Monday, 20 February 2012

So You Want to Write a Screenplay

Last year, my friend Nathalie asked me to co-write a treatment for a TV drama. Nathalie is a successful French scriptwriter, so it was a bit like being offered a mini-masterclass in writing for TV - and being paid for it. Well, this is what I learned:

1. Writing screenplays is fun
You get to write with a friend, swap ideas and even act out scenes - compare/contrast with the lonesome bum-on-seat business of writing a novel.

2. Writing screenplays isn't all that much fun
...because you need a really, really thick skin. Calluses, basically. And that's because...

3. Novels are dictatorships; screenplays are democracies (with the production company as the ruling party)
When you write a novel, you're the dictator. You create the plot, the characters, the setting. A great editor will help you refine and perfect your vision - in the delicately bossy way that great editors have - but ultimately it remains your vision.

When you write a screenplay (and you're not the Coen brothers), you're a mere parliamentarian submitting a vision, and if the people who commission the script don't like it, they will overrule it. They will ask you to change the name of your character, the age and physical appearance of your character, and even the character of your character, and then set the whole story in a place that may co-fund the film. I was in awe of Nathalie's ability to remain unfazed even as some of our favourite scenes were cut (Riverbank/Dawn. Our HERO kneels by the water, head bowed in despair. The LOVE INTEREST slowly emerges from the mist... cue angels and violins... when a GIANT HAND holding a RED PEN reaches through the clouds and crosses them out of existence.)

Still, it was an interesting experience, and when the organisers of the Raindance film festival offered a one-day filmmaking course for 39 pounds this month, I signed up right away. It did seem very cheap for a whole day. When I arrived at the venue - Leicester Square Theatre - on Saturday, I realised why. There were about 300 aspiring filmmakers and two lecturers. However, as an affordable introduction to the world of filmmaking, it really wasn't bad.
Elliot Grove, the founder of Raindance, grew up in an Amish family in Canada: his parents considered cinema the devil's work. They lived on a farm and eventually moved to Somalia as missionaries. I found his personal story absolutely fascinating and spent the rest of the day filming it as a movie inside my head ("'Billy Elliot' meets 'Witness' in this heart-warming tale of..."). This meant I didn't pay quite as much attention as I should have to the other components of the course - eg, how to make a movie. There were some useful remarks on writing to a budget (I mentally deleted the pitchfork-wielding crowd scene and replaced it with off-screen shouting and jeering, which we hear as the HERO peers out the window), and on being creative when it comes to finding cheap locations (the Amish farm scenes would be filmed on Hampstead Heath, using a cheapo camera and no permit).
I came up with one more budget-cutting plot twist, but it's so incredibly, outrageously clever that I can't share it here or you'll steal it.

So if you want to write a screenplay... well, Elliot's advice is: write one, submit it, write another one while you wait for a reply, submit that, and so on. Make sure you get the format right. Use free resources like the BBC writers' room website. Write a screenplay and get one friend to direct it, another to film it, and a third to appear in it. Don't get disheartened. Persist.
It's surprisingly similar to the publishing process: write a novel, submit it, write another one while you wait for a reply, and so on. (As for the literary equivalent of simply making the movie yourself - I suppose it's like publishing a literary journal with your friends? Or self-publishing? Or perhaps there isn't an equivalent?)
So there. Now go and write. Good luck! Look forward to the Premiere.

(And if you're a producer or director interested in Billy Elliot meets the Witness in this..., please get in touch.)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Birthday Party at the Family Grave

"Lord and Giver of life... we praise thee for Charles Dickens whose birth we commemorate today."

Amen to that, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens! Charles Dickens, who died from a stroke mid-way through Edwin Drood, would have been 200 today. His wish was for a small, private funeral at Rochester Cathedral; what he got was a three-day public procession through Westminster Abbey. Well, writers and their work belong to the public, and as the Dean of Westminster said during a wreath-laying ceremony on Tuesday, the Abbey is the family grave of the nation.

So there he lies, snugly nestled between Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, with the ghosts of Miss Havisham, Mowgli and Tess of the D'Urbervilles wafting overhead.
Jessica, my editor, kindly took me to the wreath-laying ceremony along with Ben Wood, whose debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, has just been published. I'm sure Ben drew as much comfort as I did from the prayer. Apart from praising the Lord for making Dickens, it included a rather sweet and encouraging nod to writers everywhere:

"Let us pray for those today who seek to express the truths of creation through the arts; for novelists and playwrights, for actors and directors, for poets and prophets, for commentators and columnists, and all those who record our own age." 

It's not every day that you hear yourself prayed for right under the soaring stone arches of the nation's family grave, with sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. Ben and I mentally added a prayer for our editor: it's only fair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke beautifully about the exuberance of Dickens' novels and characters (in that there's an exuberance even to his villains, and the thing he most mourns about the life of the poor is that their lives are flat, bereft of that exuberance). Two of Dickens' great-great-grandsons read extracts from The Life of Our Lord and St Luke's gospel, and biographer Claire Tomalin warmed up the chilly Abbey with a passage from a letter to Dickens' sister Fanny in which he describes calming his nerves before a public event with "a pint of champagne and a pint of sherry". That's the spirit!
Prince Charles laid the wreath.
Shakepeare sent his birthday wishes, too

It was all very moving and festive, but nothing could rival Ralph Fiennes' reading of a scene from Bleak House. It was the one where poor Jo... hmm, I don't want to spoil it in case you haven't read it. Anyway, you know when you read a bedtime story to a child and you try to do all the different voices? Well, Fiennes did all the voices, and did them so well that we all began to melt and sniffle at Jo's pitiful end (ok, I'm spoiling it a bit, but you knew it was going to be sad, right?).

"... 'Jo, can you say what I say?'

'I'll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it's good.'


'Our Father! - Yes, that's wery good, sir.'


'Art in Heaven - is the light a comin, sir?'

'It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!'

'Hallowed be - thy - '

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day."

Some readers can't bear Dickens' sentimentalism, but I think he showed a lot of courage in combining his wit and sarcasm, his delight in the absurd, with a pint or two of sentimentality. So I'll hope you'll celebrate Oliver, David, Fagin, Jarndyce and Jarndyce and Little Nell today, and as my editor said during our post-ceremony lunch: here's to passion and compassion.