Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Why don't amateur Screenwriters watch movies and TV?

Any forum, any group, any class even semi-related to screenwriting: you've probably heard some variant of 'I want to write movies/TV but I don't watch a lot of movies/TV.'.

I want to write movies/TV but I don't watch a lot of movies/TV.

I want to write movies/TV but I don't watch a lot of movies/TV.
 

I want to write movies/TV but I don't watch a lot of movies/TV.


I could just stop here, as it should be self-evident. Do you want to write a novel, but have never read a whole book? Do you want to be a chef but have never so much as boiled an egg? Do you want to be a hairdresser, but have never even held a pair of scissors or a comb?

So, why is this so common? Screenwriting, like so many roles in the creative industries, is really hard and time-consuming to get in: writing scripts; networking; getting comissions; getting an agent; pitching; getting produced; getting paid; getting produced consistently; getting paid consistently... not exactly for the faint of heart, or ambition.

And yet, we have an industry-within-an-industry devoted to people who want to do just that. Books, courses, seminars, lectures, retreats, smothered in the rich allure of glitz and glamour, the grand prestige of an award winning film or ratings-hit, multi-season show. A romanticized, way-too-innocent version of what the reality is like.

Naturally, I'm not a mind-reader (yet), but having once been such a feckless gobsh*te (some will argue still, in different ways), I think I have some handle on why people want to do something without really understanding it.

1. Assumptions: we're so exposed to visual media in our day-to-day lives that we might be lured into thinking that we just know it instinctively. After all, we all have movies and shows we do or don't like, and can, if pressed, offer an okay-enough explanation of why. From there, it's not hard to make the leap that, therefore, you just know good storytelling and thus, don't need to be actively consuming, much less be aware of, media to be able to make it.


Of course, that leap is wrong: being able to discuss a movie in a casual sense with friends is not the same thing as sitting down and breaking something down into different components and understanding how they all fit together. You may think, say, Walter White is a cool character because he's such a brilliant yet ruthless guy... but how much does that really tell you? How much of that broad descriptor can you really use when crafting your own stories and characters?

Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson watched and rewatched movies thousands of times on VHS to study how those films worked and why. Dramas, comedies, total schlock; all serving a specific purpose. How are you going to compete with that with some half-remembered guff from Only Fools & Horses or Lost?

2. Arrogance: There's no shortage of jokers who dismiss everything made today as junk and act like they could write better. This plays on an idiotic assumption that a given work doesn't already undergo lots of scrutiny through development, and then notes from directors, producers; even actors. This is primarily based on horror stories of films and TV shows that were exercises in hubris (Heaven's Gate, Sorcerer, Outcasts, Fant4stic), as well as ones that become internet punching bags (Bayformers, Dragonball Evolution, Batman & Robin, Twilight, 50 Shades, Season 8 of GOT, the list goes on.) Why watch if everything's bad?


There's an old saying that masters of a craft make it 'look easy': even the worst movies and shows still took a titanic amount of effort to pull together. You are not privy to the circumstances which lead to poor creative decisions, and acting like you would magically succeed where people with ten times the experience couldn't is hardly insightful. This arrogance misunderstands the collaborative nature of media, as well as the politics within it that lead to compromises in art.

This is also a mark of a poorly developed palette. HINT, Hollywood is not a synonym for all cinema everywhere, or that cinema begins and ends with blockbusters & Oscar bait. With platforms like Netflix and Amazon constantly breaking down barriers, there is content all over the world you can enjoy. Some of the biggest and most talked about releases in recent years weren't American, nor British: The Wandering Earth, The Handmaiden, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Roma, Your Name, The Raid 1 & 2 etc.

3. Nostalgia: everyone who wants to make movies and TV, at least, watched stuff when they were kids. Everyone has that movie or show that stuck with them for years and years and made them want to be creative in the first place. Whether it's one of the Disney animated classics; an Amblin Entertainment production; one of the early superhero movies or even an anime. That primal energy, that first spark, in this sense, is supposed to carry you forward into a career.


While it's always good to have inspiration, being stuck in the past hurts your chances. You're not making content/art that makes sense now, but just reheating and regurgitating what we already have. You add nothing to the discussion, nor make people want to make your stuff. What's actually different about your, for example, superhero story from other superhero stories? That it's when they go bad? Done that (The Boys, Watchmen, Brightburn). That it's realistic? Done (Kick-Ass, Defendor). That's it's satirical? Done too (Super, Mystery Men, Green Hornet, The Tick).

4. Laziness: I had thought of calling this 'Greed' but then I thought: would I rather be a little harsh and disengenious, or REALLY harsh and disengenious? Refering back to my earlier 'romanticized' comment, there are people who just see the hefty box offices totals, the best sellers lists or just the chatter of 'residuals' and 'merchandising' and well, time to give up the day job and create the next Transformers or Doctor Who or Bodyguard or Call the Midwife or Batman or--


Stop stop stop STOP! Stop. If you are only desiring to learn screenwriting because you want an early retirement': you're a fuc*ing idiot who makes (insert topical figure) look like Einstein. Making a movie or TV pilot because you want to make art solely for selfish commerce, is like punching a rabid dog in the cojones: it might work, but it's dangerous and fraught with risk for comparatively little gain.

But then isn't this awareness of movies and TV you might ask? No: all you're seeing is money: you're not actually engaging with the work. Being aware of the commercial side is important, but again, you're still not watching and thinking about why this works? Why do these movies speak to people? The money say people engage, but why? If you can't answer that, then you're not ready.

5. Fear: This is one of the silliest and most overthought things I've seen on the internet. The old chesnut of, 'I want to be all original and not copy anyone' tact. You worry about plagiarism and being derivative, adding nothing new and just vanishing into the sea of 'formula' and 'cliche'. Thus, you divorce yourself from the present landscape in the hope of some manner of elevation.


This is a stupid, art-school-level idea about the merit of art: everyone is inspired by someone else. Nobody cares where your ideas come from: just how they are executed. That's what stays with people long after the screen is off. How, HOW, can you hope to pull any of that off if you don't engage with said mediums? How can you become part of the conversation and be able to know what is missing or what needs making if you don't watch what is being made? Please, I would love to hear an explanation.

Besides, an active awareness and study of what's being made will better prime you on what to do do and what not to do.  You like zombies? What are things you like and don't about zombie movies? From there, you can make your own with what you like, with a fresh perspective, and perhaps improve the image of the sub-genre with what you've learnt to avoid. And all you had to do was watch.

The famous screenwriting maxim is, 'if you can do anything else, do it'. Screenwriting is a long and hard road, and requires you to give a lot. However, like many hard things, if you put in, you can get out. Work on your craft and, just as importantly, develop your palette and knowledge. If you've got time to muck around on Twitter or Youtube, you've got time for a movie or show. If you've got time to play a video game, you've got time for a movie or show. Invest in your education and don't assume so much.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Screenwriting on a budget - Can you learn craft cheaply?

Let me be frank: the creative industries have never been the most friendly towards those who come from working-class roots. Breaking in requires a monetary and time investment that makes it difficult if you are not A) Supported by family or B) working a job that both pays well, and has scheduling that enables you to pursue networking and other opportunities.

Writing is, paradoxically, one of the easiest and, yet, one of the hardest sectors to crack: sure, all you need is a good story and a keyboard, and it can be from anywhere; but then, becoming a great storyteller, as well as one who's in demand, takes a lot of investment. Courses, books, other scripts, a means to write, the time to write and rewrite, and then the time, and often financial cost, of finding people to help bring your project to life. And that's all on top of your day-to-day needs and expenses.


I've already talked about what you can do if you're in a time crunch with your creative dreams. While some of that carries over here, I will also be covering things I didn't mention before or not at great length. The goal is to, hopefully, allow you to start your screenwriting road without sinking into money or time sinks.
  • 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.
  • Of course, you have to read real scripts to know stellar from tripe. Good news is that many are free and downloadable. Here's where you can start digging:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts
https://indiefilmhustle.com/free-screenplays-download/
https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/
http://www.la-screenwriter.com/script-index/
http://www.imsdb.com/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 blogs on just about every facet of screenwriting you could want to know, told in Hay's snappy style. Furthermore, many of the screenriting gurus have dedicated websites, full of resources related to whatever their paradigm or selling point is (like Save The Cat), as well as The Writer's Store and Scriptmag.com also offering plenty of articles to chew on.
  • Videos to watch? Trying D4's thorough yet lean series on screenwriting structure in popular films like Pulp Fiction, Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy.
  • You like to read something tangible and don't want to develop square eyes? Well, this one may be obvious, but sometimes, obvious is good: Libraries with decent media sections and charity shops are great hunting grounds to find the classic screenwriting tomes, as well as physical printings of major screenplays (some even come with bonus interviews with the writer and/or creative team behind the movie). If you're lucky enough to be near one, visit your local BFI.
  • There's also podcasts you can listen too, while you're sitting down with a cuppa: Danny Stack and Tim Clague talk with all manner of film and TV people on their popular UK Scriptwriters Podcast. Meanwhile, over in the USA, John August (Charlie's Angels) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) have probably the most well-known screenwriting podcast of all, ScriptNotes: both these guys discuss Hollywood, interview guests who've worked on some of the biggest movies and shows, and offer all sorts of advice and weird stories.
So that was all to help you learn the craft. What about when it's writing time? Recommended programs like Final Draft are a big investment and, for those with tight purse strings, may take a while to fully save up for. Plus, Celtx, the one-time saving grace for broke writers when it came to professionally formatted work, no longer does free versions. So, what can you do meanwhile?

Well, basic as it sounds, just reformat Word. Yes, it's like using a pile driver to make a mosaic, but it'll do fine for now. At this stage, learning and practice should be your priority, not trying to get an agent or gigs. You'll find no shortage of how-tos online, so this shouldn't be overly difficult to get rolling with.

As long as it looks like this, you're clear:


(If you can guess what script this is from, you win a prize!
The prize being the gift of dedication)

To cap off, don't ever feel ashamed: if you can't afford a full, fancy degree, or just 'know' great storytelling right away, it's not a problem. Like I've said many times, nobody cares where you went to school or how you learnt: just that your output is good. Some will benefit from books and structured learning, others just by reading scripts. Whatever you do, make sure it's right for you.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

ALL WRITING MATTERS - A response to Jessica Knoll and Novels vs Screenplays

Writers, why do we do this? Why do people, regardless of their specific discipline, seem to engage in stupid arguments like this? Why can we not just respect that every form of writing has its own rewards and challenges, and that quality storytelling should, really, be the only thing of consequence?


But nope: in a misguided attempt at perking up novelists about to cross the Hollywood threshold, New York Times bestselling author Jessica Knoll (Luckiest Girl Alive) said this:

To which other writers said this:

And then she tried to backpedal with this:

So, fine: giving her benefit of the doubt and saying she simply miscommunicated. How you can be a bestselling author and not understand how words work is beyond me, but okay, playing fair here.

Why do this in the first place? Why do an arbitrary 'this is easier' false dichotomy and pit two mediums against each other, instead of just empowering authors to broaden their horizons? You can lift up without, however accidental and unintended, putting down. Writers should always seek to experiment and challenge themselves: it's the only way we can truly ever grow and develop our tastes and voices. It's also not hard to acknowledge the long list of botched film adaptations of famous books (The Scarlet Letter, both versions of The Sound and The Fury, The Razor's Edge with Bill Murray, Seventh Son, we could just list them till the end times).

However, a film/tv show is not a novel, and a novel is not a film/tv show. Great storytelling may be universal, but the techniques are not. What works in one medium simply does not in another (ironically, Knoll validates the need for more transformative adaptation of novels to film, as the bad ones often try, and fail, to retain what does not translate): the endless description, liberal pacing, infinites diversions and subplots and more esoteric approach to narrative don't compute with the precision, succinctness and time restrictions of performative media. Even ambitious epics like Robert Altman's Nashville and The Fall of the Roman Empire pale compared to the complexity of a comparable novel. However, size is not determinative of a work's quality, is it?

Gatekeeping and this idiotic art-school idea of 'purity' or 'superiority' is fatal to proper analysis of each medium's specific uses (not strengths and weaknesses: uses) and creates stupid 'wars' among people who can, and should, be allies. We're all writers, we're all storytellers, we're all creators. The novelist is neither better nor worse than a screenwriter: one is not a failed or less talented version of another. These are two different disciplines that require different skills and tell their stories differently. It's not about being 'easier': it's about appreciating what each medium can offer your particular story.

Some can even straddle both worlds: Roald Dahl, William Goldman, Gillian Flynn, Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin spring to mind. These people have varied bodies of work and by exmaining, and appreciating what's shared and what's different between their prose and screen work, can we develop a richer understanding of both crafts, and that, really, is what matters the most. Writing, no matter the field, is hard. Novels and scripts present unique challenges, while also having the same core component: tell a great story. What that story is and what it will convey is up to the writer and what the medium he or she works in can provide. 

Hubris and arrogance can kill any writer. Be smarter than that. Be better than that.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Chernobyl, Craig Mazin and the deceptiveness of credits

So, while the ending of Game of Thrones caused a ruckus, HBO quickly bounced back with one of the most acclaimed TV series in recent memory, Chernobyl. This period drama, a co-pro with Sister Pictures, examines the real-life Russian nuclear disaster and cover-up that resulted in many deaths, and a lot more trauma.


The mind behind this is veteran screenwriter (and Sexy ScriptNotes host) Craig Mazin, an industry pro whose films have grossed millions of dollars at the box office, and created a reputation of being able to bring troubled productions home and to said monetary glory. Alright, so for the unaware, you'd think this means 'Oh, well if he wrote Chernobyl, he must work with the likes of Nolan and Scorsese. He probably has a few Oscar wins to his name.'

Nope, he's the guy who wrote Scary Movie 3, Identity Thief and the Hangover sequels.

Yeah...

As the title says, credits are a deceptive little minx. It's easy to look at Mazin's credits and go 'HACK!', 'SELLOUT!', 'FAILING UPWARDS!' and more. How on earth did he pull out Chernobyl when his past career heights were sex and fart gags? Oh, and a sequel to Snow White and The Huntsman, for some reason. Surely, if those are 'his creations', then there's no way he could've also written something of Chernobyl's quality.

See this? Let's discuss.


Well, put big airquotes aroung 'his creations': much of the work in Hollywood is assignments i.e. what the studio hands out. Adaptations of books, remakes of studio I.Ps, script rewrites (Mazin loathes the term Script Doctor) etc. Stories of Hollywood rewrites are just as mythic as the films themselves: eleventh-hour fixes or scripts drowned under endless notes, despite the best efforts of the likes of William Goldman, Robert Towne, Nora Ephron, Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino and many more. In short, just because a project says one name, does not guarantee that said project is on the shoulders of that one person. Film and TV, like in any collaborative project, get revised all the time.

The way that the Writers Guild of America works, credits are often arbitrated and alloted, based on percentages of material contributed. You don't meet the quota, you don't get credit (see Frank Darabont and David S. Goyer on Godzilla, or Paul Dini on Maleficent). If you'd like to learn more about this, as it can be a headscratcher, I suggest you read 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. It's an addictive read that'll leave you chuckling yet also be rather pensive about the Hollywood machine. Love or hate their films, this duo (who have shared projects with Mazin, like Baywatch) have been at the epicentre of some of the big comedies of the last decade (Herbie, Night at the Museum), so they know their stuff.

For how Britain works, here's our own Guild.

But, what's just as important here, is what this body of work says about Mazin: he's a lean, mean writing machine. Regardless of critical reception, you don't last as long as Mazin has if you aren't able to deliver the goods on time, solve problems, and said goods turn out greater returns. If you are that good on assignment jobs... what then could your own original work be like? What level of trust have you built, through these jobs, to convince people to take a chance on your original idea?

In short, what's your reputation? A go-getter, a dedicated craftsman, or a stubborn, difficult pain?


It's as true of the UK as it is of the USA. It's easy, especially for newer screenwriters, to look at the industry too much like a fan, and not as a professional with perspective. It's tempting to whine about how terrible you think these films are, and thus can't make the jump from Hangover 3 to Chernobyl as the work of the same man. However, here's some other examples to bear in mind:
  • Justin Marks - Wrote Legend of Chun-Li. Also wrote Counterpart and The Jungle Book.
  • David S. Goyer - Wrote Blade Trinity and Man of Steel. Also wrote Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Blade 2 and Dark City
  • Julian Fellowes - Wrote The Tourist. Also wrote Downton Abbey.
  • Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzmann - Wrote Transformers 1 & 2, as well as Legend of Zorro and The Island. Also wrote People Like Us, Xena, Fringe, Alias and Sleepy Hollow S1.
All of this is to say: no experience or work is wasted. Everything can be a learning opportunity, if you choose to use it: clearly Mazin did, and now look what he pulled off. What's more, never take things at face value: writers are always writing, commissioned or on spec. Much of what you write will never see the light of day, it's just a sad fact. How different would the perception of Mazin's work be if his more dramatic projects got made, or he got credited for more serious assignments?

However, wherever you end up, you never stop pushing or challenging yourself, and you use that to broaden and improve your own portfolio. Even if the end product isn't great, to get on it in the first place requires one to have a certain, often high, level of skill. That can sometimes be as good of an endorsement as great work by critical standards.

Sometimes, a creator's body of work can say more than the surface allows. What Identity Thief and other of Mazin's work may lack as great or unique cinema, it makes up for as a reminder of having a good work ethic and initiative. Chernobyl then, on top of being a great show, is also proof of the potential rewards of said dedication.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Worst Times to Submit Screenplays

It's the single most obvious thing in screenwriting: if you want to have a career, you've got to show someone your script.

You have to do research to find the right fit for your project: no point in selling a gorefest to a company that makes kids shows. 

You have to navigate through barriers like emails and 'no unsolicited scripts' to get to the right person. Maybe you do a quick chat or have a brief meeting and start building a relationship there. A sense of trust. Maybe keep in touch every few months.

You have to do a  good and succinct pitch to convince them it's worth reading. Always pitch before sending.

Finally, with all that in place, you fire the script off to your chosen someone.

And then you wait, 

And wait, 

And wait.

But what if there was yet another factor to consider? What if when you submit also has an effect on if your stuff gets read? Well, it's true: like any business engagement, you have to be mindful of when they are and aren't open. Everywhere has open and closing times, as well as holidays and other events.

So, what's the worst times to submit? Well, some are immediately apparent: December, January and even February to a degree really suck for jobbing writers, since they involve a lot of major holidays (Christmas, New Year's and then all the catch-up that development people have to do on the leftover workload. Plus, of course, the big awards.) The summer, too, sucks hard: July, August and the front half of September. Even if they're not parents and have to find somewhere to park the kids for six weeks, the summer season means people are flying off to holiday, or simply going down to the seaside, and as a result, are likely not going to be engaging much in work save for the big shoots.

No really, you are not 'beating the crowd' or being clever if you send a script out during this time: chances are many others have had the same bad idea and yours will just get lost on a big pile, physical or electronic, and end up buried, junked or forgotten about. And this includes any manner of national holiday or major event of any description: celebrations, bank holidays, half-term, Easter.


Alright, that's fair enough. When else is bad? Well, not just the date but also the time: out of office hours (pre and post closing time) are bad for the same reasons as above: buried under the upcoming or next day's business. And even then, not all business hours are created equal: the first and last hour of the work day are also not great, since people have just arrived/are about to go and really don't want anything slowing them down.

And if your kneejerk response is 'wow, development people sure are entitled!' kindly remember that, for all the glamour that the film and TV business confers on itself, it's still a job with all the same issues of grind as any other profession, including whatever your current one is: you wouldn't like it, having someone burst in and muck up your schedule, so don't inflict it on others. A little courtesy can go a long way, sunshine.

Naturally, none of this guarantees 110% your script will get read: the same old combination of timing, persistance and then just regular old good luck (or broken legs) plays as big a role as ever. Sometimes, people drag it out for months and months (through no deliberate malice usually, just they understandably have bigger projects and clients) or just never get back at all.

It sucks, especially if they're someone you really admire or had a good rapport with, but as I discussed in my Patience blog, you just have to keep at it. If you let worry eat you, your writing life will go from mildly frustrating to heart attack generator quickly.

Friday, 24 May 2019

'Wrapped Up' got selected for its first festival (24/05/19)

Never say never. Things can come back in surprising ways and really perk you up on not-so-great days.

The short film I wrote last year got into its first festival, all the way over in Ukraine. The Kiev International Film Festival, to be exact. Well hooray hooray hooray!


Now, if you need a refresher, Wrapped Up is a dark little comedy about 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?

I talk about it more here, but sufficied to say, it was quite a project. Its original screening went down well, so to have it do well again is a great feeling. I have to once again, fully hand it to my director Andy: he brought it home, everyone in the theatre was laughing back then, and is still doing so now.

Watch the short here.


If you'd like to learn more about the Kiev International Film Festival and what's playing, click the link: http://kievfestival.info/en/about

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Joe Carnahan and the Importance of Screenwriter's Etiquette

Consider this a sister piece to both my blog on the response to Sarah Phelps' ABC Murders from Christie fans, as well as my recent writing on things I wish amateurs would stop doing. There'll be a lot of crossover in what is said here, though the target in the former will be different.

Smokin' Aces and The Grey writer-director Joe Carnahan (who's probably just as well known for blockbusters he ALMOST made, such as Mission Impossible III, Uncharted and Bad Boys 3) has a new movie out: a low-budget superhero picture titled El Chicano, centering on an LA detective out to avenge his brother and donning the titular mantle. A big part of the production's press revolved around how hard Carnahan and the film's director pushed for an all-Latino cast, recognizing a vital demographic.

All seems well so far, but then reviews came in and weren't too flattering. One moderately positive review by Carlos Aguilar, that questioned some of the representational choices in the film, got real heat from Carnahan, who went on an anti-critic tirade.



Backlash ensued, and Carnahan deleted his twitter. Not long after, other screenwriters chipped in with takes on Carnahan's behaviour:

Stuff like this always frustrates me: it's stupid, pointless and it's a bad example for other creatives. Making a film, or any piece of media, is a long, grueling and often frustrating process that can, and will, trip you up many times. I get Carnahan's passion for his work (just watch any of his interviews) and why one would feel so defensive of it. That just comes with being a creative: if you didn't have passion, why did you create?

That said, a thick skin is a basic survival tool in any type of collaborative business and with it, the ability to stop, breathe and think. What has Carnahan proved or gained by blasting Aguilar? If it's about the writing quality, why not cite and explain the issues you had with the review's construction? Why not create a constructive dialogue with a critic so that both you and they learn from it, instead of shouting it down?

The truth of internet fire-fights is pretty much no one, regardless of position, comes out looking good. The rapid-pace nature of social media is catnip to impulsive decisions and the lack of face-to-face contact emboldens the worst behaviours. It's a dangerous cocktail that can tempt even usually smart people into poor argumentation and worse decorum.

And now that we've taken 'stupid' and 'pointless' to task, let's now dive into 'bad example': this is a terrible way to handle critique. As I mentioned in my Amateur Screenwriters piece, people are not out to get you when they say something you wrote needs work. They are not denying your 'genius', and they are not forcing you to conform to whatever dogma they may subscribe to. Nothing gives you the right to be abusive or sharp with people who have given you their time to engage with your art and, in some way, give you feedback.


Does that mean you blindly agree with everything they say and have no right to defend your work? Of course not, but being open-minded, as well as showing restraint, are vital tools if you want to make it as a screenwriter. If you get fiery right away or misconstrue critique of the work as personal attacks, you won't survive long. If you can't take feedback or notes, much less one like Aguilar's review where it's balanced with positives, how can you expect to work with other people and improve both yours and their work? Conduct and etiquette are important and often overlooked parts of an artist's toolbox.

So, what's a way of dealing with negative feedback that allows for said better etiquette? Well, a teacher of mine had a great saying, 'look for the note behind the note'. If you feel like a criticism of something you made doesn't make sense, rather than start attacking, put some distance between you and the critique and think: why would they say this? Is there a choice I made that made them take away that impression instead of the one I wanted? Was it the way a character spoke, or how a scene played out? Did a certain descriptor carry a double meaning I may not have considered?

The fact is, in the social media age, the internet remembers. Be better than trolls or fanboys or general malcontents, and not give into the first thing that pops into your head when someone says something about your work. And don't broadcast it for the whole world to see if you're not interested in being productive or mature.

People check these things now, and your online activity paints a picture of you before they ever meet you. Whether you're amateur or pro, knowing how to take the hits matters as much as dishing them out, especially if you still want to be in the fight. No amount of credits or fiscal success entitle you to belittling or bullying others, nor take said success for granted. No one is bulletproof, and manners go a long way.

Monday, 1 April 2019

5 Things I wished Amateur Screenwriters would JUST. STOP. DOING.

No sugarcoating here: You're the problem. You make the rest of us look bad. It's because of you, yes YOU, that companies won't take unsolicited submissions for fear of insane lawsuits, why agents rely so heavily on referrals and why 'breaking in' is so dominated by contests of dubious merit.

The arrogance, the entitlement, the utter lack of self-awareness leaves me gobsmacked sometimes. On forums, Facebook groups, even, if you're so unlucky, at Q&As and events. I am tired of hearing the same empty pleas, vague generalities and just poor manners in general. People want to help, people want to be nice and yes, believe it or not, there are people who want to listen and work with new writers, but time and again, are discouraged.


So, here's my humble supplication, my gentle plea, for you to stop doing these things, or avoid them in the first place, and make life a little easier for both the industry and you yourself. You are already going to have enough fights on your hands, at least take these ones off:

STOP USING Q&As/PANELS TO PITCH YOUR MOVIE

Screenings and panels, unless specificed, are not an excuse for you to hog the mic and waste the time of guests and attendees by doing some nervous, blathery pitch for your script. Being daring and being dumb aren't interchangeable, and no one is giving you 'mad respect' by pitching your dream movie to Jonathan Nolan or J.J. Abrams.


As discussed in a previous blog, these people are out of your reach. They're too big and busy to take on untested talent. Not to mention, like unsolicited submissions, they want to avoid lawsuits if they, entirely independent of you, come up with a similar idea. Instead, focus on making your own stuff or pitching to smaller producers.

STOP THROWING TANTRUMS OVER ADVICE

People are not out to get you when they say something you wrote needs work. They are not denying your 'genius', and they are not forcing you to conform to whatever dogma Save The Cat spews. Nothing gives you the right to be abusive or sharp with people who have given you their time to give you some feedback.

This is doubly so if you're using paid reading services: you paid for it, don't complain when they give you what you asked them for. Does that mean you blindly agree with everything they say and have no right to defend your work? Of course not: as the maxim goes, take what works, ditch what doesn't. If they are saying a character doesn't make sense because their actions don't fit, consider if this is a deliberate choice you communicated badly (it stays) or if that's not what you wanted and you meant to write something else (it changes).

STOP SAYING 'I DID THIS AND THIS' AND NOT BACKING IT UP

What is so bloody hard about providing links when you say 'I won such and such award' or 'I made such and such film, so please work with me'. Why do I constantly see, especially in Facebook film groups, people saying some variant of 'Hi everybody, I'm an award winning screenwriter looking for a agent/producer/collaborator in London/Dublin/Glasgow/other city. Do you have anyone in mind you can recommend please?' AND THEN NEVER SAYING WHAT THEY WON?!

You want people to help? Give them a reason by using the highly exulted, all powerful, divine magic of copy and paste and hyperlinks. You clearly want to impress us: do it. And, for the love of Cthulu, JUST TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU WANT! Why are you being vague? If you want to make a horror or a comedy, JUST SAY SO! That's how you find the right crew.

Oh, and proof read. Please.

STOP TAKING THE INTERNET LOTTERY

If you just wait for things to come to you and do nothing inbetween online submission windows, or just blindly rely on email alone, you'll not get far. At all.  You're just another collection of words in an email, no different from the others. Whoopety-doo.

You're better off trying to find a way to go to a film festival or taking a five minute coffee with someone at a company and chat with these people in person, than gambling on if and when there are internet submissions. That personal dimension, seeing or hearing that passion in person, is more important than usually given credit for, and it made a huge difference to my own output and getting gigs. It's okay to be scared or nervous: it's not okay to be passive.

STOP SH*TTALKING THE INDUSTRY AND STILL EXPECTING TO GET WORK

Kids shows, soaps and low to micro budget content is likely where you'll be starting out, and you want to make a good impression. I would be VERY wary of publically mocking the creative teams on places like Twitter and acting like such hot sh*t, saying you could do better. Especially when you're struggling to get that first or even second credit.

No, this does not mean you have to like everything or not express your dislike of something, but find a more constrtuctive way to do it. Yes, the openness of a platform like Twitter makes criticism or differing views impossible to avoid, and so long as terms of Use are not violated, they are fine to do so.

However, assuming the work doesn't already undergo lots of scrutiny through development, and then notes from directors, producers even actors is naive at best and ignorant at worst. Everybody makes mistakes, but it's never all cut and dry. You @ someone involved is not exactly much of a solution.


There's a considerable difference between simply writing up your opinion, positive or negative, and sharing among peers, and then shoving your critique in the face of a creator who, perhaps one day, could be your boss. By doing this, you are presuming your view is more worthy of specific attention when there's no qualifiers for it: your own subjective opinion is no more inferior or superior to someone else who shared it via normal channels, nor your tangential connection to the business. You getting into a stupid fight with a Pro is not 'critical thinking' or 'challenging the system': it's a moronic shouting match.

Are there more gear-grinding pet peeves I have? Possibly, but let's stop for today before I get too mean or holier-than-thou. I only say this because I'm tired of newcomers, regardless of age or background, making the easiest mistakes in the world to avoid and, if for nothing else, I can at least save you a few.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dear Students of Screenwriting: Here's the reality

You're about to start or finish off your degree. You will or have learnt about three acts, inciting incidents, reversal of reversals and subverting expectations. With that piece of paper in hand (or in the mail) you feel ready to conquer the industry with a knock-out game changer. Or maybe, you're outside the system and learning as you go, from books and Youtube videos.

Let me tell you, you haven't even been around the first step to the first hurdle.


I think the reality and demands of any writing career is often undersold and underdiscussed to aspiring newbies. Too much is made of the glitz and glamour, the prestige of an award winning film or best selling book. Often, this false-image presents a too-romanticized, too-innocent version of what the reality is like for writers (mainly focusing, in this instance, on screenwriters, but there's a lot here that's cross-transferable).

The BIG truth is this: everything is SLOW. Everything takes time and everything is about your initiative and proactivity. This is not a career for those who are lazy or just expect, for whatever moronic reason, things to come to them. Worse, things to come RIGHT AWAY. Like, everything get's going in one week and people will sign you overnight to some big honking deal at the BBC or Netflix.

No. No no no no. No. Not how it happens. (WARNING, the word MAY will be used many times in the following paragraphs.)

First, you must BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. If you treat people like stepping stones, show no respect or regard, well, why should they care about you or your scripts? Networking is treated as this grand, impossible, delicate thing, but it's really not. It's basically like any other sort of socializing: just be cool and open. Yes, YOU have to go and meet people. Yes, YOU have to actually talk to people before they can read your script and may, MAY, give you a gig.


Asking to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice, as a graduating/graduate student, or even as a fan of their output, is much less daunting then it sounds. 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 can't 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 a read of your script. If they like it, they may give you a referral (an endorsement) which makes a certain 'hunt' that much easier (more on that later).

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 may snowball into a chat, a conversation and, possibly, an exchange of numbers and/or emails. Of course, all this is if they respond: you may have to chase up a few times before they reply. Like I said, slow.

It's also important to be reasonable with your expectations: forget Call the Midwife or Doctor Who or Bodyguard. They are way, WAY out of your league, no matter how good your writing is. Shows like those use writers familiar with the system and who have proven themselves to be able to meet deadlines and turn solid material around in small amounts of time. Guiding a newbie is just not viable. However, that's not the only place to go with your work.


Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some may even doing full plays. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot. That's a credit. Radio and narrative-driven podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge is lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and may get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any 'unsolicited' guff. That's a credit. Or make a cheap little webseries (superior to shorts, in my view, for writers, and less dicey than a microbudget feature). Credit, credit, credit.

Or on actual TV, preschool's a good place to start grafting: efficient, cheap, fun content and writers who can produce that are always in demand. There'll still be waiting and following up and rejections, but there's far less at stake here for them and you. It's a fraction of what you'd get for a drama, but it's a credit builder with established companies. Remember, you're the newbie, the baby: you can't afford to be snobbish. Kids shows are not beneath you or inferior. They are as dramatically valid and challenging as any 'adult' project.


And even when you get that first play or episode done... WELCOME BACK TO GRAFTING! Oh, there's no magical floodgate where everything will just come to you and you'll never have to network again. People won't come to you. You've still got to find more gigs by your lonesome. And you will get more rejections. Huzzah!

Now, to round this off, what's a word often associated with writers that has not shown up yet? AGENTS.  Here's the honest truth:

You don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea.

You don't need an agent to get you work.

A good logline and better manners will do that fine. Your first priority as a writer, aside from learning and pushing your craft, is build yourself a portfolio, not agent hunt. Show you can do the work, show people want to work with you and show that you have the determination and proactivity to be worth entering a business arrangement with. Credits, specs, stuff in development, awards, all of this stuff counts for a lot and can help you stand out in the pile, bolstered further by the referal from an industry producer.

I suppose the takeaway here is that it's hard. Really hard. Really, really hard. And slow. And tedious. And often times annoying. But I also know I'd rather do this than a soul-draining office job (and I have), and I know this is what I find joy and passion in. Pablo, Cull, my past short films and all the stuff yet to come or still cooking: I've fought battles, felt crushing worry and despair, but I held on. It will happen to you, and it's not easy and it's scary. But if you believe in your material, in yourself, if you keep fighting and taking risks, you will get there.

======================================================================
If you're curious for me to expand on the above, I did an entire series about helping students which you can find here.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Read how-to-books or screenplays? Hey Genius, DO BOTH!

Blake Snyder is a hack who destroyed movies! No, Save The Cat is unparralleled storytelling genius. No you're stupid! No you're STUPID! FUDGE YOU! NO, FLECK YOU, BAR STEWARD! - the polite TV-broadcast version of what goes on in many screenwriting threads on forums.

In the eternal quest of the new screenwriter in tackling their first script, one of the first questions that arises is: what should I read? Screenplays or screenplay manuals? Should I just jump in and read PDFs like no tomorrow, or, should I study paradigms, beat sheets and arcs? Well, I've got an ingenious solution to your problem, and one which has never, ever, EVER, been broached before in the whole history of anything: do both.

I'll never understand the screenwriting community's bizarre fixation on one or the other. It's not like you're in one of Jigsaw's traps and forced to make a choice between losing your hand or your head. You, as student of the form and a consumer, have full freedom to choose what to go for. It's not binary black-and-white and to say it is is, at best, just standard elitism and worst, destructive to an artist's growth.


Brass tacks here: most new spec screenwriters (who are not muli-taskers, like writer-directors) are, by and large, not students of English Lit or have a strong literary background, period. Many are simply enthusiasts of various movie and TV franchises or persons in said mediums, and would like to write for them some day. Cue dropping to their first port of call: the internet. They do some rudimentary searching, maybe learn about Save The Cat or 'three act structure' and then after that, find a multitude of people grousing about STC and saying the only way to is to read screenplays and nothing else.

Let's start with books: blind adherence to formula is, of course, not a good thing, nor being married to a set of arbitrary rules. Absorbing all McKee or Hauge or Field has to offer may lead to a very proficient, polished screenplay, but it can also lead to an overly mechanical one without a sense of voice or imagination. While writing is hard, structure and pace can be learned fairly quickly: creating snappy, to-the-point scenes, as encouraged by these books, is very doable in a small amount of time. With a copy of Final Draft to boot, it's easy to create what LOOKS like a quality screenplay.

But looks can be deceiving: the common element with a lot of books is they can't teach you to have a voice, a unique style and POV that only you can tell. Nor can they provide you with distinct and different subject matter, so sadly, a lot of 'technically' proficient screenplays fall back on the same stories about cops with demons, star-crossed lovebirds and disenfranchised youth. X happens by page Y, at point B this twist happens and the hero gets C. All well and good, but kind of bland.

Here's the thing, to take the alternate view: if you can't explain or understand why something works in a story, reading screenplays alone is a total waste of time because you're not really learning. The books aren't perfect, but at least they can give you a framework and a means to explain what or why something is or isn't working. Without a basic grasp of dramaturgical terms or theory (in particular, oft-misunderstood terms such as 'characterisation', 'pacing' and 'subplots') you won't be able to really grasp and hone that vague ethereal spark that is your story idea.

Too often, it seems the people who screed the supremacy of 'read alone' are people who were already aware of the conventions, or working in the industry and thus, could learn direct on the ground. For example, John August (Big Fish and co-host of ScriptNotes) began his career as a script reader so of course he didn't need Syd Field: he was already learning in possibly the best school possible. Nor did Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted): he was already working as a comic and got on staff for Laverne & Shelley while at college. He got the ultimate introduction to the craft by actually writing commissioned work. Others majored in English at a university level (Frank Cotrell-Boyce, The Railway Man) so again, didn't need the guides. But for many, either because of financial or health reasons, this is non-viable.

And, in an interesting dovetail, many of these guys got in decades ago, a criticism that's also been levied at guides for being out of date in their industry advice. Yet, the circumstances under which some of these people rose under is fundamentally different now, why should their word be any more sacrosanct?

Obviously, I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but I hope it serves a point: no one knows anything, so learn from everyone, take what you can and ditch what doesn't help. In the long run, no one cares how you write just as long as you write well. Do that, and things will fall into place.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Review: Writing the Short Film

Short films are, for many a young and new filmmaker, their first step into the business. Make a few, make a good one, you can generate a little buzz about yourself. Give people an idea of what your tastes and strengths are. However, their brief length can pose a challenge for writers, trained or not. So what could help here?


Back in 2004, screenwriting lecturers Cooper and Dancyger decided to add their perspective to the world of screenwriting manuals and bibles, but rather than doing the umpteenth book on features or coming up with another cute name for a three-act reskin, instead tackled the subject of short films. While still framed with Aristotlean principles and act structure, Cooper and Dancyger keep their focus small and tight by analysing and diseecting how the short form tell stories, how to convey information within limited time and what the differences are between feature and short, beyond length.

One of the very few screenwriting tomes exclusively about shorts, and certainly one of the more well known, Cooper and Dancyger deliver a solid enough guide to how all the fundamentals of film narrative (dialogue, characterisation, pacing, want vs need, subtext) can be applied and prepared for the short form, but it is unmistakably the work of academics. As such, the more bold and colourful among ye may be turned off by it. 


Whereas other writing manuals favour a more humourous, conversational style of writing, designed to ease the aspiring writer in and create a sort of bond between guru and pupil, the duo write with a clinical precision and analytical frame of mind. It very much reads like a classroom piece, making the book feel and read more like a collection of university essays than, necessarily, one writer speaking to another in a relatable fashion.



This by no means is a big negative, and Cooper and Dancyger do their best to supply the reader with tools, detailed maps and means to prepare a short screenplay. They frame most of it around a two act principle (though also concede to one act) using some adaptative exercises, tackling the classic Greek myth of Icarus, as well as scenes from shorts they or their students have been involved with, to illustrate their points. It works decently and it never had me confused. Indeed, some of the best parts come from these segments, where they go through revisions and show you how something changed.


Still, it all feels sterile and written without enthusiasm, which can leave it a little dry and ponderous at times. It's more instructive than it is motivational or inspirational, which does align it more with the stereotype of screenwriting books. Do not confuse this with implying the book is sloppy or boring; merely written by observers and analysts of the craft, teaching classes and engaged in an academic discussion of film, versus the more impassioned approach of a guru or working screenwriter of larger projects wanting to share tricks and fun anecdotes. 

On its own merits, Short Film is capably written, well structured and clearly geared at new film students. Indeed, it reads like classroom material: thorough, lengthy but always at an intellectual distance, more a teaching tool than a standalone piece that makes for a good read in its own right.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

More Pablo and Bang2Write - Ringing in 2019

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

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



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


 



 

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

I'm also in very early stages of a new ten minute play, to be potentially produced by the Oast's Sandra Barfield (who helped bring Cull to life last year) but as said, it's still early days. Beyond that, working as always on new specs and honing my craft.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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