Sunday, 21 June 2009

Screenwriting and editing

Something I've been thinking about for a while is how looking at the work of film editors might offer a new perspective on writing.

When an editor sits down to piece together a cut, he or she has dozens – maybe hundreds – of hours of footage to choose from: a mass of material they have to shape into a coherent whole.

When we sit down to start writing, we face an even more intimidating range of possibilities. We've maybe got an idea of who our characters are and roughly where we want them to go, but we've then got an almost infinite range of possibilities for how we're going to organise and present our story.

As I've prattled on about before, one of the biggest changes to my approach to writing during my MA was an awareness of visual images as the primary driver of a script. Prior to that - like a lot of readers, I think - I largely looked on them as something I'd consider later on to illustrate the dialogue.

In thinking about how we can use images to create meaning and emotional impact, it might be worth having a look at some of the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's thoughts on editing and 'montage'.

Eistenstein's approach to film art could was 'formalist' rather than 'realist'; instead of seeing the medium's primary strength as the camera's ability to record and replay reality, the formalists embraced the artifice of film and the ability to manipulate reality for artistic goals.

The technique that attracted Eisenstein most was 'montage' - the deliberate editing together of seemingly disparate images to create a meaning (or 'association') greater than the sum of its parts.

He likened his technique to the way Egyptian hieroglyphics combined two or more 'objects' to create a 'concept'. For instance, the glyphs for water and eye are brought together to signify weeping.

In the much-quoted Odessa Steps sequence from his best-known film, Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein uses a lot of graphic contrasts to represent the protesters' fear and chaotic attempt to escape the oncoming ranks of soldiers.

While that might sound a bit abstract, we can look for ways of making the theory work for us as screenwriters. For instance, we can use transitions to knit scenes together and/or create emotional associations.

If a character is feeling trapped by a situation, starting the next scene with a slamming door or a lock being closed will reinforce the notion in the audience's mind more subtly than having the character spit it out in a totally on-the-nose statement.

Another way of approaching your script from an editor's point of view is to visualise it as clearly as you can in your mind and feel the beats of your scenes in terms of individual shots.

The more clearly you can evisage every aspect of your script, the better you'll be able to describe it in a way that will fully absorb a reader. Rather than just thinking in terms of 'master shots', try to get inside the action in the way Hitchcock advocated:
“You gradually build up the psychological situation, piece by piece, using the camera to emphasise first one detail, then another. The point is to draw the audience right inside the situation instead of leaving them to watch it from outside, from a distance. And you can do this only by breaking the action up into details and cutting from one to the other, so that each detail is forced in turn on the attention of the audience and reveals its psychological meaning. If you played the whole scene straight through, and simply made a photographic record of it with the camera always in one place, you would lose your power over the audience.”
In Closely Watched Films, Marilyn Fabe analyses the famous scene from Notorious where Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) steals a vital key from her husband (Claude Raines) on the orders of her CIA handler Devlin (Cary Grant).

Using a variety of POV shots, close-ups and other camera angles, Hitchcock generates real suspense and wordlessly evokes the conflicting senses of necessity and betrayal that Alicia fels.

When you're drafting your script, you obviously can't risk readers' wrath by getting too technical and specifying a range of shots and camera angles. However, you can use your scene descriptions to imply shots.

Phil Parker advises using a separate descriptive paragraph for each shot, and varying the length of the paragraph to imply the length of the shot. The arrangement of the paragraphs will then 'create' the cut in the reader's mind.

In the same way that editors shorten shots to increase the pace in action sequences, you can also vary the pace of your descriptions to create the same effect. Using shorter sentences and strong action verbs to convey a real sense of dramatic urgency will send your reader hopping down the page.

Obviously this lot is just scratching the surface of a huge subject, and requires a lot more work. However, I think it shows how looking at writing from a slightly different angle can prove beneficial. Any thoughts welcome!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth preview, BFI

Unfortunately, I've always tended to find Torchwood a bit disappointing. On paper, it's exactly the sort of post-watershed British SF I've been waiting for. However, on screen, it rarely seemed to live up to its potential.

It drifted all over the place tonally, while seeming to rely too often on some bit of alien kit that someone suddenly remembered was gathering dust somewhere in a cupboard.

Anyway, after last night's BFI preview of the first episode of Children of Earth (a five-parter that will be stripped across a week later in the Summer), I'm delighted to report that the impending shift to BBC1 might have brought about a wond'rous thing - Torchwood done right.

It'd be criminal to give too much away, but telling a single story over five hours has clearly given Russell T Davies and his co-writers (John Fay and James Moran) the opportunity to create a work of real maturity and depth.

In the Q&A, RTD said that the move to BBC1 meant they had to make the story 'bigger', so it moves far beyond the range of things falling through the Rift and menacing Cardiff.

While the main story involves an apparently alien force manipulating the world's children, the mystery broadens out to include possible government complicity, dark deeds in the past and the arrival of a third party with its own seemingly destructive agenda.

However, the broader canvas also allows for some great scenes - including a couple of jaw-dropping revelations - involving the regulars and those close to them.

There was an air of mild hysteria at the screening, as there had been at Psychoville t'other week. The coked-up - or, at least, overexcited - gay couple next to me kept bouncing up and down on their seats throughout, so it felt like I was on a plane flying through a hurricane.

The hysteria seemed to extend to the Q&A, where John Barrowman and - particularly - Eve Myles could hardly get to the end of a sentence without dissolving into squalking laughter.

Most of the questions and discussion centred on the shift to BBC1 and the new format. RTD said he was thrilled about the opportunity to bring the show to a wider audience and create a real TV event, like Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials.

Director Euros Lyn also said that working on the series from beginning to end (and being involved from the start of the creative process) enabled him, and the rest of the production team, to give the series a greater sense of unity - something the actors agreed with.

There was a bit more chat about the recent 'rehabilitation' of SF on TV (RTD - people who grew up loving comics and genre TV are now in charge), and the marked diversity of the Children of Earth cast - something that RTD insists upon, to reflect society.

That led to the surprising revelation that Torchwood is one of BNP leader Nick Griffin's favourite shows. (RTD admitted that the theme of 'defending the country against alien threats' could be hijacked from a right-wing perspective.)

He also confirmed that there are going to be three free-standing Torchwood radio plays - including one about Torchwood India that he's particularly excited about.

The scheduling of Children of Earth is being kept closely under wraps, but I'm sure you'll hear all about it when the BBC decides to show its hand. I'm excited!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Take it easy - become a screenwriter

Thandie Newton turns to writing

Thandie Newton is branching out into writing for the screen.

Speaking to The Independent at Martini's Stay Beautiful launch, the Crash actress revealed what she's been working on, saying: "It's a comedy feature film."

She went on: "It's been really nice to do that, be at home, be around the kids, it's just a really nice lifestyle - I've been doing other, smaller jobs to supplement it and so on."

Thandie is following in the footsteps of her writer husband Ol Parker.

"Now I see why Ol's been doing it for so long, it's absolutely great," she said.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Cutting Edge, Sky Arts 1

I've been planning a post about what screenwriters might be able to gain from Eisenstein and his 'montage' theory - I think screenwriters and film/TV editors have more in common than they may realise.

Anyway, this documentary on editing, showing tonight (Thurs) on Sky Arts 1, might be of interest:

The Cutting Edge

Thursday 11th June, 22.10

Every editor has a story about what they did to save a film, enhance a sequence, or create a magical moment. This documentary examines the often overlooked art of film editing, featuring some of cinema's greatest storytellers. Directors of both Hollywood blockbusters and independent films, including George Lucas, Anthony Minghella, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron, reveal the close collaboration they have with their editors and how they work magic by clarifying storylines, reshaping scenes and intensifying emotions. Discover the invaluable contribution editing has had to the art of cinema over its history and how what is created on the set is always reinvented and honed in the editing room.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

This time it's personal...

I've got a few subjects I'm keen to prattle on about, but they're going to take a bit of time to research. For the next couple of weeks I've got more freelance work than available days (hurrah - it might be time to finally crank up the 'Trip to Japan' fund!) So, here's a what-I'm-up-to update to prevent the creaky wheels of the blog from jamming up completely.

We've just got back from a long weekend (Sat-Tues) in Lyme Regis. I was planning to use the rainy weekend to break a bit of writing, but 'unfortunately' they got it totally wrong and the weather was smashin' from Sunday morning on. So, scribbling was replaced by strolling along the shore, listening to the gentle sigh of the tide and gawping at ammonites.

Anyway, I did manage to get some work done on the lengthy train journey back from Axminster. I started to carve out the shape and major sequences of the second half of Foot Soldiers (feature-length script about a bloke who gets sucked too far into the world of pedestrian direct action).

I work in a fairly iterative way, exploring the theme and psychological aspects of the characters and story until scenes and sequences start to suggest themselves. I wrote a few pages of stream-of-consciousness-style thoughts on what needs to happen, and a rough scene breakdown - with key images and bits of dialogue - shouldn't be too far away.

We're also rumbling along on Care and Control, the drama series based on social work that I'm co-writing with a friend. We're currently reworking our first draft after a few people had a look at it; we're trimming back some of the 'personal life' stuff and focusing much more on individual characters and their social work stories.

One of our readers - a former writer for The Bill and various other series - pointed out that if people are tuning in to see a series about social workers, they'll want to see them actually doing social work rather than a load of generic personal stuff that could apply to abbatoir workers or reiki practitioners.

Anyway, the general tone of the notes we've received is positive, so we're still quite excited about getting on with it. My co-writer has been a social worker for nearly 20 years, so she's got more story ideas than you could shake a copy of Final Draft 8 at.

Finally, if anyone who reads this is going to the Torchwood preview at the BFI on Friday and fancies meeting up for a swift half afterwards, give me a shout. I'm not the tedious old stoat you'd expect from some of my pompous blogging!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Psychoville preview, BFI

So... another day, another event at the BFI. Just 24 hours after the Satyajit Ray Award and Mid-August Lunch, we were back to see the first two episodes of Psychoville, a seven-parter written for the BBC by the League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

Not surprisingly, the show is similar in tone to the League, mixing grotesque characters and sinister imagery. The mystery kicks off when five seemingly unrelated people each receive a handwritten card from a shadowy figure. The message: "I know what you did".

The recipients range from a bitter one-handed clown to a lovestruck but victimised dwarf actor who seems to have telekinetic powers. As they each pursue their individual storylines, their sinister persecutor closes in on them, and fragments of a murderous incident in the past come to light.

I think it probably suffers by comparison with the League, which is still one of my all-time faves. While Psychoville is engaging and hooked my curiosity, it lacked the variety and suffocating sense of claustrophobia that came with Royston Vasey.

Some of the characters seemed a bit familiar too. Mr Jelly, the misanthropic clown, is essentially the League's would-be comedian Geoff, while Joy, an unhinged midwife played by Dawn French, has many of the same attributes as nefarious Job Club sadist Pauline.

I'm looking forward to watching it again in the serenity of my own home. The crowd seemed a bit overexcited and howled, squealed and guffawed at every single beat of the story, making it difficult to judge how effective the more suspenseful aspects were.

(I turned round to glare briefly at who I thought was a hooting ninny from a League fansite. Harumph, says I. The BFI is a local cinema for local people. Anyway, when I fixed her in my withering gaze, I discovered it was Alison Steadman. Oops.)

The Q&A included Reece Shearsmith, producer Justin Davies, and Lisa Hammond (Bleak House, Max & Paddy) and Daniel Kaluuya (Skins), who form part of an impressive ensemble cast.

Reece said that he and Steve (his regular writing partner) wanted to come up with something different while taking some time off from League activity. While developing ideas for a traditional sitcom, they decided to do something in a longer form with a stronger overarching story.

He said that any similarities to the League just came about naturally during the writing. They were attempting to steer clear of the 'darkness' that people attribute to the League, but it crept back anyway because of their influences and what they find funny.

This is an interesting point for screenwriters to think about - I'm sure we'd all like to be totally versatile and equally adept at any tone, format or genre that got put in front of us. However, I'm sure we all have a style of work that inspires us more than others.

For instance, the stuff that stimulates me most is SF-tinged stuff that's drawn from imaginative work such as classic British 'telefantasy': The Avengers, The Prisoner, UFO, the ITC adventure series, etc.

I can bring my skills to bear on more 'social realist' work - such as the child protection drama I'm currently co-writing with a friend - but I always feel slightly off-balance, or like I'm speaking in a foreign language that I'm not entirely fluent in.

Life's short, and the amount of time we get to spend writing is even shorter. What do you reckon: should we 'stick to our knitting' or should we try to spread ourselves over a variety of styles?

Interview with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (BBC)
Preview/interview (The Independent)
Preview/interview (Sunday Times)