Tuesday, 15 January 2019

More Pablo and Bang2Write - Ringing in 2019

So, belated Happy New Year to everyone. Hope 2018 was good to you, and here's hoping 2019 has more in store. It was quite a whirlwind year for me, with many highs and lows, but I managed to get my first few baby steps into the business, so hooray! 

So, a few announcements. First, I can now confirm I've written a second Pablo episode for the next series. In total, that brings my episode contributions to 2, and very proud I am of them. It's been an entertaining and highly educational experience. Andrew Brenner and Paper Owl Films were really cool to work with and knew exactly what they wanted. If and when there's a Series 3, I'll be all too happy to jump back in!



Next, I have contributed to jack-of-all-trades writing website Bang2Write with their little miniseries, What 22 Industry Pros Don't and Do Want. The articles are what they sound like: readers, producers and development folk in both film and TV as well as in books give their two pence on what they do or don't like when they see a new piece of work come in.


 



 

First up, here are the DONT'S.
And now, the DOS.

I'm also in very early stages of a new ten minute play, to be produced by the Oast's Sandra Barfield (who helped bring Cull to life last year) but as said, it's still early days. Beyond that, working as always on new specs, include a very special fantasy one that I intend to shop around soon.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Relationship of Writers and Critics - A Response to Sarah Phelps, Niall Johnson and The ABC Murders

Another year, another Christie adaptation that does well but causes a ruckus among devotees of Mystery's First Lady. TV veteran and self-described 'Pervert' Sarah Phelps turned her skills to adapting one of Poirot's adventures, but as with Ordeal of Innocence, rejigged it to surprise audiences. Poirot is now old and faded, a shadow of his former self, and his battle with the elusive 'A.B.C' takes on a seemingly more personal dimension.


Now ostensibly, fans being upset about changes to source material is par for the course and wouldn't be worth talking about, save for in this instance, an additional debate arose. Phelps, as her moniker implies, is very upfront about her views, and as such, tends to joke or shrug off Twitter critique. One such example was from poet Niall Johnson, who wrote a detailed review of his dislike of the adaptation. Phelps blew it off and this then engendered discussion about viewers having the right, or need, to speak directly with creators.


Sure enough, this snowballed into other screenwriters offering their two pence on taking critique from Joe public.

DISCLOSURE: I do not know either of the two main individuals or have read the original 'The ABC Murders'. While Phelps could've, perhaps, taken the criticism better, she is also a veteran screenwriter with a particular sense of humour and it's not my place to lecture her. As for Johnson, while the review is passionate, it's also a little dodgy in structure and overfocuses on fealty to source material and not enough on the merits or negatives of the series itself as a standalone work.

This is an interesting topic for me, having walked on both sides: longtime followers know I used to do film and TV criticism, starting in an amateur capacity on Youtube before transitioning to, however briefly, paid work for websites. There is a tendency, however innaccurate, to assume that critics are some manner of vanguard, a sort of 'quality police', there to tell Hollywood or the industry wherever what's right and wrong. Add in the democratization of opinion, where anyone with an internet connection and a platform can share their views i.e. be a critic, surely it must be a free for all?

Of course, a cursory glance at box office or ratings guide like the BARB show that negatively reviewed material does not always do badly, nor does well reviewed material always do well. Nor should numbers determine what you like: we all have differing opinions/tastes and there's nothing wrong with that. However, that right to express views is not what's being taken umbrage with here. Rather, this is about if said democratization entitles one to address and critique a creator directly on a large platform, regardless of said critic's merit or background.

Partially yes, but mostly no. INSOFAR AS TAGGING CREATORS IN, I must stress.

Yes, the openness of a platform like Twitter makes criticism or differing views impossible to avoid, and so long as terms of Use are not violated, they are fine to do so. However, it's important to remember Phelps, Holdsworth, Jenner and others are not against criticism; they just don't find it tactful for people to bombard them directly with reviews. Boundaries exist and politeness doesn't matter if you're crossing a decorum line. It's the presumption that being a viewer on Twitter entitles you to have a direct audience with a creator i.e. @ your reviews.

Even if you don't intend it to be rude, it still is, since you're shoving your work directly under someone's nose when you have no real need to, since there are other ways to express opinion, and presuming you must be listened to. Yes, Twitter is a public platform, but there's a considerable difference between simply writing up your opinion, positive or negative, and sharing among peers or enthusiasts, and then shoving your critique right in the face of a creator. By doing this, you are presuming your view is more worthy of specific attention when there's no qualifiers for it: your own subjective opinion is no more inferior or superior to someone else who shared it via normal channels.

It also, unhelpfully, presumes there's no quality control in the industry (Script editors, development and producers? What's that?!), or that creators never get told no. Oooh boy, where do you even begin with that... 

And that's not getting into the logistical headache of how does a creator read through reams and reams of often contradictory opinions on platforms as big as Twitter or reddit or Youtube? How does he or she decide what gets priority? By platform? By length? By quality of grammar and punctuation? By the fact that the person is a writer? If so, what kind? Is a playwright or novelist's argument as valid as a another screenwriter's?


Even on the professional side, critics don't really view themselves as guides or advisors to the film or TV industry. That's not the relationship. They don't write reviews with the purpose of making an artist change their work: they write because they have a passion for the medium and want to express and discuss their reactions, emotional and intellectual, to a creator's work. They help us see their work in a grander context. Mark Kermode's certainly spoken many times about the difference between critics and practitioners. If critics had enough power to really kill a project or tell off the biz, well, BvS and Venom, among many examples.

So, does all this mean the industry is above reproach and you can't criticize things? NO. You can still write or film reviews, still going on Twitter or reddit and discuss and still be free to watch what you want to. But do it because you want to talk and debate, because you have passion, not because you want to be an armchair director and tell people FAR MORE EXPERIENCED than yourself how to do their jobs. That's not criticism or brutal honesty, that's hubris and both fandom and the industry are filled with enough wannabes as is.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure

One of the oldest criticisms of screenwriting books is that they are not written by working practitoners (the old chesnut of 'those who cannot do, teach'), thus utterly deligitmsing them. Naturally, I think this stance is more than a little hyperbolic and irrational, but if you have that view on the subject, this one's for you.
 
Dan O'Bannon is the late, great mind behind Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead. With the aid of friend and collaborator Matt R. Lohr, he delivers a screenwriting book that places emphasis on conflict, as well as creating an exciting three act method called 'Dynamic Structure', derived in part from his background in science. Across linked chapters he breaks down his method, its influences from science like hedonic adaptation, how it applies to several famous films like Psycho and Dumb & Dumber and how you can implement it in your work.

O'Bannon's book is solid enough for your standard discussions on structure, but where it really excels is as a workbook: whereas a lot of tomes will state a bunch of arbitrary rules, O'Bannon regularly encourages you to engage in analysis and ask questions. Whether more literally in the exercises that close each chapter, or more in discussion of what makes effective drama and the place of 'rules' within that. O'Bannon is by no means an adherent: he believes in the uniqueness of your voice and says rules can be bent if they don't aid you. 


His D.S. is less about hitting specific page numbers and more how to consistently excite and wrongfoot an audience. However, he recognises there are fundamentals that stories must adhere to in order to function; chief is conflict, whereby O'Bannon puts focus on giving 'both sides' motivation. Instead of just 'a hero comes up against obstacles', he asks you to also think about the story from the antagonist/obstacle's POV. This, therefore, increases the tension and heightens the stakes as your characters, good or bad, have real, well defined motives that clash and produce richer drama.

As a bonus, he even examines and contasts his D.S. with other paradigms and works, such as McKee, Field and Aristotle. This ends up not being as much of an ego-stroke as one would assume: he acknowledges their historical significance as well as concedes their good points. However, he's not afraid to take them to task: whether it be the arcane thoughts of Aristotle, the strange wording of Lajos Ergi in defining dramatic concepts, or the archness of Field's famous paradigmn. He's not even afraid to acknowledge the limits of his own structure, when he analyzes Lawrence of Arabia. If you want a nice digest of the history of storytelling and dramatic theory, O'Bannon's got you covered.

Granted, the heavy emphasis on structural analysis and conflict does leave the book feeling a little skewed: pacing, characterization, dialogue and theme are all secondary and merely glanced at. O'Bannon doesn't necesserily regard them as inferior, but his emphasis is on effective structure and conflict. These other elements he primarily views as arising from these (character is action and whatnot), rather than dwelling on them as seperate elements. Also, O'Bannon concedes he can offer little meaningful business advice, so those looking for a more well rounded package should look elsewhere. 


However, what it sets out to do it does so with style and relish, making for an engrossing read. If you love genre movies and fiction, O'Bannon's work or haven't cracked the structure code yet, this book is ideal for you.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Patience: The Hardest Skill a Writer must learn

More than agents, producers, deadlines or writer's block, THIS is the one, the almighty thorn-in-side. No matter if you're a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, comics writer or wordsmith of any field, one thing unites us: we all hate silence. The long, seemingly eternal gap; the uncaring pause that awaits us every time we send something out into the world with the faintest of faint hopes it'll click.

Yep, that sums the feeling up...

A crushing malaise can often set in, regardless if the reason why it's being sent off is positive or even lucrative: sending a thoroughly polished manuscript or script to an interested party creates a rush of endorphins and joy, followed by a strange cycle of worry, self-doubt and even slight anger at not 'being taken seriously enough' for a faster response. This can occur, even in submissions that aren't life or death: even just sending something for a friend or trusted second pair of eyes can feel like a slog.

So, what can you do about it, to try and mitigate this crushing despair?
  • TURNAROUND: Most places will take anywhere from 90 days to three months to read something. Usually, details are provided on the company's website, but if you're submitting to an individual, try and ask (politely and without making it all about you) how long they normally take. That way, you just write it up on calendar and not think about it. Then and only then is when you-
  • FOLLOW UP: I cannot stress this enough, but DO NOT spam check up emails every week. Not only will this annoy your reader, it's also bad for said anxiety. If you can't or don't get an answer to the above question, month and a half is a good check in time.
  • SIZE: The bigger the company, the longer it'll take. Even efficient systems can, unfortunately, still not get through everything. Not even close to 50% on good days.
How else can you take your mind off the submission?

  • WRITE: Don't be that idiot waiting and waiting and choosing to freeze themselves in amber until a person says the magic word. The fastest way to stop worrying about one project is to work on another. Plus, it keeps you off the dark path of the 'magic ticket' that I've railled against before.
  • READ: May sound a little obvious and cheap, but just getting into other stories and subject matter can also help keep your mind off. Non-fiction can prove especially handy, as you can use this waiting time to either do research or simply find new inspiration for a project.
  • LIFE: Friends, family, pets, whatever your current job is. All of these are a quick and easy way to let the worry slide off your brain and into the recesses. Don't live the stereotype of the isolated maverick who solely devotes themselves to art. Go out, get some air, maybe even a nice hamburger!
And when all that's said and done, remember this most of all:
  • THERE IS NO 'BIG BREAK': A worthwhile career in any field is the summation of loads of small steps, not one big gamble. You will get lots of nos and contradictory responses on the same script, and it can be maddening. I had a kids pilot get three yes's and three no's, and it was actually the bigger names that took more of a shine. Remember the deadly perils of the 'magic ticket' I mentioned above? The sooner you take the advice to just write, enjoy it and build a varied portfolio, the faster you will not only produce better work, but also the less you will worry about 'do they like it? Do they like it?'

Monday, 19 November 2018

Review: Adventures in the Screen Trade

On November 16th, screenwriting lost a real legend in the form of William Goldman. Master of both original writing and adaptation, Goldman's resume is filled with multiple titles that most writers would be lucky to have just one of in their entire careers: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All The President's Men, Magic, The Great Waldo Pepper, Stepford Wives, A Bridge Too Far, Marathon Man, Misery, Princess Bride, Chaplin and Maverick, as well as assisting on A Few Good Men, Good Will Hunting and Twins.

Playwright, novelist, festival judge, teacher, critic, essayist and having a front-row seat in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, there's a lot to unpack with Goldman. For the aspiring screenwriter, or creator period, or even just movie geek, where do you start? And can you learn anything immediately applicable to craft? Well, part biography, part writing manual, Adventures in the Screen Trade answers with tales of his life, career and views on cinema.


Spanning the late 60s and 70s, the book is split in three: the first is Goldman's views of the then-contemporary industry and is where 'nobody knows anything' comes from. It's more an interesting artifact than wholly applicable to today, though if you follow any Hollywood rag... it may not have have changed all that much in some ways.

The second part is about his films, spanning Charly to A Bridge Too Far, detailing the ups and downs of each project, as well as some unmade ones like his version of The Right Stuff (later adapted by Philip Kaufman) and the musical remake of Grand Hotel. Goldman's skills are in full-force in these emminently readable accounts: it manages a fine balance of being informative and insightful about the ins and outs of filmmaking and storytelling without reading as gossipy, self-congratulatory or even spiteful, despites the missteps and bad luck. Goldman's tone is rather casual but not without some moments of deprecation of his own work and early naivete, and a good sprinkling of wit.

In addition, Goldman spends a good chunk of each chapter talking about his process, discussing how each screenplay represented a different challenge for him. But more than simply memories, Screen Trade comes with a little story about adapting a short story into a screenplay in its third section, Da Vinci. The short story is pretty rudimentary: a story about a little barber's son who becomes entranced with his father's newest hire, a veritable Michelangelo of hair. If you wanted a mini-masterclass in how to adapt a work to film, as well as some good writing primers, this has got you covered.

Honestly, do you need me to say more? Just go out and add this one to your collection. And while you're at it, also check out the sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. It carries through into the 80s and 90s, and not many memoirs can go from crippling depression to stories about gay lions with such grace.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

How can a Screenwriter get their first credit?

Since 2018 has proven to be somewhat a watershed year for me in terms of career advancement (new short, stage play, TV credit), I figured now is as good a time as any to discuss this, and boy ain't this the big one...

It's possibly the most common oxymoron you'll find in screenwriting: Can't get an agent without a credit, can't get a credit without an agent. Whatever is a new screenwriter to do, hoping to catch that much vaunted fish?


Well here's the thing: you don't need anyone's permission, agent or otherwise, to make something. Having some independently produced material can rather be handy: It shows you write well enough to have people want to make it, as well as have initiative. Sometimes, it can even serve as a demo of a bigger project (think Whiplash, which started life as a teaser short film, then got expanded into a feature), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes.

So, what can you do?
  • Short films: This is the classic staple, and is pretty self-explanatory. If you lack contacts for a crew, don't fret: Facebook has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of producers and directors looking for short scripts. It's as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: a goldmine. 
THAT SAID, as time passes, I find the first project below far more advisable for writers creating short-form material than a short film: not only because there's likely to be more content, but shorts tend to be viewed primarily as director showcases. A lot more emphasis gets placed on performances, style and ambiance than on great dramatic or comic writing.
  • Webseries: In the internet age, these are everywhere and cover every genre. Some can even attract some decent name talent, such as cult-favourite Cops and Monsters (which counts among its staff TV scribes like Debbie Moon (Wolfblood) and Roland Moore (Land Girls)), or recent hit Shiro's Story from Rap Man (now at the centre of a bidding war from networks). These are especially good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. It affords you a freedom of plot and character that short films simply don't allow. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these staffing gigs up regularly, so keep an eye open for that too.
  • Stage Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals regularly offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays that they fully fund. Most of these tend to be sketches, ten minute plays or one acts (totalling about 40 mins). Agents and other talent scouts do attend these (though usually, they have to be invited), so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for finding out who has an opening coming up, and usually three or four show up a month.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is much smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge: lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and maybe get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any sort of 'unsolicited' hullabaloo (Commissiong guidelines are available on the site to learn more.) However, the same need for patience and decorum as with TV still applies. Welcome to Night Vale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook. If you have a bunch of mics lying around, some type of theatre or acting associates and some decent editing software, you could get your own decently-produced audio drama up and running.
There's also the question of screenplay contests. Even just placing highly in one of the heavyweights like the Nichols can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything I've discussed on this blog that involves money, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, judges, fee prices, how long they've been running and if they've had any major success stories. Thescriptlab.com did a great piece on the best ones that I have recommended previously. Alternately, why not try one of the yearly TV Fellowships from the States?

Okay, but say you've done that: what about actually talking with companies? Two words: IMDB Pro. Quick and easy way to find emails, and substantially better than doing the dumb thing of sending to the info@ address of a company. Type a short email, giving a brief account of you, your work and pitching a sample (DO NOT ATTACH THE SCRIPT, you will only come off as desperate) for them to read. Alternately, just ask to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice: You'd be surprised how generous people can be with their time.

Just do not be:
  • Clingy 
  • Impatient
  • Annoying
  • Demanding
Got it?

Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision

Given I've made my feelings know about screenwriting gurus and the whole field of writing teaching before, I decided why not jump on the bandwagon's bandwagon and review some books on the subject in a new, ongoing segment? And what better one to start with then one of my personal favourites: Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision by Jack Epps Jr.


The man behind Top Gun, Dick Tracy and Turner & Hooch attacks the rather volumunous world of screenwriting theory with a different perspective and emphasis: instead of long sermons about Aristotle, three act structure and 'negation of negations', Epps focuses more on the actual process of rewriting your screenplay and getting it into the best shape possible. Across linked chapters, he breaks down and discusses ways to identify problems, create game plans and give oneself targets during rewrites to strengthen your craft and content.

Epps' methods may appear, on the surface, to be slower and more lethargic than what we normally associate with rewrites (recommending individual passes over one big attack, as well as lots of planning and detailing), but there is a clear process at work. In each chapter, Epps very plainly breaks down the how, why and what (going through topics like dialogue, characterisation, pacing, scenes) in a manner not disimilar to a good teacher (he is the chair of the School of Cinematic Arts at USC). He even readdresses and recontextualises concepts and processes throughout the book, showing how every piece of a screenplay must be carefully considered and nothing left to luck or chance as they have a knock-on effect on one another.

One of my favourite parts of the whole book is his suggestion of compiling all your notes on a script, and breaking them down by categories (again, character, pace, dialogue and many more subcategories, depending on what detail you like going in) in a type of plan. From there, depending on the project, you can prioritize what the biggest problems are and leave minor stuff till later, drafts or passes. I have found this incredibly useful for my own rewrites on projects and it helped clear so much of the clutter I had had trouble with before. Even his stressing of handwritten notes and twice reading your script, while it may seem a no-duh, only hit home once you try them and realize how much more liberating and clarifying they are. 

 
This more matter of fact approach is the book's greatest strength, feeling completely unpretentious and just focused on giving the writer clear tools on how to make a script better. As a bonus, he even provides examples of his techniques in action, both on his own projects as well as from some of his former students, just to hit home that this is not snake oil. Those with more of a taste for drama/literary theory, however, will not get much from the book's bluntness and mind on application rather than analysis or philosophy. This is a work tome, not a quick or casual read. 


However, there are already plenty of titles that fill that cavity in, and it's good to have something more immediately useful to a practising screenwriter in a market often criticised for not providing such tools. Easily one of the more refreshing titles to have hit the market in some time, Epps provides a book less interested in esoterics and more in practical use to the writer. Highly recommended.