Monthly Archives: September 2015

Arnopp’s hands

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Have you read Jason Arnopp‘s insightful post on How to be a Safe Pair of Hands? If not, toddle off and read it, we’ll wait …

… all done?

Jolly good.

I think that’s a great post and applies equally well to script writing as well as novels … but there’s something I wanted to add. I too want to feel like the author is under control and leading me masterfully on a journey. I want to respect the author’s authority … and included in that is a desire to be taught things. I want the author to know things I don’t, to educate me because they’re cleverer than me.

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If they’re describing Paris, I want to believe they’ve actually been there. I want them to understand what the city is like and where everything is in relation to everything else. I want to believe the characters are in a real place doing real things.

Unless the book’s set in someone’s imagination. In which case, it’s less important.

Similarly, I want things and procedures and … well, everything described properly. I don’t want anything to spoil the journey. The details are there to persuade us of the reality of the story, to suck you in … so when they’re wrong, when the author clearly doesn’t understand how something works or what it’s like to ask a Parisian for directions or why you can’t get from A to B in a certain city because B isn’t even in the same fucking city … well, it’s just annoying.

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For me, it destroys the illusion of control. It highlights that I’m not in a safe pair of hands.

Take, for example, the latest book I cracked open. Mere pages into it, someone was in car crash and was rushed to hospital.

Oh noes!

It doesn’t look good, they’re not going to make it!

They flatline! Double noes! Their heart has literally stopped beating!

“Quick!” yells the doctor “Hand me the defrib!”

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Hand you the what? The defRib? What the fuck is a defRib? You mean a defib? A defibrillator?

Maybe it’s a misprint? Nope, they’re all calling it a defrib.

Worse than that, they’re using the “defrib” to restart a stopped heart.

Okay, so I know this is a TV/movie trope – defibs stop flatlining. Everyone knows that. In the same way everyone knows vitamin C cures a cold and bad things come in threes. You know … common knowledge, or bullshit as it’s more commonly known.

Defibrillator stops fibrillation. It de-fibrillates. Fibrillation isn’t flatlining … which is death. Probably.

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Fibrillation is a random and spasmodic pulsing of the heart. Connect a defib to a flatlining patient and it will recommend CPR, not a shock … because a shock won’t do fuck all.

I know this, the author doesn’t. The author is therefore stupider than me and since I’m not very clever, the author must be an imbecile. This book is written by an imbecile, how can I possibly believe anything he says now?

He has no authority. He’s not a safe pair of hands.

 

Contrast that with the novel I read immediately before, David Nicholl’s Us … which I loved. Us takes place in a variety of European cities, all of which I’ve been to, all of which felt familiar to me in the book.

I’m no expert on these places and some of them I haven’t been to for over a decade, but to my tortured memory they seem like accurate descriptions of cities I love.

To me, he’s a safe pair of hands – I can relax and enjoy the story without frowning and uttering my old catchphrase: “This makes no fucking sense”.

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Obviously these sorts of things are very subjective. There’s accurate and accurate-enough. Most authors (and scriptwriters) aim for accurate enough on the grounds the majority of the readers won’t be physicists or geneticists or any other kind of -cists … but they might be and we have to understand that the ones who are won’t feel safe in our layman’s hands.

Luckily, there’s a cure – research. Research the shit out of everything, don’t assume we know even the tiniest detail because we’re probably wrong. So’s that episode of Minder we copied it from.

If possible, find someone who works in that field to proofread that segment.

If we aim for total accuracy then we’re clearing all the logs off the tracks for our story. Now all we’ve got to do is make the story interesting in and of itself.

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Categories: Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Tokenism

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I have a second spec TV project on the go at the moment. That’s second to the one I’ve been talking about the last few weeks. If you haven’t read those posts, this possibly needed clarifying … or possibly not.

Anyway, there’s two of the buggers.

Unlike the first (which is genuinely the best thing I’ve written for years) the second isn’t quite right yet and is undergoing a B-story-ectomy. This is a massive pain in the arse and something I’ll talk about in the future.

Unless I’ve already blogged about it, in which case I won’t. I often get confused about which way round time moves.

This second script is something I’ve been kicking around for years (without really putting much effort into). Over a decade ago, the movie version of it won stuff and got me interviews with managers … which came to nothing because I didn’t have any other scripts of similar quality. I was, back then, a one trick pony.

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Now I have more tricks and sleeves to keep them up and everything.

That movie script was okay, but really it needs to be a TV series. So I’ve rewritten it as a pilot episode … and I love it. It’s one of those kind of programmes I’ve been lamenting the lack of. It’s a rollicking Saturday evening, team-adventure thing with a sci-fi twist. It’s exactly the kind of thing child-me would have loved.

The main difference, I guess, between this programme and its ’80s equivalent is that the ’80s version would have had an all white, male cast. With maybe a token sexy-woman thrown in.

Keen not to write the ’80s version, this one is much more diverse.

For a start, three of the five team members are women because … well, I feel like there’s an awful lack of women in these kind of things and I don’t really understand why. Some or all of them may or may not be sexy, it’s hard to tell from words on a page.

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There is a token sexy-bloke though because … well, why not?

The other guy may or may not be sexy too, it’s hard to tell from … blah, blah, blah.

The secondary character in the movie was a young Indian woman because fourteen years ago (when I first wrote it) I had more Indian friends than then existed in movies and wanted to redress this. She’s still Indian in the TV version.

One of the other women is Egyptian because … well, she needs to be for the story.

She’s also in a wheelchair because I’ve been trying to include at least one clearly disabled role in everything I’ve written since that BBC drama thing a few years back.

This one feels odd to me since, generally, it doesn’t matter if two, three or all of them are disabled. I don’t think it matters to the story one way or the other … but I want to help represent the large percentage of disabled people in the UK and this is my way.

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Is she a token disabled person?

Maybe. Depends on who’s cast in the other roles. Hopefully there would be disablity-blind casting … but, sadly, we all know that any character whose gender, ability, race or sexuality isn’t specified ends up being a white, able-bodied, male hetrosexual.

Even in our minds, say BARTENDER or DOCTOR or SKIER and our default image tends to be white and male and … so on.

So at least one of the main roles is specified as disabled.

One of the women is a lesbian because it’s the best thing for the pilot story and it helps (un)define the relationship between her and one of the men. They become best of friends, but will never be lovers. There is no sexual tension between them and never will be. That’s important for later.

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Similarly, one of the men is gay because it’s the only mechanic I could find which makes sense and creates the right reasons for the events which unfold throughout. He’s not necessarily camp though. His sexuality is absolutely incidental to the week to week unfolding of the story … until the end. At the end of the first season his actions retrospectively make sense because of who he’s in love with.

So there’s a gay one and a lesbian one and an Egyptian one and a disabled one and an Indian one and three out of five of them are women and …

Oh, hang on. None of them are black.

Right … so, whereas it would be nice if there was naturally an ethnic mix across the remaining three cast members, we come back to that default white casting setting.

 

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So why not specify one or more of them as black?

And maybe one should be Chinese or Japanese or Korean?

Ooh, and transgender! They’re not very well represented, one of them should be transgender.

And I’ve always thought one of them would be best played by Warwick Davies. This isn’t a “let’s get a little person in there” thing. I just think he’s awesome and genuinely the best actor for that role, irrespective of height.

So now my mental casting looks like it’s been done by the commitee for minority integration. It’s starting to look less like a bunch of people doing a job and more like they were all hand picked to represent something.

Which is kind of 50% true, I guess.

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The playing field isn’t level. The default casting tends to discriminate against a lot of people. I don’t know why this is, I don’t know if there’s genuinely a dearth of variety among actors or if there’s an unconscious bias which prevails in a predominantly white, male industry. It kind of doesn’t matter because I have no control over any of that.

Unless I give up and reduce the straight, white, able-bodied male writers by one.

What I do have control of is how I specify characters in my scripts. If I say nothing, there’s a better than average chance they’ll cast the default. If I get specific, they’ll search for that type of person.

Unless there’s a bloody good reason not to. Isms not being a good reason.

It’s kind of part of my job to write diversity into the script.

But. and here’s the thing I need to keep reminding myself,  I don’t have to fight every battle all the time.

This isn’t the only script I’m going to write. I can keep some of my white, middle class male guilt for the next script and the one after that and the one after that. Maybe the next script will have a transgender character in it? Preferably one whose story doesn’t revolve around their trans-ness. Maybe the next script will have five transgender characters in? Or five wheelchair users? Maybe there won’t be a single white, able-bodied, straight man in the whole script?

Or maybe the next script will be only about white men because that’s what the story demands?

I don’t know what story that might be, but maybe it will?

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I hope not.

The point I keep having to relearn is that no one script will change the world … but a general trend towards diversity will.  At the moment, making sure the characters are an even mix of race, sexuality and ability can look a little odd. Hopefully that’s changing and in the near future it won’t?

I guess my job is to add to the trickle which builds to the flood.

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Categories: For Want of a Nail, Industry Musings, My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The second thing

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Last week I went on (at great length) about how changing the arena of a script instantly made it more appealing to people. This week’s post is kind of an extension of that, a further twist to the arena knife which allows the story to haemorrhage awesomeness.

Wow. Haemorrhage is a really hard word to spell.

My writing partner and I had moved our story from a council estate to a community which grew out of the Great Sunday Squat. Set on an illegally occupied airbase it had all the qualities of a council estate with none of the resistance we’d been meeting whilst trying to get people to read it.

But something still wasn’t right.

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All the time Jay and I had been writing this, the story had been fighting us. Scenes felt dated. Attitudes and locations felt somehow wrong. It was a real struggle to keep it feeling fresh and modern … and then the shift in location/arena added a new problem.

This society had been set up in 1946. Most of these squats were gone by the mid-fifties. Keeping one around longer than that is a stretch, but not a huge one. Maybe one or two did continue longer than that? Maybe one is even still around to this day?

Maybe.

But then … does that ring true? Would a large swathe of illegally occupied land be left to fester under the no-longer-caring control of a bunch of squatters? Would any modern council allow those people to keep what will have become prime real estate?

In short, is it believable?

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Not to me, no.

It may actually be true (maybe?) but it’s not believable … and that’s a problem.

The way I’ve written this blog, it makes the solution seem obvious … but it really wasn’t. This blog makes it sound like there was a dead body with a stab-wound and a man holding a bloody knife … but that description doesn’t include the thousands of other facts which could obscure that obvious conclusion.

It took us a while, but eventually the blindingly obvious struck us – this wasn’t a contemporary story any more, it’s an historical one.

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Suddenly, all the scenes which had felt horribly 80s became typically 80s. We went from thinking people don’t live/behave like this to realising people did live/behave like this.

Suddenly it all made sense.

And the more I looked into moving the script through time, the more sense it made.

This script has a parallel narrative – the same characters go through two different yet interconnected stories which are set 7 years apart.

Think about what someone in 2015 wears. Now think about what someone in 2008 wore. Could you identify which set of clothes belonged to which year instantly?

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Think about someone holding an iPhone 3G up to their ear. Now imagine it’s an iPhone 6. Or an iPhone 5 (if they can’t afford the latest model) … is the difference so pronounced there’s no possibility of confusion?

What about cars? Is there a significant difference between now and then?

Not to my eyes.

Now think about the difference between 1978 and 1985. Think about seventies clothing. Now think about the eighties … is there a clear and recognisable difference to you? There is to me.

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Okay, so I know there was a blending of styles between 1978 and 1985. Some people in ’78 wore flares, some were punks. Not everyone wore decade-defining clothes … but the point remains. I think it’s easier to spot the difference between a 70s’ suit and an 80s’ one

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… than it is between a modern day one and one from 08.

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Hell, even the police cars were completely different. The 70s’ ones were the blue and white panda cars:

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The 80s brought us red and white jam sandwiches.

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What did police cars look like in 2008? Exactly the same as they do now? Silver Battenberg models as far as I can remember.

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To our eyes, changing the script from present day to the seventies/eighties gives it another level of intrigue – it’s another change to the arena which is inherently interesting. Plus, in that time Britain moved from a Labour government to a Tory one. Drastically so. There’s a world of difference between Callaghan and Thatcher – visually and in terms of policies. Policies which exactly mirror the attitudes of our dual protagonists.

If the Prime Minister was on a black, flatscreen TV in the background … could you tell at a glance if we were in 2008 or 2015?

Well, yes, probably. Especially if it was a close up of his face. Brown vs Cameron is an easy spot. Blair vs Cameron is trickier – two suited pretty boys who look like they’re dressed by the same stylist.

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Now think of the difference between Callaghan on a wooden TV and Thatcher on a brightly coloured plastic one.

Changing the time just made sense.*

Suddenly the script was set in an interesting location at an interesting time. Visually it’s striking and it just sounds different. The arena is unusual and therefore more intriguing.

So although this post and last week’s are technically about two different things, they’re really about one thing – arena. Where does the script happen? What’s the world, is it interesting to explore?

A sitcom about a  office worker who’s desperately in love with a girl but keeps fucking it up because he’s an imbecile sounds … familiar. I guess the execution might be good.

The same story set in Ancient Rome … that’s more interesting.

The arena is different. It’s the same com and needs to be equally as funny, but the sit’s different. The sit is what attracts people to a sitcom. The com is what keeps them watching.

Maybe.

Or maybe not. I just made that up without really thinking it through.

If it is true, then I think the same is (at least partially) true with all stories – find an interesting arena and you’re one step closer to making a sale.

Bullshit or not?

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* It also made a fuck load of annoying work while I tried to figure out what was invented when and how people did simple everyday things in 1978. 1985 I can remember fairly accurately, but 78? I was 6, I have no idea how petrol stations worked or banks or the police.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

One more thing …

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I wrote a script a while back (with Jay Sutherland) and the result was … well, pretty good. We like it anyway. We had something we wanted to say, something we wanted to achieve and a story we wanted to tell. After multiple drafts and a lot of head-scratching, we achieved all three.

The end result was a great script … which no one wanted to read.

Not a script no one wanted to option, but one no one wanted to read.

Hmm … why not?

Maybe it was the pitch?

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Well, obviously it was the pitch since that was the only thing we could get people to read. Clearly there must be something wrong with it?

But there wasn’t. Or rather there was, but it wasn’t the pitch’s fault. The pitch accurately described the project in an exciting way … but the project itself was fundamentally flawed.

I say fundamentally flawed, but that may not be strictly true. Maybe the problem lies in other people’s perceptions/prejudices? Because, in essence, the fundamental flaw was two words – two words which, unfortunately, describe the arena in which the story takes place.

Those two words were ‘council estate’.%

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Okay, so I kind of get this. There are certain kinds of story which get set on a council estate. Often the kinds of story described by adjectives like ‘grim’ and ‘gritty’.

I’m not a fan of grim and gritty.

I recognise these stories have their place and can accurately reflect modern society or even inform people about the kinds of lives people do or have lived in the UK. I even enjoy such stories when I’m in the right mood … but generally I like my films to be escapist. I like to leave a cinema feeling good. Films which make me feel bad or an emotional wreck can be excellent … but for preference, I’d rather be uplifted.

British working class dramas tend not to be uplifting.

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Tend. Not ‘are never’, just tend.

Jay and I wanted to follow more in the footsteps of American blue-collar films which tend to be about triumphing over adversity or be somehow more life-affirming.

Again, this is a tendency, not a hard and fast rule.

Maybe these aren’t even tendencies and just the perceptions/prejudices of Jay and I#?

I don’t know.

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The problem is, as soom as people read ‘council estate’ they put the pitch down. They weren’t really interested in that kind of grim and gritty story.

Which is a shame, because we’d specifically written a non-grim-and-gritty story.

So what to do? We’d written a genre-busting* script which no one wanted to read because they didn’t like the genre. This is a colossal waste of time.

Thing is, I like the script. I like the story. I think people would like it too if they read it … we just needed to find out how to do that.

It just needed one more thing.

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It needed that extra twist which makes the script inherently more interesting.

In the end we settled on two more things.

The first was to change the arena. If people don’t want to read a script set on a council estate (I live on a council estate, by the way. My wife and I own our house, but it’s on a council estate) then we need to change it to a different location without losing the essence of the story.

So … reverse engineering time. What is it about a council estate which made it right for the story? What elements of an estate do we need to keep? Which elements do we need to throw away?

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Well, there were two tower blocks and stuff happened involving people looking down from them – is that important?

No. Not really. They can look across. Or up. It doesn’t matter.

What else?

We wanted to write an inspirational/aspirational working class story. Does that need to be set on a council estate?

Nope.

We wanted it to be a self-contained society on the outskirts of a town which was marginalised by the more affluent people in the town and downright ignored by the police. So long as people stayed on the estate, the police didn’t care what they did.

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That felt more tricky. I mean, we could have transplanted this story to an off-planet colony. One which was failing and being ignored by Earth … but then that tips it over into science fiction and whereas I love sci-fi,  I don’t want it for this story.

Still, that’s not a bad idea because it adds one more thing: an unusual arena.

This, I feel, is important because it automatically piques someone’s interest. The Martian looks like exactly the same (or at least a very similar) story as Cast Away or Robinson Crusoe.

Someone is stuck somewhere on their own, having to survive in ridiculously tough circumstances.

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Clearly there are a million ways to tell this story without changing the arena. Cast Away and The Martian may well be exactly the same story (it doesn’t look like it, but I haven’t seen or read The Martian so I can’t be certain) but setting one on a deserted island and the other on Mars makes them instantly feel different.

Changing the arena changes the level of interest. It can make the difference from someone going “Oh for fuck’s sake! Not another stranded on a desert island story!” to “Ooh, stuck on Mars! How’s he going to survive that?”

If people feel they know everything about one arena (even when they probably don’t), then switching it to one they know less about can make the difference between a read and a pass.

So what arenas are like a council estate … but not? What haven’t we seen on screen before? Or recently?

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And this is where an eclectic reading habit comes in useful. Hoover up knowledge, you never know when you might need it.

Two things sprang to mind, two things I remember reading and being fascinated by: The Principality of Sealand and Freetown Christiania. Both are small communities set up on the fringes of society, occasionally attacked by the authorities before settling down into an uneasy truce.

Sealand’s story I know was optioned by someone at some point – there may well be a film about that (or inspired by that) in the works.

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Freetown Christiania feels uniquely Danish … but maybe there’s a British equivalent? After all, we did have a lot of abandoned Air Force bases after WWII.

A brief spot of googling turned up The Great Sunday Squat of 1946. Turns out there were hundreds (or possibly tens) of these kind of mini-societies set up in the UK. Some of them set up their own councils and laws and schools and existed for over a decade.

So … what if one of them still existed today? What would that look like? How would that fit into modern Britain if it were on the edge of a more affluent town?

In the 1940s squatting was an accepted part of normal life. Nowadays it’s villified. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

We think so anyway. It’s not a council estate, it’s something else. It’s visually interesting to look at and (as far as I know) it’s never been done before.

So that’s the first thing. By changing the arena, we’ve created a much more appealing story. It’s exactly the same story (mostly) but the setting makes it instantly more intriguing.^

The second thing … I’ll talk about next week.

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% And the last paragraph of the original pitch. The last paragraph made us sound like egotistical wankers who believed we were the saviours of the British film industry. We don’t and we’re not. Sorry about that.

# The Full Monty is pretty uplifting, for example.

* Okay, maybe not busting. Bending? And not really genre since ‘council estate’ isn’t a genre … it’s just apparently perceived as one.

^ Other options could have been a Model Village which was abandoned by it’s philanthropist owner, or a factory village created to house workers for a factory which then went bust, or railway village whose station was closed by Dr Beeching, something like The Epcot Centre (which was designed to be lived in but never was, imagine if it had?) … and so on.

Categories: The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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