In this episode I talk to Charles Harris, an experienced Screenplay Writer, Filmmaker and now best-selling novelist about how to write and pitch Screenplays, which as we discover are quite a different beast to novels. His first novel is the Breaking of Liam Glass. He is also a teacher for Screenplay education company Euroscript.
Tim Lewis: Hello Charles, welcome to the show.
Charles Harris: Hi Tim. Thank you very much for having me.
What makes Screenplays Different?
Tim Lewis: Okay. What is the biggest difference between screenplays and other types of writing?
Charles Harris: I suppose the main difference is to be aware, it’s not really writing. It is writing, of course, because you’re really using words, but the thing to be aware of is firstly that film and TV are a very different artform. They might look like, superficially, like either novels or plays. They’re as different as an opera from a play, for example. If you’re thinking of comparing … It’s like comparing Shakespeare’s Othello with Verdi’s Otello. They are totally different animals.
A screenplay isn’t even the film or the TV programme. It’s a blueprint. People approach it in a writerly sense, and I speak as an author and a writer who has written just about everything. I’ve written films, I’ve written documentaries, I’ve written TV, I’ve written nonfiction, as you know about screenplay writing and I have now written a novel and some short stories. The thing is I say there’s no way to hide in screenplay writing, you’re writing …
Do you remember back in the I think it was the 60s, they had these happenings where people would sort of put on an event and that was the beginning of a kind of artistic movement? You see more of nowadays, but I think it’s what people do rather than necessarily how they do it and a screenplay is a bit like that. You’re writing a blueprint for an event.
It’s almost like you’re preparing a party and inviting the guests and the screenplay is the kind of the plan for the party, but then the guests arrive and the party itself develops in a different way it does. You’ve got to have the peanuts and the crisps and the egg sandwich, whatever you’re providing and the beer. But that’s just the foundation of the whole thing.
The difference from what you’re writing a novel or a short story, there the writing itself becomes very important. In a screenplay, it’s not about being clever. In fact, you can’t hide away through a bit of purple prose or a clever bit of writing. You can’t escape from dramatic problems. They are very much there in front of you. Does that make sense?
Why switch to novels?
Tim Lewis: Yeah, so obviously, you mentioned you’ve written screenplays and you’ve written books about screenplays and now you’ve written a satire book. What drove you to make that journey? Was it just a case of you wanted to experience writing different things or was it there more freedom in your eyes in what you would call “the traditional novel” rather than a screenplay?
Charles Harris: There’s a lot more freedom. For one thing, you’re doing it yourself. Stanley Kubrick had a lovely description of making a movie, which is “it’s like painting the Mona Lisa on a roller coaster with 15 other people holding the paintbrush.” The great thing about writing a novel is you don’t have to get it financed. You don’t have to do what the producers says. The actors do what you tell them to do mostly. If you want it to snow, it snows. You are kind of making the movie on the page.
I never thought of myself as a writer. Originally, I started off as a amateur filmmaker and then I became a film editor, a director, but I needed scripts to direct and I couldn’t afford to hire anybody else. I was the cheapest writer I could find, so I basically, taught myself to write as it were. I did and it felt strange because my first language in a way was visual. That’s what I always did in screenwriting, making screen stories is a visual medium, which is something I’ll talk about in a second.
Then the writing side became more interesting, so I could enjoy it more and more. I enjoyed the bits that never come through because, of course, if you’ve ever seen a screenplay, 50% of it is the dialogue which may or may not be in the final film, depending on whether the actors and the director decide to use the words you’ve written 50% is the other stuff, the descriptions, which will never actually be in the film. You see what’s being described. You don’t read the words and that’s the fundamental difference.
Tim Lewis: Let’s start with a fairly basic question. How long normally is a screenplay for say a film or a TV series?
Charles Harris: The first thing to say is screenplays are measured in pages not words. It’s very unusual, unlike novels and short stories, to ever talk about how many words so we roughly go a page a minute. If they are laid out in the correct way, and that’s another thing is, is it’s a very rigid formula how you lay out a screenplay for all kinds of reasons. You should use the same font. Usually, it’s Courier font in a particular kind of layout and that works at a page a minute, so if you have a 90 minute film, it would be about 90 pages, a 100 minute film, 100 pages. In this country, people generally prefer screenplays, first draft to be around 99 pages because it shows that the writer hasn’t been going off on to debate some flow with bits of purple prose.
In the states and in other countries, they’re a little bit more relaxed about first draft screenplays on the understanding that you are always cut them down. You’re talking there about something around 15,000 words plus. A screenplay is roughly between 15,000 to 25,000 words, which is in a very tiny amount.
I say writing a screenplay is like writing haiku for 90 pages. You have a minimal amount of words to get across your feeling. Your average scene will have maybe four lines of dialogue. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re watching it, but it’s because it’s also there’s other things going on around and beyond the dialogue that makes it very different from both a novel and a play.
What is a Treatment?
Tim Lewis: Okay, I’ve noticed and I’ve been looking at your website quite a few articles about screenplays and things like that. This is something called a treatment, which seems to me like a short version. What is a treatment and what are your tips for people writing one?
Charles Harris: Well, they are very close to the sort of writing a novelist will be used to because basically a treatment is just another word for an outline or a synopsis. It’s how you’re going to treat the story. There are various kinds of more highfalutin treatments, but the basic treatment is just an outline of your story in X number of pages, whatever’s been asked for. You will find some screenwriting people who say, “Ah, a treatment means this number of pages. A synopsis means this number of pages.”
They’re lying to you. There is no official definition of how long a treatment or a synopsis or outline should be. They’re just interchangeable words and if anyone ask you for one, the first thing to ask is how long and that’s what you deliver. That all slightly short, so you do not ever deliver anything that’s longer than that.
Just like I would imagine your average novel outline, it’s always going to be in the third person. You could never have it in the first person. It’s going to be in the present tense and it has the beginning, middle and end. Most importantly and most challenging, because the bit that seems to throw a lot of people, those parts of your treatment should be more or less in proportion to your story and that’s always a challenge because most people find they have a lot to say at the beginning. So the average treatment I read, you might have a two-page treatment, for example. That has … The first page and a half is the first 30 minutes of the movie. The next hour is squeezed into a paragraph and the final climax is going to that last line of the page.
I can understand why people do that because you’ve to explain this and there’s Tim and he’s that kind of person, there’s Charles and he’s that kind of person and da, da, da. But actually, no, you mustn’t do that. You’ve got to find a way of getting it across. It also should be readable and it should feel like you’re watching the movie or watching a TV programme. In other words, you have the sense of seeing it.
What you can do in Novels but not Screenplays
One of the things I started to talk about, the visual side of screenplay writing, people have a kind of misunderstanding. They think of movies and TV as being visual, which is true. Obviously, they are visual, but it doesn’t mean that your story has to be gung ho action. Let’s say the gung ho action we’re going to say translate well onto the screen just because it appears to be visual? It’s not visual in a sense of having a lots of big, glossy visual scenes. It means that your story has to play out in a form that we can film. In other words, can be visualizable. You make things work in the concrete visual realm in front of a camera.
In a novel, you can say things like “he was frightened,” or “she fell in love with …” In a film, you can’t do that. Obviously, you can say dialogue or a voice over, but that doesn’t really have the same effect. You have to see it happening. When we say “visual” that could mean 12 members of a jury in a room, as long as what’s playing out, the drama’s playing out between them is dramatised in such a way as a film is, as can see it on camera. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Tim Lewis: Yes.
Charles Harris: That’s the thing that trips a lot of people up when they’re thinking, as I’m sure a lot of novelists do think, “Wouldn’t it be great … No, I’d love to sell my story to TV or to film.” One of the big problems often is there isn’t necessarily something going on, enough going on outside someone’s head and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to have shoot em ups and car chases and things like that. It means that you’re progressing the drama through what we see.
Who should you pitch to?
Tim Lewis: Yeah, okay, so we talked about treatment. Obviously, the treatment is probably something that you would send somebody who has asked for it, who might be interested in your screenplay whether you’ve written it or not. Who, in the first instance, should someone consider pitching their screenplay to if they’ve written one or they want to write a treatment and send it to somebody?
Charles Harris: Okay, well it firstly depends on what you mean by “in the first instance?” In the very first instance where you don’t have a script yet, the person you must never pitch to is a person who might buy it and the reason is that they’ll only give you one chance. If they like it, the pitch … A pitch, people talk about the pitch, the elevator pitch and so forth and it’s a crucial part of film and TV. It’s also quite important in fiction writing and in nonfiction writing and then you still have to boil your idea into a short sentence. A chance it’s more likely to be in an email than in a verbal pitch, but it’s still a pitch. A logline as we call it.
The point of that is you’re not going to sell it on the basis of that. You’re never going to sell your script unless you, if you’ve got no track record, on the base of your pitch.
The aim of a pitch is to get someone to say, “Send me the script.” That’s the total and utter aim of the thing and if you’re going to do that you’ve got to have the script ready to send. I had a once commission to do a rewrite, a lovely feature idea, that someone had gone down to Cannes, a producer, and she had made the cardinal error, though she had a lot of experience, of pitching it to two financiers, who loved the idea and then said, “Show me the script,” and she said, “Well, I haven’t written it yet,” went back and commissioned it.
By the time she came back with the draft, one woman had invested the money, it was a year later, one woman invested the money somewhere else. One had given up film financing entirely, so she had to start all over again. The other danger, also, is you go back to somebody and they say, “Yes, I liked that last year. It sounds a bit old-fashioned now,” because they’ve been living with the idea in their head for a year.
What you do … You still need a pitch. It’s good idea to try things out, bounce things off other people, so I would send your pitch to everybody else. You pitch to your friends, which in case you kind of do anyway. Well, the moment somebody says, “Well, what are you working on?” you won’t say, “Well, I’m kind of doing something …” Go and crawl off into a corner or you say, “Well, I’ve got this great idea that I’m working on,” and if you’re lucky they say, “Tell me about it,” and you do and ideally, in no more than two sentences before they suddenly get a subsequent engagement and realise that life is too short and say, “Hey, move right along.”
You pitch to everybody. You bounce ideas off and what you’re looking for is what I call “the spark.” I used to go round pitching when I began in the industry. I was pitching all over the place. I’d pitch to everybody. I would pitch to producers, I pitched to agents and nobody got it because clearly, the British film industry had no idea of how clever I was.
Then one day, I was … You find when you’re pitching you tend to alter it slightly when you even think about it and you might in the excitement, which you think a little different mention something different. I said something and someone’s eyes lit up and I realised that that spark, as I call it, was the thing I’d been looking for, that moment. Friends can say, “Yes, oh yeah, very nice,” but you know when their eyes light up when an idea really works and that’s what you’re looking for so you go around and … I actually don’t start writing until I’ve got a pitch I’m happy with because the first person I have to convince is worth spending time and money on it is myself. I definitely feel I didn’t quite answer the second half of your question.
So once you’ve got your script, then you need to … Then you start doing your research. What you want to do is you want to pitch to producers and it’s very, again, very similar to pitching a novel. You find a producer who’s done the kind of thing that you think is in the right genre, the right area or an agent, if you’re looking for an agent. In a way, it’s actually sometimes easier than in publishing to pitch directly to producers because they are looking for material. Some would say, “Only through an agent,” but there’s fewer of them and you do your research. You find out where they are. You always try to send your material to somebody by name rather than a generic, you know Mr. Producer and you have to do a fair bit of leg work to get it to the right people.
Tim Lewis: Okay, so, yeah, in the first instance means anybody until you’re happy and that your picture is right and it’s a good idea to actually write a script and then you will be finding out who has produced something similar in that genre and then be sending it to them?
Charles Harris: Yes, then what you’re doing is you’ve got the script by now and then as you say, you find somebody who’s working that genre and often you’ll find they go to film events. Often if they’re releasing a film of theirs, they’ll be on doing a Q and A and things like that or film festivals. There’s a great one coming up called the London Screenwriters Festival, which is if you get anyone that is close to London, it’s well worth going to. You’ll get a lot of people and we’ll be there.
I’m there with my hat as Euroscript, giving feedback. That’s the other thing. You do need professional feedback, whether it’s a script or pitch or treatment, it’s a collaborative art. It’s another major difference and you do need, you need feedback on your story. You need feedback. You need to hear how other people think of it.
How to pitch a Screenplay
Tim Lewis: Okay, so when somebody’s thinking about pitching, how should they prepare their pitch and what sort of things should they be thinking about?
Charles Harris: What they need is fundamentally the logline, which is your elevator pitch of one to two sentences. What you need, you need to get the essence. Now I go into a lot more detail, there’s quite a lot of detail in my Jaws in Space book, but essentially, you’re looking for what is it the person at the other end is listening for? Part of it, obviously, is it suitable for them? I do this as an a, b, c, d, e, thing.
A is it appropriate. Is it appropriate for them? which is partly research and party listening, actually having a conversation. Pitching is a conversational thing. It’s not about being very clever or particularly sort of brilliant. It’s about having a chat with somebody.
I would never go in when I’m pitching, I would never go and pitch first off because I want to hear a bit about them, partly because it makes them feel human and some of them actually are human and partly because that’s where you find what they really want because it may not be what you’re expecting and you better think on your feet, a lot of thinking on your feet as a filmmaker.
Can I tell you a story? It comes actually from the Jaws in Space book. One of my writers went in and they went into a Hollywood office to pitch. They had this … I can’t remember actually what the genre was? It was something like science fiction animation. They’re sitting down and there are people at the other end of the desk say, “Great to see you and by the way, I hope you haven’t got science fiction animation because that’s exactly what we’ve been fed up with back teeth with.” Now he’s thinking, “God, what do I do?”
Start talking about … They had this really awful move. They had moved house a couple days before and really everything you can imagine went wrong. While they’re busy trying to think, they’re chattering away about this move they had five, 10 minutes go away while they natter about this and the other people are laughing and putting in their own ideas and so forth, and sharing experiences… and finally gets to the point after 10 minutes he goes, I know I’ve got to fess up that I’ve got this science-fiction animation story.
At which point, they stand up, shake his hand and say, “Great, we really want to see this script about the LA move from hell, do send it,” so he had to rush off and write the thing, which is actually another rule, which is make sure when you get out afterwards is that you write down everything that’s been said because I can guarantee that … There’s another person in the book who says that they got out and 24 hours later they couldn’t remember what it was, the brilliant idea they came up with and everybody loved. They couldn’t remember to save their lives.
So you listen. You have a conversation and then B’s is a whole new word.
It’s budgetable, but it fits into the a, b, c, d, e and it basically means the way we do film budgets is not what you’d think. It’s not what you kind of look at how much it’s going to cost to make? It’s how much you’re going to make by selling it and that basically means your multiplex or indie, is it big-budget or micro-budget?
There’s not a lot in the middle and knowing what your story is in that terms because multiplex doesn’t really mean bad. There’s some great movies that have gone to the multiplex. It means broad-brush appeal, mostly 14 to 24-year-olds, with a few older people, big emotion. Something that will appeal to … Usually you need at least a couple of stars to open a movie or some big special effects
Indie doesn’t necessarily mean things that do not work at the multiplex. That has its own requirements, usually director-led rather than star-led, more kind of abrasive or stylish or it’s got a particular point to make. Where are you and what is your audience? Something, again, was not unfamiliar, which to novelists.
Knowing who your reader is. Though there is one fundamental difference when you’re pitching. I’ve read a lot of people who say that novels and fiction writers, nonfiction writers that you are expected to say, “Well, it’s like this and this is the audience and this is the kind of money it’s going to make,” and so forth. You never do that. You let the producer work that out for themselves. You need to know what your market is. You let them do the thinking, it’s implied in what we say.
C is for cinematic. In other words, what to look for. Is it going to work on the screen, which is we want to know that it works in the visual realm and also, has a strong structure because a novel, a short story, a play, you can get away with a slightly rambling structure for a lot of different reasons.
Not least that the reader can put the book down or the actors can adjust if they feel that the audience is a bit slow on a sort of a Monday evening, they can speed up and push it…. If the audience is a bit getting hyper, they can slow things down. Film can’t do that, so you need a strong structure that will hold, whether it’s in the Odeon Leicester Square or the Ritzy, Little Puddlingduck on a wet Wednesday afternoon or come to that with Netflix so cinematic or televisual.
D is for difference, which is interesting. The majority of scripts I’ve seen that have failed despite being well-written, failed because they are just like everybody else’s. There’s nothing different about them. To which you might want to say, but I see films in the cinema all the time and they’re all like each other. I say yes, but they’ve got people who will write those kind of things already. What they’re looking for is someone new, some fresh blood, someone who will bring something fresh and different. They might later on try to make you like everybody else. That’s a problem you deal with when you’ve already got a check in your hand.
E is for employable. In other words, what you bringing to the table? Why are you the best writer to write this? I would recommend people have their own personal logline. Something that says what they do, what they have. I have heard you on your own podcast in the past talking about similar things like developing a blog, developing a platform, which shows that you have a relationship with your material and it works. In your case, I think you’re talking about a little bit about talking to readers, but it works equally with producers and agents. You are the person. You are the expert in your material.
For example, so that your story of railways, we’re talking about railways, has an extra oomph to it, which actually means it’s easy for them to publicise. Talking about railways, an exact example is a Ken Loach who wrote called Navigators, which was written by a guy who had never written a film script in his life before.
But he went to Ken Loach’s company and said, “Look, I have worked on the railways. I know these stories inside out. I know these people,” and they said, “Great, we’ve got people who can write. What we don’t people have is people who know the railways. We’ll put you together with people who will show you how to write a screenplay,” because he had the “E.” He had the employable. He had that special thing that made him the ideal writer for that script, a, b, c, d, e.
Tim Lewis: Okay,
Charles Harris: You have to start boil all that down to two sentences, but then you can do it in three words. Jaws in Space more or less does that. Jaws in Space was the picture Alien, but it does that. If you think about it, if you were quite clear what the genre was, therefore you know where it’s appropriate if the company that was, they were pitching to was that kind of space horror movie.
The budget is obviously going to be big, but on the other hand, it’s a big idea. They could come and take it. Is it cinematic? Yes, it creates pictures in my mind, which is what the picture has to do. It needs to create pictures in the listener’s mind. I’m obviously, not going to get the exact picture, but I can start seeing possibilities.
Is it different? Yes, we’ve had Jaws, but not Jaws in Space. The only bit that was missing from that were they employable? Well yes, they had actually already written a couple of … It was actually two people who pitched this, a couple of screenplays that have done quite well so that became Alien. The story is the guy got out his chequebook and said, “Write me another script.”
Tim Lewis: Okay, so I’m going to slightly move on. The question I was going to ask you now because you more or less answered it. With that and let’s take that and stick with that example of Alien. They presumably didn’t just walk in there and say, “It’s Jaws in Space.” What kind of process …? If you were trying to pitch exactly the same script and say Alien didn’t exist, just take us through what the process would be in terms of meeting these producers?
Charles Harris: Well, i don’t know how they made contact, but obviously, that’s part of your research. You find out where they are. You narrow them down. You might grab them at a cocktail party. You don’t obviously say straight off. You might say, “Look, can I come and meet you in the office or some time or other or have you got something? I think you’d be really interested in,” and you go around. Film festivals are great for that because there there are people who are ready to be pitched to and they even get speed-pitching events. It’s how they do it at the London Book Fair.
It could be any one of those little things. When you walk in … Like I say, the first thing you do is not pitch. When I went first with my fellow producers on the Paradise Grove movie I made and we went to Cannes, we walked into people and we said, “So how has the festival been?” and you could see them kind of look at you and think, “This person thinks I’m a human being.” People are used to being pitched to nonstop, suddenly loosen up a bit and they have a chat. You chat for a bit. You say, “Well, how’s things doing? What kind of things are you working on in the moment?” That’s where you discover that the RomCom company that you’re going to pitch a RomCom to actually has decided to do a horror films instead, quickly rethink.
At a certain point, they will turn around to you and they will say, “Okay, what have you got?” At which point you say … and my pictures always start with “It’s a …” because then I know my first three words. It’s a … You occasionally get the little, beautiful Jaws in Space type pitches where everything fits into a couple of words, but I wouldn’t try for that. I’d do a conversational sentence. I will just say, “It’s a particular kind of story about this particular kind of person, “ and I will give a hint of the character journey. What they’re trying to do,heir inner and outer goals in the story because that’s what you really want to get across.
For example, it’s a science fiction adventure story about a woman who finds it very difficult to stand up for herself, who finds she’s being chased by a homicidal robot, who is trying to kill all the people with her name, which is, obviously, Terminator and that’s basically, most of my logline. I would then usually try and tie it up with a little bit at the end, which gives it a sense of where she’s … of her journey, ideally in a kind of an ironic way by saying something like, “And by the end, she’s become a better killing machine than he was.” It ties it up in a little bow and gives a sense of the journey she’s been on because that’s what we’re interested in.
It applies a lot. It applies to documentaries and nonfiction as well to a large extent. And you stop because it’s a conversation and if you don’t stop, you don’t get a chance to get their side of the conversation in and so they say, “Tell me more or tell me about it or that’s interesting.” You get into a conversation. What you don’t do is the dreaded “and then and then and then.”
That’s a killer. That’s the treatment. Even the treatment shouldn’t be an “and then and then,” because you want to have more character and flavour than that. You talk and you might give a little bit of a trail. You said, “Well, this is the moment when this happens, an exciting, wonderful scene where this happens and then we discover more about her when she does this.” You kind of paint out the scenes, the characters.
How do we find out about Charles Harris?
Tim Lewis: Okay, coming to an end. I think we’ve more or less cover think about screenplays and pitching them. How can people find out about Charles Harris and the films that you do?
Charles Harris: Well, the best place to find me is on my website, which is www.charles-harris.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter @Chasharris. Now I’ve got two. I’ve got a Facebook profile, which has got a really long number and a Facebook page, which is CharlesHarris008.
Also, they’re also linked to the website Charles-Harris.co.uk, which has got everything about my screenwriting, books and the novel, which my little baby, which I’m very proud of and me and loads of articles about all sorts of aspects, my screenwriting and I do quite a few book reviews in them, which is quite fun.
Tim Lewis: Okay, well it was great to have you on the show today, Charles.
Charles Harris: Thank you very much, thank you for having me.