Thursday, December 1, 2011

Does Your Screenplay Have A Unique Selling Point?

One glance at the most successful films at the box office these days, shows that reality as we know it isn’t a big seller. So what to do if your story is set in the real world?

I’ve never been a big fan of supernatural stories. Despite some great scenes in movies like The Sixth Sense, I usually can’t get beyond the wet blanket of a sceptic in me, who knows the difference between superstition and science. It just spoils the story for me. Or otherwise, it’s just too scary for me, and I don’t like being scared. But the truth of the box office is, that a lot more people will pay to see vampires and werewolves, the tooth fairy, pirates, ghost stories, comic book heroes, outrageous comedy worlds, Father Christmas, sci-fi and animation, than plain old drama. Which means that the chances of finding funding for a spec screenplay based in reality are minimal compared to a story with a supernatural or fantasy element. Unless…

Reality, But Not As We Know It
I love watching trailers. Partly because I’ve got too little time to go and watch all the movies I’d love to see, and partly because they are such a good guide to what’s unique about a film. Two current trailers, Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method made me realize that a screenplay can have a unique selling point without necessarily having to pander to superstition. What these films share, as far as I can see, is a reference to a real-world phenomenon that everyone is familiar with, or at least familiar enough to be able to engage with, without the film having to explain anything. It’s this that elevates the stories beyond their basic plots, and gives them that something extra: a unique selling point.

Example: Habemus Papam – The Pope
Whether you’re a Catholic or not, the figure of The Pope is something that automatically evokes all sorts of associations to do with religion, tradition, history, celibacy, men in dresses, and so on. A bit like Father Christmas, but then… real. As far as I can tell from the trailer, the film does an excellent job of playing with these familiar aspects, while telling a really funny story. Because the starting point is something that most people have some kind of idea about, the film doesn’t have to do any explaining for it to work.

Example: A Dangerous Method - Psychoanalysis
Whether you’ve been in psychoanalysis or not (the vast majority of the world’s population hasn’t), the name Sigmund Freud is likely to ring a bell and evoke some associations with therapy, Freudian slips, the unconscious, a long cylindrical object a hairy orifice (Freud’s cigar), Vienna, etc. A bit like Sherlock Holmes, but then… real. Starting from that more or less familiar arena, David Cronenberg weaves a dramatic tale based on real events, about lust, unconscious desires, challenging authority and so on. Here too, because many people have a pre-existing idea about who Freud was and what psychoanalysis is, the arena is already there in the audience’s mind before the start of the film.

Tapping Into The Collective Unconscious
To me, this is one of the most difficult aspects of screenwriting. But I can see why it makes perfect sense. All the aspects of screenwriting craft, such as conflict, character flaw, character arc, sequences, three act structure, and so on, are all well and good. There’s no doubt that being able to write well and according to industry standards, is necessary. But perhaps not sufficient. What really makes a screenplay stand out from the crowd, is something at the centre of the story world, that goes beyond the familiar world we inhabit, while touching on something that lives in everyone’s mind, in the collective unconscious. Something original that has universal resonance. It sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. Very few people are intimate with The Pope, but billions of people have an idea of The Pope in their mind. The same is true of fantastic and supernatural concepts such as vampires, angels, werewolves and fairy tale characters. But also of familiar, real-world phenomena, such as historical figures (monarchs, dictators, politicians, artists, biblical characters, etc,) famous sporting events, battles, illnesses (mental or physical), festivals (national, religious, etc.), inventions, and so the list goes on.

Any one of these phenomena integrated into an otherwise "merely" dramatic or funny story, can elevate it to a level that makes it accessible and interesting to a much wider audience. It’s not a guarantee for success, because if the story isn’t emotionally engaging anyway, then nothing will help. But it certainly increases the chances of a screenplay getting attention, which is what a unique selling point is supposed to do.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance As Inner Conflict: Part 1

All mainstream movies are about characters struggling with personal transformation. The concept of cognitive dissonance offers insight into why a character might resist change.

A while ago I read a wonderful book called Mistakes Were made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s full of eye-opening insights about how people go about convincing themselves they are doing the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The human mind has evolved to be able to cope with two contradictory thoughts, by reasoning away the contradiction. Thought A is, say, a positive thought about oneself, and thought B is a negative thought about your choice or your actions. The underlying idea is that once you commit to a position, however seemingly insignificant, your (unconscious) priority becomes to justify that position by selectively noticing things that support it and ignoring things that don’t. The authors call this “self-justification.”

A simple example might be the decision to buy a certain kind of car. Before you decide which make or model, you shop around, weigh up pros and cons of various types of cars, etc. But after you’ve signed the deal, you only pick up new information that confirms your choice of new car and proves that other cars are inferior. Even if this isn’t correct.

Bad Choices Lead To Cognitive Dissonance
However, this phenomenon isn’t limited to the purchase of consumer goods. It applies to any choice a person makes. How you vote, who you marry, where you choose to live, what school you send your kids to, career choices, and so on. And what’s most important in terms of writing a screenplay is, it also applies to decisions you have secret doubts about or even deeply regret… In other words: Inner conflict.

Here’s how a character’s cognitive dissonance could be relevant to the beginning of a screenplay, where the story world is being established, as are the main character’s goal and weakness. Remember, for our purposes, cognitive dissonance means reconciling two contradictory thoughts by (unconsciously) reasoning away the contradiction. This leads to the denial of a problem, rationalizations that cover up the problem, avoidance of the problem altogether, etc. This is precisely the kind of unfulfilled state you want your main character in at the beginning of your story, in order to create both inner and outer conflict and to create the potential for emotional growth—at a price.

Rationalizing Away Cognitive Dissonance
We all know her: The neighbour who’s all smiles and cheerfulness, but who’s married to a scumbag. Everyone knows he treats her like dirt, but the more people urge her to consider a life away from him, in which she’ll find real love and affection, the more she insists that she’s really very happy with the scumbag. The cognitive dissonance here is this: Thought A = I’m an intelligent, loving woman. Thought B = I’m married to an abusive bully. Those two thoughts are dissonant, they contradict each other. The coping strategy here, is self-justification through rationalization: My husband’s under a lot of pressure, he’s not good at expressing his feelings, he’s such a good lover… and so on. What does that set up in terms of story? It promises the audience that a character who rationalizes away a problem like this, is going to be confronted with what they’re denying, later in the story.

A classic movie example is Bruce Willis’s character in Die Hard, who after six months is still angry at his estranged wife for choosing her career above their marriage. His cognitive dissonance: Thought A = She makes me feel like a loser; thought B = I’m lonely, I miss her. His rationalization for not praising her achievements and showing her affection: I’m a tough guy, I don’t need her, I can manage fine on my own, she’ll realize she needs me sooner or later, etc.

Another example might be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer, who hangs on to the delusion that the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, feels the same way about him, despite plenty of clues to contradict this. His cognitive dissonance: Thought A = This girl is the best thing that’s ever happened to me; thought B = This girl is totally unwilling to commit to me. His rationalizations for not heeding his 12-year old half-sister’s advice to forget the girl and move on: But we like the same music; this isn’t what women are really like; she just hasn’t realize yet that wants to be more than just friends, etc.

Cognitive Dissonance Questionnaire
Here are a few questions that might help bring this concept into focus for the beginning of your own screenplay, or at any other point where it feels relevant:

  • What dissonance between contradictory thoughts does your character reason away?
  • How is this self-justification visible in their actions and choices?
  • What other character benefits from the contradiction?
  • What evidence is the character (deliberately) ignoring?
  • Which of the character’s contradictory thoughts do they really need to reject?
  • What is the character afraid will happen if they resolve the dissonance?
  • What does the character stand to gain if they resolve the dissonance?

Theses are just some suggestions. There are inevitably lots of other ways to explore this aspect of a character. But part of the fun of writing, I find, is discovering your own way.

Next time, I’ll have a look at how cognitive dissonance manifests when a character is confronted with their dissonance, but continues to resist change.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five Ways To Think About Your Screenplay’s Arena

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of when and where a story is set, but arena is an integral part of every screenplay.

Here’s what set me thinking about this: I wrote a short screenplay, which I hope to get up and running with my director brother Jonathan (check out his impressive showreel here). He read the script, liked it, had a few notes and then said, deadpan, “I’d like to set it in the 1970s, that would be visually really cool!” I swear, the first thing that came to my mind was: how is this relevant to the story? The second thing was, budget. Then all the beats with mobile phones and other 21st century tech stuff flashed in front of my eyes. Then I realized, okay, my brother’s used to directing big commercials, with budgets you could shoot three indie features for. But I’m a struggling screenwriter, happy if something of mine is shot for nothing, so I’m used to weighing every detail very carefully. One such ‘detail’ is arena.

Era As Arena
The time in which a story is set, determines a lot more than just wardrobe and props. Just think of the difference in attitudes to sex, authority, or religion in, say, 1550, 1850 and 1950. It’s not just impossible to ignore these differences in values, it’s a real waste! Using the arena to add a layer of meaning to a story can be really effective. For example, imagine a story about an unintended pregnancy, like Knocked Up or Juno, set in the 1950s. The story would be much more about the taboo and shame of pregnancy out of wedlock, rather than about the difficult personal choices facing the main characters. A story is set in a particular era for a reason, both to comment on that era and as a way of reflecting the personal dilemmas of the main characters in the social events of that time.

Geographical Location As Arena
Similarly, where a story is situated determines a lot more than the palette and soundtrack of a film. The local culture (which can even differ within a single city) is the context within which a story plays out. It has values and social conflicts which offer specific potential for conflict, metaphor, action, etc., which if related to what the story is about, can infuse a screenplay with more meaning. Plus, contrasting locations within a story can emphasize thematic or narrative developments in the story, too. A classical contrast is city-countryside, in which the urban environment represents modern values and the rural setting represents traditional values. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, the emphasis depends on what argument the film is trying to make. Similarly, the nature of the terrain can be very expressive too. There’s a big difference between action set in a isolated, physically demanding location such as a desert or a mountain, and action set in a luxurious tourist resort or a crowded slum.

Fantasy World As Arena
Science fiction and animation (or a combination of both) offer the opportunity to specifically design a story world to explore a particular thematic issue, or philosophical question. By stepping outside normal reality, the film can explore big questions in a very focused way. Questions about ethics, free will, about artificial intelligence, life on other planets, and so on. What would it be like if the police could see a future crime happening and still have time to prevent it (Minority Report)? Or: what would it be like if humans were raised like livestock to harvest their organs (Never Let Me Go)?

Limited Physical Location As Arena
Setting a story in one building, or on a ship, or some other location with clear boundaries and a specific character, is a great way to create a microcosm in which differing world views battle it out. A classic example is Twelve Angry Men, in which almost the entire film plays out in one room, where a jury sweats over a case they’ve heard. But a limited location can also be a source of great suspense, like in films such as Die Hard, Titanic, Alien, and plenty more, where the viewer is constantly aware that “there’s no way out.” But it’s not just a source of cinematic tension, it’s also a metaphor for life’s limitations, for our awareness of our own mortality and how we deal with that.

Organization As Arena
Whether the story is set within an official institute (e.g., a prison, a psychiatric hospital, the army, a school), an informal organization (e.g., the mafia), a small or large business, a sports team, or even a family, all of these groupings represent certain values. All types of organizations suggest some degree of required conformity to the system and its values, so there’s an inherent potential for conflict there. The story might be about a conflict between an individual within the organization trying to get out, an outsider trying to get in, a faction trying to bring about change from the inside, or some other variation. Whatever the specifics of the conflict, the organization itself offers a great opportunity to establish a clear set of values as a backdrop for the narrative. There are countless examples of prison, mafia, army, sports and family drama movies that use this kind of construct.

I’m sure there are plenty of additional ways to think about arena, but what’s clear is that arena is an integral part of what a film is about. It expresses something about the challenges the main characters face, both in terms of the concrete goal they have to achieve and the underlying, internal flaw they have to confront. Sometimes, a thought experiment in which you change the arena of your story, can be a great way to prize out what the story is about. Kind of similar to imagining the story being told from the point of view of a different character. Even if you decide not to change the arena, just imagining the change can reveal aspects of the story or characters you were missing. You quickly see whether the change would add a layer to the story or just distract from what it’s really about.

And my short? All the 1970s historical circumstances that I came up with were interesting, but essentially distracting. So for the time being, anyway, the short is still set in the present.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Three Great Ways To Find Your Main Character’s Flaw

In mainstream cinema, the main character’s flaw is the key to their transformation, or arc. So a well-defined flaw is an invaluable guide during the writing process.

I’ve recently been inspired and helped by Pilar Alessandra’s wonderful book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter. Written for screenwriters juggling day jobs, kids and other time-consuming distractions, the book consists of a series of brief questionnaires, each designed to focus your mind on one aspect of your screenplay for ten minutes. I find it a great way to make optimal use of a limited amount of time. However, the main character’s flaw as a basic story element isn’t really treated separately in the book, so I’ve come up with my own coffee break questionnaire…

The main character’s flaw is an essential ingredient in a screenplay, because it’s what stops the them from achieving their goal. It’s the thing they’re most reluctant to face up to, because of the pain or loss involved in really acknowledging the flaw and then changing. It’s also what the antagonist latches onto and uses to make things increasingly difficult for the main character. But the flaw isn’t just important for writing the story, it’s also an essential ingredient in a good logline. It’s the essence of the description of the main character, and as such it indicates what kind of arc the main character will have to go through for there to be a satisfactory resolution to the story, regardless of genre.

So, without further ado, here are three questions which can easily be brainstormed during a ten minute window in between the ironing and the washing-up, or while waiting for an appointment or a meeting, or while your daughter has her ballet lesson… Oh, and here’s my disclaimer: I’m only saying this kind of brainstorming is useful, because I’ve found it useful. As always, my motto is: whatever works for you. Feel free to vary or ignore these questions at will.

How Does The Story End?
If you know how you want your story to end, where does that leave the main character? What are they capable of (physically, emotionally, spiritually, morally, etc.) at the end of the story, that they weren’t capable of at the beginning? Here are some examples. Not from Jaws, Tootsie, The Wizard of Oz, or even Casablanca, though...

By the end of Hallum Foe Jamie Bell’s character is capable of real intimacy. That’s a satisfying ending, because his flaw to begin with is his inability to grieve his mother’s suicide, a psychological obstacle which manifests in his bizarre and anti-social behaviour, and results in his alienation and loneliness.

Here’s another: By the end of Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg’s character is vindicated in his ruthless commitment to justice, which is precisely the ‘flaw’ that gets him demoted to a seemingly uneventful village in the first place. In this story, the main character’s unwillingness to ‘play the game’ (i.e., he works too diligently, making his police colleagues look bad) remains steadfast, but turns from a flaw into a strength.

So, knowing how your story ends allows you to ‘reverse engineer’ the main character’s arc, and determine what the most appropriate flaw is to start with.

What Is The Antagonist’s Goal?
Every great antagonist has their own story, something they are trying to achieve which is being obstructed by the main character. So the main character is going to battle it out with a force that knows them well and is hell-bent on stopping them, particularly by hitting them where it hurts most. Often, the antagonist essentially wants the same thing as the main character, but has a diametrically opposed moral worldview.

In John Patrick Stanley´s Doubt both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman have the best interests of the pupils at their Catholic school at heart. However, they differ in their ideas about how to achieve this. Meryl Streep’s character is an old-fashioned disciplinarian, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is an open-minded liberal. She will do anything to prevent him from introducing a more tolerant, lenient culture into her Catholic school, including fabricating an ‘incident’ to justify firing him. Hoffman’s flaw is his belief that being open about his doubts will bring about positive change. By the end of the story, however, Hoffman is able to accept that there are some things he can’t change. This insight is the direct result of the intense and ultimately successful attack on him by Meryl Streep.

So, if it’s clear what the antagonist wants, then the main character’s flaw is going to be just what they need to get the job done.

What makes the main character’s goal so hard to achieve?
What specific thing does the main character have to achieve for us to know the story is over? What do they have to win, conquer, escape from, retrieve, deliver, refrain from… etc.? And what makes it so much harder for them to achieve this than for anyone else? Why is this the worst possible situation for this character to have to deal with? I mean, none of us wants to be buried alive or stuck on a hijacked plane, so that level of generic, primal emotion works on a plot level. But what specific difficulty does this particular goal raise for the main character in this particular story?

In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan Nathalie Portman’s character finally achieves the lead role in a major ballet production, after years of hard graft and numerous disappointments. However, this achievement turns out to be the beginning, not the end of her story, because in order to dance the part to the director’s satisfaction, she must unleash the dark side of her psyche, which she has kept hermetically sealed away. What makes this task so hard for her to fulfil, is her extreme emotional and sexual repression and its manifestation in her ruthless perfectionism. Her flaw is her inability to let go without losing control, which ultimately proves fatal.

Here’s another example: In Tangled the main character Rapunzel wants to go to the beguiling lanterns that float in the distant sky once every year, but she’s locked in a tower by her wicked stepmother, Gothel. In order to achieve her goal she must escape, but in order escape she needs to lose her innocence, her naivety, and to rebel against her stepmother. This is particularly hard for Rapunzel, because she has been kept completely ignorant of the outside world. She wouldn’t know where to start. Rapunzel’s flaw is her innocence and ignorance, which is precisely why her goal seems so impossible to achieve.

So, the specific reason why achieving the goal is difficult for the main character, is intimately linked with their flaw.

These are three questions I’ve found useful, but I’m sure there are others. In any case, being as clear as possible about the main character’s flaw is a powerful way to focus on what obstacles to put in their way, it helps to crystallize thematic issues and it’s a hugely important component for a good logline… in short, well worth spending ten minutes on!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Are You Writing A Film Or A Screenplay?

Here’s a question script readers, producers and directors all have in mind when they finally read your material: Is this a film?

We writers love to write. Words are our raw material, just like sounds and rhythms are to composers. But there’s a big difference between being able to write well and being able to write a great film. Sure, it’s essential to know how to construct a coherent, engaging narrative, populated by intriguing characters for whom something important is at stake. You also need to be able to express characters’ emotional struggles through visual action, locations, props and so on, as well as through dialogue. But a screenplay that reads like a film, makes effective use of cinematic language too, such as image systems, scene transitions, pacing, and so on. So that while you read, you’re seeing the film in your mind.

Cinematic Conventions
There are only so many stories or plots the human mind has come up with so far. We’ve all seen them countless times in different guises. So when a screenwriter sits down to write, say, a coming of age film, or an impossible romance, or a revenge-driven thriller, there are certain storytelling and genre conventions which need to be respected. Even to cleverly subvert these conventions you need to be aware of them first. Check out Jennifer van Sijll’s article for some specific examples. But besides knowing story per se, a screenwriter has to be well-versed in cinematic conventions too, for a screenplay to really read like a film.

Think Like a Director
When a director reads a script, they’re not interested in a writer’s flair with words. They’re focused on what’s going to happen on the screen. It’s all about images, and what story the images are telling, rather than what the characters are saying. It’s the screenwriter’s responsibility to tell a visual story, using only words. Which is far more involved than it sounds. One book I’ve recently found inspiring in this respect, is Gustavo Mercado’s beautiful tome, The Filmmaker’s Eye. This kind of material really helps me understand more profoundly what it means to write a film rather than a screenplay. It’s not achieved by cramming a script full of camera angles and technical terms, but rather by familiarizing yourself with and understanding how different shots and images affect the audience, mostly at an unconscious level. For example, repeating a similar visual composition at different points in the story, can suggest different characters experiencing the same emotion. Also interesting, is a recent episode of Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page audio podcast, entitled Production Weighs In On Screenwriting, which addresses some nuts and bolts issues about writing in a way that helps set and costume designers.

Scene Transitions
Another specific aspect of screenwriting that can distinguish a screenplay from a film, is how scenes follow on from other scenes. Here’s a useful article by Janice Hally, which sums up some of the ways scenes can dovetail effectively. But a more practical way to become fluent in this aspect of visual storytelling, is to simply pay more attention to how it’s done in films you really love. Check out how a transition that worked well, was written in the script. Watch and re-watch films by directors who have a very distinct visual style, such as Edgar Wright (e.g., Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), Darren Aronofsky (e.g., The Fountain, Black Swan) or Quentin Tarantino (e.g., Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction), and check out how they use transitions to tell their stories visually.

So, yes, writing a screenplay is all about breaking the story, getting its structure right, delving into the characters and their emotional dilemmas, and so on. But writing a film means screening the film in your mind’s eye while you write, and writing in such a way that everyone who reads the screenplay will know: This is a film.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Real Life Isn’t The Same As Drama

It’s one thing to experience or read about a dramatic event. It’s quite another thing to construct a screenplay with dramatic tension at its heart.

I just returned from a two-week family camping holiday in France. Along with my suntan, mounds of dirty washing, and a very crumpled tent, I also brought home a notebook bulging with new ideas for stories, inspired by things I witnessed along the way. I’m certain most of these ideas won’t survive closer scrutiny, but then again, one or two might turn out to be worth expanding into a synopsis or an outline. But besides reminding me that the supply of story ideas is more or less infinite, another thing this experience brought home to me again, is that there’s a big difference between ‘dramatic’ in its casual everyday sense, and Dramatic in terms of screenwriting.

Slices Of Life
During the course of the holiday, I drove a couple of thousand miles, stayed at five different locations, and encountered countless different people and situations. Too many experiences to remember. Which is what life is like. We don’t even consciously register most of what we experience, it just goes in one sense and comes out another. It’s events that cause an emotional stir that make an impression. Things that make you laugh, cry, shake with fear or anger. Like my encounter with an initially genial and helpful, ex-pat manager of a depressing camp site who, when I inadvertently disturbed him during his lunch hour to check out, turned out to be a sadistic psychopath, from whom I barely managed to escape with my life. In retrospect an amusing, if unnerving incident. ‘Dramatic’ in the everyday sense of involving fear, and perhaps even material for a scene. But not a screenplay, or even a premise for one, per se.

Real Life As A Starting Point For Drama
Observing the goings-on around me, say, at a swimming pool packed with sunburned tourists or in a huge French hypermarché teeming with gesticulating Gauls, I found myself fantasizing about who various people were, what their relationships were with people they were with, what would happen if… Which is where the writing starts. Simply transcribing reality into script format doesn’t make for a great screenplay. Just try it. At best, what you end up with is an interesting starting point from which to brainstorm a dramatic premise. Even reality–based films like Social Network, or biopics like The King’s Speech, are all carefully crafted dramatic works. Which means they engage the audience’s emotions, by putting characters in situations where they stand to lose something of great value to them personally.

What’s The Risk? What’s At Stake?
Most people’s lives (at least ordinary lives like mine, and most people I know), aren’t particularly dramatic, let alone cinematic. Take my encounter with the obnoxious camp site manager. We had an exchange of words, he pedantically tried to make me wait until his lunch hour was over before opening the gate and letting me drive out. We had something of a stand-off, in which I managed to stay calm because he was behaving like an indignant toddler, and then… yawn. It fizzled out, like most real-life encounters do. The worst that could have happened, was that I would have had to wait. But what if he had had my passport locked in his safe? Or what if he had been brandishing a knife? Or what if we were the only family there and the site were on an island? Or what if he had one of my kids locked in his house? Everyone experiences big emotions at some point in their life, and there’s a well-known list of 20 most stressful life events to prove it. However, for an emotional experience to become an dramatic premise, the character has to be forced to choose between losing something important to them or taking some sort of risk. In real life, most people will avoid taking risks if at all possible. In drama, the audience is engaged by the character’s decision to take the risk that they, the audience, would avoid at all cost, whether it makes them cringe, cry, laugh or shiver.

A Dramatic Event Isn’t A Screenplay
So, my experience reminded me that as a screenwriter, I need to be aware which sense of ‘dramatic’ applies to an idea for a story. When the news media refer to an incident as dramatic, they mean it’s fraught with emotion (usually fear of one sort or another, followed by relief or grief). But when you refer to a story idea as dramatic, you mean it’s constructed deliberately in a way that creates tension, poses a dramatic question, and makes you want to know what happens next. The bad news is that it takes a lot of hard graft to turn a real-life event into a workable premise for a screenplay. Which you then still have to write. The good news, though, is that you are surrounded by a potentially endless supply of events and characters, each of which could be the seed of a wonderful new story idea.

And no, my encounter with the narky proprietor didn’t yield any particularly great story ideas for me, although I can well imagine aficionados of the horror or thriller genres wanting to pick up the ball and run with it…

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How To Get Your Short Film Produced

The Catch-22 of not being able to get your screenplay produced because nothing you’ve written has been produced yet, is immensely frustrating. But there is hope.

In the wake of the recent online release of Second Thoughts, a short film written by me and directed/produced by Trevor Walsh at White Tiger Films, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the insights I’ve gained in the process of getting a short script produced. There’s no magic bullet, and more often than not a breakthrough will come from an unexpected source, but the following are some strategies I’ve found practical and effective. Above all, these strategies have enabled me, as a screenwriter, to keep the initiative and avoid feeling like a victim.

See Second Thoughts on YouTube.

Enter Screenwriting Competitions
There are numerous competitions out there, some are free to enter, others charge a fee. Some give complimentary feedback, even from multiple readers. To find out about competitions and upcoming deadlines, check out Hayley Mackenzie’s calendar over at Script Angel. For a less UK-centric overview, register at Without a Box, to receive very regular updates about upcoming competitions and deadlines. You don’t have to win a competition for it to be helpful in terms of getting your film produced. Any mention in a screenwriting competition, even “quarter finalist” or “third round,” is evidence that your writing has enough quality to be taken seriously. Don’t forget to read each competition’s rules carefully, and make sure your screenplay is properly formatted and proofread before you send it.

Find A Director Or A Producer
There are literally thousands of directors and producers out there, hungry for good scripts. But they won’t find you unless you make your existence known to them. There are various ways to go about this. For example, last year, at the London Screenwriters Festival, I attended a forum in which director Olly Blackburn advised screenwriters with short screenplays to contact commercials directors, something that had helped launch his own career. Often these are directors with a huge amount of professional skill and experience, some of whom are looking to transition into directing shorts and features. It’s easy to find out online who directed a particular commercial, and most directors have their own websites or are on Facebook, etc. Another great way to find directors and producers, is to browse the catalogues of film festivals such as Raindance. Every short film screened will be listed and will include details of who directed and produced the film. Check them out online and get in contact with them. Another tried and trusted method is answering calls for scripts on online bulletins such as Shooting People. Which brings me to:

Have A Good Written Pitch Ready
It’s no good going out into the world with a script under your arm unless you know how to sell it. And we’re talking short screenplays here, so I don’t mean selling it for money. I mean knowing how to describe your script briefly and appetizingly. You basically need a good logline a brief synopsis, and an appealing one-page blurb. The one-pager can include one-sentence statements about things like genre, who the potential audience is, length of the script, production value (how many characters, locations, etc.). Any kind of brief information that will give the reader a quick and clear overview of what the project is likely to entail. Very important: Don’t bluff. If you’re not sure, don’t include it in the document. Here’s an example for a short script of mine entitled We Shall See.

Keep Yourself Motivated By Knowing Your Objective
Why do want to get your short screenplay produced in the first place? That may seem like a trite question, but it isn’t. Most short films, especially involving screenwriters with no produced material to their name, do not generate any income and are made either for very little or no money at all. Are you prepared to work on a short film production for free? That means taking notes from the director and producer, doing multiple rewrites, and so on, all for no pay. For most screenwriters without a credit, the primary reason for doing this kind of work for free, is to get that all-important first credit. Keeping that in mind, as well as the fact that most other people working on short films are in the same boat, can be an extremely good way of keeping your morale up. Lastly, acknowledge and accept beforehand that the majority of the people you contact will not get back to you. Not even a “Thank you for your email.” Don’t take that personally. There could be any number of reasons why a director or producer or anyone else doesn’t respond to your enquiries. It’s usually not because you’re a bad writer… Apart from anything else, it’s important to keep on writing new material. Once a script is ready to pitch, start pitching it and entering it into competitions, but also start writing the next script right away! What you write is your main asset. The more scripts you write, and the more feedback you get on your writing, the better you will write. The more people who read your material, the closer that first credit will come. It’s partly just a numbers game in that respect.

Concluding words
And finally this: Second Thoughts came about through a combination of the above strategies. Another short script of mine had been recommended to Trevor Walsh by script reader Jez Freedman, and when Trevor contacted me about that script, he asked me if I would write something else for him first. Which I did. So you see, you never know when opportunity will knock or how. The trick is to always be prepared for when it does…

That’s it for now, I have to get back to my scripts now…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Is Your Screenplay’s Master Conflict?

An important aspect of any great screenplay is the idea at its core that informs every scene and unifies all the action. Here’s one way of thinking about this, inspired by Canadian sociologist, Gérard Bouchard.

Commentators on screenwriting use a variety of terms to refer to that core aspect of the screenplay that needs to be present in all the relationships and action in order to give the screenplay a sense of unity. You might call it theme, or premise, or main problem, or controlling idea. I even recently heard it referred to as the “game” at the centre of a story.

Master Myth and Derivative Myth
Canadian professor of sociology, Gérard Bouchard, describes a core aspect of a society’s identity as its Master Myth. This is a set of values, relatively stable over time, that describes the foundation of a particular society’s culture. It lies at the heart of a society’s social, political and cultural life, and provides a sense of unity and continuity. These basic values, which inform a society’s attitude towards big issues such as the economy, immigration, sexuality, religion and so on, remain stable over relatively long periods of time, but every generation or two they manifest in new ways, which Bouchard calls Derivative Myths. So, for example, the American master myth might be expressed in terms of individualism, freedom, enterprise, self-determination, and so on. In the past, the derivative myth was expressed as the need for government to ensure that individual citizens were able to enjoy freedom, whereas nowadays, the same basic values are expressed in a derivative myth of a more laissez-faire nature, in which government intervention is frowned upon. Same values, different expression.

Master Conflict and Derivative Conflict
For a story to work as a screenplay, it has to be seriously compressed. There’s only so much screen time to fill, and only so many scenes in which to do that. As a result, the more each element of the screenplay focuses on the same idea, the more coherent and focused the screenplay becomes. Using Bouchard’s idea as an analogy, I find it helpful to look at my writing with this question in mind: What is the Master Conflict here? What is the problematic issue all the characters must relate to in one way or another? What is the basic conflict that returns in various different guises, or Derivative Conflicts, in every scene? Here’s an example.

Alan Ball’s 2008 drama, Towelhead, is a film about a teenage girl, Jasira (played by Summer Bishil) discovering her burgeoning sexuality and the problems this causes her with the men around her. Early on, after Jasira has allowed her mother’s live-in boyfriend to help her shave off her pubic hair, the mother, Gail, spells out what the film is going to be about:

...............(stares at her, sharply)
..........The bottom line is this, Jasira:
..........When Barry offered to shave you, should have said no. There
..........are right ways and wrong ways to
..........act around men, and for you to
..........learn which is which, you should
..........probably go live with one.

Gail's anger almost masks the primal vulnerability she hates that she's feeling right now. Almost.

So here’s my version of the master conflict under scrutiny in this film: Every individual struggles to regulate their instinctual sexual needs according to agreed social norms. These three elements, the individual, their sexual needs and society’s norms, form the ingredients for all the specific (“derivative”) conflicts that play out in this film. The main character, thirteen-year old Jasira, is confused by the conflicting messages she receives about her sexuality. She encounters older predators, in the form of her mother’s boyfriend and her father’s neighbour, who are unwilling or unable to regulate their sexual instincts. Their derivative conflict is that of a sexually active adult confronted with the temptation to abuse a trusting, naive child. Jasira encounters an opposite, severely repressive attitude from her conservative Lebanese father, who viciously condemns her sexual explorations, while giving free rein to his own in a new relationship. His derivative conflict is his struggle with his repressive cultural heritage and his individual need for a fulfilling sexual relationship. Jasira encounters a more progressive, but wary position in her father’s other neighbours, a heavily pregnant woman and her husband, whose derivative conflict is this: they are aware of cultural differences regarding sexual norms, but they refuse to go along with Jasira’s father in his shame-driven blaming of the victim.

Master Conflict: The Thematic Core Of A Screenplay
Articulating the master conflict at the heart of a story, both limits and liberates you as a writer. It literally delimits what the film is about, and creates a kind of early warning system, or a litmus test (pick your metaphor), ensuring that every element of the screenplay is relevant to the story at hand. It’s liberating, in that it sets boundaries, making it much easier to distinguish between essential and superfluous scenes, lines of dialogue, and so on. It keeps you focused, gives you a place from which to start when you need to brainstorm new ideas, and functions like a touchstone throughout the writing and rewriting of the screenplay.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

How Well Do You Know Your Screenplay?

One of the keys to getting a screenplay written, is to discover what the screenplay wants to be, instead of trying to force it to be what you want it to be.

Sounds a bit like being in a relationship, doesn’t it? The more you acknowledge who your partner is, the more authentic and genuine your relationship with them can become. Or the more disastrous, of course, if your expectations or demands turn out to be unrealistic. The same with a screenplay. Is it Movie Of The Week rather than Oscar material? Is it art house rather than high concept? Is your short really a one-hour TV drama? Or is it even a stage play rather than a film? Acknowledging what kind of animal your material is, can be tough. Especially when it’s not what you expected. However, I think it’s essential to the process of getting the script written as well as possible.

Recognizing What You’re Writing
According to a recent episode of WNYC’s RadioLab, called Help!, Tom Waits apparently has very specific relationships with his songs while he’s writing them, as if they are entities outside himself with whom he has to deal. Sometimes the relationships are stormy and argumentative, other times he will negotiate with a song in order to get it down on paper. To me, this makes perfect sense. It’s the same as with children. Despite certain general similarities between all children, each individual child is unique. Even the same child can change dramatically without warning. The same applies to screenplays. Regardless of genre conventions, formatting rules and other limitations, each screenplay is a unique thing. Some stories seem to arrive more or less pre-packaged, complete with great visuals, intriguing character and neat little act breaks. Others need coaxing and kneading, like they’re unwilling to expose themselves to the harsh light of day. It’s only once you recognize with whom (or what) you’re dealing, that the writing really starts flowing.

What Happens When You Push Too Hard?
Unfortunately, it’s often impractical to spend the necessary time wooing a screenplay, letting your relationship with it gestate and mature sufficiently. Especially when you’re writing on assignment, and other people are waiting for your pages. But the alternative, pushing, is not necessarily the best thing for the script. Pushing can take on many forms, depending on the drive to push. You might be so enthusiastic about a draft, or conversely, so fed up with a story, that you send off a draft before it’s really ready to read. You might make do with second best because someone is breathing down your neck, or because a competition deadline is approaching. You might not know your screenplay well enough and be trying to squeeze a comedy out of a not so funny premise. You might not want to go through another round of feedback from script readers because you can’t face even more notes. However the pushing manifests, the end result is always the same: The script isn’t as good as it could have been, and there’s only one person to blame: the screenwriter.

Knowing Which Tactic To Choose
If a screenplay refuses to cooperate, it probably means you’re not listening to it. The screenplay feels offended and sulks. It’s a stalemate. Now you have a choice of tactics: Start shouting and screaming, issuing threats and throwing heavy objects around the room. Alternatively, you could offer the screenplay chocolates, sweet talk it into collaborating like a good screenplay should. Failing that, you can always walk away. Go and do something else, something which will take your mind off the humiliation of being held hostage by your own fantasy. Walk around the block, do the shopping, clean the kitchen… whatever it takes for your emotions to cool down, so you can go back to the screenplay, apologize, and ask in your nicest possible voice what it was trying to tell you when you were so rudely not listening.

When All Else Fails, Use Force Anyway
Another option, perhaps the most dangerous of all, is the Ulysses tactic. Ulysses, hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, had his crew members stuff their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of his ship and ordered them not to untie him no matter how much he pleaded, so that he would be able to hear the song of the sirens without following them to his death. (BTW, this is portrayed beautifully in Ben Stiller’s Tropic of Thunder, where Jack Black goes cold turkey tied to a tree.) Needless to say, you don’t need to be a Greek king to do this, you could achieve the same effect simply by agreeing a deadline and making sure there a whole lot at stake if you don’t finish by the deadline. The problem with this approach is, of course, that for some writers, this kind of pressure paralyzes the creative mind rather than liberating it.

Just as no two screenplays are the same, every screenwriter has to find the right way to relate to each script they write. The trick is, I think, to recognize and respect each script on its own terms, and allow it to show you how to treat it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Five Terrible Reasons To Be A Screenwriter

A frank examination, based on traumatic, first-hand experience, of some potentially disastrous motives for being a screenwriter.

One of the staples of being a screenwriter, especially if you’re not on anyone’s A-list, is that you often work without knowing whether your material will ever be seen on a screen. To persevere under these circumstances, it pays to know why you’re doing it. Perhaps even more importantly, it makes sense to be aware when you’re setting yourself up for disappointments, by motivating yourself with unrealistic expectations. Here are five of my favourite wrong-headed motivations to persevere as a screenwriter. If they make you blush or fume, good. If you’re so past this already—like I clearly am, really I am, honestly—even better. Each terrible reason potentially points to a complementary, uplifting motive (the bright side). The trick is to redirect the emotions which are fuelling your misguided ambitions.

I Can Do Better Than That
This refers to the feeling you get when you’ve sat through, or zapped away from, yet another piece of generic, derivative, overly predictable filmmaking. The notion that you could do better, isn’t necessarily a bad place to start from, but it’s not necessarily true, either. The more I get to know about how films are written and produced, the less it surprises me that quite a lot of what gets made isn’t really that original. It’s not because there aren’t a lot of extremely talented people working in films and TV. Rather it’s because films and TV programmes are products made by commercial enterprises who are averse to taking risks and so prefer to go for the familiar. They are projects managed by people whose first priority is to keep their well-paid jobs. Oh, and I guess there are some talentless nitwits out there too, but they’re not the screenwriters…

The bright side: You don’t really know how your material will look once produced. So don’t moan about films you don’t like, rather, learn from them. It’s often much easier to pinpoint why a bad film doesn’t work than why a brilliant one does. Just articulating in as much detail as possible why a scene or story irks you, can give you some great screenwriting insights. There will always be lots more mediocre productions than amazing ones, so look at it as an abundant and free educational resource!

I Love Watching Movies
Because you’re a movie buff, doesn’t mean you know how to construct one yourself, even though that’s what it may feel like. Movies are deliberately and methodically constructed so they will appeal to as many people as possible, all over the world. Millions of people enjoy watching movies as much as you do, but only a handful of people can write great screenplays. Just because you feel you intuitively “get” how movies are written, doesn’t mean it’s true. Really well-made movies seem completely effortless and intuitive, precisely because of the talent and craft that has gone into keeping the structure invisible.

The bright side: If you’re serious about screenwriting, not only do you have to read a lot of screenplays, but you have to watch a lot of movies too. The more you learn about how screenplays are written, the deeper your appreciation becomes for great films. You not only get to watch your favourite films over and over (it’s called ‘research’), but you also come to realize what a special and privileged profession screenwriting is.

I Want To Get Rich
It’s amazing how prevalent and enduring the myths are about people selling screenplays to Hollywood for vast sums of money. It does happen, of course, but the majority of screenwriters around the world earn their living from a combination of gigs other than writing feature films, including writing for TV, theatre, corporate films, teaching screenwriting, script editing, and so on. My day job at the moment is translating subtitles… Yes, you can make small fortune in screenwriting, provided you start with a big fortune.

The bright side: Rich people are often miserable. But, joking aside, don’t give up the day job too hastily. If you’re not dependent for your livelihood on convincing someone to pay you for your screenplay, you’re much more at liberty to find and express your voice by writing what really fascinates you. A screenwriter desperate to be paid, is not necessarily a great creative sparring partner.

I Want The World To Know How Clever I Am
When was the last time you saw a film or a TV series and thought, ‘Wow, whoever wrote this, is really clever!’ Audiences are primarily after some kind of emotional experience, something they can consciously or unconsciously relate their own experiences to. No one (except perhaps other screenwriters) is in the least bit interested who wrote the script, much less what erudite or witty individuals they may be. In fact, just as with structure, the more ‘invisible’ the screenwriter is, the better their work.

The bright side: Writing screenplays requires a lot of very disciplined thinking and research. Whether that’s in terms of structure or subject matter. Plus, you’re always delving deeper and deeper into human motivations and weaknesses. And guess what? Wanting the world to know how clever you are is a classical flaw, which you soon learn to overcome (actually, only by about page 75 in your life, to be honest). Screenwriting is an inherently enriching and enlightening activity.

I Want To Be Famous
How many Oscar-winning movie stars can your local greengrocer name? Everyone’s heard of Bruce Willis, Nicole Kidman, and so on. How many directors do they know? They’ve probably heard of Steven Spielberg, or Quentin Tarrantino. Can they name any screenwriters? The typical answer to that one is: “I didn’t know movies were written.” Successful actors and directors can become global celebrities, successful screenwriters can become guests speakers at screenwriting conferences.

The bright side: In many spiritual traditions, the highest form of charity is an anonymous donation. How many people know who wrote Jaws? Or Raiders of the Lost Ark? (I confess, I had to look these up.) Screenwriters are generally spared the hell of celebrity limelight, but a beautifully written film can have a profound impact on viewers. That’s some fulfilment. Plus, even hugely successful screenwriters can visit Paris without being hassled for their autograph.

So, there you are, just a few simple thoughts from someone who has no authority whatsoever on the subject, but doesn’t let that deter him from pontificating from time to time.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why It’s Good To Read The Screenplay First

Reading screenplays is essential to every screenwriter’s ongoing development, especially reading unproduced screenplays or screenplays of films you haven’t seen yet.

So many professional, successful screenwriters emphasize the importance of reading screenplays, that it’s a piece of advice worth taking seriously. However, I find that when I read a screenplay of a film I’ve already seen, I have to filter out the contributions of the director, the actors, the music, the set design and all the other elements that combine to create the movie-watching experience, in order to see what the script per se has to offer. Which is why reading screenplays of films you haven't seen yet, or which haven't been produced yet, can be enlightening.

Reading Movies You Love
Reading the screenplay of a movie you’ve enjoyed watching, is a bit like watching the movie again in your head. It’s a great way to identify keys moments and see how the screenwriter described them on the page, but what it doesn’t do is give you insight into the impression the writing would make before the film is made. One of my favourite films of last year, for example, was Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Although I love how the script is written, there’s no way I can imagine anyone other than Ben Stiller playing the part of Greenberg, with his brilliantly executed body language and inimitable delivery of the dialogue. Although reading screenplays of films you’ve seen can teach you a lot about style, dialogue, pacing, structure and so on, once you already have so many specific images, camera angles and cuts in mind, it’s harder to take the writing on face value.

The Professional Reader’s Experience
When you read a screenplay cold, with no specific actors or set designs, or soundtrack in mind, you experience what a potential director or actor or producer feels when they read a script for the first time. Does it trigger the imagination? Does the scene unfold with tension or humour? Are the twists unexpected or dramatic enough? How much is left to the actor’s discretion? Does the writing evoke distracting questions? It’s useful to take note of what works and what doesn’t in this respect, because your own material will be received precisely on these terms.

Watching the Finished Product
Sometimes a film will exceed the expectations evoked by the screenplay, sometimes it will disappoint, and sometimes the film is just what the script suggested it would be. But whatever your reaction to the finished product, it’s also an important source of information. You can now go back to the script and discover what it was about the writing that did or didn’t survive the production process as far as you’re concerned. Sometimes scenes will have been significantly shortened, sometimes it’s the camerawork that gives the scene added meaning, sometimes the acting doesn’t do justice to what you imagined whilst reading, and so on. What, specifically, was the difference between what was on the page and on the screen? These are all really useful insights to take back to your next rewrite.

Oscar Nominated Screenplays
Every year there’s a flood of great new screenplays on the web in the run-up to the Oscars. They’re all very recent films, some of which you may already have seen, but some of which you probably haven’t. If you want to find a ton of great screenplays to read, head over to chinokino and get reading!