Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Nicholl Screenwriting Competition

Haven't entered a screenplay into the Nicholl Screenwriting Competition for a few years now, though back in the days, like 2001 and 2004, I did get into the quarterfinals of that contest with a historical romance/adventure called The Weaponsmaster, the synopsis on my website reads as follows:

A small kingdom in medieval France:

Fifteen years after his parents were murdered, Antione returns for a reckoning. But the murderer is now a general. Antoine manages to inveigle himself at court in the role of the king's new weaponsmaster. The role includes the tuition of the unruly crown princess Darcie, who is the focus of intrigues and assassination plots. Soon, Antoine's desire for revenge comes into conflict with his professional and personal interest in her.

It's unusual for a fun-piece like that to get this far in the competition, but it did. I guess I must have done something right. Still, quarterfinals is quarterfinals; and it ain't semifinals, finals or winning.

In years after that I have submitted other screenplays, one of the same genre, which did well (top 10%) but no better than that, and another, which was contemporary, but that didn't even get a mention. I guess I suck at contemporary, non-fantasy fiction. Oh, yes, and I think I also submitted a version of Dating Blind, the movie I eventually shot myself, but that was a no-go as well.

With that kind of record, some people—those who think of fame, glory and instant wealth— might feel encouraged to continue submitting year after year, working away like beavers on their submissions during the preceding year. You're allowed three simultaneous submissions, so there's a year's work in it, if one is thus disposed.

Me, I'm more jaundiced about things. One does get cynical after sufficient rejections, and I have other things to do with my life; and with writing, too. Like I have two novels that need serious attention. So, when earlier this year I thought about the Nicholl, I said to myself something like "yeah, maybe, but only if...". And the year passed. April came. The May 1 deadline approached—actually 'sneaked up on me' is more like it—and still no screenplay. I had thought about something that I really wanted to write about, and I even had a basic starting point...but a lot of people have that. It's a long way from there to a 'story'.

Besides, there's working for a living—currently that goes in stops and starts, but when a 'start' period is on, then it's like 50 hours+ per week—and that doesn't really leave much space and time for polished screenplay writing, or any damn screenplay for that matter, and especially to deadlines.

So, April was heading toward the end. Last Sunday, a week before the deadline, I told myself that I might as well try, even though I still only had something like 1/5 of the story worked out, and all of that was at the beginning an the end. The middle, however, is the hard part. The dreaded ACT 2. The thing that gets the story from the beginning to the end. Actually, it was worse. I just had a less-than-concrete notion of the end, though I knew what it was going to be like. That's hard to explain; it means that I knew the feeling of it, the closure and all that, but just how...well, no damn idea.

None of which bodes well for a week's part-time screenplay writing. Minimum of 90 pages, that working out to the same number of minutes, give or take. I ended up with 100 pages. Don't ask me how, because I don't know. I mean, I do know, technically speaking: 100 pages filled with words, dialogue and action. But that's not what fills pages. The words got to come from somewhere, and it better not be some Godot-esque void.

So, where did they come from? I learned—re-learned, had confirmed and re-verified—that indeed it's all about trusting the process and the power of a narrative with interesting characters that one cares about and a situation that really stretches their ability to cope. Well, at least I cared about them, and that's important, because if the story-teller doesn't really care, then the audience can't be asked to be any more engaged.

There is a MacGuffin, of course, but I've always tried to make my MacGuffins so integral to the story and so important to its characters that they never suffer the fate of so many others, which are just window-dressing and may eventually even be forgotten about. In this instance, the MacGuffin isn't only the 'mystery'-genre element—though this script isn't a 'mystery'—but had a direct bearing on the resolution of an apparently irresolvable dilemma for the characters.

I should mention that when I started writing I had no idea that this was the way it would come out. But it did, and in the end it made sense—to me at least. I'm kinda hoping that it'll make sense to the script readers as well. But the MacGuffin is still just a MacGuffin. Ultimately it all hangs on whether the readers connect enough with characters whose actions, in some sense, may well evoke initial instinctive rejection, or, alternatively, an interest for all the wrong reasons. I want the readers to fall in love with the characters and eventually to want them to succeed and come out on top. And I want them to have that terrible sinking feeling when things go wrong.

In some ways, another intention of this script—whose name I withhold for reasons having to do with it's being sub-judice—is also meant to be subversive, in a very benevolent kind of sense. I've done 'subversive' before, in my books mainly, but this here is probably my most open and most contemporary attempt. And, yes, this submission is, again, a 'contemporary' piece, without violence even, except of the non-physical kind, with a bit of retrospective domestic violence thrown in.

As I said though, I seem to suck at 'contemporary'. Still, it was what came up at this particular point. And, yes, it got submitted, before the deadline. A first draft submission, written inside less than a week, part-time. It'll be interesting to see if it gets anywhere at all. Watch this space—later in the year. Or not, because if there's nothing then I'm not going to write about it.

But right now I'm patting myself on the back. And, also, it's the kind of script that so potentially low-budget that I might well film it myself one day when I have the time. Like Dating Blind.

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