Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Unsympathetic Protagonist

Contains spoilers for The Last King of Scotland

‘Adaptation’ seems to be the buzz word of the moment wherever you’re lurking in the ‘scribosphere’ (someone, please – come up with a better term than this to describe what writers do on the internet – I’ll pay good money to see a new non-cringe worthy term). What with Lianne’s Adaptation group convening on 26th February for a spot of cake flinging, adaptation fever is everywhere, and on UFP it’s no different. Okay, so it took me a year to get round to it (after reading a great review on the now sadly and apparently defunct Film Flam), but after having watched The Last King of Scotland I feel the need to go off on yet another wild and rambling tangent. Oh yes.

My wife’s reaction on having sat through Nicholas Garrigan’s (James McAvoy) exploits in TLKOS was, “The bloke’s a twat.” It’s hard to disagree, and therein lies the problem. Although he doesn’t instantly come across as a twat, it doesn’t take Garrigan long to settle into a twat-like groove – and the first three scenes send him down this route quite nicely, thank you. Admittedly, the first three scenes are fantastic: the character of Garrigan – a newly graduated medical student – craves stimulation, excitement. To escape the suffocating clutches of his parents, Garrigan spins a globe in his room and jabs a finger at it in a random effort to find somewhere – anywhere – to run to: he doesn’t care where. Well, he does a bit, as his first choice – Canada – is rejected in favour of Uganda.

Within ten minutes of setting foot in country, he is cheerfully rutting with the citizenry and putting the moves on Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson), the wife of the doctor who runs the medical centre where Garrigan is supposed to work. His words about wanting to help seem increasingly empty, especially as Uganda is a place that he knows absolutely nothing about – not that he particularly wants to. The spin of the globe sets this all up superbly. We know that Garrigan doesn’t really care – a fact that is driven home when he absconds from his duties at the medical centre to become Idi Amin’s (Forest Whittaker) personal physician and sidekick. Dazzled by uniforms and medals, Garrigan is essentially a naive lout. As the brutal truth regarding Amin’s dictatorship is made apparent, Garrigan belatedly realises that he’s bet on the wrong horse. His punishment – his retribution – is bloody and terrifying.

This is all well and good, but the central problem still remains: the bloke’s a twat. The writers Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock have certainly crafted a memorable enough character, but as George Lucas points out (I’m paraphrasing here), writing an unsympathetic character is easy – all you have to do is make him/her kick a dog: job done. Garrigan’s journey sees him travel from naive simpleton to naive simpleton who’s had a bit of a slap – not much of a character arc there, if that’s what you’re looking for. The spin of the globe is brilliant screenwriting – but making us care for a character whose sole function appears to be pursuing his own mostly hedonistic pursuits is probably a draft too far in this case...

...which all seems very strange when you start comparing Giles Foden’s book with the screenplay. In the book, Garrigan is more of a clueless prat than the gung-ho know-nothing McAvoy portrays him as. Due to this, there are several scenes in the film that jump out due to their incongruousness. Whilst treating Amin for a hand injury, Garrigan grabs Amin’s own handgun and shoots an injured cow that is ‘ruining his concentration’. Garrigan’s pursuit of Sarah Merrit is portrayed in a soft romantic focus that lacks the harder edge of the book, where Garrigan misreads the situation and is unceremoniously rejected, a scene that partially speeds his journey to Amin’s side. The script manoeuvres him quickly out of the medical centre, which only reinforces the idea that he’s a naive simpleton overly impressed by power and shiny medals.

I guess you could make the argument that Garrigan actually wants to help, but this is rather swamped by his starry eyed admiration for Amin. In this case, expecting us to follow Garrigan for two hours does rather try the patience, not least because the story is told almost exclusively from Garrigan’s point of view. His ignorance becomes our ignorance; he knows nothing about the history – post-colonial or otherwise – of Uganda, and so neither do we. To expect any film to do something like this is a tall order, so the script relies upon the larger than life character of Amin to deliver this aspect of the narrative. Does it succeed? Sort of. However, you have to negotiate round a bone-headed protagonist in order to see it properly.

There’s nothing wrong with unsympathetic protagonists of course – look at Taxi Driver, which juggles with this issue brilliantly – the problem with Garrigan is that he doesn’t appear to possess much humanity in the first place. The spin of the globe tells you all you need to know.

Friday, 25 January 2008

January Meltdown

That sounded a little unnecessarily dramatic, didn’t it? Let’s start again...

The script that had hung around at Hammer for a while before propping open a door at Marchmont for about a hundred years has now been taken under the kindly wing of METLAB. No doubt I’ll have my work cut out there over the next few months, but rewriting is kinda fun (in a vaguely masochistic way).

With that script out of the way, I've started angling about for something new to work on. I thought I’d alighted on something at the beginning of the year, but it turned out to be a false start (i.e., twenty pages in and I just wasn’t feeling it). So I’ve taken the momentous decision to write it in prose, which brought about another momentous decision: I have bravely postponed doing anything on it until 2009, which gives me another year to think about it.

So, something new.... hmmm... When in doubt, I always delve into old notebooks and half written/abandoned scripts in an attempt to revitalise something that once upon a time sounded like a good idea. And I think I’ve got one. Sort of. Maybe. What I've got is a rough and ready draft that comes in at the 85 page mark before it runs out of steam, but it’s got legs I think. I’ll drag it out and give it a dust down and see what can be done with it, if anything. And if I can – well, I guess that’s 2008 sorted out. As I spent the whole of 2007 rewriting, it’s about time I tackled something new.

It’s either that or antagonise Marchmont again, but I’m getting bored of that...

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Off on a Tangent, part 8 - Chester Babcock Calling...

This has got nothing to do with anything, apart from the fact that it made me laugh...

The following is an excerpt from an article on Chester Babcock in this February's Vanity Fair:

His favourite word, for more than one reason, was "cock". As Frank Sinatra's best friend, songwriter in chief, and sometime travelling partner in the hard-swinging 50s, Jimmy Van Heusen - born Edward Chester Babcock - had a habit, upon arriving in any American city, of leafing through the directory and phoning at random anyone whose last name, Hancock, Woodcock or Hitchcock, happened to end in the same pungent suffix as his own. It was always nice if a lady answered. "Mrs Glasscock?" he'd say, in his W.C. Fields-ian tones, "Chester Babcock calling. I just wanted to check what the other cocks were up to." Sinatra, it is reported, would roll on the floor every time.

When Frank and entourage stayed at Rome's Grand Hotel, Van Heusen would step onto his balcony each morning and, like some crazed American rooster, crow out the word at the top of his lungs. Back in the States, piloting his own plane cross-country, he would screech it into the radio until, inevitably, some poor, confused air-traffic controller would squawk back, "Please identify yourself!" At which point Van Heusen would declaim it louder still. Even after suffering a stroke in his late 60s, wheelchair-bound, language having largely deserted him, "just out of nowhere, he'd yell 'Cock!'", a witness remembers.

"Jimmy," Van Heusen's good friend and occasional lover Angie Dickinson recalls fondly, "could say 'cock' like nobody else."

There's got to be a short script in there somewhere.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Oh Dear...

Contains spoilers for The Sentinel

The Sentinel, directed by Clark Johnson, written by George Nolfi, adapted from the novel by Gerald Petievich.

When it comes to narrative logic, I am positively, pedantically autistic – which is unfortunate when a film like The Sentinel stumps up. It’s fun to throw bricks, but not at the disabled. That said, if you want to know how to conscientiously build character and narrative from the ground up, watch this film: it’s a veritable masterclass in how to get it all entirely WRONG.

The Sentinel is about three drafts away from a tolerably half decent but dull thriller. Forget the workmanlike direction from Clark Johnson and focus instead on the clunkingly ham fisted script. I mean, Christ, where do you start?

Perhaps the most glaring load of old hokum is the drastically underwritten subplot regarding Pete Garrison’s (Michael Douglas) private life. First off, he’s having it off with the First Lady (Kim Basinger – so that’s at least one of Douglas’s contractual obligations met). So far so good. However, Dave Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), the relentless and brilliant Secret Service guy, is pissed off with Garrison as he blames Garrison for breaking up his marriage by sleeping with his wife, something that Douglas denies. In a completely unnecessary detour down a narrative dead end, Garrison meets Brekenridge’s wife, who admits to Garrison the real reason her marriage split up was because her husband was impossible to live with.

What this suggests is that in an earlier draft, some studio executive/reader decided that the conflict between the two leads needed to be ramped up a couple of notches: hence the painful shoehorning in of a convoluted subplot. Not only does a pointlessly artificial conflict clog up the narrative for no good reason, it also starts to play illogical games with Breckenridge’s character. Bear in mind that Breckenridge is supposedly a top notch investigator, able to analyse and deconstruct a crime scene in seconds – the same guy is completely unable to figure out what went on between Garrison and his own wife (i.e., nothing). But rather than using this dichotomy to provide some interesting character asides, it’s simply forgotten – Breckenridge ends up reunited with his wife and all is well. Gah!

Character development is another interesting way to look at this narrative, purely because there isn’t any. When the film starts, Garrison is a good ole boy (he saved the Prez twenty years before). When the film ends, he’s still a good ole boy (hey, whaddya know: he’s saved the Prez again). Yawn! Breckenridge’s character is similarly developed, and as for Jill Marin (the impossibly gorgeous Eva Longoria): what on earth is she even doing here? The only point to the character is to act as eye candy, not only for the audience but for the other characters in the film, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time asking her out for coffee and looking at her ass (I mean, who wouldn’t?).

The central narrative is massively underdeveloped as well: Garrison is being set up as the mole in the Secret Service who is responsible for leaking details about the President’s movements so nasty terrorists with funny accents can nail him (said terrorists come from a fictitious ex-Soviet republic, scriptwriting shorthand for ‘let’s not offend anyone here, guys, especially those that reside in overseas markets’). The script then goes on to explain why the terrorists want the Prez dead – uh, no, hang on a minute, it doesn’t. You could argue that this isn’t the central thrust of the film at all, and you’d be right – however, why make such a big song and dance about it in the first place if it’s not important? Oh, and the terrorists are led by a guy who possesses a vaguely Cockney-ish accent. Uh? It’s probably best not to ask ‘why?’ as you will drive yourself insane with the sheer implausible sprawling mess of it.

You want more hokum? You got it!

- Garrison takes fifty minutes to go on the run in an attempt to clear his name. Douglas huffs and puffs about a bit before realising he’s far too old for all this nonsense, and sensibly wraps up the chase after half an hour – tension over.

- What happens to the Prez’s marriage (remember that Garrison was boffing the First Lady)? No idea! What this tells me is that if you have an unresolved plot point at the end of your script, just ignore it! As if by magic, the issue will disappear and no-one will remember it anyway. Problem solved!

- Jill Marin goes from rookie to experienced Secret Service agent purely on the basis that Garrison tells us. She does nothing of real note throughout, but does remember to bring her ass with her (see above), which of course is most fortunate.

The best way to watch a movie like The Sentinel is to completely erase it from your mind as soon as it’s finished. Or watch something decent like Serpico, which I did yesterday. Oh, and avoid anything written by George Nolfi (who apparently had a finger in The Bourne Supremacy - oo-errr, missus!) – that should just about do it.

Friday, 18 January 2008

No Brainer or Five Brains?

I never thought I’d say it, but there are far too many films out there – and for some lunatic reason, I feel duty bound to watch them all in the hopelessly deluded notion that perhaps one day I will simply come to the end of all films ever produced.

Let’s hope so if Die Hard 4.0 is anything to go by...

Die Hard 4.0 – directed by Len Wiseman, written by Mark Bomback.

Watching this, all I could think of was something I read in The Guardian a little while back, inasmuch as that the film industry is the only industry that has used digital techniques to significantly increase costs. What we used to have was a two hour film with five to ten minutes of expensive effects – in Die Hard 4.0 there’s an eye-wateringly expensive digital effect every two minutes. Add in your trademarked ‘Really Shit Sidekick’ (hang on a minute, that sounds like something on Cartoon Network) and all of a sudden, you’re in dumbass heaven (unfortunately it looks like the new Indy film is going to be cocked up by an surfeit of RSS as well.)

(I suspect the reason that the Really Shit Sidekick theory is being applied to well loved franchises such as Die Hard and Indy is purely to get that all-important teenage demographic through the turnstiles, which probably means that the scripts have been ‘written’ by focus groups, marketing goons and clever bits of software. That said, it’s surely got to be better than anything written by George ‘Lead Ear’ Lucas).

And then, king of the nerds Kevin Smith shows up!

What set the first two Die Hard films apart for me was the tight focus by way of location (respectively, an office block and an airliner). In Die Hard 4.0, McClane rushes around the US as if he’s on some weird and incredibly boring tour of electricity substations. Surely the template for any action movie is to keep the focus tight and light the blue touchpaper: something that Die Hard 4.0 completely neglects to do.

I’m with Gilbert Adair on this one – I love special effects, I just don’t like the films they’re in.

Inland Empire – written and directed by David Lynch.

I really was not looking forward to this at all. Three hours of brain-bending cryptic nonsense all filmed on digital video – sounds like a migraine waiting to happen.

And you know what? That’s exactly what it is.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Blue Velvet. Wild at Heart is a blast. Lost Highway is deranged, most certainly. Mulholland Drive is, yes, well, ahem... But Inland Empire? If there was ever a need for restraint and a roomful of rabid script editors, this film is living proof.

Maybe I’m just not intelligent or patient enough to watch films like this – either that or I need to grow a little goatee for some serious beard scratching.

Sight and Sound voted this number 2 amongst their Top 10 films of 2007. Uh, hello? Here are some selected critical highlights:

Mark Fisher: Convoluted and involuted: Lynch's rabbit warren anarchitecture of trauma is difficult, unsettling and endlessly, weirdly fascinating.

Peter Matthews: After ten minutes of more or less consecutive narrative, you're pretty much free-falling. David Lynch's three-hour surrealist odyssey vanquishes the conscious ego and heads straight for the id. A mind-warping masterpiece.

Chip Smith: What’s going on here then? Oh, look, rabbits – I like rabbits. My head hurts. Is it over yet? Ooh, time for a nap. Zzzzz...

If you need to suspend all brain functions to watch a film like Die Hard 4.0, then you need to harness the processing power at least five brains to try and piece together what the flying arse is going on here. That said, perhaps Inland Empire is some kind of bizarre intelligence test – everyone who professes to understand it or at least expresses an admiration for it will get a regular column on Sight and Sound. Everyone else who simply shrugs and scratches their head will get a job on The Dandy (and I know which one I’d rather write for).

Admittedly, the three hour running time doesn’t help. After the first hour, the film went into a determinedly mentalist freefall and I dozed off intermittently (only the second time I have ever done this, Institute Benjamenta being the other culprit). Even the end title sequence is tortuous and never–ending.

After the most gruelling three hours I have ever spent in the company of a DVD, I read this in The Guardian – the thought struck me that David Lynch is no longer a filmmaker, he’s an artist. As far as any audience is concerned, that really is not a good place to be.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Celebrity Screenplays

I may risk going off on a tangent here (no change there then), but it suddenly occurred to me the other day that the one area of creative endeavour seemingly uninfected by the virus of celebrity is the screenplay. Sure, there are celebrity screenwriters, but they tend to be people who are first and foremost writers, and not celebrities double or triple-hyphenating their way across from other branches of the media and/or creative arts.

The cult of celebrity in the publishing trade is well known, to the extent that the use of ghostwriters is now commonplace – Naomi Campbell is reported as stating that she has never read the novel that has her name on the cover (Black Swan), and it’s obvious that all of Jordan’s ‘novels’ have been ghosted (by Rebecca Farnworth just in case you were wondering). For the most part, the name on the cover acts as a marketing hook – the celebrity functions as a brand name that can be utilised to sell anything from perfume to fitness DVDs to underwear and, of course, novels.

So why doesn’t the same exist in the world of screenwriting? Or, perhaps more to the point: should it?

Of course the economic model of filmmaking is entirely different from that of the mass market publishing industry, where the mantra is ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’. However, it does seem a little odd (to me at least) how screenwriting hasn’t necessarily been ‘contaminated’ by celebrity in quite the same way that the publishing industry has.

That said, not so long ago it seemed that wherever you looked, some celebrity somewhere was penning a screenplay: Toby Anstis, David Emmanuel (well, maybe ‘celebrity’ is too strong a word, but you get the idea) – you name ‘em, they were all hitting the keyboard in the belief that it was the one surefire way to fame and riches. And you know what? Good luck to ‘em. Far be it for me to dictate how Toby Anstis spends his time, just so long as he’s not clogging up the airwaves with more bottom feeding reality shows.

However, Toby Anstis aside, perhaps the collision of screenplay and celebrity is a marketing tool worth exploring by aspiring and established screenwriters alike (I’m not entirely sure if I’m being sarcastic or not here, so bear with me).

A screenplay is a blueprint – of course it can function as a commodity, but unlike a novel, it isn’t a ‘reader friendly' format. However, if there are celebrities out there who are convinced that their screenwriting talents are going to bear fruit, perhaps it should fall to the screenwriting community to ‘assist’ them in their endeavours? After all, a screenplay with the name of a well-known celebrity on the front page would no doubt generate a certain degree of interest (depending on who the celebrity was, of course). So what if the words inside aren’t written by that celebrity? If the name on the front helps that screenplay gain attention, then surely that’s a good thing – right? Also, as and when that commodity is sold, the celebrity screenwriter could then be used as that all important ‘marketing hook’ to provide ongoing publicity for the production up until its release.

The most important thing from my own point of view is that this would almost certainly open up a new (if somewhat limited) market for spec screenplays. So, rather than Toby Anstis slaving away over a hot keyboard, his agent could simply shake hands with a ‘ghost screenwriter’ and have a product ready to hit the market that afternoon (maybe Toby Anstis is the wrong example: think Robbie Williams, Anthony Kiedis, Victoria Beckham, Katie Price).

Also, wouldn’t the whole concept of ‘packaging’ become a little more fun? Rather than trying to excite interest in a screenplay with the name of an actor attached, why not just attach the name of a celebrity as the writer? It could work. That said, knowing my luck, I’d probably end up with the Cheeky Girls or Michelle (‘How low can you go?’) Bass, thereby guaranteeing a slow, embarrassment laden death on cable TV.

That said, perhaps I am being sarcastic (but maybe just a little bit).

Monday, 14 January 2008


On 4th January, the earnest but clueless Verity Sharp presented A Culture Show special on Icelandic progressive noodlers Sigur Ros. Ostensibly the show was a promotional junket for Sigur Ros’s new CD, which in turn is the soundtrack for their new concert film. So far, so good. However, it’s entirely possible to view this Culture Show outing as a way of hitching Sigur Ros’s music to the BBC branding juggernaut. After all, Hoppipolla was used as the trailer soundtrack for the BBC’s Planet Earth – so much so in fact, that the opening notes of the song have become familiar to the point of ubiquity (never a good sign for any band’s career).

Of course, it’s great that the BBC dedicates time to the lost art of music programming – however, if it wasn’t for the supposed marketing synergy that some bright spark at the BBC has detected, then it might be a different story. Why not just feature great music regardless of the fact that the band that makes it might NOT have a commercial/marketing relationship with the BBC? I guess that’s what Later with Jools Holland is for, or even (*shudder*), Top of the Pops (did it really make a re-appearance on Christmas Day with the also clueless Fearne Cotton, or was it those sprouts repeating on me?).

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Metlab Update, Part 4

Got my METLAB feedback back from Lucy Vee this week – to summarise I got one ‘Argh!’, one ‘YAWN!’, one ‘I may die if I read one more script with these in’, a line about nipple tassels and a recommendation to watch Pitch Black until my eyes bleed (thank you Amazon: Pitch Black for 80p!). All in all, I thought my script emerged a little bruised but still cocky enough to think it might just have something. Lucy’s notes are always fun to read anyway (especially when she’s putting the boot in).

Bearing in mind the average Hollywood screenplay typically goes to eleven or twelve drafts even before production, there’s still a good deal of work to do here (currently at third draft stage) – but hey, I happen to like re-writing, which is just as well really.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Hack and Slash (100 Posts and Counting)

Contains spoilers for 28 Weeks Later and Alpha Dog.

Well, flip me (I've made a vague resolution for 2008 not to swear so much) - 100 posts and counting. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun! That said, neither 28 Weeks Later or Alpha Dog are a whole lot of fun - the only way to deal with them is to hack them down with a sharpened spade like the mangy old dogs they are.

28 Weeks Later – directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo; written by Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Jesus Olmo, Enrique Lopez Lavigne (and Rowan Joffe’s dog for all I know).

About twenty minutes in, I started to worry: why can’t I bring myself to care what happens to these people? Why do I truly not give a rat’s ass what happens to any of them? Am I sociopathic? Asleep? Dead perhaps? Then I realised that the four writers it took to churn this thing out haven’t got a scooby. Phew! Indeed, it took four of them to make it this bad (not counting Rowan Joffe’s dog of course, who was apparently denied a screenwriting credit).

Robert Caryle plays Don, a man so chickenshit that he abandons his wife to a houseful of zombies and bravely runs away as fast as his little Scottish legs will carry him. Way to go, writer guys! Make your protagonist a dyed in the wool, lily-livered coward from the off – that’ll do it. What’s more, Bob lies to his children about having seen his wife die, which turns into a major embarrassment when she turns up alive in the attic of their London home.

But not to worry! Don is bitten by his wife, whom he then kills. He then goes on a zombified killing spree, infecting the population of London all over again. The movie then goes into freefall as it flails about looking for a protagonist – in the resulting search, it finds about eight of them, all of them hopeless cardboard cut outs brandishing military hardware. Ho hum.

I also got a little hung up on trying to figure out exactly who the protagonist was. You could argue that within the horror genre this question doesn't matter so much, as characterisation is often sacrified (wrongly in my opinion) in favour of keeping the audience guessing who is going to die next. However, in 28 Weeks Later, after forty minutes Don’s narrative is completely jettisoned – he is given no chance to redeem himself with his wife and children, which makes for a viewing experience so devoid of emotion as to be utterly pointless.

And what’s more, Don’s son crawls into an air vent to escape the rampaging zombie hoardes, thereby violating John August’s Air Vent Rule (...the only time I’ve seen the inside of an air duct is television and movies, when a character — generally the hero — has to be clever enough (and small enough) to climb through a conveniently-accessible air duct). Jesus Christ, they’ll be playing chess next (the next time I see two characters in a movie playing chess – stand up Lucky Number Slevin and Revolver – I’m going to write a stiff letter to my MP)!

And what the bajesus is that sub-Godspeed MOR racket doing clogging up the soundtrack? STOP IT, NOW!

Anyway, zombies – aint’cha sick of ‘em? So last season, sweetie.

Alpha Dog – written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.

Where do you start with a film like this? There’s so much going on I started to wonder whether half of it was altogether necessary. For instance, the faux documentary interviews – are they really needed? No – they simply over-egg an already over-egged pudding. The idea I guess is that the documentary elements add to the supposed ‘true story’ elements of the movie, and provide some (unneeded) exposition. I suspect what it’s really there for is to provide opportunities for actors to chew up the scenery (note to self: histrionic/ hysterical dialogue is no substitute for a genuinely involving/emotional narrative). Not that Bruce Willis does any of this, to be honest, but you knew that anyway.

The movie’s central conflict takes nearly forty minutes to establish, which is fine, but probably could have been done in fifteen minutes without quite so much fannying about. And what a couple of whiny, unsympathetic jerkwads these guys are – Johnny Truelove, wannabe middle class gangster and all round dick, and Jake Mazursky, the paramilitary junkie moron with a sideline in SS tattoos and overacting who is seemingly never too wasted to lay out a room full of party goers in a frenzy of comedy Tae Kwando. That said, Jake disappears halfway through, which is always a problem with sprawling narratives such as this: if you spread the role of the protagonist amongst six or seven characters, then at some point someone is going to get left out. As Alpha Dog stands, we end up following the least sympathetic character of all, Johnny Truelove, who ends up not getting shagged in New Mexico. It really isn’t that interesting.

That said, does it really matter who the protagonist is? Admittedly, Cassavetes does a much better job than the seventy eight writers needed to cobble together 28 Weeks Later. In this case, perhaps we can revert to Chip Smith’s Patented Screenwriting Excuses:

Excuse #32: No clear protagonist? It’s an ensemble piece, you frickin’ mofo (rubbish swearing courtesy of Alpha Dog).

In addition to actors over-emoting in an attempt to lend proceedings a much needed emotional core, it also appears that rubbish David Bowie songs have to be drafted in to do this job as well (it’s a well known fact that after 1980’s Scary Monsters Bowie was replaced by a cyborg who proceeded to royally screw up a top drawer oeuvre by releasing Let’s Dance and forming Tin Machine). For a film that purports to be ‘real’, shoehorning in a late period Bowie song is just not right, and certainly not credible. Remember Leon, a good film spoiled by the addition of a Sting song over the closing credits? For the love of god – Sting! Arrgghh! Why not just put Cliff Richard and The Tweets on the soundtrack and have done with it?

I was going to write about Die Hard 4.0, but could feel a swear word about to emerge. I will try and calm down a bit and report back later...

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

More Agent Bothering

Every six months or so, I do a more-or-less random trawl through the labyrinthe of UK literary agents in an attempt to cajole them into reading one of my scripts. My ‘hit rate’ was a fairly respectable one in four – until Monday that is. Out of six e-mails, two agents came back on the same day requesting material – which was nice. What usually happens now is that they read the script and go strangely silent for several months, as did Marjacq Scripts. That said, one interesting e-mail I received was from a large agency who stated that they were not looking at any unsolicited scripts – ten minutes later, I got emails from not one but two agents at the same agency (one requesting a script). So, we’ll see what happens. When the dust has settled, I may even name names (but don't hold your breath - I tried this once waiting for Dench Arnold to respond and it all got very painful).

In other non-agent news (well, it might be related, depending on your take on the PFD/United Agents dust up), Gladiators is back! True trash television at its best.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Opportunity Knocks, part 5

The Screenwriters' Festival '08 in association with Channel 4's 4Talent want to give YOU the opportunity to pitch your amazing Movie or TV idea to a stellar industry panel AND the live festival audience.

Several writers from (the) last two pitching competitions in 2006 & 2007 have already gone onto bigger, better things and have had their ideas optioned, been commissioned to write an original screenplay or have been snapped up by an agent.

The competition is now open here – closing date 29th February 2008.

The Prestige - Adaptation & Beyond

This post contains spoilers for The Prestige

After an interesting post on what makes a good adaptation over at Lucy’s recently, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents – which is that one of the best recent screen adaptations I can think of is Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s The Prestige.

The Prestige was adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, which is well worth a read in its own right. However, looking at what was added and/or jettisoned from the novel gives a series of what I think are valuable lessons, not only in screenwriting, but what makes for a good adaptation.

For starters, the book has four protagonists, not two – a proportion of the narrative takes place in the present day as the descendants of Angier and Borden struggle to come to terms with the feud that their ancestors were engaged in. The Nolans obviously made the decision to expunge all elements of the present, focussing instead on the eminently more dramatic (and interesting) historical feud. If the screenplay had been a faithful adaptation of the novel, the historical feud would have been viewed from the present at arm’s length (even worse, it probably would have been written as a series of flashbacks). The central narrative threads of the novel – Borden and Angier’s feud and the gradual revealing of their respective secrets (some banal, some not so banal) – are maintained in the screenplay, but by expunging all present day elements, the Nolans provide a tighter focus for the film.

What is also interesting is the way that the Nolans tie Borden and Angier together very early on in the screenplay. In the book, Borden disrupts a fake séance that is being led by Angier, an event that marks the start of their bitter feud. However, as we follow both Angier and Borden through the climbs in their respective careers, this feud takes a long while to ramp up. In comparison, the screenplay hits the ground running: the Nolans make a drastic change inasmuch as Borden and Angier are working together as assistants to the same magician. A supposedly untried knot used in a dangerous trick featuring Angier’s wife goes horribly wrong, and the feud begins with a real sense of urgency and intensity.

Another major departure from the novel is Borden’s arrest for Angier’s murder, which I think illustrates a major pitfall for any adaptation (and one that The Prestige deftly avoids). In the novel, Borden accidentally interrupts Angier’s show by shutting down the power to his teleportation apparatus – this has the effect of creating two Angiers: one weak and sickly, the other transparent and (apparently) immortal. To faithfully adapt this for the screen would require a great deal of tricky exposition – thankfully, the Nolans made the decision to expunge the more fantastical elements of the novel, and to keep Angier’s secret up their sleeve until the very last moment. As with Chris Weitz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass, the more fantastical the narrative, the more exposition you have to shoehorn in to explain it. In the screenplay, instead of disrupting Angier’s performance, Borden is deliberately set up by Angier, which ultimately leads to his imprisonment and conviction.

The major factor that the novel and screenplay have in common is the treatment of the concept of protagonist and antagonist. This is from a Christopher Nolan interview at about.com:

“...when we were trying to figure out how to sell this film to a studio early on, it's like what story paradigm is it? Are (there) very few... two-hander story paradigms? The Sting is one of them. There are others where there's no good guy, bad guy, so it's very tricky. I mean, Michael Mann's Heat is another one... They do exist, but they're few and far between. The Sting is quite a close one. Sleuth is another one.”

The Vanishing and American Gangster are good examples of this story paradigm, but the treatments are obviously completely different to that of The Prestige. However, unlike The Vanishing (where the roles of protagonist and antagonist are clearly demarcated from the outset), The Prestige does something altogether different: throughout the course of the film, the roles of protagonist and antagonist are in constant negotiation – your sympathies are batted back and forth until you come to the conclusion that both Borden and Angier are as obsessive and misunderstood as each other. Mix in a huge dollop of misdirection and two essentially unreliable narrators, and, in my opinion, you have one of the best adapted screenplays of recent years.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Problems in Oz

The super-reliable Robin Kelly has already posted an article from The Australian where Lynden Barber examines the state of screenwriting down under. Lynden also has an interesting and informative blog on which he has posted the three interviews that served as source material for the article. They make for entertaining and enlightening reading – not just from an Australian point of view, but how it might equate to a UK context. Duncan Thompson’s comments on continuing drama are especially interesting...

Christmas with Stanley Tucci

Contains spoilers for The Devil Wears Prada and Lucky Number Slevin (also contains a gratuitous Kylie Minogue insult).

After watching that absolutely godawful Kylie Showgirl Live thing that was on over Christmas (La Minogue’s voice sounds as if someone is doing something unspeakable to a small mammal with an out of tune clarinet), I decided to watch nothing but films featuring the great Stanley Tucci – not that I had a choice in the matter. This Christmas, whenever someone turned on the TV or slapped on a DVD, there he was, as ubiquitous as Elvis.

The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel, adapted from the novel by Lauren Weisberger by Aline Brosh McKenna. This is about the fluffiest piece of fluffy fluff it’s ever been my pleasure to sit through – not that I object to films like this, but the word ‘inconsequential’ seems specifically apt here. If you were being particularly cruel, you could describe the whole thing as a Disney-fied Shopping and Fucking. It goes without saying that Stanley Tucci is the best thing about it.

Curiously, although the screenplay feels adequately developed (inasmuch as you can see the 'stake in the ground' three act setbacks telegraphing themselves from about a hundred miles away), in several areas it felt lopsided and uneven. For instance, one crucial turning point (where Andy - the protagonist - has the belated realisation that the fashion industry isn’t quite her bag), revolves around the fact that she made a choice earlier in the film that supposedly demonstrated she was as hard-nosed and career oriented as her psychopathically driven boss, Miranda (Meryl Streep). Problem is, this so called ‘decision’ was forced upon Andy by Miranda herself, so in effect, it isn’t really a decision at all – this has the effect of making the conclusion to the film seem weirdly illogical. With a movie like this, you half expect the screenplay to be machine tooled to gleaming perfection, but instead all you get is a half whittled piece of wood.

That said, who cares about a coherent narrative when there are fabulous dresses and fashion shows to enjoy (good god, I sound like Liberace)?

Shall We Dance? – directed by Peter Chelsom, adapted by Audrey Wells from an original screenplay by Masayuki Suo. What is Peter Chelsolm – the writer and director of Funny Bones – doing heading up this garish load of warmed-over remade flapdoodle? And since American Gigolo, Richard Gere’s oeuvre has consisted almost exclusively of scripts that have had all the fun, subversion and joy surgically removed by unsmiling movie executives with hearts of coal. Shall We Dance is no exception. It even has Jennifer Lopez in it, not exactly your benchmark of quality. However, it does feature Stanley Tucci, who, of course, is fantastic.

ER – straight after Shall We Dance, I caught the trailers for the new series of ER, which prominently feature Stanley Tucci. I think the man is stalking me (albeit in a weird, audiovisual kind of way).

Lucky Number Slevin, directed by Paul McGuigan, written by Jason Smilovic. Apart from having the worst title in living memory, this isn’t half bad. Admittedly, in tone it’s a total Tarantino knock-off, replete with smart arse dialogue (that is way too smug for its own good), and the by now ubiquitous pop/cultural references (this time they're yakking pointlessly about Bond movies).

However, on the plus side, although the narrative takes an absolute age to get up and running (is it just me, or does the first act conclude at the fifty minute mark?), it's a surprisingly emotional ride – a quality that QT seems incapable of or simply unwilling to surrender to. Also, it looks mad – the production designers have seemingly trawled through a warehouse chock full of seventies wallpaper in order to decorate a series of retina scorching interiors.

And of course, Stanley Tucci is great – anyone who can effortlessly glide from high camp to corrupt cop gets my vote (and I bet he sings better than flippin’ Kylie as well).

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Three Days In and It's All Going Pear Shaped...

2008 has gotten off to an absolutely cracking start, courtesy of some pathological bad luck:

* Man-sized flu from Christmas day onwards – believe me, I was iller than a skip full of Beastie Boys CDs.
* The gear box on my car gave up the ghost. £1136 later, it’s fixed, but it looks like I’ll have to sell an internal organ to pay for it – what’s the going rate for a liver these days?
* New Year’s Eve – hooray! New Year’s Day – food poisoning!
* Dentist’s appointment yesterday. I hate the dentist even more than my mother hates the Krankies.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d better get my METLAB script in before my PC got hit by a stray meteorite.

I’ve also decided to go for the TAPS Finding the Writer’s Voice thing, so we’ll see how that pans out. According to the TAPS guidelines, it’s advisable to apply for funding through ScreenSouth. Right, sounds good to me. After downloading the training bursary application form from the ScreenSouth site, the first thing that strikes me is that you need to attach a ‘Career Plan’. Oh dear. This might take a bit longer than I thought. Also, reading through the RIFE guidelines, it states “all applicants must have applied to Skillset for a bursary before applying to Screen South.” Oh. OK then.

So it’s onto Skillset to discover that I probably won’t get any funding from this source, which is no great shakes. But the ScreenSouth application form states that I have to attach three copies of my Skillset submission. Hmmm.

Attempting to unravel the vagaries of ScreenSouth application forms is perhaps not the best way to start 2008. That said, the TAPS course is only £500 – what’s the going rate for a bit of bone marrow these days?