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.

It’s the little things that count…

I don’t normally write about TV series once I’ve already taken a look at them.   But with the second season of Mad Men now airing on BBC4, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immerse myself in it again, having only scratched the glossy surface of season one. And besides, this is Mad Men, quite possibly the greatest TV drama series of all time.

It is easy to be seduced by the surface pleasures of Mad Men. It has so many surface pleasures to offer.     It looks so ravishing and effortlessly cool. The women are all Hollywood screen sirens, and as for the men, oh my god, the suits, the suits! But this is part of the show’s success at concealing its message with such subtlety. A show that is all about the allure of surface deception should be alluring, shoulddeceive.

As you can tell, I love Mad Men. It practically makes me tumescent with storytelling lust. Each episode makes me feel like I’ve just been     given a freebie from a high class hooker. It is that satisfying I find myself stretching and purring over the closing credits. I could almost take up smoking again, such is the heady buzz of post-coital langour.

But I’m not always certain as to why it does this to me. The conclusion to each Mad Men episode can be very much a What just happened? experience.    You know it was something major and that everything has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is or how it happened.

This is a serious problem for some people. I know a few friends who gave up on the show because they can’t see the point; can’t see what it’s trying to say or where it’s trying to get to. I think the answer to this conundrum is to be found in the show’s unique structure and how it differs from the majority of TV dramas out there.

I’ve recently been teaching an undergraduate course on creative writing, mostly involving poetry and short stories, and it has got me thinking of the power of smallness, of subtlety, of elision. And then I chanced upon Lance Mannion‘s erudite deconstructions of Mad Men in his blog where he nails exactly what is so different about Mad Men and why its subtlety eludes so many people.

Whereas most series are trying to be novels, their dramatic arcs unfolding over episodic ‘chapters’, Mad Men operates more like a short story collection. Each episode is not a mere chapter in a larger narrative, but a self-contained story that stands on its own, whilst alluding to a larger scheme in the way that the taut stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners allude to the larger scheme of a nation in paralysis. ‘Mad Menmay be Matthew Weiner’s attempt to write Manhattanites,’ says Mannion.

And there it is. I suddenly remember the same feeling after reading each of Joyce’s stories; the something-big-just-happened-but-I’m-not-sure-what feeling. And the answers are there when you go back and look again, as you have to do with all short stories: the answers are there in a look, a gesture, a word that changes everything.

Epiphanies, not catastrophes.

Eveline’s inability to make a decision to escape, Little Chandler realising he is trapped in a loveless marriage, Gabriel Conroy sensing his own lack of passion and seeking solace in easy meditation. These are Joyce’s trademark epiphanies.

And they are there in Mad Men: in season one in that moment when Don hands the money to Hollis, or in this week’s episode when Father Gill gives Peggy the Easter egg (‘an ironic symbol of new   life’) for her abandoned child and she realises this pretend person she wants to be means excommunication from her family and church. There’s a look that Joan gives in episode 8 that sums up the experiences of an entire generation of women, and a pat on the shoulder in the final episode of this season that has all the dramatic force of a beheading.

It’s the little things that count. You just have to go back and look for them, like you do with all great short stories.

What news of Little Nell?

It’s that time of year  when new US TV dramas sprout up all over   the UK channels and I have to concentrate on keeping my mouth shut  because I’ve already seen the whole series that’s just starting. Yes, I’m a committed  downloader of US dramas. I download episodes a day after they air in the States. Sometimes I let an entire season run and then download the lot in one go and I still get to see the entire series before the first episode gets anywhere near a UK channel. Life may have just started on ITV3 but sorry guys, I watched the final episode of this first season last Christmas.

Bittorent sharing of TV episodes is illegal, of course, but it falls into that grey area between broadcast and DVD release in which digital distribution is possible the moment a TV show is broadcast. For me it’s a matter of keeping abreast of current trends in TV drama so I can perfect my screenwriting craft as well as write about series and preview them here when they finally do get a UK release. It’s like having a VCR that can tape foreign TV shows.

This doesn’t help UK channels like ITV3 who want advertising revenue from series like Life, though. Channels are trying to discourage downloading by having shows appear   in the UK shortly after US transmission. Heroes is a great example – there’s no point in downloading it because you can see it within a week of its US release. But with other dramas there’s a long way to go.   Excellent series like Mad Men, Burn Notice and Californicationare well into their second seasons in the US but don’t hold your breath waiting for them this side of the pond.

If these shows appeared here within a week of their US debuts, people like me   wouldn’t bother with bittorrent. We’d wait for them to appear on our tellies and   happily watch the accompanying adverts. But sorry guys, if you want that to   happen you need to take a look at the broadband reality, because it’s moving way   faster than you are.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be watching these series simultaneously   with our American cousins. So why are they being shipped to us with all the   speed of Victorian partworks? Why do we feel like those Americans crowding the harbour in 1840 asking ‘What news of Little Nell?’ to arriving Brits who’d read last week’s chapter of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop? It’s 2008, folks. This shouldn’t be happening.

But anyway, what of this ‘new’ drama series Life?

Those who’ve already seen the first three episodes on ITV3 will know that it’s a police procedural starring Brit Damien Lewis as Charlie Crews  a detective just out of clink after serving twelve years   of a life sentence for triple murder. But like Ivan Dobsky, HE NEVER DONE IT. And now he’s back on the force, even though he’s got mega-ding from his compensation, and tracking down the people what put him away.

He’s also developed a few handy character quirks. Prison will do that to you. He’s into Zen, and obsessed with fruit, and is now, quite understandably, most likely to say ‘he never done it’ even when the murder suspect of the week is wearing a sandwich board with the words I DONE IT  painted in the victim’s blood. Yes, Charlie Crews is a maverick, and a very entertaining one.

Thankfully, after the first few episodes, the quirks  take a back seat and Charlie starts to become a much more interesting character. This is because, deep down, this is a Superhero story type (using Blake Snyder’s rather helpful genre types). Crews is special, and that makes him an outcast. This is, at its heart, about the difficulty of being an extraordinary hero in an ordinary world.

You don’t need to wear a cape to be in a Superhero story type: see those two notable Russell Crowe movies Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. These are stories about human superheroes challenged by the mediocre world     around them. It is the tiny minds that surround the hero     that are the real problem. All Superhero tales are about being ‘different’, are about the    difficulties of being ‘special’.

Thankfully Life delivers on this promise and the rent-a-quirk fruit obsession dies a quiet death off screen well before the gripping season 1 finale… which I saw a year ago… and will leave you to enjoy for yourself.

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.

People are strange

Alfred Hitchcock once famously predicted that in the future there would be no more need for movies: audiences would be hooked up to electrodes that would give people jolts of various emotions: suspense, fear, sadness, love. He was wrong. We just started making movies that replicated that process.

We see this most obviously in the big genre staples like action/adventure, thriller and horror. Many of which play like a piano-roll of random key notes with a few cardboard characters to make them seem as if they’re actually about human beings.

It’s an easy trap to fall into when making a slasher movie. But The Strangersis a noble attempt to avoid these pitfalls.

[I’m going to discuss the ending of this movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet…  SPOILERS AHOY!]

The Strangers is not a bad movie. It is, for almost its entirety, the best slasher film you’ve ever seen: wonderfully subtle, chillingly eerie and scary as fuck without resorting to too much ‘BOO!’

One of the problems with setting up a horror movie is that first act of maybe twenty minutes where you have to set up your victims and give them enough humanity so that we care about them surviving the ordeal ahead. If you don’t set them up strongly enough, we don’t care about them. But we want to get to the scary action stuff quickly.

You can go the Teaser route and show the killer in action somewhere else and then cut to the Ordinary World, so we’re waiting for the two to collide. It’s a good technique and it’s used almost universally.

But writer-director Bryan Bertino chooses a different tactic. He gives us an ordinary couple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, but keeps us guessing as to what’s going on between them. They have returned from a wedding party to a remote country home. It appears to be his father’s place, not their own, but this is never explained. The beauty of the opening act is that there is no clumsy info dump to explain everything to us. It’s just this couple and some sort of problem between them that is never fully stated but appears to be a marriage proposal that has been rejected.  The subtlety of it is extraordinary. It’s almost arthouse.

Then comes a knock at the door. It’s a young woman, her face in shadow, asking for someone they don’t know. It’s creepy. She seems a bit weird. She goes. And then the horror begins.

There’s definitely a zeitgeist thing going on here that any Daily Mail reader will recognise. Much like the recent French film Ils (Them),   in which a middle class couple are besieged by intruders from the underclass, these speak to our elemental fear of our homes being terrorised.

I’m not a real aficionado of horror, but we all have a sixth sense for genre. We know at a very deep level what we expect to happen in a certain kind of movie – even if what we expect to happen is the unexpected.

Genres make a pact with the audience. You can bend them and play with them, but you betray them at your peril (or occasionally to bizarre success – but that’s another story).  But it’s clear that where a certain genre has to deliver most is in its ending.

And that’s the only place where this brilliant film falls down.

For the entire movie, this couple are stalked and terrorised by three masked strangers (it’s kind of creepier that two of them are women) in a series of subtle but very chilling set pieces. And all the time your mind is racing: why? Who are they? Do they know the couple? Is the masked man actually Scott Speedman exacting some terrible revenge on this bitch who’s just rejected his marriage proposal? What’s the answer?

But, of course, in the end, there is no answer. It’s utterly random. They are three Manson-esque killers who have chosen this couple to terrorise before driving off to find their next victims.

All of which is fine, except that’s not the ending we’re promised. And we’re not even sure if they have killed the couple at the end despite stabbing them both. Liv Tyler wakes up screaming when she’s discovered in the morning, and Scott Speedman definitely blinks (I’m sure I saw it).

So the credits roll and you sit there thinking ‘Wait. There must be more. There must be some cathartic clue to give me a sense that I’ve been watching a story and not just a sequence of random electrode-delivered scares.’

But the credits roll on and on forever, and the usher stands there waiting for you to leave so he can clean the place. And there is no final scene to give you some meaning.

It’s probably the whole point. But I wish it didn’t feel so much like it was made with a sneer. Because this film, but for its ending, had all the makings of a modern classic.


Do the rite thing

What were you doing in the summer of ’94? I was making the long journey from England to Hungary in a clapped out Mitsubishi with two Hungarian students and no leg room for three days as we sped across Europe praying the car would hold together and listening to tapes of Tom Waits and Bill Hicks non-stop. I was going to live with a Hungarian girl, and teach English to Hungarian kids, and write a Hungarian novel and make a totally new Hungarian start in life. But it didn’t work out like that.

Perfect summers rarely work out how you want them to.

For Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) the summer of ’94 is all about selling weed from an ice cream cart in New York, listening to the latest hip-hop from Biggie Smalls and chasing that beautiful girl (there’s always a beautiful girl).

It’s also about becoming parent to his fucked up parents and therapist to his fucked up therapist.

The Wackness is a rites of passage dramedy   that shows us NYC before it all changed and mayor Rudy Giuliani got tough on crime. But it’s not about making political points or celebrating the mean streets as they once were. It’s about what it’s like to be that beautiful girl’s summer fling, knowing that as soon as the holidays are over you’ll be relegated back to the substitutes’ bench. It’s about the uncool kid learning that he can transcend cool.

This makes it sound way too worthy. The Wackness will have you chuckling away for the full 90 minutes, not least due to Ben Kingsley’s manic turn as Dr Squires, a screwed up shrink who trades sessions for weed and gives advice like ‘Fuck a Black girl. I never got to fuck a Black girl.’

Writer-director Jonathan Levine spent two years getting the script to the point where it was ready to take to Occupant Films, who then put him through six months of intense rewrites. It shows because, despite its slacker feel, the script is lean, tight and very sharp.

It’s a major new contribution to the Rites of Passage genre with an excellent twist on the mentor-disciple relationship as Shapiro starts to ‘cure’ Squires.

It is anything but wack. In fact it’s rather dope.


Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show

Here’s another thing for screenwriters to think about. Movies aren’t just marketed through ads on the side of buses these days. There’s this thing called the internet and if you want to get your message out there you’ve gotta get viral.

The Wackness resorted to a very cool marketing campaign in which they forwarded Youtube links to critics ahead of release, putatively promoting an archive cable show presented by main character Shapiro.

It’s nowhere in the film, but it’s something that character might have done. Great idea.