Tag Archives: screenwriting

Online at last! Watch our acclaimed short film, Dotty

20 Jun

1620580_10151837018812062_1676636489_n1I am unbelievably thrilled to announce that Dotty, a truly lovely short film I wrote, is finally available online to view for free. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you anything about the plot, save that my influences were Harold and Maude, Alan Moore and The Usual Suspects.

It’s one of those rare films where everything comes together. Sadie Frost, the producer and award-winning star, gave me a terrifically useful note on my first draft: it was just “simpler, with less dialogue”. Ben Charles Edwards, the hugely talented director, put great care into the details as well as the big picture, from the gloves Sadie wears as Dotty to the long hours spent in the editing suite with editor Darren Baldwin making it just so. John Hicks’s cinematography is ravishing, and it was he who first suggested filming something about a mysterious older woman in a trailer near his home in Lanzarote. The landscape looked to me looked like an American desert – helping to inspire my key story idea. The music by Paul Honey still sends a shiver down my spine at the climax. And Sadie’s son Rudy Law really is a natural in front of the camera, as we first found when Ben filmed him in Suzie Lovitt.

To me, it was the best possible illustration of the way film is the ultimate collaborative medium: that it may start with a strong idea and a few words on a page, but it takes the combined talents of many to give them life and make them sing.

Anyway. I’m proud of our little film, as you can tell. The many festivals round the world who accepted it for screening, from Australia and Korea to Raindance and Hollywood, seemed to like it. I hope you’ll like it too. Let me know!

To watch Dotty on Nowness.com, click here.

Jupiter Ascending: what went wrong for the Wachowskis?

10 Feb

Jupiter Ascending

The opening weekend for Jupiter Ascending has been dubbed by Variety an “embarrassing failure” which leaves the Wachowski siblings “at a career crossroads”. Their space opera cost $179 million to produce, and grossed just $19 million. By contrast, in the same weekend, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water made $56 million.

The film is a mess. I would like to say a glorious mess, but that’s a little too kind. Film blogger Joel Meadows describes it as “Star Wars directed by Liberace”, but it’s not even camply enjoyable in the manner of, say, The Fifth Element. I still enjoyed it, in a popcorn-munching, at a loose end on a Saturday night sort of way, but I couldn’t honestly recommend it.

I’ve been thinking about what went wrong, and how you would fix it, and I’ve decided it comes back to the absolute screenwriting basics: a) it is never clear in Jupiter Ascending what the protagonist’s goal is; b) the protagonist is a passive reactor to events for almost all the movie, becoming active only at the very climax.

Simples.

It just goes to show that you can give Channing Tatum wings and magic flying boots, you can stick a blue-haired Japanese girl bounty hunter on a cool hover-scooter, you can have portals that collapse space-time, you can splice human DNA with crocodiles for your baddies, you can pour Mila Kunis into tight black leather trousers and have Eddie Redmayne elegantly chewing the $179 million scenery, but if you don’t follow those basic rules of screenwriting, no one is going to give two hypergalactic hoots about your story or, more damagingly still, your characters.

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.

The Silence of the Lambs: discover screenwriter Ted Tally’s key scenes (part two)

8 Dec

Slightly delayed, here is the final part of screenwriter Ted Tally talking us through the key scenes of The Silence of the Lambs, from a live screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. To read part one, click here

lambs van

Buffalo Bill tricks his next victim into his van: This shows Jonathan Demme’s sensitivity as a film-maker. He’s about to knock his victim out with his fake cast, and Demme doesn’t show it, it’s off-camera. It’s partly a matter of taste, but also that an audience’s imagination is more powerful than anything you can show them.

The coroner scene: We shot this in Rural Valley, Pennsylvania. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we were stood around waiting for trucks in the mist, all 100 townspeople gathered to wait for the circus to arrive, and Jonathan looked at me and said, “So you think you want to direct?” The elderly coroner was one of the producers, Kenny Utt (above right). The head in a jar was another of the producers (above left). I’m not kidding! With Jonathan it’s like family, he likes to get everyone involved. Roger Corman, Jonathan’s mentor, plays the head of the FBI.

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Buffalo Bill tucks his penis between his legs and dances around the basement: It was very courageous of Ted Levine to take this part. He didn’t work for years after this. True! He was only offered slasher parts. The character of Buffalo Bill was more fleshed out in the book than in the script, unfortunately. In the movie we never get the inside into his tormented childhood, and how he was created. There was controversy because a lot of people thought it was homophobic. But he’s not meant to represent a group of anything. He’s a unique, strange specimen. A lot of the controversy was because he had a white poodle named Precious – with hindsight it should have been a different breed or a different name.

screaming lambs

The screaming of the lambs story: Now we’re getting on to Memphis which is almost like a different movie, it starts to be an action movie. This scene about the spring lambs originally called for a flashback – it was going to be the last thing we shot, in May. But after shooting this scene, Jonathan sent me the rushes and said, “If I cut away from their faces, I’ll be drummed out of the Directors’ Union. Look at Jodie Foster – she could win an Academy Award for this scene [as indeed she did].” I said if I had known there would be no flashback, I would have written it differently. But Jonathan said “It’s all there.”

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Lecter touches Clarice’s finger: It’s one of my favourite moments in the movie. You also see Jonathan and the cinematographer pushing the camera further and further through the bars, until there is no distance between them. Jonathan did challenge me on this whole scene. He said, “It’s the climactic scene, but – we’ve had dinner, I know you like a rack of lamb, and so do I. Why are we going to care?” I said, “I don’t care about the lambs, but she does, and I care about her.” Jonathan accepted that.

escape

Lecter escapes: Again, Jonathan said to me, “How can we cut away from Clarice for so long? It breaks your own rule about focusing always on her.” I said “I know, but the escape in the book is such a great scene there is no way we could not have it in.” You can break all the rules, except for one: “Don’t bore the audience.” Jonathan used to say, “I’d rather have the audience confused for four minutes than bored for four seconds.”

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Clarice and Buffalo Bill play cat-and-mouse in the dark: That sequence was shot in one continuous evening, we finished at 5am. It had to be done in one night. Jodie is as exhausted as she looks. Everything you can get out of an actress came out of her.

tropics

A change of ending, in which Lecter phones Clarice from somewhere tropical: The original ending had Chiltern hiding out in his Chesapeake home, and the camera travels over his grounds, and you see dead security guards, Chiltern taped to his desk, and Lecter’s there. Jonathan said “No, he’s a scumbag but he’s a human being; we have to give at least the illusion that he might get away.” So I said, “We can have him on some tropical island, with Chiltern on holiday.” Jonathan said, “You mean we’d have to send a production crew, including you and me, to somewhere hot and tropical, in February? This is a good idea!”

That’s my last of many posts from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. What a wonderful three days that was. For info about next year’s, click here

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.

Finding Nemo: the co-writer’s commentary to ten top scenes

12 Nov

An incredible amount of detail goes into writing animated films, particularly at Pixar: years of rewrites, then more rewrites when the voice artists are signed. David Reynolds, co-writer of Finding Nemo, gave a Page To Screen session at the London Screenwriters’ Festival in which he talked over a screening of the film to give some fascinating insider insights into its creation:

1062590_1386881790830_410_2301. Marlin shows his wife Coral their new home. Andrew Stanton had written the original scene – they’re on the edge of the reef and Coral was so happy about their new home and Marlin was nervous. I said, what if we flip it? So that Marlin proudly says, “Did I find you a house or did I find you a house?” So now, when the barracuda comes, it’s his fault. That’s why he’s so nervous [for the rest of the film].

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2. “You’re a clownfish, right? Tell us a joke.” Albert was hilarious, ad-libbing this really bad joke for five minutes. They originally had William H Macy who’s a fantastic actor and who was getting the laughs, but it just wasn’t working. So they got Albert Brooks instead, and he did some improv in a recording studio and was just great. So they said to me, take the script and rewrite every line to suit Albert Brooks. But one of the keys we learned early on was that Albert Brooks could not be allowed to be funny, after that opening. His son has been kidnapped, and I said you can’t stop and tell a joke.

15903. Marlin tells Nemo not to swim out to the boat, and Nemo says “I hate you” just before being captured by a scuba-diver. The inspiration for the film was that Andrew kept saying to his own son “don’t climb on this”. He said, “I loved him so much I didn’t want to be a kid, I wrapped him in blubble-wrap.” And when Andrew was growing up he had a fishtank, and always wondered what the fish were doing. The last thing Nemo says to his father is “I hate you.” When he finally comes back, that’s the first thing he addresses. Apparently, boys watching the film are like “He’ll never find his son” whereas girls were like, “the Dad will find a way”.

review-finding-nemo-3d4. They meet a fearsome shark called Bruce, who luckily is trying to give up eating other fish. The Pixar guys are movie junkies, they take a day off when a new James Bond movie comes out. It gets kind of geeky, but yes, Bruce the shark was named after what they called the mechanical shark when making Jaws.

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5. They’re trapped by a submarine, and the diver’s mask they are chasing falls into a chasm. We just kept pushing the story, one impossible obstacle after another. Any one of those problems should have stopped him, but he’s looking for his son, so he just carries on.

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6. They meet a school of fish that make shapes, with the voice of John Ratzenberg.  John Ratzenberg is the Pixar good luck charm. John Lasseter will not make a movie without him, he’s superstitious that way.

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7. The turtles take Marlin and his friend Dory surfing a current. Crush the turtle was voiced by Andrew, the director. We had wanted Sean Penn to do that voice from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He came in and saw the movie at Pixar, but he wanted too much money, or something like that. We all thought Andrew was the better voice anyway.

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8. Nemo is imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank. Everyone at Pixar had this little joke on me: they wanted to surprise me at the premiere. They secretly recorded this bit, about a kid in a dentist’s chair, where the dentist goes, “Well well, if it isn’t little Davey Reynolds.” I was sitting in the premiere, and when that comes up I go “Whaaaat?!” And they all turn round and go “Gotcha!”

dory-and-nemo

9. Dory, the fish with a hilariously short-term memory, is the first to find Nemo. “Really?” she says with delight, when he introduces himself. Then, “that’s such a nice name”, obviously having forgotten their whole quest! I snuck into a movie theatre showing the film and sat at the back, and at that bit I held my breath: could we pull this joke off again? The audience loved it.

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10. They all live happily ever after under the sea. There was a point in the animation where they created sea flow and coral that looked so real, it was like a nature documentary. So they had to mess it up a bit. They didn’t want it to look real, but with cartoon fish!

If you liked this post, check out Joel Eszterhas’s commentary on Basic Instinct, and Joel Schumacher’s top ten scenes from The Lost Boys.

Charlie Brooker on why he hates writing, warp factors, Twitter and Transformers

11 Nov
Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters' Festival, by Chris Floyd)

Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters’ Festival, by Chris Floyd)

My sixth despatch from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival is the fearlessly acerbic critic-turned-creative Charlie Brooker. You don’t need any commentary from me – just sit back and enjoy the rant.

On why he “f***ing hates” writing: If I appear to write a lot, that’s interesting. I have a terrible fear I’m not doing enough. I f***ing hate writing. I love the ideas side, and I love having written, but I hate the process of writing. There’s occasionally a eureka moment, but my life is a constant struggle to enter that and avoid the myriad distractions, like an acorn rolling by. I love my job, but it’s also like a fucking curse. The biggest high of it is “thank God I’ve finished that”. It’s just like the feeling of having done a massive poo.

On Touch of Cloth: I was going to say it’s like Airplane for cop shows, but I realise that’s Police Squad! So it’s The Naked Gun, but for Britain. It’s a collaboration – we run a writers’ room for it. We bought a script by the man who made Messiah, which was very bleak, and then used that as a basis for drawing knobs on, basically, because we were aping those dark Sunday night dramas that everyone seems to love but that I think are pornographic and weird, and dull.

We also got a compilation made of scenes from crime dramas, like morgue scenes, and when you watch nothing but these similar scenes, you spot the same tropes and clichés and become inherently funny. It was vital that in our world, none of the characters could acknowledge that what was going on was at all weird. Like in Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen takes it all seriously. The director would shout before every scene, “Don’t forget, you’re doing a serious drama – this is a real body, it’s the body of a child.”

On Black Mirror: The kind of sci-fi I like is allegorical, like The Twilight Zone. Not people with croissant-shaped foreheads talking about warp factors. Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone because he wanted to do plays about racism and McCarthyism, and couldn’t get them on air. That was my focus for the show.

Technology is never the villain in Black Mirror. It’s always, here’s a powerful tool – I don’t mean the character! – here’s a powerful technological tool, and we let the character pick it up and hit themselves repeatedly on the head with it.

We’ve just been shooting a Christmas special, with three episodes, like a Twilight Zone anthology. Jon Hamm’s starring in that because he’s a big fan of the show. It’s about what if you could block someone in real life like you do on Twitter, so they just become an anonymous blob – they can’t hear you or talk to you; and you play out the consequences of that. What I like is TV shows where you get to the end and you feel f***ing devastated. Now they’re all about easily entertaining people. How dare they!

On Nathan Barley: Oh god, writing with Chris Morris was terrifying. I was terrified he’d show up like his Day Today persona, and tell me to f***ing shut up, but he was jolly and friendly and very collaborative. But he’ll interrogate every aspect. He takes ages. We had a meeting before 9/11 and it actually went on air in 2005. We had meeting after meeting to discuss how to do it.

On Twitter: There’s this babble of voices, everyone feeling they have to chip in their two pence worth on how awful it is that Ed Milliband’s just done a poo on the High Street. And I do the same – why? Then everyone feels they have to outdo each other and exaggerate, and it all piles on top of each other, and before you know it everyone is performing, badly, and you’re struck by the existential pointlessness of it… So I wrote a column about it, going “here’s what I think about this! Look at this!”

On why it can be more creative to work on a low budget: The last 20 minutes of every big-budget movie is like you’re staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together.