"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Neon Dream

Now, that the blood in my alcohol-stream has returned to its traditional caffeine-carrying role I can open my little festival notebook and see if I can read my writing (which is genuinely terrible)… if this occurs successfully then I’ll flurp my thoughts down. (So there!)

This shall be Day One… expect not humour… do expect editorializing- in italics…

Barbara Machin: Opening Speech
Barbara Machin was/is responsible for Waking The Dead- this makes her alright by me- and her opening address was suitably enthralling, provocative and readily-received. Of course, she had home-court advantage.

Machin started off with a clarification that needs stating every now and again: ‘Every age before is a Golden Age’. (Rose-tinted spectacles are a terrible blinker- although I might suggest that British Television is perhaps more in the Doldrums than in the recent past.) Her main thesis was that in a world where ‘lifestyle and talent shows’ are filling the gap for ‘must-see television’ there has been a ‘loss of the nerve, verve and fervour’ in a ‘ratings-driven, risk averse’ television industry which screenwriters must rediscover. She pointed to the American model of ‘high concepts’ and writer-producer-led show-running that have produced such hit US TV series as ‘Desperate Housewives, Six Feet Under, Lost, Twenty-Four, Dexter and Damages’ whilst also singling out Life On Mars as evidence that when given the opportunity the British can manage this as well. She called for ‘the brave, the different, the fresh and the unorthodox’; for ‘brave and inventive storytelling’. Again, she clarified the notion of the Sixties as a Golden Age, ‘in the Sixties innovation was rife’ but this was clearly television was in its infancy and ‘everything was new’. She also mentioned that the creators were from ‘other backgrounds’ citing theatre, novels, etc.

This was a point that could have borne more investigation- now, the screenwriters are being trained in University straight from school; then, they were not only coming from theatre or literature, many had served in the Second World War, done National Service (e.g. Bennett, Potter, Rosenthal); been shop workers (Shelagh Delaney), teachers (Bleasdale), lawyers (Kneale), hairdressers (Willy Russell)- they had actually done something. Is it not notable that one of the most praised guests at the SWF ’08 was Tony Jordan, who did a multiplicity of jobs before starting to write?

Machin understood the logistics of television (‘money and ratings’) but called for a change in attitude an end to the ‘smash and grab’ thinking; more thought about scheduling and trailing of programmes. Particularly irksome to her were notions of ‘Lazy Audience Syndrome’ where television is ‘dumbed down’ and ‘pre-digested’ for the audience; nothing was more emblematic of this than ‘pre-trailing’ the next episode at the end of the just viewed- a pre-trail that would invariably give away most of the salient plot twists and big scenes effectively negating the necessity of watching the next episode and ensuring that the ‘audiences no longer care’. She called for a ‘full menu’ of programming.

Machin concluded by assuring us that she is not ‘a prophet of doom’; that US television can have a ‘halo effect’ raising everybody’s game and she predicted the end of ‘reality television’ (possibly a little optimistic).

Machin left the audience with the following ringing in their collective ears, the writer must ‘run and be brave’, ‘don’t be browbeaten, be inspired’ and above all…

‘Dare to dream’.

How To Make A Living Writing
A panel with screenwriters Tim Telling, Robbie Morrison, (graphic novelist; creator of 2000AD’s Nikolai Dante) and Stephen Morrison (just had first novel published)…

I was not entirely sure what I was meant to come away with from this somewhat ragged session other than that feature writing is incredibly hard so try doing other writing assignments like radio, stand-up comedy, novel and graphic novel writing and so on and so forth…

10 Producers’ Secrets…
After the slightly lacking-in-focus nature of the previous came a greater diversion…

Stephen Woolley (The Crying Game, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, etc.) and Kevin Loader (Venus, The History Boys, etc.) were the producers in question who were spilling all the dark secrets of their midnight arts… and most enlightening it was although we were assured that there were almost certainly many more…

1. Agree with what you’re attempting to do. If you’re doing a comedy make sure it doesn’t turn into a horror film.
2. Don’t get distracted by the research.
3. Structure- don’t worry about it too much.
4. Long scripts go to the bottom of the pile- be careful about over-writing- remember producers have weak backs and don’t want to lug these things about.
5. Don’t take rejection personally and don’t burn your bridges- it takes too long to rebuild them.
6. Always listen- even ogres have something to say- even if it’s once in twenty comments. Listening costs nothing!
7. Work to the pre-determined budget- don’t price yourself out of the market.
8. It’s easy to put in clichéd phrases- don’t! These would be including 'Rembrandt dawns' and Dali floppy clock allusions.
9. It’s easy for a writer to become a pawn in the politics- don’t! Try to be crystal clear and transparent in meetings; speak your mind.
10. Don’t become possessive (of your script).

Kevin Loader added for writers to ‘be careful of over-zealous agents’ and ‘expect to be banned from the Set’. Kevin Loader on the problem of woman protagonists: ‘Hollywood wants to sell to adolescent boys’. Stephen Woolley on adaptation: ‘Adaptation is [considered] a safety valve.’

I had a lot of time for Stephen Woolley going into this session as it was through a number of films with his name at the front that I found myself becoming steadily seduced by the silver screen… and if you’re even remotely interested those would include The Company Of Wolves, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Hardware, Dust Devil and Interview With The Vampire… I am thankful to say I was not disappointed by him!

There then came a Scriptbite (café-based smaller discussion session) with Kevin Loader. The main message here was that people are after good writing and good storytelling; and that appearances do matter- on the page.

Breaking Down Your Walls
A discussion-cum-interview between a psychiatrist-chap and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the man responsible for adapting The Pianist, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and a personal favourite The Dresser.

This was a highly entertaining session which wasn’t especially bullet-point friendly especially since it was so engrossing that such matters flew out of the window!

The more memorable points included:
• On a good reason for writing: ‘money is a great incentive’.
• On purpose in his writing: ‘identity… the constant search for a centre’.
• On characters for films: ‘nice people are boring’.
• On how the writer sees (or should see): ‘[mostly they] they remain as a child’.
• He was most forthright on the position of the writer being largely neglected and urged those younger than himself to fight for the just recognition of the writer- adding that he was far too old to engage in this battle himself. This, unsurprisingly, drew a round of applause.
• On the philosophical core of his work: ‘[thinks of himself] as a moralist’ but with the caveat of ‘being wise after the event and at a distance… historically [and] geographically’. He also mentioned that he ‘despairs of people taking the high moral ground when they don’t know what it is’.
• And shared the following advice told to him by Graham Greene: ‘when you’ve finished a day’s work only stop when it’s going well’.

I could happily have listened to this man for several more hours… but, as he mentioned, he was being denied his ritual daily afternoon nap as it was!

Scripts And Scriptability
Deborah Moggach (writer, Love In A Cold Climate, (cinema’s) Pride & Prejudice, etc.) in conversation with Head of Series and Serials, BBC Drama, Kate Harwood.

This wasn’t a particularly engaging session to me… seemed very chatty without the benefit of being terribly enlightening. And having seen some clips from the forthcoming television adaptation of The Diary Of Anne Frank… I was somewhat perturbed… Moggach described it as more video diary style…

…there then followed some mooching about as the session I was after seeing was somewhat full… my name wasn’t down, I wasn’t going in… which was a shame as it was on how to write The Correct Treatment… which would have been nice to know.

Key Note: Mike Leigh
I haven’t ever taken to Mike Leigh’s films… I’ve seen maybe six or seven and again and again I have the same complaints- not very realistic, patronizing about those he portrays, sneering at anybody from the ‘lower orders’ who dares to want to better themselves, doesn’t believe these people are either emotionally literate or capable of education, the romanticizing of a milieu he frequently doesn’t seem to understand, know or even like and, possibly my biggest gripe, that he ostensibly makes film about people in a style those same people would never want to sit through… who is he making films for? Compare and contrast with Bleasdale and Russell!

However, Leigh has now made some eighteen features in a long, varied and successful career and must have something of interest to say about the writing and film-making process… This session was an abject lesson in discovering how wrong you can be!

Mike Leigh acquitted himself quite badly, there was none of the good-humour or vivacity of other speakers; he seemed quite aggravated to have to be there; his lack of passion and lifelessness were rivalled only by his curmudgeonliness. Rude, prickly, snippy, annoyed that in a Q&A people might dare to ask Qs and even more annoyed that he might be required to give As- the only person he seemed to treat respectfully was fellow ‘name’ Julian Fellowes. Trust a man of the people to dislike the
‘oi polloi!

Leigh’s actual conversation primarily revolved around a biographical account of his life and a description of his ‘improvised’ workng methods. All in a voice more tedious than Alan Bennett’s monotone. On mogadon. I kid not when I note that two people in the row in front of me fell asleep. It was upon the issue of his improvisational technique, when questioned, that he became most annoyed. Several people wondered afterwards what he might actually have had to say to a collection* of screenwriters given that he basically has the actors make up his films as they go along (alright during the rehearsals- but it’s hardly heavily pre-scripted film-making!). This could be why his films tend to lurch between the poorly paced and undramatic sections to the melodramatic and hysterical (I’m thinking of one specifically awful screeching performance from a great actress!). The most bizarre thing I discovered in this session was that Leigh doesn’t tell the actors what film they’re in or who those around them are playing until they see the finished film. This removes whole areas of how life works: rumours, Chinese whispers, second-hand information, etc. Effectively, it means that a character only has a life when the character is on them! Which seemed to say it all for me.

Entering this session I didn’t like Mike Leigh’s film, exiting, I didn’t like Mike Leigh either.

At the end of this session, while other things were being announced, it was revealed that BSSC-Kaos Films would not just be doing a short film this time round; this time sees them doing a competition for a feature film script, which will be made with a budget of no more than two million dollars.

…there then followed a packed evening of ‘carousing’… the pictures are worth a thousand words… also had a long chat with an ex-tutor of mine at some time during the day… nice to catch up on what some of my fellow students were (or weren’t) doing! Small ‘après-bar’ back at Piers’ place…

…if I can continue to decipher my mysterious scribblings then, my dear reader, I shall bore and frustrate you with yet more ‘revelations’.

*What is the collective noun for screenwriters: a herd, a desk-top, a sheaf…???


Jason Arnopp said...

Splendid work, sir, despite not one single mention of The Dark Arrow.

Also, I note that you've chosen to forget the diverting moment when you rugby-tackled an old lady to the ground and forced her to play Kerplunk with you for hours on end, while festival-goers watched uneasily from afar, wondering if they should intervene.

Jon Peacey said...

Well, one does have to reserve something for the Second Day!

...besides I was not paying attention at the inception of The Dark Arrow!

...and I guess the less said about 'The Kerplunk Episode' the better! Eep!

Far Away said...

Maybe a 'screed' of screenwriters?

Jon Peacey said...

'Screed' works for me... certainly sums up most of my output...!