Wolfblood Season Four BAFTA Event

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Excellent day at BAFTA London today, showing the first two episodes of Wolfblood season four to a very excited audience! You can see a lot of the event, including the Q&A, on the BAFTA training site, baftaguru.org, which is full of great information about working in the creative industries.

On Tuesday 8th March, CBBC will be showing the red carpet interviews and the Q&A from the Newcastle event, interspersed with the first two episodes. From the following week, Wolfblood shows two episodes a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Hope you enjoy!

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There Is No Chosen One

The reality show Project Greenlight is, well, a reality show. It has precious little to do with how movies are actually made, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t ever produced a critical or a commercial hit. It’s not real Hollywood –

But right now, it is at least drawing attention to some of the very real issues faced by people in Hollywood who are trying to carve out a career with the disadvantage of not being white, male and heterosexual.

There are a lot of things to be said about Matt Damon’s statement, and the situation that led to up to it, and other people are saying them far more eloquently than I could. So instead of adding to that, I’d like to set out a proposal to make things better.

Let’s all remember – there is no chosen one.

In film and television, we recycle the myth of the chosen saviour who’s perfect for this situation, and has exactly the skills required, so often that we start to apply it behind the camera too. Somewhere out there, there’s a director/producer/cinematographer etc who is perfect for my project, and I just have to find them.

The thing is, that’s just not true, is it? Oh sure, there are “names” who’ll bring in funding (and that’s a whole other issue), but if you’re making a low-budget movie, hiring staff for a new TV series, making a web series, or even appearing on Project Greenlight, your choice is not “Ridley Scott or someone unknown”, it’s “someone unknown or someone unknown”.

So, putting aside names and reputations – your choice is always going to be between several people who are both equally talented and equally good for your project (albeit in fractionally different ways). I know, I’ve been there. you never end up with one obvious candidate. Never.

So whether you realise it or not, your decision is going to be largely arbitrary. You’re going to pick the person who made you laugh in the interview, or who you met last week at a party, or who your girlfriend’s brother’s best friend went to college with. (And all of those things are likely to lead you to someone the same race, sexuality, and probably gender, as you.)

Or you could make a different arbitrary decision. You could pick the black cinematographer, the editor who uses a wheelchair, the female director. Your decision is no less arbitrary than one made for those previous reasons, and you’re still picking from a pool of equally qualified and talented candidates – so why not deliberately pick the person who every one else is less likely to pick? That’s not positive discrimination or so-called “reverse racism” –  it’s as good a criteria for a decision between otherwise equal candidates as anything else.

If we all did this for a year, even, the spread of shiny white male faces who accompany every article in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would start to look very different – and there would be no drop in quality in the films and television we’re producing at all. If anything, these super-motivated candidates seizing what might be their only chance would give more than the entitled guys who can always get a job elsewhere.

So how about it? Shall we give it a try?

Fight The Good Fight

Bob Saenz recently wrote an excellent blog piece about giving notes to a particularly entitled young writer…

http://www.bobsaenz.com/blog/the-mean-old-writer/

And people wonder why professional writers are reluctant to read their work, even when they’re close friends! Believe me, we’ve all had similar reactions to our attempts to help, though they’re rarely quite that bad…

But what interests me here is the misunderstanding implicit in this young writers’ reaction. There’s a really fundamental tenet of screenwriting that he’s missing, and it’s this: the people who work with you on your project are not there for your sake, they’re there for the project’s sake. What’s important is not you, but the story.

When the script reader, editor or producer suggests you remove that scene you love, introduce a character you think will never work, cut the budget by setting it on an island instead of in space, they’re doing it for one reason – to get a really good movie or TV episode made out of your initial ideas.

That means that, if you’re wrong about something, they’re going to tell you. And you will be wrong – yes, wrong about your own script! – sometimes. God knows I have been… Sometimes we’re too close to the material to see the wood for the trees, sometimes we don’t have the experience to appreciate that another approach would work better. Sometimes that particular element (plot, character, dialogue) is our weak point, and we need an outside suggestion to buttress it. We’re not always the best judge of our own work, and we’re not going to get it right all the time.

And the reason we employ all these brilliant people is to make the show better, not to make ourselves feel better.

So next time someone gives you notes that are painful – and they will be, sometimes, however tactfully they’re given – remind yourself that you’re not fighting your creative team. You’re on the same side, fighting to make that story as good as it possibly can be…

No Assumptions

I’ve been polishing up a pitch document for a new TV drama series, and the notes I’ve been getting back reminded me of one of the most important things I learned about writing pitches, outlines, etc –

Don’t expect the reader to make assumptions about the characters’  emotions.

I used to write outlines that simply described the events happening to the protagonist, and assume that the reader would supply the emotional content. So I’d write “And that night, her dog runs into traffic and is killed” and expect the reader to mentally add “and she feels sad about it.”

It was only when a script editor pointed it out to me that I realised: you have to be explicit about how the character is feeling and reacting at all times. You can’t expect a reader to supply the character’s emotions, because – unlike someone reading a book or watching a movie – they don’t expect to have to make that imaginative leap. That’s not how outlines and pitches work. Your outline’s job is to be precise and explicit about the character’s emotional journey.

And as soon as I started writing in what to me had seemed obvious – he’s sad when his mother dies, she’s elated when she gets elected mayor – readers’ reactions to my work became much more positive.

And this is an ongoing lesson. I still have to check every document to make sure I’ve picked out every moment of emotional importance. So, however obvious your characters’ emotions feel to you, make sure they’re down there in black and white at outline stage…

Better Safe Than Sorry

As many of you will have heard on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere, script storage site Scripped has suffered a system collapse, apparently resulting in the deletion of everything stored there, and has subsequently shut down.
There seem to be a lot of answered questions surrounding the site, its owners, and the technical issues, but there’s one thing that’s very clear – no writer should be relying on one site to store their work, especially one outside their control.
It may seem boring, but paying attention to practicalities is going to save you a lot of time and effort at some point. So what are some of the practical steps you should be taking to safeguard your work and your screenwriting career?

Back-ups. They don’t have to be expensive or complicated. I have several years of work backed up on two separate pen drives, and they’re extremely affordable now. If nothing else, print a copy and keep it safe. Retyping from a hard copy is a nuisance, but it’s better than losing work.

Organise drafts. The last thing you want is to save an old draft over the top of a newer one. Come up with a system to differentiate between drafts – date, draft number, both – and stick to it.

Auto-backups are great. Losing the last half-hour’s work because you didn’t hit save is the last thing you want at the end of a long day. Many programs can be set to save work automatically every five minutes without interrupting your workflow, so make sure you turn that feature on.

Have a system for non-draft material too. Losing notes, scribbles and research material can slow you down too, so come up with a system to keep each project separate, contained and safe.

Defunct projects don’t always stay defunct. That script you half-finished five years ago but couldn’t quite crack? You may work out how to turn it into a sure-fire hit any day now. So make sure old projects don’t get deleted and thrown away, accidentally or deliberately.

Upgrades are dangerous. I lost several scripts when upgrading from an old desktop to my first laptop. Still don’t really know how! So ensure everything that’s supposed to move gets moved…

Don’t rely on others to keep back-ups for you! Your producers, your agent, sites like Scripped – don’t assume they’re going to be able to save your ass if you lose a draft. They might, but then again they might not – and you’re going to look like a right idiot having to ask them. Take care of your own scripts, and they will take care of you.

Picking Partners

Recently on Twitter, @MysteryBritExec was talking about careers in feature development and the qualities required to work as a development producer or development assistant. So I thought I’d examine things from the other side of the table – as a writer, what should you be looking for when you’re picking a team to develop your project with?

So let’s say you have a new project – maybe at draft script stage, maybe just a brief outline – and you’re going out to meetings with various producers. They’ve read whatever it is you have so far, and they’re sufficiently interested to want to meet, at least. Now, your instincts are to go into that room and sell yourself and your project – but you’re buying as much as you’re selling, so don’t forget to ask yourself a few questions about them and their reactions…

Do they really get the project? This depends a lot on how well developed the plot and the characters are. If all you sent them was a one-page ‘pitch’, then it’s perfectly understandable if they have questions about the plot twists, the tone or the characters’ motivations. If, however, they’ve read a full draft and they’re still convinced your gay hero is straight, or the film is a balls-out comedy and not a melodramatic weepie, then you have a problem.

Of course, you’re a starving writer, and the temptation will be to take the money and grit your teeth through the development process. And sure, we all have to eat. The question you need to ask yourself is – in return for the cash, am I prepared to accept the certainty that this project will never actually get made? Because projects where writer and development team don’t see eye to eye are headed to one place – the box marked ‘abandoned projects’…

Is this their kind of thing? Again, you can be flexible about this. A large company that makes material in a wide range of genres and styles might be looking for a subject or genre they haven’t tackled in a while, whereas a company with a very specific style will want to stick within that.

But it’s about the individuals as well as the company. The development team don’t have to be experts in sci-fi or rom-com or gross-out comedy – but they have to like it, understand it, and be prepared to go on a long, stressful journey into that genre during development.

Can they actually get this made? Perhaps the trickiest question of all to answer. Film funding is so uncertain, and even great scripts with huge stars and obvious potential can fail at the final hurdle. On the other hand, even small companies who have the right contacts and relationships can rope in funding and co-production deals you might never have anticipated.

Think about what they’ve made previously, and whether this is a sensible step up for them, or a move towards certain bankruptcy. If your movie is a star vehicle, do they have the clout and the money to attract a star? Do they make the scripts they develop, and release the movies they make? If they shot a movie three years ago and it’s still “in post”, ask yourself if your movie might end up the same way…

And as always, don’t work with people who don’t pay. If they can’t afford to pay you an option fee, and at least a token amount for rewrites, they’ll never be able to afford to make the movie, so partnering with them is a waste of your time and energy.

(That excludes groups of filmmakers coming together to work on micro-budget passion projects, of course. If no one’s getting paid, and you want to get a movie out there and launch your careers, fair enough. But if the producer is sat in a fancy office, earning a salary, and yet says they can’t afford to pay for your script…)

Do you like these people? This is probably the most important question of all. You’re going to spend a lot of time in stressful discussions and frustrating brain-storming sessions before this movie gets made. Do you want these people to be the ones you do that with?

Are you on the same wavelength? Do you like (some of) the same kinds of movies, books, games? Do you share a sense of humour? Would you feel comfortable having an after-work drink or a meal with them?

Making movies is an immensely frustrating and infuriating business. You owe it to yourself to, at the very least, undertake that long journey to the screen in the company of people you actually like and respect…

What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”