Ritual

Yesterday was the funeral of my boyfriend’s grandma. He wasn’t able to be there, so instead he went to a church at the exact same time that his family would have been sitting in the crematorium, lit a candle and sat thinking about his grandma for the duration of the service. Afterwards, he wasn’t exactly sure why he had done it. Although he was brought up by a Catholic and a Buddhist, he never goes to church and his Grandma was, in fact, an atheist. He said that he just felt a need to do something, to acknowledge her death and to be present, in some way, at the moment of her cremation.

On the morning after the Paris attacks on November 13th, my boyfriend and I had felt similarly at a loss for what to do. Both our places of work were closed under the state of emergency, and we needed to get outside after spending most of the previous night watching the news unfold on France24. Without really knowing why, we felt compelled to go to Le Carillon, scene of the first shooting on rue Bichat. It’s just around the corner from us and has always been one of our favourite bars because of its cheap beer and huge terrace that catches the sun in the afternoon and early evening. I had been there the Friday before at the exact time the shootings began with a friend visiting from England, but by chance on the Friday of the attacks my boyfriend and I were both feeling tired and decided, unusually, to stay at home. We were horrified when, sitting in the living room watching a film, we started to received worried texts from friends and family saying there had been a major incident in our neighbourhood.

Watching something so gut-wrenching and so close to home on the news, somewhere that you know and have sat enjoying yourself just like the victims so many times, we felt a strange sense of disconnect from what had happened. We didn’t want to be voyeuristic or take photographs, but we felt a need to go there and see what had happened with our own eyes, to try to understand it and to pay our respects in whatever small way we could to those people that we could so easily have been amongst. So we lit candles and simply stood and mourned the lives that were lost, and the place that we had known on so many peaceful afternoons.

These small, human actions, done out of instinct rather than reason, got me thinking about the role of ritual in our lives – whether it be going to a church or temple, or simply the ritual of making tea in the morning. Donna Henes puts it quite beautifully in her article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donna-henes/rituals_b_3294412.html

“The need for ritual is a basic human instinct, as real, as urgent and as raw as our need for food, shelter and love. And it is every bit as crucial to our survival. A compelling urge to merge with the infinite, ritual reminds us of a larger, archetypal reality and invokes in us a visceral understanding of such universal paradigms as unity, continuity, connectivity, reverence and awe.”

And while reading about ritual, I was reminded of what Robert McKee says in the first chapter of Story.

“To the film audience, entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, concentrating on a screen in order to experience the story’s meaning and, with that insight, the arousal of strong, at times even painful emotions, and as the meaning deepens, to be carried to the ultimate satisfaction of those emotions.”

Perhaps, then, we don’t need to understand why we perform the rituals that we do – only that the act of performing them is an act of understanding in itself.

 

 

Short but Sweet

Writing a fifteen minute script for my application has really transformed the way I think about short films. I have to admit that in the past I’ve never naturally been drawn to the short form of anything (apart from exercise classes). One of my favourite novelists is Donna Tartt, whose epic, ten-years-to-write novels also double as handy doorstops. I like to lose myself in a story, and I’m always secretly pleased when I see that a film I’m about to watch is over the two hour mark – and not just because French cinema tickets are really expensive.

I understand that it’s just as difficult, if not more so, to tell a story and create an emotional connection with an audience in such a short time frame. I’ve even heard it said that the short form is more suited to the E-generation’s ADD-level attention span. I’ve just always been a little ambiguous (Raymond Carver notwithstanding). But I realised that if I was going to write a short film then I would need to understand what it is that makes them special. How are they different from feature films? What can they do that longer films can’t? Why choose to tell a story in this way and, most importantly, what are the essentials of a good short film?

I started with a simple search in Google: How to write a good short film. The first two links were, oddly enough, to lists entitled “7 rules” or “7 simple secrets” for making a successful short film, so since seven has always been my (and David Beckham’s) lucky number, I decided this was a good place to start.

http://www.scriptmag.com/features/7-simple-secrets-making-a-short-film

I’ve never come across this online magazine before but I bookmarked it straight away because a) the last two pieces of advice in this list made me completely transform the ending of my fledgling short script by far for the better, and b) the writer (Timothy Cooper) posts links to three excellent short films, all of which helped me to better understand not only why I would want to write, but why an audience would enjoy a short film.

When I search in google ‘what is the point of short films’, every single article on the first page of results refers to the benefit of short films for writers and how they can help you advance your career. As Timothy Cooper says, “it’s probably the best calling card for an upcoming writer or director. Creating a strong short is one of the easiest ways to start out on the festival circuit, prove a feature concept, or get commercial work.”

But what about the audience? Watching the three shorts linked to on script mag made me see that short films are so much more than just a writer’s calling card. Slice of life and snapshot are words that are probably overly used when describing short films, but it’s true that they give the audience a chance to swoop down on a moment in one or two characters’ lives, people from worlds or walks of life that they would never normally see into, and learn something about these people and hopefully themselves in the process. At other times they make you think about your own life and your own mistakes. Table 7, for example, by Marco Slavnic and Andrew McDonald https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-n4eSIsr2c is less than 5 minutes long but says so much about the time we waste on pointless arguments, in such a simple, engaging and original way. The Lunch Date https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epuTZigxUY8, which we were shown on the course I took at the Met Film School, makes us think about the presumptions we make about others every day of our lives, and the more I think about Six Shooter by Martin McDonagh https://www.youtube.com/watchv=T9w9BJXeL4E the more I think it is about choosing to hang onto life even in the darkest moments, because in the absence of faith, life is all we have.

Of course they can also be funny, romantic, absurd, beautiful, quirky or terrifying, just like a feature film. But the point I like most about short films is the way they focus on just one or two characters and their dilemma or conflict, without subplots or diversions or minor characters to distract us. In this way they are something you can lose yourself completely in, because from the moment they begin we are dropped straight into this little world and are gripped entirely until the resolution.

At least, that’s what we as writers should be aiming for.

I’ve come across some brilliant resources while researching and watching short films – a few of them are shared below but I’ll add to them the more I find. I’m really excited to watch as many as I can and keep learning about what makes them work.

http://iloveshortfilms.com/

http://www.raindance.org/7-rules-for-writing-short-films/

https://screencraft.org/2015/08/18/9-short-films-all-filmmakers-should-know/

http://mic.com/articles/92951/16-short-films-that-launched-the-careers-of-famous-directors

I Heart Erin Cramer

Last weekend I went to London to do a two day Introduction to Screenwriting Course at the Met Film School in London. I had literally no idea what it was going to be like (the welcome pack was pretty vague) or what to expect from it – my friend who works in film casually mentioned (after I’d already paid the £300 fees) that she’d never even heard of the place, so to be honest my expectations were pretty low! Really, I just wanted to get an idea of what an MA might be like and remember what it feels like to be a student. Plus, I was hoping they might throw in a free lunch.

They didn’t throw in a free lunch, or even a free cup of coffee, so the fact we all really felt like we would have paid double that price by the end of the weekend must speak very highly of the quality of the teaching. I arrived at the end of the central line and found myself wandering around Ealing studios for ten minutes searching for some kind of sign post, but they hadn’t felt the need to bother with any of that nonsense. In my mind I’d been picturing a lecture hall and one of those trestle tables that you pick your name badge up from and a branded carrier bag with a free pen in it (well, they had said to arrive 15 minutes early for registration.) But it turned out that registration involved Erin ticking six names off a, er, register, since six of us were all there were. It was less of a lecture, more of a workshop. Six women, sitting around a conference table and immersing ourselves in screenwriting for the weekend.

After short introductions, Erin Cramer, our tutor for the weekend, jumped straight in to writing log lines. It was so much more practical than I’d expected – we had to share our work right from the beginning, starting with writing a log line for a well known film and asking the others to guess it, moving on to a one page synopsis and then a treatment for an entire film. We also did role plays for character development and a lot of discussion around short films and clips from longer features.

Erin pitched the level perfectly – there was a lot that had already been touched on in what I’d read, but she went into more depth and gave us exercises to put it into practice. The group was really mixed in age and background but we all got on so well right from the start and felt comfortable sharing ideas with each other. Erin was also really good at giving feedback and making you feel like your work and ideas were interesting and worth talking about.

By the end of the two days, I’d never been more sure that this is what I want to do with my life. It also made me realise how much the last five years in Paris have taught me. It wasn’t until the end of the first day that I realised I hadn’t once been nervous to speak up or share what I’d written, and not only that but people liked it! When I look back at myself, reading a short story to the writers group at Le Chien Qui Fume when we first arrived in Paris and almost not being able to make eye contact I was so terrified, I feel really proud of how far I’ve come.

Another thing that was really great was finding out how much I love being a student, particularly when you feel passionate about the thing you’re studying. I think it might be the only time in my life when I’ve been in that kind of situation and not once looked at my watch or wondered when break was. And even in the break, it was so great to be talking about something that we were all passionate about, rather than the latest techniques in classroom management.

After the course, I went home and everyone I spoke to about it told me how excited and happy I seemed ( or “enthused!”, as my mum put it) and one of my colleagues even said it was like all the stress at work just goes over my head now because in my mind I’m already somewhere else! So I think on balance I’d definitely have to say the Introduction to Screenwriting course at Met Film School was very much worth doing, even if we did have to pay for our own coffee 🙂

http://www.metfilmschool.ac.uk/courses/introduction-screenwriting/

Still Alice and The Three Act Structure as Foundation Garment

Studying structure so much can have the unfortunate side effect of making you a slightly annoying person to watch a film with. I’m not sure my boyfriend really appreciated me repeatedly pausing Still Alice last night, for example, to tell him when the inciting incident, first major plot point and act two climax had just happened. It really is interesting how seamlessly the script fits the three act structure though! I suppose what’s more interesting is the fact that, because he isn’t studying it, he didn’t notice. Which is exactly the point. Structure, when done well, works without the audience being aware of it. It’s like a piece of foundation underwear – you don’t know it’s there, but it’s holding the whole thing together.

Before studying the three act concept I never realised how beautifully it carries the audience through a film, giving them exactly what they want at the right moments and ensuring the perfect balance of action, plot and character development. So, just for my own enjoyment, here’s a breakdown of how Still Alice fits into those three acts:

Act One – All is well in Alice’s world. We see her excelling in her job as a linguistics professor at a prestigious university in New York. She celebrates her birthday with her loving family and husband to whom she is happily married. She is successful, beautiful, fulfilled. But something is not right. Alice has begun forgetting things and recently became disorientated while running the same route that she has run everyday for years. This is the inciting incident. Worried, Alice goes to the doctor, who sends her for tests. The turning point, or first major plot point, is Alice being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Life has changed forever and Alice has entered a terrifying new world from which there is no return.

Act Two deals with Alice (and her family’s) attempts to cope with this new reality. There are moments of frustration, desperation, humour and tenderness. As her mental functions slowly deteriorate, she develops coping strategies. She asks herself questions on her phone about her name, address, age etc. and secretly records a video telling herself that, when the time comes that she can no longer answer the questions, she must swallow the bottle of pills that she has hidden in her dresser drawer, lie down and go to sleep. Her plan is ruined, however, when she forgets where she put her phone and then forgets about the questions she is supposed to answer each morning. Her deterioration speeds up from this point. The second act climax comes when Alice stumbles across the video and attempts to follow its instructions without really knowing what she is doing. About to swallow the pills, she is startled by a door slamming and drops them on the floor. As she stares at them, wondering where they came from, we know that her ‘escape plan’ is destroyed and she has lost connection with her former self. All, it seems, is lost.

In Act Three Alice has almost no memory and is unable to communicate with the outside world. The family deals with this in different ways. Her husbands hides in his work. Her daughter Anna has her babies and names one of them Alison. But it is her youngest daughter Lydia who changes the most, deciding to give up her dreams of stardom in L.A to become her mother’s full time carer. The film ends when Lydia is finally able to break through to her mother, when she reads her a scene from a play and Alice is able to understand that that the piece is talking about love. At this moment we realise that, although she has in some respects lost everything, she is very much still Alice.

Watching this beautiful film made me think about structure in my own work and why it is so essential, not just to be aware of it, but to have such a powerful grasp of it that you can wield it without the audience even noticing. As Noel Coward once said, “Everything is structure, the rest is just decoration.”

Finding Space

After writing that really pleased-with-myself post about how successfully I had cultivated a writing habit, I have to be honest and say that it all went a bit downhill. Life got in the way in the form of three family visits (not even my family) in three weeks, a sudden heat wave tempting me out of the library, and a pile of end of term reports to write. Before I knew it a month had gone by and I had done close to zero. Not even a blog post. I felt like crap about it, but salvation came in the form of THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS.

For the first time, I’m staying in Paris for a whole month with nothing to do but write. Starting last Monday, I now have a proper writing schedule which (not wishing to tempt fate with pride again, but) seems to be working. In the past week I’ve written most of a short film, sketched out a feature film synopsis and come up with three new original feature ideas. I’ve also applied to do a weekend course at the Met Film School in September, booked a holiday in Spain, been to zumba, yoga and swimming AND learned the French subjunctive (il faut que je le fasse!) It really is amazing how much a person can get done when they don’t have to go to work.

The best thing of all is that I’ve found my perfect place to work – the silent study room in the beautiful new Médiatheque Francoise Sagan just round the corner from me. I don’t know why but every time I sit down at those white tables surrounded by Parisians tapping away on their silver Macbooks and making my poor red Asus feel like the fat kid in the playground, ideas start to come from nowhere. And, thanks to Celtx, when I write them down they actually look like a script! My fear of the blinking cursor is no more and as you can see from the picture, the only empty white space is the one surrounding me.

Developing a habit

Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel will tell you, the secret is to stick at it. It’s the one thing that every single writers’ guide agrees on: if you want to be successful you have to develop writing as a habit, to sit down everyday at the same time or place and write something, anything, even if it’s I don’t know what to write. I’ve read this so many times, and I’ve even written the quotations down at the top of my notebook pages in my best curly handwriting, but it’s still a lot easier said than done.

They make it sound so simple – just show up, just stay in the chair, just write something, anything, as long as you’re writing. But the problem is that every time you write something, no matter how well it flows or how much you like it when you read it back, you never quite feel you have the skills or the confidence to turn it into anything more. So you buy more books: How the Novel Works, Structuring Your Novel, Plot vs Fiction, and before you know it you’re reading so much there’s no time to write anything!

I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I’d made in the past, so when I started screenwriting I decided two things. First of all, I was going to start at the beginning. I needed to really learn the craft, and to give myself the confidence in structure and form that I never felt I had when I was staring at the first of a brand new note book and trying to write a Booker Prize winner. So I went back to Amazon, searched through the pages and pages of screenwriting manuals and finally chose Robert McKee’s Story and, for more of a ‘workbook’ approach, the Teach Yourself: Complete Screenwriting Course. Well, they worked for me with French and Spanish.

And now, for the first time in my life, I seem to have developed a habit. I sit down with the books every day (OK six days a week, I gave myself Sundays off) and I work through them page by page. I take notes in my (beautiful, new) notebook and I do the workshop tasks (read the script of a film you’ve never seen, watch the film and see how they compare … write down all the strengths and flaws that you share with your protagonist and how you could share them more deeply …) And because they’re such brilliant books, or maybe because I feel like I’m learning something and improving myself rather than just scratching away at a random floating scene, I find that I’m doing it willingly, compulsively even, the way you would any normal habit. In the last 11 days I’ve written in a café by the Eiffel Tower surrounded by Americans, in the basement of my building between classes, opposite my boyfriend in a bar while he entertained himself, and most importantly, here, at the kitchen table, while everybody else (except the annoying builder drilling downstairs) is still in bed. Because that’s what habits are. Like biting your nails or shooting up, they’re something you just can’t help doing.

Reading Scripts

It seems pretty obvious that the best way to learn, about everything from layout to structure to what works and what doesn’t, is to read as many scripts as you possibly can. So thank God for Drew’s Script-O-Rama http://www.script-o-rama.com/

Complete Screenwriting is in agreement: “Writers read – voraciously.” And this is what I’ve always done, as a wannabe novel writer. I read constantly, to the point that sometimes I wasn’t writing anymore. And every time I read something I loved it would make me want to write a novel just like it – One Day, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, A Long Way Down, The Secret History … to the point that I didn’t know what I wanted to sound like or what my own voice was. The weird thing with reading scripts is that it has the opposite effect. It makes me want to start writing straight away – maybe because it’s the characters’ voices we have to create instead of finding our own. I don’t know. But it’s really exciting! It feels freeing in a way that story writing hasn’t for years.

So I’m reading, as the book says, “as many scripts as you possibly can,” and writing down my thoughts in the pages on the right. I don’t really know what the difference between a ‘page’ and a ‘post’ is at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll work it out. First up, An Education. How apt.