Adapted from Paul Torday’s successful novel, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2011) has an interesting example of a mentor character – someone who takes this often-vital story-character archetype into territory I’ve not seen in a film or novel before. (For a good introduction to the Mentor archetype, see Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY.)
The story of SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is a gentle comedy about the seemingly laughable idea of introducing salmon fishing to the highly arid country that is the Yemen. The driving force behind this unlikely venture is a rich local Sheikh, who when we finally meet him, says to our skeptical protagonist (geeky fisheries expert Ewan McGregor) that:
Sheikh Muhammed: You think I’m mad?
Dr. Alfred Jones: No, your excellency. I…
Sheikh Muhammed: Of course you do. I would question your judgement if you did not.
(Quote from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1441952/quotes/qt2204392)
Until we get to know him, it’s easy to assume he is. But the madness and comedy in the story really comes from the other characters who make up most of the story (no surprises here, but they’re all quirky and partly satirical British characters). These other characters (McGregor, Emily Blunt’s British Government bureaucrat, and several members of the Government itself) have the kinds of quirky personalities and life challenges we’d expect of a British middle-class story like this – in their different ways they’re all bottled up in their lives by their own personalities. But the Sheikh is driven by a positive desire to improve his country forever – what looks like a foolish self-indulgent vanity project on a vast scale is really an extension of his existing successful dam project.
The two projects together will improve people’s lives and shelter a proliferation of nature for generations to come. As a (good!) Muslim, he can relax in the knowledge that all of the goodness that results from this venture throughout the future will give him blessings: not something the film ever needs to say out loud. The sheikh prompts the main characters to have faith – and by the end of the film, he shows them that they have indeed been relying on faith without realizing it. He’s an interesting modern twist on the mentors we see in endless “follow your heart”, “journey of self-discovery”stories (such as EAT PRAY LOVE, which gives us a more stereotypical mystical old-world mentor to set off the protagonist’s quest to make her life more meaningful).
While the Western media generally presents Islam as an “issue” wherever it encounter it, the relaxed and almost totally implicit presentation of it in the Sheikh’s character in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is refreshing, and the effect that his relaxed faith has on the others is too. We also see “bad Muslim” characters – small-minded local rivals who set themselves against the Sheikh’s plan because they fear it will bring Western values into their country. Twice they try to kill him, but the Sheikh persists because of his faith in the mission he believes in.
As well as fitting the Mentor archetype, he is also a ‘catalyst’ character – he is the agent that brings about change in others, even if they are reluctant to and would choose not to. Every positive change effected in the film would bring more blessings the Sheikh, now and throughout the future. Compared to how most movies present Muslim characters (which, unfortunately, is a trap that the film’s falls into with the villains it inserts into the story), this is definitely refreshing. Like Kristin Scott-Thomas’ dry Government Press Officer, the Sheikh’s role is definitely among the best reasons to watch this gentle 2011 movie now.
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Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, ROMA, has been getting all kinds of acclaim, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earning three Golden Globe nominations already. Guest author Cat Tebo takes a look at what we can learn from it about writing character driven stories…
A lot of new writers fall into the trap of prioritizing plot above all else, losing the characters and, consequently, the “heart” of their story. Ideally, a script should be a marriage between plot and character. The best way to go about this is by developing characters whose objectives and agency are so strong that they inform the plot, rather than characters being used as mere devices for the storyteller to force into the mold of how they think their story is “supposed”to be.
Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film, ROMA, is a perfect example of how a character-driven film should function, with characters so compelling and nuanced that there isn’t room for heavy, convoluted plot-lines or unrealistic story details. Instead, the characters are the story.
A big part of what makes rich characterization so important to story is that the strength of a story lies in the strength of its characters. Characters give stories humanity and, in doing so, a heart. Furthermore, the desires and objectives that drive characters to act are the same ones that should drive the story forward. In ROMA, everything that happens is a result of characters exercising agency and taking action in order to get what they want: it’s one of the most basic fundamentals of storytelling. Plot movement is all about getting characters from point A to point B; if there is no character arc, there is no story.
Fleshing out your characters is often a challenging task. In creating ROMA, Alfonso Cuarón was drawing inspiration from his own childhood, and familiarity no doubt makes for a greater sense of character. Even when writers are creating characters completely from scratch, the influence of memories and experience still plays a part—there is no such thing as objective fiction, and even the most original-seeming thoughts are a consolidation of some kind of previous knowledge.
Still, there are some important character elements to consider when figuring out who your characters are. Ask yourself what their weaknesses are, what their strengths are, how they cope with obstacles, what they need versus what they want, who they appear to be versus who they really are—for every question you ask, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask the inverse of it as well. Doing this ensures that you’re considering your characters from every possible angle and are covering every aspect of them you can.
Concept is usually what sells your story in the beginning, but characters are what make it stick. Likewise,you might be able to grab an audience’s attention with an interesting premise, but you won’t be able to hold it without intriguing characters.
Take a look at more writing insights from WriteMovies by clicking here!
Feature films tend to get most of the glory among filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore short film as a medium! In a new series of Insights articles, Ian Kennedy looks at the benefits of writing in this format.
There’s a reason there’s not just one but two categories for shorts at the Oscars: one for live-action and another for animated. They can be a great way of telling stories that a lot of filmmakers overlook – and that includes writers!
So why write a script for a short film? Why get one made? Well, there are actually quite a few good reasons…
- You’ve got an idea for story that doesn’t suit feature length – sometimes, even the best concept can’t be spun out into a longer screenplay! That doesn’t have to a negative, though. Use the opportunity to tell the story in short form instead.
- To improve your skills by writing under constraint. All writing is done under constraint of some kind – of format, style, etc. – but the additional restrictions of length and budget with short film can be a great chance to prove yourself. Learning to write under constraint can actually be a great way to improve your writing!
- As proof of concept for a feature film. Making feature films is an expensive business, so why not show how well your idea works by making a short based on the same idea?
- To get a production credit. Getting a script produced can take hard work, but if you’ve already got a track record in short films, it can look great on your writing CV and give producer’s faith in your abilities.
- As a personal project – just because you love your idea or are passionate about filmmaking! Be careful, though; if you’re making a short film for personal reasons, make sure that everyone on the production knows what your motives are.
Making a short film brings all sorts of challenges of its own. You’ll still need a unique concept, a well-structured story, and characters that audiences can fall in love with – but you’ve got to get it all into a much smaller space! That’s why it can be such a great test of your skills as a storyteller.
Whatever your reasons for making a short film, make sure you know exactly what they are before you begin, whether you want to use it to take the next step in your career or just because you’ve got a story you’re desperate to tell!
Take a look at our other Writing Insights articles here for great hints and tips on crafting your scripts!
There are plenty of things that make us wax rhapsodic about a script: an exciting story, engaging characters, dialogue that jumps off the page… But we also look at a screenplay’s commercial aspects, such as its budget and chances at the box office.
That’s why it’s always important for a writer to always keep a finger on the industry’s pulse. Figuring out what sells and what doesn’t is vital if you want to be successful as a screenwriter, and right now, what’s selling is BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
The Queen biopic may have had a turbulent time behind the scenes, but that hasn’t affected its success. Variety reports that the film has taken a massive $72 million internationally in addition to $50 million domestically, adding up to a tremendous $122.5 million. For a film that cost $52 million to make, that’s a major success.
Our own Ian Kennedy has seen the film already. His verdict? “To my surprise, that hit all the right notes for me. Impressive screenwriting and musical concision, to balance everything they did, acknowledge the untold, and keep a PG-13 rating.”
Musical dramas have already enjoyed success this year with A STAR IS BORN being a critical and commercial success, and being eyed by many as a potential contender at the Academy Awards. Of course, this isn’t the only genre succeeding at the box office right now – but by paying close attention to these kind of things, we know what to look for when judging scripts for our competition.
It’s also interesting to note that BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY has achieved huge success at the box office despite its mixed critical reception, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 60%. Much like the MAMMA MIA films, there’s more to success than just what the critics say!
We’re currently nearing the end of Standard Entry for our Winter 2019 Screenwriting Contest, from just $39 until this Sunday, 11th November. Don’t forget we’re also looking for scripts to be directed by 2x BAFTA winner and 2x Oscar nominee Habib Zargarpour, too – an opportunity not to be missed!
Click here to enter!
Our Ian Kennedy was lucky enough to share a table for an evening with Steven Knight, the writer of SERENITY, PEAKY BLINDERS, TABOO, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, LOCKE, and much more…
Steven Knight says that we’re entering a golden age of TV and film. He explained that the US system is great for writers – it’s unionized and you can make a proper living just from writing. He actually felt that there seems to be a good mystery to you if you DON’T live in LA, as long as you’re prepared to fly out every 6 weeks and do late-night conference calls.
But he explained that the Hollywood system is slow! It takes many years of gestation most of the time. If you persuade a star to be in your project, the studios know they’ll make back a certain many million dollars from it – his film HUMMINGBIRD (with Jason Statham) was in profit before it even got to the cinema. He felt that distributors often underestimate their audience and focus on young males.
Screens are better nowadays so TV drama has risen a lot. Actors like TV and it’s a writer’s medium – writers have control there, unlike other formats. Too many people are involved in making films, telling you something’s not good enough in order to justify their presence and pay. But getting actors to commit beyond series 1 of your TV series is hard because they may get film offers.
Show runners write episode 1 in the US and their team of writers – who’ve developed it with them – do other episodes. Writers rise up through the ranks in the US. British TV writing is more eccentric and individualistic – the US system is more corporate. Theatre writers are good for TV due to their ability with dialogue and are often overlooked.
Steven Knight explained that he had begun his career in the UK by writing plenty for radio, and for comedians including particularly Jasper Carrott, and writing 31 episodes of Carrott’s sitcom with Robert Powell, THE DETECTIVES. Steven was one of the 3 founders of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He also wrote novels for Penguin, and presented DIRTY PRETTY THINGS to the BBC which led to that commission.
Then came AMAZING GRACE, for the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade, and EASTERN PROMISES which led from DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. The award nominations that came as a result of these put him into the US system, which he found to be great for writers. He got to direct HUMMINGBIRD which he had also written, and after that wanted to get total control of a project – and he feels that LOCKE vindicated him becoming a director.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Steven Knight, in which he discusses the influences behind PEAKY BLINDERS, his writing process, and his plans for the future…