Danny Stack Screenwriting Tips!

We had a fabulous weekend with Danny Stack. At our PokerStars sponsored Screenwriting workshop on Saturday, we started out by looking at the history of short film, watching clips from the inception of the movie industry with the Lumiere Bros films, right through to the likes of “Alive in JoBerg” (Neill Blomkamp’s astonishing short that led to the making of his feature District 9).

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Danny then shared his journey as a Script Reader, Writer and, more recently, a Director – even allowing us a special screening of his excellent 2nd short and Directorial debut ‘Origin’ – inspiring both our new and established writers to just “GO OUT AND DO IT!” His anecdotes from the industry were great; Danny’s own ‘story’ is a rollercoaster of a biopic in itself – honest, humbling, inspiring and hilarious in equal measure.

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Then on Sunday, Danny took time out to meet with four of our Finalist writers from the MShorts 2011 Screenplay Competition. Zoe, Nat, John B and Chris are all well on the way to shooting their films in the coming months, and benefited from Danny sharing excellent hints and tips about their work and how to progress in the industry.

Do check out Danny’s excellent blog, and his now legendary podcasts with BAFTA nominated writer Tim Clague. In the meantime, took copious notes from both days with Danny, and thought it would be useful to share some of the choice soundbites – below are the notes from Saturday, not in any particular order, but all extremely insightful. Sunday’s notes to follow soon. Enjoy!

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  • READ TWO SCRIPTS A WEEK (there are thousands readily available online); analyse them, look at their format, structure, style dialogue etc it’s the best training you can have
  • A script, like a film, should move – should flow down the page; don’t introduce too many characters at once, have a consistency of style
  • STORY! STORY! STORY!
  • “TV is meant to be listened to and occasionally looked at, cinema is meant to be looked at and occasionally listened to”
  • Acceptable character introduction: NAME (Age) – and three words to describe – eg “overweight, divorced, grumpy” ; then you want examples of the character being grumpy within the script
  • You have to be able to express your idea succinctly, in a log line or a pitch, if not, it’s usually a sign that the script is in trouble in some way, too difficult to pin down

Generally, any film can be broken down into:

  • – there’s a character who wants something, who has an opportunity or goal, BUT there’s this thing that’s in his way and this is what he does to get over the conflict and succeed
  • Have a strategy beforehand & a natural passion – why do I want to tell this story? why do I want to make it? Then you can translate to the people you’re making it with – maybe you just love the genre, are passionate about it
  • The more pro-active you can be in any capacity, the more it will inform your writing
  • It’s easy to get indulgent about our stories
  • You have to find the right approach that suits you – could start with beat sheet or index cards, or could just launch in & improv entirely
  • You could use index cards – list the scenes you want to write, pin them on a board – bit of fun & useful too
  • Watch programmes with subtitles switched on – it’s a good exercise for writing dialogue
  • Subtext – you want the audience to get it without telling them it’s there – slight of hand – ‘do “A Derren Brown” on them’
  • Audiences WANT to work things out, we WANT to be engaged, to second guess, to be surprised by the reveal
  • The industry needs to be told what to do, it’s passive, it waits for other people to validate things – “I want that guy because he won a BAFTA” ; the industry wont take risks – it should be doing more to help new writers
  • It’s all good karma – help other writers if you can in a creative capacity
  • “If I can be responsible for my own work without being reliant on other people, my work will be better – if my work isn’t getting made its because of me, I have to take responsibility and do the best I can”

Short film history:-

  • In 50s and 60s short films took a hit, they were mostly serious so, versus the Hollywood glitz & glamour they couldn’t survive, they didn’t have a healthy audience; there were only really experimental shorts

Gaspar Rainbow Dance – brilliant short!

  • The rise of pop video in the 70s and 80s re-introduced short films
  • Natural visual grammar develops even in pop video
  • The advent of broadband introduced online series – first real hit was ‘Lonely Girl’ – video diary, which gave rise to Kate Modern, then Sophia’s diary
  • Online content was something new – it ‘belonged’ to the viewer; teenagers found the show themselves, felt like they owned it, they weren’t TOLD to watch it by broadcasters
  • The internet gives us a sense of ownership; we can create the content, we don’t need permission, we don’t need to pitch; hopefully, people will find it and share it and build it from there
  • You must ask yourself – why are we making this? what kind of audience do I want to reach? what expectation do I have in making this short film?
  • Film has to be all consuming, that’s the passion and vision you have to apply to it, it IS stressful; you need friends, family, partners to support that
  • You would never tell somebody to ‘just cheer up’ if they’re depressed, so don’t tell somebody to ‘just write something’ if they have writer block
  • When asking for things – people’s default position is to want to help – the first 20seconds of that phonecall is the hardest, then it’s generally alright
  • Networking – don’t expect immediate results from a new contact; display the value in what they can get from helping you, the value of the project (ie who else is on board, how good the script is, your background/story)
  • Remember; we’re just dealing with people – generally they’re decent, normal individuals
  • When writing emails to people – especially to ask for things – write GOOD emails, craft them, take time over them, be professional – first impressions count
  • People in the industry respond to the script – they don’t work on any old sh*t!
  • The attitude and language that you use with people is very important – don’t be negative or passive aggressive; rather, use language like ‘my short is going to be great; it’s a passion project; it’s unique etc – “I AM going to make it – so are you in, or are you out?”
  • BE EXCITED ABOUT YOUR WORK – not arrogance or delusion, but confidence; you can still be honest, eg. “I’m stuck but I know the story is there”
  • Music should respond to story
  • Actors bring their own logic to characters
  • Soderbergh said “filmmaking is just about getting inserts so you have something to cut to and something to cut from”
  • Making a film is easy, getting it finished is the hardest part – so much money, time and energy goes into post production
  • Biggest costs: Insurance, food, film stock, travel
  • Festivals – you have to accept that nobody cares about your short film, no matter how good it is; it’s not a negative thing, it should inspire you to be more passionate, have more conviction about your project, but to be surprised or to take it personally when you get rejected
  • The audience is either going to be quick disposable internet viewer, or people like US (filmmakers), or the industry (so use it as a calling card)
  • Its useful to make trailers to promote your work – to convince investors
  • LOGLINE. 25 words or less – give a flavour, don’t give entire story away
  • See if you can write a one page synopsis. Back of a DVD cover has it down to 100 words so you should be able to, too.
  • OUTLINE – between 3 and 6 pages, long synopsis – broadstrokes
  • TREATMENT – 6-10 pages, present tense short story version of the script, might include some dialogue, key scenes etc try to make them visual – give the imagery of that seq or scene, then break it down
  • BEATSHEET (eg John comes in and tells Jane he wants a divorce) / SCENE BY SCENE
  • BREAKDOWN – bit more description
  • Readers aren’t judging YOU personally – don’t be too hard on yourself
  • When writing for TV/existing shows, producers & script editors know the show inside out, so even if you’re a fan of the show, they know more, they know under the skin of the show
  • Often, the kind of short films that stand out are ones that make good use of visual effects
  • If you have a read through with actors, it’s important to see that their performance tells the story without needing direction/description
  • Cinema is the movement of camera for a purpose, every cut every edit every close up should be for a purpose – it’s all about how good your visual grammar is
  • Our creations, they matter and are important to us, are part of us
  • It’s important to have content available, in terms of what you can see (something on the internet that you’ve worked on or created yourself) its so easy nowadays to do it there is no excuse
  • You script should show clear character development, clear change
  • When writing for the web (eg. webseries like Danny’s “Liquid Lunch”), change your approach – shorter chunks of narrative that end on a hook to lead on to next ep
  • Theres a fine line between delusion and talent
  • DISTRIFY is changing the arena for distributing short films
  • BBC Film Network is a great place for getting your short seen and respected
  • Think BIG; think professional ; you can do ANYThing
  • If you’re gonna do  it, lets do it, and stop wasting time; If its what you want to do, then you just gotta do it – it’s the best fun ever
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About MannIN Shorts

"MannIN Shorts" is a brand new Isle of Man film initiative set to provide a platform for hopeful filmmakers.  Young or old, local or international it provides a launch pad to develop skills, ideas and actually make films, right here on the Isle of Man.
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