Lights, Camera, Opening Remarks...
Each year, when the Vancouver International Film Festival rolls around, one of the biggest treats that you are bound to get is its highly impressive Film & Television Trade Forums. This year is no exception. There aren't many big names, but there are plenty of big industry experts. For aspiring screenwriters is a Jim Uhls ("Fight Club"), or the up and coming Eric Axel Weiss ("Buffalo Soldiers"). For documentary filmmakers there the Academy-award winning producer/writer/director Malcolm Clarke, who is also in town to promote his film Prisoner of Paradise. To offer inspiration and a fresh perspective delivered with a warped sense of humor there are people like Larry Meistrich of the Film Movement. And for dessert, there is the legendary Stan Lee, quite possibly the only individual who would ever think of addressing an audience with the opening phrase of, "Thank you, culture lovers." True, most forums are a bit less exciting than Stan Lee and few can even come close to the grandeur of the man, but all in all, it is a fascinating journey into the world of film, from the inside. A journey most can only afford to take once a year.
INT. 18th ANNUAL TRADE FORUMS - DAY
28 Drafts Later: Adapting Material for the Screen
Since approximately 85% of all Academy Award winners are adaptations (think: The God Father Trilogy, The Princess Bride, Gone with the Wind, Fight Club) it seems rather appropriate to hold a forum in honor of this craft. Wendy Mackeigan, Chair of Astral Media's The Harold Greenberg Fund, moderated this forum with fervor, bringing forth for discussion some interesting questions based on her own years of experience with film and project development. Guest speakers included two noted screenwriters, who are known for their work with adaptations. Perhaps Jim Uhls' most impressive credit is the highly successful Fight Club and his fellow guest speaker Eric Axel Weiss will soon make a splash across cinemas with his adaptation of Buffalo Soldiers, which stars Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin and Elizabeth McGovern.
Here are some key tidbits covered in the forum:
- Uhls feels that the best approach to adaptation is to read the novel and then write the entire outline from memory in the most mechanical way possible. But as result of this seemingly motorized and dry procedure, he finds that the results are much more creative.
- When it comes to removing characters to fit the story, Weiss feels that sometimes you have to delete characters that don't serve the story, no matter how entertaining they are. Uhls doesn't feel guilty for deleting characters, but his approach is to create composite characters. He combines characters to make them workable, by borrowing various interesting characteristics from them in a way that would fit well within the narrative.
- When asked what an easy adaptation would be, "I don't know if there is such a thing as an easy adaptation," replied Weiss. "They are all difficult," added Uhls, "No matter how close you stay or how far you go away from it. Studios just want to see the resulting script. Not how faithful you stayed."
- "Does it really take 28 drafts to get an adaptation done?" chimes in one attendee. Weiss laughs and stakes that he must have seriously done 28 drafts on Buffalo Soldiers, which took him about a year. Uhls suggests that the time length usually differs quite a bit, and sometimes the process is interrupted as it did with, say, Fight Club. Officially though, there are some contractual restrictions in place. They are as follows:
12 weeks - 1st draft
8 weeks - revision
6 Weeks - Polish
"The lawyers figured it out!," jokes Uhls.
- One thing many aspiring screenwriters in the audience were interested in figuring out was how to deal with the interior voice. Weiss' approach in Buffalo Soldiers was to take all the world that is inside Elwood's head and dramatize certain things despite the V.O. inside his head. In Fight Club, Jack's V.O. was written as a rant, in a numb, caustic attitude. It's blurred, like a dream. Uhls found the balance by playing with the V.O. and physical action in the film.
- When that faithful moment approached and Weiss had to turn in his draft for Buffalo Soldiers the producer asked him: "Do you want me to be honest, or nice?" To this Weiss replied, "Can't you be both?" Cute. Real cute.
- When it comes to adapting a novel, the best qualities are very hard to pick, but both screenwriters agree that they have to be inspired and feel a connection to the material.
- Uhls' favourite adaptation is Adaptation (with Nicholas Cage), "which Kaufman did an no one can do again," he's quick to add.
- What Weiss learned by going to the American Film Institute (AFI) was how to work with other people.
- Uhls feels that it is important that even though you are adapting someone else's material it is important to feel like it's your work. Until you can do that, you can't produce the best possible adaptation. Sometimes it's not such a good idea to stay too faithful to the original material.
The discussion and Q&A came to a finish with some wisdoms imparted by the panelists. Some final key tips for adaptations are as follows:
Eric Axel Weiss
() Be inspired by the original work
() Be loyal to your medium
() Figure out your own tricks
() Give yourself permission to write your screenplay
() See the story structure. Your structure. Embrace it as being your script
() Know why the book would make a good film
Smaller Screens: Bigger Reach
The guests were pretty interesting head honchos including Shelley Gillen (Head of Creative Affairs at Movie Central), Larry Meistrich (President of Film Movement, who is known for the now defunct Shooting Gallery) and Brad Pelman (Senior VP, Sales & Distribution at Lions Gate Films). All involved brought in some interesting perspectives about the state of cinema into discussion. All three panelists seem to agree that DVD has had huge implications on film and that there is more and more focus nowadays on how to bring film into our homes, rather than bring us into theatres. Such initiative is being seen with the rise of pay-per-view channels (PPV), subscription based specialty networks such as Movie Central or HBO, Video on Demand (VOD) and Internet programming.
Pelman notes that considering that Lions Gate Films is a $350 million company, approximately $200 million come from DVD and VHS sales. Thus, much of Lions Gate's focus is on that