Thursday, 17 July 2008
WRITING FOR RADIO
Lock and Load is pleased to report that this was an excellent workshop, organised by The Script Factory. It was held at The Soho Theatre and our tutor was Sam Hoyle who worked as a producer for the BBC for two years but is now freelance.
The prep for the afternoon was to watch Metropolis and also to listen to a radio adaptation of the novel (this is important, so pay attention 007). Unfortunately some participants were sent CDs that didn't work so they didn't hear the play though virtually everyone had seen the film.
Sam started by listing our suggestions for the good and bad things about radio. The bad labels were: Unchallenging, clunky, middle class, pompous.
The good things were: Challenging, intimate, imaginative, comforting and quirky. Martin Jarvis came somewhere in between.
Sam then took from the list intimacy and imagination as these were the two key elements of radio drama. It was all about the pictures conjured in the mind of the listener by voices, accents, FX, voice over, narration and importantly, silence. All these factors are important to hook the listener and prevent them disengaging. It is , as you might expect, a hard balance to strike because you have to know how much information to give.
Sam told us to think of the microphone as the camera. So, that wherever the camera goes in film so the microphone goes in radio (or audio). This obviously creates an imaginary space for the listener. The listener must work hard to fill in the gaps visually in a way that they don't when they watch a film or TV. Radio drama is easy to make but also very easy to overcomplicate. But, give your listener the right clues and they will work hard to fill in the images that they are not seeing such as facial gestures and body language. Radio or audio is intimate because in a sense it is drama created for one.
Sam then opened a discussion of what radio does well and what it does badly. The pros were: Monologues, direct access to interior worlds, action, quirky or crazy ideas, comedies, classics, letters, it could be filmic and epic, and it cashed in on cultural associations. The cons were: sex scenes, casts that were too large (so difficult to distinguish individual voices), stories with many strands, childbirth scenes and inevitably death scenes.
There was plenty of lively discussion between everyone which kept us all engaged.
Sam then played a series of audio clips based on the elements we had teased out in the discussions.
The first one was a spoof, written by Timothy West called (I think) THE GUN THAT IS IN MY HAND IS LOADED. This was very funny as it parodied the worst clunky aspects of audio drama as the characters told each other who they were and what they were about to do. As Sam said, the maxim SHOW DON'T TELL, something screenwriters are very familiar with, applies as much to audio as it does to film.
Which bought us nicely to the second clip called THE REVENGE which I think was written by Andrew Sachs. Completely dialogue free, it followed a man escaping from dogs by hiding underwater. Literally all you hear is his frantic breathing, rushing water, dogs barking and indistinct voices in pursuit. Very effective. As Sam said, if you can realise action aurally then do it.
At this point Sam also said that there was greater collaboration between writer and producer and that a writer is more likely to be involved with the whole development process from page to broadcast. As a rough guide (and I hope I noted this correctly!) 60 minutes of drama = 10,000 words. 15 minutes = 2,500 words.
Next up was a clip from THE INFLUENCE, which was commissioned and then sat on the shelf waiting for the next outbreak of bird flu! This was a classic conspiracy theory drama about a village under military lockdown after an outbreak of bird flu. This had a lot of parallel action going on and Sam said was a good example of transferring screenwriting skills.
We then had the opening few minutes of the radio adaptation of Metropolis, very useful for those who'd been sent faulty disks. This was between two characters but skilfully set up the main characters unhappiness and dissociation as the son of the chief of Metropolis. It was of course very different from the expressionist classic and was based on the novel of Metropolis, rather than the screenplay. But as Sam said, any adaptation involves taking resonant elements of the original and building from that. Where Freder was the mediator in the film, he is the destroyer in the play. The adaptation brought the concerns of the film bang up to date. A highly absorbing piece and I recommend you check it out.
THE LONELIEST ROAD was the next clip and was structured as a nihilistic audio road movie. It was quite Lynchian and mysterious and drew you in. Interestingly Sam felt it lost its way a bit as it went on and didn't fulfill that early promise of the hook. She spoke about how casting is all important. It pays (as a producer) to use versatile actors who can do several voices, for example, as rehearsal time can be minimal and you have to sure of the skills of the person you're paying.
The next clip was an excellent example of a good idea done quickly and simply. Called AN ERROR HAS OCCURRED, the story was of a woman pressing the options button and a computerised voice talking back to her. We discover that the woman's boyfriend has just dumped her. It only lasted 60 seconds but was funny and effective.
Sam urged us to consider carefully whether the stories we were writing were particularly suited to radio.
CIGARETTES AND CHOCOLATE by Anthony Minghella was another phone related drama. Very poignant and funny, it was the answerphone messages left by a woman's needy and rather self-indulgent friends.
GARY OLDMAN was in the next one playing a stalker. The play called WALK RIGHT BY ME was recorded in Oldman's hotel room in LA where he was working so the producer just flew there and did it.
SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE was challenging piece of docudrama about the disappearance and, 9 years later, the discovery of a woman who'd died. It blended the testimony of the woman's real parents with poetic imaginings based on the woman's real diary. This provoked some discomfort and was not an easy listen but was very gripping. Sam spoke about the need for sensitivity and reponsibility when approaching difficult subjects.
The last clip was an absolute corker! called THE INCOMPLETE RECORDED WORKS OF A DEAD BODY by Ed Hine, it told us the story of a man who gives his cancerous tumour the name of his ex-girlfriend and detrmines to operate upon himself in order to be rid of 'Simone'. The sound effects as he cuts into himself had one participant hurrying from the room. As it continued and he kept losing his page in his surgical handbook, it actually became very funny, albeit in a very grim way, but again, it's just one actor and a microphone and the most extraordinary images were conjured whilst we giggled uneasily.
Sam spoke about different genres for radio and made the point that horror was very powerful but it spoke to the most fearful aspects of human imagination. Good drama is always surprising, but you knew that.
We then had a discussion about the differences between the film and audio play of METROPOLIS, but in more depth. What they had in common were fears about the future, but in different centuries (the play was written in 2005). Both delineated the soullessness of life for the workers. In the film, they maintained the industrial machines. In the play the workers occupied call centres, verbally bullying citizens into purchasing things they didn't need. The film was preoccupied with philosophy and psychology which were contemporary then. To update these themes, the play was concerned with rampant consumerism and terrorism and was more satirical in tone. Both used religious iconography.
To finish, Sam talked more about the business side or audio writing. The Beeb is unique in that it is the only commissioner in a changing landscape. Literally hundreds of hours a year are commissioned. Yes, it's competitive, yes, it's hard to do but it's much easier to break into than TV or film. The bottom line is : IF YOU HAVE A GOOD PIECE OF WRITING IT WILL PROBABLY GET MADE. Yes, that's right, you heard me correctly.
So, you've got a fabulous piece of work, what do you do next?
There are three commissioning routes: Indie producers who always go through preferred suppliers.
In house, ie: Writer's Room.
Nations and Regions so BBC SCOTLAND, WALES, NORTHERN IRELAND.
Sam advised to write a piece specifically for radio and think strategically. If there's a particular producer you want to target then invite them to a reading of your work. Network, baby!
Sam said she always liked to read scripts for radio as a calling card rather than work written for other media.
Write to existing slots ie: slots of 30, 45, or 60 minutes. A good point of entry is the AFTERNOON PLAY on R4.
Someone asked about BBC SEVEN but Sam said they had few slots, a shrinking budget, also that they were very genre led.
Sam was very encouraging about new changes on the horizon. CHANNEL 4 RADIO was keen to engage with drama and comedy and the fact that the platforms are changing injects new life into the form and brings a healthy competition. She urged us to look at ipods, mp3 players, audiobooks. Use new platforms in a clever way. If we had macs, sam told us to write a piece, record and cut it on Garageband and get weaving! Sam was ready to admit that a lot of producers would rather listen to 5 minutes of story rather than plough through ten pages of script.
As I write, I WISH TO APOLOGISE FOR MY PART IN THE APOCALYPSE with BILL NIGHY is on R4, produced by Sam, no less.
JEREMY HOWE (commissioner for R4) is keen to commission edgy writing from younger writers, particularly for THE WIRE, on R3.
Sam also spoke about AUDIOTHEQUE, a site for sharing audio work.
All in all, an afternoon very well spent and I recommend it to you my esteemed readers!