It’s A Wrap!

At 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, filming on season one of Wolfblood finally wrapped. Of course, the work is far from over – the editing, special effects and composing team still have their noses to the grindstone – but this seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve learned from my first original TV project.

It’s always more complicated than you think.  Write what seems like a simple scene with your lead actors talking in the school playground – and in practice, that involves dozens of background artistes being carefully directed, two cameras shooting a couple of takes from each of several different angles, and a continuity nightmare.

Put your scene out in the woods, or on the moors, and everything becomes a thousand times more complicated. One of the great things about the finished footage I’ve seen is how it conveys the feeling of a village dominated by nature and the great outdoors – but that’s come at a price. A price exacted mostly by the weather! All filmmaking is a compromise between what you saw in your head, and what you can actually achieve on the budget and timescale. The cast and crew have done wonders, but in future, we may have to pick our battles when it comes to exterior scenes…

Sometimes you get lucky.  Who could have anticipated that there would be a school in the throes of closing –  half-empty and available for us to film in, even during term-time – only a brief drive from the village we were using as the fictional Stoneybridge? That instantly provided us not only with the school sets, but with a production base, a couple of empty halls to build interior sets in – and a ready supply of extras from the remaining pupils!

And sometimes you don’t.  Did I mention the weather?

Finding the balance between serial story and story-of-the-week is important.  Every show has a different balance between the ongoing, often character-focused elements, and the events of that week’s episode. Establishing that balance probably does more to pin down the tone and style of your series than any other single element. Quite a lot of the development process was spent examining different options – everything from an adventure-of-the-week format to a fully serialized story – and in the end, it paid off.

And last but not least, casting is everything – because the right actors make your writing look brilliant!

So now it’s a mad rush to finish up the episodes before transmission, which looks likely to be late this year or early next year.  As soon as I have any details on transmission dates, they’ll be on the blog…

Oooh, Shiny!

Looking forward to seeing The Avengers again soon – which got me thinking about the first Iron Man movie, and a storytelling flaw that I call the ”Oooh, shiny!” story.

An ”Oooh, shiny!” movie is a movie with an inherent conflict between it’s genre and it’s theme. It thinks it’s making a particular moral statement – indeed, it makes it explicitly in dialogue – but the action and the iconography of the movie contradicts the theme so severely that the audience is effectively seeing a totally different movie.

An example. Eastern Promises, written by Steven Knight, is the story of an idealistic nurse in London trying to protect a baby born to a young Russian prostitute. But I bet the first thing that popped into your head when you saw the title was Viggo Mortensen covered in gang tattoos, menacing our heroine and fighting bad guys.

The movie really wants to be earnest, moral and serious. Often, it is. It has important things to say about international crime, people smuggling and the human cost of the sex trade. But every few scenes, the narrative is pulled off course by the glamour and danger of the Russian Mafia into whose world the heroine is drawn. They’re unusual, visually compelling, carry the promise of  action, conflict and danger. They feel much more like the heroes of an underworld thriller than a nice nurse ever will.

Like a magpie who can’t ignore that shiny object just off it’s path, the narrative of Eastern Promises is constantly being distracted from it’s stated theme and purpose. ”Right, we must talk about the evils of people trafficking… But look, there are gangsters over there! With guns! And they’re all exotic and inscrutable! Ooh, shiny!”

Iron Man has exactly the same flaw – it’s action and it’s iconography are at odds with its stated message. The first act is quite an audacious story for a superhero movie: an arrogant billionaire who made his money from armaments is captured by the enemy and forced to create a super-weapon for them. A fellow prisoner teaches him about the human cost of conflict, and he learns for himself what it’s like to be a prisoner of war. Secretly turning his super-weapon into a means of escape, he returns home to shut down his company’s weapons division and devote his talents, and his newly invented power source, to technology that will benefit humankind.

Splendid. Hand that man a Nobel Peace Prize, right? Well, actually, no. Because while he does a lot of clean energy research, etc, the film is actually about him inventing, refining, and using a battle-suit with tremendous offensive capacity. Not a defensive weapon, mark you, but a means of attack. Not only that, but he doesn’t wait to be threatened: he actively goes looking for trouble in it. With the suit on, he’s powerful, glamorous, and he looks damn cool. He’s a hero. Say it with me: ”Oooh, shiny!”

And Tony Stark does much the same things in The Avengers, of course. But you know what? I have no problem with his behaviour there. Because, unlike the first act of Iron Man, The Avengers isn’t pretending to be a serious exploration of the traumas of war. It’s a straightforward tale of traditional heroism and derring-do, where might and right are intrinsically linked, and while heroes don’t start fights, they always finish them. The vigilante code – ”My courage, physical strength, and personal suffering place me above the law, the only one who can save you” – belongs in a story like The Avengers. It doesn’t belong shoulder to shoulder with an apparently serious attempt to say that war is hell.

So, if you have a strongly stated theme, especially one that equates to a particular social or political standpoint, take a good look at how you’re presenting it, and how you’re presenting its opposite.

Of course you shouldn’t be presenting the other viewpoint as a straw man, only there to be knocked down and ridiculed. But it’s worth asking yourself: when the characters representing the two sides of my thematic argument are on screen, is the audience’s eye drawn to the right one? Is your hero embodying your theme in a dynamic, compelling, and convincing way – or are you secretly feeling drawn to the shiny temptations of the Dark Side…?

Things I Learned From… The Avengers

I enjoyed The Avengers a lot more the second time round. Which may account for it’s phenomenal box office takings, I guess! In my case, I think it took me a second viewing to get over my residual dislike of many of the characters – Thor isn’t authentically Viking enough for my liking, Captain America is dull, and Iron Man’s just annoying (though he comes over as much more rounded and empathetic here than he has done previously)…

So, having got over that and appreciated The Avengers for what it is – a superb piece of screenwriting that deftly balances action, exposition and character arcs, and handles the ridiculous number of main characters it’s inherited with aplomb – what can we learn from it?

Hollywood talks about the four quadrant picture: a movie that appeals to the four main audience groups – young men, young women, older men, older women. (And as usual, by ”older”, Hollywood means over twenty-five…)

The Avengers isn’t a four quadrant movie (though for a superhero movie, it’s doing excellent business among female cinemagoers – as much as 40% of the audience).

But what writer-director Joss Whedon and writer Zak Penn do deliver is a kind of ”four quadrants of screenwriting” movie: a film that delivers on the four essentials that really hook an audience, that draw them back for repeat viewings and have them urging their friends to see the movie too. That considered, the box office numbers shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

So what are these ”four quadrants of screenwriting”?

Characters that we care about. You would have thought that was a given, but many tentpole movies assume we’ll empathise with the lead character just because their name’s in the title. Every character in this movie not only gets a moment where they look cool: they get a moment of humour, of sadness, of vulnerability, of human connection. They relate to one another on an individual level, and not always in admirable ways. And above all, they suffer. They endure physical pain, fear, and loss, and then they truly feel the triumph that follows their sacrifices – powerful human experiences that an audience longs to share with them. As I said, I’m not a great fan of many of these characters –  but I felt deeply for every one of them at some point.

A story that fulfils our expectations – but never the way we expect. Cheating your audience is the fastest way to empty seats yet devised. If you promise scares, or action, or deep human drama, then you’d better deliver. If, as in The Avengers, you have pre-existing characters and relationships, signature moves and dialogue styles, you have to fulfil those expectations too.

But delivering exactly what the audience expects produces a so-so movie, a ”meh” story that leaves the audience unimpressed, even if they don’t know why. So Whedon and Penn take care to twist every expectation. We expect an Asgardian to plunge out of the carrier in the escape-proof cell – but it’s not the one we thought. Black Widow goes to Loki to bargain for a friend’s life, but things are not as they seem. We’ve seen Stark don new Iron Man suits before, but never while falling out of a building… All the way down to the ”who would win?” fights between the characters, all the things we were promised are delivered, but there’s always a surprise, a twist, a new experience along with them.

Emotions, and lots of them. Strangely enough, triggering an emotional response in the audience is the thing that tentpole movies are worst at. Admiring the special effects is not an emotion. Even whooping because something big just blew up in 3D isn’t an emotion, not in any meaningful sense.

Emotions are what we really go to the movies to experience, and they’re the things that we’ll remember long after we’ve forgotten the special effects and the story and even the lead actor’s name. Here, Whedon and Penn deliver by the truckload. Anger, fear, humour, pride, jealousy, love and joy, the full range of human experience. And one of the best measures of a great film is how wide a range of emotions it offers the audience. Ask the woman sat behind me who yelled ”No!” when (REDACTED) was stabbed, or the people who roared with laughter when the over-excited Hulk realised the only person left to punch was his own ally –  and punched him anyway…

A theme that’s played out in the characters, not just shoehorned into a line of dialogue. Too many movies think that spouting a trite line about heroism or sacrifice in the final reel makes them meaningful. But whatever your theme is, there’s only one place it can be played out – in the lives, hearts and minds of your characters. They live the moral of your story. They prevaricate and try and fail, and then, changed by their experiences, they finally do what we’ve always wanted them to do and they always feared they couldn’t. Banner chooses to hulk out, and controls his other self; Stark makes the ”sacrifice play” Rogers said he was too immature to make; even Fury defies the Council because he believes in his ragtag team. And it works, dramatically, because we’ve seen those changes brewing within them and longed to see them realised in action.

So, character, plot, emotion and theme – the four quadrants you can maximise while writing your story. You might not make the money The Avengers is making, but if you can send your audience away just as happy, you’ll have have done your job well…

Irony in Character

Many simple narratives, such as Lethal Weapon, take two characters with entirely different, opposing views and qualities and pair them up to create fireworks.  However, we can do better than that.  What if we combine those opposing qualities into one character?  Then we have internal conflict – and character irony.

Many of the most memorable characters have a deep vein of irony at their core.  This is a technique that comic book writers have been using for the best part of a century to create instantly recognizable characters with clear characteristics, who’ll stand out in the convoluted, soapy plotlines of a long-running story.

So, Superman, protector of the human race, is in fact an alien who feels emotionally distanced from humanity.  Batman is the face of justice who also happens to be borderline psychotic – and just for good measure, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate ‘poor little rich kid’, the man who has everything in the world except the one thing he needs, his tragically deceased parents.

You could write entire essays on the use of irony in The New X-Men.  HankBeast” McCoy, the sophisticated, erudite intellectual trapped in the body of a hairy ape.  Charles Xavier, a telepath so powerful that he can make contact with telepaths on other planets, yet has been confined to a wheelchair for much of his adult life.  And, perhaps one of the cruelest – and most realistic – ironies in fiction, Erik “Magneto” Lensherr, the concentration camp survivor who ends up embracing a policy of genetic purity and superiority that would have made Hitler proud.

So next time you’re thinking about using two opposing characters to illustrate the theme of your narrative, ask yourself – could I combine those opposing ideas into one character instead?

The Hero’s Journey & The Virgin’s Promise

After some fascinating discussions on Scott Myer’s blog, Go Into The Story, a few weeks back, I invested in a copy of The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson.  I know, I know, it sounds like a Mills & Boon novel, but here’s the subtitle: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening.

So here’s a first for Never Get Off The Bus: a book review!

Essentially, Hudson’s thesis is that there’s a broadly feminine equivalent to the famous Hero’s Journey model of storytelling. This doesn’t necessarily mean stories with female central characters – she mentions many male characters who fit the model –  or even stories aimed at a female audience.  It’s just a model that values traditionally ‘female’ story arenas, values and preoccupations.

If the Hero’s Journey is myth, the Virgin’s Promise is fairy tale: where the Hero goes out into a strange world to prove himself and conquer evil for the good of the community, the Virgin stays home, discovers a talent or facet of her personality that she’s been keeping hidden because of social pressure, and begins to develop it in secret.  Eventually her secret comes out, and traditional, rule-bound society is rocked by this threat – but ultimately the Virgin wins them over, and society changes to accommodate the new, more powerful and fulfilled her.

The films she quotes as adhering to the Virgin’s Promise model include Billy Elliot, Bend It Like Beckham, The Wedding Crashers, Brokeback Mountain, Maid In Manhattan and Sister Act.  She provides step by step breakdowns of the films, detailing how they fit into the thirteen-part structure, and the opening of the book digs into Jungian theory and details twelve archetypes that male and female characters fit into at various stages of their lives, and what their typical stories are, which is interesting stuff in itself.

Is it useful?  Yes, very.  To me, The Virgin’s Promise feels like a model that would work tremendously well for “character-driven” films without a strong plot arc, such as indie dramas or coming of age movies (Hudson discusses coming of age stories in the book, in fact).  It focuses on self-discovery rather than external achievements, emphasizes personal relationships as both a strength and a weakness for the central character, and promotes self-esteem and honesty as the key to changing the world.

It would be fair to say that, for a female writer, I write very “male” stories, in terms of genre, tone and character – and I can still see myself weaving elements of this system into my work from now on.  I can particularly see the value of it for a secondary character (male or female).  While the Protagonist proceeds on the Hero’s Journey, a Sidekick or Attractor character might be exploring the Virgin’s Promise, learning and changing in ways that compliment the Protagonist’s story without repeating beats or interfering with the Hero’s outwards and inwards arc of change.

The book itself does feel a little padded: Part Two, ostensibly a guide to screenwriting, is basic three-act structure with the Virgin’s Promise rehashed throughout it, and Hudson also spends a chapter on the Hero’s Journey itself, which anyone reading this should already be familiar with.  (Though I suppose if you’re not, that makes this book a “two for the price of one”!)

Despite that, I heartily recommend this for anyone who’s mastered all the basic systems and models and is looking for something a little different, and especially for anyone interested in feminist or female-centered stories.


Things I Learned From… Homeland

As season one of Homeland draws towards it’s thrilling conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about ambiguity in drama.

So much of the appeal of Homeland has been the level of uncertainty about the motives and trustworthiness of both the central characters. Carrie is psychologically unstable, impulsive, and so driven that it compromises her career. Brody may be a traitor, but in some ways that’s the least of his problems: he’s traumatised by his experiences, confused about his place in the world, and being manipulated by most of the people around him. They’re both deeply ambiguous characters – but what is ambiguity?

Paul Ashton, from the BBC’s writersroom, says that ambiguity isn’t when we don’t know what’s going on. Neither is it when there are several contradictory answers to a question. Both these situations are confusing and alienating for the viewer. Rather, ambiguity is when there are two (or potentially, more than two) answers, both of which are equally supported by the evidence.

At the end of Inception, is Cobb in a dream world, or the real world?  Both answers are equally possible, within the evidence we’ve been given. In early episodes of Homeland, the evidence pointed equally to Brody being  a traitor, or an innocent man struggling with traumatic experiences. Is Carrie correct about him, or dangerously off her medication?  Again, both options seem equally possible.

So how are the writers managing this level of ambiguity so effectively?  Several clever techniques:

They’ve made us question what is real. Brody’s memory and psychological state are fragile, and Carrie’s on medication – indeed, her behaviour in the first episode is reckless and self-destructive. Neither of these people can be entirely trusted, even when they believe themselves to be telling the truth.

They’ve set the story in a world where anything is possible. The world of the spy – at least in fiction – is a world of shifting boundaries. A country that was an enemy yesterday is an ally today, and a threat again tomorrow. A deadly enemy agent, once turned, can be your most valuable asset. Against this background, every character is suspect and loyalties can change at any time. That’s the value of genre to the writer – among other things, it can create an atmosphere that supports ambiguity.

The two ambiguities reinforce one another. If Carrie’s sane, Brody is a traitor. If Brody’s a genuine hero, then Carrie is deluded. Or so it appears. In fact, it’s logically possible  that Brody’s a traitor and Carrie’s deluded, but that’s not an option we’re ever presented with.  The argument is always framed as an either/or situation.  So every piece of evidence for or against one character simply increases the ambiguity about the other.

Finally, they’ve kept us off-balance with a series of small goals. Follow the money trail; find the terrorist contact; turn the diplomat funding the operation. Each of those twists and turns appears to push the plot towards one answer or the other, before restoring it to the state of ambiguity.  Crucially, none of these goals actually impact on the big question directly. Preventing the terrorist attack won’t prove whether Brody is a traitor or not. It certainly doesn’t impact on Carrie’s fitness to do her job. And it shouldn’t. Providing hard evidence one way or the other every week would feel contrived and ridiculous; instead, the writers shift the general tone of the episodes towards the positive or the negative, giving the illusion of leaning in one direction or the other without actually altering the central ambiguity.