Monday, 26 November 2012

Screenwriting - put up or shut up.

Between 2008 and 2010 I taught screenwriting over a number of courses. I began teaching an introductory course for those wanting to know the basics. My background is a drama course at University and then 3 years full time to gain a fine arts diploma in writing from a creative arts college.

I've headed script departments on 5 different TV shows, three of them for Fremantlemedia, overseas in foreign countries where I set up the shows and had to hire either bilingual writers who could translate or I worked directly through translators. My main role and objective became to ensure the structure and content of stories, but I had to find and trust a local writer who could oversee and ensure the dialogue was sounding natural in the local language.

The result was that for almost 6 years, on a daily basis, I became a better storyteller. I became extremely confident about structure and how to use it in traditional or familiar stories  as well as, how and when it worked equally as well, if not better, to warp or subvert those traditional structures. I learnt by doing - not by studying and theorizing and not by assuming an audience would react in a certain way. I got to test what we did, not in theory, but by creating daily drama that was produced and broadcast. What we got right rated, what we didn't get right drew the wrath of the network and the critics. It was a steep, brutal and fast learning curve.

After I'd set up my first show overseas, I was asked to set up my second show alone in Poland, with only a line producer for support, but no second writer. I was then told, due to contractual issues, we had 6 weeks less than was needed to do a standard or adequate set up. It was the end of August, the show was due to go to air on January 1st. I was alone in an office, in a country strange to me, about to place ads in a paper to hire a writing department and I'd just discovered the country already had 5 dramas locally produced that were rating through the roof and in or around our timeslot. But the tight schedule forced me to do some things I would never have done if time constraints hadn't made it necessary.

Some of the things I tried dealt with how I structured and planned or plotted my stories to fast track us through; what would traditionally be known as creating a treatment for the stories. Most of what I did differently dealt with how to teach others, many of whom had very little experience as storytellers, to accelerate them to a point where they could write to a professional, broadcast level.

I was amazed, pleasantly so, to find a lot of what was done worked. I also tried things that I quickly threw away as useless - and often these were practises that had helped me learn or were considered the norms of how to walk someone through learning structure and the fundamentals of storytelling. I found out what REALLY worked and what was a great sounding theoretical doctrine - that in reality had little practical use.

The result is that many of the people I trained have gone on to be award winning writers. Joko Anwar, Priesnanda Dwisatria, Wotjek Nerkowski and Inez Kruk to name a few. Some of them, like Joko Anwar of Indonesia - had a great deal of natural talent and a love of films coming into the position - so I am not claiming the experience of what we achieved together is why he's where he is today. He was a reviewer in the Jakarta post when he came to work for me and is now a world recognised writer director. I quickly promoted him to head writer on the show as I discovered early that he had more natural ability and understanding for storytelling than anyone I'd ever met. But I like to think he also learnt something from me.

The result was I was confident I had something to say, to contribute to the growing tomes of screen writing theory. When I was offered an opportunity to teach I sat with the administrator of the institution and outlined these ideas and he allowed me free reign to create a course. We quickly went into an intermediate course and then advanced - even creating a TV concept development course that resulted in the students working together to create a concept and first pilot episode for a half hour comedy that was then commissioned by a local channel. By anyone's measure that has to be considered a success.

Somewhere in my third year of teaching, a student burst into tears and accused me of being too tough. It was an extraordinary moment for me because I went home and thought long and hard about the one niggling doubt I had about teaching a course on screenwriting - I'd never had a screenplay produced.

I have had plays produced and published - even wining the Writer's Guild Theatre award for best produced play. I've had a short film produced and while I've written over 50 hours of produced TV, set up and run the script departments to 3 shows and run script departments to another two - overseeing around 500 hours of produced TV drama - writing for the screen is a very different thing.

It was something I had to address. I had tried writing novels some years ago, (Inner City & The Law Of Happiness and Divorce), seeing if my stories would hold up, but, as much as I wish it were different, my prose writing isn't nearly as strong as my dialogue writing - although from the novels I wrote I was convinced my storytelling, or structuring abilities were strong. I wish I was more of a poet - but you get what you're given. But then, I've always felt it's often the average person who makes a great teacher - my theory being that someone like Joko who has so much natural ability assumes everyone shares that ability. But someone who has to grind it out, to learn slowly and literally drag themselves up to a level where they can play with the big guys - that person understands how and what to teach the people who share that incredible passion - but don't come ready prepared with all the tools.

So I put my head down two years ago and chose my strongest stories and wrote my heart out.

Within the last two months I have placed a screenplay with a production company and have had one option taken out on a screenplay before this. This year I was a finalist in the Final Draft big break competition and pitched to international distributors who treated me very differently on the back of these achievements. Rather than being polite and looking less than excited, they were now listening, giving me story suggestions and their cards, as well as asking for a first read.

I am certainly a long way from where I want to be - but it feels like I'm at least heading in the right direction.

And that brings me to the point of this post - I've decided to put my theories on screenwriting, what I've learnt from others and what I've taught myself - online... that's what's coming next. I also hope to be offering a script assessment/feedback service at a price that is considerably less than anywhere else. Get in touch if you're interested - or wait to read my screenwriting posts and decide for yourself if I'm the right person to give you feedback.

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