writing for film

Last night I went to a talk organised by the Huston Film School in conjunction with the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. The topic was “Writing Film”, and the panellists were Hugh O’Donnell, Mark O’Rowe and Peter Sheridan, with academic Tony Tracy mediating the discussion.

After introductions, each writer read from their latest work. O’Donnell began first, reading from 11 Emerald Street, which is an evocative and tightly-written book about a childhood spent in Dublin from the point of view of the 11-year-old hero. This was followed by Mark O’Rowe, who read from his latest play, Crestfall – which will appear next month at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. O’Rowe’s piece was staccato-fast bursts of violence, sex and despair, and was a sharp contrast to O’Donnell’s warm recounting of a Dublin now long-gone. Sheridan then read from Big Fat Love, his tale about Philo, a large woman on the run from an abusive husband.

I was somewhat surprised by the format as I had been expecting a discussion on writing for film, and the readings consumed at least 20 minutes of the mere hour and a half allotted to the panel. The discussion finally kicked off, and I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of the various writers on their craft, and the media in which they worked. It was not until late into the panel that the topic of writing for film was touched upon, but before that there was plenty of insight into the writing process, and inspiration, of the three writers so I wasn’t bothered.

Sherdian described how he originally wrote Big Fat Love as a play, and it didn’t work, so he put it in a drawer for seven years before transforming it into a novel. In an interesting point, he said that the story insists on the medium, and the author has to figure out what platform will tell the story in the best fashion.

O’Rawe talked about the brevity of writing for the stage. Crestfall is 35 pages long, and delivers a play that runs for 90 minutes. He found the idea of writing a novel intimidating because there was just too much to write. He likes “the rhythms of pared-down speech”, and focuses on the flow of words; “language propels me,” he said. O’Rawe made some interesting points about writing for film. In particular the fact that current theories about screenwriting stress a formulaic approach, and one which he found counter-productive and off-putting. He got his first draft of Intermission out, and then went back and cut it down in a workable size. As he said, Chinatown, the script of which is considered the template of how to write a movie, started out as a 200+ page mess, before it was cut down to perfection.

O’Donnell talked about being a script reader in Hollywood for many years, and how even the worst script had something valuable to teach him.

One thing O’Rawe said about writing a screenplay rang quite true to me, and reminded me of a realisation I came to quite quickly when I was doing a screenwriting course in Dublin two years ago (is it that long ago?). He commented that with screenwriting you can move scenes about, and change the order of events once you have your first draft. This is one of the liberating aspects of writing of film, compared to some of the more restrictive elements.

This is similar to my Lego theory of writing for film.

Try not to get too fixated on the final shape of the film, and instead concentrate on the building blocks: the individual scenes. Move the Lego pieces around, allow yourself freedom to explore new shapes and directions. If your mind has a fixed idea of how the film is going to be you are more likely to become blocked. If you realise that anything can happen, then you’re more likely to give your imagination the leeway to surprise you.

As a writer you have to be subjectively immersed in your creation, but you also have to be able to step back and establish a objective distance when you need to criticise and modify the work. It’s impossible to do that completely, which is why feedback is so useful. I try not to become attached to anything in a story – he has to do that action, or she has to say that – and know when to take a breath, step back, and imagine everything done differently. (Though it’s not always easy.)

During those re-writes for the workshop screenplay I learned the joy of pulling all the Lego pieces apart, and even changing their base shape and colour. In the end, what emerged looked nothing like the original.

What I started with had been just an idea, and what I ended up with approximated a story.

Lego rocks.

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