Day 1 of the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival '09

Cheltenham Writers Festival I am sitting with a venti soya latte in hand, in the most astonishingly grandeous building at Cheltenham Ladies College, waiting for the 9.30am seminar with Simon Beaufoy. I am at the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival and frankly, nice and relaxed and enjoying it all now. This is in stark contrast to yesterday when I gave the Keynote opening speech to the entire delegation of four or five hundred screenwriters from across the UK, all assembled in the Princess Hall – even grander than then very grand building I am sat in right now!

The festival organisers ask me to deliver this opening speech because they wanted something that was empowering and entertaining, and certainly not the doom and gloom of recession and the dreaded ‘it’s a tough business’ line we hear so often – there was plenty of that to follow in later sessions with battle weary screenwriters, sales agents and directors (and of course, plenty of counter balancing upbeat stories, tips and tricks too).

What was tough for me to gauge was where to pitch the opening speech as I was told that the audience could contain everyone from complete beginners to Richard Curtis! No pressure then.

And so I launched into my ‘Hero’s Journey’ speech for film makers, paralleling the mythical story structure with the journey of ‘the creative’ – and it seemed to go down very well too, with people coming up to me all day saying how much they felt inspired. Fantastic!

The rest of the day was a blur as I was whisked from session to session, running seminars and doing one-on-ones with writers. Always super well organised and sooooo much fun.

Stand out moments for me were presentations by Doug Chamberlin, writer of ‘Toy Story 2’, presenting about breaking into Hollywood – he spoke with experience, insight and surprising candour. I hope to get Doug to speak on tape too, and upload a podcast for everyone to hear (fingers crossed). Also speaking was Armando Iannucci, comic TV genius and director of ‘In The Loop’. He talked about how he wrote with a writers group for ‘In The Loop’, ended up with a 240 page first draft, improvised on set, shot for months (at he rate of 25 pages a day!), all with ‘in set’ available lighting, then ended up with a four and half hour assembly which was then whittled down to just under two hours. He also had a great analogy for script redrafting… ‘it’s like a good chicken stock, you add stuff then reduce it, then add more and reduce some more, and keep doing that until what you have is incredibly tasty…’

I also bumped into old screenwriting pal, and original NPA creator Peter Bloore, whose wife, Jane, was the publisher who took on the very first edition of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook in 1994, when no-one else was interested. That was a memory lane moment for sure.

The day wrapped up with what is now the customary drinks at the Queens Head Hotel, where again I bumped into many old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Astonishing! 

So far I am very impressed by this festival – the speakers are terrific, and there are loads of them too. The Cheltenham Ladies College, as a venue, is breathtaking and yet very intimate and personal. I am delighted that the festival does not take place in London as I know that would taint what to me feels like a hugely inclusive, philosophically agnostic and relaxed event. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I hope very much I can come again next year.

Right! On with today. I am only in one session this afternoon, so I can relax somewhat right now.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author

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