On location: Or how I found myself lurking around London by night

The thriller I’ve been working on is the first London-set script I’ve written in a long time. I wanted to write something as pared-down, tight and, well, thrilling, as possible.

I also wanted it to be something of a love letter to London – the city I’ve lived in for a long time now. I know lots of London, but I wanted to experience parts I’d not been to before – and I wanted to do justice to the locations I chose for the script. The dark corners, the forgotten parts – the bits left behind by the relentless drive of gentrification.

One of the themes that emerged in the script while writing it was the idea of a city changing, and how the characters need to adapt to the changing landscape. So for the first time, I threw myself wholeheartedly into location research. Unfortunately, that often meant hanging around some of the less desirable parts of London late at night. Plus ça change.

Spooky location

Because of this script, I’ve found myself hanging around in Hyde and Green Parks late at night, on my own – and walking the back-alleys of everywhere from Mayfair to the less salubrious Peckham and Lewisham, sometimes in the driving rain, all in the name of research.

‘Know what you write’?

So was it worth it? In a word, yes. At the time, standing on my own in the dark, taking photos, I felt I’d slightly lost sight of what I was doing this for. The slightly funny looks I received on occasion were also worth it (unless I find a photofit of myself up in the Post Office as a wanted mysterious ‘lurker’). The real benefit of location research came later when I sat down to redraft the script.

I found that the experiences I’d had – good, bad, more than  slightly bizarre on occasion – added more colour to the script, and my sense of the story, than I could have ever predicted.

I always remember one of my tutors during my Screenwriting MA constantly saying it wasn’t so much ‘write what you know’, but rather ‘know what you write’. It’s far more important to go out and do proper research than it is to simply delve into your own personal experiences for inspiration and story. Finding things out for yourself, and having unique experiences is priceless when it comes to writing.

Even the encounters with other people while I was out and about helped to add colour and tone (he added, pretentiously) to the writing – and having workshopped the script extensively with my writing group and others, I can attest to this script having more positive feedback for its tone and atmosphere than any other before it.

So what are you waiting for, location-hunter? Night is falling, and it’s time to take to the streets! (unless you’re writing a follow up to Mamma Mia, in which case, it’s time for you to book a lovely holiday. You lucky thing). My next project: a pool-set romance in Cabo San Lucas.

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The space between: Transitions in The Silence of The Lambs script

I’ve been working on a thriller recently, and the need for pace, suspense, surprise and, well, thrills made me consider the use of transitions in scripts more than ever.

I’ve always known that the space between scenes can tell more than the scenes themselves – a cut to a contradictory scene in a comedy can bring on plenty of audience LOLs, but in thrillers, they add a sense of propulsion and can cut down the dreaded exposition to a minimum.

In terms of the mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’, transitions do the opposite – they don’t show the audience anything – rather they make the audience do the own work in their own minds. As everything in a script, and in a film, is a deliberate choice – the audience instantly ‘gets’ that the writer or director has chosen to show these two scenes or images next to one another – and therefore the space between them must mean something.

To find the best examples of transitions, I read through some of my favourite ever screenplays, and found the best examples in Ted Tally’s Oscar-winning The Silence of The Lambs. I’ve now read this (slightly obsessively) five times in a row – and here are the transitions I think work best…

1. (The very creepy) Dr Chiltern introduces us to Hannibal Lecter

Silence of The Lambs transition
In this transition, we’re transported to the world of Hannibal Lecter with a great use of question and answer transition. Clarice Starling asks the question ‘what is Hannibal Lecter’ and instead of Crawford answering, it is Dr Chiltern in the secure facility in Baltimore.

I think this is my favourite transition, as it deftly gives us exposition, and also transports us to a completely different place. We instantly ‘get’ that Clarice has gone to interview Lecter, without having to sit through a series of boring scenes where Clarice packs her case, books her ticket, has trouble getting to the airport on time etc.

2. Clarice is transported back in time

Silence of The Lambs transition
This is one of several scene sequences in Silence of The Lambs that uses a strong visual image to take us (and Clarice) back to a different time. The transition here works because it gives us the exposition we need to understand Clarice’s history, and also tells us how haunted this character is by her past.

We know everything we need to because of the gap in the scenes. The later transition in the funeral parlour works in the same way, using her approach to the coffin as the key to her past.

3. Another time, another place

Silence of The Lambs transition
The primary function of this transition is to cut out unnecessary detail, and the mundanities we don’t need to see or know about.

I think this is one of the reasons Silence of The Lambs is so successful – there isn’t an inch of ‘fat’ in the script – we only see what we need to see, and because the transitions are so effective, we as the audience are always ‘catching up’ with the film. There’s no spoon-feeding of the plot.

4. On the page – not on the screen

Silence of The Lambs transition
This transition was made even more efficient in the film. In this extract from the script, there’s more mental hoops for Clarice to go through before she realises that Buffalo Bill is making a suit of women’s skin.

In the final edit of the film, she simply sees the dart patterns on the dress in Frederica Bimmel’s wardrobe – then we cut to her on the phone to Crawford. Again, incredibly efficient, and thrilling for the audience.

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The screenplay format – when pointless obsession takes hold

I can’t bear widows. They are the bane of my life. Not the black-clad in-mourning type, but the single-word-on-a-line type. They have the power to ruin an otherwise productive writing session – and induce hours of pointless, seemingly-endless fiddling, taking me from creative eagerness to despair with just one word. One word on a line. On its own. Argh.

Screenplay example
Oh, the horror

I’m not sure if the screenplay format was originally designed to send pedants into a howling rage, but that’s often what happens to me. Time and time again.

Yes, I know it’s insane

For the uninitiated – how I envy you – a widow is a single word on a line at the end of a paragraph. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down to write or edit a script, and have found myself sucked into a pointless vortex of trying to get a piece of action all on one line. Once I have widow fever, I can’t rest until I’ve resolved it.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve even done it with dialogue on occasion. Rather than having a zinging piece of speech in a script, I would often rather it fit neatly in lines with no widows. Ridiculous. Imagine the sparkling lines of All About Eve if I’d got my insanely OCD hands on them when I have widow fever.

A widow in a screenplay
Nightmare.

Yes, I know there are bigger things to worry about

I’ve worked extensively as a journalist and copywriter, so part of my background is in preparing copy for print. That means nice, neat columns in a magazine, or online, without any world overhangs. A widow used to mean a sound beating (or near enough) by an irate editor. Now with screenplays, there is no editor. The irate editor is me. Ruthlessly hunting widows and eliminating them.

Widow in screenplay
ffs.

In my writing workshop group, I find myself judging writers harshly if they have a widow in their script, and for that I can only apologise. I even judge produced scripts on the basis of widows. All of the examples in this post are from garlanded, award-winning scripts. Widows didn’t bother them. No siree.

A perfect paragraph of action in a screenplay.
Ahh, that’s better. Perfect.

As part of my therapy to try and get over this ridiculous obsession, I’ve decided I have to just have to embrace the problem, and run towards widows with open arms. I’m just going to leave a word on a line on its own, and see how long it takes before I
crack.

I’ll just leave that there.
*walks away, whistling, pretending it’s not killing me*

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The terror of the first 10 script pages

I’ve just started rewriting a thriller – and I’m feeling the pressure of the first 10 pages more than ever.

Perhaps it’s because this script is a taut thriller, there is a lot to set up and accomplish in the first pages – while seeming effortless, stunningly original, gripping, dazzling, recherché etc. (which of course it will be).

The thriller genre seems to have spilled over into my editing, making sitting on a swivel chair in front of a computer seem like a white knuckle car chase with Robert McKee and Syd Field in hot pursuit.

In countless blog posts, in just about every screenwriting book – and on every film-making course worth its salt – I’ve had it drummed into me over and over again how key the first 10 pages of a script are.

Those seemingly unicorn-esque 10 pages have to (in no particular order):

  • Be immediately exciting and engaging
  • Introduce the protagonist
  • Introduce the theme of the story
  • Establish the world (and possibly rules of the world)
  • Introduce the central problem the protagonist faces
  • Set up the dramatic premise
  • Not include too much exposition, or obvious exposition
  • Include the inciting incident
  • Hook the reader so they don’t give up on the script, or you, the writer
  • Make the reader desperate to turn to page 11

All of this in 10 pages. Oh, and don’t forget the golden rule that black ink is bad, and white space is good.

And don’t even dare think about spelling and grammatical errors in the first 10 pages – and don’t even think about thinking about committing a formatting transgression.

Do that and you may as well submit 10 pages of drunken ramblings and inappropriate erotic sketches (been there, done that).

So taking all that into account,  there’s not a huge amount of wriggle-room, but lots of room for script-jeopardising japery.

It’s enough to make anyone lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel over their face.

So why do it?

This isn’t a facetious question (well not completely). After piling the pressure on myself to get those precious pages right over countless hours,  I’ve decided to skip the first 10 pages and turn straight to page 11.

I’ve done a first draft of my scenes, set out the dramatic turns and how the conflict will work and build, and even outlined my transitions – but the pressure of getting those first pages note-perfect right from the start only serves to drag me into an editing quagmire that distracts from getting the overall script right, so I’m going to leave them till the very end.

Then I’ll make them perfect. You’ll see. And then I’ll worry about the other 80 pages. Again. And again. And again…

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Helen Duncan – the greatest true story never brought to screen?

How many writers can be working on the same story at the same time? About 7,643 it turns out.

Imagine a story that brings together World War II, the supernatural, suspected fifth-columnists, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill and a government cover-up. It sounds like a genre-mashing fantasy thought up after a dream and hastily scribbled on a pad – only to be deciphered and rejected in the cold light of the morning (as so many of bedside scribblings will testify…).

But it’s a true story – and possibly the most gripping, intriguing one I’ve come across. I won’t regale you with all the amazing ins-and-outs of Helen’s story – and the huge injustice of what happened to this innocent Scottish woman – you can read about her story here, here and here. And in lots of other places as well.

Helen’s story popped into my mind again this week, and caused me to dig out a spec script I wrote (my first) where I adapted the story, obviously without knowing anything of copyright, story rights etc. Instead of bothering with any possible legal issues, I lustily took to typing – pouring out my enthusiasm for the story into a weighty 130-page screenplay.

For reasons I can’t now remember, I ridiculously decided that there wasn’t enough intrigue in Helen’s story, so further mashed it up with another WWII story I was obsessed with at the time – that of the supposed great Gardnerian witchcraft attempt to repel Hitler’s Nazi army from Britain. Anyway, that was a story mash too far, and my poor first script collapsed under the weight of its (by now) 873,587 themes and fell heavily into a drawer to be forgotten.

A ship
If you’re a Helen-o-phile, you’ll know exactly what this is.

But I wasn’t able to completely forget about Helen’s story, so I took to tinkering with it again a year or so later – and by this time, I realised I might have to look into the rights to Helen’s story. I got in touch with her descendants and guardians of her story, and was surprised to learn that Helen’s story has passed through the hands of several writers and producers in recent years – including (apparently) one S. Spielberg. But still Helen’s story hasn’t made it to the big or small screen, other than in documentary form.

Since that time, I’ve come across – or heard about – three other writers who have adapted Helen’s story into screenplays for film or TV, but I still haven’t heard of anything approaching production anytime soon.

My time with Helen’s story is done – amazing though the story is. Perhaps I need to now set up a support group for all of the other writers who’ve become as obsessed with Helen as me. Are you one? Please get in touch, and bring ectoplasm.

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pegasus Opera Company: Unpacked and Reloaded

I was very proud to be part of Pegasus Opera’s Unpacked and Reloaded event last year (where has the time gone?!)

Pegasus is the UK’s leading professional multiracial touring opera company, based in Brixton, south London. They have a long track record of staging high quality productions and developing works that appeal to both traditional opera audiences and those unfamiliar with opera.

In 2014, I was asked to pitch an idea for a new opera libretto, not something I’d done before. After immersing myself in the world of opera stories, themes, characters – and of course, music – I came up with an initial idea, which I pitched, and then fleshed out with Lloyd Newton of Pegasus. I’ve worked on the story solidly since then, with numerous story drafts, workshops and lots and lots of listening to music from Purcell to Mozart, Puccini and many more.

The aim of my story – Let The Music In –  is to develop a new audience for opera, particularly from diverse sectors of the community, while marrying some contemporary musical idioms to the traditional in an original contemporary narrative.

Working with the opera libretto form

I wanted to write a story that fits with Pegasus’ vision of appealing to all audiences, and also brings opera to as wide ranging audience as possible through a compelling, universal story. Having watched, read and re-read many opera librettos, one (obvious) thing stands out – they are incredibly dramatic, dealing mainly in the biggest themes of love, death, betrayal and hope. The voices of the singers, and the chorus underscore the emotional depth of the story – in short, it’s a completely different way to convey a narrative. Opera certainly wears its heart on its sleeve!

As a screenwriter and playwright, I wasn’t used to writing in such broad themes, so it took a change of gear for me to get the story where I wanted it. After working the story into shape, several scenes of Let The Music In were staged in front of a live audience as part of the launch of Pegasus’ new suite of productions in the summer.

Breaking a larger story into key scenes for the evening’s showcase was a tricky proposition, so using the narrator was key – in the full performance, this function would be taken by the chorus.

The scenes were performed by the powerhouse voices of Ronald Samm, Anne Fridal and Bernard Abervandana, with Christopher Rodriguez as the narrator, accompanied by Waiyin Lee, and I must thank them all for giving everything on the evening!

We’re now developing Let The Music In for a full production in the near future.

Find out more about Pegasus here >

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Widows: can Steve McQueen transfer one of the UK’s best-ever crime dramas successfully to film?

I can’t help myself. I’ve started watching it again.

I’m currently on my twenty-somethingth viewing of Lynda La Plante’s Widows – a six-part TV drama I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I can remember. I’m so familiar with it, I now have to ration myself so I don’t spoil it – although I can’t imagine familiarity ever breeding content with this series. I love pretty much everything about it.

The biggest strength of the drama is an incredibly clever, original conceit: The widows of a gang of suddenly-deceased career criminals decide to do their husbands’ planned ‘last job’ themselves. Of course, it doesn’t go to plan.

‘Suppose they were to carry out the robbery themselves?’

The characters are combative and antagonistic – forced together by a shared goal to become incredibly rich overnight, using a plan devised by their dead husbands. As the end goal comes in sight, the relationships fracture even further, and there is constant danger from without and within.

In a nutshell, it does exactly what a good drama should: It keeps you watching, on the edge of your seat, never knowing what is going to happen next. There is no padding, no flagging, and everything feels completely plausible in the world of the story.

It’s a sign of the series’ enduring quality that I still remain tense and caught up in the drama of the final episode, even though I’ve seen it play out countless times.

I was very surprised when news broke that Steve McQueen is to direct a film version. To my mind, much of the appeal of the series will be lost in trying to squeeze it into a two-hour film.

More recent news that Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn will co-write the screenplay with McQueen makes more sense – but the fact that McQueen’s film will ‘diverge dramatically’ from the original and be set in modern-day U.S. makes me question it further.

It’s going to be very hard to match the (IMHO) peerless original. Cue the haunting violin music…

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Off The Wall Players’ Saturday Soup – drama exploring food and relationships

Last night I saw Saturday Soup – a collection of short plays by Off The Wall Players – a small emerging theatre company based in Shoreditch, east London.

The plays were performed at The Brady Arts Centre in Shoreditch – a setting right at the heart of the community depicted in the drama.

The plays explored the relationship we have with food, and how food affects, and defines the relationships we have with each other.

The idea of ‘Saturday soup’ was new to me – but it’s an established tradition in West Indian families, taking a central role at the dinner table on most weekends. Preparing the soup can take all day, with ingredients added to the pot at particular times, in a particular order.

In the titular play extract, the central conceit of the soup was used almost as a third character, a silent, bubbling presence in the background of the increasing marital woes of the two main characters.

In the other play extracts, other forms of food were the cause for disagreement, disgust, and deceit – and intense pleasure.

Moving the play into ‘real’ life

Following the three short extracts, there was a Q&A with the writer, cast and director, exploring some of the themes raised in the plays.

Then the really clever bit happened – the theatrical experience of the evening was taken on, away from the stage by the act of feeding the audience some of the food they had just heard about in the plays.

Watching the audience eating after watching the drama was a neat idea which made me look at the audience in a different way. Eating is such a natural, everyday task that we rarely think about it – but every mouthful, ever serving we dish up for someone else, every drink we sip, the way we move the food around our plates, and the speed with which we eat all speak volumes about how we feel about ourselves – and who we’re dining with.

There’s inherent drama in the act of cooking, eating, and feeding others – and these short plays explored that brilliantly. I can’t wait to see more from Off The Wall Players.

Off The Wall Players can be found here. 

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

‘Draguation’ at the Soho Theatre with Finger In The Pie cabaret

It’s Tuesday, so it must be a drag-graduation (draguation if you prefer) at the Soho Theatre.

This is the third piece of drag theatre I’ve seen at the Soho within the space of a few weeks, so you could say it’s becoming a habit *adjusts wig*.

The drag graduates were seven men and one woman who’d taken part in Finger In The Pie Theatre’s 10 week performance crash-course. This was the first time the dragees had shown their new personas in public, and nerves were understandably showing.

The evening was compered by drag teacher, actor and cabaret artist Michael Twaits, who gave a brief run-down of how the drag personas came from intensive workshop sessions. Given that this was the first time any of the participants had appeared on stage, they were incredibly accomplished.

Finger In The Pie draguation
A graduate in action

Each graduate had a ten-minute slot on stage to do their thing. What struck me most was how developed their characters were. There weren’t your run of the mill female impersonators – not that there’s owt wrong with that – but they were fully realised characters, complete with backstories.

Every graduate introduced themselves to the audience with a short piece on who they were – from a failed Eurovision singer to a omnisexual being from the future, a forest creature, and – most bizarrely of all – a human / spider plant hybrid.

Draguate (and failed Eurovision contestant)
A draguate (and failed Eurovision contestant)

The evening ended with a drunk woman lurching around the front rows alarmingly, haranguing the audience. Well it wouldn’t be cabaret without a bit of audience participation, would it?

Finger In The Pie are here 

 

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Delaying Kilgrave: The trouble with Jessica Jones’ antagonist

I’ve just finished watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, and while I loved the set-up and the world of the story, my feelings on Kilgrave as the antagonist are mixed to say the least. I love the graphic novels, and was surprised that a relatively minor character in the Marvel universe had been adapted into a full-length series. I don’t recall Jessica as Jewel in The Avengers, but her post-costume, shambolic story in Alias proved far more interesting and transgressive than most other heroes. I also love the dark, gritty version of Marvel’s New York realised in Daredevil, so I was looking forward to watching Ms Jones inhabiting this world the small screen.

*Warning – there may be spoilers ahead*

Krysten Ritter is just about perfect as the eponymous heroine – just the right mix of hard-drinking, fast-living toughness and frailty – with an apparently total disregard for what other people think of her. Mike Coulter is very well cast as Luke Cage as well, and I think his solo series – and part in The Defenders – will definitely be one to watch.

My problem comes with the realisation of Kilgrave. Not with the acting of David Tennant, but with the way the story developed around the character – and how it delayed the action and drama of the series.

An antagonist who can control other people’s thoughts is a tough act to pull off, but I think the rules of the world – and Kilgrave’s abilities – was handled well to begin with. What I found difficult was Jessica’s pursuit of Kilgrave and vice versa – it just felt like a delaying tactic. As the series wore on, I had the strange ‘draggy’ feeling where the audience knows the situation could be easily resolved by the antagonist or protagonist far earlier, but it’s not – often for seemingly spurious reasons. I was hoping Jessica would leave Kilgrave to one side for some episodes while other stories were explored, but it was not to be – resulting in the series narrative seeming over-stretched.

Jessica could have killed her antagonist early into the series, and vice versa. While he was clearly obsessed with her, it wasn’t really clear what his motivation was, or why he had singled her out for his obsession. With Jessica, there seemed to be endless maguffins on the way to tracking Kilgrave down (for the nth time), most of which felt like stagey narrative devices. The repeat of the endless pursuit, capture, escape, near-death experience started to pall after a while.

The series was also littered with gruesomely dispatched bodies – and the final straw for me was the completely inexplicable suicide of Hope Shlottman. There seemed no particular point to most of the deaths – especially Hope’s – other than to provide another corpse for the remorseful Jessica to step over in her pursuit of the purple-suited madman. And all this to gather ‘proof’ of his nefarious activities.

When she finally got to Kilgrave in the last episode, it made the series arc something of a damp squib, as it was the inevitable end-point, but we could have got there a lot faster and not missed anything at all.

I hope with subsequent series they follow the pattern of the comic more, and have stories over 1-3 episodes. A ‘precinct’ set-up like Jessica’s Alias agency suits that really well, and opens up the world for a far more interesting range of stories.

Marvel’s other TV antagonist

I devoured the first series of Daredevil on Netflix when it came out – and thought it was brilliantly done. Kingpin as Daredevil’s antagonist has a clear plan – and good reasoning for what he wants to achieve. He also scared the bejesus out of me (peculiarly because of the precise way he snipped his chives on to his morning omelette).

As with all superhero films and series, the only part of Daredevil made me flinch slightly was the moment he finally donned the costume. There’s never an elegant way to get around the faintly ridiculous costumes that some heroes wear – even when they refer to them with disdain and / or irony. Jessica Jones has that on her side – she has already dispensed with her costume in favour of a Joan Jett-esque rig-out and whisky bottle accessory which suits her much better.

On the whole, I think the alternative Marvel universe Netflix has created with Daredevil and Jessica Jones is a great counterpoint to the huge box office juggernauts of The Avengers, Iron Man et al – I just hope they keep the stories on track in future. It’s all eyes on The Defenders now.

facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail