Friday, 20 July 2007

Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival

Generally, there are only two reasons you should ever leave the house i) If you are likely to get off with someone ii) If you are likely to learn something. Other than that, if you want my advice, you should stay at home.

But, of course, advice is a gift - one gets so much more out of giving it than taking it. And so it was that I found myself away from home for a period of four days a couple of weeks ago, attending the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival. It was a well-organised, interesting event attended by big name speakers. But I kept asking myself - why am I here when I could be at home writing?

I made lots of new friends, which was great. But then, you don't need to travel all the way to Cheltenham for that these days - not now that we have the internet. My new friends found the week incredibly useful. Certainly the speakers were inspiring. The sessions didn't purport to teach anything and yet I learnt a lot from the people who came to share their knowledge and experience. But as the days went by I began to find it absurd that I was there. I've been thinking it over and now I know why - it's because I looked at the various successful screenwriters who came to speak at the conference and I didn't see myself in them. They were tenacious, determined, witty, clever, business-like people and I realised that I could no more be like them than a banana could one day be like a tomato.

I saw a TV programme a few weeks ago about Beryl Bainbridge called Beryl's Last Year - did you see it? She's a very successful novelist. In the programme, made by her Grandson, she went to a book launch and she got drunk because her best friend had just died, and then she fell over and had to be helped up while exclaiming 'I'm not drunk.' She was quite dotty and made her family gather at her house and sing 'Two Little Boys' (coincidentally Margaret Thatcher's favourite song) every year on her birthday.

Now, I haven't published so many novels as Beryl Bainbridge, I'm not so successful (she's actually a Dame) or so dotty, I don't smoke as much as she does. But I live in happy bohemian poverty untroubled by film producers. Beryl Bainbridge and I exist on different parts of the same spectrum of writers. We are both (if you'll indulge me in the metaphor just a little bit longer) bananas.

So that's the most important thing I got out of going to Cheltenham - I learnt that I don't want to be a screenwriter.


potdoll said...

yes it really worried me when you wrote on the writers guild blog that if you want a broken heart, write for film.

it's haunting me.

could you please expand on that?

is it the development? or the people? or the process? or the chances of getting something made? or something else?

Helen Smith said...

Hey Potdoll,
It was a quote from David Hare, who I admire tremendously. He said he only writes original work for the stage because no-one will touch your words in the theatre the way they will in film & he has seen too many of his screenwriting friends get their hearts broken. Too often the writer gets treated as an annoyance in Hollywood but that's because for a film, a producer takes a risk and a writer gets paid. There's so much money riding on a big budget film - Anthony Horowitz said you've got to realise that every line costs about $10,000 (and of course he was being witty about it) but he says now he thinks that if a line's not worth $10,000, he doesn't put it in.

Diana Ossana was like some kind of warrior queen - I admired her too. She talked about never giving up, of remaining professional at all times, of never taking things personally. A drunk driver went into her car and injured her the day before Brokeback Mountain went into production and because she had fought so hard to be on set, she didn't take care of herself, she soldiered on - and as a result has neck and back problems. She was a wonderful, inspirational woman - and pretty much the polar opposite of me.

Then, even if you get hired, the chances of a film actually getting made are slim. The chances of getting fired are high. David Hare is perhaps the most successful dramatist in Britain but he's been working on a film adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections for five years and is on draft no. 23 with no clear idea of whether it will ever get made (sure, he gets paid, and they've kept him on the project and sacked various directors - usually it's the other way round). But apparently it's quite common for a film to take around 8 years to get made. Harry Potter was different - there was a market, actors cast in the roles and getting older, etc etc - they're very successful films and they're banging them out.

Everyone agrees TV is different than film - stakes are lower, there are lots of hours to fill, quality is generally good and the writer has a much higher status, both here and in the US. Plus, you get paid to develop stuff. David Kavanagh of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild was a speaker in Cheltenham - a very articulate and passionate man, and when I went up to him and congratulated him on it he simply said 'I love writers' - and he made the point that you should work in TV if you want to earn money because (when you're starting out) there's no money in film.

I've had stuff in development in TV (haven't we all?) and everyone was lovely, actually. I also had a script developed in a hollywood way (without the big money but basically the director was in charge) and it was a pretty dreadful way of carrying on, in my view.

The other thing coming out of the Screenwriters Festival was that if you want to get a film made, try being a writer/director (not easy) or a writer/producer - so you're in control and you keep things moving along. If you're a writer/producer, you're also sharing the risk with other producers involved and have a right to have a say in the film that you wouldn't have if you were just a hired hand.

Another thing they all said - choose your collaborators carefully, if you can. I can't help noticing that if you can work with a director who has come from the theatre (like Stephen Frears or Stephen Daldry - and of course none but the most successful writer is in a position to choose) then it will be a positive experience. Theatre directors are good with actors and are used to treating the text with a certain amount of reverance.

Anyway, don't take too much notice of me. You've read Jason & Piers & Stewart & Paul - they're all fired up after that week in Cheltenham. And as for Danny - well, Tony Jordan struck me as a lovely, genuine man and his screenwriting competition as a genuine opportunity. Danny's organising it for him, as you know - so don't be put off by my pontificating on about Beryl Bainbridge and being a banana. If you have a script, why not send it in to Danny/Tony Jordan and give it a go?

Finally, when did anyone warning that you will get your heart broken stop you or me or any of us jumping in if we think it's the right thing to do. You can't write if you haven't lived - which generally means getting your heart broken a few times, one way or the other. And of course, if you're a writer, you feel you can't live if you don't write. So if someone offered you the chance to write a movie, you'd do it, wouldn't you? All those successful screenwriters with all their amusing but awful stories of working in film - they were all writing their next film script. They couldn't give it up.

potdoll said...

you're right. usually when someone warns me there's danger of getting my heart broken, it makes me more determined.

i hadn't realised David Hare wrote screenplays too. though wasn't he once married to Margaret Matherson? I always meant to get his book Writing Left Handed. He's a clever bloke so I'm not surprised he's still in there with that script. but eight years and 23 drafts. he must believe in it.

I think I will only write for film when I'm going to be directing it. The rest of my writing I will concentrate on telly or theatre.

Thanks for filling me in, Beryl Banana. thanks for the chat.

Far away said...

Interesting conversation I happened upon here. Thanks Helen.

Stuart Perry said...

Sorry you missed out on four days' writing, Helen, but I'm glad you came to the festival or I wouldn't have met you.

So, are we screenwriters masochists for carrying on in this ghastly business? Oh yes. And this is perhaps why, as Raj Persaud tells us, 80% of us are - to use the scientific term - mental.

Helen Smith said...

Stuart - sorry cause I spelt yr name wrong in my long comment earlier and I still haven't worked out how to link in comments otherwise I'd have linked to all of you.

Meeting you was one of the highlights xx