13 February 2012
Posted in Film
Neil Hunter on a English-language screenwriting workshop in Germany
(Photo: Writers and tutors relaxing during the éQuinoxe Germany screenwriting workshop)
I remember having a coffee by an Alpine lake in Germany with a young Austrian screenwriter, hearing quite a splash, noticing vaguely that of the two children playing on the jetty only one was currently visible, and then returning to the matter in hand, namely, why her story of redemption through industrial espionage was somehow failing to carry the reader, and then hearing a scream and a chair falling over and seeing a father flashing past us on to the jetty to rescue his boy from the shallow, freezing water. And I remember thinking: ‘This screenwriting business, it certainly takes you out of yourself.’
We were in the German Alps courtesy of éQuinoxe Germany, an English-language screenwriting workshop that follows the Sundance template in which each writer enjoys, or suffers, five sessions with five different advisers. When I advised for the French-run, now-defunct Moonstone programme, I remember someone suggesting that the first two sessions were needed to break the resistance of the writer; the final three to rebuild on sounder foundations.
If that makes it sound daunting (and rather more deliberate than the reality) it should. To have one’s writing subjected to such intense scrutiny, to have nowhere to hide, is not for the faint-hearted; however, the scrutiny will never again be so friendly, or so purely well-intentioned, or so pure.
It can also be daunting for the advisers. Although they convene a day early to discuss the scripts, and keep each other informed of the scripts’ progress over the week, each session with the writer remains surprisingly unpredictable. I have gone into sessions with closely-reasoned arguments as to why, say, the sister has to become a brother, only to receive the reply: ‘Oh, her. She’s gone.’
I think of these sessions, which can last three hours, as a type of jamming: a dual enquiry into the problems of a script, and a dual attempt to solve them. What does the writer really want to say? Where is the heart of the story? What does the writer really believe, or not believe, to be true? Any sense of hierarchy is dissolved in the heat of the problem at hand, and in any case, the writers are no beginners: they have to have had at least one script produced, and they need a producer attached to the project they bring.
All the screenplays accepted by the programme are flawed. I was surprised, on the éQuinoxe Germany workshops I have advised on, by the degree of consensus among the advisers (to the extent that writers sometimes suspect there is a stitch-up, although a moment’s introspection would banish such an idea). Not only is there usually full agreement on the flaws, there is usually a strong consensus about the most likely diagnosis and most fruitful areas to rethink and explore. Needless to say, individual advisers will disagree on details. But éQuinoxe Germany goes so some lengths to ensure that writers are not assailed from all sides with contradictory opinions. The intention is that scripts, and writers, are nursed and somehow carried through the five days; tested, but not to destruction.
So what sort of scripts, and what sort of writers, are likely to benefit most from the workshop? First of all, the writer needs to know there is a problem – though not necessarily what or where the problem is. Everyone naturally hopes their script can be solved with sticking plaster, but over the years I’ve noticed that there are some fairly consistent reasons why scripts fail to cross the finishing line in peak condition. And usually, annoyingly, it’s necessary to rebuild from the beginning.
The producer Christine Vachon has said that she relies on her writer/directors not only to have the flexibility to be able to cut when the budget squeeze kicks in – but also to know where their red lines where. To know what is essential, and what cuts would be fatal…and then to say ‘no’. Similarly, writers will benefit most if they have lived with the script for long enough to have an idea what it is they want to say, and where the heart of the story should be. There will always be room for discovery, but the borders are clear. For this reason, the scripts éQuinoxe Germany accepts are often quite developed,
I have written about scripts, rather than writers. But beyond the super-boosted development of a script, there is the growth of a writer. Beyond the intense exposure to five advisers, and the stimulation of all the other selected writers, there are screenings, masterclasses and discussions. It would be odd to emerge from the experience unchanged.
See the call for submissions for éQuinoxe 2012