Friday, July 06, 2007

Advice from International Screenwriters' Festival

If you are a writer, the advice emerging from the International Screenwriters' Festival seems to be this: If you want to make money, write for TV. If you want to be the author of a work, write books or plays. If you want to get your heart broken, write a film.

The four days of the festival (which is not really a festival but a conference) has been broken into two parts. The first two days give hints and tips to emerging talent on how to break into the industry. The second two days discuss strategies for professional writers on how to survive in the industry, particularly the film industry.

Advice from the ‘Rising Talent’ days seemed to be this: Write a spec script that is original and intelligent. Even if the script is not perfect, if you are good at writing, someone will spot that talent. People are looking for writers, not scripts. If you are a new writer, you can be helped to fix anything in a script except the characters. If you can’t write characters, you are not going to make it as a writer. So if you are writing a spec script, start with the characters. Paul Ashton of the BBC writersroom had lots of advice but basically it boiled down to this: write a script that only you could write. It was implicit in the advice from several speakers that if you watch TV and think some of the shows are rubbish, don’t think you can get away with writing a rubbish script to get on that show. The people who get hired are the ones who write brilliant spec scripts.

The Rising Talent days also saw the launch of two competitions – one to help you to get into TV, one to help you get into the film industry. Details in earlier posts, below.

Advice coming out of the Professional days is this: You need to negotiate and communicate. If you’re no good at either of those, buy a book or go on a course – you need to be able to do it. Collaborate but don’t compromise your vision. You were hired because (to go back to Paul Ashton’s words) someone thought that you were going to write a script that only you could write. Michael Goldenberg, writer of Contact, Peter Pan and the fifth Harry Potter, said ‘stay true to your vision’. He also said working on a project should fun – otherwise how can you be creative and anyway if you don’t have fun, what’s the point? William Nicholson, writer of Gladiator, Shadowlands and The Golden Age, said that you need to think of yourself as a film-maker rather than a writer. David Hare embodied this when talking about films he had worked on – using the words film-making and writing interchangeably to describe his part in the process.

Everyone seemed to agree that film-making can only work if the writer and director want to make the same film. There is not necessarily a good or bad way to tell the story – but you will have an opinion about the way you want to tell it, which is why you got hired. You need to discover if your way is also the director’s way by talking about it as much as possible early on. If you don’t see the film the same way, then if you are in a position to do so, you should walk away. If you don’t, you’ll probably get fired. In film, writers get fired all the time – both William Nicholson and David Hare had been fired, but only during development, not during production. When working on a film, both they and Tony Grisoni, writer of Queen of Hearts and In This World, described a process that involved endless drafts and rewrites, endless conversations with the director and even with the leading actors if they fancy themselves as writers and want to rewrite scenes and dialogue, and being available during shooting and editing. In other words, they do whatever it takes to get the film made. Film-making is difficult and William Nicholson said that if you want to get hired to make the next film, you need to become known as a problem-solver.

As we go into the fourth day of the International Screenwriters’ Festival (day two of the professional days), discussions continue, with contributions from, among others, Anthony Horowitz, writer of Stormbreaker, Misomer Murders and the Alex Rider books, and Stephen Frears, director of Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and High Fidelity.

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