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.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Value of a Writing Rota for Screenwriters

In the past, I've discussed the dangers of relying on just one script, that one 'magic ticket', to make a career happen. It not only stifles your creativity by not broadening and challenging you, but you can become desenstized to your material's problems with constant, and often tedious, rewrites.


In my own journey, I've found implementing a 'writing rota', a system for when and what I write, has greatly enabled me to not only write what I really want, but to always push myself with new challenges. You might find some inspiration, for example, in working on a horror and then a comedy versus two horrors consecutively. Maybe you can't quite crack that senior drama until you've had a stab at a heist film and mastered suspense? But let's back up: what exactly makes up a 'writing rota'?

Well it's two parts: first, it's about the number of projects. Giving yourself targets can help focus you up for your writing year, but not going overboard in how much you do will ensure they are actually achieveable. I opt for 4-5 spec projects a year (with a 2:3 ratio fo film to TV), allowing me to work on stuff I really want to tackle, as well as allow time for rewrites, additional research and polishes so they are, in theory, ready the following year to be presented. I also think this more humble target allows margin for error and, as they say in law, 'Acts of God'/sudden accidents, so you're not prone to panicking.

The second part is the projects themselves: a good writing rota depends on having strongly contrasting projects. After all, if a production company is not paying you, you have total freedom to tackle whatever you want. This also helps avoid a risk of samyness or burnout by just working on one thing, or rather, one type of story or genre. Yes, I'm aware of Lee Jessup's advice in specializing in a particular genre, and while I certainly see her point, she's also refering primarily to the US market. Britain, being smaller, has less to offer in certain genres, so a jack-of-all-trades is more useful in building a career here.


Allow me to use an A-D scenario (with each representing about a month, give or take) to illustrate a rota, A could be a dark feature thriller, then B a children's sitcom pilot, than C a rewrite of A or a period drama, and then D could be an adult sitcom or cheesy fun B-actioner. Indeed, a very crude impression of this rota could be described as dark, light, dark, light, but genre variety matters much more than tone. In my own recent work, for instance, my 1hr crime thriller pilot gained quite a bit, especially on the subject of character, after I had worked on a 1hr period-fantasy pilot set in Spain.

The rota also means you can factor in specific deadlines, if there are opportunities, schemes and contests you want to enter. Just make sure you do your homework and allow plenty of time to properly polish your script before the opportunity comes around: don't wait till the last month and go nuts.  If you can, try and hold back till the following year so as to maximise your script's chances of being more ready. Again, nobody's paying you so why do it wrong?

The elements above also gives the rota a third trick up its sleeve: allowing for room to slot in commissioned projects. Whether it's your first proper TV or film credit, a short film or web series you've been hired to work on or maybe your first stage play, you can now give it the attention it needs and not panic because it ruins 'the flow'. Simply push a draft or rewrite back and now, you've got a free gap because you didn't overegg on specs. If you're really lucky and you get multiple commissions, no problem: just recalibrate the rota and prioritise what you most urgently need to finish. In this scenario, the commissions take the place of the other projects, again avoiding the risk of the 'magic ticket' mentality.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Great Screenwriting Books that aren't manuals

Both this blog and just about anything that mentions screenwriting has done plenty of pieces on the writing guides and their various paradigms and beat sheets. Some are good, some are bad and some are just there.

But what about careers and the practical side? Theory is all very well and good, but how can you actually make some kind of living at it? And for that matter, is there screenwriting-related literature that isn't another how-to book? Maybe something like a biography that talks about the ups and downs of a writer's life?

Well first, the nitty-gritty:
  • The UK Scriptwriter's Survival Guide: Veteran film and TV scribes Tim Clague and Danny Stack (Eastenders, Doctors, Thunderbirds Are Go) give a practical, no B.S. guide on what you can do to help yourself get a foothold in the industry. It only came out in 2014, but I honestly believe this should be compulsory reading for all new screenwriters, as it will open your eyes to many possibilities, as well as give you useful tips and tricks to navigate the business.
  • The Creative Essentials series of books cover different types of film and television writing, as well as other roles/career opportunities such as script editing, reading and pitching. Contributing authors include Karol Griffith (now set to work on the Chinese version of Humans), Lucy Sher and Charles Harris, among others.
And now, for something more fun, screenwriter autobiographies:
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. An easy recommedation for anyone, screenwriter or not. The legendary master scribe of Misery, All the President's Men and Princess Bride, among others, regails us with tales of his life, career and views on cinemas. In addition, they talk about his process, with Screen Trade coming with a little story about adaptating a short story into a screenplay.
  • Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too! by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. A ridiculously funny and addictive read that will leave you chuckling yet also be rather pensive and even a little dispirited by the Hollywood machine. Love or hate their films, this duo have been at the epicentre of some of the biggest comedies of the last decade (Herbie, Night at the Museum), so they know their stuff.
  • The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas. The infamous firebrand who made a fortune off of Showgirls and a slew of other 80s and 90s films, Eszterhas is an angry old man who has no qualms telling you what he thinks of the craft and the industry. Decidely very, very, very different to Screen Trade.
  • Adventures in La-La Land by Tim John. Want to hear the odyssesy of another Brit who made the jump across the pond? John provides just that, recounting his odysessey in LA and some of the peculiar sights he witnesses.
  • On Directing Film by David Mamet. Despite the name, it's really Mamet offering a broad cross-section of thoughts and stories working in the industry at multiple levels.  If you enjoyed his other dramaturgical works, this should be very easy to slip into.
  • Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman. Exactly what it says on the packet: how some of the biggest and best did it. Also related: Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? Development is the phase between ptiching and production, and sadly, is where you'll be spending the brunt of your career as a writer. With that, alas, comes stories of projects that get stuck for years and years, or stuff that almost happened, then didn't.
  • On Writing A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Less a screenwriting book and more just a good book to read on writing period, King's book is half memoir, half tips and tricks on his writing methods. It's candid, darkly funny, touching and yet sobering as King interweaves his writing methods with a look back on the strange turns of his career and how it impacted his life, or vice-versa.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Why One Pagers are handy for screenwriters

One of the hardest things about writing is pitching. Let's be frank: most of us are pretty nervous about it, and would rather eat burning coals than have to sell someone our story. How can you tell someone your compelling saga of emotional heartache or exciting adventure within a minute or two?


And what about when you're starting a project? Naturally, give yourself the freedom to experiment: Just plugging in for the formula won't yield interesting results, usually. However, with that always comes the peril of losing focus and forgetting why you ever bothered in the first place. Wouldn't having some kind of mission statement help keep you on track with what your intent is? What is your story about, at its core, when you strip away all the bells and whistles of snappy action or whimsical dialogue?

Enter one pagers: a succinct and tidy summation of the project and what you want. For me, they've proven to be rather handy and helped keep me on the course to story nirvana. No, you don't have to obey them as gospel or refuse to change them: consider them more as roadmaps on the creative journey.

So, how do you actually write one? Well, there's three steps:
  1. Start with your logline, the super basic distilation of your film. Who is it about, what the threat/problem is, and what will happen if they do or don't get it. IMPORTANT: Loglines are not taglines. ''In space, no one can hear you scream'' ain't a logline. Neither is ''why so serious''. Need help? Try this video.
  2. Then, write three or four paragraphs that cover the major beats of your film or pilot. Broad, arch and not usually invoking dialogue, it's your cliffnotes but is also, in a sense, why you want to write this specific story with these specific parts. Also, like in a script, use strong words that evoke clear images in the reader's eye.
  3. This is capped off by a paragraph devoted to explaning why it matters, what's special about it and why it could work. This is where your awareness of the market place, what it has and what it doesn't, will come into play. You have been reading the trades, haven't you? Haven't you?
From this, you can then graft and expand into a treatment or even a step outline. Again, gospel is not what you're writing, merely a friendly reminder. What's more, this can help narrow down your brainstorms and early research, as well assist email pitching, as it's a much easier document to hand over than a whole script. It can, also, very succintly tell someone how good you are, and if the script is right for them. I should know: I've used it to not half-bad effect before and gotten some reads for one of my kids show pilots.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Got my first TV Credit - Pablo

So, BIG BIG news everyone: just got my first legit, signed-on-the-dotted-line television credit. I'm writing an episode of the popular CBeebies animated series Pablo (also broadcasts on RTEjr and CBC).

 
The series, produced by Paper Owl Films and CAKE, is about the misadventures of the titular six-year-old, who has autism. The series focuses on how Pablo interacts with the world and how his atypical mind can make seemingly mundane things like clothes, baths and toys feel like great conundrums.

It's a great honour to be working on Pablo, having been diagonsed on the spectrum as a kid. I wish I had something like this when I was growing up (and I doubt I'm alone in that, given we're on a second series now). Naturally, this (hopefully) won't be the last, as I've continued to pitch ideas, some further along in development then others.

Now, not to get overly schmaltzy, but I have to extend a big thanks to several people: first, to my wonderful script editor Andrew Brenner, who has been very helpful and supportive; to Helen Stroud over at Collingwood&Co., who introduced us and was my 'Yes'; to Dominic Carver and my tutors at Met Film School who helped me create and hone the spec that lead to this.

When further arises, you'll be the first to know.,.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Abel Diaz - Complete Credits

Just a little record I keep of what I've done, on top of my little IMDB page (and will still keep even after that, as its reliability is notoriously unwieldy at the best of times). Stuff both on-screen and off, for your perusal.

Film/TV Credits:
  • 2019: Pablo (TV, 1x11mins, CBeebies/Paper Owl Films). Pre-school, animation. A 6 yr. old boy with autism explores the world in his own unique way.
- #81 Headache Volcano: Pablo has a funny feeling in his head when he plays on a hot afternoon, and it won't go away.
  • 2018: Wrapped Up (short film, 15 mins.) Dark comedy. A lovestruck finds herself in deep when she kills her boyfriend, who was sleeping with her brother.
  • 2017: Creative Access: Bobette’s Story (Promo, 2 mins.) A recruitment video for Creative Access (a service that enables B.A.M.E youth into internships in media industries), centring on one of their success stories, theatre manager Bobette. Link to film.
  • 2015: Spiderfly (short film, 5 mins.) Romantic thriller. Two lawyers, following the closure of a murder case, embark on a ‘killer’ affair of their own. Available at: https://vimeo.com/139926786
Film (Not as writer):
  • 2015: Silver (short film, 10 mins. Dir. Zay Basile. Script consultant, credited under ‘Special Thanks’). A tale of love between two living statues in the heart of London.
Non Film/TV:
  • 2018: Cull (One-Act Play), performed at the Oast Theatre, Tonbridge, as part of New Writing triple-bill. A dystopic drama that looks at overpopulation in the near-future.
  • 2016: Doctor Who: Iron Joe (published short story for charity anthology Time Shadows). The Sixth Doctor and Peri travel aboard the newly inaugurated Transcontinental Railroad, only to come face to face with the ultimate terror of the West: a bandit made of metal known only as ‘Iron Joe’.