Film: A writer's place is in the wrong

Aspiring screenwriters gather in a Sussex castle to learn how to turn basic ideas into feature film gold.
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The Independent Culture
I could throw a brick out of the window right now and hit someone who wanted to be a screenwriter," says Jonathan Rawlinson, director of the First Film Foundation. "The trick is to find the few who are really good."

In fact, if Rawlinson lobbed his brick right now it would splash into the moat of Herstmonceux Castle, a renovated pile near Eastbourne where 17 writers, five script editors and three tutors are holed up together for the latest in an international programme of residential screenwriting workshops that aim to give writers a push towards making their first feature.

"The most common mistakes are that people will write a film where the lead character dies at the end," Rawlinson sighs. "Or they'll write a sci-fi movie, when there just isn't the budget for that kind of thing in this country." The fashion in England at the moment, he says, is for "films about groups of unemployed men getting together to do strange things. I was sent a script recently about a group of singing monks in the North of England." The Full Cassock, perhaps?

Herstmonceux may sound like Eastbourne's answer to an ivory tower, but inside is all vocational pragmatism with a gruelling timetable of script analysis, revision and rehearsal with directors such as David Leland, Gillies MacKinnon and Les Blair. The writers come from Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Holland and England; the tutors have been imported wholesale from the University of Southern California.

This afternoon, anxious writers are preparing to sell their stories to the producer, Sandy Lieberson. The programme says: "Sandy will analyse your pitch on two levels: your pitching technique, body language, persuasiveness, etc; and the story itself, the idea", but the morning session is rapidly derailed by a couple of conscientious objectors from Holland who passionately refuse to pitch anything to Sandy except their dissatisfaction that such loathsome Hollywood commercialism should contaminate European film-making.

The afternoon runs more smoothly, with authors struggling to compress their cherished ideas into bite-sized chunks and feed them to a sceptical Sandy. One woman describes the story of a fading pop diva who finds redemption by imitating her younger self on a Stars in Their Eyes-style TV programme. Everyone is impressed.

Next up is a Dutch woman whose political thriller already has some financing. Sandy tells her: "Most people you'll be pitching to are insecure. They don't know whether they should like your idea or not. Make them feel that they should join all these other intelligent investors."

Aja, from Sweden, rounds off the afternoon by outlining her story of dastardly genetic experiments leading to the birth of a mutant "pig baby". The group is politely stunned. Sandy is suspiciously gentle: "You've got to create a credible situation that we can buy into." Afterwards, someone asks Sandy what makes the perfect pitch. "The perfect pitch is where you sell your idea," he snaps, before reassuring them that being a good writer and a good pitcher are not necessarily compatible. "Some writers develop such an expert technique that they're brilliant pitchers but can never deliver the screenplay. For them the pitch is the beginning and the end of it."

In the bar that evening the air is thick with smoke and stories. Stories of ghosts and car swaps, about Icelandic pioneers setting up republics in Canada, and teenage werewolves; about Ruskin and his bride's pubic hair. "The work here is very mixed," a Danish script editor says mournfully over his beer. "The saddest are the mediocre; they have seen the Garden of Eden but you know they'll never reach the apple. You know in your heart of hearts that only two or three will make it to the big screen." This is before inviting me back to his room to drink whisky.

One writer confesses she cried after her four-hour script analysis. Another has discovered that, thanks to a misprint in the publicity for the course, her piece is described as the story of a man who must confront his animal projections. "It's supposed to be anima," she wails.

The following morning two Dutch co-writers offer up their latest draft for dissection. Script-doctors slice into their story, analysing characters, questioning motives and amputating useless chunks of plot. It transpires that the tutor leading the session has been missing the last two pages to the latest draft. "I thought, what are they doing here?" he laughs, "They don't listen to a word I say. I have no emotional catharsis at all." Even with the ending intact, he feels the script needs compacting. "It's like hammering meat into a sausage. The skin of your script has expanded, so now it's like a big ball instead of a sausage. It's 132 pages, right? Would that be a problem if the movie's two hours long? I think it's a problem."

Despite the industrious analyses and rewrites, despite the constant talk of "taking things to the next level", no one at Herstmonceux seems able to pinpoint exactly what makes a great screenplay or what makes a bad one. "I don't have a theory," says MacKinnon. "I don't want to come up with a formula because I don't think film-making works that way." For every rule, there is a fantastic film that has broken it. So it is up to the tutors to try to excavate each script's potential. Professor David Howard says: "I like to say we're gardeners, digging in the dirt of their stories and helping the seeds grow."

According to Howard, there is no need to panic. "A story is not usually something that can be clearly articulated at the start. If it is, then it probably hasn't been explored enough. To paraphrase EM Forster, how do I know what I think until I see what I write?"

Howard's evolutionary approach is echoed in a rehearsal session later in the afternoon, where MacKinnon and a group of actors are reading through a script by Peter Bloore. Before each scene Peter comes up with great mouthfuls of clarification. At the end of the session MacKinnon tells him: "Be careful about explaining things too much. It bypasses the process of discovery. It's about the difference between showing and discovering. It's the difference between illustration and painting: painting has mystery."

Howard's advice to aspiring film-writers is: "write a film that you would like to see. Whether you like John Waters or Jurassic Park, write something that gets you excited and there will be other people who will get excited too. Trying to second-guess what will succeed based on what's hot today makes no sense, because in two years [the minimum between a script conception and a film's release], that's going to change. No one knows which direction the brim on the baseball cap is going to be facing."

North by Northwest runs courses three times a year. For details write to 9, Bourlet Close, London W1P 7PJ

not in

the script

William Goldman on handing over a screenplay to the producer, the director and the crew: "Once we pass the baton, we become this weird thing, some vestigial lump, like a baby born with a tail. Get rid of it."

Rob Long recycling a Hollywood joke: "Did you hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood? She slept with a writer."

William Holden in Sunset Boulevard: "Audiences don't know anybody writes a picture. They think the actors just make it up as they go along."

Ben Hecht: "Hollywood held the lure... tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle."

Anonymous: "They ruin your stories, they trample on your pride. They massacre your ideas. And what do you get for it? A fortune."

Preston Sturges: "When the last dime is gone I'll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a 10-cent notebook and start the whole thing over again."

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