Tuesday, 7 July 2015

From first draft to final cut

This article first appeared in the wonderful Scriptwriter Magazine in September 2004.


Three recent events have inspired me to revisit and repost this article, written eleven years ago, charting the script development of Working Title’s 2004 Thunderbirds Are Go! movie.  The first is that my kids have really got into Thunderbirds lately, and while ITV faffs about waiting to re-run the (quite good) new series, the kids have been watching the old movie, over and over again.  So I have been reacquainted with it, and its many flaws (not that my kids seem to worry about them).  Secondly, I’m writing my own family adventure movie, with a group of young-teen protagonists.  So it’s interesting to see the challenges faced, and decisions made, by the team on this project, and hopefully to learn from their mistakes.  Finally, I’m so busy writing this script that I don’t have time to write a whole new blog, so this regurgitated one will have to do for now.

Reading it back, there is still a lot of interesting and pertinent material in here.  It makes me think, however, that they went off course right at the start.  This should absolutely have been a Thunderbirds Origins movie, the setting up of Tracey Island, the building of the rockets etc.  It isn’t a hard and fast rule that kids’ movies need kids as their main characters (particularly kids who can’t act).  So that’s what ten years’ perspective has given me.  Would love to know what you think.

Warning.  This article is loooooooooong.

Here it is.

ScriptWriter has been granted unprecedented and exclusive access to drafts of the Thunderbirds screenplays dating back to 1997, as well as interviews with Tim Bevan, Working Title’s Head of Development Chris Clark, and the writer of the movie Will Osborne.  Tom Williams has looked at every stage of the development process up to and beyond the shooting draft in order to acquire an insight into the development thinking of the UK’s leading production company.
Nine years after Working Title Films began developing a full-length version of this iconic 1960s marionette television series, the finished movie was released on 23rd July 2004.  At the time of going to press, the film’s ultimate box office fate is unknown.  At a budget of $70m, however, it’s the biggest project ever produced by Working Title and, some would say, their biggest gamble.  No wonder they took their time.
But what were Tim Bevan and his development department doing for all those years?  How did they arrive at the final screenplay?  Did they come up with the original story from the outset and then spend the better part of a decade tweaking the dialogue?  Was there a completely new take on the idea every time a new draft came in, going back to the drawing board every time?  Were there budget factors, social or political considerations, audience research and creative differences?  The answer is, of course, all of the above.
Two notes and a disclaimer 
First note: I confess I haven’t read every single draft of the script; I didn’t have four years to spare.  Second note: this isn’t a movie review, it’s a script analysis.  Whether the film works or not is up to you.  Disclaimer: in situations like this there are obvious sensitivities about who came up with what idea when.  I have tried to present the facts of the script development in an impartial, objective manner, but I apologise in advance if I have attributed creative input to incorrect parties.  I won’t get a job working for the WGA Arbitration Council, I’m sure.
Some background 
In the mid 1990s, PolyGram-owned Working Title had access to Lew Grade’s extensive ITC back-catalogue.  Among the projects developed from this were an abortive stab at a film of The Persuaders and what would become the movie version of the Thunderbirds television series, originally created by Gerry Anderson & Sylvia Anderson.  When PolyGram was sold and Working Title moved their production deal to Universal, Bevan and his partner Eric Fellner cherry-picked a few properties to take with them.  Thunderbirds was top of the list.
The reasons Bevan gives for pursuing this project are simple and understandable.  Thunderbirds is a huge franchise and brand name, achieving massive recognition in the UK, in Australia and particularly in Japan.  It has cool toys, a fantasy island, a load of good-looking heroes and, in International Rescue, an original take on the action hero story.
But from the start Bevan was faced with a number of challenges, all of which would have to be tackled both in the creative execution and in the positioning of the movie in the market.  First: how do you revamp a television series beloved by many without wrecking what they loved about it in the first place?  Second: how do you make a children’s series from the 1960s relevant today?  Do you target the original audience, now in their forties and fifties?  Or do you target their children?  Third: how do you position this property in countries, particularly in the US, where Thunderbirds means little or nothing?
This is a tale of two screenplays which tackled these challenges in two very different ways.  The first started development in 1995 and took the big-budget, all-action approach.  Think Charlie’s Angels, except with the men wearing skin-tight body suits.
The original series followed a simple narrative pattern in each of its short episodes: disaster, alert, rescue attempt, suspense, success.  But that fifteen-minute formula wouldn’t be enough to sustain a hundred minute movie so the first task was clear: they needed a plot.  Peter Hewitt (Thunderpants, Garfield) was on board as director from the start and came up with a storyline.
One of the most interesting aspects of this whole development process is how the basic story of a super-criminal wanting to steal the Thunderbird machinery for their own evil ends, and of Alan Tracy coming into confrontation with his father Jeff, has effectively remained unchanged from first draft to last through the work of ten different writers and a complete re-conception of the project.
I couldn’t track down the very first draft of the script – presumably written in an age before computers or just withheld to protect the innocent – but even in the second draft, a rewrite of Hewitt’s original script by Chicken Run writer Karey Kirkpatrick in June 1997, a structural pattern emerges:
  • The script starts with a bang, showing the Thunderbirds in action and explaining their origins.
  • Then we meet the Tracy family on Tracy Island and set up the conflict between Alan and Jeff.
  • The villain starts plotting.
  • We roar into a Second Act packed full of action sequences, ending with the Thunderbirds on their knees.
  • And a spectacular finale in outer space.
So far, so easy: your basic Action movie beats.  Add a villain with an original plot (here it is the Hewitt-invented Thaddeus Stone and a dastardly scheme to steal the world’s atmosphere), a love story (Tintin and Alan) and some visually thrilling action set-pieces (Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Mount Rushmore are backdrops to some of the sequences).  The Hood, the master villain of the original television series, is relegated to Stone’s stooge in this incarnation, while each Tracy boy has his own persona: Scott is serious, John is an academic, Virgil is spiritual, Gordon is a goofball and Alan is a show-off.  (These individual characteristics would disappear in later drafts.)
This script is pretty good; actually it’s my favourite from the early years.  The comedy is strong and stops the obviously absurd storyline from taking itself too seriously.  But the pacing is uneven: the Thunderbirds just run around doing a great deal of rescuing and hence are, by definition, a somewhat reactive group of characters.
This problem is tackled in the next draft, delivered four months later, again by Kirkpatrick.  This time it becomes apparent that Stone needs the nuclear core which drives Tracy Island in order to power his own atmosphere-sucking machine.  This brings the battle to the Thunderbirds’ doorstep, another key script development and one which survives in the finished film.  Now the Thunderbirds are fighting for their own survival and the stakes are that much higher.  There is more action generally in this script and a couple of new rescue missions to show off the different capabilities of the Thunderbird machines.
The emphasis in the next draft, a rewrite by Simpsons writer Wally Wolodarsky delivered six months later, appears to have been beefing up the character journey of Alan.  The plot remains essentially the same but now we have a Superman II/Spiderman II story of Alan turning his back on the Thunderbirds and enlisting in the National Space Centre, hoping to prove himself by becoming a genuine astronaut.
This idea is taken a step further seven months later in a draft by experienced Thriller and Sci fi writer David Loughery (Star Trek V, Money Train, Passenger 57).  Here Alan starts the movie having already abandoned the Thunderbirds.  His journey now is one of coming back into the fold.
This draft, which came within weeks of being green lit by PolyGram, marks a move by the development team to bring the Thunderbirds more into the real world.  The track record of the writer is the first clue: gone is the frivolous humour; now the threat is more serious and the technology more believable.  The point of view of the audience also changes.  In this draft, Alan already has a girlfriend in his other life, and we follow her to Tracy Island and share her outsider’s introduction to the world of the Thunderbirds.  There’s also a sub-plot: The Hood is revealed to be a former secret service agent colleague of Lady Penelope and there is a brief love story between them.
This was the moment when Will Osborne (Twins, The Scorpion King) first came into contact with the project.  In early 1999, he worked for three days on a ‘prose polish’ of the script before it went before PolyGram top brass for the rubber stamp.  This was an unpaid favour to give the script the best chance of getting the green light.  But the light remained red.  Bevan thinks it was the right decision at the time.  ‘The budget was too high and the script was wrong.’
Osborne would eventually have his favour repaid but during 1999 and 2000 Working Title developed two more drafts of the script which continued the push towards the real world.  Indie writer/director Scott Reynolds produced a draft in July 1999, the first in which The Hood is cast as the primary villain of the piece.  The old ‘stealing the atmosphere’ plot was thrown out and replaced by a horror story about genetically mutated fighting creatures that are about to take over the world.  The script has by this stage become less a Superhero movie, less even an Action movie, more a Chiller / Thriller akin to Aliens.
Perhaps this was seen to be going too far in the other direction because the next draft, which would bring to a close the first stage of the Thunderbirds development process, reined in the tone and delivered a more classic Action thriller movie.  From the pen of Battlefield Earth writer Corey Mandell, it has the feel and the world of a Bond movie – the Thunderbirds have to stop a rogue military faction from releasing a deadly virus in Manhattan – and tells the story of how the Tracy family reunited to become International Rescue.  The gadgets and the characters all have echoes of the original Thunderbirds but are given a real-world treatment.  Instead of space craft, there are jet-propelled motorbikes and turbo mini-subs.  Instead of Scott and Virgil and John we have Mike (Scott), Eddie (Virgil) and Samantha (‘Joan’), living under assumed identities after their father Jeff, a former CIA agent, was betrayed by his employers.  The script, unlike everything that comes before and after it, is also set in the present.
As interesting as this take on the project was, it wasn’t working.  If you’re going to have a present-day Spy thriller, why do you need the Thunderbirds?  Where is the branding and the iconography for which the series became famous?  Working Title had travelled down a long development highway only to discover that it was a dead end.  It wasn’t working as a big action movie, as a futuristic horror movie, or as a cool modern thriller.  It just wasn’t working.  In mid 2000, the project went dormant.  Thunderbirds was shut down.
But like all good ideas, says Bevan, it just wouldn’t go away.  In the summer of 2001, Bevan realised that his option on the rights to the property would expire in eighteen months.  As in the movies, so in life: when the clock is ticking, things start moving.  Hewitt had, by this time, moved on to another movie and another director, Peter Cattaneo, would also depart the project, but Bevan mobilised his team once more for a final push on Thunderbirds.
They went back to the world.  What did they have?  Essentially this: toys.  Machines, rockets, an island that doubles as a launch pad, flying cars, space ships …  Conversations amongst themselves and with execs at Universal convinced Working Title to accept what had been long staring them in the face:  Thunderbirds, the television series, was a puppet show.  It was for children.  Thunderbirds the movie should be for children.  Hence, Thunderbirds the movie should be about children.
Bevan sums up the new audience: ‘This was a movie for kids, which their parents could enjoy.  Not the other way around.’  Chris Clark saw it very simply.  ‘All this thinking was happening as the first Spy Kids movie was coming out.  We saw great potential in a story that centred on the wish fulfilment of its young characters and consequently of the young audience.  Tone, plot, characters, everything had to be reworked around the kids.’
Osborne is more categorical.  ‘The world absolutely dictates that this story revolves around the kids.  You need to give a young audience young heroes.  And, besides, five good-looking, grown up, single men, living alone on an island with their single dad, firing off these phallic rockets all day – you would just end up with some raging, camp, homoerotic stew.’  Not great for children either, one assumes.
Osborne was brought in for discussions about the new direction and Clark credits him with conceiving the new story.  First requirement were the heroes, the children who would drive the story.  Osborne followed the lead of earlier drafts in making Alan Tracy the lead character and reduced his age to somewhere between 12 and 15 years old.  He also invented a son for the island boffin, Brains, and called him Fermat (his age ranges from 8 to 14 years in future drafts).  And Tintin remained as a potential love interest, although given that she was now also to be 12 to 5 years old, the love story was bound to be watered down somewhat.
What, then, of the plot?  All those rescue stories, which made up the bulk of the earlier drafts, wouldn’t work in the new version since children couldn’t be involved in them.  Osborne’s priorities were clear: focus on the children, focus on the machines and focus on Tracy Island.  He felt that confining much of the action to the island would not only help keep the budget down, but also hint at a secret, magical world that would help increase the wish fulfilment element for the young audience.
Osborne put all his ingredients into a hat and came out with a remarkably simple concept.  ‘The idea I pitched to Working Title was Home Alone on Tracy Island.  Get the adults off the island, get the bad guys on to the island, have the kids save the day.  That’s what Working Title bought; that’s what I wrote; that’s what the film is.’
Home Alone on Tracy Island is a long way from Scott Reynolds’ mutant fighting monsters taking over the world, but research, logic, business acumen and years of learning to trust his creative instincts made Bevan confident that this was the right direction in which to head.  Despite the fact that Working Title had only made one previous children’s movie (The Borrowers, screenplay by Gavin Scott and John Kamps, directed by Hewitt, 1997), Bevan felt sure they could rise to the challenge of finding the right tone – in the humour, in the action, in the plot – for an audience of 5 to 15 year-olds.
Osborne set to work in the autumn of 2001 and delivered a 14 page treatment in October.  He outlined his vision for the story (see panel 2):
  • Villain escapes from prison.
  • Thunderbirds in action – we learn about their origins.
  • Introduce the Tracy family on Tracy island and set up the conflict between Alan and Jeff.
  • The villain starts plotting and the older Thunderbirds are lured off the island into outer space where they are trapped.
  • The villain takes over Tracy Island.
  • A Second Act of action sequences as Alan, Fermat and Tintin try to wrest back control of Tracy island.
  • A spectacular finale in outer space.
These beats remain almost unchanged in the final movie (minus the prison escape and with a new Third Act) and they are also very similar to the action beats of the earlier drafts.  The lesson here is probably that there are only so many ways in which to tell any one story and that you shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel.  Don’t fight the obvious structure of the screenplay.  Just try to be original within it.
An interesting side note is that Osborne was writing his first draft in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  This explains why he chose not to make the villain The Hood with his racial baggage as an Oriental, anti-American, stereotypical baddie.  Osborne further suggests that, as a writer, he felt it was more of a challenge to see if he could come up with a fresh villain (in the form of the gentleman criminal, Aristotle Spode) rather than rehash something else from the television series.  Time and the development process would eventually thwart Osborne’s efforts, but Spode does deliver as an original bad guy although his comic mishaps possibly belong more in a Scooby Doo movie than in this one.
I read Osborne’s first draft (January 2002) and his last draft (December 2002), the latter being the draft which finally secured the green light from Universal and moved the project into pre-production.  The development between the two drafts is considerable, not least in the cutting of twenty pages from its overall length, while at the same time managing to include a completely new Third Act.  In Osborne’s treatment and first draft, Spode takes over Tracy Island intending to use their machines to rob the world’s seven most valuable banks, but is foiled by Alan and his friends before he has a chance to put his plan into action.
By the December draft, the plot has developed so that Spode leaves the island at the end of the Second Act.  He starts robbing his first bank (in Zurich in early drafts, London in the final draft), causing a disaster in the process (burrowing through the support cables of the London Eye).  Alan and his team must therefore escape from prison, save Jeff and his other sons in outer space, fly to London, save the innocent civilians caught in the disaster AND catch Spode.  It is clear which makes for the more exciting ending.
Clark agrees that the main focus during this period of development was on getting the action right: what kind of action (rescue only or other more general action sequences); what level of violence given the younger audience (banana skins at one end, guns and death at the other); budget considerations and so on.
Director Jonathan Frakes (another Star Trek veteran) and experienced producer Mark Huffam (Johnny English and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, both with Working Title) boarded the project in mid 2002 and their combined logistical production experience had a major impact on the script.  Whole action sequences including a Golden Gate Bridge disaster, a rock climbing accident and an avalanche rescue, as well as the initial prison escape, were shelved.  The opening was relocated to an oilrig blaze at night, which would facilitate the use of CG and blue screen techniques.
Clark and Osborne also worked on the villain: who is he, how much do you show of him, what is he doing and why?  The added complication was that the villain’s threat now had to be something without overt terrorist overtones but which could still bring the world to its knees.  Although they still didn’t know who the villain was actually going to be (Osborne even wrote one draft where, at the end, Spode took off a mask to reveal that he WAS The Hood), the role he was to play in the script was developed with great care.  Done correctly, it would raise the tension and drive the plot.  Done poorly and the narrative would come grinding to a halt every time you cut back to the villain in his lair.
There were other technical storytelling issues to be resolved, preferably for maximum character and narrative effect.  For example: how does Alan find out what the villain’s intentions are?  Answer 1: send in a remote controlled bug that will feed back images and sound from inside the villain’s lair.  Answer 2: have the children creep into a duct above the lair so they can overhear the scheming and almost be caught, resulting in an exciting chase sequence.
Another example: how do you have Alan make contact with his family stranded in outer space?  Answer 1: have him call them on a satellite phone.  Answer 2: have him and his friends travel through the jungle to the highest point on the island in order to send a satellite message, which turns into a twenty page children-against-nature sequence followed by a ten page chase sequence.
A further example: how do you put Lady Penelope and Parker on the island?  Answer 1: have Alan call her after he has called his dad, and she and Parker fly over.  Answer 2: show disasters hitting the world, to which the Thunderbirds are not responding, hence Lady Penelope suspects that something is wrong and decides to make her own way to the island not knowing what she will find when she arrives.
The Answer 1s were in the script in January, the Answer 2s, by December.  Writing is rewriting.
The ticking clock was wound up from seventeen hours until the stranded Tracy ran out of oxygen, to four hours in the final draft.  And reasons were introduced why Jeff and the other Thunderbirds couldn’t take care of the villain in London themselves, hence why Alan and his friends had to go and do it.  The explanations ranged from there just not being enough time, to a dangerous typhoon which was of more immediate concern, to the fact that Thunderbird 3 had sustained engine damage in the initial attack and so couldn’t travel as fast as previously.  This last point suggests that maybe by this stage those working on the script were finding it hard to see the wood for the trees.  After all, it’s a movie.  Can’t you make up the rules as you go along?
(It’s interesting, as an aside, to look at what Osborne was commissioned to deliver.  He was originally engaged to write a treatment, a draft and a set of revisions, and a polish.  Then some more money was found for another set of revisions and another polish.  That’s five drafts in all, though he points out that this was five drafts delivered to the studio.  For each completed draft Osborne probably worked on about five polishes with Working Title.  That’s twenty five drafts in twelve months.)
Osborne’s script was green lit in December 2002 and he was promptly removed from the project.  All parties are typically professional when talking about this change of personnel.  Bevan: ‘There are very few writers, very few, who are good at everything.’  Clark: ‘Will writes great light comedy but the script, and particularly the villain, needed more edge.’  Osborne: ‘I’ve been on the receiving side of this where I’ve been brought in to rewrite someone else’s work, so I can’t complain.  It’s the way the business is, particularly the Hollywood model followed by Working Title.  Obviously it’s disappointing when you can’t deliver exactly what they want but everybody likes to have insurance.’
Despite the fact that Osborne had lived and worked in America for over fifteen years, the development team felt they wanted to have more of an American sensibility to the characters (Jeff Tracy is an all-American hero) and give the children’s dialogue a punch-up.  The choice of the rewriter in Saturday Night Live and Austin Powers writer Michael McCullers, might seem at odds with Clark’s desire for ‘more edge’ but he certainly launched himself into the project with great alacrity.
McCullers delivered his first rewrite a mere eleven days after Osborne submitted his final draft.  The most immediate and significant change is that The Hood, in all his chilling glory, replaces the cartoonish Spode as the main villain of the piece.  (Clark contends that reinstating The Hood was McCullers’ idea: ‘He convinced us.’)  Equally interesting is the fact that this substitution caused very few other changes in the script, apart from in the villain’s dialogue.  The story remained essentially the same and the villain did indeed acquire ‘more edge’.  This script is nine pages shorter than Osborne’s, the cuts mainly being made to the central section in the jungle, while the denouement is conversely more drawn out.
Over the next three months McCullers worked on keeping the plot tight and the logic working, on developing Alan’s relationships with Jeff, Fermat and Tintin, and on bashing away at the Third Act.  Clark credits McCullers with delivering ‘punchier dialogue, more jeopardy towards the end of the script and a clearer definition of Alan’s journey.’  The London Eye in the final sequence became the ‘Olympic Monorail’ and McCullers also introduced a roving reporter character who would give us some exposition on the Thunderbirds and set the scene for the various rescue attempts.  (A love story between the reporter and her news anchor failed to make it into the final cut.)
McCullers also does a decent job of developing a stronger reason why The Hood and his evil band can’t steal the Thunderbird flying machines as soon as they have secured the island.  If they leave, the children can’t fight them, story over.  The ‘guidance processor’ that Fermat removes from Thunderbird 2, which disables the craft and which The Hood’s goon Mullion then has to retrieve from those pesky children, is a device but it’s as good a device as any.
The master shooting script (105 pages) was delivered on 11th February and production began in early March 2003.  I have tried and failed to make any sense out of the kaleidoscopic creation that is the coloured-page final shooting script, which supposedly tracks and collates all the on-set revisions.  Beyond the suggestive allure of the colours themselves (Golden Rod, Salmon, Orchid, Buff…), this headache-inducing monster is about 400 pages long with whole scenes repeated, deleted, reinstated or abridged, with no apparent logic and no final script discernible.  I’m told  it’s actually a very useful document.
McCullers continued to work for the duration of the four month shoot and much of the production rewriting was done, in Clark’s words, ‘on the run’.  Commercial and artistic decisions both played a part on set as scenes proved to be too difficult or expensive to shoot as written, dialogue was improvised and group decisions were made.  Clark credits Bill Paxton, who plays the role of Jeff Tracy, with bringing a great deal of space-travel science to the table thanks to his experience working on Apollo 13 and much of this remains in the finished film.
The first assembly of the movie ran to about 120 minutes and the director’s cut, delivered at the end of    2003, reduced this to about 100 minutes.  Clark comments that First Act exposition can always be tightened and that, from the Second Act onwards, the film needs to develop a sort of rollercoaster momentum – wind it up and watch it go.  The score, by Gladiator composer Hans Zimmer, is also used as a storytelling device, conveying emotion and suspense more quickly than images can do.
Five days of re-shoots were needed (more on that below) but the project came in on time and on budget.  Bevan set out to deliver a ‘tent pole picture at a price’ and, looking at the special effects if nothing else, he has succeeded in that.  (Is it unfair, or even wrong, to wonder why we spend so much time developing screenplays when all that ‘the mainstream audience’ really cares about these days are the thrills and spills?)
By way of a couple of short case studies, I want to end by looking at the development of the opening sequence and the character of Alan Tracy, both of which are vital to the overall success or otherwise of the movie.
Just as the first paragraph of a novel has to be the best, so Clark admits that the opening sequence of Thunderbirds was the hardest development challenge they faced and the one on which they worked most.  ‘Thunderbirds had recognition in a few countries around the world but not everywhere.  So we needed to provide a context, deliver some information, get a few of the key Thunderbirdy things in there, like “5,4,3,2,1”, and maybe introduce our heroes and the plot, as quickly as possible.’
Even back in those 1997 drafts, the writers were having trouble.  Should we start with a voice-over or just some text on screen?  How much information do we give about who the Thunderbirds are and where they come from?  Should we start with a montage of rescues or one particularly dramatic one?  Should this rescue be part of the story or independent from it?  Should it take place before the credits or after the credits?  Or is this the credits sequence?  When do we introduce Alan?  What is he doing?  And so on.  Even during shooting, the film-makers didn’t have the answers to all these questions in one neat, appropriate package, but the answer on which they finally hit is ingenious.
Nexus, the design and animation company responsible for the striking title sequence to Catch Me If You Can, was approached with a brief to provide some images to accompany a mood-setting credits sequence.  This animated montage (think of the Pink Panther credits though you’ll have to see it to really appreciate it) is introduced by a brief voice over, and then delivers the credits while showing stylised rescue missions executed by the Thunderbirds.  In one stroke we get: expositional information about the Thunderbirds; examples of what they do; a visual style that immediately sets the hyper-real tone for the movie and which harkens back to the series’ animated roots; and who’s going to be in it.  Then we cut to Alan Tracy, looking bored at school.  Then a real live Thunderbirds rescue mission is shown live on television.  And, yes, this mission does kick off the villain’s plot.  It’s all there.
Moving on to Alan Tracy, we reach a whole new world of complications.  His journey, at least from Osborne’s first draft onwards, is essentially a simple one.  He is too young to be a real Thunderbird so he has to go to school and study, which he hates.  This situation brings him in to conflict with his dad who tells him he has to learn to grow up and be part of a team before he can become a Thunderbird.  When Jeff and the other Thunderbirds are trapped in space by the villain, Alan has the chance to do just that.  At the end of the movie, Alan’s dad gives him his Thunderbird wings.
But delivering this character journey in the course of an exciting children’s action movie is easier said than done.  There are other factors, too.  Children in the audience have to relate to Alan, so he can’t be too cool or special.  They have to go along with his decisions, so he can’t be too arrogant or too stupid.  And, if there is to be any jeopardy in the story, the audience has to believe that at some point Alan is in real danger of not succeeding in his mission.  This has to be hard for him.
The first time the audience sees Alan is crucial in setting all this up.  Osborne’s first suggestion was that we spot him and Fermat goofing around in one of the Thunderbird aircraft, and they are caught by surprise when the Thunderbirds are actually called off to a mission.  Cue ‘ass-ripping’ from Jeff.  By the time of Osborne’s December draft, however, Alan is introduced in his school setting.  He and Fermat have got into trouble and so have to mop the floor, where they further annoy the headmaster.  They then return to Tracy Island with Lady Penelope and run into more trouble later on when they activate a Thunderbird flight simulation programme.
This new approach works better in that it establishes the fact that Alan is different from the other Thunderbirds because he spends most of the time at school.  Different from Thunderbirds = more like audience.  We also see how he is always getting into trouble and leading Fermat astray, and there is a big Arrival-at-Tracy Island moment so that even though Alan has been there before, it’s as though the audience is visiting it for the first time with him.
But this opening breaks the ‘always start with a bang’ rule and when McCullers was brought in he completely rewrote the opening scene at the school.  Now Alan is a young boy racer, putting a car engine on a normal scooter with the help of Fermat, and racing it around the school grounds until he crashes in front of the headmaster (whose engine it was).  Much better, isn’t it?
This version was shot but in testing and in discussions amongst the team, it became clear that this approach in turn broke another rule, the one about Alan not being too cool or special.  By already being a cocky kid at school Alan is at once more distant from the young audience members who want to be like him, and at the same time much closer to being a Thunderbird already, so there is less far for him to travel on his character journey.
The five day re-shoot was spent filming a new opening that introduces Alan Tracy as the dreamer.  He’s not paying attention in class and is the butt of some teasing from a teacher and other school children.  This isn’t as exciting an opening but with the Nexus sequence coming before it, that wasn’t a priority any more and it correctly sets up Alan’s character for the journey he will go on.  (Ironically, the version that ends up in the film is much closer to Osborne’s than to McCullers’.)
A cautionary tale: all this tinkering is bound to have repercussions further on in the script.  We still see Alan and Fermat fooling around in Thunderbird 1, a beat that first occurred in Osborne’s treatment.  But now the Thunderbirds don’t take off on their mission and this whole sequence, while advancing some plot points, feels like a false beat in the finished film.  Similarly, an air-jet-ski chase sequence, one of the big moments in the Second Act, is meant to play against some of the character traits demonstrated by Alan in the scooter sequence at the beginning.  Without the original scooter scene, the air-jet-ski chase loses some character resonance.  It might seem strange to talk about ‘character resonance’ in a children’s film but you can’t help feeling these occasional loose ends will register with the audience.  It shows the importance of keeping a close eye on the whole of your script when rewriting, not just the section on which you’re working.
Alan’s story plays out roughly the same in the final few versions of the script, though successive drafts do an increasingly tight job of giving him particular moments of conflict and resolution with Jeff, Fermat and Tintin.  Alan’s lesson about learning to be part of a team is possibly hammered on the head a little too hard (a case of over-development), while The Hood’s attempts to persuade Alan that his dad isn’t the hero he thinks he is are unsuccessful both within the film (Alan doesn’t believe him) and in trying to convey a character point for Alan (a case of unclear development).
Alan’s role in the downbeat at the end of the Second Act is the final point I want to look at.  To hammer home your hero’s triumph in achieving his goal at the end of the film, every writer knows that you have to put them as far away as possible from this point at the end of the Second Act where all hope has been lost and there’s no way back.  This key narrative moment is completely absent in Osborne’s first draft.  Lady Penelope and Parker are locked up but our hero Alan remains free and he comes to their rescue.  By the December draft, this oversight has been attended to.  On page 81, Alan and his friends find themselves locked up in the blast tunnel of Thunderbird 2 from where they have to be rescued by Lady Penelope and Parker.
But the hero doesn’t just have to be far away from accomplishing his physical journey.  He also has to be as far from the resolution of his internal character arc as possible.  This beat was missing from Osborne’s December draft – Alan’s capture was no reflection of a character flaw on his part – and it is in nailing this point (or at least in recognising that it needed to be nailed) that I think McCullers’ most valuable work was done.  Crucially, he feels the need for a break-up of the friendship and trust between Alan and his friends Fermat and Tintin, who are looking to him, as a Tracy, for guidance.  This, as much as Alan’s physical predicament, will be something that Alan needs to resolve by the end.
McCullers didn’t crack it first time, though he came close.  In his 17/12/02 draft he has the children arguing and splitting up.  Fermat and Tintin are then captured (though this is not shown) and Alan is then captured trying to be a hero and rushing into an obvious trap set by The Hood.  While the beat is rather awkwardly handled in the draft, the twin story-telling objectives of creating a Second Act nadir for both Alan’s external and internal journeys have been achieved.
This progression works better in the shooting draft with Alan allowing his headstrong nature to get the better of him, overruling his friends’ suggestion of caution and embarking on a risky escape plan (the air-jet-ski sequence).  This time the argument leads directly to the failure of the escape attempt and Fermat and Tintin’s capture (which we now see).  Alan only comes into The Hood’s control when he gives himself up to save Lady Penelope and Parker from more suffering (misguided gallantry rather than stupidity).  From this low-point, Alan’s reconciliation with his friends and his graduation to a true Thunderbird can play out with more impact.
Time will tell if, for all their hard work and careful deliberation, Working Title have been successful in their efforts to revitalise Thunderbirds for a new, young audience.  Bevan is convinced that the final product delivers for its chosen audience, and indeed the youngsters present at the screening I went to gave it a resounding thumbs up.  (‘100 out of 10’ was one verdict.)
Clark thinks that the five to twelve year olds will love it but admits that they might have missed out on the twelve to fifteen age bracket for whom the squeaky-clean product probably isn’t cool enough.  ‘They’d rather watch The Matrix!  He notes that, surprisingly perhaps, girls love the movie and respond to the character of Tintin.  The world has been created and Alan is now established as a main character who can, like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, grow into his role as the sequels roll out. 
Let’s hope it won’t take another nine years to get that script right.
Television series: Gerry Anderson & Sylvia Anderson
Story: Peter Hewitt and William Osborne
Screenplay: William Osborne and Michael McCullers

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Rules

Re-post of an article originally written in November 2014 for www.screenplayscripts.com

I’ve spent the last three weeks watching my new film Kajaki over and over again, either with the creative team or in front of preview audiences.  It’s an unusual movie in many ways and so I’ve compiled a list of the screenwriting rules we break – and get away with – and those we don’t – and are glad for it.  This is all, of course, IMHO.

Five Screenwriting Rules You Can Break

You need a hero’s journey.  No you don’t.  You need conflict, and as much of it as possible.  I am the world’s biggest fan of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and the three act structure, and this classical thinking provides the bedrock for most of my scripts.  But not every movie has to follow the ‘hero leaving their normal world, overcomes obstacles, returns with the elixir’ model.  That model is there to be understood, mastered and then messed around with.  The real danger with this model is its predictability, its inevitability.  Change it up and an audience will go with you.

You need a theme.  No you don’t.  The theme is often tied in with the hero’s journey – what the hero ‘learns’ is the message the writer is trying to dramatise for their audience.  But just as you don’t always need to send your hero on a Luke Skywalker journey, so you don’t need them to use the Force or understand some massive life secret in the process either.  This is an on-running discussion I have with a producer – should a writer always ‘have something to say’?  I hate it in real life when people try to tell me what I should be thinking, and the same applies for movies.  I like to be presented with a story, and be afforded the respect to draw my own conclusions.

You need to signpost everything for the audience.  Please don’t.  This is an extension of the point about respect.  There is a difference between an audience having confidence that a writer or film-maker will take them on a worthwhile journey, and being led there by the nose like you’re cattle.  Kajaki has fifteen main characters, a barrage of military jargon even I barely understand (and I wrote it), an initially slow-burning storyline, some of the most shocking physical injuries ever filmed and no emotion-manipulating score.  The audience is forced to navigate their own way through the film and, from what we have heard so far, are having a much stronger experience as a result.

Everything needs to make sense.  No, it doesn’t.  As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, real life doesn’t make sense, so why should drama?  Real life isn’t neatly ordered, or easily comprehensible.  Real life is totally subjective, too.  What makes sense to one person may not to another.  So your writing shouldn’t aim for a lowest common-denominator level of easy generality.  It should be specific, dirty, different, odd.  It should be a bullseye for one person and wide of the mark for another.  It should be real.  This level of realism and difference is what people mean by an artistic ‘voice’.

You need a happy ending. No, you don’t.  You need the right ending.  The ending that will satisfy an audience.  The ending a story deserves and which it demands.  Many of the best movie endings (from ‘what’s in the box’ to this, this or this) are narratively ‘unhappy’, but are rewarding nevertheless.

Five Screenwriting Rules You Can’t Break

An audience must care.  We spend the first twenty minutes of Kajaki introducing the audience to the various characters who are going to get caught up in subsequent events.  This is, in itself, in danger of breaking the rule that first acts should provide inciting action as well as set-up, whereas here we deal almost exclusively in set-up.  But that is both deliberate – the calm before the storm – and also is essential because once the action kicks in there is no time to build that level of empathy that drama fundamentally requires.  If you haven’t made them care, then you haven’t written a movie.

Your characters must want something.  I’ve tried writing movies where the hero’s ‘want’ is ‘to find out what they want’ and that is really, really hard.  You need them to have a goal, you need obstacles in their way, and you need a sense of how they are going to surmount them.  Without that, there is no conflict, no drama, no reason to be.  In Kajaki the goal is survival.  The obstacles are legion – a minefield, no comms, no helicopters, no medkit.  They attempt to surmount them through heroism, ingenuity and, most effectively, through humour and love.

Rising action.  You can break every rule in screenwriting, but the maxim ‘screenwriting is structure’ is perhaps the most inviolable (least violable?).  You need cause and effect.  You need one thing to lead to another.  You need to exit a scene in a different state to how you entered it.  You need the story to have direction and shape, because that is the craft, that is the difficult stuff, that is what you are paid to do.  Every scene MUST advance either the story or the character, or it goes.

See it from an audience’s point of view.  Don’t signpost for an audience, but don’t give them two fingers, either.  Your job is to present a piece of drama for an audience to appreciate, on whatever level they choose to do so.  You job is not to confuse them, or show off, or be deliberately obtuse.  Which is why, as you rewrite and rewrite your script, and recut and recut your film, you must always consider the audience.  What do they know, at this point?  What do they want to know?  What do they care about?  Where do they want this to go and how will I take them where I want them to go?  You have a responsibility to your audience, and it is the worst form of creative arrogance to forget that.

Show them something new.  Above all else, entertain.  And for most people, the key component of entertainment is novelty.  Each summer the $200m tent-poles push the boundaries of action and VFX to show their audience sequences they have never imagined, let alone seen, before.  In the same way, at the budget levels with which most people reading this article will be used to working, you need to push the boundaries.  Have you got a new idea?  Have you got a new way of presenting that idea?  Have you got enough new scenes / characters / jokes to refresh an old idea?  Can you break some rules of screenwriting and get away with it, in a way that nobody before you has?  If you haven’t, keep digging.


The Truth

Re-post of an article originally written in November 2014 for www.screenplayscripts.com

Today we’re going to talk about The Truth. Not this sort of truth. Or this. Or even this.

We’re going to talk about the kind of screenwriting truth that connected six out of the nine Best Picture nominees in the 2014 Oscars. The kind that will in all likelihood connect a similar percentage next year – I’m looking at you Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Unbroken, American Sniper, Selma and Wild. And, in a both self-aggrandising and self-promoting link, the kind of truth that also informs my new film Kajaki.

It can be based on, inspired by, or from a. It can even be A or The. Audiences go crazy for them, critics take them disproportionally seriously and, probably for both those reasons, producers and commissioners and broadcasters seem to push them into production more readily than they might.

We’re talking about the True Story kind of truth.

It’s a sub-genre of films that Venn diagrams together everything from thriller to horror to comedy to (most commonly) drama. One which has always been popular but seems to be enjoying a resurgence (take a look at this long list here from just the last five years) as the aforementioned producers, commissioners and broadcasters maybe realise that Extraordinary True Stories are a better – and often cheaper – bet than expensive-to-option books and plays, let alone, God forbid, original ideas.

But it’s a curious beast, the True Story movie. It’s not a documentary. It’s not a drama-doc with low-fi reconstructions and objective analysis. It is a full-on, scripted, performed, edited, lusciously soundtracked and emotionally manipulative drama. The same as any other kind of crafted drama. So where’s the truth in that?

Jonathan Dean wrote an interesting article in last weekend’s Sunday Times (paywall) where he made the point that real lives are not neat and structured, in the way that films demand them to be. So any attempts to impose ‘resolution’ or ‘lessons’ on biopics or stories based on true events are doomed to end in contrivance, he argued. You may as well just make it up.

There is something in this, but it isn’t the whole story. If you twist the biography to suit the conventions of genre / demands of an audience / rules of dramatic structure to the point where it becomes unrecognisable, or disrespectful, or indeed absurd, then yes, you probably should have just made it up. Or you were just going about it the wrong way. David Ayer was recently spending a lot of time justifying his “based-on-a-true-story” script of U-571 while promoting his not-based-on-a-true-story new movie Fury, and has apparently now learned to tell the difference between the two.

But I think we do learn lessons in our own lives. And we do have resolution. After the occasional exceptional incident or set of circumstances we might step back and reflect upon how they may have changed us, and we take stock, and we move on. And we’ll probably then relate both the incident and the lesson to those around us in the form of ‘you’ll never believe what happened to me last week…’ And of course that is what storytelling is, and does. So true can be dramatic.

And the ‘you’ll never believe’ bit is probably the key to why true stories can and do and should be allowed to work as drama. Because they are true, and not made up, audiences load them with more significance. They are truly stranger than fiction, more compelling than fiction. BETTER than fiction.

Which brings us back to my movie. I mentioned in my last post that, having set out looking for events to inform a fictional British war movie, we hit up on the events at the Kajaki Dam on September 6, 2006. And we soon realised that the true events of this horrific day made for much better drama than anything we could make up.

The reasons for this are manifold. For one thing, it actually happened (see above for why that is a good thing). For another, there were enough separate incidents during the day itself (no spoilers here) that the drama kept developing, and kept changing shape, in the way that film structure demands. So there was little or no need for invention.

But it went beyond that. The more we looked, the more interesting, odd details and moments and lines we found, which we really could not have made up and which added to the warts-and-all realism we found so captivating. We broke various screenwriting rules to accommodate this. There is no classic hero’s journey here. The first act does not function as first acts classically do. There are probably too many characters. But all of these rules were worth breaking for the incremental truth quotient they delivered. Real is not neat, as Dean observed. But drama doesn’t need to be, either. That’s the line you have to tread.

And most importantly, we put in the hours to talk to everyone involved. I mean everyone, and I mean hours. Two, three or four hours spent with each person who was in that minefield. In the pub, or in their front rooms. Surrounded by photos of their wives and children (occasionally by their actual wives and actual children). Hearing them talk. Hearing the way they talked. Learning what was important to them, during and after the incident. Getting to know them. Seeing them.

One of the screenwriting ‘tools’ I have never embraced is the old character biog thing. A few hundred words of back story and motivation for each character. It always felt forced to me.

Well this was the real thing. This was hours and hours of first-person character biogs, and let me tell you it was worth it. From every meeting the director and I came back with our pockets stuffed with gems of dialogue, of incident and insight, and it all went in. Every pass of the script made it better and tighter and richer and deeper, much like Armando Iannucci’s chicken stock theory of screenwriting (see here, from one of my own vlogs from Cheltenham ’09, ah, great days…).

And this will change how I write all my scripts from now on, true and ‘false’. Every character sees the events of the story through their own perspective. It is your job to both fully understand and fully represent that.

But if all you are doing is telling the truth, where does the craft, the art even, occur? In my opinion, in the three choices that you always make as an artist. The first is content. What story are you telling, what are the facts and who are the characters? The second is perspective. Where do you come in and out of this story, what do you choose to show and not show, what choices of selection and editing do you make during this process? And the third is context. What point are you making through these choices, what theme are you using to inform your selection process, how would you like your work to be interpreted?

These principles apply to telling a true story as much as they do to adapting a book or making up a story from scratch. But if you apply it judiciously and effectively to something based on a core truth, if you can point to the screen and say That Is True, and if audiences believe you, then they will love you forever.

The Idea

Re-post of an article originally written in October 2014 for www.screenplayscripts.com

So I’ve been doing this for a while now, and for some reason I feel a powerful, hubristic, intimations-of-mortality urge to communicate nuggets of web-friendly wisdom to all you aspiring screenwriters out there, who will no doubt be stealing jobs from me this time next year.

Specifically, I have a movie coming out in a month and so for the next few weeks I want to track that project from script to screen and unpick the lessons I’ve learned from this process.

The first lesson of screenwriting is this. Don’t start, don’t pick up a pen, don’t CTRL+N until you’ve hit upon Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Idea For A Movie In The World Ever.

Three years ago I was working with a director called Paul Katis on a training film for the British Army and the thought occurred to us that the British don’t make war films any more. Which is weird, given that we certainly still fight wars, that soldiers are certainly still dying in those wars and ergo you’d think there would still be tales of heroism, drama, tension (all that good movie stuff) going on.

But people were steering clear of making modern British war movies.  Maybe for political, moral, business reasons, who knows. That’s a whole nother post.

So the first part of our Big Idea was let’s do one, let’s make a modern British war movie.  Our primary rationale being No-One Else Is Doing This So That’s An Opportunity. The flip side of this is of course No-One Else Is Doing This So We’d Be Nuts To Do This, but even that seemed more attractive than Everyone Else Is Doing This So We Should Do This Too route. Dare to be different. It’s a start.

So then we went looking for real-life incidents with which to inform our (at that stage fictional) modern British war movie. And then we came across the story of the Kajaki minefield disaster.

This is not an ad for my movie, or at least it’s not totally an ad for my movie, so long story short, Helmand Province, September 2006, a soldier goes on patrol, steps on a mine, his mates come in to rescue him, they step on more mines, and soon it’s a terrible day.

Suddenly our Big Idea came into clearer focus. Tell a TRUE modern British war movie. This true story had the benefits of being relatively contained in terms of time (one day), location (one minefield) and cast (one group of guys). And they weren’t Taliban mines, they were left over from the Russian invasion of 1980, so it didn’t need to be an overtly political war film and we could concentrate on the experience of the guys involved.  That felt different.

But an extraordinary true story in and of itself does not constitute Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Idea For A Movie In The World Ever. The two reasons why the events at the Kajaki Dam earned, at least in my head, this title, presented themselves in the detail we uncovered as our eighteen month research process developed.

First, the timings of the incident had an inherent three act structure, from set up (normal day) to complication (first mine), to further second act complications (mines two, three and four), to all hope is lost (we’re never getting out of here), to some sense of resolution at the end.  I feel uncomfortable talking about real personal trauma in terms of film structure but the fact remains that the events of the day both were and (as importantly for me) played out like a tragedy.  It was a movie.

But it was in meeting the soldiers themselves, in hearing twenty subtly different versions of the events, told with perspective, personality, pathos and pride, that I knew that this was a seriously special story. This was a hundred minute piece of drama to which I could dedicate a couple of years of my life (as yet unpaid) without getting resentful or bored. A movie on which I could call in every last one of my chips and not feel embarrassed, because it was worth it. A movie I hadn’t seen before.

(I will discuss this part of the research process in more detail in my next post – Why True Matters.)

 When you are working in the independent sector you have so much stacked against you. Not just financial or logistical obstacles, but the apathy of both a film-making industry and a film-going public who are more impressed by the razzle dazzle than they would care to admit.  Cutesy / quirky / noisy doesn’t cut it. Very few people will go and see your no-name-cast indie movie if, for the same £10, they can watch the studio version with Channing Tatum instead.

Your idea has to be BETTER than theirs if you are going to get people to finance, and then watch, it. It has to work at a contained budget BETTER than if somebody offered you a hundred million pounds to make it. Your idea has to be something they have NEVER SEEN BEFORE on screen.

Look at Memento. Look at 28 Days Later. Paranormal Activity. Open Water. Monsters. The Blair Witch Project.Catfish. Juno. Saw. Moon. Each of them, at the time, Literally The Best As-Yet-Unmade Ideas For Movies In The World Ever.

Don’t start your own film-making journey until you’ve got yours.