Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sally Wainwright masterclass at BAFTA

Darling ones,

Sally Wainwright came across as a straight-talking exponent of her craft last night, not unlike the protagonists in her scripts. Marc Lawson interviewed her amid clips of drama old and new; from an episode of 'Coronation Street' to 'Happy Valley'. There might have been 17 years between them but Sarah Lancashire was in both. Interestingly, SW thought the Corrie clip was way too wordy and was grateful for the subtext she'd learned by the time the clip from Happy Valley was shown. SW loved working on Corrie because of their respect for writers. Other soaps she'd worked on used script editors to rewrite the scripts. Corrie allowed her to develop her own voice whereas other soaps felt homogenous by comparison. Interestingly, SW felt that the soaps' competitive ramping-up of incident detracted from the drama, which she felt was better evoked by the drama that comes from the humdrum. She believes that dialogue is innate in the writer. Once you have the story worked out, the dialogue should flow from the situation.
There was some discussion of the importance of backstory and how useful it is in forming character. In 'Unforgiven' SW was conscious of the fact that despite her protagonist's incarceration, her fifteen years away meant that much of her past remained unresolved and was waiting for her upon her release.
The violence of Happy Valley was debated. SW directed episode 4 (where Catherine rescues Ann), but felt that the violence was not at all gratuitous; on the contrary it was entirely realistic. The power of the scene lay in the two women rescuing each other. It was still novel to see a female police officer be attacked. The gritty dialogue included swearing, which to SW seemed like the normal rhythm of speech.
In terms of process, SW likes to write detailed scene breakdowns, including the thought processes of her characters. SW studied and read a lot of Ibsen when she was younger, from whom she learned that subtext is all. She said she couldn't watch her work if she felt it was badly directed. She was mentored by Kay Mellor, which SW said was invaluable, as KM was such a trailblazer with 'Band of Gold'.
SW writes a series bible as both a selling document and a blueprint for casting. She felt that every new scene should come from slightly left-field. She liked to write the third episode first and was always amenable to cutting the last line of any scene. She didn't care for being pigeonholed into 'nothern' drama as she felt her themes were universal and would be understood anywhere. It was a question of vernacular.
Current projects include a biopic of the Brontë sisters and another series of Happy Valley. This brought up the subject of doing your research. When reimagining 'The Wife of Bath' and 'The Taming of the Shrew'. SW really enjoyed having such a wealth of material with which to work. She agreed the Taming of The Shrew was a contentious subject for the modern age, with its empasis on female submission.
SW discussed showrunning with reference to 'Scott and Bailey'. She didn't like to rewrite other writers' work but would if that was what was required. 'Last Tango in Halifax' was more autobiographical, with its emphasis on the lives of older people. It was turned down until Danny Cohen (programming Director, BBC) was approached. He approved the idea and so it was made.
There were some very interesting questions from a well-informed and appreciative audience. SW liked Nurse Jackie, and Breaking Bad, though confessed to not watching a huge amount of TV. She didn't feel that screen action should be too prescriptive in the script. She felt that female writers bring a different sensibility to writing and actively preferred to write female characters as they are more emotionally articulate. She didn't do too much rewriting as she liked to build a script with a solid foundation, feeling that addressing those issues while drafting prevents too many drafts being written. She was conscious of, and keen to, address the lack of multicultural diversity in TV drama, feeling that to write a character with a different ethnicity required careful and thorough research.

Monday, 26 January 2015

REVIEW: The Art of Screenplays: A Writer's Guide by Robin Mukherjee

Darling ones,

what shines out of this excellent and inspirational book is Robin Mukherjee's sheer enthusiasm for screenplays. Not just the writing of them but all the processes that go into their production - particularly the mining of 'stuff' (the jottings, details and miscellanea that writers accrue in their Moleskines). In other words, the 'stuff' of life and how the writer makes use of them in their dramatic output. But this is no mere 'how to' book. RM puts the art and craft of modern screenwriting into an historical context. He certainly explains the Orphic Paradigm and vertical structure in ways that didn't make me want to scream or claw my eyes out. It's witty, funny, approachable and I'm willing to bet, representative of the author's voice when he's teaching.
More than anything this book is about the philosophy of writing. Why is it that we are so thirsty for stories about ourselves, no matter what culture or age we're born into? I bet RM's a great teacher. Despite many years in the business, there's not a hint of burn-out or cynicism in this book. There are some interesting exercises that root the student in reality (using the all-important 'stuff') in order to write material that should make their work vibrant and alive. That said, I do think it's a book more suited to a writer well grounded in the essentials of writing and who already has the habit of notebook and pen. I think it's also good for the film and creative writing student for the historical and psychological aspect of writing. I thought it was a fresh and innovative way of looking at writing and it reminded me powerfully of why I love to write. You can't say fairer than that. Available here.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Eau de Toilette by Emily Bee

Darling ones,

allow me to declare an interest here; I used to childmind the divine Miss Emily Bee when she was knee high to a grasshopper (to exhaust the insect metaphor). I remember very clearly when she was four years old coming downstairs with four kittens hanging from the arm of her coat, so I think the theatricality was there even then. Thus it was that we entered the hip environs of Shoreditch on Halloween, there to find Rich Mix and the upstairs venue that Miss B was gracing with her new show, Eau De Toilette; the poignant tale of a young illegal immigrant whiling her life away cleaning the toilet at a night club in London.
And what a show it was! Emily's accent was faultless as she wryly detailed her duties, treating us every now and then to a peek in the giant toilet behind her. Various sound effects reminded us of her clients; most notably a hen party that gave Emily a wedding veil and the opportunity to break into song. The toilet water became a mirror, a screen for memories and ultimately, a way of escape as Emily's attendant decided to follow her dreams and leave her dead-end existence - but not before she treated us to a rendition of 'Part of your World' from The Little Mermaid, her legs rendered mermaid-like with paper towels. The sound work was very powerful and included throat singing! Emily used her workaday props with great inventiveness, attaching a toilet roll to her head and draping herself in a towel to evoke the trance state of whirling dervish. It was an excellent show; thought-provoking, funny, poignant and ultimately very moving (pun intended). I look forward to her next project. You can check Emily's work out here: Emily Bee

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Peaky Blinders and Lucy

Darling ones,

finding myself at a loose end in the fair city of my birth - Birmingham, I checked out the Odeon New Street, where the latest from Luc Besson was to be seen. 'Lucy' is preposterous, stylish, violent and sometimes utterly heartless, but strangely, I was very moved by the end.

Luckily that finished in time for me to find the new Birmingham Library (which is gobsmacking and worth a visit in itself), meet up with my brother and take our seats for a q and a with Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders. He was there as part of the Birmingham Literary Festival. Like a lot of writers he was full of funny stories and insights into the creative process while at the same time coming over as ordinary and down to earth. The audience was packed with fans of the series, many of whom had grandparents who could recall the Peaky Blinders, Jimmy Jesus and other characters of the time. There was even talk of Charlie Chaplin being born in Birmingham. This could not be confirmed but had become an urban legand in itself. It was a matter of record that Chaplin employed two of the Brummagem Boys for *ahem* 'security purposes'. Anyway plenty of questions from the audience amid much reminiscence about Birmingham slang. I can certainly remember saying the word 'scraze' when you hurt your knee as a kid and I can recall my grandad calling me 'wench'. Peaky Blinders season 2 has just started.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

REVIEW: 'Salt of this Sea' directed by Annemarie Jacir

I love a film that tells me a story I haven’t heard before. ‘Salt of this Sea’ does exactly this. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been prominent in the news for what seems like forever, I don’t think I quite appreciated the impact the ongoing hostilities have on individuals.
Soraya (Suheir Hammad) comes from her birthplace, Brooklyn, to Palestine in search of the money and property that her grandfather had to leave behind when he fled during the 1948 war. But it’s not as simple as that, of course. Soraya finds herself waking up to the injustice and trauma inflicted upon the Palestinians as her inheritance has disappeared. Soraya bonds with a taxi-driver, Emad (Saleh Bakri) waiting on a visa to emigrate to Canada. He joins forces with her to steal money from the bank and flee to Israel.
They find the house built by her grandfather has been taken over by an Israeli family. At first invited by the woman who now occupies the house to stay for a while, discord arises when the young Israeli woman will not acknowledge the theft.. Soraya and Emad seek out another ancestral home and, romantically, seek to live there but discover that they cannot, it is part of a national park; there to be seen, but not to be lived in.
Angry and rootless, Soraya is arrested for simply stating the truth; she was born in America but she belongs in Palestine. The final shot of her waiting in an airport lounge seems to sum it all up: a stateless person, forever in transit, unable to set down proper roots. Yet the ambiguous ending offers a bleakly hopeful note. Is she being deported back to the US, where she no longer feels at home or is she flying to Canada to reunite with her lover, Emad? In one sense Soraya encapsulates the plight of the expatriate Palestinian, caught between the privilege of a peaceful life in the developed west, and the guilt of the absent patriot. Her lover’s desire to leave Palestine is all too understandable. The human spirit can easily break with repeated humiliations at the hands of those in charge. This film is not easily available. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign downloaded this from the web for the viewing I saw. Despite being entered at Cannes for the 2008 best foreign film award, this necessary film has yet to find proper distribution. It is poetic, moving and entirely of the moment and deserves wider exposure.

Monday, 29 September 2014

REVIEW: ‘Writing for Television Series, Serials and Soaps’ by Yvonne Grace

Those of you who have the good sense to follow Yvonne’s Script Advice page on Facebook or to consult her as editor for your own work, will be familiar with her resolutely upbeat style. Yvonne tells it like it is, cutting to the chase to give you the skinny; Yes, it will be hard work, but put your precious ego to one side and get with the programme (pun intended) – it’s all about collaboration and teamwork! It’s about the script being the best it can possibly be, and that hinges upon how well you can take notes and deliver to a tight deadline. Most fascinatingly, Yvonne writes about her own early experiences in TV, as a script editor on Eastenders, working with writers at the BBC, storylining, working on Holby City and producing. Yvonne’s not shy of sharing the highs and lows and that’s what makes this book such a pleasure to read; her openness, humour and practicality debunks a lot of the mysticism that seems to surround the art and craft of screenwriting.

Thursday, 25 September 2014


Darling ones,

you don't need me to tell you that Transparent is available on Amazon Prime, or that the main character is a man who decides to dress as a woman at the age of seventy, but you do need me to tell you about the swanky launch last night at the Soho Hotel, an achingly hip home from home for many a celebrity. I didn't personally spot any but then I'm so shortsighted, I'd have to be engaged to one to get close enough to recognise them, though someone did say that Katie Price had been spotted! Well obviously I needed two glasses of free wine to cope with this, not to say the many delicious canapés that came my way.
I'd just got chatting to a nice lady from one of Amazon's ad companies when the chance arose to have a brief word with Jill Soloway; writer, director AND executive producer of Transparent. Clearly the woman has given up sleep. We chatted about the possible controversy that Transparent is bound to encounter. It seems that the cis versus trans woman debate is as hot over the pond as it is here. Jill mentioned that no one says transvestite in the U.S. They just say trans. A brief discussion on transvestite luminaries such as Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry and she was whisked away to chat to other press folk. We all filed in to a very plush cinema and settled ourselves for two episodes of Transparent after a welcome from Amazon executive Joe Lewis.
I'm pleased to say that Transparent is funny, dark and very engaging. Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) finds the heart of his character in the best sense. Exactly how do you come out as trans to your family? Especially when each family member seems to be harbouring their own issues: Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker) is attracted to an ex-girlfriend but is married to the father of her children, Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) seems to have the perfect life as a music producer and really longs to make his own family, but somehow can't resist visiting his old babysitter... Abby Pfeffernman (Gaby Hoffman) is the most rootless. She's open and vulnerable but longs to find out who she really is. Shelly (Judith Light) is divorced from Mort and remarried but loves all of her children, even if that love is laced with anxiety and served up with guilt. It would be very easy to dismiss them as Los Angeles stereotypes with first world problems but actually, I thought they settled in as complex and endearing from the start. It's certainly explicit, with scenes of a sexual nature. My only cavil: Not enough male nudity! Is this the last great American squeamishness? There was certainly plenty of female flesh on display.
Afterwards there was a Q & A with Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor. It was clearly a labour of love for JS; one of her parents had decided to ome out as trans a few years ago, and she was at pains to explore the implications of this decision without pandering to stereotypical assumptions about what the paying Amazon audience wanted. JT leaped at the chance of playing Mort/Maura, bringing a quiet humanity to his portrayal. Trans people were employed in all sectors of the production and extensive research undertaken to make it all real. It was well received by the audience at the Soho and I think it'll be a smash on Amazon Prime. It's that rare beast; a popular show with impeccable integrity.