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We're living in what some are calling the ‘platinum' age of TV and visual storytelling, with opportunities to reach viewers all over the world with our stories. But it's still hard to get noticed. In today's episode, screenwriting tutor, Selina Ukwuoma, outlines international possibilities, plus her tips on writing a stand-out script.
In the intro, I talk about Apple’s announcement about IOS12 coming this Fall [The Verge]. iBooks will be renamed Apple Books and will feature a new “Reading Now” section, an updated library view that puts a better emphasis on your content, and a new Apple Books store. I really hope this means we’ll see a better emphasis on books with Apple, and perhaps more integration with audiobooks.
In the Advanced Self-Publishing Salon this month, Orna Ross and I discuss #cockygate, the advance of APub imprints, and how to build a team of professionals for your writing business.
Plus, join me and Mark Dawson for a free webinar this week on How to use Facebook Ads to boost your book sales and build your email list, with a live Q&A. Tues 12 June at 3pm US Eastern / 8pm UK, and if you register, you can get the replay if you can't attend live. Click here to register for your free place.
Today's show is sponsored by my own book and course, How to Write Non-Fiction.
Want to write non-fiction and turn your knowledge into words? Want a step-by-step guide through the mindset, business aspects, writing and editing, publishing and product creation, as well as marketing a non-fiction book?
Check out How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn your Knowledge into Words, out now in ebook, print, large print, workbook, and audio formats. I also have a multi-media course, How to Write a Non-Fiction Book, which expands on the material. You can get US$50 off by using coupon code: LAUNCH, valid until 30 June 2018.
Selina Ukwuoma is a freelance script consultant who has worked on multiple award-winning and award-nominated scripts. She works with the Berlinale Talents Program, consults in around the world, and teaches at the UK's National Film and Television School, NFTS.
Selina was one of my tutors on the short course I did at NFTS earlier this year. Click here to read/listen to my screenwriting lessons learned from that course. Selina is an excellent teacher and I was thrilled to have her on the show!
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The possibilities for storytellers in the new markets like Netflix
- The opportunities available through co-productions
- Mistakes to avoid in screenwriting
- Why formatting matters so much in screenplays
- Why screenwriting is different than writing a novel
- Tips on adapting a work from a longer form to a screenplay
- How to find your voice as a screenwriter
- How to ensure a script reflects the diversity of the story’s world
- Pitching yourself as the screenwriter while pitching your screenplay
You can find Selina Ukwuoma teaching screenwriting short courses at NFTS, or at the Berlinale Talents program. She also does script feedback at the NFTS Script Squad.
Transcript of interview
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Selina Ukwuoma. Hi, Selina.
Selina: Hi, Joanna. Nice to see you.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Selina is a freelance script consultant who has worked on multiple award winning and award nominated scripts. She works with the Berlinale Talents Program, consults in sub-Saharan Africa and teaches at the UK's National Film and Television School, NFTS.
I was on one of Selina's brilliant classes this year. It was fantastic. Now Selina, I get to actually find out more about you.
How did you get into writing and script consulting?
Selina: I think it goes really all the way back to childhood and the importance of stories and stories have always been really important to me. I think, particularly with a family, it sort of comes from all over.
The stories we tell ourselves as families are incredibly important to us but as someone with a family that's spread all over, I think it takes on an extra dimension. And so I think, really, that's where my interest in stories or the importance of stories to me comes from.
Having lost sight of that a bit as a teenager it took me a while to find my way back to it. But I did always find lifelines in stories. And I did find my way back and did postgraduate studies in professional writing, some in screenwriting, and then worked first for a literary agency. So that was my way in.
Joanna: Tell us a bit more about that because you then went from the literary agency and now you work all over the place.
Tell us a bit more about what you do now.
Selina: At the literary agency, I was there when they were setting up their production arm. So, in fact, right from the start I was working in the development of projects. Agents do anyway but I was specifically there to work as a development executive and be trained up. So that's what I did.
I was trained up as a development executive and I moved on after that to work for EON Screenwriters Workshop, which was also as a development executive, and gained experience working on a lot of different projects there particularly at the literary agency with adaptations.
With that experience, it had always been important to me to work with diverse voices and I was invited to work at the Berlinale Talents, part of the Berlin Film Festival, and that's where I began to make my connections with people outside the U.K.
And really, my work has sort of spread by word of mouth. I've gotten to work with more and more different places. I know you particularly highlighted work with sub-Saharan Africa but actually, my work in Africa is the whole of Africa, North Africa too, and Middle East, but also I work beyond that.
Last year, for example, I worked on two programs in Central America and the Caribbean. So 20 odd projects from that region.
I'm lucky enough to be sort of invited into stories from all over the world and I think that my particular background being quite international and having sort of a different perspective on things has facilitated that.
Joanna: We're going to return to the international side, but first of all, one of the interesting things.
People think of the golden age of television but at the workshop, there was talk of the platinum age of visual storytelling or one better than the platinum age.
What is exciting you right now in terms of the possibilities for storytellers in this new market and new political landscape?
Selina: For me, I think probably the most exciting thing is accessibility. I think that the ability to get your hands on an iPhone or whatever and film for yourself and actually make your own work and get it out there is more than it ever has been before.
It is not a world of completely good opportunities, but nevertheless, it's really exciting that that's happening and for me, that is the most exciting thing.
Joanna: Didn't someone just make a full-length film with an iPhone?
Selina: Yes. There have been full-length films with iPhones.
Joanna: I can't remember either but it was somebody who was quite well known and it was like, “Oh, my goodness. You can make a film with an iPhone that goes on a big screen.”
Selina: “Tangerine” was made with an iPhone, wasn't it?
Joanna: Maybe. I can't remember which one.
Many people now think, “Oh, Netflix and Amazon are the big guns.” But we're in the U.K. and you've just talked about all these international possibilities.
Are these big American giants crushing it or are you seeing a very lively independent international scene on the other side?
Selina: Again, from my point of view it might look slightly different to some of the things you've heard, this fear of threat to cinema from Netflix and Amazon.
From my point of view when I know that certain projects which have struggled to be made through the old model, as it were, of filmmaking and have managed to be made with funding from Netflix and open up a dialogue with a different storyteller, then I can't be critical on that front.
In specific terms, I know that “Beasts of No Nation” were struggling to find a platform until Netflix funded it. And I think it's a great film.
Equally, Netflix is making local content in these places so it is offering a platform for people. I know that in India there's been a number of projects that have been commissioned, for example.
I might be naïve but I hope that that's a good sign. And as for the threat to cinema, we have to see what's happening to cinema in the context of Netflix. We don't know what's going to happen.
When old regimes are falling there is always a sense of fear and threat but it may not be necessary. I hope that theatrical cinema survives. I love the experience of going to the cinema. I think it's very different experience to watching something on a small screen, but we shall see what happens.
Joanna: Like you say, the traditional markets, we've just seen with Cannes saying, “Well, Netflix films can't go into the Cannes Film Festival because they're not shown in cinemas.” And then I read a report that Netflix might buy some cinemas in order to show some.
There are ways around these rules, right?
Selina: The other thing is that if there's enough appetite for something I don't see why it wouldn't be shown at a cinema. I know that earlier on in the days of the internet people grew their audience online and then things transferred to the cinema because they had an audience, things that wouldn't have ever gone to the cinema if it weren't for the internet platforms.
If there's an appetite for something it couldn't work that way around, but it is about us all learning to work with new models and finding a way really.
Joanna: I was also interested when we were talking in the class that it's not that you need necessarily these big projects to fund things, but actually there's lots of money for funding in local markets.
For example, we had someone who might be able to go to Israel for their funding or I've got a project for potentially Hungary that could look at that.
Is that another angle on things that independent scriptwriters, filmmakers can be looking in these other markets directly?
Selina: Sure. It is absolutely a way of getting things made. I'm a huge fan of coproduction. I work with a lot of coproductions and this is how independent cinema gets made. I think we're a little bit shortsighted in the U.K. often on that front. It's necessary but it's also an amazing experience.
On one of the programs I work for, which is The Film Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, it's set up as a coproduction prize and the intent is to foster international cooperation but it does that through a film prize where people from Germany, in this case, Germany in the Arab world, coproduce and that experience does, as I say, foster international cooperation.
It's an important thing in the world. It's not just about the product. It's about the experience, and I think it's a really special experience for people to do that and it does offer different opportunities.
Different countries have different funding available. Cinema has a different priority in different places. Particularly with art house cinema. That's the way it's typically funded.
Joanna: There are so many opportunities that I wasn't aware of before I came on the course. Now, I want to come back to the time when you were at the agency and one of your jobs was reading scripts from the slush pile, which is brilliant.
What are some of the hallmarks of a really bad script that might make you stop reading?
Selina: Well, one thing I want to say before I talk about the bad scripts is about the so-called slush pile, because I was really interested that you call it a slush pile. Because in my whole time working there and in my brain, I don't think of it as a slush pile, and I think that's quite important.
It was called ‘unsols,' unsoliciteds. And I think that's actually really important because it's really exciting to find new talent. So whilst I'm not going to pretend you don't have days where it's like, “Oh, God. I've got to go through this huge stack of material.”
But at the same time, it is exciting to find that new talent. I did find interesting things in that stack. That's an important thing to bear in mind before answering the question about that.
But on that front, bad scripts, you can often spot them immediately. It is a big no-no to have a picture on the front because writers are meant to communicate in words. So often if there's a picture on the front it's a sign that the writer doesn't trust their words so there's a sense of foreboding as you open a script with a picture on the front. So that's the first impression.
Then secondly, the formatting.
It's a really basic thing to say but the formatting is really important because as soon as you open a script if you can see that it's not correctly formatted in that there's not enough white space. It's actually really quite dense chunks of text, it's difficult to penetrate so you're actually putting up a barrier to people actually being able to see your story.
So that's very important. You can also see from that whether there's the correct balance of dialogue and action. You do have to still read because there are always exceptions whether it seems to be too dialogue heavy or the other way around. So there are certain things that you get a feel for immediately just by looking at it without actually reading.
But then when you go on to read, it's about visual storytelling. I think that's something that from reading scripts, and there are a huge number of scripts available online, but by reading scripts you can start to gain a sense of how to tell a story visually.
It's a very different discipline to writing novelistically, which is what we are most used to. So that's what it's about. If all of that comes together, the sign of a really good script, so I'm going to flip your question, is that it is quick and easy to read.
That means that it's flowing, the rhythm, the pace. That's really what you're looking for, that easy read with dramatic storytelling.
That's the other thing I didn't say. Visual storytelling but also dramatic storytelling, which is quite different, again, to novelistic writing. Little giveaways of people writing sort of internal things that you can't see.
Joanna: I think that's really important and that's why I came to adapt “Map of Shadows” to a script, “MapWalker,” and even though I thought I had cut down these big chunks of description or whatever immediately you could tell and other people could tell, and I could tell eventually, that they were just too long, they were just too wordy.
Scripts are so short. Like you say, a fast read. You can get through a script in like an hour, right? I mean, it's really fast.
What are some of the other issues when you've seen authors adapting either their own work or other people's work when they start with the long form?
Selina: Some people can. It's interesting with adaptation because it is a leap of faith. It's an adaptation but they are not the same thing.
Basically, what you're doing when you're adapting is you are trying to stay true to the spirit of the story, but even that can be different things to different people.
One of the things that takes place in the process of an adaptation is if you have a producer who is looking to adapt a project, they will be speaking to the number of writers to find out if the writers have the same take on the project as they do themselves, because obviously, you see different things in a story.
What is it that they want out of their adaptation? And they will try and match a writer for that and take it in that course.
But, once that part of it's done then there are all kinds of craft elements of it, of adapting, that come into play. I've already commented when I was talking about finding new talent is that you have to write dramatically.
You would think that, okay, now we're working on the same story. It should be quite obvious what we're going to get out of it. But there are many things in a novel that you cannot do in a script and vice versa. So you need to be free to invent things that achieve the same purpose in the dramatic adaptation.
David Hare came in to speak on one of our courses and he put it as, “You have to be lavishly promiscuous in order to be faithful.” I think that's really the way to look at it.
You do have to be free to invent and stay true to the spirit of that story.
It sounds very nebulous. What does that mean? But I think that you can only find out by trying to do it yourself. And you'll see that some things just don't work in a scene and you have to try and find it.
You have to try and work out how can I put across through this subtext of what they say in this scene through the creation of an event through perhaps conflating a couple of characters. Because a novel, it can have so many more characters and can go off on tangents and be so much more circuitous than an adaptation.
All of those things are things that you might do. And what's really funny is when it's done right people think that the event was in the original story when it wasn't necessarily because it rings true to you.
Joanna: It's so funny because of course I was doing the adaptation of “MapWalker” and I had to change things and now I can't remember what's in the script and what's in the novel.
When I write the next one, I'm going to have to read the novel and like be true to that rather than the script.
Selina: But maybe you shouldn't. Maybe you need to be true to the story that's coming from the script.
Joanna: In fact, I think I went through that process and then realized that I could've made the story stronger because I think the script makes you get down to that skeleton, doesn't it?
Have you seen that? You obviously read a lot, you're a very well read literary person as well.
Do you think that writers who are also screenwriters maybe write more commercial books or more accessible books or have somehow incorporated those skills?
Selina: I think there are very few people who are good at writing both. And I'm quite impressed by those who can switch between the two mediums.
But I think the reason for writing different forms is in itself interesting because I think that as a writer certain ideas are more suited to a novel and others are more suited to the screen. So for those who write both, I think that's one of the things that's going through their minds perhaps.
There are also some very commercial reasons to think about writing one thing first. For example, it's more difficult to mount a screen story as an original story. Some people want to write a novel to grow an audience. Like I've just been saying about the internet.
But they write the novel to grow the audience and then they can take it to the screen. You could be making very practical considerations but I think that ultimately there are some stories that just present themselves as a story that is more novelistic in nature and some just screen stories.
Joanna: It's an interesting thought and I know a lot of people listening, we are all authors first on this podcast but many of the listeners are also screenwriters or trying their hand or interested in it. And so I think that's really great.
Another thing that you mentioned, the practical realities. And one of the things that I came out of your class with was the realization that my script would be a very budget. And when we did the pitching… I realized it, you realized it.
When I pitched it she was like, “That's really big budget.” That doesn't mean it won't get made but it's very unlikely because I'm not famous.
Do you think authors should even consider those practicalities at the writing stage or later, or what are your thoughts on that?
Selina: I think that a reason I work in development and it is partly because I'm a dreamer. But also I think that it's counterproductive to tell somebody who's starting out in screenwriting to limit themselves by practicalities because I think the biggest challenge is finding your voice as a screenwriter.
So in the first instance, I would say don't think about it. I think that you need to find that style and that voice and that if you write something in which you do that then you have a calling card script.
It may never get made but it can get you noticed, and that is just as important. Well, it's the first hurdle. So it gets you over that first hurdle.
At that point, okay, maybe then you want to start thinking about those practicalities and really if you want to make something low budget.
There are some great low budget things out there, which were made as first films. One of the ones I think I showed you in the class was “Once,” the musical, which spawned the theater show as well and this grossed huge amounts. But it was made for very little in the first instance.
It's a small-scale story. But it's no less appealing for that and I think that those are the sorts of things that you can think about at that stage. But if it's not your kind of storytelling, it's not helpful.
If you are a big storyteller then you have to tell a big story. And I also don't think it's impossible to find your way through doing that. There are different ways there.
I think recently, quite famously, Liz Hannah who wrote “The Post,” that was her first script. And she got Steven Spielberg directing it, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks acting in it.
Joanna: Pretty good. That's awesome.
Another thing that we talked about particularly because we both have these international families, and again, the political situation we're in is writing diverse characters.
I was asking you all these questions because I was so determined, because my book already is multicultural but I wanted to make it clear because we've seen calls from actors to make sure that the casting is representative, that type of thing.
What are some of your tips for making sure that our scripts include diversity that reflects the world of the story?
Selina: I think that if we look honestly at the world around us and reflect that in our stories, so reflect our truth, and I don't say that “our” as a minority. I say the “our” as a human being.
I think that a lot of us who are writing scripts live in urban, cosmopolitan centers. Most of those across the world are diverse. So I don't understand why then you would write something that isn't.
There's fear here. People are shying away from a potential controversy and so they're not sure about writing characters that are other. But I think there is the kind of key. Why are they other? They don't have to be.
And there are degrees to that as well. If you're writing something where somebody goes to a hospital in the U.K. in the NHS, you know, the person you're likely to meet, there are so many different diverse characters there.
Surely, it's very straightforward to write that into your work. You're not being asked to make any great leaps of imagination there. But I challenge you to make those leaps of imagination as well because it's about human emotion and the truth of that.
I also think that in screenwriting you have at your disposal, because it is a collaborative medium, you can find people from different groups, whoever you're representing, to work with so that it's not just your point of view.
You do your research, you get your feedback, you make sure that you are writing a character that is true and I think that's something that's special to screenwriting, that you can do that.
Joanna: I really like that. And of course, practically when we were talking about it even just using a name that might be used in a particular culture will help the casting of that character. You don't need to be going overboard in describing them.
You can just use a name or a little character tag or something. And I think this is the main point I got out of it was it's really important that we include it but we don't need to like go all heavy-handed about making it really clear in the text. People are intelligent.
Selina: True, yes. Absolutely. And for you particularly I remember it was about speaking your truth. That's what you have to do.
Joanna: Last question. One of the things I personally love about screenwriting is that it is about generally commercial viability and getting it out there. It doesn't need to make multimillions but it needs to break even at least and pay the people involved.
Whereas with novels, often that's not even a question, making money just isn't there.
What was interesting about the NFTS course was half of it was writing and half of it was the selling. It really was quite split, which was unusual to me in a writing environment.
But one of the things I learned from you particularly was your pitching guidelines and notes session, which was brilliant. You talked about pitching yourself as the person and the author as much as your script.
Can you tell us why is it important to pitch yourself as the writer as well as the project?
Selina: I think that there are different emphases to that in different places. I know in particular in the States it's even more important than it is here but everybody wants to know about that.
Firstly, as I just said, it's a collaborative medium. You are going to have to work with people and you have to be able to take feedback.
I think that one of the things that people are sounding out is your ability to come up with workable solutions to be able to take those notes, work with them, come back again.
It can be quite a tough industry in that regard and it can be wrong for some kinds of writers because you're constantly challenged and it depends who you work with, and what form that challenge takes.
For those reasons, who you are as a writer is important and if you are the right kind of writer is important. So that's one element of it.
A second element though I think applies equally to the novelist and relates to what we've just been talking about in terms of diverse characters to a degree and it's about why are you the person to tell this story?
That's another thing that people are trying to sound out through that pitch. But I think it's also important to note that it's the writer's opportunity to discover who the person they're pitching to is and whether that's the right person for them too.
It's not a pitch in one direction. It's an exchange and I think that's really important to stress.
Joanna: You did this whole thing about the pitcher and the catcher and the fact is if you're throwing your stuff at someone who's not interested in catching your stuff, like what's the point?
Joanna: I thought that was really powerful because it was very nerve-wracking. We were all nervous in the class pitching to this lady that came in, whatever she was. I can't remember, very important person.
We were sweating and yet the whole point was that we were trying to learn about her as well. And that's really helped me for my next pitching session.
I think that's true whether people are pitching for a traditional book deal as well, the same would be true.
Selina: Absolutely. You're going to be working with your editor through the process of getting that book ready. You need to have that rapport. You need to be able to believe in them and feel supported and that they get you.
All of those things are really, really important. For me, pitching or learning about pitching should be empowering because I think also there's the misconception that you're meant to go in there and be this performer.
You are not an actor. You don't have to perform. You don't have to be super confident. What you do need is belief in and passion for your story. That needs to come across but that can come across even if you're not confident.
It's quite interesting, and how people react to different writers and different styles, like writers who I've seen in public pitches, writers who are nervous and you can see their vulnerability but people respond to that. So it's very interesting.
Joanna: Fascinating. Now the course was amazing and I wonder if you would just tell people listening if they're interested about the NFTS, because I know you're a private person but you do teaching at these various events.
Tell us where people can find the NFTS online and a bit about the course you teach there.
Selina: I teach the short course in scriptwriting, which is a six-day course from a Wednesday to a Wednesday and I do that three times a year. So you can just look up the NFTS. Literally google those words, those letters rather, and you will find that and look in the short courses list.
But I also work at a number of other places as well where I can be found. There are things like the Berlinale Talents that you mentioned already but other festivals from time to time and it really does depend.
I work at Talent Sarajevo as well, for example. So those are the sorts of things that you can apply for.
I think people are perhaps not as aware as they could be that there are development programs at various festivals, which they can apply to. Those two are actually probably for people who are already on their way as a screenwriter. So they have credits under their belt.
There are also strands within them, which are for short filmmakers, for example. I've worked at short film festivals and there are, again, a number where people can go to get their short film scripts developed and then pitch them, and potentially get funding or support in kind.
All of these things are things to look out for and I think that if you're really interested and if you get online you can find information about all these things.
If I name just a few of those short film festivals, it would be remiss of me not to mention Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol seeing as that's where I am. And that there's also Interfilm Berlin and Go Shorts in the Netherlands, Clermont-Ferrand in France.
All of which I've worked at, at different times, and all of which they've been development programs or pitching training for short filmmakers. So I think those are the sorts of things that actually start to get you into the mindset of filmmaking.
TV is slightly different, but given those platforms and all the things we've been saying about the changes that are happening in the industry, TV is being included at film festivals now too.
So, get out there, start to get a lay of the land and I think that's the best way to start finding your way forward.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Selina. That was great.
Selina: Thank you.
I think the film you talk about at min 15:10 is Tangerine, by Sean Baker, filmed on 3 iPhones.
Joanna Penn says
Yes, that’s the one 🙂