An English Writer In Los Angeles!

Well, my trip is over, and it’s time to share the results of my experiences! What’s it really like to be a British writer on your first trip to LA? Here are a few thoughts…

LA is probably an easier town to live in than to visit. What I mean by that is: if you live here, then unless you suddenly produce the hottest spec in town, you’re probably only taking a couple of meetings a week. But if you’re visiting, you’re trying to pack in as many as possible, and that’s going to give you an inaccurate view of how hard it is to get around and how stressful the general atmosphere of the city is.

So bear in mind that what you’re experiencing isn’t necessarily how things are for everyone else. Don’t try to pack in too much unnecessary stuff like sightseeing – enjoy your trip, sure, but remember there’ll be plenty of time to see the sights when you’re a famous writer living in the Hollywood Hills!

LA does have public transport (though people will look shocked if you tell them you’re using it!) It’s even cheap – twenty dollars for a weekly pass on the basic bus network and the Metro (excluding some local or express services). What it will cost you is time. You can get anywhere, including the big studio lots in Burbank and elsewhere, by bus – the question is, will you have enough time between meetings? Basically, if you’re not driving, you’re going to need to use cabs to keep to your schedule, so carry several cab numbers and plenty of cash.

If you are driving, you have the advantage, but even so, time will be against you. Freeway congestion seems to spring up at random, and the speed limit on major routes through town can be as low as 25 mph. Plan meticulously!

The meeting culture is a little different to the UK. Over here, where the TV industry is scattered round the country and writers often live some distance from London, meetings are confirmed at least a week beforehand. In LA, where writers live in and around the city and execs’ schedules are constantly in flux, meetings are only arranged a few days in advance, confirmed the day before, and changes of time on the day are entirely possible. If you’re used to having everything set in stone a week beforehand, that’s disconcerting at first, but you’ll soon settle into it.

Everyone does everything. The traditional barriers between film and television are breaking down, and every company wants to generate all kinds of content. We’re seeing some of that in the UK, but as you’d expect, LA is way ahead of the curve on this. Be prepared to pitch any project at any meeting. And also have a few books, short stories etc that you’d be interested in adapting. Everyone loves pre-existing material!

Prepare for anything. You’ll need sun screen, decent sunglasses, lip balm and a good moisturiser, as well as a plentiful supply of bottled water. But LA is a desert city, and nights are chilly, especially this time of year. If your meeting is in Santa Monica or Venice, remember that ocean breeze and take an extra layer (especially if you don’t have a warm car to get back into).

If by some miracle you get to the vicinity of your meeting early, and decide to get out of the heat, you’re going to have to go further to find a coffee shop than you would in London. It’s not uncommon for several blocks of LA to be offices or housing, with no shops or cafes, especially off the main routes. It’s worth keeping an eye out for somewhere as you approach the building, so you have a place to circle back to. Again, it’s all about the planning!

And lastly – and mostly importantly to a British writer – yes, you really can get a decent cup of tea in LA!

A Couple Of Tricks For Pitching

Ah, pitching, the bane of every writer’s life! Going into a room and talking face-to-face with people about our work isn’t something we do naturally, on the whole. There’s a reason we’re called writers, not talkers. But it’s part of a screenwriter’s skill set, and we all have to learn to do it.

If you find it particularly hard to be the centre of attention in the room, though, why not try a trick to take some of that attention off yourself – while still keeping everyone involved in the story?

In America, there’s a growing trend towards giving the producers  something physical to look at during longer pitches. Ted Elliott and Terry Rosso, writers of Pirates Of The Caribbean, have pioneered the use of a large cork-board with each scene or sequence, reduced to a line or two, written on cards and pinned onto it.

The advantage of this, as they describe it, is that the producer’s never going to get lost. They can look back to remind themselves of what happened, or who a particular character is. They’re able to look ahead, and anticipate where the story’s going, which may help them to understand why certain things are happening in the set-up scenes that you’re just describing to them…  And if nothing else, it stops them looking  out of the window and getting distracted!

Personally, I think setting out your whole narrative on a board,  all at once, could tend to distract everyone from what you’re saying. After all, they’re only getting basic descriptions on that board, and you want to ensure they’re paying attention to what you say – to the descriptive, emotional version – if you want them to fully engage with the story.

What I have used occasionally is a sketch book full of pictures – location photos, interesting-looking people, etc. Each page illustrates a particular location or section of the story, which means you’re turning the page now and then and giving them something new to look at.

For a two or three minute pitch, I wouldn’t recommend using anything along these lines. It’s going to take longer to flick through it  than to do the actual pitch – and it’s also likely to contain more detail than your verbal pitches, which will need to confusion.

However, for a longer pitch, it can be fantastically useful, particularly when you’re talking about a very visual world that’s unfamiliar to most people.  (And let’s face it, all the best stories are set in strongly visual worlds that we don’t know well and want to explore –  so if yours isn’t, maybe it needs some work anyway!)

The one thing that might be worth trying in a shorter pitch, though I haven’t yet used it myself, is bringing along a single physical object which illustrates your story. If your film is about a meteorite bringing alien life forms to earth, producing a chunk of interesting-looking rock and inviting the producer to imagine it had just landed in their front garden will certainly get their attention.

Or you could try starting your story this way:  “Imagine you’d grown up in a children’s home and had no idea you really were. Finally, the home hands over the one clue to your identity – and it’s this.” And you place a Nazi war medal on the table. Or an unusual piece of jewellery, or… whatever.

But you do need to make sure your object is relevant to your whole story. If it only features in the first few minutes of the film, it’s going to look a bit daft sat there on the desk as you go through the rest of the totally unrelated story.

Visual aids or no visual aids, just remember that  pitching is doing what you do best: telling stories. Hook the producer into that story, exactly as you would if you were writing the script, exactly as you would if you were telling your best friend about this great movie you just saw, and you can’t go wrong.