Ahhh yes, Mr Julian Fellowes. The Gosford Park writer's grandeur and wisdom know no bounds. The great man delivered an onstage speech at the Screenwriters' Festival 2008, but also did us the honour of hosting a more intimate Scriptbites session. As you can see from the photo above (courtesy of the Screenwriters' Festival website - go there after this and see more lovely pics, then book for next year if you haven't already), it involved Julian and various keen scripters sitting around a table. In the picture, Lord Fellowes is laughing at my hilarious joke and retorting, "Yes, I might be somewhat lacking in hair, dear boy, but have you seen the back of your bloody head?". Possibly. Oh, and look - there's Gavin Williams across the table!
Julian was very generous with this time and literally talked to us until our brains were fondue, and knowledge dribbled from our ears. I salute him, and present here a few highlights from the Scriptbites session...
SYD FIELD’S PARADIGM
“The three-act system irritates some, but isn’t a bad guide. Of the three sections, the middle section is the hardest. Everyone treads water and there often isn’t an easy solution. But every script needs to solve that problem.”
”You want people to be interested in them, but you mustn't let their eye slip off the main ball.”
WRITING YOUR FIRST DRAFT
“Keep moving forward. Don’t keeping going back over the first 27 pages, or you’ll never get to page 28. Always finish when you know what the next bit is. If you don’t do that, it can be incredibly difficult to start again. The temptation is to stop when you’ve reached the end of whatever you’re thinking about.
“The first draft is a preliminary process. Even if it’s complete crap, it actually exists. It’s not a dream. You don’t have to show it to anyone. It’s like putting clothes on a clothes horse, rather than just throwing them into the air! The inspiration happens on the second draft.”
AFTER WRITING YOUR FIRST SCRIPT
“Most early scripts act as audition pieces. Their role in your life is to get your career started. People will come to you with ideas because they like you and your script. Later on, you can get those scripts out of your drawer. Just don’t ever be disappointed if what your script achieves is job offers. If it unlocks doors, it’s 100 per cent successful.”
ACTORS & THEIR INPUT
“When I acted myself, I developed a sense of sayable dialogue. An actor’s dialogue suggestion mightn’t always be the solution, but their fingering of the problem is always right. The director who doesn’t listen to an actor is a dope.”
“I don’t think you shouldn’t have long scenes… but you should be aware that they are long scenes. You could, perhaps, cut away to other scenes, and then your long scene seems like three short ones.”
DIRECTING FROM THE PAGE
“Never do it. It annoys the director: they think, ‘I’ll decide that, thank you very much!’. It's sometimes permissible when part of the narrative – such as when you see a hand, but can’t see whose it is. Even then, I’d write, ‘A hand crawls along’, rather than ‘CU: a hand’. I do think you can say ‘camera’ – it’s not like it’s a bad word. But anything more specific… I never put ‘Cut’ or ‘Close-Up’. Having said all this, you sometimes have to do it. For instance, if you’re starting a scene on an orange and have to end up on New York.”
LEAVE IT OUT
“Every film is a question of what you leave out. What you leave in, tells your story. For instance, if you’re writing a story about the battle of Waterloo, you need to keep enough to shed light on your characters. Say if you have two characters at the start: where are they at the end? How have they changed? What have they learnt?”
SCRIPT NOTES & HOW TO RECEIVE THEM
“The main mistake I made when starting out, was to think that I’d write a script, send it in, everyone would be delighted to read it and then they’d make it. When I got the first set of notes, I thought I’d failed. When I got the second set, I thought I should be running a string of garages instead.
“Notes fall into three categories. A third of them are good. A third make no difference either way. A third are no good. If notes undermine the arc of the narrative, then find an ally among the producers. But you can talk yourself out of the process by being unresponsive to what they want. You’re not playing with plasticine: this is a business. And getting an agent to come in and fight your corner isn’t all that productive in the long term. It’s rather like your mother ringing the school: ‘Julian came home in tears today!’.
“The answer? Pick your fights. So when you sit down at the table and say, ‘Look guys, I think this is wrong’, it’ll only be the first or second time they’ve heard you say those words. Unless, of course, this isn’t about making a career for yourself. If, for you, it’s all about making one perfect film, then fight everything.”