Industry Musings

#PhonePhill – Conversation #14: Calum Chalmers (The Revenge)

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Hello, what have you been up to? I’ve been chatting to Calum Chalmers (again) who’s still a lovely writer-director type chappy. Calum was the first (sort of) ever #PhonePhill in April last year, proving this talk-to-a-stranger-malarkey* might just actually work. Last time, we spoke about this sort of thing.

This time we spoke about many, many things over the course of about two and a half hours.

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Blimey. Was it really that long? Or did the clocks go forward midway through? Doesn’t seem likely, so yeah … must have been.

In that long, meandering two and a half hours we covered more many, many things. Including, but not limited to:

  1. Dealing with notes, both giving and receiving.
  2. Weird behaviour from apparent professionals.
  3. Bland trailers.
  4. Remakes and reboots.
  5. Small island/small industry.
  6. Social media implosions.
  7. Other stuff.

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On which topics I generally feel:

  1. I’d rather be taking notes than giving them.
  2. Just be fucking nice to each other. Why is that so difficult?
  3. Trailers don’t excite me any more. They might as well just be a poster informing me of the film’s existence. Are trailers badly made? Or is it because most trailers I watch are for franchises which I’m probably going to go and see anyway and my enjoyment will depend entirely on the execution? This is the only trailer this year I’ve been excited about:
  4. I don’t care any more if anyone remakes anything. When they remade Bedazzled my friends hid Empire magazine from me for six months, afraid of what I might do if I found out. Now they’re remaking Ghostbusters … fine, whatever.
  5. See point 2. Calum and I have never met … but we know a lot of the same people. We swapped stories. Years ago I read a script he’s recently optioned. It’s all very incestuous … so be nice.
  6. See point 5. We all get bitter or blue sometimes … keep it to yourself. Ranting about it on your network of choice is unlikely to get you any work. Quite the opposite in fact.
  7. Yes.

One other thing we discussed was pigeon-holing. Should writers do it to themselves? The advice for American writers is a resounding yes. Be the go-to guy for something … you can always break out and back in again later on.

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But does that hold true in the UK?

I think it does. Writing is a hard craft to master and different genres require different skill sets. Not specialising has hurt my career because when I get to the point where someone says:

“I like this, but don’t want to make it … have you got anything similar?”

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The answer is always: no. I’ve got something of equal quality but a completely different genre or medium … which is of no interest.

Unfortunately I’ve had movies produced in a variety of genres. I like switching it up every now and then. Right now I’ve got a political black comedy casting and a teen-vampire-sex-comedy in development. Okay, so technically they’re both comedies … but they are poles apart. Ready to go I have a seriously dark moral drama film, the first film in a kid’s Christmas franchise and a sword and sorcery action-adventure movie. I write what  interests me at the time and … well, I shouldn’t. I should specialise in something.

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I think, perhaps, maybe … kids’ TV is the place to specialise in the UK because … well, it covers everything, doesn’t it? It seems to get treated as one genre despite covering drama and soap and comedy and sci-fi and horror and … stuff. At least, that’s how it seems to be from the outside. Maybe writers for kid’s horror finds people are resistant to them writing comedy?

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I have no idea. I’d like to find out, maybe there’s someone working in kids’ TV in the UK who fancies a #PhonePhill? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Once again I finished this conversation thinking I like Calum, he seems like a nice guy. Hopefully we’ll work together one day.

If you fancy a natter, email me and we’ll have a chat. It doesn’t have to be for two and half hours, it can be for fifteen minutes. You don’t have to be in the industry, you can anything or anyone … so long as you have a phone and the willingness to use it.

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* This is the first time I’ve ever typed the word ‘malarkey’ it’s not spelt the way I thought it was. Unless it is and my spell check is wrong.

Some handy note-links for you:

How to Deal With Notes (a silly list)

Notes From The Other Side – Part 1 (why I was giving notes), Part 2 (how reality got it wrong), Part 3 (a rant about things not to do when receiving notes).

Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

2015

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So that was 2015.

No flying cars, there were hoverboards … but they didn’t hover, they just set fire to people’s houses.

Behind the scenes I had a thrilling and exciting year … but I can’t really talk about it.

Not yet, anyway … but one day. soon.

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This is what’s immensely frustrating about being a scriptwriter – all the exciting things happen (and often die) out of the spotlight. By the time I’m allowed to talk about things (because contracts have finally been negotiated and signed) it’s old news and any excitement is feigned.

Well, not feigned … diluted. Like having to remember how excited you were about a Christmas present you got last year when it’s since been broken by the kid next door.fake-smile

But hey, it’s been a busy year with lots of stuff going on. On paper, it probably looks like not a lot … but that’s just the nature of the business. I’ve done a few uncredited rewrites, one of which has just been released … which is a yay I can’t publicly acknowledge.

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But never mind. If I was in it for the applause, I wouldn’t be a writer.

The rest of 2015, the bits I did talk about, went something like this:

JANUARY

Apparently all I did in January was talk about 2014, which although it included Ghostbusters and a suspicious looking codpiece …

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… seems a bit of a waste of a bloggy month.

FEBRUARY

Ah, hello groove I was wondering where you’d gone.

February was a proper blogging month full of blogs and … well, just blogs.

First off I tried to get you all to commit acts of phone-related mischief by adding ‘Okay Google’ phrases into scripts which would punish anyone who had their phone on in the cinema.

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Did any of you do it? Please say someone did it.

Then I defended Footloose because … it’s fucking Footloose. Footloose is awesome.

After succcessfully re-educating the world about the joys of ’80s dance, I went on to prove the three act structure is fine – stop trying to reinvent the wheel, it works just fine.

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And then I immediately explained why it doesn’t really work that well for a scriptwriter.

Aren’t you glad you’ve got me around to explain these things to you?

MARCH

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb …

I, on the other hand, came in with a thing about the joy of failing

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… stumbled into a confused ramble about clichés

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… mumbled something I can’t be bothered to reread about page thinking

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… compared Joss Whedon to HTC and rambled about how frustrating it must be to be either of them …

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… and went out with an in-depth discussing about liars and lying for a living.

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APRIL

April is where things got interesting …

Just not at first. First I wondered if maybe you shouldn’t really be able to point to the midpoint in a film.

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Then I used my blog to educate my producer as to why he shouldn’t get his hopes up about the first draft I was just about to deliver …

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Just as it might have got interesting … I got angry about spoilers instead.

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Then it got interesting. I had a phone call

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It was Danny Stack … and he didn’t want anything except a chat.

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Where it got interesting was it kicked off a string of phone calls between me and … well, just people. Nice people. People like Calum Chalmers.

MAY

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And it carried on with more nice people like Robin Bell, Andrew Mullins and Dominic Carver.

In fact, most of May was taken up with phone calls, broken only by me trying to figure out how to write the perfect cameo (it worked! I wish I could tell you how well it worked … but I can’t) and to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary.

Oh and I went on a bit about competition and how much I enjoy it.

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JUNE

June continued the #PhonePhill-ing bringing delightful chats with Dee Chilton, Rosie Claverton and Rebecca Handley.

In fact, June was all phone calls apart from one post about being better and how we should all pursue knowledge as if it were a … thing. I don’t know. Insert your own simile, I’m tired.

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JULY

July brought yet more telephone awesomeness …

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This time in the shape of Mac McSharry, James Moran, Jay Sutherland and Terry Newman.

As well as yakking to people, I also (gasp!) worked over a weekend.

Apparently this is so shocking to me I felt the need to blog about it.

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I also made an uncredited appearance as Iron Man at a little boy’s birthday party in a homemade, cardboard costume:

I enjoyed that.

AUGUST

In August I had a little panic about potentially offending  someone I quite like by giving them script notes. In order to cover my anxiety, I wrote this post about the kind of script notes I get and how upsetting they can be … if you don’t take them in the spirit they’re intended.

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Later on, I followed that post up by giving myself notes on an old script.

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I also pretended a meal/drink with some friends was a sort of #PhonePhill episode … even though it wasn’t.

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But it did lead to this picture, which is my favourite of the year:

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I rounded off August by highlighting my inability to not focus on background detail.

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SEPTEMBER

Man, I did a lot of blogging in 2015. Too much, some might say.

In September I added one more thing to a script and felt the need to tell everyone.

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Then I added a second thing and banged on about that too.

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I did a thing about tokenism and … well, I don’t know what my point was there. Feel free to read it and let me know.

Oh, and then I added some nonsense to Jason Arnopp’s blog post about hands.

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OCTOBER

I kicked off October by contrasting Rose Tyler with Jurassic Park … which, you know, is clearly two different things and needs a blog explaining why.

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And then … the future arrived!

I meant to take a photo of myself with my trousers on inside out … but I didn’t. Possibly because I don’t think I wore any in October.

Instead of wearing trousers, I watched some videos about deleted scenes from all three Star Wars films:

I say three because I’m a prequel denier. At that point I was adamant there were only three Star Wars films. Now, of course, there’s been another half of a Star Wars film.

Hopefully we’ll find out in a couple of years whether or not any of it makes sense.

NOVEMBER

Just when you thought I’d forgotten about it, another #PhonePhill – this time with William Gallagher. He’s written a book, you know. Bits of it are about me.

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Inspired by the resurgence of telephonic communication, I immediately didn’t do it again and instead waffled on about River Theory …

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Expressed my love for the Verity podcast …

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And raved on and on and on about this speech from Doctor Who:

Oh, and I found this photo of a Burt Reynolds crab.

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DECEMBER

Which brings us to now. All I did in December was a handful of short blogs about other people’s stuff. Things like:

Arnopp’s patreon campaign, the UK Scriptwriter’s Handbook and the Heaven Sent/Hell Bent scripts.

There were meant to be more, but there wasn’t.

I didn’t even wish you a merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

There, I did it.

And so, with this year nearly spent, all eyes turn to the next one.

Hopefully it’ll include at least one blog about my new office:

And loads and loads about my next script to be produced:

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Happy New Year, let’s chat soon.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Bored, Career Path, Christmas Crackers, Industry Musings, My Way, Progress, Publicity, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way, Sparkle, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently, Two steps back, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Deleted from a galaxy far, far away …

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Last week, while wallowing in nostalgia for Back to the Future* I managed to sidetrack myself by watching deleted scenes from all three of the Star Wars movies. Specifically, the ones in these videos here:

Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to watch those videos … although they are interesting. Two things struck me though:

  1. It amazes me that I’m still learning things I never knew about Star Wars after 38 years of continuous fandom.
  2. All deleted scenes are essentially the same – deleted for a good reason.

Okay, not all. Barring scenes which were omitted from the theatrical version due to lack of money or interference by people who thought they knew better but didn’t … most deleted scenes are deleted because of pacing or because they restate information the audience already has.

Or both.

In other words, they slow the film down. They’re just not needed.

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All films have scenes like this: subplots which go nowhere, exposition heavy scenes which just aren’t needed, character development scenes which show the character doing character-y things which reinforce the type of character we’d already assumed they were …

And so on.

In retrospect, they’re clearly pointless or a waste of time … so why write them in the first place? If it’s so obvious watching the film, why isn’t it obvious when reading the script?

I mean, okay, writers are in the maze trying to figure their way through … but script readers, directors, producers, they have an overview, don’t they?

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No, not always.

A good director is down there in the maze with you. A good producer might be there too. On the first draft they may have an objective view, sure … but on the tenth? Or the twentieth? Sometimes the opposite thing happens and whole chunks of exposition and character development get deleted because we all know he’s a murderer due to his mum forcing him to wear the wrong colour pants – it’s obvious!

But it’s not. Not to anyone who hasn’t read fifteen drafts of the script, including the fourteen drafts which actually mention the pants in the first place. Sometimes obvious things are a lot less obvious than we imagine.

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Similarly, a script is not a movie. An actor standing on a set, wearing specific clothes under specific lights with specific music playing whilst holding a specific prop against a specific background can convey a lot more information than a single action line in a script.

In a script, you either have to call things out and explicitly state something … or allow the context to build up to an inescapable conclusion.

Often these conclusions are quite escapable because readers all read their own stuff into a script§. Part of the development process is weeding out words which may cause confusion. If a character is a werewolf in half of his scenes and occasionally growls in annoyance when he’s not … well, the word growl is confusing. Is he a wolf at this point or just annoyed?

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Clear on screen, not so clear on the page.

So sometimes whole sequences feel absolutely vital on the page … only to be completely redundant on screen. There’s an oft-quoted story of Steve McQueen crossing out dialogue, knowing he could say it with an expression … and that’s fine. He knows he can do that. Not all actors can. Not all readers/producers/directors can see that expression when it’s written down.

Deleted scenes will always exist because of the disconnect between translating one media (writing) into another (film). Pace on the page doesn’t always equate to pace on screen … and vice versa.

It would be nice to be able to identify which scenes will be deleted before filming. Or even before writing … but I’m not convinced that’s possible. There will always be deleted scenes, most of them are interesting … but ultimately pointless.

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A bit like this post.

I might just delete all the stuff about the elephant.^

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* 2, technically. I guess?

Yes, three. There are only three Star Wars films. Shut up.

Excluding that one summer when my younger brother watched the film once or twice a day, every day for six weeks. That was pretty annoying and almost put me off for life.

Almost.

∞ Underpants, if you’re American – no one ever became a murderer because of their mother’s taste in trousers. That’s just silly.

§ And completed scenes, to be fair. Think of that whisky scene in Skyfall – your interpretation of Bond’s reaction may well decide how you view the rest of the film. Is he hiding how upset he is or is he a callous misogynist~? Bet that was clearer in the script.

~ Who wants to guess how many attempts it took me to spell ‘misogynist’?

^ There is no elephant. Don’t look for the elephant, you’ll never find it.

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tokenism

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I have a second spec TV project on the go at the moment. That’s second to the one I’ve been talking about the last few weeks. If you haven’t read those posts, this possibly needed clarifying … or possibly not.

Anyway, there’s two of the buggers.

Unlike the first (which is genuinely the best thing I’ve written for years) the second isn’t quite right yet and is undergoing a B-story-ectomy. This is a massive pain in the arse and something I’ll talk about in the future.

Unless I’ve already blogged about it, in which case I won’t. I often get confused about which way round time moves.

This second script is something I’ve been kicking around for years (without really putting much effort into). Over a decade ago, the movie version of it won stuff and got me interviews with managers … which came to nothing because I didn’t have any other scripts of similar quality. I was, back then, a one trick pony.

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Now I have more tricks and sleeves to keep them up and everything.

That movie script was okay, but really it needs to be a TV series. So I’ve rewritten it as a pilot episode … and I love it. It’s one of those kind of programmes I’ve been lamenting the lack of. It’s a rollicking Saturday evening, team-adventure thing with a sci-fi twist. It’s exactly the kind of thing child-me would have loved.

The main difference, I guess, between this programme and its ’80s equivalent is that the ’80s version would have had an all white, male cast. With maybe a token sexy-woman thrown in.

Keen not to write the ’80s version, this one is much more diverse.

For a start, three of the five team members are women because … well, I feel like there’s an awful lack of women in these kind of things and I don’t really understand why. Some or all of them may or may not be sexy, it’s hard to tell from words on a page.

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There is a token sexy-bloke though because … well, why not?

The other guy may or may not be sexy too, it’s hard to tell from … blah, blah, blah.

The secondary character in the movie was a young Indian woman because fourteen years ago (when I first wrote it) I had more Indian friends than then existed in movies and wanted to redress this. She’s still Indian in the TV version.

One of the other women is Egyptian because … well, she needs to be for the story.

She’s also in a wheelchair because I’ve been trying to include at least one clearly disabled role in everything I’ve written since that BBC drama thing a few years back.

This one feels odd to me since, generally, it doesn’t matter if two, three or all of them are disabled. I don’t think it matters to the story one way or the other … but I want to help represent the large percentage of disabled people in the UK and this is my way.

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Is she a token disabled person?

Maybe. Depends on who’s cast in the other roles. Hopefully there would be disablity-blind casting … but, sadly, we all know that any character whose gender, ability, race or sexuality isn’t specified ends up being a white, able-bodied, male hetrosexual.

Even in our minds, say BARTENDER or DOCTOR or SKIER and our default image tends to be white and male and … so on.

So at least one of the main roles is specified as disabled.

One of the women is a lesbian because it’s the best thing for the pilot story and it helps (un)define the relationship between her and one of the men. They become best of friends, but will never be lovers. There is no sexual tension between them and never will be. That’s important for later.

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Similarly, one of the men is gay because it’s the only mechanic I could find which makes sense and creates the right reasons for the events which unfold throughout. He’s not necessarily camp though. His sexuality is absolutely incidental to the week to week unfolding of the story … until the end. At the end of the first season his actions retrospectively make sense because of who he’s in love with.

So there’s a gay one and a lesbian one and an Egyptian one and a disabled one and an Indian one and three out of five of them are women and …

Oh, hang on. None of them are black.

Right … so, whereas it would be nice if there was naturally an ethnic mix across the remaining three cast members, we come back to that default white casting setting.

 

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So why not specify one or more of them as black?

And maybe one should be Chinese or Japanese or Korean?

Ooh, and transgender! They’re not very well represented, one of them should be transgender.

And I’ve always thought one of them would be best played by Warwick Davies. This isn’t a “let’s get a little person in there” thing. I just think he’s awesome and genuinely the best actor for that role, irrespective of height.

So now my mental casting looks like it’s been done by the commitee for minority integration. It’s starting to look less like a bunch of people doing a job and more like they were all hand picked to represent something.

Which is kind of 50% true, I guess.

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The playing field isn’t level. The default casting tends to discriminate against a lot of people. I don’t know why this is, I don’t know if there’s genuinely a dearth of variety among actors or if there’s an unconscious bias which prevails in a predominantly white, male industry. It kind of doesn’t matter because I have no control over any of that.

Unless I give up and reduce the straight, white, able-bodied male writers by one.

What I do have control of is how I specify characters in my scripts. If I say nothing, there’s a better than average chance they’ll cast the default. If I get specific, they’ll search for that type of person.

Unless there’s a bloody good reason not to. Isms not being a good reason.

It’s kind of part of my job to write diversity into the script.

But. and here’s the thing I need to keep reminding myself,  I don’t have to fight every battle all the time.

This isn’t the only script I’m going to write. I can keep some of my white, middle class male guilt for the next script and the one after that and the one after that. Maybe the next script will have a transgender character in it? Preferably one whose story doesn’t revolve around their trans-ness. Maybe the next script will have five transgender characters in? Or five wheelchair users? Maybe there won’t be a single white, able-bodied, straight man in the whole script?

Or maybe the next script will be only about white men because that’s what the story demands?

I don’t know what story that might be, but maybe it will?

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I hope not.

The point I keep having to relearn is that no one script will change the world … but a general trend towards diversity will.  At the moment, making sure the characters are an even mix of race, sexuality and ability can look a little odd. Hopefully that’s changing and in the near future it won’t?

I guess my job is to add to the trickle which builds to the flood.

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Categories: For Want of a Nail, Industry Musings, My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

#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: , , | 1 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: , , , , , | 5 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: | 1 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: , , , | 1 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: , , , , | 5 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: , , | 3 Comments

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