Things I Learned From… Daredevil

Being laid up sick, I watched Netflix’s new Daredevil TV series over the weekend. Now, a lot of extremely valid things have been said by others about the clichéd gender roles of the main characters, the lack of females in bit parts, and the nebulous nature of Hell’s Kitchen as a community. So I’ll leave those alone for the time being.

But one writing-related thing that occurred to me is – one of the hardest things to do when adapting source material is to change the time period it’s set in. Not because it’s hard to add modern technology or modern language. Nor because different presidents, wars and economic crashes will need to be referenced. There are always plenty of those to choose from.

No, the difficulty with moving a story from one decade to another is that the emotional meaning of things changes.

For example: if a character in the 1950’s buys a TV, they’re buying the future. Access to the shiny modern world of media, information, mass culture. If a character in 2015 buys a TV, it’s just another electronic box to add to the many in his house – and he’s probably only going to use it to play Xbox anyway!

The Daredevil that’s been transferred to our screens is supposedly taking place right now, but the emotional meaning of the stories is mired in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re full of concepts and story elements that have totally changed meaning.

Boxing, for example. Fighting your way to fame and fortune was once the only way for a working-class boy to get out of the ghetto – but now boxing is a niche sport regarded with abhorrence by some. The athletes have gone to MMA instead, and the big money’s in televised wrestlers in gold lycra.

And how about newspapers? The series pays lip service to the idea that bloggers are taking over and print journalism is struggling, but the idea that a small daily newspaper could still survive without being a loss-making part of a larger conglomerate is hard to believe. Now, newspapers are what your grandparents’ generation read (and alas, may well die with them).

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Without thinking about it at all, acting on instinct and what you’ve seen on TV – what year did Matt Murdoch’s father die?

I would have guessed 1965. 1970 at the most. From the flashback scenes, from the idea of crooked bets and boxers taking a dive for the mob… The Sixties, right?

But Matt was what, eight to ten years old in those flashbacks? And as a newly qualified attorney, he surely can’t be aged over thirty now…

Which means his father died in approximately 1995.

Did any of those flashbacks feel like 1995 to you? The year of the Oklahoma truck bombing, Toy Story and Batman Forever at the cinema, the first DVDs, and Windows 95? I’m thinking not…

Well, you may say, does any of this matter?

I think it does. Because when you aren’t carefully examining what assumptions and emotional meanings you’re bringing with you from the source material, then you’re likely to bring assumptions you never meant to.

Does Matt have no significant female figures in his childhood because the writers have unthinkingly imported the dated idea that only men can be mentors? Do the women in his present fulfill highly gendered roles – secretary, researcher, nurse (not even a doctor?) – because those were imported, unexamined and un-translated into modern equivalents, from the source material?

Comic book heroes are like Robin Hood or King Arthur: they need to be re-moulded to address the needs of each new generation. Daredevil the television series was under no obligation to stick with any of the comics. Exactly as with Robin Hood and King Arthur, all previous versions remain intact, and there’ll be another version along eventually anyway. They could have addressed the dissonance these details create, but they chose to stick with what was familiar.

So if you ever find yourself adapting source material into a different decade, don’t make the same mistake…

Better Safe Than Sorry

As many of you will have heard on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere, script storage site Scripped has suffered a system collapse, apparently resulting in the deletion of everything stored there, and has subsequently shut down.
There seem to be a lot of answered questions surrounding the site, its owners, and the technical issues, but there’s one thing that’s very clear – no writer should be relying on one site to store their work, especially one outside their control.
It may seem boring, but paying attention to practicalities is going to save you a lot of time and effort at some point. So what are some of the practical steps you should be taking to safeguard your work and your screenwriting career?

Back-ups. They don’t have to be expensive or complicated. I have several years of work backed up on two separate pen drives, and they’re extremely affordable now. If nothing else, print a copy and keep it safe. Retyping from a hard copy is a nuisance, but it’s better than losing work.

Organise drafts. The last thing you want is to save an old draft over the top of a newer one. Come up with a system to differentiate between drafts – date, draft number, both – and stick to it.

Auto-backups are great. Losing the last half-hour’s work because you didn’t hit save is the last thing you want at the end of a long day. Many programs can be set to save work automatically every five minutes without interrupting your workflow, so make sure you turn that feature on.

Have a system for non-draft material too. Losing notes, scribbles and research material can slow you down too, so come up with a system to keep each project separate, contained and safe.

Defunct projects don’t always stay defunct. That script you half-finished five years ago but couldn’t quite crack? You may work out how to turn it into a sure-fire hit any day now. So make sure old projects don’t get deleted and thrown away, accidentally or deliberately.

Upgrades are dangerous. I lost several scripts when upgrading from an old desktop to my first laptop. Still don’t really know how! So ensure everything that’s supposed to move gets moved…

Don’t rely on others to keep back-ups for you! Your producers, your agent, sites like Scripped – don’t assume they’re going to be able to save your ass if you lose a draft. They might, but then again they might not – and you’re going to look like a right idiot having to ask them. Take care of your own scripts, and they will take care of you.

Things I Learned From… Foreign Movies

The annual Wales One World Festival is on at the moment, bringing movies from all corners of the world to all corners of Wales, so this seems like a good time to talk about what watching movies from overseas can teach you as a writer.

There are a lot of positives to watching movies from outside your culture. They’ll often be shot in locations you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed, showing you new visual possibilities. They may showcase the possibilities offered by language: being multilingual, perhaps, or using no dialogue at all. Indeed, the film I’m going to see tonight is a Ukranian film in sign language with no subtitles…

They’ll also remind you that not everyone thinks like you or lives like you. Like historical fiction and science fiction, overseas movies unfold another culture to us, showing us the diversity of human morality, belief and thought. And that’s a wake-up call for writers who think everyone perceives the world they do, and acts accordingly. What if one of your characters thought about life the way a Bedouin tribesman or a Nigerian street beggar does, and acted on that? I guarantee your film would become more interesting if they did…

But the most important thing you can learn from foreign movies is that wants and needs are universal. In every culture, people want to be loved, respected, successful and happy. Whatever route they take to try to achieve those things, and whatever form those things take in their society, their inner desires are easy to relate to. And it’s those inner, deep desires that drive any good character in any story…

Wolfblood Season Four Confirmed!

As you may have heard on Twitter, CBBC have officially commissioned a fourth season of Wolfblood. So there’ll be more Wolfblood fun and action on your TV screens as soon as we can make it happen!

Since this has only just been decided, I have NO DETAILS AT ALL on which cast members will return, when the series will be filmed, when it will be shown in the UK – or indeed, very much else about the fourth season.

(Though, for the avoidance of doubt, what we’ve been saying for months now still stands – Aimee Kelly (Maddy) has left the series, so whoever else may or may be not be in the series, Maddy will not be returning.)

The one thing I can confirm is the writing team. Wolfblood veterans Sophie Petzal and Neil Jones will be returning, and we’ll be joined by new arrivals Furquan Akhtar and Matt Sinclair. I’ll be writing four episodes, and everyone else two each, giving us a twelve episode season this year.

Over the next few days and weeks, I’ll be updating this post with more information as those decisions are made. Until then, there’s not a lot of point asking questions, because if I have the answer, I will have updated this post to include it – and if it isn’t in this post, I don’t know yet!

More details to follow as soon as I can…

Things I Learned From… Halt And Catch Fire

Halt And Catch Fire is the thrilling story of a 1980’s software company finding itself building the world’s first laptop computer.

No, really, that’s it. It’s some guys – and crucially, some girls – trying to force their way into a market dominated by huge companies who protect their near-monopoly with some ugly tactics. It’s a story from the Financial Times, not the human interest section.

Doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a show, does it? Oh, sure, we have the irony of knowing that now, 35 years later, most of us have forgotten the name IBM, and those nimble, adventurous competitors have themselves become behemoths. But apart from that, what makes this show so utterly compelling?

Secrets.

From the moment the mysterious Joe MacMillan appears at this backwater business and puts his complex plan into play, we know he has secrets. He quit IBM and vanished for a year, presumed dead – what was he really doing? Who is the father lurking in the background, whom he seems to be trying to free himself from? Where did he get those scars? Is he a technological visionary or a glorified salesman? Why has he picked the people he’s picked, and will working with him save them or destroy them?

And that’s what’s keeping us watching. He could be building laptops, washing machines, or hula hoops. This could be 1980. 1920, or the distant future. None of that matters. because what we care about is what’s going on inside the mysterious mind of Joe MacMillan – and what he’ll do next. And this is the feeling we should be trying, as writers, to instil in our audiences.

Comics, Movies, and I-Spy Syndrome

I’m in the middle of one of my periodic catch-ups with comics, past and present, and I’m starting to realise why I often find classic comics storylines so unsatisfying.

The thing is, I like comics – but I’m bored by “event” comics. Crossovers, universe merges, reboots, ends of the world – yes, even civil wars – I hate ‘em. But why?

Because they tend to fall into the most seductive of comic book traps – I-Spy syndrome.

D’you remember I-Spy books? They’re what was used to keep kids quiet on long journeys before the hand-held games console came along. They’re pocket-sized books with pictures and some simple text about things you’re likely to see in a particular environment – building styles and types for a city, tree and animal varieties for the countryside. And a tick box [check box, for our US friends] and a number of points.

See the item, tick the box, score the points. You could even send away for a badge once you had a certain number of points (I bet some cheating went on there!)

Anyway, I think you’ve worked out my metaphor by now. Look, it’s Spider-Man! Tick the box. And now Thor is fighting Namor! Tick the box. What does Iron Man think about the alien invasion? Or Captain America, or Aquaman? Here they all come to tell you! Tick, tick, tick.

But is this a bad thing? After all, we all cheer when our favourite character reappears in a TV series or movie franchise. We all keep going to movies about the same group of characters, sometimes long past the point where the franchise is any good, because we enjoy being in their company.

And comics at their best are good at character. From Batman and Steve Rogers to John Constantine and Kamala Khan, comics have created protagonists who rank with the very best characters in other media.

But whatever medium you’re working in, narrative is about character change, and change takes time. And the more characters you’re trying to squeeze into your story, the less time you have to effect change in each of those characters.

So all your favourites turn up in this big crossover storyline – but there’s no room for them to be anything other than a cliché. They spout their catchphrase, use their signature weapon, fight a fellow cliché, and depart. Fans buy the issue with their favourite character on the front, all the boxes are ticked, money is made – but doesn’t everyone leave with a faint sense that, well, that could have been a lot more interesting…?

I hope I-Spy Syndrome isn’t going to spread to movies, though recent Marvel and DC news may suggest that it’s going to.

A two-hour movie has room to fully develop maybe four or five characters – and if you doubt me, how many members of Danny Ocean’s team in Ocean’s Eleven can you actually remember as distinct individuals? Or the dwarves in The Hobbit? That was nearly nine hours of screen time, and still I can only recall three with personalities…

So, whether writing comics or movies, remember: a handful of characters making difficult decisions, growing and changing are worth all the guest shots in the world.

Picking Partners

Recently on Twitter, @MysteryBritExec was talking about careers in feature development and the qualities required to work as a development producer or development assistant. So I thought I’d examine things from the other side of the table – as a writer, what should you be looking for when you’re picking a team to develop your project with?

So let’s say you have a new project – maybe at draft script stage, maybe just a brief outline – and you’re going out to meetings with various producers. They’ve read whatever it is you have so far, and they’re sufficiently interested to want to meet, at least. Now, your instincts are to go into that room and sell yourself and your project – but you’re buying as much as you’re selling, so don’t forget to ask yourself a few questions about them and their reactions…

Do they really get the project? This depends a lot on how well developed the plot and the characters are. If all you sent them was a one-page ‘pitch’, then it’s perfectly understandable if they have questions about the plot twists, the tone or the characters’ motivations. If, however, they’ve read a full draft and they’re still convinced your gay hero is straight, or the film is a balls-out comedy and not a melodramatic weepie, then you have a problem.

Of course, you’re a starving writer, and the temptation will be to take the money and grit your teeth through the development process. And sure, we all have to eat. The question you need to ask yourself is – in return for the cash, am I prepared to accept the certainty that this project will never actually get made? Because projects where writer and development team don’t see eye to eye are headed to one place – the box marked ‘abandoned projects’…

Is this their kind of thing? Again, you can be flexible about this. A large company that makes material in a wide range of genres and styles might be looking for a subject or genre they haven’t tackled in a while, whereas a company with a very specific style will want to stick within that.

But it’s about the individuals as well as the company. The development team don’t have to be experts in sci-fi or rom-com or gross-out comedy – but they have to like it, understand it, and be prepared to go on a long, stressful journey into that genre during development.

Can they actually get this made? Perhaps the trickiest question of all to answer. Film funding is so uncertain, and even great scripts with huge stars and obvious potential can fail at the final hurdle. On the other hand, even small companies who have the right contacts and relationships can rope in funding and co-production deals you might never have anticipated.

Think about what they’ve made previously, and whether this is a sensible step up for them, or a move towards certain bankruptcy. If your movie is a star vehicle, do they have the clout and the money to attract a star? Do they make the scripts they develop, and release the movies they make? If they shot a movie three years ago and it’s still “in post”, ask yourself if your movie might end up the same way…

And as always, don’t work with people who don’t pay. If they can’t afford to pay you an option fee, and at least a token amount for rewrites, they’ll never be able to afford to make the movie, so partnering with them is a waste of your time and energy.

(That excludes groups of filmmakers coming together to work on micro-budget passion projects, of course. If no one’s getting paid, and you want to get a movie out there and launch your careers, fair enough. But if the producer is sat in a fancy office, earning a salary, and yet says they can’t afford to pay for your script…)

Do you like these people? This is probably the most important question of all. You’re going to spend a lot of time in stressful discussions and frustrating brain-storming sessions before this movie gets made. Do you want these people to be the ones you do that with?

Are you on the same wavelength? Do you like (some of) the same kinds of movies, books, games? Do you share a sense of humour? Would you feel comfortable having an after-work drink or a meal with them?

Making movies is an immensely frustrating and infuriating business. You owe it to yourself to, at the very least, undertake that long journey to the screen in the company of people you actually like and respect…