“Well you’ve nailed the title”: surviving script editing

It was the funniest thing … I’d been so looking forward to my script editing session with industry heavyweight Kate Leys (Churchill, Lady Macbeth) that I’d completely failed to consider …  what if she thinks my script sucks???

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So there I was, pootling along Piccadilly on my way to BAFTA HQ to meet her, now absolutely terrified.  Like going to the Headmaster’s office when you’ve broken a window.

I’d met Kate before, she’d been with me on stage at BAFTA when I’d won the Rocliffe award.  At that time – many, many drafts ago – she’d spelt out exactly what was wrong with the early draft script (“not enough goes wrong, Claire!”) and I’d built in her criticism but … what was now in store for me?

Well, truth be told, it was fantastic.  She didn’t talk scenes or dialogue or pace, she went right to the heart of story and everything came out from there.  The producers, Kate and I refined exactly what’s at the heart of the story (and thank God I’ve nailed the title!) and all the work from now on – and there’s plenty – should come out of that.

The session highlighted for me the fact that the initial stage of script development, that thinking, considering, developing of the idea is crucial to the success of the finished piece.  If you haven’t thought through your concept well enough at the first hurdle then you’re setting yourself up for all  kinds of trouble later on.  And that’s a stage I do find hard because often there’s hardly anything to show for it.  A few post-it notes, scribbled notepad pages, much desk research.  Far better to be typing away furiously at a script.  But It’s definitely encouraged me to slow down and make that first stage count.

 

Memories are liars

In the news today, a topic I’m playing with for a short film.  And it’s something I find so completely disturbing and utterly fascinating … our memories are NOT SET IN STONE.

I’d thought our memory was like computer memory.  You create the “file”, store it, and open it up when you need it.  But no – after taking part in a Behavioural Economics event a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that every time you call on it, the slippery memory can change.  Big changes, small changes …it’s not fixed.  It’s not real.  It changes depending on what we’re thinking at the time, what’s happened since the memory…

So if what makes us is our memories, if it informs what we do and who we are … what does it mean when we can edit those memories?

 

A date with my film

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Last night I gave a talk at Insole Court, Cardiff, as part of the Brilliant Books literary festival.

To a packed (yay!) room I talked about Clarice Cliff for the first time to non-film folks.  I brought along plates, cups and original prints for people to look at and even Clarice’s favourite cologne so they could smell the woman herself (for the record it’s 4711 Eau de Cologne … mixes lovely with the smell of turpentine).

It was a great exercise in learning what will sell my film.  What I decided – in the blind heat of terror – to talk about, and what to drop was good indication of what I unconsciously think about aspects of the Clarice Cliff story.  And I also picked up on my audience’s reactions to elements of the screenplay: the affair, the politics, the business, the family tension.  It was fascinating what got a laugh, what didn’t, what shocked, and what intrigued.

The evening proved to be a valuable testing ground and – as I embark on another draft – a timely reminder of what a brilliant untold story is waiting to get to the big screen.  And what a privilege I have in being a part of it.

Wannabe scriptwriters proceed to checkout

Want to be a scriptwriter? Well you’re in luck! There are HUNDREDS of ways you could pay for the privilege.

OK first I need to admit … I have parted with money to get where I am. I got my MA in Scriptwriting and it was super useful. But what’s surprised me since embarking on my career – and what I’m writing about here – is just how many people there are out there who dangle success and opportunity in your face and then want your Visa card details.

I was at a Film & TV event day recently – a writer was giving a talk about their experiences in the industry. Except they weren’t. They were giving an hour long sales pitch, selling their services as a career coach, script reader and networker. All of which I could enjoy. If I paid. This was a Government-funded event to help people working in the industry … I took the leaflets, we swapped cards and I dropped it all in the waste basket.

Industry magazines offer lists of production companies that are taking unsolicited scripts … yours for £20. Organisations arrange script competitions (which are designed to give the judging panel access to new talent) that you pay to enter. Websites charge a premium for special access … pay to read more …

When you’re starting out as a writer you’re probably not going to be over-wealthy. Maybe you’re working part time so you can write, or you’ve dropped your job completely. You’re starting from the bottom up. So having to fork out regular sums to try to catch that elusive break is a cruel step and one that’s going to hit the least well off the hardest. Will only the wealthy, privileged few afford to get the breaks?

Full marks to competitions like BAFTA Rocliffe – which gave me my break – BBC Writersroom and others who give everyone an opportunity at no cost. We need to raise awareness of these and encourage more outlets to showcase and develop talent. Everyone should get access to opportunities, regardless of how much they can afford to pay.

1927 Paramount Studio map of California

I love film, I love maps… and here’s what happens when they come together.  It’s a 90 year old map of filming locations that can pass for other locations across the world.

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I love the fact Sherwood Forest borders South Africa and the Red Sea and that Wales is neighbour to Venice and Spain.  That’s the magic of Hollywood …

Dark Pembrokeshire

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The Wales Coast Path runs 860 miles from Chepstow to Flint and I’m a quarter of the way along it.  As I trekked Newport’s marshy wetlands, the Vale’s lonely cliffs and Dylan Thomas’ misty estuaries my mind started to wander … I bet these had been great smuggling locations.  And it turns out there were…

…and they still are…

I mapread, I walk, I google … and I’ve discovered dark secrets in beautiful places: IRA weapons drops, multimillion pound drug smuggling rackets, people trafficking.  There are false walls in caves, underground containers beneath perfect sandy beaches, waterproofed suitcases of heroin tied to buoys, weapons pushed into hedgerows.   It’s given me a new perspective on my rambles… and the subject of my next script.

I’ve always been fascinated by smuggling so it’s a real joy to finally be writing about it.  I grew up with Moonfleet and – my favourite – The Adventures of Henry Penn about a village of penguins terrified by pirate smuggler Obadiah Imm.  There’s still that romantic image of smuggling but modern day stories such as the Seal Bay investigation in Wales in the 1980s exposes a more brutal truth.

I love the juxtaposition of gritty menace and gorgeous beaches, tourism and slaughter.  A policeless, woman-against-the-world crime drama in a stunning location here I go …

Profane

Have been in stitches reading this OFCOM report about the use of profane language on TV.

https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/91625/OfcomQRG-AOC.pdf

Page five had me in tears. You can only imagine how those focus groups went … a smart hotel function room … keen, Middle-England respondents gathered round an anxious moderator who checks their notes and then announces, “OK then everyone… muff diver?”

I’m researching what words and phrases I can and can’t put into a pre-watershed comedy drama. And it’s actually quite vague. It can depend on the number of times you use the word, who speaks it, to whom, and in what circumstance.

So what to do? Well I’m going to put in my profanities, because anyone reading to page five will know that some words have special powers and are very, very funny. And it’s up to my Script Editor and the many layers of broadcast management to agonise over each and every one of my shits.

Beef spectacles

Just going through my feature script, tightening up, and it struck me…

beef-tenderloin-2spectacles

The two things I want in each scene are:

BEEF: that’s my teenage daughter’s word of the year.  Meaning – trouble, arguments, tension.

SPECTACLE: something visually remarkable, engaging, memorable.

So here I am, holed up in my writer’s room at the bottom of the garden, checking each scene for BEEF SPECTACLES.

 

You don’t own history: not even your own

How huge is this … a person does not have the legal right to control someone else’s vision of them.oliviadh

I keep reading this week’s news, is it right? Really? It’s come about through Olivia De Havilland’s court case against the creators of a TV show that features her.  The 101 year old actor believed she had been misrepresented on screen.   But the jury panel ruled in favour of the creatives.  Here’s what the judge said:

“Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star – ‘a living legend’ – or a person no-one knows, she or he does not own history…Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

It’s close to home for me – I’m in script development with a biopic of a real person. And elements of their life need to be told with creative licence: I’m an entertainer not a historian.  So there are moments, thousands of tiny moments, when I made stuff up.  I had to.  And I believe each well-considered fabricated moment works to reflect the bigger picture of the person I’m portraying.  And, ultimately, the vision of the person I am creating is as authentic as I can get it.

So here’s the question … what would they think of the film? Actually I think they’d laugh it off and wonder what the bloody hell someone was bothering about them for.

Visible/ invisible writing

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I’m writing a pilot for a period drama and I’m wrestling with the problem of whether I as a writer should be visible, or invisible.   By which I mean – should I write in such a way that the audience is made more aware of the writing itself, or should I slip into the background and disappear, and the drama transcends the script.  As an example …

A scene with a swordsman, plunging a sword into a pig carcass, smash cut to a dainty supper scene with a woman carving a side of ham. Ah ha … the two are linked, not just in storyline but in what they’re doing at that moment with the ex pig: sword and knife, stab and slice, anger and calm.  It hints at a deeper connection, it’s a dash of humour, it shows I’ve thought about the script but also … it shows me. The writing has taken the forefront.  I have asked for recognition.

…and what writer doesn’t what a whole pile of that …

But, after much thought and considerable pacing, I think it’s probably not going to work in this particular piece. It’s all fine and dandy in other scripts but here I want the reader to be transported – lost – in a different world.  And if I play too ‘clever’ then I’m at risk of taking them out of that world, if only for a moment. So I’ll disappear, drop the smart script points.

Dammit.