How Amazon categories can get you a movie deal

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve got a bit of a thing for time travel stories. It’s my guilty pleasure genre and this year I’ve been lucky enough to publish three of my own time travel titles.

The Very Thought of You has had an option offer from a Hollywood producer, which is pretty amazing for an ebook novella that had only been on sale a month and sold about 25 copies when he got in touch (he was back in touch again this week, promising to get the project moving again once Thanksgiving was over).

I also published the first two parts of my teenage time travel adventure, Touchstone, one set in 1912, the second during the Blitz. This week I’ve been outlining the rest of the series, all to be published next year, and it looks like it will run to six in total.

And all three are selling. Which brings me to the thing that made me smile this morning… Continue reading

The crime is in your mind

The cries go out every week in the filmmaking community: everything is being dumbed down, there’s no space for complexity any more, films aren’t as demanding as they used to be, we’re all going to hell in a flatpack assembled handcart.

It would be a matter for grave concern if it wasn’t total bollocks.

Last night I went to see Inception at my local multiplex. As I bought my ticket, the ticket teller warned me that the film was three hours with trailers. I did do a double take. I was only popping in to see a film on my Unlimited card and was up for a couple of hours of distraction. But three? I wasn’t sure I could stretch to that.

And it’s never a good sign when the teller gives you a warning like this. It means there have been complaints. It means they want to be able to say ‘well, we warned you it might be shitty and no, you can’t have your money back’.

Now, I’m not a great fan of cinema.

That’s right. I said it. Somebody had to.

Yeah, I love the big screen and the sensurround and all that, but you can keep the cinema experience. And this is purely down to the fucknuts you have to share it with. ‘Hell is other people,’ said Sartre, and he no doubt coined the phrase after taking Simone out to the flicks.

The problem with cinema is that most cinemagoers  are morons. And more and more these days they are morons with megaphones.

My relationship with with the multiplex cinema audience has always been uneasy. I’ve witnessed shouting at the screen in The Blair Witch Project, a near riot during Cronenberg’s Crash, and the breakout of an impromptu stand-up comedy fringe festival during Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me.

But more than that, what I’m depressingly familiar with is the indifference of the popular cinema crowd for film: the constant grazing on noisy food, the chatting, the checking phones, the ringtones, the routine disrespect for ‘the magic of cinema.’

I remember being appalled many years ago to hear mention of shootings in LA cinemas. Nowadays I can’t go to Cineworld without wanting to shoot someone.

Yes, I want the big screen and the sensurround. I just don’t want it with a group of fuckwits.

But last night I witnessed several hundred people  out for a Friday night of entertainment sit through the most complex mindbender in popular cinema history and be gripped. Not only that but gripped right up to that tantalising final shot of a spinning toy, totally captivated by its fate, and gasping with frustration and delight at the final brutal cut to black. Wanting more from this three-hour experience.

Had anyone seriously complained?

Inception is a 146-minute sci-fi actioner about a team of dreamstealers tasked with the much more dangerous mission of planting an idea in someone’s head. It plays with various genres: the heist, the psychological thriller, the redemptive rites of passage, the war film. It is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind tonguing Ocean’s Eleven fucking The Matrix spaffing all over Where Eagles Dare being filmed by Vanilla Sky.

And in the final hour we’re witnessing a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.

Yes, it really is that complex. And that brilliant. For an entire hour of climactic action, the audience are asked to keep track of three  simultaneous interdependent dream missions… and then they go and add a fourth.

It is dizzying, hypnotic, confusing and breathtakingly outrageous. Without doubt the cinematic magic trick of the year. While other films are content with making coins appear from behind your ears, this one is a full on Derren Brown spectacular.

I used to go along with the notion that our culture is being dumbed down. There are memes in the air that you sometimes just find yourself repeating parrot fashion, even though they belie your entire real life experience. It took Steven Johnson’s brilliant book  Everything Bad is Good for You to make me realise what I’d actually been experiencing all these years: that TV, literature, games and yes, films, are much more complex than they used to be, and demanding more intelligence of us, not less.

He lists a new microgenre of films he calls mindbenders. These are ‘mid-list successes… built around fiendishly complex plots, demanding intense audience focus and analysis just to figure out what’s happening on screen.’ Films like Being John Malkovich, Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Run Lola Run, Twelve Monkeys, Adaptation, Magnolia, The Matrix and Big Fish.

But Johnson is cautious about subscribing too much complexity to popular film, because whereas it’s easy to point out that Mary Poppins has a far less demanding character matrix than Finding Nemo, and that Star Wars asks us to keep track of only ten major characters to The Fellowship of the Ring‘s thirty, there is still an inherent time constraint in movies. There simply isn’t enough time in a 2-3 hour movie for the kind of complexity  a TV series can provide.

But I think Christopher Nolan has just disproved this. Inception is this summer’s blockbuster and it is the most intelligent and complex film of this or any other year.

It even kept the Cineworld audience quiet.


You make my dreams (come true)?

In the romcom everyone loves to hate, Notting Hill, floppy-haired beta-male Hugh Grant bemoans his mid-point split with out-of-his-league movie star Julia Roberts with the words ‘It’s as if I’ve taken love heroin, and now I can’t ever have it again.’ We then see a montage of him depressed and lonely without her, mocked by memories of her.

If they turned that montage into a move all of its own, its name would be (500) Days of Summer.

They would also have to play back all the days  out of sequence, flit back and forth randomly      and employ enough edit suite tricks to serve 500 normal movies. Because (500) Days of Summeris definitely not your average romcom.

First off, its central premise sticks two fingers up to traditional romcom fare: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.

Then it sets out to tell the truth about love: how ephemeral it is, how here-today-gone-tomorrow, how it’s often a gigantic delusion foisted on real people by sloppy songs, gushy greeting cards and, yes, mushy movies.

It does this by exploring what it feels like to be dumped by  a beautiful girl who’s just not that into you. And it’s the conceit of presenting the 500 days of the romance out of sequence that hits home the message and provides the laughs along the way.

It’s a technique that serves up wonderful moments of contrast that capture the joy and the agony of love, none more so than the laugh out loud walk to work when Tom is so full of the joys of new love he sees it echoed back to him by commuters all stepping to his (and Hall and Oates’) infectious musical beat that takes him right into his workplace elevator, only to emerge from the elevator doors several hundred days later, post-break-up angst written all over his face.

There’s also the brilliant split-screen scene later  which presents us the Expectations and Reality of a disastrous reunion party.  And it’s this relentless adherence to the autobiographical truth of their catastrophic relationships with women by writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber that makes this film such a psychologically accurate depiction of what happens when a beta male somehow gets the girl of his dreams and then doesn’t have the cojonesto keep her (as if Tom’s love of The Smiths wasn’t a big enough clue).

In his interview with Creative Screenwriting (download here) Scott Neustadter points out that in previews the flm scored most highly with exactly the same audience that would least likely recommend it to a friend: men.

And it really is a man’s film. (500) Days of Summerhas a lot to say to men about how not to ruin a relationship, so it’s a shame that its romcom label will mean that most men won’t see it.

As I’ve revealed before, I love romcoms. It’s a genre I take a lot of interest in. And interesting things are happening in romcom land.

You wouldn’t know it if you watched predictable    guff like The Ugly Truth, but there are people out there who are trying to do something interesting with the form and revive some of the excitement it had in the 1930s, and much of it seems to have come about through a desire to make them more man-friendly.

It’s not just in  low-budget indie films (Orgies and the Meaning of Life or In Search Of A Midnight Kiss) or tragic love stories (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), both arenas where you can expect a degree of experimentation. The romcom Sleeper Curveis happening in the mainstream too.

Judd Apatow is often credited with single-handedly delivering a messy heart massage to the romcom genre with films like 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but R-rated, sexually frank romcoms that appeal more to a male demographic have been around a while now: see There’s Something About Mary, American Pie and more recently Wedding Crashers (I’d also namecheck brilliant Brit romcom, Hear My Song, which predates them all).

And now it’s gone mainstream, with more complex romcoms like Definitely, Maybe and 50 First Dates   trying to do something different (not always successfully in the case of the latter), and (500) Days of Summer, which is hopefully the first of many truly experimental romcoms that speak to an adult audience, male and female, about one of our most primal urges: the need for love. It’s a subject that deserves films this good.

Love me one time, baby

Anyone who’s ploughed through this site will know that I’ve got a bit of a thing for time travel stories, as well as a penchant for romcoms and tragic love stories like Somewhere in Time. So it’s no surprise that I was pretty eager to see the long-delayed movie adaptation of Audrey Niffeneggar’s smash hit faux-lit novel The Time Traveler’s Wife.   And, despite the sickly trailer, it doesn’t disappoint.

Bruce Joel Rubin has done a great job distilling the novel’s sprawling scope to its essential elements without losing the sense of epic tragedy at its heart.

But where I chiefly find the film fascinating is in the question of genre, and where it stands in the particular genre of the Tragic Love Story (which I’ll call TLS from now on, if you don’t mind).

When I want to know more about a genre I go to two people. One is the late Blake Snyder. His 10 Story Types are great for getting a handle on what a particular genre is really all about, but I don’t think he fully nailed the TLS, which he tends to categorise under ‘Epic Love’, and I’d like to see it recognised as a sub-set all of its own, because maybe not all TLSS are epic.

The other person I go to is the Script Factory’s Lucy Scher, who’s made something of a specialty of studying genre and championing its importance with UK screenwriters.

In her excellent article Love on Screen: Romantic Comedies and Tragic Love Stories, she pinpoints the crucial differences between these two ‘chick flick’ staples. Yes, they are both about two people that the audience  want to be   together who suffer obstacles to their union.

But in romcoms it’s the present situation of the characters which is   important. The obstacles to the union of our two main characters are situational   and/or internal to the characters and are invested with humour… which is why we don’t need to know much about their lives, backgrounds or how they came to be the people they are. They’re usually products of their time, and they’re two people who don’t want to be together.

In the Tragic Love Story it is the lovers who want to be together and   this is a key and significant difference. The obstacles are that one or both of   the protagonists are violating and disregarding the power structures in their   lives by pursuing the union… Therefore, we do need a wealth of information   about the background of the characters in order to understand why the stakes are   so high.

In most TLSS, the obstacle is class. This is why so many TLSS are set in the past. Class was much more of an obstacle then than it is now. It’s harder for us to accept it as a major obstacle these days, especially one with tragic potential.

While Romeo And Juliet and West Side Story could make do with the  class conflict of rival families/gangs that must never mix, most of the great  TLSS offer class and one other conflict to create tragedy: Love Story (class and cancer), A Walk To Remember (class and leukemia), Titanic (class and drowning), The Notebook (class and dementia). .

So how do you write a TLS in an age when no one cares about class?

The answer is to be found in other genres. Bruce Joel Rubin was onto this a long time ago when he created a smash hit by going the supernatural  route with his screenplay Ghost, in which it’s not lovers transgressing the social divide that leads to tragic death; it’s tragic death that leads to lovers transgressing the divide between this world and the next.

A more popular route at the moment seems to be science-fiction, in particular, time travel. Look at the recent successes of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (how can love survive when he’s ageing backwards?), The Lake House (how can love survive when he’s two years in the future?), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (how can love survive when she keeps having her memories of you erased?), and now The Time Traveler’s Wife (how can love survive when he suffers from chrono-impairment and keeps disappearing to other moments in his life?).

The reason time travel offers such fertile ground for the TLS is that it can explore what love means when pitted against the random nature of the universe, and that’s much closer to how we feel about the world these days than outmoded notions of class.

Judith Maas, reviewing Audrey Niffeneggar’s novel in The Boston Globe, notes that ‘time travel becomes a means for representing arbitrariness, transience, plain   bad luck.’ It’s love struggling against a hostile cosmos, but in this instance it’s something more. Natasha Walter in The   Guardian refers to ‘the sense of slippage that   you get in any relationship—that you could be living through a slightly   different love story from the one your partner is experiencing.’

Choosing to write a TLS over a romcom is a risky venture. By its nature, it’s not going to have an entirely happy ending, and there can be a fear of that in the commercial film world. People are supposed to like happy endings. Well, they don’t. Not always.

The highest grossing film of all time is a tragic love story (Titanic) and another is the highest ticket-selling film of all time in North America and the UK (Gone With The Wind).

The Time Traveler’s Wife won’t quite be doing the same business but it’s a decent addition to an important genre that is all too often overlooked.

Blake Snyder : 1957 – 2009

It is with great sadness and deep shock that I learned today of the loss of Blake Snyder, who died from cardiac arrest on August 4, 2009. 

Blake was a screenwriting teacher and author of the brilliant Save the Cat!, a manual that offered a fresh approach on screenwriting structure and laid out a revolutionary template for genre.

I’ve referred to his work  frequently on here* as he so often nailed the concepts I was struggling to formulate. His 10 Story Types (which he formulated in Save the Cat! and then expanded on following reader input in Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies) were a revelation to me and always a handy scythe to cut through the jungle of genre confusion.

My sincere condolences go out to his family and friends, and to every screenwriter that knew him.

You can add your condolences to Blake’s site here,  but, more importantly, read his works and use them to help you write better screenplays. He was always so amazingly generous with his time when it came to helping screenwriters and his loss will be felt keenly by so many of us.

Rick Drew of MovieScope magazine writes an affectionate tribute here.

* Previous articles here that have referenced Blake Snyder are Life, Man on Wire and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.

Love like blood

I’ve always had a thing for vampire films. From the age of 11 I was allowed to stay up late and watch Hammer’s brilliant Dracula movies. I was obsessed for years with a comic adaptation of The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires. I even love Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and no one loves that.

There’s something about vampire mythology that hits the spot in a way that werewolves, zombies and all those other members of the supernatural bestiary just don’t. And let’s be honest, it’s the sex.

So when I heard Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball’s new TV series was an adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, I was all over it like, well, vampires on a haemophiliac.

In anyone else’s hands, this could have been so bad, but with Ball, you know you’re   getting quality. It’s yet another modern televisual classic from the HBO stable. They truly do spoil us.

True Bloodexists in an alternate, maybe not-too-distant-future Deep South where, following the invention of a synthetic blood product, the vampire community have come out of the closet and are trying to co-exist with their normal neighbours.  They’re sort of like gays. They’ve got their own bars and their own drinks, and they dress better than the rest of us. Some straights like them (they’re called ‘fang bangers’), and some straights hate their guts (they say ‘God hates fangs’).

And at the heart of this social tinderbox is the cross-the-tracks love affair between  waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).

But even the humans have their dark secrets. One of the characters is a shapeshifter, and heroine Sookie is telepathic, which is    why she falls for vampire Bill: he’s the only man whose thoughts she can’t read. And that’s before we get into the whole illicit trade in vampire blood, which humans can get incredibly high on, and the lengths to which some of them will go to get it.

If all vampire stories are about ‘surrogate sexual intercourse’, then True Blood goes for it full throttle. There’s a lot of sex in this series. The scene in episode 5 where we flash back to see how Bill first became one of the children of the night is just about the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen on your telly.

Unusually for a modern TV series it opts for powerful serial-like cliffhanger endings, which just goes to show that when you think a TV drama tradition is long dead, up it pops again all alive and in your face.

A bit like… well, you know.

True Blood starts its UK run tonight on the FX channel only four weeks after season two began in the US. Don’t even get me started on that shit.

No sex, please, we’re British

She’s the scarily young theatre writer who created and wrote her own TV series by the age of 26. Lucy Prebble took a blog about the life of a London escort and turned it into a TV series for ITV2, the first original drama the channel had   ever commissioned. The second season of Secret Diary of a Call Girl has just started, but I caught up with Lucy at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival this summer to interview her for the Shooting Screenwriters Showand we talked for a half hour (fittingly enough) about the demands of writing for television. Here is a sneak preview.

I’m interested in the format of the show because you went for the half-hour per episode format, which is traditionally associated with the sitcom. 

Well it wasn’t my choice and I wanted them to be longer, but in the end I think there are very clear pros to the length as well as cons.

I wanted a bit more time to include slightly bigger, deeper stories, but there were a lot of people who felt that there is something going on at the moment with half-hour dramas: Californication, Weeds, Entourage.

It’s a difficult episode slot because it is almost always associated with the sitcom or the soap opera, and I think there’s good reasons for that.

In a soap opera you’re dealing with a large number of people, but you’ve got very long-running storylines, and people know those characters very well and audiences are familiar and comfortable with them.

With the sitcom you have a smaller group of characters, but fundamentally the biggest difference is that at the end of most sitcoms everything is back pretty much to how it was at the beginning. Although you have story movement, you begin each sitcom not necessarily having had to have seen the one before.

I think you pretty much have to make a choice between those two models to write a half-hour slot, and I think we chose the sitcom model, as in, you could probably watch those episodes in any order and not be too confused.

There are more of these half-hour dramas coming up and I think it’s because the generation who are watching them are quite happy to be told things very quickly. It panders to that MTV-Generation-with-no-concentration-span cliche,  but I think it’s the reverse of that.  I think they’re more clever. They’ve been brought up on the Simpsons and shows where the plot turns ten times in the first act.

But it does give a slightly lighter weight feel to a show. Deadwood or The Sopranoscould never be a half hour show, and quite rightly. So I think what you gain in speed you will lose a little bit in depth.

The first season has just aired in the States on Showtime, where it has received a much warmer response from the critics than here in the UK. 

I think on channels like Showtime and HBO, Americans are more used to having amoral central characters, and having borderline illegal matters discussed. And also they marketed it very, very well. They’re very good at making sure the audience they know will like it will watch it. They marketed it much more as a comedy, because it is quite light and comic, and with quite friendly Sex and the Citystyle shots of her, and I think there was an approach here in the UK that was much more full on and aggressive.

There’s a lot to be said for being challenging, but we set ourselves up for what happened in the UK, and what happened was The Guardian decided it this was the worst thing that had happened for a long time and there was an awful lot of political criticism of it. There was artistic criticism of it as well, but I think the political criticism really overshadowed it.

I’m writing something in a similar vein myself at the moment and being confronted with this archaic attitude to sex we seem to have in this country.

Yes, that’s exactly what it is! It’s so funny.  I was hanging around and talking to a large number of escorts by the time this show was being made, for research purposes, and every single one of them said ‘Please don’t portray us as victims’.

They’re a tiny sliver at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation, but it is a sliver, and it does exist. These women doexist, I’ve met them, and they are intelligent, fascinating, self-aware women who have never been represented on television in anything other than bodybags before. And those women say ‘Please don’t cop out and pretend it’s all about abuse, because my life is not like that’.

And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.

We will put up quite happily in this country with shows which represent violence, but sex is a subject that people don’t want you to be showing, and certainly not being challenging and different about.

There are other writers on board for the second season. Have you been showrunning   this time?

I didn’t have the time to do that as much as I would have liked. What I want to do in the future on series is to be a showrunner. One thing I think British television  could do much better is to allow those writers who want to and have the ability to showrun, to showrun.

Because the other thing that really joins together those series that most people who love television do really like, is that the person who creates and writes and originates the idea has that level of showrunning control, and even Executive Producer status. That is not unusual in America and I think it can produce really great work, and I think it’s something I’ll always be doing in the future if I can.

The full interview is available for free download  at the Shooting People podcasts page.

A team, a road, a prize…

There are people in the world who believe that film and television fall into two distinct camps: on one side is the noble documentary and its upstart sibling the reality show. On the other side there’s all that made-up stuff. But as a fiction writer who worked for years in factual TV, I know that the best documentaries mimic fictional story structures. And nowhere is this more obvious than Man On Wire, which is a heist movie pure and simple.

To call it a documentary is to do a disservice to one of the most exciting, funny and moving films of the year.  Yes, it recounts a real event with the testimony of everyone who participated in it, backed up by a thankfully rich supply of stills and film footage. But what it achieves is way beyond the traditional confines of documentary, and it’s all down to how it apes one of the most popular fictional genres.

Philippe Petit is the French high-wire artist who achieved global fame on 7 August 1974 when he broke into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, sneaked up to the rooftop undetected, and suspended a cable across to the North Tower. At 7.15 in the morning he looked down at the quarter-mile abyss below and stepped off the South Tower, onto the cable, into history.

It was a ‘heist’ six years in the planning, and performed with the help of a colourful supporting cast who, luckily for us,  had the foresight to document every step of the way with photos and film footage, way before the advent of mass market video cameras.

As a screenwriter, though, what interests me most about this film is how it utilises elements of the heist genre to achieve its effect.

I seem to be citing him every week, but if you’re talking about genre it’s now impossible to ignore Blake Snyder and his 10 Story Types. He would class Man on Wire firmly as a Golden Fleece story type. It has a road, a team and a prize. And it sits very comfortably in the ‘Caper Fleece‘ sub-section with movies like Topkapi, The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.

Leading the team is a man with a mission, an obsessive who will risk everything and everybody to achieve the ‘fleece’. Petit is a Jason, a Charlie Croker, a Danny Ocean. He dreams up the caper when he sees an artist’s impression of the Twin Towers two years before they are constructed, and knows instantly that this will be his ultimate wire walk. It is as if they are being built solely for him to perform this act.

He assembles a team of accomplices who share his vision, each with a specific skill, each with a fatal flaw (the permanently stoned one is a particular highlight).  They plan out their operation meticulously and put it to work, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

In the end, it’s a miracle that they pull off the job… but of course, the job turns out to be not what they all expected. In stories like this the prize is never really the prize. They always discover something else, something about themselves.  And when Petit steps out onto that wire, something happens that none of them expected. They realise they have helped create not a mere stunt but a work of art.

Even thirty-four years later, the emotion for those who took part is overwhelming. They break down in tears just at the tantalising moment of trying to define what it was they created.

It is a beautiful and moving documentary, for sure. But for me Man on Wire stands as one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and possibly the greatest heist movie ever.