How not to pitch a film script

“Go on, pitch us a film!” That was the bold – and unusual – challenge from David Parfitt of Trademark Films to people from writers’ collective 26.

Wordstock festival run by 26

Writers pitched their film ideas at the Wordstock festival in London

Film production companies don’t normally hold X Factor style auditions for film ideas, and it’s rare for them to consider suggestions from people without heavyweight screenwriting credits. So the writers who made the shortlist knew just how lucky they were to get this opportunity.

Yesterday, seven brave souls stood up at a crowded Wordstock festival in Farringdon and gave it their best shot. Each had just five minutes to impress the producer who won an Oscar for ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

The stories were intriguing. We had opera, anarchist spies, a man abandoning London for the North, a contortionist thief, an eighteenth century love story, a travelling corpse and a cure for cancer.

From David’s feedback, we learned a lot about what production companies don’t want to see in a pitch.

Don’t do this

  • Don’t pitch your idea without knowing the central drive behind the narrative. Identify the key strand that will lead the viewer through the story.
  • Don’t keep the reader guessing about the genre. If it’s ‘darkly humorous’, is it more funny than dark?
  • If your film’s based on a book, don’t just describe the plot. Show how you’d approach it as a film.
  • Don’t forget the audience. Who is this film aimed at?
  • Don’t have a host of central characters. Narrow it down.
  • Don’t be unrealistic about how much you can squeeze into 90 minutes. Should this be a series instead of a feature?
  • Don’t give your film a name that’s already been used.
  • Don’t ignore it if a film with a similar theme has recently bombed. Explain why your film will succeed where others have failed.
  • Don’t think in decades, think in weeks. A ‘ticking clock’ is good in film. Rather than covering a lifetime, identify a key moment and use that as the pivotal focus for your story.

Despite these caveats, David liked several of the ideas suggested by 26 members. So if you see a film called ‘The Travelling Corpse’ on at your local Odeon in a few years, blame Wordstock.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards

The other day I was sent this picture of reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh. The child who drew it has cancer and is being helped by the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

It’s all to do with a new writing project that brings together copywriters like myself from writers’ group 26 and children supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust and the It’s Good 2 Give charity.

The writers were asked to write a sestude – 62 words – inspired by children’s pictures. The sestudes and pictures will go live in an online advent calendar starting on 1 December.

In the meantime, you can support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust by buying Christmas cards of the sleigh design, as well as cards featuring a Christmas tree and Santa in a jaunty submarine.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card

Buy Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards featuring Santa’s submarine

The Teenage Cancer Trust does some amazing work, helping children and young adults to receive care from teenage cancer experts, in surroundings tailored to their needs.

Read more about the charity’s specialist work and read young people’s stories.

If you’d like to know more about Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give and their work with young people with cancer, check out their website.

And watch this space to discover more about my 62 words on the flying reindeer of Finland…

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

How sound can tell a story

What can creatives learn from the way that Jacques Tati uses sound in his 1958 film, Mon Oncle? As someone who works with words, sometimes it’s great to come across storytelling that does away with them altogether. This article, written for a 26 / D&AD project, The Story Works, reveals how sound tells a story in Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati.

Jacques Tati investigates bouncing crockery in Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati investigates bouncing crockery in Mon Oncle

I love Mon Oncle. I love the way that Monsieur Hulot ambles through this 1958 film, with his pipe, his too-short trousers and his billowing mac, trailing chaos in his wake. I love the way he’s at home in the shambolic old district, but a flounder out of water in the modern world.

But most of all, I love the way that Jacques Tati (who directed and starred in the film) tells the story through sound rather than words.

So here are some of my favourite sounds from Mon Oncle, together with some thoughts on how they tell the story.

The kitchen that bites back

M Hulot is visiting his sister and brother-in-law, M and Mme Arpel, in their immaculate modern house in the suburbs. In contrast to the animated market in the old district, Mme Arpel’s buzzing, bleeping kitchen has all the charm of an operating theatre. The cupboards are booby-trapped and every appliance produces sound and fury but little that you’d want to eat. The machines have got the upper hand, but they can’t boil a decent egg.

The manic lawnmower

As Mme Arpel tells her husband that M Hulot needs some order in his life, we hear a rhythmic ticking, like someone cutting daisies with tiny scissors. The couple look out from upstairs and see their imperious blonde neighbour manically pedalling a lawnmower in ever-decreasing circles around her miniature lawn.  The insistent, repetitive clack of the lawnmower tells us that there’s madness in her method.

The fish fountain

Mme Arpel activates her metal fish fountain to greet important guests. We hear the ‘buzz-gurgle-buzz’ motif as people ring on the intercom, the water jet starts and the garden gate opens. She turns the fish off when a carpet salesman appears at the gate. She then frantically turns the fountain on again when she realises that the carpet salesman is actually her neighbour waving a poncho. During a tea party, M Hulot breaks the fountain and the genteel afternoon disintegrates into chaos as the fountain springs a leak and spurts gravel over the guests. Mme Arpel’s attempts to control  her environment are outwitted by M Hulot and a big metal fish.

Sausage pipes

M Hulot is given a job at the plastics factory and asked to keep an eye on a colleague’s machine. Soothed to sleep by the rhythmic roar and slow hiss of the production line, he wakes up to find tubes snaking across the floor. The machine judders, hiccups and starts to disgorge pipes that bulge with air pockets.  It then shifts into a pop-pop-pop rhythm that produces a stream of sausage-like links. Rhythm and efficiency reliably dissolve into disorder whenever M Hulot appears.

Tip tap tip tap

Throughout the film, the ordered ‘tip tap tip tap’ of efficient feet contrasts with M Hulot’s meandering, often circular, lope. A secretary’s heels resound sharply along the corridors of the plastics factory as M Hulot marks out a conga of white footprints across the floor. The Arpels tip tap precisely along the paving stones in the garden while M Hulot teeters on edging stones then sploshes through a lily pad into the pond. Life in the modern world is all time and motion, but M Hulot meanders along to a different beat.

Devilish gadgets

Towards the end of the film, gadgets take over at the Arpel household. M Hulot’s nephew Gérard can’t be heard over the self-propelling vacuum cleaner, whirring kitchen gadgets drown out M Arpel and a shaver as loud as an aircraft silences Mme Arpel.  The family are alienated from each other by deafening labour-saving devices which eliminate all chance of human communication.

Lessons from Mon Oncle

  • Milk sound for laughter. As David Lynch said: “For Jacques Tati, every sound effect is an opportunity for humour.”
  • Dialogue’s over-rated. M Hulot mumbles and mimes his way through this film, telling brilliant jokes without saying a word.
  • Don’t talk, bark. “Dogs are marvellous comedians,” said Tati.  Like children and M Hulot, they represent freedom and chaos, and their barking underpins some of the best bits of the film (eg the genius ‘moonlit eyeballs’ scene).
  • Sounds reflect personality. The boss is an uptight ticking clock, Mme Arpel is an overpowering robotic vacuum cleaner and M Hulot is a canary that whistles in the sunshine.
  • She who laughs loudest won’t be invited back. If Mme Arpel ever invites you to tea, don’t laugh too loudly or take plastic flowers.

What else can I say? Watch Mon Oncle. Add your own laughter track. And listen to Tati as he tells a story without words.

Once upon a time there were 62 words

We weren’t quite sure what would happen when we unleashed the power of children’s imaginations on the 21st century objects in the Modern British Childhood exhibition. But we were amazed at the results.

A ten year old girl gives the MMR vaccine a voice – “When I was born, everybody feared me”, a Lily Allen dress insists it’s “no gangsta” and a nine year old boy imagines his trainers squabbling in a cupboard, each pair fighting to be chosen first.


A 10 year old girl from Hackney writes about the MMR vaccine

While adult writers from 26 responded to 20th century objects in the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, children from Rushmore Primary School in Hackney wrote about the 21st century objects on display.

Like the adults, the young writers had to respond in just 62 words – a sestude. The children wrote their sestudes during a series of workshops run by The Ministry of Stories, the creative writing and mentoring centre in East London.

Here, we ask the people involved what happened behind the scenes.

Getting to know the objects

Helen Roberts, Creative Learning Workshop Leader at the Ministry of Stories, is an Education Practitioner who specialises in community, museum and gallery projects. She devised and led four workshops for the children which took place over four weeks during the spring in 2012.

“Experiencing the Museum of Childhood’s collection first-hand was a huge inspiration for this project,” says Helen. “The children were clearly excited to have been invited to contribute to the Modern British Childhood exhibition, and took great pride in their writing. They questioned and critiqued the objects according to their own experiences, whilst responding to and reinventing them in imaginative and unexpected ways.”

Exploring poetry, rhythm and six word stories

Sarah Farley, a member of 26 who volunteers with the Ministry of Stories, describes the different stages of the workshops, where she acted as a writing mentor.

“During the first workshop at the museum we worked on describing objects in different ways, including writing about how a particular object made them feel. Rhian Harris, the director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, then introduced the actual objects and asked the kids if they’d like to write about them for the exhibition. The answer was a resounding Yes!”

The second and third workshops took place at the children’s school, and investigated different writing styles. “We used limericks to show poetry and rhythm,” says Sarah, “we used dialogue to start a conversation between the kids and their objects, we explored writing about time – last year, last month, etc – and we even used six-word stories to give them practice at writing to an exact number of words.”

The final workshop was dedicated to writing the children’s final pieces. “We told them they were completely free to write whatever they wanted about their object and in whatever style they liked,” Sarah explains. “One boy chose to write his piece about West Ham as a news article.”

An 11 year old boy was inspired by a West Ham shirt

Teletubby horror and Lily Allen bling

Children’s reactions to the museum objects were not always predictable. “There were a lot of laughs about the nappy, a lot of ‘bling’ references to the headphones and Lily Allen dress, and some of the girls were put off by the bra,” says Sarah. “But there were some darker elements too: many of them thought the Teletubbies were disturbing and they used them as the basis for horror stories. It’s interesting that the children saw them in that way, and goes to show that as adults we quickly lose touch with what really appeals to you as a child.”

“As kids, we’re driven more by our imaginations than by logic. But as we get older, we start to box ourselves in and give ourselves over to the logical part of our brains and become afraid of letting our minds run wild in all directions. Working with kids reminds me of the great fun you can have if you simply let go of the fear and give in to your imagination.”

“It kept on going nonsense!”

It wasn’t always easy for the children to get their ideas down on paper. One child said that the hardest part was writing the poem. “It kept on going nonsense!” For another, “The six word story was difficult because you couldn’t put descriptive words into it.”

But the overwhelming feedback was that this was a really enjoyable project. Asked what they liked best, the young writers said:

  • “Going to the museum because it was so fun going round and looking at all the exhibitions. It was a different style of writing and exploring.”
  • “Writing the 62 words because it’s tricky and gets you more interested… it’s more complex.”
  • “I enjoyed the chance to come up with my own ideas.”
  • “It has really kept my imagination going. It’s made me realise that there’s lots of different ways to write about feelings. It’s interesting how much power objects can give to your writing.”
  • “I have always loved writing and I love writing stories. This has really inspired me.”

The kids got pretty good reviews themselves. “I love the pieces that our young writers have produced. They’re fresh, personal, fantastic,” says Lucy Macnab, Co-Director of the Ministry.  Rhian Harris, the Museum’s Director and curator of the exhibition, is equally enthusiastic: “I think the children’s pieces are wonderful, really strong, inspiring stuff. They are going to provide a really important element to the exhibition – the child’s own response.”

Primary school, professional standards

Sarah was impressed by the way the children rose to the challenge of writing to a deadline and meeting the very precise word count – 62 words, no more, no less.

“The children tackled every exercise we gave them with enthusiasm and a lot of humour,” she says. “They had less than two hours to write, edit and deliver the final pieces. They all had clear ideas of what they wanted to say and were meticulous in getting the right number of words. In the end they met the deadline and hit a perfect word count. I reckon a lot of professional writers would have been stretched by that task.”

See the children’s writing at the Modern British Childhood exhibition at the Museum of Childhood until 14 April 2013.

This post originally appeared on the 26 Treasures of Childhood blog.

10 public speaking tips from actor Sharon Duce

How to own the room

When we give a presentation, we turn into animals, according to actor and public speaking coach Sharon Duce. Our bodies break into fight or flight mode, anticipating an attack. Our hearts race, our mouths go dry and our jaws tense up. We scan the room for predators. Will they come from the left or the right, through the door or the window, or burst through the leaf canopy above our heads?

“We can’t help feeling nervous when we’re in front of a crowd,” says Sharon. “As an actor, my advantage is that I know how my body’s going to react, so I can consciously help myself to relax.”

Actor and coach Sharon Duce

Here are some of the physical and psychological tips that Sharon passed on to an audience of writers this weekend at Wordstock, a day of writing inspiration organised by writers’ collective 26.

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Practise what you’re going to say out loud, even if the audience is only the bathroom mirror or kitchen table. The more you practise, the more secure you’ll feel during the presentation.
  2. Stake out your territory. Animals assess the lay of the land and mark their territory. For a speaker, this means checking out the room where you’re going to be talking and ‘occupying’ the space by placing your bag and papers around the area where you’ll be standing.
  3. Trust yourself. If you want an audience to trust what you’re saying, you have to trust yourself first. Boost your confidence by doing those practice sessions in the kitchen, and reminding yourself that this is not a life or death situation, however intense it feels right now.
  4. Breathe. Always recommended, but particularly during a presentation. Take deep breaths from your belly to calm yourself and get some oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.
  5. Slow down. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and breathe if you need to gather your thoughts. You don’t need to speed up to retain people’s attention. The opposite is true.
  6. Use a prop. Psychologically, we feel more secure when we have something to hold onto, which is why you often see speakers staying close to the lectern. Increase your comfort zone by holding a prop related to your talk.
  7. Imagine your head is a ping pong ball on a jet of water. When you tense up, your neck stiffens and adds to the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling. Do the ping pong trick and you’ll relax your muscles and your head will move more freely.
  8. Relax your jaw. A closed mouth and tight jaw are clear signs of tension. Relax your jaw and you’ll instantly feel calmer.
  9. Wear flat shoes. When your feet are flat on the floor, you feel more grounded.
  10. Stand squarely on both feet. Don’t lean on one foot; distribute your weight evenly over both feet. It’s harder to push someone over if they’re standing squarely, so this stance will make you feel more powerful.

Sharon’s feet: firmly grounded, of course

And if you want to tap into some more presentation tricks, read my Guardian article on How to do hypnotic presentations.

Three months, 104 treasures, one extraordinary book

How Sam Gray designed the book of 26 Treasures

How’s this for a brief? Create a book that features 104 treasures from four museums across the UK and the work of around 100 writers. Use photography from various sources. Show artists’ interpretations of the treasures on a quarter of the pages. Have another quarter in both Welsh and English. Present the work so it makes a coherent whole. Work with a brand new crowd-sourcing publisher. Make it beautiful. Do it in three months.

Mr No-Body, a 17th century drinking glass from the V&A who inspired Andy Hayes to write a sestude for 26 Treasures

Sam Gray, a graphic designer based in Plymouth, took up the challenge to design the book of 26 Treasures.  He produced an elegant volume that showcases personal, emotional responses to treasures from the V&A, the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Alexander McCall Smith are among the writers who encapsulated their thoughts about these treasures in exactly 62 words.

Here’s how Sam designed a book that’s become a treasure in itself.

How did you get involved with 26 Treasures?

“I can make a pleasant nuisance of myself if I want in on something. I first met John Simmons when I went back to Plymouth College of Art and studied the relevance of storytelling in contemporary branding. He kindly agreed to an interview, and as we talked, he told me about the writers’ collective 26, so I joined and really liked the people. I’ve worked with a number of different groups before, but I don’t think I’d ever met a group of people so set on making such a difference to the world we live in, with words, until I met 26. They really are an inspiration.

“I worked with Rob Self-Pierson on the Playing Places project and came up with the idea and web site for 26 Stories of Christmas. John asked me to design the display boards for the Welsh treasures at the Eisteddfod and I said at the time: ‘If you ever turn 26 Treasures into a book, I’d like to design it.’ So when Unbound said they’d like to publish the book, I was there, knocking at John’s door.”

Elspeth Murray writes about the Bute Mazer (L) and James Robertson looks at The Maiden (R), a 16th century guillotine

Why did you take on the project?

“I thought 26 Treasures was an excellent idea, and loved the way it made art more accessible. I also like that all 26 projects bring such large groups of people together. It’s amazing how much time people put into these projects – it must be thousands of hours altogether for something like 26 Treasures. The results are always amazing – and each project seems to be better than the last.”

Kate Elliott wrote about Aunt Gwen’s Map from the National Library of Wales

How did you approach the design task?

“I plan rigorously, and for me form follows function. The content was the most important thing, so I based the design on the Welsh section because it was the most complicated – having both English and Welsh text with imagery. Then I looked at the Irish section, which included text from writers and visual responses from artists. Scotland was next, followed closely by London, and as the book developed each section changed pace, but the initial template remained strong and simple.”

A close-up of Calluna, the typeface

What’s that typeface?

“We used a new typeface called Calluna. It was designed in 2009, but looks as though it’s been around for years. It really is beautiful and, to be honest, that’s the reason I chose it. I love working to restrictions, so this was a great chance to get lost in typography and make sure it worked in the layout and had a flow from page to page.”

The word ‘Treasures’ is picked out in yellow letters on the cover

How did you come up with the cover?

“It was daunting designing the cover. I’ve got a lot of respect for designers like Harry Pearce, Dom Lippa, and Pentagram’s work. They’ve got long-standing links with 26, so the cover needed to be good, but with that background, I wanted to try and make it super good.

“I wanted the cover to tell a story. It was important to reflect the enormity of the project – 104 treasures from four different museums – and the way that all these treasures were dug out from the archives. So it seemed like a nice idea to name all the 104 objects and pick out the word ‘treasures’ from within those words. At the beginning it seemed too subtle an approach, but as we progressed, it felt right.”

Poem by Bernard McLaverty, art by Cara Murphy

What did you learn from Unbound?

“It was great working with John, Xavier and Rachel from Unbound – their knowledge of publishing is endless. I think if anything, they taught me to be a little more relaxed about large projects. The process certainly confirmed that good things come from working with the best groups of people. It’s very rarely a one man show.”

Any advice to pass on?

“This is the first book of this size I’ve designed, and I’d say there are three key things to think about before starting a project like this. The first is to develop a concise but flexible page plan. The second is to study the content thoroughly, and the third is to give yourself plenty of time to put it all together. We were able to spend a good amount of time on the pages, making sure that they did all they could and that the work was presented in the best possible light.”

Sam’s favourite of the 104 treasures: the leopard flagon

Which treasure would you have chosen?

“The Leopard flagon from the V&A section, without a doubt. The picture Jessie Simmons took is great, and the words written by Jonathan Holt are brilliant. I particularly like ‘leopardness’.”


Contact Sam

Tweet @madebyfabric

French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs

Thanks to 26, the writers’ collective, for putting the spotlight on me in their latest newsletter.

Read the article to:

  • Find out about the latest 26 Treasures exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
  • Read my advice on tweeting.
  • See why you should read ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott.

It will also explain why the title of this post refers to French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs.

A bouncer, a cat and a dog lead


Man holds a cat on a dog lead

The odd couple

Why is this dodgy-looking bloke holding a cat on a dog lead outside what looks like a club in Berlin in the 1980s?

As part of an ‘archive dive’ project, the D&AD asked people from the 26 writers’ collective to write about previous award winners. I could choose any winner that began with ‘F’ (a very fine letter).

I chose this intriguing picture which won a photography award for a brand called Fressnapf. Here’s the blog piece I wrote for the D&AD about my discoveries.