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Dissertation Practice Report

Dissertation Pathway: Screenwriting

Project Title: Redfield

For my dissertation project this year I opted to take the screenwriting pathway to write a thirty five page screenplay based on my own original idea. My screenplay will be a television pilot script instead of a short film script that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Obviously the genre for my dissertation project is a Western so I have elected to focus on the film theory of genre criticism to analyse and discuss the informed choices that have gone into my project thus far. Furthermore I will also briefly touch upon feminist film theory in relation to one of the female characters in my script and the film theory of realism and how that relates to the historical realism in which has informed my creative decisions when researching for and writing my screenplay.

One of the reasons why I chose to write a Western was because the visual iconography and narrative tropes commonly associated with the genre are immediately recognisable to a mass audience. This is a notion Etherington-Wright and Doughty acknowledge in their book (2011:27) in which they talk about how the visual imagery of a film poster in marketing alone can communicate volumes to the audience about what type of genre the film poster they are looking at is advertising. The visual iconography present in my script that one can immediately associate with the Western are rifles, horses, sheriffs and deputies, outlaws, saloons, bank robberies, violence and ranches to name but a few. Even though I think that this strong imagery will help to fully establish that the setting of my story is a Western, visual iconography isn’t the only way in which an audience can identify different genres.

Ed Buscombe argues that describing the Western genre is more than just being able to identify it’s visual iconography as that isn’t the definitive thing of what Westerns are about (1995:15) and that the visual conventions just provide a context in which to tell certain types of stories. This is true in the sense that a film’s narrative is also another way of identifying what genre a film, or in my case television series, falls into. Many genres have typical formulaic plots that immediately tell you what genre the film you’re watching could fall into. Etherington-Wright and Doughty (2011:23) touch upon this in relation to the typical formulaic plots prevalent in musicals and horror films. For my dissertation, I’ve taken several tropes commonly found in Westerns such as the revenge scenario, bank robberies, and bounty hunting and used them as plot devices to help me tell a larger story about the decline of the American frontier and the advent of modernisation.

Westerns are also well known for their singular focus on masculinity and on male heroes. For my pilot script, I did not want to just focus on male characters as I also wanted to explore female characters and women’s identity in the Old West too. In her essay, Sarah Berry-Flint describes women as representing “civilisation in the classic western” and that their roles within any given classic western story must be marginal (2003:31). In my script however I elected to write a female character that has her own degree of agency and her own narrative arc to follow in her hunt for an outlaw who killed her mother. I think in today’s cultural climate, where there is the debate in Hollywood around diversity and gender pay equality, having a multi-layered female character in a genre which has been traditionally male-centric would add a degree of contemporary relevance to my story.

In relation to realism, André Bazin endorses Westerns as an idealised version of historical reality (1972:142) and that even though most Westerns are hardly historically accurate, the myth behind Western stories have existed in American folklore since before the dawn of cinema, adding a sense of cultural realism so to speak. Realism has always been on my mind when writing my screenplay as I did not want my story to be a highly stylised and unrealistic take on a Western, like films such as Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) or Wild Wild West (Sonnenfield, 1999), both films which take the Western genre and deliver a fresh take on it with different elements. Instead I wanted my screenplay to evoke a grounded approach to the Western mythos, similar to the hit television show Deadwood.

This involved extensive research into how people in Texas spoke, the socio-economic status of various professions of society, the legal proceedings back then involving bounty hunting as well as the different weapons, tools and modes of transportation available in 1907 among other things. This comprehensive research I felt was necessary in order to tell my story with the degree of grounded realism that I wanted.

In my endeavours to achieve a sense of realism in my script I came across an issue early on in my writing process with the language of my characters. I had elected to use some of the vernacular that was spoken during the period in which my script was set but was also using language used in contemporary society that people today would instantly recognise and as a result I had a conflict of cadence in the way in which my characters spoke. To rectify this I elected to rewrite all of my character’s dialogue so that the language largely reflects how people speak today as I feel that would be more accessible to a contemporary audience. As a result my script could fall under the scope of being a revisionist western in the sense that it is historically accurate in some parts and not in others. This was an approach that was adopted by Deadwood in which David Milch, the show’s creator, opted to write his characters using current day profanity rather than the type of profanity actually used by Americans in 1876, mainly because the actual profanity they used wouldn’t carry the same impact on audiences that current day profanity would have (Nunberg, 2008).

In conclusion, there have been several film theories that have informed my choices in regards to my approach to writing my pilot script for my dissertation and I feel that by paying particular attention to how each of them can influence my story creatively, it has helped me develop my script into something stronger.

 

Word count: 1,075

 

References

Bazin, A. 1972. “The Western or the American Film Par Excellence.” In What is Cinema? Vol. II. Ed. Hugh Gray. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Buscombe, E. 1995. “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema.” In Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Deadwood: The Ultimate Collection. (2007) [DVD]. Paramount Home Entertainment.

Django Unchained, 2012 [Film] Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA. The Weinstein Company.

Etherington-Wright, C and Doughty, R. 2011. Understanding Film Theory: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Miller, T. and Stam, R. (eds.) 2003 A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Nichols, B. 1976 Movies and Methods: Vol I. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Nunberg, G. 2008 The Language of Blogs. Available at: http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/deadwood.html (Accessed 28 February 2016)

Wild Wild West, 1999 [Film] Directed by Barry Sonnenfield. USA. Warner Bros.

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Redfield – Second Draft Feedback

Redfield [Pilot] [Second Draft]

I wrote this new draft after taking on all of the advice I had received from the first one. In this draft, of the advice I took on, I rewrote the introduction of George Jenkins much earlier and with more emphasis than before. I completely reworked Tessa’s introduction which I’ll get more into later and I rewrote the final dialogue scene between William and Jackson, removing William’s monologue and adding a jump in between when Jackson lights a fresh cigarette to when he has finished it to symbolise a passage of time.

I’ve also made some additional changes that came to mind as I was preparing to write this new draft. Among those were the introduction of oil leakage subplot with Maggie, the first scenes where Jackson is introduced to William and co. at McKinley’s ranch and extra additions to Tessa’s narrative arc as her new introduction informed my choices to include certain scenes.

One of the scenes I included was actually showing the bank robbery at Nickelwood Town and we see the act of Tessa’s mother Miriam getting raped and killed. Initially I was only going to allude to this in dialogue as an event that has already happened but I felt that I needed to show the traumatic event in Tessa’s life that propels her into her character arc of wanting to bring these men who did this to justice, the same way I established William’s character journey from the opening sequence of the event that fuels his thirst for vengeance.

I also tried to introduce Tessa in a different light than I did in my first draft, showing subtly her desire to rebel from what society expects of her. I attempted this by showing a scene in which Tessa is dressed in riding clothes and hides her riding boots  away from her mother who was about to enter her room. I did not put much emphasis on Donald and Michael Trager as I did in my first draft as I felt it was better served to save those characters for the next episode. I also introduced the character of Sally Harding as a potential mentor figure to Tessa rather than someone she already knew as I felt that the audience would want to see how that relationship is established.

Additionally, I also rewrote Jackson’s first encounter with William and co. as I felt that the version in the first draft was too stilted and the scenes felt forced. With this draft I tried to make it seem as natural as I could make it.

The feedback I got from my tutors on this draft was overall positive, but they gave me a few points to consider. One of those points was that Tessa and Sally’s conversation scene felt like a meeting between two potential lovers. This took me aback because that wasn’t my intention when I was writing this scene but the more that I think about it, the more that I think that this could make an interesting dynamic to their relationship. It made me aware that if I was going for the mentor-protege relationship, it would just be a carbon copy of William and Jackson’s future relationship and that’s something I did not want to repeat. So I’m considering taking these two characters in that direction as I feel that it would give my script a contemporary relevance by featuring LGBT characters, even though it is set in 1900s America.

Another piece of feedback I received was that my reintroduction of William after 8 years needs to be clearer. So I’m thinking of having a visual reference that links 13 year old William to 21 year old William which I think would make for a nice transition.

Also, with the second converstion scene between William and Jackson, I was told that Jackson readily questions William’s desire to chase outlaws when in their previous scene he rebuffs him so I need to rewrite that scene to give Jackson the power in that scene and have William earn his interest.

And finally the role of Doggett was thought of as being just functionary in the scenes that he appeared in. I’ve been given the suggestion of fusing his character with Wyatt who appears later in the script as he will serve more of purpose later on in the story so this is a suggestion I would most likely be considering.

 

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Redfield – First Draft Feedback

Redfield [Pilot] [First Draft]

For the first draft of my screenplay the general feedback I got from my screenwriting tutor and my cohorts was that whilst my script was well-written technically and filled with a lot of promise as a potential television pilot script, there were a few things I could still consider in order for it to be better.

One of the conflicting responses I got from people centred around the character of Tessa Trager. Whilst many people said that they liked her character and how I had written her, some people were concerned that she comes across a bit too strong and too tough, taken into account the time period in which my script is set. I couldn’t help but agree that I had introduced her too strongly and not left a lot of room for her to grow as a character. I came to the realisation that how I had written her in this first draft is the type of character I would want her to eventually become, so the benefit of her character arc (that I had missed) is to use the format of television writing to my advantage and establish that Tessa would go on a path that would eventually lead her to becoming that type of person I had written initially. Television serial writing allows you as a writer to take your time in developing your characters and this is something I would definitely take on board when it comes to rewriting.

Another piece of helpful feedback I had received was the way in which I introduced George Jenkins. I was told that I waited too long in the opening sequence to fully establish George Jenkins’ character. Since he is pivotal character to the plot of my series it would be essential that I give him a much stronger introduction that separates him from the rest of his posse as a key character so this is something I would definitely take on board for my next draft.

In regards to the dialogue of my characters, some people commented on the fact that the language in which my characters speak wasn’t consistent as characters would use slang that was used during the early 1900s as well as contemporary curse words that modern audiences would be familiar with; this inconsistency came across as jarring so in my next draft I would have to choose as to whether I stick with the actual slang and curse words used during the time, or more contemporary language so that it would be accessible to modern audiences.

Finally, in the last dialogue scene between William and Jackson I was told that the monologue William delivers to Jackson basically repeats what the audience already knows from the first opening sequence. I was advised to find a different way to convey William telling Jackson his backstory but not make it feel redundant. This is something that I have to figure out as I approach writing my second draft.

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Dissertation Project Proposal – Final Submission

Project Overview

My dissertation project will take the form of a TV pilot screenplay that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Since my dissertation project is a TV pilot, the whole screenplay will serve to establish three main storylines that will be explored throughout a potential season as well as an additional fourth sub-storyline.

The first storyline follows William West and his quest for vengeance against George Jenkins, the man who killed his parents and burnt down his home eight years prior to my story’s setting. William joins the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hunt down Jenkins but learns that the men he is now working with are in fact no better than the man he is trying to catch.

The second storyline follows Tessa Trager and her desire to become a law enforcement officer so that she can also track down Jenkins and bring him to justice after he rapes and kills her mother. She faces resistance from her father, Donald Trager, Redfield County’s Sheriff, who plans to marry her off to the son of a wealthy oil tycoon. As a result, realising that she can never become a legitimate officer, Tessa decides to run away from home and become an independent bounty hunter, although she is in for a rude awakening in regards to the harsh realities that she faces when it comes to hunting outlaws. She’ll eventually receive guidance from another established female bounty hunter and scout named Sally Harding (whose backstory will be loosely inspired from the real-life figure of Calamity Jane).

The final storyline follows Earvin “Skip” Walters, a famous outlaw who is also hunting down George Jenkins, his former right-hand man, after he defected from the gang after raping Tessa’s mother. Skip embodies the “noble outlaw” trope in a sense that he easily commits murders and robberies but rape is the one crime he cannot tolerate, especially if committed by someone in his gang. All three of these primary protagonists’ storylines will be intertwined by their search for this one man and in some cases, one person’s actions in their hunt will influence the other two in some form or fashion and vice-versa.

An additional storyline in conjunction with the main three will follow Seth McKinley and his daughter Maggie’s efforts to save their ranch from being bought by rich oil tycoon Noah J. Buchanan and his son Amos Buchanan (who is to be betrothed to Tessa). This task will eventually be taken upon by Maggie herself as Seth will become bedridden with illness.

The main theme that will be explored in my potential series is modernisation. As aforementioned, my setting is during the decline of the Old West as the old lifestyle of the American Frontier is being replaced by a more modern and less unruly society. My storyline following Maggie’s attempts to save her father’s ranch from being purchased by a wealthy oil tycoon will tie in with this main theme as Texas did experience an oil boom in the 1900s onwards. Additionally, I chose the year 1907 to set my story as that was a year before the Bureau of Investigation was founded (now known as the FBI) so my story would serve as an eventual lead up to that key event in US history. Government agencies were cracking down on outlaws during this period which leads to my secondary theme of my story: anarchism.

Anarchism was considered a real threat during the 1900s as US President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by anarchists. How present day society views terrorism nowadays was how society viewed anarchism back then. The whole political philosophy of anarchism will be explored through my outlaw characters and their backstories, exploring who they are and why they decided to become outlaws, probably as a result of them feeling disillusioned with the government. I will probably still need to conduct more research into anarchism.

Corruption of law enforcement is another theme I aim to focus on. When William joins the Pinkerton Agency, he immediately becomes alarmed to the underhanded methods some of the agents conduct in order to catch the men they are looking for. Pinkerton Agents at the time were reported to have been involved in intimidation, bribery, unlawful killings and excessive violence etc. Whilst these allegations have been disputed over the years, I’ve elected to include such behaviour in my story anyway in order to heighten my story for dramatic purposes but would take care not to exaggerate any such underhanded behaviour.

My final main theme which I wish to explore is femininity in 1900s America. Obviously American society was very patriarchal back then but I did not wish my story to just focus on men. I thought it would be more compelling to write interesting female characters that do not conform to how society viewed them back then. My main character for this is Tessa Trager but there is also Maggie McKinley, William’s love interest in the series, who tries to negotiate with Noah J. Buchanan to save her father’s land being purchased by him to drill for oil.

 

Context

In all of my previous projects I have either written or co-written them, however all the stories I have written were always London-based so I was always writing from what I knew. For my dissertation project I wanted to challenge myself and write something that I don’t know anything about as in the industry as a screenwriter, I know you won’t always be writing stories in settings you readily know so I thought this would be good practice and experience for me to be industry-ready. Although I know that the pilot I’m proposing to write would be a big-budget project and isn’t suitable subject matter for an emerging writer such as myself to write as a calling card to the industry, I still want to challenge myself to write something on this scale. I never intended for this screenplay from the beginning to be my calling card into the industry; I merely wanted to write a story that interests me and that I can have fun with.

In a wider context, if I was writing this pilot to be produced and eventually be picked up to series, I have to first identify what successful shows are currently being played right now as well as why they are so successful as that would help me write my story to cater to what the current contemporary audience are keen for.

For example, successful shows in recent memory like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad will contribute heavily to what I want to achieve from my pilot script. Game of Thrones is popular notably for its complex characters, its unflinching violence (this is also a point of criticism for it also), its production values and its willingness to kill off popular characters as well as its rich and extremely detailed fictional world which parallels eerily with our own. This would mean that audiences are keen to gravitate toward shows that are challenging and that do things aesthetically different from other mainstream television shows. Breaking Bad on the other hand is popular for the show’s great writing and credible characterisation of its main characters. This would influence me to really the nail the writing of my characters in order for them to be believable and relatable to the audience who would no doubt be eager for great characterisation in shows in the wake of Breaking Bad’s success.

 

Research

For my research into the historical time of the Old West I have tried sourcing a number of books. I have acquired two so far that are detailed accounts of former Pinkerton Agents during the Old West. These books will be invaluable to me as the Pinkerton Agency will pay a vital role in my story. The books in question are Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter by Tom Horn and Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism by Charles A. Siringo. Another book I’m currently reading for reference is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy which is set in Texas in 1850. Whilst the timeline of the novel isn’t the same as my story as they are fifty plus years apart, the book is proving useful reference point in regards to the language and dialect the characters use in the novel as it would be similar to how my characters speak as Texans have a very distinctive dialect in the how they speak as well as the different colloquialisms they use. It’s vitally important that I nail the dialect of my script or else my characters will not have any credibility which is something I’m trying to avoid.

In terms of visual media for reference, Deadwood was the obvious choice for me to go far as a reference as it’s the only major television show in recent memory that is a Western. In terms of reference for my script, even though Deadwood is set in an entirely different state than my story and in a different time period also (1876), I still wanted to watch it to analyse and identify how the writers of that television show balanced the multiple storylines that are running in tandem. Since my screenplay will establish multiple storylines, I thought it was important for me to get an idea of how I can balance multiple storylines effectively.

Another TV show that balances multiple storylines effectively is Game of Thrones which I mentioned previously as being an inspiration to what I’m trying to achieve. My pilot will have a relatively large ensemble cast of characters like Game of Thrones has, as I would need to explore different perspectives in different environments within my setting to fully capture the spirit of the time. I plan for my characters to be complex in nature and not have a clear good and evil dichotomy. At times, characters who would initially be perceived as good will commit acts of extreme disrepute while characters who are initially perceived as evil and despicable will commit occasional acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. All of these will depend on the context of the scenes I write as each character would act differently in different scenarios. Furthermore, since my pilot is a Western, there will be a lot of violence in it as those times were very violent in nature, especially since my plot revolves around outlaws. Game of Thrones is noted for its violence so that would be a point of reference I can draw from, although it has been criticised for its violence being too gratuitous, I hope to find a balance between showing graphic violence consistent with the times, but at the same time not being as gratuitous.

In relation to Breaking Bad, the concept of that series will be explored within both William West and Tessa Trager’s storylines in the sense that over the course of a potential series, William will transition from a lawman with good intentions to being inadvertently just as bad as the men he is after, all in the pursuit of vengeance which is very loosely similar to Walter White’s character arc from a relatively good man to an antagonistic figure. With Tessa, her character arc will develop from a woman who is privately disillusioned with a patriarchal society to an individual who outwardly rejects society’s opinion and expectations of her.

Django Unchained is a recent Western film set in the south which would provide an additional reference source in regards to the southern accents that my characters will speak with. Whilst Django Unchained is set primarily in Mississippi and not Texas (as aforementioned, Texans have a very distinct dialect), I still think this film would provide a valuable reference in order to understand the cadence of the Southern American accent as I can actually hear the characters in the film talking, unlike Blood Meridian where I am just reading dialogue and not hearing anyone speak.

 

Methodology

I work better and more efficiently when I set myself deadlines so I decided to set myself personal deadlines to meet each stage of my writing process. I aim to have a first draft of my screenplay completed before the Christmas break so that in the second term I can focus entirely on writing and re-writing my script until the deadline of May 4th. In regards to my approach to redrafting my script after the Christmas break, I would adapt my redrafting process depending on the feedback I receive from my cohorts as well as outside sources who I plan to have read my screenplay for feedback (i.e. filmmakers I’ve worked with in the past, some actor friends etc.).

For example, if someone were to give me feedback saying the dialogue of a certain scene in my script did not sound natural, my approach to rewriting that scene would be to bring in professional actors in to do a read-through of that scene and try and work out how to make the dialogue sound natural based on how the actors perform the dialogue.

 

Project Challenges/Contingencies

The main challenge I think I’m going to face is the amount of research I still need to do. I need to research law enforcement practice during the time period my script is set in, I need to research the political philosophy of anarchism and I also need to research the agriculture industry back then as one of the settings of my story is on a ranch. I’ll address these challenges by sourcing relevant books on the aforementioned areas of research as well as sourcing relevant historic websites as a secondary option if finding available books proves to be too difficult.

 

Schedule

Step Outline – to be completed by 10th November 2015 (status: completed)

Treatment – to be completed by 13th November 2015 (status: completed)

First draft – to be completed by 18th December 2015 (status: completed)

Final draft – to be completed by 4th May 2016 (status: pending)

 

Bibliography

Horn, T. (2014) Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter. United States: Createspace

Siringo, C. A. (2015) Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (classic reprint) United States: Forgotten Books.

Django Unchained. (2013) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. [Film]. Columbia Pictures.

Deadwood: The Ultimate Collection. (2007) [DVD]. Paramount Home Entertainment.

McCarthy, C. (2010) Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West. Cormac McCarthy. London: Pan MacMillan.

Game of Thrones: The Complete Seasons 1-4. (2015) [Blu-Ray Disc]. Warner Home Video.

Breaking Bad: The Complete Series, (2013) [DVD]. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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MDA3400 Secondary Roles

As part of my dissertation assessment critiera I am required to participate in at least two of my cohort’s productions in a secondary role. I have managed to attach myself to five projects this year, each of them requiring me to adopt a different creative approach to filmmaking.

The five projects I am a part of are as following:

Screenwriter on “Cellular”
Co-writer & 1st AC on “Tony”
1st AC on “Cigarettes & Alcohol”
Editor on “Dancing out the Dark”
Gaffer on “Hand in Hand”

For the short film Cellular (directed by Mantas Beginskas and produced by Andre Meehan), I’ll be writing the screenplay from a story devised by Mantas. This ties in with my pathway for my dissertation as it would allow me to improve upon my screenwriting skills. Mantas is a filmmaker with a very strong visual sensibility, so his direction would be a key learning experience for me to write the screenplay for his film in a very visual way. In the past, I’ve had the tendency to overwrite dialogue and not focus on the visuals that much but with this project, I’ll be setting a challenge for myself to overcome this habit.

For the short film Tony (directed by Killiesha Bancroft and produced by Amnah Pervaiz), I’m attached as co-writer along with Killiesha. This film is a social realist drama focusing on the effects of mental health. This project would challenge me to write a mentally ill character as realistically as possible, therefore I would need to conduct research around the mental illness that would be portrayed in the script in order to represent it as accurately as I can. This links to my dissertation script in the amount of research I would have to do; most screenwriters working in the industry today have to conduct research to write about topics they are unfamiliar with so this would be a valuable experience for me.

On both Tony and Cigarettes & Alcohol (directed by Nick Toth and produced by Andre Meehan) I’m attached as 1st assistant camera. I have never been a 1st AC before so this would be a valuable experience for me to learn what it’s like for camera operators to work under a DP.

For the documentary Dancing out the Dark (directed by James Land and produced by Emily Mitchell) I’m attached as editor for this entire project. I’ve always enjoyed editing and it was one of the pathways for my dissertation I was considering along with directing and screenwriting, but ultimately chose screenwriting as I could not figure out how to pitch myself as an editor the best way I could. Dancing out the Dark follows the story of how transgender man Kay J Browning uses his art (poetry, hip hop, dance) to express his lifestory and experiences. This documentary isn’t a conventional one in the sense that it isn’t just talking heads with intermittent footage. This project would involve me trying to construct a story using an assortment of archive footage, photo stills and captured footage centred around Kay’s aforementioned artistic outlets. I’m very much looking forward to cutting this film together as I’ve only ever edited one documentary before in my first year at my prior university which was more straightforard than this one. I feel that this project would help me grow as an editor as I would have to approach cutting this film with a different sensibility as opposed to cutting a narrative film together of which I have a good amount of experience.

On the music video “Hand in Hand” (directed by Fred Iyeh and produced by Amnah Pervaiz), I’ve been attached as gaffer. During second year, I had a fair amount of experience lighting different projects (Tremors, Ordeal etc.) so I feel confident about lighting the different scenes required for this music video. Drawing on what I learnt from Ian Liggett’s lighting workshop last week, I’m looking forward to trying out the different techniques and theories that was covered during that workshop.

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Redfield – Dissertation Project Pitch

 

 

pitch1

pitch2

Introduction

My dissertation project will take the form of a TV pilot screenplay that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Since my dissertation project is a TV pilot, the whole screenplay will serve to establish three main storylines that will be explored throughout a potential season.

 

pitch3

Story

The first storyline follows William West and his quest for vengeance against George Jenkins, the man who killed his parents and burnt down his home eight years prior to my story’s setting. William joins the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hunt down Jenkins but learns that the men he is now working with are in fact no better than the man he is trying to catch. The second storyline follows Tessa Trager and her desire to become a law enforcement officer so that she can also track down Jenkins and bring him to justice after he rapes and kills her mother. She faces resistance from her father, Donald Trager, who is Redfield County’s Sheriff and is disapproving of her daughter “acting like a man”. The final storyline follows Earvin “Skip” Walters, a famous outlaw who is also hunting down George Jenkins, his former right-hand man, after he defected from the gang after raping Tessa’s mother. Skip embodies the “noble outlaw” trope in a sense that he easily commits murders and robberies but rape is the one crime he cannot tolerate, especially if committed by someone in his gang. All three of these primary protagonists’ storylines will be intertwined by their search for this one man and in some cases, one person’s actions in their hunt will influence the other two in some form or fashion and vice-versa.

pitch4

Themes

The main theme that will be explored in my potential series is modernisation. As aforementioned, my setting is during the decline of the Old West as the old lifestyle of the American Frontier is being replaced by a more modern and less unruly society. I chose the year 1907 to set my story as that was a year before the Bureau of Investigation was founded (now known as the FBI) so my story would serve as an eventual lead up to that key event in US history. Government agencies were cracking down on outlaws during this period which leads to my secondary theme of my story: anarchism.

Anarchism was considered a real threat during the 1900s as US President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by anarchists. How present day society views terrorism nowadays was how society viewed anarchism back then. The whole political philosophy of anarchism will be explored through my outlaw characters and their backstories, exploring who they are and why they decided to become outlaws, probably as a result of them feeling disillusioned with the government. I will probably still need to conduct more research into anarchism.

Corruption of law enforcement is another theme I aim to focus on. When William joins the Pinkerton Agency, he immediately becomes alarmed to the underhanded methods some of the agents conduct in order to catch the men they are looking for. Pinkerton Agents at the time were reported to have been involved in intimidation, bribery, unlawful killings and excessive violence etc. Whilst these allegations have been disputed over the years, I’ve elected to include such behaviour in my story anyway in order to heighten my story for dramatic purposes but would take care not to exaggerate any such underhanded behaviour.

My final main theme which I wish to explore is femininity in 1900s America. Obviously American society was very patriarchal back then but I did not wish my story to just focus on men. I thought it would be more compelling to write interesting female characters that do not conform to how society viewed them back then. My main character for this is Tessa Trager but there is also Maggie McKinley, William’s love interest in the series, who is set to inherit her father’s ranch as his only child but faces opposition from his business partners due to her gender.

Context

In all of my previous projects I have either written or co-written them, however all the stories I have written were always London-based so I was always writing what I knew. For my dissertation project I wanted to challenge myself and write something that I don’t know anything about as in the industry as a screenwriter, I know you won’t always be writing stories in settings you readily know so I thought this would be good practice and experience for me to be industry-ready.

In a wider context, the TV market is oversaturated with crime dramas, comedies, legal dramas, even superhero dramas but there are no major Western TV shows so there is a niche in the market for it. The last major Western TV show was Deadwood which was cancelled nine years ago. Maybe there is a lack of appetite for Western shows but I think that if it can be successful as a film genre then the same should be for television, it just needs a compelling story at the heart of it which is the kind of story I want to tell.

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Tone & Research

For my research into the historical time of the Old West I have tried sourcing a number of books. I have acquired two so far that are detailed accounts of former Pinkerton Agents during the Old West. These books will be invaluable to me as the Pinkerton Agency will pay a vital role in my story. The books in question are Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter by Tom Horn and Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism by Charles A. Siringo. Another book I’m currently reading for reference is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy which is set in Texas in 1850. Whilst the timeline of the novel isn’t the same as my story as they are fifty plus years apart, the book is proving useful reference point in regards to the language and dialect the characters use in the novel as it would be similar to how my characters speak as Texans have a very distinctive dialect in the how they speak as well as the different colloquialisms they use. It’s vitally important that I nail the dialect of my script or else my characters will not have any credibility which is something I’m trying to avoid.

In terms of visual media for reference, Deadwood was the obvious choice for me to go far as a reference as it’s the only major television show in recent memory that is a Western. In terms of reference for my script, even though Deadwood is set in an entirely different state than my story and in a different time period also (1876), I still wanted to watch it to analyse and identify how the writers of that television show balanced the multiple storylines that are running in tandem. Since my screenplay will establish multiple storylines, I thought it was important for me to get an idea of how I can balance multiple storylines effectively.

Django Unchained is a recent Western film set in the south which would provide an additional reference source in regards to the southern accents that my characters will speak with. Whilst Django Unchained is set primarily in Mississippi and not Texas (as aforementioned, Texans have a very distinct dialect), I still think this film would provide a valuable reference in order to understand the cadence of the Southern American accent as I can actually hear the characters in the film talking, unlike Blood Meridian where I am just reading dialogue and not hearing anyone speak.

Finally True Grit is another film I am looking at for reference. The tone of True Grit balances well between drama and comedy which is something I want to achieve with my screenplay. Whilst for the most part, True Grit tells a serious story about a young girl who wants to seek justice for her father, there are humorous moments in the film to lighten up the tone every now and then.

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Methodology

I work better and more efficiently when I set myself deadlines so I decided to set myself personal deadlines to meet each stage of my writing process. I aim to have a first draft of my screenplay completed before the Christmas break so that in the second term I can focus entirely on writing and re-writing my script until the deadline of May 4th. In regards to my approach to redrafting my script after the Christmas break, I would adapt my redrafting process depending on the feedback I receive from my cohorts as well as outside sources who I plan to have read my screenplay for feedback (i.e. filmmakers I’ve worked with in the past, some actor friends etc.).

For example, if someone were to give me feedback saying the dialogue of a certain scene in my script did not sound natural, my approach to rewriting that scene would be to bring in professional actors in to do a read-through of that scene and try and work out how to make the dialogue sound natural based on how the actors perform the dialogue.

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Contingencies

The main challenge I think I’m going to face is the amount of research I still need to do. I need to research law enforcement practice during the time period my script is set in, I need to research the political philosophy of anarchism and I also need to research the agriculture industry back then as one of the settings of my story is on a ranch. I’ll address these challenges by sourcing relevant books on the aforementioned areas of research as well as sourcing relevant historic websites as a secondary option if finding available books proves to be too difficult.

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Screenwriting Term 2 – Second Draft

Second Draft Script – Man to Man [2nd Draft]

With this draft, I had the opportunity to have it read out in front of a larger group which was good as I could glean a higher variety of feedback from my cohort.

The changes I made were my lead character’s name (from Philip to Joe) as I felt the name Joe suited his character better. I had added more reference to Jason’s sister Ella and also I removed the whole music subplot with Jason and just had him give up on basketball partly because of his father. A subtle change I made in this draft was every time I had Joe walking somewhere, I would describe that he walks with a limp, subtly hinting that he suffered a serious injury in the past. I wanted it to be subtle and not have a character explain Joe’s past in detail as I wanted to avoid expositional dialogue as much as I can. I did not want a repeat of the dialogue I wrote in my earlier drafts of Pain where characters explain to each other things that both of them already know.

Response from this draft was generally positive. Most of my cohort did not understand any of the basketball terminology as I suspected, so they felt they may have missed something in the drama. I was aware of the possibility of this when I was writing my first draft and therefore structured the drama in a way that even though you may not understand the terminology used, you can get a sense of the dynamic between the characters. One example would be the practice scene in my film where Joe has a go at Jason for not running a play they way he was supposed to. Even though Joe complains at Jason using basketball terminology the general gist of the scene is that Jason does something that he wasn’t supposed to do which results in Joe shouting at him. I think I conveyed that as well as I could; granted it’s hard for someone who is unfamiliar with basketball to visualise this scene, but if this scene were to be filmed then I suspect it would be clearer to the audience.

One major criticism that I got was that I emphasised the point too much about the presence of Ella in the story at the beginning which makes the last scene lack the impact that it would have. I agreed with this, initially I did not want to include too much of Ella as in the event that I do decided to make this film I know that casting Ella would be extremely difficult, finding a young black actress who can play basketball convincingly.

Another criticism I got was that someone said that in my script you don’t really engage emotionally with the characters since it’s such a weighty story but it’s told within the confines of a ten page screenplay. Someone mentioned that my script would be better suited as a feature length screenplay, a sentiment I agree with. I still wanted to include the music subplot with Jason (or perhaps a different subplot as I was told the music thing was cliched) and wanted to explore Joe’s backstory a bit more but I couldn’t do so within a ten page screenplay. The very fact that I felt that the stories of my previous two screenplays that I’ve written for this term were better suited for a feature-length treatment says something about my predisposition toward writing stories. Perhaps I’m not suited to writing short screenplays as my ideas always have too much weight to them to explore within the confines of a short screenplay, especially a short screenplay with a page limit.

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Filed under MDA2100 - Screenwriting: The Short Film