Monthly Archives: February 2013

Do you need to pay for classes?

The short answer? No.

There are plenty of free resources out there which will tell you as much, if not more, than paying hundreds of £££ to sit in an audience and watch Robert McKee or his contemporaries.

Now I’ll qualify that. I have never paid hundreds of ££££ to watch these people. But when so much stuff is available for nothing, why would I?

One thing I would be wary of is any class that promises to get you a sale. There are many, many, many reasons (to quote Police Academy) why films get made. Many great directors, writers and producers have failed to get surefire successes off the ground for no reason other than poor luck. As for the bad movies that do get made, well… consider “Battleship” and “Glitter”.

"I wish we'd spent more money on script development"

“We should have spent more money on script development”

So without further ado, here are just a few ways to imporve your writing for free:

i) Free online classes

There are many of these. Check out www.screenwritingU.com for some examples. Check first, but for many you pay nothing except your landline fees. If you are in the UK and you have a budget package on your phone line it may cost you even less, as most calls in LA are schedule around noon PCT, which translates to after 8pm GMT.

ii) Books

Yes, actual books. Those paper things people used to read before computers. Take a look at the star ratings on amazon.com to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

iii) Screenplays

Incredible as it may seem, reading professional screenplays can help you writing your own amateur screenplays. You can buy them from online retailers like Amazon or eBay. Or you could read some for free from various websites, provided you do this legally of course.

iv) Interviews with sceenwriters

Why listen or read to people who never had a screenplay published about how to write and sell screenplays? Wouldn’t you be better actually hearing from folks who made a living doing what you want to do? I recommend  “Tales from the Script” and the fantastic, irreverent “Devil’s Guide to Screenwriting” by the incomparable Joe Eszterhas if you want to laugh at the madness of Hollywood.

v) Writing

One of the best ways to improve your writing? Actually writing. Studying the careers of many A-list screenwriters and authors has taught me that they write. A hell of a lot. More than you would believe.

Now this is difficult if you already have a job. Believe me, I know about this. However if you set aside some time for witing EVERY DAY, you will reap the rewards.

vi) Feedback (added)

As has been pointed out to me below, this is another invaluable way of improving your writing. Feedback can be gleaned from many sources. So many, that I will make it the subject of another post. But some examples may be: online communities such as American Zoetrope, Triggerstreet and Talentville; other writers, by joining a writer’s group (check the ‘net for one in your area); personal contacts (but not your grandma — unless she also happens to  write screenplays). These sources are not always reliable nor appropriate for your screenplay, however. Somebody who loves historical romances may not appreciate your zombie/sci-fi mashup script, so use with caution.

So there you have it. My top tips for improving your writing for free.

Hope this helps!

 

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Thirteen Great Horror Directors

Okay, list time folks.

I thought I would share with you my ruminations on the greatest horror directors of all time. No small claim to fame this, as the genre has been a fertile breeding ground for talent. Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, David Lynch — all started out in horror. Spielberg cut his teeth on Rod Serling’s TV series “Night Gallery” before his debut with “Duel” and the smash hit “Jaws”. Michael Mann crafted the underrated and beautiful wartime horror story “The Keep”, while David Lynch’s earliest work was the surreal nightmare “Eraserhead”.

But such luminaries aside, let us without further ado “get down to it”….

13. Guillermo del Toro

Fans of del Toro may rail against his low position. But I would argue that he is not primarily a horror director. His early work “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Cronos” are definitely horror. The wonderful “Pan’s Labyrinthe” is a beguiling horror/fantasy. But his breakthrough film “Blade 2” and the “Hellboy” movies have been more action movies than terror movies.

12. Tobe Hooper

Hooper achieved phenomenal success with the no-budget “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a film so groundbreaking it’s hard to imagine nowadays. But apart from the masterful scare machine “Poltergeist” he failed to follow up on it with such lacklustre gems as “Eaten Alive”. Hence his position at a respectful number 12.

11. George A RomeroThe king of zombies, Romero actually produced a couple of extremely good movies in other genres, such as the disturbing and atmospheric vampire picture “Martin”, and the wonderfully bonkers “Knightriders”. Still his “Dead” trilogy dominates popular culture today, and single-handedly recreated the zombie genre.

10. Terence Fisher

Prolific English director of Hammer horror films, Fisher brought us movies such as “The Horror of Dracula” (Christopher Lee), “The Curse of Frankenstein” (Peter Cushing) and “Curse of the Werewolf” (Oliver Reed). Okay, so not all of those are masterpieces. But he reinvigorated horror in the 1950s and 1960s, daring to show the Count’s fangs and lashings of blood in all its technicolour glory.

9. Roman PolanskiThe thinking man’s horror director, Polanski’s “Repulsion” is a scary journey into madness, while “Rosemary’s Baby” is a true Hollywood horror blockbuster. Polanski’s sensitive direction and the use of fine actors auch as John Cassavetes achieved devastating effect in the story of Mia Farrow’s pregnant woman beset by modern-day occultists. But my personal favourite is “Dance of the Vampires”  (aka “The Fearlesss Vampire Killers”), a pic that manages to be both delightfully funny and very very scary.

8. Mario Bava

The godfather of gore. Bava’s Italian horror remains obscure to some, but once seen his moves are never forgotten. “Bay of Blood” virtually created the slasher genre long before “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween”. While in “Black Sabbath”, an aged Boris Karloff shines in a trilogy of terrifying stories told with extreme relish. Bava evokes both the old Hollywood of the 1930s and the technicolour brashness of Hammer horror. An underrated master of the genre.

7. Dario Argento

Prolific and sometimes uneven, Argento’s work includes some of the greatest horror ever made. “Deep Red” is a Euro-thriller that becomes elevated to fever pitch by outrageous set-pieces and very flashy direction, as well as the first use of music by electronica band Goblin, who would famously perform the score for “Dawn of the Dead”. Argento’s “Tenebrae” is another masterpiece of “Giallo” cinema, where we stalk with the madman, seeing thorugh his eyes, only to arrive at a truly incredible ending. Not for the squeamish, but worth seeking out.

6. Roger Corman

The grand-inquisitor of American Horror in the 1950s and 1960s, Corman’s low-bidget ethic squeezed some of the best ever performances out of horror actor Vincent Price, to create such classics as “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death”. Corman also had an eye for talent, working with such future directors as Francis Ford Coppola and a young man called James Cameron.

5. David CronenbergShocking, disturbing, disgusting. All words that could apply to David Cronenberg’s work. From early films that are hard to watch such as “Rabid” and “Shivers” (the latter about a turd-shaped parasite that induces sexual craving in its host), to left-of-centre sci-fi “Scanners”, to the pinnacle of his horror career — the genuinely affecting remake of “The Fly”, Cronenberg refuses to pull away from the realities of our more fleshy parts. Achieved mainstream success with excellent dramas “Eatsern Promises”, “A History of Violence” and “A Dangerous Method”.

4. Jacques Tourneur

The old master of horror, Tourneur’s wonderful use of dark and shadow gave us truly memorable movie masterpieces such as “Night of the Demon” and “I Walked with a Zombie”. Although old, these movies are still creepy, thanks to their fantastic atmosphere, and their influence is often still felt today.

3. John CarpenterThe wonderkind of 70s horror, for a long time Carpenter had the distinction of directing the most successful independent movie ever , “Halloween”. He followed this up with movies that failed to impress critics and audiences at the time but which have since become horror classics. Movies such as “The Thing”, “The Fog”, “Prince of Darkness”, “Escape from New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are among the great films of horror cinema. Far ahead of his time, Carpenter added a sense of wicked humour to his movies that makes them as enjoyable today as they were when they first came out.

2. James Whale

A giant of horror cinema. Whale was a Brit who went on to acheve success in the fledgeling world of motion pictures in America. He established his reputation with classics like “Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man” and “The Bride of Frankenstein”. Part of the expressionist school of filmmaking, Whale’s movies are operatic in tone, like a fever dream that transcend time and space to become truly mythical. His influence is felt in virtually every horror movie produced since, while his interpretation of Frankstein became imprinted into the modern consciousness.

1. Alfred Hitchcock

Known primarily as a thriller director, Hitchcock managed to traverse both genres and made some of the greatest horror movies ever. “Psycho” totally rewrote the horror genre, focusing on a monster who was human rather than imagined, with a frighteningy believable psychology. Difficult for us modern audiences to understand how much of a departure this was. But every psycho-thriller you see these days is modelled after him. Hitchcock went even further with the more disturbing “Frenzy”, again a frighteningly believable tale of a serial killer on the loose. In “The Birds”, Hitchcock does it again, this time with an apolcapytic thriller. Never explained, the birds attack mankind, and there can only be one winner. Directed with stunning flare, Hitchcock’s movie is still as potent today in its power to unnerve. Many of Hitchcock’s other films straddle the border of horror and thriller, such as “The Lodger”, a silent film about Jack the Ripper, “Blackmail”, or the surreal “Spellbound”. Meaning that he fully deserves his place as number one.

Adapting your screenplay into a novel

Should you do it?

A lot of A-list screenwriters began as novelists: William Goldman, Joe Eszterhas, Ron Bass, Richard Price…

But then a lot of screenwriters didn’t. Take Billy Bob Thornton, for example, who came up with the idea for Sling Blade by concocting a monologue for himself as an actor. Or Frank Darabont, who started out as a set decorator.

For me, the question is one of access. Are you in America? If so, why aren’t you in Hollywood networking your ass off. I know I would be in a heartbeat.

So if you’re in the UK, Europe, or even as far away as Russia or Australia, maybe novelizing some of your work is a good way to get noticed.

But…

Make sure it’s a story that can be told on the printed page alone. I’ve seen some terrible novels adapted from screenplays. The two things are not the same. Novels focus on psychology, getting us into the heads of the characters. That’s exactly the opposite of a screenplay, which focuses on revealing ideas and psychology through action.

Which explains why there are some terrible adaptations of novels, and why the old adage that a bad novel makes a good movie may have some truth in it.

So I wouldn’t novelize a story just for the sake of it. It has to be something that will withstand the adaptation process.

And then the real fun begins. Because selling a novel is hard. In my experience, it’s actually harder to sell a novel than to sell a screenplay. But maybe that depends on where your preferences lie.

Also, the advent of self-publishing may have just changed the entire face of the publishing industry. Now anyone can publish without the need for a massive corporation. Obviously, that raises issues of quality control. It also makes it harder to stand out in a crowd so your e-book may get lost amid the clamor. I’d be interested to know what people think about that.

Next post, I’ll share a few of my experiences while publishing my e-book “Project Nine”.

 

 

 

 

Characters in your screenplay – good in a room?

Boy, I wish I could write great characters. Then I would feel qualified to write an article on them. But in all honesty, I can’t lay caim to that (what? you cry. Humble? Moi?). So instead this is just about a few techniques I use to write characters that might work for you.

William Goldman said famously that screenplays are structure.

But if you’re like me, you’ll want to know how to populate your story with great characters. They can make the difference between selling a screenplay and it ending up in the slush pile.

More importantly, they can also make your story into something that will hopefully last longer than the popcorn you bought going into the theatre.

How many times have you seen a (usually big budget action) movie, and been carried along by the stunts, explosions, etc. only to never watch that movie again?

In contrast, how many times have you watched certain movies over and over again?

Why do you do it?

What do The Terminator, Casablanca, The Producers, and Frankenstein all have in common?

Great characters.

What would The Terminator be without shrinking violet waitress-turned-badass Sarah Connor? (Answer: Terminator 3)

What would Casablanca be without the outwardly cynical but morally sound Rick?

What would Annie Hall be without the neurotic Alvy Singer?

How about Dirty Harry without Harry Callaghan? Or Rocky without Rocky Balboa? It’s no coincidence that many successful movies have character names as their titles, or even the occupations of the characters (Ghostbusters or The Goonies).

Okay. We get it. Characters are important. They keep us interested in the movie long after the special effects aren’t so special anymore. And SFX go out of date really quickly.  Have you seen The Matrix Reloaded recently?

But I digress…

So here are a few tips I use when designing characetrs.

1) Real Life

Yes, sad but true. Real life actually inspires a lot of art. You remember real life? The stuff that goes on when you’re away from your computer? Sometimes it can be smelly and unpleasant?

Take a walk down any street or through any mall (if you’re an American) and make a mental note of the different people you see. Try to imagine their backstory. How did they become that person? The weirder (or rather “more interesting”) the people, the more extreme the characters.

2) Contrasts

If your protagonist is a quiet guy or gal, a little shy maybe, then try having a nemesis who is exactly the opposite: brash, loud, confident.

If your protag is a straight-forward, no-nonsense, action type, try having a nemesis who is sneaky and never gets his or her hands dirty.

For a good example of this, see Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

3) Admiration

One of the ways to make a protagonist interesting is to make them the best at what they do. James Bond, for instance, is the best spy. Wolverine out of the X-men is an unstoppable fighting machine. The ultimate example of this is Superman –  he flies, is invulnerable, always saves the day, and he never lies. He is perfect in every way. yet that’s his curse. Which brings us to…

4) Flawed

Heroes have to have a flaw to be likeable. We all root for underdogs. Arnie in End of Days is faced with insurmountable odds. It makes him human (-ish). Rick in Casablanca is bitter and cynical due to the loss of his love. But we understand why; Ingrid Bergman is quite a catch. Wolverine in X-Men is prickly (literally) because he was mistreated by the military.

Heroes must have a flaw or they become boring. Like Tomb Raider.

5) Consistency

Would Bruce Willis in Die Hard talk to himself in a neurotic way about his situation the way Woody Allen does in Annie Hall?

Would Rocky Balboa set up a complicated sting operation the way Luke Skywalker does in Return of the Jedi in Jabba the Hut’s palace?

That’s consistency. Characters must act according to their personalities throughout the entire screenplay. This is a tough one.

For an example of where this rule is broken, see also Die Hard. John McClane (hero) bumps into an unarmed Hans Gruber (baddie). Gruber pretends to be an American hostage. He does it so well that McClane hands him a gun. Gruber uses the gun on McClane. But guess what? McClane knew Gruber was Gruber the whole time, and the gun is unloaded! But then Gruber’s allies burst onto the scene, removing McClane’s advantage anyway.

Now this may be a good example of misleads and reversals (have to make that the subject of a later post), but it’s bad characterization. Why? Because McClane is a blue-collar cop while Gruber is a criminal mastermind. How could McClane possibly KNOW that Gruber is a terrorist? What gives him this blistering insight? Throughout the script we se that McClane is an underdog, a likeable Joe who just happens to be a cop in extraordinary circumstances. McClane exhibits almost superhuman perceptiveness in figuring Gruber’s identity.

So why did Die Hard make a ton of money? Well, it’s full of surprises, which audiences like. And don’t forget the superhero factor. We want McClane to beat the incredible odds. So we forgive and forget this unsupported character reaction. But it’s still there. It’s a minor “jumping-the-shark moment”, which is one of my favourite movie sayings. But more of that another time…

So I hope this has been remotely useful. Great characters have been filling up our screens ever since Ebeneezer Scrooge (and a good deal before that). So have fun with them.

Chances are, if you come up with characters based on real life, you won’t fall into the trap of writing yet more cookie-cutter one-dimensional video-game characters.

I, for one, am tired of seeing girls with swords kicking-ass, girls with guns kicking-ass, or girls in PVC catsuits kicking-ass (never thought I’d say that).

Now I’m off to try to put this into practice with my own script…