Friday, 11 May 2007

Interrogation, without the Bright Lights

'The Dark Art of Script Development'
[NB: Jason Arnopp has also summarised this event, and the page is linked to from his blog here.]

The Date:
Wednesday 9th May 2007

The Panellists:
Dan MacRae (DM) was formerly Deputy Head of the Development Fund at the UK Film Council and an Executive at Working Title; his credits include RED ROAD and the forthcoming ATONEMENT.

Sarah Golding (SG) is currently Head of Development for Potboiler Productions and was previously Head of Development for Skreba Films, Development Manager at Zenith Productions and Script Consultant for Yorkshire Television and Fair Game Films. Her credits include THE CONSTANT GARDENER, DEEP WATER, BROTHERS OF THE HEAD and the forthcoming THE BEST TIME OF OUR LIVES".

The venue:
Lighthouse in Brighton: very nice squishy leather sofas, and minimalist studio-style d├ęcor. The administration was efficient (though perhaps some handouts with the speakers’ biogs on wouldn’t have gone amiss), and the bottle bar was inexpensive by Brighton standards.

Value for money?
The Q&A went from 7:30 to 9:00pm, with informal networking before and after. Dan and Sarah made time for everyone who wanted to speak to them, and were very pleasant to chat to. It cost only a fiver, and was well worth it. Lighthouse has an event like this on every month, though sometimes with focus more on direction than writing, and I will definitely be looking to come along again.

Why was I there?
The process of script development is very important, and something that any serious scriptwriter should be aware of, but what I – and probably many others – were interested in was how to get our scripts and ideas into development in the first place. This was covered to some degree. Others in the audience wanted to talk about the difficulties inherent in the UK Film Industry, which did tend to get a bit repetitive (there’s no money, too many films are being made, not enough are being seen) but again, the panel were happy to share their thoughts.

The Questions and Answers:

What is this intangible thing called Script Development?
DM: Working with writers to generate an idea, or adaptation of an existing piece, and turn it into a script that will attract talent, funding, and ultimately an audience. The script editor works to translate the feelings of all the interested parties, like financiers or actors, to define the right vision, and achieve consistency for the project. To make some parts stronger, say, or more comedic, as required, without unbalancing the script as a whole.

SG: A different approach if you are a freelancer, rather than working for a big company. Script Development can be more like writer development, helping the writer to hone their skills, project by project and sell themselves as a writer. Helping production companies to accumulate a slate of projects.

What’s the difference between script development and script editing?
To edit something it must exist
DM: Development takes something up to script; after that, editing takes over.

How can an editor ensure that the aims of the piece remain the writer’s rather than the editor’s?
Ask them lots of questions before starting, make sure you’re on the same page; it's an interrogation, but without the bright lights.
DM: Sometimes it isn’t the writer’s aims that need protecting. In ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’ Rowan Atkinson and Working Title had more input than the writer or director, but the people employed to do those jobs are picked accordingly and aware of this.

What’s the process of development?
DM: It varies every time. You have to identify ambition, identify audience, identify the budget required, and identify how that budget relates to the possibilities of the material. Gain the trust of the team, find a shared vocabulary, identify strengths and weakness and where to go next with a new draft: are you developing plot, or tone, or the world of the story? You’re finding out what the piece is about ultimately, and that is very satisfying.

Should writers or editors try to second-guess the wants of an audience?
SG: Your own taste should be your guide. If I respond well to this, there’s a good chance other people will too. But ‘analysis’ is a better term than ‘second-guessing’. You have to provide security for the money invested. What satisfaction does the audience expect of the genre?
DM: Audiences are well served by TV. What is your film doing that’s different? Bleak and downbeat stories don’t sell so well, so you must be aware of this when thinking about your budget.

Are table readings of scripts important?
DM: Yes, both the UK Film Council and Working title have arranged them. They are usually helpful for comedies, but not so much for dramas where there might be lots of stage directions to read out.

Should the editor research more than the writer?
DM: Yes, it’s very valuable to have explored the subject (but this if you’re working for a company and therefore getting paid for it).
SG: As a freelancer, I wouldn’t expect to do as much research as the writer. There’s not enough money to be a researcher as well as an editor.

What potential is there for new ideas in a world of franchises, adaptations, etc.?
DM: Financiers like to have something more tangible than just a pitch. And an existing property has a built-in audience, which provides them more comfort. So make it a very good idea.
SG: Or write a spec script.
DM: The great thing about being a writer is all you need to do is write.

How would you work with a writer-director that used improvisation? How would you get budget to do this without a script?
Detailed treatments are required. Funding would be based on the reputation of the filmmakers involved. Get a track record in radio or stage plays. Trust equals money.
DM: Establish a structure. Again it comes down to budget.
SG: Or just go out and do it – but you’ll need to find the right actors.

How do you identify a good script?
Something enjoyable, compelling, with characters you can care about. There’s no elitism or mystery, just a response to the material. Write a good script, not a perfect script – something to start a conversation.
SG: It’s not just about good writing, but finding work with a specific voice. This needs to be taken to the right sort of producer.

How important is a good writing style?
Quite important- clumsy technique can put you off a script you’re reading.

How important is 3-act structure these days?
It’s at the heart of genre cinema, but you don’t hear as much about it in the UK as you do in the US.

How would you give advice to a unique voice / auteur?
SG: They need funding from an arts body. Financiers don’t usually want this kind of work.
DM: Auteurs need money from across Europe. Script editing doesn’t exist in France, for example. But the UK is not an auteur country, it’s a genre country.
What genres?
DM: Comedy, Action, Rom-Com, Teen Movies, Family Movies…
SG: Or something with a bravura performance from a star.

But unknown writers don’t stand a chance, do they?
Everyone’s an unknown at first.
DM: There’s no desire to shut out new writers.

And what about getting paid?
You priority must be to work with producers that have money.
SG: Producers with a track record shouldn’t be asking you to work for no money. But if both you and the producer are at the start of your careers, you can take a risk on a project together.

What can you do when the writer/editor working relationship goes bad?
Who’s running the show? If it’s the producer, they need to step in and resuce the project.
SG: Find a new script editor. Go back to a draft you were happy with, and work from there.

Have you ever wanted to be a writer yourself?
SG: Absolutely not! That's why I do the job I do - I don't want to take over from the writer, I'd rather work with them.

Final thoughts
Through the evening, there was also some sharing of script development horror stories from members of the audience, and from the panel. In all cases, it seems it is best to be clear about your intentions from the off, and not be afraid to revert to a previous draft.

My experience (working on 'Lent' ) was very positive, but when I first went in, I hadn't fully formed my aims for the piece and written them down. I would advise anyone in the same position to do this, even if you change your mind about the content later. Luckily, I had a development exec that helped me to understand the strengths of what I'd written - and pull those intentions out of my woolly subconscious and onto the page.


Lianne said...

Thanks for posting this Stuart, really informative.

Jason Arnopp said...

Hello Sir! Great to meet you at this event. Between the two of us, I reckon we've covered all the angles.

I notice you're too modest to mention that Dan McCrae had seen and remembered your 'Lent' short... :-)

Stuart Perry said...

Yeah - it seemed a bit too much like showing off!

But the fact that Dan is attending events like this, and the 'Lent' screening last week, does underline that - despite the cynicsm by some in the audience - the panellists were sincere in their talk of new writers and their development.

Danny Stack said...

"Cynicism in the audience". That's interesting but not surprising. People need to be more aware of the realities of the business rather than go on their pile of rejections and the media's representation of how the system works...

Stuart Perry said...

Danny, I quite agree. It was happily only a small - but vocal -minority on Wednesday night.

Jason Arnopp said...

... and by "small but vocal minority", you pretty much mean Bloke Who Won't Stop Rambling On About Himself & How He'll Never Be Taken Seriously Because He's Such An Outsider, right Stuart? ;-)