Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Day 145: My Sweet Lord


My fingers are fragrant with the aroma of ginger and garlic, for I have been cooking.

Mr. George’s Tip-Top Number One Dahl Recipe

1. Wash 550g of yellow split peas and place in a large flat pan with a tsp of turmeric, a tsp of salt, three bay leaves and ten cups of water. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to simmer.
2. Chop six carrots into bite-size chunks and add to the simmering mixture.
3. In a pan, roast a tsp of dried chilli, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel or fenugreek seeds and three cloves. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, transfer the roasted spices to a pestle and mortar and turn the seeds to a powder.
4. Mix the seeds with a tsp of garam masala.
5. Chop three cloves of garlic and a thumb of ginger and cook in a tbsp of oil until their colour changes and they soften. Add enough of the spices to absorb the oil (store away any remaining Tip-Top spice mixture.
6. When the spilt peas and carrots have eventually softened and the water all-but evaporated, stir in the garlic, ginger and spice mix.
7. Serve with naan bread from the local curry house and mango chutney from the cupboard.

*whilst cooking, burn Nag Champa incense and listen to Ravi Shankar’s ‘Bangla Dhun” (from The Concert for Bangladesh) or anything from a Satyajit Ray soundtrack.

Day #145 Tip: Have activities linked to Mother Earth
I have been in heady conversation these last two days: film talk of locations (for the shooting of one of my scripts) in Jordan (where David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia [Wadi Rum]), praise of my writing from London and elsewhere, mentions of famous film starts being attached (ooh la la!!), potential script readings...it’s all too lofty and rarified an atmosphere for a poor boy like me.

This afternoon I spent an hour or so, giving feedback to a friend and colleague on a script and then received like back on one of mine. By the time that five o’clock swung around I knew that after all of this giddy activity, I needed to ground myself; before meditation chop wood and fetch water, after meditation chop wood and fetch water....or is it before and after enlightenment?

Writing is a cerebral activity, so are meetings, too much and I’m quickly away with the fairies and the mental people. I have to quickly get my feet back in Mother Ganges, cover myself in marigolds, so-to-speak, and do something highly practical and simple which involves me getting my brain out of the way of things.

Left to our own devices we writers can easily become nut cases, it’s precarious enough just being a human being?! So I reach for the spice jars and Mr. George’s Tip-Top Dahl recipe, which admittedly I did have to get from my head (if you’re not familiar with who Mr. George is, I suggest you trawl through the Hungry Blog’s archives).

I also find watching game shows, quiz shows and most sports (particularly football) to have the same effect on me, but now I must eat.

Om Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
(May all beings everywhere be peaceful and happy!)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 144: United 93

Written & Directed by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy & Ulimatum) United 93 tells the story of the events that took place on United Airlines Flight 93, one of the planes that was hijacked on September 11; this is the Boeing 757-222 that eventually crashed in a Pennsylvania field, despite efforts by passengers to overpower the hijackers.

The film attempts to play out the flight in ‘real time’ and owes the detail of what took place on the flight to the phone calls made from those on the plane to loved ones on the ground, who co-operated with the filmmakers to give this movie as much faithfulness to the truth of what took place, as is possible.

United 93 is a movie not for the faint-hearted. When I saw it in the cinema in 2006, there weren’t many of us in an already small picture-house. It is/was harrowing in that no one walking into that cinema could be unaware of what the ending of this story is that we’re heading towards. It is the veritable example of one definition I have heard of the "tradegic" story: “...it’s like watching a car speed towards the edge of the cliff at 90mph. You know that it’s going to go off the edge, you know that there’s nothing you can do about it, yet you’re compelled to watch.”

The film and story begin early on the morning of 9/11, we are with the hijackers, praying in their bedrooms; this is the opening gambit of the of the next 106 minutes and because we know who these people are and what they are about to do, the tension starts here, right at the get-go. We switch between the lives of the hijackers, the passengers, the military and the air traffic controllers in New York and Boston on a day that began just like any other day.

Ben Sliney, the man in charge of air space over metropolitan New York, plays himself, just like many others in the film do, adding to the authenticity; it is he who made the call to completely shut down American airspace on that day. The film is two-parts mesmerising, three-parts frustrating and seven parts agonising to watch as the air traffic controllers pick up on the four planes that diverted from their courses that day to go about their own business on that fateful day, having no idea what is taking place before their very eyes. However we do know what's going on. “A hijacking? We haven’t had one of those in years?!”

I have heard United 93 described as “one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, riveting and touching ‘you-are-there’ films ever made”. I agree. From the opening scene to the final moment it does not let up.

Day #144 Tip: Tell a story in a Treatment
I know when I’m “in” a great movie; I’m not think about the performances, the cinematography, the script or the music, I’m in the story wanting to know what happens next. Testimony to the power of the film that is United 93 - and this will sound ludicrous - is that I still think and hope that right up until the last seconds, the passengers might pull the plane and themselves out of their desperate situation.

How can I possibly think this, when I’d had five years to absorb what had taken place on that day? I still think it now when I watch the DVD, nine years on from those events?! It’s the strength of story and the power of hope, I guess?

On a practical writer’s note, I am reminded that even though a Treatment must go into great detail, it’s a phenomenal story that will keep the reader going and get the writer over the line. I want to quote, again, from Screen Australia’s document ‘What is a Synopsis? An Outline? A Treatment?’ (prepared by Michael Brindley):

“...the more ‘explaining’ that’s included, the more mechanical or technical detail, the more the
story calls attention to itself as a construct. Although the treatment will be read by seasoned professionals, they too want to be engrossed in the story.”

Testimony to the power of story - in United 93 and many other films - must be the belief in a different outcome for all concerned, even in the face of knowing that it just can’t be so. Or is that just delusion?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day 143: Vague or Vogue?

Right at the very end of the documentary that is The September Issue, Anna Wintour, when asked about her positive qualities, offers up “decisiveness”.

Now, let’s be frank, I’m straying into territory here of which I know very little, in fact, I only got to see the docco by accident but am so glad that I did. With my babysitting charges in bed, the DVD’s du jour left for me to watch last night, were either A Single Man or the aforementioned piece; I just wasn’t up for Colin Firth on a Saturday night and instead opted for the film about which I knew hardly anything but of which had made many assumptions, that’s “contempt prior to investigation” for you.

The little that I thought I knew of Anna Wintour was this: she is the editor-in-chief of Vogue (USA), the woman with the fringed bob and oversized sunglasses that sits in the front row of every fashion show and she is preceded by a legendary status of poisonousness second only to Cruella de Vil (the cruel devil from 101 Dalmations who wants the puppy’s pelts for a fur coat).

I haven’t seen The Devil Wears Prada, the film based on the best-selling book by an ex-personal assistant of hers, but couldn’t fail to miss the publicity and reviews that compare the fictitious character of Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) with Vogue America’s British-born OBE awardee, nicknamed “Nuclear Wintour.” So this grab-bag of minor anecdotes and tittle-tattle is all I had to go on when R.J.Cutler’s film began.

Aside from the fact that I really enjoyed the film, what really surprised me, was how much I liked Anna Wintour. Maybe she put on her most personable of faces for the filming of the documentary but I could see none of the tantrums, screaming, slaughter or poison that I had anticipated. What I saw instead was a a poker face to beat all poker faces. I’m convinced that if I looked up “inscrutable” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it would define that one word with two more: “Anna Wintour”.

Every time galleys of a photo shoot or designs were put in front of her, to cast her eye over, I couldn’t tell whether the offerings pleased or displeased her, but I surely did admire that ruthless decisiveness of hers, and it obviously works. I remember a quote from my days in advertising which said that “no committee of men ever made a good decision” and I’ve always agreed with that. Even though the film industry is a collaborative venture, there’s still a necessity for single-minded vision and focussed purity of thought and idea.

Too many cooks do spoil a broth, too many ideas and writers do befog a film; I give you Baz Luhrmann’s Australia as evidence, on which there are four writing credits: Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Richard Flanagan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping), Baz (Moulin Rouge) and these are the writers credited; I suspect maybe more came and went. Australia is three stories and umpteen genres dog-legged into one and it shows.

Day #143 Tip: This is what I believe to be right and why I believe that to be so.
Yes, collaboration is vital but so is clarity of vision. The results of any creative pursuit can get lost and muddied when we don’t fight and argue for what we believe in. I’m not out to foster intransigence here, but to promote purpose and passion. In my treatment of The Age of Enlightenment there is” taboo” subject matter that could fall by the wayside as the treatment is reworked, if I allow myself to bang about like a dunny door in the wind and don’t hold fast, supporting what I believe in and what I have carefully constructed for this story.

My experience has been that if I’m arguing for the sake of arguing and being defensive about my work then it’s obvious and apparent to everyone, including myself. When I’m on solid ground that I believe in, it’s because I’m able to marshall my reasoned debate and put forward the motivations behind the creative solutions and executions that I’ve come up with. If I pitch these ideas with storytelling craft and eloquence then I inspire and others want to come along with me for the ride. When I get shifty, skittish and unsure of myself, everyone around me can smell that a mile off and swoop in for the kill.

Anna Wintour’s “decisiveness” is backed up with a seasoned nose for what works. I must cultivate such olfactory senses or get some very big sunglasses to hide my lyin’ eyes behind.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day 142: War of words

In This Happy Breed (dir by David Lean, written and adapted by Noël Coward from his own play) we spend the twenty-one years between the two Great Wars, experiencing the joys and battles of everyday life with the Gibbons family in their Clapham home in South London.

A good distance into the film, there is a scene where the character of Vi has to break the news to the middle aged mother and father of the household, that their son Reg has died in a motor accident. Here’s the setup: we know what has happened before the news is told to Frank (Robert Newton) and Ethel (Celia Johnson), both out in the garden, off-camera, where we can’t see them. Vi enters the room and goes out through the open French windows, to break the news, leaving us and our POV of the sitting room looking out on the summer garden with just the radio playing in the background. After what seems like an age (but is in fact only seconds later), “Frank and Ethel walk back slowly into the room in stunned silence. There is no sound except for the radio. In the play, you heard it softly, but David (Lean) keeps it playing bright dance music throughout the scene, adding a poignant counterpoint. Neither Frank nor Ethel bother to turn it off since they are not aware of it. The camera retreats and the scene fades out.”

I’m quoting Kevin Brownlow there, David Lean’s biographer, as he explained it so well. Brownlow goes on to quote critic of the time Gerald Pratley: “A literal depiction of such a terrible moment could not possibly be more moving or believable than this little gem of content by implication.”

I can’t recall how long this scene lasts in this film that ranks in my Top 20 favourite films, but the paradox is that it doesn’t last long at all yet feels like an age. No words are spoken, no rhetoric or sentimentality necessary, we’re talking about people here who lost many many loved ones in the First World War and will go through it all again, in the years to come. I think my high-ranking of this film is not purely based on craft of filmmaking but also because this story is my mother and her family’s story, who come from that part of the world and lived that sort of life, in and between the Wars.

Films do that, they become touchtones for us; not so much yardsticks or barometers to measure by, but maybe exemplars, models of how life is or was. I know those French windows, I’ve played in that garden as a child, I know every stick of furniture in that room, I know the chintz curtains and upholstery and I know those people; I know their foibles and their failings and whilst the names, faces and places may be different on the screen, the Gibbons family are my family.

Day #142 Tip: Talk is cheap
Most screenwriters I know, hate writing synopses & treatments. Why? I’ll offer this: because it forces us to write down the story of our film and if we ever wanted to be shown where our story is flawed, lacking, wanting or doesn’t hang together (with work to be done), then the telling of the story WITHOUT DIALOGUE will find us out and show us.

In the description of the scene from This Happy Breed - not too far off how it would be written in a treatment - there is no dialogue; maybe I’m cheating with this example because the scene doesn’t warrant speech, but the point is that in synopses and treatments we don’t write dialogue unless what’s being said is fundamental to our understanding of the plot.

Let me just quote from Screen Australia’s document ‘What is a Synopsis? An Outline? A Treatment? (available for download from their website)’: “So, detail within scenes and dialogue are to be avoided. The latter can be avoided fairly easily; what’s wanted in the treatment is the intent of what the characters say, or what their dialogue will achieve.”

As the saying goes “don’t show me characters talking about attacking the castle, show me them attacking the castle.”

My experience has taught me that the best way to ameliorate my concerns, fears and reticence to writing treatments and synopses, is to write more and more and more of them. Don’t go around, go through. You’ll be happier.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day 141: Let’s go fly a kite

There’s something unusual about Mary Poppins, aside from the fact that she can fly through the skies holding onto an umbrella and can leap into street pavement paintings where other worlds exist and talk talk to animals. No, what’s unusual about Mary Poppins, is that the she is not the protagonist of her own film.

On ninety-nine out of one hundred occasions, it’s a dead give away that the title of the film is the name of the protagonist - Hamlet, Michael Clayton, Spartacus, Erin Brockovich - the person in the story who undergoes the greatest change of character (at a deep level), but. However, this is not the case at number seventeen Cherry Tree Lane.

At the start of the perennially favourite Disney movie, the nanny of the Banks‘ household - Katie Nanna - is leaving, having had enough of her charges, the children Jane and Michael Banks. Infuriated by this irritating interruption to his busy life in the City, it falls to the head of the household, George Banks (David Tomlinson), to place an advertisement in The Times and recruit a new, strict and authoritarian replacement. Jane and Michael are not as obedient as he would like them to be; the straw that broke the camel’s back for Katie Nanna, was that they’d ran off for the umpteenth time, chasing a broken kite which he, their father, couldn’t spare the time to fix.

But Mr.Banks’s advertisement is usurped by a request that his children ‘put out to the universe‘ and instead of a gruff and fearsome governess, they get the “practically perfect in every way” Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who brings magic, fun, love and joy to the entire household.

Now, by film’s end, which of the characters in this film have changed? Mary Poppins hasn’t changed; the kind and gentle nanny that comes down from the skies in the first place is exactly the same when she goes back up to them at the end. Bert the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke) Mary’s friend and confidante carries on with his many trades at the end as he does in the beginning. Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns), mother of Jane and Michael and wife to George is not really different from start to finish, but, as is the case with her children, her/their circumstances do change in that the lynchpin of the family - Mr Banks- does alter, dramatically so. George Banks goes through a great character transformation from “disconnected family autocrat to fully engaged family man.” (the late David Tomlinson [Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug - Herbie], is by the way, pitch perfect in his playing of this role).

The kite that “Banks” didn’t have time to fix at the beginning of the story, is the centre of activity in the final scene, after he has mended it and takes his family to the park to fly it, not giving a fig about the fact that he’s been fired from his job at Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. The Banks family, and in particular Mr Banks, are forever changed, happily so, due to the arrival and interruption in their lives by Mary Poppins.

Day #141 Tip: Creating an unusual hero
Mary Poppins is what screenwriting consultant Linda Aronson refers to as a “charismatic antagonist”, a “good guy” who is an opposing force and thorn in the side of the protagonist, in other words, a an antagonist character type but not the traditional sort that wishes and inflicts ill and awfulness upon the protagonist. An agent of change, yes, but a positive and benevolent agent of change.

It’s not hard to pick: though George Banks is the protagonist of this story, we don’t spend the majority of our time with him, seeing the world from his point-of-view. For most of the film’s activity and adventures we are in the company of Jane, Michael, Bert and the ringmaster-with-the-umbrella, Mary Poppins.

The protagonist in this type of story goes against the grain of much that is traditional storytelling in that: it’s not his or her POV that we see (it’s the kids’ mostly) it’s not his head we’re inside, the protagonist in this case doesn’t drive the action (that’s Mary), yet the protagonist is central to the film’s dramatic high points (Mary only leads everyone into enjoyable distractions/ “jolly ‘olidays”), and he is the character who changes most, the one who changes and learns or matures or is educated or redeemed as a result of the action. For more on this I must refer you to Linda Aronson’s Scriptwriting Updated (New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen[AFTRS/Allen & Unwin]).

Until the next time, however, like Bert said to Mary Poppins, I must ask that you “not stay away too long”.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day 140: Vedi Napoli e poi muori?


I only eat one pizza: the Napoletana.

As I loosely understand the history of Pizza, it (the pizza) originated in the city that lives in the shadow of Vesuvius (Naples), in the late 1800’s. Let me just step off the track of this story for a second and recommend a book that I only just got around to reading at the start of the this year, Susan Sontag’s ‘The Volcano Lover’, which is her “retelling of the story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton”. Nelson has always been a favourite son of the city from which I come - Portsmouth - not that he is a “Pompey boy”, it’s just that being England’s greatest naval hero and the fact that he set out to conquer the French and die at Trafalgar, from my hometown port (where his ship HMS Victory) now lies in dry dock....well, I’m sure that you get the idea. Let’s just say that ‘The Volcano Lover’ has opened my eyes to some facts that I wasn’t aware of, in regards to Horatio, Viscount, Duke of Bronte (1758-1805), British Admiral, facts that have made me pause for thought in my understanding of this great man; but a great read that book is.

So, Naples, home of the Pizza....not Pizza Hut, not Domino’s. Legend has it that in 1889, when visiting Naples, Queen Margherita of Savoy was served a Pizza that resembled the colours of the Italian flag: red (tomato), white (Mozarella) and green (basil), hence we now have the Pizza Margherita. But, there’s more.

Some rules. Let me quote to you from the web site of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an association set up to “safeguard and promote the culture of the real, artisan Neapolitan pizza worldwide”, a non-profit body. This august body of men, up to their necks in flour and dough, say this, that there are three official variants of pizza: pizza marinara (tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil, sometimes basil), pizza margherita (tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil) and the conundrum that is the Napoletana, for which it doesn’t detail exact ingredients, so I will: tomato, anchovies, black olives, extra-virgin olive oil, THAT’S IT, NOTHING ELSE.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I only ever order the Napoletana, I am well-known for it amongst close friends, maybe two friends in particular who have often witnessed my fastidiousness around this unbelievably important business. I’m not sure, but I think they live more in fear than I do of the pizza restaurant or trattoria that goes off-piste with their Napoletana, adding bits and pieces of their own creation, for goodness sake. Pizza cooks have tried to slip garlic, chilli, basil, capers and all manner of things past the gate, but they are unaware that I am the veritable gatekeeper and a self-appointed, unofficial & uncredited emissary of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana and that my brief is to deal with any such nonsense as and when I come across it. I can wither a waiter to the marrow with my look of disdain when “something” is placed in front of me that claims to be a Napoletana; don’t worry about deep pan, I have a deadpan countenance that you do not want to encounter that will tell you, through my eyes alone, just what I think of whatever it is that has been tricked up and set down in front of me. I can see an impostor coming before the pretender is out of the wood-fired oven.

Now, an eatery can add any of these edible curios to what they call a “Napoletana” if that is how they like to go about their business, but then they must accept the fact that their “Napoletana” pizza becomes something else; they are free to call it what they like but, mark my words, it is no longer a “Napoletana”, it’s something, I know not what, but not a “Napoletana”, not on my watch, so don’t even think about trying to serve it up to me and pass it off as one.

The good thing about only ever eating the one pizza is that I have become somewhat of an expert (in the kingdom of my own mind) on the Napoletana, just as I have on the Caesar Salad, but that dish and those regulations are for another day.

One last thing (and it repulses me to even think about this, let alone write it down). What the f**k is the “gourmet pizza”? I do not understand the “gourmet pizza” nor do I want any truck with it, what is such an abomination? Tandoori chicken belongs somewhere but not on a pizza, same for roasted vegetables (pumpkin and caramelised onion), fetta, salmon and “dessert pizzas”. You’ve got to be stark-raving mad and should be arrested if you cook them or eat them.

Day #140 Tip: A process that works, for you
The very backbone of this blog, from start to to finish has been me sharing with you the process that I use over six months to write a feature film screenplay. It is well documented here that the way I do it, is more or less a carbon carbon of the suggested “Writer’s Method” that Robert McKee espouses and outlines in his book ‘Story’. The only reason that I use this “method” is because it works for me, it suits me and I love working this way.

I quote McKee all the time on this Blog: “McKee this, Hollywood Bob that” and I do that to, hopefully, ensure that no one reading this thinks that I’m trying to pass off Robert McKee’s ideas as my own. I quote Mckee to make sure that everyone knows that these are his ideas and I’m just sharing my experience of working with them.

A friend came to me with a not unusual and exciting question this week: “I’ve got an idea for a film, how do I go about writing it.” I referred him to Chapter 19, pg’s 410-417 of ‘Story’ and/or this Blog, for one reason and one reason only: he asked of my opinion because he knows that I have some experience in this field and I can only, honestly pass onto him my experience..........
experience that has worked for me.

This “method” may not be right for you, find a way that is, that you do enjoy, that gives you the freedom to be creative within and repeat the exercise again and again and again.

And meantime, feed the hunger; we’re gonna need all the pizza we can get.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day 139: Favourite Actresses: Kristin Scott-Thomas

In the recent film, Nowhere Boy, Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Auntie Mimi, the surrogate mother of one of Liverpool’s favourite son - John Lennon - a parent and guardian to a gifted youth. Three years ago I saw her play Arkadina, mother to the equally troubled Konstantin (McKenzie Crook [Gareth from ‘The Office’]) in an astonishing production of Chekhov’s 'The Seagull', at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square.

An incredible production for many reasons, not least of which was the quality of the cast: aside from Crook, it boasted Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually), Art Malik (The Living Daylights, True Lies) and Carey Mulligan (An Education, Pride and Prejudice). But it was Kristin Scott-Thomas, anything but a tall and physically dominant person - who filled that stage and theatre with her presence; it’s very hard to describe and transmit here, just how she dominated, yet not overwhelmed, that play and production. She went on to win an Olivier ward for Best Actress for this role in 2008.

I think Kristin Scott-Thomas first came to 'real' attention in the cinema, playing opposite Ralph Fiennes, in The English Patient, portraying the married woman who his character has an affair with (her character was married to Colin Firth’s in the film). Prior to this outing in 1996, she was the luckless-in-love Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral but that was before we knew who Kristin Scott-Thomas was, if you know what I mean.

I’ve never seen The Horse Whisperer but marvelled at her revelling in her Lady Anne in Ian Mckellen’s adapted-for-the-screen version of Richard III and then savoured her fabulously aristocratic and ambivalent Lady Sylvia McCordle in Gosford Park; it seems that in this role she perfected that arch and austere thing that she does, whilst smouldering at the same time. I’ve never met the woman in question and yet something tells me that maybe she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly, but then perhaps that’s me buying into the characters that she is often asked to play.

For some reason, I feel that Kristin Scott-Thomas is best off playing women that smoke; maybe it’s the French ‘thing‘ that she has about her. Whilst her birth, background and upbringing are all very upper end of middle-class England (her father was a Lt. Commander and pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, her uncle the Black Rod in the House of Lords, she was educated at a private ladies college), she went off and au-paired in Paris at the age of 19 after being told that she wasn’t good enough to cut it as an actress. Learning to speak fluent French, she studied theatre there and has gone on to enjoy and equally successful career in that country as well as the UK and US, as evidenced by her Oscar-nominated performance in I’ve Loved You So Long.

I’ve Loved You So Long tells the story of Juliette Fontaine (Scott-Thomas), released after serving fifteen years in prison, who comes to stay with her younger sister and her family. We know not what the crime is that she served her time for but can guess that it must be something trés serieuse, as you don’t get fifteen years for getting your Citroen clamped on the Champs Elysées. From a plot point of view, I felt let down by this film and thought that the the writer/director Phillippe Claudel ripped me off.

As the film moves further along, enough evidence is passed out for us to guess that Juliette must have killed her son; arguably the most reprehensible of crimes, an act that surely goes against the grain of natural instincts - a mother killing her own child? As I’m learning this, I now lean forward in my seat, because I love a redemption story and have trod this same plot ground myself, wanting to know if redemption is indeed available to all, even those who murder their offspring? This, to me, is story matter really worth exploring and really worth me giving of my time. emotion and energy; this is why I watch movies. If you haven’t seen I’ve Loved You So Long, I’m sorry but I’m about to spoil it for you here by giving away the fact that we learn, right at the end that Juliette’s murder of her son was, indeed, a mercy killing; an act which not only kind of let’s the character off the moral hook but then demands all sorts of empathy from us for the time that she has served in prison and the suffering and pain that she has endured for both the act and the punishement.

The deal that I believe the writer sold me was this: “invest of yourself in me and my script and I’ll show you a story about the redemption of those you might think possibly irredeemable.” The film would have been stronger, tougher, more emotionally rugged and Juliette's redemption harder won had the writer NOT given her the mitigating circumstances card to play for why she killed her son. You know what...I felt emotionally cheated and by the French, of all people? They don’t normally shy away from this sort of terrain. That said, it did nothing to diminish Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance, buy maybe missed the chance to give her an even more unbelievable springboard from which to peform from.

Day #139 Tip: Don’t pull back
This is such a bug bear of mine - scripts and screenwriters who provide their protagonist’s with a get-out-of-jail-free card, what I refer to as “the Gran Torino” syndrome.

Without detailing the plot of that weak film of Clint Eastwood’s - Dirty Harry on a pension - I will just give out this one pointer. In that film, the protagonist makes a premeditated decision to sacrifice his own life for the greater good, but HEY CLINT, here’s the newsflash, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless it costs you something. We and the protagonist know that his character's probably dying from the moment that he starts coughing up blood into the bathroom sink earlier on in the film (haven’t seen that one before??!!); laying down your life when you’re already dying is nowhere near the sacrifice made by laying down your life when you’re NOT dying. And guess what.....if that character wasn’t dying, I bet you all the whatevers in wherever that the character WOULDN”T have done what he did.

That’s cheap, sentimental, on-the-nose, melodramatic writing. But hey, when you’re writer, producer, director and actor, guess it might be difficult for others to tell you when maybe your script isn’t all that it could be?

So if you’re writing a film - like Phillipe Claudel - about a woman wh killed her child and how everyone has to come to terms with that, don’t give her “justifiable” grounds because that just weakens everything.

Euripides’s version of 'Medea', as a dramatic character has endured for over two thousand years, because when his, mythologised mother, takes the lives of her own two infant sons it’s an act of revenge against their father, a lover who spurned her; now that’s a mother of a character that I’m really interested in...aren’t you?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Day 138: The time capsule


I’m swapping horses mid-race. When I started this blog, some 137 days ago, my intention was to write a crime screenplay in six months - Jerusalem - sharing the journey with you, from Index Cards to Step Outline to Treatment to Screenplay. But the writer's life is never a straight road and other projects crowd in and jostle for position on that helter skelter highway; a meeting here, an application there, development notes that need writing, a short biog needed, a resume wanted, a 25 word synopsis, a paragraph synopsis, half-page, one-page, three-page.....

At the start of the treatment stage of the journey, I had to put Jerusalem on hold and turn my attention to a couple of other hopeful projects that needed nudging along, in particular a treatment for another screenplay: The Age of Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment began life as a feature film idea some fourteen years ago - circa 1996 - at a time when I still called myself a writer-director and when, on the back of a reasonably successful short film, I was looking to flex my filmmaking muscles and move from the shorter medium to a longer format; I was cooking up ideas, and this project - which was then called 'The Victorian Girl' - was one of a bunch I had on the go.

The basic premise was this: 1870. Due to a chronic and potentially fatal health condition, Estella has been locked away in her home, never seeing the light of day, never having contact with any other human beings aide from her widowed father, who she relies on for everything. One day, her father does not return home from his professorial position at the local University and Estella has to fend for herself. After more than a week alone, with food and medicine running out and Estella unable to summon help, her life begins to fade away, until the door to her home is broken down by a young man, from the 21st century, revealing the lie that her life has been. However, despite the gentle encouragment of the young man, who falls in love with her at first sight, Estella refuses to leave her Victorian world and vows to die there rather than live in the new world she is confronted with.

What if you discovered that the life you thought you were living was, indeed, a lie?

The Age of Englightenment is a love story, set in “1870” and 2010; it’s a period piece, the tale of a young woman’s attempt to escape her imprisonment and, it’s a love story. None of these are genres that I normally write in; I’m from the Godard school of filmmaking : “...give me a girl and a gun and I’ll give you a film...”. However, in three of my film ideas that I’ve more-than-tinkered with over the years I’ve been coming up with plots and premises, I have three stories about people trapped in a room or buidling where time stands still, whilst outside it’s moving along it’s chronological axis.

The Age of Enlightenment is one (a young woman caught in the late 1800’s when really it’s over one hundred and forty years later), The Comedians (a group of eight comics sharing one large backstage dressing room on New Year’s Eve 1969, their old style of traditional comedy threatened by a ninth - a Pythonesque upstart - who unexpectedly shares the room and the bill with them) and Mr. Memory Man (the story of a group of 1970’s variety artists who, when stranded at the end of a seaside pier cut off from the shore, choose to spend the next ten years living there). Three stories that all share the underlying idea of protagonists confronted with the shifting sands of time in their respective lives and their reluctance/opposition to change.

It’s obviously a pre-occupation of mine and I know not why? Maybe I do and I just don’t want to lift the lid off that one? The last thing I’m about to do is to lay myself down on one of my couches and psychoanalyse myself as to why this might me; my mind investigating my mind has the ring of an Escher print about it, no one in their right mind would want to jump down and run around in that vortex.

Anyway, following a lunch with the producer attached to the Age of Enlightenment (a great friend of mine [also an organic garlic framer, which I think counts for a great deal in the cut of a producer], we have decided that despite a couple of bumps in the road (knock-backs for development funding applications) our combined enthusiasm for this prospective film is not dampened, we believe that we’re onto something and will press ahead. The treatment for Jerusalem is moved to the back-burner, The Age of Enlightenment is shifted to the front burner and so that becomes my active project and the one that I will be referencing here when talking of “the treatment that I’m working on”.

Day #138 Tip: Don’t get stuck
I often feel that my tips can be so contradictory, mind you, all great central texts of the world will indeed counsel for something on one page and then advise the very opposite on the next. “Life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Genesis, Old Test.) vs “turn the other cheek” (Matthew, New Test)?

One part of me will reccommend never abandoning your ideas, yet another part of me will guide to not let yourself get stuck behind creative road blocks. I can’t remember who first talked to me of “creative road blocks” but what they were suggesting was that as writers, we shouldn’t get wedded to the one idea, the one script that we doggedly pursue at the expense of others that might be backed up behind it; sometimes we might have to put it aside to allow the flood gates to open (excuse me doubling up on the metaphors here) so that other stuff can move through.

Pray, allow me one more allegory: we want to be the Red Sea not the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is well known for it’s exceptionally high levels of salinity, making for a harsh environment where little flousishes. Water flows in from the River Jordan but there are no outlet streams.

The Red Sea, on the other hand, is a seawater inlet, fed by Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba in the North, flowing out to the Indian Ocean in the South. The world’s northernmost tropical sea, it boasts over 1,000 species of invertebrae marine life and more than 200 hard and soft corals.

Jerusalem (so much Biblical referencing today) is not by any stretch of the imagination anything like a “dead” project; I will return to it in good time. But the Age of Enlightnement is running high and fresh, just like the Red Sea and, as Shakespeare, via Caesar, espoused:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to
fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries,
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it
serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Study the tide charts and make your choice.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 137: “What the fuck is going on?”

The quote that heads this piece is from Hotel Chevalier, a short film that has probably been seen by more people that most shorts.

When I went to see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007) in the cinema, Hotel Chevalier played before the feature, as it does on the DVD. Written and directed by Anderson (Rushmore,The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox), the thirteen minute piece stars Jason Schwartzman, Natalie Portman and Paris’s elegant Hôtel Raphael (near the Arc de Triomphe).

As a film, Hotel Chevalier works on two levels: one, as a stand-alone short piece that can be watched in it’s own right and two, as a prologue to the feature film of The Darjeeling Limited, in which Jason Schwartzman is one of the three protagonists, the three Whitman brothers. It’s an interesting idea to make a short film and use it this way.

Wes Anderson’s original intention was that it would be a stand-alone piece but then saw similarities between the character he was writing for Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited and the lead male character in Hotel Chevalier; the two characters then became the one - Jack Whitman - and so, as The Tempest reminds us “what’s past is prologue”.

It’s kind of hard to get my head around this one, in that I could see Hotel Chevalier as a discarded thirteen minute piece of exposition that didn’t fit neatly or nicely into the structure of the feature The Darjeeling Limited, but that never seemed like the intention and the feature is in no way dependent on the short having been seen.

Hotel Chevalier attracted all sorts of attention for many reasons: (1) it got seen at the cinema, coupled with the feature (premiering at the Venice Film Festival in this very same way) (2) it was then made avaible for free from iTunes stores for one month (downloaded more than half a million times) (3) critics and audiences praised this rich, sumptuous and poetic piece offilmmaking and (4) much “attention” was drawn to Natalie Portman’s nude scenes, of which the actress said “It really depresses me that half of every review was about the nudity.” Apparently, the response provoked Natalie Portman to reconsider her choices in this film and has sworn off nude roles ever since.

Hotel Chevalier tells the Parisian picture-postcard story of Jack Whitman (Schwartzman), holed up in this hotel in the sixteenth arrondissement, seemingly doing not much. His ex-girlfriend (Portman), calls, unexpectedly to tell him that she’s on her way from the airport - having tracked him down - and will be there in half an hour. When she arrives, Jack cues Peter Sartstedt’s 1960’s hit ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ on his docked iPod, a song that is the film’s soundtrack, playing throughout, and let’s her in. What’s apparent (and I’ll come back to this) is that Jack has taken flight from her and their relationship, for over a month, whilst trying to work out what to do about whatever it is about them that he’s running from. Jack wants to know how she found him, she wants to know “what the fuck is going on?” They kiss, she undresses, we see that her body is bruised, they make love, little is said (yet enough to whet my appetite and pique my curiosity to know more). Post love-making they go out onto the room’s balcony to take in their Parisian environs and then return back inside the room.

For me, one of the ironies of Hotel Chevalier, is that the short film is a huge chunk of backstory that is alluded to and often referred to in it’s ‘parent‘ film The Darjeeling Limited and yet in it’s own right, is enormously fulfilling because of the subtext and what’s not spoken about in the thirteen minutes of it’s own duration. Is that irony, I’m not sure? But, it makes me wonder if Hotel Chevalier has it’s own prologue short film out there somewhere??!!

Hotel Chevalier is succesful because of everything that isn’t said between the two characters and everything that doesn’t take place between them (the "what's apparent" that I mentioned earlier. This is skillful filmmaking in a feature let alone in then tight confines of a short, and it takes courage to write like this and great performace skills to deliver such a script. The writing relies on trust, “trust” that the audience will get what might have taken place between these two and that we (the audience) will identify with what is going on between the lines, the words and the actions of these lovers. The filmmakers here are allowing and asking something of the audience, they’re not spoon-feeding, they’re not insulting my/your intelligence, understanding and empathy.

Those writers who craft their stories well, employing subtext, allow me to ask and answer the question “what the fuck is going on?”

Day #137 Tip: Subtext - “nothing is what it seems”
I’ll quote Robert McKee now, himself drawing on an old Hollywood expression: “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” In other words, this is writing that is often referred to as “on the nose”.

David Mamet said the following, about Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, words that could equally apply to Hotel Chevalier: “This film is notable for its almost complete abscence of narration - a writer’s dream and a moviegoer’s delight. For the abscence of narration leaves only the ‘narrative’. We watch in order to discover who the folk are, what might be their relationship, what they want, and how they are going to go about getting it.”

It’s funny to be talking about subtext on day one hundred and thirty-seven (the fifth month of writing a screenplay) because subtext is really the province of month six, when writing the script proper. In month five, I’m writing the treatment, yet, what lies under the surface of what we see and hear, plays a fundementally important part of the treatment writing process.

Let me just go back to McKee again, from his book 'Story', on treatments: “....the forty to sixty scenes of a typical screenplay, treated to a moment by moment description of all action, underlaid with a full subtext of the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings of all characters.....”

If a treatment exists for Hotel Chevalier, maybe in the film moment, when the Parisian hotel telephone rings and Jack Whitman answers it, only to hear his girlfriend - who he thought was thousands of miles away in America - say “I’m on my way from the airport, I’ll be there in half an hour”, maybe, the treatment tells us (amongst many other thigs) that Jack thought “what the fuck is going on?”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 136: The Wichita Lineman

Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter, also a performer these days, but primarily known (or not-known as the case may be) for his writing. I give you three examples of his prowess as evidence to support my case: By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Galveston and Wichita Lineman, all three made most famous by that rhinestone cowboy of a singer, Glenn Campbell.

By The Time I Get to Phoenix tells a simple tale of a man leaving a woman, presumably a woman he loves and gives the impression of how he should have made the decision before. It's a deceptively simple lyric, explaining, even maybe fantasising, about how he's going to write a note, leave the note where his lover can find it and then what he imagines her reactions and responses will be to the note.

By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising
She'll find the note I left hangin on her door
She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leavin'
'Cause I've left that girl so many times before.

Does the tense that this verse and song is written in imply that this is something that he is thinking of doing, or is it maybe that he's already doing it and is on the road from wherever they live, heading to Phoenix? It's obvious that this is something he's tried to do before, is it not?

I have a seven minute version of this song by the late Isaac Hayes, who "soulfully" talks his way through a whole two or three minute preamble about a young man, raised in Tennessee who moved out to the West Coast, married a young woman who he could see no wrong in. Isaac continues to tell us that this young woman took the young man for granted and misinterpreted his kindness for weakness One day he came home from work, sick, and found her with another man, she defending herself by accusing him of doing the same, which Isaac tells us he wasn't. The young wife assures her husband that she'll straighten up and fly right but she never does and he just catches her again and again in the same compromising position Eventually he does leave, and leave at 3.30 in the morning, I guess to make sense of the line about her rising by the time he makes Phoenix. Jimmy Webb was living in LA when he wrote this song in 1965, but it's a sort of circuitous way to head to an eventual destination of Oklahoma? LA to Oklahoma is Route 40 (the old Route 66), going via Phoenix makes little sense?

By the time I make Albuquerque she'll be working
She'll probably stop at lunch and give me a call
But she'll just hear the phone just keep on ringin'
Off the wall, that's all

Jimmy Webb, himself, says that it's a song about something that he kind of wished he'd done rather than something he actually did, which makes more sense of the context. Strangely enough, I once spent a night in Albuquerque, before catching a flight the next morning, to San Francisco, via Phoenix. Why I was in New Mexico - and this is going back to 1990 - was because I'd embarked on research for a documentary I was intent on making called 'Last Train for the Coast', following Route 66 across the USA, branching off to visit towns and locations made famous in songs that I'd grown up with: Do You Know The Way To San Jose, 24 Hours From Tulsa, If You're Going To San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), Indiana Wants me (Lord I Can't Go Back There).

By the time I make Oklahoma she'll be sleepin'
She'll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she'll cry just to think I'd really leave her
Tho' time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn't know I would really go

Glenn Campbell's version of this song is the most well-known, charting around the world and winning him Grammy Awards, but it's long been considered a standard and covered by just about everyone. Frank Sinatra described the song as "the greatest torch song ever written".

Day #136 Tip for the Day: Simplicity please...if you can
I'd love to able to write film scripts the way Jimmy Webb writes songs, or at least the way that he wrote his finest songs when he was at the top of his game. I often fear that most of my screenplays are more like one of Jimmy's more fantastical and obscure compositions, the extraordinarily weird and impenetrable MacArthur Park; need I remind you:

"Someone left a cake out in the rain..."

Jimmy Webb writes songs with incredibly simple narratives/stories that in many ways are all-but consigned to history now and which at the time of their composition and release were often considered out of synch with the contemporary music of the day. I haven't had time here to talk of Galveston, a song which most people have mythologised as being about a soldier in the Vietnam War, when in fact it was about the Spanish-American War of the late 1800's, or the iconic Wichita Lineman.

Wichita Lineman has a lyric that "describes the longing that a lonely telephone or electric power lineman feels for an absent lover who he can imagine her hears 'singing in the wire' that he is working on", a song cited by many as their favourite song of all time. If you can track down the album Ten Easy Pieces, on which Jimmy Webb performs this and his other greatest songs alone at the piano, then do so, I urge you.

Writer Hans Hofmann says this: "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." This one of the hardest tasks confronting the writer; to weed out the superfluous and the extraneous and in each of the three songs (and many more) that Jimmy Webb has written, but especially those three, he has worked his craft to give us three simple diamonds.

And I need you more than want you.
And I want you for all time.






Saturday, August 21, 2010

Day 135: Vote Santos today


“Brace yourself, this politician is about to tell the truth!” This was the tagline, or logline, for the 1998 film Bulworth, that starred Warren Beatty.

Then there was the whimsical Being There, the Peter Sellers film of 1979: “The story of a man who has been totally isolated in his life, living in a man’s house and tending to his garden. Upon his benefactor’s death the isolated gardener is thrust into the cruel world and by acts of fate he becomes a prominant and important celebrity. His opinions are sought, after all, he is oblivious to anything important. Now called ‘Chauncey Gardener, he becomes friend and confidante to and influential businessman and an unlikely political insider, his TV-informed utterances mistaken for profundity.”

I recall and mention these two politically refreshing films - both of which I like a great deal - because today is election day in Australia and, maybe naively, I’m looking for leadership from those I vote to represent me and for truth, even if it does come from an idiot savant. I’m looking for ideas that I cannot imagine, a vision for the future that I would like to live into. To quote Bobby Kennedy:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why...I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Wisdom, sagacity, prescience and inspiration have been thin on the ground throughout the five-week campaign leading up to today’s vote, instead, what we’ve had in abundance, is blame, finger-pointing, mediocrity and prosaic politics.

Can I tell you what I want, what I really, really want (did I just channel the Spice Girls there?). What I dream of, is living in Series #6 and Series #7 of The West Wing. Where is Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), where is Leo McGarry, CJ, Josh Lyman, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and where, oh where is that man of conscience, Toby Ziegler, when you need him??!!

Indulge me; here’s some of Toby’s greatest hits:

“We’re not talking about the President going to Asia or the President going to Rwanda or the President going to Qumar. We’re talking about the President sending other people’s kids to do it.”

“If I were an actor or a writer or uh, uh, uh, a producer in Hollywood and someone were to start coming at me with a list of things that were American and un-American, I’d start to think that this was sounding eerily familiar.”

“I think it would be a good idea as a symbol to signal that China is serious about their relationship with us if they stop running over their citizens with tanks.”

“No, I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening to you or understanding what you’re saying - I’m doing all three at the same time.”

Towards the end of Toby’s time in the Jed Bartlett administration, he’s visiting his estranged wife and son, and even though they live in Washington, where the local baseball team is the Baltimore Orioles, Toby has brought his son a New York Yankees cap, telling him “I know you might not understand this right now but I just want to save you a lot of pain later in life.” I’m paraphrasing there, going off Series #7 recall, but hopefully you get the point.

When, as a dramatic writer, I need to be inspired by GREAT, thought-provoking and intelligent scriptwriting, I gorge on The West Wing. When I need to recall just how GREAT television can be, I consume episode after episode of The West Wing. When I need to believe that politics, elections, policy and politicians can be GREAT too, I turn to The West Wing.

Day #135 Tip: Watch The West Wing
That’s it, that’s today’s tip, the best advice or guidance I’ve got for anyone today, this election day in Australia, writer or no. Run to your local DVD supplier and grab armfuls of any of The West Wing that you can lay your hands on and stuff yourself full of this incredible series.

One final thought from the Oval Office. On the desk behind which Jed Bartlett sat for at least two terms of office, was this quote , on a small brass plaque:

“Oh Lord Your sea is so great and my boat is so small”

Hail to the Chief!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 134: Mind the gap

I could spend hours, literally, looking at a map - the famous one of the London Underground designed by Harry Beck, an Underground employee, in 1931 - and I have done, look here’s the proof.

If I were a trainee line manager and they were going to give me one of the coloured networks to manage, I wistfully imagine that they’d more than likely start me off with the Jubilee Line (silver)
- fewest stations, pretty straightforwrad: from Stratford in the East, South across the Thames via Canada Wharf (sounds like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel) on to Waterloo, then back across the Thames and up to Stanmore in the North-West. No tricks or turns or side lines and just the 28 stops. I know this and not because someone in authority has told me, I just worked it out for myself via the many idle moments that I’ve spent studying “the map”.

The dream is that they’d eventually reward me with the District Line (green) one day: with branch lines down to Wimbledon and Richmond, off up to Edgware Road and the very Chigley’esque little excursion to Olympia, it’s the most complicated of them all. If only they hadn’t struck off the Aldwych, but then there’s something spookily attractive about the fact that there’s this deserted underground station with platforms and tracks but no passengers or trains, not even a ghost train. Subterranean London is littered with abandoned and disused stations, just like the one that once was the British Museum stop between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn on the Central Line. Every time I take that trip, I press my face against the windows and peer out into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of this Mary Celeste of a tube station as we whistle past; I wonder if one day I will see it and perhaps the spectre of a lone undead commuter, the ghost of a long-dead ‘jumper’, standing on the platform, briefcase in hand, waiting, waiting, waiting......?

I like the colours of the map. For me, that light brown hue of the Bakerloo Line, defines it, it makes some sort of visual sense, speaks of the line’s very character. So singular is that shade of brown that I think the good people at Dulux should add a swatch of “Bakerloo Brown” to their colour chart. And just who or what is a “Bakerloo”? Actually, it’s not a “who”, it’s a “what”, two “whats” in fact; when the line first opened in 1906 it ran from BAKER Street as it’s northern terminus, to WaterLOO at the southern end. ‘Baker’ + ‘loo’, simple, huh or duh?

Of course it makes total sense, to me, that the Northern line is black; just think about your experiences (if you’ve ever had them) from Mordern to Mornington Crescent and Euston. Of course it’s black; there’s something very murky, grubby, smokey and dark about this line that carries 206,734,000 passengers a year (the higest amount of any of the lines). Not convinced about it’s designated colour being black? Then try to imagine it as Gold. See what I mean, doesn’t work does it?

I want to go to places in the outer far-flung corners of Zones 5 & 6 of Beck’s map: Cockfosters, High Barnet, Upminster. Now you may well be very familiar with these locations and can’t possibly understand why I may find them so exotic - that’s because they only exist on a map for me; never been there and probably never going, a bit like Paraguay. But the map romances Greater London for me. I look for excuses to travel on the Metropolitan Line and why oh why did they get rid of the old carriages and rolling stock?

I had what I thought was a genius of an idea a few years ago. They were calling for suggestions for the disused edifice that is Battersea Power Station, having sat so long, alone and vacant on the South bank of the Thames. I had the solution: why not use the massive massive space inside to create a scale 3-D railway model of the complete London Underground System. Not just on one flat level, but at all the differing depths underneath the capital that the ten or more lines run at? It would be such a gargantuan structure with carriages and wotnot zooming everywhere?! Maybe I should stop there, I’m getting a little giddy at the thought.

But it’s the map, always the map, it calls to me.

Day #134 Tip: Map out your plotting
The antedote to yesterday’s piece about allowing ourselves to be capricious enough to follow where our writing leads us, is this article today about maps and plans and structures so that we know exactly where we’re going. Such contradictory information??!!

At this stage of the screenplay - 134 days/four and a half months - the Treatment is my map, detailing every one of the 40-60 scenes or movie moments over forty, fifty, sixty pages or more. Prior to the Treatment there was the Step Outline, created from the Index Cards. Not so much at the treatment stage but definitely with the cards or the outline, I’ve often found a way to colour code the plots and main characters, in order to get a quick visual image of the ebb and flow of the work.

Just like looking at the map of the Underground, a colour-coded schematic plan of my script structure can SHOW me how many scenes the protagonist is in, when he or she appears, when he or she is absent and for how long. It’s very apparent when the protagonist has maybe been away from the story too long and that helps me decide if I can, and need to move things around to fix that.

I’ll type up one version of the Step Outline in different colours: red for the Central Plot, blue for subplot #1 (the protagonist’s Redemption Plot), green for subplot #2 (the Love Story) and black for subplot #3, whatever that might be. I can do the same thing again at the treatment stage and as I say, it gives me a very clear image of when a character or plot has been out of the picture too long (please forgive the pun). It’ll highlight any glaringly obvious gaps for me.

At all costs, we must mind the gaps, just stand at Embankment station long enough and you'll be well aware of that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 133: Anthropomorphically speaking...

There are favourite characters and “friends” that populate this Blog, just like the regulars in Tintin stories; in fact I think that Tintin maybe one of those “favourite characters”. Just in case you are unfamiliar with said fictitious character, Tintin - the creation of Belgian cartoonist/illustrator/writer, Hergé - is a sort of young, freelance kind of James Bond I guess, who is the protagonist of over twenty adventures, all with fantastic titles such as: The Crab with The Golden Claws, The Secret of The Unicorn, The Castafiore Emerald, Red Rackham’s Treasure and many more.

Hergé created a fantastic world for Tintin, that was a great part of my childhood, rivalled only by the enchanted and detailed domain of Rupert the Bear; originally a comic strip of the Daily Express newspaper (who first appeared on 8 November, 1920) a character created by Mary Tourtel.

Virtually all of the characters in the Rupert stories are anthropomorphic (animals with humanoid forms): Ruper is a bear, his best friend Bill is a badger, then there’s his elephant mate, Edward Trunk, Willie the mouse, Ping-Pong the Pekinese, Ming the dragon, Podgy Pig and one of two humans - Tiger Lily (a Chinese girl) and the Professor. What I loved about Rupert were the faraway, magical and exotic lands in which his adventures took place, taking him away from his quintessentially English home in Nutwood, but not that far; it were as though he’d stepped into the willow pattern world of a plate.

In the 1930’s, Alfred Bestall (once an illustrator for Punch magazine) took over the mantle of artist and storyteller of Rupert’s daily adventures and forged the familar style that I and thousands of other children became so enamoured with. The Ruper Annual was a much looked forward to Christmas present, with it’s pages and pages of finely detailed, exquisite, almost postage stamp illustrations. Today Rupert has been modified and computer-gamed for a new generation, as has Thomas the Tank Engine, but for me the originals were and always will be the best.

Just like Rupert, the world created for Thomas (this time an anthropomorphic steam engine) in the Railway Series by the Reverend W. Awdry is so delightful and fascinating beacuse of the detail that was created in every illustration, every picture every story. Originally created in 1913, it wasn’t until 1946 that Thomas, Gordon, James Bertie, Annie and Clarabel really got up a head of steam and whistled out of Vicarstown station.

But back to Tintin. Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name of Hergé, first brought the young Belgian reporter to life in a chidren’s supplement, also part of a daily newspaper. Perenially a favourite because of the distinctive style of illustration that seems to transcend fashion and time, the stories were always written with an undercurrent of political commentary. Hergé based much of the activity featured in The Blue Lotus (set in Shanghai) on activities that were taking place at the time - 1934-35 - in China: the blowing up of the South Manchurian Railway and incursions by the Japanese. This book was not alone in it’s commentary om issues of the day, all off the Tintin books trod much the same path. As slapstick as they might be, there was a message in the madness and devil-may-care expionage.

Regulars in the Tintin books are his pet dog (and faithful accomplice) the white fox terrier, Snowy, the irrascible and dipsomaniacal Captain Haddock (of Marlinspike Hall), the bumbling detectives that are Thomson and Thomson (The Thompson Twins) and the absent-minded, Professor Cuthbert Calculus.

Rupert, Tintin and Thomas arenot at all what I intended to write about today, I’ve got complety caught up and have been swept away in contemplation of the intricate world’s of each of these characters and their stories, world’s that have stood the test of time and lasted nearly a hundred years a-piece; testimony to the work, imagination and tenacity of their creators.

Day #133 Tip: Let your writing find its own course
I’ve completely forgotten what I set out to write about and I know not how and why I came to talk of what I’ve talked of, however, I trust that’s what I needed to write about today.

William Blake, that seminal figure (writer, poet, painter and printmaker) of the Romantic Movement said this: “Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius”. I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with today’s thoughts, other than the idea that we must let ourselves sometimes take the crooked path that our writing leads us on.”

I set out to write a film about a Parisian detective, sleuthing away in a north-west corner of French colonial Cambodia in 1948 and four drafts later it has turned many a-crooked turn and is now about an Australian cop in Kandahar in 2008. The story of how that came to pass is totally organic and not contrived, it was where I was led.

It is vitally important to know where we’re going in our plotting and structure but it is equally important to allow ourseleves the flexibility to be led down an alley too, if the impulse is there; this is Tintin’s stock-in-trade and has led him to succesful run to ground countless gangs of international drug smugglers and the like.

More adventures in screenwriting to come.






Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day 132: Clubbie or Surfer?

Two articles caught my eye in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. The first was in Monday’s Heckler column. Heckler is a back page 400 word piece set aside for reader’s who have something on their mind that they’d like to say. This Monday’s was entitled “A dream job? Wake up!”.

I can’t reprint the entire article here, but the jist of it was that the 24 year-old author was bemoaning how she’d been encouraged to “follow her dreams”, decribing how she went down an “artier, fartier” path at university, whilst her peers decided to study ”law/economics/science and medicine” and were, as a consequence now “putting deposits on houses, taking extravagant overseas holidays and getting promotions.” The writer, in the article, contemplates whether the time has come to “go corporate”?

The second article that drew my attention was in yesterday’s Arts & Entertainment section, under the heading “Why you’ll never make a living as an artist.” Here’s one or two of the choicest moments from that piece which was quoting a newly published report by Macquarie University economist, David Throsby on the earnings of the artistic members of the Australian community:

“...the income gap between artists and the genral workforce has widened.”

“More than half the country’s artists are earning less than $10,000 a year from their art, with WRITERS, painters and dancers doing it toughest.”

“Arts BUREAUCRATS and ADMINISTRATORS have a higher and more secure income than artists.”

There’s plenty more where that came from but I don’t want to depress you. As I packed boxes today, in the job that provides my main source of income these days - warehouse work - I listened to a podcast of an interview with the great British Dame of crime, the ninety year-old author Phyllis (P.D.) James, being asked about her recent scathing attack on the Head of the BBC for the way that the broadcaster’s staff are fattened much fatter than the programme-makers of radio and television; I must lay my hands on a transcript of that interview.....I’m always up for an attack on the administrators by a feisty and eloquent nonagenerian writer.

A son and daughter of friends of mine have for a long time been displaying a prowess, capacity and love of artistic pursuits and both seem to be aiming their lives that way. Sam, the 19 year-old, has just this year embarked on a three year fine arts degree at Sydney’s COFA (College of Fine Arts) and his 16 year-old sister, Cloudy, already displaying a great skill behind the camera (the picture above is the Hungry Screenwriter and his photographer friend) has a blogspot of her photography which can be found at cloudyrhodes.tumblr.com .

Why I mention these two (apart from the fact that they too are both paid-up members of the great fraternity of artists), is because one, the other or both, provided me with some of the greatest writer’s/artist’s fuel that I’ve ever been given. Both Sam and Cloudy are rabid surfers and once returned from the beach having experienced a telling off or dressing-down at the hands of a surf-lifesaver club member who had threatened to confiscate their boards. Firstly, let me just say that the Surf Life Savers do a great job, but the point of this story was about the ongoing run-ins between “clubbies” and “surfers” and the clubbies overstepping of their authority, threatening to take someone’s board away from them. The moral of the story for me was this: “...make your choice; when it comes down to it, are you a clubbie or a surfer?”

I know, I know, I know, it sounds like I’m taking some sort of artistic moral high ground here, intimating that those who “do” are more worthier members of society that those who “manage” (hold the purse strings/believe they have the power to "take boards away") which I don’t mean to do; please, just humour my little rant, pat me on the head and offer me a handful of cashews. If you’re a clubbie then that’s your choice, your prerogative (someone’s got to do it).

Yesterday, I fronted up to my accountant to go over my tax return and was stunned to learn that a very modest sum of money would be coming my way, enough to maybe get me back to the UK for the first time in four years (a generous friend is frequent-flying me home, my funds not extending to the cost of a ticket) but today, I am afeared of that possibility disappearing as two of my teeth have flared up; whenever I walk through my dentist’s door I always lose every cent I have in my pocket.....England may have to wait a little longer.

Should I have “gone corporate”? I did for nineteen years, but now, teeth or no teeth, trip or no trip, I am as free as my surfing friends and NO F**KER is taking my board away....just let them try!

Day #132 Tip: Have vision
One more quote from the second of the two articles in yesterday’s Herald “The pursuit of an artistic vision, rarely a bankable salary, characterises the ambitions of Australia’s artists.....”

We are in the final straight of a Federal election campaign, here in Australia, where an absence of vision and progressive thinking on the part of our leaders has been all-too apparent, it’s hard to distinguish one from t’other and even harder to get inspired by much that they have to say.

Please, think big, dream big, aim big, take risks, make mistakes: no one can guarantee that it will work out, but, to quote one of France’s greatest literary figures and biggest thinkers, Victor Hugo:

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.

God is awake.” He didn't mention anything about "going corporate"....maybe Victor wasn't "across that"?







Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day 131: “...the Rhineland is fine land again.....”


I finished on Shakespeare yesterday, so why not start with him today. I have a well-thumbed Arden edition of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, having been assistant director on a production of this awkward play when I was at drama school, some sixteen years ago now. I refer to it as “awkward” because in the climate that we live in today, the themes that Will Shakespeare explores here could be easily contstrued as anti-Semetic; but that dicussion is for another day.

I drew a parallel between myself and Antonio (the “merchant” of 'The Merchant of Venice') just the other week, in that he was pre-occupied with ships of his that were at sea, returning with cargo to Venice and I was waiting to hear on six projects that were tossing on the ocean of my hopes, wondering if any of them would come safe home to provide me with some much-needed finance with which to write (and live whilst I write).

Alas, like Antonio, my thought, too, was consumed with images of “...shallows and flats..” where my ships might end up “dock’d in sand” or “dangerous rocks” on which my dreams might founder, and so it came to pass that news came to me that four of the six “ships” had sunk whilst the other two are still lost at sea or being lured by some wretched siren song to a rock of Lorelei proportions: the Lorelei Rock is a soaring natural edifice that sits on the eastern bank of the Rhine near St. Goarshausen and is the subject of a nineteenth century poem in which an enchanting woman - Lore Lay - would sit atop the rock and lure shipmen, with her singing, to their end, crashing on the rocks below. The Pogues, Wishbone Ash, the Cocteau twins and Scorpion have all written songs titled ‘Lorelei’. I have seen the Lorelei Rock, on a car touring holiday of the Rhineland many many years ago, I wasn't writing screenplays then, but I do remember (I was a small boy) buying one of the those toy trolls with coloured hair??!! I have no idea what that has to do with anything?

What to do with projects that have been rejected? What to do with me when I’ve been rejected...swept onto the rocks?

Here in Australia, we have State and Federal film & television bodies that are set up by the respective “local” and national governments and their Arts Ministeries; as a filmmaking community, we are lucky in that we can apply to them for development and production finance, indeed a well-worn trail is beaten to their doors on a daily basis by virtually all of us in the industry. I’ve just submitted a Treatment for a feature film project called The Age of Enlightenment to both funding bodies and received knock-backs from both organisations for differing reasons, the detail of which doesn’t really matter in regards to this piece I’m writing today. What does matter is what I do with that project from here.

Maybe it will help a little to explain further. From one august body, I’ve kind of gleaned that the project might be “too dark" and that "no one would go to see it.” From the other, it’s a case of “we love it but.....”, the “but” being that they thought it would be a good idea for the writer (me) to go ahead and execute the thoughts and ideas put forward in the very comprehensive development notes that I submitted, critiquing my own work (a common mandate made of the writer as part of these applications). You might have spotted that there’s a catch-22 situation in the latter response, given that they’re asking me to spend weeks and months doing the very thing that I’m asking them for money for?!

Nevertheless, as long as I don’t get a “well, we think that idea stinks” or a “somebody take this guy’s crayons away from him”, then I have to work out (once the emotional dust has settled) what to do now? Showing any idea in the early stages of development to anyone, is a bit like showing that first ultrasound photo of a pregnancy around, the last thing you want is someone to say “well, that’s going to be one horrible adult when it grows up”. Yet, to be fair, maybe some projects should be aborted before going any further (is that a distasteful analogy? Sorry if it is).

My bottom drawer could easily get to the overflowing stage, stuffed with scripts, synopses and treatments that I’ve written - many in my early years - and to continue my maritime theme, it’s becoming a veritable Davy Jones’s locker down there. To be perfectly honest, that drawer is probably the best place for some of those early pieces from the earnest and ethusiatic writer that was me then, but the current stuff, the work of the latter-day me.....I’m not so sure?

Day #131 Tip: Top drawer or bottom drawer?
Walking back from town to my apartment today, I was talking to a friend about The Age of Enlightenment and before I knew it, I was into my “elevator pitch”, telling the story in about ten minutes, just like I (and Mckee) recommend at the end of the Index Cards stage. The listener loved the story, which stopped me dead in my tracks as I had that Treatment halfway to fifty fathoms and a "dead man's chest", never to see the light of day again.

Maybe it’s worth another chat with the Producer (who I’m having lunch with on Monday)? I’ve also put in a phone call to a litmus-test-of-a-friend who has been privy to the story so far and been a fan over the last few months. I’ll get a second opinion from them too. Maybe, just maybe, The Age of Enlightenment should not be consigned so quickly to a premature end and a watery grave? That pitch this afternoon and the ensuing conversation didn’t happen by complete accident y’know?

I have to be careful about who I hand over the little power (if any) I have in life to, and to be fair to those who have said “no” to The Age of Enlightenment right now, they didn’t ask to be judge, jury and executioner of any of my ideas. If I kill off a project (at whatever stage) every time someone doesn’t care for it, then my keyboard and bottom drawer will both be working overtime with the head of steam I get up, creating and then dashing (to the rocks) ideas as though they were two-a-penny and worth little more.

I’m not saying that everything is a ‘keeper’ but nor should all of them sink without trace either; some of my ideas are worth more than that and need me to champion them.....who else am I expecting to do that, if not me?





Monday, August 16, 2010

Day 130: A play about nothing?


I don’t get Hamlet? I’ve seen about four film versions, Kenneth Brannagh, Mel Gibson, Nicol Williamson and “Larry”, I even had a contemporary version in my hands at the DVD store but put it back on the shelf (thanks to the voice inside of me yelling “no,no, please don’t make us watch Hamlet in da ‘hood”). I’ve seen two stage productions: Richard Roxburgh (Passion & In The Winter Dark) in the Belvoir Street version here in Sydney and an Old Vic production in London with Ben Whishaw (Perfume & Bright Star). I’ve even sat through a one-man Japanese Noh theatre interpretation of the “to be or not to be” monologue and if you know Noh, then you’ll know how long that took to get through (there certainly is Noh business like......) and there were times , let me tell you, that I wanted “...not to be..” during that performance.

So last night, in preparation for writing this piece on the Tragic Plot I slipped the Franco Zefferelli version - with Mel, Glenn Close, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ian Holm, Alan Bates and a ton of other notables - into the DVD player and then realised that this was not how I wanted to spend my Sunday evening. To be honest, I would have preferred to sit there jabbing a compass into my arm, and I had good reason.

See, just last week I’d stumbled upon DVD treasure - a copy of the complete fourth season of Seinfeld, at my local public library and season four is the one referred to as “the breakthrough season”, the 24 episodes that elevated Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer from cult favourites to ratings sensation and on to Emmy winners.

Season four is jam-packed with some of the best episodes: it begins with the two-parter where George and Jerry go out to LA to find Kramer who is accused of being the Smog Strangler, then there’s the three, of four, ep’s that feature Crazy Joe Davola, Jerry and George getting the pilot commission from NBC to write a sitcom “about nothing”, George meeting Susan, Kramer burning down her father’s cabin with Cuban cigars, her father’s secret love letters from John Cheever....the Seinfeld hits in this series just keep on coming. There’s the the episode where George's mother catches him “treating his body like it were an amusement park”, provoking “the test”. There was no contest, Elsinore vs The Bubble Boy, whadaya gonna do??

Some of my greatest sound bite philosophies have been borrowed from Seinfeld, one in particular crops up in Episode 12 ('The Airport'). George is thinking of breaking up with Susan and can’t make up his mind what to do? Kramer asks him what “the little man inside says?” George responds that “the little man inside doesn’t know” to which Kramer replies “the little man inside ALWAYS knows.” If only Hamlet had watched a few episodes of Seinfeld, things might not have turned out quite so rotten in the state of Denmark.

The little voice inside always knows, or at least my little voice inside always knows. I was ‘filmed- out’ last night and my little voice told me so; “enough of the erudite filmmakers” it yelled, “stuff Laertes, we want Uncle Leo”. Sometimes I go through periods where I vow that for the next few months I will only watch the films or read the books that I WANT to see or read, not the ones that I SHOULD see or read. However, I’m as guilty as the next person at telling you what you “should’ see, how many times have I said such a thing here; ignore me in the future.

I know that I should revere the play that is Hamlet, arguably the greatest dramatic piece in the Western canon, but I’m afraid that it’s yet to bang my gong. Chekhov.....well that’s a different story altogether and I’ve banged that gong a-plenty here. And now that I think of it, is not Seinfeld, at it’s best, Chekhovian? People are always saying that “nothing happens” in Chekhov’s plays!

I don’t know what it is? I just don’t get lathered up the way that others seem to about Hamlet. Every time an actor, new to the part, is going to take it on, the papers and weekend supplements seem to be full of self-absorbtion about “his” take on the the dirty Dane and, quite frankly, it sends me gaga (loony not Lady). Now, the episode in season four of Seinfeld where Jerry indulges in some “dirty talk” with his girlfriend of the day, that’s something else entirely and it should be added to that “canon”. I could never do the “dirty talk” episode justice here, and if you’re not a Seinfeld fan or aren’t familair with that ep., then what I’m about to say will make absolutely no sense whatsoever; I just wonder if the young Prince might have faired a little better, had he said to Ophelia “Are they the panties your mother laid out for you?”

Day #130 Tip: The Tragic Plot
Over the last week and a bit, I’ve covered off twelve different plot forms that have been reworked and revisited by writers over the years and down through the centuries and have been ably abetted (probably it’s been more me doing the abetting) by the words, thoughts and ideas of Norman Friedman (‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’, University of Georgia Press, 1975). I find these plot forms of great help, just like I do, mastering the conventions of genre.

If I choose to write a maturation plot or use a pathetic plot within the context of one of my screenplays, or in helping someone else with one of their scripts, the study of these story paradigms and what the “greats” have done before me can often mean the difference between moving ahead (in my work) nourished with a little understanding and confidence or groping about in the dark, unsure of my footing.

Friedman describes the Tragic Plot as “...one of the most notable of artistic achievements, and instances may almost be numbered unfortunately, on the fingers of one hand”. He goes on to cite the examples of Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and King Lear.

This is just some of how he describes such a plot: “ ...when such a man suffers misfortune, part or all of which he is responsible for through some serious mistake or error in judgement on his part, and subsequently discovers his error only too late, we have the tragic plot, strictly speaking. There is here, long-range fear provoked by threatened misfortune; but there is also here a more complicated relationship among fortune, character and thought, resulting in that sort of catharsis, where our fear and then our pity are followed by a sense of justice and emotional release, since the tragic protagonist not only has had a hand in his own downfall but has also come to recognize that involvement.”

“His ensuing agony of spirit therefore, although frequently resulting in the death of an otherwise good man, is somehow deserved; is indeed the best possible end for him, given what he has done or suffered; or is even a necessary atonemnet for his somewhat imperfect or arrogant nature.”

Just re-reading that pasage and writing it out here, gives me an inch more understanding about Hamlet.....I won’t give up on him just yet.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day 129: Death and Venice

“Gustav Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) the artist at the climax of his career; composer, conductor, maker of great music, suddenly alone. Aschenbach, the artist at the crisis of his life, suddenly alone in the magical city they say is doomed to sink back into the sea, from which, by Venus, it rose. Aschenbach the artist at the crisis of his life, here faces the images of immortality and beauty”. This is the voice-over on the theatrical trailer for the 1971 film Death in Venice, by director Luchino Visconti.

For a while there, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni dominated Italian cinema and made their lasting mark on the world of film; of their pictures, the word “masterpiece” is used again and again.

What is it about Venice that seems to attract the maudlin and melacholy in storytellers and filmmakers? Three films come to mind - Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) (starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), The Comfort of Strangers (Harold Pinter’s screenplay of Ian McEwan’s book, directed by Paul Schrader) and Death In Venice (1971) - all set in Venice, all beautiful and yet, all enveloped in a preoccupation with death?

Death In Venice, based on the Thomas Mann modern classic, is the story of Gustav Von Aschenbach, who comes to Venice to recover, following the death of his wife and child to the plague, at home in Germany, and to convalesce from his own near mental collapse. There he falls madly, helplessly in love...but with a boy, Tadzio. His passion for the impossibly beautiful youth, and the impossibility of it, leads to despair. When a new plague (Asiatic Cholera) invades Venice, Von Aschenbach pleads with the boy’s mother to take the youth and his siblings away from the city, whilst the composer remains to wait for death and liberation from his desolation.

Visconti acknowledges that Thomas Mann talked of the German Composer Gustav Mahler in the same breath that he would talk of his protagonist Gustav Von Aschenbach, and the story is set in 1911, the same year that Mahler died. To that end, Visconti uses the beguiling fourth movement (Adagietto) of the Symphony No.5 by Mahler throughout the film, it dominating the score.

Day #129 Tip: The Degeneration Plot
A “plot of character” says story scholar Norman Friedman (‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’, University of Georgia Press, 1975), “...the Degeneration Plot fetaures a character (in our case Von Aschenbach) who was at one time sympathetic and full of ambition (we see this in flashbacks to earlier times in his life) and subject him to some crucial loss (the death of his wife and child and collapse of his career) which results in his utter dissillusionment. He then has to choose between picking up the threads of his life and starting over again, or giving up his goals and ambitions altogether, or he may end midway between these two alternatives not knowing what to do next.”

“There is a sequence of feeble and short-range hopes, followed by the materialisation of long-range fears, with maybe the final effect being one of pity....it all depends upon how convinced we have become that the protagonist has in fact, only one real choice he can make, upon how impossible staying alive for another try seems to be.”

Over the last eight or nine days, I’ve been working through the different archetypal plot forms, using a different film as an example for each type of form; tomorrow I’ll wrap this up with The Tragic Plot.

Happy days.

Followers