Tag Archives: screen-writing

New Year script resolutions

2 Jan
Looper: proof that time-travel ideas won't last if you sit on them for ten years

Looper: I wrote a script with the same premise ten years ago; shoulda sold it more

 

* Fit the plot around the characters, not the other way round. From Blair in Gossip Girl to Frank in Blue Velvet, the most interesting characters are those who do something you don’t expect, without actually behaving out of character. And if they don’t surprise the writer, they’re unlikely to surprise the viewer.

* Write something you care about. It sounds obvious – why spend months or years on something if you don’t give a damn? But a light-bulb went on when having coffee with a top producer: I was talking up my sci-fi script, then my thriller script, when she said, “Yes, but what have you written that you really care about?” I did care about these scripts, of course, but she meant something authentic, something only I could write. So I’ve just finished a script, that was very hard to write, inspired by the death of my father. It may or may not get made, but if it has “heart”, it gets you noticed as a writer.

* Don’t do a zillion drafts, unless they are major changes. I can carry on chiselling away at a script for months, but sometimes it’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

* Make your first five pages extraordinary. If they don’t grab the reader and make them want to know more, they won’t even read the rest.

* Don’t ignore accepted structure, however much you may admire Charlie Kaufman. There’s a reason for all those courses and books: it tends to work. My fave book on this in recent years, incidentally, is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

* Get a second opinion. And a third, and a fourth… But don’t trust friends and family to give you honest and/or informed feedback. Pay a professional script reader. I’ve personally found Ellin Stein brilliant (www.solidscripts.co.uk). I also met Michelle of http://www.writesofluid.com at the London Screenwriters Festival, and she seems pretty switched on. Another cheap and easy option is to agree with other writers to critique each other’s scripts.

* Don’t just write it, sell the damn thing. I had a sci-fi script in my bottom drawer for ten years, which I only showed to a couple of producers. Then Looper comes out, with pretty much exactly the same high-concept premise (a time assassin on a mission to kill himself), and it’s hailed as one of the best sci-fi flicks in years. This year, I’m going to put myself about more. Starting with my London, Hollywood blog. If you like it, please Follow it, Retweet it, tell your friends.

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Salman Rushdie on adapting Midnight’s Children

30 Dec

It’s a truism that great books make lousy movies. Film is about economy of expression; novels (with some exceptions, such as Ian McEwan or Murakami) are about density of language. Salman Rushdie, who has adapted his own gloriously unfilmable novel Midnight’s Children for the screen, even admitted as much in the Screen Talk I attended at the BFI London Film Festival.

Rushdie began his surprisingly warm and funny talk with an old joke about two goats who break into a projection room and start eating reels of celluloid. “What do you think of the movie?” asks one. “I preferred the book,” says the other.

So why do it? Rushdie said he chose to write the screenplay himself so he would have no one else to blame if it all went terribly wrong. It’s to his credit that it doesn’t, quite: the film, like the book, is still critical enough of Indira Gandhi to have angered the ruling Congress party at the Kerala Film Festival, and it was only a few days ago that it finally secured a release date (Feb 1) in India. And to anyone who hasn’t read the original, it will still be an enthralling, colourful epic. But it doesn’t work as a film.

The sprawling narrative about the end of colonial rule in India and the problems of Partition requires way too much exposition, not helped by the late addition of a voiceover (narrated by Rushdie) which the director decided was needed to retain the flavour of the book’s prose. More problematic are the magic realist elements – a group of children, born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947 when India achieved independence, grow up each with their own superpower – which just seem silly on screen. You half expect Ian McKellen to show up in his Magneto hat.

“Kill your babies,” William Goldman famously said of screenwriting. Rushdie is no King Herod. He did say he was proud of an extra scene he added at the end, where the two rivals confront each other; but he might more usefully have worked on his skills of subtraction.

Rushdie spoke movingly at the LFF Screen Talk of his long love of film, honed in a rep cinema while an undergraduate at Cambridge (just as I had the Penultimate Picture Palace and the Phoenix while at Oxford – that first taste of European art movie, Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, lifted the top of my head clean off). Let’s hope Rushdie now turns his hand to an original screenplay.

Batman vs The Avengers

22 Dec

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Superheroes are currently locked in an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the emissaries of light. I don’t mean good vs evil – I mean dark, depressing and dystopian, vs. primary-coloured escapist fantasy.

It was hard to imagine any superhero film topping Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, which felt like the films we’d been waiting for ever since Frank Miller’s graphic novel appeared in 1986, and the last two of which made just over a billion dollars each. Then along came Marvel Avengers Assemble, with a staggering $1.5 billion ker-ching.

The reason for this blog? On the ferry to France, Batman and Avengers were playing simultaneously in the two on-board cinemas. I’d seen both before, natch. Which to choose for a second viewing? The culmination of a lifetime’s near-obsession, begun as a toddler, continuing with interviewing Adam West (http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/west/) and then writing the first cover feature on the Tim Burton Batman? Or else the four-colour joys of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble?

Slightly to my own surprise, Whedon won hands-down. To me, it’s an object lesson in screen-writing. It’s phenomenally hard to write a genuine ensemble piece which is generous to each character, but he pulls it off. We start with the Black Widow, tied to a chair and interrogated by sinister Russians. Then the penny drops for us, as well as the men, that she is interrogating them. The fight scene that follows, thrillingly choreographed as it is, is secondary to the message that this is a character with brains, as well as beauty and brawn. And that’s not all. Whedon piggy-backs on this scene to build up the next character: Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. That this fearlessly able woman is patently panicked at the thought of meeting him gives us a terrific feeling of anticipation before Mark Ruffalo even steps on screen.

And so it goes on, the dialogue fizzing like Aaron Sorkin in a cape.  Even Pepper Potts, in her brief time on screen, is given zingers that show she’s more than a match for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. The Hulk has two bits of laugh-out-loud visual slapstick. As for Captain America, Whedon makes even his boringness interesting: “These guys are basically Gods,” he is warned of Loki and Thor. He replies: “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

And a special prize for sneaking the insult “You whingeing c**t” into a 12A movie – which is basically how Loki’s Shakespearean insult “mewling quim” translates. At Time Out, our Marketing Director once snuck the words “f***ing hell” past the censors in a radio ad for the magazine, when Victor Lewis-Smith spoke of the “four quenelles” in a restaurant. Call me immature, but this gives me a similar kick.

What’s all the more remarkable is that this was planned so long ago. Five years ago I interviewed Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios (see full interview at http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/marvel/). Tired of franchising his best characters to studios who kept messing them up, or perhaps worse, succeeding with them (like Spiderman) and pocketing most of the profits, he staked the company on a $550 million loan to produce the blockbusters themselves. Avengers Assemble is the final pay-off for a bunch of movies, successful in their own right, that were effectively glorified marketing campaigns for this team-up.

So you can keep your dystopia. Even Alan Moore is bored of the angst-ridden heroes he helped create, as he told me in several interviews, and returned to the old-school fun of his boyhood in his series 1963. As for Superman being Nolanised next summer – the new trailer does look great, but I’m not sure I want a gloomy, introspective Man of Steel, all tarnished and bent out of shape.

…What do you think? Comments please!

How I became a hook-handed supervillain

14 Dec

Last week, shooting wrapped on a 15-minute short I helped write. Not only that, this was my first speaking role, at the insistence of director/co-writer Tony Errico, whose whole crazy scheme this film was. And me so shy and retiring 🙂

The premise is great: it’s a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. I played one of four supervillain friends. If the film turns out half as funny to watch as it was to shoot, we’ll be made up.

The day started badly, for me at least. Tony had decided overnight that the villains should all be of different nationalities: my German character was suddenly American. Luckily I had one of the writers on hand (me!) to rework my three passages of dialogue to an American idiom, but it was nerve-wracking to relearn the lines and practise a new accent at the last minute.

It was yet another illustration of the fluidity of film. It always seemed to me that The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where scenes change as Jim Carrey’s memory is rewritten, is on one level a metaphor for the script-writing process: characters that started out female become male; two become one; old becomes young. It was an eye-opener to be part of it happening during shooting.

The scene was a poker game. I had a hook for a hand, which made holding the cards interesting. And I got off lightly: Tony’s character was blind. I’ve played a $10,000 tournament in the Caribbean against world champions; in a mahogany-lined club a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe; on the Mashantucket Pequot native American reservation; on a table suspended from a crane 40m above ground beside City Hall; against millionaires, gangsters, hookers and hustlers. This was definitely my strangest game yet.

I haven’t had so much fun since playing Toad of Toad Hall aged 12. Apart from a wordless cameo as Surprised & Disgusted Journalist in the last featurette I co-wrote, Animal Charm, I hadn’t acted since playing Chrysale in a French production of Le Malade Imaginaire in my teens. It’s a different skill, for film: working out what the framing is; performing actions (like poker) at the same time as speaking; learning new lines on the day; trusting the director when there is no audience reaction to guide you.

And always remembering the sagest piece of acting advice given by the screen’s greatest actor. Asked for his best tip, Robert De Niro once thought hard, and said: “Try not to blink.”

“I see famous people!”

14 Nov

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I saw Jenny Agutter, the other day. It was at the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain. It’s strange to have such a potent figure of one’s boyhood imaginings step suddenly off the screen and into real life. It’s not the first time: I actually lived round the corner from her for several years, in Camberwell. The English rose of Walkabout, Logan’s Run (above) and American Werewolf in London was suddenly a bloomin’ neighbour. She passed me once in brown leather trousers, straight-backed, with three large hounds on a lead, a living Richard Avedon shoot.

That Purple Rose of Cairo moment (or Last Action Hero, if you prefer Arnie to Woody) happens a lot, in London. The worst thing is when you see someone in a bar, realise you know them, smile, wave, then realise, actually, that you’ve never met. It’s just that bloke you’ve seen on the TV.

Keira Knightley suddenly popped up on the bar table next to mine a few months ago. I’ve recently passed Mike Leigh in the street, looking lost; Ricky Gervais, jogging; Tim Spall with his son Rafe.

You feel like Dermot in Father Ted, with sheep leaping about between the confused thought clouds above your head marked ‘Reality’ and ‘Dreams’.

And what has this to do with film-making, rather than name-dropping? Well. It’s less a Heat mag version of Sixth Sense – ‘I see famous people!’ – than about six degrees of separation, which Kevin Bacon is currently plugging for the EE network. But in London, it can be two degrees, or one. You just need to bump into people. And be ready.

The reason the wonderful Sally Phillips was in Animal Charm, the Gothic horror-comedy featurette I co-wrote, is that I got in touch with her through the director of The Decoy Bride (screenplay by Sally) whom I had met on a poker boat down the Thames several years before. As you do. The reason Boy George had a hilarious cameo as a policeman was that director/co-writer Ben Charles Edwards met him at a party, and had the brass balls to just ask him.

Serendipity nearly worked again for my forthcoming collaboration with director Tony Errico, a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. A friend recommended a lovely veteran thesp with whom she played online Scrabble, and put us in touch. He was to have been the lead, but has just dropped out, having landing a lucrative Christmas show. A week before shooting. Yikes.

Crossed fingers that London can bring us another star. So if anyone knows any talented actors, late 40s to 70s, who can do a German accent and wants to bulk out their showreel, do get in touch…