Category Archives: Film writing

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

The magical, wonderful world of children’s writing

Once upon a time in the world of publishing, there were adult books for adult readers and children’s books for children and never the twain crossed. Then Harry Potter was born and suddenly both children and adults were reading the same book or as it turned out, books as long as they began with the words “Harry Potter and …”

Suddenly it was okay for adults to read children’s books. Filmmakers tapped into this appetite for fantasy and fairy tales and plundered Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in search of magic. The same adults, who wouldn’t have touched the books, found it okay to go and watch the stories on the big screen.

And the totally cross over market emerged. Children’s publishing which had never reached the figures of the adult market was suddenly booming. More books than ever were being published for children. It was adults who were buying them for their children and grandchildren but it was adults who in many cases were also reading them.

A children’s novel, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has just won the Costa Book of the Year while another children’s book, The Fox and the Star has become Waterstones Book of the Year. This is only the second time a children’s book has won the Costa and the first time one has won the Waterstones. What is it then that raised them above the other novels, mostly written for adults? Could it be that they fulfil a desire for wonder, excitement, the unexpected and the need of our inner child to truly suspend our disbelief and go back to those strange worlds that captivated us?

Those worlds where anything is possible, where you can fly with the help of a friendly dragon, restore order or defeat evil with a spell from your magic wand and combat and win against almost unassailable, overwhelming odds – how could anything grounded in reality compete with the chance to become a child once more. I don’t know why there’s so much fuss about the news – but I suppose some people are born grown-up!

Oh yes, and to celebrate Libraries Day today – five out of ten most borrowed books from UK libraries were children’s!

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Cycling pianists, flying orcas and getting out more

 

So there you are chained to the laptop, terrified if you move an inch you’ll disconnect from the creativity flowing down from the great lump of inspiration in your right brain. That’s where your next chapter or scene is safely stored ready to download itself to your fingers and you keep telling yourself you’ll lose the muse if you move.

Sounds like you need to relax but you can’t spare the time; got to keep typing – yet  it’s not working and the muse isn’t  co-operating.

But writing’s organic – it grows and changes with everything that’s happened to you in the seconds when you’re not facing the screen, you know – like nipping out for a pint of milk or the paper or walking the cat round the block!   The necessary stuff just to keep life ticking, but not think too deeply about ‘cos you’re a right brain person and you can’t handle any of this left brain stuff while you’re creating.  Right?

Wrong – all these years we’ve been categorising ourselves.  At school, I didn’t mind not being in the top stream with all those clever girls  who could do Physics and Maths while I was doing Biology and Art, because you had to have a left brain to do them and I wanted to write and draw and you needed a right brain for them.  Simplistic – just waiting to be disproved, like all the myths we believe in.  That’s what science is for, what all those kids in the top stream were doing.

If you scan the brain when it’s dealing with creative tasks, it’s not just the right brain that’s employed but areas on both sides of the corpus callosum, which possibly explains why the greatest scientist in history said “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and  Einstein’s not exactly famous for great Art, so was he recognising that imagination used many more parts of the brain than we’ve come to believe?

If you go back even further than Einstein, you realise that people didn’t separate science from art in the way in which education and society has done since the Industrial Revolution.  Michael Faraday who discovered electricity did so by observing and imagining and isn’t that what writers do?   Leonardo da Vinci, known mostly for the Mona Lisa, was a serial experimenter in just about any field possible.  His inventions, which were mostly impossible to produce in his time, exist today or were quietly subsumed in the Industrial Revolution.  This was a man who used just about every possible part of his brain.

Okay so this must seem all really left field, so time to go back to the first paragraph and why you need to get out and see what’s going on elsewhere.   Nuggets of information acquired out there in the real world have a habit of suddenly popping into your head when you’re stuck for an idea.    Take the writer, Diana Wynne Jones who wrote Howl’s Moving Castle.  She might never have come up with that idea if she hadn’t gone to a school to talk about writing.  A young boy asked her if she could write about a castle that moved.   I wonder how long it took her to come up with the whole story.   And if she hadn’t got away from her laptop, would she have got that idea on her own?   Studio Ghibli were very pleased she did when they made it into an animation in 2005.

And my cycling pianists and flying orcas – yes I did actually see them when my husband prised me from my laptop.   The cycling pianist came round a corner at the Fleetwood Transport Festival and nearly knocked me over.  His piano was attached to a bicycle and he was wearing a top hat.  It was a very strange thing to see a man sitting side saddle on a bicycle and playing a piano at the same time.  Now there’s an imagination to applaud.  And the flying orca – a bit of a cheat – it was a twenty foot inflatable kite at the St. Anne’s Kite Festival but the image against a clear blue sky above a Northern beach keeps teasing me.  Borrow either of them if you like because what you might do with them will be completely different to what I will, because we’ll all be using different parts of our brain with different experiences.

 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/16/left-right-brain-distinction-myth

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The character you never invited.

The story’s coming together, you know who’s the hero and who’s the baddie.  You’ve got all the ancillary characters, the locations, you’re sure of the theme.  You’re ready to get down to the scene by scene and then suddenly from nowhere this character appears.  You’re not quite sure how they’ve got there but suddenly they’re in the scene and they’re part of the story and if you tried to take them out, you’d find yourself with a hole in the plot.  Your uninvited guest has made themselves at home.

This kind of development happens more to me in prose than it does in scripts and it may well be that prose at the early draft stage is more relaxed and open to experimentation..  Also it could be novels allow the reader to handle more characters than drama – there’s time for the reader to wander down meandering roads.  The novel is not the tightly constructed screen play, where, if you follow the Hollywood model, you’ll know exactly where you are and if you’re not, what you need to do to get there.  Films need a story as tightly nailed down as a short, short story.  There’s no room f.or uninvited characters.

Yet just because you didn’t know they were coming, until you opened the door on a scene and there they were, doesn’t mean that your uninvited characters are going to change the story you want to tell.  You could suddenly find that your story expands or gains depth through the new character providing a storyline that has resonance for the hero.

In the children’s novel I’m working on at the moment, I was writing a scene where a lieutenant has to report to the arch villain, Jeremiah, who’s evil and cruel.  Writing’s all about show not tell as we’re continually told, so to leave the reader in no doubt as to Jeremiah’s despicable nature, I wrote a scene where he’s interrogating a poor snivelling wretch.  Even poor snivelling wretches if you give them dialogue have to have names but beware, as soon as you give them one, they’ll come alive and start offering you insights into how they could add a bit of variety and humour and even allow your main characters to show who they really are.  Still you should think carefully before you christen them; will Snivelling Wretch No. 1 become a monster and try to take over the show.

So Edwards, as he is now, is part of The Curse of Millie Hapless.  He hasn’t taken over the show, just fitted in nicely.  Millie is a 12 year old girl who accidentally travels back in time and discovers that her ancestor, a famous lady smuggler and spy has been wrongly accused of betraying England, a slur that has echoed through the centuries and impacted on the modern day Hapless family. Millie naturally sets about overturning this injustice.  It was only when I wrote Edwards into that interrogation scene that I saw how he could add to the twists and turns of the plot and even help to save Millie’s great, great, great, great grandmother, Lucy from the gallows.

I’m not saying that all uninvited guests shouldn’t be shown the door but just occasionally it’s worth offering the odd one some hospitality for they could repay you handsomely.

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Children's writing, Feature films, Film writing, Novels