Wednesday, 23 April 2014

For those about to write, we salute you.

And so, let us starts with the apologies. I write this in my cups, under the influence, one over the eight, pissed. This blog comes after the best of nights; a night on the lash with other writers. Very appropriate for the 23rd of April 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Happy Birthday Bill!

And so I also think it is appropriate to sing the drunken praises of my fellow scribes, those other daughters and sons of the written word. The women and men who understand the human condition and bring it to life of on the page screen, stage and page. Those astronauts in the outer space of empathy and the search for truth. Ah, that’s pretentious babble but it’s not entirely off target.

You see the greatest thing about making a living from putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, arse to chair is your fellow travellers. That’s what makes this odd choice of career sustainable. The realisation that you are not the only one with that skewed view of the world, that exposed heart, that need to chronicle. And it is a need, not a whim or a vague notion.

And so the best moments of this odd life is not spent at the desk but in the tavern, inn, pub or coffee shop. That moment when you realise it’s not just you! There are other freaks that obsess over the words, over the scenes, over the characters. The first time you squee over that episode, that scene, that minor character. They get it, the minutiae. More importantly, they get you.

It’s an extraordinary moment. A feeling of belonging that you never felt at school, at your first crappy job or even, whisper it, when amongst your family.

That is not to say that your nearest and dearest can’t be taken on the journey. The box set and the book becomes your gift to those you love. Never turn your nose up at a flat, rectangular gift from a writer. Our heart and soul comes in those oblong boxes. It means we love you. In return, buy us stationery. There is nothing more guaranteed to gladden a writer’s heart than an unsullied page and the unused pen.

And so on this holiest days, I salute you my sisters and brothers of the pen. I share your frustrations, your tears, your triumphs and your desire to be ‘got’. And I urge you to remember that there is strength in numbers. The Writers’ Guild is there for you, manned and guided by your fellow writers. Other writers are there for you. Reach out, we’ll be there.

Well, when we’ve got this draft in. You may need to be patient.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

They Say The Darndest Things...

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with some fellow TV writers. Well, I say a conversation; it was more a cathartic expulsion of bile and frustration. But then don’t all conversations between writers ultimately end up that way?

Anyway, the topic under discussion was “things that TV Development Producers say”. Or specifically, “things that Development Producers say that make you wish BBC & ITV buildings had functioning windows so that you could throw yourself out of them”. As I said, it was quite a cathartic discussion.

Many of the producer quotes were greeted with howls of painful recognition. We’d all heard them in meeting after meeting. Those little clich├ęs or go-to questions that they trot out in every meeting with every writer. So much so, that they are now a trigger for involuntary violent fantasies. But were we being fair? Do the producers even realise that they’re doing it? Perhaps they have no idea that we’ve heard all their little sound bites before?

So, I’ve decide to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but offer this as a friendly guide to things you shouldn’t say in development meetings. Especially if your windows are open.

I also provide a little guidance on how a writer should/should not react to these pearls of wisdom.

1. If you could sum this idea in one line…


What You Shouldn’t Say
If I could sum up my idea in one line I wouldn’t need to write a script? Why must everything be boiled down to the small paragraph that will appear in the Radio Times? It strikes me that if you can’t grasp a concept that requires more than ten words you’re in the wrong job.


What You Should Say
It’s Sherlock meets Breaking Bad.


2. This is a great start/first draft.


What You Shouldn’t Say
A great start? A great fucking start? Have you any idea how I’ve sweated over this? And do you really think I’d send you an actual first draft? Writing this ruined my marriage, you prick. I missed my kid’s Nativity play to get this to you.


What You Should Say
I can’t wait to take it to the next level.


3. Why should we tell this story now?


What You Shouldn’t Say
Because I've only just had the idea. And why does it matter anyway? By the time you’ve ummed and ahhed over it, we’ll be five years down the line. For fuck’s sake, aliens could have invaded and UKIP could be in government by the time you make a decision and it actually gets on the screen. And did you ask that question when you were doing your latest reboot/literary adaptation? Or did you just ask whether the material was out of copyright? Wow, do they actually give you a book of stupid, pointless questions to ask?


What You Should Say
I think we can draw a lot of parallels between the 16th century and Austerity Britain. And stories about the human spirit are ultimately timeless.


4. We really like what you’ve got here, but have you considered…


What You Shouldn’t Say
Of course I’ve considered it. I’ve been through every permutation of this story to get to this point. I didn’t just bash it out in an afternoon, you know? I’ve lived with this idea, working it through my mind, drawing on everything I know and have experienced. I’ve lived with these characters until I feel like I know every detail of their lives; things that won’t make it to the screen but will inform everything they do and say. I did all that before I could even consider showing this to you.


What You Should Say
That’s a really interesting idea.


5. Whose story is it?


What You Shouldn’t Say
It’s MINE! You can’t have it. You’re not worthy!


What You Should Say
Ultimately, it’s about a flawed and complicated protagonist. S/he’s an everyman/woman that the audience will fall in love with.


6. I’ll know what I want when I see it.


What You Shouldn’t Say
Well, any chance you could give us a clue what that might be? Start by telling us what you don’t want to see and we’ll go from there. And don’t give me that shit about your likes and dislikes being irrelevant and it being about ‘good writing’ when we all know it’s about who bought you a drink down at the Groucho Club last week. When I’m made to throw shit at the wall, I’d like to know there is an outside chance that some of it might stick.


What You Should Say
Wow, it’s great to have such a blank canvas. It’s like there are no wrong answers.


7. I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.


What Not To Say
Why? Are you incapable of doing your job? Actually, I asked my postman what he thought of you and he called you an unprofessional dick. The woman in the chip shop agreed. I like to get a second opinion too.


What To Say
It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes.


But the ultimate annoying question and one that we’d all been asked….


8. But, if the main character does this will the audience like her/him?


What Not To Say
Perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll have a strong emotional reaction to the character instead of simply liking them. I like lots of people but I don’t want to give up an hour of my precious TV viewing time to watch them. Did you like Tony Soprano? Walter White? Nurse Jackie? Hamlet? I think you’re confusing liking a character with having sympathy for them, identifying with them, rooting for them, being outraged by them. The job of the screenwriter is to get us to feel something, not just to ‘like’ it.


What To Say
I was thinking we could cast Martin Freeman/Suranne Jones.


So, there you have it; all genuine things that are said repeatedly in development meetings. If you have ever said any of those things to a writer; shame on you. But it’s not too late to change your ways.


As ever comments are encouraged and welcomed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Writers' Blog Tour


Dearest Reader,

 
As you know I am somewhat erratic when it comes to blogging. I usually wait until I’m livid to write something career-threatening and possibly libellous.

And so, I’d like to thank Robin Bell (www.robinbellwriter.blogspot.com) for pressganging me into writing something slightly calmer. Basically this seems to be the blog equivalent of a chain letter. I answer the following four questions about my current writing and then get some other sucker to do it. Haven’t chosen the suckers yet, but watch this space.
 
1. What am I working on?
 
Currently I’m writing a new episode of Midsomer Murders, but that question never quite covers the reality of being a working TV writer. At any one time I have five to ten other projects in various states of completion from a full script to having a snappy title. Most of those projects I can’t talk about and most of them will never get past the various drama commissioners’ desk. By which point all the life and fun will have been sucked from them.
 
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 
First off, I didn’t word that question. What genre? I write across several genres. I also think that people often confuse genre for form. I assume what is being asked is what sets my writing apart from others. I don’t think that’s for me to say. I hope my writing is warm, sparky and compelling. But then I should imagine everyone hopes that about their work. It’s often said that writers should develop their ‘voice’; I can’t remember when I wrote in anything other than my voice. Although that’s not to say that it is never influenced by the vast amount of TV I watch.
 
3. Why do I write what I do?
 
I suppose I should write something noble about being driven to write by a deep inner need to express humanity in all its glory and depravity. Honest answer? Sometimes it’s that. Sometimes there’s a story or character that’s just itching to get on the page. Sometimes I impress myself with a new idea so much that I need to get my ego stroked by getting other people to tell me it’s brilliant. And sometimes I write for the money like a cheap whore.
 
4. How does my writing process work?
 
Mainly, it doesn’t. It’s a soul-sucking, self-defeating routine of procrastination, distraction, self-delusion and twatting about on Twitter. However, after a few days of that and with the deadline looming, I kick into tunnel-vision mode where the only thing that matters if getting the fucking thing on the page. I write it like I’m possessed by it and I hate it. It’s a slog of early mornings, late nights, crap food and poor personal hygiene. And then the writing narcotic kicks in. I can never predict when but it’s never a moment too soon and so far it’s never too late. It’s that high you get when it’s finally flowing. When my fingers can’t fly across the keyboard fast enough to get the dialogue down. The characters are speaking and the stories are forming. It’s the closest I get to believing in the supernatural. And then I take a shower, clean the kitchen, phone my parents to tell them that I’m still alive and the next day it starts all over again.
 
And there you have it!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.


As regular visitors to this blog will know, I am not a stranger to fits of rage, fury and general kick-the-cat anger. I try to channel them into humour and not kicking cats. Before anyone calls the RSPCA; I don’t own a cat. And thank God for that, because something happened last week that would have had me firmly planting my boot up Chairman Meow’s fundament.
 
The Guardian newspaper has decided to take a break from the quinoa recipes and stories about Twitter to run their own film awards. You know, because what the UK film industry really needed was another evening spent in a London hotel function room eating cold food, slapping each other’s backs and listening to video speeches from actors who couldn’t be arsed to get on the plane from LA. Yeah, that’s just what a national film industry that is in decline requires.

  
But that’s not what put me in the bad mood. Have a look at the categories.

 
So, there’s the usual suspects; best director, best performance, best film etc. Hang on a minute, this looks like fun. There’s a category for ‘Best Scene’ and ‘Best Line of Dialogue’ instead of ‘Best Screenplay’. Okay, I think it’s difficult to ask people to judge those things out of context. Still, at least it’s recognition of the writer’s craft and how we use dialogue and scenes to build a story and characters…
 
Except it’s not, because those trendy wankers at The Guardian haven’t actually bothered to involve the writers in those categories. Indeed, in the Best Dialogue category, they’ve listed the actors that learned those lines, but not the writers that actually wrote them.
 
This is what incites my genuine and deep felt rage. This utter inability to understand how films are actually made coupled with such a spectacular lack of basic respect for my profession. The idea that months, often years, of work by a writer can be boiled down to a line of dialogue or a scene that looked good on the trailer is bad enough. However, not even bothering to credit the men and women who stared at a blank page or computer screen and then conjured those lines and those scenes from thin air, is unforgivable.
 
Because that is what screenwriters do, They create the characters you love; the dialogue that made you laugh; the scenes that broke your heart, FROM NOTHING. Before a DOP touches a camera, before a costume designer touches a sewing machine, before a producer touches a phone and before a director touches some poor unfortunate starlet on the casting couch. Before all that there is a writer and the blank page.
 
And that is certainly before anyone designs the fucking poster or edits a few clips over an Ed Sheeran track, but the Guardian hacks still think that the ‘Best Marketing Campaign’ is more worthy of an award than the writers.
 
I’m assuming that the bright spark that came up with these award categories was one of the imbeciles who couldn’t understand why the silent film The Artist received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. The sort of imbecile who will never understand the tyranny of the blank page and the sheer hard work that goes into creating a credible script with a narrative structure and complex characters. To isolate just one line of dialogue or a scene shows an ignorance of film, not a love for it.
 
The very least that the Guardian could have done was credit the writers of the films from which they arbitrarily lifted scenes and dialogue, but they could not even be bothered to do that. So, I’ll do it for them.


Alan Partridge:Alpha Papa
Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons & Armando Iannucci

Gravity
Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron

The Great Beauty
Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello   

12 Years A Slave
John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northup)

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen

Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel & Ethan Coen

Before Midnight
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Kim Krizan

Post Tenebras Lux
Carlos Reygadas

Blue is The Warmest Colour
Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix (Based on the book by Julie Maroh)

The Wolf of Wall Street           
Terence Winter (based on the book by Jordan Belfort)

Behind the Candelabra
Richard LaGravenese (based on the book by Scott Thorson & Alex Thorleifson)

American Hustle
Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell

Nebraska
Bob Nelson

Philomena
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith)

Robot and Frank
Christopher D. Ford

Her
Spike Jonze
 
That took me about 10 minutes to look up on IMDB. It shouldn’t really have been a stretch for a paper that apparently prides itself on the quality of its journalism. But then the journalists probably just, you know, throw a few ideas together. It will be their editor that whips it into shape. It’s actually all about the typeface and the pictures that he chooses, the words aren’t that important. Are they?
 
See what I did there?
 
It seems to The Guardian that we writers are not even worth ten minutes of their time. However, it is worth saying that other publications are equally dismissive.


I’m looking at you Empire; allegedly the World’s Biggest Film Magazine. Let’s not even talk about how your photo shoots of actors usually have them in sharp suits whilst the actresses always seem to have forgotten to put on their trousers. Perhaps you could take a break from turning into Loaded and actually list the writers on your film reviews? Perhaps interview them once in a while? Because without writers there is no film for you to actually write about and no reason for Jennifer Lawrence to be naked and covered in blue paint.
 
It’s not about money or credits or claiming ownership of films. It’s about respect.
 
 
 
 
No cats were harmed during the writing of this blog.