Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Voice from Beyond the Grave (Well, the New Forest Actually)

I've only just realised that blogger has a facility where you can post-date a blog entry, and have it automatically populate on a particular day and at a particular time. Woo, and as is custom, hoo!

So, I'm writing this minutes before I get in the car to go off for a break in the New Forest (I'd love to pretend I'm staying in Autumnal England for carbon footprint reasons, but alas it's only because I still haven't got round to getting the little 'un a passport).  But, if all goes well, you'll be seeing this on Thursday midway through my break.  Ain't technology wonderful.

I'm sure I'm enjoying myself, and I hope you are too.  Only a day or two left to get that Red Planet application off: good luck!

See you in October!

Monday, 22 September 2008

Out of Office Autoreply

I don't normally need to make a fuss when I go away for a while, as I usually post so infrequently that it can go unnoticed.  But, having made an effort to up my game of late, it is probably necessary to tell you all that I am off on holiday for a week with the family, so there won't be any posts for a while.

I have left the blog's downstairs light on, so people will think I'm in (and staying up all night every night, without moving from one spot).  If you come by to water the blog's plants, and spot that the freebie newspaper is hanging half-out of my blog's letter box, please do me a favour and knock it all the way through, or else blog thieves may notice, break in, and make off with all my best posts.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the break, as work's been pretty full on recently. My Red Planet entry is finished, sealed and sent.  I'm keeping everything crossed - I'm pretty pleased with it, and to be honest, just producing the material is enough of a win for me (not that I'll be knocking Tony back if he wants to invite me to the next round, of course).  

Also, once I get back, as well as lot of other ideas that are nagging away at my mind wanting to be written, there's another round of digital shorts to think about.  The scheme is opening for submissions in all the screen agencies across the regions, and I'm thinking about putting in a longer script this year.  While I'm away, if you're also thinking of entering, my posts on the scheme and my experiences with it are as linked below, and may be useful:

Digital Shorts - Part 1: Submission

Digital Shorts - Part 2: Selection

Digital Shorts - Part 3: Script Development

Digital Shorts - Part 4: Shooting

Have a great week: see you soon!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Inspirations 5: Rectangle of Cloth

Today's Inspiration: El Mariachi

The final stepping stone on my path leads me to the DVD age.

Though I had been 20-odd years watching Private Schultz, Minder, The Ladykillers, Doctor Who, The Singing Detective and many more shows on the goggle box, I'd never owned my own TV. My family had had one, then my college had had one, then flat mates or girlfriends had had one, I'd just shared each for long spells.

[This ain't an isolated phenomenon - I don't think I've ever bought a tea towel, but I always seem to have a collection of them. I've never been to Torbay. I don't know anyone who's been to Torbay. I don't even know where Torbay is: how did I get a rectangle of cloth emblazoned with it's tourist attractions? Mysteries...]

I moved into my own flat in 1999 and had to face the inevitable - I was going to have to buy a TV. I had my eye on a widescreen model, and I was going to buy a DVD player to go with it, as they'd started to become popular. I mentioned this to a colleague, and he said 'You only really need that equipment if you watch a lot of films'. Hmm, I thought, he's right: if I get that equipment I'll be able to watch a lot of films: great! 

And so I did, and the beauty of getting on board when the DVD delivery medium was new was that a lot of old classics (film and TV) were getting reissued in the new format; I had my film school education in front of a cathode ray tube, gobbling up British classics, and Hollywood greats, as well as indie pics.

And you don't get more indie than Robert Rodriguez's mega low budget action flick, El Mariachi, which I bought in a double pack with Desperado. The film is great fun, but the real revelation was listening to the director's commentary. Everything that had inspired me up to that point seemed out of my reach: they were made in fancy studios by Olympian professionals. If I was to get my stuff to an audience, I thought, I'd have to get patronage from someone of that ilk.  But here was some one who'd been successful by just doing it himself, and he was telling me that I could do the same, and not only that, but he was telling me how.

Very soon, I'd bought a digital camera, and got some editing software, and I was making my own movies.  None of them set the world alight but each one was a learning experience, and made me a better writer.  There's nothing like shooting and editing your own material to hammer home what is dispensable or otherwise on the page.  And working with the limitations of budget is always good for the imagination.

I recommend any Rodriguez DVD: even if you don't like the film you get value for money.  As well as insightful commentaries, there's always a ten minute film school featurette on every disc, and even a rather wonderful ten minute cookery school on Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Next: I realise that I may have created a meme here.  I'm not going to send this out to five other bloggers, because if it's a worthy meme it will self-replicate.  If you want to list five films or TV shows that have been of autobiographical significance to you (you don't have to ramble on as much as I did) then please go ahead, but please do drop me a line to let me know you've done so.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Inspirations 4: Better than normal

Today's Inspiration: The Singing Detective

People like different things, and there's nothing wrong with that. When you're an adolescent and you've been through your taste-defining stage without really realising it, but you haven't learnt enough to appreciate the limitations of what you hold to be of quality, sometimes you can be brought up sharp by different views or attitudes than your own. That doesn't mean those other views aren't wrong however...

I was about 14 when The Singing Detective first aired, and I watched the lot; suitable or not, I didn't care: I knew I was seeing something unique and special. I respect Dennis Potter as a great TV dramatist, and I respect the writer's place as primary author of a work; but, the director Jon Amiel has to take a lot of credit too - he found a visual style beyond anything Potter had imagined, and produced something head and shoulders above Potter's works up to that point.

It was provocative, it was ambitious, it could be called pretentious, you may even hate it. Fine. When it was first repeated, I devoured it once more. I was - what? - a year older and it meant more to me again. By then, I was a hospital radio DJ (apologies, all the other kids were doing it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time) and one night mid-series I was doing some fund-raising event or collecting dedications on the wards or some such. I commented to another hospital radio bod (Stuart Norval - who now reads the local BBC news down here in the South, and good on him) that I had to rush back to see The Singing Detective.

Stuart thought about this, and said: “But it's boring, innit?”

It may be provocative, ambitious, pretentious, you may even hate it. But it's not boring. I was left mouth agape guppy-fish style. I could not believe that anyone really felt like that. But after a short period of time (about twenty years) I got over it, and realised Stuart wasn't lying, and it is possible to be bored by anything, even drama. But I knew I never would be.

I, like every other writer on my blog roll, and every other writer in the world whatever level, will never be bored by this stuff - we can't switch off, we can't ignore it, it nags at the back of our mind and makes us feel guilty if we're not thinking about it. We have to live with that, and some people don't: they don't even know there's a Red Planet competition, let alone will they be scouring their inbox and the world wide web in a few weeks to see if they or anyone they know has won. They call these 'normal people'.

But writers, to paraphrase Philip J. Fry, are better than normal: they're abnormal. Hooray for that!  

Next: El Mariachi

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Inspirations 3: Snake/Buddhist metaphor

Today's Inspiration: Doctor Who

I missed out on Tom Baker, because I got into Who late. The main reason for this was sheer terror - the theme tune sent me scurrying from the room, and the only glimpses I'd catch usually involved that most fearsome of creatures: K9, or as he appeared to my fevered Childish imaginings: 'Doctor Oo's little horse'. He would belch out beams of red death that felled many a guard. Evil.

But I saw a big load of repeats, including all the old doctors, in the Autumn after Baker quit, and then I saw Peter Davison's first year on the job, and I was hooked. I remember having to feign illness twice to get out of cubs so that I could see every episode of Kinda and enjoy odd pre-pubescent stirrings seeing Janet Fielding being all possessed by a snake/Buddhist metaphor.

[Another aside, another survey: I remember everyone at cubs having a vote on their favourite TV show. I told the truth this time, but Doctor Who only got my vote. What won? TJ flippin' Hooker by a landslide. The 80s, they really were a different place.] 

Anyway, as soon as I got into Doctor Who, I also got into a thing called Doctor Who Magazine. And for years, it was the only magazine I read about the making of television. And it was good too: always highlighting the importance of the writer, and covering pretty much every aspect of production, in increasing detail during the wilderness period before the 2005 resurgence. 

It was in DWM that I read about Robert McKee's Story book and seminar in an article about story structures in 1999. I booked myself on the next available London dates: my first writing course. And that was what started my path to where I am now, for better or worse.

Now a parent, I find myself in the same position mine were way back when: should I be too stringent? Or is that worse than being too lax?  As a confused white liberal, I do the whole "we don't like to let him watch too much television" thing, but - you know - it didn't do me any harm (twitch).

This year, as my boy was two years old, and Doctor Who was being shown earlier, I thought I'd give it a try.  The cute Adipose episode was fine, and he seemed to really enjoy it (although at 45 minutes he was getting restless halfway through - Daddy sat rapt throughout, obviously).  But the following week, big lava monsters in Pompeii scared the be-jesus out of him. Who do you think you are scaring my child, Mister Moran?* Well, you're pretty cool, actually. I'm sure some day soon he'll be remembering "the one with the big lava monsters" in fond terms.

Or he'll think Doctor Who is rubbish 'cos his Dad likes it, and he'll want to play football instead.  Well, it'll be fun finding out...

* If it wasn't clear, this is not an attack on James, but a very obscure Doctor Who reference.  If you know to what it refers, you are as sad as me.  Well done.

Next: The Singing Detective

Monday, 15 September 2008

Inspirations 2: Square-Eyed Boy

Today's Inspiration: The Ladykillers

Continuing my attempt to catalogue some of the key films or shows that have collided with me autobiographically, and inspired me to do such a crazy thing as write. Raymond Carver called these his 'Fires' although in the same essay he claimed that his only real 'fires' were his children - he had to keep writing to feed and clothe them. I sensed a hint of bitterness, reading between his lines, and anyone who's ever read his short story "Elephant" - and if not, why not? Go! Go read it now! - will know, he could certainly access that feeling in his subconscious and use it as a motivation for one of his protagonists.

I am lucky enough (in some ways) to only write for love (for the most part) and not to feed my son. There's always a silver lining, and the day job's is that I am freed from the curse of the freelancer; not, mind, that I wouldn't like the opportunity to give it a try sometime soon-ish. I wonder what my son, once he's old enough to appreciate it, will make of a Dad who has this burning desire to write.

My own Dad, rest his soul, did try to reach out to his square-eyed boy, but as Dad's main viewing habits involved football and athletics, there wasn't much common ground. One wonderful gift that he gave me, though, was The Ladykillers (the original, obviously). It was on BBC2 one Saturday, and he said 'Sit down and watch this, it's great' and he was right. It was. It is.

Should I do the same for my son when the time comes? Yeah. One day, I'll stick the DVD on (there's no chance, I guess, of BBC2 showing it any more) and see what he thinks. If he hates it, at least that will save him from the curse: my Dad was responsible for instilling the preconception in me that all British films I saw from that day on would be five-star works of fabtastic genius. Obviously, a lifetime of slight disappointment ensued.


Next: Doctor Who

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Inspirations 1: Before German n'er-do-wells, or famous Gallifreyans

I've just spotted that Private Schultz is out on DVD. When this was first on, I remember watching it - I was quite young, maybe younger than 10 - and feeling something odd and wonderful. I now know that I was responding to great writing, but at the time it just felt like I had learned a secret. No kids of my acquaintance were watching Private Schultz (it was written by the same person that adapted the 70s version of I Claudius, I now find out!). If it had been nowadays, I suppose I could have just gone online to find a TV and film forum to talk to people about it (and they'd all be snooty to me 'cos I'd be younger than 10) but back then I had many years keeping those secrets.

So, over the next few days I'm going to post five more inspirations, with annotations on their autobiographical significance (forgive me the indulgence, I need something to post about and "wrote a lot today because of imminent deadline" is going to get boring very quickly).

Today's inspiration: Minder

Before I discovered the TV adventures of German n'er-do-wells, or famous Gallifreyans, my favourite programme was Minder. Minder was great.

I remember when I was about seven at infants school we had a lesson where the teacher took a survey of when was everyone's bedtime (dunno what this was supposed to teach us). I lied and said I was tucked up in bed by 7pm. But I was always awake till past 10 every night watching programmes like Minder and The Sweeney. My parents were wonderful. Or lax. I haven't worked out which yet.

Only one child put their hand up to a post 10pm bedtime. He was a rough but cool kid: I really should have got to know him better - we might have been watching all the same programmes.

[An aside: you know how people say they didn't realise TV shows had writers or directors when they were young (and it must be true, for so many different people keep saying it). I don't remember thinking that exactly, but I do remember a feeling that everything on TV wasn't real, like a photo-realistic animation, and all the people on TV were controlled avatars of some kind. Except Frank Muir.

I thought Frank must be real because he was on both Call My Bluff and a Cadbury's Fruit and Nut commercial ('Everyone's a fruit and nut case'). So, for a period of some months (maybe even years) I believed the only people that existed were those I'd met and Frank Muir. Needless to say, I was something of a strange kid. For some reason, though, Dennis Waterman was immune to this despite also being in two shows. I'm still not sure Dennis Waterman exists.]

To keep the spirit of my youth alive I still go to bed after 10, and I regularly lie in surveys.

Next: The Ladykillers

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Heads Up

Very late notice, I know, but this is a little forewarning that a film what I wrote "Lent" is going to be screened at 5.30pm, at The Odeon, Aylesbury on Monday 15th September, as part of a programme of Screen South offerings playing at the Short Cuts Film Festival in Buckinghamshire. Details here: http://www.cliffproductions.co.uk/shortcuts08.htm

Alas, I didn't get sufficient notice of this to attend myself, I will instead be at the Writers' Guild event which the venerable Mister Paul Campbell advertises here.  But it's jolly exciting all the same...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Notes on Notes

 have just finished reviewing two other writers Red Planet scripts, as part of this script swap feedback challenge that a group of us are trying out. It's all timeboxed, as it should be: the scripts had to be completed and submitted by August 31st, and the feedback returned by midnight last night. The second deadline was much harder than the first, and I finally finished the feedback by about 11pm last night, exhausted.

This was because script reading is hard. I salute you, script readers all over the world - I could not do this for a living. The major problem is being careful not to give notes for the sake of it just to look like one is giving good value. Also, there is the constant paranoia that one's own style and preconceptions are colouring the impression of material (and, of course, they are). Anyway, I am safe in the knowledge that the writers I was critiquing are big enough and good enough to ignore my notes if they don't suit.

Now, I have the still pretty difficult task of taking the responses to my script, searching for the sticking points which were mentioned by most or every respondent, and formulating ways of fixing those without getting rid of too much I like. Another run through the 60 page script, and a few more passes on the first 10 and the outline by the end of September in time for the Red Planet deadline. Easy.

Of course, I have a family holiday starting on the 20th, and I promised The Wife that there would be absolutely no writing interfering with my duties as husband and father on that holiday. So, I've actually only got twelve days! Oh shit. Better get back to work then.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Grumpy Old Man Syndrome

I'd like to expound for a moment upon a session at this year's Screenwriting Festival in Cheltenham. Maybe I'm getting to be a Grumpy Old Man, or maybe it's a quality of writers that we like to be contrary sometimes, but I very much enjoyed the opening keynote speech by Barbara Machin. Because I disagreed with it.

Well, not every single thing, obviously: Barbara was lovely, and gave her time freely and enthusiastically in multiple sessions across the three days, so good on her. I've also enjoyed what I've seen of her work (her Bafta winning 'multiple perspective' episode of Casualty was sheer class); and, the general message that writers should strive to keep audiences interested is self-evidently true. But Barbara's speech, and the article she wrote for Broadcast on the week of the festival which covered the same ground, seemed to limit the notion of innovation to a dangerous degree.

There is a write up of the speech here which also links to other bloggers' coverage (I wish I could keep as good notes as Jason - I guess I'm too busy sitting in the audience being contrary) but if you missed it, the thrust was thus: audience's are bored by drama, reality and entertainment formats are kicking our butts in the ratings, the US are putting us to shame, and commissioners, script editors, and writers shouldn't be scared of doing non-conventional narratives.

There was also a point where Barbara stated "There never was a golden age of TV" before listing many old shows in a wistful tone that made me think she didn't quite believe herself. But she's right, there never was - it just seems like it because people didn't seem to really know what they were doing, and (maybe) there were less gatekeepers.

Every aspiring 21st Century comedy writer must have gritted their teeth on hearing the old story of the early Monty Python meeting in the late sixties, where some Beeb Suit asked the boys lots of questions about what their new show was going to be like, the answer to each was a shrug and a 'dunno'. 'Okay,' the Suit replied finally, peeved, 'But you can only have thirteen episodes.'

Maybe things were freer then, but I'm not convinced: that Python anecdote has the shape of one that's been finely honed over the subsequent decades, and anyway the Beeb Suit had just bagged six seasoned TV writers, including John Cleese - who was already a star - so they knew they weren't exactly backing a three-legged pony. But, even if true, was the amount of quality programming really that different in those days? No. The good programmes have only endured because people liked them, we've forgotten all the forgettable ones.

Same for the States: we get a lot of great stuff imported from HBO, and a few inspired shows from the networks too, but there's a load of old toss produced across the pond that we never see. And a lot of them never get seen by our American cousins either, as the shows tend to get shit-canned after three episodes.

And are entertainment format ratings out-flanking drama's significantly more than they always have? Again, I don't think so. More people were watching New Faces than Dennis Potter's plays, weren't they?! It's no different.

But it's a constant fight, and we shouldn't be complacent. We do need to innovate to survive. So, what is innovation? What is non-conventional narrative? The examples given were flash forwards to start an episode (an example was given from the West Wing), multi-character perspectives, and... Oh, I'm yawning already. Because these techniques are hoary old clich├ęs. Yes, the approach worked on Casualty, and I loved it, but that was - what? - two years ago now. It's been done. And as anyone who's watched more than four episodes of Battlestar Galactica in one sitting (and why not?) can tell you, flash forwards get old very quickly.

I'm being unfair of course. It isn't easy to list examples of innovations, because if you've got an example of it already being done: it ain't really an innovation anymore.

So, what's to do? Well, it's not so gloomy. There's a recent drama that holds it's own against the reality shows, is always top non-soap drama of the week and a top ten show. It often beats the soaps and has reached number 1 in the ratings on several occasions. That show is New Tricks. Yes. The one with Dennis Waterman and Co: a cold case detective show, i.e. a format as old as the sun; its only twist is that the detectives are old, just like the cases. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant. The show has found a loyal audience, and this seems well deserved to me, even though it's not my cup of tea.

The Wire *is* my cup of tea, and is loved and talked about by many (though perhaps not tuned into by so many - it's more of a DVD phenomenon). And The Wire deliberately eschewed any formal tricksiness and embraced as total a realism as it could. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant.

I agree with Barbara Machin: every series should strive to be different, but how it should be different should not be imposed from without, but should develop from within. True innovation will emerge naturally, if talented people do their imaginative best to entertain and surprise their audience; it will emerge from a premise, or a plot, or most importantly from characters that people might love. If we start with just the idea that we should innovate, we will get into trouble. I do worry that, in a speech given to an audience with a large proportion of writers who are starting out, Barbara might have made a dogma out of trotting out flashbacks and voice over and all that boring stuff.


But maybe I'm just a Grumpy Old Man.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

A post a day...

As I am often criticised (in a friendly manner, mind) by my blog-o-peers for the somewhat sporadic nature of my posting, I set myself a challenge recently to do a week straight of daily posts, without skimping too much on content. Hooray! I managed it. Well, you can make up your own mind about the content: without days and weeks to ponder, I do tend to rant on occasion, apologies for that.

The interesting thing about this is that I have done more and more focused writing during the week I was strenuously blogging than I have for a while previously. It might well be coincidence, or something to do with having a birthday, but I seem to have upped my game a little. Does this mean that I can't use being busy as an excuse anymore? Well, no...

As I'm doing a script report on two Red Planet entries, brainstorming some ideas for 'Santa Baby' and continuing my work on 'Life Support' I am going to revert to posting every couple of days. But please feel free to drive by and blog-o-insult me if it all gets too quiet round here again.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Everyone's a Critic 2

Well, the internet has failed to heed my advice to be nicer and more constructive.

"The Wrong Door" was broadcast the other day (only got round to seeing it on the iPlayer yesterday, because I've been busy with things like doing one post here per day - it's killing me, I tells ya!).  Anyway, the scribosphere's own Phill "Phill 'The Barron' Barron" Barron's written some sketches for the series. See his lovely blog here for further nice information: it was received well in most quarters, the ratings were good, they built over the course of the episode.

All wonderful, you may think.  But no! What you have failed to see is that Barron is a sinner. He has been guilty of that most uncommon of vices - he's got work out there, and to a sizeable audience.  And to compound it, it's work that is trying (and succeeding, at least in this house) to make people laugh. What a naughty fellow!

You'd think Phill had strangled the Queen Mother's otter or something to see the reaction in the dustier corners of the web. Some people have taken the time out to go to his blog, and abuse the show and him in the comments section.  Luckily, Phill isn't me (I'd be weeping buckets by now) and has taken this in his stride.  And good on him, because it's a triumph to get paying gigs, let alone get things made, let alone get things watched.

Sad to say, a forum of which I'm a member, and which I used to think was rather civilised and above this sort of thing, has got a thread going titled "The Wrong Door - Good Grief"; and in this thread a poster has linked to Phillip's blog, making some derisory comments, and putting the "blame"squarely at his door.  This is all wrong. It's wrong to put it at his door. Wrong door (this subliminal advertising lark is easy, isn't it? I'll take cash or cheque, Phill).

Serious Point time: How about this? Don't say something in print to someone online that you wouldn't tell them to their face.  That works for me.  (Imagine if the person you were slagging off was sitting next to you, how embarrassed would you feel).

Monday, 1 September 2008

Bits and Bobs

Yesterday: I completed the first 10 pages of the pilot script and one page outline for 'Life Support' according to deadline. The writers' group will now provide feedback on each others work: one person facilitates, by randomly selecting which scripts go to whom. So, I will have one or two sets of feedback to do this week, and will get one or two sets of feedback on my own work in return. I'm looking forward to trying this approach - it might not be as comprehensive as Power of Three, but it is probably more applicable at times where everyone in the scribosphere is maxed out working to the same competition deadline.

Today: Had a meeting with Colin Stevens of Green Steven Films, where we signed the option contract for my screenplay 'Santa Baby'. Lovely! Great discussions were had about possible additions, which I'm going to brainstorm over the next two weeks. This is a short live-action project that has got good responses from everyone who's seen it, and Colin and I think it has great potential to be a seasonal TV offering. Here's hopin'. And do watch this space - I'm looking forward to keeping the blog updated about this one.

Tomorrow: I'm sending off another script to the BBC Writers' Room, which I'm printing tonight. I'm trying to get three or four pieces to them per year, depending on quality and suitability of what I have to submit. This should hopefully keep my name in the frame without constituting a bombardment. 

That's all for the mo'. Hope everyone is having a productive time right now. Hey - when did it get to be September?