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Opening shot

This is one of the few movies I’ve seen in recent months which inspired me even as I was watching it. I’ve written a couple of novels about individuals and their sexual obsessions, so I was first and foremost drawn to the film by its subject matter – it promised to be not only a visual treat given the reviews I’d read of “Hunger “ but also a ‘conversation’ I could engage in as a writer who likes to work with similar characters and situations.

Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, an Irish émigré, inhabiting a minimalist apartment in Manhattan, which mirrors the lack of emotional warmth in his life. He likes having sex with call girls, he masturbates at least twice a day (in the shower and at work), and he watches heaps of porn on his and his employer’s computer. (Incidentally I’m surprised the writers naively supposed Brandon would be allowed to watch porn at work in a Manhattan office – it’s been years since IT managers shut down all access to all manner of porn on company computers). He doesn’t seem to enjoy himself much with any of this sexual gratification – it’s more like he’s relieving some deeply pent up anguish. The sex is just a release, a habit, a compulsion without end. A dirty smoker’s habit. So yes, he’s not just another lonely guy, he’s a sex addict.

One day Brandon comes home to hear that someone is in his flat. He picks up a bassball bat and advances on the intruder – only to find his wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) taking a shower in his bathroom. He’s not happy to see her. In fact he’s been ignoring her calls for several days, hoping she would just disappear again. She begs him to let her stay for a while. Her husband or boyfriend is behaving cruelly toward her. But hell, is she needy! No wonder he doesn’t want her around.

When a pretty office worker (Nicole Beharie) shows interest in Brandon, he goes on a date with her. This dinner date is one of my favourite scenes in the movie and one of the few with sustained dialogue that reveals Brandon as more than a sex machine. He is both charming and gauche and appears to have lost all interest in the kind of conversation a woman expects of a man on a first date. After five minutes he blurts out that he thinks relationships are more or less pointless. When his date asks him, “So what is all this, what are we doing here?” he only just managed to pull the date from the brink. A day or so later he rushes into the office, takes the woman by the arm and kisses her in an unoccupied room before whisking her away to a hotel.

When they start to get it on in the expensive hotel room, Brandon can’t get it up. Almost certainly because he can’t handle emotion together with sensation – he’s only used to feeling the latter. The very next shot following his date’s departure, we see Brandon fucking an escort against the hotel window, giving passers-by more than they bargained for on their way back to the office.

Meantime, Brandon grows ever more resentful of his sister’s presence in his flat, which is not helped by her taking his boss to bed one night. Whereas he is cold and controlled, she is highly emotional and given to depressive acting out – and the combination of the two in one apartment is driving both toward self-destruction.

But McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, deny us any meaningful background detail on Brandon. The same approach was used in “Let’s Talk About Kevin”, which was adapted from a novel stuffed with factual detail but desperately absent of any convincing analysis as to what drove the main protagonist to behave as he did. Presumably the Shame screenwriters regarded background detail as mere exposition, stuff that would ‘slow the story down’ – but in providing us with almost no kind of exposition they make us voyeurs. This unwillingness to peel away layers renders the experience similar to being at an art exhibition – we have to create the narrative for the pictures, bringing our own references to them. McQueen’s own background is in art, so perhaps this explains his preferred way of exploring a visual narrative. I’m afraid I want more. If I’m not feeling much – and learning less – you could argue there’s really not much meaningful drama going on.

Shame deals with the kind of anguish that comes from excessive sexual gratification without emotional connection. About half way through the film, as we watch Brandon’s resentment, his fear even of his sister’s cloying presence in his life, we gather a sense that his behaviour is perhaps the result of some kind of childhood trauma. Was he abused at school, at home? Did he end up having sex with his sister in his teens?

Too many questions hang in the air for a work that demands over 100 minutes of anyone’s time. Has pornography destroyed Brandon’s ability to share feelings, or did something happen to make him ‘addicted’ to pornography? Why is his relationship with his sister so fraught? Except for her history of suicide attempts, we have no idea, we can only guess. Toward the end of the film Brandon ends up in a gay club, seeking a blow-job. Is he a repressed homosexual, or is this just his way of expressing anger at what he’s becoming?

In spite of his increasingly self-destructive behaviour, you grow to like Brandon more and more during the film because you see, underneath it all, a man who wants to care and who still might learn to care. And it’s this wanting to care ingredient that makes Fassbender’s performance so utterly riveting. Ultimately, though, he is so thinly drawn that his behaviour begins to fill us with emptiness, a sediment of boredom.

Shame’s theme is very now, it seems about to invite debate on sexual addiction, but offering so little in the way of insight into its two main characters, it left me feeling inspired as a writer, yet strangely short-changed for lack of answers.

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As a writer, I often hear other writers and directors say, “If you bang your head against the wall long enough you’ll get a breakthrough.” Sheer perseverance will win the day, is a common message. Well, we all like to stay positive. Here’s a little pivot movie my son Jay did that offers the opposite view.  Grim but funny. Enjoy!

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September 2011 London Screenwriter Festival ran a screenplay competition called “Four Nights In August – screenplay competition“.
The brief was to write a one-page script on the theme of the London Riots 2011. Your piece could be on pretty much anything as long as it commented on the London Riots.

I thought the 2 winning scripts, announced in October, were a little underwhelming, a missed opportunity.

Everything You Need, by David Yurner offered a poignant image of what matters to us most when we are faced with having our home burnt down by looters.

Why by Milethia Thomas asked the somewhat obvious question, All that looting and mayhem just for a pair of trainers?

Both were well written, but I was surprised the judges went for pieces which were rather generic – that’s to say, both scripts could have been about any old night of anarchy. They lacked a sense of now, for me, and had nothing ironic to say about what happened. The emotion of both could be summed up as, Oh, what a shame. Kind of the most obvious reaction of the ordinary person – and basically what every politician was saying albeit dramatised by a competent screenwriter.

And yet, as with the ‘Spring Revolution’ in Iran that failed, so much was made of smart phones and social media playing a major part in the Lonon Riots – for me it was the use of technology that made these riots so different from, say, the Brixton Riots in 82.

So when I saw this brief that’s what I set out to do: write a short, punchy – and ironic – commentary on the looters and their smart phones. If you’re interested in reading my one-pager, click GOTCHYA. Compare it to the winning scripts and let me know what you think.

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If you want to write screenplays – feature length screenplays – you have to start with short films scripts.

A short film can be a great calling card for a writer or director – provided the script is tight.

A short film can be anything from thirty seconds to thirty minutes in length. However, if you want to get your short into a festival, you want to keep it to no more than ten minutes, as many Festivals will not take films over 12-15 minutes.

Besides which, your main objective in writing and producing a short film is to use it as a calling card. The producers you want to see your film get bombarded all the time with things to watch, so unless your short is a masterpiece at 25 minutes, they are not even going to get half way through it.

You’ll hear lots of encouragement from people saying things like: Play with your ideas, play with the form, be experimental… Personally – and I talk from experience – I would not go about making a short with that kind of romantic notion in your head.

I would like to remind you of my second line above – your short is a calling card. So what are you asking for, when you leave your calling card? Well, unless you want to work for nothing for the next x number of years, I suggest you’re looking for business.

Do you think people in business think to themselves one day, Oh, let me experiment today and see what I can come up with?

No, they study the market they are interested in and they identify an audience, they also study the products in that market and they copy them… while adding their own unique selling point.

I suggest you do the same when you come to write and produce a short.

You study the best short films out there and you copy them. I don’t mean rip them off. I mean, you look at how they are constructed, how they are performed, photographed, edited… and you incorporate the features you like, the features that fit your incipient idea, and you write your first draft.

A successful short film is no different from a feature in that it needs to pose a question which needs to be resolved. In other words, we need to be able to identify quickly an area of conflict for the central protagonist – which could be external or internal and, preferably, both. The conflict itself needs to be clearly defined and emotionally charged.

Most successful short films focus on one moment or event that all of us can relate to easily, a moment that describes a situation in which the stakes are high for the protagonist.

Economy is essential in a short film. If your scenes have too much going on in them whatever idea you are running with will become diluted. In writing a short it can help if you think of your scenes as a series of stills – moments of action and reaction, and emotion.

Each scene should push the story forward and tease meaning from the central question – your idea.

Pay attention to ‘tone of voice’. If you mix genre styles – horror here, then melodrama there – even if you are aiming for comedy, your film will lack coherence and, without coherence, you have left half your audience behind.

Some shorts will pose an interesting idea, but fail to engage emotionally because not enough work has been spent on the script to create characters you care about, a sense in which the story is moving forward to a satisfying climax.

The opening image is crucial – it establishes not only the theme of the film, but also our sense of what we are about to see. The last moment is also crucial – it has to deliver a meaningful and satisfying ending, or your audience will feel short-changed.

Although I’ve advised you to copy other quality short films, this doesn’t mean you omit to write about what you know and what you feel passionately about. 

Fine tune your script before committing to producing it

Unless daddy has generously handed you 50K to make a short, you must consider your budget, even as a writer. Shorts don’t tend to make any money and almost without exception don’t go into profit – they are long-term investments. As with any investment, you need to be able to complete your project without going bankrupt. You may be hopeful of having your short funded by a local council or film funding body of some kind, but consider the possibility – or likelihood – of this never happening. You may have to produce the short yourself. So, even before you commit to a first draft, you should consider how easy it will be to pull off using your friends’ help.

In my view too many filmmakers put poor scripts into production. With digital technology becoming increasingly affordable for anyone who loves movies, there’s a tendency to think you only need a rough idea for a script and that’s enough to go out and make a short. There’s nothing wrong with that – just don’t expect to produce a great calling card at the end of it.  Of course, sometimes a good old laugh can produce a quality film that lots of people like – it’s just much less likely to. And although you might not have spent much money on hiring camera gear and lights, you will have spent a few months, maybe even a year, on the entire production – and that time should be worth money to you; ask any businessman.

One of the best ways of testing your script is to send it round to other writers, producers and directors. Don’t be precious about the process – they may have some useful feedback that could further strengthen your script. If 3 out of 4 people get back to you saying, “Yeah, it was OK”, instead of, “Yeah, loved it!” you should seriously consider another draft, if not, starting from scratch.

You can also test your script yourself by writing a synopsis. Squeeze out the essence of the idea and then ask yourself, Is it compelling enough? Can you pitch it to someone and believe in the story, not merely the idea of being applauded for having made a short film?





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London’s Burning

They said they wuz looting Curry's

Remember the song? London’s Calling…. The Clash. I wonder how it would sound – London’s Burning. Some of the scenes on the internet fit the manic character of that song well enough…

Been writing copy for Dove this week – hand creams and lip balms. Kind of surreal with all this looting going on. Beauty. Soft silky skin. Nourishing deep down. You know the stuff? A cocktail for eternal life.

All the politicians decry the violence as ‘pure criminality’. They must always appear to be suitably appalled. Real analysis is for the media and talking heads. Or perhaps these days bloggers and tweeters who were there without an agenda…

Typically the media hone in on alleged tension between the public and police. Well yes, that does seem to be the catalyst. And it might explain the riots in Tottenham. To a degree. But the rest of London? Yeah, right. The violence isn’t aimed at the police – this isn’t London circa 82.

I remember the riots in Brixton 82, in fact my brother and I inadvertently walked right into them. Literally. We turned up at the pub round the corner from the house the police had raided hours before, the scene of a rash killing of an innocent black Londoner, and as we entered the bar a room of black faces viewed us with smoky suspicion and more besides.  We were white and their enemy, the police, was mostly white. The mood in the streets was palpably anti police.

This is different. It’s more akin to a video game: Let’s see what we can get, what we can score. Get out your mobile phone and tweet, text and plan a raid…

It’s boredom. It’s disaffection with the never-ending state of the nation’s indebtedness. Forget the nation, your average person’s indebtedness. It’s contempt for stuff, stuff that’s got us into debt, not delivered us to wherever we thought we deserved to be.

The media, advertising and credit cards have all led us to believe we can have it all – now. So when a guy, alleged to have been a little on the wrong side of the law, gets shot in murky circumstances, the shot rings in the ears of people who have woken up now to the realisation they are fucked off with how things are.

As for kids, like I said, it’s their way of gaming for real. Finally they have an excuse to toss their consoles to one side and do it for real. They can go out there, create their own media world, be on youtube, put their videos on youtube, hide from YouTube… it’s all just a game.

Is it a game you win? How many lives do we got while they play?


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How many times have you started out on a collaborative project totally upbeat, only to end up in a heap of pent up rage and a stinking carcass you thought was a great project at your feet? Too many times, you may answer…

The writing process is an intimate experience. So when it goes wrong it’s a bit like a marriage turning sour.

I’ve had my fair share of collaborative projects dying a death, sometimes prematurely, often just yards from the finishing line. It’s amazing how many people kid themselves that they did most of the work. They have it in their head that you would be nowhere and nothing but for their connection, or their nugget of an idea; you’re just lucky to have found them. Never mind that the script was originally yours, or that you took their mere idea and turned it into a commercial entity, no, they’re the ones with the power and that means you’re wrong and they’re right.

It would be comic if it weren’t happening to you.

And it can happen to you even when you have a contract in place.

Get a contract

Everyone says, Don’t do anything till you have a contract in place! And they’d be right. The irony is that sometimes that contract is the very thing you want to get out of, especially when you discover the producer you’re working with is ruining your work beyond recognition and hell to work with and all you can think of is, HOW DO I GET OUT OF THIS!

But yes, always sign a contract first, no matter what. Figure out who does what, put it down in the agreement and go for it. Don’t think that because you’re best mates everything will be fine. Writing is an emotional battle ground. It’s not just collaborative it’s competitive. You could easily lose your friendship and, chances are, you’ll end up with a weak and incomplete script.

How do you work out who gets what?

I’m just about to start a project with a woman who claims she has a riveting story to tell. She’s not a writer, but she wants to see her story come alive. She’d like me to write it. When she first ran the collaborative idea by me, she wanted me to be a ghost writer. When she told me a little more about the story, I suggested we went for a screenplay. One, I could write it quicker, two, I was not at all familiar with her story material, which would make it more difficult for me to get into the ‘interior world of characters’, essential for a novel, much less important in a screenplay.

So then we had to figure out who gets what as a share of the writer’s fee.

According to The Writers Guild of America the writing process breaks down loosely as:
– 25% for the story
-75% for the screenplay

If that seems a little unfair, consider the fact that:
– Screenwriting is a skill that takes years to craft
– There would nothing to show a producer if it were not already screenplay

You don’t have to stick to those guidelines of course. In any event you want to find some middle ground you are both happy with.

Keep alive the collaborative spirit

….Writer goes into a bar and the producer says, “What’re you drinking?” The writer says, “Oh, er, glass of wine?” Producer says, “You don’t seem sure. Time to grow up, you’re having what I’m having.”

Keeping the collaborative spirit alive is of itself hard work – but you should put some effort into it, or the other writer (or writers) will begin to think you’re in it for yourself.
You want to check you are agreed on every beat of the script, because if you don’t there’s bound to be accusations when the going gets tough – which it will do.

Keep ego out of it. If your co-writer can’t keep ego out of it, bring him or her back to your original goal: to write the best screenplay possible. If that fails to bring things back to an objective focus and your project is speculative or very low budget, walk away: life’s too short.

Don’t rewrite his or hers until you’ve got his or her go-ahead. I short don’t presume to know what’s best for the project or the script, always consult first.

Listen to your gut

The thought of money, success, the natural aversion to feeling you’ve failed – they can all persuade you to keep flogging a dead horse. Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut. I am listening more than I used to, but I still ignore it sometimes – and later I nearly always look back and say, My gut was right. If you’re already resenting the other person’s attitude and in spite of your best efforts the resentment is only spreading like cancer – get out before the resentment kills you and the project.

My son, Jay Penrake, made me this little pivot movie – more on the perils of the writer’s (self-deprecating) assumption that he’s kicking the door down with his latest work of art… Hope you Like.

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So you’ve finally got a producer interested in your script. You’ve gotten all excited about it. Or, if you’re a little jaded, you can at least justify having an extra glass of wine tonight… Your friends go, Wow, like you just got nominated for a big prize. You have to set them straight and strike a suitably hopeful note which retrospectively doesn’t make you look like a gullible twat.

You are about to step out onto the tightrope…

Just as you were beginning to think the whole thing had fallen through, the producer finally agrees to a meeting. He or she – sometimes they – enthuse about your project. As they should. You have a sneaking suspicion this experience is the alcohol talking. They want a few changes, but they want to stay faithful to your story. Of course they do, while else would they have bought it?

Then a few more nervous weeks go by and you receive your contract papers. You get them signed and everything seems good to go.

An attachment arrives by email. This is the new storyline. The beats. As the producer(s) would like it. You get half way down the page and realise your story, your script, no longer exists. It’s now the producer’s story. Or maybe even the producer assistant’s story.

You feel the bile rise at the back of your throat and have to get up and walk around for an hour, muttering under your breath and envisaging calling up the producer, ranting like a loon and refusing to have anything further to do with this new abomination.

But being a writer who’s always got it, is figuratively speaking, lying in a pool of congealed blood at his desk, you realise this is no time to be ‘sensitive’. You remind yourself of all those talking heads you’ve seen on TV saying it how it really is: It’s a business. And saying it like they just managed to omit the word ‘brutal’. Yep, it’s brutal, alright.

So are you up to it? Are you going to fight by joining their side, or fight them – which is the equivalent of suicide?

Are you in the mood for killing yourself? You might be. You worked hard on that script, didn’t you. I mean, how many draft already? 6… 10? And now they want to tear it to pieces and – no, wait they want you to tear it to pieces for them and rebuild it. Nearly as painful as that guy in 127 Hours cutting his arm off in order to live.

OK, we exaggerate a little there.

But it will be bloody. There will be blood. And even once you’ve written a new draft, the producer and his or her team might jettison you and bring in a ‘name’ or simply someone they are more comfortable manipulating.

This is what they call development. A probationary period for the writer, who must walk a tightrope to the other side if he or she wants to live…

So you still want to be a screenwriter? Do you feel a Jacobean tragedy coming on?


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So there I am, 9 pm, end of a long day writing copy for a ‘bid book’ for a client trying to secure a major sporting event, and I’m just about to attach my word doc to my email when in comes my sassy eleven year-old, waving her arms around – and suddenly I’m looking at my recently opened bottle of wine lying sideways over my laptop gushing arterially over my keyboard.

“Kitchen Towel!” I shout at her.

She moves to the kitchen top with about as much urgency as a yawn. I dab furiously and turn the laptop upside down. Red wine drips onto the table. I mop and dab until the next wad of paper towel is dry.

It escapes my daughter to say sorry and she leaves the room feeling only the rude interruption of my outburst.

To my surprise my laptop hasn’t shorted or even stopped working. I tell myself I’ve been lucky. My daughter returns to tell me I was a bit stupid to put my wine so close to my computer. Very female – the man’s fault every time; she should be allowed to flap her arms about with gay abandon whenever she feels like it. What on earth will she be like at 18? I wonder.

Thirty minutes later I switched off my computer. Only to realize I’d forgotten to attach that piece of work. So I switched the computer back on… and to my horror, it refused my password. In fact the keyboard didn’t work, period. Not so lucky then, after all.

The next day the laptop was still suffering from alcoholic poisoning. It came on, but refused my password. I was looking at possibly having to replace the keyword, maybe worse. All major items like scripts and novels were twice backed up, but I realized a whole load of stuff was not. Not vital stuff, but the kind of stuff I’d now have to rummage around for on memory sticks and old emails to recover. I’d have to re-write a day’s worth of copy. Great timing – just as we were expecting my sister in law and her two girls. I realized 10 pages of my latest script were also not backed up. This was really not good. I was beginning to feel down and even slightly stressed by the whole cock-up. And as I set out the next morning taking my nine year old boy down to Wimbledon for a short film he was acting in, I struggled to muster much enthusiasm for chat – which was especially regrettable as he was so loving it, the trip with his dad.

Back home I searched the net, using my Dell, for remedies, advice, for ‘wine spill on laptop’. Don’t use a hairdryer, one post warned. Shit – I had, albeit very briefly. I read on: …Rinse the insides with distilled water… I didn’t have any distilled water. I’d have to go to a garage. But even then, I didn’t fancy my chances of improving matters with DIY. I had a very reasonable dread of getting the pieces back together again after I was done.

Finally I called Micro Anvika and asked for their advice. Guy with an Indian accent tells me to leave it unplugged, with battery out, upside down like a tent, so air could get to it, then take it into the repair shop if it’s still sick after 48 hours. If I had to get it repaired, the repair would not be covered by the guarantee as I was to blame, I was gently informed.

A trip to the repair shop Monday morning means I may have to work very late that day to make up for lost time.  All in all this has turned out to be possibly the most expensive drink I’ve had in a long time.

Will I stop drinking when I’m working on my laptop in the evenings? Of course not, I’ll just put up some barbed wire round my bottle of wine and laptop when my kids are around.

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The writer gets it

I guess there’s every chance that if you’re reading this you’re a writer of some sort.  And if you’ve been writing professionally, or even in the hope of becoming a professional, you’ll probably have had some experience that might be described by the title of this blog.

The agents says: “…you’re very talented, but I’m afraid I don’t quite love it.” So you are…unloved, unlovable – because the book is you.

Take it on the chin, move on.

And on. A bit like the missing piece in that charming story by Shel Silverstein… “Oh, I’m looking for my missing piece,” he sang.

I was talking with a writer friend on the phone when I stumbled on the title, indeed the concept, for this blog. We were both going into a sort of writer’s huddle, gnashing our teeth, recalling biter disappointments that had derailed our shoot for success and set us back years.

(Of course we were laughing. If you’d filmed the scene we wouldn’t have been laughing, the audience would have been – but we didn’t have an audience, save for ourselves, so we were laughing, it’s the only way…)

For years, I’ve felt like Myles in the movie Sideways. I even love Pinot. (But am not balding, paunch nor bearded). I nearly wept during those scenes between him and his agent – because they were so completely grafted from my own life, like skin.

So far I’ve been the writer who gets it – in the back, in the face, around the ear… some of the stories you’d hardly believe, but they happened. They used to make hilarious anecdotes, now they bring the taste of bile to the mouth.

Just occasionally, almost tragically, I pluck a wafer of success from the jaws of defeat and I suck on that for a while and somehow bounce back encouraged to believe that one day I’ll enjoy what is commonly known as a breakthrough, as opposed to what is threatened every few months – a breakdown.

Your time will come, people say. You may have been kindly condescended to in a similar fashion. You may even have said the same to a writer who has just received another rejection. Words to keep the pitiful writer happy. Because he or she keeps alive the romantic in all of us. The writer as hero, facing one rejection after the next, must surely triumph in the end…

The writer gets it, though, remember.

You can’t point out we feel sorry for ourselves – we’re masters of irony, students of character and motive. We do get it. Even as we stagger back into the flat with a knife in our back. We’re seldom surprised by betrayal – it’s just how we would have written it after all. We understand every twist there is to understand.  And yet…

… the strongest of us struggle on, Beckettian heroes, inching toward success, recognition, a sign that we haven’t toiled for nothing. A writer doesn’t want to look in the mirror and hear the words, Wanker, as he or she turns in to bed, still wired, one foot in a story. We give up so much of ourselves in what we do, we are like martyrs falling on our pen.

So this blog is going to be about my journey from relative obscurity to success. Inch by inch, if necessary. And perhaps yours, too. Because in sharing this journey with you I hope to bring luck and fortune to you, too. I’m not sure how I’ll achieve that just yet, but it’s my aim to make this a journey we take together.

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