Tag Archives: Pilar Alessandra

The London Screenwriters’ Festival: 10 amazing seminars in one handy guide

10 Dec
London Screenwriters' Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

London Screenwriters’ Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

The London Screenwriters’ Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. That’s right, the biggest and best event for screenwriters happens not in LA, not in New York, but right here. London, Hollywood indeed. I’ve written up all the best talks, screenings and seminars I attended at this year’s: that’s ten blog posts. Read ’em, one by one. You’ll laugh! You’ll learn!

Behind The Scenes

The Silence of the Lambs, with screenwriter Ted Tally. Discover the secrets of the famous jail scene between Clarice and Hannibal, how Jodie Foster got the part, and whose head is really in the jar. Part one, click here; part two, click here.

Finding Nemo, with co-writer David Reynolds. Find out: Why is the vegetarian shark called “Bruce”? How did Sean Penn narrowly miss being in the film? And why did Pixar have to make their animation, in parts, deliberately bad?

The Lost Boys, with director Joel Schumacher. Find out: How was Rambo an influence on the movie? How you do you get maggots to act? Why must Surf Nazis die? Where did Kiefer Sutherland go in full vampire make-up?

Great talkers

Joel Schumacher. The veteran director explains how Woody Allen changed his life, how the studio took fright at Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and how “if I can do this, you can do this too”.

Lynda La Plante. The writer of Prime Suspect, who is currently working on the prequel, tells how she made it as a screenwriter. Find out why her key tip is to “write like a transvestite trucker”.

Tony Jordan. The creator of Life on Mars and the forthcoming Dickensian talks about his long, illustrious and surprisingly accidental career. He explains how he nearly gave up after just a few episodes of EastEnders (he went on to write 250), and how Life on Mars came about.

Charlie Brooker. The sweet, avuncular, cuddly uncle of screenwriting – just kidding! – trains his bile on blockbusters (“like staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together”) and writing itself (“I love having written, but I hate the process of writing”), and talks about the Black Mirror Christmas special.

Writers’ guides

Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay, with Pilar Alessandra. Sigourney Weaver’s part in Alien was originally written for a man. But though it can be useful to ask yourself “what would a man typically do?” when writing for women, you’re missing out on a whole lot of depth if that’s all you do…

The Art & Craft of Dialogue, with Claudia Myers. She outlines the five pillars of what makes a good scene, and the four pillars of what makes good dialogue within that scene. Learn how even the way you address someone can matter: “In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her ‘Mrs.Robinson’.”

Bonus section: last year’s highlights

A whole lotta Joe Eszterhas: The straight-talking author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, who used to be paid $4 million for a script, was so entertaining and larger-than-life he could not possibly fit into one blog. So I posted several, including a, ahem, blow-by-blow account of Basic Instinct, his troubles with Mel Gibson, and his tips on writing.

Creating Character, with Pilar Alessandra. How to brainstorm a film structure from scratch, based solely on character (fascinating!); plus the three dimensions to character, and how to introduce a character in a script.

The Epic Spec: How To Explode Onto The Hollywood Scene, with Stuart Hazeldine. “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

Steve Pemberton. One of the League Of Gentlemen team gives a local talk for local people. Discover, too, how a director he didn’t previously know persuaded him to act, for free, in his short film, as a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia.

Graham Linehan. Absolutely one of the top TV comedy writers working today: the man behind Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd reveals how Robert McKee screwed him up, and what the Three Moments rule is for TV comedy.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2015 is pre-registering now, and already 37% sold out. Find out more here.

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Beyond the chick-flick: 8 ways to improve female-driven films, by Pilar Alessandra

18 Nov

Pilar-Alessandra-ready-to-speak-at-the-LSFPilar Alessandra is one of my favourite film lecturers: bright, engaging, great at audience participation. I recently bought her book The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes A Time, and it’s full of useful exercises to give you a deeper understanding of character and plot. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival recently she held a seminar on Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay. Here are the best bits:

1. Films with women as leads sell. At long last. There’s Bridesmaids, The Heat, Hunger Games, Gravity. And TV, Pilar points out, is even better at giving meaty parts for women.

2. Embrace the difference. Famously, the part of Ripley in Alien was written for a man, but changed at the last minute to a woman. That created one of the most enduring and strongest heroines in modern cinema. But, says, Pilar, to adopt that strategy wholesale means missing out on gender differences and expectations that can add depth to a screenplay. In Aliens, knowing now that the protagonist was a woman, the writers used that fact to create an instant bond with the young girl Newt, which might have been less convincing in a male protagonist.

Another example Pilar used was Kill Bill, in the scene where Uma Thurman fights Copperhead in her home: they use frying pans and kitchen knives as impromptu weapons; then, when a schoolbus pulls up and Copperhead’s child enters the living room, they both stop fighting and pretend nothing’s wrong. “So have a fight scene, but don’t forget they are women, as that can bring something extra to the scene.”

3. Use gender stereotypes – but flip them. Pilar asked the audience to shout out some negative stereotypes associated with women. Most men in the audience kept very quiet at this point! The women, however, had no problem shouting things out. Then Pilar flipped showed how negatives could be re-read as positives. Emotional could be read as caring; bitchy as forthright; indecisive as cautious; gossipy as well informed.

She then used the example of Juno, which was aware of the stereotypes but inverted them all to make a more interesting and surprising film. You expect pregnant teens to be uneducated; Juno was super-articulate. Cheerleaders are usually shallow; in Juno she is supportive. The boyfriend of a pregnant teen is usually a womaniser; here it’s him who was seduced by Juno, and he’s willing to help. Parents of pregnant teens are meant to be ashamed; here they are resigned and amused. “Flipping the stereotypes on their head was enough to make a popular movie.”

4. Ask yourself: “What would a guy do?” Pilar encourages the writer to look at “masculine activity” and see if it works better. So: a female protagonist might be expected to make a careful plan and manipulate a key character into giving her information. A man might simply break into the office and steal the computer. Confounding expectations is always interesting to the audience. By the same token, when writing a male character, ask yourself sometimes what a woman might do.

5. Spin the male-driven template. Million-Dollar Baby could be pitched as “Rocky – with a female lead”. How about trying that with The Godfather? Or Star Wars?

6. Spin the female-driven template. Cinderella saves the world; Pocahontas leads a movement.

7. Don’t be flowery. When writing a female-driven screenplay, be especially careful not to be flowery in the descriptions: make the scene directions “macho”, a bold, sharp read.

8. Don’t be frightened of flaw. “Flaw is interesting. Don’t make your women too perfect.”

Read Pilar Alessandra on Creating Character, from last year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival.

LSF #10: Creating character with Pilar Alessandra

8 Nov

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my blogs from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: this tenth post pretty much exhausts the good material. I want to close on character, and the excellent workshop by Pilar Alessandra (left), director of the writing programme On The Page.

But first, a confession. My earlier screenplays, I realised after far too many years, were plot-based. That is, I had a good premise, puzzled it through a variety of twists [my first was a time-travel movie eerily reminiscent of Looper], and then tried to shoehorn the characters into them. As Julia Roberts would say, “Big mistake. Huge.”

Drama is conflict that emerges from character. It is not clever plotting. And as any writer will tell you, when your characters are alive, in your head, they do all the work for you: they decide what to do and say; you just take dictation.

My grandfather was a famous novelist: Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is a family story that he came out of his study one day, white as a sheet. My grandmother rushed up and asked him what was wrong. “It’s Molly,” he said (Molly was a character in the book he was writing). “She’s just fallen from her horse. I rather think she might die.”

Back to Pilar Alessandra. She took us through an intriguing exercise in brainstorming a film structure from scratch, based on character. You can do it yourself, now. You’ll see you have the framework for a workable film within minutes.

First, pick a flaw, any flaw – vanity, laziness, wrath, mendacity, greed, whatever. Then give it to a character.

Now: what’s the worst situation a character with that flaw can find themselves in? So a lazy person might have to win a race; a wrathful person might have to control their temper; a mendacious person might have to tell the truth. [Having written those three things, I realise they already are movies: the first might be Simon Pegg’s Run, Fat Boy, Run; the second might be Jack Nicholson’s Anger Management; the third, Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar. See? It’s working already.]

And now: what does he/she do about that situation? Then: how does this backfire?

Next: what is their overall goal? Next: who would be the absolute worst/least likely person to help them out with it? Now, what action might this person push the protagonist to take? And who or what might now get in the way?

The protagonist needs to be learning something, maybe helping someone else – so now, how can that flaw be turned into a skill? What final action can they take that is the least likely thing they would ever previously have done to take us to the resolution?

Try it. You’ll see it generates plot; interesting/funny scenes; and of course has a built-in character arc.

Two more things I liked from Pilar’s workshop.

One, her description of “3D” characters. The three dimensions she identifies are A) Public: what is your character like when out and about? B) Personal: in one-on-one scenes? C) When he or she thinks no one else is looking? [Contrast with Graham Linehan’s distinction between “above the line” and “below the line” character in post 7.]

Two: her simple rule for introducing a character in a script. You must express essence, and action. An example from one of her students: “EMMA BALE, tough by necessity, furiously packs the crabs into straw boxes.” From that short line we have character, location, employment, history and some idea of looks without just describing the heroine as “pretty” or “brunette”. Note that the less specific detail about physical attributes you give, the more widely open to casting the role is, and the more actors who might be interested in playing the role.

And th-th-that’s all for now, folks! But y’all come back now, y’hear?

Tickets to next year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival are currently available to pre-book at a £70 discount. There are also monthly instalment plans to spread the cost. http://www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com/lsf2014/. For my other blogs from the festival, including a lot of wildly entertaining stuff from Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas, start here.