Saturday, July 22, 2006

Chronicles 29 - The Early Years - Part 1

This blog starts out with Chronicles 1, the moment of conception of my rom-com in the year 2000, however, my adventures in the 'screen trade' and writing 'career', (don't laugh), started in 1994 with the first 6 pages of my great unfinished novel, (still unfinished - eat your heart out Prof. Grady Tripp!), then a short story, an unfinished play (it sucked), a full length play (unproduced), 2 short plays (one produced), a radio play (unproduced), a couple of other short plays (they sucked too), and, hail the trumpets! - my first screenplay (co-written). So, here is Part 1 of Chronicles 29 (or 0), the 'Early Years'.

The Early, Early Years

I was not born with a raging desire to be a screenwriter or novelist. In fact, when I was young I didn't really see that many movies in the cinema and I didn't read many books. That all started later when I went to college.

What I did do when I was younger was (periodically) draw, paint and write poetry. Some people thought that I had some talent with a quill and a brush but I ended up studying the sciences instead - another story.

The early 90's - My First Publishing Deal!

In my early 90's I spent some time in Europe and ended up writing my first magazine article for a respected Desktop Publishing magazine. I remember the buzz I felt when I went to the news stand and saw my name in print for the first time. I was famous! Well, not quite.

One fine day at work I was writing out a 'user guide' for the graphic designers and I thought to myself, "Hey, I could use this material to write a book!". I saw a gap in the market, knew which publisher I should target, went along to an international book fair (which happened to be in town) and went to pitch him. God, I wish the film business was this easy, or even a tenth as easy! Read on:

I trotted off to the fair with my magazine articles in hand (I had written several at that point). I found the publisher's stand, showed him my articles and pitched him the idea. He just said, "Yeah, sounds great, go and write it and we'll send you the contract". That was it! Deal!

Okay, I didn't get an advance, it was 'on spec' but they sent the contract a week later. It took me 6 months to write the book and 6 months later it was in print and royalty cheques started coming in the post. The royalties began to dwindle after a while because the publisher had been 'acquired' and my book didn't really fall into the new company's remit, still, as one publisher said to me, "It's good to have an ISBN number".

The book actually attracted a couple of good reviews in a computer magazine, and one bad one ;-) - so, all in all a fairly rounded experience.

Now, I think I could be forgiven for the false sense of optimism that was instilled in me by this experience. One idea, one publisher, one pitch, one publishing contract! No query letters, no waiting and no rejection!

This is like falling off a log, right? If it works like this in the linear, cause-and-effect binary computer world then it must work like this in the creative field, right? Wrong. Oh, how wrong I was. See Chronicles 1 onwards ;-).

Now, I mention the words 'linear' and 'cause-and-effect'. What I mean by that is that in the non-creative field, in my experience, any work or study that you apply yourself to has a reasonably short 'return on investment' period. I went into Desktop Publishing with zero experience. I didn't have a clue. I self-studied. I read a lot - books, magazines, on-line sources etc - I spent hours on the computer learning the software and before long, voila! I was offered a full-time job. From zero to hero in a matter of months.

That experience continued for me. Every time I trained myself up in a new area of IT technology the universe seemed to reward me with more prospects and more money, and fairly damn quickly. I was, of course, and am, very grateful to the universe for blessing me with those rewards.

So, what am I getting at here? Well, it seemed that I had this quid pro quo thing going on, where, whenever I applied myself to some new area in the IT space, very shortly afterwards there would be a tangible and substantial pay-off. So, again, I could be forgiven for thinking that things would work similarly in the creative field, right? Mmmh...

After writing several magazine articles and writing a door-stop-sized computer book I realized that I had the self-discipline to stick myself away in a darkened room for hours and 'scribe' away. So, when I moved back to the UK in 1994 whatever inner impulses that had led me to write poetry or draw/paint in my younger years re-awakened and I had this urge to write a novel.

Having, in a rather 'colourful' period in my twenties, 'experimented with life' (euphemisms used to protect the innocent ;-)), I felt an urge to, yes I know it's a cliche, write a novel 'based on the author's autobiographical experiences'.

Autumn 1994 - What I Really Want To Do Is Write

At this point in time I was paving the way in the UK and settling into my new job while my family stayed back in Europe. I was living with friends and had borrowed this archaic PC laptop from my mother-in-law and, on evenings and weekends, I began writing my 'masterpiece'.

I wrote about 6 pages and at some point my wife suggested that I start with short stories, that way I could get used to writing complete stories with a beginning, middle and end. Good idea. I did that, got good feedback from 'mums and chums' on the short story and I went back to the novel. I didn't get very far. Whilst writing the novel I had this image in my head, a bunch of guys in a room, and it wasn't a novel, it was a play. Goodbye novel, hello play.

Autumn 1995 - The Play is the Thing

I ended up writing and completing this full-length play. The only book I read on structure at this time was The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lagos Egri. I gave the play to an actor friend of mine who had done some directing. He had never read anything of mine before, well, what was there to read?

He got back to me later and said he really liked it. He organised a reading with a number of his professional actor friends. One of them is now a very big name in the UK. All the actors loved the writing. That was a big buzz, seeing my work read out by experienced actors and watching the text come to life. One of the actors was playing in the Bush Theatre at the time, a very well known off-West End theatre that has kick-started many a career. I saw Kate Beckinsale there once before her Pearl Harbour days. The actor offered to hand the play to the literary manager for me.

So, little ol' me with my false optimism naturally thought that my writing career was about to launch and in a few weeks my play would go into production and my name would be in lights. Quid pro quo remember? I've put in the effort now the creative world will reciprocate. It didn't. They passed and so did MANY other London theatres. Reality 101.

However, one uneventful evening I was sitting at home and I got a call from a literary manager at another fringe theatre in North London, not as popular as The Bush but definitely not an insignificant venue. He liked the play. He was interested in putting it on but we had to pay for the production. I guess that was kind of great, wasn't it? We actually managed to get some lottery funding but never quite managed to get enough to put the play on. Still, I was getting good feedback on my writing from certain quarters. That was positive.

December 1995 - New Writer's Season

I sent the play in to another London fringe theatre and I received a letter out of the blue saying that I had been selected for their new writer's season and that I would be commissioned to write a 20 minute play.

I sat down to write a light comedy and I was about a week or so into submitting the play when I sat down with my actor friend who would direct the piece. He said to me, in so many words, "Forget this play, this is not you, it's not your voice, write something which says this is you." Wow. I didn't expect that. Still, he was right, and I'm glad he told me that otherwise I wouldn't have gone home and written the play which became the basis for my short film, (shooting in October) which has a fairly well known 'indie actor' attached.

As we were talking in the cafe and then later on the way home I thought about a number of situations I had been in - certain characters I had met who had stuck in my mind. I was alone that weekend, it was just before Christmas, and I wrote the whole play over the weekend. It turned out to be a very powerful, cathartic writing experience. Lots of emotions came up when I wrote it. It kind of poured out.

The director loved it and we tweaked it a bit, had a reading with 3 actors and then did some more tweaking. I then had to tell the theatre that the play that I had written and workshopped was not the play we were going to put on! Luckily they accepted the new play and we went into rehearsal.

February 1996 - (Almost) got my first agent

The short play, a black comedy, was staged to great feedback. Some of my friends were a bit shocked by it. It was kind of dark and disturbing, but funny in a Fargo-esque way. They were probably wondering what the hell was going on in my head! A publisher friend of mine thought it was a very professional piece and he recommended me to a BBC Radio 4 producer. The producer read the play and loved it and wanted to put it on BBC Radio as a play. He invited me down to the BBC studios and I watched him put a play together. He even gave me a walk on role! I re-wrote the play for radio but the commissioning committee rejected it. Maybe it was a bit to disturbing for middle England. ;-)

Soon afterwards my publisher friend recommended me to a literary agent at quite a big London agency. The agent loved the script. We met and she offered to represent me. Great! Then things went weird. She was miffed that I hadn't mentioned that I'd met another more senior agent at the same agency a few months previously. I'd asked my friend whether I should mention this but he didn't see that it was relevant, so I didn't.

Anyway, she was pissed. We met. We made up. Then she started backtracking again. I got the feeling she had no power to take me on as a client and was instructed by the senior agent to hang on until I had more material. I felt that she had gone back on her word and a few heated email exchanges later she dumped me, although theoretically I was never un-dumped to be dumped, if you get my drift.

I was pretty devastated at the time. I thought I'd blown my 'big chance'. The reality was that I had too many expectations. I was too ambitious. I don't think she had that much of a plan for me except to send my play into The Bill - a UK TV series. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing and I would have no doubt given it a crack but I think I had unrealistic expectations that this junior agent in London was going to get my script read by Hollywood production companies, (I was co-writing my first screenplay at the time). The reality was that the only person who was going to get my work read in Hollywood was me. I found out years later that she had left the business altogether. Next!

May 1996 - The Screen Trade 101

I was sitting in Milan airport with another actor friend and we were bouncing ideas around. We both wanted to write a Hollywood movie. I had just attended a weekend screenwriting course and it had inspired me write for the big screen. By the time our flight had landed in London we had our high-concept idea written down on an Al Italia napkin. The rest is history - literally!

Now, since this screenplay involved American history and politics we had to do a massive amount of research. By May 1997 we had a very rough first draft of Act 1 and a treatment. Of course we believed passionately in our project and fuelled with zest and enthusiasm that the "Americans will love it!" we set off to what was to be my first Cannes film festival.

May 1997 - How not to do Cannes

Armed with our treatments and presentation packs we set off for Cannes and headed to our luxurious beach side residence - the local camping ground. We were producers damn it, and we were going to do Cannes in style!

We arrived early. We hadn't made any appointments with anyone. No-one. We didn't have a clue how Cannes worked. I didn't know a sales agent from a travel agent. I thought a "package" was something you signed for in the Post Office. We would go into these meetings and people would ask us, "What's the package? Is this a Kevin Costner movie?". We would just say, "Uhh...yes". This 'package' word kept on coming up so at one point we said, "Whatever it is, we've got to get us one of those".

The festival hadn't really got going when we arrived. We headed for The Majestic, looked up the list of companies exhibiting there and saw Columbia Tri Star. Yep, heard of them. They'll do. So in we strolled all dressed up in suit and ties, which was kind of ridiculous, the only people wearing suits during the day in Cannes were the security personnel!

Anyway, we strolled in and surprisingly we got a meeting with the VP. He loved our pitch, was really excited by it and told us to Fed Ex him the script. Well, uhh, slight problem there, there was no script! Just a crappy first draft of Act 1 and a treatment. We probably told him the script needed tweaking and we would get it to him in a few weeks. We got it to him 2 years later.

Still, we were buzzing! We had pitched a major Hollywood player and he had loved our pitch! We were rocking! The next days were spent darting in and out of hotel suites trying to get meetings with studio players. At one point we secured a meeting with Largo Entertainment. The meeting was about three in the afternoon. We decided we needed to hone our pitch before the meeting. CUT TO:

The Palais underground car park. I'm not sure how we ended up there but it was a good a place as any to practice our pitch. It was a 2-hander. My friend would start the pitch then he would hand it over to me and I would hand it back to him. My friend used some acting techniques to get it 'pitch perfect'. It worked. It was good, and, uninterrupted it was about three minutes long.

We went into the Largo meeting, exchanged small talk and then asked the executive if we could give him the three minute uninterrupted pitch. He gave the okay and we launched into it. He looked at us and said, "That's the best pitch I've ever heard". Great! Unfortunately they were not in a position to make the sort of big budget movie that we were pitching.

We had other pitch meetings with USA films and Fox which went well. It's funny, when I look back at it all now. I was so convinced we would get a deal. If not there and then in Cannes then definitely later when the script was done. I had no idea how the business worked or what was to come.

Our worst experience was pitching a big UK production company. Again, we launched into our pitch and the guy thought the whole pitch was some kind of practical joke! At the time Empire magazine were running these joke pitches and he thought that we had driven all the way to Cannes just to pitch on-the-spot joke movie concepts! What the...? Weird. He really took some convincing that we were serious. I guess he didn't 'get it'.

The rest of Cannes was spent unsuccessfuly trying to see people like Warner Brothers and Miramax and gleaning visiting cards from a number of dubious, straight-to-video outfits. We got into a few parties but after a while it was clear that for the sort of big budget Harrison Ford vehicle we were writing we'd pretty much targeted all the major players.

So, armed with a stack of visiting cards we packed up our tent and headed for the highway, safe in the knowledge that on completion of our masterpiece all that was required was a quick call to all of these contacts and the ensuing bidding war would begin. Oh, how wrong we were.

Check in next week for Chronicles 30 (or 0), The Early Years - Part 2 and what happened when, eventually, 2 years later, we finished the script, started approaching our Hollywood 'contacts' and I got on the plane to take my first meetings in La-La Land.

See Chronicles 28