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Golden Ages have a shelf-life

November 13, 2009

This is no thesis, just a few ramblings after watching the pilot for the reboot of ‘V’. Which was fine. I liked how the first glimpse of the alien motherships positioning themselves over the major city centres came from the uneven reflections in the skyscraper windows. Here is a screen grab. How freakin’ awesome is that?

The arrival

Man, it don’t get much better than that. Which is a shame. Being as how this is the golden age of American telly an’ all.

I was complaining about the shonky pilot for Flash Forward not long ago, and while I liked V a bit more, I’m starting to notice a pattern as each new season brings out a rash of expensive productions that are not bad. This year it’s ‘V’ and Flash Forward and probably a few others that I don’t recall right now (not a good sign), last year it was Dollhouse and Fringe and probably a few others that I don’t recall right now.

And the pattern seems to be that, although these are ostensibly different shows, everything feels so same-y. Is it because I’m a student of writing that everything seems so predictable? The carefully crafted web of flawed characters, the plot devices and set-ups that may as well be wearing high-visibility jackets?

It is difficult to put my finger on without giving it a great deal more thought than I’m about to now, but the experience of watching these shows always feels pretty much the same. There is some kind of comfort zone that is very much of our time that these shows all seem to operate within. Where are the surprises? They don’t take me anywhere. There is action but it doesn’t excite, three-dimensional characters suffer but don’t elicit emotion, everything is very measured. Shit, what do I know, maybe they just need to be shot with a different lens. Or maybe the characters are ciphers masquerading as characters.

They are not bad shows, they are just not very good. I had to chuckle today as the twitterverse was full of fans castigating Fox for cancelling Dollhouse (from what I’ve seen Fox were very generous to give it a second season), but among the vitriol for Fox and uncritical praise for Joss Whedon, the occasional tweet would go by along the lines of “Shame. Once you got in to it, it was quite good.”

Quite good. It’s probably just me, because these shows all rate over 8 out of 10 on TV.com, just about up there with The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, personal favourite Six Feet Under and other flag-bearers of American TV’s Golden Age. But in a year when even Mad Men has been of variable quality (haven’t seen the finale yet, though), it all seems to be lacking a bit of lustre.

Reflecting a little more, there’s something to that point about shows operating within a comfort-zone. The great TV drama shows are not frightened of making their viewers feel uncomfortable, and are all the better for it.

Footnote: US comedy seems alive and well. If you haven’t seen Modern Family, check it out.

Update: I’ve been catching up on Mad Men, and after a bit of a mid-series wobble, I’m thrilled to report that it is really hotting up as season three draws to a close. All is not lost. And having seen more, I should re-iterate, Modern Family is great, crackling comedy.

Screenwriters’ Festival 2009 reflections

October 31, 2009

A few brief thoughts in no particular order about the Screenwriters’ Festival for people curious about the experience and as a reminder to myself.

SWF companies

Total cost: £698 (of which 4-day ticket £389, flight to Gatwick £65, return train from Gatwick £14 (!!), cheap accommodation £100, food and drink £130). I doubt there is a similar event in the world where you can get so much exposure to so many important and/or interesting figures within the industry for a comparable sum. Could have been cheaper still if I’d bought a ticket early or as part of a group, and there are also several avenues to win a ticket.

Cheltenham and the event: lovely town, privileged setting at the Lady’s College (bit short on men’s toilets), very professionally organised with a large army of volunteers many of whom are on the fringes of the business and interesting people in their own right. A few quibbles about the scheduling, but the quality and variety of the speakers was excellent. Thursday was a bit of a write-off if you weren’t into Doctor Who.

Content: The festival is more about the business than about the craft – and all the better for it. There are all sorts of avenues to improve your craft, but few opportunities to hear from the horse’s mouth about how things work.

That was a good fit with my personal goal. Family circumstances meant I was poorly prepared for the festival and had little expectation or ambition in terms of trying to sell or advance any of my current projects. What I was hoping to gain was some direction about which of my slate of ideas I should work on next (my goal for 2010 is that the next project I start is of such a calibre that it either sells itself or sells me and leads to paid work: there, I’ve said it). In general I have come away better equipped to make that judgement myself, but I have also received some direct and very encouraging feedback, and invitations to send loglines with paragraphs to some industry people whose opinion I would value and whom I would never normally be able to pitch to. I’m not kidding myself that they will say anything more than what they like and what they don’t like, but that is still very useful.

The theme which I found running through my personal version of the festival was about the tension between commerce and creativity, about how important it is to have the audience in mind and how the film will be sold before you even start writing, but at the same time to not let that limit your imagination or curb your ambition. People want stories with scope, budget particulars can be addressed later, although you should be mindful of them from the outset.

There was an emphasis on DIY film-making which is not really applicable to me, but that energy is infectious and encapsulates the festival experience. Especially for me, living in Spain, being at the festival is a statement of intent: this is not a hobby and you are part of a profession, even if unpaid, and the key is to make sure you use that energy to keep motivated when returning to normal life.

The numbers in red badges (paying delegates) ran into the hundreds, the numbers in yellow badges (the speakers, producers, agents etc. — the ‘targets’) ran into the tens. Some red badges were pretty ruthless in tracking down yellow badges to hand out cards, initiate discussions etc., and, understandably, the yellow badges spent a lot of time hiding out in the green room.

I think you have to be fairly targeted in how you approach people, not simply pounce on anyone with a yellow badge but approach people where from prior knowledge/research you know something about them and can have an interesting discussion with them for its own sake – before you feel them up for a business card. I heard from someone who was given a business card from a producer at Big Talk productions that she was interested in his pitch and was giving him a business card with her real email address rather than the one she was giving out to people who willy-nilly tapped her up. That’s the kind of world you’re in. Basically, don’t be cynical and don’t bullshit.

And you never know who you might stumble into: I found myself at the back of an empty hall chatting with Ben Stephenson for a few minutes.

There was a small vocal core who turned the subject whenever possible to the position of women within the industry and I think the festival organisers were a little taken aback but recognised it as an important issue that should have a formal place on the agenda next year. While everyone made a lot of sympathetic noises, even at Cheltenham the reality was depressing. I heard from one young female student whose experience was spoiled by the predatory sexual behaviour of a senior well-known figure at the festival one night after hours in the bar.

On a more positive note, the days for the most part were pretty full-on and intense, and so escaping to eat and drink, and then drink a bit more, with like-minded people was great fun. I finally got to put faces to names of people I’ve only ever ‘met’ online, as well as meeting lots of new people. Given that we are effectively in competition with each other, it is a very mutually supportive community which I now feel that much more a part of.

Will I be going next year? Yes. But I’ll be trying really hard in the schemes which have a free ticket as a prize.

The power of premise

October 18, 2009

Still in new-baby catch-up mode, I got round to watching the pilot for Flash Forward last night. ABC are presumably hoping to replicate the success of Lost, now in the home straight, although the writing and directing in the FF opener make it Lost’s poor second cousin twice removed. But what it does have going for it is a terrific premise: everyone on the planet simultaneously blacks out as they ‘flash forward’ six months to the same point in time and all get to see two minutes of their own future. Are they bound by fate or can they use their foreknowledge to influence that future?

Flash_Forward_cast-thumb-550x351-19390

It’s a drama that I don’t think was supposed to be laugh out loud funny, but when I wasn’t guffawing I was mostly groaning.

This was heavy handed lazy storytelling that bludgeoned the audience with comically on-the-nose expository dialogue and traded subtlety and mystery for expensive set pieces and cookie-cutter characterisation.

The opening showed great potential, mass vehicle pile ups, aircraft falling from the sky, hell, even Big Ben in London was on fire so the world must be in trouble. But this was Apocalypse-lite. The hospital where the female lead is a surgeon – and we know how smart she is when she intervenes to save a boy’s life without breaking into a sweat – is quieter than the quietest of days in Chicago’s County General. All of those casualties must not have had the right health insurance and were stacked up outside one of LA’s public hospitals while our female lead was able to clean up – not that she needed it – at the end of her shift and head on home in her car along roads which just hours before had been all but impassable.

And is it just me or did her husband not seem a tad young to have had a such a long history of drinking that one more lapse would be enough for her to leave him? And for it not to have affected his career where he seems to have some authority at the FBI?

The scenes at the FBI were the most cringeworthy. Arggh, the dialogue. One of the values of a high concept premise is that it demands little exposition. But Flash Forward really laboured the point, explaining and explaining everything with such a heavy hand that it was an irritating distraction. Yeah, we get it, move on. All that time talking when the story’s potential could have been more fully explored and exploited.

Often if struggling with dialogue the temptation is to say more, to somehow say it better, when what’s needed is to say less or nothing at all.

The show’s flaws weren’t purely down to the script – some of the face-pulling, sorry, acting, had me chuckling – but bad writing makes the actor’s job harder and it’s hard to know who to blame. The director, I guess.

So, a load of hokum. And yet, I can’t wait to watch the next episode.

That’s the power of a great premise.

What do Criminal Justice, Unforgiven and The Reader have in common?

October 8, 2009

This writerly life has come to a complete standstill since our little girl arrived a week ago — and I’ll keep this brief — but I have made time to catch series two of Criminal Justice on BBC1, by Peter Moffat. We are up to episode 3 as I write. I was a big fan of the first series and drama serials is the area I have been working in myself, and so I’ve disregarded the ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ advice to tune in.

The show is a rarity for modern television, in that the pacing is measured, leisurely almost, eschewing the current imperative to get in and out of scenes as quickly as possibly to keep things moving along at the fast clip demanded by today’s attention-deficit audiences. The characters are allowed to breath and significant moments are dwelled upon, the camera lingering, shots held longer than we are accustomed to. It is an immersive experience compared to most contemporary drama, helped by strong performances and the obviously very high production values. The opening episode was masterful.

The show has a great deal going for it.

So what’s wrong with it?

The central character, Juliet Miller, is a passive protagonist, and it is notoriously difficult to sustain audience interest when the central character fails to take decisive action to achieve their objectives (or extricate themselves from a predicament as is the case here). She is going to be tried for the murder of her husband, will lose her new baby in the process, and is doing nothing to defend herself.

Juliet Miller is one of a subset of passive protagonists, if my brain were less baby-addled I might coin a name for it, whereby they have the ability to save themselves but choose not to, often because they are protecting someone else. She is withholding information about her husband which we are encouraged to believe could exonerate her. We don’t know yet what that information is, whether she is protecting her daughter or whether she is simply protecting the memory of her dead husband, or someone else altogether, and we have no way of gauging whether it is a secret worth keeping, potentially worth a life in prison, her family lost to her.

Reveal the secret and the story comes to an end, just like that. I don’t know what the secret is, nor what it will take to reveal it, but I can say with near-certainty that it will be revealed sometime around 9:45 on Friday night. The particulars of how and when the secret is revealed will determine whether we have a happy, tragic, or bittersweet ending.

But in the meantime we are left mouthing in frustration at the screen: come on woman, spit it out!

It reminds of Sally Wainwright’s Unforgiven on ITV, which also featured a woman, Ruth Slater, who was what we might call a victim protagonist, who carried with her a secret, and who could solve her problem (being allowed to see the younger sister given up for adoption when Ruth was imprisoned for killing two police officers) simply by revealing the secret.

If Sally Wainwright was more successful at forestalling audience frustration with the protagonist than Peter Moffat, I suspect it is simply down to run-time: I have the impression that five hours is just too long to try and sustain audience interest when the dramatic core is actually rather weak, however great the writing that envelops it.

Although Kate Winslet’s character in The Reader may not so readily be labelled a victim, she too had the power within herself to save herself from a lifetime in prison at a stroke by revealing her secret, though in this instance I personally found it credible that she would not and that it added to the tragedy of her situation. But if they had stretched her story out to five hours I don’t suppose I would have been quite so forgiving.

Cruel to be kind

September 11, 2009

Julian Friedman has posted the second part of his interview with Kate Harwood (Controller of Series and Serials at BBC Drama) over on TwelvePoint, and it’s a must-read for anyone hoping to break into writing for TV in the UK. (You are a member, aren’t you?) Continuing the theme of the first part of the interview that had me harumphing, she goes on to make it clear in no uncertain terms that she is not interested in ideas for series, serials, or one-offs from writers who have not already been produced and have the requisite “flying hours”, no matter how great the premise. It prompted Julian to ask if writers without an established track record were wasting their time pitching series or serials, and Kate replied with a lengthy and reasoned, but nevertheless emphatic, yes.

It doesn’t matter whether you are simply sending something to the Writers Room, or you are exploiting contacts carefully nurtured over the years to have a producer take it to the Beeb, the BBC won’t make it. If you think they might, you are kidding yourself. If someone tells you they can make it happen, they are kidding you.

Kate said that unproduced writers who wanted to express their own ideas would probably be better off writing a novel or trying to fund their own film.

It’s not exactly what I was hoping to hear, but I’m grateful that somebody in her position has spoken so forthrightly. Self-delusions are an important motivator in the face of very low odds of success, but fledgling writers also need a firm grip on reality to know where best to direct their efforts.

Perhaps there are more openings elsewhere, not at Sky, I wouldn’t have thought so at ITV, maybe at Channel 4?

Now, of course, most spec scripts will never be made and serve as calling cards for potential assignments. Kate suggests that new writers should be aiming for Doctors to gain experience. But in the context of the competition for places on the Writers Academy, Ceri Meyrick was critical of would-be writers who thought of recurring series (Doctors, Holby etc.) as stepping stones to something “better”, and they wanted writers who wanted to write on such shows for their own sake.

Some snarks are disparaging about such shows. I don’t really have an opinion about their merits, because I don’t watch them. My issue with writing for something like Doctors (and let’s not kid ourselves, if I had an assignment writing on the show I’d be crowing all around the blogosphere) is that I don’t know whether I would be able to do it, frankly. There is a big difference between creating your own worlds and characters and breathing life into them, and taking on other people’s existing characters and trying to get under their skin to become a convincing mimic of them. So much for the high premium put on a writer’s original voice.

Damien Hirst

In any sphere artists have a natural range. Working within it they can be brilliant, outside it can be embarrassing. Damien Hirst may be a brilliant conceptual artist but he can’t draw bananas for shit. His genius with dots may never have been discovered if he’d been obliged to make a recognisable stab at a bowl of fruit before being allowed to graduate.

banana

Unless I’m missing something — and please, tell me if I am — the implication is that the only real route into TV is through work on the BBC’s roster of recurring series.

Which leads me to think that my original instinct — that I would be better off directing my efforts at film — was probably correct.

Which means re-tooling the 3-part political thriller I’m currently working on into a 2-hour film. Or a book. Or a graphical novel. Or a radio play. There are opportunities out there to develop original ideas. Even if TV isn’t one of them.

If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

¹ I have no idea if either of those assertions are true. Damien Hirst used for illustrative purposes only. It might just as easily have been one of his contemporaries who confuse T-shirt logos with high art.

Widening the genre net

September 8, 2009

So, the call for examples of scripts that are exemplars of the thriller genre has proved almost as popular as the original post about the zombie sub-genre. I widened the net to catch a few more fish, but it seems that neither of my readers dig thrillers either.

Not to be discouraged, I’ll make it easier on you both. In this latest (and possibility final) instalment of phase I of the genre cookbook, I’m opening the genre up to: films. Or, for the sake of clarity, motion pictures. Whatever you are thinking of, if it doesn’t have pictures, and they don’t move, it probably belongs to another category. And the pictures should probably be on a screen. So, a flick book, for example, wouldn’t count, but film somebody flicking a flick book, that probably would.

hollywood

So, t’interweb. Give me your finest examples of films, examples that really get to the core of what it means to be a film rather than, you know, something else, what films define the space that all future films in the film genre will be measured against.

It may be some time before I move on to phase II, I’ll be busy preparing for the Screenwriters Festival. Oh yeah, and the new baby.

Harumph.

August 31, 2009

Julian Friedmann will publish an interview with Kate Harwood (Controller of Series and Serials, BBC Drama) on Twelve Point, but there is one choice quote he couldn’t wait to share with us on his blog Agent Provocateur:

“the idea is only a small part of the whole and you can have a brilliant idea for a series but if the writer hasn’t the ability to execute it, there’s no point. We have been there any number of times labouring away at a really good idea with the writer who can’t pull it off”.

Well if that doesn’t send a chill down your spine I don’t know what will. At face value it is perfectly reasonable, of course, this is development hell from the broadcaster’s perspective, writers who are unable to deliver on a promise (or a premise).

But the subtext – and as writers we look for the subtext in everything – is that the BBC has had its fingers burned once too often and has closed the door on writers without a proven track record. And if that’s the mindset of the drama commissioners at the Beeb, it will have a trickle down effect on independent producers. For those of us labouring away under the delusion that, whatever the odds, maybe just maybe if we can deliver the goods someone will sit up and take notice and our stories will find an audience, it is a painful intrusion of reality.

As writers we need that delusion, the odds are so stacked against us. We may not be living in a literal bedsit-cum-garret surviving on bread and cheap wine, but hope is our chief sustenance, and it seems as if scientists have just discovered that there is less hope in the universe than previously thought.

Know Hope

With hindsight I’ve made bad choices in selecting which projects to work on. I went with stories I believed in and was passionate about, but these have been stories on a grand scale and so have ended up as serials for TV. That flew in the face of the advice from an agent when I started out writing, who said (he’s American) “I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in the US, if it’s nigh-on-impossible to get a book published, it’s much more so to get a film made, and breaking into TV, well, forget it”.

At least with a film there is a finished take-it-or-leave-it project to be evaluated, and I think my efforts may be better directed there. The question is, do I bother to finish the episode of the current TV project I’m working on first? If it’s just something to offer as a writing sample, motivation becomes difficult. I’ve already travelled the characters’ journey with them countless times in my head. And I know how it ends, and in this case, it’s a tragedy.