Archive for the War Stories Category

Keeping Busy?

When I was a film student the perennial problem was getting hold of good actors who would appear in your amateur productions for expenses only.  We were afraid at first to ask the people we really wanted, because we thought they might take it as an insult.  In time you grow a thicker skin and realise that it costs nothing to ask and having someone tell you to eff off is not actually fatal. In fact, begging, pestering and cajoling people to lend you equipment or props or locations for little or no money – ‘blagging’ as it’s called – is a vital skill for a film maker, because even in major professional productions sometimes all that’s between you and disaster is the ability to persuade panicking producers that everything’s going to turn out fine.

In fact getting experienced professional actors to appear in student movies was often easier than you’d imagine, because most actors know it’s better to be working than sitting at home twiddling your thumbs.  On a student shoot at least you’re practising your craft and getting seen. At the very least you’ll get fed.  If the shoot’s a fiasco you’ll have some wonderful disaster stories to tell your friends in the pub, but it’s also possible you’ll be working with a genuinely talented young filmmaker.  Then your performance will be seen at festivals around the world.  More to the point, producers will be looking at it, because it’s their job to spot new talent.  If it leads to a job even that awful shoot where you sat for twelve hours in a derelict hospital ward full of dead pigeons, waiting for the director of photography to figure out the lighting, will have been worthwhile.

My graduation film Over the Wild Frontier no longer exists as a print, to the best of my knowledge.  That’s probably a good thing because although I was very proud of it at the time, and it made people laugh, it was pretty bloody rough. But now it’s gone I can describe it as a lost masterpiece.  Part of it, coincidentally, was shot in a derelict hospital full of dead pigeons.

I had never heard of the Irish actor who played the lead role before I cast him, and few other people had either.  Immensely tall and immensely handsome, Patrick Bergin has roguish charm by the bucketful, and he made every woman on the set come over all unnecessary.  He worked with me for eight weeks or so over one glorious summer, and such was his dedication he even did his own stunts.  He fell off a motorbike in the middle of a grassy field for a shot that wasn’t in the script and which in the end I never used.  I remember at the end of the shoot handing him a wad of notes as his expenses, and feeling embarrassed it was so little for all the work he had put in.  Especially as he was still limping.

But what Patrick really got out of it was a thirty-minute comedy film where he was onscreen nearly all the time.  He sent a copy to an Irish director, Pat O’Connor, who was doing very well in Hollywood that year.  And one day in LA O’Connor got a phone call from the veteran director Bob Rafaelson, who was casting a movie called Mountains Of The Moon about the Victorian explorer Richard Burton (yes, the Welsh actor named himself after him.)  Burton was from Dublin, and Rafaelson was looking for a tall handsome Irish actor, and could O’Connor suggest anybody?  And O’Connor told him about a guy he’d just seen in this wonderful student movie Over the Wild Frontier.  (OK, he may not have used the term ‘wonderful’.  But this is my anecdote.)

So Patrick got to play Richard Burton opposite Fiona Shaw, because he had spent those weeks in South Armagh falling off a motorbike. That job in turn led to a role as the abusive husband of Julia Roberts in Sleeping With The Enemy, a movie that became a huge hit, coming out very soon after Pretty Woman.

Anyway this is all ages ago now, but the principle still applies – that dumb luck and coincidence can only help if you’re already making the effort to help yourself.  Keep plugging away, producing work and getting stuff out there, because you really don’t know when it will pay off, where it will end up or where it might take you.

But if a student director asks you to ride a motorbike across a wet grassy field in South Armagh, tell him to find a stunt double or forget it.

Two Birds in the Hand

Shortly after we both graduated from Film School a good friend of mine spent a year developing a movie script.  We both knew that if you are unknown and unproven as a writer/director, writing a great script is a good way to get noticed.  Even today, when it’s possible to shoot high-definition video on a shoestring, a script still offers far more scope to engage the imagination of the reader.  There are no budget restrictions on paper, no duff performances you can’t re-shoot, no music royalties to fret about.

After twelve months or so my friend showed me his first draft.  Like me, he was fond of conventional narrative (‘Hollywood’ movies if you like), so when I pointed out that the hero of his script never took the initiative in the story, never made a difference to the course of events, and did not know what was going on most of the time, my friend got quite upset.

He had spent a year working on a script that was deeply flawed.  He shouldn’t have put all his eggs in one basket, I told him – a writer/director starting out should have a dozen ideas and treatments on the go, all pitched at different markets, to maximise the chances of one being picked up and produced.  One big-budget idea, one or two low-to-no budget ideas, a proposal for a TV series, a one-off real-life drama…

But his approach was right, and mine was wrong.  Yes, he had been wasting his time, but that’s because his script was structurally flawed in ways that could have been avoided from the start.  But it’s vital for writers starting out to have a finished original script to show commissioners and producers, a script that reflects the writer’s unique individual voice.  A folder full of ideas and pitches is shows energy and enthusiasm, but that’s not enough. Ideas and pitches are ten a penny – it’s easy to make an idea sound brilliant in a pitch, where you can skate around all the difficult bits.  The real achievement, the value you add, is turning that idea into a solid, engaging script.

Many up-and-coming writers aspire to write episodes of TV series.  These can be great fun to work on, but the characters, the setting and the tone have all previously been established.  (Sometimes even the ending, if it’s that sort of show.)  You’re just filling in the blanks.  You’ll get paid of course, which is wonderful, but never confuse a TV episode with proper writing.  If you are lucky enough to get one, use it to subsidise the creation of your own original material.

Starting, structuring, writing, finishing and revising a script, on spec, is immensely hard work, but nothing teaches you about scripts like writing one. And when you have finished that one, start another.  Someday you’ll be in a meeting where a producer who’s read your script will ask you what else you have – and that’s when you realise why you spent all that time slogging over the other scripts, because now you have a solid, distinctive portfolio.

And although it’s important to revise and polish your scripts, don’t get obsessive – try to know when to put it down and move on to the next.  Twenty years ago I met a young screenwriter who had just won a major prize for his first script.  I was consumed with envy, of course.  Twenty years later – neither of us exactly young any more – we met again, and I asked what he was working on.  ‘The script’ he replied.  ‘Which script?’  I asked.  He looked at me as if I was being thick.

He had been rewriting the same screenplay for twenty years – draft after draft after draft – without ever coming any closer to getting it made.  In fact, as far as I know, he still is.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Hauteur of the Auteur

In Sunset Boulevard William Holden’s screenwriter complains that ‘audiences think the actors make the words up as they go along’.   In time audiences became more sophisticated and dropped that silly idea – only, it seemed, to start believing the director made it up as he went along (and it usually was a ‘he’ back then.)

Few things irk writers more than the Cult of the Director.  William Goldman in his second volume of memoirs, Which Lie Did I Tell? has a good moan about it.  As I recall he blames Truffaut for spreading the rumour that Alfred Hitchcock was God, and blames Alfred Hitchcock for believing it.   Goldman cites North by Northwest as an example: apparently Hitchcock proposed the baddies should try and kill the hero with a tornado.  When screenwriter William Lehman pointed out that humans can’t control tornadoes, and came up with the famous cropduster sequence, Hitchcock used that instead and took all the credit.

The ‘director as auteur’ nonsense gained credence because it made the critic’s job easier if they could pretend every idea on the screen came from one person rather than from a team.   Even though critics and audiences are a little better informed these days, and understand that film drama is a collaborative rather than a solo effort, directors still sometimes get the credit for your good ideas. But then, sometimes you get the credit for theirs.

Directors have an enormously stressful job.  They have to marshal a huge and incredibly expensive army to create, within a limited time, a film where everything appears to happen spontaneously.  Often this is the result of long and careful planning, and sometimes it’s the result of a desperate scrabble to get something into the can before the light goes.  (There’s a great story about Orson Welles’s version of Othello, where the murder of Roderigo takes place in a Turkish bath.  Reviewers raved about the clouds of steam symbolising the passion and intrigue that impairs human judgement.  Asked how he came up with the idea, Welles explained that shoot had run so short of money by then they’d been forced to send all the costumes back to the hire company.)

Anyway… what directors don’t do is make up the words and the story as they go along.  The cheapest stage of any film shoot is the period the writer, or writers, spend in one room with a heap of paper, constructing, writing, and revising the screenplay so that every scene has a function and the story makes sense.  You can try to make a movie without a solid script, but you’ll usually end up with an extremely expensive mess.

Sometimes directors merely execute what the writer has put on the page, in which case you’d better hope your writing is as good as you thought it was. Sometimes they utterly mangle your work, because they didn’t understand it, or because they resented the fact that they didn’t write it.  Or indeed both.

And sometimes a director will add visions you never saw, evoke meaning and resonance you’d sort of hoped was there, and draw performances from the actors that make your story come alive in ways you never expected, to the extent that you feel surprised and proud to see your name on the finished work.  And if you’re lucky, and the director’s really good, it will look as if the actors are making it up as they go along.

Whatever happens, remember there’s one thing worse than your script being realised badly: it’s your script never being realised at all.