Sunday, August 29, 2010

Battle of Britain

Watched the movie Battle of Britain (1969, script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex) yesterday. I haven't seen it since well before I started getting into the whole scriptwriting thing so I was watching with my brand-new "screenwriting head" on.

How is it that this film actually works at all? And pretty well at that. Who is the protagonist? Who's the antagonist? Does this film break all the rules and still work?

Well, of course they're really guidelines and not rules* but they work as rules, and when people try to break them it usually fails miserably. So what's going on with this film? After all what we get are lots of air battles interspersed with fragments from the lives of half a dozen people.

How does it work?

This isn't an in-depth analysis, no time for that, but an overview.

The protagonist is the RAF and the antagonist is the Luftwaffe. When you recognise that the rest falls into place, the goals are well-known and obvious: The Luftwaffe must destroy the RAF so that the German invasion of Britain can take place.

The relative strengths are important - the Luftwaffe is a massive force, the RAF are the few.

But you cannot have a concept as a protagonist, nor antagonist, hence the snippets of the lives of people involved on both sides - and time is spent emphasising how similar the people on both sides are, apart from the German High Command (being the source of badness).

What happens in those snippets mirrors the events in the overall scheme, thereby fulfilling a fundamental requirement in screenwriting - events must be things that we can empathise with, we may not be able to empathise with the problems of the Air Vice Marshall in the darkest hour - but when Sgt Pilot Andy's wife and children are killed in the related sequence, we can get that.

Once you have a grip on the protagonist and antagonist the plot develops in a standard three Act sequence (including a mid-point reversal). The film works through to an Aristotleian** crisis: the point where there are no more reserve pilots or planes; shown by the almost dialogue and sound-effect free battle sequence followed by the incredibly tense point where suddenly nothing is happening (it's worth noting how tense "nothing" can be after so much action).

And the final resolution, for the audience, when we see (again no dialogue) the German invasion force moving away from the coast.

Interestingly Churchill does not appear in the film (though Hitler does, just once at a rally, with a specific plot purpose), in fact not even Churchill's name is used - he is referred to as the "Prime Minister" just once. I believe this to be an important and wise decision on the part of the writers. Churchill personified the struggle against the Axis powers and has become (justifiably) a colossus that straddles the war. If he had been included it would have robbed the film of its ability to represent the stages of the battle through the lives of those directly affected - it would have had to have been done solely through Churchill himself.

This is a masterclass in the screenwriting of something that should not work on the Big Screen - but does.

* The "they're more guidelines than rules" joke is not a Pirates of the Caribbean original, Terry Pratchett used it in his 1995 Discworld book Soul Music. I know 'cos I just read it and he uses it three times in the book. (I don't see this as a criticism of Pirates, it's a good joke and probably a tribute.)

**From Aristotle's "The Poetics".

What's on the turntable? "Machine Messiah" by Yes from "Drama"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First impressions

As part of my ticket for the London Screenwriter's Festival I and a few other attendees get a short course on screenwriting. The course is based in the Met Film School building at Ealing Studios which, for me, is a bit of a trek from the place I'm staying, or is on the way back but you can't get enough education.

The first evening was introduced by the one and only Chris Jones who then passed us over to Claire Moorsom.

It was interesting evening as she endeavoured to shoe-horn what I guess was a full day's course into under three hours.

While much of the material was, for me, already quite familiar the group setting gives you the opportunity for different viewpoints and no choice when it comes to practical exercises - you know how it is if you're reading a book with exercises? Do you do them? Usually not (okay, you might but I don't).

But here there are no excuses and no escape - not that I minded.

Claire passed out some pictures and got us to get down and creative with the ideas they sparked for us. She said we could choose the picture from the pile, but I and several others just grabbed one at random - a better experiment, I thought. Interestingly I came up with something completely unlike my usual stories, a social drama set in Spain.

Then we paired up and interviewed each other about personal life events that might be worthy as a starting point for a bit of screenplay action.

In the second half we discussed what makes a strong premise using Spielberg's "25 words or less" concept. Lot's of the usual examples. If you have an interest in this I can recommend the "How to write a logline" resource in the side bar. However Claire had a number of other insights into this area that were certainly worth the journey.

All good stuff, next time we'll be going into more detail on conflict with Claire; and different speakers in the weeks to come after that right up to the festival itself.

What's on the turntable? "Running Hard" by Renaissance from "Turn of the Card"

Friday, August 20, 2010

In other news

I finished rewriting my entry, renamed from Tec to Mara, for the Red Planet prize a couple of weeks ago, have been having a pleasant holiday and then back to work - this time in the Fancy London.

One might think that working for NBC/Universal might give me some sort of a leg up - well, it's a big organisation and I'm not in that bit. I just do websites.

I am living with my parents for the first time in 30 years. It's not too bad, and it's better than digs because I get meals made and washing done. I'm definitely not complaining. It's a mile walk to the station and that gives me an opportunity to think and get exercise.

I've been getting additional feedback on the Winter script and doing a lot of thinking about it - thinking about scripts is possibly the most important part. Hopefully I'll be giving this script a good working over in the next few weeks.

The Teacher did jury duty over the last two weeks and sat in on two cases. The first was apparently very unpleasant we won't be discussing it; the second was a waste of time and (our) money because the Crown Prosecution Service could have made a lesser charge stick, but had no evidence for the "higher valued" charge they went for (but could have had the evidence if they had interviewed just one person).

So, I have signed up for the London Screenwriters Festival at the end of October and I'm doing Adrian Mead's thing at the beginning of October in Edinburgh. But in addition, for zero pence, I also get to do a course with the MetFilm School as part of my LSF ticket - which is nice. Starts this Tuesday, I'll let you know how it goes.

Anyway, the train will be reaching it's final stop quite soon so I must pack everything away.

What's on the turntable? All quiet.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It all started when... How I got into screenwriting

I have been remiss. It was almost two weeks ago that Michelle tagged me for a meme, for "that moment where you decided that this was something you could/should/would do".

I did write a lot about this back here - nearly two years ago. Gosh. (You could also click the inspirations tag to see everything related.)

In those blogs back then I traced my writing career from rubbish SF novels through poetry but didn't quite get to the screenwriting. So here it is, with contributory factors included to add impressive wordage.

When Blake's 7 had it's final episode I wrote a synopsis of a follow-up story that would "wrap it all up", which was the closest I got to writing a script but I didn't really conceive the actual "writing of a script" in that, it was just "writing a proper ending" to me.

It was 1992 (I think) that I started my epic fantasy novel. On and off it took me ten years to finish, I was not slaving over it day in day out. I didn't suffer at all. But that year also saw the birth of The Daughter. At some point in that time she decided that she wanted to be an actress, I think it had something to do with Buffy and the fact she began Jujitsu at age 5 - she wanted to be an action star (and still does).

But somewhere around 2004 (I think) I was feeling pressure to write something - something we could actually shoot, a short Buffy-esque story to suit her talents. I believe I wrote it on a Word processor and studied websites to get the right format.

So I wrote it. We shot, edited and packaged it with the assistance of family (brother-in-law did most of it). It is never seeing the light of day.

And that was the beginning of the beginning, but not the end of the beginning.

That was also the time that Buffy ceased it's UK broadcast, it was over. And I thought to myself, you know, what if I created Buffy for the UK? Which is where Monsters began, initially just a series bible, the basic concepts, I thought that would be enough - like my Blake's 7 synopsis. And I left it at that, wrote no script for a couple of years.

Until one day I realised that it should be written. It was a part the Daughter could play so I researched screenwriting in detail, found Celtx and began in earnest.

If you want to read the first 10 pages of Monsters as it is now, you can here (click "My work and credits"). And the Daughter did get to play the part, at least in the scenes we shot, which you can watch here.

For me becoming a screenwriter was a process that took 30 years, from rubbish novels through successful poetry, magazine writing and editing, and better novel writing.

Now comes the hard part, who to tag for the meme: Piers, Jason, and Phil.

What's on the turntable? Not a sausage.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Pete Dwan... hard. Seriously hard. He grew up and still lives in (I think) a place most of us would not want to drive through even at 100mph.

And he is one of the most decent people you could meet. This link is him reading the first chapter of a novella he recently completed.

It may be that he's not the greatest writer in the world, but there's an authenticity you can't argue with (and if you did he'd come round to your place and punch you into next Tuesday - well he would, if he wasn't such a nice bloke).

I had the honour of reading some of his early work a few years back and advising him, though I hadn't seen this and in a way I'm glad, because it was fresh.

What's on the turntable? Pete's story