Saturday, June 06, 2009

Give Me Direction - The Run Down

An interesting day all round yesterday. I can’t say there were any earth-shattering revelations, it was more of a refresher, but it was good to meet people again and anew – Jason and Cian among them!

(First off, apologies if I jump back and forth, I’m working of brief notes I took and memory!)

The morning kicked off with an intro by film board CEO Simon Perry and a lead into a discussion about Main Stream Vs. Art House, the difference between them and if there was a medium between the two – No being the eventual answer! They are separate and should exist separately, but I think we knew that! The feed off of each other and the difference and conflict is needed for both to survive.

On the panel was Eran Kolirin, Israeli director of The Band’s Visit, who was funny and charming and had some interesting observations. Mark O’Rowe, writer of Intermission, who’s answers seemed to meander and were often contradictory – so a typical writer then! Damien O’Donnell, 35 Aside and East is East, who had a much more solid and direct opinion of the industry and his place in it. And last, but by no means least, John Moore, Dundalk man and director of Behind Enemy Lines, Omen remake and Max Payne – in his own words “The token sell-out” of the panel. He was funny, irreverent and refreshingly honest.

During the conversation O’Donnell mentioned Surprise that scripts need to surprise the reader. It’s something that’s easy to forget and it ties into something what Tanya Seghatchian (producer) said later on about being attracted to scripts. It is often stated that you need to grab you reader in the first 10 pages. She points out that as a producer you are only required to read the first 10 pages as a formality, she looks for scripts that grab her on page 1. I found that interesting, I hadn’t really thought of that before, I often have something happening on page 3, but to pull the audience in from the beginning makes sense. She’s the producer of the first 4 Harry Potter films and the Head of the UK Film Council by the way.

The discussion turned to Authorship of a film and Genre. Is the credit ‘A Film by’ a valid one, most people thought not, that if it was a necessary credit that it only be given to writer/directors. Interesting that John Moore was against the credit at all and has fought against having the credit on his films, especially on The Omen, which was a remake. But it seems the DGA requires it. It also came to light that this title is not really about authorship and shouldn’t really be regarded as such, but is simply a marketing ploy. A Film by Martin Scorsese will sell a film to a certain audience etc.

On genre Damien O'Donnell called genre a lazy way of pigeon-holing a film, which I don’t agree with, nor did John Moore, it sparked a heated cross fire between the two, which was fun! And again the idea of genre begin a shorthand marketing tool came up, fair enough, we want our films to be seen, why not give them a shorthand so they know what they’re paying into. Many of the filmmakers on the panel seemed to reject genre, except Moore, I don’t know why? Cinema has a language, genre is part of it, why try to reject it?

They also brought up the question of why they make films, as you would expect the general answer was, to be seen. O’Rowe was honest here in saying it was to be liked, to have people appreciate and enjoy the work and to find personal validation. Which I agree with, when it comes down to it you want to be in a darkened theatre with people watching your work and see then enjoy it and know that it was you that did that. It’s a satisfying feeling.

They talked about getting films off the ground, I suppose it as equally encouraging as it is disheartening that they seem to find it as difficult as we do (they being successful feature filmmakers, we being beginners.) Kolirin talked about how when trying to get the film made he came up against so many people who said it was not commercial and would never make any money. After it was a huge success, sold internationally and was nominated for an Oscar all of those people suddenly talked about how they always knew it would do well and they always believed in it.

My general feeling from the talk was that the business is a strange, paranoid, fickle thing, where in, no one knows the recipe for success and they are desperately seeking it. I had this image of headless chickens running around bumping into each other looking for their heads. No one knows why a film works or doesn’t. The general feeling was that you make a film because you want to tell a story and you try to make from as honest a place as possible… except for John Moore, he openly admitted he does it for the money! But he also talked about delivering excitement, which he feels is underrated and as valuable as moving someone to tears.

Interestingly he talked about how this is a good time to be sending work to Hollywood. They are hungry for new, fresh work. They seem to realise that they have blown up one to many things and now know that people want more. He also mentioned that it’s a good time for more down beat films, no more happy endings “If you have a script with a suicide at the end, get it out of the drawer!”

Next up was Charlotte Kelly, agent for Casarotto Ramsay (One of the top agencies in the UK) she represents many Irish talent, Ken Wadrop, Simon Fitzmorris, Tom Collins and more and is one of the few talent agents in Ireland (which was why she was surrounded by about 20 people at the end of the talk). Tanya Seghatchian, producer of the first 4 Harry Potters and the head of the UK film council. Kirsten Sheridan, who we all know and Tony Merchant, one of the Uks most success and prolific TV writers, The Whistleblowers, Mark of Cain, Crime and Punishment and more.

This was for me the most interesting talk of the day, especially with the advice given by Tanya Seghatchian, mentioned above. It was also interesting to see what attracts all these people to projects and to working with people, especially Tanya as a former producer for BBC drama and now the UK film council, and it is as basic as being passionate about a project and falling in love with it. Tony Marchant gave an interesting analogy about writing a script, which I think is true for how a producer approaches a script, that is - when you start a script it’s like going on a first date with someone who is going to become a long-term lover.

For us writers that’s certainly true. On the first draft you get that rush of excitement, flurry of passion, you’re unable to sleep and wait until you can get back to it. Then you settle down, being to work at it, become more familiar with the story, the characters, the flaws. There are periods where you wonder why you even started the damn thing and when something works you fall in love all over again.

It’s the same for producers and indeed agents, as Charlotte Kelly mentioned, the reason she takes on a client is being she falls in love with their work. She knows she must become passionate about it if she is to represent that passion when try to sell it.

Advice given for writers and finding a producer or an agent was to write, write, write and make sure your script is as good as you can get it before sending it out. Push the story, the characters and the drama and make sure it’s the best it can be.

Connor McPherson, when asked later about being a writer and self collaborator as writer/director and when he knows something is ready, said that time is a great way to find out, walk away from your script for a while. Mistakes you didn’t see when writing the first draft will become glaringly obvious two weeks down the road.

Interestingly Tanya answered a question from the audience about film funding in Ireland from the UK film council and seemingly it is possible, cool! It has to do with personell and money, but a film written and directed by an Irish filmmaker could be shot here with UK money and a UK crew. The question was also about making an international story, not indigenous. Something like Slumdog Millionaire, an India tale by British filmmakers. So something worth thinking of.

Unprovoked angry soapboxing was the order of the day for David Kavanagh, whose crass outburst from the crowd, although a valid point, seemed to me to be out of context and out of place, in my opinion. He took every opportunity he could to unload his politics. Quote of the day from him: “If a producer fucks you, and you don’t want to be fucked, that’s rape isn’t it?” - followed by a stunned silence and an embarrassed panel of guests trying to find their way back to the topic at hand. The phrase Time and place is a phrase that springs to mind.

Although I am member of the writers guild and glad there are people as passionate as David to speak on my behalf, I’d rather he not do it at an event where I am seeking inspiration and indeed direction from people who’s work I admire - embarrassing them and making the entire audience feel uncomfortable.

I know Kirsten Sherdian felt the same as she then asked if they could end their session on something inspirational – quoting Stephen King’s analogy about writing begin akin to Archaeology rather the Architecture.

(Side note: if anyone hasn’t read Stephen Kings book “On Writing” I would highly recommend it, even if you’re not a King fan, and I haven’t read much of his work, it’s still a great great book.)

Tanya also talked about a script being both Deja vu and Jame vu, meaning: something you feel like you scene before, the setting is the same, the characters are the same, but it’s also something you’ve never seen before. Which I thought was interesting, and an interesting way to approach a script. I mean we all sit down to write a horror script, werewolves and vampires, or a family drama, brothers at war, a family torn apart… but what can we do to make it different, grab the audience from page one and make them feel that they have never heard this story told this way before.

After dinner was a rehearsed reading of Memorabilia by Kevin Barry, which although interesting, was not my cup-of-tea at all, and probably not a film I’ll be rushing to the IFI to see if it ever gets made. But from my own experience with readings I know it is a valuable exercise and I would recommend it to anyone to find out if their script is working or not. There’s nothing like hearing your script read out loud by actors to unlock the problems within.

Next was a conversation between Connor McPherson, I Went Down, The Actors, Roddy Doyle, you know him, and McPhersons producer Rob Walpole. McPherson passionately spoke about protecting the idea, keeping the original feeling and excitement alive through out the process and the importance of forming strong relationships. He also warned against the schmoozing love machine of Hollywood, and to be careful of succumbing to being pampered by them as they lube you up to be fucked!

I don’t know, maybe I was getting tired, but I didn’t take very much away from this conversation, sorry!

The last line up of the day was possibly the most impressive in terms of talent, Jim Sheridan In the Name of the Father, In America, Pat McCabe, The Butcher Boy, Paul Fraser, This is England, Roddy Doyle The Commitments and chaired by Lance Daly (Kisses) I found Lance’s questions to be a bit vague and not very inciting. The panel seemed to trail of into other points when trying to answer. Still, it was interesting to hear them speak.

The main theme seemed to be about finding a story and controlling it when trying to tell it. Paul Fraser, who honestly seemed tired, disinterested and like he wanted to be somewhere else struggled to answer questions and resorted to, what I’m sure were, much retold anecdotes of his career with Meadows, interesting nonetheless. He talked about their method and how they like to workshop their scripts until they’re ready and how they never stop changing, even during filming. You might wonder what then is the point of writing a script, but it was interesting to hear then that that was what happened with Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, that script was never really finished when it went into development.

I don’t remember much else of what was said. A lot of meandering points and retold anecdotes. To me their seemed to be no solid answers given because none of the filmmakers their really knew. Perhaps we can go back to that quote by William Goldman, “No one knows anything”, no matter how successful you become there is no real way to know how it happened, no clear answer and no secret. Or maybe there is a secret, and it’s this, you just have to work.

Keep writing, constantly perfecting scripts, pushing them out there, learning you craft. Stop worrying about what the other person is doing, what’s hot at the moment, what the film board are doing or not doing, whether there’s an Irish film industry or there isn’t and do it anyway, learn, write, work, make films.

As I mentioned above the day offered no great insight into writing or indeed the industry, but it was certainly food for thought. I’m not going to change the way I work or write. I will think more about getting page one right! I will put more thought into being fresh, original and surprising. And I will keep working and making films.

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The event was organised by Andrew Meehan and Sarah Dillon at theIrish Film Board.

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