Here’s a video blog I recorded last year at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an interview with Quay Chu, who served as script editor on my in-development fantasy feature The Dark Side of the Earth for several months. He talks about his role and gives some examples of how he helped me to shape the script.
Remember that you can get feedback on your own short screenplay, and help me to finish my current short film Stop/Eject, by visiting stopejectmovie.com/donate and selecting the £20 “Script Editor” reward.
When we created the range of rewards available to people who sponsor our short fantasy-drama Stop/Eject, we wanted to offer collaboration – we wanted to share our skills. One such reward is Script Editor. In return for a £20 donation you can have your short screenplay (up to 15 pages) read by Tommy Draper, Stop/Eject’s co-writer, with constructive critical feedback. Just click the button below to make your contribution and claim this reward.
I recently interviewed Tommy about his current projects and his thoughts on writing.
How did you get into screenwriting?
Tommy: I got into screenwriting quite a few years ago after posting my first short screenplay online on the website SimplyScripts.com. The screenplay was called ‘Same Room Same Time’ and it was read by Miguel Gaudêncio who wanted to make it (at the time he was looking to take the step from commercials and music videos into movies). It took several years but the movie was released into film festivals in 2008 and from there more contacts were made and more movies (shorts and features) have been produced.
What are you working on at the moment?
Tommy: At the moment I have 2 short films in pre-production with Hamburg based director Sascha Zimmermann. I have been working with Sascha since 2009 and over the last few years we have ended up with a backlog of screenplays we want to make. We are starting with two that are ready to go and I am about to work on new drafts of three other screenplays so these can be made in 2013 (and 2014 if necessary). My zombie feature film Wasteland is a day or two away from finishing filming by Derby based Light Films Ltd, when this is complete I will be talking to the Producer and Director about what project we want to work on next. I am talking to Stop/Eject producer Sophie Black about a feature film screenplay that she has written and would like me to come on board to rewrite, this project is in its infancy and will be worked on during 2013. In addition to all of this I have a feature film script of mine called ‘Rock n Roll Romantics’ which I have been planning on writing for quite some time and I am getting the script ready in-between projects.
Why is it important to for a writer to get impartial feedback?
Tommy: Feedback for a writer on their screenplay is very very important, a fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference. Everyone sees the story and characters in a different way so the feedback you get can identify faults or create new and interesting paths that can take your story from good to great. Getting feedback that is totally impartial is also very tough. A lot of people, especially if they know you, won’t tell you exactly what they think. A lot of the time it is more important for someone to point to out what doesn’t work more than point out what does and the best people to give you this kind of honest feedback is someone who doesn’t know you at all.
What is the most useful feedback you’ve ever received on one of your scripts?
Tommy: The most useful feedback I’ve ever received was on an old screenplay I wrote for Miguel Gaudêncio. The screenplay was written prior to Same Room Same Time getting made and after a few drafts Miguel got an established writer friend of his to take a look at it. I received a fair share of positives and negatives about the script but it was the negatives about the first act not working that helped the most. It was too long, gave away too much and made the screenplay drag. I took the suggestions and chopped out lots of scenes from the opening section (at the time I was reluctant to do this not seeing the issues) and the screenplay really took shape. I then went through the rest of the screenplay looking for cuts to make and a much leaner screenplay evolved which worked a lot better.
In your opinion, what is the best-written movie ever and why?
Tommy: Tough question this as there are so many brilliant screenplays out there. If I had to pick one movie then it has to be Reservoir Dogs. I think the script is extremely clever, the structure of the story with its flashbacks to give the characters depth is amazing. I also love that the you never see the robbery but you know exactly what happened and what went wrong. The best thing about it are the characters themselves, each one rich and totally individual. You understand their motivation and once wound up they play out their role in an honest, unforced way, which is hard skill but Tarantino masters that in all his movies. Reservoir Dogs was the first time I had seen a movie and then read the screenplay, it has been a massive inspiration on me ever since.
Recently I revisited the Stop/Eject script. Yet another advantage of delaying a shoot is that you can get some distance from the project and come back to it with fresh eyes.
I’m still very happy with the script in most respects, but one thing stood out to me. The shopkeeper, one of the three main characters, appears out of nowhere on page six. (I took great delight in being able to write the stage direction, “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appears.”)
This now seems extremely convenient. It’s deus ex machina. Where was the shopkeeper when Kate and Dan first came into the shop and looked around? Where was she when Kate started experimenting with the tape recorder?
Because the shopkeeper is a magical character, I felt like I could get away with her being mysteriously absent from the first few scenes. Subconciously, I was thinking, “It’s a film.”
“It’s a film.” As in, “It’s only a film.”
If you’ve ever been involved in a low budget movie project, you’ve probably heard this phrase more than once.
A well-meaning crew member asks, “How come John didn’t notice when Susan was writing that text?” The director shrugs his shoulders and replies, “It’s a film.”
A producer asks, “How did Anne know when Bob was going to walk by?” The harassed writer replies, “It’s a film.”
It’s a film, so we can accept massive coincidences. It’s a film, so we can accept logic problems and the odd plot hole. It’s a film.
I have come to loathe this phrase in recent years. Because what it means is, “I’m a lazy filmmaker and I do not respect my audience.” And if you don’t respect your audience, they will not engage emotionally with the story, and your film will fail.
I want people to watch and enjoy Stop/Eject more than once. I don’t want them taken out of the story by wondering why the shop is completely unstaffed for the first five minutes.
So I’ve written her in. It took a bit of effort to come up with reasons why she wouldn’t interfere with what Kate’s doing, but that actually led to a richer and more believable characterisation. Win, win.
So next time you’re tempted to answer a legitimate logic query with “It’s a film,” ask yourself: if you don’t care about this movie, why should your audience?
At the risk of sounding like a Media Studies teacher, I’d like to talk a bit about the themes of Stop/Eject. Warning: this post contains spoilers.
I see themes as a way of making a film seem tighter and more cohesive. Let’s say you have a scene where a character is reading a book. As a writer, you ask yourself what book he should be reading. Firstly you’ll probably consider the plot: is it important to the storyline what book he’s reading? If not then you’ll consider the character (which you should always do anyway of course): what kind of book would this character be reading? This will doubtless narrow down the field but ideally you should now think about the themes. Can he be reading a book which somehow reflects the themes? For example, if the film has an environmental theme, could he be reading Watership Down?
I used to see putting themes into a film as giving myself extra work, but it actually makes it easier to reach decisions because it narrows down your options. And anyone who knows me knows I need all the help I can get with making decisions.
Okay, onto Stop/Eject. The first draft script had no themes at all that I was aware of. When I had to give my characters something to do while talking I chose things at random and kept them pretty generic. But the thing about themes is they’re always there – you just have to find them and tease them out.
I chose a tape recorder as the vehicle for time travel in the film simply because it seemed like a cool idea. And I chose “hit by a car while trying to get mobile reception” for Dan’s demise just because I’m a grumpy old luddite who hates mobiles and I’ll take any chance I can get to portray them in a negative light. But then someone pointed out the link between these two things: audio.
So I chose to develop sound as a theme in subsequent drafts. How do you develop a theme? Easy. You just bung in more references to it.
So Dan’s hitherto-unspecified job became Sound Designer. Which in turn transformed an unoriginal scene of Kate working late to Dan’s chagrin to a more unique and thematic one in which Dan’s loud editing of some dialogue in his living room studio sparks the conflict.
Co-writer Tommy Draper and I had been struggling to come up with a satisfying “meet cute” (Hollywood parlance for the key scene in a romcom where the couple first meet). Dan’s new job soon provided the answer as we came up with a nice sequence in which Kate first sees him hovering around the weir with a big fluffy microphone recording sound effects.
We even tweaked little things to enhance the theme. So instead of Kate being woken up one morning by a beam of sunlight coming through a crack in the curtains, it’s an alarm clock: sound again. And instead of the driver who runs Dan over being distracted by writing a text, it’s tuning the radio that takes his eyes off the road.
Stop/Eject‘s other theme is destiny, as Kate quickly discovers that although she can effectively travel back in time she can’t change anything. This came in handy when trying to write Dan’s proposal speech; at the risk of it being too “on the nose” I had him tell Kate that she’s his destiny. (It doesn’t hurt that a certain George McFly may have uttered similar words.)
But the destiny theme is mainly developed visually. I picked the Derbyshire town of Belper to shoot in primarily for its aesthetic qualities, but as the script evolved I saw the thematic benefit of using Belper’s river wherever possible. A river flows continually, like time moving unstoppably forward… or like the tape in a cassette… which linked to another visual theme that had emerged: circles.
It was clear from early on that the film would feature many close-ups of the tape recorder, particularly the capstans (the bits that make the cassette spools go round). When storyboarding, I looked for places that I could echo this image to create a visual motif. The most obvious thing was to include a shot of a waterwheel in one of the river scenes. More subtly, I moved a scene to a bandstand so I could have Kate cycle around it. And when she microwaves a ready meal I conceived a shot looking straight down on it, inside the microwave, as it rotates. Aside from a visual continuity, hopefully these things will suggest the Circle of Life to viewers on some unconscious level – linking in to the destiny theme.
If you had told me in my A level Media Studies lessons, as Mr Clutterbuck paused Psycho for the twentieth time and pointed out some minor detail which I was convinced the director had not planned as deliberately as my teacher seemed to think he had, that I would one day put so much stock in cinematic themes I wouldn’t have believed you. But if you can take control of your film’s subtext I’m now convinced your audience will have a better time, even if they can’t put their finger on why.
Last year Katie made a new year’s resolution for me: to write down an idea for a film every day. I didn’t stick to it very well and gave up completely around Easter, but at least one good thing came out of it: the idea for Stop/Eject. (Just seventeen days to go – make your pledge now or never.)
I’m going to do it again this year, but here is a selection of the ideas I came up with in 2011…
22/1/11 – WHEN TRAFFIC CONES TURN BAD: What if the cones declared war on us? Perhaps starting subtly, by guiding drivers to the wrong places. Perhaps the mortal enemy of the cones is the Sat Nav.
16/2/11 – TROJAN HORSE: Aliens make contact and give humanity an impressive gift – which turns out to be full of alien invaders.
19/2/11 – A tramp who lives in a junkyard builds a rocket and flies to the moon.
24/2/11 – LAPTOP: Future-set film about robots that have laptops built into their laps. Awkward!
25/2/11 – Reality is controlled by some small children who do annoying things like removing objects from reality for a few minutes so people think they’ve lost them and hunt high and low only to later find them in the first place they looked.
5/3/11 – Clouds are really floating sheep-like creatures. Now imagine how freaky the shepherds must be.
7/3/11 – 4OD: Film about an infuriatingly shit on-demand TV website
16/3/11 – THE POINTLESS TOWN: Documentary about a reporter trying to find out just what the point of Leominster is.
17/3/11 – THE POINTLESS CITY: Sequel to the above, in which the same reporter visits Hereford.
20/3/11 – Psychological thriller about a man who descends into madness after repeatedly having good ideas for films and forgetting them before he gets around to writing them down.
1/4/11 – APRIL FOOL: Jim Carey vehicle in which an intelligent, successful businessman is cursed by a vengeful ex such that his IQ is temporarily slashed on April 1st each year, which always seems to coincide with a really important meeting at which it’s vital he makes a good impression.
What’s involved in developing a feature script? These documents from the early days of making Soul Searcher may provide some insight. (Though I’m certainly not claiming that Soul Searcher had a particularly great screenplay!) Here are a series of emails that my co-writer James Clarke and I batted back and forth while forming the script, followed by my first draft outline, and the final shooting script.
Today I saw “See Saw” again. This is the feature-length thriller I DPed in Manhattan back in 2007, where I met my wife Katie. Amazingly the film is still in post-production after more than four years – enough time for Katie and I to get married and for director Tom Muschamp and producer/actress Aimee Denaro to sadly get divorced. We saw a rough cut a couple of years ago and recently Tom sent me a newer version with some significant changes.
One of my favourite things about the filmmaking process is the power you can wield over the narrative in post-production. Think outside the box a little, perhaps add a little ADR, and you can completely repurpose a scene or change the entire meaning of a film. The changes to See Saw haven’t been quite that extreme, but Tom has still taken the pretty major step of cutting the entire first act. Carl was forever telling me trim down the first act of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s script, and I’m sure it’s a battle many writers and filmmakers face: to set up the world and the characters with the utmost economy in order to get to that end-of-act-one plot point as fast as possible. So why not cut the first act all together?
See Saw actually seemed to get away with it for the most part. The lead character has amnesia, so the lack of set-up enables the viewer to share in her disorientation. There are one or two little bits of plot that probably do need to be re-inserted in order to give the climax its fullest impact, but overall I think this brave decision has worked for this particular film.
Watching it again brought back lots of memories of the shoot, a crazy three weeks in the punishing heat of a Manhattan August, with only two days off. Tom and Aimee secured some amazing locations, including a boat circling Liberty Island, Tavern on the Green (the exclusive restaurant used in the Ghostbusters scene where the terror dog finally catches up with Louis), Central Park and The Supreme Court of New York. I still can’t believe how lax security was at the latter. Seeing the crew approaching with large cases and assorted metal poles and stands, the security guard simply moved aside a barrier and directed us around the metal detector. The actors even managed to smuggle in their prop guns with great ease.
But my main reaction on seeing See Saw again is to cringe at my lighting. Back then I was all about hard-lighting everything with clearly-defined and very black shadows. While this looks great in the nighttime scenes, nowadays I would be much more subtle in the daylight scenes, using kinos and hard sources bounced off reflectors to give a more naturalistic look. This is the problem with feature films, no matter in what position you work on them: they take so long to make that by the time they’re finished they no longer represent your best work.
Well, that’s enough disjointed rambling for now. I’ll be sure to let you know when See Saw’s finally released.
Carl and I have decided we need to change tack a little with The Dark Side of the Earth. We had some interest from a major Hollywood studio, but the suggestion was that the dialogue is too period, too archaic. I just don’t have the mental capacity to tackle another draft, so we’re looking for a writer who can do a polish and make it a little more mainstream, ideally someone with experience of writing for Hollywood. I’ll let you know how that goes, but it definitely seems like if this film is going to be made it will not be by a UK company.
In other news, I’m now casting for Stop/Eject, the short fantasy drama I’m shooting next month. And if anyone reading is in London this Friday afternoon and fancies helping me out running the auditions, please get in touch.
Here’s the first in what I hope will be a series of podcasts covering the making of my new short film Stop/Eject. This one features producer Tom Wadlow discussing how the project originated, and provides a glimpse of the first pre-production meeting.