Monday, 19 November 2018

Review: Adventures in the Screen Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 November 2018

How can a Screenwriter get their first credit?

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

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

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

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