Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Writing a Treatment

I have been hired for a new film project, adapting a book for a feature, and that process starts with presenting a treatment.

So I thought I would write how to do that. Cause actually that's a really important skill that no one talks about much.

A treatment is a synopsis of the story. There's no standard length or format, no one tells you what one looks like, but the more screenplays I write the more useful I realise one is.

To producers, they can quickly see what your story is. They can 'get it' from the one line pitch; the treatment shows how the story actually develops.

For you, it means that you have a road map for where you're going before you get bogged down in the nitty gritty of writing. An extra week spent getting a treatment right will save a month later, as you'll spend a lot less time writing things that need to be cut.

Here is how I do a treatment. Like I say, there is nothing 'industry standard' about any of this, but I have been told I'm good at it, and people who have read my treatments have used them as sample documents to show other writers what to do.

Here's an example below - I'm not saying this a great film idea but it is simple, short and forcefully expressed so good to use as an example (it's not something I've sold, please don't rip it off: if you want a script, hire me).

First, write the BLURB - that's basically a selling document. like you'd read on the back of a book. It basically sets up the situation - so it's act one written up in a sexy way with a hint of what is going to happen in act three:


'A petty crook, Owen, is sprung from jail by men he’s never met before. He discovers that he is the illegitimate son of a billionaire - who now urgently needs a liver transplant from a genetic relative. Owen was snatched by the rich guy’s legitimate son - his own half-brother - who wants to steal his liver: an operation which Owen, of course, would not survive.
When Owen escapes, he is pursued by the police as well as this parasitic family. He flees - but has no choice but to turn and fight when his half-brother discovers another genetic match exists: for Owen has a daughter... 

MATCH is a high tension thriller with contemporary resonance, TAKEN meets THE FUGITIVE.'

That it's 'X meets Y in Z' is important to give people an idea of the tone. Nail the genre. And the phrase 'he has to turn and fight' is clearly a reference to what will happen at the end of act two. So just from that paragraph you get the shape of the whole film.

Then you get into the actual treatment, which will be about three or four pages. It's basically a list of beats that you are going to hit. This is quite a dry document, cause it's all mechanics, making it something of a ballache to read (that's why I always precede it with the sexy 'sell the project' stuff). You should divide it into parts, generally -

The reason you do this is because, inevitably, when you write the treatment you will have a good idea of what happens in act one - so that's two pages - then some idea of act two - another two pages - and only a vague idea of what happens in act three - two paragraphs. If you write that down as a stream of text anyone reading it will get a skewed idea of what the film will look like: act one is half your document so they will think that is half of the film. You have to put those markers in so anyone reading it understands the pacing.

Here is how MATCH looks: notice how simple it is. The shorter the better... anything too long just looks bogged down and is dull to read.


OWEN LUCAS is a petty crook. He’s never amounted to much, and now he’s on the slide down: serving a long sentence for burglary. When men break into his jail and spring him, he has no idea why. 

He is knocked out, and wakes in a surgery: where he is watched over by LINCOLN OSBOURNE. Lincoln is the pampered son of billionaire financier, SIFITIS - who is now elderly and ill. If Sifitis does not get a liver transplant from a genetic relative within twenty four hours, he will die. Lincoln is so keen on Owen because Owen is a match: he is Sifitis’s illegitimate son; and Lincoln has worked hard to track him down. 

But Owen’s captors have underestimated him: if he knows one thing, it’s escaping. Owen breaks free. Now he is really in trouble: his determined and well resourced kidnappers want him back, and so do the police: he’s the target of two manhunts. 


Fugitive Owen doesn’t know where to turn. He finds his way to an old girlfriend, LATITIA. He walked out on the woman and their daughter ten years ago. Now he throws herself on her mercy. 

But she’s not impressed: will never forgive him. He meets his daughter - MONICA. Now she’s grown up: she’s sixteen, mixed up, in trouble.  

Monica is not impressed with her father. She knows he is just there to ask for help. He tells them that he has connections abroad - if they can just help him with some money, a place to hide for a while... His entreaties fall on deaf ears: Latitia refuses to help. 

Owen leaves just before the police arrive. They demand to know if she has seen Owen. Latitia says no; but Monica says yes: she feels she owes her absent father no favours. And once more our hero is forced to flee the police. 

Owen goes to see the man he thinks is his father: someone else who he is alienated from - but he has nowhere else to hide. The man reveals why he has never liked Owen: he doesn’t believe that Owen is his. His mother worked as a waitress at a ritzy restaurant, and had a fling with a customer. Owen puts it together, and realises what the bad guys are after. 

Following Owen’s trail, Lincoln tracks Letitia down: and finds out about Monica. He realises that it’s quite possible that Owen’s daughter would also be a match. Lincoln kills Letitia and sets a trap for Monica. Owen finds Monica just in time. 


Now Owen goes on the run with Monica. He has to escape from the police, and from Lincoln; while trying to find some way to relate to the daughter he abandoned. He works on a plan to get them both out of the country. But Monica has her own ideas of justice, and finally gives him up to the police.  

Owen is arrested. But he has time to see: Lincoln snatches his daughter. 


The scene is set for a dynamic climax: Owen has learnt that you cannot keep running. He has built a relationship with his daughter only to see it snatched away. Desperation gives him strength.  

Owen escapes from the police, and tracks down his enemies. There is a clear ticking bomb: as the complex surgical operation is just beginning. Owen tracks his family down, and in an exciting and explosive climax, he rescues his daughter. 

Owen and Monica escape the clutches of the parasitic financiers. 

Lincoln admits to his father that he has failed. Sitifis rams a scalpel into his son’s neck, and orders the surgeons to continue the operation: for Lincoln too, of course, is a match. 

Then I always put a couple of paragraphs of NOTES at the end where I say what interests me about the subject matter and why this story needs to be a film. Maybe something about milieu and contemporary relevance or how it would be cheap to shoot and so on. In this case -


This is the kind of chase thriller that Hitchcock would have loved: a man on the run is hounded by a conspiracy of powerful people; there are high stakes, and an ending that involves saving the girl before a deadline expires - narratively speaking, we are on solid ground. But the emotional heart of the story is the lead character’s arc, specifically, the developing relationship with the daughter he abandoned. 
The villains are despicable and powerful, as villains should be, and, pleasingly, the antagonist and protagonist are shadows of one another: they are brothers, and each is doing his best to save a family member. 
As to the villain’s plan - financiers needing transplants in order to survive and ordinary people suffering as a consequence - not hard to see how that relates, metaphorically, to contemporary realities: I could see audiences really hating those guys.  

Finally, in terms of locale, we have an intriguing contrast been two very different milieus: high finance for glitz and the underworld of petty criminals for grime.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Quick Film Review, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD 

The Dreamtime of Jeremy Clarkson 

'In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.'

Mad Max is basically an extended demolition derby style car chase in a desert world of competing tribes of unhinged car worshippers. it delivers gothic weirdness and spectacle in spades, and, accordingly, its best bits are the most unhinged - flamethrower guitar guy, engine tattoo guy, war granny etc etc. 

It's well paced - they stop driving occasionally, so there's at least some rythmn there, and the world building (always the trickiest part of sci-fi) is awesome. I guess it helps that they can create tribal cultures from scratch in the desert. Though I do wonder if a post apocalyptic world would really be so reliant on petrol. They don't reference our times, there's no Ozymandias moment where they drive through, say, the ruins of the Sydney Opera House - and I think that's a really smart decision.

The characters are suitably larger than life. Max is basically the same as Eastwood's Man with no Name. Actually, I wished Hardy looked a bit more Eastwoody, he looks a bit too like a bouncer IMO. Theron as Furiosa is his equal as action hero, and the story is clunkily feminist, in that it's about nurturing women taking the world back from tyrannical men.  

Looking at it in terms of writing - there's very little dialogue, it relies entirely on visual story telling. The two leads start by trying to kill each other and end up as allies, and that is charted entirely in moments - Max letting Furiosa use his shoulder to steady her rifle, her letting him drive her rig, and so on. Action only works when it also develops character and on that point this film is really worth studying. 


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I just got asked by someone how to get into the film industry as a writer. Thought I would repeat the advice I gave him here. There’s nothing definitive about this, I’m sure there’s lots of ways in, this is just what I know. 

First, get a copy of FINAL DRAFT or one of those other script writing programs and get yourself used to script format, it won’t take long. I hate script format, I convert my stuff from word into proper format by copy and pasting when the thing is basically finished - but you can’t not submit your stuff in the proper format, because the people who you hope will read it won't read it unless it’s in the right format. So that’s lesson one.

Go look at shootingpeople.com. You’ll find up-and-coming directors on there who need scripts. Maybe they’re film students, or deluded accountants with a new camera, who cares. They need stuff to shoot. Bang out some short scripts. Keep it simple, two actors in a room or a park or such like, ten pages long. Don’t get involved in the production, let them do the hard work of getting the thing made and then entering it into festivals and all that. There’s probably lots of other similar websites, have a nose around. Basically there are a lot of people out there who want to make a short film but don’t know much about telling a story - go help them.

When you’ve got the knack of short films, have a go at some longer form stories - a feature or a TV pilot. Then enter competitions, lots of competitions, you'll find lists online. 

Now, with a couple of short films under your belt and third place in an obscure US script competition, you can try the next stage, approaching agents and production companies. You can get a list of agents out of The Writers and Artists Yearbook. These people are deluged with stuff, but the fact that you’ve had something shot and been placed in a competition gives you a vastly better chance of getting some kind of hearing. Enter the Channel Four Coming Up competition too. 

Films need producers, directors and actors. Make connections with people who want to do those jobs. And stay in touch with them. Maybe four years on that deluded accountant has raised a million dollars for a feature... 

Friday, 13 March 2015

film review HYENA

'Good policing doesn't necessarily mean doing everything by the book. But as the business of crime in London turns to favour the Albanians and Turks, how does a "good" policeman survive?'

Michael Logan is a corrupt cop on the take who gets caught between his own colleagues, out to shut him down, and a pair of Albanian traffickers. Does a good job of portraying the sleazy side of London, and the casting is great - the Albanians and Turkish gangsters, and the equally thuggish cops, really look the part, and the best scenes are where they relax on big sofas making chit chat and exuding menace. Great soundtrack by THE THE... while I'm generally in favour of this grittily realistic style, some horrible violence and rape make it quite tough to watch in places.  

The writer/director has clearly read the same books on police corruption as I have, as I recognised some of his research. Though he could have done a bit more, I wasn't quite convinced. 

But - big spoiler - it's got a shit ending. The cop is about to confront the Albanians - they're armed, he's armed, they've got his girlfriend hostage - and then it just stops. Like a novel that's had the last chapter ripped out. The audience in my cinema were tutting in disappointment, as was I. Even a bad ending is better than no ending. So everyone walks out of the cinema saying how disappointing it was. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, filmmakers. 

quick petulent aside - so another writer director project that looks good, is written a bit flat but coasts some distance on directorial flair and casting, then falls apart in the second half. Like every other writer/director project ever. I wish directors would stop writing, cause they're crap at it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Writing a Book

I am writing a book. I have already sold it. This is much better than writing with your fingers crossed, just hoping that someone will pick it up. I can set myself deadlines, research properly, budget...

First draft I call draft zero, cause it is just looking for a story - writing for the sake of it, taking the characters out for a walk, goading them to a fight. Not worrying too much about where it is going at this stage.

I usually start on paper, and write lots of dialogue between the characters - getting a sense of who they are, and a rough idea of the plot. Just keep them talking.

All the scene setting and the prose can come later.

For me a scene only works when people are talking. Like today I wrote about this cop telling a guy that a relative had died. It was okay. But it came alive when I put them in a situation where they had to wait around, so they had to make chit chat, and the cop starts telling the guy about his holidays, cause he can't think of anything else to talk about. It's really banal dialogue but because the situation is dramatic, it works. I think there will be lots of such chit-chat in this book.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

internet is evil

when I wrote BAD TRAFFIC (my best novel) I didn't have internet at home. I went every morning to the Somali cafe round the corner and paid 50p for half an hour of internet access, and that was long enough to do all my emails and browse the news. Apart from that my life was completely internet-free.

When I was sitting at my computer, all I could do was work. My computer did not double as an infinite library of distractions, so I didn't have to constantly fight the urge to check email or look up random stuff. I wrote loads.

When my circumstances improved, and I got internet at home, I could still remember how productive and simple my life had been when I didn't have it. The internet is a Disneyland of diversions and I have little willpower.

I decided I needed a work computer that could run a word processor, do all the normal computery things, but couldn't go on the net.

But you can't buy one. Impossible. You'd have to get a typewriter.

So I got a Toshiba satellite: an undistinguished cheap laptop, but with one crucial (odd) feature - the wifi is controlled from a physical on/off switch on the side. I set it to 'off' and squirted super glue into the switch to jam it up. Ta-dah, no internet, a work machine.

But that was clunky and heavy and now, some years later, I am back working on an internet-enabled machine. Constantly battling distraction. I have Freedom, which is a simple program that will turn off your internet for a set period of time, but it just isn't the same.

This article - how the internet, merely by being available, destroys your ability to focus your attention - really chided with me.

Now I want to write another book and I'm thinking of finding another way to go back to being internet-less cause I can still just about remember how much more work I got done when it wasn't there.

So... bad internet! Bad for writers. Bad for readers. If I had my way, it would *only* be available in Somali cafes, and people would be slightly less connected and less well informed but actually able to concentrate.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015


One of my favourite Brit films is LONDON TO BRIGHTON. It follows a prostitute and a child running from a horrible pimp who wants to kill the kid. Check it out. It's a chase film, simple and direct, and very affecting.

One thing that interests me about it is Paul Andrew William's statement that he wrote it in a weekend. That idea, that you could do something very good, very quickly, is very alluring. Because a screenplay is not very long, it certainly would be physically possible to write one fast - but that would mean you got everything right first time. Sadly it almost never works out like that. Generally you have to write a vast amount that ends up being cut before you get to something that seems simple and straightforward. Simple is not as easy as it looks, just ask Matisse and Brancusi.

Anyway the characters in L2B were based on people Paul had written about in a short, a couple of years previously. So in a way, a lot of the work had been done earlier. And cause he was also the director he probably got to do a lot of rewriting on the hoof.

I guess if you do want to do something fast, a chase film is the easiest genre to get a handle on in a hurry. Something where you can set an antagonist and a protagonist against each other and just kind of let them tick through it. Know the world well enough so that you don't have to do any research. I don't think MEMENTO was written in a weekend...

Monday, 19 January 2015

quick review, AMERICAN SNIPER


Why are there so many films with the word 'American' in the title? It annoys me, it always sounds bombastic, like the film-makers really believe their country is exceptional, their pyschos and beautys uniquely place specific. In contrast, I don't think I've ever seen a film with 'British' in the title. And I can't imagine anyone ever thinking a title like 'British sniper' could be a good idea.

Anyway Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, a real life sniper and massive liar (look on the internet for debunkings of his cascade of bullshit) and the film tells the story of his Iraq tours, with plenty of juicy fiction - such as a duel with a deadly enemy sniper - added to what was probably quite dull fact - just one damn spurty headshot after another.

He's a big hunk of beardy manliness who wants to keep his buds safe by killin savages. Except when he's at home, when he gets freaked out by cars and dogs. But he has a good woman who keeps him strong. Turns out he can't keep all his buds safe and some of them die then the Horrors of Wah get to him and he can't bring himself to take a shot against a kid who picks up an RPG, the big pussy. But that works out fine and he kills more people from very far away and then lots of orcs, sorry Iraqis, try to overrun his position in a sandstorm and then drama and then he goes home.

There's not enough 'this war is shit' and there's some 'Americah fuck yeah', so guardian readers hate it and right-wing nutjobs love it, but politics aside, I'm a sucker for a good war movie and this does the job. I think it's brave to even attempt to do the Iraq war, and Eastwood is a proper old school director (ie a good one, not like these fancy directors they have nowadays). It doesn't set the target very far away but it hits the bullseye.

Monday, 5 January 2015

how DIP got made

DIP was the first thing I had shot. A twenty minute drama that was made for the Channel Four Coming Up series, directed by the lovely Lisa Gornick and starring dishy Robert Sheehan. You can see it here.

Coming Up is a Channel 4 scheme for new writers and new directors. As a writer you enter the competition with a pitch and some kind of writery backstory, you get interviewed, then (if you are lucky) you get shortlisted for a three day training scheme which involves being lectured by industry pros and they team you up and you make a short film.

The brief was to write a film that could be shot easily over a couple of days with a small cast. So I decided I'd come up with a story all set on a night bus. And then I had to think of someone who would have something dramatic to do on a bus - so, 'pickpocket' - then I had to give him someone to talk to - so that would have to be a victim... the story evolved out of those constraints.

The film was shot over four days on a bus driving round London - they shot on the upper deck with the crew downstairs. I spent one night on set. I learned that making a film is mostly boring and involves lots of hard work, that the hours are long and so it is important to wrap up warm. I remember being astonished that so many people were involved. There were people doing jobs I had not imagined - a 'script supervisor' who checks that everything is consistent from shot to shot, for instance, and another lady's job seemed to be running up to the top deck of the bus between every shot and damping down a Sheehan cowlick. Someone had to keep spraying the windows to keep them misted up. so the background wasn't distracting. And so on. I also learned that night shooting is an expensive pain, and if you're going to set something on a moving vehicle, make it easy for all involved and pick a luxury yacht.

Anyway it gets you on telly and you learn stuff. I figured I should mention it as I find myself recommending it a lot, to people trying to get into film.