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Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Makes "Star Quality"? By Eleanor Ball

I've been hearing a lot of things about Jennifer Aniston recently, which got me thinking. What kind of noise do you make when you hear the name “Jennifer Aniston”?I hear “urrrgh” or “yaaaay!” or “gaaaah” or “squeee!” or “SHHH”. Turns out that for such a supposedly vanilla streak of innocuous American camera-fodder she's quite a controversial figure. (This blog post, by the way, is about her career, not her personal life.)

I've been asking folk what they think of her, and the noises do indeed come before the coherent verbal opinions. Sometimes it's a non-committal “mehh”, usually meaning they remember her from Friends but they don't have any opinion on her, but often it's a far more committed sound, either very negative or very positive. Hollywood certainly thinks we have a great positive reaction to her. Because, as a unit, we kind of do. Innit.

She's nice. Look at her hair and everything. She leapt into the limelight with Friends, where spoilt and selfish Rachel turned into a sympathetic and appealing flag-bearer for young city women. Jennifer Aniston became synonymous with Rachel, and because Friends was such a broad and inoffensive series Jennifer Aniston became a role model for young girls.

I grew up watching Friends, and, like everyone else in the universe, my favourite characters were Chandler and Phoebe. But as an adult I decided that Chandler was self-righteous and Phoebe was just mean, and Ross and Rachel became my favourite characters, because they were the most real to me in an albeit idealised sitcom – and Rachel most of all. And I didn't give credit to the scriptwriters, but to Jennifer Aniston.


You know how people say Jennifer Aniston “just plays Rachel” in every film she's in? Bruce Almighty, Marley & Me, and so on. It's because she very much made the Rachel character her own, independent even of scriptwriters and directors, and that's why I give her credit for the attractive traits of the character. So Rachel married Ross, lived happily ever after... then they went on a break and Rachel went on to become Rom Com queen.

Therefore, you can't really like Rachel and dislike Jennifer Aniston. Unless! You're judging Jennifer Aniston on what you imagine her to be like. We all know that the media reports information (and misinformation) to us in the shape of fully-formed opinions, so our judgements on celebrities have to come from our own personal insights. She seems smug, or plastic, or robotic, or prissy, or punch-drunk...

Or maybe she just seems too... widespread. She's in so many similar films. But at the same time, it was inevitable after Friends that she'd be typecast, so it's an admirable ability to be able to embrace this. She thrives in her typecast form. She does what she says on the tin. And what a good-looking tin. So why so many negative noises directed at her? Over to you...

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Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith's, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Simple Symbolism

So... here's one I prepared earlier!

Many spec writers want to introduce symbolism in their scripts. And why not? Sometimes the best writing we see "hints" at other things; there are multiple ways of "reading" it -- and us screenwriterly types can pat ourselves on the back for "seeing" it.

When it comes to symbolism of any kind, think LAYERS, like an onion. You can do this any way you want: visual metaphors, allusions, motifs, character traits. There are no rules, remember. However, the biggest issue I see when it comes to symbolism:

It's not clear what the screenwriter is actually doing.

Let's go back to that notion of an onion. It's round, right? It looks like an onion. Well "durr" you say... And this is how your script should be: it's a script, it's got a story, we should know what the story IS - however you structure it, linear or non-linear. So if you have a story about a big huge alien eating everyone's ass, that's what your script IS: its top layer, if you will.

However, too many specs are so into the symbolism, they forget about keeping the plot simple. Taking into account a produced film then, ALIEN is as I've just described. A monster gets on board a ship and starts picking people off, one by one. Easy to comprehend, just like it's easy to look at that onion and say what it is, regardless of what language we're speaking. Basically:

EVERYBODY SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET YOUR STORY AT FACE VALUE: that top layer is plot, pure and simple: "in this story [this event or thing happens]".

So, you have the "top layer" ANYONE can get... so now let's look at the NEXT layer, those all-important characters. Very often scribes want to have SYMBOLIC CHARACTERS - representations of good and evil; God and the Devil; Adam and Eve; happiness and sadness; commerce and art; communism and capitalism and so on (and yes, I've seen all of these, many times). And why not? But too frequently they're so in love with these representations and what they mean in the grand theme of their work, they forget to essentially write the characters as actual people and audience can relate to.

So let's look at ALIEN again. But let's step aside from Ripley; she is NOT the catalyst for the events that happen in that first movie, it's not actually her actions that kick everything off -- instead, it's John Hurt's character, Kane. An English guy, very curious, loves himself a bit, thinks he's better than the rest of his crewmates, so the same rules don't apply to him. We even see him wake up first from hypersleep, even though he's not the protagonist.

That's Kane on the surface... but Kane underneath? Check it out:

BECAUSE he thinks he's better than the rest, because he thinks the same rules don't apply to him, he disobeys orders - AND TAKES EVERYONE INTO THE PATH OF THE CREATURE... but not only that: look at his name!! Kane = Cain. What does Cain stand for from the bible? DEATH - he is a murderer. Whilst Kane is not a murderer in ALIEN, he DOES bring death into the ship. Also, In the dictionary, to "raise Cain" is to "cause a commotion". Without Kane, there would be no movie cos they'd have never come into contact with the facehugger.

But guess what? You don't need to get Kane's name is like "Cain" or anything else to appreciate what Kane *is* in this movie - which is the doom of everyone else. That second layer is just cool and good writing.

So in other words: don't be too clever when it comes to symbolism. You need the "obvious" stuff first ANYONE can get... Add the fancy stuff in that second layer for others to get... like film students and screenwriters.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Great Characterisation of Hayao Miyazaki by Eleanor Ball

I recently saw Ponyo! It's a cute and fantastical animated children's film based on the story of the little mermaid.

When people think of Hayao Miyazaki they often think of the beauty and mythology of his films. If you've seen Spirited Away I'd be surprised if you haven't been genuinely moved by the scene in which a train ripples softly over a one-inch deep lake.

His films, both written and directed by him, are perhaps too beautiful, because it can overwhelm some sparks of genius that normally we'd be appalled to miss. Namely the strength of the protagonists.

Miyazaki's girl characters are distinctly ordinary. Normally mousey-haired and scrawny, they're not the disturbingly coy and leggy little girls of many animes, they don't tilt their heads and pout, and they are extremely recognisable. Mainly because Miyazaki was inspired by girls he knows in real life. Hence San's roguish grumpiness (Princess Mononoke) and 10-year-old Chihiro's habit of tugging at her t-shirt (Spirited Away). Little quirks you could only get from watching the people around you.

Similarly, very young anime characters have a habit of being flawlessly and frustratingly cute, but Miyazaki knows that small kids can be a lot more than that. In Ponyo, little Sōsuke needs the world to be as gentle as he is, and such is his big heart that it at one point causes his brilliantly immature young mum to tackle him in amazed adoration, delighted that she's created a human being she admires so much.

As for Ponyo herself, she's not the delicate little daffodil that many animes would have her be. She's a wild and happy handful, and in her song is described not as a beautiful princess but as “a little girl with a round tummy!”. Anyone who's had experience with little girls knows that they're perfectly capable of stampeding.

Miyazaki's characters are more alive than most live-action characters. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get people to believe this. They're bogged down with the word “cartoon”. They say, let's watch something serious, let's watch something real. So is Kick Ass more serious than Watership Down? Is Dumb and Dumber more real than Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis?

My point isn't that animation is generally more real than live action (or even equally real), because I don't believe that to be the case. My point is simply that animation doesn't automatically denote a lack of seriousness or reality, and Miyazaki's films are a perfect example of that. Miyazaki writes animated films because the real world doesn't have the means to construct the walking castles and giant wolves that rule his imagination, and in my opinion the real world couldn't do it justice even with a billion dollar budget.

Most importantly, Miyazaki's stories and characters don't lose out by being animated. Live action couldn't make them more real or alive. I know that anime fans claim that anyway, but you can trust me because I'm not really a big anime fan! I mean, I did join the Anime Society briefly at university, but that's only because they had hats and Maltesers.

So if you've avoided Hayao Miyazaki's work because you don't really like animation, then battle through the barrier! It's important, ya know. Start with Spirited Away, then try to write a protagonist even half as real as Chihiro.

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Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith's, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Swearing: New ****ing Rules! By Eleanor Ball

Beware! The below post is about swearing, so it contains a good deal of norty language.

Remember South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? I was 12 years old when that came out so I could relate to the movie's plot about a bunch of kids going to see a R-rated movie. But while I was watching it, my aunt was in the background. Ironing. Stony-faced as the song "Uncle Fucka" blared from the TV...

I cowered in embarrassment and couldn't enjoy the movie. And sometimes, these days, I see people I'M watching a film with cower at swearwords! And it's annoying! I cower at people cowering. Swearing is never meant to turn you off a film, but sometimes it just does. It can get in the way. It can be out-of-place and conspicuous. And swearing can be so over-used in a film that when it's intended to finally be used for emphasis and drama, you can quite happily munch popcorn through the stream of expletives, so desensitised to the swearing that they might as well be saying "gosh darn it, you killed my father, you naughty little silly" for all the emphasis is worth.

So the lesson is don't use loads and loads of swearwords. But... but...! What about the much-beloved Four Weddings and a Funeral "fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck!" intro? Or one of the most acclaimed scenes in The Wire, which features substantial dialogue restricted completely to a single expletive:



Two very different scenes. Funny and sweet and engagingly farcical with the former, and witty and canny and cool with the latter. Both very audacious, effective, and enamouring. All because of the swearing.

And hopefully, no matter how clean-mouthed you are in the real world, neither of those examples make you cower. On the contrary, hopefully they make you think "this is fucking well-written".

So, some swearing makes you bored and cower, and some swearing makes you curse in adoring enthusiasm. So it's not about the audience, it's about the writer. A good writer can turn prudes on. In which case, I think the answer to this is to introduce some kind of FASCIST SCHEME to the scriptwriting industry and DISALLOW some writers the ability to use swearwords. I know there are already stringent swearing rules in place, but they're about taste and decency – and who cares about taste and decency? I'm talking about enjoyment here, and stopping people from cowering in embarrassment. So, fascist rules, independent of ratings and certificates and the watershed, based on the talent of the writer.

If you're a pretentious little scriptwriting student looking to make your first TV series (like me!) you can have many bastards, some shits, and one fuck. If you're a devilish up-and-comer on BBC3 or HBO, you can have two fucks and a cunt. And if you're a writer of The Wire, Deadwood, or The Thick of It, and therefore use swearing as a measured and almost mathematical character device, then you can go fucking nuts.

Them's the new "rules".
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Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith's, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

ON THIS BLOG BEFORE ABOUT SWEARING:

F*ck Off You C*nts: Swearing in Scripts

Audience: Who Is Your Script FOR?

Don't Waste My Mutha****ing Time!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Screenwriting Tip: Audio Description For The Blind By Eleanor Ball

I've just discovered a brilliant new source of writerly inspiration. And if you've not already discovered it yourself, I recommend you plunge right in:

Audio description for the blind.It happened the other day when I was checking out old episodes of The Apprentice (yep, I'm still livin' large and workin' hard). The recent series is the first I've ever seen, and I'd noticed no sign of Alan Sugar being anywhere near as abrasive as people warned me, so I thought maybe he was worse in previous series and wanted to sample this for myself. Anyway, it took me a few minutes of great confusion before I figured out that one of the episodes was narrated for the blind.

“We sweep high over the London skyline and the sun sets behind a glass building, the world reflected in its windows. In the boardroom, Sir Alan sits stony-faced. He taps his fingers, and glowers as the candidates enter”.

That would be at home in a script. In fact, that would make an ideal description in a script. It's lucid, it's provocative, and it's succinct. It's Hemingway!

“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees”.

Adjectives are often so irresistible to a writer. I've always thought of them as dog treats. Every now and again the mysterious and tortuously fabricated God of Writing will chuck us an adjective, and we'll eat it right up, and savour it, and probably slobber a lot. And if the God of Writing drops the bag of treats, we'll gobble every single one of them up off the kitchen floor.It's taken me years and years to finally think of adjectives as treats rather than A HUMAN RIGHT. Instead of describing a character as “a cat-like Cuban” I'd describe him as a swarthy, sinuous, streamlined prowling panther with a loping elegance and a darting élan, and – WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN.

Audio description for the blind is a spring of scriptwriting advice.

It's for an audience who can't see (or have trouble seeing) what's on the screen, so narration has to be very clear. Simple and recognisable. Audio description has taught me that description should also be somewhat clichéd. Not “CAN” be clichéd; “SHOULD” be clichéd. Don't let the audience inwardly backtrack because a description is trying to be too clever. Maybe you don't have to say she looks equine. You could just say she looks like a horse. More people know what that means.

Audio description also has to be incredibly succinct, because there are limited pockets of silence or incidental music in which to narrate. So this teaches you what's important and what bloomin' isn't. At one point in the aforementioned Apprentice episode, the candidates enter the boardroom, and the narrator doesn't describe Katy flicking her hair, or Simon strutting; it says “the men enter the boardroom first, leaving Katy to follow behind”. It picks out what's most important.

I don't know who writes these audio descriptions, but their work feels like a scriptwriting masterclass. Maybe there's this whole unknown and undervalued pocket of writing talent out there. Or maybe Hemingway didn't die in the 60s.

“The driver stopped his horse and lowered the metal sign on his meter. The top of the carriage was up and there were drops of water on the driver’s coat. His varnished hat was shining in the wet. We sat back in the seat together and the top of the carriage made it dark”.

Mmmmmm. He makes such gorgeous use of those dog treats.---------------
Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith's, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Write What You Know? Then Write About Being A Writer! : P by Eleanor Ball

If you were at the Goldsmiths MA Scriptwriting Showcase last Thursday, thank you for attending! It was wonderful to see so many people there. The showcase was a great success, and we're especially proud of it because we're the first year to do it and we organised the lot on our own, from the casting to the gaffer tape. If you have any queries about the writers, actors or scripts, please hit me up here or on Facebook.

Anyway, enough about my class's brilliant initiative that makes you want to hire us instantly (which it does). There were lots of writers at the showcase exchanging tales and tips, which reminds me of the most common writing tip on the face of the planet.

Write what you know. A piece of advice given to every new writer, every old writer, and every writer who needs to get back on track having just penned a screenplay about narcoleptic racist hobgoblins from space.

Of course what's meant by that piece of advice is not just physical stuff. You don't have to just write about your job or hometown or family; but your opinions and emotions and values too. Write what you know. The problem with that is that every writer has one thing that every single one of us -- without exception -- knows, and should, according to the advice, therefore write about. And that's... BEING A WRITER.

As a result, sometimes it seems like every second protagonist out there is a writer of some sort, a journalist or a blogger or a novelist or a scriptwriter. They're usually quite warm, modest, wry characters (Dan in Real Life, Extras, Sex and the City, Invention of Lying), or greatly romanticised by their humble art (Moulin Rouge!, Little Women, Murder, She Wrote), or dramatised by their isolation (The Shining) or ego (Garth Marenghi's Darkplace). And even then, when we've finished writing about ourselves, there's still our heroes to write about, many of whom are -- naturally -- writers. So there's Finding Neverland and Miss Potter and Wilde and Shakespeare in Love -- and Marley and Me and Julie and Julia -- and Carry on Writing ("is that a pen in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?!" "No, it's a laptop").

I think there are plenty of characters that don't HAVE to be writers. Like Jeff Daniels's character in The Squid and the Whale, for instance. Or, more recently, Eddie in Limitless. If you haven't seen it yet, Limitless is a fun swishy thriller which heavily relies on the annoying myth that we only use 20% of our brainbits. I enjoyed Limitless more than I thought I would, mainly because my expectations were lowered dramatically by everything I was ever told about it, but one thing I did frown at was the profession of the main character, Eddie.

To be honest, I think Eddie is just a writer because his name is Eddie. It's a writer's name. He has scraggly hair and lies on the sofa a lot. Eddie gets dumped by his girlfriend (oh, can only be a writer then), and can't finish his book, but then he gets a magic bean and can finish his book because he gets super brainpower. Then we never see his profession as a writer again. He becomes a stock trader.

It would've been far more interesting if Eddie was, say, a nurse who becomes a House-esque diagnostic genius, a law clerk who trumps the lawyer, an advertiser who sells the world the crappest product imaginable; or how about a philosophy lecturer?

There's a million jobs in which to be a loser-turned-superman. Not everyone HAS to be a writer.

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Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith's, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.