Tag 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?

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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.

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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.

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Setting off alone

In a few days time, it’ll be the longest day of the year. For me, there’s something very magical about the long June evenings. Even down here in the south, it’s light until ten o’clock at night. I love being able to go for a walk after supper when everyone else is settled down with their tablets or the TV. The streets outside are quiet and there’s a secretive, mysterious quality to the woods and alleys around where we live.

In Scotland, where I lived as a child, at this time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until half past eleven and by half-past two in the morning, the first glimmers of light are already streaking the sky.

Rowardennan

Rowardennan

When we were teenagers in Glasgow, occasionally my parents would consent to an evening barbecue on the shores of Loch Lomond up in the Trossachs. We’d drive up to Rowardennan, heap a big pile of drift wood onto the pebbly beach and fry sausages, bacon and tomatoes or perhaps a few Arbroath kippers.

In the ashes, we’d toast sweet sticky marshmallows and afterwards watch the sun go down behind the mountains, while the midges swarmed around us and a heron fished from a rock by the shore. Often we’d linger until the last embers had died away before getting back into the car and returning somewhat regretfully to the modern world.

Much better toasted

Much better toasted

Often on those occasions, I liked to imagine I was on the cusp of a terrific adventure, as if I was about to step into a JRR Tolkien story. Part of me longed to set off into the wilderness and connect with the natural world in all its timeless, elemental grandeur.

As a child, I was convinced I could survive by depending on my own resources and what nature afforded. I knew how to light a fire, how to catch a fish, where to gather nuts and berries. I loved building dens in the back garden and felt confident I could construct some sort of shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay.

Of course my life took an entirely different path, but even now every so often I feel a strong urge to escape the complications of urban life and get back to something simpler and purer.

I recently saw the John Curran film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, the Australian girl who in 1977 took off into the wilderness in order to trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Despite the harshness of the terrain, Robyn did survive, but not without her four camels, her dog and intermittent support from Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who fell in love with her. Smolan helped to secure the funding for Davidson’s trip, but the quid pro quo was that she would agree to be photographed.

Mia Wasikowska in the film 'Tracks'.

Mia Wasikowska in the film ‘Tracks’.

The film is definitely a slow watch and some have found the main character hard to like, not least because of her ambivalent attitude to Smolan, often rejecting him but ultimately relying on him too. However that’s the miss the point; despite her desire to be alone, Davidson never entirely manages to escape human contact and caring. Ironically, after her story was published, it provoked a huge wave of public curiosity and turned Davidson into something of a minor celebrity.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that however much we want to strike out on our own and connect with the natural world, it’s in our relationships with other people that we find the real purpose and meaning of our lives.

 

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Jogging On

What I love most about this time of year is that cherries are now in season. At our local market, they sell them by the boxful and there’s nothing like being able to graze on them by the handful, knowing they are not only delicious, but, unlike chocolate, more or less guilt-free.

May-time delight

May-time delight

Which is just as well, as I’ve been feeling guilty a lot over the past week – about the state of the house, about not doing more with the kids over the half-term break and particularly about my negligible work-rate and general lack of focus.

I’ve been trying to produce pieces to meet the briefs for various writing competitions, but as a result, it feels like it’s a long time since I got my teeth into a larger, more meaty project. At times it feels as if I’ve lost my way. I’ve also been struggling with my identity as a writer – can I really even call myself a writer? I’m not sure. And what it is I really want to write about anyway, what is it I want to say?

When I started out, I had an idea for a story that presented itself so powerfully that I felt no real need to ask myself why I was drawn to try to tell it. That was some years ago now, and the path that seemed so broad and straight has become narrow, obscure and fraught with pitfalls.

Even more damaging, I frequently find myself drawn into making comparisons with others who are treading the same path seemingly far more confidently and successfully than I am. It’s not that I’m jealous; I genuinely believe that the more good writers there are, the greater appetite there’ll be for high-quality writing.

Belgian crime writer, Georges Simenon – scarily prolific

 

Success engenders more success for more people. I don’t wish successful writers ill. Rather the risk, for me at any rate, is of being rather too over-impressed, and subsequently overwhelmed with a sense of my own inadequacy.

I feel I should write more, and be much less bashful about putting my stuff out there, but am not always sure how to go about doing this. Is it a good idea to enter competitions, when you’re up against so many others? Maybe I should just focus on writing feature-length screenplays – the most pleasurable format for me, but the hardest to sell. Or should I write short films that are quick and easy to make? Or what about radio? I like the idea of writing for radio, but again am not sure about how to break into it. What I need is a proper strategy.

Writing – a marathon, not a sprint

I guess the main thing is to stick at it, put my head down and keep going. When I look back at things I wrote a few years ago, they make me cringe. I know I’ve learned a lot since then and that my writing’s much better now than it was. Maybe the point is just to keep jogging on, and not worry so much about where it’ll take me.

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Breaking Through

My mum may be an unlikely pioneer, but that’s what she is. Last weekend, she came down to London to take part in events celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of women priests in the Church of England.

Although she wasn’t strong enough to join in the procession from Westminster to St Paul’s, a distance of just under two miles, she and I were both able to attend the service that followed. It was a fantastic occasion and succeeded admirably in balancing a spirit of celebration with a strong sense that the journey for women in the church is far from complete.

archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby-and-women-priests

Mum’s in there somewhere!

Although Mum was one of the first women to be ordained, she was nearly sixty before it finally became possible. It was something she’d been waiting for throughout much of her adult life. Many of that first cohort are very elderly ladies now, and quite a few have already passed away. Yet there was very little resentment that it had taken them so long to get there.

What was striking was just how natural, how right it felt to be sitting there in the midst of a cathedral full of women, all of whom had felt the same overwhelming desire to join the priesthood, and who had refused to allow the accident of their gender to stand in their way. In hindsight, the only astonishing thing is that it took us near enough five hundred years to get here.

A number of speakers talked about the resentment they continue to experience and how venomous it can be. Women have made massive strides over the past century but there’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a plateau where, however far we might have come, real equality of remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Our daughters are doing just as well at school as our sons; in Britain and many other OECD countries, women make up more than half of graduates, but they still account for less than 7% of senior executives in the FTSE top 100 companies. Only four have women as chief executives.

The creative industries are little better. It’s still incredibly tough for women trying to make it in the film industry; the number of successful women directors and writers remains disappointingly and intransigently tiny.

Kathryn Bigelow receives her directing Oscar

The one exception: Kathryn Bigelow receives her directing Oscar

It’s hard to know why this is. Women are just as creative, just as imaginative as men, but I think sometimes we’re more inclined to lose faith in ourselves and our projects. Could it come down to the possibility that men tend to have thicker skins and a stronger sense of entitlement? Perhaps they succeed more often because they’re less inclined to take no for an answer, and more likely to think, “Screw you, I know this story has legs, and nothing’s going to stand of the way of me getting it on celluloid!”

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Starting From Scratch

I confess I haven’t done very much writing this week. This is partly because I’ve just finished the first draft of one project and am now leaving it to settle for a bit before coming back to it and re-reading it with what I hope will be a fresh perspective.

This can be a bracing, even shocking experience. It takes a certain period of time to be able to read something objectively, ie with enough distance to realise that your lovingly crafted masterpiece is in fact pretty much a load of old cobblers. With any luck, there’ll be a few nice turns of phrase, a couple of decent lines of dialogue that really do reflect what you were trying to achieve in the first place and which give you enough to build on as you start on The Rewrite.

It’s an accepted truth among the screenwriting fraternity that the first draft of anything will be crap. Not being much of a prose writer, I don’t know to what extent this holds true for novels and short stories but it’s certainly the case for screenplays. It’s quite common even for well-established writers to find that it isn’t until they’re on the fourth or fifth draft that they really begin to get a proper sense of the story they’re trying to tell.

There are innumerable tales of scripts that were re-written again and again – literally dozens of times – as their creators did battle with the detailed specifics of character, theme and plot in order to create a story that would really resonate on the big screen.

Emma Thomson spent five years working on the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility and is alleged – though I can’t vouch for it – to have written in excess of ninety drafts before shooting began.

Blog pics

Mind you, it’s brilliant and manages to remain true to the essence of Jane Austen’s original novel while making it relevant and true for a modern audience too. It quite deservedly won an Oscar.

Real writing is damned hard work and there’s no getting away from that fact. I was at an event for TV writers yesterday during which there was a panel discussion with Toby Whithouse, who wrote Being Human and No Angels and Richard Warlow, who created Ripper Street and Mistresses. Both spoke about the years that it took to get these projects off the ground.

Asked about his writing methods on Being Human, Toby Whithouse talked eloquently about the pages and pages of preparatory material he produced – every detail of each character and relationship, documents scoping out the entire world of the story and examining every possible permutation of the plot. This is what it took for him to feel that he knew story well enough to start actually writing the script. It took months and months and no-one but him ever saw or read these notes.

Being human

As an aside, it was interesting to hear that the original idea for the series was that it was about an ordinary flatshare, and it took several drafts for Whithouse to realise that none of the protagonists were alive!

Perhaps the biggest irony of writing for the screen is the amount of sheer effort it takes to produce what? A couple of hours of idle entertainment on a Saturday night. It’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand what may have amounted to years of someone’s life, something they’ve sweated blood to create. I don’t for one minute pretend that all films are good, but I do try to give proper thought and consideration to what the writer and director were trying to achieve, even if they haven’t completely succeeded. As a fellow sufferer, I owe them that at least.

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