If you felt anything like I did over the London Screenwriter’s Festival weekend (Oct. 23-25), then whirling dervish sounds about right. I have just started to get back to “normal” life (though seriously, is anyone really normal after such an inspiring and motivating weekend?!), and so I want to share some gems of what I learned at the festival.
Thursday – Oct. 22
The festival proper begins on Friday, but the week leading up to the festival is full of writer-oriented events. The only one I could attend since I was flying in from the US was Pitching Thursday with Pilar Alessandra. Pilar is a US film executive who leads conferences and seminars for screenwriters across the world. She is also incredibly personable, warm, funny, and energetic.
Nuts and Bolts: Pitching Thursday is designed for festival attendees who have either never pitched before or want to gather Pilar’s wisdom. The pitch begins with a log-line, which is basically a one-sentence plot summary. As Pilar says, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Thus, the log-line needs to identify:
- the main character
- the focal point of tension
The pitch starts with the log-line and then based on the producer/executive’s response, you might continue the conversation with a more detailed explanation of the feature or TV series. Now, the truth is that Pilar can explain things much better than I, so I recommend visiting Pilar’s website here: On the Page.
9:00 am: My Friday began with attending the festival opening ceremonies. Chris Jones, the festival director, is wonderfully warm, vibrant, and motivating. He began the festival with many words of encouragement and some activities to set our minds and hearts in the right direction. Want to get a little taste of Chris’s mentality? Stand up, put your feet shoulder width apart, place your hands on your hips, stick out your chest – and assume the Wonder Woman pose. Stand like this for a moment and envision the success of whatever project you’re working on now. For novelists, memoirists, and poets, imagine yourself at the podium in a crowded bookstore or at a desk signing copies of your book. For screenwriters, imagine yourself on set, headphones round your neck, watching a brilliant set of actors bringing your script to life. Stand that way and just breathe. I truly believe in this kind of self-actualizing imagining. And it worked for me because the next thing on my slate was to go pitch my idea, and what had been a terrifying prospect just a few hours before was suddenly completely manageable.
10:30 am: Pitching. The idea of pitching had me terrified for weeks leading up to the festival. After Chris’s motivating opening program, I was ready to go! After the first session ended, I went straight to the pitching location. This year, the festival used a number ticket system so pitchees could go to the desk to check in and get a number. Then, at 10:15, we all lined up in accordance with our number. When the doors opened, I went straight for an executive on the top of my list. I managed to meet nearly all the executives I had wanted to, and the only ones I missed were because they had not been at the session after all.
What I learned from this pitching session was to enter into each conversation with an open spirit. Just start a conversation. I asked each person I met with how their day was going. I found that it was easy to deliver my log-line and then let the conversation unfold organically from there. In the preceding weeks, I had spent hours and hours in preparation – delivering my log-line to my wall, the dog, and my wife; and also thinking over the questions an exec might ask and practicing the most concise and precise answers I could develop. My advice (beginner’s advice, mind you) is to come prepared. Know your log-line and your pitch forwards and backwards. Anticipate the questions they may ask and develop succinct answers. Remember, you only have 5 minutes – no time for rambling! The more prepared you are (for anything, actually), the easier it will be.
I hesitate to list any names or production companies here, simply because everyone’s experience will be so varied.
2:00pm: Meet the Super Agent Duncan Heath
This seminar was an interview and Q&A session with Duncan Heath, moderated by Julian Friedmann. I have to be honest here, folks, the jet lag of my trans-continental flight hit me really hard in this panel and I was struggling to maintain my attention. This is in no way reflective of the discussion. Duncan Heath was engaging and funny, as was Julian Friedmann. What I took away from this seminar was that the industry does have room for some rogue agents, but probably not that many.
Also, the main note I took on this was Heath’s words: “it’s more difficult to get a film made than a book published.” Being in fiction, I already know how difficult it is to get creative writing published, so this was disheartening – though, frankly, not surprising. We all know that the numbers are approaching lottery range when it comes to submitting our work. Just today I was reviewing information about the Script Pipeline’s upcoming contest and the numbers are daunting – 1 winner out of over 5,000 entries. But this is the business, so there’s no point trying to evade it or worry about it. Keep at your work and don’t fret about the rest. (Because worrying and wringing hands never got anyone anywhere.)
3:30 pm: Getting Under the Skin and Into the Minds of Your Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican
In this seminar, we explored how to develop rounded characters that reflect the true complexity of the human experience. How you engage with character development may come in many forms, but Pelican’s approach is a psychological one. She suggested that we build characters based on The Big Five personality traits:
- Openness to Experience
- Activity (this is a recent addition to The Big Five, so we can assume that at some point it will be renamed The Big Six)
Pelican reminds us that memorable characters have at least one or two extreme traits. A good exercise here is to go through your own favorite television series and movies. Identify where your favorite, or most memorable, character stands in relation to each of these.
An important thing to consider is how you will use these character traits to motivate the activity of your characters. As Pelican noted, characters who are high in Neuroticism are active and reactive. They are excitable and perceive ordinary situations as threatening. Thus, a broken antique tea cup may be enough to send your neurotic character on an adventure to replace it. On the flip side, a character low in neuroticism, a laid-back personality, is less driven by conscious goals. Something very big must happen to energize these characters into action. Think about The Pineapple Express. This film needed something major to motivate these dead-beats off their couches. In the end, a series of high-stakes events keeps the action unfolding and forces these sedentary, low neuroticism characters to take action.
Another key point from this seminar was to make good use of your secondary characters. Secondary characters act as mirrors to our protagonists, so give them differing traits that hold up well under contrast. For instance, in love matches, people are often drawn together by one shared trait, but then differ in many others. Where we differ is where the tension and conflict arises, and where we are similar is where we are pulled back together.
Pelican also identified six universal emotions, those that transcend culture or time:
A few others include:
In addition, here are the universal motivations Pelican shared in her seminar:
- sex or dating
- physical skills
- mental skills
- caring for loved ones
- forming a coalition
- building a legacy for the future; finding meaning
Lastly, what human would be human without some connection to a belief system? Whether we agree, disagree, or are indifferent to religion and spirituality, it is nonetheless something that each of us has had to grapple with at some point in our lives. Thus, belief systems are critical to developing your characters. And here, it can also be helpful to think of belief system as synonymous with value system. We’re not talking solely about religion, though that is part of it. More importantly, we’re talking about the values, principles, and beliefs that guide your characters’ actions. Therefore, consider your character’s code of conduct – is it a moral or amoral code? Does his/her code coincide with society’s law and values? (Point of tension!!) How do the events of the film change or transform his/her belief systems? As always, the #1 question we should be asking is: what does the character believe at the beginning? –> What does the character believe at the end? –> How do the events instigate the change?
All of the above – personality traits, emotions, motivations, and belief systems- come out of psychological research, but we don’t have to look far to see how these are all part of successful television series and films. In the end, we are attempting to recreate “real” life on film, even if we’re in the middle of a fantastical universe or two thousand years in the future. In the end, human beings, whether in life or on screen, are motivated and driven by the same things. By understanding the fundamentals of human nature and psychology, we can bring a deeper resonance of meaning to our own characters.
5:00 pm: In Treatment: Document Therapy – Ludo Smolski
In this seminar, Ludo Smolski guides us through creating development documents. Smolski identified that the main difference between a development document and a selling document is the end goal. How we write these documents depends upon where we are in the process and what the goal for that document is. A development document is designed to give the work-in-progress shape, guidance, direction, etc. A selling document is, rather obviously, designed to highlight the points of the film or series that make it sellable; the goal is to sell the work and thus the language and design will be geared toward that purpose.
What I found most interesting – and a little exasperating – about this seminar was that there is no set definition for what a treatment is or how it should look. For someone like myself who thrives within boundaries, guidelines, and specific rules, I find this difficult. However, for people who prefer a little more freedom and struggle to follow rules exactly, I’m sure this was quite a relief! Smolski shared many examples of treatments to help us envision what these may include and how to format them. Many of these are available via a simple google search for “screenplay treatments.”
Overall, it appears that most treatments are in the 7-10 page range. Another key point is to write the treatment in the same tone as the script itself. Thus, a treatment for a comedy film should be…funny! A treatment for a drama should be serious. Etc. Above all, anything you write should be written well.
6:30 pm: Manifesting Success: Chris Jones and Jonathan Newman
This seminar was a lovely wrap-up to my first day. As with the opening ceremonies, this seminar focused on our minds and imaginations, but where we switched lanes was to explore how we often allow the voice in our heads to prevent us from doing or pursuing the things we want to do. Rather than restate points from this seminar, I’m going to point here to the blog post up on the LSF website, which I wrote as a response to this seminar:How I found success by recognizing my own fear of rejection
What I also recommend is that whenever the voice in your head says, “yeah, but….” that is the moment to explore what the voice is “really” saying and what the motivations are behind it. Chances are, the voice of dissent arises because of fear. It can be a fearful thing to dedicate hours and hours, years and years to a project that you know may never go anywhere beyond your computer. So many authors write about how the books or screenplays which end up in the bottom drawer, never to see the light. This is just part of the process. The sooner we stop saying “yeah, but…”, the sooner we can get down to the business of making things happen and manifesting success.
9:30 am: This morning, I began with an appointment to the Legal Clinic with Julian Wilkinson of Blue Pencil Set – Laws of Creativity. During this time, I wanted to talk about the nuances of adapting a screenplay, purchasing rights and options, and so on. This was a helpful and informative seminar. Please forgive me for not sharing more details since there are a number of pieces still in the air regarding this project.
10:30 am: Into the Mind of Characters through the Eyes of Actors – Mel Churcher
This seminar was perhaps one of the most informative and interesting that I attended. In this seminar, Mel Churcher brought in a group of actors to show how a script is read, interpreted, and performed by actors.
Here are a few main points of Churcher’s lecture-portion of the seminar:
- Life, Logic, and Depth – these three aspects should rule the writing of a screenplay. To me, this relates to the saying about fiction and how readers enter into fiction by “suspending disbelief.” We are asking the same of audiences, and thus, we must carefully review our scripts for those places where audiences will be unable to suspend disbelief, what I also call being “thrown out of the story.” Scripts that adhere to life, logic, and depth will keep audiences invested and avoid the chance they will be distracted by an inaccurate or implausible detail.
- Thoughts – dialogue are thoughts made available to audiences; actions and needs drive thoughts.
- Believable dialogue – we rarely speak in full sentences. People who know each other well speak in short-hand. They also rarely hold eye contact. Established relationships will have a deep well of mutual understanding and experiences. We need to avoid the pitfalls of expository dialogue by recognizing the shared information and omitting it.
After the lecture section of this seminar,Churcher shared an exercise she often does with her actors. Each actor pulled out a random line from a bag. Then, the two actors met briefly to figure out what the story is, who the characters are, why they are saying their respective lines, etc. etc. Watching the actors develop a pair of lines into a fully realized scene with deep backstories for each character – and all in the course of about 5 minutes! – was very interesting. I would imagine that most don’t need reminding of this, but it helped me to re-orient myself that the actors who perform our scripts are every bit as creative and artistic as the we are, and they can be critical to helping us fully realize the emotions or underlying stories at the heart of the scenes.
Churcher then invited festival attendees to write a brief scene with two characters and just a few lines of dialogue. Six of these were then performed. First, the actors were given their lines by the writer. Then, they performed it. Churcher then invited the writer to respond if the performance matched his or her vision, then clarify what needed refined, and the actors performed it again. Most often, the clarifications were around the way emotion was delivered – tone, cadence, body language, etc. In some cases, what seemed like an angry exchange during the first performance was refined to be a drunken, silly escapade. This was interesting because the dialogue indicated an angry or aggressive situation, but in reality, the emotions were quite different.
Then, Churcher opened the floor for questions, and particularly for questions to the actors. What I found most interesting about this was how varied the actors were in their approach – some focused on background, history, and understanding all the ins and outs of a character, whereas others preferred to get a feel for the character from the script and did little preparation before a first table read. Most interesting, one of the actors said that the first thing he does when he gets a script is to mark out all the stage directions because he wants to enter the character himself and do what feels right to him as the actor/character. In response, another actor indicated that she does not mark out stage directions; instead, she reads them to get a sense of the emotion of the scene, but ultimately, she agreed that she prefers to choose how to move, respond, etc., herself. One point of consensus was that all actors preferred to have very limited emotional language in the script because, and this I found so interesting, they may try out a range of emotions and a variety of approaches to that scene and do not want to be pigeon-holed by the writer’s specific idea about what everyone is feeling. (And this was brought to life on Sunday morning when I attended the Live Actors Table Read)
2:00 pm: Script Surgery
The other submission-based workshop I was accepted for was the Script Surgery. For this workshop, I submitted a 2 page outline of the script and the first 10 pages. I then met with Anne Woods of EuroScript to discuss my script. Again, since there are still so many things in the works, I do not with to go into too much detail, but I found this to be an excellent experience, and I strongly recommend writers to submit their scripts to a professional script editor.
3:30 pm: Story Analysis for Readers and Writers – Pilar Alessandra
In this seminar, Pilar described the process by which a reader engages with a script in order to determine if that script will receive a Pass, Consider, or Recommend. This seminar appeared to be designed for those who read scripts for production companies; however, this information can be helpful to writers so that we understand how readers respond to our works and the process for reading. Essentially, a reader will often write a report on the script that resembles a book report – overview, description of plot, comments, and a final judgement. Once again, I will refer readers to Pilar’s website: On the Page.
5:00 pm: Writing to Win the Hearts and Minds of the Preschool Audience – Panel Discussion moderated by Mellie Buse
For this seminar, I actually attended this because as the mother of a three-year old, I was interested in how shows are designed for children, and have entertained my own thoughts about potentially writing a children’s show. The panel was comprised of Michael Towner, James Mason, and Catherine Williams, each of whom have developed award-winning programming for children. Most have worked or been affiliated with CBeeBie’s, the BBC station for children.
Of note is that children’s television writers must be aware and knowledgeable about the three developmental ranges for the preschool audience – 0-2; 2-4; 4-6. There is some slight overlap, but in general, these age groups also break down according to psychosocial stages of children. Thus, writing for children means understanding the stage of the children, what’s important to them, what they already understand, and where they are building skills. For instance, one example was that of a doorbell. In the 0-2 age group, children don’t really comprehend what it means when the doorbell rings. However, the 2-4 or 4-6 age group will understand that the doorbell means someone is at the door. The 2-4 group may recognize the sound and understand its meaning, but may not know that they should not answer the door. The 4-6 group will recognize the sound and understand that they should not answer the door (hopefully). Thus, what the writer includes in the show needs to be relevant to the target audience – i.e. doorbells in a 0-2 show are fairly pointless, but doorbells in the 2-4 or 4-6 age group are opportunities for learning.
What I also found interesting was the discussion on compliance. I hadn’t realized how important this was on the writing side of things. As a parent, of course, I’m very vigilant about making sure that content is appropriate, but there are whole committees and governmental organizations who also have a say. For instance, a particular concern is “imitable behavior.” That is, a human or human-like character cannot engage in behavior that is unsafe and which children may imitate. A funny story was about a show where a scene portrayed a character jumping in a puddle. That had to go because, the compliance team argued, children can drown in two inches of water. Thus, no puddles. If you decide to write for children, make sure that your characters do not engage in unsafe behaviors which a preschool audience may imitate. (Obviously, this doesn’t count for older age groups since I grew up watching Mutant Ninja Turtles beat the crap out of everyone with nunchucks and an array of Ninja battle devices, so…)
Next, the panelists discussed story lines and related this to the new Bob the Builder series being created for CBeeBie’s. In children’s programming, particularly for the 4-6 age group, a show should be driven by an A and B story line. The A story is the main story. In Bob the Builder, the A story is the thing that needs to be built. The B story line is the character story. This is where the characters create a mess to the A story line that must then be resolved. The A and B story lines come to a joint conclusion when the project is built and the characters have resolved their interpersonal conflicts.
Lastly, successful series need to be shows in which children can watch the show out of order and still manage to understand. Thus, a story may be driven by a soft arc, but can still be understood without having seen previous episodes. For instance, the show Topsy and Tim has an over-arching theme of children moving to a new house. However, the individual episodes are written so that the characters face a contained problem.
6:30 pm: Paula Milne in Conversation with Barbara Machin
This interview was interesting in that I had not known much about Paula Milne before this interview. I know, someone start building a stake and gather some tinder. However, I was very familiar with the shows she’s worked on, developed, and written. Milne has an amazing story of leaving school at 15, reentering art school, and becoming a script reader for ATV and BBC. Her career is simply one of those stories that leaves one in awe of her productivity and success. The range of her interests is also staggering – from The Virgin Queen to Die Kinder to White Heat – politics, family, culture, history- she covers it all. In addition, Milne speaks with a no-nonsense, call-it-like-I-see-it approach that is quite refreshing in an industry that can sometimes feel like everyone’s walking around with swollen lips from kissing ass. Not Milne. She is a writer who deserves your viewership. For more information on Milne and her credits, please visit her IMDB page here.
9:00 am: Actors Table Read LIVE
For this seminar, a pair of brave souls submitted a scene from their film script. This is a joint project so both writers were present. I will not share details of the script or scene, but provide an overview of what I took away by watching a director and a group of actors navigate this scene.
First, the actors ran through it and then the director checked in with the writers to ask if the scene, as performed, reflected their vision of it. The writers offered a little clarification in terms of what has just happened before this scene and where the characters are heading through the film. Then, the actors ran through the scene over and over. What I found most interesting was when the director suggested that a few lines might come through better if they were performed by another actor than the one indicated in the script. In this scene, three women are discussing a situation. One of the women is commenting on the behavior/thoughts of the other two. In between two of her lines was a line by the third character. The director gave all three lines to the first one and this changed the tone of that scene immensely. Initially, the scene could have either been one of supporting the two characters or making fun of them. When all three lines went to the one character, the tone was significantly altered and refocused so that the way she goads the other two women came across much more clearly, as well as amping up the tension.
This was a real education to watch the actors interpret the dialogue, then to see how the director re-envisioned a section. The ways that emotion were evoked was simply amazing!
10:30 am: What will actually happen to your finished script? Live Script Edit – Lucy V Hay
This seminar was perhaps the second most informative for me of the festival weekend. Hay was a real pleasure to listen to – she’s brash, funny, clever, and no-nonsense. This is another seminar that was so rich with information that I feel my best approach will be to share Hay’s website so you can read it for yourself: Bang2Write
But let me share the basics of this seminar and some of the gems I learned (you’ll need an empty treasure chest before reading further). First, this seminar was also a submissions-based process whereby a number of brave individuals shared a page or two of their scripts-in-progress to then be put on the overhead projector and picked apart by Hay and the audience. Kudos to those who did this! While it may have been hard to hear some of the feedback, please know that your contribution was incredibly helpful to the audience.
The main focal point during this seminar was all on formatting. And with good reason – Hay shared that most readers (who are work-experience readers – i.e. 20 year olds who are getting a foot in the door by reading spec scripts) will open the first page, look at the formatting, and the decide whether to read the first 10 pages or not. Reasons for not reading the script?
- Any font other than Courier, 12 pt.
- Excess use of ALL CAPS, bold type, or italics – anything that draws attention to itself rather than the content
- Scenes that go right into dialogue without first describing the scene
- A page full of dialogue and no descriptions of scene- i.e. scene action – remember, films are visual things, not auditory. Dialogue bridges the gaps of what the visual elements can’t convey.
After the open-close test, we also need to be aware of and avoid the following:
- Don’t give camera directions. The only appropriate one is “Fade In” at the beginning. The director decides where the camera will be in the scene.
- Don’t put “Copyright” or “All Rights Reserved” on the title page – As Hay says, this will set off the “loon alert” for readers. Copyright is implied because you wrote it. Copyright in the UK and US is immediate upon writing the script. For writers who want additional protection, you can register your script with the UK or US Writer’s Guild for a fee or you can mail yourself a copy of the script and keep it unopened – the date on the postmark serves as the copyright. (Note, the mail idea is one I’ve read about in other forums but was not mentioned by Hay, so I don’t know how she feels about that particular approach.)
- Don’t use ALL CAPS for character names except for the first time they appear in the script.
- Don’t use ALL CAPS for sounds. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s not necessary and can result in a reader rejecting your script if he/she sees too many ALL CAPS.
- Don’t number scenes – that’s done on shooting scripts.
- Avoid excessive stage directions – i.e. “walks toward window” or “turns head” or “smiles,” etc. Your script will stand out if you don’t have these, plus the actor and director will ultimately decide how characters will move about the scene.
In terms of scene description, here’s what Hay had to say about good scene description:
- reveals character
- reveals tone/genre
- builds story world
- reveals writer’s voice
- pushes story forward
- is original and no cliched
Hay also discussed that most spec scripts have entirely too much dialogue. As she said repeatedly in her seminar, films are visual. Thus, a good script is built upon solid visuals and descriptions. Where you can show something via setting or action, do it. Interestingly, she said that American writers tend to be more solid on the visual aspect of things, so as a member of the American contingent, I found that heartening.
Lastly, we must remember that the screenplays you purchase at the bookstore or read online are almost always the shooting script, thus, this is why so many writers number scenes or include camera directions – because this is what we’ve seen in the screenplays we’ve read. But just remember that a spec script is under a different set of expectations and scrutiny. For more help and guidance, visit Hay’s website and check out her books. If you get a chance to attend her seminars, I highly recommend it. She’s personable, knowledgeable, and very funny.
2:00 pm: Breaking into Channel 4
This panel was comprised of Lisa Walters and Phillip Shelley who both produce for Channel 4, and then Anna Symon and Jane Eden, who obtained writing jobs with Channel 4 and other venues after completing the 4Screenwriting Course. This course is a 5 month program that begins in January and runs to the end of May. Applicants supply a CV, writing sample, or 25 pages or more of a script. Successful applicants then meet in small workshops to develop a pilot for a television series. They also attend networking events that can connect them to agents and producers. More information about the opportunities at Channel 4 can be found here: Channel 4 Screenwriting Opportunities.
5:00 pm: Beyond the Chick Flick: Writing the Female-Driven Screenplay – Pilar Alessandra
Ok, so I’m going to be a broken record at this point and say that this seminar was one of the most informative for me at the festival. Well, if you ask my my favorite movie, I’ll give you a list of five, so it only follows…
In this seminar, Pilar once again brings her energetic, witty, and personable approach to talking about writing female-led movies. As Pilar has said at a number of her seminars, we’re finally at a place in the industry where production execs are saying, “yeah, but could this be a female?”
First, Pilar had us shout out a few stereotypes of women: stressed, negative, emotional, ditsy, hormonal, bossy – these were a few that jumped out. Pilar suggests taking that stereotype and looking for its positive correlative: gossipy = well-informed; catty=competitive. As with anything else, a stereotype is based on some grain (however tiny) of truth and is then expanded beyond the bounds of reason. What we need to do as writers is to take those stereotypes and turn them on their head rather than play into them.
Next, we need to address the cliched backstories of female-led movies: a recent breakup, a dead child, parental abuse. While these are valid backstories, Pilar reminded us that these are the backstories we see for almost every female character. When writing a female protagonist, we need to look for a more nuanced backstory, something that reveals all the facets of being a woman, and most importantly, doesn’t play into the cliches we’ve seen so often. If, however, we do want to use a break-up or dead child, use it in a surprising way. For instance, in Kill Bill, the female protagonist experiences both things – a breakup and a dead child. She uses that backstory to resume her bad-ass assassin mode and bring hell down on her former clan.
Now let’s look at what our characters do in private. Female characters most often: eat, cry, box, or dance. It is what it is. Give your protagonist something a little more interesting to occupy her alone time. How can you nuance her behavior in a way that reveals her depth? How can you break out of the stereotypes and portray women in a more realistic light?
One approach to action and plotting is to give your female character what we consider typically “masculine” approaches to problems. For instance, in the old model, a female character would use her womanly wiles to manipulate a male character into giving her information. In the new model, she breaks into the office and steals the computer herself. We can also take the male-driven templates and give them to female characters – The Godfather – with a female boss; Star Wars – with a female Luke Skywalker (or Darth Vader). We can also re-spin female-driven templates: Cinderella – saves the world; Anna Karenina takes over Wall Street.
So this sums up Pilar’s seminar on the female-driven film. Once again, I recommend visiting her website for additional information and resources.
6:00 pm: Festival Close
Once again, we attendees packed into the auditorium to listen to words of inspiration from Chris Jones. One again, we assumed the Wonder Woman pose and once again, we imagined ourselves and the successes that can come out of this weekend. It was a tearful goodbye. Tearful, but inspired and activated. Time to take action, folks! Get out there and do it.