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Screenwriting for an international audience

29 September 2016

Now in its seventh year, we are thrilled to be hosting a truly international line-up for 2016's BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. With this in mind, we asked BAFTA-winning screenwriter and series creator Jeremy Brock to discuss the art of writing for an international audience. 

Curating the BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series has involved corralling talent so diverse as to dispel all pre-conceptions regarding the provenance of a successful screenplay. I believe great screenwriting is a symbiosis of talent, graft and zeitgeist, irrespective of its linguistic or cultural roots. A second truth (not easily accepted by film director’s intent on protecting their authorial credit) is that great screenplays will always lie at the heart of great films, which is why Ken Loach is unafraid to share top-billing with his gloriously talented screenwriter and co-collaborator, Paul Laverty (BSLS 2011).

One of the joys of hosting over thirty screenwriters’ lectures has been hearing voices as wildly different as Guillermo Arriaga, Julian Fellowes, Emma Thompson, Charlie Kaufman, Richard Curtis and Moira Buffini. Yet, in terms of theme and content, their disparate voices revolve around the universal challenge of all art: how to shed light on what it means to be human.

In this context, the growing internationalism of our lectures is entirely apposite, for regardless of background we are all somebody’s child, come from somewhere we call home and enter adulthood with only one body of experience to take on the journey.  Counter-intuitively, screenwriting for an international audience means shedding any notion that our disparate cultures (language, politics, place) separate us, but, rather, that the detail of our differences…the particularity of familial and cultural heritage…is what amplifies the shared experience of being human. I passionately believe in the detail of storytelling. Without a forensic interrogation of character and situation, a film risks slipping into the generic and the clichéd. The key to all great films, international or otherwise, begins and ends with authenticity. It is a misconception, born from an obsession with cultural immediacy, to suppose that because a film is in a different language, it is, in some way alien from our experience of life and therefore less affecting, less “about us”. If a film is made by a great artist then, sub-titles or no sub-titles, it will move us. I did not sit through Son of Saul thinking “this is a foreign film”. I sat through Son of Saul feeling overwhelmed by its visceral brilliance, its fierce integrity. Never once did I think “these people are not speaking English”.

Take the screenplay of Babel by Guillermo Arriaga, who delivered his BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture in 2011. Written in different languages, the film went on to receive BAFTA nominations in seven categories in 2007 (Film, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Original Film Music, Editing and David Lean Award for Achievement in Direction)  and nominations for Best Film and Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars in the same year. Following three disparate narratives linked only by theme and content, Babel exploded the notion that “a film not in the English Language” cannot speak to a universal audience.

With this in mind, we have programmed our most international line up of contributors for this year’s Lecture Series. Running throughout October, speakers will include Germany’s Maren Ade, South Korea’s Park Chan Wook, and America’s Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Kenneth Lonergan.  In light of my argument, it will be interesting to discover whether the concerns of screenwriters are any different when writing in German or South Korean: is the division of film between “English” and “Foreign” a false dichotomy or is there any meaning to these separations beyond the purely commercial? And are there differences between the potential universality of different genres? For example, does humour transcend cultural borders less easily than drama? Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the creators of international hit comedy The Lego Movie are well placed to interrogate this question. 

I understand the prevailing culture of film; the balance it must always strike between (I dare to say it) art and industrial-scale costs: the exchange and barter that every filmmaker confronts, however elevated, between artistic endeavour and commercial enterprise and the subsequent division of its component parts into fiscally-driven paradigms…star, story, P&A etc. For this reason, almost all big budget movies have been, historically, written and acted in English, because by far the biggest market in the world spoke that language.  Yet even this paradigm feels historical. Bollywood may produce the biggest market with the cheapest films, but why shouldn’t the film industries of China or India (or Nigeria) one day evolve much as Hollywood evolved, into their own globe-dominating behemoths? Or perhaps, in years from now, the roles will be reversed and the world will clap politely as another breathless filmmaker collects the BAFTA for Best Film In The English Language.

For more information on this year's Screenwriters' Lecture Series, go to

By Jeremy Brock