#PhonePhill – Conversation #3: Andrew Mullins

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This installment of my quest to talk to actual real life people is a bit of a special one.

Ten years ago I got married.

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This was a lovely thing to happen and since it continues to be a lovely thing ten years later, Mandy and I felt a party was in order.

As an aside, the party was fantastic, thank you so much to everyone who attended. We had it at Eastbourne’s Tennis in the Park, Love All Cafe, catered by a friend whose hobby-cooking far outstrips most professional chefs.

Ten years ago we reformed my teenage school-band for a one-off reunion gig.

Ten years later we once again rocked the party with our lukewarm ineptness.

Mandy even joined in which made the whole thing much more apt and much more fun.

As is traditional with these things, we contacted everyone who attended the wedding and invited them along. As is also traditional, most people beyond a certain radius didn’t make it.

This happens. People are busy, travel is expensive, life gets in the way.

But apologies-for-nonattendance opens up avenues of communication which have dried up over the years. Not through any malice or falling out but just because sometimes the gentle ebb and flow of life takes us in different directions.

Enter, Andy.

Andy and I (and a third chap, Jason, who’s now a regional manager for Cineworld) entered the movie industry at the same time: October 1992

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Okay, so we were cinema ushers but it still counts. It fucking does!

Andy was studying to be a teacher. Jason was studying … um … something. Media? I had recently been thrown out of university for being tragically stupid.

The three of us became firm friends and have kept in increasingly sporadic touch ever since. Long after we left the cinema, Swansea and even Wales behind we continued to think of each other as friends.

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But then there was that gentle parting of the ways. We’re still friends, we just somehow rarely find time for each other. I’m not 100% certain I’ve actually spoken to him since the wedding … but I must have done? Surely?

This is exactly what this whole #PhonePhill thing is about – making time to talk to people, old and new.

So we had a chat.

Andy remains one of my favourite people on the planet. He’s so relentlessly positive and cheerful and … nice. That sounds awful because we tend to associate those qualities with insipid … but Andy’s far from that.

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He’s no pushover, he’s a rare gem, a genuinely wonderful person who’s also interesting and fun and all-round inspiring. Andy’s a primary school teacher and loves his job. His passion and enthusiasm for his kids is a lesson all in itself. He’s the epitome of a man who’s found his niche in life and loves it.

He’s a family man with boundless energy and affection for the people he loves … an affection which spills over into all other areas of his life. I don’t know if he actually realises how special this makes him. I don’t know if he forces himself to look for the positives in any given situation, but he certainly finds them.

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Case in point: a few years before the wedding, Andy became seriously, life-threateningly ill. I’m not going to disclose his personal information online, but it was pretty grim. The treatment was even grimmer.

But he pulled through.

More amazing than that, as he completed every stage of his treatment he could be found online helping other people across the globe deal with their upcoming or ongoing treatment.

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He doesn’t see this as a big deal, just something anyone would do in his position.

Since then, after beating the odds and fathering two more children, Andy’s discovered he’s got another serious, potentially life-threatening issue; and a mobility issue which although wouldn’t end his life, threatened to put an end to the kind of sport-filled life he loves.

This year he underwent a fairly major procedure to correct the mobility issue and will have to (at some point in the near future) have to undergo another one to cure the underlying life-threatening one.

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Andy’s take on these three medical calamities? Any one of which would destroy most people?

“I’m so lucky really, because the top hospital in the country for the first problem is just down the road and the top guy for the mobility issue works in a different local hospital and I’ve been able to see the pre-eminent specialist for the other thing.”

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I’ve always said that my affection for Superman stems not from his ability to fly or see through walls or punch through solid steel but for his innate humanity. To me, Superman’s greatest power is his ability to see the best in people, to expect them to aspire to better things and to assume the world is fundamentally a good place.

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I find this an admirable, aspirational trait. One I try to copy. Every time I read a Superman comic, I head out into the world intent on believing the best of everyone … it never lasts long.

Andy has that skill. He has that outlook and it’s wonderful. He inspires me and I aspire to be more like him.

Chatting to him on Monday was wonderful, I hope it becomes a regular thing. I only wish we lived closer because I would love my daughter to have him to look up to.

So there you are #PhonePhill #3.

Who’s next? Who fancies a natter about stuff? Email me and we’ll work something out.

Categories: #PhonePhill | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

How to write the perfect cameo

Sorry, there should be a question mark on that title because the truth is I don’t know. Haven’t the Scoobiest.

What I do know is the later a cameo is chucked into the script (generally) the worse it will be.

If a client said at the outline stage “Let’s write a really meaty cameo in the hope of attracting a decent actor.” then it’s pretty easy to work it into the fabric of the story, primarily because there isn’t a story yet.

At every stage after that it becomes harder and harder until you get the worst kind of cameo, the one which is inserted after principle photography has wrapped.

“I’ve just bumped into *insert name of someone who may or may not have a cult following or moderate box office success* and we HAVE to get them into the film.”

Really? We have to? Absolutely have to?

Because we’re currently struggling to piece the film together after you fired half the cast mid-shoot, cast people you fancied as opposed to people who could act and decided to shoot all the close, personal, intimate bedroom scenes in the middle of a rock gig.

Chucking in a random scene which has no connection to the plot just so you can put this woman’s name on the DVD cover isn’t going to make the film any better.

But the problem is, it will help sell the DVD … initially. For an incredibly short period of time.

Because the absolute worst thing about late-in-the-process-cameos is distributors tend to slap their name on the cover as if they’re the star of the film. Their fans buy the DVD in dribbles and get pissed off because their favourite star isn’t actually in the film at all.

Okay, there’s a single scene in there which features the actor but since it was filmed on a different day in a different location with none of the original cast … it’s hardly IN the film, is it?

And that’s another problem with cameos – we can rarely shoot them in the same location/set as the bulk of the story. At best we get to include one of the principle cast.

So are the best cameos the ones where you didn’t know the actor was going to appear? Is it more fun to suddenly go “Hey! It’s whats-her-face! I didn’t know she was in this!” or to spend the whole film waiting to see her, only to find out she has a three-minute comedy turn in a newsagent selling a pack of Toffos to a minor character who, for no reason whatsoever, has paused in the middle of a car chase, mysteriously changing his hair do and his trousers+ in order to purchase some teeth-gumming sweeties?

I think the former is better.

Every single distributor in the whole world would disagree.

In the absolute worst case scenario, they’ll rebrand the whole movie as a different genre (the one the cameo star is famous for) and sell the DVD as something it’s not to people who would never have bought it in the first place. Those people will (rightly) hate the movie for it not being what they were told it was and slag it off to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who won’t.

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Self-defeating, I think. But then I don’t have access to the sales figures nor the brain to interpret them properly, so I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about.

I do know I’ve just been asked to include a cameo for someone in a feature script which is currently casting. Getting that actor involved would be absolutely fucking amazingly awesome, literally the high-watermark of my career.

But I don’t want it to derail the story. I don’t want the story to screech to a complete standstill, shift to a different location for a pointless scene and then struggle to pick up momentum afterwards.

Luckily, neither does the client.

Luckily he’s easily one of my favourite clients when it comes to lavishing care and attention on the script. He really, really cares about making it the best it can possibly be and is absolutely adamant that whereas getting this actor involved would be amazing, it must not interfere with what we already have.

How nice is that?

Even more luckily, there does seem to be a way to do exactly that. The cameo feels like it’s meant to be there. It feels relevant. It feels as if it was always there and is one of the key scenes which helps explain the actions of one of the main characters.

It even manages to solve the knotty problem of why someone who’s clearly American would coincidentally be in England three times over a ten year period at exactly the times we’re telling the story without actually living here.

It’s also funny and moving and tragic all at the same time.

Unusually I’m rather proud of it. This is a new emotion for me since I mostly feel I could probably do better.

Pride, an emotional cameo in my life.

Hopefully it won’t come before a fall.

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I hate using the word actor as a non-gender word. I understand the logic behind it, as was explained to me by the great Piers Beckley “You don’t call a female pilot a pilotess or doctor a doctress, so why use it for actors you big old sexist?”. Yeah, that makes sense … except (rightly or wrongly. Mostly wrongly) the default mental image for an actor, pilot or doctor is a man.^ Test this for yourself, tell a story about a trip to the doctor and end with an unanswered question. I bet you almost everyone will ask you “Well, what did HE say?” – even other female doctors.

Mind you, that might be because some people still peddle the myth that ‘he’ should always be used when the gender is unknown. That is of course proper bollocks.

Maybe there should be female words for all professions to reinforce the idea that women also do those roles? Maybe the term ‘actress’ is LESS sexist because it gives women their own name as opposed to having to adopt the male name for it?

Or maybe not.

It does make casting a teensy bit more awkward when you have to explain you’re looking for a female actor as opposed to just using one word ‘actress’.

I like to alternate pronouns in my blogs he/she hers/his, etc … when I just use the word ‘actor’ over and over again I worry people think I’m only talking about men.

I probably worry too much.

+ The trousers change because this scene has been shot three months later and the original trousers have been eaten by ninjas. Nobody knows why ninjas eat trousers, but they do. It’s a fact.

^As evidenced in the pilot-psych question:

“What would you do if you were on a night-stop and the Captain came down to the bar in a dress?”

The correct answer of course being “Offer to buy her a drink.” Or more likely, get her to buy you a drink because Captains are fucking minted.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #2: Robin Bell

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Strangely enough, more than one person fancies a natter and so we’ve actually made it to Conversation #2.

This time it’s Robin Bell, a guy I have actually met and really enjoyed chatting to.

Robin’s a writer/director/producer and co-creator of Twisted Showcase, an online anthology series beloved by The Guardian.

Robin and I met at the BBC’s TV Drama Writing Festival in Leeds and instantly became best mates.

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For the day.

Or two days, possibly.

Actually, maybe I’m overstating that a little. I like the bloke anyway.

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He’s a nice guy with interesting stuff to say. He’s carving out his career and, by co-creating Twisted Showcase, has taken his career into his own hands.

Why don’t more of us do things like this? It’s really not that hard in the 21st Century to shoot stuff which looks half-decent, so why do so many of us wait for other people to do it for us?

I don’t know. If I did, maybe I’d be making my own stuff too?

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Chat roamed across what we’d done since last we met, what we want to do next, TV gems like episode 2 of series 2 of Inside No. 9

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… and TV-not-so-gems like the last season of Doctor Who.*

As usual, Robin proved himself personable and easy-going. He’s a nice. I like Robin.

So there you have it, #PhonePhill the sequel.

Anyone else fancy a random chat? You can be someone I know or someone I don’t. You can be a fellow writer or not. Someone connected to the industry or someone with a proper, less frustrating job. We can chat about anything you like, whatever takes your fancy.

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Drop me a line and we’ll see what we can work out.

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Stuff.

More stuff.

*I struggled with this much more than Robin did. He warmed to it halfway through, I cooled continuously until it went from a show I was prepared to pay to see in the cinema … to one I had on in the background a couple of days later whilst I was doing something else.

If you’ll indulge me:

The problem I had was threefold:

1) They seemed to think the best route to take here was to make the Doctor fundamentally unlikeable. I’m not convinced this is a good idea, it certainly didn’t seem to work very well for Colin Baker and I’m not convinced repeating that unglorious period of Who-History is the way forward.

It worked though. It was brilliantly written and did exactly what it was meant to do … made me not like the Doctor.

2) They seemed to feel the need to apologise profusely and continuously for casting an older, non-sexy Doctor. This highlighted over and over again how little confidence they had in their own decision. Why mention it at all? Why not just bang on with the story and drag people along for the ride?

“This is who the Doctor is now, he’s still awesome, come with us and enjoy the fun!”

As opposed to:

“I’m really sorry. Really sorry. It won’t be that bad. Honest. Look how old and wrinkly he is. Had you noticed how old and wrinkly he is? I bet you’re really upset about how old and wrinkly he is, but just give us a chance. Please give us a chance, it might not be that bad. Look, here’s the young sexy Doctor giving you permission to like the wrinkly old one. Except … we don’t want you to like him because he’s a bit of a nob. Just tolerate him for a bit. He’ll probably die soon anyway given how old and wrinkly he is.”

And so on. For what felt like weeks and weeks and weeks …

3) New-Who clearly establishes that companions are chosen to travel with the Doctor and only the brightest and best are allowed onboard. Even in this series, a potential companion who has all the attributes needed, is refused travel because she has one tiny flaw – she’s a soldier.

Being a companion is an honour reserved for the precious few.

Clara is the precious few. She’s the chosen one. Only she, out of the whole universe, has the right qualities to earn her place on the TARDIS … and she isn’t really sure if she wants to.

“I would come and explore the furthest frontiers of space and time, bearing sole witness to the most amazing sights the universe has to offer … but Eastenders is on and I’ve got some homework to mark and … maybe next week?”

Companions do tend to leave the Doctor because they crave a normal life. That usually happens over the course of one story.

Clara took an entire season to think about it.

If you haven’t worked it out, I don’t really like Clara.

This left me watching a show about a guy I wasn’t supposed to like hanging around the flat of a woman who wasn’t sure if she liked him either. There are two characters – one is deliberately unlikeable. The other is (presumably) accidentally unlikeable. Enjoy!

But never mind, the good thing about Doctor Who is next year will be something completely different.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #1: Calum Chalmers

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Surprisingly, this actually worked. It turns out there are people in this world who actually want to talk to a complete stranger about writing and/or random stuff on a whim.

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Conversation #1 was with Calum Chalmers.

Actually, technically #1 was Tim Clague who rang up on a whim just because … well, just because he can, I guess. I think it was meant to be a gag but it was foiled by technology – my phone correctly identified him before he could spring his dastardly trap. But hey, he rang, so let’s call him Conversation #0 and use that opportunity to slip in teaser trailer #2 for Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg?

But back to Calum Chalmers, the proper Conversation #1.

Calum is a writer/director who has also acted at least once. Here he is, on the left, in David Lemon‘s Faintheart:

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As often happens in these situations, although Calum and I have never met or spoken before, we do have a few mutual friends. It’s a small industry on a small island, be nice to people – everyone knows someone who knows you.

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As the appointed time for the call approached, I remembered one key fact: I fucking hate talking on the phone. Especially to strangers. You might think it’s odd that I decided to try this experiment … and you’d be right.

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Still, as it happens the conversation was easy and flowing and genuinely interesting, entertaining and fun. Or at least I thought it was, I’m not going to round putting words into Calum’s mouth.

We talked about a lot of industry stuff, films in general and about Calum’s career so far and his future plans.

I had no idea going into this how long the call might last and was quite surprised to find out it went on for about an hour and a half. Didn’t feel that long, but unless there was some kind of incredibly localised temporal anomaly … that’s how long it was.

Calum’s written and directed two shorts so far:

If You Go Down

and

Graduation Afternoon

He was kind enough to send me a link for Graduation Afternoon and it’s very good. Here’s a trailer:

One of the things we talked about is something I think we all struggle with: what should I do next?

We have all these ideas, far more than anyone could possibly write in a lifetime and somehow we have to pick the one to focus on, the one we think has the best chance of moving our career forward.

The glib answer is ‘pick the one you care most about’.

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But which one’s that?  I know I have a good dozen ideas I’m equally as excited about … until I actually try to write them then I quickly discover how interesting things like bus time tables and bits of wall are.

So maybe we should be more mercenary?

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Maybe we should focus on the one which is most likely to catapult us to fame and fortune and … something else beginning with ‘F’.

Um … Fridge? Foot spa? Falafel?

No idea.

But which one is that? Which project is most likely to get us the falafel we so desperately crave? Is it the low budget thing we can make ourselves? Is it the sell out thing we’re pretty certain we can get funding for even though it’s bound to be terrible? Even if we can get the money, do we use it for a micro-budget feature or a big-budget short? Do we aim for commercial success? Or Internet notoriety? Or festival love?

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Well, the answer’s simple:

I have no idea.

In pretty much the same I have no idea why anyone would want this:

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All I do know is I enjoyed chatting with Calum and look forward to Conversation #2 on next week’s #PhonePhill.

If you want to be Conversation #3 then drop me an email and we’ll work it out.

If you’d like to chat with Calum yourself, you can find him on Twitter here.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

#PhonePhill

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Last Monday my phone suddenly, and unusually, emitted a strange sound. It was a sort of warbling, chirping noise I hadn’t heard before.

And it didn’t stop. It just kept on warbling and chirping.

Quick as a flash, I ambled out into the garden and found a stick to poke it with (just in case it was dangerous) and upon my return I was delighted to discover an email from the lovely Danny Stack informing me he’d tried to ring and inquiring how I was.

As it happens, I was perplexed.

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Apparently my phone can receive phone calls, a capability I was hitherto unaware of. Truly we live in an age of wonders where mere phones can receive phone calls. I’m half convinced it can make calls too … but further investigation is required before I commit myself to such outrageous claims.

Monday was a good day. It was the day we finally had our hall carpet fitted after months of sanding, scraping, painting and varnishing. Here it is:

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I think it looks quite nice.

On a day which included the culmination of months of hard work, a phone call from Danny was absolutely the highlight.

If you don’t know Danny, you should. His blog, here, is one of the very, very, few of the UK-advice-blogs which is worth reading. Danny’s the real deal, a working writer who shares vaulable insights. If you don’t read his blog, then you should at least listen to his and Tim Clague’s podcast which is equally as informative.

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Danny and I keep in touch via the odd email or social media message. Occasionally, once in a blue moon, we’ve meet face to face … but that’s kind of it. So to get a phone call out of the blue with no motive attached is … well, it’s special.

It’s lovely, in fact.

And it got me thinking.

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Maybe there are other people out there who fancy a natter? Maybe you’re a novice writer who’d like to chat to someone a teeny bit further down the path? Maybe you’re an incredibly experienced writer who’s (inexplicably) got no writing chums to talk to? Maybe you’re an avid movie watcher who’d like to ring up and know just how the fuck utter dross like Strippers vs Werewolves got made? Maybe you just want to complain to someone about your boy/girlfriend’s utter inability to grasp simple concepts like special relativity?

Maybe. I don’t know.

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I’m usually procrastinating so if you fancy a little chat, email me (the address is on the right – take this as a simple intelligence test, if you can’t find it you probably can’t operate a phone anyway), I’ll send you my phone number and you can ring up and have a chat.

I don’t know if anyone wants to do such an outlandish thing as actual voice-to-voice contact with another human being … but if you do … great. If there’s more than one of you per week (which seems unlikely) then we’ll form some kind of queuing system.

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Or line up in height order or something.

If you’re in one of those dangerous foreign places then maybe we can Skype or something. So long as you don’t expect video because that involves me putting pants on and that’s never going to happen.

Share this post with people if you like. Or don’t. It’s up to you. I’m just curious to see what happens.

#PhonePhill

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Categories: Things I've Learnt Recently, Writing and life | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Spoiling yourself

WARNING!

CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR

SAVING MR BANKS

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

AND

THE SIXTH SENSE

MIND YOU, IF YOU’VE READ THIS WARNING THEN YOU’VE ALREADY SPOILERED SAVING MR BANKS

Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too much information definitely spoilers the movie.

For me, at least.

I’ve long been bamboozled by the level of spoilers in soap operas. I can’t understand why people want to know what’s happening in an episode before they’ve seen it.

“This is the one where so and so finds out thingamajig is her dad!”

As far as I can tell that’s every episode of every soap ever, but why would you want to know that before you watch it? Why is that fun? Why would you want to know anything about an episode of your favourite show before you’ve seen it?

Same goes for films. Why do people spend the year before a film is released dissecting trailers in the hope of finding out what the story is about? Why do people hunt down leaked screenplays and set images?

Isn’t half the fun of seeing a movie being surprised?

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Or is that just me?

Some films don’t wait for their audience to hunt down spoilers, they just spoiler themselves right off the bat.

The piece de resistance when it comes to spoilers has to be Saving Mr Banks – never before has a film been so comprehensively spoilered by its own title.

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How much more amazing would that film have been if you didn’t know P L Travers’ objections were all about Saving Mr Banks? Imagine what a revelation it would have been to have got to the Walt Disney speech where he figures it out and have a light bulb click on in your own head.

I don’t even know if I’d have linked the flashbacks to P L Travers if I’d hadn’t read the title of the film.

But no, they put the twist in the title of the film. That’s like calling “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Vader is Luke’s Dad!”.

And just in case you didn’t get it from the title, they put the revelation scene in the fucking trailer. Right in there. Front and centre. Who made that decision? And why?

Imagine that person or persons cutting a trailer for The Sixth Sense. Would that film have been better or worse if it had a shot of Bruce Willis staring at the camera and saying “I’m dead, aren’t I?” in the trailer?

I’m voting worse, you may beg to differ.

“Let’s not call it “The Sixth Sense”, let’s call it “Kid Counseled by Dead Guy” that would be sooooooooo coooooooooool.”

“It’s about Saving Mr Banks, isn’t it?” For fuck’s sake – why was that line in the trailer? Why was anything from that late in the film in the trailer?

All I want in the trailer is the set up and maybe a montage-y thing summing up the first half of the second act. I want it to be a pictorial version of the blurb on the back of a DVD.

Or BluRay, if you want to be fancy.

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“This is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.” Thanks very much, that sounds interesting, I’ll go and see that.

“This is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons and there’s this really cool bit at the end where you realise everyone has escaped from his imagination.”

No! Noooooooooooooo! Fucking NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stop spoilering films for me! Stop spoilering them in trailers and posters and especially stop spoilering them for me on Facebook, at great length, and then tagging me in the post.

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I don’t want to know. Honestly, I don’t. I’ll unfriend you. Seriously, I’ll fucking do it.

Well, okay, I won’t do it because I’m vaguely interested in your amusing cat stories and the outside chance you might post a photo of yourself in your pants … but, come on! Don’t spoiler the film for me.

Hell, don’t spoiler the film for yourself.

And trailer makers, just fucking don’t.

In general.

Please?

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Categories: Bored, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Necessary shitness

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The first draft of anything is shit. Everyone knows that. But how far does that shitness extend? Is it just the first draft of a script? Or can you extend it to a scene? Or a line?

I’m always acutely aware that as we progress towards and even through production any rewrites are effectively first drafts. Anything which hangs over from the first full draft of the script will be rewritten, tweaked and massaged 50 times. Anything which is inserted on the set, minutes before being filmed will be a first draft.

The first thing I thought of.

The shit.

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Sometimes not. Sometimes those things turn out to be the best bits of the entire film. Hopefully the script is robust enough to cope with having the odd scene yanked out and replaced at a moment’s notice.

But still I worry.

Not about being shit. Or writing shit. But about letting people down.

Actually, no. That’s not true. I don’t feel like I’m letting someone down if the first draft of a new scene isn’t perfect because that’s a silly expectation. The first draft isn’t going to be perfect and I know that. The thing I worry about is does the client know that?

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When I get asked for a last minute replacement scene or line of dialogue, do they remember the five or six years we spent pummeling the script into a half-decent shape? Do they remember all the dead ends we strolled confidently along, absolutely certain that this time we’d cracked it? Do they remember all those drafts which just didn’t work or made the script worse than it was before? Do they remember the u-turns and the climbing down from our respective high horses when we realised our most cherished inclusions were dragging the whole thing under?

Or do they just look at the current draft, the one which seems perfect and flawless and beautiful and wonder why anything new added to it can’t immediately achieve the same standard?

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I hope not.

I hope they understand the first draft of anything new is just a thumbnail sketch, a rough edit to act as a starting point. It’s a talking point, a jumping off point for a discussion.

Basically, I don’t want them to think that that’s the best I can do.

Which sounds odd. As if I’m not really trying on the first draft of any new line or scene … but I am. I try really hard and the results will always be fair to middling. Even though I’m trying my hardest, that isn’t the best I can do because it isn’t the end of the process, it’s the beginning.

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Or at the very least a temporary midpoint. A way of saying “I’ve penciled stuff in, speak now before I ink the bastard”.

I really don’t mind being told something I’ve written is terrible. I do mind a client thinking it can’t be improved upon. Or more specifically, I can’t improve on it.

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Something on my mind? No, no, no.

Why yes, I am currently waiting for notes on a couple of projects. How did you know?

Categories: My Way, Writing and life | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Vanishing point

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I once accidentally got involved in a discussion/argument about the midpoint of Back to the Future.

It was one of those pointless online scriptwriting debates where lots of people who’ve never sold scripts harangue each other for not following rules laid down by other people who have also never sold scripts and have instead taken to writing books about how people can achieve successful writing careers by following the advice which didn’t work for them.

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For some reason (call it capricious youth, call it naivety, call it shit-stirring) I chipped in with my opinion:

The midpoint in Back to the Future is when Doc Brown points at the audience and says “We’re sending you back to the future.” The reason I think that’s the midpoint is because that’s where the intermission was in the cinema … so it’s probably roughly halfway through.

I got called a lot of names.

Actually, I don’t think I did. I think people just disagreed … but that doesn’t sound as interesting as the version where everyone except me is an idiot. Despite the precise opposite being true in almost every case.

Some people thought the midpoint came a few sentences later when the characters realise Marty’s past is disappearing.

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Others thought it was at the end of the scene when Marty accidentally outshines George in the town square/skateboard bit.

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Others still thought it was later on again, when Marty fails to get Lorraine interested in George and they come up with the new plan to get them to kiss on the dance floor.

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Yet more people thought it was when Marty threatened to melt George’s brain.

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One or two even thought it was earlier when Marty finally managed to persuade Doc to listen to him. An upbeat midpoint.

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I believe there was even one lone voice who insisted (quite vocally, possibly in ALL CAPS) that the midpoint comes when Doc realises it’s impossible to generate the 1.21 gigawatts needed for time travel.

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At the time I remember distinctly not caring.

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But it’s been playing on my mind ever since.

Well, not ever since. Occasionally. When I’ve got nothing better to do. Or when I have got better things to do and don’t want to do them.

It’s not that I think I was right (which is weird – I always think I’m right) and don’t get me wrong, I still don’t care … but my not caring has become the point. For me.

I don’t think these points should be points. I don’t really like having a specific frame of film I can point at and go “Aha! That’s the inciting incident!”

Or the midpoint or the ‘all is lost’ moment or … you know, stuff.

Apart from those times where the midpoint is a twist or shock reveal which throws the film onto a completely different path … I think these story points should be kind of smeared out.

To me, a midpoint isn’t point, it’s curve. It’s where the story changes trajectory because sustaining the pursuit of one goal for the entire second act is a tricky thing to do.

Something happens which either knocks the protagonist off course or changes their goals. Or introduces a new goal they have to accomplish before they can achieve their original one.

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Sometimes these are instant, right-angle changes … but more often than not they’re a slight change of course. Sort of heading towards the original goal but on a tangential path. Or maybe a parallel one?

A single event may initiate that course correction but more often than not several things have to happen to push the protagonist onto the new course. The curved path between course A and course B is a constant state of change during which the protagonist tries to stay on course A like a satnav refusing to accept the driver is trying to avoid the A259 … before finally (and grumpily. I’m sure my satnav gets the hump) accepting the new route home.

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In other words, it’s not an obvious text-book point. It’s a gentle, organic change from one state of play to another. The midpoint I scribbled on an index card at the beginning of the process becomes a scene or a sequence, smearing the point out over several pages of script.

I kind of see that as my job, to make clear and identifiable points and then hide them in the flesh of the piece. The changes should feel surprising but also inevitable. They should feel like there was no other way for that change to happen … but not stand out as a plot point we were aiming to hit precisely on page 55.

I like my stories to have smooth transitions from one act to another rather than sharp and spiky points which flag themselves as screenwriting 101.

Except when I don’t.

Sometimes that shock twist or reveal is the best thing for the story. I guess each story defines its own type of plot points.

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So in the case of Back to the Future – who was right? Where is the midpoint?

Well … all of the above. Surely? All of those things contribute to a change of direction and a new goal for the character. All of those things happen somewhere in the middle and the fact no one can agree on which one is THE one is kind of the point.

At least I think it is anyway.

Bullshit or not?

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’ll end it on a largely unconnected anecdote. My six-year-old daughter watched all three Back to the Futures on consecutive weekends. During the third film, Doc Brown tells Marty to take the time machine back to 1985 and dismantle it. My daughter made me stop the film and demanded to know why he wanted the time machine destroyed?

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“Well,” says I, “you remember in the second film when Biff got hold of the time machine? He changed everything didn’t he? He made it all bad and Doc doesn’t want that to happen again.”

My daughter thought that was silly:

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“He doesn’t have to destroy it though, does he? Why doesn’t he just put a lock on it? It could be an electric lock with a voice thing so you have to say ‘Hello, this is Doc’ or ‘Hello, this is Marty’ and the door would open. But if you didn’t say it then it would electrocute you and kill you.”

Which, as points go, is a damned fine one … and one I wish I’d thought of.

A bit like this watch:

I’m going to stop now. Choco-delirium has set in.

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Everything that follows is a lie

I went to see Focus at some point prior to writing this post and it was … alright. Entertaining enough. Sort of.

I thought it suffered in a couple of ways. One movie-specific, the other genre-inherent.

Oh …

SPOILERS FOR FOCUS

POSSIBLY

BUT PROBABLY NOT

The movie-specific problem was a lack of through line throughout the script. There was no clear goal for the protagonist, no indication of what he wanted or needed and (crucially) when he will have achieved it.

In other words, it’s a bit like watching a race and not knowing if it’s a 100 metre sprint or a marathon. Or possibly a triathalon. Or maybe they’re all running to a pasty shop? If you don’t know when the race will be over, it’s hard to build tension towards the end or care about whether or not the protagonist will win.

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I’m aware not everyone wants this in a film, but I do. I like to know where the finishing post is … and then be surprised at how the protagonist crosses it.

Or not. Not crossing the finishing line is fine too. Not saving the day or the guy or the girl or the city or yourself or … anything. That’s fine too. So long as I know what they meant to do.

Focus doesn’t seem to have that. Or if it does, it’s not apparent to me what it was. Which might be my failing rather than the film’s. To me, stuff just happened … for a bit. And then, at an undefined point … it stopped happening. Then it turned out to be carrying on for a bit. Then it really stopped. Then it started again a few years later … and then stopped again.

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Fun, entertaining stuff … but just stuff for no apparent reason all the same. Maybe it would be more fun the second time around?

The genre-inherent reason is more problematic and pretty much derailled the story for me.

And it’s this: it’s a heist movie. Specifically, it’s a conman heist movie.

Or conwoman.

Conperson movie.

Con movie. The whole movie is a con.

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The problem there is we all know how these movies work – nothing you see is real. Nobody is who they say they are and nothing they do or say is what you think they’ve done or said.

Nothing.

Don’t bother getting attached to any of the characters or invested in the plot because it’s not real. The movie is lying to you. Everyone on screen is lying to you. The filmmakers are challenging you to spot the lie.

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That police man? He’s working for them.

That older person? She’s someone’s parent.

That bank? It’s not a bank, it’s a fake bank.

They’re not in a taxi, it’s a lie.

That’s not a plane, it’s a lie.

It’s all lies. All of it. Nothing’s real. Believe nothing and trust no one!

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And that’s a problem for me. I find my brain making assumptions which aren’t right. Assumptions which obfuscate whatever character goals may or may not be present.

In Focus, I thought she was playing him from the beginning. I thought she might be a cop. I thought maybe he was a cop. Or maybe they both were and it was just a very badly planned operation.

None of those things happened …

WARNING!

THAT THING I JUST WROTE IS AN ANTI-SPOILER!

I JUST MADE THE FILM BETTER!

… but because I spent the whole film assuming one of them would, I didn’t bother getting invested in what was actually happening because I didn’t believe it was.

This might be the old age cliche kicking in – perhaps I’ve just seen too many of these kinds of films and it’s aimed at a younger audience who don’t expect these kinds of twists?

Yeah, maybe.

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But maybe we should be trying to compensate for this built in suspicion? Maybe the only way to effectively write a modern con movie is to start the con before the movie opens? Maybe the only way to nip this kind of audience detachment in the bud is to hide the fact you’re watching a con movie?

That’s what I’m doing with my current script. I’m not letting anyone know it’s a con performed by a conwoman until the very last scene. I’m giving her a completely false set of goals, problems and intentions … with a genuine need underpinning it all. She will never achieve any of the things she sets out to do because she never intended to do them.

The film can be marketed and sold as a completely different genre and (hopefully) no one will know what they’re really watching until the final image.

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Hopefully.

I don’t think that’s a unique solution and I know other films have done the same thing … but to me it’s an elegant solution which fixes a genre-inherent problem which may not even exist outside of my own brain.

But fuck it, it’s my brain and I want to write a movie which will fool me.

Basically, I’m running a con on myself.

Or am I?

Bullshit or not?

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The best is not enough

I caught a few episodes of Firefly on TV the other day and was suitably gobsmacked – I’d forgotten just how good it was.

I mean, I’ve always known it was awesome and I’ve blogged before about its connection to my descent into scriptwriting …

The Morning Star

…but I’d forgotten just how good it was. It’s truly exceptional and I’d say it’s got to be one of the best Sci-Fi shows (if not the best of all shows) ever made.

There are shows  I love more (Doctor Who for example) but, to me, nothing is as consistently good as Firefly was.

Every single person involved in Firefly was at the top of their game – dialogue, stories, characters, set design, actors, direction, music, costumes … just superb.

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And I find that really depressing. Firefly is the HTC of science fiction.

Every year HTC make (what most reviewers agree is) the best premium smartphone. In terms of features, design and software they’re ahead of the pack* – a perfect storm of loveliness wrapped in sheer beauty …

And no one buys them.

Well, not no one. Nearly no one.

I’ve had a few now, three in a row I think. Every 18 months I go looking for something different, because I have no brand loyalty and just fancy a change … and every time I end up buying another one because there doesn’t seem to be any competition.

Still, me aside, it’s near enough to no one to make it quite rare to see anyone toting one.

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Which must be incredibly frustrating for the HTC boffins – every year they make the best phone. Everyone tells them it’s the best phone … and they still can’t sell any.#

Okay, so a large part of that is down to advertising budgets. There tends to be a huge correlation between advertising spend and best selling phone. HTC don’t have the budget to compete with Samsung or Apple – the lower level of sales does make sense.

But damn it must be frustrating. Just knowing you’ve done the best you can do, that everyone involved is at the top of their game … only to find out your best isn’t good enough.

Just like Firefly.

I’m not as good a writer as Joss Whedon. I’m just not. There’s no shame in that. Just like there’s no shame in an animated movie not being as good as a Pixar one. Not being as good as someone who’s exceptional still leaves plenty of room for merely being better than good enough.

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That’s fine.

But if, as with Firefly, being that good still isn’t good enough … well, that’s just faintly depressing, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Maybe knowing something truly exceptional can still fail takes the pressure off? Maybe it’s a comforting thing?

Bullshit or not?

I mean, if Firefly and HTC can fail by being the best of the best, then maybe being lower down the scale and failing is fine too?

Maybe.

I don’t know.

What I do know is, although it’s a crying shame there will never be any more Firefly, there’s still half a season and a movie and that’s plenty of awesomeness to keep anyone happy.

If you haven’t experienced the awesomeness, it’s never too late:

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* In some areas well ahead, in some just a little ahead, in one or two a teensy bit behind. Everyone has a preference for OS or design and everyone’s opinion is correct because the reality is the difference between the top ten smart phones in any given year is so minimal it may as well not exist … but the general consensus, when rolled up into one uber-opinion, tends to favour an HTC over their competitors.

You may disagree … and you’re entitled to do so. You’re just wrong.

# Obviously they must sell some and indeed do sell plenty or they wouldn’t keep making them … it just feels like this sometimes. You’d think the phones  which consistently top the best phone charts would at least place somewhere in the top ten sales charts.

I would anyway.

Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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