Tag Archives: British

Three things screenwriters can learn from Starred Up

26 Mar


Wow. A star is born. Jack O’Connell is absolutely extraordinary in the gritty British prison drama Starred Up. Tough and vulnerable, very physical but still intelligent, and with that infectious laugh he deployed so well in Skins that says “F**k it all, I’ve nothing to lose,” he gives a (literally) balls-out performance. Angelina Jolie cast him as the lead in her next movie after seeing an early preview. It is inconceivable that he will not become the next major British star to follow Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender.

But there’s another star born here, and that’s the first-time writer of Starred Up, Jonathan Asser. About three years ago, I met Jonathan at a film gathering, and we swapped the pitches for our current projects, as you do. When I heard his, I told him, and I have never said this before or since, that it wasn’t just a strong idea, but that it would get made. All he had to do was put it in front of some producers, and one would leap at it.

The reasons for that should be instructive to any would-be writer/film-maker.

— Write what you know. Producers are looking for inside knowledge that only you can bring. A tiny example: I went to a seminar with a British director who was hired to make a Hollywood cop movie, above more experienced American directors, because he said his Dad was a policeman.

Jonathan Asser worked as a prison therapist for 12 years, before his contract was abruptly and mysteriously terminated. When he talked about life in prison, you knew that whatever fiction he wrote was going to grounded in reality, that he knew the ins and outs that most writers-for-hire in their lonely garrets or beside their Hollywood pools could only guess at.

— Create your world. This point follows from the first, but whatever your genre, the world it’s set in must be convincingly “real”, however outlandish are the events that take place within it. This is even true in fantasy and science-fiction. The Lord of the Rings and Dune both endure because the writers created an elaborate alternate universe, with its own languages, history, races and customs.  

I remember Jonathan Asser was worried about his proposed title, Starred Up, being alienating. No, I said, it’s perfect. First, it just sounds good. But more importantly, even if you don’t understand it you can tell it’s some kind of slang (it means a young offender being transferred early to an adult prison), which conveys the message this will be a story told from the inside, with its own unique language and customs.

— Show them the passion. I once had a friendly meeting with a top producer. She listened to my ideas: a sci-fi film, a thriller, a rom-com. She said yes, fine, but what are you really passionate about? I was thrown. All of them, I said. No, she insisted, what are you really passionate about?

I think what she meant was, what’s the film you would die if you didn’t make, the film that is burning to erupt from inside you like molten lava? Starred Up is clearly that to Jonathan Asser. There’s even a line in the film when the prison therapist, modelled on himself, confesses that his group sessions are just as much therapy to him as to the inmates. “I need to be here,” he says simply. And this is a film, after his therapy project was pulled out from under him after 12 successful years, that Jonathan needed to write.

As the old Hollywood saying goes, “The most important thing in this business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

The Fallen: 18-year-old Brit makes sci-fi flick

20 Aug


I was impressed by the trailer (above) for micro-budget Brit sci-fi flick The Fallen. It had action scenes and explosions and hundreds of alien spaceships hanging in the air, as Douglas Adams once memorably wrote, in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. I was even more impressed when I discovered that its director, Rupert Rixon, is only 18, wtf. So I kept an eye out for the finished product.

Now the first episode in this ambitious six-parter, which together will add up to feature-film length, has finally been uploaded to YouTube (click here). Given the director’s age and the tiny budget (for their most expensive battle scene they managed to dig trenches, set off explosions, fire machine-guns and kit out actors in army uniform for just £600), it’s enormously impressive: pacey, well directed, making excellent use of derelict areas and buildings across England to give it that post-apocalyptic feel. Give Rixon a few years and a good producer, and you could expect him to be beating Hollywood at their own game.

And yet it doesn’t deliver on the trailer’s promise. The sound quality is atrocious, which is hard to forgive. And you wish as much thought had gone into the initial script as it clearly did into the filming.

A sci-fi or fantasy film only works if the alternate world it creates is credible, if it feels real. Lord of the Rings or Dune or even Harry Potter endure not just because of story and character, but because so much thought has gone into the economics, politics and language of their worlds. Here, we are told in an opening voice-over that most of Earth’s water has been sucked out by aliens, leading to global famine. It’s not thought through. Bottle-caps are used for money, which in itself makes no sense; a handful of caps is apparently fortune enough to provoke an armed fight at a poker table, yet 30cl of water costs 120. Humans need a litre per day.

The characters’ motivations, too, are frequently unclear or downright unconvincing; not least when a man running from machine-gun-toting baddies lights his way with a flare, which may look good on film but is not recommended for evading nocturnal pursuit. (Mind you, M did much the same at the end of Skyfall, and she’s meant to be the spy of spies.) And so far there’s not an original or surprising line of dialogue.

Does all this matter? You may think not, on YouTube. It’s free, it’s short, the audience maybe don’t expect so much. Comments so far have all been positive. But it doesn’t cost any more to think these things through, so why not do it? And if you feel this is harsh on an 18-year-old, it is I hope a mark of respect for Rupert Rixon’s prodigious potential that I am criticising The Fallen as I might a “proper” film.

Lessons for would-be film-makers? Get a proper sound recordist/mixer, and a decent script-editor. They will do your film far more good than the latest state-of-the-art digital camera that most directors get their rocks off on.

But the more important lesson is – just do it. You can’t complain you don’t have the right contacts, the right financing, the right breaks, the right training, when an 18-year-old can get out there and make a full-length sci-fi feature armed with little more than vision, determination and a giant pair of clanking brass balls.