Things I Learned From… Hannibal

I’m a late arrival to Team Murder Husbands. Trust me to get into a show just as it’s cancelled! In fairness, I did watch half of season one, before getting bored with the detective procedural stuff and giving up. It’s only thanks to persistent fans on Twitter that I went back to the show, and I’m very glad I did. It’s a whole different animal from season two onwards. So there’s a lesson there…

But the aspect of Hannibal that I really want to talk about is how it sustains such a theatrical, exaggerated story world, and makes it not only believable, but actually normal.

Operatically-pitched story worlds are quite the thing in American television at the moment. The final season of Sons Of Anarchy definitely tipped over into grand guignol, but the best example is probably True Detective. Massively exaggerating the tropes of Southern Gothic, it creates a fantastical world where men are monsters, but literal monsters also wouldn’t seem out of the question.

But the thing is, I didn’t believe a word of True Detective. In fact, I found a lot of the supposedly deep and meaningful moments laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Whereas I believe absolutely in the world that Hannibal creates.

So, why is that? I have a few thoughts…

Narrow focus. Hannibal takes place in a very streamlined, narrow-focused world. Apart from some scenes with Jack’s wife, which have a darkness of their own, we rarely see a domestic situation or a glimpse of ‘everyday’ life. Our characters live entirely within this theatrical, heightened world. The music we hear, the way characters dress and live and eat (!), even the places that crimes take place, are all carefully selected to reinforce this elaborate and claustrophobic story world. And since reality never intrudes, this becomes our reality.

The fresher your premise, the more exaggeration it will take. True Detective is essentially yet another treatise on the pressures society exerts on ‘traditional’ masculinity. But we’ve seen this a thousand times – and familiarity is what causes a story to tip over from stereotype to parody.

The twisted polysexuality and intellectual mind-games of Hannibal, however, are something we’ve seen far less of on television. We don’t have the afterimages in our head from all the million other times we’ve seen this situation – and that helps keep parody at bay.

Everyone has a goal. The characters of True Detective may be investigating a crime, but from scene to scene, they frequently seem to be drifting around in a haze of self-obsession and indolence. The characters in Hannibal are probably equally self-obsessed, but they all have clear, quantifiable goals.

Hannibal initially wants to frame Will for his own crimes, but his goal shifts into an elaborate scheme to release Will’s ‘true potential’. Will’s goal remains remarkably solid across three seasons: bring down the Chesapeake Ripper, whoever it is, and somehow retain his sanity. Jack Crawford’s goal shifts from Will to Hannibal and back, but he essentially wants to save whichever of them is sane and take down whichever of them is not…

And everything everyone does, however elaborate, twisted and bizarre, is clearly designed to take them another step closer to their goal. There’s no moustache-twirling evil for evil’s sake. This gives a solidity, a believability to their actions that grounds them emotionally.

Of course, we all have our own breaking point. Undoubtedly there are viewers who have the exact opposite reaction – who think True Detective thoroughly believable and Hannibal too far-fetched. But for us as writers, the lesson remains: if you’re writing a heightened version of reality, you can ground it using focus, a fresh emotional premise, and strong character goals…

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One More Draft

Probably the most difficult thing about development is knowing exactly when a script is ready to film. When is the plot exactly right? Do those characters need one more rewrite? What about a dialogue polish?

But the biggest problem is that the decision on when to start filming is not entirely a creative one. If a problem is spotted just before filming, there may not be time to fix it. If actors are contracted for a certain period, delaying filming for one more draft may result in you losing your cast – and losing stars often means the collapse of your funding deal.

And in UK film at least, producers can simply run out of money to pay the writers (and to pay themselves!) Putting the film into production at least guarantees an income for the company – they’ll have a movie they can show to the public, and thus ticket money – whereas another year in development means no money for anyone, and possibly bankruptcy for the company.

But increasingly, I’m seeing big movies which clearly needed one more draft and yet somehow made it into production unaltered.

Tomorrowland is a case in point. The script that was filmed feels more like a writer’s first draft – a long preamble followed by a switch of protagonist, a tone that veers from The Terminator to Interstellar to kids’ comedy, a constant stream of exposition all the way into the third act. Yet somehow that’s what made it to the screen.

Even a mega-hit like Jurassic World arrives dragging the wreckage of previous drafts behind it. Inconsistent characterization, dropped subplots (“Do you still have those matches?”) and forgotten consequences (Chris Pratt walks around all day in clothes that he previously soaked in petrol) abound.

So what’s going on?

I do wonder how much this has to do with the rise of the marketing machine and the ‘pre-sold’ movie. Jurassic World is perhaps the epitome of that. If you saw Jurassic Park when it first came out, you’re sold on this, and if you didn’t: dinosaurs! Everyone knows exactly what they’re getting, and as long as the T-Rex roars and people become dino chow, who cares whether all the jigsaw pieces match up?

In other words, we’ve created a movie-going culture where quality simply has no meaning. You’re either going to see a movie or you’re not, and (increasingly, astonishingly) whether it’s any good or not has nothing to do with whether you go to see the sequel.

The problem with this approach is, an industry that doesn’t have to care about quality can only survive as long as there’s no competition. People in the old Eastern bloc drove Ladas because nothing else was available. As soon as it became possible to import better cars…

And for those of us in the industry, this is an opportunity. We can be that alternative. We can provide the movie that surprises its audience by not only delivering all the thrills and spills they’re seeking, but being full of good characters, interesting plot twists and satisfying emotions… And we can can remember that sometimes, what a movie really needs is one more draft.

Logic Is Your Friend

If there’s one thing writers hate grappling with, it’s plot logic. “But she can’t fly the plane – she’s in the infantry!” “But there are only four hours between these two scenes – how did he drive from LA to the Canadian border?” That’s impossible. That’s illogical. That makes no sense.

This is why so many amateur writers try to ignore it. “Ah, I need that to happen to make the plot work. No one will notice that it’s physically impossible.”

Big mistake.

Of course we have to fudge the details now and then – for dramatic effect, for budget or location practicalities, even to fit the ethos of a TV channel. (The characters in Wolfblood mysteriously reappear from wolf-form fully clothed, because CBBC understandably doesn’t want young actors to film nude scenes. It makes no sense logically, but we cover it as best we can.)

But try to fudge a major plot point, and it will blow up in your face.

So we should hate logic, right? Well, no. The thing about logic is, sometimes it unlocks the entire story for you.

I’m planning a feature script at the moment. Essentially it’s a contained thriller, with a group of people stuck in one location over a long period (and, of course, slowly going nuts). I had a good group of characters and some interesting dilemmas and crises for them to solve. I even had a pretty good ending.

What I didn’t know – what I’ve been going backwards and forwards on for months – was who the protagonist is.

Then I started thinking about the jobs the various characters do – and I realized that one of the characters, purely by virtue of his job, is a regular visitor here, but not a local. The others don’t really know him that well. They don’t necessarily like or trust him, certainly not in a life-threatening situation. He has no roots here, no function, not even a place to stay or any possessions when he gets stranded here. He’s a drain on resources. He’s going to have to prove himself if he wants to survive.

So, of course, he’s the protagonist, because he has the most learning and changing to do.

Moral of the story? Always pay attention to the plot logic, because sometimes, logic is your friend.

Fight The Good Fight

Bob Saenz recently wrote an excellent blog piece about giving notes to a particularly entitled young writer…

http://www.bobsaenz.com/blog/the-mean-old-writer/

And people wonder why professional writers are reluctant to read their work, even when they’re close friends! Believe me, we’ve all had similar reactions to our attempts to help, though they’re rarely quite that bad…

But what interests me here is the misunderstanding implicit in this young writers’ reaction. There’s a really fundamental tenet of screenwriting that he’s missing, and it’s this: the people who work with you on your project are not there for your sake, they’re there for the project’s sake. What’s important is not you, but the story.

When the script reader, editor or producer suggests you remove that scene you love, introduce a character you think will never work, cut the budget by setting it on an island instead of in space, they’re doing it for one reason – to get a really good movie or TV episode made out of your initial ideas.

That means that, if you’re wrong about something, they’re going to tell you. And you will be wrong – yes, wrong about your own script! – sometimes. God knows I have been… Sometimes we’re too close to the material to see the wood for the trees, sometimes we don’t have the experience to appreciate that another approach would work better. Sometimes that particular element (plot, character, dialogue) is our weak point, and we need an outside suggestion to buttress it. We’re not always the best judge of our own work, and we’re not going to get it right all the time.

And the reason we employ all these brilliant people is to make the show better, not to make ourselves feel better.

So next time someone gives you notes that are painful – and they will be, sometimes, however tactfully they’re given – remind yourself that you’re not fighting your creative team. You’re on the same side, fighting to make that story as good as it possibly can be…

Things I Learned From… Man Up

Man Up, the first movie from writer Tess Morris, is out today. Starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, it’s the story of an impulsive decision that spirals into the world’s weirdest blind date, between two apparently unsuited people who might just be perfect for each other. As we all know, I’m not a huge fan of romcoms – and I really enjoyed it. Which is quite a recommendation, right? So go see it immediately!

But as a writer, what I took away from it was that changing the norms and conventions of a well-worn genre can make that genre fresh and new again.

We all know how romcoms work, right? The couple meet – and keep meeting, over weeks, months, even years. Some connection between them has been contrived – or maybe it’s just fate – that keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbits, whether they currently like or hate one another. And that’s what gives them time to get over themselves and get together.

Man Up doesn’t do that. Instead, it tracks Jack and Nancy across the course of 24 hours or so. They met by accident, they have no way to contact each other, or even much idea which of the things they think they know about the other are true. This is a whirlwind romance where, when parted, they have almost no chance of finding one another (well, apart from the help of some unlikely bystanders, but every romcom needs some intervention from Cupid…)

And that means the pressure is on. They bond tonight, or they part and it’s over. By placing the relationship in a pressure cooker, Man Up deftly avoids the perilously flabby “will they, won’t they, who cares, plenty more fish in the sea” structure of most romcoms, and raises the stakes without elevating the relationship into some unbelievable, mythic romance. Right now, these two people need each other – and right now is all that matters.

So, the writing lesson here is – how can you break the rules of your chosen genre? What if your sweeping historical epic all took place in one room? Or your contained thriller tracked the same small group of people over twenty years?  What if your action movie had an all-female cast? And most importantly, how can you use this to raise the stakes, bust cliches, and reinvent your chosen genre?

No Assumptions

I’ve been polishing up a pitch document for a new TV drama series, and the notes I’ve been getting back reminded me of one of the most important things I learned about writing pitches, outlines, etc –

Don’t expect the reader to make assumptions about the characters’  emotions.

I used to write outlines that simply described the events happening to the protagonist, and assume that the reader would supply the emotional content. So I’d write “And that night, her dog runs into traffic and is killed” and expect the reader to mentally add “and she feels sad about it.”

It was only when a script editor pointed it out to me that I realised: you have to be explicit about how the character is feeling and reacting at all times. You can’t expect a reader to supply the character’s emotions, because – unlike someone reading a book or watching a movie – they don’t expect to have to make that imaginative leap. That’s not how outlines and pitches work. Your outline’s job is to be precise and explicit about the character’s emotional journey.

And as soon as I started writing in what to me had seemed obvious – he’s sad when his mother dies, she’s elated when she gets elected mayor – readers’ reactions to my work became much more positive.

And this is an ongoing lesson. I still have to check every document to make sure I’ve picked out every moment of emotional importance. So, however obvious your characters’ emotions feel to you, make sure they’re down there in black and white at outline stage…

How Many Is Too Many?

So I saw The Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday. Detailed thoughts on that will have to wait until the film has opened worldwide, but one thing it did get me thinking was – how many main characters is too many?

Age Of Ultron has eight, maybe nine, lead characters including the villain, significant cameos by another five, and walk-ons from another half dozen or so, familiar and unfamiliar. That’s a lot of people to get your heads round!

So is there a definite limit to how many main characters an audience can deal with? Are there particular factors that affect that? Here are a few thoughts…

Familiarity helps. Obviously a franchise has it easier in this area, because the audience will remember some of those characters from the last movie. You may want to remind people of their core characteristics, but at least you don’t have to establish who they are and how they behave from the ground up.

Can you tell them apart at a glance? Film is a visual medium, and keeping your characters visually distinct will help the audience remember who’s who. (Yet another compelling argument for more women and people of colour in movies!)

Again, comic books have an advantage here. Many of those bold, bright superhero costumes originated in a time when comics were throwaway entertainment printed on rough paper with cheap ink, and however good the original artwork, often the only way to tell the characters apart once it was printed was by their uniforms.

This suggests that setting also has a bearing on how many characters you can use. If you’re writing about the inhabitants of a town, all different ages, races and income brackets, you should be able to have more main characters that if your characters are all nuns, or soldiers, all dressed the same and possibly of similar age and background.

Can you divide your characters into groups? Not putting all your characters on screen together all the time will help the audience get to know them as individuals. The Avengers often split down into teams according to their functions: we might see Black Widow and Hawkeye being spies, or Stark and Banner being science bros in the lab.

But you’re going to want to keep all your characters busy all the time, and there’s a limit to how many plot lines you can run simultaneously. In the all-action finale, we can probably keep track of three teams doing different things to save the world, and any team that’s more than three or four members will have difficulty keeping them all busy…

Do all your characters have a different motivation? Everyone in a movie may want the same thing, but they should want it for different reasons. And while in real life a thousand people may each have fractionally different motivations for making the same decision, on screen there’s a limit to how many distinct motivations and mindsets we have time to explore.

In The Avengers, everyone wants to stop Loki, but for different reasons. Steve Rogers has seen what the Tesseract can do; Tony Stark is as much trying to work out what SHIELD is up to as what Loki’s planning. Bruce Banner doesn’t really want to be involved, but he knows they can’t do it without him. Natasha Romanov is trying to save her dearest friend. Thor wants to save his brother, though he isn’t even sure that’s possible.

So think about how many different motivations for being involved you have room to explore. If you have three characters who really want exactly the same thing, they probably need to be conflated into one character…