Friday, 28 June 2013

"Without some damn war to fight, then the warrior may as well be dead, Stallion!"

Rocky: I see three of him out there.
Paulie: Hit the one in the middle.
Like a montage sequence from Miss Congeniality/Pretty In Pink/The Fly, 
it's the all-new, freshly-tarted-up blogalicious... blog from yours truly. 

The old blog has removed its mono-brow, waxed its hairy bits and 
rolled up it's blazer sleeves like an 80's James Spader.

Actually, delete that/rewind. Remember the training montage in 'Rocky 4'? (Who doesn't?) Ivan Drago had all the technology, money and the KGB backing him... Rocky had a stereotypical Italian brother-in-law, a goat shed and a snowy mountain. From now on, this blog is all about 'How to Keep Going'. As a screenwriter.

Genetic science and technology is no match for snow and a rotund Italian man.
There will be regular (ha!) posts regarding useful screenwriting advice/tips/wisdom - Where possible, quotes will be attributed to the greater intellects that mined these gems.It's stuff I find useful, and hey, if I put it up on here, I might actually read it myself from time to time.

Fret not, the content remains as random as ever. So let's get down to it, boppers.

*(Yes, I have written notes on others scripts, but that's a given.)

Actually, I've written lots of treatments, then a screenplay, then some more treatments to iron out the good and ditch the bad, THEN wrote some more drafts of the screenplay. The script is a psychological sci-fi thriller called "Lumen", about a neurotic female physicist who unlocks a portal to infinite parallel universes, only to discover the grass is not always greener...

Normally I write about three features a year (1995 was the year of TEN feature screenplays, but the less said about that the better i.e. I was 20, single, living at home with my parents and very broke.). I sometimes squeeze in a few short scripts, maybe a television pilot... so to work on just ONE idea for several months has been a fantastic exercise.

What has helped enormously is the fact that I've been working with a director, who has been able to give excellent, helpful and unbiased feedback, as well as just having the sense that we're actually working together on something which is going somewhere.

"We cannot accept unsolicited material/
Your screenplay is not for us/
There have already been films about aliens set in space/
Your screenplay fails the Bechdel Test/
The Bourne Ultimatum has set the bar for action films so high,
there is little point considering anything else...
(*delete as applicable)
My recent effort has been a complete submergence. Focusing on just one idea, as much as I'm all about starting the next one (and then the next one...), has been an absolute challenge. But an exhilarating one, too. A bit like sparring with yourself, punching yourself in the face, telling yourself to 'be better', and then having feedback at the end of it. Wash 'n repeat.

Hopefully I'll be writing more about this experience over the next year, once I've got something more juicy to say about the process.
"I pity the fool who doesn't write a treatment first!"
So, my first commandment to a new writer would be "Thou Shalt Always Write a Treatment (and get it right before writing the script!)." That's still not to say that the final treatment = final draft of screenplay. But it's enough to figure out the framework. I did still do a LOT of scene juggling when writing the screenplay, as well as being inspired by new ideas. But the treatment represents the map. The A to B to C. So long as I knew where it was heading, finding a few shortcuts along the way made the journey more exciting.

Normally, when starting a new script, I would write a very simple list of events (This happens, then this, then this, the end etc.). But writing a full treatment really does save a LOT of time, effort and woe. Especially when things don't quite go according to plan.
Starting a new screenplay often feels like this.

Yes, for a long time, I was the guy who would write, write, write, write - just as long as I was churning it out, that was fine by me. A bit like banging away on a piano without ever stopping to take a music lesson.

Ultimately, I had to take a good long look in the mirror and tell myself "NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH." Certainly, rejection comes from many quarters - Professional, amateur and everyone else with an opinion - even myself. I've had my share of long, gloomy nights, desperately trying to think of something else I could do instead.

Not to give myself too hard a time, I knew I could write. I could look back at my first screenplays and understand what I was trying to achieve; find a few funny or dramatic scenes or decent action sequences. The worst thing? Either too close to parody or flattery by imitation. Nowt worse than having a supporting character called "Dr. Cronenberg" (not that I ever did that!).

(Go and watch the second, straight-to-DVD Lost Boys movie. For some bizarre reason, they keep bleating on about The Big Lebowski, riding on the aforementioned classic's shirt-tails in order to score cool points. Bizarre and tellingly amateurish.)

As the years went on, the ideas were still coming, and my writing did improve. Living life and maturing as a human being also benefited the process. As feeble as it sounds, having Quentin Tarantino and Terry Gilliam tell me THEY liked my work kept me going. I wasn't all crazy.
Rocky keeps going - with the help of Apollo Creed (and some tiny shorts)
The biggest pitfall for a writer is NOT GETTING OUT THERE. Sitting in your room typing is fine, but the days of having an agent who finds you work are long gone (unless you're an established heavy-hitter or very well connected, and even then...). You are the salesman, and it's all about the pitch now, which is why attending events like the London Screenwriters Festival are essential.

I've been to the LSF for the last few years, which has been an amazing experience and no doubt will be brilliant again this year (although sadly I won't be attending this year, for very good reasons: Baby due in November and a very expensive house extension to pay for!). Not only do you get to hear writers, producers and 'industry experts' serving up insight and advice, but you get to put your new-found knowledge into practice by pitching to these professionals.

Dare I say it without sounding ancient, when I started out as a would-be writer, there wasn't a thing called (adopt Mr. Burns voice) "the 'world wide web'", with all its free advice, tips, software etc. Heck, there wasn't even all these books, courses and seminars. If you're a new writer or thinking about writing, it is all out there for you. The technical knowledge and insight is ready-made.
Watch as many movies as you can (even the bad ones). Read a lot screenplays of films you know and love. Read books on screenwriting craft. Develop and refine your taste. Having read all of the 'Save the Cat' books,  I've been implementing the various techniques by Blake Snyder. We all have our own way of working, but I can see a lot of sense in what Snyder says. There IS a formula - but that doesn't necessarily mean what you write will be 'formulaic'. Providing the ideas, plot twists and characters are sparky, having a loose guide to keep things in check works for me.

That said, there is now such a deluge of advice and tips (the irony of this blog post hasn't escaped me) that it can almost paralyse your motivation to write. And whilst some experts may be right in their advice, the style in which it is presented CAN be overly-Full Metal Jacket Drill Sergeant. I always plump for inspirational, helpful and encouraging blogs like Julie Gray's "Just Effing Entertain Me" or regular missives from Chris Jones. They know their stuff.

Even though I've been writing for quite a few years now, to still be learning about the craft is motivating and exciting. (Perhaps I'm just a slow learner?) When I read how Aaron Sorkin (generally regarded as a writing legend) still has long dark nights of the soul, it's strangely encouraging (not that I wish him a hard time!).

And finally (for this post, at least), if you can, find yourself a mentor. Preferably an established writer who knows their stuff, who can offer honest, sound advice.

'Til the next time, keep writing... and writing... and writing...