Monday, July 18, 2011

No passive verbs!

Another session, another incredible wealth of knowledge shared by an amazing speaker. David Rapsey ( very kindly gave us an evening of his time and wisdom, some nuggets of which I have chronicled below. Much of the discussion centred around the Australian Feature Film landscape and some of the challenges faced at all levels of it.

A veteran screen developer, David has helped many scripts through various drafts and into production. He warned feature developers against spending too much time writing for television, as film requires a very different craft to TV. The biggest problem with scripts that cross his path is that people don't know how to write SCENES - two or more characters with conflicting goals, and a shift of status are the bare minimum for a good scene.

The structure of a feature film is very different to TV as well - David pointed out that while TV must grab the audience within seconds, film-goers can't take remotes to the cinema, so we have some breathing space, which is an excellent time to get the audience to invest in characters before some of the more 'out there' concepts are introduced. He gave the example of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which starts with big emotional sequence (~20 mins) to hook audience in before any mention of the science fiction concept that underpins the journey the characters go on.

Related to this was a warning to not spend your good stuff early. Early drafts of American Beauty had a sequence of Lester flying over his suburb. The sequence was even shot, but eventually cut so as not to detract from the BIG fantasy sequence with Mena Suvari and the rose petals. If the flying sequence had been our introduction to Lester's imagination, it would have lessened the impact of the petal sequence.

American Beauty was also a good example for another key point of David's - Questions.

Most of a film is focused on getting the audience to focus on and ask the right questions. Questions the film has the answers for. American Beauty went from courtroom drama, where the main question in the audience's mind is "Who's guilty?" to "Is Lester allowed desire in his dull middle American life?" If this were not the main focus of the way the story is structured and told, Lester would come across as a 40 something sleazebag!

Another piece of good writing advice was to Never Let the Audience Catch Up - get out of a scene right before the audience gets their head around where they are - give them the information they need, and get out of there - they'll put it together. The Social Network is a fine example of this principle in practice. Very fast paced keeps moving the audience to ask the question "Is Mark Zuckerberg a decent person?"

David then challenged those present to the following exercise: Take a film you love, and find every version of the script that you can (I recommend or as a good starting point) then arrange them in chronological order and look at the differences between drafts. Everything starts out in a non-optimal* form, and it's only through successive drafts that the important elements of the 'engine' that drives the story are found.

Analyse the drafts in as much detail as you can - at the macro structural level, to the scene level, down to the Line by Line level (Do you see what I did there?). All the time be on the lookout for how they hone in on the underlying themes and elements that are crucial to the story.

David also echoed a sentiment those familiar with Stephen Cleary's lectures will be aware of - you should often change the 'perspective' of what the audience knows, relative to the characters. At any given time, the audience will either know more than the characters, the same as them, or less than them. Changing this moves the audience through different emotional states relative to your characters and keeps the experience alive.

There were so many other wonderful anecdotes and suggestions - how Rabbit Proof Fence took four drafts before five tracker characters were combined into one before the story really started to work; how the public went from seeing 20-25% Australian cinema in the 70's and 80's to whatever single-digit figure it currently languishes at and for writers not to worry too much about loglines…

It is the Distributor's and Marketer's jobs to come up with loglines. They are an Appealing Summation** to help sell the movie.

It's their job to get the audience into the cinema. It's our job to make sure they leave satisfied.

From all at Line by Line, we'd like to extend a massive thank you to David for his time and openness for us all to learn from his extensive experience. It was a most inspiring night. And remember folks - keep those passive verbs out of your scripts!

Khrob Edmonds

* Shit
** 'Lie'

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