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More than words - why writers should look beyond the script

More Than Words – Why Writers Should Look Beyond The Script.

Scriptwriters and cinematographers don’t seem obvious bedfellows; after all, writers write then directors take over and visualise the ideas that the writer has committed to paper. 


The two may see things very differently and as cinema is-erroneously, I believe-considered a director’s medium, the writer is downgraded, even though it might have been their original vision that raised the finance and attracted the actors and director.

I recall an extract from a book about the prolific filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick (Alexander Mackendrick on Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin) that I selected for ScriptWriter (, because it was riveting in its precise analysis about the relationship between writer and camera. As Mackendrick explains, ‘… a writer’s ability to do his job is severely curtailed if he has only a superficial knowledge of how cinema functions as a medium.’ This means that writers should know what directors and DoPs know; they should understand the play of light and impact of sound effects, and should find a way of writing them that can be clearly translated by the director and camera operators.

Writers should know what directors and DoPs know.

Indeed, one could almost think that Mackendrick was anti-writer, particularly when reading the following passage. ‘Cinematographic images, particularly when synchronised with recorded sound, deliver such quantities of visual and audible data that the verbal component is overwhelmed and becomes secondary. Consequently, the essential and underlying meaning of film dialogue is often much more effectively transmitted by a complex and intricate organisation of cinematic elements that are not only not verbal, but that can never be fully analysed by verbal means.’

I also recall being told that great actors do not count the number of lines they have in a script; rather, they look to see what there is for them to do when they are not speaking. Perhaps this is what fuels the view that cinema is primarily a director’s medium but, no matter how brilliant the director working in tandem with their DoP, there is an undeniable continuum from idea to treatment, to script to shooting script, to camera instructions to the edit suite.

It is all part of one process; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. No one should be disrespectful of the contributions of others, even when they are wrong, because each party can be wrong. The strength is in admitting this and being mutually supportive.

I was once asked if music in film was more important than dialogue. I said I thought dialogue was more important; I now believe I was wrong. Of all the elements in the process, I also now believe that cinematography is probably the least understood by the other players, especially writers, and their scripts are the poorer for that. As Mackendrick neatly observes, ‘It is the competent director who will use the fundamentals of film grammar to turn script pages into effective cinematic sequences. By not taking into account what the camera, lighting and editing machine are able to convey to the audience-regardless of what is being said by the actors… authors explore only half the story.’ ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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movieScope publishes 6 times a year as an 64-page print publication available on newsstands across the UK, Europe and USA and at major international film markets including Cannes, Toronto, AFM and EFM.


Script doctor - why bad scripts can't be saved in post-production


Script Doctor – Why bad scripts can’t be saved in post-production

** This article first appeared in movieScope, issue 18 **

Many writers feel a chill at the words ‘don’t worry the director will fix it in the shoot’. And directors probably don’t like to hear that the editor will fix it in the edit. Indeed, the producers who utter these words should be shot, maybe with blanks, some great sound effects and lots of fake blood. 


You can understand why these words are frequently spoken, however, since often the script is not ready when filming starts. Aside from raising the question as to why these projects are green-lit, so many films have been saved in post-production that it has become almost a norm of the industry.

Could this be why we don’t often see the rigourous script editing that would make such rescue work unnecessary? I have always encouraged writers to get into the editing room, ever since the great Chris Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) wrote an article for entitled ‘The Writer in the Editing Room’, in which he described the hiring of his storytelling expertise to fix a film that had been shot on a dubious script.

If any national film industry wants to get more effective scripts, the training is in its own hands.

The brutal economy of great editing is a lesson for all writers, as is the role of sound, both effects and music. I was once questioned during a lecture about whether I thought dialogue was more important than music in film. Being a writers’ agent I said yes. The questioner disagreed; he was a composer. After five minutes of discussion I concluded that he was right, as music seems to have such a direct effect on the listener – greater and more extensive than dialogue.

But sadly the process of filmmaking is not only hierarchical, it is also fragmented. Writers are seldom invited onto the set; there seems to be a paranoid fear that they will argue about every change to the script, so they don’t get to see the problems directors have with the way they have written scenes and learn to do better next time. And they rarely get invited into the editing room, so they don’t learn from this process either. Having seen Innocent, which I exec-produced, improve remarkably through a series of edits by the brilliant Michael Bradsell, I am convinced that all writers should have to learn basic film editing before they are allowed to put pen to paper. In fact, the editor could be a great asset when planning shots. If any national film industry wants to get more effective scripts, the training is in its own hands; the faster we get trainee writers into the process of making films, the better their scripts will become-assuming, of course, they have the talent in the first place.

In these times of vastly-reduced budgets, knowledge of SFX and post-production techniques would enable writers to provide far more effective scripts for those who have to turn them into features. So producers would be well-advised to include the writer in a wide range of meetings during development, not leave them isolated as far away as possible. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 18 (August/September 2010)
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Easy to adapt


Julian Freidmann on why adapting a novel for the screen is never easy… 


Writers of novels have a very different relationship with their readers than scriptwriters do with their audience. And, having formed a one-to-one relationship with a reader, the novelist who attempts a script needs to step back and write for the team of players—from crew and cast to development executives and film fund functionaries—who play their part in actualising the work on screen.

George Orwell, in his succinct essay Why I Write, noted that of the four main reasons why most writers write, ‘sheer egotism’ is the dominant motivation. (The others include getting back at those who put you down, changing the world and immortality). So a novelist who adapts his or her own work to the screen is, by definition, ambitious, as they will be writing for a medium that almost conflicts with their primary medium.

A highly regarded novel will often earn the writer an offer to write the script. It is is difficult to refuse; the money is usually good—often better than the advance paid for the novel and more than the purchase price of the audiovisual rights to the novel.

The appeal to ego is also obvious; who but the writer of this wonderful book should transform it for the screen? It’s a common but beguilingly complex question.

The CV demonstrating an ability to write in both formats is admired by those fellow scribes who are restricted only to one format, the unsexy printed or e-book. But, like the ubiquitous problem of the writer-director, the novelist-screenwriter-adapting-their-own-work hyphenate is likely to be on thin ice.

Writing the script for those people who love the book may be a recipe for disaster

Most scripts of produced feature films are written by more than one writer. This is not always because they need to be, but because the multiplicity of producers and director usually don’t agree on all aspects of the script, often erroneously assume that changing writers will solve the problems or disagreements.

If there is a flaw in the narrative or character psychology in the novel, will the novelist fix it in the script? Like the writer-director hyphenate, probably not. And, even assuming that the novelist is able to make necessary changes, can they jettison enormous tracts of their sparkling prose to give any film-goer who has not read the book a great experience? Indeed, writing the script for those people who love the book may be a recipe for disaster.

I am all for scriptwriters writing novels, because a script is an artificial and downright peculiar way of telling stories, and one that requires some arcane knowledge. Novels are relatively straightforward. Clever scriptwriting, for example, may have the dialogue contradicting what the audience is seeing; you can’t describe what characters think or feel, a stock-in-trade of all novelists.

Yet, for all of Orwell’s four reasons, I completely understand why any novelist would jump at the chance to adapt their own book, even though common sense would advise that a seriously good and experienced scriptwriter is a far better asset to them and to the film. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 23 (July/August 2011) – ON SALE NOW

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Julian Friedmann examines why writers and their agents should consider a different route when optioning work 

There is a seismic change taking place for scriptwriters, novelists and their agents; they are beginning to say ‘no’ to option offers from producers.

In television we have, for many years, had the example of writer-producers; all the big US shows are led by show-runners and, increasingly, broadcasters in the UK are demanding show-runners before they will green-light a television series.

In film, development money is so scarce that many producers need properties from writers before they can raise the funds needed to pay decent option fees. Frequently, they fail to raise any more than the option money, or they have a large slate of optioned properties. When they raise the money for one of them they ignore the others, which lie gathering dust until the option expires.

Over the last couple of years at Blake Friedmann, we have begun to do more joint ventures and fewer option deals. These include Peter James’ series of Roy Grace thrillers, now number one best-sellers. We had optioned these twice, to two A-list production companies who didn’t manage to get a green-light from ITV in nearly three years. We decided we wanted more control, chose another A-list production company, offered them a joint venture and now have serious interest from the BBC—and have attached an A-list actor to the lead role.

At the other extreme there is Girl Made of Dust, a beautiful first novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi; set in Lebanon in 1982, it highlights the war through the eyes of an innocent nine-year-old living on the edge of the killing fields. We have assembled a team of scriptwriters, as well as a director and producer, while keeping control with me as executive producer. There is great camaraderie and there are no contracts at this stage, while we attach French and Brazilian co-producers.

To me, the notion of writers and agents producing is not that they actually get involved in the minutiae of production, but are able to do two key things: be involved in all the discussions about important creative choices and business deals—for example, who the co-producers are—and be entitled to nudge, nag and even kick ass if the others in the team are not pulling their weight. It is not possible to do this in the same way when you sell an option to a producer; they, in effect, own it.

So a joint venture ensures that the producer does bring something to the table (or they get pushed out), and I, as an agent, am better able to protect and develop my clients’ careers.

Over the last couple of years there has been another interesting and important development; the mainstay scriptwriter/producer contract—between PACT and the Writers’ Guild—has sort of fallen into a ditch. It is still used but it ceased to reflect the realities of the industry, so the Guild’s Film Committee, led by distinguished scriptwriter Olivia Hetreed (Girl with a Pearl Earring and the newWuthering Heights), devised new guidelines for a partnership between writers and producers, rather than the old-fashioned option, which gave the producer total control subject only to them paying some money.

I am not advocating that a writer or agent with no experience of the film or television industry should announce themselves as a producer or co-producer, although that is how many producers start. But the relationship between writers and producers is changing, and I think that smart producers should embrace the change. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)

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All due credit

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All Due Credit – Why awards bring important recognition for writers.

Oscars. BAFTAs. Emmys. The awards season brings some people out in a rash: the mawkish thank-you speeches, the feeble attempts at humour by over-paid presenters. But how we all crave to hear our names— or those of our colleagues or clients— called from the envelope. 

The fact is that awards boost the brand value, sales and saleability. When my client Kishwar Desai recently won the Costa Best First Novel Award for her book Witness the Night, interest from publishers and film and TV companies around the world increased immediately.

Love them or hate them, awards and ceremonies are not just an ego trip for those involved, but can be a matter of cold, hard cash in the future. New writers are urged to enter every competition they can find, since being nominated or winning means that the same work that was rejected by an undergraduate intern last week might now be read by the CEO.

Writers in the film industry have the reputation of being at the bottom of the power ladder, usually considered to be less important than directors. There has often been tension between the Writers’ Guilds and the Directors’ Guilds over directors’ ‘possessory credits’, suggesting that the film is their film. Writers don’t like this, particularly when the script is often written without any input from the director, who more or less shoots what is on the page. And sometimes a director who makes changes wants to have some of the writing credit and some of the script money, even though I believe that such suggestions are a bog-standard part of the director’s role. If a director shoots a scene exactly as the writer wrote it, without making any changes, would the director give up a share of their credit and money to the writer? I think not!

As for the public, they seem completely disinterested in the credits, so starry-eyed are they about the casting. Surely one of the reasons that the public have such a poor view of writers is because of the scandalous behaviour of journalists and film reviewers, who perpetuate the myth about stars and directors being the main ingredients in the success of a film. They do, however, often point to the writer when a film fails.

One of the most telling examples of this lack of professional objectivity was a review of Jack Nicholson’s The Pledge (2001). A distinguished writer in the Guardian wrote a powerful review in favour of the film, which was 17 column inches long. It started out by saying that ‘This brilliantly accomplished movie develops ideas from director Sean Penn’s last film’, and goes on to say—at some length—that Penn ‘… has definitively established his heavy-hitter status as a director: this is the work of a major player in American cinema’. It is a good movie and Penn does a great job; the point is that the critic spent much of the first 15 column inches telling us this. Then, in the 16th, we learn that ‘Jerzy Kromolowski’s screenplay, adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel Das Versprechen, is strong and workmanlike’.

So bring on the awards; after all, they are the only genuine praise a writer might get. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 21 (March/April 2011)

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