Quotes on the Craft: Charlie Kaufman

I consider Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter’s screenwriter. He doesn’t write for fame or an easy pay cheque; he never panders to the lowest common denominator; and his work is so idiosyncratic and personal that ‘Kaufmanesque’ has been accepted into the idiom. It can even be argued that he is that rare breed of writer who seems to challenge the traditional auteur theory.

Here are a few of his quotes and ponderings about the craft of screenwriting.

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  1. “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.”
  2. “Do not simplify. Do not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honour. It means you risked failure.”
  3. “Your goal is to be entertaining. This is true for a story told at a dinner party, and it’s true for stories told through movies. Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include.”
  4. “A screenplay is an exploration, a step into the abyss, a secret, even from you. There’s no template.”
  5. “A screenplay should be something that has to be a movie. If it doesn’t have to be a movie, you shouldn’t make it.”
  6. “I don’t subscribe to anything. I sit there and I try to think about what seems honest to me.”

In spite of his own unique style and perspective, some of these quotes should be printed, laminated and stuck to the walls of every writers’ room. You may not like Kaufman’s work, but there’s a lot to be learned from it.

Aim high. Risk failure. Find your voice.

That’s all we can do.

Progress Report #4: 30/09/2017

 

Okay, two things…

Firstly, I missed last week’s update. Secondly, this one is a day late. This sounds ominously like failure, particularly after the struggles outlined in my previous update, but the truth is I’ve still been getting the pages down. I’ve got another 15 pages of script down, which equals the target of at least 7 per week.

But why the missed update?

In short, I’ve decided that a fortnightly update is enough for my purposes. That allows me more time to get things done during the week, and if one week proves more of a challenge I can make up for it on the back end. So, from here on, it’ll be the second and fourth Friday of every month when I’ll be checking my progress.

And the lateness of this one?

Life. It happens. Work, family, and a little down time. It all needs a place in our routines, if only to remind us to breathe and let it all sink in from time to time. Again, this might sound like I’m making excuses, which is the first step to failure, but the reality is I’m doing the most important part: getting the pages down. If that takes priority over a blog post, then so be it.

Now, onto the updates.

No Hidden Extras

Page count: 77

Target: 15 pages

Another fifteen pages down, and getting closer to FADE OUT.

This draft is feeling bigger and bigger as time goes on, and I can’t see it being anything less than 100-110 pages, maybe more. For a low-budget debut feature that mean it’s about 20-30 pages too long, but that’s fine. Darren Aronofsky always writes what he calls a “muscle draft”, where he gets everything down and then cuts out the flotsam in the rewrite. I’m happy with that approach. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, it takes more time to write a shorter screenplay. A writer’s main job is to uncover the essence of the story and remove all that is unnecessary to its telling.

Our ideal vision for No Hidden Extras is a terse, crisp 85-90 minute movie which tells a clear story. Light on the subplots, no crazy set pieces, just characters telling their story in the most effective, efficient way possible. Think Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Christopher Nolan’s Following, or J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Yes, these are ambitious benchmarks to aim for, but if you aim high and fall short, you’ve still achieved something special.

NHE script front page

Playwriting

Pages of short play written: 3

Target: Undefined

This craft demands respect. As such, it seems only sensible to take the same creative approach here as I did as a filmmaker: start small, and work your way up. Get something smaller written and performed first, see how it comes across, listen to people’s responses and go from there.

I’ve been working on some dramatic monologues over the past week or so. The style reminds me of the vague style in which I used to write poetry: loosely rhymed lines with a conversational, colloquial rhythm. I never thought of writing plays back then, but there was something about the poetry which seemed to lend itself to performance. The only problem was, I’m no performer.

One monologue is called “How to Live Your Life”. It originated from a few fragments I scribbled down about the culture of “How To” books which pervade modern society, and as more lines poured out of me, a character and a story began to emerge with them. It’s still very raw, but it hints at something promising. Because my approach to this project is quite organic, and because of my primary commitment to this draft of No Hidden Extras, I’ve not set myself any target for the coming weeks. However, every time I turn to the project, more happens.

Gary Owen’s electrifying play Iphigenia in Splott, which I re-read in the week, has been hugely influential in this regard. The protagonist’s story is told entirely via her own dramatic monologue, and although I’ve not seen it live, the written play is so full of life and energy it leaps off the page. If I can capture a fraction of the energy of this play for one of my own monologues, I might be lucky enough to get someone to perform it.

I got in touch with the Dirty Protest theatre company last week to ask if they have any shorts nights coming up, but no response yet. I’ve admired their work for some time, and their reputation was established as a fringe theatre company that worked with new writers to get their work staged. Fingers crossed.

Reflection

Life gets busy, which I already knew, but it’s important to remain flexible in your ambitions. The main work is still getting done, and new ground is being covered, which is the number one priority. Forward motion, progress, pages down.

Also, I’m constantly reminded of the value of focused reading and viewing. Input is just as important as output, but that input has to be switched-on. Don’t just let your eyes fall on the page or screen; analyse, interpret, and absorb. The more quality work I take in, the better I feel about putting my own work down.

Finally, to quote David Hughes (not Dylan Thomas, as suggested in Twin Town): ambition is critical. Set your own bar high, aspire to greatness, and if – if – you fall short, you’ll still have done some damn good work.

Progress Report #3: 15/09/2017

No Hidden Extras

Page Count: 62

Target: 7-10 pages

What a difference a week makes. After the unbridled creative surge last week, and the pleasant extras which bolstered the mood, this week felt like I was in a boxing match with my arms tied behind my back.

I’ll keep it brief.

It started slow, but that was expected. A family wedding saw Friday, Saturday and Sunday written off, which I was fine about. It happens, and I was confident I’d get the pages down through the week. Then a heavy cold started settling in on Sunday evening, which resulted in me hitting the sack at around 8:30pm on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to recoup my energy. This wiped out my key writing hours – my only writing hours. A short and dribbly stint on Monday saw one measly page written, and that was a struggle. This meant that as of Thursday evening that’s all I had. One page in a whole week.

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Thankfully, the phlegmy clouds dissipated on Thursday and I could breathe, think, and write again. With 85% of my target to hit in one evening, I cancelled my weekly script meeting with Ian and hit the desk. Thanks to our efforts last week, I knew what had to be written. The issue was that I didn’t think it was doable. Six pages in a few hours to hit my target, with childcare and a few small errands thrown in for good measure? Ambitious, to say the least.

But I did it. The scenes flowed, I hit a rhythm and just before midnight on Thursday I hit page 62 comfortably. It felt good. Even better because I know the next scene is a biggie which could push us past 65 over the weekend.

Somewhere amid the chaos, there was some festival news regarding the short. I can’t recall from memory what that news was. I’ll catch up on things over the weekend. All I care about right now is the target, and I hit it.

The Stageplay

As you may have guessed, there hasn’t been any progress on this front since last week whatsoever. Not a play read, nor my project pondered over. I couldn’t even make it to the dress rehearsal of We’re Still Here down Port Talbot this evening, which isn’t great. I really wanted to go, and not because of any selfish networking reasons. I need to feel what makes a good, contemporary stageplay click. There’s still The Cherry Orchard in October though, so not all is lost.

Reflection

This week has been instructive. Obstacles have been overcome, sacrifices made, and priorities have been focused on to achieve my goals. Sacrifices can be difficult to stomach, but they are often necessary in order to reach a target, both in the short- and long-term. What’s more, the target was reached because I capitalised on what little time I had available. There was no room for waste, which has taught me to use the time I have during periods of good health more efficiently. It can vanish all too quickly.

I’m glad  the 7 pages have been written, and because they have I’m more confident that on a good week I could (and should) hit a higher target. I plan to up that by this time next week, and maybe fit in a little more here and there. It’s certainly possible.

I’m reminded of a blog post of mine from a while back, and one phrase in particular. If you want to fell a tree…

KEEP SWINGING THE AXE.

 

Progress Report #1: 01/09/17

No Hidden Extras

Page count: 43.

Target: 7-10 pages.

Due to various birthday plans, and the consequent lull in energy that accompanies such plans, the past two weeks have been very unproductive. I embraced it, but now it’s time to get back on the wagon.

It’s a realistic target to write 7 to 10 pages of script in a week. In Scott Myers’ wonderful blog “Go Into The Story”, he advocates a 1-2-7-14 formula for aspiring writers. This is a weekly target of reading 1 screenplay, watching 2 movies, writing 7 pages of script and work 14 hours on your story prep. It’s a good target to have, and one that will garner results. Maybe I’ll incorporate it into my plans going forward.

At 43 pages, I’m rapidly approaching the midway mark of this draft. Ian and I are happy with what we’ve got so far. It’s the strongest version of this story so far, and there have been many, many versions over the past three years. There have been so many false starts, so many frustrating dead ends and a palpable heartache after losing characters and scenarios which we initially loved but served no purpose as the story developed and became more refined. But now, this time, we’re onto something, and we both know it.

The short film is making its way around the UK festival circuit. Our acceptance rate is around 30%, which Ian tells me isn’t bad but some of the rejections stung a little. Our most recent success was acceptance into Southampton International Film Festival, which both Ian and I will be attending to fly the System Street flag.

Good times ahead.

The Stageplay

This is a far newer project in many respects, but I’ve had it in mind for a long time. I know a lot more about what I want it to be than I’ll let on at this stage. When this draft of No Hidden Extras is complete, I’ll dedicate more time to the stageplay, though I’m not in a position to get script pages down yet. Suffice to say, I’ve got some reading to do.

A Writer’s Quest: Crystallising Goals

01st September 2017

Yesterday marked the end of my 30th birthday month. Milestone birthdays often force us to look at ourselves—at our successes and failures, at what we’ve achieved and hope to achieve in the future. The lucky ones face such introspection by default with a surge of optimism; for others, myself included, there is the obligatory fog of despair through which one has to pass, a fog replete with the ghosts of missed opportunities and the sad howl of all that is surely lost. I know that fog. I’ve passed through it many times, often alone and to the sound of a favourite album or movie. This time, I was helped along by a book.

A few days ago, I was deep in the fog and desperate for a beacon of light. I browsed Amazon for a book or movie to buy and the browser suggested The Happiness of Pursuit, by Chris Guillebeau. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but the subject matter is something I strongly believe in, so I gave it a shot.

In a nutshell, The Happiness of Pursuit is about the significance of the personal quest, and its power to create within us a sense of happiness, purpose and inner peace. This is something I instinctively knew before reading Guillebeau’s book, and it was something I knew was missing from my life. Or, to be more specific, it was something which I didn’t realise I already had. Reading the stories of people pursuing their own quests was exactly the jolt I needed to crystallise the goals I was already working on in pursuit of my own quest.

But what was that quest? And, more importantly, what is a quest?

According to Guillebeau, a quest should be an unambiguous objective that has a clear end-goal and criteria that are measurable in order to chart your progress. It should also be challenging and carry with it an element of sacrifice for the person undertaking the quest. What underpins all of this is the feeling that this quest has to be done, no matter what. Family and friends may not always understand what it is you’re doing, but that’s fine. As long as you, and whoever you may be questing with, keeps their eyes on the prize, that’s all that matters.

This is where my ‘quest’ comes into play.

A little over three years ago, I made a pact with Ian Smyth—my friend and closest collaborator—that we would make a feature film together. We were already making short films here and there, but this was our Everest: to get a DVD on the shelves and in distribution, that we made together, as a 50/50 venture. It didn’t take us long to come up with our core theme, and within a few weeks we had the first draft of the screenplay. Of course, that draft was dogshit, but we had made a start on our quest.

The problem was, however, that there was no focus to the task overall. At least from me there wasn’t. It was always just “something we’d do one day”, or a cool story to tell my friends from time to time. Yes, life got busy over the course of those three years, but that’s by the by. If a quest is solidly established in one’s mind, nothing gets in the way. And you don’t even have to hurt anyone in the process; it’s about focus, not fallout.

Around halfway through Guillebeau’s book, I came across a quote from a musician called Stephen Kellogg which resonated strongly with me:

“I’ve just grown from a boy with an inclination into a man with a focus. It all started with a dream, but then I followed that dream. Following the dream made all the difference.”

Hearing someone else describe my own position was highly refreshing. It helped to shine a light on my current self, thereby dragging me out of the fog. Here I am, a thirty-year-old man with the focus to follow the dreams of a boy (or a much younger man, in my case). And that dream has to be pursued; I can’t passively wait for it to happen to me. Not anymore.

So that’s where I am now. I’m clear of my hectic, hedonistic and relatively directionless third decade, and it’s time to crystallise my goals as I pursue my quests.

The Quest(s)

As an aspiring writer of dramatic narratives, there are two clear quests which I have set for myself. The first, as touched on above, is to make a feature-length movie of No Hidden Extras. The end-goal is to see the DVD on a shelf, and to have it distributed for sale to the general public. It’s a task that Ian and I have already committed a lot of work to, and as such this will be my primary goal.

The second quest is one that’s more personal to me alone: to write a full-length stage play. The end-goal will be opening night of the play in a full theatrical production, and it will complete my validation as a writer in my chosen field. Although I have a clear idea of what the project will be, I am far less familiar with playwriting than I am with screenwriting. This is therefore a newer, rawer project, which makes it both exciting and daunting in equal measures.

Today is Friday the first of September. In order to measure my progress and maintain focus, I will post one blog post every Friday. This blog will measure where I am at that point, state what I achieved in the previous week, what I hope to achieve in the following week, and any other thoughts, experiences or lessons learned along the way. I can post more than one a week, but this is the absolute minimum, to be done every Friday.

Therein lies my challenge.

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]