Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Cooking & Brain Surgery

Last night I was re-inspired to love cinema by being in the presence of legendary editor Walter Murch who was guest speaker at an evening gathering of the excellent professional network Cinema Jam in Shoreditch.

He said some beautiful things and some insightful things and here are a few of them to share with you:

  • "It is like writing history with electricity," said president Woodrow Wilson when he saw one of the earliest feature films (happened to be DW Griffith's ideologically indefensible Birth of a Nation, which is a sad start to cinema, but there it is).

  • Murch showed us a picture which he said was of a moment that happened on every film - first blood. The editor had cut his finger on the machinery. "You knew you were really making a film when blood began to flow".

  • Murch edits at a standing desk. "Film editing is a combination of short order cooking and brain surgery," he said. This is because it has such a strong time component that sometimes you just have to bash something out as quickly as possible and other times you need the fine precision of a surgeon.

  • If a film is really good, you forget any of the artifice that went into making it. "It's happening right in front of you". That's how he explained Victor Fleming's quote: "Good editing makes a director look good. Great editing makes a film look like it wasn’t directed at all."

  • How do you know when to stop? Murch says it's when the scene is "just happening" and you can't see yourself anymore in the decisions you made.

  • The author Milan Kundera said: "Your novel should be smarter than you are" and Murch feels the same way about films.

  • What is the future of actual celluloid film, the physical stuff, in the face of a digital revolution? Murch says watching celluloid is like swilling an expensive glass of wine with overtones of ebony and cinnamon. You have to ask yourself - what it takes to make those overtones, well, is that worth it?

  • Murch spoke highly of Adobe Premiere Pro which he's currently using and which has apparently been very responsive in its development to filmmakers including Fincher and the Cohen brothers. For example, the software company installed an option for "dynamic trimming" at Murch's request. He explained there are 3 critical points in a shot: Which shot? Where to begin? Where to end? The end is vital and that cut point is for him "a place of musical sensitivity". He said he would never scrub and go frame by frame to find that end point, but rather run the footage and feel the cut.

  • Apocalypse Now was 14,160 minutes of film which meant it actually weighed 7 tons. That kind of physical material needed an army of attendants and much higher budgets.

  • "The motion picture and music love each other - sometimes too much". Murch said they are both temporal arts in which the viewer has to accept the time created by the medium. Personally, one of the things that has always annoyed me about watching films for work purposes vs reading screenplays is that in the former I can't skim or speed through at my own pace - I am bound to the pace of the picture or risk losing massive chunks of information and pretty much the essence of the work.

  • Murch also said cinema and music are both modular. They go through modules of being in one state and then another and great power comes from the change between states.

  • Both cinema and music are also very specific - in cinema, you see an actor's face in a moment in a specific light and you cannot imagine anything else. As a side-note he added that's what makes a good movie star - an actor whose face allows the audience to both see them for who they are, but also at the same time project a penumbra of hopes and desires onto them.

  • Music in cinema can help make the very specific nature of the image more universal. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke looks up at the sky on his home planet, the score lifted that moment out from the specific and made it a universal moment of "boy becomes man".

  • As an Editor, Murch advocates working with the Composer and music like a trellis vine - keep an active exchange going and grow one off the other.

  • Used incorrectly, Murch says music can be like steroids - it can buff you up emotionally, but it's not healthy in the long run.

  • He said (jokingly) if he had a magic wand to change one thing about the industry it would be that every Executive who greenlights a project should be forced to retype the screenplay. Then they would have a forensic understanding of the project and be able to see in advance how much can be changed and moved etc. before its even shot.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Meet the Producers

Here are the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from a great panel and award ceremony hosted by Euroscript at the British Film Institute this week. These are likely to be most useful for Screenwriters working in the UK, but also some great reminders for producers.

The panel consisted of three speakers:

Judith King, Head of Development at independent TV company Red Planet;

Robyn Slovo, independent Producer who has worked with Company Pictures and Working Title;

James Cotton, emerging producer who recently made the micro-budget Powder Room alongside Damian Jones.

And here are the wise words that resonated most with me:

  • Stick to your voice. Red Planet has to sell to UK broadcasters before they can move to sell America, so you can write in an authentic local voice that feels true to you.
  • Write a really amazing character you can cast well.
  • There is a danger in doing a story that's too small.
  • Most of the writers that get put forward to more experienced producers like Robyn have won competitions or have written for theatre. Theatre is a great place to get experience and to get seen.
  • If you get traction with a fiction project in cinema, that's a good time to also approach television.
  • Judith is looking for samples and talent when she reads unsolicited submissions more than just the pure idea. Her advice for email approaches is: "Go small on the sell and big on the introduction".
  • James' pet peeve is when screenwriters say "the script is finished" in their intro email. Invite collaboration, acknowledge that it's not your role to say when it's finished.
  • If you're not a collaborator, don't become a screenwriter. Become a novelist. As a screenwriter, you have to be open.
  • Don't be too precious and defensive when you get notes. A really bad re-writer will sabotage their own career.
  • At the same time, there's nothing more frustrating than someone who just lies down and takes your notes. As producers, we don't want to write the script. It's up to you as the screenwriter to decide which notes are good - and which ones are merely working as flags to point out there is a problem but no one knows what exactly or what do about it. No one except you.
  • Keep it short.
  • Most common for James is reading 10 - 20 pages and not knowing who the main character is or what's going on.
  • How you begin is the most important thing.
  • Structure: You have to learn the rules and then not use them when you write. Structure is very important, but you need to find your own structure and that is not always the same as the models taught in script classes and books.
  • You don't have to like a character, but you have to be intrigued or interested. My personal take on this frequent note given to writers is that what is really needed is that we are able to understand the character. For example, if the main character is a serial killer we will follow their story happily if you put us in the shoes of the serial killer - make us understand why they act the way they do, even if it's for hedonism or power or from anger etc. Make a coherent character we can relate to - and often the fact that we can relate to that will glue us to the screen in morbid fascination at our own darkness. This is why Walter White from Breaking Bad works so well - we can understand how a guy who is sick and tired of being under-appreciated and poor could make some dubious choices and we can follow every step of his evolution into a monster. Every step seems so logical - and the result is mesmerising.
  • It's hard to get big stories made as a first time writer - even The Kings Speech and The Theory of Everything were relatively small films.
  • Underlying IP is a very strong thing to have in the US and protects you and your idea, even if it's not a very good book/play etc.
  • Read a lot of screenplays.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Filmmakers Forum - The Re-Draft

Yesterday I attended the Sargent-Disc BAFTA Filmmakers Forum and gathered some golden nuggets of wisdom to remember and share. These are from the session on The Re-Draft and here is another post on Managing Production on Independent Films.

The first wonderful women to take the stage for these anecdotal conversations were Desiree Akhavan (Director, Writer and Actress) and Cecilia Frugiuele (Producer) who worked together on

Appropriate Behaviour.

They showed us some fun clips from Desiree's web series The Slope about superficial, homophobic lesbians which she would shoot for an hour or two per episode with friends. They wanted to capture this same sense of humour in a feature film and Desiree's initial idea was to write something that could be shot on weekends with favours alone, but when Cecilia came on board she insisted they do it "for realsies" (the technical term).

The Thesis Statement

After a few drafts, Desiree delivered a version which she calls "a clusterfuck of nothing" which seemed like a series of sketches and it prompted her to really work out: "What is the thesis statement of this film?"

It's a great way of thinking about it and in my own experience of development this question can actually be one of the most important discussions. As a producer I would love it to be addressed and worked out just after the main research phase and during the bashing out of the Treatment since it saves a lot of time later if everyone understands upfront what the film is trying to say.

In Desiree's case, she discovered when she looked at her screenplay that she was saying: two people can be cool and very much in love and still not belong together. Once she had thought of it this way she immediately saw parallels with Annie Hall and was able to use that film as a reference for structure.

Desiree and Cecilia would then read through drafts together on the couch to make sure they had "two feet on the ground" and were being honest and real.


Desiree mentioned that when she reads books like Story and the many other tomes on scriptwriting, she hears the same "nyahnyahnyah" noise in her ears as the Peanuts characters hear when adults speak. "I don't work that way," she says. I wholeheartedly agree with her that everyone needs to find they way they work and it's okay not to love those books. There are obviously other writers (like Tess Morris who wrote Man Up) who find it immensely helpful to work with a book on structure.

Desiree also mentioned that if a scene is really hard and you feel like you need elbow grease to massage it in, maybe you don't need that scene. It takes effort to make everything flow effortlessly.

Your Opening Shot

Desiree said she had somehow only remembered how important the opening shot is when she was in the edit suite. Now she's writing with much more awareness and pushes people she mentors not to choose a shot just because it "looks great" but make sure it actually means something.

"Your first shot needs to say something really important," she reminds us.

Name Cast

If you can, Desiree thinks it's better to work without name cast as a debut director. She thinks she would have been totally intimidated by someone on set who had years of experience which would have caused a power imbalance. Once you've made at least one film, then your name actor can watch your movie and they will be able to have a conversation with you, but before your debut no one knows what you can (or can not) do.

The next duo to take the stage were Juliette Towhidi (Writer) and Rosie Alison (Producer) who worked together on

Testament of Youth.

This was the adaptation of a 600 page book, quite a different beast from Desiree's auteur-driven original story.


Once again, the standard script structures didn't work for these women. They saw the story would not fit into the traditional 3-act structure and so they chose some important building blocks (eg. this is Vera's story) and then made the decision to build around them.

These blocks would also move around during the process. In an early draft they had opened with a prayer in voiceover and that moved all around the script and finally ended up closing the movie.

"With every screenplay you write, where you begin and end is key," said Juliette. It seems really obvious, but as Desiree mentioned above, it's all too easy to forget the importance of these book end moments. Juliette and Rosie worked through many versions of the opening, which they wanted to be a concise introduction to their main character Vera, and finally they hit on the idea of starting with Armistice Day, a day of celebration in which we follow Vera through a celebrating crowd and see she is out of sync with the others around her.

In an adaptation, they discussed how you have to bring out all the important moments in the character's journey and combine them into scenes which express all the same things, but did not exist in the book. This movie is based on an autobiography and there are scenes which never happened and are not in the book, but they are needed to concisely cover many of the points from the book. For example, in reality Vera only met her husband after all the events portrayed in the film, but it's not a good idea to introduce any characters - especially not key characters - at the end of a movie, so they introduced his character in an earlier scene where he took over the plot function of another person from the book.

It was also really important to play each scene so that it conveyed the most amount possible about Vera's character and how she was growing and changing throughout the narrative.

"You're always looking for ways to bring out your unique character," says Juliette.

Filmic Narrative

Juliette and Rosie talked a lot about how to play out moments in the most filmic way.

For example, (spoiler alert) there is a moment in the book where Vera receives a phone call on her wedding day to inform her that her fiancée has died. Traditional script wisdom says that a phone call is not very filmic and so Juliette experimented with setting the scene on Brighton Pier with Vera receiving the news from her mother in law, but in the end the best way to play this ended up being to suppress the emotion of the scene, have her receive the phone call and then play up the emotion in a later scene when she really feels the impact of the death (along with the audience) and finds the last poem her fiancée wrote for her.

"So much of what you write is not about dialogue," says Juliette. "It's about finding the images."

She shared the anecdote of a fellow writer who, when asked how the script was coming along, responded: "I'm almost done. Oh, nothing's written yet."

Of course every writer has their own process, but it seems to make sense that scriptwriters think very much about images, structure, dramatic expression and emotional journeys and however you work that out - "playing it out on the page" by writing in script format or simply chewing on an apple in a park while you think - there is a point at which it moves from "working it out" to "writing it down" and that last part is a very small percentage of your time.