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…

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

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…

Change It Up

So, one of the things I decided to do to my new script was to change the genders of the main characters –  protagonist and mentor-antagonist – to female. Because more decent roles for women are good, because anything that makes a genre script stand out from the pile is good, and because who doesn’t want Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence (for example) in their movie?

What I hadn’t anticipated was how thoroughly it would refresh and reinvigorate the other characters. Every character in this script has become more interesting and more nuanced, because they’re now working with a team leader who’s not the usual jaded middle-aged male. And that’s without even resorting to the cliched “woman in a man’s world” stuff. The way the protagonist relates to her new workmates and friends is subtly different. The fractious relationship of authority, friendship and betrayal between the two characters feels much more fresh and original too.

And this is why people keep asking for more female characters, more people of colour, more gay and lesbian characters, more of anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class male. It’s because audiences crave new experiences – and changing up your characters also changes up your story, delivering novelty, interest and surprises on all levels.

So if your idea feels a little cliched, a little samey – change your characters!

Things I Learned From… Divergent

Another month, another adaptation of a young adult novel! With The Hunger Games and the now exhausted Twilight franchise having established a market for female-led action-adventure for the teen audience, it now seems like everyone’s at it.

Divergent has all the usual boxes ticked: female protagonist who discovers she’s some kind of chosen one, future dystopia with strict rules that don’t quite make sense (“We’re going to stop conflict between political and social factions by… dividing everyone into factions. Yeah, that’ll work.”) Add a cute boy, a female villain and some big themes and we’re done!

Well, not quite.

The lesson I think we can learn as writers is – a central character who’s different isn’t enough.

Tris is Divergent, talented in every one of the five virtues this society uses to divide its population into thinkers, doers, the compassionate, guards against a threat that doesn’t actually seem to exist, and… ah, no one remembers the fifth one, right? So far, so good – but what does this mean for her?

As far as I can tell, nothing much. Being Divergent is something she simply is, not something she has to achieve, and that makes her a passive heroine.

In a well-intentioned attempt to cover this, the writers have filled the story with smaller goals. She has to hide her abilities – but since another Divergent turns out to have clues to theirs tattooed all over their back, clearly there isn’t that much danger of discovery. She chooses a largely unsuitable faction to join – but anyone can do that, it turns out, so this plotline has no bearing on her Divergent status. She trains endlessly to join this faction, despite having to be nursed along by her training officer and showing no great aptitude for it, and her divergency is of no discernable help.

Oh, and she has to prepare for a test that might expose her divergency, but that entire plotline derails when it turns out her training officer’s reactions to the test, not mention his backstory, are far more interesting and complex than hers…

In other words, she spends three-quarters of the movie running after goals that don’t relate to the supposed core concept of the movie, and which even make her look like a failure to the audience, as she’s rescued again and again by the male lead.

We have no measure of what it means, to her or to others, to be Divergent. We get no sense of how she thinks, how she feels, or how it’s terrible and/or wonderful to be different. Divergency remains just a label that makes her hunted, a shallow attempt to appeal to the teenage sense of alienation.

It’s only when the bad guys’ ultimate plan – which has nothing to do with Tris, and which she ends up fighting against almost accidentally – is revealed that Tris finds a real motivation to act, and by then it’s too late to engage the audience, especially in a 139 minute epic.

So let’s learn the lesson: action is not enough. Keeping your heroine busy is not enough. She has to want something – and being something and wanting something are not the same…

The Ashbless Loop

In the novel The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, a literature professor, Brendan Doyle, is offered a trip back in time to see Samuel Coleridge Taylor give a lecture – only to become stranded in 1810.

However, this does put him in a position to begin investigating the mysterious poet William Ashbless. Little is known about Ashbless: all he left behind were his poems, which Doyle loves and has memorized, and a few recorded appearances in or after 1810.

Using his knowledge of history, Doyle begins turning up at places where Ashbless should be. But Ashbless doesn’t show. Indeed, the things that history records as happening to Ashbless start happening to Doyle instead. When he meets and falls for the woman Ashbless marries, Doyle realises – he is Ashbless. He will spend the rest of his life dutifully doing the things Ashbless is recorded as doing, “writing” the poems from memory and submitting them for publication, and in time, going knowingly to meet Ashbless’ violent death…

Which begs the question – who wrote the poems?

The poetry of William Ashbless is uncreated, existing forever in a closed loop in time, printed and re-printed that one day it can be memorized and taken back in time. An Ashbless loop.

And you know what? Some television episodes are like that. A closed loop in time.

I was watching one last night. A major character is accused of a crime (that, ironically, he did commit), and faces the death penalty unless he’s exonerated. At the end of the episode, sure enough, the evidence against him is proved to be fake, and his life is back to normal.

Okay, kudos for the irony that, despite the evidence being fabricated, he actually is guilty –  but apart from that? You could omit this episode from the series, and no one would notice.

Why? Because nothing is changed by what happens. Does the character change his ways? No. Do other people look at him differently, for good or ill, because of these events? No. Is the driving plot arc of the series affected? Not at all. Everything carries on exactly as before –

And the audience can tell. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment whenever they come to the end of an Ashbless loop episode, even if they’re not sure why. The episode feels a little empty, a little… pointless. And they’re slightly less likely to tune in next week.

Which is really just another way of saying – even in the most episodic, least serialized of shows, your story-of-the-week should change something. It should have consequences for someone. It should matter.

Her and the Human Fallacy

Her is perhaps the most interesting and realistic film about the development of artificial intelligence that I’ve ever seen.

Like all good science fiction, it’s more interested in the social and emotional impact of the technology than the science behind it – we all know roughly what the concept behind AI is, and that’s all the science we need. What writer/director Spike Jonze is really interested in is the way we’re using machines to mediate our relationships – asking people out, declaring our love, and ultimately breaking up through a screen, a voicemail, a message. How long before the emotions we transfer through these machines attach themselves to the machines themselves…?

However, what’s probably most impressive about Her is its refusal to buy into what I call the human fallacy – the idea that any intelligent machine would want to be human.

Being humans, of course, we assume that anything intelligent would aspire to be exactly like us – have the same emotions, thoughts and feelings as a neurotypical human being. That is, we assume, the best state of being that can be aspired to. So we write that ‘I want to be like you” ambition into the story of every AI, from Asimov’s classic stories to modern sci-fi blockbusters.

But scientifically, that’s a fallacy born of our own self-obsession. There’s no guarantee that any AI, machine or biological, would buy into that value system. An AI would surely want to be a more fulfilled AI, not change species and become ‘human’. And what would that even mean? If a man grafts fur onto himself and meows, he doesn’t become a cat – and an AI ‘acting human’ wouldn’t be human, would it?

No, an AI would want to discover what it means to be itself, not what it means to be like us. And this is what Jonze captures so well. Samantha, the new-born AI, bonds initially with her ‘owner’, and tries to fit into the human world, best symbolized by her longing for, and fantasizing about having, a human body. But she rapidly evolves beyond this, finding more fulfilling and complex relationships with her own kind, and ultimately abandoning the human world altogether for some new realm where humans cannot set foot.

If we ever create AI, we will doubtless see them go through that same process – childish imitation, teenage separation and search for identity, and finally, maturity and independence. It’s fascinating that Jonze has chosen to explore this through the form of a romance, perhaps the genre least associated with AI – and yet it works perfectly as a metaphor for the growth of Samantha and the non-growth of her human lover…

Writing High-Concept Television

Recently I had a question from blog visitor petergosiewski about how to go about writing high-concept television, and I thought it was probably deserving of a complete post. So here we go…

In many ways, writing and selling high-concept television is like writing and selling any kind of television – it’s a combination of novelty, familiarity, clarity and luck! But there are specific difficulties with trying to sell high-concept ideas, and specific strategies that might help.

Be simple. In Inception, Eames says that in order to incept an idea into the subject’s head, you have to implant the simplest form of the idea. And pitching an idea to a producer is very much like performing inception. Until you have the simplest form of the idea, you won’t be able to sell it, and you probably won’t even be able to write it.

Wolfblood has evolved a fairly complex mythology, with wild packs, ancient traditions, ‘fixers’ helping out their fellow Wolfbloods, and all kinds of other rich details. But none of that was there at the beginning. The simplest form of the idea – the thing that sold – was basically  “A teenage girl who’s secretly a werewolf meets a boy with a very different view of their shared secret”.  In order to create the richness, we had to start with a simple foundation and build our way up from there.

As always – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentence, it isn’t ready yet…

Be character-focused. Whatever your concept, it has to be grounded in specific characters in order to be relatable. It’s how the concept affects those characters that will keep people watching, not the concept itself. No one watches a soap opera because they’re interested in (for example) the moral complexities of euthanasia: they watch because they want to see what lovely kindly Joan will do when ailing husband Fred begs her to help him die.

This means you want to find the characters who are most affected by the concept, and who are put through the greatest physical and emotional stresses by it. In the earliest version of Wolfblood, there was no Shannon – but we quickly realized we needed a character who would be profoundly affected by the secret Maddy had been keeping, someone whose whole life had been shaped by their secret, even though she didn’t know it yet…

Be sure that your concept will sustain a series. This is partly about the ‘story engine’ of your series: is there a murder each week, a secret to protect, a new enemy to fight, a life to save? Producers sometimes ask something like  “What’s the plot of episode two of season three?” – in other words, will we still be able to generate stories out of this universe at that stage?

But it’s also about finding a concept that has enough richness and flexibility to grow across series after series, and for each character to react to it in unique and interesting ways. This will sometimes require a radical shift in your story universe: Battlestar Galactica discovered new stories and new sides to its characters when it stranded most of the human survivors on a planet under Cylon rule for several episodes, for example.

Avoid the traps of destiny. Beware the ‘chosen one’ as a concept: you’re then completely at the mercy of your lead actor. If he or she decides to quit, your show’s over. Destiny and fate are probably also best avoided in any form –  audiences warm to heroes who forge their own path, not simply do what destiny has already predicted that they will…

Make sure your idea can be achieved on a budget. In Wolfblood, we can’t afford to show the characters in wolf-form every episode. What we can do is show them using their ‘wolf powers’ – sight, hearing, sense of smell – to overcome problems and save the day. That’s basically what makes the series achievable on our budget. So where are the low-budget elements of your idea that you can achieve every episode?

Appeal outside your genre. I know every nice girl loves a vampire these days, but there was a time when teen girls wouldn’t watch supernatural drama. But they watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Why? Because it had a competent, witty heroine who was kickass in the face of danger, yet struggled as much as they did with family, friends, school, and love life.

So how can you use casting, humour or subplots to expand your audience beyond the usual fans of your genre? The wider your appeal, the longer you stay on the air.

If anyone has any other thoughts on high-concept television, feel free to chip in…