LSF2010 – Day 1: A fantastic, energetic, packed, marathon!

What a terrific day at the London Screenwriters’ Festival! Wow, a marathon of continuous sessions and scribbling of notes I’ll have to decipher later but I think I’ll be able to give you a flavour of what happened today. If you missed the entire day for any reason or were in different seminars, here are some highlights of the sessions I attended.

Most of the sessions today were packed! I mean, literally packed! Here are some interesting highlights – I’ll have full notes soon. Please, if I got something wrong feel free to send me a message and I’ll amend it:

In conversation with Tim Bevan

He obviously covered a range of subjects, from the beginning of his career in music video productions to the scrapping of the Film Council. Some things stood out for me as a writer though:

. Working Title is quite unique as a production company and they invest a lot in development so they can have the best script before they go into production. They also tend to have a commercial project counter-balance it. For instance, less commercial films such as Atonement and Billy Elliot can be made because, on the other side there’s Notting Hill and Johnny English… Not all production companies can afford that but it’s nice that Working Title works hard to keep the balance.

. He discourages people to try and write according to the “Working Title Formula”. They are seeking original stuff not to continuously do the same things. Also, they’re less concerned about what people in America wants. “Who cares?” Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Billy Elliot are there to prove that films that touch at the British culture can be successful.

. Sometimes, budget constraints can be a good thing: the whole Dunkirk scene in Atonement, for instance, was supposed to be bigger and the only way to do it – to keep it – was to do it in one day. The result is a much praised scene.

. People go to the cinema to escape reality not so see it. The writing then has to be slightly heightened.

. The writer has to be very resilient in this industry – actually, all its professionals must be resilient.

. “The day you get the first no is a great day: it takes you closer to the yes!

50 Ways into the Business

. Shirani LeMecier: Find a mentor, especially one that would be generous with their knowledge, and learn as much as you can from them. 50% of your time is networking. Never dismiss anything or anyone. She agrees with Paul about the writing though and says: only take your script out if it’s in its best shape – don’t take half-backed stuff out.

. Paul Trijbits: For Paul, though, it’s more important investing your time in writing. “If you’re a writer, write!”. Hone your craft. 99% of your time should be dedicated to getting your script to the best possible state. Sometimes, it’s good to ignore the “nos”, the “we’ll never do this or that” just keep believing and keep going. A good script is your best tool.

. Stuart Hazeldine: “You have to target the path you want to follow.” There’s always the next higher level of “break”, always a bigger, more ambitious next project. Suggestion: write a spec script for a famous movie. It intrigues people, you can learn a lot, it can attract attention to the quality of your writing – people do it all the time on the internet. Be your own agent to get projects and have an agent to help with contracts and stuff.

. Jonny Newman: it feels like you are continuously starting from scratch – as a writer, director or producer, your next project feels like you’re always starting from scratch. He also says it’s important to build a body of work and avoid to put all your eggs in one basket. Sometimes you can get a “I love it. I want to be part of it. How much do you want to make it” and the film never gets done… on the other hand, he says, “It’s not the rejecting that kills you, it’s the hope.” Another important note: you must be able to summarise your film in a few words – if you can’t, nobody else can.

. Marc Pye‘s break happened after he bombarded people with scripts. So specs can lead to commissions. Sending tons scripts out finally got him a job on tv. That’s how you break the catch 22 situation of not being commissioned because you don’t have credits.

. All agree: be proactive and TAKE ACTION!

How to make a good script great, with Kate Leys

Fantastic session. Kate knows a lot about developing scripts, that’s what she does. She says she is not a writer but the writers’ audience and a “story junky” – which makes her love stories as much as writers but to be able to see them from a different perspective.

She also said something great “Storytelling is the single most important thing humans do as a species.” I just LOVED to hear that.

Great tips on how to get that perspective, as a writer:

. Screenwriting is the most difficult type of writing of all.

. You need a great hook. The hook is the core of the story, it’s how you describe it to your mum, to your friends. It’s the key thing about the story. Look for hooks on IMDB – click in synopsis and go further. It’s not the logline, it doesn’t need to be clever or well formulated. It gives you a “picture”. Doesn’t sell the movie but it’s what moves the story forward. It’s not meant to be clever.

. Make sure your story is about the drama. For instance, Star Wars is not about destroying the Death Star, it is about saving Princess Leia – that’s where the drama lies.

. Theme/Idea: is what you want the audience to understand at the end of the movie. You have to nail it. Everything in your story must lead back to the theme, relate to the theme – it’s in every scene, every camera angle, every costume, everywhere. Good movies shows us the theme over and over.

. Big Characters: They need to be clear and well defined personalities. We may not like them, but we can recognise them. They must want something and do active things to achieve that. Look hard: is your character moving the story forward or is the character reacting to what other people are doing?

. Stakes: that’s what connects us to the characters and the story. They don’t need to get what they want.

. Conflict: throw rocks at them; give them impossible situations. Don’t protect them or yourself – give them conflicts and no way out situations – if you can find a way out, so can the audience. Usually, you don’t want to confront the impossible dilemmas so we defend ourselves from them in our writing. Don’t worry, you’ll find a solution…

. Strong original voice: it’s about bringing your personal vision into the story, is to show your truth. That’s why it matters to the audience – and don’t try to fool the audience, they will know, so be true to yourself and to what you want to say in the story.

There’s so much more from this session it’s impossible to highlight everything so soon there’ll be full notes about it.

Writer notes, a necessary evil

Steve Hawes, Gub Neal, Barbara Jago and Kate Leys are more or less unanimous about notes: even when they’re bad, they’re good.

Even bad notes can hint on something that’s not working on your script so the advice from all of them is basically; LISTEN! John August said the same thing later on: Listen, listen, listen. Don’t be defensive about them, they can be incredibly useful.

Sometimes one note can be ill formulated and not actually be about what it says it’s about. But it can point out to an area of the script that needs to be looked at – sometimes they can contain a totally different message that needs to be decoded.

Kate stressed that out: sometimes you need to give the notes “subtitles”, you need to translate them. So sometimes you have to try and get what it actually is signalling needs to be improved.

Everybody in the film industry get notes, not only the writers: producers, directors, casting directors, editors, everybody get notes. They are part of the business, so get used to them. Collaboration is in the nature of this industry.

It’s great to have the first reactions to what you’ve written by whoever it is. That first impression, this first instinctive reaction is usually very telling, it’s really precious.

Chris Jones interviews John August

What can I say? I love John. A very dynamic and broad Q&A session.

. Things writers normally do wrong? For instance: to write a film they themselves would not go to the theatre to watch. Be honest to yourself otherwise it won’t appeal to anyone else.

. Writing specs is something writers do when they’re not writing things they’ve been paid to write. Therefore, write them. Your specs can showcase your writing and get you into rooms to discuss projects…

. John normally doesn’t write in chronological order – just like films aren’t shot in chronological order, therefore, he chooses the scenes in which he feels enthusiastic about. He also always tries to write the 10 last pages quite early on, instead of leaving them to the end, when you’re normally tired.

. As a writer you need a lot of feedback, so swap scripts with fellow screenwriters. As we tend normally not to interact, it’s great to have a Festival like this.

. Notes are a reflection of issues and problems of the script. Their proposed solution may not be great but they signal to problems that should be tackled. So his advice is: listening, listening, listening, listening…

. It was fantastic, for him as a writer, to see people come out of the theatre wiping tears from their eyes at the end of Big Fish. Great to be able to move people and see that reaction.

I’ll have a lot more on John soon… you can find a lot about screenwriting on his blog: http://johnaugust.com/

Now it’s time to get some rest and be ready for tomorrow’s marathon.

Check the highlights of Day 2  and Day 3.

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