Things I Learned From… Interstellar

In many ways, Interstellar is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film – a visually impressive panorama of space and time through which mere humans must fight their way back to what matters to them. Unfortunately, it also seems to have distilled his primary flaw as a writer – a lack of capacity to handle real human emotions.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work. The Prestige might just be my favourite film of all time, and Inception always features pretty high in my ever-changing Top 10. And the space-faring epic has always been a place where logic, brains, and scientific experience is valued above human relationships.

But Interstellar is, ostensibly, a movie about how human emotions transcend space and time. Which forces us to ask the question – why are most human emotions in the movie belittled or ignored?

Some spoilers follow. Obviously.

The driving relationship in the movie is between former engineer/shuttle pilot Cooper and his young daughter Murphy, whom he leaves behind when he’s selected for a deep-space mission that might just save mankind. And this relationship works just fine. He’s consumed by guilt and the desire to keep his promise and return, despite the time distortions that push them further and further apart.

Meanwhile, Murphy grows up under the tutelage of a family friend, pursuing science that might save more of mankind, both hating her father and following in his footsteps – entirely plausible for a conflicted child abandoned by a father she still idolises.

But Murphy isn’t Cooper’s only child. He has a son, Tom: whom he never mentions again after leaving Earth, and who exists in the Earth-bound storyline simply to be an obstacle to Murphy in act three. We’re led to believe Cooper’s relationship with Tom relationship is pretty good – and yet Cooper never expresses any desire to get back to his son, only his daughter? What’s that about?

And Cooper’s not the only one trying to get back to someone. Fellow astronaut Brand is in love with one of the pioneers on the target planets, and wants them to divert course to his planet to see if he’s alive. Cooper has already been blatantly making decisions based on what will get him home to his daughter more quickly, so you might expect the film – a film about love and family – to support that urge.

Nope. Brand is given a borderline hysterical speech about love reaching across space and time, and her argument is roundly rejected by Cooper. They go where he wants – a choice that exposes them to a psychopath on an uninhabitable world and kills a crew member. So it’s okay for Cooper to make mission-critical choices based on his emotions, but not for Brand? Why? Because she’s an emotional female?

By the end of the movie, Nolan has dug himself into a hole. Cooper’s supreme desire is to get back to his daughter, and the lesson he’s learned is (apparently) that he should never have left her – but if he hadn’t, the human race would never have survived. Plot and emotional through-line are directly opposed to one another.

So the final scenes are an ugly head-on collision of conflicting plot beats and emotions. Matthew McConaughey performs acting gymnastics, trying to plausibly send his past self information that will trigger the mission in one scene, and telling him not to go in the next. When Cooper’s finally reunited with an aged Murphy, she immediately tells him to get in a spaceship and go join Brand – a woman with whom he has no emotional connection beyond being workmates – on a barely habitable planet, because… well, who knows? It makes no damn sense at all.

So what’s the moral here? Make sure your plot and your emotional through-line are compatible. If your hero says family is the most important thing, make sure he acts like he means it – caring about his whole family, supporting others when they make similar choices, and ending the movie surrounded by what matters to him.

Writing To A Budget

It always seems like the number one complaint in the British film industry is money. There’s never enough, we cry. If we only had the money that Hollywood has, things would be very different…
Perhaps there’s some truth in that. Certainly the kinds of movies that we make in the UK are restricted by a combination of budget and audience – horror has a steady audience and low budgets, so we make it, whereas sci-fi has higher budgets and the audience is less reliable, so we don’t.
But to be honest, the money that really matters is the money spent on advertising, securing distribution, and establishing a brand – and that’s outside my experience, so I won’t be looking at that.
Our subject today, another of the questions I’ve been asked on Twitter, is how to write to a budget – or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as ‘how to make the best use of the budget that you have’.
The first thing you need to do is be aware of what’s expensive and what isn’t. Special effects are costly, but not anywhere near as expensive as they used to be. Extras are expensive, so crowd scenes might need to be minimised. Any kind of specific weather is problematic: if it absolutely has to be sunny for this scene, shooting may have to be delayed, while artificial rain or fog are expensive.
Exterior scenes are more expensive than interiors. Recognisable locations are horrifically difficult: shooting in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square will cost you in permits, security personnel, and probably overtime if you shoot early or late in the day to minimize problems with bystanders.
So think of ways to get round this. Can you use stock footage of Times Square, then a close-up of your actor standing in a doorway that’s actually somewhere else? Can you show the rainy day by having an actor look out of a rain-streaked window (that you actually hosed down on an otherwise dry day)? What about using existing crowds? It will be cheaper to film at the real County Fair than to stage your own…
Bear in mind that the real cost of multiple locations isn’t the number of locations, but the moves between them. So shooting in five different rooms in the same house is significantly cheaper than shooting in five different houses. Make inventive use of the locations you have – shoot with different angles, different lighting conditions – and ensure that you never go to a location for just one scene.
Reducing the number of minor characters also cuts your budget. Instead of the characters meeting a waitress, a barman and a hotel clerk, can all three of those scenes involve the waitress? That’s one wage to pay instead of three – and a more interesting character that might attract a better actor!
Of course, the problem with all this is that all low-budget films end up looking the same – three people in a room arguing about something. How can you avoid your movie looking obviously ‘cheap’?
Think imaginatively about interior locations. Instead of your three criminals hiding out in a bland hotel room, what if they were in an empty fifteenth-floor office? Or a barn full of hay and farm tools? Or they’d broken into a library by night? With a good location manager and some luck, none of those locations need be more expensive than the hotel room, and they’re a lot more interesting.
Exteriors are more expensive, but they can also be more variable and flexible. The same patch of woodland might give you a dark copse, green leafy trees, a sunny clearing, and a clear view down the hill. That’s four very different scenes in the same location. And judicious use of exteriors will immediately make your movie feel higher-budget (nothing feels cheaper than a movie that never steps outside).
Pick your moments, and make them count. Three minutes of a really good CGI monster is far more effective than twenty minutes of a badly-rendered one. One battle scene with a hundred extras may work better for your story than five scenes with twenty extras each.
Never repeat anything. Not a plot beat, not a line of dialogue or the subject of a conversation, not a motivation or an action. Never repeating yourself is a good habit to form anyway, but it’s particularly important in low-budget work, where we’re seeing the same faces and locations on the screen for the whole story. The last thing you want is to make the audience feel they’ve seen this scene before.
And the best advice of all? Good writing is free. Make your characters compelling and your plot interesting and unpredictable, and no one will even notice they’re watching a low-budget movie…

Wolfblood Season Three: Endings And Beginnings!

So Wolfblood season three has come to its dramatic conclusion! We really tried to do something different this season – to widen the Wolfblood world and to bring some resolution to a lot of long-running storylines and character relationships – and I hoped you enjoyed watching it as much as we enjoyed writing and making it.
After three seasons, we’ve reached that inevitable point where the original cast begin to think about going off to work on new projects. Indeed, that’s already happened. As you will have noticed, Aimee Kelly, who plays Maddy, decided to leave the show at the end of season two to pursue other roles.
Without Maddy to lead the pack, the show has changed dramatically – and you know what? That’s exactly what should happen. Change is the lifeblood of drama. All of our favourite moments in TV series, if we really think about them, are driven by change. Any show that churns out the same plots and the same character arcs season after season will stagnate and die.
If we are recommissioned for a fourth season – and as yet, there’s no word about that – I dare say that some other cast members will decide to move on as well. (And no, there’s no point in bombarding me with questions about who’s going and who’s staying! I don’t know at this stage, and I wouldn’t be releasing that information yet even if I did…)
So if the fourth season does happen, it will introduce new characters – and some familiar ones, of course! – and new situations and new facets of the Wolfblood world.
I look at this as being an exciting new adventure – and if we get the chance to set off on it, I hope that you’ll come along!

Wolfblood BAFTA Nominations

Wolfblood season two has been nominated for two awards at this year’s Children’s BAFTAs – best drama, and I’m nominated for best writer! The awards will be announced at a ceremony in London on Sunday 23rd November.

None of this would have happened without our fantastic team – production staff, crew, cast and writers – and I’m hugely grateful for all the hard work they’ve put into the show.

However, we’re also nominated for another award – and that’s where you can help! The BAFTA Kids Vote is a separate series of awards that are voted on electronically by kids aged 7 – 14. And you can vote for Wolfblood in the TV category! Go to http://www.baftakidsvote.org/vote/ to cast your vote for Wolfblood, and all the other categories too…

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

All Aboard The Story Engine

A while ago, I asked Twitter for suggestions for blog posts, and one of the subjects that came up was the story engine.

As you might imagine, the story engine is the thing that’s pulling your narrative train up the hill, the reason why things are happening in the first place. It can take many forms – a specific goal, a threat to the protagonist or those he loves, a ticking clock. It can be extremely obvious – there’s no doubting what the story engine of Die Hard or Pacific Rim is – or, in a mumblecore or slice of life movie, it can be remarkably nebulous. But in any good story, it’s there, moving events along.

So, particularly if you’re one of those writers who starts off with character first, how do you find a story engine that will keep your narrative on the tracks? (Note to self: enough with the train metaphors!)

The best story engines are derived from the core of who your protagonist is. The story engine for Aliens is ‘stay alive and destroy the alien infestation’. But it arises out of the core of who Ellen Ripley is: a mother who has lost her child. That drives Ripley to protect the orphaned girl Newt, and it’s reflected back at her in the form of the Alien Queen, also a mother trying blindly to protect her offspring. The desire to stay alive, to protect your family (the company, the ‘family’ of marines, Newt) and wipe out whatever threatens it, is a powerful, primal story engine.

Which brings us to another property of the good story engine: it’s a primal desire. The screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder said that the best goals are the ones a caveman would understand. Survival, protecting family and tribe, physical security (money, property, job), love/sex, and the desire for some kind of personal fulfillment or artistic expression – these are the basic needs any human would recognize, and if they drive your story, you’re off to a good start.

For example, the fictional Mark Zuckerberg depicted in The Social Network might be a difficult character for us to empathize with, because his goal in founding Facebook is obscure. So Aaron Sorkin imposes a story engine that we’ll all understand by opening the movie with Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. That encourages us to filter everything he does through that rejection, to see it as a desire to win her back, or at least convince her she was wrong about him. With sex as our story engine, suddenly the rather dry story of how a smart guy founded a big company becomes primal, and accessible.

And the best story engines are broad enough to be flexible. Your story is going to go through a lot of twists and turns, victories and defeats, and hopefully a few unpredictable surprises. So your story engine needs to be broad enough to encompass changes of short-term goal, and the inevitable, necessary transformations your protagonist will undergo.

Unless we can feel the same story engine pulling us down the tracks, all the way through the narrative, the story will feel fragmented and confusing. The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure you have a smooth transition from want to need to goal to story engine. Take Die Hard: McClane’s ‘want’ is to spend Christmas persuading his wife to give up her job and come back to New York with him. His need is to realise her desires are as important as his. His goal is to save her: and the story engine, the fact that he’s the only person in any position to do so, is a mechanism for him to both realise his goal and move from want to need.

So, get that story engine working for you!

Candy Is Dandy, But Scripts Are Quicker

I was talking to someone in the industry a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised by how positive this person was about the fact that I’d just written a new feature script on spec.  “You would not believe,” this professional said, “how many writers simply don’t write scripts on spec.”

I confess, I was a bit confused. I thought that was, well, our job.  “So what do they do all day?” I asked.

“Oh, a lot of them just write outlines. Draft after draft of outlines, while they wait for the project to sell. The fact is, if they wrote a spec, the projects probably would sell. But they don’t. And meanwhile, the people writing specs sell projects…”

I may have paraphrased a little, but the basics of the conversation are true. Scripts sell where pitches and outlines won’t, because they give people a clearer idea of what it is they’re buying – not to mention demonstrating your commitment to the project. Personally, I’ve just this year had my first ever project optioned from a pitch. Everything else, whether it got made in the end or not, has been optioned from a spec script.

So the advice is clear. Go forth and write scripts, because scripts sell.