lines into the script instead of his.

When I was writing sketches, I was competing with dozens of other writers. Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn’t. When I didn’t, it was because I either wasn’t good enough or someone else was just better.

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Every time I submit a script to anyone I’m competing with every other script on the market. Competition is just what the job is … so I was amazed to hear this story from a fellow writer:

The gist of it is she was contacted by a produced and repped writer who had an idea he didn’t have time to write – would she be interested in writing it for him in return for a co-writing credit? There’s no money upfront, but he’ll take it to his agent and hawk it round his producer contacts.

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Now … yeah.

This is a really odd thing for one writer to ask another. It’s just not cricket … but, it’s not unheard of. It does happen. Sort of. I’ve collaborated with friends with no money involved with the intention of selling the script afterwards.

It happens.

I get contacted every couple of months by someone with a similar propostion – will you write my fantastic idea for me? I’ll split the writing credit and if we sell it …

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I’ll write it for a fee for sole writing credit and if you sell it, you can pay me the rest.

These request usually come from people who aren’t writers, producers or anything else in the industry. They come from people who have an (usually crap) idea and a whim.

They rarely consider offering to pay me for my time and effort.

Well, almost never.

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But this case was different.

This was an established writer (ostensibly) looking to enter into a mutually beneficial deal with a new writer. He even offered to let the writer take the script if they couldn’t sell it within a specified time period … so essentially it’s an unproduced writer writing a spec script with the assistance and input of a produced writer who was better placed to sell it than she was.

Probably worth a gamble.

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Hell, she thought, I may even get representation out of it since he’s going to show it to his agent. If I do a good job he’ll probably recommend me.

So she signed a contract (good start) and got to work.

After a lot of faffing and pointless, terrible notes later they had a script he liked. She didn’t, but he clearly knew more than her so she went with his opinion.

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At the end of the specified period, he reneged on the contract because he liked the script and wanted to keep it. She hated the script, so … fine. Keep it. But, um, since you liked my work so much, would you mind recommending me to your agent?

No. Or rather, yes. Yes he would mind. He wasn’t going to recommend her because she writes the same kind of stuff as him and he doesn’t want the competition.

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I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what the words “utter fucking shitbag” were invented for.

Absolutely fucking appalling behaviour from an utter coward.

I just don’t understand that kind of behaviour. I love championing new writers. I love it when I find someone better than me, because I get to watch something exceptionally well written which I can fall in love with and learn from.

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Michelle Lipton, Piers Beckley, Danny Stack, Rosie Claverton, Dominic Carver, Jason Arnopp, James Moran, Tim Clague, Paul Campbell, Julie Bower … fuck it, everyone on the blogroll to the right, all of them are better writers than me. You should hire them, all of them. You should be banging on their doors (I have their addresses) and offering them work.

But you know what? Come see me too. I may not be as good as them, but I may surprise you.

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Competition is good, it raises the bar for everyone and forces us all to continually up our game.

I’m not afraid of competition and genuinely don’t understand anyone who is.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: | Leave a comment

How to write the perfect cameo

Sorry, there should be a question mark on that title because the truth is I don’t know. Haven’t the Scoobiest.

What I do know is the later a cameo is chucked into the script (generally) the worse it will be.

If a client said at the outline stage “Let’s write a really meaty cameo in the hope of attracting a decent actor.” then it’s pretty easy to work it into the fabric of the story, primarily because there isn’t a story yet.

At every stage after that it becomes harder and harder until you get the worst kind of cameo, the one which is inserted after principle photography has wrapped.

“I’ve just bumped into *insert name of someone who may or may not have a cult following or moderate box office success* and we HAVE to get them into the film.”

Really? We have to? Absolutely have to?

Because we’re currently struggling to piece the film together after you fired half the cast mid-shoot, cast people you fancied as opposed to people who could act and decided to shoot all the close, personal, intimate bedroom scenes in the middle of a rock gig.

Chucking in a random scene which has no connection to the plot just so you can put this woman’s name on the DVD cover isn’t going to make the film any better.

But the problem is, it will help sell the DVD … initially. For an incredibly short period of time.

Because the absolute worst thing about late-in-the-process-cameos is distributors tend to slap their name on the cover as if they’re the star of the film. Their fans buy the DVD in dribbles and get pissed off because their favourite star isn’t actually in the film at all.

Okay, there’s a single scene in there which features the actor but since it was filmed on a different day in a different location with none of the original cast … it’s hardly IN the film, is it?

And that’s another problem with cameos – we can rarely shoot them in the same location/set as the bulk of the story. At best we get to include one of the principle cast.

So are the best cameos the ones where you didn’t know the actor was going to appear? Is it more fun to suddenly go “Hey! It’s whats-her-face! I didn’t know she was in this!” or to spend the whole film waiting to see her, only to find out she has a three-minute comedy turn in a newsagent selling a pack of Toffos to a minor character who, for no reason whatsoever, has paused in the middle of a car chase, mysteriously changing his hair do and his trousers+ in order to purchase some teeth-gumming sweeties?

I think the former is better.

Every single distributor in the whole world would disagree.

In the absolute worst case scenario, they’ll rebrand the whole movie as a different genre (the one the cameo star is famous for) and sell the DVD as something it’s not to people who would never have bought it in the first place. Those people will (rightly) hate the movie for it not being what they were told it was and slag it off to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who won’t.

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Self-defeating, I think. But then I don’t have access to the sales figures nor the brain to interpret them properly, so I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about.

I do know I’ve just been asked to include a cameo for someone in a feature script which is currently casting. Getting that actor involved would be absolutely fucking amazingly awesome, literally the high-watermark of my career.

But I don’t want it to derail the story. I don’t want the story to screech to a complete standstill, shift to a different location for a pointless scene and then struggle to pick up momentum afterwards.

Luckily, neither does the client.

Luckily he’s easily one of my favourite clients when it comes to lavishing care and attention on the script. He really, really cares about making it the best it can possibly be and is absolutely adamant that whereas getting this actor involved would be amazing, it must not interfere with what we already have.

How nice is that?

Even more luckily, there does seem to be a way to do exactly that. The cameo feels like it’s meant to be there. It feels relevant. It feels as if it was always there and is one of the key scenes which helps explain the actions of one of the main characters.

It even manages to solve the knotty problem of why someone who’s clearly American would coincidentally be in England three times over a ten year period at exactly the times we’re telling the story without actually living here.

It’s also funny and moving and tragic all at the same time.

Unusually I’m rather proud of it. This is a new emotion for me since I mostly feel I could probably do better.

Pride, an emotional cameo in my life.

Hopefully it won’t come before a fall.

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I hate using the word actor as a non-gender word. I understand the logic behind it, as was explained to me by the great Piers Beckley “You don’t call a female pilot a pilotess or doctor a doctress, so why use it for actors you big old sexist?”. Yeah, that makes sense … except (rightly or wrongly. Mostly wrongly) the default mental image for an actor, pilot or doctor is a man.^ Test this for yourself, tell a story about a trip to the doctor and end with an unanswered question. I bet you almost everyone will ask you “Well, what did HE say?” – even other female doctors.

Mind you, that might be because some people still peddle the myth that ‘he’ should always be used when the gender is unknown. That is of course proper bollocks.

Maybe there should be female words for all professions to reinforce the idea that women also do those roles? Maybe the term ‘actress’ is LESS sexist because it gives women their own name as opposed to having to adopt the male name for it?

Or maybe not.

It does make casting a teensy bit more awkward when you have to explain you’re looking for a female actor as opposed to just using one word ‘actress’.

I like to alternate pronouns in my blogs he/she hers/his, etc … when I just use the word ‘actor’ over and over again I worry people think I’m only talking about men.

I probably worry too much.

+ The trousers change because this scene has been shot three months later and the original trousers have been eaten by ninjas. Nobody knows why ninjas eat trousers, but they do. It’s a fact.

^As evidenced in the pilot-psych question:

“What would you do if you were on a night-stop and the Captain came down to the bar in a dress?”

The correct answer of course being “Offer to buy her a drink.” Or more likely, get her to buy you a drink because Captains are fucking minted.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #1: Calum Chalmers

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Surprisingly, this actually worked. It turns out there are people in this world who actually want to talk to a complete stranger about writing and/or random stuff on a whim.

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Conversation #1 was with Calum Chalmers.

Actually, technically #1 was Tim Clague who rang up on a whim just because … well, just because he can, I guess. I think it was meant to be a gag but it was foiled by technology – my phone correctly identified him before he could spring his dastardly trap. But hey, he rang, so let’s call him Conversation #0 and use that opportunity to slip in teaser trailer #2 for Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg?

But back to Calum Chalmers, the proper Conversation #1.

Calum is a writer/director who has also acted at least once. Here he is, on the left, in David Lemon‘s Faintheart:

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As often happens in these situations, although Calum and I have never met or spoken before, we do have a few mutual friends. It’s a small industry on a small island, be nice to people – everyone knows someone who knows you.

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As the appointed time for the call approached, I remembered one key fact: I fucking hate talking on the phone. Especially to strangers. You might think it’s odd that I decided to try this experiment … and you’d be right.

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Still, as it happens the conversation was easy and flowing and genuinely interesting, entertaining and fun. Or at least I thought it was, I’m not going to round putting words into Calum’s mouth.

We talked about a lot of industry stuff, films in general and about Calum’s career so far and his future plans.

I had no idea going into this how long the call might last and was quite surprised to find out it went on for about an hour and a half. Didn’t feel that long, but unless there was some kind of incredibly localised temporal anomaly … that’s how long it was.

Calum’s written and directed two shorts so far:

If You Go Down

and

Graduation Afternoon

He was kind enough to send me a link for Graduation Afternoon and it’s very good. Here’s a trailer:

One of the things we talked about is something I think we all struggle with: what should I do next?

We have all these ideas, far more than anyone could possibly write in a lifetime and somehow we have to pick the one to focus on, the one we think has the best chance of moving our career forward.

The glib answer is ‘pick the one you care most about’.

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But which one’s that?  I know I have a good dozen ideas I’m equally as excited about … until I actually try to write them then I quickly discover how interesting things like bus time tables and bits of wall are.

So maybe we should be more mercenary?

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Maybe we should focus on the one which is most likely to catapult us to fame and fortune and … something else beginning with ‘F’.

Um … Fridge? Foot spa? Falafel?

No idea.

But which one is that? Which project is most likely to get us the falafel we so desperately crave? Is it the low budget thing we can make ourselves? Is it the sell out thing we’re pretty certain we can get funding for even though it’s bound to be terrible? Even if we can get the money, do we use it for a micro-budget feature or a big-budget short? Do we aim for commercial success? Or Internet notoriety? Or festival love?

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Well, the answer’s simple:

I have no idea.

In pretty much the same I have no idea why anyone would want this:

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All I do know is I enjoyed chatting with Calum and look forward to Conversation #2 on next week’s #PhonePhill.

If you want to be Conversation #3 then drop me an email and we’ll work it out.

If you’d like to chat with Calum yourself, you can find him on Twitter here.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Vanishing point

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I once accidentally got involved in a discussion/argument about the midpoint of Back to the Future.

It was one of those pointless online scriptwriting debates where lots of people who’ve never sold scripts harangue each other for not following rules laid down by other people who have also never sold scripts and have instead taken to writing books about how people can achieve successful writing careers by following the advice which didn’t work for them.

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For some reason (call it capricious youth, call it naivety, call it shit-stirring) I chipped in with my opinion:

The midpoint in Back to the Future is when Doc Brown points at the audience and says “We’re sending you back to the future.” The reason I think that’s the midpoint is because that’s where the intermission was in the cinema … so it’s probably roughly halfway through.

I got called a lot of names.

Actually, I don’t think I did. I think people just disagreed … but that doesn’t sound as interesting as the version where everyone except me is an idiot. Despite the precise opposite being true in almost every case.

Some people thought the midpoint came a few sentences later when the characters realise Marty’s past is disappearing.

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Others thought it was at the end of the scene when Marty accidentally outshines George in the town square/skateboard bit.

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Others still thought it was later on again, when Marty fails to get Lorraine interested in George and they come up with the new plan to get them to kiss on the dance floor.

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Yet more people thought it was when Marty threatened to melt George’s brain.

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One or two even thought it was earlier when Marty finally managed to persuade Doc to listen to him. An upbeat midpoint.

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I believe there was even one lone voice who insisted (quite vocally, possibly in ALL CAPS) that the midpoint comes when Doc realises it’s impossible to generate the 1.21 gigawatts needed for time travel.

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At the time I remember distinctly not caring.

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But it’s been playing on my mind ever since.

Well, not ever since. Occasionally. When I’ve got nothing better to do. Or when I have got better things to do and don’t want to do them.

It’s not that I think I was right (which is weird – I always think I’m right) and don’t get me wrong, I still don’t care … but my not caring has become the point. For me.

I don’t think these points should be points. I don’t really like having a specific frame of film I can point at and go “Aha! That’s the inciting incident!”

Or the midpoint or the ‘all is lost’ moment or … you know, stuff.

Apart from those times where the midpoint is a twist or shock reveal which throws the film onto a completely different path … I think these story points should be kind of smeared out.

To me, a midpoint isn’t point, it’s curve. It’s where the story changes trajectory because sustaining the pursuit of one goal for the entire second act is a tricky thing to do.

Something happens which either knocks the protagonist off course or changes their goals. Or introduces a new goal they have to accomplish before they can achieve their original one.

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Sometimes these are instant, right-angle changes … but more often than not they’re a slight change of course. Sort of heading towards the original goal but on a tangential path. Or maybe a parallel one?

A single event may initiate that course correction but more often than not several things have to happen to push the protagonist onto the new course. The curved path between course A and course B is a constant state of change during which the protagonist tries to stay on course A like a satnav refusing to accept the driver is trying to avoid the A259 … before finally (and grumpily. I’m sure my satnav gets the hump) accepting the new route home.

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In other words, it’s not an obvious text-book point. It’s a gentle, organic change from one state of play to another. The midpoint I scribbled on an index card at the beginning of the process becomes a scene or a sequence, smearing the point out over several pages of script.

I kind of see that as my job, to make clear and identifiable points and then hide them in the flesh of the piece. The changes should feel surprising but also inevitable. They should feel like there was no other way for that change to happen … but not stand out as a plot point we were aiming to hit precisely on page 55.

I like my stories to have smooth transitions from one act to another rather than sharp and spiky points which flag themselves as screenwriting 101.

Except when I don’t.

Sometimes that shock twist or reveal is the best thing for the story. I guess each story defines its own type of plot points.

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So in the case of Back to the Future – who was right? Where is the midpoint?

Well … all of the above. Surely? All of those things contribute to a change of direction and a new goal for the character. All of those things happen somewhere in the middle and the fact no one can agree on which one is THE one is kind of the point.

At least I think it is anyway.

Bullshit or not?

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’ll end it on a largely unconnected anecdote. My six-year-old daughter watched all three Back to the Futures on consecutive weekends. During the third film, Doc Brown tells Marty to take the time machine back to 1985 and dismantle it. My daughter made me stop the film and demanded to know why he wanted the time machine destroyed?

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“Well,” says I, “you remember in the second film when Biff got hold of the time machine? He changed everything didn’t he? He made it all bad and Doc doesn’t want that to happen again.”

My daughter thought that was silly:

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“He doesn’t have to destroy it though, does he? Why doesn’t he just put a lock on it? It could be an electric lock with a voice thing so you have to say ‘Hello, this is Doc’ or ‘Hello, this is Marty’ and the door would open. But if you didn’t say it then it would electrocute you and kill you.”

Which, as points go, is a damned fine one … and one I wish I’d thought of.

A bit like this watch:

I’m going to stop now. Choco-delirium has set in.

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

Everything that follows is a lie

I went to see Focus at some point prior to writing this post and it was … alright. Entertaining enough. Sort of.

I thought it suffered in a couple of ways. One movie-specific, the other genre-inherent.

Oh …

SPOILERS FOR FOCUS

POSSIBLY

BUT PROBABLY NOT

The movie-specific problem was a lack of through line throughout the script. There was no clear goal for the protagonist, no indication of what he wanted or needed and (crucially) when he will have achieved it.

In other words, it’s a bit like watching a race and not knowing if it’s a 100 metre sprint or a marathon. Or possibly a triathalon. Or maybe they’re all running to a pasty shop? If you don’t know when the race will be over, it’s hard to build tension towards the end or care about whether or not the protagonist will win.

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I’m aware not everyone wants this in a film, but I do. I like to know where the finishing post is … and then be surprised at how the protagonist crosses it.

Or not. Not crossing the finishing line is fine too. Not saving the day or the guy or the girl or the city or yourself or … anything. That’s fine too. So long as I know what they meant to do.

Focus doesn’t seem to have that. Or if it does, it’s not apparent to me what it was. Which might be my failing rather than the film’s. To me, stuff just happened … for a bit. And then, at an undefined point … it stopped happening. Then it turned out to be carrying on for a bit. Then it really stopped. Then it started again a few years later … and then stopped again.

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Fun, entertaining stuff … but just stuff for no apparent reason all the same. Maybe it would be more fun the second time around?

The genre-inherent reason is more problematic and pretty much derailled the story for me.

And it’s this: it’s a heist movie. Specifically, it’s a conman heist movie.

Or conwoman.

Conperson movie.

Con movie. The whole movie is a con.

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The problem there is we all know how these movies work – nothing you see is real. Nobody is who they say they are and nothing they do or say is what you think they’ve done or said.

Nothing.

Don’t bother getting attached to any of the characters or invested in the plot because it’s not real. The movie is lying to you. Everyone on screen is lying to you. The filmmakers are challenging you to spot the lie.

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That police man? He’s working for them.

That older person? She’s someone’s parent.

That bank? It’s not a bank, it’s a fake bank.

They’re not in a taxi, it’s a lie.

That’s not a plane, it’s a lie.

It’s all lies. All of it. Nothing’s real. Believe nothing and trust no one!

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And that’s a problem for me. I find my brain making assumptions which aren’t right. Assumptions which obfuscate whatever character goals may or may not be present.

In Focus, I thought she was playing him from the beginning. I thought she might be a cop. I thought maybe he was a cop. Or maybe they both were and it was just a very badly planned operation.

None of those things happened …

WARNING!

THAT THING I JUST WROTE IS AN ANTI-SPOILER!

I JUST MADE THE FILM BETTER!

… but because I spent the whole film assuming one of them would, I didn’t bother getting invested in what was actually happening because I didn’t believe it was.

This might be the old age cliche kicking in – perhaps I’ve just seen too many of these kinds of films and it’s aimed at a younger audience who don’t expect these kinds of twists?

Yeah, maybe.

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But maybe we should be trying to compensate for this built in suspicion? Maybe the only way to effectively write a modern con movie is to start the con before the movie opens? Maybe the only way to nip this kind of audience detachment in the bud is to hide the fact you’re watching a con movie?

That’s what I’m doing with my current script. I’m not letting anyone know it’s a con performed by a conwoman until the very last scene. I’m giving her a completely false set of goals, problems and intentions … with a genuine need underpinning it all. She will never achieve any of the things she sets out to do because she never intended to do them.

The film can be marketed and sold as a completely different genre and (hopefully) no one will know what they’re really watching until the final image.

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Hopefully.

I don’t think that’s a unique solution and I know other films have done the same thing … but to me it’s an elegant solution which fixes a genre-inherent problem which may not even exist outside of my own brain.

But fuck it, it’s my brain and I want to write a movie which will fool me.

Basically, I’m running a con on myself.

Or am I?

Bullshit or not?

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Old age cliché

RiddleMeThis

When is a cliché not a cliché?

That’s not a riddle, by the way. It’s a question because I have no idea.

I know a cliché when I see one … but not always when I use one.

On occasion I’ve had people asserting something I’ve never seen before is a cliché even when they can’t give any examples of where or when it’s been used.

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But, you know, I know that does happen sometimes.

I know there are some campfire tales which are so widespread that no one could get away with using them in a script … or at least get away with claiming they came up with them. But sometimes I’m surprised by what people consider a cliché without being able to list either specific stories or specific characters.

This surprises me more the older I get, because as younger people roll up to give me notes, I would expect them to recognise less clichés rather than more.

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We all know, for example, that escaping in a ventilation duct is a cliché. Everyone knows that, no one would even consider using it in a film … except the people who do.

Why on Earth would anyone do that though when it’s such an overused cliché? Not just a cliché, an overused one. A double cliché, if you like?

Well … my daughter’s six and she wouldn’t consider that a cliché. She doesn’t really know what a cliché is and even if she did, she probably hasn’t seen anything where anybody uses a duct to escape something.

So does that mean it’s okay for people writing scripts aimed at six-year-olds to use the vent-duct cliché?

I mean, apart from the fact it’s fundamentally stupid and wouldn’t work?

Is there a statute of limitations on clichés?

Again, I don’t know, I’m genuinely asking.

As we get older, do more things seem like clichés? Do we inadvertently limit ourselves by avoiding clichés our potential audiences have never seen?

I think I’ve written a similar post to this before about jokes … but I can’t be arsed to look for it and it might have been a dream anyway. So take clams – the jokes which seem fresh and funny but quickly go off.

“He’s behind me, isn’t he?”
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Another joke I can’t be bothered to think of.”

Are these off the table forever?

Never-say-that

Or do we just have to wait ten years or so? Can we use them in kids’ stuff? Is it even a problem anyway?

Who are the people who complain about clichés?

Scriptwriters, critics and people on the Internet who think they’re critics?

Writers spend a disproportionate amount of time watching films and TV and trying not to do anything anyone else has done. Critics and Interneters just do the first bit.

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Are these people representative of the audience as a whole? Should we be taking their (and our) opinion as to what is or isn’t a cliché as gospel?

Or should we accept that the majority of the audience find these things funny or inventive years after people with too much screen-time on their eyes are bored of them?

Yet again, I don’t know. Just thinking in public.

When The Matrix came out – every damned concept or idea in that film was a hoary old cliché from a Century or so of science fiction pulps … yet people loved it because it (the first one! Just the first one!) was incredibly well done and packaged in a new way and, most importantly, watched by people who had never, ever come across those concepts before.

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It literally blew people’s minds.

Science fiction fans, on the other hand, could happily list a half-dozen books with the same concepts and point out (in dreary detail) that every long running sci-fi TV show has at least one episode with the same set up. Along with an episode where the characters end up in a parallel dimension and one where two (or more) of the major characters swap bodies.

Imagine if the Wachowskis had brought that script to me:

“Yeah, well it’s well written and all … but you’re clearly just ripping off Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin. Can’t you think of something original?”

That, by the way, is why I’m not a development exec – I’d be fucking terrible at it.

So the question remains – should we as writers avoid all clichés forever more? Or is it acceptable to reanimate the classics after a certain rest period? Maybe each individual writer should be allowed to use each cliché exactly once? Or maybe individual writers should avoid the clichés they recognise, but not get bent out of shape when script-ociety as a whole keeps using them?

I don’t know

All I know is that’s more than one question and I wish I had some answers.

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Categories: Industry Musings | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Failing towards success

WARNING!

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR BIG HERO 6

… OR IT MAY NOT.

I DON’T KNOW, I HAVEN’T WRITTEN IT YET.

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Over the half-term my family and I watched Big Hero 6 and we loved it. We thought it was exciting and emotional and hilarious and … well, all the things we expect from a Disney and/or Pixar film.

Following on from last week, it can quite clearly be broken down into thing/reason chunks and just generally hit each emotional beat bang on. It’s the kind of movie I’d love to be writing.More than that, it was written in a manner I’d love to be able to employ. I don’t know if you know how Disney/Pixar write their animations, if you do then there’s no new insight here. If you don’t it’s well worth checking out Jeff Goldsmith’s The Q&A Podcast:

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This isn’t the first time the process has been mentioned in the podcasts, but I was listening to it this morning (which was last week some time in your universe) and once again it struck me how much I’d love to write movies that way.

If you haven’t come across this yet then basically the writer(s) write their script (with input at every stage – outline, treatment, script -from The Braintrust: a whole bunch of writers, directors and animators and other clever people) …

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… and then hand it over to be roughly animated in a kind of big-screen flickbook with temp voices and soundtrack.

Once they have a watchable film, everyone piles in, watches it and tears it to pieces.

The writers take whatever’s left, whatever everyone agrees are the good bits along with suggestions from everyone present, go away and begin the process again.

They do this half a dozen times or so. I think they did it eight times for Big Hero 6.

Eight times.

Eight times they ‘made’ the movie, screened it and then tore it apart and started again.

Eight. Times.

Over several years. Three, I think in this case.

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That’s not eight drafts of the script. Each scratch-movie goes through several drafts of the script before being animated.

Some people might find that soul-destroying, but I find it wonderful. An impossible dream, an environment where you’re expected to make mistakes. Over and over. An environment where everyone just wants the script to be right before they start spending serious money on it.

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Okay, so I know that’s kind of what happens with every script – you write a draft, it gets notes, you write it again … but that’s just not the same as seeing it on the screen before you.

I’ve had the opportunity to do endless rewrites on a project and it (usually) produces good results – providing the people I’m working for have the best interests of the story at heart.

I’ve also had situations where the first thing I’ve written has been filmed. Sometimes without my knowledge.

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I’ve written on projects where my first draft, the horribly rough one I haven’t even had time to spellcheck, the one which makes no fucking sense whatsoever, has been sent out to investors and cast and directors and … yeah, that’s not good.

I’ve written for people whose company motto is ‘get it right first time or you’re sacked’. You get one crack at this and I want it by tomorrow!

That rarely goes well.

What I’ve never had is anyone telling me it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to just take your time, meander in and out of blind alleys and dead ends and let’s just see where this thing goes.

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‘Failing towards success’ is how Robert L. Baird or possibly Paul Briggs described it. And I like that idea.

I know it’s not really practical in live action to make and remake the film eight times … but, actually, why not? Why can’t you make a flick-book version before you go out and film it?

I mean, I know things go wrong on set and have to be abandoned or the actors insist on improvising so much they miss the point of the story or directors want the freedom to suddenly decide to shoot the sun-tan scene at midnight because it looks cool.

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But in principle, wouldn’t every film benefit from having test-screening before anyone’s stumped up $100,000,000 for something which fundamentally doesn’t make any sense?

Reading scripts is hard. Even people who are good at it and are good at giving notes still miss glaring mistakes which are obvious when you’re sat watching the movie. A joke on the page may be amazing … until you realise what or who they’re saying it in front of. Or how what they’re wearing affects what you feel about them.

context-is-everything

Test screenings and reshoots help catch those^ but while you may be able to reshoot a few scenes or even a whole sequence, you can’t rewrite the entire script from scratch to incorporate newer, better ideas. To a large degree, whatever you have at the end of the shoot is what you have to make a movie out of – regardless of how little sense it may make.

I love the idea of being able to fail fast and fail early in complete safety, knowing that’s the entire point: make your mistakes now so we don’t have to fix them (or lump them) later on.

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I love the idea of multiple notes from mulitple sources all of whom want your script to succeed.

But most of all, I love the idea of being able to write a draft, seeing it on the big screen and then being able to have a second, third or eighth crack at it.

That, to me, sounds like heaven.

I’d like to do that, please.

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* I have written things like this, one of them seems to be gaining a bit of traction … but then these things always seem to be when all you get is the occasional producer update.

^ I’ve writte quite a few movies where, not only are they not test-screened, but the producers don’t let anyone (sometimes including the director) see the edit until it’s released … by which time it’s too late. That’s quite frustrating, especially when there’s a simple bit of dialogue you could have ADR’d which would have made the story seem less implausible. Or shit.

Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | Leave a comment

Three acts – why not?

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This week I’ve been listening to/reading about writers who rail against a three act structure – it doesn’t apply to my art, it’s constrictive, it’s prescriptive, it’s just plain bollocks …

I’ve never quite understood the problem. To me the three acts are BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END … don’t all stories have those?

Except Mr and Mrs Smith, which I seem to remember just stops at the end of the middle.*

2012-07-13-Happy-Ending

But generally, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t they? They might not follow chronologically, but all three bits should be there.

“Aha!” people exclaim, righteously pleased with themselves for having out-thunk me ” MOMENTO doesn’t follow the three act structure and that’s a great film!”

Well, yes it is … but it still has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is a murder, the middle is a ‘why did/will he do it’? and the end is when the story concludes and we understand what did/will happen.

Still three bits to my brain.

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Generally the beginning and the end are shorter than the middle, that makes sense to me.

Beginning: this is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.

Middle: this is all the things they go through trying to get the thing they want.

End: they get it. Or don’t, in a way which is fairly permanent.

That’s it, three acts.

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“Aha!”

Oh fuck, it’s him again.

“Shakespeare wrote in five acts and Shakespeare is awesome so therefore the three act structure is wrong!”

Well … maybe. I don’t have any Shakespeare to hand (at the time of writing this) but I’m fairly certain those five acts will divide up into beginning, middle and end.

Maybe acts one and two are the beginning, three and four are the middle and five is the end? Or some other combination, but I’m fairly certain there’ll always be three bits.

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Every time I read someone who propounds a five act structure, on closer examination there turns out to be three acts broken into smaller bits. People break the beginning into two bits: before and after some kind of inciting incident (which seems to be what Shakespeare does, if memory serves). Then they break the middle into two bits and call them different things. Five act people rarely seem to divide up the end, but sometimes they do.

The other advice which comes with the three act structure is exactly that: chuck in an inciting incident halfway through the first act – in other words, introduce us to the main character before you start changing things for them. After the inciting incident, maybe have them worried about accepting that change before taking the plunge?

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In the middle, maybe consider changing something around halfway through? It’s a fuck-long way from the beginning to the end, so maybe get to halfway and pull the rug out from under them? Or in someway alter the story to stop it being monotonous?

At the end of the middle, it’s dramatically satisfying to make the audience thing everyone is fucked. Then they win. Maybe.

That’s all the three act structure is … but still people rail against it and I think the problem is the word ‘act’ – it’s either misleading or completely the wrong word.

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What is an act?

To me, it’s a place where you could cut to an ad break or close the curtains for an interval or otherwise just pause for a da-da-daaaaaaa! moment.

And that’s it.

I guess we should feel free to divide it up anyway we like to help us write it … but when we’re discussing it with anyone, it helps to think in three acts because the three act structure is just a codified way of talking about the components of a film. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end … with a few handy signposts along the way which *most* satisfying stories hit.

Most. Not all, just most.

So why is the idea of a beginning a middle and an end so offensive to some writers?

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* Lots of films seem to struggle with the concept of a beginning, middle and end. Like HANCOCK which has a beginning, middle, end and then another beginning, middle and end. Or CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER which has a very clear beginning, middle and end … and then carries on for another hour because there are apparently there are still story-extraneous Nazis who need punching.
The lesson I learnt from these is to try to put the end of the story at the end of the film. Like all lessons, it’s easier to say than to do.
Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 3 Comments

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