Category Archives: Screenwriting

Time for a little romance

Spring is under way.  Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, and love is in the air.  Which seems like a good excuse to write about rom-coms.  It’s easy to be uppity about rom-coms.  They’re arguably the most formulaic of screenplays and generally tend to follow the format of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl and boy fall out, girl and/or boy must learn an important life lesson in order for true love to triumph.  All sounds dead simple, but the writing a good one, which is say one that’s fresh and original, has the right balance of light and shade and is as light as freshly baked choux bun, is a very hard trick to pull off.

So anyway – here are my personal favourites.  And hats off to all the brilliant writers!

The Philadelphia Story, 1940 – written by Donald Ogden Stewart, directed by George Cukor

Philadelphia story

James Stewart won an Oscar for playing ‘Mike’ Macauley Connor, but the stand-out performance for me is the inimitable Katherine Hepburn in the role of Tracy Lord, a New England socialite with unrealistically high expectations both of herself and her men.  Add Cary Grant at his most debonair, and a script which sparkles with witty one-liners and you have a movie that’s not only romantic and funny, but also definitely for grown-ups.

The African Queen, 1951 – written and directed by John Huston

THE AFRICAN QUEEN

Hepburn again, this time doing verbal battle with Humphrey Bogart as she tries to convince him that it would be a good idea to turn a clapped out old tramp steamer into a lethal weapon, with which to blow up the Germans she holds responsible for the death of her brother.   Much of the film was famously shot in technicolour on location in Uganda – a testing experience for all involved.  The original African Queen was fully restored in 2012 and is now on display in a museum in Florida.

Roman Holiday, 1953 – written by John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo, directed by William Wyler

 Roman Holiday

Could this be the best-looking film of all time?  Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn enjoy a romantic dalliance while scooting around the fabulous city of Rome on a vespa.  This was Audrey Hepburn’s first major role; she went on to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA – the first ever actress to net all three awards for the same performance.   As rom-coms go, it’s one of the sweetest ever made.

 Some Like it Hot, 1959 – written by IAL Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder

 Some like it hot

If I had an all-time favourite movie, this might be it.  Marilyn Monroe at her most luminous as a ditsy banjo player intent on catching herself a millionaire, and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis competing for her affections but unable to declare themselves because they’re both disguised as women and on the run from the mob.  To top it all, when Lemmon finally reveals to his ‘fiance’ that they can’t get married because he too is a man, he gets perhaps the most famous riposte in film history – “well nobody’s perfect!”  The film however, pretty much is.

When Harry Met Sally, 1989.  Written by Nora Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner

 When Harry met Sally

Can men and women ever just be friends?   Most of the film consists of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal debating this question – and repeatedly coming up against their very different views on sex and relationships.  For the audience, however, it’s pretty clear they’re made for each other from the outset, when they sit down to supper in a diner on the road from Chicago to New York.  This is the first movie that Nora Ephron both wrote and produced and it put her firmly on the path to becoming the queen of the modern, sassy rom-com.  It did Meg Ryan no harm either.

 Four Weddings and Funeral, 1994.  Written by Richard Curtis, directed by Mike Newell

 Four weddings & a funeral

The first and for my money, still the best of Richard Curtis’s movies, it’s a film that captures perfectly that stage in life when everyone seems to be getting married and you wonder if it’ll ever happen to you.  My sister got married in the chapel at Greenwich naval college the following year, which was used as the location for the first of the four weddings.  The film also brought Kristen Scott-Thomas to international prominence, which has to have been a good thing!

 Groundhog Day, 1993.  Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, directed by Harold Ramis.

 Groundhog day

While most rom-coms tend to foreground the romance, over the comedy, this one does the opposite – with hilarious results.  From a writing perspective it pulls off an extraordinary trick – having a character literally doing the same thing day after day, but still managing to keep the whole thing surprising and briskly paced.  If you ever wanted proof that rom coms can also be highly original, this is it.  And of course it helps that this gem also stars Bill Murray at his deadpan best.

 Overboard, 1987.  Written by Leslie Dixon, directed by Garry Marshall.

 Overboard!

Although not universally acclaimed, I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.  The whole thing is very good natured, and real-life husband and wife, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, bring charisma and a huge amount of genuine personal chemistry to the mix.  Throw in a bunch of adorable kids and it hits all the right feel-good buttons.   I also really like the way the writer creates characters whose weaknesses turn out to be real strengths, while remaining completely true to themselves.

 Pride and Prejudice, 2005. Written by Deborah Moggach, directed by Joe Wright.

 Pride and prejudice

An argument could definitely be made for Jane Austen as the originator of the female-driven rom-com.  The aim of this version was to bring Austen’s very well-known story up-to-date by casting young, relatively unknown leads and giving a very – indeed often literally – down-to-earth portrait of Austen’s England.  However you dress it up, there’s something completely irresistible about the story of Lizzie Bennet, who defies her parents and insists on a marriage of equals based on genuine love and respect, rather than status or money.

 Silver Linings Playbook, 2012.  Written and directed by David O. Russell

 Silver Linings Playbook

If further proof were needed that even today, it’s still possible to come up with a fresh take on the rom-com, this is it.   David O. Russell’s edgy script explores how it’s often only our own neuroses that stand in the way of true love.  If a terrific script weren’t enough, two hours in the company of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is an added bonus.  It’s not surprising that Jennifer Lawrence won an acting Oscar for her performance here and Bradley Cooper is genuinely moving.  Comedy is supplied by his football-obsessed dad, played by Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver as his sharp-tongued mother.  Oh and it also has some pretty impressive dance scenes too!

So that’s it – my top ten rom-coms. Any other suggestions?

7 Comments

Filed under Films, Screenwriting

Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Russia, Screenwriting, Writing

Letting Go of Your Baby

Although it’s still only February a whole load of green shoots are beginning to poke through the earth, promising that spring will soon be here.  At this time of year, I begin to get really fed up with the cold and damp and start longing for the weather to warm up a bit.

Crocuses

Cheery crocuses and anemones are the first signs that things are changing.  However my favourite winter blossom belongs to the Christmas Box.  I love it not for its flowers, which are pretty plain and uninteresting, but for its fabulous perfume, which fills the air outside my front door at this time of year and always seems to promise wonderful warm days to come.

Other exciting things have been afoot, not least the filming of my short screenplay.  It’s a comedy – not a particularly sophisticated one, I have to admit – about a young photographer who finds himself saddled with the flat-mate from hell, and after being driven to his wits’ end, comes up with a very novel way to get rid of his tormentor.  It’s a situation many, many people can identify with, so I’m hoping that will give it some fairly universal appeal.

Not as fun as it looks

The process of the filming itself is a lot less glamorous than you might imagine and involves endless repetitions of the same lines and scenes from different angles and viewpoints.  As the writer, it’s quite hard to get a sense of how it will look once it’s finished.  It all seems very disjointed at this stage, but the director seems pleased with how it’s shaping up and clearly has his own plan for it.

While I was writing it, I had a very clear image in my head of what the characters were like, what the settings would be like and how it would all play out.  What is very clear as we make it, is that the director has a completely different mental image of the story and so do the actors.   And then you have to take account of what’s practically possible to film with the resources and locations we have.

Too many cooks

What will emerge will be a synthesis of all these things – our different thoughts and ideas about the story, modified by what we can actually get down on tape.   With any luck, a bit of magic will happen that will transform it from being a series of mental images existing only in the imaginations of those who’ve read the script into something richer and more interesting than any one of those involved had conceived of.

Screenwriting, more than any other form of writing, is a collaborative process; the articulation of a shared vision for the film is essential to bringing the project to life.  As the writer of a film, you have to be prepared to let your baby go, and let others get fully involved in shaping it and making it as much theirs as it ever was yours.  It can be hard at times and the annals of film-making are full of stories about writers who were no longer allowed to work on their own films.

Personally, I really enjoy that collaborative creative process.  I like the idea of making something that’s more than any one person could produce.  Yet as the writer, you also have the satisfaction of knowing it all started with you, and your idea.  Without that, there would have been nothing.

6 Comments

Filed under Films, Screenwriting, Writing

Laughter and Tears – Birdman and Whiplash

There aren’t many films that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but I have to say that Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is one of them, although the humour is pretty dark at times.  The film tells the story of washed up Hollywood “superhero”, Riggan Thomson’s attempt to relaunch his career as a serious stage actor by putting on a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Not surprisingly, one disaster strikes after another.   On the night before the previews open, one cast member, admittedly one Riggan is desperate to get rid of, is injured by a falling light.  As a replacement, Riggan’s manager and the show’s producer, hires renowned Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner.  Shiner is played hilariously by Edward Norton as monstrously conceited thesp, so dependent on an audience for self-validation that he can only get it up in front of a packed theatre.  Needless to say, Shiner loses no time in trying to upstage Riggan at every opportunity.  Add to the mix Riggan’s neurotic, much younger girlfriend, his ex-wife, his recovering addict daughter and a diabolically bitchy theatre critic with the power to make or break any theatre production staged in New York and you have the perfect recipe for black comedy.

Yet despite all that, there’s a warm undercurrent to the film.  Throughout Riggan’s trials, his cinematic alter ego, the eponymous Birdman, berates and upbraids him.   But although Riggan seems to have retained a number of Birdman’s supernatural powers including the ability to levitate, move objects using his mind alone and fly unaided above the streets of New York, his chief preoccupations remain deeply parochial.

The film explores the idea that as successful we might appear to be, we remain beset with the same commonplace anxieties – are we loved, what’s our place in the world, have we been successful?    Riggan might have had a stellar career in Hollywood, but he remains deeply insecure.  Years of impersonating Birdman to do nothing to save him from himself.

By contrast, Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is anything but a comedy.  Young drummer, Andrew Neiman – played by Miles Teller – is a student at an elite music school.  Andrew is determined to take his place among the jazz greats alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, but at what cost?  Neiman finds himself up against Terrence Fletcher, the sadistic leader of the school’s jazz band, who refuses to countenance anything other than total perfection.

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

In order to weed out the men from the boys, Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, resorts to cruel mind-games, excoriating verbal abuse and physical violence.  The result is a desperate duel, in which Fletcher pushes Andrew through blood, sweat and tears to the edge of insanity and beyond.   However Andrew is not a quitter and through the conflict, he gradually gains the mastery that will enable him to match and surpass his tormentor and earn his grudging respect.

The film explores a number of interesting ideas around what it is that enables an artist to stand apart from the crowd and become extraordinary and whether those that take that path pay too high a price for their success.    While there are abiding popular myths about those born to be geniuses, the reality is that greatness is almost invariably very hard won indeed.

4 Comments

Filed under Film, Screenwriting

Begin Again

It’s been a sombre start to the year, with the loss of the AirAsia plane on 28th December and the horrific news from Paris yesterday.   Somehow when the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December, there’s always the hope that the New Year will somehow magically usher in a change for the better, but of course that’s rarely the case.   In some ways, New Year is only an arbitrary marker in the endless continuum of time, and yet we seem to have a strong need to draw a line under the past at regular intervals and give ourselves permission to start afresh with renewed optimism and purpose.

A fresh start or same old, same old...?

A fresh start or same old, same old…?

I have to confess that I didn’t write as much as I would have liked last year – a few short stories and a few short screenplays is all I managed to get down.  Starting a new job in the summer didn’t help, and it’s taken me a while to adjust and still find time to write along with work and family commitments.   So I aim to be much more productive this year, and much more disciplined too.  I have plans for a new feature script, and am determined to try and complete it over the next few months.

One boost is that a director has taken on one of my short scripts – a comedy about a flat-share that goes wrong – and with any luck, it will be produced and filmed over the next couple of months too.  I have to say that the prospect of one of my stories actually appearing on screen – or at least youtube – is vastly exciting and it’s also encouraged me to think getting some of my other story ideas actually down on paper.   I have a whole list of them…

While I enjoy writing, especially when it’s going well, I find the whole marketing side of it really hard.  It goes against the grain to talk much about myself or my writing.  Part of me just wants it to be miraculously discovered, but of course without me actively trying to promote my work, this is about as likely as seeing a flock of pigs sailing overhead.

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

What sticks in the mind is a comment from the winner of the Costa Book award for best newcomer, Emma Healey, who said that she rarely spoke about her writing while she was working on her debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, because it was kind of embarrassing admitting to being an aspiring writer.  I have every sympathy for such sentiments!   So I guess my main resolution for this year is to be more confident about myself as a writer, but to make sure I put in the hours too.  Wish me luck!

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Film, Screenwriting, Writing

Head or Heart?

The observant among you may have noticed it’s been a while since I posted on this blog. This is because, like many others, we’ve been partaking of the annual mass migration from north to south in the hope of finding a bit of sun, meals we don’t have to cook ourselves and some quality family time together.

Somewhat eccentrically, we prefer to avoid airports and planes in favour of stuffing the family car with everything we could possibly need – and much that we don’t – and taking a leisurely drive through France towards Italy, where we have friends and relatives.

William the Conqueror's Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

William the Conqueror’s Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

Done properly, the travelling is as much a part of the holiday as the time we spend at our destination. We’ve got it down to a fine art; crossing the channel in the evening, spending the night in one of the picturesque towns in Northern France such as Falaise or Reims and then heading on south.

I enjoy the car journeys. I’m lucky because the spouse prefers to do the driving, so I can spend the time watching the countryside gradually change as I plot out story ideas in my head. On the way there, you have the anticipation of what’s to come; on the way back, the sense of eking out the time away just that little bit longer.

Amiens Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral

We’ve got into the habit of spending our last night away in Amiens, which has a stunning 13th century cathedral and an attractive river frontage lined with a plethora of bars and restaurants. A slap-up dinner is always a nice way to bring the holiday to a proper conclusion.

We spent quite a lot of the time away discussing the relative merits of France and Italy. I love them both for different reasons. Italy is warm and convivial – especially as we tend to spend much of the time with family. The food is incomparable and the landscape stunning.

Al Mare in Tuscany

‘Al Mare’ in Tuscany

However Italy these days has a run-down air about it and our friends complain about declining public services and the difficulty of finding work, especially for young people. France always feels slightly cooler and less welcoming, but just seems to work better, with excellent roads and the sense of things being well organised and generally better managed.

If I had to choose between the two, it would be a tough decision. My heart would always plump for Italy, but my head tells me that France would definitely be more ‘liveable.’

6 Comments

Filed under Family, Friends, Screenwriting, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing

All Grown Up

Today, the daughter of some very dear friends of mine turns 18. Thinking back to the day of her birth, it seems barely possible to believe she’s now an adult. That hot July day back in 1996 feels like it was a couple of years ago at the most. But then again, I look at my own kids, with another school year all but under their belts, and I realise they aren’t so very far from that landmark either.

Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, has been a gargantuan project. Filmed over the course of some 12 years, it tells the story of an ordinary boy, Mason Evans, as he grows from the age of six to adulthood. Nothing really huge happens. The family moves to Texas, Mason’s mum goes back to college then finds work as a lecturer. She remarries and divorces twice and we see Mason experience the variable geometry of modern family life as step-dads and step brothers and sisters come and go. The constants remain his mum, his sister and above all his dad, Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke, who although no longer living with the rest of the family, is a constant loving presence in Mason’s life.

Boyhood - film posterInstead of a story in the traditional sense, the film presents an incredibly intimate portrait of contemporary American life unfolding in real time. It’s fascinating to see Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, change over time, not just physically, but in his understanding of the world, his preoccupations, and growing emotional maturity until he reaches the point when he’s ready to step out into the world alone.

Initial experiments with girls lead to first real love, and first real heart-break. A fractious relationship with his sister grows into friendship. A clash with a teacher forces a new attitude to school and leads ultimately to success and a possible future career as a photographer.

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

The whole thing is edited seamlessly so that, as in life, the viewer barely notices the passing of time; the characters gradually change and age, grow, gain weight, turn grey and yet are essentially the same. For all its ups and downs, Mason’s family is loving and strong. At the end of the film, we are left with a moving portrait of an overwhelmingly decent young man, both completely unique and utterly ordinary, as he stands on the threshold of adulthood.

What’s ordinary reality for Mason, is the stuff of fantasy for the kids in The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), Diego Quemada-Diez’s film about impoverished Guatemalan youngsters trying to make their way to the US. For the three protagonists, the US is an idealised land of the imagination where they cannot help but grow rich and happy.

La Jaula de Oro poster

Canny, adaptable and single-minded in their determination to reach their destination, they are nevertheless no match for the cynical adults that prey on them, exploiting them to harvest sugar cane or smuggle drugs and stealing even their shoes. One of the kids is a girl, but despite efforts to pass as boy, she’s hauled off by gangsters with the suggestion she’ll be forced into prostitution. When the remaining pair finally make it to the US, one is promptly shot dead by vigilantes and the other ends up working for peanuts in a stinking meat-processing factory. All the hopes and dreams of the three kids, all their energy and imagination are crushed with absolute ruthlessness. 

Where Boyhood leaves the audience with a feeling of optimism, The Golden Dream has the opposite effect.  Seeing both films in the same week I couldn’t help but be struck by the vast disparity in the lives and opportunities available to children whose destinies are decided by which side of a border they happen to be born on.

5 Comments

Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Screenwriting, Stories