Tag Archives: screenwriting

IT (2017) Reviewed!

It’s been a long time coming (no pun intended), but finally cinemagoers can watch another adaptation of Stephen King’s IT!

The last time was a forgettable TV mini-series of 1990, noteworthy only for the portrayal of the menacing clown Pennywise by cult actor Tim Curry. In that adaptation the filmmakers attempted to adapt King’s massive horror novel about a group of adults slowly remembering how they battled a shape-shifting monster as kids.

The book is huge and distils all of Stephen King’s work into one story. Everything is here as King literally throws the bathroom sink at us: monsters, kids, the small town with a curse etc etc. It’s a masterpiece of horror fiction, spanning two generations with multiple time shifts. Which is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to film.

In the latest version, the action is shifted from the 1950s to 1988. The film opens with a atmospheric sequence in which young Bill’s brother Georgie encounters Pennywise in the storm drain. It’s a powerful scene, horrific and violent.  It does what some of the best horror movies do, which is make us wonder just how far is this film prepared to go?

But does IT (2017) have what it takes us thoroughly scare us? Is it destined to become another classic Stephen King adaptation in the footsteps of Brian de Palma’s Carrie, the infamous Tobe Hooper TV series ‘Salem’s Lot, or Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining?

First, the scares: yes, it is scary. Horror fans rejoice! Pennywise played by Bill Skargard is the creepiest clown imaginable. The way the character moved was downright unsettling and truly suggested something unnatural. Kudos to the filmmakers for making the worn-out trope of the killer clown scary again!

The child actors are all very believable, especially hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), motor-mouth Richie (Stranger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) and girl next door Beverley  (Sophie Lillis). A very important consideration that was mostly missing from the 1990 miniseries and, in fact, many films involving children. The kids all played their parts exceedingly well.

The action is set in 1988 instead of decades earlier – presumably so that younger audiences can “relate” more. A dubious choice but it doesn’t hamper the story  much, except that some of the novel’s best moments stem from IT assuming the form of 1950s B-movie monsters. But it’s easy to overlook such things because the movie looks gorgeous. And the opening scene establishes the tone so perfectly.

The film has some amazing visuals. When Pennywise attacks it was genuinely unsettling.  There were some great original moments also, which came as a nice surprise to those of us who had read the book. In fact there were so many scares that the audience kept jumping in their seats all night, followed by nervous laughter. 

However… and this is a big however… the film falls flat in several places. These weaknesses hampered my enjoyment of the film because they were so glaring. These were mainly questions of plot logic and unbelievably stupid choices by the main characters. And it was frustrating because it could all have been put right so easily.

King’s novel is quite daring in its realistic depiction of childhood. I didn’t really get that from the movie.  We never see the kids being kids. Instead they become rather shallow characterisations of children (the motor mouth, the quiet leader, the skeptic, the hypochondriac). We get one scene of Bill’s father being annoyed after Georgie’s death. Other than that, nothing. We get one scene of Stan being put under pressure by his rabbi father. Then nothing. We get one scene of Mike’s life. We get no scenes whatsoever of Richie’s home life. Only Eddie and Bev have an arc. The filmmakers boil the kids down to their bare essence. They could have lost a few of the “montage” sequences instead and made up for this with actually meaningful moments. Instead it feels like a “paint by the numbers” approach to character.

More unforgivably, the kids have a habit of going “slowly towards” an unimaginable horror, presumably so we the audience can get a closer look, rather than turning tail and trying to escape. I found myself groaning inwardly every time someone walked slowly towards yet another life-threatening manifestation of IT. One would have thought that the filmmakers would have learned such lessons in the 1980s themselves!

The annoying thing is that all this is perfectly dealt with in the book. There were plenty of added scenes which didn’t really serve any purpose other than to provide another flashy visual. The writer and director could have used those scenes (scare as they were) to provide some more meaningful storytelling. Carrie has very few scares, but the ones that are there stick in the mind long after the film is over.

The directing style itself was a bit clumsy in places. Plot clues tended to “THUD” onto camera – sometimes literally. There were far too many “Jump scares” that weren’t really needed when the film did so well in setting up an atmosphere of terror. LOUD NOISES also proliferated (see what I did there?) and again, they were unnecessary.

As mentioned earlier, the movie is set in 1988. The problem with this time shift is that all through the movie I was asking myself: why choose 1988? The back end of the 80s had little of quality. Why not set it in 1985 or even earlier? (like Stranger Things – a series to which IT clearly owes a great deal) At least that way we could get some great 1980s soundtracks, hilarious fashions and great movie references. Instead we get a montage to… The Cure (?) and a couple of shots of a movie theatre advertising Lethal Weapon 2. Really? Why not choose some better material from a decade that had so much? It didn’t really feel like the 80s.

The film tries hard to get that Stand By Me vibe. But for me, it  lacked the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The kids ogle Beverley for a few minutes, but that’s about it. Ritchie is funny in places but his “antics” get ridiculous, like trying to steal a bandplayer’s French horn in the background of a scene. We don’t see any authentic scenes of them playing as children. For me this was a major flaw. Especially when King’s novel deals with this so well. It could easily have been rectified by adding a few little moments to existing scenes, such as the kids building a dam in the Barrens. The novel is terrific at depicting the terror of childhood. But apart from a nice scene with Eddie and his momma, there was little of this in the movie. A little more attention to the source material would have helped.

As stated there were many plot holes. I won’t elaborate on these save that two very big ones occur near the end of the movie, leaving a huge incident involving the missing children completely unresolved. Again, a little more care with the script would have helped. I’m not solely blaming the screenwriters as they are often just doing what they are told (or have the decision taken away from them altogether by the production team), but the criticism stands.

However, for all these problems, there was a lot to like in IT. The film is genuinely frightening. Special effects often delivered the scares. There were some great ones too. The opening scene, an incident involving a movie projector, and a moment involving a headless corpse were all terrific moments.

But good moments do not a great movie make. King’s novel is more than just fodder for a Friday night scare. IT is a very complex novel about childhood. This film wanted nothing more than to be a popcorn horror movie. In that the filmmakers succeeded. But IT could have been so much more! This was a shame, as with a little more work this film could easily have been a classic instead of an instant payout.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the movie a lot. The scares are so well done and there are so many of them that I could almost forgive the other mistakes. The best horror films make you feel like you’re experiencing a world out of a nightmare. In this, IT did not disappoint. The whole thing feels like a fever dream with some great, surreal imagery. It is certainly a slick, well-oiled fear machine.

So is IT a classic?

The novel deals with some difficult childhood issues (bulling, abuse, first love, isolation) which are only alluded to in the movie. Undoubtedly IT has enough genuinely scary, gruesome moments to satisfy any horror lover. But the film lacks depth and characterisation, and the filmmakers themselves generate several major plot holes. However, IT is still a very watchable horror movie.  I would say that IT is worth seeing just for the slick Hollywood effects and the many scary moments.

Still curious? Go see IT and judge for yourselves. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Overall: 7/10

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Fantasycon 2016 report: Fantasycon-by-the-Sea!

 

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Scarborough – home of all things sci-fi, fantasy and horror!

 

Last weekend marked my third foray into Fantasycon, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society. This year it was held in Scarborough at two hotels: the Grand and the Royal. Guests of Honour included bestselling science-fiction, horror, and fantasy authors Joe Hill, Mike Carey, Adam Neville,  Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, James Smythe, and Derek Landy.

The main hotel was, shall we say, interesting. Scarborough itself seemed to be stuck in a bit of a time warp – appropriately perhaps. But no-one can deny that the Grand is awesome to look at – a Gothic façade that dominates the Scarborough seafront. The main staircase served as an impressive backdrop, as did the various antique ballrooms.  I found myself reminded of The Shining several times!

 

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The Overlook Hotel… I mean The Grand in Scarborough.

 

Registration was easy enough, although the wristbands proved to be a bit fiddly and impossible to remove, except by accident! The usual bag of goodies included a stick of rock, to put us in the mood. Having learned from previous experience, I signed up to several of the agent/editor sessions and masterclasses straight away. Perhaps unsurprisingly the session with Joe Hill was booked up even before Friday afternoon.

Fantasycon 2016 was absolutely stuffed to the gills with panels and events. I attended as many as I could fit in around socialising, which is the most enjoyable part of Fantasycon.

Highlights for me included the panel titled “It’s a Kind of Magic” featuring Sue Tingey, Pete McLean, Peter Newman, James Bennett, and Irene Soldatos.

Also, the newly-launched UK chapter of the Horror Writers Association was a strong presence. Friday saw the HWA launch several books in concert with Jo Fletcher Books. Many authors were on hand to sign their latest books and to rub shoulders with newer authors like myself. Kudos to HWA organisers Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan for hosting such a well-attended event.

Agents and editors were also available to provide insights into the world of publishing and screenwriting. I found these sessions to be a particular highlight and hope they will continue to be a theme at future cons.

Another addition to the programme was writing masterclasses sponsored by Gollancz. These were of a very high standard, catering to the new writer but also useful to writers of all levels.

There were many book launches over the weekend. In fact, you needed limitless pockets to be able to attend them all! But the ones that I did get to were lively, informal affairs. Of course I soon abandoned my vow not to buy any more books and came away with a small armful.

Saturday saw another horror panel: “Creepin’ up on You”, about the overlap between reality and horror fiction. Chair Paul Finch interjected some welcome humour into what could have been very grim proceedings. Other attendees included living legend Ramsey Campbell, Tracy Fahey, VH Leslie, Helen Marshall, and Mark West.  Topics ranged from the scariest things ever written, to things the writers would not consider writing about, and an interesting discussion on how shifting cultural awareness has meant that some horror devices may no longer be legitimate ways of frightening an audience, such as the “terrifying” reveal of the disfigured composer’s face in the Phantom of the Opera.

Another standout was the HWA panel on getting published. The experienced panellists included Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan, agent Ian Drury, publisher Jo Fletcher, and editor Stephen Jones. Again, this was a standout for me, with many “dos” and “don’ts” on dealing with publishers and agents.

Saturday evening saw my first ever reading at Fantasycon (though not my first ever reading) along with horror scribe Terry Grimwood. The listeners were very graceful and it seemed to go down well. I thoroughly enjoyed Terry’s reading from his new book. My thanks to Roy Gray for providing much-needed coffee!

Afterwards, all eyes were on the legendary Fantasycon Karaoke, the disco, or the bar. I stayed up way too late and had way too much fun nattering to people. Sometime after midnight I slunk off to my guest house to grab a few hours of sleep before Day Three!

 

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The Grand lives up to its name – from the outside, anyway.

 

On Sunday morning I took part in my first ever Fantasycon Panel. “Lost in Hollywood” was moderated by agent Ellen Gallagher and featured legendary TV writer (and all-round nice bloke) Stephen Gallagher of Dr Who and Oktober fame, as well as Stephen Volk (screenwriter of Ghostwatch and Gothic), as well as Remington Steel TV writer Joanna Horrocks. The discussion was wide-ranging and I enjoyed it a heck of a lot. Hopefully, I’ll get to do it again!

My Sunday ended with the Monster mash panel, in which Ross Warren, Adam Millard, Georgina Bruce, Alastair Rennie, and Laurel Sills discussed monsters and what makes them scary (or not). It was a lively and varied debate, and I found myself getting one idea after another as I listened.

The BFA Awards ceremony rounded off the weekend. Having never attended one before, this was an eye-opener, and as each Award was dished out too thunderous applause I found myself aware of just how much the BFS is a very inclusive family.

In all, I found Fantasycon-by-the-Sea the best Fantasycon yet.  Or perhaps I’m just getting into the swing of things more. It was great to catch up with existing friends and to make some new ones. As always, my reading list has grow exponentially. It was also great to continue to appear on panels and perform readings. My thanks to the more experienced writers who took time to talk with me at length about this insane and insanely entertaining business we’re engaged in. I left feeling invigorated, pumped up, and ready to write. To anyone who hasn’t been, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

 

How to sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK – Part Two!

Here is the second part of my article on how to actually sell screenplays for film and television to Hollywood while living abroad, for instance, in the UK. This may seem like a daunting if not impossible task. But let me assure you, it can be done.

To recap what we learned last time:

 

Step One – Write the screenplay

Last time we covered the fact that there really is no magic bullet, no secret trick for success. Also, be prepared for failure. You will encounter rejection. Lots of it. But the beauty of writing is that there is no way to “fail” providing you keep learning and improving in terms of skill.

 

Step Two – Learn about the business

We also covered the importance of leaning about the movie business. Doing this will help you understand what types of script people want and the different people who work in the industry: agents, managers, producers, actors, directors and executives. Learn their jobs. Discover what it is they are looking for.

 

So without further delay, on to Step Three!

 

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in "Adaptation" by Charlie Kaufman.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation” by Charlie Kaufman.

 

Step Three – Reverse engineer your career

What kind of writer do you want to be? Do you know the kind of screenplays you wish to write? Do you long to write character-driven indie productions or big tentpole pictures? And do you know how to get there?

When I was first starting out, I knew my strengths were writing action scenes, creating cool, often fantastical images and snappy dialogue. I am also a huge comic book fan and enjoy adapting material from other sources. So I looked at what it takes to be a successful studio writer for hire.

I wrote that down.

Then I looked at the easiest way to become that kind of writer: get an agent and get handed writing assignments. Okay, now how to get an agent… I found that it was possible to submit directly but that this was unlikely to garner results. Many (but by no means all) agents pick up clients based on recommendations from other people. So I knew I needed an established track record of sales or options to get their attention.

Backtrack a little: how do you get a sale or option without any contacts and without living in Hollywood?

I scoured the Internet for sources to help get screenplays produced and to meet other people who might be able to give me that recommendation. I discovered listing sites like Inktip and others where you can even pitch direct to an agency via Skype or in writing.  It’s no longer necessary to live in L.A. to sell pictures to Hollywood. That’s another screenwriting “lie” you can expect to hear a lot. Does it help? Sure. But you still need an awful lot of luck and talent.

So I wrote down where I wanted to be. Then I listed all the steps that could get me there. Then I simply followed those steps!

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Would that it were. Some steps are much harder to take than others and none of them ensures your script will be accepted. But this kind of mind-mapping can be a good way to focus your career and create a strategy. There are many routes to getting a film made. The above methods are just a few of them.

One strategy for success is copying the strategies of others who are successful. For this I recommend studying how big name screenwriters got where they are. Read Tales from the Script edited by Peter Hanson and Robert Hermann to get an idea of how top Hollywood writers made it in L.A. There’s no one path. Joe Eszterhas was a journalist, William Goldman a playwright and novelist, Antwone Fisher was a security guard at the studio that produced his incredible life story. Paths to success can be as individual as the writers themselves.

This is the biggest step. It requires time and commitment. Read the stories of other writers. Listen to interviews and podcasts. The Internet contains a wealth of information. Use as many free resources as you can find. That’s really the only way to find out what working as a screenwriter is really like. Without working as screenwriter, of course.

 

Step Four – Don’t quit.

You only fail by quitting.

Along the way I have seen many people give up on screenwriting for a variety of reasons. They have a family to support and have to get a “real” job.  They don’t have the time. They can’t stand the constant rejection.

In order to be taken seriously in this business, you have to take the business seriously. Like any career, screenwriting requires an investment of time and money from you. You have to commit to it.

Write. Read. Submit. Repeat.

 

Step Five – No, really. Don’t quit.

It’s easy to be crushed by rejection. When you’re typing away in solitary confinement, day after day, it’s also easy to get bitter and frustrated. It’s also very easy to get desperate, especially when you need money.

If you do need money, I recommend getting a job that will allow you to write. A 9 to 5 job will grind you down. A vocation will demand too much of you. Find something that will leave you time to write each day.

One thing you must do is learn to love the process. By this, I mean the process of Writing, reading, submitting and repeating.

You won’t hear back from everyone who requests a copy of your script (Annoying as that is, but true for so many reasons it’s impossible to list them). Even if it is accepted your work may be rewritten. You may be fired from projects. Not paid for others. Projects you invest lots of time in will come to nothing. People you work with may be difficult, others will be pleasantly professional. You may even become friends with some of them – and wouldn’t that be cool?

Elliott Grove in his excellent book Raindance Writer’s Lab says you should rephrase the statistics. Think of every rejection as bringing you one step closer to a “yes”. And you only need one “yes” to make it happen.

Good luck!

 

How to Sell a Screenplay to Hollywood from the UK – Part One

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The screenwriter’s dream: now you too can get to work in the bath.

 

Okay, here is the big one. How do you sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK? I suppose this is what this blog is supposed to be all about. So let me take you through the steps involved. Sounds simple, right?

First of all, about myself: I am a British screenwriter, but I’ve made spec sales and had options with companies in the UK, Europe and Los Angeles, USA.

Secondly, as William Goldman famously said: “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about the movie business. So as you read this, please place your tongue firmly in your cheek and take all of this with that pinch of salt.

However, this being the confessions of an English screenwriter and all, I thought I should at least attempt to share with you what I have learned when trying to sell a script to Hollywood without having to go and live in L.A..

And what better way to start than with the secret “one easy step to success”?

The secret trick to success

First of all, here is the secret trick — the magic bullet, if you will — that all professional writers know about…

Ready?

There is no magic bullet!

Yes, that’s right. There is no secret trick to selling a screenplay. No magic bullet. No one way that ensures success. There is only hard work, practice, lots of practice, a lot of luck, and a lot of failure.

“What? I’m going to fail?”

Yes. You will fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes you will want to quit. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things”. That is especially true of screenwriting.

Let me explain…

There is no one way to sell or option a script today. Elliott Grove in his excellent book “Randance Writer’s Lab” compares the movie industry to an enormous building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people who you can make deals with or who can further your career in some way: agents, industry executives, producers, etc.

Your job is to get in the doors. It doesn’t matter which one. Just keep trying.

Now all this sounds pretty wishy-washy, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Step One – Write the screenplay

The first step to selling to Hollywood is: you must be able to write great screenplays. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers produce script after script which never sells. But as long as you are learning your craft, you are progressing.

“But how come so many bad movies get made? I just saw a terrible movie. I could write better than that!”

Yes. Bad movies do get made. For a variety of reasons. Sometimes a producer just desperately needs a screenplay because they have actors or locations available. Sometimes studios butcher screenplays because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the material can support. Sometimes a “star” will insist that the script goes in a terrible direction to make them look good. Sometimes a hurricane will blow the set away. The list goes on. And don’t forget that making movies is hard. Really hard. Heck, if it was easy everybody would be doing it, right? Just because you can spot a bad movie doesn’t mean you can make a good one.

You must write, write, write. Devour all the screenwriting books you can find.

You must read screenplays. Actually read them.

Watch movies. A lot of movies. Deconstruct them on paper to see how they work.

This will require you to invest time in your craft and will also involve spending money. A lot of money.  In short, you must approach screenwriting like a job. Because that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

I can’t stress Step One enough. You will be up against UCLA college graduates who have done nothing but read and write screenplays for the past 3 years. Think you can measure up to them? Knowing your craft is the only part of the business you can control. So make sure you deliver a superb script. “Competent” is not enough. “Good” is not enough. Your screenplay must be “great” to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of screenplays circulating every year.

Got that? Good.

Once you’ve done all that, you may be ready for step two:

Step Two – Learn about the Business

Let’s go back to Elliot Grove’s comparison of the movie industry to a building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people you want to do business with. And this IS a business, make no mistake. It’s called “Showbusiness” for a reason. Yes, you can enjoy giving your creativity full reign when you come up with an amazing scene. But remember that you have to sell the script when it’s done. And like any salesman, you must know what people want.

One mistake writers often make is to try to predict trends. Every now and then a movie does phenomenal business at the box office. For up to a year afterwards, everybody wants something similar, be it “Memento” or “Saw” or “The Lord of the Rings”. You may be tempted to begin work on a similar project, hoping that people will go crazy for it. But by the time you have finished your script, which can take anywhere from a month to even years, the market will have moved on, and people will be clamoring for the next big thing.

What’s a writer to do?

Instead of thinking in terms of the hot movie genre, you should think more in terms of what is sellable. You will find that certain types of movies are always in demand, while others are pretty much dead. For instance, don’t bother writing that Western or Period Drama. Even if you see a major picture in those genres. The spec market for those films are almost impossible to break into. Most new films in those genres are initiated by the studio, who then hires a writer for the project.

(Caveat: remember how we said that nobody knows anything?)

My advice is, if you have a great idea for a new Queen Boadicea film, turn it into a novel. Then Hollywood can come to you when it sells a million copies. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Genres that are always in demand?

Cheap ones.

Block Comedies, low budget horror movies, found footage movies (a recent trend which probably will not continue as the justification behind them becomes more and more bizarre), movies without lots of SFX, low budget thrillers, “contained” movies with only a few locations or characters.

Did I mention cheap?

One of the biggest independent hits of all time, “Halloween”, which launched the careers of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, was about a man in a William Shatner mask walking around homes with a knife. It was made for $325,000 and raked in $47 million at the box office alone.

There are several other things you must know about the movie industry before embarking on your odyssey to net that lucrative spec sale.

What is a spec sale?

A spec is a screenplay initiated by a writer who has not been hired to write a screenplay. That’s about it.

Sometimes studios mainly generate their own projects and put calls out to everyone they know (agents, managers, producers) that they are looking for writers for the project. The lucky writer than gets to “pitch” their take on the material to the studio. These jobs are called assignments.

The film industry is bigger than Hollywood.

Motion pictures are made all over the world these days. China is a huge upcoming market. My first option was to a company based in Germany. I’ve also written for companies in England and Canada as well as the USA. Plus, nowadays everyone can be a filmmaker. Just invest in a decent phone camera. Recent indie breakout hit “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Now you too can be Cecil B DeMille! (note: if you don’t know who Cecil B DeMille is, stop reading this immediately and go watch a ton of old movies made before 1960. I’m serious).

Sales vs Options

More fun terms! In the movie industry, you don’t have to sell your screenplay until it’s produced. You can option it instead. The producer usually pays you less money than they would for a sale. They then have the option, within a specified period (say, 12 months) to get the money to make the picture. If they do, you should be then paid more money to sell the script to them. If not, you get the rights to the script back. It’s a win-win for a newbie screenwriter.

However, an option can also be a disappointment if the producer is not willing to pay a lot. I have seen (and signed) options for as little as $1. Are you being taken advantage of? Well, that depends on where you are in your career. A dollar option to someone with no credits whatsoever is a step up the ladder.

So, to recap: there is no one way to sell a script. You can sell screenplays around the world these days, thanks to the Internet. But you must work on your craft. Read as much as you can. Read screenwriting books, read online articles (there are many free ones), read the trades (by which I mean the trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – all of which are online), subscribe to newsletters. The Scoggins Report can also give you invaluable guidance as to which companies are buying which type of script. These will all give you a feel for how the industry operates. You must become familiar with this, because these are the people you will be trying to sell your work to.

Hot tip: You will find that writing equates to about half of a screenwriter’s working life. The rest involves that dreaded word: marketing. You must become your own PR expert, agent, manager and marketing guru, because that is how you are going to sell your script. Enjoy!

In the next part we’ll look at what to do after you’ve written the script, and how to (hopefully) get it into the hands of Hollywood professionals!

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

See you next time!

Top Horror Clichés The World Can Do Without!

Let’s get down and dirty in this post by exposing some of the worst horror movie clichés out there. Some of these – like the axe-murderer in the back seat – are so old I’m not even going to talk about them. Instead, here are some of the more insidious violators of the audience’s desire for something new. Most of these are lazy, cynical ways to make a movie. Don’t let them find their way into your screenplay!

 

Just because you know you're using a cliché doesn't mean it isn't a cliché.

Just because you know you’re using a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t a cliché.

 

Girl trapped in the basement of a serial killer

We’ve all seen this one. A hot girl gets kidnapped by a serial killer and spends the next two hours screaming, trying to break out, breaking out, getting recaptured, and finally killing the serial killer. Yes, it’s zero budget. It’s also zero-entertainment. If there ever was a point to telling a story like this, it was done in “The Silence of the Lambs” over twenty years ago. Please, no more!

People in a bunker

In the 1960s shows like “The Twilight Zone” used this setup to tell thought-provoking stories of bigotry, prejudice and paranoia in a Cold War age. Today, it’s an excuse for a low-budget movie. If your movie isn’t a political allegory, avoid this cliché. In fact, even if it is avoid this cliché.

Group in a haunted hospital/abandoned building/old house etc. etc.

A group of unfeasibly hot scientists/investigators/college kids go snooping around in a big old building. Of course they can’t find their way out once they’re inside. It’s haunted, you fools! Cue ghosts, demons, a serial killer etc. If you’re going to tell this story, you better have one very cool monster. Oh, and those smart-alec kids/investigators? They’re really annoying.

Sexy vampire/werewolf/warlock/witch etc.

Must be incredibly hot, twenty-somethings and dressed to kill. Uh, not literally. No, because these beautiful creatures won’t be doing any killing. They’d sooner get it on with each other! In these stories – allegories for wealthy high schools and colleges – we usually sympathize more with the villain who is trying to bump off as many of his classmates as he can – until of course he starts spouting those cheesy lines of dialogue.

 

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Spot the difference? That’s right, the one on the left made more money!

 

Shoulder touch

Picture this: your girlfriend is wandering alone through a scary old house/asylum/abandoned hospital/hillbilly shack etc. You see her and decide to get her attention. How do you do it? Call her name? Cough loudly? No, you creep up to her silently and grab her shoulder. Watch how she screams! This ploy also works when you reverse the genders. Seriously, what’s the matter with you! Oh, it was an excuse for a cheap scare by the writers. Ah…

Medicine cabinet scare

Basically any scene where someone closes a mirrored door and sees a face behind them. Or closes the refrigerator and someone is standing there. How did they get there? Are they wearing cushioned slippers so they couldn’t be heard? Damn those psychos and their cushioned slippers. Oh, and this one works ever better if you have some “jump scare” music as well.

The double twist

So you’ve reached the end of your boring slasher movie. Now what? What this movie needs is… a double twist! So now the final girl gets killed, and it’s the not-so-final girl who survives! Or maybe the final girl has hallucinations that she’s being stalked by the killer even though she’s safely strapped to her psych ward bed. She’s a basket case. The horror! First popularized in Brian De Palma’s version of “Carrie” in the Seventies. Nowadays, it’s just another excuse for a cheap plot twist that robs the film of any emotional payoff it might have had.

Nothing can stop Milla Jovovich, not even plot tension.

Nothing can stop Milla Jovovich, not even plot tension.

The kick-ass heroine

“The Matrix” has a lot to answer for. Floor length PVC coats. Funky spectacles. Kung fu fight scenes. But one thing we can do without is the kick-ass heroine. Impossible to defeat, able to take out 250-pound gorillas despite looking like she never even hits the gym, this frail-looking hot girl can punch holes through solid steel and perform improbable back flips. Sometimes explained by SCIENCE. Sometimes not. Next time you see a hulking serial killer who has spent his life stalking and murdering humans taken out by a five-foot co-ed with a stick, you’ve met the kick-ass heroine.

The dumb jock

If you thought this was a stereotype, you’d be right. It’s a well-known fact that any male who does sports in high school is a sexist bully with a brain the size of a hen’s egg. You can usually spot this character by his natty baseball top and rippling muscles. Whatever the most sensible course of action is, he will oppose it. Even if he has just seen his friends get ripped apart by a murderous sasquatch, he will run into the woods and chase the monster down armed with nothing but a wet towel. But it’s the way he badmouths his girlfriend that seals this character’s doom, because he just insulted the movie’s target demographic!

Loss of cellphone reception

No matter how extensive your network coverage, you can bet that your cellphone will start to misbehave at a crucial moment. This is most likely to happen just after the first death occurs in your party. No matter how expensive your pricing plan, your movie phone is not going to save you now. You see how I just isolated the characters so the monster can pick them off one by one? Genius!

Any kind of hybrid monster, e.g. Sharkspider vs Mechacrocodile!

Most of the said monster will be rendered in appallingly bad 1990’s computer animation. Sharks are the favoured creature of choice, modified by a mixture of sabretooth tiger, giant snake, octopus, robot, crocodile, or whatever graphic the CGI animator has to hand. For bonus points, find a ridiculous way of getting your aquatic monster onto dry land. Ghost Shark, anyone?

 

A truly terrifying postmodern serial killer.

A truly terrifying postmodern serial killer.

OMG it’s just so postmodern!

If you’re too cool for regular horror tropes you might just want to go full postmodern. In this kind of movie, the teens know all the rules for serial killer movies. They endlessly reference plot points from horror films, thereby continually reminding the audience that what they’re watching is in fact only a movie. Used ad nauseum in the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” TV Series and to varying effect in the “Scream” movies, this irritating glitch makes us want to punch our TV sets as hard as possible while yelling “Shut up talking about horror movies and show me a horror movie!” This type of movie is often coupled with the Double Twist. Because OMG, it’s just so postmodern!

There are plenty more bad clichés out there, clichés so ugly they should have been destroyed at birth. But these are the ones I keep seeing over and over again in modern horror movies. So before you rush out to make the latest girl-trapped-=in-a-basement-by-a-serial-killer movie, please check out this list.

As for a big budget tentpole horror movie set in a bunker by one of Hollywood’s top directors… that couldn’t happen nowadays, could it?

 

 

The Dreaded Coverage (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Today’s topic is about one of the most dreaded things a write can encounter: professional feedback, otherwise known as coverage. How to use and deal with feedback is one of the most important skills for a writer. As a screenwriter, that goes double.

WHAT IS COVERAGE?

Coverage is obtained when a writer submits his or her screenplay to an industry professional for written feedback. The professional does not undertake to produce the script, but instead provides a written report listing its strengths and weaknesses.

The difference between professional coverage and feedback from other people, such as the writers in your writers’ group (you do have a writer’s group, right?) is that you pay for the former. But the principles about how to deal with feedback are the same whether you pay or not.

HOW TO GET COVERAGE

There are many ways to get coverage. Websites and screenwriting gurus abound offering consultancy services ranging from around $50 upwards. The sky is the limit. I have seen consultants ask for thousands of dollars. The pros and cons of these services may depend on where you are as a writer, and I won’t go into whether they are worth the fee here.

You can also approach your peers – other writers. I would not suggest using friends and family unless they are also writers.  Your mother will always say your latest torture horror opus is “lovely, dear”. Likewise, friends may not wish to offend you. Those who are not writers may simply lack the skills needed to analyse a script or to tell you whether it is marketable or not. So always go with someone with experience of writing, editing or script reading.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into what coverage means to a writer:

 

Signs of when it's time to move on. (via Bluecat)

Signs that it’s time to move on.

STANDARD COVERAGE FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

In the film industry, coverage consists of 2-3 pages of synopsis, followed by (usually) 2-3 pages of actual analysis, sometimes followed by a score card. The “meat” of coverage is the 2-3 page analysis. The score card illustrates at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of your work according to that script reader.

What is the purpose of the synopsis, you ask? I submitted my script to get an analysis, not to have my own story told back to me! I’ve been swindled!

Well, it’s tempting to consider the fist 2-3 pages as filler and ignore it. But another way to look at it is to consider that your story may not have translated itself into someone else’s head the way you imagined it in your own.

Writing is the art and craft of transferring thoughts from your own head into someone else’s. It is a kind of telepathy. Whether the other person “gets” your scene or not, or has a different impression of what just happened in your story, can be a sign that you were not successful in getting them to imagine everything as you did.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH COVERAGE

Whenever a writer receives feedback, whether verbal or written, the initial reaction may well be to clench your teeth, dig your nails into the arms of your chair, then launch into a tirade about “idiots not getting it” or accusing the reader of skipping important parts that explained everything.

But remember, as a writer your job is to communicate. Just as the customer is king in the restaurant industry, in the writing world the reader is king. If the reader doesn’t get  what you want them to get, you have only yourself to blame.

Another reaction is panic. Panic at the amount of work that needs doing. Despair at the insurmountable cliff one faces. Did you spend enough time on your script to begin with? Most writers write around ten drafts of a script and at least two drafts of a novel before even showing it to anyone.  Now another rewrite looms. How will you ever get the work done?

Trust me, it’s something everyone dreads.

The way I deal with this is as follows:

Read the feedback all the way through, from start to finish.

Do nothing.

Let it percolate. Don’t be temped to dash off a hasty e-mail cursing the reader for his or her stupidity. If you’re in a writer’s group or face-to-face situation, take the comments with good grace and make a note of them. You will be glad you did. Giving feedback is an art in itself (that’s for another time). Some people are better at it than others. The other person may only wish to help as much as possible. They may think that by being ultra-critical they are only strengthening the material.

Let the dust settle.

After about a week of nursing your feelings by overindulging on cappuccino or another beverage of your choice go back to the feedback. Read it again.

Now that your feelings are out of the way, doesn’t it make more sense? You may even be inspired as you read and gain ideas about how to improve the script. How did you miss that plot point? And of course that character wouldn’t do that!

Maybe the reader knows something after all.

Read it again.

This time, break it down into the things that don’t work. Also make a note of the things the reader liked. Don’t change these. These are your story’s strengths.

I always copy the feedback into another document, then edit it down so that I just have the reader’s criticisms  bullet-pointed in a list.

Still looks like an awful lot of wok, doesn’t it?

Here’s a secret tip.

Do the easy stuff first!

Did you use the wrong word somewhere? Commit a typo? Attribute dialogue to the wrong character. Go and change that sucker now. Each time you do, remove that point from your document.

Feels good, right?

You’re making progress!

NOW FOR THE REAL WORK

At this point, go back over your shortened document. Now separate the points out into things like “STORY”, “CHARACTER”,  and “DIALOGUE”.

I now go through the script one time for each of these things. Take another pass for story problems, then another for character and dialogue etc. I recommend Paul Chitlik’s excellent book “Rewrite” for a structured approach. If you already did this, now’s the time to do it again.

By taking a structured, methodical approach to addressing feedback, you can make the process of rewriting much less painful.

If you find yourself unwilling to throw out a cherished scene or piece of dialogue, simply save another version of your novel or screenplay file. You can always go back to it. And you may find that without the psychological crutch of having it there you’ll find a much better way to write that scene or show that character’s journey.

Feedback is painful. It’s painful because we writers like to believe that what’s on the page is a little bit of our soul. And rejection hurts. But that’s not how it is. Rare is the script that cannot be improved, even Oscar-winning screenplays. Henry James, the great American novelist, used to return to his stories and tinker with them ad infinitum.

By taking time to let your wounded pride recover, you can approach feedback with a clear head. By breaking it down into small tasks, you can make rewriting seem less daunting. If you do these things, receiving feedback may become less like a chore.

As always, if you think I’ve missed anything, or disagree with me, let me know. I welcome the feedback!

Happy (re)writing!

 

POSTSCRIPT:

There will come a time when you cannot rewrite any more. Recognising this is just as important as knowing the script needs improvement. When you reach this stage, don’t delay. Get it out there! Form a marketing plan and execute it. Don’t let someone else beat you to the punch. This has happened to me several times. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sell your idea to a studio when your script is sitting on a shelf waiting to be marketed!

 

 

The Many Different Types of Horror Movie Scare!

What techniques do horror movie makers use to make a film scary? The answer is, many. Serious critics often vilify horror movies as cheap, vile “video nasties”.  But in reality, a horror movie is a complex machine. Some of the best ones operate on many levels. So today we’re going to examine just what makes a horror film scary.

I’m not talking about monsters or violence. Instead, I’m talking about the methods writers and directors use to make us jump out of our skins or hide behind the sofa (don’t tell me you’ve never done that) in our favourite scary films!

This is by no mean an exhaustive list of the types of scares to be found in horror movies. But here are the ones I’ve noticed a lot.

 

Cat Scares and Hidden Attacks abound in

Cat Scares and Hidden Attacks abound in “Alien”!

The Jump Scare

The laziest kind of scare. The hero or heroine is walking around the creepy old house when BOO! It’s the monster! Usually it leaps straight at the camera so we experience for the shock ourselves. This is the kind of scare that easily gets on your nerves. For a classic example, see the “head in the boat” scene in JAWS. Check out many modern movie trailers for more inept examples.

 

The Lewton Bus

Also known as the “Cat Scare” or “Faux Scare”.

Ever noticed how sometimes the hero or heroine will be walking through the dark old house/deserted spaceship looking for the monster, when suddenly BOO! out jumps the monster. Oh wait, it’s not the monster after all. It’s only the cat. Or maybe it’s the boyfriend that puts his hand on the heroine’s shoulder. You’ve just been played for a sucker.

The origin of this term is legendary film producer Val Lewton, who used this to great effect in the classic original THE CAT PEOPLE (1942). If you’ve never seen it, get yourself a copy. It’s been ripped off hundreds if not thousands of times since.

“Nested” Cat Scare

A modern twist on the Cat Scare is that right after the innocuous event the real monster DOES appear! This would be more interesting except that it’s also been done a thousand times. For a more interesting variety, check out AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Our hero has a terrifying dream involving a monster with a knife. He wakes up to find… his nurse leaning over him. She goes to the window, opens the curtains and…BOO! The monster jumps out from behind the curtains and stabs her in the chest. Our hero screams. Then he wakes up again. The nurse is there and she goes to the window. She draws the curtains again and… nothing happens. A very unsettling scene.

 

 Mirror Scares / Reveal Scare

How many times have you seen the hero or heroine go to the bathroom, open the mirrored bathroom cabinet (it always has a mirror, doesn’t it?), close it again and… BOO! There’s the refection of the monster right behind them in the mirror! Modern variants include refrigerator doors with monsters inexplicably appearing behind them. Once again, this has become a massive cliché. Still pretty scary, though.

 

Loud noises

A relative of the jump scare.  But instead of seeing something, we hear it. For a recent example check out the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. Although here the scare is used quite effectively, as the loud noises build up over each night, making the audience dread each sundown more and more. And, of course, they are very inexpensive to create!

 

Hidden attack

Typically, this very effective scare hits us from another direction from that in which we were looking. Not to be confused with the Cat Scare, which is supposed to get us on the edge of our seat before the attack happens. This scare comes out of nowhere. It’s a bolt from the blue.

Done well, this is one of the best scares. A classic example is the infamous chestburster scene from ALIEN where the creature explodes out of John Hurt’s chest. But other examples can be found. John Carpenter’s underrated THE FOG contains several of these. There’s also a great one in EXORCIST III. The camera sits at the end of a long hall in a hospital. A nurse sits at the desk, doing paperwork. Other people come and go. The nurse goes to check the rooms. She walks up the corridor. Behind her, very subtly, the other people leave one by one. She locks the last door, turns to go into the room opposite and BOO! What is that behind her? The monster explodes out of the locked doorway with a very nasty set of surgical scissors in hand. You’ve just been caught out by the Hidden Attack!

 

Suspense

This technique has been described as what happens when the audience knows as much as the character on screen. We’ve all seen those films where the hero or heroine (more probably) approaches the door, knowing there’s a killer/monster on the other side. They open the door slowly and …. BOO!

Nowadays this is pretty clichéd. Modern viewers tend not to buy this setup. There’s no way anyone with half a mind would go towards the location of a dangerous lunatic or hungry monster. So filmmakers try to find increasingly bizarre ways of getting the character to go towards the fear instead of away from it. Personally, if I never saw a character go toward the monster again, I wouldn’t mind. Sometimes it’s best just to accept that certain things are no longer scary.

Hide and Seek

According to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest ways to create suspense is to employ what’s called Dramatic Irony. This is where the audience is aware of a menace that’s creeping up on the unsuspecting hero or heroine. Classic examples of this scare include the original HALLOWEEN (1978). This has pretty much been done to death (no pun intended) by the Slasher genre. By now the audience has become so familiar with it, it’s almost like an in-joke for the crowd. See the SCREAM movies for pastiches on this technique.

 

Mystery POV

A cousin of “Hide and Seek” is the Mystery POV, also known as the Dark Intruder POV. Here, the camera becomes the eyes of the killer/monster. We see it approach the unsuspecting victim. Classic examples include JAWS, when we see the unsuspecting swimmers paddling in the sea from below. Suddenly the camera rushes up to those dangling legs and… CRUNCH!

It’s a strange technique in that it sometimes arouses sympathy with the killer! Italian cinema has often used this technique to jarring effect. The Giallo films of Dario Argento, such as DEEP RED, often show us the killer preparing to commit (and committing) increasingly bizarre murders. It’s a sort of comment on how, just as audiences like to be scared, they might also be enjoying the thrill of seeing the murders onscreen. Creepy.

Endurance horror

This is an interesting technique. Films such as the original THE EVIL DEAD (1981) were marketed as “endurance horrors”. The basic idea is that you throw so much at the audience that they can’t take any more. Eventually, the slightest thing sends them over the edge and leaves them a quivering bundle of nerves. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is a great example of this. By the time we get to the crazy “feast” scene at the end of the movie, the heroine (and the audience) are emotional wrecks!

Birds Film

Claustrophobia and suspense in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”!

 

Repulsion

Another lazy technique. This just means making the audience want to gag. In the hands of a master, like body-horror maestro David Cronenberg (THE FLY, SHIVERS) it’s truly terrifying and will stay with you for life. In the hands of anyone else, it’s just yucky. Bad examples abound, I’m just not going to go there.

 

Surreal Scare

My favourite kind of scare. This happens when you see something that looks so startlingly out of the ordinary that it’s frightening. It’s a “Thing that should not be”. Classic examples include David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD… or practically anything by David Lynch.

My favourite example is the famous vampire boy from the TV movie SALEM’S LOT (1979). Here, a boy awakens one night to find another recently deceased boy floating outside his window, scratching to be let inside. He foolishly opens the window. The dead boy floats in. He’s pale, rotting maybe. He has yellow eyes, long teeth and he’s very, very hungry. An extremely scary scene indeed.

Fear of the Unknown 

Horror writer HP Lovecraft once said that the greatest fear of mankind is the fear of the unknown. Some horror movies play on our sense of dread at not knowing what lurks within the darkness. The Found Footage horror genre uses this one a lot (primarily because it involves not seeing anything and is therefore cheap). At crucial points all the lights will go out. Cue screams, banging and general terror. Examples include THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which proves that sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s more frightening.

Phobias

A close relative of the “Repulsion” technique, except that this involves repeatedly showing us images of something we find scary. Often this involves animals. Sharks, spiders, snakes, parasites, wolves, diseases, all these things are pretty scary. Or it could be a fear of flying, falling, the ocean, dismemberment, disfigurement or other types of grisly death. Examples include SNAKES ON A PLANE. However, you can forget the rather unscary ARACHNOPHOBIA.

Claustrophobia is another sub-type of this scare. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) uses this to excellent effect. The heroes are all trapped in a shopping mall with hundreds of zombies. The undead might be slow, but there are so many that escape is impossible. The classic shot from that film occurs when a character thinks himself safe in an elevator, only to be swamped by zombies when the door opens. This type of scare lingers long after the film ends.

 

Loss Of Identity

What’s more scary than dying? Losing your soul, of course. Horror movies recognize this. Many classic genre tropes like werewolves, vampires and zombies prey upon out fear of losing our sense of self, that thing which makes us who we are. The undead are not our real loved ones; they are unthinking, hungry shells out for our blood! Smart movies play with this type of scare. One of the best is THE INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS (1956). We crawl with terror as people slowly lose their identity and are replaced with the hive-minded, unfeeling pod people. And when you are the only real human being left… well, that’s a truly frightening prospect!

The Chase

Chase sequences abound in horror movies. It’s a close cousin of the “suspense” scare. Both we and the character know there’s something right behind them, trying to catch up. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE employs the classic example of this as the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface pursues the hapless heroine through the woods.

 

Atmosphere

This is less common nowadays and has become a cliché. In the early days of horror cinema it consisted of an old dark house, scary inhabitants, flickering lanterns, lightning storms, etc. etc. The old Universal horror movies of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE WOLF MAN (1941)  contain many examples. However, something of this still survives in so-called J—Horror, which subverts this type of scare.  Here, ghosts pop up in banal places, like modern Tokyo, Internet chat rooms, or tenement buildings. See the Japanese originals of THE GRUDGE, PULSE, and DARK WATER for examples.

So there you are, my main types of horror movie scares. Doubtless I’ve omitted a few, so feel free to correct me. Now go out there and scare the pants off people!