Category Archives: Film writing

Happy Birthday, Judith Kerr

One of the first pieces of advice I got as a beginner writer was to read other writers’ work. I’ve modified that for myself – read about the writers themselves as well. When you’re alone and suffering those scary writers’ blues and wondering if you’ll ever achieve the goals you’ve set, it helps to know that some really famous writers have been where you are and still have days when they doubt themselves or find it difficult to get that vivid idea in their head onto the page.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Judith Kerr’s brilliant children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and it is also Judith Kerr’s birthday today, Thursday, 14 June. Judith Kerr is 95 years old and came to England as a refugee, escaping the wave of Fascism which took the lives of so many. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was a bedtime story she told to her daughter and it became her first picture book.

In a BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, she explained how she’ll make several copies of a piece of work to give her scope to play around and develop it. She freely admits that “Drawings don’t take me as long now because I’ve got better at it.” Such honesty is encouraging when so many famous writers prefer not to share their development process and give the impression that they’ve always been able to create with great ease.

Listening to her speak this morning and reading about her in the The Telegraph Magazine of 2 June, she had some useful tips and although she is an illustrator, she’s also a writer:

“I go on for as long as it works. You can’t just stop, even if what you’re doing is rubbish, because you have to work through that …”

However, when she has to stop, it’s always “at a point where the next thing is sort of in view.” And her final comment: “A blank page can be very intimidating.” We can all identify with that!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Judith Kerr!

“Pink Rabbits and Other Animals” available to download on BBC i player

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Filed under Characters, Children's writing

Keeping your focus

You need a destination when you’re writing, even if you’re not physically travelling. Whatever it is, book, play, short story or film, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a place you never intended with your protagonist not achieving their goal or overcoming the obstacles you’ve placed in their way.

But that’s not going to happen to you. You’ve planned it all out. You’ve got the chapter breakdown, you’ve written the detailed treatment – nothing can go wrong yet somewhere along the writing road, you lose your way and the ending’s muddled.

Here are three pieces of advice to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac.

My first writing tutor told me to write down in one sentence what the main character’s aim was and to pin this on the wall in front of my keyboard.

Tony Jordan, gave me the second piece of advice, when I wrote for “Eastenders”. Always know what the end of the scene will be.

And the third piece was from a tutor on a screenwriting course, visualise what will be on the cinema billboard advertising your film. This last one will leave you in no doubt who the most important characters are and breathe colour, atmosphere and life into your story.

Happy writing!

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Film writing

Women and the World

A few posts ago, I talked about how female actors were choosing not to wear make-up when filming.  Amongst those who had made this decision was the actor, Sarah Lancashire.  She recently won the BAFTA for Leading Actress in the Best Drama, Happy Valley, so less make-up obviously didn’t affect her performance.

Why is it so important for female actors to portray themselves in a naturalistic way?  First, the world of drama becomes more like the ordinary world of the audience and female viewers will connect better to the actors.  It’s all about role models and even adult women need those but do they need the ones portrayed in films.  Yes they can dye their hair the same colour as the heroine and get longer lashes but when they’re playing Jane to some he-man’s Tarzan, as soon as the screen goes black, they’re back in a real jungle where too often they really are Jane.

It’s not just about making role models for ourselves but about finding stories that mean something to women.   Female actors are trying to do this all the time as well as finding work.  For too long, actresses have gone from playing the love interest for the lead man to playing the lead man’s mother – apparently the only acceptable roles for women in a male dominated industry.

When groups of women are portrayed in films, not many story lines dip beneath the surface of what society expects from them so it was good to watch a conversation between Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern talking about how much they enjoyed working with each other on “Big, Little Lies”.  In Witherspoon’s words,

“I think the show pulled back the curtain on what women are really thinking in marriage and life and that it’s not just the persona we construct for society.”

“Big, Little Lies”, the screen version was adapted from the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty.

This difference between the real world and film where women are concerned was forcefully highlighted when Jessica Chastain spoke out at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Chastain, a member of the 2017 festival’s jury, was witness to 20 of the world’s most acclaimed new movies and noticed a disheartening trend. The Academy Award-nominated actress acknowledged that there were exceptions, but most of the female characters seen at the festival were passive and empty shells of characters. Chastain continued by saying that these characters did not reflect any woman she had ever encountered in real life and that the lack of accurate representation speaks to how the world views women as a whole.”  (uinterview.com/news)

Unfortunately, until there are more female directors and writers, film story telling is unlikely to change and neither is the world.

For further insight into women in film this article in the guardian is worth a read.  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/27/geena-davis-institute-sexism-in-film-industry

 

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The Weight of Words – Death and the Writer

At the turn of the year I sat with my daughter in an otherwise empty  cinema.   She’d just commented that we had our own private viewing when a mother and her young son arrived.  It was term time and I thought it strange that he wasn’t in school.  Then the film started and I forgot about them.

A Monster Calls is about death and how a young boy comes to face a terrifying truth.  Both the book  and the film were written by Patrick Ness inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could realise it.   Both book and film share a dark, frightening world in which a young boy is visited by a monster who comes to him each night to tell him a story.   On the last night, the boy must tell the monster his own tale but it is a story that is too terrible for the boy to speak.

Both the film and the book are dark and the foreboding  atmosphere fills you with dread as you wait for the Monster’s arrival each night at the same time and the nightmarish landscapes which the boy must visit until the very last night when it is his turn to tell his own story.  In the film, Liam Neeson voices the Monster, his deep, booming voice vibrating through the terrifying world that the young boy, played by Lewis MacDougall, inhabits.    His mother is played by Felicity J0nes.  It’s no spoiler that the boy has to face his mother’s death and all that means to his world.

The language and visualisation is dramatic and dark.  As writers we have to find the best ways to tell a story that will affect our audience dramatically and the build in tension and fear is palpable in this film.  We know what is coming but we still remain in our seats, living our hero’s torment on the giant screen as it sucks us into his dark world, hoping that somehow he will escape his fate but knowing that he can’t.

In real life when we are faced with the spectre of death, our language is more restrained, the monsters are in our heads but we subdue and control them with civilised language when we tell their story.  Yet they never go away.  How do we talk about our own death though when we can see that it is imminent?   Steve Hewlett, a journalist with the BBC, used his training to tell his story from diagnosis to near death.   His words were quiet,  his message succinct but just as in the darkness of that cinema, I could not control my tears as I listened.   Here was a journalist plying his trade, delivering his message so that we could understand it, no melodrama, no self pity, for he knew that those of his listeners who were able to feel, would do so somewhere in the depths of themselves.  His words were not dramatic but the weight of them was as wounding as the images of Lewis MacDougall’s struggle in A Monster Calls.

When the lights went up in that auditorium at the turn of the year, the mother and son were no longer there.

You can listen to Steve Hewlett in the BBC podcast at the following link.  TheEddieMairInterview-20161121-SteveHewlettISeeMyConditionAsABitOfAStory.mp3(3.12MB)?  From:aod-pod-uk-live.akamaized.net

or Search The Eddie Mair Interviews on the BBC Website.

 

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Good versus Bad

Ever got into an argument about a film you thought was great and everyone else in the pub thought was rubbish? And you couldn’t defend your opinion? When I first started thinking about writing for the screen, I’d watch loads of films but couldn’t understand why some of them worked and others didn’t. And you need to understand because pub debates are fuelled by alcohol but also mainly emotion that’s been aroused by what you’ve seen.

When I’m trying to discover why something doesn’t work in a film, I follow Paula Milne’s advice:

“Take a bad film and a good film – in your own estimation, not anyone else’s – and apply this to both. Watch the first 10 to 15 minutes, then switch if off and think: What do I know? What have I been told? What’s the agenda of the film,? What’s at stake?  Who are the characters? Do I care? And do that every 15 minutes or half an hour until the end of the film …”

You’re going to watch films you’ve already seen so you have to stay focused but you’ll enjoy the good ones even more and understand why they work and the bad ones don’t.

The rest of Paula Milne’s advice is at http://www.ideastap.com/IdeasMag/the-knowledge/paula-milne-screenwriter

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Adapting screenplays and novels

On a writing forum recently, someone asked a question about why novelisations of television dramas and films were always so badly written. The answer is they were written by screenwriters, who aren’t used to writing description or thoughts and feelings.

Film scripts are economical – they have to be. The dialogue and the plot are in the hands of the director and actors and they bring it to life in how they react and interact. At most a screenplay will be 120 pages long – a novel can be as long as the market and the story requires.

Writing a novel from a screenplay needs a completely different set of tools and skills than the screenplay requires. Fewer characters, perhaps fewer locations in the screenplay but the novel allows as many characters as the reader can deal with, because the brain takes in the information differently. The novelist isn’t hampered by budgetary constraints either – characters can go to Mars, travel back 500 years and as long as the reader believes them, the cost is the same as placing their story in the 21st century in a supermarket.

There was a trend in the 80’s for books the size of doorstops with so many characters there were lists of them at the beginning, to help the reader identify who was who. It seemed like people had forgotten that the human brain could only hold so much information and keeping it simple worked. When stories originated they were drawn on a cave wall long before they were spoken – woolly mammoth and man with spear – job done. Even when storytellers gathered around campfires, there were likely only a few characters, if that, in their tales – look at the traditional stories:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.  Walt Disney and Pixar might have had a problem with their multi character casts.

There are some on-line blogs that start off talking about adapting a screenplay into a novel but half way through drift into talking about the reverse process, which has been the accepted trend for years.  Advice is that you choose the major characters from the novel and the stand out scenes and write your script around them, keeping in mind the end of the story.   You can turn this advice around for the reverse process but you could end up with a scaffold of empty rooms through which the characters move.  Adapting a screenplay to a novel is like moving to a different country and setting up home there.  To be able to write well in both mediums is a formidable talent – as Graham Greene displayed in The Third Man, both screenplay and novel.

Prose has to paint pictures for the reader and this is something that screenwriters aren’t used to doing.  The script is a tool to produce the entertainment, the novel is the entertainment.

 

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Filed under Adaptation, Novels, Writing and rejection

Saturday

Most of us have had that “I remember where I was” moment, when we hear of something that is so dreadful, the memory imprints itself forever.  It’s like  we’re outside ground zero but caught in the aftershock.  That’s the way I remember Hillsborough.   It was a sunny afternoon twenty seven years ago; I was in the garden with the kids.  They were digging in a flower bed and I was promising them a sandpit.  The phone rang. I went indoors to answer it. It was my sister-in-law – her son had gone to a football match and something terrible had happened and she couldn’t get hold of him. She didn’t know if he was dead or alive. I switched on the television. Outside my children were playing in the sun. Inside on the TV screen, other people’s children were dying on a football pitch.

It was a terrible day, waiting, listening, not telling the children what was happening,  until the news came – my nephew  finally arrived home safe but the shock and the horror of those scenes of what started as an ordinary Saturday didn’t go away.

A week later I took my children into Liverpool to buy them that sand pit. I can remember there being few people about and there was a strange atmosphere. Half way across Clayton Square in the city centre, suddenly everyone stood still. I can’t remember if there was a signal, a church bell or a ship’s horn but suddenly there was silence and nobody moved.  It was the exact time that the football match at Hillsborough had been halted seven days before.

I stood, holding one end of this large plastic sandpit with my son holding the other end while my daughter, unnerved by the silence, moved closer and grasped my hand.  Then through the stillness came footsteps and a man hurried past, staring straight ahead.  He didn’t look to left or right.  It was almost as though he was alone in that whole city, as though we were all of us invisible to him.   In a way it was symbolic of how the next 27 years would be as the families of the men, women and children who died at Hillsborough fought for truth and justice.

In 2005, I started a short film festival to showcase the work of new film makers and amongst the entries was a film, Bar to Bar from Mike Forshaw, a local emerging Director.   I saw a lot of films over the next few years but the ones that stand out are those that strike a chord.  I remember the images on the screen and connect to the characters and their emotions.  I remembered the clarity of the images and the honesty of the characters’ portrayal in Bar to Bar.  A few years’ later, we showed another of Mike’s films, Slippin’, which had been shown at the London Film Festival the previous year.  Again  I found this same connection to the characters in the clear story telling.

Next month in London, Mike Forshaw’s most recent film, Saturday, will be given its UK premiere at the London Sundance Film Festival.  Saturday is a powerful retelling of that day in 1989 through the eyes of a young boy who stays home in Liverpool, whilst his brother goes to the match.  It has already been shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in  the US but could not be screened in the UK, until the enquiry into Hillsborough had reached its verdict on the deaths of those 96 Liverpool fans.  Finally their families had truth and justice after 27 years.

The day after the verdicts, 30,000 people stood on Lime Street, not silent this time, nor invisible to the passer-by but singing the Liverpool FC anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’  A scene that is beyond description but burned into the being of everyone who saw it.

I understand that the filmmakers of  Saturday  will be bringing this powerful retelling home to Liverpool after its UK premiere. I understand this because for in that strange way that Fate links and connects people and events, my daughter, Jennifer Monks, the little girl who held my hand nervously in that silent city, 27 years ago, became the Line Producer on  Saturday. 

Sundance Film Festival: London 2016 – Short Film Programme

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Filed under Characters, Film writing, Short films