Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing Exercise

As I've mentioned on several occasions here in the blog Thomas and I have been working on a script for a while now, first entitled Night then Iscariot. Often thought to have been finished, only to have been proven otherwise upon further probing and through several different writing exercises, all of which revealed there was a lot more to do.

It all began with a simple, if not somewhat incomplete, idea from Thomas. I came on board and together we completed the idea and began the script, adding several new characters and situations. The blast draft (to coin a phrase - ie. the first draft is usually just blasted onto the page without too much thought and couldn't really be considered a draft, rather a platform to work from) took a couple of months - Thomas and I don't write together on a regular basis, we grab a day, a morning, an afternoon, an hour, wherever whenever we can. I guess we're lucky though, we've been writing together almost 10 years, so we know each other and each other habits very well, we can always pick up where we left off very quickly and we're very intuitive when it comes to writing, often finishing each other sentences and one saying what the other is thinking - happens a lot, where I'll suddenly light on something and Thomas will say exactly what's in my head before I get a chance, or visa versa. We're usually on the same wave length, which is great.

Then we began work on the first draft, this probably took 6 months and when we got to the end we were very proud and happy with it. We sent it out to some people to read. The reviews were mixed, and it seemed to divide the readers right down the middle - some people loved it, were thrilled and utterly excited by it, others - HATED it! They were reviled by it, and they seemed to me anyway to be at pains to hold back insults! But that was fine, we actually quite enjoyed the fact that it effected people so much! We knew then it was a very specified audience we were aiming at, people would either love this film or hate it, get it, or not. And that was fine with us. Forget the people who hated it in that case, we knew we were never going to please them. So we went with what the people who loved it and probed them a little more. They still thought there were holes and mechanical faults within.

Next we held a rehearsed reading of that draft at the Attic studio with a cast of about 13 actors. It was interesting, insightful, very useful and of course loads of fun. We began to understand very quickly what was working, where we were repeating ourselves and how characters were standing up. The audience reaction was equally useful, they spoke at length about what they liked and disliked. Again, certain mechanical faults began to emerge, character's whose presence and actions made no sense, repetition, tone - some people found it very funny! Something we didn't aim to do. We were writing a harsh dark thriller after all. But in all honesty, the writing of it was loads of fun and we spent most of the time laughing with glee as we wrote these scenes, perhaps that came across?!

We came away with some thoughts, but I think I was more confused and muddled then I was before. I had started to get too close to the project and could no longer see the wood from the trees. I needed distance. And that's what I got, about 4/5 months. I went off to finish 140 and have a baby!

We eventually came back to it and upon the suggestion of another reader, who also enjoyed it immensely, we sat down to write of a Beat Sheet. Honestly I had never heard of one, or at least I had, but never knew what one looked like. It's basically the script broken down beat by beat, or action by action. Every time a new action happens you bullet point it. I did this, single spaced, paragraphed for each sequence, it worked out at about 1 page of beats to every 10 pages of script and it was incredibly helpful, perhaps even more so than the reading (though the distance probably helped as well)

Straight away I could see repetition. I could see were characters were not taking part in the action, for example, one of the main characters hardly featured in the beat sheet, even though they were only almost every page - because they weren't taking part, they were just spectating. I began to see character flaws in the main characters, his actions were schizophrenic when broken into points, one minute he was clear and focused, next he was angry and unpredictable. Didn't make any sense. From this we began to work on characters and their relationship. But even so, there was something not quite working, an elephant in the room we were ignoring, without realising we were doing so.

At this stage we had been on this script for 1 1/2 years! Longest I've ever spent on a script. But I never felt like walking away. I enjoyed every moment of writing it, even when it got frustrating, I figured it was worth sticking with. But we were stuck, no question. We began trying to restructure the script to make it work. But we had written ourselves into a corner and every time we tried to move scenes around, the whole thing fell apart. We had given ourselves to many restrictions. We began to see that there was something severely wrong, deep inside and we were skating on very thin ice. A turn in any direction could spell disaster!

So Thomas gave the script to a colleague of his, Paul Freeny, the head of the Masters in Screenwriting in the National Film School IADT. He's observations and thoughts turned everything on it's head. He questioned everything, and asked the simplest questions we hadn't even thought about asking, things that just got to the heart of the script. Like "What's it about?" and "Whose story is it?" - simple, yes, but fundamental and essential to know and be aware of every step of the way. I think we had been meandering somewhat, we knew what it was about, but we had taken detours with other characters. We needed to refocus everything toward what the film was about, the journey of our main character.

He pointed out that the main premise, the set up within the film, didn't hold water - this was our elephant, what we had avoided looking at, when we were forced to look at it the scale of the problem became very clear. The script could have fallen apart at that stage, except for one very simple suggestion by Paul, to change one specific characters actions. Once we did that, everything slotted back into place and the script worked beautifully, better than before! It was incredibly freeing! - There's a reason Mr. Paul Freeny is the head of the Masters in Screenwriting at the National Film School! His observations were clear, concise, honest and cut to the heart of the script, but they were also positive and constructive. It really is hard to come across good advice when it comes to work like this, people are so subjective and often base their thoughts on their emotional reaction to a piece and come back with what they would write, which is never helpful, they're different people with different views and tastes who want to tell a different story (I've done it myself!) But Paul's advice was invaluable.

We started again, with new verve. We restructured the script, we changed characters, motivation and their relationship to one another. It quickly became a much richer piece. The ending changed and yesterday, to make it better, we added a new character, who's added a whole other dimension. This new found clarity has given us the freedom to get creative again and every scene has been given an added depth, texture and flavour because of it. I'm loving writing this script now and I love the script. I really do think it's good, perhaps the best thing Thomas and I have done.

Right now were completing the new beat sheet, based on these changes we've made, making sure we're clear on them before we start the script. That way we'll only have one more draft to do. We still have the climax of the film to write - it take place in a different location and is somewhat more exciting then it had been. So that needs a total rewrite. The plan is to do that on Friday, then complete the beat sheet and then start the real first draft, the one we'll be sending into the world and asking people to invest in! Easy! Only took two years!

What I've learned from this experience is that there are many different ways to write a script, and every new avenue you explore opens up new possibilities. But what's important is to remain focused of the what kind of story you're trying to tell. Figure out what it's about and stick to it. Who's story is it? And tell that story! As tempting as it is to meander and explore other stories along the way, you have to stay focused on the job in hand, maybe those stories will make other scripts someday!

It's also important to stick with it and push it. If you feel it's not working, never say "it'll do," push it, find a way to distance yourself from the material, whether that's by staging a reading, doing a beat sheet, having trusted people read it, taking time away from or all of those, then do it, it's worth it and your script and the work you've put it should be worthy of it. If you know you're onto a good thing then don't give up on it. Do whatever you have to do to make it work.

Ps. Sorry to be so vague about what it is we're writing, I'm sure all this would be a lot more interesting if I could actually refer to the script and specific examples, but I'm sure you can understand why I'm not divulging! Hopefully someday, when it gets made, I can delve deeper into the process of writing the script and pick specific examples! Thanks for reading.

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