SYS Podcast Episode #216: Michael Radford
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #215 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger of the www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer, director Michael Radford. He just did a film called The Music of Silence which is a biopic on the singer Andrea Bocelli. Stay tuned for that interview. Towards the end of the podcast, I’m gonna try out a new section where I answer a listener’s questions. Today’s questions are, what is a screenplay treatment, what’s the difference between a treatment and a synopsis and how long should a screenplay treatment be? Stay tuned for the answers to those questions.
If you find this episode viable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re all very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode incase you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #216. If you want my free guide- How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional log line and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer, director Michael Radford. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Michael to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Michael: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a big pleasure.
Ashley: To start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Michael: I had no interest in the entertainment business for a long time. I was the son of a military family. I was born in India, I grew up in Africa in Libya and I ended up… after I went to university, I went to Oxford University where I studied Politics Philosophy and Economics which has nothing to do with the movie business either. And then I wanted to be an actor for a moment or two, and I went up to Scotland. That didn’t work and I left that and ended up teaching in a very rough school in the back streets of Edinburgh. In order to somehow entertain the kids that I was working with, they were only about two years younger than I was, I found this little film camera, little Bolex 16mm movie camera that the school had bought and nobody used. I thought how it would be great to make a film with these guys to keep them quiet.
I’d never done it before. I just kind of pointed the camera at them and an extra ordinary thing happened to me. And really this is true, like in a way Paul on the road to Damascus I was hit by this sudden understanding that I [inaudible 00:03:33] how this language worked. I didn’t…it’s like a musician, you know. I’m not a musician but I’m told that when people who are very, very good musicians or very musically centered can look at a piano and just see the notes. Just see them. In the same way I found myself looking through a movie camera and realizing that there was a language here that I actually could speak. I can’t really say more than that. I was just determined from that moment onwards to become a movie maker. I forgot the kids.
Ashley: What were some of those steps? Now you found this passion, what were some of the steps to actually turn it into a career?
Michael: What I did was I went to the National Film School as it was then in the UK which had just been founded. I was in the group of the first I don’t know, 12 or 15…25 students that we were to begin with. I came out of there after a couple of years and really there was no film industry in England at that time. I started making documentaries. And I made a couple of documentaries in Italy and got kind of interested in it. Then I went to Scotland to work for the BBC theatrically making documentaries for the arts programs. Somebody asked me to make a documentary about a writer and I said, “Look,”…she was a wonderful Scottish writer.
I said, “Look, why don’t I make a film about how people turn their life experience into fiction?” And they said, “Yeah, that’s a really great idea.” “Okay, so you got 10 minutes of fiction to put in this movie and the rest is gonna be a 70 minute interview with this woman. She’s called Jessie Kesson. I sat down, I found her first novel, I wrote a screenplay to give back to them and said, “Look, I’ve written a 70 minute screenplay and I thought that I’d add 10 minutes of interview to it [laughter]. That bugged me. I got to make a feature film for television which was extremely successful. Then very quickly I made another one with her called Another Time Another Place about three Italian prisoners of war in the north of Scotland.
That went to the Cannes Film Festival and in the director’s fortnight, not expecting anything it was suddenly a huge hit in Europe. I had Cahiers du Cinéma voting it the best film of the year, I had Jean-Luc Godard writing me a note saying that he was doing a documentary about how the British couldn’t make movies and he’d seen my film and he cancelled the documentary [laughter]. I don’t believe a word of it but he did. That’s what he said. And Bernardo Bertolucci called me from Italy. I didn’t know any of these people [inaudible 00:06:42]. He said, “Look, you understand Italians better than anybody I’ve ever met from abroad.” I said, “I don’t know, why.”
He said, “Okay well, you should be making films with them.” Then I went off and did a whole different other…My producer and I took a pant and got both the rights to 1984 and made that. That was a huge movie and that was my second movie. Then I made a film called White Mischief which was even bigger…Not even bigger, but fun and in Africa and all the rest of it, but it wasn’t a big commercial success. So I was casting at that and this Italian actor called me up and he said this guy Massimo Troisi, and said, “Look, why don’t we make a film together?”
I said, “Why should we?” He said, “Because Another Time Another Place is my favorite movie all time and I wanna work with you. So we cooked up this thing together. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t at that moment speak very much Italian, but we found this Chilean novel which very few people had read and that was it. We took off. It really took off. Who would have thought that that movie would out gross Die Hard 2, which it did? Anyway.
Ashley: Great story! Let’s jump into your most recent film The Music of Silence. Maybe you can tell us what that’s all about if you have a pitch or a log line for it.
Michael: It’s about the life of…it’s, a biopic about Andrea Bocelli the Oprah Singer. And how did I get involved in it, is that what you meant?
Ashley: Yes, I was just gonna ask you how you got involved.
Michael: Well, because I’m famous in Italy I have to say.
Michael: And all these Italian things that I’ve done. I get tables and restaurants and people take selfies with me in the street and stuff. So I get kind of a lot of offers from there. Usually I don’t do them because I know much less about Italy that people think I do, but this was a friend of mine called Roberto Sessa who’s a producer. I turned him down on several occasions. I said I can’t make a biopic of somebody who’s still alive. It’s gonna terrible. It going to be saying things like, “It wasn’t like that,” and that kind of stuff. But he persuaded me to do it and he accepted that Anna Pavignano who I wrote Il Postino with would write it. And she also wrote the film Elsa & Fred that I did as well.
So I ended up doing it. In a way it wasn’t a film that I’d chosen to do, it was a film that chose me. I thought, “Why not?” People are desperate to make pictures and it’s rare that it happens. And I thought it would be…I’d love to do this. I’d love to just try this out. And I had several constrictions…
Ashley: Let’s talk about your approach something like this. Did you go and talk to him about his life and take notes? Did he have like an autobiography that you read? How do you even approach a life story like this of someone’s that’s famous?
Michael: Well, he had an autobiography which he’d done and the producer had taken the rights. It isn’t by any means an adaptation of that autobiography, but he did give me enough facts about his life for Anna and I to sit down and construct a screenplay. There were certain things that they wanted from it and I felt kind of very free because I wasn’t sitting down and torturing myself to find something that comes from my innermost soul. It was just making a film that somebody that I find really interesting I have to say. And he’d written this autobiography.
Ashley: What are some of those things? You just mentioned that producers had a few things that they wanted in the film. I wonder if you can talk about some of those sort of specific things that they definitely wanted.
Michael: I think that they wanted a lot of music. That’s for sure. I think that really what we came to an agreement over was that we would make it about how we made it basically. How this little blind kid from a little village in Tuscany made it. A guy twice blinded if you like, made it, and the kind of force of character that it took to get that far. Of course in his autobiography there were details of stuff that you just…so much detail that you can’t possibly take it all in. You have to just select a path through it if you like. That was probably most of the good things too. We just decided that we would take it to the moment that what he’d…
If you imagine this, he waited nearly 10 years to appear on stage having been promised something 10 years before. But he walked out on stage and from that moment he was a hit and that was it. And then…
Ashley: I did not mean to cut you off. Let’s talk about collaboration. I have a lot of listeners to the podcast that they right with a partner. Maybe you can just describe how your partnership with Anna goes. Are you guys in the same room when you’re writing? Do you outline, divide up scenes and then she writes some scenes, you write some things? Maybe just describe the logistics of all that.
Michael: Well, working with Anna is fairly unique actually from other people that I’ve worked with. First of all she doesn’t speak any English. We communicate in Italian even though we’re supposedly writing in English. It’s really complicated [laughs]. With Anna, she’s very much a screenwriter, not a director or anything like that. So she will do a first draft and then I’ll do a second draft. That’s basically how it works. And then we’ll collaborate and argue and have a go at our final draft. That’s basically how it works. She on this picture did most of the work to be honest, because it is an Italian picture. But normally when I work with someone…when I say I work with somebody, I work on my own normally.
But what I do do is I hire somebody to…and right at this moment it’s my wife. Actually it’s the first time she’s done it. But I will hire somebody as a kind of what I would call the sounding board, because I find that I write much better if talk it…if I invent it talking. I think a lot of writers or directors who write work that way. I just know it’s the case. I’ve written scripts completely on my own, but it takes longer and you have more doubt and I’m less full of ideas…If I can verbalize my ideas, I can then…I don’t need anybody to write them down or write them. I know where I’m going. But just to sort of talk to somebody is a very, very useful thing. I think that’s why in a sense scriptwriters often work in pairs.
Ashley: Okay, sounds good. I appreciate you Michael. Good luck with this film and all your future films. I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today.
Michael: Thank you Ashley. It’s really nice of you. Thank you.
A quick plug for the SYS screen writing analysis service. It’s a really economical way to get high quality professional evaluation on your screenplay. When you buy our three pack you get evaluations at just $67 per script for feature films and just $55 for teleplays. All the readers have professional experience reading for studios, production companies, contests and agencies. You can read a short bio on each reader on our website and you can pick the reader who you think is the best fit for your script. Turnaround time is usually just a few days, but rarely more than a week.
The readers will evaluate your script on six key factors—concept, characters, structure, marketability, tone and overall craft, which will includes formatting, spelling and grammar. Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write a log line and synopsis for you.
You can add this log line, synopsis service to an analysis, or you can simply purchase this service as standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the new SYS Select data base, which is a data base for producers to find screenplays and a big part of the SYS Select program. This is a new service but we’ve already got producers in the system looking for screenplays. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend or consider from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly best of newsletter each month that we sound out to producers to highlight the best scripts that have come through our system.
It’s another great way to get your material out there and in front of many, many producers. If you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. Just a quick shout out to screenwriter Steven Hoover who used the SYS email Facts Plus Service a while back. He met a producer through the blast and optioned a script to him so that’s fantastic. Congratulations to Steven. I added a little blurb to the SYS Success page if you wanna learn a little bit more about this option. Just go to www.sellinyourscreenplay.com/success.
In the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing writer Devon Shepard. He’s a comedian and a screenwriter. He’s written a number of popular TV shows like Weeds, Mad TV, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and many, many, many more. He’s got dozens and dozens of TV credits. We have a wide range in talk. We spend a lot of time really digging into the early days of his career and how he broke into TV writing. Keep an eye out for that episode next week. To wrap up the show, I thought I would answer a few questions that have been sent in to me. If you have a question you could always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But just please check the www.sellingyourscreenplay.com Frequently Asked Questions page first, because I would say maybe half the questions that I get emailed in I’ve already answered on the FAQ page, so just check that out. I’ll link to it in the show notes, but it’s just www.seelingyourscreenplay.com/FAQ. So this week’s question is…and it’s a series of questions but they’re all very much related. The question is what is a screenplay treatment? What’s the difference between a treatment and a synopsis? How long should a screenplay treatment be? Okay, so let’s take the first part of this.
From my experience when someone…and when I say someone I mean a producer or director, asks a writer for a treatment, they typically mean a fairly long version of the story written out in just normal pros with normal sense as in normal paragraphs. I would say in general as a guideline, 8 to 12 pages is about right. But this is a very arbitrary number and I’m gonna get back to that in a minute. Here’s the bigger point though, I’m not sure you really even need to write what I just described as a treatment if you’re writing a spec script. I’ve never written a treatment unless it’s for a writing assignment where you develop the treatment with the producer and they sign off on it before you actually start writing the screenplay.
This makes sense. It’s easier to rewrite the treatment than it is to rewrite a finished screenplay. It’s much better to do a few drafts of the treatment before you start on the screenplay so that everyone involved, and that might be a producer, a director, who knows, it might be an actor. But this group of people have hired you as a writer and part of your deal with them is to do two or three passes of the treatment and then maybe two or three passes of the screenplay. That’s gonna all be outlined in your contract. Again, this is sort of the logical progression. You start out with maybe a shorter six-paged treatment, you flush it out a little bit more, but you want everybody to sign off on this because the worst thing that can happen is you hand in a screenplay and there’s a bunch of things that weren’t discussed beforehand, and the producers and the director, they may not like what you’ve done and they may be like, “Well, this needs a page one rewrite and you’re back to square one.
Again it’s easier to rewrite that treatment than it is to rewrite that finished screenplay, so if everybody signs off on that treatment before you start writing in the screenplay, it will hopefully avoid the development hell as you get into the screenplay. Again, that’s sort of the context as my own career as a screenwriter. That’s the context from where I’ve written treatments. Now, if you’re writing a spec script and writing a detailed treatment is part of your own development process, that’s totally fine. Go ahead and write a treatment. It’s similar to outlining on the index card. That a very popular method screenwriters use.
You put one scene on an index card, you lay it out in front of you, you can remove scenes, you can add scenes. I find that in this day and age with something like Word, it’s very easy to do basically the same kind of thing with the treatment where each paragraph is it’s own scene and you can pull scenes out, you can drop scenes in, you can rewrite scenes. Again, if writing a treatment is part of your process, that’s totally fine. Go ahead and do it and you might even have a treatment at the end of it that somebody might actually look at if they want to see that maybe before they read the script. I’m gonna talk about more of that in a minute.
Back to the question on length for a minute. More than worrying about how long the treatment should be, it’s really a matter of considering what the purpose of the treatment is. If it’s the first step in a writing assignment like what I mentioned earlier, you’ve got to make sure it’s detailed enough to really flush out all the characters and story bits so that you avoid having to make a lot of those decisions when you’re writing the actual screenplay, because if you make those decisions later in the process the producer may not like them. You wanna avoid surprises when you turn in that first draft to the producer.
So again, just in my own career when I’d been hired as a screenwriter to write up an idea from a producer, typically I think those treatments end up around 8 to 12 pages. Those are pretty detailed and those are single spaced treatments, single spaced pages obviously one sided. So 8 to 12 pages. Again, that’s kind of where mine have fallen but I would err on the side of this is the position you’re in when you’re on a writing assignment. I would err on the side of being a little too long and making sure your thorough and detailed because again you want to avoid problems once you hand up surprises that the producer doesn’t like when you hand in that first draft.
Obviously if you’re writing for yourself it doesn’t matter how long it is. I can’t remember who but one of the guests on my podcast, his whole writing process was he starts out kind of just writing a lose treatment and then he slowly just develops that treatment more and more and more until it literally becomes the screenplay. He’ll start putting in dialogue, he’ll start putting in more and more description, he’ll start polishing it up. So he just starts with Word and just slowly just polishes this document until eventually it turns into a screenplay. Again, everybody’s process is different, so if you’re just asking about a treatment in that context, that’s totally fine. It’s however you want it to work and it can be as long or short as you want, in any format that you want.
I do always write what I call a short synopsis. I always write a one paged, single spaced, probably roughly 400 word synopsis for each one of my spec scripts. And that way if a producer asks for a synopsis or treatment before they’ll read the whole screenplay, I have that ready and that’s what I send them. That’s usually enough to make them be willing to request the script or say, “No, thanks. It’s not for me.” When I’m pitching scripts to producers, and this is probably a lot of like cold query letters, I would say maybe 10% of the time, the script requests, there’s a positive response. So 10% of the people who respond say, “Could you send me a synopsis before you send me the whole script.” And that’s what I do.
So it’s not super common but it’s also not uncommon. It happens enough that I feel like having a one-paged synopsis ready is helpful. Also when you option a screenplay to a producer, they will often ask you for a short synopsis and so it’s good to have it at that point as well. They’re gonna create their own materials to pitch the project to investors and most likely that’s gonna require again a half page or a one-paged synopsis. You’re gonna need something for the producer and it’s very helpful if you just had that ready to go. It’s polished, it’s complete and the producers would be very grateful that you have that.
Also with my own SYS Select screenplay data base, part of the materials that you upload into the database is a short synopsis. Again, a one-paged synopsis is very handy there. The other similar services out there that are similar to my screenplay database, they usually want a synopsis as well. So having that one-paged synopsis handy for those will allow you to get to use those services and have that stuff ready. That’s kind of where I see a synopsis going. In terms of the different uses of the terms treatment versus synopsis, I think the words are pretty interchangeable.
But again I think…it seems to me like when someone says a treatment, when producers ask for treatment, they are expecting something a little longer than a one-paged synopsis. That may be what they want but sometimes that’s what I give them. And that kind of leads me to my next point, which is you sometimes get kind of ridiculous requests from producers. For instance you might send them the pitch and the log line. “This sounds interesting. Do you have a synopsis?” Then I send them the one-paged synopsis. “Yeah, this sounds really good, do you have a longer five-paged synopsis or even ten-paged synopsis?” At that point I would generally say, “No this is all I have, but would you like to read the screenplay?”
Sometimes the producers rarely I would say maybe…I can think of maybe one instance where the producer maybe got a little finicky and said, “No, you have to send me a ten-paged synopsis before I’m gonna read the script.” And I think in that case I just said, “Okay, this isn’t a good fit,” and I didn’t send him anything. You can get into a loop of just every producer, “Oh, do you have a half-paged synopsis? Do you have a three-paged synopsis? Do you have the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet?” And every producer might want something a little different and I don’t know that it’s worth my time to every curtail every submission specifically.
I’m gonna go write a six-paged synopsis for this guy and then go write a 12 paged synopsis for that guy. It just takes a lot of time to produce this material and the odd chance this guy reads it and likes it. So that’s kind of again, what I do. A log line obviously and then a one-paged synopsis. That’s usually enough 99% of the time when a producer says, “Could you send me a treatment,” I send him this one-paged synopsis and that suffices. Okay, so taking a further step back, this sort of question to me, it just reveals a little a bit of a lack of understanding of the screenwriting business in general. I’ll explain that. Screenwriting is a lot less formal than most other forms of writing.
Don’t get too caught up in the formalities. You hear the advice given a lot, “Just write a great story”, and I do think at least in this sort of context that that’s sort of correct. I mean, you don’t want to do anything too crazy or too outlandish or too strange. Turning in a one-paged synopsis like what I just described to a producer that was expecting a 10-paged treatment, it’s not gonna be the end of the world. The producer is gonna understand the situation, they’re smart people, and they’re gonna read that one-paged synopsis and hopefully they’re gonna decide whether this is something they wanna read or not. But again, don’t get too caught up in the formalities.
Don’t get too caught up on how long it should be or what’s the difference between a synopsis and a treatment. You can always ask the producer what exactly they’re expecting if they ask you something that you don’t understand. I mean, you’re pitching these producers, they know what the game is. You don’t have to pretend that you’re like super experienced. I mean, they can look you up on IMDb. They probably have already done that. If they’ve read your log line and are interested in taking it to the next level. They might have looked you up on IMDb but they can probably tell from your pitch, your creative letters that you’re not like the super most experienced writer.
So just being like open and honest and transparent and if they ask you something about anything, synopsis, treatment or anything that they may ask for, you know, a pitch deck or any terminology that they use that you don’t understand, just be honest and say, “You know, what exactly do mean by this?” The producers know and they know what the score is. They’re not expecting you to know all of this stuff. So I don’t think it’s a big deal to ask them, but again, I also wouldn’t get too caught up in just sort of the formalities. There’s not a lot of formalities with screenwriting.
If you got a final draft or some normal screenwriting program, that’s gonna get your script pretty well formatted and if someone asks for something that you don’t understand, just ask them or do your best. Submit what you think they’re talking about and if it’s not what they want they’ll probably just ask you for…they’ll give you more directions on what they do want. Concentrate on making your writing clear and compelling and you’ll be in good shape no matter how long it is or how it’s formatted. That’s really sort of my macro advice to these sorts of questions. Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.