Wednesday, 24 December 2008
2008 has been a funny old year. I finished my MA with some decent work (hooray), but then got stuck organising the degree show pretty much on my own (boo), which has cost me a lot of momentum with my own writing (double boo).
I also lost my job (boo-ish; I took voluntary redundancy instead of moving to lifestyle-crippling seven-day shift patterns), but made a fairly successful - but time-consuming - transition into freelance writing and editing (hooray).
I also turned 40, which was a definite 'hooray' when we were in New York celebrating it, but then became a 'boo' when I started to slump back into my usual self-loathing meditations on how much time I've wasted down the years, how my brain isn't quite the firework display it used to be and how little time we've actually got to achieve anything here on earth.
Anyway, with the usual good intentions that come at this time of year, I'm planning to get stuck in from January 20 onwards, once the degree show is out of my life once and for all. The phrase 'write my tits off' keeps leaping unbidden into my aching little noodle, so I guess that'll do for a resolution.
Happy 2009 one and all!
Friday, 19 December 2008
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Ron Livingston (The Time Traveler's Wife, Sex And The City, Band Of Brothers) stars in Defying Gravity, a new adventure drama series from creator and Executive Producer James Parriott (Grey's Anatomy) and Executive Producer Michael Edelstein (Desperate Housewives).
The 13-part thriller begins filming in Canada in January 2009, and will broadcast on BBC Two later next year.
Set in the near future, Defying Gravity revolves around the exploits of eight astronauts from five countries (four men and four women) who undertake a mysterious six-year international space mission through the solar system.
With the eyes of the world upon them – everything they do is monitored and every emotion they feel scrutinised – they soon discover that their real assignment is not at all what they thought...
Thursday, 11 December 2008
While we're at it, the Golden Globe nominations have just been announced:
Best screenplay - motion picture:
Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire)
David Hare (The Reader)
Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon)
Eric Roth Button (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
John Patrick Shanley (Doubt)
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
Oliver Postgate's work was both whimsical and matter-of-fact, magical and mundane.
It was popular with generations of children who loved both its strangeness and the reassuring warmth of Postgate's voice-overs.
With his story-telling skills, his love of found objects and mechanical improvisation, his funny voices and air of eccentricity, the man himself gave a good imitation of everyone's favourite uncle.And his creations live on, at once surreal and comforting.
Saturday, 6 December 2008
However, I've already hit a bit of a stumbling block. After an ambiguous and hopefully intriguing flash-forward opening, we go back to meet the protagonist (Adam, at the moment) in his original state: he is frustrated by the rudeness and aggression of modern urban life, but feels too alienated to step in and do anything about it. Basically, he needs to get his balls and backbone back.
So, everything changes when he sulks off down the pub and meets a mysterious stranger (Lloyd) who is, in effect, his alter ego - assertive, dynamic and not prepared to take a step backwards in his confrontation with the world.
The way the story develops means that Lloyd must have something of the cult leader about him - he is sufficiently charismatic to lure Adam over to his way of thinking and then manipulate him even further. And here's my problem - it's easy enough to stick that in my outline, but how do you then convert that into actions and dialogue.
I know that moving beyond our own outlook and experience is what we do as writers, and getting inside the head of people who are nothing like us is one of the biggest rushes we get.
But how do you go about writing characters who are more clever or persuasive than you are? If I could draw on those qualities at will, I'd be doing it a lot more in real life. I'd probably be lording it up over some Jonestown-style settlement hidden away in a corner of Crystal Palace Park.
At the moment I feel like an actor who's been told that he'll have to run 100m in less than 10 seconds because he's playing Asafa Powell.
In other news... Jason Arnopp's gulp at the brevity of life might give you the jolt you need to stop wasting time and just get on with 'it'.
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Time travel drama has become one of the most popular television genres of recent years although it evades easy classification - Goodnight Sweetheart is a comedy, Life On Mars is a drama, and who knows how you categorise Doctor Who...
Be it backward or forward, time travel opens so many possibilities for a writer - nothing is off limits in a world where actions can be undone or revisited multiple times.
Highlighted by clips, these inspirational writers take us on a time travel journey sharing their motivations, inspirations and secrets as to what makes a successful British drama within the multiple worlds of time travel.
Monday, 1 December 2008
2 Dec 2008, 22:30–23:20, BBC Four
Charlie Brooker takes an irreverent look at all aspects of life on the small screen, including capsule reviews of the week's highs and lows.
In a writers' special, Brooker is joined by some of the best in the business to talk about how you make a TV programme actually happen. The people and pens behind Doctor Who, Father Ted, Peep Show, Life on Mars, Shameless and many more lead us through the joys and pitfalls of writing, with the added benefit of some of the best bits from the programmes.
PS. For all you completists out there, here's my penultimate I'm a Celebrity... blog, about last night's show.
After Wallander fails to prevent the suicide of a young woman – something that haunts him for the rest of the story – he is called upon to investigate the axe murder and partial scalping of a former minister of justice. Before long, a prominent art dealer, a small-time thug and a financial wheeler-dealer are murdered in the same way.
With the help of an alcoholic ex-journalist, whose career was sabotaged when he came too close to exposing wrongdoing in government circles, Wallander puts the pieces together to reveal a terrible picture of darkness and complicity at the highest levels of Swedish society.
Meanwhile, he also has to deal with his strained family relationships. Living alone during a trial separation from his wife, he is also growing distant from his spirited daughter Linda (played by Jeany Spark) and has a fractured relationship with his father (David Warner), a confrontational artist.
I haven't read any of Mankell's books, so I can't comment on how faithful an adaptation this is. The plot is fairly straightforward, lacking the convulsive twists and turns of CSI/Bruckheimer-style US series. However, this is a perfect match for the rural and slightly dreamy atmosphere of the film. From a screenwriting point of view, I'd say this is the narrative equivalent of “slow food”.
The storyline balances the slow build of the police procedural and Wallander's personal issues perfectly; rather than contriving to twist the story every couple of minutes, each scene – both investigative and personal – builds up another layer on the central theme of parent/child relationships without drawing on-the-nose links. Each of the strands throws light on the other and reveals more about the detective's character and psychological state. As I said in my first post, the writing is almost “fractal”, in that each fragment reflects the whole.
I'm not normally a fan of Kenneth Branagh, but he is perfect as the careworn yet dedicated detective. As his enquiries lead him further into the heart of the darkness, you can sense the increased burden weighing down on his shoulders. Wallander has a very human sense of justice; despite the apparent lack of a crime, he's just as interested in what drove the 15-year-old girl to suicide as he is in the axe murders.
The story deals in moral shades of grey, asking to what degree the police should protect society's institutions even if they're rotten. By the time the killer has been identified and the police set their trap, there seems to be a gap between the law and what's “right”. As Wallander grapples with his sense of duty, we find ourselves sympathising almost totally with the murderer and thinking it wouldn't be a great loss if the final target – the bait in the trap – gets bumped off.
This is classy stuff, beautifully shot – in HD – at a number of captivating Swedish locations. Wallander is an understated but precisely drawn character, and this brief mini-series looks like it's going to be a welcome addition to the ranks of thoughtful detective drama.
(Sidetracked will be available via BBC iPlayer until 20 December, and will be repeated on BBC HD at 22.45 on 3 December)
In other news - here's my latest I'm a Celebrity... blog, from last night.
Saturday, 29 November 2008
= A View from the Bridge (Ken Stott, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)
= Entertaining Mr Sloane (Mathew Horne, Imelda Staunton)
= Dancing at Lughnasa (Niamh Cusack, er... Andrea Corr)
= Waiting for Godot (Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart)
= Hamlet (Jude Law)
That lot's got me thinking about why I've never really tried to write for the stage; I think I'm too frightened to leave behind the televisual/cinematic bag of tricks. Because I tend to prefer high-concepty stuff, I always feel - rightly or wrongly - that I haven't got anything very compelling to say through my work.
As a result, I try to tart it up with bits of flashy technique (juxtaposition, transitions etc) and window dressing (mise en scene, 'extending the frame' through sound, etc) - especially after studying screen narrative so closely during my MA. Maybe I should go through my notebooks for a suitable idea and force myself to write a one-acter, just for the exercise.
Anyway, bring on those cramped seats!
Friday, 28 November 2008
Seriously though, it is a bit of a disappointment to go out. We hadn't spent as much time on the first 10 pages of Care and Control as we would have wanted (it was still pretty much a work in progress when the deadline came along), but I thought our pitch document was pretty promising. Maybe - as Lucy conjectures - they're looking for more high-concept ideas. Oh well - at least it gives us a bit of breathing space to pull the script apart and put it together stronger. Good luck to all you finalists!
In other news, here's my latest blog on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!:
Monday, 24 November 2008
Rather than providing a comprehensive blow-by-blow account of the causes and events of the war, Flannery examines the conflict and its consequences through the experiences of fictional noblewoman Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough). It's a complex piece of work, and, as you'd expect, there's plenty for the screenwriters among the audience to chew over.
Structurally, the opening episode depicts the course of her marriage to cousin and childhood sweetheart Harry, starting on her wedding day and ending with Harry's execution by the King's firing squad, for surrending their family home to the parliamentarians.
The episode is also bookended by two scenes in which Angelica calls - unsuccessfully - for God to intervene and prove his existence. This correlates thematically with the wider political story, in which the divine right of kings is being questioned.
In an early flashback, Angelica's Catholic mother flees to a convent in France, after experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary. When the distraught young Angelica rails against a "God that steals mothers", she in turn has a vision - of the devil. Later, at the climax of the episode, she calls on God to save her husband's life. When he doesn't, the devil appears to her again - indicating that the provocatively independent-minded Angelica may take 'the left-hand path' in her future.
Angelica and Harry's marriage reflects the deteriorating relationship between King Charles I (an eerily bloodless Peter Capaldi) and his people. While the king is keen to silence his critics - provocatively storming the parliamentary chamber to arrest Puritan agitators - the insecure Harry Fanshawe, with his mind poisoned by paranoia and the mockery of the young blades at court, reacts violently to his wife's 'wild mind' and sensual enthusiasm.
However, in a highly effective bit of irony, his love for Angelica proves their undoing. When the war comes to Fanshawe, in the form of parliamentarian colonel Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), she refuses to leave her home or husband and vows to fight to the death. To prevent her being harmed, Harry surrenders the house and incurs the full - and fatal - displeasure of the king.
While this personal story takes centre stage, the political and military beats of the conflict are dealt with economically. Indeed, the escalation to war is depicted through a 'wish I'd been there' moment; we hear about the open rebellion in London second-hand, as various courtiers run about with boxes and prepare to move the royal household to Oxford.
The nebulous nature of the conflict is epitomised by the story of Edward Sexby (John Simm), which forms the other axis of the drama. A sour, disaffected mercenary who becomes strangely captivated by Angelica during an early encounter, he changes sides during the battle of Edge Hill to join the parliamentarians. While everything that Angelica held dear is being destroyed, Sexby might be transforming from a nihilistic and opportunistic outsider into a man of principles.
Even within each side the lines aren't clear; Leveller pamphleteer John Lilburne nearly faces the rope for refusing to show due feudal respect to his 'superior', the Earl of Manchester - the parliamentarian commander-in-chief.
In a timely theme, the episode traces the radicalisation of Angelica through injustice, from a demure and loyal member of the court to a hardened exile. The episode ends with her on the brink - brutally and unjustly widowed, abandoned by God and expelled from the royal household. Flannery has created a compelling character - brought powerfully to life by Riseborough - whose progress through this turbulent period of history will be worth following.
Friday, 21 November 2008
After taking two hours to commute between Paddington and Penge last night, I then had to watch and write about a double-length I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!Read all about it...
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
On the surface, it's a family drama set on the Californian coast, involving three generations of the Yost family: grandfather Mitch, who retired early from competitive surfing because of injury; Butch, who somehow 'reinvented' the sport before falling prey to drug addiction; and his son, 13-year-old Shaun, who seems to have inherited the family talent.
However, it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on. Cleaning up after a surf, Mitch is surprised to find himself levitating a few inches off the ground. (This was used as the defining image in the marketing of the series.)
Meanwhile, an enigmatic bequiffed stranger - the John of the title - also materialises. Not much of a conversationalist, his vocabulary consists purely of phrases he picks up from others, plus such gnomic utterances as 'The end is near' and 'Some things I know and some things I don't'. Maybe we'll find out later where he picked those up from.
John is clearly the kind of mysterious catalytic stranger who used to turn up in Dennis Potter's plays. He soon hooks up with the opportunistic addict Butch, who sees him as a source of funding. Before long, a reconciliation of sorts is struck between Butch and his father.
Despite a couple of other subplots, the big questions raised by the first episode are who is John, what is his purpose and what - if anything - does it have to do with Mitch's levitation. And there's the problem - tonally, the show strikes an uneasy balance. There's nothing sufficiently compelling or empathetic about the principle characters to make the family drama engaging, while the stylised Lynch-lite 'weirdness' just becomes irritating.
However, what John of Cincinnati does brilliantly is create a sense of place. Imperial Beach is what a wankier writer than me might call a liminal zone. Not only is it on the border of land and sea (the crashing of waves is a constant presence on the soundtrack), but it's also on the frontier between the US and Mexico; we see a group of illegal immigrants making their escape in the first couple of minutes.
In light of some of the strangeness, it also seems to be a meeting place of the natural and the supernatural. Maybe young Shaun will be a key figure: his surfing and skateboarding skills show that he's equally adept on the water and the land - maybe he can also straddle the gap in the series between the physical and the metaphysical.
If he does, I won't be there to watch him, I'm afraid. I'm already struggling to keep up with the series that I'm enjoying. It's interesting, though - I've managed to write more about a programme I didn't really enjoy than most of the one that I have.
Explore the origins of a TV legend with this collection of documents and images. It's now the number one family favourite, but 'Doctor Who' had a difficult birth, emerging from the imagination of some of BBC Drama's top minds.
Here, we tell the story of the creation of 'Doctor Who' from the very beginning, starting with a report on the possibility of making science fiction for television and leading up to the moment a new drama series is announced in the pages of 'Radio Times'.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7736130.stm
They form a nice bookend with the recent Russell T Davies scripts that were published to promote The Writer's Tale
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
You can probably see where this beautifully crafted metaphor is going.
While my writing partner is having a shufty at Care and Control, I'm taking the opportunity to revisit Foot Soldiers, a feature-length idea I started developing a few months ago.
However, despite having a fairly clear idea of where it should be going (I've got an 18-page 'roadmap' of what I want to achieve) and a strong visual sense of the opening scenes, I can't bring myself to start drafting it in case I'm not fully prepared.
I know we're all pretty much prone to procrastination, but this is getting ridiculous. This morning I thought I'd finally browse through that copy of Save the Cat I bought months ago and nip to Ryman for a new pen. After all, you can't write a new script without a new pen, can you?
But no more! As soon as I finish this post, I'm off into the waves like Reggie Perrin...
Edit: And yes - the irony of blogging about procrastination hasn't escaped me.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
It focuses on the inner doings of the Catholic Church - particularly Father Jacob (Martin Shaw), who works for the office that investigates candidates for sainthood. However, he is also a skilled exorcist - and is being touted by the current Chief Exorcist as a possible successor.
Back in London, a little girl appears at the seminary where Fr Jacob is based, claiming that her dad is possessed. What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse between the priest and the father (Shaun Dooley), who may be possessed or may just be a particularly ardent atheist.
There's some absolutely excellent writing by Ahearne, who also directed the episode, as the two men engage in a verbal game of chess, each shielding their real agenda behind a mask of civility and thinking several moves ahead to gain an advantage. Some of the scenes reminded me of the gripping interviews between Frank Longford (Jim Broadbent) and the chillingly devious Ian Brady (Andy Serkis) in Peter Morgan's Longford.
In form, the series resembles a cop show. Fr Jacob, the capable and resourceful officer, faces hostility and interference from his superior (John Shrapnel). He employs Colombo-style stealth as he looks for clues and gathers evidence to shed light on the father's 'possession', before Shrappers in effect demands his gun and badge and takes him off the case.
Almost from the start, the series is in no doubt about the existence of demons and dark forces, although it's all done on a very domestic level, with a refreshing lack of grand guignol. In fact, the only bit of gore, very near the end, seems totally out of tone with the suspense and atmosphere of the rest of the ep, though it has been subtly set up throughout. The whole thing is cliche-free and relevant; in this world, demons have very human faces.
Shaw is note-perfect as the magisterial priest, and the episode creates a great deal of anticipation about the impending 'war', in which Fr Jacob is going to be a key player. This is classy stuff - I bet the beautifully lit interiors and cityscapes of Rome look amazing on HD. The best first episode I've seen on the Beeb for yonks.
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Going down to Bournemouth last week for my graduation left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt pleased that the hard work I put in over two years, on top of a demanding full-time job, was being officially recognised. On the other hand, however, I couldn't help but feel that it was a bit of an anti-climax - that a very important part of my life was ending with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang.
Although it's only six months since I handed in my final assignments, David Bishop's reflections on the 12 months since he graduated left me thinking that I'd ground to a halt somewhat rather than using the end of my course as a springboard.
Admittedly, I've had lots going on in the meantime. I was made redundant and became a freelance writer/editor at the end of August, so I've had to spend a lot of time on finding work and the associated admin. I've also - fortunately - managed to find quite a bit of work, so I've devoted a lot of psychic energy to learning new writing styles, systems etc.
And I haven't been totally unproductive. Spurred on by the Red Planet Prize, I've co-written the first draft of a pilot episode for a drama series entitled Care and Control, set in the tragically topical world of social work and child protection.
But in responding to David's post, I realised how 'institutionalised' I'd become while doing my MA. While the course itself was incredibly stimulating and rewarding, I clearly allowed it to become a goal in itself rather than a stepping stone towards my bigger objectives. Without the external demands of deadlines and thorough critical scrutiny, I've allowed myself to take my foot off the accelerator.
So what's next? Like poor old Travis Bickle, I need to get organisised. While waiting for my writing partner to do a pass on Care and Control, I need to dig out my main MA project - a well-received feature script entitled The Last of the Reality Police - and give it another once-over. I might even take my tutor's advice and think about reworking it as a TV series.
I also need to put a bit more heat under the feature idea I was very enthusiastic about over the 'Summer' - a (hopefully) provocative Fight Clubby sort of thing about militant pedestrianism, entitled Foot Soldiers.
It's all about routine and motivation. I've still got the latter in spades, so I just need to recover the former. Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. It's as simple as that...
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
The series is based on a gang war that erupted in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004. The first part depicts the apparent downfall of egotistical mobster Alphonse Gangitano (played by Vince Colosimo), who swaggers along as the self-styled 'Black Prince of Lygon Street'.
After Gangtano kills an associate over the non-payment of a debt, the episode follows the police's attempts to persuade witnesses to testify. What follows is classic hubris-followed-by-nemesis, as the gangster ignores his bosses' pleas to keep a low profile and believes himself to be untouchable.
In the wake of The Sopranos, most contemporary gangster series are going to look a little pedestrian, and Underbelly is no different. While it's all stylishly presented, the events unfold in a fairly mechanical way and the characters are given little in the way of psychological complexity. There is also a strange lack of a cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, and not even a teaser for the next episode.
Despite this, the based-on-true-events nature of the series creates a bit of curiosity, and its distinct Aussie flavour keeps it fresh. Vince Colosimo is disturbingly imposing as the Black Prince, and would be a shoo-in for Marco Pierre White: The Movie.
The fact that Underbelly includes producer and writer Greg Haddrick among its staff also provides a cue for another of my book recommendations.
I'm not sure how easy it is to get hold of the two volumes of his Top Shelf: Reading and Writing the Best in Australian TV Drama; I picked up my copies in Sydney in 2001. However, I'd recommend anyone thinking of working in TV drama - either soaps or serials - to give it a look.
In Volume 1, Haddrick examines how the current writing systems have developed; how shows are plotted, constructed and script-edited; how style and production methods vary between series and serials; and the influence of the US and British systems. He writes in a highly engaging style that's backed up with entertaining anecdotes.
Volume 2 then presents some of the award-winning scripts analysed in Volume 1, including episodes of Home and Away, Breakers, Good Guys, Bad Guys, Blue Heelers and Wildside.
Together, the two volumes offer an enlightening insight into an area of writing that's often overlooked in favour of more 'glamorous' forms.
Monday, 3 November 2008
The premise is set up very quickly and efficiently in the first couple of minutes; Detective Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) is released from a high-security prison after serving 12 years for a crime he didn't commit. He studies Zen philosophy intensely while incarcerated, so when he is released and reinstated to the LAPD, he has a radically different viewpoint from his colleagues.
In fact, the opening couple of minutes offer an impressive lesson in rolling out the big questions and theme of a show. We get a very real sense of the ordeal a convicted cop would undergo while in prison, and instantly ask ourselves how this will have affected Crews, both physically and mentally. It's also mentioned casually that he was exonerated because the 'physical evidence didn't match'; this implies that he was framed, prompting us to wonder who and why?
As we move into the story proper, we also get a tangible sense of his detachment, with subjective camera work and POV shots drawing us into his sense of being constantly watched. However, there is a slight clash of tone when several people in his circle (ex-wife, attorney, former police partner) give documentary-style interviews to camera and discuss what happened to Crews. I've a feeling this might disappear in the rest of the series, like the vox pop interviews in the early episodes of Sex and the City.
The pilot episode employs the effective technique of using the 'story of the week' to leverage the exposition; a child is murdered during a botched scam to sell him information that would apparently quash the conviction of his imprisoned father. The investigation sends Crews back into prison – as a cop rather than a con – creating natural opportunities for him to encounter people from his past and to reflect on his experiences.
While Crew's Zen-inspired approach to detective work and Damien Lewis's flinty-yet-fragile portrayal of the cop are refreshing, there are still some aspects of the series that seem familiar: the beautiful-but-ballsy partner with problems of her own, the hardass boss, the sexual tension with his foxy lawyer, the still-to-be-worked-out relationship with his ex-wife. His befuddlement at modern technology such as the Internet and mobile phones could also get a bit old. However, Life offers an original twist on the Unorthodox Cop strand, with the overarching question of who stitched him up promising to pull the viewer along.
Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Let's go back a bit. Growing up in Chorley in the 70s and 80s meant that a rich cinematic diet wasn't really on the menu. There was a cinema – the archetypal provincial fleapit – but I never became a cinephile.
Being a proud son of Granadaland meant one thing – it was always the small screen for me, from Brass to Brideshead Revisited. (Comics came a bit later…) The only tattoo I've ever considered in my life is the classic and glorious 'G-with-an-arrow' Granada logo.
Anyway, fast-forward to the twenty-first century – an era sadly lacking in silver jumpsuits, hoverscooters and 3-D holographic telly. After the first five-day residential for my MA (including an inspirational lecture on the amount of visual information in the opening 15 minutes of Witness), I realised that I needed to give myself a crash course in cinematic vocabulary.
After a couple of false starts with wanky academic film studies books, I finally found what I was looking for with a SofaCinema subscription and Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique by Marilyn Fabe (partially available through Google Books - http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zMnk5cGz5l0C).
In her book, Fabe breaks down key sequences from films that are emblematic of devel0pments in film style, providing a shot-by-shot analysis of how the film-maker combines image and sound to affect the viewer.
She starts with Griffiths' Birth of a Nation, which laid down the foundations for narrative film, and moves through films such as Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, Les 400 Coups, Annie Hall and Do The Right Thing.
While I'm at it, another useful book that avoids a screenwriting-by-numbers approach in favour of a more analytical method is Screen Language: From Film Writing to Film-making by Cherry Potter, a former head of screenwriting at the National Film and Television School. I know this is a bit lazy, but here's her publisher's blurb:
Using sequences from films as diverse as Wild Strawberries, The Lacemaker, For a Few Dollars More, Midnight Cowboy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and American Beauty, Potter examines the nature of film language, structure and storytelling, as well as departures from the classic form. A final section, which will be of particular interest to anyone who wishes to write, produce or direct films, looks at the imaginative process of generating film ideas and invites readers to explore their creativity by providing essential guidance and practical exercises.
Anyway, the point of all this is that the other week, at the age of 40 and as a supposed con-wah-sewer of the moving image, I saw Dr Strangelove for the first time. And very enjoyable it was too, in the way that universally acclaimed 'classics' sometimes aren't.
The script, adapted from Peter George's novel Red Alert by Kubrick, Terry Southern and George himself, beautifully skewers the madness of scientists and military strategists – as embodied by the title character – calculating ways of 'winning' a nuclear war while isolated from reality in their sealed institutional environments.
The funniest scenes are the one-sided telephone conversations between US president Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his unseen, drunken Russian counterpart. Something as seemingly uncinematic as a bloke talking on a phone is transformed into pure gold by brilliant writing: Muffley's responses give the audience the room to fill in the gaps, and heighten the satire by reducing an attempt by the two most powerful men in the world to prevent a nuclear war to the tone of a bickering married couple.
The lesson? Always look beyond the obvious when you're deciding how to present a scene. The exchanges would have totally lost their effect if the president was striding around Ed Harris-style barking out clipped instructions.
Sunday, 26 October 2008
Spooks, Monday 9pm, BBC One ****
After the barely satisfying snack of Spooks: Code 9, the main course is served tonight, as Spooks starts its seventh series. However, BBC spies have sworn me to secrecy on a number of plot developments, and the last thing I need is one of their notorious ninja dwarf assassins coming through the cat-flap to dole out restricted-height punishment.
Unusually, the series doesn't start too well. As soon as we see an off-duty soldier in the pub toasting his new baby and having a lovey-dovey phone call with his wife, we can guess he's in for a bit of a shock. When he gets kidnapped by Islamic extremists who want the Government to cancel Remembrance Sunday, we fear the worst: the world of Spooks doesn't always guarantee a happy ending.
But there's a lot more going on. A new Russian spymaster in London ruffles a few feathers by offering co-operation in the war on terrorism – at a price. He also engineers an exchange in which M15 agent Lucas North – a new character played by Richard Armitage – returns home after eight years in a Russian prison. He wants to get back into the action, but is a torso covered in tattoos all he's brought back?
This first episode is as slick and exciting as you'd expect, picking up from the climax of the previous series and spinning the action in a whole new direction. Not knowing every character's true agenda creates a palpable sense of paranoia and the feeling that everything could change in the blink of an eye. The camera lurks round corners and spies on the spies themselves; you never know when someone is going to spring out of the shadows.
Brilliant editing and 24-style split screens heighten the tension to almost unbearable levels as the episode approaches its climax, and just when you think one threat has been averted, things suddenly get much worse. And while the agents are helped along the way by a lot of implausibly beepy and flashy technology, they're ultimately left to make their life-or-death decisions on their own.
The arrival of fresh characters makes this a perfect jumping-on point for new viewers, while long-time fans of the show should be prepared for some jaw-dropping action as the series makes an explosive comeback. Nothing in Section D is ever going to be the same again – and that's all I can say without a ninja dwarf having to jump on the 176 bus to Penge.
Thursday, 23 October 2008
IOU came about one day when my wife was late to meet me and I could sense my lunch hour slipping away. Out of nowhere came the thought of someone demanding an IOU for the time they had lost through someone else being late, which in turn got me wondering about how far someone might then go to reclaim that debt.
The film was made by Lucy Castle, as part of her (I think) Film & TV Production course at Salisbury College. She put a post on Shooting People looking for short scripts and I was the 'lucky winner'.
I wasn't really involved in the production but it all went fairly smoothly, though we had differing thoughts about the ending. She had something much darker in mind, while I wanted to keep it lighter. We eventually reached a compromise, but I still think it's a bit off-tone and prefer my original 'real' ending (the script is at www.tommurphy.info/iou.pdf).
I haven't watched it for a couple of years, but I remember being pleased at how Holly (the female character) played out - I was worried that she was a bit shrewish on the page. I think I also enjoyed the bloke playing Barry.
Enjoy the fillum!
(Edit: Sorry, I've just noticed the volume level on this is really low.)
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Morgan's most celebrated work has got two very distinctive themes: it tends to be based on real events (or, at least, real people), and it often focuses on a vital one-to-one relationship between the main characters. He immediately addressed the big question that arises from fact-based drama: how much can you tinker about with events and characters while staying 'true' to what happened?
He drew a distinction between what he defined as 'truth' and 'accuracy', which he illustrated with a scene from The Deal. In the clip, set the night before former Labour leader John Smith died, Smith (Frank Kelly) and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) stop for a hot dog on Waterloo Bridge after an unsatisfying meal at some official 'do.
As they discuss the party's future and likely return to power, Brown – who clearly assumes that he is next in line for the leadership – is alarmed to hear Smith talk up the prospects of the up-and-coming Tony Blair.
After watching the scene, Morgan admitted that it had no proven basis in fact; Brown and Smith had been to a function that evening, but the interlude on Waterloo Bridge was entirely his own creation. However, he justified the scene by saying that the viewpoints expressed during the fictional conversation were an accurate depiction of the characters' positions at that moment.
He went on to describe the high level of trust that he feels exists between the makers of fact-based films and their audiences. He believes that the audience expects the dramatist to bring a voice to the piece that moves it beyond a mere 'accurate' reconstruction into something more stimulating and provocative. A bald depiction of verifiable events would leave little room for subsequent debate.
Here are a few of the other points he made:
- He also credits audiences with a high level of sophistication, saying how difficult it is to manipulate and mislead them narratively. He also refuses to oversimplify his stories or 'chew them up' for the audience, who he assumes have a high level of knowledge. When deciding how to present events (such as the Frost/Nixon interviews), he always assumes that experts on the subject will be coming to watch the film.
- While he often writes about politicians, he doesn't see himself as a political writer. He's more interested in the characters as individuals rather than their official status. For example, his inspiration for The Deal was founded in Gordon Brown's realisation - which left him 'vibrating with unarticulated agony' – that others in the higher ranks of the Labour party were more likeable than him.
- He attempts to 'detox', or strip away the baggage of his own – and popular – preconceptions when he starts writing about real people, but it seems to come back once the actors start to create the role; for instance, anything Michael Sheen says while he's playing Tony Blair makes the former PM sound like a bit of a tit.
- His original draft of The Queen didn't include Tony Blair. His protagonist was going to be Robin Janvrin, the Queen's deputy private secretary played in the film by Roger Allam. The film was mostly going to be set at Balmoral, with Janvrin acting as the interface between the royal family and the weird public reaction to the death of Diana. However, Morgan found this approach dull and the introduction of Blair brought the piece to life by raising the issue of the UK constitution and the nature of a head of state. As is reinforced in Frost/Nixon, nations seem to lose a sense of themselves when their head of state fucks up.
- He prefers to let themes grow organically out of the story, rather than trying to address them consciously or present them on-the-nose. He likes to let the audience do the necessary inference.
- Longford is his favourite piece, although he doesn't know why he became so passionate about that particular story. He enjoys examining 'the compassion of judgement', and is often surprised by how positively audiences react to flawed characters such as Longford and the Queen. He suggested that viewers sympathise with such characters because they sense their pain – as if we've seen them get a knife in their side but attempt to carry on with their life.
- Speaking after a clip from The Last King of Scotland, he said that he finds adaptations have more constraints than original screenplays, due to the need to balance the source material with a viable cinematic structure (eg, in Giles Foden's novel, the Scottish doctor and Idi Amin don't meet for around 200 pages). It's necessary to keep the tone and 'DNA' of the source material, even if you have to fillet it quite brutally.
- He essentially writes everything 'on spec', to avoid interference and notes along the way. He admitted that when he works with Stephen Frears he goes along for a 2-3 hour meeting with the director's dramaturg, but only to get it out of the way.
Friday, 17 October 2008
A breakthrough, of sorts.
I think that one of the reasons I haven’t been as prolific on this blog as I would have liked is that I'm too self-critical. Whenever I think about posting, I manage to convince myself that I need a beautifully formulated idea all ready in my head that just has to be tapped in.
Maybe it comes from my routine for 'real' writing: I build up an outline and scenes very gradually, and tend not to commit anything to a proper draft until it's already in a fairly coherent form. I still leave room for spontaneity and surprises, but I handle the brainstorming and creativity in one part of the process and then start editing with my 'first' draft.
Anyway, earlier this week I was commissioned to write a quick preview of the new series of Have I Got News for You? And, after a heavy few days of other freelance stuff and BFIing, I sat down to write it at around 11pm on Wednesday with absolutely no idea of what I was going to say.
So, I just started writing.
One thought led to another, and gradually I started to form an argument (of sorts). I still thought it was a bit ho-hum by the time I'd finished, but the notoriously criticial sub and the channel editor both emailed to say they liked it, so I must have got something right.
So, that's the approach I'm going to try and take for this blog. I'll sit down, start to tickle the keyboard* and see what comes out.
Audience member: What's it called?
Miles Davis: I'll tell you when I've finished.
*Maybe this is more common than I think, but I actually find the sensation of typing very pleasurable. As a doley victim of Thatcher, I used my underclass status to blag free typing lessons off Chorley Borough Council. As a result, I can now type pretty much as fast as I think (insert your joke here)
Thursday, 2 October 2008
However, I promise - on the sacred oath of St Bingo - that I'll publish a few posts about my MA course as soon as poss. So add me to your messagey-grabby thing!
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
Thursday, 4 September 2008
Obviously language moves on quickly and mouthfuls of dubious slang are no substitute for conflict, thought-out goals and motivations, emotional engagement and the other components of effective drama. However, a few choice cuts add a taste of authenticity and spice the whole thing up. At the very least, you'll avoid the cardinal sin of interchangable dialogue.
In other news... I bought a pair of slim-fit jeans on Sunday. Granted, they've got a 42-inch waist and came from M&S in Croydon, but it still clearly says 'slim fit' in golden embriodery. We live in an age of wonders!
Saturday, 30 August 2008
Well, that's that, then: having left my job and – hopefully – negotiated my leaving drinks without making too much of a tit of myself, it's time to start looking forward.
Jason Arnopp recently made a very interesting post (which attracted some stimulating comments) about how writers perceive and describe themselves – particularly at the early stages of their career. I felt a bit of this tension last night; when people were asking me about what I was going on to do, I found myself focussing more on the freelance journalism bit rather than the screenwriting. Why is that? While Jason's call for action and self-respect was rousing, I was concerned that I would sound like a self-regarding prat by going on about a glittering career that isn't there yet. Yes, I've got a bit of faith in my talent, which has been validated by others, and I worked bloody hard to get a decent MA, but I didn't want to sound like some Nathan Barley-type prattling on about castles in the air.
I think I successfully fudged it by not describing myself as anything, but saying that I'm working on some exciting projects...
1. Care and Control - a drama series pilot for the Red Planet Prize (and beyond). This is a 'precinct' drama set among a social work team in a South London borough, that I'm working on with a writing partner – someone who's been a social worker specialising in child protection for years. She has come up with a mouthwatering array of characters and situations, which I'm trying to weave together into a coherent series arc. We've been kicking the idea around for a couple of years, so the RPP has given us the kick up the arras we needed to get on with it.
2. Foot Soldiers - a feature-length drama about a bloke who gets too caught up in the shadowy world of underground militant pedestrian activity. This is still very much at the outlining stage, but it's all falling into place and I'm quite excited about it.
3. The Last of the Reality Police – the feature-length script that was my major MA project. I haven't really looked at this since I submitted it in May, so I'll probably give it a quick polish before testing the ground and sending it out (it got good feedback from my tutor, who said it was a 'very credible calling card').
So watch this space for progress reports.
In other news, I'm going to see REM today – which is great, but I can't help feeling it's about twenty years too late. For, when I was a passionate young shaver, around the time of Life's Rich Pageant, Document and Green, they were absolutely my favourite band. But something imperceptible happened after that to weaken our relationship; I bought Out of Time and Automatic for the People, and while I realised they were excellent I just never fell in love with them the way I did with the previous albums. So going to the gig today feels a bit like a divorcee going to a school reunion, hoping to connect again with that spotty bloke/girl from the back of the Vauxhall Viva.
A final question: why is it that you can only remember all the words to It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) when you're drunk?
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
During the lecture, David told us that in order to create an empathic bond between our unknown audience and our characters, we need to use basic psychology to ensure that our characters share the same fundamental human needs and desires as the viewer. To identify these needs, he drew on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who proposed a hierarchy of needs in a 1943 paper entitled A Theory of Human Motivation.
The lecture notes are in a PDF, and are pretty much as I scribbled them down in the lecture room. They might not make complete sense without the accompanying film clips, but a lot of those excerpts should be familiar enough. If nothing else, the notes might provide a starting point for further research into the theory.
Lecture notes: http://www.tommurphy.info/empathy.pdf
Monday, 25 August 2008
Sunday lunchtime epitomised what I loved about my first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe. When I roused from my blissful slumber that morning, I had no idea that within a few brief hours I’d be watching a six-foot transvestite singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the style of Bernard Manning. But lo – such a thing came to pass. And not only that, but it came to pass during Jim Bowen’s Let's See What You Would Have Won show. As I say to Janie – and anyone else who’ll sit still long enough – that’s the beauty of life; you never know what’s going to happen next.
Jim’s show followed a similar format to that of Nicholas Parsons a couple of days earlier; an opening routine – delivered in his characteristic miserablist style – followed by guest appearances from another couple of fringe acts – drag queen and impressionist Lavinia Slutford and Polish acrobats the Cesar Twins. Like a lot of comedians of his era, Jim veers a bit close for comfort towards moaning about the 'PC brigade' (who would have had him down as a Mac user?) However, the dry wit and old-fashioned craft of his jokes just about kept him afloat. The show then moved on to an abbreviated version of Bullseye; members of the audience linked up with the guests for the 'pounds for points' game, with the winners – the Cesar Twins and young Esme from Derby – going through to Bully's prize board! After only winning one fairly meagre prize, it was an easy decision for Esme to make during the time it took the board to revolve (ie, the time it took for Jim's producer to hump it around): GAMBLE!!! Sadly for Esme, the gamble didn't come off, but – in time-honoured fashion – Jim revealed the special prize that was hiding behind Bully – a (toy) speedboat, containing a hotel voucher.
It's hard for you young 'uns to appreciate what Bullseye means to gents of a certain generation. For know this, gentle reader, there was once a time when the pubs shut on Sunday afternoon. And most other places hadn't even opened in the first place. And verily was there fuck-all to do. Amid this desolation, Bullseye – at 5pm – stood out like an oasis, its cheery music like the mesmerising chimes of a resplendent golden carousel amid an otherwise abandoned and derelict fun fair. The gig was made complete when Jim announced that he'd be signing copies of his autobiography outside afterwards. As I shook his hand, I felt a profound sense of connection – a sense that only came to an end three minutes later, when a grizzly security guard prized my fingers apart and released Jim from my grip.
The nostalgia trip continued a bit later with Roy Walker's Goodbye Mr Chips. Roy – 'the Perry Como of comedy' – started with a much more personal slide-show of his showbiz career, from his early days as a boy soprano singer, through the difficulties of being a comedian in Belfast during the Troubles, to his big breakthrough on Catchphrase. He then revved up the show with a few energetic rounds of the game, before wrapping up with that clip of Mr Chips. While his show wasn't a laugh-a-minute (he's had a bit of personal tragedy along the way), he's got such natural charm and a sense of gratitude for his success that it's impossible not to feel a lot of affection for him. His laconic deadpan delivery also suits his material perfectly – he's fond of the 'slow burner' that only gets the 'big woof' a couple of seconds later.
Early evening, and a quick whizz across town to see Jeff Green's Life-Ache. I'd never come across Jeff before, though the friends we were in Edinburgh with had seen a couple of his shows down the years. I think this was our only view of what the hard side of Fringe life could be like – the (smallish) auditorium was only about half-full, and Jeff said that he'd had some harsh reviews. His show mostly revolved around the changes that had taken place in his life since he'd got married and had a kid, so we had tales of his honeymoon and the strangeness of finding himself as a 'grown-up', as epitomised by his becoming a caravanner. The routine was generally funny, though Jeff seemed a bit strained at times and struggled to get his thread back after a few late arrivals in the audience.
No such concerns for Ed Byrne, whose Different Class was apparently one of the hottest tickets of the Fringe. Ed is a very polished performer, showing the confidence of someone who knows they're at the top of their game. The theme of his show was his discomfort at not knowing quite what class he was supposed to be, though he soon veered off onto other topics – most successfully, the traumatic experience of organising his recent wedding. It seemed a strangely fitting show to finish our weekend on, as it was definitely the Premiership end of the festival; the Assembly Hall is the largest venue on the Fringe, and while Ed's show was funny throughout, there was absolutely nothing risky or out of the mainstream about it. In addition, the size of the venue – I'd guess about 1,000 seats – meant that there wasn't the interaction between performer and audience that made a lot of the other shows so vibrant. All of which is nit-picking really; Ed Byrne matches his material and his delivery perfectly, and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted.
Which just left one more overwrought performance to see out the weekend – me slipping into full King Lear mode when I found out at about 11.50pm that I'd lost the key to the guesthouse. Janie tells me that I get too cross with myself for doing stupid and utterly avoidable things; 'catastrophising', her calls it. Anyway, after a great deal of over-apologising and much psychic self-flagellation, there was a happy ending – the Assembly Hall, where we saw Ed Byrne, rang a few days later to say that they'd found the key. A satisfying epilogue to a very stimulating and highly enjoyable first trip to the Fringe.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
Saturday kicked off with a lunchtime date with John Hegley (Beyond our Kennel). This was definitely one of the treats of the weekend. Hegley affects the stern persona of the driest, most deadpan teacher you ever had (step forward Mr Fenlon of Holy Cross,
After that we had a special super bonus show – having enjoyed our taste of
Then it was time for a dash across town and a change of gear – the play Surviving Spike, starring Michael Barrymore as Spike Milligan and Jill Halfpenny as his PA-turned-manager Norma Farnes. Based on Norma’s published memoir, the play takes a fairly accelerated look at their relationship over a number of decades. While the amount of ground to be covered meant that the play was pacy and constantly stimulating, it also meant that – as other reviewers have pointed out – we got little sense of Spike’s constant, prolific and varied creativity. Jill Halfpenny gives a very natural and engaging performance, while Michael Barrymore really comes into his own as Spike becomes older and more burnt-out. His depiction of the frail comedian on the brink of defeat at the end of his life is highly moving.
Then for something completely different – Jerry Sadowitz. Even with prior knowledge of his sociopathic stage persona, it’s hard not to be shocked by the venomous energy of his various rants – in favour of paedophilia, murderous dictators and the Holocaust, and against the McCanns, Muslims, the Chinese and (naturally) the English. However, even though nearly everything he says is thoroughly reprehensible, there’s something thrilling – almost exhilarating – about the glee with which he baits the crowd and seeks out and annihilates even the most sacred taboos. On top of all this, his close-up magic is absolutely exemplary; he can do some amazing things with a pack of cards.
Staggering out into the night, I once again though how exciting it would be to lose my guesthouse key. But, once again, I decided to save that treat for another time…
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
Well, seeing as I promised some thoughts on my MA course – here’s a quick review of my lightning trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. Having been saying to each other for about 15 years that we really should be going, Wifey and I finally extracted our digits and organised it this year, with a couple of friends.
We got there on Friday and eased ourselves into the weekend with Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour – probably the only time over the whole weekend where I was younger than the audience average. While he’s as smooth and professional as you’d expect, his wit is a lot more barbed that you might imagine, though just being in his regal presence left this grizzled veteran humming the theme from Sale of the Century for the rest of the weekend. Ah… what is that celestial music that Peter Fenn is about to play…? The show followed a chat-show format; his guests were Aussie stand-up Adam Hill, with whom he had a good yak about prostate treatment, and musical comedy duo
After our audience with His Nickness, it was Justin Moorhouse in Ever Decreasing Social Circles. Having a fairly ambivalent attitude towards social networking sites (didn’t they used to be called ‘pubs’?), I found the premise of his show irresistible. Working from his Nan’s advice that you’re blessed if you can count your true friends on the fingers of one hand, he decided to trawl through his 600+ Facebook and MySpace ‘friends’ and whittle them down to five, using a fairly arbitrary survey process to gauge their compatibility. He also used the questions – asking his respondents for their attitude towards topics ranging from motor sport to Morrissey – to veer off into more traditional stand-up territory. The show ended with audience participation, as he applied to same criteria to find a ‘friend’ in the audience. Wifey and I got down to the last few before I was dismissed for having a knob and she was binned for having her arms folded. Don’t care. Got enough friends anyway.
The final show of the night was Daniel Kitson (another Phoenix Nights veteran) in
Maybe it helped that we knew the places he was talking about, but the show was mesmerising – thought-provoking, funny, profound and moving. Kitson’s slightly shambling and socially awkward persona (plus his characterisation of his soulless landlord) draw you in and make you laugh, while his observations on memory and the significance of ‘home’ make you want to go back and look at your own domestic situation from a brand new perspective. His relationship with the flat - which he loved despite, or because of, all its faults - also provided a surprisingly apt metaphor for all our personal relationships.
After that, it was back to the guest house. I thought for a while about losing the key in the street, but decided that it would be altogether more interesting to do that another night…
Thursday, 14 August 2008
Hmm… is there an etiquette for opening blog entries? I suppose I’d better give you ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’.
My name’s Tom Murphy and I’ve just graduated from
In the meantime, I thought it would be worth starting a blog to record my experiences and progress as I shuffle uncertainly towards where the action is. I also see quite a few films and a fair bit of TV and theatre, so I’m hoping that blogging about a few of those might help to sharpen up my critical outlook.
In other news, I turned 40 earlier in the year, and am currently facing what Martin Amis described as ‘the Information’. I’m also being made redundant and going freelance (writing/editing) in a couple of weeks, so these are Interesting Times.
Next, I'll try to come up with a few reflections on my MA course, as the whole issue of teaching screenwriting seems to twist many melons.