Industry Musings

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?

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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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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.

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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.*

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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

Stupid script readers

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All script writers instinctively know that all script readers are failed writers.

It’s just a fact.

Not a true fact, but a fact all the same.

We also know that all script readers are fucking imbeciles who wouldn’t understand how a story works if we explained it with graphs and slides and diagrams and possibly even a cute, animated cartoon character.

This too is a fact. Despite being completely wrong.

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How can it be a fact and be wrong at the same time?

It can’t, you fucking idiot … and it’s not. Those statements are true/wrong at different times.

Script readers are imbecilic, know-nothing wannabe-writers … immediately after reading their notes and for about an hour or so afterwards. Possibly more, depending on how right their notes actually are. After that, there’s a gradual dissolve from being wrong/stupid to being right/annoying.

Sometimes they’re even embarrassingly right.

Even when they are genuinely wrong about something, the fact they’re wrong about it is important.

Let’s say a moronic script reader (for I have just read his/her notes and am near blind with rage) has completely and utterly missed the point of something I’ve written. Ten pages of their twelve page report is going on and fucking on about how the script fails to properly address something I haven’t even fucking mentioned and didn’t intend to.

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They’ve read the script, wrongly assumed two guys are having an affair with each other and then further assumed that it’s woefully unclear that they are having an affair when they’re fucking not.

Fucking.

Each other.

“The writer needs to bring the affair more to the front,” they witter “if the audience are to understand the emotional implications for all concerned.”

“Perhaps there’s more to be mined from exploring how the men feel about their affair given the prevailing homophobic sentiments of that organisation at that point in history?” they’ll chunter on and fucking on.

“Maybe,” they’ll ramble, in an endless fucking stream of pointless fucking wrongness “the dual protagonists should get caught? Since the main strand of the movie is the consequences of their actions, this might help lift the dramatic question out of the murk and … ”

Blah, blah, fucking blah.

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There aren’t even any fucking men in this script! They’re all women! And none of them are having an affair! Not with each other or anyone else! The reason the consequences of their actions are not mined more is because there are no fucking consequences of their fucking actions because they’re not fucking fucking! Why the fuckity fuck can you not see that?

Ah, finally, a sensible question.

Why can’t they see it? Why do they think there are men in this script who are having an affair?

Instead of assuming stupidity, let’s assume this is a well-educated, well-read, intelligent individual who, for some reason, has misunderstood the point I’m trying to get across.

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Why?

That’s what’s important here.

I could rail against them and their inability to comprehend simple fucking English. I could decide they’re just too fucking stupid to read my script … but the fact remains, whether they’re smart or dumb … they misunderstood my script.

That means my script can be misunderstood.

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Possibly by everyone.

This will never do.

If this script reader, no matter their qualifications, experience or ability, has made this mistake then maybe everyone else will?

Maybe calling one woman Ashley and the other Sam was a mistake? Maybe there’s some line somewhere which is ambiguously worded which will confuse the fuck out of everyone who reads the script? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the script, but some of the people who read it are bringing their own opinions/baggage and assuming things to be true which weren’t intended?

Whatever the reason, something probably needs to be fixed.

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Even, and this is probably rare, even if the script reader is a fucking moron … the script still needs to be fixed so that no one else will ever make the same mistake.

Maybe that means underlining the introduction of the two women, ASHLEY and SAM? Maybe it means picking more feminine names? Maybe it means combing through for words like affair or longing or desire and deleting/changing them?

The problem as I see it is less one of misunderstanding and more one of miscommunication – I haven’t communicated the idea properly and if one person has gotten the wrong interpretation then so might the next. And the next. And the next … because, at the end of the day, I have no control over the IQ of the people reading my script and even the smartest people make mistakes … especially when it’s not crystal clear to begin with.

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I can’t choose whose desk this does or doesn’t land on – all I can do is try to make sure it’s clear, simple and moron proof.

Which is tricky when (possibly) the stupidest person reading it is the moron who wrote it in the first place.

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Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings | 2 Comments

Too much too soon

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I’ve lost a few jobs over the years by being too keen, by doing more work than is required; which probably sounds counter-intuitive, but actually makes sense if you just fucking let me finish, alright? Stop fucking interrupting!

What’s that?

No one’s interrupting except the voices in my head?

Oh really? What the fuck would you know, Mr Sock? You’re just a fucking sock, you’re not real. It’s me doing your voice. Me! Without me, you’re nothing!

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What’s that, Mr Sock?

If I’m going to have a mental spasm I should stop typing until after I’ve had a little lie down?

Oh. Yes, right.

Um … I didn’t type all this, it was dictation software left running. Sorry.

What’s that, Mr Sock? I’m a fucking liar?

Fuck you, you woolly bastard.

Sorry, got distracted there.

Right. So. Where was I? Ah yes, making sense.

The scenario usually runs something like this:

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A producer/director/actor or some combination of all three gets in touch regarding a film project they have which doesn’t really exist. I mean, it sort of does. They want to make something, they have some money of some description and possibly even a track record. The project exists in potentia, but in reality all they have is the vague feeling they want to make a film of some kind. Any kind, maybe, they’re not really sure.

What they are sure about is they absolutely have to film it only on Tuesdays and (for finance purposes) it all has to be set in Pease Pottage … although, for tax purposes it actually has to be filmed in Antigua; but they can easily fake Pease Pottage in Antigua, they just have to digitally erase the palm trees. And the climate.

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It also has to be a genre film (although not horror, sci-fi, western, a rom-com, martial arts, action, thriller or comedy – although it has to be funny), feature at least three parts for actors over-fifty who refuse to play characters over thirty, a dog, lots of nudity (but not from any of the actors, male or female), a Lamborghini (which can’t be driven), at least one sword fight and show child-abuse in a positive light.

Other than that, it’s completely up to me. I can do whatever I want, what have I got?

Besides a fucking migraine.

Oh, and they absolutely have to have a final draft before the end of the month or they’re going to lose the big name stars.

The ones I’ve never heard of.

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I know, I know, I should learn my lesson and walk away from these things. And to be fair, I am doing so more and more.

What has tended to happen in the past is in order to make the ludicrous deadline, I need to start working before the contract arrives … which I do, because I’m a trusting soul.

Never, ever trust anyone. That’s a lesson to learn right there.

So I beaver away, come up with a bunch of ideas, talk it over with them, incorporate their feedback into the plot and generally hash it out until we (amazingly) have something they like the sound of.

Even if I have (accidentally) forgotten the child-abuse.

Now they need a one-page synopsis.

That’s all, just one page.

Contract still hasn’t arrived, but that’s fine. It’s only one page after all … but they need it immediately. By nine the next morning.

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Okay, so I should claim I need the contract the next morning too. That’s exactly what I should do and am doing from now on; but on several occasions, I’ve been more trusting … like the fucking fool that I am.

Just one page.

Except it’s not one page, because the idea has to be so convoluted to match the laundry list of conditions that I have to plan it all out on index cards before I can condense it down to one page. Then I find I need to write it all out to make sure it makes sense, because I’m not sure it does.

After staying up ALL FUCKING NIGHT I have a ten page document which is EXACTLY what we’ve agreed on. The deadline is in four minutes, I just don’t have time to whittle it down to one page … so, fuck it. Sorry about this, guys; but I’ve skipped a step – this is where we’re heading anyway and since you don’t need the one pager to show the financiers or the actors, just as a document for us to discuss, then it’s possibly actually better this way.

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Except it isn’t.

Because, although this document features everything they wanted and everything we’ve already discussed and agreed on … it isn’t actually what they want. It isn’t what they want because they have no fucking idea what they actually want.

They haven’t got an idea for a film, the only idea they’ve got is that they want to make a film.

It’s a bit like someone asking you to paint their kitchen, only they’ve no idea what colour they want. All they know is they’d like something dark-ish. Or light-ish. Or something in-between. Maybe a primary colour? Or one of those colours you get when you mix primary colours together? One of those.

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So you pick a random colour. Blue, what about blue? Oh, they love blue! What shade? You discuss it, show them samples, suggest they look at other people’s kitchens which are the same colour … until they state, adamantly, that they want a specific shade.

Great.

So you paint their kitchen … and they don’t like it. They didn’t realise that was what blue was. They thought blue was more redish yellow. They didn’t realise I meant blue blue, even though that’s what they said they wanted.

They don’t say this right away, of course. First off they forget to look at the colour of the kitchen for three months because although it was vitally important you stay up all night painting it, they don’t actually need to look at the colour for ages yet. There’s no rush for them, just you.

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The second reason they don’t say this right away is because they decide not to bother saying it at all. The fact you’ve painted the kitchen the wrong colour clearly means you’re not the right painter for them, even though you’ve painted the kitchen the colour they asked for and not got anything on any of the woodwork and even managed to do that fiddly bit across the top of the boiler without spilling a single drop … despite doing a good job, the job they asked for, the fact you’ve painted it a colour which, on reflection, they don’t actually like, means you’re clearly not suited to this job … oh, and hey! Since they haven’t got round to sending the contract yet, they don’t actually need to pay you! They can get someone else to paint the kitchen another colour. Or better yet, just give up on the whole idea because they’ve lost interest in kitchens and might just get the bathroom painted instead. No need to tell the painter what they think of the colour, let’s just pretend he doesn’t exist.

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What’s that Mr Sock? I’ve stretched that metaphor well past the point of being useful? Why yes, I do believe you’re right.

No, you can’t come out of the hamper.

Because I don’t like you, you insufferably smug git. Get back in your hamper. Back! Back in your hamper!

Essentially, instead of developing the idea to suit the (pretend) film they think they’re going to make, they just give up and cease all communication.

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Maybe if I’d delivered a one-pager it would have been different? Maybe if it was a bite-sized idea they would be more inclined to pass comment and work towards something better? There’s a lot less information in a one-pager which is therefore easier to interpret in a way which makes sense to them. A ten-pager nails down characters and tone and theme and all those sort of things. There’s very little room for interpretation in a ten-pager. A one-pager can be anything.

It also feels easier to change, to discuss, to develop. A ten-pager? Well, it’s all decided now, isn’t it? It’s not what they want, so no point pursuing it. They don’t know what they do want, but they know it’s not this.

And because they didn’t have a strong investment in a specific idea in the first place, just some money and some free time, then they’ve no real interest in continuing. A bump in the road? Might as well just give up then. No, don’t bother telling the writer we’ve decided not to bother – he’ll work it out in a few months time when we haven’t replied to a single email, phone call or text.

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This has happened to me a couple of times now. Apparently it takes me a long time to learn a few simple lessons, namely:

  1. Never do more than is expected, no one will thank you for it.
  2. If the client is unclear what they want, keep ideas loose and vague for as long as possible – that way their expectations are being met.
  3. Don’t do anything until the contract is signed by you and them. Not that contracts actually guarantee you’ll get paid. I’ve worked on films where no one got paid, despite their contracts. Where everyone sued the producers, and won … and still didn’t get any money. Films where I was the only person to get even a fraction of my payment, despite not actually having a contract at all. Doesn’t hurt to wait though.
  4. Most importantly: never, ever get involved in these type of projects in the first place, it’s just not worth the hassle.

This all probably sounds very cynical, and in a way it is … but maybe that’s actually a good way to be?#

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Or maybe not?

I don’t know.

I would ask Mr Sock, but we’re not on speaking terms any more. Although his cousin, Ms Teatowel is here and she has this amazing idea for a movie. Well, not idea as such, more of a yen to make something, but that bloke from Eastenders has agreed to be in whatever it is, well, not agreed as such, but he muttered something which sounded a bit like yes when she cornered him in Tesco. Which bloke? Oh you know, the fat one who was always in the background of the market scenes in the first couple of years – never spoke, but he’s quite famous. Or was. She wants to shoot it in one location, in Arabic with Dutch subtitles and it has to feature at least three hamsters and …

Hang on, this is all sounding a little familiar.

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Categories: Bored, Career Path, Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | 2 Comments

Red Planet blues

Red Planet

By now, everyone will have heard about their Red Planet Prize entry.

Well, not everyone. I’m pretty certain not everyone entered. 7 billion entries would be quite tricky to get through and the ones from babies would be terrible.

So no, not everyone; but everyone who entered. Oh for fuck’s sake. I’ll start again.

By now, everyone who entered will have heard about their Red Planet Prize entry. Some of you will be doing the Snoopy dance …

Snoopy Dance

The rest of you won’t.

Charlie Brown

 

But here’s the thing … it doesn’t matter which group you’re in. Not really.

I’ve blogged about this before: Ivory Tower (that post is far better than this one. I’d go and read that one, if I were you) and six years later the same’s pretty much true – competitions are great, but they’re just diversions from your career.

Okay, so *possibly* winning something prestigious will catapult you to the top of the pile. Doors will open. Contracts will rain down upon you and all will be well in the world.

Possibly.

But probably not.

Probably, even if you win a competition, you’ll find yourself lauded and fêted for a bit … probably for as long as it takes for someone to ask “what else have you got?”

I’ve been there. Years ago I won a thing which got me some coverage, which got a very prestigious Hollywood manager sniffing around … which led to absolutely nothing, because my answer to “What else have you got?” was … nothing good.

Things

Because here’s  the thing (really? Here‘s the thing? I thought the thing was a few lines back?) being a scriptwriter isn’t about a script.

Competitions are, true.

Competitions are all about that one specific script you entered. They aren’t judging you, your ability, your dedication or your craft … they’re judging a script.

Just one.

Not even one, not really. In this case they’re making a judgement based on one sixth of a script.

Their reasons for rejecting that sixth of a script (not you, the script – no one’s rejecting you) are probably bang on the money.

Okay, so there may be mitigating factors. Chances are, no matter how ‘out there’ you feel your premise is, they had several very similar ones in. Perhaps yours was identical in all but character names to five other scripts? Perhaps yours got rejected because they had to choose one and that person on that day preferred the name Algernon to the name Reginald?

Want that one

It doesn’t matter.

Just as your career isn’t hung on one script*, it isn’t hung on one competition either. Winning a competition gives you a brief moment of access and attention – you still have to have the skill and determination to use that moment. You need exactly the same skill and determination (and stick-at-it-ness – I’m sure I know a word for that, but can’t think of one at the moment) to succeed whether you win a competition or not.

Winning isn’t everything, playing the long game is.

Because here’s the thing (another the thing! Fuck me, how many of these singular things are there?) people who win or place in competitions (and I’m not talking specifically about the Red Planet Prize here) don’t always have a career afterwards.

I can think of at least one guy who’s won loads of competitions and it doesn’t seem to have helped at all.

I’ve met another who was a runner up in the Red Planet Prize (and I am talking specifically about the Red Planet Prize here) who had twelve months of access to Red Planet Productions … and didn’t take advantage of it at all.

Why? Because he (or she! Could have been a she! It wasn’t, but it could have been) never really came up with an idea he thought they’d be interested in.

double_facepalm

In twelve months.

For fuck’s sake!

Many writers I know are no longer writers. They’ve given up because it’s a hard frustrating battle of constant rejection. Always. All the time. Everyone gets rejected. Everyone. All the time. It’s the whole point of the game:

“Do you like this?”

“No.”

“What about this?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“No.”

To paraphrase John  Sheridan, all you need to have a successful career is to ask the question one more time than they can say no.

The one! Or one of them.

And possibly some talent. And maybe a computer of some kind. And probably enough social skills not to fling your own shit at people who are trying to pay you.

The Red Planet Prize is an awesome competition and a great opportunity for those who get through to the final dozen or so; but it’s just one thing in a whole forest of things; because here’s the real thing – there’s more than one thing.

fail-if-stop-writing

 

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* Because one script isn’t a career, it’s a script. Statistically, probably a bad one. We all write them. Some of us are unlucky enough to have them made into films.

JFTR

 

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | 6 Comments

Facts

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

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

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

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

Wilder and Betsy The Sheep

Yeah … that didn’t work either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

only me

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

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

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

Right?

just the facts

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

What’s in a name?

Redshirts

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

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

Bob shoots three THUGS in the head. *

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

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

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

That works well … except when it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lightbulb

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

Never, ever do this.

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

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

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

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

Yes, that sounds more likely.

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

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

The spec chain

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

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

I just don’t work like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TheNeverEndingStory_onesheet_USA-4

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

… um …

Can anyone remember what the point of all this was?

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

Amnesia-and-deja-vu-Dump-E-card

Fuck, what a pointless waste of time.

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

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

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

aug-18-same-bat-time-same-bat-channel

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

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

Four. Years.

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

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

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

^ No. No, it doesn’t. They never do.

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

Sexism by design

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

I try to write an even mix of male and female characters. I know the Bechdel test is a throwaway gag and just a talking point, not a serious yardstick … but I like to pass it if I can. But sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes the design of the story conspires against me and the characters have to be specific genders. Sometimes, it means only having one major female character by default.

For example, a script I’ve been working on recently came out this way. I tried to even the genders out a bit … but just couldn’t, not with the story I was supposed to be writing. Basically, it’s a fantasy feature based on a pre-existing male character.

The protagonist has been male for hundreds of years. There is no female equivalent of him. This story tells of his origins, how he came to be him. Starting him off as a woman and having him change into a man would be odd. Similarly, replacing him with a woman or explaining he was always a woman and people got the legend wrong … it’s not a bad idea for a film, but it’s not the film the producer wanted.

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I should probably point out here, the producer is a woman.

The protagonist is a man. There’s no way around that.

Next up is his love interest – she’s a woman. She could be a man, I guess; but given who this story is about, then the controversy that would cause would overshadow everything else about this story for no good reason and would actually be depriving the story of the only female character. Just to be “shocking”.

There are two villains. The main, behind the scenes controlling one and the one who does all the physical fighting.

For this is an action-adventure yarn.

Think of them as Star Wars’ Emperor and Darth Vader.

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The Emperor character could be a woman. Easily. The character is a legendary figure also, but there are male and female versions of this anthropomorphic personification in myth. So yeah, she can be a she.

Except, there have been three very popular films out recently with the female version of this character. Oh, and a fourth one just came out recently. The female version has been done, a lot. So much, in fact, that it’s becoming hard to find a new angle on that character.

The male version, to the best of my knowledge has never been done on screen before.

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Add to that the fact the Vader-villain is also over-done in recent years and I felt I was facing a problem. I think I can get away with my version of the Vader-character because my version is different to everyone else’s. I don’t believe I can get away with two seen-it-before characters … so the Emperor-villain becomes a man.

The Vader-villain I could create a female version of. It would be fresh and new and more interesting … but … and this is probably just as sexist as making him a him … the Vader-villain has to be physically beaten up by the male protagonist and people tend to balk at boy-on-girl violence.

I sort of understand that, but I also find it a bit weird.

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Boy-on-boy violence – that’s fine. Who doesn’t want to see guys kicking the crap out of each other? In an action setting, that is.

Girl-on-girl violence – yep, that’s fine. In almost all cases.

Girl-on-boy? – That’s a weird one – it often manifests itself as a slap in an otherwise non-violent movie. During a domestic argument, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable for a woman to strike a man. He probably deserves it.

But if it’s boy-on-girl? If the man slaps the woman in the same situation … no one is comfortable with that unless there’s extreme provocation. And possibly not even then.

Lois punched

I guess it’s all about generalities. Generally, men are physically stronger than women. Generally. Not always. Generally it’s hard for the weaker to bully the stronger. Generally. Still not always. So maybe a strong person hitting a weaker person looks like bullying, no matter the gender?

For whatever reason, whenever I’ve been completely equal-opportunities with violence in a script, the producers get upset about it. Unless it’s a female-protagonist martial arts film, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Male protagonist hitting female antagonist?

Makes people nervous and no one wants to spend money nervously.

Sledge Hammer! It's fucking Sledge Hammer! On a T-Shirt! I fucking love Sledge Hammer, I does!

I’m not saying this is the right attitude to have, just observing it exists.

So the Vader-villain had to be male too.

Who’s left?

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The protagonist has two mentors – a physical one and a mental one. The physical one was the producer’s idea and she wanted him to be male. I didn’t get a choice on that one. Plus, as part of the story, our male protagonist gets mistaken for his mentor … so kind of had to be male. Not really, but I was tying myself up in knots trying to make it work when it was explicitly against the producer’s wishes.

Just pointless.

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The other mentor, the mental one … I can’t think of any story reason why he had to be a man; but there is a personal one. I wanted a specific actor for the role. I’ve had him in mind for years, but never found a space for him in anything I’ve written. I really, really wanted to write this role for him.

Yes, it’s selfish and probably sexist … but … well, there we go.

And that’s how it happened.

Some of the minor characters are women. Some (because it’s a fantasy) are gender neutral. But overall, the majority of the cast are men because that’s (kind of) what the story demanded.

Does that make me happy?

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No.

I have a daughter who I want to write positive role models for. I want her to have the kind of heroes in her life that I had growing up. I want them to be women who aren’t scantily dressed and who don’t use their sexuality to get them out of tricky situations. Well, not all of them all the time anyway. I also feel there’s nothing wrong with a bit of scantiness and sexual wiles now and then, so long as it’s appropriate to the story and not all the women all of the time.

And the ultimate truth is I work on a lot of scripts. This isn’t the only script I’m going to write and it may never get made. Overall, I try to write as many roles for women as I do for men. That doesn’t mean every film has to be exactly fifty-fifty.

At least, I don’t think it does?

Does it?

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Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings | 4 Comments

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