Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day 114: “A source of innocent merriment...”

Truth of the matter is, that I don’t particularly want to blog today; my film career path is not working out the way that I have it mapped out in my mind, I got skittled from about three or four different angles this week, leaving me rolling around on the floor like a tenpin, ready to be raked up, only to be repositioned in the firing line of the bowling ball of life and skittled again.

This is not unfamilar territory, it’s nothing new, this is my life as a skittle.

Of all the healing balms that I reach for to repair me, time is the best, our forebears were right: time heals all wounds. I have a clutch of films that inspire me, selected pieces of music, the soft soothing sound of friends, a spiritual practice, but sooner of later I and my pain are left with time.

The wound is generally one form of professional rejection or another, just like that experienced by the character Dickie Temple in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. I’ve talked about this film here before but please humour me as I drag us all back there for just another little look.

Topsy-Turvy is about how Gilbert & Sullivan nearly split up - when Sullivan entertained exploring lofty musical aspirations - instead, making up to give us 'The Mikado'; but Topsy-Turvy is really about “all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh”. Those are the words of the film’s writer-director Mike Leigh.

Richard ‘Dickie’ Temple is the D’Oyly Carte company’s resident tenor and plays the ‘Mikado’ of the title. This titular character has a song, a particularly fine party piece that shows off Mr Temple’s fine comedic and light operatic skills and is his ‘moment’ in the show, referred to by Gilbert as “light burlesque performed on the banks of the Thames”. After the final dress rehearsal, on the eve of opening night, WS Gilbert announces to that cast and company that the Mikado’s song will be cut from the show, Gilbert fault’s himself for his “obtuse decision to write the thing in the first place”. Temple is devestated and consoled in his dressing room by Arthur Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte himself.

But, it is the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus, who the following day, approach Gilbert as one, to request that he review his decision to cut the Mikado’s song and re-instate it into the show. This meeting takes place on the backstage stairs of the Savoy Theatre, where the twenty or so chorus members lobby WS Gilbert without the knowledge of Dickie Temple; he arrives ignorant to what is taking place, only to be asked by Gilbert if he would be prepared to sing the song at the evening’s performance? Temple replies “Yes sir, I would”. What follows is a long tense pause whilst the curmudgeonly William Schwenk (WS) Gilbert (played with great affection by Jim Broadbent), takes in the faces of those beseeching performers around him, who have gone out on a provocative limb for their colleague and the good of the show. Gilbert eventually, and with great grace, says to Dickie Temple “Then please be so good as to do so.”

No matter how many times I watch this film, this poignant moment always moves me.

Day #114 Tip: Give time, time and just maybe, time will give........
There is another moment in Topsy-Turvy that stirs something deep within me: Gilbert (the writer in the G&S partnership), bereft of ideas and inspiration, does not know how to move forward in his partnership with the composer, Arthur Sullivan. He has endured a pillorying from his critics (know that one), had a tooth painfully extracted (that one too) and is at his wit’s end (oh, so familiar); maybe the successful collaboration with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte is over, maybe he, as a writer, has nothing left to say?

Gilbert and his wife have been to a Japanese exhibition at London’s Olympia that day, at which he bought a samurai sword; I’ll let the screenplay’s stage directions tell the rest of the story:

Late at night. GILBERT, wearing his night-cap and dressing gown, is pacing restlessly round his study. Suddenly the Japanese sword falls off the wall, and lands on the floor with a clatter. He picks it up and looks at it; then he plays with it. First he does a bit of swashbuckling. Then follows a Japanese improvisation, echoing the kendo and kabuki performances at the exhibition.

GILBERT puts the sword down on his desk. He looks at it. He stops. Pause. He thinks...A gleam appears in his eye. He has a flash of inspiration. In the distance, we hear a fanfare, followed by a tune. A smile breaks out on GILBERT’s face. We are listening to the opening bars of Ko-Ko’s entrance in Act 1 of The Mikado.

The curtain crawl at the end of the film says this: “Gilbert & Sullivan wrote five more operas, including ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ and ‘The Gondoliers’. Sullivan only wrote one grand opera, ‘Ivanhoe’. Although moderately successful at the time, it is now mostly forgotten, and isn’t as much fun as ‘The Mikado’.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 113: Smoke & Mirrors



....following on from yesterday’s thoughts, in which I was banging on about my experiences as mobile disc-jockey Roger King and in particular, the art of handling the wedding reception:

Back to Kev & Donna’s big day.

We had quite a good light show: a couple of T-frame stands rigged up behind me, each holding two banks of lights, a slide show projector or two and a couple of strobes that were to be used sparingly; the last thing that you wanted to bring on was a bout of eplilepsy at the Curzon Rooms.

On this particular Saturday night I was very pleased with myself and the way that the show was going, plus I had a trick up my sleeve. For some time now, my brother and I had been investigating and shopping around to get involved in the dazzling world of pyrotechnics - smoke machines, dry ice and the like - the thought of adding that frissant of indoor fireworks to our armoury could only serve to increase our already-growing marketability.

It was an expensive sector, however, and so we shopped cautiously and shrewdly; studying smoke bombs and mist covered stages wherever we saw them. That Saturday lunchtime before we loaded the records and gear onto the van, my brother, Dave, arrived home from work - his daytime jobwas in the trade department of a giant hardware emporium in the town. “Have a go with this” he said, as he handed me what looked like a slightly bigger version of a sherbert dab. “I found them at work when we were doing the stocktake”. “What is it?” I asked, “Smoke, apparently. It was only a couple of quid, so if it’s good, we can save ourselves a fortune.” “Smoke??!! This is great, we could save a shit-load” And off I went, to pick up the roadies, armed with “smoke”.

Now, I have to make a confession here; it’s cheesy and I’m squirming at the thought of sharing these thoughts, but in the interests of unparalled candor, I will. There was a very thin, blurry line for me between my role as DJ and that of me as Rock God. In my days of being Roger King, Mobile Disc Jockey and Light Show, what travelled through the video recorder of my mind at quiet times were those, stunning moments when I, master of the turntables, would come up with the inspirational choice for the next record, cue it up and unleash it, full blare onto an audience, watching as a couple of hundred people rose as one, trance-like to move to the rhythms I was intoxicating them with. I fltl like I had a power, a control over these people, perched behind the console, working my bewitching chemistry. If only I could envelop myself in smoke, flames and glaring light, my transformation would be complete.

I briefed Foxy (roadie #2) on the smoke. “I’m going to play a couple of ‘heavy’ numbers and I want you to set that thing off, and Dilly (roadie #1), you turn off all of the other lights and just whack the strobes on.” “How do you light this thing?” enquired Foxy. “Use your cigarette lighter.” I think that I was after a kind of Valhalla effect for this part of the wedding reception.

I can’t remember how I introduced the record or whether I said anything at all, but when all of the lights went out and the famous guitar chords blasted out of the two speaker stacks, I swear that glasses on tables trembled and shook. For what happened next I don’t really blame anyone, least of all Foxy who lit the thing, but as those stobes stuttered icily into life, there was barely a whiff of smoke. That in itself was okay as the combination of fractured white light and Deep Purple juxtaposed Kev, Donna and the three-tiered weddingcake rather dramatically, I felt. “Foxy, where’s the fuckin’ smoke?!”

The question was redundant. Before the word “smoke” had left my lips, a thick grey pall was whooshing from the side of the stage straight out at the dancefloor, the surrounding tables, the bar and the top table of guests. What we didn’t know at quarter to eight on that Saturday evening, was that the innocuous enough ‘thing’ that Foxy had lit (under my instruction) was the very same ‘thing’ that developers and builders use to test half-mile long pipes for obstructions when they’d laid them under the ground. They’d light a‘thing’, throw it in at one end and the smoke would surge, bullet-train like until it appeared at the other end to show that the passage was clear. At least ours wasn’t a coloured one.....at least not at first.

Within seconds, a dense green acrid smoke had filled every corner and crevice of the room and we couldn’t stop the damn thing. Even dropped in a bucket of water it just kept burning... “...a fire in the sky” sang Deep Purple from a record deck that I could no longer see. Then the smoke alarms went off - fortunately there were no sprinklers - and men holding bar mats and handkerchiefs to their mouths helped open the windows. We were two storeys up and the in-rush of the breeze only served to swirl the acrid pall around, as it kept coming,

The call went out to evacuate the room and abandon the reception. It was a classic, women and children first moment, but chaos never plays out like it does in films. I was more bemused than anything else at the effect and I have to say that in these minutes of wedding-peril, I was weighing up the pro’s and con’s of our smoke weapon and actually wondering if we could get away with using it in future shows? Somewhere through the fog I could see the bride’s mother being asssited from the room, hat on head, hankie over nose. Here we all were in our own version of Towering Inferno and not a Steve McQueen or Paul Newman racing up the stairwell in sight. “Smoke on the water.......a fire burning”

It was a pleasant late Spring evening on the pavement outside the Curzon Rooms and the two hundred of us milled about whilst we waited for the room to clear of noxious gas. Many had the forethought to grab drinks before they left and given that there was no real danger to life or limb, the wedding punters, I believe, enjoyed the excitement that had been added to the evening

“How was the smoke?” asked my brother, as I plonked myself down on the sofa in the front room just after midnight. “Pretty good actually.” “That’s a shame. I went back this afternoon to check if there were any more but they’ve been discontinued.” “Pity.” The thought hung in the air, wisp-like.

Day #113 Tip: Tricks are just that
There’s nothing like a fancy-schmancy trick to jar me out of a film; whether it’s live action suddenly turning to animation, characters talking to the camera (breaking what fourth wall there is in the cinema), flashbacks, flash-forwards and who-knows-what else?

That’s not to say that I’m against any one of those techniques, with the caveat of “as long as there’s a reason for it”.....and by that, I do not mean laziness on the screenwriter’s part. Flat exposition is flat exposition however it’s dressed up. Kooky techniques are just that unless they are mandated by something that takes on the page and cannot be executed another way. Doing “it” just because everyone else is doing “it” isn’t good enough reason; just because Quentin Tarantino jumbled up the story lines in Pulp Fiction, it didn’t mean that verfyone else had to?
And just because Coppola juxtaposed a religious service (baptism) with multiple sluaghter underscored an operatic soundtrack at the end of The Godfather, didn’t eman that we had to see it ad nauseum for the rest of our lives in the cinema. And don’t get me started on Marie Antoniette.

Sorry, but I’m a traditionalist, three-act, Aristotlean kinda guy/screenwriter; when I come across a “trick”in a film, I’m no longer in the story but marvelling at the trick (maybe not always marvelling, but you get the idea).

It’s all smoke and mirrors to distract my attention away from what’s not going on that should be going on in the film.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 112: “Quomate”

Many years ago, roughly thirty-five years ago, I had an alter-ego, Roger King mobile disc-jockey, I’m sure that I’ve alluded to that fact, if not mentioned it here before. Let me tell you a story:

The wedding season was in full swing. It was May and Saturdays were booked back-to-back with weddings. My brother and I would reluctantly take it in turns; it was good money though and the perks could often make up for the long hours and terrible playlist of mixed musical tastes that you’d have to satisfy. You could guarantee that at any wedding there'd be every follower of every sort of music and theydl all want to hear their particular, group, artist or genre played, even if it was going to clear the dance floor and alienate everyone else withing ten square miles of the venue.

That said, we carried everything: soul, funk, punk, disco, middle-of-the-road, oldies, Motown, rock and roll, metal, big band, new romantics, everything. Admitedly, the selection might be a bit thin but we could accomodate all tastes.

I guarantee you that in every village in the Bristish Isles, however small, however tiny, there will be at least one punk. Since 1976-77 they left just a few behind, strategically dotted around the frontiers and outposts waiting once more for the faintest whiff of anarchy. And that one village punk would always be at the wedding. They’d of course ask you for some punk, but to prove how credentialised they are, they’d never ask you for soemthing easy like The Sex Pistols, The Clash or even Siouxsie & the Banshees; they’d ask you for something that they knew you did’t have: “You got The Slits?”, “nope”, “X-Ray Spex?”, “nah”, “What about The Fall?”.....I mean come on give me a break. Even if I did have them, do you think that I’d be putting that on at five thirty on a Saturday afternoon at Kev and Donna’s wedding reception at the Curzon Rooms?

They are asking you for something they know that you don’t have and for a type of music that they know you’re not going to play, so that you, Mr Mobile Deejay and Light Show, can be junked in with the rest of the anti-punk establishment like everyone else at the wedding. "Go back to your Nolan Sisters" would be gobbed at me.

So with that odd Punk or two, you played out that scenario of them sneering at you and eventually drifting away from the console. As if they intended pogoing on their own anyway? If you did put on the Pistols or Ramones, the most that they would do is retreat to the back of the room or hall, nursing their pint (let me add at this point that they came, more often than not, in pairs: punk boyfriend and punk girlfriend - salt and pepper punks) and moving about a bit in time with the beat, hoping that other people would notice them and point them out to their neighbours. “I reckon they’re punks them two”. Sometimes, very infrequently, they would take to the dance floor; just the two of them. Had the Ducking Stool still been around they both would have been taking down to the river faster than Wayne County & The Electric Chairs could have sung “If you don’t want to fuck me baby, baby fuck off”. I liked Punk, liked what it stood for, but in the middle of a dancefloor at a wedding whilst Uncle Arthur down from Warrington for the weekend is crossing back from the bar with a tray of pints and Baychams? Incongruous, that’s what it was, in that setting.

And anyway, the biker/heavy metal type had long pioneered the wedding territory way before Punk. This would have probably been the only day of the year that they took off their leathers and Levis and replaced them with some other type of clothing - a suit in this case. Only problem was, that cousin Graham or Tim may have left his bike behind, but had left his Catweazle head on.

You’d be into your show by a couple of hours and it’d be heading towards the middle part of the evening when Cousin Graham would lurch or swagger up to you, rollie sticking out from the bearded mouth, pint of brown and mild in his paw, and you knew that he was going to say a variation of the one theme: “Gotanyquomate?’or “Gotanysabbathmate?”

I knew most people in the area around where I lived, and even if I didn’t know them personally i would have known of the colourful characters that myths and legends were made of. “Put three blokes through the window of The Rising Sun he did, Graham Tonkins, fucking nut case”, “ See that bloke there, that’s Phil Kennett; they reckon he pulled up to The Red Lion one night on his bike, went in the public bar, pulled out a bayonnet and took on the whole lot ‘cause someone from there had shagged his missus.

So what was I supposed to say when one of their younger brothers asked me for a bit of “decent music”? I’ll tell you what I would say “Sure, what would you like? Zeppelin, Deep Purple, I’ve even got some Motorhead?”

To be continued tomorrow.........

Day #112 Tip: “Of course I can”
Today’s piece of wisdom is taught and pithy.

If someone accosts me or wanders up to me - and I can sniff a cheque book - asking if I can write a screenplay in a genre that I’ve never written in or intended writing in - musical, childrens’ story, war film, animation, martial arts - my response, with out thinking, is faster than immediate: “I’d love to, of course I can, when do we start?”.

If you’d like me to respond to Martic Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence, with a period piece “I’d love to, of course I can, when do we start?”. If the request is for me to make a comedy-vampire cross genre piece “I’d love to, of course I can, when do we start?”.

Money for screenwriting is HARD to come by. When and if you’re asked, do not think twice; smile, be enthuisastic, name a film you love in that genre and then say “I’de love to, of course I can, when do we start?”

"...and would you like me to play some Nine Inch Nails while I write?"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day 111: If only crime paid.....

The crime screenplay that I’ve been working on, has to go on hold, maybe not for long, but a paying customer and a prospective customer have walked through the door of my ‘business’ and I have to turn my attention to them.

I’ve pressed the pause buton on where I’m at with the crime screenplay known as Jerusalem, but I will get back to it shortly as the paid work is only temporary.

A friend has asked me to look at a true-life incident that happened to his ancestors, over one hundred and fifty years ago, and advise/guide him as to whether I think there is the potential for a film, television or maybe a documentary piece in it? My reflex action was to stretch my hand out no further than eighteen inches in front of me and pluck a book that sits in the row of texts on my desk: ‘The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film’ by Linda Seger.

Linda Seger is a another highly regarded and widely published script consultant, who has been plying her trade (in the USA) since 1981, the author of many works, most notably ‘Making a Good Script Great’, but this volume of hers on the highways and byways of adaptation is a well-thumbed text of mine.

The sub-heading of the book is ‘How to transform novels, plays and true-life stories into screenplays’. In the first part of the book, the author explores why literature, theatre , the true-life story and another film may resist adaptation. The second part deals with “creating the second original” and in the third part, Ms Seger gets her hands on the legal entrails - optioning, purchasing agreements, sourcing rights - in regard to the business side of the business of adapting.

This is book is being used, doubly so, by me at the moment as a twenty-year pursuit of the rights to a piece of work that I’ve been chasing is hotting up, with a flurry of emails going backwards and forwards between my humble abode and The Strand in London. Residing within a building halfway down The Strand (coloured red on the Monopoly board, between Trafalgar Square and the Law Courts) is a company that looks after the estate of a creative genius, no less, who now, some years passed on/over/away/ beyond, has left a canon of work behind, one piece of which I’ve been hankering after to adapt for the cinema screen since the late 1980’s.

The chase began in earnest back in 2002 or 2003 when I first picked up the phone and called London to make a general enquiry about the availibility of the film rights for the “piece in question”. Eventually speaking to the right person, both of us were suitably surprised to learn that no one had ever enquired after the film rights to this "piece". Over the years in between, the trail has blown hot and cold as that person left the company and a newbee replaced him and then the structure of the whole company that I was dealing with changed and, just like this week, something else came along and distracted me and only in then last few months have I been able to get back to it.

But again, like the modest commission that I am working on for the friend, Linda Seger’s book has been the greatest of road maps helping me through making a request for an option agreement that gives me exclusive rights, worldwide, for a period of two or three years in which to develop a screenplay from this wonderful source material and then to see if I can raise interest and finance for an independent production.

I will only be able, intially, to offer them a token amount of money (very very little) to secure the option, possibly as little as $100. It seems preposterous to me (and it probably will do to them): $100 for the rights to adapt a work, that in it’s field, is one of the GREAT pieces of the last one hundred years. I am relying on passion and fierce hunger to carry the day (a bit like Agincourt).

So that’s why, I’m having to turn my eye away from a writer’s life of crime, just for the moment, but fear not, we blog on.

Day #111 Tip: Adapt or die
Did I make that pithy little adage up? Sounds like a law of nature to me, I think I’ve stolen it from Charles Darwin or David Attenborough, but there’s surely truth in’t.

Often as I’m trolling along, deeply invested in a piece of work, other more pressing pieces of work will come along that will put meat and drink on my table and keep the roof over my head, this is when the unpaid work has to be put to one side as I work to earn the money that will keep me moving forward over the long haul. Sometimes I believe that some sort of training as a juggler might have been handy, or an apprenticeship as a Chinese plate-spinner, the type that I used to see in variety shows at the end-of-the-pier?

To survive I have found that I have to scratch out a writer’s living whichever way I can, but the bottom line is this: I have to keep writing, I have to keep storytelling.

A friend once posed this question to me: “If you won a few million bucks on the Lotto tomorrow, what would you do? Would you keep writing or would you do what you really want to do?”

Before I share my answer to that question with you, let me raise two points: (1) I do not play the Lotto, because (2) I once heard that you do not significantly increase your chances of winning the Lotto by buying a ticket.

Back to my answer; “If I won millions tomorrow (which in many ways I hope I don’t) , I’d get up and start writing the next day, because that’s what I do and that’s what I really really love doing. Crime is way way more meaningful to me than gambling.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day 110: Three green bottles.....

A ‘traditional’ sort of song I remember from way back when goes like this: "Ten green bottles, standing on the wall, ten green bottles, standing on the wall and if one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’ll be nine green bottles, standing on the wall.

A week or two ago, I wrote of my “irons in the fire”, five work opportunities that I’ve been cultivating ‘out there’ in the big wide world; swapping the euphemism for a moment, from “irons” to “bottles”, one of the bottles crashed yesterday (taking a related bi-product of an opportunity with it) and another is teetering, looking like it may fall.

To be perfectly honest, the “bottle” that has crashed to the ground was an opporunity that I didn’t want to work out for me anyway, it was going to mean that I would have to take a step back into the world of commerce and business and my shoulders were slumping as I thought of that. One of the owners of the company called me from America to tell me that they “didn’t think I was right for the position” and I agreed with them. It’s funny, but only a couple of hours earlier, I was having a phone conversation with a director I’m collaboarting with, during which I expressed my mixed feelings about the position and whether I wanted to be offered the role within this company or not. That person wisely foretold that “the universe” would take care of things; a bona fide Cassandra if ever there was one.

So, one of my bottles crashed down off the wall, leaving four up there, still standing. Another phone conversation with another collaborator, later on in the day and - to continue the metaphor - a bottle that I always thought was gingerly placed (something else masquerading as a bottle), looks as though it might turn out that way and shouldn’t be on the wall in the first place. I’m sorry to talk in riddles, but it’s a tiny sea that I sail on and “loose lips sink ships”.

Let’s say that I can clearly agree with myself that there are three bottles up on that wall and I’m trying to put a fourth up there at the moment.

I genuinely fear finding myself sweeping up shards of glasss, looking up to see the wall top bereft of bottles and thinking that I need to start from scratch and create another bunch of projects, another set of irons for the fire. Will I have to go back to the anvil and the hammer and start creating yet another precious object forged between the pounding of one piece of metal on another? How many metaphors can I squeeze in here today??

I returned to the film Master & Commander last night for sustenance. I have two or three films that I reach for, from the DVD store shelf, when life gets a little like this, not by any stretch of the imagination the best films in the world (whatever that means) but films that have something in them that works for me, films that I get lost in. What works for me in in Peter Weir’s retelling of three Patrick O’Brien novels conflated together, is the (Controlling) idea of the film, a dilemma repetitively thrown at the protagonist - the Captain (Jack Aubrey/Russell Crowe) of the ship (HMS Surprise) - which is one of: doing what’s best for the individual vs doing was right for the greater good.

Examples of this ‘lesser of two evils/irreconcilable goods” dilemma face Captain ‘lucky’ Jack, again and again and again, indeed the man has to be made of sterner stuff than even English oak. In one particular sequence that poignantly and terrifyining demonstrates this idea, in words not action, is the moment where, rounding Cape Horn, a spar high up in the rigging splinters, crashing into the mountainous ocean, taking the young sailor who was struggling to work the sail attached to said spar. So may ropes are attached to that heavy piece of the mast that’s broken off, that it’s dragging the ship over, threatening to capsize the vessel threatening the lives of all souls on board. The young man, clinging to the piece of oak amidst the tumult of the sea has only one hope: that he can struggle back to the Surprise via those rope lines that attach him to the ship. To add a sting to the Captain’s dilemma, the very same young man had presented Jack Aubrey with an idea that would contribute to saving him and the entire ship’s crew, earlier on in the story. The Captain gives the orders for axes to be brought and he leads the way, chopping through the ropes, cutting the lifelines that bind HMS Surprise to the spar and the sailor; he consigns that young man to a certain and lonely end, leaving him behind at the very gates of a seafaring hell, whilst he and the rest of the crew sail on.

Day #110 Tip: Sever the ties that bind
One way or another, the ‘ship’ that is my screenwriting, must move forward. I know what the direction is that I’m trying to head in and must attempt to keep my compass on watch to what is or isn’t going to serve my objectives.

There will be obvious forms of aid and assistance that come to me (some in disguise) and other options that may hold me back. It’s a lifetime learning lesson in itself to treat them all with equanimity and to not get derailed, either way when things work out or indeed when they do not. Sometimes I’ll have the axe in my hand to sever the ties, sometimes it’ll be out of my control, but either way, my ship must plough forward, hopefully to come safe to land again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 109: “Elementary”


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, had a medical practice in Southsea, the seaside ‘resort’ of my hometown, Portsmouth. I have seen the commemorative blue plaque on the wall of the building where Doyle’s rooms once were, much like I have seen the plaque on the wall of 221b Baker Street, Marylebone, London, the imaginary home of the great detective.

I have read widely of Sherlock Holmes, I am a fan and will confess more to you, dear reader. On the positive side of the ledger, I and a good friend (whom I shall refer to as “the good Mrs W”) once responded to an advertisement in the classifieds column of The Times newspaper to join a perambulation one winter’s night, abroad in the environs of Holmes and Watson, around the passageways, mews, inns and alleyways of W1, lurking with other afficiandos and cognoscenti in the vapours and mists of a guided tour, tracing the footsteps of the great man.

On the other side of the ledger, I and a different friend “(the illustrious Mr S”), attended a gathering of the the “Sydney Passengers” (the Sherlock Holmes society here in Sydney), named in honour of a veritable group of Australia-bound travellers featured in one of the deerstalking sleuth’s auspicious cases. I’d read about the “Passengers” in a weekend newspaper supplement - this is going back nearly twenty years - and we joined them for a suitably Holmesian evening at The Clock Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills (before this establishment was modernised and renovated). Many of the Passengers were in costume and discussed the merits of many of the noteworthy cases solved by the perceptive Holmes, from the famous ‘Hounds Of The Baskervilles’, through ‘A Study In Scarlet’ to ‘The Valley Of Fear’ and ‘The Red-Headed League’.

Mr S and I did find our dinner companions, very colourful and ‘dedicated’ to their cause, probably somewhat more enthusiastically than ourselves, but to use the vernacular of the day, the night out was indeed, good sport.

It was then somewhat intriguing, months later, to read of a Star Trek convention taking place in a Sydney hotel; on studying the photo’s of those assembled to talk all things Spock and Shatner, a few familar faces caught my eye: wasn’t that the group of my newly-found acquaintances, who only recently had dined with me (meerschaum pipes dangling from their lips) allegiance pledged to Holmes and Watson, donning purple skivvies and making a nanu-nanu sign. Yes it was. The Passengers had swapped ship for spaceship and were now Trekkies!?

I could only remind myself of the words of the cocaine-injecting, violin-playing private investigator himself who, in ‘The Sign Of Four’, mused “There is but one step from the grotesque to the horrible”.

Day #109 Tip: Rise to the challenge
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had perhaps, something more memorable to say, not, this time, via the mouthpiece of Holmes, this is the author speaking for himself: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius.”

We give our work to people for comment, evaluation, response and guidance. It is our duty and responsibility to think carefully about who we listen to. Sometimes the choice is out of our hands and we have no say in the matter, then the fidelity is to ourselves to work out what we take on board and what we discard.

This is not the ‘Tipof the Day’ to get us off the hook of criticism that we don’t like, it’s the ‘Tip’ that should inspire us to try and get our work into the hands of the best people possible who will pull us up by our bootstraps.

When I think of what I’m working on or what I’m offered to work on or the work I’ve completed or the work I could take up or turn down, I imagine myself at the utopian dinner table with four greats of the film industry (dead or alive). I listen to them chit-chat about what they’re working on - it could be the directors Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet and Ken Loach, another day it could be the actors and actresses Al Pacino, Isabelle Huppert, Humphrey Bogart and Celia Johnson - but whoever is at the table, the attention edventually swings to me, they want to know what I’m doing, what my script is that I’m applying msyelf to?

If I don’t have anything to talk about that’s currently inspiring me, then it’s certainly not going to stimulate them and if that’s the case then why am I working on it? If something is making me hold back from regaling them with a powerful pitch of a synopsis with vigour and vitality (to these folk that I admire), I must look to myself and ask why? For me, it's a good litmus test.

Most days, I don’t get to share a coffee and sandwich with David Mamet, Dennis Potter, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov or Henrik Ibsen, but I have a fertile enough mind to imagine that I do and have the opportunity to run my ideas past those writers. Am I embarassed to tell them what I’m writing, because I know that I can lift my sights higher? What if it were Robert McKee himself, staring at me with a beady eye, under his furrowed brow, as he sips on a cup-a-soup?

I think he would give voice to the words of Holmes and say: “You know my methods. Apply them.”

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 108: Wright & Robinson

The man in the photograph, is known as Eric “the hat”, to give him his full name, Eric “the hat” Robinson, one half of the comedy duo Wright & Robinson, who began life in music halls and variety shows around the UK, before succesfully transfering their act to radio, then television, before an acrimonious split in the early 1960’s. After the professional divorce, Eric Robinson, went on to have a successful television career, becoming a much-loved elder statesman of the British entertainment world, whilst his ex-partner, Leonard Wright, all-but disappeared from sight, foraging for work where he could get it, in an industry that thought him “hard work”.

The irony was that the eminently successful Eric, was the straight man of the comedy duo, whilst Leonard was the funnier half, the one blessed with enviable comic timing and an ascerbic wit. Like many personal and professional partnerships that go their seperate ways, the two could not abide being within joke-telling distance of each other thereafter, let alone on the same bill or, God- forbid, in the same room. For eight long years, between 1961 and 1969 (long mostly for those around them), the two did not exchange one pleasantry with each other, even though their professional and personal lives had been intertwined and inextricably linked for the best part of twenty-five years.

Eric would openly talk about the split when interviewed in the media, but Leonard kept his silence, nursing his rancour and resentment like it were something precious to him. Eric would only say, diplomatically, that the two of them had had a “professional difference of opinion”, leaving it open to guesswork as to what that innocuous and suitably vague statement actually meant. One had the definite impression that if Leonard had volunteered something on the subject, it would probably have been considerably more toxic, Leonard being the more volatile of the two and not someone known for his detente .

By the time the end of the ’60’s drew nigh, Eric Robinson was living his life in a fashionably wealthy street off the King’s Road in London’s South-West (royal) borough of Kensington & Chelsea. He was able to pick and choose from the television and radio work offered to him, was the subject matter of BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ on more that one occasion and boasted, in Billy Todd, the finest theatrical agent that top performers of the day - from Tom Jones to Shirley Bassey - could hope for. The abundnace in his working life was mirrored by the enjoyment of a personal life filled with children and grandchildren, all with a steadfast and loving wife by his side.

Leonard, on the other hand, was struggling to make rental payments on his Hackney bedsit, a ‘modest dwelling’ that would physically rattle as the trains went by on the tracks that he lived cheek by jowl with. There were no hired drivers to ferry Leonard from NE1 to the studios of the Brtish Broadcasting Corporation to find out what musical selection Leonard would take to the desert island, only a red, double-decker, Routemaster bus that would trundle him along to Shoreditch and the supermarket.

The ill-will and enmity between the two could not be put asunder, even when Eric’s wife succombed to cancer; not a card from Leonard to Eric, no call from Eric to Leonard, the bitterness ran deep.

The cold war between these two eventually came to a head, one September night in 1969, when, along with seven other comedians, Eric “the hat” Wright and Leonard Robinson were put on the same bill together for one night and thrown in one communual dressing room with the others, forcing each to acknowledge the others’ existence, even opening up a torrid dialogue.

Day #108 Tip: No dialogue in the Treatment
Attempting to write a screenplay of the night that Leonard Wright and Eric Robinson shared a dressing room together. along with seven peer group comedians of their day was something that I tried to do with my first screenplay, The Comedians.

For me, the novice/apprentice/greenhorn screenwriter, writing that treatment before the screenplay was almost impossible, because in a treatment you must keep dialogue to the absolute minimum. What characters “do” defines character; character is action. As someone once wisely said: “don’t show me a scene where they talk about attacking the castle, show them attacking the castle.

The Comedians is/was a script for a film about nine comics in a dressing room, much of the matter of the screenplay was about what they said, it was a struggle to write any sort of a coherent treatment when dialogue was denied me; I couldn’t do it. Dialogue is to be saved for the actual writing of the screenplay, by which time your characters will have been screaming to speak for the last five months; by that point in time they’ll have an economy of speech which will be profound, saying only what needs saying, no more no less.

My first treatment for this screenplay was littered with “he said”, “he shouted”, “he yelled” and on and on. I didn’t know how to solve that script. Two and a half drafts later (and a draft by someone else) and I still couldn’t figure it out. Many have suggested that it “should” be a theatre piece and I’d reply that it “could” be a theatrical work (not to be confused with Trevor Griffiths’ ‘Comedians’).

This script was to be my response to Twelve Angry Men: nine angrier, sadder, mentally deranged men. I’ll solve the conundrum that is The Comedians one day.....when a STORY of ACTION, active moments of conflict between characters comes to me. Then and only then, the treatment won’t seem such a slog. And maybe then, I'll know what became of Leonard & Eric? Until then, they both wait at the bus stop my imagination, eyeing the timetable waiting for....?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 107: Just because you can.....


I’ve been listening to a podcast of English comedian, Stephen Fry, speaking at the 2009 iTunes Music Festival in London, on the subject of new media technology and copyright.

New media technology moves so fast that I can barely keep a-pace with the language and jargon, let alone the technology itself. Why, only in the last week or so, I’ve come to learn that there are now such things in our world as a “webisode” (an episode of something episodic on the web), a "mobisode” (episode [of something else] this time especially made for a mobile phone) and ”webinars” (seminars on the web). I’m sure that these are just the tip of the new technologies iceberg and that my ignorance of these three terms probably gives away just how little I know.

In the aforementioned Podcast, Stephen Fry believes that the medium or technology will always be at the service of the talent (meaning the creativity that the media is being used for), which soothes my aching concern that the it industry will inherit the earth, arts-and-all. He intimates that we shouldn’t be worried about an erosion of artistic standards just beacuse everything now is so inmmediate and so readily available to all and sundry to use; an artistic gun in every hand. Is he right? Several particular instances come to mind that make me wonder.

Photography. I listened to an eminent scholar and teacher of photography on and old technology - the radio (medium wave) - the other night who, whilst embracing all that is offered by the digital revolution, is also worried about the promiscuous snapping of the digital photographer. His argument was that, pre-digital, a photographer would have to think more, practice patience, wait for the right moment, concern him or herself with framing and lighting to a significantly greater degree than they do now. In short, the subtext of what he was saying was that you didn’t used to be able to just point and snap and snap and snap and snap and end up with thousands of images; he was arguing for the more discerning photographer who didn’t have the facility of photo shop either, for that post-production wizardry.

So much more home photography is now posing or masquerading as photographic art. With retail outlets offering to enlarge photographs to enormous sizes, many homes have acres of wallspace, filled with shots taken by the person who lives there and I wonder? Again, with the magic of computer software, mediocre images can be enhanced with colour, cropping and any number of enhancements to transform an average picture into wall decoration talking point. Am I being unkind?

Even I’ve sort of joined in. The picture accompanying this article is one that I took on my mobile-phone-before-last, of my Godson’s brother, Oskar. I had it blown up and printed on a modest canvas for his parents, two Christmases ago. I will add that I haven’t done anything electronic or artificial to the shot; how you see it now is exactly how I took it, no artificiality or photographic botox. I went further and recently entered it into the Doug Moran Prize, a photographic portrait competition here in Sydney.

I will add this caveat though. Whilst I think that the picture I took of Oskar is pretty good (I’m
happy with it and how it captures him), I could not do this at will, again and again and again like a photographic craftsman can. A sometime bloggee of this site - Andy Baker - a highly
respected professional photographer (that's his b&w shot of Nicole Kidman), can do that; in fact when Oskar was but an infant, Andy took a picture of him for the cover of the Weekend Australian Magazine, because that was Andy’s professional remit at the time, he was paid money to do that. See, he can do that at will, I can’t. I may have got one lucky break with my shot of Oskar (that’s if you think the picture has merit) but it may take me another thousand point and clicks to pull it off again. I’m not saying that luck or fortune no longer plays a part in Andy’s work - I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think he’d be the first to tell me that all photographers need a a little of that shady lady on their side - but isn’t luck “opportunity and preparation” coming together...have I said that here before?

Just because someone can shoot a clip of a cat on a mat chasing it’s tail round in circles and posts it up on Youtube, doesn’t make it a short film. Just because I’m blogging doesn’t make me a writer of journalistic quality.

I’m guessing that Michelangelo Buonarroti could have had a good crack at the roof of the Sistine Chapel with crayons or magic markers (I’m probably showing my ignorance now and expect visual arts friends to take me to task on this), just as great cinematographers can shoot on tape, 35mm, Super 16mm or digital?

Day #107 Tip: Master a process that works for you at your beck and call
The process of Index Cards to Step Outline (over three months), then Step Outline to Treatment (two more months) and finally, Treatment to Screenplay (at least another month) is taxing and thorough. There are plenty of other ways to write a screenplay and you are most welcome to them; if they work for you, then I am, literally and honestly, very happy for you.

Lance Armstrong famously said that “it’s not about the bike” in the title of his autobiography and for me it’s not about the (index) cards or the outl;ine or treatment, it’s about the process of building and refing story, right now that's teasing one line of an outline into a half-page or more of a Treatment.

Here’s a famous moment (from my imaginary 40-60 Index Cards of Casablanca): Ilsa sees Rick in the cafe. Of it’s own, that moment that story event could mean little, if you haven’t seen the film, it avails you nothing. If, on the other hand, you’ve seen Casablanca and know everything that’s gone before, then you might need hosing off the floor at this point. My example is a pretty dodgy one, in actual fact; because of the story that’s been told up to that point, very little else need be written on that card and in the treatment. That’s not strictly true; the writer may want to add plenty about the detail of this outstanding moment in an outstanding film where very little happens but things happen of cataclysmic consequence in the telling of the tale.

Luck and the roll of the creative dice can only work for so long, the house always wins in the end and lady luck will eventually walk out on you. And as for technology...a good production can lift an average script, but an average production won't kill a great script.



Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 106: The Pledge


The Pledge (2001) is a film, directed by Sean Penn, starring Jack Nicholson, based on a book written by the novelist and playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; a film I have watched many times, a favourite detective movie.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a detective, working out of Reno, Nevada, who is about to retire. In fact, we attend his farewell party from the police force, along with him (a reluctant retiree, if ever there was one), but when a call comes through that a body has been found up in the snow fields of the Nevada high country, a locale where we know Jerry fishes, it’s just the excuse the seasoned veteran wants to absent himself from his own send-off.

The body turns out to be that of a child, a little girl and it’s left to Jerry to go and break the news to her parents, local turkey farmers, unaware of the maelstrom that’s about to sweep into their lives. The child’s mother makes Jerry take a pledge to find her daughter’s killer and so we have our story. How does a man retire, when he’s taken a sworn oath to carry on? How can he go on his fishing vacation in Maui when a child’s killer is still at large?

The Pledge is an overlooked film in many ways, a film that people often forget. I don’t know why, when first of all, you consider the cast of actors that Sean Penn managed to assemble to ably support Jack: Robin Wright-Penn, Sam Shephard, Aaron Eckhart, Micky Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Benicio Del Torro, Patricia Clarkson and Helen Mirren. All perfectly cast, some on screen for no more than one powerful scene; like Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the dead child’s grandmother, visited by the investigating and still obsessed Black. In her palpable grief, she asks the detective if he’s familiar with the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Jerry is not intimately accquainted with the Danish childrens’ author, so she quotes a few lines for him:

“Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven, takes the dead child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with her over all the places which the child had loved during her life. Then she gathers a large handful of flowers, which she carries up to the Almighty, that they may bloom more brightly in heaven than they do on earth.”

Andersen wrote that passage in his fairy tale called ‘The Angel’ in 1844. Dürrenmatt wrote his novel, ‘The Pledge’ ('Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman' ['The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel']) in 1958, refining his own screenplay, 'It Happened In Broad Daylight’. Jerzy and Mary Olson Kromolowski penned their screenplay sometime before the film’s release in 2001.

Screenplay to novel to screenplay, writer to writer, working and reworking, into the hands of wonderful actors, guided by a director with a singular vision for this exquisite film. A film that, despite critical acclaim, never made back it’s budget?

There is a resolution moment in this film that defies all that I hold dear in script structure and and sits so unevenly in the story, yet I find myself able to pass it by, because of everything else that I love about the film. Oh contraire, maybe the critic in me doth protest too much, too often?

I also wonder how they stumbled across this long-forgotten gem of a publication and brought it to life, set nearly fifty years on?

It’s an unusual detective movie, yet archetypal in so many ways. There is a theory that all detective stories can trace their genealogy back to Oedipus, the king who set out find who brought the plague and pestilence to his land, only to discover that it was.......I’ll leave you to do your own investigative work by reading Oedipus Rex. Michael Eaton fleshes out this hypothesis in his BFI publication ‘Chinatown’, a fantastic dissemination of the Roman Polanski directed, Robert Towne written, neo-noir, featuring a much young Jack.

Perhaps The Pledge is a better sequel to JJ Gittes’s life than The Two Jakes (the actual sequel to Chinatown), Gittes, twenty-five years on, a man obsessed?

Day #106 Tip: Begin the Treatment
Now that I’ve done the rounds with the 10 minute verbal version of my Story Outline and taken any notes on board, I’m under way on the two month journey of turning that outline into a treatment. Essentially, what I’ll be doing is turning each of the 40-60 one line film moments/scenes that I have, into a fully fleshed out paragraph or more that details that particular event in the film. Written in the third person with no dialogue, describing the text and subtext of what’s going on, this treatment usually turns out to be about 50-60 pages.

There’s also the comments from the outline to be addressed and that has to be factored into my working day as well. I’ve come across many in the industry who find this process unwieldy and too thorough, but then I’ve also come across many films where it would have been eminently more sensibe and less wasteful of everyone’s time and money to have solved the problems of the script on the A4 pages rather than on the 30’x 60’ cinema screen.

I can’t give up on a quest to write the best screenplay that I can, just like Jerry Black and Oedipus couldn’t give up on there missions. Perhaps I too, am obsessed?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 105: The mother of invention


A friend and regular bloggee of this site, fighting wolves at the door, is having to forego internet usage for a short period, because of impecunious straits, familiar terrain for this writer.

I have always been of the belief, via my own experience, that there is no correlation between a cheque book and creativity. Early on in my filmmaking apprenticeship I made two or three short films with a Peckinpah/Kubrick/Lean mindset, where budget was no object, costumes and sets were unlimited and the results questionable. The most successful of the shorts, however, was made with a relatively meagre budget of $500, most of which went on post-production, it was a time when we had to go to an editing suite to finish the film (personal computer editing software was not widespread).

About the same time, I blew an horrendous amount of money on a stage production that turned into a disaster, on most fronts, and whilst it wasn’t necessarily lacking in creativity, I made the mistake of solving every problem that arose by throwing cash at whatever obstacle popped up. The story of that production, ‘Thyestes’, is worthy of a day’s writing and a campfire telling all of it’s own; I will, I promise, come back to it in the fullness of time to regail you with that disaster.

When funds are low, I cook with greater imagination, I read more, I write more, I waste less and, I think, I maybe have a little more humility that I am otherwise graced with. To wit:

In 1985, I scored a coveted position as a ‘suit’ at an advertising agency in London’s, Covent Garden; boy did I feel I’d arrived. It was a job bestowed on me through nepotism and a mentor who’d encouraged my talent through two previous companies where I’d been a salesman then a marketeer. I had no formal training in advertising and no real idea of what I was meant to be doing as an adman. Not to worry, the agency was at one end of Floral Street, on top of an historic inn - The Lamb & Flag - and at the other end of this famous thoroughfare was English clothes designer Paul Smith’s first outlet, his then flagship store, so solutions, I thought, to my problems were in abundance.

In readiness for my first day in the fashionable world of advertising, my best thinking had me head off to the Paul Smith end of Floral Street, credit card in hand wher I charged them to kit me out to look as though as knew what I was doing; Don Draper may look snazzy and hep in ‘Mad Men’ but I was at my sartorial best when I swanned, maybe sashayed, into that agency on Monday morning. Yes, I had no idea what I was doing, but hell, I looked damn fine.

Not one year later, an envelope had appeared on my desk with the briefest of fare-the-well letters inside, accompanied by a tax-free salary cheque covering me for the next three months. I’d never been able to muster the humility to actually say to someone “look, I know I might look like I know what I’m doing, but actually I haven’t got a clue, could you help me please?” but heck, I looked as fine a dandy as I left as when I first came through their doors.

Interestingly enough, these days, I am the lucky recipient of regular hand-me-downs from two friends who stayed on that advertising gravy train that I jumped off/was pushed from. One of these charitable donors has passed on unworn Ralph Lauren shirts, Levis jeans and the like, whilst the other....well, let me tell you.

In London’s Jermyn Street (tucked away in St. James’s, behind Piccadilly) lie a collection of bespoke shirtmakers, one of which is Turnbull & Asser, provider of shirts to Prince Charles (next in line to the throne of England.....that Prince Charles). My close of friend, of SW6, a goodly man whom I have know for just on 30 years, is also supplied in shirtwear buy the good tailors of Turnbull & Asser. Because said friend moves in a rare business stratosphere, he cannot afford to run his shirts into the ground; frayed collars or cuffs are not the done thing, which is great for me. Great for me, because Prince Charles and I now share the same shirt-maker (at least in name if not in person). The shirts no longer cutting the mustard for my CEO friend are handballed my way and I certainly wear those shirts until they are hanging together by threads. I have no qualms about being somewhat of a secondhand Rose, at least I know what I’m doing these days or if I don’t know, I try and find out what’s to be done from those around me.

Day #105 Tip: Ask and ye shall receive but ye shall have to decide
I have talked a lot and advised a-plenty about sharing work with others and getting opinions, especially at the last stage of the Story Outline (gleaned from the Index Cards). I have also offered thoughts and shared experience on receiving opinions and guidance from reader’s reports and coverage (an industry term for a screenplay response). However, there’s yet more.

I find myself in the lucky position of sometimes working on commissions, with producers, directors and script editors/consultants/doctors and that in itself opens up a whole other box belonging to Ms Pandora. Opinions and thoughts are often diverse, contradictory and everyone has an agenda; maybe a more positive way to put that, is that each of the practitioners that I get to collaborate with has a different angle or perspective from which they are approaching a response to the work.

I find that producers often have casting, number of locations (how many outdoors?!) marketability, target audience and the like, as a prism through which they consider the script. Directors are often more visual, thinking in terms of action & movement, colour, themes and again, casting. Both have great and indifferent contributions and thoughts to offer on story, but generally, that’s left to me and the script editor if, hopefully, there is one.

The Script Editor becomes the screenwriters best friend, sometimes the second in your corner, often your confidante and definitely an advisor. There is no one, exhaustive job description for the role of Script Editor, at least not that I’ve come across. Picking one to work with is tricky too. I’ve watched plenty of films with under-prepared scripts and wondered whether the filmamkers had listened to the script editor or whether the script editor had given them a bum steer?

What am I counselling here? Advice comes thick and fast, demands too. Precarious waters to negotiate; as you steer onward, follow that true north of your compass.....and make sure that you look good!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 104: Smells like.....

When television’s “Idol” progamme was in it’s infancy, after the first series, there was a ‘global Idol’, a one-off show that brought together the winning contestants from around the world. I’m referring here to the worldwide franchsise of “reality” shows whose mission it is to annually unearth the next big singing sensation.

It was an over-two-nights contest that numbered Guy Sebastian from Australia and, I’m guessing, Kelly Clarkson from the USA (I can’t quite remember) among the acts. Each country also got to bring along the judge who seemed to bring the most piquancy to his or her own country’s panel of three sitting on high, in other words, each country brought it’s own version of Simon Cowell.

I’m certainly not anti-Simon Cowell, I think maybe someone should have a word with whoever cuts his hair and lays out his wardrobe of a morning, but apart from that, the guy appears to be a straight-shooter and he certainly was on that night.

Deep into the menu of power balladeers and would-be divas, along comes a Norweigan young man - I’m pretty sure he was from Norge - a shaggy fellow, seemingly the antichrist of what Idol is and what Idol might stand for. Musically and metaphorically, he gave Idol the bird, launching into Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, chanelling Kurt Cobain in the process. The audience went wild and kinda crazy (but hey, they do that with most songs) and for a moment there, something weird was going on on the Idol stage via this interloper.

From judge to judge they praised him, gave him plaudits, complimented him for being this “breath of fresh musical fragrance” amongst the 'safe' others and so it carried on, until it got to Simon Cowell.

Simon Cowell opened his appraisal of the young man and his performance with this “you are like a sheep in wolf’s clothing”. Simon went on to elucidate, in his very singular way that he has, how he thought this young man had come onto this very mainstream popular music programme which has a pretty clear agenda and tried to take some sort of musical high ground by doing the Cobain/Nirvana thing (the guy had engaged in vocal if not physical mimicry of the late Cobain) ‘looking down’ upon all the other contestants from this place of superiority. “Furthermore...” Cowell went on to say “Kurt Cobain would probably roll in his grave at the thought of his music being performed on a show like Idol”. But there was more: if the young man was committed to that musical path, then he wouldn’t come within a country mile of this programme; if he was really into that somewhat alternative trail and wanted true credibility in that field, then the last thing that he would do was to be on Idol. I think Simon Cowell stopped short of calling our young friend from Norway, a fraud.

From the comfort of my viewer’s armchair, I agreed with Simon Cowell. I don’t think it stopped Kurt’s dopplegänger from scoring well and progressing in the competition and I hope that I was wasn’t revelling in schadenfreude (a tad too much Germanic there?) watching a hopeful singer cop a sort-of schlacking (there were plenty of other judges to balance the ledger) but gee, it was something that stuck with me and made me think about being an impostor?

Day #104 Tip: Beware the worship of false idols
Friends often tell me that I’m really funny and, I must modestly confess, that I like to think of myself as a bit of a wit. However, I don’t write funny. When someone suggests that I should write a comedy script I always respond that being mildly amusing and coming up with the odd line or two to make you laugh is a whole other thing to writing comedy. Is that my truth or am I hiding behind something?

I know that I can have a belief that drama is more noble than comedy, but fear not, I won’t be lying down on the therapist’s couch of my own Blog to analyse how and why that might be. Consequently, I may harbour a belief system that tells me that to write drama rather than comedy may then be a worthier pursuit? I’m not sure and I should never believe anything that my head tells me, yet it’s worth making a note of and paying attention to.

Somewhere in McKee’s Story (not over the rainbow) there’s a passage or two where he talks about letting the writing reveal to us (the writer) just what we’re writing about; it may be that the person who likes to think of themselves as optimistic and of a sunny disposition actually has dark tales to tell, a shadow side of themselves to reveal? And, conversely, he or she who sees themself as a patron of tha darker arts may have stories of triumph and toil to relate.

I must be very careful about the adoration of false deities.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 103: The Boxer

I can’t remember what day of the week 9/11 was, but on the weekend that followed, Saturday Night Live went to air in America, as it had done for hundreds of years previously. I didn’t see the programme, I wasn’t living in America but this is one of a couple of things that happened that I know of:

Flanked by a phalanx of uniformed firemen, fresh from Ground Zero where they had been working day and night (faces blackened from the ash, sould bruised from their toil) a very well-known singer stood with a guitar and began his song:

“I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
for a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises.
All lies and jest
still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

I think ‘The Boxer’ is Simon & Garfunkel at their most poetic and Paul Simon that night was at his most profound. As I’ve said, I wasn’t living in America, but I know this because a couple of years back I watched a television programme about the friendship between one of the show’s founders, Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s incredibly moving to watch and, amongst other things, it made me wonder why he chose that song?

Listening to the lyrics of ‘The Boxer’, the song refers to New York and, for my money, tells the tale of a young man who leaves home, running away to that very city, only to be battered by a life there, with little money or comfort, precipitating a return home (maybe), stronger, more seasoned by this rite of passage event.

“Then I’m laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone
going home
where the New York city winters aren’t bleeding me, leading me,
goin’ home”

But here’s what really struck me. If I’d been Paul Simon, I’d have chosen to probably do something like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. My choice would have been sentimental, described in the dictionary as “...of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way: a sentimental ballad.” You know what? I’d have leant on the song for the meaning and emotion?! In the wake of one of modern-history’s most horrific moments, I would have turned to the song for significance and an expression of feeling; that’s why Paul Simon is a giant of a musician/performer/singer-songwriter and I’m, well..... something else.

Paul Simon is a class act, he knew exactly what the moment required, which was not a song that was so obviously full of import and weight that it would draw attention to itself, he needed a number that would reflect back on what had just happened (was still reverberating) and would offer pause for thought and meditation. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ would have been the choice of lesser mortals.

“In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
and he carries the reminders
of every glove that laid him down or
cut him ‘til he cried out
in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”

Paul Simon’s choice was pitch-perfect as was the rest of the show. If I recall correctly, that edition of Saturday Night Live opened with Lorne Michaels standing alongside Mayor Rudi Guliani with the same firemen behind them and asked him this question:

“Is it alright to be funny?” Guliani’s deadpan response: “Why start now?”

Day #103 Tip:Writing with authority
Most of the screenwriting scholars talk about writing with authorship, authenticity and authority; not, I hasten to add, a bullying, boot-stamping mark of authority, but a command of one’s craft that let’s everyone know that here is someone who is the master their craft and will steer it in the right direction.

Timing and context are hallmarks of such an artist’s authority, knowing exactly what’s required at any given moment, being able to read the temperature of things, seeing for me (the audience member) what I cannot see for myself.

I wrote the following, which was published ina Sydney newspaper a few years back, following the buntinely ejection of a wonderful singer-songwriter from the television show Australian Idol:

“Artists can see what I can’t see, can hear what I am yet to hear, can show me what I’m not ready for and will offer me what I don’t know yet, that I need and want. The familiar is already out there and imagined (there’s truckloads of the stuff), the unfamiliar is what I couldn’t dream of myself and want others to do for me.....”

How to write with authority of a master? Serve an apprenticeship.

“Seeking only workman’s wages I come looking for a job.....”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 102: Water off a duck’s back


In the slim but pithy volume, Making Movies, by the octogenrian New York film director, Sidney Lumet, this great man of the film industry talks about “rubber ducky” moments in film scripts (at least I think it was him in that book?). A “rubber ducky” moment is when a character (often the protagonist) confides to another character, in an intimate moment, that the reason they are the way they are today is because of the moment in childhood when their father took their “rubber ducky” away from them. On coming across such mawkish and expositional moments, I think, from memory, Sid has some strong words of advice for the writer.

I have a “rubber ducky” moment or two from my own life that I’ve taken the red pen to, again and again in an effort to be rid of, here’s a favourite.

My first day of school, aged 5, in a class of about 40 other kids, we were given a crayon and a piece of paper and asked to write the letter ‘A’, no stipulation as to whether it was to be a an upper case ‘A’ or lower case ‘a’. Now I’d done a bit of prep work at home with my mum, so I happily went about my business and answered what I thought was the brief. A few minutes later, the teacher - Ms or Mrs someone - alighted on my work. This is what happened next: the teacher made me stand up and turn around to face the class, held up my piece of paper by the corner, at arm’s length (as though it were a covered in dog sh*t) and famously said “what Roger’s done is wrong”. I’d either written upper case when it should have been lower or lower when it should have been upper, but it didn’t change the fact that “what ROGER’S done is WRONG”.

Now, do you think I made a decision about my writing in that moment or do you think I made a decision about my writing? Up until quite recently, it has not been uncommon for me to spend six months of blood, sweat and toil at the coalface of a screenplay, finally to type FADE TO BLACK END, only to push back from the keyboard and think to myself “well, that’s a piece of sh*t” aka "what Roger's done is so very wrong".

It’s taken years of pneumatic psychotherapy with Freud and Jung to work through that little cracker; that’s not actually true - you probably know that Freud an Jung are both dead - but that first of two pivotal (“rubber ducky”) moments in my life has required some serious application on my part, stopping just short of exorcism.

An anagram of critic is “tricci”, in crossword parlance that could be a clue (“say”) for “tricky”. Receiving and taking on board criticism, even the constructive stuff, is really, really hard work, I can’t emphasise that enough. The destructive and unhelpful stuff, well that’s just a whole other ball game, but part and parcel of our work it is.

Taking the step outline story of my screenplay around to pitch to friends and colleagues, often atttracts praise and encouragement but always leaves me open and naked to some little gems that I wish they’d just stop short of offering up.

Day #102 Tip: No defending
As I come to the end of sharing my story with ten listeners and get ready to move to the next stage of turning the outline into a treatment, I go over the notes that I’ve made from the comments I’ve received. That’s because I took notes when they responded.

I’ve talked before about when I give notes to people and my irritation if they don’t write them down, well, it works the other way too. If I’ve eneterd into a deal with someone whereby I’ve asked them to give up valuable time and read or listen to a piece of my work, then implicit in that agreement is their prerogative to respond. For me to have them listen quietly for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes and then try to gaffer tape their mouth shut at the end would be nothing short of indecent and dumb on my part.

Whatever they’ve got to say, I need to hear and NOT defend or explain, especially with “..but what you don’t understand is...”, they understand alright, they just didn’t think it was up to snuff or, if I do have to explain it to them because it’s not clear in my story, well then I’ll be handing out flyers in the cinema to do the same. That person who’s listened to my tale is as good as any target audience member ready to stump up their hard-earned to see my film; whether they’re a Fulbright Scholar or not is neither here nor there, and furthermore, I need to whip out a pen and pad and take down what they say so that I can go over it at a later date with all the other comments I’ve received, along with thoughts of my own.

What’s most important is that I don’t view that feedback through the prism of “what Roger’s done is wrong”; one way or another, that pungent comment (which has actually been an engine room to drive me for some years) no longer serves this writer any purpose. That’s one little duck in the row that I’ve shot down.

Quack, quack. Bang bang!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Day 101: “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”


Three and a half years ago, I made a big, big mistake and broke a golden rule of mine: to never never never go and see a live concert of a rock/pop music idol I loved (back then) on a revival tour, now.

I have a belief that popular music is at it’s mosty pointy-end for us, between the ages of about 11 and 21, the 15-17 year age marking the epicentre. I don’t know about the yoof of today, but for me and my generation, what music I liked determined who I hung out with, where I went, what I wore and what my drug of choice was.

I was 11 in 1969 and my golden ‘music‘ years lasted through to the age of 21 in 1979; my epicentre was 1973 to 1975 and you know what? I wouldn’t swap my time, that window of music for nuttin’. I caught the end of the 60’s and hung in there with rock music (then called “contemporary” or “progressive”) until those bands lumbered into supergroup, stadium-playing inconsequentiality. The bands I loved peaked, then bloated and gorged themselves on their own magnificence before number-crunching one or two dud albums for the record companies, demanding the birth of punk. Gabba gabba hey hey, hip hip huzzah.

But in the day, I was concert-going at least once a month with like-minded friends; dousing myself in patchouli oil, schlepping about in an ex-RAF greatcoat, cheesecloth shirt, brush-denim loons (pants that flared from the knee down), cheesecloth shirt, suede desert boots and love beads. I liked to think I was very Robert Plant but was, in fact, more Neil from 'The Young Ones'.

The bands that we saw, featured guys who were just that bit older than ourselves (probably in their 20’s): Deep Purple, Free, Genesis, Groundhogs, Uriah Heap, Yes, Rory Gallagher, Hawkwind, Jethro Tull, Bad Company, Status Quo, The Who and the like. Most of those men must be in their 60’s now and are touring.....everywhere! This has to stop.

Led Zeppelin were nothing short of colossi circa ’71 through ’75, but why on earth would you want to go and see them now when, like most of these bands, one of the original line-up is dead (replaced by a son) and those left behind can’t hit the high notes and end on a low note?!

When Roger Daltrey sang, in ‘My Generation’, “...hope I die before I get old...”, no one took him on face value, but the spirit of what he and the other three members of The Who were saying, was “God forgive me if I become old and out of touch like my parents‘ generation”. What the hell are The Who playing at - with the Ox and Moony both gone - belying everything that they stood for, stumbling around on tour, nearly (if not already) septuagenarians? When Daltrey cranks out “...but the kids are alright...” does he mean his grandchildren.....or their grandchildren?

But, against this railing backdrop of mine I too had my momentray lapse of reason. I was too young in the 1960’s to really get The Beach Boys, but in 1974, ten years after it’s release, I bought an LP copy of the seminal and exquisite ‘Pet Sounds’ following a “surfing’ holiday in the UK - I know, sounds bizarre but that’s for another tale. While I’m on the subject, let’s set the record straight here: ‘Pet Sounds’ pre-dated The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ by a year and carries no squirmy musical moments like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’.

‘Pet Sounds’ had a profound effect on me. On that holiday, to quote the cornball words of Bobby Goldsboro from his 1973 hit ‘Summer the First Time’ ”...we sat on the sand and the boy took her hand, but I saw the sun rise as a man” (not for the squeamish, eh??!!). Returning back home from that holiday, to the room I shared with my brother at my parents’s house and my very pedestrian life, I could identify with the lyricism of the ever-awkward Brian Wilson “I keep lookin’ for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind”. I’d play ‘Pet Sounds’ over and over again, indelibly stamping it on my psyche, on my soul like a tattoo only known to me.

So what was I thinking some thirty years on - when a now, near-demented Brian Wilson is wheeled out to do a tour where he would bring ‘Pet Sounds’ to life - and I agree to go with friends who’d bought tickets? It was horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible on many different levels; I cannot and will not repeat the ugly facts here.

I think it’s only now that I can just about listen to ‘Pet Sounds’ and be catapulted back to that holiday rather than that dreadful concert.

Day #101 Tip: Believe in what you believe in
There was yet another pop psychology global-phenomenon-of-a-book that “topped the New York bestsellers list” in 2005, ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell. “Blink’ espouses “trusting your instincts, don’t think - blink” and the author offers this “Blink is all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without really knowing why, and how this ability is one of the most powerful we posess.” It kind of flys in the face of not pre-judging things or people, but there’s room for both and all in life.

Some moments, some characters, some lines of dialogue, some choices in my screenwriting, I know are just right, one or two of them may even contradict the rules of the road that I rely on to guide me, but sometimes you’ve just got to trust and back yourself.

When I turn a trick and write a scene or moment the way that someone else wants me to write it, a way that my gut is telling me is wrong for the script, then I’m selling us all short; doesn’t mean that I get all intransigent and obstreporous, but neither does it mean that I abdicate everything I think I know, ignoring that little voice inside of me that says “don’t do it”.....

.....the same little voice that said “don’t go and see Brian, this won’t turn out well, for either of you”.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 100: Use your illusion


In August of 1999, I spent two months taking part in a screenwriting hothouse within the precincts of Fox Studios here in Sydney, the now-defunct Tropnest.

Originally run under the stewardship of David Healy (writer & script editor), then Nick Marchand (ex-Artistic Director, Stables Theatre), Tropnest was an extension of the Tropfest (short film festival) empire. I’d applied to do the two-month instensive before, but hadn’t made it through, this was my second try and I was interviewed by the two industry professionals who were to be the mentors on this round, producer Rosemary Blight and director James Bogle; they’d just finished collaborating on the cinema adaptation of the Tim Winton novel, In The Winter Dark.

The deal with Tropnest was that you were to submit an idea for a screenplay you’d like to work on in your time there, under their aegis, and I’d put forward a piece called Sweet Child Of Mine.

Sweet Child Of Mine was the tough, true-life story of a disenfranchised young woman, who had been totally abandoned and let down by the Department of Community Services (DOC’s) the New South Wales Health Department and just about every hospital, medical practitioner, psychologist and psychiatrist that she had come into contact with, right up until her premature death at the age of 27. I’d read about the young woman’s story in the Sydney Morning Herald and made preliminary investigations as to whether it might be possible to tell this devastating story as a feature film.

By the time I arrived for my short-list interview at Tropnest, with Rose & James, I’d decided that I wasn’t ready to embark on the long journey of a feature film with this particular story. I had all sorts of reasons as to why I didn’t want to write and interrogate the idea for two months, but my main concern was the nature of the subject matter; it was just too confronting and I wasn’t up for it at that point in my life. In hindsight, I’m not sure if that was the right or wrong decision? Preparing this piece, I’ve just been reading over the material and various synopses that I still have on this laptop, and as is the case when I go over most of my old material, something sparks up in me again about the idea that I’m revisiting.

The title - Sweet Child Of Mine - came from the fact that at the heart of the potential film’s story was the tough love relationship between the protagonist and her foster mother, who became her lifelong carer. I met this dauntless woman and spent a morning with her, some years after her daughter’s passing; hers was not a grief that would ease or pass quickly and she was rightly concerned that the telling of the story (on film) might inflame and aggravate the healing process, not necessarily for her, but for her son and husband.

The title was also a nod to the fact that the protagonist’s dream was to go to a Guns n’ Roses concert with her boyfriend, a young man who she’d met in one of her residential-stay psychiatric hospitals. On the odd occasion that I hear Gunners’ evocative and powerful ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine’ on the radio today, feelings of regret, tinged with some shame, rise in me. I should have told her story.

At the interview with Rose & James, I talked myself out of one of the four berths at Tropnest on offer and apologised for wasting their time by putting Sweet Child Of Mine forward, explaining, honestly, my reservations, professional and personal. By the time I had walked home, back across Centennial Park, believing that I’d screwed up a golden opportunity, I got a call from Rose telling me that they liked me, were interested in me and were sure that I had a drawer full of ideas that I could bring into Tropnest; why didn’t I fax two or three over and tell them the one I’d like to work on?

I spent a great two months with Rose and James at Tropnest, working on my first feature film screenplay, The Comedians, a script which was then and still is now, a labour of love, waiting for me to solve the conundrum that it’s become. It was also whilst at Tropnest that I first heard mention of a sage who had wandered out of the Hollywood Hills, Robert McKee....that’s when my screenwriting my life really changed,

Day #100 Tip: Buy ‘Story’.....NOW!!
Just a month or two after completing my first pass at The Comedians and completing my first, of two, stints at Tropnest (this first time as an “emerging writer”) I heard that “Hollywood Bob” was in town and doing his three-day, stand-up version of ‘Story’ at the Enmore Theatre; this was 1999. I and a film-loving friend of mine, stumped up the few hundred bucks required for our tickets and took our seats along with the other three, four of five hundred punters.

Without going into the long and winding road of that three days, I will say this: towards the end of the third day on the Sunday afternoon, Robert McKee talked through a writing process that most screenwriters, in their apprenticehip, use. As he talked and talked about this self-deafeating process, my head sank down into my hands; this was exactly what I had done with the first draft of The Comedians.....I was stuffed (I actually already knew that).

Then he talked of a writing process (outlined in the book) that he suggests as way that, if employed, just might work. My head was still in my hands, here’s why: Robert McKee had spoken two truths (to me) that I could not deny, no matter how hard I tried to wriggle out of them. The first was that I had used a method to write a film that had failed me, I knew that. The second was that he offered a way that made total sense to me, but I could see the work involved and the work that lay in front of me, and it was a lot.

I bang on about Mckee all the time on these pages, the method or process of Index Cards through Treatment to Screenplay that I’ve been working with and sharing here, is his from his book ‘Story’. What I try to share here, is my experience with that process. McKee’s ‘Story” may not be for you, so mote it be. It works for me. It is now time to embark on the second stage in the process and spend two months, transforming the Story Outline into a Treatment.

I wonder if, one day, I should transform the story outline of Sweet Child of Mine into a screenplay?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 99: Day of the Triffids


Yesterday was a not-bad day in the film industry for the “hungry screenwriter”, meaning I never contemplated homocide, producercide, writercide, filmfundingbodycide or thought about taking any other sides. Yesterday I could unbuckle the seatbelt, just for a little while and breathe.

I spoke to a good friend and producer - Sally Ayre-Smith - who I have embarked on a project with; Sally has just returned to her partner and their garlic farm in Northern New South Wales having just completed her stint on the shoot/production of the Fred Schepisi-directed film adaptation of the Patrick White novel ‘Eye Of The Storm’, in Melbourne. I could hear her exhale deeply as she told me of the her goats, dogs and the sunshine up there, in an idyllic paradise, way way north of Sydney.

Prior to that phone call, I’d had a previous one with another good friend and fellow-traveller, Francesca Smith - dramaturg/director/writer - who I’d called on, for help, having suddenly found myself (emotionally hungover from the day before) in a burgeoning world of negativity, surrounded by carniverous bog plants with an appetite for screenwriters, this one in particular.

Some days in the writing world, and or life in general, are tougher than others and Wednesday was one of those, for no particular reason. As fas as I can remember, I was going about my daily business, innocent to the vicissitudes of life, when I felt a tiny little bit of writers-life grit rubbed away in my shoe. Give me a one, small seed of doubt and I have the ability to manifest a botanniical garden of distrust, mistrust, skepticism and cynicism within seconds, literally, two of them; one, two, there you have it, life in ruins.

Not so at the Royal Botannic Gardens at Kew, near Richmond, just west of London, which were developed by the mother of George III with the aid of Sir Joseph Banks (the English botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific), in the 1700’s; it’s taken them the best part of 400 years to flourish and bloom abaundantly to their current state (give or take a natural disaster or two). How come my own jungle of mental overgrown’ness can get there in comparitively supersonic speed?

I was a regular visitor to the gardens at Kew, as a boy. They are magnificently set on the banks of the Thames and offer plenty, including a wonderful Orangery (a very very large greenhouse); as possibly an interesting aside, it is not widely known that the word “orange” did not exist in the English language until someone, probably Sir Walter Raleigh, appeared at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and/or Cate Blanchett and “shewed’ his majesty and orange, explaing “Ma’am, this is an orange”. What had they been calling objects of that colour up until that point?

However, for my good self, the greatest delight to enchant and entrance the eye and mind at Kew is the most exotic and extravagant example of Chinoiserie one could hope to come across: a Pagoda.

The Great Pagoda at Kew was erected in 1762, in the South East corner of the Gardens, by Sir William Chambers. 163 feet (50m) tall, it boasts ten octagonal storeys in imitation of the Chinese Ta (I think “Ta” means “great”, either in Cantonese or Mandarin). Each storey is finished with a projecting roof, originally adorned with what were reputed to be gold dragons, supposedly sold by King George to settle his debts. Actually. they were wood and just rotted over time. Surrounded by England’s greenery, the Great Pagoda is wonderful and beautifully incongruent with it’s surroundings and is the source of much pleasure when, walking the gardens, you lose sight of it foe a few seconds, only then to catch a glimpse of it, peeping between the conifers, from another angle.

But back to what irked me yesterday: I have just recently completed a treatment which has been submitted to a couple of sources of potential funding for me to turn said treatment into a screenplay. I’d received some feedback that I’d interpreted as negative (my mind’s default position). The gist of what was being passed onto me seemed to be that I was possibly being penalised for having done too good a job with my treatment....whatever “treatment” means?

Day #99 Tip: Think of a number.....
In his book ‘Story”, Robert McKee says this about treatments: “ The forty to sixty scenes of a typical screenplay , treated to a moment by moment descroption of all action, underlaid with a full subtext of the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings of all characters, will produce sixty, eighty, ninety or more double-spaced pages.”

Linda Aronson, in her book ‘Scriptwriting Updated’ offers: “A treatment for a full-length feature film or telemovie is normally about 35 pages long.”

Syd Field, in ‘Screenplay’ gives us another option: “...a treatment; a narrative synopsis of what happens in your story, incorporating a little dialogue; a treatment is anywhere from 4 to 20 pages long”.

One more; this time from the Screen Australia (Australia’s Federal Government film agency): “the treatment, as the term suggests, sets out the dramatic and cinematic way you intend to ‘treat’ the story in terms of style and unfolding narrative. It’s generally a 15-30 pages document.
So there you have it. Depending on who you listen to, a treatment can be anywhere between four and ninety-plus pages. As the saying goes, “you pays your money and you takes your choice”.

Seems there are as many definitions of a treatment as there are tiers of a pagoda.

Ming tian jiàn.

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