Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Band Names

Recently, I was given twenty four hours to write a pitch and synopsis for someone (I’ve done it before, and it’s always good fun to be set stupidly tight deadlines). As the pitch concerned a fictitious rock band, my only major problem was coming up with a suitable name. Small details like this matter to me for some reason – until I’d got the name of the band nailed, writing the pitch and synopsis was a little more difficult that it should have been.

As a starting point, I hit some random band name generators – nothing doing there really, unless you’re really into completely silly names such as Total Vamp Destroyers and Burnin’ Sitar Massacre. I kept a notebook once in which I used to record (amongst other things) ideas for fictitious band names, but I’ve lost the notebook and I can’t remember any of the names. Trawling the internet and watching too much TV (as you do), the odd phrase might pop up from time to time that could double up as a decent band name (My Inner Lesbian anyone?), but nothing that was really suitable for this particular project. And then it occurred to me – I can’t remember where it came from, but it seemed to do the trick: Clothing Optional. That’ll do. The synopsis was a breeze after that.

As part of my weekly blog confession, the names of the two bands I used to play in were Diverse Opera (good god, what a terrible name), and Up, named after the Russ Meyer film. I think I prefer My Inner Lesbian, but then again, who doesn’t ;-)

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Cry Baby

Here is an oldish but excellent article in The Guardian by Charlotte Higgins on how blubbing at the theatre has somehow become a cultural faux pas. The theatre I can do without, but blubbing? My life would be severely limited if I had to avoid things that made me blub like the great Gazza.

· That Cancer Research ad with a muzak version of Sting’s Fields of Gold tinkling away in the background (yes, Sting, for Christ’s sake – Sting! Stun gun me now!).

· Come to think of it, any Cancer Research ad.

· Any programme that bears a passing resemblance to Children’s Hospital. I don’t have kids and don’t want any, but this doesn’t stop me howling whenever I have the misfortune to tune in to something like it.

· And talking of hospitals, how about Animal Hospital? Come to think of it, any programme that involves pet euthanasia...

· The Secret Millionaire – it’s weird (maybe because you don't see it on television very often), but basic human kindness in any form makes me grizzle like a four year old.

· There was a documentary some time ago about the children’s charity Barnardo’s. Within twenty minutes I was a complete emotional wreck and had to be helped from the room by a team of paramedics.

· Music – everything from Nick Drake to Kevin Drew is guaranteed to make me snivel and get all bunged up.

· Films? Don’t get me started – I’ll blub at anything and everything. Bambi? Check. Shrek? Been there. The Abyss? A big tick in the box. A Matter of Life and Death? The last time I watched it, it took all weekend to recover. Enchanted? I cried like a six year old all the way through it.

· England 24 – France 13. Yup, you guessed it – at the end of the game I cried.

All in all, you can guarantee that whatever the medium (theatre being the sole exception, where I think you need a good deal more ‘suspension of disbelief’ than with any other medium), I will blub on cue every single time: so much in fact so that it has become a standing joke at Chipster Towers. Whenever I sit through anything that might threaten an attack of the snivels, my wife always checks to see whether or not I’m misting up. And if I am, she has a damn good laugh. It’s also difficult to know whether or not I’m being emotionally manipulated, because I will basically cry at anything.

That said, I watched Ocean’s Thirteen the other night and cried most of the way through that - but not because it was a particularly emotional experience ;-)

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Fun with Marchmont Films, part 4

I have it on very good authority (but unfortunately cannot divulge my source) that Marchmont Films is "on hold" for the foreseeable future, and that all submissions have been "dealt with" (mostly I suspect by ignoring them in the hope that they might somehow evaporate).

I suspected as much a few months back when the "film arm" of Bloomsbury Weddings went into a self-imposed meltdown, no doubt buckling under the weight of the final fifteen scripts piled up on their producer's desk. At least I can now stop banging on about it, a process that has become less entertaining of recent months, and more akin to kicking a mangy old dog if I'm perfectly honest.

I'll have to find something else to complain about now ;-)

Linkage Mania

Even if you thought Billy Elliot was a load of torrid guff, these articles on the Times Online site are all pretty good (as I’m in search of a working method at the moment, they are especially interesting)...

How John Hodge adapted Trainspotting

Sir Tom Stoppard on writing Shakespeare in Love

How Lee Hall wrote Billy Elliot

David Hare on adapting The Hours

Also, want to know why The Golden Compass was a frustrating grab bag of exposition and all round rubbishness? Let Sit Tom fill you in:

I wrote the first draft of The Golden Compass, but no director was attached to it. Ultimately it got a director [Chris Weitz] who liked to write his own scripts. He never even read mine.

Monday, 18 February 2008

What A Scrunt.

Contains spoilers for Lady in the Water

My nephew is currently studying photography at an art college where the ‘lecturers’ seem peculiarly clueless. In putting his portfolio together for a series of degree course interviews, my nephew was told by his tutor (the vast majority of whom seem to be motivated by the twin goals of ‘pussy and paycheque’ (Copyright Daniel Clowes)) that the images he selected should not make sense to anyone but himself – the reasoning being that the artist is the only person who can describe the rationale behind what he does. I can’t begin to list the many and varied ways in which this makes my blood boil. However, if you’re M. Night Shyamalan, then this sentiment is right up your street.

Lady in the Water is an incoherent waste of celluloid – but what makes it so painfully godawful is that it seems to be a paean to what Shyamalan sees as his own shining beacon of genius. Why else would he have a character say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “What person could be so arrogant to presume to know the intention of another human being?” Given the fact that this criticism is indirectly aimed at the thoroughly unlikeable book and film critic Harry Farber, this should tell you all you need to know about what Shyamalan thinks of (his) critics.

Perhaps Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian sums it up best:

As the film continued, I personally began to bow my head in humility and self-knowledge. My pen slipped from my nerveless fingers and hot teardrops fell on my notepad, like a pure and cleansing rain, blurring the vindictive remarks I had scribbled. I was ashamed ... ashamed ... that I had ever given this incredible idiot M Night Shyamalan anything approaching a good review.

The mere fact that Shyamalan puts such words into the mouths of his characters says to me that the director honestly thinks that he is the only person permitted to comment on this excruciatingly awful film. He’s wrong. A film such as Lady in the Water does not exist in a vacuum – once it’s out there in the big bad world it’s going to generate comment, criticism, and even analysis that – horrors! – might conflict with the director’s own view. If I had to sit through every film with Shyamalan’s strict instructions not to apply my own interpretation, I don’t think I’d ever buy another DVD again. I think it was Umberto Eco who said that the novel is a machine for generating possibilities – Shyamalan may well be disappointed to realise that these are usually arrived at without the assistance of the author.

The fact that Shyamalan has cast himself in Lady in the Water as the author of a book that is somehow going to “save the world” should send you screaming from this film at a rate of knots. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the first scene should do it. The down at heel janitor Cleveland Heep (played by the ever dependable Paul Giametti) rattles about under a sink with a broom. A screaming family cower behind him in comedic fashion as the brave Heep makes exaggerated efforts to kill something big and hairy. The whole scene is just so gratuitously stupid, I should have turned it off right then. But then again I would have missed the unintentional comedy of Mr Dury attempting a spot of divination with a crossword puzzle, or his son attempting to do the same with a packed cupboard of cereal boxes. And – Jesus H Christ! – it’s Jared Harris, down on his luck slumming it in a movie with no detectable script.

I thought I’d seen some bad films, but this one takes the biscuit.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Off on a Tangent, Part 9 - More Slab!

I wrote about Slab! here some time ago, and I’m pleased to say that, for a band that’s been defunct for nearly twenty years, they appear to be gaining a good deal of attention, both on the net and beyond.

First off, there’s Slab’s My Space page, set up by Tim Elsenburg of the folktronica outfit Sweet Billy Pilgrim (check out the fantastic tracks Bruguda and the gorgeous Meantime here).

Tim is also writing a piece on ‘songs that changed my life’ for The Sunday Times – the song chosen? Dolores, by Slab!, which you can hear on the MySpace link above. Without a doubt it’s the best track on the album, and probably (for me at least) amongst some of the best – and heaviest – music ever recorded. And lurking underneath the massive beats, drum machines and scuzzed out bass, there’s an honest to goodness tune. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Oh, and if anyone can track down any pictures of this elusive band, let Kevin know on

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Killed by Death

I had to kill a character in a script yesterday, but had a few issues deciding exactly how to do it.

The choices?

1) Handgun. Too easy to be honest, too abrupt. There’s a certain shock value, but ultimately it seemed a little unsatisfying. What’s more, there’s no physical contact, which doesn’t make for a hugely dramatic scene.

2) Suffocation by clingfilm. A much better idea (anyone seen The Last Broadcast?). But then I started to wonder exactly what sort of weirdo carries a roll of clingfilm round with them (sincere apologies to anyone who does, but come on, let's face it - you're weird).

3) Belt. This is more like it. Easy to come by, always at hand, the ideal weapon if you're in the mood for a spot of one-on-one strangulation.

It then suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t really need to kill this character at all – all I needed to do was to incapacitate him. So I clacked him round the back of the head with a fire extinguisher, which brought to mind Irreversible (no bad thing in my book).

Right, I’m off for a quick garrotting. Wish me luck.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Oooh, A New Meme

I don't know what the word 'meme' means (it's a bit like British Bulldog I think), but I’ve been tagged by Martin (New Order fan and Doctor Who know-it-all) on a film book recommendation.

Oooh, let’s see, there are so many:

Censored, by Tom Dewe Matthews: a history of British film censorship from 1896 to the onset of the video nasty. If you think the whole concept of censorship is entirely arbitrary and illogical, then prepare to be astounded by this book - it's a lot worse than you ever thought.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind: a superb examination of the golden era of American film (1969-1980 in case youlre wondering) told predominantly through the stories of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and others. This has just been released in a twenty first anniversary edition by Bloomsbury, and it’s definitely worth a read or two.

Fire Over England, by Ken Russell – good old Ken gives the British film ‘industry’ both barrels. Enormous fun.

Men, Women and Chainsaws, by Carol Clover – after a long day carousing, I settle down with my pipe and slippers and get stuck into some good old gender theory.

Will that do, Martin? I could go on all night here...

All righty then, I tag Elinor, MJ, Jon Peacey, Oli, and Rob Stickler. Good and hearty people all.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Queen versus Norman Baker

Contains Spoilers for The Strange Death of David Kelly

I haven’t really seen it properly, but doesn’t The Queen strike you as a completely bizarre idea for a film? When I first saw it advertised in a cinema somewhere, I literally could not get my head round the fact why anyone in their own right mind would want to go and see it, but what do I know? I’m sure there’s a readymade American market that laps this stuff up, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Certainly not me.

Like The Last King of Scotland (another Peter Morgan script), The Queen mines a rich seam of unsympathetic protagonists in a study of tradition (represented by Helen Mirren, or as she is now better known: Her Maj) versus populism (represented by Tony Blair and his gang of gurning modernisers). Well, I’m guessing that’s what it’s about – I’ve seen it on three different occasions now and haven’t actually managed to see the whole thing, so no doubt there are huge gaps in my viewing experience. But bear with me.

A little while back, I wrote about the world of Spooks, and how I perceived that there had been a perceptible tonal shift in the ‘culture’ that made such a series possible. Although I liked Spooks, something about it seemed strangely reactionary – and the same thing struck me about The Queen.

The film portrays Blair the head cheese and his gruff, tabloid-wise sidekick, Alistair Campbell, as brave modernisers, wary and respectful of the old traditions, but recognising that by necessity, they must change. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Blair’s premiership is not likely to be remembered for the Campbell-scripted speech he gave after Princess Diana’s death, but for an ill-advised, illegal and disastrous war.

Which leads me neatly onto The Strange Death of David Kelly, by Norman Baker, the famous Liberal Democrat windbag). This book is a thorough if at times rambling investigative study into the death of the Government weapons expert, David Kelly, found dead in suspicious circumstances in July 2003. The picture it paints of the Blair administration is not at all flattering, and to a certain extent this is to be expected. What is surprising, however, is the forensic diligence that Baker applies to the central question, which leads him to a startling conclusion: that Kelly was murdered by Iraqi intelligence operatives, and his death made to look like suicide, most probably by members of the UK intelligence community.

Baker grinds through a variety of scenarios – even a few that sound positively demented – and emerges with a thesis that is logical and well argued, even if there are a few unavoidable leaps of guesswork. It’s a persuasively and passionately argued book that leaves few stones unturned – a book that, in adapted form, would give a valid counterpoint to The Queen.

Conspiracy theories may well be a little old hat these days, and have almost certainly been overtaken by the imprecisions of ‘historical fiction’. But when a film as reactionary as The Queen pops up, I often wish there was something that could stand alongside it to give an opposing point of view.

As above, hindsight is a wonderful thing – The Queen is set in the initial days and months of Blair’s premiership, where anything seemed possible. Blair and Campbell are matey iconoclasts, all too aware of what they perceive as being the ‘right thing’, and what they need to do to achieve it. However, in The Strange Death of David Kelly, Blair and Campbell are obsessed with the retention of power; their treatment of David Kelly was disgraceful at best, and their political hobbling of the BBC and the ensuing Hutton enquiry were the breathtakingly arrogant actions of men convinced that they were right (and what is particularly galling about the whole episode is that it was the BBC that was right all along).

The Queen is undoubtedly a work of fiction – where politicians strive for the common good, how could it be anything else? Discounting the obvious guesswork that Baker’s conclusion necessarily demands, The Strange Death of David Kelly seems anything but, a world where the good guys get killed and the bad guys get the million pound book deals. Maybe I’m a bit weird, but I know which one I’d rather pay money to see.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Welcome to Multi-Tasking Script Hell

I am in search of a working method – purely because I don’t have one. I’m the sort of misguided idiot who outlines as he’s limping along, which is guaranteed to send you doolally, especially by the point the eighth draft drops and you haven’t nailed that annoyingly illogical moment in the third act. I always used to think that outlining/writing a treatment helped, but the problem with that is that it kind of sucks the soul out of what I’m writing and turns it into the script equivalent of an Ikea catalogue. I can’t do mechanistic – it hurts.

So I’m taking advice from the great man John August, who I don’t think really trusts outlines much either:

Ask: What needs to happen in this scene? Just come up with one or two sentences that explain what absolutely must happen...

And that’s it – my new working method. I tore apart an eighty-five page first draft the other day and this is the only way I can see to get the damned thing moving again without descending into the brain numbing hellhole of an outline.

(Just as well I don’t have one of those groovy little bar things at the side of my blog to show the progression on my most current draft - on day seven it would be 10% completed, day seventeen would be 85%, and day seventy would be 3%. That’s assuming I would have the technical ability to put one up there in the first place).

There’s also quite a helpful post over at Pillock’s Pad, which neatly summarises what little method I actually possess (It seems that by jumping straight into the writing, the brain mobilises more creative faculties than it does by carefully planning first). By sitting in the scene itself and staring hard at a blank screen, ideas actually start to bubble up that have absolutely nothing to do with an outline. The problem with this of course is that I’m not exactly forging ahead at a rate of knots – every page I write has an effect on the pages preceding it, which means that yes, I’m outlining as I’m writing – which is multi-tasking hell.

On a lighter note, Robin Kelly and I are rejoicing this week as Broken Social Scene has just announced a short UK tour in May. Get your tickets now, kids.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Fun with Product Placement

Contains Spoilers for Perfect Stranger

A few years back, I used to work for a large Champagne house. Every now and again, we’d get requests from film production companies asking us if we’d like our product to feature in their film – all for an exorbitant fee of course, which they would use to offset the cost of production. I’m all for imaginative movie financing such as this, not that it really got anyone anywhere. At the time, Champagne sales were riding high – the French couldn’t produce enough of the stuff (it is a finite product, after all), so why would anyone want to advertise to sell more? The stuff essentially sold itself.

This is something you almost certainly couldn’t say about Perfect Stranger, which plays as if someone has dropped eighty half-written thriller plot points into a huge food processor and simply hit the ‘splurge’ button, not caring what was poured out or what it looked like. The one notable thing about it is the amount of product placement on show. And as this is a film set partially in the world of advertising, that means there’s an absolute rampage of brands queuing up to get their fifteen seconds of A-list Hollywood exposure. Reebok,, Victoria’s Secret, Heineken, Sony – plus a few others I probably missed.

It’s bad enough when any film starts down this route, but when it’s in your face as much as it is here, it actually starts to disrupt the very narrative that it helped pay for. For instance, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), hot shot advertising honcho and prime suspect in the murder of Halle Berry’s arch-nemesis in a plot too convoluted to give a flying arse about, introduces a Victoria’s Secret show (replete with Heidi Klum co-hosting). All this sequence said to me was that there was no way a brand like Victoria’s Secret was going to let their fictitious fashion show be introduced by a cold blooded murderer, imagined or not. Ka-thunk went a major plank of the narrative, and with it my interest.

Watching Perfect Stranger, I’m sure there’s a correlation to be drawn between quite how bad a film is and the amount of product placement shoehorned into it – Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, anyone? That said, my favourite ever product placement moment – if you can call it that – occurs in Blue Velvet. Our hero’s (Jeffrey Beaumont) favourite tipple is Heineken. At one point in the film, the unpredictable and deranged psychopath Frank Booth asks, ‘What kind of beer do you like to drink, neighbour?’ ‘Heineken,’ Jeffrey replies, uncertain as to whether this is the right answer. ‘Heineken?’ roars Frank, ‘Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!’

Friday, 1 February 2008

Metlab Update, Part 5

So, Metlab yesterday.

All very painless as it turned out. Lucy Vee and John Sweeney one side of the table, Martin and I on the other. My notes from the meeting read, “double goal”, “Mind Hunters”, “no gore”, “necrophilia”, “conflict vs empathy” and “dialectical materialism”. Blimey! Sounds a bit like Katie & Peter Unleashed to me. I have a new draft to wrestle into submission (two falls or a knockout, grapple fans) by the beginning of April.

As well as being an all round nice guy, I also discovered that there is very little about Doctor Who that Martin does not know. I’m not the world’s biggest DW fan by any stretch, but I will say that I was seven years old, I loved it. I also have only one DW anecdote, as follows:

When I used to live in Cambridge, there was a great book cum junk shop on Mill Road – I bought a Doctor Who paperback in there for 10p, purely due to what was printed on the spine. The book’s title was Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil, written by Terence Dicks. The problem was the designers/type setters had forgotten to leave a large enough space between the words ‘evil’ and ‘Terence’, so the book was actually entitled Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil Terence Dicks – which is, when you think about it, a pretty frightening prospect (OK, so it was funny at the time).