16 December 2014

Looking back at the London Screenwriters' Festival 2014

Incredible - we're close to Christmas now and I've never really taken the time to write about this year's London Screenwriters' Festival. High time to change that!

Well in fact, I have written about it, but only in the context of my own sessions in the company of Academy award winning screenwriter Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs, duh). But I also wanted to take the time to proclaim, as every year, that the overall experience at the LSF was something to behold of. A massively energizing experience for all screenwriters, beginners and pros - an extreme sense of community, empowering, charging. 

With everything there for the writer's heart, mind and soul - it's just a must. Wherever you are in the world - make sure you'll be there, in London, from 23-25 October 2015. I guarantee that you'll love the experience. Now then, instead of just yacking on about it, allow me to just share a series of links to some of the many blogs written about the London Screenwriters' Festival 2014.

When you take the time to read them, you'll see what I mean and why I feel this strongly about the LSF. And I wouldn't be surprised if you then jump to action and get your LSF 2015 ticket. What - you think that's a tad early? Not really - even now, almost a year from the next event, almost 40% of the tickets have already gone! So go ahead and give yourself an amazing Christmas present. Looking forward to seeing you at the London Screenwriters' Festival 2015! 

In the end, heck, look up the festival on Google and you'll find a lot more!

See you there next October!




10 November 2014

Writing in the golden age of television

These recent television years definitely qualify as "golden age". Showrunners rule, creativity rules - in unprecedented ways. What a great time to be writing for television.

We still have procedurals and they work and often are a lot of fun - but more and more we move from contained episodes to the full flow of "serialized" seasons, the courage of allowing time for characters to fully unfold. As Scott Gimple (executive producer of The Walking Dead) says in below roundtable "A movie is like a date, a TV series is like a marriage." You get involved for the long haul - you don't need to rush things. The Wire, True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, etc. etc. - things sure have changed and audiences around the world are loving it.

It used to be that television was the place where you learned the craft to then went on to greater things. No more. Crafting the great dramatic series of today is like writing a series of novels. Your audience comes with you, they watch your season as they would read a great book, unable to put it down - they binge on your show. And they can't wait for the next one to come out. These are golden times, indeed. Watch these three excellent showrunner roundtables and I can guarantee you, you'll start looking for the doors into those writers' rooms!

Showrunner roundtable (hosted LA Times' Mary McNamara) with Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”), Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), Joel Fields (“The Americans”), Scott Gimple (“The Walking Dead”) and Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”)


Showrunner roundtable (hosted by The Hollywood Reporter) with Aaron Sorkin ("The Newsroom"), Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men"), Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad"), Carlton Cuse ("Bates Motel"), Nic Pizzolatto ("True Detective") and Ann Biderman ("Ray Donovan")


The Hollywood Reporter: Full uncensored conversation with showrunners Alex Gansa, (Homeland), Aaron Sorkin (Newsroom), D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Kevin Williamson (The Following), Matt Weiner (Mad Men).



09 November 2014

The London Screenwriters' Festival @OnThePage podcast

Pilar Alessandra is a well-known script consultant and headliner at the last London Screenwriters' Festivals - and she podcasts, too!

Just in case you wonder - it's 4.
At this year's London Screenwriters' Festival Pilar handed over the podcasting reigns to Emma Gahan. Emma grabbed a bunch of people to cook up the 374th @OnThePage podcast. Check it out and browse through the wealth of previous podcasts. Loads of insights.

In this podcast you'll hear insights from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, a writer's life away from the bustle of the big city with Jason Pittock, winner of the Bluecat Screenplay competition, Amma Asante, director of Belle, Pilar Alessandra herself, several delegates ... oh yeah well and then Emma talked to me, too.

It's pretty goofy and you'll find out about the meaning of life and what an idiot I am for slicing my fingers when I was trying to slice apples instead. And then you'll probably also come across some parts where you might think that I'm not taking screenwriting all that seriously. Well, you'd be thinking right ... and you'd be entirely wrong. Allow me to expand a bit.

First of all, yes, I love living life and I don't believe that we're here to suffer. We're here to enjoy life in all its facets, we're here to seek and find fulfillment, the things that makes us happy. Sounds entirely fluffy, right? Now let's look this in the context of screenwriting (or writing in general). I write because it makes me happy. That, in a nutshell, is it.

In this post Screenwriting: About the cake, the icing and the cherry I wrote the following >  "And even during the most excrutiatingly difficult rewrite, while I'm tearing my hair out and banging holes through the walls, I'm happy. I write, I make cakes."

Fresh out of acting school I had already discovered screenwriting. As actors, we were all thrown into a world where lots and lots of people blocked us from doing what we loved doing. Agents, casting people, directors, producers ... rejection was and is the norm. In screenwriting there is no such thing - the moment we put words onto that first blank page, we're there. We're the creators of worlds and there's no one, no one, able to stop us from doing what we loved doing. And so I wrote. Never stopped since. It makes me happy.

In the podcast I also say that I don't believe in writer's block. Writing is a craft, you get better at it by doing it consistently. The blank page is a gift, not a burden. It only becomes a monster if we give it that power. It's just a page, we can fill it with words. We can. Don't put yourself in a place where you feel you have to put perfection onto that page. You don't, you just have to write.

Writing is easy, but don't let that fool you. Good writing takes time. And all of that time, those years of writing ... we have the choice to either enjoy the journey or hate it. We can let rejections suck us dry and make us crumble or we can learn from them and get stronger. We can hate the collaborative process or we can embrace it. We can look at every bit of struggle on the winding paths through plots and characters and drafts upon drafts as nightmare after nightmare - or we can actually enjoy living those dreams.

I choose to enjoy it ... simple as that.

08 November 2014

An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words

Dialogue’s quite often a problem for screenwriters. Too wordy, too “on the nose”, too stilted, too expositional, yadayadayada. The craft of acting helps. I’ve had the great fortune to attend and graduate from the acting school that brought forth talents from Sydney Pollack to David Mamet and from Gregory Peck to Robert Duvall.

Another Playhouse actor of few words
What fantastic school was this, you’re dying to ask, right? It’s one you’ve probably never heard of – it’s The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York. Sanford Meisner and Lee Strassberg were both part of the famous “Group Theatre” in the 30s. Strassberg went on to form his own Actor’s Studio with his “Method”. Sandy Meisner took a different turn, created the “Technique” and brought it to the Neighborhood Playhouse.

When I was at the Playhouse in the early nineties, Sandy was still alive and still a monumental presence in the tiny gnarled body of an old man. And the sign on the wall of our classroom reminded us every day that “An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words”. Acting is not about talking, it is about doing. Obvious enough, right? And yet we writers cram dialogue upon dialogue into our scripts. Of course you need some of it – but always remember the title of this blog – it’s an ultimate truth, for film, for actors, for the audience.

Just think, you’re watching a film. The old man on screen just lost his dog. The mutt got run over by a car. Now the old man tells you how sad he is… which is entirely lame, of course. As screenwriters we should always think visual (another obvious), we should also always think “actors” and “audience”. The scene with the sad old man might be:
  • A small mound of earth in the garden. The OLD MAN exits the house, stands on the porch with the dog’s leash. He WHISTLES, smiles – nothing happens. The WIFE steps out and puts her hand on his shoulder, gently shakes her head. He looks at her in confusion.
  • The OLD MAN on the street, holding the dead dog, staring after the hit-and-run car disappearing around the corner at high speed. Holding on to the dog, trembling.
  • The OLD MAN sits down heavily at the curb, staring at the lump of the dead dog in the street. Completely in shock, he doesn’t even realize the people running toward him, crowding him, trying to talk to him – he hears nothing. Then the dead dog rises and walks to him, tail wagging – the old man smiles.
Countless options! And yes, there will also be good options WITH dialogue. But just remember, good actors want to act, not talk. And whatever emotion you want to convey will comes across ten-fold stronger if you convey it through action instead of dialogue. There’s a nice little John Wayne anecdote – admittedly, not one of the greatest actors – but a very screen-smart star. Apparently, whenever reading a script, he would shift the dialogue bits to his co-stars and make sure he would get the silent reaction shots. Smart move. Let the others talk – I’ll have the strong moment instead! And that’s the one that will stay with the audience. Always remember: 

“An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.”

And if anyone ever asks you about an excellent acting school – trust me - there's nothing better than the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and Sandy Meisner’s “Technique”.

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 one and only Leilani Holmes (@momentsoffilm on Twitter). 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.

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