Things I’ve Learnt Recently

Using my Magnum voice

One of the problems with writing a film script is the length of time it takes to write/produce versus the length of time it takes to read/watch.*

A script of 110 pages may take an hour/hour and a half to read# but it probably took the best part of a year to write from spark of conception to final draft. Sometimes longer. I have a script due to go into production which began life in 2009 or maybe even 2008. The first six months was an intense period of rewriting and thrashing things out. Everything since then has been periodic rewrites to accommodate various cast members as they get attached or to please an array of investors/producers/whims as they appear and disappear.

Coming back to a script after a couple of years of not thinking about it is an enlightening and terrifying experience.

“Why did I think that was a good idea?”

After that long away from the page the script needs a thorough rereading before altering just to get a sense of how the new material will impact the old.

That seems fairly obvious, but what’s perhaps less obvious is the gap between writing FADE IN: and FADE OUT. on the first draft. That might be a few weeks or it might be a few months,~ either way it can sometimes be tricky to keep in mind what the characters are thinking and feeling at any given point. Even at the note card/treatment stage, when I’m finding my way through the story, I sometimes find characters doing things which don’t feel real given what just happened before. This can often lead to feedback such as:

“Hang on, they’ve just discovered the whole world’s under threat from this alien thingy and they’ve only got 24 hours to find a cure … so he pops off to buy some new shoes and she decides now’s the time to learn Greek?”

Written down like that it’s plainly nonsensical … but I won’t have experienced it in one short sentence. I’ll have had the various scenes on note cards and reshuffled them late in the day. Or cut and paste scenes from different parts of the script because they were in (a different) wrong place. Or inserted them in the second or third draft at the behest of the client because we’re getting development money from Clarks and … well, Greece I suppose.

Those scenes may have been written years apart and taken days to write, it’s only when they’re read in sequence do they seem stupid.

One way to combat this is to read through what I’ve written to date before beginning the day’s work … which is fine on page 20 but a ball ache on page 80. So a method I find myself applying more and more is what I like to call The Magnum Voice+.

You remember the bit, probably immediately following an ad break in America but often seemingly random in the UK-reduced-ad-version, when Magnum would narrate what’s just happened and how his little voice is feeling about it?

I do that.

Often whilst wearing my Magnum costume.

Sometimes I write it down, sometimes I just say it in my head, but in essence all I do is imagine the character narrating what’s been happening and how they feel.

“As soon as I found out the world was ending I decided to … “

Well, not learn Greek. Probably. Not unless the cure to the world-ending thing is written in Greek somewhere and even then it’s probably better to just go find a Greek to translate it for you.

“When I first heard the world was ending I was a bit upset … but then I remembered the money I owed in library fines and cheered up a bit. Feeling better, I decided to buy those shoes I’ve always wanted using a credit card because … eh, fuck it. Why not?”

Oh. I guess the shoe buying thing does make sense.

I find the Magnum Voice is particularly good at keeping track of emotions. It’s nice to remind myself of the shit I’ve been putting the character through because, whereas to me 30 pages ago was three weeks back, to the character it was only three hours ago. They’re probably still upset at that baboon eating their sister in front of them. Probably still quite a touchy subject and too soon for them to go to a fancy dress party dressed as a bonobo. And if they absolutely have to dress up then maybe having a little weep about it first would feel appropriate?

It’s not a universally useful tool, but then what tool is? Personally I like having a range of tools to fall back on and the Magnum Voice is one of my current favourites.

I can’t think of a snappy way to end this post, but I feel it’s gone on long enough … so here’s the Magnum soundtrack to fill your ears with awesomeness:


* I imagine novels have a similar problem, although having no experience in that realm I think I’ll just keep my fool mouth shut.

# I used to read a lot faster, bordering on speed reading … until I realised I was never doing a script justice. A script should be read at the speed you’d watch it so you appreciate the emotion properly. Or that’s what I think anyway.

~ Occasionally it’s been a few days … but that’s rarely a good idea and even rarer as necessary as the producer insists it is.

+ I know Magnum wasn’t the first show to do it, but to my mind it’s the most successful version of it. You may like to think of this as The Gold Monkey Voice or The Philip Marlowe Voice … knock yourself out.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Emotions first

 

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I have a nasty tendency when I’m plotting out a script to get too focused on the events. I work out what the beginning and end scenes are and then split the story into quarters, give each quarter a rough title and then start fleshing each quarter out with scenes.

The problem with this approach is it can sometimes leave me with cool sequences I’m very attached to which look great … but don’t really service the character’s journey. Because that’s what a film is: the protagonist’s journey, following along as they learn their most important, life changing lesson.

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No matter how big or blockbuster-y the film is, I want that emotional core. I want it to the story of one person learning and changing and growing (or dying and failing, that works too) … and I want that journey to be integral to the story. I don’t want the story to happen and then the character to suddenly change at the last moment or to change independently of the events. I want the events to alter her worldview, to shape and change how she feels until she’s forced to make a difficult transition which is the only way to meet the challenges of the film.

I don’t care if it’s a superhero film or a small-scale drama. Whatever the story-flesh is, I want it wrapped around a solid emotional-skeleton.

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The problem is, when I start with the flesh I end up with too many arms or not enough legs or a weird lumpy bit in the middle of the stomach which is soooooo cool … but has nothing to do with the main character’s turmoil at all.

So maybe, just maybe, the answer is to start with the emotions first?

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Maybe the way forward is to write down who she is at the beginning, who she has to be at the end and then divide the film up into segments which represent the emotional steps on that journey?

Maybe if I give each step a relevant name, let’s say I’m using the five stages of grief or something, then I know the sequences need to represent denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance*.

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Only when I know what the steps have to mean should I then work out what they actually are. I can construct the physical events of the story around those steps. So it’s not “She has to get the key to unlock the thing!” but “She needs to realise not all people are untrustworthy” and then figure out which bit of action best represents it. That way the emotional change is smooth, it happens gradually and every scene adds to the whole. Every scene can still be funny or cool or thrilling or whatever … but they have meaning, they contribute to the film instead of being diversions.

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Films tend to get written the other way round. Certainly whenever I get a rewrite job it’s usually because the original writer didn’t have (or couldn’t convey) a clear emotional journey, resulting in a script which has good bits in it … but none of those bits add up to anything satisfying. It’s really, really hard grafting an emotional skeleton on afterwards because, obviously, skeletons are meant to be on the inside, baked into the core of the story.

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It also means there’ll inevitably be that conversation with the client where they have a specific scene they’re in love with which has nothing to do with the story they’re trying to tell but looks sooooooo cool. Trying to persuade people they don’t need the thing they love most is never easy, but often the best options are cut it or tell a different story, one where that scene makes sense.

This is often most clear in action films, in the difference between a good action film where every fight scene and set piece changes the protagonist in some way and a bad one where shit just blows up for no reason.

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On the other hand, we all have favourite films where nothing makes any sense and the fact it’s just shit blowing up for no reason is what makes the film so great. So perhaps this emotion-first approach isn’t always needed?

Or maybe those films we love would be even better if there was some point to them?

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Maybe they’re good not because of the script (blasphemy – everything comes from the script!) but despite the script? Maybe it’s a mediocre script which has been acted, directed, edited, lit, dressed and scored well?

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I don’t know. I just know that for me starting with the emotional journey makes the script a lot less painful to write than starting with the physical one.


* You may be of the opinion that these five stages are bullshit. I may be of the opinion you’re right, I may not. Doesn’t matter.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

#P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #2: James Moran

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So this meeting happened earlier the same day as the last one, hence the confusion of numbers since I like to be chronological about this sort of thing.

James Moran is one of those guys I see around every now and then with the occasional flurry of Twitter DMs and even the odd phone call. He’s a nice guy*. I like him. I like to think of him as a friend, but perhaps don’t see him often enough to have reached that status? I don’t know, I get a bit confused by social interaction.

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Some of what we chatted about is the kind of stuff you don’t really repeat, you know, stuff like what projects we’re working on, who we’re working with and who never, ever to work with.

These kind of chats are the reason I never record the #PhonePhill conversations because, while they would make a good podcast (their half of the conversation, not mine – mine is generally moronic) and provide an insightful look into the lives of working writers … I’d just rather they were confidential. I like chatting to people when neither of us are guarding what we might say, it’s more fun.

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For me, obviously. Not necessarily for you since you don’t get to read or hear about all the juicy bits.

James, for example, has killed 17 Belgians in the last few years. No one knows what he’s got against Belgians since they seem like generally inoffensive people to me … but he can get awfully stabby in their presence.^

Amongst the deeply personal, unprofessional and unrepeatable witterings, there were two things which bear repeating and may be of general interest.

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The first, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, is the state of genre TV in the UK … basically, it’s a rare beast.

Except on kids’ TV.

For reasons best known only to commissioners the general opinion in the UK seems to be that kids love genre shows (sci-fi, horror, super powers …) but that adults grow out of it.

Which doesn’t make sense to me, a card-carrying geek. It also doesn’t seem to be true if you look at cinema or US TV … but in the UK, adult genre fare is hard to find …

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… and even harder to get made.

Maybe there’s just a dearth of good scripts around. Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough since series 2 of Humans just started airing? And Red Dwarf X just finished. Maybe I’m talking shit?

My perception is though that kids’ TV is the place to aim for if you want to write genre stuff.

Which I do.

The second observation is a vitally important one. It’s applicable to all meetings, whether formal or informal, be it with a prospective client or a friend.

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Picture the scene, James and I have arranged to meet in yumchaa in Soho (where he bought me a cup of tea and a most excellent slice of cake) and I’d arrived first. I mooched around looking for somewhere to sit and eventually opted for a comfy looking sofa.

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The sofa was as comfy as it looked … and there in lies my mistake because there was only one sofa and a coffee table, forcing James to sit NEXT TO ME ON THE SOFA.

This is weird.

Sitting next to someone on a sofa is great if you want to both watch TV. Even better if you both want to cuddle.

As much as I like James, I do not want to cuddle him.+

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Chatting to someone who’s sitting next to you is ridiculously uncomfortable, no matter how comfy the sofa. One of you has to contort yourself into unnatural shapes in order to face the other person. Obviously, being the bigger sociopath of the two, I made myself comfortable and let James to the contorting.

I’m nice like that.

Imagine if this had been a client meeting and I was trying to persuade someone to part with their cash? It’s just not a good idea.

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For chat, chairs are where it’s at.

Preferably sit-up ones at a table rather than comfy armchairs you sink into.

I’ve made this mistake before at a meeting with a development exec at a large TV company. She sat on a sensible chair in her office, I sat on a low-slung sofa … and ended lolling around on it as if I was in therapy.

It’s hard to sell your skills when the person you’re trying to impress is looking up your nostrils.

For chat, chairs are where it’s at.

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James, as ever, was delightful and funny and insightful and just generally lovely. I can’t tell you what he’s working on next, but I can tell you what he’s been doing recently … this:

And this:

And this:

And … well, all these: https://minasjournal.wordpress.com/episodes/

Turn off the lights, make yourself comfortable (on a sofa is perfectly acceptable) and treat your eyeballs to his incessant genius.

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Meeting James was lovely. I probably don’t want to meet you, but I do want to chat with you on the phone.

Yes, you.

Not that person, you. The one with the face.

If you’d like to #PhonePhill then email me and we’ll work something out.

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*For a given value of ‘nice’. Obviously as a horror writer he’s a psychopathic lunatic … but lovely with it.

^Not true, obviously. He only killed 16 and only stabbed one – he doesn’t like to repeat himself. Apparently it’s ‘research’.

+Well … maybe a little.

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The logline equation

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It’s not very often I don’t action a note, at least not without first explaining why it wouldn’t work – generally produces and directors are smart enough to accept reasoned arguments. Recently, however, I found a note I couldn’t action.

I tried, I really did. I tried four times, but every time I got to the middle it either fell apart or meant I had to keep rewriting the entire script.

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The change sounded like a small and reasonable one. In essence (and without giving away the terrifically exciting plot) two teen boys do x in order to y. Where x is something monstrously stupid and y is getting laid.

The problem was neither the producer nor the director believed the teens would do x just to get laid. Which I was surprised at since we were all teenage boys once and I at least would have happily brought about the apocalypse for less.

But in retrospect, doing x to get laid is both extreme and not really an obvious decision.

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So they asked if I could change y to z – after all, it’s only a minor change.

The problem is, z is revenge on their school bullies and revenge is a fairly negative goal. It’s hard to build empathy with someone who deliberately releases x on the world in an act of revenge.

Their solution was have them quickly realise x wasn’t a nice thing to do and immediately regret it … but that led to more problems as the rest of the script didn’t make sense. Also, since the audience knows x is a bad thing to do, it seems unbelievable the teens wouldn’t. For example, detonating a nuclear weapon because you’re cold and you think it might warm you up is stupid and weird, but perhaps more understandable than detonating one in an act of revenge for someone stealing your parking space.

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The problem is one of justification. I tried various ways of justifying both the revenge and x, constructing several completely different openings in the hope one of them would segue perfectly into the rest of the script … but none of the new openings ever went anywhere near any of the other scenes, the ones everyone was already happy with.

And then it hit me, the reason I couldn’t just change y to z was because it was a fundamental change to the logline of the script. Changing the character’s motivation changes everything they do and (in some cases) everything they are.

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That equation, people doing x because of y, is the DNA of the script. It runs through everything, it dictates not just story but characters and theme and … well, everything. You can’t just alter half the equation and expect to only change half the scenes which spring from it, because every scene and every character is in someway an answer to that logline equation. The only way I found round it was to alter x and y at the same time so the answers still made sense.

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I wish I’d figured that out three weeks ago, instead of banging my head against that particular brick wall. In the end I found a y which was similar to getting laid and actually incorporated getting laid into it, but was much broader in scope. The other, more significant change was altering what they believed x was. So instead of doing something monstrous to get laid, they believed they were doing something heroic to be popular.* The fact that x was essentially the same thing approached from a different angle meant the rest of the script from x onward remained similar … and the problem was solved.

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At least, I think it was. I haven’t had the feedback yet so I may well be wrong … we’ll have to wait and see.


* Imagine a world everyone made films about how nuclear weapons were just misunderstood and were actually fun and gently warming and sexy. Imagine the teens live in a town which has a nuclear weapon festival every year and all the other teens dress up as nuclear weapons and then have sex with each other because nuclear weapons are such a turn on. Then imagine a couple of desperate idiots and it seems reasonable (within the context of the story) that they might think detonating one would make them popular. Especially since we’re not actually talking about a nuclear weapon, it’s just  a terrible analogy.

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What’s in a name?

Nothing. Nothing’s in a name and that’s the problem.

So here’s the scenario: you’ve written a script and everyone loves it. There’s a director and a producer who are intent on making it, you’ve gone through multiple drafts and now everyone’s happy. It’s time to send it out to actors.

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To begin with, the script gets sent to people who match the character descriptions … all well and good.

Unless your character descriptions are like these … in which case, not good. Stop that.

As time goes on though, the net gets cast wider. Occasionally a random bit of good luck means so-and-so hears about the script, is intrigued and wants to play a part. This is fantastic! So-and-so is proper famous and a box office draw! We have to let so-and-so play that role!

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Only … the role doesn’t quite work for so-and-so … but fuck it, it’s so-and-so! We’ll rewrite the part to fit and it’ll be all the better for it!

Only … now that other part doesn’t work because whatshisname in that part can’t possibly have THAT relationship to so-and-so on account of them being the wrong age, race and gender.

Fuck it, we’ll rewrite that part too!

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And now thingymajig wants to be in a scene with so-and-so … but there aren’t any suitable scenes. What if we rewrite the potato heist scene to include thingymajig? Yeah, that will work!

But whatshisname has passed and now we have to revert to the original version, leaving all the other changes in place. No problem, we’ll just cut and paste that scene from the old draft! Easy.

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Um …

Which draft was the one where we changed the part to suit whatshisname?

This is what’s not in the name of the draft – the details of what’s in what draft.

If you haven’t been through this before, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s pretty easy to remember what happens in what draft. What’s the problem?

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Well, the problem is there were six main drafts of the scripts over two different versions (one version was a comedy, the other a serious drama). Each draft had two or three sets of minor notes. Then we started casting. The script has now been rewritten nine times, but not in a continuous forward-moving set of changes.

Sometimes A is B’s father, sometimes he’s not. Sometimes A is B’s brother, sometimes A is B’s mother or sister or twin or father again or mother again or completely unrelated or older sister or younger sister no, definitely older sister.

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Or brother.

And while that’s going on, in the same drafts there are multiple versions of a different scene to please whatshisname or so-and-so or … it’s all in flux, all the time. And none of this is reflected in the naming of the drafts.

This is long before the script is locked. This is before blue pages, before there’s a First AD or Line Producer keeping track of this sort of thing. This is just me numbering the script the way that makes sense to me.

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Personally, I tend to number the big drafts (1 … 2 … 3 …), with tiny rewrites meriting a decimal place (3.1 … 3.2 … 3.3 … and so on). Some people hate this but it works for me.

So how do you remember which draft had A as B’s older sister?

I guess you could keep a separate file with a list of all the changes in, but personally I just include a list of the changes in the body of the email when I send the script in.

 

Here you go! Now with A as B’s older sister, the potato heist is now a parsnip fight and the snowman fisting scene has (rightfully) been deleted.

This makes it easily searchable for me and (more crucially) easily searchable for the producer and/or director. In theory they can quickly find whichever draft they’re looking for and know exactly what changed in that draft.

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I suppose I could copy and paste this info into a separate document to make searching easier … but I tend to remember roughly when things changed and only have to look at the emails either side if I’m wrong.

It feels like a courtesy to include a little summary of what I’ve done with the submission anyway – just so the person receiving the script can flip to that scene and read the new bit without all that tedious script-comparing or reading the whole thing looking for tiny changes. So courtesy and convenience combine into a few lines of explanation which help everyone and remain as a permanent record of who did what and when.

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Maybe there’s a better way? If so, I’d love to hear from you … but this one works for me.

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Second that emotion

Hello, happy new year and welcome back. My you’re looking slim. No, honestly, you can’t tell how many boxes of Quality Street you ate. Please allow me to admire you for a second …

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… okay, let us begin the year.

I’m fully immersed in a difficult* rewrite at the moment and the danger with all rewrites (or indeed writes) when they’re taking a long time is that I’ll stray off the point.

Emotionally speaking, that is.

I know the point of the scene and the film and all the themes and character desires and what not … but I’ve found I need to keep reminding myself of the tone lest it wanders off into something too depressing or too silly or too scary or … stuff.

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Tone, to me, is the promise of a specific emotion. The tone tells you ‘you will feel mostly this way during this movie’. I think it’s fine to vary the tone from beginning to end, but not to swing wildly across the emotional spectrum from one scene to the next.

A very silly scene about shoes which features a child-rape in the middle and finishes with a slapstick custard pie is jarring. And weird. And just generally horrendous.

I find keeping in mind the emotion I want the audience to experience helps weed out anything which just doesn’t belong.

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I’ve done that for a while, but what I’ve noticed recently, what I wasn’t aware I was doing, is that I also keep a second emotion in mind – the lowest point of the main character.

What will the she be feeling at the end of the second act?

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How does that contrast with how she’s feeling at the beginning or the tone of the film? Often I find the way she feels at her lowest point is the secret fear which drives her actions throughout. If I know act two is going to conclude with her feeling lost and lonely … then I use that as the fear which colours her decisions throughout.

These two emotions – the tone and the low point should be consistent throughout. That’s not to say the protagonist won’t have fun … but the fear of being alone will always be with her and cause her to make bad choices.

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Take Woody in Toy Story as an example: he’s afraid of being replaced, of not being the top toy. The tone is lighthearted, family-friendly comedy – the audience laugh all the way through … but the underlying emotion is fear of being replaced. His low point comes when Woody realises he’s lost the thing he craves because of his actions.

I think.

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To be honest, I haven’t really thought it through in any detail. I’ve just noticed it’s what I’ve been doing on the last few scripts to help me stay on target. You may already be doing it. You may think it’s silly and doesn’t work. Or you may think it’s a useful way of thinking about things and incorporate it into your toolbox … it’s up to you.

Yes, it’s a simplistic way of looking at a complex story … but sometimes the simple things help inform and support the finer detail.

When I started this post I had a pithy sign off in mind … but I can’t remember what it was … so here’s a baby eating bacon instead.

 


 

* Largely difficult because I’m relocating it from the UK to the US – I didn’t realise how much I didn’t know about America. I mean, it’s all very well knowing what something looks like because you’ve seen it on screen … but what’s it called? That guy who does the thing … what’s his job title in American? And so on. You don’t need to know the names to recognise/understand stuff on screen … doesn’t work in a script.

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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

Verity

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I don’t know about you, but I’m loving Doctor Who this season. Last season wasn’t for me, I found it increasingly difficult to watch to the point I had the last episode on in the background but didn’t really pay attention.

As a long term fan of the show I’ve come to accept this as normal. Some seasons I’ll love, some I won’t. Some Doctors I’ll love, some I’ll find annoying.

Last season … there was nothing for me to like. That’s not to say the show was fundamentally unlikeable, it’s just a personal preference.

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This season, I’m so excited. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far. Does that mean it’s quantitatively better?

No, it’s just how I feel about it. There’s always a chance that when I get round to rewatching the season I’ll feel differently, but for whatever the reason# I’m totally hooked again this year.

One of things which is deepening my enjoyment is listening to the Verity Podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, it’s (mostly*) American/Canadian female fans discussing the show. When the show’s airing, they discuss the episodes. When it’s not, they discuss other Who-related topics.

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Now, I know quite a lot of Doctor Who fans … but not many who live close by. I could ring them up to talk about the show … but we’re all busy and ringing people up takes time away from our respective families. Listening to other people discuss the show helps fill that void. I like to hear other people’s opinions, even if they differ from my own.

Actually, especially when they differ from my own. There’s not a lot of point listening to your own opinions repeated back to you (apart from when they codify or clarify something you didn’t know how to express).

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I like to listen and I like to learn to think about things in a different way.

There are a lot of Doctor Who podcasts, but the Verity one achieves this better than most by dint of being (mostly*) Americans/Canadians and solely women.

I don’t know any female Doctor Who fans. Not personally anyway. I know women who enjoy or quite like the show … but would never really describe themselves as fans. I could probably track some down if I really felt the need … but if I were my wife and saw me deliberately seeking out women who shared an interest we didn’t … well, I’d be a bit cross with myself. It would be a weird thing to do.

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Hearing women discuss the show is fascinating because, although most of the things they talk about are universal, there are certain points of view which don’t come naturally to me. This might be because I’m a man or it might be because I’m British or maybe just because I’m me and not them. Doesn’t really matter, I just enjoy hearing a different slant on things.

Similarly, it’s interesting to hear transatlantic opinions on something which feels so quintessentially British. Especially since their depth of knowledge and level of fandom are far greater than mine.

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It also makes me swell with pride. Doctor Who is a massive part of my life but has always been this tiny show, kicked about by the BBC and prematurely murdered just as it was finding its feet again. It had a moment of greatness … but became an embarrassment and something to be mocked. Hearing people halfway around the world loving it feels like a vindication. This is popular, it’s global, liking it is normal.

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If you haven’t listened to the podcast, I highly recommend it and would welcome similar recommendations in return.


 

* Mostly. There’s a Scot in there. And an Australian, I think.

# It might be my new office? Yeah, it’s probably my new office.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 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

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

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