Interview with Josh Golding on Maverick Screenwriting

Raindance: Why a course on Maverick Screenwriting? Josh-Golding

Josh Golding: Because we need it.  I’ve been teaching screenwriting for years; I’ve produced and script edited many hours of drama, but I never heard anyone talk about how to do this stuff.   There are a hundred courses out there teaching screenwriting 101, some of them doing it very well.  But who is really teaching writers to do the challenging stuff, to liberate their imaginations and expand the possibilities of the medium?

On the contrary, the trend in the industry here, along with everywhere else, is towards the predictable and derivative.  The vast majority of British films are adaptations from other mediums, based on real-life events, or remakes of tv shows.  What sort of message is this sending out to writers?  That we don’t trust them to come up with original stories?  There’s nothing wrong with adaptations as part of the broad mix.  Nor am I saying that you can’t be inventive in adaptation – ‘The English Patient’, the ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ were all inventive approaches to their material.  But new filmmakers don’t get those projects – they have to break through with their own stories.

Raindance: But isn’t everyone looking for something original?

Josh Golding: Every development executive in the country says they’re looking for original stories, but how many of them are willing to back something which is viewed as being risky?  We need to start a movement that seizes back the creative initiative from the American indie scene, from emerging Asian and Latin American film cultures.

The Film Council’s recent appointment of a ‘talent tracker’ seems to reflect a  view that ‘talent’ is to be sought elsewhere: in comedy, graphic novels, theatre, video games: anywhere, rather than the talent of screenwriters.

Raindance: Are you saying there has to be a dramatic shift in the kind of stories we tell?

Josh Golding: Not at all.  Naturalism will always be something the British do well.  But comedy’s usually been the best arena for creative innovation: from the Ealing comedies, Monty Python, Withnail & I, to Borat and Hot Fuzz.  These films were all inventive in terms of playing with structure and reality.

The British film industry will always do adaptations and costume drama well.  But it’s not just that I’d like to see more original writing, I’d like to widen the envelope constraining the stories we tell.  I’d like to push back the frontiers a little further, and encourage people to go and out and explore them more.   Because that’s the best hope we have of impacting global filmmaking.  The signs are that the Hollywood studios are already retrenching from so-called ‘indie’ filmmaking.  The recent Warner Brothers’ closure of their ‘niche’ arms is a symptom of the fact that the market is tipping again towards big-budget ‘event’ pictures.  With the notable exception of Working Title, who have achieved consistent success in the big league, this industry cannot routinely compete on that level.  So we’ve got to provide something different.

Raindance: Shouldn’t you be teaching students how to write big, commercial pictures then?

Josh Golding: No.  I love those movies, when they’re made well.  But if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you have to be very, very lucky to get one of those made straight out of the trap.  There are some giant stepping stones you have to climb first.  You have to prove that you have a unique voice, and a unique way of looking at the world.  Adopting the principles of ‘Maverick Screenwriting’ can help you stand out from the pack, and help your voice to be heard.

It’s true, marketing’s becoming more and more important.  It’s a crowded marketplace out there, so it’s much easier to sell things that have a pre-existing profile as books or tv shows or whatever.  But this relying on underlying material is just a symptom that we’re losing confidence in our own storytelling ability.  I can’t think of one British screenwriter who’s even attempting the sort of formal daring that Dennis Potter used in his television dramas two decades ago, at a time when British tv drama was unquestionably the best in the world.  You can’t say that anymore.  And before anyone counters that he was working in a more protected, and less competitive environment, let me tell you that isn’t true.  Dennis Potter had to make up a completely bogus story about Yanks in Blighty in World War Two in order to get the commission for ‘The Singing Detective’ from the BBC.  He then wrote something entirely different – what he wanted to write.  A risky strategy to be sure!

Sometimes I look back to the eighties, when Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway were making films – now, I have no desire to return to the days of ‘arthouse’ cinema, and at the time I was very frustrated with the British industry’s lack of commercial ambition.  But now, looking back on that decade, it seems like an extraordinary period of risk-taking and innovation.  All that’s been stifled in the futile attempt to compete with Hollywood.

It’s been said a million times before, but we have to tell our own stories, in new and original ways.  We have to encourage maverick screenwriting.  Because original ideas, cleverly executed, are what attract attention and get people talking.  If you have that word of mouth, you don’t need stars and big budgets.  Most of the films we’re going to talk about in the seminar got made on low budgets.  That’s no coincidence.  It’s because the idea, not the event, is what sold them.  The originality of the idea is key.

Besides, you don’t abandon these principles when you get into mainstream, commercial filmmaking.  Of course, the storytelling gets simpler and more direct as maverick filmmakers go on to bigger budget studio movies; but the ‘indie’ sensibility of the nineties revived an industry that had become increasingly formulaic by the end of the previous decade.  If there’s a retreat towards caution now, it’s because every new breakthrough film spawns a dozen derivative rip-offs.  ‘Lock, Stock’ blew the dust off a dormant genre, and felt like a breath of fresh air, but most of the subsequent Brit gangster movies did not.  Even Tarantino seems to have retreated into raking through his old video collection, rather than forging it into something new.

Understanding Maverick Screenwriting can help you understand how to write mainstream movies that stand out from the pack.  Let’s face it: there’s nothing harder than writing an action movie that feels different.  They’re raking through the old comic books, but the superheroes are getting less and less interesting.  The ‘Terminator’ movies weren’t just a success because they were great action movies: but because they were based on a clever idea and a universal aspiration.   The aspiration that, in some way, our actions may be of benefit to the future – particularly when we’re all being told that the future is something we’ve already wrecked.   ‘The Matrix’ didn’t just have cool special effects – it echoed the feeling that many of us share in an increasingly virtual, commercialised world: that somewhere else, our real selves are engaged in a more meaningful struggle for the really important things in life.  These stories connect, because they recognise that most of the time many of us feel disengaged; and for a while, they make us feel part of something important.

Raindance:Does this mean a return to downbeat, directionless stories and oddball characters?

Josh Golding: Let me start by saying what Maverick Screenwriting is not.  It’s not an excuse for creating characters that no one can relate to, or whose motives can only be guessed at.  Nor is it an excuse for writing stories that don’t make sense, can’t commit themselves or fail to deliver powerful emotions.  It is not a manifesto for producing shock or bizarre effects, nor for creating characters who are eccentric just for the sake of it.  Maverick stories can be set anywhere.  ‘The Truman Show’ is a maverick film; and ‘The Sixth Sense’ is a supernatural thriller with a great maverick twist.

Maverick Screenwriting is about getting back to the original magic of the movies and, as Orson Welles put it, “showing us something we’ve never seen before.”  It’s about finding the form that fits the theme.   It’s about asking the big questions in life, the ones beyond ‘what happens next’, and ‘how is it all going to turn out?’  The ones that mainstream movies already have covered.

I have a sense that too many new writers are being influenced by industry forums and screenwriting teachers who tell them that they have to write for the market.  Sure, we have to be aware of what’s going on in the market.  But not so that we can slavishly follow it, or do what somebody else has already done.  You have to be aware of the market so you know where the gaps are: what nobody else has tried, maybe not for a long time.  Then you have to renew it and revive it.  Make it relevant.  That’s the key, I really believe that.

That’s not the same as updating something just by substituting modern language and attitudes.  Where many costume dramas go wrong, I believe, is in making all the characters talk and act like people do today.  If you could truly show how different society was only a couple of centuries ago, people would be amazed.  I confidently predict that someone will revive the genre by doing that very soon.  Didn’t everyone tell Mel Gibson no one would ever go see a movie in ancient Aramaic?

Maverick Screenwriting is about freeing your imagination.  It’s about taking a journey to somewhere different.  And it’s about having the techniques that will allow you to take your audience along for the ride.

Raindance:If you’re a true maverick, you shouldn’t take this course; since nobody can teach you anything anyway, right?

Josh Golding:  We still have this culture, particularly in Britain, that people are born with talent, or touched by genius.  It’s the cult of amateurism, nurtured at the altar of privilege.  And it’s nonsense.  Screenwriting is a craft.  The dramatic principles can be learned.  And if you can learn how to apply them, you can also learn how to break them.

The problem is, people are being encouraged to write formulaic screenplays.  That leaves those who can’t relate to the simplistic messages they embody feeling left out, irrelevant, like whatever they think and feel about the world couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone else.  So they retreat into ‘maverick’ as a kind of style.  Sometimes people don’t want to do the hard work of writing and rewriting a script till it all fills together perfectly; so they call the unfinished mess ‘maverick’, when it’s simply confused, ambiguous or obscure.

It’s a shame, because now that new technology enables films to be made cheaper than ever before, people are rushing into production stories that are thrown together just so they can say they’ve made a film.  But there’s only so many times you can shake down your friends, family and strangers for funds.  Sooner or later you’ve got to make a story that audiences can relate to, that makes sense of their own experience of life.  That’s fundamental.  Of course soap operas already do that, very well.  But films should remind us of the things in life that are important.  Our primal instincts for good: survival, love, friendship, community.  And those that are the sources of conflict: hatred, jealousy and fear.  But there are many other questions we ask of life.  Why do we suffer?  Is there any sense in it all?  Why are we lucky sometimes, and sometimes not at all?  Do things happen for a reason?  Are we really in control of our fate?  These are areas that Maverick Screenplays tend to go into, because conventional three-act structure works best for stories that are about the consequences of our actions, not necessarily the reasons.

If you follow the logic of your own questions, it will inevitably lead you toward a way of telling stories that is unique to you, that’s never been done before. Note that I didn’t say ‘unique stories’ – all of our stories are rooted deep in the myths of our culture, so there are really no new stories.  But it is the responsibility of each new generation to retell these myths in a way that is unique to them.  If you want those images to linger in your audience’s mind long after they’ve seen the film, then you’ve got to show them something they’ve never seen before.  And Maverick Screenwriting encourages that.

Raindance: Does that mean that all films need an element of fantasy?

Josh Golding: Not at all, some of the greatest films have been works of deep realism.  You don’t have to create an imagined world to introduce us to something new.  I like nothing better than to be immersed in a detailed, fully conceived world that I’ve never experienced before.  It could be the Amazon rainforest, or it could be a subculture of the city I live in that I’ve never seen from an insider’s point of view.  You know what happens when you see a movie like that?  You go out into the world with your eyes open, hungry for new experience, eager to live a little more.  That’s what I’m encouraging with this course.