Day two of the festival, and many more wonderful sessions to choose from! I kicked off Saturday with Julie Gray‘s session on cinematic writing. I was really looking forward to this, because Julie’s sessions last year – You ARE the hero of the journey and Character and structure: twins separated at birth – were unmissable.
How to drench the page in theme and cinematic imagery
What I loved about this session was the focus on advanced techniques to get your script noticed. Whilst early drafts need only concern concise descriptions whilst the story is getting onto the page, when it comes to advanced polish drafts, you don’t want your script to be a boring, technical read. There are ways that you can evoke genre, theme, tone and emotions through writing your scripts evocatively.
Cinematic writing is all about manipulating the emotions of the reader; you’re effectively “dressing the set” so that they experience your story in the most exciting way possible. One of the best ways to make a reader feel *WOW* about your work, is to get your originality and voice across in your story and to immerse the reader in the script.
You can use different techniques to do this. Is your script funny? Be humorous! Is it scary? Evoke fear by writing the descriptions in a way that creates tension. Theme, too, can be conveyed – think about what reflects the two sides of your theme, and use imagery and even colour to create an atmosphere.
Characters, too, can be conveyed through description. Think about personalities and characteristics and what they say about your characters. Instead of a character just walking down a supermarket aisle, think about *HOW* they are walking. A strut conveys a different character/mood than a shuffle, wouldn’t you agree?
Another key factor in cinematic writing is making the actions kinetic. Use periods and paragraph breaks to eliminate black on the page and make it easier to read. Use shorter sentences to evoke panic and fear. Dramatic pauses. The occasional (don’t ever overuse these) CAPITALISATION! for a shocking/surprising/frightening moment or sound.
Cinematic writing can even help you direct the script, without *actually* directing it. Consider the use of “mini sluglines” to help move things along. Establish a full slugline for a new location, but if you then move around within its vicinity you can use shorter sluglines to help quicken the pace. E.g. INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT then instead of repeating the whole slugline throughout scene focus on important info like IN RAFTERS.
Remember, a good script should be a GREAT read on its own, even if it’s never made.
The writing British cinema cookbook: The ingredients for a home-grown hit
Piers Ashworth and Tim Firth led this session, which was a relaxed discussion about British cinema and what it takes to write a home-grown hit. One of the key things I took away from this session was the need to take advantage of brands and “based-on” work – everyone is after the next big thing which *already has an audience/fan-base*. It’s exactly why the controversial 50 Shades of Grey is now a big production, and why franchises such as Harry Potter have been so popular and transferable to the US market. Think about tone with a British script/production; what makes it quintessentially British? Getting stars attached to your film can, of course, help greatly, but I’d consider this an approach most suitable for producers and directors who are working on bringing a script to life, rather than something you should do at spec script stage. Read on to the gangster feature session write-up for an explanation why.
The use and abuse of narrative structure
I sat with agent Julian Friedmann in this session, and he told me that he thought John’s new book, Into The Woods, was the best screenwriting craft book this decade. Needless to say, I was gutted not to be able to buy a copy at the bookshop (they ran out on the first day!) so am now eagerly anticipating its arrival through my letterbox.
In this session we first discussed audience participation and subjectivity – how one person interprets an image is different from another person’s, and also how suggestion can powerfully alter perception, therefore making symbolism and imagery vital tools in a writer and film-maker’s DIY box.
Structure, too, can be used to powerful effect. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment, so we no longer need to give readers/audience members to *everything* they need to know to make sense of a story. Let them suspect and hypothesise, and let them work stuff out for themselves.
Use structure to create suspense, rather than ticking boxes or using a certain structure just because it’s cool or different, or popular in the cinemas at the moment. Consider *why* certain structures have been used, and *how* they can create the best experience possible for the audience.
One of my favourite quotes from this session, and one that was extremely popular on twitter, was “to continually mislead an audience can be a very effective storytelling method”. And it can – remember Broadchurch? We kept thinking we had the answers, only for more potential suspects to be revealed. it was fun – we were doing detective work and were hooked as we waited for answers to finally be revealed.
Character camp with Pilar Alessandra
I simly HAD to attend a Pilar session this year, having heard so many great things about them from delegates. And boy was she popular – I had to squeeze into the rickety back seats on the second level of the largest room in the festival. It was warm and cramped, but I was IN.
Pilar kept her session moving in an exciting way by inviting us to create a character right there and then to work with. We gave our character a personality, flaws, a problem and opposition. By doing so, we identified some of the problems and pitfalls that we can come across when creating characters, and looks at ways to improve them.
Character dimension is important. Think about the differences in their public, personal and private lives, and consider how you can convey this. Show character change, too, by looking at their traits/habits, and showing a broken rule – even a small one – relating to this that can symbolise transformation.
For example, a character who simply cannot walk on cracks in the pavement in a script’s opening? Throw her head first into an adventure that teaches her to be fearless, and by the end of the script she will think “what the heck, I don’t need to do this any more!” and will STEP ON THE CRACKS!
Think about essence as well as actions when describing characters. Essence might be “tough by nature” and the action will be what the character is physically doing. Another simple but effective tip about character descriptions was not to bother with a specific age – unless specificity of age is key to the story. Leave the age open, an you’ll allow more scope for casting opportunities and won’t inadvertently “cast” your script in a limiting way.
Writing gangster movies: a great tradition of British success
I like to try and attend sessions that expand my knowledge of different genres and techniques, so this session was very appealing. Lucy V Hay chatted with writer director JK Amalou and producer Jonathan Sothcott.
One of the stand-out pieces of advice about writing gangster features – and which applies to other genres too – was AUTHENTICITY. Authentic dialogue is very important, as is a human story at the heart of the script.
Interestingly, the gangster genre doesn’t work well in cinemas and appeals mostly to DVD trade. Despite this, it still does very well, and contrary to beliefs there are female fans and feedback from them is good. The public only ever see the widely-available cinema sales statistics, but don’t see the unavailable DVD sales statistics which reflect success.
Regarding “fresh” takes on the genre, decent female characters was one of the top tips; but not just female characters that replace male gangster roles. A good female character won’t just be a male character with a female name and *bits*; females in male roles don’t reflect real-life tendencies.
Neither should females be clichéd (most common one is the *wife who puts up with it*) or defined by their jobs (i.e. prostitution). Sothcott spoke of how it’d be refreshing to see a female cop character, and how he doesn’t receive many heist scripts. He also spoke of how it is frustrating when writers attach actors to their script – “that’s my job!” he exclaimed.
One of the hot topics for discussion was the location of most gangster films. Surely a fresh take would include a different location to London? But sadly, fact is that gangster movies *need* to be set in London if they’re to work for genre and distribution. And this isn’t snobbishness – statistics back this up.
Whilst there *are* exceptions, it’s a sad but true fact that gangster movies simply don’t sell much outside of London. You can’t reinvent the wheel. Regional accents, too, can be difficult to sell to foreign markets. But you CAN subvert the genre to bring something fresh to the table – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels did this by adding the comedy angle.
Both JK and Jonathan both stated research as an essential part of script preparation. Again, it helps that all-important authenticity and will also help with tone and voice. But don’t just copy other movies – this will hinder authenticity.
Interestingly, JK, Jonathan and Lucy all agreed that swearing every other word doesn’t actually help much in a gangster script. Another flagged-up flaw often seen in scripts was overpopulated scripts – too many characters! Scripts always work better with fewer characters, and as long as characters have clear goals and motivations, the structure should fall into place.
Next time, I’ll be talking about the third day of the festival and will recap my networking experiences throughout the festival and what I learnt in the day’s sessions: “Storylining for continuing drama” and “Basic Instinct: Script to screen”.