A place I go to waste time and put off actually WRITING movie scripts. Join me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Support your local Greenlight!

In less than 48 short hours the 2006 Project Greenlight Australia series will have begun and it's importance to emerging filmmakers in this country should not be underestimated. I urge you if you have any interest in improving the quality of film and television production in Australia then watch the show on Movie Extra at 8.30pm AEST Thursday September 14 or follow it online. Either way, be involved and make sure you vote. The talented people you see there will be responsible for the stuff you'll see in the cinema and on TV in the years to come.

Please give them your support. They deserve it.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Greenlight gives me the Green Light!

Those who know me know that I don't do self-promotion, shameless or otherwise so I'll keep this quick. This years' Project Greenlight Australia (showing on Movie Extra soon) had a Short Script Competition to complement the feature competition. I entered three short scripts; two made it into the Top 30 through the peer review process, one of which - Equal Opportunities - made it into the final Top 14, each of which will be produced, and directed by those individuals still in the running for the feature prize.

So... go me!


Thursday, June 22, 2006

14 Days + 1 Willing Writer = 1 Movie Script. Umm...

Confession time: I failed.

That's true in as much as I hit the deadline last week and was not faced with a completed feature-length script. I pushed myself and made it to page 76, but couldn't quite find those last few hours of what happened to be the busiest 14 days of my year so far to get it done. That's not to say that I didn't try. My partner Amy's loneliness during those two weeks is proof of that. I wish to extend my thanks to her for her unflinching support, as ever.

So, even though I might have fallen short of the ultimate goal of the two weeks I learned a lot about myself and my writing.

Here they are in quick bullet-point format:

  • My fingers still type after eight hours at my desk... just VERY SLOWLY.
  • My brain, however, does all its best thinking before the four hour mark.
  • I can push through the "Can't-I-do-something-else" reflex that occurs after about 45 minutes and it becomes "How-long-can-I-keep-going"... at least it does on the good days.
  • Jasmine Green Tea is perfect to fill in the gaps in quality thought. I drunk LOTS!
  • Contrary to the belief of one Homer J. Simpson, if something's hard to do it IS worth doing.
My writing:
  • Having just the point of the scene (what you want to achieve) in mind gives your innate sense of story the room to explore its execution.
  • Dialogue writes itself - most of the time - and is often the least important part of a scene.
  • Let the characters do what they will, occasionally guiding them in the direction you wish to go.
  • Embrace change. Do not work against it.
  • There is NO substitute for time.
I'm pleased with what I've learned through this process and with what I've achieved. Having now just got over the second script-killing plot-hole I suspect another week to ten days of hard work and I'll have a finished first draft to tidy up and chalk up to experience if nothing else.

Thanks to Anthony and everyone over at 14 Day Screenplay. The next one's scheduled for October so I'd encourage anyone who didn't do it this time to seriously consider it. If nothing else, at least you might discover the depth of your love for hot brewed beverages.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Jurassic Park 4: Dino's With The Stars

Oh the perils of an open-plan house!

After having suffered through the first episode of Channel 7's new singing-celeb reality show It Takes Two in my peripheral vision a few days ago, I realised how grossly inappropriate the genre's name has now become.

Reality? Exactly whose reality are we talking here?

For those lucky souls who mercifully missed this particular slice of TV hell, the show pairs a bunch of mostly-obscure actors and the odd newsreader (the 'celebrities') with a number of mostly-forgotten or hard-up singers to bang out songs we've all heard a thousand times before, and done a thousand times better. It is then the viewing public's dubious honour to swell C7's bank account by SMS-voting to keep their favourite warbling away, week after week. And, of course, it's all for a good cause.

If I seem somewhat non-complimentary about the whole thing that'd be because the whole 'Doing-X-with-Celebrities' sub-genre's underlying ego-massage masquerading as philanthropy makes me fume. How has it all become so incestuous? I was under the impression that a big part of the appeal of the reality show was the fact that those taking part were unknowns, maybe achieving an ambition they'd long harboured. At least in its infancy the genre embodied a sense of hope and possibly inspiration for the viewing public, perhaps giving that little shove to a few people to get them off their backsides and down to next year's Idol auditions. That factor, the one positive in the whole horrible genre, is being increasingly exorcised. We now have shows dedicated to people who have already had their shot at fame and exposure and, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, 'nature selected them for extinction'. Yet these people are being resurrected and presented with another opportunity. These are people who have (or have had) better-paying and more glamorous jobs and lifestyles than 95% of the population, and we're now giving them better-paying and more glamorous things to do when they're NOT at those jobs.

It Takes Two, along with Dancing With The Stars, is the height of popular primetime television entertainment in Australia today. I'm upset by that, though not surprised. The genre has now become so inward-looking that it's in danger of disappearing up its own sequin-encrusted backside.

I'll be watching that night for sure.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's time to walk the walk.... really fast!

If you're at all interested in screenplays, and I assume you are since you're reading this, then I urge you to be involved in two weeks of fun/despair/hell (delete as applicable) starting June 3rd over at 14 Day Screenplay.

The object is to do exactly what you'd expect: write a feature-length script in two short weeks. You can do as much planning as you like before, just no writing until the clock ticks over.

If you've never written before, there's more than enough info over at the site to give you a fighting chance. If you have written before then, like myself, I'll wager you find each successive script takes SO much longer than the last one. This is the perfect opportunity to shake out those cobwebs and live (and write) on your wits. And yes, it'll probably be terrible, but that's not the point.

So dust off those long-saved ideas you never really got round to and flex those typing fingers.

I'll see you there!


Monday, May 22, 2006

Q: When is a movie not a movie?

A: When it's a book.

Specifically, when it's a book called The DaVinci Code.

In this, number two of an occasional series of posts that may well be termed 'I don't like this because...' I'll attempt to dissect what is almost certain to become the year's biggest movie.

I have no problem, religious or otherwise, with Dan Brown. He writes novels, and has made himself a very tidy living from it. I also have no problem with the main conceit of The DaVinci Code; that there exists a blood-line of descendants from the supposed union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In fact, as ideas go, it's a good one to write a book around. It draws on a collective consciousness that has almost universal recognition, it charges readers with the task of re-examining facts once considered gospel (ho-ho!), and is likely to aggravate a few people too. That's pretty much all you need for guaranteed success. And a success it was, with sales well into the millions.

Does success in one media lead to success in another? With big names like Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and, for all you screenwriters out there, Akiva Goldsman involved it has to be a sure thing. Looking at the grosses, it is. US$77m opening weekend, giving both Hanks and Howard their biggest open to date. Add the worldwide figures and you get US$224m, the second biggest worldwide opening weekend in history behind Star Wars Episode III.

It's a success in every way.... oh, except one.


I can see a future when this movie will be on film-school syllabuses to illustrate the radical differences between a novel narrative and a film narrative. There is so much in this film that doesn't work, or is wasted.

Tom Hanks for one. One commandment of screenwriting is thus: The protagonist MUST be a wilful character. Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon character is exactly the opposite of that. He and his actions never have anything more than a surface effect on the story narrative. Instead he is buffeted around by the twists and turns going on around him. He never effects any change on the narrative; he never drives it, rendering him as much of an audience member as we are. While it might seem similar to Hitchcock's favoured method of an everyman in a situation much bigger than himself, the key difference is that Hitchcock's protagonists rose to the occasion and began to take control of their fates. Not so Langdon. I wondered why the producers went with as big a star as Hanks for such a non-role. The cynical side of me says that it's in the hope that his star appeal covers up what's missing from the role written for him, which is almost everything.

Another commandment: Show, don't tell. Or: The thorny problem of plot exposition. (Aside: For the most lucid example of plot exposition and its misuse, see the wonderful exchange between Miss Piggy and Diana Rigg early in The Great Muppet Caper, culminating in the line "It's plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.") I don't think I've ever witnessed a movie where I ran out of fingers counting the plot exposition scenes until now. A whole book's-worth of exposition shoe-horned into 140 minutes just plain does not fit. If you need to spend five out of every twenty minutes using on-screen dialogue to get your audience up to speed then you're doing something very wrong.

One more commandment: Screenplays are structure. Successful structure dictates that life-or-death action must be tempered by moments of calm in order for those moments of action to increase tension or be unexpected. The DaVinci Code is, as the saying goes, 'one-damn-thing-after-another' and each double- and triple-cross dilutes the effect of those that succeed it. Think of it like this; if I were to constantly slap you upside the head every two minutes you'd eventually get used to it and it'd lose its effect. But a quick slap when you're not expecting it? Works a treat.

Yet one more commandment: Get into a scene as late as possible, and get out as quickly as possible. This can be extrapolated to refer to the story as a whole, and the filmed DaVinci Code really should have ended at the tomb of Isaac Newton. This scene saw the obligatory confrontation between the force of good and the force of evil. It's the resolution scene. Nothing beyond that resolution has any bearing on the actual story. It's all window dressing. And still, they filmed something like twenty minutes of window dressing. When the only principle characters still left in your story aren't in conflict with each other, isn't that a clue that perhaps the story's over? After all, and perhaps this is the most important commandment of all: There is no scene without conflict.

So, in terms of the script, it's a train-wreck. Why? Akiva Goldsman knows film narrative. Ron Howard knows film narrative.

I saw Dan Brown's name in the Producer credits. Oh-oh. That might have something to do with it.

In fact, Goldsman sends out a little SOS at the end of the film. After having spent 135 minutes doing his best to try to convince us that Brown's madcap idea might just be an alternate history, he fills the last minutes with a scene where the male lead discusses that very notion with the female lead and ends it up, and I'm paraphrasing here, with "It doesn't really matter anyway. What matters is what you yourself believe".

I've never seen such a concise distancing of oneself from their own work.

It put a great big grin on my face.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Get Lost.

Been gone for ages again. Sorry. At least it's for a good reason, having been knee-deep in a new script and dabbling in the short story form, the results of which may (or may not) be posted here some time in the future.

Anyway, on to today's rant.

And, boy, is it a big one!

I hate Lost.

I really, REALLY have a problem with it.

Before I launch in, first a little context. Being in Australia we're now about half-way through the second season. I, along with my partner Amy, was an avid viewer of the first season - like the rest of Australia it seems - but my interest only stretched to about ten episodes whereby I swore off the thing, I thought mostly because of the constant teasing nature of the narrative. I was thoroughly p*ssed off at being told "Next Week: You'll finally find out the big secret of the monster on the island!" and it just not happening. Even the presence of the gorgeous Evangeline Lilly wasn't enough to keep me tuned in. Amy continued to watch it, and still does to this day.

In the intervening months between then and now I have had, on more than one occasion, heated arguments with friends about its relative merits, each time becoming more and more fervent in my hatred of it. I'm apparently in the minority thinking that it's bad television. I was able to live-and-let-live though, as I'm out at work when it airs so Amy doesn't have to put up with my protestations. Equilibrium was reached.

Then last week, I received an email from PK back in England, one of my oldest friends, that went a little something like this:


Have you watched 'Lost'? I've started watching it and it's fantastic!! So well written and completely gripping!

Talk about a red rag to a bull!

I actually feel a bit sorry for him as I vaulted right up on to my high horse and laid in to him like never before. It wasn't that I said he shouldn't like it, or that I thought any less of him because he does, but I tore the show apart and managed to offend him in the process. Perhaps it was because I told him I thought it was a show for stupid people, I'm not sure. I was just unable to keep a lid on it.

I think I have a right to hate it, though, and it's coming totally from a writer's point of view. I consider the precedent that Lost is setting to be damaging for narrative drive in film and TV. Of its typical 45 minute running time, often considerably more than HALF of that is flashback, or backstory as it's termed in Hollywood. For those of you reading this who don't write, you must know that backstory has to be handled very carefully and executed with great skill to drive the present narrative. After all, in a flashback we are watching something that has happened in the past which the character has moved on from because he/she is here in the narrative present. We don't think, in a flashback, "Wow! I wonder what will happen to them next? Will they make it out? How will they be changed?" because we already know the answers to those questions. A character can't lose a leg in a flashback, for instance, because they would be without that leg in the present, of course. To quote Robert McKee, "Powerful revelations come from the backstory - previous significant events in the lives of the characters that the writer can reveal at critical moments to create turning points." Those revelations are supposed to create turning points that turn the story in the present.

Lost doesn't do that. Lost substitutes exhaustive filmed backstory for genuine narrative turning points that move the story forward. It seems to be very much the case of the writers being unable to think of something to propel the narrative along, so instead they'll film another week of one of the ensemble casts' pasts. And coming from the man behind Alias, which had one of the most pacy and dynamic narrative builds I've ever seen on television, this is terribly disappointing. Partially it's because Abrams and his writers have given themselves very little to work with, dealing with a bunch of people on a deserted island. And now, with the monster being revealed as a cloud of growling black smoke it's just getting silly.

The reason why you don't see this level of backstory on screen is because it slows down the pace and has the audience continually living in the past. Writers are taught that it is bad practice. Abrams and his team are breaking one of the most important rules in screenwriting (The narrative must move forward) and, because others know not to, are being lauded for the originality of their show.

The most worrying factor is that there are likely to be many more shows that ape the design of Lost in Production Exec's in-boxes across the world. I for one hope Lost's current malaise in terms of viewers (now down by almost half on Season One here in Australia) causes a lot of those me-too's to be aborted before a penny is spent.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Part One: The Premise.

So, it might have taken me nearly half a year to get here but here I am, staying true to my word, and beginning my philanthropic odyssey to sweep away the clouds of confusion and give anyone who really would like to write a script at least a couple of tools with which to do it. (Here's a tip for free: Try to write SHORTER SENTENCES than that last one!) Think of me as the lighthouse on your stormy night, a beacon of hope as you crash against the waves of inexperience on your journey towards the New World of being a screenwriter.

Ridiculous strained metaphors aside, I'm here to explain as much as I can the way I like to do things and the thought processes behind them. I hope it will help those who are just starting out, as well as myself by clarifying the process in my own mind. Strangely, writing and thinking about writing are not always bedfellows. I also hope it will provide a forum for discussion about the topics and practices involved because there's always scope for everyone to learn something from somebody else.

So let's begin with the tiniest seed of a screenplay: The Premise.

My definition: The thing that makes you want to write something.

I'm not trying to be clever or anything, but the premise really is as simple as that. It's also deliberately vague because the premise can really be anything. It can be an idea; an image; a comment. It can be world-shattering or mundane. But whatever it is, it makes you want to explore it. It makes you ask "What if?.." and makes you want to answer it.

And that is the key.

Let's say you were walking down the street and there was a little old lady on the opposite side. There she is, pushing her little wheelie-shopping-basket thing that old ladies seem to just have when, from out of nowhere, a huge out-of-control Great Dane comes bolting towards her. It's like a car crash; you just can't look away. As the dog gets closer and closer you just know this moment is going to be etched in your mind forever. And now it's almost right on top of her and you feel helpless because you're so far away. And then, as the irresistible force meets the immovable object...

... the little old lady neatly sidesteps the crazed canine and continues on her way.

From this, you could find the premise for any number of stories. What if the old lady used to be an Olympic standard gymnast? Perhaps she contracted a disease that made her age super-fast? Or what if she used to be a highly sought-after cat burglar? What if she's still a highly sought-after cat burglar? What if the dog escaped from a lab? Or belonged to the richest man in New York and was dog-napped? Or was the ring-leader in a bid to liberate all the dogs in the city from their owners? What about that helplessness you felt watching it all unfold? What if you saw something far more sinister? What if the people involved saw you watching? What if you saw something that you could never purge from your mind?

I think you get the point. That moment could be the beginning, middle or end of any number of stories. Judging by my examples most would be terrible, but it illustrates the fact that the premise is the thing that sets in motion the discovery and exploration of a story. At the time you probably won't know what the story is, or where it goes, but that's the way it's supposed to be. Stories do not appear in the conscious mind fully formed. We all have to work for that.

More often than not, a premise finds you. It's one of those 'quick-I-need-a-piece-of-paper-right-now-or-I'm-gonna-lose-this' moments where a synapse fires in your brain in a way that's totally unique to you. It's the payoff for all those hours spent reading scripts, seeing movies, reading books, communicating with others and dreaming dreams. It's the little mental shove that sets you on your way. Be open to them, welcome them, and act on them. Never let them pass unrecorded.

As Kevin Costner was once advised: "If you build it (a fertile imagination), they will come."

Next time we cover something similar, but different; The Concept.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

If anyone still actually cares...

Look! You there! You were wrong!!!

You casually clicked me a little while ago, saw my blog in it's dormant state and just mentally tossed it into the "one-of-the-seven-million-blogs-that-never-get-updated" trashcan.

But I'm back!

Yes that's right. I must apologise to my avid readership (does three people, one of whom is me, count as a readership?) for the lack of activity on this page in the last while. Anyone who knows me knows that that last three months of the year are a virtual write-off for anything apart from working and this year gone has been no different. Add to that the month I spent in the UK with my lovely partner Amy and that should explain the slackness. Maybe I should have posted that before I left it so long.

Oh well. I hope you all (both) forgive me.

So, here's the plan. I am under deadline precisely at the moment so it may be a week or so before I get my thoughts in order. After that I plan to be back posting every Wednesday, with other non-Wednesday thoughts as and when the need arises. So do what you must; tell friends and family, get those "I love James" forum posts running hot and hail it from your nearest steeple.

And in response to the chorus of welcome I can hear ringing around this magical internet, "I'm very glad to be back!"

'Til next time,


Sunday, October 30, 2005

The loneliness of the long-distance... writer?

As writers we are all, in some small way, prepared for and accepting of the fact that writing is a solitary experience. Hell, some of us even do it because it's solitary. For some of us it's a justification of our own innate anti-social tendencies; a necessary evil that just happens to fill a guilt-shaped hole quite nicely.

Quite often we will do our best, be it consciously or sub-consciously, to preserve its solitary nature, finding reasons not to collaborate on something that we know full well may add layers of complexity that we couldn't hope to achieve alone.

And we do it for many reasons, not the least of which is the realisation that the film-making process is so collaborative in virtually every other aspect that we rebel, and attempt to grow that first precious seed in a hermetically-sealed environment. After all we have all grown up knowing what too many cooks do to that broth. And film-making has cooks by the truckload.

Just occasionally, though, the solitary nature of what we as writers do sneaks up on us in that most communal of all film experiences: watching it.

Picture the scene: with some enforced down-time on hand recently I took the opportunity to convince my partner to watch a film that has a particular significance to me. Everyone has their favourites for a myriad reasons, and this one fell into that 'this-made-me-want-to-be-a-writer' category. So we fire up the home theatre gadgetry, dim the lights and succumb to the magic playing out before us in widescreen. A hundred minutes fly by where I share every moment of joy, every shard of pain, my heart racing as the excitement builds to an imaginative and satisfying climax as my partner, reluctant at first, begins to be interested, then entranced and is finally transported alongside me, living out the rollercoaster lives of these characters until ultimately, in a state of mental exhaustion the credits roll and I turn to her and say "Whaddya think?"

A shrug. A turn-up of the lip. "Take it or leave it."

Now, it's not that I'm that much of a film Nazi that I cannot handle others having differing opinions to mine. (Stop that mumbling at the back, thank you!) I have had my fair share (or perhaps more than my fair share) of film arguments with friends and a relatively low percentage have actually graduated to physical altercations. Everyone has different views on stuff. But this one was quantifiably different. Sub-consciously this was my way of saying "This is what I wish I could do". And in that one simple phrase, "Take it or leave it", I realised that if I became that writer I want so much to be then that'd be all I could ever hope to get. A shrug.

Most of us, deep down, look for acceptance from others in almost everything that we do, especially from those that we care about the most. As writers we risk our loved ones due to protracted periods of enforced solitude, perhaps in the hope that the finished product might somehow pay back that disregard in other, more meaningful ways. The strange thing is that that meaningful payback is likely to come from someone else, not from yourself. In my example, my partner's payback comes from Louis de Bernieres, Kazuo Ishiguro and, of course, J.K. Rowling.

Thanks guys. Hope I can return the favour someday...