Saturday, December 1, 2012


Writing a Biography as a Screenplay

Every person lives a life that is unlike anybody else, but not everybody’s life contains enough compelling elements to make for a good film. There are however individuals whose lives are just waiting to be made into a movie. Films like Braveheart, Elizabeth and Gandhi all received high levels of praise upon their releases, partly due to the impressive scriptwriting behind them but also due to the fact that the life stories of the historical figures that they were based on were perfect movie fodder. Here is a guide to the points you need to consider when writing a script for a biopic. 

Transforming Real Life into Drama

The first step for anybody considering writing a screenplay based on a biography is to determine whether or not there is a viable market for the story that they have chosen. The three types of person that are most likely to generate interest are famous people, individuals who have survived extraordinary hardships and ordinary people who have achieved something spectacular. If your subject fits into any of these categories then it sounds as if your script might be worth pursuing – ‘might’ being the operative word because you still need to ascertain whether or not his or her life story contains sufficient conflict to keep a viewer interested. There is no point pitching a script in which the main character has no defined challenge to overcome. Screenplays usually focus upon a single obstacle, which is introduced within the first ten pages. If there is nothing that fits the bill of this obstacle then you might need to reconsider the life story that you are converting into a script. If you choose to focus upon a famous figure, it isn’t just famous people from history who make for good subjects. Films about contemporary figures have been just as well received in recent years, as many viewers are curious to see whether life as a celebrity is always as glamorous as it looks on TV, with chauffeurs driving the celebs about the place and dropping them off at top class restaurants to have meals that cost more than the average person’s yearly wage. 

Visit Relevant Locations

In a recent interview with Clash magazine, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh advised those thinking of writing a biopic to familiarise themselves with the locations that will appear in their script. The good thing about writing a script based upon the life of somebody who actually existed is that you can visit the place where they grew up and get a feel for the environment that moulded them. This will help you with your characterisation. Matt also stresses the importance of talking to associates and close friends of your subject if you are writing about a contemporary figure. He says that researching a person’s life and finding out everything that there is to know about them is essential. 

Getting Down to Business

Once you have carried out all of the necessary research, it is finally time for you to put pen to paper. Rather than attempting to cram every major event from your subject’s life into the script, try and crop it so that it is centered on a compelling incident or series of incidents. Most successful biopics include a love interest so find out about a significant relationship within the life of the person whose story you are telling and attempt to work it in. If there are no romantic relationships that you feel are suitable then focus upon another powerful relationship within his or her life, such as a close familial bond. 

Use Poetic License

It is important for you to be more loyal to the version of the person’s life that you are attempting to depict than you are to the actual story. Don’t lie but be creative with the truth. The order of events can be rearranged in order to fit in with the image that you want to put across. In The People Versus Larry Flint, at the end of Act Two, Flint’s wife kills herself, which motivates Flint to appeal the decision of a ruling that was made against him in court. In reality Flint filed the appeal before his wife dies but the version of events depicted in the film works better on the screen. Take charge of the story that you are telling, put an original spin on it and ensure that you only focus upon the most gripping elements in order to stand the greatest chance of success.

Written by Evelyn Anderson

Thursday, November 29, 2012


There are undoubtedly plenty of exceptions, but since I first became entangled in the rather curious bizzness of film-making - going all the way back to my days as a screenwriting student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney (1981), I have constantly seen evidence and been reminded  of how the industry appears to be dominated by three "tribes", which can be loosely characterised as follows:

Tribe 1: People that are hostile towards, ignorant of, and understand nothing or next to nothing about DRAMATIC ACTION.

Tribe 2: People that can tell you what’s wrong with your screenplay/story, but have little if any ability to illuminate its problems in ways that help you gain a fresh and clear perspective so that you might be better able to work through its problems and weaknesses.

Tribe 3: People that not only can determine what’s wrong, but are able and willing to illuminate character and action in ways that constructively aid you in overcoming the screenplay's problems.

If you are a writer that has had any experience with the screen storytelling industry in this country, you have probably met people from all three tribes, and I know which ones you probably prefer to deal with. 

If you've kept you eyes and ears open you've probably also noted the following:

* Virtually no one in the acquisition, development, production or marketing side of the Australian screen storytelling industry would ever admit to being a member of Tribe 1.  But they’re there. A tip to figure their identity: If you ask someone, “What’s the story about,” and they respond by actually telling you the story beat for beat, there’s an awfully good chance they don’t have a very good grasp of the concept of story.

* Most people in this country fall into Tribe 2. They know enough about story to be dangerous. That is they can tell you at least some of the things that are wrong with a script, but often their solutions are uncomfortably wide of the mark, or worse - they want to take over the writing by making suggestions that would force you to radically reinvent the story. They also seem incapable of anticipating how and why this merely creates new problems. They say things like “I know it’s called 'Gayby Babies', but why does it have to be gaybys?”

* If you’re a writer, you hope to find someone from Tribe 3. Stop looking. If you're really a DRAMATIC storyteller, your job is to see and solve problems (with the assistance of the other characters) It's YOUR ability to identify a story’s underlying issues and your insights that allow you to suggest solid, tangible ways to resolve those concerns that will serve you better than anything you'll find in the first two tribes.

However if you are a member of Group 3, and you have a great script, or at least the makings of something that is good, you cannot speak to people that are in Tribe 2 and certainly not Tribe 1 as if they understand story the way you do.
You have to be able to break down your analysis and ideas into a series of graspable talking points.

If you try to impress them with your "deep" understanding of the nuances of story theory and rely too much on jargon, you probably aren't a fully initiated member of Tribe 3 anyway. You will most likely not only lose them, they will probably feel a great deal of discomfort sitting in a room with you.
Instead you must meet them on their level and shape your suggestions into digestible, bite-sized talking points.

This is not to demean them. You may know story, but you probably don’t know squat about business or the subtleties of networking. You have your talent. They have theirs.

And by the way, this is not only about Tribe 3s trying to communicate with Tribe 2s or Tribe 1 people, it’s also about appreciating the fact that people lead extremely busy lives, so being concise and on point is always the strongest and most dramatically effective way of communicating with them.

Bottom line: No one really gives a fuck and you or your story. They don’t really NEED to give a fuck, or know the ins-and-outs of story theory. All they want is for you to fix the damn script! In others, it's entirely up to you to make them give a fuck.

[Note: Are there producers that are members of Tribe 3? Absolutely. And that can be both a blessing and a curse, the former because you benefit from their great ideas, the latter because they will want to explore every conceivable plot possibility, hopefully a beneficial process, but an exhausting one].

Some of you might be asking: How do I go about becoming a member of Tribe 3? Apart from those of you that are precociously wise about character, action and dramatic screen storytelling, there is really only one answer. Immerse yourself in cinema. Not just screenwriting, but the entirety of movies.

See every film.
Read every book.
Analyze every script.
Study the business.
Think like a writer.
Think like a director
Think like a producer.

You should envelope yourself in everything related to film-making and the movie business. In other words, you have to love cinema and follow that passion. Passion is the key, because to write a good dramatic story and to make a good dramatic film are among the hardest things in the world to do, and if you don't have a passion for you simply won't have the energy or the will to overcome all the obstacles and complications that will arise in the process of finding the story. 


Tuesday, November 27, 2012



Filmmakers looking for music / Composers looking for filmmakers

This special forum is meant to serve as a "clearing house" for Australian original music and Australian composers that may be interested in supplying their music for Australian film, television and digital projects.

Use this forum as a point of contact - as a way of advertising your original compositions and creating a profile for yourself, your band and/or your music that filmmakers can access.

As a minimum be sure to leave your name and contact details. Use LINKS to link to promos of your work.

The Editors


Friday, November 23, 2012


If you're looking at the possibility of making yourself into a screenwriter that can actually make his/her living from writing movies, then the following might prove encouraging:
    • Rejection comes with the territory - get over it - in fact, banish the word "rejection" from your world view.  
    • Critiques of your work should be seen as the universe's way of helping you to make your script as good as it can be. 
    • Editing is everything.
    • If you really believe in something, fight for it. Don't write stories you don't believe in.
    • Write something you’d want to watch – don’t write to please others.
    • Take risks with your writing.
    • Share and talk about your ideas with strangers. Discover the  secret and joyous discoveries that can be had from riding on public transport.
    • Act professionally, at all times.  Arrive ON TIME for all meetings. Otherwise you’ll be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons.
    • Don’t hand in work late, deadlines are there for a reason.
    • Believe in yourself – everyone has doubts, everyone has fears. Don't give in to them.
    • Don't be intimidated by lists like this.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


GAYBY BABY is a documentary that will reveal the untold stories of kids in same-sex families and allow the rest of us to understand what it means to be raised “culturally queer”.

We need your assistance to make one of the most significant documentaries -of the decade.  Check out GAYBY BABY by following the LINK, and if you think this is a story worth telling an audience that isn't automatically sympathetic with gay rights, then please contribute whatever you can to helping make the stories of these kids and their families a reality.


Billy Marshall Stoneking

GAYBY BABY the movie. by Gayby Baby on Pozible

Monday, November 5, 2012

Maya Newell's short, experimental film, SEEING IN THE DARK, offers an over-the-shoulder look at what people find most frightening. Rather than showing the source of their fear, the film-maker elected to show the initial reaction that each person might have if confronted with the frightening thing they could imagine. FOR MORE LIKE THIS, Visit THE SCREENING ROOM

Sunday, November 4, 2012


A crash-course in lndie film-making
adapted from Robert Rodrequiz' Ten-Minute Film School 

Screenplays that fall within the category "low-budget" can be anything between twenty-thousand and five million dollars, although there are several significant exceptions, most notably namely El Mariachi.  Nevertheless, the essential ingredients for finding a great story and making a successful lndie film, remain the same: talent, dedication, passion, trust and sacrifice, though not necessarily in that order.

While there are no sure-fire formulas or prescriptions for  commercial and critical success, the following may prove useful if not illuminating if you are considering embarking on a journey into the territory of low-budget, independent film-making:

1. Likable, well-developed, main characters usually appeal to audiences. Of course evil, disgusting and abjectly mean characters also serve their purpose in that they add contrast and challenge to the likable characters.  YOU MUST HAVE COMPELLING, FRESH AND WELL-DEVELOPED CHARACTERS, OTHERWISE DON'T GO ON.

2.  A Mildly didactic story is acceptable - even with touches of philosophic reverie - so long as the themes are universal and not drooling about anything. Make sure you tell stories that have some importance to YOU - and know why they are important. 

3.  A "high concept" that has not been exploited, sells the show more often than not. The Blair Witch Project, for example.

If it cannot be summarized as to "what it's about" in one or two lines - it MAY NOT be high enough concept to consider. Word-of-mouth takes people to the movies. Word-of-mouth is usually a line or two that generates interest. Try surveying the public for high concepts. This is a good way to find out where your script or movie concept stands. You have to weigh the risk of leaking the concept against the probability that most films never get produced - especially by producers who steal titles.

4.  Find an excellent title that has not already been exploited. Sometimes it is better to keep the title secret until you are dealing with people you can trust. Titles cannot be copyrighted but they can be registered with the MPAA Title Registration Bureau for protection and market coordination -however, if you are signatory to the agreement and another signatory protests your registration, you may have to arbitrate to win access to your own title! 

5.  The Picture should be acceptable to a G, PG, PG-13 or R audience. Usually low budget pictures are R or PG rated, but they don't have to be. 

6.  The script should be no longer than 95 pages, and preferably 90 pages, typed in standard screenplay format. Courier type preferred (10 characters per inch). 

7.  The story should not involve more than three main characters, yet it should not depend too heavily on ONE character such that the picture could be considered a "star vehicle" or "dependent on star casting".  The fees charged by "Name Talent" rocket the project out of the low budget orbit. (Sometimes lazy, scared distributors or financiers use this as an "excuse" to NOT finance the project, even if the story can be told quite nicely without Name Talent.) 

8.  The story should involve, up to 5 minor characters that can be quickly developed. One of the minor character parts could be a cameo vehicle if it were a particularly challenging or interesting part. It can't hurt to keep this in mind. 

9.  Include up to 5 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 2 successive days each, AND up to 10 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 1 day each. 

10.  Have no more than 150 extras needed throughout the whole film and not more than 80 appearing in any separate scene at a time. 

11. Use no complicated futuristic or period sets, props or wardrobe. Have no extensive vehicle requirements (such as 30 cop cars or a fleet of boats).

12.  The story should take us through at least 35 different locations but no more than 42.  Although many locations can double, there should be no more than 10 to 20 physically different locations.  The cheapest way to make a movie is to shoot it all in one house or location, but you get exactly what this says - a cheap movie. With a little more effort and pre-planning, there is no reason why the cast and crew cannot show up at different local places each morning to shoot. 

13. Have no special effects scenes, or limit them to one or two. If two,  one moderately inexpensive, but not cheap looking, the other about five times as elaborate and as effective as the first. 

14.  Have 2 or less exterior night scenes, or no night scenes at all. Night shoots are expensive and draining. If you can’t do it in two days of night scenes, then you may as well have seven days of night scenes as it is difficult and costly to turn your crews' hours around. 

15.  In general the screenplay should have about 16 to 21 interior scenes and 14 to 18 exterior scenes with about 80% synchronous sound. No more than 10% of the picture should be exterior night, but any amount can be interior night. 

16.  It is okay to include all or some of the following:

a. Two interior action sequences that break a lot of inexpensive middle class luxuries. The foreign market likes to see the way we live in Australia. Anything up to $9,000 worth can be smashed.  e.g., TVs, video players, musical instruments, microwave ovens, coffee makers, lamps, radios, kitchen appliances, lawn mowers, bikes, motorcycles, etc. 

b. Interior action scenes can include such low budget effects as breaking fake glass, punching holes through balsa wood doors, walls, floors, ceilings . . . stuff that can be done in a controlled non-studio environment without fire or explosives. Breaking glass sounds are used in El Mariachi to suggest automobile glass is being smashed even when it isn’t. 

c. Backstage scenes where we only hear the audience or see stock shots of the audience (as long as they do not have to include a character in the shot). 

d. One exterior tracking shot with sync dialogue.

e. One interior or exterior action sequence with fast tracking which lends itself to fast cutting.

f. One interior sync dialogue scene in a car during day or night.

g. One or two non-contrived passionate scenes.

h. At least three scenes in some location that has never been filmed in before.

i. A nightclub scene.

j. An easy-to-film scene in some public spot (where stock footage could possibly be integrated).

k. A sequence out in the COUNTRY, MOUNTAINS, FOREST or by a STREAM (that works well with the established settings in the story).


Look through the phone book yellow pages to stimulate other ideas.

17.  The ending is very important. It should wrap up all the lose ends and provide an up-beat catharsis. The ending should not have to rely on a lot of explosions and things blowing up. How many movies have you already seen where everything gets blown up in the end? 

18.  Kenneth Gullekson, a well known writer/director, wraps it up this way: "The most important things are a gripping story and engaging characters. Any subplots focusing on individual characters must be inextricably interwoven with the main plot". 

  •  The low-budget movie should be character-driven (as likable, well-developed, main characters usually appeal to all audiences, especially our target audience).
  •  The story should not involve more than three major characters.
  • The story should involve up to 5 minor characters that can be quickly developed. 
  • Avoid expensive or distant locations. No location scenes that require talent, staff or crew travel or per diems.
  • No complicated futuristic or period sets, props or wardrobe and no extensive vehicle requirements (such as 30 cop cars or a fleet of boats). Unless they are definitely available for product placement credit or on deferment.

  • Rationalise the number of locations. A good low-budget film usually takes us through at least 35 different locations but no more than 42. Although many locations can double, there should be no more than 10 to 20 physically different locations. One of the cheapest ways to make a movie is to shoot it all in one house (or location) however it often looks cheap (or dimentionally truncated).
  • The screenplay should have about 16 to 21 interior scenes and 14 to 18 exterior scenes with about 80% synchronous sound. No more than 10% of the picture should be exterior night, but any amount can be interior night.
  • At least 2 exterior night scenes.
  • Up to 2 special effects scenes, one moderately inexpensive, but not cheap looking, the other about five times as elaborate and effective as the first. 
  • Include all or some of the following:
·        Two interior action sequences that break a lot of inexpensive middle class Australian luxuries. Anything up to $9,000 worth can be smashed. e.g., TVs, video players, musical instruments, microwave ovens, coffee makers, lamps, radios, kitchen appliances, lawn mowers, bikes, motorcycles, etc.
·        Interior action scenes can include such low budget effects as breaking fake glass, punching holes through balsa wood doors, walls, floors, ceilings . . . stuff that can be done in a controlled non-studio environment without fire or explosives.
·        Backstage scenes where we only hear the audience or see stock shots of the audience (as long as they do not have to include a character in the shot).
·        One exterior tracking shot with sync dialogue.
·        One interior or exterior action sequence with fast tracking which lends itself to fast cutting.
·        One interior sync dialogue scene in a car during day or night.
·        One or two non-contrived passionate scenes. Nothing X-rated, however tasteful or sophisticated sex/romance, with non-gratuitous nudity is okay.
·        At least three scenes in some location that has "never" been filmed in before.
·        A nightclub scene.
·        An easy-to-film scene in some public spot (where stock footage could possibly be integrated).
·        A sequence out in the COUNTRY, MOUNTAINS, FOREST or by a STREAM (that works well with the established settings in the story).

  • The ending is very important. It should wrap up all the lose ends and provide an up-beat catharsis. The ending should not have to rely on a lot of explosions and things blowing up. How many movies have you already seen where everything gets blown up in the end?
  • Kenneth Gullekson, a well known writer/director, wraps it up this way: "The most important things are a gripping story and engaging characters. Any subplots focusing on individual characters must be inextricably interwoven with the main plot".
Getting a feature script bought by a production company is not easy. They are only going to buy it if they think that they have a reasonable chance of being able to raise the budget necessary to produce the film. Unfortunately the funding structure in Britain means that raising production finance is by no means easy. Therefore the films that do get made mostly tend to be quite low-budget affairs. It’s all very well spending years lovingly crafting your blockbusting science-fiction epic but the sad reality is that it is unlikely ever to get produced in this country. To stand the best chance possible of your script being bought it will need several things. It will need to tell a good story, it will need good, strong characters and above all it will not cost a fortune to produce.

That is not to say that as you are writing you should be mentally adding up how much every element is going to cost to put on screen. Acting as a writer and accountant simultaneously is hardly going to be conducive to the creative process. Probably the best idea is to do a first draft and then scrutinise the script for any elements that can be usefully jettisoned. First drafts are always full of dead wood.

Location, Location, Location

So what things are likely to push up the costs of a film? The first place to look is in the number of locations that you’ve used. Locations can be a logistical nightmare for filmmakers. To get into a location they almost always have to pay a fee to get access to them. Then they have to arrange to get all the cast, crew and equipment to and from the various places they may be shooting. Every shift of location means that the lights, sound gear and cameras have to be re-assembled which can take hours if the lighting set-up is particularly complicated. A lot of different locations mean a lot of extra money to be spent. Carefully check to make sure that every location is needed.

The type of location you set your film in also needs to be considered. Some places will be more expensive to gain permission to film in then others. Some will be almost impossible to gain access to. Supermarkets are a case in point. It is notoriously difficult to get filming permission from them. In the past some films have even been driven to have to re-create them using studio sets because they couldn’t find anybody willing to let them shoot in one. Building sets is also not cheap as they not only have to be constructed but dressed with props. Space has to be rented to build them in. 

Locations, which carry an element of risk can be very expensive to film in, as extra insurance may have to be arranged.

Similarly a big cast will also push up costs enormously. Not only do they have to be fed but in many cases accommodated for somewhere. They will need to be costumed and made up. Transportation will need to be arranged to ferry them from hotel to the location. None of these things are cheap. So make sure that every character is necessary. Quite often a writer will over burden a script with too many characters. A lean cast not only makes sense from a financial point of view but as it gives each character more screen time they benefit from better character development too. In addition, an endless stream of different faces can confuse audiences. Films based on real events often create composite characters for some roles for precisely this reason.  

Boom Bang-a-bang

Stunts are clearly not going to be cheap. Not only do they take time to set up and film but they have to be carried out under the supervision of trained professionals. If sequence calls for a car to be blown up then a car will have to be bought from a scrap yard and painted up to look like new. It will then have to be rigged to explode. Again, this all costs time and money. 

Make sure that any stunt or effects sequences you incorporate are absolutely vital to the plot. Not only will this bring the budget down but it will make for a better film. Nothing looks worse then a poorly tacked on stunt sequence. For example in the BBC film ‘Face’, a scene involving a shoot out on a London street becomes ludicrous as Phillip Davis strides down the road blasting at a police car with a sawn-off shot gun. The police car then explodes in a huge fireball. Up until this moment the film had been fairly realistic but this set piece came straight out of a Hollywood action movie and just didn’t sit comfortably within the rest of the film.

It’s also tempting to believe that an effects sequence could be done cheaply using computer generated effects. Whilst it is true that cost of using CGI has fallen it can be far from cheap. If it is a film intended for cinema release then the costs involved can get quite pricey, depending on the complexity and number of sequences you envisage.

So far what I have talked about sounds like a tremendous creative barrier but that doesn’t need to be the case. It just requires a little more lateral thinking on behalf of the writer. Besides which you can always save the stunts, special effects and cast of thousands for when you sell that big budget blockbuster to Hollywood! 

So you wanna make a movie but you don't want to spend a lot. You're gonna come up with problems everyday on your set. You can get rid of the problem one of two ways - you can do it creatively or you can wash it away with the money hose. You got no money, you got no hose. So let's make a screenplay for a movie you can actually make without having to make your parents poor. Let's make a cheap movie.

How do you make a cheap movie? - Look around you, what do you have around you? Take stock in what you have. Your father owns a liquor store - make a movie about a liquor store. Do you have a dog? Make a movie about your dog. Your mom works in a nursing home, make a movie about a nursing home. When Rodriquez did El Mariachi he had a turtle, a guitar case, and a small town. What do YOU have? 

Saturday, October 27, 2012



1.   Get the first ten pages RIGHT

Several years ago, when I was working at AFTRS, I was challenged by the Director and the head of content creation for advocating for what they deemed a rather odd approach to the writing of feature screenplays.  Rather than asking the writer to hand over a finished script, my approach required that they only give me the first ten pages along with a general outline (one page) of the story. Such an approach is founded on my conviction that the finding of a cogent and surprising screen story is an evolutionary process in which the writer evolves an understanding of the action by tracking the emotional logic of the characters’ actions scene by scene. In my view – and my experiences as both a writer and a script editor confirm this - one should construct a screenplay in much the same way one builds a house, laying the foundations of the story and making sure those foundations are secure before moving on the to the next phase of the process. I have worked this way with many writers, and with great success (Chopper being a case in point).  It is worth noting that the Director and the head of content creation had little sympathy for my point of view, and that neither of them were writers. 

What they had based their prejudices on was never made clear to me, but I went away from the experience of institutionalised film-making with the distinct impression that if they had had a greater passion and understanding of screen storytelling – as a written form (i.e.: as a screenplay)  -  they would’ve been more aware of and responsive to the grammar of drama and the way in which a story evolves in concert with the evolving awareness of the storyteller. They’re apparent inability or unwillingness to grasp this most basic tenet of the story-finding process speaks volumes about most of the film schools with which I have been associated. 

It is absolutely essential that screen storytellers, whether they be writers or producers, directors or editors,  cultivate a fine appreciation and dramatic understanding of the extreme importance of the first 10 pages – or 10 minutes - of any story, whether it be read or watched. 

In Pulp Fiction, for example, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page. This is the desire that EVERY reader of your screenplay should have.  And when you consider that most prospective producers don’t need to read more than two or three pages to “know” whether or not you have what it takes, the need to grab your reader as quickly and as persuasively as possible is all the more acute. Make sure the first 10 pages are hot, and then – and only then - make the next 10 even hotter, and so on.  Try it out on your audience – the one person that you believe NEEDS the experience that your story offers. Hand the script to him or her - the first ten pages only - and when they are finished ask them: “Do you want to read more?”

2. Write for an audience that is your adversary 

No one would write an email to nobody, so why would you write a screenplay for nobody? You NEED an audience. But an audience must not be on your side. Your audience – the best audience you can have creatively – is decidedly against you. That is their job – to play the part of the antagonist. Their catch call is “Okay, Show Me!”  They are the disbelievers, the cynics, the doubters. They want hard evidence, or else.  And for whatever reason they are singularly hostile to your story’s premise. You’re job is to move them to another vantage point that will afford them a contrasting view to the one they hold. Your catch cry is “C’mon, Open up!” But it is not something that you can do by way of explanation. Art never explains!  What you must work with is the emotional logic as it is enacted and expressed in the word and actions of the characters IN the story. When this is handled with some degree of technical mastery, insight, originality and inspiration, it is possible to effect a change in your audience‘s perceptions and prejudices, at least temporarily. But in order to reach your audience, you must start with the assumption that they aren’t terribly interested in you or what you are writing.  In fact, most of them don’t give a damn about you OR your story,  Your job is to make them give a damn. 

One could argue that there are a range of factors contributing to the diminishing attention spans of contemporary audiences (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to YOUR ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly. Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly… if you can’t get them in the first ten pages you’ve probably lost them forever, unless they happen to be in love with you.

3. Write economically 

Throughout my years of writing and reading screenplays, one of the most common mistakes I have experienced is “overwriting.” This phenomenon often falls into two categories: 

1) verbose stage direction; and

2) “on the nose” dialogue.

Verbose Stage Direction -  Keep your stage directions short (blocks of less than five lines) and to the point. Never forget you are writing a piece of entertainment, and stage direction should entertain as much as it informs us as to the comings and goings of your characters.

“On the Nose” Dialogue
Several years ago, I sent a script to my manager and received notes including quite a few pieces of dialogue circled with the comment, “OTN.” I was perplexed and asked him to explain. He said these were several instances where my dialogue was too “on the nose.” The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story.

4. It’s the characters, STUPID!
Film stories – both fictional and factional - work best when they are populated with characters that are unique, and present compelling contrasts. Think of the Atlanta businessmen on their weekend canoe trip; think of the crew of the Starship Enterprise; think of the husband and wife in Scenes from a Marriage…  Memorable stories are always surprising, fresh and thoroughly credible; they allow for the experience of discovery and realisation. They eschew predictability.  In the television series, Minder, it is the relationship of Terry and Arthur that sucks us in and keeps us watching… there is something about their pairing that is unusual, unexpected, and yet believable. Think of the films that you love and what you’ll remember are the characters and their relationships.  And the quality of any story you find will be directly related to the quality of the relationship you have with each of the characters. Hence, you should…

Avoid stereotypes 
One of the problems I see over and over again with new writers is the depiction of characters that feel familiar and stereotypical. One must work with character until the characters are able to defend themselves against the wilfulness and fear of the writer. Arthur Miller once said that he couldn’t write a character until he could hear the character. Don’t settle for explanation – dramatise your character’s inner life based on an intimate understanding of your character origins, and an awareness of your own. Where your origins intersect with your characters origins, originality is possible.

Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits
Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting in a movie theatre and suddenly I’ll discover something fresh and unusual about one of the main characters. It is that feeling of surprise we all desire and unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.

Create someone an actor will love to play
One can only imagine Julie Roberts’ reaction when she read the script for Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in Hollywood. The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.

Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But, at the end of the film, he does just that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves.

Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America? What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a sure-fire way to destroy the monster? Boring!

5. Go on the journey

Every narrative is a journey founded upon a PROBLEM or an OPPORTUNITY, fueled by an OBJECTIVE or GOAL and materialised in a PLAN OF ACTION, which is what the characters actually do in order to overcome their problem/s and/or to seize the opportunity at hand.
Like it or not, there is a form – or logic – to DRAMATIC STORYTELLING. In broad terms it involves the following:  

1. By page ten or fifteen at the latest, your audience needs to be introduced to your hero, and needs to know what s/he wants (the goal), and the sort of story world (genre) in which the action is set. 

2. By page twenty-five or so, the audience needs to know exactly where the story is going, including the stakes (What happens if the hero does not achieve his goal?) and the villain (The person, place, or thing preventing the hero from achieving his goal).

3. By the page fifty-five or so), the audience needs to feel that the stakes for the hero have been raised in some fashion. Maybe a new character has been introduced. Maybe a new obstacle or villain has reared its head. Maybe the hero has experienced a distinct character transformation. 

4. By the end of Act Two (page ninety or so), the threat has become so extreme the audience begins to feel that the odds facing the main character may be insurmountable. Up until now, the hero may have been steadily moving toward achieving his/her goal, but at the end of Act Two, things have changed. S/he has suddenly been put in a corner and the audience is asking itself, “How in the world is he going to get out of this one?” 

5. From page ninety to the end of the screenplay (approximately), your audience needs to see the hero devise a new plan and escape from the mess that has presented itself at the end of Act Two (if it’s a happy ending), or see one last, mighty attempt to breakthrough, something with enough guts and passion that lends nobility to the character even though he/she fails (e.g. Chinatown). This is the big finish.

When looked at organically – rather than prescriptively – one readily grasps the fundamental notion that if you are going to find the story and participate in the emotional life of the characters with whom you are working, you must go on the journey with them – ALL of the them – without playing favourites or resorting to playing the role of the passive spectator or puppeteer that merely pulls the strings according to some preconceived formula. Their dangers are your dangers; their hopes, your hopes. Go on the journey.

6. Know what your story is about. What does it MEAN?

Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t touch on theme. Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. True, this reconnection takes place amidst the backdrop of an action-packed heist, but at its core, this is a story about John McClane discovering the importance of family and the love and appreciation he has for his wife, Holly.  It is, in short, reconciliation story. It is personal, and therefore emotional.

7. Never lose sight of the characters’ objectives

Dramatic characters are dramatic because they are fighting for something. If you get lost in the writing of your screenplay, if you arrive at a point where you can no longer grasp what is going on, it is probably due to the fact that you have lost sight of the character’s objectives and have written too many scenes in which nothing is happening to advance the dramatic causes of the characters. 

Every story worthy of the tag “dramatic” contains characters that are striving earnestly for a goal. In Toy Story 2, Buzz Lightyear is the primary hero whose goal is to lead a group of toys to save Woody from being sent to a museum in Japan. The primary villain of the story is Al (of “Al’s Toy Barn” fame) and the stakes are simple: If our hero and his team do not achieve their goal, they will never see Woody again. Jaws is another movie that quickly answers our burning questions. By the end of Act One, we know Police Chief Martin Brody (with the support of Quint and Hooper) is our hero, his goal is to kill the shark, the villain is the shark itself, and the stakes are: If Brody does not achieve his goal, more residents of Amity will die. In The Verdict, the protagonist/lawyer, Frank Galvin is fighting for his client, but the larger fight is to redeem himself from the desultory nothingness into which he has fallen.

8.  Leave them wanting more

A principle as old as showbiz itself, yet as relevant today as ever. It suggests the crafting of a memorable, climactic ending that will forever be satisfying to your audience. An outstanding ending can often save a mediocre film while a mediocre ending can often ruin an otherwise outstanding story.
So, does your climax:

1. Feel like a big, fulfilling finish?

2. Reveal a significant character trait of your hero or villain?

3. Resolve the central problem established in Act One?

4. Contain a satisfying surprise?

5. Appear five to twenty minutes or so before the end of the film?
If your story accomplishes all of the above, you are on your way… and while the writing may not be entirely happy, it will certainly have a good chance of being dramatic.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Gone dry on ideas for stories?  Wishing there was something you could get your teeth into? Tired of fruitlessly perusing your local newspapers for a high concept film idea? 

Back in the mid-1980s, together with writers, Chris Lee and Steve Wright, I came up with an idea and a screenplay for a feature film based upon urban legends. I wanted to call it Urban Legend, but the project's producer put the nix on it, explaining that "no one would ever use that as a title - too academic".  Subsequently, the project went through many drafts and was finally given a pre-sale by a big Hollywood company.  Everything was set, casting was started, and the script was re-titled You Never Can Tell (from the song by Chuck Berry, which was to be featured in the film). Alas, at the last minute, the AFC (Australian Film Commission) decided not to pick up the "non-deductibles", owing largely to the fact that the producer wanted to assign an inexperienced director to the project, namely himself!  Ultimately, the project fell over and became - as they say in the classics - "history".   

Twenty years later, as is often the case, Americans took up the idea and made the very successful - albeit inferior version of the Australian-grown film - Urban Legends,  a film - and a title - successful enough to warrant a sequel. 

Here's what they came up with:

In light of  the fact that there are any number of great ideas begging for imaginative writers and filmmakers to breathe some dramatic life into them,  WHERE'S THE DRAMA? is happy and generous enough to offer a new service to screen storytellers that are wishing to broaden their story horizons. 

The film "ideas" contained here will be written by some one, some time; and most of them will probably be made; the only question is when and by whom?  

Each of these story "triggers" offers a compelling starting point for dramatic action; each is grounded in both the "real world" and in genre, with the potential for character and situation that most audiences will find intriguing. This page won't tell you HOW to write the script, but if your looking for starting points or something to inspire your imagination, the you've come to the right place.


Friday, October 5, 2012

FACEBOOK TRYST with screenwriting student, Vajra Krishna


Here's an excerpt from a recent online conversation with a former screenwriting student and friend of mine, currently residing in India, Vajra Krishna

When I first met you, I said to you, before even coming to your course... that I had a lot of experience with screenwriting teachers, and listed what I had learnt... you said, "Just come, and be open."
I did that.
I let go of everything I believed.
when I sat in front of you.
I opened myself to knowing NOTHING
in front of you
to absorb your wisdom as NEW

You were carrying some baggage for the trip

And you broke it down. And I went with it.

i remember... 
and waiting for some cosmic train
you had booked yourself in to a sleeper as i recall
it was a single
and look as you did, you could find no legitmate conductor
so you put the bags on the train yourself
and eased down into your seat

Before I met you, I was excellent at the narrative... yet during the first course, you pointed out that I was offering everything BUT the narrative....  
And at that point, I was so open that 
I didn't accept any definition of the narrative 
except for HOW YOU defined it!

You didnt even have a ticket
i admired you for that
travelling without papers furthers the artist in you
and you went all the way to....
that great wasteland...


that is the world's backyard

It is.
I was drawn here. I couldn't help it.

I have always known its smells
they have been with me from birth

I know what you mean!
Being with you from birth! Ah, that is the most beautiful, and MOST ACCURATE description
of the smells of India!

Vajra Krishna

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THE BIG PRINT - A CASE STUDY from the screenplay, Psycho

The descriptions - or showings - in the screenplay for Psycho (2nd draft) underscore the fact that the primary function of the BIG PRINT is to show action, and where and when it is occurring. The actions in the lead up to Marion's arrival at the motel work to convey the anxiety of guilt and her dread of being caught. She is confused and in danger, and the tension aroused is palpable in the screenplay owing to the way the action is written. Everything is literally "in her head" - and the fragmentary thoughts and fears that torment her lock us into a very strong sense of her POV. Fact is, she has been driving for hours, haunted by the crime she has committed.

Marion’s sad, desperate getaway is one of three long "silent" sections of Psycho. Hitchcock’s fascination with the idea of telling a story pictorially, along with his roots in silent film, encouraged him to construct a large number of such set pieces in several of his films. The concert hall section of the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), for example, and Cary Grant’s high plains rendezvous with "Mr. Kaplan" in North by Northwest (1959), as well as the "win the tennis match/get the lighter" section of Strangers on a Train (the last two have minimal dialogue).

The tension that builds in the three, discreet driving sequences that ultimately bring Marion to Bates' Motel, manage to continuous build the sense of impending doom as the emotional energy builds. The arrival of the "death’s head" policeman (the sightless gaze of his dark glasses looks forward to Mother’s blind, staring sockets at the climax of Psycho) makes the implicit desperation of Marion's flight explicit. Once more - like her chance encounter with her boss at an intersection in town, she is being watched, and once more is powerless to do anything about it. She flees from the policeman’s gaze as quickly as she is able, and rushes to buy a new car, an utterly useless gesture, because he is watching her do it. Her interactions with the car salesman, "California Charlie," repeat her experience with the policeman: the more she tries to escape notice, the more she attracts it.

The driving sequence that follows - which is re-produced below - heigthens our anticipation as well as planting Marion's misgivings about what she has done. The writing is composed of fragments of images, memories, voices, and then it starts to rain. The wiper blades slash, battling against the elements almost as hopelessly as Marion wages her internal struggle against guilt and fear. The lights of oncoming cars nearly blind her. And she surprises us with the explicitly sexual referencing of Cassidy’s imagined response to what she has done — a threat that he will take vengeance on her "fine, soft flesh". In the film, Hitchcock chose to have his female lead smile as she mused upon the possibility, a cruelly ironic gesture given what is to happen to her. The rain and the slashing wiper blades - the blinding lights - and the fragmentary way in which the prose conducts one from one shot to the next prepares for what is to follow - the cruel deception of safety in the form of a neon looms up out of the rainy darkness - an image of sanctuary, protection and comfort that will draw Marion off the highway into the very darkness that the motel - at least in her imagination and ours - promises to dispel. Hitchcock used a neon sign in The Lodger, a sign for a nightclub that announced "To-Night Golden Curls." In The Lodger, it was the sign that drew the murderer out in search of his victims. In Psycho, the sign draws the victims to the murderer. 
As you read the except below, note how the blocks of writing suggest shots. The driving shots are succinct, chopped, one shot with one action, then move on. But once Marion arrives at the motel the shots are filled with lots of actions. One lingers, warms to the place, relaxes. Indeed the script is written in a way that contributes to our inclination to stay awhile and enjoy the respite that such a place might offer, a shelter from the storm and the public thoroughfare where one continually runs the risk of being found out.


   It is completely dark now, night.


   We cut back to her face.

                         LOWERY'S VOICE
             After all, Cassidy, I told you...  
             all that cash... I'm not taking the 
             responsibility... Oh, for heaven's 
             sake, a girl works for you for ten 
             years, you trust her! All right, 
             yes, you better come over.



   Fast cut back to Mary's face. Oncoming headlights    
   throw a blinding light across her features.

                         CASSIDY'S VOICE
                   (undrunk, sharp with 
             Well I ain't about to kiss off forty 
             thousand dollars! I'll get it back 
             and if any of it's missin' I'll 
             replace it with her fine soft flesh! 
             I'll track her, never you doubt it!

                         LOWERY'S VOICE
             Hold on, Cassidy... I still can't 
             believe... it must be some kind of a 
             mystery... I can't...

                         CASSIDY'S VOICE
             You checked with the bank, no?  They 
             never laid eyes on her, no?  You 
             still trustin'? Hot creepers, she 
             sat there while I dumped it out... 
             hardly even looked at it, plannin' 
             and... and even flirtin' with me...!

   A look of revulsion makes Mary close her eyes.


   Big drops of rain begin to appear.


   She is becoming aware of the rain starting.


   The rain increasing and backlit by the oncoming


   Mary starts the windshield wipers.


   The wipers are having a battle with the now torrential  


   Peering through the blurred windshield.


   slowing down in the flooding highway.


   peering through the windshield. The oncoming lights 
   are fewer.


   almost coming to a slow turn.


   just blackness and rain.




   An almost undiscernible light in the far distance, a 
   neon sign blurred by the rain-sheeted windshield.


   She presses down, forces the car to move on through 
   the flooded road.


   As we move closer, we see the neon sign more clearly 
   and can faintly make out the large letters which read          
   "Motel."  Mary stops the car, lowers the window
   slightly, looks out. We see the sign clearly now:
   "BATES MOTEL." Mary opens the car door and dashes out
   into the rain and up onto the porch of the motel


   Mary pauses on the porch. The lights are on within the 
   office. She tries door, finds it open, goes into 
   office. CAMERA FOLLOWS her into office. There is no 
   one present. Mary goes to the desk, rings a small
   pushbell. There is no response. Mary rubs her forehead
   in weariness and frustration, goes back out onto the
   porch. She looks off in another direction, slightly
   behind the office, and sees...


   A path from the motel office leads directly up to this 
   house. There is a light on in one of the upstairs 
   rooms. A WOMAN passes the window, pauses, peers out.

   We see her in clear silhouette. She quickly goes away 
   from the window.


   Mary, having seen the woman, expects now that she will
   get some attention. She stands a few moments, waiting.
   No one comes. Impatience and anger rise in Mary. She 
   dashes out into the rain, to her car, gets in, opens  
   the side window, begins to honk the horn. After a
   moment, a YOUNG MAN open the front door of the house,
   pauses, starts down the path. After a few steps, he
   turns and runs back into the house. Mary leaves her
   car, starts a dash for the shelter of the porch. As
   she runs, we see that the Young Man has gone back 
   only to get an umbrella. Seeing that Mary is on her 
   way to the porch, he runs quickly, the umbrella
   unopened in his hand. He gets to the porch a moment
   after Mary has reached it.

   He stops short, looks at her, then at the umbrella
   hanging useless in his hand, then back to her.
   There is something sadly touching in his manner, in 
   his look. Mary's impatience goes and she smiles and 
   this makes him almost smile. He gestures her into the
   office, standing back to indicate that he will go
   after her. She goes into the office.
For more about "The Big Print, go to SHOWING THE ACTION