Monday, June 25, 2007

A bit late, but...

One of my cast from Time and the Conway Twitty Appreciation Society, Richard Sutton, was in last week's Dalziel and Pascoe on BBC1.

Now if the BBC iPlayer were up and running there might have been some point telling you this, but it isn't, so there isn't.



Friday, June 22, 2007

Damn, those iPhones are bigger than you think

It's not my image: the original and some others (I think, I may be mixing things up here) is on Flickr round about here.

Before you ask, yes, definitely. I loathe my current mobile and it's not even my current mobile: my real current one now just pretends to send texts, recently giving me a tedious hour in a pub while a friend had a tedious hour in a different pub wondering why I'd gone silent. So I swapped back to my previous current phone and the sound quality is bad, the contortions you have to go to just set an alarm, well, the only thing I can say in praise of my previous-current phone is that it's better than the real-current one in that respect.

So I was looking for a new phone and I have stopped. Don't care that word is the iPhone will be delayed in the UK until next year, don't care that nobody knows what operator it will be on. I've just told Vodafone that no, thank you, I don't want to sign up for another year's contract so at least I won't get any fee for breaking when I move. Because I'll move.

I am troubled by the cost but that's only painful at point of sale. Besides, an expensive phone that works is better than a mildly expensive phone that doesn't, am I right?  I used to work on PC magazines but even then, when it came to my own cash, I always bought Macintosh because I'm more interested in work than I am in the alchemy that is Windows.

Can't remember if I've said this to you before but you know I do a podcast DVD show? A lot of people seem to like it, which is fantastic, and I have a ball talking to you, writing radio scripts, studying DVD dramas like every writer should. I honestly don't think I'd have done it if I were on Windows. Since I had a Mac, it was moments from the idea to the first edition and I've now done over 100 of them and also got work in BBC local radio out of it.

I don't know if the iPhone will really be any good, but Apple's got form for me, I'm saving up.

And this is all on my mind tonight in part because America's getting all hyped up for the US release of the iPhone but also because tomorrow I've promised to help some friends set up their own Mac. They're devout Windows users but they've switched and have lots of questions about configuring this, setting that, adding the other. Angela's coming too but asked what we'd have to talk about after I say "Switch it on".

I hope I tell them what they need. I feel as if I got into computers by mistake, that I should really have pursued writing as I subsequently have, but then it's easy to forget how grounded in 'puting I used to be and how I still skip back and forth between Macs and PCs without thinking. I know there are things I don't realise I do so will I be any good at helping them?

Not sure why I just bent your ear about this, but you've got that kind of face, I can tell you anything, right?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Three Colours Trilogy

Um, I actually want to point you at a story about eleven colours, but there you go. While that heading's on my mind, I must watch Three Colours White. I've read the three, I loved Three Colours Blue when I saw it, but I couldn't get through White. Which means I've had Three Colours Red on my shelves for years and can't watch it yet.

Anyway, eleven colours. I found something interesting, though I notice now that it's a month or more old so you may have seen it already, in which case you won't be interested and I'm folding my arms, looking at you, tapping a foot, wondering why you didn't tell me about it yourself:

Sometimes I type a random word into Google and just see where it takes me, but this time I came across this because of a Photoshop website. If I could only remember which one...


Saturday, June 16, 2007

And finally, a bit

Listen, I haven't just won a Tony award, have I? That was just a dream, right?

I really am dreaming about my play and a substantial part of me recognises that this now bordering on silly, if you were to mention the word 'childish' I might be upset but I wouldn't entirely disagree.

But still, you know I did this play, you know it went spectacularly, gloriously, joyously well, what you might not know is that it went well twice. I won't keep going on about the day but I'd like you to come backstage with me to the first moment I felt the day was going to be good.

For whatever reason, the day included a very long lunch break and my director used that time to run through the two plays she was doing that afternoon. I roamed around the back of the theatre while she, writer Debbie McAndrew and their cast ran through the first play, Mari's Wake. I think my piece was a great, exuberant finish to the sessions but there's no question that Debbie's piece was the strongest play of the day. I'd already read the script so I was able to wander, enjoying the performance but also soaking in the atmosphere. For this lunch time run through there were probably ten people in the theatre; cast, director, writers, crew. Maybe fifteen. So it was a good time to relish that you were having a good time.

And at one point I stood right at the back, high up by the door, leaning like a more talented James Dean and looking fantastic.

Shows how much I know: two dear friends came in at that moment and report I was actually looking worried as hell. So much so that they sent my wife Angela to go calm me down.

And then I was up, my play's turn. No hanging around, no real time for anything, just enough minutes to have my play performed for me and that same fifteen or so crew and this is this the thing that got me into thinking the day would be good: the crew laughed. There's that laugh that you know isn't really earned: you're recognising there's a joke and you're being nice to the writer. I got some of those but I also got that surprised laugh, the genuinely amused laugh.


Because of that, when the real audience came in, I was a lot less worried than I'd have expected. You could still have blended whisky on me but I was able to enjoy it.

Very interesting how audiences change, how one joke will fly higher with this group than that. And I've got friends who argue audiences are stupid, that they need everything explained but this enrages me because you know that's wrong, don't you? I'm an audience, you're an audience, when we're watching something on stage or on TV we don't miss a single thing - unless we've stopped watching, in which case boring us before patronising us is really not the way to go. Yet as much as I respect audiences, I underestimated this one: there was one joke they all, every single one of them, got a whole line early. Consequently the punch line, per se, felt like a clunk and I'll watch for that in future.

Gotta go, my ego's on a low light, it needs more stoking,


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tell me what you see

GRAHAM: Tell me what you see.

SAM: Well, that's Bristol Street. What's left of it, anyway. I remember that road, that was Holloway Head. But when I was here it was packed. Great bars. Now it's farm land, far as the eye can see. [BEAT] I remember when all this wasn't green fields.

GRAHAM: Shall I tell you what I see?

SAM: Is it any different?

GRAHAM: Just a little.

SAM: Okay. But -

GRAHAM: I see one, two, five, about ten rows of seats. We're in the past. So long ago now. It's 2007, there's an aisle up to the right. Main entrance over there. Sound team up in the box.

SAM: This was the Hippodrome? You converted the Hippodrome into a house? Where do they put plays on now?


"Feel-good nihilism"

Wouldn't you put that on a theatre poster immediately? "Feel-good nihilism - Faber & Faber".

Actually, I think it was this nice man from Faber but it could've been the National Theatre. Ah, who doesn't get those mixed up? After my play, I got to talk to a sea of faces in an interview, people I've admired, people I'm daunted by and most of all people who were nine people, a sea of nine people. When you walk in expecting three, and when you're nervous of three, facing nine in a circle doesn't help.

But they were great. I was so disappointed when my time was up and we had to stop talking.

Though I think now I should stop typing. I'm not being the clearest man in the world, am I? But I wanted to tell you that this day was spectacular. I wish you could've been there, I'm rocked that I was. I've just been sitting in a theatre with an audience laughing at my jokes.

Be careful what you wish for, because it's fantastic.

Thanks for all the encouragement,

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Devils and details

Have a look at this, would you? It's one line from my play that we rehearsed yesterday. The characters are Graham and Samantha, I'm not fussed about their ages but they're probably mid-forties.

GRAHAM: It’s just, well, I know who you are, obviously I know who you are, and it’s an occasion.

Nothing unusual there. And when the actor read it for the first time about 10am on Monday, he read it just the same way I imagine you did and precisely the way I heard it in my head when I wrote the line in the first place. When he read it for the last time that day, I don't know, 5pm or something, he read it... in 100% the same way.

But between those two readings was everything.

Graham is an incredibly successful engineer, so successful that he's being interviewed by Sam, until very recently an incredibly successful actress. (Think Nicole Kidman, though maybe not quite so talented.) It's a star interviewer, a star interviewee. Only, while they talk there is a party going on in another room: was that the occasion or did I mean this star actress coming to the house? The answer was the actress.

And then the truth is that Graham and Sam worked together twenty years ago: is that what he means when he says he knows her or is it just because she's so famous an actress now? And, handily, the answer is Yes.

You get the idea, I'm sure: there were actually a fair few more iterations around that one line because there's a lot going on in this play and while as an audience you're supposed to be bounced through it, the cast need to know where they are in the story: what they're going to reveal later, so they know what they're hiding now, all that.

This was how Monday's rehearsal's went. On the great, great side, it was glorious to hear my dialogue fly. And nothing short of tremendous that we would strip a line down and then build it back up again, the director Caroline Jester would add emphasis, would ask for the actors to be thinking of this or that when saying the other - and the final result was in practically every case precisely what I wanted. More, it was precisely what I'd heard in my noggin' as I was writing.

And I expect we did all of this work directly on this one line in about 40 seconds: I remember the practical business about the occasion was instant, but equally the issues of where people are affected the lines before and the scenes afterwards so they were constantly referred to throughout the day. So that's 40 seconds on the specific line, eight hours on the issues.

A lot has been cut from the play, almost every bit of which I'm happy about, all of which I can wear. They're primarily cuts because of the staging: this is strictly speaking a rehearsed reading. Have you seen these before? I've only ever been to one, a chokingly-good rehearsed reading of Alan Plater's Sweet Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was a star cast - I want to say Barbara Flynn was in it, but maybe she was just in the audience - but anyway, you get the idea, this wasn't messin' about, and the way that one worked was that half a dozen cast sat on stools in a row on the stage.

That's not what's happening with mine. It won't be a full-dress piece, it will be a script-in-hand performance and there'll be plenty of sitting in a row, but also it booms out into the audience and my cast will roam the theatre. Still, there are limitations and two of them meant cuts were necessary: I don't have enough cast to do all the parts and I've got no props at all. Consequently even a reference to getting a drink has to be cut and as much as I'm quite happy about that kind of business, I loved it when one actor stopped later on in a scene to say he felt he really needed to be doing this or standing there or something. And that's what he would've been doing, that's where he would have been standing if we hadn't cut the lines.

I sound like I feel vindicated over objecting to cuts but no, seriously, 98% of the cuts are absolutely fine and I even made many of them myself. But what I feel great about is my stagecraft: writing on my little PowerBook, locked away in my office, I got the staging right - I mean, the staging physically and also emotionally, where people must go and what they must do in order to get across the point.

The staging and the dialogue. That's not too bad, is it?

You're wondering what is bad, aren't you? And that 2% is niggling at you. Okay, there's a moment toward the end of the play where rather than another line of dialogue (I have a habit of writing ping-pong dialogue, unceasingly back-and-forth and I try to throw that rhythm out when I can) I've written a gesture instead. Caroline simply doesn't like it. I've let it be cut, and also asked for the next couple of lines to go as well so that they don't seem nonsensical, but they're not going far. Many, many cuts and trims I agreed with or even suggested to cope with the lack of props or cast are ones that I'm going to keep for future versions of the play but this one is on an elastic band.

More seriously, there is a thing that lets me be a typical writer: I'm ecstatic about how well the rehearsals went, I know this is the best thing I've ever written, I know it is a joyous and clever piece, I know I've actually hit some things that are surprisingly profound, and I also cannot bear a word of the play. When I did a Crossroads script I was an amateur and I felt it in every nerve I own; with this, I was totally in command of my material yet unable to convey one key issue and at times I felt amateur again.

It's this. The characters were both actors once and I've got them being actors again; their most pompous speeches get interrupted by the "director", they each lose their lines at times, and they are heckled most enthusiastically from the audience.

The point of all these is to really strongly emphasise that most of the play is set right now, right this very second while you're watching it. It's this business that theatre is live and you shouldn't know what's coming next, so I make sure you don't and when I've set up something I hope you do expect, I cut it off at the knees.

It all reads fine, the actors are playing it well, but when you're doing that kind of analysis I said about the "occasion" line, you hit huge problems. Who are these people? The engineer and ex-actress of the future, the actor and actress of today? And then both characters are lying merrily away so there's a further layer to untangle. And the final moments of the play tell you something moderately unpleasant about one of the characters and why he or she is even here. So that's a, what, fourth level? You count, I can't.

You should be able to explain your play to your cast and your director, I should be able to explain my play to them. For this one element, I couldn't convey it. Part of it is the surprise (to me) that I write very instinctively and I can post-rationalise almost everything, but not everything.

Sometimes yesterday I wanted to strip back these elements, make it all simpler. And when I think that, I really don't like the idea that I can't: I can't change anything now for the Thursday performance.

Fortunately, most of the time I don't want to strip them back. I don't think it's any more complex than any other play about time and though I'm disappointed in my lack of eloquence with the cast, I'm not disappointed with these elements in the play.

But just as I said I'm a writer, I can hold these conflictingly arrogant and self-deprecating points equally dearly, I can also fully know that the purpose of this showcase is to teach me and yet be disappointed that I need more teaching. The play's not clear enough to the cast, though they're so good I swear they're selling it precisely correctly, and that means it isn't clear to my director either. So she's being very nice to me and I'm being very nice back, but I still feel some of that same old Crossroads amatuerishness.

Mind you, there's no question I was bad on Crossroads and, I think, quite equally no question that I'm much better here: my play's one of those pieces that just has life in it.

Stagecraft, dialogue, life, how can I be mithered about this?

Oh! One last thing. Usually rehearsed readings have someone reading out the stage directions. I've managed to make this unnecessary except for at the very, very start. And my cast read out that initial stage description really well. Even my stage directions are good, shouldn't I be the most smug man in the world?


Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Real Thing

So, yes, of course it's very frustrating being a writer knocking on doors and part of the annoyance is when you see something you know you could've done better. But it's also very easy to say that and there's a lot less pressure on your writing when the only things involved are you and a subsequent rejection slip.

This is on my mind now because I'm in rehearsal tomorrow.

It's the real deal, eight hours solid rehearsal with a professional company. Performance on Thursday.

And there are five plays being done on this showcase day for agents and producers, but four of them are getting half-hour excerpts. I'm being done in full.

It's obviously because mine is a one-act that only takes about 45 minutes to do where presumably everyone else's is much longer. I've read one of them, Mari's Wake by Debbie McAndrew but the script just flew by, I have no idea what its running time is. I do know it's a very good piece, I'm a bit daunted by coming after it in the running order.

But, grief, running orders. Text messages from my director. Printing out rehearsal scripts. The sense that this is my play but as of tomorrow morning - well, actually as of when the director came on board - it's our play instead.

This is what I want, this is what I've worked for. I'm spinning.

Obviously I'm more excited than I can say, plainly I'm also nervous. Part of me thinks I'll enjoy all this more on Friday when it's done and gone, but another, much stronger part of me is regretting that I'm not in rehearsal next week for something else, too.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Quotation marks

I'd like to suggest to you that like all misunderstood groups, writers do plenty of misunderstanding too. And it seems somehow worse because our business is in communicating.

So, for example, I once had a deeply involved argument about the role of writers in film and I had it with the editor of an entertainment news website who specifically covered movies. Neither of us won, we might yet be at it if there hadn't been a deadline, but toward the end of the time we spent on it, I finally saw that she really did not know what a writer does. She did believe that the actors make up the words.

Now, you can argue that this is a little startling for a film editor, and I hope that it is unusual, but it took me so long to see it. Every argument I'd done up to that realisation was a complete waste, and all her arguments back were too, because it was as if she were talking about writers and I was talking about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A similiar thing happened to me last night. I'm trying to persuade a fella that dialogue in scripts is not just the decoration at the end of the writing process, the nice bit you add on your tenth draft, that in fact if you can't write dialogue, you just can't write scripts. His considered counter-argument was that this is bollocks. Plot is all.

I'm in a didactic mood this afternoon so let me say: if he doesn't change this, he will never write a good script.

I can feel him cracking his knuckles, ready to write a comment here that if I don't stop trading on my dialogue and my unexpected ability to write at lightspeed, if I don't buckle down to doing treatments and cork-board step-outlines, I'll never write a good script.

But where I battled it out with that editor because this was my life's goal in question, with this man I argued in the pub for hours because I want him to write that great script. If I thought he just couldn't write dialogue and it was never going to happen, I'd have suggested darts for the evening.

As it is, one small issue in the middle of the hours later seemed to me to be key. We talked about whether you come out of a film thinking about the dialogue. His position was that you never come out going "cor, that was a fantastic metaphor" and mine was that you might come out of a Bond film thinking that was a great explosion but you never come out saying "what about that 3lb explosive pack, and the way they supplemented that practical with the CGI in post was just amazing". Come out having been in the story, that's the aim, and I couldn't see why this fella didn't agree that atrocious dialogue prevents this.

Mark you, he also doesn't rate Aaron Sorkin's dialogue so I should've twigged this was another movies vs Mormon Tabernacle kind of discussion.

And I think I know where the kernel of this argument was now. It's that he thinks dialogue is speeches and I know it's speech.

Follow: here are two different pieces of dialogue, the first of which being one we both remembered last night:

RENTON: Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that?


TOM: It's right what you say about remembering things. Our kid, he can tell you the teams that played at Wembley, the year Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers met in the Rugby League Final. He can also tell you the names of most of the people in the crowd. But I tell you the funny part. The only thing our kid can't remember is the score.

CHRISTINA: Why's that?

TOM: His team lost. Ten four.

The first is from John Hodges' screenplay for Trainspotting (and you may notice the filmed version is a little different) based on Irvine Welsh's novel, and the second is from Sweet Sorrow, a stage play by Alan Plater.

If I ask you what the difference is and you say one's film, one's stage, I'm amazed you've read this far. If you say there's no difference whatsoever, well, I've a lot more time for that argument.

I would say that there is a difference, that the choose life one is a definite speech, I want to say an iconic moment in Trainspotting but I'm probably misusing the word, whereas the second one is a conversation. But they're both doing the same job: both of them are telling us something and they're really telling us something else.

So with the Trainspotting one, most especially when Ewan McGregor delivers it so well but certainly even as you read it here, you know instantly that the speaker is against this whole choose life idea. How can you know that from the script? McGregor could've said it sarcastically and you'd have got it, but he was much more subtle and the script had no tricks, no "(caustic)" direction. It was there in the dialogue, on the page, right in your face and though you can't point to the one syllable that gave it away in that very first sentence, that's because it's only with really crap dialogue that you can.

In the second case, the punchline is a delicously creaking old gag, but stuff the rugby, forget the kid, what is Tom telling you about Tom? He's telling a story. Even a simple thing, he's fashioned it into a tale and what you get is that he is a storyteller, that maybe he's also just a little bit of a dreamer. I've actually compressed a longer sequence into those lines so you can see this but if I'd done the lot or you know the play, you'd also have got that he's a poetry fan.

That's what I call good dialogue. This is what I call bad:

TOM: I like poetry, it's really great.

RENTON: Drugs are better, man.

I think that dialogue is intensely hard to do, though unusually for me I believe I do it, but also that only half the fight is writing speech that sounds like a real person talking and conveys all these layers that we all do convey in our every conversation. And that the other half is in hiding the fact that it's so hard. When the dialogue feels constructed, as I'm afraid I agree Aaron Sorkin can do on his off days, then it's artifice and prangs out at you, it takes you out of the story and fights you getting back in. It's bad enough in films, it's even worse on the page because what else is there on the page but dialogue?

One last thought, if I may. When Dialogue Goes Bad. There's a line or three in the film Martha Meet Frank, Daniel and Lawrence (or somesuch title, I might be mixing up the order of names there) in which a character does indeed do Bad Dialogue. I can't remember it, I've blocked the film from my mind but he says something that it's very unlikely the character knows, it's absolutely rock certain that the character would never say it in that situation ("Oh, before you ring off, don't you think nuclear submarines are a pretty colour?"). And there isn't one single possible chance that the line is anything but the writer feeding us information. This is in all ways very, very crap.

But I cheered.

Right there in the cinema, I went Yes!

Because I knew without that stupid plotting dialogue, it would take the film a minimum of twenty more minutes to get us to the stage in the story that the line brought us to. If you're arguing that's actually good dialogue, ah, come on: go see the film, I refuse to take the blame when you don't like it, and you will see the line I mean. Prangs out at you.

So it was very poor, it would have thrown me out of the movie. But I was long, long thrown and that fudged rubbish meant the film must be nearly over.

That's why I cheered. Mind you, I don't know why I didn't just walk out an hour beforehand.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Brothers & Sisters

Sorry, I've had to take this entry off. So that the comments make sense - er, the comments remain, right? - then you need to know that this was about watching a whole season of this show, Brothers & Sisters, and whether it's an interesting writing exercise.

I'll put it back if I can.