Saturday, 13 November 2010

postheadericon Wearing two hats at the London Screenwriters’ Festival

You could say I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of Screenwriters’ Festivals, having attended the last three in Cheltenham and this year’s BBC Writers' Festival in Leeds. I’ve found my way in as a development producer looking to build relationships with writers, as a freelance consultant; assessing scripts for the Script Market, but this year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival is the first time I’ve been on a discussion panel and joined the illustrious ranks of the speakers! This of course brings with it the delights of a free pass into ‘the secret room’ where speakers gather, as well as a chance to get your oar further into the three days of industry conversation, (and we all like a bit of oar putting don’t we, or we wouldn’t be writers and producers).

Another thing that was different this time was that I recently had my first professional script writing gig – (a whole episode to myself, not just storylining!) - so I was wearing my writer’s hat at the festival almost as much as my producer/script editor’s. I straddle the divide if you will, like some sort of colossus! – a perkily attractive and normally proportioned colossus of course, but you get the idea. I also occupy the middle ground between delegate and speaker. More delegate than speaker really, (I was only on one panel on the last evening), you could think of me a bit like a double agent stealing inside the inner sanctum and bringing back news from the front. And if I’d thought of this idea sooner I could have actually got some green room gossip, but this at least gives you a picture of my perspective on things.

So in my two hat wearing capacity, what did I glean from the London Screenwriters’ Festival? Well plenty of relationship building primarily and inspiration. But for the emerging writer I think it mostly boils down to two key issues. Firstly, finding, developing and protecting your ‘voice’ as a writer. Secondly, finding a way to network, break in and form relationships with producers and decision makers and work with these relationships once you have them. I figure this might be covered in two blogs, starting with the writer’s voice.

The Writer’s Voice
When I was first starting out from Film School, a fresh faced writer/director, I was annoyed by the vagueness of the idea of a writer’s ‘voice’ and didn’t know what it meant. Having since read, analysed and provided notes on hundreds of scripts I’m no longer confused. I definitely understand what this is. I may even be beginning to get an inkling of what my own voice might be. People perhaps assume we all know, so you don’t often get a clear explanation, but I think its worth defining. For me a writer with a clear voice is someone whose unique passion and perspective is always evident in their writing. It might be that they regularly return to similar themes, ideas or genres, or that they have a particular identifiable style of storytelling, or perhaps it can be seen in the types of characters and character voices they explore.

For an obvious example you might look to someone like Charlie Kaufman, who most often explores stories from an off centre, psychological perspective, (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine etc.), or Richard Curtis who, without realising it, actually managed to write the same core story in two hit films, i.e.; young man, with a group of quirky, supportive British friends, falls in love with an unattainable American girl who keeps coming in an out of his life… Even if you only read one script from writers like these, their unique passion and perspective; their voice, is still all over it. I can think of no better example than reading Diablo Cody’s Juno when it was doing the rounds and how vividly her fresh, unique, comic voice jumped off the page.

Finding a writer with this quality is gold dust to those holding the purse strings. At the festival session; ‘Should I Write a Spec Script?’, both Kate Harwood and Ollie Madden were clear that this is what they’re always crying out for and that writers with a strong voice would immediately be gobbled up and showered with opportunity. Some may have kinked a dubious eyebrow at this, but the fact is that finding and honing your voice while also developing you craft skills as a screenwriter is a big challenge, often unpaid. Many, except the most exceptionally gifted or determined, are going to fall by the wayside before they get close. As Daniel Martin Eckhart, on the same panel, put it; we all need to invest the time and energy to exercise our ‘writing muscle’. He wrote and rewrote 10 spec scripts before eventually landing his first paid screenwriting gig. In that time he discovered that his passion was for writing crime thrillers.

The advice from this panel, (and plenty others I’ve seen), was don’t try to write the genre or style you think is fashionable, but write what interests you. If you know the type of films or shows you ultimately want to write; start exercising and honing that muscle now. If you don’t already have an obvious passion; try different things out until you find it. Find out if you love writing breathless action sequences, or quirky regional characters, a certain kind of comedy, or twisted, psychological drama, or if there are themes and ideas you feel most passionate about exploring in different ways. We should use our spec scripts (as well as any kind of paid writing work we can get!) as time to experiment and find this voice. Most of us probably aren’t going to sell our spec script to Warner Brothers for $2million, (although this is a possibility as recently happened with The Hangover). However, we may create something that can open doors.

One of the most eloquent advocates of the writer’s voice is Tony Jordan who also had a session at the festival with Nicola Schindler. For Tony, a writer’s unique voice is the most precious thing they have and it must be protected. Although our own scripts may be the place where we can hone our voice, this unique quality should be present in every script we write. Sitting at home watching Eastenders, or even listening from the kitchen, Tony Jordan can recognise the voices of different, experienced writers on the show. Their individuality comes through and they are able to write lots of episodes precisely because they always find a way to express themselves within their scripts. Tony says that if you lose this quality you’ve lost your most valuable asset as a writer. I suggest that if you lose this; what are you writing for anyway? You may as well be writing instruction manuals.

So the festival has assigned us a mission to find and explore our writing voice. And according to Tim Bevan we should not shy away from being culturally and regionally specific. This is because culturally specific, English language films go down well with the worldwide audience and this is where British films make more of their income; rather than the U.S.. So, if your voice comes from the Welsh valleys, an inner city Chinese community, if you straddle two disparate cultures like some sort of devilishly handsome colossus, the unique, authentic detail you could bring to your work may well be what stands out. Apparently, it’s mid Atlantic, culturally non-specific material that’s harder to sell these days and thank God for that. Who wants bland, ‘everyman’ when we could have a window into something unique?

Next blog; more from the festival on how to make professional relationships and how to work with them once you have them to ensure you protect your unique writer’s voice. Also, perhaps a bit more on my personal experience of the three days and the interesting people I met. In the mean time if you have the chance to get on with the mission, God bless your luck! I know as well as anyone it can be hard to find the time and discipline amidst work and family. But if you’re like me, writing is like a passionate affair. You want to find a way to get back to it and be with it. You know it’ll be hard work once you’re there, but it’s worth it for the highs. I want to get back there soon. Maybe you do too.


Raving Dave Herman said...

Great post Sarah, thanks!

The business of voice was also one of the main lessons for me from the LSF. I can see in retrospect that along the way I’ve tried hard to write stuff that didn’t fit my voice, with dismal results. It’s almost a process of elimination, though. You only know something isn’t your thing, after you’ve tried writing it.

I’m in two minds about the whole “breaking in” thing, though. I liked Tim Clague’s refreshing approach, which is to adopt a more DIY attitude rather than viewing everything you write as a potential way of currying favour with “the decision makers.” It’s clear there’s no point developing a beautiful voice if your material never gets produced, but I wonder if focusing too much on the conventional route to production doesn’t affect the development of one’s voice?

Looking forward to your next instalment!


Sarah Olley said...

Thanks Dave. I agree it’s a question of trying things out. Even if you already have a good idea of what interests you, you probably only get a true picture of where your strengths lie by having a go at things.

I think the question of the best route in is a big one. I have mixed feelings on the DIY approach, but agree that focusing too much on what commissioners, contests or the market seems to want can become like chasing your tail!

Thanks very much for the feedback, Sarah

Sarah Olley said...

Just read an interesting blog on the same subject of 'voice'. Check it out:

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Sarah Olley
Hello. I'm a UK based script editor, development producer and writer working in film and TV. You can visit my professional website at: and the developers' group I co-host and organise at:
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