Thursday, 28 May 2009

Mid-August Lunch (Satyajit Ray Award)

The other night at the BFI we were lucky enough to see writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio receive the Satyajit Ray Award for his delightful film Pranzo di Ferragusto (Mid-August Lunch).

The film is the slight but utterly charming story of Gianni (played by Di Gregorio), a 50-something bachelor who – usually with a glass of wine in his hand - lives in Rome with his spirited 93-year-old mother.

Deep in debt, Gianni is forced by the building manager to look after the latter’s mother over the August holiday of Ferragusto. However, the situation soon escalates and he finds himself being run ragged by four very imposing old ladies.

One of the beauties of the film is its sensitive and respectful treatment of old age. The ladies who take over Gianni’s flat aren’t the decrepit and embarrassing zombies so beloved of the youth-obsessed media. Instead, they’re women who have been given cast-iron personalities by decades of experience.

Di Gregorio – one of the scriptwriters on Naples gangster drama Gomorrah - said that he’d been trying to sell the story for around 10 years, but – “fortunately” – no-one wanted to take on such a tough sell. However, Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone agreed to produce the film (at a very low budget) and Di Gregorio stepped in as director and actor, as well as writer.

The low budget becomes a virtue, as the use of natural light, found locations and – especially – non-professional actors combine with mobile camerawork and leisurely pacing to create an irresistibly naturalistic tone that perfectly depicts the stifling summer heat.

As the writer-director confirmed in his Q&A, there’s a strong autobiographical element to the work. He lived alone with his mother – in the flat used in the film - for the last 10 years of her life. During that time, he became immersed in the world of his mother and her friends, seeing their vitality as well as their vulnerability.

From a strictly screenwriting perspective, I guess this is a somewhat extreme lesson in ‘writing what you know’. From his experience, Di Gregorio has crafted a deeply personal but totally accessible film that uses dry humour and strong characterisation to bolster a minimal plot.

It’s impossible not to empathise with the hapless Gianni as he finds himself drawn into a battle of wills he doesn’t have a prayer of winning. His gestures and choices reveal a great deal about him; every time he reaches for his wine glass in a moment of quiet stress, you sense his turmoil.

However, Di Gregorio said that the ladies he recruited to act in the film (from local old people’s centres) refused to take much direction, so much of the script went out the window. Instead, he tried to guide them where he wanted each scene to go, and then let them largely improvise. The result is totally natural performances that are utterly convincing.

Di Gregorio was a charming interviewee, beaming with gratitude at his award and the reception he received. His film is a small (75 mins) and delicate gem that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to receive.

Production notes (PDF)

Interview with Gianni Di Gregoria (

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

What filmmakers do in their time off

I'm sure I'm not the only person to have noticed this, but has Shane Meadows been doing a bit of moonlighting on Britain's Got Talent?

(Stavros Flatley on the BGT semi-final (YouTube))

Ernest Lehman on screenwriting

Screenwriter and tireless blogger Scott Myers has published two lengthy excerpts from an interview with Ernest Lehman over on Go Into The Story.

Part One covers a range of subjects, including his approach to screenwriting, before Part Two focuses on working with Alfred Hitchcock on North by Northwest.

Ernest Lehman was one of the most critically lauded and commercially successful screenwriters in Hollywood. In a writing career that spanned three decades, Lehman wrote many notable movies including Sabrina (1954), The King and I (1956), North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Lehman was nominated four times for the Best Writing Academy Award and was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award in 2001. Lehman died on July 2, 2005.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Suit: hubris and nemesis

It was nice to see Ruth Millar on Ashes to Ashes the other week, reprising her role from Life on Mars as hard-bitten Glaswegian journo Jackie Queen.

Back at the turn of the century, when you could smell the millennial optimism in the air and everything seemed possible, the very same Ruth Millar starred in a short film wot I wrote entitled The Suit.

At that time, I'd only been screenwriting for a couple of years, having drifted into it almost by accident. I'd previously wanted to write comics, but had drifted out of the medium as both a reader and a would-be creator.

Jane put me on an Introduction to Screenwriting course (via Croydon adult education) as a means of getting me writing again. I soon found that I connected with the medium, and it might offer a more accessible way in than comics, which were in a bit of a slump at the time.

Anyway, within a few months I had a couple of short scripts ready, and I started to respond to calls from directors on Shooting People, which was still lean, mean and useful at the time.

Most of my submissions went unacknowledged, but one day I got a call from a young director who said she'd enjoyed my script for The Suit and wanted to make it.

At the time, it seemed like the stars were suddenly about to fall into some improbably auspicious alignment. The director was very driven and enthusiastic - albeit in a head-girly kinda way - and she had hooked up with a City lawyer who fancied jumping into the biz they call show.

I happily trousered £200 for the script (plus an expensive meal with champagne) and set about the torturous development process. Which wasn't that torturous, actually. She only suggested a few changes, and was happy to drop any that I could make a good enough case against.

'Unfortunately', the shoot coincided with Jane and I packing our bags and 'flashpacking' around the world for six months. When I found myself scoffing breakfast in Sydney and reading how well the shoot of my film had gone, I thought - perhaps not unnaturally - that the even-better times were just around the corner.

As a dramatist, I should have all too aware of the dangers of hubris and the fact that Nemesis would be rollerblading round the bend at high speed any minute...

The rest of the trip went OK, but when we got back to bohemian Penge village in mid-2001, my showbiz dream was beginning to fray a bit at the edges.

The director wasn't totally happy with the rushes (it was her first time shooting on DV) and she'd managed to go significantly over-budget, incurring the wrath of her increasingly disenchanted producer.

With just a rough cut assembled and no soundtrack added, the producer decided to pull the plug on the project and try pop music instead. I tried to hook up the director with musicians who'd do the soundtrack for expenses, but gradually she stopped returning my emails and the icy shadow of abandonment fell across my inchoate masterpiece.

And that was that. I've since tried to get hold of her again, to maybe even pay myself for the film to be finished, but she seems to have disappeared. Leaving me with just a VHS of the rough cut and the desolation of dashed hopes.

Anyway, that's the story of how the film industry chewed me up and spat me out. I can't be arsed trying to get the rough cut into some newfangled digital format, so from my archives here's a copy of what I guess ended up as the shooting script. (Ruth Millar was suitably feisty as Poppy.)

Friday, 22 May 2009

MA Screenwriting: Unit Seven

I'll try and rattle through the remaining four units, as the majority of the most interesting stuff happened in the earlier units.

Unit Seven was Study of Industry Practice, which was a useful way of accumulating a fair bit of knowledge about how films are financed and produced, but which hasn't really had much of an impact on my writing since.

For the unit, we were given a feature-length script by one of the previous year's MA graduates and asked to write a 2,000-word report describing its potential for production and sales in the world marketplace.

In support of the unit, we were given a lengthy and thorough lecture by Tom Strudwick - a highly experienced film sales and marketing consultant.

(Tom also hosted a thoroughly bruising pitch session before we handed in our major project proposals - the only time over the two years of the MA that I didn't want to play any more.)

Anyway, Tom guided us through assessing a project at script stage from both creative and marketing perspectives - particularly the art of 'positioning' a film: ie, defining its key audience and working out how the film could be effectively marketed to it.

Perhaps most usefully, he stressed throughout the importance of knowing what you're selling (at whatever stage of development or production it's at) and being able to describe it as succinctly as possible to the next link in the chain.

What he said seemed to equate to the importance that Blake 'Save the Cat' Snyder puts on the idea of 'what is it?':
A movie must have a clear sense of what it's about and who it's for. Its tone, potential, the dilemma of its characters and the type of characters they are should be easy to understand and compelling.

We also had a look at the importance of genre and generic conventions in film marketing. For instance, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters would normally have been a tough sell to the mass audience (drama/older audience/female-skewed). However, it broke through after being marketed in the same generic terms as a prison movie.

After looking at publicity and promotion, we also had a brief introduction to the various models of film finance (including 'soft money', co-production, distribution, etc), as well as other factors that would influence production, such as regional incentives and assessing the scale of the enterprise.

I think the script we assessed is in development somewhere, so I won't post my essay. Because of the rapidly changing finance and production environment, most of the resources I used were online - especially articles from journals. However, here's the brief resource list we were given for the unit:

Trade Press
  • Screen International
  • Variety
  • The Hollywood Reporter
  • Screen Finance
  • Dealmaking in the Film and Television Industry – Mark Litwak (Silman-James Press)
  • The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook - Chris Jones and Genevieve Joliffe (Continuum International Publishing)
  • The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint – Chris Jones
  • The Movie Business Book - Jason E. Squire (Virgin Books)
  • Film Budgeting – Ralph S. Singleton (Lone Eagle)
  • The Big Deal - Thom Taylor (Quill)
  • David Puttnam: My Story So Far - Andrew Yule (Time Warner)
  • Final Cut - Stephen Bach (Faber)
  • My First Movie - Stephen Lowenstein (Faber)
  • Rebel Without A Crew - Robert Rodriguez (Faber)
  • Money into Light – John Boorman (Faber)
  • Projections – John Boorman and Walter Donahue (Faber)

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Waiting for Godot: absurdity and naturalism

The mouth-watering combination of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart has made the production of Waiting for Godot currently playing at the Theatre Royal into London's hottest theatrical ticket.

Watching the play last week, it dawned on me how quickly we begin to take things for granted once they've been officially designated a classic and analysed to the nth degree.

While the production strives to make the play as accessible as possible, highlighting the music hall comedy flavour of the central double act, it doesn't take too much of an imaginative leap to imagine how utterly alien Beckett's drama must have seemed when it first appeared in 1953.

Thinking about Beckett and his Theatre of the Absurd mates, it dawned on me how we've never really managed - or maybe even wanted - to get away from naturalism as the default mode for our various forms of drama in this country.

Maybe the old Puritan distrust of fiction is still lurking in our cultural DNA. In the early days of the English novel (c1720-1750), writers had to fly in under ye olde radare by disguising their work as true life stories (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders) or exchanges of letters (Pamela, Clarissa).

In terms of screenwriting, the social realism of the British New Wave, exemplified in 'kitchen sink dramas' like Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961) and A Kind of Loving (1962), fed through to Coronation Street and, later, EastEnders - the most-watched shows on TV.

As screenwriters, we have the advantage of being able to create meaning by stepping beyond the dramatic unities and manipulating time and location: for example, Charlie Kaufman's audacious use of time in Synecdoche, New York creates a terrifying impression of the brevity of life.

Similarly, Eisenstein and his mates were big on creating meaning through montage - the juxtaposition of shots to create associations, or symbolic meanings, that are greater than the sum of their parts. Actually, I find that a key part of screenwriting, so maybe I'll try and do a quick survey of their theories for a future post.

After being energised by Beckett and Pinter when I discovered them as a teenager, I later went off them slightly. After seeing one too many productions of The Birthday Party, it seemed to me that they were full of showy theatrical dialogue and gestures that looked and sounded impressive but didn't really say much to me about my life.

However, seeing Waiting for Godot again has revitalised my enthusiasm for the experimental. While not everything we write has to veer off into the wildly experimental or esoteric, it's never a bad idea to cross-pollenate your experience with stuff that works in a slightly different mode to what you're normally comfortable with.

Just don't expect everyone in Albert Square to turn into a rhinoceros any time soon.

(PS. Blimey, this blog's going a bit David Bordwell, innit?)

Friday, 15 May 2009

Screenwriting and empathy

I know it's a bit lazy to run 'repeats' when the blog has been running for less than a year, but I published this very early on, and thought it might be worth another outing now that a few more people are looking.


(Originally posted 28 August 2008)

In response to an excellent post on Robin Kelly's invaluable blog, I've dug up these notes from a lecture given during my MA course by David Hanson.

During the lecture, David told us that in order to create an empathic bond between our unknown audience and our characters, we need to use basic psychology to ensure that our characters share the same fundamental human needs and desires as the viewer.

To identify these needs, he drew on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who proposed a 'hierarchy of needs' in a 1943 paper entitled A Theory of Human Motivation.

The notes are in a PDF, and are pretty much as I scribbled them down in the lecture room. They might not make complete sense without the accompanying film clips, but a lot of those excerpts should be familiar enough. If nothing else, the notes might provide a starting point for further research into the theory.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York/Charlie Kaufman Q&A

I'm probably not going out on a limb here, but I don't think there's a screenwriter working today whose work enthralls me more than Charlie Kaufman. Since seeing Being John Malkovich in 1999 – and nearly wetting myself during the Mertin-Flemmer Building orientation video – I've been captivated and inspired by the way he uses the medium to blend imaginative concepts with powerful emotional impact.

In his debut as a director, Kaufman tells the tale of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a local theatre director who begins to sense his mortality when he is struck down by a wave of physical problems. Meanwhile, his flawed relationship with wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of miniature canvases, comes to an end when she goes to Germany with their young daughter for an exhibition and doesn't come back.

After an abortive relationship with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box office assistant at his theatre, Caden is suddenly awarded a MacArthur 'Genius Award'. With the money, he hires an huge derelict hangar in New York and plans to stage an unprecedented theatrical production that will capture the truth about human existence in every detail.

As you'd expect from Kaufman, the rules of storytelling are soon pushed to their extremes. Like Caden himself, we're surprised to find that years have passed in the blink of an eye. As the grand theatrical project gets increasingly complex and the director ages, the film beautifully captures the way time seems to pass much more quickly the older you get. When a cast member asks Caden when they'll be performing before an audience, we are shocked to learn that the work has been in development for 17 years.

A further layer of complication is added when Caden casts actors to play himself and the film's other central characters in the play. This thread is at the heart of the film, as Caden tries to analyse his life through the drama. However, things become more complex for the director when the lines become blurred between his fictional creations and their real-life inspirations.

The film buckles slightly towards the end under the weight of its 'Chinese boxes' structure, but its emotional impact remains devastating – particularly when Caden and Hazel resume their relationship late in life.

Some of the confusion could reflect the single-mindedness of Caden's artistic pursuit: while we are given glimpses of tanks on the streets of NYC and the project comes to a bloody end in the face of an unspecified future apocalypse, we focus throughout on the increasingly shambling figure of Caden – a bravura performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appears in just about every scene of the film and captures perfectly the weight of time as Caden ages.

The screening at the Curzon Soho was followed by a Q&A with Kaufman and Morton. The writer-director said that audience confusion was always a potential problem given the complexity of his narratives, but added that for him, the process of writing involves setting himself a difficult task or a problem and then having to solve it: if the script isn't a 'problem', then he feels he's not really doing anything.

He described Synecdoche, New York as a 'sad funny film' rather than a 'funny sad film', saying that he viewed it throughout as a comedy – albeit one that deals with the themes of ageing, mortality, loneliness and disappointment.

He also spoke about the feel of the film, saying he wanted to capture the visceral impact of dreams, which can defy logic but still have a strong emotional impact on the 'viewer'. He said that we all have our own personal mythology, which makes the imagery of our dreams so powerful to ourselves but not so meaningful to others. In the film, he succeeds in making the terrain of Caden's world work like a dream and then leading the audience into it, so they feel the full emotional impact of the character's heart-breaking experiences.

Roger Ebert has said of Kaufman: 'It is obvious that he has only one subject, the mind, and only one plot, how the mind negotiates with reality, fantasy, hallucination, desire and dreams'. In this film, he also highlights the importance of choices – how at any moment we could make a decision that will have ramifications for the rest of our life.

My natural urge now would be to read the script and give it more of a left-brain analysis, but maybe that's not the best way to approach a film like this; while it's not flawless, Kaufman has created a compelling and immersive piece of cinema that deserves repeated viewing rather than cold critical dissection.


Complete 2.5 hour interview for Wired magazine (MP3, in five parts)

Creative Screenwriting podcast - Q&A with Kaufman re Synecdoche, New York (MP3)

Being Charlie Kaufman - "The definitive information resource for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman", including early-draft scripts

Monday, 11 May 2009

Time and the Conways, National Theatre

As a structure buff, I was chuffed when I saw the NT was going to be producing JB Priestley's Time and the Conways. Along with Pinter's Betrayal, it's often cited as an interesting use of non-linear narrative - something that's much less common on the stage than the screen.

Priestley was fascinated by the nature of time, and explored it in his 'time plays', including Time and the Conways, I Have Been Here Before and An Inspector Calls.

Time and the Conways borrows the notion that all time exists simultaneously in different dimensions. So, if we were fully aware, we could experience the past and the future as well as the present.

The play's structure is deceptively simple. In Act I, we're introduced to the wealthy and privileged Conway family in 1919, on the 21st birthday of daughter and budding novelist Kay. With the horrors of the Great War behind them, they look forward optimistically to the future.

Then, in Act II, we jump forward 19 years to 1938, and Kay's 40th birthday. Instead of another party, there's a bitter summit about the family's ruined fortunes. We also see how the siblings' high hopes for themselves - and the world in general - have turned to dust.

Act III returns to the night of Kay's 21st, and shows how the family themselves sowed the seeds of their later misfortune. This is a classic example of a powerful narrative tool: dramatic irony, when the audience knows more than the characters about their situation, and can see the full significance of their words and actions.

In film terms, Hitchcock spoke about dramatic irony as a means of cranking up audience involvement and suspense, using the example of two people sitting at a table who don't realise there's a bomb underneath it. If the audience doesn't know either, the film will just produce one moment of surprise - when the bomb goes off.

However, if the audience does know that the device is ticking away, "the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’"

Anyway, back at the National... The production itself doesn't really take off until the beginning of Act II. During the first act it's hard to distinguish between the various Conway sisters amid the golly-gosh-lashings-of-ginger-beer squeaky poshness.

When the cast return 19 years later though, wearing the heavy disappointment of time, the acting steps up a gear and each of them becomes totally distinct. So, when we return to 1919, we suddenly see through the frothy exteriors to the people they're set to become.

Given the play's naturalistic tone, one slight problem was director Rupert Goold's insistence on ending each act with a showy and distracting bit of stage business. The lurch into video projection and physical theatre at the end of Act III was a particular distraction, dissipating the effect of Priestley's ending and leaving some of the audience a bit baffled. If it ain't on the page, it shouldn't always be on the stage.

Video preview/interviews (The Guardian)

Friday, 8 May 2009

Cheri + Q&A (Christopher Hampton/Stephen Frears), BFI

Cheri, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Stephen Frears, is an adaptation of two novels by Colette, set in France towards the end of the Belle Epoque. It traces the relationship between the ageing courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her young lover, a jaded gadabout known as Cheri (Rupert Friend).

The structure of the film is fairly straightforward. In Act I, we see the cynical pair fall unexpectedly in love before his mother – played with charming malice by Kathy Bates – strongarms him into a marriage with a more 'suitable' teenage girl. Act II sees how the lovers struggle to cope with their separation and get on with their new lives, before Act III sees them hurled together again and, as they'd say in them days, it all goes tits-up.

It's all beautifully designed and shot, but it seems very slight compared to their previous films (Atonement for Hampton, The Queen for Frears). The script's main strength is how well it captures the polite passive aggression of the ruthlessly competitive high society – it's all smiles and bonhomie, while the conversational daggers are being slipped between the ribs.

I've never read Colette, but the lightweight plot might reflect the source material. In the Q&A, Christopher Hampton said that one of the difficulties of adapting her work is that she's a literary impressionist; she was more concerned with capturing the social setting and a group of characters than creating a strong narrative.

The characterisation remains fairly thin as well, although Pfeiffer's performance captures perfectly Lea's awareness of the effect age is having on her beauty. She also embodies the shock of falling in love and the tension of never being able to reveal her true feelings in a world where the outward appearance of happiness and success is all-important.

The biggest stumbling block for me is what an odious prick the poor little rich boy Cheri is. You want to climb through the screen and give him a slap every time he appears, and you can't help but wonder why Lea finds herself so attached to him.

There's also a slightly intrusive voiceover, narrated archly by Frears himself. He admitted in the Q&A that he only added the prologue – explaining the world of the courtesans – after audiences at early screenings were slightly confused. However, it works much better at the end, as the story reaches a shocking and tragic conclusion.

In fact, it typifies the complex tone of the film, which blends the froth and frivolity of lives devoted to pleasure with the melancholy awareness – personified by the ageing Lea - that this 'golden age' is coming to an end, with the shadow of the Great War looming just out of shot.

The setting and the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as the closing shot of an ageing beauty examining herself in a mirror, will inevitably draw comparisons with Hampton and Frears' earlier collaboration Dangerous Liasons. However, Cheri is a much less powerful piece of work.

The Q&A wasn't the most revealing, with Frears perching grumpily on the edge of his seat throughout. After one – admittedly strange – question, he said “It's no wonder Mike Leigh gets angry with audiences”.

He only got animated once, talking about how his process of visualising and creating a flowing series of shots; indeed, there are a couple of beautifully edited sequences in the film, particularly when Lea and Cheri are separated but still thinking of each other.

Christopher Hampton explained how the script came about; he was originally working on an abortive version of Colette's highly eventful life before being approached to adapt Cheri – her most successful novel – by theatre impressario Bill Kenwright. He also said that he did a large number of drafts, to satisfy the director's demands and to make the most of the 'delicate' source material.

Frears added how keen he was to have Hampton on set throughout the shoot, as the script underwent constant 'refinement' during rehearsal and filming, and the writer understood perfectly the 'musicality' of the language and the unusual tonal balance of the material.

Interview with Christopher Hampton (Time Out)

Writers' Rooms: Christopher Hampton (The Guardian)
Screen Daily review

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

MA Screenwriting: Unit Six

There might be a slight sense of diminishing returns from here on, as most of the remaining units didn't involve much screenwriting and fitted in around Unit Eight - the Major MA Project.

While we were still having interesting screenings, lectures and seminars with industry bods at the residentials, most of the rapid learning about screenwriting was linked to the earlier script assignments.

I'd actually been vaguely looking forward to Unit Six - Analysing the TV Drama Episode. Having 'studied' television informally for years, I thought it would be useful to reinforce my half-baked notions with a more established critical vocabulary. However, the 5,000-word essay was a real chore and has done little or nothing to inform my writing since.

It soon became apparent that most of the academic works we were directed towards came from a media studies/sociology perspective rather than offering anything on storytelling or narrative in the medium: the usual wank about semiotics, post-structuralism, Barthes, Baudrillard etc.

Most of the authors also couldn't be bothered to hide their utter contempt for television, largely dismissing viewers as a lumpen passive mass and applying the same criteria to news and adverts as award-winning drama series.

Anyway, my faith in TV gave me a way in. Inspired by the analysis of The Sopranos in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, I argued that the most successful series are those that force their audience to lean forward, engage and become 'active viewers'.

Looking at Life on Mars more specifically, I focused on the various debates the series inspired about the interpretation of the narrative, and how fans use the show as a basis for their own creative activity, through fan fiction, video mash-ups etc.

I'm afraid I've mislaid the reading list for this one as well, but it was fairly standard in terms of standard texts on 'television studies'. Anyway, here are some of the titles I found useful in my analysis of Life on Mars.
  • Abercrombie, N. Television and Society (Polity Press)
  • Burton, G. Talking Television (Arnold)
  • Fiske, J. Television Culture (Routledge)
  • Jenkins, H. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge)
  • Seiter, E (Ed). Remote Control: Television, Audiences and Cultural Power (Routledge)
(There were also a lot of fairly obscure journal articles. In fact, one of the best aspects of doing the MA - especially to someone like me, who'd been out of education for many years - was access to a wide range of online databases and resources.)

Anyway, with the help of tutorial support from Jan Johnson-Smith, I managed to land another distinction-level mark (though the weighting of the course meant this didn't count for much). If, God help us, anyone would like to read my essay, drop me a line.

(Previous units)

Friday, 1 May 2009

MA Screenwriting: Unit Five - Life on Mars

This – 'Writing the TV drama episode' – was one of the biggies, and one of the challenges I was most looking forward to on the course. As not much value is placed over here on writing spec scripts for existing series, it was another chance to experiment in a format that I probably wouldn't have bothered with otherwise.

We were given the choice of Life on Mars, Without a Trace or Heartbeat, and were given a screening and introductory lecture on each of the series.

As you'd probably expect, there were a few chuckles and quite a bit of eye-rolling when Heartbeat came up. 'Cos if you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much space, right?

Actually, our lecturer – Jan Weddup – made a very convincing case for the series, highlighting the skill of its storytelling and pointing out that for all the derision it attracts for its 'cosiness', it remained (at that stage) an enduring cornerstone of TV drama. (I think it has now been replaced on the course by Doc Martin).

I considered doing Without a Trace, as I totally 'got' the key elements of the format and enjoyed the focus on plot. However, I eventually plumped for Life on Mars – partly because of the high concept, and partly because I was in tune with the arena; I grew up in Granadaland in the '70s, and was also a big fan of the 'muscular' TV of the time – not just The Sweeney, but also stuff like Trevor Preston's Fox and Out.

Before starting the unit, I was lucky enough to head off to Hong Kong and Australia for three weeks, for a family wedding. Along the way, I watched LoM exhaustively and broke down every story beat and character note. I also watched all the DVD extras, to get a feel for where everyone from the writers to the costume department were coming from.

To generate a story idea, I started looking for an everyday part of life that Sam Tyler would find very different between 1973 and 2006. Thinking about the male-dominated nature of Gene Hunt's CID, it came to me: a stag night. Back in the day, it would be an insane and potentially debilitating piss-up literally the night before the wedding.

I kicked around a few Very Bad Things-style scenarios before coming up with something that might have been influenced by watching Without a Trace: what if the groom – a peripheral DC in the department – failed to show up for his wedding after the drunken chaos of the previous night, and foul play was suspected.

From there, I built up the plot by finding new ways to work in the show's familiar returning elements (Test Card Girl as the death wish, information bleeding through from 2006, the budding relationship between Sam and Annie), while incorporating various story elements I had floating around my head.

  • By making the bloke's fiancĂ©e from MCR's large Chinese community, I could contrast Gene's confrontational coppering with Sam's more empathic approach to immigrants – especially with Sam also seeing himself as a 'foreigner' in 1973. Some of the 1973 views on mixed-race relationships would also raise the issue of Sam and Maya.

  • Because Gene is so totally identified with the grimy cityscape of 70s MCR, I wanted to take him outside that environment and see how he got on. So, I made the missing DC's dad an influential senior officer in the force, dragging Gene into the alien world of leafy Cheshire suburbs and private golf clubs: classic 'fish out of water' stuff.

I know it's a bit of a clichĂ©, but my favourite thing about writing is when something suddenly surprises you and you realise the work is developing a life of its own. As I was working on the script, another theme suddenly developed – relationships between fathers and sons, and the fact that for all his bluster, Gene acts as a father figure for his 'boys'.

Anyway, with expert help from my tutor Line Langbek, I developed the script to the point where I was quite pleased with it. It did well with the markers as well, nabbing a distinction-level mark. Here's the final draft.

We didn't really get a resource list for the unit, but here's a watch list we were given for lectures on portmanteau, doppelganger and alternative reality narratives that had a bearing on the Life on Mars scripts.

(Previous units)