Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Dr Strangelove, NFT, 15 Oct

When I started my MA back in the balmy days of '06, I soon realised that my film education had been a bit lacking.

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, H
is 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, BBC1, 27 Oct

Ahead of the new series of Spooks, here's a preview I wrote which will be appearing on the Orange website tomorrow. I've never been a regular viewer of the series, but the first episode was utterly gripping. I haven't had my heart in my mouth as much since the last couple of episodes of The Sopranos. -------------------------------------------------------------------------
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


Here's something new and exciting - a short film (nine minutes) what I wrote a few years ago.

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

Peter Morgan, NFT, 19 Oct

The Script Factory and the National Film and Television School presented a masterclass with Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Longford, Frost/Nixon) on Sunday. I'm sure more perceptive and insightful bloggers than me will provide reports, but here are a few things I noted from the event, which was very capably hosted by the prolific writer Jonathan Myerson.

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

The journey and the destination

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) . I can't stand the sound of my voice, but I love the sight and sound of words filling up the screen.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Coming soon...

Sorry there hasn't been much activity on here in recent weeks; preparing my Red Planet entry and getting my freelance career off the ground (and suddenly having three employers instead of one) have taken up a bit more time than anticipated.

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!