A manual for screenwriters and filmmakers, in the form of notes, on how to take your career from amateur writer to pro
Rocliffe Notes is a compendium for screenwriters and filmmakers which brings together tips and opinions from more than 140 film and TV industry professionals, and provides a step-by-step, common-sense guide on how writers and writer-directors can best present themselves to the industry. Including insider insights from award-winning industry players, it also details their habits, writing processes, daily passions, and preoccupations, while also looking at the nuts and bolts of the industry, aiming to motivate writers on their own creative journey, maximize networking opportunities, and encourage a professional approach to writing. An essential armament in any writer’s store, contributors include: Moira Buffini, Danny Huston, David Parfitt, Jack Thorne, Sarah Gavron, John Madden, John Yorke, Nik Powell, Peter Kosminsky, and Richard Eyre.
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A Professional Approach for Screenwriters and Writer-Directors
By Farah Abushwesha
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2014 Farah Abushwesha
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS THE JOB OF A WRITER?
I grew up watching my father be utterly consumed by writing for days on end, without rest, until he would collapse, but he lived to write and create and still does. Being a writer means something different to each of us. So how do you define the job and what do writers feel about what they do?
MOIRA BUFFINI: I love it. I love it. I escape into my work. There are times when it goes wrong and it can be extremely difficult but if you choose who you work with carefully and pick the projects that you are in tune with (which, as you go on, you get more and more opportunity to do), then this is a wonderful job. It's a privilege. You sit with your cup of tea in the morning and three hours pass before you know where you are. You completely immerse yourself in another world and in the experience of other people. That is writing.
LEE ARONSOHN: I hate writing. But writing has turned out to be the one thing I can do which people will pay me to do which doesn't involve anal sex.
OL PARKER: It's brilliant and I recommend it to absolutely everybody. It's a special way to have a life, meet people. How I describe it to people is that I write films, most of which don't happen. One of the weird things about the gig is that so much of what you do is failing upwards. I have friends who are 40 and they've made a living writing screenplays, yet have never had a produced credit or seen their name on the screen. It's an extraordinary thing. I had a seven-year period where I was writing films for Tom Hanks, for Jonathan Demme (who made Silence of the Lambs), and it was a heavy, high-powered and exciting time. I was flying to Los Angeles and whatnot, but I had absolutely nothing to show for it. I had money, but nothing was actually being made. It was great fun and completely unsuccessful. It became increasingly embarrassing seeing family and friends and having them ask, 'Anything?' It's a weird part of the job that rejection and failure are built into it.
JAMES DORMER: I make stuff up.
KEVIN CECIL: I am a scriptwriter, a script editor and a producer. As a writer, I work in a partnership with Andy Riley. What we do is quite varied. It might mean creating shows, collaborating with talent on a show for them or being part of a team as we are for Veep. We used to work on chat shows and sketch shows but these days almost all of what we do is narrative. Occasionally we still get to write sketches – it's like a treat.
PETER HARNESS: I love it and it's part of me. I have a compulsion and a need to do it. My relation to it changes every day and very often I feel like stopping doing it entirely and going and doing something else. Sometimes I feel it's very easy and I'm on top of the world, though sometimes it feels like the hardest thing that I could ever dream of doing. I've got a mercurial relationship to it. I think storytelling and coming up with stories and providing things to entertain and move people is a very worthwhile thing. It's probably worth all the stress and ups and downs.
KATE ASHFIELD: I would answer this question differently every day. I love it and hate it at the same time. Writing is so creative, just as acting is great when you have a great role. They can be the best jobs and the most fun. They are both also demeaning and humiliating and really hard ways to earn a living!
TINA GHARAVI: Being a writer (or creative person) is like being a monk in a monastery. One works in the shadows and entirely devotes one's life to its pursuits. That's okay, because it's almost Byzantine, the film industry ... so perhaps it's all too appropriate. My role is to make sense of the chaos of the world around and give the audience a cathartic experience. To be a mirror of myself and the world. This is the primary reason for writing and creating. For me, much of this is about confronting mortality and the miracle of being alive ... and that is something quasi-spiritual – though those words do make me shudder!
GUY HIBBERT: I tell stories.
JACK THORNE: It's the greatest job in the world; I get to imagine things for a living. And the difference between my world and the world of a novelist, say, is that I get to imagine things with other people for a living.
JIM UHLS: Making up and telling stories via the behaviour of characters.
LEVI DAVID ADDAI: It's a mad, crazy job. You spend so much time in your head thinking, talking to yourself, talking to your characters, creating their lives and journeys. It's so taxing. And when it comes to production and there are still re-drafts or amendments to deliver, alongside watching castings or daily rushes, by the end of the day my brain is tired. It's a muscle constantly being used and I can't absorb anything else. I have always done it – telling stories and characters. Even as a child I did it with my toys. I still have that youthful fun with it, I reach for the blank page to go on an adventure.
PAULA MILNE: First of all, I love it. I discovered myself through my work. I discovered who I was and what I cared about; I became political through it to a certain extent and I love the process of it. Being a painter before helped because I already had a lot of self-discipline. I started writing after I had children. I've had five children and I've had people asking me 'Do you feel guilty leaving your children to write?' and I say no, I feel guilty leaving the scripts to go back to the children. I've absolutely no guilt about hiring people to look after my children. You can't have your cake and then decide you feel bad about it. When I started writing, I'm not sure I regarded it as the golden age of TV but there was a sense that TV was the theatre of the people, and that was very exciting. It was saying things about the society we live in to people who didn't necessarily have access to this in any other form in terms of literature or theatre, etc. So I regarded it as an art form really, having started out as a painter.
MALCOLM CAMPBELL: I've finally learned to accept it as a real job (sometimes I tell my family what I do and they still don't understand; they say 'So, is it a documentary?'). I suppose I tell stories with pictures and words. I don't do any other kind of writing. It's about telling stories with economy, a bit of flair and moving things along. I try to entertain but also find the truth in everyday life.
MARNIE DICKENS: Being a writer can be incredible. You get to imagine people, imagine what they say, and then hopefully watch ones that come to life. If you are working with people you like and trust then it's the best job in the world.
JON CROKER: I love what I do for a living. I write an idea into a format that can be used by a director, cast and crew to make into a film.
TONY GRISONI: My job is to make films. That's what I'm thinking of when I'm writing. I'm thinking about trying to get a film made that will excite or surprise me.
WHAT IS THE JOB OF DIRECTOR OR WRITER-DIRECTOR?
A (good) few years ago, I tried my hand at directing, but realised it wasn't for me. Perhaps it was a lack of confidence; perhaps if I'd understood or researched more about what it was before I tried, I would have pursued it in a different way. My shorts had a great unifying effect upon my family, one of them having been based on my dad's short story, A Blind Arab in a London Pub, which my mother had translated into English. It gave us back a sense of pride and family union we'd lost decades before. In my heart, however, I enjoy writing and producing more – making it happen. My favourite definition of what a director does is by Roland Joffe, director of The Killing Fields, who stated that 'being a director is like playing on a multilayered, multidimensional chessboard, except that the chess pieces decide to move themselves.'
SARAH GAVRON: It's not like a job. People do it because they are passionate about film.
STEPHEN FINGLETON: I am a professional fantasist aided and abetted by a merry band of conjurers, magicians, and sleight-of-hand experts. Together we seek to suspend the audience's disbelief and take them to places they want to go to but daren't in their everyday lives.
KIRSTEN SHERIDAN: I describe it as kind of a form of therapy. The more you challenge yourself and dig down deep into your own psyche, the more you realise you are just writing the same story over and over again on some personal level. If you want to then change that, you have to be very self-aware in order to know exactly why you're writing things, what they're about and what they mean to you. I do think art is incredibly important but sometimes I think of people in the world who are actually building things, helping people and making a career, not for monetary gain but for the betterment of society, and I wonder whether my energies would be better spent. In this industry, you can write something and it can just go into the ether and never be realised.
MANJINDER VIRK: Both writing and directing come from a need and deep desire to tell the story. I start with a personal attachment to the writing and the story I'm trying to tell and then move on from that stage into something more detached and researched.
HOPE DICKSON LEACH: At my film school graduation the writer Richard Ford said that being an artist isn't like being a carpenter. No one needs what you make in the way that they need a chair. You, the artist, have to make your work necessary and work out what it is that you are making. I loved that. Generally it's very lonely, very hard, and really only to be done by people who really can't do anything else – i.e. they HAVE to do it. If you think you can do something else, then you're better off doing that.
REBECCA DALY: The biggest elements of my job are communication and filtration. Communicating my ideas, my vision, to everybody I'm working with and obviously the audience. Then filtering ideas is also a big part, which happens at every stage: the writing, shooting, editing, the whole way through. It's a constant filtration process of the ideas in my head, and those of the people I collaborate with, testing what works and what doesn't, what fits the overall shape, etc. I love it. I feel privileged to be able to do it and to make a living out of it. I'm very lucky.
MIRANDA BOWEN: It's a curious job and one that I attempt to justify continually. I feel that the world would probably survive without film and TV but it would definitely be a poorer place for it. Narrative storytelling is something that is endemic to every culture in the world and we learn about ourselves through reflected histories. Quality TV and film allow us to experience cultures, people and situations that we might not ordinarily come into contact with. At its best good TV and film can expand our minds and ignite empathy where none may have previously existed. At its worst it can do exactly the opposite.
ROB BROWN: I'm a bit dubious sometimes about calling what I do a job! I felt more legitimate calling myself a director once I made a feature, but I've lived with people who do sensible jobs and my friends have quite serious jobs outside the film industry as well, so it's sometimes strange telling them what I've been doing on a day-to-day basis. If I compared the amount of time I spend writing emails and having Skype calls to the amount of time that I spend writing and directing it would probably depress me. I never would have guessed when starting out how uncreative this job and industry can be sometimes!
RON SCALPELLO: It's a demanding career but it's so rewarding. If you think you want to do it because it might be either cool or interesting, if you're half-hearted about it, I don't know if you'll be successful. It's one of those careers that will consume you totally, every day of the week. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do and it's so clearly part of who I am as a person, as a man. To live without making films or TV would be quite a realignment of my own identity.
SALLYEL HOSAINI: I'm in a really privileged position, where I'm managing to get people to give me money to make things up. That's what I do. Although what I've discovered is that when you're a writer-director you spend more time writing than directing. Especially when you're generating your own material. It's cyclical, but when you do the maths you realise that more hours go into writing than hours spent on set. But I don't prefer one stage to the other. They are inextricably connected and two parts of one process. I love what I do and feel really blessed to be able to get up each morning and work at what I'm best at.
SAM WASHINGTON: It's the best job in the world. But it isn't easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.
ROWAN ATHALE: I would describe writing and directing feature films as the greatest job in the world and I am exceptionally fortunate to be doing it. I know that sounds like a beauty-pageant answer, but I find it's accurate. There are professions of far greater importance: medicine, teaching, policing. I don't build houses for people to live in, and I don't work in agriculture, so I don't feed anybody either. Filmmaking doesn't represent a fundamental, basic need of society. It represents an interest, a hobby or, in the case of the cinephile, a passion. Watching films was, and remains, a defining passion of my own life. And I get to make them for a living. So I don't think, I know, I'm exceptionally fortunate.
JUSTIN TREFGARNE: Outside of family, this job is everything for me. I am very lucky to be in this position where you are asking me to talk about something I love, which also happens to be my career. I first started thinking about how to make films over 30 years ago and here I am with my first feature under my belt. That gives you some idea of how much of my life I have spent devoted to this in one way or another.
JOSH APPIGNANESI: Being a writer and director in theory is having a Stalinist command of every variable, followed by the Palme d'Or. That's in theory. In practice the disadvantages are clearer to me: you're not so straightforwardly a commercial gun-for-hire as a plain writer or plain director, you're not a clear entity that can be brought on as one element amongst several in the 'package' when producers are putting together a commercial film. It's basically twice as hard to get your own original material out there as both writer and director.
MUSTAPHA KSEIBATI: Steven Spielberg put it best when he said he dreams for a living. I also subscribe to the saying, 'Choose a job you love, and you never have to work a day in your life.' Although some would say I work constantly, I see my work as my life, so don't view it like that.
DICTYNNA HOOD: It's 'total'. Very all-consuming, part of life, not separate from it.
WHAT DOES A DIRECTOR DO?
So how does a director formulate a vision for the project? What is the job of directing?
SARAH GAVRON: I am still learning. I have to connect with the material on an emotional level. Finding the right people to work with is essential. The old adage about the importance of casting is right ... Understanding storytelling is vital ... I learn most about storytelling in the edit.
KIRSTEN SHERIDAN: My directing process is quite specific. I work with actors and get to know them really, really well, probably too well for their liking. With every actor I've worked with, I want to work with them again. If an actor continues to work and grow, learning something about themselves and revealing it (which is an incredibly vulnerable and scary human place to be), then they're infinitely fascinating. Actors have the worst job of everyone. Most of the time, their job relies on someone else telling them what they can and can't do.
TINA GHARAVI: As a director, I am interested in finding the truth of that moment on set with the actors and the crew. Yes, the crew have to find it too. They are 'writers' as well. I don't think writing ever stops ... and ultimately it's for the editor, the film's final composer, to finish the score.
REBECCA DALY: I feel particularly personal about the work; I've often spent years writing it, I feel I know it very intimately, I feel very personally connected to it. I've never directed something I haven't written. It's not to say that my work is in any way autobiographical, but I feel very strongly about it. It does become necessary at times to step outside of it, though. To be creative, you have to go with your instincts and the flow of the project, yet every once in a while it's useful to step away from that and try to put on an outside pair of eyes. Obviously I have other people to act in this way at every stage too: my editor, producers, DOP and my co-writer ... strike a balance there between creativity and at least an attempt at objectivity.
Excerpted from Rocliffe Notes by Farah Abushwesha. Copyright © 2014 Farah Abushwesha. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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