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.

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?

Things I Learned From… Daredevil

Being laid up sick, I watched Netflix’s new Daredevil TV series over the weekend. Now, a lot of extremely valid things have been said by others about the clichéd gender roles of the main characters, the lack of females in bit parts, and the nebulous nature of Hell’s Kitchen as a community. So I’ll leave those alone for the time being.

But one writing-related thing that occurred to me is – one of the hardest things to do when adapting source material is to change the time period it’s set in. Not because it’s hard to add modern technology or modern language. Nor because different presidents, wars and economic crashes will need to be referenced. There are always plenty of those to choose from.

No, the difficulty with moving a story from one decade to another is that the emotional meaning of things changes.

For example: if a character in the 1950’s buys a TV, they’re buying the future. Access to the shiny modern world of media, information, mass culture. If a character in 2015 buys a TV, it’s just another electronic box to add to the many in his house – and he’s probably only going to use it to play Xbox anyway!

The Daredevil that’s been transferred to our screens is supposedly taking place right now, but the emotional meaning of the stories is mired in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re full of concepts and story elements that have totally changed meaning.

Boxing, for example. Fighting your way to fame and fortune was once the only way for a working-class boy to get out of the ghetto – but now boxing is a niche sport regarded with abhorrence by some. The athletes have gone to MMA instead, and the big money’s in televised wrestlers in gold lycra.

And how about newspapers? The series pays lip service to the idea that bloggers are taking over and print journalism is struggling, but the idea that a small daily newspaper could still survive without being a loss-making part of a larger conglomerate is hard to believe. Now, newspapers are what your grandparents’ generation read (and alas, may well die with them).

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Without thinking about it at all, acting on instinct and what you’ve seen on TV – what year did Matt Murdoch’s father die?

I would have guessed 1965. 1970 at the most. From the flashback scenes, from the idea of crooked bets and boxers taking a dive for the mob… The Sixties, right?

But Matt was what, eight to ten years old in those flashbacks? And as a newly qualified attorney, he surely can’t be aged over thirty now…

Which means his father died in approximately 1995.

Did any of those flashbacks feel like 1995 to you? The year of the Oklahoma truck bombing, Toy Story and Batman Forever at the cinema, the first DVDs, and Windows 95? I’m thinking not…

Well, you may say, does any of this matter?

I think it does. Because when you aren’t carefully examining what assumptions and emotional meanings you’re bringing with you from the source material, then you’re likely to bring assumptions you never meant to.

Does Matt have no significant female figures in his childhood because the writers have unthinkingly imported the dated idea that only men can be mentors? Do the women in his present fulfill highly gendered roles – secretary, researcher, nurse (not even a doctor?) – because those were imported, unexamined and un-translated into modern equivalents, from the source material?

Comic book heroes are like Robin Hood or King Arthur: they need to be re-moulded to address the needs of each new generation. Daredevil the television series was under no obligation to stick with any of the comics. Exactly as with Robin Hood and King Arthur, all previous versions remain intact, and there’ll be another version along eventually anyway. They could have addressed the dissonance these details create, but they chose to stick with what was familiar.

So if you ever find yourself adapting source material into a different decade, don’t make the same mistake…

Comics, Movies, and I-Spy Syndrome

I’m in the middle of one of my periodic catch-ups with comics, past and present, and I’m starting to realise why I often find classic comics storylines so unsatisfying.

The thing is, I like comics – but I’m bored by “event” comics. Crossovers, universe merges, reboots, ends of the world – yes, even civil wars – I hate ‘em. But why?

Because they tend to fall into the most seductive of comic book traps – I-Spy syndrome.

D’you remember I-Spy books? They’re what was used to keep kids quiet on long journeys before the hand-held games console came along. They’re pocket-sized books with pictures and some simple text about things you’re likely to see in a particular environment – building styles and types for a city, tree and animal varieties for the countryside. And a tick box [check box, for our US friends] and a number of points.

See the item, tick the box, score the points. You could even send away for a badge once you had a certain number of points (I bet some cheating went on there!)

Anyway, I think you’ve worked out my metaphor by now. Look, it’s Spider-Man! Tick the box. And now Thor is fighting Namor! Tick the box. What does Iron Man think about the alien invasion? Or Captain America, or Aquaman? Here they all come to tell you! Tick, tick, tick.

But is this a bad thing? After all, we all cheer when our favourite character reappears in a TV series or movie franchise. We all keep going to movies about the same group of characters, sometimes long past the point where the franchise is any good, because we enjoy being in their company.

And comics at their best are good at character. From Batman and Steve Rogers to John Constantine and Kamala Khan, comics have created protagonists who rank with the very best characters in other media.

But whatever medium you’re working in, narrative is about character change, and change takes time. And the more characters you’re trying to squeeze into your story, the less time you have to effect change in each of those characters.

So all your favourites turn up in this big crossover storyline – but there’s no room for them to be anything other than a cliché. They spout their catchphrase, use their signature weapon, fight a fellow cliché, and depart. Fans buy the issue with their favourite character on the front, all the boxes are ticked, money is made – but doesn’t everyone leave with a faint sense that, well, that could have been a lot more interesting…?

I hope I-Spy Syndrome isn’t going to spread to movies, though recent Marvel and DC news may suggest that it’s going to.

A two-hour movie has room to fully develop maybe four or five characters – and if you doubt me, how many members of Danny Ocean’s team in Ocean’s Eleven can you actually remember as distinct individuals? Or the dwarves in The Hobbit? That was nearly nine hours of screen time, and still I can only recall three with personalities…

So, whether writing comics or movies, remember: a handful of characters making difficult decisions, growing and changing are worth all the guest shots in the world.

What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”