Something I’ve noticed

It was Orson Welles who said, “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” I recently learned that a screenwriter – or this one, at least – needs one of these:

 

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When I started out, I heard that screenwriting depends on structure more than any other art form. It was something I denied for a long time, at least in my own practices. Others may painstakingly plot out their whole stories using index cards beforehand, but not me. I had this romantic idea of being a writer who could pound out a script from the gut and then make some minor amendments later.

But experience is a great teacher, and I eventually became schooled on the level of my own bullshit.

Long story short, there are only so many false starts and directionless ventures one can encounter before humility must take hold. Dramatic writing is a serious business. If there is a key to mastering the craft, it is not secretive or ethereal. One has to appreciate the complexities of the craft; in order to do so, one must become consciously acquainted with them.

For some inane reason, I used to consider a structured approach inferior. It seemed anathema to real creative flair. Now I realise how naive I was.

The end should always justify the means, so if you can write Fargo without plotting out on index cards then have at it. Good for you. But that approach is not superior or inferior to using a notice board. The writers of Breaking Bad use them, as do many world-class screenwriters, and it does them no harm.

What is inferior, however, is stubbornness. Rigidity. Not learning what works best for you. Sticking by old practices because that’s how you do things, regardless of the failures and frustrations they cause.

I stepped out of my comfort zone, bought a big notice board, and within days I saw the difference. Creatively, it was the best thing I ever did.

Kubrick on Screenwriting

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“Writing a screenplay is a very different thing than writing a novel or an original story. A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe Burgess’s achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you’ve really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process — something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn’t, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.”

 

Source: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/interview.aco.html [excerpted from “Kubrick”, by Michel Ciment]

There and Back Again: The London Screenwriters’ Festival

The word ‘hiatus’ has been on my mind lately.

It’s been 7 months since my last blog post, where I shared a few words about the art of perseverance (or, how to stop worrying about how big the tree is and keep swinging that axe).

It’s also been 3 years since I last attended the London Screenwriters’ Festival.

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A lot has happened in those time frames. Since my last post, I became a father for the first time. A year before that I bought my first house. Go a little further back and you’ll find me burrowing into the Welsh independent filmmaking scene, where I have been active ever since.

With the arrival of my perfect little daughter five months ago, the selfish writer in me wondered whether I would ever hear and feel the buzz of the Festival again, like I did in 2012 and ’13.

I do have the Welsh scene, which continues to astound me with its depth of talent and boundless potential. There are still mountains to climb there, as my creative relationships continue to flourish and projects roll ahead.

There’s just something about London.

Swarms of hopeful writers rubbing shoulders with industry professionals; the absence of comfort zones; the heady sound of dreams being fuelled, doubts being validated, and stories being exchanged. Throw in the opportunities to pitch your ideas, analyse scripts, conduct table reads and lock yourself in an elevator with a Hollywood exec, and it’s quite an experience.

Only I did none of that when I attended.

I didn’t pitch; I didn’t sign up to a table read or a script lab; and I avoided the infamous ‘Elevator Pitch’ like leprosy. I did network, and I met some wonderful people who I remain in contact with; my first Festival led, through several degrees of separation, to meeting the group of filmmakers who I work with to this day.

However, my networking was limited by the same thing that prevented me from putting myself and my work out there:

Fear. Of rejection; of humiliation; of finding out that I’m hopelessly wasting my precious time.

These fears are real, and they will remain unchallenged unless I face them. At least by sharing my work with more people I’ll get an idea of how to improve. And if I’m to take the craft of screenwriting seriously, as it deserves, then that’s got to be worth the investment.

Time poverty, fiscal restraints, and a comfortable creative niche in my own country were, I felt, all valid reasons not to make the annual pilgrimage to London. These reasons still exist. But so too does my love for screenwriting, and my desire to overcome my fears and personal flaws.

Now, three years older and three years more experienced, I feel better placed to capitalise on everything the London Screenwriters’ Festival has to offer. Life is passing by at quite a rate. If I’m not careful it’ll take all of its best opportunities along with it.

And that’s precisely why I’ll be going next year.

Keep Swinging the Axe

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“It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down. When that time comes, you could round up everyone you could find and pay them to hold the tree up, but they wouldn’t be able to do it. It would still come crashing to the ground. . . . But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask the third son of Mr. Chang, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” And after three or four more strokes stopped again to ask the fourth son of Mr. Li, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different for someone who is practicing the Way.”

— Zen Master Hakuin

Enter the Demon

 

One of the biggest struggles I’ve experienced so far as a screenwriter is switching off to Inner Critic in the middle of a draft.

Self-awareness is essential, along with a healthy level of honest criticism. It’s the only way to produce good pages. And to completely succumb to the ‘Wild Man’ side of our creative brain – the side that is pure, unbridled creation – is both messy and directionless, and better suited for freewriting, morning pages or brainstorming an idea.

But when you’re drafting, Inner Critic is a nasty piece of work.

You know the guy, right? He’s the one who constantly berates your every clack of the keyboard, who spits on your characterization and drags your dialogue through the mud. He’s the one who tells you you’re no good, why do this, just give it all up now and save yourself years of graft and inevitable embarrassment – or, at the very least, burn everything you’ve ever written to date and start again because it’s all a big steaming pile of Tom Tit.

Yeah. That guy.

Well, for the past few months I’ve been grinding out redrafts of a feature script I’m writing with fellow System Street colleague Ian Smyth. It’s called No Hidden Extras, and it’s based on a short film of the same name we shot back in November, which is currently in postproduction.

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It’s a story that Ian and I truly believe in, and we think it has the potential to be made into a solid film one day – when the script is in good enough shape. The story is there, and we know the main arcs and events…it’s just the simple matter of articulating them in the best way possible. (Yeah, ‘simple’…)

Inner Critic, though, seems to have other plans from time to time.

I know that the drafting process, by definition, requires the work to be re-worked until it’s as close to right as my abilities allow. I know that each draft is only a snapshot of how the story is devleoping at that particular stage. And I know that endlessly going over the same scene or sequence because it’s not perfect is one way to ensure that a draft will never see the words FADE OUT.

And yet, thar he blows.

Inner Critic, in its most severe and stultifying manifestation, is one of the great mysteries of the creative process. Creative people want – nay, need – to create. And creation without completion is nothing more than a soundless scream. It is a flaw of the mental processes involved, then, that we can find ourselves prevented from completion by something that seems so entwined with our creative desires. Wild Man and Inner Critic; Yin and Yang; Joker and Batman.

You complete me.

I have gotten over the wrath of Inner Critic several times already, having written a few short- and feature-length scripts so far. But my experience is not yet enough to have banished him totally from my working practice. Who’s to say he will ever really be gone?

I often say (only half-jokingly) that I can’t speak about a project too loudly, just in case the noise scares away my shy little muse. Maybe if I keep talking about Inner Critic, if I shout his name and shame him to anyone who will listen, he will go forth and be gone – at least for the time being.

If he does, I’m sure he’ll be back.

Get it read, get it right, get it written

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When the postman stops at my door, it’s usually to deliver bills or junk mail. Today, however, I opened a parcel containing two very promising books: The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths, and Reading Screenplays: How To Analyse & Evaluate Film Scripts by Lucy Scher.

Beats a damn bank statement any day. And the nuggets of knowledge they contain are likely to be worth more than the cover price for those who are going it alone.

One of the apparent downfalls of not taking a postgraduate course in screenwriting is the lack of immersion in your chosen craft. (Note that word, ‘apparent’.) Access to lecturers is shunned; the regularity of face-to-face interaction with fellow creatives is greatly reduced; and knowledge – that magical word that is commonly known to dispel fear – is a little more difficult to come by. Not to mention the self-discipline required to push on when there’s nobody around to actively encourage you during the tough times.

Today’s world is a lot different than it used to be, however. Now there are groups like Tuesday Night Writes, run by the spiffing Janine H. Jones both online and via weekly meetings in Cardiff Bay. And with the ever-growing availability of knowledge that is either free or a damn sight cheaper than current postgraduate fees, indulging in constant study is easier now than it ever has been – with or without uni. (No Bono impressions here, thank you.)

Of course, it is far from being all about the money.

I have read a fair number of screenplays, even analytically and with a view to providing my own evaluation of them. But as an autodidact there’s always that monkey whispering: “What if you’re doing it wrong?”

Well, thanks to books like these I can get a better idea of the tree up which I’m barking. They will take their place on my shelf alongside the books of John Yorke, Christopher Booker, and Linda Aronson to name a few, and I will doubtlessly dog-ear their pages for years to come.

Knowledge dispels fear. Without the right kind of mindset, that fear can drive some to spend thousands of pounds on an education that you could have got for a few quid in late fees from the local library (to paraphrase Will Hunting). At worst, it’ll cost you a fraction of your monthly wage and as much time as you’re willing to sacrifice – which, if you truly love your craft, will be as much time as you have to spare (and a little more on top).

With or without uni, professional writers put themselves out there, do the research, read the right material and get their pages down. There is simply no substitute for getting it read and getting it written.

Do that enough times and you might even get it right.

The Second Silence

“There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smokescreen. When true silence falls, we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness.”

-Harold Pinter

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Subtext is a very important element of dramatic writing. It is also one of the most mysterious, as it exists almost literally between the lines. A character can reel off a long speech about one thing, but their motives are very clearly lying elsewhere. The process of figuring out those intentions is what involves audiences in drama, and encourages them to invest in a character.

To use a popular example, I will look at Breaking Bad. I have long considered this show to be a high point in television drama. Why? Well, one reason is because of its masterful use of subtext. One scene in particular comes to mind, and it occurs in episode 1 of season 3.

(If Breaking Bad is still on your to-watch list, what follows is rather spoilerific. Just giving you the heads-up.)

Walter White

This episode shows Walter White, a chemistry teacher and the show’s protagonist, trying to placate a hall full of students in the aftermath of a huge collision between two airplanes that saw season 2 come to a close. The incident has rocked the city of Albuquerque. Many lives were lost, and the students are trying to figure out how to deal with it all.

By this point, Walter White is well on his way to becoming a serious player in the crystal meth business. He already has the blood of several people on his hands, and one of those deaths was the indirect cause of the collision itself. So what does Walt say to the mourning students?

“Look on the bright side.”

His speech begins by detailing how much worse the disaster could have been. After all, the planes weren’t full, and they weren’t as big as the 747s that crashed in Tenerife in the ’70s. It could have been worse. And, as if that’s not enough, he ends by saying that the students don’t know about the Tenerife crash because “people move on.” We survive, we cope, we get on with life after the hard moments pass. And those moments could always be harder.

On the surface, Walt’s words could be seen as a cold address that is just telling the morose student body to buck up. But after watching Walt’s character develop for 2 seasons prior to this, his speech could be interpreted in a few ways.

As he is a terminal cancer patient, Walt could be alluding to his family’s coping strategy when his inevitable death occurs. He could also be alluding to their ways of dealing with the revelation that he is a meth kingpin, which is more than a possibility. Or, my personal favourite: we could be getting a very sinister insight into the way Walt’s mind is growing into a state of criminal psychopathy.

He is not seeing this as a disaster; he is seeing it as one side of a risk assessment calculation. And, as his interests are not tarnished in any way, the damage is considered negligible. As long as the wheels of business keep turning, nothing else is important. Not only this, but it suggests a shifting opinion of what Walt considers to be real chaos. Can you imagine the Walt from episode 1 of the first season delivering such a speech?

Not likely.

Considering the way Walt’s arc develops throughout the remainder of Breaking Bad, I’d say this speech is a very skillful piece of subtextual writing. It allows the character to address a situation that is occurring then and there in the action, whilst also providing an insight into what led him to that point and clues as to what lies ahead. Walt’s attitude in this 2-minute speech is what drives him until the end, and it is an attitude that is often left to fester between the lines.

It is not what a person says or does, but why they say or do it that is important. Those motives might not always be crystal clear, and the jury will always be out when it comes to the ‘right’ interpretation. But to write scenes that lend themselves to interpretation is a fundamental goal for any writer.

As Billy Wilder said, paraphrasing Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”