Tag Archives: screenplay

The Best Horror Movies of the Past 50 years! Part 5! The Nineties!

Ah, the 1990s… when the Eighties were a distant memory. The Nineties were mad for it. Grungier than its predecessor, we never thought there would someday be a price to pay for all those late nights spent clubbing it. Nowadays the whistles and glowsticks seems just as bad as those silly hats.

Horror movies had a hard time in the 90s. The 1980s had milked the slasher movie to death. Vampires and werewolves were old hat. Even the horror comedy was on its way out. In a way, many of these movies represent the dying breaths of horror’s staple bad guys. The horror genre was about get ugly…

Exorcist III 1990

The decade began with a shuddering return to form of William Peter Blatty’s faith-based possession franchise. The film doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. Maybe it simply had nothing new to say. But with some genuinely chilling moments involving a bone saw, this was a worthy sequel to the classic horror hit, if not a new beginning.

Jacob’s Ladder 1990

As a counterpoint to that kind of “old-school” horror, here we have the first of several psychological horror movies as Tim Robbins does a star turn as a man haunted by visions of demons. In true Nineties style, the story turns out to be a bit “meta”.

The children of the night may be beautiful, but they're not very scary.

The children of the night may be beautiful, but they’re not very scary.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1992

Francis Ford Coppola turns Bram Stoker’s classic bloodsucker into a kind of modern fairytale. Not scary in the least, and certainly not a definitive version, despite the claim to closely follow the novel (which it doesn’t), and full of wildly uneven performances, you have to admire its impressive, visual style, while Gary Oldman’s outing as Dracula would cement him as a great actor for years to come.

Army of Darkness 1992

Sam Raimi rounds off his “Evil Dead” trilogy with this rip-roaring slapstick live-action cartoon. Boasting some great comic one-liners and an even more OTT performance by B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, this Halloween treat contains skeleton warriors, flying books, and an extremely surreal scene in a windmill where Ash chases around little versions of himself. This is one of those films that’s so bizarre it stands in a category of its own. It is also so downright mad that it ended the series, albeit on a high note of laughter.

Interview with the Vampire 1994

Neil Jordan brought audiences the visually alluring but story-lite “Company of Wolves” in the 80s. Here, he tackles Anne Rice’s novel of a vampire telling the story of his 200 year-old existence. Starring Tom Cruise in  role nobody expected of this all-American action star (a bloodsucking ghoul), and a young Brad Pitt, as well as a 12 year-old Kirsen Dunst, this is a lavish tale worthy of those old Hammer classics of the Sixties. But the novel has a touch of 1990s despair about it. This vampire doesn’t know his place in the world and is constantly seeking something to believe in – a little like people in the 1990s. Once again, the vampire is a reflection of his times, which perhaps explains why it took so long for the book to reach the screen.

From Dusk Til Dawn 1996

Quentin Tarantino hit the big time in the 1990s with his multiple-storyline post-modern heist flick “Reservoir Dogs”. Here, he dips his wick in the horror genre, at least for the first half. Once the vampires cut loose, he turns directing over to Robert Rodriguez, who brings his over-the-top campy action style into play. Hard to take seriously today, this movie has its tongue surgically implanted in its cheek. It is also the movie that inspired a million tattoos thanks to George Clooney. A fun film at the time that is less fun with age, it had some strong actors but is ultimately a bit of a gimmick rather than a serious movie – the main draw being actors getting killed whom you expect to survive. Horror, it seemed, was running out of ideas.

Are you cool? I'm cool. Are we cool? Vampires are not... cool in this movie.

Are you cool? I’m cool. Are we cool? Vampires are not… cool in this movie.

Scream 1996

The last word in Slasher movies belongs to Wes Craven, who was ironically one of its creators. This film is postmodern in every sense. Teens stalked by a slasher discuss how slasher movies work in order to escape their killer, only to discover that the killer also watches slasher movies and knows as much about them as they do. The death knell of the slasher movie can be heard loud and clear in this horror/thriller. After this, there was simply nowhere for the subgenre to go.

Event Horizon 1997

An underappreciated film that makes little sense on first viewing. Imagine Star Trek crossed with a John Carpenter film and you get the picture. Horror icon Sam Neil (at this time a big draw thanks to Jurassic Park) takes a risk as a doomed character in this story of a space ship that returns from its journey into hyperspace without its crew, like a futuristic Marie Celeste. As scientists try to uncover what happened to the passengers, they learn that something nasty waits on the other side of the dimensional border. A Lovecraftian sci-fi, in a sense, this is one of the few truly original horror movies of the decade.

The Faculty 1998

Movie stars got younger and younger in the 1990s as studios targeted their “real” audience. Here, Robert Rodriguez is on form as he directs a tale of high schoolers taking on an alien invasion with the help of a pot-smoking rebel. This B-movie boasts some standout future stars like Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnettt. It is also much more enjoyable than it deserves to be, given the number of irritating jargon-speaking schoolkids. A very “nineties” updating of old 1950s B-movie tropes. Once again, however, the “alien invasion” horror movie had no real place to go.

The Sixth Sense 1999

This movie marked the debut of M Night Shyamalan, whose career would (for a while) be known for its outrageous plot-twists. The movie also resurrected the career of action star Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist treating a kid who “sees dead people”. Although people disagree as to whether the plot twist at the end was a surprise or obvious, the film packs some genuinely creepy moments, and lots of shocks along the way, as only the boy can see the dead folks, but they can see him.  Shyamalan’s tale proved hard to copy, but revived a lot of interest in the flagging horror genre for a new generation of filmgoers.

Like it or loathe it, this movie gave the genre a breathe of new life.

Like it or loathe it, this movie gave the genre a breath of new life.

The Blair Witch project 1999

As if to underline audiences’ boredom with standard horror fare, the found footage genre re-emerged at the end of the century with the most profitable independent film in movie history, usurping John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. Three people get lost in a wood on videotape. It really is that simple. What follows divided audiences. Some loved it for its clever use of a very (nonexistant) limited budget and the way it raises your hackles by not showing you what is going on. Others hated it for precisely the same reason. The found footage genre proved an enormous hit, no doubt because it was very cheap to copy. But whether you love it or hate it, this subgenre gave the horror film a new direction, one that would create a whole new set of filmmakers in the ‘Noughties and beyond, and who would exploit rapidly-changing technology to give the studios a run for their money.

The Nineties suffered from the overdose of slasher movies that took place in the Eighties. For a while the genre was left reeling. But new technology and clever filmmaking resurrected the horror movie at the end of the decade. With audiences demanding new thrills, better special effects, and grimmer storylines to reflect the pessimism of the times, horror movies were about to go to a very dark place indeed.

Next time…

Zombies, zombies, zombies! The world goes mad for George A Romero’s creations. Horror goes viral, ghosts turn Japanese, and it seems that anyone can make a horror film as long as they have a mobile phone.

 

 

Notes from FantasyCon2014

Great artwork for the brochure reproduced here by Larry Rostant

Great artwork for the brochure reproduced here by Larry Rostant

FantasyCon 2014, run by the British Fantasy Society, was held at the Royal York Hotel on Friday 5th – Sunday 7th September 2014.

This was my first time at Fantasycon, the annual gathering of the British Fantasy Society. So I didn’t know what to expect. I did know, however, that there were quite a few eminent guests, including Charlaine Harris, author of the phenomenally successful Sookie Stackhouse series, better known as TV vampire show “True Blood”. Other luminaries included horror author Ramsey Campbell and “Chocolat” writer Joanna Harris, as well as “Dr Who” scribe Toby Whithouse to name but a few.

The convention was held at the Royal York Hotel, adjacent to the train station and therefore a very convenient location. The hotel itself was a grand old affair. Sadly, the cost of staying there was prohibitively expensive. In fact, as I had only decided to go at the last minute, getting a hotel in York proved a difficult task, so I had to commute from Manchester on the two days I attended. However, this wasn’t too bad, thanks to a convenient rail link.

Prior to booking, the lack of information on the website was perplexing and gave the convention the feel of a “members only” club. However, this wasn’t the reality when I got there. Although many people came in groups, overall I found people to be very friendly and accommodating. But a better website, and even a forum, would have helped a lot. As it was, I threw caution to the wind and bought my ticket. But I can’t help but think how many other people were put off by the impersonal nature of the web page.

The first day was an introduction to the convention. Once I had acquired a map of the rather confusing (and sprawling) hotel layout, I grabbed myself some great free books for attendees (always a bonus!). There were also some fantastic discounts available in the dealer room from some sellers, while others remained reassuringly expensive.

I was very grateful for the introductory session which got me talking to several other attendees. The rest of the day passed in a blur. The crowd was an eclectic one, with attendees from as far as the USA. It was great to see people who were as enthusiastic about sci-fi, fantasy and horror as myself, if not more so. The staff too were friendly, and the convention rather relaxed. A little too relaxed, unfortunately. I missed several author signings despite being in the same bar! A bit of an announcement would have been nice.

Throughout the Con, there were book launches, author readings, even short film showings. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to the bitter end to witness the delights of Karaoke on Friday, which apparently was a pity.

On Saturday, I got there early and bleary-eyed to attend a great panel discussion on whether there was a place for hope in horror. The panel consisted of Ramsey Campbell, Roz Kaveney, Guy Adams, Sara Jayne Townsend and Adam Neville. After a spirited debate, the panel ended with Roz Kaveney’s revelation that he once worked in the same restaurant as serial killer Dennis Nielsen! A very enlightening discussion that showed the versatility of the horror genre.

Charlaine Harris entertains at FantasyCon 2014.

Charlaine Harris entertains at FantasyCon 2014.

Later, Charlaine Harris gave us the lowdown on what it feel like to become an overnight sensation after thirty years of writing mystery novels, as well as the agony and ecstasy of selling your work to cable TV. Ms Harris was very entertaining, and was a regular fixture in the lobby, as were several other authors, giving the con an even more relaxed feel.

Later, I attended a panel on horror in TV. This featured “Dr Who” scribe Toby Whithouse, screenwriter author and editor Paul Kane, and Stephen Volk, writer of notorious BBC 1992 fake documentary “Ghostwatch”. Bizarrely, everyone on the panel agreed that CGI was not a good alternative for strong stories. Maybe there is hope for TV.

There were many other panels to attend, including an enthusiastic demonstration in swordfighting. Inevitably, I found that a lot of the most interesting panels conflicted. Yet there did seem to be a lull between 2-5pm.  But perhaps someone else with different interests would have told you the opposite.

Saturday ended with a mass signing. However, I sacrificed this in favour of hanging out in the bar. This is because for me the most rewarding aspect of FantasyCon was meeting other fans. As a writer, you tend to spend too much time in isolation. This means you lose touch with the people who matter most – the readers. I was amazed at their passion, their interest and their knowledge.  It really made me want to up my game.

On Saturday night, I headed home, my hunger for the speculative satiated for the moment, clutching my bagfuls of cheap books and signed copies. One of my aims had been to find new authors to broaden my reading, and I had certainly been given enough food for thought. I came away with a much greater knowledge of the blossoming sc-fi, horror and fantasy market, and with several new authors to sink my teeth into (figuratively).

A little light reading.

A little light reading.

Sunday proved a bridge too far for me. As there were only panels in the morning, I decided not to attend and save myself a hefty train fare. The afternoon was taken up with the British Fantasy Awards. But again, there was a curious lack of publicity about these on the net. The FantasyCon Twitter feed was also strangely silent throughout the weekend. The BFS produce some great publications, so it is odd that it doesn’t toot its own horn more.  Maybe the BFS could even televise the event on a Youtube channel!

In summary, this was a very worthwhile Con. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to meet likeminded people and who enjoy lively debates about everything in the world of speculative fiction and movies. I hope to go again next year and have an even better experience. However, a little more information would have been nice from the organisers for those who have not boldly gone to the Convention before. More Twitter updates would be a definite plus as well. But if you are a fan or creator of sci-fi/fantasy and horror in the UK, this is one convention you cannot afford to miss.

My  advice  is to book early and stay late, something I hope to do next time around!

 

Next year’s FantasyCon 2015 is to be held in Nottingham, UK.

 

 

 

 

The Best Horror Movies of the Past 50 Years, Part 3! The Seventies! 1976-1979!

Hi, there, horror fans! Last time we looked at how Hollywood was unafraid to make more experimental horror features in the early 1970s. Although Spielberg’s “JAWS” would lead to studios forever chasing the summer blockbuster, the late Seventies were still an exciting time for horror movies. Foreign filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Dario Argento were developing cult followings. Meanwhile, low budget filmmaking was about to come into its own, as was a certain young horror writer from Maine, New England…

Let’s start our list of late seventies horror with…

The Omen 1976

No-one can doubt the influence of Richard Donner’s by-the-numbers horror movie. With more than just a passing nod to artsy horror masterpiece “The Exorcist”, this is a rip-roaring Hollywood-style horror flick. It boasts some bravura set-pieces, such as the decapitated photographer. With stalwart acting from heavyweights Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Billy Whitelaw, and David Warner, the picture is very believable. But there’s no happy ending here as the Antichrist is born to a powerful American politician. This movie created a profitable and mostly well-made series of sequels that gave the world Sam Neil. It also became the bane of children named Damien everywhere.

Martin... a new kind of vampire.

Martin… a new kind of vampire.

Martin 1976

George A Romero, back from “Night of the Living Dead”, triumphed again with this underappreciated cinematic gem. It’s a genuinely original take on vampires. Is homicidal young loner Martin a vampire or not? Is he merely disturbed, or is there some truth in his bizarre flashbacks to another time? Terrific, glory, explicit, sensual, thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, this movie features an amazing performance by the underused John Amplas. Overlooked at its time, this has become a true cult classic.

Carrie 1976

The arrival of a young writer called Stephen King created a reign of terror that is still going today. Hollywood struck gold with King’s curiously brief tale of an alienated young girl with awesome telekinetic powers. Phenomenal directing by Brian De Palma (of “Sisters” fame) catapulted King into the popular consciousness. At one level this is a time-tested tale of an ugly duckling who gets her revenge. But DePalma used split screen and slow motion camera work to viscera effect for the final massacre that is actually too much to fit on one screen! What is mentioned less often is the great cast of actors including Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. This is one horror blockbuster that stands the test of time.

Suspiria 1977

Italian Filmmaker Dario Argento’s most well-known film is about a coven of witches posing as a ballet school in Italy. Some memorable set-pieces elevate this beyond its video-nasty style violence. Argento often treads a fine line between good and poor taste. Here, he manages to keep it on the straight and narrow. It also boasts a great score by the world’s foremost horror band… Goblin!

Dawn of the Dead 1978

Which brings us to George A Romero’s sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”. Where “Night” finished, “Dawn” goes a step further. Civilization is falling into chaos at the hands of the zombie invasion. We begin with some great scenes of things literally going to hell. Four survivors hitch a ride on a helicopter and hole up at an abandoned shopping mall. They soon learn that having everything does not make you happy. A social satire as well as a very frightening movie, the impact of “Dawn” may be diluted now due to dated make-up effects and the current trend for fast-running zombies. But the Romero’s innumerable hordes of shambling ghouls still make for claustrophobic viewing. This movie gave us memorable images like the Hari Krishna zombie, elevators full of undead shoppers, and an eerie kids’ TV theme tune. It also features some great acting from a cast who sadly never went on to stardom. “Dawn” has influenced virtually every horror movie since, including current TV sensation “The Walking Dead” and 2004’s delightful “zombie-rom-com” “Shaun of the Dead”. And come on, don’t you wish you were in that world, just a little bit?

The slasher genre... the most profitable genre in movies!

The slasher genre… the most profitable genre in movies!

Halloween 1978

John Carpenter’s film debut is actually not his film debut. That came with sci-fi black comedy “Dark Star” (1974). But he will forever be associated with this low-budget shocker about a psychopath that comes back to a leafy suburb to kill again on the titular eve. The movie made Jamie Lee Curtis a scream queen and cemented the “slasher movie” as a staple of cinema. The slasher movie’s key components of low cost, titillation, and violence was a wining combination, one that survives to this day. Arguably, this is the one sub-genre that has blackened the reputation of horror films, due to the many terrible or poor taste rip-offs branded “video nasties” in the 80s, such as the inept “Driller Killer”. But what makes “Halloween” a lot more intelligent than many of its successors is John Carpenter’s expert direction. He makes every shadow in your living room menacing, every closet or couch the potential hiding place of a madman. So that by the end of the movie your own house is no longer a safe place to hide. For a long time the most successful independent film ever made, “Halloween” is a true horror classic.

The Amityville Horror 1979

Hollywood must have been confused by the success of “Halloween”, if this return to the tried-and-tested haunted house formula is anything to go by. To be fair, it’s a very effective movie. The haunted house is given a twist by adding a bit of demonic possession, as well as copying the “true story” myth from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to give it added credence. But the worrying priest, bleeding walls etc are all things we’ve seen before. A well-made film that spawned innumerable sequels of decreasing quality and suffered the obligatory 21st century “reboot”. But that’s really the only reason it’s here.

It's enough to put you off eggs for life.

It’s enough to put you off eggs for life.

Alien 1979

Which brings us to the end of the 1970s. If Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas, it found one of its most enduring franchises in this unofficial adaptation of the B-movie shocker  “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” (1958). At the time, science-fiction mania was sweeping the world, thanks to the pop culture phenomenon of “Star Wars” (1977) and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). The time was ripe for a sci-fi/horrror hybrid. Cue Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schussett’s script of a rather unpleasant alien that stows away on a space ship. A very simple movie, enhanced by amazing visuals and strong actors, this is essentially hide-and-seek on a space ship. The groundbreaking chestburster scene also gave audiences a scare they would never forget. Responsible for a slew of sequels, some better than others, the end of the Seventies showed that horror was still prepared to boldly go where no ghoul had gone before!

Next time… The Eighties arrives!

In which aliens get even nastier, vampires get even cooler, werewolves get even hairier, and a some teenagers have their sleep disturbed on Elm Street. Sweet dreams!

 

 

A Lovecraftian TV show?

Today, I wanted to share with you  what I think is a great idea. The folks over at the Lovecraft E-zine have decided to go ahead and make a H.P. Lovecraft-inspired TV series called “Whispers from the Shadows”. They’re raising funds on kickstarter.com, and you can be a part of it.

The rewards are fantastic. And the series is being made with professional horror movie actors. You can even get an Associate Producer credit if you pledge enough.

In case you have been hiding in a cave since the 1980s and don’t know who H.P. Lovecraft is, he is considered the father of weird fiction. Lovecraft was unappreciated in his lifetime, yet he is probably the most influential horror writer of the 20th  century, inspiring everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen King.

Here is a link to his Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lovecraft

These people need pledges, and the deadline is looming. So do yourself a favour and head over to Kickstarter and see for yourself how cool this is. The deadline is 2nd June.

Go check it out here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/marxpyle/whispers-from-the-shadows-lovecraft-inspired-short/posts/853536?at=BAh7CDoMcG9zdF9pZGkDIAYNSSIIdWlkBjoGRVRpA2lwoUkiC2V4cGlyeQY7BlRJIhgyMDE0LTA2LTIzIDE3OjEyOjM0BjsGVA%3D%3D–b4dbaa7ac4a499fa5c7ce2ebe608b1c76870f0b5&ref=backer_project_update

 

Bonus post! How to write Hollywood action lines part 3!

Here is something that trips me up time and time again, and I’ve seen even the most seasoned screenwriters falls for it. So I thought I would include it in this bonus post about how to write Hollywood-style action lines in your screenplay.

This tip can be summed up in one word:

EDIT.

What I mean is, you should always be trying to REMOVE UNNECESSARY WORDS.

Do you have a screenwriting bible?

I do.

It contains everything I’ve ever leant about screenwriting in bullet point form. Only I can understand it, which is fine because it’s only for my use. But in it, I’ve written down the words I should try to avoid at all costs.

And now I’m sharing them with you.

So here they are:

“But”

“And”

“As”

“Is/Are/Am”

“Both”

“Then”

“Just”

“We See”

Please note: if you read a lot of produced screenplays written by professional screenwriters, you will probably see these words being used over and over again. The difference between them and you?

They got paid already.

Another point worth mentioning is: don’t go overboard. If you include one “but” in a 110 page script, chances are it won’t make any difference. Also, if you edit your action lines down too much, they may not make sense. Removing every “a” or “the” will confuse the reader. Sometimes you might even want to deliberately break the rules to make more of an impact on the reader.

So use common sense.

But before you start marketing your script, a simple search for these words will allow you to edit them out of existence and strengthen your action lines. And that might be enough to tip the scales in your favour.

Now if only I’d used this tip on my last script…

How to Write Hollywood-Style action lines Part 2!

Here is the second chapter of how to write action lines.

Now, I’m not professing to write like any of the people whose work I’m about to discuss. However, I have noticed certain things which we as writers can do to make our action lines more professional. And this isn’t just for screenwriters, either. I believe that everyone (myself included) would benefit from analysing the style of the masters.

That said, I’m going to begin with a non-screenwriter.

Stan Lee is a comic book legend. The man who invented Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and many many more. Comic book style is even terser than screenwriting. They only have one caption to get across a lot of information.

Here is a passage I read from the Amazing Spider-Man a while ago:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Notice anything?

If you’ve ever heard Stan the Man talk, you can probably hear his intonation ringing in your head right now. But let’s boil it down to some simple rules.

Let’s take another look:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Lee’s style is so bold that generations of comic writers have mimicked him. Here we see several of Stan’s tell-tale traits at work. And if that isn’t a clue, nothing is!

Notice the sentence structure contains adjectives before most of the nouns (except for the proper noun ‘Spidey’, which is really a name). You have a “mysterious shrink”, a “seemingly indestructible robot”, and a “deadly mechanical marauder”.

Which brings us to our next Stan Lee trait: alliteration (words that begin with the same letter for those without an English degree). Phrases like: “Mechanical marauder”, and of course J. Jonah Jameson himself. Many more Stan Lee heroes are alliterative, too. Like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Matt Murdock. Lee once said he did that on purpose so he could remember the names, but whatever the reason, it makes the phrases have even more impact.

There you go, two simple ways to make your action lines stand out: alliteration and adjectives.

However…

Just remember that screenplays are also sparse. They are images. Easy to follow. Easy to read. Mainly written in high school English. So do don’t go jumping for your Thesaurus just yet.

Consider this passage:

“The front of the Opera House is open only to foot traffic these days. A bizarre place on a Friday night, hawkers and whores, the rabble, the poor and the curious mill around the crudely built platforms and brightly lit stands. Zhora, in just a translucent raincoat, is not out of place in this flea market atmosphere. Trying not to run, she slices through the mob as quickly as she can. Deckard is not far behind, dodging and side-stepping, trying to move against the tide of people scurrying for shelter

She comes to an intersection and turns out of the mall onto a less crowded street. She glances over her shoulder as she breaks into a run and runs right into a couple of pedestrians. All three go down.

Deckard comes out of the crowd in time to spot her getting to her feet. She sees him and runs. The two pedestrians are in his line of fire. He runs past them and drops to one knee, leveling his blaster

DECKARD

Stop or you’re dead!

She doesn’t.”

 

That’s an excerpt from the screenplay “Bladerunnner” by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based (very loosely) on the novel by Phillip K Dick.

Let’s take a closer look:

The first paragraph sets the scene with a beautiful description that is little more than implied. But there are those adjectives again: “crudely-built”, “translucent”. However, as the action builds momentum, the prose becomes sparser and leaner. The sentences grow short. Simple. Fast. The pace builds until the climax…

Here, the screenwriters use sentence structure to create a sense of energy and pace. The action-filled nature of the scene is also emphasized by the strong verbs and tenses. Zhora “slices through the mob” Notice, she “slices”. She doesn’t just run or walk through them. This creates a feeling that she is powerful and determined. Meanwhile Deckard dodges and side-steps. He has to get out of people’s way. He is her physical inferior.

As the pace quickens, the verbs become even leaner: Zhora turns, glances, runs,  until she collides with more pedestrians.

A useful rule is to try to get rid of any “is” verbs. Is running. Is walking. Is grabbing. Is talking. These are static words that slow the reader down. Better to say he or she runs, walks, grabs, talks.

Time for a third example:

The granddaddy of all powerful prose has to be Robert E Howard, with his Conan stories. You will see similar patterns to Stan Lee in his work, which is effortless to read. Here is an excerpt from Conan’s battle with a sorcerer in “Black Colossus”:

“He cast his staff and it fell at the feet of Conan, who recoiled with an involuntary cry. For as it fell it altered horribly; its outline melted and writhed, and a hooded cobra reared up hissing before the horrified Cimmerian. With a furious oath, Conan struck, and his sword sheared the horrid shape in half.”

Notice the adjectives (marked in italics). Also notice the strong verbs: “He cast”, Conan “recoiled”, it “fell”, his sword “sheared” it in half.

I’ve found that a simple sentence structure works best:

adjective +subject + verb + adjective + object.

However, as with everything to do with writing, feel free to be as creative as you like.

In pointing out these stylistic devices, I’ve tried not to be prescriptive. However, Howard’s prose is extraordinarily powerful, as is Stan Lee’s, with its jokey, friendly, informal tone. While other screenwriters like David Peoples carve out lean, action-packed sentences to speed up the action.

By far the best way to discover what works is to read screenplays. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Only then do you get a sense of what a Hollywood script looks like. And then, of course, you can find your own voice as a writer.

But that is a post for another time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Screenwriting Contests. Are they worth it? What are the best ones?

There are tons of screenwriting contests out there. Many of them charge a hefty fee just for the privilege of considering your work. But are they worth it? And what are the best ones? Indeed, how do you tell what is “best” when entering a screenwriting contest?

The first contest I ever entered no longer exists. I studiously ignored the rules about formatting, had my script professionally bound at the local Staples, paid my $40, and waved goodbye to it in the mail.

Nowadays, I like to think that I know a little more than that.

For me, it’s all about a “risk to reward” ratio. Before you shell out your hard-earned $45+, I ask:

How big is the contest you are entering?

What are the prizes?

What will you achieve if you win or place?

The bigger the contest, the more competition. Do you enter a massive international contest like the PAGE Awards with thousands of other entrants, or do you target the latest niche contest for horror screenplays?

What are the prizes? Is it a $50 check and some software, or is it $10,000? Some contests like Trackingb.com don’t even offer a cash prize. The “prize” is that you get your script shopped to some very influential people. Is it worth it? Well, that’s up to you. Some contests even promise to make the winning script. In my book, that is priceless. But will it lead to anything? Again, like most things in showbiz, it’s uncertain.

“What will you achieve if you win” is for me the most important question to ask yourself. Many sources state that there are a few contests that Hollywood truly sits up and takes notice of. For instance, in his excellent book Breakfast with Sharks, Michael Lent states that the top screenwriting contests include:

The Nicholl Fellowships

The PAGE Awards

Austin Film Festival

Final Draft’s Big Break contest

Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship (sadly unavailable outside the USA)

The Sundance Institute (for USA writers only; however they do host an international screenwriters’ lab in Utah if you have a spare month or so and manage to be one of the 6-8 screenwriters they choose from the rest of the entire world!)

He also lists some others that no longer exist. I would add:

Trackingb.som

So, as the title of this blog is “The Hard Way to Hollywood”, let’s assume that, like me, you are British. That leaves five screenwriting contests that, according to Lent, appear to be some of the few contests that have truly sparked A-list careers. For example, Andrew W Marlowe (Air Force One, End of Days), Doug Atchinson (Akeelah and the Bee), and Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) all won Nicholls Fellowship Awards.

Sort of narrows it down, right?

Maybe not…

Did you notice all the qualifiers in those earlier sentences?

I would not discount the smaller contests. They may provide you with a nice, fat check (or cheque, as we say in England) that will keep you going for a while longer. Or they may open doors and work very hard for you and your script. There are plenty of success stories associated with other contests, such as Script Pipeline or Scriptapalooza. So the field is not perhaps quite as narrow as I have led you to believe. 

Another factor in your decision whether to enter a contest may be where you are right now in terms of skill and experience. Before the website was discontinued, I used to regularly place in WriteSafe.com’s monthly contest. No money. But it looked good on my fledgling CV (or resume, if you’re from the USA). Did it get me anywhere? Maybe, in small steps.

So I can’t tell you whether it’s worth entering in screenplay contests. Only you can do that.

There are, of course, many A-list screenwriters who never won a screenplay contest.

Also, depending upon where you are in your career, you may choose to go for a smaller contest with less competition, but which is going to net you valuable connections and where the organizers are going to work harder for your script.

One last thing: it pays to check out the genre of scripts that have previously won. There is little point sending your zombie slasher movie to the Nicholls unless it speaks to something new in the human condition. But then again, you never know!

To find a complete list of contests, check out the ever-reliable http://www.moviebytes.com.

Monday blog tour!

My thanks this morning to fellow Mancunian speculative fiction writer and novelist Graeme Shimmin who nominated me to be the next person on the Monday Blog Tour. A pass-the-baton exercise bringing you blogs from different writers to start your week off on the right track!

What are you working on?

Between writing screenplays, I like to keep myself occupied by writing lengthy horror novels and short stories.

At the moment, I’m just waiting for my sci-fi/horror novel “Project Nine” to be published by myinkbooks.com. The good folks over there picked up my novel last year, and have been busily trying to convert my rather “eccentric” punctuation and spelling into something the public can actually make sense of.

What is it about?

Ah. The magic question.

“Project Nine” is about a young man who longs for immortality. He finds it in a beautiful woman who has escaped from a secret government research program that has created vampires through gene therapy.  He joins her and her friends who have also escaped in their endless trek across America’s backwoods, only to find himself hunted by a relentless detective and losing his own humanity in the process.

How does it differ from others in the genre?

If the Naughties have been so far filled with horror movies populated by twenty-something kids with six-packs and hair extensions, “Project Nine” is about as far from that kind of thing as you can possibly get.

It’s gritty, realistic, and psychologically believable. But it also has the large scale and operatic quality of classic horror stories. I aimed to balance the grim realism of modern fiction with the more emotionally-resonant horror of the 1970s and 1980s.

The vampires in this story are not cape-wearing cliches, nor are they gorgeously, seductive creatures. They are real people put in an extraordinary situation. They make good and bad choices. And they are capable of acts of kindness or unspeakable wickedness.

Why do you write what you write?

Why indeed. Who knows what evil lurks in the mind of Man? Not me, certainly. In my defence, I blame watching a steady diet of old Universal and Hammer horror movies when I was a kid. Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” stands out for me as being the best SF/Horror TV series ever made.

However, the first movie that really made my hair stand up on end was actually not a movie at all, but the truly frightening Made-For-TV, 2-part adaptation of Stephen King’s “‘Salems Lot” — the one with David Soul and James Mason. Man, that was scary.

Essential, late-night, family-friendly viewing!

Essential, late-night, family-friendly viewing!

I’ve also been an avid fan and collector of comics since I was knee high to an Inhuman. Marvel and 2000AD to be precise. People like Alan Moore have been a huge inspiration, especially “Watchmen”  and his run on DC’s “Swamp Thing”.

As far as “real” literature goes, HP Lovecraft remains for me the greatest master of the craft. I also devoured novels by Stephen King (although I especially like the short stories in his “Night Shift” collection) and the criminally underestimated British king of horror, James Herbert. Other influences include: Peter Straub, Frank Herbert, Terry Brooks, Anne Rice, Phillip K Dick, Harry Harrison and, of course, Ray Bradbury.

There. You asked for it.

Swamp Thing - the thinking man's horror comics.

Swamp Thing – the thinking man’s horror comic.

What is your writing process?

You mean I have a process?

Seriously, it all depends on whether I’m writing screenplays, novels, or short stories.

Screenplays tend to be very structured. I outline to a varying degree of depth before writing a first draft. Then I use a structured rewrite process. I recommend reading as many books as you can on the subject and then employing the rewrite proceess used by Paul Chitlik in his excellent book. Then repeat. Over and over again. And again. And again.

My novels are a different animal. My first novel started life as a comic script (now lost, sadly) and then grew into a full-length book. My second, unpublished work began life purely as a novel. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say and what the theme would be, then I started writing. Now I’m in the process of getting peer feedback before rewriting and editing.

Short stories usually come out of the blue. I get a first line or an idea as I’m in the shower or walking down the street and then I run with it. The ones that pop into my head seem to be the most successful. The ones I agonize about and outline never see the light of day. Weird, eh?

How much do you write in a day?

Depends. I just wrote an entire screenplay in five days. When I was in what I like to call my James Joyce phase I could write ten pages of single-spaced prose on my typewriter (yes, I had one of those). That comes to about 350 words a page. So 3,500 words a day.  You nosey parker, you.

Previous Writer

I was asked to contribute to this project by Graeme Shimmin  as part of a chain of connections from writer to writer. Each writer answers the questions and then links to the next writer in the chain. Graeme writes mainly alternate history and some excellent short stories. I suggest you check out his intriguing, fact-filled blog.

Next on the Tour

Graeme Cole is a filmmaker extraordinaire and bon vivant who also writes absurdist fiction. He currently resides in Bosnia and runs L’Institute Zoom, which maintains a blog here.

Andrew Bellware is a sci-fi/fantasy/theatre director/writer/actor and all-round swell guy who works out of NYC. He and his producing partner run Pandora Machine Films, which maintains its eponymous blog (Rated “R” for some racy content — you have been warned). I recommend their marvellous movie Clone Hunter, written by some guy from England 😉

Clone Hunter - the greatest science-fiction ever made, apparently!

Clone Hunter – the greatest science-fiction ever made, apparently!

Intermission – how to calculate movie budgets

Before we carry on with our discussion of action lines, here is something I learned about movie budgets.

One of the most popular questions asked of screenwriters is “What is the budget of this movie”? Yet there are no websites I can see which offer guidance on this. So, to fill a gap I thought I would share my research with you, gentle reader…

It can be frustrating for a screenwriter trying to estimate his or her potential screenplay’s budget. How much do SFX cost? How much does it cost to shoot in a particular city or range of locations? Will those exotic wild animals bump up the cost?

The only way I’ve found any answers is to look at previous movie budgets. Now, inflation can be a vexing devil, so I’ve only gone back a few years in most cases.

Here’s a list of recent movies from a range of budgets, along with what it cost to make them (All numbers are taken from http://www.boxofficemojo.com):

BIG BUDGET
Man of Steel = $225 million
Iron Man 3 = $200 million
World War Z = $190 million
Fast & Furious 6 = $160 million
Gravity = $100 million

MEDIUM BUDGET
Crazy Stupid Love= $50 million
Zero Dark Thirty = $40 million
The Social Network = $40 million
The Rite = $37 million
Saving Mr Banks = $35 million
Looper = $30 million
Anchorman = $26 million
The Conjuring = $20 million
The Apparition = $17 million
Nebraska = $12 million

LOW BUDGET
Paranormal Activity 2 = $3 million
The Purge = $3 million
Last Exorcism = $1.8 million
Insidious = $1.5 million
The Devil Inside = $1 million

MICROBUDGET

Paranormal Activity = $15,000

What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down.

BIG BUDGET

At the top end, we have big budget tentpole studio movies crammed with SFX and bankable stars. If you can make one of these for under $100 million, good luck. This is a very small market. Studios may only make a handful of these a year. Most of them are adaptations. Competition is fierce, and writing jobs are usually assignments that are  given to writers with a proven track record for generating serious cash. Here you will find your Joss Wheedons, David S Goyers and Zack Snyders.

MEDIUM BUDGET

In the middle range we have movies that are between £10-$100 million. This is a big range, and may movies are made for this amount of money. Factors that can push your script into this bracket include SFX, a few bankable stars, or lots of animals and stunt scenes. So if you’re filming Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, or Steve Carrell, or your script calls for a family of tigers, or a scene where someone jumps onto a moving semi-trailer (that’s a lorry for those of you who are English), or a wise-cracking CGI alien, this is likely to be your budget range. Again, there is tough competition here. Writers like Aaron Sorkin have made this budget range their own. But it may be possible to break into this market if you have a seriously strong concept and story that attracts star caliber talent or high-level investment. Note that many of these are dramas or dramedies. That’s because it’s tough to get a drama made unless you have a star, or an ex-star that wants to come back. Both of whom can push your low-budget piece up into this category.

LOW BUDGET

Next, we have the low budget world. This is the easiest spot to aim at. Most of these movies have either no SFX, a limited cast, are contained (i.e. they have limited locations, ideally less than 4), or are found footage. This is the world of the TV or family movie, However, it is also notably dominated by the horror genre. Horror has been the proving ground for many directors who went on to be A-listers (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson) and tends to feature actors who can carry a movie without having the ego or bank account of so-called “stars”. A good horror movie can break box-office records, and studios know this. For instance, Insidious (2011) cost only £1.3 million to make, yet grossed over $55 million. Compare that to infamous flop “John Carter” (2012), which cost $250 million yet has recouped only $75 so far.

MAICRO-BOUDGET!!!!

Finally, we have the weird and wonderful world of the microbudget movie. This can be the kind of thing that premieres on the horror channel (if anywhere), or the kind of megahit that makes an entire career. Again, horror tends to dominate. Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Halloween all became the most profitable independent films ever at one time. However other genres proliferate, such as 1980s sci-fi cult hits like Charles Band’s Trancers. However, it’s pretty safe to say these are flukes.

In reality, the low budget movie seems like a more sensible place to start. However, a word of warning: limiting your ideas to deliver a tiny budget movie may be a mistake. My own movie “Clone Hunter” was written as a big-budget space opera, yet managed to translate into a much lower budget movie. However, I’ve written microbudget movies by shoe-horning my ideas into confined locations without any SFX, and these failed to ignite any interest.

In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to put your eggs in different baskets. You can always try for a big-budget payoff while honing that indie coming-of-age drama and rattling off that limited location found footage horor movie.

Like everything with writing, it seems there’s no single surefire quick access route to success. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing what excites you and finding someone who is as passionate about your material as you are. If nobody else shares your vision, move on.

 

 

 

How to Write Hollywood-style action lines — part 1

Today, here are some tips on how to do the above – write action lines like the ones you see in Hollywood screenplays. Style can make or break a script, or turn a great story into a terrible script.

The main aim of all stylistic devices in a screenplay is… to get the reader to read yor script.

That’s it.

So how do you do that?

Create suspense.

Use short sentences.

Make it a vertical reading experience.

See?

 Here are some examples:

The “vertical” style was perhaps most famously used in “Alien”. Here is a sample taken from the revised script by Walther Hill and David Giler, based on the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett:

“SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.

INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL

Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.”

Pretty obvious why it’s called the “vertical” style, right? The aim is to make the reader’s eye naturally flow down the page thus causing him or her to TURN OVER and start reading the next page. Do that enough times and the reader will actually finish your screenplay.

But you don’t need to be so drastic. Back in 1978 that was fresh writing. Nowadays it’s more a throwback. Also, this tends to use up a lot of pages.

Here’s a slightly more modern example, from a draft of “Scream” written by Kevin Williamson:

“FADE IN

ON A RINGING TELEPHONE.

A hand reaches for it, bringing the receiver up to the face of
CASEY BECKER, a young girl, no more than sixteen.  A friendly face
with innocent eyes.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN’S VOICE
(from phone)
Hello.

Silence.

CASEY
Yes.

MAN
Who is this?

CASEY
Who are you trying to reach?

MAN
What number is this?

CASEY
What number are you trying to reach?

MAN
I don’t know.

CASEY
I think you have the wrong number.

MAN
Do I?

CASEY
It happens. Take it easy.

CLICK! She hangs up the phone.  The CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal
Casey in a living room, alone.  She moves from the living room to
the kitchen.  It’s a nice house.  Affluent.

The phone RINGS again.

INT.  KITCHEN

Casey grabs the portable.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN
I’m sorry. I guess I dialed the wrong number.

CASEY
So why did you dial it again?

MAN
To apologize.

CASEY
You’re forgiven. Bye now.

MAN
Wait, wait, don’t hang up.

Casey stands in front of a sliding glass door.  It’s pitch black
outside.

CASEY
What?

MAN
I want to talk to you for a second.

CASEY
They’ve got 900 numbers for that. Seeya.

CLICK!  Casey hangs up.  A grin on her face.

EXT.  CASEY’S HOUSE – NIGHT – ESTABLISHING

A big country home with a huge sprawling lawn full of big oak
trees.  It sits alone with no neighbors in sight.

The phone RINGS again.”

This is a nice, flowing style that leads your eye down the page. Notice how the sentences are short. Clipped. And, in some cases, incomplete.

There is also far less detail than you think in these lines. The writers were adept at using minimal words to convey a setting. The reader’s mind fils in the blanks. In fact “Alien” uses only two words to describe a spaceship’s engine room.

So the next time you think about adding a ten-line paragraph to explain that this is a comfortable, well-furnished craftsman-style house that nestles on the edge of town surrounded by sycamore trees with a luxury car parked on the drive outside… think again.

Which brings me to my second tip .

Don’t overdo it.

Some sentences belong together. When you try to force them into a vertical pattern, you actually break the flow and make it more difficult to read down the page. For example, here’s a passage from the script of “The Bourne Identity” by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum:    

INT. FISHING BOAT BUNK ROOM — DAWN — TIME CUTS

Transformed into a makeshift operating room.  A light swings
overhead.  THE MAN layed out across the table.  Sounds —
groans — words — snatches of them — all in different
languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.  Cutting
away the clothes.  Turning THE MAN on his side.  Two bullet
wounds in the back.  Probing them, judging them.

Now — GIANCARLO with a flashlight in his teeth — TINK —
TINK — TINK — bullet fragments falling into a washed-out
olive jar.

Now — something catching GIANCARLO’S EYE — A SCAR ON THE
MAN’S HIP — another fragment — exacto knife cutting in —
tweezers extracting A SMALL PLASTIC TUBE, not a bullet at
all, and as it comes free —

THE MAN’S HAND SLAMS down onto GIANCARLO’S”…

This is still a pretty vertical read. However it would have been even more vertical to separate each sentence out onto separate lines, like so: 

“Transformed into a makeshift operating room.

A light swings overhead.

THE MAN layed out across the table.

Sounds — groans — words — snatches of them — all in different languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.

Cutting away the clothes…”

And so on. But does this make it any better? No. Sometimes it’s worse to force the reader to look at a new line. The most important thing is to preserve the flow. I’ve read lots of amateaur screenplays where the writer thought they were doing the reader a favour by splitting lines up in this way. But  it actualy makes it harder to read them.

It’s a judgment call. And the best way to decide is to look at other scripts. There are plenty of them on the Internet these days. Break them down the way you would an Enlgiash Literature exercise.

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in Part 2.

See you then!