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…

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…

Things I Learned From… Foreign Movies

The annual Wales One World Festival is on at the moment, bringing movies from all corners of the world to all corners of Wales, so this seems like a good time to talk about what watching movies from overseas can teach you as a writer.

There are a lot of positives to watching movies from outside your culture. They’ll often be shot in locations you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed, showing you new visual possibilities. They may showcase the possibilities offered by language: being multilingual, perhaps, or using no dialogue at all. Indeed, the film I’m going to see tonight is a Ukranian film in sign language with no subtitles…

They’ll also remind you that not everyone thinks like you or lives like you. Like historical fiction and science fiction, overseas movies unfold another culture to us, showing us the diversity of human morality, belief and thought. And that’s a wake-up call for writers who think everyone perceives the world they do, and acts accordingly. What if one of your characters thought about life the way a Bedouin tribesman or a Nigerian street beggar does, and acted on that? I guarantee your film would become more interesting if they did…

But the most important thing you can learn from foreign movies is that wants and needs are universal. In every culture, people want to be loved, respected, successful and happy. Whatever route they take to try to achieve those things, and whatever form those things take in their society, their inner desires are easy to relate to. And it’s those inner, deep desires that drive any good character in any story…

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.

Things I Learned From… Battleship

Hollywood loves basing a movie on an existing property. Familiarity and a pre-sold concept are the chief attractions of basing your movie on a book, TV series, magazine article, toy – or even a board game.

But let’s be honest, Battleship was perhaps one of the most unlikely properties to be optioned by Hollywood. It’s a board game with no characters, no narrative, and it doesn’t even have a unique setting or playing action. It’s about ships firing at and sinking one another, and we’ve seen that in all kinds of naval warfare movies.

In one way, the writers treated that as a positive. They could create entirely new characters to serve their own story – scientists, veterans and civilians as well as navy personnel. They could introduce an alien invasion. Potentially, they could do anything they liked.

But the other thing they understood is that – however thin and fragile it seems – the game has a recognizable core. It has the terminology of “hit” and “miss”, it has the grid of potential coordinates that those invisible ships could be at, it has the tension of firing into the nothingness and not being sure what your actions will achieve.

And the writers worked really hard to find a way to incorporate that familiar element into the screen story. They created a network of tsunami sensors that could be used to detect the alien ships, and displayed the output from them on screen in a grid resembling the Battleship game grid. And it worked. It’s actually a great dramatic sequence.

So the moral of Battleship is: never neglect the unique element of whatever you’re adapting, however unpromising it might seem to begin with. It might just give you the best sequence in the movie.

Things I Learned From… Interstellar

In many ways, Interstellar is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film – a visually impressive panorama of space and time through which mere humans must fight their way back to what matters to them. Unfortunately, it also seems to have distilled his primary flaw as a writer – a lack of capacity to handle real human emotions.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work. The Prestige might just be my favourite film of all time, and Inception always features pretty high in my ever-changing Top 10. And the space-faring epic has always been a place where logic, brains, and scientific experience is valued above human relationships.

But Interstellar is, ostensibly, a movie about how human emotions transcend space and time. Which forces us to ask the question – why are most human emotions in the movie belittled or ignored?

Some spoilers follow. Obviously.

The driving relationship in the movie is between former engineer/shuttle pilot Cooper and his young daughter Murphy, whom he leaves behind when he’s selected for a deep-space mission that might just save mankind. And this relationship works just fine. He’s consumed by guilt and the desire to keep his promise and return, despite the time distortions that push them further and further apart.

Meanwhile, Murphy grows up under the tutelage of a family friend, pursuing science that might save more of mankind, both hating her father and following in his footsteps – entirely plausible for a conflicted child abandoned by a father she still idolises.

But Murphy isn’t Cooper’s only child. He has a son, Tom: whom he never mentions again after leaving Earth, and who exists in the Earth-bound storyline simply to be an obstacle to Murphy in act three. We’re led to believe Cooper’s relationship with Tom relationship is pretty good – and yet Cooper never expresses any desire to get back to his son, only his daughter? What’s that about?

And Cooper’s not the only one trying to get back to someone. Fellow astronaut Brand is in love with one of the pioneers on the target planets, and wants them to divert course to his planet to see if he’s alive. Cooper has already been blatantly making decisions based on what will get him home to his daughter more quickly, so you might expect the film – a film about love and family – to support that urge.

Nope. Brand is given a borderline hysterical speech about love reaching across space and time, and her argument is roundly rejected by Cooper. They go where he wants – a choice that exposes them to a psychopath on an uninhabitable world and kills a crew member. So it’s okay for Cooper to make mission-critical choices based on his emotions, but not for Brand? Why? Because she’s an emotional female?

By the end of the movie, Nolan has dug himself into a hole. Cooper’s supreme desire is to get back to his daughter, and the lesson he’s learned is (apparently) that he should never have left her – but if he hadn’t, the human race would never have survived. Plot and emotional through-line are directly opposed to one another.

So the final scenes are an ugly head-on collision of conflicting plot beats and emotions. Matthew McConaughey performs acting gymnastics, trying to plausibly send his past self information that will trigger the mission in one scene, and telling him not to go in the next. When Cooper’s finally reunited with an aged Murphy, she immediately tells him to get in a spaceship and go join Brand – a woman with whom he has no emotional connection beyond being workmates – on a barely habitable planet, because… well, who knows? It makes no damn sense at all.

So what’s the moral here? Make sure your plot and your emotional through-line are compatible. If your hero says family is the most important thing, make sure he acts like he means it – caring about his whole family, supporting others when they make similar choices, and ending the movie surrounded by what matters to him.