Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Development of Script Development in Australia

After the release of three Australian feature films on the same day last week (surely an issue in itself) and their poor box office performance, the post mortem has been swift and brutal. One article that caught my eye was by Jim Schembri (here) with currently over 100 comments.

There are many aspects to the debate about why these films failed, marketing high amongst them, but one clear strand was about script development (and lack of third acts in Australian films). I would like to explore this as, being an aspiring feature film writer who happens to be Australian, it is a subject close to my creative heart...

"Writing is hard." So says veteran American film and television writer and film school professor Paul Chitlik who is in Perth conducting two intensive 5 day workshops on how to craft a treatment up to Hollywood industry standards.

Now, before we go any further, I'm not one of those Australian writers who equates the word "Hollywood" to something negative or downright embarrassing as some in the local industry seem to do. What "Hollywood" means to me is classic three act story-telling and yes, damn it, most likely with a "happy ending". Do they make bad films? Sure. Do they make enduring classics that are seen around the world by an astonishing number of people? Better than anyone else.

Sixteen projects will go through this workshop. Having been in the first group of eight I can unequivocally say every project has improved exponentially. The focus is on structure and character and how the two interact, particularly in regard to the protagonist's flaw. Is it formula? Maybe. Does it work? Absolutely. Does it mean we have to write $50 million plus Hollywood style blockbusters? Of course not. Good film structure doesn't cost a fortune.

This workshop comes hot on the heels of a 2 day seminar on The Hero's Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and popularised in Hollywood by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey. Conducted by Karel Segers, it gave local writers and animators another model on how to structure a classically told story, in this case, literally from the classics!

In just over a fortnight's time I will embark on a rewrite of my other feature project with a high profile American script guru (conducted over Skype). I find this both exciting and intimidating as it feels like I'm "playing with the big boys." Being outside my comfort zone and stretched as a writer is essential. It's the only way to make me and the script better.

Last year that script went through ScreenWest's Feature Navigator program where consultants were flown in for a week to give expert feedback and, in my case, a few whacks behind the ear. It is an initiative committed to improving the quality of local feature scripts. Those consultants ranged from a working producer to an Australian writer-director now developing projects in LA to two script gurus from the UK. Not only was the script dissected in great detail but also the marketing aspects ("who is the audience?") and strength of the creative team.

The Development Manager at ScreenWest, a former WAAPA graduate, worked in Hollywood for 5 years as a producer. Most conversations I have with her are more writer-producer than writer-funding bureaucrat as we discuss the marketing aspect of my projects as much as the story details.

The WA Branch of the Australian Writers' Guild does an excellent job in bringing out people to Perth to hold talks and seminars on screenwriting including such Aussie luminaries as Linda Aronson and Duncan Thompson.

In fact there is enormous focus in trying to improve the quality of scripts and screenwriters certainly on this side of the country (and I am sure over east). The thing is this:

It doesn't get handed to you.

You have to put yourself out there and mix it up. Some of these seminars/workshops are by competitive application. A lot of them are free or subsidised if you are a member of an industry body such as the Writers' Guild.

Make sure you apply! Make sure you attend!

"Getting in the room" is a term I use all the time. These people and programs are a boon for craft skills and storytelling knowledge. A lot of the time I see the same familiar faces - they are the ones serious about the craft of screenwriting. But there are many people I know working on feature projects who are never seen at even the free seminars. Writing is hard... and doing it by yourself well nigh impossible!

Finally, a quick comment on Third Acts. They are excruciatingly, mind-bogglingly, insanely difficult to pull off and I suspect that's why many Australian films struggle with them. I only recently cracked the third act of The Red Bride after many false starts. Indeed, in the last draft - a page one rewrite - I wrote the third act first because I knew if I didn't nail it we still didn't have a movie.

So while it may be valid to criticise the quality of many Australian scripts please Please PLEASE don't think it's because of a lack of effort or application of talent. There are people out there serious about their craft who are trying to do exactly what is being demanded - write entertaining film scripts that have mass audience appeal.

It just takes time and is damn hard work!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Treatment Workshop, Part 2 or Keep it simple, stupid!

Ordinary world - A screenwriter prone to writing overcomplicated drafts tinkers with one of his feature creations. He knows there's a damn good story in there somewhere but procrastinates over how to tackle the next draft.

Inciting Incident - On the first day of a five day treatment workshop this writer, whose name may or may not start with *ahem* Richard Hyde, is told that he has "two big stories" and needs to simplify. Holy delete-itis, Batman!

1st Act Turning Point - Rejecting the simpler of the two "big stories", said writer decides to choose Option B(e obstinate then!) and impulsively makes his antagonist the protagonist in a completely new story... with only a few hours to submit a completely revised beat sheet. HELP!

Midpoint - After further comments on the radically revamped story, the writer agrees with the wise Mentor from far away lands that "writing is hard!" Time is short and the story mutates at a rapid rate. A shadowy government agency known only as ScreenWest might have to be called in to contain this sucker.

Low Point - Just when he thinks he's on the home stretch, the flaw returns to bite him on his left justified ass. Desperate cries of "pare down" and "cut twenty percent" ring in his ears. It seems hopeless - there are way too many "babies to kill".

Final Challenge - Armed only with a red pen, a backspace button and a demanding director, said writer wades into a ream of Courier 12 trouble. No minor character is safe from his wrath, no extraneous subplot immune to the eradication.

The Return - Having learnt his lesson, the writer composes one line platitudes for Hallmark cards... No, no, that's not it, damn it! The writer opens a blank word document and commences his latest project with a tried and true slogan in mind - Keep it simple, stupid!


No screenwriters were harmed in the duration of the workshop.

Advice and constructive commentary was, however, freely given and gladly accepted.

It's only a rumour that complaints were made to the Writers' Guild re the inhumane treatment of writers who were forced to stay up laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate to meet daily deadlines.

Everyone's project improved dramatically...

Thank you, Paul.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuts 'n' Bolts - Treatment Workshop

Next up on the March schedule is a 5 day workshop with Paul Chitlik who flies in to sunny Perth from LA tomorrow. Starting Wednesday there will be a total of 15 hours of seminars, time allocated for one on one meetings and very tight daily deadlines for treatment pages. Yes, in 5 days we will have completed a Hollywood style 25-35 page treatment of our feature film idea. There are two of these treatment workshops with 8 projects in each. I'm in the first wave with an older script of mine - a conspiracy thriller - that has recently found favour with a local director. I had sent it to him as a writing sample so good outcome all round.

Originally set on the docks and in the boardrooms of corporate Australia during a time of major industrial strife, we're now moving it to the mining industry (uranium no less) and a radical environmental group (instead of union). While this involves both research and a rethink of settings and mindset, I was happy to do this at the director's suggestion as really it is the story of two intertwined father-son relationships - one a complete fracture, the other a reconciliation - in a time of violent conflict and battle for dominance... over business, over ideology, over each other.

Already there has been preparatory work - breaking the story down into its seven key structure points: Ordinary world, inciting incident, First Act turning point, Midpoint, Low point, Climax and Resolution as well as identifying the premise. Then we had to write a full beat sheet using those structure points as signposts. This proved interesting as I had a full draft script plus notes from a development submission with proposed changes. I did the first cut based on the existing script, then incorporated the changes, then made adjustments from the director's feedback on the resultant beat sheet. The story is in a state of evolution so there are some placeholders in there, particularly the climax. I'm sure the details will get plenty of focus in the blowtorch of the workshop. Which is exactly what I'm after.

Another interesting aspect is that each team shares its project with everyone else. I therefore have the beat sheets of 7 other projects to read and what a diverse bunch they are - horror, satire, romantic-comedy, drama, period pieces, action, the full gamut! Having done an online course with Paul I suspect we will all have an opportunity to comment on each others work which will throw up different perspectives and informed discussion. The details of each project "stays in the room" but it's a good way to gain insight into your own story and also hone your craft skills when you have to give constructive feedback on stories in genres you may not normally gravitate to.

I am looking forward to the workshop, meeting Paul in person, working with other local writers, and adding to my writing 'toolkit'. These building blocks - structure points, premise, beat sheet, treatment - are a valuable way to get your story, characters and structure into shape before getting anywhere near opening your screenwriting software of choice. You would be surprised the amount of time this can save you in the long run!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Hero's Journey - Day Two

What does one do on a beautiful, warm Autumn's day in Perth? The kind of day where it's all blue skies and smiling faces? When it's the Sunday of a long weekend no less?

Clearly, the only answer if you're a student of storytelling, is to lock yourself in a cold, dark, damp theatrette buried in a secret underground location in the heart of the city protected by implacable security guards and devious henchmen to watch movie clips all day. (Okay, I may be exaggerating - it wasn't that cold).

"But I can do that at home!", I hear you exclaim. This may well be the case but it would be without the wisdom of our visiting mentor whose name is whispered upon the air conditioned breeze with awe. The man with only half a face. Whose insight is so penetrating that only one eye can be revealed! (Too much with the mythical introduction maybe?).

Putting aside my Trickster's archetype...

Today we watched lots of movie scenes as Karel Segers showed us each of the Twelve Stages in the Hero's Journey. Each scene or sequence demonstrated the practical application of the stage being discussed. Personally, I find this much more powerful than reading or being told dry analysis of certain films. There was also plenty of interaction which allowed for clarification and the testing of our understanding.

And this just in - Pixar scores a crushing 6-1 victory over Dreamworks in the animated feature stakes as we marvel at Toy Story 1 & 3, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and WALL-E versus How to Train Your Dragon (though there were some animated clips I didn't recognise which hints at one of my (many) flaws - but we'll come to thatItalic later). Several of the Pixar sequences were themselves mini-12 stage Hero's journeys which might account for their phenomenal box office record and critical acclaim.

But there was plenty of live action fare to keep me occupied such as The Untouchables, The Lives of Others, Frozen River, Avatar, Touch of Evil, Jaws, Phone Booth, Gladiator, Die Hard and Groundhog Day. Other films discussed were Star Wars, Thelma and Louise and Casino Royale.

What's one thing that strikes you about this list? That's right, not a single Australian film! (That's perhaps a topic for a separate post!). The other point of relevance is that while each of these films may deploy the 12 stages to varying degrees you could hardly say they are similar by any stretch of the imagination! Hence allaying the 'fear of formula' restricting creativity.

So what did I learn?

There were some key points... and you may even have caught me scribbling away redefining my script in terms of the 12 stages and character archetypes:

The vital importance of telling the story from the Hero's Point of View was stressed. There is no such thing as omniscient POV.

That some styles of story may not suit this model - film noir, for example, or a tragedy.

Perhaps the most interesting, which I had not heard before, was the concept of movement when crossing key threshold points - at the end of the First and Second Acts and right after the midpoint. As in actual physical travel. This is also where chase sequences are most likely to be found. Some of the examples were quite elaborate and extended sequences so I have to think about this in terms of my own stories (which is good - a fresh perspective).

And the surprise of the day? After spending 6 hours watching film clips I travelled to a small and foreboding 'inmost cave' - the local video store - where I suffered the ordeal of picking out a DVD that would provide entertainment value on a warm Sunday night. Astonishingly, I rented a film I wouldn't have given a second thought to before seeing an excerpt today - the animated feature Despicable Me.

I have overcome my flaw! (Well, one of them at least...)

Thank you to Karel for his expertise and good humour. You can find more information at his blog http://thestorydepartment.com/ or follow him on Twitter via @ozzywood.

Thanks also to Evangeline Than for getting Karel out here and WAnimate and ScreenWest for supporting local writers and animators.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Hero's Journey - Day One

Ordinary world

Saturday, early. Not renowned as a morning person I am running somewhat late. What I hate more than waking up early is paying exorbitant parking fees. So I trudge to the venue after depositing my car in a secret location free of such imposts (fingers crossed)...

... to encounter my first Threshold Guardian - a lady with a clipboard. Never under-estimate the power of a well crossed off list. Clearly intimidated, I stammer out my name to be given, gulp, a name tag. Cowed by the officious nature of these proceedings I mechanically pat the sticky label onto my shirt and enter a theatrette...

... that is full of people, some fifty in all, who have come to seek wisdom from our Mentor for the weekend, Karel Segers. Introductions are made by our Herald (Evangeline Than) who has organised the event for WAnimate in conjunction with ScreenWest. Yes, I am mainly surrounded by strange creatures I know little about - animators. I am encouraged, however, that they have come in numbers to learn the craft of story-telling. Either that or someone is going to ask me to draw which would be disastrous for all involved!

Refusal of the call

Karel starts by saying he will give us the "bee's knees" of all storytelling models - the Hero's Journey. I drop my pen, throw my note pad to the floor, mutter darkly about prescriptive methods of storytelling, shout obscenities at him and storm out of the room...

... or possibly just sit there meekly thinking, "here we go". But then I consider that he has an awfully nice powerpoint presentation, some snazzy clips from actual movies and an electronic whiteboard (yes!) so maybe I should turn off my inherent scepticism and go along for the ride...

The special world

... and experience a fantastical world where strange symbols and arcane terminology are the building blocks for this thing we call story-telling.

Day one is all about setting the scene - discovering Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Christopher Vogler and yes, the guy who perhaps made the greatest impact from a movie perspective, George Lucas. Even Aristotle's Poetics received a mention at one stage. Most of the clips are from animated movies and given the audience I can't begrudge that. Besides, those Pixar dudes do story perhaps better than anyone else around at present.

The 3 Act structure is given a little bit of a whack behind the ears for being somewhat inadequate but then is immediately redeemed for fitting in with the Hero's Journey. Karel gives a brief overview of the 12 stages with a promise that they will be shown and discussed in depth with plenty of clips tomorrow.

It's all very breezy and done with a good sense of humour and knowledge. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday before encountering the next phase of such workshops - networking!

Allies and Enemies

Down to the iconic local pub we go to share a drink and exchange snippets of who we are and what we do. This is an environment clearly filled with both Allies and Enemies, the former being other writers, the latter being bar staff. All good heroes require a flaw to overcome and mine is impatience. I suspect the reason you 'rope off' a special area in a public bar is so hopefully you can get decent service. How naive I am!

But that aside, discussion turns to projects, thoughts of the day's events, the obligatory "what are you working on?" and the mining of other information. Disappointingly, I haven't worked out who my Shadow character is yet and I do love a good nemesis! I'm also concerned with all the talk about 'shape-shifters' and nervously expect Karel to exhibit his "McKee side" at any minute. But Evangeline whisks him away before any Adaptation style rant emerges. Relieved, I trek back to my car (no parking ticket, yes!) and head home...

Tomorrow I look forward to seizing the sword and getting me some of that good Elixir...

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 4, 2011

I do love me a good workshop

Fade In:

On Richard, engrossed in a screenwriting manual. You know the type, written by some well known script guru, most likely from the US. But something's wrong... the book grows heavier as if made of lead. He can barely keep it at eye level. A strange sound intrudes... it grows louder. Rhythmic, persistent... nasal. The book drops from his hands, his head lolls back... the snoring continues.

Okay, maybe an exaggeration but I really struggle with most screenwriting books. I usually find them dry and uninspiring. I've never managed to get through all of McKee's Story (or the audio book), nor Aronson's Scriptwriting Updated, never read Syd Field. I do love, however, books about writers and writing such as William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?; Stephen King's On Writing; and Joe Eszterhas' Hollywood Animal. Then there are the Peter Biskind books for a broader view of Hollywood and Sundance etc.

What I much rather prefer are workshops and seminars. I guess I just learn better in an interactive environment where ideas can be tested and discussed immediately with the author and a group of like-minded souls. Give me a whiteboard and I'm happy! So it's great to be a part of workshop month in March:

First up, this weekend Karel Segers (of The Story Department fame) is holding a two day workshop on the Hero's Journey. Christopher Vogler popularised and updated Joseph Campbell's work on the use of myth in screenwriting in his book The Writer's Journey (which I have actually read and whoever has my copy could they please return it!). I struggled to use this model in an earlier iteration of one of my scripts so I'm looking forward to having another go round with Mentors, Threshold Guardians and the like. I think the problem was it didn't feel organic and the left side of my brain (analytical) was engaged instead of the right (creative). Perhaps Karel can shed further light on this.

Then in mid-March there is a 5 day hands-on treatment workshop conducted by Paul Chitlik of Rewrite fame (another rare one I have read and liked). The goal is to end up with a Hollywood calibre 25-35 page treatment of a feature film idea. Plenty of pre-workshop work and very tight in workshop writing deadlines. Should prove quite the challenge!

I will report my findings from these workshops as I am sure there will be no snoring involved!

Richard scribbles away happily on a white board as animated debate explodes all around him in airconditioned splendour...