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New Past Time: Reading Screenplays May 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Study.
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I’ve developed a new hobby: reading screenplays.  I never realised how much fun and how educational it be.

I read a few when I did screenwriting last year, but I kind of considered it a necessary learning experience and didn’t read as many as I should have.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the university library looking for a book that was conveniently ‘misplaced’.  It was listed as available but was nowhere to be found.  Typical.

Anyway, I was huffing and puffing from all the running around looking for it and desperately needed a break.  So I rested against a shelf of books and randomly decided to pluck one out.  As it turned out, I was at the screenplay section, and the one I picked was ‘The Contest’ episode of Seinfeld, possibly one of the greatest half hours in sitcom history.

I found myself laughing out loud as I read it, gaining a new appreciation for Larry David’s (and Jerry Seinfeld’s) genius, and the genius of the actors to be able to pull off those lines.  It was quite astonishing, really, putting anything I have ever written to complete and utter shame.

I used to think screenplays were just for the lines, but reading a good screenplay is a very enjoyable exercise in itself.  And a lot quicker than reading a book too.

I’ve grabbed a few more screenplays to read at home, just for fun.  I just got through the screenplay of one of my favourite films, Fargo, which has a phenomenal screenplay, a well-deserved Oscar winner.  The way the Coens write dialogue is just ridiculous.

I’m looking forward to doing more, when I have the time.  I do also have plenty of books I still need to read as well, not to mention a whole heap of writing to do.

Which screenplay should I read next?

Back to Writing Class…and I’m Excited! March 3, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Kiss goodbye to not writing enough!

Following a lengthy period where I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I expected or wanted to (though I did find out that I’m about to, ahem, become a ‘published’ writer, in a ‘book’, no less), I finally returned to writing class this week.

Admittedly, I was a little frightened, a little concerned about whether I’d be able to get back into the swing of things, whether I could handle the workload, and whether I could handle even more workshopping.  This term, the final term, is where I would have to put everything I’ve learned together and produce a lengthy piece of work — with a view of getting it published.

And so I was somewhat nervous before class last night — I could tell because I was extremely thirsty.  But things got slightly easier when I saw that our lecturer was the same one that taught me last year for another subject.  I really enjoyed his teaching, even if he did like to show off a bit.  It also helped that there were a few other familiar faces in class (including a couple of brilliant writers).

As the class got underway, I relaxed a lot more.  As it turned out, the syllabus was very similar to previous subjects.  Yes, there are presentations and lots of workshops, none of which I really like, but I know they are effective in building me into a better writer.

Anyway, back to this major project.  I’m very lucky because I’m doing this term full time and don’t have to worry about work (apart from the occasional freelance article or review I sign myself up to).  Others who are working full time have to squeeze time out of somewhere, usually on the weekends — though on the flip side I guess you could say that they might be more efficient because time is so precious.

I had actually considered applying for a full time job (well, 35 hours a week, flexible) at a well-known magazine publication, but after last night’s class I think I’ll hold off for a bit.  I absolutely need to nail this major project, and I’m prepared to pour everything I have into it.

The question is, should I write a novel (or novella) or a screenplay?  Both will be based around the same idea, but they are very different formats.  Some say I should do a screenplay, because it is potentially easier.  Others say maybe a novel first, and then adapt it into a screenplay.  Our lecturer told us yesterday that screenplays is where the money is at.

However, the one thing that is making me hesitant about writing a screenplay is that my supervisor will be somethat that doesn’t exactly share the same tastes as me.  He/She did give me a good mark when I did the screenwriting class last year, but we disagreed on a lot of things.  He/She is more of an ‘arty’ filmmaker, whereas I like my stuff fast-paced, witty and sharp.  He/She does appreciate humour but does not think violence can be funny, whereas I think it can be hilarious, in a dark comedy sort of way.

So right now I am leaning towards a novel, a fictional memoir of sorts I’ve been contemplating on writing since about this time last year.  Either way, I’m excited because I know having this as a ‘subject’ will force me to get myself into writing shape and minimise the procrastination and laziness.

I need to break these bad habits I have formed while living a life of relative leisure.  I need to use the power of my mind, like Charlie Sheen.


Workshopping Works! March 30, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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Writers often just want to be left alone, and I’m no different.  There’s a part of me that wants to share my writings and ideas with others, but there’s also that part of me weighed down by self-doubt and fear.  Usually, I want to make sure my work is “perfect” (in my mind) before I have the courage to show it to someone else.  (Note blogging is different — I don’t give a crap about what people think of my blog posts).

So naturally, I’m not (or at least I wasn’t) a big fan of workshopping.  You know, people sitting around in a room, read your work, and discuss it.  They try and focus on the positives at first, so as to not crush your confidence, but the point is to soften you up before they can give you some constructive feedback (criticism sounds too harsh) so you can improve your work.

Sounds simple and harmless enough, but with so many personalities in the room (some incredibly strong and dominant, some overly confident, some depressingly timid, and not many perfectly assertive), it’s easy to lead to unproductive sessions.

There are people who like to dominate discussions, while there are others who like to remain silent.  Authors of works are usually too protective of their “baby” and become overly sensitive or defensive, and once that happens, nothing can be done.  They’re not going to take any advice, and that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

But last night, we had a really successful session workshopping our screenplays.  Personally, it was a great experience for me, because I normally hate chatting about my writing, but I also had plenty of questions and uncertainties about my dark comedy short film project, so it was good to get all these issues ironed out.  When I write, I often get stuck in the same world (for lack of a better word) and can’t see things that are right there in front of me.  That’s when getting the views and advice of others can really assist in breaking through those annoying barriers.  Because we all really wanted to make our writings better, we were all completely open to the opinions of others, and as a result it was extremely productive.

It was also good to get a sense of what types of projects other people are conjuring up in their minds, and how their thought processes work.  Is it better to concentrate or plot, or character?  How to they create their characters and dialogue?

One of the reasons the workshopping session was so successful was because we were given specific guidelines.  I know it sounds artificial, and to be honest that was what I thought when I first received them, but having seen them in practice I think it really helps keep things in order and from spinning out of control (which is remarkably easy).

Here are some tips when others are critiquing your work:

  1. Be open to ideas, but don’t take every suggestion or criticism as fact — evaluate them objectively to see what can be utilised to improve your work.
  2. Write down what you are told because in the heat of the moment you might not agree but it could be useful.
  3. Don’t be defensive and start explaining yourself — ask questions or ask them to clarify if you don’t understand.

Here are some tips when critiquing the work of others:

  1. Be sensitive about their feelings and avoid blunt or cryptic comments they can’t use.
  2. Give comments in a structured, organised manner (eg, one thing at a time, such as structure, character, dialogue, etc).
  3. Be constructive and offer options and alternatives they can take away and consider, not just problems you have identified.
  4. If they are becoming sensitive and defensive, back off, because they’re not listening anymore.

Oh, and keep the groups small.  We had 4 or 5 people in each group and it worked.

How Important Is Structure? March 16, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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I really enjoyed last night’s screenwriting class.  We watched some intro scenes and short films and discussed the readings, which covered the importance of “structure” in a movie.

While there are no hard and fast rules, it did surprise me that most conventional films do have a three-act structure.  It’s just that we’re often too engrossed (or turned off) to notice it.  And there’s the more granular aspects, such as starting off with a set-up, a “hook”, so to speak, to capture the interest of the audience, then having a “catalyst” to get the story moving, then increasing the conflict through a couple of major turning points before the climax or final resolution.

Initially I was thinking that this was all too technical, too structured, too inhibiting.  But when I stepped back and looked at the examples, for some reason it seemed to ring true.  Then I looked at my own writings, and realised that my WIP fantasy novel actually had the exact same structure (broadly speaking).  It’s almost as though the structure came instinctively, or at least subconsciously from my years of movie watching.

So just how important is structure to a film?  With novels, it’s probably easier to manipulate structure, but with a film, it’s a lot trickier to get it right.  It’s much more difficult than I originally thought, and there is a real skill and art in telling the story in a way that makes the film intriguing.  It’s potentially even harder to nail the pace and rhythm and keep the screenplay tight.  Apparently, the problem with most films lies in the second half of the second act, when the action or pace of the film tends to lag because the writer is merely filling in time before the big climatic ending.

I also found it interesting how there are different ways to structure point of view.  There can be the “divergent” style where the audience is introduced to all the central characters at the very beginning, and then the story follows each of them separately (like say in The Godfather, which starts off with the wedding).  Or there can be the “convergent” style, where the characters are introduced separately but flow together inevitably all come together in the end (like say The English Patient).

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how a film is structured, as long as it works.  There’s no magic formula.  Take Tarantino’s films, for example, (most of) which I love.  Pulp Fiction‘s structure is all over the place, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted to go for the ride, wherever Tarantino was taking me.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another good example, where the first half of the movie is a hold-up/hostage scenario, and then suddenly it becomes an all-out crazy vampire movie halfway through.  But it works too.

And there’s no need for the introductory set-up to let the audience know what kind of film it is going to be.  In some cases, I actually preferred films that kept me in the dark, kept me wondering “what the heck is this movie about?” (like Michael Clayton) because nothing seems to make sense, but then eventually all the pieces are put back together like a jigsaw, and you marvel at the brilliance of it because all the clues were foreshadowed right from the beginning.  It’s that type of inventive, experimental, structure-breaking creativity that makes certain films truly memorable.

That said, for my first piece (which will be assessed), I’m going to stick with the traditional structure to see how it pans out, and then maybe try something a little different to spice it up a little.

[PS: it seems I should also check out the Harrison Ford movie “Witness”, which is apparently an excellent example of the traditional three-act structure.]

Lessons in Screenwriting March 9, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Study.
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Tonight’s screenwriting class was pretty interesting.

First we discussed the readings for the week and did that round table thing where everyone eventually gets picked on (I hate that shit).  Luckily, the readings were actually quite interesting.

One of the articles discussed the poor quality of Australian screenplays, which tend to lack character transformation.  According to the author, the central character’s personal journey and ultimate change is what makes the audience relate to the film.  I don’t totally agree.  Of course, there are other elements to a film other than just a character’s transformation – it really depends on the type of film, doesn’t it?  And there’s also the budget issue.  Australian films usually always have difficulty finding financiers, which tend to channel Australian screenwriters into producing screenplays that don’t require a big budget.  The result?  Lots and lots of boring dramas.

We then watched the intros of Michael Clayton (2007) (starring George Clooney as a corporate lawyer) and the award-winning Australian flick Somersault (2004) (starring Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington), about 10-15 minutes of each.  Both were excellent, and left me wanting to watch more.  Actually, I’m itching to watch Michael Clayton right now, especially since the intro clip ended on a cliffhanger and I still don’t know what the heck the film is about.

Next, we studied the intros of the Michael Clayton screenplay (by Tony Gilroy) and the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay (by Michael Arndt), just a few pages each.  Reading and contrasting the two was useful – helped us realise that each screenwriter has his or her own style and ways of describing characters, locations and solving problems.  While there are a number of industry-accepted conventions, there is plenty of room for creativity.

At the end of the day, it’s all about hooking the audience (or in the case of a screenplay, the reader and potential producer).  But that’s always easier said than done.  They can teach us what makes a screenplay good and what makes a screenplay bad, but there are no set rules for what will make a screenplay work, or ensure that it’ll be a success.

I’ll have to start working on my own screenplay soon and I still have no idea what to do or where to start.  Whatever.  It’ll be fun.  Hopefully…

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