Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 83: Am I a rat?


If you know me and are mulling over the answer to that question, well just hold that thought, I’m going to come back to it.

I know little of my geneaology or ancestry; the two parts that I vaguely know, are that on my paternal side, I carry the surname Joyce, which is Irish. On the west coast of Ireland in Galway, there is an area called Joyce’s County and of course, Joyce is no bad surname to have as a writer, so I'm happy with that.

My mother’s maiden name (which I’ve mentioned here before) was Lepla and the little I know of that, is that it’s an anglicisation of the French name Le Pla; a little poking around on the proverbial 'world-wide' tells me that Macques, Jacques and Jean Le Pla were French Protestants who fled France and the Spanish Inquisition in the 1600’s to settle in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of Enhland, which is where half of my mother’s side of family herald from.

Where am I going with this?

I’m happy to lay claim to any French part of me, based on little more than a gut feeling, a desire to live in Paris and a love of Emile Zola’s writing (the father of Realism or Naturalism, I forget which). Emile Zola’s 'Thérèse Raquin' is one of my three most- loved novels. I’m also bent on working my way through his Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels that he wrote about French life, which include 'Germinal' and 'Nana'.

I’m more than happy to scavenge for writing DNA wherever I can: the surname Joyce (surely I must be related somewhere along the line to the author of the unreadable 'Finnegan’s Wake'?), the fact that I was reared and raised in Portsmouth (not only the birthplace of Dickens, but also where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had his medical practice - two cherished novellists) and now I’m trying to draw the longest of bows between me and Flaubert, Sartre, Molière, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo and any French writer of note; this is what leads me to the question of the “rat”.

Recently, I did a script consultancy job on a feature-length animation piece and, as is my wont, rolled my sleeves up and got to grips with the genre. One of the many films I watched that I loved, was Ratatouille (borrowed from my Godson and his brother). Disney/Pixar’s co-production of Ratatouille is the story of Remy the rat and his ambitions to become a chef in Paris, working in the kitchens of the much-lauded restaurant belonging to the late Chef Gusteau.

Not long into the film, for reasons that I won’t go into here, the Protagonist of our story - Remy - finds himself living in the garret of one of the sous-chef’s from Gusteau’s, high above Paris (I can only guess that they’re in Montmartre) with the most wonderful view over the city. The dictionary definition of “garrett” is “a top-floor or attic room, esp. a small dismal one (traditionally inhabited by an artist)”; sounds very 'La Bohème' to me, however, the attic and it's view across Paris in Ratatouille looks delightful to me (I know, it’s a a movie and it’s Disney-Pixar but let me romanticise a bit). I’d be more than happy to live my life in that garret with that view of Paris, hence I keep it on my mobile phone, just like Remy never lets his gastronomique dream out of his sight.

The wonderful idea at the heart of Ratatouille, espoused by Remy, chanelled through him by Chef Gusteau, is that “anyone can cook”, and so they can. If you can read, you can cook and if you can read, guess what, you can write.

Day #83 Tip: Anyone can write
Many of the script consultancy gigs that I get to work on are with first-time screenwriters, people often working in other professions - law, advertising, teaching - who have written a screenplay and aren’t quite sure what to do next. One of the questions that I’m always keen to ask is this: “Do you want a career as a screenwriter or do you just need to tell this story?”. More often than not, it’s a question that they’ve never asked of themselves and, if I total up the responses I’ve received over the years, more often than not, most are keen to see just this one script through, for whatever reason.

I’ve mentioned here before about a week long script intensive/hothouse that I attended in Byron Bay (northern New South Wales) nearly three years ago, run by Screen Australia (our federal government’s film body). The intention of the week was to put the second draft of my screenplay, The Detective, under the microscope and move me, the producer and the project towards draft #3.

That week, was one of - if not ‘the’ - most fulfilling weeks of my professional life and here’s why I think that was. The architect of the Spark programme (for that is what it’s called) that year was Jackie McKimmie, a writer (and filmmaker herself) and Jackie’s point of departure for each individual involved on the journey with the eight writers present was this “what can I do to help you write the film that you want to write?”.

I’ve come across many teachers, collaborators, script readers and significant others in the industry who would appear to come from the antipode of this: “what can i do to stop you from writing the film you want to write?” A plague on those people....maybe a nice, gentle plague though....on second thoughts, maybe not.

My niece/goddaughter has embarked on a dance and movement career ever since, well since I can’t remember. A friend’s son has recently begun a 3-year course at Sydney’s College of Fine Arts here in Australia. Aas I write this, another son of other friends at this very moment, has his head deeply buried in study, hoping to make the grades that will see him take the place on offer to him, to study the classics at Oxford. To them and all others giving it a red hot go, I say “what can I/we do to help?”

Anyone can write, it’s just whether you want to or not I guess? I’m a paid-up subscriber to theRatatouille school of thought and action; Remy, me and those I’ve just mentioned - Kimberly, Sam & Harry respectively - have much in common

So, maybe somewhere along the line the French in Remy and I crossed some sort of path that could link us.....maybe....possibly?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 82: Today's Resolution


Yesterday I talked about the popular sub-genre of comedy which is the Comedy of Disguise or Mistaken Identity. These are hi-concept films that sell themselves so easily in ‘25 words or less’, once you add an actor’s name, they’re a self-starter:

Tootsie An unemployed actor with a reputation for being difficult disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera....starring Dustin Hoffman.

Mrs Doubtfire After a bitter divorce, an actor disguises himself as a female housekeeper to spend secret time with his children held in custody by his ex....starring Robin Williams.

School Of Rock Wannabe rock star in need of cash poses as a substitute teacher at a prep school, and tries to turn his class into a rock band.....Jack Black.

Dave To avoid a potentially explosive scandal when the U.S. President goes into a coma, an affable temp agency owner with an uncanny resemblance, is put in his place.....Kevin Kline.

Working Girl When a secretary's idea is stolen by her boss, she seizes an opportunity to steal it back by pretending she has her boss's job.....Melanie Griffiths.

The Birdcage A gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion agree to put up a false straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiancé's right-wing moralistic parents.....starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

The reason that the storylines of these films lend themselves, so well and so easily, to the format of ’25 words or less’ (otherwise known as the "elevator pitch") is that in the one line we learn who the protagonist is, what his/her/their goals are and where the potential source of conflict lies. That conflict dwells, of course, in the, often outlandish, pretence that the protagonist is willing to put themselves through to achieve their end. I would suggest, that so familiar are we with this comedic sub-genre, that on hearing the pithy pitch and hearing just where the conflict lies, we know the scenes or filmic moments that we can expect see when a secretary pretends to be her boss or a salesman passes himself of as the US President; the inherent drama, tension, conflict and ensuing laughter all lie in the pretence. You didn’t really need me to tell you that.

Let me go one step further: the tension always, always, always hinges on the will-they, won’t-they get caught scenarios:

The moment when the protagonist, in their normal guise, has forgotten to remove one tell-tale trace of the alter-ego's disguise: lipstick, nail polish, something that betrays them. Usually, the character in the scene with the protagonist says something like “Michael, is that lipstick you’re wearing?”, suspecting the protagonist of some outré sexual behaviour, but the smart and quick-witted protagonist (they’re usually smart and quick-witted, which makes us like them more) comes up with a sure-fire explanation and the scene moves on.

The reverse or mirror image scene of the previous one is where the protagonist is in their full disguise (often that of a woman) and lets their guard down for a second, speaking in their normal male voice rather than the falsetto one that they’ve been employing in keeping with the character they’re purporting to be (this generally takes place in front of a support character - taxi driver, waitress, bus driver, retail assistant - who is inconsequential to the plot and can’t put the protagonist in jeopardy.

The Climactic scene is always the reveal, the moment where the duplicity and deceit are brought to a head as the protagonist is unmasked. It’s always big, very public and everyone important to the protagonist witnesses the moment. Everything that’s at stake (for everyone), that has been building up over the 90-100 minutes of the story, is turned topsy-turvy; a powerful moment, full of meaning and emotion.

Finally, there’s the Resolution scene; often in these films it’s about the alter-ego character that the protagonist has been inhabiting, now gone. Others in the protagionist’s life admit that they somewhat “miss” that person, so the writer’s of the film find a way of reprising the alter-ego character. Because we’ve invested so much of ourselves in the hero and his/her goal (generally a worthy objective) we need to be gently prised away from Dorothies and Mrs. Doubtfires, before letting them go forever.

When Michael (Dustin Hoffman) waits on the street to meet the Jessica Lange character- at the end of Tootsie - to see if he can they can salvage anything from their relationship, Julie (Lange) has a line that’s something about missing Dorothy (Michael’s alter-ego) or Dorothy’s clothes or him/her maybe helping her to choose clothes?

Throughout the film, we’ve lived the stress and anxiety of the protagonist with the protagonist because we’ve been in on the charade with them; at the same time, we’ve become attached to and fallen in love with the character that they created - Dorothy in the case of Tootsie - because that alter-ego character is the side of the protagonist that they needed to discover to move forward in life (the missing piece of their personality jigsaw) and we needed to witness them discover that. That's the idea that is always deep within the Comedy of Disguise.

Day #82 Tip: A Resolution
The Resolution is also often described as the dénouement; that final part of a play or film in which all the story threads are pulled together. In fact, another description I’ve often heard used a metaphor of this moment being akin to the tying of a bow on a gift-wrapped present, which is ironic, given that the origin of the word dénouement, is the French verb, dénouer, meaning 'to unknot'?

Musically, it’s like a coda, that “concluding passage”, often an “addition to the basic structure”. In Christopher Vogler’s 12-part narrative structure of The Writer’s Journey, he refers to it as “Stage Twelve: Return With The Elixir”.

Whether we call it the Resolution, Denouemnet, Coda or Epilogue, the moment is more-often-than-not-needed, just like a final parting, a chance to see how everyone faired or ended up. Sometimes it’s a bitter-sweet moment, other times everyone lives happily-ever-after.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Day 81: A chance to shine


Question: What do these films have in common, Mrs. Doubtfire, Some Like It Hot, Dave, Working Girl, Tootsie, Shakespeare In Love, School Of Rock, The Birdcage?

Answer: they are all Comedies of Disguise.

The super genre of Comedy is broad, just like Crime, and within the wide reaches of this genre are many sub-genres: comedy of manners, black comedy, satire, farce and many more, including the comedy of disguise (or identity).

Some other things that those films all hold in common: they were all huge box office hits, they were all critically well-received, they were funny AND they were vehicles providing knock-out roles ripe for virtuoso performances by an actor or actress. Dustin Hoffman got an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for playing Michael portraying Dorothy in Tootsie. Robin Williams also won a Golden Globe for being Daniel posing as Euphegenia Doubtfire. Jack Black was nominated for School Of Rock and Nathan Lane for The Birdcage. Jack Lemmon won a Globe and was Oscar-nominated for his turn as Daphne in Some Like It Hot, Kevin Kline was Globe-nominated for Dave and Melanie Griffiths was nominated for an Academy Award for Working Girl. Gwyneth Paltrow of course won her Oscar for Shakespeare In Love.

In the Ricky Gervais TV programme, Extras, Kate Winslett jokes that a sure-fire way to garner an Oscar nomination is to play someone with a disability, but my reckoning has it that the leading role in a Comedy Of Disguise shortens the odds of an award coming an actor’s way considerably.

Eighteen months ago, I script consulted on a draft of a comedy of disguise screenplay. As preparation, I quickly studied the genre as I would as if writing one myself and it didn’t take too long to become acquainted with the conventions of this genre that dates back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night & As You Like It and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and probably before that (the Greeks generally did everything that we’ve seen on stage, film and television).

The dramatic cousins of the comedy of disguise are: (1) what I’ll call ‘undercover with good reason (Boys Don’t Cry, Serpico) and (2) the Superhero film (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Zorro, The Lone Ranger); both the dramatic versions of the double-identity film rely on much of the story’s tension (not always the Central Plot) coming from the question of whether the protagonist will be unmasked, literally and or metaphorically.

Identity-duplicity subplots are also two-a-penny in many films: Harrison Ford’s streetwise Philadelphia posing as a member of an Amish community in Witness or any number of escaping allies pretending to be Nazi’s or neutrals in The Great Escape and other WWII prisoner-of-war films.

Whether central plot or subplot, dramatic or comedic, a protagonist’s story of character deception is a tried and tested winner,; with the caveat of “if you get it right” and “if you freshen the cliché”.

Whether it’s a story about a man taking on the persona of a woman (most comedies of disguise seem to be about a man playing or dressing up as a woman) or whether it’s about a slacker pretending to be a teacher, a film wherein the protagonist is going to perpetuate a duplicity on friends, family, colleagues and loved ones, has to be grounded in the first of the conventions that I observed from studying these movies at length. Ignore this one at your peril: there has to be a good reason why the character is doing this. I’ve got to know what the character wants, why they want it and I’ve got to want them to achieve their goal (this holds good for all films and all genres). It’s the rule-of-the-road for audience empathy vs audience ambivalence.

In Mrs.Doubtfire, Robin Williams’s character, Daniel, has lost the right to see his kids without an accompanying social worker and he loves kids, both personally and professionally...he’s a kids entertainer. The only way that he can get to spend time with them is by coming up with the plan to pose as a Scottish nanny and well, then the rest of the film unfolds. I want that character to have what that character wants.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon are two muso’s who witness something they shouldn’t have witnessed (the St. Valentine’s Day massacre) and end up on the run from the mob that wants to silence them. I totally buy the fact (comedically) that their survival lies in dressing up as women and hiding out in an all female dance band. When Marilyn Monroe shimmies onto the screen and bewitches Tony Curtis, he then adopts another disguise in an effort to win her heart - English oil mogul - in effect playing three characters in the film. I certainly want him and Jack Lemmon to have what they want.

Day #81 Tip: Who wants what and why?
Jan Sardi, the screenwriter of Shine and Mao’s Last Dancer, worked as one of four script editors on my screenplay, The Detective, in a week-long script hothouse/intensive with me, over two years ago up at Byron Bay.

In the first session that I had with Jan, his first note was in fact posed as a question, a question he asks himself 25-30 minutes into a film (or screenplay: “Why am I watching this movie/reading this script?” It’s a tip that he picked up from the director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs), a fundamental way to interrogate a story (hopefully on A4 paper rather than on a screen 60’ by 30’), for if you don’t know why your watching a film then it’s probably not clear what the protagonist’s goal or objective is and if we don’t know what he or she wants, then what the hell are we all doing there, losing two hours that we’re never going to get back, given we have no vested interest in the central character?

David Mamet (mentioned in yesterday’s and other dispatches) puts it this way in his three-point film story blueprint:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?

If I lay that breathtakingly simple dramatic ‘spirit level’ across my story/screenplay, then (and if I’m blessed with the gift/discipline of being able to be honest with myself) I can quickly tell if my story is the real deal or whether it’s masqerading as something else. And believe you me, it’s often a wake-up call for me; to quote the final two words of one of the film’s I’ve mentioned: “Nobody’s perfect”.

More duplicity tomorrow.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day 80: The Pitch

Here’s a favourite David Mamet quote: “The guy does not say to the woman ‘do you want to come home with me tonight’, the guy says ‘that’s a nice dress you’re wearing’”.

That’s the playwright and screenwriter talking about subtext. David Mamet has written (and directed) many a good screenplay: About Last Night, The Untouchables, Wag The Dog and a favourite of mine, The Verdict, arguably his finest hour (or two) in the cinema. He’s authored many books on the subject of writing and penned some great plays: Sexual Perversity In Chicago (on which About Last Night is based), American Buffalo, the wonderful, wonderful (film and play) Glenngarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, amongst others.

In 2002, Art Linson (who produced The Untouchables) wrote a memoir - 'What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Frontline' - an extract of which appeared in that year’s April edition of 'Vanity Fair'. The piece detailed the ill-fated excursion that was the film called The Edge, a movie that starred Sir Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Elle Macpherson, written by Mamet and produced by Linson.

Art Linson talks about how his stocks were high’ish but not great when he went over to Twentieth Century Fox, from warner Bros, in 1995, following his last hit, the collaboration with Kevin Costner, Brian De Palma and David Mamet on The Untouchables. There had been other films in between but Art Linson was in need of something new and big. This is what he says: “The first rule of producing is to find a writer with an idea or get an idea and find a writer. Linson and Mamet had a “good relationship” based on “You (Linson) get me (Mamet) a lot of money, I get you a good script”. Sounds equitable to me.

Here’s how the next telephone conversation between Art Linson and David Mamet played out:

“Hi, Dave”
“What’s the shot?” he asked.
“I got a new deal. I’m looking for you to write a new script.”
“Fine.”
“There’ll be lots of money.”
“Good. Let’s do it.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Why?”
“Because if you don’t tell me what it’s about I can’t get you the money.”
“Fine. What do you want it to be about?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m calling you.”
“I understand.”
“Dave, how about an adventure movie?”
“Fine.”
“Something castable. Two guys maybe.”
“”Fine.”
“C’mon, Dave, I need more to go on.”
“O.K....How ‘bout two guys and a bear?”
“It’s a start.”

I’ve had one or two conversations not dissimilar to this one, I’ve just never really got to the “lotsa money” stage. But the call between producer and writer, both robust characters, is a cracker and so is the rest of the article. If you ever come across the book, I entreat you to flick straight to the passage where Art Linson tries to get Robert De Niro to come on board this project.

The anecdote is worthy of Ari Gold (Entourage), so nuts, so funny, yet so plausible. It makes for a good story to tell and knock over in less that a couple of minutes; I love yarns from the film industry like this one.

I love stories full stop. I love reading stories, writing stories, telling stories and being told stories. My earliest memory of being told a good tale were those my mother’s mother would entertain me with, when I was no bigger than Jiminy Cricket; my Nan, made up countless pocket-sized tales of a character called Teddy Tar. I'm guessing that he was a bear, maybe in the navy, I really can’t remember, but the storytelling won me every time. Good stories do that.

Storytelling is, arguably, our primary artistic/entertainment medium. How I know this is because I heard someone once say (and I’d credit them if I could remember who) that “...the day after the bomb eventually drops, we’ll come crawling out from under whatever rock we’ve been hiding under and the first thing we’ll say is ‘guess what happened to me when the bomb dropped?!’” ...we’ll start telling stories.

Day #80 Tip: Index Cards to Story
For the first three months of creating a screenplay, I’ve been writing down story moments on 3x5 cards. What I do now, is take my pile of 200+ cards and spread them out on the floor or on a table that’s large enough and put them in order (more of that in the coming days) because the next thing that I’m going to do, is to go and tell my story outline to ten people, maybe friends, maybe colleagues, probably a mix.

The 40-60 moments that I assemble into a narrative that flows like story, I will first type, line by line onto this computer, then print it off and then memorise. Once I’ve got the story down pat, I’ll take a coffee round to a friend and tell them my ten minute story. If at the end of that telling, my audience says something like “that’s really good, you should write that” then I know I’m onto something.

Again, I MUST, stress that this is not part of a method I’ve dreamed up, it’s one part of the section entitled ‘Writing From The Inside Out (A Writer’s Method)’’ that can be found on pg’s 412-417 of Robert McKee’s book 'Story'.

It’s a version of “pitching” the story, which as a writer, is a skill that I’m going to need to get very good at, just like David Mamet; when he and Art Linson turned up to pitch The Edge at Fox Studios, so bad were introductions and initial chit-chat going that...well, I’ll let Art explain: “The room was dying. Even Mamet looked at me peculiarly, as if to say, What exactly do you do for a living?” How did the producer, Linson, 'rescue' the situation. By introducing the WRITER, saying “...Dave here has this good idea for a movie.”

And, David Mamet, told them a story.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Day 79: Twilight


Before I moved to Australia, in 1822 (actually it was 1987 but it feels like centuries ago), I was living in London and, I agree with whoever said (probably Oscar Wilde, as he said most things) that “a man who is bored of London is bored of life”. I think Oscar Wilde also said “..the coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco...”? I don’t know why I bring that up now? I’ve been to San Francisco, it’s a fantastic city and I can’t say the the weather left a lasting impression on me.

However, the weather in London, is never far from my recall. I oft used to complain that whoever was responsible for “booking the weather” in England must have sometimes forgotten. England is susceptible, like no other country that I know, to days when there appears to be no discernible weather: it’s neither hot nor cold, there’s no rain, nor sun, or even any clouds; just a greyness up above, an “above” which I think is some sort of ceiling masquerading as the sky? It is, literally, as though somebody forgot to book the weather for that day; a waste of a weatherless day.

I think I miss London more than I do England and I don’t get back there as much as I’d like to, but when I do, I have my own favourite haunts that are idiosyncratic to me. Today I will share one with you.

Piccadilly is a thoroughfare that runs from Hyde Park Corner, in the west, to Piccadilly Circus in the east (located, ironically, in the West End). One of the yellow properties on the Monopoly Board (I have no interest in the yellow properties), it is bordered to the north by Mayfair (who doesn’t covet that deep blue property) and abuts St James’s and Green Park to the south.

At the point where the small parish of St.James’s sits cheek by jowl with Green Park, there is a small walkway through the park, from Piccadilly, south to The Mall; it’s called Queen’s Walk.

Queen’s Walk can be little more than 500 yards in length and is my favourite place in London to seek solace, contemplation and reflection, but it has to be autumn turning into winter and at twilight when the lamps dotting it’s length are lit. The French have an expression for that time of day, “entre le chien et la loup” which means “between the dog and the wolf”, because at dusk it can often be hard to tell which is which, especially if you’re not wearing your glasses, which is often the case for me. What feint power there may have been in the winter sun, has left Helios by this time of day (usually around 4.45pm) leaving just enough illumination to offer the bare branches of the tree in silhouette against the pale, pastel pink of the sky.

Wrought iron benches also punctuate the broad pathway and here I will sit for a moment to contemplate the back gardens of the opulent villas of St. James’s. I can’t imagine that many of these are residential properties, preferring to believe that they are the rear-ends of embassies, government offices or maybe even an MI5 safe house. It doesn’t take too much creative work for me to imagine that the hand and cuff-of-sleeve that switches a table lamp on in the waning light, belongs to that of George Smiley; England’s foremost spook of the 1970’s ready to expose one of Her Majesty’s art gallery curator’s as the Fourth Man (reason enough to leave the lights well off I’d have thought?).

Double decker London buses chug along to the north, whilst pedestrians constantly ebb and flow along Queen’s walk, weighed down with umbrellas, attaché cases and gift-wrapped presents from the sparkly and luxurious retail providores, squeezed between the international airline shop fronts of Piccadilly (Pan Am long gone, Air France still doing a brisk trade). My unrestrained and probably unreliable memory, has me believe that you can hear the chimes from the bells of St.Stephen’s clock tower (Big Ben) from across St.James’s Park but maybe I’m gilding the lily now.

The trick though, is to leave my park bench and head off, along what was once gravel, before I’ve had my elegant sufficiency; too much, after all, is worse than none at all. There is Burlington Arcade and Jermyn Street along which I may yet meander, pressing my nose against the windows of bespoke shirtmakers and the like. That great British writer & conversationalist (Dr) Samuel Johnson (a leading figure in literary London of the 1700’s), or maybe his equally noted biographer, James Boswell, may have had something to say about Queen’s Walk, I know not, perhaps Green Park was but a meadow then? Samuel Johnson did however, have plenty to say on many a subject; in my copy of 'The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotes', four and a half pages are devoted to 94 of his pithy quips. I will refer us to just one of them.

Day #79 Tip: Don’t get blocked by “writer’s block”
“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it”; Samuel Johnson said this in 1750.

Two hundred and forty-nine years later, In 1999, Robert McKee had this to say: “Have you ever had writer’s block? Scary, isn’t it?.....I know a cure, but it isn’t a trip to your psychiatrist. It’s a trip to the library. You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn’t abandon you....talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas.”

The business of “teaching” or “guiding” screenwriters is possibly as big and as lucrative as the business of screenwriting itself and within that educational writing sub-sector dwells a whole other microcosm on overcoming “writer’s block”.

For me, writing is no different from a 9 to 5 work mentality, nor was it for Graham Greene and many other writers of note. Green’s 9 to 5 was 2,000 words a day and then he would stop, bang on the knocker of word number 2,000, whether in the middle of a sentence or paragraph (I’ve probably made that last bit up). I want to say I read that Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) writes from 10.00am to 4.00pm, every day.

When I was a dilettante, I used to wait for my muse to come-a-waltzin’. Can you imagine the
mighty reams, nay, the volumes of unfathomable length that I wrote then....for that’s all they remained: imagined. These days, I’m at my work at 8.30am and - breaking for meetings and wotnot in between - stop at 5.30pm. It works for me, you must find what works for you.

If I get stumped, and I never have, I would follow Mr Mckee’s advice of heading to my research department to feed the ravenous writer within. Perhaps I’ve not been “blocked” because I’m already and always doing this anyway, in between compiling Index Cards, writing character biog’s and trying to tell the difference between a dog a wolf?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 78: That’s all I need.....a sinking ship!


I like Jack Dawson, he’s a spirited and dauntless kinda guy, I can see what Rose Dewitt Bukater sees in him.

Jack is a young man, who doesn’t blink when faced with conflict, he stares it down alright and if anyone ever faced conflict coming at them from all angles, it was Jack Dawson, one April night in 1912, somewhere out in the North Atlantic.

First, he’s got personal conflict coming at him from all angles: you don’t need me to remind you that Jack is in love with Rose, which in itself is rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way. For a start, there’s Rose’s husband to-be, the dastardly and cowardly Cal Hartley (played indubitably by Billy Zane) and Cal's personal manservant (henchman), Spicer Lovejoy (great character name), both after Jack’s blood. Then there’s Rose’s forlorn and widowed mother - Ruth Dewitt Bukater - who is bent on making her daughter’s marriage a fine match, in order to save the Dewitt Bukater family name and rescue them both financially. On top of that, at any given point in time, Jack has any number of the ship’s pursers and masters-at-arms, chasing him from first class to steerage at the behest of his enemies. Even, the object of his affections - Rose, herself - can get in the way of Jack loving her.

Then there’s his Inner Conflict: Jack’s a free spirit; the mop of hair that falls in front of his eyes, the whole story of him sketching scantily-clad madmoiselles in Paris; he’s a drinker, dancer, lover and a gambler who won his berth on the ill-fated ocean-going liner in a card game. Jack doesn’t suffer fools gladly, likes to dress comfortably and isn’t big on small talk. Outwardly Jack Dawson just hollers that he ain’t the settlin’ down kind; even the prairies of Midwest America are too small to fence him in. Then there’s the class thing: Jack isn’t one for having to mind his P’s and Q’s, stand on ceremony or dress for dinner. Even Jack is questioning whether he wants to get involved with someone of Rose’s standing and give up this ‘freedom’ of his.

If Jack’s Personal Conflicts and Inner Conflicts weren’t enough to thwart his objective of winning Rose’s heart, well, then there’s the matter of the ship that’s about to go down, losing 1490 other souls.

One of the ironic or paradoxical things about the film Titanic, of which I talk, is that the sinking-of-the-ship-story - one of modern times’ most fabled tales - is actually relegated to second place in this movie’s plot and subplot hierarchy. The most important plot, indeed, the Central Plot, is Jack and Rose’s Love Story. Coming in second, is the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titantic. That’s remarkable when you consider it?

But back to our hero, Jack.

Somewhere there, towards the inevitable end, never mind the ship; so unsinkable is our Jack (by the forces marshalled against him), that on top of the fact that he is aboard a vessel that is heading down to Davy Jones’s locker faster that you can say “hello sailor”, his prosecutors up the ante a tad and handcuff him to a pipe or something in a cabin on a level of the ship that has been long-abandoned and in which the flooding waters are rising fast, with not a ship’s cat in sight to help him, just to make things a little tougher.

Maybe one of the reasons that I like Jack is that he rises to a challenge or challenges, he never shirks, no matter what the odds stacked against him. Throughout Titanic, at most given points in time, Jack and/or Rose are always facing at least one form of conflict - Inner, Personal, Extra-Personal - if not two and sometimes conflicts on all three levels at once.

Day #78 Tip: Extra-Personal Conflict: it’s out there
Personal conflict is the hero at odds with others, Inner Conflict is the hero at odds with himself. Extra-Personal Conflict is the hero at odds with just about everything else that’s out there:

Mother Nature: cyclones/tornados (The Wizard Of Oz, Twister), raging seas (The Perfect Storm) quicksand (Lawrence Of Arabia) perilous mountains (Cliffhanger, The Eiger Sanction) rain (Lost In La Mancha).

All forms of man-made malfunctioning technology: a spacecraft (Apollo 13), a skyscraper (Towering Inferno), airplanes (Memphis Belle, No Highway In The Sky) cars (Herbie, Cars), trucks (Duel) ships (The Poseidon Adventure, In Which We Serve) submarines (Das Boot) trains (Brief Encounter)

Institutions: the Catholic Church (The Verdict) the US Government (JFK, All The President’s Men) School (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club) Hospitals (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest)

Big Business: pharmaceutical companies (The Fugitive, The Constant Gardener). Animals: a shark (Jaws) crocodile (Rogue, Black Water) snakes (Anaconda) frogs/toads (Magnolia)

Inanimate objects: a barbed-wire fence (The Great Escape) alcohol (the Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas).

Ideologies: Racism (In The Heat Of The Night, Mississippi Burning, Do The Right Thing), Homophobia (The Laramie Project, Philadelphia) sexism (Working Girl) evil (The Exorcist) illness & disease (The Doctor, Watership Down) the class system (La Cérémonie) terrorism (United 93) prejudice (Three Colours White) madness/insanity (Apocalypse Now).

Conflict comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and forms. The greater the forces of antagonism marshalled against a protagonist, the greater the challenges that he, she or they have to rise to, the more we invest in them, knowing that life is like that for us too. It is not unusual to have the three forms of conflict - Inner, Personal and Extra-Personal - taking place simultaneously, for as Shakespeare rightly said: “...when problems come, they come not single spies”...or something like that.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Day 77: Thinking it over


My parents died in 1992, within a very short space of time of each other, just as they were closing up the business that they’d been running for the best part of twenty years. They were relatively young, in their sixties, and about to enjoy the fruits of their hard-earned labours.

The sometimes searing vicissitudes of life that we all face, that none of us are immune from, can in time, become gifts borne in the most shocking of wrapping papers. I was 35 in 1992 and, if ever I needed reminding about the impermanence of life, it was made manifest to me that year.

Twelve months later, I made the decision that there was no time left to spend on daily work that was more a means to and end than anything else; not that I wasn’t enjoy myself at Virgin (where I then worked), I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t sell myself short in life.

The long and the short of my story from that point on, was that I joined up the dots dating back to my first career choice - abandoned at the age of sixteen - of working in the performing arts. I’d been left just enough money to either invest in a property or re-educate myself in the vocation of my choice. A no-brainer for me, I did the latter and studied for a Diploma in Directing.

Directing wasn’t necessarily what I had in mind all those years ago when I left school but it was an attractive proposition to me now and let me explain why. Aside from some of the actual elements of doing what a director (stage and/or film) does, I thought that being able to tell people “I’m a director” was impressive. I know, I know, I know, how shallow, how facile, how superficial, how ego-driven......I know that now. But, I was a different me, seventeen years ago. Fear not, the universe soon sorted me out.

About six or seven years ago, I was invited my a group of female friends to joing them in working through Julia Cameron’s inspiring book on “how to pursue your creative dreams”: 'The Artist’s Way'. If you’re not familiar with this book, I can’t recommend it enough, whoever you are and whatever you do. Over twelve weeks and, my memory tells me, many more, we worked through each chapter, checking in on a weekly group conference call, me, the token bloke/fella/chap.

The next year, we started on Julia’s follow-up book,' The Vein Of Gold', “a powerful book that provides the innovative and practical tools for mining the vein of gold within us all”. At the time of working through 'The Vein Of Gold', with my lady-friends, I was happily abroad in the community, now referring to myself as a writer-director, even though I hadn’t directed anything for over five years. My “impressive” introduction was wearing thin, even on me, let alone anyone else, but my ego would not let me jettison the “director” part of my job description; I literally thought that I would be a lesser human being were I not able to brag/boast/fib and deceive about the directing that I wasn’t doing?!

The inner turmoil that my lie of a life was causing me could not go on like this for too long, and it didn’t. I knew that I wasn’t able to just drop the “directing” title I’d given myself until I was happy and comfortable about that, I had to get myself to a place where I was actually wanting to let that go. I think 'The Vein Of Gold' took us the best part of a year to work through together, at the end of which, we gathered for a celebratory dinner and to talk about our outcomes and insights or whatever else we had garnered from the journey. My peronal “vein of gold” was as clear as clarity itself, to me: what I love is writing and telling stories. What brings me the greatest joy is coming up with and creating tales to tell.....I’d never really enjoyed one moment of my short-lived directing “career” , it’d had been agony, agony, agony and more agony. The truth of it was that I didn’t know what I was doing and nor did I care for it.

Thanks to Julia Cameron and my friends up on “the Peninsular”, the battle in the seven and a half inches between my ears, was over.

Day #77 Tip: Inner Conflict (it’s all in the character’s mind)
In the movie, The Doctor, William Hurt plays a cardiologist with a lousy bedside manner (a heart surgeon with no heart). He, the doctor of the title, is diagnosed with throat cancer - I saw the film just after I’d learnt of my mother’s cancer diagnosis - and suddenly he is forced to walk in the shoes of the patients that he has been so unfeeling towards.

It really is a generous film.

Jack (Bill Hurt’s character) eventually has an operation to remove the tumour and must wait, convalescing at home, in silence, to see if the operation has taken his vocal chords along with the mass in his larynx. His marriage is on the rocks, he having been unable to reach out to his wife for succor and support during his battle with the illness (instead he turned to a fellow sufferer, a young woman, played so gracefully by Joan Cusack). A human being with no voice, a ton of fears and a relationship in trouble has one, great, big head full of inner conflict.

In fact Jack has inner conflicts all the way through this story: whether to lie in court in support of his best friend an colleague Murray, charged with a malpractice suit, or whether to tell the truth, that Murray had been negligent? Whether to let his own hospital’s cold-hearted female throat specialist operate on him or whether to turn to the Jewish surgeon that he’s made a career out of mocking? And, whether to admit to June (my mother’s name and that of Joan Cusack’s character) that he has lied to her about the possible success-rate of recovery for her type of tumour (in order to bolster her spirits) or whether to say nothing as the chemotherapy fails her?

Jack has a lot on his mind.

Jack, Hamlet, me, all of us; the war within rages, it shows no sign of abating any day soon in humankind; so, best we writers get it out on the page and up onto the screen so we can all see that we’re not alone and that peace of mind is available.

Tomorrow, the conflict without.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 76: Murder in the bookshop

“A writer must have enough money to never be afraid of walking into a bookshop”, so said Paul Schrader, he who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, to name just a couple of extraordinary films. What he meant by this, was that any writer, worth their salt, is a lover of books and that the bookshop is like the candy store to us. If I have no money, best not to go in there...how sad is that?

It’s well documented here that my budget has been beyond tight of late and who knows when a break in the fiscal weather is a-comin’? Recently, I’d just finished reading Australian crime writer, Peter Temple’s, Duncan Lawrie Dagger Winner, The Broken Shore, and was on the hunt for a new piece of crime literature to get started on. However, with limited funds, I found those dreaded words of Paul Schrader’s reverberating in my ears as I headed out to my two favourite Sydney bookshops: Ariel and Berkelouw. The good news was this: if I kept the ship really tight that week, I worked out that I could allocate myself ten dollars, which meant, probably, that it would have to be a second hand tome from Berkelouw. But, thanks to the good people at Penguin, and their collection of $9.95 reprints, I was able to “go new”!

Buying a book is one of life’s most wonderful experiences (sorry if that’s not the case for you) and I returned home from Ariel, happy with my purchase of John Mortimer’s Rumple and the Penge Bungalow Murders. I’d read most of the Rumpole series back in the 80’s and 90’s and remembered that throughout the retelling of court tales, by London’s most irascible barrister, Horace Rumpole would oft drift, wistfully into the mists of time as to recalled one of his earliest
cases, this most celebrated one: the Penge bungalow murders.

Great, here I was, ready to plough into more reading in the name of mastering the convention in which I’m writing my script - crime - but, with a little anxiety. My apprehension took this form: the Rumpole books are as much comedic as they are dramatic, whilst in my screenplay, there is little in the way of comic business. But, here’s the lesson: it’s important for me to let go where I think the goodies will come from and keep an open mind, because I was not six pages into this witty and highly enjoyable, popular literary excursion, when I was reminded of a great crime/detective story convention and was reaching for my notepad.

Day #76 Tip: Protagonists need tough and gritty forces of personal conflict
The following quote is Horace Rumpole, talking about both his past and current Head of Chambers (his boss) at Equity Court (the law firm he works for):

“...the niceties and formalities of life in the law were to him more precious than justice...”

The moment that I read this, a bell of familiarity rang in my head, reminding me of a timehonoured character that often appears in crime stories, to thwart the investigative-protagonist, a veritable source of conflict, his boss: the editor who stymies the journalist with a probing mind (State of Play, Zodiac), the mayor who doesn’t want a gung-ho police detective running amok (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force), the Internal Affairs agent who watches every move of the cop on disciplinary probation (Basic Instinct). Sometimes it’s his partner/buddy, in the guise of the ‘cop who does things by the book’ vs our more ‘improvisational’ protagonist (Insomnia, Mississippi Burning), other times it’s the District Attorney who won’t/can’t bring about a prosecution, blaming the detective for his questionable methods (Dirty Harry) or it’s the cop’s corrup boss (Witness, LA Confidential)

This character who presents personal conflict for our protagonist is the staple diet of most British TV detectives: Inspector Morse, Jack Frost, and Wexford. Whilst the detective is out trying to solve the crime, to bring the perpetrator to justice, there’s always his superior: the Police Commisioner or Chief Superintendant, with pips on his shoulder, who is always going to any obsequious lengths not to step on the toes of politicians, influential community members, wealthy business magnatesand the like. And those lengths nearly always include the scene where he drags our detective in off the street to haul him over the coals about some insignificant breach of policing protocol, often threatening to take our man off the case.

Not only does this cause conflict at the personal level for our protagonist, but it maddens him and us because it jeopardises the very value that’s at stake in the story: justice, and the pursuit of. The source of the personal conflict, the authority figure always has self-seeking objectives in mind that he or she pursues at the expense of justice (the objective of our protagonist).

The seminal 1970’s movie Dirty Harry comes to mind. In this first film in the series featuring Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, (Dirty) Harry is on the trail of serial killer Scorpio (this is a story loosely born our of the Zodiac killings in San Francisco, only just recently depicted in the film, Zodiac). Scorpio is a psycho path, terrorising the city, relentless in his killing. The Mayor’s office is all-too willing to pay him off, give in to his demands and the police chiefs are willing to go along with this. Only Harry (Callaghan) can see that no bag of money is going to buy this psychopath off and it eventually takes a vigilante Harry to restore justice to the world.
But in restoring justice “Harry’s way”, arguably a fascist way, justice is compromised again by the cop taking the law into his own hands.

This “way” was very popular in films of the early 70’s (the Harry Callaghan trilogy and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish), a story-type born out of the Western, not a genre we see so much of these days. Perhaps it was refelecting a climate in America, post-Watergate, when the general public needed “heroes” to enforce the law, when the law-makers weren’t?

Such Personal Conflict is surely a bed for breeding Inner Conflict.....tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 75: Hare today


Christmas 1993: on the eve of me going to NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) I went back to the old country (England) and took the opportunity to prepare for the year ahead by immersing myself in theatre, both in London and Stratford. What a charmed few weeks it was. I saw thirteen productions whilst I was there, of which twelve were not only great, they were magnificicent for one reason or another. Whilst that story warrants a telling of it’s own, another day, I will mention one of the productions I saw.

The Absence of War was the third play in a theatrical trilogy by David Hare that examined the three great British institutions. Racing Demon, the first play of the three looks at the Church of England and details “the struggle of four clergymen to make sense of their mission in South London”. In the second piece, Murmuring Judges, the legal system and law itself falls under Mr Hare’s sscrutiny. The third play, The Absence of War (which I saw at the National Theatre) puts politics and government under the dramatic microscope, by examining the Labour Party of the early 1990’s.

What made the production that I saw sparkle, was the presence of the beautiful actor that was John Thaw, in the leading role. I grew up watching the late John Thaw on television as one of the hard-men detectives that were the central characters of The Sweeney, then engaged with him again, in probably his most charmed role, that of Morse, an erudite, intelligent and often thwarted Detective-Inspector, who’s stomping ground was the city of dreaming spires that is Oxford.

Roughly a decade later and back in London for my stint at The Script Factory, and I was treated to a masterclass with David Hare, a prolific writer, who has since gone onto write the screenplays for The Reader, Damage, Plenty and to be nominated an Academy Award for his screenplay of The Hours. A witty, passionate and thoughtful man, here’s some of the gems and anecdotal titbits that he had to impart:

“Ezamining my work, I often think, if I was an actor, would I want to play this? If not, then there’s something wrong with the part.”

“I love to write about people with intractable problems - good people struggling against things that can’t be resolved....characters who know that they can’t change even though they are aware of what they could do.”

“How should films end? Not more naively than the film has been.”

Talking about a favourite film, Carol Reed's The Third Man:
“I was asked to write a version of The Third Man for the theatre, but I couldn’t, I didn’t want to hear anyone else say those lines apart from Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles .....it’s a ‘here he comes movie’ - they talk about him (Harry Lime) for an hour, then he comes, 65 minutes in, with that music, that zither playing and it’s one of film’s great entrances”.

On The Hours:
Amores Perres and The Hours have similar triangular structures and I had an email correspondence with it’s writer - Guillermo Arriaga - who then wrote 21 Grams as a kind of answer or response to The Hours.....it’s (The Hours) a story about three janitorial relationships, three nursing relationships, each showing characters imprisoned by love.....Stephen Daldry (the director) was extermely resentful of the way I structured The Hours and that it couldn’t be made any other way.....all I feared during the editing, was that they were going to lose it and everything was going to go down the drain.”

Day #75 Tip: Second Act Turning Point
One of the greatest wisdoms that I got from the session with David Hare was when he talked about one of the resaons why, in his opinion, some films fail: Reel 7.

Reels of film were/are 10-11 minutes long, so theoretically (if your shooting 1:1, as Hitchock did in Rope) seven reels in and you hit the 70 minute mark, which is traditionally where the end of Act 2 lies in a movie. David Hare was of the opinion that films go to pieces somewhere between the 60 and 70 minute mark because "the writer either doesn’t know where it’s going or thge story's just not sustaining".

“This is where some writers introduce a seond idea, which is so fallacious...things can’t be fixed by a second idea because the audience are so sophisticated.” What he went on to say was that at the 60-65 minute mark or thereabouts, you need to raise the stakes and increase the pressure, not introduce new themes “arguing not about small things but fantastic things”.

He cited The Third Man and how, with the introduction of Harry Lime so deep into the story, Graham Greene gets to the heart of his material with the question of “to what should you be loyal/what do you believe” (suggesting that The Third Man was Graham Greene defending Kim Philby[1960's English political history homework for you]).

As an example of a “bad” reel 7, David Hare cited the then recently-released Calendar Girls - the story of the group of English, village-living, middle-aged women who pose nude for a calendar to raise money. "Once they’ve posed (nude) for the calendar, it’s very difficult to go anywhere after that, but the writer’s do, they bolt on a third act where the women go to Hollywood". What he's putting forward is the idea that what happens when the women pose for the calendar and overcome everything that’s stood in their way (conflicts on all three levels) is that they’ve achieved their “object of desire” that was set up at the start of the film with the Inciting Incident. The filmmakers must havethen realised that they needed another 25-30 minutes in the cinema to make it a feature film?! Here’s an idea.....they go to Hollywood.

Second Act Turning Points are never as obvious or apparent as those at the end of First Acts, often seemlessly moving the story from Act Two into Act Three, but they are there and must be so. They must be organic, must have grown out of the story and must accelerate a tale up towards the climax, still complicating things, still surprising us, twisting things in a new direction yet feeling (once witnessed) of having been innevitable.

A great (nay, unbelievable) Act 2 Turning Point (although it’s arguably not, given that this is a seven-act film[it does the same job]) comes on pg 103 (30 minutes from the end) of Seven. Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) have been on the trail of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), with little or no success (actually he’s made fools of them) when who should walk into their precinct house and give himself up but the killer himself. With the muzzle of a million cops trained on him, handcuffed and faced pressed against the concrete floor, Doe(Spacey), musters a smile and says “I wanna see my lawyer”.

He certainly ain’t going to no Hollywood.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Day 74: A rugged day in the cinema


Eleven years ago, to celebrate the release of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, an independent cinema just down the road from me, screened a Kubrick retrospective: new prints of eleven feature films over four or five days, beginning with The Killing(1956) and climaxing with a midnight premiere of Eyes Wide Shut(1999).

I think it must have been the third or fourth day in: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, the three films in the one after the other!! At the end of that cinematic session I needed a good lie down in a dark room.

If you ever get the chance to see the documentary, narrated by Tom Cruise, called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, do yourself the biggest favour and marvel at a man that was worthy of the title ‘genius’. One of the many, many things that impressed me about Stanley K was his ability to turn his hand to almost any genre: Horror (The Shining) Comedy (Dr Strangelove) Period Piece (Barry Lyndon) Crime/Heist (The Killing) War (Full Metal Jacket) Sci-Fi (2001:A Space Odyssey). He tried love, romance and relationships in Lolita & Eyes Wide Shut, historical epic with Spartacus and the dexterity doesn’t stop there.

I think Ridley Scott’s trying to emulate this feat, but y’know what? As much as I like his films, he’s patchy where Kubrick wasn’t; Stanley would never have made A Good Year. Kubrick was on the money, every time, every film or your cash back. Kubrick didn’t miss a beat. He may not have made as many films as someone like Ridley - the eleven films that I saw spanned 43 years worth of work, that’s a movie nearly every four years - but the quality was impeccable. Kubrick would be up there in my pantheon of directors along with Sidney Lumet, David Lean, Woody Allen, Kieslowski, Coppola, Spielberg and Ken Loach.

In the books that I have on Stanley, stories of his weird and wacky ways are just endless; his obsessiveness...incomprehensible. His project from beyond the grave, AI, which he’d been working on with Steven Speilberg (who picked up the baton anmd ran with it after Kubrick’s death), was maybe some sort of filmic child born on the wrong side of the blanket. And sure, Eyes Wide Shut was no classic by Kubrick’s standards (although I watched it again recently and found plenty to test me and marvel at). But those stories, the anecdotes of his all-consuming passion and pre-occupation with his craft are just mind-boggling. The other side of that fearsome coin was the fierce determination that gave him his independence as a filmmaker, that rare power bestowed on a director to make what they want and have their say as to the final cut. Very few are allowed that.

I believe many think that a lot of bulls**t is spouted by admirers of Kubrick, a lot of high-falutin’ nonsense by thoes who, maybe, in his thrall, those who are prepared to overlook the inconsistencies in order to revere. Could be? I find it hard to reconcile the film 2001:A Space Odyssey with myself. Truth be known, I’m not sure that if a gun were held to my head I’d be able to give you a cogent synopsis of what’s going on in that film? It was one of those films that I’d refused to watch on Video (DVD hadn’t exploded yet in 1999), knowing that it would eventually hit the big screen again, as it did. In the retrospective I had an okay time in the cinema, nothing much more than that, but three months later when I saw it on general release, I was riveted. The closing piece of music over the credits is Johann Strauss’s 'On The Beautiful Blue Danube' and it overruns the credits by a good seven or eight minutes; I couldn’t leave until the music had finished, even though the houselights were up and everyone else had long gone. Don’t ask me why, it doesn’t matter, I was having one of those “moments” in the cinema that actually defy all that I subscribe to about films and I shock myself (in a very nice way) when I have those moments (more often than not they’re films where the story structure and consequential meaning, or absence of, are all over the show) - Tarantino did it to me recently in Inglorious Basterds and Michale Hanneke in Caché/Hidden.

It’s great to love films that fly in the face of everything that I believe constitutes a great film.

Day #73 Tip: Against being preachy
The subjects of Kubrick’s films were often central characters facing inner struggles between the antipodes of life - good and evil, love and hate, fidelity and betrayal - for surely that is what we want to see and identify with in stories and in the cinema: human beings facing the dilemmas of life that we all face. He would put both sides of the argument up there on the screen for us to see and throw it to us to wrestle with.

In Stanley Kubrick’s own words: “The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.” Kubrick knew that fashioning this in a script demands playing both sides of the chess board (a Robert McKee metaphor employed here before), first playing white’s moves and then turning things around to play black, and to play both with equal zeal.

As a writer, I must show both sides of the coin. Kubrick would show the characer of Alex meating out the most unspeakable acts of violence and then have him swoon to Beethoven and Bach, he’d have a whopping, hollerin’ cowboy riding an atomic bomb like a buckin’ bronco down to death and destruction on the ground below, his films were full of contradiction and irony that handed the work of ‘deciding’ back to the audience. An intelligent filmmaker for intelligent people? Nup, a great moviemaker who made terrific pictures for all of us.

In the Taschen published-book on Kubrick, he mentions how he hated being asked what his films were about and quoted T.S,Eliot talking of 'The Waste Land': “I meant what it said. If I could have said it any differently, I would have.” “To understand a Kubrick film, you must experience it for yourself.” The struggle is tossed to us....I for one, am grateful for that respect shown to me, in the cheap seats.

Where a story ends up, how the coin lands, how the chess game finishes, is down to the writer’s telling of the tale through working both sides of the debate with matching passion and eloquence in the screenplay.

It may come as no surprise to know that in his early twenties, the only income Kubrick had was from playing chess in Washinston Square Park (Manhattan) where he was known as “the Master”.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Day 73: A salty mouth


There’s one or two expressions I like that use the word ‘salt’: “worth one’s salt”, “salt of the earth” and how about this one “sit below the salt”, which means to be of a lower social standing or worth (that sounds familiar). A “salt meadow” is a meadow subject to flooding by seawater (a salt marsh) and a “salty sea dog” is of course an old or experienced sailor; “salty” in this case meaning earthy, colourful, spicy, risqué, biting, naughty, maybe vulgar and or rude. Someone said to have a "salty-mouth" reminds me a little of the characters Lauren Bacall oftened played, opposite the man who became her husband, Humphrey Bogart.

My friend Holly Davis is not a salty sea dog, but she does live within reach of the ocean (Pacific) and knows a thing or two about salt. I think Holly once proudly prouced salt at the dining table that she’d harvested, herself, from the shoreline rocks at Palm Beach, where she lives, just north of Sydney.

Holly is a - I never quite know what to call her - a nutritionist, a cook, an author (her book Nourish [sustenance for the body & soul], is I think, still in print and available), one of the co-founders of the Iku chain of macrobiotic food outlets here in Sydney, a "pioneer of the wholefoods movement in Australia" and a personal advisor on things that go into my gob and then to my gut. My gut often plays up and always has done, since forever. When I’m stressed, I’m not the sort that is felled like a tree with migraine’s, stress goes straight to my gut (some would say that the gut is our sixth sense and/or our second brain).

Early on this year when things were über-stressful and my gut was all awry, amongst other things that Holly suggested to me - fermented foods, probiotic stuffs and more - she pointed me in the direction of Celtic Sea Salt. I’m going to quote to you from the back of my Celtic Sea Salt bag now:

“Celtic Sea Salt is treasured as the finest of all condiments in France and many other European countries. This salt is free of any processing, it is dried only by the hot summer sun and wind. It is harvested in late summer by salt farmers, who delicately gather the salt from the marshes with wooden hand tools. Because it is only sun dried, it retain’s the ocean’s moisture, which helps lock in many vital trace elements.”

My bag of Celtic Sea Salt is certified by the “...prestigious Nature & Progre’s of Europe” and is “..free from preservatives, additives, refining and bleaching...” I have the ‘coarse grain’ variety and it cost me $6.25. It’s a bit like an artesian bag of salt in that it never seems to go down, I’ve had it for what seems like months now. It’s perfect for rubbing into lamb that I roast, for sprinkling on vegetables that I bake (winter salad), for gargling when I had my tooth out and for general cooking. It’s available in most health food stores and the salt farmers of NW France are not paying me one Euro (how could they have let go of the Franc??!!) for this spruiking of their wares.

Other salts no longer cut it in my kitchen, I cannot wax lyrically enough about this salt that the good burghers of Normandy or Brittany harvest for me (and others), it is a veritable “find” and I pass this recommendation on in the genrous spirit that Holly passed it on to me.

I marvel at cooks and their ability to know when something doesn’t have enough salt. How do they do that? I’m guessing that a cook’s sense of taste is not something they’re born with but skill to be worked on and accquired over the years and years of their apprenticeship; I’m sure Holly will tell me if I ask.

Day #73 Tip: Read Screenplays to train your story palate
As I get to the point where I’m fashioning my 40-60 index cards into the shape of a screenplay, I’m looking at each of the acts and, like a cook, I’m sampling each stanza of the story to see if it salted with enough story spice. How do I know?

As a writer I have to develop the skill of being objective about my own work, even when I’m close to it and even when I’ve got my nose right in it on a daily basis. Time and time again at various stage of creating a screenplay, I’m going to be the first one to objectively review things in order to get things in order before passing the story on - verbally or otherwise - to someone else. How have I learnt to assess the story balance of my work-in-progress, the screenplays that I’m cooking up? By reading scripts of others, again and again and again - produced scripts, unproduced scripts, successful and unsuccessful - I gradually have got a sense for what’s working and what’s not; there’s no short cuts, it’s just taken the reading time that it’s taken over the weeks, months and years.

A salutary tale.

Some years ago I was renting office space in a small building that housed a successful film production company. One day I was asked, in my humble opinion as a screenwriter, how it was best to train someone up to read scripts to be able to sort the “good” from the “bad”. My reply was, exactly what I’ve written above: it’s an ability that is accquired from reading many many scripts, I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, guidance can help but it’ll need to be accompanied up by acres of reading. That wasn’t the answer they wanted; see, they were getting plenty of film screenplays sent to them and had just employed an office junior who was going to be the gatekeeper, the first port of call who would sort the chaff from the wheat. My memory tells me that I could not disguise my incredulity at this idea. This is not the best analogy in the world that I’m about to give, but it’s a bit like asking the restaurant’s newly-employed plongeur(dishwasher) to assess the seasoning of meals that are about to be served at table?!

That’s not to disrespect plongeurs in any way. Yes, that production company was getting quite a few scripts, yes it’s a labour-intensive job, but, I swear, that I could have given that young person (who I really liked) one or two of the finest screenplays ever written, buried them in a pile of others and I supect that they would probably have ended up in the “thanks, but no-thanks” pile. The film industry is already an industry predicated on people saying “no”; when you say “no” you don’t have to put your a**e on the line or your money where your mouth is; you don't have to explain yourself and articulte why you are impressed by something....you don't have to go out on a limb, like you do when you say “yes”. In this particular case, tt was just about to get even easier to get a “no”.

For screenwriters - first-timers, seasoned veterans and all in between - this is a frightening tale, but such is life. There are a ton, and I mean a TON, of script readers out there who may or may not know what they are or aren’t doing. If you want to be worth your salt in knowing how to taste screenwriting , then begin by training yourself to read, read, read and compliment this self-education with help from seasoned professionals by asking, asking, asking.

Overnight successes in this industry and the that of the cooking/food world are the exception, not the rule. In this world of instant-gratification, somethings still take the time that they take.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Day 72: Cluless of Potts Point


“Within the pages of this book there is a story told
Of love adventures, fortunes lost, and a jewel of solid gold.
To solve the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes,
And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.”

“In 1979, English craftsman and book illustrator, Kit Williams buried (somewhere in England) an exquisite jewel” - a hare, wrought in gold, inlaid with rubies, turquoise, moonstone and faïence, valued at £5,000 - “and set treasure-hunters the world over looking for the golden hare by concealing the clues to its whereabouts in his book Masquerade. Not just in Britain, but from New York to Tokyo, close on two million readers joined in the search for the answer to the book’s master riddle.”

So reads the sleeve note of the companion book with the solution to the riddle, published three years after the original puzzle was set and after the jewel had been unearthed. In the original book, Masquerade, there were some fifteen whimsical (yet complexed) illustrations that held clues, which when decrypted and added together, revealed the location where the hare had been buried. Each of the illustrations carried tantalising words - more riddles - alongside; talk about an enigma wrapped in a conundrum enclosed in a puzzle hidden in a secret?!

I bought Masquerade, fancying myself as a solver of puzzles (remember that my favourite genre of film is crime) and struggled to apply myself to solving even one of the clues. But the buried hare became quite a bid deal in the UK, catching the eye of the media; there were television programmes and newspaper articles and many of the population got swept up in our own real-life version of some sort of Da Vinci Code. I’m sure that you could track down the books on one of the vast internet book depositories that exist if the idea whets your appetitie.

I’m a bit of a dab hand at crosswords too, mostly the Sydney Morning Herlad “quick” (on a daily basis), but I have been known - much to my own astonishment - to get the “cryptic” out on a Saturday. Someone showed me how to approach the SMH “cryptic” many years ago, passing onto me the 'covenant of the clues', so arming me with the ability to at least cast my beady eye over any cryptic crossword, even if I don’t have a snowball in hell’s chance of solving it.

However, the solving of a particularly gnarly cryptic clue, is one of life’s greatest pleasures, akin only to solving the riddle of a scene in a screenplay that I may have been mulling over for days or weeks. The joy cannot be shared with someone else, becase they are not party to the cerebral gymastics that I’ve had to perform, walk away from, perform again and again, prior to finally creeping up on the solution and cornering it. But oh what joy it is. Here are two favourite clues of mine (don’t panic, I’ll give the answers out at the foot of today’s musing):

gegs (9,4)

(8)

Day #72 Tip: Use both sides of the brain
I could try and dazzle you with my knowledege of the brain, using terms like “the caudal posterior part of the forebrain, containing the epithalamus, hypothalamus, and vetral thalamus and the third ventricle”, but I won’t, because I’d be so far out of my depth that I’d be afeared of sharks catching a whiff of blood.

What I do know is that someone, somewhere once told me and everyone else that there’s a left side of the brain and a right side of the brain and that one side is responsible for imaginative thinking and the other for the logical stuff. That’s probably very naively put on my part, it's maybe even wrong (I am de temps en temps), but hey, this is not a thesis on the brain, I’m just banging on about puzzles.

It was also explained to me (and I buy this) that when the cryptic crossword puzzler solves a clue, both those parts of the brain have to work together and when you arrive at the solution, it’s like the two sides link arms, have a party and do a merry little dance together; hence I always want to do a celebratory jig of my own when I get a clue out. I guess that ‘moment of solving’ might be called “creativity”?

So it is too with screenwriting. If were the master of form, structure and scriptwriting theory, yet lacked a robust and healthy imagination, my writing would be dry and theoretical, if in fact I was able to write anything at all, other than an instruction manual for a household electrical appliance. If, on the other hand, I had an imagination as overgrown and expansive as “the Wild Wood”, yet no understanding and experience of the form with with to harness that fancy, then my writing might look and read like the untrammelled outpourings of a raving madman.

I need both sides of my brain to work, one with the other, the left and right hemisphere’s to be talking to and communication with each other. Crosswords exercise that relationship well for me and offer me the occasional opportunity for a galliard (look it up), even if I don’t actually get up onto my feet.

Ooh, I nearly forgot, the answers.......

Scrambled Eggs

Clueless

Friday, June 18, 2010

Day 71: The Mexicans wave


I’ve just got up from the TV having watched Mexico beat France 2-0 at the World Cup in South Africa, all-but putting Les Bleus on the Air France plane back to Paris....they’ll need an act of Dieu to see them through to the next round.

Mexico have always hung around the fringes of World Cups - they hosted the competition in 1986 and, for me and many others of my footballing generation, famously in 1970; maybe they’re having a mini-renaissance on the football pitch this year?

There was certainly a regeneration of Mexican filmmaking and filmakers a few years back, with successful films like Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Comes Too), the film which introduced us to the charismatic young actor Gael García Bernal, then Salma Hayek with her successful film Frida. But the pick of the piñata has been the collaborations between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, the exciting combination that brought us Amores Perros, 21 Grams and the towering achievement that is Babel. Unfortunately, the last I heard, director and writer were no longer talking to each other and going in their respective creative directions; talk about life imitating art?

Babel is a wonderful, wonderful film, it’d be in my top 10 for sure. Babel is “a film made up of 4 stories in 3 continents and in 5 languages”. The continents are (North) Africa, (Central & North) American and Asia (Japan). Señor Iñárritu talks of the film being about the complex relationships between parents and children, the cultural borders that divide us and the “real borders within ourselves that can only be erased by compassion”. It’s also a film about the inadequacy of our words and language.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett paly a married couple desperately trying to put their marriage back together, after the death of an infant, by going on a bus tour of Morocco. It is here that Susan (Blanchett) is accidentally shot by two boys, from a distance, with a rifle just traded for a goat by their peasant father. That rifle had been a gift, to the Berber who sold it, from a Japaneses business man who’d been on a hunting trip to North Africa. That Japanese man, now back in Tokyo, is having the toughest of times rebuidling his relastionship with his daughter (Rink Kikuchi). And in America, whilst Richard (Brad Pitt) is trying to save his wife Susan, from dying, their children have gonen missing in the desert near the USA-Mexico border whilst under the care of their Mexican nanny.

Iñáritu and Arriaga juggle the stories with dexterity, using the same structural format that they employed in 21 Grams, that of flashback narrative, multiple protagonists, tandem narrative, parallel narrative and sequential narrative. They use every trick in the book and the result is sublime. Actually, let me just back up there a minute as I'm doing these two brilliant filmmakers a disservice and a discredit. There’s no “tricks” here at all, they are simply employing scriptwriting tools that are in every screenwriter’s tool bag....but be warned, they are not simple tools to use, you have to be at the top of your craft when working with them.

The best reference book for understanding this style of screenwriting, is one I’ve mentioned here before: 'Scriptwriting Updated' by Linda Aronson. I can’t recommend this book enough, if you apire to write films like Babel, The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino).

What Babel looks like on screen, is four stories, in which the writing partnership of Iñárritu and Arriaga, took their pile of Index Cards, threw them up in the air and told the story as and where they landed....that’s what it looks like to the naked, untrained eye. Maybe it's exactly what they did?? Surely not?

Day #71 Tip: Organise your story
For 70 days, I’ve been assembling my pile of Index Cards, gradually building moments and scenes in my film, looking to assemble about 200 or more to give me 40-60 to create the Story Outline of my screenplay. It’s getting near the time where I’ll be sitting down and assembling them into an order, a story flow, the narrative skeleton of my script. It’s a good time to have a quick flick through what I’ve got so far.

I know the rough story structure of my film, I ‘ve talked here (in the early pages) of the need to delineate Acts, create an Inciting Incident, First Act Turning Point, Progressive Complications and a Climax (I’m still to talk about the Second Act Turning Point, the Crisis and the Resolution/Denouement). So, I have a rough idea of the shape my story’s going to take and, flicking through the cards, I can get an idea of where in the story I’m deficient or where I might have an embarrasment or riches. For me, a quick tour of those cards and I can tell that I’ve got plenty of material for the First and Third Acts but I’m a little light in the middle, the Second Act. Browsing the cards now, will tell me where I need to turn my attention to in the coming two or three weeks left in this stage of my process.

That’s all very good, straightforward, logical and uncomplicated, but what if you want to do what Iñárritu and Arriaga did with Babel? I don’t know how to answer that question and neither, really, do I know how to ask it. My point is this: are the new and non-traditional screen storytelling structures employed because the story demands it or because I, the writer, demand it? I can only come back to McKee’s question of “what’s more powerful for my screenplay” and reach for my copy of Linda Aronson’s book to understand a little more.

I just need to remind myself that Tower of Babel was a tower built by man in an attempt to reach heaven, which God frustrated by confusing the languages of its builders so they could not understand one another (Genesis 11:1-9).

This storytelling business, Mexican or otherwise, is quite a task, is it not?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Day 70: I’ve been thinking.....


In an idle moment with, apparently, nothing better to do with my time, I wondered who might be the most significant bands or groups (popular music) of the last fifty years? I don’t know what prompted me to ask this question of myself, but once the seed was sown, it was only a matter of seconds before I had a botannical garden of rapacious thought going on in my head.

Whilst popular music has always been (dare I say it) “popular”, it’s really since about 1960 and a few years before, that commercialisation, financial imperatives, technological advances in broadcasting and recorded music production have made it such a huge part of modern-day culture.

And what do I mean by “significant”? For me it’s a combination of impact on the world of popular music, critical acclaim and reverberations through the world in general; if a band/group is hitting two out of three of those criteria, if not all three, then that made them a candidate for my list.

Who's on my list? In no particular order:

The Rolling Stones
The Beatles
The Beach Boys
The Doors
Led Zeppelin
Abba
The Bee Gees
The Sex Pistols
U2
Nirvana

Now, I must stress that my list has already been the subject of contention and fierce debate in my circle of friends and accquaintances. Let me add that these are not my “favourite” bands, nor are they necessarily the “best” bands or the most “seminal” of artists, they are just those that I think (following my aforementioned criteria) have been the most significant. If it were down to my taste, I’d have The Clash over The Sex Pistols any day of the week. I’m also of a half-generation that kind of missed the Nirvana thing and my iPod is certainly not chockablock with tracks by Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frida (although I do confess to having downloaded SOS and The Winner Takes It All [the worst lyrics in the world]). As an aside, do you know that the word “Abba” is a New Testament term for “God the father”?

Yes, you’ll be thinking of others for inclusion - Bob Marley & The Wailers I categorise as ‘single artist’ as I do Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - but whilst you’re mulling over your own selection and considering their worthiness, think on this: who would you remove from my list to make way for your inclusion?

Don’t even think about offering up Dire Straits, Queen or The Police. Yes, I accept that the “electronic” movement is under-represented, but again, who are you getting rid of to make way for....well, who? So many bands are credentialed up to the hilt to be worthy of inclusion - New Order, Cream, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, The Jacksons/Jackson Five, Talking Heads - but again, who would be jettisoned to make way?

I’ve been sitting on this list for a few months now, as I have the single artist’s Top 10 and the more I think about the list, the more I think about my choices, the more I that I agree with myself!

Day #70 Tip: Time to think
Anthony Johsen (AJ) is a drumming friend of mine who has had a number of incarnations in many bands, including being a founder member of the successful two-piece outfit The Mess Hall. AJ is also a member of the sacred fraternity of screenwriters and, amongst other things, once said something about writing, and thinking, that has stuck with me.

What he said was this or something like this: “what writers need more than anything, our most precious asset or commodity, is time to think.” AJ may well correct me on exactly what he said or may not recall that he said it, but I’m crediting him because it rang loud and clear when he said it to me.

He’s right. When I’m chasing, hunting, tracking down funds to develop my next screenplay, what I’m really buying is not hours at the keyboard of this computer, but the commodity of time and space to let thought and ideas percolate. My best writing is not done when I sit staring at the screen until my eyes bleed, often my most imaginative work is done when I’m walking from my apartment to the city, swimming laps in the pool or some other activity is, as often as not, physical and repetitious. Action frees my mind to do what it can do best...roam, explore, imagine, come up with “what-if’s”.

It’s essential that I carry something to write on and something to write with. I can’t tell you the amount of times that I’ve been walking and a cracker of an idea pops into my head, which I think I’ll jot down when I get home or get to where I’m going. Do you think that I can even remember that I had a thought, let alone recall what it was, when I get to my destination? I might have a prayer of a chance if there’s only one thought, but give me two or more and I might just as well raise the white flag the moment the thought comes to me. If I am dumb enough to not heed my own advice, I’ve always got my phone so I can send a text to me or voice-record a message.

As the three-month mark approaches, I’m dragging things back to the Index Cards that I’ve been working on for the last 70 days (just over twenty more to go), they being the ideal writing medium to facilitate the thinking process that I’ve mentioned here. No longhand, long-winded explanations required, just a nifty idea for a moment in my screenplay.

The list of bands, however, is jotted down in the back of my trusty Moleskin. To finish, let me invoke super-Swedes from their album Souper Trouper and some of their written-word eloquency “I’ve played all my cards and that’s what you’ve done too, nothing more to say, no more ace to play.” Do you now see why they’re in my Top 10?!

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