Sue and I were fortunate enough to be able to cover the Toronto Screenwriting Conference last year (and learned tons to apply to our own creative writing) and were delighted to be invited back again this year to sit in on it again.
With the amazing guest line-up and the fact that everything we learned would directly impact our writing, Sue and I leaped at the chance, and it was incredibly worth it!!
Saturday, despite starting with some swirling snow coming down, I was eager to get my day underway so I hopped the transit, and hot-footed it to the Ted Ryerson School of Management.
Sue and I met up with Juli Strader, and caught up with her for a bit, sharing our excitement for the weekend, and what we were most looking forward to.
Things got underway just past 9:30, and within moments, my mind was blown, and in the space of 90 minutes, I took more notes, and learned more about telling stories, than I had ever done before. All thanks to Academy Award winner, for Little Miss Sunshine, Michael Arndt, who also wrote the screenplays for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Oblivion. With cap positioned just off kilter on his head, he looked like a writer, not entirely comfortable being in front of a large crowd, but once he started talking his passion brought him and the room to life, as he presented Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, and Lessons Learned. He had been brought in to write the 3rd installment of the Pixar franchise, and upon its completion, made this presentation to be used in-house at the Disney titan.
It was simply amazing, keyboards, pencils, pens, were all making noise as each part of the presentation was duly noted, and people began thinking how these amazing revelations would and could affect their own stories.
I was simply gob-smacked, and just kept writing.
In the 2nd session of the day, Executives on Writing, gears were switched as reps from Shaw, Bell and Rogers – Tara Ellis, Trish Williams and Nataline Rodrigues, sat and answered questions about what they look for in a pitch, how they review them, how notes are given, and how to make your pitch stand-out from the rest.
While all of this was going on, my mind was starting to coalesce again from Arndt’s presentation, and I had a eureka moment as a story that I have been trying to break since the early 90s, finally gave me a way in thanks to the things I’d just learned. I sat there, an ear half-tuned to the discussion, flipping electronic pages from taking notes on the panel to making story notes, reversals, reveals, and how the moments I’d seen in my head fit together into a mosaic of a project I’ve always wanted to do.
Still awestruck at the end of the executive’s panel, and brain quickly reaching information overload, it was time for lunch, and a moment or two to allow your brain to reset.
But it didn’t last long!
After that, it was into Comedy Is A Funny Business, with series creators and show runners, Jeff Biederman (Spun Out), Katie Ford (Working the Engels) and Joseph Raso (Seed). There were a lot of laughs, and lots of experience – Katie worked on Family Ties, wrote Miss Congeniality, and both Jeff and Joseph have worked on a number of recognizable titles and series, they know they’re stuff! They talked about working in the writers room, working to make sure the funny stays in, their vision for the series, the importance of a log line, and the all important pitch.
We got a moment to catch up with Joseph after the panel, and introduced ourselves to him, which seemed fitting considering we’ve interviewed like 90% of his main cast – just got to get those youngsters into town!
Following this, was the last session for the day, and the other speaker I was really excited about hearing from. I settled into my seat to listen to In Conversation with David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples. These two screenwriters write screenplays as a creative expression, like some people write poetry, and David was involved in the script and rewrite of one of my fave sci-fi films, Blade Runner, and wrote one of my favorite westerns, Unforgiven.
They regaled us with stories from behind the scenes on those films, including the fact that Rutger Hauer added the ‘tears in rain’ line to the end of the “I’ve seen things…” speech his character Roy Batty gives in Blade Runner.
I was stunned to learn that he had originally written Unforgiven in the early 70s, and that Clint Eastwood had purchased it mid-80s but had no intention of directing or starring in it until he was older. But when he did shoot and release the film in 1992, he hadn’t changed the script at all!!
He also spoke briefly about his involvement with Ladyhawke, a film he doesn’t think he should get credit for, and Soldier, which was a script he loved, but when he heard how production was messing with, never had any intention of seeing it.
It was a fascinating and honest look into a world of a professional screenwriter who has been involved with some of the most legendary films of the late 20th century!
Heading home at the end of the day, my brain was still trying to process and put together everything, but after dinner, my brain completely shut down and took me down into the realm of sleep.
The next morning, decidedly much more pleasant, weather-wise, than the previous, I headed in for the second day, stopping at Tim Horton’s for something to eat (those Panini breakfast sandwiches are really good!), Sue and I chatted for a moment with Lost Girl showrunner, Emily Andras before going into the session she was serving on the panel for – The Way of the Future: Writing Science Fiction for Television.
Joining Emily on the panel was Cameron Porsandeh (Helix), Sam Egan (The Listener) and Alan McCullough (Stargate: SG1 and Sanctuary). For someone who loves a good sci-fi show, this panel was a must, and the trio, and their moderator, Denis McGrath (Continuum) talked about pitching the series (focus on your characters, not the hook) and how grounding the series in its own reality with firmly established rules (that can be bent, occasionally circumvented, but never broken) is key to establishing its voice, its vision, and if you’re lucky, the longevity of your series. They shared stories about how each of their series are run, taking notes from the studio and network, fan interaction, story detail, and the idea of building an image of what the show is like week to week before introducing heavily serialized plots.
This is another session where I took a lot of notes, and Sue and I simply looked at each other gobsmacked as our brains hit overload again.
Following this, we had the Breakdown of the One-Hour Drama with a man who is going to know how to do it, Leonard Dick.
Fielding questions, and carrying on a fascinating dialogue with the moderator, Glenn Cockburn, he talked about the differences in writers’ rooms from show to show, how that works for the show, as well as talking about plotting character and season arcs, which again, changes according to the requirements of the show.
It was a fascinating look at the way shows come together behind the scenes, how plots can be shifted about to better serve the abilities of the season story, or availability of recurring and guest cast.
From there, lunch was called, and it allowed us to regroup before plunging into the two final sessions of the conference, one of which, the final one, I was really looking forward.
Anatomy of a Pilot put Eric Gilliland front and center. Gilliland has served as a writer and producer on Roseanne and That 70s Show. He’s reviewing a pilot script he wrote, that reteams Roseanne Barr with John Goodman, called Downwardly Mobile. It was pitched, ordered by NBC and eventually shelved. He broke down the approach to the show, how the pilot had to be set up, how it would work, how it was pitched and the concept for the proposed series.
But at this point I was chomping at the bit for the final installment, another presentation by Michael Arndt, the perfect way to close the conference… Endings: The Good, The Bad, and The Insanely Great. Michael broke down the internal, external and philosophical conflicts of three films. His own film, Little Miss Sunshine, The Graduate, and (YES!!) Star Wars. He showed how all the events of the final came to a 2 minute climax, and in that two-minute climax all three of those things need to be resolved to give you a completely euphoric and spectacularly good ending. And he went in to detail! I walked out with pages upon pages of notes, and once again, it helped me crack another part of the story I hadn’t been able to get into.
I was stunned by the breakdown of Star Wars, in fact that classic film resolves its external, internal and philosophical conflicts in 22 seconds! It’s bang! Bang! BANG! And what a insanely great ending!!!
The applause that followed his presentation showed that I wasn’t the only one affected, or educated by what he had taught us this weekend, but I made my way to the front of the room, because I simply had to thank him for helping me to finally break this story in my head open.
“I just wanted to say thank you! You’ve helped me crack a story that I’ve been trying to figure out a way into for twenty years.”
“Wow,” he said. “Really?”
I nodded, “Yeah, thank you so much.”
“To hear that,” he continued, “makes me happy that I came!”
“Thanks again!” giving his hand a final shake, I wandered out, ambling towards home, with my mind completely overflowing with information, shattered by all the things I had learned this weekend, and marveling at the behind the scenes trials and tribulations that happen every day before a show even gets thought about being made.
It was stunning.
Now to plot out this story!!!