Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 - A Year in Rear View

Well, what a year 2011 turned out to be on the writing front.

It started with a bang when The Red Bride successfully picked up a Feature Navigator grant from ScreenWest. I confess I was somewhat pleased to receive that call. Dancing may have been involved.

Since then there have been, I’m going to say, three to four drafts and many script meetings, discussions, existential crises, false starts, bouts of inspiration, moments of teeth gritting agony… in what is generally known as feature development. It was also an opportunity to work with a top notch script consultant from L.A. in Michael Hauge. Thank goodness for Skype!

There is a full line-by-line script session scheduled with the producers a few days after Christmas which will lock off the script… or 2011’s iteration leastways. It remains the best thing I have written and hopefully next year will see serious market interest.

Speaking of script consultants, 2011 was a year where I was exposed to several other top notch practitioners – from Karel Segers’ seminar on The Hero’s Journey to Paul Chitlik’s intensive five day treatment workshop to Simon van der Borgh’s entertaining (as always) exploration of genre. I love this level of hands on interaction with people who really know their screenwriting lore.

Not only does it keep you sharp on craft skills it actually generates content – there is a 28 page treatment from Paul’s workshop for a feature project that currently has a pitch document sitting with an eastern states production company; and a one page synopsis from Simon’s ‘invitation’ to come up with, over lunch no less, a feature film idea. There is a local producer interested in the subsequent one page synopsis but I simply haven’t had time to do anything further with it… yet. That’s on 2012’s To Do List.

I also had the opportunity to listen to writers such as Andrew Bovell (Lantana, Edge of Darkness), Ron Osborn (The West Wing, Moonlighting) and David Stevens (Oscar nominated for Breaker Morant) share their experiences and insights. Many thanks to the WA Branch of the Australian Writers’ Guild, ScreenWest and the Perth Actors Collective for organising such events.  

My focus throughout the year has been predominantly on developing feature projects but I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Professional Partnership Program run by the Filmbites Youth Film School. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience which now sees two short film scripts I’ve written about to go into production next month.

Feature development can be a hard slog so the opportunity to work with a talented group of young actors and the genuinely supportive staff has been a revelation. The next few days will see a workshop of one script and a table read of the other. It looks like I will also be invited to rehearsals and the shoots so from that perspective it’s as much a learning experience for me as the ‘students’.

It may have been a contributing factor to me shopping three of my short scripts once a producer released two of them recently. I have had some very interesting people respond and will be meeting with a director after the workshop tomorrow to discuss one of those screenplays. Another director is checking their eligibility for the funding round I have in mind and I’m waiting to hear back from others who have requested scripts. 

The end of the year has been incredibly busy. Suddenly I seem to be in demand as people seek me out to work with on a variety of different projects. Of the two directors attached to the Filmbites’ scripts, one has asked me to co-write his feature and the other had already approached me about writing a short that could subsequently be developed into a feature. The former will technically be an adaptation as it’s based on a real life Australian political event but it’s up to others to make announcements about the specifics. Suffice to say there is plenty of reading and research ahead of me over the summer.

I continue to enjoy reading other people’s scripts and offering feedback. I apologise that sometimes it takes me longer than I would like but it is dependent on how swamped I am with writing commitments. I have read some very interesting stories this year from a genre piece set on an oil rig in the North Sea to the debut effort of an actor turned writer to a funky web series aimed at young adults. I find the passion of other writers quite invigorating and discussing scripts is always fun.

One thing I have learnt during the year is that sometimes projects stall despite the best intentions of all involved. Directors withdraw due to unavoidable personal circumstances; priorities may change for producers; projects may simply be past their shelf life; funding bodies may not share your vision. I am always striving to better handle those sorts of disappointments.

Finally, thank you to all my major collaborators and supporters throughout the year – David Revill & Jocelyn Quioc at Tin Can Films (formerly Forgeworks); directors Chris Richards-Scully & Tim Dean; Hallie Mckeig and all the gang at Filmbites; producer Michael Facey; true hyphenate Anna Bennetts; Rikki Lea Bestall at ScreenWest; and all the recent additions to my circle of talented colleagues.

Have a great Christmas and see you all in 2012! 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Short film scripts available

T'is the season for giving. In that spirit, I have three short film scripts that I'm looking for (Perth-based) producers and directors to come on board with. Ideally with Link funding in mind (deadline 29 March 2012) but ultimately to have words on the page turn into moving images on screen by whatever alchemy is available.

Lucky Bamboo: A withdrawn office worker, still traumatised by a random bashing, is given a Lucky Bamboo plant by an older free spirit and told to care for it... or he will die. A story about overcoming your fears and reconnecting with life.

Immortal: As a grieving teenager struggles to deal with her mother's unexpected death from a rare blood disease, she comes to believe she is a vampire leading to tragic consequences.

The Fifth Quarter: Recently retired star footballer Brett Keys is thrust into the cut-throat world of corporate politics where it will take more than his celebrity name to survive.

If you're interested in any of these log lines, please email me on for the script(s). If you could also please include some information about yourself and your film-making background.

From there, if you like the script(s), we can haggle over details!

Richard Hyde

Friday, December 9, 2011

Which came first – the script or the audition?

I had the opportunity to sit in on auditions yesterday for one of the short films I’ve written. I found it most instructive for several reasons.

Firstly, some background:

The script is based on improvisations. It is a nice little ghost story.

The auditions were only for members of the youth film school who conducted the improvisations. In other words, the actors were already familiar with the material.

Two directors had previously been attached – the first, along with his producing partner, withdrew when they remembered they had two funded shorts already in production; the second director ended up getting offers on another continent. Both sets of circumstances outside of my control.

The third (and final!) director – Paul Komadina - had recently approached me to write a short for him (which we will still do) and in those discussions this project came up. We have never worked together though we did go through an online Skype course with an American consultant last year after both being shortlisted for a screenwriting award. Yes, he also writes.

With a new director comes script changes. Also working out storytelling sensibilities and something I bang on about a fair bit, tone.

So we had discussed changes but for the purposes of the audition the two scenes chosen were left unchanged. Mainly because any alterations will be minor (they are the first two scenes of the film and it’s the ending Paul has a deliciously wicked plan for) and the timeframe for the actors to learn new pages would have been pretty tight.

I should also mention, as part of this process, the two male characters felt the writer’s malevolent backspace key and are no more (sorry guys, I was under instructions!).

For the audition Paul asked the actors to learn all four roles. They were auditioned in pairs running the actual scenes then swapping, taking a minute or so to “reset” and come back in. This was done for three pairings.

In effect, for me, it was a mini-workshop knowing that script changes needed to be made. I could see the characters and scenes come to life with differing interpretations from the actors – what worked, what may need to be rethought in the writing, new ways to play those two scenes and what that may mean for subsequent scenes.

Paul’s re-directs were interesting as well, opening up possibilities but also getting an insight into what he’s thinking as we start the process of working out the writer-director relationship. Things like asking an actor to play a scene a certain way that deliberately contradicted what the text suggested was fascinating to observe. Again, especially for tone.

Everything was filmed and it was all very relaxed as the actors were encouraged to try different things and, in many ways, play with the material. I had obviously worked with them before during the improvisation and workshopping phase but they were seeing Paul for the first time. The feedback was that they were impressed, particularly with the clarity of the re-directs.

I have now finished the next draft moving towards Paul’s ideas for the story. That still requires work but it was great to be able to witness the auditions and use them as a jumping off point for the changes required.

It also means things are getting closer to production which is exciting!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Script Readings - Pros and Cons

My first 'by request' post. A new writer who has finished the third draft (a good sign) of their first feature screenplay asked me to write about the pros and cons of script readings.

My main experience in this regard has been with PAC Script Lab, an initiative I am an ardent supporter of as one of the few writer-centric events in the local film industry. I have written about Script Lab before but let’s do a quick recap of the pros before looking at a few cons:

Profile: The evening puts screenwriters and scripts front and centre, now with local media publicity and a presence in social media. Anything that shines a light on and celebrates the craft of screenwriting is a good thing. Audience numbers are consistently strong with a nice cross section of industry members and the general public.

Support: Never underestimate the impact on a writer who has slaved away on a script for months, fielding the inevitable questions asking what it’s about and explaining their anti-social behaviour (especially when deadlines loom). Having family, friends and colleagues at a reading is good for the writer’s soul! So THAT is what you’ve been doing…

Feedback: This comes in various forms and is absolutely invaluable. Firstly from the actors who are doing the reading. You have a chance to hear the script twice – the initial read through and the evening itself. Actors, being very perceptive creatures, will offer thoughts on their characters and story points.

Script Lab uses feedback forms and asks the audience, in exchange for free wine and nibbles, to fill these out. Questions usually revolve around characters and development of the plot but you can add specific questions if there are certain areas you want to focus on. At my last reading I had about 30 of these forms – makes for very interesting reading, especially when trends appear. One off comments are harder to process.

Then there is the post reading feedback. People will come up and talk to you about the script, ask questions, outline what they enjoyed, what they didn’t. These conversations are perhaps best of all as you get the opportunity to probe for the real reason for ‘negative’ reactions to aspects of the script. By that I mean, people may not like something but not know why.

Intangibles: You get to hear the script AND the audience. At my first reading I was so traumatised I wasn’t relaxed enough to just listen. The second one, I had a producer and director attached so I could chill out, sit up the back, drink my wine and listen. To when people laughed, when they shuffled their feet, when the room went quiet, when actors stumbled over dialogue, when the pace flagged, when the tone shifted, when plot mechanics took over from character etc.

I see now the readings are recorded which didn’t occur when mine were read. That would be fascinating to listen back to – for pace and tone in particular.

While the readings are overwhelmingly a positive experience there are some cons to be mindful of. As Ross Hutchens, one of the original co-founders of PAC, explained to me once, a reading is, in many ways, live theatre. What may work well in that context may not be a good film script and a good script may not work well as a performance piece. For example, for my second script, I was asked to trim the big print to make for an “easier read”. But that was a very visual story.

Very good actors are invariably used and charismatic and engaging “performances” may mask deficiencies, most notably in structure.

You also have people giving feedback who aren’t necessarily conversant with structure and the myriad other aspects of screenwriting. They will have an intuitive feel for story but I’ve seen many a time effusive praise given for poorly structured and badly written scripts that were carried by engaging performances. Of course, the writer has to filter the useful from the irrelevant, the same as any notes. The danger is the inexperienced writer who takes such praise as gospel.

It’s always good to see though, that quite a few of the notable writing talent in Perth regularly attend. I always try to, to support my colleagues but it’s also a good way to keep up your own craft skills by analysing other people’s work.

So, on balance, if you have a script that you believe is at a standard to withstand public scrutiny then I would recommend you organise a reading. Script Lab is one avenue but you always have the option of getting together actors who are prepared to donate their time and do it yourself. The feedback is priceless for the rewrite process.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thank you!

Today my humble little screenwriting blog ticked over to 5000 visits and almost 7500 page views according to sitemeter. Other stats show that it has been read in nearly 70 countries which is pretty amazing.

Thank you to everyone who reads and enjoys my posts. I'm always delighted when people, especially other writers, tell me in person that they find my blog a good read. 

What more could a writer ask for? :-)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Initial Impulse or Rediscovering the Passion

I recently submitted an older script for a funding round after pulling it out of the bottom drawer, doing a quick polish and attaching a new producer. The script - The Tangled Web - has some pedigree. It received an Australian Film Commission New Screenwriter's grant back in 2002, has been optioned twice prior to this now third producer and was well received at a PAC Script Lab reading back in 2007.

Yes, it has been around for a while - thirteen official drafts by my count and no doubt countless more revisions. At one stage, I am told, Sam Worthington was interested pre-Somersault days and an experienced producer was on board as a mentor for the then director-producer.

The story is about a married man who becomes addicted to the fantastical world of the internet and the glamorous people within it while failing to notice his real life world collapse around him.

As you can see in the whiteboard snapshot, the structure was deliberately designed as an upwards trajectory as the addiction takes hold (and things seem to be getting better) then, after the midpoint, a downwards slide into obsession with only the hint of redemption in the resolution. Requiem for a Dream was clearly an inspiration as this always was, at its heart, an addiction story.

Five years ago it might have made an interesting 'cautionary tale' on the social impact of the internet. Now there are many examples, particularly with films like Catfish, Talhotblond and yes, even The Social Network.

What strikes me though, on reading the current draft, is how far it has drifted from my initial impulse for the story. The more drafts, the more development, the less it seems to speak to what I was attempting to say and explore.

Most "internet movies" like Catfish and Talhotblond have as their central "conceit" the implicit understanding that the person you are 'talking to' online could be anyone. That virtual reality and real life is never the same. Witness the "hot girl" inevitably ending up as the tragic figure of the middle-aged woman... or a guy!

In The Tangled Web, in its early incarnation, it was always different. Our hero keeps getting drawn back to the internet (chat rooms in early drafts) because of a beautiful woman in her early thirties (written with Naomi Watts specifically in mind) who he later discovers is exactly the same in real life - superficially gorgeous on the outside. The 'twist' is that she is actually a bitter and angry divorcee who uses the internet as a crutch for her own need for attention and self-worth ie ugly on the inside.

Yes, it will come as no great surprise that this is based on a real life experience, exaggerated for dramatic effect (no, I've never been married nor fired for stalking etc!). About forming an instant connection in an unusual way, about revelling in that, about discovering that beauty is more than skin deep, that the internet is liberating in some ways and destructive in others. All things that fascinated me when I first started to write the script...

At the reading there was one scene that people (mostly) HATED. I mean, they were in my face about. The object of his desire - the perfect woman from the internet, the one he has opened his heart to - is anything but 'perfect' when he goes to her house, uninvited, unwanted in real life. She pours her scorn, her anger, her bitterness onto him... and he lashes out and hits her. I knew it would be controversial but I thought it was the ideal low point and, more importantly, in keeping with both their characters. At least it got a reaction!

Now? The script does not have a 30 something Naomi Watts internet alter-ego. It is an American Beauty like 19 year old. The above scene? Gone. The subsequent drafts went to the more obvious, the more, in a strange way, acceptable? Perhaps that is why my passion for it has waned. I am pretty sure if I read the early drafts there would be a) terrible writing, sure but b) a rawness and honesty there that is now missing.

It's that initial impulse, that spark, no matter what it is or where it comes from that keeps you going. It is also, in many ways, your compass. I think I lost mine with this one a little... okay, maybe a lot. It's a nice reminder for other projects... and this one if I ever decide to go back and "fix it".

Hold onto that spark, that impulse, that thing that made you passionate about wanting to tell the story... and protect it at all costs. Otherwise you'll drift away from it, draft after draft until, in the end, you have a script with no blood. No heart. No chance...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fabulous West Australian Web Series needs your support - Soulfish

Last year, Henry & Aaron famously won the inaugural Movie Extra Webfest competition and $50,000 to make a 7 part web series. Those episodes air on Foxtel in under a month's time.

This year is a little more complicated for me as there are two local projects that I've had some minor involvement with (script feedback mainly) that I would like to commend for your support.

They are "The Same Paige" by good friend Anna Bennetts and "Soulfish" by a group of talented Filmbites actors under the auspices of their production company White Frawgz.

I have only known the young actors who make up White Frawgz for about six months through my involvement with Filmbites' Professional Partnership Program. But they have certainly left an impression with their talent and commitment to the craft of acting and making excellent films. The two short screenplays I've written for Filmbites should go into production next month and I'm really looking forward to seeing the outcome. If Soulfish is anything to go by they will be excellent.

I think it might have been at my last visit that it was mentioned they were writing a rom-com web series. Movie Extra Webfest seemed to be the perfect fit. I was impressed with a video they had shot for another competition and even though they weren't picked as a finalist (a quite glaring omission) it showed White Frawgz knew what they were doing.

So we come to Soulfish which has a really interesting angle about the transition from "teendom to adulthood" and looking for that special someone. There is an authenticity here that is based on the collective real life experience of the group so the development of the series will be fascinating to watch. They really are a tight knit bunch as their many and increasingly elaborate pranks can attest! When it comes to film-making though they are very savvy and very skilled.

The Link to watch the one minute trailer is:

Once you have watched, please click "Love It" under the video box. 

There is also a facebook page at:

Soulfish was written by White Frawgz and directed by Jessica Hegarty and Hannah Hugessen and stars Corey Hogan, Jessica Hegarty, Hannah Hugessen, Baden Harris, Zachary Drieberg, Jaymes Durante and Whitney Cooper.

Fabulous West Australian Web Series needs your support - The Same Paige

Last year, Henry & Aaron famously won the inaugural Movie Extra Webfest competition and $50,000 to make a 7 part web series. Those episodes air on Foxtel in under a month's time.

This year is a little more complicated for me as there are two local projects that I've had some minor involvement with (script feedback mainly) that I would like to commend for your support.

They are "The Same Paige" by good friend Anna Bennetts and "Soulfish" by a group of talented Filmbites actors under the auspices of their production company White Frawgz.

Anna has read more of my work than any other person I can think of (though there's probably some poor soul, somewhere in a funding agency who enjoys that dubious pleasure!). I have read most of Anna's plays, novels, short stories, screenplays and we always offer each other constructive feedback with the minimum of physical harm inflicted! We collaborated on one short script - "Rigor Mortis" - that was a Finalist in the British Short Screenplay Competition in 2008 (out of something like 1600 entries worldwide) and have a feature screenplay - "Chrysalis" - in stasis as we work separately on other things. Both of these projects are based on Anna's original short stories.

I saw The Same Paige in its original incarnation as a stage play a few years ago. An hilarious production that has also been performed in London and will have a run at The Blue Room next year. It is fertile ground for a punchy comedy web series - about a writer who creates outrageous characters that come to life in her imagination as she deals with her partner, an engineer, who doesn't perhaps appreciate the finer points of what it means to be a writer.

The Link to watch the one minute trailer is:

Once you have watched, please click "Love It" under the video box. 

There is also a facebook page at:

The Same Paige was written and directed by Anna Bennetts and features the radiant Summer Williams, Kym Bidstrup and Rosemary McKenna.

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's all in the edit...

The role of script editor is an interesting one around these here parts. Quite a few people call themselves that or offer their services as such... but my impression is that there are very few truly qualified script editors out there in Australia.

What script editing is not, is rewriting someone's script for them. What it should be is helping the writer realise their vision.

I actually like reading other people's scripts and offering suggestions and giving feedback. I think I'm pretty good at it. One day I should even think about charging for it... especially when I see some of the "script editors" who do.

But for now it's a good way to keep up craft skills - nutting out why something isn't working or how to improve elements of a script is a good skill set to have in your tool box. It's also good karma. Plus you get to talk to other writers and be energised by their passion and their stories. It's one of the main reasons I like PAC Script Lab so much.

The great irony, of course, is that the clarity you bring to someone else's script may be tragically missing when you look at your own work. Something about wood/trees I suspect!

I only have one actual credit as a script editor - for the short film Kanowna. To be fair, my main contribution was to tell that director to stop pestering me and write the damn thing himself. Which, to his merit, he did. All I did was suggest a few rearrangements and the paring back of dialogue. He saw the film so clearly in his head that it was basically a case of capturing those scenes on paper.

Otherwise, I've had producers ask me to read scripts/treatments and/or meet with a writer; there are one or two close friends who will invariably run things past me; and occasionally I am fortunate enough to sit on funding or judging panels.

What I think people may not realise is how much time and attention it takes. I always, Always, ALWAYS read the script wanting to discover a story that captures my imagination, entertains me, takes me to a world I may know nothing about. The analytical side is banished on the initial read through - I want to be dazzled by the magic of the storytelling. Worrying about structure and turning points and character and theme and... and... and... all comes later.

But that means a minimum of two reads...which takes time. You're also thinking about all the elements that make up a good story and assessing (second read onwards) what is working (always important to give positive feedback) and what needs attention (the constructive feedback). Then you generally ask a lot of questions to work out what the writer's vision actually is and compare that to what's on the page

It's all good fun (a relative term for a screenwriter... trust me!) and something I gladly do for people who I respect and have some form or professional relationship with. Paid editing gigs would be nice but money isn't a driving motivation - I guess it's a love of the craft - as corny as that may sound - and helping fellow writers. I know how hard it is to be in the trenches trying to create magic from a blank piece of paper.

That's not to say everything I suggest is adopted - far from it. Some of the best discussions are where the writer gets a better understanding of his/her work through 'strenuous debate' or where a suggestion triggers other ideas.

The only disheartening side is sometimes - not often - you spend that time, you take due care and attention, you offer quality feedback and it's taken for granted. No acknowledgement, sometimes not even a simple thank you. When that happens you shrug, trust in karma and hope you helped make the project better whilst trying not to take the lack of response personally.

Finally, I always treat the writer the way I would want to be treated in the same situation. It can be traumatic putting something you have created out into the world. The only goal must be to put aside ego and make the work better. That can be damn hard but film-making is the most collaborative of mediums and a screenwriter has to be both flexible and develop a thick exterior to weather the inevitable buffeting as the script evolves and gets better. After all, all writing is rewriting...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Evolution of a Short Screenplay

I have written two short film scripts for a group of young actors (age 16-20) based on their improvisations and workshops (discussed here and here).

The first script has a strong narrative that was suggested in the source improvisation – what happened before that scene, the given circumstances of the scene itself, and a possible outcome (aided by a separate improv). It’s a nice little script – a ghost story - that still needs some tinkering but I won’t do that until a director comes on board. There is also a discussion about shortening the script to make it a potential Tropfest film.

The second script has been an entirely different beast. Many of the actors expressed an interest in doing a rom-com style short, not my usual genre at all. Many of the improvised scenes were two-handers that dealt with relationship issues in one way or another. So I set about working out how to link these into some sort of coherent narrative that might have something relevant to say about teenage relationships and love. 

It quickly dawned on me that this was going to be more of a thematic piece with only a very loose narrative. What would link the two-handers and what would the film be saying? 

The answer to the first question came in two parts - location and main character. Now, my favourite writing haunt is a bookshop cafe, a pleasant walk away. A place where all sorts of people meet to catch up and share gossip, news, friendship, business, love. Perfect, location sorted. Which led to the second part - the connective tissue would be the great unsung hero of many a suburban cafe - the cheerful, hardworking waitress.

As for theme, the First Draft deployed a device I rarely use - a voice-over by the waitress as she dispensed coffee and wisdom. The message - you don't choose who you fall in love with. The twist - the waitress is actually the architect of the break-up of one of the couples we see in the two-handers. The actors' reaction - makes her too unlikable though the overall concept was viewed positively. I had also pitched it a little too old.

The Second Draft kept the structure entirely intact - set piece two-handers linked by interaction with the waitress. However, I introduced an element of magic realism - the waitress charged with ensuring that those looking for love in this place found it. But at the expense of her own happiness as the revised voice-over declared.

More feedback was pending but I had the opportunity to go back to the Film School and workshop the draft with the actors. As I wrote on my Facebook screenwriting page: "Spent an excellent evening at Filmbites watching improvisations and a read through before workshopping one of my short scripts with their advanced actors. I love how fearless the actors are, their positive energy, the great suggestions and feedback. Makes my job a lot easier... and fun!"

The result - structure remains unchanged, voice-over is gone, the touches of magic realism dropped with a far more naturalistic feel. What elements of humour that were in the script have also slowly leached out. More 'rom' than 'com' but that seems to suit the material. We actually didn't workshop a new ending which was previously covered by the closing voice-over. So I've had a stab at that in the Third Draft delivered today.

The thing of interest though was this - one of the two-handers is about the imminent breakup of one of the couples. The male character has always come off as the least likable in the story as it's his jealousy that is the catalyst for the difficulties. 

Now, there are a lot of big personalities in the group but the actor who was workshopping the role is quieter and harder to read but clearly was uncomfortable with this. Everyone was happy with the revelations coming out of playing with the scenes but that male character was still getting short shrift. I very much liked that the actor stuck up for his character, raised the issue and we tried playing his scenes a few different ways. Hopefully, as a result, I have done far more justice to that role. 

I have submitted the subsequent drafts in revision mode so the actors can see how much a script can alter from draft to draft. If I was to hazard a guess, I'd say well over sixty percent each time with this story. To be expected as writer and actors hone in on a shared vision, essential for a thematic piece created in this way.

I look forward to hearing the reaction to the latest draft which should be strong enough now to go out to directors. Once that happens I'm sure there will be more changes but it has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I'm confident, at the end of the process, a really strong film emerges!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Slap upside the head

On Thursday night the Australian drama series The Slap premiered on the ABC to much hype. I was at a function and missed the pilot episode but caught up with it later on iView. I have never read the book. Didn't know much about it. But wanted to give a new Aussie drama a go.

It opens with extreme close ups, slightly out of focus, of a young woman smoking. Faded in and out of 'to black' which was mildly annoying until Cut To:

An older man waking up in bed to the sound of children's voices in the background... then a woman's voice, undoubtedly his wife.

Okay, got it! He's married. He's dreaming about an as yet unknown (to us) young woman. He has kids. Nice set-up, economically done, with the prospect of conflict on any number of levels.

All shown VISUALLY. Nicely done.

Then THIS happens in voice-over:

"On the day before his fortieth birthday, Hector awoke with one thing in mind - Connie. For a moment he luxuriated in the memory of her... but then he made his resolve... to sort things out."

We SEE him thinking about the dream. We have SEEN that dream, what was on his mind. Why is someone telling me EXACTLY what I can see on screen? Who is this third person narrator - God? The neighbour? The guy in the surveillance van manning the webcam? And who the hell uses words like 'luxuriated' and phrases like 'made his resolve'? I assume they are lifted from the book???

It is such TERRIBLE writing! Why? Because it treats me, the viewer, as if I was a moron. After showing me all this visually, the writer decides he has to make sure I get it with a clunky, disembodied voice. If all the voice-over does is tell you what you can already see it is REDUNDANT. This is why I think Underbelly is so poorly written - the damn cricket bat to the head voice-over.

Please, Please, PLEASE - have faith in your material; have faith in the audience; have faith in your actors who can communicate more with a look than paragraphs of tacky voice-over ever can.

It took me out of the story within the first two minutes. I lost faith in the writer in that moment. I watched maybe 2-3 more minutes then tabled it to do other things. Yes, I will go back and watch the full episode. But I thought it was an instructive example of how a contrived writers' device can kill a scene or set-up.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The "Re" Factor - An analogy (and quick rant)

Yes, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. The bane of Hollywood at the moment. For example, how many Super & Spider Men do I need in my cinematic world? Problem is, audiences flock to go see them. I struggle to understand why...

Then I noticed a certain phenomena on Facebook: status updates that are cut and pastes from various comedy websites - without quotation marks or attribution (writers have a word for that but let's not go there) - thereby appearing to be the poster's own creation. Which is met with much acclaim and adulation. Oh, how hilarious the poster is! How witty! Likes and comments up the wazoo.

Zero creativity for maximum response.

I used to be notorious (until most of my offending friends took the hint) for berating people who forwarded recycled crap off the internet to my personal email. "Dazzle me with your own wit and brilliance" used to be my plea! I guess none of my friends' surnames end in Christopher Nolan.

Social Media appears to have increased the practice exponentially. But can you blame the poster? They get the response they want with minimum effort.

Isn't that what the big Hollywood studios are doing? Recycling old product in a slightly different guise? Of course they'll keep doing it if people keep paying their hard earned over the counter. Same as hitting that "Like" button. Why go to the trouble (and expense) of creating something new and original?

Drives me nuts as someone who tries to create new and original content (in both mediums) but it seems to be the way of the world these days - the quick, easy fix.

Rant over as I type '"today's funniest jokes" into the google machine...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mojo Risin' *

It would be fair to say I was struggling there for a while with the rewrite of my main feature script. Too many voices in my head, a loss of confidence in my writing ability and, as a result, I was procrastinating like crazy. Not good with a deadline approaching.

Thank goodness then that the fog has lifted and I am back in the zone.


Well, let me explain by taking a little trip into time and outer space. Specifically, April 14, 1970 on the way to the Moon. Yes, the day astronaut Jim Lovell announced to the world that Apollo 13 indeed had a problem. Beautifully dramatised by Ron Howard in the movie of the same name. In Mission Control, chaos erupts as the controllers struggle to comprehend the enormity of what the data is telling them. Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) then utters the line I most relate to when the proverbial hits the fan:

Let's look at this thing from a... um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that's good?

Substitute the word 'script' for 'spacecraft' and you have the catalyst for my change in mindset. Instead of focusing on everything that was "wrong" with the script, I went back and looked at what was working. Sure, there are things that need a fixin' but there's also a lot of really, really good stuff. Funny how you forget that when your confidence is somewhat battered. 

Instead of reinventing the wheel it becomes an exercise in problem solving. Once I flipped perspective from a negative bias to a positive one everything was suddenly freed up and the keys started a clackin'. I had my writing mojo back! 

So when things explode, the data (notes) overwhelm you and the script is flirting with "Gimbal lock" remember to ask - what do you got in the script that's good?!

* Apologies to Jim Morrison

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“Talk about your habit for a second.”

I am forever surprised at the range of responses Jeff Goldsmith (formerly Creative Screenwriting Magazine, now the Q&A) elicits from professional screenwriters about their writing habits. Everything from highly structured schedules to quirky, interstate email partnerships to exquisite forms of procrastination. 

I fall into the latter camp (good to know I’m not alone!).

Someone said to me once the difference between a novelist and a dramatist (screenwriter, playwright) is that a novelist has a burning desire to tell their story and MUST write whereas a dramatist has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the keyboard with imminent disaster looming.

In this a deadline helps.

Which is where I’m at now – having procrastinated my way into a position where the only option is to write like crazy to meet a deadline. It’s amazing how it gets the creative juices flowing.

There must be an easier way but that just seems to be how it is. Somehow I still manage to be productive but it’s a helluva rollercoaster to take. When I write, when I’m in that zone, I’m fine.

Getting there is the battle for me.

I know, people say tackle the blank page every day until it becomes second nature, until the ‘fear’ subsides. I admire the people who can do that, write for a set time every single day. Not built that way.

So now I have to fly. Which means locking everybody out for the next three weeks and retreating into my head. I don’t know what’s scarier – the isolation of it all or the fact that I might enjoy staying in that space far too much.

I do know I have to banish all the other voices in my head - the doubt, the confusion, the panic, the notes, the theory. And just write. It ain’t glamorous… but that’s what you sign up for as a screenwriter.

Therefore please don’t be offended if you don’t hear from me for a while; or get a witty Facebook response; or a timely email reply; even a new blog post. I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing – turning blank pages into a visual story, a form of alchemy that is elusive, frustrating, amazing and ultimately rewarding in ways that are hard to explain.

The priority has to be the work. From that everything else springs. Talent gravitates towards talent and if the scripts are good then all the gifted people that are needed to make them come to life will follow – the actors, producers, directors, and all manner of craftspeople along with the creative and financial support required to make a movie.

That is the only magic I have to offer – words. Best make them count…

Saturday, August 27, 2011

One Year Ago

Today is the first anniversary of my involuntary redundancy from a company I worked at for a combined 21 years.

A day I still have mixed feelings about. 

Loss of a decent wage, some semblance of security and maybe, if I was being honest, a sense of self-worth. 

On the positive side, the ability to be debt free and time rich. 

I have not worked a regular job since, living off my modest redundancy payout and writing. The time when that will need to change draws inexorably nearer. I suspect that nagging feeling I am experiencing is dread.

So today will be one of reflection. This afternoon I am going to see a play - a comedy - I hope the laughter takes my mind off other things.

Last year when told I was no longer required due to cutbacks of nine hundred people in a big national company I went to see Inception. May the right side of my brain continue to conquer the left in such matters.

Tomorrow will be a new day in more ways than one...

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Invisible Man

This caught my eye in a report today about Matthew Newton's troubles in getting back into show business:

Others [high profile agents] conceded the only role Newton could attempt is behind-the-scenes, such as scriptwriting.
"I don't think anyone wants to actually see him - he needs to be invisible," they said.
The revelation that agents apparently talk in unison aside, the fact that scriptwriting is considered the equivalent of being invisible made me laugh.

In my case it's virtually true - no more Facebook, no more Twitter, no more Google+, no more online distractions (well, other than this blog).

As Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle might ask, "how's the serenity?"

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Hyphens Here

"I'm just a writer."

I normally tell people off for saying that, especially myself - there's no "just" about it. However, we're seemingly a rare breed in Australia. The norm appears to be to collect as many hyphens as possible - writer/director being the most notable. Of course, the collective noun for a swag of hyphens is "auteur" but that's a discussion for another time.

The reality - sheeted home again today - of being "just a writer" is that you can't get a film made by yourself, not even a short film. I never went to film school, have "directed" a sum total of two scenes for a workshop 6 years ago, don't even own a video camera. So I need a director... otherwise it's "just" words on a page.

Unfortunately I've had two short film projects on the precipice this year only to be scuppered when key creative collaborators withdrew. So there's a really nice short script that missed FTI's last funding round sitting in a drawer until next year; and another script that now has to find a new home before it can get made. Why the withdrawals? Personal reasons, scheduling conflicts; issues outside my control.

The disappointment is magnified when I see colleagues being congratulated for successfully navigating the highly competitive funding rounds or having their shorts selected in festivals. You have to "be in it to win it" as I always say but I can't even make it to the starting line lately!

My main focus is feature scripts but I'd like to think anything I devote time to writing has some chance of being seen by an audience otherwise what's the point?

I don't have time to dwell on it as the ticking clock of a deadline grows louder by the day. It's a reality of being a screenwriter... still doesn't mean you don't feel gutted when you have to open that metaphorical bottom drawer and banish another of your creations...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Screenwriter's Life Support

Pretty much any science fiction series ever made will have the obligatory "life support" scene where our intrepid heroes slowly asphyxiate as oxygen/gravity/sanity slowly ebbs away. They are usually saved at the last minute by some clever spark reversing the polarity on something or other and tweaking the [insert techno-babble here]. 

Well, screenwriters are just as reliant on "life support" to make it through to the end credits. If you don't have it you may as well be standing next to James T. wearing a red shirt because man, you're toast. I'm not talking about anything that requires anti-matter, dilithium crystals or even a flux capacitor, rather the support of people who have faith in your ability. People who understand. People who care. 

Let's face it, the fun part of writing is the raucous story sessions; off-the-wall brainstorming; discussing/debating/arguing beats or characters or any number of details with key creative collaborators. For me that would be the directors and producers I work with, and occasionally actors. I have never had a writing partner as such but I'm sure it's a similar situation. The ability to bounce ideas off others. 

At the end of all that spitballin' you have to lock yourself away and write. And that is HARD. So when you're stuck, writing poorly, tearing your hair out, lost in rewrites or simply battling a killer deadline any support is absolutely crucial. A few things lately have made me realise this even more...

I had a meeting on Sunday with my producers on the supernatural thriller script, the one where my head is fogged with so many possibilities as I approach the next draft. People like different things from different drafts but I've not quite nailed it yet. Not only did they tell me there was potential interest from the film market associated with the Melbourne International Film Festival, but they were backing me in to deliver the next draft in an insanely tight time frame (a little over two and a half weeks)... Faith. 

Recently another writer at a function asked me how that script was going and understood exactly what I was going through. Amazing what an empathetic ear and the offer of a chat over coffee can do for your spirits. 

Today I had a Skype session with a director I'm working with on another project. The banter flies pretty thick and fast, bordering on outright sledging but that has its own humour and connection. I wanted to finalise a damn infernal three page synopsis for a feature idea so I could disappear to work on the above rewrite. He took this in good spirits and we discussed next steps in our collaboration once I come up for air. The humour picks the spirits up and the preparedness to wait is an unspoken form of support and encouragement.

Then, unexpectedly, a writer-director rang me this afternoon to discuss the two short scripts I have written for Filmbites. He was working with the actors this evening on rehearsal techniques and wanted to know if there was anything I wanted mentioned re the pieces, especially in regard to theme. I thought this was a great professional courtesy to extend. We also ended up talking about our feature projects, the both of us on similar development paths. 

Then there's my friend, also a writer, who always tells me when I need to extricate my head from my proverbial; a writer-director who patiently listened to my rant a couple of weeks ago at my local writing haunt; and a few others who act as safety valves, wise counsel and inspiration. Small in number, huge in impact and utterly invaluable. 

Stephen King talks about the "ideal reader" in his excellent book On Writing but I would contend that sometimes you need the "ideal listener" to help you through the dark days of unfilled pages and unrealised drafts. I don't know where I would be without them...

This will be my last post for a while - time to go reward everybody's faith, understanding and support with some hard work and creativity. See you in a couple of weeks!  

Monday, July 25, 2011

In Conversation with David Stevens

This afternoon I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Oscar nominated screenwriter David Stevens talk for a couple of hours at the Subiaco Arts Centre. David, who is also a director, playwright and novelist, is in Perth for a reading of his new play The Beast and the Beauty this Wednesday.

If today's prelude, organised under the Association of Screen Professionals banner, is anything to go by then we're in for a corker of a read. David is a consummate storyteller and today's topic, loosely "How to make it in Hollywood", lent itself to a funny, entertaining and eye-opening session.

This is a man who wrote Breaker Morant (nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, 1981); the play and subsequent script for The Sum of Us; the mini-series and novel (with Alex Halley) Queen; and the mini-series Merlin among many others. I think you would agree, a substantial talent.

He was very generous with his time (and brutally honest anecdotes) so it didn't take much prompting to hear more about his experiences with Alex Halley (Roots), the Hollywood studio system, Dustin Hoffman, the Oscars experience, and how his play The Sum Of Us has still never been performed in Melbourne.

One of the key messages from the talk, for me, was David's belief that a story idea will have an optimal form - be it a screenplay, a play, novel etc and it's the writer's job to figure out what that form is. That's not to say an idea can't work in other formats but there will be a perfect way to "cut the diamond".

Interestingly, there is a play and screenplay version of The Beast and the Beauty and part of Wednesday's reading is to gain feedback on what its best format might be. I can fully understand this - feedback from a synopsis I sent out during the week is that the story might play better as a mini-series rather than a feature script.

Thank you to Annie Murtagh-Monks for organising the talk and upcoming reading; Mark DeFriest, the director of TB&TB, who had the easiest moderating job I can remember (after a pithy intro he wisely let the man talk!); and David Stevens for the fabulous stories and resultant discussion.

I strongly recommend you get down to the Subiaco Arts Centre Wednesday evening to hear the reading of David's latest work!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Update aka The Long and the Short of It, Part 2

Part One of the update was the short of it so Part Two is indeed the long. In this instalment I was contemplating discussion of my features via interpretative dance but the blog format seems far too restrictive! You'll just have to use your imagination...

ScreenWest knocked back my conspiracy thriller The Pilbara Imperative for a third time. TPI is a story about illegal uranium mining, radical environmental groups, secret deals between big business and the government, the involvement of foreign powers and a secret hidden in the Pilbara that is worth killing for. Think Edge of Darkness meets Syriana with a dash of State of Play thrown in for good measure.

Far from being defeated, I have written a three pager for the director's manager to shop around with a 27 page treatment also available. If there are any nibbles I'll write the next draft of the script which is a reworking of an older idea (In Total Unity) that was set on the docks involving a militant union. I also put a submission in for the Kit Denton Disfellowship but I'm not holding my breath over that.

I reactivated an older script The Tangled Web which has previously been optioned twice and was close to getting somewhere when Sam Worthington was nominally attached way back when (also known as before he did Avatar and became huge). I've given it a new coat of paint and sent it to a couple of producers to see if there's any current interest. This is my internet addiction tale where cyberspace is represented visually as a parallel hyper-reality. No typing away on keyboards for this baby.

The creative team for my supernatural thriller The Red Bride met on Sunday and one of the producers is going to MIFF 37 South Market in Melbourne this week. A new log line and synopsis were requested and duly delivered. We also discussed the direction of the next draft, interestingly by looking at an older version of the story. I've had three sessions with Michael Hauge which have been very useful but now it's time to knuckle down and churn out a new draft. We're real close but the last 5-10% seems to be the hardest.

I recently lamented the amount of time I've been spending writing synopses and treatments and log lines and beat sheets and supporting notes and so on and so forth [insert silent scream here]. Enough with Word documents! Back to the warm embrace of Final Draft I say. You would have even noticed an infiltration of blog posts in pseudo script format like Part One. A tell-tale sign.

Further to that though, I started writing a low budget horror free-form without outlines and beat sheets and the like. Dangerous? Perhaps. But I wrote 16 scripted pages in two days and it felt really comfortable. Want to knock out a draft quickly and see what I have. This is the cut down version (boy, is that an understatement) of a story the local Development Manager at ScreenWest says is a $100-120 million studio film. I'm learning!

Then there's the idea that came out of the last Simon van der Borgh workshop that I need to flesh out. As well as another idea I've been brainstorming with the TPI director - again, low budget, contained, and a thriller.

So there's plenty of ideas buzzing between the ears - now all I have to do is write them down...

What are you working on? How's it going? How much outlining do you undertake before writing the first draft of a script? How do you tackle rewrites?

The prosecution rests :-)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Update aka The Long and the Short of It, Part 1

Screenwriting is, of course, a very glamorous occupation where you get to party with fabulously talented actors, hang out with visionary directors and be wooed by humble and respectful producers. Then there's the late night chat show circuit, the yacht at Cannes and the huge royalty cheques in the mail. Just as well those high concept scripts write themselves... I mean, when would you find the time? To sit for hours on end... by yourself... writing and rewriting and rewriting some more. Sounds awful.

Ah, it's a pleasant fantasy. So, what the hell, let's continue with it:

CHAT SHOW HOST: So Richard, what's been happening since you were here last?
ME: You want the long or the short of it?
CHS: Do we need the seven second delay again? 
ME: Settle down. 
CHS: I'm saying, this is a family show.
ME: Since when? 
CHS: Okay, it's not but last time you were here you dumped all over the funding bodies.
ME: No, that was Burleigh. 
CHS: Told a film critic to *beep* off.
ME: That was Jimmy.
CHS: Recounted the last time you were *beeped* with your pants on.
ME: Okay, I'll give you that one, that was definitely me. 
CHS: Any good news?
ME: Well, I had to shelve a short film script.
CHS: That's good?
ME: No, that's terrible.
CHS: What happened?
ME: I had a director all lined up. Wasn't eligible for funding. Found another director who may have been. Then a producer came on board who could have been. 
CHS: Should have all been fine then...
ME: Yeah, except director number two pulled out.
CHS: Prematurely?
ME: I thought you said this was a family show?
CHS: I lied.
ME: The script was sent out to a couple more directors who liked it but said they didn't connect with it.
CHS: What does that mean? 
ME: They didn't know how to tell the producer they thought it was *beeeeeeeep*
CHS: Is it?
ME: No, not at all. But there were no takers before the deadline so now it sits gathering dust on my computer.
CHS: You really should dust your computer regularly. I'm serious. Plays havoc with the fan which overheats the hard drive which causes--
ME: It's in a drawer.
CHS: On your computer?
ME: Anyway, there's another short script.
CHS: How's this one going?
ME: Yeah, really good. It's a result of this and some of this.
CHS: You workshopped the idea with actors?
ME: No, the idea came out of improvised scenes performed by the actors.
CHS: That's a bit pedantic, isn't it?
ME: So sue me, I'm a writer. 
CHS: Big royalty cheques?
ME: *Beep* you!
CHS: Okay, you write this script from various improvised scenes... 
ME: Then the actors workshop the draft. 
CHS: And make changes?
ME: Sure.
CHS: That doesn't make your head explode?
ME: They didn't scribble all over it in crayon.
CHS: Still...
ME: I had a couple of quibbles but they didn't change the structure. Not at all. So I was fine with it.
CHS: That's very mature of you.
ME: Thank you. They even added an extra twist. 
CHS: The butler did it?
ME: No, the uncle. But that wasn't the twist.
CHS: What was the twist?
ME: You'll have to sleep on it.
CHS: Was that an in-joke?
ME: You bet! 
CHS: What happens now?
ME: You show clips of my past films and the audience applauds?
CHS: No, I meant with this script.
ME: I sent it to a director I work with.
CHS: Eligible?
ME: Not since the last time I checked.
CHS: It's the same director from the other script? 
ME: The one in the drawer?
CHS: Yes.
ME: He has, in fact, agreed to direct it. 
CHS: What about government funding?
ME: Don't need it. Why? One word... co-production.
CHS: Is that really one word? 
ME: Now who's being pedantic?
CHS: It is my show. 
ME: Granted. But these two parties, here and here, are going to make this little baby come to life.
CHS: It's currently a dead baby?
ME: I was talking metaphorically.
CHS: Sounds like it's literally a done deal. 
ME: Apparently they met today.
CHS: How'd that go?
ME: How would I know? I'm only the writer.
CHS: I'm out of questions. 
ME: Just as well. I was starting to think you were some sort of clunky writer's device.
CHS: Thought it would make a nice change around here.
ME: Okay, now it sounds like you're simply parroting the thoughts of the writer.
CHS: Is that so bad?
ME: Say goodnight Richard.
CHS: Good night, Richard.
JG: And that's how the Q&A went down. Remember to hit the subscribe button on iTunes and--
ME: That's enough inside references, Jeff. Okay?

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More Shout Outs - Perth Film Industry

While I'm handing out kudos to local film-makers, here's a few more:

Director Chris Richards-Scully has set up a Vimeo page with videos of his short films here. Check out the diverse range of genres and subject matter with faces not often seen in Australian cinema prominent.

Kanowna (short film) - Teaser trailer from Chris Richards-Scully on Vimeo.

For bi-monthly readings of local feature scripts join the Perth Actors Collective Facebook page. Next reading is on 27 July featuring a new play by David Stevens, writer of Breaker Morant and The Sum of Us, and directed by Mark DeFriest.

Speaking of Mark, I caught up with him at the second Actors Lounge Dinner which is an initiative under the Perth Film Network banner. I have attended the first two and they are far more intimate affairs than the general networking nights. Gives you a great opportunity to talk at length to other people in the film industry, mainly actors but not exclusively so. The venues, meals and price have also been very good so a fun evening. Check out the Facebook page here for more details.

Finally, for younger actors, check out the Filmbites website for details of their courses for different age groups.

(While you're busy clicking 'like' on Facebook, my page is here.)

Have fun networking and being inspired to be creative!

Western Australian Web Series Needs Your Support, Part 2

Back in December I posted about Perth film-makers Henry Inglis and Aaron McCann being finalists in Movie Extra Webfest. Well, they went on to win the competition and $50,000 to make a 7x7 minute web series. The result is Henry & Aaron's 7 Steps to Superstardom. The boys have really started to hit their stride with episode 3 - Get Your Brand Out There.

So check out their YouTube channel here for the whole series, released weekly every Tuesday.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Paranoia of Screenwriters

I don't know if there is a collective noun for a group of screenwriters but if there isn't can I proffer 'A Paranoia of Screenwriters'?

Because (as every right thinking, decent, hard-working screenwriter knows) everybody is out to steal their ideas, screw them Toby Ziegler style with their pants on, and generally suck on the marrow of their creative genius like some vampiric nemesis writ large.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating... a little. I have come across those people and I am sure you have too. You just roll your eyes and head straight for the free wine.

So it was refreshing for two days to a) be in the presence of the redoubtable Simon van der Borgh who conducted his Genre Workshop in typical entertaining style and b) hear approximately 20 feature stories ideas as a result of Simon's devilishly simple writing exercises.

To those of you mailing copies of your scripts to yourself by registered post, yes I was recording every pitch on the iPhone 4 I don't have and I've been busily transcribing your genius as we, um, 'speak'.

Seriously though, I LOVE these sorts of workshops precisely because they are all about stories and creativity. Spending a couple of days discussing the history of genre, genre types and conventions, audience expectations, referencing films and watching clips, discussing character and story rather than templates. All brilliant stuff. And highly interactive.

It's always interesting listening to other people's story ideas and we had a wide range from horror, to supernatural, to a rom-com, action-adventures, family dramas, social justice, epic fantasy... and my little science fiction horror. You also get the benefit of feedback and thoughts from Simon and your screenwriting brethren which helps gauge if the story has potential.

Plus one key message that emerged from the workshop - the consistency of TONE. The knock on a lot of Australian films being that because they don't know what genre they want to be their tone is all over the place which alienates audiences as expectations are not met.

So thank you to Simon and kudos to all the talent in the room who contributed to making it an enjoyable and productive couple of days. Let's see how many of these ideas make it to the page and hopefully further...

Just don't tell anybody a group of screenwriters gathered together in the one place and freely gave of their time and ideas... we have a reputation to uphold!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's It All About? aka Theme

Part 2 of the Professional Partnership Program with Filmbites last night and the evening was structured around THEME.

Through discussion of last week's improvised scenes; the (film school) director's suggestion of themes (such as "seize the day"); and reference to films like The Graduate and Dead Poet's Society, the group started to explore what resonates with them in their daily lives.

Many personal recollections and experiences were raised which is great fodder for a writer as it brings authenticity and emotion. It also helps me clue into the issue of relevance as I am of a different generation so my concerns and frames of reference of how the world works aren't necessarily the same. But talking thematically is a great way to bridge any real or perceived generation gap.

The actors did some warm-up exercises then we split into two groups with each writer working with 3-4 actors to do a mind-mapping exercise or what I would call brainstorming. The two strands that emerged from this were "sacrifice" and "epiphany". We swapped over and continued to explore what those themes meant and possible scenarios that could be utilised. It was also an opportunity for me to share some of my real life background, especially in regard to my "light bulb" moment (that led me to resigning from my corporate job in Sydney to come home to become a writer).

The actors were given time to come up with scenes based on either of the two themes and then present. Again, the results were very interesting - a woman waiting for her boyfriend at a restaurant on the night of their anniversary discovering she has more in common with the waitress; a sister discovering that she was adopted and deciding to leave to find her real family to the horror and anger of her brother and younger sister; and a delightfully gruesome scenario that took a literal look at sacrifice involving a pot, a baby and ingredients such as eye of newt!

Next up the writers gave one scenario each that the actors improvised leading to, from my colleague's suggestion, a very nuanced scene between male and female friends where one would like to be more. There was an honesty here that was compelling and during the debrief was considered something worth pursuing - that moment when something changes between two people and the domino effect of that change.

So it appears Romance and Epiphany might be on the mind!

But there is still that great scene from last week based on the key word "Darkness" that keeps beckoning.

Time for me to brainstorm the way I do best - I feel a rough draft coming on...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Things Screenwriters HATE... Part 1

The possibilities are endless. Computers that crash. Hard drives that fail. Second acts that need work. Third acts that don't... work *ahem*. Notes that don't make any sense. Notes that don't make any sense contradicting previous notes that did make sense. Filling out funding submission forms... in triplicate. Being rewritten. Being rewritten by someone who uses the notes that make no(n)sense. Loud music in cafes. The even louder babble to counteract the loud music. Being underneath a flightpath (shakes fist skywards). The silent screams of fractured concentration...

Add your 'favourite' [here].

However, the greatest possible infraction for a screenwriter is sending out a script and hearing Nothing. Nada. Crickets.

The doubt. The anxiety. The tension. The paranoia, goddamnit! "They HATE it." "I can't write!" "I'm a fraud!" (Thank you William Goldman for your exhaustive writing on this topic.)

I am trying to be a much more patient "waiter"... using the Zen like calm of one of my directors as inspiration. But I know how awful that sensation is when you don't hear anything back. Okay, it drives me NUTS! (which said director can attest to).

So you would think I wouldn't put my colleagues through such pain. Well, unfortunately, in this regard I must confess - I am Spartacus!

A novel manuscript and a feature film script. Unread. Uncommented. No, not even any notes that make no sense. The shame!

This weekend I will be, amongst other things, reading. For enjoyment, for commentary, for absolution!

Please forgive my sins...

A cold hard truth

Today was one of meetings and writing interrupted by news that a funding submission had not been successful. While waiting for a producer to arrive for the last of my meetings I wrote the following the old fashioned way with pen and notebook. On re-reading my scrawl it struck me as solely a reflection of my mood at that specific time which was despondent and lachrymose. I was going to disregard it but a certain truth is captured that is perhaps important to acknowledge.

So here it is transcribed and unedited. I apologise in advance for what Sam Seaborn might call the bad "poetry."

It's a cold hard truth. The scope of my imagination is not compatible with the limit of what's achievable in the current Australian film scene. 

The big conspiracy thriller - on life support.
The even bigger supernatural war film - stillborn.
Big budget science fiction... in Australia? Don't make me laugh. 

Too big, too complex, too unbelievable. 
Time to go back to the drawing board.
Simpler, less ambitious, smaller. 

Time is running out - my ill-gotten corporate payout whittling away. 

A reboot is in order... or just a boot up the backside.

The writer's eternal dilemma - what's the killer idea with the irresistable (sic) hook, mass audience appeal, but achievable on a realistic budget?

Thinking cap on...

I forgot to add - it was a good day of meetings and writing. One moment, one decision, one setback can't change that or any of the many other good days.

Something to always remember.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another form of story generation

Last night I was invited to participate in Filmbites Youth Film School's Professional Partnership Program. This is where advanced actors work with screenwriters to develop short film scripts to be filmed at a later date pending funding. It was great to be asked and it was a friendly, supportive atmosphere in a cool little space in Wangara.

There were, as advertised, ten talented actors who were all incredibly positive and receptive as was the school's director. This was the first night of two scheduled workshops where scenarios, characters and themes are created through improvisation and scene work leading to a cohesive, self-contained narrative (well, hopefully!).

I've touched on where stories come from, for me, before and this was a different and unusual approach. The actors did some warm up exercises using techniques I wasn't overly familiar with - space jumps and the like. They then presented improvised scenes they had prepared beforehand (a concept my fellow writer and I pondered) before it was our turn to introduce some elements.

Now, my head is in rewrites and other scripts so I had no preconceived ideas about what sort of story I was looking to tell. I wanted to stay open to all possibilities and the collaborative nature of the process. We had, however, been asked to prepare some key words, character types and possible themes. So I had spent some time in my favourite writing haunt typing up lists of a semi-random nature.

For example, the first exercise was an improvisation based on any of three key words provided by each writer. Mine were 'deception', 'chaos' and 'haunted'. The other three words supplied were 'darkness', 'rejection' and 'potato' (cauliflower managed to wangle its way in here somehow as well - yes, there was a clear vegetable subtext going on). The actors indicated what word they would like to tackle and had ten minutes to improvise a scene which the writers then observed. We could also sit with them during their brainstorming phase and offer suggestions.

Next was character types. Same deal - actors to pick from the list nominated by the writers, spend ten minutes preparing (and eating pizza, an invaluable component of any creative enterprise) then play the scene. These were being filmed and I believe the writers will get to review all the scenes at some stage. Of my suggestions 'unstable office worker' was the clear favourite. Which makes me proud that my late, lamented corporate career has proven so useful!

Some really interesting elements came out of these scenes with a combination of powerful and charming performances. I should also mention the actors, on introducing themselves, nominated the type of roles they wanted to play. Some were tired of being 'nice' characters and wanted darker and meatier roles; others were nearly the exact opposite wanting more 'romantic' or nicer roles.

After each block of scenes there was general discussion and feedback. Again, positive and supportive.

Out of all this sensory input and pages of notes (mainly dialogue grabs) my screenwriting brain has started to whir away. Is it possible to link any of these scenes to create a self-contained narrative? How to involve as many actors as possible given the ensemble nature of the project and satisfy their role preferences? What themes or scenarios are evident?

The answer?

You'll just have to wait for Week 2! 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stories closer to home

A common question for writers is "where do you get your stories from?" Not so easy to answer. For me, I usually "see" a scene in my mind's eye and if I keep seeing it I try and work out what it means. From that a whole script may grow. Pretty abstract, hey? 

Sure, I've been known to cut out stories from the newspaper (it's like an iPad but without silicon); jot things down in note books; 'borrow' snippets of conversation etc but there's no more powerful stimulus than a visual image or indeed entire scene playing out in your head.

They say, "write what you know" and maybe part of that is the subconscious sense of who you are and where you come from. I mention this as I had lunch down at my parents place on Friday and Dad gave me two CDs (insert iPod gag here) of two interviews he had given to a local historian. This was as part of the Oral History Program for the Cottesloe Library. All up, two hours and twenty minutes of him talking about everything from his childhood to the local neighbourhood to the jobs he has held. 

Now a lot of this I have heard in one form or another but Dad is nothing if not garrulous and the interviewer was drawing out all sorts of tales, particularly when he was a child. How there was a heavy teak table covered with drapes, rations stored underneath, that was to be used as a rudimentary shelter in the advent of an air raid during the Second World War. How there used to be a brothel in the street at number 19 but the taxis would sometimes drop off American soldiers at number 9 which is where his future wife (aka mum) lived with her older sisters which caused all sorts of problems.

I knew he had worked at the Civic Centre but did not know he was there when the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip) was in Perth for the Empire Games in 1962. He also heard the machinations of the vote for the awarding of the 1966 Games to Kingston, Jamaica. And so on. What it was like growing up during those times, working on a farm in Wickepin, how the owners of a store in Cottesloe where my grandmother used to work swear they saw her ghost and described her perfectly. How he chased off who he is sure was Eric Edgar Cooke when they lived in Claremont. 

I'm only half way through but it's fascinating and comforting in a way to be able to hear all this. His story. Told with typical understated humour and occasional mischievousness. I'm not at the part yet where I arrive on the scene so that could make for interesting listening. As will mum and dad's wedding which flirted with all sorts of sitcom-esque type disasters (but all's well that ends well). And undoubtedly stories I have not heard before.

Just maybe all this might provide a clue to where I get my stories from... 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

All rewriting is problem solving

The common adage is that all writing is rewriting. Well, after being lost in the depths of rewrite hell the last week, it would seem to me all rewriting is problem solving.

After my first session with a script consultant on The Red Bride,a supernatural thriller, points were raised about the rules of the world and the main character’s flaw. For that reader the Third Act wasn’t satisfying as there were story logic questions raised as the twists were revealed.

My reaction for the past week has been trying to “re-imagine” my own draft into something different to rectify these perceived flaws. This has led me to getting hopelessly lost, scaring the hell out of one of my producers and chasing tangents down rabbit holes with my director.

Another trap was the referencing of similar types of films that had me thinking, at one point, that we’d simply end up ‘remaking’ those films instead of creating our own unique vision.

There is nothing worse than being stuck like this. A feeling of creative impotence. Helpless. Useless. Like being in a fog where nothing is clear. Total death for a writer.

After scratching around and trying to slam square pegs into round holes I was reminded of a line of dialogue from Apollo 13:

Let's look at this thing from a... um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that's good?

Indeed, there is much to like about the current draft and it has had favourable notes and, of course, received development funding in a very competitive field. Why then was I so prepared to quickly throw out “the baby with the typewriter” as I believe I coined it? Confidence, I suspect.

But using the wisdom of Gene Kranz (as performed by Ed Harris), I went back to the script and looked at the queries raised and started to work through how to address them in the context of the current draft. Point by point. Problem by problem.

There were gems in those points – clues to the way forward. Where once they had originally paralysed me I began to embrace the possibilities they presented within my vision of what the film was. This was more tweaking than major renovation.

Confidence restored, fog lifting, today a road map appeared to the next draft. This is in the form of a revised beat sheet - using the existing DNA of the script and making adjustments accordingly.

There’s nothing better than when you get out of the mire and feel that forward momentum again. And that’s what rewriting is all about. To use another of my phrases – “development is like a shark, if it stops moving forward it dies.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fiction versus reality aka Playing dead

Much has been written and said about the death of Osama bin Laden in the last couple of days. I am not here to expound any personal view but what I find interesting as a screenwriter is the stark difference between fictional violence and the real version.

Rarely do you see in movies the moral complexities and the arguments that now circle the Obama administration. Was it legal? Was it an execution? A state sanctioned assassination? Should bin Laden have faced trial? Should pictures of his body be released. Should he have been buried at sea? Ad infinitum.

In the movies the body count can be as outrageous as you like in the name of entertainment. After all, they’re not ‘people’ just character names on the page, extras on a casting call. You ‘kill’ the bad guy. The hero dispenses ‘justice’ with a wisecrack. The ‘white hats’ win, the ‘black hats’ lose. Next! Last year’s truly execrable The Expendables was a notable example of this.

It’s easy as a writer to slip into trivialising how hard it is to kill another human being and how devastating the act is, no matter who that person might be. All for the sake of drama and excitement.

One of my all-time favourite lines of dialogue is from Clint Eastwood’s elegiac Unforgiven, a movie that DID deconstruct the mythology of violence: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.

Ain’t that the truth! Yet big summer blockbusters would largely have you believe it’s no big deal. Bang! Pass the popcorn. Sure, I know it’s make believe but the contrast is telling when the real deal is broadcast to the world in high definition with a strident soundtrack of ‘expert’ commentary.

So next time I “pull the trigger” in a scene I’m going to pause and think about what it truly means instead of enacting a mere plot point…

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An emotional rollercoaster

As you may have gathered from my last post, I was feeling somewhat down after my two hour script session last week. I’m not quite sure why… okay, that was an outright lie. The fragile writer’s psyche that craves recognition and praise baulked at the first sign of resistance. But the points raised were all valid and put across in a constructive and amicable way. I suspect what I thought I heard in the dark recesses of my brain was, “oh no, I’m going to have to start all over again!”

Thankfully, two things happened that disabused me of this notion. One was the two hour recording of the session was made available and - once I got over the inherent awkwardness of listening to myself - it proved very useful. Secondly, that recording was circulated to my producers and director who told me I had, in fact, not descended into a babbling wreck and did fine in the back and forth.

I had typed up the notes I took during the session but when I reviewed the recording I became much more enthused as there were nuances and aspects I had missed. All the positive stuff! Funny how the mind gravitates to the negatives first and foremost. I was then listening with a ‘problem solving’ mindset and not a ‘defensive’ one. And a pathway of possibilities emerged using the existing elements.

One of the most interesting questions was: what are the elements that are sacrosanct? This made me assess aspects that have never seriously been challenged even from the earlier iterations by other writer(s). For example, the main character has always been Chinese-Australian and related to the antagonist. Why? Can we explore questions of culture and acceptance in different ways that frees up the genre aspects of the plot? Yes, of course we can!

So when it came time to meet with my producers and director yesterday to do a debrief, the whole project began to open up in ways we had never really explored. Which is really exciting!

But it’s that emotional rollercoaster you go through as you take in feedback, process it, knuckle down and work out solutions then emerge re-enthused about different pathways for your story. The trick is trying to stay on an even keel and not get despondent – script development is, in fact, hard. That’s where supportive collaborators are so vital and an attitude that embraces problem-solving as a vital part of your screenwriting armoury. Having expert feedback helps as well!

I now return to the trenches with a plan and the enthusiasm to carry out that plan. After all, nobody ever said rewriting can’t be fun!

ps I don’t think I’ll be getting a Spoken Word Grammy nomination just yet… but there’s always the next session!