Thursday, September 5, 2013

Maintaining passion for your project

Apologies for not blogging for a while. Fatherhood, part-time work and screenwriting have taken up pretty much most of my time.

I'm working on a BIG action, fantasy film, and yesterday marked the ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY of me starting that project.

A year. One whole year. Three hundred and sixty five days.

Holy F#*^!

I wasn't working solely on that, I wrote another screenplay that went wide in April, but still, a year?!

As I was driving back form my writing partners yesterday, I began to think about it.

I still love the story. I still love the hero. I still love the premise.

It made me realise how important this is when formulating an idea, because if you don't love any aspect about it, you're doomed, particularly if you're working on spec.

If you're getting paid, I imagine the paycheck gets you excited enough to push through, but for the spec market, what keeps you going? The story. The hero. The premise.

It's also been fascinating to see how the script has evolved and changed, and what keeps coming back after we've dropped it a few drafts ago.

We're on our fourth draft of this, and began developing the idea with a producer after the third. The story started off as a grounded tale, then got heightened in fantasy, and is now somewhere between the two. Major protagonists have been taken out (who we loved!) and villains have been changed too many times to remember, but because the heart of the story is so great and we love it so much, we keep on going.

The development process has been a challenge, but an excellent one. The producer we're working with pitched us the idea, but it was a screenplay we had already been working on. We gave him the draft, and while he loved the premise, and felt it was structurally sound, he wanted to make big changes. This was the first time that we'd experienced this and have been, in effect, doing a page one rewrite.

But the reality is, it isn't a page one re-write. The characters, the structure, the premise, the hero are all still the same. But the words on the page are different.

What the producer really wanted us to do was identify the real human story in the midst of all this fantasy, and make that the movie. The monsters, the action, the magic, that all sits on top the of the human story, but without this grounded tale, the story felt light and kiddie.

This has been the hardest challenge for us, but is only making us stronger as writers.

It's also been taking as lot longer too. We wanted to be finished by labor day, but I think we're still four weeks out.

Oh well. We just have to keep going.

Luckily this is a story we love.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing my first book

So as you may have read, I'm in the process of turning one of my unsold screenplays into a book.

This is a wonderful challenge.

First, I've always been fascinated by authors of full length fiction. How does one sit down and write a book?! A whole fricking book!?! I think it's amazing and so for many years have thought "I reckon I'd be good at that." I've had many ideas for books, but a few weeks ago, while I was having coffee with my best friend, he suddenly made me think that it's something I could do. He, like me, is an aspiring filmmaker, screenwriter, producer actor type, and had written a screenplay a while ago that he backwards engineered into a novel. He's in the process of editing it right now, and as soon as it's out I'll let you know. I've often thought that I don't have any cool story ideas, but then I realized I HAVE TONS OF THEM!!!! In fact, some are already written in the form of screenplays. Others are full pitches that I kinda know the fundamentals of the story of and just need fleshing out.

So I chose one of my earlier screenplays (A lil' sci-fi action horror called BLOOD SOLDIERS) and am in the process of writing it. I've written two chapters, and boy is it a different beast.

See, when you write screenplays you're trying to eliminate as many words as you can, to be as succinct as you can, to make the whole damn thing fit under a hundred and ten pages (one hundred if you're really good). So to be using the screenplay as the basis of the book is super hard, because it's intentionally succinct. Scenes, action and dialogue are intentionally short because you're trying to tell this story as quickly as possible. But with a novel, you actually have to add stuff. A lot of stuff. All the descriptive fluff that I TAKE OUT of my screenplay, I now have to ADD IN (in droves) to get the word count up. The story is still the same, the structure still pretty much untouched by the adaptation, but suddenly I have more words to play with. A LOT MORE.

Of course, with narrative fiction, we get to do something we can't do in screenplay. That is get into the inside of our characters heads and reveal their inner world. And it's taking a shift in thinking. I don't just have to tell by showing,  but now I can really tell by telling. And it's a whole different way of thinking that is proving to be well worth it. The novel I'm reading right now (A sci-fi from the Horus Heresy series) will be in one location and then go off on a complete tangent, exploring ideas that the main character is thinking about, their history etc, and then pull us right back into the action. So I'm trying to take that cue. The scene doesn't have to just be about the scene, but can be about ideas, the main character's mum, or whatever. As long as the prime story is being told, you can go off and do pretty much whatever you want. As long as it informs your story in some way of course.

Anyway, it's great fun, but a gripping challenge, especially around all the other life stuff I'm doing (day job, screenwriting and fatherhood).

Even if it's just an exercise in writing, it's well worth undertaking.

Did you see the cover artwork yesterday? What did you think?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The importance of play in the creative process

Not sure if you had a chance to watch the John Cleese video I posted yesterday, but I listened to it on my way to my writing session today and it reiterated several important things to me that I've always taken for granted in my creative process.

Cleese talks about the five things we need in order to allow ourselves to become creative. 

They are:

1. Space
2. Time
3. Time
4. Confidence
5. Humor 

Yes, time in in there twice, and if you watch the vid you'll understand why.

But the important thing I really take away from it is the importance of play. Playfulness. The concept of being in an incredibly open mode that allows your mind to go into areas it may not originally have had the ability to do because it was in a "closed" mode. When we play, in whatever form that takes, we allow our minds to switch into a mode that allows it to be inherently creative. When we try to pressure ourselves to create results, our minds changed to a closed mode and we come up against "block".

Cleese tells a story about a screenwriter who worked with Hitchcock for many years, and that when they were stuck, Hitchcock would tell a seemingly unrelated story. It's would infuriate the writer, but then he learned why the great master did it. When we push our minds too hard against a problem, we don't allow our inherently creative self to solve the problem. There is almost something that the unconscious mind does to solve problem without us having to think about it. He talks about losing a script he'd written for a sketch. He recreated the script from memory and then found the original. He compared this new draft to the first one, and found that the second was much better. Why was this, he asked. He came to the conclusion that his unconscious mind had been working to make it better without him consciously thinking about it. 

I've never done a page one rewrite, but am in the process right now and it's a really interesting process. Although I am referring to the first draft during this, it is interesting how all the work I'd done in draft one is improving so much, despite not having thought about it. 

Anyway, addressing these five points above. 

1. Space. We need space to be creative. So I send three days a week with my writing partner, or on my lunch breaks from work, where I shut my self off from distractions and allow this to happens. 
2. Time. Not just a space, but that space for a time. 10-6 normally does it for me.
3. Time. Allowing oneself time to solve a problem creatively. If I hit an obstacle, sleeping in it helps. I don't have to solve hat problem right there and then.
4. Confidence. Working with a partner I trust, who doesn't undermine my ideas really helps. There are no wrong ideas in the creative process, and having the confidence to explore ideas is essential.
5. Humor. Even when dealing with serious situations, the ability to have humor allows us to thinks about things in an open way. Cleese talks about the difference between seriousness and solemnity. Solemnity serves no purpose.

Giving ourselves these five things can help in whatever creative endeavour we find ourselves in.

Finally, I want to talk about something seemingly unrelated.

I play a very nerdy board game called Warhammer 40,000. Basically, I spend a good chunk of time every month painting little plastic figurines and then playing a tabletop wargame with them a little bit like Risk.

When I sit down to paint, often for a few hours, I allow time and space for my mind to go off and wander. I often have some of my best ideas while part of my mind is involved in the complicated art of painting models around 28mm high. I'm letting my mind go into the open mode. 

When I play a game, I get into the cinematic aspect of giant fight scene being played out before me and my mind naturally goes into the kind of stories I like writing. 

Cool huh?

So this is how I play and it works very well. 

Anyway, I'd urge you to watch this vid, and see ways in which you can utilize these aspects in your creative work. Screenwriter or businessman, I think we could all do with being a little bit more creative. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

John Cleese on Creativity

So my mum sent me this a few years ago and I think it's pretty good.

It's John Cleese talking about how we can be creative, and what true creativity is.

I'll talk more about this tomo, but if you have 30 minutes to kill, take a look.

What do you think?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The writing partnership

Some writers write alone.

I don't know how they do it. 

For me, I've learned to love the collaborative nature of screenwriting having worked with my writing partner, Ben, for almost five years. 

During that time we've had our ups and downs and almost stopped working together a few times. But a good partnership is like a good marriage. If you just stick at it, great things happen. Like children. Or paychecks. 

I think the primary advantage of working as a team is that it gets out me out of my head and allows me to get perspective on the project, scene, line of dialogue, or chunk of action we're writing. It allows me a bouncing board to throw ideas at. It gives me someone to argue my point with and make me really figure out why something is good or bad. It makes me think in a way I would never do on my own. 

You have to work with someone you trust. Because that person is going to hurt your feelings sometimes. They're going to tell you your idea sucks, or that the line of dialogue you wrote is so on the nose it belongs in a soap opera. But they also push you to be better than you are, and together you become greater than the sum of your parts. 

Our working process has evolved over the years. We used to only write together in the same room at the same time. This was fine, but we found that it actually takes double the time to write something. I think this was good for us at fist because it allowed us to unify our style. Ben quickly taught me little tricks like eliminating "and" from our screenplays (I'll talk about why this is important another time), removing the royal "we", and keeping action sections to only three lines. 

After a few years of this, we learned a new way. We read Thomas Lennon & Ben Garrant's book How to Write Films for Fun and Profit. It's hilarious and if you haven't read it to and grab a copy. Go now. I'll wait.....

Ok. Read it? Good. So in it they talk about how they write and we adapted it for our needs. They outline their scripts together, and write a lengthy document to do this. Ours tend to be around thirty pages. Then they split those pages up, (we split ours by sequence) and one writes one page of that outline in script form, sends it over to the other who re-writes that and then adds their pages and sends it back to the other, who re-writes everything then adds their pages and so on. 

We split ours into sequences, then meet once a week to put our sequences together and edit them. We do all our rewriting together in the same room. 

Our last script, Beauty and the Beasts went from initial idea to going to market in about three months. That's fast. 

But you can only do this if you trust your partner. Ben is an excellent partner and I'm so lucky to be working with him. He's like a business partner, best friend, wife, and the other side of my brain all in one. 

And when it comes to writing my sections, I know that they have to be ready by a certain day because that's when we're meeting to put together. This gives me urgency because I know that there is someone waiting for m to finish. It's no longer just about me tapping away on my computer. 

So if you are stuck, try writing with someone else you trust. It makes it a whole lot easier. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How I became a screenwriter

So if you read yesterday's post you'll know that I didn't always want to be a screenwriter. In fact, it's a passion that developed later on in life. I didn't go to school, nor have I ever taken a professional course in screenwriting at all. Yet I'm now repped at a big management company and an have an A-list agent.

When I was in college, I bought a great book by Elliot Grove called The Screenwriters Handbook. I had always wanted to write SOMETHING, but didn't quite know what. I began adapting my favorite Phillip K. Dick Novel, Our Friends from Frolix Eight. It's set in a totalitarian society in the future where mankind is ruled over by super-intelligent people called New Men, and how this society eventually falls apart when a giant amorphous alien arrives and returns power back to the Old Men. Basically, it's a big metaphor for the way government is run. I loved it then and I love it now. I'll make it into a film one day. 

Anyway, I wrote about twenty pages and that was it. I didn't pick up a pen in about five years, when I had a conversation with my best friend and we talked about writing again. I went back to Grove's book and also read Syd Field's classic tome, Screenplay. This taught me rudimentary structure (Three Acts, plot points at the end of each). Syd Fields work now seems so basic, but at the time it really became great to watch films and identify these points. We wrote our first feature The Pick Up, a black comedy about a the world's greatest pick-up artist who is eventually killed by the woman he's desperate to get with. Fun.

I also read Brian McKee's Story, and studied Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces after hearing that George Lucas studied him when writing Star Wars. 

When I moved to LA, I planned to write a screenplay. It was about a struggling actor who realizes that he is a character in someone else's movie, and is actually a world famous A-list actor who has become consumed by his role. But despite that fact that I covered my wall in post-its, having broken down the story into scenes and sequences... I just didn't write it. It never happened. Wild horses couldn't drag me to my computer to write. And so I came across the first hurdle in screenwriting: It's easy to start, hard to continue. 

At that time I began working with a friend of mine, Ben Lustig. Ben had sold his first screenplay, and it was even made! The film was called The Thirst, and was a straight to DVD vampire flick. He had written a film called SilverFox and wanted help re-writing it. So I came on board and we began to write. 

This project started my real journey in LA to become a screenwriter. And the real hard work began. 

Ben really instilled in me a great writing work ethic. You need to always be writing. Always. 

We regularly logged 20 hours per week together (which I did while working three jobs and having a steady girlfriend). If one wants to succeed, one has to be constantly writing. We also really began further research into screenplay structure and why our favorite films worked. 

We read Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey which absolutely complimented the research I'd already done on Joseph Campbell. But my world really changed when I discovered John Truby. For me, John Truby is the absolute master of structure work. He pushes away the three act structure and creates his own 21 steps to creating good screenplays. I found that when combined with Vogler, Field and even Blake Snyder's Save the Cat structure, we now found a system that really worked. 

I also worked as a screenplay reader for a while. This is invaluable for a writer (at least for a while). You get to read BAD scripts and identify why they are bad. You also get to read good scripts and learn why they work. 

Anyway, there are tonnes of resources out there to become a screenwriter. All I've done is read a lot of books on the subject, read lots of scripts and most of all WRITTEN. I've written seven feature length screenplays and I can honestly say each one is better than the last. So read and write and you just get better the more you do. 

So I became a screenwriter by accident. I found that while I wasn't working as an actor, I had an outlet for the creativity I had burning within me. Nobody had to tell me to write. I could do that whenever I wanted. And despite the fact that I came to LA with acting aspirations, I don't feel short changed. Life has a way of pushing in the direction you're supposed to be going in. 

For now, it's screenwriting.

More soon


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Back to writing...

So it's my first time writing a blog in almost ten years. This is cool and I'm looking forward to being able to splurge my brains out on a regular basis.

A little about me.

My name is Jake Thornton. I'm 32 and I live in LA with my wife, Siri, and our new three-month old boy, Phoenix. It's been an interesting journey here and I hope I'll be able to share it here successfully.

I was born and raised in my home city of London, which I miss very much. I don't miss it enough to move back there, but I have very fond memories of that great city. I love to visit when I can and hope to be back there in October to see my family and friends.

When I was 18, I saw Sam Mendes win an Oscar and I decided somehow I was going to do the same. I was at a sixth form college in my home town of Richmond doing an acting course. Later that year, I was accepted into the the BA acting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I trained until 2002, graduating with the gold medal for my year. I went onto a fairly successful career as an actor in theatre in the UK, working for the RSC and in the West End.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to come to LA with a show I was in and fell in love with the prospect of being in the movies. I moved here in 2007... and didn't book anything. I came close to several major jobs, but the BIG BREAK never happened. However, during that time I began writing. I had always had a passion for it, starting my first screenplay when I was still at Guildhall. I had also written a movie with my best friend in the UK and had delusions of getting it made (until I found out what it actually costs to make a movie!). But after a year of being here, I teamed up with a friend of mine and we began writing in earnest.

We wrote a film called Silverfox (a post apocalyptic western) which we pitched to several producers but got no bites. Then we wrote a film called Blood Soldiers (a film about vampire soldiers created by the US) and managed to get a manager. He had sold a big film for a lot of money the year before and we were very excited to be working with him. We were now getting closer to our dream of ACTUALLY SELLING SOMETHING! We developed a script called Twisted (a magical take on the Oliver Twist story) and got a BIG AGENT (at a little agency called William-Morris-Endeavour). We then partnered with an A-List production company and developed the script further.

Everything felt so close. We knew we were in the top 5% of people in our game. We had an awesome team behind us... but the script didn't sell... and then the relationship with our manager broke up. Poops.

We began working on new material and earlier this year the same production company we developed Twisted with asked us to write a new spec (speculative) script for them called Beauty and the Beasts. This was a sequel to the original tale and see's Belle travel to the island of beasts to rescue her love from certain death. It was fun.

Bit again unfortunately it also didn't sell.

But another producer read our work, loved it, and pitched us an idea for a screenplay. Amazingly, this was a script that we had already written a draft of. So right now, we're working on this new script and again hoping for that first sale that will get us on the map.

We're also writing our first pilot, and I'm writing Blood Soldiers as a novel which I plan to self publish.

So, that's me... so far.

I'll be talking more about screenwriting as time goes on, and also of my experience working on this book. It's all very exciting....