Friday 21 February is Life is Swede day!!

A heads up on a leetle plan for world domination I have going on elsewhere… ;-)

American ex pat Regan moves halfway across the world to start a new life with holiday fling Anders. She launches a blog, Life is Swede and posts daily about her ups and downs settling into Stockholm and struggles to connect with Anders’ tight knit group of friends.

When one of them is found dead during a weekend away in a remote cabin, the police quickly zero in on Anders as the killer. Regan sets out to clear his name, and details her investigation for her fascinated readers – unaware that the killer is reading her blog, and watching her every move.

Read more at Friday 21 February is Life is Swede day!!.

There Are No Cats in America

Nobody has ever asked me this – because why would anyone ask me anything? – but I see the question come up time and time again on screenwriting blogs and messageboards: how do non-Americans make it in Hollywood?  Now, having not yet made in Hollywood, I’m not an expert on the subject, but here are my thoughts for what they are worth:

Firstly, the basic truth about making it as a screenwriter in any way shape or form is the same wherever: write something amazing and someone will find a way to make it.  Passes that appear on the surface to suggest that American producers won’t make British writers’ work, or that British producers will never take on an American-set project are just passes: write better and try again.

In many ways, Hollywood is less the American industry and more the epicentre of the international film industry.  In the very early days of filmmaking, the French, German and British film industries actually had higher rates of production and innovation than the Americans, but then the First World War happened and Europe spent the next couple of decades recovering, so the best filmmakers headed for the relative affluence of America and thus Hollywood became synonymous with movies.  In the decades since, Hollywood has continued to hoover up the best talent, the best stories, from all over the world… with one thing in common: they’re universal.

Hollywood films are rooted in primal hopes and fears that pretty much every human can identify with. They may literally be set in America with American characters, but, whether they’re action, comedy or thriller, they all have in common a strong, simple, emotional anchor that makes the story and characters accessible to people whose lives are otherwise a million miles from the world of the movie.  You don’t have to have been a glamorous advertising executive in Manhattan to have been terrified you’ll never find love, or an FBI agent to know that you would do anything to protect your family.  What I’m getting at, is that whether or not you can successfully employ “y’all” in dialogue or write about baseball is less relevant than whether anyone can pick up your script and ‘get it’ regardless of whether they’re familiar with the French sense of humour or lived through Thatcher’s Britain or whatever.  In fact, a fresh setting or unique perspective is absolutely a strong selling point, and if the story has that emotional anchor it won’t be obscure or inaccessible however foreign or unusual the world it inhabits may be.

So, assuming your writing is universally appealling to most humans, how then to get it in front of American producers?  In my experience, cold querying from thousands of miles away is pretty much a waste of time.  Cold querying full stop is a long shot, but when the producer knows that even if they’re mildly interested enough to invite you in for a coffee you probably won’t be able to come, it becomes a long shot wearing a blindfold.  My advice is to start where you are – as I said above, Hollywood hoovers up talent from everywhere, you just have to come to its attention first.

I’ve heard people respond to that “but I only want to write Hollywood films – what’s the point in trying to make a British/French/Ukrainian first for the sake of it?”  To that I say: universal.  There are extremely few Hollywood films that couldn’t have been made with a different setting – see every (good) remake as evidence – so write the local ‘remake’ of your Hollywood film first.  If it’s of a budget that seems to you to be out of the league of your local market, the writing (if it’s of Hollywood standard) will still make make a producer sit up and take notice.  There are ways and means that any producer worth their salt will figure out; that’s their job not yours.

Or, they might just remember that studio scout they got wasted with at Berlin or Cannes that time, and pass it along.  As I said above, the movie business is international: everyone is working with everyone, and most people you want access to probably hung out at a festival or awards show once upon a time with someone you realistically could have access to.  No studio exec in LA wants a cold call from a random screenwriter (of any nationality), but a call from a Swedish producer or Australian agent they met and exchanged cards with?  Different story, and if you’re in Stockholm or Sydney you probably have a better shot of running into that producer or agent than you would getting hold of the exec in LA.  I currently have a pilot with a manager in LA who was contacted by the Swedish agent of the actress I wrote the lead for, in whose garden shed I lived for a little while.

One thing to keep in mind if you are determined to only write American movies set in America, is that you need to have an ear for American dialogue.  Fluent English isn’t enough, in fact there are plenty of British or Aussie writers that can’t write American dialogue for toffee (or vice versa).  I work a lot with Swedish scripts in English and am invariably itching to tweak the dialogue, however grammatically perfect it may be (in fact, that’s often part of the problem).  So before sending a screenplay to an American producer/manager/agent, have it read by an American if you possibly can (even if your first language is English) – there are a few cheap notes services that would be worth it for that alone.

Ferreting and Fooling Myself

To paraphrase Tallullah Bankhead, I guess busy writers don’t have time to blog.  It’s been a pleasant couple of weeks, hearteningly active after January’s lull, and I’ve been feeling nice and creative, with plenty of ideas and solutions cheerfully downloading from my brain as though… it’s always this easy.

I say ‘downloading’, because I often have an image that all my ideas, everything I’m ever going to write, are already there, floating around in the dark recesses of my brain, ready to be unlocked and accessed in their own good time.  I think it’s because those “aha!” moments, be they brand new ideas or developments or solutions on existing projects, feel so right that they’re familiar.  It feels more like recognition somehow, as opposed to generation.  In my mind’s eye, I can see myself ferreting about in my brain for the idea that’s needed, trying locked doors and peeking behind curtains, grabbing it by the tail before it scampers back into the shadows,  Yes, my ideas have tails.

That’s why I don’t really believe in writer’s block.  There are days that it flows easier than others, for sure; sludgy days can be down to where I am in the development process, or just being tired/distracted/lazy, and it’s not uncommon to put off starting a draft for a day or two on account of completely blank pages being scary.  But actual writer’s block, complete and utter nothingness when I couldn’t churn something out if I was on deadline/my life depended on it?  Nope.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t times it needs a little helping hand.  Over the years I’ve developed a few tricks to kick me off when necessary.  I am fully aware of how it sounds to say that watching TV helps, but watching something in the genre or tone of what I’m writing can be really effective to get my brain whirring.  It’s not about getting ideas from it exactly, more that I can’t help but start to think of how mine compares and contrasts, which can be enough to bring on an “aha” moment: half the time I end up switching it off and running off to scribble after about 20 minutes.

As I’ve said, often feeling stuck is a sign of needing to do more prep work, but even if not, a bit of abstract scribbling can do the trick.  There are a few writing exercises – character questionnaires and whatnot – which I’m far from convinced are essential prep work, yet can form constructive time wasting which sets the brain to ferreting.  Or pitching it to myself – scribbling out a sort of mission statement about what it is and why I’m writing it – can sometimes scare up a new perspective or thought I hadn’t consciously had yet.

Or there’s the more ridiculous: convincing myself I can’t go any further without input from the producer, typing up a big email to them to explain where I’m at… and in doing so realizing what I need to do, deleting the email and diving back into the draft.  Handwriting the first scene so that the terrifying blankness following ‘FADE IN’ is solved with a gentle bit of copy typing.  Writing a blog post in the hopes that just typing anything will get my fingers accustomed to it so that…