Things I Learned From… The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games just had the best ever opening weekend for a non-sequel, and the third best opening weekend of all time. I know, I know, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation (one of my pet hates about ”best ever” box office claims), but we can still usefully compare them to films released in the last few years, including the first Twilight movie. Without doubt, it’s one hell of an achievement.

What we should be asking ourselves is – why? And I don’t mean that in a snarky sense.  Even a bad movie that makes money is a cause for celebration, because it’s putting money into the industry – and The Hunger Games isn’t a bad movie. The performances are good, the differing social worlds are clearly delineated, there’s enough social satire to give the simple story of personal survival some bite, and the battle scenes manage to be disturbing without betraying the 12A rating.

But when you stop and think about it, there’s nothing enormously original and striking about it, either. It’s The Running Man with teenagers – or to quote the much-Tweeted joke, ”You know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris?  Battle Royale with cheese.” The plotting is solid but unremarkable, the love triangle is weakened by the fact that one of the lads is hundreds of miles away throughout most of the story, and Peeta the primary love interest is a little under-characterised.

(Actually, the film *is* an interesting example of how an action movie Attractor (love interest) is forced into stereotypical ”female” behaviour, like needing rescue and nurture, by the conventions of the plot – something that shows up most strongly when the Attractor is male. Notice even the spelling of his name: ending in an ”a”, which in English usually denotes a girl’s name. A blog post for another day, perhaps…)

So why is The Hunger Games such a huge hit? Brand recognition, marketing, and a strong fan base, yes – but something about the original story drew all those fans to read the book in the first place, right?

I think it’s actually a wonderful example of finding exactly the right premise for your target audience, or indeed, target audience for your premise.

Look it at it like this. A science fiction dystopia is all about the suppression of the individual, the stripping away of basic rights like social mobility and freedom of expression, and absorption into a homogenous society who are bound together by a figurehead or a ritual – the supposed chance to win extra life years in Logan’s Run, loyalty to Big Brother in 1984.

Now, assuming we’re lucky enough to live in a relatively free society, we don’t identify much with those characters, do we? We don’t know what it feels like to be them. But I’ll tell you who does – teenagers. Because, whether it’s justified or not, they feel oppressed the whole damn time. People are always telling them they shouldn’t dress like that, they shouldn’t hold that opinion, they have to obey the rules, they have to be part of society, whatever that means… If there’s anyone who should identify with a character living in a dystopia, it’s teenagers.

So put a teenage heroine in a dystopia – fighting not even for her family or her village (her mom’s pretty useless and her community seems indifferent to them), but for her helpless little sister, a loyalty that teenagers will appreciate… Add a love triangle, an solid Nemesis character, and a cute kid who needs protecting, and you have yourself a $200 million hit!

So, how can you tailor the theme of your story to your target audience?  Or, if you’re looking for a saleable concept, can you start with the concerns and feelings of  a target audience and turn that into a compelling story?

Wolfblood Set Visit!

Just back from two days on the Wolfblood set just outside Newcastle. The place of the writer on set is a rather strange one: on the one hand, everyone’s only here because of you and all of this is your baby, but on the other, your role in the practical process is over (or at least, continuing elsewhere) and you’re the only person here who isn’t working their socks off!

But this does allow you the freedom to really observe the production process, and see how the actors and director work with your words. In many ways, this is the most valuable thing you’ll ever learn about writing.  Everything you do as a writer is leading towards this moment – the moment your ideas actually have to be turned into something solid – and the better you know that process, the more practical, inspiring and inventive you can make your next script.

I spent the morning of my first day off the set, taking a good look round the stunningly picturesque village that’s standing in for our central characters’ home. In a heat wave, outside was definitely the place to be – as I soon discovered when I got back to set!

My visit coincided with the last two days of the first block of filming, and first block director Will Sinclair was shooting some final scenes in the school. (CBBC shows are filmed in blocks of four or five episodes, rather than one episode at a time. This allows all the scenes from those episodes which take place in the same location, or feature the same actors, to be filmed at once). Unfortunately, a lot of the classrooms are south-facing, and even with the blinds down, the cast were getting distinctly warm!

Film crews basically divide into two groups. There are the people who are busy primarily during a take: camera operators and grips, sound department, and of course the performers. Then there are people whose main work is done when the camera isn’t rolling – makeup, costume, lighting, and the army of assistants and runners who keep wanderers off the set and make sure everything is where it should be when it’s needed. The director falls into both camps, setting up shots with the camera operators and working with the actors before a take, and watching the footage on monitors during filming.

The area round the monitors, ”video village”, is where everyone gathers between and during takes, and the place you’ll see most of as a writer. On day two, as we moved outside to shoot playground scenes in even hotter weather than day one, I was able to lurk just out of shot and watch the filming process itself. Seeing first hand how hard it is to coordinate a ”simple” playground scene – in fact, two cameras, dozens of background performers and the main cast doing multiple takes is anything but simple – makes you wonder if you should just write about two people sitting in a room from now on!

Of course, the most important location on set is actually the catering truck. A fellow writer did warn me I was likely to put on a stone during the writing of the series – but I didn’t realise that would be largely due to the excellent on-set catering!

Meal breaks also mean an opportunity to catch up with the cast, and, since they haven’t seen the very last episodes of the season yet, let slip a few hints on where their characters end up by episode thirteen. Though I’m not sure I can accommodate one actor’s request that his character turns out to be a werewolf too…

And then the highlight of the visit – a few sample scenes of edited footage. No soundtrack and no VFX yet, but it’s already clear that the show has a distinct visual style and real atmosphere and tension.

Just time to say hello to second block director Declan O’Dwyer, arriving to shoot his first ever scene at the end of the day, and it’s time to head back to the real world. Exit one very pleased writer, already looking forward to seeing the finished product…

Blind Spots

We all tend to view the world through the prism of our own prejudices. What this means for a writer is that producers, script editors, actors and even your agent will react more positively to characters who correspond to their lives and experiences.

Characters who’ve done what they’ve done, have what they have, and want what they want will simply seem more “real” than characters with whom they have nothing in common. That sometimes means we have to analyze our own unconscious decisions to see if we’ve made the most relatable choices for our characters.

Writers who don’t get on with their relatives, or who’ve grown up as orphans, tend to write characters with few relatives, whether that serves the plot or not. Writers who’ve fared badly in relationships write characters who avoid romance, or who have unsympathetic romantic partners.

And if that’s what’s required to make your story work – brilliant.  Go for it.

But if it isn’t, bear in mind – the further your character is from “normal” life (and yes, I hate that word as much as you do), the harder it will be for the reader to empathize with them. They won’t be aware exactly what’s causing them to lose empathy, to feel your characters are unsympathetic or unreal – but it will still affect their judgment of your script.

So, unless it’s an important part of your story that your character is isolated, alone, or disenfranchised, integrate them as far you can into “average” human society. Give them a wife/husband or boyfriend/girlfriend. Give them children, or state that they’d like to have kids one day. Give them parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings. Give them a job and a widescreen TV and a kick-arse stereo system and holidays in wherever’s the ‘in’ place to go this year.

You’ll hardly even notice the difference – but anyone reading your script will suddenly find themselves more drawn to the characters than they were before…

Things Writers Can Learn From Actors

Been to London for a few days, which gave me a chance to go to the theatre and marvel at what actors do with scripts. But is there anything we as writers can learn from the acting process?  I think there is…

Learn to respect each character’s ”moments”.  I had the great pleasure of seeing Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd, and one moment in particular struck me as an example of how a great actor is generous to their fellow performers.

After Sweeney loses his first chance at revenge, he has a spectacular song packed with grief and rage, one of the most powerful things Sondheim ever wrote. In the stunned silence that invariably follows, Mrs. Lovett chips in ”Yes, that’s all very well…”  The line’s usually played for laughs, and it works – but it risks undercutting Sweeney’s pivotal character revelation, and  cheating the audience of the impact of his grief.

But great actors are generous. Imelda Staunton, supported by the director, has the confidence to virtually throw the line away – just a soothing murmur, the first words that come into her head to calm him down. She doesn’t need the laugh – she gets plenty elsewhere, and well deserved – and both Sweeney and the story benefit from that moment playing at full effect.

And you as a writer can be generous to your characters. If someone has a moment, let it play. Don’t rush it, don’t cheapen it, don’t undercut it. Give your characters room to work, and your story will benefit.

No one can play an emotion. Up and down the country, amateur players, school plays and drama groups are full of people ”acting happy”, ”acting upset”, ”acting distraught”. At best, it comes across as melodrama. At worst, it’s incomprehensible to the audience, a sequence of random shouting, laughing and crying that bears no resemblance to human life.

An actor can’t play an emotion. They can only play a thought – and then, because they’re actors and that’s their brand of magic, the emotion appears without conscious effort on their part. An actor can’t ”act sad”, but they can run through their character’s train of thought about Aunt Lucy’s tragic death, and as they do, the tears come unbidden.

In the same way, the characters you write don’t just ”have” feelings. They think things. They react. They experience life. When you’re writing an emotional scene, work out what they’re thinking, and the emotional content of your story will flow naturally from that, rather than having to be imposed or provoked by you.

Emotion needs to be ”put” somewhere.  When an actor experience that emotion –  let’s say anger  –  they can’t just stand there and ”be angry”. They need to do something with it. Either they need a line to express it, or an action.

And so do your characters. No one just sits there and feels stuff. They look for a way to deal with it – in words or in actions. Even suppressing their feelings is effectively an action. So when you put a character in a high-emotion situation, particularly after an a revelation or reversal of some kind, think about the best action or the best line of dialogue to allow them to express, release, and deal with their feelings.  It will feel more real – and you’re helping the actor to play the scene, too.

House Hunting For Werewolves

Finishing up the last couple of Wolfblood scripts  (incidentally, expect a report from the set soon!),  and that’s got me thinking about the importance of choosing the right location for a story.

When I first started working on Wolfblood, my werewolf family lived in a small town.  The countryside was a place they went at the weekend, a place they longed to be, but everyday life got in the way.  It was only as I started working with CBBC that we realized the countryside was key to this story.

If you were a werewolf, would you live in a town?  Of course not.  You’d live right out in the country, where you could indulge your senses and your animal agility as much as possible.  But you’d still have to restrain yourself in some way –  even in the wildest parts of Britain, there isn’t room to run free without risking being seen by someone.

So, as we discussed setting the story in wilder and wilder places – as Shropshire gave way to Yorkshire, and finally Northumbria –  the theme of the story came into sharper and sharper focus.  Our characters are surrounded by nature, open space, the literal call of the wild – and that just makes restraining their wolf-nature even harder.  The struggle they face, the choice between ‘civilization’ and ‘the wild’, is right there on the screen, and a lot of that is simply choice of location…

The Fiddle Game

Thanks to Sherman Cymru and Aberystwyth Arts Centre, last night saw one of my occasional hesitant digressions into theatre.  The Sherman is running a theatre writing programme called Spread The Word in venues around Wales, finding writers relatively new to theatre and putting them through a five week writing course.  The writers then turn in a short piece of writing, either a complete piece or an extract from something longer, and three pieces are chosen for a public rehearsed reading.

So last night, Tony Jones, Catrin Fleur Huws, and I saw our masterpieces performed to a small but friendly audience, and were then dragged on stage to answer questions and receive feedback.  All jolly good fun –

But actually, seeing my piece performed reminded me of a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.  My piece was about a group of conmen (and women) who gather for a ‘job interview’ to join the world’s most revered grifter and his crew, only to start to suspect that the situation is rather more complicated than they thought.

So, judging from last night, confidence tricksters work reasonably well on stage.  They certainly work on TV – Hustle has been a huge hit in the UK, and Leverage (one of my all time favourite shows) is an equivalent hit in the US.  Not to mention shows like White Collar, Psych, and even Burn Notice, all of which draw on the “big con” – false identities, elaborate schemes, obtaining information or money by deception – to some extent.

So why aren’t there more movies about con men?

Yes, yes, The Sting, I know.  A huge hit in its time, and a classic piece of cinema.  But apart from that?  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a recent movie about grifters that’s been a real commercial success.  The Argentinean Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a clever and emotionally engaging film, but really only played to the artwork crowd, and an English language remake, Criminal, never really found an audience – possibly due to that bland, uninformative title?  The Brothers Bloom vanished without trace, and so did corporate espionage caper Duplicity, a grifting movie in all but name.

So what’s going on?  If Leverage can stuff an average of two cons, a heist, and a fight sequence into 42 minutes, it can’t be that cons are too complex to fit into a feature length movie.  Is it that we find it hard to bond with a central character who spends half the movie pretending to be someone else?  But spies do that, and we love spy movies…

No, I’m genuinely stumped on this one.  Over to you, my valiant readers.  Why are there so few successful con movies?

Things I Learned From… The Woman In Black

Ah, a good old-fashioned ghost story!  Things that go bump in the night, shadows at the end of the corridor, faces in the mirror…  I don’t normally consider myself susceptible to this sort of thing – but like everyone else in that packed cinema, I jumped out of my skin more times than I care to admit!

The Woman in Black has succeeded as a novel, a long-running stage play, and now a film, so there’s something deeply effective about this story.  So, attempting to keep spoilers to a minimum, can we draw some conclusions about why it’s so powerful and gripping?

The hero is vulnerable. Arthur Kipps is young, far from home, and ostracized by the local community.  In adapting Susan Hill’s novel, screenwriter Jane Goldman has, if anything, emphasized his vulnerability – by making him a widower, and sole carer to his young son.  That, and his grief, has distracted him from his work, and this is his last chance to keep his job.  This is a man physically, professionally, and psychologically on the edge, long before strange things start happening in the deep background…

The victims are children.  The collision between child as innocent and child as monster drives a lot of Victorian (and modern) horror, and again, Goldman works hard to foreground this.  In Hill’s novel, the deaths are all accidents, the kind of simple tragedies that befell a lot of children in a dangerous age.  In the film, the children are hypnotized into taking their own lives, emphasizing the Woman In Black’s power and making them, however briefly, sinister extensions of her.

I remember a horror author saying in an interview that horror isn’t really about fear of death.  The thing we fear most is loss of self –  possession, insanity, the triumph of our suppressed fears and desires.  In this version, the children are not simply killed – in the moments before they die, they lose themselves, become slaves to a malevolent spirit with no will of their own, and that disturbs us far more than the brutal fact of their deaths.

Horror is all about depth of field.  The best scares are the things we’re not even sure we actually saw – the slight movement, the reflection at the window, the shape in the bushes.  So, unlike any other kind of movie, the real action in a horror movie takes place not at the front and centre of the frame, but in the background and at the edges.

Early humans weren’t always at the top of the food chain, and one of the reasons we survived was our ability to assign intent to random events.  The leaves move in the jungle – we assume it’s a predator and run away.  Yes, sometimes it’s just leaves moving, but it’s safer to run from a few false alarms than miss the one time it’s really a hungry tiger.

We all still carry this survival reflex.  It’s stronger in some people than others, but none of us are immune to it.  So tap into that movement = danger reflex, and you have the ability to scare the audience any time you like…

And last but not least, she doesn’t play by the rules.  We all know that ghosts have unresolved business, and once their emotional needs are met, they’ll pass over peacefully and it’s all over.  Right?  Well, not this time.

Again, Goldman’s reshaping of the plot works hard to give us a bittersweet ending that doesn’t underplay the Woman In Black’s power and cruelty, but also provides Kipps with a degree of victory over her.  The hero’s triumph is not physical but emotional – she may have defeated him outwardly, but he has still passed beyond her power, largely thanks to love and human bonds of emotion.  (see The Orphanage for a similar physical failure/ emotional victory…)

So what did you learn from The Woman In Black – apart from don’t sit next to the nervous person with the giant-size popcorn tub?