April 2020 - Finishing that screenplay
For anyone with a lot of free time on their hands these days, there's an opportunity in adversity. Like any good movie, the hero turns a bad situation in their favour to win the day. So fish that old half-finished manuscript out of the bottom drawer and get it finished. And heck, once you've done that, get it out to production companies, agents, basically anybody who you can convince to solicit a read of your work (never send anything to industry folks without their written request first - it's a copyright thing). Or to screenwriting competitions. In order to see you on the right path, here are some of the big mistakes, clichés and oddities that almost all writers make at some point, the likes of which industry readers (i.e. the gatekeepers) see constantly, and which tend to encourage them to expedite it's delivery into the bin.
Most script consultants and script readers are writers as well. While they empathise with the work of every person who submits, and understand the incredible feat of determination and discipline it took to get to the point where you have a finished manuscript, they know as well as anybody the harsh realities of the business. They also know and understand that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when you put your work out there into the world, blasting the doors wide open to critique and opinion. Yet they'll often still not hold back in dishing it out. Furthermore, that extensive experience of reading hundreds of screenplays (sometimes a week) means the common mistakes cropping up time and again are just a red flag that says 'I'm not ready to be made into a film yet', and when they've got another hundred scripts to wade through, they kinda feel glad that the writer has made it so easy for them to chuck the script onto the 'no' pile. Does that mean they're right? No. Is it good to know these pitfalls and find creative alternatives? Yes. Are you are as perfect and precious as your mum always said you are? Errr, come back to me on that. Let's get to it:
Incorrect Formatting – an obvious one to start with. Not everybody can afford to buy Final Draft, but there are plenty of good free software packages like Celtx and Trelby that handle the formatting for you. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like improper formatting. Bad formatting is just frustrating to read. For TV especially, there are all sorts of unusual formats depending on nation and even channel, but the modern standard, based on the old Cole & Haag format of screenplays, is always the right option for early drafts. Your scripts can be reformatted later to fit the relevant company, when your script makes it that far (let's keep this optimistic).
Spelling – Why submit something half baked? It’ll cost you money and/or time, only to get ignored if the script is riddled with errors. Even if your story is captivating and the characters are real, you might not even get the chance to show off your script if there are spelling errors, because that’s a clear signal to many readers that the requisite effort to write a good script has not been made. For any non-native speakers out there, find a loyal native English-speaking friend to spell check your script for you. Which begs a side-point here - don't rush to hit a competition deadline at the expense of your script. You'll only end up waiting months to hear back anyway and guess what? Script competitions are a money-making business for the people running them. They'll run another very soon.
Music – A lot of writers think they are Quentin Tarantino. But you should never put songs into your script unless you know you have the licensing rights to them. Not only do some songs cost a lot of money in filmmaking, but it is not the writer who gets to make the call on music in a film ultimately. The only time a song in a script should be mentioned is if it is diegetic i.e. being played and heard by the characters for a specific reason that impacts your story and not just something to set the tone. Again, the same rule about licensing applies. If there’s a band playing a rendition of a Led Zeppelin song, do you already own the rights to that song? If not, it’s not too hard to write “the band plays a 70s rock song with bluesy undertones,” or something to that effect instead. Remember, a reader will feel more invested in your script if you leave space for them to fill in the blanks with their own thoughts.
Not Naming Characters Who Have Dialogue – Why name a character ‘Woman’ or ‘Man’, when you can make an effort and give them a name? Only rarely is there a clever, specific creative purpose behind not giving your poor bouncer a name, give them a name. If nothing else, it shows that you’re making the same effort to bring your lesser characters to life as you are with your principal characters. And for your protagonists, have a super clear, intellectual, point-making reason that contributes to the film for not naming them.
Trying to be Clever (With the Reveal) – a script is a blueprint for the builders of a film, of which there will be many. By deliberately concealing the name of a character when first revealed, does not draw the reader in; you're just obfuscating the story and hindering the reader’s comprehension of the script. (Caveat: as above - if there's a clever plot-specific reason for not doing this, like in Bourne Identity or Memento, then it's fine. But you better be certain that it's integral to the whole film first). Hold information from the audience, by all means, but if a character is talking in the script, give them a header still. For example: if you have a character called Dionne who has been missing for years and who returns home but nobody knows who she is, you naturally don’t want the audience to know much about her at this point. You don’t have to reveal her name to the audience until later, but still write Dionne in the script rather than Unknown Woman when you introduce her. The audience will never see the dialogue headings, but you’ll help a reader who has read a lot of scripts that day understand what is going on.
The Dreaded Cliché – It’s true, there’s no such thing as a completely original idea. There is such a thing as original execution of an idea though, and that‘s what sets great writing apart from all other writing. That means not writing a script that reads like it could have been written by Simon Pegg or Quentin Tarantino or Nora Ephron. That means finding your own voice. That can take years and years, drafts and drafts or perhaps it comes out in your first attempt (lucky fecker!), but keep struggling until you have something that nobody but you could have written. It will be clear the moment a reader passes ‘fade in’.
Weak Ideas and No Dramatic movement – A strong concept for a film is always going to be the most gripping thing about your work. You want to take the reader on a journey and that means conflict, ups and downs whilst keeping the script logical and unpredictable. Every scene should pose a new question, while answer some or part of an earlier question. Watch any noir film for text-book execution of this type of thing. Chinatown is perfection. You get an answer and a deepening of the mystery in every scene. That’s no easy task, and yet a reader immediately knows if a writer is good in the way they grip the audience from page one and take them on a journey through to ‘fade out’, regularly reengaging them with credible moments that test their characters and force them to make choices. Many people take the old adage ‘write what you know’ too literally. Unless you live a remarkable life, it’s probably not best to write too literally. Write what you know about the human condition, emotions and such, not about your job stacking shelves at the local supermarket (although good movies have been written about that too, it's just a bit limited).
Trying to Be a Director – This one is a big sign of amateur writing. While it’s highly advisable to read all the screenplays you can find, keep in mind that the shooting script, i.e. the draft from which the film is finally produced, might have camera notes. The shooting script only! If you are submitting your screenplay anywhere then you definitely don’t have a draft that is so advanced that the cameras are about to roll, so there shouldn’t be a single mention of the camera (even if you plan to direct). A screenplay is the story, and no writer should presume to tell the other potential future creative partners, like the director, how to do their jobs. You may have read scripts you love from auteurs like P.T. Anderson and Christopher Nolan, there might be camera notes in there, but again you probably got your hands on a shooting script. If you’re as good as any of them you probably won’t need to worry about entering a screenplay competition anyway.
Trying to Be an Editor Without Understanding Editing – Just like camera notes, deciding on the transition from one scene to the next is not the role of the writer. While a good writer will understand how editing works, they will understand how a good editor will look to find pace in a scene through their editing, too, and allow space for that. In a good script, this will be conveyed through the writing in terms of beats or duration of dialogue, movement etc. rather than via direct orders to a potential editor. Slam cut to:
Imbalance in Your Script – It’s usually possible to tell if the script is well written or poorly written just by flicking through three or four pages and seeing how the dialogue and directive balance out on the page. Huge paragraphs of prose suggest the writer does not know how to write film, but might be a good novelist and/or poet. Likewise, chunks of dialogue that take up an entire page with no visual directive given suggest there is a potential playwright in the making, but again, not a good screenwriter. Film is a visual medium, so even dialogue-driven films will still have a lot of directive and action to balance out the dialogue on the page.
June 2019 - Freelancing isn't free
Freelancing work is very much in vogue these days. It's okay to call yourself a freelancer and not be seen as some kind of outcast. However, a small cabal of employers are yet to get on board with the idea and offer respectable rights to the people they employ to create content for them, and that is not acceptable.
Today I received an email from a company for whom I've done a large amount of work over the last few years. They have never paid well, but it has been a decent relationship on the whole. And I really like the colleagues who work there. In the email they offered me the chance to write a book for them. Now this is supposed to be a moment of jubilation for a writer; the culmination of years of hard work, honing the craft and wrestling with the empty page. Apart from this time they were offering what would amount to £0.99 an hour after all my tax and costs are factored in (and that was me being generous with the workings). This doesn't take into account one key additional thing: Freelancers don't receive any benefits from their commissioners. Companies don't pay a penny of: Pension, holiday pay, sick pay, amenities, office space rental, training, professional equipment (cameras, desks, computers etc.), insurance, or even petty cash items. Nothing.
So to offer crap pay like that is just maddening. And what's more annoying is the commissioners with whom I have first contact are not at fault, they are being forced to do this as a result of bad management. Ignorance and poor leadership from the top. It's important from a freelancer's perspective to realise that the person who's contacting me is not at fault here, they're being asked to basically make unfair offers from their managers. And it's those managers who NEED to read this.
At the time, I headed over to Twitter to vent and instead saw the post of a colleague who lamented that when she challenges insulting rates, she often gets bullied, to boot. One can only assume, but I think it's fair to say that this is driven by sexism. So I didn't vent because I thought, well actually, others have it far worse than me. And in fact these days, laughable offers are rarer. And I like working with this company; the staff are amazing and they work their asses off.
I'm really fortunate. I make a living off freelancing. But it wasn't always that way. So to celebrate this, my inaugural blog post, I decided that no, it's not about how bad you get treated relative to others, because it's all part of the shared experience of being a freelancer, and more importantly, of being human. So I figured I'd write this piece to remind commissioners and their budgets that you're dealing with professional humans who have costs and well-being concerns and you don't pay us benefits so you need to start factoring that into your fees please. And for god's sake, stop the sexist bullying. Freelancers have every right to contest poor offers. You have no right to belittle anyone for that.
It could be worse, sure, at least some money is being offered. But that wasn't always the case. I was expected to provide content for free in the past. And so, to cap this off, below I've reposted in full an article I wrote for a company, for which they didn't pay me a penny. I accepted the work, so ultimately, they are not to blame fully. I'm learning to value myself more now (although 'tis but a work in progress). I think this article below showcases an ability, a skill set, that even then, when I was starting out, deserved to be paid for. It's also an article of value to anybody interested in screenwriting and/or story structure and indeed in my favourite film, Apocalypse Now.
“How do you make a film about moral ambiguity that is not ambiguous?”
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now Press Conference 1978)
Apocalypse Now Redux Screenplay: The History
In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola ordered a Vietnam War screenplay to be penned by a relatively unknown John Milius. It was loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness with the setting transplanted to Vietnam. A decade later one of the most troubled productions in film history received eight Oscar nominations and won two. The final film resembled only portions of Milius’s first screenplay.
The two main characters Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen who had a heart attack during production) and Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando who insisted on rewriting all his own lines) represent the two extremes of Nietzsche’s image of the human condition. As Coppola states, the film is about “walking the tightrope between the primitive man, which is in us, and the Godly man”.
Milius notes that Heart of Darkness was about Kurtz “giving oneself over to the forest, to primitivism.” While he was starting to think about adapting the book, many of his friends were returning from the war in Vietnam. He had wanted to fight but his asthma kept him out. At the insistence of George Lucas, Milius began to write, using Heart of Darkness more like an allegory rather than a direct adaptation. Coppola wanted to make a war film that was unique. Today it still stands out as the pre-eminent work in the genre.
“I felt my audiences are familiar with a war film, so first I would like to win their confidence and say ‘Come with me on a trip. It’s not a movie, it’s a trip, it’s a journey.’ I take you by the hand and say ‘come with me. We start in a movie that you understand, that you’ve seen before. We go a little further we get stranger. We go a little further we get stranger. Until after a while you are in a new place where you’ve never been before. But still, come with me’. So that after a while the only way I thought I could show the film was the way I made the film. Because I started in a regular movie. And then I made it stranger and stranger. So I take the audience on the same trip that I did.”
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now Press Conference 1978)
Originally casting Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard, Coppola decided that the chemistry was just not right. Keitel was sent home after a week of shooting. Martin Sheen, who was battling alcoholism at the time, stepped in. The film would take almost two years to shoot, 19 months longer than first planned and budgeted for. Walter Murch, the film’s editor was responsible for ordering the chaos, so that the script was once again reworked in post production.
"Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane."
Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Structure
A very strong external goal motivates the story from start to finish.
“I needed a mission and they brought me one. After that I wouldn’t need another.”
Willard starts the film as a lost and forlorn figure (perhaps today he would be classed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He wallows in booze, misery and divorce, waiting for a second tour to escape a return to an America that will never be the same to him. And so the classified mission to hunt down and kill a rogue Colonel who has become a destructive ghost becomes both Willard’s and the film’s driving force throughout.
There’s much of Homer’s The Odyssey in the film as Willard has to overcome a series of obstacles (mythological beasts in human form) to reach his goal. Kilgore is the first of these obstacles. Milius likens Kilgore to the Cyclops, the Playboy Bunnies to the Sirens and so forth, so that by Act Two, the journey of the crew aboard the PBR unit boat already seems fraught with impossibility.
By the midpoint of the film, Willard’s mission passes the last American outpost on the Nung River. From there the delve into ‘the strange’ is magnified. Willard tries to keep his dwindling crew content without telling them what their mission really is. The challenges he face to remain good, to remain true to his mission come to an apogee when Willard and the two remaining crew members arrive at Kurtz’s Valhalla and he is imprisoned. Finishing what he had started becomes his final test of faith.
Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Characters
The exploration of the darkness in humanity is brought to life through the characters. It is the kind of journey that requires a seat belt. Some of the characters, like Kurtz, are immortalised in celluloid grandiosity. The soldiers on the PBR unit – the boat, aptly named Erebus, a Greek God of the underworld – are mostly souls trapped in the war, trying to get out alive, almost always out of their depth. Within the context of war, the spectrum of this humanity is explored through its characters. The good and evil of Willard and Kurtz respectively straddle the others who fall somewhere in between these extremes.
CAPTAIN BENJAMIN L. WILLARD
Martin Sheen plays Willard with slow, deliberate strokes. He feels almost anaesthetised at points in his delivery. He represents many positive traits, courage, morality, and yet the sense of the good in him being doused by war is ever noticeable. This is only exacerbated as the mission moves deeper into the unknown.
COLONEL WALTER E. KURTZ
Kurtz plays antithesis to Willard. He is in many ways the man Willard could have become if he had allowed the war to drag him down. Instead Willard kept to the righteous path, while Kurtz ventured far from it; into the woods never to return. In doing so he strayed from all notions of morality. It’s not that he is immoral exactly. Instead there is a sense that Kurtz has embraced primitive animalism so completely that he is rendered amoral.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BILL KILGORE
Originally called Colonel Carnage in earlier drafts, Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) exists right in the middle of Willard and Kurtz on the morality scale. War suits his temperament. He is clearly bored of it, or no longer surprised by war, but actually seems to enjoy the unique experience of war that is unparalleled elsewhere. His actions are always within the parameters of acceptable wartime conduct: he even cares for a wounded enemy with his guts hanging out, but will not think twice about decimating the enemy from above either.
“Any man brave enough to fight with his guts strapped in can drink from my canteen any day”.
Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Beats
Inciting Incident – minute 17 – Willard is cleaned up and handed a classified mission. He must go upriver into Cambodia to find a once brilliant US army Colonel (Kurtz) and ‘Terminate his command…Terminate with extreme prejudice”.
Strong Movement Forward – minute 35 – Kilgore offers to take the crew and the boat to the start of the river by Air Cav, and heck, why not destroy a Vietnamese outpost while they’re at it? This offers the prospect of forwards momentum, while Kilgore’s madness and surfing obsession threaten to derail the trip.
End of Act One Turn – minute 49 – The first act turn in the 193 minute Redux comes with real fanfare. After Colonel Kilgore attacks a Vietnamese village with Wagner blaring then waxes lyrical on napalm odour, Willard takes the opportunity to escape Kilgore’s carnage with his crew and begin the journey by boat for the first time.
First Trial – minute 67 – In need of fuel and supplies without being able to provide any details of their classified mission, Willard is forced to get tough at the army store. Meanwhile the crew have their first taste of the playboy bunnies whose very presence among the soldiers causes a stampede.
Combat – minute 93 – A routine yet unnecessary stop of a sampan boat leads to Willard’s trigger happy crew killing some innocent Vietnamese civilians. This is the first time there is disunity between the crew and the beginning of increasing disharmony within as well as without.
Midpoint – minute 103 – Willard’s mission reaches Do-Lung Bridge, the last American outpost on the river. Nobody is in charge, madness reigns and beyond this point the feeling of a safety net for Willard’s mission is completely gone. Now they enter Viet Cong country.
Assumption of Power – minute 136 – When Chief Phillips is killed (“A spear!”), Captain Willard has to literally take command of the boat. Phillips had previously been the most outspoken and level-headed crew member. It was his boat and Willard was his cargo with superiority. Willard now has to assume real responsibility for the boat, the mission and his remaining crew.
End of Act Two Turn – minute 142 – The remaining three, Willard, Chef and Lance, reach their final destination – Kurtz’s camp. Eerie silence greets the crew as they sail past hundreds of villagers in war paint lining banks and filling canoes.
Decision – minute 150 – Captain Willard is resolved to meet Kurtz and talk with him. Flanked by the nervously energetic Journalist (Dennis Hopper), he trudges past the hallmarks of Kurtz’s madness – severed heads and corpses hanging from the trees. Willard tells Chef to remain on the boat with orders to radio in a carpet combing if his mission fails. “If I was still alive it was because he wanted me that way”.
Point of No Return – minute 171 – It seems as though somewhere in the confusion of captivity and Kurtz’s ramblings, Willard becomes confounded, unsure of whether his mission is just. We know he is not the first man sent to kill Kurtz. The last guy sent works for Kurtz now. Seeming as though all is lost, it is Kurtz himself who spins Willard back around. “You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me.”
Climax – minute 179 – One of cinema’s best ever climaxes. With The Doors providing a psychedelic score, the gruesome end of Kurtz at the hands of Willard is intercut with the ritualistic slaughter of a water buffalo by the villagers. Cinematic perfection packed into every single moment. This ending also ties up the thematic triumph of good over evil.
“I was really desperately looking for a way to end the film, as the original script had an ending more appropriate for a war film in the style of A Bridge Too Far. So I decided, after much thought and conversation, to have Martin end by assassinating the great king (Kurtz), and utilise the fact that the Ifagao (sic) people were going to sacrifice their water buffalo on our last day of shooting.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Analysis
1 – Interview between Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZswrVALi2M
2 – Press conference with Francis Ford Coppola c.1978 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0RjSteJaOU
3 – Documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – the making of Apocalypse Now
4 – TCM http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/188688%7C0/Apocalypse-Now.html
5 – The Literary Traveller http://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/coppola_cambodia/