Friday, May 22, 2009
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Sunday, April 19, 2009
"Writing In Treatment" is a bit of a come-on title, it's as if I've found some news for you and will be linking like crazy to insightful interviewers. And it is a little like that.
Here's the Los Angeles Times reviewing the new second season of In Treatment and saying "the stories are even better than they were last season and that's saying something". And The Boston Globe has a good piece about both the original Israeli series and the American adaptation.
But what that Boston Globe piece does that I'm trying to do today and really rather failed to do last time is talk about the writers. Perhaps chiefly because I want to enthuse about them but also because I think there are signs for the future here, both good and bad signs.
Last time I spoke of the writing, I didn't speak of the writers. I think I was a bit awash with writers at the time: I'd just seen 43 episodes over 14 days, most of which had individual writers but some were team-written, and 42 of them were direct translation/adaptations of the Israeli originals by more writers.
Then there was a showrunner on the US version who wrote the first five episodes to set the style and doubtlessly worked at least in part on all the other episodes. That was Rodrigo Garcia but there was also a showrunner/writer on the Israeli show, Be'Tipul and he created the whole thing: Hagai Levi.
I watched the show for the same reason you watch anything: it sounded good, I thought I'd like it. Then I really, really liked it and it was a can't-stuff-your-face-fast-enough race to the end of the season.
Now I'm watching it again. But as a writer. And I'm slicing it a different way. Rather than one episode of Laura's therapy sessions, then Alex's, then Sophie's, then Jake and Amy, then Paul's, rinse, repeat, I'm watching all of Sophie's. And by focusing on the one, and I'll admit aided by a handy writer list on the DVD box that I hadn't noticed before, I'm seeing that Sarah Treem wrote the last eight of the nine Sophie episodes. (Garcia did the first of this one as well.) That link is to her IMDb list, as are most of the links here, but in her case don't bother: it just lists In Treatment. Instead, try the New York Times which has a review of A Feminine Ending, a stage play of hers. But it also has audio of Treem herself talking about that play. Then The Village Voice talks about how Treem and other new writers made up the whole of the 2007/8 season for the Playwrights Horizons company. That company claims to always champion new writing but for that year, it did nothing else and - this is not directly stated but it's only barely hidden - it was because its regular writers were rubbish.
That's a little harsh.
I don't know much yet about any of the other writers on In Treatment but even if Sarah Treem is the only newcomer, isn't that marvellous? In Treatment was a fairly chancy commission for HBO and it wasn't like they dabbled in it. There was apparently a five-part pilot made, which presumably makes up week 1 of the series, but still you can't imagine ITV1 commissioning 40-odd episodes of anything new. If they ever did, if any major British television company did risk commissioning that many episodes of a non-soap drama, can you imagine them ever trying new writers on it?
Life on Mars did. One episode of that was to be written by a new writer to television, I don't know who, I only know it was a man. Something happened, again I don't know what, and his script was not used but there was that willingness to take a chance. Similarly, Ashes to Ashes was the first producing job for Beth Willis and look at her now: she's the new co-exec producer on Doctor Who.
It's called taking a chance for a reason, though. You chance your arm, you try your hand, you sometimes burn your fingers. If a brand new writer fails to deliver a filmable script of The Bill - um, bad example, sorry. If a brand new writer fails to deliver a filmable episode of Hustle, that's a gigantic production machine derailed. You've got to believe they'll deliver the goods, they've got to be as much of a safe pair of hands as you can manage. I've felt precisely this when I've commissioned new writers on magazines and I've had bad experiences from that. Also some good, actually, and that keeps you doing it, but a lot of bad. And a bad experience for me means having to write an emergency article in a couple of hours, that's substantially easier than writing an hour's television over a weekend.
This is the reason we're all guided to soaps: they can be derailed too but they're hardy little buggers and they can cope better. And it's fair enough: if you've written 100 episodes of a soap, you're someone who delivers. When you cannot have a blank screen, that's a very tempting and very practical thing to look for in a new writer.
I think it's a calamitous side-effect that soaps have become seen as the only route through and moreover that because such a proportion of new writers and producers come through the soap route that it's seen as the right way to do drama. People who don't write soaps are very dismissive of the genre, but fortunately people who do write soaps believe they're already writing every type of drama so the general wrongness just balances out. Funnily enough, there is huge, rich drama in the gap between: when drama writers try soap and soap writers try drama.
Anyway, In Treatment, just to yank this back to the topic, is not a soap. It's far more painful than that and if a story is about someone fancying someone, it cuts truer than the soap version would. It's willing to go down areas that might end the story early. It does end the story early. More than one patient does not last the whole nine weeks of the series. And then it sees what happens next, what's underlying everything, what's deeper. Rather like therapy, actually. Apparently the original Israeli series had a therapist advising the writers and he or she did complain a lot: not about inaccuracy but about how the scripts didn't dig deep enough. So then they did.
There's a lot of hyperbole about the original show, about how it's the greatest drama Israeli television has ever produced. It's certainly the only one I've heard of, so maybe that's true. But there is also the harsh, practical fact that it may well be the cheapest.
It's certainly, surely, HBO's cheapest-ever drama. Some sources say each episode took two days to film, others say it was only one. It is only half an hour per episode, but compare that to a ten-day shoot for a typical one-hour US drama and it's probably cheaper than even reality TV.
I don't want to see British television drama budgets cut. But they're being cut. I think it's a preposterously short-sighted notion: notice how ITV1 is in trouble but ITV3 is doing very well - because it's showing all the dramas ITV used to make. You can't repeat Britain's Got Talent, you can and they do repeat successfully repeat Thunderbirds over and over.
If there's any good to come from lower budgets, it's that we may see things like In Treatment. BBC4 is already making cheap dramas that are punching well above their weight: think of the dramatisations of the lives of people like Hughie Green. Trevor Eve received the greatest share of the praise for that, and his performance was superb, he managed to convey not only a tremendous impression of Hughie Green but all the nuances and the strengths of the script. It's just that it was the writer, Tony Basgallop who put those nuances and those strengths in there.
Fast-cutting scenes, action and stupendous locations cost money: tight, tense, intimate writing, not so much. Unfortunately, the type of writing that keeps you compelled without any eye candy, that involves you in characters without melodrama, that's cripplingly hard to do. The rewards are richer, for the viewer, but the gamble is higher for the writer. And it's a harsh and unpalatable fact that being given the chance to write this type of work is not even a remote guarantee that you're capable of it.
If drama budgets are cut, we're going to see an awful lot of crap. But we might see things like In Treatment and they might bring us new writers, new voices.
I'm obviously arguing with my writing hat on: I said as much at the top. But I'm a drama nut and as a viewer I just want to be in the story, whatever it is and however much it cost. As a writer, mind, I should tell you I'm available. I'm here through Thursday, two-drink minimum, see your waitress for details.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
"The way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long... I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. As I build this up, you'll see it's done vaguely by the numbers."Aren't you rushing to see the movie this fella is planning? I think you knew it was a man. But it's George Lucas and he's speaking privately in the first of five story conferences, five nine-hour story conferences about Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1978. He's spitballing away with Steven Spielberg, briefing screenwriter Laurence Kasdan.
Fancy reading the whole thing? A transcript of the entire thing is available right here in PDF.
I think I've said before that a reason the latest Indiana Jones film was so poor was that it was just a series of stunts with some bits to string them together. There were other reasons too, but that was one and it's a failing of a lot of films. But as I'd thought I'd heard and now know for sure, it's precisely how Raiders of the Lost Ark was done.
More, the stunt scenes they couldn't fit in went on to become the next couple of films.
So maybe George Lucas has a point.
Mathematical screenwriting? What's that line of Aaron Sorkin's? I can't find my copy of his book but it was a crack about network TV executives saying you can't have politics on TV, can't have people with moustaches... Sorking said something along the lines of: "People make up rules because it's considerably easier than learning the real ones."
Blimey. From Lucas to Sorkin in one blog. There is actually a chance these two fellas have never been talked about in the same breath.
But anyway, I was fascinated by the Raiders documents: the torrent of ideas, for one thing, but more how we know so very well how Kasdan absorbed all this and wrote something so very good.
Monday, March 09, 2009
I've had some wonderful nights in theatre and I'm going to admit to you that up to now the best have really been when it's been my own material on stage. Sitting in an audience, feeling them laugh and choke, knowing that an idea you had in your head is now working. Does it honestly get better?
On Saturday night I was at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds where my wife Angela Gallagher's first-ever play, Rainwatching was performed.
You can't imagine how good it was. It went down a hurricane. Rainwatching closed out the whole festival of new writing and when the lights came up, the audience was in tears. There was a writer/actor/audience discussion panel right after it and most of the other plays were skipped over in seconds but Angela's was all anyone wanted to discuss. I may be biased there, but still.
The piece is a very raw, apparently simple but truly rich and very powerful monologue about a cancer patient with a right git of a husband. And during the panel discussion, the theatre announced to the audience that Rainwatching was to be restaged over the summer - in a trilogy including a monologue for the git husband.
I've written that. And I've written the final part of the trilogy, a piece about another character in both the first two monologues. It's the best thing I've ever written.
It's funny but one of the strongest reactions on Saturday night was about this husband character, Len, who we only hear about, we never see in Angela's Rainwatching. And another strong reaction was to the idea of seeing him in mine: everybody wants to see him, everybody wants to hear his side. But women who had been cheery with me until this point, positively turned on me: challenging me, I mean really threateningly challenging me, to try justifying this git. The look in their eyes!
I've never had such a good night - and nothing of mine was actually performed. But the power of Angela's piece, it was wonderfully affirming to see an audience reacting the way I believed they would.
What I didn't expect was the reaction after the show. Because of the panel, the audience knew what Angela looked like so they kept seeking her out in the bar. When we were leaving, people abandoned their conversations in mid-word to come over to her: not just to congratulate her, but to actually thank her for writing it.
And to give me a funny look about the sequel.
Wish you could've been there. I'll let you know when dates for the trilogy are announced - and in the meantime, fancy seeing what the fabulous writer Angela Gallagher looks like? Stop by her Breast Cancer Walk donations page and say Mr Angela sent you.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I'm so far behind this meme that I had to do something to get you to read, didn't I? It is 24, there's a reason. And you already know all the bits about tagging 25 other people including the geezer who tagged me, right? So, all of that, very good. Now let's play our game:
1. I'm papyrophobic. It means afraid of paper: I am a writer who's afraid of paper. Really that's a bit strong; I don't go around cowering at receipts, despite anything my accountant says. It's more a revulsion and it's only very broadly predictable: I'm fine with A4, for instance, I usually do okay with A5. Post-It notes are so much a problem that even writing this sentence was difficult. Broadsheet newspapers are great until the instant I've bought them. Anyway. Actually, receipts are tricky.
2. I said I'm a writer and so I know that I ought to be saying to you that my inspiration was Shakespeare - and the fella really knew some onions - or Stoppard or someone. I can say both of those and I can add Alan Plater, Aaron Sorkin, many more. Even William Goldman, except that he now irritates me so much I struggle to read his material. But the full truth is that I'm a writer because of Gene Reynolds, Leon Tokatyan, April Smith, Seth Freeman and Michelle Gallery: the writers of Lou Grant.
3. I've failed at least four driving tests but, I believe uniquely, I've also passed twice. Alcohol was not involved: see below.
4. I don't drink. Never have. Even working in a bar, I tried the odd thing, didn't like any of it. For most of my adult life the mantra has been Coke with a curry, Pepsi with a pizza, though my current spherical shape is making me reconsider.
5. I believe I lost my religion when I went to college. Before then, everybody I knew was Irish Descent - I cap that up because at the time I believed that to be an actual term, like Jewish - and they were also all Roman Catholic. At college, nobody else was either of these things and it was fantastic: so many people, so many ideas, such wonderful and wide-open experiences. Pity about the course: I studied computing and envy anyone who got to be immersed in literature instead. I was going to say that it surprises me how useful computing has been, even way over here in another career. But this 25 things lark is a Facebook meme and it took me a day to find where to write it on Facebook, so maybe not.
6. If I've got a song in my head and I stub my toe, catch my finger in a door, do anything physical that involves pain, I don't swear, I just say whatever lyric I've got to. This isn't my being prudish, it isn't calculated, it's entirely involuntary: if you open a door in my face I may well bellow "I'm loving angels instead".
7. I will buy anything by Dar Williams, Suzanne Vega, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen or Paul Auster. Hovering around the automatic purchase are writers like Carrie Fisher, Paul Reiser and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I should do links here, shouldn't I?
8. Half my idiolect is made up of quotes; nothing is especially recognisable ("It's my job, it's what I do" is from a thousand bad TV shows) and usually there's no obvious reason why I've absorbed it. But people who know me very well do report watching ancient films or US sitcoms in the middle of the night and catching phrases they believed were mine. They think it's funny but me, not so much.
9. If you show up at my door, I will be delighted. If I show up at yours, I will have conjured a reason, some practical excuse. It's not you.
10. I'm a patzer. And I'm okay with that. I adore chess, I relish Scrabble, it doesn't mean I'm any good at either of them.
11. I love things that are strawberry, orange or tomato flavoured but I don't like strawberries, oranges or tomatoes.
12. I wish I'd written Veronica Mars. Also Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, obviously.
13. This is the reason there are only 24 things: this one was going to be the shock, but just in time I remembered who could be reading it. I'm going to say phew now.
14. I would not kill to write like Dar Williams. But I'd maim. Please focus: I'm not going to reveal what number 13 was, okay?
15. My favourite place is New York City. I can't tell you why: it's not another secret, it's just that I don't know why. I'm fully aware of its problems, yet when I step out onto its streets, I am taller.
16. I'm a cartography nut. Actually, I'm a drama nut, that's at the heart of most things about me but in this case I am fascinated by seeing how maps purport to tell us directions yet are really revealing so much more about the people who drew them. What they choose to include, what they choose to omit. How big or small they draw enemy countries. The lies, the hopes, the politics. I'm rubbish finding my way on OS maps but I'll bore your teeth off about the fact that it's because it's called Ordnance Survey that the UK is the most-mapped region of the world. Military, doncha know?
17. I believe radio drama can do anything. I'm now producing radio and realising that yep, it's true, but it's bloody hard.
18. I've taken two big gambles in my career and the first one paid off brilliantly. Frightening to think I nearly didn't do it; I could be writing bad computer software even now. It would be really bad: full of surprise plot twists. The second gamble isn't half taking a long time, but I believe the prize is worth it.
19. I am very good at multitasking. Hang on, I also listen, I effortlessly remember birthdays and I've only ever been to half a single football match: I'm not a man at all, am I? Though I have caught myself watching digital TV in the middle of the night and getting too interested in documentaries like Hitler's Pets.
20. This will seem unlikely since I've left it to point 20, but I am more interested in you than I am in me. After all, I've been here, I've seen me do it, I want to know about you instead. Plus, you dress better, and you know you do.
21. If something - a drama, script, prose, film - is somehow right, just, you know, right, it will make me choke. I don't mean sentimental, I don't mean soppy. Just, every piece of work sets out to do something and when it seems to me that it has got there, got there with gusto, I appreciate it the way you might art. You'd never believe some of the things that have done this to me, but there is one Dar Williams song that is so exquisitely done that it has repeatedly left me with hot tears running down my cheeks. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit did it three times: Jeanette Winterson's novel, her screenplay and the BBC TV dramatisation.
22. I'm writing this to you in the bizarre idea that you'd be interested, though, face it, what are the odds you'll read all the way? I'm safe, I can say anything. Except 13, obviously. But still, here we are, 24 things about me, and I also have a blog, a Facebook page and a podcast. In all seriousness, I do have ego and self-worth problems.
23. I am really, really good at reading situations and seeing what's going on - unless I am in any way involved myself. Most of my friends are women, I don't know why but it's statistically noticeable, and so obviously I've had many conversations about rubbish boyfriends. So when I was in college, I went to another university to see a woman I had been besotted with at school: she starts telling me how rubbish her boy is and I automatically go into counselling mode. It took me seven years to realise that the reason she was getting red and exasperated was that she was offering me a chance. I'm relieved to tell you that I think it worked out for the best, but still, it's scary to be so sharp and empathetic yet to have a total blind spot like this. If you fancy me, you have to tell me or I will never know. I promise that I have NHS Direct on speed dial, I can get you the help that you need.
24. I once walked up to a random door at BBC Television Centre, knocked, went in and pitched for work without the slightest idea what was in that office. I didn't get it. But similarly, I once randomly phoned up the Los Angeles Times, said I was in town, and talked my way into a bylined piece in the paper. If you know Lou Grant you know why this was special for me.
25. The last one ought to be a kicker, shouldn't it? But I've already spent my kicks on number 13, so I may have to go with a wimper. What if I tell you that one of these 24 things is a lie? Or what about that boilerplate instruction text that comes with all these and has the line "If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you"? I can't help but read that as "25 is a hell of a big number, I'm running out, you'll do". If you read it that way too, I promise it isn't true this time: see point 20 for details.
Besides, you've no interest in my 25, you just want a good excuse to write yours, don't you? And I want to read it, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Such bollocks. And yet, it was prescient bollocks because it foresaw the world of the writer's blog: obviously one writes in order to communicate precisely how huge our egos are but, still, there's at the very least a frisson of self-advertising in doing it. I don't think I've got any work through talking to you like this but I can immediately think of times when an editor has read what I've written so I'm aware that this cannot be the entirely relaxed, artless chat that one would like.
So when Piers picks up a meme from Lara, and others before her, asking for us all to say what we're good and bad at in writing, I'm going to go out on limbs and say the Good just might be emphasised over the bad. Even down to initial capital letters.
And why not? I hear the challenge and I dive in with gusto:
WHAT I'M FANTASTIC AT
Dialogue, characters and pace that mean my material has life and verve right there on the page.
what i'm bad at
Well, perhaps I can be too much of a perfectionist.