Monday, August 07, 2006

UK Scene

What are your thoughts generally on the state of UK screenwriting? Most UK movies seem very "clunky" on the script level.

This may come as a bit of surprise but the state of UK screenwriting is extremely healthy. There are a lot of talented writers out there and they fall into three categories: Well Known, Making a Good Living and Breaking Through. The well known writers are leading the way for box office success, at home and abroad. People like Richard Curtis, Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright, Purvis & Wade, Frank Cottrell Boyce etc.

Some writers will flirt between the ‘well known’ and ‘making a good living’ categories; Paul Laverty, Mellis & Scinto, William Nicholson, William Osborne etc. And then there’s the ‘breaking through’ group where, well, the list is endless. Most UK screenwriters reside in this category and this is the group that’s referred to whenever the system comes under criticism. Their work may vary from glimpses of brilliance to frustratingly bad, and possibly both in one sitting.

However, the assertion that most UK movies seem very “clunky” is an unfair criticism aimed at the writer. There are a host of changes, alterations and amendments that can occur during the development and filmmaking process, some or most of which won’t be approved by the writer, or the poor scribe won’t even be consulted. Producers, directors, script editors and actors occasionally make the wrong choices, and a script suffers, but it’s the writer who gets the blame. If the film does well, then the director gets the credit.

So-called reputable film critics regularly lambaste the state of British screenwriting but when was the last time they read a script? Would they know a good screenplay if it came up and said ‘hello’? What do they know or appreciate about the craft of good screenwriting? And do they really differentiate the writer’s skill from the director’s vision? And as Jeff Jarvis writes in the Guardian, do we really need critics anymore?

However, critic response is umbilically linked to audience reaction. We can go to see a film and be mad as hell at the poor quality of the story, and wonder ‘what the hell happened to the script?’ But what do we know about the film’s development? What was it about the original script that got the producers, directors and cast involved? There must have been something, right? The industry wants to make money, not piss people off. Nevertheless, the desire and ability to make money through films also comes with ego and insecurity. People in powerful positions will meddle with a script in their efforts to either second guess the audience or satisfy their own ego. Let’s not be too hasty to blame the writer.

The problem with poor films is that it encourages aspiring writers to churn out mediocre material. If their script is ‘just as good’ than the latest UK flick that bombed at the box office, then why shouldn’t they get a shot at the big time? That’s hardly valid reasoning though. Why should we get a break just because our work is as bland and average as the latest release. We should continue to strive for the highest quality in our work; scripts that contain the writer’s unique voice, a story with something to say and characters with a refreshing heart and humanity. Then we could rid the criticism against UK screenwriters forever.


Dan Owen said...

Very interesting post, Danny. To be fair, when reviewers lambast the "script" of a film they are just *generally* referring to the storyline, characters and dialogue. It would take a phenomenally committed reviewer to read and critique a film's screenplay on its own merits before filming began. It takes a great reviewer to see when good dialogue is badly delivered, or good characters badly acted, too. It's very tricky. Overall, reviewers speak from a general standpoint -- otherwise they'd never be able to pin the "blame" on any person or component of a project, because films are created by *hundreds* of people and every one of them has an excuse if they're involved in making a bad movie (budget, studio meddling, on-set tension, tight deadlines, poor publicity, etc.)

Stephen Gallagher said...

Possibly the most exquisite pain to be endured by a screenwriter is to survive two or more years of development with producer pressure that keeps you at the top of your game for every minute of it, only to see the work utterly deconstructed in the rush to production.

Hackneyed ideas that would have seen you fired from the first draft go in at the last minute, unchallenged, because of something the director's kid said at breakfast. Actors rewrite entire scenes around themselves and, depending on their status, get them included.

I've had one A-list British director hand my script over to his office administrator for a rewrite and co-credit because "she had some interesting suggestions".

Then there was the time when, one week before a readthrough, my script was handed over for a dialogue polish to an uncredited writer whose series proposal the production company were trying to push at the network.

He got his CV padded and I had the pleasure of having my 'clunky script' singled out for derision in every otherwise positive review.

Oops. Am I shouting again? Sorry.

Lucy said...

That's horrible Stephen!!! Can you name names?

I've had a few short films go awry and once, when I was v wet behind the ears several years ago, I got onboard a deferred payment feature with a producer who was from satan, so feel your pain but at least I have the consolation that no one ever saw the crap that was produced cos it was, well, crap!

Lucy said...

Oh and BTW - Stephen you helped me with my dissertation four years ago when I was at uni: you responded to an ad I put in the writer's guild e-bulletin. Been meaning to say thanks for AGES when I saw your name come up on this blog - I moved house not long after your email and my PC got dropped on the floor. Lost everything! So sorry about that - and thanks! X

Stephen Gallagher said...

Nah, no names. Move on. Sit by the bank of the river for long enough and the body of your enemy will float by.

Glad to hear I could be of some help. Even happier to hear that I didn't nip a promising career in the bud!

Lucy said...

Love that analogy! There's a lot of bodies I'm sure most writers would like to see, I can only hope mine won't be added to the pile in somebody's view in years to come...

Lee said...

And did the network ever pick up the young fella's series?

Stephen Gallagher said...

Not to my knowledge.

I don't hold it against him. He's just another writer trying to get on. I do resent the games-playing, though.

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