Emergency treatment: There is more to selling a script to Hollywood than a good storyline and an astronomical telephone bill. Kevin Jackson reports

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The Independent Culture
Here is a true story. A young man called Niraj Kapur wants to be a famous actor, and decides that the best way of achieving his dream is by writing the films in which he can one day star. The odds are plainly against him: he comes from a small town in Northern Ireland, his family has no connection with films or television, and he is still in his teens. But he has energy, initiative and bags of chutzpah. So he goes to the local library and borrows a How-To book on screenwriting. Then he takes on a night shift in a supermarket and starts to write by day. Before long, he has completed three scripts.

What next? He looks at the How-To book again (it is called Writing Screenplays That Sell, by Michael Hauge) and finds a list of 60 or so American agents and other contacts at the back. He writes to all of them. At the same time he finds out which production companies make the films he likes best and runs up huge phone bills calling their offices in LA. The few who deign to reply simply tell him to get a lawyer. So he finds the cheapest lawyer he can (who charges pounds 5 per letter) and mails endless copies of his screenplays across the Atlantic.

Soon, Kapur starts to get some replies. The reader at Silver Films (Joel Silver's outfit, responsible for Lethal Weapon, Ricochet etc) likes his action- comedy Turbulence at Sea, but mysteriously quits his job two days later, taking the script with him. The reader at Gruber Peters is even warmer about his teenage drama, Wrong Side of Town, but worries that its Sixties setting may make it too expensive. Closer to home, an independent television company wants to develop his inter-racial romance, Secret Love, for Channel 4, but Kapur disagrees with the producer's ideas and he leaves the project with a few hundred pounds and the promise of a 'Story by' credit.

By now, Kapur is unemployed, living in Southampton and, thanks to some stratospheric bills for transatlantic calls, rapidly coming to the end of his savings. Then he sees a small ad which announces that Michael Hauge, the man who wrote the How-To book that launched him, is coming to England in late July to teach a two-day seminar for the London Film Workshop, entitled 'Selling Your Script to Hollywood'. Encouraged at the prospect of finally meeting his long-distance mentor, he splashes out on the pounds 95 attendance fee and a return ticket to Waterloo. . .

Now, if those few paragraphs held your attention, it may well be because: (a) the story of Niraj Kapur and the Movie Biz can be seen as a contemporary variation on the story of David and Goliath, and: (b) that same David and Goliath tale, according to Michael Hauge's opening address to this particular seminar, is the basis of every big Hollywood hit of the last few years. Not just most of them. All of them: Rain Man and JFK and Working Girl and Dances With Wolves and Terminator 2 and Cape Fear and, well, you name it.

A surprising claim? In some ways, no. Bold announcements about the fundamentals of plot are growing ever more common in Britain these days, now that everyone seems to have a screenplay in their top drawer, and it is almost as lucrative for American professionals to teach their craft as it is for them to sit in Malibu tapping out treatments. There are, though, notable differences in emphasis and style between the different gurus. Robert McKee, best-known and flashiest of the bunch, is uncompromisingly dogmatic, cites Aristotle's Poetics and hands down stone tablets engraved with the eternal laws of narrative.

Hauge, a quieter, tweedier figure, is no less firm in his views about storytelling, but is (as he rightly says) 'less autocratic', directing his students to the likes of City Slickers and sweetening the didactic package with plenty of information about how to register your script, find yourself an agent, handle a release form and so on.

'I know that almost all of the people who come to these seminars really want to hear about agents and contracts,' he says, 'but until they know how to write a screenplay that someone will want to make, none of that will do them any good at all.' He therefore persists in devoting more than two-thirds of his teaching hours to his views on theme, character and structure. Hauge's audience at the Metro Cinema in London this weekend was about 130-strong, and its quietly attentive attitude spoke volumes about the plans and expectations of the rising generation of British screenwriters.

In his opening remarks to the gathering, there was a faint hint of defensiveness, as if Hauge thought he would be addressing a hostile pack of Godardians, Bunuelians and Bergmaniacs, contemptuous at the idea of having to squeeze and chop their visions into set formulae.

Far from it. At one point, Hauge called tentatively for a show of hands. 'How many people here would like to write for Hollywood?' About 98 hands. 'And how many want to write for the British cinema?' Two. Even Hauge seemed mildly taken aback. A later exchange put that landslide vote of no confidence in perspective: after fielding a question from a participant who wanted him to clarify the reasons why her script 'written from a black perspective' would not go down well as a first-time submission, Hauge asked her what the market was like for black scripts in Britain. 'There is no market,' she replied. Nods of agreement all round.

'It really surprised me,' he remarked later. 'But if there are really no companies to write for in Britain, I think they should look at what young writers do in America - either write a horror story and raise the money to make it cheaply themselves, or do what someone like Steven Soderbergh did with sex, lies and videotape, which cost maybe dollars 250,000 and has made, I don't know, more than dollars 10 million. There's no reason whatsoever why a film like that, funny and sexy and with just four or five actors, couldn't be made in Britain.'

For those who persist in hankering after Sunset Boulevard, though, Hauge believes that there is no prejudice in Hollywood against British writers as such. Does that mean that someone like Niraj Kapur stands a good chance of breaking into the citadel? Hauge is cagey, and refuses to make any predictions or cite any statistics, other than the surprisingly cheering one that the Writer's Guild of America takes on more than 500 new writers each year. But - the inevitable 'but' - Brits who seriously want to invade the heartland really must learn the Hauge principles.

So what exactly are these principles? Two days of seminars do not boil down readily into a couple of sentences, but a few examples will help give some idea - especially as we already have a possible subject ready to hand. If Hauge's analysis is right, it seems as if Mr Kapur could do far worse than to plunder his own diaries when he sits down to write his next script.

His recent life story clearly has a strong Concept, which, Hauge says, must always be expressed by the formula 'It is a story about a character who wants to do something visible' - that is, a Hero (Kapur) with an Outer Motivation (screenwriting). It has Obstacles (Hollywood, etc) and Conflict (disagreeing producers), and it wouldn't take much brainstorming to dream up a Nemesis figure (that disappearing reader at Silver Films, perhaps?) and even a Reflection, the subsidiary character who helps the Hero attain his Outer Motivation: surely Hauge must be the man?

Kapur's hypothetical autobiopic looks even stronger if we start to check its component parts against Hauge's list of 'Twelve Basic Story Situations'. We already have the possibility of Category Six, Metamorphosis, whose most blatant avatar is Rocky and whose slogan is 'I want to be different.' Moreover, when a chap from an Indian family in Northern Ireland starts to tangle with the West Coast, we are in the area of Category Two, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Finally, if Kapur manages to assimilate arcane wisdom from Hauge, as young Daniel does from his guru Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid (another one of Haugh's key texts), then we have Category Seven, The Torch is Passed. In short, it rather begins to look as if Kapur should register his life story with the WGA straight away, before one of his fellow students beats him to the punch, and to the Polo Lounge.

The next weekend seminar, 'How to Succeed in the Movie Business' will be held on 3-4 October, and conducted by the show-business attorney Mark Litwak.

(Photograph omitted)