Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Rules

Re-post of an article originally written in November 2014 for

I’ve spent the last three weeks watching my new film Kajaki over and over again, either with the creative team or in front of preview audiences.  It’s an unusual movie in many ways and so I’ve compiled a list of the screenwriting rules we break – and get away with – and those we don’t – and are glad for it.  This is all, of course, IMHO.

Five Screenwriting Rules You Can Break

You need a hero’s journey.  No you don’t.  You need conflict, and as much of it as possible.  I am the world’s biggest fan of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and the three act structure, and this classical thinking provides the bedrock for most of my scripts.  But not every movie has to follow the ‘hero leaving their normal world, overcomes obstacles, returns with the elixir’ model.  That model is there to be understood, mastered and then messed around with.  The real danger with this model is its predictability, its inevitability.  Change it up and an audience will go with you.

You need a theme.  No you don’t.  The theme is often tied in with the hero’s journey – what the hero ‘learns’ is the message the writer is trying to dramatise for their audience.  But just as you don’t always need to send your hero on a Luke Skywalker journey, so you don’t need them to use the Force or understand some massive life secret in the process either.  This is an on-running discussion I have with a producer – should a writer always ‘have something to say’?  I hate it in real life when people try to tell me what I should be thinking, and the same applies for movies.  I like to be presented with a story, and be afforded the respect to draw my own conclusions.

You need to signpost everything for the audience.  Please don’t.  This is an extension of the point about respect.  There is a difference between an audience having confidence that a writer or film-maker will take them on a worthwhile journey, and being led there by the nose like you’re cattle.  Kajaki has fifteen main characters, a barrage of military jargon even I barely understand (and I wrote it), an initially slow-burning storyline, some of the most shocking physical injuries ever filmed and no emotion-manipulating score.  The audience is forced to navigate their own way through the film and, from what we have heard so far, are having a much stronger experience as a result.

Everything needs to make sense.  No, it doesn’t.  As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, real life doesn’t make sense, so why should drama?  Real life isn’t neatly ordered, or easily comprehensible.  Real life is totally subjective, too.  What makes sense to one person may not to another.  So your writing shouldn’t aim for a lowest common-denominator level of easy generality.  It should be specific, dirty, different, odd.  It should be a bullseye for one person and wide of the mark for another.  It should be real.  This level of realism and difference is what people mean by an artistic ‘voice’.

You need a happy ending. No, you don’t.  You need the right ending.  The ending that will satisfy an audience.  The ending a story deserves and which it demands.  Many of the best movie endings (from ‘what’s in the box’ to this, this or this) are narratively ‘unhappy’, but are rewarding nevertheless.

Five Screenwriting Rules You Can’t Break

An audience must care.  We spend the first twenty minutes of Kajaki introducing the audience to the various characters who are going to get caught up in subsequent events.  This is, in itself, in danger of breaking the rule that first acts should provide inciting action as well as set-up, whereas here we deal almost exclusively in set-up.  But that is both deliberate – the calm before the storm – and also is essential because once the action kicks in there is no time to build that level of empathy that drama fundamentally requires.  If you haven’t made them care, then you haven’t written a movie.

Your characters must want something.  I’ve tried writing movies where the hero’s ‘want’ is ‘to find out what they want’ and that is really, really hard.  You need them to have a goal, you need obstacles in their way, and you need a sense of how they are going to surmount them.  Without that, there is no conflict, no drama, no reason to be.  In Kajaki the goal is survival.  The obstacles are legion – a minefield, no comms, no helicopters, no medkit.  They attempt to surmount them through heroism, ingenuity and, most effectively, through humour and love.

Rising action.  You can break every rule in screenwriting, but the maxim ‘screenwriting is structure’ is perhaps the most inviolable (least violable?).  You need cause and effect.  You need one thing to lead to another.  You need to exit a scene in a different state to how you entered it.  You need the story to have direction and shape, because that is the craft, that is the difficult stuff, that is what you are paid to do.  Every scene MUST advance either the story or the character, or it goes.

See it from an audience’s point of view.  Don’t signpost for an audience, but don’t give them two fingers, either.  Your job is to present a piece of drama for an audience to appreciate, on whatever level they choose to do so.  You job is not to confuse them, or show off, or be deliberately obtuse.  Which is why, as you rewrite and rewrite your script, and recut and recut your film, you must always consider the audience.  What do they know, at this point?  What do they want to know?  What do they care about?  Where do they want this to go and how will I take them where I want them to go?  You have a responsibility to your audience, and it is the worst form of creative arrogance to forget that.

Show them something new.  Above all else, entertain.  And for most people, the key component of entertainment is novelty.  Each summer the $200m tent-poles push the boundaries of action and VFX to show their audience sequences they have never imagined, let alone seen, before.  In the same way, at the budget levels with which most people reading this article will be used to working, you need to push the boundaries.  Have you got a new idea?  Have you got a new way of presenting that idea?  Have you got enough new scenes / characters / jokes to refresh an old idea?  Can you break some rules of screenwriting and get away with it, in a way that nobody before you has?  If you haven’t, keep digging.


The Truth

Re-post of an article originally written in November 2014 for

Today we’re going to talk about The Truth. Not this sort of truth. Or this. Or even this.

We’re going to talk about the kind of screenwriting truth that connected six out of the nine Best Picture nominees in the 2014 Oscars. The kind that will in all likelihood connect a similar percentage next year – I’m looking at you Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Unbroken, American Sniper, Selma and Wild. And, in a both self-aggrandising and self-promoting link, the kind of truth that also informs my new film Kajaki.

It can be based on, inspired by, or from a. It can even be A or The. Audiences go crazy for them, critics take them disproportionally seriously and, probably for both those reasons, producers and commissioners and broadcasters seem to push them into production more readily than they might.

We’re talking about the True Story kind of truth.

It’s a sub-genre of films that Venn diagrams together everything from thriller to horror to comedy to (most commonly) drama. One which has always been popular but seems to be enjoying a resurgence (take a look at this long list here from just the last five years) as the aforementioned producers, commissioners and broadcasters maybe realise that Extraordinary True Stories are a better – and often cheaper – bet than expensive-to-option books and plays, let alone, God forbid, original ideas.

But it’s a curious beast, the True Story movie. It’s not a documentary. It’s not a drama-doc with low-fi reconstructions and objective analysis. It is a full-on, scripted, performed, edited, lusciously soundtracked and emotionally manipulative drama. The same as any other kind of crafted drama. So where’s the truth in that?

Jonathan Dean wrote an interesting article in last weekend’s Sunday Times (paywall) where he made the point that real lives are not neat and structured, in the way that films demand them to be. So any attempts to impose ‘resolution’ or ‘lessons’ on biopics or stories based on true events are doomed to end in contrivance, he argued. You may as well just make it up.

There is something in this, but it isn’t the whole story. If you twist the biography to suit the conventions of genre / demands of an audience / rules of dramatic structure to the point where it becomes unrecognisable, or disrespectful, or indeed absurd, then yes, you probably should have just made it up. Or you were just going about it the wrong way. David Ayer was recently spending a lot of time justifying his “based-on-a-true-story” script of U-571 while promoting his not-based-on-a-true-story new movie Fury, and has apparently now learned to tell the difference between the two.

But I think we do learn lessons in our own lives. And we do have resolution. After the occasional exceptional incident or set of circumstances we might step back and reflect upon how they may have changed us, and we take stock, and we move on. And we’ll probably then relate both the incident and the lesson to those around us in the form of ‘you’ll never believe what happened to me last week…’ And of course that is what storytelling is, and does. So true can be dramatic.

And the ‘you’ll never believe’ bit is probably the key to why true stories can and do and should be allowed to work as drama. Because they are true, and not made up, audiences load them with more significance. They are truly stranger than fiction, more compelling than fiction. BETTER than fiction.

Which brings us back to my movie. I mentioned in my last post that, having set out looking for events to inform a fictional British war movie, we hit up on the events at the Kajaki Dam on September 6, 2006. And we soon realised that the true events of this horrific day made for much better drama than anything we could make up.

The reasons for this are manifold. For one thing, it actually happened (see above for why that is a good thing). For another, there were enough separate incidents during the day itself (no spoilers here) that the drama kept developing, and kept changing shape, in the way that film structure demands. So there was little or no need for invention.

But it went beyond that. The more we looked, the more interesting, odd details and moments and lines we found, which we really could not have made up and which added to the warts-and-all realism we found so captivating. We broke various screenwriting rules to accommodate this. There is no classic hero’s journey here. The first act does not function as first acts classically do. There are probably too many characters. But all of these rules were worth breaking for the incremental truth quotient they delivered. Real is not neat, as Dean observed. But drama doesn’t need to be, either. That’s the line you have to tread.

And most importantly, we put in the hours to talk to everyone involved. I mean everyone, and I mean hours. Two, three or four hours spent with each person who was in that minefield. In the pub, or in their front rooms. Surrounded by photos of their wives and children (occasionally by their actual wives and actual children). Hearing them talk. Hearing the way they talked. Learning what was important to them, during and after the incident. Getting to know them. Seeing them.

One of the screenwriting ‘tools’ I have never embraced is the old character biog thing. A few hundred words of back story and motivation for each character. It always felt forced to me.

Well this was the real thing. This was hours and hours of first-person character biogs, and let me tell you it was worth it. From every meeting the director and I came back with our pockets stuffed with gems of dialogue, of incident and insight, and it all went in. Every pass of the script made it better and tighter and richer and deeper, much like Armando Iannucci’s chicken stock theory of screenwriting (see here, from one of my own vlogs from Cheltenham ’09, ah, great days…).

And this will change how I write all my scripts from now on, true and ‘false’. Every character sees the events of the story through their own perspective. It is your job to both fully understand and fully represent that.

But if all you are doing is telling the truth, where does the craft, the art even, occur? In my opinion, in the three choices that you always make as an artist. The first is content. What story are you telling, what are the facts and who are the characters? The second is perspective. Where do you come in and out of this story, what do you choose to show and not show, what choices of selection and editing do you make during this process? And the third is context. What point are you making through these choices, what theme are you using to inform your selection process, how would you like your work to be interpreted?

These principles apply to telling a true story as much as they do to adapting a book or making up a story from scratch. But if you apply it judiciously and effectively to something based on a core truth, if you can point to the screen and say That Is True, and if audiences believe you, then they will love you forever.

The Idea

Re-post of an article originally written in October 2014 for

So I’ve been doing this for a while now, and for some reason I feel a powerful, hubristic, intimations-of-mortality urge to communicate nuggets of web-friendly wisdom to all you aspiring screenwriters out there, who will no doubt be stealing jobs from me this time next year.

Specifically, I have a movie coming out in a month and so for the next few weeks I want to track that project from script to screen and unpick the lessons I’ve learned from this process.

The first lesson of screenwriting is this. Don’t start, don’t pick up a pen, don’t CTRL+N until you’ve hit upon Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Idea For A Movie In The World Ever.

Three years ago I was working with a director called Paul Katis on a training film for the British Army and the thought occurred to us that the British don’t make war films any more. Which is weird, given that we certainly still fight wars, that soldiers are certainly still dying in those wars and ergo you’d think there would still be tales of heroism, drama, tension (all that good movie stuff) going on.

But people were steering clear of making modern British war movies.  Maybe for political, moral, business reasons, who knows. That’s a whole nother post.

So the first part of our Big Idea was let’s do one, let’s make a modern British war movie.  Our primary rationale being No-One Else Is Doing This So That’s An Opportunity. The flip side of this is of course No-One Else Is Doing This So We’d Be Nuts To Do This, but even that seemed more attractive than Everyone Else Is Doing This So We Should Do This Too route. Dare to be different. It’s a start.

So then we went looking for real-life incidents with which to inform our (at that stage fictional) modern British war movie. And then we came across the story of the Kajaki minefield disaster.

This is not an ad for my movie, or at least it’s not totally an ad for my movie, so long story short, Helmand Province, September 2006, a soldier goes on patrol, steps on a mine, his mates come in to rescue him, they step on more mines, and soon it’s a terrible day.

Suddenly our Big Idea came into clearer focus. Tell a TRUE modern British war movie. This true story had the benefits of being relatively contained in terms of time (one day), location (one minefield) and cast (one group of guys). And they weren’t Taliban mines, they were left over from the Russian invasion of 1980, so it didn’t need to be an overtly political war film and we could concentrate on the experience of the guys involved.  That felt different.

But an extraordinary true story in and of itself does not constitute Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Idea For A Movie In The World Ever. The two reasons why the events at the Kajaki Dam earned, at least in my head, this title, presented themselves in the detail we uncovered as our eighteen month research process developed.

First, the timings of the incident had an inherent three act structure, from set up (normal day) to complication (first mine), to further second act complications (mines two, three and four), to all hope is lost (we’re never getting out of here), to some sense of resolution at the end.  I feel uncomfortable talking about real personal trauma in terms of film structure but the fact remains that the events of the day both were and (as importantly for me) played out like a tragedy.  It was a movie.

But it was in meeting the soldiers themselves, in hearing twenty subtly different versions of the events, told with perspective, personality, pathos and pride, that I knew that this was a seriously special story. This was a hundred minute piece of drama to which I could dedicate a couple of years of my life (as yet unpaid) without getting resentful or bored. A movie on which I could call in every last one of my chips and not feel embarrassed, because it was worth it. A movie I hadn’t seen before.

(I will discuss this part of the research process in more detail in my next post – Why True Matters.)

 When you are working in the independent sector you have so much stacked against you. Not just financial or logistical obstacles, but the apathy of both a film-making industry and a film-going public who are more impressed by the razzle dazzle than they would care to admit.  Cutesy / quirky / noisy doesn’t cut it. Very few people will go and see your no-name-cast indie movie if, for the same £10, they can watch the studio version with Channing Tatum instead.

Your idea has to be BETTER than theirs if you are going to get people to finance, and then watch, it. It has to work at a contained budget BETTER than if somebody offered you a hundred million pounds to make it. Your idea has to be something they have NEVER SEEN BEFORE on screen.

Look at Memento. Look at 28 Days Later. Paranormal Activity. Open Water. Monsters. The Blair Witch Project.Catfish. Juno. Saw. Moon. Each of them, at the time, Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Ideas For Movies In The World Ever.

Don’t start your own film-making journey until you’ve got yours.