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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

She's Electric

Interesting fact: I affect radio waves. It's quite annoying a lot of the time, 'cos if I stand too near a radio it makes this godawful ccccccccccccccrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr noise. But on days like today it can be quite fun: various radio station signals jump from one to the next as I walk about my kitchen, like I have my very own mix tape. Nice.

A not so interesting fact: I have ants in my kitchen. I've gone Sigourney on their asses but they're still coming in from a PLACE UNKNOWN. Presumably the garden. I'm slightly concerned they may walk the wee girl out the back door and into their nest (along with several shiny stickers - I've seen a blue star and a smiley face also running off randomly today), though given Lil's mood it may be the only time I actually get any peace.

That is all. Move along now.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Genre or Die, Pt6 (1 of 2): Gangster

The lovely Anya asked about Gangster movies, so I thought now might be the time to catch up with writer, director and producer JK Amalou and ask him about his first feature, a gangster film called Hard Men. I'll follow this up with my own thoughts on Gangster movies. Enjoy! Oh - and while we're on the subject, DON'T search "Hard Men" on Google Images. Good. Lord. ; )
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What's the story behind HARD MEN? What was your inspiration for it?

HARD MEN was borne out of failure actually. I'd been working on another film. Twice we had a start date and the funding collapsed at the last minute. I even had Kristin Scott-Thomas attached. So I decided to write a gangster film because I love the genre and there hadn't been a gangster film for a while at that time. I'd also decided that I would do it on a low budget. I'd also read Mad Frankie Fraser's autobiography so I got in touch with the man himself, an ex-member of the Richardson and then the Krays' gang. His nickname in the 'business' was 'the dentist'. In fact, I hung out with him for about 4 months while I was writing the script. Through him, I met a gallery of ex-cons who told me their stories... I also went to a number of dives, dodgy pubs, etc. Places I never knew existed in London. Needless to say that it was all very inspiring! Mad Frankie even joked that I could become a supergrass. As it happened, Mad Frankie also appeared in my film as Pops Den, an underworld boss. The other actors are Vincent Regan (300), Lee Ross (Eastenders, Catherine Tate Show), Ross Boatman (London's Burning).

Who did you have to kill/sleep with/blackmail to get funding to make it?

Because it was a low budget, the financing went smoothly. I drew up a budget of £1 million and told everyone I already had half of it in the bank (which was a white lie --that £500k was basically deferrals and services in kind, ie: stuff I did not have to pay for). With this, I got a TV pre-sale and a Sales Agent's Minimum Guarantee for £500k which I used to make the film. But there was one problem: the money pledged by the TV company and the Sales Agent was only accessible on delivery of the film. In other words, I had to make the film first and THEN they'd give me the money. So without the cash upfront, there was no way I could make the film. Through a contact of mine, I managed to sweet-talk an old lady theatre producer to advance the money. So I made the film with her money. Once I finished and delivered the film, the TV company and the Sales Agent paid me and I paid back the old lady. Bless her soul! [Note that JK uses the word "sweet-talk" there, wonder what he REALLY had to do, lol - Lucy].

Then the film sold to Fox to $750,000. The deal made the front page of Screen International at the time. And it went on to sell all over the world. It was also shown at the London Film Festival. On a Saturday night, in a cinema on Leicester Square. We even had fun after the film during the Q&A session. A wanker in the audience accused me of being a man with no morals for employing an ex-gangster in my film. It was an accusation which was also repeated by The Guardian and The Sun newspapers. I told that wanker that I had no idea but I knew the man who could answer his question: Mad Frankie himself -- he was also in the audience. Half the audience gasped in shock and crapped their pants in unison when Mad Frankie came up on stage.

UK distribution was more tricky. Lots of companies were circling around it but the problem was that, at the time, nobody believed there was a market for gangster films in the UK. Eventually Entertainment UK picked it up. They gave it a very poor cinema release. The budget for the theatrical release was a grand total of £70,000! Normally a distributor would spend a minimum of £250,000 for a tiny release. However, when the film was released on DVD/video, it came number 8 at the box office ahead of a Walt Disney film and Jack Nicholson film, 'Blood and Wine'.

It's said HARD MEN was the inspiration for LOCK, STOCK & TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Was it?

Yes, without a doubt. Guy Ritchie himself told me that he used my film as a reference, even though I doubt he'd say that in public! Also, you'll find 4-5 moments in HARD MEN which are in LOCK STOCK. And yes, HARD MEN did open the way for LOCK STOCK. When HARD MEN hit it big on video/DVD, all UK distributors were looking for another 'hip' gagster film. LOCK STOCK had been languishing without a distributor for about year. It was picked up by Summit Entertainment and Polygram... and thanks to a £1.5 million P&A budget (instead of the pitiful £70,000 given to HARD MEN), it was given a proper release with a killer advertising campaign.

But no hard feelings! I am proud that my film opened up the way for LOCK STOCK and I am also very pleased for Guy Ritchie. Besides at that time, HARD MEN got me an agent in L.A. where I ended developing films for Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott who were both fans of HARD MEN.

What makes a "good" gangster film in your opinion?

What makes a good gangster film is a film that resonates with an audience. A film that an audience can relate to. Let me explain. In a script or a film, there are two main elements:

a) The emotional truth and b) the genre.

What made SCARFACE, GOODFELLAS or even WHITE HEAT (a black and white gangster film made in 1949) successful? The reason is because audiences were able to relate to the main character in a perverse way (that's the Emotional Truth).

Take Montana in SCARFACE -- his emotional need was simple: as a poor immigrant, he wants to become 'somebody'. He wants money, success, women. That emotional need is something that any audience around the world could understand or, better, relate to.

Take Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS. His opening line: "Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be a gangster". What was his emotional need? To get away from a poor family and a physically abusive father. Again this is something that any audience could relate to or understand.

Same with Cody in WHITE HEAT. His last words were: "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!". Here is a man who wants his mother's approval.

How you dress this 'emotional need' -- I call it 'Emotional Truth' because these are true emotions, emotions any audience can empathize with -- becomes the 'genre'. Tony Montana, Henry Hill, Cody could have fulfilled this emotional need in a different way. Tony Montana could have done it by courting and marrying a rich woman (the genre would be a love story/romantic comedy). Henry Hill could have done it by becoming a social worker, working with young, troubled men with abusive fathers (genre? Drama.) Cody could have got his mother's approval by becoming a great chef (genre? Comedy.)

I did the same with HARD MEN. 3 best friends. One of them decides to stop seeing his mates because he's become a dad and it's time to grow up, be responsible. I believed -- maybe wrongly -- that that was something a lot of us could relate to or, at least, empathize with. A lot of men have been in that situation: they want to settle down but their mates do everything to dissuade them ("Come on, mate! We're having fun here and you want to get married and have kids?! You mad or what?!") That is the emotional truth. A situation any audience could relate to or empathize. Even older people could get it: "Look, son, you're too young to settle down. You need to live first."

Then I dressed up this 'emotional truth' in the gangster genre. Obviously, like in the films cited above, this situation is all the more dangerous because we're talking about a world where violence is common currency.

Britain's got a long history of gangster movies. Which are your personal favourites -worldwide - and why?

My favourite British gangster is BRIGHTON ROCK. Very creepy and horribly oppressive. Oh and, before you ask about the emotional truth, this is about a man doing everything to protect his world. He's a gangster but he could have been a family guy protecting his kids from bullies, a businessman trying to save his business from predatory rivals, etc. etc.

Worldwide's favourite gangster film? Has to be ONCE UPON TIME IN AMERICA. It's sprawling, grotesque, sentimental. A monster of a movie at four hours! Wouldn't advise anybody to write a film like this one! Again the emotional truth is there: it's about friendships screwed up by betrayals.

Gangster movies seem to come back into "fashion" cyclically: from the likes of the "old school" Brit gangster movies, to the American Martin Scorsese ones, biopics, the return of the Brit gangsters of the 90s, now again with the likes of the Scott brothers (American Gangster) and Act of Grace and Shottas Paradise. Why do you suppose this is a backdrop that won't go away?

I don't think it's just gangster films that are cyclical. ALL genres are cyclical. The raft of horror movies on our screens is a throwback of what was going on in the 70s (ie: the Carpenter films, Friday the 13th, Terror Train, Texas Chainsaw massacre). The Judd Apatow comedies of today? Look up Bachelor Party, Lemon Popsicle, Animal House, etc. The big comic-strip blockbusters of today? Well, look up ET, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, etc.

No genre really goes away, they simply evolve.

What are you working on at the moment?

A gangster film! I've just finished a page 1 rewrite of an $18 million film for an Oscar winning producer. The original script was horribly messy. So my first step was to find the emotional truth. And I found it. I rebuilt the story around the main character, Stan, a man who idolizes his older brother. Stan's older brother is a respected, successful Russian oligarch so when he is murdered, Stan succeeds him and tries to emulate him But he fails miserably and it all goes horribly wrong. Lots of people can relate to that: most of us have idolized and tried to emulate successful people. Could be pop stars, footballers, our dads or mums, etc. etc. Needless to say that my producer was very happy and, after 2 years in limbo, my version of the script is now out to top actors.

Last but by no means least: why did you choose a title for HARD MEN that makes it sound like a porn film??

Oooooo er, matron! Was just trying to get the pervs in really. When you make a low budget film, you do everything to get the punters in. I am sure the pervs were terribly disappointed when they saw my film but none of them have asked for their money back so maybe they enjoyed the film after all. KIDDING.
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THANKS JK!

FYI: JK Amalou's latest film THE MAN WHO WOULD BE QUEEN, a black comedy, has just been picked up by international sales agent Visual Factory and will debut in the Cannes Film Market next month. He's available for script consultations and can be contacted via me or jksc"at"msn"dot"com.

Monday, April 28, 2008

STOP PRESS: Adrian Mead's Episode of Waking The Dead STARTS TONIGHT - Don't Miss It!

News just in my pretties: Adrian Mead's episode of the BBC's awesome cop drama Waking The Dead is on tonight. Titled "Duty and Honour", it's on at 9pm on BBC1 (April 28th), with the second part airing tomorrow (April 29th) at the same time.

Waking The Dead follows the fates of a "Cold Case" team - policemen and women who must investigate old murder cases that have never been solved or closed. This is one of my favourite programmes - I think Trevor Eve and Sue Johnston in particular are brilliant in it - so I'm thrilled to be able to see Adrian's name listed as writer on this. I'm not jealous at all ; )

If you've never seen Waking The Dead before, now is a great time to start: Adrian is a fantastic writer and regular readers of this blog will recognise his name from the many courses he and his producing partner Clare Kerr have run that I've attended.

Enjoy!

Highs & Lows

This writing thing is great, I love it.

But it also sucks. Big time.

It's inevitable that if things go well, they have to be pretty rubbish as well. It's balance, just part of life: stuff goes up, it's gotta come down too - else how will you ever know how good, good is if you haven't also experienced the bad?

That's what I'm telling myself at the moment, anyway. I'm feeling pretty dejected about the state of my career at the moment - I've had a few too many rejections close together, basically - and I'm wondering if I will ever "make it". It happens at least once a year and usually goes something like this:

ME: Husband, I have been rejected from blah, blah and blah. What do they want, blood? Or how about my first born son? Hmmmmm?

HUSBAND: Well, dunno about the first one but the first born son is in the living room, dear. You could offer. You never know.

ME:
Oh ha ha. I am bereft of ribs from laughing so much. Aren't you going to give me any sympathy?

HUSBAND:
Sure, poor you. Now stop whining. You know how hard it is to get through this writing lark, even if you are good. People all warned you. And you've only been doing it five minutes. Just keep going.

ME:
But what if the reason I'm not getting anywhere is because I'm no good?

HUSBAND: Right, you're no good. That's why unconnected people say you are, for no reason at all. Now please be quiet. And make my dinner.

This is why I married my husband: everything is so straight forward to him. You're disappointed in a result? Then look at what you're doing. Anything wrong there, anything you could be doing instead?

I can't think of anything. I've done the courses, built the contacts, worked on my craft, polished my specs til they shine like new pennies, got the necessary feedback on them too - acres of it. Although confusing that I can't seem to break through that glass ceiling just yet, maybe it's just a case of serving my time.

So I have to just keep going.

And not whine.

And if you feel the same way as me right now (or in the future), so do you.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Weekend Madness

My son announced rather excitably at breakfast this morning that none other than Shakespeare is coming into to his school to do a drama workshop today. How cool is that? Well I'm also a cool Mum (natch) so I say (you'll love this), "Excellent news, boyo. Did Shakespeare hitch a ride through time in the TARDIS with Dr. Who & Martha?"

"No Mum," My son explains very patiently, "Not only is Shakespeare totally dead, the bloke coming into today is an actor. And by the way, Dr. Who is also an actor. And so is Martha."

Just in case I was under any illusions there: shattered.

In other news, as my daughter's second birthday swiftly approaches at the beginning of next month (WHERE has all the time gone? Hmmm? I'm looking at you, Dr. Who), she is fast revealing her true colours. In that she is completely, stonkingly, mad. Don't believe me? Try this for size:

- She has fallen in love with a potato (it lives in her toybox, I replace it once a week, don't worry)

- She told me on Wednesday the reason she couldn't go in the house was because (and I quote), "her foot was in the CAR" (made all the more problematic by the fact the car was at work with my husband)

- Yesterday I found her trying to GET INSIDE A PICTURE in the Argos catalogue. It was one of some children in a paddling pool, she couldn't understand the 2D nature of it all... A hazard of watching too many 3D animations perhaps?

So you can puzzle those, or you can watch a great re-cut of Top Gun as a love story between Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer. I'm calling it BROKEGUN and I'm totally convinced. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Proof You CAN Make Your Voice Heard

When I got a letter yesterday on House of Commons headed notepaper, my heart was in my mouth. Was this some kind of summons to go up to London to be put in the stocks?? And for what??? Cripes!

But no. It would seem my recent email imploring my local MP, Tobias Ellwood to save UK Kids' TV actually got through and has been noted:

Dear Lucy,

Thank you for your email dated 11th April about public service broadcasting for children.

I understand your concern about the lack of high quality, UK-produced children's content on television. British-made children's programmes have widely been acknowledged as amongst the best in the world for quality and variety, and I am aware that many people are worried that this success is now under threat. I believe that home-grown children's programming can be extremely beneficial in both edication and informing young children about British culture and society.

I share your concern that several of the leading broadcasters are now reducing their budget for children's content. If commercial channels such as ITV decide that it is financially unviable to keep original children's programming, I am concerned that children will be forced to watch cheaper imports and repeats.

My colleagues at the Shadow Culture, Media and Sport team are currently looking at this issue as part of a wider examination of the challenges facing public service broadcasting. As you are aware, Jeremy Hunt, the Shadow Culture Secretary, recently published a discussion paper on the future of Public Service Broadcasting, stressubg the need for broadcasters to take their social responsibility seriously and recognise the impact their programmes can have.

One key area of discussion was how to maintain the plurality of public service broadcasting and ensure that high quality programmes that appeal to all ages continue to be made. My colleagues put forward a number of options for consideration which included allowing organisations to bid for a small percentage of the licence fee to provide content in specific areas where plurality of provision is lacking, such as children's daytime television. We believe that this may be a sensible way forward of ensuring that young people are able to watch home-made, high quality, original programming. The independent media regulator Ofcom published similar proposals shortly afterwards and are now currently consulting on these proposals. When the results are published this autumn and we examine the results I will give all issues due consideration and will consider signing EDM 585.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Kind regards,

Tobias Ellwood.

So, some good news there: this important issue does actually appear to be taken seriously, at least by one MP anyway. And maybe he sends the same letter out to everyone - but he's ssending out letters and showing us he's listening, that's the main thing. Besides, which, my MP is not necessarily your MP, so make sure YOURS is listening too!

So add YOUR voice to this campaign, you can do so by the mere click of a button:

HERE.

The more voices there are behind this campaign, the more likely it is children's programming will come home to roost and the less likely our kids will start talking like the cast of Friends. Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against Americans, but we're British. Let's recognise that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Genre or Die, Pt 5: Science Fiction

SPOILERS: Minority Report & Impostor in particular
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Science Fiction, Sci-Fi, SF. Take your pick. For safety's sake after last time I'm going for SF. Also it takes less time to type and I'm a lazy moo.

SF appears to me to be the one genre that needs another to really "work": think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that was *just* set in the future or had futuristic elements? Alien - SF Horror. Minority Report - SF Thriller. Galaxy Quest - SF Comedy, Running Man - SF Action, etc etc. It seems (to me anyway) that SF is less a genre in terms of STORY and more of a genre in terms of ARENA.

I read a lot of SF specs. A LOT. The one issue they invariably have is clarity, ie. I haven't the foggiest what is going on. At all. This is usually because, like most specs, they are convoluted and not simple enough in terms of story or make strange and twisted plot moves. However, an added issue (BECAUSE they are SF) is that they do not establish the "world" of the story well enough. I won't know, even if we are in the year 3000 (where not much has changed 'cept we live underwater*) what role, if any, technology, law, society's values etc has in the story. In short, set up in SF specs is often underdeveloped, meaning the reader is often lost. Completely.


Yet SF specs have much to learn from produced movies in the sense of simplicity. Whilst the machinations of plot often through up questions about existence (either because of the nature of survival literally or what it means to be "human" metaphorically - often posed together), usually the actual story right at the heart of produced SF stories are very simple indeed. Let's have a look at some of them:

Aliens, homicidal 1: Earth Invasion. This is when the aliens are coming - and they're landing on Earth. Think War of The Worlds, Independence Day, the various incarnations of Invasion of The Bodysnatchers, plus Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs Predator and AVP: Requiem. Sometimes they live amongst us undetected first, like in The Arrival, though this is less usual. Sometimes the alien force is not extra terrestrial but replicant and man-made, like in Bladerunner or alien-made as in Impostor. these films obviously portray specific concerns of a time as a metaphor. Aliens of the 1950s and 60s were Communist concerns like Cuba; in the 70s Vietnam and 80s The USSR. Nowadays it's Al Quaeda.

Aliens, homicidal 2: Space Invaders. This is when astronauts, usually in the future, come into contact with a hostile alien force, usually when they are salvaging or rescuing a ship that is afloat or a colony found Marie Celeste-style, though not always. Think Alien and Aliens but also Event Horizon, Starship Troopers etc.

Aliens, non-homicidal. Sometimes aliens come to earth and by coming in peace, teach us something about the world and/or ourselves. Good examples here are ET, Cocoon, Batteries Not Included, The Abyss. I can't think of any alien movies before Steven Spielberg that portrayed aliens as peaceful; I'm sure there are some, but given the hysteria and conveyor-belt nature of the invader movies that's probably what audiences wanted at the time. And still want, because invasion movies still seem to be incredibly popular and certainly there are more of them.

Brave New World. This is when something has changed about the future – usually not for the good either. Society has changed into some kind of dystopia or is an illusion altogether. The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Equilibrium are the most obvious, but also Children of Men, Minority Report and I Robot. This is usually the most "man-made" element of SF it seems, with man's problems not being as a result of Aliens but humankind itself.

Surreal/comic book SF. This can happen when science fiction is combined with action-adventure, though not always. Examples of the more surreal include The Fifth Element, Judge Dredd, Starship Troopers, Transformers (original 80s cartoon feature), Iron Man.

New Technology. This is when something new not present in our own society underpins the narrative, sometimes helping characters out of the situation they find themselves in. Examples of this include The Abyss and that impressive liquid stuff that allows Bud to go into the Abyss without being crushed to death. In many many Philip K. Dick adaptations the technology is hostile like the vivisect in the much-underrated Impostor. Robots often often a hostile AND saving force in sci-fi, Transformers and the Terminator trilogy the most obvious, but also the likes of VIKI and Sonny in I,Robot and also the replicants in Bladerunner.

Five rough categories there - much the same as many of the other genres I've already written about in this series. What's striking then to me is how many share very similar ideas - it's the execution that REALLY sets them apart. Philip K Dick made a living from this in particular. Minority Report and Impostor are practically the same idea: two guys, experts in their field, are "mistakenly" believed to have broken the new laws they champion. Of course, they have broken those laws, they just have to accept it - and those new societies they live in have to accept the consequences of those broken laws. However, if you watch both films you will see different films with that same simple story. Interesting.

Yet most SF specs have no simple idea underpinning their narrative. They want to throw up philosophical questions and they do this usually with philosophy. Plato and his idea of the "forms" is the most widely used that I've seen and thanks to the Matrix trilogy Phenomenalism and Descartesian philosophy ("I think therefore I am") gets a look in too. Now I used to be a philosophy A Level teacher (really!) so I am familiar with many of these concepts - yet I am still lost as to how they play out within the story or what relevance they are supposed to have. A story is not philosophy - philosophy is like an "offshoot" of a story. I think of it like a by-product. Let me illustrate.

Think of Dr. Who. Yes it's a TV show, not a movie (though I do get quite a few SF TV specs these days) but on the surface, these are usually simple stories about The Doctor and his companion discovering a new race, helping it in some way or helping another fight it. It goes from A to B to C in a straight line, with The Doctor and his companion (usually) walking away unscathed at the end of the episode, ready for the next week's adventure. Yet each week, they're supposed to have learned something - or at least the companion is. Last week's posed question's about the nature of slavery. James Moran's was about the eternal philosophical question "Would you kill (a certain amount of people) to save a (certain amount of people)?" In the same way then, I Robot asks us what is to be "someone" and not "something", symbolised in Sonny in the same way Bladerunner does with the replicants. The Matrix asks us what reality truly is. Minority Report asks us what price we will pay for justice. The Terminator Trilogy poses the question of pre-determination AND Chaos Theory at the same time.

But crucially, none of these asks those difficult questions within a convoluted plot. The more you want to ask of your audience, the simpler you must be to get your point across. It's the ultimate SF paradox, really.

So, as always: your fave SF films? Why?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: I dunno! Run out of requests. What should it be? You decide.
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* Yes I know, not funny: so why couldn't I resist??? WHY??

Monday, April 21, 2008

Genre or Die, Pt 4: Comedy

SPOILERS
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Comedy is not something I really think about in my own work; I don't think of myself as a funny or witty person and comedy is not I think one of my scripts' strong points. Yet weirdly my scripts are often praised as being funny, if not as a whole (I tend to avoid the whole comic premise), then in part - usually lines of dialogue or a character's outlook, rarely a scenario.

And that's what really makes and defines a comedy spec first and foremost in my opinion - a scenario. Something original, funny from the first look. You need to be able to see the comic effect from just the premise I think to be successful (of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, there can't not be when you're speaking generally).

So what scenarios make funny comedy?

The Screwball Comedy. The likes of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor made this aspect of the genre, something like Brewster's Millions is a classic. Often these comedies are star-led - Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are key figures in such genres in the 80s and Jim Carrey in the 90s. I suppose the likes of Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand are trying to corner this market at the moment.

The Police Screwball Comedy. Like the above, but with protagonists and/or other characters involved in police-like duties (because they're not always police, but detectives too or people having to act *like* detectives) that it deserves its own splinter genre: Beverley Hills Cop, Police Academy, Turner and Hooch, Every Which Way But Loose, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to name but a few.

The Morality Comedy. Jim Carrey's very fond of these: Liar Liar told us that a father in nothing but name is not an actual father and The Truman Show made us think about the nature of existence and reality TV. He's not the only one though; comedy that includes pathos often has a specific point or message behind it.

The Romantic Comedy. Covered in more detail by this post, but also includes those so-called "Dick Flicks" where much lewd behaviour ensues. A friend of mine insists on this basis that Porky's too is an early "Dick Flick", though I don't remember enough about it to have an opinion on this.

Kid-Orientated Comedy. Not to be confused with children's comedy (below). The Kid-Orientated Comedy places children and the machinations of family life as the focus of the comedy - and it's nearly always from an adult's POV: think Parenthood, Cheaper By The Dozen, Mrs. Doubtfire, Three Men and A Baby. Even Look Who's Talking asked us to believe a baby could think like an adult.

Children's Comedy. Children's comedy is often buddy movies like Toy Story where two conflicting personalities must overcome their differences or fight an evil plan or evil figure, like in Monsters Inc or Monster House. Interestingly, Children's comedy seems to be the most adapted from known works like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or Lemony Snicket.

The Christmas Comedy. These are so popular: The Santa Clause, Santa Claus: The Movie and Elf are obvious choices but Rom-Coms are often set at Christmastime like Just Friends. In addition random comedies like the weird Jack Frost where a man is killed at Christmas and is reincarnated as a snowman his son builds pop up too. If you read the Ink Tip newsletter like me, you'll know how hot prodcos seem to get for the Christmas Comedy, they appear to ask for them EVERY WEEK it seems. Yet the number of times a Christmas Comedy has turned up at Bang2write? Three times. You may be missing a trick, people...

Musical Comedy. Songs and comedy mix well: the likes of Little Shop of Horrors and Jim Henson' Muppet adaptations of the likes of Christmas Carol provide plenty of laughs and are the most obvious, though occaisionally we're treated to dark adult musical humour courtesy of people like Tim Burton with Sweeney Todd.

The Supernatural Comedy. Again, kids' stuff comes to the fore here with the likes of Ghostbusters, but flip a coin and you also have Beetlejuice which seems quite tame now (especially since he's even had his own kids' cartoon) but back in the 80s was very rude in comparison: "Nice fucking model! Honk HONK!" This is often where the comedy cross breeds with horror too, with the likes of Severance, Shaun of The Dead, Black and Sheep, etc.

The Surreal Comedy. There are many comedies that take a bizarre and absurd premise and run with it, yet somehow work. The most obvious here would be the work of Charlie Kauffman, especially in Being John Malkovich. The key to this genre is, yes the IDEA behind it is weird, but in actual fact the plot is quite straightforward: people go into John Malkovich's mind and the power turns them corrupt. A lot of the comedy specs I read that want to draw on Charlie Kauffman's legacy make the mistake of making the plot as weird as the premise, so I'm lost.

Dramedy. Often closely linked to the Morality Comedy and the protagonist is a "real" person that "funny" things happen to... Yet we have so much pathos it takes us out of comedy in many places. Sideways is a clear dramedy I think, as is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind.

Yet it's the scenario that is nearly always undersold in the comic specs In fact, sometimes the same scenario turns up again and again, written by the different people - and it's nearly always comedy premises that seem to "boomerang" like this. The greatest offender is the Rom-Com where a complete loser becomes a love god, but other ones that turn up loads include the guy who stands to inherit a fortune or a business (or a fortune and business) by a certain time if he proves himself in some way or the girl who has to find a man by a certain time or bust Cinderella-style. That's not to say none of these can work by the way; I have seen a couple that have been very funny, but most are not. However the very fact that some scripts can make a familiar concept work when others cannot shows I think that it's all about GRABBING your audience with your concept in comedy, making them WANT to sit down and be entertained - and yes, ultimately want to laugh, since comedies by their very nature are out of the ordinary (real life and its various pressures can hardly be described as a "laugh a minute" for most people, even actual comedians) and thus difficult to pull off in a plausible AND funny way. Basically you need specific elements to be funny in my opinion.

So what elements often lie at the root of good comedy?

The Protagonist. Protagonists are often passive in the comedy specs I see. I would make the argument that even if protagonists APPEAR to be passive in comedy, they often actually aren't - unlike thrillers, which can sometimes get away with washing their protagonist away with intrigue or the horror genre with bloodshed (with the protagonist only fighting back sometimes in the second half, sometimes even just the third act). A passive protagonist in comedy I think is often a well-written illusion.If a writer DOES go for a passive protagonist however, in a comedy we need ANOTHER CHARACTER to take the reins for them in the first instance in terms of making decisions that drive the story, "setting off" that protagonist, even forcibly.

Conflict. Well, conflict is always good: conflict might be drama, but then it's also the basis for good humour too. One of the reasons many of the specs I read aren't funny is because everything is too easy for the protagonist: they meander from event to event making witty remarks. Whilst those witty remarks might be funny in isolation, they do not a comedy script make. If you believe as I do that good comedy lies in scenario and premise first, then you must have enough obstacles in your protagonist's way to real make him/her fight for what she needs... By taking it away just as they get near, you can create humour.

Pathos. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said "Life is unrelenting comedy, therein lies the tragedy of it". People remember a good comedy when it has an element of pathos contrasted with it; that's why we remember the likes of Four Weddings for that funeral speech by the Scottish bloke out of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns (name?? Grrr). You don't need to go overboard on this - just introduce a small element, a breather from the madness and it can go a long way.

Simplicity. A good comic film is clear and concise, with the prtoagonist's goal simple to see. Ace Ventura wants to solve his cases in his films - first the missing dolphin, then the missing bat in the sequel, clearly borrowed from the likes of the Beverley Hills Cop films and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The Dude in Big Lebowski wants to chill out - but no one will let him. Shrek in a similar way wants to be left alone. In the Home Alone Films, Macaulay Culkin wants the burglars out of his house by whatever means. In The Mighty Ducks, they want to win the game. In Planes, Trains & Automobiles John Candy wants to get home. In Little Shop of Horrors, Rick Moranis wants to impress the girl; in a similar way, so does Eddie Murphy in Coming To America. In Ghostbusters, they want to clear the city of um...ghosts. Are you seeing a pattern here? If other genre's premises should be simple, then a comedy should be UBER-SIMPLE.

Lewd/Rude/Strong language does not automatically mean funny. I love lewd and rude humour and I love strong language, but I don't love plain rude. I read a lot of scripts where all sorts of general flashing, sex-related events and swearing occur for no reason in the story. If you're going to include this, make sure it plays an organic part in your story. Consider the above from Coming to America (hilarious!) or The Forty Year Old Virgin: that was funny and lewd, principally because of The Best Friend, he was a lewd character and performed a "whole" role function, he didn't walk on and walk out. When he then talks to Steve Carrell about him "fucking a grandmother... You should fuck her then get her to write you a cheque for twelve dollars," I was in stitches. Yet often lewd characters in the specs I read say random things unrelated to the story or other characters or worse still, randomly get their knobs or boobs out. Boring.

Stupid does not automatically mean funny. Characters in produced comedies often do stupid things: it's like a "get out of jail free" card to act in a stupid way as "high jinks will ensue". And very often, this works. The point to remember here is that your protagonist may DO something stupid, they're not ACTUALLY stupid, full stop. If a character is stupid and thus has no logic of any kind, then we will lose interest in them very quickly: I read a lot of spec comedies where the character does something stupid for seemingly no reason. Even in a comedy like Dumb and Dumber, Lloyd has a (screwed-up) logic to his actions, so even when he goes all the way to Austin to return the briefcase, we can see why he does what he does - and why what happens next, happens. For the record, I wasn't really very keen on this film, I thought it well, dumb, but I can see why others thought it was funny: instead of *just* poking fun at Lloyd and his companion, we are asked to empathise with them and their journey - not only to Austin, but in breaking open the conspiracy by accident (rather tacked on at the end I thought).

Insanity does not automatically mean funny. Sometimes a spec will insist that certain mental conditions or belief systems equal comedy. These are the least funny specs in my opinion, since they largely poke fun at people who are unfortunate or different. However, my personal dislike aside, these specs often fall into the "stupid" category where character motivation is very problematic: why do they do the things they do? Who cares! They're crazy! It's funny! It's not. Another two Jim Carrey films come to mind here actually: The Cable Guy and Me, Myself & Irene. In The Cable Guy Carrey unusually is the antagonist and is pitted against Matthew Broderick's character in a believable and creepy way, building up from first being his friend, then his enemy. I liked the progression here and the fact we are asked to empathise with the antagonist, so we actually feel sorry for Carrey when he races off to "kill the Babysitter" - the TV he's spent his whole life in front of. With Me, Myself and Irene however, Carrey's character is the protagonist AND the antagonist with a multiple personality disorder; in addition he's a single father raising a whole load of cuckoos in the nest as his own children. I thought this was a step too far in the "insanity is funny" direction personally, though I know it was very popular. It's because of this film I think I see so many of this notion in specs.

What are your fave comedies and why? Over to you as always...

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Science Fiction, as requested by the marvellous Rach.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Simple Works

I've written before that I reckon scribes can learn a lot from narrative-based music videos: the specs I read are often convoluted in the extreme in terms of plot and Bang2writers sometimes confess they're not sure how to simplify their stories. A music video then is a great way of showing how simple yet effective a story *can* be.

So check this one out. The story's simple as hell, draws on nostalgia big time for my generation AND has a great twist at the end... Yet crucially is not such an "in" joke that anyone who doesn't "get" that in-joke is left out in the cold - it's just a video of some people dancing in odd clothes. Nice*.



* Miss the branding though: "Utah Saints! U-U-U-Utah Saints!" ; )

Friday, April 18, 2008

Genre or Die, pt 3: Thriller

SPOILER ALERT

The Thriller genre is pretty varied: unlike Horror where there are conventions aplenty to pay tribute to (or break), or very specific role functions in Rom-Com that you can use (or not), I would argue that in Thriller the only thing a script really needs to do is be, well, thrilling.

Yet so many of the thriller specs I read are NOT thrilling. Sometimes they don't make sense, especially if they're conspiracy thrillers - I will end up questioning a character's particular motivation usually (along the lines of "Why not go to so-and-so and avoid all this? Or even just WALK AWAY?), though sometimes I just won't get WHY there's a cover up or WHY the character has ended up in the situation. Sometimes there are suspension of disbelief issues; police are completely malevolent for no apparent reason or an antagonist has an axe to grind that I just don't get because the antagonist isn't supposed to know the protagonist (though having read this story lots of times in lots of different people's work, that case of "mistaken identity" nearly always appears to be NOT mistaken).

No, the reason a lot of the thrillers I read are not thrilling is down to - you guessed it - structure. Thriller does not just need good, tight structure, it DEMANDS it. It absolutely, 100% must have narrative logic too, since the set up and pay off of those plot points demand impact as well - a moment of clarity, an insight for the audience. Instead, a lot of the thriller specs I read meander: because their protagonists are not on the go 24/7, because they lack urgency, the jeopardy is then sapped. Thrillers are often a case of LITERAL life and death; the stakes should be high and your structure should reflect this. Time scale should reflect this too; there's a reason why lots of successful Thrillers take place within a 12-24 hour period, some as many as four days, yet I'm struggling to think of any much longer than this. And so often thriller specs switch genres abruptly: they start off as dramas and turn into thrillers halfway through. I've even done it myself - and recently. It is so easy to slide out of the thriller genre and into character-based drama by accident, especially when trying to establish back story and/or character motivation.

It's all about upping the ante, paying attention to genre all the way through and making the notion of Thriller your theme throughout. You need to make sure it's thrilling on every page, even if it's the lull before the storm - and that usually means paying more attention to the machinations of plot than you would in say, a drama where character can come to the fore more. Consider your favourite Thrillers. What devices did they use, what images did they use? Thrillers are known to use the fancier devices - dream sequence, flashback, montage, intercut, etc - but don't use them if you're not really sure how to, or to cover up an otherwise dull premise. It's all about construction, using the best resources you have in the best way to tell your story. An audience wants high stakes ergo you really have to concentrate on JEOPARDY, make us really believe the worst *could* happen at any moment.

I've always thought research is key too in the genre movie. If you're writing a Thriller and you haven't watched many, the likelihood is you'll run into trouble quickly. Watch as many as you can first, it makes sense. But what is out there? Here's my take on the plethora of Thrillers I've seen over the years:

The Conspiracy Thriller - Conspiracy is what thriller does well. Usually isolating the protagonist from their families and friends, they must go on the run and prove it is a higher power - the government, police or armed forces the most obvious - that are to blame in a certain event, usually undertaken by Big Brother for utilitarian reasons "The Greatest Amount of Good For The Greatest Amount Of People" (ergo bad stuff must happen to the minority), though sometimes cover ups are the reason behind it all too. Movies in this vein include Enemy of The State, No Way Out, The Fugitive and Conspiracy Theory.

The Mob Thriller - Often closely linked to the conspiracy thriller, it's usually a non-governmental influence that is Behind It All or if governmental, a story about corruption within the ranks (rather than an outsider who is dragged in unwittingly like Will Smith in Enemy of The State). Ironically the media, not higher-up officials, are protagonists' saviour - but handily journalists and the like all get killed or the protagonist is fingered by the mob first for their own crimes. Interestingly it is often this genre that kills off its protagonist or has an unhappy ending, usually he can't return to his old life or it has been destroyed completely (not many women seem to turn up here). Think The Departed, Eastern Promises or just about any 90s John Grisham adaptation like The Firm. Not to be forgotten too are the likes of Rapid Fire, a seemingly forgotten Brandon Lee movie circa about 1992, which has him star as a hardcore martial artist against FBI corruption in a similar fashion. The dialogue is appalling and the acting worse still, but its sense of jeopardy and the way it cuts him off from pretty much everyone so he's no option but to trust vigilante cop Powers Boothe is wick.

The Action Thriller - Enigmatic heroes dominate here courtesy of the likes of Bond and Bourne, though women get a look in from time to time with female protagonists like Lara Croft. The Action Thriller is one of the most hybrid elements of the thriller genre I think, indulging in elements of comedy, romance, sci-fi and horror too: Arnie made a good living in his early career with the likes of The Running Man, Commando, Total Recall et al, as did ol' Sly with Rambo, Cliffhanger, Daylight etc. There's of course Bruce Willis with Die Hard too.

The Supernatural Thriller - at stake here can not only be life and death, but a person's happiness, sense of fulfilment or even their eternal soul, usually with a living person having to protect or fight for a dead spirit. Male protagonists seem to dominate in this area of the genre in such films as Stir of Echoes, Dragonfly, The Sixth Sense or White Noise, though sometimes women play lead roles as in What Lies Beneath or The Grudge.

The Disaster/Invasion Thriller - we had loads of these at the turn of the century with the Millenium Bug around the corner: Deep Impact & Armageddon told us that we would all die... And if we didn't, only America could save us. The same went for the likes of Independence Day and The Arrival. More recently, with global warming replacing the fear of general explosive death as the clock hit midnight on the eve of 2000 (remember worring about that??), we've had The Core, Sunshine and The Day After Tomorrow. This aspect of the genre has a huge legacy however, drawing on the likes of Towering Inferno and other 70s disaster and invasion thrillers, which in turn drew on those from the 1950s.

The Crime Thriller - Inevitably this can incorporate elements of the Conspiracy, Mob and Action thriller, but more crucially the notion of revenge and past deeds coming back to haunt us too, accounting for the likes of Revenge, A History of Violence, Payback, The Brave One, Ransom and Death Sentence being in this section too.

The Woman-In-Peril Thriller - This is the one area of this genre that seems to really put women at the helm with the threat nearly always being inherently male. The story is usually not global (as in the conspiracy thriller), but personal: a woman will escape a lover or husband and have to vanquish his threat once and for all, usually by killing him. Films like this include of course Sleeping With The Enemy and Enough. Sometimes a woman will have vanquish a previously unconnected male threat like the burglars who break into Jodie Foster's home in Panic Room. Often a child will be involved in these thrillers in some way and the female lead's maternal instincts are brought into play as well as her desire to personally survive. Sometimes a woman will have to overcome something in addition as well as vanquishing the male threat, like the heroine in Red Eye who must escape not only the psycho Cillian Murphy, but also her previous (unconnected) experience as a rape victim.

Any sections I've missed?

What are your favourite thrillers and why?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: As requested by the lovely Daniel, the many faces of Comedy...Remember, if you have a request for a genre, let me know. Email on this blog at the top on the right hand side.

Stop: Hammer Time

Since we've been talking about genre this week, now seems a good time to mention that Hammer Films' new venture Beyond The Rave begins today.

Not only is this Hammer Films' first project since The Lady Vanishes, Beyond The Rave is a serial online. I heard Simon Oakes talking about this project at South West Screen's Film: The Digital Future conference back in December and think it sounds pretty interesting. Also, with the likes of Sanctuary and Sofia's Diary being picked up for the TV, it's easy to see how many opportunities the internet is now offering to new projects, so you'd be daft to not get up-to-speed with this new way of accessing content.

Watch the first episode of Beyond The Rave here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Genre or Die, pt 2: The Romantic Comedy

SPOILERS PRESENT

Having had a good look at Horror under the microscope then, let's go the other end of the scale and examine the Romantic Comedy... Here's my take on the types:

The Wedding Rom-Com – does exactly what it says on the tin, bringing the protagonist and love interest together usually through a chance meeting as mutual friends of the bride and/or groom of an otherwise unrelated wedding like Four Weddings & A Funeral, though sometimes for other reasons, as in the Wedding Crashers, where the characters’ job is to well... crash weddings, unsurprisingly.

The Supernatural Rom-Com – the obstacle to this story is usually the protagonist is in love with someone who is dead or from another time. Typical Rom-coms in this vein include Truly, Madly, Deeply or Kate & Leopold.

The High School Rom-Com aka The Different Backgrounds Rom-Com – obstacles here are social class and/or differing backgrounds typified in stuff like GREASE with “cool” pitted against “pure”, BUT it doesn’t *have* to be: other films in this vein can include Shrek or Notting Hill. Can obviously incorporate the likes of Kate & Leopold and Trule, Madly, Deeply too.

The Stalker Rom-Com - the protagonist doesn’t have to be an actual stalker, but they usually have an unrelenting love for (usually) a girl that lasts decades, usually from their teenage years and when they get the chance as an adult to get close to the girl in question, they cock it up. Think There's Something About Mary or Just Friends.

The Big Event Rom-Com - everything focuses in this Rom-Com on the one event a protagonist must prepare for, so inevitably this sometimes crosses over into Wedding Rom-Com territory, like in My Best Friend’s Wedding (although crucially Julia Roberts’ character does not get married in it), though it can crossover into other elements like Supernatural, as with Groundhog Day or What Women Want. Other notable Event Rom Coms include The Forty Year Old Virgin, the event in question being the loss of his virginity and Knocked Up, obviously being the pregnancy & birth (though I must admit to not having seen it, sorry). Sometimes Big Event Rom-Coms are hybrids with other genres, like Billy Mernit points out in relation to Juno (a rom com hybrid with a coming of age drama).

Can you think of any others?

There isn’t much I can add here that Billy Mernit hasn’t covered in much better detail, but I can tell you there are certain elements scripts I read consistently fall down on:

The Protagonist. Almost always in the spec rom-coms I read the protagonists are unlikeable. If the protagonist is female, she’s self-obsessed; if the protagonist is male, he’s a workaholic who neglects his friends or some kind of sad loser. Nearly always, they have to learn something – which is nearly always How To Become A Better Person. I would imagine this is inspired by the likes of Groundhog Day: Phil is essentially a fake and it’s only be tapping into his true NON-cynical side that he wins the girl, which means he must stop using the phenomena of starting each day anew to his advantage in pursuing her. Crucially though, he does have a non-cynical side, he’s just world-weary, which we can forgive him for because of all the stupid things that happen to him; also a small part of us does say, “Yeah, but if I could live the same day over and over, I probably would use it to my advantage too.” No hangovers? No consequences for robbing Securicor vans? Hell yes! So there is something UNDERSTANDABLE in his actions, even though they’re absolutely crazy and yes, at the root of it all, ultimately unlikable until he makes his big realisation.

Outside the realm of the supernatural however, the writer has a more difficult problem presenting a character who does bad things like Phil does. If we consider My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts’ character is not unlikeable full stop, she has an UNLIKABLE TRAIT – and that’s envy. She is essentially a dog in the manger: she didn’t want her best friend until someone else has him. She is otherwise a lovely person – she wouldn’t be the bloke’s best friend otherwise – and even feels guilty for her actions, but subscribes to the “all’s fair in love and war” idea... Which of course it isn’t (her own big realisation, often a part of the rom-com genre) and which she is forced to recognise when Kimmy goes missing and they have that fantastic confrontation in the toilets.

LESSON 1: So I think the lesson here in the rom-com genre is that yes, there must be a character flaw your protagonist has in the rom-com genre, but don’t go overboard and make them ENTIRELY flawed – or if you do, have a good distraction, like supernatural elements.

The Best Friend. The Best Friend is part of the rom-com genre; whilst there isn’t always one – Phil doesn’t in Groundhog Day and Ryan Reynolds doesn’t in Just Friends – most of the time there is. And why not? The Best Friend can be a fantastic resource in pushing the story forward in the rom-com genre. However, a regular problem with the characters I read in rom-coms is the best friend is often a direction reflection of the protagonist, so if the protagonist is flawed, those flaws are then magnified tenfold in the best friend character. Whilst this offers much scope for comedy, it does little for character or story. Think about it: if the best friend is the SAME as the protagonist, we’ve got two people performing the same role function. This is boring to read. What was great about My Best Friend’s Wedding was the fact Rupert Everett as the best friend does all he can to dissuade Julia Roberts from embarking on her plan - he is like the voice of her conscience. The best Friend in Romp-com needs to give INSIGHT to the protagonist, even if it’s accidentally; Steve Carrell’s best friend in 40 Year Old Virgin is a bit of a loser, but he does have the one thing Steve Carrell doesn’t – access to SEX, he is Yoda to Steve Carrell’s Grasshopper in that if Steve only wants sex, he can have it the Dopehead’s way... Except of course he wants a meaningful relationship and to sing The age of Aquarius. Similarly, whilst Hugh Grant is *exactly* best friends with whatsisface who goes and carks it in Four Weddings, his life and death shows him that life is for living and that you must take risks – and stop bloody dithering!

LESSON 2: Don’t mirror your protagonist with the best friend, have the best friend give the protagonist some kind of insight – whether on purpose or accidentally.

The Gender Divide. Men and women have different attitudes when it comes to love and what it means and rom-coms often underline this point. However many of the rom-com specs I read stereotype their characters; I think it’s the one genre that does this more than any other that I read, even women in horror and thriller. Traditional gender roles come to the fore in the rom-com completely I find – or conversely or the exact OPPOSITE to what we “expect”, there’s no in-between. I think the reason rom-com is so hard to write well is because it’s the one genre that deals primarily with character motivation, WHY characters do what they do. This means we need acres of grey in-between those black and white models of characterisation. Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends loves himself, big style; he can have any woman he wants, including the rock star that every man would kill to have... Yet he wants the girl of his teenage dreams who works in a bar back in his home town. And she doesn’t want him. She thinks he’s a jerk. His solution? To try and impress her: what any man would do. Yet he just makes himself look more like a jerk. And WHO hasn’t done this? It’s understandable characterisation – nothing to do with gender. It might start with “Boy Meets Girl” or vice versa...But it’s waaaay more than that.

LESSON 3: Don’t stereotype, ever. Find those grey areas in your characters that people understand whether they’re male OR female.

Coherency/Hysteria. A simple one, this one – a lot of the rom-coms I read are barmy, 100% off their rockers. I think this has to do with the legacy of Frat Pack. They are also convoluted in the extreme, all hinging on complicated matters or events. A good rom-com is simple: a reader should understand exactly what is at stake, from the very start – and see it played out logically. I would avoid lengthy flashback, non-linearity, lengthy voiceovers, etc. Not because they can’t work – and I’m sure I’ll see a spec now that does it really well (and wasn’t Groundhog Day effectively non-linear and/or one long flashback??) , but generally speaking I think it’s story that really needs attention here when scribes are often more concerned with style and reinventing the wheel.

LESSON 4: Keep it simple. Love is simple – you love someone or you don’t. Concentrate on putting obstacles in the way of that love, not fancy format and style to hide plot holes.

Cynicism. Rom-coms follow fashion like any other genre and in some ways are more prone to reinvention. Whilst horror took the rather understandable step from slasher into torture, Rom-Com in recent years has shed its “chick flick” tag and become more for the boys: who could’ve foreseen that? I didn’t. Modern Rom-coms as a result are cynical in the extreme, challenging love in a way that we didn’t see in Richard Curtis’ heyday which held love up – particularly marriage and monogamy – as the “ideal”, with anyone who didn’t have that as being “out in the cold”. Despite this however, most of the rom-coms I read that AREN’T completely crazy are more in the Richard Curtis vein than the Modern Cynicism vein, which makes me wonder if they could have a place in the market? I don’t know either – but have the writers at least thought about this?

LESSON 5: Take note of where the genre is at, you don’t want to be left behind – make it your decision to go against it if that’s what you want, don’t be 100% unaware. Do your research.

Romance. Last but by no means least, rom-com specs I read often lack romance funnily enough. It’s usually because it’s not a case of “Boy Meets Girl” (or vice versa) enough: in other words, a protagonist is attempting to inject romance into an EXISTING marriage or relationship. Whilst this can offer plenty of potential laughs, part of the rom-com genre is that uncertainty – will they or won’t they? (and sometimes they don’t and shouldn’t! It doesn’t always follow, like in My Best Friend’s Wedding).

I think part of the reason scribes are reticent to write a rom-com where two people “just” meet and take a chance in a short time is because people are so cautious in real life: I married my husband within a year, but then we had known each other since we were kids; I don’t think I would have done this if we’d literally met that year, especially with my son to consider, my husband could have been anyone. But most people go out a fair time before they get married or even move in together nowadays, unlike our great-grandparents’ time when the woman would agree to marry the man on the basis of his status alone (and minus a “proper” relationship). In comparison then, this lack of caution perhaps stretches credibility for some writers.

Yet there is the answer in my story – I married my husband quickly because I ALREADY knew him. Rom-coms have built on this premise successfully many times; you can have a shared history between the protagonist and the love interest, just don’t make it a ROMANTIC history. Then they have that journey together and you inject the romance yourself and make it more of a rom-com and less of a straight comedy.

LESSON 6: A history between the lead and the love interest is fine, but don’t have them married or together from the offset else you will sap the actual romance part.

Any other thoughts?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: As requested by the lovely Caroline - The Thriller Genre

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Write Here, Write Now has been flagged as a spam blog! Outrage! I wondered why I wasn't able to save posts any longer as I was working on them and kept losing stuff (so I hope you've been appreciating my last few posts, they took frickin' ages! Okay, I should have just clicked the "what's this?" button on the word verifier thingie ten days ago but that would have been too easy).

But anyway, whilst I iron out this not-so-teensy issue with Blogger (and write my posts in Word first!), feast your eyes on this fantastic video courtesy of the ledge that is Tim Hawkins.

"Remember: it's not about your kids - it's about you!" Pure genius.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Genre Or Die, pt 1: Horror

SPOILERS! So genre movies are what's-what at the moment: it's apparently what audiences want, so it's what prodcos want. Yet so many specs out there have no genre to speak of; yes they have generic elements but they're not a GENRE FILM in the classic sense. They pay little attention to convention or classic characterisation; they have no set pieces to speak of, nor do they give us something that's the same....But different.

Speaking to writers, it would appear the notion of the genre film gets the thumbs down, big style: some writers seem to think of them as formulaic, ticking the boxes, even stupid. Writers have insisted to me that dramas have more heart, that the genre film sells out; they've said that the genre film has nothing to say, is unchallenging, [insert another negative here]. I think I've heard every possible argument AGAINST the genre film and why spec writers should not bother writing them for artistic reasons.

But the genre film sells. Whilst I would never advocate writing the genre film that simply recycles what has gone before it, I WOULD argue that taking note of trends does help your writing and thus your own saleability. 'Cos let's face it: none of us are doing this *just* for fun. We want recognition. We want an option. We want our specs sold, made and in the top ten movies of the year. Not one of us is writing simply to leave the fruits of our labour on the desktop for no one to see.

Well, if that's what you want, then a drama is not going to cut it. Not because dramas aren't good, but because drama does not sell like the genre film. It's just a fact of (screenwriting) life. And who says the genre film cannot have something to say? Who says the genre film has to be stupid? Granted, lots of genre films have nothing to say and are stupid, but that's not the point. Tarring all films with the same brush is not a great idea if you want to get ahead.

Everyone has a natural bias and as everyone knows, mine is horror. I love horror. I want to write horror. Blood and guts do it for me in a way that love and romance don't. I like to be scared and I like to be grossed out. It's just the way that it goes. Later in the series I will examine what I believe goes into a successful rom-com, supernatural thrillers, comedy and so on (get your requests in now people), but for now, somewhat inevitably, I'm going to start with my beloved horror.

First off, it might be an idea to start with defining those categories of horror - there will always be crossover, but I think I've narrowed it down to five "main" types:

- Supernatural # 1 : including vampires, some ghost activity (ie. soothsayers, non-homicidal), werewolves, special powers ie. telekinesis as in Carrie)

- Supernatural # 2: Devils and other religious motifs, arthouse elements (like in Dust Devil, Angel Heart), Asian Tartan Extreme, Adult Anime etc

- Serial Killer: Some Asian Tartan Extreme and low budget indie European film; including torture and slasher

- Creature: Space and some supernatural "out of the ordinary" creatures that set their own rules, ie. homicidal ghosts with their own backstory (like in Thirteen Ghosts) and demon-style figures like Pinhead

- Revenge: including uber-horror like I Spit On Your Grave through to supernatural revenge like The Crow

I racked my brains for more, yet couldn't come up with any. Genre should be such broad strokes though I think; it's up to the writer to join the dots. This is why the genre film needn't be stupid nor have nothing to say. You, the writer, can utilise genre as the vehicle that gives your voice volume, if you like. The genre-megaphone! I'm going off at a tangent... Moving on.

Next: because we're using genre, there are certain elements your audience (and thus your reader) expects. This doesn't mean you just roll these elements out at certain intervals. That would be dull. A good genre film involves its audience, makes them INVEST in the story, takes them on a journey. This is ultimately why 30 Days of Night did not work for me in the same way the first Resident Evil did. I couldn't invest in Eben's journey in the same way I could Alice's as she remembered her involvement with the evil Umbrella corp. Yes there were Zombies, but there was also betrayal, ooooooooh, nice. In 30 Days however it seemed to be more along the lines of: the lights go out - vampires! Argh! (I am aware the photo below is of Alice in Resident Evil: Extinction btw).

So what of those elements? Let's take a look:

Women are strong, men are weak: but supernatural men are always hardcore. Alice is the strong one in Resident Evil thanks to what I call the Ripley legacy: ever since we saw her duffing up first Ash, then Burke, then 85 in the original trilogy, women in horror are usually not only excellent fighters, they're on the moral high ground too. It's usually a man who is in league with the beast or ensuring everyone dies so he can keep all the money or whatnot: Resident Evil borrowed this notion with Alice's husband being responsible for releasing the T-Virus in the first place. Boooooo! Men suck! Women are the best! Yay! ; ) Compare this then to the likes of Riddick - a man who can see in the dark, supernatural for sure - or Eric Draven, who is dead. In comparison to their *more human* counterparts and suddenly we can see a massive division, lending the belief that if a man is to be COOL in horror, he needs to have some kind of interesting talent or attribute to still be standing at the end.

You always have another problem besides the monster. As above and it's usually the man's fault these days. A boring genre film pits the group against JUST the monster. A good genre film ties the group up in knots WHILST fighting the monster. This might just be most of the group against one or two people (as in Alien) or it might be the entire group turning itself inside out (as in Pitch Black).

Monsters might be out to get you but they can’t hate you as much as you hate yourself. Ever noticed that protagonists in horror films nearly always seem to have self esteem issues? This is usually down to some kind of traumatic event in their childhood (like Celine's witnessing of her family's death in Underworld), the loss of a loved one they couldn't save or moment they have to repent for, such as Fry's wish to sacrifice the rest of the crew to save her own life.

Death is not always the end and sometimes the solution. Sometimes characters in horrors are reborn, like Eric Draven in The Crow: unable to save himself or his girlfriend in life, he exacts bloody revenge in death. The detective in Angel Heart decides to never die so he might never have to surrender his soul to the devil - but in doing so, must kill the young soldier and switch bodies and ultimately memories by accident. In monster movies, sometimes people will sacrifice themselves - or at least suggest it, like in Alien Vs. Predator - so as to ensure the monster does not take over the world.

It can always get worse. One of the main gripes I have in the horror I read is the fact that there is no build up: it all comes at once (oo er). I think the reason for this is because "they" say you need a strong hook or ninciting incident - but you can hit the ground running without giving it to us ALL AT ONCE. Build up the suspense, build up to the horror, give it impact. And remember to throw those obstacles at us, one after another: your characters think they've hit rock bottom? Not yet they haven't! Be the worse kind of sadist, but do it on drip feed.

Comedy quips make life worth living – even when you’re about to die horribly. Horror and comedy mix incredibly well, Brits are known for it: think Shaun of the Dead here or Severance. And a spec doesn't have to be laugh-out-loud funny to include this element (though it helps if you're brilliant at this). A well positioned quip can bring in the laughs, even if it's a cheesy one-liner, as a kind of "antidote" to the horror that came before or after it. Don't be afraid of using this element. What may not work as true comedy can work in horror on the basis of contrast alone: I mean, Arnie's line "stick around" to the guy he stabs in Predator? Puh-lease, positively stilton! Yet I did laugh when I first saw it y'honour, guilty as charged...

There’s a thin line between bad taste... And REALLY bad taste. there are always lines to cross with horror, no matter what you think about the whole "everything's been done" idea. There are reasons we don't see certain elements (like in-depth rape scenes!) and it's because no one wants to see that bar a sicko minority. Pushing boundaries is great, indulging yourself is not. Also, it's worth remembering that whilst sensationalism is popular for a few moments (ie. so-called "torture porn"), classic terror can last decades, even become timeless. Which would you prefer?

There’s always a new way to do it...But what? And this is the hard bit. Horror can get a bad press when we see the same movie over and over again, but believe it or not, new horror can be conceived of; it's just waiting, in someone's mind - a new, gross way of seeing the creature, the serial killer, the supernatural. The problem is, it can't be SO new no one understands it. If you're going to present us with a new way of seeing vampires, or a new way of seeing the monstrous other like Michael Myers, then we need to have something *similar* about it for that comparison, else you will mystify readers about what you're going on about.

Any other thoughts?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Just for contrast, The Romantic Comedy

Friday, April 11, 2008

Credit Crunched

This sign might as well be stapled to my wallet right now. Inside I have two penny pieces, a button in the shape of a flower and a piece of spearmint Wrigley's. Not. Even. Joking.

Save us people!

Send me your scripts to read. I have no one in next week yet, so you can be first in line Monday morning at this rate, yay!

Even better: I have not one, but two special offers to entice you that little bit more... One for short scripts, one for longer scripts:

£15 for an overview report on shorts 20 pages or less.

£38.25 for development notes on features 100 pages or less.

Doesn't suit? Then email me with your requirements and I can work you out a personal quote!

For more details on my two special offers or more info about me (like recommendations) click here.

Looking forward to reading your work...

Save Kids' TV UK-Style (Please)

The US, Australia and Europe make some great TV, no one can deny it. And growing up in the eighties and nineties, I certainly watched plenty of imported television: the likes of Sharky and George, Around The Twist, The Fresh Prince, Keenan and Kel and Even Stevens definitely eclipsed the Grange Hills and Byker Groves as far as I was concerned. Whilst my knowledge of American TV (and thus American mores and values) heightened my appreciation of the global village, this wasn't 100% good.

I'm not a USA/other country-basher by the way: there's plenty we can learn from other countries, including how to produce hit shows that sell literally EVERYWHERE. These imports deserve their success, because it shows how good they are at reading the market. This does not form any part of my point, just so we're clear.

My point is, as another season of Dr. Who starts, whether you like this show or not, we need MORE UK-made kids' TV like this! Big event stuff that gets the family together to watch, reflecting the ideas and values of our own society, not someone else's. Philosophically, I believe this is very important.

When I was a kid, I might have preferred the writing and characters in The Fresh Prince to Byker Grove, but I actually watched both. And growing up in the 80s and 90s, we had access to both UK-made and imports. Maybe not as much as we should have had, but I'm betting it was a hell of a lot more than my kids have got now. Just 1% of kids' TV is UK-made now. 1%!!!!

This is terrible.

Why?

We are not American, Australian, French or any other nationality. We live in the UK, we are British. Our kids' programmes then should reflect the society they live in, it's as simple as that. If it doesn't, then is it any wonder our country lacks a sense of national identity?

This is not an overreaction by the way. Media Imperialism (ie. showing the media products of other countries too much to one that does not have its own) has been shown to make a massive impact on culture: this is why media products can be considered propaganda materials in times of war!

So support the campaign for saving UK Kids' TV. Our kids need their own voice and they need to see their own society. Just because we speak English like the Americans and Australians does NOT mean we live the same lives or experience the same things as them; we are all different to one another.

And thank f*** for that, variety is the spice of life, but I think the British need to realise this. When I was still teaching, my students used so many Americanisms it broke through into their spelling, as standard. In creative writing lessons, stories would come back set in San Francisco, New York and Texas; when I suggested they might want to try London, Manchester or another UK connurbation, they'd shrug and say "I dunno what it looks like." A similar thing has bled into the specs I read - if I have to read one more "sidewalk" when the piece is set in Hackney, I'll go mad I swear.

So next time you're telling your kids to stop bickering as they tell each other to "talk to the hand" or you ask them what they want in their sandwiches and they say "peanut butter and jello", this is why:

Media Imperialism.

It makes a difference: support the campaign by signing an official online petition to save kids' TV here - AND you can tell your local MP too by the mere press of a button. I have! Will you?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good Examples: Voiceover, Flashback, Montage, Intercut, Dream Sequence

WARNING: Spoilers

There are lots of devices in scriptwriting that we hear are "frowned on": you shouldn't use voiceover or flashback is the usual (or voiceover WITH flashback!), but I've heard montage maligned in a similar fashion, as well as intercut and dream sequence.

This is a load of rot as far as I'm concerned. You can use what you like. These accusations we see levied like "flashback is a lazy way of telling a story" is just another generalisation. Flashback is no more a "lazy way of storytelling" than I am Chinese. Flashback can be an amazingly dramatic way to tell a story.

I think the reason however these devices end up "frowned on" is because writers don't always use them in a dramatic enough fashion. In the scripts I read, this is often because the writer doesn't know how dramatic a good voiceover, flashback, montage, intercut or dream sequence CAN be. Perhaps they've not noticed them in the films they've watched or they're trying them out for the first. Other times the story they are telling just doesn't warrant it - just because you can use a device, doesn't always mean you should. I get a lot of scripts that use flashback for example that just don't need it: it's not that I don't like flashback, I love it; it's just that *particular* story would be BETTER TOLD in a linear fashion, its style effectively is obfuscating its story.

So here's a list of what I think are good examples of these devices and some links to articles to go with them: I've recommended them to clients before and they've helped ensure a writer harnesses the device for their draft... Remember: you might not like the entire movie, these are just elements to help people clarify what the device is and how it can be used.
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VOICEOVER

Voiceover is most associated with the film noir genre and why it should be considered "lazy" is just beyond me... A good voiceover gives us insight into a character's motivations: why they are doing what they are doing. I mentioned in my review of The Brave One for example that I really liked its voiceover; I liked those in American Psycho, Adaptation, Pitch Black, When Harry Met Sally and a whole host of other movies too. So why is it so maligned?

Well, Robert McKee of course: he goes to great pains to tell us why we shouldn't use it in his book Story and he is even portrayed by Brian Cox in Adaptation telling us the same. This one-size-fits-all idea seems daft to me, but as a reader I can understand how it has come about: most spec writers do not use voiceovers to explore character motivation or even irony - instead they use it as an expositional tool to basically tell us WHY events are happening or even what will come next. As a result, the story can feel flat and lifeless.

So every time you're tempted to use voiceover, ask yourself: does my character NEED this element? Or am I using it because it is easier?

Why Robert McKee is Wrong About Voiceover

5 Defences of the voiceover

Voiceover defined and explored

A film theory essay about voiceover, including some examples of films with voiceover
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FLASHBACK

Lots of writers attempt to use flashback and don't understand it when readers don't understand them. The reason for this I find is because the writer has not, what I call, "restructured their structure": flashbacks need to have some kind of discernible pattern and logic for their placing within the overarching narrative, else they will seem disjointed and the story ultimately won't make sense.

Two recommendations I make to my Bang2writers is they watch The Crow. Not because it's an amazing film, but because it's a very simple plot - in comparison to something like say, Memento, which *can* bamboozle people. The Crow's main plot of course follows Eric Draven out of the grave and into a dark metropolis where he avanges his and his fiancee's murder. The sub plot then is very simple, flashing back first to how happy they had been and then to what happened to them that fateful night.

Though fragmented, if you actually stick the flashbacks together in the order they play out in the movie, you have a completely coherent narrative all on its own. Don't believe me? Then check this out (thanks someone on YouTube!).

Flashbacks follow the rules of storytelling every bit as much as the main plot - or should do. Stick 'em in where you feel like it and you're bound to be met with confusion. The Bourne Supremacy does the same as The Crow as Jason Bourne recalls his assassination of the diplomat in that Berlin hotel. Of course, not all flashbacks tell *complete* stories in such a linear fashion as The Crow and The Bourne Supremacy, but they DO all have their own kind of logic. Without re-structuring your structure then, you cannot make that logic obvious.

The Tragedy of Eric And Shelley

The Bourne Supremacy Plot (including info about the assassination flashbacks

Bourne Supremacy Script [PDF]

A look at flashback
on The Guardian’s blog.
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MONTAGE

Ace Ventura may not be your cup of tea; its kind of madness and daft humour is not for everyone. However this eight minute sequence contains a very clear montage: in order to not be killed by the deadly Wachootoo tribe, Ace must pass a series of tests, all more difficult than the last. What I like about this montage is its function in the story is quite obvious - ie. if Ace doesn't pass, then he dies and the story literally cannot continue, but instead of eking it out, they compress the events together. And that's what a good montage SHOULD do I reckon: push the story forward in an economical way. Yet in so many of the scripts I see montages seem to be a series of images, in sequence: characters will be eating their dinner or having showers typically, though I've also seen them delivering packages etc in a way that could be cut and yet no one would notice. So why have a montage? Tell a story with your montage, thus push the whole story on.

Watch the clip here.

My thoughts on montage

John August’s thoughts on montage

Danny Stack’s thoughts on montage

If you have a squizz at all the links above, you'll see everyone has slightly differing views - however, the general rule of thumb appears to be the notion that montages need a specific purpose in the story and need to be as dramatic as possible too. As with everything, don't stick 'em in because you feel like it (oo er).
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INTERCUT

Intercut is not the same as flashback. The reason scribes can get confused is because little "pieces" of flashback are sometimes inserted into scenes to remind us of who a character is or what has happened previously. The Crow does this when Eric breaks into Gideon's Pawn Shop to search for his fiancee's engagement ring. He has both a flashback in this scene when he recalls his finacee finding the ring, but one of those little "reminders" is intercut to remind us who the character Funboy is. In other words then, an intercut like this is a TOOL for the audience, an "anchor" if you will. The reason we know this part of the sequence then is an intercut is because Funboy is seen from Shelley's POV in that fragment, not Eric's. We see Funboy because out of the gang, it is this guy Eric will focus on and kill next - thus the story is pushed on and the use of the device is justified. Watch the sequence here.

Apart from those instances of intercut-as-reminder then, intercut is mostly used during phone calls where the writer wants to show both sides of the call. Very straight forward and means you don't have to keep writing millions of sluglines which make the page look messy. I really cannot imagine why this device would be "frowned on", but perhaps it's because some phone calls go on for pages and pages in spec scripts (never a great idea) or because the narrative overly relies on phone calls to keep it going. Whatever the case, moderation is always key.

How to show intercuts between phone calls, etc

John August’s thoughts on Intercut
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DREAM SEQUENCE

I don't see many dream sequences in the specs I read and this consistently surprises me. I think a good dream sequence can do wonders for a narrative - yet writers often confess they think they're a bit daft (perhaps this is down to Alice In Wonderland or Bobby Ewing's death in Dallas?). When I do see dream sequence, I often wonder what the point of them are or they tell me what is going to happen next.

There is a reason horrors and thrillers (especially those bordering on the supernatural) use dream sequence more than your dramas or comedies: it's because dream sequence offers a fantastic basis in horror and thriller for shock value. Dreams often start of perfectly natural in these sequences, as if it's "reality" within that film: then suddenly - there is murder, mayhem or something even more shocking and/or disgusting.

That is the primary purpose of the dream sequence - give us something we do not expect (it doesn't have to be scary either if you're in a genre that ISN'T horror or thriller remember). The secondary purpose of the dream sequence gives us the character's motivation again: for example, we see The American Werewolf's family is his very famous dreams and his fears for them if he was to return home - feeding into the fact that he DOESN'T and dies in London (but not before phoning home to say goodbye!). Ripley's dream chestburst in Aliens portrays her post-traumatic stress at her initial brush with the Alien in the first movie, asking us to believe she is facing her fears head-on by returning.

American Werewolf in London Dream Sequence(sound not great on this one I’m afraid)

Ripley’s chestburst in Aliens
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Any further suggestions? UPDATE: Oh, forgot to say - spoilers are welcome in the comments too given the nature of this discussion, but don't forget to warn other readers on what you're going to reveal.