Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Short Film

It's all go here at Stack Towers. Lots of cool and exciting stuff happening, what with the Red Planet Prize, EastEnders, Badly Drawn Roy and a few other projects that have been keeping me busy of late. For all you Red Planet peeps, we're nearly there, I promise, not long now. I'm thoroughly enjoying my EastEnders episode, and fingers crossed all goes well there. Badly Drawn Roy was last year, with transmission likely to be this winter, so after my Enders ep, there's a bit of an open window on what work I actually do. So, taking the momentum and excitement forward, I'm planning something special for 2009, and wondered if you, dear reader, would like to be involved.

This spring, I'm making a ten minute short film. The initial budget is in place but I'm asking for donations to help me increase what I can achieve. Any money raised will go directly into the production of the film: the catering, or post-production, or help in submitting the film to festivals around the world.

Donations range from £10, £25 and £50.

* £10 gets you a thanks credit and a copy of the script.
* £25 gets you a special thanks, the script, access to a video-diary I'll be making of the production process and a DVD copy of the film.
* £50 gets you the above and an associate producer credit plus an invite to an industry screening.

Higher donations (or any numbers in between) are obviously welcome!

ABOUT THE FILM:
"Origin" is a supernatural drama about a woman who struggles to keep her family together when her son falls ill after he's bitten by a mysterious creature.

It's based on a feature script of mine so there are a few key aims for the short film: to attract interest and funding for the feature script; to create something cinematic, moving and intriguing which will have a successful run on the festival circuit and prove to be a strong calling card for all those involved in the film. Pre-production begins in February. I plan to shoot in March/April, and have post-production completed by the summer.

If you'd like to support the project, then simply click on the 'Donate' button in the sidebar on the right (underneath the 'About Me' section), and pick your preferred method of payment. I know we're all a bit credit-crunched at the moment but you'll be helping me enormously by donating whatever you can afford. If everyone reading this donated £10 each, that would make a significant difference to the budget.

I'm extremely passionate about the story (a character-driven piece) and will be employing professional crew and actors to get the best out of the film, so the finished product should be something very special indeed. I can't wait.

Thanks for your time and support!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Story Vault: Comedy Specs

Am in the middle of my EastEnders episode at the moment, and finalising the closing stages of the Red Planet Prize, so here's a post from last year (well, Christmas 2007) about what producers and execs are looking for in comedy feature specs. Original post and comments can be found here.

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In preparation for my Raindance talk a couple of weeks ago, I asked a few development execs what they were looking for in comedy scripts (feature films). This led to an interesting discussion about the current market, and what makes a comedy feature tick. A couple of the execs gave up their time to chat over a coffee - and one even invited me to a company meeting on the subject! - so I was certainly glad I asked.

So, what did they say?

Well first, the good news. Film companies are desperate for comedy scripts. They can’t get enough of them. There are a couple of reasons for this. Comedy films are good for box office (always popular with audiences), and they are relatively inexpensive to make. Comedy does have healthy subgenres like romantic comedy, comedy crime, comedy action etc but when one of these films work, they’re mainly remembered for their comedic element.

Leading the way in the current market is the Judd Apatow school of comedy (Knocked Up, Superbad etc) where there’s usually a strong concept combined with a level of reality and identifiable characters. These are typically male-driven comedies and combine broad comedy with other subgenres like slapstick, etc. They show a sensitive side whilst also pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, which creates a natural comic milieu.

A good comedy will work with a clear concept (inviting hook) and real scenarios that develop from this situation. The goofball and silly comedies of Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron-Cohen also work really well but these are reliant on the performance of the star/actor. Indie comedies can also prove popular and worthwhile. These are usually black comedies, or films that take an alternative/offbeat approach but will usually have a ‘good heart’ or an inviting hook to make them appealing and engaging.

In the UK, a criticism about some comedy scripts is that the characters aren’t real. The stories aren’t about anything. They don’t have a strong concept - no theme - and they have nothing to say. Also, there are too many scripts trying to riff off the success of Richard Curtis. As a result, there is a surfeit of wedding comedies (enough already with the best man/bridesmaid stuff!). The scripts are too familiar and derivative, and offer no surprises.

If you’re thinking of packaging a UK comedy for a budget over £10m, then there’s only a handful of actors that can fit the bill: Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen, Steve Coogan and possibly even Lucas/Walliams. On the lower budget scale, you could look to make a comedy film for £2million (like the recent ‘The Magicans’ with Mithcell & Webb).

How does a spec writer get a break?

If you’re serious about getting your comedy script made, you need to get it in the right hands. So, targeting film companies that actually make and distribute films in this country is a good idea. Film companies like Working Title, Ealing Studios, Tiger Aspect, Big Talk etc. Having an agent obviously helps to get your script accepted and read but often this isn’t enough to make the impression that the companies are looking for. The industry reacts to stars and box office, and tries to anticipate what will work and what will sell. If you’re just John from Croydon with a reasonably amusing comedy script in the spec pile, it’s not going to do much. However, if you’ve already established a good track record in radio or TV, as a stand-up or with writing elsewhere, and perhaps have won a creditable award, this will give the project more bite and appeal.

The best advice is to get involved with the comedy fraternity in whatever way possible. Don’t be a spec writer sitting at home and working in the bank. Work in TV, or write sketches, or do radio; build your profile, network, get known and write a good script. Use your contacts. Talk to the people you know. Show some initiative. Go to the Edinburgh Festival. Talk to comedians after their shows, tell them about your project or that you’re interested in writing a film for them - attach their name, get their endorsement, get ahead.

Alternatively, make your film yourself. Comedy can be achieved on a low-budget. Don’t have the funds? Then make a trailer, or a sketch. A funny short film. Put it on You Tube, enter film festivals, see what happens. Generate some ‘heat’ and interest.

OK, so what key qualities does a comedy film need if it's going to work?

Well, breaking it down, it starts with -

Strength of Concept/Originality
Not necessarily high concept but a premise that clearly indicates that it has strong comic value. Something that when you’re told the idea, you go ‘that’s funny’. Some concepts may be okay but once you know who’s involved, you can go ‘ok, right, I get it’.

Characters
The right characters are possibly the most essential element of a winning comedy film. Make them multi-dimensional. Interesting. Real. Or a reality within the context of the story. That’s where the majority of the humour comes from; once we understand who the characters are and what’s happening, we’ll find what they’re doing to be amusing, whilst in an everday situation or a different context, it mightn’t mean anything.

Structure
Comedy has a very demanding structure. In general, it’s about the funny storytelling experience, not just individual gags or banter. And it’s not just three-act structure, or five-act, or 22 steps, or whatever kind of structure you subscribe to. Think about your set pieces - your laugh out loud moments. The bits in the story that increase the hero’s jeopardy (one exec used Mrs Doubtfire as an example - where Robin Williams has to appear as himself AND the Scottish nanny while the social worker comes to visit) or the moments that give you the big laughs (like the waxing scene in 40 Year Old Virgin, or the drunk drive home, amongst others). A lot of spec scripts don’t focus on these kind of moments. They just go by on a fairly linear level, employing some witty banter if they can, and that’s about it.

A good comedy will have a variety of humour, and not just be dialogue-based (otherwise it feels like a sitcom). So think of the visual, verbal and sophisticated (not to mention puerile) humour that could be generated from the concept, characters and story.

Taste & Decency/Talking Points
Think of your trailer moments, and stuff that might get talked about. Comedy needs to grab your attention, and this will invariably come from the strength of the concept. However, in relation to set pieces (structure) and premise, you can push the boundaries of taste and decency whilst ensuring that’s it’s relative to the story. This can get the script talked about or want to be read (a teenager shagging an American pie anybody?)

Tone
Another strong consideration, as execs like a tone that’s consistent from start to finish. Knowing what kind of comedy you’re writing, who you’re characters are and what you have in store from them. Having a variety of comedy (visual, verbal, physical) doesn’t mean that the comedy style should be erratic or unfocused, or doesn’t stick to what the heart of the film is about.

Lead or Ensemble?
Try to think of a good lead role for an actor to play. A role that's ripe for a popular comic actor; that people will want to see. Look at the recent success of 'Run Fat Boy Boy'. On paper, the script is amusing and endearing, while the appeal of Simon Pegg, and possibly David Schwimmer directing, made the teen audience come back for more (making a staggering £10m at the UK box office). The target audience for comedy films is 15-25. If your comedy is an ensemble piece, it makes it even harder to cast and to market, and these types of comedies can struggle at the box office.

Phew, got all that? A lot to consider then, just like writing any script, but of course, the most important element of a comedy is the most obvious: it’s got to be funny. Simple, eh?

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips

For practical and proactive tips to make it as a writer, get the UK Scriptwriter's Survival Handbook, available on Kindle and paperback!

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Here's Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips, which was initially published in Channel 4's talent magazine by Catherine Bray, who has kindly given me permission to reproduce the article in full here. Thanks, Catherine!

If you are visiting this blog solely via this article, you may want to check my new site for current posts & updates here; news & info about the UK scriptwriting scene. Listen to the UK Scriptwriters podcast here or check out my script consultancy page here.

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Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.

1. FINISH IT
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

2. STRUCTURE
Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’

4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

6. LISTEN
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD
You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.

8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’

9. DON’T LISTEN
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.

10. DON’T SELL OUT
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.”

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Thanks again to Catherine for permission to reproduce the article.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Year, Schnew Year

The first rule of New Year resolutions is, you do not talk about New Year resolutions. Seriously, as soon as you tell someone your reinvigorated plans for the year ahead, you're doomed to fail before January is even out. Want to go to the gym every day? Eat less? Write more? Don't tell anyone. Just do it. Or give it a good go, that way if you slip, it's no biggie and you can always get back on track with a second bite at the cherry.

When it comes to writing, a wide range of energising thoughts and intentions charge into the brain at around midnight on New Year's Day. I'M GOING TO WRITE EVERY DAY. I'M GOING TO FINISH THAT NEW SPEC. SHIT, I'M GOING TO START THAT NEW SPEC. I'M GOING TO DO IT THIS YEAR, WHATEVER 'IT' IS. YEAH! WOO! WHERE'S THE CHAMPAGNE?!

Two weeks later, and you've done nada. All that energy and motivation has slipped into the usual routine of procrastination, doubt or just 'don't have enough time'. This is why I refuse to make New Year resolutions. Instead, I write a list of things I want to do or achieve over the course of the year (that's not reliant on a sudden new regime in January that I'm going to struggle to maintain into February, never mind the rest of the year).

The New Year list may be wildly ambitious or unlikely at times but usually they're reasonable goals, or stuff that I really should be aiming for. This was last year's list:

* Make a short film
* Get EastEnders, or a notable TV commission
* Write a kids' book
* Write a new feature spec

I've achieved two from the above: EastEnders and the kids' book. When I scribbled the list, I had no idea HOW I was going to get EastEnders (having been turned down before) but I included it anyway (it was my agent who set up the 2nd attempt, and that happened in March/April last year). For the kids' book, the writing was more than halved thanks to the stalwart efforts of Sam Morrison, who led the way with the 1st draft, so that was an easier achievement than if I had tried to write it myself.

It turned out to be a busy year and I didn't get round to making the short or writing a new feature spec but I did do some pre-planning for the short, and hope to be making it this spring, with me as writer-director. It's an exciting prospect that frightens the bejesus out of me but I've been saying it out loud to as many people as possible to force myself to do it, and now I've blogged about it so there's no turning back. More on this as it happens.

So, this year's list? First rule of New Year resolutions, kid.

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The Screenwriters' Festival
has a new date and location this year, moving from the summer to the autumn, and leaving Cheltenham Studios behind for Cheltenham Ladies College. Cue Leslie Phillips: 'Hehllooo. I say. Ding dong'. For full details of what's happening and where, check out the website, especially for early bird discounts and the like. Also, for a rundown on the launch they held t'other night at Channel 4, then mosey over to Darth Arnopp's gaff and feel the force of his review.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Notices / Strengths & Weaknesses

Here's details of this year's Working Title's Action! Scheme, a great intern opportunity :

"Working Title invites outstanding individuals seeking a career in film to apply for 3 one-year positions at our London office. We are looking for hard working and resourceful candidates, able to demonstrate the ambition and drive necessary to make the most of this unique opportunity. Successful applicants will have basic office experience, appropriate to entry level opportunities, and be able to express themselves with excellent verbal and written communication skills."

For the full details, visit the website. Closing date is Feb 20th, 2009. Well worth a punt if you're fairly young and new to the industry, or just want to get ahead starting from the bottom up. Good luck!

Elsewhere, Julian Fellowes is doing a talk at the Lighthouse in Brighton next Wednesday, for those interested and able to attend.

Talent Focus: Julian Fellowes
Wednesday 14 January 2009
Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton
6.00pm - Doors
7.00pm - Start of Event
Entry - £5/£4 concs
Spaces are limited. To book in advance please contact Emma 01273 647197 Monday–Friday 10am–6pm or emma @ lighthouse.org.uk

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PotDoll tagged me with the 'strengths & weaknesses' meme, which is a particularly tricky one, like that moment in an interview where you try to sputter what you're good at while fuzzing around another positive attribute but trying to make it sound like a 'weakness'. So, what do I think I'm good at as a writer, and where I need to improve? Well, I like to think I'm good at character and structure. I'm also good in the room: digging out ideas and brainstorming 'till the cows come home. And I can bash out plot fairly quickly. I'm a fast writer, or so I'm told.

Where do I need to improve? All areas really, including the stuff I think I'm good at. Really want to push my work to a polished and consistent standard (so that you'll ALWAYS enjoy reading one of my scripts, even if it's not your thing or you're going to pass), and when I watch a good TV show or feature film, I realise that the bar is rising all the time (but this serves as inspiration, too). I'm not sure about my dialogue sometimes but that's only 'cos I worry if a line is necessary, or funny, or loaded enough, or could be replaced with a shrug, or whatever. Dialogue is the easiest to add and remove, so I'm always happy to play around. You can revise a scene enough times so that it becomes needle-sharp with what the characters are saying but dialogue riffs can be fun, too, so it all depends.

Overall, fairly happy with my present standard of writing. All the usual insecurities and doubts will always be there but I can see a real difference over the years - my writing shifting, improving, maturing - and paid commissions always help to keep your eye on the ball as you see how you respond to external deadlines and demands.

Who hasn't been tagged? That's everyone, then? M'kay.

Monday, January 05, 2009

smack, Bang, WHALLOP!

Q: When I’m writing action-based scripts, I try write down the sound of the action. eg..... BANG! The car erupted into a ball of fire. SLAM! The man attacked from the side, sending John crashing into the wall. SMASH! The dark figure burst through the window, glass shattering all around.

Is this a good idea, or do you think it comes off as amateur-ish? Does it seem like I don't know what I'm doing or that I can't describe the action any other way? Or does it have the desired effect - helps the reader visualise the moment and keep reading?


In general, I think it’s a good idea to use CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate the moment. The above example would be perfectly fine in my book as there’s a pace and immediacy about the action that the reader can feel and visualise. However, as with most things in screenwriting, especially spec scripts, proceed with caution. Don’t OVERUSE CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE IT WILL GET VERY ANNOYING, VERY SOON.

Obviously, entire scripts written in capital letters are a big no-no, but they still crop up here and there, which really shouts AMATEUR more than anything else (some TV script formats being the exception). When you first mention a character, their name goes in capital letters, then you refer to them as normal from there (but everyone knew that, right?).

When it comes to describing the action, always remember that less is more. How you use capital letters will usually indicate how confident you are about your script. For example, if you’re feeling a bit insecure about your writing, you might write something like this:

“Danny WALKS into the empty ROOM, takes one LOOK around, inhales DEEPLY, then makes a RUN for the window.

DANNY:
Yeeeeeeah!

SMASH! He jumps right through the window”.

If you’re feeling more confident, or normal, you’d probably use the capital letters for the SMASH! only; everything else just gives the description an unnecessarily jerky feel. And the smash is the most dramatic part of the scene, so it justifies its capital use.

For action scripts specifically, you should probably use capitals for the ACTIVE parts of the description rather than lazily pepper EVERY WORD WITH CAPITAL LETTERS. If you’re writing well, the story will work, regardless of capital letters, so be smart and be cool, and you should be okay. Always think of the scene and the story, rather than worrying if you’re missing out on making an impact with lower case action-description.