Friday, 10 July 2015

Review: Writing and Selling Drama Screenplays by Lucy V Hay

If, like me, you have the good fortune to know Lucy personally, or you’ve had the sense to check out her excellent Bang2Write blog, you’ll know that she’ll have no truck with jargon or unnecessary mystification of the dark art of screenwriting. This book cuts - as ever - to the chase, decoding the elusive drama film. I must confess I’m more of a genre freak than I realised! I haven’t actually seen that many drama films, shying away perhaps from the emphasis on emotion and internal conflict.
Lucy lays out the difference between dramas and other genres in a friendly humorous way that doesn’t make your eyes bleed. I think her exhortation to make a character’s life challenging rather than full of unmitigated misery is the thing that stands out for me. Also the way in which she identifies the various types of drama story and how to write good, believable characters without resorting to clichéd stereotypes.
I particularly enjoyed the case studies, some of which I’d seen and some not. I watched ‘Hours’ and ‘Blue Valentine’ with Lucy’s words very much fresh in my mind. I also admired the unflinching way in which she acknowledges that it is difficult to write a great drama script that producers will want to make, but she is also endlessly encouraging to the writer. Like I said earlier, she demystifies the process.
In keeping with the other titles in the Creative Essentials series, this is a book for writers at every stage of their development and is a must-read for anyone finding their way through the financial maze of production. I think film students will find it very approachable, due to its common sense. Lucy writes about drama as though she’s sitting in the room talking to you about it, and you can’t get better than that.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

REVIEW: Writing and Selling Romantic Comedy by Helen Jacey and Craig Batty

Darling ones,

this just in: cynical reviewer likes excellent book about writing romantic comedies. I know! Le shock, right? Please observe that I said 'like' not 'lurve'. I have a platonic friendship with it, we're not engaged or anything. I was familiar with Helen Jacey's writing, having devoured her book on female heroes and taken part in a workshop of hers at LSWF.

In keeping with Kamera Books' other titles, this tome does not disappoint. I particularly liked its no-nonsense approach to the vexed subject of romcoms. I've always felt that it was slightly sneered at as a genre, yet, when well-written, it's so marketable. The book is informed by the authors' love of their subject (pun intended) and their keenness for the aspiring romcom writer to identify with the emotions that their characters experience. Where else would you find an exercise that requires you to go on an 'conventionally romantic experience on your own'? The idea being to record all your sensations and examine how being with another person would improve it. What struck me about the exercises was how therapeutic they might be to the writer who has experienced heartache (which is just about everybody).

Loads of films are referenced. I watched 'Her' as a result of reading the book. I liked the sci-fi angle but wasn't convinced about the emotional story. That probably says more about me than it does the film, mind. I think anyone trying to write a romcom as a purely technical exercise wouldn't succeed; you do really have to love it as a genre. There are lots of insider insights, top tips and every sub-genre is discussed, exhaustively. I was delighted to see the reference 'sorocom' as opposed to the derogatory 'chick-flick'. In terms of female representation, romcom has the power to be subversive, using the genre to depict the complexities of female friendship. The book cites 'The Heat' as an example of this, and has an extensive list of films for the writer to check out in the index. There's a useful section on finding funding (which seems to change every day), with the advent of Kickstarter et al.

So, a happy ending for this reviewer! Awww. Cue music as reviewer and book drift off into the sunset...

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.