EXCLUSIVE (to any west-end boozer in the afternoon): British Screenwriters whinge themselves hoarse

•15 July, 2008 • Leave a Comment

From thestage.co.uk Tuesday 15th July 2008.


Screenwriters have become the latest group to criticise senior television executives for having too much creative control over drama production, claiming there is a lack of consultation when it comes to key decisions about their scripts.

The criticisms – outlined in a new good practice guide detailing how broadcasters should work with authors of television dramas – echo those made by leading TV directors last month, who complained they have been increasingly “marginalised” by producers.

According to the guide, compiled by members of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain on behalf of the trade body, “there is a tendency – particularly in formatted series and serials – for the producer to think the writer’s part in the proceedings is finished” once a script has been submitted.

This means writers are not given a say in decisions relating to the casting and the overall shape of their piece.

“As the director and his team take over, the script is often regarded as just one element of the overall production. It is easy to forget that everything else depends on the script. Regrettably, it has become common practice to keep the director and writer apart – producers and editors may fear that their own authority will be undermined, or believe the writer needs protection from the demands of the director. Either way, they do both writers and director – and themselves – a disservice,” it reads.

The guide recommends writers should be able to meet directors at least once because it “may spark off productive new ideas”. It also suggests “the creator of an original work should be involved in final casting sessions for their lead characters”.

Forgive my Northern tone, but cock clean off.

What a load of whingeing peasants. Bleat all you like, you illiterate, artistically retarded wannabe William Goldmans. Nobody who has the power to make your vacuous, tepid script cares, and nor do we.

No – really – we don’t care.

The last thing anyone wants on set is the writer – FACT! They always get in the way, carping-on about how they’re the only ‘real artist’ and everyone else is merely ‘interpreting’ their art. Blah blah blah – we’ve all read that William Goldman book, too, you know.

If they’d stop being such a bunch of dickless arse-bags and learn how to write, I might give more than half a damn about their ‘plight.’

Does anyone with ANY cultural integrity watch the shite that’s made over here? Aren’t we all glued to our TV sets watching American imports (unless, like me, your some kind of grotesque intellectual snob, watching Engrenages on BBC4 – bof).

Joss Whedon could shit in a cup and it would have a better plot than 99% of the garbage that gets shat out of Television Centre.

Aaron Sorkin, even in his darkest, most abased, charlie-and-whisky-fuelled moments can write dialogue that’s eleventy bajillion times better than A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G we’re producing.

Don’t get me wrong, this country has produced many brilliant screenwriters. There’s thingumy… and whatsisface… and how about… you know the fella…

Before the next class, I want a 300 word essay on the following subject. Compare and contrast these shows:

ER vs. Holby City
The Wire vs. The Bill
Battlestar vs. Dr. Who
West Wing vs…… well anything, frankly.
Firefly vs…… oh why even bother

Bonekickers? Cock-knockers, more like.

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Stress management in Focus Pullers

•13 June, 2008 • Leave a Comment

or: “How to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous douchebags.”

Broadly speaking, a Focus Puller (or “1st AC” to those of you on the other side of The Pond) can be one of two personality types: Calm or Shouty.

Calm gets the job done and still has time to enjoy their work, have a laugh and be someone you want to work with on the next job.

Shouty gets the job done in the nick of time, makes you feel grateful that they bothered to turn up at all and still finds the time to spit on Runners, piss-off the Makeup girls, anger the Grips and whore their arse to production to get on the next job.

It’s as cut and dry as that.

Nobody likes an asshole, except other assholes – misery loves company.

The only people who like Shouty are Production pissants and ball-less DoP’s who can’t fight their own battles. For everyone else on set, these guys are a pain in the behind.

And that’s not me using “guys” in a non-gender-specific way. Most of these idiots are men. And when I say “men” I mean the boorish, misogynist kind, not the George Clooney kind – so not really men at all, then. More like men-shaped douchebags with a Napoleon complex.

(and breathe…)

Picture the scene: the camera trainee is doing their best, but that best isn’t good enough. Now, anyone who’s been in The Industry more than five minutes can see this poor kid knocking their pipe out to get the job done, but their inexperience is getting the better of them.

So, the correct way of handling this, were you this kid’s supervisor, would be to pull them aside, tell them to get it together and raise their game, then offer whatever help and training the kid needs to do the job. As much carrot-and-stick as is needed to get on with the day.

The douchebag way of dealing with it: you tear the kid a new arsehole, on set, at the top of your voice, in front of the rest of the crew.

EPIC FAIL!

You’ve just made the kid cry and everyone now thinks you’re a twat – congratufrigginlations, douchebag.

I have seen this happen time and time again. In 14 years of being on set, I have bollocked only a handful of people. Every one of those instances has been because the person I was yelling at was presenting a danger to their safety and possibly the safety of others. A proportionate response to a situation. I would never bollock someone just because they were inexperienced.

What kind of asshole does that?

I’ll tell you what kind of asshole…

The kind of person who yells on set is clearly someone who is deeply insecure about themselves and their job. These people know that they are talentless and inexperienced. They know they’re punching above their weight. They get to work, every day, worried that they’ll drop the ball and be found out for the the shallow frauds that they really are.

This pathology isn’t unique to the film-set. You can find it in any professional situation, the world over.

The worst thing about this behaviour on-set, is that it’s not only accepted, it’s practically expected! This is a cycle of violence. I’ve been there when Runners/Trainees are getting yelled at and I’ve had to tell the Shouty fuckwit to calm-down. Shouty finishes their rant, sends the poor crying tyke on their way and then rounds on me saying: “That’s how I learnt. If they can’t handle it, there’s a hundred more where they came from.”

What a colossal wanker.

People who abuse their children were, by and large, abused when they were kids. Just ’cause daddy never loved you, that doesn’t justify violent behaviour towards your own progeny. Just because you were once the bitch, don’t try and play the butch.

If you are ever the whipping-boy/girl for one of these pathetic bullies: just let it all wash over you. Turn the other cheek – seriously! Learn all you can from them. Make them think that you look up to them and they’ll teach you how to do your job, by showing you all their flaws, their bad habits. Do not quit the show you’re on. If you’ve got enough balls to get into this industry in the first place, then these idiots are small-beer. They are beneath you. They are worth neither your tears nor your hatred. If you hate them, you’re giving something of yourself. Hate them and they’ve won.

Get as angry as you like. Take it out on no-one. Smoke a fag, turn the radio up, drink, get laid, get out of your tree, play the blues – just get it out of your system and get over it.

You’ll be better, faster, stronger – calmer. You can and you will weather these storms. You’ll have a few funny anecdotes to tell on your next job and, in no time, the Shouty asshole will be asking you for a job.

Because THAT’s how you get back at them – be better than them…

…then don’t return their calls.

Whining bitches need not comment. The rest of you, feel free to name-and-shame the assholes that make this wonderful industry a little less fun to be in.

How to be a Runner

•7 June, 2008 • Leave a Comment

or: Everyone’s got to start somewhere.

The lowliest role on a film set is the Runner. A catch-all title for gopher, shit-catcher and tea-maker extraordinaire. Odds are that this will be the first job you’ll have in The Industry.

How do you get that first job?

Tenacity.

That’s all it takes.

You knock on enough doors and refuse to take “no” for an answer then eventually you WILL get that job – promise.

Ok – I just lied – tenacity and a driving licence.

It is possible to get a runners job without a driving licence, but a lot easier if you can drive. And drive you will – all day, every day until the job is done. Don’t worry too much if you haven’t got a car – the kind of production that can’t afford to hire you a car is also the kind of production that can’t afford good catering.

The other way in is to know someone already in The Industry. Nothing will open doors like having a relative do it for you. Just look at the Douglas family (including that walking moustache, Zeta-Jones). Nothing will get you further faster than nepotism. Mind you, nothing will get you hated faster, either. Good luck with that part.

Once you get the job…

Congratulations!

You’re now in The Industry. Go call your mother – she’ll be as proud as punch. Just don’t tell her that you’re working for expenses only, sixteen hours a day, six days a week. She really doesn’t need to know that part.

Here’s the best advice I can give you for your first job as a Runner:

You’re a Runner – get over it.

Whatever you do, DO NOT tell ANYONE that you’re a Director, DoP, Writer, etc. etc.

YOU ARE A RUNNER.

True story: we’ve just wrapped on a 6 week job. There was one runner who’d really impressed the camera team – he was a shoe-in for the role of Camera Trainee on the next job we were going on to. UNTIL he handed out business cards that said “Director.” You have never seen such unveiled contempt in your life, as the Focus Puller goes all shades of purple and the Cameraman thanks the Runner for the card then, in front of him, tears it up and throws it to the floor saying: “Call me when you shoot your next feature.”

EPIC FAIL!

You’re a Runner – get over it.

You are about to be asked to do every job that no-one else wants to do. Beyond the obvious tea-making and photocopying, you will find yourself doing the dumbest jobs on earth.

One classic on-location task is “locking off” streets for filming. This will mostly involve you standing at the end of a street in a fluorescent jacket, politely asking cars to stop and turn off their engines while a scene is being shot further down the street. Brace yourself for hours of soul-crushing boredom, punctuated by verbal abuse from the drivers who you’re stopping.

The other great job is “set-watch.” This involves you sitting on set while the entire cast and crew go off for lunch. Someone from Locations or the AD department will (hopefully) bring you some lunch from catering – probably stone-cold and not quite what you asked for. You will then have about three minutes to eat this and take a leak before you’re needed back on set.

That’s the lot of a Runner – get over it.

Mollycoddling actors will become second nature to you. Actors are, by and large, deeply broken people (even by the frail psychological standards of everyone else in The Industry). If you’re assigned to an actor, you are now the slave to their slightest whim for the duration of the shoot.

All of those bizarre stories you’ve heard about demanding stars are probably true. I know a guy who had to drive 40 miles every week to find a particular brand of cigarettes for an American actor who was filming in the North of England. I don’t know what it’s like on the other side of The Pond, but American Spirit cigs are about as rare as rocking horse shit over here in Blighty. I smoke them and know where to look, but the runner in this story has never smoked in his life. He spent the whole of his first day-off driving town-to-town to find a carton of smokes. Just what you want on your one day off in the week.

Mollycoddling the crew is little better. It’s not uncommon for an H.O.D. to ask for a coffee just before a take begins. They will probably expect this coffee to be put into their hand seconds after “cut” is called. If you’re shooting indoors, you can add to this pressure the rule: “No drinks on set.” Now try telling this guy that he can’t have his coffee. The higher up the pecking-order a person is, the bigger the strop they are allowed to throw on set.

They’re now shouting at you, but…

You’re a Runner – get over it.

You will be the first person in to work and the last person to leave.

If the average day is 0800 to 1900, you will be there for at least two hours longer than the rest of the crew. If the make-up truck gets set up at 0500, you will be there for that. If the rushes need driving into central London after you’ve wrapped, you can add another couple of hours onto the end of your day.

Through all of this, you will NOT complain – even to your fellow runners, as they (and especially they) will take this as a sign of weakness and use it against you.

Through all of this, you will be alert, eager and just glad to be there. You are lucky to be on-set (something that some Producers will take great joy in reminding you). If you quit there are a hundred others who could fill your spot. You are mostly here by chance (unless, of course, Daddy is the Producer, then you can complain all you want).

So, how to survive your first job?

Sleep is your friend. Get as much as you possibly can. Ignore family, friends, pets – anything that isn’t either work or sleep is now secondary in your life.

You may feel the urge to drink – embrace that, but DO NOT let it affect your ability to work. The only way you can turn up to work hung-over is if one of the Grown Ups got you pissed at a party the night before. In these special circumstances, you must take all the piss-taking that they throw at you and STILL do your job better than the other runners. That guy got you drunk as a test – prove him right – show him you’re made of sterner stuff than the others.

Take vitamin pills. Eat your greens and plenty of protein. Resist the urge to carbo-load. Smoke, if you must, but not too much. Drink coffee/coke/red-bull, but not so much that you twitch or get the caffeine-sweats.

Think first – then speak. DO NOT question the reasons behind the method. I don’t care what you learnt in Film School. Three years of that is equivalent to about six weeks of on-set experience. The first step on the path to true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing. That’s YOU, at this stage of your career.

Be humble, but don’t be a sucker. Don’t be a smart-arse, but don’t get pushed around more than is reasonable. If they want you to work twenty hours then be on set five hours later, don’t get all up in their faces about the Working Time Directive. If you’d bothered to read your contract, you’d have noticed that you signed away your right to the forty-hour week. Just ask the Line Producer or 1st AD (whoever your immediate HOD is) if it’s reasonable that you’re not getting your eleven-hours Turnaround. They’ll probably tell you to suck it up, grow a set and get on with your job, but they’ll also realise that they’re working you to death and, if they’ve got any sense (and talent), they’ll split the workload better in future – you hope.

A brief shopping-list – things you should always have to hand:

Emergency clothes: expect the worst weather possible, nomatter what the season. The day you don’t have your wet-weather gear is the day you’ll stand in the freezing rain for twelve hours straight. If you’re serious about being in The Industry, go to a hiking shop and spend a few bob on waterproof jacket and pants, plus a fleece. These things are the de-facto uniform of film crews the world over. Once you’ve broken them in, you’ll blend-in better – you look like you’ve done this before. Also pack a spare t-shirt and deodorant – you never know how hot the studio lights will get. Spending a morning under thirty space-lights is the diet plan you least expected (add that to your caffeine sweats and you’re not pulling anything at the wrap-party).

Pens: always have a pen at hand. Expect to lose them all. If you can nab one or two from the production office, then great. I am not suggesting you ‘steal’ them – no more than the person that asks “have you got a pen?” is stealing from you. It’s not unreasonable to ask for the pen back. Sharpies you can get from the camera team, but make sure you’re friends with the Clapper Loader before you go asking for these.

A lighter: I know that smoking is deeply unfashionable (and, apparently, not too good for you, either) but this is still a smoking industry. I’m not advocating that you take it up but, if you carry a lighter, you will INSTANTLY become a friend to the smokers. The smokers are usually make up of AD’s, Make-up, Costume, Art, Sparks, Sound and Camera crew – all the on-set jobs that you might want to get into. Office johnnies are usually too prissy and up-themselves to smoke – especially the mid-level ones who think make out like they have the power. Cigarettes would clog their chakras, or something. The smoking corner, like the tea table, is where you get the gossip AND the lead on your next job.

A torch: traditionally, everyone used Mini Maglites. Don’t bother. You can get an LED torch that’s twice as bright and half the price. Get something that won’t break your jaw, as you’ll spend a lot of the time with it clamped between your teeth, keeping both hands free. Resist the urge to get a Petzl head lamp this early in your career. They are the best head-lamps on earth but will draw all manner of mockery, even when you’ve been doing the job for years (yes – that’s me and my Petzl they’re taking the piss out of). Film crews usually hate change and the Mini Maglite is proving a hard habit for them to break.

Berocca: this is for any job that’s longer than a month. Your body should have enough vitamins in it to let you run hard for a month. Any longer than that and it will feel like sleep-deprivation is leeching the calcium out of your teeth. Berocca is your friend and the friend of anyone who gets these magic orange tablets off you, while they’re shambling along the breakfast queue. They are the crack of the vitamin world. Casual use turns your piss bright orange. Abuse them and you will get kidney-stones (apparently). That’ll turn your piss into something else entirely.

Gloves: if you’re intending to end up in production, get something that keeps your hands warm but still allows you to grasp a pen. If you intend to do one of the on-set crafts, go to your nearest garden centre and buy a pair of hide gloves. Make sure they’re that generic hide colour – nothing that says “gardning glove” – down that road, piss-taking lies. These are a cheaper alternative to the “Rigger’s Gloves” you can buy at camera houses and studios for a small fortune. These gloves will save your hands and, therefore, your life as film-making is a manual business.

Boots, or hardy trainers: You will be on your feet for twelve hours a day. If you don’t wear comfy and hard-wearing shoes then you’ll be in agony by lunchtime on day-one. While you’re in the hiking shop, getting your weather gear, check out their hiking-trainers and socks. Runners are called “Runners” for a reason and, remember…

You’re just a Runner.

Congratulations on getting your first job. And good luck.

Do you have any other tips for a production n00b?

Nobody Knows Anything (part 1)

•1 June, 2008 • Leave a Comment

or: Why the path to your enlightenment is blocked by charlatans.

Hands up anyone who has bought a “How To…” book thinking it might teach them something about film making.

I can bet you, nine-out-of-ten times, you could have saved yourself the time and money and gone without those books. If you’re happy to pay good money to people who are only going to state the obvious and tell you what you already know, then it means you’re too dumb to live. Take heart: it also means you’re exactly dumb enough to work in Media.

Pretty much all the “How To…” books in the world are so much guff, written by people who have little or no professional experience in their chosen field. Your average bookshop is packed with self-help guides that claim to cure you of your smoking, excess weight or writer’s block. At the risk of stating the bloody-obvious, you always need to check the credentials of the people who write these. The vast majority are frauds who are essentially selling you snake oil.

Smoking: Paul McKenna used to plant stooges in the audience of his hypnosis stage-show – he’s about as credible as Uri Gellar. You want to know how to quit smoking? Do NOT let this annoying twat’s voice lull you into some kind of hypnogogic state. Just decide whether you’re a smoker or a non-smoker. If you’ve just decided that you’re a non-smoker then, congratulations, you just quit smoking. Chewing a lot of gum helps, too.

Weight loss: Gillian McKeith had to drop the “Dr.” from her name – she’s a faecophillic fraud. You want to know how to lose weight? Do NOT stare at your cack. Eat less junk, eat more fresh stuff, get off your arse and do some frackin’ exercise.

Writing: You should be getting your screenwriting and film-making advice from the very best people. People who have spent years honing their craft. Experts, auteurs, masters of the art or, at the very least, some blogging dude who’s spent 14 years on-set, at “the pointy end”. Essentially, someone who’s been in The Business for more than 5 minutes and has paid their frackin’ dues.

To my mind, the greatest “How To…” offences are crimes against screenwriting. The script is the foundation of any piece. The best director/actor/cinematographer in the world cannot make good work from a bad script and yet, armed with a first-class script, only the weakest directors/actors/cinematographers could fail to make a half-decent film.

Two of the most famous and best-selling ‘gurus’ of screenwriting are Syd Field and Robert McKee.

Hands up anyone who can name one thing that they’ve written (apart from the books). Go have a look at IMDB – I’ll wait ’till you get back:

Syd Field

Robert McKee

Now, would you rather take advice from these no-talent fucks, or from these guys:

William Goldman: – multi award-winning genius. He’s forgotten more about writing than you or I will ever know.

David Mamet: – quite possibly crazy as a loon, but the greatest living playwright. Gives John Ford and Henrik Ibsen a run for their money.

Joe Eszterhaus: – don’t laugh – the guy’s a multi-millionaire because of his writing. There’s a lesson in that! Showgirls aside, the guy can build a mean storyline.

Robert Roriguez: – poster-boy for all lo/no-budget film makers. The very definition of an independent film maker. Has turns his budget limitations into virtues.

Kevin Smith: – I just can’t get enough of this guy. I’d pay good money just to watch him and Jay recite “three blind mice” for two hours.

All of the above have written books that, in various ways, teach you how to write a script. Here’s my potted reviews of a few of them:

“Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field
– Badly written (that should be your first warning sign). He’s like one of those teachers who drones and you don’t really take it all in.
– He’s the guy that made “three act structure” famous. Pity. You talk to writers who actually make a living in Hollywood and they’ll tell you that the “classic” structure of a movie is actually FOUR acts.
– He makes a living from these books and not from writing. His “expertise” is, therefore, suspect.
– 1/10 – might be good under a wobbly chair.

“Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee
– Badly written (there’s a theme emerging, here). If you ever have trouble sleeping, this book will do the trick. If his lugubrious prose doesn’t send you off to the Land of Nod, then just whack yourself in the head with this weighty tome. He can suck the life out of anything. Even his thesis on Casablanca takes all the fun out of it. It sickens me that he’s famous for noticing how good OTHER PEOPLE are a making films.
– He’s got the worst case of talent-envy around.
– He, like Field, makes a living from these books and not from writing. His “expertise” is, I say again, suspect.
– 2/10 – it’s so thick, it could stop a bullet – that might be useful.

“Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman.
“Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business” by David Mamet
“The Devil’s guide to Hollywood: the screenwriter as God” by Joe Eszterhaus
“Rebel without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez
“Silent Bob Speaks” by Kevin Smith

Each of these gets 10/10.

These people actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to living and working in movies. Whatever your taste in films, at least one of these guys will ring your bell.

Now, you might notice that these 5 books do not purport to teach you how to write, whereas the first two do nothing but that. What they do teach you is how to be a writer and a film-maker. THAT is the lesson you need to learn. Formatting and “three act structure” don’t mean a damn thing unless you get WHY you’re doing this.

If you’re after fortune and glory, forget it. Chances are, it’s never going to happen. Haven’t you seen “Sunset Boulevard”? You’ll end up dead in the gutter, bitter from defeat.

If you’re doing it for the craik, good luck to you. Have fun cruising getting your crew off Mandy’s and cruising the indi festivals, waiting for your big break. You’ll have a great life filled with fun and anecdotes you can tell the grandkids. Just don’t give up your day-job.

If you’re writing because you have no other choice, the first two books will do nothing but rob you of your inspiration. The other five will amuse you, inspire you and get your creative juices flowing – trust me. You WILL succeed, because your intensity will not just open doors, it will burn the doors to cinder and maim the Execs on the other side. Rock on.

If you’re worried about formatting your script, there are websites and software for that sort of thing – keep your money in your pocket:

wordplayer – probably the greatest writing website, everevereverever!
script-o-rama – the web’s best script-emporium.
www.simplyscripts.com
Microsoft Templates (no.. really!)
celtx.com/

The lesson? Pick your teachers carefully. Ask yourself, “why should I listen to this person?”

If you’ve ever done a creative writing class or (god forbid) you’re in the middle of a Media degree, you should already know what the “bad teacher” warning signs are. Take a good, long look at your teachers, then ask them for their resumés and prepare for a good laugh. You’ve got about a 50/50 chance that the person standing at the front of the class has little or no ‘real’ experience in their subject.

Example: by the time I had finished a summer as an intern at the BBC, I had more on-set experience than the head of my university’s media department. You can imagine how much confidence I had in the man, going into my final year (another story for another time).

Our universities are packed with these charlatans, passing-on mediocrity to generation after generation of starry-eyed teenagers who dream of making it big in The Industry.

Do not… I beg you… DO NOT fall for their shit. They will speak what sound like GREAT TRUTHS and you will only realise with the hindsight of experience that these people were only repeating lines from a bad “How To…” book. The sooner you get out from under the tutelage of these fucks, the sooner you can start your career.

FACT.

Now… who’s off to buy another “How To…” book?

Thought not.

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Do you have any suggestions for a reading list? Post them here.