Wednesday 9 February 2011

Advice From Screenwriter JOHN COLLEE - Guest Author MANDA DIAZ

Written By Manda Diaz. 

I started reading Kid’s blog about this time last year. It was the first blog I read regularly. (I don’t think he knows this. I wonder if it will frighten him?) Back then, I was just a uni student that loved writing and reading about movies. Two internships and a lot of volunteer hours later, I’m a film journalist.

I try to play it down when my friends make comments about it being the best job in the world, but the truth is, it’s awesome. Most days I stumble around feeling like the film geek equivalent of Cinderella. Shouldn’t I still be paying my dues behind the register at a supermarket or by folding clothes at a chainstore?

One of the best things about being a journalist is the chance to talk to some absurdly creative and talented people. From a 20 minute phone conversation with a composer, a producer, a screenwriter or a director, the feature I’m writing will only ever feature a few choice quotes and anecdotes. That means I have audio files on my computer and stacks of notebooks on my desk filled with gems that nobody but me will ever have access to. It feels selfish.

My favourite interview to date was with the charming Scottish screenwriter and former doctor, John Collee (Master and Commander, Happy Feet, Creation and the upcoming Walking with Dinosaurs.)

We spoke twice- because, mortifyingly enough, I couldn’t understand the recorded audio of our first, publicist-organised conversation. Luckily, John was kind enough to let me call his mobile that weekend. We spoke for more than half an hour and he had some wonderful things to say that didn’t make the final article. So you could say this is the journalist’s equivalent of a director’s cut. I hope you enjoy it.

John Collee On Structure
  • Don’t just start at the beginning and try to muddle through to the end. Actually structure the story. Start with a short synopsis and build up to a longer synopsis and then a longer and longer synopsis. Break it down into sequences and work out how you’re going to get to those sequences and really work on the skeleton of the film before you commit to dialogue and detail and description.

John Collee On story
  • Know the world of the story. So that’s all about research. If you’re adapting a book, it’s not just about reading the book, but it’s about getting to know the world and immersing yourself in the emotions of the people who you’re writing about. You have to put yourself in the head space of the people you’re writing about- you’re presenting it as a subjective experience.
  • Expose your writing to as many people as possible so talk about the story rather than working away on your own. Talk about the story as much as possible and get responses.
John Collee On Life, Writing & Creativity
  • I was once asked what's the best advice to give to a young writer and I said “Go out and get a life.” Go out and generate some life experience, it'll almost be better as a writer, rather than studying creative writing for three years, just go out and do wild stuff. A lot of the writers and novelists who I admire, like John Steinbeck and Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, first and foremost lived a life of adventure. I think that's the thing to do. The truth is, style in writing is relatively unimportant. Experience of life is all important.
  • Having unique life experience is an extraordinary gift. Your wealth is your life experience- good and bad. Your real wealth is not money, it's the stuff you do. And the more extraordinary, the more engaged with the world- the better.
  • I definitely believe that we're defined by what we do for other people and we have an obligation to do something worthwhile. And if you do happen to be a filmmaker, you have an obligation to make good and meaningful films and not just garbage.
  • The best creative work generally comes out of being engaged with family, people and society. And if you're properly engaged, then great creative stuff comes out of that. Some of the best journalism I ever wrote was descriptions of the patients who I'd treated when I was working in the third world.
  • Write about something that’s important. By all means, find the stories that inspire you but then try and analyse why they’re important, what they’re about. What do you want your audience to feel differently upon leaving the movie theatre?
Writing and storytelling can be lonely. You spend so much time living in your own head, that you forget there are other people out there that can help you and guide you when you're stuck (which is just what Kid did when I emailed him, struggling to put together this post.) Magazine writing often feels very one sided. That's why communities like this blog are important- they encourage sharing and feedback, and most importantly, they remind you that you're not alone. Thanks to Kid for giving me this opportunity to spill these tips. Better they're out in the blogosphere than hidden in a notebook in my desk drawer.

You can read Manda's fantastic blog Memoirs Of A Word Nerd HERE.

Care to share?


  1. Manda - great piece, very well done. And John sure does have some great insight and advice. Thanks so much! ;)

  2. You are most welcome, Jayne :-)