Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 166: What have I done?!

I said at the outset that I would Blog as The Hungry Screenwriter for six months, which is 182 days, unless you want to split hairs. As fortune and fate would have it, Day 182 will fall on 7th October, the day that I go to the UK for five weeks.

As the whirligig of kismet would also have it, Robert McKee is in London, when I am in London, dispensing his usual November 3-day ‘Story’ seminar; he literally does the book in two and a half days and spends the last afternoon screening Casablanca, almost frame by frame, using it to demonstrate everything that he’s talked and written about. I’ve done the ‘Story” seminar twice and now I feel I must beg, steal or borrow the money to be inspired one more time and to be reminded why it is that I do what I do. We screenwriters need the fuel in the tank.

The first time I did the seminar was back in 2000 at the Enmore Theatre here in Sydney and the auditorium was packed with three or four hundred film industry types; there were those who came to scoff and scorn, those who came hoping to hear the magic formula, those with open minds and those with doors of perception that were firmly, slammed shut. Me, I’d read the book and knew I’d read my professional truth, a believer. It’s amazing, but two books guide my life these days - ‘Story’ is one of them - take the jacket off that and the other one and they look remarkably the same.

We started on the Friday morning and by the Sunday afternoon, Mr McKee had led us to the point in his book (pg 410) where he talks about a way of working employed by the “struggling writer, and then offers an alternate method, used by “successful writers”. I’d just finished my first draft of my first feature film screenplay and it weighed in at 186 pages....that’s a whopping three hours and six minutes of screen time!! That’s only 30 mins shy of Lawrence of Arabia. The difference is, in Sir David Lean’s 3 hrs, TS Lawrence goes to the desert, comes back, goes again and comes back again; in my 3 hrs we are in one room and leave it just the once?!

As Robert McKee was detailing the method of the “struggling” writer, my head was sinking lower and lower into my hands. I had done exactly what he was describing and every one of those pages was tattooed with blood, tears, sweat and droplets of my life that had been seeping away. I had wrestled that screenplay from the recesses of my psyche page by wretched page, all one hundred and eighty-six of ‘em.

When he started to tell of a method that “successful” writers employed, that I could too, if I so chose, my head became lighter and lifted from wherever it had sunk; not that light as I knew that I had to start all over again, but dammit if that man didn’t give me hope.

Every draft since, I’ve employed the method a little bit more, then a little bit more until now, a draft of mine is about 80-90% his method.

Am I still “struggling” or am I “successful”? Fate, the stars, providence and the Gods will decide some of that for me, still, as my friend Francesca Smith once told me “believe in Allah but tether your camel.” Using the method suggested by Robert McKee is me “tethering my came” and let me tell you: not only is there no struggle, it’s a joy and a love.

Day #166 Tip: Decide how much you will write today
Graham Green (too many novels to name) used to write 2,000 words a day. Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) works from 10.00am to 4.00. “Hollywood Bob” suggest that, using this method, “writing a screenplay from a thorough treatment is a joy and often runs at a clip of five to ten pages per day.”

How I laughed when he said that. Some days I would sit and stare at the same page of my Final Draft screenplay and could barely come up with “INT” or “EXT” (Interior or Exterior for those who aren’t sure). No joy, only gnashing of teeth, fist-shaking at the sky and thumping of the table.

I am pleased to tell anyone who cares to listen that today, when I get to the last five weeks, of the six month process that I’ve allocated for the writing of the screenplay proper, I do my maths thus: most scripts are between 90 and 110 pages, so I’ll AIM for a median 100. I can comfortably do eight pages a day, so that’s twelve and a half working days. If I write five days a week, that means I’ll be done in two and half working weeks, leaving me another two and half weeks to go over the dialogue with a red pen, work on making the big print pithier and generally buff, prune, cut, polish and paste it into some semblance of a decent, readable draft of a story.

Do the sums with the time that you have available and master your craft, rather than be at the mercy of your imagination.

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