Cicada – Writing a fantasy/ horror short…

Location scout...

Location scout…

Hey everyone!

I’m restarting my blog and the new post is all about a short film I am screenwriter on called currently called “Cicada.”  It’s a dark fantasy horror and is being directed by the fantastic Deloris Collins who has had recent festival success with a smart, funny and incredibly black comedy short called Once Upon a Time.

We’re currently trying to raise funding by crowdfunding on Indiegogo. There are some pretty incredible rewards available to contributers. Take a peek. Here you can see an excerpt of the script I wrote, learn about the producers and director and gain insight into our inspirations behind the production design. If you can help us by donating or simply sharing the page then please take a moment to do so. Every little helps and we really want to make this film a success.

I thought I’d share a short bit on how I developed the script and characters in the film…

It’s amazing how things change. Our perception of a story… and eachother.

In writing the screenplay for Cicada I realised that it developed in much the same way as the characters in the story. First of all, we have Leela- our heroine and main protagonist in the story. She begins not having a clear view of who she is, why she has the abilities she does and why it’s hard for people to understand her. In a sense, Leela is quite innocent to the darker forces at play in this world.

I liked this idea of how our perceptions of the world around us change as we grow up. The loss of innocence, the hurt inflicted by others, the reality of events you previously held in wonder. Teenage years can be some of the most challenging in a person’s life. You are going through changes both physical and mental, your friendship groups are doing the same thing and while this is happening sometimes you just don’t know where you stand. Are your closest friends actually trustworthy? The answer is yes. Until they’re not. At that point, one needs to be courageous. To stand up to the forces of darkness so to speak and to discover who you really are and what you’re made of.

As a title Cicada holds a double meaning. To cut a long story short, a Cicada stays hidden underground for seventeen years. They emerge, shed their skins and become a new creature, ready to take on the next phase of their lives. Leela is going through this process. On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, she finally begins to accept that she is about to have great power and ability. She needs to shed the past and become strong.
Kate- Leela’s mother and the antagonist in our story also needs to shed her old skin but if I talk about that, it’ll ruin the story..! cicada shell

The development of script can be similar. You start off with an idea. One that is great and worth writing down and over the course of development it becomes something new, refined and brilliant. You think to yourself “I have a clear plan of how this is going to turn out.” Then, as you write and the characters emerge, the process becomes more fluid and organic in it’s construction. Writing in itself demands you enter your characters’ heads and figure out; 1- What they want. 2- Why. 3- How they decide to get there. In the middle of a script, that character then has an idea that previously wasn’t on the cards. It changes the rest of the story and affects everyone around them.

Cause and effect.

In our story, each character has their own motivations. Even the minor characters. Leela learns that some of the closest and most important people in her life are willing to take her life for selfish and insidious reasons. That changes things. How do you react to that? I’m sure we’ve all been there at least one point in our lives albeit not to quite an extreme! It’s easy to give in and bend to the whim of the bad guy but ultimately you have a choice. The other choice is to stand up, be strong and fight back. The human spirit is incredibly resilient and adaptable.

I looked back over the various drafts and story ideas for Cicada and was amazed by how much the story and characters have changed. Admittedly, my first draft was highly ambitious for a zero budget short so that decided some changes that needed to be made but really it was all about character.

I always enjoy writing a strong female character. That was a constant. I liked the idea of demons and secret cults with access to magic from all over the world. These have all been done a thousand times before and it was time to mix it up. Why not add a bit of fairy-tale darkness in the vein of Neil Gaiman or Guillermo Del Toro? Or how about some John Hughes-esque teen relationship stuff while avoiding angsty Twilight cliche? After all this, it needed to feel real. Grounded. Relatable to all of us. It focuses on the characters, not the effects- although I’m sure they’ll look pretty swish too! The stylings are the sorts of things I tend to go for anyway and I’m incredibly lucky to be working with a Director who shares those influences and injected her own expertise.

The collaboration on the script has really helped to mould the screenplay in to something unique, entertaining and terrifying all at once.

And once you find your feet and make your way in to the big wide world, that’s kind of how life is really…

I really want to see this film on screen and we need some help to do that. Let’s all collaborate and help tell a story.

Here’s the link to donate once again.

Until next time..!

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Who? From Where?

Hey, everyone! It’s been a while since the last blog. The Christmas period and the month after tend to be way too busy for me so my time has been taken up elsewhere. I hope you all had a most excellent festive season and that ’12 has been good to you so far.

In this blog I want to talk about building a character. We’ll talk about the importance of giving your character a history and how it can impact on your story. It’s something I don’t see enough of in a lot of big films and it annoys me to see one dimensional characters that I really don’t believe in.

Each and every one of your characters should have a fully fledged backstory that is logical and explainable. They need to make sense as a human being (or whatever). The main reasons for this are simple. In real life, your life leading up to now has made you who you are. Whether it’s the places you’ve been, the people you met or what you were taught at school, all of these things inform how you behave, communicate and live you life.

If you’re a writer, it makes life a lot easier for you if you know the characters you are dealing with. It means you can create situations in the script and know how your character is going to react. It should also show you how the character gets to that situation in the first place.

For instance, let’s go with a Zombie film (any excuse). If there was a zombie attack on a school and a class was trapped in room 4B, waiting for rescue (if it comes) how would your teacher and your group of 8yr olds react?

Let’s look at the teacher. In one scenario your teacher is a 40yr old Gulf War vet who won medals for courage in the line of fire. He’s a family man with three kids and a wife and teaches at this primary school while specialising in History. We can add more information such as his tendency to stay calm under pressure, his easy way with the kids who have a deep respect for him. Perhaps he’s a smoker though and 15yrs out if the corps has meant he’s not as fit as he used to be. His hearing was damaged in the war due to a grenade detonation nearby. Maybe that was why he left the forces. Or maybe he just couldn’t take seeing his friends die beside him…

Now, using that information, it’s pretty clear to see where his story might go. But is it as clear cut? Look closer at what you’ve written. At first he seems like someone who could take care of himself and others. A leader. Willing to put his life on the line for anyone he cares about. You could go down the route of this guy clearing a path to safety through the undead horde which may cause him to be a bit out of breathe but he’ll do it eventually. A hero.

Or, you might look closer. His love for his family comes first- especially after the war broke him. He might ditch the kids altogether but honestly, he’s probably more honourable than that. Maybe he’s so unfit that the group don’t get very far and they all perish- a few of the remaining kids being the only ones to tell the tale. Perhaps the Zombie apocalypse pushes him over the edge and he turns in to a wild man- taking on the zombies but not thinking properly thus letting slip any tactical advantage they might have…

The end result might be influenced by how you want your story to end. Or, it might change the ending you already have if you find a more interesting route to take. It doesn’t matter of course as long as the end product is good but it does let you explore different options and actually develop a script rather than simply write it. Over the various drafts, you will most likely see major changes to the way in which your characters behave. It’s worth noting that the importance should not be to actively change what happens with a character but simply to know why it happens.

I used a picture of Jason Bourne from the brilliant thriller The Bourne Identity   in this post because in my opinion Bourne is one of the more interesting characters in a mainstream franchise of the last decade. Bourne allowed for a character who has all the traits of an expert, almost super human assassin but is believable as a real guy. The effects of amnesia help this along as he struggles to find out who he is. He is put in real life locations, situations and his backstory is gradually revealed with very little exposition. The action is dictated by his particular set of skills and is used as a story telling device throughout the series. Every moment has a point and everything we find out helps deepen our relationship with the character.

Instead of a typical remorseless action hero blowing the crap out of his environment and everyone in it, emotion is injected. He goes where he needs to go rather than the writer putting him in a certain place because it would be ‘cool’ or ‘quirky’.

All of this doesn’t have to relate to zombie films and action movies. These guidelines (because nothing in writing is necessarily a rule) apply to any script or story you’re trying to write.

So, take a look at your script. Make a list of all the characters and write some simple (or detailed) notes about their age, hometown, education, parents, work history, life experiences and their ambitions. Obviously you don’t have to use these exact categories but you get the idea. When you do this, ideas will flourish and you might even get past a part of the script which has been bothering you for ages. This is exactly what I did and it worked.

Until next time folks! Stay tuned…

Great Scott!

In this post I want to talk about creating stories and characters that are completely original. I’ll go over what inspires my own ideas and scripts and how I go about making decisions on story and character arcs.

I watch films, I read books, I follow current events and have an interest in history. Already, through that, I have enough material to inspire me and to form ideas. There are a lot more interests I have and it is the collective experience of all of these that shape my view of the world and how I like to tell stories. More important than any of these external stimuli which have different effects on each individual is something which we all share and on which we should always trust; Our own thoughts and experiences.

These are the tools which allow a writer to construct an entirely believable story because how you perceive reality and existence is the most true thing you can possibly put on to paper. This may seem to be going down the route of existentialism and you may also scoff at the suggestion that Transformers is grounded in reality. Let me explain…

In my opinion, the two most important parts of a script are the characters and the story. In that order. It is a commonly held belief that the story is all important and that a script will fail if it doesn’t have something interesting to say or somewhere intriguing to take us. I agree but the way I see it you can envisage the most incredible story ever told but if the characters you follow in that story don’t seem credible then it kills any interest you might have and you start to forget why you care about the ending. For instance, in Transformers we follow Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouef) as he becomes involved with a battle between warring alien robots. Far fetched, but the film is grounded in a coming of age story as Sam grows up, gets his first car and falls for a girl out of his league. One of the reasons the sequels failed was to put this story in the back seat and replace it with more ‘comedy’ amongst other things… It’s an example of how we can relate to the films we see no matter how outlandish that film’s premise is.

A lot of what I write is inspired by real life and the rest is dictated by the needs of the story and the motivations of the characters.

I’ll use my script ‘Beneath’ as an example. I have always loved monster movies and Gojira (1954) is a masterpiece. I wanted to create a monster movie that would be set in the UK (because I’m sick of seeing everything hit  N.Y. or L.A.) and I wanted to give it a twist. Around the time I had this idea, the oil disaster off the U.S. coast occured and it struck me that the environmental message behind the disaster correlated with similar messages behind most other kaiju films. I had my origin (I won’t tell you exactly of course) but I needed a window in to this story. I came up with the idea that we could view the story via multiple characters á la Rashomon or 24. I decided on two characters. One is directly involved in the catastrophe that sets the story off and another is a man working undercover to investigate what’s really going on after the government declares a media blackout so as not to cause panic. They each have their paths in the story and at the end they come together nicely. The twist I used was to integrate a Bourne-esque conspiracy thriller story in to the mix which upped the socio-political message the screenplay is trying to convey. I also wanted to maintain the tradition of making the monsters themselves characters. It isn’t good enough to simply use them as destroyers or cannon fodder. They are living creatures and need to have their own motives and a side you can empathise with. In the context of this story, they were here long before humans and it is the destruction that man causes to the planet that is far worse than the monster’s rampage through London which will surely occur…

Of course with a story that involves an epic story and multiple characters in the present day, I had to think about how the way we live our lives might be affected by a rampaging giant monster and how current forms of social media might extinguish any attempt by the government to quell the spread of information. This element came from this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ which was fascinating to follow. Humanity will always find a way to overcome.

The interesting part about writing this script is that, much like Cloverfield, you don’t see the monster as much as you think you should. There is still enough excitement and pace in the human elements to drive the story and keep you involved. Much like other movies that deal with huge events such as natural disasters or alien invasions, it is simply a setting in which we can explore humanity. Think of Ridley Scott’s Alien for example. You hardly see the cause of the terror but the film still fills you with a sense of dread and atmosphere. It’s Ripley you become fascinated by as much as the titular acid spitting creature.

The script also demands a large amount of research- specifically military and geographical. I needed to include shipping lanes, places, flights, weapon choices, aircraft, marine vessels, oil rig information and a whole host of other elements to create a believable story that is grounded in reality. I set a portion of one character’s story in London and used places that I knew well enough to describe in detail. “Write what you know” is certainly important here.

The characters themselves need to be well defined and watchable. I gave even the smallest characters details and traits that would make them seem real; as if they were living and breathing as you I read the words in the script. You really need to put time aside for these details as they can actually inspire the direction of the story a lot of the time. I was recently stuck on a script for Mystery Boys, a comic book I write. I couldn’t figure out how the two main characters were going to figure out the puzzle behind strange goings on in a remote Japanese village. I had a vague idea about a ‘crazy’ old guy who knew something more but I didn’t know why he knew it or how they met. I came up with the idea that this elderly guy likes a to drink. The main characters meet him at the village inn. I then created a backstory that stretched to his childhood in the last days of WWII and involved his father. I linked it to one of the main characters who held a mysterious past which is something I also wanted to work in to the story. It was pretty emotional and had a real kick to it. Not only had I solved a few story issues I had now created a really good character and a different ending for the book which became something more than a simple tale of agents against the unknown. It was more human and it is honestly one of the best things I have ever written. It all came from the simple idea of the old man having a drink in his hand.

Similarly, in Beneath, the main characters eventually link up because of who they are and what they do not because I simply decided to place them in the same place at the same time which I feel is far too convenient and lazy.

So, a story can form by seeing what’s around us and by also by the characters we place in that setting. This when the evolution and major changes occur inbetween drafts. It is somewhat painful to change such large portions of script but if your character dictates they should follow a certain path and it works as a story then you need to take the chance and see if it works out better for the script. The story might change which means the characters will do something different which means the consequences might affect the story that follows on and so on…

The main point I want to make here is that when you write, the only voice you should hear is your own. I don’t mean you should write everything from your viewpoint. You need to stay objective if you’re writing something like Schindler’s List for example. What I mean is you shouldn’t be someone else. Keep your style,  hone it and create something that within the first ten pages, the reader will say, “this is a <your name here> script and as usual, I love it!”

REVOLUCIÓN!

I’m going to begin this series of blogs with a look at how I view the challenges in writing a script that is based on an intellectual property which already exists. I don’t believe remakes, reimaginings or reboots are a bad thing at all. Star Trek, Dawn of the Dead, True Grit and The Magnificent Seven to name but a few are all amazing films. There is a lot of stigma attached when these sort of films are announced but if they’re done well they can even surpass the originals (even though hardcore fanboys have probably already sent out a squad of assassins to hunt me down for suggesting it).

Everyone has an imagination. There are infinite story possibilities that can be conjured by the human brain and it is incredible that most blockbusting films in the last ten years have been based on pre-existing properties. Are the paying audience scared of handing over £10 to watch a film that is an original piece of entertainment? The answer to this is somewhat blurry. Two examples of late would be Inception and Super 8. Both films were original stories, both films came from established talents and both offered smart, exciting entertainment.

Inception was extremely successful while Super 8  was less so although it still made a lot of money. Perhaps the differences in marketing and cast drove more people to see the former. A film with the same marketing strategy and director as one of the biggest movies of all time coupled with an all star cast will always do better than one which relied on nostalgia for E.T. and a cast mostly made up of kids new to the scene. I was still sad that eight out of the top ten performers in 2011 were sequels. I’m not saying all of those in the top ten were bad films. I enjoyed most of them. In 2010, Inception placed at number six while this year Super 8 languishes at eighteen.

As a writer, is it worth having an original idea? The answer is most definitely yes. Avatar and Star Wars must be two of the main examples of original ideas being successful. Pixar consistently deliver box office hits with their genius storytelling and countless other films have made it on their own merit so don’t get demoralised when Fast And Furious 12 tramples over whatever film is produced from your script. The thing that matters the most is that the script you produce is honest to yourself and as long as it tells a good story or has a valid point to make, then you shouldn’t lock it away in a drawer, too scared to show it off. Hopefully, someone will take a chance on it.

Most of my ideas are original and those are the ones I most enjoy writing because you can create your own world, characters, story and it’s much more satisfying to see something that works because you planned it that way.

I do have one or two scripts in the works at the moment however that are based on pre-existing properties but rather than me adapting them because I see £’s in my eyes, I’m adapting them because I love the worlds those stories exist in and I have enjoyed those properties for years. These scripts are relatively easy to create as you already have a wealth of material at your fingertips be it a book, video game, film, obscure 15th Century epic poem… It’s what you do with that information that matters. In my opinion, simply churning out a straight up adaptation of what’s already been before is somewhat worthless so I take that material and develop my own stories from it.

Comic book writers in particular will know that the character they work with are so timeless and endlessly inventive because different writers and artists have their own views on what they can do that nobody has done before. Comic book heroes will go through endless iterations and reinventions and yet still have the ability to be loved by fans. Film fans tend to be more unforgiving but as Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight saga proves, that’s not the case all the time. Nolan has managed to turn Batman in to a modern day epic mythology.

The Adventures Of Tintin is a perfect example of this done well. Rather than take one of Hergé’s stories and put what’s on the page straight on to the screen, various strands from different story arcs were chosen and melded then bolstered by newly created scenarios to give a version of Tintin that fitted Spielberg and Jackson’s sensibilities while still retaining the magic and intrigue of the books.

Even The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy wasn’t entirely faithful but it still worked. A particular script I’m working on at the moment (we’ll call it Blue for now) follows a very well known character who has been around for just under twenty years and there have already been numerous iterations in various different mediums. It was important that I found something fresh and what I did was simply take this vast and endlessly imaginative world that had already existed and then added to it. The great thing about stories based in sci-fi and fantasy is that you can create your own rules and as long as they’re followed within the context of the script, you’re fine. You can then place your character in that world and do whatever you like. I chose an origin story for this one as this character has never been on the big screen (properly) before and I wanted to build the story from the ground up. We see how the character changes and how the emotional element of the story develops in this really complex way and so far it’s working very well. I’m confident that my own spin on the character has never been seen before. The script was actually inspired by another writer’s work adapting it to a medium different from the original so in a sense my take is not the first to play with the original form.

The angle I’m taking with Blue was fully realised in my mind when I finally decided what the personal journey of the main hero was. At first it was simply a tale about freedom fighters in a world ruled by a ruthless dictator. There wasn’t enough emphasis on who the main character was. Of course, everyone knows the name but that doesn’t make for an interesting film. The recent big screen hit The A-Team didn’t succeed because it had a scene involving a mid-air tank battle (although that was damn cool) but because we were allowed to invest in the brilliantly drawn characters. They had history, personality and relationships that popped out of the screen and I personally spent most of the film with a grin on my face watching them do their thing.

The origins of the character I’m working with and his ultimate destiny suggested a story in which he is simply someone searching for a parental figure. He is somewhat lost and although he becomes a hero and a leader of underground fighters, he is torn as he fights against the one character he used to trust and love. It’s kind of Star Wars after Luke learns his father is the bad guy. It’s that sort of relationship. Once I had this, the bigger picture became more clear and the character’s path through the story was defined. Other well know characters pop up in the story and I’m having a blast finding ways to include them while not having the sheer volume of supporting characters cast a shadow over the main story. In the beginning it’s a nod and a wink to the audience but once their world is turned upside down, they become more prominent. I wanted to include them early on so the feel at the end of the script was consistent with the beginning. Suddenly throwing in a bunch of faces towards the end would have made the script lose it’s focus.

I’m sort of picking a few favourite bits from the original material but the majority is of my own evolution of the story.

Another script I’m currently developing (we’ll call it Detention) based on something that already exists is simply a question of taking the ideas and philosophy behind the piece and translating it to a different setting. In this case it was taking a Japanese story and placing it in a near future U.K. The challenges in doing this weren’t so hard. The story carries a heavy social and political message (while also being exceptionally thrilling and daring) which is pretty universal and perhaps even more so after the crazy events of this last year. I took the rules and the basic premise of the story and put my own characters and events in to the script. It’s not exactly a remake but (wait for the in- trend word of the moment…) a reimagining.

I was only inspired to begin Detention after the riots in the U.K. earlier this year. Our current culture of slightly trashy reality television which I personally hate was also an influence. It’s a pretty angry film. Fun but angry. I originally started working on it as a completely original story but when I saw the correlation with the particular property it’s based on I began to realise this was actually a far stronger idea.

Zombie films are a nice example of where you can recycle an idea over and over again and it will turn out to be successful as long as you do it well. I actually prefer Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake to George A. Romero’s original. A bunch of mismatched survivors struggle to survive both a zombie apocalypse and each other is not an original idea but it’s what the films say about humanity that is important. The Walking Dead takes it deeper and while the tv series veers from the path set in the comics, both talk about relevant issues and questions that humanity prefers to avoid.

I have taken care in both of these projects not to copy exactly what has come before however in order to honour the originals, of course there are numerous references that existing fans will pick up on. As soon as I saw that red shirt on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot I knew what fate held in store…

Your personal stamp on the script is in some ways even more important in adapting stories as this is what will make your script stand out. Tom Cruise has been insistent that the Mission: Impossible films are not made to conform to previous instalments in the same way that James Bond films did until the Daniel Craig installments. When you see slow motion doves in M:I-2 for instance, you know it’s a John Woo joint.

I hope you enjoyed this post and perhaps you took something from it. Next time I’ll be talking about my original scripts.

Stay tuned!