Little England, Costumed England.

  Maybe it is because of the vast history, imperialism, the class system or all of the above, here in Blighty, in both film an television, there is a nostalgic longing for stories of the past. The national broadcaster, the BBC, mostly showcase the coming seasonal output by featuring some extravagant costume drama, featuring rose-cheeked ladies and upper middle class gentlemen, generally with some love lorn central characters and a ne’er do well, male or female, wanting to be accepted by the affluent classes, yet not wanting to compromise their ideals and remaining true to their roots.

   Now, as an occasional series or drama, costumed fare is great, not really my thing, but all television is not made for yours truly. I get that. Still, the almost propaganda like output of material that only a small section of society can relate to – and having spent a good deal of time around those considered socially affluent and old world, I can attest to the fact that they are not big on watching television – why do British programme makers insist on churning out so many similar dramas?

   It is not as though there is a massive want for such shows. In 2016 of the top twenty shows watched on U.K. television, five were American shows, eight were reality shows, three were factual or documentary, that leaves four dramas or comedy shows. One was an animated children’s Christmas show, one was a police drama, the third is another take on Conan Doyle’s great detective, leaving one show to satisfy the seemingly huge appetite for costume drama in this country. That show was Call The Midwife and there is not a bustier in sight, nor a country estate.

    Stateside they churn and admittedly cancel, tens of shows year on year. There is no relentless hawking backing to times past, or a seeming necessity to represent just one section of society. Maybe it is the absence of a class system that hasn’t influenced their output. Their shows are also popular worldwide, something that is possibly to do with their approach to television writing as well as the subjects and characters they decide to focus on.

   Whereas here in the U.K. there seems an almost nepotistic, boys-club approach to who writes and produces the content for the main broadcasters, with programmes utilising one or two writers for anything from comedy through to drama, the US takes a different approach. They tend to use a writers’ room, groups of writers working together to make a script the best it can possibly be. That is one of the reasons they have such popular comedy, they already know the jokes can make a room of people laugh. The same can be said for drama and suspense, if it can have the desired emotional effect in the writers’ room, it will probably work on the show and on the watching masses.

    This does not seem to be a consideration when it comes to British television. You can pretty much guarantee that every season the BBC will premiere a costume drama of some description, whether it is an adaptation of a classic novel, Austen, Hardy and Dickens are particularly popular, or fictionalised imagining of some part of Victorian, Tudor or medieval England, there is always a new way of telling an old story.

   That is not to say they do not produce modern works. It just seems that new, modern works are not produced or promoted with the same gusto as the period stuff. It not even that the period stuff is bad, after all when you have had so much practice producing it, you’re bound to be good at it. But it does not reflect nor acknowledge large swathes of history on these shores.

    The national broadcaster does a lot of things well; news coverage, documentary programmes, light entertainment such as gameshows, but this obsession with ye old England of days gone by is not only irritating, it is divisive and ignores large sections of the populace who feel that,  as British citizens, it would be nice if their stories were occasionally acknowledged.

Bad Film, Bad.

  Anyone with an interest in film, whether it is just watching them on occasion, a trip to the cinema or, like myself, have a passion for it, has definitely, at some point, suffered a turkey. This is especially true if you have a Netflix subscription. Really, where do they get some of those films from? It could be a blockbuster, tentpole movie – I walked out of Terminator Genisys forty minutes in. Nobody has enough life to suffer such a turd! – or a particularly bad made for television film when you see an unabashedly bad film it makes you wonder how it got made.

  This is more true of major films than of television films I feel. A couple of fresh-in-the-memory car crashes of major films I can think of, the aforementioned Terminator monstrosity and the tripe that was the last instalment of the Die Hard franchise – incidentally, both films starred Jai Courtney, a coincidence? I don’t think so! – obviously got made because they were sequels and brought a readymade audience. Sequels get made because, for those in the business of filmmaking, it is exactly that; a business. Sequels make money. What about other less than accomplished celluloid efforts, the ones that aren’t sequels, that have no obvious audience and are terrible, how do they get made? How do they not know they are terrible?

   I remember being an extra in a film in the early nineties. I was just part of a clubbing crowd, there to make up the numbers. I remember watching the proceedings and thinking, ‘this film looks awful.’ Unfortunately I turned out to be right. The film currently scores a middling 5.9 on IMDB. I was an extra, with no film experience, no knowledge of the process, but I knew the project wasn’t very good. If I knew, how did nobody else see it?

    Of course, there is also personal taste. The BBC have produced and churned out mildly amusing, but sometimes god awful, middle England comedy fare for decades. It is like watching comedy by numbers, yet it has an audience. The same could be said for their obsession with period dramas. For me personally, their fare is highly repetitive, of not necessarily of a poor standard, it just is horribly, lazily, safe.

    Personal taste aside, the question of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people working on some mediocre project in the hope that it will magically turn out well is confusing. For any budding screenwriter, with their tenth polished draft at the ready, looking to get their work even read by a production company, furthermore greenlit is an uphill struggle if one does not know somebody in the industry.

   There is that old staple, the cream always rises to the top, that is probably true. Unfortunately a lot of ‘cream’ is buried under vast volumes of crap.

   Say a good script does get through, which obviously happens occasionally, if the ‘creative vision’ of the director or producer, perhaps both, doesn’t gel with that of the writer, a great story can become another straight to streaming non-entity. Many a good story or book has become a terrible film. Anyone who has suffered through We Need To Talk About Kevin can attest to that.

   As the great screenwriter William Goldman said, nobody knows anything. Making a film, television show, short or even an advert is such a fickle and tenuous process. I have seen good films that have gained no real acclaim and bad films that have become almost classics. I have watched films and shows – as I am sure many a writer has – and wondered how such badly written things got made, cringing at cliched dialogue and lazy exposition.

   I suppose bad writing and acting and directing are needed, just so as we can appreciate the good and the great by comparison. Also, with the sheer volume of media needing to be filled, it cannot all be filled with reality shows and game shows. It seems we need bad films, even if for no other reason that to give me something to bitch about.

   Still, I not sure I’ll ever understand how a really bad film gets made when of all the artistic mediums, film requires the most collaboration.

An Ode To Acting

   Jon Favreau, the actor and director, and a man whose work I have enjoyed immensely over the years says every director should act. I cannot disagree with this. As a would-be filmmaker myself, I thought that it would be beneficial to take some acting classes myself. Unfortunately, though I was enjoying the course, midday through the course, the tutor decided to focus on poetry as the principal form of expression. I, philistine that I am, could not bear the thought of emoting poetry week after week, it is the one form of writing that I really cannot fully appreciate.

   In hindsight, I regret not sticking it out, because though even though I can marvel at a DP’s vision, and be wowed by a set designers or costumers’ eye for detail, be flabbergasted by a writer’s clever wordplay and ability to tell a story succinctly and subtly, the craft of the actor still remains, to me at least, a special kind of magic.

    I am not talking about your A-listers only. They maybe the draw, the ones who put bums on seats and keep the industry chugging along. They have to deal with the unrelated to the craft issues; stardom, maintaining a persona, always being on, especially in the blanket media age in which we live. Still, regardless how exceptional an actor/star maybe, their talent can only truly shine if those around them, the other performers, their fellow actors, do their part as well.

   Christian Bale is a, rightly, highly regarded actor. Aside from his infamous on set rants, he has turned in mesmerising performances in many films. One of his standouts of recent years was his Oscar winning turn in The Fighter as the real life Dick Eklund, substance abuser and trainer to Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward. Melissa Leo also garnered an Academy award for the same film, both were deserving of their accolades, but Wahlberg was equally as good in a less showy role. In fact you would be hard pressed to pick out a bad performance in that film.

   I’ll admit that The Fighter is probably not the best film to pick when speaking of the craft of acting. It is, after all, an incredibly well crafted film, where every element works. A better pick would be a soap opera or a made for television film. The expectation for these projects are different than those of a tentpole film. A made for television film especially, rarely raises the expectations of the watching audience. The actors, the ones we see in such fair, still have to give their all.

   It is the most public of jobs, on display for the entertainment and gratification of the masses, even when you do not necessarily believe in the material or agree with the story. Actors put themselves in the firing line. A bad film normally reflects badly on the actor, something Michelle Pfeiffer can attest to, as after her turn in the risible Grease 2 she did not work for two years.

   If it is not clear, I love actors. They bring the writer’s work to life and – more importantly – they live for that. The best ones, even the not so good ones, want to give a pleasing performance. They want to bring the character to life, they see things in the script that you may not of thought of, they bring perspective, they bring craft and caring. The rewards can be great, the success stories, the ones who light up our screens, these are the ones we hear about, the ones we see. So many, the vast majority, do it out of love, compelled to do it, ignoring the pragmatism of pursing a more amenable profession to do the one thing they feel they were born to do; act.

   Yet so many, the vast majority whose faces we may – sometimes – vaguely recognise, do it out of love, compelled to do it, ignoring the pragmatism of pursing a more amenable profession to do the one thing they feel they were born to do; act.

A Man Walks Into A Bar…

   A man walks into a bar. Ow! It’s an old joke, but still a funny one. Even if it only elicits a groan on reading it, it is an amused one. I remember reading about the writers’ room for the most successful comedy of the nineties, Friends. It was said that most of the writers, who were generally in their twenties, could not continue much beyond thirty. It seems that like top level sport, mirth-making is a young persons game.

    Comedy, aural or visual, can take many forms. Wordplay with double entendres, satire, misunderstandings, pithy put downs, caustic insults or just plain tomfoolery. Physically there is slapstick, inconvenient aches or pains, pratfalls, inventive fights, grimaces, bad dancing and accidental injury. Great comedic serials or films will utilise many of these elements.

   Back to the subject; is comedy writing better if borne from a youthful mind? Obviously, there is writing and comedy that is of its time, so to be of that time can definitely be helpful if not necessarily relevant. Still, the silent comedy of Harold Lloyd and Chaplin still bears up generation after generation, as does that of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx brothers and Hope and Crosby offerings. Perhaps it is a transatlantic thing. Here in the U.K. It probably only in the last couple of decades that the voice of new comedy talent could be heard in terms of comedy writing, especially on television. The pull of any ‘new’ comedy back then was that it had to be penned by someone who had already given you a successful comedy. Hence we ended up with a multitude of comedic offerings not too dissimilar and, unsurprisingly, feeling old and dated.

   This is not different from any other genre when it comes to writing and the human condition. We like to know what we’re getting ahead of time, so as not to waste time or to avoid disappointment. Conversely, we want to be surprised and entertained by something different. You know; the same but different. Those in charge of the content, the output, also want to be confident of their product. Putting confidence in the unknown is risky. This risk is particularly acute when it comes to comedy.

    With any other genre the written word, on the page, it is relatively easy to follow and imagine. It is one of the reasons so many books get made into films. Not comedic books though. Comedy is special and easy to get wrong. Joseph Heller’s classic book, Catch 22, is a hilarious book. The film is not. That’s not to say that every book not based on a non-comedic film is good. Far from it, it’s just that the transition from book to the screen of a non-comedic book is definitely easier, as agreeing the direction of serious fair, creatively, is possibly far less challenging.

    Still, the subject of age, when it comes to comedy, is a delicate one. As one gets older, especially in terms of changing generation, the urge to keep up with what is current is not only overwhelming, it can be misguided. Observational humour is timeless, something any writer of comedy is bound to be a student of. Comedy that is of its time is a different beast. Part observational, part modern commentary, comedy that is of the present, is probably best written by those young bucks who are waiting hungrily to inherit the Earth.

    So is comedy better written by youth? Who knows. A man walks into a bar…of chocolate. Yum!

You’ve Got To Write, Right?

The quest for an optimal writing approach is never ending. It seems no two writers have the same approach, though it is to be noted that the most successful ones tend to be quite prolific. As an artistic pursuit, it is, by its very nature, a mercurial process. I think one has to be very disciplined if deciding to be a writer.

   It is quite an insular profession. Of course, there are those who write as a duo or television writers who work in a team, but for most aspiring writers and those not working in television or have no desire to, it is a solitary process.

   In some respects, the writing is the easiest bit, especially the first run or draft. If the initial idea really has legs, it can feel as though the writing is just happening, with no real effort on your part. When writing flows like that, it is glorious. In those times your confidence just soars, every scene, action, emotion spilling onto the page feels right. Writing seems the easiest job in the world.

   You stop. Put the draft to one side, work on something else maybe. Or not. You go back to that brilliant first draft. Things have been percolating; was that scene right? Did that reference make sense? Is the lead interesting enough? Is the story coherent? So you reread it. Hopefully, it’s not terrible. It’s not perfect, but you never expected it to be. Does it need tweaking or a complete rewrite? The first, ego driven, response is it only needs a bit of tweaking. Of course, it does. An entire rewrite means your period of flow was utter crap and what you felt was you writing in the zone was probably too much alcohol or caffeine. Tweaking it is then.

   It still is not right. You know it’s not right. You are writing a line every hour instead of a page. The inspiration is on holiday. This where the need for discipline comes in and it is hard. You already know you’re not feeling inspired, so to force yourself to keep writing anyway seems futile. Won’t anything you write just be more crap, an uninspired litany of words, desperately trying to be interesting? Maybe.

   I suppose it’s akin to the marathon; the only way you can do it is to do it. If you have twenty-six miles to run and you start to hurt sixteen miles in, you can’t just stop and stay where you are. Even if you walk, shuffle or crawl, you have to get to some sort of conclusion, whether it be the end or medical intervention. There is no stopping.

    More accurate, now that I think about it, would be scaling a peak. The obvious one would be Everest, but it does not really matter which mountain, or hill for that matter, it is. Once you reach the top you have to come back down. You cannot just stop at the top. You have to find some way to get back to the base. So that’s decided; writing is as hard as mountain climbing.

   Obviously writing is not as demanding as climbing, though it can be as mentally arduous, if not more so. The truth is, which is true of any endeavour, skill or undertaking is the more you do it, the better you get. That is true for any and everything. It’s not to say you will necessarily become exceptional at it, but you will definitely get better, more competent and more comfortable at doing it, that includes writing.

   You may not become the next J. K. Rowling or Aaron Sorkin, but you will improve your writing and complete the amazing ideas, concepts and scenarios that play out in your head.

In The End

Every writer has been there. You’ve got a brilliant idea for a story. Scenes vividly play out in your mind’s eye, the characters aren’t so much your creation, more born straight into your consciousness, fully formed, living their parts. This is beyond make believe, it is a recounting of a story already hurtling full-throttle toward the paper, dynamic conflict to the fore, every action seamlessly leading to another, this is ready to go! There’s only one problem; you’ve got no ending.

   Will you take the risk, like so many times before, and start writing in the hope, much in the manner of Michael Mann, an end naturally comes, only to, much like Mann, peter out unsatisfactorily? You might be lucky and find that dynamic, conclusive end, but if you have begun with no end in mind, is there not always the chance that you may well meander, diluting your ‘brilliant’ story in the desperate hope for a satisfactory end?

    Admittedly, this tends to be the downfall of many a surprise hit television series. They have a brilliant concept and or idea and the initial execution are spectacular. Television, being such a fickle beast, catches the writer unaware. So many so have burnt out after a stellar opening season or even half season.

   How many shows go out like Seinfeld? Riding high and still a must see for many, Jerry Seinfeld decided to quit whilst he was ahead. Ballsy. Lucky. Unlike my writing hero, Joss Whedon, whose seminal series Firefly was cancelled before it could gain traction. It seemed the trauma of that experience influenced his approach to his next television series, resulting in one of his weakest televisual outputs in the middling Dollhouse, a series that lasted two seasons, the arc never fully realised and the end unsatisfactory.

   The end matters, it’s what we remember. Or not. Remember Angel Heart? The mildly indulgent Mickey Rourke vehicle, he ran around for the whole film confusing the hell out of everyone, having gratuitous sex with Lisa Bonet and fearing Robert DeNiro. It was bonkers, but the end pulled it all together, leaving you with your mouth hanging open as you realised what had happened.

   Remember the end of Blade Runner? Not the Hollywood-driving-off-into-the-sunset(misty evening) ending; the epilogue. No, the proper ending. Rutger Hauer’s replicant’s final moments, his understanding of humanity. What an end!

  Back with to Joss references (reverences maybe?) and the conclusion of Buffy The Vampire Slayer; the empowering of all the girls, the collapse of the Hellmouth, Buffy no longer the sole defender of humankind from beast, ghouls and vampires. Perfect.

   There were the shows crushed by the infamous writers strike or a bad title. The first two seasons of Heroes were amazing. We were so invested in the characters. Admittedly the save the cheerleader, save the world thing got a little wearisome, but those first two seasons, as Sylar scythed through gifted individuals and Peter acquired powers by osmosis, they were excellent the tensions of the mysterious Sylar driving the show. Then the writers strike happened. Seasons three and the final fourth terrible season suffered irreparably.

    Prison Break, a show with a simple and compelling premise, suffered from that rare problem of having the end in the title! The first season showed the planning and execution. The second season showed a collection of characters we were invested in from the previous season, in the aftermath of the breakout, the Prison Break. Season three, with nowhere to take a story with the premise in the title, decides to break the lead protagonist back into prison! It went pretty badly after that.

   Films that have tanked midway or towards the end are much more common. In recent memory, there is the much derided Fantastic Four. The film promised so much in the first hour, then became an unwitting car crash in the final act. Another film that turns into an unholy mess midway through is the Tom Cruise starrer Oblivion. The third act is so poor, I cannot even remember the end.

    As eager as l am to write a story or script, long or short, I always want to know the end, where I am going, before I begin, so hopefully, at very least, my story will have a satisfactory ending if nothing else. 

Focus (not the Will Smith film)

  Blogs have taken a back seat of late as I try and turn my attention  forcibly to writing script form fiction. It is nearly a year since I made my last film and in the interim, all I have done is purchase film equipment, at an alarming rate and mooch around worrying about the lack of progress in my film career!
   Blogging has been my only real nod to writing, having procrastinated over various unfinished projects, scripts, without joy. It is not writer’s block in the conventional sense; I have many a project on the go, waiting for this character or that character to do something. It more writer’s inertia. That fear of writing utter nonsense, which in itself is foolish, as I know I am going to rewrite anything I write anyway. There is also the not knowing what the next project will be like. I want it to be an improvement on the last in every aspect – story and visuals – and enjoyed the last experience so much that I crave a repeat, though fear that is unlikely. Not that I am worried about it being awful either, just frustrated at the inertia and silliness of thinking it. What I need is focus, a metaphorical kick up the backside; to take control of my destiny.
   Time to get writing.

A Filmmaker’s Kind Of Movie – Locke

I was wanting to watch the movie ‘John Wick’, as it had not got much of a theatrical release here in Blighty, so checked to see when it was coming to one of the subscription services. Netflix and all the other streaming services had a date of February third. Brilliant, I’ve got Netflix, I thought, i’ll fire up that bad boy and enjoy one hundred minutes of action! Of course it was not available – damn you Netflix! – so I ended up watching ‘Locke’.

‘Locke’, as I say in the title, is not a film for everyone. The entire film is set in a car. There are no chases, crashes, flips or de’er doing of any kind. It is just the story of a good man who makes a life changing decision as the consequences of one night’s, long since passed, poor choice. It is Ivan Locke’s life unravelling. All set in a car.

Tom Hardy, the actor playing Locke, will never be a superstar. He will never open a film, because there is no ‘Tom Hardy’ film. That’s a good thing. In this film he is Ivan Locke. One never sees him as a character from any of his previous films, you just see the story of this man, Locke, on a fateful journey.

So why is this a filmmaker’s film? Even though the entire film takes place in the car, the camera work and editing is joyful. There are things that one may have read about or heard spoken of – the quadrant system as seen here –  the lighting, the overlapping edits, fades and of course, the script. This is not necessarily a big screen film, but, given the lack of physical action, it is still more than a stagy monologue. In fact on stage I suspect it would be quite flat. The fact that he is on a journey, the suddenness with which he has taken the decision and the impact it has on his life, make this a highly watchable film.

As I have mentioned, it is not for everyone, but, if like me, you want to be a filmmaker, this is one not to miss.