Saturday, March 24, 2007

Chronicles 42 - Dialogue is easy ...

... and plot is difficult, that's what David Mamet said and I agree with the man.

I recently delivered the first draft of an adaptation to a UK producer 2 months ahead of deadline. The good news is that the producer is very happy with what I've done and now wants to go out to directors after I polish and prepare a pitch and character biogs for the package.

The underlying true-life story is really a historical who/why dunnit and contains a lot of expositional information; information that could potentially:

a) Induce the audience into collective coma
b) Create a feeling in the audience that one of the main characters is a jerk
c) Turn the film into a 3 hour seminar rather than 90 minutes of entertainment

My approach was to find the story first, the central spine, and I then took an executive decision and threw out any true-life/historical info that deviated from this spine. Once I had decided on what the story was I could move over to plot and out of those tinkerings came premise and theme (actually maybe they came first...?)

Initially the producer had approached me to do a character/dialogue polish but I convinced him that it needed a whole new re-think, a page one rewrite and he agreed. Luckily I seem to have pulled it off. I say luckily because again, this was a new genre for me. I wasn't sure if I could pull off all that 19th century Jane Austen speak but I think it works well.

I did a whole load of research. Watched every period drama in existence, read a number of historical books and also read some 19th century literature to get a feel of the language.

Essentially those 19th cent (as opposed to 50 cent) folk are saying the same things as us but with bigger words! So, "Cor, I fancy 'er" turns into, "Indeed she is endowed with a pleasing physiognomy". The end effect being that the dialogue in the period section of the script is chunkier.

Having watched all those period movies I found a common theme. They mostly all contain:

1) A death or illness scene - I have both.
2) A ball or opera scene - I have a ball scene, not just because I wanted to throw one in, (which I did) but it was historically accurate - a crucial location for the 'cute meet'.
3) A high speed stage coach or horse gallop scene - yup, got one of those too. Usually these are linked to point 1.

The other challenge was the amount of information that needed to be communicated to the audience. Being a historical detective story it was important that this was revealed in an interesting way in the form of clues, revelation and exposition.

There was no avoiding the fact that this info had to be communicated and the feedback from readers who have no prior knowledge of the story will determine whether I've really succeeded here or not. I tried as much as possible to reveal the exposition either visually or through dramatic conflict but some of it I had to communicate in a sort of Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson style interchange.

Once I'd found the story spine it was then a question of reading and re-reading the underlying true story and marking the sections which for me were crucial to the story. Once I'd done all that I transferred the key scenes onto index cards and started structuring the outline using Blake Snyder's beat sheet as a guideline which I must say really helped.

I didn't succeed in sticking to his page numbers exactly and even though he insists I really don't think you have to. My mid-point and all is lost moment hits the mark but my first act is short - turning point 1 comes on page 20 but for me it reads fine. Why should I pad it out? I've introduced all the characters, set up my theme and my protag finds herself in another world on page 20. So what if it's early? The job's done, let's move on with the story!

Once I'd juggled the index cards into a 3 act structure I was ready to go and I started writing a scriptment in MS Word. This was a mix of scene headings, treatment-like prose and dialogue. I sent it to the producer, he really liked it, gave me his notes and then I fed it into Final Draft.

What I didn't realize was that bringing the Word doc into Final Draft format expanded it from 35 pages to 80 pages which was great! Three quarters of my script was already written! Another week or so of flat-out work and I had the first draft screenplay.

So back to Mamet. I was surprised by how quickly I'd written the script but looking back it's no surprise. I had an underlying story. Once I'd separated the wheat from the chaff as it were it was just a case of arranging the scenes into a plot. I wasn't starting from a blank page and generally once I have a structure and know the characters I can write fast. In the prior months that I'd spent researching the project I'd come to know the characters well so it was just a case of joining the dots with dialogue, which, as the man said is easy, but plotting? Now that's something else.

Ciao for now

Friday, March 09, 2007

Chronicles 41 - Output and Outlines

Well, it's been over 2 weeks since I've blogged so I guess I'm overdue. I've been pretty busy writing, hence the delay (beats me how some writers get the time to write extensive posts almost every day???)

I finished the 'scriptment' I was writing as part of a contracted assignment. Actually in the contract it talked about a 'treatment' but as I mentioned in the last post I always end up putting a lot of dialogue in my treatments so that the characters come to life more and I end up slipping in scene headings - in this case I went the whole way and included scene headings (e.g. INT. STREET - DAY) for every scene. I ended up writing a 35 page document in Word which is essentially a compressed version of the script, hence the term 'scriptment'. I then emailed it to the producer.

There's always that feeling of uncertainty after sending work out for feedback and since this was my first paid gig the uncertainty was even more heightened.

Will he like it? Is this what he had in mind? Will the notes be challenging i.e. tone, characters, believability or will they be easier i.e. structural, factual etc?

The brain ticks over...

I know I've written some great moments here, in fact I think I've, on the whole, pulled this off, some of it rocks and some of it I kind of get the feeling needs work but I can fix that... What if he comes back with completely different ideas? Oh man, I love some of these scenes, I think they work beautifully...I'm attached! No! I don't want to kill my children! I want to hug them and buy them toys and take them to McDonalds... I'm a genius... No, everyone thinks they're a genius... If I'm a genius then why don't I have any major credits?... I'm deluded... massively deluded...

BOING. In comes an email. This is it! No, it's spam, "Every time this one hits the media the stock climbs. Act fast!" Then more spam. The brain continues... this is taking too long, not good, it can only mean one thing - he's read it - hates it - doesn't get it - and he's busy writing a huge notes doc and it's going to be a sh*t load of work implementing the changes but this time I've got no choice - no way out - he's friggin' paying me!

BOING. It's him. Speed read... "very good" (relief) "well done" (more relief) ..."seamless" (phew) "works well visually" (more phew, no killing of children - for today at least) ...

3 or 4 emails full of notes follow but they're okay - structural and factual stuff mainly (it's a biog drama) so another wave of relief.

The next step is to move onto the script where I will no doubt go through the whole cycle again.

While I was waiting for notes and taking a little break on the assignment I received an email from the short film co-producer. He's arranged a private beach party at Cannes where about 1500 industry people will be attending and during the evening our short will be screened. Whoo Hoo!

The director has been working with an editor who had a few days to spare between big feature projects, one of them is a HUGE worldwide comedy hit, and according to the director he's done a brilliant job. I haven't seen it yet but the director and the producers are really happy with it and we're still at the rough cut stage but it's good enough to be submitted as a "work in progress" for the Cannes competition - submission deadline is March 20th.

So, since the short is both a teaser for and story thread within the planned feature the producer has asked me for a pitch/synopsis and character breakdowns. The thing is, there is no script! There's my stage play and there's a bunch of ideas I've written down in my journal - so - since the feature consists of about 5 inter-connected storylines I started outlining.

I started with my old friends the index cards and just wrote scenes or sometimes just ideas or questions on the cards. The trouble was that by the end of the day I had this huge stack of cards that would have been a real pain to organize so I went back to the Save The Cat Software which I'd bought about a month ago.

In my last post, I wrote that I couldn't get into the software but having decided that I didn't want my office floor covered in index cards I decided to give it another go.

The software worked quite well actually, it enabled me to create, map out AND colour code the scene cards on screen. In a script with 5 storylines this proved very useful.

It's good to see a map of the outline not only to get a feeling of how the stories interconnect but also how each story is distributed along the story line as well as the ratio between major and minor stories in terms of screen time. I know. This is beginning to sound like an engineering project rather than some follow-the-flow-man, artsy-fartsy, creative 'piece'.

Well, Goldman does say that screenwriting is more of a craft than an art and that it's all about structure, structure, structure.

Having said that there are successful screenwriters who don't (or say they don't) outline or in the case of Jim Uhle (Fight Club) who says, "I detest outlines".

To outline or not to outline that is the paraphrase. Guess it's a mute point as long as it leads to output. :-)

Ciao for now