Thursday, 2 December 2010

Blah blah blah

So, while I'm here, what have I been up to recently?

Well, writing productivity has been up and down. After putting the blog on hold at the end of August, I gave my feature-length Foot Soldiers script the attention it deserved. I've got to the end of a fourth draft which has gone just about as far as I can take it for now, so I'm going to pack that off to an interested agent as soon as I can print it out. 

Nuts and bolts

So, anyway. I spotted this the other day on the endlessly rewarding How to Be a Retronaut blog, and it struck something of a chord with me in terms of writing.

It's a gallery of the blueprints for the Eiffel Tower, and what it said to me was that even the most daunting and challenging project can be broken down into a finite number of individual components. They don't just appear overnight; they come together through a combination of creativity, engineering, craft and patience.

So if you're feeling daunted by the huge entirety of a screenplay, novel or any other creative endeavour, keep in mind the micro viewpoint as well as the macro 'big picture'. If you plan thoroughly, engineer the pieces precisely and put them together with care, you can end up with something astonishing.

[This blog post was brought to you by the Ministry of Laboured Metaphors]

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Something needs to happen

As unlikely as it may seem to anyone who's met me, I ran a marathon a few years ago. And I've often thought that running and writing are sort of analogous.

Sometimes it comes smoothly. You feel that everything's working together to give you a momentum that propels you forward, sometimes even giving you time to relax and enjoy what you're doing.

Other times, it feels like each individual step is a crushing effort. You've got no rhythm and no momentum, and it's just a series of awkward, juddering lurches.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Gainsbourg (wr/dir Joann Sfar, 2010)

Last week we made a rare venture from the BFI to the Curzon Soho to see Gainsbourg – a biopic of the French singer-songwriter written and directed by Joann Sfar. Going north of the river... brrrr. 


Anyway, from a screenwriting/creative point of view, two things stuck me in particular.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

15 August 1968: The day I won the lottery

The queen and I don't have much in common, but we do both celebrate two 'birthdays'. Forty-two years ago today, my mum and dad, John and Rita, collected three-month-old me from the Home for Catholic Friendless Children in Liverpool.

Obviously not everyone has had such a happy experience, but being adopted was a priceless gift to me. While a lot of parents seemed to treat their kids as an inconvenience, knowing how many hurdles my parents had to jump to get me made me realise just how wanted I was.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Screenwriting magazines (cheap digital subscriptions)

When Jane and I started to go to the States semi-regularly (around 2000), one of the little things I'd look forward to was picking up copies of screenwriting magazines that weren't readily available over here.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Final Programme / Michael Moorcock Q&A (BFI)

Ah, you never forget your first Moorcock...

Spring 1986: You're waiting at the now-lost Gormenghast splendour of Manchester Victoria station, en route from Chorley to an open day at Hull University. It's one of three places that offers Law and Politics, although – if it came to it – you'd probably prefer London or Birmingham.

Anyway, you've got a bit of a journey ahead of you, and the batteries in your Walkman aren't going to last all day, so you nip into WH Smith. Drawn instinctively to the sci-fi and fantasy section, something red and bricklike grabs your attention.

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Unforgettable Bob Monkhouse

I don't normally bother posting my documentary reviews for Orange, but the sub there was complementary about this one, so here goes.

I suppose it's also of interest because it offered a nice reminder that Bob Monkhouse was a tireless and prolific writer above anything else.

Plus, I guarantee that you'll tell the 'roast beef/pea soup' gag before the end of the day. 

(The documentary should be available on ITV Player for about a month.)

Saturday, 7 August 2010

BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series

During September, BAFTA and the BFI are hosting a super-di-duper season of events with leading screenwriters. 

No great film can exist without a great screenplay, yet screenwriters remain in the shadows - seen, all too often as adjuncts of the director's vision, rather than authors in their own right. To correct this misconception we invite some of the industry's top screenwriters to talk about their art and what inspires them. 

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Psychiatric Tales, by Darryl Cunningham

Something that's caused me a lot of regret down the years has been the disconcerting ease with which I've managed to lose touch and drift away from various friends and acquaintances - especially in them black-and-white days before the web. 

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

August at the BFI

I know I'm always banging on about the stuff I'm seeing at the BFI, but I really am excited about some of the events during August.

(At the time of writing, tickets were still available for all of these except The Lodger, which is a members' event - although it might be worth giving them a ring).

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Alan Plater on BBC Four (Thursday 29 July)

As a tribute to the late Alan Plater, BBC Four is showing one of his films and a documentary on Thursday evening. Presumably they'll both turn up on iPlayer as well.

Lost and gone forever (a short story of sorts)

You don't trust the summer. It's the heat. You haven't slept well for weeks.

But now you're on a train, and the rhythm and the gentle motion start to tug at your mind. You close your eyes and prop yourself into the corner of your seat. Before long, the tightly wound mechanism of your consciousness relaxes, loosens.

Hanging in that sweet-spot between sleep and wakefulness, you release control. You're no longer driving your thoughts where you want them to go: you're sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Sherlock, BBC One

As usual, here's a quick review of Sherlock that I wrote for Orange.

As I say below, I found it bold and enjoyable but thought the plot didn't offer much to chew on. I don't know A Study in Scarlet, so maybe it was just remaining close to its source. 

I really appreciated the way they disguised Phil Davis's appearance, though - instead of waiting for him to make his entrance, it was a very nice surprise when he turned up.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Crystal Palace International Film Festival (19-29 July)

Crystal Palace’s long-association with the film industry will be marked in high style this summer, with the first Crystal Palace International Film Festival, running from 19-29 July.

The festival, brainchild of local producers Neill Roy and Roberta Gallinari from Harlequin Productions, has already attracted some big names, with actor and comedian Johnny Vegas and local comedian and writer Mark Steel signing up as judges. 

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Harvey Pekar, RIP

"Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures" 

Harvey Pekar, 1939-2010

I was sorry to hear yesterday's news about the passing of Harvey Pekar, the writer of the autobiographical comic series American Splendor, which inspired the 2003 film of the same name. 

I always felt like I'd met him, even though I never had, and I guess that's a response a lot of people have had to his work.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Silence (BBC One)

Here's a quick review (for Orange) of tonight's first episode of The Silence - a four-part thriller by Australian writer Fiona Seres, which is being stripped across the week on BBC One.

As you may read below, I enjoyed the episode but wish it had focussed on the stress Amelia faces by being suddenly pitched into the hearing world. That part of the story is handled really well, but the coincidences that fuelled the thriller element seemed a bit too convenient.

Friday, 9 July 2010

BAFTA: A Tribute to Troy Kennedy Martin

BAFTA have posted a 30-minute video from an evening of tribtues to the late Troy Kennedy Martin.

On 27 April 2010, seven months after the death of one of Britain’s most important screenwriters, Troy Kennedy Martin, BAFTA hosted an evening of tributes from those who knew him.

Dive, BBC Two

Go to TV writing events and you'll hear everyone going on about how much they love "authored drama" – stuff with a strong personal voice. Last night's Dive (the first of a two-parter by writer/director Dominic Savage and co-writer Simon Stephens) certainly had a distinctive style, but it left me wondering if there was too much author and not enough drama.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

7 July 2005

"In the days that follow, look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

"They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail."

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, 7 July 2005

Monday, 5 July 2010

Identity, ITV1

Here's a quick review of tonight's Identity on ITV1, starring Aiden Gillen and Keeley Hawes, wot I wrote for Orange. 

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, John Michael Hayes)

Last week we went to see Rear Window at the BFI, as part of the Grace Kelly season. It was – shamefully - the first time I'd seen the film, and although it didn't grip me on first viewing as much as some of Hitchcock's other films, a repeat viewing the following morning revealed what an impressive bit of work it is. 

Friday, 2 July 2010

That little noise that only writers make

You know the one.

The one you make when you're rewriting a feature-length script and in a trivial bit of scene description on page 86, your main character unexpectedly finds himself with something in his hand that changes everything.

It raises the stakes, strengthens his motivation and provides a poignant bit of dramatic irony that fits perfectly. It also means you're going to have to go back to page one and retrofit the whole script.

So you emit a cross between the hoot of an excited chimp and the groan of an England fan who's just seen the Germans sashay leisurely through the John Terry-shaped hole in the team's defence.

Yeah. That noise.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Reunited, BBC One

I'm sure that at some stage, more than one writer or producer has jotted 'Cold Feet for the Facebook generation' onto a post-it note. However, when one of those writers is Mike Bullen, the creator of that series, people sit up and take notice.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Rev, BBC Two

Here's a review of tonight's opening episode of Rev that I wrote for Orange. I went into it with quite a bit of goodwill, but was disappointed by it. 

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Doctor Who: The Big Bang (spoilers)

Phew! Here's a quick review I've knocked up for Orange. I'm going to sit down and watch it again now!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Screenwriting and editing (repost)

I know reposting is a bit lazy, but Sky Arts' repeat of The Cutting Edge (documentary on film editing) got me thinking about a post I published about a year ago. Here it is again!

Something I've been thinking about for a while is how looking at the work of film editors might offer a new perspective on writing.

When an editor sits down to piece together a cut, he or she has dozens – maybe hundreds – of hours of footage to choose from: a mass of material they have to shape into a coherent whole.

When we sit down to start writing, we face an even more intimidating range of possibilities. We've maybe got an idea of who our characters are and roughly where we want them to go, but we've then got an almost infinite range of possibilities for how we're going to organise and present our story.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Lennon Naked, BBC Four

Here's a review of last night's Lennon Naked, written by Robert Jones and starring Christopher Eccleston, that I wrote for Orange. Eccleston was as compelling as ever, but - as I say below - he was a bit too old to pull off the role totally convincingly. When he got out of his Rolls after the evening with Brigitte Bardot, he looked more like Frank Gallagher.

The Cutting Edge: Tonight on Sky Arts 1

Sky Arts are repeating this interesting documentary on film editing tonight (Thursday). I always think there are interesting parallels between the roles of writer and editor, so it's worth a look.

(After watching The Cutting Edge last year I knocked up a post about screenwriting and editing, so I'll repost that tomorrow.)

The Cutting Edge
Sky Arts 1, Thu 24 June, 11.15pm

Every editor has a story about what they did to save a film, enhance a sequence, or create a magical moment. This documentary examines the often overlooked art of film editing, featuring some of cinema's greatest storytellers. Directors of both Hollywood blockbusters and independent films, including George Lucas, Anthony Minghella, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron, reveal the close collaboration they have with their editors and how they work magic by clarifying storylines, reshaping scenes and intensifying emotions. Discover the invaluable contribution editing has had to the art of cinema over its history and how what is created on the set is always reinvented and honed in the editing room.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Hitchcock's antiheroes (Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder)

Over the past few weeks we've seen Strangers on a Train (1951) and Dial M for Murder (1954) at the BFI. They were part of two separate seasons, but seeing them together raised an interesting issue: antiheroes – central characters who we should want to fail in their (usually criminal) objectives, but who at least a little bit of us wants to succeed.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Writer in Modern TV (BFI panel discussion)

The other night we went to a panel discussion at the BFI with the rather portentious title of Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? The Writer in Modern TV (part of the Second Coming: The Rebirth of TV Drama series.)

It was a stellar panel, including Tony Marchant, Jimmy McGovern (left), Nicola Shinder (Red Prod'n Co), Gub Neal (former head of drama at C4 and Granada) and Ben Stephenson (BBC Controller, Drama Commissioning), chaired by Mark Lawson.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters (free online books)

These have been blogged about elsewhere, but the University of California press has published online two volumes of their Backstory series. 

(The text below comes from an email from the good folks at the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition, which alerted me to the books.)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Daniel Kitson: 66A Church Road

Tonight we're going to see the marvellous Daniel Kitson perform his theatrical monologue 66A Church Road: A Lament, Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases. So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to repost the (brief) review I wrote when I first saw the show, at Edinburgh in 2008. 

(Since then I've also posted on the two shows he did at Edinburgh last year: The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church (another 'story show') and We Are Gathered Here (stand-up))

66A Church Road is at the end of a brief tour (at the New Players' Theatre in London until Sunday), but you can join Daniel Kitson's mailing list here.


The final show of the night was Daniel Kitson in 66A Church Road. I didn’t know much about it in advance except that it was a meditation on a flat in which he lived for a number of years, and that his shows are more like theatrical monologues than stand-up routines. As he began to speak, it became apparent that he Church Road he was talking about was in Crystal Palace – a regular haunt just up the road from Murphy Grange. Even stranger, one of the people we’d gone to the show with has inhabited the same road for years, but had no idea Daniel Kitson lived in the area. 

Maybe it helped that we knew the places he was talking about, but the show was mesmerising – thought-provoking, funny, profound and moving. Kitson’s slightly shambling and socially awkward persona (plus his characterisation of his soulless landlord) draw you in and make you laugh, while his observations on memory and the significance of ‘home’ make you want to go back and look at your own domestic situation from a brand new perspective. His relationship with the flat - which he loved despite, or because of, all its faults - also provided a surprisingly apt metaphor for all our personal relationships.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Father and Son, ITV1

Here's a review of tonight's Father and Son that I've just written for Orange. The really important bit is in the final paragraph.

(Here's a heartbreaking piece that Frank Deasy wrote for The Guardian a few days before he died.)

ITV might be feeling a bit battered after its drama came away from Sunday night's BAFTA TV Awards empty-handed, but it came out fighting last night with the first episode of Father and Son, a gritty four-part thriller that's showing each night this week. 

Set against the backdrop of Manchester's gang culture, it tells the story of Michael O'Connor (Dougray Scott), a one-time Mr Big who's trying to go straight with his new wife in the Irish countryside. However, everything changes when his estranged son Sean (Reece Noi) ends up – mistakenly – charged with the murder of a rival gang member.

Michael heads back to England to help Sean, but soon realises he'll have to lay his own ghosts to rest first. When his old gang buddy Barrington (Terence Maynard) makes him an offer he can't refuse, it's clear his peaceful new life will have to go on hold for a while.

Dougray Scott has got a menacing presence (squint a bit and he could pass for Ray Liotta), but – in the first episode at least – he isn't given much to do other than prowl and scowl. His accent is also a bit off the mark; you'd love to hear Max Beasley spit out some of his lines with a real Manc snarl.

The rest of the cast is a bit useful; Sophie Okonedo is rock solid as Sean's aunt (and a copper working on gun crime), but Ian Hart seems a bit wasted as her boss, DCI Tony Exposition... er, Conroy, who handily fills us in on Michael's shady past. Steven Rea also slips into the action by the end as a menacing former IRA godfather turned money launderer.

Some of the surface stuff might seem a bit familiar (gun-totting hoodies on mountain bikes, a grizzled old villain trying to leave the past behind), but the story's going in a number of directions and there should be enough emotional twists and turns to hold your attention over four nights.

Sadly, Father and Son was one of the final scripts completed by Emmy-winning writer Frank Deasy, who died last year aged 49 after a battle with cancer and a lengthy wait for a liver transplant. Click here for further information on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Friday, 4 June 2010

An exorcism in Penge

It's been a funny couple of months. In writing terms, things came to a bit of a halt during April, when Jane and I went for a long-awaited holiday in Japan. It's a fascinating place and we had an amazing, stimulating experience, but there wasn't a lot of time for the oul' scribbling.

At the end of the holiday we also managed to get caught up in the ashpocalypse, becoming stuck at Narita airport for five days. I wrote about it for Orange here (and that isn't me in the pic), but things turned out reasonably OK in the end; more through luck than judgement, we managed to get on the first JAL flight back to Heathrow.

However, while we were away I had a couple of bruising body-blows (writing-wise). Firstly, Foot Soldiers, my application for the Academy Pictures initiative – on which I'd worked very hard, in collaboration with an award-winning director – didn't even make the shortlist.

Then I got some brutal (but precise and helpful) feedback on another script I'd submitted to a US competition. It wasn't terminal, and it highlighted that the script had "great ideas and terrific potential", but it also indicated that I pretty much need to go back to page one and start again to realise those.

Anyway, all of these factors combined to give me The Fear. Not really writer's block as such, but a paralysing sense of inertia and stagnation – a realisation of how much work I still had to do on my various projects.

Picking up a pen to start the work seemed so daunting that I let it slip, and days soon became weeks. Even the fact that an agent who liked a previous script is waiting to see a draft of Foot Soldiers seemed to add to the pressure rather than giving me the espresso enema I needed.

Fortunately, I've been given a bit of a boost this week; Foot Soldiers has been shortlisted in the Euroscript Screen Story Competition, and a producer to whom I sent another script has asked me to come in for a more general meeting. And the weather's been nice!

So, I took the opportunity last night to get down to Penge's most charming beer garden terrace and banish The Fear. Armed with my lovely new Cross pen – a birthday pressie from Splendid Wife – I plunged in and started to ask myself the questions I needed to in order to get Foot Soldiers moving again.

And guess what? The answers were there all along – like the statue imprisoned in the block of marble, waiting to be liberated.

The lesson? I guess you shouldn't underestimate the importance of momentum in your writing regime. Even if you're just doing a little bit every day, it means that your subconscious is constantly turning it over in a cool, dark part of your noddle, waiting for you to come and see what it's done.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Money, BBC Two

Here's a review of Money that I wrote last night for Orange - while knackered after a nice long day of living it up in Brighton. I've never read the book, so I guess other reviewers will have more to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the adaptation. However, I found it very stodgy as a bit of drama. Anyway...

After two of the three dramas in the BBC's 80s season, it was all to play for. Worried About the Boy, an engaging and enlightening look at the musical scene of the early decade, had really hit the high notes, while The Royal Wedding... not so much. 

So, last night we had Money – the first half of a two-part adaptation of Martin Amis's acclaimed novel about the decade's excesses. Nick Frost starred as John Self, a charmless ad director who was flitting between London and New York as he prepared to make his first feature film – also entitled Money.

However, as Self started to put his film together – with the help of slimy producer Fielding Goodney (Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser) – the various bits of his life started to go a bit wonky. His already unhealthy relationship with his girlfriend Selina (Emma Pierson) took a turn for the worse, while his dad fell into debt after turning the family pub into a strip joint.

On top of all this – and trouble from his demanding would-be cast – he'd started to receive a series of menacing calls from someone who seemed to be watching him all the time – and who ended up telling the director that they "wanted his life".

Martin Amis isn't everyone's cup of tea – as either an author or a person – but his writing has a snap, crackle and pop that were totally lacking from this adaptation. Apart from the mysterious phone calls, nothing much happened to build any tension. Instead, Self hopped back and forth across the Atlantic as the story meandered through a series of dull, awkward scenes.

Nick Frost was convincing as John Self, but I got the feeling he wasn't really stretching himself that much. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast weren't given much to work with. It seemed particularly hard going for the actresses; there was an unpleasant tang of misogyny in his messed-up relationship with Selina.

I found myself looking at the clock long before the end, and only persevered to the closing credits because I had to. What could have been a stinging satire ended up as something as lumpen and unappetising as the burgers John Self was scoffing while slobbing around his NYC hotel suite.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Royal Wedding, BBC Two

A bit after the event, here's a review of The Royal Wedding that I wrote for Orange the other day.

I was quite disappointed in it, given Abi Morgan's previous work. Like I say below, it never really seemed to catch light, and the final 'confrontation' between Linda and Sherry (the wife of the bloke Linda is having an affair with) was distinctly anti-climactic. 
The shooting style was also a bit off-putting. It had that lovely hazy air of nostalgia, but after a while it became a bit soporific. Anyway...

Last night's The Royal Wedding, scripted by BAFTA-winner Abi Morgan, stuffed us in the time machine and flung us back to 1981, when The Man tried to take our minds off the crumbling state of the nation and the horrors of Thatcherism by throwing together the ill-fated marriage of Charles and Diana. 

The film followed the celebrations in a Welsh village, focusing on the dilemma facing factory worker Linda Caddock (Jodie Whittaker): should she stay with her husband Johnny (Darren Boyd), a lazy musician who still dreams of making it big, or run away with her lover, the unpopular factory boss Alan (Alun Raglan)?

As the day developed and Alan and Linda's affair was discovered, we saw the effect it had on Johnny, Alan's monstrous wife Sherry (Sarah Hadland) and – particularly – Linda's sensitive daughter Tammy (Gwyneth Keyworth), who was captivated by the royal wedding and desperately wanted to believe in fairytale marriages.

The cast and production were all first-rate, but the drama seemed to smoulder a bit without quite catching fire. Maybe the lazy, hazy summer atmosphere was a bit too effective; at times I wanted it to get a strong coffee down it and perk up. Some of it was also a bit over-familiar; it seems you can't have a drama in a provincial working-class community without feisty, sharp-tongued put-upon women and feckless, useless blokes. 

Despite these flaws, Jodie Whittaker filled the screen with wounded fragility as the trapped Linda, while newcomer Gwyneth Keyworth was moving as the daughter who has her innocence and illusions shattered. Elsewhere, Rebecca Stanton was criminally underused as factory agitator Bev, whose "problem" is fairly obvious from the outset and who's pretty much shunted into the background for the bulk of the drama. 

In the end, the film fizzled out, rather than reaching a dramatic climax. It became clear in the closing montage that Linda had made a decision when we saw her happily handing a flower to a copper at Greenham Common, and Tammy (now a goth, with her new boyfriend) and Johnny (who'd cut his hair and become a dope farmer) seemed content enough without her. So all's well that ends well, eh?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

44 Inch Chest (repost)

I've spotted a few ads for the release of 44 Inch Chest on DVD, so in an attempt to reanimate this blog back into undignified "life" (inna Herbert West stylee), here's a review I wrote in January after a screening and Q&A at the BFI...

Last night we headed to the BFI for the first time this year, for a preview of 44 Inch Chest - a new British film written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (Sexy Beast) and starring Ray Winstone, alongside a top drawer cast: Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane and Joanne Whalley.

The plot sounds simple (and geezerish) enough: Colin Diamond (Winstone) is a gruff car salesman whose world falls apart when his wife Liz (Whalley) announces that she's leaving him for a younger man. Urged on by his grizzly gang of mates, he kidnaps 'Loverboy' (Melvin Poupaud) and takes him to a derelict house. With his friends insisting that Loverboy has to die for what he's done, Col has a long dark night of the soul as he decides what to do

Although the trailer would have you think it's a bit of a laddish gangland romp, the film is actually much richer and stranger than that. Mostly confined to a single room, the plot is minimal: Colin has to decide whether or not to kill Loverboy.

However, through a combination of flashback, hallucination and a typically committed performance from Ray Winstone, the film goes into Colin's mind to vividly depict the psychic disintegration that he suffers after Liz drops her bombshell.

The script - and, by extension, the film - are more about texture than plot. The profane banter that flies around between the blokes has a rich musical rhythm, especially when delivered by such a talented cast, even if some of the anecdotes and exchanges seem a bit tangental. When Colin's mates are berating the unlucky Loverboy, it feels a lot like Pinter's The Birthday Party, when the gangsters interrogate Stanley.

The film is billed as a provocative look at masculinity, but I didn't see much in the characters that relates to my life. In the Q&A afterwards, Ray Winstone said that he saw it very much as a love story; like Othello, the broken Col maintains that his biggest fault was that he loved Liz too much (although that doesn't prevent him from giving her a brutal beating when she attempts to leave).

It's an interesting film, full of captivating performances and shot with a real photographer's eye by director Malcolm Venville (making his feature debut) and cinematographer Daniel Landin. However, it might fall between two stools commercially. If an audience turns up expecting a Lock, Stock-style geezercom, they might be alienated by the intimate nature of the film and find its conclusion a bit anti-climactic.

Along with Ray Winstone, the Q&A afterwards was attended also attended by John Hurt and co-writer David Scinto. It'll turn up on BFI Live soon enough, so I won't go through it blow by blow.

The most interesting thing from a screenwriting perspective was David Scinto's statement that they focus on characters when they write, so they can attract top-class actors who really want to get their teeth into the material. Then, once the acting talent has shown an interest, the film becomes a much easier sell to financiers and producers.

Looking at the casts they attracted to Sexy Beast and 44 Inch Chest, you'd have to say it's a strategy that's paid off.

Friday, 26 March 2010

One script, two days

Wednesday: Very nice email from a prestigious agent who represents a couple of writers whose careers I'd very much like to emulate. Agent acknowledges that it deals with a difficult subject area, but "the script certainly stands above such doubts... we found [the characters] distinctive and memorable. There are interesting strands set up for a series, and we like the way you play with the potentially bleaker aspects... Above all, it’s an interesting and engaging story. We like your writing, and would like to read another script."

Thursday: Script returned by the BBC writersroom having not even passed their 10-page test and been chucked out with the green felt-tip crowd.

Now this isn't going to be a chuntering rant against the BBC; this is the third script I've sent to the writersroom down the years, and the other two came back with encouraging and useful feedback having received a full read. 

It just illustrates how subjective the whole process is; I thought that my current script was a lot more accomplished than the previous two, and particularly worked hard to give it a dynamic and engaging opening, but the BBC reader clearly didn't agree. 

The lesson - apart from William Goldman's over-quoted statement that "nobody knows anything"? Keep pinging out the stuff, and have faith that eventually it'll land in front of someone who'll connect with it.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Shifty: Script To Screen event (London, March 28th)

This looks like a very interesting event, taking place on Sunday (March 28th) at the Panton Street Odeon, just off Leicester Square. It looks like it's been organised by Chris Jones, co-creator of the Guerilla Film-Maker's Handbook.
On Sunday March 28th we are running a special Script To Screen event at the Odeon, Panton Street, with BAFTA nominated writer/director Eran Creevy and his film ‘Shifty’.
First we send you the shooting script which, if you read, will give you a real insight into how stories evolve on set (under the pressure of production, the interpretation of actors etc.) Then we present the movie on 35mm on March 28th which you can attend, after which we stay in the Odeon for an indepth film makers Q and A with Eran. Finally we retire to the pub across the road for a lovely and relaxing networking end to the day. All for £20!
I saw Shifty (plus a Q&A) at the BFI last year, just before it came out: you can read my review and notes here.

I really enjoyed the film, which was made as part of Film London's microbudget (£100K) Microwave scheme. I was thinking about it again recently as I worked on my application for the Academy Pictures initiative, which seems to have a lot in common with Microwave. 

Microbudget film-making seems to be an area that's getting a lot more attention: after the success of Paranormal Activity, Paramount have launched 'Insurge Pictures' - a new division that's looking to make 10 films for a budget of $100,000 each. 

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Scouting Book for Boys (again)

I posted a review of The Scouting Book for Boys last year after seeing it at the London Film Festival, so it's probably worth reposting as the film goes on general release today.

There's also a screening and Q&A with writer Jack Thorne, director Tom Harper and producer Ivana Mackinnon at the Curzon Soho on Tuesday 23rd March.

Here are a few more recent links to interviews an ting: 
Well, our London Film Festival experience didn't get off to the most auspicious of starts when our priority booking form got lost in the post. Fortunately, we sprang into action before everything had sold out, and got what must have been the last two seats for this screening.

The Scouting Book for Boys is the debut feature from director Tom Harper, from a script by Jack Thorne – a playwright who's also written for Shameless and – more extensively – Skins.

It's set around a caravan park on the Norfolk coast, where teenagers David (Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger) are inseparable best friends; they live permanently on the site, where their parents work. However, their carefree lifestyle comes to a halt when Emily disappears, shortly after being told that she'll have to go and live with her absentee dad.

It'd be criminal to give away too much of what happens next, but things get progressively darker, culminating in a devastating conclusion. However, the storytelling is sparse and subtle throughout, meaning that when a fairly nasty moment came along, it provoked a audible response from just about everyone in the cinema.

In screenwriting terms, the characterisation of the hesitant and slightly dim David and the much more precocious Emily is brilliantly laid out, helped by compelling performances from the two leads - especially Thomas Turgoose, whose expressive face and body language articulate what his tongue-tied character can't.

The film is also beautifully shot. The optimistic early part of the film is bathed in glorious golden sunlight, while the later scenes are marked by a much bleaker atmosphere - a great example of using mise-en-scene to reflect characters' psychological states.

I read somewhere that it's going to be released in the UK next spring, but you can probably catch details of further preview screenings via the film's twitter feed - @SB4B.

There was a short Q&A after the screening. Jack Thorne said the idea came about when he read that Robbie Williams' dad used to be an entertainer at a caravan park. He used to go on family holidays to caravan parks and had often wondered about the people who lived there permanently.

The script spent about seven years in gestation, but he really started to develop it under a mentoring scheme by Celador Films. His first draft led to Tom Harper and Film4 becoming involved, but then a second draft went badly wrong and the project went backwards.

However, after Jack was told by the producer to go away and write whatever he wanted, the script popped up in second place on the inaugural Brit List (an industry survey of hot unproduced screenplays) - behind The Men Who Stare at Goats. That generated more interest and led to another draft.

Tom Harper added that he'd previously read a couple of Jack's scripts and was keen to work with him. It was a coincidence that the Scouting Book script ended up in his hands, but he loved it when he read it and the project moved on from there.

There was also a brief discussion of the portrayal of adults in the film. Tom Parker said that the script is mostly from David's point of view, so he wanted to represent that in a heightened reality on screen - something worth thinking about when you're considering the POV you want to present in your own scripts.

The adults seem on a slightly different plane to David and Emily; they're a bit crap and peripheral, so the teens have to occupy themselves and make their own fun. So, the world originally seems idyllic through David's eyes, until things start to go wrong (reflected in the change of tone noted above) .

The cast paid tribute to the precision and timing of Jack's script, but the writer himself admitted that the story changed quite a bit in the edit. His original ending came earlier than the conclusion seen in the film and was more ambiguous, but didn't feel right on screen.

LFF blurb, including pics and trailer
Video interview with Tom Harper (Cineuropa)
Tom Harper's filming diary (Film4)
Old-ish interview with Jack Thorne (BBC writersroom)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Missing, BBC One

I know this is a bit after the event, but here's a rough and ready review of the daytime drama Missing that I wrote for Orange a couple of days ago. It was enjoyable low-budget stuff, written by Matthew Leys - worth catching up with on iPlayer for study purposes, at least.

(This is a bit of a warm-up routine; I'm planning to start blogging again - sporadically - in the next few days.)

Missing, a daytime drama series starring Pauline Quirke as DS Mary Jane "MJ" Croft, the head of a missing persons unit in Dover, made a brief five-day appearance last year. And it obviously tickled someone's fancy, because now it's back for an extended 10-episode run. 

As you'd expect from this kind of show, the first episode gave us a mix of on-the-job investigations and personal complications, with the main case involving a missing six-year-old girl. There was a nice amount of plot squeezed into the episode, as various explanations for the apparent abduction came and went. Even when she was discovered and "rescued", there were still more secrets to be revealed.

The second story was much slighter, as a firefighter wanted help to find his grown-up son, who'd disappeared after a bit of a row at a family 'do. This thread panned out a bit more conveniently, but was still tied up nicely with a bitter-sweet conclusion.

On top of all this, the team also had to deal with their personal baggage. Under the cosh from a hardass new boss, MJ was torn between work and attending her niece's birthday party, while the pressure of impending sergeant's exams took a toll on the budding relationship between DC Jason Doyle (Felix Scott) and civilian assistant Amy Garnett (Pooja Shah).

Pauline Quirke also popped up earlier in Missing Live – a Crimewatch-y thing presented by Louise Minchin and Rav Wilding that'll be on every weekday morning over the next two weeks. The show will look at the wider issues surrounding missing persons, including appeals for help and stories of how missing people were found and reunited with their family. Apparently 11 of the missing people featured on last year's five-day version of the show were later found.

Anyway, Missing is definitely at the no-frills end of TV drama: it's more Sainsbury's Basics than the Waitrosey luxury of posh US stuff like Without a Trace. But Pauline Quirke's always a welcome sight and the stories and soapy bits were sufficiently intriguing to keep me watching. And Roy Hudd turned up at the end as MJ's estranged dad, so that's got to be worth a look. If the daytime scheduling's a bit of a problem, you can always catch up on the BBC iPlayer (if you're in the UK)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Murphy's Law of Rewriting

I stumbled up the worn stone steps from my laboratory this morning as "the pale sun poked impudent marmalade fingers" over the turrets and crennelations of stately Penge, having uncovered - the hard way - my latest theorem:
The effort required to implement a new idea in your script is inversely proportionate to how simple it seemed when you first jotted it down

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Academy Pictures initiative

Here's a copy of a request that I've just posted on Shooting People and Talent Circle:


I graduated with an MA Screenwriting (Merit) from Bournemouth in 2008, and I'd like to hook up with a producer and/or director to apply for the Academy Pictures development initiative for Bournemouth students and alumni.

I'm currently tweaking the first draft of a feature-length script that I think would fit the criteria of the initiative. Please get in touch if you're interested in collaborating on an application (and hopefully a rewarding partnership beyond that).  The deadline for submissions is March 8th. 

NB - As specified by the guidelines, this initiative "is aimed exclusively at Arts University College Bournemouth, Bournemouth University and Bournemouth partner college undergraduate, post-graduate and alumni filmmakers. If you’re at Bournemouth, or you went to Bournemouth, you are eligible."

PLEASE don't contact me at the moment if you don't meet one of those criteria.

Tom Murphy

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Vampire Diaries, ITV2

Here's a review of The Vampire Diaries wot I writted for Orange (in a state of exhausted delirium after getting home from tonight's sensational shenanigans at Selhurst Park).

Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev and Paul Wesley in The Vampire Diaries (c) ITV

Vampires! Aren't they great?! They're so sexy, aren't they? And doomed and romantic and passionate! And it's like a really good metaphor for, er, something…

If you've not already had the life sucked out of you by Twilight and True Blood (and even our very own Being Human), here's another tale of awkward cross-species teenage romance, doorstep-bothering and neck-nibbling.

In the small town of Mystic Falls, high-school hottie Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) was still grieving the death of her parents in a car crash. However, the new school year was made considerably more interesting by the arrival of the pale and interesting Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) – a diary-keeping vampire who's trying to keep off the red stuff.

Elena's boy-hungry mates were keen to get their claws into the new boy in town, but instead Stefan showed a great deal of interest in Elena. Later we found out why: she's the spitting image of a girl he loved – and lost – in 1864!

Meanwhile, a shadowy figure started to rip lumps out of the locals, and it looked like Stefan had given in to temptation after all – until it turned out that his not-so-nice brother Damon had also rolled into Mystic Falls. Damon's not as bothered about who he sinks his teeth into, and it looks like Elena could soon be at the very pointy end of a love triangle.

Naturally, as its set in an American high school, it's all cheekbones and lipgloss, plus the limited range of reactions and facial expressions you can see every week on shows like 90210. And there are long, meaningful stares between Elena and Stefan. A LOT of long, meaningful stares.

The series was co-created by Kevin Williamson, who was behind the Scream films and Dawson's Creek, so you know what to expect. However, even with blood-thirsty hunks on the loose it still doesn't feel that dangerous: it doesn't have quite as much bite as Gossip Girl, for instance. Still, vampire fans who haven't had their fill of high-school shenanigans will probably lap it up.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Mo, Channel 4

Here's a quick review of Mo that I wrote last night for Orange.

From a more writerly point-of-view, I thought that screenwriter Neil McKay did a good job of combining the private and public aspects of Mo Mowlam's later life. The film moved beyond regular biopic material with thought-provoking stuff like the suggestion that she could have had her brain tumour for years before it was diagnosed. As a result, all the things that set Mo apart from other politicians - her lack of inhibition, straight-talking etc - could have been symptoms of the disease rather than her own characteristics.

Although Julie Walters is obviously a brilliant actress, I was a bit worried by the casting in the first few minutes, as it seemed hard to look beyond the actress to the character beneath. The opening ten minutes also had more pat-the-dog moments than last year's Crufts, as it was made clear to us that the lusty, pint-swigging, approachable and committed public servant wasn't like other MPs. That made it look a bit like it was going to be a hagiography, but the tone soon became much more complex.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but McKay seemed to steer an efficient way through the complications of the Northern Ireland peace process in which Mo played such a large part (although there appeared to be quite a bit of info-dumping, followed by Mo sighing in exasperation, "Do you think I don't know that?")

More than anything, though, I think McKay's script showed that research is the key to an drama that goes beyond the obvious and makes us see the subject in a new light. He clearly conducted extensive interviews with those close to Mo, and seeing her life from every angle offered him a greater number of choices and the ability to draw links between the various aspects of Mo's life. Even if you're not writing a biopic, doing thorough research on your arena or the subject you want to examine will give you all the ammunition you need.

Link: Interview with Julie Walters, Neil McKay and director Philip Martin (found by tireless blogger and screenwriter's friend Robin Kelly)

Anyway, here's the Orange review:

Mo Mowlam was that rarest of things: a politician who people trusted – and even liked. This engaging but ultimately harrowing film, starring national treasure Julie Walters, soon painted a vivid picture of the Mo we thought we knew: earthy, unpretentious, committed and with a gift for puncturing pomposity.

The film started in the run-up to the historic 1997 election, when Mo was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour. The prognosis: two to three years. However, despite her concerns over her political future, the news of her illness cemented her as a public hero – “the people's politician” – in sharp contrast to the slimy Peter Mandelson (Steven Mackintosh), who kept turning up like a bad smell throughout the film.

After the election victory came the main part of Mo's story, as she was given the seemingly poisoned chalice of the Northern Ireland job. The film combined the personal and political aspects of her life, as her unorthodox political style broke down long-standing barriers. However, as the peace process reached its climax, Tony Blair began to take over, snaffling much of the glory for the historic Good Friday Agreement. Her authority also began to diminish as the new institutions began to take shape.

Before long – after a jaw-dropping pregnancy scare – it became clear that Mo's final decline had started. Her paranoia about the “devious c***” Mandelson proved justified as he was given Northern Ireland and she was shunted aside. With her anger and bitterness towards Tony Blair eating away at her, and without a strong political challenge to drive her forward, her illness began to take over.

The last part of the film was difficult – even heartbreaking – to watch, but it was also admirably candid about the difficulties that faced Mo and those around her as she approached the end of her life. Feeling that her life had meant nothing, she started to lash out at those closest to her, before finally finding peace again. She died in August 2005, at the age of 55.

This film was an honest and worthy tribute to this complicated woman, and Julie Walters' typically committed performance – supported ably by David Haig as her husband, Jon Norton – made it compelling viewing. With public faith in our MPs at rock bottom, it was a reminder of how unique a figure Mo Mowlam really was.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Mad Men, BBC Four

Here's a quick review of last night's Mad Men double bill on BBC Four wot I done for Orange.

I'm off to the Isle of Wight in an hour to do a bit of rewriting and celebrate 20 glorious years of the Tom 'n' Jane Laff-In, so I don't have time to do any more writery analysis. Suffice to say that each episode is an absolute masterclass in structure, deeeeeep characterisation and subtext.

(Link: Some PDF scripts from series one, courtesy of the script-compiling legend that is Lee Thompson.)

Be seeing you!

At long last, several spoiler-avoiding months after it went out in the US, Mad Men – the Best Thing on Telly – is back on the BBC for its third series. We'll have none of that "season" nonsense here, thank you very much.

Set in a New York ad agency in the early 1960s, the ice-cool show has been hoovering up awards since it started. The other week it won Best TV Drama at the Golden Globes, while Jon Hamm and January Jones (above) were all smiles after walking off with Best Actor and Best Actress for the second year running.

Series three picks up the story amid uncertain times at Stirling Cooper, following its takeover by a load of pesky Brits. With the accounts team fighting for survival, Don Draper (Hamm) had to take a trip to Baltimore with closeted gay art director Sal (Bryan Batt). And when a late-night fire alarm forced the evacuation of their hotel, Don found that he wasn't the only one hiding a few secrets.

Episode two, shown immediately afterwards, brought things closer to home, as decisions had to be made about the care of Don's increasingly senile father-in-law. Meanwhile, pioneering copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) decided to get her mojo back and went out on the pull.

However, Mad Men is one of those shows where a quick summary doesn't do it anything like full credit. Everything about it, from the writing to the set design and costumes, is as immaculately tailored as one of Don Draper's suits: every aspect – every line, look and gesture – is there for a reason, which isn't always obvious.

Granted, the show doesn't make many concessions to new viewers. There are no "As you know, Bob…" conversations to bring the audience up to speed. Instead, you're just dropped into the beautifully realised world and have to start putting together the pieces yourself.

However, if you give it a try you'll find it impossible not to be sucked in. Each episode is a marvellously constructed mini-movie that offers no straightforward answers and leaves you pondering what you've seen long after the credits have finished.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Skins, Series 4 preview, BFI

There's no way I should like Skins. Whenever I'm stuck on a bus with some patois-spitting little Herbert playing shit music out of his mobile, I often think my quality of life would improve immeasurably if they were all shunted off to secure offshore rearing units until the age of 21.

Anyway, when it kicked its way noisily onto the box in 2007, I thought – as a keen student of TV drama – that I'd give it a fair crack of the whip. And while I rolled my eyes a bit at the idea that yoot behaving badly is a 21st-century invention, some of the show's subtlety intrigued me.

By the end of the first episode, I was sure I'd missed something. "What?" I spluttered through my late-night gorgonzola. "We're supposed to *like* Tony?!" But, of course, we weren't. Well, we were a bit. Weren't we? But how much?

Sure he was gorgeous, funny and clever – just how we would have wanted to view ourselves at that age. But he was also a selfish, manipulative and cruel wanker. And the ambivalence fuelled by that depth of characterisation was what fuelled the first two series much more powerfully than the shock horror sex-and-drugs stuff.

For me, it was the second episode – 'Cassie' – that really drew me in. Bryan Elsley's script, Paul Gay's direction and Hannah Murray's luminous performance combined to immerse the viewer in Cassie's world of anorexia and dissociation. It was suddenly apparent that there was going to be more to the show than destructive house parties.

Anyway, the other night we saw a preview of the first episode of series four, at the BFI. And it was excellent. I won't give much away, but it focuses on Thomas (Merveille Lukeba), who is thrown into a bit of a personal crisis when something nasty happens at the club night he puts on. It's darker in tone than the previous series openers, but script, direction, performances and editing all come together beautifully.

There was a Q&A after the screening, featuring writers Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, director Neil Biswas, Merv Lukeba and Lily Loveless (who plays Naomi). It was well moderated by Heat magazine's Boyd Hilton, and while most of the questions were directed at the cast members, there were a few bits of interest from a writing perspective.

* When questioned about the apparent darker tone of 4.1, JB and BE said that one of the things that defines Skins is the fact that its tone can shift around at ease, from intense drama to knockabout comedy and back again. They always seek to open the series with a spectacle, which just happens to be darker this time round. However, the events will continue to have reverberations throughout the series.

* Neil Biswas said he didn't have to fit into a fixed Skins style when he joined the show. Everyone was relaxed about him bringing his own interpretation, and the series is characterised by a lot of collaboration and conversation.

* Bryan Elsley said that he devised the show's writing method because he realised before starting that to make a show about teens he needed to involve teens. As things came together, he became increasingly aware of the talents of the young people he was working with, and wanted to create an atmosphere where they could develop and learn by making mistakes in a safe environment.

* He also responded to claims that the series depicted teens in a bad way by saying again that the show uses the full range of tone - both dark and light - and that it reflects not just teenage life but also a wider range of experience, which is why grown-ups watch the show too. He added that characters like JJ and Pandora also show the very best in human nature.

* Finally, he said that he was happy to have a niche audience of 1.5m-2m who are really engaged with the show; he wants the show to have an audience it can have a relationship with. He was also full of praise for the support the show receives from Channel 4.

I'll watch series four with interest. I remember giving a sudden mental gasp in series two when Cassie suddenly turned up in New York and it became apparent that there was no way we'd be able to second-guess how the series was going to end. I hope the same free-wheeling creativity holds sway as the second generation of Skins heads towards its conclusion.

(And here's what I wrote about last year's series opener. It's looking much better this time round - maybe that's going to be a side-effect of the two-year character cycle?)

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Caretaker / Harold Pinter - A Celebration

I was well chuffed when I heard that Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, starring Jonathan Pryce as Davies, was coming to London. So chuffed, in fact, that I bought top-price tickets straight away – about two hours before I got an email with a two-for-one offer. Tossbags.

I've had a soft spot for the play since I studied it at sixth-form college and it became part of my Teenage Cultural Awakening. Apart from grinding through Henry IV Part One for my O-level, I'd never really come across drama or the theatre until I started my A-levels.

When I discovered something as obviously modern, stylish and profound as The Caretaker, it was like a switch had been flicked in my noddle. My horizons suddenly expanded the same way they had when I first saw the Once in a Lifetime video on Top of the Pops a few years earlier, and I developed an almost insatiable appetite for culture - especially literature - that still defines how I spend most of my spare time.

If you're unfamiliar with the play, it tells the story of Davies, a tramp who is brought home one day by Aston, one of a pair of brothers who run a shabby boarding house. Once he's got his knees under the table, Davies tries to play Aston and his brother, the unpredictable Mick, off against each other to cement his position as caretaker of the house.

Pryce is perfect as Davies, whose pathetic standing at the start attracts our sympathy, but whose snarling opportunism takes over as he fights for survival. Peter McDonald is moving as the inward-looking and damaged Aston, but I didn't really think that Sam Spruell was sufficiently menacing as Mick.

Maybe I was spoiled by the edition I studied from, which featured Alan Bates (as Mick) glowering magnificently from the cover. Even the fact that Spruell's Mick was wearing a brown leather jacket instead of a black one seemed to mitigate his presence.

Watching the play and remembering the significance of Sidcup, Aston's shed and Mick's plans for the house - and even the vacuum cleaner and poor old Buddha - was like meeting up with some old friends and having a few drinks for the first time in years. The dialogue still crackles with life, turning on a sixpence from humour to menace as the relationships in the house shift.

I enjoyed the production, but last night I had my Pinter cobwebs blown away good and proper by a BFI preview of Harold Pinter: A Celebration, which will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday (24 Jan, 9pm).

Having not paid a lot of attention when we booked it, I'd assumed it would be a standard biographical documentary. However, it's something altogether much richer than that.

It's a record of an event that took place at the National Theatre in June 2009, when a stellar cast of actors performed extracts from Pinter's work, directed by Ian Rickson, the former artistic director of the Royal Court.

The performances covered the author's full range, from a poem he wrote as a 20-year-old to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As well as extracts from his better-known plays, there were also moving renditions of his personal and political poetry and hilarious extracts from his memoirs.

There are too many highlights to pick out, and the event was beautifully structured, enlightening and inspiring. It's a reminder of the range of Pinter's genius and makes you want to go back and immerse yourself in his work deeper than you ever have before.

Review of the National Theatre event (Michael Billington, The Guardian)