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?