Sunday, May 16, 2010

Day 38: Nothing Like a Dame

A story that I love about (Dame) Judi Dench, that I heard her tell about herself, when rehearsing Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music for the National Theatre:

When preparing anything - play, film, television - Judi Dench leaves her handbag by the rehearsal room door, explaining her idiosyncratic behaviour thus, “...I can’t act and I live in fear of the day that someone is going to lean across the rehearsal room table and, in front of the director and the rest of the cast, reveal what I know only to well. When that moment happens, as it surely must, I will want to hurry from the room with as much dignity as I can muster. The last thing that I want to be doing, is scrabbling around under the table looking for my handbag. Leaving it by the door, I know where it is, which means that I can make a swift exit from the the horrible humiliation.”

What do you think, do you think that (Dame) Judi’s on the money, that her judgement about herself is correct. Sure, Judi Dench has won and Oscar, Golden Globes, Emmy’s, Tony’s, Olivier Awards and has been made a “Dame” for her contribution to the arts, but maybe she’s right about herself?

I’ve heard this one, often, too: an actor can come into the theatre foyer after an opening night performance or enter a crowded room after the premiere of their film and out of the throng, if 99 people loved their performance but one didn’t, it’s like likely that the actor will spend most of their time with the one person who didn’t, obsessed with what it was they didn’t care for.

That may be true, I don’t know (I’m not an actor) but I understand the thoughts and feelings that underpin such a tale and that of Judi Dench’s. This certainly is not the time, the place and neither do I have anything like the qualifications to analyse the behaviour - conscious or unconscious - that might be going on here, that is the work of professionals more eminent in this field than I. What I think on the matter, you don’t want to know, because I think a lot of things about things I actually know nothing about.

What I can share with you, is my experience of how, as an apprentice screenwriter, I have had to find a method of working that helps with similar situations of self-doubt, low self-esteem and, most importantly, an inner critic (that I’ve been ready to punch out on numerous occasions). Most of the time, I work for myself, writer-for-hire and countless times I have said that if a boss treated me the way that I treat me, I’d have slung my laptop at him a long time ago and said “well write the thing yourself.”

My method is simply this: I don’t always trust what I think about my work. My head is a dangerous neighbourhood, I daren’t go in there alone

Day #38 Tip: Tell Others Your Story
It’s well documented in my thoughts here that I favour Robert Mckee’s version of working with the 3x5 Index Cards, over the first three months of a screenplay’s journey, in order to create the 40-60 moments/story events, that will form the basis of my screenplay.

The method prescribed to me is simple: I spend the first eleven weeks, creating the index cards, piling them up until, hopefully, I have about 200 (if I’m lucky). At the beginning of the twelfth and final week of the three months I spread these cards out on a very large table or on the wooden floorboards of my apartment. Now I get stuck into the sorting process of discarding, ordering, re-ordering and distilling the wodge of 200 film moments down to the 40-60 needed.

I put them in order of events that happen in the sequence of my story that works best, shuffling them around, moving the cards about until I’m happy with the story flow: this happens, that happens, then the body falls out of the wardrobe, then the police are called and the detective arrives and this happens and on it goes.

When I’h happy with my pile of 40-60 cards, I go to the computer, open a new a page and, card by card, type out the line/event/moment that is on the front of each card. This will generally spread over three, four or five pages; the story of the film, event by event, line by line. Now I begin to play around with the order once more, only this time, I do it on the computer: moving a line here, shifting that one there. I’ll do this for a day or so until I’m happy, then I’ll print off those 3-4 pages.

I will then read those pages to myself again and again, often aloud, still tweaking and moving the odd moment around. But I read and read and read, until I’ve got it memorised like a joke I’m going to tell someone. Once I’ve got it down pat, I run through it again and again, without the prompting aid of the pages, until that story is lodged in my head and on the tip of my tongue.

At this point, I call ten friends and ask if they can spare me half an hour of their time? I take them a coffee, sit them down and, over fifteen to twenty minutes I tell them my story, watching for when their eyes move or they might get distracted. If I’ve done my work and the story’s tight, this doesn’t happen. What does happen is that at the end of my story they, hopefully, say something like this: “...that’s great, you should write that...”

This is the way I’ve been taught to create the Step Outline for my screenplays and it makes sense to me. Script by script, draft by draft I’ve increased my fidelity to this method. The first draft of my first feature script - The Comedians - I didn’t use it at all, because I didn’t know this way of working; that’s not to say that first draft doesn’t have merit, it does, but the story woven within is shot through with holes and implausibilities; it drags, meanders and is hardly a gripping yarn.

I am still yet to use this method 100%. I have, however, pitched the opening scene of this crime story I’m working on - Jerusalem - in this way, to friends and the results, EVERY TIME, were great, perhaps I’ll post it up here one day.

But I will use this blueprint for working, 100%, when I get to the end of the third month, which will be mid to late July.

I don’t want to leave my handbag by the door, I want to leave a friend enjoying a silent nod of satisfaction after I’ve spun them a great story, well-told.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully practical, step-by-step advice. If how to write a screenplay was a cake mix, this would be on the back of the box. Tx