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…

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…

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…

The First Scene

I don’t know about you, but in the planning stage of a new project, I often find myself having ideas for potential scenes. I tend to scribble them on pieces of paper and pop them in the project file box with all the research and outlines etc. Sometimes they end up in the finished script, sometimes they don’t, but they’re useful to establish character, try out pairings and relationships, and think about location and dialogue.
And, I’ve just realised, the first scene that comes into my head often summarises the tone that I’m trying to create for the whole script.
This afternoon, I scribbled a very brief scene for a new TV project. The scene was funny, intimate, all about unconventional relationships, and full of nerdy fangirl jokes – and that’s pretty much how I want the project to feel.
Another project, an action-adventure feature, started off with a scene where the rule-breaking Victorian heroine goes in search of her errant sidekick in a Turkish bath. Again, the movie in microcosm: adventurous woman kicks against society, glamorous period locations, long-suffering male sidekick. (Hopefully he won’t be naked for the whole movie, though. Mind you, might increase ticket sales!)
So next time a scene for a new project occurs to you, don’t just write it down – keep it to compare the rest of the project to as you plan, outline and write. Does your project still feel like that initial scene? Are you capturing the feel of the project you initially imagined?
If not, you may feel your project has evolved into something better, which is fine. But if you’re still trying for the original feel of that first scene, at least you have concrete evidence of what you’re trying to capture…

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.

Writing To A Budget

It always seems like the number one complaint in the British film industry is money. There’s never enough, we cry. If we only had the money that Hollywood has, things would be very different…
Perhaps there’s some truth in that. Certainly the kinds of movies that we make in the UK are restricted by a combination of budget and audience – horror has a steady audience and low budgets, so we make it, whereas sci-fi has higher budgets and the audience is less reliable, so we don’t.
But to be honest, the money that really matters is the money spent on advertising, securing distribution, and establishing a brand – and that’s outside my experience, so I won’t be looking at that.
Our subject today, another of the questions I’ve been asked on Twitter, is how to write to a budget – or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as ‘how to make the best use of the budget that you have’.
The first thing you need to do is be aware of what’s expensive and what isn’t. Special effects are costly, but not anywhere near as expensive as they used to be. Extras are expensive, so crowd scenes might need to be minimised. Any kind of specific weather is problematic: if it absolutely has to be sunny for this scene, shooting may have to be delayed, while artificial rain or fog are expensive.
Exterior scenes are more expensive than interiors. Recognisable locations are horrifically difficult: shooting in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square will cost you in permits, security personnel, and probably overtime if you shoot early or late in the day to minimize problems with bystanders.
So think of ways to get round this. Can you use stock footage of Times Square, then a close-up of your actor standing in a doorway that’s actually somewhere else? Can you show the rainy day by having an actor look out of a rain-streaked window (that you actually hosed down on an otherwise dry day)? What about using existing crowds? It will be cheaper to film at the real County Fair than to stage your own…
Bear in mind that the real cost of multiple locations isn’t the number of locations, but the moves between them. So shooting in five different rooms in the same house is significantly cheaper than shooting in five different houses. Make inventive use of the locations you have – shoot with different angles, different lighting conditions – and ensure that you never go to a location for just one scene.
Reducing the number of minor characters also cuts your budget. Instead of the characters meeting a waitress, a barman and a hotel clerk, can all three of those scenes involve the waitress? That’s one wage to pay instead of three – and a more interesting character that might attract a better actor!
Of course, the problem with all this is that all low-budget films end up looking the same – three people in a room arguing about something. How can you avoid your movie looking obviously ‘cheap’?
Think imaginatively about interior locations. Instead of your three criminals hiding out in a bland hotel room, what if they were in an empty fifteenth-floor office? Or a barn full of hay and farm tools? Or they’d broken into a library by night? With a good location manager and some luck, none of those locations need be more expensive than the hotel room, and they’re a lot more interesting.
Exteriors are more expensive, but they can also be more variable and flexible. The same patch of woodland might give you a dark copse, green leafy trees, a sunny clearing, and a clear view down the hill. That’s four very different scenes in the same location. And judicious use of exteriors will immediately make your movie feel higher-budget (nothing feels cheaper than a movie that never steps outside).
Pick your moments, and make them count. Three minutes of a really good CGI monster is far more effective than twenty minutes of a badly-rendered one. One battle scene with a hundred extras may work better for your story than five scenes with twenty extras each.
Never repeat anything. Not a plot beat, not a line of dialogue or the subject of a conversation, not a motivation or an action. Never repeating yourself is a good habit to form anyway, but it’s particularly important in low-budget work, where we’re seeing the same faces and locations on the screen for the whole story. The last thing you want is to make the audience feel they’ve seen this scene before.
And the best advice of all? Good writing is free. Make your characters compelling and your plot interesting and unpredictable, and no one will even notice they’re watching a low-budget movie…

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

Some Brief Pointers For Action Scenes

I’m still neck-deep in this new sci-fi action feature script, so here are a few more action pointers I’ve been thinking about…

Get it written. So you’ve used the world ‘avalanche’ four times in the last two paragraphs? Or you’re not sure how many rounds this model of handgun holds? Doesn’t matter. Correct the details and polish the prose later – just get the basic sweep of the action down first

Don’t over-direct the actors. Giving an actor a clear objective to play is always a good thing, and it’s even more important in an action scene, where they may have minimal dialogue. But, because you’re very much in visual writing mode, it’s easy to get over-descriptive. Don’t tell them how to move or what to feel – remind them what they want, and everything else will flow from that.

Cause or effect?  Some villains, like the Joker, make an entrance, make their presence felt, and then start committing acts of violence. Others, like the Winter Soldier, enter after the explosions and the carnage have begun – they started killing before we even knew they were there. Neither is better than the other, but it suggests a very different attitude to violence, so it’s worth considering which of the two your villain is and sticking to it.

Emotional objectives – everyone in this scene has a personal, emotional objective. Sure they want to stay alive and defeat the bad guy, but they also want to, say, prove that they’re a good pilot, or they can control their temper in a fight, or that they’re worthy to be in command. Find their emotional objective, and you’ll find what they have to achieve in this sequence.