30 July, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918 - 2007



Death Catches up to Master - Chicago Sun-Times

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman Dies at 89 - Washington Post

Ingmar Bergman's death marks the end of an era - The Guardian

Ingmar Bergman, Demon-Haunted Director, Cinema Icon, Dies at 89 - Bloomberg

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Official site

Wikipedia

Internet Movie Database

Bergmanorama

David Koepp and the Press Blockade

FilmStew:

"Koepp is under strict orders not to blow Indiana Jones’ cover. But as someone who was inspired to become a screenwriter by Raiders of the Lost Ark, writing Episode 4 definitely ranks as a sweet gig."

29 July, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 8

While you're finishing up your character creation and your outlining, I'm going to talk about the first ten pages. As I said before you can tell how good a script is going to be by the first page usually.

As soon as the characters speak you can tell if they are underdeveloped or not. If the characters are underdeveloped the story will be too. If the story is underdeveloped then the plot will most likely be regurgitated from elsewhere and be over familiar. This in turn suggests, because they haven't done pre-writing, that they don't do re-writing either and you're most likely reading an unedited first draft.

Writers have got angry about only the first ten pages being read as they may have a brilliant climax in the last ten pages they were setting up. But, and I can't emphasise this enough, if the reader doesn't care what happens to the characters by page 10 then they're unlikely to by page 60. It doesn't matter if the climax is the most exciting climax ever, the set-up has to be just as exciting or at the very least make us curious to know what happens to the main character in the climax.

The first ten pages of a screenplay roughly amounts to the first ten minutes of a show. And while we might complain about only the first ten pages being read, how many of us would sit through a whole TV show we didn't like? Should your script make it to air, the viewers will also only be giving you the first ten minutes before they switch over to something else or pop a DVD in instead.

I've delved deep into my PVR to bring you the first ten minutes of two Tony Jordan TV episodes.

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Hustle
Series 1, episode 1


This is the script to the pilot of Hustle. The actual show packs a lot in but is lean and economical. You have subtle exposition but you also have blatant exposition that is given totally legitimately. The audience needs to know the information given but it's OK because the police and the grifters need to know the information as well.

Look how that is made visually interesting with the voice over (not narration) and the inter-cutting between the police and the grifters and the mark.

We need to check that exposition is being given for the benefit of the character and not the audience. I remember one Brtiish film where the senior detective was explaining to his junior that SOCO stood for Scene of Crime Officer. The writer was telling me because the detective just might have picked up that knowledge in the years training and on duty. Let's face it, if you've ever watched a cop show you would have picked up that knowledge. The information wasn't even relevant to the story. Such as it was.

The first ten pages of the script is certainly intriguing and makes you want to read more but look how much Mr Jordan cut for the final version. More crucially look at what he cut and try and work out why. It's not crap so why cut it?

The story starts before they introduce all of the regular characters. The baddie is being tailed and we know he's the baddie not because he says so or somebody else does but through his actions where he steals a tip intended for waitstaff.



Buy Hustle season 1 DVD

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Life on Mars
Series 1, episode 5


This episode features a murder which may or may not be connected to an impending football derby. It has a teaser which is nothing to do with the main story until the very end but Mr Jordan makes it relevant by it taking place on a football field. This first ten minutes sets up the main story and also connects Sam's personal issues to it. So rather than just another murder, Sam is emotionally invested in the case and because of that the viewers are too.

We know the regular characters very well by now anyway but pretend you don't. What can we tell about the four coppers just by the teaser alone?



Buy Life on Mars season 1 DVD

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So what I've got from that is:
  • start the story early
  • have characters reveal who they are through their actions
  • ensure the reader is emotionally connected and curious to read more
  • if you have to have exposition ensure it's information the character being told it needs and it's visually interesting if it's extensive


I recommend looking at other drama critically and reading the scripts in the Links section from the Writersroom as you progress your project.

Once I had entered another competition in which the first round required the first ten pages and the reader phoned me at about midnight. He said, "I know I'm supposed to wait until after the deadline and the finalists are chosen but that's weeks away, could you email me the full script now, please? I've just got to read the rest as soon as possible or I'll simply explode with frustration."

True story. That's the ideal scenario which only happens to a few of us but it's something we all can aim for.


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Links

First ten pages - Danny

Top 10 Clichéd Opening Scripts - Danny

The First Ten Pages - BBC writersroom

Your First Ten Pages… - The Unknown Screenwriter

The First Ten Pages - Barry Pearson

The Big Finish - Terry Rossio

"A Class Apart" script by Tony Grounds

"The Good Citizen" script by Ed McCardie


NEXT

Soundtrack


Feist

Are you a whooper? Do you shout and yelp? I don't mean in bed, I mean at gigs. Not at the end of songs but during them and when the artist is talking. I don't mean little involuntary yelps of pleasure but hollering which states "I am just as important as the artist and punctuating the songs with my loud shouting is necessary."

If you are that person then leave my blog now. Go on, go. I need all the readers I can get but I'm not that desperate that I will allow such low-life anti-social inconsiderate scum to stay. Murderers can stay reading though, your crime isn't as bad.

It's testament to how good Feist is live that the whooping wanker didn't completely ruin her gig last Sunday in Brum. She is a legend. She's funny, sweet and plays a mean guitar. Actually she played two mean guitars.

There was a couple there who had their first date at her previous gig in spring of 2005 and had just got married. Feist made them slow dance together on stage. It was to a beautiful song but she had to apologise for the lyrics which were about accepting the break up of a relationship and began "Let it die..."

Feist is part of awesome Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene and is perhaps best known for Mushaboom which was used in two different commercials at the same time although she turned down a million for McDonalds to use it.

Her last two proper albums are highly recommended Let It Die and The Reminder. (links to Amazon where you can get both for less than £12)

Official
Myspace
Wikipedia

Mushaboom (from Let It Die)



1 2 3 4 (from The Reminder)

28 July, 2007

Tony Jordan interviews

Shooting Screenwriters Podcasts:

"You have to ask yourself, why you are you writing? What do you want to achieve as a writer? What I want to achieve as a writer is I want to write something and put a little bit of my heart and soul on the page, and then I want to touch the maximum number of people I can with that, I want to make 10 million people cry all at the same time, I want to make 10 million people laugh all at the same instant. Imagine Wembley - which holds 80-90 000 people - imagine the roar of them all laughing at one gag and then imagine what 10 million sounds like. That does it for me. I get turned on by that."

"Start with character, worry about story later. Don't create character to service story, create story to service character."

The Guardian:

"There's this popular misconception that writers on soaps are somehow second or third tier writers. The people who say that are morons. Soap writers don't have to be stroked and loved, but stop treating them like second-class citizens, like they're somehow the dirty end of our industry. There are some directors who wouldn't dirty their hands directing EastEnders. Well fuck you, I wouldn't dirty my hands writing for you."

Bonkers writer faces copycat case

Broadcast:

Writer Sally Wainwright is being sued for breach of copyright by a playwright who claims the idea for ITV1 comedy series Bonkers was stolen from her play of the same name.

Lawyers representing playwright and actress Tricia Walsh-Smith have filed a claim against Wainwright to the High Court of Justice.

The television comedy, which starred Liza Tarbuck, was co-produced by Lime Pictures and Wainwright's own Sparkhouse Productions and aired earlier this year.

"Episode one was basically my play but extremely poorly written," Walsh-Smith said. "Everything from the title and the premise to the storyline and the characterisation was stolen from me."

Walsh-Smith's Bonkers was written 20 years ago.

Lime Pictures said in a statement: "Sally Wainwright, Lime Pictures and ITV refute entirely the claim that the TV series Bonkers in any way breaches copyright in the play and we will be defending the claims vigorously."

Wainwright is known for adapting established works such as Wuthering Heights and The Taming of the Shrew.

26 July, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 7

If all this seems like too much hard work, take inspiration from Paris Hilton: "People can't believe how hard I work.... I love it." If we work as hard then maybe we too can achieve her success.

As expected my advice to try and avoid narration and flashbacks was controversial. I've just seen the pilot of Pushing Daisies, a TV show which has extensive narration and flashbacks, and it is my favourite pilot of this or last season. And yet I still advise to avoid them for this project because that pilot was written by a hugely experienced, legendary showrunner while we're working on a spec to get work from a showrunner and so we need to show our character, story and dialogue skills in the best light.

Your mastery of all the elements of cinematic techniques might impress the reader but not as much as another writer who tells a simple story with strong characters which emotionally engages.

The odd dinky flashback - especially for comedic effect - or starting with a scene later in the script - in the middle or the end - and then carrying on chronologically won't be a problem.

I’ll just go over the key elements I’ve covered previously in more depth before we start outlining our story.

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Conflicts

Theme is defined by the way the character reacts to the conflict. It is the conflict that incites the story and drives the plot. Does your story have enough conflict?

Conflicts are usually described as:

  • Intra (from inside the character)
  • Inter (from another character they have a relationship with)
  • Extra (everything the main character doesn't have a personal relationship with such as weather, society, a group of people, machines or ghosts)

It is also described, more gender specifically, as:

  • Man vs Himself
  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Nature

Every story must have conflict on at least one of these levels. Can you think of examples?


Your characters can take you in any direction but I would suggest the following as the easiest route to an interesting and emotionally engaging story:

You have a clear main character who wants something which brings them into conflict with a second character. After one or more challenges, the main character resolves the conflict themselves.

You may have already have something like this from the original premise or it may have occurred to you during the character and story creation. Basically all you're doing is laying down a chain of events that lead a character towards - or away from - their goal.

As an audience member I don't want bad things to happen to the main character I like but a story where nothing bad ever happened to the main character would be very much worse.


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Structure

Once we have your story we need to structure it. I think it's best to let the ideas flow for a while and be sure of your story before adapting it to a strong structure rather than starting with the structure.

I'm not going to be apologetic about the three-act structure. I'm aware that people think it's over-rated or just don't understand it or think it's just wrong but the time spent debating it would be better spent on learning it and using it as it all comes down to some variant of it in the end unless you're making art films for no money and no audience.

The three act structure basically determines what happens and when it happens and is defined by the Main Character's outer motivation. The three act structure is the basis for the vast majority of drama we see and more importantly that we subconsciously want to see. It isn't a formula for success or rules to be obeyed, it's just a guideline to ensure your story keeps moving and stays focused. What determines a script's success is going to be the characters and their story but as William Goldman says “screenplay is structure.”


Calling the three-act structure the beginning, middle and end is over-simplistic but it is simple: 1) setting up a goal 2) confronting obstacles to that goal 3) reaching or failing to reach that goal. That's perhaps all you need to know really but I find going into it in more depth helps.

The more you look at it and think about it the easier it gets. My last outline followed the three-act structure naturally from beginning to end when at one point, years ago, I didn't understand it at all.

Whether you want to learn about it or not it's part of the language of screenwriting and script readers, script editors, producers and directors will expect you to know about it.


We are dealing with a sixty minute character-driven drama here (half the timing if you’re doing 30 minutes) and so there won't be the need for lots of complications and twists as there would for a more plot-driven Hollywood action feature film.

Act 1 (about 15 minutes)

  • Introduce the Main Character (the person whom the story's about)
  • Kick the story off with an initial event (or inciting incident)
  • Elaborate the problem/goal created for the Main Character by the initial event
  • Introduce the other characters
  • Start subplot
  • Get the main character going trying to solve their problem and reach their goal
  • Major turning point


Act 2 (about 30 minutes)

  • Complicate the main character's mission
  • Keep complicating it, raising the stakes
  • Carry subplots forward
  • Mid-point or minor turning point
  • Raise the stakes again
  • Main character is at their lowest having failed to get their goal
  • Major turning point

Act 3 (about fifteen minutes)

  • Main character rises with a new determination to reach their goal
  • Deal with subplots
  • Make things more difficult for the main character
  • Tie up subplots and loose ends
  • Climax. Resolve the story with the main character achieving the goal or not.
  • Maybe a denouement


Reading that back it feels like a formula and you can't imagine that you can possibly get thousands of completely different stories from it but you can. That's why I spent so much time on writer's voice before we started, we all have a skeleton but we all look different. We can all have a three-act structure but they can all be different

According to McKee you need four memorable scenes in a three act story: the inciting incident, Act 1 climax , Act 2 climax and Act 3 climax. Major turning points cease to be major if they're happening all the time and the audience will get bored.

McKee defines the effects of a turning point (or reversal) as surprise, increased curiosity, insight and new direction.



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The End

We need to know our ending because knowing our destination helps us to get there quickly and more effectively than wandering around hoping we reach the right ending in the end.

Basically the ending of the story can be judged in two ways.

a) success/failure
b) desirable/undesirable.

  • Desirable Success - this is the happy ending in which the Main Character is rewarded, the bad guys punished
  • Undesirable Failure- this is more a tragedy, where the Main Character falls from grace or was unable to overcome their flaw leading to misery and/or death
  • Desirable Failure - the Main Character didn't get what they wanted but learned a valuable lesson or inadvertently got a better reward
  • Undesirable Success - in which the Main Character got what they wanted but sacrificed something important like their soul, their loved one, their life.
It's your choice but the ending has to be inevitable and natural. Don't put in a twist you haven't set up just for the sake of it.

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Outline

Once we know our characters quite well and have a rough idea of our story with the beginning, middle and end, we can move on to outlining the story more formally. The legendary Jane Espenson calls the outline the bones of a story and boneless is for chicken strips.

I know that many writers don’t like doing outlines and refuse to do them. The outline is your friend, not your enemy. It lets your creativity breathe rather than stifles it. The argument used most against it to me is “what if I wanna change my mind about the direction of the script during the writing?” Then change your mind.

If during the writing you want to change character motivations and the outline then do so. But every change has a knock on effect and you should make sure that change is reflected throughout the script. So you go back to your outline, change it, check it again and work from the revised outline.

Suppose I’m writing the script and have a character that loves eating meat. I realise that it will work better for the story if she is an animal rights activist and a vegetarian. It’s not just the dinner party scene that has to change but the scenes where she’s working in the butchers, where she enters a meat pie eating contest and the scene where she is so hungry she eats a passing poodle.

I think character and story are too important and too difficult to be made up as you go along. If you get a job writing for television you will be expected to use outlines. Outlines are generally re-written and re-written before the go-ahead to write the script is given.

Many writers write out each scene on cards or Post-its and move them around on a wall or board. An alternative is using Google notebook to do it.


Andrew Collins outlines his comedy series "Not Going Out".

For each step of your outline try and answer these questions:

  1. Where does this scene take place?
  2. Who are the main characters involved?
  3. What happens in the scene?
  4. What’s the main conflict in the scene?

As you read your finished outline then you can see at a glance what scenes need more conflict or what scenes you can merge or cut or need to include.

Now it's your turn. Plot out your drama using the three-act structure as a rough guide - your story doesn't have to follow it exactly.

You'll need to have a very strong opening. Try and start the story as early as you can. When only the first ten pages are read the temptation will be to put in lots of attention grabbing stunts but there's no need. Something subtle if written well can be just as attention grabbing. Don't give everything away early on but try and retain some mystery and surprise. Allow the reader to get curious about your main character and their story. Remember they are going to want to see the synopsis and what happens beyond the first ten pages.

Once you've done the outline read it and re-read it and make changes if you need to. If something doesn't make sense or isn't logical or isn't character driven or isn't psychologically true or isn't relevant to the story then change it. The outline stage is the best time to make changes and shuffle scenes about because you haven't spent any time writing and so will be less reluctant to change it.

If you can, try and get feedback on your outline - don't wait until you've finished the script - as someone else might be able to spot something you haven't seen because you're too close to it. However experienced or how much we think we know, we always need to take a step back to look at our outline objectively.


My mantras are:

  • Character-driven plots not Plot-driven characters.
  • Simple Story, Complex Characters not Simple Characters, Complex story

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Links

Structure and Character - Excerpted with Permission from the Book "Story" - Robert McKee (Part one)

Structure and Character - Excerpted with Permission from the Book "Story" - Robert McKee (Part Two)

The Myth of Three Act Structure - Alex Epstein

Why 3-Act Will Kill Your Writing - John Truby

What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure by James Bonnet

The Three-act Paradigm by Syd Field

The Paradigm Worksheet by Syd Field

What is the Three Act Structure? - Stephen J. Cannell

Creating Dramatic Structure for Screenplays

The Need For Structure by Josh Becker

Common plot errors: Deus Ex Machina - Janra

Deus Ex Machina - Lucy

The Big Finish - Terry Rossio

Outlining Your Script or Story - Thomas B. Sawyer

Hollywood's Best Kept Secret: The Expanded Scene Breakdown - Christopher Keane
Screenwriters Toolkit: Outline/Structure

How To Scriptwrite - Part 1 - Structure

Beat Sheets - Danny

A Screenwriter's Challenge: Visualization - Guy Magar

The Emotional Pattern of Plot - Linda Cowgill

The Middle: Meddlesome or Mythical? - Martha Alderson

Lean and Mean: Using Reverse Cause and Effect to Construct a Tight Script - Jeff Kitchen

Characters Make the Plot - Martha Alderson

"Because of Mama" - outline

"Actual Innocence" - outline and screenplay

Screenplay Outliner (Shareware)


NEXT

Preview: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"


"Drama series about a late-night comedy sketch show. Studio 60 is in danger of cancellation, and its Executive Producer is undergoing a very public breakdown. Network executives Jack Rudolph and Jordan McDeere ask former employees Danny Tripp and Matt Albie to step in and save the show."


Doubtless you will have already heard that this new show from The West Wing creator about the backstage goings on at a comedy show has been cancelled. If not you may have got that hint from this low profile digital debut. But none of that means it's a bad show.



Aaron Sorkin is one of the few showrunners in the US who writes every script himself (occasionally with a partner), which considering we're talking about 22 episode seasons and not 6-part series is pretty remarkable. The advantage is that we get Sorkin's undiluted voice, the disadvantage is we get Sorkin's undiluted voice.

Other writers in LA were quick to pick up on the latter, perhaps jealous that he alone gets to do the former. Let's face it Sorkin is in a privileged position, once NBC had agreed to the pilot they had to buy the whole season and show the whole season no matter what the ratings were like. And they weren't good. NBC put on a brave face because the network was attracting the upscale audience which advertisers love but there wasn't enough of them and it got pulled. The remaining episodes were burnt off at the end of the regular season.


The problem with Sorkin's voice is that his themes might be worthy but they aren't necessarily universal. For example, one of the issues of the series is how television is going down the pan and pandering to the religious right. That's of concern to us all as screenwriters, and producers and directors but it may be a bit too insidery for a general audience.


The other problem is that Studio 60 is based on a late night sketch show like Saturday Night Live but was going out on a Friday. (Incidentally that's improbable but understandable, as it couldn't go out on Saturday, and yet Sorkin was criticised even for that.) So it's a sketch show but while Sorkin is funny, he's not sketch show funny. The sketches within the show improved as the series went on but he needed to farm those out to broken comedy specialists.


The show is about a head writer and involves the politics of the writers room and problems with the network. That's Sorkin writing what he knows but there were complaints about it being too inside. I accept some of the themes of the series might be too inside but part of the fun of TV drama is getting to know workplaces you don't know about. ER has loads of hospital politics and lots of medical jargon and no-one calls that too inside because it's about the characters first and the detail of their jobs isn't as important. The same with Studio 60.


I liked Sorkin's mix of characters and relationships. There are three romantic comedy stories interweaved in the storylines so it isn't all about the office and network politics.

The series improved when Brummie Lucy Davis from The Office joined the writers room. Co-incidence? I think not. The introduction of a Brummie to your show in an acting or writing capacity is always going to help. Especially if they're called Robin. It's just a fact. I just wish more producers were aware of it.


When Studio 60 was put on hiatus, it came back with renewed vigour. Sorkin had incorporated something real-life happening to one of the actors and something going on in the news and he said it sparked him creatively.

When you create The West Wing then expectations are going to be high but such was the scramble to find fault with Studio 60, there were even complaints that he used the same font as The West Wing in the opening credits. I didn't even notice.


It's the pilot and it's by Sorkin so you can learn a lot especially about the setting up of characters. For instance Jordan is introduced first of the main characters, but although she is an executive she is obviously a nice executive. How do we see that? Sorkin does it by a comment she makes around the dinner table but that might have been missed so he has another character comment on it.

The cold open doesn't feature any of the main stars but it sets up the setting and the main series theme brilliantly and dramatically.


Sorkin only planned the show to run two seasons but I'm glad we have at least this one. Time is precious and you don't particularly want to be wasting it on crap shows but I think, overall, this is worth the investment. It's recommended.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
More 4,
Thursday 26 July, 10:00pm


Links

Pilot screenplay

Pre-season interview - New York Times (requires subscription)
Post-season interview - Los Angeles Times

25 July, 2007

Preview: "Heroes"


Heroes is about a group of people around the world, mostly America though natch, who discover they have developed superpowers, just when the world could be in danger.

I saw the pilot of this last summer and loved it instantly. Sure there are flaws but what kind of love is it if you care about a few imperfections? I thought it would obviously be a huge hit but the trade press reviews suggested that it would only appeal to geeks. I took that personally and thought maybe they were right - but only for a few moments.


Every quality US network show and some really ropey ones had been bought by UK broadcasters but still no-one had bought Heroes. It was doing my head in and so I was relieved, and a little bit smug to be honest, that Heroes became the biggest hit of the new season. But at the same time I was slightly depressed at the UK buyers who bought surefire shits but honestly believed Heroes would have limited appeal. But that's the way the acquisition (and commissioning) cookie crumbles.

The Sci-Fi Channel took the gamble and bought it and were rewarded with its highest ratings ever. The BBC bought the free to air rights and at the LA screenings this summer bought exclusive rights to season two by paying a stupid amount of money for it (nearly half a million quid an episode) in a bidding war. It's a shame for Sci-Fi who had the foresight to buy it first but for the viewer, it's very good news: it'll be in widescreen and there will be no ads.


Heroes was created by Tim Kring who brought us crime procedural Crossing Jordan which I didn't like all that much, although it lasted six seasons before it's surprise cancellation. There were some character and story choices Kring has made with Heroes that I could quibble with but he fixed them as the season went on.

The pilot, although good fun, is a bit muddled and tries to set-up too much. It was going to air in the US with episode 2 back to back but didn't. I agreed with the decision as that would perhaps be too much information to take in but the BBC (as did Sci-Fi UK) are showing episodes 1 and 2 back to back. The advantage of showing both together is that a major popular character is introduced in part 2. Be patient for a few episodes while they sort themselves out and you will be rewarded.



Science-fiction is notoriously difficult in getting a mass audience but Lost changed that by not being about the science fiction but by being about characters affected by science fiction. Heroes learns that lesson and it's clear from the outset that it's about people learning to cope with changes in their body that make them freaks. Hiro is stuck in an office cubicle doing a dull job and he loves his power but single Mom Niki hates what's happened to her and is scared by it.


It turns out that Kring consulted with the Lost producers on how to sustain a series with major mysteries, which makes sense, although it's clear that Heroes has learnt from the mistakes of Lost and has a single story season arc - while setting up nail-biting cliffhangers and mysteries for next season.

I say single story but on reflection there are many stories which happened to be focused on that single story. By concentrating on character, the story takes care of itself. It's brilliantly done.


Interestingly, when the writing team works on an episode, each writer takes a character and writes the individual scenes surrounding that character. These stories are then combined and given to the episode writer, allowing every writer to contribute to every episode.

Heroes perfects the art of the cliffhanger and I'm sure that some people will just have to buy the DVD before the season finishes. At least a couple of the episodes rank highly in the list of all time greatest TV drama. Highly recommended.

Heroes, BBC2
Wednesday, 9:00pm

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Links

Pilot screenplay (pdf))

Tim Kring interview (by Damon Lindelof of Lost)

Tim Kring Sci-Fi UK interview

Beware of spoilers:


Greg Beeman blog

Jeph Loeb podcast interview

Bryan Fuller interview

Q & A with Joe Pokaski and Aron Coleite

24 July, 2007

Preview: "The Wire"


The Wire is the greatest television drama of all time ever. Everyone says that because it's true. FX are showing all four series from the first episode on Monday nights leading up to the final fifth series.


I prefer drama that is complex, truthful, emotional, treats me like an adult and says something about the world, so this is perfect for me. It is never preachy and always entertaining. If 'entertaining' is the right word. Sure it's often funny but it's also often scary. Not fake horror scares but the fear you get when characters you have got to know and care about are put in danger.


Co-creator David Simon wrote the source book for Homicide - Life on the Streets, which also held the "best TV drama of all time" title until The Sopranos and Six Feet Under came along to fight amongst themselves for it. He became an Emmy winning screenwriter on the show and interestingly, the other writers on The Wire come from books too. Which was more than a little annoying as it destroyed my "novelists make crap screenwriters theory" and I really, really liked that theory.


The series has relatively low ratings on HBO but it gets commissioned each year due to the sheer quality and universal media acclaim.

The show isn't for everyone, just as ordinary television is called chewing gum for the eyes, The Wire is a five course meal requiring the savouring of every last morsel and that takes a bit more effort. I never watch it live but tape it as there's so much going on, and I don't want to miss a word.


Watch Charlie Brooker's excellent introductory documentary on the series here in the 'video' section.

You've missed the first episode but you can watch it here at The Guardian.

The Wire, season 1
FX, Mondays, 10:00pm
(repeated early Tuesday mornings plus on FX+2 time shift)


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The Guardian article

The Observer article

David Simon, Slate interview

Charlie Brooker Screenwipe review (video)

HBO site

FX micro-site

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Buy /rent season 1
Buy/rent season 2
Buy/rent season 3

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22 July, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 6

I can tell that for some of you this foundation business is really getting on your nerves. I maintain that this method, rather than being a 'slow way' of writing, is the quickest. Practising this approach and learning how to do it well will come in handy when you’re writing under a crunch for an impatient producer. As I said before, trust the process.

Here's another inspiring quote from Paris Hilton: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

Actually, that was said by Abraham Lincoln but I'm sure Paris would have said it first if she was around at that time.

The foundation process is about ensuring that everything is stable before you start building on it. As I said before, if you find that the foundation of your script is shaky or you've lost enthusiasm for it then by all means re-work it. Change your story, characters, viewpoint and theme if you have to. It's far better to notice those problems now before you've spent more time on it.

You should, hopefully, by now be working your way through your character biogs. As you do so different ways of telling the story may occur and maybe even different stories altogether. Your characters will take on a life of their own with their own wants and desires. Follow your characters.

During this process, snatches of dialogue for your story will occur and its OK to write those down but be aware that you might not need them and better dialogue may develop more organically.

By following what the character would do normally rather than imposing plots on them then you will get your story. Just take it one step at a time ensuring that the character is psychologically true. What would the character really do next considering what's gone before? How would another character react to that?

Aim for character-driven plots not plot-driven characters.

Aim for simple stories and complex characters not complex stories and smple characters.


Matthew Carless, a writer and script reader, suggested one method to avoid plots that are too linear or not very interesting:

"Get a large sheet of paper. At the top, put the story beat you are working on; let's call it "A" (you will probably have written a brief sentence of two). Now at the bottom of the page write the next story beat; call it "B". So now you know where you character has to start from and where s/he has to go to.

At this point, keep in mind the "cause and effect" theory: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". Most good stories are created this way. Using this, work out one potential direction for your character and see where that goes, so you end up with a sort of flow chart with your main beats and little "mini-beats", etc.

Now, go back to the top and work out another potential line of action - and see where that goes. And so on, and so on. Using this method, and applying it to both your main beats and some or all of your mini-beats, you will get a web of possible routes to story beat "B".

Some of them will reach a dead end, others will not. You could send your character off down one dead-end route, only for them to realise that they should've taken the other route you planned out. Which means you can then ask yourself "what now are the implications for this character because she didn't take the correct route in the first place". This helps keep your plots alive and interesting and is a good way to keep your audience hooked. "

You would then do the same from story beat B to story beat C and so on.

Bill Martell's “tennis plotting” approach to screenplay plotting is also something to think about:

“The ball doesn't just hop over the net on its own... somebody has to hit it – same thing with a story. Things don't just happen on their own. They happen because someone causes them to happen.

After that, another character reacts to that event, and the reaction knocks the ball back over the net so that the other player must react to it.”


Try and avoid overly complicated stories. A complex, clever twisty thriller where the audience hasn't got time to know the characters and you're forced to withhold a lot of information until the end will not show your story and character skills at their best. They will only show your plotting skills which aren't as impressive. You need a simple story to give the characters a chance to emotionally engage the reader as that's what's going to make your script stand out.

Try and avoid narration and flashbacks. This is what Nichola Schindler of Red Productions says about it:

"There are a lot of ways to tell a story and, in my opinion, a lot of ways that shouldn’t be used. I’ve got my pet hates which drive the writers I work with mad. But they have to do a lot to persuade me to change my mind.

I can’t bear voice-overs and flashbacks – interestingly, when you just lift them out of a script it’s amazing how well the story works without them, with no rewrites. I think they’re often just a crutch for the writer and sometimes show lazy storytelling. I feel the same about voice-over. It’s lazy.

This is a visual medium so don’t have someone tell me what to think or what to watch, show me! Make the actor work hard to show the audience what they are thinking."

They've always been my pet hates as well. Of course, one of the greatest films of all time - and the favourite amongst UK screenwriters according to a poll - is The Shawshank Redemption which has both narration and flashbacks, which is a good counter-argument but I've never seen it work in a spec script. Maybe I'm just not reading enough spec scripts or maybe yours will be the exception.

As well as the reasons Ms Schindler stated, I don't like them because they tend to throw us out of the story, just to give us exposition we don't need, rather than them moving the story forward. Also we're writing a spec to get us work on continuing drama and continuing drama doesn't use narration and flashbacks.

Now some of you may be thinking, "You two faced get! One minute it's 'use your voice and write what you want', the next minute it's 'shut up and don't do it this way'. Narration and flashbacks are part of my writer's voice". And that's fair enough. You've heard my side of it, decide for yourself.

The best thing about the foundation stage is that you don't need to be at your desk to do it. You can develop characters and work through story problems anywhere: while waiting for a bus, doing the day-job or while pretending to listen to your partner. It's important that your story is sound and makes sense before you start writing. I find taking the problem for a walk helps - although you get some funny looks in the park when you shout "Eureka!" and do your special "solved a writing problem" dance.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has pretended a huge plot-hole doesn't exist until I'm in the middle of writing the script and find myself right at the bottom of that hole and unable to claw my way out.

I know you're itching to start writing but for the next few days, just go over your characters and check they're substantial and believable and not stereotypical ciphers.

Check your story. Does it start in the right place? Is there a lot of set-up before something happens? Are there logic flaws which you are ignoring just to have 'exciting' things happen? Is there enough story for the thirty minutes or hour? If not, what sub-plots could you add? How can you expand the main story with more conflict and obstacles for your main character?

We're nearly there.


Links

Voiceovered - Jane Espenson

Character vs Plot - Danny

Spec notes - Danny

Three Approaches to Developing a Screenplay - Gina Vanname

Flashbacks - Bill Martell

Confessions of a Genius Script Reader - Allan Heifetz


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Soundtrack


What was galling about the coverage of Paris Hilton's recent wrongful incarceration was how she was portrayed as a heiress who just lives off her family's money. But she has lived off her own money since she was 18 and works very hard.

I am aware that my brilliant screenplays may mean I will need to visit California to meet with top agents and directors but I refuse to go there until the State apologise for sending Paris to prison and gives her a pardon. Even though Paris was crying in court, they still insisted that she do the sentence, which is just outrageous. I wrote to Amnesty about the case but they haven't replied yet.

Paris is multi-talented with the acting, writng and modelling and she added making a stunning debut album to that list. I was in a club and people were dancing away to Stars are Blind and then when people found out who it was by they went all cool and trendy and denied they enjoyed it. No matter what you think of her, good music is good music.

There was a made up story in The Sun about how the album was a flop and she was dropped from the label which got eagerly reported as fact all around the world but Paris is currently recording the follow-up. Here are some songs from that first album. Enjoy.


Stars are Blind:



Nothing in This World:



Jealousy:



Official site
Wikipedia

18 July, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 5

Update

Mr Jordan said that more than one entry was allowed at the Screenwriters' Festival in response to a question. And that has now been confirmed by the updated rules on the website.

As it says "quantity is no guarantee of success". The scattergun approach is unlikely to work unless you have a portfolio of polished scripts ready to go. Far better to aim carefully with a sniper's rifle and one or two bullets.

There's plenty of time before the deadline to write something new and polish one or two old specs. There's no extra prize for sending something in early so I'll be writing and revising as close to the deadline as I can to improve my chances.

I complained about wanting three months and not two months to write and the kind Mr Stack pointed out that after the deadline you have another month to finish your scripts before it will be requested. If you pre-write that's a piece of piss as dialogue is easy once everything's worked out beforehand.

If you haven't got polished specs on the go and you're writing something new using the Project, don't be disheartened, your script could be the one that beats more experienced writers. It happens all the time.

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Firstly, just a reminder that what follows is just my personal opinion and not rules that have to be followed exactly. Take as much or as little from it as you want.


Here's another inspirational quote from Paris Hilton:

“The only rule is don't be boring and dress cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in.”

Someone should publish a little book of her quotes so people could carry it with them as portable inspiration and enlightenment. I find dressing cute easy but, obviously, I need to work on the boring aspect.

You should by now have a dramatic premise in mind and a rough idea of your main characters. Now it's time to spend some time on creating those characters. As you develop your characters, you will think of ways your story can develop naturally. Never start with plot. To quote a TV exec, "A writers primary relationship is with the audience, and the audience's primary relationship is with the characters."

OK, I've got my main character (or protagonist) the copper. I also have someone opposing what he wants, his father (or antagonist). I also have another possible antagonist, the child-killer.

I'm choosing to focus on the copper's inner goal (or emotional need) and make the father the real antagonist in the main plot. The outer goal (physical, external) of catching the child-killer is the sub-plot. This is because this script is meant to be a sample script and I need to emotionally involve the reader. The copper also needs to have a 'superobjective' - something he hopes to achieve by reaching his inner or outer goal. For instance my copper's inner goal is to stand up to his father and leave the police. Not so he can doss at home watching daytime TV but by doing a job where he can help children in a practical way.

What other characters do I need? The copper should have a girlfriend who he can talk to about his feelings regarding his dad and the child-killer. But female actors despair at girlfriend roles because all they are usually is sounding boards so she needs to be developed fully.

The girlfriend needs to be in opposition to the copper in some way. Now she could simply be saying 'confront your dad, you're a coward' which would sort of work but I need to find a goal she has that the copper is against. Maybe it's whether or not to have children, maybe it's marriage, maybe it's moving to a nicer area, etc. Oh, blimey! Of course the issue has to be children. Either she wants them or he does as it relates to my theme of fatherhood. Maybe they both want children but they can't. Sweet. Not sweet for them, clearly, but I don't want them sweet and happy but emotionally in conflict and turmoil.

Who else do I need? Our copper cares a lot about the dead kid so there has to be a copper who doesn't give a toss, his partner. So now there's great conflict as my copper has a go at cynical copper. But why is he cynical? Maybe he's a veteran and used to it and it's his way of coping. He'll need to be fleshed out a bit more.

Who else? The copper's mom, the dead child's mother. Oh, and the child-killer. Whatever you feel about people who kill children - although it's generally considered to be not a very nice thing to do - we have to understand why he did it and even sympathise with him. Everyone is the hero in their own story. No-one is completely bad.

And no-one is completely good so you can't make your hero character too passive or too nice. They have to actively change their destiny and they have to be flawed in some way. Ideally it's that flaw which is the obstacle to them achieving their goal. For instance. my copper will risk his life to save someone but is too much of a coward to stand up to his father. To achieve his goal - which is to quit the police and be a social worker or teacher - he needs to be courageous to his father. We can then see a clear character change.

Sometimes the character is too much like the author as when we start out our stories tend to be autobiographical. There is a time to explore that but maybe not with this project. The characters can't be a version of you as you need to put them through hell and there would be an obvious reluctance to do that. If you find the character is too much like you or someone you know then its perhaps best to change them so they aren't.

Hopefully my Project will help develop techniques to use when you run out of personal stories and those of people you know. Besides which, although they have to be believable, characters are not real people. They are conduits for our ideas; they are there to serve the story.

As writers we have to do what actors do - put yourself into a character's shoes and ask:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I coming from?
  • What do I want?
  • What's in the way of what I want?
  • What do I do to get what I want?
Unfortunately you can't just wait for the actor to provide the answers as they get the answers from the script, from the writer, from us. If we're expecting David Tennant to do our character creation work for us then the script won't even get as far as David Tennant's agent.

Now simply asking those above questions might do but I like using questionnaires. Characters have got to be different from and distinguishable from each other (not so much in looks but more crucially in personality and attitude) and asking the same questions helps you to avoid the same answers. Also the answers to questions like favourite food or hobby can generate lots of ideas for future stories - which is useful when creating an original comedy or drama series.

You are not going to use all the answers in the questionnaire and some of those answers may change anyway in the development of the story but it's the easiest way of ensuring you get believable characters and avoid stereotypes.


Now it's your turn. Work out the characters you'll need to tell your story and complete profiles for them using the 'Ideas Factory Questionnaire' or the 'Character Profile Worksheet'. Not all the questions will be relevant but answer enough so you're clear about who the character is and what they want. Try and keep it to less than six main characters, any more and it might get too confusing.

Spend enough time doing this so you know the characters well. By the time you've finished you should be clear on all the character motivations and also know the basic beginning, middle and end of your story.

Watch drama to see how characters are set up and how story and plotting is done. Even drama you would normally avoid like soaps or arthouse indie. At least watch the first ten minutes.

Some of you probably aren't happy with your concept as it doesn't seem interesting enough or you don't really want to write about the theme you first chose and want to switch to another one. That's no problem. At the foundation or pre-writing stage you are pretty much free to change stories, change viewpoints, change characters, change themes until you have something you're happy with and that is likely to work with an audience as well. Liking your story and having a passion for the story is the most important thing.

The alternative route, which most aspiring screenwriters take is rushing through the plotting, by-passing proper character creation, and rushing through the writing only to end up stuck a third of the way through. Then they try to change stories, viewpoints, characters and themes but it's too much work at that stage and they abandon it. Fair enough, that method will get you your first ten pages really quickly but they will suck and producing the rest of the script will be difficult.

Links:

Creating Character and Characterization in Screenplays by Elizabeth English

Creating Characters That Jump Off the Page

My Mother the Antagonist by Bill Martell

Do You Feel What I Feel- MaryAn Batchellor

Character Naming Resources

Character Development Center

How to create convincing characters - 7 steps to developing real people who will bring your fiction to life


Character Building Workshop

Character

And courtesy of the Required Reading list compiled by Lucy.

Creating Characters by Sam North

How Much is Enough? Part 1 by Lucy

How Much is Enough? Part 2 by Lucy

Surprising Characterisation by Danny Stack


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15 July, 2007

Blue Cat semi-finalists announced



Massive congratulations to Pillock! Roll on the 25th. Come on!


Here are the 2007 BlueCat Semi-Finalists:

Algo Por Mi by Juan Sebastian & Jacome Moreano
Beloved of God by Jim Walkington
Burning Love by Phil Andersen
Cruel World by Lisa O'Donnell
Dear Micah by Danielle Porter
Delivered by Diane Hanks
Every time I go to Staten Island Something Bad Happens by Irin Evers
Howard & Minet by Doyle Esch & Daniel Wilson
Juniper Bass by CB Wilson
Kid Show by Chad Holley
Life with Louis by Justin Flesher
Loved Ones by Vicki Speegle
Play Me by Chaco Daniel
The Banner by Tina Juarez
The Big Gay Float by Andy Phillips
The Floating World by Perry Wade
The Hungry Kitchen by Jennifer Jones
The Life and Times of Randall Southgate by Michael Diliberti and Loren Dunn
The Maker by Ellwyn Kauffman
The Stones by Ana Lily Amirpour
The Water Mark by Joseph Pillitteri
Winter Pork by Kristie M. Fleming

Finalists will be announced July 25th.

Our Winner will be announced August 1st

Red Planet Prize Project - 4

The aim of this project is to create a hour (or half hour) stand-alone drama completely from scratch as a sample script to get work with production companies and networks. A drama good enough to attract the considerable acting talents of someone like Paris Hilton. How she was overlooked by the academy for House of Wax is a mystery not even Sherlock Holmes could work out.

Firstly though, Mr Jordan gave a talk in The Smoke and Lianne and David were kind enough to report on it. Luckily he didn't say "who gives a toss about characters and passion" or I'd be well embarrassed. This is what he did say:

"You need to find your characters first and your story second when you create a show. It's madness to go story first, characters become story vehicles."

"Writers should use research to justify what we're doing."

"You have to find the heart and soul of the project. Lots of people have an idea for a story. That's not a whole world. You need a reason to tell a story."

"Great stories are great, but great shows have character. They're character-based, not story-based. Get your characters right and you'll get longevity in series creation."

"The way to success in creating shows is character, passion, emotional truth. Don't try to second guess commissioners. You should write what you're passionate about."

"Writers are always looking for excuses not to write, an excuse why they haven't been discovered yet. I didn't know anything when I started."

"A writer writes. Characters first. Know what your story is. Have a beginning, middle and end. That's about it. I think of my main story as like a big, solid coat-stand. the bottom is the beginning, the top is the end and everything else is in between. I hang other stuff on it, like you hang coats on a coat-stand."

"If you're talented as a writer, talent will out."

"Sit down and write what's in your heart."

OK. By now you should have focused on yourself and your passions for a while. Now it's time to think about theme.

One newspaper story I chose, from my local evening rag, was 'Council could have saved murdered boy'. A man was jailed for life for killing his two year old and the boy's aunt complained that social care had known the child was in danger and dropped the case.

Now even if other people chose the same story as part of the exercise, they may take from it a different theme than I would.

Is it about the bureaucracy of local government? Hard-pressed social care? Evil social care? Underfunding? Bullying? Young parenthood? The cycle of abuse? The criminal justice system? Childhood? Infertility? For me, it's about fatherhood.

You have to know what it's about - that will help keep you focused and help the story.

Once you've nailed your theme, think about whose point of view you want to tell the story from. Is it the boy's? The father's? The social worker's? The aunt's? The copper's?

I like the copper. Maybe the death is simply the turning point for the young copper who finds the body. And who thinks of quitting in despair.

You have to know who it is about - that will help keep you focused and help the character.

The copper may represent my point of view of despair at child abuse but the character can't be my mouthpiece. He has to be believable and three-dimensional.

Let's face it, it's not very believable that he's thinking of quitting. He knew what he was getting into when joining the police and he's had the training. So I need to add backstory to make it convincing.

Backstory is crucial because just as we haven't just arrived on earth this actual minute, neither have our characters. Most of my psychological make-up is as a result of my childhood, never mind what's happened in the last year. Characters have lived lives before the story you're writing about and how they have lived will affect their behaviour in that story. Indiana Jones falling into a pit of snakes is interesting to watch, no doubt, but when the character is given the backstory of being terrified of snakes then we're scared along with him - we're emotionally engaged.

So back to my copper. I ask questions and I brainstorm. What if this is the last straw after several horrible cases? What if he's having trouble at home with his wife? What if he's on heroin? What if he's on the take and about to be exposed in the papers? What if his whole family are coppers and it isn't what he really wants to do? Hold on. Or specifically what if his big wig pig father forced him to be a copper? Bingo! By choosing the copper's father as a reason it's still focused on my theme fatherhood.

You have to have an opposing viewpoint to that represented by your 'hero' (or protagonist) who would be your villain (or antagonist). There has to be conflict or there's no story. We might naturally try to avoid conflict in real life but avoiding it in our writing makes it doomed to failure.

Antagonists don't have to be evil, they can be friends, allies, parents and lovers. Antagonists are just the source of and the driving force of opposition causing the central conflict. I say central conflict because there should be other conflicts going on as well.

So if my copper represents compassion there has to be an anti-compassion character. Maybe his Chief Inspector father? Maybe the dead boy's father? Maybe both. Can I have two antagonists? I'll have to think about that one.

Just by brainstorming and thinking about character I've got the basis of an interesting premise, characters and story.

Now it's your turn. Go back to your newspaper clippings and use one of those as a basis for a story like I have just done.

Choose the theme and then choose the best point-of-view character to explore that theme and who/what the antagonist will be. Look for stories that have clear conflict at its core and ask 'What if..?' That will make the writing later on much easier.

You might feel passionately about the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil war but your theme of war is good or war is bad doesn't have to take place in the offices of the Prime Minister or President, it could be from the point of view of a whistleblower who works for the government; a woman who supports the war has a boyfriend who doesn't; a boy might have lost a parent in the fighting - it could be a boy born here or an asylum seeker. Look for the potential in getting the audience emotionally involved, with a strong central relationship which has a clear conflict.

Of course, you can take ideas from elsewhere other than newspapers as long as you follow the same process and it's coming from character and truth and your own personal passion.

Links:

Variations on a Theme - Top guru Bill Martell says "What is a theme? It's what your film is really about - the POINT rather than the plot. The moral of the story. When I first started writing I didn't think theme even existed. People would ask me what my script was about, I'd answer "It's about a cop chasing a serial killer" and they'd come back with "No, what's it REALLY about?"

Screenwriting: Theme - Isaac Botkin believes "Theme is the real heart of good screenwriting"

Theme Me Up Scotty... The Unknown Screenwriter says "So TRUTH is THEME. Theme is the INNER LIGHT at the end of Your Protagonist's tunnel. YOUR TRUTH — not MY truth."

PostSecret - Lianne gives a couple of good sources for getting ideas.

Shorts Project: Idea - In this post Robin tries to get an idea for his short. Robin hates people who talk about themselves in the third person. Although Robin is beginning to like it. Robin may do it all the time.


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