Gavin Hood – Practical Advice and Inspiration from Eye In The Sky Director

Gavin Hood is climbing the ranks in the film industry, having directed some popular movies with tenacious morale.

I first noticed him after watching Eye in the Sky, which is about the disputes of modern warfare. I was thoroughly impressed. I don’t remember the last time I was on the edge of my seat for the duration of an entire movie. When I realized he’s a fellow South-African, I was intrigued even more – I have to admit I’m a bit biased…

The more I found out about him, the more reasons I found to acknowledge him and his work.

Gavin Hood is the kind of filmmaker who is in the business for the right reasons.

He is driven to create current and applicable content which is entertaining at the same time. When asked why he chose to direct Eye in the Sky, he commented: “It’s completely current and it’s about what’s really happening in modern warfare and it has elements of black comedy and farce that are grounded in real life.”

His choice to cast Helen Mirren (the role was intended for a male lead) as Colonel Katherine Powell was very strategic. He didn’t want to box the movie in as a war movie for guys.

He recounts saying, “I want it to be a movie about war but that it’s a conversation starter for men and women about a subject matter that I think is very topical.”

He’s also a filmmaker who works extremely hard to get where he is right now. When asked to give advice to aspiring filmmakers, he shared, “Unfortunately, […] there’s this notion that you can become famous and rich very quickly. It’s a curse I think. […]

The way you make it is by getting good at making films.

There’s no shortcut; just study the craft and practise and hopefully you’ll eventually connect with an audience. And if you don’t connect with an audience, you won’t have a career in this business.”

Hood with Barkhad

It took a while for him to gain international recognition. Even though he wanted to be an actor, he followed his father’s advice and “took his big mouth and studied law” though he only practiced it for 4 months. He was already 30 when he actually started studying screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

Although he knew he was always going to go into film, he doesn’t regret having studied law, instead he recalls, “it trained me in terms of thinking and story and conflict and moral and ethical questions.”

He continually emphasizes the importance of making films in order to connect with your audience. He himself is drawn to stories compelling him to think. “I personally, with my background of being a lawyer and growing up in the turbulent times of the 80’s in South-Africa, I tend to be drawn to […] stories that somehow challenge me in a moral or ethical way.

“Don’t tell me what to think, but present me with something morally or ethically challenging.”

He started small by making short films; The Storekeeper was one I remember seeing in Middle School. It left a big impression on me, not only because of the dilemma it presents, but because it was so close to home. It was a South-African story which could be understood universally.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoAONuFrjtU

This is another thing I appreciate about him; he bloomed where he was planted. He started where he was and then expanded, instead of limiting himself to the small South-African film industry.

Tsotsi was his breakthrough film which garnered him an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006 – a film I highly recommend by the way…

It was again, an authentic story, but one exploring universal humanity.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-cQHJm25qI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wikqd0aUVkM

“I really believe that we focus so much on differences and not enough on similarities. Most people, on a very basic level, have surprisingly similar needs. The need for companionship, dignity, love. And when these basic needs are not met, you find individuals developing a very distorted sense of the world.”

By now, he has other popular movies under his belt like Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rendition.

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I celebrate people like Gavin Hood and believe there are many more like him out there who we simply need to discover.

Fellow filmmakers and actors, let us strive and work hard to tell stories worth telling. Stories that challenge people in their thinking to fight passivity.

Gavin Hood, I thank you for being an inspiration and persisting with a tenacious and creative spirit – all the best to you for your future projects!

Written by Annette Lange.

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Aliens: Screenwriting Principles From a Perfect Film

Written by Brenden Bell.

*********THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE 1989 FILM ALIENS************

If you’ve listened to me talk about movies, you know how much I love James Cameron’s Aliens. I gush over it endlessly, describing in detail the first time I watched it; sitting on the edge of my sofa, yelling at the TV, throwing couch cushions in frustration. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and has set a high bar for future films.

I took my love of Aliens to the next level this past year, as I showed it to my screenwriting students as a film that exemplified various story principles I was attempting to get across to them. This film isn’t accidentally engaging; it was built purposefully and intentionally.

I call it a perfect film, because it is. It accomplishes everything I think a story should.

Here are a few of the screenwriting principles I pull from watching Aliens endlessly.

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  1. Ellen Ripley, All-American Woman

I’ve seen countless notables herald Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as the greatest action hero of all times.  This isn’t said as some “feminists’” attempt to level the playing field between male and female representation in cinema.

It’s said because it’s true; Ripley deserves her place among other great, male action heroes like Batman and Indiana Jones.

Her heightened status as a character is for countless reasons, and a great deal of that is to do with Sigourney Weaver’s fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance.

Much of it, however is by design in the writing. She’s given many of the same attributes that a typical male hero has; she’s tough, smart, level-headed, snarky, and resourceful. What really elevates Ripley from other heroes, however are the competing “lacks” that are given to her.

The film opens with Ellen Ripley being found in cryo-sleep, right where we left her at the end of the first film. The twist? She’s been asleep for over 50 years, and her daughter has passed away.

The screenwriter has created a “lack” in our character; something that is missing in her life, which will be brought to completion by the end of the film.  Ripley has a daughter shaped hole in her heart that needs to be filled once more.

Ripley finds the hope of completion of this lack when she finds the young girl, Newt; the lone survivor from the xenomorph attack on LB-426.

Simultaneously, the screenwriter establishes an opposing “lack” early on. Ripley has been left scarred and broken by her previous encounter with the xenomorph. Her fear of them is something she will need to face again by the film’s conclusion.

The story is based around these two “lacks”, and its structure will force our character into a situation where she must decide which to hold on to; her fear of xenomorphs or her need to be a mother.

It’s “lacks” of this nature, particularly lacks that could be in conflict, that hook people into a story. It causes people to identify with the dilemma and care for the lead character. Without this element, your film will be dull.

Look at Godzilla (2014), an utterly forgettable film for several reasons. One of which is due to the fact that we established none of these things in the character of Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), or at least not well. The writers attempted to give him opposing lacks or  a dilemma by missing his wife and having relational tension with his father. These opposing lacks almost worked, that is until his father dies abruptly in the film, removing any tension in his character. As a result, for the rest of the film I couldn’t relate with Ford. As a result, I could’ve cared less about the outcome of the film.

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2. The Plot’s The Thing

Many would call the plot of this film “formulaic.”

This is probably because it is extremely formulaic.

Read The Writer’s Journey or Save the Cat and you will see that the plot of this film fits rather neatly into either of these film structures or “beat sheets.”

This is a large part of the reason why I chose to view this film in my screenwriting class; it’s easy to see the familiar structure, and how it can be used well.

Personally, I don’t think formulaic is bad, especially if it’s used as effectively as James Cameron does in this film.

We have our character’s competing “lacks” or dilemma and now it’s the writer’s job to create a plot that will force her to face both and make a choice.

There are two important choices our character has to make throughout the film, and they are both found at the “act breaks,” or the end of the first and second acts of the story. The end of the first act is our hero’s decision to go on the adventure in the first place. In the film, this is found when Ripley decides to go to LB-426 with the Colonial Marines.

The second choice is crucial; your entire story should be building up to it. The plot leads up to this point beautifully in Aliens.

Throughout the second act, Ripley is put in situation after situation where she has to face her fear of the xenomorphs and build her connection with Newt. One of the most brilliantly tense scenes is about halfway through the film when Ripley and Newt are locked in a room alone with a face hugger; a smaller version of the final act, training Ripley for the end of the film where she has to protect Newt from the largest xenomorph there is: the Queen.

As the film’s plot moves forward, the marines are picked off one by one, the base’s reactor is set to blow in less than an hour, the xenomorphs overtake their base, and Newt is kidnapped and taken to the hive.

Ripley is left alone and with a choice…does she leave because she’s afraid, or does she enter the hive and reclaim her daughter before it’s too late? Ripley chooses to go back and save Newt on her own, in spite of everything against her, and in spite of the fact that it’s where all of the xenomorphs live.

This shows the audience that not only has she once and for all overcome her fear of xenomorphs and broken their hold over her, but that she has found the completion for the daughter-sized hole in her heart.

The whole plot is built around the character of Ripley facing her fear, and getting what she needs to grow. If you want to tell a compelling story that matters, you should do the same.

Let’s compare this climactic moment to Godzilla’s. By the end of the film, the character of Godzilla is inconsequential to Ford’s journey and vice-versa. When the other monster (not Godzilla) attacks the city at the end, Godzilla stops it. It was by far the coolest part of the film, but it meant nothing to me. I hadn’t built an emotional connection to Godzilla, but Ford. However, Ford’s character is detached, passive and unrelated to this event, and I was left wondering why Ford’s character was necessary to the story at all.

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3. Make Me Care

Think about films that genuinely frightened you or made you feel something. How were they able to accomplish that?

Or the horror side of things, it’s almost always because they were successful in making me care about what happens to their characters. In Aliens, the most tense moments by far were Newt was in danger.

I think this is for two reasons. The first is simply because she’s a child; any scene where a child is in danger is automatically more intense for me (I’m looking right at you Jurassic Park). The second is because the filmmakers succeeded at their main job; they made me care.

I identified with Ripley being scarred from her past, and losing a significant relationship in her life. Seeing Ripley and Newt’s relationship flourish throughout the film, made it that much more nerve-wracking when Newt was kidnapped at the end of Act 2. It’s not just because she was a child and she was taken, it’s because she was the key to Ripley’s salvation and without her, Ripley is back where she started, only worse.

I knew that Ripley wanted a daughter, and when that was in jeopardy the film’s tension went through the roof.

The world itself wasn’t at stake, but Ripley’s was, and that’s what made the last 30 minutes of Aliens so intense.

We had to watch Ripley face her biggest fears head on and overcome them to get what she ultimately needed, a family. Without this element of family and relational completion this film would’ve lost all of its tension.

Let’s compare the final act of this film to the final act of say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Literally, an entire nation might be destroyed by the villainous Ultron (for some ambiguous reason that is still very unclear to me). It should feel like everything is at stake. However, there wasn’t a single tense moment in the entire final act. The world was at stake, but none of the world’s of our characters’ were.

If the final act isn’t about a character overcoming a “lack” in order to save everything they hold dear being in total jeopardy, then your story isn’t going to be as thrilling as it could be.

The heart of this film is what elevates it beyond a run-of-the-mill, action film.

It’s easy to tell a story that no one cares about; it takes a great storyteller to tell one that is as engaging and engrossing as Aliens. It’s a long journey, becoming a great storyteller; it helps to glean from the greats.

Jack Sparrow & Me

Written by Connor Campbell.

Every filmmaker has those films that inspired them to pursue their dream and make films of their own. I am no different.

But looking back on these films, I noticed a distinct pattern and discovered a connection between the films that inspired me and the stories I now create.

When I think about this, it makes quite a bit of sense, but yet it still came as a bit of a surprise to me. But what is the specific connection I found? And how does apply to you? Well, follow along.

  1. Chariots of Fire

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This is the first film I remember being overly interested in. And by that, I mean I would watch it over and over again. But here’s the bizarre part: I was only four years old.

So how did a film such as this, which could be described as a slow-moving drama, captivate a four-year-old?

The simple answer is music and running.

As a kid I was fascinated by the running and racing in the film. According to my parents I would get quite into it and watch the film standing only a couple feet away from the TV.

The film’s epic soundtrack also assisted in capturing my attention. I absolutely loved the music in this film and still do today. It’s a great soundtrack.

Something deeper I noticed, however, is why these things caught my eye (or ear). At four years old, I didn’t understand story or character development. Theme would go well over my head. So what was it?

Entertainment. I was thoroughly entertained by this film. This was the beginning of my discovery on why I create the stories I do.

And I think this happens to people more often than not. Think about it. Look back and see if you can find that first film you really enjoyed. How has it influenced you?

  1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

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What young filmmaker hasn’t been influenced in some way by Peter Jackson’s brilliant film trilogy? Any filmmaker my age has mentioned how The Lord of the Rings influenced them at some point or another.

I could talk for a very long time on the how and/or why these films are so influential, but I feel like I took something much different than most.

Sometime before I watched these films, the books had been read to me. So it was incredibly fascinating for me to see these great stories retold on the screen.

Despite the fact I was exposed to the books first, if given the choice, I would choose to watch the films rather than read the books. This introduced my interest in visual storytelling.

When the books were read to me, I would imagine them as a film. So when I actually watched those stories in a movie form, I was hooked on the idea that I could do the same thing.

Learning something from these films is incredibly relatable to any up and coming filmmaker. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in a film such as this? It’s epic scale and intriguing journey make for a great inspiration.

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

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So far my journey to film consisted of entertainment with a flare of visual storytelling.

After watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean, however, I was back to pure entertainment. I was old enough by then to understand story and I think this film’s story is quite good. But the amount of entertainment this film provides is through the roof.

This film has everything I enjoy: Great characters, genre blending, and visually interesting.

While great characters and visually interesting is a more typical thing to enjoy about a film, genre blending is not.

I thoroughly enjoy mixing different genres together, especially if they’re not commonly put together. Pirates of the Caribbean mixes fantasy, swashbuckler, and comedy and ends up with great balance.

And while I didn’t realize this at the time, this film also proves you don’t necessarily have to follow the structure of story to the letter. This has had a massive influence on me as a storyteller. I enjoy adding bizarre moments and beats that don’t always make sense until much later in the film.

Think about the films that you like, but you don’t even really know why. I mean, you know you enjoy it and it’s a fun time, but what is the true reason behind all of that? If you looked deeper into those films, you’ll begin to discover commonalities with your own work.

So now my interest in entertainment value expanded into practical application.

  1. Star Trek (2009)

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Sometimes films just speak to you. And more often than not, those films heavily influence you. Don’t ever think that that is a bad thing. Allow those films to help shape how you create.

This is my favourite film of all time, so it’s no shock that it ended up on this list and I openly admit it influences nearly everything I have written since seeing it.

Every time I watch this film, I enjoy it more and more. And now as I’ve gained more knowledge about film I can articulate why.

This is another case of taking something I already knew and portraying it in a way I was much more captivated by. I watched seasons upon seasons of Star Trek television shows and while I enjoyed them very much, the 2009 feature film reboot was what I really wanted.

J.J. Abrams, who I am a big fan of by the way, perfectly merges together the two things that make a good film: entertainment and story.

These elements are vital in producing good content. Story is obviously very important, but to me film is a form of entertainment. Although you may not see it this way, a good story does not always equal entertainment.

I won’t really elaborate on this, because that statement is purely based out of my own perception.

But going back to Star Trek, I remember walking out of the theatre and think that that was the most fun I had ever had at a movie.

I know that you’ve probably had those moments, so I’ll give you a tip on how to use that feeling to your advantage. Don’t try to copy what you’ve seen on screen. Dive deeper into the reasons why you loved the film and try adding those techniques into your own stories.

For me, this film brought on the idea of writing stories in the genre of science fiction, which I have since been fascinated with. But also it showed me how to use an ensemble-like cast but still have a clear focus on who the main character is.

  1. Avatar

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James Cameron’s box office wonder hit Avatar only solidified my interest in science fiction and world building.

Yes, the story isn’t the most original, but you cannot deny the incredible detail and depth to the world James Cameron created.

I was mesmerized by the images on the big screen. Everything was so well thought out and intricately detailed.

In every science fiction story I create, I strive to do this. Build a world that is both interesting and detailed, but without sacrificing story for the sake of wow-factor.

Films like this should merely hint at a well thought out backstory.

To me, Avatar did this immensely well and it’s the reason why everytime I watch it, I’m still intrigued with the world. So much so, I am still very excited to see where James Cameron takes his sequels and how much further they will delve into the world created in the 2009 film.

Conclusion

I think you can see the pattern that got me hooked on film. Yes, story is a common theme, but entertainment and world building are the big standouts to me.

This reflects heavily on my own storytelling and how I go about conceptualizing new ideas.

So this is just a little insight into the films that propelled me into the film industry. I hope this gets you thinking on what films inspired you and the reasons you create the way you do.

Creating Dialogue that Doesn’t Completely Suck

written by Brenden Bell

 

I hate writing dialogue. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I’m not good at writing dialogue, and therefore I hate it. When writing a script, it’s always the thing I change a million times more than anything else.

 

This is probably because my least favourite experience as a screenwriter is sitting in an audition for my script, and hearing the shrill sound of my untested dialogue performed out loud. It makes me cringe every time, and takes everything within me to not assure the performers that the dialogue is still being tweaked (when in reality, I had no intention of doing so).

 

I get story; still don’t get dialogue.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of research over the years on how to create dialogue that doesn’t completely suck. I’ve grown a lot since my early days of “on the nose,” awful dialogue; occasionally, I write a line or two that I am proud of.

 

I want to share a few tips I have learned over the years.

 

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  1.  Have a Point

 

Many first drafts I read include long conversations between characters that don’t really go anywhere. In real life, we have conversations like this all the time. However in film, it’s boring to watch a conversation that is totally pointless.

 

All this to say, if you include a line of dialogue in your film, have a holistic purpose behind it. David, over at screenwriting website whatascript.com, calls this “fulfilling dialogue intentions.”

 

When you’re writing dialogue, ask yourself the following questions:

 

Is it moving the story forward?

Is it revealing character?

Is it communicating relevant information or exposition?

Is it creating conflict between characters?

Is it calling forth emotion?

 

Your dialogue should fulfil at least ONE of these intentions, it could accomplish more than one, and is even better if it’s able to accomplish all of the above.

 

If your dialogue isn’t doing at least one of these things, then you should probably cut it.

 

 

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  1.  Use Subtext

 

A sad reality of life is that we don’t always say what we’re thinking; sometimes this is intentional, while sometimes we aren’t even honest with ourselves.

 

Think of when you’re yelling at someone close to you about being late or forgetting something at the grocery store, are you actually angry about that particular thing? Partly, but you’re ACTUALLY angry about feeling disrespected or neglected by them. The tardiness/forgetfulness is the text, the disrespect/neglect is the subtext.

 

It’s easy as a screenwriter to write a conversation and focus the text on the disrespect/neglect. It’s stronger to keep it as subtext, under the surface.

 

The film Bridesmaids does this well; there are so many scenes that are entirely subtextual: Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Helen (Rose Byrne) have a “toast off” trying to one up each other’s toast to their friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). The text of the scene is them trying to give a better toast than the other; the subtext is them fighting for position of influence in their friend Lillian.

 

Another great scene comes later, when Annie gets in a car accident and is discovered by a cop (Chris O’Dowd) that she’s had an on again/off again relationship with throughout the film. The text is has them arguing about why she hasn’t fixed her car. The subtext? Their failed relationship.

 

Check out the “toast off” scene below!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bJu1fjIkGY

 

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  1.  Know Your Characters

 

Since you are only one person, the tendency is for all your characters to sound like you. Unless all of your characters have your  exact same life experience, this probably won’t work super well.

 

Everyone is different and sees the world from the perspective of their own culture, education level, socioeconomic status, personality type, past experiences, etc.

 

This is why it’s important to know your characters; if you know who they are at a core level, then you know how they’ll respond in a situation and what they would and wouldn’t say.

 

This isn’t only about giving them a backstory (that may or may not be fleshed out in the film itself), but also giving them a “spine” or prime motivation.

 

What I mean by this, is the one thing that drives your character to do what they do. The character may or may not be aware of it, but it is there all the same.

 

For example, Nina Sayers’ spine in Black Swan is to be perfect; everything she says and does is from the desire to perform her roles in Swan Lake as the black and white swan, as well as her role in life as “the good girl,” perfectly.

Flesh out who all of your characters are, where they come from, and what drives them. The dialogue will flow out of them.

 

 

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  1.  Read it Out Loud

 

Something that my boss, Jason Solari, and I did a lot when we were writing Out of the Woods, was read the scenes out loud. If dialogue felt unnatural or clunky, we would cut it or adjust so that it would flow more naturally.

 

This is important to do, because unlike writing in literature, film dialogue isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be heard. It might look beautiful on the page, but sound atrocious coming out of someone’s mouth.

 

I know a lot of screenwriters that even ask their acting friends to come in and do a table read of the script to listen to how the dialogue is sounding when spoken out loud and interpreted by performers. This will save you from cringeworthy auditions, where you’re embarrassed by listening to your own dialogue.

 

 

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  1. Don’t Use it

 

The greatest lesson I’ve learned about film dialogue is to not use it at all.

 

Like many of you, I came from a theatre background. Not on a professional level in any way; I was heavily involved in high school theatre as well as in college. I had grown accustomed to reading scripts in a theatre perspective, and had not read any screenplays.

 

Theatre almost always uses dialogue to move their story forward, because they have little other choice. The audience is so far removed from the stage that they almost have to. This is not so with film. We can move our camera directly in the actor’s face, or even focus in on an item or object in the scene if we so choose.

 

Film is a visual medium, and visuals should be used more than anything to push your story forward. A good practice to challenge yourself is to imagine your film as a silent movie; in the silent era of film, dialogue is displayed only when totally necessary. The story of the scene should be carried not in you dialogue, but in the action and visuals within.

 

Check out Steve McQueen’s dialogue-free scene from Shame, and tell me you don’t know exactly what is happening.

 

 

I’m only skimming the surface here; there is so much that goes into creating great dialogue, and so many different approaches to creating it. Find out what works for you and go for it.

 

Screenwriting is an art form, not a science. Take these principles and forge a path forward for yourself.