As Arsenal continue to do their bit to send me to the Writers' Academy, I thought it was about time to catch up on some TV. Known for his outspoken comments, I eagerly tuned in to watch legendary screenwriter William Goldman on last weeks South Bank Show. And there were certainly a couple of interesting moments. Goldman believes that movies should not be longer than 110 minutes - and that big directors these days are being indulged with their two and a half hour epics! He also noted that after he virtually came out of nowhere to sell the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for $400,000, everyone hated him, which he gave as the reason critics have never been too kind about his movies. (Although labeling them all failures and I think whores at one point, possibly didn't help either.) But what was more interesting from my point of view was that he wrote that screenplay after eight years of research. EIGHT YEARS. I mean I'm sure that wasn't all he was doing and all that, but whoa. That is still a long time to be mulling over a project. Food for thought certainly.
But the most significant discussion for me concerned the whole 'auteur' theory, which holds that a film reflects the directors personal creative vision, essentially ignoring everyone else involved in making the movie. Unsurprisingly, Goldman slammed this madness and stated that even directors know it is nonsense. But this wasn't just a very big screenwriter laying his claim. Goldman willingly acknowledged the credit directors deserved for the sheer physical exertion needed making a movie. I'm enjoying reading Danny's account of shooting his film, amazed by the work needed to marshal 30 people etc - and that is just for a short! Directing is not something I aspire to, and Goldman is of course right to acknowledge the principal effort they make in actually shooting a film script. But in the words of James Moran, where were they when the page was blank? (Unless of course the director has indeed also written the script - that's a whole other story.) But in the words of Richard Attenborough, "the quality of a film nine times out of ten is down to the quality of the screenplay." Well we all knew that, right? But what bothers me about all this is that nothing ever seems to change. Goldman highlighted the 'Hitchcock movie' syndrome, ignoring the talented writers he worked with like Ernest Lehman. So I can't change it. And probably no one reading this blog can. But if this all seems obvious to me, you and everyone else, change has to come from the most powerful of writers. I'm talking mainly of course movies here. Directors will probably claim it's the other way around in TV!
It certainly a problem David Simon, creator of The Wire, probably doesn't have to face. I've finally finished watching season one, just in time for season two which kicks off tomorrow night on BBC2 again. I should say right from the start that I don't think The Wire is a bad show, by any means. But having come to it post hype (which I hate to do for this very reason,) it's quite another thing to be styled as the greatest TV show of all time! Maybe later seasons are brilliant, and I certainly saw enough to want to watch on, but as a first season, I don't think it was as good as shows like West Wing, The Sopranos, Life on Mars, Heroes to name but a few.
So why all the fuss? Firstly, there is an authenticity and rawness to it which is no surprise as David Simon was a reporter in Baltimore, where the show is set. This extends to the violence and the language, which means it's certainly not for everyone. That's why in the States it's on HBO, and not NBC. And there are moments of brilliance, like using the gang structure and warfare to explain the rules of chess, or a long, almost purely visual scene, where the only word uttered is a certain four letter one. But what I liked about it most was the fact that it is a pure series. There are no story of the week plot lines. It's just one long story, broken up by weekly installments. Like reading a novel in a way. I've said before that I am a loyal viewer. And I am not alone! In this day and age, with iplayer and on demand and sky plus and dvd box sets, broadcaster need to understand that they can do this more and more. If they become more receptive to this style of show, writers will love it and become more confident with delivering fantastic stories over a period of time that is impossible anywhere but in TV.