Notes on project 1, exercise 1

I’ve been writing in my notebook recently because it’s easier to lug around the office than my computer and so the next few posts will be my notes on exercises for part two.

I’m mindful of the number of films that one has to watch whilst doing this course and sometimes I get anxious that I’m not going to have time to watch them all with everything else that’s going on in life. Rather than watching four or five further films in the first exercise of Conflict and Dialogue, I started on the list that is referenced in the beginning of Scriptwriting. So far I have watched, Winter’s Bone (2010, dir. Debra Granik, screenplay Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini), Sense and Sensibility (1995, dir. Ang Lee, screenplay Emma Thompson), American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes, screenplay Alan Ball), Cold Mountain (dir. Anthony Minghella, screenplay Anthony Minghella) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006, dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, screenplay Michael Arndt)

My chosen film for this first exercise is American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes, screenplay Alan Ball). The main conflict in this movie is between two characters or more, primarily, Lester Burnham, his wife Carolyn and their daughter, Jane. From the first instance, we focus on Jane who is being videotaped by her friend and neighbour Ricky. Jane discusses her need for a father to be a role model, not some geek-boy letching over her girlfriends from school. She calls him a lame-o then says someone should put him out of his misery. Off camera, we hear Ricky: Want me to kill him for you? Then Jane responds: Yeah, would you?

Immediately we know that Lester is the main focus of American Beauty, most knowingly in the voiceover that follows, he is telling us that within the year he will be dead. As the film journeys towards the final act, we see a secondary source of conflict in Lester as he struggles with his identity in the form of a mid-life crisis and this, in turn, proves a struggle for his wife Carolyn, already fighting her corner for want of a better, more dynamic husband. Seemingly a well, put-together woman who is also the main breadwinner, she holds all the power in their household though her aggression and vitriol push her further away from Lester.

For Lester there are many obstacles he faces throughout the movie:

  • his wife regards him with contempt
  • his lack of sex life
  • the marriage is in meltdown
  • his daughter thinks he’s a loser
  • his job is going nowhere
  • his boss is positioning him for the axe

Whilst, in the beginning, we view his mid-life crisis through his infatuation with Jane’s sultry friend Angela, he gradually starts to reclaim his life whilst those around him start to unravel.  For while Lester is enjoying his newfound freedom, he ends up paying the ultimate price.

Now I understand how vital conflict is when writing a screenplay. For it keeps the story moving towards a successful conclusion and it needs an audience to feel involved and satisfied in the process.

My biggest task right now is making sure that there are enough obstacles between my main character and their end goal in order for an audience to be satisfied. So, I guess I should add two more post-it notes to my ever increasing mind map: Conflict and Obstacles…

 

 

Thoughts on Assignment 1

I’m frustrated that I haven’t posted on this blog for a while. Life has been busy and I haven’t been able to spend enough time on my coursework. I’m glad Assignment 1 is not submitted for formal assessment!

I felt that I rushed the first assignment. I wasn’t able to meet my deadline and had to push it back by a week. I’m not overly enthusiastic about my three synopses either…doubting my ideas and the fact that I hadn’t spent enough time on the exercises. Having said that I have read some screenplays: Little Miss Sunshine (screenplay by Michael Arndt), Atonement (screenplay by Christopher Hampton) and American Beauty (screenplay by Alan Ball). I’m hopeful that by reading more scripts I will get to grips with the process of screenwriting and begin to feel comfortable with writing in this format.

Writing visually certainly makes me think more about what I put on the page. Adapting an extract from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was the second part of the assignment and I think I enjoyed this more than coming up with my own three synopses (should I even admit that?) I downloaded the adapted screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pierce and started to work on the extract. Whilst I endeavoured to capture the scene with slight adjustments, I’d forgotten to reference point of view and descriptions about each character. My tutor also remarked it was a little on the short side; I’d just about managed 3 pages, but could have stretched to four.

I think I was a bit daunted about doing my first screenplay exercise and thought it better to err on the side of caution, however it limited my creativity by doing so and therefore resulted in silly mistakes.

Advice by my tutor to make certain adjustments has helped me to understand what I need to do going forward, certainly for Assignment 2. In crafting conflict for the next assignment, I must pay attention to the contrasting voices of each character and think about what makes them unique and how that can be visually expressed in the scene. Thinking about how conflict is going to move my character along to a state of resolution will hopefully satisfy the viewer. Easier said than done!

Finally, since starting ‘Scriptwriting’ I am more aware of what I’m watching on television and screen and how what if’s tantalise the viewer. For instance, does a scene engage the viewer and satisfy them. Is it far-fetched or realistic?  Am I rooting for the protagonist or the antagonist? Am I engaging with what I’m watching? The other night I shrieked at my television “would that really happen?” whilst watching The Replacement. Well, I must’ve been engaged to cause that reaction even though the scene was very far-fetched. In fact for me, much of them were. As for satisfaction, the juries still out…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Project 2: Writing a screenplay

For this exercise I’m going to examine some of the techniques a writer uses to make a story more visual and dramatic. Project 2 touches on Brokeback Mountain, a short story from Annie Proulx’s book Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana are screenwriters whom adapted Brokeback Mountain into the much acclaimed film.

There are similarities between prose and screenplay: time and location remain the same, likewise the confrontation between Alma and Ennis over his relationship with Jack Twist.

We are introduced to Monroe, known as the Riverton grocer in the story, whom Alma married after divorcing Ennis.  In the adaptation though, he is  driving the action forward, setting the scene of Thanksgiving by carving the turkey. Placing him at the head of the table, the viewer is aware that the scene is set in the Monroe household.

Dialogue is added between the interaction of Ennis and his daughter, Alma JR. In the story he sits between his daughters, talking about horses to them, trying not to be a sad daddy. In the screenplay, Alma JR starts the conversation by asking her father about riding broncs in the rodeo. It states that he tries to be cheerful for his girls, not wanting to be a sad daddy and his girls love him, their faces rapt when their daddy speaks.

The following scene is the interaction between Alma and Ennis in the kitchen on Thanksgiving night. The story tells us that Alma is worried about him and he ought to get married again but in the script, dialogue is used to start the conversation:

ALMA

You ought to get married again, Ennis.

(pause)

Me and the girls worry ’bout you bein’ alone so much.

Dialogue is primarily the same as in the story, though the screenwriters have omitted some  sentences and added others to heighten the dramatic conversation between the pair: Alma turns on Ennis telling him not to fool her no more with the added sentence ‘You didn’t go up there to fish. You and him…’ Here, the screenwriters add some action before he responds: Ennis grabs her wrist and twists it. He continues, ‘Now you listen to me, you don’t know nothin about it.’ Alma then drops the dish she is holding.

What is interesting about this scene is the subtle changes the screenwriters have used to heighten a dramatic moment. From seizing her wrist in the story to grabbing and twisting it in the screenplay, and dropping the plate as opposed to it clattering, an image is already set in motion.  Ennis becomes more forceful too; in the story he is less so: ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Mind your own business. You don’t know nothin about it.’

From reading this section of the screenplay the screenwriters have told a story through images. I know where each scene is set, when it was set and what year:

INT: RIVERTON, WYOMING: MONROE HOUSEHOLD: THANKSGIVING NIGHT: DINING ROOM: 1977 : (and) THANKSGIVING NIGHT: KITCHEN: 1977

I know who is speaking: the name of the character is in bold capitals and sometimes brackets are placed underneath encompassing their feelings, emotions and reactions so they know how to portray the dialogue.

An adapted screenplay is pared down from prose using direct interaction between its characters. Dialogue connects one character to another. In comparison to prose, where a novel or short story can take the reader inside the mind of the character, with the words revealing opinions, dreams, thoughts and feelings, a screenplay must show what a character is thinking and feeling through images, actions and  dialogue.

I must keep this in mind when writing my screenplay.

Shark attack

I am galeophobic.

In other words I’m scared shitless of sharks. So, you can imagine my distress on reading Exercise 1 in Scriptwriting: An introduction to screenwriting, that I have to watch that scene from Jaws:

‘Police Chief Martin Brody is reluctantly feeding bait into the water. We see him smoking a cigarette and shooting dirty looks at Quint, captain of the boat. Suddenly, an enormous Great White, its teeth bared, surges out of the ocean towards Brody. Brody jumps backwards. Still smoking, his eyes never leaving the water, he retreats slowly to the wheelhouse where he delivers the unforgettable line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”’

Yes, I know the shark is plastic and now somewhat dated but I just can’t bear them…not even cartoon versions. Finding Nemo was a nightmare. 1 hour and 40 minutes spent with my hands in front of my eyes. My poor (young at the time) daughter thought I was mad! Well, I was during that. Sharks are so menacing!

So, I somehow plucked up the courage, with the help of my husband to watch the scene via YouTube. In all it is 35 seconds. That’s it…35 seconds! There’s about 9 seconds of dialogue, 20 seconds of reaction after the Great White appears and literally 2 seconds of the Great White baring its teeth…I’m shaking just writing this.

On watching (between fingers) such an iconic scene, seconds seem like hours; there’s so much going on that one doesn’t think about time at all. In a movie like Jaws you are gripped (no pun intended) from start to finish.

 

Writing a 15 minute screenplay is daunting. I have to consider my character’s thoughts and feelings through images, action and dialogue. I must train my mind to think visually, read as many scripts as I can and spend hours watching movies. Including Jaws…gulp!

Already I’m reading the script of Little Miss Sunshine (screenplay by Michael Arndt) and enjoying the interaction of the characters on the page. I have seen the movie and look forward to watching it again for my work on Part 4 of the course.

As I continue to plough through each exercise, I will write about films I have watched and scripts I have read. Most importantly though, my screenplay will be journaled throughout.

Wow! Did I just write ‘my screenplay?’ Here’s hoping…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Final thoughts

When I started The Art of Poetry I had little experience  on writing it and my first assignment proved I needed a lot of help! Writing Poems by Peter Sansom made me think more about the process of writing poetry. In the first chapter of his book, Sansom (1994: 23) writes: ‘Our poems have to be spoken in our own voice, and they have to be true to our own experience.’ He continues: ‘But when you come to write a poem, you do that yourself and you do it regardless of how you think you ought to write.’ This was at the forefront of my mind when I started Assignment 2 and I started to think of poetry from a personal level and to write it from truthful experience.

My second assignment was much better as my tutor stated: Dear Rachelle, thank you for submitting your second assignment for this course. Your writing has really developed since Assignment 1 and I’m pleased you’ve put my feedback into practice and followed up on my reading suggestions. Your hard work is showing in the quality of your writing!

Keeping an eye out for archaic language and giving consideration to your use of capital letters and punctuation has also strengthened these pieces – they sound like they’re written by a twenty-first century poet.

 On reading Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, I started to understand the process of metre, rhyme and form and experimented with different forms of poetry. ‘Traffic’ was my first attempt at writing a villanelle and, because of this, I wanted to keep it simple with only two rhyme sounds thus making sure the frustration of sitting in traffic is evident on reading it. Whilst it is a demanding form of poetry, I enjoy the precision of it. Assignment 2 is one of my best assignments to date.

Assignment three I experimented with heroic verse, syllabics and rhyme. In doing so I spent too much time on form that distracted me from other aspects, such as creating interesting images and original subjects.  My poetry also exceeded the 80 line limit – I submitted 111 lines…I got carried away and forgot to check. I was introduced to the poetry of Wendy Cope and her book Serious Concerns. I enjoy her use of parody and humour and experimented with the simple 4-line rhyme scheme of abcb in one of my poems.

Creating interesting images and original subjects was my focus for Assignment 4; I varied the length of my poems and presented a quatrain. I used the anaphora technique in one of them, though I had to re-write another of my poems completely (it was too abstract) and change the title because it did not relate to the poem. I’d also presented a few clichés that I hadn’t noticed in my work. My biggest influence during this assignment was Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers, in particular her poem ‘Demeter’.

I spent time on  Assignment 5 avoiding abstract language and clichés and presented more concrete imagery and original descriptions. I experimented with sibilance in one of my poems; I like how the repeated ‘s’ sound adds movement, thus making the line more lyrical.

I’m surprised by how much I have enjoyed The Art of Poetry. When I first started the course I didn’t understand the process of poetry but with careful attention and much encouragement from my tutor, I now have a collection of poems that I have sent for assessment.

Reading poetry has played an important part during the past year. I have read some wonderful poems by various poets who have influenced my work and I continue to read them today.

Lastly, my tutor has been fundamental in my progression through AOP. Her recommendations and guidance has encouraged me to write and experiment more openly in this genre and in doing so I have become more confident.