Talking Screenwriting With Filmmaker Jordan Morris
“There is no point in having sharp images when you’ve fuzzy ideas.”
Those are the words of Jean-Luc Godard, an undisputed master of cinema who helped kick-start the French New Wave movement when he unleashed Breathless on the world in 1960. It’s also the quote that local film producer and writer Jordan Morris has chosen to use on his business card.
Morris, who previously worked on Nintendo Quest and Missing Mom, will be teaching the Fundamentals of Screenwriting Masterclass at the BMO Centre over a period of two weekends, starting on June 23. Hosted by the Forest City Film Festival, the workshop is intended to be the first of many industry sessions leading up to the festival itself in October.
Coming from a family of storytellers, Morris would write throughout his life. His first role as an actor came during a stage production of Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil, and from there he began to learn other trades to the industry before making the switch from theatre to film. When the Forest City Film Festival began its industry session’s workshop, Morris was brought in as an instructor. The goal is to take those fuzzy ideas and turn them into well-written scripts.
“The idea is that we’d love to see somebody take the course, go through the workshop process, maybe get involved in the pitch fest as well, and then end up submitting a film,” Morris explained. “That would make us really happy because we’re doing our part – I think, we hope – to help stimulate more filmmaking in the area and to elevate the quality of films getting made as well.”
Writing a screenplay is not like writing a novel, which itself is different from writing poetry. What a screenwriter puts on paper must be shown on screen. Rule number one, according to Morris, is show not tell.
“It’s all about painting pictures when you’re doing a screenplay,” he clarified. “You’ve got to communicate in terms of actual imagery; you just don’t have the real estate to use the flowery language.”
Jordan Morris of Sighthound Studio will be teaching the fundamentals of screenwriting over four days (Sept. 29-30, Oct, 6 & 7). Tickets are $225 for all four days.
The film industry can be cutthroat when a writer strays from the standards and expectations. If a script is too long or too short, it can easily be tossed aside. And if the reader isn’t hooked within the first few pages, it won’t matter how great the rest of the script it.
Rules are rules
While Hollywood kingpins like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino can break the rules, an inexperienced writer can have their dream project shrugged off ten pages in. The rigid expectations can be scary or off-putting to an aspiring writer.
“People don’t want to be told that there are so many rules,” Morris added. “They don’t want to be told what to do and what not to do.”
Constructive criticism can be both frustrating and terrifying, but still absolutely necessary for someone looking to succeed in the film industry. A common scenario, as Morris described, is new writers clashing with more experienced professionals over their script or looking for connections that others have put years of determination and hard work into.
“There’s a real science to it because of all the parameters you’ve got to work within, and then there’s the artistry as well,” Morris said. “The struggle is to try to find something that’s a balance of both; it’s a real kind of alchemy.”
Morris compared screenwriting to a haiku poem. Strict adherence to the rules is a must; otherwise, it’s not a haiku.
Art is art
However, for aspiring writers and filmmakers willing to be more experimental (although probably not as financially successful), arthouse filmmaking can offer a bit of lawlessness. Cult films such as Jaromil Jireš 1970 surrealist horror Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are praised more for their visual imagery and very seldom get noticed for their scripts. Plots are either thin or nonsensical, and dialogue is usually sparse and poetic. “Art films are a different animal,” Morris explained. “And there are really no rules for art films because that’s 100% the artists statement about whatever it is they’re trying to communicate.” While arthouse films can offer more freedom, the downside is that they’re harder to find funding as the profits could be minimal.
On and off-script
Dialogue in a well-written script is something that can easily be taken for granted. But bad dialogue can be absolutely cringe-worthy. As Harrison Ford once said during the making of Star Wars, “You can write this shit, but you can’t say it!” Natural sounding dialogue is not as easy as it would seem. While Tarantino can write smooth-talking characters like there’s no tomorrow, in reality, people don’t talk like that. On the opposite end, the last thing any writer would want is painfully wooden dialogue. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, for example, is famous for all the wrong reasons. But bad writing is still writing, and necessary to the learning process, Morris claims.
“As the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good” he mentioned. “Writing garbage is actually part of the process, and all successful writers understand that their first drafts are going to be crap.”
The Screenwriting program also helps writers open up with their work, Morris explained. Sharing it with others and exposing it to criticism will be beneficial in the long run.
Reading for writing
With thousands of professional screenplays available online, common advice for any aspiring writer is to read as many scripts as possible, and to keep reading them to familiarize oneself with the format and structure. One script that Morris recommends anyone read is the Walter Hill draft of 1979’s iconic Alien.
Calling it “the most visually beautiful script” he’s seen, Morris praised not just the writing itself, but the aesthetic of the screenplay itself.
“It really is important how you display everything on the page,” he said. “Because if it’s too dense and clunky, then that gives people the impression that your films going to be too slow and sluggish and clunky as well.”
But Alien also cost a lot of money to produce, so while Morris recommends it as a strong guideline, he suggests new writers to try their hands at something within a reasonable budget. That means don’t write roles for Hollywood A-Listers, exotic locations, or daredevil stunts and special effects.
Focus on the story first.
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting is only one part of the upcoming workshops. Others include a pitch fest, where writers will have one minute to pitch their concept for a film. As the Forest City Film Festival grows over the next few years, other workshops will be added to the industry sessions. All in all, the film workshops are a welcome addition to London’s growing film community.
“If we can help somebody get to their feet by helping them write a better script,” Morris said. “Then shoot a better production, and then go through a more effective post-production… and we get to see that film actually in the festival, that’s fantastic. Then we feel we’ve done our job.”
Check out the details on the Fundamentals of Screenwriting Masterclass, taught by Jordan Morris, right here.
NOTE: This article originally appeared on the LONDON FUSE website and the dates of the course referred to have been altered to reflect the most recent run in London, Ontario.