Things I Learned From… Skyfall

Bond’s back!  Again. Come on, we never really thought he wouldn’t be, right? Fifty years of drinking martinis and blowing up the bad guy’s volcano lair, and Bond is still a solid business proposition. Record takings, critical acclaim, well-deserved praise for Daniel Craig (though seriously, isn’t he starting to look alarmingly like an Easter Island statue? When they make Easter Island: The Movie, he’s going to be top of the list…)

There’s been a lot of discussion of the ‘rebooted’ Bond and how it relates to the earlier movies – and to Ian Fleming’s original novels, of course. Is the new Bond a softer proposition, made more accessible by allowing us to see his fear and anger and desire for revenge? Or is he, as some would argue, tougher: a proto- Jason Bourne, leaping off buildings and surviving impossible stunts?

(Actually, the interesting question here is, if Jason Bourne has fed into James Bond, has Aaron Cross then absorbed some of the DNA of reinvented Bond – and if so, who’s next in the chain? But that’s one for another post…)

What all these questions boil down to is  “Is this the real Bond?”

“Real” is a slippery word when it comes to fictional characters (and sometimes, even real ones.)  We’ve always reinvented heroes. Robin Hood was probably originally a pagan demi-god of the forest – then became a folk hero, a Saxon rebel against Norman overloads, a romanticized gentleman outcast, a Hollywood action hero, and most recently, a traumatized war veteran returning to a betrayed and tyrannized homeland.

The best characters will bear constant reinvention, and yet reflect and illuminate the era in which this version of the story is being told. Yes, Hollywood returns to familiar characters because of name recognition and out-of-copyright base material: but viewers return because these characters still have something to say to us, and that something is relevant, and renewed, for each generation.

So is there a key to reinventing the great characters of fiction, in the way that the most recent Bond movies have retooled their central character? How far is too far? How do we know what to keep and what to throw out?

I suspect that all the great characters have a solid, definable character function at their core. It’s partly who they are, and partly what they do. It may be very simple, but it’s powerful enough to sustain plots and supporting characters and entire movies.

Often it can be boiled down to a sentence, or even a catchphrase associated with the character. Robin Hood, as we all know, “robs the rich to feed the poor”. That’s the simple intention that powers everything he does, and that provokes the hatred of his enemies. It’s a passionate and personal belief that expresses itself in a concrete way. It’s not a hobby, or even really a choice; it’s the core of the person that he is.

Retain that core idea, and you can mess about with every other element of the character and it will still work. Lose the core idea, and as Ridley Scott found out, you have a name in search of a character…

There may also be an irony or contradiction at the heart of the character function. Doctor Who is the traveller who saves others, but need human companionship to ‘save’ him. Sherlock Holmes is the genius who can solve crimes because he understands everything about human beings; but he doesn’t really know how to be one himself.

So what’s James Bond’s character function? You could pick out a lot of vital elements from the books and the films. The girls, the gun, the alcohol. “Queen and country”. Incorruptible loyalty in a world where allegiances are bought and sold. Protecting the values of a cultured, mannered old world against a rebellious, frightening new one (new money, new inventions, social and political reshaping of all kinds).

Good rich material there, however you want to condense it into a character function. It’s hardly surprising that Bond has been around for so long, and will doubtless continue for many more years. So, if you’re reinventing a well-known character, make sure you dig down to the core and find their character function, the mixture of character and actions that truly defines them.

The Path is Behind You

I spend a lot of my free time hiking. Why wouldn’t I, when I’m lucky enough to live on the southern edge of the Snowdonia National Park? And one of the things you notice pretty quickly while hiking around here is that the path you’re supposed to be following is not always obvious.

That is, it’s not obvious for the next twenty or fifty yards. When you reach that mudbath hollow up ahead, which way should you go on emerging? Does the path carry straight on over those rocks, or turn left or right somewhere among them? Is this the copse of trees where you should ford the stream, or aren’t you there yet?

But here’s the thing about hiking. If the path isn’t clear right in front of you, all you usually need to do is look behind you, or much further ahead.

If the path behind you is fairly straight, and lines up with the one gap in the wall up ahead, then follow that line towards the gap and you won’t go far wrong. If you can see a clear stretch of path on the hill ahead, then take the safest path through the mud and join up with it when you can.

And that’s the best way to approach writing your screenplay.

Sitting down first thing in the morning, it’s pretty common to have no idea what was suppose to happen in this scene (even if you have an outline to work from!) It’s easy to forget what plotlines this section is supposed to join up with, what past events you’re supposed to be referencing, or what your characters are thinking and feeling at this point. So that’s when you look backwards, and further ahead.

Read back over the last ten pages or so. Maybe further back, in a story with a lot of intersecting threads. Read until you’ve hit a couple of plotlines that relate to the scene you’re writing. Then think forwards to the next scene or sequence whose purpose, theme and conflict you’re sure about.

You now know the rough bearing of the path. All you have to do is navigate through the mud of your plot until the two sections of story join up. Simple.

Interview: Adam Cohen

Guest post today: Adam Cohen, writer of the forthcoming short film Brotherhood, talks about how he got started in writing, writers and dyslexia, handling characters with a disability, and getting his first short produced…

 

How did you begin writing? What was the first thing you wrote?

I began writing because I had an idea for a novel, it was just sloshing around in my mind taking up space. Eventually I felt like I had to write it down to get it out of my head. About 30 pages in I began to struggle. I am a very visual person and I could picture the things I was writing as scenes rather than chapters.

With the help of a friend I completed the screenplay and sent it off to a few smaller production companies. They informed me that it was missing something. I then purchased a small library of books on screenwriting, structure and on directing to help me gain an understanding of how films were made.

Coincidence and taking advantage of that quirk of fate allowed me to take the next step. Whilst working as a live in tutor (I preferred the term ‘residential director of youth development’ to ‘Manny’) for the children of a pop singer, I wrote a script about my life with them. I was very lucky that she liked the script and was able to get meetings with various production companies. We filmed a pilot for this proposed mockumentary with Tiger Aspect Productions. After that I’d felt the buzz and definitely had the bug

Who are your influences as a writer? Whose work do you enjoy reading and watching?

I think a good writer looks for influence from everywhere, aspects of each person you come in to contact with to pose the question ‘What if’. A great source of inspiration is other writers, having a writing partner to bounce ideas off is when I am most creative and productive. Though it can be difficult to find the right person to trust and who works in the same way that you do.

I love watching films and series with the directors and (not often enough) the writers commentary on, I think it can really help you as a developing writer to get inside the heads of those whom you aspire to be. Sounds simple but I would advocate reading as many screenplays as you can. Most can be found online, try to read at least two or three in the genre you are writing for a week).

Try not to have a singular source of inspiration, the more I read and learn the more I discover that there is no specific magical formula to success, there are styles, boundaries and guidelines to learn. But there is no singular way to do it, the more pointers you can get, the better you will be.

What inspired you to write “Brotherhood”?

Growing up I did a lot of volunteering in youth groups, I was always interested in people with disability. As a youth leader I was part of a program to incorporate those with special needs into the mainstream youth. Funnily enough, the people that gained the most were the ‘normal’ children who learned about responsibility and cast aside the ridiculous fears and prejudices that we have as part of society.

I wanted to tell a story where the character who has Down’s Syndrome is not a victim. In the course of my activities in school I mentored a boy whose older brother had Down’s Syndrome. I empathised with this, and the idea of having an older brother who didn’t live up to the billing. I myself have a younger brother and the responsibility I feel towards him is one of the most powerful drives in my consciousness. This dynamic, as well as that of how it skews the parent-child relationship, forms the emotional epicentre of this story.

I think that the beauty of film is that it allows us to enter a world that we would not have been able to encounter otherwise. People often don’t consider disability unless it affects them or their family directly and this is wrong in my opinion.

Actors with disabilities frequently complain there are few roles for them, and those that exist are passive victims. What do you think about this, and do you have any advice for writers writing characters with disabilities?

Most people write about what they know, it is what’s natural and what’s easiest. That is both a good and bad thing for a developing writer, it allows you to create the most believable and realistic characters, however on the other hand. I find the best way to learn and develop in any way is to stretch your self. Write (and watch) genres and formats of film and TV that are out of your comfort zone. Thank you to Brandon Smith for that piece of valuable advice. It’s the only way to improve yourself and avoid pigeon holing yourself with a big fat label.

People have an image that all disabled people are the same, this is profoundly wrong. Disabled people are as different in terms of ability and personality as you and I. The character of Josh was created here to show that people with Down’s Syndrome are not all victims, and that he as an individual has talents and abilities as well as flaws and insecurities that the audience are not expecting.

A person with a disability for me is simply a character with a certain point of view, so similarly when trying to write any character, give them a point of view and ask your self how and why do they react with their environment.

I would also say; when writing a character do your research, don’t think that you can go the whole way from start to finish in your mind. Try to live in the world you are writing there is no substitute for real experience. If writing about disability, talk to not only those living with that issue, but those who live around and are thus affected by the person or situation. Friends, family anyone who you can get 20 minutes with will help you immensely (be prepared to buy a lot of people coffee)

There are a startling number of dyslexic professional writers. As a writer with dyslexia, do you think there’s any connection between dyslexia and creativity? Has your dyslexia affected your work in any way other than the obvious?

There is a startling percentage of dyslexic people in the arts in general, I think this is because it is a reflection to the school system that we all emerged from. Here individuality and expression is celebrated. Whereas in the school system people are judged on exams and their ability to conform to set answers, it disadvantages those who think in a certain way.

It teaches us (quite literally) that if you are top of the class you are most likely to succeed. False, false, false, false, false. It takes a resolute person to come out of the school system having not excelled and start to believe that they have something of worth to add rather than doing a 9-5. I think that the school system is stifling creativity and that the funding is backwards, but that is a separate rant.

Because I worked hard and was adequately intelligent, producing B’s, the idea that I had a problem that should be addressed (like dyslexia) was laughed at. Consequently, I went through the school system believing that I wouldn’t be good enough. After finding out at 20, during my quantity surveying degree I discovered that I was dyslexic. It allowed me to open my mind and start to believe that it wasn’t that I was not good enough, it was simply that the system of time pressured examinations didn’t suit me.

Apart from that, in my working life until I am able to get an actual editor, spell check is a vital assistant. This is also where having friends to check scripts is very helpful for me.

People tend to think of short films as being a means for directors to ‘break in’, not writers. What has your experience been, as a writer, in development and pre-production? Would you recommend writing a short to a new writer?

Short films for a writer are an excellent way to cut your teeth, it is also the best bet for having something made, which is in turn the best way to take your first steps up the ladder. It will help you with concise story telling.

This has been a huge learning curve for me in terms of writing for film, as a writer you can sometimes forget it is a visual medium. Working with such a talented team has really helped me to get to grips with the concept ‘show don’t tell’.

As a writer, networking can be very difficult, writing is an often lonely profession. Writing a short is a great way to be active in film making, as a new writer the most important thing is to get your things made. A short film is the most likely way for that to happen. It often isn’t glamorous or well paid (if at all) but it is vital experience. Most importantly you never know who you are going to meet and where it’s going to lead. I really believe that the only thing you can regret is something you don’t do… apart from home made bungee jump.

Stay creative, that is the primary concern, take any progress you can get. Don’t think that you can ever predict exactly how something will turn out or where it can lead. Good writing will out eventually. Every NO gets you closer to your YES.

What do you plan to work on next?

Once this has finished filming in December, I have a second short film which will hopefully film next year. I have also just agreed a deal to do an adaptation of a novel and am working on a feature length pet project of my own called ‘Get Gaddafi’.  During the next year once I have a visual portfolio to showcase I plan to get an agent.

Over the year I expect that some things completely unpredictable and unexpected will happen so I never get too caught up on making plans.

 

Some more about the film:

Brotherhood by Adam Cohen

Brotherhood is the story of HARRY WATSON (17) a teenager with a serious attitude problem. His home life is as frayed as his mother’s nerves, from the constant fighting between him and his older brother JOSH who has Downs Syndrome. Harry has always resented his older brother for not acting like an older brother should, and for all the attention his mother lavishes upon him.

Their already difficult relationship is tested when, in order to get what he wants Harry must bring Josh onside. In a drunken adolescent misadventure, when Harry needs help most, it falls to Josh to save his brother. Can they repair their relationship or has it gone too far?

Brotherhood stars Otto Baxter, Bobby Lockwood, Vanessa Bailey and Sophie Coward. The project is being supported by crowd-funding, so if you’d like to donate (and get some fun goodies!), you can go to http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/266174?c=home. Funding closes December 10th.

You can find Adam on Twitter at  @ajcohen3 . Many thanks to Adam for sharing his experiences!

Unstoppable Force, Meet Immovable Object

One of the phrases you hear bandied around in film and in television on both sides of the pond is “high concept”. It gets misused a lot, and not only by amateurs and newbies – but essentially it’s a term for stories that could be summarised in one sentence, stories that any busy exec could grasp even if a writer button-holed him in an elevator for thirty seconds. One of the most famous classic high-concept pitches was the pitch for Alien, which, allegedly, was just  “It’s Jaws in space.”

Another superb high-concept pitch sold today, according to Variety: an R-rated comedy called “Cherries” from writers Jim Kehoe and Brian Kehoe.

“Cherries” follows three naive dads who set out to stop their daughters from making good on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

More details, courtesy of Scott Myers at Go Into The Story, at  http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2012/11/spec-script-sale-cherries.html .

Not really my kind of movie, but damn, great concept!

But wait a minute, there’s something else we can learn about movie concepts here. “Cherries” isn’t just an idea, it’s a conflict. And it’s a conflict in which neither side is going to give way.

Those dads are determined to keep their daughters pure as the driven snow; the daughters are determined to go all the way on this very special night. Can you see either side backing down? Agreeing to give up and go home? Even finding a compromise?

Nope. And those are the kinds of conflicts that drive movies. James Bond and Blofeld will never agree to disagree. The shark in Jaws won’t listen to a reasoned argument. Old Joe and Young Joe in Looper will never find a compromise that gives them both what they want.

If there’s no way you can imagine either side in your central conflict giving way, then you’ve got yourself a movie…

The London Screenwriters’ Festival

I spent most of last weekend at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Although the festival’s been running for a couple of years (effectively replacing an entirely unrelated festival held in Cheltenham), this was my first visit, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The Festival takes place in a very pleasant private college, spread across a number of teaching rooms and lecture theatres, including a very well-equipped theatre. There are four events going on at any given time, which means there’s usually something you’re interested in – and there are frequent breaks for coffee and socializing!

In addition, there are special events, many of which you have to sign up for in advance: speed pitching to UK and US execs and producers, a number of script labs focusing on different genres or media, free personal feedback on your work provided by Euroscript analysts, 90-second elevator pitching (in a real elevator!), and the Saturday night Pitchfest, where hopefuls pay an entry fee and pitch to the audience and assembled speakers in order to win the cash kitty.

So, as a first time attendee, what did I think?

On the Friday night, I was talking to a woman in the bar who expressed surprise that many of the people she’d met when she first started attending didn’t come any more. I was rather less surprised than she was – because LSF is pitched very much at the beginner screenwriter, and I can see how a writer would eventually outgrow much of the teaching and advice on offer.

That’s not a criticism. It’s beginner writers who need the most help, support and camaraderie, and if LSF pitches itself squarely at that market, who can blame it? And they cater to it very well: the caliber of speakers was excellent, and there was something for everyone. If you don’t have an agent or industry contacts, it’s worth attending just for the pitching sessions – I heard about a lot of promising contacts being made there.

But if you’re a more experienced writer, is there anything for you at LSF? I would say: yes. I got onto an excellent 3-hour pitching and idea development lab with Gub Neal, and learned a lot. I entered the elevator pitch for the hell of it, just to try out a brand new idea: and if the slightly bemused exec trapped in the lift with me didn’t want to buy my period detective/western, I wasn’t exactly surprised! I had some excellent free feedback from Euroscript, cheered the terrified entrants at PitchFest, and really enjoyed sessions with Julie Gray, Tony Lee, and Linda Aronson.

Best of all, I got to meet a lot of people I only knew through Twitter – and a few Wolfblood fans!

So if you’re a new screenwriter, I’d recommend LSF wholeheartedly: and provided you plan ahead to make the most of the more advanced or personalized sessions, I’d recommend it for the more experienced writer too.

Now, if they could only improve the quality of the lunches in the college canteen…