Monthly Archives: August 2012

There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay

Ferdia Macanna: screenwriter, author, musician, raconteur

Screenplays break down roughly on the lines of scene, action, and dialogue. Let’s take the first of these. In terms of scene what are the basic rules of writing? ‘Get in late and get out early,’ is the best rule for writing a scene. Sometimes writers have difficulty writing or constructing a scene for a film or TV drama or short movie, mostly because of the visual aspect. There are two basic things to remember. A scene exists as an ‘event’ to move your story forward – i.e. it should be about something and it needs to have a purpose. The ‘event’ can be as big as a crucial moment in a battle between soldiers in Saving Private Ryan a revealing disclosure between lovers (i.e. why Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris without an explanation) or some kids finally freeing an endangered whale or it can be as small as a car driving down a street or even a knowing look between two apparent strangers. The other thing to bear in mind is we are writing for a visual medium – let’s ‘SEE’ what your scene is about, rather than ‘hear’ it. Film is a ‘story told in pictures’. It’s not a play or a novel. Only what we can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ should go into your screenplay. There are no internal narratives.

In relation to action is it a case of less-is-more? Is there a danger of someone coming from say, a literary background, being inclined to write too much direction? Does a novelistic background work sometimes as a disadvantage? Visual Writing is important. It’s a new way of seeing the world. Once a literary writer or a playwright or a short stort writer or a poet gets the knack of writing for a visual medium, then I believe it helps their literary work as well. There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay. Anything that isn’t essential or crucial must be jettisoned. I spend a lot of time in my workshops on Visual Writing because I believe too many screenplays are dogged by long banks of descriptive novelistic prose or excessive expositional dialogue. Your scene can be beautifully written, contain lots of witty dialogue and demonstrate intelligence and flair but if it doesn’t move your story along then it has no place in the screenplay. Keep it visual. Keep the pace going. Free your imagination. Learn a new language and have fun with it.

Dialogue, is there also a potential problem in terms of the character saying “too much”, spelling out the plot when an image, a fleeting glance, scene dissolving into another can tell the story rather than words from thelips of a character(s)? You said it. Too many screenplays come across like stage plays disguised as films. I come at these workshops from the POVs of a director and producer as well as a screen and scriptwriter so I hope that I can steer students towards more visual, creative and effective ways of realising their story.

Are there any templates of scripts/screen plays you would recommend fledgling screenwriter look at? The best book for me is Syd Field’s Screenwriting. It’s straight forward and clear and puts over the basics better than any other work I’ve come across. If you want a guide book into screenwriting, Syd is your man. Almost all screenplays are free and accessible on the internet. You should be able to find the screenplay of your favourite movie – from Casablanca to Dawn of the Dead or even Critters 3 – or sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama or – Simply Scripts. Reading produced screenplays is the best instuction for a budding screenwriter.

What in your opinion is the perfect screenplay/script? Casablanca is up there. But my favourites are The Third Man and the French movie, Amelie. I also hugely admire The Insider, As Good As It Gets. Walk the Line and American Beauty and anything by John Hughes particularly Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I also love When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I also have a huge weak spot for Zombie/Horror flicks and low budget trash. I don’t want to mention Napoleon Dynamite but I will. There, I’ve mentioned it.

Who are your favourite screenwriters and list some of the films they are noted for? John Hughes (Ferris/Pretty In Pink/’Breakfast Club). Eric Roth (The Insider). Epstein Brothers (Casablanca). Anything by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes. I also like Charlie Kaufman who along with Tarantino, has probably the most recognisable ‘voice’ in modern cinema. The most exciting and enjoyable screenwriter I’ve come across recently is the Irish writer Kevin Barry – he really has a style of his own and that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve in screenwriting.

Do you think directors always make for good screen writers because [as you well know] some like to combine the two? Sometimes but not always. There seems to be a big emphasis on ‘auteurs’ in our culture. Not sure if that is always a good notion. I like to think that screenwriting is a difficult craft and possibly the most undervalued and unappreciated writing genre. Screenwriting is often collaborate, unlike say, novel-writing. It’s a tough craft to learn but once learned, I believe it really helps with other writing genres. It helps cut out excess description and it helps shape and present fictional characters.

Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience.

What is Irish cinema lacking in? Not enough comedy? Too much The Field style rural idyll drama? A dearth of urban gritty realism? Or should we expand our imaginations further? I like the look of Grabbers. I’m going to see it this weekend. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of recent Irish flicks. Too many boxes being ticked. The politically correct box. The intellectually correct box. Redemption buttons being pressed on virtually every character. Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience. We seem more focused on festivals and awards and that sort of thing. I’d love to see a situation where word-of-mouth attracts Irish cinema-goers to Irish films. Perhaps it’s a transition time. Irish films reached audiences at home and internationally in the 80s and early 90s with My Left Foot, The Snapper and The Commitments. Perhaps the success of The Guard will change things for the better. There’s no doubting the talent and the actors and our short films are superb along with our animators. Let’s hope we are entering a new era. Like I said, I like the look of Grabbers.

Would you like to see the great Irish sci-fi script-cum-movie? Absolutely. And if it’s a creature feature, I’d like a walk-on part please.

If you were to recommend one recently released film – either out on cinema at present or now on sale in DVD/Blu Ray- for your students on the course to watch and analyse what would it be? I would go for a classic like Casablanca. Everything you need to become a good a screenwriter is in there. The best TV drama I’ve seen recently is Breaking Bad. I would urge students to have a look at Season One. And to access the scripts online.

Some say one of the greatest modern British screenplays is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I….do you agree? It’s brilliant, but it’s a one off. I just wish the writer would come up witty another wonderful maverick idea like that. But let’s be grateful it exits in the first place. It’s hard to get a film made and even harder to get a good off-beat indie flick to an audience. Outline the key differences between screenwriting for feature films and TV? Feature film writing is particular – you have 90 minutes or so to nail an audience. Usually it’s a three act structure that stands or falls on the set-up (i.e. the first fifteen or so minutes). If the audience doesn’t buy the first 15 mins, your film will usually fail. TV drama is quite demanding. It comes in many formats including what’s now known as ‘the 8 act structure’ ) mainly due to ad breaks on US TV. I’ll be looking at both film and TV drama in these workshops. Most of the best screenwriting is now happening on TV drama series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire or The Killing.

Which TV drama-soap context would you like to set in an Irish context? Our stuff isn’t much fun. I’d like to see some really engaging extreme characters being created. An Irish Walter White. Or an Irish Cracker. Or an Irish Amelie.

What Irish book-novel would you love to dramatise on television? A really good question. My vote goes to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. I’m also surprised that nobody has tried to make a movie out of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home.

Are we in danger of following ITV’s route and putting on too many cop-based TV dramas? Dunno.

*BIG thanks to Ferdia Macanna for this Q&A.

Fancy something erotic for autumn?

Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.

This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.

Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and SleepThe Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean’s book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ’empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.

There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!