Saturday, July 3, 2010

Day 85: An overnight success

A friend has told me, of another friend who has been following my Blog who desperately wants to know “...when’s he going to teach us how to write a screenplay?”.

Aahh, say I, leaning back authoritatively back in my chair, clasping my hands behind my head, “I remember those days”. Indeed I do. I always thought that there was a “magic bullet” out there somewhere, a recipe for success, a secretly-guarded formula, an ANSWER. A silver bullet maybe? I’ve heard that they do something, don’t they? Just to digress for a second, did you know that a bullet made of silver was what they used (in fiction) as a supposedly “magical” method of killing werewolves? Well, now you do know, should you come across one.

Let me save everyone a lot of time, money and energy now by revealing that there is no cure-all, no elixir, no wonder drug, no panacea, no silver or magic bullet. I used to think that there was and that if I attended just one more seminar, listened to one more speaker, bought this book and that book, signed up for this course and that BLOG, then I’d know “how to do it”. Here’s the paradox: I do know.

I don’t know “how to write a screenplay that will become a successful movie” but I do know how to write a screenplay (it’s possible success is, lamentably, out of my hands). Another friend of mine was once asked about the recipe for success (in another field) and replied that it was like “rolling three sixes on the Monopoly board”. To explain: a double six is considered the best dice to roll when playing Monopoly, if not most board games. To write the script that becomes the “successful” movie, maybe, euphemistically, you need to roll three sixes maybe even five. What are those five sixes? If I knew the answer to that, my professional life might be so stonkingly crammed with busyness and world domination that I wouldn’t have the time to be sitting here, writing this!

The sixes can be anything from topicality of the subject matter to getting a certain actor (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) or actress (Mariah Carey in Precious) to bring a certain “something” to a part and film. It could be that there is a buzz around the industry about the notoriety of your film (The Blair Witch Project), the bidding war for the rights to your story (The Horse Whisperer) the vast budget that was spent on your film (Pearl Harbour) or the pittance that you made your film for (El Mariachi, Blair Witch). It could be the feelgood-fairytale story of who wrote your film (Goodwill Hunting) or maybe it’s the word-of-mouth publicity and marketing around something in the film that can’t be spoken of (The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense).

However, in my homespun, traditional way of thinking, can I dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the best, most tried and tested, sure-fire six or sixes that you can roll, are that you put your derrière on a chair and write a great great film script.

Day #85 Tip: What you think is the magic bullet, is in fact the magic bullet
The best shot that I’ve given myself at writing that great script, has been in the doing of all the things that I thought held the magic answer: reading and applying Robert Mckee’s ‘Story’, Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey’ and Linda Aronson’s ‘Scriptwriter Updated’ (to name just three of the invaluable books that I've come across). Participating in the six-month ‘Writer’s Passage’ programme at The Script Factory in London, the week-long Spark programme up in Byron Bay and the two month-long sessions at Tropnest. Sitting in on masterclasses and Q&A’s with Jimmy McGovern, Hanif Kureshi, Denys Arcand, Robert Towne, Simon Beaufoy, David Hare and many many other writers, directors, producers and actors. All of the seminars - Dov Simmon’s 24 Hour Film School, Stephen Cleary’s Arista Lo-Budget Filmmaking weekend, McKee on Thrillers, McKee on Comedy - they’ve all contributed. Every tape, every CD, every conversation, every TV programme, every film, every screenplay read .......all have contributed a part to making the sum.

Most importantly: writing countless (produced & unproduced) short films, writing two and a half drafts of my first feature, two drafts of the second, four of the third and two of the fourth script. I can’t put it more pointedly than Billy Crystal’s writing teacher character does in Throw Mama From The Train: “Writer’s write”.

Maybe one or two wunderkind out there can wing it and are suddenly overnight successes? Good luck to them. I can only share with you my experience (maybe one of the overnight-success-story -people have a Blog that might tell you their experience). If, at the outset, someone had told me it would take this long just to learn how to write a screenplay I would have arrogantly scoffed and said “that won’t be me” or I’d have postured for a bit, then capitulated and not bothered to "waste my time". Now, with double figure years of screenwriting apprenticeship behind me, would I recommend it? Absolutely; what I have found may have taken me years to acquire, but it can never be lost overnight.

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