A spooky little thing I noticed about our unconscious need for structure

I go on about structure a lot, particularly in screenwriting, but also in my prose fiction. I teach screenwriting classes at Worcester University and Birmingham City University, both at undergraduate and masters level, and with each intake I find myself giving students my take on the basics of 3-Act Structure as defined by screenwriting guru Syd Field (hear us chat about it in my podcast), or the mythological paradigm of the Hero’s Journey, from Campbell via Vogler.

A lot of people in writing circles reject these easy paradigms as ‘formulaic’ and insist that great stories are much more complex than the simple 3-Act structure, and if you want to write great stories, whether in film or as novels, you’d be better off ignoring these structures and going with your gut instinct. Continue reading

Why Hollywood wants your ebook

Today is a day of conflicting emotions. You see, my good friend Jonathan Turner, the man who wrote the best spec script I’ve ever read, is at the 2011 Screenwriting Expo in LA, and I was supposed to be there with him.

I don’t feel too bad. It wasn’t a concrete promise. In fact, it’s something we’ve promised each other to do every year since we met, rather like the Jews of the diaspora who every Passover say ‘next year in Israel’. One day we were going to go to that Expo in Hollywood, and this year looked odds on to be the year.

But then the ebook thing happened and I found myself working exclusively on publishing 11 titles before 11.11.11, so I had to tell Jonathan, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can do it this year. Maybe next time.’

It made sense that he should go because he was armed with two absolutely knockout action thrillers that were just made for Hollywood, whereas I was a novelist working so hard on ebook titles I wondered if I’d ever have time for screenwriting again. But isn’t it always the way that, as soon as you turn away from that thing you’ve been chasing all your life and say ‘Oh screw you, I’ve got better things to do,’ that thing comes running up and taps you on the shoulder and says ‘I’m here.’

What happened was that, just as I’d almost given up on screenwriting and started to think of myself as more of a novelist again, I got an email from a Hollywood producer asking to buy the rights to The Very Thought of You, my timeslip ghost story that had only been published a month and sold a couple of dozen copies. Continue reading

Arjun & Alison: the trailer is out!

Been waiting all year for this, and it’s finally here.

The trailer for Arjun & Alison, the indie feature film I was hired to script in February 2010, worked on all that year and saw shoot in Birmingham last November.

It’s been in a Mumbai edit suite most of this year and this is the first glimpse of what the film might actually look like.

(The security guy with his back to camera is me, by the way).

Jimmy Sangster, British horror screenwriter, goes to the blood-spattered Underwood in the sky

I suppose it’s normal that most screenwriters who pass away go to that Underwood in the sky with little ceremony. Sometimes we don’t even notice their passing ourselves, and often we don’t realise how much certain screenwriters mean to us or what they’ve given us over the years.

Jimmy Sangster was a self-effacing screenwriter, director, producer who, while giving DVD commentaries recently, seemed surprised that anyone would be interested in his life’s work. But to this screenwriter, he was a name I recognised and one of the first screenwriters to have a direct effect on me. Continue reading

It’s a marathon, not a sprint – the 15-year journey to becoming a screenwriter

I know, I know. I’ve been pretty quiet this last year. Hardly a blog to my name and my hits have plummeted (I’m still amazed so many of you keep coming back to look, if I’m honest). But there’s a reason. And the reason is that, rather than writing about screenwriting, I thought I’d actually do some. And last week something very special happened.

Yes, fifteen years of hard, largely unpaid work finally came to fruition, and my first feature film, ARJUN & ALISON, went into production. 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.