Black Pond

Just back from a screening of British indie film Black Pond, a very funny black comedy about a quietly dysfunctional family accused of murder after a near-stranger dies in their house.

Interviews with the family members – hopelessly bored dad, frustrated artist mum, two feckless teenage daughters and the rather wet flatmate who’s in love with them both – are interspersed with the events of the oddest weekend of their life.  Dad meets a poetic and socially uninhibited stranger at the local pond, invites him in for a cuppa, and the next thing they know they have a dead dog, a marital crisis, a box full of poetry and a corpse at the dinner table.  Then there’s the world’s worst psychiatrist, and (probably the best laugh in the film) the book of One Word Poems…

Great question and answer session afterwards with writer/ co-director Will Sharpe and co-director Tom Kingsley.  This is their first feature, filmed in four weeks at Sharpe’s parents’ house, which they continued without a budget even after their original funder pulled out.

Editing, special effects, colour timing, they did the whole thing themselves, and it looks fantastic.  Remember the days when low-budget digital movies looked grey and fuzzy?  Those days are long gone.

Fascinating to hear how the project evolved in editing, too.  The film originally had no interviews, and unfolded in chronological order.  Almost a third of the material they’d shot was cut, and replaced by the interviews, meaning what early viewers had taken to be a twist ending was now obvious from the very beginning of the film.  This changed it, in their words, from a story about what happens to a story about why it happened.

Anyway, I’m giving it a quick plug here because – despite being BAFTA-nominated – it doesn’t have a distributor, and Kingsley and Sharpe are basically going around nagging individual cinemas into showing it.  So get on to your local cinema, pronto!

UPDATE FOR U.S. READERS –  Black Pond will receive its US premiere at the SXSW festival in March.  Yaaay!

All Part Of The Plan. Sort Of.

Friday Questions on Ken Levine’s blog is all about outlining, and I’ve spent the day scribbling on rectangles of coloured card and moving them around a cork board – so it must be time to talk about breaking, outlining, and generally planning screenplays.

I used to hate planning.  Forget outlines, let’s go with pure inspiration!  Plunge right into the story and see where it goes!  Then I found out that “where it goes”, in the absence of a plan, is round and round in circles.

In fairness, I try to have my cake (Cherry Bakewell, preferably) and eat it.  I often write what some writers call a ‘vomit draft’, and I call a ‘proof of concept’ draft.  That is, I splurge all the scenes and events in my head into an incomplete, mostly incoherent draft about thirty pages long.  There’ll be a lot of the first act, a few scenes from the second, and maybe a crucial part of the ending.

This functions as a back-of-an-envelope scribble recording who my characters are and what I wanted this story to be about.  Some of the scenes make it into the eventual draft; many don’t, but they serve their purpose by illustrating story points that do.

But that’s the fun bit over with.  Then comes the planning.

The advantage of outlining before writing is that you can concentrate on one thing at a time.  If you start writing scenes straightaway, you’re trying to figure out who your characters are, work on the broad sweep and the scene-by-scene action of your plot, decide on settings, costume, and write your dialogue, all at once.  Planning enables you to put together a story one layer at time –  like a composer orchestrating a melody, adding each instrument in turn and checking they work together.

Maybe you’re a character-first writer: I’m a plot-first writer.  Doesn’t matter which you are: you can start with one, add the other, then deepen your theme, work on your settings, design your action sequences or comedy set-pieces…

Writers often change their methods as they progress through their career.  At the moment, I start with basic events on bits of card, then break the story down into eight sequences, written in brief on eight sheets of paper.

Over the last few months, I’ve started doing a detailed scene-by-scene outline, as you would for a TV episode, for each sequence before writing it.  The advantage here is that it forces me to write each scene without dialogue, or at most with a couple of sample lines.  That helps focus me on telling the story visually, and on what precisely how the events unfold on the screen.

The other thing I’ve found really helpful is charting exactly what each character wants in each sequence of the story, preferably in order of importance.  So in sequence one, I might have –

TOMMY WANTS to check whether there really are terrorists holding the Board of Directors hostage; ask Jodie the intern to go out with him; finish the photocopying.

This reminds me to make sure all those wants get fulfilled or thwarted at some point during the sequence.  Especially valuable for minor characters, whose needs and motivations can be lost in the ongoing action.

I may be wrong, of course, but I’m starting to think that careful planning is the sign of the mature writer.  So how about you?  What’s your technique?

Truly, Madly, Furiously?

So, I’m outlining an undercover cop movie.  Although the central character isn’t a cop, exactly, and I suppose he isn’t technically undercover, but…  Just take my word for it, okay?  And this got me thinking about the whole genre.

I love undercover cops.  Point Break, American Yakuza, my personal favourite The Fast And the Furious…  The naïve cop infiltrates a criminal gang, only to be seduced by the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush, and the dangerously attractive brother/ father figure of the gang leader.  Does he choose his old life, or his new one – and can he ever be fully one or the other again?  So much rich character material to dig into,  and big action scenes, too.  That’s my kind of movie.

But when you compare undercover cop movies to other crime movies, there are some very odd structural differences.  For example, I realized that my antagonists –  the cop’s boss, and an ever badder guy out to destroy the gang –  were getting very little screen time, and anything I did to give them more scenes weakened the overall story.

Then again, in The Fast And the Furious, the Chinese gangsters and the FBI/ LAPD bosses are minor nuisances rather than strong antagonists who drive the plot.  The cops are stronger  in Point Break, largely thanks to Gary Busey, but the drug-dealing rival surfers barely feature.   They’re subplots, not real antagonists.  Really, there’s no antagonist in the traditional sense at all.

And then there’s the level of homoeroticism that attaches itself to the relationship between the cop and the gang leader.  That level of semi-sexual interaction between lead characters of the same gender would never appear in any other kind of crime movie.  Is this just a function of the age difference – the undercover cop is often young,  leading to a hero-worship dynamic  –  or is there something else going on?

I think there is.  I’m starting to think that undercover cop movies don’t share the same structure as any other crime movie.  Their structure, in fact, is the same as…  a rom-com.

Okay, that sounds crazy.  But think about it.  In a rom-com, a conventional, boring person comes into contact with a crazy, rule-breaking person and is drawn into their world.  They resist at first, but that person supplies something that has been lacking in their life, and they’re transformed by this contact.  They become a better, more whole person.  Ultimately, they must choose between their old, conventional life, and the new life personified by the rule-breaker.

Sure sounds like an undercover cop movie to me!

Rom-coms don’t have antagonists as such – and as we saw above, neither do undercover cop movies.  The main conflicts in a rom-com are between the Protagonist and the Attractor, as they influence and change one another, as their rival worldviews are played out on screen and struggle to be proved right.  And so it proves in undercover cop movies too.

So is that where the homoeroticism in these movies is coming from?  We’re aware that the structure is that of a rom-com, and we read an erotic charge into the scenes because that’s what the structure primes us to expect?  It would certainly explain a lot…

Things I Learned From… The Ides Of March

(Mild spoilers. Obviously)

As writers, we talk a lot about  “show, don’t tell”.  Don’t have a character talk about how impulsive and violent the villain is – show him breaking the waitress’ arm because she spilled his coffee.  Don’t have the hero’s wife tell her friends how considerate he is – show him coming home with her favourite takeout because he knew she was working late.  With character, as with everything else on screen, actions speak louder than words.

But, as The Ides Of March proves, sometimes you don’t even have to show us the actions.

Towards the end of the story, young political consultant Steven (Ryan Gosling) offers would-be Presidential candidate Governor Morris (George Clooney, who also directs) a deal that will win him the nomination, but will work out badly for his loyal senior consultant Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  In a dramatic choice that’s used several times in the movie, director Clooney cuts away from the scene without giving us Morris’ response.

We find Paul in a local barber’s, having his hair cut.  As he exits, he finds a black limo pulled up in the grubby alley a few yards up the street.  The rear window descends.  It’s Morris.  Carefully extinguishing his cigarette, Paul gets in.

And the camera, across the street, holds on a wide view of the alley and the parked car for what seems like forever.  No audio from inside the car, no way to tell what’s going on inside, what Morris is saying or what decision he’s made.  Until Paul gets out and is left standing there, shell-shocked, as the limo pulls away.

We know Morris has taken the option that’s best for him and worst for Paul.  But we were neither told nor shown that.  So how do we know?

Of course, Hoffman’s understated performance as he exits the car is the major indicator of what’s happened –  but there are other narrative elements running right from the beginning of the scene, clues that set the tone and support the actors’ performances.

After an entire movie set in hotel rooms, TV studios and campaign offices, we’re suddenly on an ordinary street, then in a dirty alley.  Real life has begun to intrude on the political bubble, and unconsciously we feel the shift, the threat.

Add in the old-fashioned barbers – which has a place in the mob movie, sometimes as a location for assassination – and the tension carried over from Morris’ unresolved dilemma in the previous scene, and audience anticipation is sky-high even before we see that sinister black limo.  This is not going to end well.

Damn fine writing from Grant Heslov & Clooney (again! Did he make the tea as well?), working with Beau Willimon’s stage play.  Not only do you not have to tell – if you create the right level of anticipation, it seems you don’t even have to show.

The First Day Of School

Just arrived back from a trip to the North of England to see locations and meet the director and crew for my children’s TV show.

Since any details are commercially sensitive, I’m going to have to be careful how much I give away here.  If I say the wrong thing, the BBC may tie me to a chair and make me watch infinite repeats of Bonekickers.  But I will keep you as updated as I can.

What I did want to remark on today is the peculiar process of passing on your work to the people who are actually going to make it happen.  You spend so long – a couple of years in this case –  labouring away at your idea, turning it from a spark to an idea to an outline to individual episodes.  The notes come in, the jokes fly at meetings, the ideas you really wish you’d had come from other people and are woven into the world.  But you feel you have the whole thing under control.  Mapped out in your head.  It’s yours.

And then one day, the world you’ve created takes its first steps outside your control.  Things start to happen – wonderful things, things that are absolutely right for the characters and the show – without direct reference to you.  Another writer decides that Jane’s favourite chocolate bar is a KitKat, a location is found that looks different to what you saw in your head.  Suddenly there are thirteen episodes by half a dozen different writers, and your universe is now so big that you can’t remember crucial details without referring to your notes.

Your project is all grown up, and taking its first faltering steps into the real world.  Like a parent seeing your child off on their first day at school, you’re no longer the only influence on your precious baby’s development.  It will always be utterly yours, but it has a life of its own now.  Like that parent at the school gate, you feel disorientated, full of pride, and profoundly grateful that your precious baby has made it this far.

And it’s a really great feeling.

Love or Victory? why not both?

A lot being said in the screenwriting blog-o-sphere about the NY Times article on the work of producer Lindsay Doran, and what makes movies emotionally satisfying to an audience.  You can read all about it here –

 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/movies/lindsay-doran-examines-what-makes-films-satisfying.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Loads of good stuff in there, but the section I found most interesting was about the difference in what appeals to male and female moviegoers.

In movies aimed at men and boys, she said, “there is the goal, the thing the hero is trying to accomplish.” Then, she continued, “there’s the relationship, usually with a woman, child, friend or father. Usually at the end the hero realizes the relationship is more important than the accomplishment.” But in most movies geared toward women, she realized, the relationship is the accomplishment.

The relationship is the accomplishment.  Sounding familiar to anyone?  And not just from rom-coms either.

Looking just at recent male-focused movies, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes 2 both incorporate relationships that give real value to the hero’s accomplishments.  Whether it’s a team forming out of disparate individuals, or two friends cementing their friendship in the face of one’s marriage, both films are actually about the impact the action has on the characters’ relationships.

Undercover cop movies, which I’m thinking about a lot at the moment, are also relationship-driven.  The protagonists (the cops)  of Point Break and The Fast And The Furious don’t get what they want  – and neither do the reflections/ attractors (the gang leaders).  In traditional ‘accomplishment’ terms, they end the movie worse off – the cops disgraced, the criminals on the run or worse.  But their great accomplishment as characters is forging a meaningful relationship with each other, a friendship that survives even when they find themselves on opposite sides.

And why shouldn’t characters’ accomplishments be given meaning by relationships?  It’s a basic tenet of writing that characters do things for a reason – and most reasons are personal.  When we act in the wider good, we’re often doing it because it helps our nearest and dearest as well.  Even the famously cold James Bond doesn’t just want to stop the world being blown up by the villain – he also wants to save the life of his squeeze of the moment.

And using the relationship to focus the threat onto a single character or small group of characters (family, friends, criminal gang) also makes the threat, and the stakes, easier to grasp. If I’m watching, say, The Thing, I don’t really know what will happen if the creature gets out and away to civilization.  Maybe it’ll wipe out humanity; maybe it’ll get hit by a bus the moment it reaches a town.  I can’t see all the variables, and anyway, it’s hard to summon empathy for the whole of humanity.  However, I do know what will happen to the people at this base if they don’t kill that creature – and I have empathy for them, because they have relationships with each other and with me, the audience.  Effectively, I understand the stakes through that small group of characters and their relationships.

If your character wants to achieve something, it’s probably connected to someone he cares about.  Tie his accomplishments to his relationship, and you provide two levels of emotional satisfaction for the price of one!

 

Things I Learned From… Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Every movie you see has something to teach you.  How to write a scene.  How not to write a scene.  How to write a character that an actor will want to play, or how to make the actor’s job so difficult they’ll curse your name.  How to effortlessly handle exposition, or how to have the whole audience scratching their heads in puzzlement.

So I thought now and then I’d share what I’ve learned from a film I’ve seen recently.  This week –  Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

One of the writing challenges in a major franchise is getting new viewers to engage with your characters, while not irritating loyal viewers by filling in their backstories all over again.   A good way to do this is to give your character a strong first scene or sequence, one that shows tells us who they are through what’re doing.

So let’s take a look at how writers Josh Appelbaum  and Andre Nemec re-introduce their central character, the Impossible Mission Force’s top agent, Ethan Hunt.

After a brief opening scene elsewhere, the story proper begins in a Russian prison.  It’s a night shift, everyone’s locked in and everything seems normal.  But a team is taking control of the security system and entering sewers under the prison.  Clearly an incursion is in progress.

But our protagonist isn’t part of the team.  Nope, Ethan Hunt is… one of the prisoners.

Okay, some good spy tropes here – Russians, rescuing a captured agent, hacking, technology, breaking into a highly secure location. It’s very clear what the tone and the genre of this movie is.

But in character terms, it’s an audacious, even dangerous, move.  Someone who needs rescuing isn’t a hero, they’re a victim.  And this is a traditional high-octane spy thriller.  It can’t be led by a victim.  Introduce Ethan Hunt as someone without power over his situation, someone who needs to be helped by supporting characters, and there’s a danger he appears weak, unheroic, downright bad at his job.

So what do Nemec and Appelbaum do during this sequence to ensure our protagonist is established as worthy of our admiration?

Ethan Hunt gives every appearance of being a hero.  We first see him as a shape in a bunk bed, bouncing a rock off the angles of the wall and catching it with effortless precision.  Keeping your hero out of shot for a few scenes, hinting at his presence, is a technique that goes all the way back to Casablanca, and it still works.  It creates a sense of anticipation, of  intention.  This isn’t just any prisoner – this is a man about to make a major impact on the story.

He’s extremely good at what he does.  Once he realizes the distant alarms are the first signs of a rescue, Ethan reacts intelligently, intuitively, to each new development, knowing where to find resources and how to handle threats.  He’s physically capable, smart, well trained, and utterly confident in his ability to survive.  This is a man we should respect.

He takes control of the operation almost immediately – even though his teammates never intended him to!  Within a minute or so of being released from his cell, Ethan starts defying instructions and forcing his would-be rescuers to follow his plan, rather than gratefully accepting their help.  A hero doesn’t follow orders, he gives them.

And most tellingly of all, he doesn’t just get rescued – with only a moment’s hesitation, he deliberately goes further into the jail to rescue someone else.  As soon as Ethan moves from being the rescuee to the rescuer, he gains hero status.   And by endangering himself to help someone who isn’t a team member and to whom he has only a vague moral obligation, he even has a “save the cat” moment, proving himself a loyal friend and decent human being.  (And this will pay off later in the story, when he needs this man’s help.)

So Appelbaum and Nemec get to have their cake and eat it.  Their protagonist gets the benefit of starting the story in danger, in an unusual situation, and able to show his ingenuity and skills –  all without undercutting his status as star agent and lead character. And the fact that he started out in a position of apparent weakness just makes him all the more heroic.

Lots of techniques here we can learn from and use.  How could you introduce your central character in a position that should make him appear weak, but turns out in the end to underline his strength?