Monday, 11 June 2018

Superman Lives & The Last Crusade - Lessons in drafting and redrafting

A lot changes in rewrites. Characters, dialogue, whole chunks of plot and even the order of events can shift or vanish. Long before there's a frame of film shot with which to create deleted scenes, writers must undertake their own 'editing' known as the rewrite. Key component of a rewrite: the draft, a version of your story that has been altered in some way. Usually, a script takes several before it's 'ready' for any type of submission.

If you're reading this, chances are you're a writer of some description or just interested in the craft. If so, you've probably heard all the sermons on the value of rewrites a million times now, but is there something more tangible? Where can you see how scripts change between drafts and chart the evolution of a piece?

Well today, I have two such examples: one from one of the finest adventure films ever made and another from one of the most infamous comic book films not made. I'm talking about 1989's Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, with drafts by Jeffrey Boam and Sir Tom Stoppard, and 1998's Superman Lives, written by Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy respectively.


Regarding Last Crusade, filmmaker Mike Fitzgerald already did a great breakdown of what changed between the Boam and Stoppard version. Here's the whole piece on Last Crusade, which in itself includes a link to the drafts and handy graphs mapping out the story & what went where: https://creativescreenwriting.com/indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade-learning-from-stoppard/

Done? Told you it was good stuff. Now, onto the aborted, strange and often headscratching saga of the three Superman Lives scripts, planned to star Nicolas Cage as the Last Son of Krypton and be directed by Tim Burton.

Basic gist of the project if you're not familiar: after the success of Burton's Batman in 1989, Warners got to work, trying to bring Superman back. Drawing from the best-selling Death of Superman comic arc, Warners opted for a story that focused on the death and resurection of Superman, following a battle with alien killing machine Doomsday. However, the budget quickly ballooned, Warners got cold feet and canned it. Luckily, the internet has preserved these original drafts for our perusal.

(Links to the Smith & Strick scripts can be found here: http://www.supermanhomepage.com/movies.php while the Gilroy one is here: http://www.simplyscripts.com/s.html)

First up to bat, Askewniverse mastermind and comic's beloved FatMan, Kevin Smith (dated to March 1997. There also exists an earlier version dated to January 97, but this is the more common one):

Plot: With designs on a Kryptonian artifact known as the Eradicator, energy consuming cyber-alien Brainiac comes to Earth in his colossal skull ship. There, he finds the last son of Krypton, at the height of popularity and in a healthy relationship with Lois Lane, who is tied to the Eradicator. To this end, he forms an alliance with tycoon Lex Luthor, and unleashes the monster Doomsday on Metropolis.

Summary: Described by Smith himself as 'fanfiction', this behemoth (page count not officially known, with some pdfs coming in at 119, others at 209) does bear the typical hallmarks of such literature: truckloads of cameos and references chucked in left, right and centre (from Deadshot to a speech-centric cameo by the Dark Knight). The formatting is often off with Smith not using basics like correct aligning for dialogue or using proper scene transitions like 'Continuous' or 'FLASHBACK starts/ends'. Likewise, the plotting and structure is not very strong and often feels tedious, with hefty chunks of exposition where the film tells, rather than shows, its big ideas or themes. Such instances include Superman giving big speeches about the impact of love and life, or the Eradicator learning what it means to be human in the midst of what is supposed to be an intense battle.

Yet despite these glaring issues, there is a 'fun' underpinning the whole affair and some of Smith's strengths still shine through: his skills as a dialogue and character man hold true when it comes to Clark and Lois' relationship. Not only does he make them likeable and endearing, but also makes them feel like they've been in a relationship for some time. I even admire Smith's efforts to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in the world and the nature of god vs. man (reminding me a bit of what Batman Forever was originally intended to be).

Plus, despite the silly polar bears guards and alien spider, Smith still crafts fairly engaging setpieces befitting a summer movie, ranging from big slugfests and high speed hover chases, to monster fights that echo Harryhausen, be it with Doomsday or the arachnid Snare Beast. For the man who joked about his Green Hornet being fight-lite and then directing the mediocre action of Cop Out, Smith has a decent eye for spectacle here that blends 60s and 90s rather well.

Closing Thoughts: While overlong and not terribly accessible to the mass audience of a summer movie with its fangasiming, I admire the earnestness of Smith's script and with some tailoring and focus, could've made for an enjoyable Superman film, albeit not one that would've exactly reset trends the way Burton's Batman had back in 1989.

Phew, that was a big'un. Let's hop to script #2, brought to us by Cape Fear's Wesley Strick:

Plot: Same jist as before, though there's more of an emphasis on a distant, uncertain Superman who questions his origins and what his purpose is. Also new this time around is, instead of the Eradicator, Brianiac's desire is for an artificial Kryptonian intelligence called 'K', so he forms an alliance with Luthor and unleashes Doomsday on Metropolis to draw it out.

Summary: While leaner than Smith's 'fanfiction', this 117 page Lives doesn't quite compensate with substance or depth. In the place of bloated speeches and fanservice, we get a lot of tedious moping from Clark Kent as he returns to Smallville following some excavations by Lexcorp into alien tech. Whilst I admire the effort to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in our human world and the nature of godlike powers, Strick makes him come across as whiny and a little too naive for someone who is meant to be a seasoned reporter, as well as crimefighter. Plus, the inciting incident that leads to Superman's doubts doesn't feel strong enough and I couldn't help but wonder 'Why now, of all the times Luthor has probably meddled with alien tech or tried to tamper with something or somewhere tied to Supes' past does THIS cause him to have a crisis'?

Recall how Smith's strengths were dialogue and character, especially when it came to Clark and Lois' relationship? That's been junked in favour of dialogue that veers from robotic to goofy, with a Clark-Lois dynamic that reads more like awkward teenagers. It also resets them to 'Lois not knowing Clark is Superman', which feels more like an excuse to pad out the script and never has the weight Strick clearly wants it to by the time Supes dies.

What's more, the 'earnest fun' underpinning Smith's script is almost entirely gone, with a tonal imbalance that goes from really dour and existential with Superman's quest for answers and his reminisce on the past, to almost Batman & Robin levels of camp with the bickering duo of Luthor and Brainiac. He reads less like a cold computer and more like an alien overlord from an SNL spoof sketch. This only gets worse when the two fuse to form the even more bickery 'Lexiac', when he literally becomes a comedy of two halves. Any attempt at making parallels between Brainiac and Superman as the final survivors of Krypton and how they use that legacy is completely undermined by just how kooky the villains are.

If there are positives here, Strick's Hollywood experience does enable him to craft fairly satisfying action, as well as take more advantage of the Harryhausen-monster angle, be it with Doomsday, the Snare Beast or the new fight at a Lexcorp theme park against a water-phobic chomper monster. The film never wants for whizz-bang, going from alien worlds to street riots to the frozen Arctic. Structurally, it does feel more cohesive than the sprawl of Smith and conceptually, Strick has a lot of the right ideas here for a Superman film that makes us re-evaluate how we perceive the Man of Steel and what it would be like to have his responsibilities. It's just a shame it never amounts to much.

Closing Thoughts: I admire the earnestness of Smith's script despite the fanwank, and it felt like it was written with some passion. The same cannot be said of Strick's colder, more mechanical screenplay. In an attempt to make the film tighter and deeper, he has instead produced something imbalanced and tedious.

And we round off our superhero romp with a rewrite, courtesy of Nightcrawler's Dan Gilroy:

Plot: This time around, Brainiac's desire is vengeance upon Superman for how he was treated by his creator, Jor-El. Forming a much more literal merger with Luthor to become 'Lexiac', he unleashes Doomsday once more during a Lexcorp event.

Summary: Shorter still than Strick's, this 112 page version of Lives plays like a greatest hits of the Smith and Strick version, as well as an exercise in cost cutting. Gone are the monsters (save Doomsday) and a lot of the space elements, gone is the Fortress and instead, the introspection of Superman's identity crisis (as well as a slightly odder 'kill-happy' Supes compared to the other two) takes centre-stage. Thankfully, this is sans a lot of the whining of Strick's version, with a more level-headed Superman questioning his origins and where he belongs. The script also spends time on the Clark and Lois' relationship, which is closer to Smith's bouncier portrayal, making them seem like they have a genuine history together (even if Smith-esque bloated speeches do come back near the end just to hammer the significance home).

However, when the film is not just a mere sharpening of old elements, it's the new that leaves me scratching my head: the 'fun' of Smith is near absent, as is a lot of the surreality of the past two scripts (well, save for Luthor in a thong. Because...?). In its place, we get hacking, nukes, a few brawls and a sequence of Superman juggling three falling elevators that, given how intricate it is, would've ended up costing as much as a monster, so why bother making it more generic? Lois also gets a niece who only really matters towards the end and is more there to be cute, as is a pregnancy angle that predates Superman Returns. If there is something about family here, it's not especially well woven and ends up only being relevant when it serves the plot.

Speaking of which, while this draft handles it the best, Lives conceit of adapting Death of Superman as the first film of a new series suffers from, well, not really allowing enough time for Supes' death to mean anything, nor really explore the ramifications of that. In all three, right after the funeral, the token guardian A.I., be it Eradicator or K, comes in and revives him, so it carries no real weight and just doesn't feel tailored for a two hour film AND a franchise starter.

That's not to say Gilroy's script has no other merits, it's the best formatted of the three, and still delivers setpieces that are smaller but still fairly enjoyable in their own right, even if again, this Superman is a little more callous for no reason. Plus, kudos for taking Strick's ideas and expanding on them to try and recalibrate the film's focus on an outsider Superman as opposed to uneven camp and space theatrics.

Closing Thoughts: In conclusion, Gilroy's script is the most professional and tight, but it just feels like a regular 90s action film with some sci-fi elements. With the oddness gone, Lives just feels very routine, which really defeats the point of it being such a radical departure for the Man of Steel's screen adventures.

Final verdict: In reading and reviewing the changes between the drafts of Superman Lives, I hope you got to see an indentifiable chain of transformation as the script went through different hands. Even if you're the sole writer of your own work, you've still seen how ideas change in response to notes and shifts in focus. Some ideas were refined, some were combined and some were thrown out entirely, as will many of yours. It also, hopefully demonstrated how long some ideas can take to fully take wing or, at least, be more coherent and that little is right on the first try. That's why drafts matter.

Plus, if you're ever hired by DC to write for Supes, you already have an idea what NOT to do.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Screenwriting is Rewriting: Don't Be Precious. Yes, really.

Rocky was written in three days.
John Hughes wrote Ferris Bueller in four.
Bone Tomahawk had only one draft.

Now, the smart screenwriter looks at these and realizes that these are just cogs in a bigger machine. Films are seldom all there in just the writing. A lot changes through development and then, hopefully, production and release. Rocky, Ferris and Bone all changed as they saw the light of day, having input from dozens of people, ranging from the top brass to people on set to even friendly advice. Ferris had lots of improv, and several key moments and scenes in Rocky were overhauled due to location and budget issues. Bone Tomahawk was also not S. Craig Zahler's first script.


The less-smart screenwriter looks at this as the perfect excuse: See? See? I can create genius in mere days! Screw the rules! Sod the treatment! Frack the rewrite, I'm Captain Goddamn Invincible!

And thus is born years of whining on forums, hawking the same script about gangsters over and over and over again. The sort who always lash out at 'hacks' writing the next TransformJoeManBegins, believing they're the ones entitled to such gigs. Sad, but anyone familiar with the online community has seen this diet Shakesperean tragedy play out over and over and yadda yadda yadda.

Here's the thing: you want to write something good? Get ready to do a whole lot of work, and for a long time. Masters of their crafts sink many years into being the best. Even an 'overnight success' like Evan Daugherty had to do tons of writing before he sold Snow White and The Huntsman and got franchise jobs. He'll tell you so himself here.

A component of this is, of course, rewriting. Like it or nor, you will never get everything right on the first try, or even the second. A good writer gives themselves the breathing room to not only create, but to make mistakes and learn from them. You have to develop a critical eye and know what makes a compelling story tick. How do you find three-dimensional and complex characters? Rewrites. Cracking dialogue? Rewrite. Deep and resonant themes, raised through engaging conflict? Rewrite too. Regardless if you believe in saving cats or twenty two steps, you have to be able to properly assess why something isn't landing, and that takes trial and error.

Some things you can do to help your rewriting be less painful and speedier? How about:
  • Read lots of scripts: an oldie but a goodie of writing advice. The more you read, the quicker you'll be able to sniff out crap. In fact, I'd argue these will help you more than watching the movies, as you will see how their tricks were done. Like a magician, you can't do a trick if you don't know how it was done. Furthermore, don't just read the Oscar winners: read junk! You'd be surprised how much you can gleam from reading the three terrible scripts for Tim Burton's Superman Lives, or two different drafts of Wild Wild West.
  • Read and watch criticism: movie and TV reviews, video essays, media criticism of any type, all can show you how to take a critical approach to your work. This is especially handy if you're not used to being analytical with how you consume and interact with media.
  • Develop a list, and then a plan: A wonderful little tip from Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun) in his book Screenwriting Is Rewriting. You compile a list of your script's pros and cons, and break them down into a table. What Works, What Needs Work, Big Picture Issues, Character, Structure, Theme etc. This will help you formulate an efficient action plan that clearly lays out what needs doing.
  • Get a read and break it down: whether it's from a writer's group or a service (as always, shop around and get a good deal), get a second pair of eyeballs on your script. They will give you notes, and from there, do the same as the above and develop a breakdown. Indeed, a combo of both a personal and outside breakdown will be a real boon in deducing problems.
  • Back to the Outline: A neat tip from Martie Cook (Full House), in her television bible Write to TV, argues that to solve deeper problems in your story, you have to go back to the outline and examine what your scenes did and didn't do, now with the context of the notes. You'd be surprised how much you missed on the first go around, even after rewriting pre-first draft. No point charging back into the mountain of the script if your roadmap's all wonky.
  • Scene by scene brainstorm: A handy tip from William M. Akers (New Adventures of Superman) in his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make it Great. Take each scene in your outline and give them a whole page, write a basic description of what it does and then the rest of the page is just brainstorming ideas to make it better. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or anything, just splurge everything and anything.
  • Space it out: While less a direct writing tip, keeping an eye on your schedule can be very useful. Don't do too many rewrites on the same project back-to-back and try to shake up the genres. You might find some inspiration in working on a horror and then a comedy versus two horrors consecutively. It'll also stop you from getting into the dangerous 'magic ticket' mindset of working on one script only for ages and ages.
Also, attitude is important: acting bigheaded and defensive when people try to help and offer suggestions will not do you any favours. In fact, it'll arguably be more destructive than any bad screenplay. Humility and patience are vital qualities in any career, especially one as team-based as filmmaking. Being prickly or butting in while someone is explaining something will mess with your ability to take meaningful hints and improve yourself.

Will every note be gold? No, but a smart writer will take it in, give themselves some breathing room and interrogate it. If a note isn't making sense, ask yourself why? Have you botched something in communication, leading to confusion on what you were trying to convey? Does a character say or do something contradictory? Is the subtext nonsensical in the context of your scene? A great tip I had from a film when discussing story and meaning: 'What's it about and what is it REALLY about?' Example? Rocky: About - a good-hearted bum who gets to fight the heavyweight boxing champ. REALLY - A downtrodden underdog learning his self-worth.

Now look, I get the annoyance: you get a high when you write something you're passionate about and you just want to keep trucking. Keeping pumping out new and exciting works! I'd be lying if I said I didn't get that feeling and relish the high. Unfortunately, like any human being, too much of a good thing never ends well, especially if it messes with your focus and objectivity. Persistance and dedication is what weeds out the amateurs and gold diggers from the real storytellers.

If you really believe in a script, you'll go the long haul with it, even when it looks like a complete train crash. Stories and writing them are like odysesseys, long journeys of discovery filled with pitfalls. However well you think you know your story when you start out, you will always learn things about your characters and their world as you keep digging deeper and deeper in. To counterpoint the first three examples on speed of writing great stories:

Steve Martin took 25 drafts to write Roxanne.
Matthew Graham and Tony Jordan rewrote Life on Mars many times before Kudos picked it up.
Matt Weiner wrote the first draft of Mad Men all the way back in 2000.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

In Defense of Writing Courses (A Response to Julie Myerson and Sharlene Teo)

So a while back, the internet was the internet and a row kicked off: veteran author Julie Myerson wrote a negative review of debut writer Sharlene Teo's first book, Ponti. In it, she admired Teo's ambition, but faulted the book's prose and use of literary devices. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, but it was this quote that seemed to especially irk people: 'If a more vivid, elastic and relaxed Sharlene Teo is hiding somewhere beneath all this knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak, then I wish her lots of luck'. 

And then, a quick glance at the comments or Twitter shows where this went...

DISCLOSURE: I do not know either of these people, condone their actions or have read 'Ponti'. Teo could've taken the criticism better, rather than post up inflammatory twitter posts, but Myerson should've taken her own advice for a 'tougher editor'. The review is a little wonky in structure and lacks a good flow, in addition to the out-of-place potshot that doesn't add anything of critical substance.

While my bread and butter is more screenwriting, anyone within the different writing spheres online has come across the debate on 'learning to write' and academic courses. Some say they teach discipline and widen the palette, others say the best school is read, read and read some more. Some, even more extreme, denounce them as mediocrity factories, churning out formulas and tepid, castrated fiction.

Me? Somewhere in the middle: I believe they can be useful and offer great value, but one needs to be selective. In fact, I argued as much in Part Three of my BA Screenwriting series, where I gave advice to BA film students who sought to become screenwriters via a masters degree.

To reiterate and recontextualise my key points from that piece on the benefits:
  • Careers: Other skillsets and career paths can open themselves up to you, that you wouldn't be exposed to by just reading. Not merely writing for your chosen medium (film, television, novels, comics etc.) but also explore more development roles like reader, editor, teaching and consulting. Indeed, the Internet has lead to an explosion of the latter, as people with prestigious qualifications set up shop to aid others.
  • Professional development: on the course, you'll be getting your material developed, reviewed and critiqued by veterans with whom you develop a relationship with and can turn to for help. You can even, if you ask nicely, get them to read and critique non-course work, or run a CV or cover letter passed for a check. This also covers pitching and getting comfortable talking to others.
  • Work ethic: the structure and deadlines of the course will encourage you to start working more professionally and efficiently on your material. Learning how to turn around an idea into a story, in whatever medium, within a handful of weeks is a useful skill (not to mention, close to what is expected in the business), as well as how to generate multiple ideas.
In addition:
  • Palette widening: You'll be exposed to literary and artistic works that you wouldn't normally come by, depending on your tastes and social circle. You may know some of the bigwigs like Dickens, Austen, Hugo, Shakespeare and Woolf, but what about less 'blockbuster' authors like Maugham, Marlowe and Aeschyles? You may know Jane Austen, but do you know Daisy Miller? Are The Sound and The Fury or Absolom, Absolom titles you'd snap up as soon as another Harry Potter book?
  • History: in addition to reading more, you'll also learn more about the history of your craft. How novels evolved from serialized newspaper and magazine entries; how Campbell's views on mythology inspired some of your favourite franchises; or how stage plays change from Ancient Greece, through Elizabethan England and into the mid to late 20th century, when titans like Miller, Pinter and Williams ran amuck.
  • Network: Yes, yes, this is an old chestnut, but it's true. You never who you'll meet, and what they'll become someday. Never pays to be a dick.
So that's all well good. However, if you read the other article, there were some cons to be raised too:
  • Tutors: Just like with screenwriting gurus or any sort of 'guide', their quality can vary considerably. Some are unpredictable and temperamental, others have no interest in growing their students beyond the classroom. Some are too lax and don't teach proper tools, others are deadset on doing things one way and one way only. Make sure the tutors are either practitioners or come with really strong recommendations (industry or successful ex-students) to avoid this.
  • Module content: There is no point in spending thousands on a course that, yes, can make you write well, but does not prepare you for reality or suggest career options to explore while you prepare your material. Some, sadly, operat eon a 'take the money and run' mentality, leaving you adrift with no career guidance and too heavy a focus in one area. Also, how is the course structured? Does it feel like one subject flows into the next, or is it just a random jumble?
  • Reputation: The more presitigious an establishment, the more difficult the entry criteria will be, and just like pricing, this can be a big hurdle. Inversely, the smaller and less well known the school, the higher the chances are that the MA is not very good, especially if it's not a school that primarily specializes heavily in fiction, media or the arts.
Really, it's down to what you're looking for, and where you see yourself in 5-10 years. If you're totally green and can spare the time and money, give it a whirl. Someone more seasoned, they'll just have to decide for themselves.

But what is it that bothers me about the attitude of Myerson and other pros like her who take such a dim view of creative academia? Well, as discussed before in my Defense of Screenwriting Gurus, I believe part of it is the demystificaiton. Like magicians, writers want to guard their tricks and feel special. If you give someone guidleines, well, doesn't that take some of the illusion away? Does it not reduce art to mere blueprints that can be followed by any old Tom, Dick or Henrietta?

But on top of that, the quote alludes to a bigger issue: the notion that said institutions are straitjacketing authors and not allowing them to 'be themselves'. They are breeding some sort of monoculture in art, where everything is the same and there's no room for variation, innovation or originality. After all, how many more YA fantasies; how many more superheroes; how many more stories about drug addiction, mobsters and young people struggling with their sexuality? How much more do we have to deal with snarky or overly melodramatic prose from an emotional young mind? This 'repetition' is what Myerson seems to be jabbing at.

I sympathise with the frustration and need for an easy punching bag: I'm certainly as sick to death of old and overly rigid 'advice' (your character must be X, or you can only use Y with Z in order to create J) constantly being rehashed to green writers as anyone. However, as I argued in the Gurus article, I consider this a misreading of creative education: courses and teachers are not there to tell students what stories to write, but rather, provide the tools with which they may or may not build them with. The importance of stakes, conflict or theme is no more 'pre-fab storytelling' than functioning equipment and hygiene is an 'option' in cookery.

Art doesn't exist in a vaccum and the most popular works tend to reflect the society and culture they sprang from. Maybe the continued popularity and creation of these specific stories says something about our world? Does the continued popularity fo YA fiction say something about the way we treat the young? Does the continued popularity of superheroes say something about the troubled times we live in, and our desire to have somebody looking out for us? If Teo has a fanbase, maybe that's indicative of Ponti having more meaning than Myerson may be giving credit for.

Should Myerson instead point the finger at lowly readers for propigating these stories by making them so successful? Perhaps at the publishers for creating so much similar content and not diversifying? What of editors being too soft? Maybe Myerson should instead roar at the world around us and ask some harder questions of what these stories and how they're told say about us?

All I know is a tool or aid is what a writer makes of it: classes and teachers will not necessarily make you a master storyteller, but they can be a step towards it. If you want anything bad enough, you'll work hard to get there. But hey, I'm just a lowly script reader and aspriing screenwriter. What do I know? Well, here's novelist Chuck Wendig's thoughts on the subject: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/01/10/a-short-rant-on-the-you-cant-teach-writing-meme/

Thursday, 10 May 2018

My first performed Stage Play - Cull

Well, now I'm a proper playwright! This past Sunday, May 6, my One Act dystopia play Cull premiered at a special members-only triple bill at the Oast Theatre in Tonbridge, Kent. It depicts a future where resources are at critical, overpopulation is the dominant and our government must consider a 'terminal option' for the crisis.

Directed by Sandra Barfield (funny thing about this: I had sent this off two years earlier, and they just got back to me in March. Stranger things indeed... but I'm not complaining!), it closed off an afternoon of new plays (following both a ten minute and One Act comedy about infidelity and Brexit respectively).


It was a fun experience: naturally, I was nervous about seeing my work performed live in front of an audience. All the expected concerns came up: is it exciting? Is it clever? Is it unsettling? Did the director get it? Did the actors get it? Was the dialogue right? Was the pacing right? Were the characters will fleshed out? Did their conflict make sense? Was it too long? Was it too short possibly? Was it practical?

However, all went off without a hitch and the response from the audience was very positive. Many were indeed unsettled by the ethical questions posed by the play, and my own observations of the audience confirmed this.


So, what next? All goes well and it recieves the winning decision in October by the Oast's board, there may be full follow-up productions on the fringe festival circuit around England. After that, well, skies the limit, no? I have also been offered to have any 10 minute plays produced by another theatre as a result, so I will keeping an eye on that. If there is a moral to this story, it's expect the unexpected.

(Check out Oast's newest productions here: https://www.oasttheatre.com/)

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

To Spec or Not To Spec - Should A Brit Write For American TV?

Me saying America is the dream for filmmakers is like saying Diet Coke is inferior to regular: everybody knows it. Money's better, there's more platforms and distributors, the audience is bigger and there's simply a greater variety of series to work. Add to that that many TV scribes have gone on to have lucrative feature careers (Abrams, McKenna, Pinkner, Whedon) and well, who wouldn't want a slice of that?


Of course, like everything screenwriting related, reality sets in: no unsolicited submissions, no contacts, agents don't want to know you, L.A. is expensive yadda yadda yadda, what is one to do? Well, several American networks/parent studios offer TV Fellowships: special training programmes, some even paid, where you get taught how to write television with the intent of getting you staffed on a series. And with no submission fee, all you need to take your shot is a semi-decent cover letter, and a finely polished spec script.

(NOTE: Spec is a common word in the screenwriting sphere, so it's important to clarify: 'spec script' , in this context, refers to writing a script for an existing show, and is strictly an American/Canadian thing. The UK does not trade in specs for existing series, only original material (spec pilots) so don't bother writing your dream episode of Doctor Who or EastEnders. No one will read it.)

The top dogs are as follows:
  • CBS Writers Mentoring Program
  • Disney/ABC TV Writing Program
  • FOX Writers Lab (FKA FOX Diversity Writer’s Initiative)
  • NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge
  • Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
  • WB Writers’ Workshop 

So, for a Brit, what are the pros and cons of doing a spec for these Stateside opportunities? First, the positives:
  • A New Addition to your Skillset: Adapting and working with the material of others is part and parcel of being in the screenwriting trade. Learning how to adapt to the voice and style of another writer and property is a useful skill to have, and can even help you find and hone your own.
  • You Don't Have To Create A World And Characters: It's already there before you. No need to spend hours, agonizing over character bios or extensive world building: the series has done it for you. All you need is a damn good plot, tight structure and ensure everyone sounds like they should, and badda bing badda boom, you got yourself a script! 
  • Opening the door: as said, the American market is superlucrative. Competitve as hell, even more than the UK, but very rewarding if you score. Remember, you make money both off the script and the time in the writer's room (yes, you get paid to drink coffee and eat donuts while mapping out the season). Also better if you want to do genre stuff - horror, sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes. 
  • Good First Impressions: With all possible respect, there's a certain glamour in having, say, The Flash or Jessica Jones as your first TV credit over, say, an episode of Doctors or Igglepiggle.
  • Your Own Canon Fanfic: Okay, a cheap one, but it's true. You get paid to write your dream story for a show you love. Sure, you may not be able to write about saucy bedroom antics, but you'll get to feel like you're in the club. Or you might get to write the bedroom episode.
And now, the flipside:
  • Paperwork: Thought you could skip treatments, outlines and redrafting, just because you're a fan? Nope! You may not have to create characters, but you sure as hell are going to have to create a tightly paced narrative with stakes, conflict and emotion. Otherwise, it's just another bad script on the slush pile.
  • Time Limit: Pilots can always be rejigged and resold, since there's no strict cutoff point. With produced TV series, however, there's always the looming spectre of cancellation or just ending. Once a show's done, that's it: you can't spec it anymore, unless it's a towering behemoth like Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy (which some of these workshops do allow, but always check). 
  • Stasis: Because you're writing an episode that can fit anywhere in continuity and serves as an encapsulation of the series, it does mean you can't make major character or narrative development your focus. The actual writing staff are already doing that, and likely don't need you to tell them how to tell their story.
  • You Won't Get On That Show: Specs are read by your series' competitors, to see if you can write a show in that general genre and style. If you're deadset on writing for NCIS, you're better off writing for CSI.
  • Distraction: In rewatching and studying your show of choice, the possibility for getting side tracked very much exists. What starts out as 'research' suddenly turns into binges and then marathons of shows completely unrelated to your spec. We're writers: we procrastinate any chance we get. It's vital you exercise discpline: watch what you absolutely need to, then go.
  • Moving: If you do get on, you will have to relocate to LA in order to attend the classes and workshops. While some do provide accomadation, check and if not, make your plans. An introvert who wants to stay home will not suit these at all: don't think Bryan Fuller would be happy having someone write American Gods all the way in Hull.
If you're still unsure of what to do, https://www.tv-calling.com is a great little site that helps give you a lens on the American market, as well as a well stocked library of scripts to study. Unlike what you've seen on the BBC, these scripts are almost all broken into acts (this is less some abstract principle, and more to do with commercial breaks), so learn this as it'll help you write correctly.

The fact is, screenwriting is a crapshoot: anything you can get or use, do so. Every little really does help, and there's no one path inward. Worst comes to the worst, you have another script in your arsenal, and that experience is never not useful. However, if I can offer some of my limited advice, don't make it your first: get comfortable writing, get good at telling stories and then try speccing. You only get one shot to impress, after all.

P.S. If you want to be clever and try to bypass this by some good old fashioned networking, then please, PLEASE, don't pull a stunt like this one. Just don't.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

In Defense of Screenwriting Gurus and Guides

Back in 2013, future Arrival and Your Name remake screenwriter Eric Heisserer put out a little ebook called 150 Screenwriting Challenges. It's what it says on the tin: bunch of helpful tips and tricks. Nothing particularly notable or controversial, but what caught my eye was his little introduction:


And just a year before, the man, myth, legend Frank Darabont said this in an interview with Gointothestory.com:

“The whole industry of ‘we can make you a screenwriter.’ I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things — I stress the word ‘some’ benefit, minimal benefit — ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, ‘I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.’ Bullshit.''

I bring all this up, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with screenwriting discussion in both academia and the internet will know, to discuss one of the old punching bags within the community: the gurus. Snyder, McKee, Field, Hauge, Vogler and pretty much anyone who has written a book or dabbles in screenwriting education. More than once, they're treated like the racist cousin at your sister's wedding: he's there, he exists, but you don't want to be near him, lest you endure 'three act structure', 'Aristotle' and 'climaxes'.

However, for whatever the opinion of this lowly reader and writer is worth, I'd like to throw my hat in the ring. I feel this animosity has been, somewhat, misguided and how that, arguably, is more harmful than any hackneyed formula or beat sheet could ever be. I don't pretend to change minds, just encourage discussion.

To begin, some criticisms I agree with:
  1. There exists a lot of repetition of reference points and topics. Frankly, how many times can you repackage discussion about Casablanca or Poetics or Shakespeare's mastery of character and tension? This I blame more on the advent of online/self-publishing, allowing really anybody, regardless of merit or skill level, to crank out new manuals or republish old tomes filled with the same old, same old, rather than try to find new spins. As a result, many tomes just blend together into a grey mush.
  2. There's quite an imbalance between books for writing films versus television, webseries or shorts. The difference between mediums, as well as these books usually being geared towards American/Hollywood-friendly projects, often does limit their usefulness if you're not writing some snazzy romcom or high-octance explosion fest. 
  3. I am also not fond of books that very heavily taut their 'unique time-saving formula', or supposed power to generate large amounts of money in no time (like 10-30 days): it's cynical, lazy and treats creativity with wanton disrespect to the craft. These kinds of books perpetuate nonsense like 'Stallone wrote Rocky in three days', ignoring how long the film actually took to get made or what was changed during development, production and post.
So, if I think there's some big problems, why am I defending them? First, while the advice is familiar, it's still very valid: like it or not, film does not have the luxuries of a novel. It's a performed and timed medium, so being efficient yet emotionally resonant is vital. Casablanca and its ilk are wonderfully written films that perfectly illustrate how to do this, and in studying them, one can begin to understand how to do so as well. Plus, it can introduce you to works you'd might never have read or watched otherwise.

Next, I believe these books provide a useful frame of reference: too often, new writers get lost in abstracts of what they're trying to achieve, usually linked back to whatever they can remember from English at school. Alone, words like 'theme' or 'character' or 'story' are not actually that helpful in being able to explain what you're trying to do. They're too broad and vague for a medium where everything has to count. Like it or not, beat sheets and dramatic structures give a writer those frames of reference where, when something isn't working, they can look at their script and quickly realize 'oh, I haven't been raising the stakes enough in Act Two, hence why my Act Three climax feels so flaccid' or 'My screenplay is running short because I haven't got subplots for my supporting cast'.

It's also important to state that many of the big names have never, ever, said their model is the only way to write a film: even McKee, contrary to his iconic and shouty portrayal in Adaptation, never says you can't write any other way, or use flashbacks or voice over or any other talking points. Re-read the intro to Story, Save The Cat, or any other of the big books: these guys never said theirs was the only way. Like any teacher, they're just showing you their way, and letting you decide if it's right for you or not. If one model doesn't work, try someone elses.

So, if I don't think gurus are the problem, then what is it that I feel people like Darabont and Heisserer are talking about? (DISCLAIMER: I do not claim these are the actual thoughts of Darabont or Heisserer. This is merely speculation for the sake of discussion)

Simple: I think the frustration stems from personal insecurity and the dark side of 'new writers'.

Writers, like all artists, want to feel special. They want to be seen as masters of their craft, doing something few can do, and do as well as they can, at that. The idea that what they value and have striven hard to learn and master, can be so easily mass produced and replicated would likely be a bitter pill to swallow. How could anyone take my story, my blood, sweat and tears, and then mimic it with some stupid metaphor about a feline. Sounds degrading, no?

The other point refers to a problem of expectation and conduct: sadly, anyone who's been involved in either the industry or just the online community is all too aware of the arrogance and entitlement that come with newbies. The enthusiasm can be wonderful, but screenwriting comes with dizzying highs and crushing lows, and attracts individuals not always the most suited to the arts: People who are only interested in moneymaking, or worse, people with baggage. These are individuals who look for validation and approval from movies and series. If the likes of STC can make it seem so easy, then why not use film as basically 'revenge' on those who thought you were worthless? They work their dead-end jobs while you're ruling Hollywood.

This toxic combination of unrealistic expectation and lack of discipline leads to the stereotype of the frustrated writer, who is difficult, mouths off anyone in the business, and keeps hawking the same script for years, rewriting to the point of oblivion. Why would you want people like this in the industry, clogging up space and distracting producers and execs from your work? So, who do you blame for this behaviour? The easy answer is Snyder and his ilk for 'lowering the bar' with mass-produced literature, rather than on individual writers for being incompetent and selfish.

If for nothing else, I hope this piece will remind new writers that you need to find your own path, and don't be ashamed to use what you have to to get better. Darabont and Heisserer have their methods, you need to find yours. This isn't about fun and games, dark nights of the soul, three acts or twenty two steps: this about your finding your voice and not being too cocksure for your own good.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

New Short film - Wrapped Up (01/04/18)

So, last week, a rough cut of the dark comedy I wrote, Wrapped Up, had its first screening at the VUE Westfield. It was part of a big MA Grad showcase from MetFilm, where students from all the courses showed off their final projects (this included directors, producers and editors).


Basic gist of the short: a young woman accidentally kills her boyfriend, who was trying to put the moves on her brother. Unfortunately, this happened on the day that their old man was coming to pick them up for a party, so... WHOOPS! What will they do now?

This one has an interesting development history: originally, me and Andy were going to do a vigilante-revenge thriller, ala Punisher, about a medical student whose brother is molested by a student union rep. Taking cues from vigilante movies of the 80s like Death Wish and the likes of Frank Miller, we worked on a dark yet also slightly comic script. However, tutor and peer feedback found the piece lacking in substance, and Andy decided to change it up and lean into the comedy. Instead, it was required into a substantially less violent piece, with only one location (the girl's flat) and about four-five cast members.

The screening went down quite well. Bettter than I expected, actually: partially because of the usual nerves that comes with showing someone your work. However, I also admit that me and Andy didn't not have our odds tiffs and arguments over the script. It happens in any type of collaboration: artists feel strongly about their material, and don't always agree. However, I fully hand it to him: he brought it home and everyone in the theatre was laughing. (Also, there is no version available for public viewing. Sorry.)

So, what next? Andy intends to go back and finish the cut. After that, film festivals. Hopefully, I should have news of where and when in the future, so stay tuned.

Monday, 19 March 2018

'This'll Be The One' or Why Writing Just One Screenplay Is Disastrous

It's a nice thought: that one magical, transcendant screenplay that'll catapult you to the top of Hollywood. A literary work to rival Kane or Butch Cassidy, and place you in the venerated pantheon of Goldman and Towne. A masterwork of drama or comedy that you worked on, nay, slaved over for years and years, perfecting every last detail. Truly, you are the cinematic Messiah...

And you know what? It's complete, utter and total bull.

No one who actually has anything resembling a career has just one good script, or worse, WAITS until they sold that one script to write more. It's like if a baker only makes more cakes after just baking one, or a dentist who only does cavities and nothing else. I, for one, am always frustrated when I see well meaning folk pop up on forums and Facebook writing groups with a script that they say they've spent 'years' on. An A for effort, yeah, but it's also obvious they haven't written anything else in that time. They put all their eggs in one basket.

Being able to generate multiple ideas and then write as many scripts (film, TV, radio, stage, short, webseries) as possible is vital to making it. Each one presents a new challenge for you to grow and improve as a storyteller. Your characters have more dimension, your structure gets tighter, your pacing faster, your dialogue sharper. It's slow, but worth the slog if you really want this bad enough. As Frank Darabont said, ''Everything is self-applied effort in life. You don't get anything easily.''

Alright then, so what can you do?
  • Write down everything. No seriously, this is not some throwaway guff from 'professionals': it's true. On paper, your phone, in a Word document, on a napkin, just write down any idea you have. Doesn't have to be deep or detailed or eve immediately obvious: something as random as ''zombie ducks invade Cardiff'' might have something in it. Always have a little ideas folder or cache handy: it may save you in a moment of the dreaded 'block'.
  • Do one pagers: again, don't worry about perfection. Just write a rough outline in three-four paragraphs, detailing the very broadest strokes of what you'd like to do with the idea. Additionally, do the logline: that super condensed, to the point version of your story can be super helpful in finding the heart of the piece.
  • Exercises: a lot of screenwriting books and websites have these - very quick, usually 5-10 minute challenges you can do to help you come up with something (also good for block-busting). Could be building a character in layers, could be a brainstorm or mind map, maybe even just write a random scene with two characters. Anything can lead to something.
  • Read non-film stuff: A trip to the library or, if you're just feeling mega-lazy, Wikipedia, can yield all sorts of possible inspiration. News, politics, history, art, science, all can plant a seed of something in your mind. Who knows, you might find great drama within the confines of American corn production.
No matter what plan you pick, just follow it through and pump out as many different projects as you can. Start something new every time you finish a draft or two of a project. With a rota, you could have few as say, four, and as many as ten or eleven new scripts/treatments by the end of a year. If you really consider yourself a storyteller, you should be turning out many different tales as often as you can.

Writing is hard. Very hard. No formula or beatsheet will change that, and if you really love it,  you'll push yourself. Getting your first script finished is a wonderful feeling. Knowing people like it: even better. However, staying married to past glories is dangerous: say your script does the round at contests and companies, and no one goes for it. What now? If you just hawk the same thing year after year, you'll look like a one-trick pony who never had anything interesting or unique to say.

I speak from cold, hard experience. Look for yourself:
http://verystrangethingsanimated.blogspot.co.uk/

You know why else this is handy? If you get a pitch meeting, you may well be in a scenario where they like your writing, but the script's just not right for them at that moment (I have). They'll ask, what else?

See how helpful this backup can be? But if you're still not convinced, listen to working screenwriter Mark Sanderson and his experiences.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Pudsey, Paul Rose and Writing A Dud (A Great Piece on Failure)

So, to help break up the recent run of beefy articles on dos and do-not dos, figured I'd signal boost one of my all time favourite musings on screenwriting: childrens TV and games journalism veteran Paul Rose, on the experience of the writing the critically reviled X-Factor tie-in, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.

https://www.digitiser2000.com/main-page/panel-4-both-sides-of-the-fence


Posts like this help illuminate the flip side to screenwriting, when you write a POS. It's a sad reality of the business and something you have to willing to face if you're serious about. Rose isn't excessively bitter or childish about the whole business: he accepts it and discusses it with maturity and even a little humour.

Monday, 12 February 2018

'You want to be a Screenwriter, but you've got NO time?' Here's What To Do

I consider myself fortunate to be in a position, given my living circumstances, to be able to devote myself fully towards film and television as a career, not just the screenwriting pipe dream. I knew I wanted this career for years, and took the steps towards it. Wasn't always easy, but I believe very strongly in this.

Others, however, don't get the itch like that: some may get the 'writing bug' later in life, some when they're knee-deep in another career. Some even get it when they're tangled up in others commitments, like caring for the sick or elderly, or raising children. You just don't have the luxury of time to devote to pricey courses or really beefy screenwriting tomes and workshops that are often the first go-tos of many wannabes. You can't get away to network at festivals and fancy screenings, or live near major productions hubs.

What are you to do? How can you get rolling, get better at writing and still live your regular life? Is there any help? Is there anything cheap or even free?

Well, I have a few pointers.
  • Via BBC Writersroom and FutureLearn, the University fo East Anglia offers a free, online (so no travel expenses, debts or schedule changes needed) screenwriting course. This offers you a starting point if you're entirely green or haven't written in forever.
  • Books to read? Again, bearing in mind time and budget, there are two instant recommends: first, Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. Disney scribe Snyder famously created a durable 'beat sheet' to help one structure and plot out a movie that would be A) commercial and B) keep the interest of cynical readers and jaded audiences. It's an easy, concise and often amusing read that offers help on other elements too, such as pitching, loglines, outlines and even networking (though don't worry about that right now). Second, and one tailor-made for you-of-so-so-little-free-time, is The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra. Part manual, part writing course, veteran consultant Alessandra teaches how you can build a screenplay in ten minutes exercises. That's right: just ten quick and easy minutes. Can fit that in between school runs and Nana's medication, right?
  • On the note of books, another good investment will be either Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers or How Not To Write A Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes by Denny Martin Flinn. These are masterclasses in rookie blunders that can destroy your chances of a career. It's really not funny how a few typos or characters with rhyming names have ended many dreams. Don't let 'teh' screw you over.
  • Of course, you have to read real scripts to know good from crap. Good news is they're free, plentiful and downloadable. Here's where:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts
https://indiefilmhustle.com/free-screenplays-download/
http://www.simplyscripts.com/movie-scripts.html
  • How about advice and tutorials? Bang2Write, run by veteran consultant Lucy V. Hay, is your one-stop shop. It's filled with great articles and lists on just about every facet of screenwriting you could want to know, told in Hay's humourous and snappy style.
  • Got a Facebook account? The site has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of fellow writers who are happy to help, talk and even read your stuff (if you ask nicely and properly pitch it). It's really as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: off you go. Added bonus: a way to network without leaving the house.
And well, hope those help. At this point, don't worry too much about the wider market or machinery of film & TV: get comfortable writing and developing a proper work ethic. Give yourself the space and time to write material, make mistakes and learn from said mistakes. Your first draft will suck: all first drafts do. Rewriting is the only way to make it better.

Even with these shortcuts, screenwriting is the long game. Patience is a must, and frankly, if you can devote a small chunk of time out of your schedule to it, then you may have what it takes to eventually make it. All the books and classes won't make a difference if you don't have the willpower to do it.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Six: Why it's okay to fail)

And now, in the homestretch, let me put on the brakes and give you some sage words. Words that I've come to appreciate after my experiences, and words which I didn't fully get until I lived them:

Making mistakes is not the problem: NOT learning from them is.

You're a new screenwriter, still finding your voice and what genres you are genuinely the best at. You'll make mistakes, no matter what you do. You'll write flaccid dialogue or wonky structure or poor characters. You'll make something too big for your level, both in industry terms and your own writing experience, and you'll make something too small, that has no appeal or story engine.

And you know what? It's okay.

No really, not setting you up: it's alright to make mistakes and write crap. It's not the end of the world if your first or second script suck the big one and make no sense: you're still learning. Getting to the end of a draft is a victory: do you know how many people can't even make it to page 30? Being able to do a complete rewrite is another victory: how many people stupidly think their first draft is perfect?

However, these small victories will mean nothing if you can't exercise, arguably, the most important tool in your writing arsenal: critical thinking. Learn and understand why something isn't working, and then develop ways to fix it. How can you make this line of bad dialogue sing? How can you make this boring character interesting? How can you make this moment of tension even bigger? Trial and error, that's how. It's slow, it's tedious, but worth every second.

You know that else? Projects can collapse on you: talent will back out, money gets lost or overspent, scripts will not work out etc.. Just this past year, I had a fantasy feature and a sci-fi short die on me. Last year, staffing on two webseries. You take it in, have a deep breath and, if you really want this career, soldier on. Again, learn from it.

You know the one mistake that is genuinely inexcusable? Being an arrogant tit.

I've remarked on it before, but I'll say it once more for those suffering from selective reading (a common malady on the internet): 
If you're a pain, no one will work with you.

You're a no-name at the bottom of the heap, untested and unproven: you DON'T get to act all big and tough, telling people more experienced than you that they're wrong. If you can't be bothered to write a decent logline, or a comprehensible synopsis, or even just being able to state what your project's about, why oh why, do you think ANYONE will treat you with respect?

In what fairytale la-la-land do you think you can get thousands, nay, millions, of pounds/dollars invested in you with poorly spelled, generic, bland and whiney proposals and scripts? Really, I'd love to know: it'd make my life a whole lot easier.

Just look at this joker from a Facebook screenwriting group (he's asking for an actor, but I've seen countless wannabe writers do the same thing). When I tried to point out that his presentation was uninformative and unprofessional, look what he wrote in response (top comment):

I am sick and tired of seeing lazy pitches like this on FB, as well as forums like reddit, Stage32 and Amazon Studios. I am fed up with this missplaced sense of entitlement and bad attitude towards your peers. If you think, even for one second, that the industry owes YOU something, you're out of your mind. If you think you can just waltz onto a forum or Facebook group and DEMAND things, like exec emails or producers' cash, you're also nuts. And if, and this is arguably the worst yet, get snippy and defensive when people try to HELP you, then please, do society a favour and check yourself in.

Harsh? Yes, but necessary: it's such a basic mistake that, by avoiding, you already put yourself light years ahead of the competition, just like with basic proof reading and saying 'thank you'. Everything about being a screenwriter is in the details. Take it from Joe Carnahan:


And with that, we've arrived at the end of our strange little journey. I really hope you found this series of use and will, at least, be spared a few headaches. Like I said before, I can't give you miracle cures or cheats: I can only tell you what I've learnt and am still learning. I'm still a student of the medium, and I'm well aware that there will be ups and downs along the way. There will be producers I don't impress, or scripts I can't finish, or series I can't get involved with, but you know what? I'll still keep going, because I know I've got the tenacity and hunger to want it that bad, and to work that hard.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Five: Actual Writing Work and Agents)

And now, we finally talk about being paid to write scripts. Yes, a series all about screenwriting, and it's just now that we finally talk about actually making any sort of living at it.

Ah well, save the best for next-to-last, right?

As mentioned at the beginning, you don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea. Procedure is much the same as the work experience discussion last time: find the relevant email, compose a short pitch and logline, and then send it off. Agents really exist to help with contracts, payment and get you past the 'unsolicited' material bit, but they do not get you work. You do. You still have to network and talk to people and pitch and all the rest of it. That will never change.

Also, note what I said above: I said pitch your idea, not guarantee a read or development or actually getting made. The reality of the industry is most of your money, and by proxy, most of your career, will come from development, rather than actual production and release. Indeed, that show or film you want to make will more likely serve as a calling card to work on a similar project that the company or producer is making: your period drama pilot may open the door to work on a series like Versailles or Gunpowder, or a crime spec onto Midsommer Murders or Father Brown.

But before any of that, having some independently produced material can also 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), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes. So, what can you do?
  • Short films: Classic staple. Doubt I need to say much on them. If you didn't make many connections at uni, don't worry: 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.
  • Webseries: Good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. Plus, if you have a pilot idea, this can also act as a road test. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these gigs up in droves.
  • Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays. Agents and other talent scouts attend, so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is 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. Welcome to Nightvale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook.
  • Screenwriting contests and competitions: You pay a fee, and your film or TV script will be entered into a competition, with the prizes running from big fat cheques, to meetings with producers and agents. Even just placing highly can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything thus far, however, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, credentials of the 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.
  • In addition, writing news scripts, adverts and other types of commercial, short-form content (known as copywriters) are also a common way to earn your keep as a new writer.
One I did not mention was Amazon Studios: you might've heard the Big A has a system of reading unsolicited scripts. A couple of years ago, I would have said give them a go, but nothing from their unsolicited slate has been greenlit in forever, since they started working with represented writers. The only thing of worth, the forum, has since been shut so, really, there's no point going there.

Now, let's say you do make it: you get a read, they like it and then the follow-up meeting goes well (once again, civility with just a touch of energy and healthy, non-creepy mania, is king). Sometimes, you may get your work greenlit, and suddenly, your movie or pilot is being made. In which case, congratulations! You've now got that rags to riches story that every student screenwriter dreams of.

However, moreso in TV than film, this will likely not be the case and, instead, the company will pay you some money for development, and then offer you a job on something they're working on (a commission) that is similar to what you pitched them. This can be rewrites on a film (an assignment) or work as a staff writer on a TV series. Rule here is don't be a snob: any paid work is good work, even if the premise doesn't seem like the most groundbreaking or original thing ever. You may laugh, but soaps, daytime television and kids TV are all the classic stomping grounds of new writers, so keep a good watch on them.

The mantra goes that it takes 'ten years' to make it in the business, and sadly, that's often not far from the truth (it's the one I'm living with right now). However, this does not mean 'ten years' till you get paid, or meet people, or get meetings or even get an agent: it just means you get into a good position to really advance your career, with some decent credits under your belt.

So, I've talked reading material, job prospects, networking and your first gigs. What else is there I could cover? How about some home truths, including one which is almost never addressed, but can make all the difference.

Join me for the sixth and final part when I talk about getting it wrong, and why that's not the end.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Happy 2018 - New Year's update and future plans (10/1/2018)

Hello everyone! Hope everybody enjoyed Christmas and getting smashed on New Years'.
Now back to work adn, for me, new horizons.

Since my last update, a fair bit has happened: I'm two months off from graduating my MA in Screenwriting, courtesy of the lovely folks at Met Film School. It's been quite a ride, but I'm very glad I did it. I now feel light years ahead of where I was as both a creator and industry professional. How much so? Well, now I'm reading for Lime Pictures (Hollyoaks, Evermore) and hope to have a few more things set up in the near future (can't say what yet. Don't want to jinx it).

On the writing front, I'm working through another draft of my Spanish Civil War feature, Sapphire Butterfly. It's been quite a challenge, as period romances are not my usually go-to, but the experience has been very rewarding. It's given me a newfound appreciation for the primacy of character in screen stories and the importance of having subplots to balance and develop your story.

Other projects include a recently complete superhero series for kids, which I've sent off (again, can't say more than that), as well as working on a new draft of a kids swashbuckler set in 1840s Spain, and brainstorming more TV ideas. I've also got two kids features in the works, one a sports dramaedy, the other a dark fantasy set around the time of the Civil War, but it's still too early to say more than that.

As for this blog, I'll continue the transition towards writing and screenwriting focused content, with more entries in my 'BA Students' series coming very soon, as well as some one-offs that I've really wanted to do for some time (including one geared towards people with packed schedules).

So, cross your fingers and toes for my sorry sake, because 2018 will prove to be a most.... interesting year.

-A.D.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Four: Jobs and Networking)

Alright, I'll not beat around the bush: No, you're not likely to get your first paying gig in film and TV, if not just gig period, writing a script. Unless you have a Cousin Joel at Warners, or Uncle Mark at the BBC, you'll likely have to find another way. Sad, but true.

The good news: there is no one route. Everybody's way in is different, meaning there isn't a right or wrong way to start in the business. The bad news: that lack of structure puts all the onus on you and your initiative to get anywhere. No one comes to you: YOU go to people. Also, doing a lot of unpaid work is the norm, so don't be quick to give up the day job just yet.

So, what are your ports of call (as said, a number of these are also covered in Stack and Clague's book)?
  • Being a script reader: one of the most common methods of attack, you help a production company wade the tsunami of screenplays and decide what ones are actually worth the head honchos' time. Usually in the form of a three+ page report, you grade the piece on several criteria, such as character, structure, dialogue and commercial prospects, write up a synopsis that summarises the whole script. With that you offer a page worth of comments on the positive and negatives, and whether or not it should be taken further for development.
  • Being a runner/low level position at a production company: like the reader, you'll be starting at the bottom, helping to do odd jobs around the office and make the tea.But again, you'll meet people.
  • Join a training scheme: certain companies and broadcasters like the BBC do offer training schemes to help get you involved on series and in departments, usually in an on-set/technical capacity. Be sure to check on their websites every couple of weeks if new ones come up.
  • Being a teacher: Again, another common pathway is to get involved in the teaching of creative media at the college/university level, as well as on special film programs and workshops for schools. You'll be able to pay bills, enjoy certain benefits afforded the teaching profession such as set hours and, thanks to school holidays, have nice big chunks that you can devote solely to other pursuits.
  • By the way, CVs? Keep it simple, keep it single column, two pages max, and tie every piece of information into the position you're applying: generic do-all CVs will not work (and forget about the 'Interests' section: no one cares if you like swimming or Chinese food). Lucy Hay talks about it here better than I can.
Say you pick the first two: Much like pitching your idea, introducing yourself to production companies and asking for the privellege of giving them free labour (remember, ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them) is a skill of its own. A short email, giving a brief account of you, your ambitions and your relevant experience, as well as why this specific company, followed by a quick ask to do, say, two weeks free work, can help. (How to reach them? IMDB Pro.)

Alternately, just ask to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice, as a graduating/graduate student. You'd be surprised how generous people can be with their time, as well as how useful being a student is: you're still in school, so you're not trying to sell them anything. You're just a wide-eyed kid with big dreams. They can relate, and if they like you, they may even offer you some work experience, or possibly even a read of your script.
Now, onto the N-Word.
The Non-Tarantino one.
Networking.

Yes, YOU have to go and meet people. YOU have to acually talk to people before they can read your script and maybe, MAYBE, give you a job. YOU have to make people want to be around you. Go to festivals (like London Screenwriters), media conferences, screenings, talks and lectures: anywhere makers and movers will be, so must you. Research who they are beforehand, so that when you introduce yourself, you can point to something they've made and can say you admire. Nobody can resist a compliment, and thus, that snowballs into a chat, a conversation and, possibly, an exchange of numbers and/or emails.

You must, also, not be:
  • Clingy 
  • Annoying 
  • Impatient
  • Whiny 
  • Unclean
  • Demanding
Nothing cheeses off a producer like someone with no concept of patience or personal space or, just as bad, an obvious salesman. Britain, unlike the States, is not terribly fond of aggressive pitchers: people like to actually talk and hold interesting conversations about stuff that isn't just your idea.

Just like anywhere else in life, treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Be polite, be understanding and, here's the big one, LISTEN. The art of shutting your mouth, letting others talk and actually absorbing what they are saying is such a rare quality that I think the dodo is a more populated species than people with this skill. And yet, just like making sure to say please and thank you to people, it makes all the difference in endearing you to someone.

After you are done, cordially thank them and send a follow-up email a few days later, thanking them for their time and that you hope that you can stay in touch. Afterwards, stay in touch every 3 or so months. Ideally, when you have a new project or piece of work or major news to share with them. Remember, treat others as you would want to be treated: you wouldn't want your time wasted with monotony or trivial nonsense, so don't waste theirs if you have nothing to show.

A last tip: to stay informed of who is making what and where, subscribe to the trade magazines: Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, Screen International (for film) and Broadcast (for TV) come out regularly and for an efficient fee. Occassionally browsing on IMDB is not good enough: you have to have a steady flow of reliable, well sourced information, if you want to stand any chance.

Okay, so let's say you've met someone and they want to read your script. What now?
Join me in Part five, where I talk about actually writing for a living, and those mystical, mythical beings known as ''Agents''.