Random Witterings

Public grief

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Towards the end of the last Millennium I was a young whipper snapper who’d just started a job. A proper job, mind you. One where you actually had to do things and interact with people, none of this hide-in-my-room-with-my-imaginary-friends nonsense.

Day two (or perhaps three, I forget) of the initial training course I came into the room early one morning to find everyone in tears.

Everyone.

Great wracking sobs of grief.

“What’s happened?” I asked, realising something truly awful must have happened to have so deeply affected such a diverse group of people.

“Haven’t you heard?” came the reply “Diana’s dead.”

“No!” I exclaimed, scanning the room for an empty chair … “Which one was Diana?”

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Now you may think it’s blatantly obvious they meant Princess Diana, but this was pre-instant-news-to-your palm-smartphones and almost pre-internet. At that time in the morning I hadn’t seen, heard or read the news. Given everyone in the room was crying, I immediately (and erroneously) assumed it must be one of the people we’d all met the day or so before.

But no. It was the Princess of Hearts.

“So … why is everyone crying?” I asked. Because (and you may or may not remember or agree with this) before her death, Diana wasn’t the Princess of Hearts, she was the feckless whore who was threatening to steal the heirs to the crown and spirit them out of the country with her Johnny Foreigner lover.

At least, that’s how the papers portrayed her.

So why was everyone crying? Why was the death of someone so vilified in the papers the cause of floods of tears?

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I still don’t know. I think it’s sad when anyone dies, but there are very few people I’d shed actual tears over because … well, I just don’t know them. The exceptions would be Christopher Reeve (because he was my hero when I was six) or Douglas Adams (because he was my most favouritest author ever since, like, forever).

Although I never met them, their work touched my life and (I think) improved it. They meant something to me.

Princess Diana – yeah, I felt sorry for her family, but I didn’t know her … at all.

And yet the streets were awash with very public grief.

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Nigh on 20 years later and Twitter is awash with grief when anybody vaguely famous dies. Friends who I’ve never heard even mention David Bowie, let alone listen to his music, were distraught after his death. On social media, that is … not so much in real life.

2016 has been a public griever’s playground. Every month someone of note has (sadly) passed away … and every month people fill my Twitter and Facebook timelines with heartfelt distress and incredibly public mourning.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand what it’s like when someone who meant something to you dies. It is sad and does feel like a piece of you has died with them. I get it, I really do. I have friends (both real and online) who mourn the passing of Bowie or Prince or Ronnie Corbett or whoever because they genuinely meant something to them. They write little online eulogies because it helps them express their grief and the results can be beautiful and, occasionally, makes me wonder if I should perhaps re-evaluate the artist’s work to find out what it is they saw in that person.

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And maybe having R.I.P. insertnamehere trending on Twitter makes the families of the deceased feel better. I don’t know.

So far this year, the only person whose passing made me a properly sad (as opposed to “oh, that’s a shame”) was Paul Daniels. Jason Arnopp and I were reminiscing a few days before he died about how good a magician he was and how he kick-started our interest in magic.

And yet Paul Daniels got unfairly swept up in the wholesale dumping of traditional entertainers during the eighties. The old guard got swept away in a torrent of radical newness … and that shouldn’t have happened.

Yes, some entertainers were sexist and crass. Some merely committed the crime of being warm and cosy and didn’t swear or punch things. They were old, we were all about the new. Paul Daniels was one of the babies thrown out with that bath water and he didn’t deserve that. He was an amazing magician and a fantastic entertainer in the true sense of the word.

I loved Paul Daniels … but I didn’t feel the need to rush out a Tweet or blog letting everyone know.

I’m not sure if that makes me a better person or a worse one. Probably worse. My sad face is just for me.

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Except when it’s not, for if I’m anything it’s contradictory.

Recently I remembered that Douglas Adams wasn’t always my favourite author. I was introduced to him by Miss Seaman in the last year of Coten End Middle School when I was ten or so. From then on Douglas Adams’ work had a significant effect on my life … but he wasn’t the first.

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Before Douglas Adams, there was Nicholas Fisk. I don’t know who turned me on to his work, but I loved it and consumed it voraciously. His shelf was the first I scoured in the library, on the off-chance he had something new out. Or something old I hadn’t read yet. Starstormers was a particular favourite of mine. As was A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair. Grinny is still my go-to cuckoo story, more so than The Stepford Wives or The Midwich Cuckoos.

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Nicholas Fisk steered me deep into sci-fi waters and became my gateway author to Heinlen and Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov and Harry Harrison and even Terry Pratchett. Without Fisk, there probably wouldn’t have been any Douglas Adams in my life … and that would be a great shame.

Somehow I’d forgotten Nicholas Fisk, sold or lost all his books and even stopped really reading sci-fi all together.

Last month I suddenly remembered him. I can’t tell you why or what caused his name to resurface, but I suddenly remembered I had a favourite author as a child. How could I have forgotten? Maybe I can read his books with my daughter? Maybe she’ll love them as much as I did?

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And then, yesterday, I found out Nicholas (or David Higginbottom as I learnt he was called) has just passed away. Sometime last week at the age of 92.

He didn’t die tragically young or while he was still writing and had so many more stories to offer … but, you know, he was a large part of my childhood and even if I had forgotten him, I’m a bit sad that he’s gone. Deaths like his nibble away at our past and bring the darkness of non-existence that little bit closer.

Like I say, I’m not one for public grief (although I’m dreading the day I see Tom Baker’s name all over my feeds – hopefully that day’s a long way off) but just this once I want to shed a single, public tear for a man who meant a lot to me all those years ago.

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Rest in peace, Nicholas.

Categories: Random Witterings, Two steps back, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The elephant in the room

There’s something I want to talk about, I think you know what it is … because I mentioned it in the title: it’s the elephant in the room.

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No, seriously. There’s an elephant in the room, not a metaphorical one, a real elephant with tusks and wrinkles and ears and everything. I’m looking at him now …

How do you feel about that?

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Presumably you feel I’m lying … and you’d be right. An elephant in the room? Madness … it’s a wildebeest.

The thing about the elephant (or wildebeest) in the room is it’s the kind of statement I might write into a script, which is fine … but it doesn’t mean anything, not on its own. Take the following scrippet for example:

INT. LOUNGE – DAY

SALLY saunters in and freezes … there’s an elephant in the room.

If I wrote that in a script, I’d be really cross with myself. Why? Well, because it doesn’t really mean anything.

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Okay, so it’s a concise rendering of the images in my head into written form … but is it? Is that conveying anything?

What’s a ‘lounge’? Is it the living room/TV room in someone’s house? Sally’s house perhaps? Or flat? If so, what kind of house/flat? How big or small is this lounge? Maybe it’s the lounge in a hotel? Or maybe it’s a lounge bar? I think lounge is fairly self-explanatory … but does the person reading it? Are they sharing the same mental image of what the lounge looks like?

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Possibly not.

Obviously I don’t want to burden the reader with descriptions of the colour of the wallpaper or where the furniture was bought and when (although, age and type of furniture can help set the scene) … but maybe a bit more of a description is needed here?

And what about that elephant? How does Sally feel about that? More importantly, how does the reader feel about it? The reader’s reaction should be a response to Sally’s reaction and ultimately the audience will share the reader’s response to Sally’s reaction.

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In the finished movie the audience will have facial expressions and a score telling them how to feel … the reader has none of that. All the reader has are my words. Okay, so hopefully anything leading up to this scene will inform the reader’s interpretation … but what if this is the very first scene? What if this is our introduction to Sally?

Clearly we need an approximate age and brief description of Sally, but I think we also need to clarify what her reaction is.

Sally saunters in and freezes. Creeping dread overtakes her … there’s something behind her … oh for fuck’s sake! It’s that bloody elephant again!

Is very different from:

Sally saunters in, freezes in shock … there’s an elephant in the lounge! Fuck! Panic!

Some people think you shouldn’t swear in action lines. They may be right. I do it sometimes … depends on the script.

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The point is that merely stating the facts doesn’t really add to the experience. I’m all for letting the audience work out the meaning of a film … but in order to do that they have to understand what they’re seeing. The audience won’t be seeing a still image of an expressionless Sally and an elephant in a undefined space.

Or maybe they will? In which case the script needs to make it clear that this lack of emotion/reaction is intentional and not a mistake.

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More likely the actor will be emoting her tits off whilst the music tinkles, crashes or thrums appropriately. I try to give the reader the same experience as the audience, which means ensuring they have access to the same information about tone and emotion … and the only tools I have to do this are words on a page.

My intention is to get a reader reading straight through without having to flick back to check anything or pausing because something doesn’t make sense or because they don’t understand the significance of the events. Every time they pause to figure something out or flick back, they’re out of the story, they’re not emotionally invested.

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Scripts are hard to read because they’re a technical document trying to convey everything that goes into making a movie in the fewest possible words. I want my readers engaged, so I try not just to talk about the elephant in the room, but to explain what it means.

I’m not saying I always succeed, but I try.

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#PhonePhill – Conversation #13: Robin Bell (Redux)

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD FOR STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE FORCE AWAKENS, INSIDE OUT, SUPERMAN, STAR TREK … BUT NOT REALLY.

VERY MILD.

CHICKEN KORMA MILD.

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So #PhonePhill is still a thing. Anyone is welcome to ring me and natter about anything they like. You don’t have to be a scriptwriter, I’ll talk to anyone. Actors, director, producers, sound effects person … or, you know, people not even connected with the industry – maybe you’re a gas fitter (I don’t know what that is) or a mortician or a … something on a submarine (chef? Do they have chefs on a submarine? Submarine polisher, is that a job? I have no idea).

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In essence, no matter who you are, if you fancy chatting to a scriptwriter drop me a line and we’ll work something out.

This week I’ve been talking to Robin Bell. Again. Hey, there are no rules. I can talk to whoever I want whenever I want.

To be honest, this is a lie. It wasn’t this week, it was weeks ago. Possibly even months.

So long, in fact, that I’ve completely forgotten what it was we talked about. I’ll have a vague stab at remembering:

Robin’s a wandering minstrel who’s recently invented a new type of electric jock strap. He’s hoping to market it exclusively to Iranians with asthma.

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At least, I think that’s what he said. Either that or he’s still the co-creator of Twisted Showcase and has recently been writing children’s TV scripts – at least one of which sounded awfully good to my tin ear.

We spoke of many, many things. Well, I didn’t – I spoke exclusively about me because I’m like that, but Robin had lots of interesting things to say. Probably.

I definitely remember talking about how difficult it can be to get some concepts into a script. Sometimes these things will be obvious on screen, but will mean nothing on the page. Or maybe we spoke about the need to create a physical something on screen to represent abstract ideas – show, don’t tell … basically. We concluded that the only film we completely and utterly agree on is Mamma Mia which we both, unashamedly, love. Which is odd given how partial we both are to genre movies.

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Although I suppose Mamma Mia is a genre movie. Musical is a genre, right? A very broad genre, but a genre nonetheless.

Genre (as in sci-fi, horror … etc) itself was discussed, specifically how British TV is mad keen on genre for children … but for some reason assumes those children grow out of it and don’t want to watch it as adults. Which is weird. American TV doesn’t same to have the same attitude.

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Ooh! One thing we did get stuck on for a while was fridge logic and how the difference between it working and it derailing the film is largely down to how much you’re enjoying the film.

Examples which came up were the Millennium Falcon flipping between the two Star Destroyers in Empire Strikes Back – at the time it seems amazingly cool and thrilling … but later (almost a decade later for me) whilst your mind’s wandering as you’re opening the fridge (fridge logic) you start to think … hang on. What the fuck were those Star Destroyers playing at? They’re something like a mile long … and it’s in space! It’s not like they couldn’t see each other coming. What was their plan? To squish the Falcon between them? That’s a bit like two people deciding to kill a wasp by running at each other with their chins out.

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But it works. The scene is fantastic. The logic holds at the time because the story is gripping and we completely believe Han can out fly those Imperial slugs.

The opposite is true (for me) in Star Wars when Han and Luke climb out of the trash compactor and ditch their stormtrooper outfits to reveal they had their own clothes on underneath all the time. Even as a five year old I struggled with that one. Wait … did they … how does that work? Is that under the formfitting bodysuit?

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But I loved the film, so five year old me let it slide. It’s one flaw, it doesn’t matter.

As it turns out, we now know stormtroopers wear trousers under their uniforms. Not leggings. Trousers. Possibly with pockets.*

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Good fridge logic: George Kirk tells his pregnant wife he CAN’T leave the ship because he HAS to stay behind and steer it … then goes to sit in the Captain’s chair, roughly six feet from the place where you steer the ship from. That didn’t click with me until after the film – at the time I was too busy sobbing.

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Bad fridge logic: why didn’t Joy put the core-memory globes in the tube-thing which leads straight back up to the control room? She’s asking the … peanut things … how to get back up there. They show her, right in front of her, how to send them up … and she just ignores it.

That nearly derailed the film for me – I had to find a way to rationalise it to myself: “She can’t send them up because the whole point of the film is she can’t let go. She has to be in control, she has to take them there herself – it just wouldn’t occur to her to send them up on their own” … which does make sense, but I shouldn’t be having to do that kind of thinking whilst watching an otherwise amazing movie.

Or at least, that’s what I think.

What makes something fridge logic and not confusing is whether or not it’s noticed during the first watching of the film. The problem with that is scriptwriters have no real control over whether or not the audience will notice. Some people will, some won’t. I guess the real problem is quantity – one or two instances of fudging what people wear under what (why can’t you see Superman’s costume through his white shirt?) or which seat someone sits in is fine. If there’s something like that in every scene it becomes a problem … unless you’re enjoying the film so much it just doesn’t matter to you.

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We’ve all been in that situation right? When someone points out a flaw in a film you love and it just doesn’t matter? If anything it makes the film more endearing.

This is what most of the hour-long conversation with Robin consisted of – disagreeing over whether or not the flaws in films are irritating or endearing. A disagreement which in itself is endearing. And yet we both agreed, Mamma Mia is awesome despite (and in some cases because) of its flaws. If you’d like to disagree with me about something, #PhonePhill


 

* Which is another reason why I don’t believe Finn was really a stormtrooper. Surely that’s proof he actually worked in the sweet shop and stole the uniform minutes before that first battle? Come on, a cowardly, klutz of a stormtrooper who wears trousers under his uniform? Yeah … I don’t think so. There’s more than meets the eye there.

Unless he put the trousers on because he knew he was going to defect? Yeah, maybe that was it.

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When is a plot hole not a plot hole?

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I’ve blogged my thoughts on this before somewhere, citing Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises, but since Star Wars has been released there’s been a wave of people bringing it up again … so I thought I’d chip in with my own baseless opinions once more.

The grumbling in question (leaving aside all thoughts of Mary Sues) is about …

Oh, wait.

SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

MAYBE SOME FOR SKYFALL OR THE DARK KNIGHT RISES TOO

BUT THEN AGAIN, MAYBE NOT

The grumbling is about Poe Dameron ‘magically’ reappearing on … whatever planet it was the Resistance was on. “How did he get from Jakku to … wherever it was?” they cry. “Clearly this is a plot hole!”

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Well, no.

We’ve all seen films where, late at night, the boy and the girl (or boy and boy or girl and girl or … whatever combination you can think of) start to kiss and then, in the very next scene, it’s morning and they’re naked in bed, right?

In between those two scenes, they had sex.

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Shocking, I know, but sometimes things happen between scenes and it’s up to us, the clever audience, to fill in the blanks. Imagine whatever kind of nasty, perverted things you like. Go wild.

In Skyfall, James Bond, a super-spy who’s better than all other super-spies in the entire world gets from one country to another after being pronounced dead … is that really something people can’t fill in the blanks for? They can’t imagine James Bond has illegal connections throughout the world? We can’t imagine he has a stash of fake passports hidden somewhere?

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Really?

Bruce Wayne, a fucking billionaire who’s also Batman (Batman, for fuck’s sake!) makes his way from one country to another without a passport or access to any of his bank accounts … and people can’t imagine some details involving friends he made whilst travelling the world, alone, without his money? They can’t imagine Batman having a string of fake identities around the world? They can’t imagine Batman having contingency plans for everything?

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What about Poe Dameron? The Resistance’s BEST PILOT.

Not a pretty good pilot, but the BEST PILOT.

The best one.

People can’t imagine any conceivable way for the Resistance’s best pilot to get from one planet to another? They can’t imagine a string of resistance-friendly people working in the shadows of every planet? They can’t imagine Poe being able to steal a spaceship, like Rey and Finn do? They can’t imagine him working his passage back to (whatever planet the Resistance is on) by working as a rent boy for the wealthy elite?

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Nothing springs to mind? No thoughts which would convince people this isn’t a plot hole?

Really?

Okay, so maybe it’s an odd story-telling choice to have (what’s supposedly*) a major character disappear for nearly a third of the movie … but it’s not a plot hole.

Neither are any of the other ‘plot holes’ people have been identifying throughout the film.

Rey couldn’t possibly fly the Millennium Falcon.

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Well she does. So at some point she must have learnt/been taught.

Rey couldn’t possibly just know how to use the Force.

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Yet she does, so either someone must have told her in the past and then she’s forgotten only to remember when she most needed it. Or using the Force isn’t that hard – after all, Luke was on Dagobah for about three days and he did okay.

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If you define ‘okay’ as getting your arse kicked and your hand chopped off and otherwise losing completely and totally.

Rey can’t possibly speak Wookie … unless, of course, she’s learnt how to in the past. Perhaps by one of the many, many alien races she seems to have been dealing with on a daily basis since she was dumped on Jakku?

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None of these things are plot holes, they just require an active imagination on behalf of the audience and a little bit of good will.

Because, to answer the question in the title of this blog post, a plot hole isn’t a plot hole when you enjoy the movie. Most things which seem impossible can be explained if you’re willing to think of an explanation.

How did Finn and then Rey hold off a Force user who’s more powerful than any Force user we’ve ever seen before? Well, maybe he’s not more powerful? Maybe he’s good at pausing blaster bolts but sucks at lightsaber duelling. I’m good at some things and not others, maybe he is too? I mean, the kid’s only a teenager for God’s sake. He’s barely past puberty and still seems to be having wild mood swings. And he just killed … you know. And he got shot. It probably wasn’t him at his best.

Why did Artoo wait until the end of the movie to wake up and tell everyone he had the map they were all^ searching for all along? Because … he was a bit sad? Maybe Luke told him to wait until a certain something had happened? Ah, but he’s a robot so his memory’s just like a computer so why can’t Resistance techs just take the info? Well … maybe because in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens the droids have been emancipated and brain-raping one is considered just not cricket? Or maybe their brains don’t work like that?

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Why didn’t Chewie lose his shit when … that thing happened near the end? Because … either it didn’t happen the way we think it did (or at all) or maybe Wookies get over stuff really quickly? Maybe, after a lifetime together, he’d decided that guy was a dick and deserved it?

If you like the film, you can justify pretty much anything. I’ll admit, I prefer to have things foreshadowed a little bit. I don’t mind doing this kind of mental backstory-writing once or twice … but for almost every scene is a little much for me. Probably because I’m lazy. I do this kind of stuff for a living, when I go to the cinema I want someone else to do it for me.

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If you don’t like a film, if you’re not enjoying the experience then moments like these, especially when there are so many, are annoying and frustrating. The best way to enjoy films is to just accept what you’re seeing is possible and has a reason which will be explained later on.

I, for example, was pretty confident Finn was never a Stormtrooper. I fully expected to find out he ran the new Death Star’s sweet shop or something and had snuck into a Stormtrooper’s costume moments before that raid. I just don’t believe he was stolen as a child, brainwashed and trained to fight for somewhere around fifteen years.

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I could have just sat there shouting ‘this is bullshit!’ at the screen … but instead I chose to accept what I was being shown, confident there would be a reveal coming later on. I’m still assuming that will be covered at some point in the future.

Which is a bit of a problem with SW:TFA because the story isn’t finished, it’s not really a film, it’s a piece of a film with lots and lots of stuff unresolved. Presumably in two or four year’s time we’ll understand why people were behaving the way they were.

Basically, try and enjoy a film and assume everything we see is there for a reason. Or else find fault with everything and assume everyone involved did a terrible job.

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Yes, there are ways writers can minimise the latter … but some things will always require a degree of complicity from the audience. Not everything needs to be explained and some things have to be taken on faith. No matter what character Jackie Chan plays, he’ll be a Kung Fu master. It doesn’t need explaining because anyone can train in Kung Fu and be good at it. It’s no stretch to believe a shopkeeper, a doctor or a rock star hasn’t also done twenty years of Kung Fu training.

Basically, if most plot holes aren’t plot holes but merely us picking holes in things because we’re not enjoying the movie, then maybe we should give the film the benefit of the doubt before we cry foul?

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Or don’t, it’s your money.


* I’ve been told he’s a major character and one of the new trilogy of actors who’ll take the series forward. To be honest, that surprised me. I thought he was like Wedge – someone who hangs around in the background but isn’t really a major character.

^ Not all. Leia and Kylo Ren and the CGI baddie (who is so clearly CGI I suspect that’s a plot point. I think that’s probably Luke in disguise and it’s all a plan to … annoy people) – no one else gave a flying fuck where Luke had gone to sulk.

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

2015

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So that was 2015.

No flying cars, there were hoverboards … but they didn’t hover, they just set fire to people’s houses.

Behind the scenes I had a thrilling and exciting year … but I can’t really talk about it.

Not yet, anyway … but one day. soon.

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This is what’s immensely frustrating about being a scriptwriter – all the exciting things happen (and often die) out of the spotlight. By the time I’m allowed to talk about things (because contracts have finally been negotiated and signed) it’s old news and any excitement is feigned.

Well, not feigned … diluted. Like having to remember how excited you were about a Christmas present you got last year when it’s since been broken by the kid next door.fake-smile

But hey, it’s been a busy year with lots of stuff going on. On paper, it probably looks like not a lot … but that’s just the nature of the business. I’ve done a few uncredited rewrites, one of which has just been released … which is a yay I can’t publicly acknowledge.

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But never mind. If I was in it for the applause, I wouldn’t be a writer.

The rest of 2015, the bits I did talk about, went something like this:

JANUARY

Apparently all I did in January was talk about 2014, which although it included Ghostbusters and a suspicious looking codpiece …

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… seems a bit of a waste of a bloggy month.

FEBRUARY

Ah, hello groove I was wondering where you’d gone.

February was a proper blogging month full of blogs and … well, just blogs.

First off I tried to get you all to commit acts of phone-related mischief by adding ‘Okay Google’ phrases into scripts which would punish anyone who had their phone on in the cinema.

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Did any of you do it? Please say someone did it.

Then I defended Footloose because … it’s fucking Footloose. Footloose is awesome.

After succcessfully re-educating the world about the joys of ’80s dance, I went on to prove the three act structure is fine – stop trying to reinvent the wheel, it works just fine.

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And then I immediately explained why it doesn’t really work that well for a scriptwriter.

Aren’t you glad you’ve got me around to explain these things to you?

MARCH

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb …

I, on the other hand, came in with a thing about the joy of failing

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… stumbled into a confused ramble about clichés

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… mumbled something I can’t be bothered to reread about page thinking

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… compared Joss Whedon to HTC and rambled about how frustrating it must be to be either of them …

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… and went out with an in-depth discussing about liars and lying for a living.

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APRIL

April is where things got interesting …

Just not at first. First I wondered if maybe you shouldn’t really be able to point to the midpoint in a film.

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Then I used my blog to educate my producer as to why he shouldn’t get his hopes up about the first draft I was just about to deliver …

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Just as it might have got interesting … I got angry about spoilers instead.

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Then it got interesting. I had a phone call

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It was Danny Stack … and he didn’t want anything except a chat.

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Where it got interesting was it kicked off a string of phone calls between me and … well, just people. Nice people. People like Calum Chalmers.

MAY

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And it carried on with more nice people like Robin Bell, Andrew Mullins and Dominic Carver.

In fact, most of May was taken up with phone calls, broken only by me trying to figure out how to write the perfect cameo (it worked! I wish I could tell you how well it worked … but I can’t) and to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary.

Oh and I went on a bit about competition and how much I enjoy it.

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JUNE

June continued the #PhonePhill-ing bringing delightful chats with Dee Chilton, Rosie Claverton and Rebecca Handley.

In fact, June was all phone calls apart from one post about being better and how we should all pursue knowledge as if it were a … thing. I don’t know. Insert your own simile, I’m tired.

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JULY

July brought yet more telephone awesomeness …

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This time in the shape of Mac McSharry, James Moran, Jay Sutherland and Terry Newman.

As well as yakking to people, I also (gasp!) worked over a weekend.

Apparently this is so shocking to me I felt the need to blog about it.

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I also made an uncredited appearance as Iron Man at a little boy’s birthday party in a homemade, cardboard costume:

I enjoyed that.

AUGUST

In August I had a little panic about potentially offending  someone I quite like by giving them script notes. In order to cover my anxiety, I wrote this post about the kind of script notes I get and how upsetting they can be … if you don’t take them in the spirit they’re intended.

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Later on, I followed that post up by giving myself notes on an old script.

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I also pretended a meal/drink with some friends was a sort of #PhonePhill episode … even though it wasn’t.

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But it did lead to this picture, which is my favourite of the year:

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I rounded off August by highlighting my inability to not focus on background detail.

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SEPTEMBER

Man, I did a lot of blogging in 2015. Too much, some might say.

In September I added one more thing to a script and felt the need to tell everyone.

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Then I added a second thing and banged on about that too.

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I did a thing about tokenism and … well, I don’t know what my point was there. Feel free to read it and let me know.

Oh, and then I added some nonsense to Jason Arnopp’s blog post about hands.

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OCTOBER

I kicked off October by contrasting Rose Tyler with Jurassic Park … which, you know, is clearly two different things and needs a blog explaining why.

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And then … the future arrived!

I meant to take a photo of myself with my trousers on inside out … but I didn’t. Possibly because I don’t think I wore any in October.

Instead of wearing trousers, I watched some videos about deleted scenes from all three Star Wars films:

I say three because I’m a prequel denier. At that point I was adamant there were only three Star Wars films. Now, of course, there’s been another half of a Star Wars film.

Hopefully we’ll find out in a couple of years whether or not any of it makes sense.

NOVEMBER

Just when you thought I’d forgotten about it, another #PhonePhill – this time with William Gallagher. He’s written a book, you know. Bits of it are about me.

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Inspired by the resurgence of telephonic communication, I immediately didn’t do it again and instead waffled on about River Theory …

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Expressed my love for the Verity podcast …

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And raved on and on and on about this speech from Doctor Who:

Oh, and I found this photo of a Burt Reynolds crab.

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DECEMBER

Which brings us to now. All I did in December was a handful of short blogs about other people’s stuff. Things like:

Arnopp’s patreon campaign, the UK Scriptwriter’s Handbook and the Heaven Sent/Hell Bent scripts.

There were meant to be more, but there wasn’t.

I didn’t even wish you a merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

There, I did it.

And so, with this year nearly spent, all eyes turn to the next one.

Hopefully it’ll include at least one blog about my new office:

And loads and loads about my next script to be produced:

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Happy New Year, let’s chat soon.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Bored, Career Path, Christmas Crackers, Industry Musings, My Way, Progress, Publicity, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way, Sparkle, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently, Two steps back, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Going on and on and on …

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There are many hard and fast rules about scriptwriting which writers seem singularly incapable of following. Time and again writers break rules which were laid down to ensure their scripts are readable, if not actually good.

One of those rules I see broken over and over again is length:

  • Action description shouldn’t be longer than four lines. Shorter than three is preferable.
  • Dialogue should never be longer than four lines. Again, less is preferable.
  • Scenes themselves should never be longer than three (ish) pages without a damned good reason. Find yourself north (or south?) of five pages and you’re in big, big trouble.

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The problem, of course, with these rules are they’re utter bollocks.

Well, not utter bollocks. Mostly bollocks. They’re just not rules. Guidelines, maybe? Rules ofs thumbs.* Suggestions, perhaps?

Action should be short – yeah, I see that. Doesn’t really matter but it does make it far, far easier to read. And, if broken up properly, may bring your page count closer to one page=one minute.

Since most scripts are written with gaps between action lines then reading one without them is hard. Why make it harder to love your script?

Dialogue should never be longer than four lines – yeah, maybe. It does make sense because people rarely talk for that length of time without being interrupted.

Unless they’re giving a speech. Or lecturing someone. Or are really angry. Or boring. Or … well, lots of reasons really.

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Part of the problem with long speeches is what do the other actors do while someone’s banging on?

Listen? That would be some very polite characters. People don’t tend to listen much. They tend to interject or change the subject or just wander off to make a cup of tea.

Except when they don’t.

Bad actors can’t stand and listen. Probably because it’s quite an unnatural thing to do. If you’re writing low-budget, cast fucking anyone who’ll accept, movies then you might want to consider both the quality of the actor listening and the ability of the one delivering it to maintain the same expression for that length of time.

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Plus, it does slow things down. Actors love dramatic pauses.+ They fucking love ’em. Give an actor a one-page speech and you’ll end up with five minutes of footage.

Which may or may not be the director’s fault, I suppose. I don’t know.

This, of course, depends on what the scene’s about. A one-page rant will move faster than a one-page stare-mournfully-into-the-distance-and-recount-the-moment-where-it-all-went-wrong speech.

Both can work. Both can go horribly wrong.

Scenes should never exceed three pages – who the fuck thought that one up?

Okay, so again there is an element of truth in there. Long scenes can, sometimes, slow the pace. If everything’s meant to be fast paced and buzzy, then seven pages of people bantering about shoes may well slow it down again.

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Or it may not. Depends on the delivery, I guess.

The Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk schtick helps with this. Get the characters moving, get them doing something and people won’t get bored.

Except when it’s done badly and after five minutes of fast-paced walking you start to wonder how fucking big this newsagent’s is and why they’ve gone past the Chocolate Hob Nobs seven times.

Personally, I get nervous when a scene hits five pages – usually it’s because there’s a lot of irrelvant banter in the middle or because the scene’s trying to do too many things and needs to just wind its bloody neck in.

Three pages feels about enough for most of the stuff I do.

So, you know, it doesn’t hurt to think about limiting action, dialogue and scene lengths … just in case.

Except when you shouldn’t. Except when it’s scenes like this from Doctor Who – The Zygon Inversion.

SPOILER ALERT!

DON’T WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE EPISODE!

I love that scene. I fucking loves it, I does. I love the length, the staticness^, the wordiness … it’s just amazing.

To me this proves any rules about length are really there to disguise dullness in a script. Make a scene crackle, make it tense, make it have immediate and terrifying stakes and all the rules can just fuck off.

Limiting the length of things is probably a good rule of thumb@ … but it’s just that. Sometimes your scene can blow all that away with it’s sheer awesomeness. When you’ve got a scene which demands page-count … go for it!

I guess the real skill in writing comes from knowing when it’s appropriate.

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* I didn’t know how to pluralise this so I just went all out.

+ Possibly while they scramble to remember the next massive chunk of dialogue.

^ Real word or not? Probably not.

@ Except for thumbs. Don’t limit the length of your thumbs.

Categories: Random Witterings | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

River theory

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My brain likes to construct analogies. I don’t know why, it just does. Possibly it helps me learn or remember? Maybe I feel it’s the only way I can communicate things to other people?

I don’t know, all I know is they pop unbidden into my head on an alarmingly regular basis.

The latest one is about rivers.

I was thinking about someone else’s analogy (possibly Bill Martell‘s?) about how changing something at the beginning of a story is like dumping dye into a river – it changes everything from then on.

I love this analogy – there’s no such thing as a small change at the beginning of a script, everything has a knock on effect.

Conversely, I also love the one about being asked to change the ending is a bit like being asked to move the pyramid’s point three feet to the left.

No idea whose that one was.

But back to rivers.

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It occurs to me that films are like dye-filled-rivers in other ways. To begin with, the river is your story. You know where it begins and in which direction it flows. Personally, I like to know where the end is too.

I want to know it’s a story about someone who does something – the film will be over when that person achieves that thing … or fails in a poignant way. Not knowing that beginning and end point is a bit like watching a race where the end isn’t clear … it’s hard for me to get excited if I’ve no idea how long it’s going to go on for or when anyone’s getting close to winning/losing.

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Conversely, I don’t want to be able to see a straight bit of river from the start line to the finishing line. I want to know where the finishing line is … but not how to get there. The best films (to me) have a clear end point which seems utterly unobtainable for the protagonist.

I want there to be twists and turns and bends and dead ends between here and there … but I want to know (vaguely) where ‘there’ is.

I know not everyone feels like that. One of my bugbears is people complaining the end is obvious when it’s inherent in the genre.

  • Rom-coms are boring because you know they’re going to end up together.
  • Hero films are boring because you know Bond/Batman/whoever will win.
  • Detective stories are boring because you know they’ll catch the villain.

Fuck. Off.

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Suspend your disbelief, for fuck’s sake! Everything’s boring if you think like that. Football matches are boring because either one of the teams will win or they’ll draw* – it’s the journey, the bit of river on the way to the end which is important.

Knowing the ending in a general sense is important to the process. Imagine watching a football match where there were no goal posts and no scores kept. Players just kicked the ball back and forth for an unknown period of time … and then stopped. I’m not convinced that would become a multi-billion pound industry.

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You’re supposed to know vaguely what the ending might be … just not how the people get there or exactly how they’ll cross the line.

Yes, I’m aware I’m mixing metaphors/analogies here but it’s my blog and I’ll ramble inanely if I want to.

Back to rivers.

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So the finishing line should be clear, but not visible from the starting line. We just need to know there is one and what crossing it means.

If choosing your story is like choosing a river, then maybe choosing the colour of the (eco-friendly) dye you’re about to dump into it is like choosing the genre?

Most stories can be multiple genres, it doesn’t take much to change a story from horror to comedy or comedy to tragedy. The same basic events can be told in different ways to make different genres. We choose our colour/genre at the outset and so long as we stick to that … or maybe fade gently from one to another^ then we’re fine.

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Okay, so you can mix genres together. Frost/Nixon is a political story which uses boxing movie tropes. Fine. Red and blue makes purple, that’s fine … so long as it’s uniformly purple or fades nicely from one to the other. The problem comes when the colours are patchy and random. This bit’s horror, this bit’s comedy, this bit’s meant to be serious but people are still laughing at the last bit. A red bit, a blue bit, some green … it’s a mess.

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Pick a colour/genre (or combination of) and stick to them throughout. Contrast if you want to … but make sure the colour changes harmonise.

If colour is the genre then maybe the hue/shade is the tone? Again, consistency is the key. That or slowly fading out or darkening? Imagine dumping green comedy into a river, it’s bright at the beginning but slowly fades away/disperses as we move down river. That’s fine, isn’t it? Most comedies have a serious bit near the end.

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A consistent green might indicate a consistent type of comedy. A family/friendly comedy (lime green) which suddenly starts making jokes about fucking cadavers (bottle green) is jarring. Or maybe a comedy where the green fades in and out – funny bit, serious bit, boring bit, funny bit … just doesn’t work.

Unless it does.

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Unfortunately, the other thing my brain likes to do is think up counter arguments to itself. This is about as far as I can stretch an analogy before I start heckling myself and telling me I’m full of shit.

Hey me, it’s just a way of thinking about things. If it’s useful, use it … if it’s not, don’t. No need to get all sweary about it.

Stories are like rivers. Sometimes. Other times, they’re not.

Perhaps?


* Actually, this is why I don’t really watch sport – I have no interest in who wins. I don’t know any of the players and I just don’t care. I guess if I picked a team at random and decided to support them I’d get into it … but I don’t need more stuff to obsess about in my life.

^ Yes, I know From Dusk to Dawn crashes from one genre to another in the middle. It can be done … but usually badly.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Deleted from a galaxy far, far away …

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Last week, while wallowing in nostalgia for Back to the Future* I managed to sidetrack myself by watching deleted scenes from all three of the Star Wars movies. Specifically, the ones in these videos here:

Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to watch those videos … although they are interesting. Two things struck me though:

  1. It amazes me that I’m still learning things I never knew about Star Wars after 38 years of continuous fandom.
  2. All deleted scenes are essentially the same – deleted for a good reason.

Okay, not all. Barring scenes which were omitted from the theatrical version due to lack of money or interference by people who thought they knew better but didn’t … most deleted scenes are deleted because of pacing or because they restate information the audience already has.

Or both.

In other words, they slow the film down. They’re just not needed.

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All films have scenes like this: subplots which go nowhere, exposition heavy scenes which just aren’t needed, character development scenes which show the character doing character-y things which reinforce the type of character we’d already assumed they were …

And so on.

In retrospect, they’re clearly pointless or a waste of time … so why write them in the first place? If it’s so obvious watching the film, why isn’t it obvious when reading the script?

I mean, okay, writers are in the maze trying to figure their way through … but script readers, directors, producers, they have an overview, don’t they?

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No, not always.

A good director is down there in the maze with you. A good producer might be there too. On the first draft they may have an objective view, sure … but on the tenth? Or the twentieth? Sometimes the opposite thing happens and whole chunks of exposition and character development get deleted because we all know he’s a murderer due to his mum forcing him to wear the wrong colour pants – it’s obvious!

But it’s not. Not to anyone who hasn’t read fifteen drafts of the script, including the fourteen drafts which actually mention the pants in the first place. Sometimes obvious things are a lot less obvious than we imagine.

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Similarly, a script is not a movie. An actor standing on a set, wearing specific clothes under specific lights with specific music playing whilst holding a specific prop against a specific background can convey a lot more information than a single action line in a script.

In a script, you either have to call things out and explicitly state something … or allow the context to build up to an inescapable conclusion.

Often these conclusions are quite escapable because readers all read their own stuff into a script§. Part of the development process is weeding out words which may cause confusion. If a character is a werewolf in half of his scenes and occasionally growls in annoyance when he’s not … well, the word growl is confusing. Is he a wolf at this point or just annoyed?

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Clear on screen, not so clear on the page.

So sometimes whole sequences feel absolutely vital on the page … only to be completely redundant on screen. There’s an oft-quoted story of Steve McQueen crossing out dialogue, knowing he could say it with an expression … and that’s fine. He knows he can do that. Not all actors can. Not all readers/producers/directors can see that expression when it’s written down.

Deleted scenes will always exist because of the disconnect between translating one media (writing) into another (film). Pace on the page doesn’t always equate to pace on screen … and vice versa.

It would be nice to be able to identify which scenes will be deleted before filming. Or even before writing … but I’m not convinced that’s possible. There will always be deleted scenes, most of them are interesting … but ultimately pointless.

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A bit like this post.

I might just delete all the stuff about the elephant.^

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* 2, technically. I guess?

Yes, three. There are only three Star Wars films. Shut up.

Excluding that one summer when my younger brother watched the film once or twice a day, every day for six weeks. That was pretty annoying and almost put me off for life.

Almost.

∞ Underpants, if you’re American – no one ever became a murderer because of their mother’s taste in trousers. That’s just silly.

§ And completed scenes, to be fair. Think of that whisky scene in Skyfall – your interpretation of Bond’s reaction may well decide how you view the rest of the film. Is he hiding how upset he is or is he a callous misogynist~? Bet that was clearer in the script.

~ Who wants to guess how many attempts it took me to spell ‘misogynist’?

^ There is no elephant. Don’t look for the elephant, you’ll never find it.

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome to the future!

 

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Happy Future Day!

It’s today!

Today’s the future!

Welcome to it.

In the course of my life many days have been thought of as the future. 1984 because of surveillance culture; 1999, because that’s what we used to party like it was; 2001 because … fuck knows, something to do with black rectangles and Space Jesus; 2010 because Space Jesus did something to Chief Brody …

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All of these days (and more) have come and gone and somehow the future never arrived, I mean we always seem to be living in the now. Star Trek would had us believing the future would involve everyone on each planet wearing the same clothes (or lack of them, if you’re a woman).

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That didn’t happen.

2001 would have us believe we’d be harangued by mental computers on our way to Jupiter (or Saturn – depending on whether you prefer the book or the film).

That didn’t happen.

Prince would have us believe the future involves … death? Is that right? Why were we supposed to party in 1999? Is it because the moon got ripped out of orbit and things went correspondingly wonky?

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Who knows?

Didn’t fucking happen anyway, but at least women got to wear something on the moon.

Today though, today is actually the future. It’s future day as foretold in Back to the Futures I and II.

We made it! And um … yeah. Very few hoverboards. No flying cars. Can’t see anyone wearing their trousers inside out. In fact, weirdly, everyone I’m currently looking at is wearing clothes from 1985.*

Fax machines are slightly less prevalent than expected. TVs are smaller … but not by much. Portable computer tablet device thingys are here. Weather forecasting … hmm …

But you know what? Who cares? The fact is Back to the Future II was set in the distant, far flung future of today.

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Wow.

I was 12 going on 13 the year Back to the Future came out and I loved it … despite the fact I should have been annoyed by the obvious Doctor Who ripping off – which never bothered me in the slightest and is probably just all coincidence.

Back to the Future was the first film I saw with my friends without grown up supervision. It marked the beginning of adulthood for me, a freedom to come and go (at least as far as the cinema) as I pleased.

I remember coming home and describing the film to my parents in excruciating detail. I can even remember how bored they looked.

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It’s one of my favourite films, one of those films I can watch from any point every time I catch it on TV without feeling bored.

Huey Lewis and the News became the first band I decided to like because I liked them, as opposed to liking because everyone else did and they were in the charts. I made it my mission to track down their back catalogue. They kindled my interest in guitars and led (indirectly) to me learning bass a few years later. They were the first gig I ever went to (again on my own, for my 16th birthday – cementing my friendship with the guy who was to be my best man at my first wedding).

I became a little obsessed with Deloreans (didn’t we all?) and used to moon over the Volkswagen Sirocco because it looked a little similar. I even bought one of these …

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… for much the same reason.

Okay, maybe not from that angle.

I read and reread the novel until I could no longer distinguish between the film I’d seen and the words I’d read.# Did Marty’s thrilling escape from detention with the chewing gum, the matches and the elastic band happen in the movie or not? I could see it vividly … but couldn’t be sure. No one else remembered it, but that’s no guarantee of accuracy.^

I became obsessed with finding a Walkman which was as small as his … and eventually found one smaller.

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I tried (surreptitiously) to copy Marty McFly’s style – for years I never left the house without wearing a t-shirt under my shirt. I even found a body warmer (a Washington Redskins one died black) to wear over my (orange) denim jacket.

I. Looked. Awesome.

Probably.

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I also loved his fifties’ ensemble and have been vaguely in love with fifties’ stylings ever since.

Most of all though, whenever I lose my way with my writing, I think of Back to the Future and I try to remember that it’s exactly the kind of film I want to be writing – adventure and excitement with a heavy dose of comedy.

The sequels I like~, the original I love. I love the world, I love the characters and I love the way they make me feel. I want to write something which has that effect on someone. Even if it’s only one person, that’s my ultimate goal.

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It feels utterly bizarre to be in the future of Back to the Future. It feels equally bizarre that my seven year old daughter loves the film – I’m not convinced I’d have loved a film in 1985 which told the tale of someone from 1955 travelling back to 1925. But hey, maybe she’s just more sophisticated than me?

Oh who cares?

The future, we made it.

Happy Future Day!

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* This is a lie. The only people I can see from the window of my rooms on the Secret Writing Island are wearing bikinis. Which may or may not be inside out, hard to tell from here.

# Remember this was in a time where it took AGES for films to come out on video … and then pretty much only to rent, buying was still expensive. Going to see the same film twice at the cinema was expensive and pretty much didn’t happen (for me) so the book was the only way to re-experience the movie.Remember this was in a time where it tooks AGES for films to come out on video … and then pretty much only to rent, buying was still expensive. Going to see the same film twice at the cinema was expensive and pretty much didn’t happen (for me) so the book was the only way to re-experience the movie.

^ A similar thing happened to me with Terminator 2 – I have vivid memories of scenes which didn’t show up until the director’s cut because they were in the novelisation.

The opposite happened to me with Return of the Jedi – there was this photo in one of the tie-in books which showed Luke hanging from the grating in Jabba’s Palace. The text described him leaping over the Rancor and going hand over hand along the grate … until the denizens of the palace knocked him back into the pit. Everyone I know insisted it happened in the film, I was adamant it didn’t. By the time the film came out on video I was no longer friends with any of those people and missed out on a rare opportunity to be right.

~ Have you watched Back to the Future II recently? Watched it through the eyes of a writer? Every second scene is exposition. Almost literally every second scene involves someone explaining to someone else what’s going on. Occasionally with diagrams. If you just assumed people understood how time travel works then that film would be about 14 mins long.

Categories: Future Tense, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

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

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