The Evil Mentor

“The best revenge you can have upon your enemy is not to become him.”

Marcus Aurelius, Roman philosopher

 

You’ll read a lot in screenwriting books about mentors, those grave and thoughtful (usually) elderly (usually) men who pop up to set your hero on the right path, bolster their belief in themselves, and even say a few wise things illustrating the theme of the movie.

But why does no one ever talk about that virtually ubiquitous character, the evil mentor?  The character who wants to pull your hero off the right path, warp their mind and poison their heart –  who wants to turn your hero, in short, into a version of themselves.

Ducard in Batman Begins is an evil mentor of the first order.  Arriving when the hero is at his most vulnerable physically and emotionally, he seems to show Bruce Wayne a way forward with his life –  he actually says that Ra’s al Ghul  can “offer you a path”.   And for a while, that path looks good.  Strength, justice, power.  It’s only when the true price of walking that path comes to light that Bruce rebels against it.

Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings has both good and evil mentors in the form of Gollum and Sam –  characters who actually embody the conflict going on inside his mind in physical form, voice the thoughts he’s afraid to acknowledge, and even physically fight one another for control over Frodo’s destiny.

X-Men: First Class seems to be out to set a record for good and evil – or at least morally dubious – mentors.  Sebastian Shaw and Charles Xavier compete for Eric Lensherr’s soul, offering him pain and anger on the one hand, and righteous strength  (“We have it in us to be the better man”) on the other.  Despite Eric’s hatred of Shaw, the mentoring relationship is explicitly acknowledged towards the end of the movie when Eric tells Shaw, in effect,  ‘I am what you made me’.

Charles and Eric mentor the various young mutants they recruit, conflicting in small but steadily increasing ways about how to handle them, and the younger characters eventually have to choose between their conflicting ideologies.  Meanwhile, Eric and Charles offer different socio-political options  (hiding, or ‘out and proud’) to Raven, while Eric and Hank offer her different kinds of love and acceptance – she’s beautiful to Hank only while imitating ‘normal’ humans, but Eric accepts her in her true form, and genuinely finds her beautiful.

Carl Jung said  “To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light”, and the evil mentor is the shadow-version of your hero.  They embody what the hero may become if they don’t find a better path.  They have all your hero’s weaknesses, failings, and dark possibilities, but none of his strengths and moral judgment.

Those psychological and morals strengths – and the experience of seeing what it is they stand to become if they follow that path –  are what’s going to make it possible for your hero to avoid becoming them.

In plot terms, then, the evil mentor gives you a fantastic way to dramatise what’s at stake in your story.  What will happen if Luke Skywalker doesn’t fully master the ways of the Force?  He’ll be overwhelmed by anger and fear, and he’ll turn into Darth Vader – and we can see how bad that would be, because Darth Vader is right there in front of us, choking his lackeys, blowing up planets, and generally being all-round evil.  No confusion about what’s at stake in this story!

Ah, That’s What A Read Through’s For!

So, I spent Thursday at the Wolfblood production office, for the cast read-through.  Seems like a weird thing to do, gathering your cast round a table and reading through the first couple of scripts, but actually, read-throughs fulfill some vital functions.

Firstly, they provide an opportunity for everyone to meet the cast – and in this case, since one or two casting decisions went right down to the wire, for the cast to meet each other!  Then there’s the rehearsal opportunity it provides for the actors. As they work their way through entire scripts for the first time, they can get a feel for how their character thinks and speaks.  One actor’s performance influences another.  Relationships emerge.  The humour of a line, or the subtext, comes out in response to another actor’s take on the scene.  The groundwork is laid for the eventual performance.

The read-through also allows the script, or at least the dialogue sections, to be timed, for a final check that it isn’t running too long.  And it gives the writers a chance to see the actors in action – which enables them to make any last minute dialogue changes to the first few scripts, and to work on those scripts which are still being written with some knowledge of how the characters are being played.

And, let’s be honest, they give the writers a chance to swan around feeling important, and then sit there with a silly grin on their faces, thinking  “Hey, I wrote this!  And look, real actors are actually saying my lines!”  And what’s wrong with that?

Everything Stops When She Walks In

Want a powerful entrance for your hero, love interest, or villain?  How about this trick?

Make their entrance alter the reality of your movie.

Sounds crazy, right?  But here are some examples.

Consider the opening scenes of Moulin Rouge.  After a few seconds of a sad song to set the tone, we’re into a series of fast-cut, increasingly frenetic scenes as our hero is plunged into the mad, mad world of 19th C Paris.  An unconscious Argentinian, a bohemian theatre company in rehearsal, Toulouse-Lautrec, David Wenham in a dress… And suddenly Christian’s whisked away to the Moulin Rouge itself, caught up in a frenzy of music, wine, decadence, beautiful women in swirling skirts.  The pace is constantly accelerating, exposition is thrown at us with abandon, the visual palette of the movie is dazzling.

Just as we think we can’t take any more, the beautiful Satine makes her entrance onto the stage and into the movie –

And everything stops.  Or seems to.  The pace drops right down to ‘normal’, the colour palette is muted, the camera is relatively still for the first time in ten minutes or more, as Christian falls in love at first sight.  Satine’s entrance changes the shooting style of the movie (permanently, since it never fully returns to that feverish opening pace), and therefore alters the reality of the movie.

Want an example in a different genre?  Serenity.  Starts with what appears to be a futuristic primary school class, which turns sinister and is abruptly revealed to be a fantasy in the memory of an adult experimental subject.

Her brother arrives to rescue her – cue exciting escape sequence which culminates in brother and sister riding an elevator out of the underground building, up, up towards the light –

Until a voice from nowhere announces  “Stop” – and everything we’re watching freezes and is revealed as a hologram.  A security camera video, effectively, of the already completed escape, being watched by the sinister and captivating Operative.  Again, the reality is utterly changed by the entrance of a new character  – this time, by a bad guy so powerful that he effectively just stopped the action of the movie.  Dunno about you, but I’m scared already.

(And yes, I’m praising a flashback within a flashback.  Just don’t try this at home.  Joss Whedon possesses powerful magic that the likes of you and I cannot yet control.)

Remember, the reality of the movie is entirely within your control. If you want time to speed up or slow down, reality to become unreal, circumstances to conspire to draw attention to a character, there’s a cinematic convention you can use to do it.

So you too can engineer a situation where one of your characters changes not just the tone, but the speed, shooting style and even the reality of the movie just by walking in the door…

Beware The L-Shaped Sofa – and other tips for pitching

I had a pitch meeting last week, and that got me thinking about pitching, and how much some writers worry about it.

I suppose it’s natural.  Someone whose favourite activity is sitting alone in a room making stuff up is not necessarily going to enjoy walking into a room full of strangers and selling their ideas.  And despite what they tell you in those self-confidence seminars, no, the other guy is not as scared as you are, and imagining everyone in the room in just their underwear is risky at best…

So – trying to avoid the ones you’ve read a hundred times on every other site – what are my top tips for pitching?

There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch – but you won’t get to eat it.  Lunch meetings are a tricky business.  Mostly no one’s going to buy you lunch until they’ve actually optioned your work, but if you do find yourself out to lunch during a pitch…

Hopefully you’ll get time to do the actual pitch while you’re waiting for the food to arrive – but then if it all goes badly, you still have the entire meal to get through. Otherwise, pick the course that the producer is liking the most.  Might as well have him in a good mood!

Pick your meal carefully – stay off the stodge, it slows your thinking process – and remember, keep away from that feta cheese!

Beware The L-Shaped Sofa.  Yes, I really did walk into a room and sit in the bend of an L-shaped sofa, leaving the two producers to sit at the other corners, leaving me turning from one to the other during the pitch like I was commentating on a tennis match.  What can I say?  I was young and dumb.

Pick the seat that places everyone else in a single sector of the room, where you can keep them all in your eyeline at once.  And don’t forget the assistant who’s only there to take notes, because…

One Day The Assistant Will Be Running The Company.  So be nice to her!  Thank her for bringing you a drink, don’t be too fussy about how much milk you take in your tea, make conversation with her if she seems open to it and let her work if she clearly needs to.  Because one day you’ll be begging her to buy your script –  and anyway, people who are unpleasant to assistants, waiters and janitors are a***holes, and you’re not an a***hole, are you?

While We’re Talking About Drinks –  if you’re given a drink in reception, is it polite to take it into the meeting with you?  Depends.  If the person you’re meeting is making himself a drink, yes.  If it’s going to be a fairly long meeting, probably.  If you’re meeting the head of the company/ studio boss,  then no.  You won’t be in there long enough (see below).

This raises the delicate question of where to put the cup if you’re not taking it with you.  And I’m not getting into that minefield…

Bosses Aren’t Like Normal People.  When you have a meeting with a script editor, development producer, even the producer who’s planning to make your script, he’ll be interested in you.  He’ll ask where you live, how you got into the business, what else you’re doing.  He’ll tell you about the company, and about what he’s done there.  And only then do you start talking about the project you want him to develop or option.

But eventually (you hope), you’ll reach the point where you and your producer go to formally meet the head of the company to pitch or talk about the project, and hopefully get the go-ahead for it.

This meeting will not be like any other meeting, because the boss is not like your producer.

She is not interested in small talk.  She will ask the ugly questions everyone else has avoided, like  “Only Brad Pitt could play this role.  What if he says no?”  or  “Are there really enough episode ideas here to sustain a long-running series?”  (Believe me, she will understand story like no one else in that room.  There’s a reason she’s risen to this position.) And she wants you in and out as fast as possible.

It’s easy to feel hurt by this shift in the atmosphere.  But look at it from her POV.  Firstly, she has a multi-million pound company to run, and you’re just one part of it.  But, far more importantly, she trusts her staff.  If the producer says you can do the work, you’re relatively sane, and you take notes without hysteria and death threats, the boss will trust their judgment.  She doesn’t need to make nice with you, because all that’s been done for her.

Don’t Leave A Meet-and-Greet Without Pitching Something.  Your initial meeting will be a meet-and-greet, which is agent-speak for  “let’s get my client in a room with you, so you can see they’re articulate, funny, and don’t rant about the coming Global Apocalypse like some crazy person.”

You’re there to establish an initial contact with someone at the company, who will then hopefully remember your name when your agent submits projects to them.

But how are you going to get them to remember your name?  You’re not.  You’re going to pitch them a project they’ll remember.  Twelve months from now, they won’t remember John Smith who lives in Doncaster and likes cats.  But I guarantee they’ll remember John Smith who pitched that amazing show about robot dinosaurs solving crimes.  Great idea, pity we couldn’t afford to make it – I wonder what he’s working on now, I should call his agent…

Mostly the producer will actually ask you for ideas, or at least hint in that direction.  But if he doesn’t, find a way to work something eye-catching but reasonable practical into the conversation – and don’t leave until you do.

Okay, don’t take this too literally.  If they really want you to leave, leave.  But if you can find a way to get a brief pitch into the conversation, you’ve got far more chance of being remembered…

And finally –  Know Your Story, Not Just Your Pitch.  They will ask you about that minor character you’ve hardly thought about, or what happens in episode twelve.  They will ask what you think of making the central character a woman, the love interest a dog, the contemporary Nebraska setting a suburb of Paris in 1763.

(And remember, the correct answer to a really stupid suggestion is not “no”.  It’s  “That’s interesting.  I’ll think about that.”)

If you really know your story – the world, the people, the themes, the emotions and the feeling you want the audience to walk away with at the end  –  you’ll be much better equipped to rise to these challenges.

Any more suggestions about pitching?  Leave them in the comments box…

Happy pitching!

Things I Learned From… The Unusuals

No, I hadn’t heard of it either!  I came across this short-lived and little known American TV series on DVD, and thought I’d give it a go.

So what’s it all about?  The Unusuals are the detectives of New York’s 2nd Precinct.  In the words of one cop, “I’ve worked three other precincts, and none of them were like the 2nd.  Maybe it’s the criminals.  We get a lot of oddballs and nutjobs.  Hell, maybe it’s just us.”

Indeed, the detectives are pretty ‘unusual’ themselves.  New girl Casey is hiding the fact that she hails from one of NYC’s richest families.  Her affable partner, Walsh, runs a wildly unsuccessful diner on his days off and has a past full of secrets.  Banks wears a bullet-proof vest day and night, convinced that, like all his male forebears, he’s going to die at the age of 42.  His partner, Delahoy, is hiding a potentially fatal brain tumour from his colleagues.  Socially inept Alvarez refers to himself in the third person and is the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the Captain is convinced there’s corruption in his precinct… but where?

Throw in a wild assortment of cases, from a psychotic cat-killer to a family crime spree, a missing dementia patient to a store that sells everything you need to commit murder, and you’ve got a slice of New York like no other.

And yet…

For a long time, I just wasn’t sure what was bothering me.  The cast, including the terrific Amber Tamblyn, Lost’s Harold Perrineau, and a post- Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner, are superb.  The writing is always solid, and there are some great moments – the clever con pulled on the precinct the night Alvarez is left in charge, or Walsh’s tribute to his murdered partner at the end of the first episode.  Even the crackpot comedy scenes work on their own terms – but somehow, the whole is never the sum of its parts.

So what went wrong?  Tone is a tricky thing – and all the more so when you’re trying to combine the black comedy, the drama and the tragedy that a real-life cop lives through every day.

Shows can and do manage it – some cases investigated in The Shield have a despairing comic edge, and The Wire’s Omar heading out semi-naked for breakfast cereal is as preposterous as it is awesome.  But I think the reason they succeed where The Unusuals doesn’t is that they also accord the proper weight and consequences to their more serious scenes.

Example.  The first episode opens with the news that Walsh’s brutal and corrupt partner is dead.  With the senior officers insisting that it was a mugging gone wrong, the Captain wondering if Walsh is corrupt too, and Walsh and new partner Casey discovering that the dead man was keeping files on his fellow officers, the stage seems set for a serious plot thread about police corruption and murder.  And remember, this is the first episode, the viewers are still trying to get a grip on what kind of show this is…

Walsh confronts one of his colleagues about the contents of his secret file, and discovers that the cop is a petty criminal who went straight and adopted a new identity to join the NYPD.  Now – remembering his dead partner, the secret files, the distinct feeling that something is rotten in the state of the 2nd Precinct –  what does Walsh do?

He says  “fine” and walks away, not to mention this until other circumstances reveal the connection, several episodes later, and force him into action.

And now we’re totally confused.  It’s fair enough when the comedy plot threads have no particular consequences – but how can the dramatic ones have no consequences either?  Are we supposed to take the possible police corruption seriously, or not?  The cop’s secret is potentially connected  (via the file)  to the murder of a fellow officer – and even the dead man’s partner isn’t following through on it?

Mixing tones is a risky business.  If you’re going to do it, I suppose the lesson to learn here is – make sure each plot thread has a consistent tone and works on its own terms.  As long as we know what to take seriously and what’s meant to be absurd, you might just pull it off.

Some Must Have Prizes

So it’s competition time!  That is to say, the Red Planet Prize has winnowed all those pilot scripts down to a few hundred semi-finalists, and all over Britain, writers are frantically polishing up their magnum opus, ready to send in the full script with fingers crossed…

Of course, that leaves a lot of writers who didn’t make it this year muttering darkly into their coffee about how it’s all rigged, and only the judges’ friends get through, and all those other manifestations of paranoia that you’ll find among any gathering of writers.

It surprises me how many writers deeply distrust competitions, prizes and training schemes of all kinds.  Of course, there is the occasional ‘opportunity’ of dubious value.  They’re usually easy to spot, thanks to the steep entry fee and vague rewards, often a promise that your script will be ‘read by’  unspecified ‘top Hollywood executives’.  But there are still many, many reputable competitions and training schemes all over the world – and here in Britain, we have a number of fantastic opportunities run by channels and production companies who are genuinely interested in finding new writers.

Why am I banging on about this?  Well, I promised to say a few words about how my upcoming TV series, Wolfblood, came to be commissioned – and it all came about through an open call for children’s scripts coordinated by BBC Writers’ Room.

A few months earlier, I was in a charity shop, browsing the bookshelves for something to read.  Maybe I was a little sleepy, not paying enough attention, but somehow my focus slipped from the first half of one book’s title to the second half of another book, joining together words to make a completely new title… Wolfblood.

And immediately, I knew what this story was about.  An ordinary girl from a family of beings with extraordinary abilities, who lived hidden among ‘normal’ humans.  She thinks she’s okay with hiding what she is, until another of her kind turns up, someone with very different views, and everything has to change…

There must have been some very puzzled expressions in that charity shop as I went hurtling out in search of paper and pen to scribble down my brilliant idea!

So when the Writer’s Room, central gateway for new writers and unagented submissions to the BBC, announced an open call for new scripts, I had my characters.  Then came the writing – and yes, that first draft was very different to what you’ll see on screen later this year.  In retrospect, I’d crammed way too much plot and incident into an opening episode.  Though now I come to think of it, that did give a strong sense of the world and the kind of stories that could be told in it.  Maybe overdoing it a bit doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think…

But amazingly, the phone call came – first, I was through to the long-list, and invited to a one-day workshop in London, and then I made the finalists.  Eight of us were whisked away to Kent for several days of intensive workshops, talks, pitching sessions and briefings on the specific demands of children’s television.

None of us had any real experience in writing for children, and the guidance we received there, both in general terms and on our specific scripts, was fantastic.  Children don’t necessarily process story in the same way that adults do – for a start, they’ve seen less television, so they don’t have the experience of narrative that would help them follow complex stories.  On the plus side, though, what seems like a cliché to an adult might be novel to them!

The kinds of stories that really resonate with children are very different to those that work for adults, too.  Children hate moral ambiguity.  The good guys need to be good and the bad guys bad.  Evil is punished and kindness rewarded. A central character can grapple with a difficult decision, of course, but their decision must ultimately support and uphold the central elements of children’s lives –  family, friendship, kindness and loyalty.

And then there was the rewriting, and we returned our final drafts to the BBC, and waited…

In common with most BBC schemes, there was no promise of a commission at the end of the process – realistically, how can there be, when no one can be sure what kind of scripts will be submitted, how they’ll fit with existing shows, or how much development work they’ll need?  But in this case, one other writer’s script went into development, and Wolfblood was put forward for that year’s commissioning round – and commissioned.

And then, of course, the real work began…

Coming To A Screen Near You…

After months of telling people I *could* tell them about my new series for CBBC, but then I’d have to kill them, the official announcement.  BBC press release at –

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2012/030212wolfblood.html

I do intend to blog more about how Wolfblood made it to the screen, but right now, it’s final rewrites on episode five for me!  So, more later…