Friday, April 30, 2010

Day 22: Abracadabra!!

The Hungry Screenwriter’s budget leaves little room for the purchasing of monogrammed slippers, footwear I’ve oft coveted when browsing the fine clothing on offer in Fortnum & Mason’s menswear department (surely they must have another name other than “menswear”, it sounds so Are You Being Served?). Sometimes I wonder where I get my taste in clothing from - the Duke of Windsor (England’s King that chose not to be) or Barry Humphries (Dame Edna’s alter-ego, who is a very natty dresser)? I mention this because my eye lingers most on Prince of Wales check suits, bespoke shirts from Jermyn Street and anything in Harris Tweed (I do own a fine tie, gifted me in Edinburgh, by a close friend, a few years ago).

“Clothes maketh the man” is a well-known quip, as is “cleanliness is next to Godliness”.

Which brings me back to my budget. One of the purposes of this Blog, from the outset, was for me to share with others - maybe fellow-travellers, maybe not - that the paucity of funds needn’t dictate the absence of abundance in a life. Personally, The Secret, is not an elixir that I can subscribe to...I have no quarrel if it works for you, but there’s something rather “do nothing, get lots” about it that doesn’t sit well with me.

I prefer to find bountifulness in the rich-pickings of that which surrounds me, the jewels of life in my everyday; which brings me on to Dr Bronner.

A couple of years ago I read an article by Maggie Alderson, in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, about the perils of Sodium Laurel Sulphate. Sodium Laurel Sulphate is the chemical found in most “soap” products that gives your skin that silky feeling, but at the same time actually drys it out. This was a revelation to me and from that point on I would study labels of “soap” products and eradicate this unwanted compound from my life.

Just before Christmas past, on the trail of inexpensive festive presents that would, however, be richly prized, I stumbled upon my soapy Xanadu: Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap.

Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap contains no harmful ingredients and, ironically, no harmful “soap”. The good doctor's soap is made with Fair Trade organic oils, comes in a range of flavours - Eucalyptus, Almond and Tea Tree being my favourites - is a Castile Soap (it’s place of origin being Castile, Spain), but wait, there’s more. Dr Bronner’s comes in a nice, small’ brick‘ size and has “Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap” engraved on one side and “All One” one the other? The packaging is a triumph and lured me from the outset, making the soap look as though it’s been delivered fresh from the late Dr Bronner’s apothecary by horse, cart or hand. Do yourself a favour today and hunt it down in your local health store.

Dr Bronners is $6.95 a go, making it a veritable King of soap pricing if not of soaps per se. I get two week’s worth of showers out of the one bar, which works out at about 49 cents a day, but everything that surrounds my soap purchasing - even the trip to the store - is a magnificent reward in, and of, itself.

Day #22 Tip: Find The Gold In The Day-To-Day Of Your Writing

In the early days of my screenwriting apprenticeship, when blood, sweat and tears mussed up my computer’s keyboard, moments of writer’s pain and angst would be leavened by me thinking about my acceptance speech on that glorious day when a golden statuette would be placed in my hand.

Such folly....but my folly, nonetheless.

I have since learnt that such thinking is meagre reward, thin sustenance, flimsy nutrition for the screenwriter. It was then explained to me, where the real writer’s nourishment may come from. Let me pass on this wisdom.

When I’m working on my Index Cards, with an uncensured mind, occasionally, I will be sent, by the writing Gods, the gift of a scintillating idea: “...what if this happened to my character here, what if he did this which led to this...”. As the, often outlandish, idea grows and flourishes, as I entertain the idea, my next thought is “can I make this play, dare I employ this idea?” Once every now and then, the gift, the idea, is very, very special and brings that wonderful turn of events to my plot that completely opens up the story and the screenplay. At such moments, I want to leap out of my chair and hug the world.

This is real screenwriter’s reward stuff and it can hardly be shared with anyone else, for who, apart from me, understands the import of such a wonderful leap of imagination?

Imagine then, M. Night Shyamalan, beavering away on The Sixth Sense, which in early incarnations was probably just an alright script, when (there’s a film spoiler coming here, in case you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense), suddenly this idea pops into M.Night’s head: “He’s dead. What if the protagonist is dead...he’s dead, he’s been f**king dead the whole time. Can I pull this off? Would this work? Can I make it play?...........EUREKA!!!!!!!!!”. I reckon that he would have leapt out of his writer’s chair and run down his local Hollywood boulevard naked when he got that gift. And d’you know what? A possibly mediocre screenplay just got catapulted to a rarified screenwriting stratosphere the likes of which, well, the success of that film is known to all.

Let me clear about this though: M.Night Shyamalan made his first film seven years before The Sixth Sense, which means that he was probably practicing his craft for quite a few years before that; in fact, I’ve read a bit about him and know he'd been working away at it for some time (I've yet to meet the "overnight success").

I sometimes get “eureka” moments and I too, feel like running down the street naked. Fortunately, I would be wafting, fragrantly of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap as I sprinted past in celebration of that moment in my writing day.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Day 21: You Can Leave Your Hat On

As you can see from the photograph, hats and I have an uncomfortable relationship. It seems to me that people fall into one of two camps: those that suit a hat and those that do not. Despite many efforts to break out of the latter group, over the years, I have always failed stupendously. As My father was wont to say: “act like a twat, wear a funny hat”. You can see where I got my penmanship skills from, eh?

Note: the dictionary offers two definitions under “twat”: I am calling on the one that reads “a person regarded as stupid or obnoxious.”

Who can forget the delicious, climactic hats moment from that great film The Full Monty? Gazza, Lomper, Gerald and the others, naked as the day they were Yorkshire-born apart from fake security guard hats covering their modesty? In front of them, an audience of baying women that includes their girlfriends, wives and neighbours. Swaying to Tom Jones’s version of the song, whose lyric captions this piece, it's the final moment of the film, when they have to summon up the courage to cast off those hats and reveal the most intimate parts of themselves to the whooping throng. Glory be!! Who could forget it?

Writer Simon Beaufoy was the architect of that moment ( I will talk another day about the Masterclass that I had with him) and it is not just a moment of laughter, hilarity and the like, it is a moment that encapsulates, in one visual bite, what the story, the film, The Full Monty is all about.

My copy of The Full Monty screenplay is dated March 1996, so you can bet that Simon Beaufoy would have conceived this story back in the early 90’s, before Baroness Thatcher had departed the governmental scene, having laid waste to much of England’s industrial North, just like the steel city of Sheffield where this story is set.

A group of unemployed men, feeling emasculated by their inability to earn money, set about becoming strippers for one night only à la The Chipperfields. Each of the men has a problem sharing intimacies with someone close to them: Gaz (Robert Carlyle) has difficulties with his young son Nathan, who is living with his mum and the new man in her life. Gaz’s overweight best mate Dave, would rather his wife think that he were having an affair than confess that he’s embarrassed about his weight. Middle-aged Gerald, pretends to his wife that he has a job to go to everyday, preferring the ruse over the confession that he has been made redundant. Their are others too, but you get the point.

What the film is about, is these men recovering their sense of self-worth by going ahead with the plan, to strip, as a group, for money. What the film is really about is how, in the process of shedding their clothes and their inhibitions, putting together this show, they each get to reveal the most personal, private and hidden emotional parts of themselves to those most important to them: the wives, sons and significant others.

The Full Monty is a triumph and that final hip-swaying, arse-baring scene is the triumph of all triumphs in this film. With one flick of the wrist, the hats go flying and their freedom to reveal the most physically intimate parts of themselves - the most appropriate of metaphors - is now complete, for the hard yards, the literal revelations, and the courage required to uncloak those has already been done.

Day #21 Tip: A Value And A Cause
The VALUE that comes into the world of Gazza, Gerald, Dave and Lomper at the Climax of The Full Monty is arguably self-worth or self-esteem. The CAUSE or reason for this coming into their lives (because it wasn’t there at the start of the story) is the courage to share the most intimate parts of themselves with those closest to them, come what may.

This is an idea that resonates throughout the film, vibrating through every scene and every moment: characters revealing or hiding the most private and personal parts of themselves. Don’t believe me? Then get the film out on DVD, download the script and do the homework.

This governing body of a “value” and a “cause”, I have to stress again, is not my creation. I’m just interpreting the how and the why of what Robert Mckee came up with and trying to show you how I see it at work in films I know and scripts of my own.

The Controlling Idea is a litmus test for every scene in my film. I must dip this “litmus paper” of a governing or controlling idea into every potential scene in my script and see whether that moment has something to do with the idea or not. If not, why not...maybe it’s script puffery, “frothy, emotional appeal”, pretty pictures or film fat. If so, I need to get to work on it, cut it, scalpel it out, it’s dole-bludging on my scenes of storytelling muscle and sinew that are working their arses off.

If the guys in The Full Monty can earn their keep, so can every word and every moment in my screenplay.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 20: How Many Heroes Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb?

I met a hero of mine, at the time when he was still very much a hero, to me.

It was circa 1976 and I, yet to leave my hometown of Portsmouth, was doing some work at the local radio station, Radio Victory. At this point in my life, I had an alter ego, Roger King, who was a mobile disc-jockey of an evening, available for weddings, hen nights, youth clubs and intermittent roadshow work for said radio station.

A friend at the time, one of the station’s on-air jocks, was given a rock new releases programme to helm every week but had little or no knowledge of rock music past, present or future. I stepped up to the plate and selected the tracks for him, from the assortment of new product that would pile up every week from the various record companies. These record companies would also invite him to come up to London and interview many of the artists for use on the programme and by way of a bit of a junket. Like some sort of ventriloquist’s doll, he would take me along to ask the sensible, knowledgeable and appropriate questions.

It was shock, awe and stupification that knocked me off my chair when I was told that the next in line for these interviews would be Peter Gabriel.

If asked what was the first album that I bought with my own hard-earned moola, my quick-fire response would be 'Foxtrot' by Genesis (voted the second all-time Prog Rock album by Mojo Magazine). The second concert that ever I went to, was in 1972 at Portsmouth Guildhall: Van Der Graf Generator, supported by Lindisfarne and Genesis. For purists, this was the real Genesis, the Genesis fronted by lead singer Peter Gabriel, not the later incarnation that boasted Phil Collins as the frontsman (he did have a creditable moment or two in the shoes left by Gabriel...but this was long before winsome solo material like ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’).

It was an earth-shattering day for me when Melody Maker announced that Gabriel was quitting Genesis to pursue a solo adventure, but then part of what I liked about the man was his ability to see things way, way, way beyond my limited horizon (still does). The costumes he wore on stage, the lyrics that he came up with, the bizarre patter between songs when performing live, all were beyond my welkin (Peter Gabriel was also one to favour the use of archaic English).

So this was an audience with Peter Gabriel on the release of his second solo album...the first four or five were all called, in true visionary fashion, I thought: ‘Peter Gabriel’. What threw me, when the moment of introduction came, was that he’d shaved his head that day. Hmm, predictably unpredictable. I can only try to describe it like this: imagine meeting your hero or heroine and suddenly they’ve got no hair?!

Me and the not-so-hirsute Mr Gabriel got on famously and, I must boast, that by the end of the interview, he scribbled down the address of his home in Somerset and invited me to drop in if ever I was in the area. I kid you not.

Pete and I never did chew the fat in the west of England...I think it was necessary for me to keep a distance between me and my hero, essential even. He has his place in my life and I mine. I was to meet him on two more occasions later on in life when I had a brief but successful moment in the music industry, I did not, however, say “remember me?” Suffice to say, his hair was back and he didn’t look at me as if to say “do I know you, have we met before?”

He’s a very interesting and thoughtful man, Peter Gabriel. Go to his website, listen to him speak on, he’s one of the extremely good guys.

Day #19 Tip: How Many Protagonists?
Any screenplay boasts a hero, heroine or heroes, known in storytelling language as the protagonist or protagonists.

Most films boast the single protagonist. using my genre of Crime, I need look no further than the lone wolf detective: Philip Marlowe (Bogart in The Big Sleep), Sam Spade (Bogart again, this time in The Maltese Falcon) Jakes Gittes (Jack Nicholson in Chinatown). One man on one mission with an objective across the arc of a film.

When there are two cops on the same mission with the same objectives, then it’s a Plural Protagonist story: Detective Mills & Somerset (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) in Seven.

When it’s more than one protagonist but they have different objectives, we call this a Multiprotagonist Story. In LA Confidential, there are three detectives who have differing quests that sometimes intersect, other times don’t: Bud White (Russell Crowe), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and the wonderful Jack Vincennes(one of Kevin Spacey’s finest outings).

Another essential book for the screenwriter to have within easy, daily reach, is Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey’. A one-time story consultant at Disney, he came across the seminal Joseph Campbell book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ some years ago and set about developing ideas about (film) storytelling via the mythic perspective given by Campbell. Both books are indispensable to the writer for the screen.

Understanding the hero at great depth is core, screenwriting apprenticeship work. Christopher Vogler and Joseph Campbell’s companion pieces are great guides.

I envy Christopher Vogler’s time working with Disney. Last year I was commissioned to work in a Script Consultant capacity on a feature-length animated film that is currently in development. As an overture to my work, I spent a weekend watching back-to-back Disney and Pixar films. Was that one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had in some time or what? If I wanted to find myself a gold star filmic storytelling internship somewhere in the world, I reckon that either of these two companies would be the place to land. Do these guys know how to tell story or do they know how to tell story?

And, who sings & co-wrote the song ‘Down To Earth’ at the end of Pixar’s futuristic Wall-E? Step forward Academy Award-nominated, could-have-been-a-mate-of-mine, Peter Gabriel.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Day 19: Football Is A Game You Play With The Brain

Albert Camus, Frenchman, philosopher and existential author was, apparently, a bit of a handy goalkeeper. Whether he’d have given Fabien Barthez (one-time ‘keeper of the French national team and ex-beau of Linda Evangelista) a run for his money, is open to speculation. Maybe he was content to knock the ball about, down the park with Sartre?

I have a story that my mind tells me came from watching Parkinson one Saturday night back in the UK; I can’t remember whether it was an anecdote of Parky’s or if it was relayed to him by one of his guests:

Old Trafford Football Ground, Manchester, the late 1960’s. Matt Busby (later royally dubbed “Sir” Matt) was holding a training session with his Manchester United players on the pitch at the “Theatre of Dreams” (I don’t think Old Trafford had actually been called that yet) when he called the players - Bobby Charlton (also later to become a knight of the realm), Nobby Stiles, Dennis Law and the other greats) down to the dressing room. However, he told the young Northern Irish wunderkind, George Best (pictured), to stay up on the turf and kick a ball about for a bit.

Already an enormously prodigious talent, but a youth still unsure of his footing in the world, George guessed that the rest of the team were to have a sophisticated tactical talk with the boss, the level of which would be above and beyond him, that’s why he was excluded and left to carry on with his footwork and ball skills on the pitch.

This is what, apparently, took place in the dressing room. Matt Busby seated the players and did indeed talk about the tactics for the upcoming game against whoever the opposition was on the weekend; this is what he said. “Here’s what I want you to do on Saturday lads: when you get the ball, give it to George.”

When I was but a nipper, My father had a friend and colleague - “Uncle Jeff” - who was down from Manchester (Salford in fact) who lodged with us for a little while, whilst he found his footing in the alien (to him) South of England. Uncle Jeff was a season ticket holder and rabid supporter of Man Utd and set about grooming me to join the cause and follow the Red Devils. I couldn’t have been more that eight or nine at the time, but, football club allegiances aside, what I do remember about Uncle Jeff, was that he predicted I would be Prime Minister one day.

That prediction has yet to come to pass, and maybe it’s stretching a long bow to think that it ever might, but that’s not the point of this tale. Whether I move my CD collection into 10 Downing Street or not, what I will never forget, is the belief that Uncle Jeff had in me. Sad to say, that I don;t know his whereabouts today, but I imagine that he’s maybe moved on from this earth of ours, for sure he’d be in his late 90’s by now. By the way, his surname was Buckley. How many kids can say that a personal mentor of theirs was Jeff Buckley?!

George Best has sadly left us. There are many legacies and other tales that remain of George Best, most importantly though, his footballing gift to this world will endure.

Day #19 Tip: Get Yourself A Fan Base
It is suggested that the apprenticeship of the screenwriter is ten years long, and even then, at the end of that ten years, there is no guarantee that you will be gainfully employed, let alone a success. It’s a chipper thought isn’t it?

I’ve just tipped over that ten year mark so I’ll keep you apace with what it looks like from the other side as I find out for myself.

My own experience of that apprenticeship (and beyond) tells me this: you will need tenacity, talent is a good thing too, but you cannot go far without a support system of friends and family; it’s an essential.

I’m very lucky and very grateful. I have friends and family who offer nutritional, emotional and financial support and have done all through the days and the long nights so far. Yet, as Dante says, in the opening stanza of Canto 1, Volume 1 (Inferno) of The Divine Comedies: “Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.”

That was actually quoted to me when I was making my life-changing career choice, to abandon almost certain riches and security in business (in the 90’s) to pursue this life where the only guaranteed reward is that of constancy to what I believe in, what I would have, as a fulfilling life, for me.

It’s in that “dark wood” (which you WILL find yourself in at some point) that you are going to need the words of an Uncle Jeff to be your beacon, luring you away from the siren song that would have you crash on the rocks of whatever forces oppose your dreams.

It’s also crucial, nay vital, that you have something, a kind of lodestar, to place your trust in whilst navigating these tricky and inky waters of doubt. Football helps me, centers me, lightens my load and brightens my world. Maybe George Best, Camus and Dante are knocking a ball about “up” on the pitch whilst I’m down here thinking about the tactics for Saturday?

In the words of another venerable "Sir", Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: creator of Sherlock Holmes, a founder-member of Portsmouth Football club and, himself, a goalkeeper:

"To give and to take, to accept success modestly and defeat bravely, to fight against odds, to stick to one's point, to give credit to your enemy and value your friend - these are some of the lessons which football should impart."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Day 18: “...cut the throats of your sons and consorts...”

Now that’s the kind of sentiment I like in a national anthem; Vive La France! I care not for my homeland’s ‘God Save The Queen’ nor do I give a fig for ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I thank my parents and their parents that, on my patriarchal side my surname - Joyce - is Irish (and fitting, for a writer, dont’cha think?), whilst my mother’s maiden name was French - Lepla - I am of Huguenot stock, once persecuted by the Catholics (depicted filmicly in Queen Margot) and hounded out of France in the 16th-17th centuries.

Three hundred years later and three January’s ago, I boarded the Eurostar train on a coal black London morning at Waterloo, only to emerge in brilliant winter sunshine at Le Gare du Nord, less that two hours later. One more exile returned home to Paris.

Everything about Paris is splendid to me, it’s that long-lost bit of French that is part and parcel of my psyche and spiritual DNA. Whilst Charles Dickens and I are both sons of Portsmouth, it’d be a vicious punch-up between him and Emile Zola as to who would earn the title of my favourite novelist.

Who doesn’t want to stand up and join in with the Marseillaise when it’s sang at any sporting event?! I was ready to chime in as I disembarked, had there been a band there to rouse us all.

I had arrived on the first train in and had until the last chemin de fer out, that same day. My raison d’être, was to spend a jour in the shoes of Marcel Lestadt, the central character in the commissioned film I’d now written three drafts of, The Detective (Le Detective).

First, I headed to the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement, to the Museum of Gendarmerie. How delighted was I to be halted in my travels by two swarthy members of Paris’s le flic, toting machine last I felt like I’d turned into Tintin. They’d never heard of the museum but, with a grunt, let me pass. I reckon I’m the only visitor that museum’s ever seen and I wouldn’t suggest adding it to your “must-do” list when in the nation’s capital

Then to the Pantheon, to pay tribute at the tomb of Descartes: philosopher, mathematician and coiner of the phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). Descartes is quoted once or twice in the screenplay, enough reason for me to track down his last resting place. The picture alongside this article is one that I took under the great dome of that building; a temporary shrine/ artistic instillation of photographs of Parisian Jews who lost their lives or were sent off to the camps during the Occupation, something that’s also referred to in the script. How one thing leads to another? How the "great" are remembered alongside those we mustn't forget, in such fraternité.

The last part of my day, walking in the shadow of my detective, was spent around the lanes and sidestreets of the Marais, where I’d arbitrarily decided, in the character biography I’d written of Lestadt, that he lived.

Before reacquainting myself with the Eurostar, I dined in the bustle of Montmartre, under the lee of Le Sacre Couer, just after dusk, not sure whether I thought I was George Simenon’s police creation, Inspector Maigret, or Walt Disney’s culinary rat, Ratatouille.

I was sad to leave Paris, exiled once more, but I look forward to a triumphant return.

Day #18 Tip: Research is Your Saviour And Your Friend
In between writing out the Index Cards and filling them with plot points for the screenplay I'm writing, how else do I fill my working day?

I’ll tell you how: writing biographies for the main characters and carrying out research.

My character biog for the detective of the film’s title, Marcel Lestadt, is 9 pages long, as is the biography of his love interest Collete, his enemy General Bernard and his sidekick, the Cambodian Kiempo. I made them up, I created them. They are that detailed that I know what each of them prefers for breakfast. I don’t do this to be a pedant, or a swot, it’s my job. I must know the how and the why of every detail in my screenplay, just as Harold Pinter knew the reason for every comma and full stop in his work and, “just as God knows the name of every sparrow that falls” (McKee).

Research is one of the most enjoyable parts of this gig for me. I get to immerse myself in cultures, countries, religions and who-knows-what for all different kinds of reason. If anything, I could accuse myself of sometimes over-researching. I can go down one rabbit hole, which branches off to another and then I’m off down that one. I can chase a trail on the web about General Charles De Gaulle and find myself, two hours later, ruminating about dairy farming in Minnesota.

The golden rule (of thumb) is this: if you find yourself investigating something that is not actually going to have any bearing on the script that you’re writing, then STOP. I know it sounds like a motherhood statement. Sorry, it’s the best I’ve got.

If you’re stuck, bothered, unenthused and uninspired with your writing, then go do some research. I love looking at maps, I take enormous pleasure in listening to the music of a composer’s work from the time and place of my story. I welcome the chance to walk in the footsteps of my characters(to a point!).

If, on a daily basis, I am going to draw on the well of ideas for my writing then I must top that well up; I don’t know about you, but my precious resource of an imagination is only part artesian-spring; the balance, I must replenish, bucket by enjoyable bucket.

With a cheery “adieu”, I am gone for the day mes amis.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 17: Speak To Me Not Words Of War, But Words Of Love

On a day in Australia when everyone is talking about war, I’d prefer to talk about Love...actually.

Love Actually is a troublesome film for me, I love and loathe it in equal parts. If I were stuck in a hotel room, surfing the channels of the tv and found a film I “should” watch on one station and Love Actually on another, I might well choose the latter. Let's just call it a "guilty pleasure", eh?

There’s so much for me to dislike about Love Actually: it’s rife with gross implausibility, it’s set in a London that’s very unfamiliar and, at times, unrecognisable to me, it’s twee, it’s sentimental to the point of mawkishness and in parts, it’s cheesey. And, who the hell, when swearing says things like “...shit, buggedy, bum”! That’s not swearing.

So what’s in this film, for me, that weaves together nine different plots of love?

1. It’s London and it’s Christmas. I can’t think of any place where I would rather be at Christmas.

2. The wonderful moment when the “Mark” character is caught out by Keira Knightley’s character, having fixated his camera on her, at her wedding to his best friend; he has secretly held a candle for her, she has found out and says to him: “But you never talk to me - you always talk to Peter. You don’t like me.” Will women ever really understand men?

3. Hugh Grant does his perennial foppish bachelor schtick, and d’you know what, it makes me laugh, sort of?

4. In another plot, Liam Neeson’s recently widowed character (so tragically poignant now), is trying to get his stepson, Sam, to open up to him. Liam is worried as to why the boy won’t talk to him and is relieved when Sam confesses that the problem is that he’s in love. Sam is perplexed at his stepfather’s reaction and responds with: “What could be worse than the total agony of being in love?” Tick that box...I know that one

5. Bill Nighy’s over-the-hill rock star - Billy Mack - is a fantastically lurid, comic turn.

6. The heartbreaking scene where Emma Thompson’s character retreats to her marital bedroom having discovered that her husband has duped her by playing fast and loose with his PA. Emma Thompson says nothing yet her few actions speak volumes of truthfulness and Joni Mitchell underscores the moment.

7. I’m a sucker for Martine McCutcheon. Sorry, what can I say, there's an Eliza Doolittle out there for all of us.

8. Most importantly, I get what it is that writer/director Richard Curtis wants us to get from this multiplot story and he’ll not have to brook an argument from me.

Day #17 Tip: Don’t Have A Theme, Have A Controlling Idea
Within the last 30 minutes of Love Actually, the nine plots all Climax: Sam, the young boy, chases after Joanna, the young American girl and tells her what he thinks of her: that she’s the one for him.

Colin Firth’s character flies to Marseilles and, in front of the patrons of a crowded restaurant, asks Portugese Aurelia, to marry him.

Rock star Billy Mack leaves Elton John’s Christmas shindig to "watch porn and drink whisky" with his long-suffering manager and friend, revealing to him that “ turn out to be the fucking love of my life...”

In a coda, to Mark and Keira Knightley’s Juliet story, Mark spells out his feelings - come what may - and then moves on with his life.

Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister publicly confirms his feelings for Natalie in front of a whole school in Wandsworth, and so all the plots are wrapped up in positive conclusion, with one notable exception.

Sarah (Laura Linney) and her office colleague Karl, quietly fancy each other. They nearly get it together after the company Christmas party but there are complications. Throughout their plot they are both given ample opportunity to say what they feel for each other, but don’t. Consequently, their love lies and dies unspoken.

In virtually all of Love Actually’s plot climaxes, characters find ”love” when they are able to muster up the courage and express this love, mostly, in words. “Love” has a chance to flourish in the world of the characters when they speak love. In the parlance of a film screenplay’s Controlling Idea (which must be made up of a VALUE and a CAUSE), the overriding value that comes into the worlds of the characters at the end of this film is “love” and the cause (what made it happen) is “speaking it (love)”.

Hugh Grant’s voice-over in the prologue says this: “...Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge - they were all messages of love”

I believe Richard Curtis’s Controlling Idea that permeates the whole of this film and resonates throughout, is something along the lines of “Love lives when it is spoken and dies when left unsaid” or something like that. It’s true n’est pas? Love ain’t telepathic, I can’t think myself in or to love.

Last night, at the dinner table, I watched, as the telephone was passed to my nearly three year-old Godson so that his mum could speak to him from Adelaide. The light in his eyes, the smile on his face as he listened to his Mum’s words, and he managed two or three of his own back to her, prove beyond doubt Richard Curtis’s point.

Robert McKee’s idea of a film’s Controlling Idea is much much more than just a theme, it’s more a screenplay’s meaningful watermark; my watermark, your watermark, of what you or I want to say to the world through our stories.

Today I want to say this to the world: one of the things I actually love about being single, is that every time I leave my apartment, I could turn a street corner and meet the love of my life...I must remember to tell her.

Please find a moment, somewhere today, to put on the Beach Boys‘ track 'God Only Knows'.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Day 16: "The Revolution Is Only A T-Shirt Away"

I was a Punk, for a moment. All pretty ironic really.

From the age of 10 to about 16, in the late 1960's and early '70's my musical diet was Progressive ("Prog") Rock (which we'll go into another time) and, suffice to say, my album collection was made up of bands like Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. By 1975-76 those bands were stadium-filling rock dinosaurs and I was 17, going on 18 and hungry for the rebellion (whenever that was coming).

There was an absence of a machine to rage against or a war to fight about in my middle-class provincial English life. I lived in a two-up, two-down house, built on a peaceful private housing estate, with my family. We never were short of roasts on Sunday, package holidays in Majorca or crackers at Christmas. My father had his own small business, we weren't privileged nor under-privileged, just part of the great mass, laundered in Persil, that is Britain's middle-class. Plenty enough reason to rebel.

It was only natural that I should pretend to be a punk when that musical movement came along and gob at the bands I'd loved who, by now, seemed to have more in common with my parents than me.

I was more The Clash than I ever was The Sex Pistols. I think it was a bit like The Stones or The Beatles in the 60's, you were either one or the other, but you couldn't be both. I'm told, that if you were the father of a teenage daughter in the 1960's and found posters of The Beatles on your daughter's bedroom wall you would be horrified. However, if it was a poster of The Rolling Stones that you came across, you'd be calling the local Catholic priest to come and exorcise your mock-tudor semi.

I had a not-dissimilar experience at 31 Princes Drive. Stiff Records were the indie label du jour of the late 70's, launching, amongst others, the careers of Elvis Costello, Madness and Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Their nifty company mission statement was "If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck", which I had, emblazoned on a t-shirt. My mother refused to wash that t-shirt. Point blank, that t-shirt was not going in her Hoovermatic or whatever it was called. At last, I had my fight.

Thank the Lord that Baroness Thatcher came high-horsing along into power in 1979, because then we had something to really spit at; unfortunately, by then, Punk was dead and the bloody, wafty New Romantics had pranced in.

Day #16 Tip: Have Something To Say
One of the hundreds of screenwriting books available out there has the very enterprising and seductive title: "How to Write the Screenplay that You Want to Write in 21 Days". Lovely. You bet I bought that one. Wouldn't you?

There are legendary stories of Paul Schrader checking himself into a motel with a carton of Lucky's, a case of Jack and walking out two weeks later with the screenplay of Taxi Driver. Yeah right. Like he hadn't been noodling it around in his head for two years prior to that?! Maybe it is possible, but any film I've seen that's been knocked off in " a handful of days" looks to me like a film that's been written in "a handful of days".

The only thing I do remember about "How to Write....." was that the author pointed out the different themes writers like to explore, the older they get. My themes and ideas have changed over the years, just like my musical tastes; let's just say that maybe I've matured a little. Doesn't mean that I still don't have something to say, a point to make. I mean, crikey...two hours of precious screen time?! I hope I have something to say.

Margaret Thatcher's reign of terror (1979-90) coincided with the birth of some of my favourite English TV and film directors and writers: Ken Loach was directing televisions Play For Today before he went onto make the films Riff-Raff and Ladybird Ladybird. Mike Leigh was doing the same before High Hopes and Life is Sweet. Long before Cracker, Jimmy McGovern was writing the seminal soap Brookside for Channel 4. But my favourite and fondest recollection was the never-to-be-forgotten 5-part televison series Boys From The Blackstuff by Alan Bleasedale, about a gang of disenfranchised and unemployed workers from Liverpool.

Those writers and directors all had something to say; God-love-them for that, because I, and plenty of others, were ready to listen. It's not restricted to drama though: in John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda, never has their been a more eloquent expression of the English fear of being embarrassed.

I'll talk about Robert McKee's idea of a film's Controlling Idea in the coming days, but for now, it's important for me to remember that, like my t-shirt which remained unwashed (perhaps I really was a Punk!!), my scripts now must have, something that I want to say.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 15: Was Jerusalem Builded There?

Happy St. George's Day. April 23rd is the celebration of the patron saint of England, Germany, Cyprus, Valencia and many other countries and cities. On a day when everyone else has turned their attention to the Storm, I have turned mine to the Dragons, or at least the one slain by St.George.

To be perfectly honest, I'm quite happy for the Melbourne Storm salary cap story to have broken during a week when I normally duck for cover from the media; a week that I, not jokingly, refer to as "The Festival of the War". I have not the stomach for war, but more of that on Sunday. I have little time for flag waving either, or carrying out deeds and acts in the name of flags. Oscar Wilde said that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Or did he say that "rehab is the last refuge of the celebrity fleeing a scandal"; hush my acerbic mouth.

I am English by birth and the flag of St.George holds little or no sway over my life. It stirs no fervent ardour in me for my 'state of my origin', I don't start singing Blake's words, invoking "dark satanic mills" or "green and pleasant lands". In fact, all that comes to mind these days, when I think of the flag of St.George, are the village idiot faces of football thuggery, English cricket's Barmy Army and the right wing of British politics who all seem to have wrapped, daubed and made this flag their shroud, their cape, their Potteresque cloak of nationalistic invisibility . Too many flags waving this week for me.

But a deep and undeniable seam of my homeland does lie within me and I know how to tap and mine that rich vein at the press of a button. Loaded onto this computer, on which I hen and peck, is a store of music that I regularly turn to when I want to be transported to my 'spiritual' home, I am no more than one second away from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten; two of England's greatest composers.

I am not alone. Peter Weir used Vaughan William's 'Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis', exquisitely in his film Master & Commander. A film, based on the fictional character of Patrick O'Brien's novels about Nelson's Navy of the early 1800's. My hometown is Portsmouth, where Nelson's HMS Victory (of Trafalgar fame) sits in dry dock, so there are many guy ropes anchoring me here (apologies for the mixed metaphor of tents and ships).

Australian director John Duigan, employed 'The Lark Ascending', transporting the most quintessentially English of pieces to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales for his most iconic Australian of films, The Year My Voice Broke, which introduced us to Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelssohn...perhaps my favourite Australian film. He weaves the English and the Australian well together.

Day #15 Tip: Get Yourself A Musical Touchstone Or Two
The journey of a feature film screenplay is a long one for most of us to set out on. The expedition of a vocation or career as a screenwriter is a lifetime's odyssey. Nights on a bald mountain will come.

Somewhere in the journey of every script I will find myself halfway up the mountain on a cold, dark and desolate night; it's as hard to climb back down as it is to carry on up. Note that I don't say "if" this happens, I say that it "will". So, packed in my screenwriter's rucksack, right at the bottom for when I need it most, is my touchstone, a musical touchstone.

For each script that I work on I have one specific piece of music that, when listened to, fast-tracks me straight to the inspiration point that fired in me the spirit to write this script. No matter how many times I listen to it, again and again and again, it always re-ignites that fire in me to light that darkest of places. The moment the piece starts, within half of a half of a second, I am reminded of why I want to write this screenplay and why I must.

I have a piece of music that is the touchstone for my screenwriting career too.

A couple of years ago, I thought that all was lost and that I'd have to give this career choice - my dream - away. I was working in a warehouse, not getting to my writing, feeling lower than low and was plagued with all sorts of apocalyptic horseman on my tail. I asked for a sign; a sign that would tell me whether I should keep going or give it away. Later that morning, picking and packing boxes in the warehouse, I had one ear on Margaret Throsby's radio show on ABC Classic FM. The film critic David Stratton was her guest that morning, talking about his life, spruiking his newly-minted biog and playing a few favourite tracks that meant something to him. My mind and memory both tell me that perhaps it was his last choice of music for the morning. The moment that it started I knew the strains of the introduction to this piece, a piece that I have never heard on the radio before, nor since. Those opening threads of music were the sounds of fingers running over a harp in a fashion that can only be described as eerie and mysterious. Music that I know as Jerry Goldsmith's score to the title sequence that begins the film Chinatown.

Chinatown is my favourite film. I had my message. The storm within was silenced. I knew which which to head on the mountain.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Day 14: Fear Robbed Me Of.....

Fill in the blanks at the end of the heading above. Fear robbed me of the novel I could have written, the relationships I could have had, the life I could have lived and the list is, well, endless. Not that those examples are pertinent to me, but I have my own that I could colour in.

Friends of mine, those who know me well, some who will be reading this, know that I had a debilitating phobia of flying for a great period of my life, which saw me stranded at airports, stop planes on runways and put travelling companions through untold hours of stress and anxiety, just from helping me book a ticket.

My favourite way to nullify the fear of a dreaded flight was through a combination of drink and drugs, mainly drink. Back in 1990 I was travelling through the USA with close friends and we ended up in San Francisco, where we stayed for a week and I, for a bit longer. Such a fantastic city for so many different reasons. I was to take an evening flight from San Francisco down to LA, where I would connect with a flight to London. I had calculated the exact number of pre-flight beers needed to absent me enough from reality to get me on said plane and promptly went about my business in a bar somewhere near Russian Hill. What I failed to notice was that I was being served Lite Beer instead of the much-needed full strength, and whilst there was some sort of placebo effect, by the time I sat down on the TWA Tristar, I was ready to get up and get off. And so I did. When an announcement told us that there was a temporary problem getting one of the three engines going, that was my cue to lie to one of the cabin crew and make my exit.

The above story was not an isolated incident. I've since overcome my phobia of flying, mainly due to the fact that at one point in my previous business life, I found myself flying more than anyone else in the world that I knew and eventually tired of the medicating I was having to do on a daily basis to get me up in the air.

Fear is with me today: I've got a tooth playing up and know that visiting the dentist is not a freelance screenwriter's favourite way to eke out a meagre budget, I've projects with the Producers that are banked up like planes that can't land because of volcanic ash clouds and the countdown is on to next month's rent.

My favourite quote about fear is this one: "Ships are safest when in harbour, but ships weren't built to sit in harbours."

I might be repeating myself with that quote, I may have shared it with you already, but I need to remind myself of it today, to hoist my sail and keep on my chartered course, just like 16 year-old Jessica Watson, who is fast-approaching home on her round-the-world sail back to Sydney. I bet Jessica knows a thing or two about fear.....and it's antidote: faith.

Day #14: A Film Can Be More Than One Genre
Thursday night is Genre Study night for me and tonight I am delighted to be re-visiting Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart's protagonist has, as the title suggest, a fear of heights in this wonderful movie. Well, actually that's not quite true as the dictionary doesn't suggest that vertigo is a "fear" per se, but a collection of sensations often caused by looking down.

Vertigo is in my Top 10 crime/detective movies. Set in San Franciso with iconic imagery of some of that city's famous landmarks, it's paid homage to in the Richard Gere/Kim Basinger film Final Analysis and, I believe, also in Basic Instinct. But beyond, the location, these three films have something else in common: a femme fatale.

The archetypal femme fatale character is a hallmark, nay prerequisite, of the Film Noir sub-genre. What makes a crime film fall into the sub-genre of Film Noir, or it's latterday companion Neo-Noir? The protagonist is a tough guy with a fatal flaw and that fatal flaw is a women who will draw him into the web of the crime at the heart of the story. That was Kim Bassinger in Final Analysis, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and, famously, Kim Novak in Vertigo. I would stop short of referring to Jimmy Stewart as a "tough guy" though.

But, Noir'ish it is. However, it also falls into the sub-genre of "detective story" as James Stewart is a private investigator of sorts and it's definitely a "psycho-thriller". It's a psycho-thriller, not just because it's directed by Hitch, but because the protagonist becomes a victim over the arc of the story.

The subplot of the romantic relationship between Stewart and Novak also means that it's a Love Story too. So, there you have it, Vertigo is at least four genres. However, I must work out what the primary genre is in my script though...that's essential for prioritising story lines.

If you come across any movie house showing a re-run of Vertigo, do yourself a huge favour:buy a ticket, grab the biggest choc-top going and lose yourself for a couple of hours in someone else's fears.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 13: Meaning = Emotion

Five years ago, I had a subscription to the Sydney Film Festival and found myself sitting in a cinema seat at the State Theatre watching two films a night for something like 17 or 18 nights. Three or four nights in, waiting once again for that most special of moments when the lights go down in the cinema, there was a delay. As we sat together in the dark, the delay forced upon me an inquisition that went along the lines of "what is it I want every time the lights go down, what do I want from this film?". This introspection was prompted by the fact that at only eight films into my 50-60 movie mini-marathon, I was already jaded by what I'd seen.

My answer came back loud and clear: "I want to be moved. I want to be taken to the end of my emotional line. If it's a comedy, then make me laugh until my ribs hurt and the tears are streaming down my face. If you're going to make me angry, then have me on my feet, fist clenched, shouting at the screen. If the story is tragic, then make sure that the credits are long enough for me to gather together what's left of my dignity so that I can reassemble myself before the lights come back up or I feel I can move (whichever comes first)".

Robert McKee says that if he could send a telegram to Hollywood, it would say something like this: "meaning equals emotion". Am I on the same page of that hymn book or am I on the same page of that hymn book?!

When I find myself admiring cinematography, marveling at an actor's bravura performance or being entranced by a choice of music in a film, then I'm no longer in the story or the film, I'm outside of it. When I'm loving a film, I'm on the edge of my seat (or behind it in a horror flick) hanging on, by the thread of what's going to happen next. Once I start to think about anything other than the character's plight, you've actually lost me.

I'll pause here and tease for a moment and ask "am I the only one that started to look at his watch during The Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire (last year and this year's best Academy Awards' Best Film)? I'll save The Hurt Locker question for a day soon to come.

Back to meaning. Great story produces great meaning, wonderful meaning, heart-shredding, visceral, hose-me-off-the-floor meaning. I cannot bang on about this long enough. Yes, there is always room for exceptions and contradictions (I love A Space Odyssey 2001...still actually think there's meaning in there) but we human beings love a story that MOVES us.

Sydney Lumet, the veteran New York film Director at the helm of such wonderful movies as Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Hill, Failsafe and many many others was, in my opinion, a champion of meaning equalling emotion; nothing flashy about his work. For me, his finest hour (or two) was in his collaboration with screenwriter David Mamet and the wonderful Paul Newman on The Verdict. It's my third favourite film of all time, and along with the The Hustler, Paul Newman's tour-de-force (and what did he win his Oscar for.....The Colour Of Money...absurdity runs riot, yet again, in California).

Watch The Verdict; a great director, a great writer and three great actors (Newman, James Mason and Charlotte Rampling) at the top of their respective games and watch all of Sydney Lumet's films to grasp the art and skill of spartan screen storytelling that yields such meaning and emotion.

Giuseppe Tornatore (writer and director of Cinema Paradiso) said this of his tender and poignant hymn to the movies: "The love that often evades us in life, is always there for us in the dark embrace of the cinema"..I'd add "meaning" to that too.

Day #13 Tip: Read The Great Writers
Nothing will improve writing and storytelling skills like reading. And I mean, reading the great storytellers: Dickens, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Flaubert, Balzac, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, George Eliot. These are just some of the novelists, for starters.

I envy you if you've yet to make inroads into some of these writers. Run to your nearest secondhand bookstore or garage sale, Penguin Classics are virtually two-a-penny. Delay no longer, put aside any prejudice (and pride), watch what they did, seek to not get to the end of your days having never read Thérèse Raquin.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 12: An Audience With Judy Davis

I think it was 1996, two years after completing the Directing course at NIDA, that they invited me back to direct half of the third year actors in the first of that graduation year's plays. I was bent on directing a new piece called The Libertine (which was to eventually become a film...with Johnny Depp?), a black n' bawdy period piece about the greatest rake of the Restoration, John Wilmott. However, John Malkovitch and his Steppenwolf company in Chicago had snaffled the rights and refused to release their grip even for five performances at a drama school in Australia.

The rights battle between Anzac Parade, Kensington and the "windy city" of Chicago went down to the wire and, literally, at the thirteenth hour, we received the fax that demanded "which part of NO didn't we understand". I whipped a copy of Aphra Benn's The Rover out of my pocket and between us (me, the cast and crew) we still had our two ours of Restoration fun.

But to Judy. Ex-NIDA student Judy Davis paid the school a visit during the time that we were rehearsing and I sat in on an audience that she gave to the about-to-graduate third year. Judy Davis said something that I've repeated to others again and again and again, t'was this:

"Out there, in the real world, there are probably two types of acting career you can pursue. Firstly there's the one that has you on the cover of Who Weekly and New Idea, it's all sunglasses and awards, limousines and gossip-pages, fame and money and glamour, some creative reward but probably little. Then there's the other course you can charter: often performing on the stage in hard-to-find venues with little or no recognition from the public, certainly no fame to speak of, but maybe you get to command the respect of your peers, though for little money, yet speaking the words of some of the greatest writers that have ever lived. BOTH choices are valid. Choose the direction you want and head towards it. But, DO NOT, head towards one of these, whilst all the time wishing you were pursuing the other, because that's what will do your head in."

I must add that there are many fine, fine actors and actresses that have, and continue to, accomplish both. But, by and large, I'm with Judy.

Day #12 Tip: Follow Your True North
I've mentioned before, that every January, I'm one of the pre-selectors for the Tropfest Short Film Festival. I'm probably the elder of the pre-selectors now, having done it off-and-on since 1999. I and two others, sit in front of a plasma screen for five days and watch 200 short films to find a shortlist of twenty.

Every year, post-preselection, we're asked to jot down our "do's" and "don'ts" of short filmmaking to upload onto the Trop website for next year's crop of entrees. This year, the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed me and published and article about some of my top ten tips. Here's a favourite:

"Make the film that you want to make. DO NOT second-guess what the judges are looking for or make the film you think will win Trop."

Like Judy Davis's nugget of wisdom, I too counsel, for following what's right for you, what I call your 'true north'. Write the film that you want to write, because, like writing in your favourite genre, it's love and passion that will carry you through the dark nights of the soul when you don't think you can put pen to paper one more time. I was paid to write and direct a short film over a decade ago, accepting a brief to write in a genre (alien to me) that would show an actor in his best light. I should never have taking that commission. I had to commando crawl over broken glass in the nude every day to make that film and I dragged others with me. It never got past a rough cut let alone saw the light of day and still, the tapes sit gathering dust.

That's not to say that a screenwriter should ignore and be ignorant of the business end of the film business. I once was part of a salutary masterclass with the Distribution Manager of the UK's Film Council who told us, very bluntly, that when he's thinking of investing British taxpayer's hard-earned dosh in a script at the early stages of development, he has eight boxes that he's looking to tick. If, on reading the script, he can tick five of the eight boxes then he will consider pushing the project further.

Ready to hear one or two? Brace yourselves: Are the general public in some way already familiar with this story (television programme, biography of a well-known person, a topical news item)? Is there a "buzz" about this film (you'll often read about certain films getting written way before a writer's even looked at a keyboard - anyone remember the bidding war for the film rights to The Horse Whisperer). Is the protagonist 35 years of age or under?

There's more and that's for another day. I know, I know, it sounds like the anti-Christ of screenwriting decency, but..... professionally, I keep that stuff in the back of mind when I'm thinking about what to write or when I'm writing (ignore it at my peril). What I keep in the front of my mind is the thought of writing the film that I would queue in the rain to see. I also think that's the best shot I can give myself at writing the best film I'm capable of writing.

No-one queues in the rain anymore, do they? I did, plenty of times in the 1970's.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 11: Mr Iyengar and Me

The new term at my yoga school started this morning and I could not attend as the Hungry Screenwriter does not have a budget line for his yoga practice today.

Pshaw, I say to that! As in yoga, so in writing. What I mean by that is that I cannot let the absence of "ideal" circumstances hinder the experience of abundance in my life. So, at 6.15 this morning, I was up and by 6.30, had rolled out my mat and began my yoga at home at exactly the same time that the class was starting.

I first tried yoga back in the early 90's, a Hatha class or two, in Bondi Junction. Those two classes were enough for me and I didn't return to yoga until five years ago, when I moved into where I live today in Potts Point. This second time around, I attended beginner's classes at the now defunct and much-lamented Sydney Yoga Space run by Peter Thompson. Twice a week for 18 months I would front up, to learn the foundations of Iyengar Yoga (that's Mr B.K.S Inyengar [just turned 91] in the photo) until Peter cast a beady eye over me and moved me up to the Level 2 group.

It's always been encouraged that a yoga practice at home/in life outside of classes is something to aspire to, but, like my writing and the office that I used to rent, I never could get my head around a yoga practice where the circumstances weren't how I told myself they "should be". That was until the school closed down and whilst searching for a new school, I was forced into spreading out my mat on the floorboards of my apartment. Necessity surely is the mother of invention.

I now have a few props of my own - belts, chairs, blankets and straps - and, because of the five years of classes, I know enough of a sequence of Asanas to put together a standing poses session for myself this morning. I didn't look at the clock until I was done and, guess what? My class finished within five minutes of the time that they would be finishing at the school.

What I miss most about Peter Thompson's classes are the frequent times that he would stop, gather us all together and impart some wisdom, often quoting Bob Dylan, John Lennon or the scholar Thomas Merton. I will pass out these quotes as the weeks go by , but for today, I will offer you one of my favourites from Peter:

"What sort of people would we be if we got everything we want, when we wanted it?"

Day #11 Tip: Fidelity To A Practice
Today, in my 9 to 5 working hours, I cannot apply myself to Jerusalem, the current script that I'm working on. I actually have other writing business to do: I have a long synopsis for a proposed screenplay entitled The Age Of Enlightenment that I, a Director and a Producer will be submitting to Screen Australia (the Federal Government film funding body) and to Screen New South Wales (the NSW Government film funding body) for development funding, this week, and I need to work on those applications.

That in itself is fidelity to my practice, but what if I didn't have film business but something else to attend to today which wasn't anything to do with writing or film? What if I had to go and do one of the other jobs that I've done over the years (cleaner, warehouser worker, model, babysitter, bricklayer's mate, driver, copywriter, gardener etc) to put food and drink on my table?

Well, I have this evening. I have a commitment from 6.30 to 8.00, then I have roast lamb and a ratatouille(of sorts) that I cooked last night and then the rest of the evening at my leisure. I still have the copy of Insomnia that I rented last week for my Genre Night and it certainly wouldn't harm me to watch Al Pacino attempt to right the wrongs taking place in Nightmute, Alaska again. By the way, in this film, set in a land where the sun doesn't set and sleep is hard to come by, Al's character is a detective named Will Dormer. The French verb to sleep is "dormir".

That's a screenwriter caring about and taking pleasure in their craft, is it not?

However big or small, little or great the action, we must do something every day to tell the screenwriter within that we're still in the game. As Peter Thompson said: "Fidelity, loyalty to our process....otherwise we're just like a dunny door banging in the wind".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 10: I Wanna Be Sedated

I never knew Joey Ramone, nor Dee Dee, Johnny or Marky for that matter, but I respect The Ramones. I've no idea where this is going. Well, I do know actually.

As a writer, I need to have "numerous projects in various stages of development" ready to pitch at any and every Producer and/or financier the moment that I find myself in an elevator with them/him/her. I've got three floors to give them the "elevator pitch", alternatively referred to as "25 words or less": "Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenneger, it's called Twins"; that's the famous one.

Coming up with 25 words or less is a skill in itself only paralleled by the "leaving card" that circulates the office, thrust into your hand to sign: "Who's leaving?"..."Mary"..."Who's Mary?"..."She's in accounts, you know Mary"..."No, I don't"..."Yes you do. Look, just write something would you?" I open the card and read what others have written. How do people come up with those pithy witticisms? The best I can muster is "Mary, good luck in your new job".

I have "numerous projects in various stages of development". I've got synopses (long and short), treatments, scripts, one-liners and I've got them in all sorts of genres. I've got a rom-com about a writer who is bent on going to New York to track down Woody Allen and instead, holes up in a Sydney hotel pretending to be a feted screenwriter trying to impress the latest American female ingenue who's really a waitress/between jobs Australian actress. How about the Biopic (true life story) of Nigerian eco/political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by a despotic government in league with Shell Oil?! Or there's my Ramones story: Dear Joey.

Wherever you go in the world, there's always one callow and disaffected youth (girl or boy) wearing a Ramones t-shirt. The fact that they're wearing the signature shirt, some 30 years after the event, acts, I believe, as some sort of secret signal to any other disenfranchised kid also wearing a Ramones shirt; it's like a silent, conspiratorial, melacholic nod: "don't too."

What happened to the original Ramones kids of the late 70's, what's become of them now? Dear Joey is the story of a late 30-something housewife, sitting in her 4WD at the school gates who hears Sheena Is A Punk Rocker on the radio and the news that Joey Ramone is dying of lymphoma in a New York hospital; Joey's lyrics saved her from her dangerously razor-edged life back then, perhaps she can return the favour now to Joey and maybe jolt herself out of her stultifyingly, turgid life in the process?

What's my point in telling you this story?

Day #10 Tip: Think Time Is The Writer's Most Valuable Asset
When someone gives me money to write (they do from time-to-time), the biggest wave of relief that washes over me is not the one that comforts me with the news that I have more time to sit at the keyboard, it's the tsunami of liberation that I feel knowing that I can now do some thinking, proper, productive thinking.

If I sit at the computer and try to solve a scene, my eyes begin to bleed before too long. If I can remember that what I need to do is distract my brain my doing something different, repetitive and active - driving, walking swimming - then the solution to my writing problem will often come to me. Laundry is a favourite one of mine; I love taking things that are dirty and turning them into items of cleanliness. But whatever the activity is that you choose to do, make sure that you're carrying a pen, a couple of index cards and a even a small notebook. How many times have I walked around Centennial Park when a solution to some knotty or gnarly script problem has come to me and I've thought: "I'll remember that and write it down when I get home." It just doesn't happen friends.

Whatever time you have available for writing, use well. It maybe that the time when you're going about the other things that you/we all have to do in life is the time that the left and right-hand sides of our brains can join hands, have a party and solve the problems we can't come up with staring at the computer screen; like how to pitch Dear Joey in 25 words or less?

Gabba Gabba Hey Hey

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 9: This Shirt Is Not For Sale

Friends of The Hungry Screenwriter know that my other great passion in life is football (soccer)/ the jogo benito (the beautiful game) and today I would like to weave a little tale around the mighty Spanish football club of Barcelona.

For the unfamiliar or great unwashed of you, Barça, play in a deep red and navy blue, broad-striped shirt, are the pride of Catalonia and the envy of the footballing world. Everything that comes to mind about this fabulous city (boasts he, having never been there) off the pitch, is reflected in their spirit, style and flair on the pitch. But it's for another reason that I draw Barça to your attention today.

Up until 2006, that red and blue shirt of theirs never boasted the branding of a sponsor; no paid-for advertisement by an IT company, beer manufacturer or mobile phone carrier. Why? Simple, my friends: the great Barcelona shirt was not for sale. Now, I don't know about you, but when I learnt this, some years ago, it was just about one of the most refreshing things that I'd ever heard in my life, suddenly the day and my existence took on a new, refreshing meaning. I mean, even the part-timers running around after a ball down the park on a Sunday morning are sponsored by some local electrical firm or taxi company (not that I'm saying they shouldn't be). Barça now impressed me as much in the business of football as they did in the actual football itself.

But wait, there's more. In 2006, Barça finally gave in and added a logo to the front of their shirt: UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), but the only money that exchanged hands was the Club's pledge to donate over $1m every year to UNICEF's humanitarian aid as well as the shirt exposure.

I have a checkered history with the world of advertising, in that it didn't work out for me and the five agencies that I worked for: the first one "let me go", as did the second, third and fourth. I left the fifth before they got me. Do you think there was something wrong with the five different agencies or something wrong with me? Whilst you're working that one out, I might add that I learnt plenty of valuable stuff in my time in the world's second oldest profession.

Day #9 Tip: Restriction Provides Freedom
Ogilvy & Mather was one of the original Madison Avenue, old-school, advertising agencies and well-known as a "training hospital" for those entering the industry. I worked at O&M and learnt tons ( I recommend to you, the book Ogilvy On Advertising as a definitive tome). But the jewel I most polish since picking it up in that faraway world was this quote from O&M's founder and forefather David Ogilvy:

"Give me the creative freedom of a tightly-defined brief".

Tell me to go away and write a film and my first response would be to ask you "a film about what?" Whilst I have plenty of ideas of my own, I'm seasoned and salted enough to know that a commission is never just an open slather to write anything I want. You, the patron commissioning me might say "oh, I dunno...what about a love story?" And I would then ask "what sort of love story? A romantic comedy, period piece, one that ends in tragedy (actually, they all end in tragedy)?" And you, my employer, might say something like "I love those, 18th and 19th century BBC type stories on Sunday nights". Now I have a brief of sorts, I've narrowed my options down and, ironically, at the same time opened my world up. I read Zola, Dickens, Dumas and the like and I've squirreled away one or two favourite little-known gems by those guys that I would kill to adapt. Suddenly I can feel the creative stuff coursing through my veins and I'm ready to go, even as I write this piece to you.

Rules, restrictions, rules-of-the road...they actually free up the imagination and the creative spirit; that's why sport and games are so endlessly popular and why people guard the format of these pastimes so zealously (what are the manufacturers of Scrabble about??!!).

So, if my tips so far (and in the future) appear prescriptive , that's why. I'm following the age-old principles of Aristotle (read the first guide to dramatic writing ever: The Poetics) and leading your horse to drink at the water of a beginning, a middle and an end: three-act structure (maybe five and seven too). That's where we're headed people with our plotting and the Index Cards.

When the location of the 1994 World Cup of football was confirmed to be the USA, all manner of shenanigans were afoot. Football is till a relatively new game to North American and, compared with their traditional sports of gridiron, basketball, ice hockey and baseball, football is a low scoring game (0-0 can be a beautiful spectacle over 90 mins, believe me). The American football federation wanted to change the rules to "sex it up" a little. How about this for one of their ideas: if the game's a tied score at the end of 90 mins (0-0, 1-1, 2-2 or the like) let the two teams play on and each side has a couple of players removed every few minutes until...WOW...there's only one player left on each side on the pitch!!

FIFA (the world governing body) actually thought this idea through, but - thank the footballing God's - decided to stick with the way things have worked best for years and years and years.......just like storytelling.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Via con Dios

Friday, April 16, 2010

Day 8: A Cheque Book Will Not Solve Your Creative Problems

Whilst preparing a Leek & Potato soup yesterday afternoon (tip: I always begin with a smoked ham hock as stock, as though I were making pea & ham soup), I had one ear on Millionaire Hot Seat; for those of you unfamiliar with this tv game show, it's a speed-dating version of 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Anyway, a young guy, a journeyman actor, is in with a chance of winning $50,000 and fast-Eddie asks him what he would do with the money. His reply: "I've got short script that I've written that with a bit of padding-out could be a feature". The question: For which film did Julie Andrews win her Oscar: The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Victor-Victoria or Thoroughly Modern Millie?

But let's leave Julie out of it for now. I have no truck with game shows, indeed a follower of this very Blog, my good friend Russell Cheek, is a veritable and accomplished doyen of this television genre and has my utmost respect for his track record in this field. The problem lies for me in the fact that someone intends "padding-out" a short film to make a feature. Gee, I look forward to spending 90 minutes, that I'll never get back, in the cinema with that movie....I think I already have on numerous occasions.

I'm on the Tropfest preselection panel most years and every January, I and others trawl through plenty of 7 minute films that could have been nailed in 3 mins. After I left NIDA, I spent one November sitting in on the acting auditions (with the idea of making a documentary about the audition process) watching aspiring thesps perform the longest of monologues, because they were working on the theory that "the more you see of me, the more you'll like me". Not if you aren't very good I won't, then it works the other way: the more I see of you, the more I might start stabbing my arm with a compass.

It's not impossible, but one of the most difficult feats of screenplay adaptation, is to take short-form source material and turn it into long-form feature format. What pretty much happens, is that in the hands of a craftsman, something new is created from the original material that inspired a spark. In the hands of the amateur, we watch "padding".....a one-idea film that could have been told in 3 minutes. By and large, I liked the Australian film Somersault, but was it a short film idea that was stretched out to 90 mins?

Day #8 Tip: The Index Cards Will Set You Free
The beauty of working on Index Cards (see Day 6) to create my 40-60 scenes/screenplay moments, is that I'm no longer at the mercy of linear thinking. Reason, logic and rationale will come into play in 2-3 months time, but for now, I can dream up any scene I like, whip out an Index Card, jot it down and add it to the pile.

My crime story - we'll call it Jerusalem, as a working title - begins with the discovery of a crime and sets the detective on the path of solving this crime and maybe I'd like to give my imagination full steam to roam and think of scenes without censure, without my head telling me what a crap idea that might be.

Here's something: my story is set on the fringes of the Barrington Tops National Park, in a two-horse country town, the hometown of my protagonist. He's at a low ebb, this character of mine, having just been dishonourably dismissed from the NSW Police and everyone in the town knows why; the not-so decorated hero back from the smoke of Sydney to lick his wounds. My one-time detective makes a discovery: he comes across the wreckage of a plane that's been lost in the forest for over 15 years (I'll tell you how he came across it another day). He takes a picture of the plane's index number on his mobile phone and takes the photo to the one-man police station that night to report his find. Between him and the cynical desk sergeant (he knows our guy's corrupt backstory), neither has the wherewithal to Bluetooth the picture and so the sergeant tells him to return the next morning. Our hero goes to one of the two hotels on the town's main drag and drinks...boy does he drink?! Next morning he wakes up on the couch having drunk himself into blackout and without his jacket, wallet and phone; he must have left them in the hotel. He retrieves his jacket and wallet, but his phone is missing. Returning to the police station, there is no record of his visit of the night before and the desk sergeant who was on duty is now on leave and uncontactable. With the stench of alcohol still on his breath and his reputation having gone before him our protagonist's story is dismissed as delusion.

The last bit of the sequence above - the scene where my protagonist returns to the police station - that's a scene where the central crime plot turns from the positive (+) to the negative (-). I'd write that down on a 3x5 card and add it to my pile.

I don't think there's padding there but if there is, this process will weed it out.

Spurn thee padding!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day 7: Tonight I Will Experience Insomnia...Twice

Thursday night is my set-aside night for watching a film in my genre (see archived Blog from day 2 or 3). Tonight, I'm returning to a detective film that I'm pretty familiar with - Insomnia - the American remake of the Scandinavian original. However, I'm going to get the original out and watch that first; I 've seen that before too, but I want to remind myself just what the writer/s of the remake brought to their version story that wasn't in the original. Did it improve the film or not? Did the Americans trample all over a European gem or did they create something new that remained true to the spirit of the original? I'll have the script (of the US version) alongside and an A4 pad to take notes. In both films, I'm looking to note down what I feel to be "the conventions" of crime/detective movies.

I've already talked a little of what "genre conventions" are and I'll spend more time on them in the days and weeks to come. When I watch films in my genre, I'm looking for those common elements of structure, character, plot and theme that seem to be in most films of this genre, because, unconsciously, the audience has an expectation of them too. Once I'm familiar with them to the point of expertise, then I'm free to play with them.

Here's one major detective story convention: the traditional detective is male, heterosexual, either a cop or private investigator, he drinks and/or smokes, has a failed love relationship/marriage behind him, is smart/cluey, violent, tenacious (in that he will always get his quarry), a loner (usually hates having a buddy cop thrust upon him), he's a ladies man, existential to the point that he'd make Camus blush, often has a question mark in his past over the poor handling of one case or another, is prepared to step outside the law that he upholds to get results and is reviled by his superiors(he's a pain in the a**) yet they tolerate him because he gets the job done.

Does the above job advert sound like Jack Nicholson (Chinatown, The Pledge), Al Pacino (Insomnia, Sea Of Love), Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct, Black Rain), Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning, The French Connection), Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force) and, of course, Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep)? What about Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo and Rear Window...Hitch obviously knew that character convention well enough to really bend it.

Day #7 Tip: Read Screenplays (this is not optional)
I said that I'll have the screenplay alongside me when watching these films and they're easy to get hold of. The best source is the net and if you go to the Links section of this Blog you'll see that I've listed just a few of the sites that I use. As long as the scripts are being used for "educational purposes" then they're free to download, often in PDF format (I find this is best). Some of the scripts are original drafts or shooting scripts. I try to avoid transcripts (where someone has just taken down what's on the finished film) if I can. Plenty of bookstores sell scripts in book format, Berkelouw on Oxford Street, Sydney is a good second-hand resource.

Reading scripts is not just about conventions though. I'm not a novelist, nor am I a poet or a playwright. I write feature film screenplays, so that's what I need to read, consume, understand and learn about. There are tons of guru's, seminars, books on screenwriting and teachers (more on that in the days to come) but the best and most reliable form of scriptwriting education (in my opinion), is to watch film and read scripts.....successful and unsuccessful; see what works and what doesn't work (the more you read, the more you'll instinctually know the ones that aren't working so well and maybe, why?). I try to read one a week, it's the most valuable method of getting to learn the language of what I do.

Tomorrow I'll get back to talking about the Index Cards.

And remember, in the words of Clint Eastwood's alter-ego, Harry Callaghan: "It's a dirty world and someone's gotta clean it up."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day 6: Some Housekeeping

I've had a number of communications via email, phone and Facebook about "how to follow" the Hungry Screenwriter. In an attempt to see what the experience is like firsthand, I signed up to follow myself this morning. I went to the grey menu bar at the top of the Blog and clicked on "follow" and hey presto, it was done just like that. There is also a "follow" button down on the "followers" section of the Blog but that requested I sign up to a Google account and, to be perfectly honest, that idea ended up in my "too hard" basket. Give it a go and if your care to go public with your following, it would be of great encouragement to me.

Also feel free to comment on any of the posts. I've yet to learn how to post a response, but I'll get there.

Day #6 Tip: Do Not Wait For The Right Circumstances to Write
Five or six years ago I was over at The Script Factory in London with my script The Comedians, that had been selected to take part in their year-long development programme Writer's Passage. Whilst there, I watched a reality tv show about a man who earned his living writing the copy for the instruction manuals that come with electronic goods. Good on him.

The programme centred around how he was building a house in the Dordogne Valley in France. He'd bought a plot of land that stood on a certain hill that looked out over a particularly wonderful view and explained to us, the viewers, how the house, when built, would feature a first floor study that had the perfect picture window to look out over the perfect pastoral view, where he would position his cherrywood desk and place his laptop to write the novel that he'd always wanted to write. I wonder if he ever wrote that book?

On the same trip, I had my laptop and I had to write every day as part of the programme. I lodged myself in the Reading Room of the British Museum just like George Bernard Shaw and Karl Marx did before me. They had somewhere for me to plug my computer in and were even kind enough to call me an ambulance on the day that I was visited by a kidney stone (pain similar to a gunshot wound, although I confess to never having been shot) and of a lunchtime I got to visit the Rosetta Stone and the most fantastic room dedicated to The Enlightenment ( I must thank my good friend Lara Shirvinsky [in New York] for showing me this room).

However, mea culpa: at the beginning of my ten-year writing apprenticeship, I was financially buoyed with funds from an inheritance and rented an office, first in Kings Cross and then in Surry Hills. I told myself the lie that I needed an office to
write; a lie that masked the fear that I couldn't write, but that in circumstances which gave the impression that I knew what I was doing, I'd somehow knock out the next Chinatown.

If you haven't heard Diana Krall's cover of Joni Mitchell's A Case Of You (from her Live in Paris album), stop reading, go to iTunes right now and buy it for $1.69. Diana channels Joni when she sings "...on the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue tv screen light, I drew a map of Canada....". Whatever your circumstances are - computer, no computer, kids, no kids, money, no money, food, no food - you can draw your own map. I love and loathe Love Actually in equal amounts but like Emma Thompson's character, I thank Joni Mitchell for a great deal of my emotional education and the most valuable of writing lessons.

Tomorrow, friends.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day 5: Was Voltaire onto Something?

Voltaire: playwright, poet, author and leading figure of the Enlightenment, used to drink 40 mochas a day. That's beyond impressive by anyone's standards. He'd turn up at the same Parisian café, day in, day out and order 40 coffee/chocolat hot beverages. Let's imagine, for a moment that Voltaire wasn't shy about getting his day underway and would arrive at the café at 8.00am. If he hung out there for 10 hours, that means he'd be knocking back a mocha every 15 minutes before he'd return home to Mrs Voltaire at 6.00pm. I don't know what to make of this? I don't know why I bring this up? Even if I lost all sense of reason and tried this for one day, I most certainly would not be able to front up and do it again the next day and the next.

You won't need to do what Voltaire did, but you will need to do this.....

Day #5 Tip: All You Need Is Index Cards
Yesterday I explained about the 40-60 story events/moments/scenes that I'm going to need to make up the 100-120 minutes/pages of my feature film script. Coming up with these 40-60 scenes is what I'll spend the majority of my scriptwriting time on, over the next three months and I'm going to need to come with at least 200+ scenes to find 40-60 that are any good.

For instance: all Crime films, remember, start with the discovery of a crime; one way or another, a body falls out of a wardrobe. I will need a scene like this very early on in my script. Let's call it "the scene where the crime is discovered" or the Inciting Incident of the Crime Plot. It can be obvious and apparent that a crime has been committed or maybe less so. It can be "open" (we see the crime committed and see who did it) or it can be "closed" (we arrive at the crime scene with the "investigator" and know no more than they do or we see the crime committed but don't see who the perpetrator is).

In Seven, this scene comes about three scenes into the film when Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are called to the house of the "Fat Man" who has been found dead, tied to a chair, face-first in his food. Basic Instinct has San Francisco homicide detective Nicky Curran (Michael Douglas) arrive at a mansion on Russian Hill to discover a man tied to a bed having been murdered with an ice pick in some sort of sado-sexual act. A third example: Mississippi Burning. The opening scene is of three young men, two white and one black in their car, followed into the boondocks and backwoods of good ole' Mississippi by a cop car and a hick truck. The police car pulls the boys over and the cops shoot the boys before they can get out of their vehicle. Next scene sees the arrival of two FBI agents (Willem Defoe & Gene Hackman) to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists (the young men).

Three great films, three crimes committed, three Inciting Incidents that get the ball rolling in three Central Plots, two are closed - Seven & Basic Instinct - in that we know only as much as the investigators know. The other - Mississippi Burning - is open in that we know, for the moment, more than FBI Agents Ward & Anderson. All three are scenes that turn an arguably positive world to the negative, a just world turned unjust.

When writing my opening scene where the crime is discovered, I can probably think of a number of variations as to how this takes place and so, I'll grab an A4 pad and aim to list about twenty versions of the same scene. By the time I've got to number twenty I might be hitting pay dirt, having trawled through my clichés and contrivances first. When I've got the version of the scene I'm happiest with, I'll distill it down to one pithy sentence and then write it down on a 3x5 Index Card, just like Joe Esterhas probably did when writing Basic Instinct: Detective Nicky Curran arrives at the Russian Hill mansion of Johnny Boz to find the one-time record producer tied to a bed, dead from the multiple stabbing wounds of an ice pick. On the back I write other little details of the scene that come to mind - maybe about the sexual nature of the crime, the black humour of the crime scene workers (all guys) - and put the card aside, moving onto the next scene. That can easily be one day's work, if carried out thoroughly.

I'm looking to build a stack of those cards over the next three months and I mean a stack because I'll want to eventually distill them down to the stunning 40-60 moments of drama that will make up the scenes in my script. So, first things first: go buy a pack of Index Cards from your local stationer and while you're there, buy a black marker pen to write on them (you'll need to spread these cards out and read them from a few feet away in the weeks to come).

I will return tomorrow with more.