31 October 2014

Adapting novels for the screen - a session with Ted Tally

Ted Tally won the Oscar for best adaptation with Silence of the Lambs. All the Pretty Horses and Red Dragon are among his other adaptations. Here's a consummate pro - who knew I'd get to do a session with him.

At the recent (and utterly awesome) London Screenwriters' Festival, I was scheduled to do a session on adapting novels. I've been at it for twenty years, commissioned for adaptation work more than a few times, some of it was produced, some of it is floating in limbo and some went nowhere. Figured I know a thing or two worth sharing.

That's when the organizers of the festival informed me that Ted Tally would join the festival - and that he'd like to be part of the session on adaptations. I was thrilled, of course! Long story short, the festival's history, the session was amazing AND I even got to join him for a script-to-screen session where we screened Silence Of The Lambs and talked about the shooting script and the various little changes that ended up in the iconic film we all know. What can I say, it was quite a weekend!

Click here for a look back at the session on adapting novels, expertly penned by the Leilani Holmes. And here's a blog about the special Silence of the Lambs script-to-screen session. I'm not going to duplicate what's been written already - here just a few things that stuck with me:

  • Ted mentioned that you get about five minutes of respect for winning an Oscar. Hard to believe but I've heard this before. Incredible to think that you've climbed that particular peak ... actually, good way of putting it. You've climbed it, now what? There won't be a helicopter taking you to the next peak - you'll make your way down and then climb the next one. There are no shortcuts.
  • Ted also said that everything you've learned is in the past - every new project has you starting from scratch. I do see his point, but don't see it that dramatically. After a few decades a few things are learned, a few are clear, a few writing muscles have grown. I do find it easier and I do find past insights helpful when tackling a next project. What's true, of course, is that you'll always start with the same blank page again.
  • An essential question, before adapting a novel, is always this: "Who's the protagonist?" That may seem obvious but isn't - often a screenwriter tries to stick to closely to different points of view and thus makes it impossible for an audience to strongly identify with a protagonist. Ted did this with Silence of the Lambs, giving us most of the movie through Clarice's eyes. The novel had different points of view - giving us the film that way would have meant a bloated film and a diminished impact on the individual characters.
  • Never assume the people who bought the rights to a novel have actually read it. Pitch your take on an adaptation as if they'd never read it. I've had that happen to me once, hard to believe but true. A production company may buy the rights for a novel based on strong word of mouth, a special pitch, a particular setting, an intriguing character or world, or even just an grabby title ... Same old applies - never assume!
  • Ted's never been interested in directing but says he'd love to part of the editing process. The final draft of the script happens in the editing room, he says. Never had that particular interest before ... but I can see, I can definitely see how I would find that intense process fascinating and hugely valuable from a screenwriter's point of view.

Enough for now. I'll write about the London Screenwriters' Festival some other time. Let me just end by saying that yes, Ted Tally has brilliant successes in his bag. He is clearly a master of his craft with insights and anecdotes and connections to spare. But aside from all of that, I experienced him as a thoroughly kind and warm-hearted human being. I believe that, in the long run, this is the kind of person producers call again for the a next job.

PS: One of the participants drew Ted Tally, added some of insights given during the session - and created a pretty cool meme. Definitely worth sharing!

11 October 2014

Suck it up and keep writing

In 2009 Josh Olson, writer of 'A History of Violence', wrote a lengthy piece entitled 'I will not read your fucking script'. If you've never come across it, good. I guess you must have been busy writing, right!? The article caused one hell of a stir, thousands of comments, pro and con, lovers and haters. It's worth reading, for sure - and it'll teach you a few things, regardless of what you may think of Josh Olson. 

Olson probably needs a bit of anger management therapy and takes himself just a bit too seriously. Still, he does have a point. In essence, all he says is that he's a busy writer and people shouldn't impose on him with requests for his opinion on everything from story ideas to spec scripts. He makes that statement vigorously and uses lots of colorful words along the way. His writing makes you think he's this one overblown asshole. Maybe that's what he is - maybe Hollywood's gotten to him. And maybe he's really just had too many bad experiences.

If you're a fresh writer, just starting out, you should take note. Powerful people are busy people - that doesn't automatically make them assholes, but it makes approaching them difficult. If you actually do see an opening, use it only if you're absolutely ready and absolutely sure you're not wasting that person's time. Those doors are most unlikely to open twice. Hand that person, let's call him Spielberg, a shitty story idea on smudged paper with spelling errors and a story that makes no sense whatsoever, you can kiss Dreamworks good-bye. Simply put, don't burn any bridges before you get a chance to cross them.

Now for the most important bit of learning: If Josh Olson tells you that he won't read your fucking script, suck it up. If Steven Spielberg say you don't have any talent, suck it up. If Kevin Spacey twitters that you're the worst writer on the planet, suck it up. Learn how to handle rejection and learn how to handle it gracefully, humbly. They may be right, you may indeed be a miserable writer. But if you let rejection turn you off writing, then you're no writer to begin with. So take every rejection you get (and there's plenty to be had), suck it up, learn from it and always keep on writing. 

Hmn... makes you think, doesn't it? If you or I were in Josh Olson's shoes - would we be that way, too? I sincerely hope not. Yes, I wouldn't be able to take the time to read everything - but I would, at the very least, find more positive ways of saying 'no'.

09 October 2014

Don't give up your day job!

What may be meant as a put-down, coming from someone who doesn't believe you can write, is actually very healthy thinking. Unless you make a consistent solid bundle with your writing, I'd definitely advise you to keep your day job.

He's got a day job, too.
After eight produced scripts, two dozen unproduced commissions and more stuff in the works, people sometimes ask me why I keep my day job ... couldn't I make a living with my screenwriting? The answer is "Yes, I could... but I don't want to." There are three major reasons for it:

  • Security and stability: As a family man this is absolutely key to me. I love my regular pay check - it gives me great piece of mind. Which brings me straight to point number two.
  • The freedom to write: Knowing that I don't have to rely on X writing money to make it into my account by X date, means I don't have to think about the mortgage payments while I write.
  • The luxury to choose: I've been able to turn down projects, many projects. As a full-time writer I'd have had to take jobs I wasn't interested in, simple because of the money ... and frankly, that isn't the most passionate reason to get involved in a project.

With this day job situation come two additional elements: One is the worry that you may not have enough time to write, the other is the worry that you won't be taken seriously. Both of these worries are, though, simply a matter of getting your head around them - which happens with time and experience:

  • The matter of time: The more you write the better you develop your writing muscle. I've learned to be very disciplined with my writing - when I decide it's time to write, I write. When I dedicate time to writing, I crack pages. Over the years I've come to realize that other colleagues of mine, full-time writers, are never faster than me. That doesn't make them lazy, it just makes me more disciplined - this, in fact, really is hugely important if you keep your day job. The producer won't care what you do - as long as you deliver on time. 
  • The matter of insecurity: Initially you may be worried that producers, directors or agents won't take you seriously if you reveal you have a day job and "only" write in your spare time. Get over it. The people you hopefully get to talk to are human (most of them, anyway) like you. They know you need to pay the rent. Be proud of who you are and where you are in life - and take your stories from there.

Honesty is powerful - so you have a day job - so what. You're a writer! You have stories you want to tell, need to tell! It's all about mindset. You're passionate, you're hungry - give me the damn commission and I'll deliver something brilliant, and on time, too!

01 October 2014

Know when to stop

We're not machines. Some of us can write for hours and hours, others write in short spurts. But we all need a break eventually ... and those breaks can be dangerous.

Know when to go, and when to stop.
Have you ever powered through to the end of a scene or sequence, thrilled, happy with it - and then decided that you've earned yourself a break? That is actually the worst moment to take a break. You're likely to struggle to get back into that zone again afterwards. A very simple way of working around this is to stop in the middle. Whenever things are going well, whenever you feel the need for a break coming on - stop in the middle of a scene, in the middle of conversation, in the middle of a shoot-out. It makes continuing after the break very easy.

This isn't quite as easy as it sounds. When you're in the middle of a great scene, everything flows, the dialogue sizzles, the action is brilliant and your every screenwriting fiber screams "Go, go, go!" to reach the end of that scene. You think "I'm on a roll, I'm in the zone!" You think you can't stop now because you're worried that you won't get back into that flow. But give it a try next time you're in the middle.

When you're there, in the midst of that great scene, realize that the perfect moment to place a break has come. Then hang with the family, walk the dog, go shopping, catch a movie, enjoy a long weekend, whatever. And I guarantee you that you'll effortlessly get back into the flow. You'll be aching to continue, to finally finish that great scene. You'll be sitting down after your break - and you'll be smack back in the middle of the scene and it'll scream "Go!" ... and you'll be perfectly charged to oblige.

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.

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