We interrupt this blog …

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… for some politic musings.

Like many writers I tend to be left-leaning in my political views. I tend to ascribe to notions of equality and fairness and eschew racism and prejudice in all forms. I’m by no means perfect in that pursuit, but I aspire to improve, to understand and above all to change the world through words and reason.

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So like many people I too am appalled at what’s happening in America at the moment. It’s inconceivable to me that a racist, misogynist moron can become president. That a man who’s bankrupted every business that doesn’t rely on writing his name on a building and walking away can be in charge of a complex web of lives and destinies.

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Like many people I feel action must be taken to limit the damage he does before his vindictive stupidity pushes the whole world beyond the point of no return … and yet I’m also appalled at the way people are choosing to voice their concerns.

When Jeremy Clarkson punched his producer, people were (rightly) outraged, yet when someone punches alt-right Nazis, they applaud it.

Violence is not now nor has ever been the answer.

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Calling out Trump’s behaviour, his racism, his intolerance is our civic duty. Calling him names, like I did above, is in no way helpful and does nothing to help the cause because (and this is really important) 59 million Americans believe Trump is the man who’s going to save them.

Calling him names is calling them names and no one likes to be called names.

I firmly believe Trump is wrong in almost everything he says. When he is occasionally right it’s because he’s lying and saying what he’s been told people want to hear. There’s one phrase I find particularly incorrect, one he’s used to justify his Muslim ban: fighting fire with fire.

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This is wrong. You don’t fight fire with fire, you fight fire with water.*

When people are getting angry and aggressive, you calm them down. You listen to them, you address their concerns and, where appropriate, you educate them.

Calling them names and punching them does not help.

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Donald Trump is the symptom of a far deeper problem here, namely a broken and corrupt system designed to protect inequality and prevent social mobility. All of the money in the world funnels upwards leaving nothing at the bottom. All of our businesses and corporations are run for the benefit of shareholders instead of customers or employees. No one owns anything so there’s no one to complain to, there is no Mr Vodafone or Mrs Tesco to care if their companies don’t work properly or screw people over. The employees are paid very little, the CEOs just slash and burn before moving on to a competitor or a completely different field.

No one cares and there’s no one to complain to.

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Politicians have degraded themselves to the point where no one has any faith in them or believes a word they say. Decades of political corruption, sleaze and scandal has undermined any faith the public has in these people whilst at the same time the press has undermined faith in science – the very fabric of our society, the ability to think and the reason why we’re not sitting in caves freezing to death. Science is a method of proving something does or doesn’t work – that’s it. The opposite of science is guessing or lying and yet the papers would have you believe scientists can’t be trusted, that science itself is somehow fundamentally wrong about everything.

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Globalisation should be our future. We started off as tribes and then villages and then city-states. We banded together until each county had a king. Then the counties merged until we had countries, then conglomerations of countries, then whole continents under the same governance. There are pluses and minuses to this merging of borders and cultures and ideas. One downside is the intermediary step of businesses being free to move their factories to the cheapest labour force or to import the cheap labour to their location. This can either be stopped by closing the borders or by bringing all people of the world onto an even footing. New things can be scary, but just as people in Surrey no longer fear people from Sussex or think of them as strangers, the world can become a united people. This middle ground we’re in now is painful and scary for some people, especially people closer to the bottom of the pile.

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Out of this maelstrom of chaos and lies and poverty, Americans were offered a choice – keep everything the same or choose a man who claims to offer something new. Despite the fact Trump doesn’t offer anything new, despite the fact he’s an integral part of the system which keeps people poor, despite the fact he admits his campaign promises were lies, despite the fact he admits he sexually assaults women and even brags about it, despite all that he represents change in the minds of his followers and believers.

They aren’t all racist or stupid and yelling at them won’t help change their opinion.

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And here’s an uncomfortable thought. Removing Trump, assassinating him, impeaching him, declaring his presidency null and void will be a massive middle finger to the 19% of Americans who voted for him. They see him as their President. They believe he represents their interests and wishes and hopes and dreams. Take that away from them and how will they react? Depression? Despair? Anger? Violence? Revolution?

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Trump cannot be allowed to curtail the freedom of whoever he chooses. He cannot be allowed to remove the civic and human rights of people he doesn’t like. He cannot be allowed to impose his will and agenda on others based on nothing more than a whim or half-remembered ‘facts’ he saw on the TV … but equally, perhaps he needs enough rope to hang himself? Perhaps he needs to be given the time and the room to prove he has no one’s interests but his own at heart because whereas he’s clearly a buffoon, he’s a buffoon who’s learnt to push people’s buttons and if we don’t allow those people to understand how dangerous that manipulation is then who will manipulate them next?

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If you take hope away from desperate people, people who feel Donald J Trump is their best and only option, if we take away their hope before they get to see the truth behind his lies … then what comes next will be worse.

Obviously this is a dangerous game, allowing him to mess with a world he doesn’t understand, but maybe allowing an idiot to smash a broken system will lead to something better forming in its place?

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Or maybe not.

Probably not.

I do think calling his followers and supporters names, or punching them is not helpful. Listen to what they have to say, listen to why they think he’s their saviour. Engage with them, disagree with them and by all means call out racist, sexist or hateful language when it crops up, but do it in a noninflammatory way. Don’t divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is no ‘them’, ‘we’ are all there is. All of us are ‘us’, in it together for the long haul.

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The best path to peace, tolerance and understanding is to be peaceful, tolerant and understanding.

If you disagree with me, please debate me. Don’t abuse me or threaten me, use your mind to change mine. Use your words to change the world for the better.

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† Save them from what is unclear. Presumably save them from mixing with anyone who isn’t them or from immoral capitalists. You know, people like Donald Trump.

* Okay, technically you can fight fire with fire such as demolishing buildings to stop a fire from spreading … but that’s not really the point.

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Categories: Random Witterings | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Happy (not-so) new year

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Am I still allowed to say Happy New Year this far into January? I don’t know. The etiquette, like most etiquette, eludes me.

Normally at the end of the year I do a roundup of the whole year’s blogposts, but this year I didn’t. I meant to, but instead spent a large chunk of the festive season here:

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Doing this:

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And this:
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And this:

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And watching baboons do this:

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Which left no time for either festive recommendations or end of year reflections. I would do it now, but it feels a bit late and I can’t be bothered.

So instead let me recommend something which might make you happy:

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I think Moana is just amazing. Easily my favourite film of last year. And this year so far, I guess.

All I want when I go to the cinema is to enjoy the film. If I’m not enjoying the film my brain starts to analyse why it’s not grabbing me:

“Oh, there isn’t a protagonist, there’s just a bunch of people milling around.”

“None of these characters want to be in the movie, they don’t want anything except to be left alone. I hope they hurry up and achieve their goal so I can go home too.”

“Hang on, when those people killed her mother she thought they were bastards, but when the other people killed her father (who she apparently loved more) she decides they’re the good guys?”

And so on.

Moana has none of those problems, it’s just beautiful in every possible sense of the word.

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The characters have clear and concise goals with clear and concise reasons why they can’t achieve them without fundamentally changing who they are. And those reasons are good! They’re the kind of reasons we’d all be conflicted about.

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The locations are just stunning, the animation is incredible, the songs are superb. I mean, listen to them:

Everything works, everything gels together.

There are no moments where characters suddenly change their minds and do completely the opposite of what they’ve just done for no other reason than the plot demands it.

 

There’s no sudden monologue-ing from the villain who’s just murdered everyone else but somehow intuits that this person is the protagonist of the movie he doesn’t know he’s in and deserves a bit of a chat.

Nor is there a sudden culling of characters immediately after (not before or during to add tension and a sense of ‘oh fuck they’re not going to make it!’) they’ve completed their allotted task because no one can think of anything else for them to do and it’s less work to just bump them off.

Moana is one of those films where the mechanics of it are so Swiss-watch perfect I didn’t even notice them until well after the film has finished and I was on my way home.

I found it so joyful and life affirming and magnificent that merely thinking about it brings a smile to my face.

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Obviously after this kind of build up you’ll think it’s terrible … but I loved it and can’t recommend it enough.

If you’re feeling a touch of the January blues then you could do far worse than heading on down to your local cinema and giving it a go.

It’s reminded me of the kind of films I want to write, maybe not in content but in terms of the emotional effect it’s had on me. Hopefully that inspiration will stay with me for the year ahead.

So Happy New Moana Year to you and may you always know the way.

Categories: Someone Else's Way | Tags: | Leave a comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #16: Darren Goldsmith

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This is a #PhonePhill I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, even though it was only arranged last week. Darren Goldsmith (this is him, here, go read about him) is someone I’ve followed on Twitter for years and chatted to on and off via email or DM every now and then. I don’t know the bloke and have never met him, but he’s always just sounded so … interesting.

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eDarren is a lovely bloke, someone I always have time for. Obviously I’ve no idea who he really is, but thanks to the wonders of technology I now can update that eStatus with a healthy dose of reality.

The truth is Darren’s as lovely over the phone as he seems online.

The conversation began with the usual Skype greeting of “Hello? Can you hear me? Are you there? Hello? Damn it. If you can hear me, hang up and I’ll call you this time. Is that better? I can hear you, can you hear me?”

And so on.

But once I’d worked out the only way to get a decent signal in my hotel room was to press myself against the window (which must have looked great to the office workers opposite), we were away.

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Chat was easy from the get go … apart from that weirdly unsettling few minutes at the beginning where we both realise neither of us sounds the same as the version of each other we’d created in our own heads.

We nattered for a good two and a half hours and only really stopped because I was fucking starving and needed something to eat.

Darren and I have a lot in common, we both like Sci-Fi and movies and we’re both bassists – he’s actually a good one.

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He’s the general all round arty type who seems to be good at everything he does (or at least the things I’ve seen/heard of his) and has even turned his hand to scriptwriting … before realising it just wasn’t for him because it’s not really an art form in and of itself.

And that is a problem with being a scriptwriter, you’re not really creating art anyone ever sees beyond the cast and crew who make it. Also, it’s not really up to the writer what ends up in the final draft which means it’s much harder to write a script which challenges our notions of what a film can be than it is to, say, paint a picture which challenges concepts of art.

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Scriptwriting is a constant loop of feedback and rewriting, perhaps more so than any other art form. This is both good and bad. The good side is that scriptwriting is incredibly complex – the script is not just a story, but a technical document which has to be understood by dozens of people. It’s trying to convey a unity of vision to people who are thinking about costumes and lighting and camera placement and tone and theme and meaning and location and time and … so on.

Whereas a book can leave people with differing opinions as to its contents (as can a film, in some ways), a script can’t. Or shouldn’t. The people reading it need to be on the same page which means certain conventions have to be adhered to.

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On top of that you need to entertain and surprise over at least 90 minutes without repeating or contradicting yourself. This is especially difficult when you consider it can take months to write the first draft and years to refine it. Getting constant feedback helps the script evolve.

The downside is constant feedback from multiple sources does tend to homogenise scripts. Some producers or directors will celebrate risky or unusual script behaviour, others just won’t tolerate it. Somebody will be sinking a lot of money into this in the hope of getting it all back and making a profit – risk taking isn’t always a good thing.

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A painter trying a new technique which doesn’t work wastes time, canvas and paint. A filmmaker who does the same wastes millions of pounds.

It’s in the interests of most people to make scripts groundbreaking within certain safe parameters.

Darren didn’t really enjoy that process.

We spoke a lot about herd mentality and how we prefer to go our own way. I’m certainly very contrary when it comes to what I do and don’t like. Often if I find I’m fairly neutral about a film everyone else loves, I find myself professing to dislike it in order to provoke debate or just to voice the opposing point of view.

We spoke about this video:

… and how we’d both (like most people, I guess?) like to think we wouldn’t join in, but are aware we probably would.

Perhaps the most interesting topic of conversation was about how people learn an art form. We were talking about bass playing and I mentioned I’d initially learnt to play it ‘wrong’. Bass strings should be plucked with the pad of the finger, a kind of rubbing motion as opposed to the flamenco tip-of-the-finger picking of a six-string guitar.

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I was self-taught and I taught myself wrong, which was fine for a while but eventually I reached the limit of where my poor technique could take me. I had to unlearn my crap plucking and relearn it – that was a massive ball ache.

I’m experiencing a similar problem in Kung Fu at the moment – I’ve switched to a different style and am having to slightly alter my foot and hand positions. Slightly altering something you’ve done for twenty years is much harder than learning something completely different; but I have a fantastic teacher (he’s here, if you’re interested?) and he’s indulging my desire to be drowned in criticism and detail.

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Not everyone likes learning like this, but I do.

Or rather, I do now. Perhaps when I first began learning Kung Fu I wouldn’t have been able to cope with a deluge of technical details? Maybe back then I needed to find my own way, much like I did with bass playing.

Darren is very definitely of the opinion that artistic form should be discovered first and taught second. He believes (and I agree with him) that if you’re taught the rules of your art you may become very good at following them, but you won’t make the mistakes necessary to break them successfully. Left to your own devices you will wander off into new creative pastures … most of which turn out to be dead ends with no value, but that journey of discovery is invaluable if you’re to create the kind of art which moves people.

Rules can be learnt later, once you’ve figured out most of them for yourself. Then you’re refining your knowledge with that of those who came before you. Learning rules from the beginning is (or can be, there are no absolutes here) really limiting.

The true danger point is what’s happening in scriptwriting at the moment: too much information. Too many people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do before you’ve had the chance to work it out for yourself.

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Obviously there’s a happy middle ground between finding your own path and being shown the one which everyone agrees works … but maybe as a community we’re tipping to far towards the latter?

Or is it just two routes to the same place? Learn the rules and then make mistakes trying to apply them or make mistakes and then learn the rules to refine what you’ve taught yourself – is there really a difference?

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What I do know is talking to Darren was an absolute delight, one you should try for yourself if you ever get the opportunity.

If you fancy a natter about anything you fancy with a scriptwriter then please get in touch. My email details are in the side bar, drop me a line and we’ll schedule a #PhonePhill.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, I’m really looking forward to hearing from you.

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Categories: #PhonePhill, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Ever changing

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Imagine you’re a co-pilot for an airline. You get to your hotel, get changed and head down to the bar. The captain comes down wearing a dress – what do you do?

This is/was a psychology question given to pilots. Have a think about what you’d do, the answer is at the bottom of the post.

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On a different note, I went to see Doctor Strange the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Okay, so it’s not a GREAT film … but then I feel like I’m past that point with Marvel movies now – there’s too many of them for them to thrill, but I find them all to be of a consistently high, enjoyable standard.

Watching the movie I was thinking about Tilda Swinton (who occupies a particular spot in my affections for reasons I can’t quite remember. Every time I see her in a film I feel like she’s a friend who’s doing incredibly well for herself, even though I’ve never met her – I have no idea why) and the brief furore about her playing The Ancient One.

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Obviously the Internet likes to get wound up about stuff like this, often going from standing apathy to outright, insult-flinging indignation in mere seconds … but what I found interesting about this one was that the fuss wasn’t about changing The Ancient One’s gender, but his/her ethnicity.

And I thought, isn’t that interesting?

No one seemed to object to the character being played by a woman (maybe because Tilda Swinton is unspeakably awesome?) but because s/he’s meant to be … actually, I don’t know. Tibetan? Chinese? Mongolian? I have no idea.

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I guess the reason this was a brief furore was because Doctor Strange is fairly unknown character (amongst non-comic fans)?

White-washing the character seems wrong, but should Marvel be given points for rebalancing the genders? Maybe they could have gone further with that? We have a female Thor in the comics now, so why not start off a female Doctor Strange in the movies?

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And then my mind began wandering (not during the film, afterwards). I began thinking about Nick Fury and how they’ve changed his appearance in the comics from this:

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To this:

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Sort of. I know it’s technically his son (because that makes sense) but it’s pretty much all because Samuel L. Jackson is now so firmly established in our minds as Fury that people are confused when they see a fluffy-haired white guy in the comics.

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Okay, so once again he’s not a widely known character in the vein of Superman or Batman or Spiderman. He’s not a cultural icon, but I’ve known him as a character in comics since I was a kid and I can no longer imagine him as white. If I pick up an old comic and see the white version my first thought is “Who’s that?” followed very quickly by “Oh shit, yes, that’s Nick Fury.”

I find that interesting too. I like that my attitude has changed.

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Once upon a time (not that long ago) I would have consider a black Superman to be just plain wrong. Superman’s not black, he’s white!

Now … I don’t care. I still want him to be tall, impossibly handsome and ripped … but skin colour? I just don’t see how that’s important?

Chinese Batman? Yeah, sure … so long as he’s big and buff and has a nice chin, what does it matter?

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Female Batman? Don’t know. Maybe that’s odd given the actual name of the character? Same for Superman, Spiderman et al.

But a female Doctor Who?

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Yeah, bring it on.

A few years back I’d have said that was impossible. Time Lords get married and fall in love, they would get really pissed off if they woke up to find their wife had become a man over night (or vice versa).

Now my attitude has changed. We already live in a time where our perceptions of gender are being challenged. Gender, like sexuality, is more fluid and layered than has always been held to be true. Surely an advanced civilisation millions of years ahead of us will just do that as a matter of course?

 

My attitudes towards these sorts of things* have changed. I’d happily watch a black, female James Bond. Might be wonderful, might be terrible – who knows?

A while back I wrote this blog post on sexism by design – now I look at that and think … what was the problem? I’d happily write a male protagonist fighting a female antagonist now. Wouldn’t even occur to me it was a problem.

I get that some white men feel under threat, as if all movies now are being made about women or people of colour or LGBTQ characters. We’re under-represented, damn it! Where are our movies?

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Oh do fuck off.

The default is still white male, let other people have a go.

My favourite illustration of that comes from somewhere I can’t remember. It was designed to highlight the lack of people of colour in movies (I think?) but it holds true for all ‘minorities’:

Imagine two bowls of sweets. One bowl is full to the brim, this is the bowl for a white child. The other bowl has two sweets in it, this is the bowl for a black child.

Does that seem fair?

Now imagine taking one sweet out of the white bowl and adding it to the black bowl (or gay bowl or transgender bowl or … whatever, doesn’t matter). Now imagine the Internet going fucking nuts because someone dared to make an all-female Ghostbusters.

Guys, our bowl is still full. It’s fine.

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Attitudes are changing and that’s a great great thing. Everyone should have movie-heroes, someone to aspire to be like.

I tend to include more female, poc or LGBTQ characters in scripts now. Often I just write an outline and assign gender/sexuality randomly throughout because it doesn’t really matter unless the story demands something specific.

At the moment I skew more towards female leads than male because the field needs levelling … but not always.

Variety is a good thing.

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Change is a good thing. Challenging perceptions is a great thing.

Which leads us back to the original question:

Imagine you’re a co-pilot for an airline. You get to your hotel, get changed and head down to the bar. The captain comes down wearing a dress – what do you do?

The answer ten years ago was: ask her what she wants to drink. People hear ‘captain’ and they picture a man.

They shouldn’t.

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The answer now is maybe more complicated. Maybe it’s a man in a dress? Maybe it’s a someone undergoing a transformation? Maybe it’s none of your business?

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I like these kind of changes. I like acceptance and tolerance and understanding. I love that my attitude has changed and continues to change. I want to grow as a human being and increase my understanding of the world … so if I’ve used the wrong word or inadvertently offended anyone in this post, I’d love to hear from you.

Alternatively, if you’re upset by people and lifestyles other than your own becoming more acceptable in mainstream media then … don’t worry? You’re still special too.

 


* And by ‘these sorts of things’ I mean a wide range of completely different human experiences and states of being which only get lumped together because of the intolerance of others.

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

#P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #2: James Moran

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So this meeting happened earlier the same day as the last one, hence the confusion of numbers since I like to be chronological about this sort of thing.

James Moran is one of those guys I see around every now and then with the occasional flurry of Twitter DMs and even the odd phone call. He’s a nice guy*. I like him. I like to think of him as a friend, but perhaps don’t see him often enough to have reached that status? I don’t know, I get a bit confused by social interaction.

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Some of what we chatted about is the kind of stuff you don’t really repeat, you know, stuff like what projects we’re working on, who we’re working with and who never, ever to work with.

These kind of chats are the reason I never record the #PhonePhill conversations because, while they would make a good podcast (their half of the conversation, not mine – mine is generally moronic) and provide an insightful look into the lives of working writers … I’d just rather they were confidential. I like chatting to people when neither of us are guarding what we might say, it’s more fun.

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For me, obviously. Not necessarily for you since you don’t get to read or hear about all the juicy bits.

James, for example, has killed 17 Belgians in the last few years. No one knows what he’s got against Belgians since they seem like generally inoffensive people to me … but he can get awfully stabby in their presence.^

Amongst the deeply personal, unprofessional and unrepeatable witterings, there were two things which bear repeating and may be of general interest.

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The first, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, is the state of genre TV in the UK … basically, it’s a rare beast.

Except on kids’ TV.

For reasons best known only to commissioners the general opinion in the UK seems to be that kids love genre shows (sci-fi, horror, super powers …) but that adults grow out of it.

Which doesn’t make sense to me, a card-carrying geek. It also doesn’t seem to be true if you look at cinema or US TV … but in the UK, adult genre fare is hard to find …

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… and even harder to get made.

Maybe there’s just a dearth of good scripts around. Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough since series 2 of Humans just started airing? And Red Dwarf X just finished. Maybe I’m talking shit?

My perception is though that kids’ TV is the place to aim for if you want to write genre stuff.

Which I do.

The second observation is a vitally important one. It’s applicable to all meetings, whether formal or informal, be it with a prospective client or a friend.

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Picture the scene, James and I have arranged to meet in yumchaa in Soho (where he bought me a cup of tea and a most excellent slice of cake) and I’d arrived first. I mooched around looking for somewhere to sit and eventually opted for a comfy looking sofa.

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The sofa was as comfy as it looked … and there in lies my mistake because there was only one sofa and a coffee table, forcing James to sit NEXT TO ME ON THE SOFA.

This is weird.

Sitting next to someone on a sofa is great if you want to both watch TV. Even better if you both want to cuddle.

As much as I like James, I do not want to cuddle him.+

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Chatting to someone who’s sitting next to you is ridiculously uncomfortable, no matter how comfy the sofa. One of you has to contort yourself into unnatural shapes in order to face the other person. Obviously, being the bigger sociopath of the two, I made myself comfortable and let James to the contorting.

I’m nice like that.

Imagine if this had been a client meeting and I was trying to persuade someone to part with their cash? It’s just not a good idea.

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For chat, chairs are where it’s at.

Preferably sit-up ones at a table rather than comfy armchairs you sink into.

I’ve made this mistake before at a meeting with a development exec at a large TV company. She sat on a sensible chair in her office, I sat on a low-slung sofa … and ended lolling around on it as if I was in therapy.

It’s hard to sell your skills when the person you’re trying to impress is looking up your nostrils.

For chat, chairs are where it’s at.

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James, as ever, was delightful and funny and insightful and just generally lovely. I can’t tell you what he’s working on next, but I can tell you what he’s been doing recently … this:

And this:

And this:

And … well, all these: https://minasjournal.wordpress.com/episodes/

Turn off the lights, make yourself comfortable (on a sofa is perfectly acceptable) and treat your eyeballs to his incessant genius.

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Meeting James was lovely. I probably don’t want to meet you, but I do want to chat with you on the phone.

Yes, you.

Not that person, you. The one with the face.

If you’d like to #PhonePhill then email me and we’ll work something out.

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*For a given value of ‘nice’. Obviously as a horror writer he’s a psychopathic lunatic … but lovely with it.

^Not true, obviously. He only killed 16 and only stabbed one – he doesn’t like to repeat himself. Apparently it’s ‘research’.

+Well … maybe a little.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Things I've Learnt Recently | Leave a comment

The thread of desire and the candle of knowledge

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I’ve been thinking about different ways of driving a story, about how we keep an audience leaning forward in nail-biting tension, wondering what happens next … as opposed to lolling in the seat looking at background details and wondering if they remembered to take the chops out of the freezer.

Two techniques I use are the thread of desire and the candle of knowledge.

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The thread of desire is the protagonists goal and/or need. What does she want? What’s stopping her getting it? Hopefully part of what stopping her get what she wants is her own personality which won’t change until she gets what she needs. Possibly she may then discover she doesn’t want the thing after all … unless the thing is some cheese to fight the Nazis.

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Then she probably will still want it.

The thread of desire pulls the protagonist through the movie and us with her. So long as it remains taut and present in every scene, we’ll follow along. Every scene should be (at its core) about the protagonist crawling painfully along this thread towards her goal. Sometimes the thread leads to a dead end and the protagonist has to back track, sometimes we switch to the antagonist and see them interfering with the thread …

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… but it’s always there.

Okay, so we can have scenes which don’t feature the thread, but I think they need to be few and far between because, essentially, these scenes aren’t part of the story we’re telling. Annoyingly these scenes can often be the funniest or otherwise best scenes in the film … but too many of them and people lose interest.

Rock of Ages had this problem for me, it set up a couple of clear threads with a love story and a desire for fame/success … and yet there are lots and lots of scenes about Tom Cruise’s character. Lots of them. Very funny scenes with great songs in them … but the threads and the protagonists are nowhere to be seen.

The result, for me, was a film full of great scenes which would have been far better if a lot of them had been chopped out.

Just follow the thread.

Or threads. The love story is often a second thread which intertwines with the first. Sometimes that’s the thread of need as opposed to the thread of want, often we feel both these threads will resolve at roughly the same time. Hopefully at the end of the film.

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Captain America: The First Avenger is one of those films where the thread of desire is resolved about an hour before the film ends. We follow Steve Rogers on this journey to become Captain America … and when he gets everything he ever wanted … there’s still another hour of film to go. The film would have been more satisfying to me if the thread had resolved at the end.

Okay, so there were still Nazis who needed punching … but it’s not as emotionally satisfying without that thread.

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The thread of desire isn’t too difficult to weave into a story, because it is the story. If you don’t know what that thread is, then maybe you don’t know what your story is? If you can’t point at the thread in any given scene, maybe that scene doesn’t belong in the story?

The candle of knowledge, on the other hand, is a tricky beast.

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Most films (maybe apart from sequels?) begin with the candle of knowledge. We begin each film in the dark – who is it about? What is it about? Why is it about them? All we have is questions …

Unless you’ve seen a trailer which neatly summarises the first act … in which case we’re passively watching how knowledge is given out rather than actively gathering the knowledge ourselves.

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But assuming we don’t know anything and are experiencing the story in the way it was intended to be experienced, the script is the candle which illuminates the darkness of ignorance. Every time it shines on something we gain a little piece of information.

This story’s about a man.

He works at a dentist’s office …

Oh, but he’s not a dentist …

The edges of the light, the gloom, is where our curiosity lies … what’s that thing at the edge of the light? If he’s not a dentist, why is he dressed like one? Our curiosity keeps us interested, it keeps us peering at the edges of the light, at the darkness just out of sight, waiting to be illuminated.

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Memento is a great example of this – there is almost nothing to that film beyond curiosity about what happened to get us to this point. The scenes themselves aren’t particularly interesting if you know exactly what came before … but we don’t and it’s that ignorance, our curiosity about the darkness and what it contains which keeps us interested.

Most films begin with the candle of knowledge and then hand over to the thread of desire, keeping just enough in the darkness to keep us interested. Some are pure thread, like action movies – they don’t always need a twist or a surprise piece of information so long as the thread remains taut and it’s going through the most difficult terrain imaginable for the protagonist.

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If our action hero wanders off in the middle of the story to do some shopping for things which have no relevance to anything … it may be funny, but equally it may be boring.

Murder mysteries rely more heavily on the candle, but maybe the best of them have a thread running throughout too?

I find relying on curiosity to retain interest to be a dangerous game because you’re relying on the audience not finding the light switch. As soon as they figure out what’s going on, the lights are on and the candle is useless.

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Unless there’s a power cut, which in terms of this metaphor is … um … something. I don’t know. Nor do I know how to end this post. I should probably just write something pithy and stop.

Something pithy.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #3: Michelle Lipton, Paul Campbell and Piers Beckley

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So this post is sort of the last in a trilogy of posts about one pagers. The first post talked through my method, the second was the BBC opportunity (closed now! It’s closed, you missed it. Unless you didn’t.) and here’s my final thoughts on how to write a one pager, possibly the most vital part:

Feedback.

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Preferably peer, but anyone who can articulate honestly how they felt reading it, why they did or didn’t like something or what they didn’t understand.

In this respect I got lucky since I had (coincidentally) arranged to meet a few of my writer chums for drinks. Those of you keeping track of these things may notice the meetPhill numbers aren’t quite sequential – this is because there was someone else that day whose identity I may or may not reveal in a future post.

Not to create any mystery or tension, but because I might get sidetracked. I only mention it so he doesn’t think he’s less important than these three or any less of a chum.

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So forearmed in the knowledge I was meeting up with Paul, Piers and Shel a few days before the BBC deadline, I figured I might as well print out a few copies of my entry and see if I could t̶r̶i̶c̶k̶ persuade them into giving me some feedback.

Which they happily did.

Or at least, they didn’t complain too much.

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And in return I read their entries and in fact it all set off a cascade whereby we all read each other’s.

If you haven’t got writer chums, it’s a really good idea to find some. It’s nowhere near as hard as it might seem since there’s probably a local Shooting People meet or maybe a writers’ group. If not, there’s always the LSWF which is chock-full of potential chums desperate to make friends with you.

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Or at least they should be desperate to make friends with you, because peers are the most valuable asset we have in this otherwise solitary industry.*

Obviously getting people to read a full script is a big ask, one not to be thrown away on a first draft unless you’re reciprocating in someway. All reads should be reciprocal. No, strike that. You should be happy to read your friends’ work and offer an opinion because it’s a nice thing to do. If they do the same for you, great. If not … that’s fine.

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Unless they’re taking the piss, I suppose …

Oh, you know what? You’re all adults (probably?) you can figure out the rules for yourself. Suffice it to say I rocked up for drinks and dinner with friends who gave me an invaluable insight into how my one-pager came across to them.

Not whether it’s good or bad, but which bits they didn’t understand, which bits confused them or made them reread or even slowed them down a little. The benefit of something short in person is the conversation afterwards, because that way you can find out how they imagine the story and see if it matches the story in your head.

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On this occasion all three of them offered comments which vastly improved the one-pager. They didn’t add anything to the concept or the characters, but rather helped me present the idea in a clearer, more succinct way.

Which was awfully nice of them.

Hopefully they got some mileage out of my comments on their work in return.

It’s difficult to know exactly how something will be perceived. In my case a mention of a character in her early sixties got misread three times as the series being set in the early sixties.

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Okay, so I could have argued that they just didn’t read it properly … but they did. They read it as quickly and as thoroughly as anyone at the BBC will. People make mistakes and if even one person can misinterpret something they how do you know the person reading a judging your work won’t?

In this case (I think?) all three made the same mistake … so the mistake is actually mine. It needs to be crystal clear or the meaning is lost.

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This is the sort of feedback I couldn’t give myself because it was perfectly clear to me … or I wouldn’t have written it down.

So hooray for writing chums! And hooray for those who are willing to be honest and supportive because they really are (or should be) an invaluable part of the process.


*Supposedly solitary. I have the slightly skewed experience of writing nearly everything for someone. It’s very rare I write a spec script with no input, it’s been years in fact. Maybe even a decade. Every time I try, someone either options it before I’m finished or commissions me for something.

That probably sounds like bragging, it’s not meant to. Sorry. I’m not bragging and have nothing to brag about … it’s just the way my career seems to work.

Categories: #PhonePhill, BBC, My Way, Someone Else's Way, Writing and life | 1 Comment

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme 2017

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We all know about this, right?

Right?

If not, there’s still time …

Deadline: Midnight, Monday, 10th October, 2016.

Update! Good news! We can confirm the deadline for the the TV Drama Writers’ Programme, 2017 has been extended until midnight on Monday, 10th October 2016. And to clarify application criteria, your produced writing credit must be for a script of at least 30 minutes in duration and your original spec script must be at least 50 pages in length and a minimum of 30 mins in duration.

The BBC shall be commissioning 8 writers to write an original series or serial script for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online. To apply you must have at least one production credit (a drama, at least 30 mins in duration) to your name.

You can have written for theatre, television, radio or film but must not already be in development (beyond treatment stage) with BBC Television Drama. This is not a scheme for new, untested writers or those with significant original television drama credits. It is an opportunity for writers with striking and unusual stories to tell, to take part in a bespoke scheme with input from top television writers and BBC editorial and production staff, as well as a dedicated Script Editor and Exec Producer. We encourage writers from underrepresented groups to apply. The Scheme will last for a year.

Details:

We are asking for a CV highlighting produced credit or credits, an original drama script (which could be stage, radio, film or TV – produced or unproduced) and up to one side of A4 outlining a potential series or serial idea for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online.

There are 8 places and we shall be shortlisting 20 writers for the scheme. Those 20 will discuss their pitches with the BBC Writersroom Team and Drama Execs representing all of the drama hubs, nations and regions. We’ll then select the writers based on these interviews, the quality of the writer’s work and the viability of their pitch.

Writers who have been selected to participate in the Programme will be expected to write three drafts of a script, with dedicated Script Editor and Executive support. In addition, there will be a series of screenwriting lectures, workshops and events throughout the course culminating in a reading and presentation of extracts from the writers’ scripts.

Writers will be paid a minimum script fee as agreed by the WGGB/PMA and the BBC on a favoured nations basis (currently £11,520 for 60 minutes).  Expenses will also be paid.

Submissions are now being accepted and the applications deadline is midnight, Monday, 10th October, 2016.  Applications are by the BBC Writersroom e-Submissions System only.

NB: For this opportunity only if you don’t have an agent, when applying, you may tick the box to indicate that you’ve been recommended by the BBC Writersroom staff. You must, however, fulfil the criteria outlined above.

Sounds like a great opportunity to me. I know not everyone will be qualified to enter, but then I’m apparently too qualified to enter most of these things so it’s all swings and roundabouts. If you meet the criteria, it’s got to be worth having a go.

Categories: BBC, Opportunity | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The UK Scriptwriters Survival Handbook

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Do you have this?

I do.

Have you read it?

I have.

It’s a strange book, isn’t it? Odd, one might say.

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Okay, yes it’s packed full of really useful and interesting information about living and working as a scriptwriter in the UK.

Yes, it’s easy to read and well laid out with handy tips on a wide range of pertinent and fascinating subjects including, but not limited to, planning your career from the get go, finding unique opportunities and how to manage your money.

And yes, it avoids adding to the increasingly teetering pile of ‘How to write screenplay’ books written by people who feel failing to sell a script somehow qualifies them to teach other people how to write. Instead it bucks the trend by being written by Danny Stack and Tim Clague, two working scriptwriters who assume you know all about the writing part and just want to know what the job actually is and how to grow a career.

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That’s all well and good. Great even.

But where it falls down is in one basic, fundamental area. An area I’d assumed everyone understood was a foregone necessity whenever discussing the business and life of scriptwriting in the UK …

Namely, there’s no ‘me’ in it.

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I know, shocking.

None at all. I’m not featured or quoted in the book at all.

No pearls of wisdom produced by my super-trick brain adorn this book.

No genius utterings of the kind instantly scribbled down for posterity by the gaggle of admirers who follow my every move in the hopes of learning the secret to my awesomeness.

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Not even a passing nod to how I fundamentally changed the scriptwriting landscape in the UK merely by my existence.

Nothing.

Not a single word.

Which is weird, isn’t it?

I mean, they’ve got a foreword written by some bloke called Tony Jordan … whoever he is?

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They’ve got (what I’ll begrudgingly admit) are fantastic nuggets of advice from such writing luminaries as Michelle Lipton, Phil Ford, Barbara Machin, Debbie Moon, James Moran and Anthony Mingella … some of those people have done quite well for themselves, in a cute sort of way.

But nothing from me.

I  know! I’m as flabbergasted by this as you are.

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I can only assume there’s a part two coming which is entirely based on my own peculiar brand of wit and wisdom, I mean … there’s no other excuse, is there?

To rectify this horrifying situation, I’ve created this special version of the last page for you. Simply download this image, print it out and stick it in your own version of the The UK Scriptwriter’s Survival Handbook:

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Or, if you have a filthy eBook version of this (why? Why would you want that? Oh, saving the trees are you? Fuck the trees! You can’t read your fancy eBook in the bath, can you? … What’s that? Waterproof ereader/phone? Books aren’t waterproof anyway? Well … yes, but … shut up) then why not print the page out anyway and glue it to the back of your Kindle/phone/magic word portal and then you can imagine you bought a proper copy.

If you haven’t got your own copy, simply buy one from here or an ecopy from here and then follow the simple steps above.

You won’t regret it, it really is an amazingly useful and informative book … and now that it has added extra ‘me’ … it’s gosh darn near perfect.

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No, YOU spelt ‘genius’ with a ‘j’.

Categories: Someone Else's Way | 2 Comments

How I spent my summer

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In between rewrites, I’ve mostly spent the summer writing a metric fuck-ton of one pagers for various people. It occurs to me there are two mistakes I’ve repeatedly made when asked for a one pager and I thought I’d share them:

  1. Get carried away and write an entire treatment
  2. Only write the single page

The first one is bad because it’s too much detail, potentially veering too far away from the movie the client is imagining from our prior discussion and probably disappointing them.

The second is bad because I’m trying to summarise a movie I haven’t really thought through yet.

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The client only wants to see a summary, to them it’s a simple process – just dash out a one pager; but until I know what the film is and how all the bits fit together it’s just a jumbled mess of nonsensical drivel. In order to get to a point where I know what to summarise I need to write a separate document covering everything in the film.

I’ve learnt this through bitter experience. Writing the one pager and nothing else tends to leave me with a document which rambles on about nothing very much. Usually it goes into great detail about the first act  and maybe mentions the resolution … whilst completely ignoring all the things which make the film watchable. I need more information before I can start.

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I’ve gone through several iterations of this process and hit upon a method which works for me. In essence I try to plot out the entire film in moderate detail, usually covering:

LOGLINE
CHARACTERS
THEME
CENTRAL IRONY
PLOT

And then break it down into sections:

OPENING IMAGE          ]
INTRODUCTION           ]= all of this is Act 1
INCITING INCIDENT  ]

ACT 2a

MIDPOINT

ACT 2b

LOW POINT

ACT 3
CLOSING IMAGE

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You could look at this as essentially filling in a form, or somehow straitjacketing the creative process … but I find it reassuring. It’s the skeleton of the movie, in much the same way a horse and a cat have a similar mammalian skeleton with four limbs and each limb having five bones, two bones, one bone. They have the same underpinnings on paper, but are completely different in real life.

Being a creative process though, although I fill in each section, I don’t necessarily fill it in in a specific order.

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Sometimes I start with the character, sometimes a vague notion of the plot, sometimes the central irony … it just depends. To give you some idea, I thought I’d run through how this process might have led to Pitch Perfect, if I’d been fortunate enough to work on that film.

So I’d probably have started with a vague idea. I think there was a book called Pitch Perfect. I also seem to remember that was a more factual affair about collegiate a capella (an unexplored arena, good starting point) than a story … but let’s assume that’s the genesis of the idea and that we know we want it to be a lighthearted, feelgood comedy.

So I’d probably think about character next – what’s the best/worst character to be in a collegiate a capella movie? Obviously someone who’s in college, that makes sense. The central irony and logline need to be tied up in this too. A bad logline would be something like:

An a capella group enter a competition and win.

It’s bad because … who give a shit?

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People care about people – that’s the number one rule here. I’d need to find the right person to hang the audience’s interest on. I need to think it through:

Barbershop is a kind of a capella, so maybe that’s an angle? Another way of describing it might be close harmony singing.

Close harmony.

So what if the central irony of the lead character is someone who doesn’t like being close or harmonious? What if it’s about a lone wolf forced to join a pack for some reason?

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Now I’ve got the edge of an idea for the protagonist, the irony and the logline. I can temper this more by thinking about the theme.

We have this lone wolf who has a (as yet undefined, but probably musical) goal, but can’t realise it until she’s part of a pack. So what’s the theme? Something to do with individuality? Maybe she’s scared of losing her individuality but learns to enjoy losing it?

Nah, that doesn’t sound right?

What if the theme is about balance? What if it’s about an individual who learns how to be an individual within a group? Maybe being an individual isn’t working for her and maybe subsuming her own personality doesn’t work for her either … so it’s all about finding the balance, about living in harmony.

Ooh, balance and harmony are musical terms, that’s good.

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So if the protagonist is a lone wolf who learns how to be a lone voice in a choir, then who’s the antagonist? Maybe someone on a rival team? If we have a rival team then we have a rivalry and maybe there needs to be a competition? If there’s a competition then what we have here is a sports movie – that kind of dictates the structure, so maybe we can fill in bits of the structure?

The MIDPOINT could be when they scrape through a preliminary round; and maybe the LOWPOINT is when they’re kicked out of the competition or the group falls apart? Why would they fall apart? Well, because they’re not functioning as a group properly – either they’re all individuals or they’re all the same when they need to be individuals within the group?

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So maybe that makes the antagonist someone in the group who wants everyone to be exactly the same? Or maybe the antagonist is someone who is too far the other way? An even loner wolf?

Fuck it, why not have both? One can be captain of our team, the other can be captain of the rival team. It could work either way here – our protagonist could be at loggerheads with her captain because they want to be more individual or less individual … but less individual makes more sense. So let’s go with that.

Let’s also add in a love interest, that makes sense. Let’s put the love interest on the other team to add tension. Maybe he or she has the balance that our protagonist is missing? Maybe he’s the rebel who learns he can have friends, like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club? Maybe not, but maybe we can reference that somehow?

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So if there’s a love interest then the LOW POINT will also involve them falling out … because that’s generally how love stories work.

Other characters, well … if this is a sports movie then maybe this is the Dodgeball-type team of misfits and losers? Everyone likes cheering for the underdogs, so let’s make them all weird and individual. Let’s give all them flaws which make them not really fit in and have them all gel because of their differences.

And then I would start filling in character names and assigning broad names to the acts. Act 2a might be the training. Act 2b might be the falling apart because they’re trying too hard to be the same when their strengths lie elsewhere. Then I’d drill down into those acts a little deeper, maybe break each one into a couple of sequences?

The opening image might be this person on their own, the closing image is probably her winning (or not – sometimes the best sports movies have the protagonist lose at the end … so long as they gain something they needed more than winning) and being happy.

Only when I have ALL of that information do I start writing the one pager. I want to be able to describe the whole film, understanding what the key sequences are and how everything begins and ends.

My one pagers tend to be formatted like this:

phone number and email address in the header

TITLE
A [genre] film by me

 

Logline

A really interesting person has to do something ironic in order to achieve interesting results.

 

Synopsis

Here I start with who the protagonist is, what she wants and why she can’t get it.

Then I go through the first act in moderate detail and summarise act 2a making it seem as fun or scary or sexy or as whatever the genre is supposed to be. Act 2b is really just a list of complications and obstacles building up to a seemingly insurmountable low point. I usually skip the actual events of Act 3 in favour of covering the mechanics of how the protagonist has to change in order to win the day.

I purposefully leave out the events of the third act because I want someone to be interested enough to commission the script. Some people think you should include the events of the ending, I’m not saying they’re wrong I just think a few unrevealed details create intrigue and that the change in the protagonist is usually more interesting than what they punch, blow up or marry.

In the case of Pitch Perfect: Beca needs to realise she can be an individual within the group and accept her place as the leader in order to pull the group together and win the competition. We don’t need to know what songs they mash together or how they perform them.

Finally I finish off with a brief description of what the film is – a lighthearted, heart-warming comedy about blah, blah, blah which teaches us stuff and does something interesting.

 

The point of all this work just to write a brief synopsis is to make sure I understand the story before I summarise it. And it shows, it really does. Not all of this detail goes into the one pager, but the suggestion of it is there – the feeling I know exactly what’s going to happen to who and when, that writing the script is going to be a mere formality because I’ve got it all worked out … when I haven’t.

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What I’ve done is summarise a map and if Ronin taught us anything, it taught us that the map is not the territory.

Talking about the map in detail can trick people into thinking you’ve already walked the route … but, and this bit’s crucial, it doesn’t give so much detail it clashes with the film in their head or seem like the details are set in stone with no room for their input.

That’s how I do it anyway. It seems to work for me.

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Categories: My Way | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

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