Monday, June 30, 2008

The Comfort Zone

A long time ago when I was starting out in this business I had agents in LA. I knew nothing. Nada. I could tell stories and that was about it. One of the best pieces of advice they ever gave me was that in order to write properly I had to make my personal life as comfortable as possible.

Forget the stories of the tortured poet. Writing takes focus. Focus is achieved when you haven't got 5 million other things pressing on you. Being comfortable means being in a place and time and circumstances where 5 million things aren't pressing on you. Nothing to do with being financially comfortable, except it's difficult to write properly while hiding behind the sofa from the bailiffs.

It's a strange dichotomy, because I believe that experiences in life, good and bad, heck, excellent and horrible are the building blocks of a writer's voice. But writing during one of the horrible experiences? You may get something down on paper, but I doubt if it is germain to the script you are writing.
This is perhaps why when writers are in script they tend to shut out everything they can. Focus. Always focus.
Today my life is like a bag of blind monkeys with light sabres. Nothing very serious, but big decisions to be made. If I were on a deadline, I'd suck it up, find my comfort zone as best I could and crank out the pages. But I'm not on a deadline. So I'm going to kick back, enjoy the sun and wait for the monkeys to tire themselves out. It will all be resolved by tomorrow. Maybe.
I'm not advocating procrastination, but some days you know it just ain't happening. I try to average about 6 pages a day when I'm writing a spec. A few days of extra focus and I'm back on track. Without the agony of deleting 6 pages of crap.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Completely off topic

Hands up all those who survived the petrol tanker strike a couple of weeks ago? All of you. Excellent. I know it got a little hairy in Scotland where the main/only refinery is run by Shell. [the only drivers on strike] but otherwise I think we survived the earth shattering crisis quite well.
Crisis? Well only according to the media. I saw one newspaper front page with a picture of empty supermarket shelves. IN SPAIN. But you had to read the copy to find that out and that the story was 'will this happen here'?
What????? The usual feeble exortations not to panic buy were included but were obviated by quotes from hard sought out dickheads who were doing just that. When the media tries to create a story out of nothing you know things are going wrong with their editorial policy.
Fortunately most of us saw through that. Only 10% of forecourts were likely to be affected in the slightest yet the story was punted in YK2 proportions.
The real story should be why the hell we are paying £1.20 a litre. Yeah I know 80% of that is tax and the poor petrol companies make about 2p profit. Bollocks!!!!!!!!!
The money in petrol is in the production and refining, not the retailing. And those companies are so vertically integrated that massaging of pre-retail pricing is a doddle.

The main reason petrol prices are so high is of course the price of crude oil. Except it's not. The main reason is the lack of refinery capacity. Forget all the talk of OPEC conspiring to raise prices. It's the oil companies cartel who are conspiring to choke supply. Sure they could build more refineries, but a cost benefit analysis probably shows that the massive profits being made - Shell posted a record $28 Billion profit in 2007 and made $8 Billion in the first quarter this year- outweigh the cost of building new refineries for what is a quickly disappearing raw material. So they are making money while the sun shines. Simple as. And they know that 9 out of 10 of us will blame the Government or greedy Opec for the debacle and not them. So their PR remains intact.
I'm no eco-warrior, and no communist. But this is the unnacceptable face of capitalism. Joe Public being squeezed til they squeak to provide fat salaries and bonuses for execs and dividends for shareholders.
Well I'm going to do a little digging and write a script. Not much in the way of direct action I agree, but it'll make me feel better.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dem Bones Dem Bones

Part Two.
After a desperate phone call last night at 10 pm I found myself on the set of Bones again. And I got to drive a Chrysler 300 and an Audi TT Convertible. The sun was shining, the location was beautiful [The Royal Naval College at Greenwich] and on the way home at rush hour the M25 was clear. Joy of joys. It was one of those Karmic days.

I had another quick word with Hart Hanson. The old showbiz adage that 'the bigger they are the nicer they are' is most definitely true in this case. When I came across him he was looking for a peppermint tea bag for the director. Umpteen runners about and him up to his eyeballs but he took it on himself to do it. Just a nice guy. And I think that kind of leadership percolates down. That was a very happy set. Calm, relaxed, efficient. In my limited experience on set they are not all like that.
I was also chatting to a 78 year old extra [ with the fantastic name of Doris] She's been doing it for 9 years. A new career at the age of 69. No wonder that she seemed 20 years younger.

It struck me how much people love movies and tv. Not necessarily to watch, but the whole mystique. On my way to the set, in convoy with a couple of other cars, the dear old Met Police had set up a 'census' AKA let's catch a few tax and insurance dodgers. The traffic had been horrendous and we were fighting to meet our call time. The last thing I needed was to be waved in to the 'census' area. But of course that's what happened. The officer took one look at the pimp mobile I was driving and gave the 'big point'. I rolled down the window and said ' It's an action vehicle for a film set, and the two cars behind and we're late'
He said ' Oh right' and waved us through.
Movies! I tells ya, they are better than a 'midwife on emergency' badge.

And just to add to the small world motif , what with the Will Dixon/Hart Hanson connection, one of the stunt men and I used to go to the same Gym. We'd seen each other there on several occasions but had never spoken, until today when there was one of those 'Do I know you?' moments. Another good guy with some great tales to tell.

A Karmic day indeed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I Love This Job

I hesitate to even call it a job. And I think all you guys feel exactly the same way. It's a compulsion. Yes there are more worthy occupations, like saving lives and teaching and looking after the elderly and all that stuff. Heck, with some people it's a compulsion to shave 2 points off the Yen interbank rate and make a million or some such.

This is my compulsion. I'm fit for nothing else. I'm a teller of tales. My brain is a sponge, even when I'm just walking down the street, I observe human behaviour and secrete it away for future use even though I don't know I'm doing it at the time.
I like to think that I cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of 'why'. I may not succeed but so long as that is my mantra I figure at least I'm on the right track.

What set that off? I woke at 4am with good idea for my current script. I had a couple of secondary characters who were in the script as plot devices. Now though, after the good idea, they will become metaphors for the theme.
Only writers think of crap like that. At the most inopportune times. I guess I'm stuck with it. As are you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dem Bones

I've been a pro writer for close on 10 years now. I've been on set about 6 times. See, my view was that I had no interest in the nuts and bolts of film making. If anything, getting too close to it would destroy the magic - I thought. So I avoided it. Plus once you are on set, you are the proverbial spare prick at a whore's wedding.

Then I was on the set of Bones. Here's the story. A mate of mine got an emergency call to drive an action vehicle on a set the next day. No idea where what or when, that's the way it works. But he was off to France on holiday that day. This is 8 0'clock the night before.
He calls me. Am I free? Would I fill in? Good scoff and I might get to drive a Ferrari.

Well bearing in mind my lack of 'set' time and guilt over the same I said yes. It was then I found out I had to pick up a vehicle in Windsor at I tipped up at the place to find an ocean of mercs and BMW's, all top of the range stuff. Then picked up the paperwork and found that I was on the set of Bones in central London. Being an avid reader of Will Dixon's blog this more than made up for my recent discovery of two 5am's in one day.
It more than made up for the fact that the mercs and BMW's were for Midsommer Murders and that I was driving a mortuary van.

So there I was on set. And if you are a big fan of standing around doing nothing for hours at a time it was brilliant. I think they shot maybe 3 minutes worth at that location and for most there, that ran from 6am to 8pm. A huge logistical achievement, maybe 50 people at least, but nonetheless, of no interest to me whatsoever. I did get to buttonhole Hart Hanson, just to pass on my regards to Will. I know enough to know the last thing he wants is to be buttonholed for anything more than 10 seconds. He was very good about it btw. And I even had a word with David Borealez [sic?] Nice to see a star over 5'6. We were both lounging against my mortuary van and it seemed rude not to say something. Spoke to Michael Brandon too. Another nice guy.

But did I learn anything? Not really. Only that my original misgivings about being on set were correct. I don't want to know how difficult, or how costly or how complicated it is to film what I write. I want people to find a way to do it. Okay the experience was fun and different, but something I'll shut out from my writer's mindset. No, I'm not going to write about 300 camels coming over Tower Bridge but equally I'm not going to let logistics sway me too much at the writing stage.
I think I'll keep my distance. Deep down, I'm the audience. I don't want to know how the fairy dust gets there. It might stop me from being the audience. And that's something that worries me. When I'm writing a script I write story and character. I'm immersed in that. I don't want to be thinking 'oh wow, that's 50 people for one scene, maybe I can leave that out.'
I'd rather write it and leave it for others to cut. I wouldn't write it if I didn't think it was worthwhile. Others involved in production may have a more objective view. And that's fine. Me? I'll concentrate on inventing the fairy dust, the sprinkling I'll leave to others.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bendy writing

I'm in the middle of a script right now. A spec. So I can do bendy writing. It started off as a one hour pilot. I did my usual beat sheet, and after all this time I can tell to within half a dozen pages how long the script will be from the number and content of the beats.

But it never pans out that way. Not in a spec. See on a commission the page count is paramount. Maybe not so much in the early drafts but at shooting script most definitely. And you really don't want to be chopping 10 pages for the shooting script.

But as I'm writing the spec, well....... things occur to me. Scenes I had down as two pages can become four. Characters dictate different choices as you get to know them. The story becomes bigger or more twisty. Lots of reasons. And as this is a spec I'm just running with it. Because I don't think it hurts the story I'm writing. On the contrary. the story is dictating the length.

So with my bendy writing hat on, I'm nixing the idea of a one hour pilot and making it either a stand alone Two Parter or a two hour pilot.

Don't be afraid to be flexible. The story will tell you what the length should be and that isn't always apparent from the outset. For spec TV, Bendy writing is your friend! Because note that any producer now has two bites of the cherry when trying to sell to the networks. The pilot or the stand alone.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book him Danno

A few years ago I told my agents I wanted to write a novel. They nixed the idea. 'You're a script writer, stick to what you know' I listened to them.
A good mate of mine, a dyed in the wool script writer, has just signed with the biggest and best book agent in the country - with his first novel. He finaly got fed up with the worst aspects of the TV world. The numpty execs, the incoherent notes, the plethora of D girls with attitude, the numbing blandness that seems to be the order of the day and the pointless meetings.
He took a break and sat down and wrote a novel. Here's a snippet of the conversaton between Big Time Book Agent and Mate.

This is fantastic writing. The pacing is tremendous. How many novels have you written?

Counting this one? One.

You're joking.

Nope. Never had time. I've been writing TV for the last 8 years.

Ah! That explains it.

And it does. See I think that if you are a good writer, that means you are a natural storyteller. Books, Tv, Films, all the same. Storytelling. I've been on websites where novelists and screenwriters, largely unpublished or unproduced, talk about how different the script is from the novel and how they are completely disparate skills. Bollocks. They are different platforms. A platform is easy to master. That's not a skill. Good writing is a skill and a transferrable one. Pick up just about any thriller and you will see that structurally it's just like a very long treatment for a movie.
If anything I'd say that being a scriptwriter is a major qualification to write thrillers. David Balducci only wrote Absolute Power as a novel because no one wanted to buy the script, saying there was no appetite for political thrillers. Several months at the top of the NY Times best seller list disabused them of that notion.
The novel isn't for everyone, but here's a couple of points. The shit pile in the novel world is many times greater than that in the script world [which is plenty big enough] So if you have any talent at all you will stand out. And secondly, an author is treated with a lot more respect in the TV world than 'just' a scriptwriter!
I'm dusting off a few old movie scripts and digging out a thesaurus.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

aaaaaagh time flies

I've just realised I was supposed to be reading a script for someone. Sorry Ben! Going to a wedding this weekend but will def get to it next week.

And that can happen just as easily with scripts you send to prodcos or agents. Don't be afraid to politely chase up reads. There's nothing worse than waiting in anticipation of a read and weeks later finding out the script's tucked in someones drawer gathering dust.

I don't have any excuse except a terrible memory and a few domestic contretemps and physical injuries [not connected] distracting me. And these people are only human too. If you are not given a time scale I'd get on to them after about 4 weeks. Again at 7 and again at 10. If they keep saying they will get right on it but still haven't then after that it's pretty much a dead duck as far as reminders are concerned so give it up.

But you can still hold out hope. I once got a job after a BBC show had my spec script for six months. The producer kept putting off the read because she didn't like the title! After that, I changed the title.

Time flies for everyone in this business apart from the writer waiting for feedback. The only way to get round this is to get stuck in to your next script. If you are trying to break in you really need to be getting at least 3 specs a year out there. And to be honest it doesn't change much after you break in. Okay you may get away more with proposals rather than specs, but given the musical chairs execs play it's very likely that after a 12 month period expires it could be that no one at an indy prodco will have actually read your work before and would prefer to see a new script rather than the one their predecessors read.

Yes it's free work. But architects do it all the time. I'm not saying it's right. It's just the way it is. Given the timidity of the networks right now, unless you are a golden ticket with a cast iron project, they are not going to be happy with just a proposal. They'll make noises about how they really would like to see a script to get the tone, and you'll trot off and write it. That's because the vast majority of cost, and therefore risk of any project is production. They want anything they can get to show the networks how minimal the risk is. The real answer is of course 'who the fuck knows?' Great ideas can be ruined by bad scripts, acting, directing, marketing, you name it.

I think the emphasis on showbusiness used to be on 'show' Nowadays I fear it's definitely more on 'business'. Entertainment shouldn't be about minimising risk. It should be about taking chances. Gut instinct not focus groups.

Go into any meeting with just about any exec and they'll bleat on about how the 18-24 age group is the key demographic they are chasing. Why? Well they'll waffle about how that age group doesn't watch tv nowadays and we have to hook them back into it blah blah blah.
Guess what? They never did watch much! They were too busy out drinking and shagging and playing football. Now it's facebook and second life. [it's not really, but because the marketing nerds are never off the internet they think all they hear there is gospel. Most yoofs are still out drinking, shagging and playing football. ]
The real reason is that the marketers have got it into their heads that the 18-24 demographic are some kind of advertisers pliant wet dream. And as usual in this business the tail wags the dog.
But it doesn't have to be that way. I know I bang on to the point of boredom. But let's get back to gut instinct. Let's have execs more concerned with producing quality than saving their arses. And let's have writers stop pandering to a system that's going to kill the medium.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Lunatics and asylums

I guess I'm what's called a 'middle ranking writer' I generally make a good living but I'm far from a household name. Even in my own household.
But I have a feeling that middle ranking writers are like the middle classes, or silent majority or Mr Average, call it what you will. When they get pissed off and militant you know something is badly wrong.

I have a busted ankle right now, which let me relax today and watch a lot of tv. Or would have until I surfed the channel guide and saw there was absolutely nothing I wanted to watch. So I went to 'on demand' and luxuriated on about 6 episodes of 'Band of Brothers' back to back, an ep of 'Two And A Half Men' and the DVD of 'Flags Of Our Fathers'
All good.
Why would I want to watch the school dinner regurgitated rice pudding that is served up on Monday night TV when I can watch something good? Where's the heart? Where's the thought? Where's the connection to real people?
Maybe it's lost in a sea of no talent careerists who have forgotten or never knew that ultimately the audience will spot a fake. I speak of both producers and writers here.
In the stock market you have 'day traders'. A bunch of people who have no regard for anything other than their own short term enrichment but who can severely distort the market to the detriment of what is good for everyone else. Too many of those types are in the entertainment industry. They don't know the difference between rape and seduction. All you can do is point it out. Diplomatically if you want a career.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Are You Irish?

I want to know because I might be a BBC recruiter.

Okay I'm not. But I recently found out that you can apply for production jobs with the beeb online. Just to see what questions were asked I thought I'd go through the process. It was for a trainee producer for radio comedy. Pretty much as far from what I do as you can get.

I have to admit, up to a point the questions were concise and pertinent. Then it got weird. It came to the subject of religion. When I tried to answer ' Don't give a fuck' [aka don't have one] the form asked if I was Northern or Southern Irish???

Huh? Seriously? It's important to know whether I'm a Pape or a Proddy? Maybe it's just part of that whole comedy ethos. An irony test? Or it could be indicative of the BBC. So fucking out of touch it's not true.

I'll let you know if I get the interview lol