How Important Is The Script?

It might seem an odd question. ‘How important is the script?’ But more and more I’m seeing and hearing stories about times when changes are being made to the script on the fly, only for it to end up in the editing room and, suddenly, the story makes no sense.

The answer is: ‘It depends’. An appropriately odd answer to a strange question. But it does. Just like every script is different, so too is every production. I’ve worked on many of them now and there are elements that are the same, sometimes the same people crop up again, but at the end of it, it comes down to two things that define your production.

Your Producer.

Your Director.

The way that these two people handle their respective roles in the production are key. I’ve worked on productions with producers who expected everyone to put in 200% every day – resulting in a very harried and stressed office with an intensely high workload – and I’ve worked on productions with producers who demanded a high quality of work, but not at the expense of everyone’s sanity. Both got incredible results on the screen, but I can guarantee you there’s only one of them that I’d be working for again.

There are many elements that a good producer and a good director have. And one of them, in particular, is respect for the script.

Producers are usually pretty good with scripts. I’m seeing more and more that the head writer of a show is also an executive producer. You also usually have a second exec who handles more of the running of the show itself. Sometimes you don’t. It depends on the set up of the show. But, at the end of the day, the producer liked the idea enough to develop it into a script. They like the scripts enough to find the money to make it into a show. The producers are often there with the writers every step of the way writing-wise, to get the scripts up to scratch.

DSCF5426 copy

Directors don’t necessarily work like that.

In my experience, directors (particularly television directors) come on board at a later stage, once the story is outlined and (often) there’s already a shooting script draft circulating the production office. They offer notes, amendments come out – but on every show I’ve worked on, the director’s opinion and vision has been incorporated into every script (or at the very least, been discussed and then decided against).

What I have noticed is, once out on set, some directors like to riff on what’s on the page.

Just for the record, I don’t have a problem with this. I think that ad-libs and additional dialogue often need to happen to help get more deeply into a scene or perhaps suddenly a line of dialogue doesn’t make sense because of the location or blocking – things have to be changed for whatever reason. But when things are changed without telling the script co-ordinator or passing it by the writer, that’s when things become a little messy.

I worked on a show where this happened quite a lot. Lines got changed everywhere, action lines (or big print) stage direction got chucked out and new stuff brought in. The director was only directing two episodes in a series of eight, but they didn’t have any regard for what had come before or what was coming after. They changed things without thinking about it.

It meant that, come editing time, that the scenes shot didn’t really resemble anything that was scripted. Dialogue that was supposed to continue over from one scene to another got cut, so there was no real link from one scene to the next. A character who has no technological know-how began to brag about their prowess of finding the right website – whereas in other episodes, they can barely figure out how to turn on a computer. Timing and tension of scenes got all scrambled because the rhythm was thrown out of whack with all the changes.

All these ‘small’ changes on set had big consequences for the story. It meant that plotlines that were supposed to start, didn’t. That incidental line of dialogue they changed? It was actually a seed for a storyline that pops up again in a later episode. That line of big print they ignored? It completely throws out the pace of the scene because there’s not enough movement. The poor editor was tearing his hair out.

So the answer to ‘How important is the script?’ is ‘It depends.’ It depends on how well you know the rest of the story, not just the stuff you’re shooting at that second. It depends how well you know the characters – their backstory as well as what comes next. It depends on whether you’ve checked changes with the script department or the writers and make sure they’re all okay.

It depends on how much homework you’ve done and how much respect you have for the other people in your team. Because if you make a change and it is the wrong change, it can have serious implications on many other people and their workloads.

Respect the script. Every word on the page has been written for a reason – so make sure you know what that reason is before you begin changing everything.

Don’t forget, if you want another pair of eyes on your work, I provide a script reading service that might help you get the best out of your script! Check out my prices here.

In The Cinema: Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of its Own

February 2011, I was living in London and I’d fallen into a job working at a documentary production company called Mark Stewart ProductionsI’m still of the opinion that it was one of those divine intervention moments – I sent off my CV to the company on Tuesday, got an interview on the Wednesday, had a second interview on Thursday and was offered the job on Friday. MSP had done a lot of varying projects – many F1 themed – and so I started work as their office administrator and slowly began to familiarise myself with the way the world works when you’re working in a boutique production company. The main thing I noticed was that the slate of films is particularly diverse but incredibly fascinating – each project an insight into a world I had previously known nothing about.

One of these was a long running project about Fabergé. It had been in production for a few months when I started – the first week I was there coincided with the first week of shooting in Russia. I think one of the first things I had to do that directly related to the project was transcribing the interviews. Transcription is a job some people hate, but I actually really enjoy it. What it did allow me to do was to start to get a picture of the world the documentary was traversing – and I did begin to become enticed into this world of jewels and death, wealth and poverty.

I’d been working at MSP for a few months when the main director there, Patrick Mark, discovered that I had skills in production. I hinted at the fact that if he ever wanted a hand on set, I would be more than happy to oblige. It wasn’t long before I was being taken on nearly every shoot with him on several projects that were running concurrently at the time. But Fabergé was Patrick’s big project and it stretched itself comfortably out over the entire eighteen months I worked there. I went on a trip to Russia to explore secrets in Smolensk, Moscow and St Petersburg. I got to see up close these amazing, astonishing pieces that had been created over 100 years beforehand. I spent time in Sotheby’s, I met people with impossible amounts of knowledge about Russian history and jewellery. I also got to model one of the pieces which is featured in the documentary itself!

That's me wearing Fabergé!

That’s me wearing Fabergé!

I left after eighteen months working there because my visa ran out and I had to leave the UK to return to Australia. But even when I was back in Australia, Patrick asked me to review cuts of the film for feedback, to make sure the story was working, that it all made sense. It seemed that, for awhile, the film would be in a kind of perpetual production!

That is, until earlier this year when I found out that the documentary had been picked up by Arts Alliance for a limited theatrical release. There was no confirmed date as yet, but I was assured it would be a global release. I just missed the UK release by a matter of hours – I was on a plane on my way back to Melbourne when it was initially released. However, lucky for me, the Australian release was delayed until last weekend.

It’s hard to describe what it was like watching the film in the cinema. It was a full house, so that in itself was pretty amazing. I wasn’t hugely nervous as I wasn’t the writer or director of the film – but I really wanted it to be well received. The film has a special place in my heart and I just knew that all the shots covering the detail of the pieces would look astounding on the big screen.

And they did.

But the thing I noticed the most was the audience reaction. The film has a really strong emotional thread running through it and the audience responded really strongly to the story – there was laughter, there was shock, awe; even involuntary gasps of surprise. It reminded me that it doesn’t matter what story you’re telling, your audience is key. And the best way to get your audience in is with a strong hook and an emotional line that arcs and changes with your story and with your characters.

There are still some screenings of the film around the world, so check out cinema times and dates here!

AP

What I’ve Been Watching: Sense8

Sense8 – A Netflix original series

Thanks to the advent of Netflix in Australia (finally), I can once again legally watch all of the television shows and movies I want. Having Netflix whilst I was living in the UK, then moving back to Australia and surviving without it for the last two years, it now makes me appreciate it even more. One of the trends developing out of the streaming model is Netflix generated content – of which more and more are popping up in the Netflix library.

Sense8 is one of these (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers). It’s got really strong credentials – it comes from the Wachowski brothers who directed a small series of films called The Matrix Trilogy, as well as J. Michael Straczynski who developed the story of Thor and World War Z. The cast – although not really high-profile yet – are incredibly strong and they work really well, considering how difficult it would’ve been to shoot a show like this (eight main cast, nine different countries – I feel for the ADs). It’s actually just been renewed for a second season, so this is a very timely blog post.

Sense8 is about eight strangers across the world, dealing with their own lives and problems, realise that there are other people in their heads that they are connected to. They can step from their own point of view (say, in London) into the ‘sensate’ they’re speaking to (say, in Chicago). They can touch and feel each other – even take over their bodies and use skills that they have that the other sensate might not.

Considering all these story elements, it would be very easy for it to get unwieldy and hard to keep track of. I mean, when I watch Game of Thrones with my mum (yeah, yeah), we have to pause the episode at the head of every scene and recap where we last saw them and who they belong to (‘This is Reek, who was Theon Greyjoy, who was best mates with Rob Stark – he’s the one who’s the eldest son of Sean Bean – you know, the one who was in Lord of the Rings?’). It’s easy for a big story with lots of elements to lose its way.

Sense8 counters this by taking advantage of the fact that 61% of Netflix users binge watch their television shows (i.e. watch five or six episodes in one sitting). A 12 episode series gives the audience more than enough time to spend with each character, learn their worlds, their friends, their enemies. If anything, it spends a little too long keeping everyone separate – half of the conceit of the show is how these eight characters learn about each other’s existences and how they’re going to come together to survive. I wanted more overlapping action between everyone earlier – using each other to explore new worlds, test new skills, figure out what this connection to each other meant.

Sense8 – Eight main characters in the ensemble cast

That being said, the characters are easily the best thing about this show. When the plot flagged a little in the middle and I got a bit restless with no massive, cheeky interaction between the characters (I would’ve loved to have seen Wolfgang causing a bit of havoc in Will’s life when he was bored), it was the strong connection between Wolfgang and Kala, Will and Riley that kept me hooked. Everyone is so completely different and there are so many different types of representation here – it’s unlike any other show on television.

Nomi is transgender, living with her black girlfriend Amanita; Lito is a gay Mexican actor; Will is a bi-curious cop from Chicago; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London; Wolfgang is a safe-cracker in Berlin; Capheus is the happiest bus driver you’ll meet in Nairobi; Kala is a pharmaceutical scientist in Mumbai and Sun is the brains behind her family’s big business in Seoul.

Seriously, you would never find this cast on network television.

This diversity is what helps to make the episodes that aren’t as pacy still interesting to watch. Never underestimate the power of a character exploring a completely new world for the audience. Each world is completely unique to the character and each character would respond entirely differently to each situation. As long as your audience can empathise with your character – that they make your audience feel something (love, hate, admiration, loathing – it doesn’t always have to be a positive emotion) – that’s the key. I’m not a gay Mexican movie star, but I know how it feels to have to hide your true self. I’m not a safe-cracker in Berlin, but I know what it’s like to be under enormous amounts of pressure with a ticking clock.

Find the universality in your character and then draw it out to make your audience connect with and feel something. The emotional journey will always help carry the audience through if the plot has flabby, slower moments.

That being said, don’t foresake plot for character! It’s a fine balance, but when it’s done right, it’s amazing.

AP

Back In The Swing Of It

On this day, the auspicious day of 6th August, 2015, this day is the day I launch back into blogging about writing, filmmaking and all other kinds of things that fall around those banners.

As you may have noticed, if you’ve visited my website before, we’ve had a bit of a facelift. The wonderful, talented team at Apraze have put together this incredible new site and revamped it and I, personally, absolutely love it. If you’re looking for a website for your film, folio, reel, yourself – you should get in touch with them for a quote! Honestly, I can’t recommend them enough – so what are you waiting for?

For me, this year has been a busy one – but then again, aren’t they all? I kicked off the year working in the production department of a drama series called Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, then went onto be a script assistant on a comedy series called Utopia (which starts airing on the ABC [Australia] on August 19th). Whilst I was doing that, I also completed John Yorke’s Into The Woods: Storytelling for the Screen writing course run by the Professional Writing Academy.  I had six weeks off and headed overseas to the UK and knuckled down with my co-writer and best mate Anton, where we worked on a couple of our projects, submitted to competitions and just generally enjoyed the English sunshine (yes, there was sunshine).

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

When I hit Aussie soil again, I faced the unenviable task of trying to find a job again – but out of the production department where I’d been working on and off for the past two and a half years and getting more firmly ensconced in the script department. With a little bit of luck and sending the right email at the right time, I managed to land a job in the first week and a half I was back and so have been working for the past month as a script co-ordinator/editor on an ABC thriller series. I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to mention it, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and refer to it as Project G. I’ve also done a Script Editing short course through the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), been reading and assessing scripts and was also fortunate enough to submit a writing sample with Anton to be considered for a reasonably big film (always a long shot, but certainly worth it).

It’s been a busy seven months, and I want to keep it going. One thing I missed most about not blogging was that a blog post throws up all different opinions and points of view and that conversation is something that I think definitely keeps you honest as a writer. That’s the beauty of story – it evokes different responses in different people and one writer can’t always portray every single one of those correctly.

I’ve learnt a lot this year and I’m looking forward to discussing it more with everyone in the internet world!

AP

Links:

Apraze
Utopia
John Yorke’s Into The Woods: Storytelling for the Screen writing course
Anton’s Twitter
Australian Film Television and Radio School