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.

The Ashbless Loop

In the novel The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, a literature professor, Brendan Doyle, is offered a trip back in time to see Samuel Coleridge Taylor give a lecture – only to become stranded in 1810.

However, this does put him in a position to begin investigating the mysterious poet William Ashbless. Little is known about Ashbless: all he left behind were his poems, which Doyle loves and has memorized, and a few recorded appearances in or after 1810.

Using his knowledge of history, Doyle begins turning up at places where Ashbless should be. But Ashbless doesn’t show. Indeed, the things that history records as happening to Ashbless start happening to Doyle instead. When he meets and falls for the woman Ashbless marries, Doyle realises – he is Ashbless. He will spend the rest of his life dutifully doing the things Ashbless is recorded as doing, “writing” the poems from memory and submitting them for publication, and in time, going knowingly to meet Ashbless’ violent death…

Which begs the question – who wrote the poems?

The poetry of William Ashbless is uncreated, existing forever in a closed loop in time, printed and re-printed that one day it can be memorized and taken back in time. An Ashbless loop.

And you know what? Some television episodes are like that. A closed loop in time.

I was watching one last night. A major character is accused of a crime (that, ironically, he did commit), and faces the death penalty unless he’s exonerated. At the end of the episode, sure enough, the evidence against him is proved to be fake, and his life is back to normal.

Okay, kudos for the irony that, despite the evidence being fabricated, he actually is guilty –  but apart from that? You could omit this episode from the series, and no one would notice.

Why? Because nothing is changed by what happens. Does the character change his ways? No. Do other people look at him differently, for good or ill, because of these events? No. Is the driving plot arc of the series affected? Not at all. Everything carries on exactly as before –

And the audience can tell. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment whenever they come to the end of an Ashbless loop episode, even if they’re not sure why. The episode feels a little empty, a little… pointless. And they’re slightly less likely to tune in next week.

Which is really just another way of saying – even in the most episodic, least serialized of shows, your story-of-the-week should change something. It should have consequences for someone. It should matter.

Writing For Children’s Television event, Birmingham

If you’re around Birmingham on Friday 14th June, you can see me, Wolfblood script editor Jonathan Wolfman, and Cheryl Taylor, controller of CBBC, talking about writing for children’s television at a Writer’s Guild event. You can find more details, and book a place, via 

http://www.writersguild.org.uk/news-a-features/events/397-writing-for-childrens-television-birmingham

Should be an excellent evening, and I hope to see some of you there!

It’s A Wrap!

At 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, filming on season one of Wolfblood finally wrapped. Of course, the work is far from over – the editing, special effects and composing team still have their noses to the grindstone – but this seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve learned from my first original TV project.

It’s always more complicated than you think.  Write what seems like a simple scene with your lead actors talking in the school playground – and in practice, that involves dozens of background artistes being carefully directed, two cameras shooting a couple of takes from each of several different angles, and a continuity nightmare.

Put your scene out in the woods, or on the moors, and everything becomes a thousand times more complicated. One of the great things about the finished footage I’ve seen is how it conveys the feeling of a village dominated by nature and the great outdoors – but that’s come at a price. A price exacted mostly by the weather! All filmmaking is a compromise between what you saw in your head, and what you can actually achieve on the budget and timescale. The cast and crew have done wonders, but in future, we may have to pick our battles when it comes to exterior scenes…

Sometimes you get lucky.  Who could have anticipated that there would be a school in the throes of closing –  half-empty and available for us to film in, even during term-time – only a brief drive from the village we were using as the fictional Stoneybridge? That instantly provided us not only with the school sets, but with a production base, a couple of empty halls to build interior sets in – and a ready supply of extras from the remaining pupils!

And sometimes you don’t.  Did I mention the weather?

Finding the balance between serial story and story-of-the-week is important.  Every show has a different balance between the ongoing, often character-focused elements, and the events of that week’s episode. Establishing that balance probably does more to pin down the tone and style of your series than any other single element. Quite a lot of the development process was spent examining different options – everything from an adventure-of-the-week format to a fully serialized story – and in the end, it paid off.

And last but not least, casting is everything – because the right actors make your writing look brilliant!

So now it’s a mad rush to finish up the episodes before transmission, which looks likely to be late this year or early next year.  As soon as I have any details on transmission dates, they’ll be on the blog…

Things I Learned From… Sons Of Anarchy

So, season four of Sons Of Anarchy has just aired in the UK, and we SAMCRO fans are still catching our breath after that shocking finale.  But, shock reversals and big finishes aside, we can learn a lot from this series about engaging an audience in a story world that lacks conventionally ‘likeable’ characters.

Producers and script editors talk a lot about characters being likeable.  Whether your main character’s a saint or a murderer, there should be something about him that the audience can bond with, admire or envy.  The Man With No Name may be a cold-blooded killer, but he defends the weak and the helpless when no one else will.  James Bond is a heartless womanizer, but he’s handsome, rich and sophisticated.  A New York Mafia boss may be a criminal, but he’s just trying to get by in a corrupt, greedy society that discriminates against Italian immigrants.  And so on.

So where’s the likeability in Sons Of Anarchy?  Well…  The gang members are criminal, racist, occasionally misogynist, violent and deeply amoral.  The female characters may not resort to violence as much, but they’re manipulative, selfish, and emotionally cruel, often to each other.  The cops are corrupt or working their own strange angles, the locals are out for money and power, and the one “legitimate” industry that features heavily in the action is a porn movie business.

Okay, that didn’t work.  Quick, let’s find some redeeming features!

The characters must love their families, right?  Well, a lot of them do, but that doesn’t seem to stop them committing acts that could get them jailed or bring danger to their loved ones.  And personal relationships are pretty rocky, too.  Domestic violence, father-son rivalry, mothers manipulating daughters-in-law, and lies, lies, lies.  Family ties are not a positive influence in this show.  When someone mentions ‘family’, they’re as likely to be using it to pressure someone into a crime as to be inviting them to a pot roast.

Okay.  Maybe they’re loyal to each other?  That’s what a gang’s about, right – a surrogate family?

Actually, loyalty to the club, or to each other, is in pretty short supply.  Characters have betrayed each other out of sexual jealousy, fear of jail, fear that the other person betrayed them first, and fear that their own crimes would be exposed to the others.  The club president has left a trail of violence trying to keep his past actions secret, and been violently ousted by his own step-son.  No one’s really come out of this looking good on the loyalty front.

So why are we still watching?  Why are we fascinated by these characters?  Why do we care about their fates?

Two things, I think.  Firstly, Kurt Sutter and his team of writers understand the power of what some screenwriting gurus call “the freedom to act”.

Most of us don’t have the freedom to act in our daily lives.  We daren’t tell our boss what we really think of him, we’re scared to ask out that girl we like, we know we’re never going to sell the house and move to New Zealand like we’ve always wanted.  We’re constrained by politeness and social rules.

This is why fictional characters who have the freedom to act – who do what they want and don’t care about the consequences – are enormously attractive to us.  Lester in American Beauty starts telling his boss and his family exactly what he thinks, and we love him for it.  Dirty Harry takes down the bad guys, and to hell with the regulations – and we love him for it.

The characters in Sons Of Anarchy have absolute freedom to act.  They’re outside the law, outside the conventions of society, and that’s the way they like things.  If they want something, as individuals or as a group, they go get it.  Sometimes it blows up in their face, but at least they had the courage and the single-mindedness to try.  The Sons are trying to put their idea of a better world into action.  It might not be our idea of a better world, but we admire them for acting on their desires.

And secondly, Sutter and his team have sold us on the faded dream that SAMCRO represents.  The 60’s-influenced ideal of no rules, no conformity, just like-minded individuals living in their own way, outside conventional society.  The Sons have fallen a long way from that, but we see the echo of John Teller’s dream in everything they do – and we long to see them return to that lost golden age, become the unequivocal heroes that we like to imagine they once were.  And as long as we think there’s a chance of that, we’ll keep watching.

Wolfblood Set Visit!

Just back from two days on the Wolfblood set just outside Newcastle. The place of the writer on set is a rather strange one: on the one hand, everyone’s only here because of you and all of this is your baby, but on the other, your role in the practical process is over (or at least, continuing elsewhere) and you’re the only person here who isn’t working their socks off!

But this does allow you the freedom to really observe the production process, and see how the actors and director work with your words. In many ways, this is the most valuable thing you’ll ever learn about writing.  Everything you do as a writer is leading towards this moment – the moment your ideas actually have to be turned into something solid – and the better you know that process, the more practical, inspiring and inventive you can make your next script.

I spent the morning of my first day off the set, taking a good look round the stunningly picturesque village that’s standing in for our central characters’ home. In a heat wave, outside was definitely the place to be – as I soon discovered when I got back to set!

My visit coincided with the last two days of the first block of filming, and first block director Will Sinclair was shooting some final scenes in the school. (CBBC shows are filmed in blocks of four or five episodes, rather than one episode at a time. This allows all the scenes from those episodes which take place in the same location, or feature the same actors, to be filmed at once). Unfortunately, a lot of the classrooms are south-facing, and even with the blinds down, the cast were getting distinctly warm!

Film crews basically divide into two groups. There are the people who are busy primarily during a take: camera operators and grips, sound department, and of course the performers. Then there are people whose main work is done when the camera isn’t rolling – makeup, costume, lighting, and the army of assistants and runners who keep wanderers off the set and make sure everything is where it should be when it’s needed. The director falls into both camps, setting up shots with the camera operators and working with the actors before a take, and watching the footage on monitors during filming.

The area round the monitors, ”video village”, is where everyone gathers between and during takes, and the place you’ll see most of as a writer. On day two, as we moved outside to shoot playground scenes in even hotter weather than day one, I was able to lurk just out of shot and watch the filming process itself. Seeing first hand how hard it is to coordinate a ”simple” playground scene – in fact, two cameras, dozens of background performers and the main cast doing multiple takes is anything but simple – makes you wonder if you should just write about two people sitting in a room from now on!

Of course, the most important location on set is actually the catering truck. A fellow writer did warn me I was likely to put on a stone during the writing of the series – but I didn’t realise that would be largely due to the excellent on-set catering!

Meal breaks also mean an opportunity to catch up with the cast, and, since they haven’t seen the very last episodes of the season yet, let slip a few hints on where their characters end up by episode thirteen. Though I’m not sure I can accommodate one actor’s request that his character turns out to be a werewolf too…

And then the highlight of the visit – a few sample scenes of edited footage. No soundtrack and no VFX yet, but it’s already clear that the show has a distinct visual style and real atmosphere and tension.

Just time to say hello to second block director Declan O’Dwyer, arriving to shoot his first ever scene at the end of the day, and it’s time to head back to the real world. Exit one very pleased writer, already looking forward to seeing the finished product…