Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TITLES

A good title is important. Get it right and it helps to sell your screenplay. Get it wrong and you risk losing your audience before they've even turned to page one of your screenplay.

Here are some some examples (including a couple of my own) to help you see what works and what doesn't.

'SNAKES ON A PLANE'

 Short and to the point, you know instantly you're getting an action movie set on a plane full of snakes. It practically sells itself. A marketing dream in fact. Bet they didn't have to spend much money at all on marketing the film. I remember the excitement over the title, the internet buzz and the word of mouth. It had an inbuilt audience even before the film had finished shooting. Snakes on a mother frickin plane!!!

'THE ROARING FORTIES'

The original title of a football sitcom about six men in their forties, written by Brendan O'Neill and myself. My agent hated the title, said it conjured images of a historical drama either set during or after WWII. She was right. Needless to say the title has now changed to something more suitably footbally.

'WHO KILLED NELSON NUTMEG?'

The brainchild of my friends Danny Stack and Tim Clague. 'Who Killed' instantly lets you know this  is a mystery waiting to be solved and the name 'Nelson Nutmeg' can only mean one thing... comedy! As a low budget film it won't have much of a marketing budget, if at all, so the title is important in hooking the audience in from the get go.

'THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN'

I tend to keep my titles short, one or two words if possible. Although this title tells you exactly what the film is about I do feel it's too long and might have put people off going to see it. Let's put it this way, if you're queueing at the cinema, with loads of people waiting impatiently behind you itching to get their ticket and popcorn, you don't really want to have to spout this mouthful when paying for your seat. What title do you think would have worked better?

'JUMANJI'

Complicated or unusual titles can be confusing. Being a little dyslexic I hate having to ask for a ticket to see a film I have trouble pronouncing. Also you can never really be sure of what you're getting with a cryptic title. For those of you who haven't seen the film, what does this title conjure up for you? Those of you who have seen the film will know it's the name of the board game that sucks the players into a real-life jungle filled with dangers, from which they have to escape. For me it doesn't really say 'children's adventure film', because unless you know the title refers to a board game you might be left scratching your head wondering what the hell it's actually about. If you make your title ambiguous or cryptic you've already lost part of your potential audience. Don't make it difficult for them to choose your film.

'PLAYGROUND'

This is the title for a thriller feature I was commissioned for, set in the world of African child soldiers. The title suggests innocence and its loss, friendship and bullying, joy and sorrow and all those emotions and challenges evoked when we remember our own childhood in school playgrounds.

So as you can see titles are very important. Some work. Some don't. So don't always go with your first choice, like your first draft of your screenplay play around with it, change it, think on it and make it better.

Happy Writing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

FIRST DRAFT - PART THREE

So here are the rewritten opening pages of my thriller feature.
FADE IN:
EXT. CITY - NIGHT 
A myriad of coloured lights twinkle across the bustling metropolis.  Always busy.  Never sleeping.  Eight and a half million strangers sardined within its boundaries. 
It appears deceptively peaceful.  It won’t be for long. 
EXT. INNER CITY HIGH-RISE - NIGHT 
A tall, ugly concrete high-rise that may have once been called luxury, but is now just old, worn and dirty, like its inhabitants. 
From a distance we see a WORKMAN, tool box in hand, stride towards the graffiti scrawled front entrance. 
INT. LIFT - NIGHT 
DEXTER (53), the workman we saw moments ago, stands expressionless in the far corner of the lift. 
He wears a blue workman’s overall, baseball cap, brown hair underneath, glasses and a tool box.  A screwdriver in his breast pocket.  An ID card hangs from a strap around his neck. 
Tinny Muzak plays.  The halogen light exacerbates Dexter’s pasty skin and the dark circles under his eyes. 
A ping as the lift arrives at Dexter’s desired floor.  He exits into... 
FOURTEENTH FLOOR CORRIDOR 
Automatic lights flicker on, illuminate the pale green walls in a eerie glow.  The colour reflects off Dexter’s skin, makes him look like one of the living dead. 
Dexter walks to the far end of the corridor, halts in front of apartment one-four-five.  He knocks with a latex gloved hand.  A long moment... 
...then the door opens a crack. 
THOMPSON (33) peaks through, flashes a questioning look.  Dexter shows him his ID. 
THOMPSON
‘Bout time. 
Thompson opens the door wide, leads the way into... 
THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, HALLWAY 
Dexter closes the door behind him. 
THOMPSON
Bloody thing’s been playing up all afternoon. 
Dexter pulls the screwdriver from his top pocket to reveal a cleverly disguised syringe... 
THOMPSON (CONT’D)
Fuckin’ freezin’ in here. 
...and stabs Thompson in the neck, depresses the button. 
Thompson half turns, surprised.  He tries to grab the now empty syringe but his legs give way.  He’s unconscious before he hits the floor. 
THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, BATHROOM - MOMENTS LATER 
Dexter enters, deposits his tool box on the floor, opens it, takes out two empty pill bottles and one half full. 
He lines up all three on the lip of the bath. 
THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, HALLWAY - MOMENTS LATER 
Dexter slips his hands under Thompson’s arms, hoists him upwards, with a gargantuan effort hefts him onto his shoulders in a fireman’s lift. 
A momentary stumble, Dexter steadies himself then carries Thompson carefully towards the bathroom. 
THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, BATHROOM - MOMENTS LATER 
Dexter settles the unconscious Thompson in the bath.  He reaches into his tool box, extracts a bottle of Jim Beam and a funnel, presses Thompson’s fingers to the top, the body of the bottle and to all the pill bottles. 
Dexter discards the Jim Beam bottle top on the bathroom floor.  He opens Thompson’s mouth, uses the funnel to pour the whiskey and a few of pills from the half full bottle down his throat. 
A dying Thompson gags, pure reflex, vomits a little back up. 
Dexter sprinkles a few of the pills on the floor, then places the bottle into Thompson’s hand and steps back to admire his work. 
Satisfied, the funnel goes back in the tool box, the lid closed.  A phone vibrates in Dexter’s pocket.  He checks the screen. 
C.U. ON PHONE: A message from a contact listed as ‘BITCH!!!’ - “Have you REPLIED to the letter yet????????” 
Irritated, Dexter deletes the message, drops the phone into his pocket, picks up the tool box.  Ever the professional Dexter takes one last look around and then exits.
Besides the tidying, condensing and general improvements, there are two major changes in this version. The first is the absence of the YUMMY MUMMY.

Originally she was there to highlight the fact Dexter was trying to remain anonymous, by dipping his head so she couldn't see his face. However, on reflection I decided she really didn't serve a purpose. I feel the scene is significantly better without her and far more menacing than the slightly comical original.

The second was no longer having Dexter collapsing in pain. The original idea was that he was ill and motivated to take one last big job because of this. In the end I decided terminal illness was too cliche and swapped it for a intriguing text message instead. Again there is still the mystery - Who is the text from? What do they want? Why does Dexter ignore it? - this time I feel the answer isn't so clear and hopefully the reader will be further motivated to stick around and learn more.

I hope you've enjoyed this little exercise and it's helped you understand how another writer might construct their scenes.

Happy Writing!

Friday, July 10, 2015

MANCHESTER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL UK COMPETITION

The Manchester International Film Festival UK are running a competition in the run up to the festival  and there's a very helpful and sought after prize up for grabs. Get your entries in quick.

5 COPIES OF FINAL DRAFT 9 TO GIVE AWAY

In the run up to the festival JULY 10th – 12TH we have five copies of final draft 9 (or alternatively V.I.P. all access passes for U.K. residents/visitors) as prizes for anyone who can answer our advanced screenwriting question.

We didn’t want a simple generic question so we asked our mystery screenwriter to come up with something special and particularly difficult.

ADVANCED SCREENWRITING QUESTION:
       
What is the MORAL of the Oscar winning film BABETTE’S FEAST?
         
Answers to be sent to programming@maniff.com  (Subject line:  screenwriting question)

Winning answers (or as close to it) will be announced on JULY 12TH.

Good luck!

Happy Writing!

Friday, July 03, 2015

FINAL DRAFT WRITER APP FOR IPHONE

I don't own an iPad so it's been frustrating to have to carry a laptop with me on my travels if I wanted to work on my screenplays. Now thankfully the lovely people at Final Draft have come to my rescue and provided an app for the iPhone. I am with joy!

It has the same functionality of the full version of the software, only simplified for my mobile. I love the fact I can ignore the majority of the functions, allowing me the freedom to just write while I'm out and I don't have to worry about anything else (unless I want to) until I get home and I can upload it to the full program on my computer. I find this an advantage as there's less opportunity for destruction and it really helps to focus my mind.

For those of you who want a little more you can still add general notes, lock pages, add and remove scene numbers, set up your page just how you like it, use character highlighting, smart type, headers & footers, title page and you can even change your page view.

Files can easily be uploaded or downloaded and you can work on files direct from your Dropbox account too, so you can take any of your screenplays, or other documents to work on at your leisure, anywhere you want. It's smooth, easy to use and comes with handy instructions on how to use it, not that'll you'll really need them it's that easy. And the best thing is it doesn't cost much.

However, I do have one niggle... on the iPhone 5/s typing is a little awkward, especially if you have large fingers, but with the larger screens on the iPhone 6 I suspect this won't be much of a problem. As I said it is only one niggle and a little one at that. Otherwise it's a fantastic app and one you should be downloading today.

I really don't know how I've survived without it for so long. Thanks Final Draft!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

SUMMER WRITING

It's hot! The sun is out! All your mates are going up the pub, having BBQs, or going down the beach! You want to write, but the call of the summer is too strong.

At the best of times it's hard to motivate yourself to spend a few hours each day sat in a dark room in front of a computer, putting words and punctuation together to form your latest screenwriting masterpiece. You don't need summer getting in the way of your career and equally you don't want to miss out on all that vital vitamin D. So turn this sunny weather to your advantage.

Load up what you're working on onto your laptop, grab your notes, get a nice cold drink with plenty of ice and go and work outside. Don't forget the suncream. Find a nice cool spot in the garden, in the local park or even at a table outside a coffee bar and get ready to write like your life depends on it.

Turn your wi-fi off on your laptop so you can't connect to the internet or email. Even better leave your mobile at home. Give yourself a page/word target for the day. Make sure it's just you and your work. Then get your head down and get on with it.

You'll be surprised at how much you can get done in such a short space of time. Without the internet and your email there to distract you, you should fly through the pages. Then when you hit your daily target you can pack up and bugger off to enjoy the rest of the day.

Don't punish yourself! Don't force yourself to sit in a dark room when you'd rather be outside. Go on, get out there and enjoy the sun while you write... you deserve it after all.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

FORMAT RULES AND WHY YOU CAN BREAK THEM

There are two topics guaranteed to split opinion amongst screenwriters; grammar and formatting.

A few weeks ago I posted a rough version of the first few scenes of my latest spec thriller and found myself surprised at the backlash on Facebook focusing on the above two topics. I've already explained the reasons for publishing an unproofed selection of my first draft on the web and I won't go over those again, but I do want to discuss formatting rules and why you CAN break them if you so wish.

First of all I must point out that to break the rules you first need to know what they are. For those of you who are now thinking what's the point if you're going to break them anyway, you have to understand that to know how and where the rules can be broken you need to have a good understanding of how they work. Only then can you play and mess around with the reader's, or audience's perceptions and expectations. Not knowing the rules will lead to a very messy and incomprehensible screenplay.

I'm not going to go over the rules here, you can get that information more comprehensively elsewhere, but I am going to use examples of produced screenplays from two films, both of which impressed me, to illustrate what I mean; *LOCKE and *PHONE BOOTH.

SHOW; DON'T TELL:

This is a biggy, obviously because film is a visual medium. LOCKE (2013) is a brilliant example of how to break that rule and impressively so. The screenplay is about a construction manager Locke who walks out on his job and his family when the woman he had a brief fling with is about to give birth to their child. The majority of the screenplay is set in his car in real time, as he attempts to deal with the fallout of his decision by car phone, as he travels up the motorway to the hospital to be with the woman as she gives birth.

Obviously, with the main character confined to such a small space it meant the screenplay was always going to have to rely more on the dialogue than the action description, the 'SHOW' coming from the main actor's performance. Knowing this the writer used the action description as a guide for the actor to the main character's thought process. Consequently the screenplay reads more like a novel in places.
3  INT. LAND ROVER/EXT. CITY STREETS 3 
Ivan will now drive through city streets toward the M6 motorway, a couple of miles away. We will not blink as we study him as he drives...

Ivan is now confronting the crisis in his head. On the site he was in a familiar place but now he is on a journey and must necessarily begin to consider the destination and the place he is leaving.

His first decision is to make a phone call on his hands free car phone. This is an important component of the story so we should take some time establishing the mechanism. He has a long list of speed dial numbers, identified by names or locations.

He speed dials a number labelled ‘Bastard’...


IVAN

Hello, can I speak to Gareth? 
However, if this had been a spec screenplay the writer would not have been able to do this. By knowing he would also direct, it allowed the writer to break the 'SHOW;DON'T TELL' rule. The action isn't used to 'SHOW' the reader but instead inform the actor's performance. A reader coming across this in a spec script pile would most likely bin it and chalk the writer up as an amateur.

Only because the writer knew the screenplay formatting rules could he break them to make the film he wanted to. The resulting movie is better for it.

TOO MUCH DIALOGUE:

As writers we're always warned against using too much dialogue - again, 'SHOW; DON'T TELL'. The PHONE BOOTH (2002) screenplay not only breaks this rule but completely destroys it and becomes a master class of dialogue writing.

PHONE BOOTH is about a slick New York publicist who picks up a ringing receiver in a phone booth is told that if he hangs up, he'll be killed and is forced to participate in the destruction of his life and all that he holds dear, as the hidden marksman stares at him down the sight of his high powered rifle. As with LOCKE the main character's confinement to a small space is key to the story, so how does the writer get around this obvious obstacle and make it more cinematic? The answer is he breaks the 'TOO MUCH DIALOGUE' rule and uses it to convey the main character's predicament, rather than using action description to do so.

What surprised me most about this script is that there is very little action description. It's almost entirely dialogue. Pages and pages of it occasionally broken by a line or two of action. In fact if you added up all the action and scene description I doubt it would total more than five full pages. The scene and action description is sparse and only used when absolutely necessary, flipping the rule on its head and swapping the roles of action description and dialogue.

The screenplay's dialogue is a masterly example (if you know of a better one please let me know) of how words can convey action, emotion and atmosphere. The writer uses every single word of dialogue so carefully and expertly there is little or no need for action description. As a reader you don't need great swathes of action and scene description to describe what's happening and how people react both physically and emotionally to events. By doing this the writer creates an incredible, frenetic pace, under pinning the tension and urgency the publicist experiences trapped in the phone booth by the unknown sniper. The dialogue literally puts the reader in the phone booth with publicist, forces him/her to feel exactly what the character feels. It really is a spell binding screenplay.
 STU 
 They're all lying.  Nobody saw it because it didn't happen. 
 RAMEY 
A man is dead but it didn't happen. 
STU 
Not on account of me!  This is like some bad dream. 
RAMEY 
You're walking through a bad dream and you can't 
wake up.  Do you want to wake up? 
STU 
I'm trying. 
RAMEY 
And in this dream, you killed that man.  He was 
bothering you so you iced him. 
STU 
No. 
RAMEY 
Then who did? 
VOICE 
Don't tell him, Stu.  Or it'll be the last thing he 
ever hears.  His blood will be on your hands.  
STU 
(to Ramey)  
I don't know. 
RAMEY 
But you saw it happen? 
STU 
Yes. 
RAMEY 
You were the closest one to him. You must've seen who did it. 
STU 
No. 
RAMEY 
We're trying to be honest with each other, aren't we?
I particularly love the above scene as you can literally sense the publicist's (Stu) panic as he tries to talk his way out of the murder of a pimp shot by the sniper holding him hostage in the phone booth. The cop (Ramey) believes Stu did it and tries to talk him into surrendering, while the sniper (Voice) puts pressure on Stu and denies him the ability to prove his innocence.

As long as you are familiar with the rules of screenwriting there is no reason why you can't bend or break them to tell your story in a unique way that defies the reader's expectations. Ultimately this will make you stand out and above from all those other writers continually trying to pimp their formulaic screenplays.

Happy writing!

*Excerpts of screenplays used for educational purposes only and copyright remains with the original writer, production company and studio, etc.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

FIRST DRAFT - PART TWO

I learnt a lot by posting the first few scenes of my latest spec last week. Some expected, some unexpected.


I posted the scenes for two reasons...
  1. Let's face it, as writers we never really get to see a proper first (vomit) draft other than our own. Writers are very precious about letting other people seer their work until it has been rewritten a million times and proof read at least once by the grammar Nazis. I thought I'd be different and allow my fellow writers a chance to see how another writer works and what my raw first drafts look like - purely for educational purposes. Some called it brave! Some called it foolish! Some just didn't get it!
  2. Primarily I wanted to see if the scenes worked, if they were enough of a hook for the reader to want to know more.
What I didn't expect to happen...
  1. My spelling errors to be pointed out.
  2. To be pulled up on format.
  3. To be criticised on pace.
  4. For fellow writers to argue with each other over whether these issues should have been pointed out in the first place.
  5. A director to read it and then request to read the rest of the screenplay.
What I did expect to happen...
  1. For people to be drawn into Dexter's story and want to know more.
What I learnt...
  1. As writers it's easy to get hung up on format, pace, spelling and grammar (all of which are important) and forget that we are first and foremost story tellers. If we focus too much on these 'rules' our stories can suffer, their originality diluted or even lost - our work can become formulaic and dull. Be aware of the 'rules' but also be happy to break them if you think your story will benefit.
  2. Everybody has an opinion, most of them different, and these opinions can lead to personal attacks when people think others are attacking their validity.
  3. Some people get very angry if their opinions aren't listened to, are ridiculed or even attacked.
  4. We're writers. We're a community. We should be supportive of each other while being prepared to offer constructive criticism when asked. Under no circumstances should we be attacking each other. We should be united and supportive...always!
  5. Write the story you want to write. You can listen to others' opinions but never forget this is your story and you should never let anyone dictate how you write it... unless they're paying you, or it was their idea in the first place, even then you can negotiate.
  6. Opportunities can come from anywhere, you just need to make them happen.
Overall I'm happy with the results of the blog post and now, because of the mostly positive reaction, I'm thinking of re-posting the same scenes again after each rewrite so my fellow writers can see how the scenes evolve from draft to draft.


Remember - play nice!


Happy writing.