Sunday, 1 January 2017

Films to be Seen From 2016

I've not been writing many film reviews on the blog this year and in truth haven't seen as many films as I'd hoped, but of the films I did see in 2016 were some beautiful and unusual ones that were not all mainstream. I thought therefore that I'd offer a post to share the best and most enjoyable films of this year. These are films that either had a 2016 UK release or that were screened at London festivals but I'm going to include everything so that you can look out for and hopefully catch and enjoy them as much as I did. There's no particular order, they are all worth checking out.

Embrace of the Serpent was not only my favourite film of 2016 but immediately bumped it's way to the top of my favourite films of all time list. Refreshingly told from the perspective of an indiginous people, it's a profound film by Colombian writer/director Ciro Guerra that takes a completly unique approach to story. Through it's cyclical narrative it has us exploring who we really are as people and how we connect with nature and each other and serve our species and planet. I've wanted to review it for ages and can't seem to find the right words to describe this film. Shot stunningly in black and white 35mm it's worth taking a look at for the cinematography alone but this is a very different sort of film if you love cinema at all I think you will see the value in it.

Love & Friendship. Everyone says the British do period drama well but what we really do well is wit dressed up in brocade. This archly fun adaptation of a Jane Austen's 'Lady Susan' novella is a pretty treat, ripe and rutheless in the way that only British drama can be when filmed in Ireland and told by an American writer/director. Whit Stillman of course brought ample wit of his own to add to this lush production.

The Revenant. Bare earth, bear man, a bear! This film is a primal experience. If you didn't catch it then maybe try to, for a studio movie it was pretty artistic cinema on a number of levels. Your survival instincts will be strong after this one!

David Lynch: The Art Life is a wonderful, wonderful documentary I caught at the London Film Festival. Narrated by Lynch and offering a perspective on this extraordinary creator that is very intimate, but it's also a journey into Americana itself. This is recognisable Lynch but also Lynch as you've never experienced him before.

La Mort de Louis XIV was another favourite of mine from this year's London Film Festival. It is a rare style of filmmaking brought to us by Catalan director Albert Serra. Almost like a kind of ye olde big brother we quietly look on at the minutiae of court pomp around an elderly monarch and realise we are experiencing the death of the Sun King. It ought to be boring but it's stunning and human and meditative and mesmerising.

Deadpool. My brother insisted I'd like this which is the only reason I saw it. It's stupid, it's crass, it's politically incorrect and sexist, it doesn't have great characters, a good story or a point to it and when it's not being all those things it's a sentimental dramady. The initially cool self-referential fourth wall stuff get's old after a while, and the CGI is plasticky but I laughed and loved it anyway. I'm ashamed of myself but it's very entertaining, you totally missed out if you missed it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a biographical war comedy drama based on the memoir of real life Afghanistan reporter Kim Barker. Yes, you read that right it's a comedy about Operation Enduring Freedom (I know! WTF right!) but it's a super fish out of water tale of the trials of journalism, full of pathos and feeling and politics and is wonderfully funny while not ignoring the complexities of war.

The Pass. Another from this year's London Film Festival this had a UK cinema release recently but actually premiered back in March at the BFI Flare LGBT Festival. Ben A Williams' debut feature is a beautifully directed, fun, meaningful and really relevant film about premiership footballers. The film has added a lovely vibrant freshness that expands it into something more cinematic and fresh than the play it is based upon. A director to watch.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was an action film based on a true story that I knew little about but watched on a whim because I like war films. It's your average action stuff but I really enjoyed it and was surprised when I looked and discovered it was actually a Michael Bay film. I'm recommending you check it out as this was more nuanced than his usual fayre and really clearly and emotionally told. You might not get many more like this from that director. 

The Magnificent Seven remake has a great cast, fab score, and, sorry film snobs, I much preferred it to the original.

Une Vie (A Woman's Life) was again a delight I discovered at the London Film Festival. It's an epic adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant novel detailing a nineteenth century woman's life. From the moment she leaves her idyllic childhood behind she becomes governed by adult choices of both head and heart, and not all of her own making. It's a beautiful emotional timespan of a film where the past affects the future and the present reflects on it's past and it's all relevant to what womanhood is and isn't today. This will resonate with a female audience but is not girly in any way and men should appreciate it too.

Films that looked promisingly good but that I didn't yet get to see were Doctor Strange, The Nice Guys, Childhood of a Leader, Snowden, The Witch and Son of Saul. Hopefully I'll get to these as soon as I can and share whether they are as good as I expect them to be.

Disappointments of the year included The Hateful Eight, Ghostbusters, The Neon Demon, The Accountant, Suicide Squad, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Girl on the Train, all of which I feel could and should have been better than they turned out to be. Still you can't win em all and 2016 was that kind of year. Onwards and upwards.

Which brings us to 2017, with plenty coming to surprise, delight and potentially disappoint us. Films to note are the new Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, Tulip Fever, The Beguiled, The Dark Tower, Murder on the Orient Express, Rebel in the Rye, I'm Not Here, Guardians 2, Victoria and Abdul, WWZ2, Alien: Covenant, The Zookeeper's Wife, Mary Magdalene, Suburbicon, American Made, Paddington 2, The Circle, Thor: Ragnarok, Silence, Weightless, Viceroy's House, You Were Never Really Here, American Assassin and an exciting but Untitled AA Milne Project! In the meantime Happy New Year, let's hope it's a cinematic one.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Festival That Never Really Ends! #LondonSWF

This year will be the seventh year I have live tweeted and blogged from the London Screenwriter's Festival. Over time it's grown and expanded and each year new things are happening and new people attending but I don't think I've ever walked into a room in this festival and not known at least some of the people around me. The London Screenwriter's festival is not merely an event or a screenwriter's conference. It's not just industry networking. These people are my friends and even the strangers around us feel like comrades.

As I come back to the festival each year it feels like coming home to family and it's that touchstone, reminding me who and what I am, that keeps me inspired when I return home to sit alone in front of a screen. In truth the festival isn't just once a year deal, not only are there festival organised events dispersed throughout each season, there's a host of people who permeate the delegates LSF Connect community and numerous online social networks as well as plenty who meet up in person. I've already had wonderful emails and chats, begun new relationships with other writers and had plenty laughs and lovely encouragement from those I already know. For those of you writers feeling alone right now, the only thing you ever need to do is reach out.

This is what the London Screenwriters' Festival is. We aim to come together year round and by encouraging good craft and diligent writing we work to improve ourselves, each other and our industry, creating opportunity for all. Our delegates, speakers, trainers and creatives, our festival staff and volunteers and support organisations come from around the world to be at this event year in, year out and year round to foster this ethos of sharing. It has been my pleasure and my privilege to share the festival with you on twitter and blog about this year's events.

For now, I'm signing off from blogging a while to put some of what I learned into practice! The festival organisers are already working tirelessly on 2017's festival event. I wish you all every success in your writing and I hope to see you in person and online next time.

Fight Club Script to Screen Live with Jim Uhls #LondonSWF

When Jim Uhls was first given Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club to read it seemed unlikely that this was a book that would ever be realised on screen. Still, he thought, it would be interesting to be paid to adapt it into a screenplay. Roll forward and fates aligned that the project went into development and Jim Uhls was attached to write. Brad Pitt was cast in the Tyler Durden role, Edward Norton was an up and comer who was taking off with three great movies under his belt that year and Helena Bonham Carter had shed some of her Merchant Ivory image with a Woody Allen film she'd done, the sarcasm in that character suggesting she'd be great in the Marla role.

Jim's approach to getting the story on screen effectively was to use narration but he wanted the voiceover to be it's own thing and not inform the narrative. The irony of the voiceover is what lightens the movie and in fact during production when the early support group footage was shown to executives before the voiceover had been added they thought it was awful and dreary, proving that narration was required to fully convey the full narrative. There was a lot of narration though and so Jim decided to break it up at points and maintain interest by having the character talk directly to screen.

Writing this story for screen was a very different beast to the novel. When Jim changed things from the book they actually seemed more faithful to the book, which can happen with adaptation. The plane Jack meets Tyler on differed from the book but with his job flying around it seemed the most logical place in the film for a meeting and it works well shifting the power and authority of the story from Jack to Tyler. And though 'His name was Robert Paulson' line was from the book, the scene creating the circumstances of why it happened was invented by Jim. David Fincher added some things in too, like the action of Tyler riding a bike around in his house and he and Jim had great fun acting out things including the last scene to see how the dialogue worked.

Similar to story, Jim points out that you have to fully own characters as yours to write for them on screen but they still have to feel like they're the author's character from the book. It's interesting to note that the character we know as Jack doesn't have a name in the movie. Jim called him Jack on the page for his own convenience so he didn't have to keep typing The Narrator, and the character reads writings in Tyler's house during the movie that he quotes with 'I am Jack's..' lines in the narrative but his name as Jack is never given or used.

The film follows a three act structure, something Jim Uhls knew he wanted, but he didn't know at first where the demarcations would be, it was hard to figure out and the first act is long ending around the point that Jack phones Tyler. Before that call we see he has Marla's number and that shot is included as a visual to bring Marla back into mind and maintain the connection between those two characters for the audience. This film is full of subtext. The halfway point is when Project Mayhem begins, the tone becoming more serious and worrisome from that position on. Toward the third act Jack becomes more peripheral to events and in the car crash scene the 'friendship' is unravelling.

Jim sometimes took things Jack had said in the book and split lines between him and Tyler to be more of a conversation that would show the characters bonding. Jim had to bear in mind all the time writing, the dual nature of the scenes, and how we'd view this in retrospect without the Tyler character. They had to work both ways. The early bonding Jim established between the characters pays off when the later questioning of Tyler's motives by Jack seem more personal. The freedom to make choices with the story while still keeping the feel of the book was a good feeling, Jim tells us. Watching this iconic movie with the man who wrote those scenes and understanding how he crafted such a complicated adaptation into such poetry and sense was a good feeling too. Thanks Jim Uhls for taking time to come to London and share your incredible screenplay craft with us.

David Pope on Subtext #LondonSWF

Often the core of a story is that elusive unsaid meaning that is revealed behind the words and actions we see but how as writer's can we best reveal it? Filmmaker, consultant and trainer David Pope ran a session at the festival this year to help us define what subtext is and use it to give greater depth and insight to our writing.

David began by pointing out the differing voices with which we speak to different people, we make speak to our bank manager differently than we speak to our mothers, and differently again to a friend or a lover. We adjust our voices for the situation and person we're interacting with in order to facilitate communication. So too there is an underlying voice of what is unsaid. Not just voice either, there are inner images that flow through our mind behind the outer conversations we have. Characters will talk about their internal and external conflict with different voices and where that voice changes is an opportunity for subtext. A set up and pay off approach works well. When we watch film or TV and know what a character thinks in a moment it's usually because of something we've seen take place earlier. 

Subtext is to do with the interior world of the character. It's something that's mysterious but also we don't want to dispel too much of the mystery, the magic from subtext by signalling it too distinctly. But how do we signal it at all? Action, David tells us, including words are the tools we have to work with to reveal nuance and undertone. One of the ways we can access how these types of nuance are made manifest is in the way we understand them from the stories we consume. To become familiar with how great novelists and actors express subtext in their work helps us to understand how we too can express subtext in our work in a way that is tangible without being overt.

As example to take a look at the work of Harold Pinter is to acknowledge the 'Pinter Pause' but it is not just the long silences in his work that speak so boldly but the words in which the silence is framed. Of course, instead of a pause we can include and action or evasion in our work to highlight something a character has said and allow our audience to decide if the action, evasion or silence reveal a greater meaning to the scene than the words alone.

Subtext is one of the actions that reveals character and as such it is character driven. We need to think about our character's flaw or problem when defining the subtleties they will reveal. As screenplays have objectives and super objectives so too we need to think about both the story and scenic level of subtext. The tactics a character uses to get what they want reveal subtext, as is how the environment affects those undertones of story. The audience need to be able to read the subtext in order for it to have meaning.
Subtext adds much to the narrative we write and makes our work more accessible to an audience. It can reflect the foibles of a character or the themes of our overall narrative. Including it adds more feeling and meaning for our audience and it's worth defining and practising how we shape what is unspoken. It's worth noting also that in collaborative work actors find and reveal things about their characters too so subtext in screenplays can ofttimes be just a suggestion and mastering the subtleties of it and being able to include meaning in our screenplays may merely be us planting a seed that creative teams on a project to grow.

Creating The Series Bible with Jeff Norton #LondonSWF

Writer, Producer, Author and creative incubator Jeff Norton returned to the London Screenwriters' Festival this year to lead another of his excellent practical classes, this time on creating a TV Series Bible.

A series bible comes in two types. A writer's bible and a pitch bible. A well written bible forces us to know our story world and for a writer's bible all the information needed to sustain a show will be contained in it. It works like adapting from a novel so that any writer, referring to the show bible will be able to write episodes but a pitch bible is a shorter, more concise document that is used to sell the show to executives. As a working LSF session we began creating with Jeff the pitch bibles for our own work.

The point of the pitch document is to tell executives what a show is, and to reassure them you have laid out the trajectory of the show and know how the story comes to an end. It's a professional document that tells those investing that you know what you're doing and that you know who the audience you're writing for are. In general, pitch bibles are a few pages covering everything the excecutives will initially need to know usually created in either Word, Power Point, or Photoshop, depending on the writer's preference and what they wish to include.

Attempting in the session to create a pitch bible for our own series ideas, we planned, with Jeff's help, to take something practical we can use out of the room after the session. We begin a pitch bible with 'The Big Idea' which is the concept for the show and what defines it, is followed by an explanation of the whole series, not just the first episode.

Episode premises are then also included, forcing us to look at every episode as a self satisfying entity whether or not there's an overarching series story. The story engine for each episode can be included but keep things brief. About six episodes usually work (UK series tend to run in about this number) but you can do more. Describing the tone of the show, defines how the show will come across and helps executives understand the audience it's for (ie. if it's a show about a computer nerd is it intellectual or goofy). Then very brief character introductions for the main characters and the setting for the show, where and when it takes place helps give a sense of the look, tone and feel a show will have.

Giving an idea of the lens through which we will view a show is important too, there are many medical shows featuring emergency rooms but when American show ER came along it had a fast pace that was very fresh for it's time and very different from long running medical shows like General Hospital. The bible lays out why characters and setting are unique and worth watching, it's important that those elements are not a trope.

The pitch bible is a sales tool and while it's good to have firm story and characters laid out so a studio knows what's proposed, you can change things later as a TV show develops. They work for any show, whether it's an ongoing story or if each episode is self contained within the overall premise of the show. These latter episodic or 'problem of the week' dramas are often referred to as procedurals, but procedural can mean different things in different countries so be aware of this. In the UK a procedural show may just mean that the procedure of the occupation takes place (cops doing cop things). On the subject of procedurals Jeff points out to us that while it's easy to think we know trends the market for shows can be different than we think. There's a lot of acclaimed ongoing dramas with long story arcs at the moment but the international market is crying out for procedurals and there are wide opportunities.

Our pitch bibles sketched out we talk about the other bible we create for a TV show, the writer's bible. These documents will be longer and read like Wikipedia pages for characters, places and world philosophy. Those writer bibles will inform everything we will write and contain more detailed information about episodes, character arcs and plot. The principles remain similar though, in that whichever bible you are creating the show needs to be clearly described in terms of what it is and who it's for and how it will be. This session proved both clear and very useful and for most of us we were able to leave the room with some work done towards our own TV ideas and thanks to Jeff Norton, all of us had a lot more clarity on how to define what we wanted to write.

About a Man: Nick Hornby Speaks About his Work and Career #LondonSWF

Joining Ol Parker to talk about his life as a writer Nick Hornby visited the London Screenwriter's Festival. His personal stories about ordinary people resonate with a wide audience around the world through both his novels, screenplays and other writings.

He is best known perhaps for his breakout work Fever Pitch published in 1992. The process of creating a novel he indicates is a more solitary one than screenwriting, the bulk of the work being done by him as he sits alone and only later looked at by an editor after the revisions he wants to make are done. Screenwriting came hot on the heels of his early novel success when he was offered the opportunity to adapt his book Fever Pitch for screen. David Evans had read through all of the book thoroughly his process of adapting and condensing everything he'd written in the novel for screen was by muddling on doing whatever David told him to do.

These days he's a regular writer for both novels and screen but in terms of his career he tells us that it was only when he turned to prose in his writing that things started to really work for him. . He points out that one of the great advantages for him of writing for screen these days is that the odds are never great for a film being financed and made, whereas at his stage of career his novels are about 99% certain of being published so there's more pressure to get the writing right. Often with film there's only about a 10-20% chance with all the elements involved so the writing process is different. Independent film where you don't have so many big named stars attached can be tricky. Nobody wanted to make An Education or Brooklyn for the longest time, period dramas tending to be more expensive and Wild only got off the ground so quickly because Reese wanted to do it.

As a writer he says he never writes with specific actors in mind because in his mind his characters are ordinary people and it's their story he's connecting with and telling. Much of his work is self-generated but he chased Wild after reading a New York Times review of the book before it had been published in the UK. he'd met Reese Witherspoon at a party once and she'd praised a short story he'd written in an anthology and asked if he'd consider writing for her one day. Impressed that it was one of his more obscure works that she'd liked best he told her that if anything came up that was maybe suitable he'd bear it in mind.When he was chasing down the rights for Wild, Reese was in the process of acquiring them so they came together to see the project realised.

When adapting stories as opposed to creating them it's a different feeling he tells us, the story means something to him without being him, not from his head so it feels fresh. He attempts to create the feeling of the original writer and characters when adapting for screen but while serving the story that needs to be seen on screen and he's not adverse to writing new material. There's one scene in the film, where a guy tells Cheryl to quit her walk that that was not in the book but that felt very like the vibe of the book.

When a project reaches production Nick prefers not to be on set for any of it. He finds it fairly boring for him and he doesn't need to watch and wait while take after take happens. As a writer he's always conscious of how much writing work he could get done instead of spending 12 hours on set. Not that he writes 12 hours in a stretch ever, he tells us, it's more like three with some procrastination and research done in that.

These days Nick writes in a one bedroom flat he keeps a few minutes from where his house is which he treats like a workplace, keeping a separation from his home life where he can relax. He doesn't outline when he writes, primarily because he's a prose writer and it's a problem for him because, he tells us, outlined prose is shit prose. In trying to outline he can't stop thinking about the prose in order to make it the concise thing it's supposed to be so for him at least it doesn't work. For novels he says you have to say no to everything and find space to write. He does research though, when he wrote Funny Girl it was the worst because he felt he had to watch all the episodes of the 1950s TV show. He likes the industry around writing for novels a lot, saying that publishing is a very fair industry, they're really looking for work to publish. He laughs that he's never met a film company who felt to him like they wanted to finance a film. Nick Hornby though is a writer who navigates both worlds with ease and grace and we hope to see many more of his intimate stories both on our screens and our bookshelves for many, many, many years yet to come.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

100% Pure Adrenaline: Point Break Script to Screen Live #LondonSWF

One of the great treats of the London Screenwriters' Festival are the Script to Screen live sessions. Peter Iliff joined us this year to watch Point Break and talk to us about how it was crafted.

His fifth screenplay Point Break, then titled Johnny Utah was the script he sold first. Luck had aligned and Columbia Pictures had bought it for a whopping $500,000 with Ridley Scott attached to direct, which was a big deal. However changes at Columbia meant that the project went into limbo and Ridley went off to do other things.Though Peter's work was re-written by new writers and the story changed somewhat before production, the WGA's strict arbitration rules that favour the original writer of a story unless a screenplay has been changed more than 60% meant that he retained the screenwriting credit for the story and characters he created. He loves that the film's reputation keeps providing work for him even today, though when it came out it only got two stars despite being a commercial success, but it has stood the test of time and audiences have retained their love for it.

At the time he wrote the movie Peter was waiting tables and the guy he cut lemons with was called Bodhi. He would talk to Bodhi about his screenplays and this spiritual guy who would listen to him and give him his thoughts influenced the character he named in the screenplay. Influence for the character also came from Kurosawa, who's movies informed the kind of code that the Bodhi character followed, surfer not samurai but still a philosophy the character lived by. The restaurant Peter worked in with Bodhi was called Angie's and had a gregarious boss which informed the creation of the Angelo Pappas character. There's also a scientist in the movie called Halsey named for Peter's best friend, a science teacher of the same name. While those characters very much had meaning to the writer it is odd to Peter now how Bodhi's philosophy in particular has taken on it's own following. He still gets letters from people telling him they have given up their lives to follow the ocean, which is strange considering this was a philosophy he made up for a screenplay and does not personally follow.

Peter surfed when he wrote Point Break, that was part of his life back then, though surfing was only a fringe thing, not the popular commercial sport it is today. But he understood the culture of surfers and how they needed to fund themselves but be free to hit the waves. There were criminals around in the culture and it was this that gave him the idea of writing a film about bank robbers, something that Hollywood understood and liked to make, and that Peter enjoyed. The surf culture element brought something fresh to the heist genre though making Peter's script unique. When writing he did a lot of research, spending much time every week checking microfiche slides at the local library to add detail and authenticity to the story. It was an article found this way that gave him the hair chemicals plot point. A similar find about robbers needing to sanitise their getaway cars led to the visually stunning getaway fire torching scene at the gas station. Yet another microfiche about the FBI was where Peter learned of the brick diving exercise and wondered what that had to do with being an FBI agent which led to him writing the well known diatribe about it from Angelo Pappas.

The action Peter Iliff writes is all about character and he's a great champion for the craft of action writing. There's a chase scene in the movie where Johnnie catches up to Bodhi but unable to bring himself to hurt him shoots into the air. That's more than just a chase, that's a character story. The choices a character makes to solve a problem defines who they are. An action sequence in a later scene leads to Angelo's death, a scene Gary Busey worked really hard on. By the time Angelo dies we've really come to love him and his death counts, it really hurts us.

The lawnmower action scene in the script was not his but something that James Cameron came up with. The blades of the mower were a special rubber and the camera angles make the actor look closer to the blade than he was. It was shot really cleverly and was a great scene. James Cameron also came up with the rip cord scene from the plane, though this is one scene which Peter didn't think made much sense for a fledgling skydiver to do. However James was flying over Spain in his plane when he thought about how difficult it would be to hold onto another skydiver with one hand and pull the rip cord with a gun in the other and he built the entire scene around that idea which put Utah's gun out of the equation levelling the character's power to hurt one another. 

Kathryn Bigalow's camera moves were innovative for the time, sweeping from one point of view to another, especially as cameras were bigger back then and harder to move and there were not really the steadicams of today. The long lenses she employs make scenes harder to light but give a sense of compression and also compress the depth of field. She made bold choices as a director, casting against the hot blonde type who usually filled those roles when she fought to cast Lori Petty as the lead female, Tyler. It was a good choice as Lori was stunning in the movie. Swayze had just done Ghost and was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and Keanu was in his first action role having just come off the back of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Again Kathryn fought for him over more well known actors like Charlie Sheen who were being considered. His acting sometimes gets mocked a little, especially by the Point Break Live theatre show but really, Peter thinks, he did an excellent job with the role of Johnny Utah and his acting is really good in this movie. Gary Busey was great to work with, he wore inflammatory t-shirts to set and was a great deal of fun.  

The locations were a kind of character in the movie too. The beach cafe, Neptune's Net is still there and is a great little place with nice food. Most of the surfing scenes on the beach were shot day for night, you can still see the sun in a few shots, but where more control was needed for the surf board love scene a pool was used to ensure the water looked calmer and so it could be lit beautifully. The film overall has a good look and quality that enhances the story.

Peter speaks reverently of the career Point Break gave him, for a tiny percent of his income the WGA provides a good pension and health care and when he finally had a decent income he bought a nice car and a mountain bike and was so happy that he could have nice things. These moments of personal gratification he notes, are important to acknowledge.

The end scene in the movie was  a re-shoot and by chance, Keanu had gown his hair for the Bill and Ted sequel and Patrick had cut his for another role too, giving some weight to the passage of time in that scene. Back then when the film was written and made, for a surfer to go into a big wave was incredibly dangerous. Big wave surfing was not invented until four years later, when someone came up with the tow in, but before that it was too hard for surfers to get up enough speed for the velocity of the wave. The surfer who went into the wave for the movie was paid $50,000 for the very dangerous stunt.

As a writer Peter Iliff's voice comes through strongly into his work. His dad died young and he has no brothers so his friends became his brothers, the male influences in his life.  He finds it interesting that the first screenplay he sold was a bromance about the friendship and bonding of guys. Watching Point Break with him and hearing about it's journey and legacy there's a tenderness present of a writer's great love for his craft and his willingness to share what he's learned with us. There's certainly something very special about that and though it's been one of my favourite films since the first time I saw it, I don't think I'll ever view Point Break quite the same way again.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Breaking Point: In Conversation with W. Peter Iliff #LondonSWF

In an in-depth interview with Empire Magazine's Chris Hewitt, Peter Iliff took some time to speak frankly about his career path, philosophy for writing and the movies he has written sharing his experiences and insight into the industry.

The discussion today opens up with the t-shirt Peter is wearing from 'Point Break Live', for those of you who haven't heard of it, it's a long running parody theatre show of his 1991 movie Point Break and is an over the top homage to the well loved film. The production auditions and casts the Johnny Utah character from the audience and then leads them through a crazy re-enactment of the plot providing cue cards for the lines. Peter and Gary Busey sometimes drop in to the live shows. It's a great fun crazy event and wonderful that the film is still being irreverently celebrated many years on.

Point Break was in fact, Peter Iliff's fifth screenplay in terms of writing but the first that sold. Columbia Pictures bought it for $500,000 with Ridley Scott attached to direct and as a new writer he was for a brief few hours the talk of the town. But then David Putnam left Columbia, Ridley went off to work on something else and the project fell into limbo giving his agent 24hrs to find him paid work before the news broke. He got a job as a staff writer for $100,000 a year. The movie though eventually became a profitable Hollywood blockbuster. He came from nothing, knew nobody really, didn't have a way paved out to get into the industry, had no money and was waiting tables when he started. He did however have a philosophy to live by, "I will not be denied."  His friends had gone to university as doctors and lawyers and were working long hours at hard subjects, he knew if writing was going to be his profession he had to take it that seriously and put equal work and effort into the path he had chosen.

If you have talent, Peter tells us, you can go as far as you want if you can set up a lifestyle where you are able to commit.  He made space in his life to write, putting that ahead of other things he might have wanted until later when his career had begun to build. His mantra of not being denied led him to write regularly and to put his writing out there, finding ways to get around his lack of money and access to the industry by being innovative and never giving up. Back then before digital submissions scripts had to be printed and copies were expensive. Getting a job as a runner he was always being sent to various studios and so began writing his own lot slips to go in and borrow their copy machines, then gave copies of his work to any producer he could find.

Even then though it was hard to get into the business without representation and not many agents took unsolicited scripts. He got up some crazy things to try to break in. At the WGAW there was something called the Green List which was a list of the agencies who would take unsolicited work. He found a not very reputable fringe agent to rep him until he could find someone better and then got a hold of the Hollywood Blue Book and called everyone in it to sell himself giving a fake agent's name at the agency and talking to them about his fantastic new 'client.' When he and his 'agent' got invited to go in for a meeting with Kimberley Brent at Warner Brothers he had to pretend the imaginary agent was sick and take his real agent along instead. She was quite the character and the meeting did not go well but liking his writing Kimberley Brent took pity on him and helped him to get signed with better representation. You have to think of yourself as a used car salesman he tells us, you have to sell your talent. But that attitude of being aggressive only works if what you give them is good. You get one shot with the people who can help you. Give them something bad to read once and they'll never read it again.

He's been hired to write a lot of scripts that get re-written and sometimes re-credited. This happens a lot in the industry, sometimes as a way of keeping projects alive if a studio isn't ready to pull the trigger on fully financing them. His break came in the golden days of the studios where they were developing 200 scripts a year and making 45. Now they make maybe 15 and develop way less.  He's written over 65 screenplays sold 10 TV pilots and is now focusing on TV and recently has started directing. Now is a great time to work in TV, the buyers have expanded in TV and shrunk in film. There are just more opportunities for TV shows these days.

For Peter, he's passionate about his work and the life writing has given him. Action writers he tells us often get dismissed as less worthy entertainment but he believes strongly that action reveals character in beautiful ways. In action it's like dominoes he tells us, one thing affects the next, affects the next and the character must make choices along the way. His own career seems to have taken a similar path, his work leading him forward into new things and his character is revealed in the way he remains buoyant in the industry, especially in giving advice to new writers. Don't fax angry he tells us as a final tip, meaning not to take things so personally when things get tense in your work that you burn bridges. Keep your cool he tells us, and try to be pleasant and fun to work with even when the notes you're getting don't feel pleasant. It's good advice from someone who's warmth and passion for this industry exude far beyond the page.

Pitch Story from the Great British Pitchfest #LondonSWF

The Great British Pitchfest has been running for some years as part of the London Screenwriters' Festival and gives writers the opportunity to pitch to agents and producers projects that they want to see made and that may be just what the executives are looking to find. Executives come from Britain and Hollywood and there is also a skype pitch to Hollywood set up for those execs unable to come in person. Each year numerous writers get a new break from being able to pitch and the rest get to exercise their pitching muscles for the next time they meet someone to put forward their work. To prepare writers for the Pitchfest Bob Schultz of the Great American Pitchfest holds a Pitchfest Bootcamp and there is plenty encouragement and excitement fuelling the writers who want to pitch and to make them feel comfortable and well prepared to do so.

Around the festival each year I get to hear stories from individuals who've pitched about how their work went down with the executives, for many opportunities have opened up. This year I spent some time speaking with festival delegate Christoph Mathieu, a German writer and journalist who'd come over from Cologne to pitch a project written by himself and his writing partner back in Germany Dennis Todorovic. Their work, a philosophical sci-fi tale set in space was awarded a scholarship fund from the Wim Wenders Fellowship in collaboration with the Film and Media Foundation NRW and enabled them to produce a proof of concept. The pair are now seeking financing to direct their project and a producer to champion it.

For Christoph, being able to come well prepared to pitch the project paid off, a good morning at the Pitchfest was in store, all of the executives he was able to pitch to requested reads of the work and hopefully for he and Dennis some furthering of their project may come either from today's meetings or from the support they have earned back in Germany.

This is just one story of the pitchfest and there are many, many others. Some writers will have had equal success, some may feel they could have done better but all were both able and willing to go and speak about their work and writing with people who can make things happen for them. It isn't an easy thing to do to put your work out there to strangers but even for those writers I spoke to who hadn't yet had success in pitching they were smiling and enjoyed the experience and enjoyed meeting the executives. Most found the support of the festival and just being around other writers in the same boat to be invigorating and everyone had a plan for how they were going to step forward after their pitch experience.

We wish all our LSF writers the best of luck for their projects in the coming year.

Jen Grisanti on Finding Your Writer's Voice #LondonSWF

Writing story in a way that is unique to ourselves and true to the viewer can be the key to reaching our full potential as a writer. Longtime studio executive and now acclaimed story/career consultant Jen Grisanti came along to the London Screenwriters' Festival to help us to understand what our writer's voice is and how to use it to inform the work we produce.

In Jen's experience, writers who learn to connect with their voice go right up the career chain, so what is a writer's voice? Your voice, she says, is your worldview, the things that have shaped your life to make you think and feel a certain way, a way that can influence how you approach and tell a story. It's what sets you apart from the masses. Learning how to draw from our own stories in order to write in the way only we can write can bring connection and fulfilment to our work.

In each of our lives there are defining moments that changed who we became as people and coloured our view of the world. Those moments not only turned us toward new paths in life, but have tremendous value to our journey as a writer, becoming emotional gold. Jen tells us that one of the first things producers will consider is why you are the best writer to tell this story. Her own story has influenced her career path and made her happier and even more successful in her work and her life. For the writer's shes worked with since beginning her consultancy in 2008 much success has manifested too, seventy-five of her writers have staffed on TV shows and forty have sold pilots, five of which have gone to series.

There is often a universal connection between our own defining world views and that of our audience. For instance, in the TV show Mr. Robot, however we feel about hackers or mental health, everything the character dislikes in the world are the things we dislike and that is our route into connecting with the drama, through the writer's expression of those feelings. Transparent writer Jill Soloway drew on her own life experience to pen the runaway Amazon hit that is about living your own truth no matter what. At the beginning of Homeland, the eight missing years of a soldier's life and the mystery of what really happend is the bedrock of the drama, and though Birdman is about an actor's struggle with fame what really underpins the story is really about a father who lost an important life moment by concentrating on filming it instead of being present as his daughter is born. The whole film deals with that longing to retrieve something that has been lost. Guardians of the Galaxy is about the desire for a family and the family we choose. These underlying voices of the writers are what connect us to the main plot as we invest in the characters needs and desires.

If we think about the main components of a story, the choices made in the dilemma of the story define the external goal. Understand what your character wants internally that is opposed to that external goal. The obstacles in the story should link to the goal in some way to raise the stakes and force a resolution. In writing we must understand what connects us to a story and what our own story adds to the narrative, the perspective we bring. Looking for our own emotional moments that resonate with our character's personal moments even if the circumstances differ. What is it that our own universal life moments make us want to say. Developing a strong personal narrative is about being able to tell executives in a meeting our personal story and the reasons we're the writer they need. When executives see twenty writers a day it's the ones who they feel personally connect to a project and have something to add that they remember when the time comes to hire. - Film News