Archive for July, 2013

How Characters Meet

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

In story, people meet easily.

Stories are based on characters meeting one another, being inspired by one another, taking on a mentor, finding a love, making a friend. That is story.

Characters meet one another with ease all the time. How often do we see characters who are lonely or sick or have little confidence suddenly meet someone and the adventure begins. Ten minutes in and they are sharing their innermost secrets and bearing their souls. It’s all so easy and it gives the impression that all any of us need is a call to adventure with the right compadres and we’re away, the heroes of our own journeys.

In real life making a friend, meeting someone, or really talking to someone, is a rare thing. Maybe that reflects more about me, the writer, than it does others. I am quite an outgoing person but on my journey, in my experience, meeting people is rare. Talking to people is commonplace sure enough.  But connecting with people is rare and unusual.

If you don’t agree, think about how often people talk about the weather, count coins into  another’s hands, hold doors open, say thank you.  That’s meeting someone in the most basic sense. But in those situations are we really talking?  Are we really embracing that individual or the experiencing of meeting them?  Are we really connecting with a person on a deep level?  Are we even acknowledging that they are a person rather than a shadow on the wall or a part of the furniture of the outside world? Are they just a representation? A figment of reality perhaps?

And just how many people do you dismiss, fail to meet or disregard? Dustin Hoffman spoke very honestly about his role in Tootsie  and said that if he met himself (dressed as the character) at a party that he “would never talk to that character.” Of course we all make similar judgements and we all value our time and our attention. When did you last dismiss someone?  Were you meeting them as a person? Did you even recognise their individuality? Did it even occur to you to find out they are as a person?  And why not?

What it takes to embrace a person is something deeper. Maybe I can acknowledge the sovereignty of you, your individuality and the uniqueness of interaction with you. Maybe you are acknowledging me in that same moment. But unless we interact on the level of sharing our interaction – the meta conversation – of making it clear that we both realise we have both met a person, lets see what other ways we can interact, have we really met a person?

Unless that happens have I really met a person? Has a person really met me?

Meeting on Film

Stories are often about great individuals who meet people each and every day easily, but should all stories be about those great people? Can most of us relate to them? Can they really teach us or inspire us?

I believe stories for the screen need to have an element of greater truth in this regard. They should reflect the struggles that most of us have. People for whom meeting people, let alone connecting with them on any deep level, is a big challenge.

Characters aren’t real people of course. Mostly people display the parts of themselves that fit – that mask of sameness that is required by society. On the tube train we keep our heads down and our headphones in. Yet in front of our colleagues and our friends we pretend that we meet people easily, that we are open and non-judgemental.  We meet people mostly through introductions and then we take a long time to get to know one another. If we only have 90 minutes for a movie there isn’t a lot of time to build a realistic friendship.  We learn how to interact from what we see on the screen and it’s not representative of real life.  And it is in this area of realistic human interactions that I feel the media does most damage to individuals.

If someone came up to you in the street and started talking to you about a recent death in their family, would you take that opportunity to really meet that person, or would you excuse yourself with the reasoning that grief had rendered them temporarily unable to behave as society expects by keeping themselves to themselves. Yet how often do characters in stories take the time, make the connection, give of themselves, get involved? Let’s be clear here, I’m NOT saying characters shouldn’t do that – my belief we should all be interacting that way as real people! –  I’m saying that in order to make stories more real we have to show the extraordinariness of the situation.

Stories must at the very least demonstrate how hard it is for most people to meet people, especially if our eponymous hero has any kind of arc. If he’s brilliantly charismatic from the start then maybe that’s a bit different.  If we’re watching James Bond then it doesn’t matter too much. For stories that purport to be realistic, gritty, dramatic, romantic or tear-jerking, then a certain level of angst at man’s inhumanity to man is to be expected. And maybe relating to the common man’s loneliness is a touch stonethat should require more than the standard shot of a lonely individual walking down the street.

It takes more than that lonely character just talking to one particular individual to get over their loneliness, their isolation. To meet each other on a “I realise I’m alive and I realise you’re alive, let’s interact” level. HOW is their conversation any more than exchanging the weather?

Subtext comes into it a lot here, as does performance. Dialogue takes many edit passes to get that depth in terms of building both connection and discord.  How can we learn to invoke those nuances that make the difference?

We can learn a lot by observation, listening to conversations in the street, by watching people. Notice how ill at ease they are. Is it real or is it a mask? Notice the people that don’t interact or who are dismissed by others.  Do you think they were really interacting? Did they even realise they were talking to another person?

We can learn a lot by paying attention to ourselves. Did you notice your last interaction? What did you say? Did you feel like you met someone or were you just passing by?

When did you last have a conversation with someone about life and death? Did you share your existential fears? Must people or characters always be facing some trauma, illness or death in order to discuss these things? Aren’t we always facing life and death? Isn’t the potential for trauma always just around the corner for us all?  Why wait to have that conversation? We put our characters through it all the time and yet we never do it ourselves. We think we’re being realistic when that conversation is based upon imagination. It’s not. Put yourself in the situation. Try it! Then you can write not only from authority but with a whole host valuable information and experience to share.

My daughters decided to buy and give away balloons on the street recently. Not for any reason, just to be nice. To make people happy. It must have taken some guts to go up to strangers. I’m not sure I could do it. Would they be rejected? Would people understand or would they throw the balloons in their faces? But the people were delighted and I’m so proud of my daughters for both coming up with the idea and for actually doing it.  It was a pleasure to hear them tell the tales. They met some great people and really seemed to have connected with them. People were surprised, I imagine, to have someone notice them. Some of them even asked why they had been chosen.

Maybe you could try something like this? How does talking to people make you feel? What are the emotions? The bodily sensations? How did they react? What did they say?

Does this change how you think about your characters meeting?  Let me know.

Is the Crisis of Confidence Part of the Creative Process?

Monday, July 15th, 2013

It happened to me today. A project I’ve been working on for a long time no longer made sense. Suddenly my mind was deluged with questions. Am I spending too much time on it? Is it likely to see any return that equates to the investment of my time? And, er, what on earth were my reasons for doing this in the first place?

All my reasoning and motivation were gone. It’s like hitting the wall in a marathon. Nothing makes sense to you and everything that has driven you this far has abruptly and mysteriously abandoned you. Sound familiar?

These crisis of confidence moments are uncomfortable. We may even end up searching the web for the answer to our sudden crisis. (Maybe that’s how you ended up here. Thank you Google!) Anything to help us feel a little better and get us out of this feeling and back to the task at hand.

But stop! These feelings are here for a reason. At least let’s give them some time to settle before dismissing them.

A recent article in Scientific American says that negative emotions are key to our well-being.

I think negative emotions are key to our success!

It’s time to let these emotions linger awhile. Sit in that discomfort. It’s an important part of the creative process. For example:

  • The crisis of confidence helps you to re-examine what you’ve got.
    What does your project actually consist of? Is it a bunch of incoherent ideas (which your negative critic might tell you) or is there something more to it?  This is the time to evaluate. It lets you ask if this project is really right for you. You can look critically at the potential of the project and whether the return is worth your time and investment.You don’t need to act on your answers just yet, just let yourself explore the possibilities of passing on this project and moving on to something new. How would that make you feel?Explore and let yourself feel it.
  • It’s a perspective outside of yourself
    When you’re in this state you effectively have your worst critic giving you feedback. Use it!If you only think positive thoughts about your project, there’s a higher chance that your positivity is clouding your judgement.  Being negative for a little while allows us to improve, work harder and realign. You don’t have to beat yourself up, just let your inner critic rag on you for a little while, write down anything useful, then tell it to go away again, thank you!Then get to work!
  • It’s a release of negative emotions.
    Negative feelings, especially ones we are repressing or trying to hide from, have a habit of building up. Once they hit a critical mass they come out, whether we like it or not. As long as you’re not throwing things or yelling at your kids, catharsis is good.Let yourself feel bad. Feel the hurt. It’s safe to allow the release. If you need to yell at the sea, punch a cushion or sob into a whole box of Kleenex, let it out!
  • Positive Self-Talk
    Now that you’ve got those negative emotions out of your system, your inner critic has had his say and is safely relegated to the attic, it’s time to employ some lurve. Self love. No not that kind. I mean positive talk, a chance for your flagging ego to practice the art of positive nurture and compassion. Be kind to yourself!Do something nice for yourself. Take yourself on a date. Buy yourself a treat. Talk to yourself as you might talk to a child or someone you loved. Visualise hugging and supporting the younger version of yourself. Would you tell them it’s ok not to be perfect? Would you say that they’re doing their best? Say what would you say to them to make them feel better and more confident again.Give yourself that gift!
  • Talk to collaborators
    Your crisis of confidence is a chance to find out how your co-workers and collaborators feel about the project. Sharing your doubts as well as your nurturing process shows them you are human, which is never a bad thing.It gives them the chance to relate to you and share any doubts of their own – chances are you’re not the only person feeling it. You find out the level of their commitment and dispel any concerns.The crisis of confidence, if honestly approached, creates a natural opportunity for everyone to re-invest and get excited again.

So next time you’re finding yourself doubting, when the entire reason for your enterprise has suddenly turned into a question mark, don’t fret. Let yourself go through the process. Feel those feelings. Let yourself examine it. Don’t be afraid to let yourself see where you end up.

Your project will be all the stronger for it.


Your thoughts?




Rant: High Concept Microbudget Feature Writing

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Booze 1I hear it time and time again: it’s all about the concept. And that concept is what everyone is chasing.

It seems to me that all anyone wants is high concept. Something new. Yet not too new. In fact, if it could be very, very like a product that already exists, but yet is somehow different in a new and refreshing way, that would be just great. But, and I can’t stress this enough, not TOO refreshing or TOO different. So really kind of the same. But different. Better. We don’t want the audience to have to think too much and we definitely don’t want the film executives to have to think at all. Or take any risks.

Oh and we’re not going to pay you very much. Or even anything.

It’s no wonder screenwriters like me are sitting round staring at the keyboard and sweating into our cheap liquor.

It’s perhaps why most of my screenwriter friends are still aiming for the big tamale … the impossible shot-in-the-dark of their script getting optioned by someone with a proper budget, with a proper cast, by a proper production company.

Champagne on iceTo my mind I would be better off buying a lottery ticket. I mean the odds are 14,000,000:1, right? That HAS to be a better chance than selling my high concept heartwarming, gangster, animal, rom com script to Hollywood.

It is all too much to consider and too, too depressing. So we sit at our keyboards after doing our day jobs, quietly turning profound messages and interesting characters into what we think are great scripts (even if in the present climate they are totally unmarketable) in the vain hope that one day soon things may change. The market will come out of its slumber, someone somewhere will decide that it’s OK that filmmaking is a risky business and decide to take chances once again. And maybe then the wheels of the industry we love and want to be a part of will begin whirring back into life.  And new movies will start to flow again. Fresh movies, wonderful movies, full of intrigue and adventure and humanity and with really great writing. With titles and taglines that contain none of the following words: “reboot”, “sequel”, “prequel” or “amazing”.

Of course Steven Spielberg thinks the whole movie business is about to implode and we’ll all be stuck watching reality TV, with our boredom only occasionally relieved by trotting off to the nearest big city to see a *movie blockbuster*, like the coach trip I went on once to see “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” on stage. A once in a lifetime sort of thing, perhaps.   (And Steven Spielberg has a yacht. A big one! So I figure he knows something about where the film industry is headed.)

For me and my hopeful, hard-drinking screenwriter compadres, it’s all pretty depressing. Make mine a double!!

More boozeFor me the only glimmer of hope is in independent filmmaking. That is picking up the camera and doing it myself. I have what it takes, except quite probably the talent, but apart from that it all seems sort of doable. I like that.

And with that in mind my scripts are starting to flow again; I can put down the cheap liquor and write to produce, right? Well no, not really. Screenwriting is an already lethal cocktail: concept, marketability, fresh but not too fresh, different but not too different, with really great characters, great male leads and lots of scope for actresses to get their tits out. In indie filmmaking all this still applies, because the movie-going public’s taste has been shaped that way, but now we have to add in the vital ingredient of low budget filmmaking into the mix, and suddenly you have a truly terrifying concoction.  Prepare to be feeling the effects of this brew for a long time to come.

To most Joes in the street, low budget simply means no helicopter explosions, no CGI, no big name actors.

To the independent filmmaker low budget means one location, no money for professional actors (so nothing requiring too much emoting), no catering (“well maybe Mum can put on a pan of stew, but no, she’s never heard of vegan”) and absolutely no budget for makeup, props or hair. “Oh and can you bring your own clothes? Preferably several identical sets. They may get damaged so nothing too good.”

To go to that much effort all on your own credit card limit, auntie’s life savings and the coins you found down the back of the sofa, you need to have a really really good story.  Which is where I came in at the start of this rant, but now rather than selling it to an industry that doesn’t want it, we’re investing our own money and that of our family and friends.

It has to be a story that’s so profound and heart-warming or so horrifyingly scary that it’s going to enthuse every single one of the people you’re going to need to cajole into crowdfunding your project or giving their time and effort for free.

The story is going to have to be so important that you’re going to see it through the long miserable edit stage when all your hard work is in the can and you realise it looks like shit; the even longer harder and more disheartening getting it shown stage where the distributors are going to do their absolute damnedest to get you to give them your movie for free. Zero, zilch, zip, nada.

And the story is going to have to be so ingrained into the very fibre of your soul that you’re going to stick with it right through the stage where your ego demands that you drop this absolute millstone of a movie immediately so you can move on to new projects because this one is really just holding you back from being the truly great filmmaker that you are.

Is your story important enough that when you tell your backers the eventual truth which can’t be avoided, that they still feel like they’ve been part of a worthwhile project?? Because let’s be honest, the sole purpose of making most films is to give *me* a shufty up the ladder a bit, or get *me* some attention as the brilliant screenwriter/director/filmmaker/producer/actor etc that I am. It had absolutely nothing to do with giving anyone a return on the financial investment they made in the film. “Sorry Granny, didn’t I tell you? There’s not actually any money in movies.  Only egos and self interest.”

Does your story have the legs to make it through all that?

I see so many stories that just aren’t going to go the distance.  And the project is going to be doomed from the start.  Just because it’s indie, doesn’t mean it’s enough to just make a movie. It has to be a good movie from the off and that is starting with a really great script, a really valid concept and something worthwhile. It’s worth getting it right!!!

The quality of independent films has to improve and that starts with the script.  And if the guy with the yacht is right, and I happen to think he is, we are running out of time. If the concept of the movie is to survive the coming implosion then the quality of independent films must improve fast. We can’t take our lead from the film industry because, let’s face it, that system is screwed. Independent filmmakers need to show solidarity by refusing to play the distributer’s games and by embracing the new methods of distribution that are available. It’s absolutely vital to do it together as the film community, which I think is a much nicer phrase than film industry.

A community is made up of individuals. And for me that’s the fun. I like pootling about and doing it myself. The challenge as always is in stretching me.

Kind of like this guy:

Anyway, rant over. Bottoms up!! 🙂



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