I have been a little neglectful here, but only because I’ve been flat out writing, directing, producing, editing, co-starring and churning out effects for season 2 of TARDISshorts.
Making a short film every week is quite labour intensive, so to make things easier I’ve also been making an extra conversational episode every week as well.
If you think that sounds harder rather than easier … well, yes. It turns out making two short films a week is even harder than making one short film a week.
The behind the scenes, “how we did it with no money and just a phone” info is all on our Twitter account and if you fancy finding out what adventures we’ve been up to after the Timelords took our TARDIS away then we’d be over the moon if you subscribed to our YouTube channel.
Continuing on from the last post about the TARDISshorts my daughter and I have been making (each themed around whatever episode Emily Cook is hosting on Twitter) I thought I’d document a little about how each short was made.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a ‘how to’ post because (as will become apparent, if it already isn’t) I have no idea what I’m doing.
The filmmakers among you will already know how to do all this stuff. Most of you will easily spot the mistakes I’ve made and know how to solve them. I don’t. I’m literally figuring this stuff out as I go along.
I guess that makes this blog post a catalogue of errors. Or stupidity.
So without further ado, here’s this week’s short themed around Peter Harness‘ The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion.
I’ll happily admit this one was made in a state of mild panic. We only found out on Wednesday night that these episodes would be rewatched on Sunday. Thursday I couldn’t do any filming (because reasons) which left me with Friday to shoot and Saturday to edit.
Editing takes me ages because, as with everything else, I have no idea what I’m doing.
A day to think, a day to shoot and a day to edit sounds fine though.
Although it wasn’t a day to shoot because we only had the afternoon (the morning given over to shooting a Crossfit video for my wife). Nor was it a day to edit because I can’t just do this at the expense of all other aspects of family life.
Also, I had no idea what to do for this episode. I have a few vague ideas for episodes I think might come up. Next week’s, for example, I’ve had a vague plan of what to do for a month or so now. I didn’t know when, or even if, The Fires of Pompeii would pop up, but it had crossed my mind.
So that stumped me for a bit. Initially I thought my daughter might want to play the two zygon/human parts and that it would be some kind of cheeky secret twin type fool your parents romp.
That sent me down a weird cul-de-sac for most of Thursday. We had loads of ideas, but no story. Especially one which could be told in 140 seconds, the limit for Twitter.
Eventually we decided to flip it because in this series I’m the idiot and my daughter has all the smarts.
Pretty much like real life.
The idea came together pretty quickly after that. The Zygon is trying to steal the TARDIS, my daughter figures it out. I ruin her plan, she comes up with a new solution on the fly.
Here’s where the wheels came off a bit.
I thought split screen would be easy: fix the camera, shoot one half, cross the centre line and shoot the other half.
Except apparently it’s not so simple. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Then there’s the haphazard nature of our unscripted approach. There’s no script, we just have a vague idea of what the scenes will be, talk through what we might say and we start shooting. Occasionally I’ll stop the recording and ask for a specific line, but other than that it’s all improvised.
Which is great until you’re trying to say the same thing at the same time as the other you who isn’t actually standing there.
My solution was to record it on a second phone …
I did mention all this is shot and edited on one phone, didn’t I?
Well it is.
Anyway, I thought I’d record the scene audio on my daughter’s phone and play it back while I crossed the centre line and shot the other half of the conversation. Simple solution, one I managed to mess up … but I wouldn’t find that out until the edit.
The bigger problem was how to punch myself in the face.
We don’t really have a green screen. We have green towels, which work fine so long as we have a wall to pin them to. What we can’t do is have them freestanding across the upstairs landing.
Me running upstairs could be done splitscreen and I (wrongly) assumed I could punch myself in the face in the edit. Somehow. Eh, I could figure it out tomorrow.
The only green screen work we did was the reveal of the real me in the cupboard:
With this shot dropped in afterwards:
And we pinned the bathmat to the walls to simulate the hole teleported out of it.
All in all we shot for about an hour and a half and thought that was that.
Another thing I was wrong about.
The edit and reshoots
That night I managed to find a few hours to make a rough assembly and cobble together some of the not-so-special effects … and it became apparent a lot of what we’d shot wouldn’t work.
Leaving the camera shooting while I performed both halves of the shot didn’t work as well as I’d hoped for two reasons:
The light (because we’re using natural light) seems to vary enormously in the course of 30 seconds. Possibly because I block out different amounts depending on where I’m standing?
The phone refocuses as I move which (somehow) means the captured video is larger for one half of the scene than the other.
The second thing isn’t a huge problem, it just means I have to resize the image each time … which is tricky to get exact when pinching and zooming on a phone.
The first was a bigger problem. Practically what this means is the walls changed colour when the shot was split down the middle. Even the door frames change from bright white to dull orange depending on which half of the scene I’m shooting.
I worked round this as best I could by brightening or darkening half the screen and applying a colour filter. Not ideal, but I console myself with remembering no one expects Avengers-level effects.
The bigger problem was you could clearly hear the version of the scene we’d recorded as a dialogue guide. In other words you could hear three versions of me talking and two of my daughter. I could have rerecorded the dialogue, but matching that up would be too difficult on my phone, so I decided to reshoot it the next day.
Annoyingly the light was streaming through the bathroom window much more strongly on Saturday so matching the halves of the screen looked even worse.
But at least you could hear what we were saying.
The punch was a pain in the arse to get even vaguely right. I can’t draw custom masks to blot out sections of the screen, I certainly can’t draw round my arm and fist in every frame so I can hit myself properly. All I can do is apply a series of predetermined shapes,speed it up and hope it happens too fast for anyone to notice.
Spot the disappearing shadows here:
What made this harder is my daughter moved between the two sides of the same take. Not her fault, it didn’t occur to me either! But it meant I had to be careful where I put the join.
And again, hope no one noticed.
Then there was the problem of my arm disappearing up to the elbow. I got round that by shooting my forearm against a towel …
… and snipping bits of it out until I had a full arm. Which was a different colour (lighting again!) and needed adjusting until it was vaguely acceptable.
In individual frames you can see it’s completely misaligned, but hopefully it works okay in the film.
The next thing I wasn’t happy with was what you could see through the teleported wall. Initially I thought it would disappear the outside wall behind it too so you’d be able to see the house behind us, but it doesn’t look like a house, it looks like a pyramid.
Oh look, I cropped the shot so it was harder to see the join. Wish I’d thought of that the second time around.
It’s not clear there’s a hole in the wall either, it looks like the gun made a photo of a pyramid appear. The angle’s wrong too and when the zygon me gets shot the wall behind him doesn’t disappear, so why does the external bathroom wall?
I decided to redo the effect with a shot of the bathroom beyond and then reinforce the fact it was a hole by having me wiggle my fingers behind it.
Initially I just wiggled my hand on both sides of the bathroom wall, but the wiggle on the hall side (in front of the circular green bathmat) was much larger than it should be because, apparently, things get bigger the nearer they are to the camera.
I also decided to add the end scene of where the zygon had been teleported to to ensure it was clear my daughter hadn’t murdered him.
I added the Blake’s Seven teleport sound and then tried to work out on the fly how to film myself dropping out of the sky and into the lake.
Green towels to the rescue.
As with all these things, the devil is in the detail:
My wife stood on a stepladder on Saturday morning and patiently waited for me to get the shot lined up. This took a lot longer than the brief clip above.
The long shot of the zygon hitting the loch was harder to do, but in the end I decided no one could tell the difference between a distant me and a tiny Ron Weasley doll.
And there you go, that’s the behind the scenes idiocy.
This post turned out a lot longer than expected and I’ve no idea if it’s of any interest to anyone, but if it helps stop anyone else from making the same mistakes then I feel it’s been worth the effort.
Anyway, enough of this. On to the next one, The Fires of Pompeii … has anyone got a volcano I can borrow?
If there’s one mantra I have to keep repeating to myself in the hope of it eventually sinking in, it’s this: don’t pitch the twist.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to remember … actually, I do know why, it’s because the twist is usually either the most insanely exciting piece of the project or the spark of imagination which drew me to it in the first place. Often both.
The script I’m currently selling has two twists: the second is right near the end and is completely hidden until you realise it was right in front of you all along; but the first twist is the problem. The first twist comes about an hour into the film, kicking it from a coming of age/time-travel story with comedic and horror elements into a primarily horror story.
It’s not a complete left turn because the horror elements were always there, just subtle and not the main focus, but it is a sudden shift of gear … followed, I guess, by a second gear shift at the beginning of the third act when the whole thing goes fucking mental, full on demonic slasher.*
The second twist is easy to not pitch because it’s akin to revealing who the murderer is in a murder-mystery. I think we all know not to give that away. Unless it’s Columbo.^ The first twist though … it just keeps slipping out. I find myself adding it in to the one-pager or in conversation and I really, really shouldn’t.
I’m glad you asked, or this post is just one long ramble about stuff we all know.~
The problem with pitching a twist is it’s no longer a twist. It’s now an expectation, something the reader is waiting for. Potentially they’re even getting bored because they perceive everything which comes before that twist as just a red herring or useless information.
That’s not the experience I want the readers to have.
It’s definitely not the experience I want the viewers to have. They won’t be told the twist before seeing the film (hopefully) and I want the reader to have exactly the same experience as the viewer. I want them shocked, or surprised or … just going “ooh”!
“Ah, I hear you say,# but what if the twist is the thing which makes people buy the project? If it’s the most exciting thing to you writing it then it’s the most exciting thing to them reading it. Didn’t think of that, did you?”
Well, I did, actually, but thanks for joining in.
The twist will not be in or on any of the marketing material for the film because we hope it will catch the viewer off guard. If we can’t sell the film to the audience using the twist then we have to be able to sell it to them using the other elements. In other words the non-twisty bits have to be equally as exciting to our target audience as the twist and its fallout. The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects$ … these are all interesting and pitchable without their respective twists. Duelling magicians at the turn of the Century, a boy who sees dead people, six criminals, five of them are dead, guess who the murderer is … at least two of these sound interesting without mentioning the twist.
If the story isn’t interesting without the twist then, guess what? The story isn’t interesting, try harder. It’s remarkably difficult to sell an uninteresting story without some serious attachments or track record.
So I try not to pitch the twist. I try to make sure the story is interesting in and of itself so the twist adds to the excitement rather than creating it.
I try … but I often fail. It’s something I need to get better at, hence you can often find me chanting my mantra to myself, over and over whilst rocking back and forth and drooling:
Don’t pitch the twist, don’t pitch the twist, don’t pitch the twist …
* Whilst still being a sweet mother/daughter getting to know each other tale, natch.
^ Not revealing Columbo is the murderer, because that would be a great twist, but … you know what I mean.
~ Like most of them.
# Because I’m hiding under your bed.
$ Huh. Do all films with twists in begin with ‘The’? Is that a way to tell if there’s a twist or not?
So I’ve got this script I’ve been working on with a director and it’s in good shape. Great shape, if I’m honest.
If I were being really honest (as opposed to my normal self-effacing, self-abasement) I’d say it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever written, stopping just shy of calling it ‘the best’ because … well, I don’t tend to think that highly of my own abilities.
But there you go and there it is, my favourite script for a long, long time.* It rockets along at a fair old clip, being simultaneously entertaining and meaningful. It’s a comedy horror with a complex time-travel plot which can be enjoyed at a superficial level but reveals more depth with each subsequent reading.
It’s great†, I love it … except for this one section about the halfway mark. For about ten minutes or so it gets a bit … not so great. Maybe. I don’t know. It seems fine, but then there’s this little voice telling me it’s not.
I find it really difficult to be totally objective with my own scripts. According to others (for I fear to toot my own horn) I’m brutally honest and insightful when I read their scripts. With my own I find it a little trickier. Luckily the director for this project is a writer in his own right and has sensible, insightful suggestions of his own which have really helped lift the script.
Sadly, that still doesn’t help with this section.
He’s just as invested and steeped in the mechanics of the story as I am. We’re both looking down on the maze instead of experiencing it at ground level like a reader does. Even when we put ourselves in the place of the reader, trying to experience the maze from within we still hold an image of it from above. Basically, we know what’s going on so it’s hard to tell if anyone else will find it risibly easy to guess or completely impenetrable.
Which is why having peers external to the project to read the script is invaluable.
This script has been read and dissected by others and some people identified that section as mildly problematic, but didn’t know why. Others didn’t find it a problem at all. It’s a change in pace but maybe that’s fine? Maybe it’ll work better on screen?
Yeah. Maybe. It has to get there first though says the little voice.
And so we’ve begun sending the script to producers, waiting for feedback, waiting to find out if that section is “fine, stop worrying, I didn’t notice anything wrong” or “completely ruins the story”.
The first producer to come back with feedback loved the script … but thought it got a little dull between pages 48 and 60. It lost her a bit.
Bugger. I know that’s just one opinion, but it matches the one I’m hoping to be wrong about. My little voice is now whistling smugly to itself.
So the director and I break it down.
The sequence fulfils a function. It’s introducing characters who become red herrings later on. In fact the script at that points shifts into being a “whowilldoit”^ but that in itself is a red herring because none of these people do it. The script becomes a murder mystery for about 20 pages and then turns into something much more unpleasant. These 12 pages serve an important function, without introducing this small gang of characters and giving them all distinct personalities and a motive for the coming murder then the script is not the murder mystery we’re selling it as.
I mean, it’s not anyway. Well, it kind of is but there’s this twist and … yeah, it’s complicated, shifting genres at least twice.
So yeah, it serves a function.
The characters are interesting, there’s definitely good meat for the actors in these pages. So that’s fine.
The location is … a bit dull. But we’re saving the budget for the ending and, honestly, we can’t think of any other situation in which these characters would be together in one place but able to be split off into individual scenes so the protagonist can investigate them. She has to be free to move around so she can find the red herring clues.
I feel like it’s the location which makes it a bit dull? Maybe? Is that what that little voice is trying to tell me?
Or maybe it’s because the characters aren’t really doing anything other than dropping clues and giving themselves away? Maybe they need to be playing Laser Quest or trying to build a gazebo or something? Maybe we need to add more action to this sequence so that … nah. The script’s 105 pages long. It’s too long for what it is.
So maybe … maybe … hang on …
The function of this sequence is to sow the red herrings which make this seem like the murder mystery we’re selling it as. It’s there so people will begin to try to piece together the clues which won’t amount to anything because the genre is about to shift and it’s going to be a completely different film to the one people were expecting.
Sort of. I mean it’s in the same wheelhouse, enough so that it won’t upset the punters. It’s not like we’re trying to sell a slasher flick to the rom-com crowd~ or anything like that. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a gear change rather than a genre shift?
So actually the red herring is in the marketing of the script/film. We tell people it’s a murder mystery before they read/watch and when we get to that point we can very, very quickly segue into the second part of the film. How many pages do we actually need to fill in order to make this bait and switch land?
1? 2? Certainly not 12.
And suddenly it becomes clear – my little voice is right. The sequence is problematic because it doesn’t need to be there. How much misdirection do we actually need? Just enough to be clear that one of these six people committed the murder, enough time for the audience to begin to form their suspicions and then … we’re off to the races.
I should have spotted this before. Cutting 10 of the 12 pages gives us space to intensify some of the emotions at the beginning and the end. A 105 page script becomes a 98 page script# and it’s a blast from beginning to end.
Why didn’t I spot this redundancy before? Who do I never fully believe that little voice telling me something’s wrong? I’m not nagging myself for no reason for God’s sake.
I guess I did listen to the voice, I just didn’t ask myself the right questions. Or rather, I just didn’t frame the questions in the right way.
Regardless, it’s fixed now. 98 pages of glory. Or, you know, 98 pages of a dosh garn good read.
And with that I think it’s done. It’s ready to be properly sent out into the world and then … we shall see what we shall see.
* Excluding the one I wrote for you, obviously. That one’s both my favourite and my best or I wouldn’t have taken your money.
† Maybe. I mean, it’s not bad. I quite like it. A bit.
^ Time travel. Tenses are tricky.
~ I suspect you can shoehorn a rom-com plot into a slasher flick far easier than a butt-tonne of murders into a rom-com. I mean, I think rom-com fans will come to see a murderous rom-com, but at least some of them wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t know that going in. Whereas as long as the slasher flick delivers the corpses I think horror fans would be only to delighted to realise it’s a secret rom-com.
# If you read a lot of scripts you’ll know how psychologically comforting a sub-100 page script is. A turgid 105 pager goes on forever. 98 pages … eh, even if it’s dross it won’t take up too much of my time. It’s the 99p in the land of the poundshops.
A film script I’ve been writing has a second level of story which (hopefully) won’t be obvious on first viewing. It’s a story which reflects on the theme and deepens your understanding of the events, but happens almost exclusively in the background. The kind of thing which helps give a film longevity and makes people want to re-watch to see how much of it they’ve missed.
The problem with that is it’s all well and good having stuff on screen that happens solely in the background, but I find it tricky to do in a script. The act of writing it down draws attention to it. Writing IN THE BACKGROUND or WE’RE* NOT FOCUSING ON THIS, BUT … is all well and good, but you can’t read that stuff without paying attention.
Sure, you can bury it in a big chunk of text, but then people reading get annoyed because their brain keeps skipping over stuff. I know that’s the point, but annoying people isn’t.
So how do you do it?
No, seriously, how do you do it?
I tend to put that stuff in italics with a note to the reader on the first occurrence like:
We’re not focusing on this, but IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE: in the background there’s a giant rubber duck hiding behind a car. The audience probably won’t notice, the protagonist certainly doesn’t.
And from then on just title each unobserved piece with IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE:
But is there a better way?
What would you do?
*Oh no! I used a ‘we’ in an action line! But that breaks all the rules! I’ll be put up against the wall and shot! No one will ever buy my work again! Oh hang on … no, that’s right. No one cares. Sorry, as you were.
I think one of the most important tools a scriptwriter should have in their arsenal is a good peer group.
If you don’t know any scriptwriters, you really need to rectify that situation. I kind of lucked into a whole bunch of peers thanks mostly to the efforts of the esteemed Piers Beckley who used to run a writers drink/meet up in London and very kindly invited me along.
I politely declined a few times before finally overcoming my inherent shyness and joining in.
Best thing I ever did.
Firstly, being exposed to a roomful of other writers is good for you. Having someone who understands how difficult it is to plot out a film or create interesting characters or the ins and outs of film structure is invaluable. Friends and loved ones are all very well and will often listen and make encouraging noises (or, you know, glaze over and go ‘huh?’ every now and then) but you can’t beat talking to someone who actually knows what all the drivel you’re spouting means.
Secondly, you need them for the bitching. Scriptwriting is already hard enough without having to go through the actual process of getting something made. Having a group you can go to to complain about the stupid notes you’ve received allows you to vent without actually swearing at the person who gave you the note. This in turn gives you the space you need to realise the note isn’t actually as stupid as you first thought.
If you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had, it also gives you the opportunity to moan about all the stupid decisions made during or after the shoot which completely and utterly undermined the hard work of everyone else involved.
This kind of bitching helps us all build up a list of those who should never be worked with or at the very least allows us to lower our expectations going in.
The third advantage is the sharing of opportunities and contacts. I try to pass on opportunities whenever I find them because although I’m possibly in direct competition with some of my peer group, I’m not really. Either the person concerned likes my script/idea or they don’t. If someone I know can profit off a bit of info then I’m all for that. Personal successes are few and far between, filling up the gaps with the success of people I care about helps keep my enthusiasm high.
Every now and then I hear of someone who refused to introduce a writer to a producer they know who’d be a perfect match for their script and I find it a bit weird. I love matching people up. I love it even more when someone I know gets a commission out of an introduction, I find it very satisfying and can’t really fathom what it must be like to live in fear of someone else getting one up on you.
But hey, each to their own.
The most important use for a peer group (in my opinion*) is having a small army of script readers ready and willing to aggressively rip your work to shreds. This is, without a doubt, the most useful thing one writer can do for another … so long as they’re being honest.
Friends and family who read stuff tend to just go “Yeah, it’s good” which is in no way helpful. Especially when you know it probably isn’t.
Having a peer point out every deficiency and flaw is so, so useful. Honesty is the only way to really grow as a writer.
So with all that in mind, I have some loose rules about asking people to read my stuff. Just a few guidelines to (hopefully) avoid pissing people off.
1) I never ask anyone to read my work for free if they offer a paid script reading service.
I extend this rule to all walks of life – I wouldn’t ask a plumber to fit a bathroom for me for free, or a childminder to babysit my daughter without pay so why would I ask a professional script reader to do their job for free?
I may ask them for advice if I know them well, discussing an idea or issue in a conversation … but I’d never ask them to read a script for free.
I would, however, read a script for them quite happily. I don’t charge to read friends’ scripts. Or even enemies. I’m not a script reader and my opinion is suspect at best and should be treated with caution.
2) I don’t expect people to read my work without offering to read theirs.
In fact, I offer to read other writers’ work without any thought of asking them to read mine. I like being helpful, I like being useful. I read scripts for friends who I know would never, ever read one of mine in return. Some will, some won’t … it doesn’t matter. I like being nice to people and don’t expect anything for it.
Hmm … which I guess means I don’t expect anyone else to hold to the same rules I set for myself.
Some people may think that makes me a sucker.
Those people can fuck off.
3) I don’t ask people to read anything if they seem stressed or too busy.
Which is a shame, some of the people I respect the most are in near constant demand as a writer (or certainly seem to be) churning out episodes of Doctors or Casualty or their next novel or a mindbendingly impossible number of other projects a year. They have enough on their plate, I don’t want to add to it.
Which is a shame, because some of these people have opinions I really, really value.
I would, however, happily read anything they wanted me too, up to and including a novel. Again, I want to help.
4) I never ask anyone to read more than one draft of the same project.
This is something that really galls me. Every now and then I get contacted by a new writer looking for an opinion. I’m quite happy to read their stuff, so long as they’re prepared to accept the criticism. And by ‘accept’ I don’t mean take everything I say as gospel, but rather ‘not get upset because I didn’t tell them their first draft was a flawless work of art’.
The problem comes when that person, someone I don’t know who’s contacted me through this blog (which is fine, please do. Why not #PhonePhill?} then sends me a second draft. And a third. And a fourth, all the while refusing to take on board any of the points I raised with the first draft.
I don’t really get this. Either you value my opinion or you don’t, either is fine, but if you don’t value my opinion why are you still seeking it out?
One free read per project. That’s fair. I don’t want to put people through the same misery time and time again!
5) I don’t hassle people who don’t read things in a timely manner.
Or don’t get round to reading it at all.
We’re all busy, people are being kind. If they don’t have time, they don’t have time. It’s just one of those things, not something worth getting upset about. No one owes me a read, even if they said they would.
There are probably more ‘rules’ I set myself … but to be honest I’ve got some work to do …
… and I think this has gone on long enough, don’t you?
If you haven’t got any scriptwriting buddies, get some. There must be some somewhere nearby. Writers are lovely people (sometimes) and creating your own peer group really pays off. Why not organise your own monthly or quarterly meet-ups?
You could even invite me, if you like.
I won’t come because I’m shy and don’t like to leave my office very often, but it never hurts to ask.
The other day I had a fantastic idea for a blog post. One of those light bulb, one in a million ideas which would greatly benefit the scriptwriting community and help raise the level of writing the whole world over.
Unfortunately … I’ve forgotten what it was. A bit like that time I invented time travel in the bath, but got distracted by some grout and forgot how it worked.
Time travel. Not grout. I know how grout works.
So instead, I’m going to witter on about the first thing which pops into my mind.
Maybe I don’t know how grout works? I mean, I’ve used it … but do I really understand it?
Meanwhile, back at the point:
Ooh! Got something!
So, one of the techniques I use when plotting out a script or writing a treatment or even rewriting an existing script is The Information Pass … which … I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’ve rambled on about before but called it something else?
Never mind, I’m committed now. It’s this or a 10,000 word musing on the nature of grout and its impact on humanity.
Let’s go with The Information Pass.
Feel free to say THE INFORMATION PASS in a deep, booming voice. If you feel it helps?
Sometimes I find I get carried away with a story and miss out the crucial piece of information which makes the whole thing make sense. I find the art of scriptwriting is partly the art of parcelling out information.
Too much and the audience gets bored.
Too little and they get confused.
What I’m aiming for is the fine line betwixt boredom and confusion, the line of engaging mystery.
Feel free to say ‘the line of engaging mystery’ in a spooky voice, if it makes you feel better? I’d go for the same tone as ‘Have you ever seen a shirt make a phone call?’ in the Son of the Invisible Man.
So what I do is I go through the treatment or script or whatever and I try to clinically and coldly describe exactly what information I think a scene is conveying.
There’s a spaceship. Shooting at a bigger ship that’s chasing them. The people on the smaller ship look scared. There’s two sentient robots. Apparently there’s a princess somewhere who won’t be able to escape whoever’s on the bigger ship. Not this time at least, which implies she’s escaped a lot before …
And so on.
I am, of course, doing an information pass there on Kramer vs Kramer.
This helps me keep the story on track.
The downside of the information pass is it doesn’t really help me work out what the audience will be able to guess. I mean, it kind of does but it’s also limited. The idea is to imagine you’re watching the film cold, with no foreknowledge, and trying to piece all the clues together.
Certain events come with built in knowledge, like: someone crying over a grave.
I’d probably assume that person has lost someone they love, hence the tears. Depending on the age of the person crying, I’d probably make a stab and guessing who’s in the grave. A child … probably lost a parent. An elderly person … probably a spouse. Someone in the middle … could be anyone – parent, lover, offspring … who knows?
Being able to figure out what information the audience is likely to guess at helps subvert it or not make a mystery of things they’ve already guessed. I hate watching the protagonist, particularly one who’s meant to be a detecting genius, desperately trying to figure out something the audience guessed straight away.*
Understanding what information the audience have helps me work out what information they haven’t got … then all I have to do is figure out if they need it and when to give it to them.
I find it helps me to separate out the logic of structure and information from the emotional journey of the characters. Writing, like all arts, has a logical, ordered component which some people can do instinctively, but others (like me) need to think about in a separate pass.
I find it useful, if you don’t already do something similar, maybe you’d find it useful too?
* The caveat there being, if there are five suspects for a murder then a tiny portion of the audience will have decided each person is the murderer and then claim it was obvious who it was, when in fact it’s just an unavoidable statistic.
It turns out I’ve been making a rod for my own back by actually being good at something which isn’t supposed to be true.
Everyone in the film industry knows that one page of script = one minute of screen time. It’s a fact. It’s how scripts work. Everyone knows it.
Except we scriptwriters who know that’s a load of bullshit.
One minute sometimes = one page … but more often than not, it doesn’t.
A page of one liners will (probably) be less than a minute. A page of monologue might take nearer five minutes to deliver. A page of action … eh, who knows?
So a producer’s insistence on keeping the script to a certain page-count always seems baffling. Why does the script have to be 90 pages as opposed to 95 if those extra five pages will only take an extra two minutes on screen? The audience won’t care†. Surely a budget is worked out on the length a scene takes to film, not how long it takes to watch‡? Surely the budget depends on the type of scene as opposed to its length§?
What’s particularly bemusing is how a 118 page script is too long, but the exact same script, with fewer line breaks and full stops, which comes in at 110 pages is perfectly acceptable.
It’s the same script! Commas don’t show up on screen! Removing them from the script to alter the page count shouldn’t affect the budget!
For years now I’ve assumed this page-count nonsense is just about perception. If the script seems shorter, the producer seems happier so my last pass will always be a series of tweaks to preemptively shorten the script before handing it in.
But here’s the problem: my pre-tweaked drafts (apparently) always follow the one page = one minute rule.
My 95 page script is 95 minutes of screen time. Tweaking it to 90 pages may mollify the producer and the financiers in the short term*, but as soon as the script gets into pre-production and someone puts a stopwatch to it … the truth will out.
I’ve hidden 20 pages of a script before by judicious use of ellipses and parentheticals … only to have kittens when, deep into pre-production, someone figures out the 110 page script is actually 130 minutes long. Being asked to lose a huge chunk of the story when actors have already been cast and I can’t just hack out a complete sub-plot is a spine-chilling experience … but one I’ve brought upon myself by being all smug and sly in the first place.
Knowing how to make one page = one minute may seem like a useful tool, but it’s not useful if I then screw all that up by shuffling punctuation around.
So my New Year’s Resolution is to flip my way of working. Instead of making life easier for myself at the early draft stage and harder at the production-draft end of things, I’m going to be tougher on myself from the outset and actually cut pages instead of commas.
I’ve no idea if this is going to work, but it feels like a path worth taking.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
† I suspect some do.
‡ There’s a correlation.
§ Yes … and no.
* I’m not 100% clear on how this works. I know length can determine budget because of the number of days needed, but I suspect there’s also a need to hit certain lengths for certain genres in order to please the distributors. If anyone wants to ring me up for a chat and explain it, I’m all ears.
Sometimes, usually about 3.14 in the morning, I find myself imagining the story is wind filling the plot sail. When the wind’s blowing strongly, the sail is full and the film rattles along at a beautiful pace, skimming the waves of … um … I don’t know, character? Interest?
Yeah, okay, I haven’t really thought this through.
When the story wind is blowing, the plot sails are full and all is well. But what happens when you need the story to take a sudden left turn? On a sailing boat …
I know nothing about boats. Why am I making an analogy using boats?
On a sailing boat, when you need to change course … well, I guess you can steer a bit with the rudder (or is it a tiller? What’s the difference?), but presumably that only takes you so far and there’s a point where you need to come about?
I think that’s what it’s called, when you turn into (or away from?) the wind enough for the sail to no longer function and you need to move the … back end of the sail to the other side so the wind fills the other side of the sail.
An experienced, competent writer/sailor can come about (if that is what it’s called?) with minimal flapping and no loss of forward momentum. Bad story telling, to me, is when the story takes a left turn or has a false ending a half hour or so before the actual ending and the plot just flaps about for a bit.
I don’t like that sort of thing.
Except when it works, then I love it.
Ideally, I think the plot sail should stay taut and keep the boat surging forward. Bits of plot flapping around just annoy me. For example:
The character’s inner need/goal should be achieved at the end of the film. Not in the middle. Or after ten minutes. There shouldn’t be a point at which the character achieves everything they wanted … but there’s still forty minutes of movie left, so he/she has a cup of tea and then toddles off to solve the problem without any personal issues or emotional engagement.
Similarly, I don’t like it when there are two stories which have no connection. A plane crashes on an island inhabited by vampires – they have to fix the plane before nightfall!
That sounds cool.
They fix the plane by four in the afternoon on the first day, they have no idea the island is inhabited by vampires so they decide to have a spot of lunch and a swim and they’ll take off in the morning … oh no! Vampires!
That sounds less cool. To me anyway.
I don’t like it when the first story is properly resolved and everyone’s just hanging around waiting for the second story to kick off again.
Although, having said that, I can envisage a kind of Father Ted tone where they realise there’s vampires on the island, race to fix the plane … and manage it in plenty of time. “Gosh, that was easy.” says the protagonist “Can you imagine how terrible it would be to get stuck on this island with all these vampires after dark?”
And then there’s an eclipse.
I can see someone being able to make that work … but outside of knowingly parodying bad storytelling … just don’t let the plot sail flap around. Keep it tight and full of story wind so the boat of … something … um … I wish I hadn’t started this now.
Analogies … make sure you’ve thought them through before you start writing them down.
I had a lovely, if brief, chat with Dominic Carver not-so-recently – probably a couple of months back now. In fact, no probably about it – it was ages ago.
NB: This post was written the day after that call … and then I got distracted. I started making a vague attempt to update the tenses so it makes sense … then gave up. Just bear in mind most of this was true five months ago, not necessarily today.
In other words: don’t worry, I’ve been working on your project all day. Honest.
As ever (or for the second time at least) the man was entertaining, erudite and delightful. The brevity was mainly due to half-term child and family commitments*, which are both unavoidable and should never be avoided. What’s the point of being a writer if you can’t slope off to spend time with your kids every now and then?
Dom, as ever (see caveat above) has an exciting array of projects simmering away.
I … well, back then I was having a bit of a lull.
It’s not that there’s wasn’t work out there and it’s not like I wasn’t being offered anything. It’s just … eh … I couldn’t be arsed at that point.
Dom and I spoke about this ebb and flow of ambition. Sometimes you want to write 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as the words burn white-hot in your brain and you find yourself getting furious with your own bladder for occasionally demanding time off to drain itself of the ludicrous amount of tea you’ve tried to drown it in.
Other days … it’s all about the procrastination.
To be fair, most days it’s about the procrastination. Any excuse not to write is a good excuse.
Usually those days will eventually result in some writing.
And then there are the periods when the desire to write just evaporates completely. When the burning need to express myself via hitting a keyboard just isn’t there.
Writing is hard. It’s hard to do and then it’s hard to sell and then it’s hard to deal with the notes and then it’s hard to cope with the disappointment of seeing how the production process destroys the story and then it’s hard not to join in with the critics in slagging off your own work.
And then it’s hard having to start the whole process all over again.
Sometimes, usually when I’m generally content with life, it gets hard to want to throw myself back into the mill. You don’t put your nose to the grindstone as a scriptwriter, you get dragged between two grindstones and pulverised.
When life is lovely and fulfilling, when there’s lots of other exciting things to do … well, I just can’t be fucked.
Not that I’ve not been doing any work at all. I have a feature film casting at the moment which is shaping up to be the best thing I’ve ever done with a perfect cast. There’s another feature which is being touted around LA and yet another I’m slowly excavating from the mountain of possibility with a director who started out as a #PhonePhill but is now (probably) a friend.
So there’s three things.
Oh, and the short film which just won’t behave. That’s four.
Then there’s that TV show, the one I feel I’ve been accidentally writing for the last twenty years. The one which feels like its nearly perfect … even though I’ve not written a single word beyond a one page synopsis.
By rights I should be shouldering all other commitments aside to focus on that one … but then there’s that ennui.
Don’t get me wrong – there are flashes of inspiration and perspiration. Moments when I suddenly burst into feverish scribblings … but those are mostly when there’s an interesting casting choice which requires a character tweak or the odd simple paid rewrite job. Those I’m all over. Those I snap to attention and type until my fingers ache.
The rest of it, especially the stuff I’m doing just for me … not so much.
But you know, as was discussed with Dom, those times are okay. Sometimes you care, sometimes you don’t. Always do the stuff people are waiting for … the rest … just don’t be too hard on yourself.
The trick is to know the difference between procrastinating and general demotivation. Procrastination is just silly: man and/or woman up and knuckle down. Demotivation periods … that’s fine. Just do something else. You don’t owe anyone your literary genius and no one will care+ if you down tools for a week or a month or even ten years. Just come back to it when you’re ready.
Or don’t. Find something more fulfilling to do, it’s your life.
Just accept it’s all part of the ebb and flow of a writer’s self-motivation. Beating yourself up to it just leads to depression and anxiety, give yourself permission to slack off.
Them’s my thoughts anyway and Dom seemed to agree. Or maybe I just ranted at him until he had to go spend time with his lovely family? That’s probably it.
Either way, catching up with Dom was cool and yet another enchanting #PhonePhill. If you’d like to have a natter, why not drop me a line at the email address in the sidebar and we’ll arrange a time to chat? Doesn’t matter what your experience level is or whether you’re a writer or not. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you do and however long you’ve been doing it, if you fancy a chat, I fancy listening.
* His, not mine. I’d retreated to my Secret Writing Island to avoid mine. My commitments, not necessarily my family and certainly never for extended periods.
+ So long as there’s no one actually waiting for your work. Do that. Always do that promptly and professionally.