Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Don't stare into the sun

Just a quickie, and just because I wanted to get my January blog count up to a substantial 2.

So my Priority C time is going great guns.  Having delivered “Her Royal Spyness” and a big corporate job before Christmas, I now have the time, space, and a little bit of money to work up some new script outlines, put together my first proper TV series proposals and do the much-delayed rewrite on Romeo and Rosaline (it looks like the competitive project mentioned in that post isn’t going anywhere particularly fast, so we’re taking another crack at our version).

In between all of this, two more immediate feature projects have emerged, both low budget and contained and concept-driven and for which I might end up writing drafts or ‘scriptments’ in February, just to keep the ball rolling.  Both very exciting and more on both to follow.

But within my Priority C, new business pitch ideas, two patterns are emerging.  The first type of idea, usually a chunky high concept, is the one that knocks you sideways when you first happen upon it and then almost overwhelms you with its potential.  The idea immediately generates so much obvious material – scenes, characters, act breaks – that your job as a writer is to make some sense and order of it all (and sift out the obvious from the interesting, too).  I liken it to being swamped by an avalanche, and then having to dig your way out.  It can be hard work, but if you know where you’re heading, and you give yourself enough time, and you approach the job in a rational, methodical manner, you know you’re going to get through it all.

Then there is the second type of idea – less digging up and out, more digging down and in.  I’ve mentioned this before, specifically in the old writer-as-palaeontologist metaphor from Stephen King.  I’m walking around a desert and I stub my toe on the nub of an idea.  I look around and my writer-as-palaeontologist senses start to twitch.  There is something here, below, buried.  I know it.  So I get out my tools, and start to dig.

But sometimes, after days and days of digging, all I have to show for it is a load of old bones and a very big hole.  It doesn’t fit.  It doesn’t work.  So what do I do now?

It seems there are three options.  One is to give up and walk away.  Perhaps my senses were wrong.  Maybe there is nothing there after all.  And, sometimes, knowing when to quit is the writer’s most valuable tool.  But not in this case.  I KNOW there is a movie here, I’m just not going about it the right way. 

So option two.  Keep going.  Keep digging.  Follow Gene Fowler’s advice and “stare at the blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”.  (I always knew this quote but didn’t know its source, possibly thought it was Hemingway.  Fowler was an interesting man it appears, an early-days screenwriter whose other great tip was "The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from."  This seems to say it all.)

But is option two smart?  And does it work?  This seems a different problem to the avalanche situation.  There is no guarantee that, just by hacking away at the bare earth, you will eventually strike oil or hit the gold seam (to mix a number of metaphors).  And when do you know when to quit, after all that?  You’d be like Costner on the 18th  in TIN CUP, hitting three wood after three wood into the drink.  Heroic, maybe, but still a failure.  And with time being the most precious commodity a writer has, how many heroic failures can we afford?

So there’s option three.  A third way.  Not giving up but not blindly ploughing on, either.  Just take a break.  Put the kettle on.  Go for a run, have a bath.  (These can all be read either metaphorically or literally, by the way).  Read a book, a script, watch a movie that might have some kind of overlap with the problem you’re currently taking.  Don’t give up but just don’t think about it.  Don’t stare into the sun until it blinds you.  Look askance.  Look around the problem and see what that throws up.  See the wood, not the trees.  Even work on something else.  And then the answer might just hit you in a flash.  Or, when you return to the script, the yellow brick road will shine invitingly and you will wonder what all the fuss was about.  Crossword puzzlers will know this technique of old.  (And if it doesn’t hit you, then you haven’t wasted hours and days and weeks staring at the blank sheet of paper and beating yourself up over your shortcomings as a writer.)

In the last few weeks I’ve found that it actually works a treat.  One time recently I was laid low with some horrific man-flu (probably just a mild cold).  It coincided with hitting a brick wall on another script.  So I took myself away from my computer and off to bed.  Two hours of near-delirious mid-afternoon-napping later and the problem was solved.

But I’m conflicted about option three.  It feels like a smart move, the right way to finesse your way through a problem.  The subconscious shouldn’t be overlooked, nor instinct, nor the need to “feel” a complete solution to a script problem rather than cobbling together something that might look okay but doesn’t feel right.

But I’m also worried that I’m kidding myself.  That it’s actually the lazy option, the passive option, that I’m leaving too much to luck / fate / “inspiration” whereas in fact a more deliberate, left-brain, blood-from-forehead approach will yield better results over time.

Anyone got any thoughts on this that they want to share with me?

As a post script, my last post, about War Horse vs Tintin provoked some strident but, to me, still baffling, defence of the former film.  One of its most ardent advocates was the British writer Stuart Hazeldine, and we had a bit of back and forth over it on Facebook.  I concluded that even the greats make mis-steps, whereas his position was that you don’t get to ‘great’ by not knowing precisely what you’re doing all the time.  He also kept referring to the director as Steven, which I found a little familiar, until I read this.  So what do I know?  Well done Stuart, you bastard.

(Although a little part of me still thinks he’s only defending War Horse because he doesn’t want his future employer googling him and finding out he’s been slagging him off online.  Although I also don’t think Spielberg spends too much time googling screenwriters, so there goes that theory.  Incidentally, I once met Stuart and some other people for a drink, way back in the day, and he spent the entire evening scribbling into his notepad and not talking to anybody.  So maybe he’s an option two guy.  And that hasn’t worked out too badly for him.)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

War Horse vs Tintin

Happy New Year to my seventeen loyal followers, and other more occasional visitors.

Updates, before we get to the matter of the moment: I delivered my Her Royal Spyness rewrite on 23rd December, lunging for the Christmas line; watched a whole heap of films between then and now, in advance of BAFTA round one voting deadline this evening – I’ll give you my thoughts on the long-list nominations when they’re announced; and I’m now into my aforementioned ‘Priority C’ season, a good chunk of time (I’m giving myself three months) to spend at least two or three days a week writing new material – finishing my spec feature romcom, developing another two or three high concept feature treatments, and finally devoting some serious energy to developing some TV series concepts – rather than endlessly chasing my tail of paying bills and responding to short-term opportunities.  Not that I won’t be doing a bit of that, and new opportunities crop up all the time, so who knows how it will eventually go?  But it’s a plan, at least.

But I’m not here to talk about that.  I’m here to talk about Steven Spielberg.  More specifically, to talk to Steven Spielberg.  I’m here to give Steven Spielberg a bit of advice.

Steven.  War Horse.  What’s going on there then?  Haven’t read the book, didn’t see the play, but was pretty keen to see your latest mud-soaked war epic.  But about five minutes in, with that weird Gone with the Wind house that those Devonshire folk live in, and the comedy geese, and comedy Emily Watson, and bizarre ploughing competition, I have to say I was worried.  There followed a further 141 minutes of plodding, unconvincing, structurally saggy and dramatically inept tedium – and I say that with all due respect.  By the end I wasn’t just worried, I was bored.  No matter how many times you go to a close up, that horse cannot act.  No matter how pretty the little French windmill was, I didn’t give a shit because I didn’t know what I was doing there.  No matter how much I cried (yes) when (spoiler) poor blinded Aaaahlbert gave his little whistle at the end and the horse came running, you still didn’t make me believe that what I was watching was actually any good.  In fact, I resented the film even more because I was being manipulated so obviously and so grotesquely.  Then the funny French bloke bought the horse at auction – and then gave him back three minutes later!  It was a mess.  Honestly, what were you thinking about?  It wasn’t about the audience, I can tell you that much.

Now, Steven.  Tintin.  You gorgeous, special, insightful, intuitive, timeless and audience-thinking-about genius.  I liked the Tintin books as a boy – preferred Asterix, but Tintin was pretty good.  I wasn’t desperately waiting to see the film but from the first frame – literally, the title sequence was amazing – you had me.  You literally cupped my two balls of audience engagement in your computer-generated hand at minute one, and then squeezed them tighter and tighter for the next 100 minutes or so.  Sometimes you gave them a big old yank, some times more of a caress, but you never let go, until the very end.  (In fact, I’d give the finale itself only an 8/10 – the plane sequence and the chase-from-the-palace sequences were the high points.)  So not a perfect film, but pretty bloody enjoyable and demonstrating in abundance the sort of special cinematic powers (as you did in Jaws, Raiders, ET, Goonies, Gremlins, Temple of Doom, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and about half of Saving Private Ryan) so noticeably lacking in War Horse (and 1941, Amistad, Hook, Indys 3&4, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Munich and the other half of SPR).

Some observations on all of this, in no particular order:

1. Spielberg is a genius, the formative influence in my career, and I am nobody to criticise him, clearly.  But he is also prolific, and this has resulted in almost (though not quite) as many stinkers as classics.  So even geniuses (genii?) can have off-days, even genii can stretch themselves too thin, even genii can cross their fingers during production and hope that it’ll all come together in the edit when it’s pretty clear that it won’t.  Steven, you’re 65 and you’ll be winding things down over the coming years.  Please pick your swansong projects with care, and with instinct, and with an eye on the audience rather than posterity.

2. Somehow, War Horse is appearing on people’s top 10 lists, and is in serious awards consideration.  This is patently bonkers and a sign that, if you spend enough, you can buy your way into contention.  Also that a respected director will be in the frame whenever awards season comes around (viz Clint Eastwood, who also suffers – respectfully – from making a few too many films and not enough great ones).

3. The hero’s journey really works.  War Horse is muddled precisely because the writers / director can’t decide if this is a story about a boy finding a horse or a horse finding a boy.  Tintin’s first scene established our hero and then the audience accompanied Tintin cheek by jowl as he undertook a heroic adventure, to return home at the end a little older and a little wiser (although in fact the bigger transformation took place in the character of Captain Haddock).  More and more I think the best films establish one perspective at the start and then we follow that character’s journey through to the end.  Obviously that doesn’t exclude sub-plots, or flash-backs, or even multiple storylines (where a binding theme is probably the central ‘character’).  But it’s about clarity, and structure – and, again, an appreciation of AUDIENCE.

4. Between these two projects, five British screenwriters were used (not to mention a British novelist and a Belgian cartoonist).  Lee Hall and Richard Curtis on War Horse, and the Moffat / Wright E. / Cornish triumvirate on Tintin.  So props for British screenwriters, but I’d be fascinated to hear more about the development journeys of either project.  Why was one writer jettisoned and another brought in, at any given stage?  Was Curtis responsible for the geese?  How did he and Hall not notice the almost total absence of a point of identification in the central section of the film – were we really expected to care about the horse?  Is that why one writer exited?  On Tintin, who came up with the plot (cobbled together from three separate books, so my brother-in-law tells me)?  This was arguably the least successful part of the film, but probably took up most of the screenwriters’ time.  Characters and dialogue were all good, if not sensational.  But the best ‘writing’ of all was in the detail of the action sequences – some of the chases in the first act, the boat escape / plane ride and the aforementioned palace escape.  I’m wondering if these three vaunted writers actually had much to do with the choreographing of these amazing moments, or were they handled by the CG equivalent of the stunt co-ordinators?  And if the writers didn’t do these, then what did they do?  Answers on a postcard please.

5. I can’t help feeling that the real difference between the two projects lies in Spielberg’s producer on Tintin (I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that he was co-director), Mr Peter Jackson.  Now there’s a man who knows how to please an audience (although he too, temporarily, lost that talent down the back of the sofa in The Lovely Bones).  Perhaps Steven works best when in partnership – with Jackson here, with Lucas on the Indiana Jones series, with Zemeckis on the Back to the Future series.  Even the greats need a guiding hand (as Lucas found out to his cost on Star Wars 1-3) – maybe a lesson in that for all of us.

6. This has become a bigger post than I intended it to be, and in fact I don’t have a massive beef with War Horse.  It’s certainly not the worst film I’ve ever seen (I did cry, more fool me), and I feel churlish criticising any of the names involved in the project.  Who are they, and who am I?  It’s just that I saw the two in quick succession.  One felt like an artist on top of his game, riffing confidently around a tight and attractive central theme.  The other – to continue the jazz theme – felt like a group of players trying to jam, but out of time, in different keys and with no basic melody or chord progression to hold them all together.  They might all have been brilliant musicians, but they weren’t making brilliant music.  Tintin isn’t in the running for any major awards (although it should be recognised for its technical achievements, which were considerable).  But as a piece of work, judged in terms of what it set out to achieve and how close it came to reaching that goal, it is infinitely the superior piece of work.