The Ties That Bind

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.

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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

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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