Your Galaxy Is Too Small

I know Guardians Of the Galaxy was the big film of last year, and it made a gazillion dollars and everyone loves talking raccoons and dancing baby Groot. Hell, even I love dancing baby Groot. But don’t you think it was a bit… limited?

Here’s what I mean.

Life on earth comes in myriad forms and displays all kinds of behaviour. Life across the galaxy, we must assume, will be even wilder and weirder. And Guardians Of The Galaxy was sold as the weird, out-there, fantastical end of the Marvel cinematic universe, leading us to expect that diversity and variation in the movie.

But what we got was a white heterosexual guy shagging alien girls and saving the world.

You know what, I’m prepared to give them a pass on the lead character – because maybe we need someone identifiably human to lead us through this alien world. So okay, let’s say we accept Peter Quill for the cishet meatball that he is –

But what about everyone else? Where were the aliens with six genders and eighteen kinds of sexual preference? Where were the aliens with no gender at all? The aliens with mindsets we didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand our hero’s morals and emotions? The aliens who were, well… alien?

The whole point of science fiction, it seems to me, is that it’s the ultimate “what if”. Every other kind of fiction is limited by human behaviour, world history, and the laws of physics. Science fiction doesn’t need to be. It can resign everything and everyone involved to surprise, challenge and delight an audience.

But modern movie sci-fi doesn’t seem to be interested in redesigning its characters, only its artifacts. The spaceships and the CGI change, but the faces and the sexual relationships don’t. It’s serving up the same tired white male saviours, the same ‘sleeping with lots of girls is cool as long as you settle down at the end of the movie’ relationship narrative, the same twelve-year-old boy’s view of the world. And that’s not a “what if” at all.

There are exceptions. Pacific Rim, whose white male hero must literally venture inside the mind of his near-opposite (a younger Japanese female) and achieve mutual understanding in order to save the world. Snowpiercer starts off appearing to embrace the white male savior, but ultimately [MILD SPOILERS] Curtis realises that he’s not the change that’s needed, but an obstacle to that change…

But we need more exceptions. More challenges, more imagination. Because if science fiction can’t tell new and unusual stories, what hope is there for the other genres?

Book Review: Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays

photoScript editor and screenwriting tutor Lucy V. Hay has another book out, and this time, it’s all about drama screenplays.

As Hay herself is the first to admit, “drama” is a very slippery term in the world of film. Often it’s used just as a catch-all for any project that doesn’t have a specific genre. Even when properly defined, it covers everything from biopics and historical true stories to grim contemporary stories of sink estates and despairing teen mums (that last being a category she sees far too often in the submissions pile!)

But one of the most interesting points Hay makes is that this nebulous definition is actually freeing for the screenwriter. There are no tropes for drama, no set story conventions and structural plot points to hit. Drama lends itself to non-linear storytelling, and to portmanteau stories, more readily than other genres do. In other words, it’s a great place to experiment and to tell the story you really want to tell.

Another interesting feature of Hay’s book is that she takes the position that drama is a hard sell – harder to pitch, to market and to attract major stars to – and treats this as a positive. If your story is going to be hard to produce through the traditional route, why not try another route?

Building on this, she includes a number of case studies of US and UK films, both shorts and features, examining how they took unconventional routes to the screen. If you’re having difficulty getting noticed in the industry and are considering less conventional ways to built your career there are some good examples to follow here, whether you write drama or not.

And of course, drama (more than any other genre) lives and dies on its characters, and Hay digs into how you can use different character types in your screenplay. Crucially, she notes that a drama protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have the transformative arc so beloved of Hollywood movies…

If you’re interested in writing drama, particularly for the UK film market, the book is a great overview of how this genre works, and how to make it work for you. Definitely a recommended read.

Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays, by Lucy V. Hay, is in the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books (camera

Working With True Stories

At the moment, I’m looking at a true story with a view to adapting it, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about how to select factual stories to turn into fiction.

Everyone loves a true story. The knowledge that the events they’re watching actually (more or less) happened helps audiences overcome any logic problems, makes characters more relatable, and often makes a project set in an obscure time or place easier to sell.

There may be name familiarity, or a history event that viewers will remember, giving you a hook to sell the story to an audience. People who wouldn’t go see a story about a fictional politician might go to see a movie about Winston Churchill.

And true stories are also one of the best ways to get a story about a non-white, non-heterosexual, or female lead into production. The story demands the casting of an actor outside the usual list of white males who can ‘open’ a movie, removing the pressure on you to change the story to fit the sex and race of the latest big star.

So what should you be looking for when evaluating material for adaptation?

Every story, true or not, needs a strong central character. So look for something where a single character is taking most of the action and suffering most of the consequences. Stories about a large group of people just don’t work, not unless you can tell their story by concentrating on one person.

Steven Knight’s Amazing Grace isn’t about the many campaigners seeking to abolish slavery on British soil – it’s about William Wilberforce. It may commit a historical injustice in focusing on one man – but it ensures a good movie.

Is your story visually interesting? People talking in rooms is not generally interesting (though Frost/Nixon shows us it can be.) Is there a dramatic world for your story to take place in – the courtroom, the battlefield, rock concerts or public appearances? Does the story have visual scale and moments of beauty and wonder? Does it take us to places we’ve never been before, show us new and exciting worlds?

Someone being famous is not a narrative (aka Biopics Are Hard.) Just because a historical figure became rich and famous, or won battles, or became emperor, doesn’t mean you can turn their life into a compelling story.

Like any fictional character, they need to begin with a problem and a character flaw, undergo tests and trials which they initially fail, and finally learn their lesson and become a better person (or fail tragically). If there’s no framework to create that story out of the bare facts of their life, then you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.

It’s the peripheral characters who will cause you problems. Even seen a biopic where a character (often a business partner or ex-wife) turns up for a couple of scenes, is extremely bland and polite, and then disappears? That’s the person who threatened to sue if they were depicted doing anything remotely criminal, evil, or even mildly unpleasant (true or not).

In the story I’m looking at, an extremely famous person (allegedly) seduced the central character’s girlfriend, embroiled him in an ‘investment’ that was actually a con, then ran off with both girl and money. It’s one of the most interesting elements of the story – but, knowing how jealously that person’s memory is guarded by his fans, I either cut that section, or spend the rest of my life in a libel court!

So, think carefully about who’s likely to sue you and whether it’s worth it.

Is this a story that resonates with a modern audience? Or – why should anyone care? Julius Caesar was a fascinating historical figure, but does his life story have anything to say to us today (at least, anything that can be conveyed in a two hour movie)?

The key to this is: what is your character trying to achieve? Audiences love to see someone be the first to do something, or achieve a specific goal against overwhelming odds, or go from rags to riches, or stand up to oppression or prejudice. All of these things are relatable and familiar, even if they’re taking place in another century or another country. If your character is doing one of these things, you can be reasonably sure of getting an audience.

And last of all – you’re going to put in a lot of research time, time spent getting legal clearances, literary or music rights, and all kinds of other stuff you don’t normally have to deal with. Are you so dedicated to telling this story that you’re prepared to do all that?

If so, go for it…!

Things I Learned From… Interstellar

In many ways, Interstellar is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film – a visually impressive panorama of space and time through which mere humans must fight their way back to what matters to them. Unfortunately, it also seems to have distilled his primary flaw as a writer – a lack of capacity to handle real human emotions.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work. The Prestige might just be my favourite film of all time, and Inception always features pretty high in my ever-changing Top 10. And the space-faring epic has always been a place where logic, brains, and scientific experience is valued above human relationships.

But Interstellar is, ostensibly, a movie about how human emotions transcend space and time. Which forces us to ask the question – why are most human emotions in the movie belittled or ignored?

Some spoilers follow. Obviously.

The driving relationship in the movie is between former engineer/shuttle pilot Cooper and his young daughter Murphy, whom he leaves behind when he’s selected for a deep-space mission that might just save mankind. And this relationship works just fine. He’s consumed by guilt and the desire to keep his promise and return, despite the time distortions that push them further and further apart.

Meanwhile, Murphy grows up under the tutelage of a family friend, pursuing science that might save more of mankind, both hating her father and following in his footsteps – entirely plausible for a conflicted child abandoned by a father she still idolises.

But Murphy isn’t Cooper’s only child. He has a son, Tom: whom he never mentions again after leaving Earth, and who exists in the Earth-bound storyline simply to be an obstacle to Murphy in act three. We’re led to believe Cooper’s relationship with Tom relationship is pretty good – and yet Cooper never expresses any desire to get back to his son, only his daughter? What’s that about?

And Cooper’s not the only one trying to get back to someone. Fellow astronaut Brand is in love with one of the pioneers on the target planets, and wants them to divert course to his planet to see if he’s alive. Cooper has already been blatantly making decisions based on what will get him home to his daughter more quickly, so you might expect the film – a film about love and family – to support that urge.

Nope. Brand is given a borderline hysterical speech about love reaching across space and time, and her argument is roundly rejected by Cooper. They go where he wants – a choice that exposes them to a psychopath on an uninhabitable world and kills a crew member. So it’s okay for Cooper to make mission-critical choices based on his emotions, but not for Brand? Why? Because she’s an emotional female?

By the end of the movie, Nolan has dug himself into a hole. Cooper’s supreme desire is to get back to his daughter, and the lesson he’s learned is (apparently) that he should never have left her – but if he hadn’t, the human race would never have survived. Plot and emotional through-line are directly opposed to one another.

So the final scenes are an ugly head-on collision of conflicting plot beats and emotions. Matthew McConaughey performs acting gymnastics, trying to plausibly send his past self information that will trigger the mission in one scene, and telling him not to go in the next. When Cooper’s finally reunited with an aged Murphy, she immediately tells him to get in a spaceship and go join Brand – a woman with whom he has no emotional connection beyond being workmates – on a barely habitable planet, because… well, who knows? It makes no damn sense at all.

So what’s the moral here? Make sure your plot and your emotional through-line are compatible. If your hero says family is the most important thing, make sure he acts like he means it – caring about his whole family, supporting others when they make similar choices, and ending the movie surrounded by what matters to him.

Writing To A Budget

It always seems like the number one complaint in the British film industry is money. There’s never enough, we cry. If we only had the money that Hollywood has, things would be very different…
Perhaps there’s some truth in that. Certainly the kinds of movies that we make in the UK are restricted by a combination of budget and audience – horror has a steady audience and low budgets, so we make it, whereas sci-fi has higher budgets and the audience is less reliable, so we don’t.
But to be honest, the money that really matters is the money spent on advertising, securing distribution, and establishing a brand – and that’s outside my experience, so I won’t be looking at that.
Our subject today, another of the questions I’ve been asked on Twitter, is how to write to a budget – or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as ‘how to make the best use of the budget that you have’.
The first thing you need to do is be aware of what’s expensive and what isn’t. Special effects are costly, but not anywhere near as expensive as they used to be. Extras are expensive, so crowd scenes might need to be minimised. Any kind of specific weather is problematic: if it absolutely has to be sunny for this scene, shooting may have to be delayed, while artificial rain or fog are expensive.
Exterior scenes are more expensive than interiors. Recognisable locations are horrifically difficult: shooting in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square will cost you in permits, security personnel, and probably overtime if you shoot early or late in the day to minimize problems with bystanders.
So think of ways to get round this. Can you use stock footage of Times Square, then a close-up of your actor standing in a doorway that’s actually somewhere else? Can you show the rainy day by having an actor look out of a rain-streaked window (that you actually hosed down on an otherwise dry day)? What about using existing crowds? It will be cheaper to film at the real County Fair than to stage your own…
Bear in mind that the real cost of multiple locations isn’t the number of locations, but the moves between them. So shooting in five different rooms in the same house is significantly cheaper than shooting in five different houses. Make inventive use of the locations you have – shoot with different angles, different lighting conditions – and ensure that you never go to a location for just one scene.
Reducing the number of minor characters also cuts your budget. Instead of the characters meeting a waitress, a barman and a hotel clerk, can all three of those scenes involve the waitress? That’s one wage to pay instead of three – and a more interesting character that might attract a better actor!
Of course, the problem with all this is that all low-budget films end up looking the same – three people in a room arguing about something. How can you avoid your movie looking obviously ‘cheap’?
Think imaginatively about interior locations. Instead of your three criminals hiding out in a bland hotel room, what if they were in an empty fifteenth-floor office? Or a barn full of hay and farm tools? Or they’d broken into a library by night? With a good location manager and some luck, none of those locations need be more expensive than the hotel room, and they’re a lot more interesting.
Exteriors are more expensive, but they can also be more variable and flexible. The same patch of woodland might give you a dark copse, green leafy trees, a sunny clearing, and a clear view down the hill. That’s four very different scenes in the same location. And judicious use of exteriors will immediately make your movie feel higher-budget (nothing feels cheaper than a movie that never steps outside).
Pick your moments, and make them count. Three minutes of a really good CGI monster is far more effective than twenty minutes of a badly-rendered one. One battle scene with a hundred extras may work better for your story than five scenes with twenty extras each.
Never repeat anything. Not a plot beat, not a line of dialogue or the subject of a conversation, not a motivation or an action. Never repeating yourself is a good habit to form anyway, but it’s particularly important in low-budget work, where we’re seeing the same faces and locations on the screen for the whole story. The last thing you want is to make the audience feel they’ve seen this scene before.
And the best advice of all? Good writing is free. Make your characters compelling and your plot interesting and unpredictable, and no one will even notice they’re watching a low-budget movie…

All Aboard The Story Engine

A while ago, I asked Twitter for suggestions for blog posts, and one of the subjects that came up was the story engine.

As you might imagine, the story engine is the thing that’s pulling your narrative train up the hill, the reason why things are happening in the first place. It can take many forms – a specific goal, a threat to the protagonist or those he loves, a ticking clock. It can be extremely obvious – there’s no doubting what the story engine of Die Hard or Pacific Rim is – or, in a mumblecore or slice of life movie, it can be remarkably nebulous. But in any good story, it’s there, moving events along.

So, particularly if you’re one of those writers who starts off with character first, how do you find a story engine that will keep your narrative on the tracks? (Note to self: enough with the train metaphors!)

The best story engines are derived from the core of who your protagonist is. The story engine for Aliens is ‘stay alive and destroy the alien infestation’. But it arises out of the core of who Ellen Ripley is: a mother who has lost her child. That drives Ripley to protect the orphaned girl Newt, and it’s reflected back at her in the form of the Alien Queen, also a mother trying blindly to protect her offspring. The desire to stay alive, to protect your family (the company, the ‘family’ of marines, Newt) and wipe out whatever threatens it, is a powerful, primal story engine.

Which brings us to another property of the good story engine: it’s a primal desire. The screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder said that the best goals are the ones a caveman would understand. Survival, protecting family and tribe, physical security (money, property, job), love/sex, and the desire for some kind of personal fulfillment or artistic expression – these are the basic needs any human would recognize, and if they drive your story, you’re off to a good start.

For example, the fictional Mark Zuckerberg depicted in The Social Network might be a difficult character for us to empathize with, because his goal in founding Facebook is obscure. So Aaron Sorkin imposes a story engine that we’ll all understand by opening the movie with Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. That encourages us to filter everything he does through that rejection, to see it as a desire to win her back, or at least convince her she was wrong about him. With sex as our story engine, suddenly the rather dry story of how a smart guy founded a big company becomes primal, and accessible.

And the best story engines are broad enough to be flexible. Your story is going to go through a lot of twists and turns, victories and defeats, and hopefully a few unpredictable surprises. So your story engine needs to be broad enough to encompass changes of short-term goal, and the inevitable, necessary transformations your protagonist will undergo.

Unless we can feel the same story engine pulling us down the tracks, all the way through the narrative, the story will feel fragmented and confusing. The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure you have a smooth transition from want to need to goal to story engine. Take Die Hard: McClane’s ‘want’ is to spend Christmas persuading his wife to give up her job and come back to New York with him. His need is to realise her desires are as important as his. His goal is to save her: and the story engine, the fact that he’s the only person in any position to do so, is a mechanism for him to both realise his goal and move from want to need.

So, get that story engine working for you!

What Next?

I’m just coming to the end of a new feature project, so it’s time to consider the question that every writer must face… What next?
Writers are rarely short of ideas. Usually we’re waist deep in half-formed thoughts, seductive characters and fascinating fictional worlds. If we’ve been stacking projects – rewriting one project while writing a first draft of another and planning a third  – many of those projects will be temptingly close to ‘ready to write’.  (And if you want to know more about the merits of project stacking, Scott Myers has an excellent article on it here: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2010/12/business-of-screenwriting-art-of.html )

But that just makes the question more confusing. Which of these glorious masterpieces should you write next? Well, you have a few options.

The one that will sell. Not just for the money, but because a project in development is better for your career than something no one has ever heard of. What’s selling at the moment? What do your contacts say they’re looking for? Are female protagonists in or out? Does the industry love sci-fi this month, or hate it? Look through your ideas, and pick the one most likely to go into development in the next few months.

The one that will make a statement. Do you want to prove you can write in a new genre? Are you looking to attract attention to yourself as a new writer? Have you just overcome a weakness in your writing style and want to show off your new skills? Then pick the project that will make a statement about you.

The one that consolidates who you are as a writer. Perhaps you’re not looking to change genre or style, but to establish yourself as a safe pair of hands in a particular field. Or you need another piece in the same genre so you can present a coherent body of work to an agent or manager. So pick the project that tones with your existing scripts.

The one you love. In the end, the idea you love most is the one that will attract the most attention, because a writer’s love for their world and characters shines through. So if none of the other considerations apply, ask yourself which idea you just have to write…

The Journey Goes All The Way To The End

A blast from the past here, but… Captain America: The First Avenger has been bothering me ever since I first saw it. There’s so much in this film that’s brilliant. Truly brilliant. The first sixty minutes or so has a good shot at the title of Best Superhero Origin Movie Ever (only Batman Begins is a serious rival).

But then… what? There’s a bunch of stuff, not nearly enough Howling Commandos, a moment of genuine tragedy, and then the Arctic and the present day (the latter of which is actually handled really well). But none of it, well…

None of it seems to matter.

But why?

For a long while, I wondered if the movie has a villain problem. The Red Skull always felt a little out of keeping with the tone of the movie, and yes, more villain-hero screentime would certainly have helped established a meaningful conflict between them…

But I’m starting to think something else is wrong here. The real problem is, the hero’s emotional journey finishes partway through the movie.

Steve Rogers’ journey, within this movie, is essentially a quest to realise his own potential as a leader and a hero. There’s greatness in him from the start: Bucky sees it, Erskine sees it, Peggy sees it. But the rest of the world can’t. Even when he’s transformed into that deeply ironic Aryan ubermensch, the Army has no use for him except as, in his words, a performing monkey.

What Steve has to learn, ironically, is true courage. He’s always been happy to start fights he can’t win, but that’s just belligerence and self-righteousness. You can’t become a great leader that way. In disobeying orders to save his best friend, Steve assembles a team, shows leadership, and risks his life for someone he cares about. This is the moment he truly becomes Captain America –

And in any other movie, that would be the whole narrative. Bucky’s (wonderfully conflicted) shout “Let’s hear it for Captain America” feels like the last line of a movie – because, emotionally, it is. Steve has undergone his emotional transformation, for this movie at least, and the narrative should be over.

But it can’t be, because there’s still so much set-up for the Marvel universe at large to be got through.

Wait, I hear you cry: there’s Bucky’s death, for a start. Isn’t that part of Steve’s emotional journey? Yes, definitely – their relationship is the key to the whole (cinematic) Captain America universe –

But the writers have a problem here. It’s part of Steve’s emotional journey in the next movie. Hit it too hard here, and you not only risk tipping the audience off to what will happen next, but you undercut the next movie, leaving it repeating emotional beats you’ve already played here. So, inevitably, Bucky’s death has to be underplayed for the good of the larger narrative, leaving the second half of Act Two of this movie weaker than anyone would have wanted it.

And there’s the big showdown with the villain, right? Yes, but… really, where’s the emotional drive in Act Three? Aside from Steve’s final sacrifice – and remember, the teaser to the movie has already told us he survives – where are the stakes, the choices, the failures and the victories? What are we being asked to feel?

(Actually, I’m starting to think that Act Three is the weak point in many Marvel movies. Only The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have a truly satisfying Act Three – and why? Emotional journeys. But that’s a subject for another time.)

The point here, though, is that Steve’s emotional journey is already concluded. His choices here reinforce who he is, but they don’t reveal new elements of him, they don’t change him. He’s still that person he became when he turned the Captain America persona from a stage act into a hero – and if your hero isn’t changing and growing, then the action he undertakes is inevitably flat and emotionally meaningless.

So what can we learn here?

When adapting existing material, it’s easy to assume that in order to reach point F, you simply have to work through points A – E. To set up Steve Rogers in the modern world, simply romp briskly through everything that happened before he got there. But your character may not be undergoing a single united emotional journey during that period. There may be several, which the original material had time to cover – and you don’t. But if you don’t find an emotional journey that will cover the whole of your chosen narrative, you end up with some scenes that have meaning, and some that just don’t…

The TARPIS Theory

…and no, that’s not a typo! Stick with me…

So, let’s talk action sequences.

Some people say you shouldn’t put too much effort into your action sequences, because the director and the stunt coordinator will inevitably throw them out and design their own. But that, frankly, is a load of bull poop.

Firstly, the job of every sequence, every scene, every word on the page is to sell your script – and a half-assed version of anything, even an action sequence, isn’t going to sell anything to anyone.

And secondly? If you write the most exciting and original action sequence imaginable, I guarantee you that the producer who buys your script will want to see some version of it in the movie.

Think of the inevitable changes to your action sequences as being, in effect, another rewrite. When you write the second draft, you know there’s going to be a draft three, four, and probably five – but that’s no excuse for slacking off on draft two. You still deliver your best. Write the best damn action sequence you can, and worry later about whether it’s going to change or not.

So how do you write a great action sequence? You remember the magic acronym: TARPIS.

Now, you’ve all heard of the TARDIS, right? And what does that stand for? Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  Excellent. Ten Doctor Who points to everyone.

Now, what you need to do in order to create a great action sequence is to shift one of those words a bit. Because action scene writing is all about

TIME AND RELATIVE POSITION IN SPACE

Action scenes are all about who’s where, in relation to whom, and how long they have before the next disaster strikes. In that car chase, where is the hero’s car? Where is the villain’s car in relation to him – falling behind, or catching up? What vehicles and other obstacles lie between them? How much distance does he have to cover before the lights go red in order shake his pursuers? And, maybe, what’s waiting round the next corner that we know about and he doesn’t?

It’s knowledge of all these variables that creates tension. If we don’t know precisely what’s happening, how can we be worried for the characters? The instant the audience loses track of any of the variables, you lose them.

So your job when writing an action scene is be absolutely sure what the obstacles and dangers facing your characters are, and then find ways to convey them clearly and effectively to the audience – ways that build tension and convey the characters’ fear, desperation, wants and needs.

The Ten-Second Version

I’m currently working on a spy thriller, and near the beginning of the film, our protagonist is presented to a team of spies as their new recruit.

In the first draft, I then launched into a series of tests and trials for her to prove herself worthy of joining the team, and to impress the team leader – establishing the primary relationship of the story, between new recruit and mentor-antagonist.

But that sequence never felt right. It slowed down the narrative. It felt obvious, predictable. It just wasn’t working.

And then this morning, I realized – I need the Ten-Second Version of that sequence. I need the one test, the one question to answer, that will convince the team leader that the protagonist is the only person for the job.

Why? Because near the beginning of a story, the dramatic process is not important – the decisions are.

Once your story is well underway, and especially in the third act, dramatic process – how the protagonist wins – becomes very important indeed. The audience derives enormous pleasure from seeing the protagonist learn from their mistakes, enlist the help of their allies, exploit the villain’s weaknesses and grow into their own power as a hero – and all of that needs to happen through specific, detailed actions.

But early on in the story, the dramatic process doesn’t have all of this emotional weight, and we can take shortcuts to get to the good stuff, especially when it’s near inevitable. (After all, if my protagonist doesn’t get onto the team, there’ll be no story, so it’s not like I can play this for suspense!)

All I need is one good reason why the team leader would accept her, one brief moment of proving herself – and the justification for that decision will play out through the rest of the movie.

So next time you’re struggling with motivating a decision in the first act of your story, consider – do you actually need the Ten-Second Version?