Saturday, 31 May 2008

Soupy Twist

Contains spoilers for War, The Usual Suspects, The Number 23, Perfect Stranger and Secret Window.

I have a confession to make: I’m really starting to despise movies with a twist ending, in particular those that reveal that the protagonist is actually the antagonist (i.e., that guy we’ve been following about for last ninety minutes who’s been trying to solve those mysterious deaths in that haunted old cheese factory? It was him! He did it! And just to piss you off even more, here’s a painfully convoluted explanation). That said, perhaps I should start watching a better class of film than War, in which Jason Statham does his best to get his chops round an American accent. As if anyone needs to be told, the film features two twists, both of them pretty pointless (and one of them a very half hearted attempt at making the protag the antag) – at which point I thought, enough! Twist endings? Take a hike! If any film commits the now unforgiveable sin of revealing that the protagonist is the bad guy, I will snap DVDs and bellow at someone until I get my money back.

The culprits in the area of protag/antag reversal are many and varied: Adam Quigley comes up with a handy user’s guide here, where he points the finger at some of the major offenders in this field – Secret Window, Perfect Stranger, The Number 23: all of them complete rubbish. One notable exception to this list is of course The Usual Suspects, mostly because the film uses the ‘conceit’ of an unreliable narrator: as Verbal is not exactly your typical movie protagonist, the film sits way above the blundering stupidity epitomised by The Number 23.

Even so, what The Usual Suspects did was to kick start a whole slew of scripts and films where the surprise/twist ending was everything. The ending of The Usual Suspects has been criticised quite widely, but I enjoyed the film more for the fact that it didn’t presume its audience were morons, which is certainly something you can’t say about The Number 23. After The Usual Suspects, it was The Sixth Sense, and before, it was Angel Heart. Every few years a standout film will push head and shoulders above its contemporaries and inadvertently inspire a whole new wave of warmed up cack: so it goes.

However, enough is enough, and the reversal/twist ending of protag as antag should be the first casualty. It’s been done so many times – both by great films (Angel Heart) and by rubbish ones (Perfect Stranger) – that it’s stepped across the line and has become a cliché (albeit one that people still use). For me, it’s on a par with being told at a movie’s conclusion: it was all a dream. Arrrggghhh! Can’t we have something a little more intelligent for a change?

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Off on a Tangent, part 14: Leslie Feist, Albert Hall, 21st May 2008.

Leslie Feist wanders out onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and, faced with 5000 pairs of eyes staring back at her, says: “Oh my god.” And she’s right as well: this isn’t 93 Feet East or the Scala, and no doubt you could cram about a thousand Komedias into this cavernous bit of Victorian silliness. Last time I saw Feist, I was surrounded by about a hundred and fifty fellow hipsters and Alexis Petridis: you could reach out and shake Feist’s hand if you wanted to. Tonight, it’s totally different: 1234 has seen to that. Funny what can happen in a little over twelve months, that iPod advert notwithstanding.

The music veers from infectious indie joy to plaintive solo folk, although having to extend the set to a good 100 minutes does provide for the odd bit of banter that doesn’t really work: an audience hum-a-long falls flat, and some of Feist’s asides are just plain cryptic. In a smaller venue where everything is up close and personal, you can get away with this sort of unforced, eccentric charm. In a venue like the Albert Hall, it just sounds demented.

That said, Feist has obviously had to make some concessions in playing for a large audience, and the most noticeable is the completely berserk shadow show (I kid you not). Two ‘shadow assistants’ create an ever-changing panorama of volcanoes, ships at sea, birds and foliage that are projected behind the band as they do their thing. At one stage, someone climbs a stepladder behind Feist and throws torn up paper everywhere (it’s snowing, see?). Not exactly stadium rattling stuff, but we’re not talking Iron Maiden here: the visuals are great, and are done with a huge amount of lo-fi charm.

Only two things bring a slight downer on proceedings: 1) whoever they were, the support band were utterly dreadful. All I know about them is that they come from New Zealand, and that’s really all I want to know, and 2) a surprising lack of hipsters in the audience. I mean, good god, people were even dancing in the aisles! Whatever next? ;-)

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Sharps Request

OK, so the world and his wife are lining up to enter this (according to my online entry number, there have already been over 800 million entries – zoiks!), so good luck everyone. I had a short script that *kind of* fitted the general theme of ‘the nation’s health’, so I inflated it to thirty pages, but something didn’t quite feel right somehow (that said, I got some fantabulous PO3 feedback on it from Lucy, Elinor and the sadly blogless Caroline). So, I started writing something else. I’m about a page off the ending currently, so this is a call for anyone who wants to swap scripts PO3 style. My turnaround for notes is usually pretty quick, and I like to think I can offer at least page of concise critique before I go all wobbly and random ;-)

So, drop me a line in the comments section or send me an email – I’m easy like that, but you knew that anyway.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Finding the Writer's Voice

About a hundred years ago, I applied for this. On Friday, I got the following letter from TAPS:

Thank you very much for your submission for the above course. Due to the sheer volume of submissions received the shortlisting process has taken longer than we anticipated and we thank you for your patience.

The standard of the scripts we received was higher than ever and it was a genuine pleasure to see such quality work. The uniformly excellent writing made it a real challange to select the writers to proceed onto the next stage. It has been a long process and we have created a shortlist of the best scripts which will now be read by our Artistic Advisory Board before being considered for development.

I am please(d) to tell you that your script has made this shortlist. Once the Board have decided on the six they wish to develop we shall let you know their decision.

...which is nice.

The script I submitted for this script was demented (and I have that on good authority), so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Monday, 19 May 2008

A Suitable Case for Treatment

As my regular reader might know, I have been searching for a user friendly working method for a while now: loglines, synopses, outlines, treatments, I’ve done ‘em all in the vain hope that sometime something will stick.

Unfortunately, this eureka! moment has not yet happened, and I doubt it ever will, mostly because I approach each individual project from a totally different perspective. The outline for the last feature length script I wrote consisted of a diagram sketched out on a page of A4 paper (I was going to post this, but I’m scared you’ll laugh as it’s covered in smiley faces and references to Scooby Doo). To be honest, this is probably the most successful outlining tool I’ve ever used – five drafts in and, although the narrative has changed along the way, I'm still adhering to the basic structure sketched out in this document.

I find synopses useful in this respect as well – something short (two pages maximum) that outlines the major events in the narrative that leaves plenty of room for some wild ‘riffing’ along the way. I have always found treatments quite intimidating for this reason: events are mapped out in such a way as to make ‘improvisation’ seem a little out of place. The way I write is determined by accident as much as anything else, and a full blown treatment seems to squeeze all the fun out of the process somehow. And anyway, with previous treatments, I have always found that, once the treatment is ‘locked down’, an idea materialises out of nowhere that knocks the whole thing for six – the fact that I am usually three quarters of the way through writing the script at this point really does not help.

That said, I am working on a treatment for someone at the moment – well, by ‘treatment’, I mean a series of about a million ideas that will hopefully start to coalesce into something vaguely coherent in the next few weeks. The advantage to doing things this way is that a lot of ideas get ditched early on in favour of better ones, and horrible things like coincidence get put out of their misery relatively early on.

Even so, I’m a great believer in the fact that until you start writing the script itself, you have no idea how things are going to turn out. A detail that looked eminently logical in your treatment can turn out to be amazingly silly once fleshed out in script form - the solution here as far as I’m concerned is to manically write your way out of trouble. Exposition – one of my pet peeves – is also tremendously difficult to navigate around once you are in the script 'zone'. A treatment naturally tends to be heavy on exposition as this is the way you get the essential planks of your story laid down – in the script, it’s a difficult kettle of fish altogether.

Which is why I’ve always stuck to relatively simple outlines/one pagers. The current treatment is starting to make some vague sense, but there’s no substitute to actually getting stuck in and writing the damn thing.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sounds Like A Rude Word But Isn't.

There are some things in life that I’m destined just not to get: for example, anything written by Stephen Poliakoff, or any script that is unlucky enough to find itself in the hands of Michael Winterbottom. Whether I’m simply demented, stupid or slightly retarded, I have another item to add to the list – the films of Pedro Almodóvar (well, Volver at least).

Maybe my not liking Volver exhibits my own prejudices and subjective dislikes much the same as anyone else, but when Mark Kermode describes it as a gorgeously melancholic melodrama-cum-ghost-story, I have to wonder whether he saw the same film as I did. Yeah, OK, so there’s nothing drastically wrong with it – it’s just the critical avalanche of hyperbole that is heaped upon this film just seems to be a little misplaced to me.

Talking of hyperbole, here’s Paul Howlett:

Almodóvar manages to make a ludicrous farce about a mother and daughter who kill the abusive man of the house and set about covering their tracks, hindered by a back-from-the-dead grandmother, into a work of emotionally astute, heartaching drama. It's pure magic...

Except, it isn’t – not really. I think the best way to describe it is three parts melodrama, two parts soap opera and one part camp (or five parts camp if you consider that melodrama and soap opera fall under this heading as well). Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against soap opera/continuing drama, or anything that is even remotely camp for that matter – it’s just that in Volver, soap opera is equated with ‘trash TV’, where in fact the film doesn’t really do anything to transcend the genre it’s supposed to be an ironic homage to. Think of it as a feature length episode of Emmerdale with the camp quotient turned up to eleven. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not my cup of tea – like I said before, the fact that I didn’t like Volver harshly exposes my likes and dislikes, and there’s nothing I can really do about that. However, if an ‘emotionally astute’ drama is Almodóvar’s aim, then to my mind why can’t the story be told without it being fed through the prism of camp, ironic or not?

Down at the level of screenwriting mechanics, something seems to be amiss as well: although the central planks of the narrative are all sound, characters spend an absolute age saying hello and goodbye to each other, before walking across the street to do the same in someone else’s house. Characters get out of cars, walk down streets, then walk back up them. Cut these travelling to-and-fro moments out of the film, and you’d probably lose about fifteen minutes (which would be a good thing, as I almost nodded off at the 110 minute mark). A good deal of exposition is delivered during these moments in such a way as to make it obvious that these little nuggets of information are going to be vitally important later on – and there’s the problem: it’s obvious that they’re going to be important. Apart from one clunkingly enormous revelation at the film’s conclusion (which is both startling yet somehow banal), everything just seems eminently predictable.

Ah well – I’m off to see Iron Man at the weekend – something tells me that the camp quotient there is going to be dangerously low.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Off on a Tangent, Part 13 - Vast Swathes of Generalisation

Apropos of absolutely nothing at all, here’s Alexis Petridis in a recent Guardian article talking about a Feist gig:

The audience was heavy on hipsters, presumably lured by Feist's long-standing associations with a succession of achingly trendy cult artists... There was an almost tangible air of come-on-impress-us about the audience, their cynicism perhaps compounded by the ads.

Er, are you quite sure about that, Alexis? I was at the very same gig and, whilst it’s nice to be described as a ‘hipster’ (I think), the audience was the usual Brighton melting pot mix of indie kids, scruffy students, people with silly haircuts/stupid hats and old geezers who had dragged their bored looking other halves along. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the average audience age that night was well over 30.

At that point, The Reminder had not been released in the UK, so presumably everyone present had no doubt been drawn by the previous album Let It Die and Feist’s powerhouse performances with Broken Social Scene. The gig was also completely sold out. That curious breed ‘the hipster’ (how do you spot a hipster anyway? Do they stand under spotlights dressed in polonecks wearing berets?) was noticeable by its absence.

All of which says to me: if you can’t think of what to write, either a) make it up, or b) blandly generalise.

That said, if you want experience vast open plains of generalisation, pick up Made in Brighton, a series of essays on modern Brighton by Julie Burchill and Daniel Raven (who Julie just happens to be married to). Polemicists seem to thrive on generalisations, as the reality of any situation is just too knotty and complex to really get your knickers in a twist over I reckon.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Reading/Research/More Reading

When scouting around for a new project, the one part I enjoy above all else is the research, as it means I can indulge in a huge amount of reading just for the sheer fun of it. Here’s a selection of reading matter, all of which is directly related to writing projects (both for now and for the immediate future):

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Julian Jaynes (a relatively old book, but one that’s incredibly handy if you need a quick refresher on schizophrenia – and let’s face it, who doesn’t?)

My Bass and Other Animals - Guy Pratt

Strange Fascination – David Bowie, The Definitive Story – David Buckley

Bit of a Blur – Alex James

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

The Corporation – Joel Bakan

In Praise of Slow – Carl Honoré

Celebrity and Power – P. David Marshall

Darker than the Deepest Sea: In Search of Nick Drake – Trevor Dann

Agent Zigzag – Ben Macintyre

Songs They Never Play on the Radio: Nico, The Last Bohemian – James Young

Gibraltar 1779-83: The Great Siege – René Chartrand

All of which suggests that I’m attempting to write a script about a schizophrenic bass playing celebrity, who brings down a major corporation utilising nothing but the power of a catchy bassline. I’m still trying to work a mention of Gibraltar in there somewhere, but it’s more difficult than you think...

Friday, 9 May 2008

Exposition Man

Drama was busting out all over last night, what with The Invisibles (Last of the Summer Wine with cheeky cat burglars), Heroes (saw the first three episodes of series one, then forgot all about it), and Midnight Man. Since ITV are down in the dumps after a record £5.68M fine for letting Robbie Williams appear on the British Comedy Awards*, I went with Midnight Man – ITV need all the viewers they can get, bless ‘em. Not that I think I made the right choice, mind you.

Given the stellar bunch of talent involved (David Drury, David Kane, Gareth Neame), the whole thing was about as subtle as a brick – and that was only once you’d gotten past the vast swathes of clunky exposition that stomped about the place like a hormonal teenager. Exposition is not a bad thing – after all, any writer has to impart a certain amount of information so that the audience know what the hell is going on at any point: but doing it well (i.e., not drawing attention to the technique itself) is difficult. For example, it’s all very well for a character to suffer from phengophobia (fear of daylight), but having somebody else tell him this because he ‘might have forgotten’ just seems silly. I suppose broad brush tactics such as this may work if you want to get to the crux of the story quickly, but I can’t help thinking that there’s a more dramatic way to impart information than just ‘casually’ dropping it into a conversation with all the subtlety of a shovel round the back of the head.

Lack of subtlety aside, Midnight Man cracked along at a decent enough pace, even if the whole thing did seem overly familiar. A troubled protagonist with marriage problems? Tick! A conspiracy that goes right to the heart of government? Tick! This is a template that’s been used before by TV drama to much greater effect than this, which is a shame as you know exactly how everything is going to turn out. I think next week I’ll have to try The Invisibles, but somehow I'm dreading it already.

Another interesting story is here in today’s Guardian, which details the abysmal first week’s box office for Three and Out. The marketing push behind this film has been phenomenal, to the extent that you couldn’t move without seeing some mention of it somewhere. Unfortunately, this huge push has not translated into box office moolah, probably because of two things: the subject matter (or more specifically, how the producers have gone about publicising it), and the absolutely horrible poster used to promote it. One look at Mackenzie Crook’s depressed boat would be enough to put anyone off, I think: couple that with the fact that Three and Out has been sold using an apparently lethal cocktail of suicide and the London Underground (not hugely cinematic concepts, I'd say), and there you have it – a first week take of £189,454: a sizeable lottery win, but not a figure to get massively excited about if you’re a film producer.

* Not strictly true, but hey - if you're going to fine ITV for something, it may as well involve Robbie Williams.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Off on a Tangent, Part 12 - UK Subs, Freebutt, Brighton, May 5th 2008.

The last time I saw the Subs, there were a series of almighty bundles down the front, which meant that the band had to take turns to leap into the crowd to separate various tattooed hooligans from knocking nine bells out of anyone in their immediate vicinity. No-one was hurt, and in all honesty, it was more akin to a bit of playground pushing and shoving than anything even remotely violent. Twenty years later, and not a lot has changed – well, apart from the fact that everyone is much more polite. Watching people stage dive off a stage that is about a foot high is always entertaining, but the difference here is that no-one gets a Doc Marten in the face. “After you.” “No, please, I insist – after you.” Oh, that and the fact that the stage divers all seem to be about fifty years old.

That said, no-one is quite as old as Charlie Harper, who was just about to collect his bus pass when punk kicked off over thirty years ago. He spent much of the evening behind the merchandise stall, endlessly available to any old geezer who fancied a handshake and a chat. Well, rather that than having to stand through the bloody awful support bands. Kill Tim play a pointless amalgam of ska, punk, White Riot and anything else that comes to mind during their 30 minute set, 25 minutes of which is taken up by a panicked string change. The lead singer looked about 12. At one point, my brother (gig photographer par excellence) turned to me and said, “They should be locked in a rehearsal room for the next five years.” That was just after I had my bicep felt by the crazy dreadlocked guy who used to work in Dave’s book store making enquiries about the evening’s ‘muscle quotient’ – very low, my friend, very low indeed.

The Subs crashed through their set in a little under fifty minutes – these guys have been doing this for years, so there’s no hanging about. Actually, that said, only Charlie Harper and Alvin Gibbs survive from the ‘original’ line up, but I guess it hardly matters when your stock in trade are three chord thrashalongs (which sounded surprisingly sprightly for a band just about to enter their fourth decade of playing live). Good fun, though.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Cheers Big Ears!

Although I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘Power of Three’ (for some reason it makes me think of He-Man and his disturbing page boy haircut), I’ve got to admit that the notion itself is top notch: take one short script, send it out to a variety of unsuspecting scribes and don protective headwear for incoming rocket attacks. So this post is by way of a thank you to the blogless trio of Jason, Caroline Henry and Mister G for giving up their valuable time and passing comments, all of which I’ve managed to put to good use. Even with a short script, some things pass me by entirely until someone is able to point out the bleedin’ obvious – you also know you’re trouble when, independently of each other, everyone points out exactly the same thing (i.e., 15 pages = bad, 10 pages = good). With all comments now on board, Out of Time is now ready to slink its way into the BSSC.

Of course it goes without saying that if you want comments on your own short script, drop me a line and we can indulge in some quid pro quo scriptural action (oo-err missus, etc).