Tuesday, 14 February 2012

My theme

This is likely to be one of the more self-indulgent blog posts I've written, for which I apologise.  But I write what's on my mind, and today it's this.  That said, I'll try to keep it brief.

I'd like to take you on a train of thought journey on which I found myself yesterday afternoon.  I was gazing out of my office window, as you do when you're a writer, and found myself staring at a bird (don't ask what kind of bird, a smallish brownish one) and wondering what it was doing as it sat on its perch.  (The answer is it was probably staring back at me, wondering what I was doing.)  And I found myself thinking, wow, that bird's got it good.  A few worms a day, and a nest, probably a Mrs bird and some chicks somewhere (you can see I'm pretty big on the whole ornithology thing).  That'll do nicely for the bird.  Granted, it has a brain the size of my little toe, could be eaten by any of a number of predators, and doesn't have Sky Sports or Guinness or Mozart.  But it doesn't have freezing pipes, council tax or Take Me Out, either.  On balance, life could be worse for that small brown bird.

My mind then – for reasons which would become clear later on – made the connection back to an exquisitely awkward meeting I had with the producer Paul Webster, then at Kudos Films, about three years ago.  Chalet Girl was in production and Paul wanted me to pitch some ideas.  Very thrilled I was, too.  So I pitched a dozen of my finest, mintest ideas, and they all fell on stony ground.  Which is fine, it happens.  So then we started spit-balling around themes and worlds, as you do, and Paul asked me what I considered to be some of my guiding themes as a writer.  I have to say I wasn't prepared for this question, but I answered as honestly as I could, at the time, which was that I didn't think I had a guiding theme.  I didn't – I don't – consider myself a polemical writer, a political writer, a drum-banging, let-me-tell-you-how-to-live-your-life writer.  If I had a theme, it was that people shouldn't listen to what other people are telling them.  A no-theme theme; your basic existential, individual, small-c conservative ideology.  Of course, I didn't say any of that.  What I said was "I don't really feel like I have anything to say," which is a different thing altogether, and which didn't go down well at all.

This then swiftly reminded me of the time when, on an eQuinoxe writers' week in Germany, my very first tutor in my very first session let me guff on for about twenty minutes, telling her what I thought was wrong with my script, before she finally piped up and asked me what my theme was.  And then of course I realised that I didn't have a theme, or any unifying message (yes, that word) to bind the material together.  That's what was wrong with the script.

And then my mind leapt nimbly, like a mental mountain goat, onto a tale told by another mentor, on another course, of how he would write a new script, and get really excited about all these new characters and situations and gags and whatever, and then he'd re-read it and think "Huh.  This one again."  Basically the same theme, obviously an important theme to him, which turned over and over in his head, day and night, and which as a result found its way into everything he wrote.  Not a bad thing.  Just, good to be aware of it.

If I were a film student now I'd go through some famous directors or writers and list the themes that inform their work, but I'm not really (or haven't been for a while) so I'll limit my external references to Stanley Kubrick (I did my dissertation on him, so am on reasonably firm ground).  He basically made eight or ten movies with exactly the same storyline.  Man vs machine.  Ape vs spaceship.  Individual vs society.  Chaos vs order.  Look at the films, from Paths of Glory to Lolita to Dr Strangelove to 2001 to A Clockwork Orange to Barry Lyndon to Full Metal Jacket to Eyes Wide Shut.  Same tension, same conflict, same explosion.  Same story.  Same theme.  (You might argue that it's the only theme and, if you want to be reductive, that all movies, all art are about the same thing.  But this seems a particularly well-defined, not to say obsessive, thematic territory for one artist to return to time and again.)

And as I continued stroking my beard (I was daydreaming, so I had one) I wondered whether I do have something to say, these days.  I think I'm a better writer, I have better craft skills and I can more readily entertain people, but do I have a theme?  The don't-let-other-people-tell-you-how-to-live-your-life idea is still there, and is something I believe in almost above anything else (probably why self-employment is the only option for me).  But this theme can be rather self-defeating when you use it to inform your drama.  You get lots of angry kids spitting at their parents, and affairs, and alcohol-based-suicides and not much else.  Not great for a romantic comedy writer.  So where does that thought lead?

And then I thought about Chalet Girl, and my favourite, proudest moment.  Felicity Jones on top of the mountain, at dawn, laying to rest the memory of her dead mum in the chill Alpine air.  And I thought of the other scripts I've written, and am writing, and my favourite moments in them, the key points of dramatic transformation.  And it struck me that there was one thing that linked them all.  A small detail but to me, in that moment, an important one.

They all happen outside.  They all happen with our characters somehow getting back in touch with nature, first physically and then, I guess, emotionally.  In the prairie graveyard.  At the top of a building.  At the end of a railway station platform.  And, sure, a lot of that will have been driven by my wannabe-director's eye for the sweeping sunset shot (though not quite as sweeping as those in War Horse).  But it's also where these scenes feel like they ought to happen.

And I thought about how I love living in the countryside.  And walking the dog.  And watching birds, whose names I don't know.  And driving round the safari park at Longleat and learning about the dynamics of the lion pride.  And thinking about how our ape-like ancestors moved from sea to land to sea to land over eons of evolution, and developed all these curious habits, and abilities, and appendages, all for an evolutionary reason, all with a particular purpose.

And then I realised that that was it, and why my mind had made the link between that happy bird and the meeting at Kudos.  That's my theme.  It's not an original one.  If I can throw some Greek out there, it's probably γνῶθι σεαυτόν, or 'Know Thyself', the line from above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi.

To my very limited understanding of the world, Knowing Thyself involves knowing thy natural self, thy animal self.  What can we learn from the bird sitting on its branch, that we may have forgotten?  What can an understanding of how we evolved over all those millions of years teach us about how we should live today?  What is all that technology, all that energy expenditure, all that concrete in our cities concealing from us?

And I feel like it's the job of me, the writer (I shy away from 'artist'), and those like me, who have the time to stroke their imaginary beards and consider the birds, to remind us all of that from time to time.

I'm not saying it's a fool-proof theory.  We've developed important and elaborate social institutions to co-exist, and to look after those less fortunate than ourselves.  We've developed Sky Sports, Guinness and Mozart.  And clearly "survival of the fittest" has deeply nasty, eugenic connotations (and that's not really what informs evolution, anyway).  We're not animals any more.  We are better than that. 

But, for all that, in any given situation or decision, I would argue that reconnecting with our natural self, our natural state, our natural values, will probably solve more problems than it causes, do more good than harm.  It's Kubrick-lite, I suppose – it's ape vs spaceship again, but the ape takes it on points.  So anyway, that's my theme, or one of them at least.  And that's why so many big moments in movies happen outside.

So I've got a theme.  Excellent.  Now, what am I supposed to do with it?

ps 1 – Chalet Girl has been showing on Sky Movies Premiere this week – great to see twitter abuzz once again with nice comments about our little film – it's definitely about 9:1 in favour of 'my favourite film everrrr' vs 'the biggest piece of shit I've ever seen', and I'll take that ratio;

ps 2 – BAFTAs, Sunday night – all round enjoyable, personally would have given Director and Actor to Tinker Tailor, and adapted screenplay to the matchless Moneyball, but my only real gripe was with Adam Deacon winning the Orange Rising Star award, NOT because it should have gone to the not-even-nominated Felicity Jones (although it probably should) and NOT because Deacon didn't deserve it (I've never seen his films, and he eventually gave quite a charming acceptance speech) but because it was such an unfair fight.  Everybody was predicting Deacon would win because he has a massive Twitter following, had a website dedicated to this campaign, and has a core block of young, Orange-using fans.  And so it was.  But this voting process totally undermines the award, and is insulting to the other nominees.  Well done to Deacon, and I know BAFTA has to keep Orange happy, but this has got to change.

ps 3 – I said I would try to keep this brief.  As ever, I failed.  Poor blog readers, you get my first draft, not the finessed and heavily edited ninth.  Way it goes.


  1. Great post, Tom! But do writers have to have one theme? Is it a further push by the industry to pigeonhole us into the writers they think we are, as if there's only one type of story we can tell?

    Or can a writer or filmmaker know his theme (Spielberg basically does the same story, too), but transfer it into a multitude of story possibilities? I've noticed a regular theme emerge in my scripts. I think it's something useful to be aware of but should it become a badge of our writing profile? Or one left for critics to mull over while we get on with making great films? It's probably a discussion to have over a pint and Mozart...

    1. Thanks for replying (and RTing) Danny.
      It's a good question and my answer is that I'd like to think I can write about more than just one or two ideas (I have a couple to which I keep returning) but if we're getting really reductive then in reality I probably don't. If a story chimes or resonates with me, it's probably because it's hit one of my primary thematic arteries.
      But, as you said, that's not to say that these central themes can't translate into hundreds of different stories, across many different genres, but the central conflict that seems to excite me usually runs along the same fault lines.
      Your Spielberg example is instructive - so many different tales and genres but many of them coming back to a similar idea, the question of how much of our childhood we can / should retain into adulthood?
      And as I said, I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. If a theme has any weight at all it should hold up to being poked and prodded from a variety of different angles.
      Interesting discussion, though. Look forward to that Guinness.