Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A period film, full stop

Christine Patton, whose blog I would link to if link-based technology were working, has written about how she's completed her period film script, the latest in a series of scriptwriting challenges that I'm also part of. (Hang on, would you put up with an old-fashioned, crude and frankly passe URL? She's on http://mycatlikeselvis.blogspot.com/.)

Stuart Perry (http://stuartperryuk.blogspot.com/) was also doing said period challenge but has only gone and got himself a proper script writing job. (How do I do green text?)

The period idea was mine, and I thought of it partly because I like certain period films but also because it seemed difficult to do. The primary reason for the challenges is to make you get down on your arse and write, rather than think, but it's good to have a goal that's going to be tough beyond just having to reach a certain page count. So I suggested period films and Piers Beckley (http://pavementandstars.blogspot.com/) who has run these things ever since I said "'ere, what if we did challenges?" determined that the definition of a period film was anything prior to 1989.

I could've objected. And I did. But I could've objected more, I could've pointed out that he wasn't even doing this one. But instead, like the Englishman I am, I nodded politely and mentioned later that I was ignoring him.

My period film is set in 2010.

Also 2000.

And 1991.




I was a heartbeat away from saying to you that this makes it a periods film when I realised that sounded medical.

I had a point when I started telling you this but I've lost it now. What was I getting at? That I feel good another script is written? That's happy for me.

Trust you're well,

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

For your consideration

Universal has just released six screenplays online right here. They're the ones the studio is hoping will get a Oscar nominations - well, presumably they're hoping for an Oscar win but steady on - so they're arguably the pick of the bunch.

They're all the shooting scripts so none of the rubbishy tarted-up transcripts you so often see published and they're all in PDF format. A personal favourite is there, The Bourne Ultimatum, which I'm planning to read as soon as I've stopped talking to you. But there's also American Gangster, Breach, Elizabeth - The Golden Age, The Kingdom and Knocked Up.

I didn't know this but Paramount Vantage, kind of the arthouse end of Paramount if there is such a thing, has already done much the same. If you haven't seen it, here's Paramount Vantage's collection of scripts.

You will notice that Jason Arnopp's screenplay, Look at Me, is not yet available online anywhere but this will surely be remedied soon.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Alan Coren

There are certain books I read when I'm bored. Not because that's the only time I can face 'em, or because I've been keeping them ready for boredom-emergencies, but because there's something about them that bears re-reading and they've somehow become handy.

It's not always obvious why: when I was a boy it was the Piccolo Book of Codes and Ciphers. What I don't know about wrapping a strip of paper around a stick before you write a very short message on it is simply not worth knowing. I can say that with authority because nothing about wrapping a strip of paper around a stick is worth knowing.

For many years, though, my grab book has been an anthology of Alan Coren's writing. You certainly know him from television and radio, you probably know he's Victoria Coren's dad, and you've probably heard that his death was announced today. I can't find the book. I could quote you whole chapters, though I wouldn't do them justice. But I can't find it to read again.

I wasn't always 100% sure I agreed with his perspectives but the sixty-odd pieces in that book, all two- and three-pagers, made me shake so I couldn't hold the page still. I'd fight the page to keep it steady and let me read, and I'd lose. You can't go back, nothing can ever be as funny the second time, but the more I'd read it, the more the writer in me would kick in and I'd appreciate the casually artful construction, the very offhand punch he had.

There's an obit on BBC News Online.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


You know I want to tell you. You know.

But I can't.

I saw a draft cover of a future Radio Times issue this afternoon - and maybe I'm extremely warmly-dressed but covers are fascinating to me, both from how important they are and from seeing them made with care. The thing I can't tell you is what's actually on the cover but standing in a conversation, I couldn't stop watching RT's art editor Paul Smith making the tiniest, tiniest adjustments. Nudging elements of the cover a pixel here or there.

I've seen this before, the time and the talent spent getting an image just right, but I'll tell you that this cover was surprising.

When's Comic Relief? At the moment, this particular image is planned for the RT issue of that week and if I did tell you what was on, you might shrug and say everybody knows about this particular thing. I think I did, I think I did. But seeing the image in the flesh, so to speak, is different and I'd like to talk to you about that.

But of course I can't, so I'll shut up. And apologise for being mean. Let me tell you what I meant - when the cover's on sale.


Monday, October 08, 2007

The myth of mythology

I need a hand, are you up for this? I want to know what I've got against mythology.

Let me say, first of all, that this is a very specific thing I'm talking about here: I mean mythology in a script, a drama. There's this fella - I'd call him Piers but then he'd know I think about what he says and I'm just after pretending I don't - who plainly loves mythology. I'm still not clear, am I? Maybe this is why I'm confused. In a nutshell, think about something like Babylon 5: it's got mythology up the wazoo. In smaller scale dramas you'd call it the backstory, in epics and most especially science fiction ones, it's the mythology.

I loathe it.

Let's say I've got two people in a room and they are verbally clawing at each other: does it matter that his ancestors run the bar on Altair IV and were there during Copyright Clearance Riots? Or that her ancestry goes back to the Knights Templar? It might - but I'd better bloody care about the people right in front of me first.

It'd be easy to say Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. So let's. Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. I'm not being fair, I realise that, and I'm not really trying to deny that the characters are appalling, the dialogue reeks and the stories don't exactly raise the bar. But people who love the show tell me they love the rich tapestry of its tales, the very mythology of what's going on in it. 

Only... I caught some of Deep Space Nine on the telly tonight. (Incidentally, did you notice that every single Star Trek series, bar the animated one, is currently airing in the UK? Paramount's doing well for itself.)  It happens that I'm watching the seventh DS9 season on DVD but what I caught on the TV was an early first-season one, Babel by Michael McGreevey and Naren Shankar, an episode I'm pretty sure I watched in the 1990s. And it was better than I remembered.

But you tell me, is that because the episode itself is stronger than I thought, is it that I'm going soft on the early seasons, or it is that I cannot watch it now without knowing everything that is to come? I know the mythology of the show and I can't undo that knowledge.  In much the same way, when I saw Atonement the other night I couldn't undo the novel in my head and as good as the film is there was a part of me waiting and wondering how it would pull off the novel's big punch at the end. I think it did it very well, as it happens; I left the cinema thinking I could never write a screenplay as well as Christopher Hampton. Mark you, there were several trailers before the film for movies like Lions for Lambs and I could've written that. You could've written it in the time it's taken you to read this far.

Am I benefitting, is the series benefitting in my eyes because of this known and shared mythology? That Piers bloke once told me to watch three specific episodes of Babylon 5 and I'd be a convert, so can you actually come to like any show? In a way, is there no such thing as quality and instead only longevity and familiarity?


I watched those B5 episodes, I moved on. Though I recently watched all of Brothers & Sisters and Dirt for work and if you ask me if they're any good, I'll say no but if you ask me if I like them, I'll say yes.

Unless you can straighten this out for me, I'm going to go with that bit about caring for the people in front of you first. And I want to give you an example. It's Deep Space Nine again, which is fitting and yet also probably the tipping point after which you'll forever just label me as a Trekkie. I said I've been watching the seventh season; the episode I've seen most recently is It's Only a Paper Moon by Ronald D Moore. It was arresting, absorbing, quite uplifting and at times upsetting but above all else it had me in the story throughout. That is all I want from life.

And here's the thing. This episode may be just one of 176 Deep Space Nines so of course I still know the settings, the characters -  but it's about two recurring characters. They're not the regulars, they're effectively one up from guest stars. The regulars in this one only make token appearances.

Now, this is Bad Writing(TM). A series is about your regular characters, which we could argue about another time but you know I'm right and it's basically because I'm right. Even the actors playing these guest parts agree with me. Aron Eisenberg says in an interview I've read that he was terribly excited to get this unexpected chance and his co-star, a very laid-back James Darren, just laughed and told the producers they were very brave to do it.

I'm pretty sure you'd never see this on Spooks.  I like Spooks, but it wouldn't. Hotel Babylon has guests staying and they ignite the story, but it's really always about our main characters. I like that, I agree with it.

But it worked here marvellously and I don't know: is that a validation of the storytelling about people in front of me or is it that the mythology of DS9 is so complete that minor characters can legitimately carry a whole episode?

What I do know is that the producers didn't plan to do this. They had other stories going on, the one with these two fellas was just meant to be a linking spine, almost an excuse or a framework for all the others. But in the end it was this one that mattered, so that's the only one they told. And I admire them for it enormously.

And they had about seven years' worth of Deep Space Nine mythology plus, er, what, thirty years and 600 episodes of Star Trek lore to lean on, and they didn't. Didn't do it, didn't need it. That's Tremendous Writing(TM).


Monday, October 01, 2007

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

One of the main acquisitions for Virgin 1, the new TV channel starting tonight, is Star Trek. Virgin's press office says they've bought it all, every last drop, and other people are noting that the original Trek is still running merrily on Sci-Fi. But whether or not they've got everything, they've got most of it and Virgin 1 has decided to start the lot off with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

You'd think they'd do The Next Generation, because that was the most successful, or Voyager because nobody watched that and so it still feels new.

But they've gone for DS9 and while you can bet it's a dollars-and-cents decision, somehow, it'd be nice to think that it's an editorial one. Because Deep Space Nine is the finest of the Trek outings and I have not always thought so.

Flashback: 1993. DS9 is about to start on UK television and I write about the pilot episode for The Independent newspaper. I actually slag it off a bit, saying the acting is poor and some of the dialogue creaky. And I say it because I mean it, and because I mean it, I don't continue with the show. Must've caught the odd episode, but nothing consistent.

Until about 1999 or 2000 when I pick up a cheap copy of both The Next Generation and DS9 Companion CD-ROMS: two discs full of who cares? But alongside that, almost like padding, each CD contained every script for its series. Every TNG, every DS9 script. I'm a script writer, there's nothing like reading scripts to learn, and if you're arguing that Trek isn't The West Wing, well, yes, but the ability to see an entire show's writing from pilot to finale was irresistible.

I tell you now, in case you ever decide to do this too, the scripts to The Next Generation are a chore to read. I don't know why. But somehow they don't feel like stories, they're more like puzzles and the solutions are usually to do with realigning the EM transmitters or something. I read them all, 178 of them, and learnt nothing very much.

You're ahead of me again, aren't you? Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's scripts, all 176 of them, are vastly better. Some are dreadful, some are brilliant, but the whole seven years read like a novel, I was utterly absorbed in them, couldn't put them down. I became a fan because of the scripts. And because I watch in the UK, even though the show was finished in the States and this complete colllection really did have all the scripts, by the time I happened to read them, BBC2 still had about ten episodes to go.

I held off reading those scripts and instead DS9 became my evening break at BBC Ceefax: Wednesday nights, around 6:00pm, often just me in the ents newsroom, it was great.

So great that I bought the DVDs. All of them.

And gingerly started playing that pilot episode, that film I'd called creaky and with bad acting.

And guess what?

It was rubbish. The acting was extremely poor, the situations and some of the dialogue banal and strangely up itself. If I watched it tomorrow on Virgin 1, I would not go buy the scripts or the DVDs. But I would be missing out.

Can't tell you when it gets good; I have a great fondness for that pilot now because of all that happens to do with it over the seven years. And it's hugely better than the Next Generation pilot.

So if you haven't seen Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I hope you love it. And if you want those scripts, you'll have to search but it's worth it. Look up "Star Trek Deep Space Nine companion" on Amazon or wherever; there is a book of that title which is exceptional, and the scripts are on the CD-ROM of that name. Amazon insists the CD-ROM is only for Windows but it worked fine on my Macs.


PS. The subject heading of this translates as "In time of war, the law goes silent". It's an episode title, and a theme, from DS9. Can't see Captain Kirk dealing with political shades of grey, can you?