Monday, May 3, 2010

Day 25: The Words Of Paul Schrader

A few years ago, Paul Schrader was a guest of the Sydney Film Festival. The festival was holding a retrospective of the films that he has directed (not only is he a celebrated screenwriter). I was lucky enough to attend an “audience with Mr Schrader” and like, I think, most of the others there, I was attending because I wanted to hear from him as the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull more than I probably did from him as the director. I made notes of the things that grabbed my attention, here’s some of what he had to say:

“To survive in this industry you need some tools: the skin of a crocodile, a sense of cunning, the ability to play chess”. Crikey?! I though he was going to talk about the need for storytelling skills and narrative sensibility, instead he tells me that I’ve got to aim to be a hybrid of Mr Bean, Machiavelli and Goldfinger?!

“I’m used to writing a movie where two guys with a gun and a grudge walk around and say 'where’s our money' “. That quote reminds me of the one attributed to French Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “Give me a girl and a gun and I’ll give you a movie.”

“Get the theme that is most important or hurtful to you. You have got to know your theme. If you know what your theme is, you will always have a place to go back to should you get lost.” He’s talking here about the notion of a Controlling Idea which I’ve banged on about quite a bit lately, but I love that notion he adds, in that it has to be “important” or “hurtful” to the writer. When I think of the films that I love and try to work out their Controlling Ideas, I can guess that they were most certainly “important” or “hurtful” to their writers. This tip is Paul Schrader gold. If an idea is that personal, how can you possible lose your way from it (the Controlling Idea) or forget what it is?

One more:

“If you can tell a story to another person for 45 minutes, you’ve got a screenplay. Watch the person’s face when you’re telling them the story. You can see whether they go vague and tune out; those are the bits you need to work on. 5 or 10 minutes before the end, go to the bathroom. When you come back, if they want to know how it finished, the you’ve got a story.”

Day #25 Tip: Tell Your Story To Others
This is where I’m heading with my Index Cards. The first three months of this screenplay, I’m writing down the 40-60 story events or scenes for my film on Index Cards (see previous day’s Blogs) and towards the end of the three months, I’m going to take the pile of two to three hundred cards that I’ve created and whittle them down to the key 40-60 story moments prescribed by Robert Mckee, the 40-50 (as recommended by Paul Schrader) things/scenes/events that happen in a movie .

When I’ve got these 40-60 cards, I’ll decant the one-sentence story event from the front of the card and write/type it out on a document, until all 40-60 are written out, in sequence, over three of four pages. Then I’ll print off those three or four pages and read the flow of events from beginning to end until eventually, I’ve memorised it. Next I’ll call 7-10 friends and ask if I can come round and take up half an hour of their time.

I’ll take the friend a coffee of their choice, sit them down in a quiet, undistracted room and I’ll tell them my story and watch their expression, just like Paul Schrader suggested. If I can hold their attention for the whole of the time it takes, then generally at the end they say something like this: “, that’s really good, you should write that”. If seven out of the ten friends respond in this way, then I reckon that I’ve got a screenplay on my hands.

For the crime script that I’m writing at the moment that has the working title of Jerusalem, I’ve only really got the opening scene or two, that I’ve cobbled together over the last couple of years. But, just to check if I was on the right track, early last year I sat down four or five seperate sets of friends and colleagues and told them the story that I’d been finessing in my head; it was only the first 15 minutes of the film, but I’m tellin’ you that I’d massaged it well. I got that “" response from all of them, that’s why I’ve embarked upon that the writing of that idea.

One more thing from Paul Schrader:

“To survive in this industry,you’ve got to have a sense of connivance and endurance. You feel all the time that the whole of the film industry doesn’t want you working in it. I’m lucky in that I’ve got a lot of determination and resilience and every day I wake up and think ‘okay, how am I going to get this past them or get this going today?’”

Me too, me too, me too.

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