Screenwriting Resources

A friend wrote asking whether they should do a screenwriting course or not (they haven’t written much yet)… My response (in lieu of ever actually writing a ‘proper’ blog about this):

Righto. I think doing a bunch of reading to start with (rather than a course) is definitely the way to go. I’ve read a LOT of screenwriting stuff and would recommend the following five things:

Into The Woods does a great job of distilling a lot of story theory and also being a page-turner. It’s instructive but has a heart.

Save The Cat is quite reductive and shouldn’t be taken as quite the creative shopping list it sets out to be, BUT it is very useful as a nuts and bolts guide to structure, without a lot of the airy fairy stuff in more ‘serious’ screenwriting books.

Wordplayer, the website of Aladdin and Pirates of the Caribbean screenwriter Terry Rossio, is GOLD. The columns have advice about Hollywood etc, but are most useful in how he talks about concepts, character, structure etc.

John Brady’s book of interviews The Craft Of The Screenwriter is really interesting and insightful.

And Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast series with writers is excellent. (It’s also available via podcast apps etc.)

Oh and if you search for BAFTA lectures then the Charlie Kaufman one is AMAZING. And there’s a really interesting Paul Schrader one, too. They’ll either be listened as BAFTA Screenwriters Series or under BAFTA Guru I think.

Also: ANY interview with Chris McQuarrie is usually worth reading.

Oh and John August’s podcast Scriptnotes is also a great resource:

Keep Going

Years ago, when I was a more prominent film journalist than now, a director wrote to me to complain about a review. I hadn’t written it, but he thought I’d edited it (I hadn’t been involved at all, as it happened) and, as we’d met socially, was upset at its sly and dismissive tone.

He was right to be. The review was casually damning, misunderstood the film and gave the sense of sneering at the makers. It was, he said, among other things, “the reason I am going to stop making films after I finish my current one”.

I hated the idea of this, so wrote back to try to dissuade him. With details edited to protect the guilty, here’s the gist:

“Dear _____

I can imagine how frustrating and dispiriting it must be to see the film receive this treatment…

I find it depressing that you are planning to stop making films. As you say, you have other reasons, but please don’t let ignorant reviews contribute to your decision – particularly not a review that so spectacularly misunderstands the point of your film.

Kenneth Tynan once said something to the effect that ‘A critic is someone who knows the way, but not how to drive the car…’ and while that’s a delicious description, it’s worth noting that many critics don’t even know the way. A lot of us are ill-paid, somewhat thoughtless, creatively frustrated people who relish the opportunity to prove our wit and worth through denigrating others’ hard work.

Critics are commentators, not players. And given the choice between being John Motson or Wayne Rooney, I know who I would choose. If you’ve got the opportunity, I think you should keep playing. It’s a beautiful thing to make movies – hard and grinding and frustrating as the process no doubt can be, it’s amazing to put your thoughts and feelings out there, to produce unforgettable films.

And I do think – at the risk of sounding sycophantic – that you have created and will create unforgettable films. As I said, I liked ______ – I didn’t adore it (I’m not going to lie), but it has stayed with me, as each of your features has. The best albums take a couple of listens to be fully appreciated and that’s how I feel about your pictures – they take root in the subconscious, replay themselves there and definitely reward repeat viewing.

Now, this might be a bugger when it comes to instantly huge commercial reward, but it means you’re doing something special; something worthwhile. In a Big Mac world, you are cooking steak. Please don’t stop.”

Re-reading the email now, it seems a little gauche and probably a little hard on what was, at the time, my sole profession. But I had cause to remember and re-read it today when a friend mentioned the filmmaker as an inspiration – as he is now making critically lauded (and, also, entertaining) films.

He didn’t quit.

I’m not so arrogant as to believe that was because of my email. (NB. Previous sentence is a transparent lie). But now I’m writing my own screenplays, making shorts, and working to get features going, the advice seems sound.

It’s just that it’s directed at me.

And, maybe, you.


Bond Bombshell

Ten directors have hollered “Action” on a James Bond picture.

And in 47 years and 22 movies, they’ve all been blokes. In the equal opportunity 21st century, this begs a question: isn’t it time Bond was directed by a bird?*

Bond 23 is two years away. Regular writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been hired alongside Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan to craft a suitably incendiary, continent-hopping action adventure.

No director is attached. Used to be, they’d return for repeat business, but in the last two decades only Martin Campbell has sat in the Big Chair twice.

John Glen holds the record, with five, and it’s 20 years to the week since his last outing, Licence To Kill, opened – nearly slaying Britain’s best-loved filmmaking series.

The film itself is somewhat underrated: it’s a tense enough thriller and, hair aside, Dalton wasn’t a bad Bond. He was just a terribly grave one… all frowns and angst and inner turmoil. Daniel Craig take note: Bond needs to have fun.

So, discount the rumours which suggest Bond 23 will have a drug-themed plot, with 007 returning to Afghanistan for the first time since Dalton’s debut, The Living Daylights. It would be spectacularly ill-advised, given the real-world carnage over there, and Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson are not idiots.

Taste aside, they should also remember the lesson of 007’s screen history: don’t take Bond too seriously for too long.

Quantum Of Solace came close to navel-gazing on occasion and the iconic spy needs to become full-blooded again and not just through the odd one-liner – actions speak louder than words. The true Bond is professional, pathological and hedonistic: he adores his work.

So, if he’s to be brash, rash and go ballistic once again, why give the megaphone to a woman? Because the woman is Kathryn Bigelow and with The Hurt Locker she shows she knows what Bond is all about: adrenaline.

Yes, her eighth feature is set in Iraq, but it’s not an Iraq War movie – another of those worthy, sombre lectures masquerading as entertainment. Instead, it’s about a man – Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal expert – obsessed by his job, addicted to his job.

The opening caption – quoting war reporter Chris Hedges, reads: “War is a drug”. And The Hurt Locker is a one long high: set-piece after set-piece, bomb by bomb, always explosive. This is what Bond is supposed to be.

And while Bigelow doesn’t endorse being hooked to an endorphin-rush, she understands it. Any political or moral comment in The Hurt Locker is implied, not preached. This is what Bond needs.

He also needs a great villain. The best baddies have often been reflections of 007’s brutal self – Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love, Scaramanga (Sir Christopher Lee) in The Man With The Golden Gun, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in GoldenEye – so when they hire Bigelow, they should also hire Ralph Fiennes.

Cast The English Patient – who is quite brilliant in The Hurt Locker – as Bond’s older half-brother, born out of wedlock to his Swiss mother, brought up a well-bred bastard by her grandparents, who made their money from banking Nazi gold in World War Two. He is also addicted to adrenaline, but while James will do anything for his country, Elias (a popular name in Switzerland, apparently) will do anything for cash – or revenge.

Imagine the bickering, the banter and the peculiarly British cruelty of Craig vs Fiennes – and Bigelow’s fiery feminine touch. Bring on Bigelow, bring back the kiss kiss, bang bang…

What do you think?

* Ironic use of diminutive slang for female designed purely to irritate certain members of EMPIRE staff. And you.**

**This gag was originally, back when I wrote this in 2009, funny to me. Now I think it’s somewhat cheap.
The relentless misogyny I’ve seen on twitter since then makes me think that jokes like this – which inherently kind of look askew at feminism and diminish feminist concerns – are misguided, because they add to the idea that dismissive or derogatory language against or about women isn’t really important. Put it this way, I wouldn’t have used a derogatory or slang word in a ‘jokey’ way if the gag was directed at someone, say, black. Think that probably tells me it was wrong.

Failure By Degrees

I don’t like Any Given Sunday. At least, I don’t remember liking it. It felt long and bombastic (yes, I know it’s an Oliver Stone movie, but at his best he is truly great). And it’s about American Football.

Except – and if I had a spare weekend to watch it again perhaps I’d know this for certain – it now seems to me to be, really, about failure.

There’s a scene in it I’ve re-watched more than any other in any film. Yes, even more than the Patsy Kensit make-out scene in Lethal Weapon 2 when I was a teenager.

In it, head coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) tries to gee his team up before they go out to do whatever it is American Football players do between commercial breaks. And… well, the glory of the internet is you don’t need to read my mangled recollection of it, you can watch it here.

It’s something, embarrassingly enough, I sometimes listen to before professional challenges – whether it’s interviewing a film star or a great director or preparing to pitch for a screenwriting gig. And it works. At least it seems to. Buy me a pint and I’ll talk at length about many great experiences at work – from interviewing Jack Nicholson to visiting the sets of David Fincher. Buy me enough pints and, if you ask nicely, I might even stop.

The funny thing – probably obvious to you – is that it never occurred to me that the same thing applies to your personal life. You think – or, at least, I thought – life is about Big Decisions. Getting Married. Buying A House. Having Children. But, really, now it seems to me to be more about a series of little ones – those ones you don’t notice: which train to get if you want to make it back for bedtime; whether to make the phone call when you’re incredibly busy; how you speak to someone when you’re tired and they just don’t seem to fucking understand.

Those inches do make all the difference. It’s a question of degrees, really, I guess. And no doubt this has been said before more eloquently: if you chart your course a little wrong – just a degree or two out – then, over time, you can end up an awful long way from home.

I don’t know what my point is really, other than to counsel against doing that yourself. Just pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention to what and – more importantly – who is around you. And, to quote a Vonnegut book I haven’t actually read: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

The secret to destroying self-doubt

Received a note the other day from a would-be journalist suffering from self-doubt, wondering if they could ever get over it and if there was a secret to doing so.

So, here’s the secret:

Everyone thinks they suck. Everyone.

Those people who say they don’t ever think they suck? They’re lying. Or they’re awful writers.

Self-doubt is not necessarily a harbinger of brilliance, but unalloyed arrogance is a harbinger of idiocy.

Self-doubt is worse than others’ criticism – a lot worse – because it hobbles you before the race even begins. It stops you doing anything and therefore prevents either success or failure. And failure can be your friend: because if you’re failing, you’re learning*.

In writing, the only thing that is guaranteed is that if you write nothing you will achieve nothing. If you are writing for publication – or for a living – then it is better to have 100% of something flawed than 40% of something perfect.

As Bruce Springsteen told me on the phone the other day: “There is no right way, no pure way of doing it. There is just doing it.”**

So, write and write and write. If it’s finished and awful, well, at least it’s finished. And you can learn – from the reaction of readers and from the perspective of your new self, after time has passed. And if you really, truly do suck – well, finding out will free you to do something else.

Or you can hold the words inside, agonising over them, beating yourself up or raging against the success of people you consider less talented.

They may well be less talented. But when the cursor blinked, they didn’t.

*Advice for writers only. Surgeons, please read elsewhere.
**OK, he said it in a speech which you can read bits of here or watch here.

How To Succeed In Film Journalism… It is really trying.

You’re reading this because you want to be a film journalist. Or, you’re really, really bored.

Hundreds of people have emailed me for ‘How to…’ advice in the decade or so I’ve been writing or editing for movie magazines and websites.

Finally, I’ve got round to writing here what I write to everyone, pretty much. Wish I’d done it sooner: would have saved days.

So, you want to be a film magazine journalist…


Film magazine journalism is rarely well paid, the hours are long and if you’re lucky you will find it about 10% as glamorous as people think it is. You should only aim to be a film journo if you love to write – if writing is, almost, the only thing you can do.

I Love To Write!

Good. Do it. Over and over… As the old exchange goes:

Tourist: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
New Yorker: “Practice, man, practice.”

Simple, really.

Acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell pointed this out with the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. But, really, he was only putting in grander terms what our mothers told us years ago: practice makes perfect.

For practical advice on writing, read George Orwell’s Politics And The English Language, helpfully summarised here.

I’m Brilliant, How Do I Break In?

Persistence, contacts, providence… I – like several of my colleagues – got a foot in the door through work experience. You can find details of how to apply for a week-long stint at Empire here – where you will also find some more advice on trying to break in (including via freelance articles).

Work Experience… Do I Just Make Tea?

If that’s what you’re asked to do, yes. In fact, even if that’s not what you’re asked to do, yes. Magazine offices are usually full of people who are busy or hungover. So, tea is always, always welcome… And you are not above this. Make a cup of tea; ask if you can help. If you can’t help, then try not to bump into the furniture.

When you are asked to do something – however menial it seems – do it quickly, efficiently and as well as you possibly can. If it’s research, make it research that Stanley Kubrick himself could not find fault with. If it’s tea, make it tea so fine the recipient is awe-struck in wonder at your leaf-brewing skills.

If you do simple things well, you might be asked to do tough – more interesting – things, too.

Covering Letters

Some letters have been rambling, some have been insane (literally) and some have been simply desperate. A very few have been what a covering letter should be: short, to the point, distinctive.

Be clear, be polite, be funny (if you can)… And, most importantly, do not start a letter with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. If you do, your letter will be deleted or torn up – if you can’t be arsed to find out who you should contact, then the recipient (for whom this is probably the fifth query of the day) can’t be arsed to reply to you.

Story Ideas

Should be original or funny or exclusive or all three. Don’t write in to suggest: “I think it would be a great idea for me to interview Tom Cruise.”

Seriously: I have been sent this letter.

Believe it or not, it has occurred to the staff and writers of a FILM MAGAZINE to interview FILM STARS. And only a handful of journos have ever done proper one-on-one interviews with the likes of Cruise, Pitt etc. If the chance comes up, we’re going to take it ourselves (sorry).

When You Get Your Shot

Don’t blow it… Whether it’s for a review, an interview, or a funny/retrospective feature, if you are given a commission, nail it.

So, no errors, no delays, no excuses…

If you get your article in on time, to the specified word count, with no dumb mistakes, you are ahead of the game – very few people actually do this.

Life Is Not Fair

You may be a better writer than half the staff on a particular magazine.

You may be a glorious prose stylist with such insights into film and human frailty that you make Graham Greene look like a monkey dipping paper in its own faeces.

Fine. Prove it.

If your work is exceptional, if you persist, if you care enough: you will make it.

And if you are not, in fact, a writer: move on. Don’t lie to yourself. Do something else. Misplaced hope isn’t a lifejacket – it’s an anvil. There is a world full of more worthwhile jobs. So, escape romance and embrace possibility. Unless you have to write.

PS. If you are starting out and want to know who releases what films and when, visit the site of the Film Distributors’ Association.