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.