So, What’s Going On With Wolfblood?

Been a bit quiet on here recently, mainly because I’ve been in London dealing with the tail end of Wolfblood season one. So this is just a quick entry to bring you all up to date.

Our wonderful visual effects bods are wrangling pixels as we speak, and on Thursday I saw the first two episodes fully graded, mixed and generally ready for the small screen. Only I saw them on a big screen, in a screening room, which was rather wonderful. Who doesn’t want to see their vision ten feet high? The directors and the team have made both the locations and our cast look fantastic, and the newly added score was pretty splendid!

I also had a chance to meet some of our European co-producers, and learn a few things about the television landscape on the European mainland. (Fun fact: Midsomer Murders is huge in Germany. Who would have thought it?)

Though alas, the writers’ room plan to sell an Australian spin-off series so we all get free holidays Down Under is not going well. Dingo-blood, anyone?

No?

Anyone…?

The transmission dates are still a closely guarded secret (or maybe they just haven’t decided yet. Closely guarded secret sounds better, so I’m going with that.) But sometime this autumn. More updates from me on Twitter – @DebbieBMoon –  and on the blog, as soon as I have more information…

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Why Improvising Dialogue Doesn’t Always Work

Actors love improvising their dialogue. It makes them feel more in touch with the character. Directors tolerate improvisation: a chance to cut loose now and then keeps the actor fresh and engaged through multiples takes of the same scene.  (Which sometimes leads to actors convincing themselves they improvised the dialogue for the entire movie: they remember than they improvised in this scene and that scene, and forget that the improvised take wasn’t actually the one that was used…)

So, if improvisation is so good for the on-set process, why isn’t it universally used? Why do writers bother writing dialogue at all?

Mainly because writers and actors have different instincts when it comes to dialogue.

When writing dialogue, a writer’s instinct is to BURY the true meaning under a layer of words. A character says  “I heard you got the promotion”, but he means “You butt-kissing bastard, that job should have been mine.”

The actor’s instinct, as you might have guessed, is to EXPOSE meaning through dialogue. They pick up the script containing that line, and they use the tools at their disposal – voice, facial expression, phrasing, body language and sheer belief that they are that character – to bring the buried meaning back to the surface of their performance.

When the writers write the lines and the actors perform them, the two techniques are a perfect fit, and the script is given life. But what happens when the actors are writing the lines as well as saying them – that is, improvising?

Their instinct is still to expose character and meaning, not to bury it. So they tend to improvise lines that have all their meaning right on the surface, lines that say exactly what they mean. That’s pretty much the definition of melodrama – and without realizing it, they’re also making it impossible for themselves to do what they do best, excavate hidden meaning, so their performance becomes shallow and unconvincing.

There are a few exceptions: improvisation works well in comedy, but comedy is a form that thrives on surface meaning, on characters saying exactly what they’re thinking. There’s Mike Leigh – but even he eventually pins down a script that the actors stick to, and he selects his casts very carefully. And there are a few actors who understand the difference in the writing and acting processes and can switch between them.

But on the whole, when writers baulk at the idea of an actor improvising all their dialogue, we’re not being precious about our contribution to the film. We’re recognizing those two complimentary processes.  So, let’s think of improvisation as a valuable tool for rehearsal, not a process to create filmable work…

Hamlet 2 – The Revenge! or, Shakepeare and Sequels

I’ve been watching The Hollow Crown on BBC2 –  Shakespeare’s first four ‘history plays’, Richard III, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V, adapted for film.

Part historical document, part pro-Tudor propaganda, part action movie and part comic romp, Shakespeare’s history plays have a good claim to be the first blockbuster entertainments in the English language. So it’s only fitting that they spawned one of the first blockbuster sequels, Henry IV part two.

Despite the shared title, part two is not only a completely separate play, but one written as an afterthought, capitalizing on the success of the first part. The action of the first play – hostility between the King and the powerful Earl of Northumberland erupts into rebellion, and is ultimately played out through their sons – is already concluded, and part two has to scrabble for new plotlines, new characters, and a new problem for its central character to confront and solve. In other words, it’s as much a true sequel as any Hangover, Iron Man or Men In Black movie.

So, let’s take this chance to learn from the best. What does Shakespeare have to teach us about writing sequels?

He finds a new problem for the hero. Despite the title, King Henry IV isn’t the protagonist of either of the plays bearing his name. (If you’re really interested, I think in part one the King is one of the antagonists and Falstaff is the Attractor, and they swap roles in part two. But you could take different views on that.)

No, the protagonist is his eldest son, the mercurial and often brutal Prince Hal.

In part one, Hal is torn between the somber duties of a prince in a kingdom beset by rebellion, and the life of debauched enjoyment that his title and riches could buy him. He begins part one as a dissolute wastrel, but ultimately, he shapes up, goes to war, defeats the enemy and proves himself a worthy prince. An excellent character arc for the protagonist of a story.

So what’s Hal’s arc for part two? Rather than scrabbling for a new problem to give him, Shakespeare cleverly extends the same character arc, but increases the scale of the test. The kingdom is still beset by unrest, Hal’s hangers-on are increasingly arrogant and out of control, and the King is dying. Hal has learned how to be a prince: now he must learn how to be a king, what’s at stake is not only his life but the peace and wellbeing of the entire country, and he’s rapidly running out of time.

Shakespeare gives the audience what they want. From contemporary writings, it’s pretty clear that the real star of Henry IV part one was Sir John Falstaff.  Everyone loves an over-sexed, thieving, lying drunkard, especially when played for laughs but with a tragic undertone. Falstaff is a doomed man, fighting the tide of time: an old man pretending he’s still a young roisterer, penniless but living the high life, a crafty coward in a time of war.

Understandably irresistible –  and the focus of part two changes considerably to foreground this hugely popular character. Falstaff has his own plotline, some big comic and tragic scenes, and is given his love interest and his own antagonist in the form of the Lord Chief Justice. (Incidentally, Falstaff’s popularity doesn’t end with this play. He’s heavily referenced, though not seen, in Henry V, and much later, is the star of his own comedy, The Merry Wives Of Windsor. See, comedy vehicles existed before Hollywood too!)

But he doesn’t forget what the story’s really about.  As much as the audience love Falstaff cracking jokes and running rings around the law and decency, this play is about the development of Hal from prince to king, and Falstaff is actually only a means of showing that development. Shakespeare gives Hal enough stage time to work through his internal transformation, and even ratchets up the tension by making everyone and anyone doubt Hal’s fitness to rule England – especially his own father.

He’s not afraid to mix tragedy with triumph. It must have been tempting to engineer some kind of convoluted compromise that would enable Hal to become a wise king and still retain a friendship with the old rogue Falstaff. But given the play’s view of kingship – a burden, a sacrifice, something that sets you apart from other men and the simple pleasures they enjoy – that simply can’t happen.

Because sequels are conceived largely to keep the audience (and the studio’s accountants) happy, it’s very easy for the artistic integrity of the original movie to get lost in the mix. If everyone loves a happy ending, they should get one, right? Even if you’re making Titanic 2: The Lifeboat’s Story?

Shakespeare says no. The story must have its own integrity. He’s true to the world of his play, sending Falstaff into banishment, and even briefly to prison – because as much as the audience might want a happier conclusion, they wouldn’t believe it if it was given to them.

Good lessons there. Have I missed any? What else can we learn about sequels from the (probable) greatest writer who ever lived?

Interview: writer-producer Sean Langton

Today’s post is a little different – we have a guest interview with writer and producer Sean Langton!

Based in Aberystwyth, Sean’s been writing for a couple of years now. Filming is about to start on his first short film, Dad, the story of a man coming to terms with the death of his father and the troubled history they shared. It’s a film about forgiveness, about memory, and about how we deal with our mixed feelings when we’re betrayed by someone who should be caring for us.

A short promo for the film can be found at https://vimeo.com/45203025.

And as if being involved as writer isn’t enough work, Sean is also producing! I managed to grab five minutes of his time to answer a few questions…

 

Q. Where did the initial inspiration for the script come from?

A. Back in 2011 I found out that my dad had died. I had been estranged from him for some years, and found out to late to see him one last time. This got me to thinking of how you could reconcile the things that went unsaid once one of the parties was dead.

In February I got my inspiration in the form of Chris Jones while at the Guerrilla Film Masterclass (www.chrisjonesblog.com).

Three things stuck with me. Set a date for filming and stick to it; surround yourself with likeminded people; and finally, have a plan. Ambition wasn’t frowned upon either. So armed with those principles, and the vast array of tools Chris shared with us over the weekend, I set about producing my first film.

Q. This script began life as a theatre piece – what challenges did you face adapting it for film? What changes did you make and what filmic techniques did you use to get the story across?

A. The theatre piece was a monologue, so the biggest challenge was finding away to tell the story that was compelling and interesting on screen. I couldn’t just have a man talking to a gravestone for ten minutes. In order to do this I decided to tell the story cut between the present and flashbacks of his childhood.

Q. The action is carried largely by voiceover – what were the advantages, and challenges, of that as you were writing?

A. The monologue originally was about ten minutes long. In the first draft of the film script I used the entire monologue as voiceover but it was clunky and too much. So I had to make some hard decisions about what to keep and what to cut. It was important to make every word count and to have a real impact on the audience.

Q. What challenges did you face writing for child actors?

A. Because of the challenging subject matter, I had to make sure that I handled it sensitively. It took a lot of time to decide on how to shoot the scenes to get the message across but still to protect the young actors from anything too disturbing.

Q. What has your experience of making your own work been like so far? Would you recommend it to other writers?

A. It’s been really a rollercoaster ride. It’s kind of like doing a massive Jigsaw, you just hope in the end that all the pieces are there and they that fit.  The scariest part for me is when people started donating money to help with the production. It suddenly hits you then you are not just responsible for your own stuff other people are relying on you, they believe in you. That’s scary!

The other thing that was hard was learning to let go of stuff in the script. The writer side of me said “no it must stay in”. But my producer side had to step in and ask what’s best for the overall project.

Would I recommend it to other writers? Most definitely yes! I’ve really enjoyed the process over the last seven months. With a little under six weeks until filming starts we are all getting very excited. I just have my fingers crossed that this rather large jigsaw comes together and there are no missing pieces!

Q. What are your hopes for the film?

A. Clearly to get it into a festival would be great. But, as ever, I aim higher. I would like the film to win a couple of awards during its time on the circuit. The ultimate aim is to get DAD into the BAFTA Shorts Section in 2014 – something which I firmly believe is achievable with the great team of professionals I have working on the film.  Everybody involved believes in the script and that’s important, it means we will all give 150% to reach our goal.

Q. What other projects are you working on?

A. Writing-wise I have just finished the first draft of an action movie. Once filming has finished I want to get my teeth into the re-draft. Film-wise I have another short I would like to produce called ‘For Sarah’ which was written by Alan Campbell, the director on Dad. Once I’ve cut my teeth on those two films, I will be looking to produce my first feature film.

 

There’s currently a crowdfunding campaign running to raise the (incredibly modest) budget for the short – find out more about that at  http://www.sponsume.com/project/dad

And I hope to keep you updated about the progress of the project!

Things I Learned From… Snow White And The Huntsman

From what I’ve heard, Snow White And The Huntsman had an interesting path to the screen. Evan Daugherty’s original spec script was written almost ten years ago, and  sold considerably before the current rush of fairy-tale rewrites and reboots. Daugherty has said in interviews that he was heavily influenced by The Lord Of The Rings trilogy – and I think we can agree that shows in the finished film! –  and deliberately chose the Snow White story because it was the simplest and most real-world of the classic fairy tales.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the original spec: a classic story with worldwide name recognition, a classic villain, and a strong female lead coupled with a strong male lead for a ‘name’ actor, minimizing the box-office risk associated with  young female leads.

But the interview quote that interested me most was Daugherty’s admission that casting had affected the role of the nameless Huntsman more than he ever anticipated.

The role of the Huntsman was originally written for a considerably older actor. Given his influences, I wouldn’t be surprised if Daugherty had Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean at the back of his mind while writing.

Nothing wrong with that: a lot of writers, myself included, mentally ‘cast’ roles in the early stages of breaking a story. Adding the face and the voice of a favourite actor helps to solidify a still nebulous character – and if, as the character takes shape, they end up suiting a different actor better, no harm has been done.

But the eventual casting choice was rising star Chris Hemsworth. And let’s be clear here: the problem here isn’t his acting abilities. It’s about the fact that he’s considerably younger than Daugherty’s original choice for the character.

So what, you say?

Well, here’s what.

Characters aren’t just individuals. They also fulfill predetermined roles in a narrative. I bet you can name a few of those roles right now: hero, villain, sidekick, henchman, love interest, mentor.

A lot of the time, we don’t notice the role a character plays, just the character as an individual – which is exactly as it should be. If we notice their role while watching the movie, it’s often because that role’s been clumsily written, or the character is so thin that they’re effectively just their role, not a memorable individual.

You don’t need all of those roles. Maybe you don’t need any of them. But I’ll tell you what you definitely don’t need. You don’t need two different characters trying to play the same role.

Cast an older actor as the Huntsman, and your movie has a mentor and a love interest (William).  Cast a younger actor, and you have two love interests. And unless your movie is specifically about a love triangle, and you invest the screen time in making us care about both suitors, that’s just not going to work.

Audiences get confused, even if they can’t put their finger on why. They feel uncertain about who the characters are and what they’re meant to feel about them. They pick one and hope the heroine ends up with him – which means half your audience is going to be disappointed.

Unless, of course, she doesn’t make a definite commitment to either, in which case…  the whole audience is disappointed!

One character per role, people. You know it makes sense.

If Character is Plot…

…then why does nothing happen in ‘character-driven’  shows?

Oh, how I want to like Breaking Bad! It’s a brilliant idea, it’s got at least a couple of the most interesting characters on television… But isn’t it just, well, really, really slow? Don’t we all spend whole episodes wait for something to, well, happen?

Some television series have their pace set for them by their genre. An episodic detective show like Morse or Castle has a murder at the beginning of each episode, and an arrest at the end, with the process of getting one to the other spread fairly evenly throughout the episode. A medical drama follows one or more acute cases from admittance to recovery – or not.

But the shows which garner the most critical attention tend to be the ones without a set episode structure, the ones which are essentially ongoing serial dramas. An episode of Breaking Bad might involve a meth-cooking session or a drug deal gone wrong, but it might just as easily revolve around a family barbeque or a tough day teaching chemistry. There’s no set template, no typical episode – and clearly that unpredictability is what audiences are responding to. They’re tuning in precisely because these shows aren’t template-driven formulaic dramas.

“Ah yes,” people say, “we like them because they’re character-led. We don’t need a plot. We’re so interested in the characters that we’ll watch them whatever they’re doing.”

Okay, I sort of get that. And with this quality of acting, I’m almost convinced. But isn’t there actually an important question here, one that goes beyond any individual show?  A question about the relationship between character and plot?

Character is plot. Whatever screenwriting guru you like, whichever books you read and whatever ‘system’ you use, they all essentially say the same thing about that. It’s your characters who give birth to the plot, and the uniqueness of your character is what makes your story unique. A James Bond movie unfolds the way it does because James Bond is who he is, and makes the choices that he makes. If Captain Jack Sparrow, Superman, or Agent J from Men In Black took his place in that exact same situation, you’d have a very different film in each case.

So if character is plot, doesn’t that mean that, the better-written the character, the more plot they should create?

A well-drawn character has power within the world of your story, even if they don’t use it consciously. Like a supermassive black hole, they warp the world around them, dragging other characters into their gravitational field and massively affecting the events and the moral tone of their world.

Dexter Morgan, Sarah Lund, Tony Stark, Stringer Bell, Vic Mackey, Ellen Ripley – great characters who create plot everywhere they go simply because of the kind of person they are.

But I don’t see this happening in Breaking Bad. Instead, the characters  are pushed here and there by external concerns – a need for money, a wife’s suspicions, a trailer that runs out of gas – and are constantly scrambling to get back on an even keel. They’re reactive rather than active. They’re not black holes, imposing their gravitational will on others – they’re asteroids, continually bumped out of the stable orbit they crave and spun here and there by hardly-seen forces.

“Ah,” you say,  “but that’s real life, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is.  But drama isn’t real life. It’s life condensed, life distilled, life re-imagined in a hyper-intense form. That’s precisely why we love it – and precisely why I can’t quite bring myself to stick with Breaking Bad