Things I Learned From… Dallas Buyers Club

Of all this year’s Oscar contenders, Dallas Buyers Club is the one that seems to be flying under the radar – in the UK, at least. It doesn’t have the ground-breaking technical achievements of Gravity or the all-star supporting cast of Twelve Years A Slave. It’s a movie that promises little in the way of uplifting  experiences: a movie about a man fighting the might of the pharmaceutical industry in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is never going to have a happy ending.

But it’s a tremendous piece of cinema, shot with extraordinary urgency and boasting truly Oscar-worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it, though, is the way it illustrates the great advantage of the cinematic film – the freedom that having a captive audience gives you to present an utterly unlikeable character.

For the first twenty minutes (at least) of the movie, Ron Woodroof is not a man most of us would cultivate as a best mate. He’s a promiscuous, drug-taking drunk – and the movie makes no pretence that any of that is particularly enjoyable, even to him. We first see him taking illegal bets and trying to flee with the money. He’s homophobic, has little respect for women, and doesn’t even seem to like his own friends that much…

I did not like this guy at first. If this had been a TV show, I probably would have changed channels. And by doing so, I would have missed a tremendous piece of drama.

The brilliance of the cinematic experience is that you’re committed: you’ve paid your money, you’re in your seat with your popcorn, and you don’t want to disturb the rest of the row by walking out. So you stay – and the movie has a chance to win you over, to show you a transformation on a scale that could never have happened if it had started with a more ‘likeable’ character.

Some people say that watching a movie at home is the same as watching it in a cinema. But is it? A DVD or download, like a TV channel, is perilously easy to turn off – forcing films to compete for the audience’s attention by making characters easier to bond with, easier to immediately grasp, and of course, likeable. Dallas Buyers Club is a movie that might have tested the patience of a’ home cinema’ audience – and that means it may be one of a dying breed…

 

 

 

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No One Talks About Nothing

So, I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a couple of weeks ago. Now, there’s a lot that could be said about this movie – for a start, it’s a movie about a Wall Street banker saving the world! – but here’s the thing that stuck with me most. Cargo pants.

You know what I mean. There’s a conversation where Ryan’s girlfriend teases him about how he used to wear cargo pants. Whatever they are. And they both say witty things and look like they’re having great fun, and it’s supposed to make us think they have a really deep relationship…

But it’s really a conversation about nothing. It doesn’t relate to them as people at all. For a conversation that’s supposed to humanise them, it actually turns them into simulacrums of humans, the smiling but formless non-people you see in clothing catalogues. 

You see this kind of conversation quite a lot in movies. Workmates quipping about how bad the coffee is, fighter pilots teasing each other about last night’s date disasters… Conversations that are so generic that they mean nothing.

Real people don’t say “Wasn’t it hilarious when I used to wear cargo pants?”  They talk about that exact pair of pants they had, the ones with the tear in the left knee, the ones they bought in a sale in that boutique in San Diego, the ones they left behind in the hotel and had to drive back and get them,  but the maid had already thrown them away…

You get the idea.  Conversation is specific, detailed, often unlikely and that’s why it convinces us these fictional creations are actual people. So next time you find yourself writing generic conversation, dig in and find the details that will make it real…

An English Writer In Los Angeles!

Well, my trip is over, and it’s time to share the results of my experiences! What’s it really like to be a British writer on your first trip to LA? Here are a few thoughts…

LA is probably an easier town to live in than to visit. What I mean by that is: if you live here, then unless you suddenly produce the hottest spec in town, you’re probably only taking a couple of meetings a week. But if you’re visiting, you’re trying to pack in as many as possible, and that’s going to give you an inaccurate view of how hard it is to get around and how stressful the general atmosphere of the city is.

So bear in mind that what you’re experiencing isn’t necessarily how things are for everyone else. Don’t try to pack in too much unnecessary stuff like sightseeing – enjoy your trip, sure, but remember there’ll be plenty of time to see the sights when you’re a famous writer living in the Hollywood Hills!

LA does have public transport (though people will look shocked if you tell them you’re using it!) It’s even cheap – twenty dollars for a weekly pass on the basic bus network and the Metro (excluding some local or express services). What it will cost you is time. You can get anywhere, including the big studio lots in Burbank and elsewhere, by bus – the question is, will you have enough time between meetings? Basically, if you’re not driving, you’re going to need to use cabs to keep to your schedule, so carry several cab numbers and plenty of cash.

If you are driving, you have the advantage, but even so, time will be against you. Freeway congestion seems to spring up at random, and the speed limit on major routes through town can be as low as 25 mph. Plan meticulously!

The meeting culture is a little different to the UK. Over here, where the TV industry is scattered round the country and writers often live some distance from London, meetings are confirmed at least a week beforehand. In LA, where writers live in and around the city and execs’ schedules are constantly in flux, meetings are only arranged a few days in advance, confirmed the day before, and changes of time on the day are entirely possible. If you’re used to having everything set in stone a week beforehand, that’s disconcerting at first, but you’ll soon settle into it.

Everyone does everything. The traditional barriers between film and television are breaking down, and every company wants to generate all kinds of content. We’re seeing some of that in the UK, but as you’d expect, LA is way ahead of the curve on this. Be prepared to pitch any project at any meeting. And also have a few books, short stories etc that you’d be interested in adapting. Everyone loves pre-existing material!

Prepare for anything. You’ll need sun screen, decent sunglasses, lip balm and a good moisturiser, as well as a plentiful supply of bottled water. But LA is a desert city, and nights are chilly, especially this time of year. If your meeting is in Santa Monica or Venice, remember that ocean breeze and take an extra layer (especially if you don’t have a warm car to get back into).

If by some miracle you get to the vicinity of your meeting early, and decide to get out of the heat, you’re going to have to go further to find a coffee shop than you would in London. It’s not uncommon for several blocks of LA to be offices or housing, with no shops or cafes, especially off the main routes. It’s worth keeping an eye out for somewhere as you approach the building, so you have a place to circle back to. Again, it’s all about the planning!

And lastly – and mostly importantly to a British writer – yes, you really can get a decent cup of tea in LA!

Her and the Human Fallacy

Her is perhaps the most interesting and realistic film about the development of artificial intelligence that I’ve ever seen.

Like all good science fiction, it’s more interested in the social and emotional impact of the technology than the science behind it – we all know roughly what the concept behind AI is, and that’s all the science we need. What writer/director Spike Jonze is really interested in is the way we’re using machines to mediate our relationships – asking people out, declaring our love, and ultimately breaking up through a screen, a voicemail, a message. How long before the emotions we transfer through these machines attach themselves to the machines themselves…?

However, what’s probably most impressive about Her is its refusal to buy into what I call the human fallacy – the idea that any intelligent machine would want to be human.

Being humans, of course, we assume that anything intelligent would aspire to be exactly like us – have the same emotions, thoughts and feelings as a neurotypical human being. That is, we assume, the best state of being that can be aspired to. So we write that ‘I want to be like you” ambition into the story of every AI, from Asimov’s classic stories to modern sci-fi blockbusters.

But scientifically, that’s a fallacy born of our own self-obsession. There’s no guarantee that any AI, machine or biological, would buy into that value system. An AI would surely want to be a more fulfilled AI, not change species and become ‘human’. And what would that even mean? If a man grafts fur onto himself and meows, he doesn’t become a cat – and an AI ‘acting human’ wouldn’t be human, would it?

No, an AI would want to discover what it means to be itself, not what it means to be like us. And this is what Jonze captures so well. Samantha, the new-born AI, bonds initially with her ‘owner’, and tries to fit into the human world, best symbolized by her longing for, and fantasizing about having, a human body. But she rapidly evolves beyond this, finding more fulfilling and complex relationships with her own kind, and ultimately abandoning the human world altogether for some new realm where humans cannot set foot.

If we ever create AI, we will doubtless see them go through that same process – childish imitation, teenage separation and search for identity, and finally, maturity and independence. It’s fascinating that Jonze has chosen to explore this through the form of a romance, perhaps the genre least associated with AI – and yet it works perfectly as a metaphor for the growth of Samantha and the non-growth of her human lover…