Writing for the movies

Jaci Stephen is so determined to write a Hollywood screenplay that she has moved to Los Angeles to find the secrets of an Oscar-winning script
Click to follow
The Independent Online

First of all, I'd like to thank the Academy. And, of course, the producer, the director, the actors, my mother, and my mother's bichon frise, Maddie, without whose constant barking cheering me on, this film would not have been written.

So, I've written my Oscar winning speech; I've even decided on my outfit (Versace dress, Jimmy Choo shoes). I've also worked out that if I have no liquids for three weeks before the ceremony, I will make it through the eight hours you have to stay in your seat in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre without screaming for the bathroom.

Now all I have to do is write the damned script. Ay, there's the rub, as Hamlet said. I knew there would be a catch. It was easy enough to watch Slumdog Millionaire pick up its eight statuettes at this year's Oscars and fantasise about my reaching the same giddy heights, but a lot harder to imagine putting in the hard graft that got director Danny Boyle and his team there in the first place.

So, how far would I be able to get, fantasising, dreaming and "talking the talk" as they say, before I had to "walk the walk" and somebody actually said: "Where's the script?"

In my work, I am constantly bumping into hundreds of people working in the film industry. Allegedly. The reality is, that, for the most part, "Working In Film" means: (a) going to the movies a lot (b) whingeing about the Government's lack of support for the film industry, or (c) talking about the delights of Scarlett Johansson's rear in the opening scene of Lost in Translation.

Lunching with these people is a guaranteed way for you never having to put pen to paper, at least for several years. Ray Burdis, who launched BritFlick Productions in September last year is one of the exceptions and really does get things done. Producer of the critically acclaimed 1990 biopic The Krays, he has recently established funding for his first project, The Wee Man, about the Glaswegian "godfather", Paul Ferris. A writer as well as a producer, I asked him how far he thought I might be able to get without a script. Quite far, it seems. He told me of one project that went all the way along the line with writer, producer, director and finance all on board. It was only when they met with Robert Carlyle, pens in hand ready to sign him, that the actor had the temerity to ask: "Could I see the script first, please?" Scratching of heads all round.

Until he founded BritFlick, Ray was making wine in the south of France but wanted to put something back into the industry where he had already enjoyed considerable success. I told him two of my ideas and he seemed very interested. He also gave me some useful advice regarding screenwriting terminology. I might, for example, be told that my script "isn't heartland enough" or that it's "a bit route one". "Why don't they just say it's unsubtle?" says Ray.

After my meeting with Ray I met an SIF (Someone in Finance). SIFs are the key people to know; they wear suits and have a slightly superior air about them because they know they are holding everyone else to ransom. The SIF promised to introduce me to "key people in the industry" the next time I went to LA.

I bumped into Jerry Springer, who I thought would be perfect for a role in one of my movies. He loved one particular idea and, as it happened, his agent was also someone who had expressed a desire to work with me. That Oscar was looming ever closer. Great! But still no script.

I was certain there were many more avenues to explore before I put pen to paper, and turned to my well-established and always reliable work avoidance co-worker, Amazon. One morning, I sent off for every book on screenwriting that they had.

I had been recommended Syd Field, who was apparently the best in the business; but I found him tough going, and he seemed pathologically obsessed with the movie Chinatown. Robert McKee, who is well known for his flamboyant screenwriting seminars around the world, was a little too formulaic for my liking and took the joy out of movie watching (and apparently, the man's ego is so huge, it's a wonder any students can fit into the same room when he is speaking).

Utterly despondent, about halfway through the second box, I alighted upon Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. Blake is one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters and has sold dozens of scripts, including Nuclear Family to Steven Spielberg, and Blank Check (which he co-wrote), which became a family film hit for Disney. The book's title is based on the premise that when we meet the hero, he or she does something – like saving a cat – which "defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him". It then goes on to explore the 15 "beats" in a movie which take the hero through a process of transformation that leaves them in a different place at the end from where they started.

On page 19, Blake invites readers who believe they have a good logline (selling the idea – the "What's it about?" in one line) for a movie, to e-mail it to him. I sat down with my title (which was all I had so far), "Celebrity Stalker", and realised that all I had was the twist (the irony that Blake says is essential to a good logline) – the celebrity is the stalker. Over the next half hour, I came up with: a daytime television host becomes obsessed with a dysfunctional family when they appear on his show to discuss their problems. And I emailed it off.

A response came back within hours. And I mean a real response: not some standardised reply, but comments about why my logline really worked, along with great encouragement to pursue the project – "Fantastic... you have to do this!" The sceptical part of me immediately saw Blake on the phone to Spielberg, even as he emailed, passing off my idea as his own, but given his own success rate, that thought was quickly dispelled.

I decided to take one of Blake's seminars, and where better to do it than in the movie capital of the world, Los Angeles. As I sat with 12 other budding screenwriters in downtown LA, in full view of the Hollywood sign on the hill opposite, I felt for the first time that I really was going to write something.

Students are required to arrive with a few ideas that they pitch to the group. Having gone in with "Celebrity Stalker", the group decided that they preferred one of my other ideas, "The Beginner's Guide to Sobriety", and that is the one I went with. What's it about? I hear you ask. Well: a party-loving divorcee vows to clean up her life and get sober, and there's only one thing standing in her way – alcohol.

Blake, at 6ft 3ins, is a commanding presence, and, standing in front of the class, breaks into childlike laughter when he sees an idea taking shape. "Isn't this great?" he says, getting into his stride. "I just love this stuff!" And he does. He really does. I feel so LA I might even have a plate of leaves for lunch and then go for a five-mile hike to burn them off.

At the end of the weekend, I had the 15 beats of my movie, from the opening image to the final image, including a "break into two" (the new love interest of my divorcee), and the "break into three" (the start of her personal transformation), after she underwent "the dark night of the soul" moment, quickly followed by "all is lost" (the real downers). Blake talks in terms that are easy to understand ("It's easy! Easy!" he smiles, spurring the class on) and, in fact, relatively easy to implement.

After lunch on the second day, I, along with the rest of the group, pitch my idea to everyone else. Blake likes it. The group likes it. And then Blake asks: "How far have you got with this?" Oh, no, the script. Well, I suppose somebody had to ask. "Er, this is it."

But all that's changed now and I really have started writing. I've also taken the advice of Save the Cat! (which never leaves my bag and has become my Bible) which, on page 172, advises, among much else: Come to Los Angeles. It's where the business is, says Blake, "so what are you doing living in Dubuque?" For Dubuque, read Cardiff.

I was in LA for a week for the seminar, and now I am returning on a more permanent basis. I have met with agents, managers, other writers; heck, I even have an LA-based lawyer. I have cleaned out Staples and watched more movies over three months than I ever have in my whole life.

But I think I have learned what makes a successful one, and if you read Save the Cat! you will see that Slumdog Millionaire is a prototype of the guidelines set out in that book. So, I'm currently working on "Slagdog Billionaire", in which a hooker makes a fortune when she secretly switches the boxes containing the money on Deal or No Deal. I will call Julia Roberts in the morning. I can already hear that rapturous applause at the Oscars even as I write.

Comments