2016 / Paul Searles
From an original field of over 1,100 writers,
(pictured left) took home first place after three rounds of increasingly
difficult challenges. Check out the
screenplays he wrote for the competition below in addition to an
interview about his experience!
Character: An undercover cop
Subject: A crime scene
Character: A hotel doorman
Subject: A hidden door
Character: A homeschooled
Logline: An undercover cop
must discover the meaning of an old man's strange devices as
they battle it out in a world of constant surveillence, where
privacy is threatened not just by men but by the elements.
Logline: A beautiful summer
backyard hides some nasty surprises for a boy who has just moved
Logline: As a precocious
orphan girl in a besieged city tries to hide her secret from an
oppressive regime, an unexpected hero enters her life.
One of many photos Paul took while walking through Singapore which
inspired his horror screenplay, "Apples".
Congratulations on winning the 13th
annual Screenwriting Challenge! It looks like this was your first NYC
Midnight competition. How was your experience being forced to write
assigned prompts under time constraints?
It was brilliant fun, deadlines seem to
bring out the best in me. I found this out when I started writing music
at The Gunnery.
Iíd been waffling around for years freelancing then all of a sudden I
had furious deadlines, day after day. I had to learn to trust my
instincts, have more confidence in myself.
Iíve only ever finished one other script,
more than 10 years ago. Iíve studied a lot and I mess about with a
couple of features now and then but to finish three in a few days? Wow.
I have loads of stories on spreadsheets but Iíve been too scared to just
start typing. I think that will change now.
l love the prompts, they save a whole lot of
procrastinating and they level the field nicely. They also remind me
that a good feature may explore every genre anyway. Itís great to
What was the most challenging aspect
of the competition for you? What was the most enjoyable aspect?
I write in a pretty non-linear way, mostly
with diagrams. I enjoy the way Stormshifter moves around but I realise a
lot of readers will find it frustrating. The brief to myself for
Stormshifter was 1 - ďwrite a spy story that covers as much distance as
possibleĒ 2 - ďtry to be as cool and elusive as Tinker Tailor Soldier
SpyĒ and 3 - ďwrite something that would be too expensive to makeĒ. That
was a good setup to have fun and escape a few personal dramas which were
going on at the time.
Horror in round 2 was more challenging, I
never watch horror films. I donít mind writing nasty but only if it has
a positive benefit. I started Apples by imagining one of the competition
judges reading my story in their back yard on a lovely sunny afternoon.
Then I tried to make the horror happen to the people around them while
they were lost in the script. I know this is really evil and it makes me
sound like a psychopath but I had immersed myself in horror for the
whole first day so it didnít seem so devious at the time. Anyway, the
brief said horror so I went all-out horrid.
The brief to myself for the second round was
to write something light, clean and clear. The opposite of my first
round. I think this made the horror more inescapable.
I had deep sweaty fears about The Dancer in
the closing hours. The hours are reversed in Singapore so I was winding
up at dawn. I was worried about how people would interpret the political
correctness of it. I had a scary experience in Australia years ago
writing about indigenous issues there. The deeper I got the more I
realised I knew nothing.
I had this terror that I may be offending
people, but I also didnít want to offend my Muslim friends by calling
them up at 5am Sunday morning to read my draft! I trusted my original
sentiments and the honest shape of my emotions and just powered through.
My splendid friend Jason read a draft with a few hours to spare and put
my mind to rest.
I think the thing that was most enjoyable
was the new clarity and confidence in myself after the previous rounds.
The three heat structure really helped me develop.
You were assigned the Spy genre in
the 1st Round, the Horror genre in the 2nd Round, and chose to write in
the Drama/Fantasy genres with your Open genre assignment in the Final
Round. What genres do you typically prefer writing outside of
competition? Which was your favorite to write during the competition and
which was the most challenging?
To be honest Iíve never thought as much as I
should about genre. I remember a last minute panic when I realised I
hadnít decided what genre The Dancer was.
I like to watch political thrillers, sci fi,
anything that is a departure from my everyday life. Spy was definitely
do-able. I love Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I heard a great podcast
recently with the writer.
I donít feel good about writing horror but
Iím proud of Apples. It was a big leap for me in technique and perhaps
it was the uncomfortable genre that forced it out of me. Itís actually
more of a nasty old fashioned fairy tale. Itís a cautionary tale against
temptation and an allegory for substance abuse. It seems to have freaked
a lot of my friends out, my wife is too scared to read it.
The winning screenplay you wrote for
the final round, The Dancer, had no dialogue. Do you prefer showing
rather than telling in your screenwriting through vivid descriptions or
did you feel it would work better for this particular story? Are there
any films that have influenced your writing style?
I think I realised early on that I was onto
something with The Dancer. Iíd been quite depressed about the news from
that part of the world over the past year and I felt that this was
something that could actually make a bit of a difference. I decided to
make it silent so that anybody in the world could watch it and totally
get it. It also helped to highlight the loneliness of the characterís
Descriptions are fun for me and perhaps I
have a slightly different approach because I studied architecture. I
love the almost technical nature of good screenwriting. Similarly,
architects make these cool clean technical drawings that a layman can
barely read. But when the architect looks he can see the setting sun
warming the walls and dripping off the tiles.
I think Iím influenced more by novels than
by film, particularly Haruki Murakami. His novels have such a strange
and beautiful effect on me. They feel like dreams I had that I never
remembered. IĎm a gushing fan.
You wrote a great
blog post on SaveTheCat.com about your experience in the final
round. Was Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder the most influential book on
screenwriting for you and if so, what were some of the most important
elements you took from it? Were there any other books on writing or
screenwriting that have heavily influenced your writing over the years?
Save the Cat was definitely my favorite.
Itís immediately satisfying but it also goes deep. His technique
involves a kind of checklist called a beat sheet which was a great tool
under pressure. I prefer really simple tools in my writing and music.
His books are full of practical problem solving techniques, rather than
scriptures to follow.
I also enjoyed Christopher Vogler and
ďWriting the Character-centered ScreenplayĒ by Andrew Horton. Iíd love
to go deeper, I know there are some huge books to get through but I have
so much music to study as well! Joseph campbell is next.
My Aussie friend Karel Segers has a nice
http://thestorydepartment.com which focuses on classic story
I wish I could study more but I think I
learn better from my mistakes, I need to just bang my head against the
wall and see what falls out. Lucky Iím not a surgeon.
you feel that being a professional sound designer and composer have
helped you to become a better screenwriter? If so, in what ways?
For sure! Anything that can help trick a
reader out of their reality is worth pursuing. Iím pretty seriously into
photography and videography too. I took the scary photos scattered about
this page wandering about my home here in Singapore, trying to find the
mood for my horror story.
Music, like film, ticks away like a time
bomb. You have to be so aware of the audienceís attention span.
Especially these days when weíre surrounded by almost infinite content.
Musical structure isnít so far removed from screenwriting, you can check
my blog over here for some examples of that.
With music you can do so much with just one
syllable and some careful vibrations. Good screenplays are clean too,
like musical scores. A few careful marks on a page.
Now that you can write your own
films in addition to sound design and music composition, have you given
any thought to directing? Are there any roles in the filmmaking process
you want to attempt? Are there any you would like to avoid and if so,
My first screenplay won me a small director
scholarship back in Australia. I had no idea about films, I just had a
demo copy of some screenwriting software and wrote something one morning
to impress a girl, beginnerís luck. I still like the script but I was
totally out of my depth. Iíve been too scared to even think about
directing until recently. Over the past few years Iíve been making
little documentaries on my 5D. I do everything on those, shoot, cut,
colour etc. Itís great to study how each element contributes to the
story, it really helps my writing. Now that Iíve learnt the basics of
everything, I know I will be much more confident if Iím ever lucky
enough to have a professional crew around.
To be honest, writing is my favourite. The
story is everything. From what I understand itís harder to make a living
out of it these days but Iím certainly going to treat it a bit more
seriously after this result.
Do you have any plans for your
screenplays or any other interesting projects coming up?
First up I have a solo album to finish. I
hope to have that up on Bandcamp soon. Over my xmas break Iím going to
stop messing about and finish a Shakespeare adaptation which Iíve been
tinkering with for a few years, set in Singapore. After that I hope to
resurrect an old multimedia opera, a juicy colonial story set in the
bushland where I grew up. Itís a huge project that will hopefully
combine everything that Iíve learnt.
This competition has been excellent, itís
been great to find out what I can do in a few days if I really put my
mind to it!
Will you be back to defend your
title in the Screenwriting Challenge 2017?
Searles is an award winning music producer and composer
The Gunnery in Singapore, one of Asiaís leading audio
houses. He writes film scripts and makes small films for fun.