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…