Saturday, 28 March 2009
Channel 4 - at the prime time slot of 2:40 am early hours of Monday morning. So set your Videos, DVR's or alarm clocks!
COMING UP: THE WINDOW (2006)
Wives are doing it for themselves in this comedy drama about two women trapped by marriage to a Nigerian chief.
Written by Funke Oyebanjo
Directed by Paloma Baeza
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
So anyway, hopefully some of the critics have actually watched the show because I think it has been absolutely fantastic. Chris Chibnall and his team of writers have immediately constructed a returning series which could go on to become a British institution. And it's an absolutely classic example of how to do it. Purely plot driven, with a different story every week, we know very little about the returning characters and their private lives. It's designed so the viewer can watch the show at any time, in any order of episodes, and be completely absorbed in it, not having to worry about what they might have missed. So the plots have to be damn good and so far I think this is where the show has consistently delivered. They have always been engaging, with some interesting elements like the argument about the boy being genetically predisposed towards violence in episode two. I have pretty much zero knowledge of the British legal system but the show provides an insight into its complexities, challenges and frustrations. With viewing figures holding at a very good level, and the general doom and gloom surrounding ITV, it's great that they have this success on their hands. It could become as big as The Bill, so that would be two 9pm slots taken care of - just gotta fill the other five now!
On the other hand, I gather Mistresses was never intended to be a returning series. Originally written as a complete serial, the first series was so popular the ending was tweaked and it was recommissioned. I was delighted at the time as it was one of my favourite shows of last year. It was so brilliantly written and characterised, that even the more outlandish plot points were pulled off with flair and believability. Most importantly of all, you actually liked the four leads, despite or maybe because of their flaws.
But maybe some things are best left as a serial. Take State of Play as a classic example. A brilliant piece of television, that began and ended, never to be repeated, drawn out or extended in some ill conceived sequel. I was worried from episode one of Mistresses 2, as it became apparent that the original creators, Lowri Glain, SJ Clarkson and Rachel Anthony, seemed to not be involved with the new series. And although lead writer, Richard Warlow, was back, there seemed to be a collective "what do we do now?" Series one and two were broadcast just over a year apart, but bizarrely the story picked up 18 months after it left off. I would've thought the better choice would be to go for a shorter narrative time gap, not a longer one. It felt wrong. 18 months is a long time and yet none of the characters had seemed to have moved on that much. I don't want to hear that that is the case in real life. It's true that there is not much difference between what I am doing now to what I was 18 months ago - but no one is making a TV drama series about my life! For one thing, Katie was suspended for 12 months at the end of series one for her affair with a patient. What had she been doing for the other six then? Were we expected to believe that Siobhan and Hari had been living like we saw for EIGHTEEN months. How long had she been sneaking out in the night to have sex with strangers in hotel rooms and how the hell could Hari not have noticed until now?? Jessica and her husband are only supposed to have known each other for a short time, so what had she been up to the rest of the time. Trudi and Richard had not seemed to have moved on either, with only now marriage becoming an issue between them. So it would be fair to say that for me it did not get off to the best of starts!
But that is recoverable if what you then put on screen is brilliant. And I know people who enjoyed the series. But I can only speak for myself when I say that I could not engage in it at all (and yet still watched the whole series - being the eternal optimist and loyal viewer that I am!) The four leads just seemed to be really annoying this time around, and instead of investing in them emotionally, and hoping they get themselves out of the problems they face, you just wanted to get hold of them and slap them. There was also a distinct lack of story. Think back over the whole series for a moment. Think about the story beats each of the characters faced. Very little happened! This was rather evident as Trudi spent almost an entire episode overhearing other people's conversations, stifling a gasp and running out of the room. Why did Raza Jaffrey even sign up for series two as Hari was given nothing to do except look mopey. Weird. This culminated in Katie's excruciating voice over letter to Dan, which closed the series and seemed a desperate attempt to retrospectively inject some profound continuing theme into the proceeding (and resulted in Dan going back to Katie - after everything she had done. I mean come on!) Pity.
Is it coming back for another series? I have no idea. I bet Law and Order will though. In Alex Epstein's excellent book, Crafty TV Writing, he says that when planning a series in the US, you need to be as sure as you can be that your idea has the legs to go 100 episodes. That's what the networks want. That is a mammoth task! Of course you obviously don't write anything near that amount initially, but to even go about the process of creating a world that you feel confident enough will generate that amount of narrative is very, very difficult indeed. We work in a different goldfish bowl in the UK so I am not suggesting that this necessarily needs to be replicated over here. But creating a long running series is surely the holy grail of TV drama and an ambition for all TV writers. So when thinking about your big idea, it's worth considering just how big it actually is. Is it a returning series or maybe better served as a serial. Maybe it's really a one off? Maybe you are hedging your bets and writing a back door pilot or something that could run longer if successful. But if that's the case it will be far easier to have created a world and characters that will give you more and more conflict and drama. I've recently switched a TV series idea I had into a two-part serial. I'm pretty happy and confident with my choice. It's not a case of bottling it. It's a case of recognising what is the format to get the best out of your story.
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Guild concern over BBC's rejection of Churchill play
Following reports that the BBC has rejected the idea of a radio broadcast of Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children, the Guild has issued the following press release:
The Writers' Guild expresses its concern that the BBC has turned down a proposal to broadcast a stage play criticising Israel's invasion of Gaza on the grounds that, if it did so, it would need to broadcast another play giving the opposite point of view.*************************************************************************************
Caryl Churchill's ten minute play, Seven Jewish Children, aroused controversy when it was performed at the Royal Court earlier this year. In an email to the producer who proposed the idea, Radio Four's drama commissioning editor Jeremy Howe said that, although he and the head of Radio Four thought it was a "brilliant piece", the BBC could not broadcast the play "on the grounds of impartiality". Howe said that "it would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill's view".
Guild President David Edgar comments: "The BBC has a right to employ its editorial judgement in accepting or rejecting proposals for dramas, and it has a duty to be impartial across the range of its output. But to reject what it regards as a 'brilliant' play on the grounds that it would need to balance it with another play putting the opposing point of view establishes a dangerous precedent.
"In future, does this mean that Radio Four will have to balance a play critical of complacency about global warming with another play arguing that the risk is grossly exaggerated? Will plays attacking sexism be complemented by plays promoting it? Would a drama claiming that Margaret Thatcher was a great prime minister be necessarily followed by another arguing that she was a national disaster?
"There is an alarming increase in spurious arguments for censoring controversial subject matter in drama.. The BBC should be proud when the dramas it chooses to broadcast contribute to important national and international debates".
Well, well. That was unexpected. The Beeb are a weird lot aren't they. Didn't Jerry Springer the Opera cause at least as much controversy and they took great delight in showing that? David Edgar makes a fair argument and this whole balancing act of maintaining freedom without causing offence is at the centre of all my posts on this subject. It's going to be difficult to produce any sort of political drama if something to counter the argument also has to be aired (although that might mean more work for writers - wohooo!)
Personally I think the BBC should've declined to air Seven Jewish Children because it's rubbish. A "brilliant piece"?? Do me a favour. I'll tell you what, if they change their mind, and want to air it, and still want a counter piece, I'll happily knock one out for them in an afternoon or so. I don't quite understand why Howe said that "it would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill's view". Believe me, it wouldn't take long to put one down on paper.
Monday, 16 March 2009
The film is about two brothers, both named Aristotle, with the same father but different mothers (who are sisters.) The younger brother witnessed his mother being decapitated in a road accident and has not spoken in ten years. The older brother, known as Totes, owes money to a pint size, gun wielding, pre-teen gangster. Aristotle is the champion ghetto rider, a group of young black men from rough neighborhoods who hold their own private horse races for money. Totes asks his brother to throw a race so he can pay off his debt. But all Aristotle has in the world is winning these races, and he cannot bring himself to do it. Totes is killed, bringing some sort of tragic catharsis for Aristotle.
The film is highly stylised, well shot and makes good use of its low budget. As writer/director, (which I always suspect is sneakily favoured by these schemes), Conway obviously had a fair degree of control over his material and he is building a reputation of making offbeat movies. Personally, from a subjective point of view, it wasn't really my cup of tea. In fact to be perfectly honest I often find short films annoying and pretentious. They are often used as a medium for director experimentation - and are frequently be a bit short of narrative story telling, something that I think is tacitly encouraged by the industry as a result of the films that it rewards. But as a writer, whenever I have written shorts my first aim has always been to tell a good story.
From looking at Kings Of London, Coming Up are certainly not kidding when they say they are looking for "bold ideas, strong voices, originality and films that push boundaries in a way that wouldn't / couldn't be done in mainstream drama." So this is not a competition to be holding back with. But, and again this is only my own opinion, I think that even within the remit they have given, you have to stay true to your own voice and preferred style. If you write more traditional stuff, that focuses more on plot and character substance over directorial style, I think it's best to stick to that and submit something that shows off your talent and what you're best at - and don't try and mimic someone else's style or what you think the scheme wants. I will always argue that stories can still be original and push boundaries with their subject matter and characters without having to abandon conventional story telling techniques.
That's what I'll be doing anyway... which will probably end in complete failure! But hey, I am a man of principal... and limited ability. I do hope though that at least a couple of the proposed 7 films Coming Up decides to make reflect, shall we say, more traditional forms of story telling. Good luck to everyone who is entering. You have one month to go.
Friday, 13 March 2009
TV Drama Forum: What BBC1 wants.
Drama commissioning controller Ben Stephenson outlined the following areas:
9pm midweek: Big pieces of "muscular storytelling" over several weeks in the mould of Life on Mars, Criminal Justice and the forthcoming Iraq drama Occupation.
With second series of Five Days and Criminal Justice in the works, no more stripped dramas are wanted.
Also looking for pieces about ordinary lives – whether in the mould of The Street or Cutting It.
7pm Saturdays: With Doctor Who, Merlin and Robin Hood, this slot is now full and Stephenson is not looking for any more - although he is still interested in "swashbuckling" boys-own style show
Single dramas: Stephenson said it was "quite rare" to read a single that feels big enough for BBC1, but he is keen for singles with "scale and talkability"TV Drama Forum: What Laura Mackie is looking for.
Drama controller Laura Mackie is looking for:
Successors to earlier character-driven pieces such as Fat Friends and At Home with the Braithwaites. These have to have "a real narrative pulse" and show signs of being strong returning hits.
She doesn't want "niche" or "cool" dramas, and costume drama is out as it's "too expensive".Singles: ITV1 will show fewer than in recent years, but there are still slots, with a particular emphasis on family dramas for bank holidays.
TV Drama Forum: What Channel 4 wants.
Head of drama Liza Marshall wants:
Producers to be entrepreneurial. She urged indies to come to the table with funding from third parties such as screen agencies to boost the budgets they can work with.
Purely 'grim' drama is out. "Don't bring me people addicted to heroin in council flats – it's too bleak," she said.C4's 2009 drama slat is filled, but 2010 is up for grabs and the budget is looking "relatively healthy" for strong, author-led pieces. The key is that they can really cut through and get noticed.
And finally some more about looking for 'Ordinary Lives' stories here
So now we all know - better get back to writing this stuff now!
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Not everyone is a fan of T:SCC and I guess I can understand why. It's high octane, hokus pocus nonsense, so if that's not your bag, this isn't the show for you. But in terms of how to do a mini movie every week, with all the production values that entails, sustaining the franchise built up by two fantastic movies (let's not talk about the 3rd) this is an extremely successful show. So successful in fact that I do wonder where the impending Terminator:Salvation is going to fit into the equation. (Especially as by the looks of the trailers they have ripped off the Battlestar Galatica concept of sleeper cylon like terminators who don't know they are machines. But oh well.) Now, it's unlikely any of us are going to get the chance to head up a TV spin off of a successful movie franchise any time soon! But there is still so much to learn from looking at T:SCC. I love watching Cameron's quirks as she learns more about humans and becoming human. It's got to be an interesting challenge as a writer to develop the character of a cyborg! But the show really comes into its own when it handles stakes and rising conflict. Almost purely plot driven, like say, 24, the stakes are always huge life and death scenarios. When you're trying to stop the apocalypse, whatchya gonna do, right? But it's not easy writing either that much action, or to make sure that every single decision, every single perceived solution to the current problem, generates a whole host of other active questions. It's pretty impressive and they do it every week.
And the sublime Dexter is currently taking this tightening of tension to new heights. I was surprised to find that I hadn't talked about this show before as it's so deliciously written. It seems like TV is raining anti-heroes these days, which is no bad thing, but it has to be remembered just how outrageous it is to have a serial killer as your protagonist, a character you are often asked to empathise with and root for. Without a doubt, it would be impossible if it didn't use voiceover to let us know what Dexter is thinking. So it's worth pointing to next time you hear that device maligned. But at the moment, as the net closes in on Dexter, it is the increasing stakes that keeps us coming back for each new episode. And every time Dexter solves a problem, it creates a new one. Wash his boat clean, it gets caught on CCTV. Get rid of Doakes, he is more dangerous than ever. We left him last week having overpowered Doakes (which I must confess I found a bit of a stretch, knowing that Doakes is ex-Special Forces and a trained assassin!) but now goodness knows what he's going to do with him and get out of this jam!
I've been working on an outline for a new project these last couple of weeks. I hate writing outlines at the best of times, mainly cos I am rubbish at it, but this has been harder still. It's the first time I've tried to write a story when I didn't have a clear beginning, middle or end in my head before hand. In the past I usually at least knew where I wanted to get to. That might, and more often than not, changed, but at least it was there at the beginning as a signpost. Not this time though. All I had was a concept, theme and some characters. So I've been feeling my way, literally making the story up as I go along! And every time I've got in trouble, I think about how do I raise the stakes for the next bit? How does what I have just written create more problems for my central characters? T:SCC and Dexter are great examples of how this can drive a plot, and it helped me power through a first draft! Which of course was completely rubbish. But my goodness, it's so much better having that down on paper, to have something to tear apart and rewrite, to now have an idea of what works, what's interesting, and what's useless. And for the rewrite my philosophy will be the same - if in doubt, crank up the tension.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
Each film will be for a half-hour slot on Channel 4. They are particularly looking for:
- Bold ideas
- Strong voices
- Films that push boundaries in a way that wouldn't or couldn't be done in mainstream drama
- Films that can be shot in four days on a limited budget
This is not an entry level scheme - it's for writers and directors building a track record and a career in film and television drama.
Submissions from multi-cultural and regionally-based filmmakers are encouraged.
This scheme is open to all writers who have not had an original single, series or serial broadcast on UK television. Writers who have contributed episodes to series and serials (e.g. a long-running soap) are now eligible to apply.
Deadline: Friday 17 April 2009
This opportunity has popped up on a couple of other blogs and I pinched it from the Writersroom. But I just wanted to add that Sean Conway's Kings of London, which was selected as part of the Coming Up scheme in 2008, is on Channel 4 tonight at 1:20am. So if you wanna know what a winning submission looks like, best check it out...
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
But back to tonight and Toby was in discussion with Kate Rowland, BBC's Creative Director of New Writing. As ever, I will give my apologies to you, dear reader, anyone who was there, and Toby too, cos I am no journalist and have my own, rather weird shorthand which can be a bit hit and miss.
Toby began life as an actor and as he put it himself, arrogantly decided to write script as he kept getting sent crap material. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this. Lucy Cohu told me the same thing in New York, and it was implied too by Brendan Burke, who played my protagonist in The Storyteller read through. I always react in dismay when I hear this. For one thing, I of course also arrogantly believe that my scripts are not crap so would like good actors to read these instead! But, whereas yes, I have also read a fair share of ropey material, I have also read some gems, and it annoys me that these are not getting out there. They deserve to be, and hopefully at least some are.
Toby never really had a plan of where he wanted to be in 5 years or what he wanted to be doing in 10. All he knew was that he wanted to write sitcoms. But funnily enough, when he finally got the chance, he hated it. He felt that the artificial creation of a script that had to have 5 jokes on a page or else, was a very unnatural way to write. By the same token, and having done some stand up to hone his comedic writing, Toby wouldn't be able to write a script without gags in it. It would feel weird. Then I was amused when he said something I have long thought myself with regards to my own writing. If you write a drama with 20 gags in it, everyone says how funny you are. If you write a sitcom with 20 gags in it, everyone says this guys not very funny! It's so true and it's worth bearing in mind when describing our work. Send a comedy script out and the reader will be expecting to laugh their arse off (and will be pretty merciless if they don't.) Send out a drama that is very funny, and they will be pleasantly surprised, grateful, and remember your work. (Of course this is not carte blanche! I wouldn't recommend trying to disguise a sitcom as a drama or anything like that!)
At the start of a project, Toby spends a lot of time working out the characters (with detailed biogs etc.) When World Productions approached him about No Angels, all they had was a series about four nurses. Toby had to come up with the rest. So he met up for a drink with a lot of nurses (which he claimed was not as much fun as it sounds.) But what was important here was the research. Toby is a big fan of the empowering nature of research. It gives you confidence about your subject matter, but also, will give you story. (He got an absolutely cracker from one nurse about trying to disguise the death of a now stone cold patient by putting them in the bath - which ended up in the No Angels pilot I think.)
I asked him if whether with fantasy like Being Human, did he also do a lot of work on creating and establishing the rules of the world? He said that they thought quite a lot about what Vampire mythologies they would use and what they wouldn't (because there are so many out there already!) But other stuff like the vampire plot to take over the world evolved during the writing. At the end of the day it's mostly down to what makes the best story. This isn't entirely what I meant but I didn't get the chance to follow it up. What I really wanted to know were the rules about what Annie could and couldn't do. (No one can see her, at first at least, but she can make casserole - do people then see a casserole dish moving in mid-air!?? But perhaps this is best left alone and has only occurred to the way my brain thinks.)
Anyway, moving on and Toby will then write a treatment. If he's writing for himself, he might do one or two and then onto the script. But when in the field as it were, many companies have their own 'rules' which you are then contracted to about how many treatments, scene breakdowns etc you have to do before going to script. One particularly interesting thing he talked about was genre writing. Toby has never really seen his work as genre based. By that he meant that within a series like Being Human, or even within one episode in the series, scenes or moments can shift from dramatic, tragic or comedic. He said that life is a mixture of genres. In real life, a tragic thing could have happened, and everyone can be dealing with that, and then someone will break wind. No one thinks, oh we've changed genres. So Toby tries to reflect that in his writing. To be honest, I'm not sure about this. I think you can write a drama with a healthy balance of comedy and pathos, and vice versa, but mixing genres? Not too sure. (My old mentor Phi Parker would be doing his nut right about now but I suspect what Toby describes as genre is not the same as Phil's Genre Analysis.)
For Being Human, Toby now had a pilot and series bible ready. And he knew that in Episode 6, Herrick would walk into a room and George would step out of the shadows. That was it. But by having that, he knew that everything then had to lead to that point. But he admitted that writing a pilot is a difficult business. You have to balance setting up the series and telling a good story in the episode itself. With Being Human, he wrote the pilot that was shown on BBC3 last year, and then had to virtually do it all again, but differently, with the beginning of the series proper!
Questions were then opened up to the audience and here is a selection of topics covered.
On difference between writing for the stage and screen
TW. Stage you can do anything because it's cheap. More money in TV means more constraints and less brave. On stage you can experiment. But there is no money in theatre and I have a family support! But you do get to control your work. I am lucky with Being Human but previously, the script I have written for other shows and sent away, did not always reflect the DVD copy of it that came back!
On whether he could then now go back to writing other shows
TW. Depends on the show. I am doing that at the moment in fact. I spent 7 years writing on other shows but always wrote my own plays. I think you have to have that outlet otherwise you'll go insane.
TW. There comes a point where you have to get the script out of the house. Otherwise, if it's still there, you can always go back to it and pick over it. Deadlines are good for this. And the more you pick over something the more attached you get to it, and then when things are cut or changes have to be made, it becomes harder.
On the writing process
TW. It's a job. I get up with the kids at 7am. At my desk by around 8:30am and work until 5pm. I try to write five pages. Write them and then revise them. So by the end of the day I have five good pages.
On actually liking writing
TW. If you don't like it, then don't do it. The downside is that it's very solitary. But I like having control over my day. I can work, get up, walk about, have a sneaky nap, email, work, etc. Obviously you can't really do that in an office.
On series drama or story of the week
TW. Viewing habits have changed. It used to be that if you missed a show on TV in its slot, that was it. So broadcasters were worried that viewers wouldn't come back if they feel they've missed some important story beats. But nowadays it's becoming less risky. There is iplayer, repeats, and most crucially DVD box sets.
On the old classic (why does someone always ask this at these things) where do your story ideas come from?
TW. No idea.
And on that note, everyone decamped to the bar. (I actually didn't cos I had to get off. But I did want to sneak up on Toby and wave my Star of David at him just to see what happened. But he was bit swamped and as we've never met before thought better of it anyway.) But all in all it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes or so. What I liked about Toby was that apart from being very funny, he seems like a nice bloke too and really appears to be having the best time doing what he is doing. With young kids and the fact that he spent 7 years writing for other people, I'm not sure how old he is. Maybe he just has a young face. But whilst I found him inspiring, at the same time it was a bit scary. I was left with the feeling that I really need to get a move on!
Just seen another couple of reports from the Q&A. So for more, go here and here.
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
After various end of season or mid season breaks, US shows have been back in force since the turn of the year. 24 came back, followed by Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Damages and Desperate Housewives. There may be others, but these are the ones I watch - and that's probably more than enough!
24 has been good fun and exciting as ever. The move to Washington, the return of Tony and Jack generally kicking arse, has all made it a great watch. David has pretty much got this covered with a blow by blow account so head over there to check that out! What's been interesting in this season is that post Bush administration and Gumtanamo Bay, it's been super fun watching Jack run around smacking people, justifying all sorts of means to get the end he wants. Whether you agree with him or not, it's enjoyable TV!
Desperate Housewives has also started well, and continues to be an excellent study if you want to look at character specific motivations and dialogue. We know them so well by now, that we understand them completely, and yet things are never too predictable. And not being predictable is also at the heart of what makes Damages so sublime. We've talked a lot in recent weeks about how some shows are more character led and some are more plot led, how that works, and how indeed it can still work very well. But Damages is a fantastic example of how so much consideration has been given to both. The characters are fantastically complex, each with interesting back stories and secrets. But by the same token, the series is intricately plotted. Three episodes in and we haven't quite hit the heights of last year. William Hurt is not as much of a force as Ted Danson, and the flash forwards not as intriguing. But it's still top quality stuff and a great coup for the BBC (who still seem to hide it away in their schedule a little which is a bit weird.)
But the two shows that have really caught my attention are old favourites Battlestar Galatica and Heroes. Battlestar is now in its last season, earth found and ditched, the final five have been underwhelmingly revealed and major plot lines extinguished at the drop of a hat. But where the show still really works for me is when it functions as a comment on the world we are living in. This was most seen a couple of seasons ago, with the cylon occupation of New Caprica and the subsequent human resistance providing a handy reflection of Iraq. Some could argue the audience was a bit hit over the head with it, but what other shows were actually asking important questions? This season has at times been completely baffling as the final five have been dredging up their past, but the episodes focusing on the military coup and the moral questions that posed were really excellent.
After three disastrous seasons, Heroes is at last looking like it's back on track and echoing it's brilliant debut series. Gone is the mumbo jumbo about formulas and catalysts, back is the action and adventure. What's also noticeable is it's decision to dabble in some social commentary. This season the people with abilities have been labeled a threat to national security, and are on the run as fugitives. They are being pursued by a task force that does not seem to be bound by law, and if they are captured, the heroes face detention without trial. (The none too subtle orange jumpsuits and black hoods were also present just in case anyone didn't quite get it.) But hey, it works. It's exciting again and even manages to ask some moral questions. So I'm all for it.
Which brings me to my conclusion. I've read a couple of specs recently that have also attempted to use their plots, settings, themes etc to echo what is going on in the world today. One in particular I thought was excellent and until a winner is announced I assume is still in the running for the Red Planet Prize! It's always worth looking at the stories we are telling and thinking about what, if anything, does this have to tell us about the world today? (And 'tell us' can of course just mean asking questions about how we live our lives today.) A word of caution would be not to jack hammer it in. The primary job is to just tell a cracking story. If the metaphor is not there, then it's not there. Trying to force one would probably be disastrous. But think about it. There may even be something there that you haven't even seen yourself yet and it could be this very thing that lifts it from being good to great.