16 July 2014

My second novel: Barnaby Smith

My second novel's with my lit agent right now. It is based on a spec screenplay I've written with Jeremy Irons in mind as the titular character.

Turns out, Jeremy Irons read and liked the script! Now that doesn't mean the film will ever happen - still, nice to know.

As I was deep in the story I chose to spend more time in the world of Barnaby Smith ... and ended up turning it into a novel. A wonderfully rich experience that I wrote about here.

For now, here's the brief opening of Barnaby Smith, the story of a man who wanted to fly like a bird.

“Why do you want to fly, Barnaby?”

“Why do you want to breathe?”

Their question and his reply, another question, the same over the years. Many years. Nothing ever changed, nothing was learned, nothing was understood, nothing was bettered. Barnaby Smith remained Barnaby Smith, the man who wanted to fly. A man just slightly set apart from the rest of the human race. An enigma, locked away for his own safety at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Brooklyn, New York.

Nobody knew where Barnaby Smith had came from. He was found, tightly bundled in a stained linen cloth, on the doorsteps of the Angel Guardian Home for Little Children. A dozen pigeons stood around and on top of the bundle, cooing. Sparrows flew loops, swooped low and soared high as if to entertain. When a nun discovered the baby, she first noticed the smile. Little hands reaching up to the sky and swaying as if they were wings in the wind.

A baby, a cloth – nothing else. A closer look at the cloth did reveal one more thing, a company tag stitched into the seam that read “Finest linen by Barnaby Smith & Co.” Upon investigating, the home’s administrator found no such company.

The linen was disposed of, the name and the baby remained. And so that smiling baby, that odd baby that never seemed to cry, was named Barnaby Smith.

14 July 2014

Wanna make it as a screenwriter? Learn from Danny & Tim

Here's a great example of what it means to be a screenwriter. Look at it and ask yourself - do you have that passion and talent - but even more importantly - that discipline and stamina

I've known Danny Stack and Tim Clague (the writers/directors Who killed Nelson Nutmeg?) for a number of years. They've been at it for a long time - a very long time. Stamina. They've kept at it, always. Discipline. They've busted their butts to make films happen, they've enjoyed the journey, they've laughed it up along the way, they probably gained some weight and lost some hair and taught and inspired and kept busting their butts. Great guys in every way.

Danny's been one of the strongest voices on the UK screenwriting circuit for years - as a script consultant, as an editor, as a highly prolific blogger, and screenwriting voice on Twitter and beyond. He's been at it for over 15 years and has a first IMDB screenwriting credit going back to 2006. Tim 's been just as active. I've met both him and Danny several times at the London Screenwriters' Festival where they shared their learnings. They've brought to life the UK Scriptwriters Podcast. Tim's first IMDB screenwriting credit goes back to 1995.

They've just now crowdfunded their first feature film. They'll do it together, they co-write and they'll co-direct and I'm convinced this kids feature, Who Kills Nelson Nutmeg?, will be as much fun as they are. But that's not why I and many others have backed this film. It's not because I like these guys, it's because I trust them. They've earned that trust because of their commitment, their consistent engagement and their lasting passion for film throughout the years.

Wanna be a screenwriter? Connect with these two, learn about them. You don't have to do what they do - but get inspired by their perseverance. If you have that level of discipline and stamina - you might just earn a chance at becoming successful one fine day ... but even more importantly ... regardless of the destination, you'll have a great deal of fun along the way.

24 May 2014

The deep satisfaction of classic storytelling

Call it the hero's journey, the three-act structure - the classic way of storytelling as brought forth by the Greek sticks with us through the millenia ... because it works.

Writer Ingrid Sundberg put the image on the right together - it basically encompasses all - and gives welcome clarity as it brings together the different ways to describe specific plot points. I try not to give structure any thought - after 20 years of screenwriting it happens naturally.

But I'm writing this post because I've just watched "The Way", the film Emilio Estevez made with his dad Martin Sheen in the lead. The film has a hefty 82% on the Tomatometer and I understand why - it's a poignant tale with carefully crafted characters. Hard to feel cheated at the end of this film, hard to not be moved ... and yet I found myself wondering why I wasn't more satisfied with my movie viewing experience.

It was because of structure. The movie went from the inciting incident to the point of no return quite classically ... and then it just hiked, together with its protagonists, through the movie. Along the famed Camino de Santiago there were minor tests/hurdles - but essentially there were no real temptations, there was no massive obstacle, there was no rock-bottom hole for Martin Sheen to crawl back out of (well actually there was but it was just done for him).

The whole story was simply about a man learning to accept his son's choices - and discovering himself along the way. You knew it would eventually happen and it did. No surprises. But it was well-acted and moving ... just not nearly as satisfying as it could have been - and that was because we, all of us, have this classic storytelling structure in our DNA, it's part of us and when it's not there, we feel that something's missing.

Call it traditional, call it old-fashioned, the classic structure resonates more strongly than anything else. In the end, though, it's choice - and I love that. Emilio Estevez has been around the Hollywood blocks more than a few times - he knew exactly what he was doing. So play, mix it up, forgo certain elements, try new things, different things, wild things - choose your own way ... but do so knowing that you pay a price. It will be the difference between a good film and a potentially great film.

03 May 2014

Turning your spec script into a novel

It's tough out there. And everyone in the business will tell you that there are ways to increase your chances of making it. One such way is turning your story into a novel. But frankly, what I've done right now wasn't even to increase chances but simply to spend a bit more quality time with my characters.

I'm lucky in that I'm getting hired to write - for that very reason I hadn't written a spec for a long time and came to miss it. So last fall I did just that, I took a time-out to turn an idea that's long been percolating into a spec. And I've loved every second of it (wrote about it here).

In the meantime that script is with my agent, is being read and pitched, is generating interest and has just landed in the personal hands of my dream-choice for the titular hero. But no need to get excited - nibbles may seem like something special only because there are the many dry spells in between. But nibbles are just that, little flickers of hope. I've learned to smile at them as they come and go, and I've learned to never focus and/or depend on them. Get on with your next script instead.

When the spec was done and re-written and polished and out of my hands (for now), I realized I wanted more time with my characters. I took the script and started rewriting the whole thing from scene one as a novel. I kept the characters, the structure and even most of the dialogue. But, turning it into a novel afforded me the opportunity to write from a character's point of view, to write about their state of mind, to share their thoughts and fears and hopes.

The novel also gave me the chance to expand on moods and settings. You know how it is - when you write a script you try to put all of what you want to convey into the briefest possible form. That's exactly what I've done with the script and I've frankly never written a tighter script - the epic story came in at 95 pages - and those are perfectly formatted pages with lots and lots of white space. And so, for the novel, I truly enjoyed expanding whenever I felt like it.

Now that I have the story in two different forms - does it increase the chances? Probably. The story may find a home at a publisher - but even if it doesn't, this time I got to spend in the company of these characters was pure bliss. And if the screenplay ever goes beyond nibbles, then the various collaborators on the film will be able to draw a great deal more insight from the pages of the novel.

Guess what - I have a stack of old specs on my shelf. All of them got "nibbled" in various forms, competition finalists, producer interests ... but that's the reality of the spec, most will never be filmed. They may open doors (as they have done for me) but that's that. After the amazing experience I've just had turning "Barnaby Smith" into a novel, I may just the same with some of my other specs, too. I'll have great fun doing it - and it'll save me from hoping on things I've no control over anyway.

Write, write, write!

27 April 2014

Key questions according to Robert McKee

As I've always said, there's great value in procrasting (screenwriting principle #2)! Just spent quality time not writing and instead rummaging around the office. Came across the McKee workshop material from the early nineties, red cover, metal brads, the smell of New York still lingering.

A lot of that way-way-back-when weekend has stayed with me. It couldn't have been more intense (even wrote about it here). Structure, structure, structure! Here are McKee's key questions. There's no great mystery to them and if you're even a bit into screenwriting, they'll resonate as common sense. Still, we're human beings and we occasionally like to fool ourselves into shortcuts. So read these questions and if you have the most powerful answers to all of them, your script most likely rocks!
  1. What event starts my story so that the crisis and climax must occur?
  2. What is the relationship between the inciting incident and the crisis/climax of this story?
  3. Does the inciting incident and the way in which it occurs make the crisis/climax eventually necessary?
  4. The inciting incident occurs and creates branching probablity. Given this, do you feel the ending you've designed absolutely must occur?
  5. What event starts the story so that the protagonist must go into action? Even if the action is saying "I'm not going into action", the protagonist must react to that inciting incident. Even if it is to deny action.
  6. What does my protagonist want that comes out of this inciting incident? What drives the protagonist? What goal must the protagonist accomplish? What has he/she failed to accomplish?
  7. What position does the character meet? What are the sources of antagonism? From what levels of reality? Always try to create three dimensional stories in which conflict is coming from ALL THREE LEVELS OF REALITY.
  8. Is the opposition equal to if not greater than the protagonist? The protagonist cannot be up against forces which he can easily handle and overwhelm. Do these forces really test him/her as a human being? Do these forces become so powerful and cumulative in their power that they are severely testing the deepest human qualities in this person?
  9. As we move toward the ending, do we become more deeply involved? 
  10. Have we grown to identify with and/or like the protagonist?
  11. As we near the ending, do we feel an exhilaration/acceleration of action and reaction?
  12. Does the action in the crisis/climax fully express my root idea WITHOUT the aid of dialogue?
  13. Every movie is about one idea. How does each scene in the film bring out an aspect of that one idea, positively or negatively.
  14. What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my character? How could that turn out to be the best possible thing? Or vice versa.
Got all the right answers? Good for you! Chances are, however, that you haven't answered all of them to the fullest potential. And so, back to the script! 

22 March 2014

We write movies because we love Christopher Walken

Okay maybe not just because of Chris Walken - we write for a myriad of reasons. But when it comes right to it, the below dance compilation encompasses it all.

Watch it. If you're in the movie business, you'll get it. You'll spot the movies, you'll remember the moments, you'll feel the drama, the laughter, the heat. You'll recall it all, the movie history and your own, watching in wonder and fear as a child, dreaming and striving as you grew older. You remember what those movies meant, what they were all about, what the writer tried to convey, how directors and actors brought it to silver screen life.

Sure, the dance compilation is nothing more than a glimpse. But, in a nutshell, it perfectly encapsulates why we are in this business. Our crazy love for film is the very same you see in every smirk, wave and step of the one and only Christopher Walken.

Need a spirit-lifter before you head into your next draft? Watch and rejoice.

15 March 2014

What is a larger-than-life character?

I can give you examples, but I can't give you a definition. All I'll try to do here is put some thoughts to paper ... because I believe that the term, larger-than-life, is massively overused.

Google it. You'll find things like "Larger-than-life describes a character that is legendary" and "A character is larger-than-life when the persona surpasses the person". You'll find examples with everything from real-life mentions like Winston Churchill to fictional ones like Rambo. I have a feeling that the term's been used and abused any old time anyone felt like hyping a person or character. Any character can be larger-than-life. But it's not who they are, it's what they do and the circumstances they do it in. And those two, action and circumstance, must be so large that we are awed by the scope and humbled by the comparison to our own lives.

I've seen the term used to describe the characters of American Hustle. Those characters are strong, the performances powerful. What they do and how they behave makes perfect sense in the context of who they are and the circumstances they're presented with. Great characters, but larger-than-life? I don't think so. What about the notion that all fictional characters are by definition larger-than-life? It's the idea film is "drama is real life without the boring bits" (I believe Hitchcock said that) and that because of the lack of boring bits everything automatically becomes larger-than-life. Not really, right?! There ARE larger-than-life characters. Let's look at a few examples:

  • Mahatma Gandhi: His actions, his choices, under those extraordinary circumstances, were beyond what people could fathom. It made him beyond what normal people could do, it made him unique and in story terms that clearly makes his character larger-than-life. 
  • T.E. Lawrence: Better known as "Lawrence of Arabia", he was thrown into the well known WWI Middle Eastern circumstances. In the film he makes choices that are beyond what anyone else would do and those around do indeed look at him as something more-than-human.
  • Jeremiah Johnson: The quiet little film by Sidney Pollack starring Robert Redford. The circumstances are extraordinary, his actions and choices beyond what anyone else could or would want to endure - Johnson becomes a legend in his own time, larger-than-life, indeed.
  • Katniss Everdeen: Again, the circumstances are extraordinary and so are her choices in The Hunger Games. The story is in fact very much about her struggle to come to grips with the larger-than-life character she becomes for the world around her. 

We could go on and on with characters based on real people, characters in classical drama, characters in pop culture. We'd agree on some and disagree on others.

In the end, as a screenwriter - should you create a story with the intent of writing a "larger-than-life" character? I think it'd be foolish. All you can do is what you're supposed to do with every story anyway - create the most uniquely vivid characters you can think up. Explore their greatest wants and deepest needs - and then confront them with the most terrifying obstacles. In the end, you'll have a story. In the end, your story is hopefully packed with vibrant characters like the ones in American Hustle. And, in the end, you just might discover that others begin to call your characters "larger-than-life".

When that happens, smile politely and move on to the next script.

02 March 2014

The beauty of the spec

Wow - hadn't written a spec in ... more than ten years! I've been lucky, I've been hired, I've been going from assignment to assignment, collaboration to collaboration ... but this most recent spec was both a necessary and beautiful experience.

Your spec, your time, your freedom.
When you get hired, your efforts will be based on any number of things: an original pitch, a newspaper article, a short, a novel, a rewrite, you name it. When you get hired, you sit down and agree on the basics with your collaborators. Rarely is it the pitch alone, more often an exposé - your employers want to know upfront what they're paying you for and what you'll be delivering.

All of that sets boundaries, frames that are hopefully clear to everyone. I love these frames. The best collaborations happen when everyone's on the same page. Every screenwriter is bound to fuck up the script in any of a gazillion wrong directions if the path isn't clear to begin with. Nothing worse than a producer looking at you, first draft in hand and saying, "this isn't what I thought we had agreed on." ... but while all of that hopefully effective collaboration allows for a great deal of creativity, you are bound.

Freedom ... I had almost forgotten what that was. Freedom is the spec script. Freedom is you and the blank page and no one but the characters talking to you about the story and where it wants to go. A good writer, of course, will do what he'd do when hired - even on a spec, you define your theme, you get to know your characters inside out, you commit to clear frames of world, story - you even commit to deadlines. The big difference is, you're not hired, it's just you, purely your own choice, every single turn, every single word, your choice ... Freedom.

If you've been lucky like me to get assignment after assignment - don't forget to take an occasional break for a spec. Don't pitch it, don't place it before you write it - just do it for yourself. My experience has been out of this world - utterly invigorating. Pure joy. But if you're a fresh writer, never been hired, then trust me when I tell you that, right at this very moment as a slave through your spec script, you are living screenwriting at its purest. Hard as it may feel, maddening as it may seem - make the most of this current freedom - enjoy it!

And then sometimes, sometimes, that spec script resonates with others. Best of all worlds. In my case, turns out that my agency likes the script and will start pitching it ... but whatever comes from this, I've had a few months of pure gold, in a world of my creation, in the company of imaginary friends who felt, and feel, as real as air I breathe. Bliss.

20 February 2014

About crowdfunding ... again!

I wrote about crowdfunding first in 2011 - back then, it was still a novelty for me. By now, especially as a young filmmaker, it's simply irresponsible to neglect this option.

With the right passion, you'll get that money.
As a fresh talent in film business it used to be tough to get seen, heard and read. Today there's so many options - aside from the physical ones (student networks, writer circles, seminars, workshops, conferences) - there's the web in all its glory (and time-sucking procrastinatory joys, too). Today building meaningful networks of people on the same level of experience, people you can grow with, is eminently doable. If you don't, that's your choice. But never say you were unable to.

The other hassle back then was backing. Old-fashioned crowdfunding meant asking friends and family to chip in a buck or two. It was a very limited option. Today's crowdfunding is a whole different ball game. I see it again and again - I browse through projects, countless projects - and I stop where I see someone's passion jumping out at me. If you love your project, if you have a passion for what you want to achieve, get it across to your future backers. All it takes is a camera and the guts to be authentic. Share what you care about, express why it's important to you ... and if the spark comes across, backers will start joining your cause.

The main sites I check into occasionally are Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Sponsume ... just take a look at Kickstarter's 2013 - it boggles the mind. 3 million people pledged 480 million dollars to Kickstarter projects - some of those people may be friends and family - but for the most part they're random people from across the globe, people who were attracted to your passion.

If you're starting out in film today, crowdfunding should be a no-brainer. Any chance you ever had of saying "I would have if I could have" is out the window. Today, you can. And if the backers don't come, ask yourself why. You'll learn, you'll improve and you'll try again - until the sparks fly and the money starts coming your way.

Another element of beauty, especially for young screenwriters, is that it forces you to collaborate right off the bat. You'll learn that being a recluse writer won't get you anywhere. But if you team up with a director and a producer, you may just get the funds you need. Another interesting side of this is that you may realize that you, the screenwriter, can be in the lead. A film is always a collaboration but, as scores of showrunners today show us, screenwriters can be leaders in the film world. Your first crowdfunded project just may open that door.

If you place a project, let me know. I'll gladly take a look! 

04 February 2014

Jump into the labs

The single most important moment in my writing career was at the very beginning - the moment a professional writer told me that my writing had something.

Get into the labs, get the internships, apply everywhere,
get on that journey and make something happen!
I've now been at it for 20 years and have been lucky to get commissions again and again. Looking back, two things mattered back then - 1) the passion to write no matter what and 2) the encouragement and empowerment from others. Let's face it, we can have all the stamina and discipline in the world - if no one ever gives us a pat on the back, if there's zero recognition along the way, that never-ending journey will, eventually, become too hard.

Recognition and empowerment was, for me, a semester at NYU where I meet that one professional writer, Dina Harris. She was there with clarity, expertise and encouragement. Another such external push was the first quarter-, semi- and finals at screenwriting competitions. Contests and labs - if you're start starting out on a career - look into them.

I've come across this excellent page at the UCLA Writer's Program - lots of good stuff there. From that page I've copied out the lab programs run by everyone from Disney to Sundance. This is your journey, apply. Whether you get in or not, it's part of your path. You'll learn along the way, you'll try again, things will happen. If I was at the newbie stage, if this was 20 years ago and I'd read this blog, I'd get my ass in gear and would apply to every single one of them.

Your career, your choice.

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