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.