Sunday, 30 September 2007

Incidental Music

Someone at ITV is now chewing their way through my CD collection (see here for the same with the BBC). I stumbled inadvertently across the X-Factor last night (whilst looking for Screen Wipe tthat took the piss out of it), and was amazed to hear yet more of my CD collection plundered for incidental music. Some strange choices as well – Roger Eno, anyone? (Brian’s little brother). We had the usual borrowing from Sigur Ros (Takk is turning into a real incidental music fave, both on BBC and ITV), and also a smattering of Craig Armstrong – all in the space of ten minutes. Wow. And there’s me saying that that the X-Factor is a programme for people who don’t like music (it is, but, yeah, well, you get my drift...)

What’s next I wonder? Boris on Emmerdale? Fugazi on Eastenders? Helmet on Country File? The mind boggles.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Rejection Times Two

Two more rejections from agents today – the first from David Higham, the second from Eric Glass. But what makes the rejection this time round a little more bearable is that I simply can’t remember having written to either of them!

Perhaps this is the best way to handle rejection (which is, let’s face it, going to happen more often than not in this game) – get those scripts and letters in the post and forget all about them. I do the same with competitions (I put two scripts in this year for Blue Cat but completely forgot about the second – Gordy Hoffman was not amused at my response).

I have stuff out with a couple of agents at the moment who are due a chase, so stay tuned...

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Institute Benjamenta – As Dull as Opera

I once went out with a trainee Stage Manager from the Central School of Screech and Trauma, which meant that I had the envious task of attending a lot of student and semi-professional productions (guaranteed to put you off the theatre for life). One such episode was a production of Giovanni d’Arco, by Verdi, held at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Uh-oh, I thought – opera. Me and opera get on like two cats in a sack – I mean, what’s the point of it? If it had some relevance, I could understand it, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t – not one iota.

Anyway, I went along to the 'public' dress rehearsal , which was a bit misleading as I was the only member of the public there - not that I wanted to be of course. I was waiting for my girlfriend, but to get to see her I had to put up with three and half hours of bloody opera. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I fell asleep halfway through the second act, sparing myself the full three and hour torture. Problem was, I woke myself up with up with a massive snore as old Joanie was ascending piously to heaven on a creaky old pulley operated by two sweaty stage hands. The poetry of the moment was irrevocably disrupted, and my Stage Manager and I parted ways soon afterwards.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that Giovanni d’Arco is one of only two things I have slept through – the other being:

Institute Benjamenta

On Rotten Tomatoes, this film gets a 100% rating! Uh? Did these guys sleep through the same film as I did? I remember spending a cosy afternoon in the Duke of Yorks dozing fitfully to this. I have never slept through a film before or since, which should give you an idea just how boring this film really is. Visually, it’s absolutely sumptuous (but thereagain, maybe I was in the midst of some pleasant REM sleep), but it takes more than eye candy to hold my attention I’m afraid. Reading the synopsis at the Zeitgeist Films website, it really is as dull as it sounds.

Now, my wife – she can sleep through anything. We went to see The Usual Suspects when it came out, and she spent half the film asleep. To add insult to injury, she woke up just before the end and gave me a potted précis of the story, as if she had somehow absorbed the entire narrative by osmosis. What a weirdo!

Monday, 24 September 2007

The Informers

News here that Winona Ryder is set to star in an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers, originally published in 1994. It’ll be interesting to see how this adaptation goes, as The Informers is one of Ellis more understated, restrained efforts (with a killer of a punchline). If the slash ‘em up and gore of American Psycho and the sheer brazen stupidity of Lunar Park all seem like too much, try The Informers. It doesn’t really read like an Ellis novel at all (no bad thing in my book).

That said, I'm sure Glamorama would make a great movie...

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Ravenhill, Waters, McKee

What follows is an article published in The Guardian on 21st December 2006 by Steve Waters (original article is here). There’s a Mark Ravenhill article that covers similar ground, but I suspect that Ravenhill hasn’t really read too much McKee – this doesn’t matter a great deal, as it’s a very entertaining read.

It now seems, as Steve Waters states below and Ravenhill echoes, that all readers, script editors and commissioners are now wrapped up in the “three act, sole protagonist, inciting incident” model of screenwriting. There are plenty of films that buck this trend – Paris, Texas, as Waters states below, but how about Psycho, Babel, Full Metal Jacket, The Prestige, Eraserhead, Chung King Express - the list goes on. If narrative is to be churned out to a predetermined, homogenised pattern, is it any wonder we end up with movies that are the production-line equivalent of Big Macs?
“Story is a metaphor for life. Or so says the guru of "story", Robert McKee, whose ideas have spread like a virus. Infamous for having been impersonated by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, McKee's ideas - which are expounded in his weekend seminars (£460, including software) and in his tome, Story - are on the lips of writers, script editors and commissioners. Such ubiquity surely places McKee beyond suspicion.

So what's the idea? McKee proposes that the art of story (which he promotes from humble noun to abstract concept) is on the wane. Movie-makers opt for mere incident to tart up underdeveloped screenplays, while in the arthouse sector story is snubbed by elitist conceptualism. As film audiences shrink, so story withers; for story was most ascendant when film was a mass art and when audiences weren't coteries.

There's much truth in this, and McKee's paean to the undervalued art of screenwriting is a corrective to years of auteurist ideology. But his ideas don't stop there; he seeks to offer a grand prescription for dramatic narrative comparable in its ambitions to Aristotle.

Here is the orthodoxy: every story has a three-act structure. It begins with an "inciting incident", centres on a protagonist under unimaginable pressure seeking a burning objective, and rides out on the spine of this quest with "progressive complications" ratcheting up the pressure. Thus every story is driven by antagonism, crisis, conflict - you can almost feel the honest sweat seeping from the pages of his book.

Can a man whose pupils include the winners of 26 Academy Awards be wrong? The old joke that there's a two-word answer to McKee - Paris, Texas - suggests he can. It's telling that the majority of his exemplar films are middlebrow products such as Ordinary People; when he turns his attention to Chinatown his reading feels off the mark. Theatre gets the odd nod but it's Ibsen's Hedda Gabler rather than When We Dead Awaken; God knows what he'd make of Saved or Blasted.

The most lethal fallout from McKee's approach comes in his proposition that good stories must be engineered in advance like municipal car parks, thus ushering in the stultifying world of 80-page story treatments where the improvised life of the narrative is nailed dead before a line of dialogue is written.

And this is not simply about fiction; I heard a TV producer admit that story is now colonising narrative history; and where the facts don't fit the template they are simply set aside. In the recent BBC docu-drama on the history of Rome it became apparent that the life and times of Emperor Augustus didn't conform to the demands of story to make the series: where was his third act crisis?

Isn't there already too much narrative cliche clogging up our relationship to experience; the Brown/Blair tiff is packaged in advance as a three act drama with deferred climax; Global Warming as a set of progressive complications yielding the mother of all climaxes. We can't blame McKee for his influence, but story's looking increasingly like another patent, branding random experience into manipulable commodity.

Truly great stories shatter the crust of cliche. I remember watching Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls and experiencing that delirium of uncertainty that great narrative art induces. What about the early Wim Wenders films which weave around their narrative core releasing us to enjoy time and space for itself. Writers learn their craft from the canon of drama but they should steer clear of recipes - and McKee's work has become one more ideology filtering out the shocks that radical fiction uses to shake us from our slumbers.”

Saturday, 22 September 2007

(The Complete Bloody Lack of) Music on TV

Ever since that wizened old carbuncle Top of the Pops shrivelled up and disappeared from our screens, none of the big four terrestrial (hmm, are they still collectively known as terrestrial?) channels have featured any kind of dedicated music programming – something that I find completely bizarre.

Music, of course, is everywhere on television – on any given night of the week, I can sit down to watch some old nonsense on BBC2 and get regaled with selected blasts from my own CD collection being used as incidental music (my wife gets thoroughly fed up with me saying things like: “Hear that? That’s Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake, that is! From their generally well received CD Mr Beast. Oh yes.”). Some BBC researcher somewhere obviously has a list of my entire collection, as they insist on playing excerpts from it every opportunity they get: Sigur Ros, Brian Eno (a particular favourite of Auntie’s), Gomez, Primal Scream, The Go! Team, Tortoise, Doves, Godspeed, Nick Drake, David Bowie, the list goes on. Everyone listens to music, everyone loves it – so why on earth aren’t there more programmes devoted to it (and no, sorry, The X-Factor doesn't count – a music programme for people who don't like music at all).

The Culture Show might occasionally feature a plug for an Alan Yentob film on Scott Walker (am I the only person who views Yentob as completely clueless with regards to the vast majority of what he chooses to talk about?), or a fleeting snippet of Martha Wainwright (Rufus’ more talented sister). However, due to the magazine format, there is no real opportunity to do more than get a broadbrush overview. BBC4 – a channel seemingly run by and for old geezers – might feature an old Marc Bolan concert every now and again, but where’s the fun in that? And all I can really find in the current BBC website listings are Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the Mobo Awards (why do TV schedulers assume that anyone likes to watch award shows?) and Vernon Kay (the antichrist in presenter form) on a search to find the ‘World’s Greatest Elvis Impersonator’ (hit me round the head with a shovel, it’d be kinder). It’s either that or Jools Holland on BBC HD (see BBC4 comment above).

Auntie may well like point to their yearly Glastonbury and Reading coverage, and leave everything else to the boys and girls on the Radio side of things. Also, with the plethora of music channels out there these days, you could argue that the BBC has better things to spend licence payer’s money on, like Nigella Express (“all the meaty juices are getting drawn into my pool of cider” Oo-err, missus!), or a Jasper Carrot gameshow.

I beg to differ.

Top of the Pops was all very well, but what with the advent of MTV, the format was very obviously dated. However, music on TV doesn’t necessarily need to be about quiz shows, award ceremonies and static live concerts. Every now and again, Auntie produces something like The Seven Ages of Rock, which was as awful as the Summer of British Film. But this tends to be backward looking – anything new is shovelled into the various niche radio stations that the BBC has created, which doesn’t exactly guarantee an audience.

If it’s narratives that the BBC is looking for, there are plenty of them out there waiting to be explored – how about a programme on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, for instance (that should keep the old geezers on BBC4 happy)? What about the explosion in new music emanating out of Canada over the last few years? Broken Social Scene, Godspeed, Stars, Pan Am – even the new i-pod advert features a song by Leslie Feist. Unless MTV is a staple diet, most people will have no idea who she is. And why should they? Her only appearances on terrestrial television are on adverts.

How about Enter Shikari, a weird metal/techno hybrid currently going down a storm with ‘the kids’ (i.e., no-one over the age of 20 seems to be into them, me included). However, what makes them interesting is that they have chosen to go down an entirely DIY avenue. No major labels here, sunshine; these guys and their management (which seems to consist mostly of older family members) do it all themselves. This is information that you would traditionally glean from print media - but to my mind, there’s a great story here that could quite easily be told with a couple of DV cameras and a shoestring budget (you could look at it as a Money Programme supplement).

After all, all the above has to be better than Jools Holland assisting the Stereophonics butcher one of their own songs on Later… – doesn’t it?

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Blue Peter Pussy Outrage!

Looks like poor old Blue Peter, that middle class doyen of BBC children’s programming, is in trouble again – this time it’s all down to an online poll where the wrong name had been chosen for a new cat. The Guardian reports that the name that came top was “thought to have been deemed inappropriate for a children's show”, and the name Socks was chosen. Problem is, the BBC News earlier tonight reported that the ‘inappropriate’ name was Cookie.

Uh? How the hell is ‘Cookie’ inappropriate?

Turns out this isn’t the case at all. My wife reliably informs me that the name was actually ‘Pussy’ – which is obviously a tribute to Are You Being Served?

I thought the BBC would be overjoyed at the opportunity for a little cross promotion!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Three Duds and a Diamond

The bad film quotient round Chipster Towers has skyrocketed since my wife’s nephew moved in, bringing with him an armful of garishly covered DVDs (or ‘boy’s films’ as my wife likes to call them). On the odd occasion, he’ll drag me to the cinema (I haven’t yet forgiven him yet for the dross that was Hannibal Rising) for more of the same – although, that said, we caught a real gem of a movie last night in the shape of:

Shoot ‘Em Up – I don’t tend to disagree with Peter Bradshaw very often, but when he described Kill Bill as ‘deliriously exciting’, all I could think of to say was ‘Uh?’ If you want to see a film that is pointlessly, stupidly exciting, go see Shoot ‘Em Up. Character development? Pah! Narrative coherency? Get a grip! Intriguing sub-plots? Don’t me make me laugh! Unremittingly daft from the get-go, Clive Owen blasts away at twelve shades of bad guys whilst Paul Giametti chews up the scenery and spits it out in great big chunks. The thing is so delirious and daft, it’s hard not to grin. That, and Motorhead on the soundtrack as well. This may well be boy’s film territory, but what the hell.

By the way, Peter Bradshaw describes it as being wearyingly crude and calculating. You be the judge.

Unfortunately, after the ludicrous high point of Shoot ‘Em Up, it’s business as usual:

The Butterfly Effect 2: not having summoned up the energy to watch the first Butterfly Effect (is Ashton Kutcher really an actor? I always figured he was some sort of spokesman for Action Man or Colgate or something), I settle down for a bowl of warmed up leftover sequel.

Forty minutes in – can someone explain to me how people have sex through their clothes?

Fifty minutes in – uh, what the flaming arse is going on here?

Fifty five minutes in – the screenwriter has the good grace to answer my question above via a clunking great wedge of exposition – thank Christ for that. The lead character gets richer and progressively unhappier – I suspect there’s a message here but it’s so trite and simplistic I just can’t be bothered.

Eighty five minutes in, and we’re done. It’s passable, but it’s just too drab for me. Instantly forgettable.

Perhaps my nephew will stop bringing this type of film home if I give him money? (that said, The Science of Sleep was my choice).

1408: is all right, but probably more pointless than Wolf Creek. I mean, why bother? As it’s an adaptation of a Stephen King short story, alarm bells should start ringing before you even set foot in the cinema for this one.

The Science of Sleep: ten minutes in, and my wife’s bored already.

‘Fucking art students!’ she laughs, and flounces off to watch John Nettles in Midsomer Holby Witness or whatever the shag it’s called. That said, she’s got a point – the whole thing does look like it was made on some foundation art course on a budget of twelve quid and a mountain of the insides of toilet rolls.

However, lurking underneath the ‘wacky’ (how I hate that word) and deliberately low budget effects is a very conventional, none-too-impressive three act script – you know the sort of thing: boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again, they ride off into the sunset on a life-size cloth horse.

I gather that The Science of Sleep is meant to make your soul ache/flutter/keel over and shrivel up with romantic yearning or some such old toss. All it made me do was say, ‘Meh’. For something that may as well be an extended pop video, it’s all right. That said, the two leads are both as annoying as only art students can be (this, coming from a former art student – go figure).

I still can’t bring myself to watch Shooter. Maybe next time.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Big Break Finalists

The Big Break Finalists were announced on 12th September, and here they are in all their rampant glory:

Greg Amici, Los Angeles, CA RHYTHM OF LIFE
Carol Chiodini, Orlando, FL NOT FOR NOTHING
Robert Frisbee
, Santa Monica, CA CITYFALL
Geraint Horwood, Buckinghamshire, UK KNIGHT KNIGHT
Barry Lindemann, Las Vegas, NV SUPERGRASS
Mark Litton
, Los Angeles, CA THE ENABLER
Neil McGowan, Los Angeles, CA NUMBERED
Chris Rowland
, Northampton, UK VLAD THE IMPALER
Tony Urgo

Guess my entry must have scraped in at number 21 ;-)

Two contenders from the UK, which is great – more interesting is the fact that two of these scripts have regularly featured in the Trigger Street Screenplay Top Ten (Matthew Allen’s and Geraint Horwood’s to be precise), so are readily available for a perusal if you want to find out what the guys over at Big Break consider to be a ‘winning script’. I’ve read some of Ger’s work on Trigger Street before, and it's consistently funny. I’m not quite so au fait with Matthew Allen’s script, but it has certainly created some lively debate over at TS (mostly due to its legally contentious subject matter).

You could do worse than to pay Trigger Street a visit to check them both out (if they’re still up on the site that is).

Off on a Tangent (Part 4 of many)

Battles at the Concorde 2, Brighton, 21st August

Battles made the Concorde sweat right through its scruffy, seen-better-days Shellac t-shirt – this, in a venue whose idea of air conditioning is to keep the back door open. I’m certain that most bands that play the Concorde haven’t got the first idea what they’re letting themselves in for. The Concorde – Brighton’s Premier Music Venue proclaim the banners – the reality is a little different. When bands such as Battles or Wire play here, I always think – why the hell aren’t you guys playing up the road at the Dome? Much more civilised. The Concorde is so grimy and indie (for that read credible) it positively smarts. And don’t get me started on the sound. The way in which the venue is constructed means that the acoustics are totally shagged – that is, when the whole PA doesn’t pack up like it did when Wire played there last. Battles set up their own equipment, and I don’t blame them – I’m not so sure anyone on the Concorde crew is qualified to touch it, let alone try to get a decent sound out of it.

Quite how Battles do what they do is quite beyond me – no-one in this band actually seems to play anything (with the exception of John Stanier). Ian Williams fingers a few frets and jabs on a keyboard. David Konopka doesn’t really play what you and I would understand to be a bass line – half the time, the bass is there for low end texture, rumbling away like a tube train in some unseen tunnel beneath your feet. And Tyondai Braxton’s vocals (when they aren’t buried in the bloody atrocious mix) aren’t ‘vocals’ at all – they’re high pitched, highly treated wails, pushed through about a hundred different effects pedals.

And John Stanier? Good god, the man’s a demented power tool. How he keeps the barrage up for nearly ninety minutes is completely beyond me (if you want to know why the Helmet reformation didn’t work, look no further – trying to do it without John Stanier is unthinkable).

Apart from the crapped out sound, the only other major problem with this gig was the fact that I was standing behind a man wearing a trilby. Note to all future gig goers: if you stand six feet two in your socks, do not wear a fucking trilby and stand in front of me. Forty minutes in, I took drastic action and ended up stamping on some poor girl’s foot (and judging from the footwear of the average Brighton gig goer, I bet it hurt as well – sorry!).

Oh, by the way, Battles rocked. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Fun with Narratology

In yesterday’s Times, right next to a demolition job on Death Proof (Tarantino’s latest effort), there’s this from Pete Daly. Bearing in mind Lucy’s latest series on Structure, the only advice that Pete gives is that your movie should have a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order (nice to know that things haven’t really changed since Aristotle, although Philip Larkin did paraphrase this slightly as “a beginning, a muddle and an end”).

Although there are opposing views to this, I guess that this piece of ‘advice’ is a good starting point for anyone looking for a wider discussion on structure.

That said, I think I’ll follow the debate over at Lucy’s for the time being. The problem with me and structure is that I can only think in terms of specific examples, and not from an overview perspective at all (which Lucy does so brilliantly). I might post some stuff on Full Metal Jacket at some point, which can certainly be said to have a beginning, middle and end, but it achieves this in what is in effect a two act structure. In addition, I think that Full Metal Jacket is a film completely obsessed with structure, not just in its narrative, but also in its visual style and thematic concerns as well.

Anyway, my word for today is Narratology.

Pip pip!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Off on a Tangent (Part 3 of many)

Lack of Knowledge - Grey EP, 1983

This 7" single appeared in 1983 on the Crass label, home of the original "dog on a string" brigade and perhaps the sole inspiration for smelly anarcho crusties across the land. However, on the face of it, this lot were different. From what I can gather, Lack of Knowledge were predominantly led by Tony Barber, who now plays bass for the Buzzcocks: they toiled around the usual anarcho gig sweat pots where their drainpipes and skinny ties attracted odd looks. The fact that they only played a handful of gigs perhaps shows that they didn't fit into the punk ‘scene' very well. Bear in mind that at the time, Crass Records specialised in apoplectic punk rock and wildly left of centre experimental nuttiness: spoken word EPs, a novelty Christmas record played entirely on a pocket Yamaha synthesiser, even a single by Captain Sensible. Merely admitting you could play an instrument to a proficient standard would automatically elevate you over the amount of angry punk rock detritus the label shovelled out with alarming frequency. However, it wasn't just the musicianship that elevated LOK - it was much more.

The four songs on this single are LOK's finest ten minutes. Even the LP that followed a little later - Sirens are Back - couldn't match what these guys did here. OK, so it's only four songs, but whatever it was - a fluke of a fluctuating line up or the attentions of a sympathetic producer – LOK were never able to reproduce what they did on this single. Comparisons to Joy Division are perhaps inevitable given the New Wave tag, but where Joy Division's sound was often cold and alienating, LOK's is warm, lush, pensive even, which is ironic given their lyrical concerns: Northern Ireland, imminent nuclear collapse, a dispiriting vision of the future that still sounds strangely contemporary today.

These concerns are a pretty good match with those of the other bands on the Crass roster, but LOK are more subtle – these guys want to tell stories rather than swear and sneer and carry on. And besides, this is hardly what you call a genre puck record: We’re Looking for People features a riff that isn’t the obligatory three chord racket – good god, the song even features a literate guitar solo! The drums are a little militaristic in keeping with the Crass house style, but are kept down in the mix, and just as well – man, that bass player can play! Another Sunset is flooded with (shock, horror) expansive keyboard washes which add to the melancholic vibe: this isn’t punk rock as we know it, and thank god for that.

Having the publicity that being 'signed' to Crass Records afforded them, LOK were never exactly obscure in the same way that Slab! were. The records that followed Grey made you wish they were. After Grey, they thrashed away with the obligatory three chords as the compilation Americanised demonstrates (where the criteria appears to be quantity not quality) – which makes Grey seem like a complete aberration. Sirens are Back has its moments, which certainly does not include a clunky funk work out halfway through Weapons Range (someone’s been listening to too much Pop Group). The fact that this record is self-produced speaks volumes. It really isn't very good.

There was a slight return to form on Chainsaw Records 12" Sentinel, but it sounds a little clumsy, derivative even, probably the result of recruiting a 'trainee' bass player in the shape of Karen Gower, Tony Barber’s girlfriend (the legend has it that when she joined the band, she had never played a bass before, let alone picked one up – subsequently, she was told to “fucking well hurry up and learn it’”!). The internal rhythmic engine that fuelled Grey had changed, and not for the better.

The thing that amazes me about LOK is the fact that after the triumph of Grey, they slowly returned to the punk formula of three thrashy chords and general lack of imagination. Tony Barber went on to play bass for the Buzzcocks in 1993, and since then LOK have not exactly done a lot. Ah well – perhaps expecting them to top Grey was asking a little too much.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Holby City vs Dragon's Den

Whilst huffing and puffing at the gym tonight, I managed to catch a snippet of BBC’s Holby City that intrigued me (it was either that or Eat Yourself Thin). A seemingly unscrupulous businessman (with his eye firmly set on establishing his own company) was visiting his mother in hospital, who had apparently just received some new fangled treatment courtesy of the NHS. ‘What if the treatment goes wrong?’ the man asked his mother, ‘you could sue. Get a few grand out of them.’ So far, so good – but then, this – ‘How am I going to get on Dragon’s Den then? All the other people on there have their own businesses.’

The capacity that the BBC has in promoting its own programmes is limitless – Breakfast TV is absolutely chock-a-block with actors and presenters all flogging their next BBC shows – but to actually see it in a drama is quite surprising. I wonder if there’s an internal memo that goes round asking producers to cunningly insert the names of other BBC programmes into their scripts?

That said, this also raises an interesting dialogue between the two shows. Holby City is of course fiction – Dragon’s Den isn’t (I hesitate to call it ‘factual’). I guess I’ll have to read up on my McLuhan and Baudrillard, but wouldn’t it be cool if a fictitious character from a BBC drama showed up on a reality TV show? Of course, it wouldn’t happen (not on the BBC anyway) – the only reason that cross referencing like this occurs is for the sake of promotion, as if the almost subliminal mention of Dragon’s Den is going to make everyone tune in when it’s next on.

So, what can we look forward to next? Eastenders mentioning University Challenge? Last of the Summer Wine referencing The Mighty Boosh? Silent Witness shoehorning in a reference to CBeebies?


Monday, 10 September 2007

Piling on the Badness


My nephew has crash landed at Chipster Towers and it looks like he’ll be here for the next few months whilst he attends a Photography course at Northbrook College. There’s just one problem – at the tender age of 18, he is already a connoisseur of some of the most godawful films ever made. What’s more, he has them all on DVD and he’s going to force me to sit through each and every one. For the love of god, nooooooo! (this is the same person who made me sit through Outlaw. Think that’s bad? I’ve got to sit through Shooter and The Butterfly Effect 2 at some point. Zoiks!).

For the record, he’s already forced me to watch the following…

Crocodile – not exactly Tobe Hooper’s finest hour. Made on a budget of about twenty bucks, this really has to be seen to be believed. On second thoughts, don’t bother.

Fantastic Four – well, that’s two hours of my life that I’m not going to get back. For all the sturm und drang, there are merely two action set pieces in this movie – yup, that’s right – two. The rest of the movie is taken up with an excess of exceedingly tiresome back story, which means that Doc Doom (the sole bad guy) doesn’t show up until ninety minutes in. Sheesh! Even the tweakalicious Jessica Alba isn’t enough to stave off stultifying boredom here.

However, all that said, the first big action set piece contains a scene that proves this theory. Ben Grimm (the Thing) has just saved the day by rescuing a bunch of firefighters on a half wrecked New York bridge. Due to an outbreak of coincidence (or Screenwriter's Contrivance as it's uncommonly known), the other three members of Team Fantastique are on the bridge as well. And if one coincidence wasn’t enough, here’s another – Ben’s fiancé shows up as well. As a cheering throng crowns her fiancé a hero, she removes her engagement ring to signify that her and Ben are no longer an item – the perfect example of coherence being sacrificed for (supposed) emotional impact. What’s wrong with letting us have both, eh?

Later on, Ben kindles a relationship with a blind artist – coupled with the bullshit moment on the bridge, the only thing I took away from this film is the fact that without drop dead gorgeous good looks, you're nothin', baby - get over it. Utter hogwash.

2Fast 2Furious – utter bollocks.

The Fog (the dreaded remake) – for pity’s sake, why ruin a perfectly decent movie like John Carpenter’s The Fog by remaking it? What’s the point? Incidentally, in the history of incoherent narratives, this one really does indeed take the biscuit – the ending is quite literally mind bending to the extent that you might even think you’re hallucinating (and not in a good, drugs related way).

Hannibal Rising – the major problem here appears to be the fact that Thomas Harris has adapted his own novel for the screen. I can categorically state that, having seen the evidence, Thomas Harris is no screenwriter.


Stigmata – just make it stop. I don’t care how you do it, JUST MAKE IT STOP!

Saw, I, II, and III: snore. Wha...? I dozed off there for a second. Soz.

Taxi (the remake, featuring Queen Latifah - although that said, the French original wasn't much cop either) – saints preserve us.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre – another dreaded remake. The original is superb. But this? Do I really have to go on? What makes matters worse is that there's another two films in the box set to go.

In return, I’m going to make the little blighter watch Hidden, and Last Year in Marienbad, That’ll teach him!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Abort! Abort!

Following up on a post by English Dave here, I thought it would be fun to list the uncompleted spec screenplays I have embarked on only to realise some months (and in one case, years) later that I just didn’t have the heart to finish.

Sex, Money, Freaks – the story of a washed-up American movie star promoting a B-movie action flick in London, who wanders off during a press junket in order to get wasted. Next morning, he wakes up next to a dead body, and has to enlist the help of a freeloading motorbike-riding dominatrix.

Problems? ‘Write about what you know,’ said the ‘friendly’ script editor, which always seems to be advice given to writers by non-writers (and shonky script editors). Besides, you tend to lose enthusiasm for a project once it’s been walked over by someone in spike heels!

The Censor – I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of censorship – this quote from David Cronenberg just about sums it up:

“No one is more qualified to be a classifier than anyone else, which is the problem with censorship. How can someone who is my age, my contemporary, see a film and say that I cannot see the film?”

There’s an Anthony Neilson (writer and director of The Debt Collector) play entitled The Censor, but as far as I know, there aren’t a huge amount of films that tackle this particular issue. So, I set my screenplay in the offices of a fictitious classification board, threw in a lot of gratuitous sex and violence, the odd bit of madness and wrote about the fall out that resulted.

Problems? Too many to mention. To start with, it’s a very narrow interest area – unless you’re interested in the subject of censorship, it probably wouldn’t appeal unless the human story behind it was compelling – which leads me to the next problem. I had three protagonists, one of which was crazy, which presented huge logistical problems by way of structure. Some things are just too difficult to resolve.

I’ve been trying to write this now for nearly six years – every now and again, I’ll come back to it and have a look, but perhaps it’s time now to junk it and move on.

Head On – as a rule I hate fictional films set in the music industry (Spinal Tap being the exception of course, and maybe Almost Famous). They never seem to tap into the more interesting aspects of the music business, such as – why do bands and musicians always seem to get ripped off? Managers, promoters and record labels clean up, whilst keeping their artistes on a dole money retainer. A suitable subject for a script I think!

Problems? The major problem I had with Head On was the fact that I was writing from a very structured outline, something that I don’t ordinarily do. Very often, I’ll start writing from a series of loose notes, which means that I am able to surprise myself (and supposes that anyone else reading might be surprised as well). In writing a structured outline, I removed the element of surprise from the screenplay altogether. Seventy pages in, I ran out of steam. Meh.

Clowns – set in the vanity publishing industry (admittedly an idea I nicked from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – why hasn’t this book been adapted for film?!). Can anyone else think of a movie set in this milieu? I can’t – hence the reason for the wholesale nickery. I had an idea about a vanity publisher who is harassed by a variety of crazy and deluded writers, all willing to part with money to see their magnum opus in print, but who all end up rather peeved when their dreams of fame and fortune turn out to be just that.

Problems? Let’s face it – unless you happen to be William S Burroughs, writers are just not that interesting. The tone of the screenplay also veered around like crazy – from comedy one moment, to drama the next, and even crossing the unspoken of void into melodrama. Shifts of tone I can live with, but this one had the lot. I also had a pop at the disabled as well, which was a bit uncalled for. Shelved indefinitely.

As English Dave says, it would certainly be handy if there was such a thing as a junk filter for writers. But in the absence of such a thing, I guess I’ll have to keep on churning out those half written specs in the hope that one day shit turns to shinola!

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Off on a Tangent (Part 2 of many)

Dali and Film, Tate Modern, until 9th September 2007

I like the Tate Modern, mostly for the perplexed look on people’s faces when they come across a work by Yves Klein or Jean Dubuffet. I took a couple of friends there recently (ostensibly to see the Gilbert and George exhibition) who wandered round with faces like thunder, pointing at various paintings saying things like, ‘A three year old could paint better than that!’ (it's an unwritten rule in the art world that you will hear this phrase uttered at least fifty times an hour in any major gallery showing abstract or conceptual work).

In an effort to placate my chums, I took them on the Carsten Holler slides rather than shell out £40 on entry fees (I could imagine their reaction when confronted with the Dirty Words series - “What? I’ve just paid a tenner to see a black and white photograph of the work ‘fuck’?” - so I bravely chickened out). But worry not – you’re on safer ground with Dali and Film (no dirty words, but a worrying amount of excrement).

Although Dali was partially responsible for two nutty surrealist films – L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou – and worked closely with the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney, this exhibition felt a bit tenuous to me. There is no doubt that Dali was enormously talented and hugely entertaining to have around, but I couldn’t help get the feeling that no-one really knew what to do with him film-wise. He seemed to me to be a mascot/joker who hung around the big studios (his portrait of Jack Warner with his dog is hysterical, as is his portrait of Olivier) waiting for the big commission that never really materialised.

Looking at some of the scripts he wrote for the Marx Brothers (Dali conceived a scenario for them entitled Giraffes on Horseback Salad) it’s not hard to see why: one of the scripts features a melon being cut in half, and one of the halves being placed on a tortoise. And that’s it – no jokes, no narrative, no sense whatsoever – but that was all part of the fun I guess, to see what outlandish tosh the old nutter would come up with next. Hitchcock used Dali very effectively for a short dream sequence in Spellbound in 1945, and that’s about as good as Dali’s Hollywood got. His collaboration with Walt Disney – Destino – was finally made some fifty years after it was first conceived, and looks great.

The one overriding impression I got from this exhibition was the amount of times that Dali used key motifs from his most successful works, and effectively recycled them into other formats. The infamous eye slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou, which still has the ability to shock today, is recycled for Spellbound some fifteen years later (where a painting of an eyeball was cut in two with a large pair of scissors). Ants crop up in a multitude of paintings, an echo again from Un Chien Andalou, where ants mysteriously crawl out of a hole in a man’s hand. It’s like Kubrick inserting the ‘Here’s Johnny!’ moment from The Shining in every single film he ever made.

I’m tempted to argue that this proves to a certain extent that ideas-wise, Dali was probably scrabbling about for inspiration after about 1935. Many artists explore recurring themes through their work, but with Dali it all starts to get a little tiresome. A lot of his recurring themes are extremely opaque, and by the time you’ve seen the fifth variation on a theme, your attention starts to wander.

By the time Dali arrives in the States, he has completed his metamorphosis into showman and friend to the stars. No wonder Warhol was interested in him as a personality, and no wonder grumpy old Andre Breton threw him out of the Surrealist movement in 1939.

My tip? Stick with the paintings, the original source material for all of Dali’s wild imaginings. There is a brilliantly acid portrait of Shirley Temple, although quite what Dali had against her is anyone’s guess. And The Persistence of Memory gets its first showing in the UK for twenty years – what a truly nutty painting it is. But even then the floppy clock motif gets a thorough going over, so much so that you almost expect it to show up somewhere as a logo for a clothing brand. As a motif, it loses any meaning it might have had to the extent that all you think of when you look at it is ‘Dali’ – which is probably the whole point.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Fun with Marchmont Films, Part 3

The Marchmont saga continues to run and run, with more disgruntled writers piling into the breach on Shooting People. However, a novel reason for their extended silence has been floated by Carl Allport, which is about the most feasible explanation I've heard so far.

I'd have thought that it was obvious what was going on. Come on- script submissions, Marchmont, division of Bloomsbury films, wedding season... It might be worth turning up outside of the church on Saturday and checking the confetti for 'courier 12'...

I suppose we should all just be grateful that it's not being run by Andrex... :)

All I can say is that it makes me feel all warm and gooey inside to think that my script might have helped some happy couple complete their day...

Monday, 3 September 2007


It’s very rare for me to sleep through anything entertainment-wise (opera notwithstanding), which means one of two things – I’m either very tired, or very, very bored. Watching DVDs can be just as exhausting, but at least you have the benefit of being able to exercise your inalienable right to use the fast forward button. Some films I’ve fast forwarded all the way through, and have suffered no pangs of guilt whatsoever.

Here are some films I’ve seen recently that, to me, are the filmic equivalents of opera: are they just plain bad, or am I missing something? (nothing in this post contains anything that remotely resembles a spoiler, so, you know, don’t send me death threats or anything).

Outlaw, written and directed by Nick Love – I suspect the plot isn’t the reason people watch films like this, which is just as well as it’s a veritable porridge of silliness and improbability.

However, there are two notable things about it I’d like to point out: firstly, it features a stand out performance by Sean Harris, who gives the profession of security guard a thoroughly bad name. Secondly, it features some of the most bloody annoying camerawork I’ve ever had the misfortune to see. Two minutes in: the camera’s wobbling. An attempt to add a touch of a little cinema verité to proceedings? Who knows… Ten minutes in: can you stop it now, please? It’s beginning to get on my tits. Thirty minutes in: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, KEEP THAT BLOODY THING STILL! I have my suspicions that a lot of the wobbling about was added digitally in post-production in order to give things a more ‘realistic’, documentary feel. The only thing it really succeeds in doing is WINDING ME UP! ARGGHH! STOP IT NOW, BEFORE I’M FORCED TO STAPLE MY EYES SHUT!

Phew – it’s over. That’s better.

Nick Love is apparently directing The Sweeney, due to drop in 2009 – I am considering an online petition to tell him to STOP MOVING THAT FUCKING CAMERA AROUND!

Poseidon, directed by Wolfgang Petersen (yes, the dreaded remake of The Poseidon Adventure) – didn’t this one tank big time at the box office? Serves it right if it did. The plot isn’t so much improbable, more completely farcical (there’s Christian, trapped under a lighting rig! My god! That wound on his leg has gone right down to the bone! You know what this means, don’t you? Someone’s going to have to carry him all the way to the end of the movie! Huh! Screw that – he’ll be prancing round like a spring chicken in five minutes time, just you wait and see!).

The original had a coherent plot and characters you cared for – the remake features a plot constructed exclusively from CGI shots and a cast so bland (with the exception of a positively oily Kevin Dillon) you want to mow them down in a dragster.

Hostel, written and directed by Eli Roth – don’t get me wrong, I love horror. My favourite movie of all time is The Shining – but this? What the hell is this?

This is one of the few films I know where you can actually fast forward and still know what’s going on – not that you particularly want to. In fact I fast forwarded and slept through a part of it as well – beat that!

‘Torture porn’ is one big yawn as far as I’m concerned – it’s about as scary as Aled Jones presenting Songs of Praise (which could be scary if you’re a Satanist I guess). Lots of unconvincing running about and effects that look like Halloween make up. I’ll give Hostel II a miss, thanks.

Run Lola Run, written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Lola’s boyfriend loses a bunch of money that belongs to a drug dealer – Lola’s solution? Run everywhere! Right – that’ll help. It should be noted this film does exactly what it says on the tin. Lola runs – and runs – and runs – and then runs some more. By the time you’re thirty minutes in you want to throttle her, if only to stop her from bloody running everywhere. Calm down, dear – it’s only a crap Euro film! Jesus, she runs so much that, at one point, she even turns into a badly animated version of herself.

I was forced to watch this in a dubbed version, so that didn’t help, but it didn’t stop me falling asleep. When I woke up, Lola was still running, so I turned it off in protest.

L’Appartement, written and directed by Gilles Mimouni. Some plots are labyrinthine and complex for a good reason. L’Appartement is labyrinthine and complex because it thinks it’s big and important (well, it is French) – in reality, it’s silly and pointless. Worryingly enough, it appears to have been filmed in the style of an eighties porn flick, which was the only thing that kept me watching.

Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS: only joking! See here for some spittle flecked debate. I had a lecturer at Brighton who was a huge fan of exploitation flicks such as SS Experiment Camp, and I Spit on Your Grave, but that’s not important right now.

One day I might actually post something about a film I enjoyed but I wouldn’t hold your breath!

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Price is Right?

I got the following e-mail a little while back from a company called Roundhouse Films:

Many thanks for your mail and your submission, which we have finally been able to read.

However at this time we would not be interested in taking on this project.

Partly the reason why is from a costings point of view, specifically the gun fight scene, as well as the explosion in the flat, we thought about it and there are so few ways to film the second of these, and all of them are costly, which would be difficult for us at this time, we are looking for a script with little to no special effects to keep the budget down.

Well, first off, at least they read the damn thing. And secondly, my screenplay is hardly written in stone! If anyone wants ‘expensive’ scenes excised, then hey, they’re gone, consider it done. But no matter – Roundhouse did what they said they would do and got back to me in a reasonable time, which is a lot more than a lot of other prodcos ever do.

But then I got to thinking – in writing a speculative screenplay, should you have half an eye towards a possible budget?

I’ve read countless scripts on Trigger Street where, within 5 pages, you become painfully aware that what you’re reading is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put up on screen – in a spec screenplay, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. TS certainly features a high proportion of fantasy and horror scripts written with a sense of complete abandonment with regards to (an admittedly fictional) budget – scenes that could only be constructed using expensive effects and multiple locations, some literally being out of this world. Add to that the fact that the script may well be set in a period other than the present day and you have a recipe for a budget that would eat everything in its path. And besides, no-one in their own right mind is going to entrust the writing of something like that to an untried first timer.

Given the fact that mega-budget fantasy movies tend to come off the back of best selling novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, et al), I’m not so sure how much of a chance a similar spec screenplay stands in this market. Given the shape of the industry, the horror genre almost demands something that can be made for a low budget – so to write something where handfuls of money would have to be thrown around with gay abandon seems a little wrong headed to me.

That’s assuming of course that you intend your screenplay to be a blueprint for a viable movie, and not simply a ‘writing sample’ – in which case, my own general rule is to write with a beady eye fixed firmly on the money. No expensive FX (yeah, OK, an explosion in a flat is probably quite an expensive thing to stage, point taken), limited/already extant locations, present day settings, no sets – the list goes on. By writing something that could potentially be produced for a low budget, then surely you increase your chances of actually getting the thing read/considered/produced?

On the other hand, if you intend what you write to be seen as a ‘writing sample’, then I guess the sky’s the limit. If you want to demonstrate a penchant for writing fantasy or science-fiction, then that’s cool – however, when the budget spirals, then there will undoubtedly be an exponential drop in the number of prodcos willing to consider (let alone read) what you’ve written.

Companies such as London Pictures appear to be actively seeking for no-to-low budget scripts – their requirements are here (notice how they cunningly include themselves as “established independent evaluators”!). The general feeling I get about sites like Inktip is that the overwhelming demand is for scripts that can produced on a low-to-no budget – however, seeing that Inktip is predominantly US-based, the opportunities for writers in the UK would seem to be limited.

Of course, the ideal screenplay from a speculative point of view is one that can be used as a writing sample and that has also been written with a low budget in mind. One of the first scripts I wrote ‘sort of’ fell into this camp – it initially got a prodco (Kelso Films – anyone remember them?) and a few agents hot and bothered, on the basis that it was predominantly written for a low budget and that it featured (what I thought at the time) was a reasonably complex time structure. Having just seen London to Brighton, I think this dual axiom still holds true – write something that is original and/or formally inventive, and something that can filmed for next to nothing, and you’ve got half a chance of getting a foot in the door.