The film festival has come and gone for this year, and as usual it went far too fast! On the first Saturday I attended Story Campus, a whole-day seminar on film-making and screenwriting.
“How many of you are writers?”, moderators David(s) Keating and Pope asked at the start of the day. A large chunk of the audience put up their hands.
“And how many of you have written a produced feature film?”
Two people sheepishly put their hands up. If that. It was going to be one of those days.
It all began so promisingly – a two-hour chat with screenwriting legend Robert Towne. In the city to attend the festival, he sat down for a lengthy talk about his movies, his scripts and the list of amazing people he’s worked with.
Here are some of his best bits…
- He took an acting class in his early twenties where he met Roger Corman (who hired him) and one of his later stars, Jack Nicholson.
- He views outlining as a process of discovery and distillation. During the Chinatown shoot, he used to cut his outline into scenes and paste them on a wall so that he and Roman Polanski could stare at them and move them around. He also does fresh outlines of later drafts, distilling and testing scenes to see if they fit in and advance the story.
- With the famous Godfather scene where Corleone warns Michael that he is about to be assassinated, Francis Ford Coppola came to Towne as a friend (they had worked together previously on a script called Dementia 13). Towne wrote the line, “And at that meeting, you’ll be assassinated”, partly because it advanced the story. And partly because he knew the audience would listen to any amount of other dialogue after that, to find out what happened next! The scene – a crucial one between father and son – was written in a panic between 1am and 6am one night and Towne brought the script directly to the set the next morning. “Read it again”, Brando said when he’d finished reading the scene to him, which was when Towne knew it was working…
- Towne thinks that screenwriting is more an act of discovery than invention – the perfect scene is waiting to be discovered and once you find it, it seems like it was always meant to be there. This scene, written in a hurry during production, definitely falls into that category.
- His neighbour Sydney Pollack asked him to write The Firm’s script when they were both taking out the garbage one morning! Towne didn’t like John Grisham’s downbeat ending (where the protagonist is unable to practice law anymore) and changed it, partly with the help of his lawyer brother-in-law.
- He’s working on a script about the Battle of Britain at the moment, which sounds right up his street. He talked about a scene where one of the characters stands on the cliffs of Dover watching sea birds dive and soar, which then turn into planes… There hasn’t been a blockbuster covering this air battle specifically, so I can’t wait to see his take on it…
- Towne still gets advice on his work from family and friends, and likes to tell people his ideas and get their feedback. I think this is a great technique as non-writers often pick up on issues with your story or characters that you are unable to see yourself.
They showed a clip from his movie Personal Best, which Towne wrote AND directed (according to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Rider, Raging Bulls, the experience ended his marriage and nearly ruined his career). Unfortunately, no one had bothered to buy a copy of the DVD, which meant the movie had to be streamed – and the sound and picture quality was terrible.
Towne took this well and overall was an intelligent interview subject with loads of great stories and advice.
The afternoon was where things started to go v. badly wrong, technology-wise…
A directors’ panel with Irish directors Phil Harrison, Juanita Wilson and Paddy Breathnach and Danish director Mads Matthiesen was interesting and informative.
Phil Harrison, for example, came from a non-film background to make a short film and a feature. His first day on a film set was his first day on the short. His third day on a set was his first day on the feature film! Directing experienced actors like Aiden Gillen. Partly in South Africa. Oh, and he crowdfunded his feature film The Good Man using what sounds like a very original new technique (everyone involved in the project owns part of it. 40% of any return on the film now goes back to the investors, 30% to the various production companies, 20% to the cast & crew and 10% back into the township where they filmed in South Africa.).
Other snippets – Juanita Wilson’s next project will be an adaptation of (Winter’s Bone writer) Daniel Woodrell’s novel Tomato Red, which sounds amazing. And Paddy Breathnach’s next movie will be Perdido Amore, set in the world of drag artists and scripted by Mark O’Halloran.
It would have been great to have heard more about all of this, but after only about 30 minutes of chat, the moderators cut the panel short in order to do a Skype chat with legendary Polish director Agnieszka Holland.
Now, I’m sure under the right circumstances this would have been a fab interview. But the circumstances involved the worst Skype reception I’ve ever seen and a subject who doesn’t (I think) really understand how to use it properly. We couldn’t hear her half the time and the rest of the time she couldn’t hear poor David Keating’s questions, forcing him to wrap things up after five (incomprehensible) minutes.
So it was on to another Skype interview, this time with Finding Neverland and Life of Pi screenwriter David Magee. David started out taking money at the door at Michael Moore’s film club in Flint, Michigan! Now based in New Jersey, he had no more luck with the Skype reception than Ms Holland, with David Keating having to dial him back five times.
David Magee was unfailingly polite and good-humoured throughout all this, and talked about how he’s become the king of book adaptations and the impossible task of bringing Life of Pi to the big screen.
Here was what he had to say:
- His first writing job involved abridging novels, and doing this for 85 books taught him how to pick out only the essential dialogue and action. It now helps him to adapt novels. If it’s a 300 page novel, he starts by writing a 3-4 page outline of what the book is about.
- Then he tries to find the basic thing that drives the hero on to his journey. He also does a logbook with notes about the characters and jokes and ideas he thinks up on the way, as well as a finished 15-30 page outline and a pitch that he would use to explain the film to someone else. These three documents help him to stay on track as he writes the script.
- He consulted shipwreck survivor Steven Callaghan about his experiences and Callaghan became an advisor on the film. Magee first read Life of Pi about ten years ago while he was working on Finding Neverland and had long been passionate about adapting the project. He took on board Callaghan’s memories of being “in a bowl in the middle of the universe” during his 74 days lost at sea.
- His biggest advice? If you stay around long enough and are good enough, you will get your screenwriting chance. Do you have the tenacity to stick to your guns? If your stuff is great, it will find its way.
Next up for him is a movie about the late Jim Henson and a Dreamworks film about whales (!).
I really enjoyed the day in general, and I know from organising events myself how hard it can be to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
But it has to be said that the organisers needed a Plan B (i.e. a landline phone that they could have resorted to for interviews). Skype constantly breaking down and a film being streamed badly let them down and made the festival – and the Irish industry – look amateurish, and that’s not good. I’ll be back at Story Campus next year, but hoping that they’ve invested in some DVDs and sorted out their tech problems!
Next up, a look at some of this year’s JDIFF movies…