Archive for February, 2013

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Shoddy Blueprints, Shoddy House.

February 25, 2013

In my last post I pointed out that I wasn’t much of a writer, so this post might come off as the words of a hypocrite… but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll voice my ill-informed opinions if I want to. Disclaimer over and here’s my issue…

Why are so many scripts shit?

I’m not talking about Hollywood movies- we all know that the industrial movie machine takes its toll on talent and creativity and effectively rapes scripts of them both- I’m talking about the sort of scripts kicking about at this end of the filmmaking world. Scripts that haven’t had a producer/studio/investor altering, diluting, genericising (is that even a word?) and adding more explosions/effects/celebrities/boobs to the film to make it more “commercial.” No, these are scripts by relatively new writers looking to get them made by equally new directors. Like me.

Over the last year I’ve been putting myself forwards for a lot of directing gigs- after all, it’s one thing to direct your own project and another to be hired by someone else. Most of these projects are unpaid but the networking and exposure possibilities are worth it. I’ve been offered a number of these jobs but, for me, they’ve always fallen flat at the first hurdle- once they’ve sent me the script.

Gaston

One of the first examples of this was a short film about an elderly guy who argues with his wife. The dialogue was stilted (but that’s not usually a deal-breaker since you and the actors will adjust that before you film anything anyway) and the film began with one of my pet peeves- the old “guy wakes up and we see his morning routine” bollocks. I hate that- unless routine is key to the story, theme or character, don’t open a story with it. It only goes to show you have little to no imagination as to how to show or infer character through interaction or design. It’s the film equivalent of a large, chunky paragraph on page one of a novel telling you everything you need to know about the main character. It’s shit. But shitty beginnings aside, the script’s big flaw came at the end. While witnessing their long-suffering domestic friction, we see the old boy assembling a noose and stool in the garage. You think he’s going to top himself, but at the end of the 4 page script the wife comes in, he gets her to stand on the stool to change the lightbulb and then kills her with the noose. As he steps outside, smiling, he gets a phone call from someone congratulating him on his retirement. That’s it. The end. I mean, what the fuck? I mean, okay the twist works, but what exactly was the point in all this? It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was attempting the perfect crime and we had several scenes setting up an alibi and him insinuating to third parties that she was suicidal- so that when he kills her he’s made it look like she did it herself. But we didn’t. We just got a bullshit twist with no real purpose behind it.

I had another script sent to me- again involving an elderly character and ironic, twisty murder (someone on twitter must’ve said that festivals were looking for that sort of shit and a bunch of writers listened and eagerly started typing…). Old lady is wary of strangers and is being plagued by random door-knockings at tea-time every day. She gets so paranoid that after no less than six of these repetitive occurrences (all of which the audience are needlessly subjected to seeing throughout the first five minutes of a seven minute film), she waits at the door with a shotgun and shoots the caller the next time. When she inspects the teenager’s body she finds a note from her daughter telling the teen to call on his grandma- which the twist implies is our little old dear. So in her fear (and probable senility) she murdered her grandson. Now again, aside from the structural banality of having to sit through essentially the same mundane knock-knock-noone’s-there action again and again for over half the film’s runtime and the unsound internal logic (why would you knock and run if you were visiting your gran?), you also have to deal with an ending that only exists to create a shock twist. It’s not satisfying or poignant or clever or important. It’s just there to prove that what the writer writeth he can taketh away… which is like a DoP using 28 lights in a simple interior scene because he fucking well can!

Cartman

I’m not going to list all the scripts that tumbled with ill-deserved optimism into my inbox, but there’re a few more worth mentioning. And they’re all comedies. Well, they would be… if they satisfied the single simple premise of comedy and were actually funny…

I know comedy is very subjective and what makes one person piss their pants with laughter will make another shit themselves out of unbridled boredom but I think that even if the brand of comedy isn’t your thing, you’re usually able to recognise that it is meant to be funny and that someone else will laugh at it. I struggled with these scripts- a sitcom set in a leisure centre where the writer’s favourite character had all the (supposedly) funny lines and everyone else was pure cardboard and a sketch show predicated around the idea that if you repeat an unfunny joke in several sketches it somehow magically becomes funny- and because the writers were the producers/employers and wouldn’t want to change the script, I had to decline the job.

I suppose that’s the bit that really bugs me. That I had to turn down a job because I didn’t think the script was good enough. No matter what I did, I was tied to the page in front of me and the end result would be, in my opinion at least, sub-par. And if I’m not being paid for it, why would I put out sub-par work? It’ll only make me look bad.

Am I being picky? Or am I expecting too much from writers who are at a similar stage in their career as I am in mine? I mean, I’m relatively inexperienced and don’t have any real professional broadcast or feature credits. I make mistakes all the time- it’s how I learn, how we all learn. Surely writers should be allowed to make mistakes at the same level? And, yes, they should. Yet still it bugs me because my mistakes as a director are frequently filtered through the rest of the cast and crew and its usually only the editor (which is often me anyway) who has to deal with them. A writer’s mistakes affect everything after that last full stop is typed. If the character is written badly, the actor will perform it badly and/or the director will direct it badly. If the structure is poor the whole film is unsteady and even the most talented of editors might struggle to fix such a thing. In all cases, the error will find its way to the audience and blame will often fall on the director and rightfully so because they are the ombudsman for the audience. While I don’t agree entirely with the analogy that the script is a blueprint, the basic premise holds- if the blueprint isn’t well-designed or thought out, the house will likely collapse.

"Don't worry, it's meant to look like that..."

“Don’t worry, it’s meant to look like that, honest…”

Additionally, some writers are precious about their scripts and hate it when directors change things. I can understand that- the script being their creation and them assumedly putting energy and hours of work into it. But the script is there to be made- it’s only the first iteration of the story and one an audience won’t see unless they scour the internet for it. Just as every parent must eventually come to terms with the idea that their children will grow up and you can’t keep them as kids indefinitely (unless they’re Michael Jackson), every serious screenwriter has to realise that a script will inevitably change when it goes through the puberty of a film adaptation.

All that aside, it just means that I’m currently turning down projects because the scripts are either not a good enough starting point or are impractical to work with. Shame I don’t have a prolific and flexible writer living nearby anymore, otherwise I’d probably have a lot more completed projects under my belt…

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There in Black and White

February 12, 2013

I’ve said before that I’m not much of a writer. Hence the lack of auteur-ed material in my back catalogue. But when you only know a handful of good writers and don’t want to exploit them unnecessarily, you have to write your own shit and hope for the best. Maybe get them in to rewrite things later, but that usually means writing the first draft yourself.

Hemingway

For a while now, I’ve had this little idea for a showreel-worthy short film fermenting in my noggin. Something that might be my calling card and the thing that kicks my career into touch. So I’m keen to get this on paper, on camera and then on screen. But it’s quite a genre/style blend and certain parts of it are quite esoteric- combining elements from Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, crime dramas and film noir. Not an easy thing to get a handle on and I don’t know any writers who’d get it right off the bat. So it looks like I need to do the legwork- write the treatment and in all likelihood, the first draft- so that when I do pass it over to a proper writer, they have something to go on.

So I’ve had to force myself to write a treatment.

I never used to like, or more accurately use, the whole treatment-then-script-then-rewrite process. I used to just dive into the script, start at the beginning then work my way to the end. Which I suppose explains why my IMDB listing doesn’t have any screenwriting credits. Well, proper pro credits- “The Last Serenade” doesn’t count… But I’ve now grown to realise the importance of the treatment- in particular getting the story working there before you start writing the script proper.

As a director, one of my… things… is internal story logic. Character actions and motivations have to make sense. You can’t just fudge things (big things at least) to create the dramatic moment or effect you want- everything has to come from a real place. If you fudge it, the actors will point it out to you on set, the editor will point it out to you in the edit suite and audiences will point it out to anyone who’ll listen five minutes after they’ve tuned out of the film. So it needs to work structurally and that’s what the treatment’s for. Ironing out those story wrinkles and plotholes and getting the important details right.

sonicscrewdriver

The other thing the treatment’s good for is pacing and delivery. Treatments are written in the present tense- as the film unfolds, exactly how an audience experiences it. If nothing else reinforces the director’s role as the audience’s ombudsman, the treatment is it.

So I’ve been writing mine and I’ve found that some things like the general structure (the opening scenes, the plot twist and the placement of the action sequences) were already set in place in my head but others (like the drip-feed like reveals of information and backstory and the logical causes for the moments I had later) were a mystery. This is where the treatment really comes into its own. Each scene is a paragraph- at least it is in my method, other more capable writers probably do things differently/better- so if you know a scene has to go here but have no idea what it is, just write any old shit to fill the space. You can and will change it later. I used to do the same thing when writing scripts- write the scenes I knew or was enthused about and put placeholders in for the ones I didn’t. I found that doing things this way meant I can see the story as a whole and judge how and when to reveal story points better.

And ultimately, fixing the story points is what this is all in aid of. On a related if tangential note, I’ve been seeing a lot of scripts recently that are poorly structured or badly written. I know that at the stage I’m at in my career and the sort of erratic circles I move in, I shouldn’t expect miracles, but these are from people serious enough about writing to call themselves writers. There have been sitcoms and sketch shows that just flat-out aren’t funny, character dramas that make absolutely no sense, genre pieces that have less homages and more full-on uninspired rip-offs and short films that kill the main character off at the end (supposedly for a shock twist, but actually just because the writer has a creation complex and doesn’t know how to finish the film otherwise). I don’t want this project to have those flaws. I want it to work for me as a filmmaker and for an audience.

But if I can nail the treatment, I can get someone talented in to do the rest of the script and I can concentrate on directing the shit out of it instead.