Sunday, June 25, 2006

Chronicles 25 - Who are these guys?

So, after a long period of procrastination I'm returning back to tackle my comedy heist script. What I now have is a very rough, unsatisfactory first draft where the protag's goals and characters are not yet fully defined. The side-effect of this is that the script lacks conflict and dramatic tension.

Since we are dealing with 5-6 characters who are taken out of their ordinary world into the world of crime, the humour and reality of the comedic dramatic situation will hinge on the characters and their interaction with each other. The characters have to be fully carved out and clearly defined.

Writers deal with creating character in different ways. One way is the character breakdown - a list of the character's likes, dislikes, political persuasion, physical characteristics, hang-ups, flaws, obsessions etc.

I've written material where the characters were based on fusions of people I have met - strong, definable characters that stuck out in my mind even 15 or 20 years later. These characters required no breakdown at all - using the DNA of these real-life individuals I was able to create strong, clearly definable dramatic characters that came into being instantly and effortlessly.

This isn't always the case. When I started writing I wrote "what I knew". There was no research involved, no writing out lengthy character biographies. I knew these people and I knew their world.

I then went on to write other scripts that were not only set in other countries, such as America, but dealt with characters who I had never met in real-life such as American politicians, English lords etc and even CGI characters who didn't exist at all in the real-world!

The danger for the writer here is that instead of doing the necessary research and character breakdowns you base your characters on stock movie characters with the result that they become cliche'd, undefined and derivative.

The characters are the core of the story because when they are fully defined THEY make the choices for you, THEY decide what they say and do and you as a writer can then take a back-seat and try not to "get in the way".

On my second script I developed a very laborious technique of getting under the skin of my characters in order to identify/feel who they really were and what their motivations were. I started writing out, on exercise books, the complete history of the character, from a first person point of view, from their childhood all the way to the beginning of the script. I then continued the process and told their story throughout the whole script from their point of view.

What this gave me was a much more clearer view of what their motivations were at any point in the story. Since I write in the first person, irrespective of whether they are male or female I feel what they are feeling or what their motivations are at any point in the story. This technique worked very well on the romantic comedy script because after writing the full character story of both the male and the female leads I could then see where they were both coming from and could see what was behind the words they were speaking at any point in the story. I could see the rest of the iceberg. I was writing the characters from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

The downside is that it is a very laborious process and along with the research which is also required on this script, (and all the other film scripts I have written), it always feels like a mountain to climb before you can actually sit down in Final Draft and write the damned screenplay. If I don't feel secure that I know the world and the characters inside out then I don't really enjoy writing the script because otherwise I'm all too aware that it feels 2-dimensional, foggy and derivative.

One of my next projects is based on real-life experience that requires little or no research either regarding the world or the characters. Great! Bring it on!

Apart from the comedy heist project I'm working with a partner on a treatment for an animation feature for a UK production company. We bounced some ideas around on the phone the other day and it was amazing to see what we came up with just in one phone conversation. Working with a partner that you click with can be a very fast-paced creative process.

Things are also under way with the short film which is based on a play of mine I staged in London a few years ago. The production company have met with the director and the DP and are really excited about moving ahead. They will visit a special effects house next week and look at getting their help on one particular scene.

In the meantime I've been running a "name" past the sales agent for my rom-com, which was suggested by the casting director, but my contact there doesn't think the name is strong enough and has asked me to come up with a top 5 list of actors. Well, creating such a list isn't rocket science, it is getting to these names that is the difficult part!

Rom-coms are not like horror flicks which can be sold with unknown actors. Rom-coms rely on known names and known names are of course, booked-up and expensive. I'm just about to send off an email now to see if we can enlist the help of some US casting directors I met a while back to attach talent.

Attaching "names" is definitely proving to be the most difficult aspect of making this film but in order to nab a good sales agent, secure pre-sales and bag a US distribution deal it seems to be a necessary evil for this particular genre, so, onward, onward and forever upward (one hopes, anyway)!

Ciao for now :-) See Chronicles 24

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Chronicles 24 - The dosh, the dough, the finance

A trip down to Cannes as an indie-producer usually involves a sojourn over to Jetee Albert Edouard in The Cannes Port where you will see a wonderful array of yachts all bearing colorful banners. This is where the gold is. The dosh, or partial dosh that will help finance your movie. Any meeting with a financier will normally take place on one of these yachts where for a pre-arranged meeting you are asked to remove your shoes and you go on deck, or whatever you do on yachts, go starboard or Shiver me Timbers, Matey!

Anyway, for about 30 minutes you can pretend you're a millionaire and sip Evian while you "talk business" gazing out into the "white wedded" waves of the Mediterranean, (the "white wedded" bit is Joyce by the way ;-)).

Now most of these companies are using some kind of tax-based funding to finance films. To be honest, I don't know how it works, all I know is that it is a way of saving rich footballers and dentists from handing out their hard earned readies to Her Majesty's government. The usual suspects in this area are Scion, Ingenious Media, Future Film, Grosvenor Park etc. Some of them intend to discount the new tax credit and some of them finance using GAAP funds. I know, don't ask, I don't understand it either. I didn't understand sale and leaseback, now that's gone.

All I need to know at the moment is, do the numbers add up? I can still add, with the aid of a calculator, so off I trundle off on my merry way and meet with the usual suspects. Now the amount of your budget that these yacht people will finance varies. Some offer 20%, (Scion), some 30% (Ingenious Media) and so on. Now, methinks, wouldn't it be nice to go from one boat (sorry Yacht!) to the other and pick up 20% here, 30% there and with said calculator in hand arrive on the other side of the Cannes port with the 100% required to finance your movie. If only life were so simple. I don't know all the reasons why you can't do that, one is probably to do with the complexities of the tax laws and the other is that these people are in competition with each other and some used to work for the company "next door" and left to form their own financing company and hire their own yachts.

Fair enough, you think. I get 30% from one yacht, then get the rest (via a bi- or trilateral co-production) from other countries and then I'll fill the gap with a bank loan, (gap finance) and pre-sales. Okay, so you do the figures and they seem to add up but then you hear that the GAAP funds, IF, that is how you are getting say, your 30% from one of the yachts may not be water-tight and may come under scrutiny from the Inland Revenue. Then you hear that the offer of a discount against the tax-credit may come at a price so, for arguments sake, 10% becomes 7%, OR one tax-based fund might not sit so well with the government financing agency of another country.

So, one minute you are on a high thinking, yes, I've done it, the numbers add-up! Then you go to your next meeting and people are folding their arms and mumbling and grumbling and "umm-ing" and "ahh-ing" and prodding their sterling silver fork into your water-tight finance plan and, with some relish, poking holes in it. One person thinks it's feasible and another one doesn't.

At the end of the day all you can do is stay positive and go with the optimistic view because the reality is when you are talking with agents you need to present a credible finance plan and you have no choice to run with the one you have in your hand because the two in the bush ain't going to cut it.

Now the thing is, if you can bag a bankable name then all that could change. You can fill the gaps with equity financiers who are now more willing to invest in your project. Even the bigger agencies may come on board and help finance and package the project - UNTIL then, you run with what you have and stay positive.

By the way, don't think about hitching down to Cannes next year with your grubby, coffee-stained, first draft in hand (based on your sad life ;-)) expecting that any of these people will dish out a cheque for your movie. You need attachments - director, other finance sources, credible co-producers and preferably cast otherwise you won't get a meeting, or, if you do get a meeting and for instance you don't have cast and sales agent it's a "meet and greet" situation and a possible letter of intent if they are seriously interested. Still, even then, unless you have a marquee name director you need "talent" to draw on the finance.

Apro pro "talent". My UK casting director told me to forget about the UK bankable name I was out to. He didn't see much point in persuading the agent since he reckoned the client was interested in different types of projects anyway. He suggested another name and I ran it past the sales agent to see whether he was feasible in terms of pre-sales. Creative choices are one thing but if the numbers don't add up there's no flick with the popcorn.

There endeth the lesson of the day.

Auf Wiedersehen! See Chronicles 23

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chronicles 23 - Post-Cannes Radio Silence

Just got back from London for a post-Cannes mopping up operation i.e. I bagged meetings with people like Icon, Pathe, Weinstein Company, Content Film, Lions Gate and a couple of prod. co's etc who I couldn't nail down in Cannes.

On the whole it went quite well, one major sales agent with a very good reputation has read and liked the rom-com script and thinks it will fit well into their slate. Of course, since it's a rom-com I need name actors attached. That's the hard bit. The actor's agent I'm dealing with right now is being "difficult". The agent read the script but doesn't feel it is suitable for his client and the assistant keeps on harping on about the finance and the fact that the film won't be fully financed without the actor's interest. Hello! That's how it kinda works with indie films, most indie-financing that incorporates pre-sales is cast contingent! By the way this is the same actor I met in Cannes who told me he was looking forward to reading the script!

Anyway, I've told her that I need to know whether they are forwarding the script to their client by the end of the day otherwise I'm moving on. My guess is that they won't get back to me. Actually, I started writing this blog on Friday and now it's Monday and predictably I didn't hear a thing. I've emailed the casting director to see if he can pull any clout. The casting director isn't being paid at this point so I am still in begging mode. As an indie producer it really is a question of, "Don't ask, don't get".

I also met with a producer who is interested in developing a feature animation project I pitched in Cannes. It's a project I developed with an animation artist friend. I essentially have a brochure which contains a number of animation ideas consisting of synopses plus visuals. She honed in on one project which seems to be the one most people respond to and we're now talking more seriously about moving ahead together on the project. She wants to talk to the Weinstein Company about it next week.

Apart from that, I'm still in Post-Cannes radio silence mode at the moment. The illusion with any intensive campaign such as a film festival or a trip to LA is that after having had so many meetings in such a short period of time and hence so many script requests one can be led into thinking you'll be barraged by a slew of offers 2 weeks later, and, that you'll somehow be faced with the problem of prioritizing them! The reality is somewhat different and even though I always fall into this "bidding-war" fantasy the inner "Mr. Realistic" voice tells me a different story - and he's always been right so far.

I've had a few passes since Cannes, a positive response to move forward with an animation project, (which is good!), a producer excited about producing my short film (which is also good!) - the rest is radio silence. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - in my second Cannes festival it took a few months for the UK co-producer who I ended up working with for 3 years to get back to me. It's kind of a given that some people will be fast, some will take weeks, some will take months and some my dear friends will NEVER EVER read your precious opus. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

So the question is: When to get down to that most inane of tasks? Shooting off the follow-up/chasing-up email? It is said that one always chases bad news and good news will find a path to your door. Not always (but mostly) true, in my experience. So, next week will be a month after Cannes, feels about the right time for a follow-up email, although I may chase the people who promised a quick read. I also have 3 scripts to read, 2 from other writers and one of my own(!), so I know how easy it is to procrastinate on reading (and writing!).

The rom-com is progressing well on one level i.e. sales agent, finance, bond company, bank, director, co-producer, casting director etc is kind of in place but bagging that bankable star is proving difficult - which doesn't seem to be that unusual.

I've just finished reading Richard E. Grant's diaries on the making of Wah Wah which he wrote and directed. I was surprised that with all his A list contacts he had similar problems in attracting talent i.e very long response (or non-response) times. Colin Firth took 4 months to pass, Ralph Fiennes took 14 months - to pass!

I'm not sure how helpful the UK casting director can be in bagging key bankable cast so I'm going to hit the phones and contact some major casting directors I met in LA a few years back.

So, the main focus now is to get a bankable lead to activate the finance for the rom-com, write a treatment for the feature animation and write the second draft of my comedy heist movie which I've been pitching in Cannes and London to a great response.

I've really been procrastinating on the Heist movie. I think it's the usual fear of failure thing - the pitch sounds great - it's not only funny and current but it's smart - the question is - can I deliver on that? Can I deliver on plot? David Mamet said that dialogue is easy and plot is difficult. I agree. Plot is and always will be hard work and I'm always amazed that I'm able to come up with some kind of plot at all! If you rush plot the script suffers. I did that on my last script, a family comedy, and even though I got great feedback on the humour, concept and dialogue I was told the plot was weak.

You definitely can't rush the plot on a Heist movie so I know it's going to be hard work to pull off a smart plot or at least a plot that is feasible. I guess what I'm suffering from is fear of hard work! The thing with producing as well as writing is that it is hard to quickly switch roles. As a producer you are constantly on the net, emailing, making calls, organizing etc and it takes some discipline to switch from "producer mode" and enter into the "creative space". I need to work on that.

Last week I had a play on in a theatre for 2 nights. I wrote a piece for 4 actors who did a fantastic job of bringing the text alive not only in terms of delivery but also in terms of choreography. A very satisfying experience to not only work with actors in developing ideas which you know will be realised in a relatively short period of time but to go from hearing a reading to going into a rehearsal to seeing it played in front of a live audience (and to a positive response!). Great fun and very rewarding. A welcome respite from the painstakingly long process of making movies, (that may never be made!). So, apart from all the feature stuff I'm going to be adapting this comedy play for a wider audience. Along with the day-job it seems I don't have to worry about keeping myself busy for the next few months ;-)

Oh - I nearly forgot. Had a follow-up meeting with a prod. co. I met in Cannes who liked my short film script which is partially funded and they are very excited about coming on as producers to get all the kit, crew, cameras etc and will provide post-production facilities and will even try and get more funding! Great! The short will showcase the director who will then shoot the feature which I'll write and co-produce. The short and the feature are both based on plays of mine. All this was as a result of a meeting in Cannes which I was almost not going to take! You just never know :-)

Ciao for now! See Chronicles 22