Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Price Is Right

I’m currently rewriting and reformatting another play I wrote just after I’d finished Henry Barstow at the start of the year. Having done a short bar play I decided to launch full force into a full length one, using something that wouldn’t require that many stage changes. If the play was easy to put on then it’s more likely to find an easier time getting a venue to do it. There are no guarantees that Carlisle Green Room will want another play after Barstow finishes its run in September so I thought I’d have to look further afield with whatever I came up with next.

As detailed before, I usually write the first five minutes of a play or script without planning what’s coming next. If I like it then I’ll do all the work towards the story line. I was reading the sports pages in my Sunday newspaper one day last year and, at the end of an article about football’s transfer window closing for the season, there was a quote from an agent saying ‘The final hours of the transfer window are the stage play waiting to be written’. Taking him up on that I attempted to put together the story of a young player facing the choice of staying with the smaller team for which his late father was a legendary player or moving on to riches in the Premier League. The whole thing was going to take place in a hotel as the clocks ticked towards midnight and he found himself embroiled in conversations with his agent/manager. There would be this massive decision to make at the end that would effect his entire career.

Once I’d written the first few pages though I came to a sudden realisation, it wasn’t going anywhere. What I had written only really amounted to three characters having an argument in a hotel. Whilst it may have appealed to football fans who knew the ‘lingo’ and were aware of what a transfer window means it was difficult to make it palatable to anybody else. It’s something I’ve always liked about Nick Hornby’s book ‘Fever Pitch’. Whilst the book was about Arsenal and supporting the club it jumped the boundaries of one football team and gained readers from other clubs and those that followed different sports entirely. Deep down it was a story about masculine obsession and modern day tribalism. It’s a book so well written it forces its way out of any pigeonhole it might have been pushed into. My story meanwhile, was heading towards being something more about human greed at near farcical levels. It was utter crap and I ditched it one night after realising it just wasn’t going to flow in its current form.

A flash of inspiration came afterwards when I caught a BBC4 documentary on the life of the late comedian and gameshow host Bob Monkhouse. When the programme detailed the man’s career in TV they examined an period of time when he was sacked from his job fronting The Golden Shot because of allegations of taking bribes from the show’s sponsors, an accusation he always denied. Not only did Bob return to stand up after losing his job but he was also forced to do his last episodes knowing that he was being shown the exit door and the identity of his replacement. It’s fantastically uncomfortable viewing, he goes from being a wonderful host to the contestants to snapping and being offhand with everybody else around him. There’s a wonderful tension during the show.

Via the magic of Youtube I’ve managed to find the programme in question.

Whilst not wanting to do a play based on the life of Bob Monkhouse (because I don’t think I’d be able to do the man justice) I became very interested in the idea of a sudden turn in a man’s career, where he’d came from and what he was going to do afterwards. I also became a little bit obsessed with gameshows from the 1980’s and the attitudes on display. In one fantastic piece of footage from Bullseye, presenter Jim Bowen asks a black contestant where he’s from. Upon hearing the response of ‘Birmingham’ he then questions the guy as to where his parents are from. Not one person in the audience bats an eyelid at a line of questioning that would be deemed deeply racist and offensive if used today. I found it something of an eye opener that this kind of thing was broadcast on TV within my lifetime. It seems strange to think but back in the 80’s we used to get Russ Abbot prancing around on national TV on a Saturday night dressed like this…

For those too young/not British enough to remember this, Russ Abbott is not Scottish.

So I have a play set on a game show set in the 1980’s and I’m attempting to come up with jokes that a 2012 audience might find a little uncomfortable. I’m also trying to include some of the politics of the time but this is proving one of the main problems with it so far. The political aspect seems wedged in by force and only there as a short hand way of getting across different character’s attitudes. My main character, the soon to be ex-host of the game in question, is a man who has risen from the dark club circuit and is now determined to keep as much of his money as he can. He comes across as a little bit intolerant of minorities and a failed womaniser but this isn’t to suggest he does this with any great intent, it’s just that he doesn’t know any different. It’s a difficult balancing act to keep him likeable whilst doing all that.

I’ve left Draft One alone for a couple of months now. Without any deadline hanging over it that’s a luxury I can afford. Now begins the process of pulling everything together from a few fragments and finally formatting the thing afterwards so it actually looks like a play rather than a film in one location. Once that’s over we release it into the wild.

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For Those Not Yet In The Know…

I took delivery of a small bundle of these posters today. It seems strange that the last time I was really writing Barstow I was telling myself I had plenty of time because September was ages away. Now I’m very much of the knowledge there’s only two months to go. It’ll be the first time in years that I’ve written something that will get a airing in public so I have slight nerves about it. Because it’s a bar production (ie- it’s not in the main theatre) space will be limited to 30 for each performance so if you are coming down then please get there early.

The main difference between this and the films I’ve worked on in the past is the fact that once the run is over the project dies. If ‘An Evening Without Henry Barstow’ is never performed again then nobody will ever see it again. Obviously with film you have something in your hands and are able to watch/broadcast it at any time. It’s for this reason that I’m entertaining the idea of filming one of the later rehearsals so, once the run is over, I can stick the thing on Youtube and make is available to anybody who hasn’t been able to make it.

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Faces and Heels

Imagine the scene.

This weekend, as thousands of people file out of the door of cinemas all over the country having seen Dark Knight Rises, conversations start about the movie itself. People are impressed with the story, the effects, the costumes, the soundtrack and the all round scale of the thing. Plenty smiles on plenty faces. Then one brave soul pipes up with “You all might have enjoyed it but you do know that the fight scenes are staged and Batman isn’t real right?”. There’s a moment of stunned silence as the rest of the known universe as everybody prepares to punch him in the jaw. There’s no accusations of fakery in movies, nobody says that a movie isn’t worth any emotional investment because it isn’t real. Pro Wrestling doesn’t get that privilege.

Ever since the day in 1992 when a friend of the family got that new fangled Sky TV thing and taped me the Royal Rumble pay-per-view saying ‘It seems to be what all the kids are into these days’ I have been hooked on Pro Wrestling. I loved the loud music, I loved the different characters who walked down that aisle towards the ring and I loved the action itself. Plenty people had told me it was ‘fake’ and ‘over the top’ but I soon worked out that, like any form of entertainment, the best results are when you just let go and enjoy what you’re watching. For those not in the know, the Royal Rumble match itself starts off with two wrestlers and every two minutes another one joins the fray. The only way to be eliminated is to be thrown over the top rope and have both feet hit the floor. It’s last man standing. The 1992 Royal Rumble is infamous among fans for being the one in which the legendary Ric Flair lasted for nigh on the full match and won.

I started watching more and more wrestling. I’d go from the World Wrestling Federation to World Championship Wrestling, I then took on some Extreme Championship Wrestling and then onto some Japanese action from All Japan and New Japan. I’d also watch Lucha Libre from Mexico if it was on. During this time I’d usually get the same reaction from non-wrestling fans.

“You know it’s fake right?”

‘Fake’ has always been the wrong word to use to describe wrestling, it’s an insult to those who perform each night. It infers that it’s completely risk free and without injury if it all goes wrong. It’s true to say results are predetermined, winners are chosen beforehand to suit the storyline, but then isn’t that true with any form of entertainment? Stuntmen performing a fight scene in a movie get as many takes as they need to get it right, wrestlers have to make it look convincing in front of a live audience whilst bringing no harm to their opponent. It’s an art form many do but even fewer do well. Factor in the need for athleticism and the need for the ability to tell a good story to an audience and you’d have a better appreciation for pro wrestling.

In Britain we still have the memory of pro wrestling being the kind of stuff they used to show on World of Sport back in the 70’s. It was fat men rolling around in the middle of the ring, grannies getting worked up in the front row and all this taking place in a bingo hall. There’s an inbuilt sense within us that those dastardly Americans took our great institution and messed it around by actually applying production values to it and making it suitable for TV. There’s a line of thinking that it’s overblown, it’s out of hand and that there’s no point in watching two people ‘pretend to have a fight’. If you’re in this way of thinking then I’d say you’re approaching it wrong. If you watch pro wrestling whilst trying to view it as a competitive sport then it’ll never work for you. Take a step back and look at it as high performance, physical theatre. Allow yourself to be taken in by the storylines and then admire the skill of these guys who can use this environment to tell you a tale that in some cases has been building for months. I’m serious when I say if some of this was being done on stages in a theatre then it would be praised as high art.

It’s tough to pluck an example of this out of context and show without all the build up but some matches do stand very much on their own sometimes. One of the most recent examples was The Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels from Wrestlemania 25. Both of these men, at this stage, had around 45 years of experience combined and it showed. If you have 45 minutes spare and want to see Pro Wrestling at its finest then click play below.

But why bring up pro wrestling in a blog that’s supposed to be about writing? It’s mainly because there’s a few parallels between script writing and wrestling that I’ve usually gone by. Bearing in mind that part of the lifeblood of wrestling is getting and audiences attention and keeping it, putting them through twists and turns, then you can see why some of the rules can apply quite easily. Wrestling features both good guy (Faces) and bad guys (Heels) and these roles have to be clearly defined. It’s common knowledge in the industry that the best heels are those who, no matter how despicable their actions, believe themselves to be right. There’s also a saying about how a conflict will only be as good as it’s weakest half essentially meaning that nobody will tune in if they think that one side will definitely win. These are all tips I usually try to carry through to any of my writing, especially with the emphasis of great drama being all about conflict.

There’s also the small matter that wrestling is my ‘go to’ thing if I ever get stuck whilst writing. I usually turn to Youtube, select a random match and then return ready to write more after watching it. Most of the time this snaps me out of whatever stupor I was in before even if I have no idea why it works out that way.

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Not Minding That It Hurts

The one film that has seen many a writer’s internet forum go crazy with rage this year is Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. I’d read slight bits of it, never really wanting to spoil everything for me just in case I actually went to see it. Thankfully, this Thursday gone, I had a night free whilst my wife and son were visiting the in laws so I went to the cinema with a good friend of mine. To get it out my the way first, I enjoyed the movie as a whole which is just about the main thing you want when you’re paying the best part of £7 for the ticket (you can tell I don’t live near any of them big city cinemas can’t you?). It also become the second movie in which I’ve nearly passed out whilst watching in the cinema due to my inability to handle much gore. I did however, have some very big questions to ask about the script in the end.

-THE FOLLOWING SECTION WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR PROMETHEUS, STOP READING NOW IF YOU’VE STILL TO SEE IT-

1) So we have a group of people on a project which involves deep space travel. This means they’ll be frozen in suspended animation for the best part of two and a half years. I accepted this up until the point when they are awoken upon arrival and told what they’ll be doing there. Just to make that clear, the vast majority of these characters seem to have signed up for this without actually knowing what the hell they’re there for. Surely, at some point during the interview process/job application, somebody would have asked exactly what they were going to do?

2) On top of this, the representative from Weyland Industries, Vickers has absolutely no hope that they’ll find what they’re looking for. She sees Holloway and Shaw’s theory that human life began on another planet as complete bunkum. This might be true but then why, once again, would you be willing to spend two years of your life frozen if you thought this journey would turn up nothing?

3) The crew land on this far flung planet and go about business straight away by taking a whole team of scientists across to some ruins. During this first expedition the cave system is mapped out by Fifield’s system of flying orbs. This builds up a 3D map of the caves back on board the main ship. Upon seeing the body of one of the natives Fifield and Milburn leave the rest of the group to try and get back to the ship. Whilst the rest of the team rush back to the ship to get away from the storm Fifield and Milburn are left wandering the caves after getting lost. Nobody can go back and get them as it’s far too dangerous. Firstly, why does the guy who brought this mapping system along with him become one of the first to get lost? Secondly, why would they have a mapping system that places the actual map a mile behind you in the ship and thirdly, why does nobody else aboard Prometheus itself deem it fit to at least guide the two to somewhere safer than the mystery room full of oozing black liquid?

It’s obvious that Fifield and Milburn will be the first to go but it’s a flimsy way to separate them from the rest of the group. Would it not have been easier to just have the door to the temple close on them and them only, having David unable (or secretly unwilling) to reopen it and having them stuck there until they could get back? At least that way we wouldn’t have the next sticking point either.

4) Okay, Vickers is an ice queen and seemingly incapable of anything bar steely gazes at the rest of the crew. There’s zero evidence that she’ll drop her knickers at the nearest hint of a man so it’s quite a strange moment when she ends up having sex with Captain Janek on a whim. No mention is made of a relationship between these two beforehand and it’s never referenced again afterwards.  It’s purely a method to get Janek away from the bridge so nobody is around to hear the screams of death over the comms system from Fifield and Milburn.  A hint of a past between Janek and Vickers would have made it slightly better, even just a one liner or knowing wink between the two. As it is he gets her into bed with the chat up line “Fancy getting laid?”. If only it were that easy.

5) I was told before seeing Prometheus that the main problem many people had with the film was it boiled down to ‘intelligent people doing the most stupid option open to them at any given time’. Whilst I don’t personally agree fully with that verdict I would say that actions of one character are the driving force behind most of the movie’s strangest moments. David, played by Michael Fassbender, is an android who is designed to look after the crew. We know this  in the opening montage as he goes about keeping the ship on course and making sure everybody is safe in their frozen states. He’s also seen learning languages that may be of use once they reach their destination (quite how they know exactly what language this far flung race would speak is another matter). David has been built by Weyland and is described by him as ‘the closest thing to a son I have’. So far, so Pinochio.

It seems that from the moment Prometheus lands on the planet David’s aim changes into wanting to screw up the mission as much as possible. For being an android with a preset list of objectives, he doesn’t half seen completely random at times. Firstly, he actives the switches in the temple which in turn plays out the holographic memory recordings which completely freak out the rest of the crew. He instills more doubt and fear as he opens the door to the main chamber. He then secretly collects one of the cylinders and brings it back for his own personal examination. Upon discovering the black oil coming out of the cylinders David makes his most bizarre choice yet in putting a droplet of it in Holloway’s drink, in effect poisoning him. It’s this that causes the mutation in Holloway’s body and the subsequent ‘pregnancy’ of Shaw.

“Die humans DIE!”

It could be argued that David is carrying out the wishes on Weyland himself but in order to subscribe to this theory you need to think that Weyland would want to come all the way across the galaxy only to start a science experiment on the two people who had the theory in the first place. Weyland, in order for him to literally ‘meet his maker’, needs both Shaw and Holloway alive surely? If he wants to see exactly what the oil does to humans then why not pick somebody on the ship who is entirely expendable in the grand scheme of things? David just seems to be the android equivalent of hitting ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ on Google which the sheer amount of strange snap decisions. Despite all this sabotage, he then helps Shaw to leave the planet at the end.

I have no problem with Michael Fassbender’s performance, he’s fantastic in the role, but I do have a problem with keeping every single event in the movie triggered by the actions of one character.

6) Vickers has her own section of the ship with a self contained life support system. When Holloway and Shaw visit her in her quarters near the start of the film Shaw finds the medical pod, a large piece of surgical machinery designed to perform any procedure on the user. She’s told by Vickers to ‘leave it alone’ as it’s ‘very expensive’. Fast forward through the story to the section when Shaw is in need of surgery to remove an alien beast from her womb. She requests a C-Section from the machine but is told that it’s not set up for female users so she instead has to go for a simple ‘removal of foreign object’ option. This results in a rather gore filled close up game of Operation (and me getting a little bit ‘hazy’ in the process)

This doesn’t quite explain why a ‘very expensive’ piece of high tech medical equipment would only be set up for one gender. When were talking about a machine you can own which would instantly give you any surgical procedure you require then it seems a bit of an Achilles Heel for it to turn around at the vital moment  and basically say “Hold on love, I don’t do vaginas”.

So if it’s only set up for males then why the hell does Vickers have it in her self contained life support room if it’s completely useless to her? Unless she’s hiding something from the entire crew? In which case surely Janek would have found out by this time?

I’ve heard plenty people say “Don’t be stupid Cam, the medical pod’s for Weyland”. Weyland, by his own admission, is by Death’s door so why would he need any kind of life saving surgery especially since he’s not even out and about until near the very end. Weyland’s main aim is to see the engineers, something which he achieves. He wouldn’t be betting on having a patch up job before he gets back to Earth.

7) So Weyland is alive and on the ship all along? Great stuff but why, if he’s frozen in a deep sleep in order so that his frail body can cope with the journey, is he still in a mental state to talk to David and pass comment on how events have transpired so far?

8) For just being the guy ‘who pilots the ship’ Janek seems all too willing to throw himself into a complete suicide mission to bring down the Engineer’s ship and prevent it from reaching Earth. It takes him five minutes to decide to risk his own life and that of two other members of his crew (who are so forgettable I’d have to look up their names on IMDB) in blowing a hole in the Engineer’s craft by ploughing Prometheus through it.

9) Vickers is Weyland’s daughter, an interesting twist it might be but it makes her behaviour towards the end more baffling. Surely, if the theory Shaw and Holloway had is proven to be correct and Vickers inherits the company after her Father’s death, she’d stand to be one of the most famous women on Earth? Her company may have spent millions but at least all that time and finance will have seen a return and shattered what the Human race thought was possible?

“This is the Engineer Flight 263 to Earth, the emergency exits are located on both side of the craft.”

10) In the end only Shaw survives alongside David (all be it in two parts). The planet isn’t a homeworld, it’s a weapon store so Shaw and David go looking for other planets the Engineers might have frequented also. It might be a topic covered in any kind of sequel but I’d truly love to see the moment David says “Remember when you’re boyfriend had sex with you and you had t go in that medical pod and hack yourself open so you could remove that baby alien thing and then your boyfriend got fried with a flamethrower because his veins started turning black?”

“Why yes I do David” Shaw would say.

“Well guess what, I might have started that”.

Then we’ll see how she gets along with her robot pal.

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Soap

It sometimes happens, nights when I can belt through what I plan to write in one sitting. Tonight was one of those nights.

I’ve applied to write for an online radio soap opera. As part of this I was required to write a two scene piece featuring three characters, one of whom had to enter halfway through. It had to be set around a funeral. It was up to me if that meant before the funeral, during or after so I’ve ended up doing three pages about two middle aged women going to the funeral of a next door neighbour with one of them worried about her son being late and showing her up. The main thrust of the exercise seems to be to establish if you write dialogue well.

I’ve sent it off in the last hour, we’ll see how this one comes to pass.

This writing session was powered by The Smiths

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Methods

I don’t have a room in the house separate from everywhere else where I go to write. My house is fairly small so it wouldn’t be possible. I’d attempt to convert the cupboard at the top of the stairs but then there would be nowhere else to put all the clutter. Most of my writing is usually done on my laptop in my front room. It’s the same room as my games consoles and the TV which is probably why I have some nights when I don’t get much done. I used to have a battered, blue armchair that I sat in, it was given to us for free by friends when we first moved into this house six years ago. It was a little bit uncomfortable so we saved up a few months ago and bought a new sofa. It’s chocolate brown with purely cushions, my five year old son’s first reaction to it was to say “Dairy Milk”.

Many basic ideas start life in a moleskin notebook I bought a few years back. The pages are faintly lined, I’ve never liked to write on anything in which the lines are massive, thick things. On the inside front cover I’ve written out the poem ‘Invictus’ purely for the final lines of ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’. This usually comes in quite handy if I’m having a bad day at work and feeling like a career in writing  is a far away thing. The opposite page has some spirograph pictures, mainly because I had the equipment one day and I was bored. It was around this time I learned that even a small shift of one millimetre will ruin a spirograph completely. I also keep newspaper cuttings in the back if the content has somehow inspired me. Most of the ideas are one basic sentence followed by a whole load of questions to pick it apart. I usually end up scrawling things like ‘Would robots bleed oil?’ and ‘How fast would you become a ghost if you die?’. I don’t tend to carry this notebook around with me all the time. For the most part, it lives at home by my bed.

The squiggle on the bottom right is from when my son got hold of the book a few years back.

Pens are important and need to have a nice middle ground. I hate using cheap biros as it just looks like you’re scratching the page. You need a decent pen. Nothing gold plated or anything like that, just something with a good grip and a decent amount of ink.

There was a debate over on Shooting People a few weeks ago about how much planning did each individual writer do before they started their scripts in earnest. Some planned in great detail, writing out massive scene by scene breakdowns and character profiles whilst others just went for it without any planning at all. Personally I have an idea and a basic character outline thought up but unwritten. I’ll then write the first five minutes of the script of the bat, no pausing, no stopping to check it over and no fussing about where it’s going. After I’ve done that I’ll read it back and ask myself if I’d be excited if I was watching this. Would I, as a viewer, want to find out what happens next. If it’s a negative then I’ll leave it there and move onto something else. This doesn’t mean I’ll ditch the idea all together, more that it’ll be put to one side and either improved upon later or have its elements broken down for other scripts. If it clicks then I’ll sit down and work out the rest and go back to it with all the planning done. It’s pretty much like having the best of both worlds and it means that you’re not faced with blank page syndrome when you finally do get down to it.

I write in the evenings, mainly once I’ve got home from work and put my son to bed. Writing doesn’t happen every night which is probably why I’m a bit slow to get started. Minus deadlines it’ll usually be a couple of months to get something readable from scratch.

First drafts are only every read by myself, second drafts go around a small group of friends which will then lead up to a third draft. This is the draft that gets sent out to anybody who’s interested in putting it on/filming it. Further rewrites are usually after much discussion.

Where I write, not much of a view I admit.

I usually drink coffee when writing, mainly because it relaxes me. I don’t often drink alcohol during the process, it warps my inner critic and gives me a false sense of security.

Chocolate also helps, dry roasted peanuts if I’m feeling vaguely healthy. I don’t often have dry roasted peanuts.

I’ve probably yet to find the perfect set up for writing, I tend to write in fits and starts. Some weeks will see me rattling through pages and pages of material at once but this will usually be followed by another few weeks of nothing.

I’m pretty lazy when it comes to it.

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