Monday, 24 November 2014

J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking

J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness, Lost, Super 8) fills us in on balancing intimacy with hyperreality, why TV leaves room for surprises and the best advice he's ever been given.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

What makes a screenplay "work"

Gordy Hoffman published an interesting article on the Bluecat Screenplay Competition website recently. The thrust of the article is that every successful movie is successful because it taps into some key element of what the mass of people have on their mind at a point in time.
   I'm not sure I agree with all the analysis, but this makes interesting reading nonetheless. The conclusions are all fresh reminders of what we, deep down, already know.

  • Don’t be afraid to give the audience what they want.
  • Have stakes that make the conflict in your story matter.
  • Theme is an essential element to conveying an even tone throughout. 
  • Meet and exceed your audience’s expectations of what a movie can be.

What do the 10 Highest-Earning Original Screenplays have in common?

Of the top thirty-seven highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), only ten are original screenplays that aren’t sequels, prequels, or Fantasia. Read on to see what they have in common.

10. Independence Day (1996)
box office $564,541,300

What made it work?
Cultural zeitgeist.

Writers will forget sometimes that they products of their environment. With only four years until the new millennium, Independence Day was the doomsday movie that no one realized they wanted. Sure it’s hokey and the science is silly, but at the end of the day that’s how most of the world was in 1996. Don’t be afraid to give the audience what they want. 

9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969 )
box office $575,046,500

What made it work?
Likable Characters.

The characters of Butch and Sundance are altogether iconic, relatable, and nuanced. When you’re writing your characters, don’t neglect to give each the attention they deserve. Every character should feel like a real person.

8. Ghostbusters (1984)
box office $579,957,500

What made it work?
Genre transcendence.

On its surface, Ghostbusters could be an action movie. Or horror. Or comedy? Sci-fi? Instead Ghostbusters transcended genre completely, telling an original story with clever world building and amazing characters. Without Ghostbusters, who knows if we’d have films like Galaxy Quest or Shawn of The Dead.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
box office $721,493,300

What made it work?
Reverence for the classics.

Raiders of the Lost Ark takes the best of classic films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and combines them with the pulp action of the 1930′s serials. The result is a film that is often lauded as the finest ever made. When writing your original spec, be prepared to borrow from the best.

6. The Sting (1973)
box office $726,514,300

What made it work?
Reveals that are surprising yet inevitable.

This is the second George Roy Hill directed film to make this list with Paul Newman and Robert Redford starring. The advice there is to stick with what works. Storywise, The Sting is best known for its complicated yet engaging plot. Following the exploits of two confidence men and their vendetta against a gangster played by Robert Shaw, every scene leaves the audience guessing and wanting more.

5. The Lion King (1994)
box office $726,543,300

What made it work?
Emotional range.

The Lion King would be a completely different movie if it was only a story of animals getting along and singing about the food chain. Thankfully the writers pushed a more ambitious story. With Mufasa’s death, Timon and Pumba’s antics, Nala and Simba’s love story, this little animated movie about lions touched upon very human emotions. Don’t be afraid to use a range of emotions to further your story.

4. Avatar (2009)
box office $792,630,400

What made it work?
A fully realized world the audience has never seen before.

Most great films are a classic story set in a wholly original world (Lord of The Rings). Others are original stories set in a classical world (The Artist). Other films are neither, pushing an incoherent mess (The Room), or a tired by-the-numbers formula (Home Alone 3). People go to movies to be entertained, and in the film making process the screenwriter is the first “at bat.”

3. Titanic (1997)
box office $1,104,116,900

What made it work?
High stakes.

All stories have conflict. What separates good storytelling from bad storytelling are the motivations of the characters. It’s one thing to write a movie about the sinking of the Titanic, it’s a far greater thing to write “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” as James Cameron once pitched his movie. Each of the movies on this list have stakes that make the conflict in their story matter. This is a good reason why poorly written action movies can feel boring. If there’s no reason to care about the characters’ wants/needs, what’s the point?

2. E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
box office $1,156,112,800

What made it work?
Universal themes.

E.T. isn’t just a story about an alien trying to get home. It’s also about a boy coping with his parent’s divorce and the inherent loneliness of being a child. Nearly everyone can relate to the fear of being lost and alone as a child, and while many films have tried to emulate E.T., no film has done it better. Theme is an oft-overlooked element of screenwriting, yet essential to conveying an even tone throughout. The more universal your theme is, the more likely your screenplay will have mass appeal.

1. Star Wars (1977)
box office $1,451,674,700

What made it work?
Epic storytelling.

Everything about Star Wars is epic. From the costumes to the periphery characters, the movie makes no apologies for being larger than life. The same can be said for all the movies in this list. They met and exceeded their audience’s expectations of what a movie could be and as a result, became cultural phenomenons.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Brit List 2014

The Brit List, the industry selection of hot unproduced screenplays, is compiled by a combination of UK producers, agents, distributors and sales companies. This year there were 140 entries with 34 scripts making the grade.
   In order to qualify scripts must receive three or more votes, be unproduced (not shooting) at the time of the list’s circulation, be written by a non-US writer and not have featured in previous Brit Lists.
   Romantic comedy Matinee Idol by writer Richard Galazka and sci-fi Gateway 6 by Malachi Smyth lead this year’s List. Both scripts recorded nine industry votes to top the list.
MATINEE IDOL by Richard Galazka (unrepresented)
Producers: Rooks Nest Entertainment
Genre:  Romantic Comedy
Summary:  Inspired by his favourite rom-coms, a cinephile tries to win a girl’s heart by pretending to be someone he’s not, only to learn that it takes more than grand gestures to turn fantasy into reality. 

GATEWAY 6 by Malachi Smyth (JAB Management)
Producers: Sentinel Entertainment
Genre:  Sci-fi
Summary:  Set in the future, on a war-ravaged Earth, four soldiers man the last bastion – an outpost in a sea-covered continent – awaiting relief or the enemy, whichever comes first.  But as the empty weeks turn to months, a paranoia descends that tests relationships to breaking, especially with the arrival of a mysterious boat…
You can read the logline for all the Brit List finalists here.

Interview with Alli Parker

Alli Parker is an Australian writer, script reader, filmmaker, production secretary in TV production, a beater with the Blackburn Basilisks Quidditch Club, president of the Victorian Quidditch Association, and an international silver medalist (2014 Global Games) at quidditch. Also, she likes chocolate.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Melbourne, Australia, and that’s also where I grew up.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

I feel I am incredibly lucky to have a family that is so relentlessly supportive— everyone backs each other one hundred and ten percent, every time. Looking back, I was brought up in a family that had a lot of passion for things, and I feel that that’s certainly rubbed off on me.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

When did you first take an interest in storytelling?

I was always an avid reader—from a very young age I always devoured books and stories. I wanted to write novels, but whilst I started with great gusto, I lost steam through the middle and could never figure out the endings. After I discovered Harry Potter, I found a Harry Potter role-playing site that let you create a character and write the stories from their point of view. I wrote solidly there for several years, and during that time I discovered screenplays and realised I’d found my medium.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

My first ‘proper’ paid job was at Hoyts Cinemas. But the very, very first job I had was working in the canteen at my local football club.

These days you work as production secretary on TV. What was the career progression that landed you in that job?

That’s a tough one—in actuality, I’ve been working in the industry for years now. For this specific circumstance, I returned from London in 2012 and exploited contacts that I had to get a hold of several email addresses of various line producers in Melbourne. I managed to get a gig as a runner on the end of the first series of House Husbands, then was fortunate to piggyback my jobs, one onto the other, until I was offered the role as a production secretary on a film called Healing. I’ve continued on as that role since, although I do detour into script assisting at various points and hope to stay there more permanently.

• You keep fit by playing quidditch. You play for Blackburn Basilisks, you’re president of the Victorian Quidditch Association, and a member of the 2014 national side (the Drop Bears) that won the silver medal in Canada earlier this year. I don’t know anything about Quidditch (other than it looks unusually violent for something invented by literary types). Isn’t it irritating to have to lug a broom around everywhere?

Mrs Doubtfire practises for a game of quidditch
Quidditch is a wonderful distraction. For someone who has no background in sport, to be involved in a game that needs no experience to start playing, it’s been a fantastic adventure. The broom is not a weapon, you just have to stay on it (not as hard as it seems) and, as a Beater, I play an adapted form of dodgeball—throwing balls at people to stop their attempts at goal. It’s probably too wordy and lengthy to describe on the page, but I can guarantee you that there is likely a quidditch team near you—so get down to a game and check it out if you’re interested!

The Drop Bears in Canada, 2014.  Alli is back row, sixth from the left,
not counting the tall gentleman standing immediately behind her.
Alli in action back home.

You attended the London Screenwriters’ Festival in 2012. Give us your impressions of the Festival.

I’ve attended four out of five Screenwriters’ Festivals, the only one I’ve missed being earlier this year (2014) as I was working at the ABC
   As a result, I can’t be too specific because there is always so much going on! I’ll give you some condensed highlights: 
   The first year I went was 2010. I met the people who became my core group of writing friends whilst I was in London, including my future co-writer, who I now am convinced I can’t live without! 
   The second year I went was 2011. I was fortunate enough to meet David Reynolds (who wrote Finding Nemo and The Emperor’s New Groove) in between sessions, and proceeded to gabble uselessly at him about how much I adore The Emperor’s New Groove, only to have him respond with equal vigour and excitement, to the point where we quoted the same line of the movie together. 
   The third year I went was 2012. I proved to myself my dedication to writing when I snuck out of a session with David Yates (director of the last four Harry Potter films) to queue up for speed pitching! 
   The most recent time I went, in 2013, I think the biggest highlight was seeing how far delegates I’d met in the first year had come since we first piled into Regent’s College and decided to introduce ourselves.
   It’s a fantastic experience and an amazing community of people, but I’ve learnt that if you’re going from Australia or America, it really pays to have something properly ready or something that you really want to get out of it. And take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way.

With your heavy schedule, do you get much writing done these days?

It’s tough to manage writing around a (minimum) 50 hour working week and quidditch at the weekends, but I’ve long since discovered I get intensely grumpy when I don’t write, so it is really for everyone’s benefit that I do. It’s really become about making it a priority.
   I’m lucky in that my co-writer is based in London, so usually by the time I get home from work, his day is starting so we can do a few hours of writing before I’m completely wiped out. Then I generally play catch up on the weekends and, because I’m often restricted in what writing I can get done during the week, manage to get a lot of things done in one hit, if I’m having a particularly disciplined day.
   At the moment, I’m working on a rom-com feature script as well as a sitcom pilot. Then there are all those other ideas that are bouncing around and being developed—there’s always something on the go.

What are three things you wish someone had told you about working on a TV show when you were starting out?
  • People are unpredictable, so just try to roll with the punches.
  • If you enjoy your job, make sure you really enjoy it, because the next one might not be so good.
  • Relish the breaks—the time you get off between jobs can be a distant memory when it’s 1am and you’re still in the office, waiting for them to call wrap.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Up until a few years ago, it would’ve been Screenwriting Updated by Linda Aronson, which covers all the basics of most structures that are around these days and is a fantastic introduction to screenwriting. But these days, it’s definitely Into the Woods by John Yorke, which is my absolute saving grace when it comes to structure, character and development.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

In no particular order (and for all differing qualities): 
Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994)
Mary Poppins (1964)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
500 Days of Summer (2009)
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Love Actually (2003)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
What If

What’s next for Alli Parker?


Here's the last few minutes of Australia's match against Canada at the Quidditch Global Games 2014. If Australia win, they have a guaranteed silver medal.

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Friday, 21 November 2014

Ron Shelton on 'Bull Durham'

Bull Durham was a first draft. Only one draft has ever been written. I wrote it in about ten weeks. I wrote it without an outline, without any notion of where I was going. I went down to the Carolinas and drove around to see the minor-league ballparks. I wanted to see if that world had changed since I had played in the minor leagues years earlier, and I discovered it hadn't. It was as unglamorous as when I played: Women came to the ballpark, these players were heroes in these small towns, everyone was afraid of being fired, and these dreams were probably never going to be realized for most of these guys.
   I drove from Durham down to Asheville, North Carolina. I drove on the back roads,
and I had a little mini-cassette recorder. I said, "Well, if this woman tells the story, what would the opening line be?" And I wrote, over a 140-mile drive, "I believe in the church of baseball." I'd drive five miles. "I've worshipped all the major religions, and most of the minor ones." I'd pull over for a hambuger, keep going. By the time I got to Asheville, I had dictated that opening two-page monlogue. A couple months later, I got back and pulled that out, and I transcribed it. I gave her the name Annie because of "Baseball Annie," and I had a book of matches from the Savoy Bar that I'd been at. That was Annie Savoy. I just kept writing, and I wrote the whole script. Gloriously, the producer read it and said something that producers are incapable of saying these days. He said, "I want to shoot it now," as opposed to, "I'll give you my notes next week." A few days later, we were shooting.

Ron Shelton, as quoted in Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ridley Scott on filmmaking

This all audio, no moving pictures. Okay? The (muted) sounds in the background come from Thelma & Louise, which Ridley Scott directed and here discusses at length.