Tuesday, 18 December 2007
Now, I'm trying to plan a family Christmas and squeeze in some other writing projects before embarking on draft 2. And there's the small matter of catching up with what the rest of the Scribosphere's been up to without me. I'm off to read some blogs. Will post again soon!
Sunday, 18 November 2007
Meanwhile, all the short films I'm working on are progressing nicely too. The director of 'Santa Baby', the wonderful Colin Stevens, has managed to get the script to an actor who would be perfect for the lead, and to his production company. Fingers crossed that he likes it.
And it looks like the sound problem in 'Lent' has finally been fixed, and over the next week or two, the producer Ricci-Lee Berry will be putting together our agreed distribution list for 2008, and applying for Film Council distribution funding. With luck, and selection, 'Lent' should be playing a festival near you very soon. I'll obviously keep the posted with any updates.
Thursday, 8 November 2007
1. Do you outline?
Almost always. I have been known to rush into a short film, not knowing where the journey will end up. But for anything longer I like to have a map, even if I decide to go off-road someway down the line. (I’m bailing out of the motoring analogy at this point.)
2. Do you write straight through a script, or do you sometimes tackle the scenes out of order?
I plough through roughly from start to finish – occasionally this entails leaving a scene and coming back to it later.
3. Do you prefer writing with a pen or using a computer?
Both. I spend a lot of my time in trains, and I like to work with pencil and paper when on the move. Then I get home and type it all up.
4. Do you prefer writing in first person or third?
I only work on screen/radio plays, so third person is a given. I wonder what the average script reader would make of a screenplay written in the first person. I’m almost tempted to try to write one. Almost.
5. Do you listen to music while you write?
Sometimes. Usually at the start of work when I’m trying to get to the right level of concentration. When I achieve the right level of concentration, I get irritated with the music, and switch it off.
6. How do you come up with the perfect names for your characters?
To quote the late, great Douglas Adams: “If you have trouble with character names, you’re probably using the wrong kind of coffee. Try an Italian blend.”
(I don’t really know what he was talking about either, to be honest.)
7. When you’re writing, do you ever imagine your script as a book/short story?
No. But I often imagine it as a movie. That’s been made. And won me an Oscar. You’ve got to get through the day somehow.
8. Have you ever had a character insist on doing something you really didn’t want him/her to do?
Occasionally things end up going a different way to how I expected, but it never feels like the character is gaining their own autonomy. I think that phenomenon’s a little bit of exaggerated mythologizing about the creative process.
9. Do you know how a script is going to end when you start it?
I refer the learned gentleman to the answers I gave to 1 and 8 above.
10. Where do you write?
On the commute to the day job, and at home.
11. What do you do when you get writer’s block?
Write. (Someone once said: Writer’s block is nature’s way of telling you you’re not a writer - a bit harsh, maybe, but I broadly agree with it.)
12. What size increments do you write in?
Size doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it that counts. Ahem.
13. How many different drafts did you write for your last project?
My last short film went through seven drafts, and two further sets of revisions.
14. Have you ever changed a character’s name midway through a draft?
15. Do you let anyone read your script while you’re working on it, or do you wait until you’ve completed a draft before letting someone else see it?
For a spec script, I’d finish up before I showed anyone. For a commission, I’d provide pages to my producer whenever I was asked.
16. What do you do to celebrate when you've finished a draft?
A glass of wine is customary.
17. One project at a time, or multiple projects at once?
I have lots of things on the go, but I can only sit down and do a draft of any one of them at any time, or I’d never get anything finished. (I’m a man, I can’t multitask, apparently.)
18. Do your scripts grow or shrink in revision?
Sometimes they grow, sometimes they shrink. But let’s not discount the possibility of a new draft being exactly the same length as the previous one too. It could happen!
19. Do you have any writing or critique partners?
Never worked with a co-writer. But there are a lot of great folks out there in the Scribosphere (hello!) who have reviewed my work in the past.
20. Do you prefer drafting or revising?
You've got to learn to love both, I think. But nothing beats the feeling of starting out on the first draft of a new project.
Monday, 5 November 2007
Date: Thursday 1st November 2007
Venue: The Guild Centre, King's Cross (not in the usual large conference room, but in the smaller area normally used just for networking - sadly the event seemed a bit undersubscribed.)
The Set Up: Panellists were Phil Ford (PF) writer on The New Captain Scarlet and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Ashley Pharaoh (AP), co-creator and writer of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Adrian Hodges (AH), co-creator and writer of Primeval, and Phillip Palmer (PP), author of SF novel Debatable Space. Questions came from Edel Brosnan (EB), Chair of the Guild's Editorial and Communications Committee.
The Questions, The Answers:
Q. What was it that drew you to the 'imaginative' in your work?
PF: Simply, it's what I always wanted to do. I'd always read science fiction, and always loved the movies. It's great to create a fascinating new world, where you can turn things on their head; as long as you ground things - it has to be about people and relationships. If anything can happen, it doesn't make for good drama.
AP: I fell into it, really, via the premise to Life on Mars. I'm a recent convert, but really really enjoying it.
PP: I've never had a plan - every plan I've ever had has ended in disaster. When I wrote for TV, I went with what was there, which was shows like The Bill. Nick Elliott, ITV drama controller, once told me "We don't make science fiction, we don't like science fiction", so I never tried to pitch those projects in TV. I had a movie that didn't work out, but I rewrote it as a novel, and ended up with a three-book deal.
AH: I'm not so much a fan of science fiction, as I am a fan of a good story. I remember seeing a BBC drama in the early 80's,The Flipside of Dominick Hide, and thinking it was a love story, but told in a wonderfully fresh way. The same was true of Alien, which was at heart a thriller, and so on.
Q. Now that the genre has been revitalised, thanks to shows like Doctor Who and Life on Mars, do you see things going to back to how they were? Is this a fad, or is it here to stay?
AH: I don't think we can go backwards now - the audience has been awakened. Shows will only do well, though, if they're character driven.
PF: It's about stories, and it's about people. It's a shame that commissioning execs didn't realise this - they just hid behind the excuse that SF was too expensive.
AH: It's not a genre that's ever been considered posh.
PF: You can do these stories without many or any special effects.
AH: But technology has played it's part.
(The panel took a few minutes here to recommend a 90's SF serial from ITV, The Last Train - written by Ashley's sometime creative collaborator Matthew Graham - which used very few special effects. The consensus was that it really should have got a second series, and if you get a chance to watch it, do.)
Q. Are writers outside of the genre resistant to it?
AP: A prominent writer criticised Life on Mars in a newspaper, and I responded to that criticism. He thought that the point of writing was social realism, or social upheaval, making changes. But we've had fifty years of that.
AH: There are writers, and commissioning execs that are resisting, but it's always been that way. If you look at Nigel Kneale, he always occupied an odd place - it's always been an uneasy thing. Perhaps it always will be.
PP: There's a quality of imitation in British TV -
AH: Not just British TV.
PP: Just repeating things that have been successful. One detective drama is good, but by the time you've got wall-to-wall detective dramas, you just want to scream. The challenge is getting some variety in there.
Q. How are things different when writing novels?
PP: It's different from TV where fantasy /sci-fi is still something of a dirty word.
Q: All of the shows that you do are different - how would you define the genre?
AP: Anything that isn't social realism. Anything where you get a heightened response from the audience. I've never written a show before that had fan websites. Or where fans have been writing slash fiction. (Another pause here while slash fiction was explained to the uninitiated in the audience - see the wikipedia entry for a full definition.) After reading some Life on Mars slash fiction, you'll never look at a truncheon quite the same way again!
AH: I wouldn't dream of defining the genre, but the level of engagement, to praise or to criticise, is huge. It's a great thing to see.
Q: Phil, you've worked on Torchwood, and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Is there a different approach for pre- versus post-watershed SF drama?
PF: I think you instinctively know which sort of stories are suitable for which. It certainly didn't worry me going into it. With kids shows, you've got to be careful. You can frighten kids; it's exactly what they did in Fairy Tales, but you mustn't terrify them. That's the line you don't cross. And it's always possible to get it wrong - one of the episodes of Captain Scarlet I wrote was deemed too extreme, and was never made.
Q: Adrian, as well as your SF work in Primeval, you have done a lot of historical dramas, for example Charles II, The Pride and the Passion. Are there similarities in approach between the two?
AH: Someone clever once said: ”You can’t reproduce the past, you can only reinvent it.” A realistic portrayal of Charles the Second’s time would be truly alien, and wouldn’t be understandable by a modern audience. So, you’re dealing with a reinvented world. These genres aren’t as far apart as they’re perceived to be, just different ways of telling a story.
The clips & the reading:
Ashley Pharaoh showed a clip from Life on Mars, Series 1, Episode 4: Sam Tyler has a girl in his care: she spikes his drink, seduces him, and leaves him chained to his bed with a pair of Police handcuffs. Gene Hunt finds him the next morning, much to the hilarity of the rest of station.
AP: Everything in that clip stems from the original premise (a 21st century cop trapped in 1973) and I loved writing it. Not to be too pretentious or anything, but it’s closer to poetry when you get it right. But it took seven years of pitching to get it to screen, and that was a very painful process. I explained to one exec that it may all be in the central character’s head, or he may really be back in time. He said: “But that’s ambiguous”. “Well….yeah!”. People didn’t get it. In fact, we were told many times “Don’t do it – careers will end if you do this.” But John Yorke developed it with us, first at Channel 4, where it almost got green-lit, and then at the BBC. If you wait long enough, things will change – Doctor Who came along, and Lost, and that paved the way. I think we only got through the dark times because there were three of us - just when one person’s enthusiasm was flagging, the other two would remind him what was exciting about the project.
Q. What about the planned American remake of Life on Mars, by David E Kelly?
AP: They need a show to provide 60 episodes in America. You can’t keep a mystery of whether someone’s in a coma going for that length of time, so they’ve dropped the metaphysical aspect, and ramped up the comedy in its place. I don’t know if it’ll work. It shows that there is a strength to having short runs of shows, as we do here, as it allows you to tell more intense stories.
Phil Ford showed a clip from The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Eye of the Gorgon. Maria’s Dad has been turned to stone, and his estranged wife – thinking this is a statue of her ex – tells him what she really feels for him.
PF: This is what I meant by grounding SF in reality, here the reality of Maria and her family. In fact this was the first scene to be written – I knew in a gorgon story that someone was going to get turned to stone, and that someone would mistake them for a statue. The rest of the story flowed from there. It gave us a nice opportunity to find out how a character ticks – a nice emotional scene in an action-packed story.
Phillip Palmer read from Debatable Space. A very funny excerpt where the hero Lena, a 900 year old woman who was born in our time, has been kidnapped, and is being held by flame-beasts – highly intelligent creatures composed entirely of flame. She ponders her predicament, and some of the changes she’s seen in her long lifetime.
PP: That’s from the other end of the scale – the furthest extreme, space opera.
Q. How much do you think about budget?
PF: I don’t think about it all for the first draft. I let other people tell me afterwards if things can’t be achieved.
AH: It’s best not to self-censor. And the costs of CGI, for example, change all the time – you don’t know what you can or can’t afford. A herd of rampaging velociraptors might be achievable where two men talking in a car might be expensive!
Q. How difficult is it to pitch hard SF?
AH: It is harder. A show like Heroes plays on ABC and gets loads of viewers. Battlestar Galactica plays on the sci-fi channel and gets much less.
PP: On TV, SF has to come packaged with another genre.
PF: Yeah. IF you remember, the first season of Doctor Who was almost as much soap as sci-fi. Over the years, the sci-fi elements have built up – it’s the Trojan Horse approach.
Q. How easy is it to find an agent as a screenwriter specialising in fantasy?
AH: Don’t use the word fantasy if you’re worried.
EB: People want to see good writing, irrespective of genre.
Q. American SF was huge for years – what are the differences.
EB: There aren’t so many differences. The US loves Brit sci-fi – Heroes, all Joss Whedon’s work, Alan Moore.
AP: George Lucas is looking for British writers to work on the Star Wars TV series
And just to round off the evening with an exclusive, Ashley proceeded to tell us of two particular writers who have been invited to the Skywalker ranch for discussions about this. I’ve omitted their names as I don’t think it’s public knowledge yet!
Value for Money?: Guild events are always good value for money. Join the Guild! As usual, the event was followed by networking with wine and nibbles provided. All the panellists stuck around to talk. But the best part of this was that - having been to enough recent talks about pushing forward one's career - this was simply about celebrating good writing and good writers.
Sunday, 4 November 2007
A meme is doing the rounds, and Blogful Martin has passed it on to me. Five things that I like that other people might find lame:
- Strictly Come Dancing. I am addicted, and have been for the last three years.
- Teen comedies of the Eighties. John Hughes rocks.
- Crying at movies / TV. I am a sentimental, soppy sod. To my shame, At the recent Guild sci-fi event, a clip of the Sarah Jane Adventures (an emotional clip, okay?!) was shown, and I was holding back the floods so as not to embarrass myself in front of a group of strangers.
- Heartbeat. I would love to write for it. It's great entertainment and perfectly pitched at its audience. And it's back next week.
- I'm so lame, I can't think of a fifth one.
NOTE: tucked away in the comments of my last blog posting, Phill Barron has brought up a point I'd also recently heard about the Channel 4 Pilot scheme - it doesn't pay very much. The payment for the eight-week training period is £100 per week, and accommmodation expenses are not claimable.
This is good for me, as it decides whether I'm going to enter something or not. I'm not - I can't afford to. And I didn't really have time anyway. Onward and upward...
Saturday, 3 November 2007
I also went to two events at the Writers' Guild, which I'll write up in due course. After each one there were major train problems so I didn't get home until gone midnight both times. Then I was up at Six to get to the day job, where I've had two projects coming up to deadlines too. I've been running on empty for days now, and have spent most of today sleeping.
Now, I've got a very short hiatus before resuming work on the feature, where I can think about putting something together for the Channel 4 pilot scheme, if I can find the energy!
Sunday, 28 October 2007
I missed out on a few hours of weekend writing time yesterday going into Brighton to replace them both. Given that surely no one, unless it's a dire emergency like this, would go to a High Street store to buy these things anymore, I expected Dixons to be empty.(I know it's not called Dixons anymore, but Currys Digital is up there with Starburst and Snickers in my list of stupid replacement names that I'll stubbornly never use.)
I expected wrong - it was packed, and miserable. And they had no keyboards, except in expensive wireless keyboard and mouse boxed sets. So, I had to go to Argos, which was even more packed and miserable. Argos now seems to have dispensed with staff behind tills, as you have to type in your code number and stick your credit card in the slot yourself. The only humans employed are those schlepping out your purchase at the end, and I'm sure they're working on a robot that'll perform this function in future. Ghastly.
Anyway, I now have a shiny new printer, and a keyboard where some keys are in ever-so-slightly different places to where I'm used to. But I'm not letting it slow me down - the first pass of my feature is done, and I'm now amending, trimming and improving before Wednesday. Latest pages have included the words gob, Catholic, and greenhouse.
On the iPod today: the new Pet Shop Boys long-player, Disco 4, with remixes of their own work, plus remixes of songs by icons: Bowie, Yoko Ono, Madonna... and, er, Atomiser, who must have won some sort of competition, I guess.
Sunday, 21 October 2007
The project is a 1970s based coming-of-age story, and is proving to be a joy to write, and Mark a joy to work with. In fact, the only difficulty so far was finding someone in Brighton’s Jubilee library yesterday to witness the signing. We needed a person not known to either of us, and Mark’s lawyer advised trying the library; but, most of the staff there looked at us like we wanted their John Hancock on some kind of devil/soul-extraction type agreement.
Mark had to be on a plane to the U.S. mere hours after this, and I didn’t want to delay any longer either ‘cos I’ve been bursting to post about it for weeks. What would happen if we couldn’t get anyone to sign? Can I get a witness?! Luckily, the fourth or fifth person we asked agreed: we promised the library a copy of the eventual DVD as a thank-you!
As I said, Mark is now off to the States to pitch this project, and I have to have the first draft completed by October 31st before the AFM. The day job is horribly hectic, though, and can’t give me any time off. So, I am working every minute of every day, and haven’t got time to swing a cat (which as anyone who’s tried it will know takes quite a long time – you’ve got to find a pet shop that doesn’t ask questions, and all sorts).
At the time of writing, I’m up to page 85 of a 95-minute script, and today’s pages have included the words “applause”, “prison”, and “falafels”. Woo - and after having given it a certain amount of calm reflection – hoo!
On the IPod today: podcasts of Radio 4 shows. Hooray! Never normally being in a room with a radio at the right time, these new podcasts are a positive boon. And, after only a few days, I’m already addicted to The Archers. You can also get Start The Week, highlights of The Today Programme, The News Quiz… As soon as the Afternoon play is available, my listening will be complete.
Saturday, 13 October 2007
The Writers’ Guild presents Imaginary Worlds on Thursday 1st November from 7pm – 8:30pm at the Writers Guild Centre, 17 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JN (Nearest tube: King’s Cross).
Celebrate the recent resurgence in British science fiction and fantasy, by talking to the writers behind the boom.
Britain's other great literary tradition has always been a hit with the public - from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, 20th. Century classics by John Wyndham, H.G. Wells and Nigel Kneale, to the recent boom in graphic novels and even more recent box office successes such as Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later.
Critics and cultural commentators have finally realised what writers, readers and audiences have known for years - that fantasy writing can - and does - tackle adult themes in a unique and exciting way, and that imaginary worlds are not just for children.
Panellists include: Guild members Ashley Pharaoh, one of the creators of Life on Mars, Adrian Hodges, a co-creator of Primeval and Phillip Palmer, author of Debatable Spaces.
The discussion will be chaired by Edel Brosnan, Chair of the Editorial and Communications Committee.
To book for this event, please post a cheque to: Imaginary Worlds, Writers’ Guild, 15-17, Britannia Street, London WC1 X 9JN. Please make the cheque payable to: “Writers’ Guild of Great Britain”. Tickets cost £5 for Guild members and £7.50 for non members.
Saturday, 6 October 2007
Firstly, 4Talent are running a scheme where new writers can apply with a pilot for a 6 x 23-minute episode series. Thanks to both Lianne and William Gallagher for independently pointing me in the direction of this one. Deadline is 23rd November.
The UK Film Council has changed its rules allowing first-time writers to apply directly to them for development funding. A good write-up on the Guild website, or on Piers' blog here.
Finally, The Writer's Guild are having another 'Meet the Agents' event. The last one was over-subscribed, so I'd get in early. I'm going if I can get a ticket, so I might just see you there. Usual Guild event rates: £5 for members, £7.50 otherwise. It's on Monday 29th October.
On the IPod today: The Killers' "Sam's Town", which I thought was a bit 'meh' when it came out - crikey - it must be about a year ago now; but revisiting it, converting it into mp3 format, and carting it around with me, I've come to appreciate it a lot more.
Sunday, 30 September 2007
Buuuut.. I'm looking at a contract now, and the project is very very cool. So fingers crossed. I hope very soon to be able to post some more info.
On the iPod today: Sex Pistols, to fire me up for the start of work again.
Tuesday, 18 September 2007
For a week, the family and I will be relaxing in a timber lodge in the middle of a forest, enjoying the mists and mellow fruitfulness (and, no doubt, driving rain) of Autumn. I'm taking pens and pencils and working a little, if I get the chance, on a top-secret new project. I'm not going to post details about it until I get back, when hopefully things will have been signed, and ink will have dried. Watch this space.
On the iPod: Dusty in Memphis; quite soothing when you're not feeling well.
Friday, 7 September 2007
January 2007: This is the period where I, as the writer, had less to do than the other members of the team; but I was keeping my hand in too. The director, James, was auditioning to cast the two characters: a seven-year-old girl, Jessica, and her Mum, Diane. Meanwhile, the producer, Ricci-Lee, was putting together a fantastic crew, pretty much all of whom worked for expenses. I don’t like the idea of people not getting paid for their skilled work; but, this was a micro-budget short, and I wasn’t paid either, so it seemed fair! And we got a lot on screen for our no-money. For example, we got free use of crane and an experienced grip on two major set-ups in exchange for employing a trainee, the grip’s son, for the rest of the shoot. He was excellent too, and has a shining career ahead of him, I’m sure. Putting together deals like this is an art, and something I’d be frustrated doing (I’d rather be writing), so I am eternally grateful to Ricci-Lee.
There were some minor script changes early in the month (did I say locked script in my opening paragraph? Ha! No such thing, until you’ve finished editing, and even after that…). The final draft was turned into a shooting script (numbered scenes, and tracking of any revisions that happen from then on), storyboards (they were nothing like the ones I’d prepared when getting the funding – no stickmen!), and a shooting schedule (the scenes, by number, broken down in the order of shooting, usually by location, but also considering actor availability). This is a fascinating process to have happen to one’s script, shining a light on decisions the writer may have made at the flick of a pen, or click of a mouse.
For instance, as I said earlier, I blithely wrote a seven-year-old girl as a main character. So, immediately I was opening up a can of child labour regulation-shaped worms. Our shooting schedule needed to be drafted accordingly, to insure the young actress did not work beyond the legislated limits, and we needed to get a permit from the local council. A lot more work than if I’d rewritten her as an adult, or got rid of the character altogether (as things were, the age and the character were essential to the script). So, should I consider any of these practicalities at the writing stage? The quick answer is: of course not. Don‘t deprive yourself of any imaginative riches, just for the sake of logistics. But as you draft and redraft, and as you are more aware of what budget you have to play with, you will come across limitations, and limitations can make you even more creative, in ways you might not have imagined.
I think what I’m saying here is: make films, if you can. It will help your writing. And the results never need be shown to anyone. I made about ten mini-DV no-budget masterpieces of various durations, with borrowed camcorders, before ‘Lent’ was green-lit. They were never intended for distribution, although some may have found their way on to YouTube (if you see one, please be forgiving, I was finding my way). They were a learning experience better than any screenwriting course.
Through this period we had to submit various deliverables (final script, storyboards, etc.) to Screen South and the UKFC in order to unlock successive portions of the budget. They don’t give you all of the money up front, probably in case you go crazy and spend it all on sweets or magic beans.
3rd February 2007: The shoot occurred over the course of one, long Saturday in February. We’d found our location – a suburban house and garden – near Pinewood Studios. I had no real job to do on location, everything had already been done. But I attended anyway to see what it was like, and whether there was anything I could learn. It was a great day, apart from the jaded cabbie (see here), and the horrible tedium for a writer of long swathes of filming (every writer always bangs on about filming being dull, and I never believed them, but it’s true). And the crew were fantastic. I hope to work with all of them again.
Another ‘be careful what you write’ moment to report: when I envisaged a drama that included a teetering stack of pancakes, I didn’t think too long about the poor soul who was going to have to fry up each and every one. Out of guilt, I assisted the runner who had this thankless job. I suggested she and I had an additional credit: ‘Pancake Wrangler #1 & #2’. It was vetoed, alas.
And one more lesson that I can pass on: if you’re location scouting for a suburban house to film in, try to get one with a toilet on both floors. If you’re downstairs trying to be quiet, but bursting for the loo, it’s no good if the only toilet is occupied by a camera team filming actors on the upstairs landing. In the end, dear reader, I popped to the nearby pub.
February - March 2007: Post production ensues. I periodically log on with a password to view each new cut online (ain’t technology wonderful) or receive rough cuts on DVD, then e-mail back my suggestions. A composer puts a very delicate piano score on, and some whizzy guys put together the sound design: never have the sounds of a kitchen been so weird and threatening. At the end of March, the final deliverable - our completed film - is sent to Screen South and the UKFC.
Links to previous episodes:
Wednesday, 5 September 2007
The point where, say, a film about misogynist characters becomes a misogynist film is something we have to be aware of, but I think we must always be wary of slipping into self-censorship.
Connected to this area, I found - courtesy of Tom Green's Guild Blog - Matthew Graham's passionate rebuttal of Mark Lawson's claims that he, and the other 'Life on Mars' writers, had exercised self-censorship in Gene Hunt's dialogue. It's well worth a read: here.
On the iPod today: The Beatles White album. Double albums seem to be the perfect length for my commute to the Day Job, and there's something to be said for walking through Canary Wharf with the mad tape-loop hell of Reveloution #9 erupting in your head.
Monday, 3 September 2007
But in the other column, I have a meeting planned with a producer who likes my material and is looking for someone to develop a coming-of-age feature screenplay. (He had particularly nice things to say about 'Normal', which was a good confidence booster as it's my submission to the Red Planet competition.)
Also, 'Santa Baby', a short screenplay I'm working on with a director, may have attracted the interest of a producer. Keep everything crossed for me. Ta.
Meanwhile, it is - somehow - September already, and I have passed the point at which I could retire with honour from the challenge to write a period feature in two months. Gulp! So, I'm madly doing lots of web-based research into turn-of-the-last century stuff to find my way into my central character's head.
Additional: For my recent birthday, my wife has brought me screaming into the early 21st Century with the gift of my first iPod. I have resisted downloading for years, hanging onto my CDs like the curmudgeonly oldster I am. But space became a premium sometime last year at around the time my son was born, so I'm giving in and going virtual. Currently listening to the Happy Mondays' new long-player, 'Uncle Disfunktional'. It is exactly as you'd expect it be, only a little bit better.
Thursday, 30 August 2007
The Red Planet script I recently submitted was my first that utilised the ‘Power of Three’ peer review method, or at least a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it. The experience was useful, but flawed. (This may be because I was using a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, having never attended Adrian Mead’s celebrated seminars where he expounds upon it properly).
Yesterday, I was musing about posting sometime soon about my experiences, as it may help someone learn from my mistakes (e.g. don’t use a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, you idiot!). Then, I read English Dave’s amusing recent post lambasting the whole process, even down to its name! So, it seemed timely to get my thoughts out there. And they are here:
In Robert McKee’s infamous tome, 'Story', he talks about pitching your script to someone, and watching their reactions: when are you losing them, when are they looking confused, excited etc.? This is a very useful thing to do for testing a pitch, and for testing the quality of your story. But, for a spec script, it’s all about how it reads, and – as anyone who follows Lucy Vee’s blog, will know – that read can go well or go badly, and this will often have nothing to do with the quality of your underlying story. So, what’s to do?
Amusingly, McKee tells us that the best reaction we could hope for is a hushed silence at the end of our pitch, as the pitchee takes in the God-like genius of our work. Anyone who has ever asked for peer review will know: this never happens. Never. (Or, at least, not to my scripts; and I suspect I am a God-like genius.) The reason for this is that, if you ask people what they think, they want to give you value. And blanket praise seems a bit empty; except to your Mum, maybe. (Your Mum – not mine: she’d give the late Alexander Walker a run for his money.)
Everyone thinks they’re a critic. And everyone is, of course, exactly right. So, who should review your work before you send it to the important someone who might want to make it?
- You. You’re best placed to get this script right, but you’re biased. The only real way I’ve ever found to get the right objectivity is to leave a script in a drawer for a lengthy period. By then, though, that important competition deadline will probably have passed. Plus, there’s a lot of dick-swinging that goes on about rewriting. Yes, it’s important never to send out first drafts. But whenever I hear “I never show anything to anyone until I’ve done at least twenty drafts", I always think “What - no one?” All scripts are made for collaborative media, after all, or else you wouldn’t need a script; so, there’s something amiss to me in writing something so hermetically. But then, I’m not a rich, world-famous writer, so don’t take my advice.
- Punters. There’s no shortage of them - we are all punters of TV and film, and we are all knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t. But, unless you’re prepared to hand out scripts on the street, you’re going to have to know the person first. And that brings the problem of familiarity.
- Friends and family with no screenwriting knowledge. Let’s face it - they’re probably going to be too easy on you, or too hard on you. The balance is hard to find, but not impossible.
- Script reading services. Prohibitively expensive if you’re going to use them for every single draft of every piece of work you do. And readers employed by these services have their prejudices too. And it’s probably best to get more than one set of coverage on a screenplay to get a wider idea of its merits.
- A screenwriters’ group of your peers. Screenwriters’ groups have two purposes: 1) to help people’s work become better with assistance and critique, and 2) to act as a friendly support group for aspiring/desperate writers. These two aims can end up being contradictory, and you often find ‘rules’ like “you must always start on something complimentary”. Which is no help to the writer if it’s a lie. You might find yourself in the position – as I have been – where you really want to say “This script has absolutely no redeeming features, and you should give up on it now”. But you keep quiet, and try to say bland things about what needs to be developed. Then, in the next session, it’s your turn and no one holds back. They tell you your latest opus is rubbish, and you’re wasting your time. You get upset. You leave the group never to return. True story. Ish.
- Professional writers, producers or mentors higher up the chain that you. It’s hard to find someone who believes in you, and has the time enough to give feedback more than once in a while. I have been lucky enough to find more than one professional person who has offered to read my work on occasion, and has even tried to get it to people who might want to make it. Nothing’s come of these efforts, so far, but those contacts are there for ever (I hope). Whether they would still be speaking to me if I sent them scripts on a regular basis, though, is unlikely.
- A virtual screenwriter’s group (i.e. your peers in the blogosphere). Similar issues to the screenwriter’s groups, but people find themselves able to be more honest in print, I think. And, there is the possibility that you might make contacts here that are in the process of becoming professional writers / producers / mentors, and will review and champion your work because they remember when you were very complimentary about them on their blog. (Everybody go to English Dave’s and say nice things. He might offer to read your work!)
As for the Power of Three method: I think it has many advantages, and specifically addresses some of the drawbacks I’ve mentioned above. The idea is to have three rounds of review, with three different people each time: 3 x 3. Hence the name – it’s got nothing to do with empowerment. It’s got nothing to do with the power of three, either, but it’s only a name, and it would be hard to sell a review method where you have to find 27 people to comment on your script.
The main drawbacks I found were mostly of my making: I’d missed the rule about only getting questions back from the reviewers, not comments or suggestions. Even if I had known, it’s hard to stop fellow writers making suggestions, so you need to be aware of it, and as disciplined as you need to be. A very wonderful, and much appreciated, PO3er gave me the note “I’d like to see more of the mother”. There’s not a lot I can do with that, unless I interpret it as “Where does the mother disappear off to?” But that might not be what he meant exactly.
Also, I hate the unbearable feeling of a being a clod. I get loads of notes in the first round saying “use less adverbs” and I always feel like I should have spotted that myself. Why do I use too many adverbs? I always do it. It’s my first draft sin (alright, one of them). Still, it’s cheaper for this to be pointed out by a scribo-mate than a professional script reading service.
I was unlucky with not getting stuff back in a timely fashion, and this seriously limited the time I had for my third round. I think it was my mistake for using this method for Red Planet. It’s a free competition, so obviously all my reviewers were working on their own entries, and I don’t want to be interrupting their script every five minutes to remind them to do feedback on mine.
Lastly, people sometimes argue. It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard tell of writer’s sending email after email explaining the intricacies of the screenplay that the reviewer has missed. You may even be tempted to reply clarifying something yourself. Don't. No one will thank you for it.
One final word about peer review: find a jaded cabbie.
I took a cab to the shoot of ‘Lent’ - a big deal for me, the first ever time a screenplay of mine was being professionally made. We were shooting near Pinewood (not actually in it, though - so near but so far) , so the driver had welcomed many film types into the back of his taxi over the years. He insisted that I pitch him the story while we drove, and I gave it my all. I'd been working on it solidly, and knew it inside out, and I swear it was the best I've ever told it.
I finished, dramatically, just as we were pulling up to the house where we were shooting. There was the crew, there were the vans, there was the camera. Best of all, there was the crane they'd just used for the opening shot. It looked very impressive, and I swelled with pride. The cabbie ruminated on my pitch for a second, then gestured towards the house, crew, crane, and camera, and said "This seems like a lot of old fuss, just for that." That's the last time I'm pompous enough to swell with pride, I can tell you. Welcome to the movies!
I’ve always wanted to put links at the bottom of a post, and feel like a big shot. So here they are. Hope they’re useful.
Adrian’s official, non-Chinese Whispers handout on Power of Three posted on Lucy’s blog
Wednesday, 29 August 2007
No time to rest: I'm - still - putting the finishing touches to my radio play 'Lollipops and Samaritans', and have another draft of a short film to do at the weekend. Then there's the small matter of researching and writing a period feature by the end of October. Phew!
Wednesday, 22 August 2007
I don't really need any more challenges, so obviously a couple of wonderful ones are presenting themselves, and tempting me. The first is 2 Days Later which James is posting about, and judging this year. I would love to have a crack at this, and could probably find some suitably insane collaborators. But, even though it's only 48 hours, I'm not sure I can spare the time.
The second was a foolish drunken undertaking made the same evening that Christine (her cat likes Elvis, you know) committed herself to writing a Steam Punk film. I have until the end of the month to pull out, otherwise I must write a feature-length period screenplay through September and October (I'm not doing Steam Punk, though - that's just silly!). If I fail to produce said screenplay, I will be roundly mocked by my peers. Especially Piers. I probably won't also have to jump off any piers, but I wouldn't put it past them.
I've got a great idea, which has rolled around my head for a while. But the amount of research required to get period right has put me off until now. This would be a good impetus to get a first draft written. Or I could just drive myself mad. And sometime in September I wanted to have one of those holiday things that seem to be so popular nowadays. Dear reader, what should I do?
Friday, 10 August 2007
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is pleased to announce that the first ever WGGB Writers’ Circle will begin in September 2007 and we are inviting applications now. The initiative is being set up to provide Guild members with a forum to discuss and develop their work.
There will be two groups available for applicants to join: one for Full and one for Candidate/Student Members. Writers in these groups will also be separated according to genre: TV/ Film and Theatre/Radio. Please specify when you apply which genre you are interested in.
At each group meeting writers will be given feedback about their work from their fellow participants. After six months two writers from each circle will be selected by a panel of judges to present their work at a showcase. Following this event, each group will be disbanded and new applicants will be invited to form a new Circle.
Applicants will be asked to pay £60 for 6 months in advance. (This works out as £5 per session and will cover the administrative costs of the sessions.) If you are interested in joining please send a cheque payable to the Writers' Guild, to ‘WGGB Writers' Circle ’, Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 15-17 Britannia Street, London, WC1X 9JN. Please remember to include your contact details so we can get in touch with you! Spaces are limited to 15 people per group so please apply early.
Monday, 6 August 2007
Currently - although I do arrange periodical holidays and sabbaticals where I just write - I am commuting to That Fancy London™ every weekday to earn a living. I’m disciplined and write for an hour on the train each way, with a day off to read the trades or a book. Let’s call it eight hours per week on average. At lunch, I do another hour – I know it’s absolute madness, and I should give my eyes a rest from staring at a monitor, but I need that lunch hour’s writing, I do. Sometimes, I have Day Job work keeping me busy through lunch, but that averages out only one day a week: another four hours for my running total.
My hours after work, and at weekends, are more tricky. My family has to come first, and they deserve my maximum attention. At the moment - and it seems to be working out - I do about an hour and a half every night in front of the computer – half an hour of that will be catching up on e-mail and blog stuff. So, that’s another five hours proper writing to add to the total. Weekends have to be flexible. I try to do some writing every day, but it can be impossible. Sometimes, of course, I do nothing but write from dawn till dusk, without pausing to eat or wash or make conversation. My wife loves those days, as you can imagine. I think it probably averages out to about 7 hours per weekend, throughout the year.
So, that’s 24 hours per week in total. One day. It doesn’t seem enough, but it’s all I have. “Protect your writing time”, as William Goldman decreed: a less famous, but probably more important sound-bite than “Nobody Knows Anything”. As for how much work you can produce in that time, I think it’s pointless to even think about. I realise from meeting other writers that we never feel that we’ve done enough. And long may that itch to produce continue: after all, when we think we’ve done enough we might as well just stop.
Friday, 3 August 2007
Wednesday, 1 August 2007
Besides enjoying those, here is what I’ve been up to:
Shorts. I’m in development on two 10-minute shorts with two wonderful directors, ‘Santa Baby’, a comedy, and a drama, ‘Second Date’. More details as things progress.
Radio. I’m currently finishing the latest draft of a 45-minute radio play, ‘Lollipops and Samaritans’. This will be sent in to the BBC Writers’ Room as my “Invite Next” script.
Features. Through August I will be redrafting ‘Sold Out’, the film screenplay that was short-listed in the Euroscript competition this year. The producer that I met through the Cheltenham Festival ScriptMarket wants to see the next draft, and Screen South may well be prepared to provide some development funding for it. This is encouraging, and makes up for some less good news on the feature front - the separate, paid feature gig that I had a chance of getting seems to be on hold at the moment. I still have hopes that it’ll happen one day, though.
TV. I’ve submitted something for the TAPS Nations and Regions showcase for Soap Writing. Has anyone else taken part in this scheme in the past, or applied to it this year? Fingers crossed for you, if you have.
Red Planet. I’ve completed a first draft of a 30-min TV screenplay called ‘Normal’ which is a possible entry for Tony Jordan’s screenwriting competition. I’m looking for kindly bloggers who are able to give me some Power of Three feedback on this script: if anyone is interested, please e-mail me (the address is in my profile). I will, of course, be prepared to return the favour. Cheers m’ dears.
That all seems much more impressive written down. I thought I was being lazy over the last few weeks: for a start, I took a couple of days out to read the Harry Potter book when it came out, to avoid seeing any spoilers posted on-line by insensitive souls. Great read. Can you believe that she killed off [censored]
Saturday, 21 July 2007
Screen South are having an Information Day in Hastings on the 1st August. They will be talking about the Digital Shorts scheme for 2008, and screening some of the shorts from last year - I don't know whether 'Lent' will be one of those shown yet, but I hope so. I can't make it, sadly, but I urge any southern-based filmmakers to get there if they can. Note to Londoners and Northerners: the Digital Shorts schemes normally run at around the same time in all the regions, so keep an eye out as you should hear something soon. In fact, South West screen have already held a roadshow introducing their scheme, which Lucy Vee has written up here.
The WGGB are having a broadcasting event on 9th September, where Paul Ashton and Kate Rowland from the BBC Writers' Room will be interviewed. I'm going along to this one, as I missed out on Kate's appearance at Cheltenham.
And the final event is the death of my PVR due to fatal hard-drive crash. One day it was a portal to a world of entertainment, the next it became an expensive matt-black paperweight that flashes 'Er09' at me. No more freeview channels, no more hard drive to store episodes of telly for 'research' purposes. No time-shifting. Garrgh! If I want to watch a programme, I have to sit down when it's on, on analogue, which - let's face it- is practically impossible.
It's out of warranty, so I'll have to save up now for a new one. And that means next to no TV. For weeks. I'm choosing to see this as an experiment. I certainly have more time for writing. But I also have this yawning emptiness inside - is that normal?
Wednesday, 18 July 2007
Late September 2006: arrangements are made for producers and directors to attend a training session at the NFTS. Ricci-Lee attends this. In the meantime, we both were scouring websites, and our contacts lists, for a suitable director. This was a long task, and obviously an important one. The worst thing that can happen is to end up working with a director that doesn’t have the same vision of the material as you do. But how do you tell who’s attracted to the material, rather than just attracted to the juicy UKFC funding already in place?
Well, you have to get to know them, and see if you like the cut of their jib. This can take a lot of time, and be very frustrating; and, it is where, with hindsight, I can see the advantages in applying to the scheme with a director already attached. Once you’re given a go-ahead and a budget, you want to spend every moment you can in development and preparation. If the director (and producer, if you can get one) has been with you from day one, then you can start the fun stuff straight away.
October 2006 – December 2006: Over the next month, I watch a lot of showreels, and towards the end of October, Ricci-Lee, Screen South Exec Miranda Robinson and I perform the first of our interviews. We whittled down the number of candidates over the next couple of weeks, and then we went quite a long way with one director, but things didn’t work out. It was mid-December when we finally appointed the third big member of the team: James Twyford - who had previously worked on the Digital Shorts scheme in 2005, with the comedy short ‘Little Things’ - was our director.
November 2006 – January 2007: While we hunted for a director, script development took place. I had notes for the next draft based on the discussions during the selection process, and Ricci-Lee had some good ideas. The marvellous Pippa Brill, script executive for half of the 2006/07 Screen South Digital shorts output, including our film, worked with me to realise these. Input came in from our initial director, and then from James.
I think in total there were about ten drafts before we submitted our final script to the UKFC, which isn’t a great deal in the larger scheme of things, but unfortunately not all of these drafts were for the better. Drafts 3 to 5 were a digression, and we kept little or no material from them when we reverted back to draft 2 as the launching point for all future work. [By the by, I’d recommend this approach if you get too bogged down - never be scared to admit you’ve taken the wrong track, and revert back to an older draft. It will stop you going insane.]
How did it happen? Simply: I didn’t know the strengths of my own material. It sounds dumb, but it is a very easy trap to fall into. When people get together to discuss scripts – and we did make the effort to all be in the same room occasionally, although a lot more was done on the phone, or by email - notes fly around, and creativity bounces off every corner of the room, and before you know it, someone - with the best of intentions - has said “Why don’t we set this domestic drama in –ooh, I don’t know – a spaceship?” and you’re saying, “Dammit, you're right”.
(That particular example never occurred, but we had a few mad ideas that weren’t far off it).
Luckily, I had Pippa to get me back on track. At that stage, I wrote down every point that I thought was good or worthwhile about the story, and I kept that piece of paper with me for the rest of the process. It wasn’t about being precious: it was just to remind myself what worked; had anyone tried to persuade me to change any of those points, I would have listened to their views. But everything on that list made it to the screen, because ultimately we all agreed that it was the heart of the film.
It was also during these months that the title “Out of the Frying Pan” became “Recipe” (for about a week), then “Pancake Day”, and finally “Lent.” So, we made it to the beginning of 2007 with a title, a locked script, and a shooting date for early February. All we needed now was a crew.
To be continued...
Tuesday, 10 July 2007
Be a writer-producer, either in reality or in your mind: think like a filmmaker when you are writing (Bill Nicholson)
Read books on negotiating – beware of saying ‘Yes’ to your first offer, or signing whatever contract is put in front of you (David Kavanagh)
Join the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain and make use of its services (Julian Friedmann)
No one owes you a living as a screenwriter. If you think the money or treatment isn’t good enough – do something else (Julian, again, sugar-coating things as always - don't hold back, Julian, tell us how you really feel!!)
He's right, of course; but, to balance it out:
A professional is an amateur who didn't quit (Stuart Perry, but I'm only passing it on - I must have read it somewhere, possibly in Julian's wonderful ScriptWriter magazine)
Change the system for the better in whatever small way you can (Valentin Tubau)
Try to work on projects that excite you, or you find fun. A film will only be any good, if the writer has had fun doing it (Michael Goldenburg)
Tell the truth – it saves time (Michael Goldenburg again - and he backed this up with a great story about Tom Hanks, who - as producer of a film that Michael was in line to write - pitched his producer's idea of how the story would work. Michael thought about it overnight, and said 'No, I can't write it in that way, but good luck with it". Within days, Hanks was banging down his door to say "Okay then, how would you write it?")
The best notes are from people who know about life, not necessarily those who know about writing ((Sir) David Hare)
Advice is terribly cheap. If someone offers you input when they have no investment - monetary or emotional - in the project, disregard that advice (Sir David, again, who had a wonderful analogy for this behaviour: the people giving advice without investment are like the blondes in Casino movies that stand behind the cigar-chomping rich guys and say "Put it all on red, honey". If you don't pay, you don't get a place at the table!)
Good writing finds its way – it may take time, but it finds its way (Diana Ossana)
The battles you have when making a screenplay work will ultimately be battles with yourself. How far can you go against your own integrity? (Anthony Horowitz)
And this was only a fraction of the pearls of wisdom on offer. But I'm mindful that I haven't got any comments from the last two big sessions on the final day. So , a brief note on each:
Simon Oakes, of Hammer films, is working on building a slate of horror pictures - aiming for at least five low budget pics per year. He may be remaking some classic Hammer films, but he's also looking to the future, particularly for psychological horror scripts. You can pitch projects to Hammer, as long as you have an agent or a lawyer.
Stephen Frears. What can you say? If you get the chance, see him speak - he's always a good performer, and the unprepared interviewer should beware. But he also has some wonderful information for writers and directors. The main thing I took away from his session was that, if one can, one should work with a director like Stephen Frears, or - if one is really lucky - a director who is Stephen Frears. He brings no preconceptions to the project he wants to work on next, he just finds a script that excites him and makes as good a film as possible from it. And he works with the writer at every stage to achieve that. The results speak for themselves.
I will be posting a write-up of the two professional days soon - it won't be exhaustive, but it should be informative. In the meantime, my overall impressions:
The administration was very efficient for the most part. The sessions were excellent - a good mix of information-packed sessions, and the more after-dinner style speakers with wonderful Hollywood war stories. The food was expensive, but the tea was free. And there was always a KFC five minutes outside the venue, if one fancied a variety meal (I did - I'm not proud, I was hungry).
I had a great script meeting while I was there, and managed to pitch a project to a producer. It went disastrously, but that's another story (good thing I wasn't on stage!)
I met many wonderful writers, some I already knew, some whose blogs I read, and some whom I was meeting for the first time. Aside from the speakers, it seems there weren't many writers making a living from screenwriting alone, but quite a few who make a living solely from writing in various media, or with an industry day job (which, I think is a pretty good show for a random sample of screenwriters in the UK).
I am saving the pennies now, so that I can go for all four days next year. Take no notice of the Newbie/Professional split - you really need to get as much Screenwriters' Festival as you can in 2008.
Tuesday, 3 July 2007
Friday, 29 June 2007
Wednesday, 27 June 2007
I'm bowled over by this news. As I hadn't heard about it for a while, I just assumed I hadn't got anywhere. Hooray! The winner and two runners up will be announced on Tuesday at Cheltenham; alas I won't be there. I could only afford to go for two days, and I plumped for the latter two.
My plan of winning the pitching competition to get another two days at the festival has not worked - I didn't make the final ten for that one. It's probably just as well: I'd have had to beg the Day Job for some last minute leave, and I'd have had to get up in front of a crowd and pitch, which - I must admit - was making me feel a bit apprehensive (read: scared stiff).
I would like to have been in the audience for the final pitches though, but I'm sure they'll be blogged about, or covered in ScriptWriter magazine. In the meantime, there's Lucy's competition for all the pitches that got away. I want to do a bit of work on mine before submitting it - is that allowed, Luce?
Oh, and a non-writing PS: My young lad started walking this week. He can go a few metres in a controlled way, without holding onto anything. It's amazing.
Monday, 18 June 2007
Having meetings. I have been lucky enough to have three meetings in the last week. Two were for short film projects that now seem to be a definite go. The third meeting was for a feature, and I’m keeping everything crossed. I’m too superstitious to add anything more at the moment.
Preparing for the Screenwriter’s Festival. I’m going for the second half. I’ve entered a script into the market, and I’ve submitted a pitch (if it makes the final ten, I can go for the first two days as well – if the Day Job lets me have the time off).
Getting the best rejection I’ve ever had. The BBC Writers’ Room got back to me about my radio play. It got two reads, and I was given some very positive feedback. They don’t want to develop that idea, but they want to follow my progress and have solicited my next script, as and when I can send it in. As far as I can tell, this is as far as I can go through the system without being put in touch with a producer. So, I’m happy, and raring to go on my next spec radio play.
Watching last Saturday’s Doctor Who every (thirty-something, male) writer seems to be blogging about it, and with good reason. It was a very good show in a long recent run of quality episodes. And it had the return of a character from the series past that made my inner-fanboy do cartwheels. If none of this means anything to you, then you’re probably a grown-up. How does that feel?
Preparing for the Script Factory Storylining course this week. It’s tomorrow and Thursday, and Sir Jason of Arnopp will also be there. It involves breaking down the story beats for the first 8 episodes of “Harkness Hall”, a fictional soap opera developed by the tutor Yvonne Grace. I have received the series outline document, and am currently getting to know the central characters, and working out ways to melt them.
Things what I haven’t been doing:
Writing the – hilariously delayed – third part of my Digital Shorts diaries. But it will come. I predict another week of quiet, and then I’ll be blogging every day again. TTFN.
Friday, 8 June 2007
Date: Tuesday 15th May 2007
Venue: The Gibson Studio, London (off Oxford Street); Gibson as in guitars – there were guitars, and posters of guitar heroes, everywhere. Cool. Also, the evening was sponsored by Cobra, so there was a constant supply of samples for the thirsty. Home-made scones are great, but this place has free beer. Hooray!
The Set Up: Elliott Grove, founder of Raindance, was our host for the evening, and - as anyone who’s met him will tell you - he is the consummate showman. Introductions to film training institutes have no right to be this entertaining. And, as a Canadian, Elliot is keen that us reserved Brits network with each other as much as possible; he halted proceedings early on and urged everyone to turn and introduce themselves to their neighbour. “You don’t have to touch each other, though,” he added. “This isn’t California.”
Raindance has three main areas of activity: a range of training courses, the Raindance Film Festival (since 1993), and the British Independent Film Awards (since 1998). Additionally, they arrange events and screenings, and are in the process of starting a Raindance TV station on joost. Details of all these were discussed by various members of staff.
And there was a raffle. Everyone was given a ticket free on arrival, and prizes of Raindance training CDs, and places on courses, were given away. What an absolutely genius idea!
I didn’t win anything.
The main part of the evening was then taken up with a Q&A with Mark Mahon, debut writer- producer-director of ‘Strength of Honour’, an independently-funded feature starring Michael Marsden and Vinnie Jones. The trailer is here, and this is Mark’s website.
Mark started off as an actor, but had to give up after an industrial accident, which left him in a wheelchair for two and a half years. It was the accident that prompted him to start writing. He learnt by doing, rewriting his work over and over to improve it (his rule of thumb is never to show a screenplay to someone else until he’s done at least eight drafts). Later, he went to Raindance courses to develop his producing and directing skills, and he was very complimentary about the standard of training he received. He wrote for eleven years before his major breakthrough, winning a Hollywood screenplay competition. Interestingly, it was a competition he hadn’t entered!
Mark recommended US script analyst services such as ScriptPimp or ScriptShark. He used such an analyst, and the commendations he received there, to attract a cast and backers for ‘Strength of Honour’. Having made a name for himself through this route, he thinks the Writers’ Guild of America – he’s still not sure – must have put forward one of his scripts for the award. When telephoned about his nomination, he needed a lot of persuading that he wasn’t the victim of a prank. In the end, he went to LA more for a holiday than anything else, only to find that he’d won.
Winning the competition got him invited to many Hollywood events and parties, but he was frustrated that his career still wasn’t making any progress. Rather than wait for Hollywood to dish him out a project, he decided to write a feature he could achieve on a modest budget. He raised the money privately, selling profit shares to private investors.
After years of effort, things seemed to come together quickly. The screenwriting award was won less than three years ago, the ‘Strength of Honour’ script was completed 15 months ago, and the film completed only days before Mark gave his talk. But it was hard work – Mark estimates that he was working an average of twenty hours a day during shooting. The film was launched at Cannes on the 24th May.
The key to all this, he tells us, has been a good script. That’s what will attract high-calibre talent to a movie without vast amounts of money. And also, it seems, a lot of ‘can do’ spirit. “Nike should sponsor the Hollywood sign,” Mark said at one point, “And underneath the letters it would read: JUST DO IT.”
Value for Money?: Another free event, with as much free beer as you could drink . Oh yes. I showed restraint, though, as I had an early start the next day. This also meant that I had to rush off, and I missed what looked to be a lively networking session after the Q&A. I’m sure I shall be going to another Raindance event soon to make up for this.
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
Date: Monday 14th May 2007
Venue: Friends Meeting House, Brighton. A church hall, basically, but a nice one with free refreshments including home-made scones. This is a first - I have never before been to a screenwriting or filmmaking event where anyone has provided home-made scones. God bless the Quakers.
The Set Up: Screen South periodically hold these events across the region. The morning session involved brief talks / Q&A sessions from various speakers (see below). Lunch - not provided, alas! - was at 12:30pm, and the afternoon was taken up with individuals’ one-to-ones with a Screen South representative. Upon registering, one could book this interview, the first step towards applying for funding. Registration started at 9:30am. I got there at 9:35am, and I almost missed out on a slot, they’d filled up so quickly. So, first piece of advice is to get there early.
Screen South: Jo Nolan, Miranda Robinson, and Vanessa Cook each spoke about the agency, its aims, its production and development department, the funding awards available, and how to apply. I’m not going to repeat a lot of this information, as it’s available from their website. But a few points of interest:
- Database: if you are working in film in the region, and you haven't already done it, get your details in the database on the Screen South website. If you’re looking for local crew, this is the place to look.
- Digital Shorts: the scheme will be running again in September / October. There will a roadshow when the scheme is launched, which will visit Brighton and other places.
- RIFE (Regional Investment Fund for England) awards: funding that’s available throughout the year. Small awards (up to £500) run to monthly deadlines; large awards (up to £5000 for an individual, £10000 for an organisation) run quarterly. Application forms and guidelines are available from the website, and the application process will involve an interview or interviews with different panels, depending on the amount sought.
- Production funding: there is no production funding available through Screen South (except for specific strands like Digital Shorts). But the situation is being looked into, and this may change.
- Training funding: Screen South would expect an applicant to have approached Skillset first before applying for training costs from the RIFE awards. Skillset can cover up to 80% of training costs (see below).
- Distribution funding: Applications can be made for funding to take completed shorts to festivals.
The most interesting section for me was a discussion about the typical path for a writer to apply for feature film development:
Stage 1 - Apply for £40 from the Small Awards fund to get script coverage from a reader that Screen South would arrange. This will be a 2-3 page report, and will take approximately two weeks. If you have already got coverage of this kind, you can submit this to Screen South, and – if it is to the required standard - you may be able to skip this stage.
Stage 2 - the coverage will be the basis of a redraft of the screenplay, which would be expected in no less than six weeks. This draft can then be submitted for an in-depth Script factory report (£80, again applied for from the RIFE small awards). This will be a 5-6 page report, and will take approximately six weeks.
Stage 3 - Another draft, and then the writer can apply for funding for a script editor to work with them to develop the material. After that, the writer will need to get a producer attached to the project to apply for further development funding. Screen South can provide advice on getting a producer, where the film sits in the market, and tips for moving it into pre-production.
Lighthouse: Sarah Flint, CEO. Lighthouse is one of the key regional partners to Screen South. Twenty-one years old this year, they provide professional development support for filmmakers, screenwriters and artists. Some training is available to all, some selectively based on an application. Sarah talked about some very exciting schemes coming soon, so keep an eye on their website. Successful last year was the ‘Guiding lights’ mentoring scheme. They hope to be running this again in 2007.
Lighthouse also hire out equipment, and rooms for meetings, events or screenings. Monthly, they hold their own networking events (a write up of a recent one is here).
Skillset: Rachael Duke, Film Fund Manager. Skillset has a film fund, and a TV freelance fund available, bankrolled by lottery money. The list of accepted training courses is on their website, and is quite extensive.
For training up to £800 in value, Skillset can pay 80%. Applications can be made at any time in the year, but you must have written confirmation that you’ve been accepted onto the course when you apply, and they cannot fund courses retrospectively. It’s worth planning ahead if you’re going to apply, to ensure you have enough time for the application to be processed – on average it takes four weeks per request.
You need to have demonstrable professional experience in the field for which you’re getting training; they can advise you on eligibility if you’re unsure (contact by telephone or e-mail).
BBC Writers’ Room: Paul Ashton’s session was covered in detail here.
One-to-one: Mine was at 3:30pm, which gave me time for a long lunch at The Hop Poles where I planned out the details of what I wanted to discuss. The interview was with Miranda, who I already know from working with her on my Digital Short. She answered my many questions helpfully, and we talked about the feature project. I left feeling very positive about my next steps.
Value for Money? It was free, so a big, fat YES. In fact, if you have a project that qualifies, these people can give you money. And home made scones.
Monday, 4 June 2007
The article quotes some statistics near the end about numbers of new writers getting taken on by each of the four agents in any given year, and they do seem a bit depressing (the statistics, not the agents); but, the main thing I took away from the night was: to get representation, one needs to work and work to make one's script as good as it can be. And that, of course, is what one needs to do to get it made too.
Sunday, 3 June 2007
Over the next couple of days I’m going to complete the write-ups of all the recent screenwriting events I’ve been to, including the Writers’ Guild ‘Meet the Agents’ event, where I got to meet many lovely bloggers. Yay! But first, I thought I’d post on this as it’s probably the most useful to my reader(s) - Paul Ashton, development manager of the BBC Writers’ Room, had a brief slot for questions and answers at the Screen South Information day last month. Here’s a summary:
Paul first talked briefly about BBC Films, as it was a film agency gig. The bottom line is that BBC Films do not accept unsolicited scripts. If you don’t have an agent, or if you haven’t a producer or production company (with a track record) attached, then send your script to the Writers’ Room in the first instance. If you do have these attachments, still don’t send the script to BBC Films, but contact them to arrange a meeting. [NB: Since Paul made this statement, there has been a shake up in BBC Films instigated, so the situation may change.]
Moving on, Paul urged new writers not to overlook radio as a medium for new writers. In his opinion it is closer to film than, say, TV. Radio has lots of slots for one-off dramas, and so writers don’t need to fit in with an existing format, and can realise an original vision. Strands like the Friday, and Saturday Plays, and the Wire on Radio 3 are home to some more challenging and extreme pieces.
For radio there are two other routes aside from sending material to the Writers' Room: an in-house producer, or an independent producer or production company. When I asked Paul later about sending material through these routes, he repeated the standard BBC policy of not sending material to in-house producers, as they will only redirect it to the Writers’ room. But many other sources have told me that an introductory letter to a BBC producer doesn’t hurt at all, and having a producer champion your work will obviously mean it stands a greater chance of a commission that sending a script in cold. As for independent producers, Paul said it was fine to try that route. But he added that independent radio producers only have a certain amount of slots that they can bid to fill, so you may find that they are less receptive to new writers.
Paul was asked an audience question about what percentage of submissions are successful. About 20% of all submissions to the Writers’ Room are given a full read, and the remainder are rejected based on the first ten pages (they call this ‘sifting’). Of those, it is hard to say how many go on to be made, as it differs depending on what is being applied for. Radio wins out again here, though: 25% of Radio 4's afternoon plays must come from a first or second-time writer.
Another audience member asked what material the Writers’ Room will consider, particularly in regard to short scripts? They will read them, but only as an example of the writer’s work; and they would need to see more material than just one short script: a minimum of 30 pages/minutes as a guide. There are no shorts being shown on the BBC currently, but this could change depending of the tastes of the commissioning heads.
Are spec scripts for existing TV shows accepted? No. Paul wants to see something original from a new writer. But if you want to write for Doctors, say, send in an original piece that’s roughly similar in tone – don’t send in a wacky sci-fi plot, for instance. The BBC Writers’ Academy will mean that it is a little more difficult for untested writers, who aren't in the academy, to get scripts on continuing drama shows, but the Writers’ room will always support writers that they think are producing good enough material.
Do one-off dramas by new writers get shown on TV? No, this doesn’t happen. But there are ways and means that a new writer’s vision can get to the screen. Recently, two different writers’ scripts that started off as original pieces were adapted for the last Silent Witness series. Other new writers have got to write for shows such as Inspector Lynley or Daziel and Pascoe. The only BBC show that Paul feels is invitation only for writers is – you guessed it – Doctor Who.
Finally, Paul was asked if he could define good writing, and what he is looking for in a script. Here’s his thoughts:
- Knowing the medium (Tv, film, radio) and knowing the genre
- A good hook in the first 10 minutes
- Bold and vivid characters that you want to spend time with
- A lot of story packed into every minute, so that your script isn’t slow
- Original thoughts: don’t just serve up what you think the market wants
- Good dialogue
- A story that starts in the right place
- Focussed storytelling
Paul was full of useful information, and stayed long after the lunch break had started answering personal questions from eager writers. If you have the chance, I would recommend attending an event where he speaks.
Wednesday, 30 May 2007
- About an aeon ago, I went to a Screen South Information day, and a Raindance open evening. A couple of people expressed interest in seeing a write up of these. I have a pile of notes that I hope to turn into a post before too long. Ditto for the next installment of my Digital Shorts diary. Watch this space.
- I didn't make the Script Factory 'Wireless and Boundless' scheme but I did at least get a polite (mass) rejection e-mail. 120 people applied for 20 places. Phew! Anyone else apply? Anyone get in?
- Paul Cornell's episode of Doctor Who on Saturday was possibly the best so far. And what a cliffhanger!
- The BBC Writer's Room still has my radio play, and it's nearly been four months. Is this a good sign or does it take them that long just to reject scripts? I'm hoping for some feedback at least (fingers crossed).
- My second spec radio play has been put aside half-finished while I've been revisiting a short. I'm rather pleased with it, so it's off to the British Short Screenplay Competition. Hooray!
Okay, that's all for now. Back to work.
Tuesday, 22 May 2007
Is this a mistake? I ask myself this every year. I’ve never had the readies, and I’ve never been convinced it’s particularly helpful for a writer. This year it was a particularly hard decision to make, though, what with the 60th anniversary and having written a film that’s there too. But my producer has gone over and is flying the flag (ooh, Scooch flashback – nasty!) for ‘Lent’ this week. So, I’ve saved my pennies for the Cheltenham Screenwriter’s Festival in July, which I think will be more useful for me at this juncture.
But, reading Sal Brown’s Cannes updates is wheting my appetite for when I finally give in and give it a go. Next year, definitely. And hopefully, with another short film to take with me…
Thursday, 17 May 2007
17th – 18th August 2006: two days of interviews held in Brighton, for representatives from each applying team. I’m there for the first of the two days. I’m told around 200 teams applied altogether, and 18 interviews happened on the 17th, including mine. So the long shortlist was somewhere around 36 teams.
The interviews were 15 minutes for the one-minuters, and 30 minutes for the longer ones; they were embedded in a day-long seminar about comedy from Sam Snape, which involved Q&A, screenings of some comedy shorts, and Sam’s enthusiastic stand-up style of interactive training. Later, there was a session with Sam on documentary shorts, and the next day - which I couldn’t make – saw an all-day drama seminar, which all were invited to attend. Some people who couldn’t do the whole day just turned up for their interview, but I liked to think of the seminar as a prize for getting that far, and I stayed for the day. I had lunch with a few of the other attendees down on the beach, as the weather was nice.
I then met with Miranda Robinson, Screen South’s head of development, and Pippa Brill, who would be working as script developer / editor with the winning teams. Also attending was Ricci-Lee Berry, production and development assistant. They gave me some good notes about what worked and what didn’t, and what could be done differently; we discussed various ideas. It was very much like a script development meeting, and not an interview. I decide I really want to work with these people.
30th August 2006: Final deadline to write a new draft of the screenplay based on the notes from my interview. Most other projects will have been given the same task, but some may have been asked to submit different or additional materials. These will now be considered before announcing the final shortlist for second interview. I don’t know exactly how long this final shortlist was; best guess: around 20 teams will be left.
4th September 2006: I get a call informing me that I’m through to the next stage. I’m quite happy to hear this news (understatement).
11th – 12th September 2006: The second set of interviews, held at the Film Council in London. As well as Miranda, Pippa and Ricci-Lee, there are a couple of other Film Council board members. I am nervous, but - again - everyone is very complimentary of my work. There are a few questions, back and forth, but it’s painless and over reasonably quickly – I think it lasted twenty minutes in all. It is here that the possibility of my directing the short is discussed: I turn the offer down. I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer, and I want someone with a little bit of experience to direct the film.
15th September 2006: I’m called on Friday afternoon by Miranda Robinson. I’ve got the gig. I’m ever so slightly chuffed (another understatement). Twelve live-action shorts will be made in all (7 long ones, and 5 short). Miranda tells me that Ricci-Lee Berry is interested in moving into a producer’s role, and asks me if I would like to work with her on ‘Out of the Frying Pan’. As I’ve already met Ricci-Lee, it won’t mean building a completely new working relationship, so it’s ideal. She’s very enthusiastic, and contacts me within a couple of hours of Miranda’s call. We talk about the project, and what to do next: we need a director.
To be Continued...