Tag Archives: screenplays

Music is Your Friend…

Do you listen to music while you write?

Sounds like a banal question. But many writers are heavily influenced by music, while others say it helps them to concentrate and focus.

Alan Grant, comics writer of “Batman”, “Judge Dredd”, and many more, says he listens to music for an hour or so each morning before he starts to write. Evidently it gets his creative juices flowing.

Personally, I prefer something instrumental. I won’t bore you with a list of my favourites. Suffice to say, it includes plenty of heavy 1970s electronica and Baroque classical. Anything I can get my hands on that provides ambient background music. Hypnotic white noise helps me to zone in on the page.

Other writers have used music to do more than focus, however. Take Alan Moore. Almost every chapter of “Watchmen” has a musical lyric as its title – a conceit used to brilliant effect in the movie soundtrack. In fact, several of Moore’s stories seem to have been directly inspired by lyrics.

Music can capture your mood. Or it can provide you with tangible inspiration from its lyrics. Just don’t play that Eminem record at full volume on your iPod in the library, or I may have to hit you. Hard. With a book.

So find your muse, find your mood music, and write away…

Quickie movie review – Manhunter

Another dip into my DVD collection this week. While researching the thriller genre I struggled to find a list of the top thrillers of all time. Maybe I’ll do that in another post. Hmm. Meanwhile, here is my review of the much-overlooked prequel to “Silence of the Lambs”.

“Manhunter” was not a commercial success on release. But in fact it is better than its bigger and somewhat dumber sequel, although Anthony Hopkins certainly portrayed Hannibal Lektor with much aplomb. So without further ado I present to you…


Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in "Manhunter", 1986.

Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in “Manhunter”, 1986.

Will Graham is a former FBI Agent with a difference. He is able to put himself in the mind of a serial killer. His talent has almost cost him his sanity. But when the “Tooth Fairy” starts wiping out whole families, Graham is called out of retirement to help catch the murdering monster. His first task, however, is to re-establish his serial killer mindset. And to do that, he needs the help of  one Hannibal Lektor…

Manhunter is a gorgeous film. Michael Mann, fresh from the TV series Miami Vice, used every trick in the book to make the film reminiscent of 1940s Noirs. There are some beautiful shots, such as Graham’s house overlooking the ocean – shot entirely in blue. Mann, whose earlier film effort “The Keep” also had some excellent photography, provides us with more memorable images here: tigers, the Tooth Fairy’s stocking mask, and of course the death of one rather unpleasant reporter who becomes one of the killer’s victims.

The acting is also pretty nifty. William Peterson plays Will Graham with heart – although he is sometimes a little too downbeat for his own good. But he carries the “leading man” part off nicely. A shame his talents would never be utlilized to such a degree again. Character actor stalwart Brian Cox steps into the biter-mask of Hannibal Lektor this time. Cox is chilling, especially in a bravura scene where he manages to use a telephone from inside a high security cell. The slicked-back hair is something that would remain part of the character in “Silence of the Lambs”.  The late Dennis Farina plays Graham’s FBI buddy to good effect, while Tom Noonan (who appeared recently in “The House of the Devil”) is scary and believable as the damaged, murdering monser. In fact, Noonan’s portayal is much more sympathetic than Ralph Fiennes’ would be in the by-the-numbers remake, “Red Dragon” (2002).

Indeed, by comparing “Manhunter” with “Red Dragon”, we can see how superior “Manhunter” is. There is poetry to this movie. It takes place in a kind of hyper-realism. The strange lighting, the memorable music, all serve to make this a masterpiece of thriller cinema. “Manhunter” is also more generous with its emotions. We see with both unease and pity the heartbreaking attempts of the Tooth Fairy to connect with another human being. But it is an act doomed to failure. Although the filmmakers bring us within a hair’s breadth of sympathy for the killer, it seems that some sins cannot be expurgated.

The action builds from unease to a tense climax that has plenty of surprises. “Manhunter” is psychologically realistic, without the overblown theatrics of “Silence of the Lambs” or “Hannibal”. More than any other film based on the Thomas Harris books, “Manhunter” takes us deep into the world of the serial killer, and shows us that it is a twisted, frightening place. And it does it with style.

The top 10 scariest horror movies ever made…

A spot of indulgence today as I list my personal top 10 scariest horror movies of all time.

Horror is a misunderstood and much-maligned genre. At its worst, it’s nothing more than sickening exploitation. However at its best, it can be a place for experimentation, satire, and the exploration of the darker side of human nature.

This is not meant to be a definitive list. Add your own. But here are some movies that made me turn the light back on… and some that made not turn it off at all.

10. Nosferatu

F W Murnau’s unofficial film version of Dracula led to him being famously sued by Bram Stoker’s widow. But the frightening make-up of Max Shrek as the titular vampire Count Orlock remains one of the scariest images ever committed to film. The moving shadowplay on the wall would be used again time after time. Remade stylishly by Werner Herzon with Klaus Kinski as the vampire.


Max Shrek. His name means "fear" in German!

Max Shrek. His name means “fear” in German!

9. Threads

A made-for-TV drama about what would actually happen in the event of a nuclear strike on Britain. Produced in the early 80s when nuclear war was still a grim possibility,  this terrifying program shocked a generation. Once seen, never forgotten…

8. The Thing

John Carpenter’s homage to the 50s B-movie, this guts’n’gore horrorshow pushed the boundaries of what was possible with make-up effects. A box-office flop, it has since become one of the greatest horror films of all time. Compare the atmosphere of the freezing scientists in this pic to the lukewarm remake.

7. Poltergeist

Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg collabroated to produce the grandaddy of all haunted house movies. A combination of SFX rollercoaster and shocking horror movie, it made a generation of kids afraid of trees and TV sets.


6. Halloween

John Carpenter’s first big hit and the first true slasher pic. Indestructible madman Michael Myers stalks teenagers in a small town. But it’s the film’s creepy insinuation that horror could be lurking anywhere, even in the dark spaces of your own home, that truly lingers.

Just a normal street. But look again.

Just a normal street. But look again.

5. Alien

Alien is on some levels a very stupid movie. Butch warrant officer Sigourney Weaver displays more common sense than the rest of the entire crew of the ill-fated spaceship Nostromo, but still ends up trying to save a cat in her underwear. Even so, jaw-dropping production design and the most memorable alien in movie history combine to produce nerve-jangling scares from start to finish.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Time has dulled the edge of this “based on true events” movie. But from the film’s opening shots we know we’re not in Kansas anymore. The casual violence remains shocking, but it was the film’s “endurance horror” that would go on to influence filmmakers such as Sam Raimi with his “Evil Dead” movies. Forget the countless remakes and sequels.

3. Jaws

Yes, that shark terrified audiences in the 70s and beyond. It may look rubber now, but the film’s great ensemble cast and stirring theme music still manage to make bathtime a little scarier.

2. Dawn of the Dead

George A Romero followed up his genre-busting “Night of the Living Dead” with this satirical masterpiece. you get a real sense of claustrophobia watching this for the first time as zombies are everywhere. Copied over and over again from low-budget schlock to the more stylish “Walking Dead” TV series, Romero was the only one to do something actually new with the zombie as an archetype of horror. Remade quite well but with less ideas in 2004.


1. Salems Lot

This two-part TV movie must have sent network executives into a spin. A creepy Stephen King story about Dracula transplanted into the modern US becomes something quite different in the hands of horror maestro Tobe Hooper and veteran scriptwriter Paul Monash. The horror continues to rise as citizens of a small town are transformed into the most frightening bloodsuckers you have ever seen.  1970s TV heart-throb David Soul grows understandably more and more hysterical when faced with sneering James Mason and his army of undead. But it’s the surreal, frightening scenes where a vampire kid comes calling on his classmates that have stayed in my imagination. Watch the unedited version for the shocking twist ending.


The Importance of Being Persistent

You wouldn't want to be this guy. Unless you were a writer.

You wouldn’t want to be this guy. Unless you were a writer.

As you go through this journey to reach your writing goals, there is one thing I cannot stress enough.

You must persist.

Of all the people I know who have become writers, they all share one thing in common. They did not give up. And out of all the people I know who did not become writers, they too had one thing in common. At some point, they did.

It’s easy to give in to the voice inside your head that tells you you’re not good enough, that you never will be good enough, that you’re wasting your life, that becoming a professional writer is just an impossible dream…

But are you wasting your life following a dream?

I would argue that those who go through life without dreams are truly the ones wasting theirs.

It may be that you have financial pressures urging you to get a steady job. It may be you have a family, or one on the way. It may be you are surrounded with unsupportive people who laugh and sneer whenever you mention your latest project.

Eddie Murphy has said on the Actors’ Studio that he only surrounds himself with positive people, because negative people wear you down.

You will encounter a lot of jealousy in your quest to be a writer. People will laugh at your dreams. Some will give you harsh, unconstructive feedback. Others will simply ignore you.

You must learn to overcome this. Because this is a form of rejection, and rejection is the writer’s shadow. It follows him wherever he or she goes, threatening to obscure him or her from view.

One way to beat rejection is to reframe the statistics. If you only get one script request out of a hundred submissions, well then surely that means that every submission will get you closer to reaching one hundred and getting that script request!

Being positive is sometimes the hardest part of writing. But if you can master it, you will eventually succeed. Even if it happens in a way you never expected…

To trend or not to trend… writing in the “hot” genre

What is “hot” in Hollywood? What kind of screenplay does Hollywood want?

Surely, the cynical starving writer thinks, if I find out what genre is hot and I write in that genre, Hollywood will want my screenplays? The simply law of supply and demand will do my marketing job for me. If “found footage” scripts are hot, simply write one and riches will await.

But hang on, says the artist (who doesn’t mind if he or she starves or not), isn’t that betraying your art? Isn’t it selling… out?

Well, I have no problem with someone writing for a living. Even Leonardo da Vinci had to eat. And although I could do without yet another “disaster mash-up” movie (SyFy channel, I’m looking at you), I remember one of my earliest instincts was to find out what Hollywood wants in a screenplay. After all, they are the buyers and I am the seller.

But there are several problems with trying to write in the “hot genre”. First of all, Hollywood is a long way away. Not just in space, but in time. Studios frequently undertake test screenings to gauge the popularity of a film before it is finished. People in Hollywood know what the outcome of these screening are. Hence in your newsletter you might get an inexplicable slew of requests for stories about “dogs verses aliens” from producers anxious to copy the newest surefire hit.

And therein lies the problem. Because by the time you write said screenplay, the trend will be over, and “Buster Saves the World” will be yesterday’s movie news. Writing for the latest hot trend is like trying to hit a constantly moving target. By the time you’ve nocked your arrow and written your screenplay, the movie world has moved on to the next “hot” project.

Having said that…

Certain types of script always stand more of a chance of getting made. They are generally as follows…

– Female driven

– Limited location

– Low budget

– Horror/thriller

– No SFX

These are the calls for screenplays you will encounter most frequently in newsletters and advertisements.

BUT.. and this is a big BUT!

I personally have found that I have less success trying to write in low budget genres. For some reason I naturally (and unfortunately) gravitate toward big action set pieces, usually sci-fi or horror. And yet I have more success selling these type of stories than when I write my one-location character-driven drama.

So if anything can be drawn from my limited experience, it’s this… write in the style and genre you love AND which you are best at. Whatever the budget. Whatever the genre. And THEN worry about rewriting it so it can get made. Maybe you can reduce the budget without losing that great scene with the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.

This is a strange business. As Dan Ackroyd once said: “I write ’em big, and they keep making ’em.”

Here’s hoping you can write big too!

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!