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…

Procrastinating & Percolating

We all procrastinate.  Most people do, but all writers do.  Perhaps all people would, if they too worked alone in their pyjamas with no one to observe them spending most of the day looking out the window and wondering about clouds, and/or reading celebrity gossip websites and wondering about Speidi.  The thing is, after a few years at this lark, I have come to the conclusion that procrastinating isn’t just the bane of a writer’s life, it is actually a proper part of it.

Which isn’t to say we get to sit around wondering about clouds and waiting for the muse.  I suppose if we were independently wealthy (with a high tolerance for boredom) we could, but for most of us, getting down to the graft of writing is a daily necessity.  It’s more a question of learning to recognize the different forms that “writing” can take.

I used to worry that unless I had written actual script pages, I hadn’t really done a day’s work.  I remember reading that Paul Abbott treats writing like a normal job, sits down at his desk at 9am and writes until 6pm, and I panicked, because I don’t think I could ever do that.  Does that mean I’m not a serious proper writer?  Well, in comparison with Paul Abbott, probably it does, but at this stage, as long as my drafts are turned in on time, I don’t worry too much about how many typing hours I put in.

Mostly because, I finally have the confidence to trust how much writing goes on in my head.  For years, I faithfully typed out beatsheets and outlines and treatments as I was taught at film school/reading McKee et all.  While it was good training – and I don’t knock it if it works for someone else – I ultimately realized that for me, it was doing a lot of typing to feel as though I was working, and it could actually be counter productive to the development of a story.  Now, the same development process happens, but in my head.  It all sort of percolates away, with thoughts coming and going, ideas tested out and discarded or greeted with a (silent, when I remember) squeal of joy and recognition.  Now, unless I’m co writing or have to turn outlines etc in to producers, the only thing I type is drafts.  There will be some scribbled, cryptic and often illegible, notes on yellow pads, and I am fond of messing about with index cards for tricky plotting, but mostly it just cooks in my brain while I’m going for walks, or at the gym, or looking out the window, until it’s ready to tumble out as a draft.

A crap draft, mind; there’ll be plenty of jiggling and tweaking and copying and pasting.  Everything changes once it’s on the page, and that, for me, is the biggest argument for avoiding putting it on the page until it’s good and ready.  It’s all too easy to write in an outline “vicious fight”, and then get into the draft and realise that it’s more of a resigned, bittersweet sort of thing (or vice versa), but when you committed to “vicious fight”, when you wrote it down in black and white (or pink ink on yellow paper, leave me alone), it can be harder to change.  It can feel as though you’ve got it ‘wrong’, which, if you’re me, can get you into a tizz and distract you enough that you spend the rest of the day looking out the window and panicking.  I equally couldn’t write a draft cold, I’d just be typing meaningless words: it’s only when the story has properly percolated that I’ll have enough of a sense of it to know when a scene is all wrong as soon as I get into it.

I wouldn’t recommend working that way for the first few drafts – at least, I don’t think I could have.  I suppose it’s a bit like carefully following a written down recipe when you’re first learning to cook, before having faith that you remember the recipe, and trusting that you understand flavours well enough to have the confidence to chuck a dash of tumeric in to see what happens.  (Or just for the fun of seeing veggies go orange, always worth it.)

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

There is another side to the chaotic, unpredictable nature of the business: the You Never Know side.  Just as days and weeks can yawn into eternity while you’re waiting for a response, much less some movement, on a project, you can be happily  (or even glumly)  going about your business when an email pings into your inbox that can quite literally change your life.  Equally, just as it can drive you mad searching for some kind of proof or validation that you are good enough, no one can definitively tell you that you aren’t.

In addition to the fact that writing is like heroin to those of us stuck with it – it’s either the abject misery of writing or the abject misery of not writing – it’s the You Never Know-ness that keeps us going through the Lulls and the Terrors.  Or rather, it’s faith in it (perhaps I’m not such an atheist after all: I believe in producers responding positively to my writing) that keeps us going.

Back when I was spending my days as a secretary in the City being patronized by newly qualified lawyers whose voices hadn’t broken yet, I would comfort myself with the thought that, while I was stuck in the filing cabinet having the alphabet explained to me by a child in a wacky tie, there could be a voicemail from my agent or an email in my inbox right at that very moment, that would end it all without me having to strangle the child with his tie.

It was indeed so possible that it happened once or twice: I once spent a day rushing to the loo to hide and discuss an option contract on my mobile with my agent, so often that I’m sure the other secretaries were convinced I had some sort of unpleasant illness, but I cared little when I got the final text that everything was sorted and I should come by the agency office on my way home to sign… not before I quit the (temp, horrific) job on my way out.   Another time I faked a sudden toothache in order to go and have a cup of tea with Tom Conti (I was so starstruck I nearly insisted I make the tea as I felt I should be serving him, in his house) about him becoming attached to a feature I wrote, having received the email that he was free that day while taking dictation in a particularly interminable meeting.

You also never know about any specific project.   Years ago, one of the first feature film scripts I actually completed went out to producers in a flurry of excitement and fanfare (primarily in my head).  It received lots of heartening feedback, and then, a producer who wanted to produce it!  Woohoo!  He didn’t have any money of course, but he wanted to work on it and was full of plans and ideas, and at that stage in my career, that was more than enough for me.  So off we went, collaborating away, until after a few months we didn’t really get major results, and it all sort of keeled over and died.

No matter!  I made I my mind that I would drive it into production myself: I attached my dream cast, came up with a mad but could-just-work plan for financing, secured some free locations, and then found a new producer to collaborate with, thinking that I had pretty much handed him a production on a plate (Note: this was in a large part down to my naivety as to quite how much there is to production!).  Anyway, off we went, collaborating away… until it all sort of keeled over and died.  At that point – I’m massively simplifying of course – I decided that the project was a learning experience and put it away in a drawer.

Until this summer, I had a Skype nice-to-meet-you with a producer who asked to read a writing sample, that particularly screenplay felt like the one to send, so send I did… he optioned it and it is already hurtling into pre production.

In many ways, a writing career is a bit like having a crush on someone: you can’t fight it, and the more specific expectations or hopes you have, the more you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment, heartbreak, and being really irritating to your friends.  You can’t control what people are buying or commissioning at any given time any more than you can control how another person feels, so all you can do is manage your own actions – i.e. keep writing, keep sending stuff out – and have faith that all will turn out as it should.  And try not to strangle bratty ex public school lawyers, some of them are stronger than you think.

Reality Blahs

It’s come to my attention that the last few posts here have focused on the negative side of a writer’s life: the self doubt, the waiting, the terror.  There are two reasons for that.  One is that the beginning of the year is traditionally a Lull period: between upcoming awards seasons and Sundance and general January blahs, I tend to find that the year normally gets off to a slow start.  It has for me most years in any case, and this year has been no exception, so that’s what has been on my mind the last week or two.

Also, though, I’ve been following a handful of screenwriting blogs for a few years, and find that the blah aspect is rarely covered.  Is it a bit like childbirth: we all pretend to each other that everything is serene and super and fun, and secretly wonder if we’re the only one for whom it is really quite ouchy.  Or am I the only one and everyone else’s phones and inboxes are constantly pinging with great and ego-assuring news and they never get bored or doubtful or a bit nervy that all the world’s producers have finally seen through them?

A few years ago, I went to a talk organized by the BBC Writers’ Room, at which Tony Jordan said something to the effect of every single time he sends a draft into the producers, he is completely convinced that they’ll come back with “what’s this rubbish?” and he will have been found out.   I can’t tell you the relief I felt to know that at least it’s me and Tony, even if the rest of you are all superhuman confidence monsters.  Or perhaps we’re the only two that’ll admit to it publicly.

When I started blogging again, I resolved that I’d be honest about the blah aspect: particularly the fact that it never goes away.  Before I sold anything, I was convinced that once I did, I would never doubt myself again.  I would be assured that, since somebody had parted with a tiny slice of their precious development budget for little old me, I would know that I was good enough, from then on.  And it does help, certainly.  It doesn’t hurt to balance out the inevitable (and never ending) rejections with the rather nice non rejections; but I think we’re all predisposed to put more weight on the opinions that niggle at our fears, rather than those that can seem a bit too good to be true.

However, it’s not all bad.  I am – reluctantly! – convinced that the blah aspect is in fact a necessary and healthy means of keeping us all a bit on our toes.  On a practical level, it drives us on to show the bastards, but more than that, I believe it’s where the best writing is found.  The proper good writing, the stuff that make you feel all fuzzy inside as you type – perhaps as importantly the stuff that makes readers feel all fuzzy inside – comes from those swirling pits of doubt and worry and insecurity which are brought on by the blah aspect.  It’s those very feelings that aren’t a lot of fun to feel (though chocolate helps) (as does exercise, though chocolate is more fun), that connect with readers and producers and distributors and audiences.

Which isn’t to say it has to be dark and depressing and important stories: it’s a question of substance, of emotional satisfaction, that can just as easily be found in the best popcorn fun.   So enjoy the blahs, and make sure you’re stocked up with chocolate.  I mean exercise.

Riding the Lull

Ahh the Lull.  The good old Lull.  Now, I’m not talking about the Terror:  when there’s absolutely nothing on the horizon, every last project has been cruelly rejected and your brain is a barren wasteland of nothingness.  During the Terror, there’s all that lovely terror to keep you going, to keep you awake at night in a scrumptious swirling pit of self loathing.  That’s when the great ideas usually sneak their way into your brain.  Unfortunately, when strangers ask “ooh, where do you get your ideas?” the answer “when I’m lying awake at 4am picking at my nails and counting unpaid bills in a swirling pit of self loathing”, tends to kill the party small talk.

Anyway.  It’s the Lull I’m talking about.  The Terror’s subtler, crueler cousin.  The Lull is when there’s a few projects bubbling away on the back burner: an optioned feature in the process of financing, a pilot awaiting the decision to take to series, a draft turned in the producer hasn’t read yet.  A big development wouldn’t hurt the old bank balance, but money isn’t a pressing issue.  A few long shot cold queries sent out to such definitive silence you wonder if someone turned the internet off.

None of it’s a disaster, deep down you know that.  Financing takes a long time, broadcasters making a decision can take longer.  Producers sometimes have more pressing projects to read first (what??  WHY????), and long shot cold queries are always just that.

And yet.  Those are the cracks that niggling seeds of self doubt creep into.  What if all those bubbling away projects are in fact dead in the water and no one can bring themselves to tell me?  What if the producer is taking a bit longer to read than you thought because he knows it is going to be the worst draft ever written in the history of the universe and is taking the time to steel himself lest it rob him of the will to live?  What if those cold queries were met with laughs of derision, instant deletion, and no one will ever respond positively ever again?

This is why the Lull is worse than the Terror.  With the Terror, the only way is up: it gives you the grit and the impetus to grit your teeth and come up with something so brilliant it’ll show the bastards. With the Lull, you’re fairly up, but precariously so.  Everything is sort of fine, and that’s precisely why you have the luxury of time and energy to get yourself into a state over whether you are truly talented or if everything that’s happened up until now is just an elaborate practical joke.  (Hint: it’s probably not.)

On the plus side, the more Lulls you experience, the more you recognize them as natural and momentary, just part of the ebb and flow of any career, albeit perhaps more heightened when you experience them at home, alone, and possibly in your pyjamas.  They’re a good opportunity to catch up on reading scripts, researching, watching new pilots or releases, the dreaded hell of organizing accounts and invoicing: stuff you really should keep up with regularly, but who has time when you’re in the depths of a draft?

Or else distracting yourself altogether:  in a great post here, writer Lisa Holdsworth points out that writing isn’t a 9-5 proper job, and you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.  Or perhaps, the smooth with the rough.  When we’re on deadline or in production, there’s no knocking off for the day.  Social engagements are cancelled, sleep is a distant memory, certain family members send messages pointedly politely enquiring as to whether or not you are still alive as they haven’t heard from you in so long.  So when there is a bit of downtime, enjoy it.  Exercise.  Get some fresh air.  Maybe do the sort of things that normal people do on weekends or after work, like take a course or perfect a recipe.  One way or another, you’ll be back in a pit of swirling self loathing soon enough, so might as well get a tan while you can.