Screenwriters on Screenwriting – A Three-Stage Approach (1 of 3)

Pacific Film & Television Commission – Onscreen: ONLINE June 09

In the first of three installments, Queensland screenwriters Shayne Armstrong and S.P. Krause share their advice and experiences on the practice of screenwriting, broken down into three stages: getting the ideas, writing them down and getting them read. It’s a no-nonsense hands-on approach that every aspiring screenwriter should read.

Armstrong and Krause (pictured above with Armstrong on the right) wrote the recent Australian feature Acolytes. They were also involved in the development of the new television series featuring Doctor Who spin-off character K-9, writing the series bible and eight episodes of that show. An episode they wrote for K-9 is nominated for a 2009 AWGIE Award in the Children’s Television category.

Their latest commission is a new horror screenplay for Greg Mclean (Wolf Creek). They also have feature projects in development with directors Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend) and David Caesar (Idiot Box, Dirty Deeds).

At the time of publication, they are deep into the outline for a new feature screenplay and concurrently writing first drafts of two other feature spec scripts which they hope to have completed by the end of the year.

Part One: Get ‘Em Ideated

All considerations of natural-born talent and being products of a certain environment aside, there’s no one way to become a screenwriter. Some people watch a lot of movies, good and bad, the best and worst examples of cinema from all periods of the art form.

Some people read a lot of books by people who’ve written a lot of books about screenwriting but have never had a script produced, or go to a lot of seminars or enrol in courses by these same people.

But those who actually become writers all perform one act in common: they write. Most people say they’ve got an idea that would make a great movie, a smaller proportion will profess that they will one day write this screenplay, but only the vast minority of them will actually sit down at their keyboard and type out circa 100 pages of screen story.

Hopefully, that’s you. If you’ve made it to the end of this paragraph without needing a coffee break or a lie down – or needing someone to summarise the article in a bunch of bullet-points and tell you whether it’s any good or not – then you’re probably of that dying breed of human: a reader. And if you’re a reader, then there’s at least a slim statistical chance you might just be a writer.

One of the biggest mistakes beginner screenwriters make is to only watch movies. That’s like learning to build a jet fighter by only watching a finished plane fly – there’s no appreciation for the mechanics, the anatomy, and the principles of physics and aerodynamics, among a thousand other things. If you’re going to be an architect, then you need to learn how to draw blueprints, and that’s what a screenplay is – it’s not a movie, it’s a blueprint for a movie.

So if you want to know how a scene was written to convey the story, or to seduce and excite a director, actor or studio exec – read the screenplay. You’ll be surprised at how blunt and functional some writers are and how beautiful, poetic and/or dynamic others are. You’ve got to find your own voice and style eventually, but it’s a good way to start introducing yourself to the format, mechanics and stylistics of the craft. It’s also a good idea to read books, journals or blogs about writing from established and successful screenwriters – it will give you some tips but, even more, it gives you tales from the trenches and some valuable perspective on the industry.

Write what you love. Write what you’re interested in. Write the kind of movie you’re drawn to at the cinema and DVD store. Write the kind of movie you’d like to watch. For genre writers, a breakout or smash genre Aussie film is both boon and curse. It reminds producers and distributors what we should already know: that genre sells but it also opens the floodgates for a lot of bandwagon jumpers who write genre movies purely because they’re suddenly hot and in demand. Such writers might not have affinity or knowledge of the genre and so they traipse off to the DVD store, rent and watch 10 of the most recent examples of that genre (usually clones of clones of clones themselves), and then pump out a hack job that’s scary or disturbing or funny for all the wrong reasons. Then two equally terrible things happen: the script is universally rejected because it’s a soulless hack job, or someone with equal or lesser genre knowledge or affinity produces it, directs it, distributes it and – surprise! – the market is flooded with the kind of crap that gives genre a bad name in the first place. Then everyone goes skulking behind rocks until the next purely-written and produced breakout genre film comes along.

This goes for non-genre films as well. If you’re drawn to and want to write drama, arthouse, character-driven low-concept films then by all means do that – but do it with pure intentions. We’ll all thank each other when the end credits start rolling.

If the point is still a little unclear, we’re simply saying that it’s as futile and fruitless for someone who loathes or has no interest in genre films to try and write one for nothing other than mercenary reasons in the same way that it would be for someone who really wants to write a genre film to sit down and say “Now I will write an arthouse film.” It’s coming at a project from the wrong place from the get-go!

Following on from the above, write what is likely and able to be produced in this country. When we started out, we made the same mistake a lot of young Aussie writers make – writing (thank goodness only in treatment form) multi-million dollar US-style genre extravaganzas.

You’d be surprised how many spec scripts from first time Australian writers that are sent to Australian producers are sci-fi-action epics (“It’s the first in a trilogy!”) that would cost in excess of $80 million. If you’ve got one of those scripts, take it out of your satchel now. Put it in your bottom drawer and save it for the day when you escape the gravitational pull of our extremely modest film industry and crack it over in the States. Instead, write a story that could be made in Australia, by Australians with an Australian film budget (generally, that means (very) low-to-medium). And it’s not to say you can’t write a genre film – hell, even a sci-fi. But make sure that your story makes sense and sits comfortably in an Australian setting.

Next month (July 09) : Get ‘Em Written