Saturday, 31 January 2009

Generation Kill, FX

Just a quickie, in light of yesterday's post on Ed Burns.

Generation Kill is a seven-part mini-series by Burns and David Simon, his co-creator on The Wire, adapted from the book by Evan Wright - a Rolling Stone journalist who was embedded with the US Marines at the start of the Iraq War.

The thing that struck me from a writing point of view was how much the opening episode epitomised Burns's mantra that writers should never explain: "say it once and move on".

The episode starts as a fog of jargon, acronyms and procedure, with little initially to differentiate the uniformed, crop-haired Marines.

However, the main characters and themes steadily emerge to provide an almost, er, Kubrikesque depiction of the absurdity of life during wartime; bizarre rumours about the death of J-Lo fuel conspiracy theories around the camp, while senior officers get in a rage about moustaches that violate regulations.

The key craft moment for me came when the journalist arrived in the camp. In the hands of lazier writers, the newcomer would be given a guided tour of the unit and introduced to the main characters: "This is Private Whatsit, but we all call him 'Thingy' because of his whatever..."

However, here he's flung straight into the middle of camp life and has to make sense of what's going on in the same way that the viewer does.

It's a warts-and-all depiction of the outbreak of war, with the Marines struggling to deal with uncertain orders and a lack of adequate information and equipment.

While the first episode deals largely with the 'phoney war' before the real hostilities began, it ends with the unit becoming unwillingly complicit in a murderous situation that highlights the ambiguity of their objectives.

Great stuff. (Channel 4 have just bought the series for terrestrial broadcast later in the year.)

Andrew Billen in The Times
Jonathan Finer in The Washington Post
The Guardian: Interview with Ed Burns (MP3)

Friday, 30 January 2009

Ed Burns on the Culture Show, BBC Two

Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire and Generation Kill (which made its UK debut on FX this week), made a brief appearance on The Culture Show last week to give a 'masterclass on creating cult TV'.

I'm sure the extract is on youTube by now, but these were his key points:

1. Know your subject
You should look to make the show for the people you're depicting - eg, The Wire was made for cops and addicts, while Generation Kill was made for the Marines.

Include something that particular audience will identify with; it then gives you a 'permission slip' to explore their world. These little titbits give an air of authenticity and allows you to know the characters better, so the bigger drama becomes more significant.

2. It's all in the casting
If you spend time on the casting process, your character will walk into the room.

Go sometimes with people who aren't actors but have stepped out of the world of the drama; they have an energising effect on the 'real' actors around them (eg Felicia Parsons in The Wire, Rudy Reyes in Generation Kill).

3. Never explain
"Say it once and move on"

4. Keep it real
In both Baltimore and Iraq, he was trying to tell a story that doesn't become stereotyped or demeaning of the people he was depicting.

Put flesh on the bones of your characters, giving them a human dimension. Eg, Bunk in The Wire being found drunk in the toilet after 'going over the side'.

Link: The Culture Show had an interview with David Simon about The Wire last year

I'll try and blog on Generation Kill in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

BU screenwriting degree show, Courtyard Theatre

Last week, we finally had the degree show for last year's screenwriting graduates from Bournemouth University, held at the Courtyard Theatre, near Old Street in London.

After a couple of pre-show cocktails, the audience of around 90 graduates, staff and invited industry guests squeezed into the Studio auditorium. Stephen Jukes, Dean of the BU Media School, got things underway, followed by a few words from Carrie Wootten, Screen Academy Manager at Skillset.

Then came the main part of the evening - a rehearsed reading of five-minute extracts from some of the higher-marked final scripts from both the BA and MA courses. The extracts were performed by a group of professional actors directed by Darren Bransford, who did an excellent job of translating the screenplay format into a theatre environment.

The climax of the evening was the presentation of the Alan Plater Prize to the two writers who acheived the highest mark for their major project on each of the courses: Sheila West from the BA and Chris O'Malley from the MA.

We'd been uncertain whether Alan was going to make it, because of an earlier medical appointment, but we were thrilled when he arrived, with his wife Shirley, in time for the presentations.

Remembering the influence of his late friend John Mortimer, Alan gave a very inspiring speech about writing, urging prospective writers to try as many formats as possible and to always remember "they can't stop you".

They certainly can't stop Alan, who is now in his mid-70s. Having just been given the all-clear after a period of illness, he was going to resume work the following day on three projects, including an episode of Lewis and a radio play for the BBC.

After that it was back to the bar for drinks, catching up with old friends and a gradual release of the terror that had gripped me - as joint organiser - for much of the previous four months. Anyway, it all seems to have gone well; everyone at BU was pleased with it, and some of the showcased writers have told me they made useful contacts on the night.
None of it would have happened without the help of my wife Jane though, who ran around like a blue-arsed fly all night to ensure that everyone was supplied with quiche, crisps and gingebread men.

Right, now I'd better spend a bit of time promoting my writing...

Monday, 26 January 2009

The day of wrath approaches

"They came for the baby-killing sports-nut Mormon women, but I wasn't a baby-killing sports-nut Mormon woman, so I did nothing"

A friend of mine who lives in Washington saw this chilling warning sign on Inauguration Day.

I wonder if ticking more than one of the boxes will increase your level of damnation exponentially.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Skins, C4

Although I'm hardly in the target demographic, I was really looking forward to the third series of Skins. I enjoyed the energy and inventiveness of the first two series, and thought that replacing the cast was exactly the right move to keep it fresh.

However, I was really disappointed by the first episode. It just seemed really pedestrian and hackneyed - almost verging on self-parody - with little of the complexity or creative flair that made the show such an event when it first appeared.

Effy Stonem, Tony's sister, has been given centre stage, but she lacks the mix of attraction and repulsion that made her brother so compelling. Not saying much and blinking really slowly might look like "cool", but it doesn't translate into intriguing characterisation, and it's hard to imagine her pulling the strings the way Tony did.

Elsewhere in the cast, some of the show's archetypes are revisited; for instance, hedonistic substance-scoffer Cook seems to be the new Chris. However, there's no sign of a new Sid - an everyman we can identify and sympathise with (although Emily, the more reticent of the twins, might step into this role).

One of the most annoying aspects of the show is how cartoonishly stupid every single grown-up is. The slapstick chase sequence in which skateboarder Freddie 'outwits' a bumbling copper is excruciating, and Ardal O'Hanlon looks badly out of place doing his Dylan Moran-lite act as a burnt-out teacher.

Part of what kept the show moving forward in the second series was the introduction of more engaging grown-up characters. However, The flavour of episode one makes it seem unlikely that there's going to be room for a star turn like Peter Capaldi's performance as Sid's dad.

I'll stick with Skins and will it to succeed, because it's still a landmark show. Hopefully the third series will develop further when we start to focus more on the individual characters and look at their lives more deeply. But at the moment, it looks like a second-rate rip-off of the original series rather than a bold reinvention.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Licking Hitler, BFI

As part of its current season focusing on David Hare's work for TV, the BFI last week showed the first two films that he both wrote and directed for the Play for Today strand.

Licking Hitler, which won the 1978 Bafta for Best Television Play, is set during World War II in a country house that has been requisitioned by the military to house a 'black propaganda' unit that is sending subversive messages into Germany.

The drama centres on the uneasy and ultimately brutal relationship between Archie Maclean (Bill Paterson), an alcoholic and raspingly sardonic working-class journo from Glasgow, and Anna Seaton (Kate Nelligan), a naïve and sheltered upper-class girl who joins the unit as a translator.

The film is populated by fairly unsympathetic characters whose motivations remain opaque, but Hare never offers judgement on them until the closing voiceover. It's also a very spare piece of work, with long periods of silence and languid camerawork giving the house a haunted, isolated and oppressive atmosphere. The only music is a slow piano concerto that occasionally echoes through the empty spaces.

Hare doesn't labour the point, but the house and its inhabitants act as a graphic metaphor for the fissures of class, gender, sexuality and nationality that run through society. However, their conflicts stem from purely personal concerns; they're always complex characters rather than representative mouthpieces.

Debates in the house also raise ethical questions over the use of propaganda as a deadly weapon of war, with the profession of lying eventually spilling into the characters' tense personal relationships, with destructive consequences.

Unexpectedly for such an insular and stylised film, it concludes with a 'where are they now' epilogue, tracing the post-War careers of the characters. Although this seems like a disruptive shift in tone, it works well in extending the theme of deceit in public life.

The liars-in-chief go on to prosper through 'the steady impoverishment of people's ideals, their loss of faith… the 30-year-old, deep, corrosive national habit of lying'. It's one of the script's strengths that such a specific period piece still has contemporary relevance thirty years later.

(I'll have a look next at Dreams of Leaving and the on-stage interview with David Hare that followed the two films).

Thursday, 15 January 2009

BAFTA screenplay nominations

(With links to 'officially' posted scripts, where available)

Original screenplay

Adapted screenplay
(Script links via SimplyScripts)

Ricardo Montalbán RIP

Blimers, super smoothy Ricardo Montalbán has gone as well.

I loved his five stages of being an actor:

1. Who is Ricardo Montalbán?

2. Get me Ricardo Montalbán!

3. Get me a Ricardo Montalbán type.

4. Get me a young Ricardo Montalbán.

5. Who is Ricardo Montalbán?

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Be seeing you: Patrick McGoohan RIP

Channel Four's broadcast of The Prisoner in late 1983 was an absolutely pivotal moment in my, ahem, cultural development.

Along with the same channel's runs of The Avengers, it ran an electric charge through my imagination and opened my eyes to what telly could do.

The image of 'P' (as he was described in the scripts) stomping grumpily round the Village and never resting in his struggle against the authorities utterly captivated me.

I and a few fellow acolytes at school would trot out memorable lines the following day, and before long I joined Six of One.

Immersing myself totally in the series, I began to realise what a remarkable production it had been and what an extraordinary man its star (and driving force) had been.

When Janie bought me the complete box set for Christmas a few years ago, I wished I could send a message back to Tom '83 and let him know that someday he'd own the complete series on handy little discs and be able to watch it whenever he wanted.

Even now, the peel of thunder and the thrum of bongos at the start gets my heart beating a little faster.

And we'll always have that voice:

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered! My life is my own.”

Monday, 12 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, BFI

Slumdog Millionaire is clearly going to get a lot of coverage and analysis as it continues its triumphant march to glory, so there’s probably not a lot I can add.

The main thing that struck me about Simon Beaufoy’s script is how it remains coherent and constantly moving forward despite having a complex triple narrative.

The action unfolds in three main strands:
  • Jamal, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is interrogated by the police, who think that he must have cheated somehow to reach the upper levels of India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? These scenes are punctuated by;

  • Jamal on the show, locked in a battle of wills with the sneering and smarmy presenter and facing the increasingly valuable questions.

  • Following each question, we learn how Jamal came to know the answer by tracing the series of incidents from his turbulent childhood that have led him to appear on the show.
On top of this we also have intriguing little Roeg-esque flashforwards to images from the later stages of the film.

The success of the script isn’t all down to structure. The developing characters of Jamal, his thuggish brother Salim and his lost childhood sweetheart Latika are beautifully drawn through a series of little gestures and set-ups that are paid off almost perfectly at the end.

I know we’re always quick to criticise directors who have done something to spoil a screenwriter’s beautiful creation, but Danny Boyle (and his team) have taken the script and turned it into a fantastic piece of cinema.

The editing (by Mark Digby) and the soundtrack (by AR Rahman) are particularly effective, giving the film the energy it needs to depict life in the teeming ‘maximum city’ of Mumbai.

The one concern I had was more to do with the marketing of the film – particularly the ubiquitious claim from a review that it’s “the feelgood movie of the decade”.

While it’s probably not giving too much away to say that there’s eventually a happy ending, even that comes at a tragically high price.

Along the way we see police brutality and torture, savage and murderous communal violence, the mutilation of children for profit, underage prostitution and almost inconceivable poverty.

During the ‘Industry Practice’ section of my MA course, development and sales consultant Tom Strudwick was keen to stress the importance of genre in marketing.

In particular, he warned against using generic conventions in marketing to mislead the audience so they expect one thing and end up with another – something that does terrible damage to the film’s ‘playability’ (the long and lucrative theatrical life it can gain through word-of-mouth).

Hopefully Slumdog Millionaire is now picking up sufficient pedigree (ie critical acclaim and awards) to find its audience as a very strong piece of drama. It’d be a shame if the film suffered because of misguided emphasis on the cutesie teen-love aspect.

Link one: Programme notes for last week’s BFI preview and Q&A with Danny Boyle, including quite a few quotes from Simon Beaufoy on writing the script (The Q&A didn’t provide too much stuff from a screenwriter’s point of view that hasn’t been in the various interviews with DB).

Link two: A Creative Screenwriting podcast interview with Simon Beaufoy.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Link: "Genre, give up your secrets!"

You've probably seen this already, but James Henry ('Blue Cat') has posted some excellent and thought-provoking analysis of why the current batch of genre shows on British telly aren't really tickling his fancy.

His posting has also prompted an interesting debate in the comments, including some valuable input from James Moran (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Spooks: Code 9 etc)

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Demons, ITV

Happy new year, oompah-pilgrims!

I'm going to be up to my elbows in the gore of the Degree Show for the next fortnight, but thought I'd better get back on the blogging bike and get something down about Demons.

After the recent arrival of Apparitions on the other side, I was really looking forward to the show. The set-up is a fairly straightforward initiation plot. Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke) learns from his cool American godfather Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister) that he's the last of the Van Helsing family of monster slayers.

As a result, he has to join Rupert and their blind associate Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper) and become a warrior in the eternal war between humanity and the 'half-live' – apparently malevolent supernatural beings who live on the periphery of human perception.

This all sounds interesting enough, especially to a fan of the genre, but we never really find out what's so very bad about the half-live, other than their slightly gruesome appearance and unappealing table manners.

Maybe that would be an interesting way of tinkering with theme and generic conventions; instead of assuming that the half-live are vermin that need to be eradicated, we could be led to the realisation that Team Van Helsing are actually genocidal persecutors of the 'freaks', who might just want to be left alone.

As nasty as the half-live look, I think we need a bit more of an overall threat to make the stakes apparent. The main villain of the opener is Gladiolus Thripp, played with gleeful extravagance by Mackenzie Crook. But again, he doesn't give off a real sense of danger and he is fairly easily disposed of at the end. And haven't we done contrived quasi-Victorian names by now?

I enjoyed it, but not in the way – or as much – I hoped I would. I was hoping it'd be a bit darker and Lovecraftian, even given its scheduling, but the focus on the disruption of Luke's normal teenage life skews it much younger; Buffy still casts a long shadow, and Demons will do well to get out of it.

Much has been made of Philip Glenister's dubious American accent, but his emphatic presence is what holds the programme down and stops it being too lightweight. He gives off an air of pained experience from many years of gazing into the abyss, and while Luke's initiation is the focus, you can't help thinking that Rupert's going to be the real star of the show. But that's Philip Glenister for you.

Still, the theme of strangeness lurking just beneath the surface of everyday life is a compelling one – it drove my MA major project, The Last of the Reality Police – and Demons has a strong-enough sense of place to provide a spicy blend of the familiar and the macabre. It just needs one good really scary episode to get the engine running.

In other news... I saw Slumdog Millionaire at the BFI t'other neet, followed by a quick Q&A with Danny Boyle. The film was great – I'll try and get summat down about it in the next couple of days.