- advert (supposedly) placed by Shackleton before one of his expeditions.
THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION
Hi, my name is Graham Hughes. I’m a British adventurer, TV presenter and a Guinness World Record holder. You can read more about me on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Hughes
I’m currently in the midst of a rather epic challenge – one that I hope you might be interested in joining me in: I’m trying to step foot in every country in the world, and attempting to do so without flying. I’m doing this to raise funds and awareness for the international charity WaterAid.
I work with Lonely Planet, National Geographic and BBC Worldwide. The first series of my self-filmed TV show, Graham’s World, is currently showing on the Nat Geo Adventure channel (Foxtel) and I was the star guest on Channel Nine’s Today Show last Saturday. You can watch the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeaR_RW7Zu4
Over the last two years, I’ve managed to visit an incredible 184 countries around the world, from Uruguay to Iceland, South Africa to Turkmenistan; on my own, on a shoestring and without flying. With only 17 more countries to visit, I’m now setting my sights on the Pacific Ocean nations of Oceania.
BUSINESS IN GREAT WATERS
I’m looking for somebody – it could be you, a friend, a colleague or your mum – who owns their own sailing ship and is looking for an epic adventure on the high seas. While I’m happy to pay for food, drink and fuel, but this would not be a commercial enterprise – I’m seeking somebody who wants to do this for fun, a bit of fame, to raise money for the charity WaterAid… and claim their very own Guinness World Record: THE FASTEST SEA JOURNEY TO EVERY COUNTRY IN OCEANIA.
From Australia, one amazing journey will take us to Papua New Guinea, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand… and back to Australia.
FORTUNE AND GLORY
Of course, this would be no small undertaking. We are talking here of a journey of over 10,000 nautical miles. It won’t be easy, but then Guinness World Records never are!
I travel solo, I don’t have a film crew or any bulky equipment. I have extensive sailing experience on the open sea, having been first mate on international voyages in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. I’m aware that for many boat owners, their vessel is their home and I’m more than happy to meet any prospective skippers in person before they reach a decision.
I’m not looking for anything fancy, fast, luxurious or even particularly comfortable, the only requirements I’ve got are that the ship be sea-worthy, insured and fitted with an international distress beacon in case of emergency.
I’m also open to the possibility of doing a smaller leg of the journey, sayAustraliato PNG to Palau and back. (Although they’d be no world record for you in that!)
I’m ready to leave as soon as possible from anywhere in Australia. Would YOU be interested in stepping up to the mantle? Prove to your family and friends that your boat is more than an expensive toy: show them that it’s an expression of freedom and adventure, feel the call of the ocean, leave all you troubles behind and join me on the voyage of a lifetime… fortune and glory await!
I anxiously await your call.
10 Aug 2011
24.10.11-29.10.11: And so I found myself becoming something of a fixture on board the good ship Papuan Chief. Breakfast (which I invariably missed) was served at 8am-9am, Lunch at noon and dinner at 6.30pm. If I wasn’t beavering away at the bar working on a video or a script or a rant, I’d be up on the bridge studying the shipping charts, learning how to use a sextant or just generally getting in the way of things.
This week has been all about the drill. We’ve had drills for fire, terrorism, oil spills… the ship’s six month inspection is due in Melbourne and Captain Santos wants all things to be ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. Literally. Seven short blasts followed by a long one means get your arse up to the bridge, Graham. A short, long, short, long, short and long means get to the Emergency Life Rafts and next time, do remember to pick up your immersion suit on the way, double-oh-Hughes.
The Coral Sea was rather mercurial. One day it was as flat as a supermodel, the next it was more choppy than Bruce Lee karate chopping a portion of pork chop chop suey. When the clouds came in on a quiet moonless night you could go out on the wing and look out towards nothing but inky blackness, squinting to make out where the sea ended and the sky began – not so impressive now with all our fancy GPS maguffins, but back in the day when there was nothing but a compass point and a flicking oil lamp to guide you, a buccaneers life was nothing if not perilous. For a speeded up version, close your eyes and go run through a forest.
To starboard lurked the Great Barrier Reef, for which we gave a wide berth, not just because of the obvious perils of scraping your way through the world’s largest living thing but also because the regulations on shipping anywhere near that area tighten up until you start singing soprano. But with the GBR out of the way, we were free to come in close to the coast: the hallowed mobile phone signal returning… one bar, two bars, three bars… it felt as if the world had returned. So dependent now, so linked in… a week without precious signal feels like punishment. By now it was Thursday.
The bad news is that I’d not heard anything back from the other shipping companies, so my proposed week-long stopover in Melbourne might again be indefinitely extended. For some reason, Customs and Excise are on my case, worried sick they are about the fact that back in February 2010 the camcorder I bought in the UK was fixed by Lonely Planet in Australia and sent back to me in the UK (during my 2010 visa run). It’s making somebody’s head melt, but to honest with you I’m not intending on returning to the UK for a good while yet, but if there’s a warrant out for my arrest, I’ll just keep travelling thank you very much. There’s some other odds and ends that need attending to, but lacking a full-time lackey to do my bidding, when Graham HQ is on radio-silence, not a lot can or will be done.
By Friday, the signal had gone as quickly as it came – all ties with the outside world severed once more. We passed the great city of Sydney, hovering like a magical kingdom a millimetre above the horizon… all grey and far away. Reminded me of my first glimpse of Kuwait City from the mighty Shat-al-Arab and made me stiffen my resolve to one day see Manhattan rise from the briny sea.
But we’re not stopping in Sydney, it holds no allure for us. In fact, unless you’re a yacht or a passenger ship, your chances of getting into Sydney harbour these days are remarkably slim: all the unsightly container vessels now come into Botany Bay or Newcastle. Someone should inform the architects of the Pompidou Centre: seal up your iPods, only mad enthusiasts want to see the inner workings.
And so on down the east coast of Australia, end to end. From 10 degrees south of the equator to 40 degrees. Each degree equals 60 nautical miles: that’s 1,800nm from tip to toe. Usually the Pap Chief trots along at a good 14.5 knots (nautical miles per hour), but heading south towards the Tasman Sea the current helps you along. At one point we were powering through the water at 17 knots. It seems slow to us with our Vauxhall Novas and our Castrol GTX, but without having to stop for rest stops, refuelling, traffic lights, roadworks, prostitutes and the like, we can cover some impressive distance and carry 981 lorries worth of stuff with just twenty crewmen and a skipful of diesel.
You know that all the diesel ships in the world could run off the disused chip fat from all the restaurants in the world?
I was talking to Jerry, the chief mate, about piracy (it’s a subject that comes up quite often on board cargo ships). Before the Somali pirates started making headlines in 2006, the bane of cargo crews everywhere were some other peace-loving ne’er-do-wells from Northern Sumatra in Indonesia who would routinely terrorise the Malacca Straits.
In 2004 Jerry was third mate on a tug boat, pulling a floating platform to Singapore from the Gulf of Aden. As it was a tug, it was going at about 5 knots making it an easy target for the pirates. With fishing ships all around them in what is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, there was nowhere to run to if things got messy. A fishing boat with an outboard motor sped past, then ran around the bow of the ship and headed back towards the bridge, this time brandishing AK-47s, M-16s and Rocket Propelled Grenades which they used to make Swiss cheese out of the wheelhouse.
The crew, completely outgunned, legged it to their cabins. After a tense half hour of gunshots, explosions and mayhem, the captain came over the intercom and told the entire crew to report to the bridge. Jerry and the other crewmembers did so. The pirates had taken the ship and proceeded to smash or shoot everything they could: the GPS, the radar, the radios, the windscreen. The captain was being held at gunpoint. The crew were instructed to go to their cabins and give the pirates all of their money, which of course they did. Eventually, once they had smashed everything worth smashing, the peaceful citizens of Aceh took the captain and the chief engineer hostage and departed the vessel, shooting up some more stuff on the way out just for good measure.
Suitably terrorised, the remaining officers managed to contact officials at Singapore and tell them what happened (note to would-be pirates: shooting the monitor does not generally kill the computer). They were asked if they could get any of their equipment up and running. Some of it, perhaps. Was the engine still going? Yes. Okay then: get to Singapore as quickly as you can. But Singapore was still two or three days away.
That night Jerry and the other crewmen couldn’t sleep. They all wanted to be on the bridge so they could keep a look out for any more pirates. But two different groups of pirates wouldn’t attack the same ship twice, would they?
Yes, yes they would.
The next day around noon another band of pirates took a swipe at the vessel. This time everybody ran to their hiding holes: supply cupboards, engine compartments, emergency storage units. There they waited for an hour until the sound of gunfire died down before they ventured out. The pirates must have taken the hint that the ship had already been attacked (the bullet holes in the windscreen possibly gave it away) and buggered off. But not before they smashed everything that the first lot missed.
Limping back to the nearest Malaysian port, the crew were relieved of duty and another tug was sourced to get the platform to Singapore. The captain and the chief engineer were released 22 days later, after a ransom of $100,000 had been paid.
The pirate operation in the Malacca Straits was all but wiped out by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Since then the good folk of Somalia have taken on the task of terrorising some of the most hard-working people in the world. Don’t forget, once you’re on a ship, you don’t get the weekend off. You don’t get Easter or Christmas or Melbourne Cup Day to go and see your family or get drunk with your mates. If you’re contracted for 6 months you work EVERY DAY for six months. Go interrupt the TGWU annual Foie Gras and Caviar Convention to tell them about that one.
And, to add insult to injury, thanks to those peace-loving terrorists (who may or may not hail from the same region of the planet as these piratey-types) all shore leave has been cancelled in many countries (including the USA) since 9/11.
Thanks a bunch, guys! Another home run for the forces of horribleness. Enjoy your time here on the good ship Planet Earth, feel free to ruin it for the rest of us.
But now it’s getting dark and the last light of the sun is dipping below the horizon. Beyond the Coral Sea lies the Tasman Sea which leads (if you’re following the Australian coastline) to the Bass Strait – the water which separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia. The Bass Strait has a reputation for tossing stuff around like they’ve made dwarf flinging an Olympic event. It’s not been too bad for us today, I only wish we had seen more whales. I saw one – a ruddy great big black one with a white stripe – jump out of the water and crash down on its back. SPLOSH! Apparently they do that to clean barnacles and parasites off their bodies. But it was far away and I didn’t have my camcorder going. Captain Santos says that last month was better – mating season. Whale porn.
It’s my last night on board the good ship Papuan Chief. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, sitting with Chief Engineer Dave and putting the world to rights. Ronnie, the ship’s steward, has looked after me better than I could ever have imagined and everybody onboard has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I got to steer the ship, blow the airhorn and study the shipping charts. I wrote a lot, I edited a lot and I read a lot (the ship has its own library).
Earlier, I complained about not being connected with the outside world. It was more to do with the fact that I need to organise the next leg of my journey and that my envisioned time to do that in the Solomons was ripped from me. But I’ve got to say that if you’re thinking of writing the next Great American Novel but you get easily distracted by the internet, the news, crown green bowls and Countdown, then travel by cargo ship is definitely worth considering. It’s just you and 1,800 nautical miles of peace, quiet and pure imagination.
12.12.11: We’re at sea, so now’s a good time to give you some sort of timetable of my movements over the next few months. It’s worth you knowing that there is no way the Odyssey Expedition will be finished before July at the very earliest. Don’t forget I’ve still got to infiltrate Fortress Seychelles (200) as well as return to Africa to finish my journey in South Sudan (201).
After the Southern Pearl stops off in Kiribati (190) and The Marshall Islands (191), it returns to Fiji around Dec 22. I’ll be in Fiji for Christmas and New Year (woo!) and then, thanks to the wonderful guys at Pacific Direct and Reef Shipping, I’ve been invited to join the crew of the Southern Lily 2, a cargo ship that runs to Samoa (192), Tonga (193) and New Zealand (194).
Mandy hasn’t had a holiday since she met me in Egypt two years ago, so she’ll be flying over to New Zealand to meet me for a two week breather. We’re planning to hurtle around North Island and, at some point, blag our way onto the set of The Hobbit. The reason that there is no great hurry to get on with the journey at this point is that the Scarlett Lucy, the ship I’m hoping to take me to Nauru (195), doesn’t leave Brisbane until Feb 15: and there’s no way I can make the January sailing.
On Jan 29, I’ll be saying my farewells to Mandy as the good people at Carnival have blagged me onboard a Princess Cruise ship back to Australia. I have to go back to Oz to meet with the aforementioned Scarlett Lucy, my one and only chance of making it to Nauru (195).
The Scarlett Lucy will return to Australia in March and then the challenge will be to secure passage on a ship leaving for Taiwan. Why Taiwan you ask? Because it’s from there that Mariana Shipping run a ship once every two weeks which stops at Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia (196) and Palau (197). I can’t find any ships going to Palau from the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s really the only way. If all goes like clockwork, it’s conceivable (but not likely) that I’d have it done by the end of April.
So then, May will involve a merry jaunt down to Singapore and then a trip across to Sri Lanka (198). By the time I convince a cargo ship to take me to the Maldives (199) and back to Sri Lanka it’ll be June. I then face the even more difficult challenge of finding a ship happy to take me back to Madagascar (although Mauritius or Reunion would be just as good), so let’s call that the rest of June.
July will start with me begging a yachtie in Nosy Be to take me to one of the most southerly of the Seychelles Islands (200). This would (at the very least) take a couple of weeks. I would then have to get back from Nosy Be to Africa. This could take a few days or a few weeks depending on how long I get stuck in Comoros again.
Once back in Dar Es Salaam, I know I could get to South Sudan (201) in just a few days via Uganda, visas permitting. I crack open a Juba beer and bring The Odyssey Expedition to a fitting (but long-overdue) conclusion.
Then… well, after three and a half years of surface-based travel hilarity, I hope you’re not expecting me to spoil it all by flying back to the UK are you?!
16.12.11: Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Bugger.
Unlike the deaths of John Peel or Douglas Adams, it didn’t come as a shock: it was no secret that Hitchens had cancer and that it was terminal, but it’s a kick in the bollocks all the same. Militant atheists like myself have lost our most persuasive, eloquent and impassioned voice.
Richard Dawkins is a great author and a great explainer of science (The Ancestor’s Tale is one of the best books I’ve ever read), but I can see how he rubs people up the wrong way. He often loses his patience with his opponents and gets frustrated far too easily in debates. Dawkins is a clever man, I sure he’s aware of these shortcomings, so it’s no wonder that he said he regarded Hitchens as a (sort of) mentor.
With a glass of whiskey in one hand and cigarette in the other, Hitchens always came across as measured and diplomatic: even when coming out with the least measured and least diplomatic Hitch-Slap against his opponents. His genius was not necessary what he said, but like a great cricketer, it was all in the delivery. With a calm demeanour and a clever turn of phrase he could steamroller his adversaries into a corner and tie their argument in knots.
And, lets face it: he was cool. Given the choice of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Pat Condell or Christopher Hitchens, I know which one I would rather spend a night out on the lash with.
I’ve been flicking through the obituaries and its difficult to come up with something original to say about Hitchens, other than he was a one off. One thing that is relative to this blog is that Hitchens had travelled extensively in his lifetime, usually to places reserved for peace-keeping troops and journalists in bullet-proof vests. This was something about Hitchens that was picked up by the travel section of the LA Times, whose otherwise gossamer-light article threw in a couple of pieces Hitchens had written about England and Bombay. They ended the article with the words ‘There’s much more, of course, to be gleaned from his works for those who don’t mind their travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion.’ This made me chuckle.
Most people hate it when travel writers actually have an solid opinion on a place or go off on some mad rant about the abuses they encounter while in countries other than their own. Seems to be the way of the world these days: don’t ruffle feathers, don’t speak your mind (unless you do it anonymously on a Yahoo news page), please keep off the grass, thank you. When Lonely Planet dropped a link to this site on their Facebook page earlier this year, after the first few positive comments, I got a some shock horror reactions from people who were mighty offended by negative things I’d written during The Odyssey Expedition about their countries (which was one of the reasons I wrote “10 Things I Hate About U(K)”).
Apparently what I should have said about Pakistan is that it’s a wonderful place, very neat and tidy. A place where they treat people with dignity and respect, human life is sacrosanct and has really, when you think about it, been nothing but a gift to the world. But if I wrote that I’d be a sycophant or worse, a liar. If you want goofy ‘OMG! Everywhere is just, like, you know, so AMAZING!’ then you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion, then I’m more than happy to pick up where Hitchens left off.
Sadly, picking up where Hitchens left off in terms of his militant (yet eloquent) atheism is going to be somewhat more of a challenge. Getting atheists together is often (accurately) described as being a lot like herding cats. We lack the charismatic charlatans that are part and parcel of religion (there’s little money to be made out of them thar atheists), and now more than ever we need competent public speakers who can show in word and deed that it’s possible to be a good person without believing in the sky fairies of yore. We need more brave souls willing to publicly rage against the injustices perpetrated by the tyrannical (or tragically misguided) followers of fanciful, not to mention moralistically flawed, Bronze-Age texts.
The death of Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly a huge blow to the forces massing against the monolithic and despotic religions that afflict our otherwise beautiful little planet. But the good news is that the damage is done. Over the last ten years, atheists, sick and tired of the atrocities perpetrated by the True Believers of the world, have started coming out of the closet like never before. On this journey, I’ve met atheists from Panama to Palestine, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia, from Kerala to Kentucky.
Atheist books sit on the New York Times bestseller list for months. The Irish government has openly criticised the Vatican. The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the issue of gay priests. The revolutions in the Middle East this year were overwhelmingly secular. People are turning to atheism in record numbers: which is why the Pope has been so vocal against us in the last couple of years (more vocal than he’s been about the paedophile priests he willingly enabled). Perhaps he fears the coffers that line his palace (and his clothes) with gold are going to start to dry up.
But that shows we’re winning. The dam has been breached and no amount of Polyfilla is going to plug the gap. In a recent study in the USA, it was found that atheists knew more about religion than people who regarded themselves as religious. This is no co-incidence. Like a vampire dining on the blood of the poor, religion feeds off ignorance, fear and poverty. The more educated we become, the more empowered we become. We’re sick and tired of the undeserved privileges afforded religions, the barefaced hypocrisy of so-called ‘holy men’ and the arcane and barbaric laws that they support.
Of course, 9/11 was a major catalyst for this sea change in attitudes. On that day the world was slapped awake and many saw for the first time the ugly vomit speckled face of religion at its most murderous and vile. Religion has survived several onslaughts over the years, but this was different: in one masterstroke, the architects of 9/11 proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what atheists like myself had been saying for years: that the world would be better off without religion.
And what would a world without religion look like? Well, we have a case study: at the end of World War II, in order to achieve a peace with Japan, the USA forced Emperor Hirohito (after a nuclear bomb or two) to renounce his divinity. Do you see what they did there? They robbed every mad-as-a-bag-of-cut-snakes Kamikaze pilot and every Japanese soldier willing to fight to the death… of their religion.
What happened? Did the world end? Did the sky fall in? No. The Japanese put down their weapons and started making cars and PlayStations instead. Today, Japan is one of the least religious countries on Earth… thanks to the USA, one of the most religious countries on Earth. I wonder if Alanis Morrissette would think that ironic.
Compare Japan and the USA over murder rates, crime rates, poverty statistics, productivity, happiness, longevity, infant mortality, education… you name it, Japan comes out on the good side, usually by quite a long way. Hell of a case study eh?
If Sam Harris started the fire with his book The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins fanned the flames with The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens turned up to the party with a billycan full of petrol. Hitch may be gone, but the fire he helped set is going to blaze for decades yet.
One day, the last stone from the last church will fall on the last priest, that vast hollow musical brocade of lies, subterfuge, hypocrisy and corruption will wither and die, the relentless pounding of the boot of religion on the face of humanity will cease and desist. It’s as inevitable as the tide.
It’s a shame that Christopher Hitchens won’t be around to see it.
But if you want to be around to see it yourself, for the sake of all that’s unholy, pack in those bastard cigarettes.
18.12.11: The hard part done, the crew of The Southern Pearl could now afford to let their hair down for the five day sail back down the Pacific Ocean to Fiji. It was time to fire up the barbecue!
With pork, steak, lamb, chicken, fish and sausages on offer, it was not a time for going hungry. Unless you’re a vegan or something.
I’ve been spending my days and nights (mostly nights) on board the good ship Southern Pearl practicing the ancient art of writing. I’ve been writing my blog (of course) which will one day become my book (it’s now pushing 750,000 words, so it’ll have to be edited down somewhat – James Joyce’s Ulysses is only 250,000 words). I’ve been writing Programme Bibles for TV shows you may never see and writing film scripts the names of which you may never see in backlit marquees. I don’t mind, I just enjoy writing. And then inflicting said writing on my family and friends.
Writing, especially fiction writing, appeals to my love of two things: puzzles and logistics. Since I was a kid I’ve loved puzzles. It’ll come as no great shock to anyone that my favourite video games when I was growing up were the point n’ click adventures of Golden-Era LucasArts.
When writing a screenplay, the puzzle revolves around how you get your characters from the set-up to the dénouement without invalidating the title. This is were logistics come in, and why writing fiction seems to me very closely related with what I’m doing with The Odyssey Expedition: I’ve got to think of clever, speedy, interesting, but overall logical ways of getting from point A to point B to point C and so on.
For most of my stories I have a series of hooks, which, while they are awesome ideas for individual scenes, have to lead naturally from one to the other. You give a lousy reason for going from big scene to the next, you find yourself in the territory of Episode 1, Transformers 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 or Indy 4: you just end up pissing off the audience.
Figuring out these links, for me, the most fun part of writing. They might come in the middle of the night or sitting on the toilet or while riding on the top of a lorry through the badlands of Northern Kenya. The thing is that once you make the connection, once you run through all the usual pitfalls in your head and it still makes sense, it just seems so bloody obvious in hindsight. Of course that’s how they escape! Of course that’s what makes the plane crash! Of course that’s why the baddie left that clue! D’oh!
It’s like a whodunit in which only you can work out the solution.
Sadly, Hollywood seems stuck in an ultra-conservative glut at the moment, with all the remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations floating around I’m amazed when we get a single original concept for a film squeezing through each year. The only big one from last year was Inception.
Some of the greatest films of all time: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, North By Northwest, All About Eve, The Apartment, Midnight Cowboy, Star Wars, Alien, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Memento and Crank were NOT adapted from something else, they were original ideas specifically created for a specific medium: film. Original ideas seem in short supply in Hollywood today, which is why American Television is running rings around the silver screen.
So I reckon there’s no better time for you to have a crack at writing a blockbuster. I’m sure you’ve got ideas floating around your noggin and you’ve got time in your life to read my ramblings so you can’t be that busy! There’s no reason why, with a bit of help, you can’t knock out something resembling a Hollywood film from back when they were good (ie. the Twentieth Century).
The thing about film scripts, and why writing them is a much better idea than writing a book (if you’re a lazy procrastinating sod like me), is that you don’t ever really sell a script, you only option it. If it’s a smokin’ hot script, you could get, say $200,000 just for the option rights. But here’s the best bit: if the studio doesn’t make the film within two years (say) the option rights revert back to you.
So then you can option the same script again for another $200,000 to another studio. There are millionaires living in Hollywood who have had no script of theirs ever made into a movie. Seriously.
Because I’m such a great chum, here are some tips and strategy that I’ve gleaned from reading various books on scriptwriting, attending scriptwriting courses and watching thousands of films. You’d pay $500 to go to a seminar to be told exactly what I’m going to tell you now, for free. Think of it as a Christmas present for sticking with The Odyssey Expedition blog over all these years.
If I manage to inspire you to write a film that makes a billion at the box office, don’t forget to mention me in your Oscar acceptance speech.
First up, work out the basic premise in your head. Don’t worry about making it all make sense just yet, just worry about the main features of the story. At the very least you should have a strong set-up, a strong dénouement and a good title. Unfortunately for you, the best movie titles of all time, Ice Cold In Alex, There Will Be Blood and Snakes on a Plane have already been taken, so you’ll just have to think of another one.
At this point, if all you can think of is a single scene, you should really consider writing a short movie instead.
This is important, possibly the most important thing about scriptwriting.
You need three things to tell a story: a story, a storyteller and an audience. Otherwise you’re just talking to the wall. It’s interesting that British people take so long to figure out you need an audience: Americans get onto this fact a lot quicker.
Before you write a single word, ask yourself “who will be the audience?”
If the answer is “art-house patrons” then congratulations! You’ve narrowed down your target market to less than 1% of the cinema-going public.
The British/Australian/Canadian/New Zealand film industries struggle enough, they don’t need even more crap clogging up the system and scaring off investors. Be realistic: it costs a MILLION DOLLARS to make a ‘cheap’ movie. For your idea to become a reality someone will have to feed, clothe and house dozens, maybe even hundreds of people for up to six months… AND THEN have to re-coup the all the money or you’ll never work in this town again etc.
As each person in the UK goes to the cinema (on average) once a year, your film about a woman who lives in a council estate in Salford, gets beaten by her husband and then kills herself is going to present something of a problem. Your magnum opus will be up against the likes of Spielberg, Clooney and Stratham.
If your idea is as niche as a novelty sex toy that only works if you’ve walked on the moon, you’d be MUCH better off writing for TV. You’ll not need to obsess over cutting a profit, you’ll reach a wider audience than you ever would via the cinema, you’ll reach the right demographic and hell, Stephen Poliakoff, Matthew Graham and Steven Moffat are three of my favourite writers. When it comes to capturing close, intimate, character-driven drama, TV is a far superior medium than the cinema.
Here’s a quick test you can run in your head: is this storyline something I’m likely to see in a soap opera? If the answer is yes, to paraphrase Layer Cake: you’re in the wrong f—ing business, son. If the answer is no, great! Welcome onboard, let’s write a blockbuster movie.
For your blockbuster to bust blocks you’re going to have to write to your audience. Regular cinema goers are heavily weighted towards 13 to 35 year old males. You’ll have much more luck selling your script and becoming an overnight millionaire if you target that key demographic. Failing that, if your audience is ‘children, but parents will be entertained as well’, this is also acceptable, especially if you’re writing for Pixar.
Just Start Writing
Okay, now, before you do anything else: START WRITING.
This is the hardest bit of the whole process. Just write, write anything, just fill the pages with words.
This is a bit like when you start to learn to drive and the instructor says ‘just drive’ and directs you onto the main road. Nerve-wracking I’m sure, but the kick-the-baby-out-the-nest-so-it-flies method is pretty much tried and tested around the animal kingdom, so of course it applies to driving lessons and creative writing as well.
An incorrectly formatted script will not be read by anyone but your mum.
In order get the formatting right, download a copy of Final Draft. If you fancy having a go on your own, the only font you’re allowed to use is Courier 12pt.
Your script should start with the words ‘FADE IN:’ tabbed over to the far right. Then you’ve got the scene heading, always written something like this:
INT. MORGAN’S HOUSE – DAY
EXT. MORGAN’S HOUSE – NIGHT
I/E. MORGAN’S CAR – THE NEXT DAY
You must put whether the scene is INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) or I/E. (both) and make it clear whether it is day or night (a throwback to the days when each of these set-ups would require different film stocks). You can also get away with using CONTINUOUS, MOMENTS LATER, MORNING or EVENING.
Then you’ve got the ‘blackstuff’: the action. If you want to conjure up a fantastically detailed world, write a book. The blackstuff should be kept to a minimum, as in Shakespeare. Apparently, the scripted directions for the 20 minute long flying fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon consisted of two words: “They Fight”. Details are up to the director, not you.
When a NEW CHARACTER is introduced his or her or its name is written in CAPITALS. Ditto for SOUND EFFECTS.
When people speak the correct format is:
This is the correct format.
You can also add a ‘wryly’, but I’d suggest you keep these to a bare minimum. A wryly is a scripted direction on how to say something.
We’re all going to die.
(sarcastically) <– this is a ‘wryly’
Well that’s just jolly spiffing isn’t it? Man.
Bit pointless? Yesh Mish Moneypenny, I wouldn’t bother unless absolutely necessary, give the actors and director some credit. Each page of your script will equate to about 1 minute of screen time, so you should aim for about 100 pages. You have to write “FADE OUT.” justified to the right of the page at the end. That’s it, really.
So that’s all your major formatting points done. Keep your first draft diabolically simple. Write the script in chronological order and keep the dialogue plain and functional. You’ll be mucking about with it later.
If you get stuck on how to bridge the gap from one scene to the next, just skip the gap for now. Just get down everything that’s in your head on paper.
Your First Draft
What you’ll end up with will be 100-odd pages of something so shockingly bad you wouldn’t want it to use it as a doorstop lest you offended the door. This is your first draft. DON’T WORRY, they’re always bloody dreadful. Nobody in their right mind would turn the first draft of a script into a film.
Okay, now the real work begins. You’ve got your malformed, illogical, boring lump of clay. Now I want you to mould it into something beautiful.
The Re-writes Begin…
There are certain rules you have to stick to in order to write a successful movie script. If you would prefer to ignore these rules, write a novel instead. The rules of movie making are pretty much set in stone and you’d have to be either very brave or very stupid to break them.
Reservoir Dogs follows the rules. Casablanca follows the rules. The Godfather follows the rules. The Shawshank Redemption, Being John Malkovich, The Big Lebowski, Little Miss Sunshine, The Matrix, Gran Turino, Platoon, Raging Bull, Inception, Annie Hall, The Wizard of Oz… no matter how clever you think your favourite movie is, chances are, if it turned a profit at the box office it follows the rules.
You want to see a film STICKS IT TO THE MAN and THROWS THE RULE BOOK OUT THE WINDOW…?
Okay. Every film ever made tells the same story, which is… (drum roll please…)
Somebody Wants Something,
But They’re Having Trouble Getting It.
Identify who the ‘Somebody’ is, what exactly is the ‘Something’ they want and what exactly the ‘Trouble’ is lurking in their way, and hell, your script might be actually getting somewhere.
The story of this ‘Somebody’ will have Three Acts. Preferably no more, and definitely no less. If you must, you can dick around with the chronology (Memento, Pulp Fiction) later. Preferably in the edit suite.
The Three Acts
Act One is your set up. You must introduce your Somebody: your protagonist. Spell out what he or she wants and give us some idea of how he or she intends to get it. We should meet (or at least be aware of) the antagonist within the first few pages. Act One should cover the first 30 pages of the script.
If the protagonist isn’t revealed to the audience before the end of Act One, then you’re in trouble. You can, if you’re VERY lucky, manage to switch protagonists (Marion Crane/Norman Bates in Psycho), but this rarely happens, because it rarely works.
But the important thing is you MUST have a protagonist or the story will not work. Star Wars Episode I lacks a protagonist, which is just one of the many reasons why it sucks so bad. Some ensemble films (Magnolia, Traffic, Crash) have more than one protagonist, but the rules are the same: identify what their problem is, and spell out how they intend to overcome it. Ensemble films are notoriously tricky to get right, so I wouldn’t bother: in any case, they rarely set the Box Office ablaze.
Act Two is the journey. The protagonist MUST make a conscious decision to embark on this journey themselves (they then take the audience with them: if they’re tricked or simply following somebody else journey, they’re not the protagonist!). We have to see the protagonist develop and face challenges issued by the antagonist in getting what he or she wants. By midway through the movie, the protagonist should be flying high. Then it all goes horribly wrong.
By the end of Act Two, all should be lost. Your protagonist must seem as far from his or her goal as they could possibly possibly be. This is the turning point of the film, not just in terms of plot, but also in terms of character development. It’s now that the protagonist realises, like the Rolling Stones, they may not always get what they want, but if they try sometimes, they might get what they need. Act Two should cover around 60 pages.
By Act Three the protagonist has changed as a result of the journey. This gives them the tools, confidence, wisdom, whatever, to overcome the antagonist. It can consist of between 10 and 30 pages, but don’t overdo it, it’ll get boring very fast.
By the way, a tragedy (such as Being John Malkovich, Amadeus or Macbeth) runs along the same route except the protagonist gets what he or she wants too early on… when this happens, they become the antagonist. They’ll learn their lesson too late to do anything about it and lose everything by the end of the story. For a masterclass in this kind of character arc, see Walter Whyte in Breaking Bad.
For an example of exactly how not to do it, see Star Wars Episode III.
In a two-hour movie, especially if it’s the kind of action-orientated flick that might actually stand a chance of making millions, your protagonist will invariably be an archetype. Pretty much every great character in cinema history from Rick Blaine to Charles Foster Kane to Vito Corleone to Andy Dufresne has been a archetype. There’s nothing wrong with this: it’s still perfectly possible to get your subtle nuances across.
Save The Cat
The next thing you need to do is “save the cat”. Unless you’re writing the script for a film in which we all already know the protagonist (James Bond or Indiana Jones), we don’t know this guy, why the hell should we care what he wants? We have to like him. This is pretty easy to do, you just need a scene in Act One in which they (perhaps unexpectedly) do something heroic: ie, save a cat rather than eat one for lunch. It’s not like cinema audiences don’t want to manipulated.
Main Character vs. Central Character
Every film (with the exception of ensemble pics) has a main character and a central character. They can be the same person (Neo in The Matrix, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Forrest Gump in, er, Forrest Gump). But if you want to be clever you can make them separate people (or entities).
Consider: Mozart is the central character in Amadeus, the frikkin’ movie is named after him. However, we watch events unfold through the eyes of somebody else: in this case the jealous, vengeful Salieri. The same thing happens in King Kong, Ferris Bueller, Immortal Beloved and Atonement.
Generally speaking, the central character is what drives the plot forwards, but we see the story through the eyes of the main character. The major difference (and why this technique is used so often in historical movies) is that the main character can (and does) change during the course of the film, the central character can’t. Kong will be Kong until the day he is shot off the top of the Empire State Building, but without Kong nothing in that movie could possibly happen. Ferris Bueller isn’t the main character of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s Cameron that changes: he’s the one who trashes his dad’s car and says he’s happy to face up to the consequences. The film is actually about Cameron.
Even a film where it looks cut and dry, like The Shawshank Redemption, pulls this trick on you. At first glance, Andy is the main character, but think about it: he never changes. Red changes (think of the final parole hearing scene), which makes him the main character — we also see the events through his eyes, not Andy’s. This is one of the reasons Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor.
Sticking with Stephen King’s Different Seasons for the moment, in the story The Body (which became the film Stand By Me) Chris Chambers (River Phoenix in the film) was the main character, which worked fine in the book, but when translated onto the big screen it just didn’t work. Director Rob Reiner decided to pull a switcheroo and made Gordie the main character instead, and went on to create one of the most-loved movies of all time. Again, we see the film through Gordie’s eyes and Gordie is the character who changes at the end, not Chris.
As in Stand By Me, you’ll often have a group going on a journey together, but notice there’s still only one main character: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Mikey in The Goonies etc.
It’s the comforting lie that Hollywood has been (very successfully) peddling for over a century: the fallacy that people can change.
But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This is the easy bit. Your antagonist could be a rival news anchor, a monster from the black lagoon or the protagonist’s own fear of commitment (although if your script is based around fear of commitment, I hate you). It’s just some thing that keeps throwing obstacles in the way of our hero.
Wants vs. Needs
Before you embark on the journey you must spell out very clearly is what your main characters heart’s desire is. It might be to go into space, get with the girl or win the world tiddlywinks championship. But that alone does not a good film make. What you can play with, and what you can be more subtle about, is what the character really NEEDS. Self confidence, trust, education, friends, the monster to stop eating his friends etc.
The most blatant example of the wants vs. needs fandango is The Wizard of Oz, in which nobody gets what they want off the wizard: they just needed somebody to tell them that they had whatever it is they wanted all along.
Often you’ll see a film in which a character doesn’t want to change until they are shown a world beyond what they’re aware of (‘the sleeper awakes’), but others are quite happy to spell out straight away that the protagonist is not happy with his or her lot and wishes for change. It’s not until later in the story that the real need of the protagonist is revealed: think of Charles Foster Kane’s last word.
Horror films are an exception to the rule, generally the only ‘change’ the main character needs is for things to go back to normal. This is why it’s so hard to keep a protagonist alive for more than one horror film – once they achieve the confidence or nouce they need to defeat the zombie hoards at the end of the first movie, their character arc has nowhere left to go.
Now you’ve got to kick your story into some semblance of order based on the structure I’ve just described. It sounds pretty restrictive, but usually you’ll find the bits of your script that work follow the rules, the bits that don’t work remind you of Star Wars Episode I.
Now have a look at the pacing of the film. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you want your protagonist to begin the journey around page 30. Take the blue pill, Neo. By page 60, they should be flying high, doing really well for themselves on their quest. They’ve probably met a girl they quite like and a comedy sidekick who makes sarcastic comments.
Pages 60-90 are when everything goes wrong (the end of Act Two is often known as ‘the mentor’s graveyard’ as it’s a good place to dispense with the mentor character as he or she will be useless in Act Three anyway).
Page 90 should be the lowest point (for the main character). If you’re writing a standard story, this should be the ‘all is lost’ moment. However, if you’re writing a tragedy, it’ll be the highest point for the main character. But tragedies don’t make money, so DON’T WRITE ONE.
For the record, films like Gladiator, 300 or Pan’s Labyrinth in which the protagonist dies at the end are NOT tragedies: they achieved their goal. They don’t need to survive to win. A tragedy is only when our protagonist loses, and loses big.
Pages 90-120 are when you really need to be wrapping things up. This is nothing to do with short attention spans and more to do with pacing. You gear the audience up for the dénouement and then keep them hanging on for another hour, they’ll hate you like I hate George Lucas for making Star Wars Episode I.
Also, if the links between your scenes seem inexplicable and arbitrary, “now let’s go to the pyramids!”, you’ll lose your audience. An audience confused is not an audience entertained, and suspension of disbelief only works if you rigidly adhere to the rules that your own universe creates.
Right, finally, the least important thing: dialogue. By the time your film gets made, every line will be changed, switched or rewritten by the powers that be anyway so it’s no big sweat.
That being said, silent protagonists are a tough sell, and while actions speak louder than words in real life, it’s a lot easier in the world of movies to make your characters sympathetic by having them express their desires through words rather than the medium of dance.
You should also ensure that when you read an individual line, you can (usually) work out which of your characters said it. Base each of your character’s reactions, speech patterns and slang on people you know, it’ll make it easier for you to differentiate. In general keep exposition to a bare minimum: nobody likes a lecture. If you’ve got something complicated to explain, try hiding it in a car-chase. Or use The West Wing’s “walk with me” shtick.
Now go back over the script and take out the first and last lines of each scene. Repeat until you cannot remove any more dialogue and have each scene still make sense.
Don’t waste words, you haven’t got the luxury. Everything said should move the plot forward or tell us something about your characters. In each scene, the action should arrive late and get out early.
Print out hard copies (a waste of paper I know, but it’s MUCH easier to get people to read, even if they do own a frikkin’ iPad) and distribute to your friends, family, mortal enemies, people in the street etc. Give them a questionnaire to fill out asking them mainly about three things: places they got bored, places they got confused and character actions they didn’t understand (or didn’t believe). Don’t just ask them if they think it’s any good… everyone invariably say yes as they won’t want to offend your precious sensibilities.
With all this feedback buzzing around your cranium, go to bed. Put a pad and a pen with a light on it on the side. Lie down, close your eyes and run through the script in your head like you’re watching the film. You’ll think of new connections, you’ll think of different ways of doing stuff, you’ll find characters that you can dump, scenes you can do without and ways of simply doing it better.
Then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.
When you’ve absolutely, totally, utterly and completely finished rewriting, rewrite it again.
Now set it in space, add some more robots/zombies/dinosaurs and you’re done.