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!


Kill Your Babies

The phrase ‘kill your babies’ is one that often gets thrown around in writing and filmmaking. It basically means that you shouldn’t get too attached to your ideas because every once in awhile, you’ll have the best idea you’ve ever had in your life – your career, even – and you’ll want to keep it. But it doesn’t work for the story. And so, you’ll need to let it go, even though you’ll never come up with an idea that’s better.

That’s the theory anyway. Some people take it in different ways – some people say that once you’ve finished the first draft of your script your should go back and cut your best scene out entirely. Or cut your best idea. Your best line of dialogue. I never really understood that way of thinking – surely you would keep developing your ideas so that they matched your very best one, not cut your best one to match the calibre of the rest? But everyone writes differently, so if that’s what works for you as a writer, then knock yourself out.

I’m working on a sitcom at the moment with my partner in crime, Anton. We’re developing the plotline of the episode that we’ll end up writing as our pilot. We spent weeks putting all the storylines into context of the first series, making sure all the characters had arcs and often throwing old ideas out because we’d discover something even better that was borne out of story and character in the context of the episode instead of spontaneous inspiration. We’d slaved over this one particular episode and had some really strong ideas for it, we knew what needed to happen but it wasn’t coming together. There was something that wasn’t flowing naturally and neither of us wanted to try to force the episode into a shape it wasn’t going to fit into.

So we took a breather to try and figure it out and I suggested throwing everything out and figuring out what the function of the episode needed to be at its very core. Not surprisingly, Anton was slightly skeptical of doing that, considering how hard we’d been working on it. I probably would’ve reacted the same way if he’d suggested it to me. But, as I explained to him, we were just going to use it as an exercise to see if we could find what wasn’t working. It didn’t mean that we were binning everything to never look at it again. It was just about getting back to the core of the episode to see what we were trying to do and if there were better ways of doing it than what we were working with.

We did that. We got it back to the core function of story and character. We straightened out the kinks in the skeleton, laid all the groundwork properly, then went back and talked about the best possible way to hit all the beats and make the characters do exactly what they needed to do for the episode. And we came up with some amazing new ideas  out of that (some of which have been overtaken already by others).

But we also realised that the main idea we were working with for the episode still worked. Really really well. We weren’t so stubborn that we’d ‘killed’ it, then refused to bring it back into the story because it was too much of a good idea. What was the point of that if the idea was still working? We brought it back in, surrounded by other, newer ideas which were stronger and better (and funnier) and the whole episode sprung into new life.

That’s why I don’t really agree with the term ‘kill your babies’. In my eyes, it’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot. If it’s not working with the rest of the story, then yes, you should probably put it aside and save it for something else. But if it still can play a strong enough role in terms of story and character in your script, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to revive that baby and bring it back to life.

So maybe the phrase should be ‘Knock Your Babies Out With A Sedative Until You Can Figure Out If They’re Working Or Not’?

Too long? Yeah, I think so too. I’ll work on it.

One Page Only

I’ve been working on a screenplay for awhile now and was recently asked to write a one page synopsis for it. I opened up Word, drummed my fingers against the side of my glass of water and pondered.

What’s the best way to write a synopsis?

This – before you ask – isn’t going to be a break down of how I wrote my synopsis. I think that there are lots of other blogs that run it down much better than I will. I’m simply going to let you guys know what I learnt during this process.

First thing I learnt is that one page synopses are hard. Seriously. I started off with a bit of a ‘No worries, I can do this easy,’ train of thought, I’ll have to admit, but when I hit the end of page one and was suddenly spilling over to page two, then hit about the half way mark of page two, I knew I’d have to do a fair bit of editing work to get it back down to where it needed to be.

The second thing I discovered was that the tone of your synopsis should reflect the tone of your story. If you’re writing a comedy, don’t be afraid to keep the tone loose and jokey. If you’re writing a thriller, the tone will need to be tense and clipped. You want the synopsis to make the reader want to read the film. If the synopsis doesn’t bring out some emotion in the reader, you might need to go back and tweak it so that it ebbs and flows like your script should.

The third thing was that you don’t need to include everything in a one pager. You really don’t. It’s actually a great exercise to do if you have a bit of an unwieldy plot – whether a main plot or a subplot – because it helps to show you the story you’re thinking about the most. And sometimes the story you’re focusing on, isn’t the main story. You might actually be working with the wrong protagonist but you might not realise it until you’ve written half a page of plot about the policeman who is chasing the criminal and his life story instead of the criminal who you started writing the story about in the first place.

I had to leave some of my subplots out of my synopsis. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist – it just means that the emphasis of a one pager needs to be about the main threads of the story. So forget about your quirky subplot about the love interest between the waitress in the cafe who sleeps with the criminal. Focus on everything that’s important to the main plot – the policeman catching the criminal.

The fourth? Your synopsis isn’t gospel. This was something that I used to struggle with a lot, especially when I didn’t do as many rewrites for a lot of my early shorts (and you can tell, ahem). But writing treatments and synopses aren’t setting your story in concrete. That’s one of the best things about writing is that it’s always in a constant state of flux – until it’s locked on DVD or Blu Ray. But even then, there are such things as Director’s Cuts. If something’s not working, you can cross/scribble/highlight and delete it out of there. If something is working NOW, doesn’t always mean that you won’t need to change it in the future. You might come across a better story option. You might come across a better character trait.

What you’re effectively doing by writing your synopsis or treatment is writing a representation of your story at that moment in time.

That doesn’t mean that your story has to remain like that forever.

The fifth thing I learnt was you need feedback on your synopsis just like you would a script. It’s a no-brainer, really. I would never send anything out without getting at least a second pair of eyes on it. They can also help you to identify what might not be working in your story, things that aren’t coming across clearly in your synopsis and simple things like ‘But the policeman has a gun in the final scene, surely? Why doesn’t he just shoot the guy?’ With questions like that, it highlights potential problems with your story that you can then go and fix before you send it out again.

This is one of the greatest things about writing treatments and synopses – you can figure out problems before you hit the script and then you aren’t as attached to dialogue or plotlines that you might’ve slaved over in Final Draft. It’s almost always likely that you can’t see some of your problems because you’re too close to your work, so a fresh pair of eyes is really really important.

The last thing I realised is that you shouldn’t let it sit as a task that is big and insurmountable. It’s not. It is a lot easier than you think if you’re prepared to do the work to make it strong. And it becomes a vital tool for your work. It’s a document that you can use to help shape your story and it will also become a base for your next synopsis – unless you do a total overhaul of the script because there are lots of things not working.

Every time you redraft a script, redraft your synopsis. That keeps it fresh and up to date and it means that you’ll have something ready to send when Mr Spielberg sends you an email and asks for an outline of one of your scripts.

Wait. What do you mean it doesn’t work that way? 

A Whole New World

I recently put the call out on Twitter to see if there we any requests for topics (if you have any of your own, feel free to add them into the Comments) and a post on world building was asked for.

The world is the place where your characters are interacting. They can vary from modern day to period to sci fi to pretty much any where you can put them. Every world has slightly differing rules, which vary from story to story. It is essential that you set up the rules of your world early so that the audience understands what is going on and why your protagonist can’t achieve their goal instantly. Boy meets Girl – why can’t they be together straight away? Oh, because she’s actually dating his brother. Or they can date straight away, so what is going to be the thing that tears them apart?

For me and how I write, world is entirely based on character.

The temptation for some writers is to establish the rules through dialogue and exposition. I think that in this case ‘show, don’t tell’ can be a really strong story telling tool.

I recently watched ‘Lars And The Real Girl’ again. A really fantastic film which I would encourage all of you to watch. The basics of the world are set up in the first shot. Lars is alone, looking out the window. Someone comes out of the main house – he hides from view – but she doesn’t hesitate and eventually he opens the door. He’s awkward and shy but that doesn’t deter her – she invites him over for breakfast. He reluctantly agrees, she’s surprised that he has and she goes back into the house.

Everything that happens in the rest of the film runs alongside all the character traits and tone set up here.

Lars is often alone and quiet – sometimes in crowded rooms. He’s excruciatingly shy, even around people who are friendly and warm. Karin is his biggest supporter who is with him every step of the way – but in a sisterly way, not a romantic way. The fact she’s surprised he agrees means that she is always trying to get through to him – the fact he agrees means that he wants to connect with people. But he doesn’t walk her back to the house, he maintains his own space as he watches her go inside.

In that scene is set up not only the rules of the world and character, it also establishes the most important relationship in the film in the first minute.

Each scene after that needs to reinforce and follow those rules. If the next scene in breakfast and Lars is there, loud, swearing, flirting with Karin, it doesn’t ring true with the scene before it. You need to keep consistency in your characters for your worlds to make sense. Consistency sells stories. If stories aren’t consistent, that’s when you throw your arms up at the screen and yell ‘As if you would do that!’ And not in a ‘Oh My God I Can’t Believe You Just Did That This Story Is So Compelling’ way, in a ‘This Story Makes No Sense At All’ way.

Look at the rules you set up at the beginning of your script and make sure that they’re the same rules all the way through. Or they change as they’re supposed to and not because you can’t figure out how to take your characters on a proper arc throughout the story.

Writing Short Films

Hey gang, I’m currently on restricted internet access for the next week, but I promise I’ll finish off my posts about auditions and introduce you to the cast I settled on really soon!

For now, I decided to gather together all my posts on writing short films and short film structure in one place, so that you guys can either give yourselves a crash course or reacquaint yourselves with my brilliant suggestions and ideas for writing shorts (if I do say so myself).

Here are the links!

Short Film Structure: Story Models
Short Film Structure: The Beginning
Short Film Structure: Characters
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 1 – The Twist
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 2 – No Twist
Short Film Structure: Audience 
Short Film Structure: Pace

And last, but not least:

Short Film Structure: THE STORY

Enjoy! Throw me any questions you’ve got and we’ll see if we can work out the answers!

Pre-Production: Organising Auditions; A Cautionary Tale

Operation: Playstation

This week has been entirely flat out for me. Not only did we lose a day to a three day weekend (trust me, I am not complaining about that in the slightest!), but my ‘normal’ nine-to-five job has kicked up a notch in the past two weeks and it’s all go go go at work as well as go go go with the film.

Mind you, that’s just how I like it.

As you know if you read my post earlier this week, we’ve started organising auditions for actors to find our perfect Abby, Max, Des and Lucy. Finding actors to work for free is a hard task but I completely love casting. I think it’s something about knowing that when someone walks into a room, they could be the person who is going to BE the Max I created in my head nearly a year ago. Or they could totally transform Lucy into someone who I hadn’t even thought that she was. Not to mention the kinds of people you meet in auditions – I don’t know if you know this, but people are fascinating. Especially actors. Actors have a kind of zing about them. They always seem to get along quite well with my imagination and I end up writing a film for them to be in.

Which is kind of exactly what happened on the last short film I wrote and directed. ‘Operation: Playstation’. I had met an actor through auditioning him for a role the year before. Dylan was amazing and I fought really hard to get him cast in the film, but in the end he looked too young for the part (casting is all about the right LOOK as well as good acting!). But the two of us stayed friends and one particular time, a year later, we met up for a hot chocolate and I asked him if he’d read a script I’d been working on. He read it right there in front of me (always a risky move for both parties) and I couldn’t stop smiling when he started laughing at different points – it was a comedy so that was the right reaction. He said he thought it was great and I told him that I wanted him to play the lead because I’d written the script with him in mind as the main role.

His eyes lit up and he immediately agreed. Thankfully.

With Dylan on board, I was confident that we’d be able to get the other roles fairly easily. After all, the main role of Jack was the character that the whole film hung on. As we moved forward in pre-production, I put the call out for actors. Admittedly, it was technically a ‘student’ film, but it was my graduate film and barely anyone else working in the crew was a student – I pulled favours with crew I’d professionally worked with to help me out. Deliberately downplaying the ‘student’ side of it (I was treating it as a professional short film, after all), the ad was up for ten minutes before I had my first application. Over the next 24 hours, I probably had around 50 actors apply for the various roles.

I sorted through the headshots, viewed showreels and read cover letters to see who I thought would be good to see. There were people with a lot of experience, people with not so much, but I wasn’t too bothered by the lack of experience – if they can do a good job then it doesn’t matter.

I replied to about 30 of those 50, asking them to come in for an audition.

Of those 30, 15 booked in times.

Of those 15, 4 showed up on the day.

Sobering, right? I don’t even remember anyone ringing to cancel their time – people just didn’t show up. I’d asked Dylan to come along to the auditions, so the majority of the day the two of us ended up watching videos on YouTube.

But of those 4, 2 were great.

So I offered them the roles.

After specifying the shooting dates on the casting call, on the audition information and confirming they were still available, one of them declined the role because she was in the middle of a three week holiday.

The other actor didn’t show up to rehearsals and never returned my calls or texts.

CRISIS. We have no cast, besides Dylan. I talk to Dylan about it, who is very aware of how close this is to turning into a car crash, when he says he can talk his mate into taking a role. He’s an actor too. Plus, Dyl’s girlfriend is an actress. Then I realised that I knew a group of people from high school who I’d done drama with who might be interested as well.

Between the two of us talking to people we knew, we found the cast we needed.

And you know what? The acting is the strongest part of the entire film. In every single role.

Before you ask, the film still needs to be graded (sorry guys!) and it’s currently at home in Australia feeling lonely and abandoned, so no, you can’t watch it online anywhere. But what this did do was LOWER MY EXPECTATIONS. Not in a bad way, in a realistic way.

‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ has had about 90 applications for cast. Amazing. Because we’re restricted by time in the space, I whittled that down to 18 (which was incredibly difficult because there were so many who were dancing on the maybe line). Of that 18, 16 have booked in for auditions and an extra 1 has apologised because the time clashes with another project she’s rehearsing for.

I’m really happy with that hit rate so far. But I’m being realistic.

I’ll post a blog on Monday and let you know how it goes. And I’ll break down how I went about organising the auditions. I just wanted to post about how catastrophically wrong they can go – and you guys can say that it happened to a friend of a friend of yours and mean it.

Short Film Structure: The Story

I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile and I could bang on for days and days and days about stories in short films, but it’s easier just to bold it in an attempt to make it stick in your mind. There’s really only one thing you need to know about writing stories for short films.

Keep it simple.

That’s honestly all it is.

Keep it simple.

Don’t try and fit the plotline of an entire episode of Doctor Who in there. Don’t try and tackle abridging an idea that could probably be a feature film into the length of a short film.

Chances are it won’t work. It’s too much content to fit into 7 to 10 minutes. Some of the best shorts I’ve ever seen have been five minutes long.

The short film is the best way to showcase your writing talent of (to quote *ahem* Robert McKee) ‘a good story, well told’. In case of short films, the mantra should be ‘a simple story, well told’. The more you put in to a short, the riskier it becomes to get it across quickly in the amount of time you’ve got.

In ‘Spider’, the story is about a practical joker apologising to his girlfriend.

In ‘Multiple Choice’, the story is about three students planning to convince their lecturer to let them resit their exam.

In ‘Lucky’, the story is about a guy trying to save his life.

In ‘Side by Side’, the story is about two friends, using each other as an escape.

They’re all simple stories, well told.

You do hear the odd success story that talks about the feature film being based on a short film written a gazillion years ago. But that’s because the short film is a film in itself. It’s not a short pretending to be a feature or a short pretending to be a television show.

It’s just a short.

With a strong story. And strong characters.

Because the writer has taken the time to develop these two elements to make the film the best it can be.

Keep it simple.

You’ll spend much less time rewriting it.