Thursday, 11 December 2014

quick review - WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS


yawn, vampire film. No, wait, this is a really good one. Cause it does the only thing left to do with the genre, which is take the piss. It's a mockumentary about four vampires living together in New Zealand, kind of Spinal Tap does Twilight.

It's made by the people behind FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and is quite similar in themes - oddballs living together, deadpan humour, deliberately flat in the face of the absurd, flatshare comedy. It starts with a digital alarm going off at sunset and a hand reaching out of a coffin to slap the snooze button, and carries on in the same vein, mining funnies from the intersections of vampire myth and modern life: cause they can't look in the mirror they have to sketch each other when they try on clothes; when they go out clubbing they have to convince the bouncers to invite them in; when they get the internet they like to watch sunrises on youtube; they bitch about who's turn it is to wash the bloody dishes.

That makes it sound like a SCARY MOVIE sketch fest, but it's much better than that because the characters are really strong, angsty, out of time, frustrated and dealing as best they can with a horrible situation. Best is the 18th century dandy vamp who is in love with a human (now in her 90s) and hates getting blood on his clothes, and the new laddy vampire, who has to start learning the ropes from his undead cohorts, while teaching them about modern world.

There's not much of a plot - a vampire hunter adds a degree of threat, there's some kind of showdown brewing at the Unholy Masquerade annual ball, but it's a pleasure just to hang out with the loveable (blood drinking) misfits.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


on adaptation

Adapting books is how most films get made these days. I think producers like to option a book cause then there is a property they can 'own', and you, as the screenwriter, are hired - and can be fired just as easily if they don't like your 'take'. An an original script, it's more 'your' project, so it's harder for them to dismiss you.

Books are not written like films, so it's generally as tough as writing an original screenplay.

Most of the work is boiling the story down - cut subplots and characters, trim locations and so on. A book is something like a gormenghast castle - ramshackle, with diversions on every corner. You wander through it without worrying too much about the destination. There are dull bits, funny bits, digressions, varieties of tone. A screenplay, in contrast, is like a cathedral, with every detail harmonising (ideally) as part of some grand design.

Plus, only when you start trying to work out how to adapt something do you realise just how much novelists rely on interior voice and flashback. Especially when they're trying to give you a handle on the characters. A novelist often lays down the whole history of a characters, shows you incidents from throughout their life, gets into their head. You can't do any of that so you have to find actions that offer an insight into the character.  

Some stories just work better in one medium than another - closed world mysteries go great in books - The Name of the Rose, some of the Harry Potters, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo... but they made pretty dull films. Maybe it's because an investigation involves lots of talking - interviewing witnesses and such like - and dialogue works better in books (and on TV) than on film.

World building is much harder to do as well. That's what makes adapting fantasy and sci-fi tricksy.

Thrillers are probably the easiest. Though not always. Lots of thriller books have surprisingly creaky or odd stories, which you only notice when trying to strip them down. I once got asked to adapt a thriller in which the romantic interest, the girl, gets shot in the head exactly half way through, and goes into a coma, and comes out of it on the last page. Can that work in a film? And the plot didn't make any sense and the revelation at the end was a fifty page chuck of flashback. But it wasn't a bad book cause it took place in a fantastically well realised world. I pretty much had to throw the plot away but try to stay true to the characters. (There is a very odd story to why that never got made which I cannot tell).

Thursday, 27 November 2014

William Gibson on NEUROMANCER

I went, (along with a whole load of other fortyish guys dressed in black), to hear William Gibson talk about NEUROMANCER. Which was published thirty years ago.

For those of you who don't know it, the book is an amazingly prescient work of tech-noir - a great story that invented the concept of an internet, and the term cyberspace; inspired dozens of imitations, including THE MATRIX; kicked off a whole subculture - 'cyberpunk'; and has been seriously called the most influential book of the 20th century.

Go and read it if you haven't, it stands up well. It's about a junkie hacker living in a dystopian urban mess called the 'sprawl' who is hired by an Artificial Intelligence to put a team together for a mysterious heist. It certainly made a big impression on me when I read at seventeen or so, adding fuel to my desire to get out of suburban Wales and find somewhere a bit more cool and sprawlish.

Gibson himself came across as clear-eyed, affable, a cool academic with - suitably enough - an unplaceable, mid-Atlantic accent.

If he is bored of talking about his oldest book he didn't show it. He said he invented cyberspace - in the story a virtual world rather like that of Second Life - after watching teens playing arcade games: craning over their machines, they seemed so eager to enter the screen - what if they could? He said that as well as an original arena for a story it was a handy way to solve the age old writer's problem of how to efficiently get people in and out of rooms.

In similar self-deprecatory fashion, he said that the prose flights of fancy that the book indulges in, particularly in describing its two Artificial Intelligences, was a way to paper over some wayward plotting.

And he was quick to point out that he wasn't the first to write characters who were constructs inside a computer - apparently that was Alfred Bester, in a story called 'I have no mouth but I must scream'. He referenced one of his book's few blind spots by pointing out that any modern kid who read it would think the plot must hinge around how the AIs managed to uninvent the mobile phone.

Other influences and antecedents he acknowledged included Philip K Dick, Meryvn Peake, and William Burroughs - who he described as like a musician sitting with an electric guitar and an arc of pedals, when all the other writers were still acoustic. He wanted some of that wa-wa.

Asked why nothing he had written had been turned into a decent film, he accepted that the Wachowski's had stolen his best ideas, but lived in hope.

One of the things that made his invented world seem so real was its attention to surface detail - giving 'eyeball kicks', he called it - and branding. But as well as inventing cool names for new things (I still want an Ono Sendai) he felt he needed to keep the story anchored by using familiar tropes: So, for example, Case, the hero, is addicted to the rather archaic amphetamines, rather than some ritzy invented designer drug.

Another striking and prescient story point is the power of corporate 'zaibatsus'. The idea for those super-companies came, he said, from a college anthropology course, where a lecturer pointed out that an alien arriving on earth, looking for the most powerful entity to talk to, would conclude that the the dominant social lifeform was not the nation state but the multi-national corporation. Even during wars, he pointed out, they could split in two and sell to both sides.

So he took a lot of things that were happening, or starting to happen, and extrapolated brilliantly to create a future world, parts of which are now coming to pass.

He wrote the book as a commission, in 18 months, and if he hadn't had to do it he wouldn't have done it at all. Overall he gave the impression that he had written it the way first books are often written -frantically collating sets of disparate influences, solving problems by elision, making up the rules as he went along.

And he ended up with something magnificent. Skilful guy.

Thursday, 20 November 2014


Quick film review of NIGHTCRAWLER (with spoilers)

'When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.'

Jake Gyllenhal is great as a sociopath with glassy eyes and a cheesy grin, spouting get-ahead business buzztalk as he films crime scenes and sells the footage to a news channels hungry for gore and sensationalism. He re-arranges corpses to get a better shot, pursues villains and arranging for their arrest so that he can film it, and keeps on getting away with it. Unlike, say, Travis Bickle, he's found an arena where his lack of empathy and morality are advantageous. 

He lives in an empty apartment, his only friend is his plant, and he constantly negotiates, pressurises and blackmails all around him - principally, an amoral newscaster hungry for footage and his weak-willed partner. But the best scenes are when he's behind his camera. For instance, when he orchestrates a shoot-out in a diner: we see the shoot-out, but we also watch him watching it, trying to remain hidden... Voyeurism works really well in cinema. Think PEEPING TOM, REAR WINDOW. Maybe it's because, we, the audience, are voyeurs too, sitting anonymously in the dark, and observing, rather creepily, with impunity.  

Go see it, it's a genuine noir. Like the great noirs of the 40s it deals with the underside of the American dream and has a protagonist who is willfully evil and escapes justice. I guess it's the kind of film people normally complain about them not making any more - maybe it gets away with it because it gets labelled as satire. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

How JET TRASH got made.

I wrote a book, GO, years and years ago. You can read about it here.

It did pretty well, I think it sold forty thousand odd copies. That was quite a lot by the standards of the time and loads by a contemporary reckoning. But no one at the time thought to make a film out of it, I guess because it didn't have a main character - it followed three people with interlinked stories - and these people were all travelling - India, Hong Kong, China, which would have made it a tough proposition. And also, maybe, cause I didn't have an agent at the time to push it, it just wasn't landing on anyone's desks.

Anyway, some years after it came out, a writer called Dan Brown got in touch and suggested we collaborate and write a script for it. I was in China at the time, writing guidebooks, and it seemed like a good part time project. We whittled the story down, settled on one locale - India - as being the most representative and having the strongest story, and one character as the lead. That script went through a lot of drafts. And it nearly got made. At least we went to a lot of meetings with people who called themselves film producers, and a lot of noise was generated.

Looking back, I think now we made a mistake in not trying to get an agent as soon as someone was interested. Cause we could have, I think, and an agent would have been in a position to tell us when these producers were taking the piss - like getting us to do loads of free rewrites.

It didn't get made and I never made a penny and it went in my bulging drawer of dead dreams. For about a decade. Until I did have a film agent and was meeting producers again, in reference to other projects.

I met a producer called Andy Brunskill who had read the book first time around. He wanted to work with a director called Charlie Belleville and was a big fan of actor Robert Sheehan. Charlie liked the book - Robert was given it to read, agreed to do it, and suddenly the stars were right. The script was dug out. The smallish budget was raised on the back of Sheehan's involvement, and he was very active in getting funding. The whole thing kicked off very quickly - they raised the money in a few months, and shot it pretty much straight away.

So I guess the lesson of that one is, don't give up on old projects, know when an agent can help you, and don't underestimate how important casting is in getting something off the ground.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How THE ANOMALY got made. Pitching.

Er, I don't really know how THE ANOMALY got made. I was living in Japan at the time. Super producer Noel Clarke wanted to buy TIGER HOUSE, but missed out. On a quick trip back to London, I met him, and mentioned that I had written a script that was nearly finished, about mind control. He told me to send it to him when it was done - I did it, he read it, bought it, did his thing, shot it eight months later. I was out of the country for the whole process so didn't have anything to do with it, first time I saw it was at the premier.

That is going to make for a very short entry so I'll beef it up by talking about pitching. Cause I guess that one started with a pitch.

My approach to pitching is to be very low key about it. It should just be part of a conversation. No one wants to have stories thrown at them. You talk in general terms, then move to the specifics of your idea, say just enough to pique their interest then move on.

Say your producer likes horror - 'oh you like horror films? But this torture porn thing has gone too far... wish someone would bring back proper scary ghost stories... like the RING. The Japanese are so good at that kind of thing, I guess it's cause they've got such a dense mythology to draw on... You know, I think British producers are kind of missing a trick, cause we have a dense mythology of ghost stories too, a huge gothic tradition, but we ignore it and always make scary films in American style - zombies and werewolves and so on... A really British ghost story could use our great heritage of spooky mythology - oh, and buildings - we have this amazing untapped resource of spooky old buildings. Okay, here's an example, how about-' - and then pitch your British scary ghost story. And because you've gone from the general to the specific, all is not lost if he or she doesn't like your story - because you can just go back to the general and say you'll work up a different 'spooky British ghost story' and email it later.

Friday, 14 November 2014

going cheap

writing a cheap film

Cheap films are more likely to get made than expensive ones. And they are more likely to get made the way you want them - the more money someone is spending on you, the more they interfere - nobody 'authors' a 100 million dollar film, there were probably a dozen writers on the thing.

There is something aesthetically purer about them too - a big budget film can rely on spectacle to get people to watch it. But if your budget doesn't run to blowing up New York, then you have to rely on the writing to make the story interesting - a great concept, characters, dialogue.

big concept don't necessarily cost anything - you would spend millions making a Nolan dream world, but it's just as striking and weird to have a copy of you and your house appear over the road (COHERENCE) - and that costs nothing.

Aim for fairly few characters, ideally less than ten - with one or two main parts. Write one 'cameo' - the 'Freeman' - three or four scenes, spaced throughout the film, that all take place in one location (let's say, he's the chief of police and always seen in his office). Then you can hire Morgan Freeman for one day, shoot all his scenes back to back, and it looks like he's in the whole damn film. And his name will be huge on the DVD box.

Not too many locations, the fewer the better. Don't set anything at night (that's expensive). And make your locations easy to construct or shoot in - big rooms with high ceilings (for lighting rigs) are best.
But keep one location for late on, it's good to have somewhere else to take the story as you get into act three.

You don't need money to make your scenes visually dramatic, if you're smart. Lots of things look great on screen and cost nothing: an execution, nudity, a foot chase, a game of poker, a hold up, a murder scene, undressing and dressing, someone singing well, something seen on CCTV, a trip scene (allowing you to get arty with the camera), a mexican stand off, complete darkness, wrestling, dancing, a weapon being stripped or loaded, fancy dress, someone escaping from their bonds, games of darts, snooker, and bowling, someone being followed... well, make your own list then stuff them in your script.

Admirable low budget films - RESERVOIR DOGS: basically one location, but with the flashbacks so well integrated you don't even notice. Just about every low budget cool thing you can do with guys, surprised he didn't get a card game in there. SAW - again, mostly one room, that you take regular breaks from. A guy sawing his own leg off is easy to shoot and, er, spectacular. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: two people in a house and some flour. A lot of artistry goes into making found footage look artless. OPEN WATER - simple but nerve wracking: a couple bob, worried about sharks. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED -A twist hostage drama, and three roles in the whole thing. COHERENCE - a bunch of yuppies in a room; but the universe is changing around them - a great example of big ideas for cheap. BURIED - actually I don't really like this film, it's too cruel, but you have to admire the simplicity, cause it's just a guy in a box.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

novel v screen

Dennis Lehane said that screenwriting and novel writing are as different as an apple and a giraffe...
I'm not sure I agree. I've done both, and they can be pretty similar. Driving a bus and driving a sports car are different, but there's a useful set of overlapping skills. Novels and films both boil down to character and story, after all.
Obviously, novel writing is a broad church and you get ways of writing novels that are very far from screenplay form - there's no filmy equivalent to the very subjective or overly fantastical, (Finnegan's Wake, Naked Lunch), or to the distinctive narratorial voice (Catcher in the Rye, Vernon God Little), or something written in third person that spends a lot of time inside the character's heads (Crime and Punishment... all the Russians come to think of it).
But most prose writing is exterior - action and dialogue - and objective rather than subjective; a lot of pulp and crime is written that way, but also Jane Austen and Dickens - and that's where the crossover happens.
Then it's just a matter of what works best: in prose, dialogue; in screenwriting, pictures. So, say you want to describe an unhappy marriage, in prose you write five pages of husband and wife arguing, and in a film, you do that Chandler thing - couple in a lift, pretty girl walks in, guy takes his hat off.
Actually, the main difference between novels and screenplays is a completely artificial one, to do with length. Publishers won't publish a novel that's less than eighty thousand words. And by my reckoning, that's the rough equivalent of about six to ten hours of screen time. Something that long will inevitably end up being less about beginnings and endings, and will become rather episodic - it will look, in fact, like a series. Indeed, to my mind, there is a lot that is 'novelly' about modern series dramas like Breaking Bad and True Detective.
The prose equivalent of the feature screenplay is the novella - the long story that's twenty to forty thousand words (Clockwork Orange, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies). Novellas tend to be about one thing, they rush to conclusions, you take them in in one sitting, they depend on a good ending - just like a film. Unfortunately that's a literary form that is out of fashion, cause publishers can't sell them.

Friday, 7 November 2014

film review: FURY

quick film review -

'April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.'

FURY - the Second World War is a great vehicle for drama and tanks are, well, great vehicles. And David Ayer is great at guys-in-vehicle stories - mostly cops, like in TRAINING DAY and END OF WATCH.

So, this is about guys together - very close together - inside what amounts to a big gun (no sniggering at the back). Brad Pitt is the muscled uber warrior,  'Wardaddy' - a 'Storm Saxon' style Aryan dream who just loves killing nazis. And Logan Lerman is the nebbish lead, the audience identification figure, as he is whipped from the typing pool and fired into the heat of battle as the claustrophobic tank's new assistant gunner.

So far so Spielberg, but this is more cynical and brutal than Saving Private Ryan. The war scenes are as realistic but no punches are pulled on the brutality of the combatants. There's a harrowing sequence where Pitt forces Lerman to shoot an unarmed prisoner dead. That's a good scene; you know Pitt has to do it to make Lerman toughen up; but its politics are horrible, when you think about it, and it is has no consequences apart from helping to forge Lerman into a functioning soldier.

So, inculcated in the necessaries, Lerman starts kicking arse along with the other tankers. The first half is pretty good, and I guess pretty accurate and unflinching, in its depiction of brutalised men and the horrors of combat. But the second half is banal propaganda - juicy war scenes, a heroic last ditch defense, everybody dies a heroes death, the lead gets his arc.

It bugs me that films like this are sold as showing the horrors of war as never before. I think this, and others of its ilk, like Saving Private Ryan, are quite dishonest - while they are great at gore and battle they don't deliver anything of the true nature of war, and they have saccharine, even sentimental centres.

The very story conventions of Hollywood film making prevent any kind of realistic depiction. You see famous actors on screen, and you know that they will die in the end, but only after killing loads of enemy, and making some cool speeches, and going on their 'arc'. That character won't get killed by friendly fire half way through, there will be nothing meaningless or arbritary about his death, his courage will be rewarded.

Surely the nature of modern war is that soldiers die in meaningless and abritary ways, it's pretty much a lottery, and courage and moral rectitude make little difference, in that meat grinder, to your chances of survival. Presenting it otherwise is not truthful.

My favourite Second World War war film is still Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON. A bunch of doomed German soldiers fight on the eastern front, and at the end they try to get back to their own lines, get mistaken for enemy, and get machine gunned by their own side. The battle scenes might not be convincingly gory the way they are these days but the story feels true and accurate, capturing something of the nihilism and pointlessness of the whole venture, when seen from the individual's point of view. In comparison, modern takes on the second World War look like wishful thinking, macho fantasies.


Thursday, 30 October 2014

Turn an idea into a story

Turning an idea into a story.

Yesterday I showed a simple way to come up with ideas. Now I'll quickly show how to 
develop one of those further.
 I'll take this one -'a bully locks the hero in a cave, to kill him for kicks.''

For me, a script is split into four acts, each about twenty five minutes long. Each of those acts is a story and should end decisively - so the first thing to do is work out what will happen at the end of those acts, your story points. 

So, clearly, the hero gets locked in the cave at the end of act one (25 minutes in). That's the story set up.

Next plot point will be him escaping, so let's put that at the end of act two (fifty minutes in). 

This is the most important break point. It corresponds exactly to the interval in a theatre. The audience is about to go off and have a drink for ten minutes. You make sure they come back, and talk about the play while they are gone, by dropping a plot twist just before the interval. (It corresponds to the midpoint in the traditional three act structure.)

Where do you go now? Again, I think this is pretty obvious - in the start of the next act, the hero locks the bully in the cave, for revenge. You don't want the villain escaping too - we've done that - so instead let's have the hero having a change of heart and, eventually, letting him out. So that's your third act.  

Why would he let him out? Well let's say the hero discovers more about the bully's difficult life, his abusive stepdad and so on. And understanding leads to sympathy.

And that gives us the platform for the last act - we'll use the abusive stepdad. So the bully and the victim will take him on together, and I guess, end up collaborating to shut him in the cave. And that'll be the story for the ending.

So that was easy. Now I have the main story beats. Now look at it and see how the beats further shape the story - if you're going to spend the whole of act 2 in a cave, better make it a network - so that it can explored - and full of traps and difficulties - going to be down there a long time. Aren't people going to be looking for the missing kid? yes, so let's set it somewhere very rural. Or set it a hundred years ago. We have this abusive stepdad who ends up giving us the ending - can't just have a character popping out of nowhere, so better make sure he's written in at the beginning. 

And once you've got the the plot points, start asking yourself a bunch of questions and 'what ifs' - what if it was set in the future? Or the distant past? What is the arena of the story - where is it set? How old are the characters? Change everyone's age and sex, see if it would work better that way. 

When you've decided on that, flesh out the characters. Add extra characters (only if you really need them) and (if it's really necessary) a subplot - and make sure that this all relates to the theme; in this case it's 'brutalisation' - so let's maybe add an abused pet dog or a war going on in the background or something.  

Easy. You don't have to have everything worked out before you start writing, but you ought to know at least the main plot points.    



Wednesday, 29 October 2014

come up with a genre film in two minutes

how to come up with a genre film.

this is really simple. Takes less than five minutes.

1) pick a villain. Anything, don't try to be too clever. Let's say - bully, ghost, doppleganger. Don't start with the hero - rookie error - the villain brings the story.

2) think of the villain's plan. Story doesn't start till the villain starts moving. So, for the above - this is off the top of my head... a bully wants to lock a victim in a cave for kicks. A ghost wants to revenge himself on the ancestors of the people who killed him. A doppleganger wants to take over a guy's identity then get all his doppleganger mates to come and take over everyone else in the town.

3) Is it time for the hero? No, this is the cunning bit. Think of the theme. It's one word. So for the bully one, let's say brutalisation, for the ghost one, revenge, for the doppleganger, identity. This is going to influence the way you tell the story and the way you pick a hero.

4) Okay, now, bearing your theme in mind, pick a hero who will get in the way of, or be the object of, the villain's plan. So for the bully one, it's going to be his victim. And for the ghost one, it's going to be the ancestor. For the doppleganger, a guy who finds his identity stolen. The hero needs to be active, to be in the way, and less powerful than the villain.

5) now, bearing the theme in mind, kick it about, develop it a bit - put some moral dilemmas in there, take it for a walk, build some twists...

* - a bully locks the hero in a cave, to kill him for kicks. The bully is himself brutalised by a horrible stepdad. The hero escapes and in the last act the hero and the bully collaborate to lock the brutal stepdad in the cave.

* A ghost is haunting the ancestors of the man who killed him. The descendants are innocent but not in the hero's mind. The hero realises that to break the curse he must prove that his ancestor was innocent.... but that means the ghost will instead start haunting the descendant of the real killer... and she happens to be a girl he's just fallen in love with. How can they break the curse before it kills her?

* a man has his identity stolen by a doppleganger - a creature who can impersonate him perfectly. He had a shit life anyway, and he enjoys this chance at a fresh start. But when he realises that the doppleganger has a wider plan - to breed lots more dopplegangers - he has to fight the guy. But that means retaking his identity.

Well, it's all pretty rough. But that took less than ten minutes and that's three ideas that could be easily worked up into films - because they have a solid foundation - antagonist, protagonist, villain's plan that has to be thwarted.

See how easy it is - and understand why writers roll their eyes when someone says, 'oh I have this great idea for a film...'  

Thursday, 23 October 2014

on dialogue

On Dialogue.

I love dialogue. I love writing it, reading it. I get into the characters by writing their voice. As a novelist it is the most powerful tool you've got. 

In a book, the more the characters speak, the better it is, generally. In the works of two of my favourite writers, Jane Austen and Elmore Leonard, you'll find more than fifty percent of the text is dialogue.

But as a screenwriter (I am learning) you need to be wary of it. 

It's so easy for it to be wrong, or clunky. It's tempting to use it to tell every story point. 

On screen the pictures trump the words. Generally, the less the characters speak, the better the film.

So as an exercise, I now go through my scripts imagining that technology has regressed, and this story has to be made as a silent movie. Suddenly all those plot points have to be told visually, how do you do it? 

A small example - I wrote a thief asking his mate to help him steal a car. They used to steal Twixes together as kids. The guy caves in a day later, and agrees. How to do it as a picture? Fella walks up to his mate, gives him half a Twix. I'm not saying that's great, but it's a picture replacing a speech. You can generally find dozens of places where you can do something similar.  

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Taking notes

Taking Notes
I just did a polish on a script. The generous producer took me to a fancy hotel and we hung out there and in bars, talking the shit out of the thing, going through it page by page. Fun and productive.
There is an art to taking notes. Lots of people will read your script and they will all have an opinion. Scripts are regarded as mutable, unlike prose works. They can always be made better. But it can get confusing reading all the notes - sometimes they seem vague, sometimes they contradict each other, sometimes they don't make sense.
But frustrating through the process is, it is usually valuable.
You'll learn where you have been clear - if someone hasn't understood something, you probably haven't explained it well enough. Defending points that you believe in gives you a much clearer idea of what your story is about.
The most useful working rules when dealing with notes is to remember that other people are, on the whole, good at finding problems and bad at finding solutions. A producer will give you a suggestion for a change and it is usually bad, but they are generally right in the sense that they have found a problem - even if they can't identify quite what it is. Your job is to see the problem that they think they are solving, and come up with a better solution.

Monday, 20 October 2014

how TIGER HOUSE got made

TIGER HOUSE originated with a conversation with director Tom Daley. He is a first time director and I said I would write something that he could shoot really cheaply, and we would apply for funding from the microwave scheme.

I said maybe something set in a wood - and he said no, that would be tricky, with changing light and weather. The absolute cheapest and simplest film you could possibly make would be set in a house - then the crew could live in it when they weren't shooting.

So working with that as the arena for the story, I came up with the idea of a tiger kidnap - that's where bank robbers take a bank manager's family hostage, in order to get the manager to rob the bank for them. So it would be a heist film but you would never see the bank. And then from there came the idea that there was someone in the house who wasn't meant to be there, the teenage son's girlfriend who snuck in. She would be hiding under his bed, but one of the robbers got injured getting in, and he would be put by his colleagues on top of the bed. She would be free, but in peril. So it's kind of Die Hard in a house, basically.

Anyway, with not much more than that, I wrote a trailer - you can see it here. Just something simple that sold the basic concept. A bit of youtube footage, some narration, some dramatisation from the local am dram group. And Tom shot it. That got lots of interest - before there was a script. Even from America. So barely a month after coming up with the idea we were going to meetings about it.

I learnt an important lesson there: producers will watch a two minute film much more readily than they will read a script. And they're visual people; like children, they get excited about moving pictures.

The script was finished, sold easily, and it was shot a couple of years later, in South Africa. Should be out in 2015.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

how to make a living out of screenwriting

guy asked me how to make a living screenwriting. This was my reply:

* write films that would be cheap to shoot. I asked a director what the cheapest possible location for a feature would be; I said that I thought a wood would be good. He said no, a wood would be tough, thanks to weather and light changes; he suggested a house. The crew could live in it when you weren't shooting. That's how TIGER HOUSE was born - it's basically Die Hard in a house; I wrote it thinking it could be shot for 100 grand - and there are things like the microwave scheme that fund films at that level. It's a lot easier to get a cheap film made than a pricey one. 

* write films with a strong central narrative, a set up that can be easily explained, featuring a cast of less than 10 people with one or two really strong parts (antagonist and protagonist, ideally).  

* actors get films made so write a juicy lead part that an actor would want to play. They don't want to play James Bond, they want to emote, they want to play people with issues to overcome, they want to do drama. They want to act. 

* having written your film write a really good synopsis and blurb for it - that is what producers will mostly read, they don't have time or inclination to read many scripts. Consider making a short, using youtube clips perhaps, with a bit of narration over the top, that sells the concept of your film. 

* Enter screenplay competitions and go for things like COMING UP (a Channel 4 scheme).

* read a good screenwriting blog. My favourite is sex in a submarine. There's a daily script tip section in there called script secrets, read those.

* meet up and coming directors and ally with them by looking around on, for example, shooting people - you will see lots of film school directors on here looking for short film scripts. Offer to write a ten minute short for them. And again, keep it simple, one or two guys in a flat say.