The Austin Film Festival: A Cat and a Mat

THE FIRST TEN PAGES WITH LINDSAY DORAN was one of the last panels I attended at the Austin Film Festival’s writers conference and it was certainly one of the most valuable ones in terms of practical insider information.  It was held in a small, intimate room and if I were to offer any suggestions to the AFF organizers (okay, okay, I already did make this suggestion) it would be to house the panel in a much larger space because it deserves to reach a larger audience of writers trying to strengthen their scripts.  Producer Lindsay Doran was the sole facilitator of the discussion and she boasts an impressive list of credits that include THIS IS SPINAL TAP, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, DEAD AGAIN, and STRANGER THAN FICTION.

Your script should be an ELEVEN!

In a nutshell, the first ten pages are all about first impressions.  I know for myself that when I see a film I can usually tell in the first five to ten minutes whether or not I’m on board with the characters and the story.  For a producer or executive sifting through piles of screenplays, they, too, form decisive opinions in those early pages.  As Doran posed to the writers in the room, you have to ask yourself if your script maintains SUSPENSE and SURPRISE throughout?  For those are the key elements in keeping a reader reading.

The ten-page exercise came about back when Doran’s frequent collaborators Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were still married and looking for their next project.  Each actor was on the rise professionally – he had just come off of HENRY V and she was receiving accolades for her work in Merchant-Ivory films – and they knew they wanted to work together on their next film.  However, the act of reading scripts was proving to be daunting as they tried to squeeze it in between stage work and other commitments.  So one afternoon, Thompson suggested that she and Branagh take their piles of scripts and start reading the first ten pages of each of them out loud – he’d take the male roles and she’d take all the female ones.  If they found something that truly engaged them, then they would keep reading.  It was an efficient and effective way to weed out the mediocrity and it ultimately resulted in the discovery of DEAD AGAIN.  According to Lindsay Doran, Branagh exclaimed that the script captured him with a “white-heat enthusiasm”.

What I appreciated about Doran’s panel was that she actually took nine scripts that had placed in the top 10% of the AFF competition and analyzed the first ten pages of each of them.  The scripts were made available to those of us attending the conference, so it was interesting to see what work sparked with her and how it correlated to my own opinions.

Here are some highlights (re-purposed DLB-style) of the insight she extended throughout her analysis:

  • The TITLE of your script matters.  Verbs help because they connote action and the idea that something is happening.
  • Be clear early on about what your main character wants.  Doran evoked the late, great Sydney Pollack: “Nothing can happen until somebody wants something.”
  • Be aware of characters having conversations they would have already had.  Otherwise, they become discussions simply for exposition’s sake.  Relaying information in a unique yet realistic way is key to solid screenwriting.  Doran mentioned that Stanley Kubrick was known for writing with a prosecuting attorney from time to time.  Sydney Pollack once asked him why he did this and Kubrick replied, “Because he knows how to give evidence.”  Effective writing is all about revealing information and, again, sustaining SUSPENSE and SURPRISE in doing so.
  • It’s good to open with action and heightened stakes.  Or you could start with a secret or a lie.  You want to keep your reader actively interested – establishing conflict from page one does that.
  • Be conscious about setting the tone from the beginning.  Let your audience know what type of film they’re in for or else they might feel duped later.
  • Specificity enhances a script.  One writer described his main character’s car as “a gentle Prius” and Lindsay appreciated that singular attention to detail.
  • There’s a difference between what’s true and what’s believable.  Manage your readers’ expectations and knowledge about a subject – you don’t want them confused over the logic of your story.
  • When setting up a character, don’t be observational about it – be ELECTRIFYING!
  • Typos count.  People will judge and dismiss new writers based on misspellings, sloppy formatting, etc.  Proofread your script.  And then proof it again.

Doran also shared a great piece of advice from the spy novelist John le Carre that perfectly sums up effective storytelling.  He advises, “The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story.  The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.”  For Doran when it comes to screenwriting, the cat should be sitting on the dog’s mat in every scene.

Oh no she didn’t!

And THAT’S IT for my round-up of the Austin Film Festival.  I hope I’ve convinced some of my writer friends to attend it next year – I know I’m already looking forward to it!










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