Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ROCLIFFE NOTES: A PROFESSIONAL APPROACH FOR SCREENWRITERS & WRITER-DIRECTORS by Farah Abushwesha

At last a screenwriting book that doesn't dedicate itself to the act of writing, but to the art of career building and survival instead, a rarely touched upon but much needed subject in my opinion.

It's the simplicity of this book is what makes it a winner for me.

How many other screenwriting books have you read where you get the author's knowledge and experience thrust upon you as if their unique way of doing things is the right way and the only way? Farah avoids this route, instead relying on advice from a multitude of industry professionals - including my awesome agent Christina - allowing for an easy read that is comfortable, informative and never preachy.

Farah poses relevant questions about all aspects of a screenwriting, or writing-directing career, briefly expanding on those questions with a quick paragraph, before posting the answers the industry professionals she interviewed gave. All the answers are precise, insightful and are mostly kept to a short paragraph. Farah then follows this up with helpful bullet pointed notes summing up the subject discussed in each section.

What this gives you is less the feel of an educational tomb, but more of a friendly chat in the pub over a few beers, making the information a great deal easier to digest.

It'll also give you an insight into what some production companies and producers are looking for currently. I've already highlighted the most interesting sections in my copy.

However, this is also a downside I can see with this book. Some of the information from producers and development execs, especially about what they're looking for, will soon be out of date, especially as development executives move on to different companies, as they often do, and their genre focuses change. But for me, that's a minor niggle. There's still plenty of information in between those pages to make a new writer weak at the knees and they will always be interested in great writing.

Subjects covered include; the job of a writer, what directors do, what producers do, other decision makers, the writing process, ideas, the many ways in to the industry, new talent, where new talent is hunted for, genres of writing, rejection, finding a producer, procrastinating, networking and a million other vital questions that need answers, far too many for me to list in this already very long blog post.

I was fortunate to be able to interview Farah and pick her brains. So in the style of the book, here's what she had to say...


DOM - Can you tell us a little about your background, how you got into writing and producing?

FARAH - Well I’ve written stories for years but I came late to writing, I grew up in Libya and the schooling system was different there. I spoke Arabic and English fluently but, arriving in Dublin at 7 years of age, I was basically illiterate. My grandmother, a school teacher, taught me to read and write to the level of my peers over two months. As I was separated from my parents, I used to write them letters and tell them stories. Both my father and my Irish uncle are poets and writers so it was in my blood on both sides, I recall going to many poetry readings and book launches. At my friends’ birthday parties I would make up plays and put on a show for when it came to be picked up and go home. Throughout senior school I would direct plays. When I moved to Paris, my friend Antonio and I made short films. Then responsibility set in and I realised a roof doesn’t stay over your head from ideas alone and I had to get a day job. I temped in the city and learned a little about business. I set up the Rocliffe New Writing Forums and that then led to producing my first movie No Deposit, No Return. It was about a desperate woman who broke into a sperm bank - so my two producing colleagues and I went to Cannes and asked everyone we met to donate their sperm and give us the proceeds. We raised £60,000 in sponsorship… first of the crowd funders! We were fools not to make a feature there and then. I guess I thought there was a right of passage — that we had to get in line and apply for permission to make ‘grown-up’ movies after we’d made a short. Believe me, looking back I’d be saying don’t hold yourself back.

DOM - Tell us about the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum and how and why you founded it?

FARAH - I came out of drama school, I found it so hard to get roles for women in their mid-20s. I had this great training across different types of scripts and was gagging to work. I had an agent but I was one of many queuing for those roles and everyone felt much prettier, more talented, thinner, crazier, more of everything I wasn’t. I wanted more than what was on offer. So a friend suggested getting writers together. I advertised on Shooting People which had exploded on the scene and united filmmakers, actors and writers left right and centre.  It was new and fresh. I advertised for writers to send in their work, printed them off, courtesy of the day job, and eight people turned up to do read-throughs.  I advertised again two weeks later - 30 people turned up to a small room above a pub. The idea was play reading, discussion and networking.  Pubs are great for networking. Then it kept growing and growing - we featured the early work of writers like James Dormer, Claire Wilson, Jack Thorne. It’s been amazing really. It started as a way to get my hands on material, support writers and create a network - I didn’t know any directors or writers back then. It was great. The real turning point was when we partnered up with BAFTA, who had a learning and events strand that it fit into.  It’s a mutually collaborative partnership, where we work together in the best interests of the writers, each bringing our skills to the table. What I love about it is that it is very personal, hands on; people get treated as individuals.

DOM - How did the idea for the book come about?

FARAH - I’d written a version of the book in 2010, then the Libyan Revolution came along and my father and family were there so I became a human rights activist and the book was forgotten. Then in 2013, I had been answering so many questions from writers that I decided to put them all in one place so I started the blog - using elements from the draft of the book. I was getting more than 1000 hits a week. I realised too that I’m not afraid to ask people for advice or their thoughts on the different mediums. So I asked Chris Sussman to write a blog for me about comedy writing. I realised how great it is to get advice and opinions from others. I had, at this point, thought no more of the book. I was speaking at the BFI London Film Festival in 2013 and having a coffee before my talk on line producing at Think-Shoot-Distribution. I bumped into Hannah Patterson and we were talking about the blog and she asked had I thought about making it into a book. She then explained she was a commissioning editor and asked to see the book proposal.  And it came from that.

DOM - What's the biggest mistake you see writers and writer/directors constantly make with regards to the growth of their careers?

FARAH - Overthinking can kill your confidence.  I believe, too, that some people I meet spend too much time being angry about things not happening for them or why other people have got the opportunities rather than making things or making things happen.  A writer needs to write. Many writers I meet don’t read enough or write enough. It’s all at your fingertips, go out and make something even with a phone - some great films out there. You have to commit to a career not a single screenplay. You need something to show for yourself. My biggest mistake was holding myself back; like with learning to read and write, I was a late developer.

DOM - As a producer can you tell us what you look for in writers and writer/directors you wish to work with (besides their projects of course)?

FARAH - What I would say is don’t work with people just because you are flattered by them asking you to work with them - it’s really a personality game and you need to feel you can work with them and really believe in the project or it will be hell or high water. Trust your instincts.

DOM - Should writers consider becoming writer/directors?

FARAH - It’s not a tick box - it’s a craft. Do it if you want to direct? If you want to direct, go do it! Don’t wait for permission.  Know what directing is - go on set, talk to cinematographers, lighting teams and sound recordists. I tried directing - I was so naive - I’d approach it differently today because I’ve been on set - when I did it first, I hadn’t a clue. I hadn’t run the film enough times in my head filmically.  I loved the edit though.  

DOM - As a writer, what's the one thing you can't live without and why?

FARAH - Facebook! Everyone needs to procrastinate. Seriously though, my notebook and pencil case - I’m always making notes.

DOM - Which screenwriting book from your own collection would you recommend and why?

FARAH - Hmmm… I think this is going to sound a little left of centre and not quite screenwriting but I would say the Artists and Writers Yearbook. Writing is writing and rewriting and knowing your craft and there are too many GREAT books out there. What do you do with that talent? You need to know where to send your script/book/work out there and the best start is that book.  It lists everything you need for a career.

DOM - Do you have any plans for future screenwriting books?

FARAH - Not necessarily screenwriting books but there are more in the Rocliffe Notes series. I’ve written an outline for a book about growing up in Libya, another about the relationship my grandmother had with the revolutionary Maud Gonne and a novel. Let’s see what happens next.

I've just thought of another downside to this book... it's too damn good! There's going to be far more, well informed writers out there competing for the same jobs as me from now on. Bum!

Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT by Karl Iglesias

This book has been in my 'to read' pile for a while now. Curiosity finally got the better of me.
Do you emotionally connect with your audience?

As a writer/reader I've read a ton of scripts for clients over the years, some good, some bad and some indifferent. It's the indifferent screenplays that have been the biggest disappointment for me, as clearly the writers had talent, their ideas were solid, but their work lacked any emotional depth and therefore lacked appeal. No emotional impact = no connection with the reader. Very frustrating!

A new writer recently sent me the first two screenplays he had written and while they lacked any technical ability, I could clearly see the emotional core in each piece. The fact his writing lacked technicality in structure, plot, character and dialogue didn't matter, as I could tell he was writing from the heart, and his stories drew me in. I know for sure that when he learns the technical side of his craft he's going to be a very powerful writer indeed.

I've always been of the opinion that an emotional connection with an audience is something that comes naturally and can't be taught. I find it easy to write with an emotional eye, creating ideas and characters than move me, most of the time without even thinking about it. Surely it couldn't be taught? Karl's book was to prove me wrong.

Unlike other screenwriting books Karl's focuses entirely on how to emotionally connect with your audience, to involve them in your characters' journeys and have the audience hooked from start to finish, which sets it aside from pretty much every other screenwriting book I've read previously. At the most other screenwriting guides have only briefly touched on the subject.

Karl doesn't just talk about high concept, he delves deeper, investigating what makes an idea appealing in the first place, going beyond the story to discuss genre, ways to improve your idea's appeal and how a screenplay's title can be used to draw an audience in. He doesn't stop there. Theme and uuniversal meaning are also explored, empathy with characters, their situations, the obstacles they face, what they say, what they don't, rising tension, mesmerising moments, engaging the audience and most importantly, how every scene plays a part in building a memorable experience for the audience.

In fact since reading Karl's book I've been trying to remember reading another book that goes into so much detail and examines so microscopically how every written word can have an emotional impact, and I have to admit I came up blank.

The biggest idea (and revelation, if I'm honest - why I never thought of this before I have no idea) in the book for me was Karl's insistence that we, as screenwriters, are only writing for one person and one person only. That person is the READER. And he's right. We're not writing for those movie goers sat munching their popcorn in the cinema, or those couch potatoes sat at home watching TV, we are writing to please the READER - who will be the one deciding whether our screenplay is worthy of progression or not. When you think of it like that it truly helps to focus the mind and helps make the whole process seem that little less daunting.

If you haven't got a copy of this book go and buy one right now, your writing will be a lot richer for it.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A WRITER'S YEAR IN REVIEW

2014 was an amazing year for me, one where I finally began to see real gains from all the hard work I've put in over the last twelve months.

I had several meetings with interested producers who expressed a desire to work with me in the near future, including two from well known TV production companies, the head of children's drama for a major broadcaster and a producer from a feature production company specialising in novel adaptations.

It's always a great delight (and huge confidence boost) when producers complement your work. It makes all that blood, sweat and tears worth while. But not only did the people I met up with during 2014 like the samples of work my agent sent them but three of them were so impressed they offered me the possibility of future TV drama episodes; one made by a development producer and the other two by the show runners themselves. Of course this all depends on these series' getting the green light from the various broadcasters, but at least the offers are there and at last it feels like TV is not so far out of my reach now.

I also had a promise from the development producer of the feature film company that if he came across a novel he thought I would like, he would see if I would be interested in adapting it. This is on top of him currently considering two of my other feature projects for production.

Although I didn't go the London Screenwriters' Festival in October (which I have to admit I really missed) I feel I still made significant progress networking. But by December I found I was frazzled, fatigued, my energy and motivation were running low and I do regret missing the festival and not being able to recharge my writer batteries.

I also have a great deal to look forward too in 2015. I not only have the possible TV episodes but I also have two features going into production, one in March and the other in the summer. I know a lot can happen between now and March but I'm over the moon that things are finally moving forward with my feature projects.

My aims this year are as follows; 1 - to be commissioned for a TV drama episode. 2 - to see both proposed feature productions actually happen and go well.

Here's to a successful year for us all.

Happy writing!


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

WRITING & SELLING DRAMA SCREENPLAYS by Lucy V. Hay

Lucy's second outing for Creative Essentials easily tops the first, despite the fact she chooses to write about the arguably more difficult and ambiguous genre of drama.

Reading through the book it's easy to see Lucy has grown in confidence since her last outing as her writing is more assured and she has an obvious fascination for the subject. I get the impression she really enjoyed working on this one and it shows by the amount of detail she goes into.

Lucy begins by exploring what drama isn't, highlighting the common mistakes most new writers make, differentiating between 'writing' and actually 'selling' drama screenplays, showing how easy it is to write bleak, depressing drama where everyone suffers before dying (or worse) and giving reasons why this type of drama is almost impossible to sell, but can however, be used as the perfect tool for a calling card script. Later she helps guide the reader by further splitting down drama into sub genres, such as - The Short Film, The True Story, The Enlightenment Story, The Morality Tale and so on, giving examples for each, so the reader can define their own idea more clearly and prevent them from succumbing to the usual pitfalls.

What I like most about Lucy's book is she has obviously spent a great deal of time watching and researching drama, because she not only uses produced examples but also unproduced ones. These examples are littered with solid reasons why Lucy thinks they work, plenty of helpful writing tips and important selling points to make the reader's own dramas more saleable. Add this to interviews with the writers and the reader has a comprehensive view of how and how not to write drama screenplays.

Throughout the book Lucy also explores emotional truth, emotional response, theme, common themes and ideas to avoid, what sells, characters, stereotypes, archetypes, depressing verses devastating, character arcs and change, change agents, closed protagonists, loglines, structure, linear verses non-linear, less dialogue, SCREENplay verses screenPLAY, the difference between internal and external conflict and even provides a handy drama resource that can be download from her site to help the reader really define their own drama.

Thoroughly researched, Drama Screenplays it jam packed with valuable information, laid out in an easily accessible way and is a must for any writer, new or established, as a start to finish guide or just to refresh their knowledge.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PERSEVERANCE

Some days it's hard to keep going, when all you want to do is curl up into a ball and hide under the bed covers... but those are exactly the days you should keep going! Perseverance is the key to a successful career, without it you're writing solely for yourself.

I read a question on the interwebs the other day, from a new writer asking if he should send his script out to more than one production company at a time. Let's put it this way, you send your script out to one producer, the producer takes three months to read it and get back to you. The news isn't good, it's not for him. Then you leave things another month as you recover from the rejection, before sending your script out to another producer. That means the maximum copies of your screenplay you send out is three... in a year... that's not good, is it?

After you've done your research into which production companies best suit your screenplay, send copies out to as many as you can, then go write another script. If you get a rejection then have two other producers in mind to send you script to the very next day. Don't keep bombarding the same producers either, send them a screenplay and if it's a no wait a month or two before sending any new work.

In essence your work should be produced and sent out in a constant stream, stalling on this leaves you with no opportunities to create, and it's those opportunities that will keep you going. Persevere and you will be rewarded.

Happy writing everyone.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

ONE PAGE PITCH

One Page Pitches are an art form, difficult to write and get right and probably the most important and powerful selling tool at a writer's disposal. So how exactly do you write a great One Page Pitch? Here's how I do them.

FONT:

The font you use is just as important as everything else. Get it wrong and your pitch will be a difficult read, or at the very least not inspire much enthusiasm in the reader.

I used to use FINAL DRAFT COURIER for everything I wrote until I came to the realisation readers spend their entire lives staring at that font. Your font doesn't need to be fancy, just clear enough to read. I wanted to give readers something different to look at, easier to read, which is why these days I use ARIEL in all my pitch document and treatments.

LAYOUT:

At the top of the page, centred, in bold, in capitals and font size 14, you need to put your TITLE - ALIEN.  Below this (non capitals) you need to state the format and genre of your pitch - a sci-fi/horror feature proposal. Then below this 'by (your name)'.

The next line should be your Tagline, written in ITALICS, in font size 12 and captured in quotation marks - "In space no one can hear you scream!"

Then below that your Logline (written in a plain font size 12).

And finally below that your pitch (written in a plain font size 12 as above), containing a brief outline of the conflicts, characters and plot.

GENRE:

Your pitch will be selling your genre, so if your script is a comedy then your pitch should also be funny, a horror then your pitch should be tense and full of scares, etc. If your script is a comedy and you pitch isn't funny then it's not doing it's job.

CONFLICT:

The most important aspect of the One Page Pitch is to show conflict. Your protagonist must be in peril and you have to show this, especially the conflict with other characters. If you don't your pitch will be dull and flat. Show your protagonist bumping up against problems and obstacles, and make the reader really feel for his plight.

THE ENDING:

I've been guilty of this myself on many an occasion, but you should never end a pitch with a question - Will Ripley be able to defeat the Alien and escape home? You want your audience to ask this question, but not your reader. The reader needs the full picture, what happens and how the film or TV series plays out. If you don't tell them they'll think you don't know yourself and it'll go against you.

FOOTER:

Add your NAME - EMAIL - PHONE NUMBER (or your agent's details) in the footer at the bottom of the page. It's OK to do this in Courier font as it's not part of the main document.

Here's an example of one of my pitches (copyright me of course) for reference only.


“SIDEKICK”
a 6 x 60 minute comedy drama TV series proposal
by
Dominic Carver

‘Second best.’

A middle aged man, disillusioned with being the sidekick of superhero Captain Cosmos, struggles to find himself as he juggles his family life and his secret identity, while looking to get the credit he thinks he deserves.

DAVID TUCKER has just turned 45 and he’s already smashed head first into his midlife crisis. By day he works as a traffic control officer and by night he becomes The Gnat, sidekick to the superhero Captain Cosmos. His landmark birthday prompts him to reevaluate his life, his job, his friends and family. It’s only then he realises he's completely lost.

David hates his job... both of them. He constantly struggles to keep his secret identity from his wife LUCY (42), who’s obsessed with aerobics, fad diets and is desperately trying to reclaim the body she had when she was twenty, and his son ALFIE (17) , who is uncommunicative and embarrassed by his parents on a daily basis. David’s trying to find himself again and thinks coming out from under the shadow of Captain Cosmos to become his own superhero is a much better idea than buying a powerful motorbike, falling off it at high speed only to watch it be totalled by a passing manure truck. But even branching out on your own can have its mishaps - like not being recognised by the police and being arrested for exposure when you’re trying to suit up in a phone box.

Millionaire IAN BAINES (44), aka Captain Cosmos, doesn’t understand and is too ignorant and self absorbed to notice his crime fighting partner isn’t happy with his life. Lucy doesn’t have time for her husband to give him the love and support he needs, and Alfie is too wrapped up in his raging hormones and his own burgeoning super powers to spend any time with his father.

The only one who claims he understands David is PROFESSOR DOOMSDAY (56), aka estate agent MARCUS WAINWRIGHT, turning him against Captain Cosmos, his wife and his son, taking him out drinking and generally leading him astray. But Professor Doomsday’s motives are far more sinister than simply turning David evil - he wants to destroy him, to bring him down so that he’s in no place to rescue his son Alfie. It is Doomsday’s dastardly plan to have Alfie become one of his minions and to join him in the crime of the century - stealing the Royal Family and replacing them with robots.

This is David’s journey to find himself once more, make it as a super hero in his own right, rekindle the romance with his wife, reconnect with his son and save him from the evil clutches of Professor Doomsday.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ONE SHEETS

I've been reading a few discussions online recently about One Sheets, or as I call them One Shits, as people prepare for this year's LSWF. You can probably tell by my pet name for them I'm not a fan. In fact I think they're a giant waste of time and effort. Here's two very good reasons why...

Reason One -  What are producers and directors actually looking for from a one page pitch? Are they looking to see how talented you are as a graphic designer? Are they looking to be cheered up by a nice visual? Or do they want to know if the person sending them the one sheet can write?

That's looking at it simply, they really want to know three things; can you write, is the idea any good and can they work with you? And that's all they want to know. That's all you should be concentrating on. Forget designing one sheets, the only thing your reader is interested in is the pitch, not how prettily you can draw. The picture isn't going to sell your idea, your pitch is. If the pitch isn't up to standard, or more importantly of interest, then the picture isn't going to sway things. So why include it?

Reason Two - What does adding a picture to your pitch actually say to the producer or director? It says you're probably trying to hide a poorly written pitch, or a terrible idea, with an illustration intended to distract. It's saying to them that even YOU don't believe your writing is strong enough to stand out on its own without a picture to accompany it. If they think you don't believe in your writing then why should they? After all if your pitch is to do its job it'll put pictures of your idea in the readers mind anyway, they don't need a visual prompt to help them out.

It also says you have specific visual ideas of how you want your project to eventually look. And that's not your job. That's what directors, set builders/designers, etc, are employed for. Illustrating your pitch only tells the producer/director that you have very strong ideas about how you want your work look and it may put them off working with you. After all they are looking for someone who will be easy to work with, who will happily take on board their ideas and be OK with the fact their original idea will eventually change and evolve as others add their input. A picture can easily say you know exactly what you want and you're not willing to change.

From my experience a one page pitch, with your idea written on one side and blank on the other, is the best way to go. I've been offered feature commissions, been invited in to chat to TV people, who are now earmarking me for episodes of their shows, all because my one page pitches did their job. And there wasn't an illustration in sight. A good one page pitch doesn't distract from your idea, shows the reader if you can write or not and tells them you are serious about your writing and ideas.