Wolfblood Secrets

Can’t wait until next year for new episodes of Wolfblood? Well, it’s your lucky day!

Starting on the 21st September CBBC will be broadcasting Wolfblood Secrets, a series of ten mini-episodes bridging the gap between series four and five. Written by Neil Jones, and set just after the secret is revealed to the world, the episodes will introduce a team of government investigators tasked with investigating this new threat, ‘wolfbloods’. One by one, they interview Jana and her friends, trying to find out whether these creatures hiding among us are dangerous…

Five episodes will be broadcast in September, and the final five near the end of February, leading into the next series.

They’re really fun episodes, and I hope you enjoy them!

(NB – if you’re outside the UK and you want to know when/if you can see Wolfblood Secrets, you’ll need to contact CBBC, or your local television channel, and ask them. As always, I don’t know the details of availability in all the different countries Wolfblood is shown in.)

Since a lot of people are asking –  no, Wolfblood Secrets is not happening instead of series five, or replacing the regular series in any way. It’s a one-off extra, just like the secret episode or Jana Bites. Series five will be shown in the spring of 2017, date to be confirmed…

Wolfblood Season Four BAFTA Event

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Excellent day at BAFTA London today, showing the first two episodes of Wolfblood season four to a very excited audience! You can see a lot of the event, including the Q&A, on the BAFTA training site, baftaguru.org, which is full of great information about working in the creative industries.

On Tuesday 8th March, CBBC will be showing the red carpet interviews and the Q&A from the Newcastle event, interspersed with the first two episodes. From the following week, Wolfblood shows two episodes a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Hope you enjoy!

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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…

There Is No Chosen One

The reality show Project Greenlight is, well, a reality show. It has precious little to do with how movies are actually made, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t ever produced a critical or a commercial hit. It’s not real Hollywood –

But right now, it is at least drawing attention to some of the very real issues faced by people in Hollywood who are trying to carve out a career with the disadvantage of not being white, male and heterosexual.

There are a lot of things to be said about Matt Damon’s statement, and the situation that led to up to it, and other people are saying them far more eloquently than I could. So instead of adding to that, I’d like to set out a proposal to make things better.

Let’s all remember – there is no chosen one.

In film and television, we recycle the myth of the chosen saviour who’s perfect for this situation, and has exactly the skills required, so often that we start to apply it behind the camera too. Somewhere out there, there’s a director/producer/cinematographer etc who is perfect for my project, and I just have to find them.

The thing is, that’s just not true, is it? Oh sure, there are “names” who’ll bring in funding (and that’s a whole other issue), but if you’re making a low-budget movie, hiring staff for a new TV series, making a web series, or even appearing on Project Greenlight, your choice is not “Ridley Scott or someone unknown”, it’s “someone unknown or someone unknown”.

So, putting aside names and reputations – your choice is always going to be between several people who are both equally talented and equally good for your project (albeit in fractionally different ways). I know, I’ve been there. you never end up with one obvious candidate. Never.

So whether you realise it or not, your decision is going to be largely arbitrary. You’re going to pick the person who made you laugh in the interview, or who you met last week at a party, or who your girlfriend’s brother’s best friend went to college with. (And all of those things are likely to lead you to someone the same race, sexuality, and probably gender, as you.)

Or you could make a different arbitrary decision. You could pick the black cinematographer, the editor who uses a wheelchair, the female director. Your decision is no less arbitrary than one made for those previous reasons, and you’re still picking from a pool of equally qualified and talented candidates – so why not deliberately pick the person who every one else is less likely to pick? That’s not positive discrimination or so-called “reverse racism” –  it’s as good a criteria for a decision between otherwise equal candidates as anything else.

If we all did this for a year, even, the spread of shiny white male faces who accompany every article in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would start to look very different – and there would be no drop in quality in the films and television we’re producing at all. If anything, these super-motivated candidates seizing what might be their only chance would give more than the entitled guys who can always get a job elsewhere.

So how about it? Shall we give it a try?

Wolves And Apples Event

I’m going to be speaking at the appropriately-named Wolves And Apples writers’ event in Leicester on the 3rd of November. It’s a day for writers interested in writing for children, in any medium and across all genres, with writers, publishers and producers talking about the industry, breaking in, and giving advice and writing tips.

I’ll be talking about Wolfblood and writing for children’s television, which should be a lot of fun.

Lots of speakers still to be confirmed, but you can keep up to date at –

http://www.red-lighthouse.org.uk/category/wolvesandapples/

And book a ticket for the full day of events at

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wolves-apples-tickets-17367978090?utm_campaign=new_event_email&utm_medium=email&utm_source=eb_email&utm_term=eventurl_text

Maybe I’ll see you there!

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…

Things I Learned From… Halt And Catch Fire

Halt And Catch Fire is the thrilling story of a 1980’s software company finding itself building the world’s first laptop computer.

No, really, that’s it. It’s some guys – and crucially, some girls – trying to force their way into a market dominated by huge companies who protect their near-monopoly with some ugly tactics. It’s a story from the Financial Times, not the human interest section.

Doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a show, does it? Oh, sure, we have the irony of knowing that now, 35 years later, most of us have forgotten the name IBM, and those nimble, adventurous competitors have themselves become behemoths. But apart from that, what makes this show so utterly compelling?

Secrets.

From the moment the mysterious Joe MacMillan appears at this backwater business and puts his complex plan into play, we know he has secrets. He quit IBM and vanished for a year, presumed dead – what was he really doing? Who is the father lurking in the background, whom he seems to be trying to free himself from? Where did he get those scars? Is he a technological visionary or a glorified salesman? Why has he picked the people he’s picked, and will working with him save them or destroy them?

And that’s what’s keeping us watching. He could be building laptops, washing machines, or hula hoops. This could be 1980. 1920, or the distant future. None of that matters. because what we care about is what’s going on inside the mysterious mind of Joe MacMillan – and what he’ll do next. And this is the feeling we should be trying, as writers, to instil in our audiences.

Picking Partners

Recently on Twitter, @MysteryBritExec was talking about careers in feature development and the qualities required to work as a development producer or development assistant. So I thought I’d examine things from the other side of the table – as a writer, what should you be looking for when you’re picking a team to develop your project with?

So let’s say you have a new project – maybe at draft script stage, maybe just a brief outline – and you’re going out to meetings with various producers. They’ve read whatever it is you have so far, and they’re sufficiently interested to want to meet, at least. Now, your instincts are to go into that room and sell yourself and your project – but you’re buying as much as you’re selling, so don’t forget to ask yourself a few questions about them and their reactions…

Do they really get the project? This depends a lot on how well developed the plot and the characters are. If all you sent them was a one-page ‘pitch’, then it’s perfectly understandable if they have questions about the plot twists, the tone or the characters’ motivations. If, however, they’ve read a full draft and they’re still convinced your gay hero is straight, or the film is a balls-out comedy and not a melodramatic weepie, then you have a problem.

Of course, you’re a starving writer, and the temptation will be to take the money and grit your teeth through the development process. And sure, we all have to eat. The question you need to ask yourself is – in return for the cash, am I prepared to accept the certainty that this project will never actually get made? Because projects where writer and development team don’t see eye to eye are headed to one place – the box marked ‘abandoned projects’…

Is this their kind of thing? Again, you can be flexible about this. A large company that makes material in a wide range of genres and styles might be looking for a subject or genre they haven’t tackled in a while, whereas a company with a very specific style will want to stick within that.

But it’s about the individuals as well as the company. The development team don’t have to be experts in sci-fi or rom-com or gross-out comedy – but they have to like it, understand it, and be prepared to go on a long, stressful journey into that genre during development.

Can they actually get this made? Perhaps the trickiest question of all to answer. Film funding is so uncertain, and even great scripts with huge stars and obvious potential can fail at the final hurdle. On the other hand, even small companies who have the right contacts and relationships can rope in funding and co-production deals you might never have anticipated.

Think about what they’ve made previously, and whether this is a sensible step up for them, or a move towards certain bankruptcy. If your movie is a star vehicle, do they have the clout and the money to attract a star? Do they make the scripts they develop, and release the movies they make? If they shot a movie three years ago and it’s still “in post”, ask yourself if your movie might end up the same way…

And as always, don’t work with people who don’t pay. If they can’t afford to pay you an option fee, and at least a token amount for rewrites, they’ll never be able to afford to make the movie, so partnering with them is a waste of your time and energy.

(That excludes groups of filmmakers coming together to work on micro-budget passion projects, of course. If no one’s getting paid, and you want to get a movie out there and launch your careers, fair enough. But if the producer is sat in a fancy office, earning a salary, and yet says they can’t afford to pay for your script…)

Do you like these people? This is probably the most important question of all. You’re going to spend a lot of time in stressful discussions and frustrating brain-storming sessions before this movie gets made. Do you want these people to be the ones you do that with?

Are you on the same wavelength? Do you like (some of) the same kinds of movies, books, games? Do you share a sense of humour? Would you feel comfortable having an after-work drink or a meal with them?

Making movies is an immensely frustrating and infuriating business. You owe it to yourself to, at the very least, undertake that long journey to the screen in the company of people you actually like and respect…

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?”

Working With True Stories

At the moment, I’m looking at a true story with a view to adapting it, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about how to select factual stories to turn into fiction.

Everyone loves a true story. The knowledge that the events they’re watching actually (more or less) happened helps audiences overcome any logic problems, makes characters more relatable, and often makes a project set in an obscure time or place easier to sell.

There may be name familiarity, or a history event that viewers will remember, giving you a hook to sell the story to an audience. People who wouldn’t go see a story about a fictional politician might go to see a movie about Winston Churchill.

And true stories are also one of the best ways to get a story about a non-white, non-heterosexual, or female lead into production. The story demands the casting of an actor outside the usual list of white males who can ‘open’ a movie, removing the pressure on you to change the story to fit the sex and race of the latest big star.

So what should you be looking for when evaluating material for adaptation?

Every story, true or not, needs a strong central character. So look for something where a single character is taking most of the action and suffering most of the consequences. Stories about a large group of people just don’t work, not unless you can tell their story by concentrating on one person.

Steven Knight’s Amazing Grace isn’t about the many campaigners seeking to abolish slavery on British soil – it’s about William Wilberforce. It may commit a historical injustice in focusing on one man – but it ensures a good movie.

Is your story visually interesting? People talking in rooms is not generally interesting (though Frost/Nixon shows us it can be.) Is there a dramatic world for your story to take place in – the courtroom, the battlefield, rock concerts or public appearances? Does the story have visual scale and moments of beauty and wonder? Does it take us to places we’ve never been before, show us new and exciting worlds?

Someone being famous is not a narrative (aka Biopics Are Hard.) Just because a historical figure became rich and famous, or won battles, or became emperor, doesn’t mean you can turn their life into a compelling story.

Like any fictional character, they need to begin with a problem and a character flaw, undergo tests and trials which they initially fail, and finally learn their lesson and become a better person (or fail tragically). If there’s no framework to create that story out of the bare facts of their life, then you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.

It’s the peripheral characters who will cause you problems. Even seen a biopic where a character (often a business partner or ex-wife) turns up for a couple of scenes, is extremely bland and polite, and then disappears? That’s the person who threatened to sue if they were depicted doing anything remotely criminal, evil, or even mildly unpleasant (true or not).

In the story I’m looking at, an extremely famous person (allegedly) seduced the central character’s girlfriend, embroiled him in an ‘investment’ that was actually a con, then ran off with both girl and money. It’s one of the most interesting elements of the story – but, knowing how jealously that person’s memory is guarded by his fans, I either cut that section, or spend the rest of my life in a libel court!

So, think carefully about who’s likely to sue you and whether it’s worth it.

Is this a story that resonates with a modern audience? Or – why should anyone care? Julius Caesar was a fascinating historical figure, but does his life story have anything to say to us today (at least, anything that can be conveyed in a two hour movie)?

The key to this is: what is your character trying to achieve? Audiences love to see someone be the first to do something, or achieve a specific goal against overwhelming odds, or go from rags to riches, or stand up to oppression or prejudice. All of these things are relatable and familiar, even if they’re taking place in another century or another country. If your character is doing one of these things, you can be reasonably sure of getting an audience.

And last of all – you’re going to put in a lot of research time, time spent getting legal clearances, literary or music rights, and all kinds of other stuff you don’t normally have to deal with. Are you so dedicated to telling this story that you’re prepared to do all that?

If so, go for it…!