Fellowes, Morgan, Helgeland, Frank, Straughan deliver advice
Five U.K. and U.S. scripters shared their processes, tips and experiences with audiences during the third annual BAFTA/British Film Institute Screenwriter Lecture Series, which concluded Monday with a talk by “The Iron Lady” scripter Abi Morgan.
The series, designed to champion scripters as collaborative authors of film, invites international scribes to share their own unique styles, inspirations, advice and experiences with audiences. Covering topics from dealing with directors and studio executives, to debunking the notion of writer’s block and extolling the importance of research, each scribe brought their own unique voice to the lectures, which have become a highlight of the U.K. film calendar.
“I think one always has to remember when you’re writing a script, if some of you are writers who haven’t yet been produced, it isn’t necessarily going to be that script gets made, but what it may do is be an audition that opens the door,” Academy Award and Emmy-winning scribe Julian Fellowes told the audience in the opening talk of this year’s edition on Sept. 27.
Each lecture proved as individual as the voices delivering them, from Fellowes jovial race through his experiences, to Morgan’s use of readings from different drafts of her work to demonstrate her process and the progress to the screen.
“For producer, helmer, actor, DoP and designer, the script is the point of inspiration that everyone must think of as their own,” said Morgan at the closing lecture, admitting that working with “Shame” helmer Steve McQueen had taught her more about writing than anything. “The final film is in fact the last 40 pages of a 100-page script. We threw away the first 60 pretty early on, which was, for someone who rewrites and rewrites, both frustrating and liberating.”
Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland used his lecture on Oct. 26 to advise new scripters to fight for everything. “Never apologize for being a writer. You have to fight. You have to absolutely be known as difficult.” He also advised having everything well planned before starting. “Be creative before you write your script. When you’re writing your outline you can take flights of fancy. When you break the back of the story, when you stare at the wall all day long, you can be creative,” he said. “But when you start writing that script you’re an architect and there’s nothing creative about it.”
“I’m not a big believer in writing tips, because when you get down to it, it’s all so personal, and whenever someone gives me a tip, it just makes me feel like I’ve been doing it all wrong,” admitted Scott Frank, Academy Award nommed scripter of “Out of Sight,” on Oct. 1. “But let me tell you something. I say this from experience. The bad movies are just as hard to write as the good ones.”
Frank criticized scripters and filmmakers who make films with an eye to awards, defending the business side of film. “What happens in our business is that, with success and especially awards, filmmakers often develop a case of what I like to call ‘the importance.’ All of a sudden, they feel the world watching them, waiting for them to decide. And every film they make from that point on must be important. It’s all about making the right move, not the right movie. And nothing kills a career faster than an obsession with what’s important.”
In his Oct. 24 lecture, BAFTA-winner Peter Straughan came to the defense of critically-maligned genres. “I don’t think that hierarchy’s very useful. If we think of a Billy Wilder rom-com or a thriller by Melville or Jacques Audiard or Ben Wheatley, these are films that forget they’re rom-coms and thrillers. Genre is just the rhythm section in music that can be endlessly varied and inventive.”
However, Straughan railed against Hollywood formulas. “It’s obvious why the film industry, as an industry, would want to find ways of predicting and controlling the success of a story with an audience. I understand why they want to turn writing into a science, but I do think it’s a mistake,” he said. “I think there’s a subtle tide in filmmaking and it flows in the direction of prediction formula. That current makes us begin believing film should have a certain structure, and certain beats and elements, and, worst of all, as audience members who are fed on a diet of this, we begin to expect that too. Instead of being open to stories that work in a different way, we feel baffled or bored or obscurely insulted by them. So we reach the point where we can only digest stories that tell us things we’ve already been told. And that has to be anti-art.”
Past years’ BAFTA/BFI Screenwriter Lecture Series participants have included Charlie Kaufman, Ronald Harwood, Guillermo Arriaga, Aline Brosh McKenna and Paul Laverty.