Monthly Archives: May 2013

Built On War

Gretna is a small town built on war. It does sound a bit dramatic but the town was mainly built to house munitions workers for the nearby ammunition factory during the war. As such it’s pretty self contained for a town with it’s own doctor’s surgery, bank, grocery shop, bakers and butchers. It also had a bingo hall back in the day to entertain although it’s not much now. Whilst I was born in Dumfries, I grew up here. Gretna does have a very strange thing as far as national identity goes as a result of being so close to the border between Scotland and England. There’s not really such a thing as ‘a Gretna accent’ as some families have English connections and some Scottish. Further down the road in Eastriggs and Annan you’ll get the defined Scottish lilt but not so much here.

But anyway, I’m not here to talk about ammo or weddings. I wanted to give you a short tour of the places around here that are kind of important to me.

Gretna Hall Hotel

Gretna Hall Hotel stands on top of the hill just around the corner from my parent’s house which was handy because it’s the hotel my Dad managed from before my birth to 2006. As such I spent vast amounts of time in my youth wandering the corridors. It’s an old building, the original part dates to 1710, and when I was young it seemed like the corridors went on forever even though it’s a fairly small hotel in comparison to others. Gretna has a history of runaway marriages as a result of Scottish law allowing younger couples to marry without their parent’s consent. Often young couple’s were chased across the border by the bride’s father who would turn up a few hours later. As a result Gretna Hall has a secret room which young couples would hide in whilst Father searched what he thought was the entire building. It’s probably not an ultra secret but I’m not about to tell anybody where it is. There were also plenty of other nooks and crannies in the building and it was brilliant as a kid to walk down one corridor, vanish and then appear somewhere else in the building that seemed impossible to access. If it all sounds like a Scooby Doo haunted mansion, that’s because it was.

In the late 80’s to the mid 90’s (pretty much as far as I can remember) the hotel always used to close down for winter as the tourists simply weren’t there. Every November the place would close down and remain perfectly still until the following March. My Dad still took a daily walk around the place to make sure that everything was okay but it was cold and dark minus the heating and electricity. Its the reason why The Outlook Hotel in The Shining seems quite homely to me.

Gretna Old Parish Church

Across the road from the hotel is Gretna Old Parish and I’ve included it here for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the location of my ill fated trips to Sunday School when I was younger. My Mother insisted on sending my sister and I out to Sunday School every weekend. It was after my fourth or fifth visit that I returned home and told her that I wasn’t going back ‘because that God guy they always talk about doesn’t seem to bother either’. I did not return.

Secondly, the graveyard at the back holds a bizarre local kid’s fable. It was said that if the moonlight shone through the bell tower towards a tree at the back on the cemetery then the devil would appear in the branches. I never saw it myself.

Gretna Green Train Station

Yes I know it’s a train station and most places have something like this but, when it opened in 1993, it became quite normal for me to go through to our nearest city of Carlisle each Saturday morning without having to learn to drive first. There also the strange fact that the lighting they put in when it was first build used to sway in the wind with the kind of jangle sound as if they were windchimes. It’s a sound I always found relaxing.

The Gretna Gateway Outlet

Now I cannot confirm this in any way but I’m pretty sure I was the first person sacked from this building. Back in the 90’s it was just a field opposite the last garage you could fill up your car in before you hit England, then they decided they were going to build a shopping centre on it. It was an idea which seemed stupid at the time, a shopping centre next to a small town like Gretna, but it’s pretty much become part of the fabric now and it’s actually really nice to be able to take a walk and get a decent cup of coffee. People seem to travel from Glasgow every bank holiday to shop here as the place will be packed.

It was 1999 and I had just left school with zero of a clue what I was going to do with myself. I seriously didn’t want to go to university or college just yet and I was firmly sick of the education system at that time and was very much of the opinion that I didn’t want to leap back into it just now. I ended up getting a job in one of the new shops setting up in The Gateway. At that time we were just setting up so I went down on the Monday and worked a full day setting up displays and cleaning. Whilst I was working on the Tuesday I felt a little bit ill and off colour. By Wednesday I had a full force stomach bug forcing me to stay in bed. Due to the fact the phone line hadn’t been installed in the shop yet my Mum drove down the road to inform them that I was ill and couldn’t make it. The same thing occurred on the Thursday.

By Friday I thought it was high time I went back in but, upon being in the door ten minutes that morning, I was taken to one side and told I wasn’t a ‘team player’ and that I was going to be let go. I turned and walked out without really saying anything else. It was on the way back to my parent’s house I had a moment of clarity, as if fate had decided it wasn’t quite the right path to go down for now. I got changed into my suit when I got back home, caught the train through to the local job centre and then ended up getting an extras part on ‘A Shot At Glory’ when it was filming in Dumfries that summer. I also applied for art college which set me up for the next five years.

Essentially though I was fired before the centre had even opened which surely means I was first right?

It’s a small place so not much else to show, I’ll leave you though with one of the older pieces of grafitti from the tunnel which leads under the train station towards the town. It’s probably the first thing somebody coming over the border off the train would see.

Thanks for coming.

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Never Bored (Just Always Distracted)

When I was at school my PE teacher always used to say that you’d hit a stage during any run in which you’d feel like ‘running through treacle’. I think, as coverage of The London Marathon and Man Vs Food tell us, commonly referred to as ‘the wall’. It would seem that ‘The Last Alive’ has hit something of a wall about four pages in. I have the notes laid out but I’ve changed a part of the story in the last few days and now I’m worried this is causing a knock on effect to the rest of it.

How exactly do I make an archaeological dig interesting? At the moment I’ve gone straight into our two main characters, one digging away and the other just dropping by, before they find this large, blue metallic object in the ground. My first thought is that they’d consider it a bomb so they would have to get the disposal squad in hence in our second scene I’ve got said experts handing over the item with the shrug of the shoulders and saying ‘it’s not a bomb mate’ before walking out of shot. Possibly to never return to the movie at all.

I have the small dilemma of wanting to get to the point and make the story interesting but also allowing the characters a bit of time to settle in before we start throwing aliens down on them. The first ten minutes should grab you, at the moment it both doesn’t grab you and also feels somehow rushed. Eventually this metal box will open to reveal a small child, perfectly preserved and saying that she’s a warning to Earth sent down from the stars. Currently her character felt unconnected with anything going on around her in this small town, Scottish setting until it hit me that she should be an echo for somebody. This has meant she’s ended up looking and sounding exactly like the daughter of a woman in the village who went missing 20 years ago. The Mother still lives there and will be shocked later to be reunited with what she thinks is her lost daughter, even though she hasn’t aged.

Obviously, this thrusts the Mother from having a small role to having quite a major bearing on what’s about to happen. I haven’t quite sorted that bit yet.

So we plough on in a slow manner.

 

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The Prologue

This afternoon I finally managed to sit down and start ‘The Last Alive’. I’m only about two pages in and I already thinking it’s reading horribly. I usually hate doing character introductions as they’re usually nothing but “Hello” and “How are you?” just to get the usual introductions out of the way. We’re in a trench, we’re about to find what lurks under the ground. Maybe I’m getting to this bit too quickly but we’re in draft one territory still so it can only improve from here. We start in Scotland and find something of importance during an archeological dig. I’m trying to avoid having exactly the same start as Prometheus. 

In another odd note, because it hasn’t been picked up by anybody the scientist in Unlocked has been given a new job as an archeologist in The Last Alive. Same character, same name, just ported over.

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A Graphic Guide To Marxism

A personal message on Shooting People from the producer who wanted to read the first ten pages of ‘Seven Lucky Stars’. Whilst he considers it good he has been put off by the fact the film is set during the 1980’s. It would seem that this would mean the movie would be far too expensive.

Maybe so, you’d have to consider that the costumes and setting would all have to be altered to take into consideration the time. As far as locations go it’s fairly light due to originally being written for the stage. The play only had two sets and the only change came ten minutes before the end. Pretty much everything I’ve written so far has had a small budget consideration purely because I’m not in the position right now to be making any Hollywood blockbusters.

I had thought about negotiating and taking out the entire 80’s vibe and just setting it in the modern day to see if that would keep any kind of deal alive on the table. Upon reflection though I’d be extracting one of the things that I think makes the script ‘tick’. A lot of the humour comes from looking at how much things have moved on since. The top prize is £150 and a top loading VHS player for example, things of high regard then slung on rubbish tips now.

We carry on regardless.

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Radio Silence

“Why is your blog called Howling In The Dark?’ is a question that absolutely nobody has ever asked me during my life so far. So I’ll answer it here.

A quick vanity fueled Google search reveals that this blog shares a title with a Japanese Manga series but I wasn’t aware of that at the time of choosing last year. Basically, somebody once asked me what kind of process you go through when you’re trying to get people to read your scripts. The conversation went something like this…

“Well, you write something first”.

“Right, like a full script of just a brief summary”

“Both”.

“Both?”

“Yeah, you need a full script and then a synopsis so they can get a taster of what it’s like before they start the script”

“So somebody can just read the synopsis and then not bother reading the script?”

“Yeah, totally”

“Isn’t that like eating the starter at a restaurant, not liking it so walking out of the building before the main course has arrived?”

“Errrmmm…a little bit I suppose but that’s why you’ve got to make your starter amazing”

“So do they call you straight away and go make it?”

“No, you can be waiting for weeks”

“Why weeks? It doesn’t take that long to read a short film does it?”

“Well no but then they’ve got loads of other stuff on their list”

“But they call you and let you know this?”

“No”

“No?”

“Only if they like it, you’ll often just get nothing”.

“No call? No nothing?”

“No, essentially you’re just sending stuff out blind and hoping for the best when nobody actually knows you’re there”

“Oh right”

“It’s a bit like howling in the dark really”

“Okay…well that sounds insane”

Still no response from the person who wanted to read the first ten pages of ‘Seven Lucky Stars’. The starting line of ‘The Last Alive’ is still waiting, I’m at that stage when it seems like a really long way to go until you actually get going.

 

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Stick Bubbly

During my lunch breaks from work, whilst picking up my copy of The Guardian from the newsagents under the clock tower, I’ll switch the browser connection on my phone on so it can download the very few emails I usually get. There’s usually nothing much there, just emails to ask me if I’m interested in buying a new laptop or the occasional Xbox Live notification. Today however, Unlocked came back into play.

It’s often quite strange how it happens. For those keeping score you’ll know that Unlocked was listed on Shooting People about six weeks ago and gained minimal interest. I had moved onto improving Seven Lucky Stars and converting it from stage to screen instead. Somebody though wants to read Unlocked as they’re looking for ‘the right project’ to produce in the next six months. I’ve dispatched the latest version and await a response to see if this is indeed ‘the right project’. They seem to have done a fair bit of good stuff according to their rather spiffing website. It’s good to see it’s not just some jumped up arse with his own Youtube account and a HD video camera he bought from Maplins. My response has stated that I don’t mind rewrites, I still have no idea of that’s a good thing or a bad thing to write in the first place.

There’s nothing interesting for me to photograph on my table right now. Here’s my coffee cup for the evening. Enjoy.

I’ve had an extra shot of confidence since seeing the final cut of Robotics. For the last nine years since graduating from college I’ve been writing with one question repeating again and again in the background, the constant drone of “Are you good enough for this?”

“Are you good enough for this?”.

“Are you good enough for this?”.

I’ve waded through plenty rejections and took the negative responses, the ones who said it wasn’t for them and the ones who just didn’t bother getting back in touch and rolled with them. Whilst there was never any plan to quit all together there does come the thought that maybe I wasn’t good enough to consider making a career of this, that the day job should probably become the job and I should only write as a hobby to keep myself entertained as a cheaper alternative to the pub. Writing is like any skill, the longer you spend away from it the poorer you get. You forget how your own system worked, you lose the ability you had once, your imagination has been so long underused that you’re almost scared to let it out because it’ll probably just fire something completely ridiculous out. I’ve got back into writing lately, the last few months have probably seen me do the most writing I have done since college finished. It’s felt brilliant and as a result I’ve come to a conclusion.

So ask me again.

“Are you good enough for this?”.

Yes.

Yes I damn well am.

And I’m going to prove it to you.

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Red Dead Redemption

WARNING!

The following entry contains details of Red Dead Redemption including a discussion about the game’s ending. Therefore please be warned that spoilers will be prevalent. Also, this is not a review of the game as Howling In The Dark really isn’t the place for it. It’s more an examination of the game’s story.

For all the gunfights, bar room brawls, robberies and good versus evil battles of cowboy western movies it’s strange to consider that they didn’t really get a good hearing in a videogame sense until Red Dead Redemption. Maybe we were all too busy playing as space marines to notice that The Wild West would be a fairly good setting for a game. In the early 90’s when full motion video was ‘a thing’ in gaming we had the light gun game ‘Mad Dog McCree’ and 2003 saw the release of Red Dead Revolver but both seemed concerned only with the shooting. There wasn’t really much beyond ‘walk into a town and shoot outlaws’. Then Rockstar, the publishers behind Grand Theft Auto, had a go. The result was a definitive game which is true to its setting.

To explain something straight away I never got along with Grand Theft Auto games. They are praised on high by many for the depiction of living cities but it seems almost too busy, as if the developers were too scared to leave you alone for more than three seconds in case you got bored and switched off. In most GTA games, there’s just too much noise and flashing lights. Red Dead Redemption took the same game engine and turned the volume down a little, often with massive expanses of desert wilderness rather than built up concrete jungles. There are often times in Red Dead when you only have a horse for company.

Moments like these in RDR are stunning.

In the Grand Theft Auto games Rockstar often gave us main characters who were pretty undesirable. The structure of those games meant they often had to be as the story centred on the criminal underworld and running from police. Red Dead changes this slightly by giving you somebody who was a criminal but is trying to turn his life around and go straight. John Marston was formerly a member of an outlaw gang, responsible for robbery and murder. His efforts to rebuild his life upon leaving the gang are stopped in their tracks when the American government take his wife and son hostage. The only way Marston can see his family again is by helping them track down the remaining gang members and bring them to justice. John Marston does not want to work for the government, he also wants nothing to do with his previous fellow gang members but he’s dragged into this situation against his will.

Marston is likeable, a definite plus as far as having a main character in any medium goes. He has a world weary attitude and is miles behind the times even in 1911. The game portrays a time in which attitudes were shifting. Some form of civilisation is coming to the wild frontier and Marston is a relic of a rapidly vanishing era. He’s been staring down the sights of a gun rather than working out land deals or drilling for oil. At one point in the game Marston is a passenger in a ‘new automobile contraption’ and it completely baffles him why you wouldn’t just use a horse. Despite his past misdemeanours I warmed to Marston almost straight away, almost to the point when it became impossible to opt for the ‘bad’ way of doing things during my time in the game.

John Marston

In the opening of the game Marston rides to Fort Mercer, a gang stronghold led by his old colleague Bill Williamson. Whilst he stands at the gates and tries to talk things over Bill shoots John and leaves him for dead. Marston is collected by Bonnie MacFarlane and is nursed back to health during a stay on her ranch. There’s a certain level of sexual chemistry between Bonnie and John in this section of the game as they both try to outdo each other by shooting rabbits in the fields. Bonnie is certainly no shrinking violet, her speed with a firearm proves that. Back in the Grand Theft Auto games it was quite possible to pick up any prostitute for casual sex, it’s therefore surprising that nothing ever happens between Bonnie and John. The relationship between the two is very subtle making it seems that bit more real.

The fictional part of America in which Red Dead Redemption is set encompasses the Mexican border to the South. Once Marston heals from his wounds he travels across the land meeting a variety of characters both trustworthy and devious. None more so than when crossing into Mexico for the first time when the game soundtracks this moment with the Jose Gonzales song ‘Far Away’. It’s the first time you’ve heard lyrics in any of the game’s audio and I know many players who thought this was something close to game breaking as far as atmosphere went. Personally I loved it…

Eventually Marston tracks down the member of his gang and brings them in but it’s obvious he still regards this as some kind of betrayal. The final act of this mission is finding the leader, Dutch van der Linde, high up in the snow capped hills. Instead of having himself turned in by the authorities Dutch instead leaps from the cliff edge and kills himself. Before doing so he passes some words onto Marston, telling him that the government will always try to find another monster to chase simply to earn their keep. They are words that will come back to haunt Marston.

With the removal of the gang Marston is reunited with his family on his ranch. The final few hours of the game’s story sees you doing basic farm tasks such as shooting the birds away from the grain store and herding cattle from one field to another. It’s a definite change of pace to the gunfights that have come before and the response from many players at the time was one of confusion. Why, they asked, does the game suddenly slow to almost a crawl as far as pace goes? Why are we expected to take on menial tasks as opposed to hunting down criminals? The answer is simple and it’s fantastic that a game can have the confidence to do this. This simple life is what John Marston has craved for the entire game. Some games want you to rescue a princess, others want to you save Earth from an invasion of alien forces. Red Dead’s main character is a man of much simpler means, his desire has boiled down to this and everything you’ve been doing throughout the game is what he wants to leave behind.

The Rangers find their new monster and in a effort to rid the gang once and for all the very people Marston helped to earn his freedom come for him. It’s a bigger betrayal than anything Marston has ever done and his final stand remains, for me, one of the best endings in gaming.

I felt genuinely sad at this moment during my play though. I’ve heard it mentioned before that games cannot possibly tell a story which gains an emotional response from us. The belief is that games will never make us cry or laugh, that they are somehow just a tick list of goals to cross off instead of any kind of credible story telling device. The ending of Red Dead proves otherwise. Having been with Marston throughout the entire game and saw him essentially battle his past it brings a lump to the throat to see that same past be the end of him.

It’s possible to reload the game from this point and play as Jack Marston three years on from the ending of John’s story. The final hours of gameplay are spent trying to find out where the head bureau agent Edgar Ross is and take bloody vengeance. Doing this it’s apparent where the ‘Redemption’ part of the game’s title comes from but it feels like a hollow revenge. In shooting Edgar Ross, Jack Marston has become everything his father wanted nothing more of.

It’s been about three years since I finished Red Dead but the story still holds many memories for me. The entire gaming industry has a habit of being concerned only with big guns and fast cars. Red Dead took its time, there were moments of near silence during the cutscenes as the characters appeared to be considering what they would say next. The story was given plenty of time to work it’s magic. Despite being ‘just a game’ Red Dead had plenty to say about America at that time, how people use the power they are given and how one man deals with a past he’d rather forget. As such, it’s a phenomenal piece of work.

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Not Quite Dead

One of the main things about this blog since I started it almost one year ago is a strive for honesty. I wanted to be open not only about any success that came my way but also about any abject failure. It’s often the failures that provide the most entertainment anyway.

Seven Lucky Stars was listed last week and has gained only one interested party. Even then it’s from somebody who admits a lack of experience in film making but does currently have funding for a drama and wanted a comedy as well. The request was for the first ten pages to be sent which I duly complied with. I have yet to hear anything back.

Now it could be that they’re busy but I have a concerned voice in my head hoping this isn’t a breed I’ve dealt with before, producers who don’t call back. Some people, rather than mailing back and saying ‘thanks but no thanks’ will simply say nothing and hope the writer ‘gets the hint’ and registers the deal is off. It’s crass and somewhat disrespectful but it happens a lot.

I can do nothing more now that get back to writing the next project and repeat the process. Currently though a paid writing gig seems far away.

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